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Georgia/Armenia 25.4-7.5.2019 (1 Viewer)

opisska

Jan Ebr
Czech Republic
Summary:

In 12 days in Georgia and Armenia we observed 185 species of birds, which is by far our best result on a single trip in WP - while this may be more than anything indicative of our very gradual improvement above the category of “world's worst birders”, the variety of habitats offered by this area is truly fascinating. I scored 17 of my 22 WP targets (as detailed below), while my wife got two more (Wallcreeper and Twite) that I already had. The missed targets were the 3 “easier to see in Turkey” ones, namely See-see Partridge, Mongolian Finch and Caspian Snowcock (the last one definitely not for the lack of effort on our side) and two species that have not yet arrived from their wintering grounds (Pale Rock Sparrow and Rosy Starling). When planning the trip it seemed that seeing anything new beyond those targets is next to impossible, but during our presence in Georgia, Amur Falcon and Cinereous Bunting were reported (sadly very far from where we just were), so it's definitely worthwhile to be on the lookout for rarities in these terribly underwatched countries.

Both Georgia and Armenia are wonderful countries with almost unbelievable nature for how close they are to central Europe (just 3 hours flight time from Warsaw) - I was in constant awe to see landscapes I only previously knew from central Asia. While the various convoluted and hostile borders of the region make the local topology sometimes complex, the persistent conflicts do not affect travel to “main bodies” of Georgia and Armenia and both countries are as easy destinations for an independent traveller as it gets. Unsurprisingly then, this trip has found a fixed place on the itinerary of any WP birder. Surprisingly, I found it relatively hard to find information I was looking for, thus this report.

Practical:

With easy flight access, trouble-free wild camping everywhere (and apparently easily available hotels, if you are into that) and no visas for EU citizens, the only real thing to arrange beforehand (besides airfare) is a car. My friends convinced me that a 4x4 is needed, which I came to regret quickly, because we started in Stepantsminda, where we could in principle have done with no car at all and the difference between the range of roads available to a normal car and a 4x4 was fairly limited as most interesting tracks were blocked by deep snow or landslides. In Armenia, having a 4x4 made exploration easier, but in most cases it only saves the last hundreds of meters to a few kilometers of walking. The idea perpetuated by some that you need a 4x4 because the main roads in Armenia are too bad is preposterous and if you have a problem driving the M2 in a sedan, you shouldn't embark on independent driving trips at all. At the end of the day, since we already had a capable car, we went to several crazy places and enjoyed it very much, but if money is tight and you want to visit only the well known sites, a sedan will do; the only major walking would be required for visits to the deeper parts of the Ooranots valleys (the Pale Rock Sparrow site is the furthest point accessible to a normal car). An important aspect to consider when choosing a car is that not only we shelled out 750 EUR for the 12-day rental, but we also drove 3500 kms at the eye-gauging fuel efficiency of 13 liters per 100 kms, which also added to the expenses.

That having said, the rental company in Kutaisi (PARent, booked through http://cars4rent.ge) was great, it's basically a guy with some cars, who speaks some English and is available 24/7 on phone/WhatsApp. That became handy when the car started throwing red warnings deep into Armenia. He helped us arrange a diagnostics which has shown it's only a broken fan and the solution was to let the car cool down during long ascents and/or do those in the coldest parts of the day. He can't be blamed for not providing a replacement car in Armenia as that would require immense and maybe even impossible customs paperwork. Even with this slight disability, the Toyota 4runner was still the best 4x4 I have ever seen and we drove some insane tracks. The cross-border papers provided were in perfect order with no troubles in customs.

Some more “practical” tips:

- At the border, we purchased Armenian insurance for 45 EUR, not blinking an eye about the price which was the same as what my friend paid last year. After reading some reports, we may have been both scammed, so better shop around. It's not perfectly clear whether this is 100% needed, but the rental guy said it “probably is”.

- The shortcut through Tatev (instead of going M2 through Goris) felt 4x4 only, so did the Batumi-Akhaltsikhe road (the high pass on it), but we have met sedans there (I would have turned around though). Both roads across the mountains south of Kutaisi (above Sairme and to Bakhmaro) were closed at around 1100 meters a.s.l. Going to Trinity Church above Stepantsminda required a 4x4 because of an ice/mud barrier, which is right at the top and thus can be solved by walking - but please don't park right below it in the narrow part!

- The main road from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda passes a high pass when the traffic is sometimes regulated to be one-way only - sometimes apparently for trucks only, sometimes for all traffic. If you see a queue of tracks that everyone passes, pass it as well, mindful of oncoming traffic. Do not pass a queue of personal cars even if you see some people doing that (see below) and generally expect delays in the order of hours.

