Now that things have calmed down politically in the Caucasus region there's never been a better time to visit the mountains of the Republic of Georgia for those sought-after peripheral Western Palearctic specialities. The Caucasus Mountains are situated between the Black and Caspian Seas and include the tallest peak in Europe. Vegetation is diverse and includes broad-leaved and coniferous forest, montane steppe, sub-alpine and alpine meadows and semi-desert. This mountainous region (which includes parts of Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran) is recognised by BirdLife International as an Endemic Bird Area (EBA 122), and harbours three endemic birds (Stattersfield et al. 1998).
Many birders will be familiar with the Turkish part of this EBA having visited the Pontic Alps in search of Caspian Snowcock Tetraogallus caspius, Caucasian Black Grouse Tetrao mlokosiewiczi and Caucasian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus lorenzi. How many have dreamed of crossing the border into the Republic of Georgia and going even higher in search of other sought-after species?
Until recently this has been just a dream for most birders. Prior to independence, Soviet rule kept all but organised groups away. Then, after the collapse of the USSR, Georgia was brought to its knees by independence struggles and a brief civil war, a brief period of anarchy that left the economy teetering on the brink of disaster. Stability has now been attained, the economy is growing fast, and it is once again safe to walk the streets of Tbilisi. All this recent history makes for an interesting visit. As yet few birders seem to have ventured into the High Caucasus, but now that it is a real option to tag a quick trip into Georgia onto an itinerary involving the Pontic Alps of Turkey, this situation will surely change.
Without a doubt the bird to see on a trip into the Caucasus is the Caucasian Snowcock Tetraogallus caucasicus. This species is restricted to the high Caucasus of Georgia and Russia, where it is locally common, inhabiting meadows in the alpine and sub-alpine zones, and occurring mainly on steep slopes with plenty of rock outcrops and stony areas with sparse vegetation. Caucasian Black Grouse also occur in the region, utilising slopes with moderate grazing and Rhododendron and juniper scrub, but can be difficult to see after May/June.
Isolated western populations of both Güldenstädt's Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogaster and Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla occur in the Caucasian Mountains. The nominate sub-species of the Güldenstädt's Redstart is restricted to the Caucasus, where it breeds at low densities just below the snow-line between 2,800 and 3,700 m. Great Rosefinch breed only in the highest part of the High Caucasus, between El'brus and Kazbek. Rosefinches nest at 3,000-3,500 m just below the snow and glacier line and feed in alpine and subalpine meadows at 2,500-2,700 m in the summer (Tucker and Heath 1994).
Georgian visas are required before entering the country, but are easily obtained from the embassy in London at a cost of £16 (Embassy of the Republic of Georgia, 3 Hornton Place, London W8 4LZ. Tel 0171 9378233). To get there, either travel overland by bus or car from Turkey, entering via Sarp on the Black Sea coast, or fly directly to Tbilisi. Accommodation in Georgia can be problem; recent events have wreaked havoc on most hotels, they are either burnt out, looted hulks or full of refugees. Private B&Bs are the answer and charge in the region of $10-25 per night. Cheap budget accommodation is also available in Tbilisi. If you want to avoid the hassle of arranging all this yourself you could get a local travel agent to take the strain. We used Caucasus Travel Ltd, who arranged all our in-country travel and accommodation. They can be contacted at PO Box 160, 380008, Tbilisi, Georgia. Tel +995 32 987400, fax +995 32 987399. E-mail email@example.com.
A semi-desert steppe-like habitat, with some ancient buildings providing a cultural back-drop. Situated south-east of Rusthavi close to the Azeri border and about 2 hours drive south of Tbilisi. We only spent half a day here, during the hottest part of the day! Not ideal but got the impression that this site would be well worth visiting earlier in the year and at a cooler time of day. Georgia was in the grip of a rather unusual heat wave, and it was very apparent at this site, with temperatures in the low 40s. Despite this did see Saker and a few larks.
Nice beech woodland, about one hour north of Tbilisi. Again not visited at dawn or dusk, but during the heat of the day. Green Warblers were common, and this site is good for butterflies.
Rather unpleasant ski resort en route to Kazbegi on the Georgian Military Highway. Worth stopping around here on the way to Kazbegi. The area was good for Red-fronted Serin. But probably not worth staying overnight here.
The montane specialities can all be seen at just one site, Mount Kazbek, near the village of Kazbegi on the Georgian Military Highway. This is just three hours north of Tbilisi, and getting there by taxi from the capital will cost $10-20 depending on your haggling skills, either way it is very cheap! Kazbegi is on the northern side of the Caucasian Mountains, on the River Terek which flows north out to the Caspian Sea.
Staying in a B&B is your best option here; I stayed in the home of Mairi Sujashvilli in Gergeti (near the rusting and sadly out-of-commission chair-lift tower). Gergeti, near Kazbegi, is the trail-head for the path that leads up to the Gergeti glacier high on the slopes of Mount Kazbek. The glacier stops at 2,950 m, and it is at this altitude (and higher) that the montane birds can be found.
To get to this altitude from Gergeti takes three hard hours of uphill walking. The climb is easy and safe however, and I had no qualms doing it on my own. If you have the necessary equipment the best strategy is to go up one afternoon and stay overnight at 3,000 m. This gives you a chance to bird from dawn, which is naturally the most productive time to be out birding. Do take plenty of warm clothing and pay attention to weather conditions. Be wary of the effects of high altitude, too; altitude sickness can strike even at 3,000 m. I had trouble sleeping and ate almost nothing in 24 hours (all minor side-effects of altitude).
The walk up through Girgeti takes you into birch woodland that hangs above the village. Here Caucasian Chiffchaff and Green Warbler Phylloscopus (trochiloides) nitidus are abundant before emerging on the ridge top near the 14th century church of Sameba overlooking Gergeti. The walk gets arduous from here as you climb up a dry valley to a pass at about 3,000 m. Alpine Accentors Prunella collaris become evident at about 2,700 m. From the pass the true splendour of the peak and the massive glacier can finally be appreciated. Also from here the first, far carrying, curlew-like calls of the Caucasian Snowcock may be heard. I defy any birder walking down into the boulder and scree strewn landscape below this glacier high in the Caucasian mountains not to feel extraordinarily elated and excited at the prospect of the birding to come.
Waking up to the calls of Caucasian Snowcock, it is not difficult to leave your sleeping bag and get out into the cold mountain dawn. By working the area to the south of the glacier's snout it should be possible, with luck, to pick up all three target birds in 2-3 hours. The scree is home to Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, Güldenstädt's Redstart, and Great Rosefinch. Scan the ridge tops for calling male snowcocks, which seemingly call from every crag. Also in the area, Twite Carduelis flavirostris are abundant, and small flocks of Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis are apparent. Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus soar overhead. Sadly, even at this altitude, you are never far away from the nearest shepherd and his flock, and disturbance and overgrazing must be surely be considered a threat to the fragile montane ecosystem.
Woodland reserve in eastern Georgia. Interesting and probably excellent for birds in May! We saw Red-breasted Flycatcher. Nearby agricultural lanes were good for Olivaceous Warbler and butterflies.
A list of butterflies is available from the author. A trek map to accompany the Kazbegi part of this trip report is available by post for a small fee from the author - email firstname.lastname@example.org
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