Having a partner whose interests include brutalist Soviet architecture, you can be sure of some interesting holiday suggestions. Birds and buildings, it turns out, can be a better combination than birds and beaches. We were meant to head to Georgia for Ingrid's birthday in March 2020, but COVID hit just as we started packing our bags.
This time, other troubling events hit the world stage in the weeks approaching our rescheduled trip. It initially felt as though this adventure just wasn’t meant to happen. We were safe to go, of course, though our flight did take a slightly different route...
We had just five days to take in as many birds and concrete masterpieces as we could. The first day was an architecture enthusiast's take on a bird race, with a walking tour of the Old Tbilisi in the morning, followed by a whistlestop tour of Georgian-Soviet structures on the outskirts of the city until dinnertime. To our cultural guide's amusement, I couldn't help but pause for the Ehrenberg's Redstarts, Alpine Swifts and Laughing Doves, or a male Red-breasted Flycatcher.
After a couple more days of exploring Tbilisi, horse-riding in the hills and making pottery, it was time to head to the mountains for two days of birding. I had briefly fancied that I might be able to manage the driving and track down the target species myself, but then quickly realised I was giving myself way too much credit and called in the support of Alexander Rukhaia from Birding Caucasus. I don't often claim moments of wisdom, but that was definitely one.
We set out from Tbilisi early in the morning and pulled up on a road through a pine forest. Within moments, Alex picked up two Krüper's Nuthatches picking over a junction of branches. I quickly tuned in to their call as they moved up and down the road, but it was still too dark to get any decent photographs. Not a bad start.
A stop at Kumisi Lake delighted Ingrid as she finally clapped eyes on Black-winged Stilt, a bird that is inked into her left arm, and Hoopoe, with plenty of both to enjoy.
Any time a female Garganey flew up from the lake, a line of drakes raised hot pursuit with a brittle croak, which — despite their enthusiasm —quickly faded into the background noise each time they passed. There were hundreds of Garganey, and hundreds of Northern Shoveler, with a handful of other familiar ducks and a Red-necked Grebe mixed in. Two Ruddy Shelducks were little more than a ruddy blur on the far side but at least they were truly wild.
I stammered as I tried to find an initial suggestion for the eagle-like raptor that floated up behind us, but Alex solved it before I could raise my binoculars, “Long-legged Buzzard.” It made sense that Alex is one of the founders of the Batumi Raptor Count. Another lifer for me, I absorbed its rangy shape and sluggish wingbeats, making the bird far more distinctive than I expected. Evidently it really can be easier to confuse with an eagle than another Buteo.
Alongside the stilts, the muddy shore was littered with Ruff and Common Sandpipers, as well as a Greenshank and a few Little Ringed Plovers. An adult Armenian Gull provided my first conclusive look at the species and two Slender-billed Gulls were almost as distant as the shelducks, but were unmistakable with their drawn-out necks.
Shortly after a Gull-billed Tern cruised by to the right, the peace was broken by a White-tailed Eagle heading the other way, my first ever adult. Alex was amused by my excitement at picking up a lovely summer-plumaged coutelli Water Pipit in the distance, and I’d soon find out why. The edges of the lake also held Rock Sparrows, Spanish Sparrows, Crested Larks, Isabelline Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails.
As we left, two Short-toed Eagles circled over the track. Later in the day we had an incredible roadside encounter with an Eastern Imperial Eagle being mobbed by a Raven. We weren’t doing badly for raptors!
It was time for a woodland interlude. I’ve never had much luck with tracking down Continental woodpeckers when on short trips to France and Belgium, nor in the summer at Ingrid’s family home in Finland, but perhaps fate had been storing it up for this trip. We had no trouble finding Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, which I’ve been aching to see for a long time, including two in fierce combat! Syrian Woodpeckers were similarly argumentative and another new bird for Ingrid and I.
Having only had a brief flight view in Finland, it was brilliant to finally get a good look at a Black Woodpecker taking chunks out of a low limb. Having become so scarce in Britain, I was almost as excited to hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling, though it remained unseen as we were too distracted by a roosting pair of Scops Owls.
The view from the car windows became spellbinding as we started to climb into the Greater Caucasus. Architecture had taken a back seat to the birds, but we took in the Ananuri Fortress and the Russo-Georgian Friendship Monument. Soon, it felt like we were on a safari for coutelli Water Pipits, penicillata Horned Larks and amicorum Ring Ouzels as we overtook miles of lorries bound for Russia. After slamming the breaks for a flock of Chough, we were in the montane metropolis of Stepantsminda.
It was late in the day, but we squeezed in a few hours of birding at a couple of different spots. Alex swiftly picked up some distant Caucasian Grouse, while Red-fronted Serins trilled and foraged with brevirostris Twite near the car. An immature Lammergeier, which made a brief appearance, before passing by again much closer, was a big thrill. Relatively fearless Ring Ouzels and nominate Black Redstarts fed around us, while scores of Alpine Choughs commuted through the base of the clouds.
