Thursday, January 23, 2014

Georgia and Armenia

I left Borçka in Turkey after some raptor migration viewing and headed out along the coastal road towards Georgia. By sunset I had still not found a campsite between the sea and cliffs, and eventually resorted to pushing on to Batumi in Georgia. I arrived in the very early hours of the morning and stopped at a fuel station to double-check my directions to the hostel as I was heading for. The young lads running the night shift quickly invited me in and had me sit by the heater to dry off. We could not communicate but after about thirty minutes I recognised the words ‘vodka’; someone was thirsty and they wanted me to join in. One of the lads left and came back a few minutes later with a bottle – I have no idea where he got hold of it at that time of the morning. We sat in the sparsely furnished office, with one of the lads regularly peeping through the blinds to see if there were any cars stopping for service. After the forth shot I was finished; and I was directed towards the couch three paces away from my chair. Knowing that my bike was safely stored in the generator room behind the station, I slept solidly until 8 am. The first I noticed was a man tiptoeing in and out of the office, following by the cleaning lady doing her utmost not to wake me while she mopped the floor. Once fully awake, I realised that the night-shift staff had already left; I would have liked to have bid them farewell. The morning staff had been well informed about me, so I was greeted with a smile and escorted to the generator room to collect my bike. My first night in Georgia was indeed a memorable one!

A Little Gull spreading its wings, Batumi, Georgia.

The Statue of Love; the figures pass through each other.

Lights at night in Batumi.

Snow-covered mountains near Batumi, Georgia.

I stayed in the hostel in Batumi for two nights, and was very fortunately to meet Amir, an Iranian, and his friend. Amir and I shared contact details and he invited me to visit him in Tehran should I pass that way during my travels. I was sure that I would see him again. While in Batumi I took a few walks around the harbour and waterfront areas, and spotted some nice birds such as Little Gull and Caspian Tern. The gulls were fluttering about some fishermen fishing from the rocks, dipping and diving to grasp at any morsels floating on the water. This gave me a great opportunity to observe the birds from up close, and to appreciate the darker underwing pattern of the adult birds. Before leaving Batumi, I met Tom, an English cyclist who was also staying at the hostel. After a pleasant and informative chat he was on his way. It turned out that we took the same route out of Batumi, but because I left the next morning, I was trailing him by no more than a day. So it was amusing to read his blog and experiences (, recognising many of the features he had photographed such as bridges and churches, which I also photographed!    

The Chorokhi River valley, Georgia.

The medieval Makhuntseti Bridge.

I passed through the village of Makhuntseti, and met an elderly gentleman who kindly offered me a place to stay for the night. His wife prepared typical and delicious Georgian dishes and fed me very well, while he kept topping up my glass with vodka! Next morning he took me for a tour of his village, showing me the Makhuntseti Waterfall and Bridge.

The Makhuntseti Waterfall.

The gentle climb from Batumi into the mountains via the stunning Chorokhi River valley took three days before reaching the crest, but the wet weather on the second day damped my efforts to do any good birding. The dense woodland looked inviting and I was sure that specials such as Mountain Chiffchaff were lurking there. Two Russian motorcyclists offered me a cup of tea, a warm welcome after the persistent uphill in the wet and cold. Not long after this stop the tar road came to an end, with the road being reduced to a muddy track. The next day I met an Australian and Englishman cycling in the opposite direction towards Batumi. Our roadside chat was cut short when a large herd of goats trotting in the road towards us threatened to delay their rush to the city - I got news from them that Tom whom I had met in Batumi was a good 30 km ahead of me. Later that day I stopped at a small market to get something to eat, and was instead offered a beer, followed by another one, compliments of a man who was very pleased that I knew the name of his village!

A stone church on the banks of the Chorokhi River, Georgia.

The bikers who offered me tea, boiled on their camping stove.

A herd of goats walking up the road in the Chorokhi River valley.

The next morning I reached the top of the Goderdzi Pass, which was still cloaked in thick fog. A small wooden cabin looked like an inviting stop-over to warm up and get some food, and it was indeed. I was still reluctant to leave after the second hour but finally managed to force myself out the door. The fog soon lifted with the descent, revealing Common Crossbills, Jays, Eurasians Serins and Red-fronted Serins, as well as spectacular scenery. By the time I reach the base of the mountain, the habitat had become more open and arid, leading to the town of Akhaltsikhe.
The wooden cabin at the top of the Goderdzi Pass.

Houses in the fog, Goderdzi Pass.

Spectacular scenery on the downhill after the top of Goderdzi Pass .

