Bird migration at the Eastern Black Sea Flyway in Batumi

Bird migration at the Eastern Black Sea Flyway in Batumi has a long history and has been undertaking since decades in different ways. Here we present the results of a long way to the million, a fascinating story about the increasing monitoring efforts at the edge of Europe and Asia.

The Batumi Bottleneck for raptor migration

The autumn migration consists mainly of Honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus, ca. 400,000 each autumn) and Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus, 250,000+), both with daily totals peaking at 60,000 - 80,000 ind. Other numerous species include Black Kite (50,000+) Eurasian (Accipiter nisus, 4,000+) and Levant Sparrowhawk (A. brevipes, ca. 4,000), Marsh (Circus aeruginosus, 4,000+), Montagu´s (C. pygargus, 3,000+) and Pallid Harrier (C. macrourus, 1,000+ ), Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata, ca. 4,000), ...

Although counts had been conducted before at the East Black Sea bottleneck (history of research), the amazing total of 806,679 raptors counted in 2008 came as a complete surprise. At no other place in the West-Palearctic had similar numbers of migrating raptors ever been observed during autumn. The count in 2009 confirmed the importance of the bottleneck when 851,491 migrants were registered.  Currently 34 species of raptors have been recorded by the BRC. A summary of the 2008 and 2009 counts is given in Table 1.

Figure: Migration route at the Batumi bottleneck

Migration route at the Batumi bottleneck

For several complete long-distance migratory raptors BRC covers a highly significant portion of the migrants expected from presumed source areas in northeastern Europe, the western Caucasus and western Russia: Eurasian Honey-buzzard, Black Kite, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Booted Eagle. Especially remarkable are the counts for Black Kite and Marsh, Montagu’s and Pallid Harrier. 

Table 1. Total numbers observed at BRC 2008 and 2009.

Table 1. Total numbers observed at BRC 2008 and 2009.

They are the highest total counts for these species ever registered during a single migration season. Observed migrants also included a number of internationally threatened migrants (Table 2).

Table 2. Species observed at the BRC with unfavorable international conservation status (Birdlife 2010).

Table 2. Species observed at the BRC with unfavorable international conservation status (Birdlife 2010).

 

A history of research on the Eastern Black Sea Flyway in Georgia

In 2008, the Batumi Raptor Count project was initiated to continue and increase the efforts to substantially describe and quantify the migration of raptors along the Eastern Black Sea route. Several people undertook this daunting task in the past, though their efforts remained insufficiently recogniced by both the scientific community and the general public. Mostly confronted with unsubstantial funding and manpower such an undertaking was an impossible hard task indeed. Nevertheless, these people were the first to stress the major impact of this migratory bottleneck for the knowledge concerning migrating Eurasian raptors and especially the impact of hunting and falconry in the Caucasus region. With the following overview, the BRC team wishes to recognize and homage the efforts of these people, without whom the inspiration for this project might never have come to be.

A historical tradition of Falconry and Hunting sports is deeply rooted and widely spread throughout all of the south eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus regions. This phenomenon has been of major concern for many researchers (e.g. the notorious Maltese hunting tradition). In Georgia, the Kolkheti lowlands are known to house a high number of trappers and hunters, as this is where the Eastern Black Sea route come to it’s most concentrated bottleneck. An apparent form of respect towards raptors has traditionally always been part of Georgian culture and publications considering the hunting practices themselves were made as early as 1949 (A. Robakidze). Nevertheless, no substantial efforts towards the research on the extent and impact of raptor shooting and trapping, nor a quantification of raptor migration was made for a very long time.

In 1974 Alexander Abuladze together with 14 other biologists organized a full autumn raptor count on the  high plateau of Javakheti about 60-100 km east of Batumi. Counting nearly every second day the count resulted into 177,482 raptors of 31 species. One year later in 1975 he organized an autumn raptor count of 26 days from 11 September to 10 October in the region of Abkhazia north of Batumi which is the first reported raptor count along the Black Sea coast of Georgia with a total of 16.307 raptors of 25 species. Motivated by these observations and continued another count in 1977 in Batumi as the first ever known raptor count from this region. Starting on 6th September to 19th October Abuladze and his colleagues counted an extra ordinary total already of  445,678 raptors of 28 species. In 1980 he reported 397,119 raptors of 29 species and also reported 239 raptors got illegally shot by hunters at that time. Another count was done in 1981, however for few days only from 27 September to 2nd October by Lofgren resulting into 55,899 raptors. In 1990 then Abuladaze and his colleagues made another full season count in Batumi from 19th August to 22nd October resulting into 664,239 raptors of 29 species, the highest season total until then of the Eastern Black Sea Flyway. One of the most outstanding numbers compared to recent counts is that Abuladze already counted 121,712 Black Kites in 1990. Three years later the autumn passage between 17th September to 9th October was reported with 264,172 raptors of 28 species, using a counting post this time southeast of Batumi in the Khelvachauri district, where the migrations forks after the main bottleneck into two smaller flyways. 1995 with 33 counting days between 17th September to 22nd October Abuladze reported 242,263 raptors of 28 species, using again a counting post east of Batumi, this time at the Korolistskali River.

