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Return to Armenia, Sept 2019

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Old Tuesday 24th September 2019, 18:57   #1
Richard Prior
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Return to Armenia, Sept 2019

As in May 2018, this autumn’s nine day visit to Armenia was not a 100% full-on birding trip, nevertheless we managed some very nice sightings in fantastic scenery on our wanderings around the centre and southern areas of the country.
Instead of flying from Geneva (our nearest airport) which has no direct flights to Yerevan (so plane changing involved in e.g., Brussels, Vienna, Kiev, Moscow to name but a few possible routes) we took advantage of the fairly recently established Lyon to Yerevan flight with AirCompany Armenia, a twice a week service which neither arrives in the middle of the night in Yerevan nor departs for the return at an ungodly hour. The 23 year old Boeing 737 (reg. EK73736 (for Farnboro John and co.)) had perhaps seen better days but it got us to Yerevan on time, though my plan to pick up the hire car and drive the 35kms to our hotel on the slopes of Mt Aragats in daylight were scuppered by me forgetting sunset was an hour earlier in Armenia than France, plus a 25 minute wait at the Europcar desk while the only operative on duty had to deal with a ‘problem’ customer. As in 2018 for our ‘off the beaten track’ adventures we hired a Lada Niva, costing 342 Euros for the nine days.
The Lada’s headlights were not particularly powerful and the roads unlit but we succeeded in getting lost just the once (OK, twice) on the way to our accommodation (Hotel Amberd) and thanks to my wife having learnt some rudimentary phrases AND (more difficult) the Armenian alphabet we were able to ask for directions or read signs only in Armenian or Russian and got to the hotel just before they stopped serving food. A tasty mushroom omelette and deep fried cheese balls (with an Armenian beer to celebrate our safe arrival of course) followed and we hit the hay.
13 September
A pre-breakfast walk in new surroundings and a different country has been one of the joys of birding for me for longer than I care to mention and the hotel was well placed on a hillside overlooking Yerevan in the distance and the snow on the Armenian people’s beloved Mt Ararat (in present-day Turkey) was shining away beyond the city. The parched grassland was a huge contrast to the greenery and flowers that we experienced on our May 2018 trip and naturally birdsong was virtually absent, just a trilling Western Rock Nuthatch and a Black Redstart to be heard. Other species present were Barn Swallow, House Martin, Water Pipit, Tree Pipit, White Wagtail, Common Chiffchaff, Great Tit, Red-backed Shrike, Hooded Crow, Magpie, House Sparrow, Goldfinch and Linnet. After breakfast (copious doesn’t come near it as a description!), a nice rufous Steppe Buzzard and 30-odd European Bee-Eater were overhead. In fact, Bee-Eater, Steppe Buzzard, Red-backed Shrike and Tree Pipit migration was strong all through the first seven days.
Mount Aragats (4090m) is the highest mountain in present-day Armenia and according to nearly all the birding trip reports one reads, Radde’s Accentor is ‘easy’ or ‘numerous’ on the lower juniper clad slopes. Having managed to miss it on our traumatically curtailed afternoon visit last year (petrol gauge on red etc etc) I was bound to see it this time wasn’t I, having set aside all day for mountain walking?
We drove slowly from the hotel which is at c1800m altitude, right up to the end of the road at Lake Kari (3190m), stopping several times to check likely-looking habit for the ‘Common as muck Accentor’ but also to watch other avian activity. Lots of Common Kestrel hunting the slopes, as were Steppe Buzzard, a handsome Long-legged Buzzard and Eurasian Sparrowhawk. The raptor highlights though were two adult male Pallid Harrier which seemed in a hurry to go south towards the sunshine we’d now left below us. The temperature had plummeted and a little sleet had started falling so I couldn’t blame them. A cracking female Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush posed obligingly on a rock to have its photo taken and Raven cronked overhead.
When the extinct volcano that is Mount Aragats erupted it must have made quite a bang, the lunar landscape created by the volcanic rocks strewn everywhere is dramatic, much appreciated though by the many Northern Wheatear perching on them. The lake at the end of the road is artificial and search as I might, I couldn’t find any Citrine Wagtail as some have done here, plenty of White Wags and surprisingly a Great Crested Grebe snoozing on the water.
We walked up towards one of the four peaks of the mountain but turned around at around 3500m altitude because I was knack…, er, because the cloud closed in. Water Pipit were numerous as were Horned/Shore Lark ssp penicillata and ‘Caucasian’ Twite ssp brevirostris. Red-billed Chough were kchouawing on the crater’s edge, and smart Black Redstart (the red-bellied ssp ochruros) and Alpine Accentor were also present. We weren’t brave enough to try the famous Khash dish (a sort of cow heel soup) at the little restaurant by the lake but warmed up with kebab and chips and a fizzy drink to restore energy after our chilly high altitude walk.
In the afternoon we descended into the sunshine at around 2250m and added more species (a magnificent Lammergeier, Woodlark, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird and still singing Mountain Chiffchaff) at various stops where the ‘Piece of cake Accentor’ has been seen (by others) and around the picturesque Amberd Church and fortress.
So, another spectacular Radde’s Accentor failure on my part, the next day we were to go north to Spitak with the supplies and winter clothes we’d brought for the refugee and villager project we’re involved with, looked like the pre-breakfast sortie was going to be a bit ‘stressful’…………..
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Old Wednesday 25th September 2019, 10:24   #2
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A great read Richard and some nice photos! Keep it coming!