From Akhaltsikhe the road followed another scenic river valley, that of the Mtkvari River, which winds its way gently up to the highlands on the border with Armenia. The view from a bridge delivered a Common Kingfisher, patiently perched on a branch over the quieter waters of the river. I followed the river for a while further before I was beckoned to pull over by another traveler – I hadn’t noticed him at first. It with Ronald, a Dutch traveler whom I had met two days earlier while ascending the Goderdzi Pass. He was traveling with his wife Tonny and their dog Ringgit, in a Mercedes overlander. They had been camping next to the river for two days already, just enjoying the tranquility of a marvellous spot. I joined them for dinner in their overlander and they shared a stack of information about traveling in Iran, where they had previously toured. The next day I continued along the valley to the Khertvisi Fortress, built on the edge of a rocky cliff. While the current structure dates back to the 10th to 14th century, the original site, according to legend, was visited (and destroyed!) by Alexander of Macedonia during his Eastern Campaign.

Camping on the banks of the Mtkvari River.
The idyllic banks of the Mtkvari River.

The Mtkvari River in Georgia.

The Khertvisi Fortress at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers.

A cold snap moved in the next day as I headed for the highlands, with snow topping the peaks of the higher hills. Long-legged Buzzards were a fairly common sight now, while Rock Nuthatches called from rocky slopes. I passed into Armenia in the late evening, and pitched my tent on an open field some distance from the road. I had barely slipped into my sleeping bag when I heard the characteristic pelting noise of snow on my tent. The next morning I was greeted by a white landscape, and best of all, a Long-legged Buzzard perched on a small rock a mere 30 m from my tent. While the snow was a welcome sight, I wondered if it would hamper my progress towards Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. However, as I dropped altitude the snow diminished giving way again to brown grasslands. I was amazed at the number of Long-legged Buzzards perched on the ground in one particular area, and counted at least 15 individuals. 

My first morning in Armenia!
The icy roads fortunately did not last long.
A Long-legged Buzzard, plentiful on the steppes of Georgia and Armenia.

A roadside resting spot.

Before I reached Yerevan, I was surprised to find a species I had missed in Turkey. Perched on the roadside power lines was a small flock of Lesser Kestrels; most of them were females but there were also a number of males in their usual splendid plumage. The cold weather lifted as I reached Yerevan, and I stayed long enough in the city to witness some of its anniversary celebrations. At 2795 years, Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. I also used my stay to organise some logistics and prepare for the next stretch. The last evening of the city’s celebrations ended with a spectacular fireworks display in the Republic Square in the city centre.

Yerevan, one of the oldest cities in the world.

Fireworks in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia.

I had information about a birding site south of Yerevan, and since I had not done much serious birding for some weeks, decided to give it a go. A mere 50 km south of the capital I turn north east from the main road and passed through Vedi and into the arid hills nearby. In places the hills looked very much like the Karoo back home in South Africa, so I could not resist the temptation to stay longer than planned. My first lifer was an Eastern Rock Nuthatch. The slower and deeper call of this species compared to its smaller cousin was unmistakable. Though the bird diversity was low, I enjoyed exploring the few roads that led into the hills, and made some walks along dry riverbeds and narrow ravines. Species frequently seen included Finsch’s Wheatear, Black Redstart, Rock Sparrow, Chukar, Magpie, Crested Lark, White Wagtail, and Kestrel, while Water Pipit and Wood Lark were some unexpected species.

Into the Vedi Hills.
A striking Finsch's Wheatear in the Vedi Hills.

Between the hills and the town of Vedi were some agricultural fields fringed by tall brush, which held Corn Bunting and Bluethroat, the latter being a real surprise. Nearby orchards provided seemingly good habitat for Syrian Woodpecker. After three nights at the Vedi Hills it was time to move on. Cycling southwards I passed the Armash Fish Farm, a well-known site in Armenia for species such as Paddyfield Warbler, but only in summer. The fish farm lies in the lowlands with the impressive Mount Ararat at over 5000 m dominating the western horizon. I made a quite stop near the entrance to the farm to get an idea of the birds there, knowing I was too late in the season for something like Paddyfield Warbler. I managed to spot Pygmy Cormorant, Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Penduline Tit, Grey Heron, Common Kingfisher and a flock of Common Starling and Jackdaws, before continuing.   
The Vedi Hills south of Yerevan in Armenia, with snow-capped Mount Ararat.
A rock nuthatch nest on a vertical rock face.

For the next couple days it was a roller coaster of a ride through the hills of central Armenia, with one climb followed closely by another. The highland steppes held the usual species such as Linnet, Water Pipit, Steppe Buzzard, and Long-legged Buzzard, while closer to the nearby mountain cliffs were Alpine and Red-billed Chough. Skylarks were in their hundreds foraging across the cut wheat fields and I was always hopeful of finding a White-winged Lark, but no luck. An immature Golden Eagle and a pair of Bearded Vultures were surprises, especially the latter as this was my first sighting of the species in the northern Hemisphere. A spectacular river gorge held White-throated Dipper, Rock Bunting, Long-tailed and Blue Tits. 

