Searching For The Big Five In Georgia A Winter Wonderland





Part One

The field guide we use most often here in the UK is The Collins Bird Guide which covers not only the UK but all of Europe, North Africa and The Middle East, a wonderful book. Flicking through the beautifully illustrated pages we are very lucky indeed to have enjoyed most of the birds shown, however, a few mouth-watering species still elude us and these are always on our minds.


Geogia is certainly a land of contrasts here in the capital city warm and sunny on our returm.



One country, we had never visited before, Georgia in the far east of Europe, south of Russia, held potentially five of these “missing” species. Not just any species either but some real top draw birds, Great Rosefinch, Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian (Black) Grouse, Guldenstadt’s Redstart and Caucasian (Mountain) Chiffchaff all lifers for us. So we began planning a trip and we were very lucky to have the help of “Birding the Caucuses” a local bird guiding company and in particular Alexander Rukhaia who we can recommend very highly! Our emails were answered promptly and all the information we asked for provided and lots of enthusiasm for our forth coming trip, perfect.

We assembled our group of Birdwatching Trips regulars, Glenn, Andrew, Ed and Marilyn and set off to Georgia! Georgian Airlines was an experience but we were looked after well despite the flight being delayed by two hours. We arrived in Tbilisi the capital of Georgia to be greeted by cold drizzle and low cloud at dusk, not very welcoming! But our first local guide, Dachi, was there to greet us with big smiles and a very smart mini-coach to whisk us to our first hotel. Staying in the old part of the city it was a lovely hotel and literally a minute’s walk to a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed the first of many lovely meals.

After a great breakfast, next morning, we all jumped into the coach, stopping only to watch a Laughing Dove in the street, and headed into the hills above the city. Sadly the weather was still grim, low could and drizzle which turned to snow as we climbed higher and it was cold, very cold. At the first birding stop it was thick snow and unsurprisingly we failed to see the hoped for Kruper’s Nuthatch, or any birds!

We decided to cut and ran as the weather was so poor and began the long drive north towards Kasbegi in the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The weather did improve, a little, along the way and we were able to see some fantastic raptor migration right overhead! This was more like it, after our slow start due to the snow great to see lots of birds. Steppe Buzzards were moving north in big numbers, hundreds of birds in tight flocks along with many other species of birds of prey. We made numerous stops when we saw particularly big groups of birds moving up the valley that we too were following north. Black Kites, Marsh Harriers, Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser-spotted Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks all moving together a wonderful birding experience to see raptor migration on this scale.

Part Two

As we began to climb higher into the mountains the weather again closed in around us, drizzle, and low cloud, then sleet, then snow! Cars coming the other way, from the north, were covered in snow, oh heck. The snow became heavier and our worst fears were realised, the pass ahead was blocked. We joined the end of a very long line of stationary vehicles and waited, and waited. Black humour on the bus, who would we eat first? How cold would it be up here at night? How long could we survive on the few snacks we had? Oh, wait, the cars ahead are moving! Sure enough we were on our way again all be it very slowly. We couldn’t see much through the snow and low cloud but we guessed we were passing through amazing mountain scenery. We did manage to see a few feral pigeons literally on the side of the road and a single Water Pipit before the road at last began to drop down. Our driver, a great chap named Gear, did a superb job keeping us on the road and out of contact with all the traffic battling the weather through the pass - very tough driving indeed.

At last we got below the clouds and out of the snow; we could see more than ten yards! A flat bottom valley lay ahead, the mountains on either side were still cloaked in cloud and we could see snow even on the lowest slopes, and this was May. We settled in to our lovely hotel, Hotel Sno, but no time for any birding sadly, nut we enjoyed a great dinner.

Next morning we were out at dawn exploring the area around the hotel, it was bone chilling cold and the clouds still hid the mountains but it was dry. Not many birds about but nice views of Ring Ouzels and Eastern Black Redstarts with White Wagtails in the nearby stream. Breakfast was very welcome after our cold start and then we set off in search in those special birds.


The first of our Big Five - Great Rosefinch and oh what a fantastic bird!



