Category Archives: Georgia

Jewels of Caucasus 1st of 9th of July 2013 – Birding trip to Georgia

I fell in love with mountain views of Caucasus 2006 when I visited the region first time. Now I have been there already 5 times, but still every trip produces new experiences. This year I guided a group of eight bird and nature lovers. We visited Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Jevakheti volcanic plateau and watched birds around Tbilisi.

Our tour timing had been chosen so that there was also other things to see than birds. Mountain meadows were in full bloom, there were plenty of butterflies and dragonflies and birds had fledglings. In hottest low land areas grass was however already yellow and birds had flocked around ponds and lakes.

Tour diary

1.7. Flights Helsinki-Kiev-Tbilisi

We arrived to Tbilisi late in the evening, just to found out that ours and 20 other passengers luggage had been forgot to Kiev. Staff told that next flight carrying our stuff would arrive in 20 hours… We decided to stay next day in Tbilisi region and pick our luggage from airport when flight was coming.

2.7. Around Tbilisi

After breakfast we headed towards Lake Lisi. This shallow lake has reed beds around it, vast grassy meadows and pine plantations. Due to windy weather lake seemed quite empty and only grebes were seen. Forests had lots of Golden Orioles and Lesser Grey Shrikes. We found also Mediterranean Tortoise, Seltopusik and couple of small Natrix snakes. A Short-toed Eagle, Common buzzards and Marsh Harriers played in stormy wind.

We decided to search for calmer place in a valley behind village Tsodoreti. Forested valley had beautiful stream, lots of butterflies, frogs and also passerines like Green Warblers and Blackcaps.


Afternoon was spent in older parts of Tbilisi. Best observation was 50 Armenian Gulls that were patrolling over the river. Near Baths we saw Laughing Doves and Water Pipits.

We picked up our luggage at six and drove to Stepantsminda where we arrived at 11 pm. Road was being fixed and that’s why it was in horrible shape! Our hotel was university research station where 2 other birding groups were already staying.

3.7.- 4.7. Kazbegi

During the next days we spend time in the gorges and mountain slopes. Our planned tent night up in Kazbegi slopes did not work out because very moist air was coming from Black Sea. Mornings were nice and clear but before midday sky was cloudy and rain started. A week earlier air would have been much drier.

Trip to sea-bucktorn area near village and other trip to Tsuro Gorge were productive. We observed for example one Bearded and many Griffon Vultures, 3 Peregrines, a Golden Eagle pair, 7 Alpine Swifts, lots of Water Pipits, 15 Rock Thrushes, 8 Green Warblers, 30 Mountain Chiffchaffs and 20 Red-fronted Serins. Besides birds we saw lots of different kinds of flowering plants.

Our main trip was climb to higher slopes of Kazbegi. We started climbing before sunrise. Highest peaks were behind clouds, and we climbed along trail in good conditions. Alpine meadows were very beautiful with pink, yellow, blue and red flowers. Best observations were 6 Great Rose finches, 2 Güldenstädt’s Redstarts, 3 Caucasian Snowcoks and lots of other mountain birds. Snowcokcs responded well to mimicking whistling we made. Most numerous bird species was Water Pipit that we estimated being seen 140.

Clouds surrounded us during our lunch stop and we started to walk back. Faster part of group managed to walk down in front of rain clouds, but another part of the group, me included, were forced to descend in rain.


Mountain meadows were in full bloom.

5.7. From Greater to Lesser Caucasus Mountains

During sunrise we tried to see Caucasian Black-grouse and hear more snowcocks and rosefinches without luck. After breakfast we started to drive towards our next destination in Lesser Caucasus. On the way we stopped in many birding spots. Bearded Vulture passed by and there were lots of Alpine and Red-billed Choughs. Breeding place of Snow Finches had been destroyed in road work so they were not present.

Near Lesser Caucasus large storm front filled the sky. Heavy rain and thunder forced us to drive without stops all the way to Akhaltsikhe.

6.7. Lesser Caucasus Akhaltsikhe-Abastumani-Zekari Pass (2182m) and back

Lesser Caucasus is lower and more forested than Greater Caucasus. There are tens of tree and bush species and lots of flowering plant. Many brightly colored species are now more familiar as garden plants. Road was in poor condition after heavy rains. Our four wheel drive Jeep just managed the worst places. Still conditions were better than 2006 when road resembled small river with rapids.

We stopped in few places for listening birds until we met three scientists that had photographed Caspian Snowcock from close range. When we reached treeless meadows and rocky mountain tops we decided to split group in half. Each group would search one side of the mountain with telescopes. After one hour another team radioed, that they had 3 Caspian Snowcocks. We drove to another group that kindly had birds ready at their telescope views. Other observed species were for example Green Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff and Red-fronted Serin.

During our picnic lunch clouds surrounded us. We decided to descend back to forests. We wanted to walk few kilometres down the road. After couple of kilometres we could hear odd sound from pine tree. Source of the sound was Kruper’s Nuthatch that climbed under the branches. From next tree we could hear two more individuals. Coal Tit, Common Crossbills, Robin and Redstart were common forest birds.

7.7. Jevakheti plateau

Jevakheti plateau is a large volcanic area that lies in 2000 metres from the sea level. There are several 3000 metres high volcanic cones that can be seen in the horizon. This plateau is mostly grassland with many lakes. We visited Khozapini (Kartsakhi), Khanchali and Burnasheni Lakes.

From the lakes we found Armenian Gulls, lots of ducks and other waterfowl, several species of herons and tens of white storks. Most numerous species was a Coot that we saw several thousands. In distant shore lines we could see flocks of waders but due to distance we could not identify them all. All together we saw 160 White and Dalmatian Pelicans. Most numerous raptor species were Common Buzzard and Marsh Harrier. There were also a Short-toed Eagle, Lesser-spotted Eagles, Montagu’s Harrier and Long-legged Buzzards.


Rarest sight was however a President of Georgia, who drove past us on his way to new border crossing.

8.7. David Gareji

South-eastern part of Georgia is drier steppe area. From main road there is 50 km to David Gareji monastery (and only road signs in the start and just before monastery). We stopped on the way in most bird-rich areas. Couple of shallow lakes produced lots of Great Reed Warblers, Moorhens and some waders. In village of Udano is a breeding colony of Rosy Starlings. These birds breed together and they even fly in groups to collect insects for their fledglings.

Roadside earth piles were occupied by Black-eared, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears. In monastery area we scanned with our scopes bushy area that had lots of birds looking for shadow. We managed to see a Common Nightingale, 2 Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin and lots of Lesser Whitethroats. Climb until Azerbaijan border did not produce many new species since temperature rose up to +35°C during our stay.


After picnic we drove along the border towards Jandara lake. On the way we saw Rollers, Bee-eaters, Booted Eagle and Egyptian Vulture. Heat haze made it difficult to see far to the lake, but there was a Syrian Woodpecker in nearest tree plantation.

9.7. Flights back to Finland

Everyone else managed to have lifers or WP-ticks. I managed to get new species to my Georgian bird list and now I have 213 species.

Downloadable trip bird observation list

H.A.

Georgia 1st to 9th of July 2012

Hanna Aalto, Georgira, Kaukasus, Caucasus, Stepantseminda, Kazbegi

Jewels of Caucasus–Kon-Tiki´s birding tour to Georgia

Georgia is the one of the most beautiful and interesting country, where I have ever travelled. Landscapes are magnificent and there is rich birdlife and lots of beautiful plants. This country has even long and eventful history that can be seen everywhere. I have wanted to show other people these places I have learned to love. This year’s Georgia visit was done with small group. Weather was exceptionally rainy, but still we got lots of observations and memories.

2.7. arriving Kazbegi

Plane landed to Tbilisi half past four. Luggage came fast and very soon we were having morning coffee with our guide Giorgi. After getting good caffeine dose we packed our luggage to large four wheel drive offroad-car. This type of car is necessirity, since roads in many birding spots are not drivable with normal car.

Our first birding stop was on foothills of Greater Caucasus Mountains. Sun was shining and oak forests were full of birds. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Green Warblers were still singing. Redstarts and Black Redstarts (ssp semirufus) and Greater Spotted Woodpecker had large juveniles already. Black Woodpecker was calling in the distant hills. Our second stop at Ananuri castle produced for example lots of Swifts, Swallows, a Nightingale, a Rock Bunting and Red-backed Shrikes.

AnanuriPikkulepinkäinen

After Ananuri stop we started to climb towards higher slopes. After steepest serpentine road part there is a good spot for observing birds. There is Soviet made viewing platforms where you can see bushy slopes from above. We had Blue Rock Thrushes, Green Warblers, a Caucasian Chiffchaff, Griffon Vultures and Jays (ssp atricapillus), Tree Pipits, Common Rosefinches and Whitethroats.

When we passed Gudauri ski-centre started proper mountainous part of the road. There is no forests anymore and asphalt chances to sandy road with lots of deep mud holes. There were surprisingly many cars and trucks. Later we learned that Georgian-Russian border crossing was now open for transit. For Georgians it stays closed.

Soon we stopped to another regular spot. It is huge “Friendship of nations” wall in one of the most beautiful spots in Georgia. Alpine Choughs, Crag Martins and an Alpine Swift were flying around. Water Pipits (ssp coutellii) were breeding in meadows around parking lot. Flowering season was going on and thus the meadows were very beautiful.

Ivari Pass is the highest (2370m) point on the route. After the pass, road descends to green valley. During winters avalanches covers the road all the time, thus there is concrete tunnel that runs parallel to road. These mountain slopes are geologically interesting. There are springs that bring sulphur and calcium rich water to surface. On the slopes there is now several orange waterfall looking deposits of calcium carbonate and other minerals. Georgians think that this water is very healthy. Bearded Vulture and Snow Bunting passed us while we were photographing springs and lush vegetation around them.

We stayed in Stepantsminda (former Kazbegi) at height of 1900m. Our accommodation was this time University research-station in eastern side of the town. It is basically tree floored large building that has restaurant and a couple of rooms that students use for their research equipment. Second floor has nice and clean dormitory rooms that has heir own bathrooms.

Couple of hours nap was needed after whole night travelling. When everyone was feeling okay we started to explore surrounding nature and let our bodies to get used to thinner air. We drove towards north as far as border crossing that is geologically in European side of Caucasus. On high steep slopes there were several pairs of Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins. Meadows had singing Commone Rose Finches and in small forest patches were Dunnocks and Chaffinches. These slopes were formed of petrified volcanic ash and basalt flows. When southern slopes are meadows these north facing very steep slopes have pine forests.

Giorgi showed us a tiny village that is located on to top of cliffs. Some of the houses looked like they grow directly from the mountain rock. Village of Tsdo is very old and good sign of that can be seen on the top of the hill behind village. There is an old sacrificing place. Old stony altar is nowadays transformed to Christian one, but next to this altar there is still metal table for sacrificing animals. On a stony wall is stony ram statue.

This wall has probably been part of the tower that was used as a part of warning system. Like in Lord of the rings, also here are lines of stony towers. When introducers were seen, fire was lid on the top of tower. When people in next tower place saw this, they made their fire and message was carried through villages.


