Join us on this, our fifth tour to the stunningly beautiful country of Georgia. Journey north over the Jvari Pass for a breathtaking visit to the Greater Caucasus, where the birds complement the impossibly beautiful mountain landscape. Majestic Golden Eagles and magnificent Lammergeiers soar across snow-covered peaks. Wallcreepers busily build their nests amongst the rocks and crevices, whilst the calls of both Red-billed and Alpine Chough echo off the canyon walls. High mountain specialists and other prize species include Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Black Grouse, Guldenstadt's Redstart, Caucasian Great Rosefinch, Green Warbler and Mountain Chiffchaff.
In contrast, the Kakheti region to the south-east of Tbilisi is a land of rolling steppe and dry savannah. The birds and landscapes here are similar to those found in Anatolia and specialist species include Rufous Bushchat, Pied Wheatear and Isabelline Wheatear. It is home to an abundance of Hoopoes, Bee-eaters, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Golden Orioles and Black-headed Buntings.
We usually record over twenty species of raptor during this tour. Several pairs of Eastern Imperial Eagles breed in areas we will explore, along with Saker, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard and Levant Sparrowhawk.
Our overnight flight will take us to the country’s capital, Tbilisi. Since the dramatic Rose Revolution, well over a decade ago, Tbilisi has blossomed into an attractive, vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Although the city is very European, the beautiful old town retains a medieval character.
On arrival we will journey north along the old Georgian Military Highway towards the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The impressive 17th Century church at Aranuri sits within a fortress alongside the Zhinvali Reservoir. The verdant beech woods that cloak the hillsides here are home to Black Woodpecker and the eastern race of Common Redstart. Green Warbler and both Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers should also be back on territory. The Persian Squirrel is also resident here.
Higher up the valley, just before the 7858ft Jvari Pass, stands the impressive Friendship Monument, erected in Soviet times. It stands atop a sheer cliff which has nesting Wallcreeper, Ring Ouzel and Black Redstart. Alpine Choughs pose on the monument railings and we will be on the lookout too for Alpine Accentor. As well as being a place to wonder at the stupendous scenery, it is also a great spot to watch for the similarly magnificent Lammergeier. As we continue over the pass we will check the roadside for Twite, Water Pipit, White-winged Snow Finch and the strikingly pale pencillata race of Shore Lark.
Late in the afternoon we will reach Stepantsminda. This quaint village nestles in the valley bottom, beneath the imposing snow topped Mount Kazbegi. We have a four night stay which gives us time to explore the valley and surrounding mountains. In the early morning we will take a stroll at the base of the steep slopes. The eerie curlew-like calls of Caucasian Snowcock will soon become familiar to us as they call from high up amongst the rocky crags. Occasionally a pair will wander out in full view. The localised Caucasian Black Grouse is also found here. They prefer grassy slopes adjacent to patches of dwarf rhododendrons. At times several males can be seen doing their fluttering displays, particularly if a female appears in their lekking territory.
Later in the day we will explore the corries and abandoned farmsteads higher up the valley. Here we will find Rock Thrush, the Caucasian race of Ring Ouzel, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, parties of Red-fronted Serins and Mountain Chiffchaff. If the weather is clear we should witness the passage of migrating flocks of Steppe Buzzards, which are often joined by Black Kites, harriers and accipiters.
A short but bumpy drive will take us up to a famous landmark sitting on the ridge above Stepantsminda. The Tsminda Sameba is a 14th Century church which has become a symbol for the nation. With fierce determination it clings to its lofty isolated perch, defying the elements and the rigours of time. We will look for the scarce inhabitants of the rocky mountainside. Two sought-after species breed in this beautiful and remote landscape, the smart Guldenstadt's Redstart and raspberry-pink Caucasian Great Rosefinch. Both spend the winter amongst stands of buckthorn on the valley bottom, and we will be hoping to find them here before they move higher into the adjacent mountains.
In this dramatic landscape the sound of the first Common Cuckoo echoes across the valley and the simple whistled song of the Common Rosefinch carries far in the clear mountain air. Alpine Swifts and Crag Martins swoop around the dramatic crags which hang above the old Georgian villages.
