Georgia On My Mind Superb Birds In Superb Scenery On Our Birdwatching Trips Tour

A wonderful male Great Rosefinch what a bird! Photo by Steve Culley.

I’ll admit that before visiting, I’d have struggled to pinpoint Tbilisi in Georgia on the map. However, it’s well worth looking for as the gateway to some very exciting birdwatching where east meets west. Georgia is further east than you might think. Tbilisi is on the same longitude as Baghdad and the country itself is central to the neck of land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. As such, it acts as a funnel for birds migrating north in spring from Africa to their breeding grounds in Siberia and returning southerly to overwinter in Africa. It’s also one of the most eastern countries included in the Western Palearctic region so for anyone keeping a ‘Western Pal’ list, it’s a useful country to visit to add some Asian specialities and any bird with the word Caucasian in its name will be a key target.

Another of our most wanted birds the stunning Guldenstadt's Redstart.

We visited in April, in theory after the winter snows had receded. However, weather chaos had impacted here as elsewhere around the world and heavy snow still blocked the main road north from Tbilisi to Kazbegi when we arrived. It was cold, snowy, foggy and visibility was down to a few feet. The mountain pass was blocked by miles of massive juggernauts queuing to drive north through the tunnels into Russia who were unable to move because of the snow drifts. We were stuck, not an auspicious start to our trip.

Looking up, however, we realised the weather wasn’t delaying migration. A steady stream of raptors was passing overhead, all heading north as if following the same aerial highway up the valley: Pallid Harrier, Steppe, Golden, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Black Kites and Steppe Buzzards were all wending their way northwards. It was an uplifting sight which also heralded a change of fortune. Our 4x4 vehicle could overtake the lorries and squeeze through the alarmingly rough tunnels before emerging into a magical sunlit world deep within the Caucasus Mountains. The scenery was breath-taking and not just from the 3,000m altitude. Pristine icing-white snowfields were punctured by jagged craggy summits all round us and the narrow valley road wended its way between these leviathan peaks, revealing an amazing new panorama round every bend.

A very special bird indeed that allowed the most amazing views - Wallcreeper.

The birds were superlative too. The heavy snow had driven the high altitude species down to more manageable levels and we were treated to incredibly close views of mouth-watering birds such as dapper black-red-and-white Güldenstadt’s Redstarts and impressively large, raspberry-red Great Rosefinches, both of which were high on our most-wanted list. We hiked further uphill through deep snow to look for Caucasian Snowcock whose Curlew-like calls echoed around the mountains increasing the challenge of locating them against this huge backdrop. However, luck was now on our side and our mountaineering efforts were rewarded by at least five individuals pottering around high above us amongst the snow-covered rocks, distant but still clear to see in our telescopes. Caucasian Black Grouse took a bit of searching too but again, our scopes brought these birds into close view, and all these birds were enjoyed in the most perfect winter wonderland conditions.

At slightly lower altitude in the valley bottoms, we were treated to yet more special birds. By a dam on the River Terek we were entertained by several pairs of Wallcreepers (should these have been Damcreepers?!) who crept over the dam walls like mice and flicked their wings like a performer doing the fan dance to show a teasing glimpse of their glorious red-black-and-white feathers. We took so many photographs as we tried to capture the moment these birds fully extended their Hoopoe-like wings, finally with success. On the outskirts of Stepantsminda, we encountered a delightful flock of Red-fronted Serins, amongst whom were several males whose beacon-like red forehead positively glowed with colour. In a patch of early-budding willows, we encountered a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Caucasian Chiffchaff looking for early insects. The chiffchaff was another new life bird for us, an exciting bird to see even if this drab-coloured warbler was overshadowed by other more handsome local specialities.

It was lovely to hear the familiar call of Red-billed Chough flying over the hillsides and amongst the flock were banana-billed Alpine Chough, perfectly suited to life amongst these dramatic mountains. From a side valley, a huge raptor flew head-on towards us. It was hard to identify from that view, but it kept coming closer until the massive bird flew almost within touching distance of us: unmistakeably a Lammergeier! What a thrilling moment.

Our days were spent birding in the stunning mountain scenery and our nights were spent in extremely comfortable accommodation enjoying delicious traditional feasts called supras and sampling a few of the 156 varieties of Georgian wine. All too soon we had to leave the impressive Greater Caucasus mountains and drive back to Tbilisi. This time at the top of the pass we enjoyed far-reaching vistas in full sunshine, so we stopped at the Russian Georgian Friendship Monument that we’d passed unseen in the fog on our arrival. All around us, Russian and Georgian tourists took selfies while we scanned the melting snow and newly exposed grass for birds. Our two worlds passed like ships in the night as most visitors were totally unaware of the confiding Alpine Accentor shuffling about at their feet or the two Horned Larks chasing each other over the snowfields.

We returned to Tbilisi, but our Georgian birding adventure didn’t end here as we turned eastwards towards the vast open plains on the Azerbaijan border. A tempting array of harriers, wheatears, warblers, wagtails and buntings awaited us, plus rolling steppe, dramatic gorges, historic towns and a 5th century monastery. But that, as they say, is another story.

Ruth Miller

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