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Old Wednesday 25th September 2019, 16:33   #3
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Thanks Chris, three photos to give people a flavour of the area birded on the first day: the road up through the boulder field, birding on Aragats at c3500metres altitude, Amberd Church in the late afternoon sunshine.
The temperature range was something else - flakes of snow falling and I'd say around 4°C in the morning up on the mountain, late afternoon around Amberd nice and sunny and temps in the low 20s!
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Old Wednesday 25th September 2019, 16:36   #4
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What's that funny lifeform in photo 2? :)
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Old Wednesday 25th September 2019, 16:41   #5
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Nicely evocative photos Richard!

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Old Wednesday 25th September 2019, 19:01   #6
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What's that funny lifeform in photo 2? :)
With the thin air at that altitude I felt more like a ‘half-life’ form Jos
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Old Thursday 26th September 2019, 06:30   #7
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Thanks for the name-check - I think - nice report, sounds interesting! Your car has reminded me of a prehistoric joke: What do you call a Skoda full of food?

A Lada.

I'll get my coat.....

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Old Friday 27th September 2019, 06:57   #8
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Nice stuff Richard - like my trip it was a birding compromise but the bride likes birds etc so it all works out OK

I used Google Translate extensively in Georgia having downloaded the relative software to use Georgian offline. Armenian should be availible and although we do learn the relevant courtesy words we cannot learn the range of languages with the areas we visit so this software is excellent for us.

We would like to visit Armenia but don’t want to just go to Yerevan.
As we do not drive we will have to select a couple of places to stop so that i can mooch or cycle.

Good birding -

Laurie -

P.S. i don’t have a problem with a 23yo plane as long as it is maintained better than the Lada The last B52 was made in 1963 iirc and the current crews are far younger than the aircraft but then again it is a different maintenance regime.
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Old Friday 27th September 2019, 11:48   #9
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Nice stuff Richard - like my trip it was a birding compromise but the bride likes birds etc so it all works out OK

I used Google Translate extensively in Georgia having downloaded the relative software to use Georgian offline. Armenian should be availible and although we do learn the relevant courtesy words we cannot learn the range of languages with the areas we visit so this software is excellent for us.

We would like to visit Armenia but don’t want to just go to Yerevan.
As we do not drive we will have to select a couple of places to stop so that i can mooch or cycle.

Good birding -

Laurie -

P.S. i don’t have a problem with a 23yo plane as long as it is maintained better than the Lada The last B52 was made in 1963 iirc and the current crews are far younger than the aircraft but then again it is a different maintenance regime.
I agree re the aircraft, was glad the Tupolev 154 sitting rusting away at Yerevan was no longer being used, it was a nice flight and the seats were leather (I think).
Outside of Yerevan ( where we found they now have ‘pick up and drop off anywhere’ bikes for hire)it is rare to see adults on cycles, apart from foreigners doing the modern equivalent of the Hippy Trail to Kabul of my youth, we met one Swiss lad who had set off from home four months previously, he was about to cross into Iran but hadn’t decided between Oman or Pakistan as the destination after that! He had heard Wolf duetting at times when he’d been wild camping in the mountains
In Armenia a lot of visitors hire a car with driver for the day ( the hotels can organise this). I believe it’s reasonably priced too, I don’t know if Rylirk of this parish used that method for his recent Armash visit.

