Great Rosefinch is one of the special birds we’ll be looking for. Photo: Steve Rooke
This exciting tour will take you to one of the most mysterious, unique and scenic countries in the Western Palearctic, where you will see some of its most sought after and rarely seen birds. Georgia straddles the borders of Europe and Asia, and yet has its own very special character, culture and ancient history. A land of contrasts, it varies from the cold high mountains of the Greater Caucasus, to dry hot rocky steppes, where the flora and fauna are more similar to those of Anatolia and the Middle East.
There will be much to occupy us on this short tour, but our main purpose will be to see the special birds of the High Caucasus, including Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Black Grouse, Güldenstadt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch. By visiting in early spring all these species should be found at much lower altitudes than later in the year, thus avoiding some extremely long treks to see them. And whilst searching for these birds we shall also enjoy some of the best mountain birding in the Western Palearctic, as we shall regularly encounter other high altitude European mountain birds from Lammergeier to Wallcreeper. The mountain passes are natural gateways for migrants and with luck we shall witness a spectacular passage of raptors as they fly north over the Caucuses and into Russia. Similarly, as there is a good passage of passerines through the valleys, there are always interesting migrants to see, and the very real chance of finding something rare and unexpected. From the mountains we head south to an area of arid grassland steppe and striking rocky landscapes to look for a different set of birds more reminicent of the Mediterranean.
Day 1: The tour starts with a flight from London to Tbilisi.
Day 2: After arrival we’ll drive to the magnificent mountains of the Greater Caucasus. Our destination is the town of Stepantsminda nestled in the Tergi valley below the impressive peak of Kazbegi mountain. Along the way we’ll make a few stops if we see anything of interest, especially as we begin to climb up through the foothills cloaked in oak and beech forest where we should find Green Warbler and perhaps Red-breasted Flycatcher.
From here, along the spectacular and winding road that leads to the higher passes, we may encounter our first mountain birds, with tame flocks of Twite, Shore Lark of the penicillata race and White-winged Snowfinch feeding alongside the road, all giving excellent photographic opportunities. We should also start to see our first raptors such as Griffon Vulture, Peregrine and the mighty Lammergeier although the most numerous are likely to be flocks of migrating Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites.
Reaching the town, we’ll check into our new and comfortable hotel perched alongside the river. This is a wonderful setting, rich in birds with a variety of migrants possible in the adjoining park and circling raptors viewable from our balconies. As soon as we arrive we’ll be able to judge where the snow line is and its effect on the birding. If, as is usual, the snow is still well down the mountain slopes we’ll spend the first afternoon searching bushes close to the village for two superb passerines, Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch in their only location within the Western Palearctic. In addition to these we may find the variegatus race of Siberian Stonechat, perhaps the most striking of the Siberian Stonechat group. Night in Stepantsminda.
Days 3-4: We have two full days to explore the valley and mountain slopes around. Two very shy inhabitants of these slopes are Caucasian Black Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock. We’ll spend time looking for these elusive species. Caucasian Snowcock is usually first heard before being seen as its curlew-like call echoes around the mountains, a truly evocative sound. With this eerie call to guide us, we should find these large birds relatively easily on the slopes. Careful scanning with telescopes of the high alpine meadows should reveal the dark shapes of Caucasian Black Grouse, some perhaps performing their strange leaping lekking display. Although this is traditionally a very hard species to get close to, if the snow line is low, and by using telescopes, we should get good views of this bird. Of course there will be other species to search for as well. The enchanting Wallcreeper lives on the sheer rock faces but can easily be found much lower down and Georgia is a good place to get excellent views of this species, while Red-billed and Alpine Choughs wheel overhead and Ring Ouzel, Alpine Accentor, Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Twite, and flocks of Red-fronted Serin feed on the grassy slopes or among the boulders.
In addition to these breeding birds, the Tergi Valley is a natural flyway for migrants. There are bound to be good numbers of Ortolan Buntings in the fields, while the bushes can hold Caucasian Chiffchaff, mingling with Common Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers. Red-throated Pipits will also be passing through, some in smart spring plumage, as are the migrant Bluethroats and Barred Warblers we can also encounter. At this time of year many species are possible, adding an exciting edge to our birding – we could bump into a Wryneck busy feeding on ants or a group of Yellow Wagtails of various races. Small stands of trees could hold anything from Scops Owl to Collared and Semi-Collared Flycatchers. There will also be some mammals to search for, including East Caucasian Taur (an endemic wild goat) and Chamois, while a sighting of Brown Bear is possible.
We are also likely to have one more treat in store. Sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia is overflown by vast numbers of raptors heading north each spring. There are certain to be some raptors moving at any time, but with the right weather the numbers could increase to hundreds of birds each day. Steppe Buzzards are likely to be the commonest, but Montagu’s, Pallid and Marsh Harriers, with the occasional Steppe Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, and Goshawk are all possible. Nights in Stepantsminda.
Day 5: After a morning around Kabegi, we’ll drive back to Tbilisi for one night, stopping along the way to look for Dippers and Kingfishers at a roadside location and to search woodland for Black Woodpecker or the distinctive eastern race of Common Redstart, while a large reservoir should be holding some Armenian Gulls.
Days 6-7: Leaving Tbilisi once more, we’ll drive south-east to Chachuna. This dry, almost Mediterranean landscape will be in sharp contrast to the mountains we have previously visited. Chachuna is part of the Iori Upland, a region of low hills cut with many gorges and shallow valleys that dissolve into open plains. This is good country for raptors with Imperial, Steppe, and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, Egyptian, Black and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Short-toed Eagle and Lanner Falcon all possible. Chukars scurry over the hills in small coveys, while Black Francolins are more secretive. Hoopoes live here and we may see European Bee-eaters or gaudy Rollers freshly arrived from Africa, or Crag Martins zipping around the rock faces.
The wide-open spaces of the grassy steppes are a great place for wildlife and we shall be greeted by lots of birds, including Isabelline Wheatear, and Crested, Short-toed and Calandra Larks, and possibly Lesser Short-toed Lark as well. Nearby rocky escarpments are home to Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, Pied and Black-eared Wheatears, Black-headed, Ortolan and Rock Buntings, and Spanish and Rock Sparrows. One bird that should be easy to find is Ménétries’s Warbler as they are a common breeding bird in this area and as one of the first to arrive back, there should be plenty of singing males on territory at the time of our visit. Eastern Orphean Warbler also breeds here. Nights in Chachuna.
Day 8: Today we return to Tbilisi, stopping at any sights that look promising and we will pay particular attention to the open steppe to search for a late wintering Little Bustard or a passage Demoiselle Crane.
Arriving back at the capital, we’ll have dinner in a local restaurant. Legend holds that Georgia is where wine was first produced and Georgians are rightly very proud of their wine. We’ll have the chance to sample not only some of these vintages but also some wonderful local food. Night in Tbilisi.
Day 9: We’ll transfer to the airport to connect with a flight back to London, where the tour ends later that same day.
Updated: 23 January 2017