Spring in Georgia! We take you up to the alpine meadows of Kazbegi, filled with flowers and flocks of Red-fronted Serins, Ring Ouzels feeding young and Mountain Chiffchaffs belting out their song. Corncrakes can be heard rasping in the fields at dawn and dusk.
On our way north from the vibrant capital city of Tbilisi, set astride the river Mtkvari, we stop at sheer cliffs where last visit Wallcreepers were at our feet with Peregrine Falcon and Griffon Vultures overhead. Photographic viewpoints with dramatic mountain scenery can produce confiding Alpine Chough and Alpine Accentors. At Kazbegi, set in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, we search for the ‘Big Five’, Caucasus Snowcock, Caucasian Black Grouse, Mountain Chiffchaff, Great Rosefinch and the stunning, hard won Guldenstadt’s Redstart. Other regional specialities can include Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black Vulture and Lammergeier.
Transferring south-west, to Vardzia we visit Queen Tamara‘s ancient cave city where Egyptian Vultures, Ortolan Bunting and Blue Rock Thrush nest. Then visit the lakes of the Javakheti Plateau on our way to Tbilisi, maybe adding Citrine Wagtail, Cranes and Pelicans to our list. From the capital we take a circular day-trip to the sandy steppe area of David Goreji with its 14th century Monastery and 6th century caves where the habitat is home to Shrikes, Wheatears, Larks, Rose-coloured Starlings, Bee-eaters and the majestic Roller!
DAY 1: Arrive TBILISI Airport transfer to KAZBEGI 153km
9am Meet and greet at our Hotel and transfer due north to the quaint mountain village of Stepantsminda in the Kazbegi region of the Caucasus Mountains. We will stop enroute in picturesque scenery at birding hotspots; maybe a small reservoir near Bodorna can produce Dipper and Rock Bunting, with breeding Peregrine in the sandy cliffs and Black Storks breeding in caves nearby.
Woodland clearings can reward us with Black Woodpecker, Red-backed Shrike, Raven, Steppe Buzzard and the much sought after Green Warbler. Beechwood hangers support Hawfinch, Red-breasted and rumour has it, Semi-collared Flycatchers! A shady refreshment stop in the village of Pasanauri can turn up Caucasian Redstart and the semirufus race of Black Redstart in the café garden. Later there are cliffs with Wallcreeper and Griffon Vultures and at the ski-resort of Gudauri we may find Rock Thrush, Water Pipit and Red-billed Chough. Finally if visibility is good, we can stop at a photographic viewpoint frequented by some interesting Alpine species.
Overnight: Stepantsminda, (at 1,700m) KAZBEGI
DAYS 2 + 3: KAZBEGI alpine meadows, river plains and Gergeti.
Early mornings with optional mid-day siestas is the birding tempo here, as we search for the Georgian ‘Big 5’ in the surrounding areas of the village, nearby valleys and by the picturesque Trinity church, set high above the village, where the tree line stops and the dwarf rhododendron flourishes.
Easy walking from the village as dawn breaks at about 6am, brings us to the short turf and scree slopes beloved of the Snowcocks. Corncrakes rasp from the buttercup meadows as we pass. With a bit of luck Great Rosefinch may still be feeding in the sea buckthorn bushes nearby. Red-backed Shrikes are usually perched up on many look-out bushes and Ring Ouzels bounce across the cropped turf searching for early-morning worms. A Common Rosefinch sings a cheery ‘pleased to meet you’ and a distant ‘Cuckoo’ rings out in the clear air.
But we are listening for a different melody; the wistful, eerie curlew-like call of the Caucasian Snowcock that pinpoints the bird’s location, high on the crags above us. Caucasian Black Grouse can often be spotted moving on the lower slopes amongst the dwarf rhododendron bushes.
We will visit other habitats in the afternoon, maybe searching for warblers in scrubby wet areas or exploring side valleys for pipits and wagtails. Flocks of Red-fronted Serin turn up in unexpected places!
Another early morning is devoted to finding Guldenstadt’s Redstart, a bumpy 4x4 ride away through the woods to the meadows above Gergeti church. This bird follows the snowline, so its position is always variable and usually the toughest of the ‘Big 5’ to find. In our search we may come across Alpine Swift, Twite, Horned Lark, Mountain Chiffchaff and Lammergeier as a bonus!
Overnight: Stepantsminda, ( at 1,700m) KAZBEGI
DAY 4: Transfer Day Stepantsminda to Vardzia Cave City 360km
Although a long drive, there is constantly changing scenery and varied habitat to keep our interest. Initially we pass through water-meadows and villages perched on rocky outcrops, we keep our eyes peeled for Snowfinches by the tunnels and Rock Buntings at the roadside. We might sample a ‘Khachapuri’ freshly made for us whilst we are spotting woodland birds such as Red-breasted Flycatcher! Further into our journey we need ‘eyes in the sky’ for Black Vultures and the chance of Golden Eagles and Eastern Imperial Eagles. As we reach softer hills with drier rocky habitat we can look out for Black-eared Wheatear, Bee-eaters and Hoopoe. Reaching our destination we enter into a volcanic area with castles and caves and our charming hotel is set beside a fast flowing river where Jackals call at night!
Overnight: Near VARDZIA Cave City
DAY 5: Vardzia to Javakheti Plateau to Lake Kartsakhi (on Turkish border)
A leisurely day, first visiting Vardzia Cave City maybe finding Black-headed Bunting on the wires and Chukar on the crags, with Rock Nuthatches, Rock Sparrow and Blue Rock Thrush nearby. We head towards the Turkish border via the castle village of Khertvisi. Look out for the railway-carriage bridge at Khandoskali!
At Lake Kartsakhli the reed fringes hide Bitterns, Bearded Tits and Paddyfield Warblers, whilst we may be fortunate to catch the large flock Of Dalmatian Pelicans cruising in formation on the open water. We visit another lake with Ruddy Shelduck, Ferruginous Ducks, Garganey and a Night Heron colony. On our way home we may search for roosting Long-eared Owls.
Overnight: Near VARDZIA Cave City
DAY 6. Vardzia to Akhaltsikhe to TBILISI 200km
Travelling on through canyons and river valleys we may see Booted Eagle and Egyptian Vultures. Windswept Khanchali Lake may give us White-winged Tern, Red-necked Grebe and Citrine Wagtails amongst the many Feldegg Yellow Wags. As we cross drier, arable land we may find Calandra Lark, Tawny Pipit, Lesser Grey Shrike and flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings. Arrive in Tbilisi in time for a shower, a drink and a well-earned supper.
DAY 7. TBILISI David Goreji circuit 160km
Today we visit salty lakes in a steppe habitat enroute to David Goreji cave dwellings and monastery. The setting is in a spectacular desert wilderness with its own suite of birds; Woodchat Shrike, Orphean Warbler, Short-toed Lark, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears with a colony of Rollers as a grand finalé.
DAY 8. Departure Day to Tbilisi Airport
Leave Hotel, transport to Tbilisi Airport for morning flight to UK.