Will add the next installment once the gardening backlog has been dealt with....
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Old Sunday 29th September 2019, 20:04   #10
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14 September


First light saw me jumping into the Niva and pootling up the hill on my latest Radde’s quest. “Up with the lark” thought I as I noticed two Woodlark beside the hotel car park and a very smart juv. Levant Sparrowhawk breezed past, a plumage tick for me! Maybe it was because I was out earlier than the previous day but there were a lot more birds about as the first rays of sunshine warmed up the roadside bushes and trees, more Tree Pipits but also some new for the trip species such as Roller, a cracking male samamisicus Common Redstart and at least 30 Rock Sparrows on roadside wires. Numerous Red-backed Shrikes crowned the bushes and I had just about convinced myself that I could hear a nearby Ring Ousel at one stop when a Blackbird flew out of the vegetation (must have been calling with an Armenian accent I suppose). At another likely-looking spot I wandered around, flushing a group of five or six Rock Buntings and a slightly smaller, streaky-backed bird that fortunately landed atop a berry-laden bush some 50m away. Even without lifting my binoculars I could see a striking pale supercilium and my suspicions were confirmed when I looked closer, a Radde’s Accentor at last! It called with a quiet, Dunnock-like squeak (which I realised I had heard the evening before on our fruitless search!) and I tried to creep closer using the bushes as cover. I managed to photograph it a couple of times before it slipped away never to be seen again (well, not by me anyway).
On my way back down to the hotel I stopped in some interesting-looking woodland, two Hoopoe and a Blue Tit were by the road and a Syrian Woodpecker was busy doing what woodpeckers do while a Spotted Flycatcher and a couple of Common Chiffchaff were busy catching their breakfast. Rounding a corner I was confronted by a pale form Booted Eagle staring at me from a bare branch! Although it didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence (presumably having roosted and awaiting a bit of warmth before taking off) I retreated immediately and soon heard it call and receive a reply from a second hidden individual. Five minutes later the two eagles and a Black Kite were heading south. My pre-breakfast joy was however tempered somewhat by me discovering a cardboard box hidden under a tree from which trotted out at least four very young puppies, presumably abandoned. Another Levant Sparrowhawk and a flock of Bee-eater were around the hotel when I got back for my breakfast.
We took the cross-country road east to join the Yerevan to Vanadzor M3 highway at the Armenian letters monument, going from the forested mountainside to a more open, almost steppe-like habitat. A few species more typical of this terrain were seen on our way to, and return from Spitak, Lesser Spotted Eagle, a ringtail Harrier, Tawny Pipit and Isabelline Wheatear as well as the ever present Red-backed Shrikes, Steppe and Long-legged Buzzards and Northern Wheatear. Some mixed flocks of Jackdaw and Hooded Crow were in the fields. Approaching Spitak we started seeing people selling potatoes and cabbages on the roadside, a change from the mushrooms we saw being sold on our May 2018 visit.
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Old Sunday 29th September 2019, 21:23   #11
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Glad your perseverance was rewarded with the Radde's.
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Old Sunday 29th September 2019, 23:42   #12
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Nice, Richard. I think I have that same photo of the Amberd Church!

And the Radde's was tricky for me, too. It was windy and they weren't actively singing. I got one on my last chance before we had to leave.
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Old Monday 30th September 2019, 04:47   #13
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Great stuff Richard, so pleased you got your Radde's!

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Old Tuesday 1st October 2019, 15:08   #14
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Thanks folks, I was fearing total mockery if I failed again to find that Radde's to be sure!
A few landscape shots from the second day.
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Old Tuesday 1st October 2019, 17:41   #15
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I am willing to bet that vehicle has no road tax...

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Old Tuesday 1st October 2019, 18:18   #16
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I am willing to bet that vehicle has no road tax...

