18 February – 4 March 2000
The Caucasus is a mountainous isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, in a triangle of three massive peaks: the Elbrus (in Kabardino-Balkaria), the Kazbek (in Georgia, in Georgian Kazbegi), and the Ararat (in historical Armenia, present-day Turkey, but close to the Armenian border, in Turkish Agri Dag). From the glaciers and alpine meadows of the high mountains to the hot deserts and steppes of Azerbaijan and the Mediterranean climate of the Black Sea coast, the Caucasus contains an incredible variety of habitats. Besides, if the region’s sad geopolitical location has brought about anything good in the modern times, it is that many areas of the Caucasus have been preserved in a quite virginal condition, although the Russian colonial power and the Soviet rule has devastated these lands in a maximal scale.
The Caucasus is a cultural entity, although it is also a cultural mosaic of a scale that does not exist anywhere in the world. Yet we must remember that the Caucasus has traditionally been an entity where different peoples and religions have coexisted in relative peace and harmony. The mountainous geography has protected not only nature but also a great variety of languages (mainly Caucasic and Turkic) and singular interpretations of both Christianity and Islam. The Caucasians are not Russians, have never been, and they have quite little in common with Russia, the most destructive of all the external invaders that have tried to conquer the Caucasus and oppress its inhabitants. The Caucasian culture in general is an exotic mixture of Europe and the Orient, but always with a strong local, Caucasian, nature.
Historically the Caucasus was a part of the Mediterranean and Oriental world of the Antiquity, having strong ties with the ancient Greeks, and later being the birthplace of many glorious kingdoms, like Georgia. Although Russian and Soviet propaganda may claim something else, the Caucasus was civilized hundreds, even thousands, of years before the first Slavonic tribes started to gather around the principalities of Kiev, Muscovy and Novgorod. In the Medieval times the Caucasus was a crucial bridge land between Europe and Asia, a part of the great Silk Road. In Marco Polo’s times the Caucasus was well known by Genovese, Greek, Tatar and many other tradesmen.
As a great misfortune for the Caucasians, this prosperous bridge land became in the 1800s a stage of the imperial greed and wars of three empires – Russia, Turkey and Iran. By the end of the 1800s the Caucasus was practically divided by these three empires, and in the 1900s the region became practically isolated from the rest of the world due to the Soviet tyranny that committed some of the biggest genocides of the world history in the Russian-occupied North Caucasus. The Chechens were one of the victims – Stalin had the whole nation deported into concentration camps and to the periphery of Kazakhstan, and more than 60 per cent of all the Chechens were killed. But Stalin’s genocides were not the first ones in the Caucasian history. The Russian Empire under the Czar already committed the biggest single genocide of the 19th century by destroying the Circassian nation, and ever since, massacres have been a part of the Caucasian tragedy in every single generation of Caucasian people.
By the fall of the Soviet Union, three Caucasian countries got internationally recognized independence; Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. In the North Caucasus, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria managed to achieve de facto independence for first the peaceful period of 1991-1994, and then, after the defeat of Russia in the war of 1994-1996 that, however, ruined Chechenia, for less than three years passed before the second Russian invasion. Other North Caucasian republics – Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Adygea, and the Buddhist Kalmykia lying on the northern shore of the Caspian – have also, on various levels, tried to develop their prospects for possible future independence, in case that the “Evil Empire” would some day fall for good, giving place for a decolonization of the remaining colonial parts of the Caucasus, and Inner Asia.
The Caucasus is one of the ornithologically most thrilling regions in Europe. There are several endemic species living in the mountainous areas of the Caucasus and its adjacent areas in Turkey and Iran, and besides them, many Asiatic and Oriental mountain species that cannot be seen anywhere else in Europe, can be found here. The endemic species include, among others, three species of grouse – Caucasian Black Grouse (Tetrao mlokosiewiczi), Caucasian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caucasicus) and Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius). Other endemic species and subspecies include Caucasian Warbler (Phylloscopus [trochiloides] nitidus), Caucasian Mountain Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus [sindianus] lorenzi), Caucasian Snowfinch (Montifringilla [nivalis] alpicola), Caucasian Twite (Acanthis [flavirostris] brevirostris), and Caucasian Accentor (Prunella ocularis). Such Central Asiatic and Himalayan species, whose westernmost populations can be found in the Caucasus, are Gü’ldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogaster), and Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla). On the other hand, many European species have their easternmost or southernmost isolated populations in the Caucasus. But not only mountain birds are endemic for this area – there is even an endemic species of gull, namely Armenian Gull (Larus armenicus), yet this species can also be found in the great salt lakes of Central Anatolia – see my Central Anatolia report.
