Birdwatching among the towers of Svaneti and the fantastic sceneries of Caucasus (Georgia)

The Georgian historical province of Svaneti, in the heart of Caucasus range, is worldwide known because of its amazing medieval towers, now protected as UNESCO heritages, but hosts also wonderful grounds for birding, with good populations of the most sought-after Caucasian species of birds.

In September 2018, after my visit to Kazbegi (you might like to have a look to the post here: link), I found the area of Mestia even more interesting under the ornithological profile. The end of summer was maybe the worse time of the year to look for alpine species but, nearby the Tetnuldi Sky Resort, a rough road climbed till the altitude of more than 3,000 m, allowing me to arrive almost at the snow line without trek for miles. I tried to reach high altitudes also from the Koruldi lakes, but the track ended at about 2,800 m.

I arrived to Mestia by marshrutka, the typical Georgian pubblic van, and I first had a walk nearby the village, having a look into the stunning scenery: among rather new or modern houses, silhouetted tens of high medieval towers, while in the background towered the white shapes of huge mountains like Tetnuldi (4,858 m), Ushba (4,710 m) and Laila o Lahili (4.008 m), much richer in snow and glaciers than the mountains around Kazbegi!

Mestia with the mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m) in the backgroud
Mestia with the mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m) in the backgroud

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Nice detail of an entrance gate
Nice detail of an entrance gate
Mestia with the mount Laila (4,010 m) in the backgroud
Towers with the mount Laila (4,010 m) in the backgroud

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Traditional way to cook the local bread, called "puri", in a bakery
Traditional way to cook the local bread, called “puri”, in a bakery

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Along a small stream I spotted a wonderful Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa), while on a wall there were some Spiny-tailed Lizards (Darevskia rudis svanetica).

Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)
Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)
Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis svanetica)
Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis svanetica)
Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis svanetica)
Spiny-tailed Lizard (Darevskia rudis svanetica)

By night, I had another walk among the towers: they were all lighted, emerging mighty  like huge mushrooms from the darkness.

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The day after, I went by a one-way taxi to the Koruldi lakes, at about 2,740 m of altitude, almost above Mestia, with the plan to come back to the town on foot. To reach the lakes, if you don’t want to trek, you need necessarily a 4×4 vehicle, because the dirt track is particularly steep and the ground can be slippery, especially after the rain.

The path first ran across the valley of Mestiachala river, then started to climb.

Valley of Mestiachala river
Valley of Mestiachala river

After the beginning, with an ascent among a bushland, the view from the car got magnificent with a wide panorama into the different valleys, some lovely hills covered in pastures and the mount Svetgar (4,118 m) in the distance, with its impressive glaciers.

Nice wooded valley
Nice wooded valley
View into the valley of Mulkhra river
Pastures above the tree line
View into the valley of Mestiachala river
View into the valley of Mestiachala river
The steep road to the Koruldi lakes
The steep road to the Koruldi lakes

Mount Svetgar (4,118 m)

Mount Svetgar (4,118 m)

At the edge of pastures, the formations of Rhododendron were potentially a perfect habitat for Caucasian Black Grouse, but I couldn’t spot any of them. Talking with the taxi driver, I discovered that he used to be (maybe he still was…) a grouse and snowcock hunter, so I guess that the hunting pressure there could have an effect to their populations nearby Mestia.

Slopes covered in Rhododendron shrubs
Slopes covered in Rhododendron shrubland, at the edge of woodlands

He also told me about packs of wolves coming to the town streets by night: surely fascinating, but maybe hard to be confirmed…

Unfortunatelly the weather wasn’t so good, with most of the highest peaks covered by clouds. That’s why you might find the pictures of the Koruldi lakes rather nice, but not spectacular: I really would like to be there in a glorious sunny day, the pictures might be truly unforgetable!

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Koruldi lakes
Koruldi lakes

The taxi couldn’t keep going, being the track too bad, so I decided to continue on foot, walking along the even steeper new path that climbed to the mountain in front, despite the low clouds that covered the top. I knew that there, behind, rised the Ushba, a douple peaked mountain of 4,710 m of altitude and I hoped in an improbable clear up of the sky.