3.7. Birding in the valley

In the morning we realized that weather had chanced. Moist air mass (same that caused severe flooding in Russia) had surrounded us and mountains were covered in clouds. Weather forecast promised rain and even snow up to mountains. We also got contact with climbers that told that weather had been very bad up in Kazbegi. So we had to skip tent night in one of most spectacular spots were I have been camping.

After breakfast we climbed to east slopes that are steeper but not as high as Kazbegi. We saw lots of Red-fronted Serins, gentlemen heard Caucasian Snowcokcs and on the rocky slopes were some Great Rose Finches. In meadows Water Pipits were very common and several Ring Ouzels were seen in more bushy areas. Meadows were full of flowering plants.

Stepantsminda is not a big town. There are several small shops were it is possible to buy bread, candies or wines. You can even buy dried fish for snack! Local museum is surprisingly good and a new handcraft coop was also worth of visiting. Very few can speak English, but shopping works out without problems.

Snow valley is the next bigger valley east from Kazbegi. In the end of sandy road is a village called Juta. There is no villages in Europe that would be higher that this village. During winters this village is completely surrounded by snow and there is no way to enter or leave with a car. Now we saw that someone is building a hotel so maybe in the future there will be better road up to the village.

Ancestors of some of inhabitants of this valley are not originally from here. In past, there was a tradition, that you could expiate your crimes, with moving in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes family followed the criminal.

After a good dinner we were ready to rest and think our next day challenge. Climb to Europe’s fifth highest mountain was waiting for us.

4.7. was Kazbegi climbing day

Unfortunately there were lots of clouds billowing from south and slopes of Kazbegi were white of snow. Luckily cloud layer was pretty high and top of the mountain visible.

After a breakfast we drove up until the Holy Trinity church at height of 2170m. Just when we were about to leave it started to rain. So we decided to go to see this 600 years old church. Women had to wear skirts and scarves that were provided. Church service started while we were in. It was still hailstorm and thunder outside so we watched the rituals for a while.

Cloud cover got thinner and we had even some sunshine as we climbed upwards. Our highest point was 3000m. On the way we watched grazing cattle and horses and of course birds too. Water Pipits are common along the track, Mountain Chiffchaffs and Green Warblers were singing on the birch bushes, Wheatears were jumping on the rocks and Linnets were calling over us. Soon we found also Ring Ouzels (amicorum). Higher near the pass Twites (brevirostris – Turkish Twite) were found. Red-fronted Serins were again just flying quickly. Near the pass were several Great Rose Finches, an Alpine Accentor and Shore Larks.

Track was surprisingly busy when tens of mountain climbers were all descending from the mountain. Most of them did not have chance to climb up because of the weater conditions.

After the pass there is a small valley. Top of Kazbegi is in north and one of its glaciers is coming down towards the valley. Whole valley was full of flowers. We decided to have quick lunch brake before birding around the valley. Warm coffee and soup with bread helped fast and everyone got their strength back. One female Güldenstädt’s Redstart was collecting food with several Black Redstarts. Right when we started to listen Caucasian Snowcocks and search for Wallcreepers it started to thunder again. Behind the closest slope was thunder cloud that was coming fast towards us. We had to start descending down along a small hollow. On the way down it was raining time to time very hard and hails were as big as fingertip. Luckily lightning was mostly from cloud to another. Rain made the trail very slippery and descending was not easy. When we arrived to our car everyone was wet even if we had Gore-tex clothing.

Back at hotel I noticed that my telescope ocular had sucked some water inside. All other optics were fine.

It was a pity that this time we did not have a proper change to do birding high on the slopes. Thunders and showers continued until midnight.

5.7. we drove from High Caucasus to Lesser Caucasus.

In the morning we had time for a couple of hour’s bird-watching. We tried to see Caucasian Black Grouses again, but saw none. Corn Crakes and Quails were calling and Rock Thrushes were sitting on fences. We could hear clearly several singing Great Rose Finches.

We said goodbye to Kazbegi that was now in full sunlight. On the way down we made birding stops. Best observation was pair of Bearded Vultures.

We turned towards west along the main road. On the way it is difficult to stop so there is not so many bird observations from this part. On the distant hills is South Ossetia where it is not possible to go from Georgia anymore and on the road sides you can see lots of identical small houses that are build for refugees that had to move from South Ossetia.

In Gori we visited Stalins home. After Gori we still drove some tens of kilometres towards west until we turned towars Akhaltsikhe. Road goes in forested valley. This area was very popular holiday destination during Soviet time. River Mtkvari shores had Armenian Gulls and Common Sandpipers. We visited also famous tiny monastery that is surrounded by very dense forests. It was late in the afternoon but still we heard lots of tit fledglings and Red-breasted Flycatchers.

Chitakhevi

During the night in Akhaltsikhe thunder started again and heavy rain was coming from the clouds.

6.7. we visited Vardzia cave town

It was still raining in the morning so we had to skip tops of Lesser Caucasus. We decided to chance our birding location to another great destination. Near border of Turkey are Vardzia cave town ruins from 700 century. Along the Mtkvari River is also other castle ruins since these valleys were war scenes many times.

On the way we passed small mountain range where Golden Eagles and Blue Rock Thrushes breed. Behind these mountains opens hilly plateau. Forests along the river had Golden Orioles, lots of Lesser Whitethroats and Red-backed Shrikes. Egyptian Vultures, Bee-eaters and Buzzards were also seen.

Vardzia is mostly a historical site, but also good for birding. Birds are used to tourists and it is easy to observe species like Black-headed Bunting, Rock Nuthatch, Crag Martin and Alpine Chough. Down near the river were Armenian Gulls and a Green Woodpecker.

We had lunch nearby and there we saw among other species Eastern Rock Nuthatch and Dippers.

We arrived to Akhalstikhe early in the afternoon. Clouds were gone from the Lesser Caucasus and we had a chance to visit lower parts of the forests. Bakuriani town was popular spa and holiday spot in the past. There is still lots of old houses, sanatorias and hotels from the time when Zars we ruling Russia. Most of these houses are almost ruins now. Asphalt end just after the town and road continues as dirt road up over the mountains. This road is marked to maps as wide as main roads but in reality it is barely driveable even with four wheel drive! In spring and after heavy rains (like that day we were there) higher parts of the road are just mud.

Since it was already evening we drove until 1500m high and started to walk along the road from there. Most of birds were not active anymore. We tried to hear Krüper´s Nuthatches but none of them were interested calling. Instead we heard Gold Crests, a Black Woodpecker, Ravens and lots of tits and warblers. Lesser Caucasus is a forested area. In some places forest looks like Finnish forest but when you look longer you start to notice more and more odd species.

7.7. we drove trough Javakheti Plains to Tbilisi

Nowadays it is possible to drive trough Javaktheti volcanic plateau to Tbilisi. This region is at elevation of 2000 meters. Old volcanoes rice up to 3300 meters. This plateau is mostly grass land with lots of smaller and bigger lakes. Some parts look like north Norway! Population is mostly Armenians and minorities are Russians and Georgians. Some of the houses have still grass roofs and from the style and decoration of the house you can guess who has built the house.

Jevakheti

We visited eight larger lakes. Biggest lakes Paravani and Tsalka are not good for birds. Most birds were seen lakes near Ninotsminda. We saw thousands of Ruddy Shelducks, Armenian Gulls, Coots and Grebes, tens of Dalmatian Pelicans and lots of herons and ducks. Marsh Harrier is common and from reed beds we could hear Sedge Warblers, a Spotted Crake, Water Rails and Bitterns. Lots of Yellow Wagtails are breeding in the area. Also Citrine Wagtail breeds here, but we were not lucky to see one. White Stork is a common breeder in this region.

Between plateau and Tbilisi is a forested zone where is lots of restaurants on the road sides. We had excellent meal in one of them. While eating we saw four Dormouses climbing up to trees.

8.7. David Gareji steppe area

South east from Tbilisi is drier and hotter steppe area. Main attraction in the area is David Gareji monastery area. This is one of the main touristic attractions in the country but there are no proper road signs even to this site. Renting a car and driving by your self is not a good option in Georgia unless your navigator has all the roads! There is two reasons why birding is often done near historical sites. First there are not many roads and second historical sites especially monasteries have been built in places that are very beautiful or have something special.

This steppe is mostly grassy, but here and there is small ponds and trees. There were lots of Woodchat Shrikes and Lesser Grey Shrikes. There were also Spanish Sparrows, Ortolan Buntings and Rosy Starlings. Birds of prey are quite common and so are different lark species. Large flock of Crested Larks, Short-Toed Larks and Calandra Larks were following cow herd. Isabelline Wheatears and Stone Chats are also numerous. Bee-eaters, Hoopoes and Rollers breed in the area too. Rock Sparrows and Ortolan, Rock, Corn and Black-headed buntings are common too.

Soil around David Gareji monastery is old sea bottom that is lifted and tilted up. Some of the sand stone layers are reddish, some greyish and some are light yellow. Monastery is built in small valley so that many houses are carved to bed rock itself. Border between Georgia and Azerbaijan is just a few hundred meters away and part of the old monastery is now in Azerbaijan side of border. There is agreement that tourists can visit there but entering further to Azerbaijan would lead to arrest and problems with border guards.

We stayed nicely on the permitted path. Temperatures were high and most of birds were very hard to see. We had only some Rock Nuthaches, buntings, swallows and several Caucasian Agamas to our Azerbaijan list. On the way down one and half meters long snake passed us but luckily it was not the very venomous Levant Viper that is quite common in the area.

Towards Tbilisi we took another road through steppe, but it was too hot for proper birding. We drove trough industrial city Rustavi that has tens of huge factories and apartment buildings from Soviet times. People from mountain villages were transported here in the past and they became workers to factories.

During the afternoon we had some time in Tbilisi. Old town is very interesting since there are many different types of houses. This town has been conquest 40 times in history and conquerors brought new customs and styles. Sometimes view looks like you are in central Europe, some parts looks like Russia and some resembles Turkey. Art works, pars and special architecture can be seen everywhere.

We had our tour’s last dinner up in the hills in museum area. Restaurant balcony had great view over the city and the restaurant was build inside a nice old building. We could taste many different local dishes.

9.7. Our flight was in the morning so we did not make many observations.

Trip to Georgia was again very interesting and we saw and learned many new things!

H.A.

Georgia 17-25.5. 2007

Georgia 17th to 25th of May 2007

To Georgia and Kazbegi

Finally the holiday had started and we had driven to Helsinki. At 6.30 p.m. we met Andreas Lindén, Kari Haataja and Keijo Wahlroos in Helsinki-Vantaa airport. We were on our way to Georgia (again) to Kazbegi mountain and Cashachuna semi-desert area for a 8 days birding.

On our last Georgia and Armenia trip on summer of 2006 we lost our hearts for Kazbegi and because of we then not succeeded to find a Caucasian Black Grouse we had decided to go back as soon as possible. So we had started to seek keen wp-tickers or other birdwatchers to join us and after all we now had a small but very good group with number one Finnish wp-ticker, photographers and recorders.

First we flew to Riga, Latvia where we were exactly on time at 9.25 p.m. and only an hour later we continued to Tbilibi, Georgia where we were at 3.10 a.m.

