Georgia and Armenia 2016 Blog

Introduction

(Steve Piotrowski)

This was to be Waveney Bird Club’s eighth foreign tour and undoubtedly our most adventurous yetvbearing in mind that we were charting unknown territory and visiting two former Soviet-bloc countries that no one in the party had been to before.  An itinerary was drawn up and put to our ground agents Giorgi Rajebashvili (Ecotours Georgia) and Zhanna Galyan (Armenia) who subsequently organised our transport, accommodation and meals throughout the tour.  Paul Harvey of Shetland Bird Club was recruited to help me lead the trip.  Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick would take on the task of Tour Recorder, a role that he had completed admirably on WBC’s previous seven tours.

In true WBC tradition, names were put in the hat and those drawn would each be responsible for writing one day of this blog.

GandA

Monday 2nd May: Departure

(Steve Piotrowski)

After months of planning, we boarded our coach to Gatwick for our early-morning flight to Tbilisi, gathering in the team at pick-up points en route.  There was an early hitch as our driver received news that the A12 was closed south of Colchester due to an accident, so we were forced to divert to Cambridge and then onto the M11.  Nevertheless, we arrived at the airport in good time and were suitably refreshed, having consumed our packed breakfasts, which had been prepared by “mission control” or, in other words, Kathy Piotrowski!   Our flight took off on time and we headed for Istanbul where we would transfer to a flight to Tbilisi.

We arrived in Istanbul late afternoon and searched for the first birds of our tour.  We craned our necks to see out of the airport windows and were rewarded with squadrons of Alpine Swifts over the city, some Hooded Crows feeding in the airport gardens and a distinct northerly movement of Grey Herons.

On arrival at Tbilisi, we were greeted by our guides Nika and Jimi and were soon on our bus to the Hotel Eurolux in the city centre.

Tbilisi, Roger Walsh
Tbilisi, Roger Walsh

Tuesday 3rd May: Tbilisi to Kazbegi

(Roger Walsh)

We woke early in downtown Tbilisi and most of us gathered outside the Hotel Eurolux to start our trip list.  The best of the bunch was a male eastern Common Redstart of the race “Samamiscus”; with a startling white wing bar, although crumbling Russian factories and old army trucks also proved to be an interesting distraction.

After breakfast we were reunited with our two guides – Nika and Jimi, who would be looking after us for the next four days.  They would prove to be a great asset to our trip with their local knowledge and birding skills.

The first stop was to look for Semi-collared Flycatcher on the broad-leafed, woodland slopes at Ananuki.  We failed to hit our main target but picked up a flock of Bee-Eaters and added Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch to the trip list.  The road rose steeply into the mountains thereafter and our next stop was to nip into the supermarket for a little lunch at the ski resort at Guardori.  An impressive list of birds was gained here as 23 sets of eyes searched in all directions.

We noted the first of hundreds of Water Pipits, Black Redstart, two Steppe Buzzards, a White Wagtail and a Red-Backed Shrike.  A passing kite caused quite a lot of discussion with some thinking it was a Black and others a Red Kite – the latter very rare in Georgia.

We made our next stop on the Jdavi Pass at an altitude of 2,300m.  There were stunning views down into the deep gorge below and up onto the snow-capped mountains.  Paul Harvey found a very distant Caucasian Black Grouse on a scree-slope and we all managed views through the scope.  Both Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Golden Eagle, Crag Martins, Alpine Accentor, Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel and two Griffon Vultures were also noted.  We left the colourful stalls and Russian tourists behind to drive over the pass and make a further stop where we enjoyed a little raptor migration, which included: 16 Honey Buzzards, a Montagu’s Harrier and a possible Levant Sparrowhawk. We also enjoyed some confiding Twite, a Horned Lark and a Northern Wheatear.

The next stop was an impressive basalt cliff at Kobi, which yielded our first Red-fronted Serins of the trip and a stunning Wallcreeper.  There was another display of raptors, both migrating and hunting on the nearby mountains: 50+ Honey Buzzards, Golden Eagle, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Lammergeier and Peregrine.  Amongst the incredible array of abandoned houses a few Black Redstarts flicked their tails and chased insects, Dunnocks sang from rubble heaps and Wheatears and Grey Wagtails frolicked on the floral meadows.

We moved on to Stepantsminda and endeavoured to find our hotel.  Our guides were totally confused about its location, expecting us to be staying at the basic-quality hostelry in the centre of town.  Eventually, they realised that we were staying in the up-market Kazbegi Hotel (or ‘Rooms Hotel’) halfway up the mountain!