Sunset over Mount Ararat.

A White-throated Dipper, a truly fascinating species which 'swims' underwater.

Closer to Goris I discovered a new eagle species for myself. Just after packing up my tent surrounded by frosted grass, I looked up to see a large brown eagle with broad wings and a short broad tail. I then noticed that there were several birds in the sky, with the appearance of an immature bird confirming my suspicions; Steppe Eagle! Together with several Long-legged Buzzards, they were taking pickings from a nearby field being ploughed. Some eagles and buzzards were perched on the ground, most likely hunting for rodents, while others were circling above. As the tractor moved on further to plough another field, most of the birds followed.

Countryside horses in Armenia.

Brewing storm.

An adult Steppe Eagle.

A ring of stones, only erected in 2013.

Before reaching Goris I turned south to take the road to Tatev, a small village on the edge of the deep gorge of the Vorotan River. A big attraction of Tatev is the 9th-century monastery, which during the 14th and 15th centuries, was home to one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, the University of Tatev. Tatev is now also well-known for the world’s longest non-stop double track cable car, which runs over the gorge from Tatev to Halidzor village. While approaching Tatev I passed through Halidzor village, where the steppes of the plateau gave way to dense woodland. The bird species naturally changed too, with Eurasian Nuthatch, Mistle Thrush, Blackbird, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Jay and Sparrowhawk making appearances. A Green Woodpecker’s distinctive call occasionally echoed across the gorge, while a soaring pair of Eurasian Griffon Vultures made an impressionable fly-by on the horizon. 

The Tatev Monastery, with the cable car station to the left behind it.

I made a brief visit to the Tatev Monastery, where I met an Australian backpacker and a small team of English explorers searching the gorge for potential bat caves. After an interesting and lengthy chat we all parted ways and I took to the road to reach the top of the nearby mountain pass before sunset. The next day it was mostly downhill towards Kapan city. Some birding surprises included Dunnock, a species of accentor, and Brambling, which extends it range southwards from Northern Europe to as far down as the Middle East. My last Brambling sighting that I could remember was in Norway in 2012, so it was a treat to see the species again in its winter range. After a particularly steep decline I stopped on the outskirts of a small village to allow the hot rims to cool off from all the friction with the brake pads – I had previously lost a tyre because of this and was not keen to lose another! While waiting and admiring the scene, a young boy approached me and began chatting in his mother tongue. Though we could not understand each other, I proceeded to explain the various parts of the bike in which he was interested, such as the horn, dynamo, lights and pedals. He had a small bag of sunflower seeds, and offered me a couple of handfuls. Not being able to separate the seed from the shell using tongue and teeth like the locals, I just chomped my way through it all. At times we nibbled on our seeds in silence, and I just enjoyed the moment of being in the presence of a giving stranger.

The Armenian boy who shared his sunflower seeds.

I made a brief stop-over in Kapan to get enough supplies for the next couple days, as I was heading for the last mountain pass before Iran. I made some progress that afternoon in covering altitude, but more lay ahead. The next day started with frequent climbs and declines, making it feel as if I wasn’t getting any higher. The mountain was also covered in fog the entire day, denying me any views of what must have been spectacular scenery. The road passed through the Shikahogh State Reserve (, a vast expanse of forest which has been well-protected from deforestation, and supports unique flora and large fauna such as bears and wolves. In retrospect I could have stayed a few more days in the area. 

Plenty of fog all day while ascending through the Shikahogh State Reserve.
A foggy bridge on the way up the mountain.

Birds were far and few between, but there was one sighting that made up for the rest. While passing a road cutting on a bend, a flash of crimson caught my eye. I suspected what it was, but had to see it again to believe it. It was indeed a male Wallcreeper, and he had been working his way along the near-vertical road cutting. However, I soon lost sight of him in the fog, so proceeded to continue with the climb. I had seen my first one in Turkey some months earlier, but it was brilliant to see one again so unexpectedly. Later I was startled by a Eurasian Griffon Vulture which took off from a tree directly above me; I had not seen it perched in the dense fog. That night I camped beside the road, only to discover the next morning that the top of the mountain pass was only around the next bend! That gave me the opportunity to spend the morning admiring the breath-taking views from the top of the mountain pass, and get a first glimpse of Iran, my next destination. 

Trees covered in ice near the top of the mountain pass in southern Armenia.

Ice on the mountain after a cold night, southern Armenia.

The downhill in Armenia, towards Iran.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Big Year Norway 2014

Hi Everyone

Just a quick post before the next CWB update. A good friend of mine, Eirik Grønningsæter,  is undertaking a Big Year in Norway for 2014; that is, to see as many birds as possible within one year in Norway. A Big Year has never been undertaken officially in Norway, so this will be one to watch. You can follow his progress at

Best regards