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Our Man in Armenia (and Cyprus too) (1 Viewer)

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Supporter
Scotland
Am currently on a bit of a jaunt to the east of the Western Palearctic. I'm in Armenia for a week or so, sandwiched between a few days in Cyprus. So far, things have been very good.

I arrived at Larnaca in Cyprus in the early hours of Sunday 9th. I stayed nearby for the night and then birded the nearby area when I arose in the morning. My hotel was very near the large Larnaca Salt Lake. As I looked out into the street, a few Laughing Doves made me realise I was on holiday. The stroll to the salt lake revealed a lovely pair of Spur-winged Lapwings, pottering about on an area of waste ground, and a Wryneck was in the trees nearby. The salt lake held plenty of Greater Flamingos, a Ruddy Shelduck flew over, a few Slender-billed Gulls were in the distance and two lovely Marsh Sandpipers were among the numerous Ruff.

I then continued on my way, calling in at Larnaca Sewage Works. The observation tower gives good views over the pools, where a Garganey was among the commoner ducks. A few Little Terns were flying over and there were more Spur-winged Lapwings and Slender-billed Gulls. A female Spectacled Warbler appeared in the nearby scrub. Just up the road at Spiro's Pool were lots of Kentish Plovers and Little Stints. In the nearby field, I managed to see the head of a Black Francolin as it poked above the wheat to call loudly.

I then headed off west to Paphos, where I was staying for the night. After checking in, I headed to the archaeological site at Paphos headland, hoping for some migrants. I wasn't to be disappointed. Most obvious were the numerous Yellow Wagtails, mostly either Black-headed or Blue-headed. Among them were a Tree Pipit, a Tawny Pipit and several Ortolan Buntings. Woodchat Shrikes dotted the small bushes and a Red-rumped Swallow flew over. A few Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and a single Isabelline Wheatear were also around the edge of the ruins. In one corner there were lots of showy Red-throated Pipits, many of which perched up on the perimeter fence for good views. A large group of Short-toed Larks were in the same area. On the way out of the ruins, I noticed a Tree Sparrow on the fenceline. I later found out it was pretty rare in Cyprus.

I ended the day along the road up to Mavrokolympos Dam. I was hoping to find Cyprus Scops Owl so hung around well after dark. Nothing was doing, unfortunately. By way of compensation, I did see a male Cyprus Pied Wheatear, hopping about along a ridge line above the road. An Alpine Swift flew through among a huge throng of Common Swifts and hirundines. A Chukar was seen calling from up on the crags.
 

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I began the next day at Agia Varvara, where a few small pools are very attractive to crakes. I didn't have to wait long to start seeing them either, as a fantastic male Little Crake was on show almost immediately. I eventually saw three males and a lovely toffee-coloured female. At times, two or three were visible at once, as they nonchalantly wander around the edge of the pool. Also there was a single Spotted Crake, which also performed extravagantly. The site was busy with other birds, including a few Whinchats and a couple of Great Reed Warblers.

I then went to the scrubby area below Asprokremnos Dam. It was fairly quiet for birds, with the heat of the day starting to kick in. A male Red-backed Shrike was probably a migrant fresh in. Some butterflies including, I think, Paphos Blue, Pigmy Skipper and Cyprus Meadow Brown, were good to see. Finally, after looking through lots of Sardinian Warblers, I finally heard a more promising song, which put me on to a lovely male Cyprus Warbler. It perched up really well, with a mouthful of caterpillars. A really characterful warbler.

Finally, I headed for the nearby coastal fields at Mandria. It was fairly quiet here too, with a similar selection of migrants as yesterday at Paphos, but with lower numbers. A couple of Squacco Herons were perched on an offshore rock. A group of Spanish Sparrows were in the scrub near the beach.

That was about it for Cyprus, at least for the time being. I headed back to Larnaca and the airport, where my flight to Yerevan was leaving in the evening. The flight was with the somewhat infamous Wizz Air but, although it was delayed a bit, the flight went smoothly. What was more arduous was the experience of getting through border control at Yerevan Airport. All the flights seem to arrive at the same time, with huge queues. Eventually, I got to my nearby hotel by midnight.
 