A short drive took us to the base of a huge mountain well what we could see of it looked like it might be huge! Here an area of scrub didn’t look very promising and it was still so cold. Warm layers, hats and gloves were pulled on and we set off but didn’t need to walk far. Water Pipits were feeding on the grass in front of us, Ring Ouzels were all around us and Eastern Black Redstart sat up on boulders, this place was way better than first glance suggested. Then there was a Great Rosefinch! OK a female but still a Great Rosefinch one of our hoped for Georgia Big Five, we crept forward for better looks and soon saw a raspberry coloured male, oh my, what a bird! A real mega bird by any standards, these big finches size of small thrush and so red, you have to see one. We were still recovering from this amazing sighting when Andrew spotted a Guldenstadt’s Redstart! Another jaw-dropping beauty, this most beautiful bird was showing off on top of a small bush, two of the Georgia Big Five in just a few minutes this was birding at its very best. More sightings of Great Rosefinches quickly followed and several rather brief views of Red-fronted Serins which seemed to only ever land for a few seconds before flying off again. The cloud was slowly lifting and the sun breaking through in places and we began to see just what a stunningly beautiful place we were enjoying these amazing birds in. The scenery really is breath-taking to match the birds and we were thrilled with our first morning in Kasbegi.


Quickly followed by our second of the Big Five - Guldenstad's Redstart.



We drove to another valley, huge mountain walls rising all around us and snow plastering the slopes, it looked all the world like winter in the Alps not May in Georgia. A massive and equally spectacular Lammergeier, the bone-breaker vulture, soared against the cobalt blue sky, oh what a sight! This massive almost falcon like vulture was close enough to see every feather detail, not a new bird but certainly one of the highlights of this special trip. The Lammergeier was spectacular but not what we had come here for, these huge towering mountains are home to another of the Georgia Big Five, Caucasian Grouse. These very rare birds look rather like our local Black Grouse back home in Wales but they are easy to see compared to their Caucasian cousins. The habitat was vast, how could we possibly find one? Then the “cavalry” arrived! A birding friend of Dachi drove up to us and pointed at the hill to our left, up there then! Even knowing just where to train our Leica telescopes the bird was still tricky to pick out on the scree and grass slope. But it was there, number three of the Georgia Big Five! We watched the distant Caucasian Grouse for some time but it didn’t do much to be honest, a black bird a long way away but a lifer none the less! We were loving our birding in Georgia and now the sky was blue and the mountains clear of cloud we were loving the scenery too!

Still two more of those Georgia Big Five to find, please check back soon for more of our Eastern birding adventures.

Part Three

We were about at dawn again for some pre-breakfast birding around the Sno Hotel, Kasbeki. Another cold morning but the cloud was higher and we could see more of the mountains, we were hopeful for another of the big five after breakfast.

Four Twite landed in the bushes behind the hotel where we also watched Whinchat, Stonechat and Ring Ouzels. Walking over to the small river there were more birds than the previous day, White Wagtails, Grey Wagtails and a Common Sandpiper fed alongside many Water Pipits. Then a splash of lemon yellow caught our eye, a beautiful male Citrine Wagtail! This so pretty bird was chased around by the Grey Wagtails but still allowed us some wonderful views. Breakfast tasted good after our exciting find.

We headed out to try for number four of our target Big Five in Georgia, Caucasian Snowcock. We needed the cloud base to be reasonably high for us to have a good shot at seeing mountain species and our guide Dachi considered the clouds still too low, frustrating. So we returned to the bushes and enjoyed more Great Rosefinches not to much hardship. Slowly the clouds were lifting so we decided to try for the Snowcock. We drove steeply up hill to a monastery and then walked, slowly, up a snow covered hillside to a level spur where we could set up the telescopes and scan the vast cliffs and hillside above us, talk about giant haystack and a needle! We had only been in position for a minute or so when we heard the beautiful rather Curlew like call of a Caucasian Snowcock! They were up there; now all we need do is spot one! This was not easy; it was very hard to pin-point the call that echoed off the massive rock walls above us. We all scanned and scanned. The calls kept floating down to us, both taunting us and encouraging us to keep scanning. At last Dachi said the words we had all been waiting for “I have one!” whew. Telescopes were trained on the area of rocky slope and at first we struggled to pick out the birds, but once seen it was easy to follow this “giant Red-legged Partridge” across the slope and we were thrilled to see it join a second bird, even better. The birds stopped to throw their heads back and after a little delay the beautiful call drifted down to our ears. This was a simply superb bird in a spectacular setting; it is why we watch birds, for moments like these, magical. High fives and bear-hugs all round, number four of the Caucasian Big Five seen.