We will then return to Tbilisi, where we will spend the next three nights. The River Mtkari and the city’s parks have several new birds for us including Armenian Gull and Laughing Dove. At the old steel town of Rustavi there is a riverside colony of Little Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons. Lake Candar is a reed fringed lake close to the border with Azerbaijan and is home to many wetland birds. Raucous Great Reed Warblers sing from the reed tops whilst Bitterns boom. Purple Herons and Pygmy Cormorants are often seen and we shall keep an eye out for passing Demoiselle Cranes which we sometimes encounter on migration. This dry landscape is reminiscent of the Middle East and we expect to see Lesser Grey Shrikes, Hoopoes and Rollers as well as northbound migrants such as Red-throated Pipits and various races of Yellow Wagtail.
The rolling steppe and badlands south east of the capital provide the setting for Davit Gareja, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The grasslands are alive with the sound of displaying Calandra Larks and flocks of migrating Rose-coloured Starlings sometimes cover the plains. Rock Sparrows nest in deserted buildings in an old Soviet township, whilst Spanish Sparrows and Black-headed Buntings are roadside birds.
On the way we will stop at some small steppe lakes to look for Ruddy Shelduck and passage waders such as Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint and Red-necked Phalarope. Recently planted copses provide cover for migrant passerines amongst which we have discovered Thrush Nightingale, Rufous Bushchat, Golden Oriole, Green Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Menetries’s Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Ortolan Bunting. Chukars call from arid slopes surrounding the old monastery and Blue Rock Thrushes perch out on the renovated rooftops. Isabelline Wheatear is an early breeding species and both Pied and Black-eared Wheatears can be found nesting alongside each other. This is good raptor country and sightings of Eastern Imperial Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Saker Falcon, and Black, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures are all possible.
On one evening we will be treated to a typical Georgian banquet washed down with local wines and traditional beers. Georgia is famous for its wine and claims to be the birthplace of viticulture. Archaeologists have traced back the production of wine in the region to around 6,000BC. The Georgian method of wine making utilises clay pots lined with beeswax, known as kvevris, in which the grape juice is fermented.
On our last morning we will head back to the airport in good time for our flight home.
CLIMATE AND PACE
In the mountains it is often clear but chilly, although rain and sometimes snow is a possibility. In contrast, the Tbilisi area is normally warm and dry. Breakfast will be taken at 8am on most mornings, allowing time for short pre-breakfast walks. At Stepantsminda we will depart at 6am on one morning, in order to be out early to see the snowcock. Full days will be spent in the field and basic fitness is all that is required. At Stepantsminda there will be some uphill walking which we will manage according to the abilities of the group. Transport will be provided to take the group to the higher valleys and vantage points to reduce the need for any strenuous walking.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full board accommodation is provided with four nights at the Hotel Kazbegi, and three nights at the Hotel Kopala, Tbilisi. The hotel in Tbilisi is a lovely traditional Georgian hotel and the restaurant offers a panoramic view of the city. At Kazbegi we stay in the Alpine Institute which provides simple clean accommodation with comfortable beds and hot showers. All rooms have en suite facilities.
PRICE INCLUDES …..
All birdwatching excursions with Bird Holidays leader and expert local guide, full board accommodation (starting with breakfast on the 27th and ending with dinner on the 3rd), soft drinks at meal times, bottled water throughout, local transport by mini coach, reserve entrance fees and international flights.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance, personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry, snacks and drinks in airports. Please note: UK citizens no longer require a visa to enter Georgia.
Return flights from Manchester and London Heathrow or Gatwick to Tbilisi (via Istanbul) using the scheduled services of Turkish Airlines. Outbound flights depart late afternoon, return flight arrives back mid- morning (Manchester) or late afternoon (Heathrow and Gatwick).
Three pairs of magnificent Lammergeiers are resident in the valley at Kazbegi.
Caucasian Snowcock are busy calling and displaying in early spring.
Flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings on migration at Chachuna.
Plump Caucasian Grouse flutter on the hillside to attract the furtive greyhens.
The attractive Menetries's Warbler is a common summer visitor in the south.
Mount Kazbegi stands proud above Stepantsminda.
A nesting place for Wallcreepers below the Cross Pass along the old Georgian Military Road
click here to see the photographs in our Georgia Album
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