Spring Report 2019
Tohar Tal & Diego Jansen
After 11 years of autumn counts it was time for something completely different: not counting the southbound birds but rather counting them while they head out to their breeding grounds. With a combined total of 13 enthusiastic counters, we have covered almost daily counts for over three months between March 21st and May 31st, 2019.
The idea for an official spring count has been making rounds during BRC autumn counts for already quite some years, but unfortunately it never materialised. During the autumn of 2018 the idea was brought up again and we finally decided to make it happen next spring. During the winter we mobilised our networks and followers through our social media to incite as many people as possible to participate. Eventually, by the end of January, the final call had been made: the spring count is official! Even though we still needed some more volunteers to complete the count, we at least had enough enthusiastic people to start the count. Tohar Tal and our (only) full season counter Erik Jansen would commence counting on the 21st of March.
Right from the start the first issue occurred: from where exactly do we count? We knew that it wouldn’t be possible to count from our original station 1, since the station provides excellent views to the north, but the view to the south is really poor. For practical reasons we had to keep the station close to the village were we have our headquarters, so we had to find another place around Sakhalvasho from where we could count.
The day before the count would start Erik and Tohar found the right place, just a bit behind Station 1, further along the ridge of the eastside of the mountain. While they were searching for the right counting spot, many raptors were already migrating, a very promising sign for the days to come!
As we did not know what to expect, both in terms of species and numbers, we decided to count every migrating species of raptor. This is quite different from the situation in autumn, as then we focus on the species for which we can consistently gather high quality and valuable data.
Apart from facing the other side, the view proved to be very different anyways. Not the familiar dark green hills, which slowly fade into red in autumn, but rather a winter wonderland with all the high peaks covered in snow. To top it off we even had a little bit of snowfall during the count!
As the weather was still a bit cold, the pace of migration was still on the cool side as well. Many days with rain prevented the migration and our clickers from heating up. However, what we lacked in numbers was made up for in species. We already had a Cinereous Vulture on the fourth day, which is quite an uncommon bird in autumn and thus only the fifth record for BRC. On the fifth day, the weather provided good migration conditions and it really started to kick off with a lot of Short-toed Eagles (160), a Griffon Vulture and the first Egyptian Vulture.
Besides those, the real surprise of the spring count still had to come: the staggering numbers of Black Kites. Throughout the season we counted over 220.000 Black Kites, destroying all the autumn record counts of this species. We had several days with over 10.000 kites, but the real peak day was on the 5th of April when we counted a mind-blowing 41.000 Black Kites!
During the first weeks of the count we also saw a Golden Eagle, another BRC rarity, and we had our first good numbers of Imperial-, Lesser- and Greater Spotted Eagles.
Besides the impressive numbers of raptors, the non-raptors were enjoyable as well. The first days of the count we had good numbers of Common Cranes (116), but even better was a Sardinian Warbler on the station, which was just the 3rd record for Georgia, after the 2nd record during last year’s autumn count. Later on the trees surrounding the station proved to be passerine magnets, with perching Tree Pipits accompanied by Ortolan Buntings. Also the illusive Krüper’s Nuthatch paid a welcoming visit to the station! Many birdwatchers visit the Botanical Garden to find this bird, but if you are patient enough, the bird may visit you! Another highlight during the spring count was a Black-winged Kite in the Chorokhi delta, only the 2nd record for Georgia.
Back to the raptors: the Black Kites kept coming! Not just their numbers were impressive, but also their behaviour. Most of the time they were flying far in the west over the sea forming almost pure Black Kite streams with just an occasional (lost?) Steppe Buzzard every now and then. When the kites came closer we could observe another interesting thing: while migrating the Black Kites were catching insects in mid-flight, to eat as a little snack. We have never observed this behaviour during our autumn counts.
Unfortunately, we also saw that some birds didn’t seem to use the Batumi bottleneck in this spring. Especially the numbers of Marsh-, Montagu’s- and Pallid Harriers were very low and we weren’t seeing many of them at all. During the season we only recorded 56 Montagu’s Harriers, very little compared with the almost 7000 birds that pass through the bottleneck in autumn. Even though these numbers were low, we saw quite a few of them hunting in the Chorokhi Delta when we went there on slow migration days. At the same time the Hen Harriers were doing a good job in spring. We counted 90 of them, compared to a few dozen that we tend to see in autumn.
As the season continued with some more large eagle species and Ospreys, we were actually waiting for the Honey Buzzards to come. The first one was already seen exceptionally early on the 3rd of April, but eventually we had to wait until April 27th for the first real day with Honey Buzzard migration. Amongst 723 European Honeys counted that day, also the first of three of this season’s Crested Honey Buzzards was seen.
Our expectations of the numbers of Honey Buzzards were based on our autumn results, but also on counts and tracking results by other organisations. If we look at data from satellite tagged Honey Buzzards it is plausible that the birds also cluster near the Black Sea coast when they head up north. At least birds that are going to Finland seem to prefer flying over Batumi instead of the Bosphorus (Turkey) when they go north. Besides, with good numbers of Honey Buzzards recorded in Eilat during many spring counts, we expected a fair number of these birds would also come through Batumi on their northbound migration.
Unfortunately, the Honey Buzzards had something different in mind this spring, because on our only real peak day we counted a ‘meagre’ 33.333 birds. Stil, a good number, but not really what we hoped for. By the time the season came to an end we had counted a total of only 89.366 Honey Buzzards. Maybe they still went through Bosphorus after all, or they took a more inland route through Georgia. Maybe they even went along the Caspian Sea coast over Azerbeidzjan… we may never know.
Despite the numbers of some species being (much) lower than we are used to in the autumn, we are very happy with the result and we still counted an impressive 462.041 raptors. For the first time in BRC history, a structured spring count has been conducted and the results of this count can guide future decisions about continued spring monitoring. Besides, the relatively low numbers this spring, made us realise how truly unique the autumn migration actually is!
In conclusion, we can look back on a very nice and exciting spring season with a lot of bird highlights. It’s of course not just the birds that made it so pleasant. The atmosphere in a small group of very enthusiastic counters made it an even more memorable season. Sharing meals, drinks and visions during the entire day, with people from all over the world, makes for an unforgettable experience!
So, most importantly, we want to thank all the volunteers and our amazing host family: we could not have done it without you!