breeding birds, socio-economic, travels

Batumi Birding ‘Undiscovered Azerbaijan’ 28 May to 9 June 2018

Text & Photos © Michael Heiß

I was happy to guide a birding group through Azerbaijan from 28 May to 9 June 2018. The trip was offered by Batumi Birding in cooperation and with Olivetravel.co and Natig Travel Nakhchivan, which took over the local organisation and made all the necessary arrangements for the group like hotel reservations, visas, restaurants, bus drive, a domestic flight, permits to national parks etc.
In general, everything went fine and we have seen most of the target species. The 12 days in the field were fully packed with birding, but also gave the time for sightseeing here and there.
Day 1 / 28 May: We arrived early in the morning at Baku airport were we met our bus driver Seymur and immediately drove north to our first birding stop. After about one hour of driving we arrived at the ‘Candy Cane Mountains’ near Xizi, which belong to the dry foothills of the eastern part of the Greater Caucasus. Besides the really beautiful landscape with the red-and-white striped hills we enjoyed birding with good views of Lesser Grey Shrike, a Roller in display flight, European Bee-eaters, Rosy Starlings, Griffon Vultures and an Egyptian Vulture. Despite this trip started rather late in the spring breeding season we were able to hear the song of most local breeding birds, such as Black-headed Bunting, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, Tawny Pipit, Crested Lark, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Common Nightingale, Rock Sparrow and others. Among 3 Barn Swallows we found 1 Red-rumped Swallow, which constitutes about the 5th record for Azerbaijan.
We then drove further to visit the Besh Barmag Mountain, which is not only good for bird migration in spring and in autumn, it also has some good breeding bird species around this rocky outcrop. Here we saw Long-legged Buzzard, Blue Rock Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch, Black-eared Wheatear, Rock Sparrows, Woodchat Shrike and Hoppoe. Among raptors we spotted Montagu’s Harrier, Honey Buzzard and Egyptian Vulture.

Black-headed Bunting at Besh Barmag Mountain
In the late afternoon we arrived in Laza, which is a small mountain village in the Greater Caucasus. A 20-minute roadside stop just before entering the village produced the first insight into Caucasian birding with 4 Griffon Vultures, 1 Golden Eagle, 3 Alpine Swifts, 1 Eurasian Kestrel, 3 House Martins, 2 Green Warblers, 1 Greater Whitethroat, 1 Common Redstart, 1 Ring Ouzel, 1 Dunnock, 2 Tree Pipits, 1 Water Pipit, 2 Eurasian Linnets, 2 Red-fronted Serins.

Birding stop near Laza

Entrance of the Shadag National Park

Red-billed Chough above Laza

Day 2 / 29 May: The day started early with a nice breakfast and about 10 displaying Caucasian Black Grouses on the other hill side. Plan for the day was to visit the adjacent Shadagh National Park in order to find some of the other Caucasian endemics with Great Rosefinch being the main target for this spot.
We entered the Shadagh National Park and logged 1 Quail, 1 Dipper, 8 Red-fronted Serins, loads of Water Pipits, some Tree Pipits, Ring Ouzels, Grey Wagtails, Common Rosefinches and a very distant calling Caucasian Snowcock. Around noon the weather got too bad for proper birding, so we decided to go back to our accommodation in Laza. The fog turned into drizzle, the drizzle into rain and before the rain turned into heavy rain we were luckily back in Laza, where we spent the afternoon in our homestay houses.

Searching for Great Rosefinch near Laza
Red-fronted Serin in the fog
Day 3 / 30 May: The rain stopped during the night and weather got better in the morning. We birded around Laza and could unfortunately not find the Great Rosefinch. The only new trip species in the morning were Lammergeier and Crag Martin.
We then drove to the next hotel which is situated in the forest belt of the Greater Caucasus on the way to Xinaliq. In the forest we saw some typical European forest birds, such as Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Jay, Common Raven, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Wren, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Chaffinch. The highlights were the samamisicus subspecies of Common Redstart at a restaurant and several singing Green Warblers along the way.

Forest zone near Nazli Bulaq
Day 4 / 31 May: In the morning the group was picked up by three Lada Niva, which are amazing Russian 4WD cars. Only with such cars we were able to reach our birding spot, the Qizilqaya Mountain in the Shadagh National Park. We drove up to 2700 m asl, but had to climb another steep 500 m asl to reach the rocks where we expected some more Caucasian endemics. After an exhausting hike we were acoustically rewarded with singing Caucasian Snowcocks. Two Golden Eagles searched the rocky cliffs for prey and at very few occasions the Snowcocks were seen flushed by the eagles. We also got good, but distant views of Güldenstädt’s Redstart, one of the main target species of the whole Azerbaijan tour. At least four individuals of this stunner were around. Other mountain species included  1 Lammergeier, 7 Griffon Vultures, 50 Red-billed Choughs, 2 Yellow-billed Choughs, 20 Horned Larks, 1 Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, 1 Alpine Accentor, 10 Water Pipits, 1 Ortolan Bunting, 3 Caucasian Twites, 10 Rock Sparrows, 20 White-winged Snowfinches.

