Recce to Georgia

Amazing raptor migration and Caucasian specialties

I have just returned from a week trip to Georgia where I went to explore the opportunities for birdwatching tours. I think it was great.

A good friend of mine, Mike, joined me on this recce. We met at Istanbul airport and from there we took the flight to Batumi – a small town on the Georgian south Black sea coast. Short transfer by a local taxi took us just outside the town, where we were met by Lela, our host for the next three days. After we checked in her parents’ house we walked to the raptor watching point – about 15 minutes.
The raptor migration here is nothing but amazing – for the 45 days (the monitoring started on 17th August) by the time we were there the total number was about 970,000 raptors, this not counting Sparrowhawks and smaller falcons, so well over a million raptors. This is the biggest raptor migration in the world.

The migration is watched from two villages north of Batumi, situated on wonderful green hills. Very often the raptors are at the level of the watching point, often quite close - even from 20 meters. Greater Spotted and Lesser Spotted, Steppe and Imperial eagles; Honey, Common, Steppe and Long-legged buzzards, all the harriers (Pallid is common), Black kites, Levant sparrowhawks, Red-footed falcons - they had 36 species this season - all the European raptors except Spanish Imperial Eagle and Gyr Falcon. But they had the Tundra Peregrine subspecies - F.p. calidus - about 20 birds this season. Numbers are amazing - beginning of September there were 2 days with 90 000 + and 173 000 + Honey Buzzards in single day!
This is an ongoing project run by Belgian, German and French ornithologists and volunteers and their main goals are two – to monitor the migration and get detailed idea of numbers, species and migration patterns, and second to reduce and stop the killing of the raptors by the local hunters.
About 5000 raptors are shot in one season - most of them honey buzzards. Often even from the raptor watching point shots are heard and occasionally shot birds are seen. But that is the idea of the whole project - not only to count the migration and get wonderful knowledge, but also stop the shooting by educational projects, working with the children and mainly involve the local people in the eco tourism. At the moment there are 12 houses involved in the project and they provide accommodation for the volunteers that work for the raptor count as well as the birdwatchers in the future. The project already is changing the attitude of the local people and they are getting aware of what they have and the shooting is already reduced. However, it will take a long time to stop it completely. But it is sure that visiting birdwatchers and the eco tourism is one of the main tools that can do this.
In the area is also a river delta and abandoned fishponds which we visited too, and they are great for nearly everything else - Armenian and other gulls, terns, Red-throated pipits, crakes, Purple Swamphen, almost all the waders, etc. In the botanical garden there are few pairs of Kruper's Nuthatch and we saw one of these. The forests nearby are good for White-backed, Black, Lesser Spotted and other woodpeckers. Further north there are few huge wetlands where the pure Pheasant can be seen and many other species waders, gulls, turns, herons, warblers and other passerines and raptors.
From here we went to Kazbegi Mountain in the Caucasus - the village of Stepansminda. After we arrived the first day, in the afternoon, we walked above the village - it is possible to get with 4x4 to a church above the village and from here we had a short walk uphill. We saw the Caucasian Black grouse quickly, plus fantastic Lammergeier pair, Twite, Red-fronted Serin, male Pallid harrier etc. Next morning we drove again to the church and there was a horse waiting for my mate Mike as walking is not easy here – the church is at about 2,100 m a.s.l and from here it is a steep walking to about 2,700 meters where the snowcocks and the Guildenstadt's redstarts are. We went up; it is about 5 miles and saw more than 50 Caucasian Black grouse on the way, some from quite close, 6 Caucasian snowcocks and at the end at least 4 male Guildenstadt's Redstart and one female, but we missed the Great Rosefinch. There were 3 large finches flying high above us, and the calls were very much like the Great Rosefinch, but we have decided not to tick these. We also saw Shore Larks – subs. penicilata, and there were many Black Redstarts of the subs. semirufus. The view to the glacier and Kazbegi peak (5,033 m) is simply beautiful.
Next morning we checked the nearby river valley which is a good place for the Great Rosefinch as there are many bushes with berries around, but as we only had an hour we haven't seen them. But we had Wallcreeper, Imperial Eagle, Mountain Chiffchaff, about 6 Griffon vultures, Peregrine pair and few more species.

Georgia was discovered by the birding companies just very recently and only a few companies are running trips here. They all come to Kazbegi for the Caucasian specialties in late April/early May, relying on the fact that the mountain will be still covered by snow that keeps all the top species down in the valley, close to the village. In my opinion it is a bit tricky as it well may be the case when there is still a lot of snow just around the village and the roads up are blocked, but the southern slopes high up are already clear from snow and all the birds are there, so no chance to get near to them.

I am planning to go there next spring to explore the area again, but for sure we will be offering a week tour for the raptor migration next September, with an extension to Kazbegi to see the top four here. For sure there is some walking involved, but the observation of the grouse and the snowcock are much better and weather is very pleasant with wonderful autumn colors. Having horses is a solution, but some short parts will need walking too, especially downhill.

Georgian people are very friendly and welcoming, food is very much ok, the only thing we could have missed was the loud music in a couple of restaurants. Almost nobody speaks English, so my Russian from the school proved very useful.

All in all it was an exciting trip and I am looking forward to go back to Georgia very soon.

You can find the photos from the tour in this gallery - http://www.spatiawildlife.com/en/photo-video-gallery/Georgia-birding-tour-photo-gallery.html .