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Georgia Edge of Europe

A 9-day, small group birdwatching tour to Georgia

Among European birds there are a special few that attain near-mythical status, for they occur only at the outermost reaches of the Western Palearctic region. Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch are all names to conjure with... and our Georgia birding tour has chances of all four! With an improved itinerary and fewer changes of hotel, Limosa’s April birdwatching tour to Georgia is timed to coincide with the best week to see them - plus so much more along the way! Join us as we return to bird at the 'edge of Europe', contrasting the spectacularly scenic mountains of the High Caucasus with the rolling Iori plains.

Tour Dates

2020

Full

2021

Spaces
7

Leaders
Richard Thaxton
local guides

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 9 Days

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Cost: £2295*

including return flights from London Heathrow to Tbilisi with Lufthansa

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £160*

* Prices Provisional (tba)

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Great Rosefinch. Giorgi Darchiashvili resized

The beautiful alazarin-crimson male Great Rosefinch stars near our hotel in the Caucasus Mountains © Giorgi Darchiashvili, ecotours.ge

Following the outstanding success of our 2017, 2018 and 2019 tours, we are thrilled to be travelling to Georgia again in April 2020 and 2021! It is such an exciting destination to travel to, with largely unspoilt landscapes and amazing bird life. Additionally, we have tweaked our itinerary so we now have fewer changes of hotel - and thus more time birding in the productive southeast.

North of Tbilisi, at the end of the old Russian highway, lie the High Caucasus mountains that straddle the border between Europe and Asia. Set amidst some of the highest peaks on the continent – five of which rise above 5000m (16,000ft) - lies the town of Stepantsminda, scenically situated below glacier-clad Mount Kazbeg. This developing town is an excellent base from which to explore the region and to search for four near-mythical birds that occur here at the easternmost edge of the continent. Mere mention of their names is enough to get the birding juices flowing: Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, Great Rosefinch and Güldenstädt’s Redstart. Georgia, now opening up to tourism, gives the best chance to see all four and this exciting early spring tour amidst the rich montane landscapes of the High Caucasus range is timed to catch them before they follow the retreating snow line higher and deeper into the inaccessible mountains.

From our conveniently located hotel, the hills are but a stone’s throw away and we start early for two of the key targets - for it is at this time that jumping Caucasian Grouse perform their lek on grassy slopes, while Caucasian Snowcocks give their presence away by their haunting, diver-like calls high above. Patches of buckthorn are places to search for crimson male Great Rosefinches and handsome white-capped Güldenstädt’s Redstarts. With three days to explore this fascinating mountain region, we have a great opportunity to see all four of these localised specialities against the fantastic backdrop of Mount Kazbek.

Our tour is designed to run over the best week of the year to find the redstart and rosefinch before they return to higher elevations for the summer. Hoping to catch the snowmelt just right, we will find that other high-altitude species have come down from the mountains, too.

On rockier pastures from which they pick on seed heads, Red-fronted Serins hop about the boulders and Mountain Chiffchaffs sing from budding trees. On basalt cliffs, Wallcreepers flutter like outsize butterflies, flashing crimson, black and white wings, while Lammergeier soar high above accompanied by passing raptors. White-winged Ring Ouzels of the distinctive form amicorum and Common Redstarts of the samamisicus race (Ehrenberg’s Redstart) are both smart and well worth catching up with. The mountain cols also act as pathways for migrants heading through the Caucasus into Russia, as passerines such as warblers, Red-breasted and Semi-collared Flycatchers, Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits track north. 

Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the mountains, we return south via Tbilisi - pausing to check the large reservoir there (locally known as the ‘Tbilisi Sea’) for Armenian Gulls and marsh terns - before swinging east into a very different environment.

With the snow-capped mountains still visible to the north, the warm rolling steppes and hills that lie to the east of the capital attract a very different range of species. Here we can find rainbow coloured Bee-eaters and Rollers flashing ultramarine blue in display, while scratchy Ménétries’s and melodious Barred Warblers sing from bushes. Black Francolin utter their grating calls and a wealth of wheatears feed on beetles, with smartly dressed Pied and Black-eared (as well as numerous hybrids between the two) and Isabelline to look for. Woodchat Shrikes are followed by Eastern Orphean Warblers and flocks of Rosy Starlings should just be arriving now to breed.