This amazing hotel sat high above the main village and afforded stunning views of Mount Kazbeg (5,345m) and other snow-capped Caucasian peaks.  A Mistle Thrush sitting on a nest was found before we headed off for showers in our luxurious rooms.  Our first real taste of Georgian food and wine was much appreciated and the endless buffet spread was repeatedly visited by all.

Tbilisi trucks, Roger Walsh
Pass to Tbilisi, Roger Walsh
Stepantsminda, Mark Riley
Rooms Hotel (Kasbegi) - Roger Walsh

Wed 4th May: Kazbegi – the challenge for the “Caucasus Big 5”!

(Paddy Shaw)

We emerged from the palatial splendour of the imaginatively-named ‘Rooms Hotel’ in Stepantsminda into a dawn of potentially changeable weather (which all weather is in the mountains) and outstanding scenery of looming, snow-capped peaks and heights and distances impossible to scale.

This was the home of the ‘Caucasus Big 5’ consisting of Caucasian Black Grouse and Snowcock, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Mountain Chiffchaff and Great Rosefinch (Caspian Snowcock would be a target for later in Armenia).

Leaving the gated, guarded entrance to the hotel reveals another world of rough tracks and tumbledown homesteads, with barking but timid dogs, all setting each other off as we moved uphill to the slopes below the peaks. The hotel was perfectly situated for scanning the snowline, and was around a 15 minute walk from a range of suitable habitat for all five species.

The Caucasian Black Grouse were found quite quickly, with good views of a male performing hisv‘leaping’ display.  However, the business of slope-scanning demonstrated the difficulty of computing distance/size of target – while the scope may suggest you are looking at a bunch of stones, these might be rocks the size of a Cadillac. Until you have sight of a bird, there is really little point of reference, and for us Suffolk folk, the notion of looking uphill is pretty alien anyway!

Other birders were about (one of the few times we ran into any others on the whole trip) as the weather deteriorated on the peaks and cloud descended.  As if on cue, we heard the wild, eerie arpeggiated calls of snowcock, with the characteristic ‘roll-off’ at the end which differentiates Caucasian from Caspian, tonally rather like Curlew and equally as atmospheric and haunting.   And then we had it/them: well-camouflaged against the boulder-strewn home, and – for a while – motionless. The context of distance suddenly becomes very obvious.

So, how long should you stare at such a range-restricted bird – one of the main targets of the whole adventure, and perhaps a once-in- a-lifetime view?  As long as it takes to hear a report of a female Great Rosefinch, seen by the other party of birders, down the slope in the meadow below us, that’s how long……

Recent trip reports had shown the rosefinch to be potentially the most difficult of the “big 5” to find; not for us though, as the female was feeding in an area of short grass close to us and was soon joined by others, including a splendid cock, looking like a large, dark-eyed, plump strawberry, and easily within binocular range.

So, with three of the five under our belts, we headed back for breakfast. It’s a rare couple of species that can mean you haven’t mentioned hearing Mountain Chiffchaff singing, or the Griffon Vulture, Peregrine, Rock Thrush, Common Rosefinch and the Tur (Caucasian mountain goat), of which there was a small herd high on the rocks.  Again, a creature perfectly toned for the landscape and despite the size, still difficult to pick out.

After a quick cultural shift, in and out of luxury, we headed to the Chkheri Valley on the other side of the village.  The gullies were rich in sea buckthorn and under the famous Gergeti Trinity Church and Mt Kazbegi.  We searched for Guldenstadt’s Redstart, which we didn’t find.  Spoilt brats that we are, we had to put up with Lammergeyer and rufous Black Kite as the notable species.

Cutting our losses, we returned to ‘our side’ on the east slopes, moving further along the track from the pre-breakfast spot, and slightly further uphill, where buckthorn cut into the lower gullies, around St Elias the Prophet Church.

Here, we struck gold again! As we approached, a stunning, huge, flat-winged Black Vulture sailed over our heads and up and over the peaks and we noted another Rock Thrush, further Caucasian Black Grouse and Water Pipit almost everywhere.  Moving into the scrub, Ring Ouzel and Mountain Chiffchaff were joined by a pair of the target – Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.  The male is a real ‘take your breath away’ bird, and – while hardly ‘confiding’ – they hung around long enough for everyone to get a good look.  A ‘worldie’ for me: but so many birds on this trip were, I must be in the running for ‘Tart of the Caucasus.’

Pressure off! The “Georgian Big Five” clocked up, we took a trip back along the Georgian Military Road (which runs north-south from Vladikavhaz in Russia to Tblisi) to the Jvadi Pass (2379 metres above sea level), to look for White-winged Snowfinch.  Although we didn’t find any, our position near the side of the road attracted plenty of attention. Cars slow down, honk their horns or even stop to see what you’re up to, all in an atmosphere of friendly curiosity in a region where birding is definitely not the norm.

