After 11 years of autumn counts it was time for something completely different. This spring a group of 13 enthusiastic counters monitored the Batumi spring migration from March 21st until May 31st. A summary report of 3 months of counting, as usual with photos and all the highlights, is published on our website.
After 3.5 weeks of counting it is time for a little update on how things are going in the first ever official spring count in Batumi.
Where to start? Well, let's start with the beginning of the day: unlike in autumn, where you are woken up by just the sound of the local rooster calling, in spring he's joined by a choir of feathered friends. Next to our lovely guesthouse a male Common Redstart (samamisicus, the Caucasian subspecies) has his territory, which he shares with a Semicollared Flycatcher, both nice birds to see before you’ve even had your breakfast. After a good Georgian breakfast we head up to our spring station, which is situated just behind Station 1, our main counting station during the autumn. From there we have a good view of the incoming birds from the south.
During the first few weeks the day usually started with a decent stream of Black Kites flying over the sea! Quite a surprising route, as you would expect them to avoid flying over this type of surface due to the lack of thermals. From the data of GPS-tagged kites and from our own observations we have seen that they often fly over the Batumi bay; instead of following the coastline they simply take the shortest route north, which happens to go over the sea for quite a while. Flying over the sea comes with a benefit though, as kites are known to be great at catching fish. We have actually observed them catching fish while migrating. Eat your heart out Osprey! But the hunting doesn't stop at the water's edge. On multiple days we have observed Black Kites catching small insects while they were flying over the station, actively changing direction and swooping in order to catch the bugs. Amazing behaviour, not observed during the autumn count, probably due to lack of available prey, or perhaps because the southbound route provides them with other available food sources? Who knows. Apart from this very interesting migration strategy the numbers are also mind-blowing. With a peak day of 41.000+ black kites, we have beaten our autumn record not only for the peak day but also for the season total number: as of the 14th of April we have counted over 190.000 Black Kites, and more are yet to come. The 200K mark is within hands’ reach!
It goes without saying that the Black Kites are not the only raptors migrating. They are accompanied by the usual suspects: Steppe Buzzards, Marsh Harriers, and Lesser Spotted Eagles. However, two relatively rare partners have joined the journey as well: from the station we saw a Golden Eagle and a Cinereous Vulture moving north together with the kites and buzzards. On another afternoon, two young Imperial Eagles decided to put on a show, with one trying to steal prey from the other, occasionally interlocking their talons and spiralling down towards the ground. Never a dull moment in Batumi. And when the raptors are not present, we are kept company by a Sardinian Warbler, only the third record in Georgia. Perhaps the species is much overlooked in autumn but easy to find in spring? Other passerines have also come to greet us on the station: we had a visit from a Red-breasted Flycatcher, Ortolan Buntings, and a Krüper’s Nuthatch, the latter being a much sought-after species here in Batumi. The air around us is also filled with passerines and other small migrating birds. Imagine the summer sound of screaming swifts while counting a stream of Black Kites. Spring is the time of the year!
As for the other monitored species, the numbers are trailing a little behind the numbers we count during the autumn count still. Some might take a different route when flying towards their breeding grounds, while others have yet to arrive. The most anticipated of them is of course the main star of the the Batumi show: the Honey Buzzard. In autumn we count roughly 500.000 of them, but in spring we expect they may show up in even bigger numbers. Some counters have even placed a bet for 800.000! Not sure what to expect, but it will be a spectacular event without a doubt.
To be able to count this many birds we need a solid team present, and the good news is that we are still looking for people to add to the current group. So, if you want to take part in migration count history, do not hesitate, and join us in writing this new chapter of the Batumi Raptor Count.
Written by Diego Jansen & Katharine Khamhaengwong
Our 10th Autumn count kicked off at 17th August, with the coordination team and first volunteers arriving to our headquarters in Sakhalvasho a few days before. Even though the days are long, it’s always nice to see how the migration builds up and to see the first records for the season, whether it’s the first Osprey, Roller, or a Steppe Eagle.
The first days can already be diverse and surprising. This year we were positively surprised by a total of 4 Eleonora’s Falcons! These birds, mostly 2nd cy, were observed between 21st August and 2nd September, all of the dark morph except the 3rd of the pale morph. We had a reason to party after seeing these beauties, since there are only two previous confirmed records of this species from Georgia!