Amidst a landscape inhabited by Golden Jackals and Wolves (both rarely seen), where prominent trees act as perches for vultures, the grassland rings to the spring songs of Calandra, Crested and Short-toed Larks and the simple phrase of black, rufous and yellow Black-headed Buntings. We will keep an eye open for passing harriers - Montagu’s are a common sight as they float across the flowering grasslands - and Eastern Imperial Eagles will be nesting. Exploring lines of trees and verdant streambeds we will hope to come across a surprise migrant or two…

There are many special things to enjoy on this superb tour to Georgia, with its unspoilt and charismatic landscapes and fine scenery - plus some truly wonderful and special birds. Why not join us this year for the adventure?

Guldenstadt's Redstart m1 Georgia ecotours.ge resized

Another star bird of the Caucasus range - the equally gorgeous Güldenstadt's Redstart © Giorgi Rajebashvili, ecotours.ge

Days 1-2
FLY LONDON-TBILISI & TRANSFER TO THE CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS

Our spring birdwatching tour to Georgia tour starts with a Lufthansa flight from London to Tbilisi (via Munich). Early morning arrival in Tbilisi on Day 2, where we will be met by our local guide - and our adventure begins!

Heading north towards the magnificent mountains of the Greater Caucasus that loom ever larger in our view as we drive, we will stop along the way for breakfast and also to enjoy anything of interest. As we begin to climb higher, we’ll pause at Ananuri, where migrant birds rest in the foothills cloaked in oak and beech forest. In spring weather, vocal Green Warblers, and perhaps singing Red-breasted or Semi-collared Flycatchers will be present. Around the monastery, parties of migrant Ortolan Buntings or Whinchats may gather.

Our destination today is the upland town of Stepantsminda, nestled in the Tergi Valley and dominated by the snow-capped peaks of the High Caucasus - notably that of Mount Kazbeg, which at just over 5000m (16,400ft) is one of the highest in Europe.  

Following lunch, we arrive at our comfortable hotel, then have our first chance to explore this interesting town. A wealth of birds await as we set out for a local patch of budding buckthorn, hoping to pick up our first superb Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch! High above, we may well see our first birds of prey spiralling over the mountains. However, it will have been a long day and we will settle to bed early ready for the exciting days ahead. Night Stepantsminda

Days 3-4
STEPANTSMINDA & THE CAUCASUS
Rising early we have our first chance before breakfast of two of the ‘star’ birds of the tour: Caucasian Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock. It is important to get out close to dawn as these shy grouse are most active during the first hours of daylight and can soon disappear as the sun rises.
 
The snowcock sit high above the grassy slopes and we should hear their eerie, diver-like calls echoing about the valley. Caucasian Grouse, a lyre-tailed and all-black relative of the Black Grouse, strut about on lower slopes and are generally easier to see. If we didn't manage to spot one yesterday, we also have a further opportunity to look for Great Rosefinch – the gorgeous males' deep alizarin crimson bodies flecked with white. Hopefully, we will return for breakfast well and truly ‘full’ of birds!

After breakfast, a stroll around town may reward us with more good species – perhaps a variety of migrants or ‘seconds’ of Great Rosefinch and the snow-capped Güldenstädt’s Redstart. This region is the only location within the Western Palearctic that offers a chance of seeing these birds, so we will spend some time checking for them all.

With Stepantsminda as our base for three nights, we can also explore the spectacular and winding roads that lead to the higher passes.

South at the Truso Valley, we should encounter a number of mountain birds, with tame flocks of Twite (of the race brevirostris), Shore Lark (race penicillata) and White-winged Snowfinches feeding alongside the road and often giving excellent photographic opportunities. As we scan the slopes, we should start to see our first raptors, as the likes of Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle and Lammergeier appear above a hill top. Small parties of the stunning, black and 'red-polled' Red-fronted Serin can be found amongst the boulders and crimson-winged Wallcreepers flutter about the sheer rock faces, while schools of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs wheel above. ‘White-winged’ Ring Ouzels of the amicorum race are stunning to behold here and other ‘montane specials’ include Alpine Accentor, the abundant Caucasian Water Pipit (race coutellii), Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart.

If conditions are right, this region is a flyway for raptors heading into the vastness of Russia to the north. Northern Goshawk and Steppe Buzzard, plus Steppe Eagle, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, and the season's first Red-footed Falcons could well be passing through the valleys at this time. Ortolan Buntings, Willow Warblers, Bluethroats and Barred Warblers may also be passing through, while Yellow Wagtails of various races and Arctic-bound Red-throated Pipits can be feeding in grassy fields. Mountain Chiffchaff is common here and often calls from the birches about the hotel! Taking our time exploring the small copses we will hope to see a fine Semi-collared or Red-breasted Flycatcher.