Besides birds, there are also many other interesting animals in the Caucasus. There are mountain sheep species, deer, snow leopards, leopards, and in Chechenia there are still even forest buffaloes left. Wolf, bear, jackal, and other big mammals are still common in the remote mountain areas. However, hunting is a big problem, as well as general persecution of predator animals by shooting, poisoning etc. Deforestation is another very big problem. Most of North Caucasus used to be covered by ancient beech forests – huge Caucasian beech – but these forests were purposefully destroyed by the Russian colonial power in order to oppress the resistance of the Caucasian nations. The resistance, however, never died, but continued in the mountains, and still continues. The legendary 19th century leader of the North Caucasian resistance, Imam Shamil, who is a national hero for the Chechens, but who was actually of Avar nation (the biggest ethnic group of Dagestan), was maybe the first environmentalist of the Caucasus. He signed many strict laws to protect the forests (and of course the Chechen national animal, the wolf). Cutting a tree cost a cow, and in a major case of crime, a woodcutter could be hanged and his body shown for a long time to the village as a warning. Shamil’s motive may have been more strategic than really environmentalist, but it’s an undeniable fact that nature, especially mountain nature, has always been important and sacred for the Caucasian people.
The winter period appeared to be not a very good time for birding in Georgia. Probably the Azerbaijani coast would have been much more interesting. Spring in Georgia usually begins in March, but doesn’t make a sudden breakthrough until in April. Thus, I would recommend any birder to visit this country in April-May, before it becomes too hot. In May-June the high mountains are on their turn a most attractive target for a bird-interested person. Unfortunately I was not able to spend much time bird-watching, because I had other purpose for my travels in the Caucasus. But next time when I return to the area, I will dedicate at least a week or two for nature, if the security situation in the area allows that… insha’Allah. As everyone knows, Russia is pushing hard with new imperialist policy – not only against Chechens, but all the Caucasus. Most of the reality in the area is still covered under the confusing surface of Russian disinformation, propaganda, and general and stupid Western dilettantism concerning “ethnic” and “religious” conflicts. A fact is that Russia occupies already two important areas of the Georgia – Abkhazia and Samadzablo (South Ossetia) – and Putin has not hidden his hard-line policies where it comes to the former empire.
However, a quite unexpected event has brought more general light on the Caucasian situation, and suddenly the Caucasus is no longer private realm of the small circles of Caucasus, Orient and Eurasia researchers and analysts (my branch). This event was the new Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. It is a smarter movie than it would be easily thought, as also in the reality the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline has become the fatal issue of the future of the Caucasus, and generally all the Middle Orient (Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia), and Europe’s access to Inner Asia. The Caspian oil resources have been estimated to be at least equal to the Persian Gulf, but for a long time, Russia and the Saudi and Iranian-backed Islamists have agreed that the Caucasians and Turks must not be left to benefit of these vast resources. Let it be mentioned, for an example of the grotesque nature of the Russian colonialism, that the oil rich Dagestan has unemployment rate of over seventy per cent. Caucasian longing for freedom becomes more understandable for Western people when they realize how little the Caucasians actually have to lose. Thus, sandwiched between these two external powers and not helped by the ignorant West, the religiously tolerant Caucasians and Turks have been deprived of access to the world politics. But well, I will be glad to answer these not bird-related questions privately. I just want to remind the reader that most of what he or she reads in newspapers about the Caucasus is incredible bullshit.
Travelling in Georgia is cheap and quite easy, but hard for someone who does not speak Georgian or Russian. Young urban people often speak English, some also German or French, but generally Russian is the only foreign language that is known. Also Azerbaijan is not very problematic for a traveller – there of course Turkish is a very useful language, since it’s practically the same language with Azeri. Armenia is more problematic, most of North Caucasus as well as Abkhazia, Samadzablo, and Mountainous Karabagh are inaccessible or at least non-recommended before the situation changes.
Accommodation in hotels in Georgia is terribly expensive, but private accommodation is usually quite easily arranged, as the Caucasians are extremely hospitable people, even excessively. They are also extremely protective, and they easily give a stranger a slightly paranoid impression of the dangers of travelling alone. In reality the situation is not that bad, although of course common sense is recommended. A bird-watcher in the Caucasus has to choose between the Scylla of troublesome moving around alone, and the Charybdis of the guardianship of well-meaning local hosts and friends.
