GEORGIA: THE CAUCASUS BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Georgia: Day 1 The tour begins this morning at Tbilisi. The capital city of Georgia is situated along the banks of the Kura River and is one of the most attractive cities of the region, with many fine old churches in the Georgian style and an ancient fortress that dominates the valley. From Tbilisi we follow the historic Georgian Military Highway over the Jvari (or Krestovyy) Pass to Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbegi) for a three nights stay.
At first the road runs through the cultivated Kura Valley, but soon we are climbing through the forested foothills until the trees are left behind and we wind our way upwards through the magnificent scenery of the Great Caucasus (often simply referred to as the Caucasus, although there is a Lesser Caucasus range further south). The top of the pass (the unmarked border between Asia and Europe) is situated at 2395m and from there we drop down the Terek valley to Stepantsminda, the view dominated by a continuous wall of huge, snow-capped peaks including the great white dome of Kazbek (5047m), the highest mountain in the Central Caucasus. We will stop along the way in the wooded foothills to look for both Green Warbler and Semi-collared Flycatcher.
Other likely species today include Griffon Vulture, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Common Swift, the lovely European Roller, European Bee-eater, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Barn Swallow, White Wagtail, Common Redstart (of the interesting form samamisicus, in which the male has a white wing panel, known as Ehrenberg’s Redstart), Northern Wheatear, Common Blackbird, Eurasian Blackcap, Long-tailed, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jay, Hooded Crow, Common (or Northern), Raven, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch and Eurasian Bullfinch. We also have a chance for Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.
During the afternoon we will have begun our exploration of higher altitudes, having our first encounters with a number of the species mentioned for Stepantsminda.
Georgia: Days 2-3 During our stay at Stepantsminda, a large village on the Terek river, we shall explore the high Caucasus in search of a fabulous suite of very special birds.
The star attraction of the alpine meadows and rocky slopes is the impressive Spotted Great Rosefinch (the endemic Caucasian form sometimes being treated as a distinct species, Caucasian Great Rosefinch), while higher up amongst the snow patches and boulders we should encounter the striking Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, yet another species restricted within the Western Palearctic to the high Caucasus. In the more open areas, amongst the high altitude azalea scrub, the regionally-endemic Caucasian (Black) Grouse is to be found. The males flutter into the air, revealing their gleaming white underwings, as they strive to impress the cryptically-coloured females. Amongst the high crags, Caucasian Snowcocks (a species endemic to these mountains) give their curlew-like whistles.
Rocky gullies are the haunt of that avian butterfly, the delightful Wallcreeper, and overhead we will look out for the dramatic silhouette of the Lammergeier, as well as Golden Eagle and Red-billed and Alpine Choughs. Areas of high altitude scrub are home to Mountain Chiffchaffs (the local form is sometimes split as Caucasian Chiffchaff) while open areas attract White-winged Snowfinches, Red-fronted (or Fire-fronted) Serins and Twite of the Central Asian form (which may represent a distinct species).
Other species we are likely to encounter during our stay include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Corn Crake (much easier to hear than see), Common Sandpiper, Common Cuckoo, Alpine Swift, Horned Lark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Common House Martin, Water and Tree Pipits, Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, Alpine Accentor, White-throated Dipper, Eurasian Wren, Dunnock, Black Redstart, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel, Mistle Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Common Linnet, and Common Rosefinch.
Migrant species will also be passing through this major route through the Caucasus and typical species at this season include European Honey Buzzard (often in large numbers), Black Kite, Montagu’s and Western Marsh Harriers, Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Common Buzzard and Eurasian Hobby. Best of all, this is a reliable area for seeing the much sought-after Levant Sparrowhawk, a bird that many have failed to see elsewhere as few bird tours visit places where this species occurs regularly, at least at the relevant time of year.
Migrant passerines often stop off here, especially during unfavourable weather, and likely species include Red-throated Pipit, Blue-headed, Grey-headed, Black-headed and Sykes’s Wagtails, Bluethroat, Barred and Willow Warblers, Red-breasted and Spotted Flycatchers, Lesser Grey Shrike and Black-headed Bunting.
As well as possessing many fine birds, these wonderful mountains hold the East Caucasian Tur, a close relative of the Ibex, and we may well see some picking their way across the precipitous mountainsides. There is even a slim chance of Grey Wolf and Brown Bear. As we walk amidst the simply awesome mountain scenery, our progress will be enlivened by myriads of alpine flowers, the swards dominated by primulas, gentians and fritillaries.
Georgia: Day 4 Today we will make our way back towards Tbilisi before turning westwards to visit a good area for the pretty little Krüper’s Nuthatch, which we should have no problem finding in the conifers. This very restricted-range species is only known from Turkey, Lesbos, western Georgia and a small area of adjacent Russia. Afterwards we continue to Tbilisi for an overnight stay. We will make a stop along the way to look for Armenian Gull at a lake they regularly frequent. Other waterbirds we may well encounter here or at some other wetland include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Little Bittern, Great and Little Egrets, and Grey and Purple Herons.
Georgia: Day 5 Today we will travel southeastwards until we reach the Chachuna Protected Area, not far from Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan, where we will spend two nights. There is a major change in the landscape and ecology en route as we pass from the well-watered, partly forested regions of western Georgia into the much more arid landscapes of the southeast. We will stop along the way in a good area for Rosy Starling. This afternoon we will begin our exploration of Chachuna.
Georgia: Day 6 The landscapes of Chachuna Protected Area and its surroundings are very impressive, with expanses of highly eroded hills and ‘badlands’ interspersed with extensive bushy areas, areas of grassy, steppe-like vegetation and cultivation. The ochre, cream and grey colours of the bare, eroded rocks and slopes contrast with the greenery at the lower levels.
This is a great area for raptors and we can expect to see both Eastern Imperial and Steppe Eagles, as well as Short-toed Snake and Booted Eagles, and Long-legged Buzzard. Griffon Vultures are still quite common and we should also encounter the huge Cinereous Vulture and Egyptian Vulture. Eurasian Hobby is fairly regularly seen and there is even a slim chance for the impressive Saker Falcon.
The star attraction here is undoubtedly the pretty little Ménétries’s Warbler, a bird with a relatively restricted breeding range, which is quite common here, while other good birds include Pied Wheatear, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Western Rock Nuthatch and Black-headed Bunting (the latter breeds here, but we may already have seen it migrating through the Caucasus). There is also a possibility of Demoiselle Crane.
In addition we may well find Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Hoopoe, Calandra, Crested and Greater Short-toed Larks, Tawny Pipit, Common Nightingale, Isabelline and Black-eared Wheatears, Lesser Whitethroat, Woodchat Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Western Jackdaw, Rook, Spanish, Eurasian Tree and Rock Sparrows, and Corn, Rock and Ortolan Buntings. There are also pretty good chances for Chukar Partridge and Black Francolin.
Georgia: Day 7 After some early morning birding at Chachuna we will return to Tbilisi airport, where the tour ends this afternoon.