geotrip1

Georgia (Caucasus)
31 July - 11 August 1998

Introduction
Now that things have calmed down politically in the Caucasus region there's never been a better time to visit the mountains of the Republic of Georgia for those sought-after peripheral Western Palearctic specialities. The Caucasus Mountains are situated between the Black and Caspian Seas and include the tallest peak in Europe. Vegetation is diverse and includes broad-leaved and coniferous forest, montane steppe, sub-alpine and alpine meadows and semi-desert. This mountainous region (which includes parts of Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran) is recognised by BirdLife International as an Endemic Bird Area (EBA 122), and harbours three endemic birds (Stattersfield et al. 1998).

Many birders will be familiar with the Turkish part of this EBA having visited the Pontic Alps in search of Caspian Snowcock Tetraogallus caspius, Caucasian Black Grouse Tetrao mlokosiewiczi and Caucasian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus lorenzi. How many have dreamed of crossing the border into the Republic of Georgia and going even higher in search of other sought-after species?

Until recently this has been just a dream for most birders. Prior to independence, Soviet rule kept all but organised groups away. Then, after the collapse of the USSR, Georgia was brought to its knees by independence struggles and a brief civil war, a brief period of anarchy that left the economy teetering on the brink of disaster. Stability has now been attained, the economy is growing fast, and it is once again safe to walk the streets of Tbilisi. All this recent history makes for an interesting visit. As yet few birders seem to have ventured into the High Caucasus, but now that it is a real option to tag a quick trip into Georgia onto an itinerary involving the Pontic Alps of Turkey, this situation will surely change.

Without a doubt the bird to see on a trip into the Caucasus is the Caucasian Snowcock Tetraogallus caucasicus. This species is restricted to the high Caucasus of Georgia and Russia, where it is locally common, inhabiting meadows in the alpine and sub-alpine zones, and occurring mainly on steep slopes with plenty of rock outcrops and stony areas with sparse vegetation. Caucasian Black Grouse also occur in the region, utilising slopes with moderate grazing and Rhododendron and juniper scrub, but can be difficult to see after May/June.

Isolated western populations of both Güldenstädt's Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogaster and Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla occur in the Caucasian Mountains. The nominate sub-species of the Güldenstädt's Redstart is restricted to the Caucasus, where it breeds at low densities just below the snow-line between 2,800 and 3,700 m. Great Rosefinch breed only in the highest part of the High Caucasus, between El'brus and Kazbek. Rosefinches nest at 3,000-3,500 m just below the snow and glacier line and feed in alpine and subalpine meadows at 2,500-2,700 m in the summer (Tucker and Heath 1994).

Getting There and Other Practicalities
Georgian visas are required before entering the country, but are easily obtained from the embassy in London at a cost of £16 (Embassy of the Republic of Georgia, 3 Hornton Place, London W8 4LZ. Tel 0171 9378233). To get there, either travel overland by bus or car from Turkey, entering via Sarp on the Black Sea coast, or fly directly to Tbilisi. Accommodation in Georgia can be problem; recent events have wreaked havoc on most hotels, they are either burnt out, looted hulks or full of refugees. Private B&Bs are the answer and charge in the region of $10-25 per night. Cheap budget accommodation is also available in Tbilisi. If you want to avoid the hassle of arranging all this yourself you could get a local travel agent to take the strain. We used Caucasus Travel Ltd, who arranged all our in-country travel and accommodation. They can be contacted at PO Box 160, 380008, Tbilisi, Georgia. Tel +995 32 987400, fax +995 32 987399. E-mail saba@comp.ge.

Sites Visited
Dravid Gareje 1/8/98
A semi-desert steppe-like habitat, with some ancient buildings providing a cultural back-drop. Situated south-east of Rusthavi close to the Azeri border and about 2 hours drive south of Tbilisi. We only spent half a day here, during the hottest part of the day! Not ideal but got the impression that this site would be well worth visiting earlier in the year and at a cooler time of day. Georgia was in the grip of a rather unusual heat wave, and it was very apparent at this site, with temperatures in the low 40s. Despite this did see Saker and a few larks.

Sagauramos National Park 2/8/98
Nice beech woodland, about one hour north of Tbilisi. Again not visited at dawn or dusk, but during the heat of the day. Green Warblers were common, and this site is good for butterflies.