Visas can be bought in airports, and in some of the land borders, but note that for example along the railroad between Tbilisi and Baku (one-way 31 lari, about 15 USD) there is no visa point, whereas it can be found along the other road route. In the Georgian cities and between closely situated towns or villages, the easiest and very cheap way to move is the minibuses. However, it is not always easy to find out what minibus is going where, and there is no permanent map or guide of the minibus routes. Taxi is much more expensive, but still cheap, compared with Western prices. Buses and trains are almost ridiculously cheap.
Food is cheap, and the Georgian cuisine is excellent. Also Georgian wine is well known and good, though usually very sweet. Unexpectedly for a traditional wine country, also Georgian beer is of very high quality, and can be warmly recommended. The lagers Kazbegi and Argo, as well as the local Castel Beer and the Kazbegi porter, all from the Kazbegi brewery, are excellent. Of course also brandy (e.g. Saradjishvili) and vodka can be recommended. Also test the national drink, “chacha” – also good for disinfecting any throat disease…
Tbilisi and Tskhneti
In the beginning and at the end of my stay in Georgia, I lived in Tbilisi, and with the refugees from the Russian-occupied Abkhazia (where the Abkhazes used to be only 15 per cent of the population, and the Georgian majority has been pushed as refugees to the rest of Georgia by the Russian invading army) in the village of Tskhneti, 7 km from Tbilisi. Tskhneti is located on the mountains surrounding Tbilisi, but not such high mountains that real mountain species could be found there. However, lots of forest species can be observed in the hills surrounding Tbilisi. Most of these species, however, belong to the bird species that are familiar for Central Europeans. The most abundant species seemed to be Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), Great Tit (Parus major), Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus), Coal Tit (Parus ater), Blackbird (Turdus merula), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris), Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix), Magpie (Pica pica), Jay (Garrulus glandarius), Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and so on. The most often observed raptor was Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus).
There are some interesting gorges surrounding Tbilisi, and in one of them I saw probably the most interesting bird of my trip, a Saker (Falco cherrug). It was carrying a prey (a middle-sized rodent, probably suslik), and persecuted by a Raven (Corvus corax). The raven acted like a skua, and finally robbed the saker’s prey.
The Mtkvari River (in Russian Kura) and its gorge in the centre of Tbilisi is an excellent site to observe the Armenian Gull (Larus armenicus), which is common. Many old birds seemed to have summer plumage, which surprised me. This species is a relative of the Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis and cachinnans) and Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), and has been earlier considered as a subspecies. But it is the most different one in the group – smaller than the others, and easily recognizable of its black bill-ring. Its dark eyes make it even look like a Mew Gull (Larus canus). In the Mtkvari River there were also lots of Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus), and some Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo).
The Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is in the Trans-Caucasus replaced with Palm Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis), although many books seem to ignore this fact. Palm Dove is common also in Tbilisi, especially in the old centre.
Mountains in Central Georgia
My two travels through the Central Georgian mountains along the Georgian Military Road, with several stops, was a slight disappointment in the ornithological sense. Everything seemed to be empty. Only in the forests lots of birds could be heard and seen, but these were again the same common species that can be seen almost anywhere in Europe. Probably in the spring the situation would be drastically different, but the emptiness at least tells about the gloomy fate of the once common raptors like Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) and Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaëtos). I heard from local amateur hunters that they actually get a minimum amount of animals that must be killed every year! At the same time everything big that flies gets killed, too. I hope our environmentalists will do something and soon to this terrible situation, before the natural treasures of the Caucasus are destroyed.
The only raptor I saw in the mountains was a Buteo, probably a Steppe Buzzard (Buteo [buteo] vulpinus). Besides, the only real mountain bird that I observed, was a little flock (5-6) of Caucasian Snow Finch (Montifringilla [nivalis] alpicola) near the highest part of the military road, Surami being the nearest village.
Western Georgia, Adjaria
In Western Georgia I saw lots of Black Kite (Milvus migrans), and even one individual of Red Kite (Milvus milvus). Besides these, the only raptors observed were Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Buzzard (Buteo buteo).
However, several Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) and Great Egrets (Egretta alba) were seen along rivers in Western Georgia, especially on the Black Sea coast near Poti, and in Adjaria. Besides, four Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) were seen on the wetland south of Poti. The egrets are not shown as winter birds in Georgia in the maps of my literature. But on the other hand, nor is the Black Kite, which was very common.