This was the site of a small spring, and cars and trucks stopped to fill water bottles, with more casual visitors taking photo opportunities on the limestone rock formations.

During this stop, we witnessed a huge migration of Honey Buzzard, taking their chances between swinging weather conditions to get a few miles under the wing, plus an overflight by a Booted Eagle. It can get a bit nippy up here, even in May, and where the road runs under steep slopes round bends, tunnels have been built into the mountainside, allowing this important trade route to at least attempt to stay open; the road diverts through the tunnels at times of high snowfall. Rain storms were now whipping through in a speedy and unpredictable manner, and we headed back towards Stepantsminda, stopping at the village of Kobi, where a sheer rock face held the promise of Wallcreeper.

Kobi is typical of the changing face of this area of Georgia.  Small, stone houses, falling into ruin, the previous occupants driven out by the harshness of a mountain existence towards the streets paved with gold of Tblisi and other centres. While the poverty and hardship of rural life de-populates, ski hotels are being built in the more accessible towns along the Military Road, preparing for fat times catering for the Caucasian bourgeoisie and visitors from Russia and China. The Rooms Hotel had plenty of expensive 4-wheel drives with Russian plates outside. Both Georgia and Armenia, with their unparalleled history as the oldest Christian nations, attract attention from ‘cultural tourists.’

While part of the group – successfully, apparently – went off in search of Wallcreeper, I searched the ruins for the ghosts of Kobi; some evidence suggested folks had left taking very little. Below the rock face was a small round table and two chairs, grown through with weeds – perhaps where a couple of former inhabitants planned their retreat to less harsh conditions. One house – and a rather grand one – was obviously well-cared for, if not permanently occupied, with two stone lions atop the gateway – proclaiming the occupants’ prosperity to no-one in particular. Two Red-billed Choughs preened each other on a ledge above the village, perhaps as the patio table-owners had done below some years earlier.

Anyway, that’s enough musing!  A big fly-though of hirundines prompted our departure, to the riverside habitat just south of Stepantsminda.  Rain was threatening big time now, and we had just enough time to grab a view of a Red Fox and spend 10 minutes being serenaded by Corncrakes (perhaps 3?) giving the old two-stroke call invisibly from the undergrowth.

And then the rain came – seriously.  So, we blew up for full-time on what had been a very memorable day and headed back to the alpine splendour of the hotel, sitting up on the eastern slopes, with its huge wooden-decked veranda facing the ever-changing colours on the peaks of Mount Kazbeg.

Great Rosefinch, Eddie Marsh
Great Rosefinch Eddie Marsh
Guldenstadt's Redstart
Kobi

Thursday 5th May: Kazbegi and the military road back to Tbilisi

(Rob and Helen Gooderham)

We made another early start and set off on foot to the steep base of the mountains immediately east of our hotel.  The sky was blue and a bitterly cold wind blew off the snow fields. There were fabulous views of snow-clad Mount Kazbegi to the west lit by the early morning sun, with pasque flowers and gentians on the meadows.

We were searching for further views of Caucasian Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock, which we could hear calling and eventually found after a lot of scanning.  We located another brilliantly-coloured male Great Rosefinch and then a number of Red-throated Pipits, a Short-toed Lark, Ortolan Buntings and Whinchats.  Clearly, last night’s bad weather had forced down some passage migrants.  Frozen, we returned to our hotel for a wonderful breakfast which set us up for the day and reflected on our two-hour pre-breakfast walk that had been far from disappointing.

It was time to leave this fantastic building designed in the Scandi-modern style. Timber dominates inside and out with bespoke furniture and vast glass windows displaying fantastic views over the mighty Great Caucuses.

We returned to the Georgian Military Highway, which is the primary road link between the Russian Federation and Armenia and the Middle East to the south. Despite the importance of this route, the road often degenerates into an unsurfaced track.  Vehicles weaved erratically to find a level route around the potholes.  We headed north some 15 km along the Dariali Gorge to take a look at the Russian border. The road is narrow in places and follows the river Terek flowing north deep in the ravine, to the Caspian Sea.  We stopped briefly at the border, but were careful not to brandish our cameras as the disputed area of Chechnya lies beyond.  The whole area appears to be a vast chaotic building site populated by trucks.  We noted luxury 4 x 4s sweeping past occupied by fashionably skinny Russians in designer clothing!  No visas are required for Russians to enter Georgia, but this is not reciprocated!  We turned the mini-buses round and headed south with a brief and unsuccessful stop for Rock Buntings.  Nika, our guide, handed round small tumblers of red wine made by his father in celebration of the moment (again!).