- As much as the landscapes, also the driving habits of the people are decidedly central-asian. The special local twist is the how big of an asshole everyone is on the road. The idea of letting a faster vehicle voluntarily pass on a mountain road probably cannot be even formulated in either language and people won't stick to their side of the road even when you are already in the middle of the passing maneuver. On the other hand, some low flying pilots will gladly pass through blind corners… The most irritating to me however were the hordes of Russians around Stepantsminda who were driving as if the other participants in the traffic were just annoying bugs to them, skipping queues on single-lane bottlenecks, speeding into oncoming traffic… and then stopping in both lanes in full trafic to chat window-to-window. Why doesn't the Georgian police just confiscate their expensive SUVs for repeated offenses is beyond me, it would be such a great boost to the budget!

- The local cuisine is reportedly great but I wouldn't know anything about it as almost every Caucasian dish contains coriander leaves that are beyond disgusting to me. The only place where I enjoyed eating out was the “Food court” next to Lider in Vank, where I could see the meal first and talk English to the clerk. Bread, vegetables and something to cheer you up is available in small shops even in remote places.

- The border between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh seems non-existent around the M2 and the area is not troubled, but going deeper east is probably not a good idea. The border with Iran must not be photographed and we were subject to a control after birding there, but with friendly courtesy. The border with Azerbaijan around M4 is also not visible as it seems Armenia has gained some ground there. It is however problematic to climb the mountains above Shuakhevi in SW Georgia towards Turkey, where we were being held for about an hour some 3 kms from the border (but eventually released and told to leave).

- The mountains above Meghri form the Arevik National Park and sadly Armenians have caught wind of the idea that protected areas can be milked by making them accessible with a guide only. The signs prohibiting access are well visible and there is no way to claim ignorance; at least the side road all the way to Kaler and a bit beyond is freely accessible.
The only other place requiring a permit was the Armash fishponds - we were able to just get our passports photographed and our 10 Euro collected upon arrival but this may have worked only thanks to another group being present as far as we can tell (the day before, there was noone to talk to).

- If you ever need Wi-Fi in Georgia, locate a “Public Service Hall” and park outside (except on Batumi). The one in Stepantsminda has served us very well. (Or, you can just get a SIM card as you leave the baggage claim upon arrival, but we do things our way…)

- Finally a fun observation for Wizzair passengers: despite what they say on their website, they do not require you to print the boarding pass yourself, everyone gets a new one for free anyway, so we could have spared the adventure of trying to find a printer in Georgia.

A tricky question when planning this trip is the timing. We have chosen the dates based on the “Stepantsminda effect” where the Caucasian rarities are more easily seen in the valley before the snow melts, but I am not entirely convinced that this is the best strategy, because looking for them higher up later would probably just have been more fun than endlessly scouring bushes around a village and the early birding in Armenia suffered by lack of late migrants. On the other hand, we would have probably missed the Demoiselle Cranes had we had come any later and especially around Meghri the weather was already uncomfortably warm at that time, so coming any later would have been probably unpleasant. As it usually happens with our trips, the compromise we have chosen combined the worst of both options as the reports of the Redstarts around Stepantsminda died out the day before we arrived, but we have won this one after all.

From reports I found online, I liked that of Petri Hottola (http://www.bongariliitto.fi/files/7518/Georgia_ja_Armenia_Hottola_P_2016.pdf) the most for his relatable attitude (he basically won me over at the point where he calls the russians “tourists” in quotation marks) and rare coverage of the Meghri area, but the list of GPS locations for birds in Wim Heylen's short piece (https://www.cloudbirders.com/tripreport/repository/HEYLEN_Georgia_Armenia_05_2014.pdf) was equally useful. Some nice people have actually made a basic brochure (http://www.scanbird.com/Birding Armenia brochure .pdf) about birding in Armenia. A pretty handy guide is Michal Šindel's article (https://www.klub300.cz/clanky/cestopisy/413-gruzie-armenie-4-5-14-5-2018), but it is available only in Czech - despite Michal being the person who convinced me to do this trip, I somehow failed to read it beforehand and then ended up reinventing the wheel at several points… Other obvious sources are ebird and observation, but especially in Armenia the records are sometimes scarce.

Sites and birds:

For this trip, it couldn't find a way to organize the findings well neither by sites nor by species, so here goes the hodgepodge soup of everything. Birds in bold are the target species (on which I focus), but only when found - those not seen are marked in bold italic; occasional comments on other interesting birds and mammals are denoted in just italic.