The birding group at Mount Qizilqaya
Lada Nivas
Güldenstädt’s Redstart
Golden Eagle
White-winged Snowfinch
A really nice picnic was organised by our drivers with chicken, fried-potatoes, bread, cheese and black tea. On the way back to our hotel we had several stops, which gave time for a brief visit of the ancient mountain village Xinaliq and more good views of Griffon Vultures and an impressive Lammergeier along the road.
Picnic with our drivers
Fresh and warm food was welcome after the exhausting hike
Lammergeier looking for leftovers
The endemic Caucasian Twite
Brief stop in the ancient mountain village Xinaliq
Gudiyalchay river
Day 5 / 1 June: A rather long drive from the Greater Caucasus to the Shirvan National Park was scheduled for today. The first birding stop along the way was once again in the forest belt of the Greater Caucasus. We searched for Semi-collared Flycatcher, but found only several Red-breasted Flycatchers among other forest species. Sweets from a supermarket in Quba helped us to forget the missed Semi-collared Flycatcher, but we will have more chances in the southern parts of the country.
Next stop was a mud volcano in the Besh Barmag area. Midday heat prevented intense birding in the dry semi-desert, but a singing Tawny Pipit at the volcano was ok.
A mud volcano and Besh Barmag in the background
Driving further south, we reached the Gobustan National Park, which is famous for its rock engravings that show the prehistoric life in the Caucasus. Despite the site is popular by tourist and often overcrowded by visitors and school classes, it is also a good birding spot and most bird species are used to the many people. Here we got good views of Pied Wheatear (aka Hybrid Wheatear), Western Rock Nuthatch, Chukar, Red-billed Chough, Woodchat Shrike, Roller, European Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Rufous-tailed Srub-Robin, Long-legged Buzzard and our first Blue-cheeked Bee-eater calling overhead.

Birding between the petroglyphs
Good photo opportunities at this location
Gobustan petroglyphs
Pied Wheatear or hybrid form
In the later afternoon we drove further south to some ponds near the Shirvan National Park, where we found more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Flamingos, Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, 1 Black-crowned Night Heron, 3 Pied Avocets, 3 White-tailed Lapwings, 3 Terek Sandpipers, 1 Collared Pratincole, 4 Slender-billed Gulls, 7 Little Terns, 2 Gull-billed Terns and much more.

We spent the evening in the Shirvan National Park, which is famous for its healthy population of Goitered Gazelles. We saw several of these beautiful animals roaming in several flocks through the steppe. Behind the entrance of the Shirvan National Park we spotted as usual Menetries’s Warbler and searched for Black Francolins. At the ‘Flamingo Lake’ we found about 18 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, 1 European Bee-eater, some Lesser Kestrels, several heron species including a Little Bittern, 6 Ferruginous Ducks, 1 Cetti’s Warbler among other species.
We spent the night in a hotel in Salyan.
Goitered Gazelles and oil production in Shirvan National Park

Black Francolin in the steppe
Ferruginous Ducks at the ‘Flamingo Lake’

Day 6 / 2 June: We drove further south with a disappointing stop at Lake Machmudchala, where was not much to see. A stop near Masalli was more productive with good observations of 5 Shikras.
In the wetlands near Liman we saw:
100       Great Crested Grebe
100       Pygmy Cormorant
1           Grey Heron
4           Purple Heron
100       Little Egret
30         Squacco Heron
35         Black-crowned Night-Heron
1           Eurasian Marsh-Harrier
5           Black-winged Stilt
1           Black-tailed Godwit
300       Black-headed Gull
10         Caspian Gull
12000   Whiskered Tern
2           Common Tern
10         Common Swift
1           Eurasian Hoopoe
1           Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
1           Eurasian Magpie
10         Hooded Crow
1           Bearded Reedling
30         Sand Martin
30         Barn Swallow
2           House Martin
1           Eurasian Reed Warbler
4           Great Reed Warbler
20         European Starling
2           Western Yellow Wagtail (feldegg)

Shikra at the only regular breeding site in the Western Palearctic
Young Long-eared Owl
And directly of the coast of Baliqcilar:
1           Grey Heron
1           Eurasian Marsh-Harrier
1           Eurasian Moorhen
2           White-tailed Lapwing
3           Kentish Plover
4           Collared Pratincole
4           Black-headed Gull
1           Heuglin’s Gull
1           White-winged Tern
20         Whiskered Tern
3           Eurasian Hoopoe
30         Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
3           Calandra Lark
20         Barn Swallow
2           House Martin
4           Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
4           Menetries’s Warbler
1           Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin
25         European Starling
12         Western Yellow Wagtail (feldegg)
2           White Wagtail
1           Corn Bunting
10         House Sparrow
Especially the colony of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and a well place bus that allowed close views of this beautiful species was a true highlight of this tour. Another surprise was a breeding White-tailed Lapwing at the coast.

