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A postcard from Georgia

Having a partner whose interests include brutalist Soviet architecture, you can be sure of some interesting holiday suggestions. Birds and buildings, it turns out, can be a better combination than birds and beaches. We were meant to head to Georgia for Ingrid's birthday in March 2020, but COVID hit just as we started packing our bags.

Tbilisi

This time, other troubling events hit the world stage in the weeks approaching our rescheduled trip. It initially felt as though this adventure just wasn’t meant to happen. We were safe to go, of course, though our flight did take a slightly different route...


We had just five days to take in as many birds and concrete masterpieces as we could. The first day was an architecture enthusiast's take on a bird race, with a walking tour of the Old Tbilisi in the morning, followed by a whistlestop tour of Georgian-Soviet structures on the outskirts of the city until dinnertime. To our cultural guide's amusement, I couldn't help but pause for the Ehrenberg's Redstarts, Alpine Swifts and Laughing Doves, or a male Red-breasted Flycatcher.


male Ehrenberg's Redstart

After a couple more days of exploring Tbilisi, horse-riding in the hills and making pottery, it was time to head to the mountains for two days of birding. I had briefly fancied that I might be able to manage the driving and track down the target species myself, but then quickly realised I was giving myself way too much credit and called in the support of Alexander Rukhaia from Birding Caucasus. I don't often claim moments of wisdom, but that was definitely one.


We set out from Tbilisi early in the morning and pulled up on a road through a pine forest. Within moments, Alex picked up two Krüper's Nuthatches picking over a junction of branches. I quickly tuned in to their call as they moved up and down the road, but it was still too dark to get any decent photographs. Not a bad start.


A stop at Kumisi Lake delighted Ingrid as she finally clapped eyes on Black-winged Stilt, a bird that is inked into her left arm, and Hoopoe, with plenty of both to enjoy.

Black-winged Stilt
Hoopoe

Any time a female Garganey flew up from the lake, a line of drakes raised hot pursuit with a brittle croak, which — despite their enthusiasm —quickly faded into the background noise each time they passed. There were hundreds of Garganey, and hundreds of Northern Shoveler, with a handful of other familiar ducks and a Red-necked Grebe mixed in. Two Ruddy Shelducks were little more than a ruddy blur on the far side but at least they were truly wild.

Garganey

I stammered as I tried to find an initial suggestion for the eagle-like raptor that floated up behind us, but Alex solved it before I could raise my binoculars, “Long-legged Buzzard.” It made sense that Alex is one of the founders of the Batumi Raptor Count. Another lifer for me, I absorbed its rangy shape and sluggish wingbeats, making the bird far more distinctive than I expected. Evidently it really can be easier to confuse with an eagle than another Buteo.


Alongside the stilts, the muddy shore was littered with Ruff and Common Sandpipers, as well as a Greenshank and a few Little Ringed Plovers. An adult Armenian Gull provided my first conclusive look at the species and two Slender-billed Gulls were almost as distant as the shelducks, but were unmistakable with their drawn-out necks.

Armenian Gull

Shortly after a Gull-billed Tern cruised by to the right, the peace was broken by a White-tailed Eagle heading the other way, my first ever adult. Alex was amused by my excitement at picking up a lovely summer-plumaged coutelli Water Pipit in the distance, and I’d soon find out why. The edges of the lake also held Rock Sparrows, Spanish Sparrows, Crested Larks, Isabelline Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails.

Gull-billed Tern
White-tailed Eagle
Isabelline Wheatear

As we left, two Short-toed Eagles circled over the track. Later in the day we had an incredible roadside encounter with an Eastern Imperial Eagle being mobbed by a Raven. We weren’t doing badly for raptors!


Eastern Imperial Eagle (right) with Raven

It was time for a woodland interlude. I’ve never had much luck with tracking down Continental woodpeckers when on short trips to France and Belgium, nor in the summer at Ingrid’s family home in Finland, but perhaps fate had been storing it up for this trip. We had no trouble finding Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, which I’ve been aching to see for a long time, including two in fierce combat! Syrian Woodpeckers were similarly argumentative and another new bird for Ingrid and I.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Syrian Woodpeckers

Having only had a brief flight view in Finland, it was brilliant to finally get a good look at a Black Woodpecker taking chunks out of a low limb. Having become so scarce in Britain, I was almost as excited to hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling, though it remained unseen as we were too distracted by a roosting pair of Scops Owls.