- We knew Demoiselle Cranes do pass through Georgia in April, but for such a late date, the reports were few. Knowing time was against us, we stopped at Bazaleti Lake on the first day and found a flock a short while after sunset. The lake is deceptively large and we haven't found them from the opposite, easily accessible eastern shore, but we were lucky that we tried a wonky 4x4 track at the western shore - you know, since we already had the 4x4 (this will be a common theme).

- In Stepantsminda, we heard a Caucasian Snowcock while getting out of the car by the smaller church to the east of the village, but it took us quite some work to locate it in binoculars in the huge area of the slopes.

- Expecting the birding to be easy, I had not prepared much about specific sites in the area, so we tried to drive around here and there for Caucasian Grouse, only then to learn that it should be seen at the same site as the Snowcock, which we did the next morning. The bird was very far, but the morning air was exceptionally clear and steady.

- There, some people told us that the bushes above the bottommost turn of the road to the church are good for Great Rosefinch, so we walked there a bit uphill and found many, but always only females. (42.651069, 44.655626)

- And so the plight for the Güldenstädt's Redstart started. We searched literally high and low, trying multiple bushy sites (in particular those with sea-buckthorn) in the valley as well as hiking 500+ meters of altitude above the Trinity Church in deep snow to no avail. As we were about to give up, a sighting appeared on observation.org from the bushy area below the waterworks downstream of the village, so we paid it a second visit and after several hours (!) found a splendid male at 42.671385, 44.647342. The bird was relatively showy, but it moved around a lot in an area of largely impassable bushes, explaining why it was so hard to find despite having precise reported coordinates available. Note that access to this area is through the village, not from the main road across the river.

- The rock wall in Kobi, right next to the main road, had Wallcreepers as expected from the reports, a WP tick for my wife, but no Bearded Vultures were to be found anywhere. In general, there were next to zero migrating raptors around Stepantsminda, very unlike any report we have seen.

- We have already seen convincing Mountain Chiffchaffs last winter in Kuwait, so we did not look for them, but the songs of almost any Chiffchaffs around Stepantsminda was, even to us, clearly of this species.

- With birding being a little underwhelming to me, the pride of the area was saved by mammals. First and foremost, we have finally seen a Lynx - on the road to Juta (42.562437, 44.707194), just before the landslide that blocks it. From the ridge high above Trinity church, we could observe several groups of Eastern Tur on the other side of the deep gorge to the north, let’s say somewhere around 42.669618, 44.587091.

- Moving on to Armenia, Mount Aragats may have been another place where an early visit was actually beneficial. The main road uphill above the turnoff to the Amberd Fortress was still under a lot of snow, but the road to the fortress was cleared and so we took it, only to bump into a couple of Asian Crimson-winged Finches. Those presumably move much higher once the snow melts a bit.

- The fortress had a Radde's Accentor; other birders we met reported two White-throated Robins along the road, but we found none - we didn't search hard because we expected to see them later on (which we did in plentiful amounts). We did, however, found a lot of Twites (WP tick for my wife).

- Amberd Fortress and the access road also produced several Bearded Vultures. To our surprise, we also saw more of those later on in Armenia, including from the car at two random spots along the southern M2 and in Vedi 2.

- We arrived to the Armash ponds in the afternoon to find a closed gate and noone around, so we, following Hottola, resorted to birding the area outside the gate. As we notoriously suck at sounds, listening to reed warblers only brought confusion. The next morning, we managed to enter and the area inside is indeed more attractive. Yet still, it took us several hours to find a convincing Paddyfield Warbler which showed well enough for us to identify it visually, not just by voice. Once you find a showy bird, the difference from other reed warblers is surprisingly striking.

- Along the access way to the ponds (inside the fence) we found a flock of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters on wires. There were also White-tailed Lapwings close to the entry gate (inside) and plentiful Menetries’ Warblers all around the ponds, but again, we had both species from Kuwait.

- Above Armash, four valleys are known and easily accessible for birding. Let’s call them following other reports: Ooranots 1 (39.798903, 44.846086), Ooranots 2 (39.826143, 44.838430), Vedi 1 (39.945565, 44.743892) and Vedi 2 (39.952058, 44.706037). We stopped in most of them after Armash ponds and then again on the way back from Meghri as we were still lacking Pale Rock Sparrow and “lacking” Mongolian Finch. The valleys offer similar landscapes, with White-throated Robins relatively common in most of them and typically also Finsch's and Isabelline Wheatears, but other species differed. Nowhere in the area we found any Upcher's Warbler though.