Laurie -
Can’t confirm that Laurie, all I do know is that we found it wise to stay well behind it after it broke a few branches off trees just missing the Niva’s bonnet!
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Old Wednesday 2nd October 2019, 06:54   #17
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It is when i read other peoples trip reports that it brings it home the limitations of not driving and consequently this is relected in species seen. For a trip that is a ‘non-birding’ compromise (mine always are) your list and sites are mouth-watering

I do have a good birding friend who not only sells cars but does a bit of rally-driving from time to time. A bit of a ‘Clarkson’ but without the controversy and rudeness.....that’s where i step in We keep musing about a coupla weeks in Oman or Mongolia (i have both field guides) but get reined in by ‘brides’. I intend to finally go on a ‘bucket list’ trip to Eilat next year on a 2 week at least foray either side of the Spring Festival. It will be an unshackled jaunt with only a folding Brompton to service and maintain

More of Armenia when you are ready please...

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Old Wednesday 2nd October 2019, 13:38   #18
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Biking around Eilat should be OK Laurie (apart from up to the raptor watchpoint in the Eilat Mountains of course), look forward to hearing how that goes next year.

15 September

Today was going to consist of a marathon drive east from the slopes of Aragats to the town of Goris, on the border with the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, a journey of around 320kms I had estimated. A 20 minute pre-breakfast stroll close to the hotel produced no additions to the trip list but a very noisy Syrian Woodpecker gave close views (my camera left in the bedroom of course), yet more Tree Pipits were on the move, there were a couple of Hoopoe around a pylon and a Rock Bunting in the hotel’s car park.

We set off, descending onto the already hot and dusty plain to the west of Yerevan, passing through the cathedral town of Ejmiatsin where the Katholoikos (equivalent to the Pope) of the Armenian Apostolic (or Gregorian) church has his HQ. While we were stuck at some traffic lights a Laughing Dove flew over and we saw our first White Stork. Rather than try to negotiate Yerevan’s traffic jams we continued almost to the Turkish border and then turned east to Masis where we could pick up the motorway and then main road going south east from the capital. This involved around 14kms of bone-shaking unmade road, but nothing as bad as some routes we’d taken in 2018 (when some potholes had seemed big enough to swallow the car). There are several commercial fish farms near Masis which some birders have visited but the reeds were so high we couldn’t see any water from the road, though the river running alongside had Little Grebe, Moorhen, Pygmy Cormorant and Armenian Gull on it. A huge refuse landfill site nearby had at least 200 White Storks and around a dozen Black Kites on and over it and a flock of c20 Common Starling whizzed past. Steaming down the motorway at the Niva’s dizzying cruising speed of 80km/h (50 mph) we began to see lots of locals selling grapes, watermelons and corn cobs by the roadside.
It may seem a sacrilege, but we had decided not to visit the WP hotspot of Armash Ponds this visit, mainly due to time constraints and also a wish to see new sites. BUT, seeing as we had to drive past them it was a no-brainer to decide to stop on the approach road for our late – morning comfort break, there were also some yummy pastries given to us by our Syrian refugee friends at Spitak to finish off. Plenty of birds to see even outside the ponds, including Marsh Harrier, Black-headed and Armenian Gull, White-winged Tern, Little Egret, Night Heron, Common Cuckoo, Blue-cheeked and European Bee eater, Black-headed Wagtail, Black-eared Wheatear, a showy young/female Ménétries' Warbler and more skulking Reed and Paddyfield Warblers, Penduline Tit and hirundines, including our only Sand Martins of the trip. After Armash the road heads north for a while and then east, a combination of roadworks and Sunday drivers over the next 175 kms made for stressful driving, we saw the aftermath of three road accidents, the only ones during our holiday (apart from a couple of Yerevan traffic light minor bumps), driving quality is generally good, the little bad driving we did see was often by people driving Russian registered cars. The landscape changed from the flat lowland to rolling grassland, hillsides and mountain passes (each having spring water for filling up your bottles) and wooded valleys alongside rivers. No stops specifically for birding but we nevertheless clocked a group of six Lesser Kestrels, Common Kestrel, smart Long-legged and Steppe Buzzards, unidentified large lark sp approaching one mountain pass (Bimaculated most likely), Rock Dove, Eastern Orphean Warbler and more Rock Bunting. Each time we stopped for a comfort break or water bottle fill up we could hear flocks of European Bee eaters migrating high overhead.
We finally arrived at the pleasant town of Goris (very little in the way of Soviet- era blocks of flats) just before 6 pm, on reflection a bit too much driving for one day, but as we only had the ten days it was a compromise enabling us to at least spend two nights in each place instead of being constantly checking in and checking out of accommodation.
(After photographing the Tern, Cuckoo and the Ménétries I realised I had my camera on an odd setting, hence the overexposed look of those three. Mind you, the conditions were hazy so once back on the normal settings the Blue-cheeked Bee eater pics looked too dark, good job I’m a birder first and photographer a distant second)
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Old Friday 4th October 2019, 14:15   #19
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16 September