Along our route, immense anonymous trucks were parked up in line to be taken through the border in ‘trains’ controlled by the police. The road south climbed through the Tergi Valley between impressive snow-covered mountains as we approached the bleak Jvari Pass (2,379m) where we stopped to search for White-winged Snowfinch. Although we were unsuccessful this was a wonderful position for the visible migration of raptors. Water Pipits were in profusion on the mountain sides and a dead Willow Warbler was found. There were indications of massive snowfall over the winter and eventually a cold rain stopped play.  We continued south alongside the River Aragri that flows south to the Black Sea.

We stopped at the Kvisheti viewpoint, but still no luck with Snowfinch, although Alpine and Red-billed Choughs provided great entertainment.  Snowdrops carpeted the slopes.  Another dead Willow Warbler was found and indicating that that a fall of passage migrants had occurred during the night. This is a popular tourist place where Chechnyan women sell vodka, honey and fluffy hats!

We left the mountains and descended towards Tbilisi.  Frequent monasteries and stone defensive towers appeared on distant outcrops overlooking the ravine. North of the vast reservoir of Zhinali, we stopped again at the steeply-sloping beech and birch forest at Ananuki and after some persistence were rewarded with Spotted Flycatcher and a pair of Semi-collared Flycatchers that were attending their nest.

We stopped again south of the reservoir at a meadow area with spectacular sandstone rock formations. The meadows were rich in wild flowers, orchids and butterflies and Crag Martins patrolled the rock faces. This was a known site for Green Warbler but unfortunately not today.

We arrived at central Tbilisi and checked into our hotel, six floors directly above the rail station! From our balcony we enjoyed extensive views of the city with screeching swifts overhead.  Our guide and driver joined us for a meal in the city centre and took us via the Tbilisi metro.  The railway network was extremely deep as are most Soviet metros and was opened in 1966.  It had been designed in the Stalinist style with impressive marble facings to walls, but had clearly seen better days!  We ate in a restaurant decorated with lovely trompe l’oeil street scenes in the old town and as usual the Georgian food was very good: salads, BBQ meat, cheese, breads and good Georgian beer and wine.

Tomorrow Armenia!

Semicollared Fly, Eddie Marsh

Friday 6th May: Tbilisi to Vayk

(Granty)

Our guides Jovanas and Arra and two drivers met us outside our hotel and we were soon on the road to the Armenian border crossing where we were greeted by stern-faced border guards who wore bottle-green military uniforms, faintly ridiculous “dinner-plate” hats and expressions befitting of a funeral.  They hardly exuded a welcome to Armenia, but here we were nevertheless.  What was far more welcoming was the super-charged Nightingale blasting out his staccato song near the border crossing – the first of a truly wondrous array of Armenian delights that were to captivate us for the next few days.

A squadron of about 20 Honey Buzzards soared overhead, freely crossing the border.  No passports, no solemn document stamping and no fuss – a poignant reminder that birds know no international boundaries, their travel is unrestricted save for the impediments we put in their way.

We had left traffic-choked Tbilisi a few hours before, mercifully emerging into a zone of rather featureless flatness, but cultivated at nothing like the intensity of our own Suffolk prairielands.  The city we had left behind was something of a curiosity. The drab, down-at- heel and decades-old housing and office blocks was a stark reminder of Georgia’s Soviet links.  In vivid contrast, bizarre, ultra-modern and often garish, glitzy architecture shocked as it came into view.  It was as if the architects were casting off their Soviet shackles and letting their imagination run riot. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the way the country felt, a symbol of Georgia standing on its own feet at last and assuming its own identity.

We were fast heading towards the idyllic village of Dilijan for a much-anticipated lunchtime meet-up with our Armenian agent, the ultra-efficient Zhanna.  But it was a pleasure we had to wait for as one of our buses stopped us in our tracks.  A puncture was quickly sorted, but we all took the chance to stretch our legs for a while and scan some rather dramatic crags that rose up high above the road.

Sure enough, raptors featured strongly – two Lesser Spotted Eagles and an Egyptian Vulture being the highlights – with a supporting cast of European Bee-eaters over-heard and overhead and an exquisite Aescalaphid, a dragonfly-like insect that had the cameras clicking in overdrive.

Lunch was a sumptuous spread in a peaceful backwater of a restaurant, with the always helpful Zhanna holding court. A Booted Eagle drifted over and several of us enjoyed the trip’s first Green Warbler.