- Vedi 1 is the site for Mongolian Finches, so we have spent a lot of time here (including a night camping on the lovely grassland), but, not really surprisingly, found none of those. At least there were Eastern Rock Nuthatches, Trumpeter Finches and a bit surprisingly the only Western Rock Nuthatch we found.

- Vedi 2 produced the only Gray-headed Bunting of the trip a little bit above the picnic spot as well as Eastern Rock Nuthatches and Desert Finches. The 4x4 trails can be followed further into a vast country of sheep herds and general emptiness and it is eventually possible to reach a tarmac road to Kaghterashen - which I very, very strongly recommend you to not try, considering the state of the track (or, rather, lack thereof) at one critical part.

- In Ooranots 1 I believe most people go only as far as the Pale Rock Sparrow site (39.788137, 44.817080), but the 4x4 road continues for a few kilometers (you need to discuss your plans with a local when passing the houses, but they are friendly). Further 3 kms of walking bring you to a drinking place (39.80558, 44.873485) an area that has one Mongolian Finch record on ebird and is thus worth checking. On the way, only a few hundred meters from the car, we have unexpectedly seen a pair of Red-tailed (Persian) Wheatears, quite a rarity in this area! (39.800539, 44.851157)

- Ooranots 2 had Bimaculated Lark in the lower parts and Levant Sparrowhawk in the upper, but note that the whole 8-km road is really 4x4 only.

- Following Hottola, we searched the green forests south of Goris along the M2. The side road to Bardzravan was especially pleasant and at 39.389006, 46.367947 we got good views several Green Warblers; the only other place where we at least heard them was in Dilijan. This area also had some rather weird looking Coal Tits, is that a known thing? No Semicollared Flycatchers were found anywhere in these forests though.

- Around Meghri, we searched in vain for Pale Rock Sparrows (using ebird sites around the road west of the town, roughly 38.900605, 46.215477) and the mythical See-see Partridge (focusing on the tarmac road to Alvank and the short 4x4 track above Araksashen). However the latter area produced (with some walking) at least the only Upcher’s Warbler of the trip around 38.916105, 46.289442 and some more White-throated Robins.

- In Dilijan, we followed a recent observation of Semicollared Flycatcher to Parz Lich, where we walked pointlessly for an hour in rain only to see the bird easily from the parked car, foraging atypically on the ground around the lake shore.

- If you ever find yourself desperately missing Krüper's Nuthatch, take a flight to Tbilisi and use the city public transport to reach Kojori. There, near a main road, one was rather easily found (first by call) around 41.667953, 44.663951.

- A very specific topic of the trip was the repeated early morning search for the Caspian Snowcock, based on Hottola and on single sightings on ebird and observation.org. The side road through Vank (not the big town, but a village above Meghri) to Kaler was in a good condition for a sedan, but with a 4x4, we could drive even a bit above Kaler, where a good view for scoping the hills presents itself. A very recent sighting above Yelpin motivated us to try the hard 4x4 ascent despite the cooling issues and the 4runner somehow made it all the way to 2300 meters a.s.l., a few minutes walk from the impossibly great viewpoint at 39.847839, 45.153605. The ebird record (https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46486847) at 41.609051, 42.178770, which is some 600 meters a.s.l. in a deep forest close to Shuakhevi seems to be most likely a mistake, as even the attached photos show a completely different habitat, but since we were already there, we gave the hills high above the valley a shot - leading to the above-mentioned issues with the army at 41.548303, 42.180660. At least they investigated us in a small gazebo outside with a good view of the slopes and allowed us to search them using binoculars. The mountains south of Kutaisi with more Snowcock records proved inaccessible due to road closures. The overall count of Snowcocks seen or heard remained at zero, but at the Yelpin site, we got a very intimate visit by two Bears - surely the most dramatic mammalwatching experience of our whole lives!

Edit: Maybe an interesting stats - the trip cost us (in 2 people) 970 EUR per person, the vast majority of which (~600 EUR) was the expensive car and gas for it.
 
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Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Supporter
Scotland
Interesting report. I was in Georgia a couple of weeks before you and saw similar stuff. Didn't see any Lynx so well done there. I spent about an hour or so in that spot where you saw it!
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Czech Republic
Interesting report. I was in Georgia a couple of weeks before you and saw similar stuff. Didn't see any Lynx so well done there. I spent about an hour or so in that spot where you saw it!

It was pure luck, it walked across the road on front of our car, we weren't even spotlighting, just driving towards a place we had previously scouted as good for wild camping. At first we thought it's one of the hundreds of dogs roaming the mountains, but the black tail tip gave it away.

