Tripreport: Eagles and Little Bustards in East Georgia

Just like Batumi, the east of Georgia is a great birding destination in winter. This is the report of Bird Conservation Georgia's first trip to the region. We had a fantastic week, enjoying stunning landscapes, Georgian cuisine, and lots of good birds. Highlights were two almost entirely white Sakers, Pallas'gulls, nest-building Imperial eagles, and so much more...

With the creation of SABUKO, the Batumi team is expanding its work to other parts of the country. One of the new key areas are the steppes of East Georgia, where important populations of several threatened species survive. The first step is to build an understanding of important breeding, wintering and staging areas, population sizes and threats. This information will be collected during targeted expeditions in 2014. You are very welcome to join us for the next trip, taking place from 12 to 20 April!

Day 1: Kumisi Lake: an easy start

Since most people had arrived in the middle of the night, we headed south for some easy birding near Kumisi Lake. As soon as we left the main road, good birding started and within an hour Imperial eagle, Merlin and several Long-legged buzzards were found. When we reached the lake, Pallas’ Gulls were everywhere (68 counted!), and gave excellent views. Good numbers of waterfowl were sitting on the water, with 3 Dalmatian pelicans among the many Ruddy Shelduck, Teal, Mallard and Goosander. Someone with a sharp eye spotted 2 White-tailed eagles on the other bank, and suddenly a Black Vulture flew over. Not bad for a first day!

Pallas’ Gulls (Thomas Luiten)

Pallas’ Gulls (Thomas Luiten)

Day 2: Going east

The main goal of the day was to reach Dedoplistskaro, the last town we would encounter during our journey east. On the way, the three teams each explored a sector of agricultural lands along one of the major river rivers which cut through the East Georgian steppes. After a lot of emptiness, our team hit upon a complex of humid fields absolutely heaving with birds. Thousands of calandra larks busily moving around, two Imperial and three White-tailed eagles soaring overhead, Hen harriers and Merlin everywhere.

One of many flocks of Calandra larks in the area (Thomas Luiten)

And then we found something very strange: a big white raptor in a tree. As it was quite distant, we didn’t have a clue what it could be: a white buzzard? A Pallid harrier? It didn’t seem to fit anything. But then it flew off, and it became clear that it was a large falcon. Our first conclusion was that such a white bird must be a Gyr Falcon, but back at home people pointed out the characters indicating Saker. Indeed, eastern Sakers can be very white. While we were enjoying views of a nice adult male Pallid Harrier, an even bigger surprise came: now two such birds were sitting in a tree!

The only Pallid Harrier of the trip (Quentin Dubost).

And suddenly there were two birds…. (Picture Thomas Luiten)

Record shot of one of the very Pale Saker Falcons (Thomas Luiten)

That said, it remains a mystery how two birds of such a rare color morph ended up together in East Georgia. We will revisit the site during our April expedition, and check if they might breed.

And of course we finished the day celebrating our finds!!

Day 3: Into the steppes…

After sorting out the border admin, we drove into the hills south of Dedoplistskaro.

This huge area is almost completely devoid of trees. Nevertheless, many Imperial eagles were seen. Several pairs had started to construct a nest on seemingly unsuitable electricity pylons. The lack of suitable nesting trees may form a limiting factor for this population, and we will follow this up to see if the provision of nesting platforms or the protection of trees is needed.

Despite the emptiness of the landscape, it held lots of attractive passerines:

Rock Sparrow (Thomas Luiten)

Mixed flock of Spanish and Tree Sparrows (Thomas Luiten)

Red-fronted Serins (Thomas Luiten)

Day 4: A long trip through the Shiraki Valley to Vashlovani NP

We started out on a misty morning. Team Don would drive along the Alazani river, which forms the border with Azerbaijan, to check for birds wintering in the gallery forests. The river was very impressive river, but held few birds. We continued until we were kicked out by the border guards. On the way south we came across several small flocks of Little Bustard.

The Alazani river (Brecht Verhelst)

Small flocks of little bustards were present in the Alazani Valley (Thomas Luiten)

Team Don in action (Huub Don)

The other teams were having a good time on the vast Shiraki plains. Huge flocks of Calandra everywhere, and nice mixed flocks of Brambling, Chaffinch, Yellowhammer and Spanish Sparrow. Quite cool was also the abandoned Soviet airbase.

Calandra madness (Hugh Jansman)

Buying supplies for a long stay in the wilderness (Quentin Dubost)

Soviet airbase in Shiraki Plain (Hugh Jansman)

Having seen enough calandra larks, we drove on to the Vashlovani National Park, where we installed ourselves in the comfortable stone houses, enjoyed a delicious meal and a few glasses of beer around the bonfire. Later that night, some people were woken up by howling wolves.

Stunning landscapes in Vashlovani NP (Hugh Jansman)

Our night roost (Hugh Jansman)

Our night roost (Hugh Jansman)

Alex prepared a nice fish for us (Hugh Jansman)

Day 5: Vashlovani NP

The Vashlovani National Park is a vast area of wilderness in the easternmost corner of Georgia. Apart from the important breeding populations, it is also home to many interesting mammals, including bear, wolf, lynx, porcupine and - until recently – Caucasian leopard. We spent a day exploring the area by car and on foot, and found very high densities of Imperial Eagle, many Black Vultures and a territorial pair of Lanner falcon. The eagles were already busy building nests. During the April trip, we will devote much more time to this wonderful area, and attempt to provide a robust population estimate for key species.

Winding roads in the national park (Hugh Jansman)

Imperial eagles were busy building nests (Paul Voskamp)

Golden Jackals are common in the area (Thomas Luiten)

Day 6: Iori River Valley

The Iori river runs through the steppes of East Georgia, and is lined with tugay forests, a mosaic of reedbeds, shrubbery and tall poplar and oak trees. This forms the breeding habitat of Black Francolin and Pheasant (now very rare in Georgia), and White-tailed Eagles build their impressive nests in the matyre trees. Halfway the river is the Dali reservoir, which holds good numbers of wintering waterfowl, including Dalmatian Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants.

The Iori river (Hugh Jansman)

Dalmatian Pelicans over the Dali reservoir (Thomas Luiten)

We arrived tired and hungry in the historic town of Sighnaghi, built on a hilltop overlooking the Alazani plain and Greater Caucasus mountain range.

Romantic Sighnaghi (Hugh Jansman)

Day 7: No man’s land

South of the Iori, along the Azeri border lies an isolated range, with small forested valleys, cliffs and so called ‘mud volcanoes’. These are bubbling pools of grey mud, kept fluent by volcanic gases rising up from the depth.  Standing on the ridge in the late afternoon light, we did some of the best birding of the trip. Imperial Eagles of different ages, Black and Griffon Vultures, White-tailed and Steppe Eagle all came soaring past, mostly very close and giving excellent views. In the distance, we could observe yet another nest of Imperial.

Splendid views from our watchpoint (Huub Don)

6 pairs of Black Vulture hung around this spot (Thomas Luiten)

An adult Steppe Eagle passing by, an early migrant (Thomas Luiten)

The odd mud volcanoes (Huub Don)

After this nice day, we returned to Tbilisi, and those who still had energy left dove into the city’s busy nightlife ☺

Thanks to everybody in the team for the great time together!