by Jeff Gordon
Kislovodsk is one of three Spa towns located in the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia. I vacationed there during the period 21st July until the 4th August 2001. It is an area recently added to the OSME’s sphere of interest.
Although birdwatching was not the primary reason for my visit I did manage to watch birds on most days, taking some five separate half-day trips away from the town and one full-day trip into the heart of the Caucasus Mountains.
Prior to my visit I endeavored to find out more about the best birding sites in the area. Andrey Nedossekin from Moscow was very helpful and suggested some areas that I might try, particularly the Borgustansky Ridge, but otherwise I found that information in English appertaining to this area was very scant.
This report therefore is my attempt to point people to areas of ornithological interest should they be fortunate enough to visit this outstanding and relatively unknown bird-paradise.
I traveled by direct connection from Paphos, Cyprus to Mineralnye-Vody, Stavropol Region, Russia on KMVavia Airlines. The airport is about one hour’s drive from the region but I have no idea if other airlines have access to it.
Entry into Russia requires a visa, at least for British personnel it does, but my Travel Agent in Cyprus obtained this without too much formality. Formality is the correct word to use however for passage through the airport and for collection of luggage; expect this episode to last for nearly as long as your flight time!
I was fortunate that my lady-friend met me at the airport; her translation services were needed to clear my entrance into the country. She had also arranged transportation from the airport to my destination but the Hotel you are staying at can arrange this.
I stayed at one of the many Spa-Hotels in Kislovodsk; these are also to be found in the adjacent towns of Yessentuki and Pyatigorsk but for access to the best birding areas I would strongly recommend Kislovodsk.
No self-drive car hire firms are to be found in the area, at least my lengthy enquiries did not locate any. In view of the number of police checkpoints that you have to negotiate, even for a small trip out of town, it is probably best to hire a local driver plus car to make the passage trouble-free, as I did. I was fortunate that the driver I hired was the husband of a friend of my lady-friend and driving off-road in a saloon car was not a problem. How other chauffeurs would feel about this I have no idea. Off-road driving is essential to reach the bird-rich areas.
The Spa-Hotel I stayed at, booked via my Cyprus Travel Agent, was classed as 4 Star; it was adequate. The rooms were clean, comfortable and en-suite, the food sufficient but plain and security first class. Contrary to what I had read and heard, security of optics, cameras and cash was never a problem, at no time did I feel threatened or at risk. I had left my telescope back in Cyprus because of these perceived problems, a decision I now very much regret. Unless you are a Russian speaker though the services of a translator are a must; I was fortunate in that my friend performed this service.
I believe that some of the major banks in the area now accept credit cards. I took cash in US Dollars, which I exchanged via a service that all the hotels provide.
All hotels and many outside kiosks provide daily tourist trips into the mountains and other areas of interest at very agreeable rates, but on these trips do not expect them to stop each and every time you sight something of interest; it’s very frustrating but many birds seen whilst on these trips will have to go unidentified.
Visited daily, Kislovodsk is a wonderful, old town full of mature trees with an extensive, and very popular, large park leading away south from the centre and into the foothills. A stream runs the length of the park but is a popular bathing spot in the summer, at least in the town it is.
At the lower levels the trees in the park are mature and deciduous, very popular with the larger woodpeckers, both Green and Black can be heard throughout the day. The deciduous trees give way gradually to pines as one ascends to the southern ridge, which is the park boundary.
To the north of the town is the huge, craggy Borgustansky Ridge, of which more about later. However the town side of the ridge is worth exploring with its many small, tree-covered valleys. Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts inhabit the rocky outcrops and Black Redstart, still feeding recently fledged young whilst I was there, are numerous on the lower slopes.
Borgustansky Ridge from Kislovodsk.
The upper slopes are the haunt of Rock Bunting and Red-backed Shrike are present in all open areas.
Vultures are a common sight in this area throughout the day, soaring from the crags and crossing over the town to the huge open grasslands to the south.
There are a few small lakes adjacent to the main highway that skirts the north of the town which look interesting but during my stay, when the area was experiencing an incredible heat-wave, they were very popular as bathing sites and held only Mallard and Moorhen, the Moorhen still with young chicks, although it was here that I saw the only Starlings and Sand Martins of the trip.
Southeast of Kislovodsk.
My first trip out of town was to an area of large hills incorporating the 2 features known as the Large and Small Saddles, some 5 Kilometres from the town centre. It backs onto the ridge, which is the rear boundary of the park already mentioned.
