Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)

Caucasian birding in Kazbegi (Georgia)

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.

Gergeti Trinity Church from Stepantsminda
Gergeti Trinity Church from Stepantsminda

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).

Ioane Natlismcemeli Church
Ioane Natlismcemeli Church
Ortodox priest
Ortodox priest

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).

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)
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.

View into the Stepantsminda valley with the mount Kazbek in the background
View into the Stepantsminda valley with the mount Kazbek in the background
Herd of horned sheep
Herd of horned sheep
White shepherd dog
White shepherd dog

On the grass was plenty of loud Caucasian Water Pipits (Anthus spinoletta coutellii), but I found also 3 stunning Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus).

Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)
Red-fronted Serin (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.

Deep stream valley
Deep stream valley

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.

East Caucasian Turs (Capra caucasica cylindricornis)
East Caucasian Turs (Capra caucasica cylindricornis)

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.

Crested Gentian (Gentiana septemfida)
Crested Gentian (Gentiana septemfida)
Vetchling sp. (Lathyrus sp.)
Vetchling sp. (Lathyrus sp.)
Ragwort sp. (Senecio sp.)
Ragwort sp. (Senecio sp.)
Sandwort sp. (Minuartia sp.)
Sandwort sp. (Minuartia sp.)
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

The peak of mount Kazbek finally became visible, even if still with a rather thick haze.

Gergeti Trinity Church and mount Kazbek
Gergeti Trinity Church and mount Kazbek

Only after a short thunderstorm the air got clearer, permitting to appreciate better the shape of mountains.

Rainbow
Rainbow
Mount Kuro (4,071 m)
Mount Kuro (4,071 m)

The last lights of the evening gave good signs in order to think with optimism about the forecast of the day after.

Mount Kazbek and Stepantsminda in the dusk
Mount Kazbek and Stepantsminda in the dusk

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!

Gergeti Trinity Church and mount Kazbek before the dawn
Gergeti Trinity Church and mount Kazbek before the dawn

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.

Mount Kazbek at sunrise
Mount Kazbek at sunrise
Bas-relief on a Gergeti Trinity Church wall
Bas-relief on a Gergeti Trinity Church wall
Mount Ortsveri (4,365 m)
Mount Ortsveri (4,365 m)
Ortodox priest
Ortodox priest
Mount Kazbek after the sunrise
Mount Kazbek after the sunrise

The glaciers in the warm colours of sun were just amazing!

Abano glacier on mount Kazbek
Abano glacier on mount Kazbek

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.

Linnet (Linaria cannabina)
Linnet (Linaria cannabina)
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina)
Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina)
Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina)
Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina)

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.

Betula cf. litwinowii
Birch (Betula cf. litwinowii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus)
Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus)
Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus)
Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)

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.

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax docilis)
Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax docilis)

Further on the attention was kept by the presence of delicious berries

European Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
European Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

…plus more raptors on migration, including 2 Griffon Vultures.

Steppe Buzzard (Bute buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Buzzard (Bute buteo vulpinus)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)
Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

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.

The now clear peak of mount Kazbek (5,047 m)
The now clear peak of mount Kazbek (5,047 m)

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.

AltiHut 3.14 (3.014 m)
AltiHut 3.14

Here my trail joined some others that were much busier than my along the ridge, so I found the place pretty crowded.

Crowd on the way to the Gergeti glacier
Crowd on the way to the Gergeti glacier

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.

Waterfall nearby the Gergeti glacier
Waterfall nearby the Gergeti glacier
Volcanic rocks
Volcanic rocks
Gergeti glacier tongue
Gergeti glacier tongue

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!

Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)
Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)
Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)
Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)
Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)
Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)

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).

Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops melusina)
Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops melusina)
Caucasian Skipper (Pyrgus jupei)
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.

Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga)
Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga)
Levant Sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes)
Levant Sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Male of Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)
Male of Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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).

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla violacea)
Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla violacea)
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Crested Gentian (Gentiana septemfida)
Crested Gentian (Gentiana septemfida)
Thymus sp.
Thymus sp.
Centaurea cf. cheiranthifolia
Centaurea cf. cheiranthifolia
Dianthus sp.
Dianthus sp.
Ranunculus sp.
Ranunculus sp.
Gentianella cf. caucasea
Gentianella cf. caucasea
Papaver cf. fugax
Papaver cf. fugax
Caucasian Crane's-bill (Geranium ibericum)
Caucasian Crane’s-bill (Geranium ibericum)
Panther Cap (Amanita cf. pantherina)
Panther Cap (Amanita cf. pantherina)
Polygonum carneum
Polygonum carneum
Unidentified flower
Cfr. Lomatogonium carinthiacum

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.

Caucasian Rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum)
Caucasian Rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum)
Maquis of Caucasian Rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum)
Maquis of Caucasian Rhododendron (Rhododendron caucasicum)

On a group of rocks I found few Black Redstarts, but also a dozen of lovely Twites (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris).

Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)
Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)
Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)
Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)
Twite (Linaria flavirostris brevirostris)

Instead in the grass, almost back to the Gergety Trinity Church, there were some nice insects…

Earth-boring Scarab Beetle (Geotrupes sp.)
Earth-boring Scarab Beetle (Geotrupes sp.)
Ear Moths (Amphipoea cf. oculea)
Ear Moths (Amphipoea cf. oculea)

…and, among the horses and the cattle…

Foal with its mother
Foal with its mother
Cute calf
Cute calf

…I had the last surprise: a flock of 6 Greater Short-toed Larks!

Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla)
Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla)

What a memorable day!!

Gergeti Trinity Church
Gergeti Trinity Church

Luca Boscain

8 thoughts on “Caucasian birding in Kazbegi (Georgia)

    1. Unfortunately not of this individual: I’ve put this and the only other 2 pics of wheatears I have taken in Kazbegi on birdforum, to get some opinions. Anyway I suppose you may be right, thanks!

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      1. Well, I’m not entirely certain. But the jizz and coloration just made me jump to Izzy, I was startled to see you’re labeling. Let’s see what the pros say.
        Been there last year at the same time and have seen some Izzy’s in the area. We’ll
        Nice pictures anyway!

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  1. just spent time looking at your trip. what a great time you had. i hope to visit this or next year. where did you stay in the village and how much did it cost ? Your picture of the hilltop church predawn is great. happy travels chris elmer

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    1. Georgia, if you can adapt a little bit, is ridiculously cheap. You can find easily a marshrutka or a cheap taxi to get where you want and book hotels or rooms on booking. People are not terribly friendly, but the nature is magnificent

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