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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Georgia in Autumn: Migration Along the Black Sea

2019 Narrative

I am always filled with a sense of anticipation whenever I fly into Batumi. I think it’s something about the geography, the heavily forested and cloud covered mountains and the fact that you always approach from over the Black Sea, but whatever it is, birds are always in the air. This year was no exception. After heading to the hotel to drop our bags, we explored a small derelict area near the hotel that was to provide us with some pre-breakfast birding interest in the coming days, such as Armenian Gull and good views of March Warbler and Thrush Nightingale, then we had our first trip to the “crake pools”, an area of marsh at the end of the road south of the town. A slow trickle of raptors was also in evidence, and we scored early with Levant Sparrowhawk and Montagu’s Harriers. The thousands of Yellow-legged Gulls drew the attention of those seeking further bounty, and we were rewarded with several Caspian Gulls during our time. A lack of rain meant that passerines were a little thin on the ground, but we still enjoyed several Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes on our first day, while a flock of ten juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings on the airfield were quite unusual. For our second day, we climbed up into the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus overlooking Batumi. The village of Sakhalvasho has it all; lovely houses nestled among seemingly endless orchards and stunning views over the valley to the north and the Black Sea to the west. Combine this with one of the World’s great nature spectacles and it really is a special place. After a steep (but actually quite short) walk up to the raptor viewing station, we settled in for what would be a very memorable day’s birding. A new viewing area has been constructed, and we could stand on the roof viewing area and overlook the action. It started a little distantly, but there was a large river of Honey Buzzards flowing over distant peaks. Easily viewable through binoculars, the migration was happening, albeit a few kilometres away. As the tide continued, odd bits and pieces took the line nearer the Black Sea, the line that we were waiting under. Booted Eagles and harriers went by, motoring south and scarcely stopping to soar. Then, late morning, things took a very dramatic turn as a Honey Buzzard stream developed coming straight for us, then over us, around us and below us. We were engulfed in Honey Buzzards! There are few words to describe the spectacle of the Honey Buzzard migration here, and pictures and videos can never do it justice. Looking ahead into the approaching storm of birds is awe-inspiring, then having that mass of birds solidify into a stream that snakes its way towards and past you is an incredible experience. The stream often pauses to “kettle”, birds hit a thermal and soar upwards in tight circles until they “fall off” the top of the kettle and stream away south again. When it’s good, this can be happening to two, three, four or more streams at once, with the line of birds extending north and south as far as you can see. Each stream can contain several kettles, and it’s all a bit overwhelming really! By the end of the day, the raptor count volunteers had logged around 66,000 Honey Buzzards, with much smaller numbers of other species involved. We counted approx. 100 Black Kites, two Ospreys, 20 Marsh Harriers, 20 Montagu’s Harriers, 25 Levant Sparrowhawks, 40 Booted Eagles, a Lesser Spotted Eagle, and four Black Storks. Rather frustratingly, a Green Warbler was calling regularly from the nearby bushes but refused to come out.

The following morning we had a change of scenery and went to the Chorokhi Delta for the day. Again, the lack of rain meant that passerines were thin on the ground, but we still had a very pleasant time wandering the bushes and marshes of this area. At least eight Little Crakes was a nice surprise, although the biggest shock of the day was the flock of eight Broad-billed Sandpipers feeding in puddles on the main access track! Up to 45 Wood Sandpipers were scattered around the marshes, as were a sprinkling of Citrine Wagtails and three Isabelline Wheatears. There were also a few raptors to provide a distraction, with a hovering Short-toed Eagle being the pick of the bunch. Other birds of note included at least five Barred Warblers, a couple of Golden Orioles, around 20 Red-backed Shrikes and several Ortolan Buntings.