The first bird I saw was an Egyptian Vulture followed almost immediately by a Goshawk heading for a very large wood in one of the valleys. Common Buzzard of the ssp. Vulpinus were seen almost constantly, not just here but throughout the trip when away from built-up areas.
Red-backed Shrikes were very much in evidence, again not just at this location but wherever conditions were favourable. Apart from the corvids, this species of shrike was probably the most frequent passerine seen throughout the trip.
Other birds of note in this area were Rock Bunting, Black Redstart and another Egyptian Vulture.
The ridge is the dominant feature of the area, skirting the north of the town and proceeding for many Kilometres east. The area is easily accessed from off the main highway to Yessentuki; take the dirt track, which starts west of what was obviously an old quarrying area at the eastern extremity of the ridge, before you actually enter Yessentuki.
The track climbs quite steeply but is easily navigated in a saloon car. It leads to a huge expanse of wild, unfarmed grasslands, which sit on top of the ridge and stretch for as far as the eye can see.
Many Skylarks fed on the dirt road and Quail were calling from within the deep and luscious grass. The first raptor seen was a beautiful male Marsh Harrier followed very closely by a male Montagu’s Harrier and then some couple of hundred metres away another male Montagu’s. Steppe Buzzards were all around and a stop at a small wood produced 3 separate Hobby and a lone Kestrel. Again many Red-backed Shrikes were seen in all suitable locations.
The potential for this area is enormous. Although on this visit no vultures were seen, on many occasions whilst viewing the area from within the town large, raptor-shaped outlines were sighted. The grassland area is truly immense; the woods on top of the crag huge and the crags themselves steep and impressive.
I had booked my friend and myself onto one the previously mentioned, full-day trips right into the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, terminating at its highest point, the 5,642 metres peak of Elbrus.
The 3 and a half hour drive required a start at 0600 hours but our wait at the pick-up point outside the hotel was made very enjoyable by the activities of 2 Black Woodpeckers, very vocal and very showy at this time of the day.
The 2 hour drive up the Baksan River valley, which we joined at the town of Baksan, is truly awesome and impressive; a continuous rocky ridge forms the northern boundary of the valley and unidentified raptors were almost continually on the skyline; very frustrating!
A stop en-route into a side valley produced my first-ever Red-fronted Serin plus more Rock Buntings and a Eurasian Treecreeper. We walked through the pine forest to view the mountain peaks beyond and had wonderful views of 3 species of vulture in the air together, 2 Black, a Griffon and 4 Egyptian.
Typical view en route to Elbrus; site of my Red-fronted Serin.
On reaching our destination, the Chair-lift Station up to the snow line, we were disappointed to hear that only the first of the chair lifts was functioning and that we had not sufficient time remaining to make the walk to the snow line. Thus the expected snowcocks, Guldenstadt’s Redstart and Great Rosefinch were denied me.
Elbrus; snowcock country.
After a very pleasant picnic at 3,500 metres, in searing heat despite the height, we made our way back to the mini-bus and to Kislovodsk. Just two more new trip-species were added to my list, a Black-winged Stilt at a Salt Lake were the mud for mud baths is collected and a European Bee-eater sitting on a roadside power cable.
Most definitely the find of the trip, a truly wonderful and rewarding area whose potential is enormous.
Not having any birding site guides to point me in the right direction is was a matter of looking at a local map and guessing which areas looked promising. West of Kislovodsk was the town of Uchkeken and running south of the town was a track following the river up into the wooded foothills of the mountains. Both sides of the valley appeared to be very steep; good raptor country I thought.
We took the main road west out of Kislovodsk in the direction of Dombai, passing through the police checkpoint into the Karachaevo-Cherkessija Region. After passing through the town of Jaga the next town is Uchkeken. In the centre of the town is the local, outdoor market. Turn right onto the tarmac road through the western extremity of the market and follow this road until you meet the wide dirt track. Continue up this track into the valley proper.
We stopped in the valley at the point were the crags started, huge outcrops of barren rocks on either side. All 3 previously mentioned species of vulture were already in the air, continually being harassed by the many Ravens present. Vova, our driver, drew my attention to another large bird he had seen to my rear, my first-ever Lammergeier! After the cartwheels had stopped [very difficult at my age] I watched mesmerized as 2 more Lammergeiers joined the one already in view. These 2, full adults, then proceeded to change direction and came directly towards us to reach the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. Directly over our heads, only some 40-50 metres high, every little detail could be seen; a truly memorable event!