The only rain of this year’s trip had fallen during the night, early morning entertainment looking out of our bedroom window was therefore provided by White Wagtails sliding down a wet skylight on the roof of an adjacent building, the view of the high ground surrounding Goris was somewhat limited but I managed to see Blue Tit, Raven, House Sparrow and Hobby before going down for another stupendous Armenian breakfast.
After the marathon of the previous day we limited our time in the car by just visiting the spectacular Tatev Monastery site about 30kms from Goris. It is very much on the must-see list for tourist groups visiting Armenia and most people visit get to it by taking the world’s longest (5.7kms) cable car ride, the system was built by an Italian company in 2010. However we had decided to drive down into the gorge and up the other side to get there which was a good move on two counts, firstly we could stop en route and secondly, it was Monday and it turns out that the cable car is closed for maintenance that day each week! So there was a third benefit, one of Armenia’s most spectacular historical sites was bereft of tourists except us and two Armenian families when we arrived. Using our trusty Reise Know-How map of Armenia we were able to find a cross-country unmade road out of Goris and had a bumpy but interesting 10kms drive until we met the surfaced road near a deserted airport at Khot. Near the Goris cemetery we saw our first Stonechat of the trip, according to Shirihai and Svensson it should be Eastern Stonechat ssp variegatus in this more southerly part of Armenia but I wasn’t convinced - perhaps I’ll post the photos separately so some of the Birdforum folk can have some fun discussing them. The wooded slopes on climbing out of Goris had Wren , Green Woodpecker, Blackbird and Jay in good numbers, then we crossed a grassland plateau where raptor activity increased, a couple each of Lesser Spotted Eagle and Booted Eagle, Harrier sp, Common Kestrel and Levant Sparrowhawk and nearly each isolated bush had a Red-backed Shrike on it. Above the gorge and around the Tatev site it was quite birdy, plenty of Griffon Vulture, a Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard and occasional migrating as well as local Steppe Buzzard (forgot to mention that the only real group of migrating birds of prey we saw anywhere was a kettle of c75 Steppe Buzzards at the Pamb Pass just south of Spitak on the 14th). We picked out a lone Red-rumped Swallow with its commoner cousins and Crag Martin were in the gorge itself. A couple of Mountain Chiffchaff were still singing and I heard a Blackcap ticking in the blackberry bushes, all to the music of Bee-eaters migrating overhead. Back in Goris for late afternoon the Vienna Park was birdless despite some decent-looking trees, both Levant Sparrowhawk and Hobby were flying about so that might have kept passerines’ heads down. I resolved to explore the two town parks early the next morning…….
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Old Friday 4th October 2019, 22:32   #20
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Sounds like "not visiting the ponds" was a wildly successful strategy!
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Old Saturday 5th October 2019, 05:56   #21
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Keep it coming Richard!

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Old Tuesday 8th October 2019, 19:52   #22
ClarkWGriswold
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A cracking read Rich with some great photos.

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Old Saturday 12th October 2019, 16:23   #23
Richard Prior
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17 and 18 September

(As I suspected, the Stonechats we saw were normal European ones, expanding their range further east it seems.)