We had arranged everything ready with help of the guide we had on our last trip Giorgi Rajebashvili. Unfortunately Giorgi had been booked already but he had arranged his good friend Zura Javakhisvili to be our guide and Robinson as a driver. The first trip-tick Nightingale was singing in front of the shop nearby the airport when we were packing the big green Ford Transit. Soon we were on our way to north via military highway. During the first hour it was still dark but we were all watching out from the windows to see any birds. Surprisingly only Blackbirds were seen in the beginning. It might have been more clever to sleep because of we had a hard trip to come.

After a couple of hours driving we stopped to Ananuri fortress where we saw and heard a Robin, a Song Thrush, a Caucasian Warbler (P. trochilkoides nitidus), Buzzard, Greenfinch, Redstart (ssp samamisicus), Black Redstart (ssp semirufus), Grey Wagtail, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Rock Bunting and so on.

The road was climbing higher and higher and we saw snowy tops of mountains and soon there were lots of snow along the road too. There were huge numbers of cows, sheep and goats on the road. Shepards were leading them to the mountains after a hard and long winter.

The next stops were made in a couple of view-watching places and we saw for example Jays (ssp atricapillus, Tree Pipits, Common Rosefinches, Whitethroats, Cuckoos, Red-billed Choughs, Crag Martins, Twites (ssp brevirostris – Turkish Twite), Water Pipits (ssp coutellii), Ring Ouzels (ssp amicorum), Snow Finches and even 2 Caucasian Black Grouses that were seen far on one slope. So we had already one of the target species found and the only lifer we were expecting for me and Hanna!

The road kept on climbing and the travelling was slowly. Finally after 4 hours we arrived at the surprisingly big Kazbegi village. We parked in front of familiar Yugos house and while we were carrying our luggages in we saw some Griffon Vultures and first 2 Red-fronted Serins. Then we were ready to go to sleep for a couple of hours.

Once we woke up we went to the balcony where we could see incredible views to mount Kazbegi but also some birds: a Honey Buzzard, Golden Eagles, a Collared Dove and a couple of Lammergaiers; also a youngish Black Stork was seen soaring above the mountains. After the lunch we went birding to a riverside to a bushy area where we know we could find some Mountain Chiffchaffs (P. sindianus lorenzii). After a couple of kilometres driving we parked the car a immediately we found the chiffchaffs. There were plenty of them. Also a Garden Warbler, a Willow Warbler and some other common species were seen. We also saw a nest of a local Common Buzzard (ssp menestris). When the sun was already setting down we drove back to the house and after the dinner we went to sleep.

The first mountaineering

On the 19th of May we woke up early – at 5.15 a.m. After a breakfast we were already at 6 o’clock driving to the forest above the village. Then we walked through the forest where we saw a flock of 30 Common Crossbills, to the hill from where we had good views to all the closest mountain meadows. The first good bird was a Barred Warbler that was found from the bushes. By scope we could soon find at least 5 Caucasian Black Grouse males and soon we heard the first Caucasian Snowcocks too. And because of we wanted to see the snowcocks we started to climb higher to the steep mountain.

In the beginning the climbing was easy but soon it came really steep. Also the thin air was a problem. But soon we got the price when Zura found a couple of Caucasian Snowcocks that were feeding on the opposite cliff. The male was also calling a couple of times so recording and digiscoping was done of course!

We kept on climbing soon and the worst part was rocky and 65 degrees steep! Soon we had to have a break again and we started to scope towards the top of the mountain when Hanna surprisingly found a Güldenstädt’s Redstart on the top of the highest stone of the mountain. There were als a female and a 2nd cy male and we all managed to get pretty good views to these birds even though they were still really far!

We still climbed to the next ridge which was really the hardest climbing we have ever had! Unfortunately Great Rosefinch wasn’t found, but Andy saw a Wallcreeper and we all saw same birds than earlier: Alpine Accentors, Rock Thrushes, Ring Ouzels, Alpine Choughs, a Chukar and altogether 5 Caucasian Snowcocks were heard.

Luckily the way back down was easy so we could enjoy the warm sunshine and cool wind that made together the weather perfect. About at 3 p.m. we were back in our car. Of course we were a little bit disappointed that we hadn’t found the Great Rosefinch yet but at least we knew what to do during the next 2 days!

We had already lounch waiting for us and after a siesta we went to record and photograph Mountain Chiffchaffs. Meanwhile Kari and Kepa were photographing birds in the village. While recording the chiffchaffs and when the sun was setting behind the mountains we saw several male Caucasian Black Grouses coming to the lek and later one female arrived to the slope too. Males were jumping and really doing everything to attract the female. Once the toughest male was found it tried carefully to walk to the female but everytime the female flew away! No wonder this species is so rare!

Relaxed birding and to the real mountain – Kazbegi

On the 20th of May we woke up 5.15 am again. After the breakfast we drove some 20 kilometres to a valley behind an empty village. On the way we saw some Snow Finches, a Rock Thrush, Black Redstarts, of course Water Pipits and also a Roller. In the valley we saw plenty of Alpine Swifts, Red-billed Choughs and Mountain Chiffchaffs and heard a Wren singing. Hard wind made recording impossible and the edges were too steep to get closer to the birds so we decided to leave pretty soon. We had to save strength for the evening!

On the way back we had a good opportunity to photograph Griggon Vultures that were sitting on the riverbank and flying low over us. Also Common Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers were seen. We also met a French birders that were already on their way south but when they heard that we had seen Güldenstädt’s Redstarts they turned back and decided to have mountaineering day.

After the lounch we were ready to go to Kazbegi! We took a 4-wheel drive ride to the Tsimbda Sameba church up to 1900 metres and started climbing. The climbing was very easy though we had huge backbags because of we had already been training climbing and we had already been a couple of day so high above the sea level.
Right away we saw a flock of 30 Red-fronted Serins, but otherwise there weren’t as many birds as in last summer. Red-fronted Serins, Water Pipits, Ring Ouzels, Twites and Red-billed Choughs were nice anyway. A couple of male Caucasian Black Grouses were also seen flying and somewhere above us were Caucasian Snowcocks calling.
After a couple of hours climbing we were in 2730 metres in our tenting place and soon the tents were up. We started to scan the tops of the mountains but even though we saw many passerines they were still too far to identify. Only some Snow Finches were identified and also a couple of Shore Larks (ssp penicillata) were found just behind the tents. But there was still a long way to the Great Rosefinch places.

In the evening the wind started to blow really hard and we went to sleep in +3 degrees. It would have been very comfortable to sleep in a sleeping bag but when I first time turned the zipper went totally broke so I couldn’t sleep very well.

The best place on Earth

On the 21st of May we woke up early but it was still dark, the sun was still behind the mountains. A Caucasian Black Grouse was standing next to a fabric Black Grouse that we had brought at home, but it was too shy – when we got out from the tent it flew away. Luckily it landed shortly to the closest cliff and I managed to get a couple of digicoping pictures before it flew behind the edge.

With Hanna and Andy we left soon to climb higher towards the altitudes where we knew the Great Rosefinches live. The climbing was now easy because of we’d left most of our things into the tents. The wind was still very hard but on some places the recording was possible.

We climbed higher and higher and there were already lots of snow around. Finally we saw 2 big passerines flying above us and luckily they landed to a snow far in front of us. With scope we could identify these birds as female-plumaged Great Rosefinches. Soon the birds flew away and disappeared. With walkie-talkies we informed Kepa and Kari that first rosefinches had been found. And soon Kari reached us and when we decided to rest a bit Kari kept on going and Kepa was coming soon after too.
We climbed up to 3000 metres where the snow stopped us – we couldn’t get any higher. Finally we had a perfect view to the Mt Kazbegi! We had missed this view!
Soon 2 more birds landed pretty close to us and there they were again – 2 female-plumaged Great Rosefinches. Unfortunately Kepa wasn’t with us yet but when I talked with him by walkie-talkie he had also found his 1st one. Anyway we all wanted to see males too, so we started to walk around the plateau. We knew this was the right place to find these birds because of the landscape had changed more rocky.

So we walked around for a long time. With Andy we recorded snowcocks and surprisingly a couple of Great Rosefinches landed just to a next rock from me. And there they were just under us in a steep rocky cliff – altogether close to 10 rosefinches flying around and some even singing. We tried to record the calls and song and Hanna got really good pictures. Unfortunately Kepas walkie-talkie had accidently shut down so Kepa and Kari were already started their way back to the tents. But they had already seen these birds pretty well too. So once we all were back to our tents we were extremely happy, not only because of the last target species had been found but also because of we had had a great time in the Mt Kazbegi! We had been the 2nd group to see all the target species this year. Some of the first groups had missed either a snowcock or a black grouse and last groups had all missed at least a redstart, some also a rosefinch.

So we packed all our things and walked back to the Tsimda Sameba and straight through the forest, where we photographed some Mountain Chiffchaffs and Caucasian Warblers, to the Kazbegi village where Robinson was waiting for us.

We still charged all our batteries and had the last good lounch for the trip and even met with Giorgi who had come with another French group. But soon we packed our car and started our way to south towards the new birding places. Until now we had seen 75 bird species.

After 3 hours driving we were in Tbilisi where we bought drinks and something small to eat for the next 3 days because of the place Chachuna where we were going was far from the cities or any shops.

The sun set down soon so we could only see some trip-ticks like Starlings, Magpies, Lesser Grey Shrikes, a Corn Bunting and a couple of Scops Owls. At midnight we finally arrived at Chachuna after more than hours driving along really bad roads. A Nightjar and a Scops Owl were calling when we got our rooms and went almost straight to sleep.

Chachuna semi-desert area

After a couple of days in mountains we had now become to a totally different place. Chachuna is in the south-eastern part of Georgia close to the border of Azerbaijan. The area is a huge semi-desert but a river goes through it. On a place where we stayed this river was dammed in Soviet Union time and there was a lake. Also the houses were made during Soviet time but they had been rejected and everything had been stolen after that. Now 3 men were keeping 4 houses for hunters. The place was ok, but the electricity was done by agregats so there was elictricity only a short period in the evening.

On the 22nd of May we slept as long as we could. With Hanna we woke up when the sun was shining bright to our room and too many strange birdsongs were heard through the window. Before the breakfast we walked only a couple of hundred of metres just outside the houses and we could find lots of Black-headed Buntings, Corn Buntings, Nightingales, Olivaceous Warblers, Black-eared Wheatears, a Pied Wheatear and big flocks of Starlings and Rosy Starlings. All the birds were singing and further we could hear Stock Doves, Turtle Doves and Hoopoes. Rollers were flying around and I managed to be in the middle of a display-flight too. Surprisingly there was an Oystercatcher walking on the shore of the lake where were no other birds at all. 2 Ruddy Shelducks were flying around the lake but they never landed.

On the breakfast we decided just to do birding nearby because of there were plenty to see around and we were all still tired because of hard climbing days and a long drive. It was enough to try to photograph and record all the birds around the houses and nearby there were good-looking places around the lake too.

