Our spring birdwatching tour to Armenia begins with an Air France morning flight from London Heathrow to Paris and onward connection from there to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where we arrive mid-evening. Welcomed by our local guide and driver we travel the short distance to our comfortable and modern city hotel, where we stay two nights. Night Yerevan
After breakfast in Yerevan, we drive south through agricultural fields for about 50 minutes to reach the extensive area of fishponds at Armash. A small but rich area for a large variety of birds, it is good to visit Armash early in the trip as migrants pass through in great numbers. We have a whole day to take in and enjoy one of the ‘ornithological hot spots’ of the Caucasus!
Lying just to east of the Ağrı Dağı National Park and snow-capped Mount Ararat - which is actually inside neighbouring Turkey - and with the borders of Azerbaijan and Iran also meeting nearby, the Armash fishponds in May can be alive with wetland birds especially. The mix of pools, natural saline marsh, water-filled ditches, freshwater ponds and warm springs has created a habitat that acts as a magnet for birds. Over 200 species have been recorded here and, in spring, migrants use it as they head north. White-winged and Gull-billed Terns dance over the wetlands, picking insects or fish from the pools, and waders can include Black-tailed Godwit along with Little and Temminck’s Stints, Wood, Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers, and small numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes. Collared Pratincoles are regular in May, when there is also a chance of rarer waders such as Broad-billed and Terek Sandpipers - as well as White-tailed Lapwing, which breeds here. Waterbirds are plentiful, too and we are also likely to see Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Flamingo, Little Bittern, Squacco and Purple Herons, Garganey, Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck - perhaps even the occasional Little Crake.
In the surrounding reeds and bushes, other species can be equally impressive. We will keep our eyes open for colourful Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and European Rollers, as wetland warblers sing: Great Reed Warblers croak their reluctant song and Paddyfield Warblers can be found lurking in the reeds alongside Savi's, Eurasian Reed and Sedge Warblers, too. At times, we really may not know what to look at next as species such as Lesser Short-toed Lark, Menetries’s Warbler, Bearded Reedling and Rosy Starling also vie for our attention.
Time permitting, a visit to nearby rocky hills offers our first chance to look for Finsch’s and Isabelline Wheatears, plus Asian Crimson-winged Finch. After all this excitement we head back to our hotel at Yerevan for a good lie down – and this is just the first day! Night Yerevan
PAMBAK MOUNTAINS FOR CAUCASIAN GROUSE, DILIJAN FOREST & HAGHARTSIN MONASTERY
We have an early breakfast and departure from Yerevan today, initially making an hour-long drive up into the higher areas of the rounded Pambak Mountains - still blotched with snow, even in May.
The slopes near Hankavan are a great place to look for Caucasian Grouse. During the first two hours of the day, they strut about the grassy areas, with the scattered males leaping into the air in display or chasing about their territories. Caucasian Water Pipits are quite common here and we have our first chances of seeing both Radde's and Alpine Accentors, dapper Siberian Stonechats of the Armenian race variegatus, pale Twite and Mountain Chiffchaffs in the bushes that dot the hillsides. White-throated Dipper inhabit the fast-flowing streams.
Late morning, we continue our journey northeast, north of Lake Sevan, into the ancient beech-clad hills around the Achstev River valley town of Dilijan. Amidst the mixed beech and oak forests of the Dilijan National Park we have chances to look for several species not found in the more open arid landscapes of the latter part of our tour. Green Warblers, and Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers utter their simple songs in the aquarium light of the woods, whilst Steppe Buzzards, European Honey Buzzards and Levant Sparrowhawks soar above the slopes. Woodpeckers here could include Middle and Lesser Spotted, Green and the crow-like Black, and we'll listen out for the high-pitched calls of Hawfinch and the fluting song of Golden Oriole.
During the afternoon we will pay a visit to Haghartsin Monastery - built in the 13th century and set amongst the woods - for a walk and more chances to scan for raptors, which could also include Lesser Spotted Eagle. Night Dilijan
DILIJAN TO YEGHEGNADZOR - VIA LAKE SEVAN & VARDENYATS PASS
We will take an early stroll in the lovely beech woods about Dilijan this morning, enjoying a final opportunity to see Semi-collared Flycatcher and Green Warbler, before following the western edge of Lake Sevan south and onward to our destination this evening, Yeghegnadzor.
Lake Sevan is situated in Armenia's picturesque Gegharkunik Province, which is sandwiched between Yerevan to the west and the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to the east. At 2000m (c6500ft), it is one of the highest altitude freshwater lakes in the world. Beneath its surface lie numerous archaeological artefacts, but today we will be most interested in what lies above...
