A kettle of raptors circling over Batumi. Photo: Paul French
Georgia in autumn is a birding secret that needs sharing. The coastal town of Batumi is nestled in the highly scenic south-west corner of the country, between the Black Sea and the mighty Lesser Caucasus. Every autumn along this narrow coastal strip, over one million raptors funnel through on their annual migration from the vast forests and steppes of Eurasia to their wintering grounds in Africa. The skies over Batumi can be filled with huge flocks of many species including Honey and Steppe Buzzards, Booted, Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk and Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, as well as thousands of Eurasian Bee-eaters. Batumi is simply an amazing place to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of migration in full flow as up to 100,000 birds pass right by us. A river delta just south of Batumi will provide plenty of interest from the many passerines using the coast as a flyway, and the combination of beach, marshes and scrubland are attractive to a wide variety of species.
Pulling ourselves away from Batumi, we shall drive into the Lesser Caucasus and search for some enigmatic birds that should include Caspian Snowcock at a remarkably accessible site and Krüper’s Nuthatch. Following the Silk Road for a short way, we find ourselves on the Javakheti plateaux where we’ll explore the lakes and steppe for a different set of species that may include specialities such as Dalmatian Pelican. We then descend into the capital, Tbilisi, where the tour concludes.
Day 1: The tour starts with a flight from London to Istanbul in Turkey. As the connecting flight to Batumi, in Georgia, leaves the following day, we’ll spend the night at an airport hotel in Istanbul.
Day 2: We’ll take a flight from Istanbul for Batumi then transfer to our hotel. Time permitting we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the local region, looking for any migrants along the coast.
Days 3-5: After breakfast, we’ll drive to the count station of the Batumi Raptor Count. The tour is timed to coincide with the main migration period of Honey Buzzard, along with large numbers of many other species such as Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, Booted Eagle and Black Kite. One day in 2013 recorded over 67,000 Honey Buzzards, 179 Black Kites, 124 Marsh Harriers, 90 Montagu’s Harriers, 6 Pallid Harriers, 238 Booted Eagles, 258 Purple Herons, 1625 Turtle Doves and 250 European Rollers, not to mention smaller numbers of Short-toed, Lesser Spotted, Steppe and Eastern Imperial Eagles, Ospreys, Steppe Buzzards and Egyptian Vultures. Other possibilities include Levant Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Red-footed Falcon and Lesser Kestrel, as well as flocks of passerines such as Yellow Wagtails, Ortolan Buntings and many thousands of European Bee-eaters. The forests and gardens here are home to the more easily heard than seen Green Warbler, the samamisicus race of Common Redstart and the elusive lilfordi race of White-backed Woodpecker. The migration is weather dependant, and we’ll respond quickly to favourable weather to experience this, one of nature’s true spectacles.
Away from the count station, we’ll explore the Chorokhi delta. This area of coastal scrub and marsh is a haven for migrants, and we’ll certainly be exploring the area fully. On the small estuary we can hope to see Broad-billed and perhaps Terek Sandpipers while White-winged Black, Whiskered, Little, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns compete with a melee of Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls for our attention on the sandbars. The marshes could hold Little and Baillon’s Crakes, ‘Grey-headed’ Purple Swamphen and a selection of warblers, while the scrubland should be full of eastern migrants such as Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Thrush Nightingales, Hoopoes, Short-toed Larks and many more. Offshore, Yelkouan Shearwaters pass close by and we may be lucky enough to see migrants such as Eurasian Nightjar or even a Scops Owl coming in off the Black Sea.
Day 6: Today we drive along the Chorokhi River up into the Lesser Caucasus and over the Goderzi pass. The scenery is stunning, and we’ll make several stops along the way to search for some special birds of the area including Krüper’s Nuthatch and Red-fronted Serin. Night in Akhalcikhe.
Day 7: Retracing our steps slightly, today we ascend to the Zekari pass. Formerly a bus route linking two towns, the road has now degraded to the point we shall need to utilise 4 wheel drive vehicles to reach the high pass. Ascending through pine forest that holds White-throated Dipper, Black, White-backed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, we eventually emerge into seasonal grasslands and alpine meadows. Water Pipits are common and we shall look at the Chiffchaffs up here with interest as Mountain Chiffchaff occurs. However the really special bird we’ll be looking for is Caspian Snowcock. Nowhere easy, this large gamebird is restricted to the highest mountains of the Lesser Caucasus from Turkey through to Iran. We stand a good chance of getting good ‘scope views here, and we may also be treated to further raptor migration. Night in Akhalcikhe.
Day 8: Leaving Akhalcikhe behind, we drive east along the old Silk Road to the impressive Vardzia cave town. A 12th Century settlement carved into the cliff face above the Mtkvari river, this rocky area is home to a selection of eastern Mediterranean species, and we should be able to find species such as Rock Nuthatch, Chukar, Crag Martin, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow, as well as Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, plus perhaps the mighty Lammergeier. Night in Akhalkalaki.
Day 9: Heading up onto the impressive Javakheti plateaux, we’ll explore the lakes and steppe of this unique area. Holding an impressive array of breeding species as well as a magnet for migrants, we’ll be looking for a range of wetland species. Velvet Scoters breed here at their most southerly and isolated outpost, and both White and Dalmatian Pelicans can be found. We shall keep an eye out for the endemic breeding race of Common Crane as well as for any raptors that we may have missed so far. Later in the day we’ll travel on to the capital city of Tbilisi to connect with a flight back to London where the tour ends later today.
Updated: 10 December 2016