During the day we really saw a lot: 2 Lesser Spotted Eagles, a Black Vulture, a couple of Imperial Eagles – even a nest with a nestling, Long-legged Buzzards, a Levant Sparrowhawk, a Hobby, more than 100 Bee-eaters, more than 50 Rollers, Crested Larks, Rufous Bushchats, Lesser Whitethroats, Menestries’s Warblers, about 40 Olivaceous Warblers, Red-backed, Buschat and many Lesser Grey Shrikes, Golden Orioles and some Tree and Spanish Sparrows. In the evening we walked to a riverbank where was a good reed-bed where 3 Black Francolins were seen and heard, Great Reed Warblers and Nightingales were singing, a Penduline Tit, a Kingfisher, a Moorhen and a Coot were seen. When the sun was setting down we heard once a very clear whooming call from the bushy meadow behind the reed bed. Andy shouted right away – “a Small Buttonquail!” But the voice wasn’t heard again. So we decided that we must get back early on the next morning. When we were having a dinner we listened the call of a Small Buttonquail from the CD and it really was exactly the same we had heard. But of course we wanted to get a better observation. The only reason why we weren’t sure about the identification was that we knew we were really far from the places where Small Buttonquails have ever been seen. But this species is wery badly known and extremely difficult to see! But we had to try.

Easy but perfect birding

So as early as 4 a.m. on the morning of 23rd of May we were in the same place where we had heard the call with the recording on. After 15 minutes we heard the call again but this time much further. Again after a couple of minutes we heard it but then we heard only some weaker and not so clear voices which we weren’t sure what they were anymore – distant cows or what? But the recording had been on all the time so someone has to analyze the recordings later. There were some Cuckoos, Little Bitterns and many other birds calling all the time too.

After the breakfast we drove through the semideserts that were full of Black-headed Buntings, Isabelline Wheatears, Short-toed Larks and Calandra Larks and where also 2 Stone Curlews and Short-toed Eagles were seen to a forest. The forest was full of Rollers and Turtle Doves, Nightingales and Golden Orioles were calling also all the time. We saw Griffon Vutures, some Black Vultures, an Egyptian Vulture and a Green Woodpecker. Anyway we were in the forest a little bit too late get a Pheasant away from the category C–list – in Georgia the Pheasants are wild and original.

In the hot midday we were watching birds from our outer hall. We saw several eagles and smaller raptors like Long-legged Buzzards, Black Vultures, Imperial Eagles and Levant Sparrowhawks.

On the backyard both a Rufous Buschat and a Menestries’s Warbler were making their nests and on the closest roofs there were Black-eared and Pied Wheatears singing and having their territories. Spanish Sparrows were easily found in the flock of House Sparrows. And on the wires Black-headed Buntings were singing constantly. Andreas even recorded an Olivaceous Warbler, Menestries’s Warbler and a Rufous Bushchat from his window!

In the afternoon we drove to a gorge where a Finsch’s Wheatear was found easily. Also a funny family of Little Owls was photographed and recorded. Short-toed Larks, Calandra Larks and Isabelline Wheatears were again very common. 2 Ruddy Shelducks were seen flying over us.

After the sunset a Nightjar and Scops Owl started to call again in the garden. We really had enjoyed a relaxed birding we had been done in Chachuna so we decided to stay also our last day in Georgia here. Hanna has again heard the call of a possible Small Buttonquail too so we had still something to do. Unfortunately the reed-beds were now so full of mosquitos that it was impossible to go there anymore (we are Finnish but this was too much for us too). After all the bird was still a mystery but the recording will be analyzed and all the birders going to Chachuna should try to find out if there is a huge rarity hiding!

The last day

On the morning of the 24th of May we went with Andy, Zura and Robinson to another forest where were all the same forest species. The Pheasant wasn’t found but a Honey Buzzard was seen.

We continued to a gorge where we tried to find a Rock Nuthatch but we had no luck. It was really hot so it was really hard climb on the hills. We found a nest of a Long-legged Buzzard and the best observation was a big falcon that was sitting on the top of on edge very far. Luckily it flew closer and we could identify it as a Saker Falcon!

Meanwhile near our place the others saw a White-tailed Eagle, a Montagu’s Harrier and a Moustached Warbler. The last trip-tick we found was a Meadow Pipit that we saw when we were driving back. Altogether we had seen 143 birdspecies.

After some siesta we ate again the food which wasn’t very delicious here and packed all our luggages to car. When we were leaving it started to rain. We had been very lucky with the weather all the time!

We started our way to Tbilisi airport at 8 p.m. and at 11.30 p.m. we were there. We managed somehow to get enough money from the bank to pay everything for Zura and Robinson and then was time to goodbye them. We had still more than 3 hours waiting for our flight to Riga.

We all were sleeping in a plane and in Riga we had only a short waiting before our flight to Helsinki. Finally at 7.25 a.m. we were in Helsinki. We had had a perfect trip! All the target species had been found in Kazbegi and Chachuna had been even much better than we had expected! We had really had a good time! Thanks to everyone!

Georgia and Armenia 14.-27.7. 2006

Georgia and Armenia 14th to 27th of July 2006

Before the trip

We had been planning a trip to Caucasus for a long time, but we had had problems because of we couldn’t find enough information about birding in the area (there aren’t enough tripstories available in internet) but also local travel agencies had been far too expensive. First we thought to go Azerbaijan, but travel agencies there were totally unable to organize anything cheap. When we were in British Bird Fair in autumn 2005 we met Georgian Ramaz Gokhelashvili, who was easy to believe that he really could help us to organize a trip to Georgia. Ramaz gave us a book about birding places in Georgia and we also read all the tripstories we found in internet and we noticed that Georgia and Armenia would be a perfect combination for a birdtrip.

The next thing we had to do was to find a contact from Armenia. Surprisingly someone was telling about a good travel agency in Eurobirdnet, and when I contacted him everything seemed to be perfect! But soon our Catalan friend Oriol Clarabuch managed to get contact with an Armenian birder Vasil Ananian who told he had never heard about the person that was going to be our guide. Luckily I knew (thanks to Sandgrouse magazine) the only places for a couple of species in Armenia and I realized that even thought our guide has told us we could see these species we weren’t going to those places! We had only month to our trip and we had already bought the flying tickets when we fired our guide!

We had now found out that Vasil was the person, who had been a guide in all trips that had tripstories in internet. So he was our only hope. He knew already that he couldn’t be our guide but he told us to contact to Zhanna Galian, who had been organizing the trips he had guided. After all we managed to organize the second best and cheapest choice for us – we got a driver who had been a driver for all Vasils groups! So he knew all the birding places! At least now we had a better possibility to find the birds as we knew we were going to right places!

Everything seemed to be ok! In Georgia the visa is not needed and we found out that the visa to Armenia would be easy to buy (30$) from the border. In Georgia Ramaz had organized a mountaineer guide with a 4-wheel drive, who’d come to pick us up from the airport, would guide us for 5 days in Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus and then drive us to Armenian border. He would also have 2 tents, mattresses and a gascooker for the mountain days.

In Armenia there would be a driver waiting for us and also a translator, because the driver wouldn’t speak English. In Armenia we’d do birdwathing almost around the whole country staying mostly Yerevan, but during 4 days trip also in other places. 2 last days were supposed to spend with Vasil Ananian and ring some birds. But there was a possibility that Vasil wouldn’t be able to join us so we had anyway the driver and the translator booked. We could do something else if Vasil couldn’t come.
The returning flight would be from Tbilisi so on the border there would be someone to pick us up and drive to the airport.

The story begins

On the 13th of July I could end my work early and after the midday we started our way to Kirkkonummi, where we were at my parents at 4 p.m. We ate and after a couple of hours my father drove us to Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Our Air Baltic plane was a little bit late but finally at 8.45 p.m. our small plane left to Riga. An hour later we landed to modern but small airport of Riga. Sun was setting down but we had our flight to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi quite soon. We left 11.35 p.m. – again a bit late.

To Kazbegi

On the 14th of July we landed to Tbilisi at 3.45 a.m. (+ 1 hour to Finnish time) and after we had found our luggage we managed to find our old friends from Catalonia Oriol Clarabuch and Toni Alonso! They had had their flight from Barcelona via Munich and they had arrived only a half an hour earlier. Soon we met also our mountaineer guide Giorgi Rajebashvili and we packed our luggage into a Pajero 4-wheel drive and started our way to Kazbegi!

In the beginning we were just driving towards north and at the early morning all the bird observations were just regular: Wrens were singing, Goldfinches flying around, Blackbirds were crossing the road quickly, Swifts were screaming on the sky and so on. We made the first stop when it was necessary to get to the bushes and not only because of the birds. From the rocky hill forests we heard a Green Woodpecker, somewhere higher on the top of the hill were Chuckars calling, Robins and Green Warblers were singing and Nuthatches calling, also a Rock Bunting was found.

On the second stop we heard a Black Woodpecker and saw Coal Tits, a Common Buzzard and so on. The third stop was made by Giorgi to the yard of a beautiful old Ananuri fortress. A huge flock of Swifts were flying, again we heard a Green Woodpecker, Black Redstart was jumping on the shadow of the fortress and Blackcaps were hiding in the bushes. Behind the Ananuri there was a beautifully light blue man-made lake but the only bird there was a Grey Heron which was standing on the beach.

The road started to get higher and much worse. But we had noticed that even the mainroads in Georgia were in bad condition. Many new birds were seen when we got higher: Red-backed Shrikes were everywhere, Hoopoes, Wheatears, Rooks and so on. Song of Green Warbler was already very familiar. We stopped a couple of times to look at the views – Common Rosefinches (kubanensis) were surprisingly common and still singing all the time, 2 young Menetries’s Warblers in a bush together with some Stonechats were a big surprise on this altitude, a Red-billed Chough and a flock of Alpine Swifts were flying over us.

From the car we saw the first couple of Red-fronted Serins, but they left before we managed to get closer. But we managed to photograph an Alpine Accentor on the next stop. Then the next stop was made to a strange place where minerals had made to bedrock pale. It was like frozen! Maybe that’s why there were a couple of Snow Finches. 3 of us managed to digiscope and Hanna to (digi)photograph them.

We arrived at the village of Kazbegi at 11 a.m. and we were really tired. We had 2 rooms from Yago Kazaligashvilis guesthouse, and after eating we went to sleep. We had been travelling the whole night and morning.

We slept until 3 p.m. and then we were first just watching the views from the balcony, the views were incredible! The Mt. Kazbegi had snow on the top and around it we could find soaring Griffon Vultures, Common Buzzards and a Kestrel. In the garden was a Redstart singing.

In the afternoon we had to go to do some birding so Giorgi drove to a very green bushy area nearby. A Corn Crake and a Quail were calling on the field, Grey Wagtails were on the ditches, a Cuckoo flew over us, Mistle Thrushes were calling from the mountain forest and the bushes held many Green Warblers, Common Rosefinches, a couple of Mountain Chiffchaffs and Marsh Warblers and also an Icterine Warbler.

We still drove as north as it was possible to go to the border of Russia (North Ossetia). Nothing interesting was found, but we visited our first border – plenty of borders were to come later during the trip.

To Mount Kazbegi

On the 15th of July the alarms woke us up at 5 a.m. but when we got out we were shocked – it was raining! Luckily the weather turned better and the rain stopped at 6.30 so we were started to drive up to Tsimda Sameba church that situated 2170 meters high on the slope of Mount Kazbegi.