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Playing horses
Playing horses

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I spotted a bird hovering from the bottom of the valley that revealed to be a gorgeous adult of Lämmergeier or Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus).

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

The vulture, curiously, came towards me to have a look, giving some unforgetable minutes of pleasure: what a view!!

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

The surface of the screes was patchly covered by a very short carpet of lichens, mosses and tiny plants, few of them still with fowers or fruits: Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), Caucasian Crane’s-bills (Geranium ibericum), bluebells (Campanula sp.), Anthemis cf. iberica, etc.

Carpet of tiny plants, lichens and mosses
Carpet of tiny plants, lichens and mosses
Campanula sp.
A bluebell (Campanula sp.)
Anthemis cf. iberica
A chamomile (Anthemis cf. iberica)
Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Thymus sp.
A thyme (Thymus sp.)
Carlina sp.?
A thistle (Carlina sp.?)
Caucasian Crane’s-bill (Geranium ibericum)
Caucasian Crane’s-bill (Geranium ibericum)

I trekked till more than 3,100 m of altitude, then the track ended in the nothing: I couldn’t find a single trail to continue the ascent therefore, after a sandwich, I started the descent.

Lednik Lekzyr glacier
Lekzyr glacier in the distance
Patches of sunshine on slope
Patches of sunshine on slope

I went out from the main path, coming down along a steep saddle among the screes and  the scattered short meadows and I first flushed a Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix), probably taking a rest during its migration. Then a number of Water Pipits (Anthus spinoletta coutellii) and…

Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)

…something different, with a distinctive call: two or three Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris penicillata), particularly mimetic in that kind of ground!

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata)
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata), female
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata)
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata), juvenile

On the way back some sunshine came up and I had a lovely view into the Koruldi lakes.

Koruldi lakes
Koruldi lakes

In the meadows around the lakes I finally spotted also a couple of males of Horned Larks: really a beauty!

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata)

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata)
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris penicillata), male

Other birds I spotted were Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) and Raven (Corvus corax).

Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

The blooms of autumn crocuses and Crested Gentians (Gentiana septemfida) were just amazing, together with few other flowers.

Crocus scharojanii
An autumn crocus (Crocus scharojanii)
Crested Gentians (Gentiana septemfida)
Crested Gentians (Gentiana septemfida)
Crocus scharojanii
Crocus scharojanii
Mullein sp. (Verbascum sp.)
A mullein (Verbascum sp.)
Colchicum speciosum
Colchicum speciosum
Lotus sp.?
Lotus sp.?
Cerastium sp.
A mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium sp.)

Descending slowly along the track, I noticed the only two insects of the day: on a thistle a Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) and, in the grass, a large female of bush-cricket (Psorodonotus cf. specularis) laying eggs in the soil.

Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)
Psorodonotus cf. specularis
Psorodonotus cf. specularis

With few minutes of sunshine, in a sheltered little valley, I noticed tens of lizards of the genus Darevskia: the problem was that in the area at least five species were reported, therefore the identifications I obtained are just my guess based mainly on the pictures of the interesting website http://www.lacerta.de. I recognized as Caucasian Lizards (Darevskia caucasica caucasica) a single adult with broad creamy stripes along the sides of the back and some juveniles with bright turquoise tail, while the identification of the other plain brownish individuals is uncertain, despite they might be Caucasian Lizards as well.

Caucasian Lizard (Darevskia caucasica caucasica)
Caucasian Lizard (Darevskia caucasica caucasica)
Darevskia sp.
Darevskia sp.
Caucasian Lizard (Darevskia caucasica caucasica)
Caucasian Lizard (Darevskia caucasica caucasica)

Nearby the cross that dominated the basin of Mestia, it had been built a platform from which you could enjoy a wonderful panorama into the valley and the capital of Svaneti region: Mestia.

The cross and the platform
The cross and the platform

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Mestia with its medieval towers
Mestia with its medieval towers
Mestia main center
Mestia main center

It was visible, in the distance, also the destination of the day after: the Tetnuldi ski area.

