Tuesday 14 May 2024

Georgia 2003 Throw back

Our visits to the Caucasus in Azerbaijan over the last couple of years has generated a fresh perspective on the mind-blowing trip we had to the neighbouring country of Georgia in 2003. Our trip was a recee for Sunbird, the first western bird tour company to start tours to the Caucasus following a period of unrest in the region following the collapse of the USSR. The team was Graham Tucker, Chris Bowden, Darryl Spittle and myself and in early May we visited two areas; Kazbegi in the mountains and David Gareja Monastery in the southern steppes of the country. A write up of the trip was published in Birding World HERE and also in Birdwatch magazine in an article by Graham called High Hopes. 

On reflection now, that trip was absolutely sensational. Several bird tour companies in recent years have found it increasingly more difficult to find two of the main target birds in Georgia, Great Rosefinch and Guldenstadt's Redstart due to birds ascending to inaccessible altitudes earlier and earlier in the season. Presumably this is related to climate change? When we visited nearly twenty years ago we recorded tens of Great Rosefinches and Gudlenstadt's Redstarts at close distance literally all over the outskirts of Kazbegi village. At the time there was extensive snow fall (see images below) and this was presumably keeping birds in the valley at lower altitudes while they waited to ascend higher to their breeding areas. When Dominic Mitchell visited a year later he couldn't even get into Kazbegi due to avalanches but they still found the target birds concentrating on the snow line. 

So fast forward twenty years at exactly the same time of year and on our recent trip we were not greeted with snow in the Caucasus mountains but fine sun and the only snow was on the highest parts of Mount Shahdag and surrounding areas. The Rosefinches and Redstarts had already ascended to the highest altitudes so we did some exploration in Azerbaijan in the recent trip. Elvin took us to a remote high altitude area where we quite easily recorded several Great Rosefinches and Guldenstadt's Redstarts while meanwhile several bird tour companies failed to locate them in Georgia. Maybe our recent exploration will shift the focus of bird eco-tourism to Azerbaijan Caucasus in the future if this area remains reliable. 

Here's a few photo highlights of that epic trip in 2003 (digiscoped shots- I love that retro quality) and also while I was trawling through the archive of this trip I found a few herping lifers and a mammal lifer too. Interesting to note how my budding interest in other wildlife was developing twenty years ago (I considered myself to be a strict birder at the time) and luckily I at least took photos of other things that caught my eye and now have got the interest to identify them.  

Male (above) and female (below)  Great Rosefinch

Male (above) and female (below) Guldenstadt's Redstart 

Caucasian Snowcock- as a result of our 2003 trip, this species entry in the Collin's Guide (and most Western Palearctic field guides) needed revision as our first photos of this species for the western birding community showed this species to be more similar in appearance to Caspian Snowcock than previously believed. If you have a copy of the original Collin's Guide a much more red/rufous bird is depicted which was amended in subsequent versions. Caucasian Snowcock only differs significantly from Caspian in the breast patterning which is spotted in Caspian and more vermiculated in Caucasian. 
Mountain Chiffchaff
We also found this first for Georgia, an Eastern Black Redstart, phoenicuroides. A write up of this appears in Dutch Birding 28:2.
East Caucasian Tur (above and below). Despite this being one of the main targets for Vincent on our recent trip we failed to locate these in Azerbaijan. 

Alpine Chamois- a mammal lifer lurking in my archives 
Not sure if we ever worked out whether this was a Persian Squirrel or a form of Red Squirrel
There are several species of viper listed for Georgia- Darvesky's, Dinnik's, Caucasus, Steppe, Meadow and Transcaucasian Sand Viper. We saw this in the Steppe at the Monastery which I presume is a Steppe Viper. 
There are tens of lizard species listed for Georgia and without a decent field guide on these I wouldn't know where to start 
Presumably this is a Caucasian Agama 
Glass Lizard- my first one
The snow covered Kazbegi village- this snow was key to our success in 2003.

Mount Kazbegi (above and below) 

One of the monks at the David Gareja Monastery (above) and a view from Monastery over the Azerbaijan steppes (below) 


Zulfu said...

Cool to see those retro birding pics) and glad that you are considering getting back to AZE already. Regarding the herps, I remember there's a book named something like "snakes and lizards of the Caucasus" (will correct it if I find the proper name). Or this list could be a good start - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344451045_AMPHIBIANS_AND_REPTILES_OF_THE_CAUCASUS_Compiled_by


Peter Alfrey said...

Thanks a lot Zulfu, I managed to track down that book but when I looked I couldn't find a copy to buy anywhere
will have a good look at your link
Thanks again