At 7 a.m. we were near the church and we continued to climb higher towards the top of Mt. Kazbegi. Mountains were still in the clouds and a fog and it was still raining for a while but we had lots of clothes in our backbags so we didn’t care. We all had heavy bagbacks with sleeping bags, warm clothes, food and lots of drinks but Giorgi had the heaviest with 2 tents and a gascooker and so on – but he was an expert. Of course 3 of us had also telescopes and digiscoping equipments and Hanna had her big camera. Even though Giorgi was an expert mountaineer, he had forgotten his good boots to Tbilibi, the reason was that he had only 4 days earlier arrived from 4 months trip to U.S. and he had heard about the guiding only 2 days before we arrived!

In the beginning the climbing was very easy – much easier than we had thought. Slopes were grassy and there was a good track leading towards the top. The track was easier to walk because of the grass was now slippery. There were all the time lots of birds around, much more than we had used to see as high on the mountains: Water Pipit was really common, Mountain Chiffchaffs and Green Warblers were singing on the bushes, Wheatears were jumping on the rocks and Linnets were flying over us. Soon we found the first family of Ring Ouzels (amicorum). Also Twites (brevirostris – Turkish Twite) were found. First they were just flying over us but soon we found many young Twites begging for food from their parents so we got some good pictures too. Red-fronted Serins were again just flying quickly. All the birds gave us more power to climb higher – we wanted to see more.

Climbing became harder when we started to get close to 3000 meters. The air was very thin so we had to stop just to breathe many times. But in the same time birding started to get more and more interesting. Alpine Choughs were calling on the sky, Dunnocks were singing on the last bushes and Water Pipits were still everywhere. Now we were happy it was cloudy and some little rains were more than welcome because of we couldn’t have been able to climb this easily in a very hot weather. Giorgi was hurrying up because he thought that it would be good to get up and put the tent ready before we are all wet.

After almost 4 hours of climbing we reached the first top from where we had only 15 minutes walk to our tenting place which was on a grassy place a little bit lower on 2950 meters. We had planned to rest a little on the top but Toni noticed a beautiful male Great Rosefinch. The bird was very shy so it disappeared quickly but we all managed to see it well. And we forgot to rest.

So the last walk to our tenting place was easy. It started to rain again but we managed to see a couple of Great Rosefinches more. Soon we had the tents up and water, that Giorgi brought somewhere pretty far, boiling. Giorgi had really showed us he was exactly that kind of a guide we needed. He wasn’t that good on identifying birds but he really was at home in mountains! He had also been working with some mountain birds so he did know where to find some species for example Caucasian Black Grouses. And which was the most important thing – he was really good company!

Our tenting place was amazing! In front of us was 5134 meters high top of Mt Kazbegi, but still there were some clouds in front of the highest top. On the other side of canyon, that was between us and the top, was a big glacier which came down to 2900 meters. The grassy area where we were was full of different kind of flowers and lots of birds: a flock of Shore Larks (penicillata) was feeding close to our tent, Alpine Accentors were singing all around us and flying from rock to rock, Twites were flying around and Water Pipits were still everywhere.

After a short lunch break we heard the first Caucasian Snowcocks which were calling behind the closest tops, which were still inside a fog. Soon we heard and saw more Great Rosefinches too. Because of the weather was getting better we decided to walk higher. We left the luggage to the tents and took just scopes, cameras and drinks with us. We hadn’t walked long when we found the first Güldenstädt’s Redstarts! Two families were found from a rocky area and we managed to get really good views and also some hundreds of photograph of these really beautiful birds! It was interesting to notice that young males already had a white patch on the wings. Also local Black Redstarts were found in the same place. In the same time the last clouds moved away and the top of Mt. Kazbegi finally came visible. We were really having a great time! Perfect!

After one hour photographing the Redstarts, the mountain and the glacier we realized how tired we were. So we walked back to our tents at 5.30 p.m. to rest, eat, talk and finally when it started to rain again to sleep.

Hard walking

The 16th of July. The night was very windy and rainy but when we woke up at 5 a.m. it was nice to notice that there were almost no clouds and wind had stopped. But it was cold – only 9 degrees! Another tent was completely silent and because also birds seemed to be still quiet we decided to stay inside the tent and rest a little bit more and have some breakfast. Finally at 6 a.m. we had to get up because of a Great Rosefinch landed to a rock just 7 meters from our tent and started to sing! Unfortunately it left before Hanna had her camera ready.

A couple of hours we were birding near our tents but all the birds were the same as in the evening: Shore Larks, Twites, Great Rosefinches, Güldenstädt’s Redstarts, Alpine Accentors but Caucasian Snowcocks were silent! So when the sun had dried our tents we packed everything and started to walk back down. On the highest place we saw a Great Rosefinch again and also heard a couple of Snowcocks calling behind the closest tops, but we couldn’t find any even though we tried to scope the rocky mountainsides carefully.

We walked some hundreds of meters down where the rhododendron bushes started and there we started to try to find Caucasian Black Grouses. We walked through all the bushes we found and all rocky areas near them but couldn’t find any grouses. Giorgi and I were walking most and we did find something else: a Wallcreeper was a lifer for me and Hanna! This amazing bird was seen several times in flight while it was moving higher and higher between the rocks. Also gorgeous Lammergeier flew pretty close to us, several calling Red-billed Choughs and flocks of Red-fronted Serins were seen too. But anyway we were disappointed not to find any Caucasian Black Grouses, but we had known that this species could be really difficult in this time of year!

But we had to give up because of we had to still walk a long way down to the church. We still walked some extra kilometres because of we checked some more rhododendrons on the way down but we had no luck. Walking was now extremely hard because of the heat! Sun was burning and at least we had some problems with Toni, Hanna and Oriol hadn’t got any problems. I think I had been running too much in rhododendrons.

Finally we managed to get down to the church which was absolutely full of people! All the locals and for sure many from other places too had climbed to the church to celebrate the day of love! All the time there were more and more people coming by feet, by horses or by car. There were even some normal cars which I didn’t understood how it was possible! Our Pajero was already waiting for us and despite of all the people coming up we managed to get down to the village in 30 minutes. We got again some local food and then went to rest.

After a couple of hours sleeping we went first to the pineforest nearby to try to find a Kruper’s Nuthatch but we saw only some Tree Pipits ans a Rock Thrush. Then we continued to the same bushy area we had visited before. We put a mistnet up and a cd-player to attract Mountain Chiffchaffs. Oriol had promised to take measurements and handpictures of this species for a paper on identification of the Chiffchaff complex. First bird in the net was a Blue Tit but soon we had a Green Warbler, a Mountain Chiffchaff and a Marsh Warbler in the same time! Later we got another Mountain Chiffchaff.

At 8.45 p.m. we were back in our guesthouse and we ate again, had a shower, packed all our luggage and went to sleep!

Through the Georgia

On the 17th of July we woke up once again at 5 a.m. but the breakfast took some time so we left an hour later. We drove through the pineforest to the valley where Giorgi had heard many snowcocks and seen many grouses at spring, but we had no luck even though we really tried to scope all the possible places. Great Rosefinches were singing so we found a place where this species is possible to find without walking at all. Meadow Pipits and Red-fronted Serins were easy to photograph when they were sitting on a fences, but – no Caucasian Black Grouse from Kazbegi.

Soon we started our long drive through the country to Lesser Caucasus mountains. First 30 kilometres we drove again in the mountains and saw all the same birds as when we arrived: Snow Finches, Red-fronted Serins and so on, but nothing new. Now the weather was very hot and Pajeros backseat was really bad to sit!

We continued driving fast and the only tripticks were Skylark, Crested Lark, Crag Martin, Tree Sparrow, Honey Buzzard and Booted Eagle. When we turned to the mainroad between Tbilisi and Kutaisi there were quite a lot of traffic. Landscape here was more flat and there were lots of fields. The weather was hot and sunny so it wasn’t a surprise that we started to see some raptors. We found some Lesser Spotted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards and an Eastern Imperial Eagle – Toni got 3 lifers in a couple of minutes! Also 2 Turtle Doves and some Bee-eaters were making our tripticklist longer.

When we got out of the mainroad, and had seen the first Armenian Gull of the trip, we started to feel hungry. Tony was probably still satisfied because of his 4th lifer of the day, but anyway we had lunch in an idyllic restaurant along the road. After the lunch we continued driving and soon the landscape changed to mountainous pine and spruceforests. Soon we arrived at Borjomi nationalpark where we stopped again. Giorgi had asked his friends where we could find a Kruper’s Nuthatch and soon we parked to a parking place of one public park that was absolutely full of people! We almost gave up but then we heard a singing Kruper’s Nuthatch even though we were still sitting in a car! We jumped out as fast as possible but we only heard this bird a couple of times more before it disappeared. We tried for some time to play cd and attract the bird to came back but soon there were too many people looking at what we were doing so we had to give up. But it’s good we heard it! We don’t have to see a species to get a lifer, for us Finns hearing the bird is as good.

We tried to find Kruper’s Nuthatches in some other places in the national park and visited really good looking forests but we found only some Goldcrests and a Goshawk.
At 5 p.m. we were finally in the city of Akhaltsikhe (“New Castle”) where we had two rooms in a really nice guesthouse. We were relaxing in our room when we heard a call of a woodpecker outside and soon we saw a Syrian Woodpecker flying in front of our balcony. 2 hours later we went to have a really good dinner in a local restaurant (5 different kind of meat, fried potatoes, vegetables and bread was about 20€ for all five of us.) About 9.30 p.m. we were ready to go to sleep.

It rains in Zekari

The 18th of July. We woke up at 4 a.m. and a half an hour later we were on our way to Zekari – Lesser Caucasus. It was raining and even flaming but we managed to see 2 Nightjars and a Scops Owl from the car. Giorgi was driving quite fast even though the roads were again really bad! The first 30 kilometres were still ok but when the road started to climb up to the mountains the road was extremely bad! And in a map it was told to be a mainroad! In Finland that would be marked as a ditch!

At 6.30 a.m. we thought that we had reached the place where we could try to find Caspian Snowcocks, but after 1 kilometer walking Giorgi realized we were in a wrong place. We haven’t driven high enough yet. Anyway the forests underneath us were productive: we heard a Black Woodpecker and a Great Spotted Woodpecker calling, Common Crossbills and Bullfinches were flying around and the views were beautiful.

When we were walking back to the car it started to rain and soon a thick fog surrounded us. Anyway we tried to keep on going higher but very soon Giorgi realized we were on a wrong road! When we finally found the right road (so called main road) it was raining so hard that we had to give up and drive lower because of we were afraid of the road could wash out behind us.

After an hour of waiting the rain stopped, so we drove back to the place we had been and continued by feet. Now we could finally see the highest top which was the place for the snowcocks. It was hardly visible behind the clouds. But while we were walking the fog covered again everything and we had no idea how far the cliffs were or where we were. When we had walked about 3 kilometres, Giorgi thought that we had reached the place where we could try to find Caspian Snowcocks.

We found some birds even though the fog was so thick that we could see only some meters: Whinchats, a Garden Warbler, Red-fronted Serins and Alpine Choughs but Caspian Snowcocks were quiet and it was impossible to go to try to find Caucasian Black Grouses because of we couldn’t see anything – not even rhododendrons.

