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.