Best laid plans and all that, my ideas of an early morning exploration of Goris’ town parks were scuppered as I couldn’t get out of the well-secured hotel courtyard!
So we pointed the Niva southwards from Goris on the twisty main road to Kapan, Meghri and Iran, progress was slow with the steep inclines and hairpin bends down into and then out of the deep Vorotan Gorge which made driving hard work (mind you, it’s worse for the Iranian lorry drivers with their heavy loads). Still the slow speeds and occasional water stops enabled us to see or hear a few passerines, including our first Chaffinch, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Sombre Tit, Blackcap and Common Whitethroat. We had a great view of two Egyptian Vulture wheeling over the gorge, an adult and a young bird and a Great Spotted Woodpecker was another addition.
At Kapan you have a choice of roads south, we chose the newer more easterly one which the lorries all avoid, it is a good road with gentler gradients than the old one, but has no petrol stations or towns/large villages which I assume is the reason they don’t use it. It passes through beautiful scenery that becomes more mineral as the road descends into the Arax valley, the river forms the frontier with Iran and perched on the barbed wire was a Roller (awaiting its visa perhaps) and a Chukar scuttled across the road in front of us. Around the B & B Haer where we were to stay we saw three Turtle Dove. I found a Spotted Flycatcher in the nearby cemetery and overhead picked out Blue-cheeked Bee Eaters calling as well as the more regular European ones. A light form Booted Eagle drifted across to the Iranian mountains. Meghri is renowned for its figs, almost every house with a garden or orchard had racks of figs drying outside in the shade and there were trees with ripe pomegranate fruit looking like red baubles on a Christmas tree. Our amazing host Marietta greeted us with tea and all sorts of fruit upon our mid-afternoon arrival and the evening meal was excellent.
Through Karen Aghababyan our Armenian Bird Council contact we had arranged to have a guided half day in the Arevik National Park, an area normally out of bounds without escort. Among the rare species in the park is Caucasian Leopard, the tiny population hanging on thanks to the efforts of the dedicated rangers.
Despite the scheduled 6am pick up Marietta provided us with breakfast (and hopefully went back to bed afterwards!). The Park ranger ‘Haro’ was a big guy with a big smile, dressed in army fatigues but he only spoke Armenian and Russian which made communication tricky (I suspect Karen had asked for one of the Park’s staff that speaks some English but there had been an availability problem). The area we visited was certainly off the beaten track (or any track for that matter) and birding tricky with all the bumping about. As the 4WD started climbing a group of four or five Black Francolin crossed the track and further up some of the usual high altitude species were seen, such as Red-billed Chough and Water Pipit ssp coutellii (one a very smart example with almost rusty flanks). The highlights, though distant (typically for this difficult to approach species) were two or perhaps three Caspian Snowcock, one having a dawn preen on a rock and later two having a bit of a chase round the ridge. It was pretty chilly so when Haro said “Tea” we didn’t say no! But instead of producing a flask from inside the vehicle it was back down the track to a little farm where we were treated like royalty by the couple and their friend from the only village in the whole area it seemed. More Stonechat, Red-backed Shrike, Black Redstart and Sombre Tit were seen as we regained the valley, passing a working gold mine just outside Meghri (no free samples available though). On reflection I think we should have asked to stay longer up on the mountain (we’d put on our walking boots for nothing it turned out!) and would surely have seen more than we did, but the overall experience, especially visiting the farm was one to remember.
All this meant we were back at the digs by 11 instead of the 2pm I had imagined, so after a quick wash and brush up (and change into ‘summer plumage’ clothes as it was warming up now) we crossed the centre of Meghri and turned up to the fairly open wadi just beyond the Primary School.
As soon as we got out of the car we saw what I presumed was a Persian Wheatear fly off! A few minutes of panic ensued until we relocated it and were able to watch it chasing a second one. A couple of Upcher’s Warbler were flicking and fluttering as they do and a cracking male Finsch’s Wheatear showed briefly. Both Western and Eastern Rock Nuthatch were present as was Sombre Tit and Chukar. A strange call was coming from the mountains flanking the wadi, I would describe the sound as half donkey, half bird!
We then pootled down to the Arax and passed a very pleasant hour eating crisps and drinking beer (in my case anyway) on a shaded pontoon floating in Meghri Pond, complete with feral ducks quacking away. Try as I might I couldn’t find any Crakes or Citrine Wagtail on the water’s edge, just Coot, Moorhen, Little Grebe and White Wagtail. A lost-looking Woodpigeon flew over and an Isabelline Wheatear was on the border fence.
Photos of Lammergeier from earlier, Stonechat rubicola and Persian Wheatear
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Old Sunday 13th October 2019, 03:43   #24
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Some quality birds there - I never knew Black Francolin got that far west.

Cheers
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Old Sunday 13th October 2019, 05:32   #25
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A great read Richard, most evocative!

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