So we were just waiting for the weather getting better or snowcocks to call. We were all in pretty bad mood because of we had been driving whole last day only to reach this place and this was the only day here. After a long waiting I got frustrated and decided to go to walk to the slippery bushes to find at least something. Hanna came with me and Giorgi decided to have a look around to make sure we were in a right place. It was still so foggy that we couldn’t see the mountain which was supposed to be very close to us! We had walked maybe 50 meters, just behind one cliff when we heard a Caspian Snowcock calling somewhere quite far! We shout the Catalans to come quickly, but the bird stopped calling! Next 2 hours we were waiting for the snowcock to call again but it never did even though the weather was a little bit better.

But then the rain started again and very hard. Also the fog became so thick that it was impossible to see anything. So we had to start walking back to the car because of the road was getting very wet and muddy. So after all we couldn’t even try to find the Caucasian Black Grouse from the rhododendrons.

Lower in the forest the rain stopped again so we stopped several times to try to find some forestbirds, but nothing interesting was found – some Rock Buntings. Down in the valley we found some Dippers from the river and before Akhaltsikhe we had a short stop in the middle of a big field where we saw 2 Stock Doves and a huge flock of Jackdaws. Finally we were in our guesthouse at 6 p.m. We had had really unlucky day!

To Armenia

On the 19th of July we were sleeping until 6 a.m. and a half an hour later we were ready to continue our journey. Our first stop was made to the river in the centre of Akhaltsikhe where Oriol and Toni had been walking last evening. They had seen some tripticks and also now we heard a Kingfisher, a Common Sandpiper and saw a Hobby and several Olivaceous Warblers. But we had a long drive to Armenia border and we had to drive to the easternmost border crossing place because of the roads to the closer place weren’t drivable.

We stopped again in Borjomi but we couldn’t find a Kruper’s Nuthatch. Now there were almost no people in the park so we used the cd-player in many places but we could find only some Nuthatches, Coal Tits, a Marsh Tit, Treecreepers and so on.

From the mainroad we saw again some Lesser Spotte Eagles but we had no time to stop. We had to be on the border in the afternoon at 3 o’clock. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was crossing the road somewhere but we didn’t stop before Giorgi turned to the lake Dzendar. We had been driving so fast that we had time to check this lake.

Giorgi drove along a small track and also on a field and soon we noticed that the bushes around us were full of birds. We stopped and saw many Lesser Grey Shrikes and Black-headed Buntings on the top of the bushes and Golden Oriole families were calling in the trees. We got some really good pictures. But soon we had to continue to the lake to see if there could be more birds and there were: Armenian Gulls, some Ruddy Shelducks, Green Sandpipers, Crested Larks and some Isabelline Wheatears were found right away, Black-winged Stilts were flying around us, Little Stints, Wood Sandpipers and a couple of Greenshanks were found from the shore and 3 Pochards were swimming on the lake. Over the marshes there was a Marsh Harrier soaring and Kingfishers were flying over the lake. A Great Reed Warbler came to the nearest bush and a big flock of Wood Pigeons and smaller flock of Starlings were also seen. Very nice, but soon we had to continue to the border!

We reached the border crossing place about 3 p.m. and everything was easy (we got the visa easily once we had paid 30$) so we were soon in Armenia. It was easy to notice that we were going south, it was really getting hot! When we had walked to Armenia we realized our driver and translator weren’t there even though they had called to Giorgi that they should have already been there some time ago. Finally at 3.40 a green local type of minibus arrived and we met our driver Artur Asryan, who didn’t speak English (but hopefully knew the birding places) and translator 21-years old Artak Galayan.

We left directly to drive towards Yerevan and our driver told (Artak translated) that there were no birding places on the way. Anyway we started to keep Armenia list and some of the first species were Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Lesser Grey Shrike, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Common Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Jay, Stonechat, Collared Dove, Turtle Dove and even Blue-cheeked Bee-eater!

After an hour driving we stopped to a viewplace to eat something that Artur and Artak had with them. We Finns weren’t able eat cold meat so we didn’t touch them but the “lavash” bread and cheese were good.

We stopped again when we were on the highest place on the mountains and saw some Red-fronted Serins, Dippers (caucasicus), Grey Wagtails and Common Rosefinches, but soon we had to keep on going – we had still a long way and our car wasn’t very good with uphills.

Finally we arrived at Yerevan and after some shopping we parked in front of a high building. We went by an elevator to 7th floor where we had two rooms in Artur’s brother’s apartment. Food was already on the table and it was really good! But after eating we had hoped to go to sleep but Artur decided to do all the business first. Even though everything should have been organized with Zhanna by email we had to do everything again! It took several hours so my watch was already 00.30. a.m. but when I checked the time from the wall I understood it was even 1 hour more! In Armenia they had a summer time which they didn’t have in Georgia! (Nothing was told in any tripreports or Lonely Planet book!) But now we realized that our guides had been almost 2 hours late on the border, so we were little worried… Well, finally we had done the business and we told to Artur and Artak that we’d like to leave very early on the next morning because of we knew the next day would be one of the most interesting days of our trip! We wanted to leave at 6 a.m.

Armash fishponds are full of birds

On 20th of July we woke up at 5.30 a.m. and managed to leave at 6 a.m. Even though Artur had told, with help of Artak, that it wasn’t possible to get in to privat Armash fishpond area before 8 o’clock, we had decided to get as close to the place as possible. On the way we got also explain why our guides had been late on the border – they had had some problems to get us a permit to get in to the Armash fishponds. And that was sure the best reason to forgive them – it was so important to get in this place! We knew this could be the most interesting birding place of the whole trip.

Before the fishponds the views were changing radically: dry halfdesert ended and first there were lots of fields but later just big reedbeds and some water pools. Turkish border was only a couple of hundreds of meters from the road and further there was Mt. Ararat which is the highest mountain of the Turkey (5165 meters). We stopped to one bridge from where were good views over the reedbeds and fields. There were amazing numbers of birds: Pygmy Cormorants were flying to all directions, White Storks were standing on the fields, Glossy Ibises were flying around, Purple Heron flew over the reeds and Savi’s Warbler was singing in the middle of insects that had very similar, but not that strong, voice. In the bushes in front of us there were a family of Ménétries’s Warblers and a Rufous Bushchat was fighting with them. Moustached Warbler was singing on the reeds and the wires were full of Bee-eater. Many flocks of Starlings were flying and in some flocks there were Rosy Starlings. It was difficult to decide where to watch because of there were birds everywhere! And we weren’t yet on Armash fishponds!

After buying something to drink and seeing a Syrian Woodpecker we reached the fishponds at 8 o’clock when it was possible to get in. Fishponds were a big complex of pools so we were a little bit worried because of we had no idea what to do – how to handle the place? And then Artur just stopped and told us that now we were on the place where all the groups of Vasil started to walk. Artur had just been a driver for the groups and he did know the birding places, but now we realized that was all he could do. He had no idea about how to find the birds and what birds to find.

So we just started to walk to that direction where we saw the first pools and then we planned to continue as far as it was necessary. The first pools were full of Coots, Little Grebes, Ferruginous Ducks, Red-crested Pochards, Great Crested Grebes, Gadwalls, Moorhens and so on. Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns were calling and flying around and also all wires were full of terns. Little Bitterns were flying over the reeds and landing back inside the reedbed soon, Marsh Harriers were soaring and Purple Herons, Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets, Great White Egrets and Night Herons were seen too. Soon we saw a warbler landing to the reeds in front of us and luckily it was a Paddyfield Warbler! The first project species was found! While we were watching the wp-tick warbler another warbler was found from the same place and it was identified as a Moustached Warbler.

And the next pool was as good: We found the first female White-headed Ducks and Marbled Teals, reeds were full of Bearded Tits, Great Reed Warblers and Reed Warblers. Lesser Grey Shrikes, Ménétries’s Warblers and Rufous Bushchats were also really nice to watch. Soon the pools started to be dryer and there were not many birds so we decided to walk back to the car because of we had no idea how many places we had still to go in the area. But now we tried to solve out what was the plan for the place so Artak was busy to ask more information from Artur. Soon we drove only a couple of hundreds of meters and Artur told that now we were on the another place where the groups have used to walk.

Fishpools had still the same species, some Marbled Teals more but on the right side of us was a dry semideserted area with some dryer pools and the birds were totally different. Short-toed Larks and Lesser Short-toed Larks were running between the low plants, Collared Pratincoles, Avocets and Black-winged Stilts were flying around us. Kentish Plovers and Lesser Ringed Plovers were running on the waterline with Common Sandpipers, Redshanks, Wood Sandpipers, Little Stints and some Ruffs. Some Black-headed Gulls passed us but also here the only common gull was an Armenian Gull. Some Little Terns were also seen, an Osprey was carrying a fish and on the left side of us on the pools there was an albino Little Grebe swimming and diving. Also a strange duck was digiscoped but we haven’t identified it yet – it could have been a hybrid between a Marbled Teal and a Mallard or something like that.)

The weather was getting very hot and the temperature had rose up to 37 degrees, but we kept on going. With scopes we could see that about 2 kilometres from us there was a sandy dyne that was full of nests of both bee-eaters. So we decided to walk until the dyne to get some pictures of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. After some walking we finally found what we had been looking for – a White-tailed Lapwing youngster was standing just some 30 meters from us on the dry mud. We managed to get a couple of pictures before it flew around us and landed further. We had been expecting the species to be found but we had thought that it could have been easier – there should be 15 pairs breeding in the area! Probably the breeding season was over so the birds were somewhere else. We saw only this and soon another young bird. Later we saw still some Rollers, a Stone Curlew, a Short-toed Eagle, a couple of Penduline Tits, a Woodchat Shrike and some Reed Buntings (caspia).

After all we had to turn back before the dyne because of there were several too wide ditches between us and the Bee-eater nests. So we had to walk back to the car. Even though the sun was burning very hot we were happy – we had seen all the important species that we had known to be possible to find!

And more lifers

It was only a mid-day so we had still another very important place to go, Vedi. Vedi was even more important place for wp-ticks and lifers than Armash. After less than an hour driving we turned to a small sandroad, which led us to a dry valley. Already from the car we saw the first couple of Finsch’s Wheatears and some Isabelline Wheatears, but we wanted to go directly to the main place. The main place had steep cliffs on both sides and a small stream was going down on the road. The spring was in front of us inside the bedrock. This was a drinking place for several wp-rarities – the most important species was a Mongolian Trumpeter Finch. This was the only place to see this species in Armenia.

Lots of Crested Larks were flying around and calling weirdly. Many Crested Larks were also running on the road and drinking. Several flocks of Rock Sparrows were found, and soon we got a lifer when the first Grey-necked Bunting was found. The bunting came to the cliff but soon it flew down to the road to drink. Soon we found also a couple of Eastern Rock Nuthatches that were flying around and calling very actively. The excitement rose to the next level when some Trumpeter Finches landed to the rocks where they were really difficult to locate. We were checking them really carefully but they were all just normal Trumpeter Finches – males, females and young birds. But we got a lifer again a little bit lower along the valley when we found a Pale Rock Sparrow from the flock of Rock Sparrows that were in a shadow. But somehow Toni was late when the bird left with some Rock Sparrows and a couple of Black-headed Buntings. From the bushes nearby we found several Upcher’s Warblers which were also lifers for Toni and Oriol.

