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