Georgia, Kazbegi and Lake Jandari, 24th - 29th April 2016 - part I

A birding trip to Caucasus mountains, Stepantsminda village and Mt. Kazbegi, with an afternoon at Lake Jandari and steppes in the south, Georgian/Azerbaidjan border

Participants. Jouni Riihimäki, Jari Pitkäkoski, Jani Vastamäki


Originally we had intended to go for a two-week tour in Egypt, but due to unpredictable security situation there we soon abandoned this plan, and chose instead Greater Caucasus mountains in northern Georgia. I had planned going to Kazbegi since 2012, so itinerary and most of the planning were almost done.

Travel, costs and arrangements

We took Turkish Airlines return flights Helsinki-Istanbul-Tblisi, at cost of 330 € per person. Jouni had booked us a Renault Duster via Herz at cost of 545 € for five days. There is no Herz office at the Tblisi airport, but the car was brought to us upon our arrival, and actually turned out to be a 4x4 Honda CRV, an option we later found out was inevitable on rough tracks and bumby roads. So next time we'd be better make it a Land Cruiser! Driving in Tblisi and Georgia has notoriously bad reputation, but we managed to complete our journey without a single scratch in the car. Because of our late arrival in Tbilisi on Sunday 24th April, we took one double and one single room at nearby Hotel Iveria Inn, at total cost of 104 €. At Stepantsminda we stayed four nights in single rooms at Ilia State University Hotel, 24 € per night including breakfast. The hotel is situated close to the most important birding sites, and one can sit on the balcony listening calling Caucasian Snowcocks! To European standars, gasoline was surprisingly cheap, just about 0,65 €/l. We drove a total of 601 km's and cost for fuel was just 45 €. Timezone in Georgia is UTC +4, just one hour ahead of Finland, and local currency is Lari (1 Lari = 0,40 €).

Birding day by day

Monday, 25th

Hotel Iveria Inn and a sunny day in Tblisi, with forecast of +27°C
We had breakfast at 7.00 on our hotel and at 8.40 hit the road north towards E60 highway. Navigation through Tbilisi wasn't too easy, but we used offline Google map showing our position, which was of great help. After 30 km's drive we turned right to Georgian Military Highway E117 and followed it all the way and arrived Stepantsminda at 17.35.

Green valley 60km's north of Tblisi along E117 highway, with a singing Mountain Chiffchaff here
On our way we made occasional stops and at Ananuri walked around fortress and along an opposite track, but birds were mainly basic stuff. We had a singing Mountain Chiffchaff, probably on migration, here: 42.1513889,44.7375

Ananuri fortress, with two churches
Tower of Ananuri castle and scenery to river Aragvi
Ananuri is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage list: "The Ananuri fortified ensemble (architect K. Bakhsarashvili), dating from the 17th century, is located on the left bank of the Aragvi River, along the famous original Georgian Military Highway, 66km from Tbilisi. It incorporates a circuit wall with turrets, a porch, a Church of Virgin, a minor Church of Gvtaeba, a tower with a stepped pyramidal roof of Svanetian type, a single-nave Church Mkurnali, tower Sheupovari, a bell-tower, a spring and a reservoir. In the Church of the Virgin are buried some of the Eristavis (dukes) of Aragvi. The Church of the Assumption, built in 1689, has richly decorated facades with the fine relief carvings featuring human, animal and floral images, including a carved north entrance. It also contains the remains of a number of beautiful frescoes."

Ananuri fortress hosted breeding pairs of both Ehrenbergs Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus samamisicus and Black Redstart ssp. ochruros. To present knowledge, female samamisicus is not separable from nominate. Note clear-cut whitish edges to secondaries and greyish upperparts.
Male Ehrenbergs Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus samamisicus is very bright and striking bird.

 Compared to nominate, male samamisicus has black from face bleeding into sides of neck

Most striking feature of samamisicus are large white wing flashes and also dark cold grey colouration on upperparts

Roads were variable in condition and cattle and sheep frequented on the road
Speeding is common, and so are accidents
Near Pasanauri we found a nest of Eurasian Nuthatch
Local Nuthatch ssp. caucasica is rather colourful bird
Male and female Nuthatch
Gudauri is a modern skiing resort with lot of stylish hotels and restaurants
Jouni and Jari at Gudauri
Lunchtime in a restaurant at Gudauri
At Gudauri we had our first White Wagtails Motacilla alba of ssp. dukhunensis, male
Male dukhunensis is similar to nominate, but has broad white edges and tips to lesser and greater coverts, forming pale white panels on wings. Looks like it has a shade more grey on flanks than nominate.
On female dukhunensis the white panel is less eyecatching, but still clear enough for identification

First traces of snow by the road
When aproaching Jvari Pass, amount of snow was increasing
Ring Ouzel of local ssp. amicorum was common
Near the Ossetian village Gudauri there was somewhat bizarre named "Russo-Georgian Friendship Monument" with every bypassing group having a break here. There were locals selling all sorts of crafts, but no chance for buying a cup of coffee!
Posing by the fence seemed to be a popular hobby, despite of fall of several hundred meters below
There were little ponds around melting snow and Water Pipits were feeding at snow edge. Some Long-legged Wood Frogs a.k.a Caucasian Brown Frogs Rana macrocnemis were swimming in icy water
Ring Ouzel ssp. amicorum, male
Near the scenery watching monument there were about 15 Water Pipits ssp. coutellii
Water Pipit of ssp. coutellii was abundant almost everywhere!
Coutellii is rather variable on its plumage
One more coutellii
Part of Stepantsminda village on the foot of Caucasus
Stepantsminda village, 8km's South from the Russian border. The Caucasus is at its narrowest here, just 60 km wide. Written Georgian language is somewhat reminiscent of horseshoes laid upside down

Ilia State University Hotel
At our hotels gate a magnificent adult Lammergeier made fly-by just above our heads. I wonder if anyone has ever seen Lammergeier so close? :) Other birds of notice were another Lammergeier, two adult Golden Eagles, a Goshawk near Pasanauri, 35 Alpine Swifts at Ananuri, a flock of 30 migrating Bee-eaters, Eurasian Jay of ssp. krynicki, 5 Red-billed Chough and 50 Yellow-billed Chough, singing Nightingale at Ananuri, a beautiful male Rock Bunting near Pasanauri and 3 Bullfinches of ssp. rossikowi. Total driving of the day was 165 km's.

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