Once again, the Honey Buzzard migration started to build up towards the end of August. The first proper day was 22nd Aug with 20.000 Honeys. After that we had bit more modest days, and the migration really kicked off on 27th Aug with 37.000 Honey Buzzards, followed by almost another 37.000 the next day.
As expected, the big days were going to hit us at the beginning of September. On the 2nd, we faced another slow morning with low clouds and the odd rain showers. In late afternoon, once another shower had passed and the visibility cleared, we suddenly faced the northern side of Station 1 full of raptors. Honey Buzzards everywhere! More and more birds started to head towards the coastline and streams grew larger and larger. By early afternoon, the sky in distant north was literally covered by buzzards. It was a 5 km wide kettle, a swarm of raptors. That day we had more than 9.000 raptors passing within 20 minutes and by the end of the day we reached a total of 70.000 Honey Buzzards!
More epic days followed, as we counted over 69.000 Honeys on the 3rd, 48.000 on the 5th and 66.000 on the 6th. Massive streams, shifting from overhead to the east, again to overhead and the west side, seemed to be everlasting from the midday to late afternoon. Even though some of us has witnessed this many times before, it never stops to amaze us.
The harriers came along with the Honey Buzzards. 2nd Sept was a good warm-up with 169 Montagu’s and 87 Marsh Harriers. Then, 5th of Sept, we got a nice late afternoon passage for harriers, constantly picking Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers from the HB stream. Then we knew that the next day was going to be good, if the weather stays clear. And so, the next morning the harrier show started immediately, and between 8 and 9 we had continuous streams of harriers over our stations! For the late afternoon, the harriers slowed down a bit, but then had another rush in late afternoon with the Honey Buzzards. We managed to positively identify, age and sex a good proportion of harriers, and daily totals from Station 1 include 458 Montagu’s, 25 Pallid, 278 Montagu’s/Pallid/Hen and 204 Marsh, a total of 965 harriers!
Roller migration has been rather low this season, as only 765 birds have been counted compare to the average years situated around 1.100 individuals. European Turtle Doves migration has as always been very entertaining. Small compact groups of fast-flying doves rushing at low heights around the count station can be quite challenging to count. Peak-day was 786 individuals the 31st of August for a season total almost reaching 1800 birds. Some lucky counters could observe during this peak day an Oriental Turtle Dove nicely sticking out of a European Turtle Doves flock. It is the second record for the BRC after a bird seen in very similar conditions on the 23rd of September 2016.
Some Large Eagles migrated early in the season again. Few adults Steppe Eagles were observed during the first weeks of the count along with some immatures, while first Greater Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles showed up in September.
It seems to be a rather low season for Crested Honey Buzzards, with 7 birds recorded so far plus some hybrids. This stunning male flew close to observers, showing a global European HB wing plumage, but the reddish iris, tail pattern and large hand with a long 6th finger suggest a hybrid bird.
Birding in the Chorokhi Delta has been a real pleasure this year. It is the very first year that shooting is banned in this major stopover site for birds. With a cloudy August, the place has been packed with passerines, with a Red-backed or Lesser Grey Shrike sitting on top of every bush, accompanied by hundreds of wagtails and wheatears. Little Crakes and Purple Swamphens have been occupying the fish ponds, and people who had the effort to scan wader flocks were rewarded with Broad-billed Sandpipers. And even on sunny days, there’s always something to see, especially the terns, gulls and shearwaters by the seaside.
The true gem of the beginning was found at 26th August, when a group for the team found an Egyptian Nightjar close to the shoreline! The bird was first flushed by a shepherd’s dog, then flying around the observers and giving close views. Another team managed to find it the following day – what a gift for the 10th count of BRC and congratulations to Jonas Schärer, Xu Shi and Jaime Escobar Toledo for this stunning bird!
We would like to thank our count coordinators (Hélène from France, Xu from China and Aki from Finland), volunteer counters (so far 24 volunteers from Netherlands, Estonia, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, England, Switzerland - and Kenya!), organizers (Simon, Dries and Rafa) and all our supporters for all the efforts and making this season possible. Now we are heading towards the most diverse period of the season, and we’re preparing for the peak migrations of Black Kites, Booted Eagles, first good days for large eagles and observing up to 20 different species of raptors in a single day! Stay tuned!