On the road again, we had a first, tantalizing taste of what birding was to be like amid the upland lakes.  A brief stop at an ephemeral wetland produced Ruddy Shelducks, Wood Sandpiper and a Mountain Chiffchaff.  Further on we skirted the vast Lake Sevan, to which we would return a few days hence, and were beguiled by dazzling White-winged Terns and the first of many smart Armenian Gulls among many other delights. The taster gave way to a full-on feast further on as we viewed a body of water set amid grassland and with a backdrop of snow-topped mountains. Against such a background the lone Black-winged Stilt and Gull-billed Tern looked somehow incongruous, as did the scores of White-winged Terns, but the stars of the show here were a lone Baltic Gull, a Garganey, two dazzling and confiding White-winged Snowfinches and a small number of slightly less dazzling Rock Sparrows. The snowfinches were soon joined by a group of Rock Sparrows and, whilst the attention of most of was focussed on this rather confiding flock of birds, a splinter group from our party had wandered off and located a Siberian Stonechat further down the road. An immature Steppe Eagle was spotted at our next stop, but this magnificent bird wasn’t on show for long as it glided gracefully over the hillside before disappearing into a gulley and out of sight.

The culture vultures among us were not to be disappointed either.  Further towards our destination of Vayk we encountered a fascinating Silk Road “hotel” – the Orbelyan Caravanserai.  This remarkably well-preserved trading post and rest stop for Silk Road travellers was built in 1332. Once bustling and filled with traders and their livestock, now it was empty, dark and strangely atmospheric.

In the rather cold light of day outside, birding, of course, continued apace, with the highlights being a fine male Rock Thrush and several Ortolan Buntings, one of which mesmerised its admirers by shuffling around at their feet.

At last we ascended the winding road to the Hotel Amrots, perched high up, fortress-like, above the pleasant little town of Vayk. European Scops Owls were to lure us with their odd, monotonous calls after a hearty meal in a nearby restaurant and as we trudged wearily through the darkness back up the slope to our hotel some of us could not resist the comparison between the warm welcome we received at the charming Amrots establishment and the cold, surly attitude of those border men in their “dinner-plate” hats who stared at us with steely gaze a few hours previously.

Ortolan Bunting Arrmenia - R Weale

Friday 6th May: Tbilisi to Vayk

(Granty)

Our guides Jovanas and Arra and two drivers met us outside our hotel and we were soon on the road to the Armenian border crossing where we were greeted by stern-faced border guards who wore bottle-green military uniforms, faintly ridiculous “dinner-plate” hats and expressions befitting of a funeral.  They hardly exuded a welcome to Armenia, but here we were nevertheless.  What was far more welcoming was the super-charged Nightingale blasting out his staccato song near the border crossing – the first of a truly wondrous array of Armenian delights that were to captivate us for the next few days.

A squadron of about 20 Honey Buzzards soared overhead, freely crossing the border.  No passports, no solemn document stamping and no fuss – a poignant reminder that birds know no international boundaries, their travel is unrestricted save for the impediments we put in their way.

We had left traffic-choked Tbilisi a few hours before, mercifully emerging into a zone of rather featureless flatness, but cultivated at nothing like the intensity of our own Suffolk prairielands.  The city we had left behind was something of a curiosity. The drab, down-at- heel and decades-old housing and office blocks was a stark reminder of Georgia’s Soviet links.  In vivid contrast, bizarre, ultra-modern and often garish, glitzy architecture shocked as it came into view.  It was as if the architects were casting off their Soviet shackles and letting their imagination run riot. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the way the country felt, a symbol of Georgia standing on its own feet at last and assuming its own identity.

We were fast heading towards the idyllic village of Dilijan for a much-anticipated lunchtime meet-up with our Armenian agent, the ultra-efficient Zhanna.  But it was a pleasure we had to wait for as one of our buses stopped us in our tracks.  A puncture was quickly sorted, but we all took the chance to stretch our legs for a while and scan some rather dramatic crags that rose up high above the road.

Sure enough, raptors featured strongly – two Lesser Spotted Eagles and an Egyptian Vulture being the highlights – with a supporting cast of European Bee-eaters over-heard and overhead and an exquisite Aescalaphid, a dragonfly-like insect that had the cameras clicking in overdrive.

Lunch was a sumptuous spread in a peaceful backwater of a restaurant, with the always helpful Zhanna holding court. A Booted Eagle drifted over and several of us enjoyed the trip’s first Green Warbler.

