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

Tuesday, 26th

Sunrise at 6.01. Nice and calm morning, +5°C with clear blue skies. We woke up at 5.40 and started birding at 6.00. We drove 700m from hotel towards Ioane Natlismceli orthodox church, parked on the roadside in position 42.652869, 44.655308 and walked just 300m in position 42.650297, 44.654864, something like 50m south of a narrow row of buckthorns. We met a group of British birders there by accident.

Jari, Jouni and British birders scanning mountain slopes

Early in the morning
Three Ortolans were roosting in buckthorns, and soon we heard flight calls and saw some flying Red-fronted Serins. We started scanning lower hillslopes with scopes, and found two male Caucasian Black Grouses, lekking on grassy slopes jumping up and down. Caucasian Black Grouses are easy to find when you know their preferred habitat: Smooth grassy hillsides with dark Rhododendron patches. Mountain Chiffchaff ssp. lorenzi sang in the bushes.
Caucasian Black Grouse in lekking habitat
Blackcocks were too distant for photography, but gave good views by scope
Another digizoomed, phonescoped Caucasian Blackcock
One or two male Caucasian Snowcocks were calling at some distance, and it took awhile before we located some. They were somewhat distant, but gave fair views by scope. Finally we saw at least four snowcocks and in addition heard one more calling. Suddenly the British guide spotted a singing Great Rosefinch, 1st summer male, in position 42.6505556,44.6547222, at 6.18. It gave good views in buckthorns and kept singing for several minutes, what a pity we didn't got any recorder with us!

 A singing first-summer male Great Rosefinch
Place to look for Great Rosefinches
I proceeded 150m uphill towards south, and in position 42.6491667,44.6547222 soon found a stunning male and five female/1st summer male Great Rosefinches, at 7.18! I phonescoped the male and a female for a few minutes at some distance, before the flock flew off downhill and perched on barbed wire by a pasture.

Great Rosefinches giving an opportunity for phonescoping
Stepantsminda in sunshine with majestetic Mount Kazbegi in the background
Mount Kazbegi, a dormant stratovolcano peak at 5047m and is the third highest peak in Georgian Caucasus mountains. Locals know it by name Mkinvartsveri, meaning "Ice-capped"
We returned back to our hotel next, because we had booked breakfast at 9.00. But what a start - first two hours of birding, and we had already seen two out of our three main target species!

Breakfast, with coffee, sausages, eggs, cottage and goat cheese, bread, sweet bread and smetana.
After lunch, I mean breakfast, we returned briefly to check out buckthorns again, but didn't see any new birds. We then drove to the village and did some shopping and decided to check out area just south of the village, which produced two Whinchats, a dozen Northern Wheatears, two adult Lammergeiers, four Griffon Vultures, two Mountain Chiffchaffs, Choughs and Alpine Choughs and an additional Ortolan Bunting.

Most popular super market at Stepantsminda
Stepantsminda seen from southern slope.
Later we had lunch at Shorena's Bar & Restaurant. I chose lamb stew with herbs and yellow sour plumes, excellent choice because it was very tasty. After lunch we checked out small park behind the restaurant. The British group had seen a Semi-collared Flycather there in the morning, but we had no luck. Just few Willow Warblers, a Blackcap etc. Because of good weather, we then decided to drive up to Sameba Trinity Church - the journey which was quite an experience to us. We don't recommend anyone trying to get there without a real 4x4 vehicle, even though we finally managed to get there and back with our Honda CRV.

Rough mountain trail to Sameba Church
Sameba Church, with Kuro mountains in the background

Gergeti Trinity Church dates back in 14th century and is situated on the bank of river Chkheri at an elevation of 2170m. The Church is very popular tourist destination, and is an active establishment of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church.

View from Gergeti Trinity Church to Stepantsminda, with numbers indicating sites to look for local birds;
1. Güldenstadt's Redstarts - Especially after rainy nights G-starts come to feeding at Buckthorns
2. Great Rosefinch - They seem to favour rocky area between the Buckthorn bushes, as well as Buckthorns and barbed wire fence to the meadow below.
3. Caucasian Black Grouse - lower slopes are favourite lekking site for Blackcocks
4. Caucasian Snowcock - males are calling from rocktops and steep cliffs well below snowline

Compulsory portrait with Stepantsminda some 450m below


On our way back, just before reaching Stepantsminda village again, we had a stop and did some birding around pine forest in position 42.666601, 44.625437. In forest there were Coal Tits, Eurasian Treecreepers, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, an Eurasian Jay ssp. krynicki, an Ehrenberg's Redstart (samamisicus) male and several Ring Ouzels ssp. amicorum. Having scanned an opposite cliff face for some time, I noticed a bird moving around flicking its wings. Full 60x zoom revealed its identity: A Wallcreeper, lifer for Jari and me! We watched the bird feeding for 20 minutes at steep rock face from some 1km's distance. What a nice ending for the day!

male Ring Ouzel amicorum
Eurasian Jay ssp. krynicki, with whitish forehead and black cap
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