Tetnuldi Ski area
Tetnuldi Ski area

From the cross to the settlement of Mestia there were two options: the long dirt track that I had taken early in the morning by taxi and a very steep direct trail down the slope. I tried the second first, walking in a nice mixed forest of Oriental Beech (Fagus orientalis), Caucasian Oak (Quercus macranthera), Caucasian Spruce (Picea orientalis) and Pinus kochiana with abundant lichens and undergrowth, but after the beginning the trail got too dangerous, so I came back to the cross and I countinued along the main track.

Mixed forest
Mixed forest
Pinus kochiana
Pinus kochiana
Caucasian Oak (Quercus macranthera)
Caucasian Oak (Quercus macranthera)
Usnea sp. lichens
Usnea sp. lichens on Caucasian Oak (Quercus macranthera)
Rosa sp. pr. villosa
Rosa sp. pr. villosa

In this woodlands, regarding the birds, I noticed Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), Blackbird (Turdus merula), Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus), Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii), Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaeonotus), Common Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris caucasica), Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius krynicki) and Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia par), but the starting of rain and the fatigue discouraged me to take many pictures.

Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaeonotus)
Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaeonotus)

The day after I arranged a taxi in Mestia at 5 o’clock in the morning, in order to be at the highest attainable point of the Tetnuldi ski area at about 6 o’clock, at dawn. To travel along the dirt track to arrive there it was necessary to have a 4×4 vehicle, because the condition of the ground was in many spots rather bad, especially when it ran on ski slopes.

At the arrival at about 3250 m of altitude, the temperature wasn’t terribly cold and the first lights had just appeared on the east side of the sky: slowly the blue got paler and the crescent moon left the place to the first warm coloured clouds.

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Golden clouds from the peak of mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)
Golden clouds from the peak of mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)

Then the sunrise colours descended the slopes of surrounding mountains.

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In the air I started to hear the unmistakable calls of Caucasian Snowcocks (Tetraogallus caspius): it’s something hard to describe the feeling with somebody that have never heard them, but they are something misterious, primitive, a perfect soundtrack for an alpine dawn.

But from the prominent point that I had chosen, on the ridge, even scanning by binoculars, I couldn’t spot anything more than some Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris montana).

Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris montana)

Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris montana)
Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris montana)

When I heard some nearer calls, I decided to continue walking along the ridge, coming closer to the cliffs and the first Caucasian Snowcocks took off from the rocks, gliding to the scree in front and showing well the white bars on the wings!

Caucasian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius)
Caucasian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius)

Their mimetic skills where unbelievable: you might like to try to spot the birds on these couple of pictures. I’ve put some white arrows to reveal them.

Caucasian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius)

Even in the grass was hard to find them, seeming true stones when not moving
Even in the grass it was hard to find them, seeming true stones when not moving

There wasn’t too much light yet, being the sky rather cloudy, but I decided in spite of everything, to add the 1.4X converter to my Canon 100-400mm, extending the times of shot: the result wasn’t too bad.

Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius) perched on a cliff
Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius) perched on a cliff
Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius) on a scree
Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius) on a scree

I flushed at least 7 Caspian Snowcocks from that ridge, then I continued crossing a scree of boulders and huge stones: there were not trails there and I found pretty complicate the choice of a path. My aim was to reach another saddle, on the right of the scree, with a prominent group of rocks and patches of grass, but I suggest to not imitate me, expecially if you are not used to hike often in the mountains, because it was particularly dangerous.

The little meadows hosted few late alpine flowers, almost over, including Alpine Asters (Aster alpinus) and saxifrages (Saxifraga cf. sibirica).

Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus)
Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus)
A saxifrage (Saxifraga cf. sibirica)
A saxifrage (Saxifraga cf. sibirica)
Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus)
Alpine Aster (Aster alpinus)

I also encountered one more pair of Caucasian Snowcocks, nearer than the others, at least on my same slope.