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I had a leisurely start to my first day in Armenia, although it perhaps ended up being too leisurely. I had planned to pick up a hire car at the airport at 9am, but it soon became apparent that no one would be there to meet me and take me to the car. I phoned up the company (Budget) and they said they thought my flight had been cancelled. They recommended that I headed into central Yerevan where I could pick up a car. I got an overpriced taxi to the Ani Plaza Hotel, where they have an office and at 10.30 they clerk arrived. She was actually very helpful and I was soon leaving with a nice new Renault Duster.

After negotiating the traffic in Yerevan, I made the fairly short drive up to the summit road on Mount Aragats. This was an easy drive up the mountain, at least until about half way up when the road was clearly blocked by snow. Luckily, I was now in the juniper zone, which was where I wanted to be. The weather was also not to bad - a bit overcast with the odd spot of rain but mostly quite pleasant. And, most importantly, there were birds all over the place. The area just below the snow was clearly where all the local birds were congregating, as they waited for the snow to melt. Dozens of Skylarks were singing, there were flocks of Linnets, Water Pipits and the distinctive brevirostris subspecies of Twite. A group of Horned Larks appeared and a few Rock Buntings were scattered along the roadside. A couple of Long-legged Buzzards were serenading over the hillsides, with one cruising by at close range. The air was filled with the song of Ring Ouzels, which seemed to have just arrived in, chasing one another about and trying to establish territories. In the distance, a male Rock Thrush perched up on some boulders. A very smart ochruros subspecies Black Redstart was at closer range.

The juniper zone is where the species I was particularly looking for was to be found. It took an hour or so but then a tinkling song and the bird I wanted was perched on a bush: a Radde's Accentor. It eventually came in very close, hopping about on some small rocks. A couple more were seen later. Lower down, I had brief but excellent views of a 'blue-spotted' Bluethroat, hopping along the roadside. A Woodlark sang from the telegraph poles and a couple of Red-billed Choughs soared over the ridge.

A good start to things, but hopefully there's plenty more to come.
 

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So I guess I should really try to finish this report... We'll head back to my second day in Armenia (12th April). I didn't get quite as good a night's sleep as I'd hoped as I was woken at about 2.30am by a Scops Owl calling right outside my hotel bedroom. One of the more 'alarm clock' like bird sounds around. When I properly got up in the morning, it was raining fairly heavily, so it was a while before I got out birding.

I had a look around a small valley just north of Byurakan. A few nice birds were about, including two male Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and a Western Rock Nuthatch. A pair of Syrian Woodpeckers were attacking the telegraph posts and four Rock Sparrows were scoped on the wires.

I then set off towards Yerevan, with a stop along the road between Byurakan and Agarak, just where the hills move into the lowlands. A smart Siberian Stonechat was flitting about the bushes around where I parked and several Tree Pipits were in the grassy fields. As the day brightened, raptors began to move. Some were probably local birds, including three Griffon Vultures, two Black Vultures and a couple of Long-legged Buzzards, while others were on the move, including a flock of seven Black Kites and, most pleasingly, a Lesser Spotted Eagle.

In Yerevan, I met up with Armenian birding kingpin Karen Aghababyan. He's the guy to contact if you want to visit Armash Fishponds, but he can also help with other arrangements (email is karen.aghababyan[at]gmail.com). With payment made (5000 drams a visit) for Armash, I headed off to my accommodation for the next few days, which was in the village of Urtsadzor.

I spent a few hours pottering about the area, which was reasonably productive despite the cold weather. A few White Storks and Syrian Woodpeckers were around the village. Scanning the mountains soon produced some quality raptor action, with four Black Vultures and eight Griffon Vultures circling with an immature Golden Eagle. Even better were three Lammergeiers that drifted about low down against the hillsides.
 

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The next day also began with rain and it was pretty cold and windy. A quick look around where I was staying in Urtsadzor produced a nice male Penduline Tit. Then, it was off on the 35-minute drive to Armash.

Things didn't start too well, as I realised the security guard at the gate had no idea who I was and wasn't expecting me. A phone call to Karen sorted things out reasonably promptly though, and I was free to enter. It soon became very apparent that there are a lot of birds at Armash Fishponds. Almost too many. The first muddy pool I looked at was covered in waders, including around 80 Marsh Sandpipers, as well as six Slender-billed Gulls. Swarms of Yellow Wagtails, including various subspecies and intergrades, were rising up from the fields and marshes. Most strikingly of all, the air was running with Swifts. I don't think I've ever seen so many in my life. They were everywhere, covering the entire site and towering up into the sky for hundreds of metres. I estimated 10,000 but there could have been 100,000 easily.