Continuing up the valley I added Green and Common Sandpiper to my trip-list plus Dipper, Isabelline Wheatear, a male Stonechat ssp armenica, Tree Sparrow, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Whitethroat and Hoopoe. The valley floor was littered with migrating White Wagtails whilst the in the air there were always Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures plus another 3 Lammergeiers [although one I may have counted twice]. Ravens were their constant companions.
Unfortunately our travels up the valley came to a sudden stop at a military checkpoint, beyond which was the water-catchment area for Kislovodsk, which the military were guarding. No amount of pleading would allow them to let us through.
Another look at the map showed another track leading southeast out of Uchkeken, this track appearing to be fairly flat and not following any feature. This I decide we would investigate some couple of days later.
Follow the directions previously given for the Eshcacon River but take the tarmac road, left off the road from the market before the dirt track starts. The tarmac road leads to a well-maintained dirt road over a truly immense area of rolling grasslands, used by farmers to graze herds of cattle, sheep and horses, which they patrol on horseback.
The day we chose to explore this area was the only bad one, weather-wise, of the whole trip. A mist came down accompanied by fine rain limiting our visibility for a couple of hours and limiting our birdwatching to things seen from the confines of the car.
Steppe Buzzard and Kestrel were regular sightings but a large raptor seen perched on one of the now defunct telegraph poles at the roadside caused the adrenalin to rise. Would it remain on its perch as we closed the distance between us? Not only did it allow us to get close, it remained in position as we stopped the car and wound down the windows. A first year Imperial Eagle; fantastic!
An approaching ‘cowboy’ caused the bird to lift-off and we got out of the car to chat to him. After passing the time of the day he rode off to join his herd as we saw the eagle, now joined by another of the same species and age, fly onto adjacent telegraph poles; siblings?
A break in the weather allowed us to leave the car for a period and I added a flock of Common Rosefinch, 3 Twite and a flock of Meadow Pipit to the trip list.
After 15 or more kilometres the track ended, well, for a saloon car to make progress it ended so we had to retrace our steps. Another large raptor perched as the previous ones allowed another close approach, this time we had a third year Golden Eagle not 30 metres away!
The town-end of the track finished at a small wooded valley and here, as well as Red-backed Shrike we had the only 2 Lesser Grey Shrikes and a lone Great Spotted Woodpecker of the trip.
Uchkeken-haunt of Golden and Imperial Eagle.
One of the favourite tourist trips is to view the waterfall on the Alikonovka River, some 20 kilometres east of Kislovodsk. Vova our driver was familiar with the area and suggested that this might well be a good place to see some birds; what an understatement!
You turn immediately left after passing through the police checkpoint at Karachaevo-Cherkessija Region boundary and continue straight up the dirt track. By-pass the entrance to the waterfall and continue down into the bottom of the valley. Here you are surrounded by rocky-outcrops on 3 sides.
4 Egyptian Vultures with accompanying Ravens crossed the valley to our front whilst both Griffon and Black Vulture drifted into view. A Peregrine came dashing in, calling, and landed on a ledge on a cliff face over which a Kestrel family was cavorting. A magnificent pair of Lammergeiers soared low around a rocky outcrop and crossed to our front; the stuff that dreams are made of!
At one particular point there were 3 Black Vultures, 6 Griffons, 2 Egyptian and 2 Lammergeiers all in the air together plus Raven, Kestrel and Peregrine to be seen nearby.
We continued up out of the valley and the outline of a large raptor could be seen silhouetted on the top of a low cliff. As I approached on foot it dropped down onto the cliff face behind a large rock. I carefully and quietly moved up the track and located the bird through my binoculars; it was a first year Golden Eagle. It took to the air and drifted down towards the car, settling onto a scrub-covered ledge, for the night I believe, as the time was quite late and the darkness setting in.
It was time for us to depart too, but again we had located a prime site that certainly requires much more investigation in the future.
We spent a day out with friends, picnicking by a small lake to the Northwest of Yessentuki near the town of Suvoroskaja and near the Kuma River.
The lake held a family party of Great Crested Grebe, 1 adult plus 4 chicks about 10 days old. The small reed-bed held a male and female Little Bittern and the woods that bordered the river held a very noisy, recently fledged brood of 3 Steppe Buzzard juveniles and both parents. A Black Kite flew over the lake at one stage and other new trip species included 2 young Coot, a Grey Heron and Armenian Gull.
I have traveled to many locations in my time in the Army and since my early retirement. Never I have I traveled to an area that offers the amount of birdwatching potential as this area of Russia.