There are a number of interesting mammals in the region, such as East Caucasian Taur and Chamois. If we are incredibly lucky, Eurasian Wolf or Brown Bear are very occasionally seen up here, too. Two further nights Stepantsminda

Day 5
STEPANTSMINDA-DEDOPLISTSKARO
This morning we will make the most of our time in the mountains and get out early for one final chance to enjoy the snowcock or grouse. After breakfast, we may check once more for migrants or try for Alpine Accentor or Snowfinches (here of the paler race alpicola) as we head over Jvari Pass or stop at the peace monument at Gudauri.

We'll stop for coffee or lunch near Ananuri, where the fortress and surrounding trees can hold stunning white-winged samamisicus Common Redstarts – often known as ‘Ehrenburg’s Redstart’ and a potential split. Semi-collared Flycatchers, Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers and Ortolan Buntings are among other possible highlights to be found here in spring.

To the northeast of Tbilisi lies a large reservoir, where non-breeding Armenian Gulls over-summer. We will drop by here after lunch to check them out and hopefully watch migrant terns such as Gull-billed or White-winged flash over the lake.

Continuing east, the landscape changes as we enter a region of open and richly coloured rolling fields, with lines of vines amidst blood-red poppies. The birdlife changes too, and we should begin to see Long-legged Buzzards, Nightingales and hundreds of spluttering Corn Buntings.

Arriving at Dedoplistskaro in the late afternoon, we may have time for a stroll about the hotel - our home for the next three nights - looking for singing Green Warblers. At night, Scops Owls call from the pines around the hotel and we will have a look for them on at least one occasion during our stay. Night Dedoplistskaro

Days 6-7  
DEDOPLISTSKARO & IORI UPLANDS
Awaking to the song of Nightingales and wheezing calls of Rock Sparrows, we have a chance to take in the amazing local birdlife. About the hotel, glorious male Golden Orioles and Hoopoes sing; in the bushes, Red-backed Shrikes and Barred Warblers chase about establishing territories; Red-breasted Flycatchers call, bright Green Warblers flick about the pines and Woodlarks sing overhead.

The Iori Uplands are a line of hills set amidst rolling grass plains and incised by several gorges. Situated at the edge of the steppe, the town of Dedoplistskaro is an ideal base from which to explore this fascinating region. We will visit the local lake, checking for birds of prey such as Lesser Spotted Eagle and Black Vulture. Perhaps the water’s edge will be adorned by Black-winged Stilts or Ruddy Shelducks, whilst Bee-eaters pass by and Rollers perch on isolated trees. Yet more Corn Buntings chase about and Quails call (invariably unseen!) from the fields.

Just north of the town is Eagle Gorge, where Egyptian Vulture and Black Stork may be breeding. A late afternoon walk here should produce Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, or maybe even an Eastern Imperial. The limestone crags, zapped by Alpine Swifts, harbour some superb wildflowers and a few early butterflies.

We'll also enjoy one long but outstanding day out from Dedoplistskaro, to visit the Chachuna Managed Reserve. The open steppe along the way can produce many great birds and often starts with a variety of larks including Calandra, Greater Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed. Rock Sparrows call wheezily and Little Owls should be looked for on small stones. Exotic Hoopoes and elegant Demoiselle Cranes may be found amidst poppy studded hillsides, where Eastern Imperial Eagles breed. As the habitat becomes drier, Isabelline Wheatears and Woodchat Shrikes become increasingly common, with the former already feeding well-grown young.

At the Dali Reservoir, specialities such as Black Francolin, Chukar, Ménétries’s Warbler and Eastern Orphean Warbler could well be found in the scrub below the dam. Penduline Tits call from the reeds and pools can hold Kingfisher, while the trees may reveal Green Woodpecker - looking somewhat incongruous out here! A small colony of Lesser Kestrels wheels about an old dam building, giving fine views.

All the while, Black, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures loaf about and the noisy flocks of incoming Rosy Starlings are a joy to watch as they chase after grasshoppers or sing from bushes. Two further nights Dedoplistskaro

Day 8
DEDOPLISTSKARO & RETURN TBILISI
With the whole day to travel back west to Tbilisi, we will take our time today, perhaps visiting a breeding spot for Semi-collared Flycatchers or diverting south to the monastery at David Gareja – another superb open steppe region and hillside, close to the border with Azerbaijan. Raptors drift above the open landscape and perhaps a Saker Falcon or Pallid Harrier will sail by. This will also be our final chance to spot a party of migrating Demoiselle Cranes, resting on their long journey north before they attempt to pass over the high mountains.