Mr. Alexander Abuladze has considered several aspects of the Georgian raptor biology. This included a paper (1997) specifically considering the issues for conservation with raptors in Georgia. The same was true for an anonymous work for the United Nations Environment Programme in 1996. Also the late Mr. Givi Chogovadze made an account of the Georgian falconry tradition in 1998 as the then President of the Georgian Falconers’ Association.

In 1986 and 1989, Gernant Magnin (The Netherlands) who had earlier established work on Maltese hunting practices, made a first consideration of similar activities in north-east Turkey. His research was primarily based on Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) trapping in this region and included an assessment of mortality of up to 10.000 birds for north-east Turkey. However, the intensity of these traditions is not evenly spread throughout these countries and realistic numbers should be considerably lower than this (van Maanen et al. , 2001, Econatura.nl).

Based on these proceedings Erwin van Maanen, Irakli Goradze, Alexander (Lexo) Gavashelishvili and Rezo Goradze undertook the challenge to make a regional assessment of the impact of the trapping and hunting of raptors in western Georgia. Regardless of their limited means, an intensive study resulted, including interviews with local trappers, visits to traditional falconry competitions, searches for corpses of shot birds, and so on. All this led to the publication of a detailed review for Birdlife International (BI) in 2001 which also led to an intimate partnership of BI with the Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife (GCCW). The Georgian Falconers’ Association was appalled by the numbers of casualties involved in illegal trappings and shootings. Not only do they strongly reject this practice, the organisation also wants to help in the education of local people and development of a disciplined sport.During the following years, the work of these gentlemen led to some successes for Georgian raptors, including the publication of ‘The Raptors and Owls of Georgia’ by Rafaël Galvez, Zura Javakhishvili and Lexo Gavashelishvili. A benchmark in the education of Georgians about raptors with special attention for the conservation status of all species. Educational posters and pamflets and some seminars were also scheduled for the people of Adjara in south-west Georgia. In 2003, the Adjaran organisation PSOVI, with Irakli Goradze and Jimsher Mamuchadze, succeeded in organising a migration monitoring project with special attention for the involvement of local falconers. Though they simply did not have the necessary tools to fully accomplish such an ambitious count across the bottleneck for the full season, again the amount of migrating raptors was shown to be very high. Sadly however, further developments concerning the protection and research on migratory raptors have been hard to achieve due to a number of factors in the unstable republic of Georgia where conservation is not a key-issue and socio-economical crisis has been rampant.

As of 2008, with substantial funding the Batumi Raptor Count project aims to fully monitor raptor migration at the Batumi site and further encourage the Georgian people to handle this extremely important bottleneck with care. As such we can now actually pursue the visions of the people who have worked so hard to achieve this. We wish to thank everyone who has devoted so many years to accomplish this and are still doing so. It is our intent to keep this wonderful, natural phenomenon safe from those same perils that have threatened raptors in other parts of the world so far. May we all work together to prevent men from making such mistakes all over again. It is our responsibility to ourselves, future generations and the natural world!

Literature:
Abuladze, A. (1994) Birds of Prey in Georgia in the 20th Century. In: Meyburg, B.-U. and R.D. Chancellor, eds. Raptor conservation today. World Working Group of Birds of Prey. London: Pica Press.

Abuladze, A. (1997). Status and conservation problems of raptors in Caucasia. Newsletter World Working Group of Birds of Prey 26/27: 15–19.

Gálvez, R.A., L. Gavashelishvili & Z. Javakhishvili 2005. Raptors and owls of Georgia. Buneba Print/ Georgian Centre for the Conservation of Wildlife, Tblisi, Georgia.

Maanen, van E. 1998. Roofvogeltrek naar Afrika en de gevaren onderweg (Raptor migration to Africa and the dangers underway). De Takkeling 6(2): 134-140.

Maanen, E. van, I. Goradze, A. Gavashelishvili & R. Goradze 2001a. Trapping and hunting of migratory raptors in western Georgia. Bird Conservation International 11:77-92.

Maanen, E. van, A. Gavashelishvili, I. Goradze & R. Goradze 2001b. Ecologie, aantallen en bescherming van roofvogels in Georgië (Ecology, numbers and protection of raptors in Georgia). De Takkeling 9(2):118-134. (Journal of the Dutch Working Group on Birds of Prey).

Magnin, G. (1989) Falconry and hunting in Turkey during 1987. Cambridge, U.K.: ICBP (Study Report 34).

Verhelst B. Jansen J. & Vansteelant W. 2011. South West Georgia: an important bottleneck for raptor migration during autumn. Ardea 99:137-146.

Villkonskii, F.V. 1897. Ornithological fauna of Adjaria, Guria and northeastern part of of Lazistan. Materials  on the study of Fauna and Flora of the Russian Empire. Journal of the Russian Zoological Society 3:1-121.

Links:
Homepage of Dr. Alexander Abuladze
EcoNatura
The Georgian Center for the Conservation of Wildlife (GCCW) formed into SABUKO Society for Nature Conservation