Living in Cyprus, as I have done for the past 10 years, it was so refreshing and enlightening to discover an area were birds fly free without the constant danger of being shot for no apparent reason other than providing target-practice for masochistic slaughterers who care naught for the environment; were birds do not have to die agonizing deaths on lime sticks or caught in mist-nests for the enjoyment of rich, ill-informed and ignorant plutocrats. It restores ones faith in human nature that there are areas with people that respect their wildlife and are able to co-exist with it without the need to destroy all around them. All wildlife, not just birds, are Gods creatures with an equal right to co-exist. Life is difficult enough with natural dangers without the added difficulties imposed upon them by ignorant and sadistic men whose only pleasure is self-gratification.
The people of the Mediterranean Region have a long upward learning curve to reach the level of the Russian Peasant.
As previously mentioned, Andrey Nedossekin from the Moscow State Pedagogical University was particularly helpful in my pre-trip search for ornithological sites in the area and for his help I thank him very much.
Daily life would have been impossible without my translator, administrative manager, car-hire procurer and dear friend Olga Aliunina who insists that her name be featured in this report.
Special thanks to budding ornithologist and chauffeur Vova for driving me in his saloon car over roads I would have hesitated to drive over in my 4x4. I owe him a deep gratitude for alerting me to the presence of my first-ever Lammergeier, surely one of Europe’s most magnificent birds.
21-07-2001 to 04-08-2001. Kislovodsk
Great Crested Grebe, Podiceps cristatus. 5. At Lake on 29 Jul-1 Adult + 4 juv [c. 10 days old].
Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea. 1. Lake on 29 Jul.
Little Bittern, Ixobrychus minutus. 2. Male and female at Lake on 29 Jul.
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos. c.30. Lake near Sewage Works on 31 Jul, all in eclipse.
Black Kite, Milvus migrans. 1. Lake on 29 Jul.
Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus. 8. 31 Jul-Eshcacon River-6. 31Jul-Waterfall-2
Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus. 19.
24 Jul-S of Kislovodsk-2. 28 Jul-Elbrus-4. 31 Jul-Eshcacon River-8. 31
Jul-Waterfall-4. 2 Aug-Uchkeken-1.
Eurasian Griffon-vulture, Gyps fulvus. 24.
28 Jul-Elbrus-5; 31 Jul-Eshcacon River-14; 31 Jul-Waterfall-5.
Eurasian Black Vulture, Aegypius monachus.
13. 28 Jul-Elbrus-2; 31 Jul Eshcacon River-8; 31 Jul- Waterfall-3.
Western Marsh-harrier, Circus aeruginosus.
1. 1 male at Borgustansky Ridge on 27 Jul.
Montagu's Harrier, Circus pygargus. 2. Both
males at Borgustansky Ridge on 27 Jul.
Northern Goshawk, Accipiter gentilis. 1. 24
Jul-S of Kislovodsk.
Steppe Buzzard, Buteo buteo vulpinus. 3 figures.
All locations-v.common. All vulpinus. Family party, 3 very vocal young
and both adults at Lake 29 Jul
Imperial Eagle, Aquila heliaca. 2. Uchkeken
on 2 Aug. Both 1st year birds and keeping fairly close together.
Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos. 2 immature.
31 Jul. 1st year- Waterfall; 2 Aug-Uchkeken-1 3rd year.
Common Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus. Double
figures. Common at Uchkeken and at Waterfall, singles elsewhere.
Eurasian Hobby, Falco subbuteo. 3. Borgustansky
Ridge 27 Jul.
Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus. 1. 31 Jul-Waterfall.
Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. Double figures.
'Just' double figures at Borgustansky Ridge on 27 Jul.
Common Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus. c.15.
Near Sewage Works on 31 Jul, incl 4 juvs about 5 days old.
Eurasian Coot, Fulica atra. 2. This years
birds at Lake on 29 Jul.
Black-winged Stilt, Himantopus himantopus.
1. Salt Lake on way to Elbrus
Green Sandpiper, Tringa ochropus. 1. Eshcacon
River on 31 Jul.
Common Sandpiper, Tringa hypoleucos. 4. 1
at Lake 29 Jul, 3 Eshcacon River 31 Jul.
Armenian Gull, Larus (cachinnans) armenicus.
c.20. 1 at Lake on 29 Jul, remainder in field on way home same date.
Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus. Double figures.
Fairly common most locations.
Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto.
3 figures. All locations.
Alpine Swift, Tachymarptis melba. Double figures.
Borgustansky Ridge and at Elbrus.
Common Swift, Apus apus. 3 figures. All locations-sometimes
Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis. 2. Small
pond near Uchkeken on 31 Jul and 2 Aug.