On the road again, we had a first, tantalizing taste of what birding was to be like amid the upland lakes.  A brief stop at an ephemeral wetland produced Ruddy Shelducks, Wood Sandpiper and a Mountain Chiffchaff.  Further on we skirted the vast Lake Sevan, to which we would return a few days hence, and were beguiled by dazzling White-winged Terns and the first of many smart Armenian Gulls among many other delights. The taster gave way to a full-on feast further on as we viewed a body of water set amid grassland and with a backdrop of snow-topped mountains. Against such a background the lone Black-winged Stilt and Gull-billed Tern looked somehow incongruous, as did the scores of White-winged Terns, but the stars of the show here were a lone Baltic Gull, a Garganey, two dazzling and confiding White-winged Snowfinches and a small number of slightly less dazzling Rock Sparrows. The snowfinches were soon joined by a group of Rock Sparrows and, whilst the attention of most of was focussed on this rather confiding flock of birds, a splinter group from our party had wandered off and located a Siberian Stonechat further down the road. An immature Steppe Eagle was spotted at our next stop, but this magnificent bird wasn’t on show for long as it glided gracefully over the hillside before disappearing into a gulley and out of sight.

The culture vultures among us were not to be disappointed either.  Further towards our destination of Vayk we encountered a fascinating Silk Road “hotel” – the Orbelyan Caravanserai.  This remarkably well-preserved trading post and rest stop for Silk Road travellers was built in 1332. Once bustling and filled with traders and their livestock, now it was empty, dark and strangely atmospheric.

In the rather cold light of day outside, birding, of course, continued apace, with the highlights being a fine male Rock Thrush and several Ortolan Buntings, one of which mesmerised its admirers by shuffling around at their feet.

At last we ascended the winding road to the Hotel Amrots, perched high up, fortress-like, above the pleasant little town of Vayk. European Scops Owls were to lure us with their odd, monotonous calls after a hearty meal in a nearby restaurant and as we trudged wearily through the darkness back up the slope to our hotel some of us could not resist the comparison between the warm welcome we received at the charming Amrots establishment and the cold, surly attitude of those border men in their “dinner-plate” hats who stared at us with steely gaze a few hours previously.

Western Rock Nuthatch juv - Eddie Marsh
Long-legged Buzzard - Eddie Marsh
Orchid sp - Eddie Marsh

Sunday 8th May: Valley and mountains east of Vank near Meghri

(John Garbutt and Carol Elliott)

We had spent the night in Agarak’s Hotel ML and it was time for breakfast, so we made our way through the hotel’s reception area to find that some of our group had already been out birdwatching just a short walk away.  Among other birds, they had found a target species in this area: Ménétries’s Warbler named after a Frenchman, Édouard Ménétries, who first described it in 1832 – thus the
bird’s name should be pronounced “May-nay- trees-es”.  We would have a look ourselves the following morning.

After breakfast, including tea with no milk (surely a flavour improvement?) and while waiting for the day’s transport to arrive, we saw Laughing Dove and House and Tree Sparrows sitting on and around the adjacent buildings.  We were met by three 4x4 vehicles that would enable us to achieve the day’s excursion by driving up into the mountains.  Which vehicle should we choose: the one with the broken side window or the one with the cracked windscreen? We chose the third one and were joined by Rob and Helen Gooderham.  The other half of our party soon arrived from the Hotel Marishok with three more 4x4s.  Our drivers (park rangers) were dressed in smart military fatigues that seemed to be connected with the Armenian army.  Indeed, our driver (who we nicknamed “Jensen” for reasons that will become apparent) had the word “Armenia” velcroed onto his shoulder band and saluted another man when he arrived.  As three of the drivers looked like grandfather, father and son, we suspected some nepotism in the Armenian forces.

The convoy of 4x4s set off from Agarak dodging numerous potholes towards a “T” junction where we joined the M2 road, marked by the kind of blue signs that would denote motorways in the UK. However, this M2 had just one lane each way, its condition was rather poor and there was no hard shoulder.  We turned left alongside a high barbed wire fence that protects the border with Iran.

Over the fence is some no-mans’- land then the River Aras which forms the boundary at this point between Armenia and Iran.  On the other side we could see a road with lorries driving on it and an Iranian town.

Although the Armenian people in Agarak and Meghri live alongside the border with Iran, there was no sign of tension.  Indeed, there is clearly some regular interchange between the two countries because we saw lorries with Iranian registration plates driving to and from the border. At another “T” junction, the road sign told us that straight ahead would take us into Iran and it did cross our minds that we could easily have been kidnapped by our drivers.  However, we turned left on the M2 towards the large Armenian town of Meghri with the river of the same name on our right.