Exploring the western shoreline and marshes, much of the area might appear ‘degraded’, with scattered bushes - but in fact it holds a wealth of birdlife. Tree Pipit, Black-headed Wagtail, Zitting Cisticola and Common Quail can be seen or heard, and further along the road we will stop at the causeway overlooking the waters of the lake. Reflecting the blue sky, the surface can be dotted with Great Crested Grebe, Gadwall and Garganey; marshy areas attract Glossy Ibis, Black-headed Gull and Little Grebe, whilst at ‘Gull Island’ - a protected part of Lake Sevan – hundreds of Armenian Gulls will be nesting. It's a busy site and we will check other spots along the shore for Great Cormorant, Ruddy Shelduck, Black-crowned Night and Squacco Herons, Red-crested Pochard and maybe a whisp of White-winged Terns will float by.
The limestone steppe holds Eurasian Skylark and Northern Wheatear while along the main roads, areas of grasses, rocky outcrops and birch and willow scrub attract Long-legged Buzzards searching for prey. Common Whitethroat and Grasshopper Warbler can sometimes be found.
As we head south towards the Vardenyats Pass, the lower grassland habitats harbour Marsh Harrier, European Roller, European Turtle and Eurasian Collared Doves. The pass lies along the old Armenian Silk Road and the Orbelian Caravanserai (an inn for travellers and their animals as they journeyed the silk route to China) is worth a stop, too. At the summit, we might find a singing Ortolan Bunting or stunning male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush - but our real targets here will be another chance to look for Radde's Accentor, White-winged Snowfinch and Bluethroat.
Finally, we descend to Yeghednadzor, a town known for its wineries. Stops en route could well produce Golden Eagle or Eastern Black-eared Wheatears in song as they perch on earth mounds. We should arrive late afternoon at our hotel in town, where again we settle in for a two-night stay - and perhaps enjoy a glass or two of the local wine! Night Yeghednadzor
MOUNT GNDASAR FOR CASPIAN SNOWCOCK, & NORAVANK GORGE
A long and spectacular day is in store - so we hope for fine weather - as we depart our hotel in Yeghednadzor early this morning (05:00hrs) and travel by 4WD vehicles along a rough track into the mountains. The peak of Gndasar rises to 2945m (c9600ft), and we head up to the higher reaches in search of Caspian Snowcock, Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch.
We have breakfast in the field and stroll up the slopes to check out the bushes dotting the meadows of the beautiful upper reaches of the mountain for Caucasian Water Pipit and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. We have good chances of finding Caspian Snowcock up here, but will have to scan from a distance as they inhabit the wildest parts of the cliffs. Other species we hope to see on the slopes of Mount Gndasar include Asian Crimson-winged Finch and the white-winged form of Ring Ouzel, amicorum. If we are lucky, we might spot a Bezoar Ibex on the sheer cliff faces, showing off its climbing skills - not to mention its enormous curving horns!
As we return to Yeghednadzor, we'll pass Noravank monastery, located in a narrow gorge made by the Darichay River close to the city of Yeghegnadzor, and which dates from the 13th century. The gorge is well known for the sheer, brick-red cliffs facing the monastery from across the valley. Whilst some may prefer a walk at St Astvatsatsin Church, others may wish to check out the area around it for birds: Red-fronted Serins sit about the rocks and walls, where we may also find both Eastern and Western Rock Nuthatches; Upcher´s Warblers and White-throated Robins skulk in the bushes, and scanning the skies could produce Golden Eagle and Bearded Vulture. Night Yeghednadzor
SOUTHERN ARMENIA: SPANDARIAN RESERVOIR, KARAHUNGE & GORIS
Departing Yeghegnadzor, we head southeast today into southern Armenia, moving into drier and mountainous areas. Along the way, we take in the reservoir at Spandarian, with a variety of waterfowl on offer as well as Lesser Kestrel and possibly Asian Crimson-winged Finch.
We will also take time to visit the incredible megalithic site of Karahunge, a truly remarkable place scattered with 'speaking stones'. Recent studies of this site - which dates back to 7500BC - have shown that the mysterious, misshapen stones are actually the world's first astronomical observatory. Here, solar and lunar eclipses were correctly predicted by as many as 84 stones marked with carefully prepared holes measuring 4-5 centimetres in diameter that point in different directions toward the horizon and outer space. Though not a bird, our visit to this remarkable prehistoric site will no doubt be one of the highlights of the trip!
As we enjoy this ancient landscape, we will of course be keeping an eye out for birds - including larks, pipits and buntings, but also raptors, the frosty brevirostris race of Twite, Common Rosefinch and Red-backed Shrike.
