Batumi Georgia: Raptorpalooza

10 12 2018

Happy Hawkwatchers – Luke Tiller

When you tell most Americans that you are going to Georgia they don’t tend to imagine that your journey is going to take you via Istanbul. My Georgia trip however was to the country that is nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, not the state that’s now famous for Donald Glover and voter suppression.

The Black Sea is two times larger than all of the US’s Great Lakes combined and as such creates an impressive barrier for migrating birds, especially raptors. The area came to raptor aficionados’ attention when a group of birders from Belgium and the Netherlands set up a count of migrating raptors in this bottleneck in 2008. It quickly became obvious that this count would qualify as one of just a handful of hallowed “million bird counts” that can be found across the globe, where one might hope to encounter over one million raptors over the season of the watch. This number put the count in the rarified company of Veracruz, Mexico, Cerro Ancon, Panama and Eilat, Israel and on the bucket list of many raptor fans.


Raptors in the Mist – Luke Tiller

As a hawkwatching fan, Batumi had been on my radar almost from the start and having a mother who had traveled extensively in Eastern Europe I already probably had a better idea of what Georgia would be like than your average Brit or American. In the ex-Soviet Union it was known for its beautiful scenery, great food and incredible wines – all additional selling points for me. I was therefore thrilled to be invited as part of an international group of raptor experts to visit the country as part of the Batumi Bird Festival in September this year.

Batumi itself is a resort town with a host of international visitors and hotels to accommodate them, ours had a really nice pool and its own little stretch of private beach which provided a nice little swath of habitat for morning birding. The birding in town reminded me a little of birding New York City or even Cape May, where little patches of shoreline habitat provided safety and comfort for migrating birds. The hotel grounds’ somewhat manicured gardens and adjacent beach turned up such beauties as Eurasian Hoopoe, Isabelline Wheatear, Rose-coloured Starling, Eurasian Wryneck and European Nightjar! Also, as with coastal New Jersey, Common Dolphin, Harbor Porpoise and Bottlenose Dolphin could all be found frolicking offshore.


Eurasian Wryneck – Luke Tiller

Unlike Cape May, the hawkwatch sites were outside town up in the foothills of the local mountains. Here one had fantastic views of the Black Sea below and the surrounding foothills of the Lesser Caucasus. At the watch sites the locals had embraced visiting birders: at one a café had been set up by an entrepreneurial Georgian which served cold beers and delicious food and at the other the local kids swung by with a bucket of cold sodas just at the height of the midday heat. The café and beer situation something more US hawkwatch sites need to encourage in my opinion!

Though the beers were a highlight, the passing raptors were pretty nice too: the flights included lots of Honey Buzzards and Black Kites as well as a nice mix of other species including Levant Sparrowhawk, Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier and Booted Eagle. While watching raptors we were serenaded by the lovely calls of passing European Bee-eaters (listen here) and if the migration slowed there was plenty else to enjoy. Local avian highlights at the watch included Rock Bunting, Mountain Chiffchaff and the stunning Black Woodpecker but there were butterflies, dragonflies and herps to enjoy as well.

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Western Marsh Harrier – Luke Tiller

Being a group of raptor fans, it was hard to draw us away from the hawkwatch, but Batumi has much more to offer than good numbers and great selection of passing raptors. One of the local specialties, the rather adorable Kruper’s Nuthatch, seemed easiest to find at the Botanical Garden in town, along with a stunning collection of mixed migrants that included trees full of Golden Orioles and Spotted Flycatchers. Other local birding hotspots include Mtirala National Park, where one can find seven species of Woodpecker and White-throated Dipper and a variety of localized herps and plants, if you are really lucky you might even stumble upon a Brown Bear!

The shoreline of the Black Sea is dotted with migrant traps large and small. Birding gems among these included the beaches around Poti, where we uncovered a great mix of gulls, terns and shorebirds highlighted by Caspian Plover, White-tailed Eagle, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Little Gull and Little Tern. Another shoreline hotspot was the Chorokhi Delta (literally a stone’s throw from the Turkish border) which yielded over a dozen species of raptors including such goodies as Lesser Spotted Eagle and Short-toed Snake-Eagle. Here, among the dizzying array of old-world warblers were nice ones like Savi’s, Barred and Booted Warblers. Slightly more gaudy species included Citrine Wagtail, European Roller and Common Kingfisher.


Caspian Plover – Luke Tiller

The weather in Batumi was pretty fantastic too, and perfect for this Southern Californian: 70-80 degrees, but always with the chance of a nice shower or two thrown in for good measure. It was certainly enjoyable to pop down to the pool at the end of a day’s birding and have a refreshing swim. The food lived up to expectation, with great stews, salads, cheese, breads, tandoor oven cooked meat and cheese-stuffed bread!!! all washed down with as much wine and Chacha (the local firewater) as one could possibly hope to consume.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip to this amazing little country on the Black Sea, and writing the report reminds me of how eager I am to get back. The interior of the country promises a wealth of other exciting birds including Great Rosefinch, Caucasian Black Grouse, Caucasian Snowcock, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Bearded Vulture and more. I’m hoping my next visit there will take in those special birds too. If you’d like to join me in 2019 for this adventure with European raptors, drop me a line. More on the Batumi Raptor Count on their website (here).