I wandered along the sticky and muddy embankment that runs northwards alongside the lakes and water meadows, seeing birds all the time. In the water meadows near the entrance there were more waders, including around 20 White-tailed Lapwings. Armash is a regular site for these elegant waders and I enjoyed watching them stalk about the marsh and flash their tricoloured wings as they flew. The various pools were busy with ducks, including good numbers of Red-crested Pochards and Ferruginous Ducks. Eventually, I found three White-headed Ducks. Lots of other waterbirds were floating about, including lots of Purple Herons, a few Spoonbills, dozens of Pygmy Cormorants and a few Black-crowned Night Herons. The reedbeds were full of chortling Acrocephalus warblers, but the wind discouraged these from coming up to be viewed. Easier to see were the numerous Bearded Tits, which are probably commoner here than anywhere I've ever been. Lots of Siberian Stonechats were flitting about the reed edges. A Penduline Tit appeared at one point and there were a couple of skulking Bluethroats. A pair of Turkestan Short-toed Larks were in one of the drier fields by the embankment.

The afternoon was a bit warmer but still breezy. A group of Shelducks were apparently unusual for this area. I was surprised to see a pair of Grey-headed Swamphens lurking around the edge of a pool. A couple of Short-toed Eagles moved through. Eventually I found a Citrine Wagtail in amongst a flock of White Wagtails. Later, I found several more among the hundreds of commoner wagtails. A couple of Savi's Warblers sang unseen from the marshes. Huge numbers of hirundines were feeding low over some of the pools and among them I found a nice Red-rumped Swallow. I was later surprised to learn from Karen that this was around the fourth record for Armenia! Checking the wagtail flocks on the way out produced a beautiful bird of the 'yellow-headed' subspecies lutea.

It had been hard work in the wind and mud, but I very much enjoyed this day.
 

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I was hoping for an improvement in the weather on 14th but the morning turned out to be cold and rainy. I spent most of the time in hat, gloves and coat trudging around Vedi Gorge, trying to avoid the attentions of the terrifying sheep dogs that were suspiciously eyeing me up. Things were rather birdless for a while, but the birds that did appear were very good. First, a male Finsch's Wheatear trotted about the stony ground. It was soon joined by one of the species I was particularly looking for, a splendid Eastern Rock Nuthatch. It seemed to be busy nest building on a small cliff but also hopped about on the ground rather like its Wheatear pal. Further exploration of the gorge produced a few Isabelline Wheatears, a pair of Siberian Stonechats and a few Tawny Pipits and Woodlarks. I had a brief view of a male Menetries Warbler in a small bush and a Quail was heard calling.

Eventually, by the middle of the day, the weather cleared somewhat, although there was patchy rain throughout. A sign of things to come arrived when a large raptor flew up from a nearby hillside. It was an immature Steppe Eagle. Sensing things would happen, I headed for a low hilltop and spent the next three hours or so scanning the panorama of mountains and hills. During that time, I saw 17 species of raptor. The most numerous species was Steppe Buzzard, with over 200 recorded. This include a single towering flock of around 130. The other prominent raptor was Montagu's Harrier, with nearly thirty going through, often quite low overhead. Many were males. Other harriers were also moving, and I had a nice party of Marsh Harrier, Montagu's Harrier and Pallid Harrier - all males. The raptor hordes also featured two Egyptian Vultures, two Lesser Spotted Eagles, two more Steppe Eagles, six Short-toed Eagles and seven Black Kites. Local birds were also enjoying the appearance of thermals, with Black Vultures and Griffon Vultures almost constantly in view. At least four Lammergeiers and a pair of Golden Eagles were drifting about. A migrating Black Stork and the only Peregrine of the trip added to the mix.

I headed back through the gorge, seeing a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes on the way. Eventually, I headed back towards Urtsadzor. As I drove through a rather unprepossessing area north of Vedi village, I noticed some passerines on the wires near the track. I stopped to check them and was surprised to see that they were Desert Finches - at least 17 in all. A few were popping down into puddles in the track to bathe. I found some of them later in an area of small, planted trees. Absolutely gorgeous birds, and not all that common in Armenia (my record was the first for Ebird in the country!).