Gudauri 3/8-5/8/98
Rather unpleasant ski resort en route to Kazbegi on the Georgian Military Highway. Worth stopping around here on the way to Kazbegi. The area was good for Red-fronted Serin. But probably not worth staying overnight here.

Kazbegi 6/8/98
The montane specialities can all be seen at just one site, Mount Kazbek, near the village of Kazbegi on the Georgian Military Highway. This is just three hours north of Tbilisi, and getting there by taxi from the capital will cost $10-20 depending on your haggling skills, either way it is very cheap! Kazbegi is on the northern side of the Caucasian Mountains, on the River Terek which flows north out to the Caspian Sea.

Staying in a B&B is your best option here; I stayed in the home of Mairi Sujashvilli in Gergeti (near the rusting and sadly out-of-commission chair-lift tower). Gergeti, near Kazbegi, is the trail-head for the path that leads up to the Gergeti glacier high on the slopes of Mount Kazbek. The glacier stops at 2,950 m, and it is at this altitude (and higher) that the montane birds can be found.

To get to this altitude from Gergeti takes three hard hours of uphill walking. The climb is easy and safe however, and I had no qualms doing it on my own. If you have the necessary equipment the best strategy is to go up one afternoon and stay overnight at 3,000 m. This gives you a chance to bird from dawn, which is naturally the most productive time to be out birding. Do take plenty of warm clothing and pay attention to weather conditions. Be wary of the effects of high altitude, too; altitude sickness can strike even at 3,000 m. I had trouble sleeping and ate almost nothing in 24 hours (all minor side-effects of altitude).

The walk up through Girgeti takes you into birch woodland that hangs above the village. Here Caucasian Chiffchaff and Green Warbler Phylloscopus (trochiloides) nitidus are abundant before emerging on the ridge top near the 14th century church of Sameba overlooking Gergeti. The walk gets arduous from here as you climb up a dry valley to a pass at about 3,000 m. Alpine Accentors Prunella collaris become evident at about 2,700 m. From the pass the true splendour of the peak and the massive glacier can finally be appreciated. Also from here the first, far carrying, curlew-like calls of the Caucasian Snowcock may be heard. I defy any birder walking down into the boulder and scree strewn landscape below this glacier high in the Caucasian mountains not to feel extraordinarily elated and excited at the prospect of the birding to come.

Waking up to the calls of Caucasian Snowcock, it is not difficult to leave your sleeping bag and get out into the cold mountain dawn. By working the area to the south of the glacier's snout it should be possible, with luck, to pick up all three target birds in 2-3 hours. The scree is home to Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, Güldenstädt's Redstart, and Great Rosefinch. Scan the ridge tops for calling male snowcocks, which seemingly call from every crag. Also in the area, Twite Carduelis flavirostris are abundant, and small flocks of Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis are apparent. Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus soar overhead. Sadly, even at this altitude, you are never far away from the nearest shepherd and his flock, and disturbance and overgrazing must be surely be considered a threat to the fragile montane ecosystem.

Lagodecki 8/8-10/8/98
Woodland reserve in eastern Georgia. Interesting and probably excellent for birds in May! We saw Red-breasted Flycatcher. Nearby agricultural lanes were good for Olivaceous Warbler and butterflies.

Species Lists

Black Kite Milvus migrans
Single Lagodecki to Tbilisi, 10/08.

Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus
3 Dravid Gareje 1/08, and one below Gudauri on 3/08.

Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus
Small numbers in the mountains and at Dravid Gareje.

Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Two at Saguramos National Park, 2/08.

Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
Several at Saguramos National Park, 2/08.

Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus
Small numbers in steppe areas and along roads.

Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
Fairly common above 2200 m.

Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Up to three above Kazbegi.

Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Singles in Tbilisi (7/08) and along the Lagodecki-Tbilisi road on 10/08.

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Widespread.

Saker Falco cherrug
Single Dravid Gareje 1/08.

Caucasian Snowcock Tetraogallus caucasicus
Single male seen well through scope in the early morning, calling on a ridge top on the side of Mount Kazbek 6/08. Others heard nearby.

Chukar Alectoris chukar
At least three birds at Dravid Gareje on 1/08.

Water Rail Rallus aquaticus
Single at roadside marsh en route to Lagodecki, 10/08.

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Single along river between Tbilisi and Lagodecki, 10/08.

Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Single in Terek valley, 5/08.

Armenian Gull Larus armenicus
Common along river in centre of Tbilisi.

Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
Small numbers in Tbilisi and Lagodecki.

Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Single at Lagodecki.

Swift Apus apus
Single in Tbilisi on 31/07 was the only record!

Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Single along river between Lagodecki and Tbilisi, 10/08.

Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Very common throughout, especially in lowland areas.

Roller Coracias garrulus
Common in agricultural and steppic habitats.

Hoopoe Upupa epops
Widespread.

Wryneck Jynx tortilla
Heard at Lagodecki.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Recorded at Sagauramos NP and Lagodecki.

Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Single at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla
Small numbers at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Shore Lark Eremophila alpestris
Adult and juvenile in the Terek valley, 5/08.

Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris
Seemingly uncommon, only found in the vicinity of one bridge along the Georgian Military Highway.

Sand Martin Riparia riparia
Single along the river in Tbilisi.

Swallow Hirundo rustica
Widespread.

House Martin Delichon urbica
Widespread.

Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
Common in mountains.

Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis
Present around Godauri.

Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris
Several recorded at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Widespread.

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
Single recorded above Godauri on 4/08 was the only record.

Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Several at 2,500 m on Mount Kazbek walk.

Dipper Cinclus cinclus
Small numbers in Terek valley.

Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Definitely recorded at Godauri, under- recorded elsewhere.

Alpine Accentor Prunella modularis
Frequently encountered over 2,800 m on Mount Kazbek.

Robin Erithacus rubecula
Recorded at Sagauramos NP and probably elsewhere too!

Rufous Bush Robin Cercotrichas galactotes
Single flushed and seen in flight only at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus
Small numbers in the lowlands.

Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Widespread in the mountains.

Güldenstädt's Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogaster
Single male near the glacier's snout on Mount Kazbek, 6/08.

Whinchat Saxicola rubetra
Small numbers in the mountains.

Stonechat Saxicola torquata
Small numbers in the mountains.

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Widespread in mountains.

Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina
Common at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka
Two birds at Dravid Gareje (1/08) were assumed to be this species.

Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus
Single male at Godauri on 5/08.

Blackbird Turdus merula
Recorded.

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
Recorded at Godauri.

Marsh Warbler Acrocephalus palustris
Small numbers in suitable habitat in mountains.

Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida
Common around Lagodecki.

Garden Warbler Sylvia borin
Single Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Recorded at Sagauramos NP.

Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia communis
Small numbers Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis
Two birds at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Mountain Chiffchaff Phylloscopus lorenzi
Recorded above 2,200 m around Godauri and Kazbegi.

Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Small numbers around Tbilisi.

Green Warbler Phylloscopus nitidus
Common in Sagauramos NP and around Godauri and Kazbegi.

Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva
Small numbers at Lagodecki.

Blue Tit Parus cyaneus

Great Tit Parus major

Coal Tit Parus ater
Recorded at Sagauramos NP.

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Recorded at Sagauramos NP.

Rock Nuthatch Sitta neumayer
Small numbers at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Recorded at Sagauramos NP and Lagodecki.

Treecreeper Certhia familiaris
Recorded at Lagodecki.

Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
Single at 3,000 m on Mount Kazbek, 6/08.

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Widespread throughout.

Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor
Widespread in lowland areas.

Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
Widespread in lowland areas.

Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
Common around Lagodecki.

Jay Garrulus glandarius
Recorded at Sagauramos NP.

Magpie Pica pica
Widespread.

Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Common in mountains.

Raven Corvus corax
Recorded at Sagauramos NP.

Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Recorded.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Widespread.

Snow Finch Montifringilla nivalis
A single flock of 12+ birds on Mount Kazbek on 6/08.

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Widespread.

Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus
Encountered in small numbers around Godauri.

Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
Widespread.

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Widespread.

Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Several in woodland above Gergeti.

Twite Carduelis flavirostris
Large numbers in alpine meadows on Mount Kazbek.

Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Widespread in montane areas.

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla
Single male at 3,000 m on Mount Kazbek, 6/08.

Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala
Small numbers at Dravid Gareje, 1/08.

A list of butterflies is available from the author. A trek map to accompany the Kazbegi part of this trip report is available by post for a small fee from the author.

Phil Benstead
RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy BEDS SG19 2DL, United Kingdom

Email philip.benstead@rspb.org.uk