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 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, flocks of Ortolan Buntings or Whinchats may gather. Our destination today is the 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 and settle into our new and comfortable hotel, then have our first chance for a stroll and to explore this interesting town. A wealth of birds await and we will set out for a local patch of budding buckthorn, hoping to pick out our first superb Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch! High above, we may well see our first spiralling birds of prey above 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 further opportunities 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 white-capped Güldenstädt’s Redstart. This region is the only location within the Western Palearctic that offers the chance of seeing these birds, so we will spend some time checking.
With Stepantsminda as our base for three nights, we can explore the spectacular and winding roads that lead to the higher passes. South at the Truso Valley we will encounter a number of mountain birds, with tame flocks of Twite (of the race brevirostris), Shore Lark (of the race penicillata) and White-winged Snowfinches feeding alongside the road and often giving excellent photographic opportunities. As we scan the slopes, we will start to see our first raptors, as Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle and Bearded Vulture appear above a hill top.
Small flocks 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 Red-billed and Alpine Choughs wheel above. White-winged Ring Ouzels of the amicorum race are stunning here and other ‘montane specials’ include Alpine Accentor plus abundant Water Pipit, Black Redstart and Northern Wheatear.
If the wind is in the right direction, 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. Caucasian 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 sometimes seen, too. Two further nights Stepantsminda
STEPANTSMINDA TO TBILISI
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 lunch near Ananuri, where the fortress and surrounding trees often hold stunning white-winged samamisicus Common Redstarts – often known as ‘Ehrenburg’s Redstart’. Red-backed Shrikes and smart Semi-collared Flycatchers, Barred Warblers or Ortolan Buntings are among other highlights to be found here in spring.
As we approach Tbilisi, we will make another roadside stop to check the hillside woodland that might produce Green Warbler, passing raptors or Black or Syrian Woodpeckers. Night Tbilisi
DEDOPLISTSKARO & IORI UPLANDS
So as to make full use of our day in the field, we will depart Tbilisi promptly after breakfast to head east towards our next base, Dedoplistskaro, where we stay two nights. The landscape here is very different to the mountains, being dry and Mediterranean or savanna-like steppe country - and this brings a range of very different species.
Stopping at various sites as we drive, we should find open fields full of birds: numerous Montagu’s Harriers skydance in display; Corn Buntings jangle their keys from almost every perch; Nightingales, Red-backed Shrikes and Black-headed Buntings sing and flowering hedges harbour singing Common Whitethroats and Barred Warbler.
The Iori Uplands are a line of hills set amidst rolling plains and incised with several gorges. On the edge of the steppe lies the town of Dedoplistskaro, our home for two nights, where the variety of birds is amazing and certainly not to be missed! Over the next couple of days, we will visit the local lake, checking for raptors such as Lesser Spotted Eagle and Black Vulture; perhaps the edge of the water 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 the Eagles Gorge, where Egyptian Vulture and Black Stork may be breeding. A late afternoon walk here should produce Booted and yet more Lesser Spotted Eagles, or maybe even an Eastern Imperial. The limestone crags can be zapped by Alpine Swifts, but also harbour some superb wildflowers and a few early butterflies. Scops Owls call from the pines around the hotel and we will have a look for them on at least one occasion.
We have one long but outstanding day to drive from Dedoplistskaro to 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. Hoopoes and elegant Demoiselle Cranes may be found amidst poppy studded hillsides, where Eastern Imperial Eagles breed. As the habitat becomes drier, Isabelliune Wheatears and Woodchat Shrikes become very common, with the former already feeding well-grown young.
At the Dali Reservoir, specialities such as Black Francolin, Chukar, Ménétries’s Warbler and both Eastern Olivaceous and Eastern Orphean Warblers could well be found in the scrub below the dam. Amongst the reeds, Penduline Tits call and pools can hold Kingfisher, while the trees may reveal an incongruous Green Woodpecker. A small colony of Lesser Kestrels wheels about an old dam building.
There is a slim chance of finding Finsch’s Wheatear on rocky outcrops, though Black-eared or hybrid Pied x Black-eared Wheatears are rather more common. All the while, Black, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures loaf about and noisy flocks of numerous Rosy Starlings are a joy to watch as they chase about after grasshoppers or sing from bushes. If we are lucky, we may find a Golden Jackal – and if we are extremely lucky a Wolf might also put in an appearance as we explore this fascinating region. Two 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 Gareji – another superb open steppe region and hillside close to the Azerbaijan border. More 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 see 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 by the monastery could well provide us with our best chance of Pied Wheatear amongst 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, Woodchat Shrike and Bee-eater pass over the fascinating rock formations. Armenian Stonechat – a form of Siberian Stonechat – can sometimes be seen on the rocky fields.
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 sip a glass of one (or more!) of the fine wines of which the country is rightly proud. Retiring early will give a chance for some sleep prior to our early morning transfer to Tbilisi Airport and our flight home.
We check in early this morning for our Lufthansa flight back to London (via Munich), where our superb spring birdwatching tour to Georgia concludes.