When we were again watching the cliffs near the spring, Oriol found a passerine perching on the cliff. We got it to our scopes but first we had no idea what we were watching: the bird was clearly a trumpeter finch but smaller-billed and paler-billed and a little bit streakier from the breast. I started to digiscope it but then it landed down to the spring so we couldn’t see it. We shouted to Hanna and Toni to come and look at the bird and started to walk closer to see it again. Soon the bird was flying and we could see big white patches on the tail and 2 clear wingbars – there it was – a young Mongolian Trumpeter Finch! While we were celebrating we realized Toni wasn’t there, we hadn’t realized he had gone earlier to get something from the car and he hadn’t heard our calls! Shit!

So we were waiting for the Mongolian Trumpeter Finch to come back but even though we tried for several hours it never came again. The weather was really hot and all the other birds were coming to drink: Eastern Rock Nuthatches, Blue Rock Thrushes, a couple of Tawny Pipits, Rock Sparrows, a couple of Finsch’s Wheatears and of course many Trumpeter Finches. Also some Chuckars were calling on the top of the cliffs and a Long-legged Buzzard was soaring on the sky. Finally at 6 p.m. we gave up – we were already really tired. But we were sure we would come again. When we were leaving and driving in the end of the valley we saw a pale bird on a rock – a Pale Rock Finch! We all were smiling again, when Toni got this lifer he had missed earlier. Also a Golden Eagle was flying over the valley so an amazing day had got a good end.

After an hour driving we finally arrived at our apartment and after a shower and lunch it was good to go to sleep at 9.45 p.m. The day had really been great, I had got 7 wp-ticks.

Lake Sevan and many mountains on the way to south

On the 21st of July we woke up at 6.30 a.m. and after the breakfast we packed almost all our luggage to the car because of we were leaving for a 4 days trip to southern parts of Armenia. But first we started to drive north to Lake Sevan. Our trip almost ended before it had really started because of there was something wrong with our car. Luckily Artur managed to fix the problem and we could keep on going.

After a couple of hours driving we stopped to Sevan city to get some more money. Surprisingly the bank couldn’t give us any, neither with the Visa nor by changing dollars or euros! What a bank! Luckily we managed to change some money with the help of some locals on the street. A bigger surprise was that one of the men was Artur’s wife’s brother.

The first birding stop was made on the coast of Lake Sevan that is a big lake 1900 meters high. This is the lake that has most of the Armenian Gulls of the World. So on the first stop we saw many Armenian Gulls but also a couple of Caspian Gull type of gulls. A Ruddy Shelduck was flying far on the lake, a Little Ringed Plover was running on the shoreline, Coots and Great Crested Grebes were swimming, a couple of Mountain Chiffchaffs, at least one Chiffchaff (was calling – hiiit, whatever race?) and some Penduline Tits were found on the forests and Black-headed Yellow Wagtails from the bushes. Again we weren’t sure which birds could be found on this place but the smell of dead fish that came from the shore (which was full of dead fish), hard wind and that there weren’t really interesting birds made us to leave pretty soon. The next place was the place where was the biggest colony of Armenian Gulls of the World. So we were photographing gulls as long as was needed. Some Ruddy Shelducks were feeding on the shore but nothing else was found.

We continued to Lake Lick, which we had never heard. It hadn’t been mentioned in any tripreport, so we had no idea what to find. Anyway the place looked good – there was a small lake surrounded by fields and some small forests and many good looking bushes. So we decided to walk around and try to find something.
From the lake we found some Pochards and Tufted Ducks, a flock of 8 Garganeys were flying around the lake but they never landed, 5 Grey Herons were flushed from the shore, a Penduline Tit was found from the reedbed; but nothing really interesting was found. We also walked through the bushes but only Common Rosefinches, a Marsh Warbler, Golden Orioles, Common Whitethroats and many Red-backed Shrikes were found. The forest was even quieter: a Treecreeper and some Mountain Chiffchaffs only. While Hanna was photographing Sand Martins on their big colony a Goshawk flew over us. Soon we were ready to continue our long way.

Soon the road climbed up to the mountains again. Highlands were full of Skylarks, Wheatears and so on, but even though we tried quite a lot we couldn’t find anything better. I started to have bad stomach-problems so the others got some extra stops in good lark-biotopes. So Oriol and Toni managed to see a Crimson-winged Finch flying, also some Shore Larks were found. When we continued all the buzzards were now Long-legged Buzzards. On Selim Pass we stopped again, like all the groups had done before us, but there weren’t that many birds – some Whinchats, a Black Redstart, a Blue Rock Thrush, an Ortolan Bunting and a Peregrine Falcon. But those groups that had been there on spring had seen more.

Lower we managed to find a couple of Finsch’s Wheatears and Syrian Woodpeckers, but finally at 8 p.m. we arrived at Yeghenaghor where we had rooms from a nice guesthouse Gayane. We had a great lunch and 10.30 p.m. we were ready to go to sleep.

And more south

The22nd of July. The breakfast was at 7 a.m. and soon we were in the car and driving south again. The first stop was made when Artur told that we were in a place for some bird. The place looked like a rock nuthatch and that’s what it was: right away we heard calls of both rock nuthatches and when we had first found 5 to 6 Eastern Rock Nuthatches we finally found 2 Western Rock Nuthatches too. All the nuthatches were flying high on the cliff and from rock to rock very fast. We also found a couple of rock nuthatches nests that were only a couple of meters from each others. The size of the holes told that the neighbours were probably different species but we saw one Eastern Rock Nuthatch and one Western Rock Nuthatch having a good look into another of the nests. Probably the nests were already empty but these birds were just checking them. On the same place Oriol and I saw a male White-throated Robin briefly but the bird and the bush where it disappeared were very high and far on another side of 2 big rivers, so we couldn’t get closer.

The next stop was made to a man-made lake in Goraik. Many Long-legged Buzzards and Lesser Kestrels were seen and we found also a building where the Lesser Kestrels were breeding. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to go to photograph these birds because of the building was surrounded by fences. A Cormorant was perching on a rock on the shore of the lake and some Armenian Gulls were flying but nothing else was found. Artur told that in spring the lake was always full of ducks.

The next stops were made because of raptors that were soaring above the road: Long-legged Buzzards were common but some Lesser Spotted Eagles, a couple of Short-toed Eagles and higher on the mountains also 6 Egyptian Vultures were seen. Between Sisian and Goris we made a stop to a historical place where was a local “Stonehenge” that had been build during the stoneage – many rocks that had a hole on the top of them and some star or planet could be seen through each holes on exact time of the year. In this place we saw also 2 Lammergeiers and 2 Griffon Vultures but also 2 Western Rock Nuthatches.

When we were having a break and eating some bread, cheese and fruits we heard some Blackcaps singing and saw some more vultures soaring above the rubbish tip of Goris. Later we had a short stop to a small forest where Green Warblers were singing. A Spotted Flycather and some Long-tailed Tits were also found as a tripticks.
After driving a long time following the borderline of Azerbaijan we finally arrived at Kapan. At 6 p.m. we parked to our hotel which was some kilometres south from the city. The hotel Gandzasar was on the side of a forested hill, and it normally was a private resort of a mining company. We were warmly welcomed and got the keys to our rooms but the locks were really complicated! The numbers in our keys and the room numbers weren’t the same. And sometimes the locks were easy to open and sometimes not. The rooms were ok, but the toilets weren’t working – there was just water going through.

After a couple of hours rest we went to have a lunch to a restaurant nearby. It was already dark when we came back to our hotel. Quite near the hotel in the forest there was a Tawny Owl calling.

To Megri and the border of Iran

The 23rd of July. Again we had an important day. The reason why we had been driving south had been to get to Megri which is on the border of Iran. So we woke up 5 a.m. because of we had still a couple of hours drive to Megri. I was feeling really sick! It was very hard to sit in a car when we drove again up and down over a couple of mountains. When we finally were driving down from the last mountain and the landscape was getting green I had to get out of the car and do a little walk to the bushes on the riverside. When I started to feel a little bit better I realized there was a Semi-collared Flycatcher on the next bush! All the others were sitting in a car so I had to whistle very hard that they understood I had really something interesting. Oriol and Hanna were almost running so they managed to see the flycatcher but Toni missed it – the bird flew inside the bush and somehow it disappeared and wasn’t found again.

At 7 a.m. we arrived at Megri. We met a local man who came with us because of without him we couldn’t have been able to go to the border area where our target birds were. I think he came also to watch that we wouldn’t do anything stupid on the border area and that somebody wouldn’t do something for us. Soon we parked after him to a dry valley and Artak translated that this was the place to find a “small chicken”.

When we had got instructions which way to go and where it wasn’t aloud to go, we started to walk up to the valley. Soon we heard some Western Rock Nuthatches and Chuckars and saw the first Blue Rock Nuthatches. And soon we found the first Persian Wheatears! While we were trying to photograph the wheatears we heard a Spotted Crake-like call somewhere up from the top of the mountains – a See-see Partridge!

Even though the morning was still early we realized that we could never walk to the See-see Partridge that had been calling – the mountain was too steep and the bird was too high, we should try to find another one. At least I was in too bad condition to climb very high.

We were walking in the valley for a couple of hours more and we found several Persian Wheatears, some Eastern Orphean Warblers and Black-eared Wheatears, a Short-toed Eagle was eating a snake, but again we just heard a See-see Partridge a couple of times – again very high from the top of the mountains.

About at 11 a.m. we changed to the next place which was a tree that Artur told was a nesting tree of some bird. We guessed the bird must be a Levant Sparrowhawk but we couldn’t find any birds. The breeding season was already gone but luckily we managed to find the family of Levant Sparrowhawks about a kilometer from the right place. I saw also briefly a strange bird flying across the road, it was probably a Black Francolin, but I didn’t see it well enough.

Then we continued to the next dry valley, but now also Toni had became sick. So we just had a short walk in the valley and saw a Chuckar with its chicks, some Black-eared Wheatears and a couple of Lesser Whitethroats. We were really burning and drying it was so hot and we were really sick with Toni, so we decided to start to drive back to Kapan.

We made several stops in the beginning because of we tried to find a Sombre Tit, but we had no luck. But Toni found a Semi-collared Flycatcher which was really good because of he had missed the first one. We were joking that the best biotope for the Semi-collared Flycatcher seemed to be that bush where you were going because of the stomach flu.

The weather was getting extremely hot so Artur advised us to leave before it would be too hard to climb up the uphills for his car. And he was once again right, Artak had to pour cold water to the cooler that was boiling several times. Luckily we managed to get back to our hotel but now also Oriol had became sick. We were all so tired that we just went to sleep while Artur and Artak left to have lunch to the restaurant.

After 3 hours sleeping we drove to Kapan to try to find a place where we could eat something light. But all the restaurants had some kind of parties or then they were offering just barbeque. So we drove back to our hotel to sleep – I think I couldn’t have eaten anything anyway.

Long way back to Yerevan

On the 24th of July we slept long. Well I woke up an hour earlier at 6.30 a.m. and had a short walk on the forests around the hotel. Green Warblers were everywhere but otherwise it was very quiet: some Nuthatches, Chaffinches and Tree Pipits. Hanna saw a Semi-collared Flycatcher from the balcony.