The rocky and scrubby slopes beside the monastery could well provide us with our best chance of Pied Wheatear amidst the hybrids and Black-eareds, while Ortolan Buntings sing from the bushes. Blue Rock Thrush can be found here too, and migrants such as Eastern Orphean Warbler and Lesser Grey Shrike sing as Bee-eaters pass over the fascinating rock formations.

As we arrive back in the capital for our final night, we’ll take our evening meal at a typical Georgian restaurant, where we can sample some of the local foods and also enjoy a glass of one (or more!) of the fine wines of which the country is rightly proud. Retiring early to bed will give a chance for at least a little sleep prior to our early morning transfer to Tbilisi Airport and flight home.

Day 9
FLY TBILISI-LONDON
We check in early this morning for our Lufthansa flight back to London (via Munich), where our spring birdwatching tour to Georgia concludes.

mountain chiffchaff lorenzii georgia 0517 resized

Mountain Chiffchaff is common in the Caucasus range and can often be heard calling from birches about our hotel © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

What To Expect

Our tour to the Caucasus is timed to run in late April and early May, when the mountains are accessible and there is still a good chance of snow lying - which keeps the high mountain specialities at lower elevations for us to find them! Though we have chosen the optimum week to visit, if the weather has been unseasonably warm, note that Great Rosefinch and Güldenstädt’s Redstart can head higher into the mountains early and so can occasionally be missed.

Birding in the mountains will require some physical effort so a reasonable degree of fitness is required for this tour. On the steppe around Dedoplistskaro, the weather will be warm-hot.

We shall naturally want to make the most of our days at the peak of early morning bird activity, so on this tour please note we will be starting early each day (around 6.00am) with optional early birding, and returning later for a sit-down breakfast (around 8.00am).

With our improved itinerary for 2020 and beyond, this tour involves only three (formerly four) longish drives - Tbilisi north to Stepantsminda on Day 2 (approx. 3 hours); from Stepantsminda south and east to Dedoplistskaro on Day 5 (ca. 5 hours); and from Dedoplistskaro back to Tbilisi on Day 8 (approx. 3 hrs) - though on each we shall stop along the way for birding and lunch.

The drive from Dedoplistskaro to the reservoir near Chachuna is over a 30km track - terrific for birding and we will stop regularly - but some going here will be rough and bumpy.

We will experience a difference in climate between the two different regions we visit. In the mountains, the weather in late April is usually cold-cool and changeable, with the winter snows beginning to melt. Daytime temperatures here typically vary from 5-15°C (41-59F), but drop quickly at night.

The southeastern steppes of Dedoplistskaro in late April/early May average rather warmer, with daytime temperatures typically in the range of 13-26°C (55-79F) and periods of sunny skies and more overcast or rainy conditions. It can feel cool here, especially at night.

There is a high chance of some precipitation on this tour (most likely falling as rain, but snow is still possible in the mountains).

Birds

150-180 species   

Mammals

5-10 species

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation in Georgia, where we stay in a modern hotel at Tbilisi (for one part-night on our last full day) and in simple yet comfortable hotels run by the Ilia State University Research Department at Stepantsminda (3 nights) in the Caucasus Mountains, and ‘at the only place in town’ at Dedoplistskaro (3 nights) in the remote south-east.

Rooms are warm, if a little on the small side at Stepantsminda. While all rooms have en suite facilities, please note there are no kettles for making drinks in the rooms and rooms are not serviced, so beds are not made on any day. Wifi is freely available in the rooms at the hotels.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with breakfast on arrival in Georgia on the morning of Day 2 and concluding with dinner in Tbilisi on the evening of Day 8.

Most lunches will be sit-down meals at a local restaurant, with a packed lunch on our day at Chachuna. Continental-style breakfasts. Evening meals at the hotels tend to be simple but filling.

Walking

Easy to moderate, with some uphill walking inevitable in the mountains – though precisely what we do and where we go is dependent upon weather conditions at the time as well as the snowline. Wear sturdy waterproof walking shoes or boots with stout corrugated soles for good grip. We will be taking things slowly with plenty of time for breaks.

Altitude  In the mountains, we will be spending most of our time at elevations of around 1900-2200m (6200-7200ft), although we may reach 2500-3000m (8200-9800ft) depending on snow conditions at the time of our visit.

Travel

We fly with Lufthansa from London Heathrow-Tbilisi (change of planes in Munich). Based on current airline schedules, flights arrive and depart Tbilisi very early in the morning.

Ground Transport   Minibus with local driver.

demoiselle cranes georgia 0517 resized

Stunning amidst the sweeping southern steppe, Demoiselle Cranes are another exciting feature of our April tour © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

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