Caspian Snowcock (Tetraogallus caspius)

Caspian Snowcocks (Tetraogallus caspius)
Caspian Snowcocks (Tetraogallus caspius)

When I reached the rocky saddle, at more than 3,200 m of altitude, the sun came up, making the typical habitat of snowcocks much more attractive.

View from the rocky saddle
View from the rocky saddle
The ridge of snowcocks and the scree of huge stones
The ridge of snowcocks and the scree of huge stones

From there I descended among the boulders to lower meadows, where I found carpets of yellow crocuses (Crocus scharojanii), unfortunately closed with the coming back of grey clouds…

Carpet of yellos crocuses (Crocus scharojanii)
Carpet of yellos crocuses (Crocus scharojanii)

…but also ugly hunting cases, sign that if I didn’t see any Western Tur there were good reasons…

Hunting cases
Hunting cases

On the rocks I noticed one Common Kestrel, many Water Pipits, few Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros) and Northern Wheatears, but also a lovely Caucasian Dunnock (Prunella modularis obscura), particularly dark in comparison with Western Europe ones.

Caucasian Dunnock (Prunella modularis obscura)
Caucasian Dunnock (Prunella modularis obscura)
The scree from below
The scree from below
A far glacier
The Tviberi glacier in the distance

On a fence instead I saw a dozen of strange finches, with a very dark chocolate head, but also some yellowish tinges on wings and tail: it took a time to understand that I was watching a flock of Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus), all of them juveniles. I worked hard to spot an adult, but there wasn’t any, incredible!

Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus)
Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus)
Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)
Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)

In the distance, from the scree, I heard also a call that I identified as Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla): I scanned for minutes thousands of boulders, looking for the bird, but the only thing I had, apart from Alpine Accentors and Red-fronted Serins, was a glimpse of a passerine on a rock. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph it, but I anyway took a shot, hoping to spot later perhaps the bird in flight. At home I checked that photo and I was surprized in finding, on the left side, 4 different Great Rosefinches, none of them an adult male!

Great Rosefinches (Carpodacus rubicilla)
Great Rosefinches (Carpodacus rubicilla)

I climbed once again the scree and the last surprize was that of a cute Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina) that I managed to attract by my “kisses”: what a wonderful creature!

Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina)

Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina)

Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina)

Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina)
Caucasian Stoat (Mustela erminea teberdina)

I came back to Mestia at lunch time, in order to have the time to visit the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography: a friend of mine, Gianfranco Colombo, had told me about its visit of Svaneti, 20 years ago, and he had suggested me to go there to see the fantastic photos of Vittorio Sella, that first came there, more than one century ago, and took pictures of mountains, towers and, first of all, of the dignified local people, with their traditional cloths, beards and headgears (link).

The museum was now hosted in an orrible modern structure and completely renewed.

Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography

The collection of icons, ancient books, tools, traditional cloths, etc inside was rather well exposed, with right illumination and not too much stuff in every room, but there was no sign of the Vittorio Sella’s photos.

I asked to the desk lady about the Sella’s photos, but she told me that they were not anymore in the museum and she didn’t know if they were now somewhere else and  visible to the public.

I took comfort enjoying, from the sofas of the museum, the lovely view to the medieval towers outside.

Panorama from the Ethnografic Museum
Panorama from the Ethnografic Museum

Then I walked along the Mulkhura river that, nearby the museum, flowed in a deep gorge with wooded banks covered in Birches (Betula pendula), European Ashes (Fraxinus excelsior) and Alders (Alnus cf. incana).

Mulkhura river
Mulkhura river
Alder (Alnus glutinosa barbata)
Alder (Alnus cf. incana)

Around was particularly strong the contrast among different ages of human history that affected the area, going from soviet vehicles abandoned here and there…

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…or even still used by someone…

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…to orrible and incredibly impacting very modern structures like the Ethnographic Museum, the new bridge, the bank, many new hotels and the local Police Station, all characteristic of the “president Saak’ashvili’s era” grandeur

Modern Bridge of Mestia
Modern Bridge of Mestia
Strong contrast beween the modern "Liberty Bank" and the medieval towers
Strong contrast beween the modern “Liberty Bank” and the medieval towers
Rather new house without plaster
Rather new house without plaster
Funny habit to leave the adhesives on the new fixtures of windows
Funny habit to leave the adhesives on the new fixtures of windows

…to the solid beauty of ancient towers, still making the town so special!