After a fierce coffee but before breakfast, the next morning we explored an area of scrub and boulders by the Terek River, with two Caucacasian specialities in mind. For a while it was mainly earthy-looking Dunnocks keeping us company, the genetically distinct obscura, which has been put forward as part of a three-way split.
Out of nowhere, flashes of white popped up on the tops of the bushes. Güldenstadt’s Redstarts! There were around half-a-dozen, an equal split of deep-red and white males and plain females. As a couple made their way towards an open rocky area, I anticipated the group was on a feeding circuit and stationed myself in a position I hoped they’d cross. It worked fairly well, with the birds appearing in front of me on lichen-covered rocks then leisurely feeding on the short turf before vanishing, then doing the same again after about 20 minutes.
As we walked back, a Dipper flew over towards the river, which quickened our pace to the bridge. It was then that a Wallcreeper appeared on the, well, wall, on the far side! This was down as a possibility in our two-day rush-around but we didn’t think it would actually happen. It was a beautiful male with a deep black throat, and the bird remained focussed on working the same section once we’d crept across the bridge towards it, ending up feet away. The Dipper reappeared too, but only received a quick glance.
There were two Caucasian headliners left to track down, and Alex was nervous about both. Great Rosefinches were probably going to be too high up, and the wind was going to be a problem for spotting a Caucasian Snowcock, which we hadn’t picked up the previous evening. At this point, I knew the trip couldn’t be a failure, no matter what else happened.
We still had a half-an-hour before we were due back at the guesthouse for breakfast, so Alex took us to another spot. It turned out he was taking a punt one of our remaining target birds. He pointed out the flowing voice of Great Rosefinch coming from the snow patches at the foot of the slope in front of us. There, a little flock was spangled, scarlet males and beady-eyed females was foraging. Using the bushes as a blind, I snuck close enough for some record shots then emerged to find Ingrid and Alex gawking at yet more rosefinches settling where I’d been hiding. They had sensed the coming snow, Alex said, and moved down the slopes to within our reach.
After an unbelievably hearty breakfast, glowing over our early successes, it was time for another round for the snowcock. There was just one problem. The wind was up. At least, it was for most of the time, with some moments of serenity that proved vital for finding this final Caucasian speciality. In breezy conditions, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the calling birds, and a shaky scope does nothing to help spotting a bird that looks like a rock, among rocks miles up a slope.
Alex scanned methodically for over two hours. Meanwhile, scopeless Ingrid and I entertained ourselves with the Ring Ouzels, Black Redstarts, Water Pipits, Red-fronted Serins and Twite, in between occasionally chipping in with an optimistic binocular scan of the mountainside, just in case a snowcock-shaped silhouette broke the horizon, or if one flew downslope.
The breeze turned into a sure blast and it started to rain, so we pre-empted Alex calling time and headed to the shelter of the car. Instead, he merely altered his position slightly and continued scanning. After a while, the weather eased and we saw him pointing up, but at the sky rather than the slopes. The colossal shape of an adult Lammergeier appeared through the rain-splattered window. The bird cruised up and down the ravine long enough for us to rush to the edge for an unforgettable encounter.
As the skies cleared, Griffon Vultures, Steppe Buzzards and a Black Kite migrated overhead. After a little while longer, it was time for us to make a move too. We needed to be back in Tbilisi in the early evening and cutting our losses meant fitting in a couple of bonus birds on the way back.
After about 20 minutes of driving, a police car stopped us and sent us back. There had been an avalanche onto the road and it was closed while workers cleared it. We would hear at 7pm whether we'd make it through on the day. Alex warned us that sometimes the road isn’t re-opened until the next day and to prepare for the worst, as our flight was early the next morning.
Instead of instantly driving back to the town, we took a drive around a boggy area and along a river, picking up another Dipper and a Rock Bunting, a bird which has always eluded me in the past.
We took stock as we had a late lunch in a rather slick hotel. The closure meant that bonus birds like Western Rock Nuthatch and Green Warbler were off the cards, but through the window, the mountains had become tranquil and bright, with a fresh dusting of snow. Ideal conditions for spotting snowcocks — round three it was.
When we arrived back at the site and instantly heard a snowcock calling, I really thought it was a matter of time before Alex waved us over to the scope. Despite nearly two hours of effort though, it just wasn’t to be. The bird sounded incredibly distant and must have been over a ridge somewhere. At least we — mostly Alex — had given it a seriously good go. Alpine Choughs put on a terrific show, wheeling in the updraughts, as we admitted defeat.
Alex had a call an hour earlier than expected that the road was open. As much as we’d have loved to have stayed another day, we were glad to know we’d be back as planned. As we wound down the mountain roads, stopping every so often for Horned Larks, it felt like we’d had a week’s worth of birding in 36 hours. Of course, we wished we’d clapped eyes on a Caucasian Snowcock, but we were glowing from the overall triumph of our flying visit to Stepantsminda, and now we had an excellent excuse to return.