Also some other very strange winter observations were made – even stranger considering that generally there were very few insectivore birds, even those that should be wintering species in Georgia. The most incredible for me was to see a Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) near Kutaisi. Also several Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) were seen. Serin (Serinus serinus) was observed in two occasions, and all three species of wagtail were found: White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) was abundant, Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava, probably ssp. feldegg) was observed in Adjaria, and Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) in Tbilisi centre, on the Mtkvari River. In Batumi, even Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) was found!
The Republic of Adjaria, an autonomous republic that has – thank God – not been able to be mobilized by Russia into a civil war, is a paradise for gull enthusiasts. There were flocks of millions of gulls. The most common species was Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus), but also many others were observed, and probably even more species could have been found. In Adjaria I also saw lots of wintering grebes, the most numerous species being Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis). Besides, several Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) and one Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) were seen.
In the old capital and cultural resort of Mtskheta I found two interesting species on the Dzvari church that is situated on a hill above the town: Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris) and Rock Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer). Both were living in the ruined part of the church. Also some raven were present.
I also had the pleasure to visit a local ornithologist, who was also a poet and a Buddhist, and had a little collection of living birds in his house. Besides Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), Blackbird (Turdus merula), Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), Redwing (Turdus iliacus), Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes), Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris), Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), and others, he had a Magpie (Pica pica), who, according to the ornithologist, could speak Buddhist mantras in Tibetan language.
And for all those who are interested in visiting this fascinating region, I will be pleased to give advice and assistance, even company if needed. My e-mail address is: email@example.com.
List of Species:
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Several wintering in the Black Sea coast.
Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
Several wintering, most common grebe in Adjaria.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
One seen in northern Adjaria.
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Some in River Mtkvari, more on the coast.
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Several in West Georgia, Poti, and Adjaria.
Great Egret Egretta alba
Several along rivers in West Georgia, even as far as Kutaisi.
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
5 near Poti.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Some individuals on the coast.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Few in Adjaria.
Red Kite Milvus milvus
One observed between Poti and Kutaisi.
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Common in West Georgia.
Steppe Buzzard Buteo (buteo) vulpinus
Some in West Georgia, one probable in the mountains.
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Few observed in different locations.
Merlin Falco columbarius
One on River Mtkvari, Tbilisi.
Saker Falco cherrug
One in a gorge near Tbilisi.
Common Coot Fulica atra
Some in Adjaria and near Poti.
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
Abundant and numerous.
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus
A few in Adjaria, but clearly less abundant.
Common Gull Larus canus
At least one in Adjaria.
Armenian Gull Larus armenicus
On River Mtkvari, not observed on the coast.
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis/cachinnans
On Black Sea coast.
Feral Pigeon Columba livia domestica
Palm Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
Abundant in Tbilisi.
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
One probable this species at Tbilisi airport.
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava feldegg/superciliosus
Seen in Adjaria.
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
One by River Mtkvari in Tbilisi.
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Common in Tskhneti.
Dunnock Prunella modularis
Heard in Tskhneti.
Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris
One in Mtskheta, Dzvari church.
Robin Erithacus rubecula
Common in various places.
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus
One seen near Kutaisi.
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Several seen in Batumi, Chakvi, Poti, Kutaisi.
Redwing Turdus iliacus
At least one near Kutaisi.
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus
Seen in Tskhneti.
Blackbird Turdus merula
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
One in Batumi.
Great Tit Parus major
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus
Coal Tit Parus ater
In forests, Tskhneti, Surami.
Sombre Tit Parus lugubris anatoliae
One in Chakvi, Adjaria.
Nuthatch Sitta europaea caesia
Common in Tskhneti.
Rock Nuthatch Sitta neumayer
A couple in Dzvari church, Mtskheta, also heard near Tbilisi.
Magpie Pica pica
European Jay Garrulus glandarius
Jackdaw Corvus monedula
At least one in rook flock, Tbilisi.
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Very numerous, in huge flocks everywhere.
Hooded Crow Corvus corone cornix
Raven Corvus corax
In all the gorges, mountain areas.
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Caucasian Snowfinch Montifringilla (nivalis) alpicola
One small flock near Surami.
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Abundant (most common bird species).
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
One seen in Kobuleti, Adjaria.
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
Siskin Carduelis spinus
A flock in Surami.
Common Serin Serinus serinus
Observed near Kutaisi and in Tskhneti.
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
A flock of four in Tskhneti.
Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra
One seen near Tbilisi.