The area of Kazbegi is usually considered the easiest way to visit the Caucasus range and to observe most of the typical Caucasian species, being not far from Tbilisi (about 3 hours of driving). I visited this place for a couple of days at the beginning of September, going birding and enjoying the amazing view of the mount Kazbek (5,047 m), the third highest mountain in Georgia.
The village that was formally known as “Kazbegi” is now officially called Stepantsminda (სტეფანწმინდა), nevertheless the old name is still used diffusely. It lies at an altitude of about 1,740 m and it is nowadays particularly touristic: you could find there every level of accomodation, restaurant and whatever you might need for an hike, from a local alpine guide, to maps, sticks, boots and tends. What attracts more the tourists is mainly the picturesque Gergeti Trinity Church (2,170 m) built in the 14th century, that dominates the village, but also the possibility to hike on the foothills of mount Kazbek till the Gergeti glacier.
Arrived there by marshrutka, the ordinary van used by Georgians to travel, I spent my first afternoon, with a rather hazy and threatening weather, walking from the village to the top of an hill situated on the eastern side, where had been built recently a new asphalt road to reach a monastery and the Ioane Natlismcemeli Church (1,990 m).
On the hill slopes had been planted a scattered pinewood, where a didn’t see much more than Sparrowhawk, Coal Tit, Raven and Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra guillemardi). Luckly there was an interesting passage of migrants in the sky, going from tens of Bee-eaters to Black Kites (often with a funny “Red Kite like” appearence, with reddish tinges and bright white base of primaries) and a gorgeous Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus).
Going further on from the church, I walked along some nice pastures with, as usual in Georgia, a lot of domestic animals such as horses, sheep and shepherd dogs, luckily not aggressive.
On the grass was plenty of loud Caucasian Water Pipits (Anthus spinoletta coutellii), but I found also 3 stunning Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus).
I wasn’t with my telescope, too heavy for a backpacker trip like mine in Georgia, so I scanned the mountains in behind only by binoculars, looking for the most wanted Caucasian species: the rocks by the stream are in fact known to be the right ground for Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse, but I had no luck.
I spotted instead 5 very far East Caucasian Turs (Capra caucasica cylindricornis), the Caucasian version of the Ibex, high on an unattainable meadow. They were so far that I managed to have them just visible in a photo by adding the 1.4X converter to my Canon 100-400mm.
In the grass I noticed, expecially on the way back, quite a few plants still with flowers, sign of a probable longer summer season here, in comparison with the Alps. Particularly abundant were the Crested Gentians (Gentiana septemfida), a cultivated species that here has its native grounds.
The peak of mount Kazbek finally became visible, even if still with a rather thick haze.
Only after a short thunderstorm the air got clearer, permitting to appreciate better the shape of mountains.
The last lights of the evening gave good signs in order to think with optimism about the forecast of the day after.
I woke up early in the morning, at 5 o’clock: the view into the mount Kazbek was breathtaking and the temperature not particularly cold. I also spotted the shape of a flying European Nightjar: another good sign!
I reached the Gergeti Trinity Church by taxi, in order to save time, and at 6 o’clock I was there: being there so early allowed me to follow some intimistic moments of the life of the monks, like the first prayer of the day, before the arrival of the crowds of tourists. Unfortunately wasn’t allowed to take photos, but the dark in the church, sounds of ripetitive prayers, the light of tens of candels and the cool wind, together with the first fires of sunrise lights on the Kazbek peak, has given unforgetable feelings.
The glaciers in the warm colours of sun were just amazing!
The nearby meadows, scarred by hugly paths of hundreds of 4×4 vehicles, were surprisingly plenty of birds: Linnets, Yellow and White Wagtails, Water Pipits, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, etc.
In the woodlands of birch (Betula cf. litwinowii) was ridiculously high the density of Green Warblers and Caucasian Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii), particularly reactive to the pishing, but I had also a single Ring Ouzel, Dunnock and Robin.
Over the head I noticed some more flocks of Bee-eaters (incredible to see them so high in the mountains!) and 25 Alpine Swifts on migration, but also a couple of Bearded Vultures, Ravens and Red-billed Choughs.
Further on the attention was kept by the presence of delicious berries…
…plus more raptors on migration, including 2 Griffon Vultures.
At mid morning I had the last view of the peak of Kazbek, with its reddish volcanic rocks contrasting with the white of glaciers and snow: later the clouds came back and covered completely that beauty.
Climbing slowly, enjoying the views, I arrived to the new built refuge called “Altihut 3.14” (3,014 m), not far from the tongue of Gergeti glacier.
Here my trail joined some others that were much busier than my along the ridge, so I found the place pretty crowded.
I walked slightly more, till the altitude of about 3,150 m, then I had to give up: I hadn’t enough time left to go any further, having the last marshrutka to Tbilisi at 18 o’clock. I arrived almost to the edge of the glacier, but despite this, I couln’t find any Great Rosefinch, only a couple of Alpine Accentors.
What I managed to spot was a family of Güldenstädt’s Redstarts (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus) on a rocks field, with at least an adult and 2-3 immatures: fantastic birds indeed!
Despite the lovely sun during most of the day, I didn’t see many butterflies: some Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admiral, Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops melusina) and a single Caucasian Skipper (Pyrgus cf. jupei).
On the way back, I heard the allarm call of a Caucasian Snowcock. I couldn’t locate this bird, but I understood clearly the reason of the call: the threating shape of a Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga) appeared in the sky, together with tens of other raptors such as Steppe Buzzard, Black Kite, Levant Sparrowhawk, Hobby and a single male of Pallid Harrier.
Particularly enjoyable was the beauty of flowers, some of them probably flowering in the wrong time of year, like a single gorgeous Pasqueflower (Pulsatila violacea).
The most widespread species, the Caucasian Rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum), was unfortunately no longer bloomed. This is the plant that composes the most suitable habitat for Caucasian Black Grouse, but I couln’t find any sign of presence of that species.
On a group of rocks I found few Black Redstarts, but also a dozen of lovely Twites (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris).
Instead in the grass, almost back to the Gergety Trinity Church, there were some nice insects…
…and, among the horses and the cattle…
…I had the last surprise: a flock of 6 Greater Short-toed Larks!
What a memorable day!!