European Bee-eater, Merops apiaster. 1. On
wire returning from Elbrus 28 Jul.
Eurasian Hoopoe, Upupa epops. 2. Lake on 29
Jul; Eshcacon River 31 Jul.
Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dendrocopos major.
1 juvenile. 31 Jul-Waterfall.
Black Woodpecker, Dryocopus martius. c.5.
Frequently heard around Kislovodsk; seen twice.
Green Woodpecker, Picus viridis. c.6. Heard frequently Essentuki Park. Seen at Borgustanky Ridge.
Eurasian Skylark, Alauda arvensis. Double
figures. Common at Borgustansky Ridge and at Uchkeken.
Sand Martin, Riparia riparia. 4. Lake near
Sewage Works on 31 Jul.
Eurasian Crag-martin, Hirundo rupestris. Double
figures. Common at Borgustansky Ridge. Elbrus and Eshcacon River.
Eurasian Swallow, Hirundo rustica. 3 figures.
Common at all locations.
House Martin, Delichon urbica. Double figures. Most locations.
Tree Pipit, Anthus trivialis. 4. 1 Borgustansky
Ridge 27 Jul. 3 at Waterfall on 31 Jul.
Meadow Pipit, Anthus pratensis. c.40. Uchkeken
on 2 Aug.
White Wagtail, Motacilla alba. 4 figures.
Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea. 2. Park on
White-throated Dipper, Cinclus cinclus. 1.
Eshcacon River on 31 Jul.
European Robin, Erithacus rubecula. 3. 2 at
Park on 30 Jul; 1 Eshcacon River 31 Jul.
Black Redstart, Phoenicurus ochruros. Double
figures. Most locations-family parties at 3 locations; S of Kislovodsk,
Borgustansky Ridge and Elbrus.
Stonechat, Saxicola torquata armenica. c.18.
1 male Borgustansky Ridge on 27 Jul. 1 male Eshcacon River on 31 Jul. Family
parties at Uchkeken on 2 Aug, c 16.
Northern Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe. 3. 1
Elbrus 28 Jul; 2 Uchkeken 2 Aug.
Isabelline Wheatear, Oenanthe isabellina.
4. 2 at Eshcacon River on 31 Jul; 2 at Uchkeken on 2 Aug.
Eurasian Blackbird, Turdus merula. Double
figures. All locations.
Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus. 8. Borgustansky
Ridge 27 Jul.
Common Whitethroat, Sylvia communis. 1. Eshcacon
River on 31 Jul.
Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, Phylloscopus (bonelli)
orientalis. 1. Eshcacon River, in bush by river, on 31 Jul.
Coal Tit, Parus ater. 1. Park on 22 Jul.
Great Tit, Parus major. 3 figures. All locations.
Eurasian Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris.
1. Near platform-lift Elbrus 28 Jul.
Red-backed Shrike, Lanius collurio. Double
figures. All locations. V. common.
Lesser Grey Shrike, Lanius minor. 2. 31 Jul-Waterfall.
Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius. 3 figures.
All locations. V. common. Family parties with recent fledged young in Essentuki
Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica. 3 figures.
Eurasian Jackdaw, Corvus monedula. Double
figures. Seen from road in most locations.
Rook, Corvus frugilegus. c.600. Small pond
near Uchkeken-in field.
Hooded Crow, Corvus corone cornix. 3 figures.
Common Raven, Corvus corax. c.16. Kislovodsk,
Elbrus, Eshcacon River , Waterfall , Uchkeken.
Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris. c.12. Near
Sewage Works on 31 Jul.
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus. 3 figures.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus. 5.
Eshcacon River on 31 Jul.
Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs. Double figures.
Red-fronted Serin, Serinus pusillus. 1. At
platform-lift on way to Elbrus
European Greenfinch, Carduelis chloris. 3.
Elbrus 28 Jul.
European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis. Double
figures. All locations-common.
Twite, Carduelis flavirostris. 3. Uchkeken
on 2 Aug.
Eurasian Linnet, Carduelis cannabina. Double
figures. All locations-common.
Common Rosefinch, Carpodacus erythrinus. c.30.
Uchkeken on 2 Aug, included about 12 males.
Rock Bunting, Emberiza cia. Double figures.
S of Kislovodsk on 24 Jul. Elbrus on 28 Jul and Eshcacon River [many] on
Corn Bunting, Miliaria calandra. Double figures. 24 Jul S of Kislovodsk. Borgustansky Ridge on 27 Jul. Waterfall on 31 Jul.