A kettle of raptors circling over Batumi. Photo: Paul French
Georgia in autumn is a birding secret that needs sharing. We begin by enjoying the migration at Batumi. This port town is nestled in the highly scenic southwest corner of the country between the Black Sea and the mighty Lesser Caucasus. Every autumn this narrow coastal strip bears witness to over one million raptors and multitudes of other migrants funnelling 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 with ‘Steppe’ Common Buzzard by far the dominant species at this point in the season. Lesser Spotted, Greater Spotted, Steppe, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Black Kites, Honey Buzzards, Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers and the occasional Crested Honey Buzzard form a worthy supporting cast. 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 over 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 along the entire Black Sea coastline are attractive to a wide variety of species.
Pulling ourselves away from Batumi, we shall drive into the Lesser Caucasus to search for some enigmatic species that should include Caspian Snowcock at a remarkably accessible site, Krüper’s Nuthatch and Mountain Chiffchaff, before exploring the impressive Javakheti Plateau, a high altitude area of gorges, farmland, steppe and lakes that nestle on the borders of Georgia, Turkey and Armenia. Here we shall be looking for species such as Rock Nuthatch, Dalmatian Pelican, Long-legged Buzzard, huge numbers of waterbirds and the highly localised archibaldi race of Common Crane.
Days 1-4: The tour begins on the morning of Day 1 at Batumi Airport on the Black Sea Coast. Batumi - the name is becoming synonymous with huge numbers of migrating raptors, as well as a range of other passage species. This tour is timed to coincide with the main migration period of Steppe Buzzards, along with large numbers of many other species, and we shall spend time at one or both of the raptor count stations.
This is one of the World’s true avian spectacles, and up to 100,000 Steppe Buzzards in a constant swarm over us is more than a possibility. We should see tens of thousands of these Buzzards at the very least. Other species migrating through include Black Kites in the thousands and hundreds of Short-toed, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles and smaller numbers of Honey Buzzard, Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles, Marsh, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers. Other possibilities include Crested Honey Buzzard, Eastern Imperial and White-tailed Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Red-footed Falcon and Hobby, as well as flocks of passerines. The forests and gardens here are home to the very elusive lilfordi race of White-backed Woodpecker, but we would need a great deal of luck to connect with this. The migration is weather dependent, and we’ll respond quickly to favourable weather to experience this, a true spectacle of nature.
Away from the raptor count stations, we’ll explore the Chorokhi Delta and the scrubby areas around Batumi. 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 for our attention with a swarm of Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls on the sandbars. The marshes could hold Spotted, 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, Savi’s and River Warblers, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Siberian Stonechats, Thrush Nightingales, Hoopoes, Short-toed Larks and many more. Offshore, Yelkouan Shearwaters can 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. We are still learning about what may turn up here! Nights in Batumi.
Day 5: Dragging ourselves away from Batumi, today we head east and over the Goderzi pass. The scenery is stunning, and we drive through some impressive woodlands on the higher slopes of the mountains. We’ll be making several stops along the way to search for some special birds of the area including Krüper’s Nuthatch and Red-fronted Serin, plus whatever woodland birds may have eluded us so far. Our 4x4 bus will become vital today as the roads are badly degraded, but entertaining! Night in Akhaltsikhe.
Days 6-7: We’ll have an early start this morning, as we head up to the Zekari pass, high in the northern reaches of the Lesser Caucasus. Formerly a bus route linking two towns, the road is now much quieter and more ‘rugged’. Depending on the roads condition, we may use 4x4 vehicles today. Ascending through pine forest that holds White-throated Dipper and Black, White-backed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, we emerge into seasonal grasslands and alpine meadows where Water Pipits are common, and where we shall look at the Chiffchaffs with interest as Mountain Chiffchaff can be numerous. However the really special bird we’ll be looking for is Caspian Snowcock. This large game bird is restricted to the highest mountains of the Lesser Caucasus from Turkey through to Iran, and is not an easy bird to find anywhere. However by using telescopes to scan the ridges we hope for a sighting. We may also be treated to further raptor migration, and some past surprises up here have included Marsh Warbler and Nightingale. We then descend and drive to an impressive gorge on the edge of the Javakheti Plateau that holds the unique 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 birds such as Rock Nuthatch, Chukar, Crag Martin, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow, as well as Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, and perhaps the mighty Lammergeier. Migration will also be evident here, and the hotel gardens have proved an excellent magnet for Green Warbler among others. Nights in Vardzia.
Day 8: Heading up onto the vast Javakheti Plateau, we’ll explore the lakes and steppe of this unique area looking for an exciting variety of breeding birds, including a range of wetland species. Huge numbers of ducks can be present, along with good numbers of marsh terns. White and Dalmatian Pelicans can both be found, often in mixed groups. We shall also be looking out for the near endemic breeding race of Common Crane (archibaldi), as well as for passerines resting in the isolated bushes and trees during their migration. The whole plateau can be alive with raptors at significant densities, and we should be treated to extended views of Steppe Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards and three species of harrier among others. Later we’ll continue to Tbilisi. Night in Tbilisi.
Day 9: The tour ends this morning with transfers to Tbilisi airport.
Updated: 04 May 2020