Finally, we head into Goris, a small town surrounded by the Zangezur Mountains, ready for dinner at our hotel and to prepare for our return journey north tomorrow. Night Goris
KHNDZORESK, GORHAYQ, ZEDEA & RETURN TO YEGHEGNADZOR
Before departing the Syunik region, this morning we will drive the short distance east to the village of Khndzoresk, famous for its historic cave village. Located on the steep slope of a gorge, this complex of both natural and manmade dwellings carved out of the soft rock was once home to an estimated 15,000 people! The village even had two churches and three schools and, remarkably, the cave dwellings were inhabited until as late as the 1950s. Nowadays empty and simply grazed by sheep, Khndzoresk is a great spot for raptors and we will hope for Eastern Imperial and Steppe Eagle.
If we were not successful on our drive to Goris, we will stop again at Gorhayq village to look again for Asian Crimson-winged Finch.
Approaching Yeghegnadzor, we will turn off southwest along a minor road towards the village of Zedea. Stopping to walk into the arid valley of the Arpa River, which parallels the road, we’ll check the bushes for a good selection of species. Male Black-eared Wheatears sing from the scrub, and perhaps a Short-toed Snake Eagle or Levant Sparrowhawk will fly over. But our main reason for stopping here is the chance of finding a superb male White-throated Robin or two along the river bed. On the side of the valley we might also encounter both Western and Eastern Rock Nuthatches. Sometimes their old nests may be taken over by Rock Sparrows. Trumpeter Finches feed on the grassy slopes and we will listen out for the songs of Upcher’s and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers.
From here it is only a short drive back to Yeghegnadzor, where this time we stay for one night. Night Yeghegnadzor
RETURN TO YEREVAN VIA VEDI GORGE & OORANOTS
After breakfast we promptly begin our journey back to the capital Yerevan, crossing the very arid landscape before stopping as we drop down to the town of Vedi. This can be a great spot to find the localised Grey-necked Bunting, but we will need to arrive fairly early as temperatures rise quickly. A walk into a dry, sandy canyon will hopefully produce one or two buntings plus more chances of Isabelline and Finsch’s Wheatears – the latter, in the opinion of some birders, the finest of all the wheatears. Also possible here are Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush and singing Bimaculated Larks performing their bat-like display flights.
The whole area around Vedi and Oooranots (just to the south, near Armash) is good for birds typical of semidesert environs. Indeed, though the landscape is barren, the birdlife is certainly not! Eastern and Western Rock Nuthatches, Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Orphean, Eastern Olivaceous and Upcher's Warblers, Persian Wheatear and Red-fronted Serin occur - and we have further chances of Grey-necked, plus Black-headed and Rock Buntings, too. Trumpeter Finch and Rosy Starling might also entertain us as we listen out for the strident song of Pale Rockfinch.
In the late afternoon, we make the hour-long drive north once more to Yerevan, where we spend our last two nights. Night Yerevan
MT ARAGATS & AMBERD FORTRESS
After breakfast we are off again, this time heading north from the city into the mountains with our final destination being the massif of Mount Aragats. Rising to over 4000m (over 13000ft), it is likely to have plenty of snow on its slopes, so wrap up warmly! Emerging above the treeline, we head to the sub-alpine zone in search of the fine Caucasian Horned Lark, Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Asian Crimson-winged Finch also occurs and the localised Radde’s Accentor inhabits open areas with Juniper scrub beside the road. En route, we may well have found Rock Bunting and raptors in the guise of Long-legged Buzzard, and Booted or Lesser Spotted Eagles. Other birds to watch for here include White-throated and Rufous Scrub Robins, Isabelline Wheatear, Black-headed Bunting and Lesser Grey Shrike.
Continuing, we visit the imposing Amberd Burgh, a fortress originally constructed in the 7th Century (but rebuilt in the 11th) on the site of a Stone Age settlement. At 2300m (c7500ft), the name translates as 'Fortress in the Clouds' - it certainly makes a stunning location for lunch, and one where we may see Caucasian Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Rock Thrush, and Ortolan and Rock Buntings.
With an early flight home looming the next day, we will descend from Mount Aragats mid-afternoon and return to Yerevan to enjoy our final evening at the hotel. Night Yerevan
FLY YEREVAN TO LONDON VIA PARIS
We have an early breakfast at the hotel this morning followed by departure for the short drive back to Yerevan airport. Check-in for our mid-morning Air France flight to Paris and onward connection to London Heathrow, where our Armenian birding adventure concludes late this afternoon.