That evening we had a change of local guide with Dachi leaving us and Alexander Rukhaia joining us. Next day we set off to look for more of the amazing birds the Kazbegi Valley has to offer and hopefully the last of the Georgia Big Five that we hoped for.

The weather was superb, stepping out of the hotel we were met with 360 degree views of spectacular snow covered mountains with the bluest sky above wow!


Not one of our Big Five but deserves equal billing - superb views of Wallcreeper.



After a great breakfast having taken hundreds of photographs of the stunning mountain-scapes all around the hotel we headed out. The valley here is stunning and so much to gaze in awe at! We marvelled, again, at Wallcreepers so close we could see every feather detail hard to tear ourselves away from these delightful rock climbers. Walking down a track, drinking in the spectacular scenery, we watched a huge flock of Alpine Chough pouring over the hillside, a black river of birds, thousands! Bushes here held a mobile flock of Great Rosefinches including more of those gorgeous raspberry coloured males. Guldenstadt’s Redstarts seemed to be everywhere here just stunning in the warm sunshine and we looked long and hard at each one, might be awhile before we see any again.

Alex then took us to a small stream with some bushes alongside, at first glance it seemed empty, but we waited and scanned and then saw movement. A small warbler was feeding low down in the bushes, number five of the Caucasian Big Five, Caucasian Chiffchaff also known as Mountain Chiffchaff. It has to be said not quite so exciting as the previous four but a new bird for us non-the-less and we had all the five possible lifers for us, brilliant!

We left the mountains of Georgia blown away by both the birds and the scenery and headed for the more Mediterranean climes of lower altitude for so many more!

We are crossing everything that our Georgia Birdwatching Trips tour this April will go ahead if you would like to join us COVID-19 willing drop us aline or if you would like to penciled in for 2022 tour again drop us line

info@birdwatchingtrips.co.uk

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds in stunning scenery with you!





Contact us


* * *

*


Submit

Our Tweets


This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. See our Cookie Policy for further details on how to block cookies.
I am happy with this
 

Cookies

What is a Cookie

A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is a piece of data stored by a website within a browser, and then subsequently sent back to the same website by the browser. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember things that a browser had done there in the past, which can include having clicked particular buttons, logging in, or having read pages on that site months or years ago.

NOTE : It does not know who you are or look at any of your personal files on your computer.

Why we use them

When we provide services, we want to make them easy, useful and reliable. Where services are delivered on the internet, this sometimes involves placing small amounts of information on your device, for example, your computer or mobile phone. These include small files known as cookies. They cannot be used to identify you personally.

These pieces of information are used to improve services for you through, for example:

  • recognising that you may already have given a username and password so you don’t need to do it for every web page requested
  • measuring how many people are using services, so they can be made easier to use and there’s enough capacity to ensure they are fast
  • analysing anonymised data to help us understand how people interact with our website so we can make them better

You can manage these small files and learn more about them from the article, Internet Browser cookies- what they are and how to manage them

Learn how to remove cookies set on your device

There are two types of cookie you may encounter when using our site :

First party cookies

These are our own cookies, controlled by us and used to provide information about usage of our site.

We use cookies in several places – we’ve listed each of them below with more details about why we use them and how long they will last.

Third party cookies

These are cookies found in other companies’ internet tools which we are using to enhance our site, for example Facebook or Twitter have their own cookies, which are controlled by them.

We do not control the dissemination of these cookies. You should check the third party websites for more information about these.

Log files

Log files allow us to record visitors’ use of the site. The CMS puts together log file information from all our visitors, which we use to make improvements to the layout of the site and to the information in it, based on the way that visitors move around it. Log files do not contain any personal information about you. If you receive the HTML-formatted version of a newsletter, your opening of the newsletter email is notified to us and saved. Your clicks on links in the newsletter are also saved. These and the open statistics are used in aggregate form to give us an indication of the popularity of the content and to help us make decisions about future content and formatting.


<