Interesting choice coming earlier, as even a few days before our arrival, there was snow even in Stepantsminda according to some birders we met. Was it hard to get around? Were you also in Armenia and if yes, which species were not present yet?
 

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Supporter
Scotland
It was pure luck, it walked across the road on front of our car, we weren't even spotlighting, just driving towards a place we had previously scouted as good for wild camping. At first we thought it's one of the hundreds of dogs roaming the mountains, but the black tail tip gave it away.

Interesting choice coming earlier, as even a few days before our arrival, there was snow even in Stepantsminda according to some birders we met. Was it hard to get around? Were you also in Armenia and if yes, which species were not present yet?

The weather was mostly fine when I was in Stepantsminda, although with a few snow flurries on the first day. Getting around was straight forward, aside from the issues with the one-way system on the main road that you mention (and once the road being briefly blocked). I probably had an easier time than you with the resident specialities, all of which were fairly easily found. There didn't seem to be any Mountain Chiffchaffs in the area though, so a week or two later seems a much better bet for them. Raptor migration was reasonably good while I was there, at least in terms of variety of species.

I didn't go to Armenia. It's a shame - it sounds really good! I did go birding in southeastern Georgia though, which was quite enjoyable.
 

temmie

Well-known member
regarding Georgia / Armenia being underwatched: it is, but not that bad.

Regarding the 2 'first' (Amur and Cinereous bunting):

While both sightings can be valid and I give the observers the benefit of doubt, I haven't seen any thorough description or anything else than the message that those 2 species have been seen, with a video of the bird they call Amur but without any convincing Amur feature but enough Red-footed Falcon features (and not any description why it should be Amur).

So at this point, I would dare to suggest that those two 'firsts' have to pass the rarity committee first.

(disclaimer: My opinion is solely based on the information I have at the moment, and maybe does not reflect the quality of evidence / information held by the observers!)
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Czech Republic
regarding Georgia / Armenia being underwatched: it is, but not that bad.

Regarding the 2 'first' (Amur and Cinereous bunting):

While both sightings can be valid and I give the observers the benefit of doubt, I haven't seen any thorough description or anything else than the message that those 2 species have been seen, with a video of the bird they call Amur but without any convincing Amur feature but enough Red-footed Falcon features (and not any description why it should be Amur).

So at this point, I would dare to suggest that those two 'firsts' have to pass the rarity committee first.

(disclaimer: My opinion is solely based on the information I have at the moment, and maybe does not reflect the quality of evidence / information held by the observers!)

Maybe Georgia is fine, but with Armenia? There don't really seem to be many local birders and the visitors are few, almost exclusively coming in this specific time period and typically sticking to the known sites, while there is just so much room. Even consider the area directly above Vedi, basically devoid of population barring a few dozens of local shepherds - that would have 100000 inhabitants in central Europe, a 100 of them at least casual birders ...
 

baseline

Well-known member
Excellent report Jan! This region is not high on my list of places to visit, and yet I read every word of your report and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Your encounter with that lynx is especially gripping; I might have to re-evaluate my priorities and head that way some time soon!
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Czech Republic
Excellent report Jan! This region is not high on my list of places to visit, and yet I read every word of your report and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Your encounter with that lynx is especially gripping; I might have to re-evaluate my priorities and head that way some time soon!

Thank you! I am never sure if my reports from visiting a place where already hordes of people have been before are of interest to anyone, especially because I am too lazy to make them as neat as those I usually use in my own planning, so it's great to hear that people like to read this. Might even motivate me to work on the backlog of other trips :)
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Czech Republic
Since I don't seem to be able to edit the post anymore, I want to make a retraction at least in a comment:

The Paddyfield Warblers were harder than we thought, because the bird we "clearly saw as different" was a Moustached Warbler! That's why we were so confused about the whole thing, we did not consider that species at all. Then only one convincing Paddyfield Warbler remains in out photos, not very clear, because it was hidden in reeds - and still pretty tricky to ID.

Sorry about that!
 

wolfbirder

Well-known member
Since I don't seem to be able to edit the post anymore, I want to make a retraction at least in a comment:

The Paddyfield Warblers were harder than we thought, because the bird we "clearly saw as different" was a Moustached Warbler! That's why we were so confused about the whole thing, we did not consider that species at all. Then only one convincing Paddyfield Warbler remains in out photos, not very clear, because it was hidden in reeds - and still pretty tricky to ID.

Sorry about that!

It’s one superb area I’ve yet to visit, and it sounds like hard work but very rewarding. Great read Jan. Even though the likes of Israel, Cyprus, and Mallorca are better suited to this old git :)-
 
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