Armenia is a very mountainous country so there is usually just one main road between the larger towns and the topography demands that the roads run beside the fast flowing rivers at the bottom of the gorges.  Because there is only one road, open-sided tunnels have been constructed at vulnerable points so that the roads can be kept open when snowfall and avalanches would make them impassable.  These open-sided tunnels only seem to be used when the roads would otherwise be closed and on this particular road, they were sited on an old road surface close to the hillside.  On another day, we did drive through one of these tunnels – it had no metalled road surface and two large vehicles could not pass one another so we had to reverse out to let an oncoming lorry pass.

After driving several kilometres along the M2, we turned left over a small bridge and then onto a single track road that would take us up these particular mountains that are situated within a “Natural Park”.  The road surface started off as deplorable but then deteriorated.  And, of course, you can’t drive directly up a mountain but need to navigate numerous “hairpin” bends and short “straights”.  We were re-assured that someone would have carried out a full Risk Assessment and expected that this could be found alongside the Accident Book.

Jensen had failed to take “pole position” on the starting grid and clearly wanted to move to the front.  Once in the lead (yes, Jensen did manage to overtake on this mountain track), it was clear that he did not want his turbo-charged 4x4 to be overtaken until we crossed the finishing line.  Some unavoidable deep potholes were taken slowly and we avoided numerous rock falls, including one very large rock that caused Jensen to utter what we assumed to be an Armenian expletive.  With just one metre of road surface to the side of our vehicles wheels and certain death if we slipped over the adjacent precipice, even Jensen thought it necessary to reduce his speed.

Along the road, we passed a building that was used as a base for the Natural Park.  Jensen proudly told us that it was his office and that he was the Director.  We were relieved that he would be familiar with the road.  A few minutes later, we passed through a small village high up in the mountains and wondered whether the occupants lived there all year or just in the less cold months.

Most people will never encounter a road surface as bad as this but eventually it was deep snow, rather than the road’s poor condition, that made it impossible to proceed further.  So we exited the 4x4s, bruised mentally and physically, but WHAT A FANTASTIC PLACE TO BE.  Our elevation was close to the mountains’ summits and we could enjoy distant views towards the valleys below.

A target bird was the Caspian Snowcock that frequents this lofty habitat and, as its name suggests,

survives on the snow line.  One was soon found close to a mountain peak but eventually there were perhaps three, silhouetted against the sky.  We also found Whinchats and, perhaps surprisingly at this high level, Common Cuckoo. Wolf tracks were found in the snow and we believe that one of our guides actually saw one disappearing out of view.

Next we walked part way down the mountain and were collected by the vehicles that drove us to our lunch point beside a fast-running stream and waterfall.  It would have been a picturesque spot apart from various iron objects that had been placed across the stream to enable the other bank to be reached.  There were also plastic bottles placed on branches as some crude form of decoration.

Packed lunches (including vegetarian) arrived somehow and we seemed unaffected by the thousands of insects that swarmed exactly over the water itself.  Over a leisurely lunch, we saw a Golden Eagle above, Mountain Chiffchaff singing in the scrub around us and had perfect views of a target bird: Green Warbler.

After lunch, we set off down the mountain and were perhaps relieved when Jensen reached the “less bad” road surface of the M2 that took us back alongside the border with Iran.  At a “T” junction we could either turn right towards our hotel town of Agarak, but we turned left towards Iran.  Soon afterwards, Jensen uttered another Armenian expletive then, in English, “problem”.  His much- abused, turbo-charged 4x4 had stuttered to a halt.  The other drivers soon arrived, the vehicle’s bonnet was opened, there was much disconnection of parts but the engine would only splutter and backfire through the turbocharger.  Soon another car arrived with a young driver who we called “Lewis” because he had clearly been taught to drive by the same instructor as Jensen, who we left forlornly looking at his injured pride and joy.  We started in the direction of the Iranian border but immediately turned left onto a dirt road that took us about one kilometre into a narrow gorge.

Almost immediately a target species appeared: both male and female Persian Wheatears, now a separate species having been split with the Kurdish Wheatear from the Red-rumped Wheatear in recent years.  Eastern Orphean Warblers were nesting in the gorge’s scrub where Black-headed Buntings were also visible, a Blue Rock Thrush appeared on the horizon, a Griffon Vulture soared lazily overhead, two Chukars announced their appearance, and some further Ménétries’s Warblers were easy to locate.

Other birds noted included: Grey Partridge, Egyptian Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Feral Pigeon or Rock Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Swift, European Bee-eater, Common Skylark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Water Pipit, White Wagtail, Common Nightingale, Northern Wheatear, Western Black-eared Wheatear, Common Blackbird, Ring Ouzel, Upcher’s Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Hooded Crow, and Common Linnet.

