Georgia 17th to 25th of May 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, Eastern 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 Eastern 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!