I got back to Urtsadzor early in the evening and noticed a strangely calling passerine in the willows at the hotel. This looked and sounded like a Mountain Chiffchaff, which was a surprise. After night fell, I managed some good views of a loudly calling Scops Owl.
 

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Evidence from the raptor movements.
 

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Thanks for the comments. Mike will be pleased to know there's more fishpond action to come.

I left my accommodation in Urtsadzor early in the morning, flushing four Black-crowned Night Herons from the trees around the fishpond before I left. My first port of call was Oorts Gorge, up in the hills above Armash. It was a nice spot but the birding was fairly quiet. Both Eastern and Western Rock Nuthatches were seen, which provided a helpful comparison. There were several Finsch's Wheatears and a good number of Steppe Buzzards began to move as the day warmed up.

The weather was much better during the day - quite warm and sunny with relatively light winds. I got to Armash mid-morning, getting great views of dozens of feeding Gull-billed Terns and Slender-billed Gulls on the entrance road. After getting in, I met up briefly with Karen, who was finishing up a ringing session in the reedbeds. These were a bit of a focus for me too. The better weather made it much easier to see warblers. Several Moustached Warblers showed nicely, rather than skulking in the depths as they had done when it was cold and windy. Lots of Bluethroats were again present and, interestingly, the two males seen were both Red-spotted birds rather than the local breeding subspecies. A lot of the same birds were around again on the pools, including White-tailed Lapwings, several Marsh Sandpipers, a few White-headed Ducks and a couple of Grey-headed Swamphens. A Spotted Crake showed nicely in a muddy corner and a Spotted Redshank was flying about the same area. A Wryneck also popped up at the reed edges and at least two Collared Pratincoles zipped about with the hirundines and Swifts.

Scanning to the west produced a surprise in the form of a flock of four Great White Pelicans heading north. A few Menetries Warblers were seen, sometimes climbing up in the reeds like an acrocephalus. A couple of Booted Eagles, one light and one dark, were good but the best raptor appeared on an dusty field. When I got the new edition of the Collins Guide a few months ago, I noticed the new illustration of a pallidus subspecies 'Steppe' Merlin. It looked really smart and was definitely one I hoped I might see one day. Today, it turned out, was that day. A splendid male was sat about in the field: a gorgeous pale orange and blue thing with very fine streaks.

I was still keeping an ear to the marshes and, as I passed some dense stands of reedmace, I heard an interesting song. The source of the song eventually showed itself nicely and was exactly what I was hoping for: a Paddyfield Warbler. It shimmied up the stems to give good looks - quite a subtly distinctive bird. Wagtails were also quite numerous again. A few Citrine Wagtails were among the throng but I was most struck by the dazzling diversity of Yellow Wagtails, particularly as I headed out along the entrance track. Star of the show was a brilliant, lemon-headed lutea bird but perhaps most interesting was a very smart bird that somewhat resembled an Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the taivana subspecies. Further investigation suggested this was actually a xanthophrys type variant rather than an Eastern.

Then I headed off along the mountain roads towards Areni, where I would be staying for the next couple of nights.
 

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Some Yellow Wagtail variations...
 

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The 16th was the only day I did something reasonably formal, when I arranged to go to Mount Gndasar to look for Caspian Snowcock. I got picked up from guest house at 6am by two guides from ARPA and driven in a Landrover up a mountain. The journey took almost an hour and was pretty hair-raising at times along the precipitous tracks. We arrived in beautiful subalpine meadows carpeted with flowers, overlooking an extensive area of craggy cliffs. This was where the Snowcock hung out. I knew it might take a while, but the weather was clear and calm so I fancied our chances. Soon, a few birds could be heard whistling, their surprising, curlew-like call. There was no sign of the birds themselves though. An hour passed, then another.

Luckily, there were plenty of nice mountain birds to see, including Crag Martins, a Rock Thrush, two Blue Rock Thrushes, a few Rock Buntings, a Ring Ouzel, and some Western Rock Nuthatches. Small groups of Red-fronted Serins were a particular delight, flitting about the meadows. Overhead, raptors included a Lammergeier, an Egyptian Vulture, four Montagu's Harriers and several Steppe Buzzards. A few pairs of Red-billed Choughs also utilised the thermals. There were also some impressive Bezoar Goats, the males with huge curved horns. But still no Snowcock.