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I had also the pleasure to visit one of tallest towers of Mestia. To reach the top, it was rather a struggle, because I had to climb almost vertical wooden ladders, to pass through very small holes and everything was covered by generous medieval dust.

Small gap of access to the first floor of the tower where were amassed thousands of bone of Turs, the caucasian species of ibex
Small gap of access to the first floor of the tower where were amassed thousands of bone of Turs, the caucasian species of ibex
View from the little window of the last floor
View from the little window of the last floor

But the view from the roof was enchanting!

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The jumble of guest-houses, new buildings and houses at the bottom of the towers
The jumble of guest-houses, new buildings and houses at the bottom of the towers

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Mulkhra river, on the right
Mulkhura river, on the right

Particularly interesting was also the visit of the ground floor, where people used to spend almost 6 months a year, finding refuge from the cold of winter: the family, to keep warm, used to sleep on wooden boards just above their animals that were kept in a sort of stable with holes, to allow cattle and sheep to get out with their heads and feed on hay.

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The holes for the heads of animals
The holes for the heads of animals

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About birding, in the settlement I noticed Feral Pigeon (Columba livia var. domestica), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), Green woodpecker (Picus viridis), Tree Pipit, Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), White Wagtail (Motacilla alba), Yellow Wagtail, Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), Black Redstart, Blackbird, Goldcrest, Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Great Tit (Parus major), Coal Tit, Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Greenfinch (Chloris chloris) and an unexspected Common Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) in a tall grass meadow among the towers!

Common Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
Common Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
Meadow where I spotted the Common Reed Warbler
Meadow where I spotted the Common Reed Warbler

Another interesting aspect of this time of year, in Mestia, was the abundance of fruit trees in the gardens, all plenty of lovely grapes, apples, plums and pears.

By night, on a window of my guest house, I spotted a beautiful moth, an Orache Moth (Trachea atriplicis).

Orache Moth (Trachea atriplicis)
Orache Moth (Trachea atriplicis)

The day after, I had some additional time to walk around in Mestia with a glorious sunshine, because the marshrutka to Ushguli left only at 10 o’clock: I passed nearby the modern Police Station…

Disgusting Police Station of Mestia
Disgusting Police Station of Mestia: how can somebody even only think about to build such a kind of modern structure in a town where the skyline is charactezes by medioeval towers?!?

…then went once again in the “suburbs” and, nearby the stream where I had the Camberwell Beauty the first day.

Mount Laila (4,008 m)
Mount Laila (4,008 m)
Mestia with mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m) in the background
Mestia with mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m) in the background

Landscape with mount Leila (4,008 m) in the background

Mixed forest behind Mestia
Mixed forest behind Mestia
The distinctive shape of mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)
The distinctive shape of mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)

I couldn’t find again that amazing butterfly and I spotted only Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Common Blue (Polyommatus cf. icarus).

Common Blue (Polyommatus cf. icarus)
Common Blue (Polyommatus cf. icarus)

Then I tried to attract birds by pishing. Chaffinches, Great and Coal Tits came up, together with a single Eurasian Jay, but also a Green Warbler: unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the last one, but I had good results with very confident tits!

Caucasian Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaenopus)
Caucasian Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaenopus)
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius krynicki)
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius krynicki)
Great Tit (Parus major)
Great Tit (Parus major), female
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Caucasian Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaenopus)
Caucasian Coal Tit (Periparus ater phaenopus)

It was my last wonderful moment in Mestia: few minutes later I took the van to the fascinating village of Ushguli, in Svaneti as well, considered one of the remotest part of Georgia… but that’s the subject of another post: the story about my visit of Svaneti region continues: enjoy the reading!!

>>> Hard mountain life and wild nature in Ushguli (Georgia) <<<

Luca Boscain

2 thoughts on “Birdwatching among the towers of Svaneti and the fantastic sceneries of Caucasus (Georgia)

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