The next two days were spent watching the raptor migration, firstly back at Station 1 in Sakhalvasho, when 20,000 Honey Buzzards, 70 Levant Sparrowhawks and 40 Booted Eagles were the highlights, along with three incredibly showy Golden Orioles, and then on our final full day in Batumi we ventured out to Station 2 at Shuamta. A little way inland of Station 1, this has a far more rustic feel to it, from the walk up through dense forest to the small counting area on a cleared hilltop. It’s a much more intimate feeling than Station 1, and if the conditions are right, the raptor spectacle is second to none. Against a backdrop of densely wooded mountains, we were once more treated to an amazing experience. An estimated 60,000 Honey Buzzards streamed past us, and the views were, at times, incredible. Having Honey Buzzards go past at eye level and turn to look at you is something to remember, and we just couldn’t get tired of enjoying ourselves here. Later on in the afternoon, the icing on the cake appeared as a lone raptor cruised straight for us, almost level to the hilltop. Its eagle-like proportions and pale carpels immediately identified it as a female Crested Honey Buzzard, the first of the autumn here, and a real target for us.  After a frustratingly brief encounter with a distant male earlier in the day, it was a relief to get good views of one, and for such a prolonged period, too! A count of 1902 Bee-eaters going southwards provided a constant soundtrack to the raptors, as well as some colourful interludes. Other counts for the day included 2000 Black Kites, an Egyptian Vulture and 30 Montagu’s Harriers.

A last exploration of the delta area on our final morning in Batumi proved a good move, as a Grey-headed Swamphen was located, lurking donkey-like in the vegetation of a permanent pool on the beach. Also there was a Little Crake, but the highlight for many came offshore when at the last throw of the dice a fine Yelkouan Shearwater did a fly past, a mere few yards from the beach. Moving up into the mountains, we stopped for lunch at a fine restaurant overlooking the Acharistskali River, soon finding a pair of Otters messing around in the water. After a long drive over the Goderdzi Pass and its delightful flock of Red-fronted Serins and occasional Black Redstart, we eventually arrived at the Abastumni observatory. Before breakfast the next day, some had already seen Krüper’s Nuthatch, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Green Warbler, but thankfully we would see them all again before the end. Transferring into a 4x4 minibus, we drove up to the Zekari Pass, enjoying the stunning views as we emerged above the treeline. From our vantage point looking at the cliffs, it took a surprisingly short time to locate not one or two, but at least seven Caspian Snowcocks! They were calling occasionally, but it was diligent scanning that found them initially and although distant, with the scopes whacked up to full magnification the views were very acceptable. Several vocal Mountain Chiffchaffs remained steadfastly hidden, and after a picnic lunch with the best view in town, we headed back down and through the forests, stopping to look for and see Krüper’s Nuthatches, Red-breasted Flycatcher, samamisicus race Common Redstarts and many Coal Tits, we drove onwards to our penultimate hotel, the lovely Valodia’s Cottages in the impressive Mtkvari Gorge. Here, Rock Nuthatch sang from the gorge slopes, Black-eared Wheatears and Red-backed Shrikes flicked around the scrubby bushes while a Blue Rock Thrush oversaw it all from high above. In the gardens of our hotel, several Mountain Chiffchaffs showed well eventually, and finally a Green Warbler was found, much to the delight of many.

Moving up onto the Javakheti Plateau, despite limited time we managed to fit in a couple of good areas. The first, Sulda Marshes, produced a couple of Lesser Spotted Eagles and an apparent Spotted Eagle, while the  Kartsakhi Lake on the Turkish border held small numbers of Dalmatian and White Pelicans, as well as our first Long-legged Buzzard and good numbers of White-winged Black Terns. Moving around the plateau, it was apparent that there were good numbers of raptors, with lots of Steppe Buzzards and smaller numbers of Long-legged Buzzards, even including a couple of the rather rare and rather stunning dark morph birds. After lunch at a fine restaurant that also held Red-breasted Flycatcher and many Tree Pipits, we moved on to the Khanchali Lake. This held big numbers of waterbirds, but the highlights were the two family parties of archibaldi Common Crane; highly localised and rare, this race of Common Crane is a real treat to find up here. Also around were a few Glossy Ibis, Marsh Sandpipers, Avocets and other waders, along with a fine Red-necked Grebe and many White-winged Black Terns hawking the marshes.

And so, finally, it was over. Our drive back to Tbilisi was enlivened by some more quality raptor watching, including a Lesser Spotted Eagle and Long-legged Buzzard perched on roadside straw bales, but then became a feat of endurance for our driver when the clouds descended and the final two hours were done in the densest of fogs. Still, there was an excellent final evening meal to look forward to in Tbilisi, and it was a fine way to round out an excellent and memorable week across the southwest of Georgia.

– Paul French

Created: 26 September 2019