The morning dragged on and, although they were still calling, I was starting to get worried. Eventually, there was a quick burst of calls and one of the guides gestured. I didn't see anything but he had seen a pair fly up the cliffs. After that, nothing at all. It was an enjoyable morning, but it was a shame I couldn't even emulate the flight views I had of them in Turkey in 1996.

After heading down the mountain, I rested for a bit before going to the rather spectacular sight of Noravank Monastery. This has a prominent position at the end of a deep canyon. It's good for birds, but also gets busy with tourists. The birding was quite slow at first, although a few Blue Rock Thrushes, a Western Rock Nuthatches and Finsch's and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears kept me going. A pair of Golden Eagles gave great views. They were obviously nesting nearby. Eventually, I managed to get nice views of the main bird I was looking for: a singing Persian Wheatear on the rocks just above the monastery.

I searched around the lower parts of the valley, seeing a few Rock Buntings and Red-fronted Serins, as well as Large Tortoiseshell and Nettle-Tree Butterflies. I finished the day back in Areni, watching lots of Alpine Swifts skim along the cliff faces by the river.
 

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The 17th was a bit of a free hit: a day of travel when I didn't necessarily have much specific to look for but where I was interested to see what I'd bump into. It proved very enjoyable. I did have one bird I still wanted to find around Areni though. First thing, I set off a few miles to a fairly arid scrubby area. Some posts on Ebird suggested it might be good for what I was after and my judgement was correct. I parked the car, got out and my quarry was singing loudly just a short distance away. After a brief bit of searching, I enjoyed great views of my first White-throated Robin since 1996. Just as brilliant a bird as I recall.

A bit of wandering around the same area produced another Robin, as well as several Red-fronted Serins, a couple of Western Rock Nuthatches and a showy male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. A distant Lesser Spotted Eagle was on the move.

The day was looking fine, which was helpful because I was heading quite high up. I drove along a steep highway and up onto a high plateau area near Selim Pass. The grassy, rocky landscape reminded me of the Tibetan Plateau, although the throng of Skylarks and Northern Wheatears were reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. There were several Water Pipits and a Horned Lark in the grassland too, as well as the occasional soaring and hovering Long-legged Buzzard. I drove up to the pass, where a beautiful mountain lake caught my eye. The lake was covered with 78 Ruddy Shelducks, as well as lots of other waterfowl. A Slender-billed Gull and several Armenian Gulls were also present. A nearby abandoned village produced an absolutely gorgeous male 'blue-spotted' Caucasian Bluethroat, which strutted about almost aggressively. A small group of Rock Sparrows also showed well.

I then descended, slightly at least, to the high altitude Lake Sevan, that forms the watery heart of Armenia. A nice mix of birds was in the woods surrounding the lake. The lake itself was fairly busy with ducks and waterfowl, including some smart breeding plumage Black-necked Grebes. Scanning through the waterfowl, I was surprised to see an obvious female Long-tailed Duck. It turns out I was right to be surprised, because I was later informed this was only the second Armenian record! A small group of European Bee-eaters flew over, and a female Citrine Wagtail was picked out on some partially submerged branches.

I headed a bit further north, to a 'nature reserve' area around some reed-fringed pools. This area was very productive, although it was hard to view the pools without getting so close that the birds flew. A good selection of waders included a few Marsh Sandpipers. A large flock of Glossy Ibis was floating about and another group of European Bee-eaters went over. A very showy Spotted Crake appeared at the edge of the reeds and a few Red-throated Pipits were quietly feeding in the short grass.

There were storm clouds gathering by this stage, so I continued on northwards along the lakeside. The weather turned much colder and I had to be well wrapped up when I made a few stops. The first stop was by a large bay. There were more Marsh Sandpipers here and a lot of Black-necked Grebes. An immature Whooper Swan was a surprise. The second stop was by the Norashen Reserve. This area is clearly a major breeding site for Armenian Gull, of which there were thousands. There were also good numbers of Red-crested Pochards and a group of Gull-billed Terns flew over the lake.

Then I headed away from Lake Sevan and down into a valley towards Dilijan. The cold soon turned to rather dense fog and I was glad to make it to my hotel without incident. The wooded hillsides would provide a different kind of birding once again.
 

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