An hour later we started our very long way back to Yerevan. Oriol and Toni were already feeling better but I was still sick and we were all extremely hungry! We saw again quite a few raptors on the way but we stopped only if they were close enough to photograph.

Finally at 1.45 p.m. we stopped to eat to a quite horrible restaurant which had nothing else to offer than barbeque – but we were too hungry so we had to order. Of course chicken, sheep and pork barbeques with fried potatoes were really good but too heavy for us.

After the lunch we all were in a better mood and we continued following the Nakhichevan (an exclave autonomous republic that belongs to Azerbaijan) border to Vedi. We spent 3 extremely hot hours in Vedi suffering the heat and dehydration. Of course we saw many interesting birds like Eastern Rock Nuthatches, Grey-necked Buntings, Finsch’s Wheatears, Black-eared Wheatears and about 20 Trumpeter Finches but no Mongolian Trumpeter Finch. The only triptick for the day was a Little Owl that we saw when we had just started to drive to Yerevan.

When we were finally at our apartment, nobody was hungry but we ate something to be polite. Soon we were all ready to go to sleep. We had had a long and hard day!

To Mount Aragats

On the 25th of July we woke up late and because of the breakfast was also late we managed to leave only at 8 a.m. We started to climb by car up to Mt. Aragats only an hour later so we really afraid to be late! Artak had told us it would be cold up on the mountains, but it was easy to notice that the day would be really hot – so we really were late.

Artur drove higher and higher and we had no idea where we were going and what was the right biotope for birding because of it looked like a good biotope everywhere. Finally Artur stopped and Artak translated that we were on the main birding place.

The area had lots of low junipers and those had lots of birds: right away we found several families of White-throated Robins, many Ortolan Buntings, Wood Larks, some Bluethroats and Tree Pipits. White-throated Robins were really beautiful but almost all were females or young birds. Only a couple of mails were seen briefly. Soon we started to walk between and through the junipers because of our target bird was a Radde’s Accentor and usually Dunnock-kind of birds are not easy to find if they aren’t singing and now it was probably too late. The first Radde’s Accentor was found by Hanna who was walking along her own patches like usual – so we couldn’t find it anymore when we reached the place. The second was found by Toni but again the bird disappeared. Finally I heard a short birdsong from the juniper that I didn’t identify. I told the others to come and soon a Radde’s Accentor came visible to the top of the juniper and we could see it well!

A couple of hours more we walked in the junipers but nothing new were found. We were a little bit disappointed because of we had came so late, birds might have been singing in early morning. And when the bird is singing its not only easier to locate but also to photograph. Anyway we decided to put up the mistnet and try to catch a White-throated Robin to get measurements of this species. Oriol and Toni put the cd-player to attract the species. After 30 minutes there were just several White-throated Robins close to the net but not in it. Then we decided to try to push the birds to the net. Hanna was on the one side of the net and I was on the another side and tried to push birds to the net and after 5 minutes we had 5 White-throated Robins in our hands – one adult female and 4 young birds!

We found also a couple of Radde’s Accentors from the bushes near the mistnet so we tried to catch those too. We had only Dunnock on our cd so we played it. Surprisingly soon there were a couple of Radde’s Accentors close to our mistnet, but we didn’t catch them. 2 Crimson-winged Finches were seen again flying very fast and later one more from the car when we were driving a little bit higher.

We drove as high as it was possible to drive by Arturs car – we had thought to get even higher to see some mountain species as Armenia-ticks, but this place where we went wasn’t high enough. Only a big female Peregrine Falcon was seen. It was good we had been in Georgia where we had already seen these species – otherwise we would have missed them. Normally the groups had a 4-wheel drive arranged for the mountain days.

While we were driving down we saw the same species as when we had come: Ring Ouzels, Rock Thrushes and a Booted Eagle but even though we stopped several times in good biotopes we couldn’t find the bird that Toni and Oriol desperately wanted to see – a Barred Warbler.

We were almost down when Artur’s phone rang – it was Vasil Ananian, that real birdguide we had tried to contact for entire visit to ask some advices of which places were for which birds… But we had tried to contact him also because of we had planned to do some ringing with him on the next 2 days. Now Vasil told that he couldn’t make it because of he had to keep on fieldworking in Kapan mountains. (We knew beforehand that it might be possible that he couldn’t join us.) Even though the line was really bad Oriol managed to ask Vasil about the places where to try to find a Barred Warbler and also a place for a Bimaculated Lark which was also still missing. And luckily both birds were possible to find in Aragats.

So we turned back to the mountains and drove just some kilometres further than the place where we had been the whole morning. There was a valley with many wild rosebushes. This was the place to try to find Barred Warblers. Vasil had even told they should be easy! Well I was quite sure a Barred Warbler can’t be easy if it isn’t singing, so it wasn’t a surprice that it took some time to locate one. But when we found a Barred Warbler we found several. They were again, like always, with Red-backed Shrikes! Also a male White-throated Robin was seen.

Next we drove again down and then turned to a different road that was leading to Yerevan. There were several places to try to find a Bimaculated Lark, but Vasil had told that the species is really early migrant so it might be migrating already. So we walked for 2 hours around different kind of meadows and fields but saw only Skylarks, Wood Larks, Corn Buntings and Tawny Pipits.

Finally we gave up and continued to drive to Yerevan. Surprisingly we saw on the way the first flocks of Rosy Starlings all flying to same direction. We had been wondering where these birds were because we had thought them to be common. In Yerevan we still saw a couple of Laughing Doves from the car. And at the apartment we had again a great lunch before went to sleep.

Once again – Vedi

The26th of July. Even though the plans had changed because of Vasil wasn’t able to join us, it wasn’t difficult to find something to do. We still needed to get the Mongolian Trumpeter Finch for Toni. We woke up early and were driving towards Vedi already at 6 a.m. It was the first time we were going to Vedi at good birding time. We saw the same Little Owl again but in Vedi there weren’t as many birds as we had expected. Actually there were much less birds than on our previous visits. More than 3 hours we tried to see the Mongolian Trumpeter Finch – we were really just standing still and waiting for it to come to its favourite place where we had seen in with Oriol and Hanna and where also Vasil had said it uses to come to drink. But we saw only all the other species we had seen before and the number of individuals were smaller. But we were lucky to see a flock of 16 Bimaculated Larks that flew a couple of times around the valley, landed shortly and then disappeared. These birds were really migrating!

A Little bit too late we put up the mistnet to catch an Upcher’s Warbler. Anyway we managed to catch 2 Upcher’s Warblers and an Eastern Orphean Warbler. Earlier we might have caught also Grey-necked Buntings and Eastern Rock Nuthatches? I must say I don’t really like disturbing birds and catch them without ringing, but this time Oriol and Toni had really reasons to catch all these species we caught.

So the Vedi was this time a disappointment because the Mongolian Trumpeter Finch wasn’t found. When the temperature was 33 degrees we gave up and decided to drive back to Yerevan. We visited a tourist information centre and bought the books Birds of Armenia (which is really good) and soon we were resting in our rooms.
We slept until the evening and then we had a really good parties – it was our last day but also a 18th birthday of Arturs oldest son. So we ate a lot and drank Armenian cognac, wine and vodka. Artak drank like a bigger man and there was a time we had to survive without a translator – but we didn’t care. Toni was speaking Catalan and Artur Armenian but they both understood each others well enough! Soon Artak was back and we celebrated late until the midnight. Then we birders were too tired and we really had to go to sleep.

Back to home

On the 27th of July about at 7 a.m. we started our way towards Georgian border. We had planned to stop near the Lake Sevan to some forests to find a Chiffchaff. Some people had asked Oriol to catch not only a Mountain Chiffchaff but also a Chiffchaff and take measurements of it because it wasn’t known were the local Chiffchaffs an own race or not. And Vasil had told some places where we could possibly find Chiffchaffs. So we stopped many times but couldn’t find any – they had stopped singing and were really difficult to find. So we gave up pretty easily and because of that we were on the border far too early at 3.50 p.m. On the way the only observations had been a Sparrowhawk and a Hawfinch – both tripticks.

We crossed the border easily but it was really hot again! There was no place to go to shadow. So I who had been really sick for many days, started to feel really bad. Luckily Giorgi arrived early and we started our way to Tbilisi with all windows open.

We had lunch on a really good local restaurant in Tbilisi (I was just drinking several litres) and then we went to Giorgis friends apartment. This friend wasn’t there but his girlfriend was and she didn’t speak English at all. Well only Oriol and Toni were staying there one night, we were leaving back to Finland already at night.
At 10 p.m. we said goodbyes to Oriol and Toni and continued to Giorgis temporary place (he was just looking for a new apartment because of he had just arrived from U.S.) and we managed to sleep 2 hours before Giorgi drove us to the airport at 2 a.m.

At the airport we still talked for an hour with Giorgi who was waiting for his friend to arrive from Germany by our plane. Our flight to Riga left at 4.30 a.m. once again a little bit late. We landed to Latvia at 7.10 a.m. (already Finnish time). There we had to run to our plane to Helsinki which left only 15 minutes later! Finally at 8.45 we landed to Helsinki. Luckily our luggages had also managed to change the plane and soon we were on our way to Kirkkonummi to my parents.
Meanwhile in Georgia Oriol and Toni were going to do some ringing to some lake with another Giorgis friend. So Giorgi had really saved our last days because of nothing else had been arranged than the drive to the airport! Thanks again Giorgi! Everything had gone perfect!

Some advices

Together in Georgia and Armenia we observed 213 birdspecies, which was a good number this time of year when most of the birds were already quiet and autumn migration hadn’t yet started. We also hadn’t got a real birdguide helping us to find the targetbirds, we had the second best choise for us but I am quite sure it isn’t enough for most of the birders!

In Georgia we observed 124 species and in Armenia 186. Only real targetbird we missed was a Caucasian Black Grouse and from Catalans list we missed a Sombre Tit too. We got both 19 lifers and 21 wp-ticks. Oriol got 19 wp-ticks and Toni got 38!

We managed to stay easily in our budget which was 2000€ per person – I think we were closer to 1500€. Of course the most expensive part were the flying tickets (about 500€ person), guiding and car in Georgia weren’t cheap either (altogether 1400€), guiding in Armenia was cheaper but the biggest reason was that we were now having a driver and a translator – not real guides. Overnight with a breakfast and a lunch was everywhere about 20€ per person.

The trip was really superb, even though beforehand we were really worried about the level of guiding. But after all everything went pretty well. But for sure everything would have been many times easier with real birdguides. We really advise all the groups that travel to these countries to have a real guide! For sure Ramaz can organize a guide to Georgia and for sure Giorgi is a perfect guide to mountain, but in Armenia for birdwatching visits Zhanna Galian (Armenian Ecotourism Association) or Vasil Ananian (Ornithologist) should be contacted.

We felt that both countries were really safe, usually locals just let us be. Of course in Armenia on the borderline with Azerbaijan we saw some marks from the wars they have had. Some villages near the road were bombed only 20 years ago and still there were at least one mined area along the road but it was well fenced. Conflict areas in Georgia were far from the places we were.

Thanks to Oriol and Toni for their good company! I am sure we all can guarantee that Georgia and Armenia are good birding destinations, but I really think the right way to do birding trip to these countries is to do the trip in spring or early summer and with a birdguide. The birds are for sure much easier to find then!