We then headed back to our hotels which gave Lewis the opportunity to drive very fast with his radio at full volume.  Fortunately the drive was fairly short!

Back at the hotel, and after a shower, I was sitting in the reception area when I was approached by Susie – a slim and very attractive girl who had served us with breakfast many hours before.  Her English was only slightly better than my Armenian, but I was able to understand that at school she had learned only two foreign languages – German and Russian.  She needed to learn English and therefore just wanted to talk.

Next, those of us in the Hotel ML were driven the short distance across Agarak’s main square for dinner at the hotel occupied by the other half of our party.  We were tired but happy and slept soundly in anticipation of tomorrow’s early start to find the local Ménétries’s Warblers.

Menetriess Warbler, Eddie Marsh
Eastern Orphean Warbler - Eddie Marsh

Monday 9th May: Agarak – Vayk

(Will Brame)

The day dawned fine and sunny around the town of Agarak, and the early birders amongst us had a pre-breakfast wander, finding Menetries Warblers, Hoopoe and Syrian Woodpeckers.  This was followed by a short drive to Meghri – along the fortified wire border fencing that separated us from Iran – where we were to be shown a special place for birds.  Along the route, three Rollers showed on tree tops whilst those that cared to registered themselves a few Iranian "ticks".

Arriving at our destination we duly alighted from our minibuses and split into small groups to give the area a good grilling.  Soon news of a male Levant Sparrowhawk perched in a tree crackled over the radios and thus we discovered the reason for the "special" tag given to our visit – breeding Levant Sparrowhawks!  As everyone enjoyed good views of the male and female, a nest was found delighting one and all still further! A few Common Rosefinches also showed themselves in the rather allotment-like surroundings and indeed we were invited into one such smallholding by a very friendly Armenian.  As we passed through the gardens, we noted a plethora of insect life at every level of vegetation, something sorely missing back home.

Back then to Agarak for breakfast with a few Rosy Starlings and Crag Martins being viewed as we again passed the border with Iran before starting our journey back to Vayk.

Leaving Agarak, we travelled along winding roads that snaked up and down following Armenia’s ancient Silk Road, roads that at times were lined with familiar species of trees such as Oak, Elm, Maple, Beech and Sorbus.  As this was going to be a long day’s drive for our Armenian hosts’ frequent pit stops/nicotine breaks were needed for all: it was during one such break near Karajan overlooking a deep valley that a close encounter with an adult Lammergeyer gave us one of best views that we had of this species all trip.  Passing a medieval fortress (13th Century), built high up on the steep cliff sides, was a statue of a bear holding a ring of keys in its mouth. Checking with the guide book we learned that this is the symbol of the region of Syunik. Stopping alongside for a photo opportunity, birds noted were both Grey and White Wagtails with a smart male Blue Rock Thrush all alongside a torrent of a river – very picturesque!  As we travelled towards Voroyan, a superb adult Egyptian Vulture hung over one of the numerous deep valleys. Stopping to look over another such valley, keen eyes picked out a well camouflaged Praying Mantis, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Green-winged Orchid, Lady and Man type Orchids with Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and a Short-toed Eagle seen in the area. On to Goris and we were surprised to find the town full of people, not to welcome our party but in celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War on the 9th May 1945 – an event which is still maintained to this day.

After another exceedingly fine lunch that was exceedingly large as well, Ara (our guide) was keen for us to visit the Volatan River Gorge at the Wings of Tatev. This site has gained an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as it has the longest reversible cable car in the world, an impressive feat of engineering to say the least. This area was where Ara had seen four Eagles stacked atop one another.  It was not for us today although we did note Rock Thrush, Red-backed Shrike, Long-legged Buzzard and an unexpected Striped Hawkmoth.

We travelled higher along our route and as a consequence colder, stonier fields, near Sarnakunk, looked good for Bimaculated Lark, so searches were made either side of the road.  No Bimacs were found, but if only fields back home held such avian numbers as these four fields. There were hundreds of Skylarks, Water Pipits, five Lesser Grey Shrikes a few Whinchats and, amazingly, over a hundred Common Rosefinches in just one field. As we descended once more towards Vayk a herd of cattle, known simply in Armenian as "Kov" (no breed name), was being driven off the roadside hills.

It was one silly "Kov" that decided to put our minibus brakes to the test. The brakes performed admirably and we stopped with a few millimetres to spare, affording no injuries in or out of the vehicle.  The rest of our journey remained uneventful and we arrived at the excellent Amrots (Castle)

Hotel in Vayk once again.

Menetries's Warbler - Eddie Marsh
Striped Hawkmoth - Will Brame