Black-headed Yellow Wagtail
White-tailed Lapwing
Trouble in the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater colony

Late in the evening we arrived at our next accommodation, the Tebessüm resort. We stayed at this location for the next three nights with several day trips in the surroundings.
Day 7 / 3 June: The first day trip brought us into the Talysh hinterland, with bad roads along steep hills. So, we needed again 4WD Lada Niva to reach our birding spots. The drive was rather rough and scary, not sure if it was the suicidal driving of our drivers, the poor road conditions or both in combination, but we were least lucky to survive and started searching for the enigmatic Caspian Tit. This species was last year somehow rediscovered and some breeding sites are now known to make them for birding tourism available. It took quite some time in the forest to find the tit, but at least we got some brief views. So, more or less happy with the observation we left the forest zone and drove to higher altitudes. After a picnic with bread, kebab and vegetables we reached Piresora in the Zuvand upland. The landscape here looks quite different from that what we have seen before with a semi-desert like sparse vegetation dominated by thorn cushion plants. Near Piresora a rocky cliff was our birding spot for the afternoon. Here we saw:
1           Chukar
1           Egyptian Vulture
1           Booted Eagle
1           Long-legged Buzzard
70         Common Swift
1           Eurasian Hoopoe
1           Red-backed Shrike
1           Common Raven
6           Horned Lark
1           Wood Lark
1           Eurasian Skylark
2           House Martin
2           Western Rock Nuthatch
4           Black Redstart
2           Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush
5           Northern Wheatear
4           Finsch’s Wheatear
2           Isabelline Wheatear
3           Tawny Pipit
5           Rock Bunting
1           Ortolan Bunting
11         Crimson-winged Finch
20         Eurasian Linnet
4           Rock Sparrow

Driving to the Caspian Tit location
The place where we found Caspian Tit
Tebbesüm resort in the Talysh mountains
Plov – A traditional Azerbaijani dish at Tebessüm
Breakfast was also tasty
The poelzami subspecies of Greater Spotted Woodpecker can be easily seen close to the resort. Here, a juvenile bird was photographed.
Day 8 / 4 June: After one more night in the Tebessüm resort we headed back to the Zuvand upland again. This time we checked another rocky wall near Mistan close to the Iranian border, where we tried to find some more semi-desert species. A target species for this spot was White-throated Robin and it took not so long to find a male in the bushes. Two more birds were found during the climb to the top of a mountain ridge. Other interesting species included Long-legged Buzzard, Horned Lark, Wood Lark, Crag Martin, Western Rock Nuthatch, Barred Warbler, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel, Alpine Accentor, Rock and Ortolan Bunting and Rock Sparrow. For lunch we drove to an oasis-like riparian forest that runs through the dry semi-desert. Here we observed Green and Syrian Woodpecker, European Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Cetti’s Warbler and Semi-collared Flycatcher.

The village Piresora
Immature Egyptian Vulture above Piresora
Western Rock Nuthatch
Horned Lark
Mountain ridge near Mistan
White-throated Robin
Barred Warbler
Poppy field
Poppy field with a horse and a guy
Day 9 / 5 June: Much driving and less birding was the plan for the day. We started with our bus in the morning at Tebessüm resort and arrived in Baku in the afternoon. The afternoon and evening was filled with sightseeing, urban birding and a dinner. Most interesting bird species were Laughing Doves, Rose-ringed Parakeet and a singing Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in the old city.
Successful urban birding in Baku with Caspian Tit in the bag
Day 10 / 6 June: In the early morning, we left our hotel in Baku and drove to the airport, where we took a short domestic flight to the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan. At the airport of Nakhchivan we met our new bus driver and a guide that brought us first to the hotel and then to the Batabat area in the Lesser Caucasus. This place is featured by lush alpine meadows, lakes and rocks. Our main target species was Radde’s Accentor and after some time we spotted a family with fledged juveniles. We also found other mountain species such as Crimson-winged Finch, Red-fronted Serin, Caucasian Twite, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Lammergeier, Red-billed Chough and loads of Common Rosefinches. On the way back from Batabat to our hotel we made several stops along the road and added further species to our day list: White-throated Robin, Cinereous Vulture, Chukar, Hobby, Black-headed Bunting, Crag Martin, Black-eared Wheatear and many more.

Highway to Baku airport
Batabat region in the Lesser Caucasus
Target species for the day: Radde’s Accentor

Ortolan Bunting

Day 11 / 7 June: We started the day in the Negram Mountains, where we found several See-see Partridges, a total of 17 Black-bellied Sandgrouses, Chukar, Crag Martins, Lammergeier, Egyptian Vulture, Greater Short-toed Lark, Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, 3 Grey-necked Buntings, 6 Trumpeter Finches, 1 Persian Wheatear, 1 Upcher’s Warbler, 4 Finsch’s Wheatear and many Rock Sparrows. We then drove to Ilandag, but missed the Bimaculated Lark. Afterwards we drove to the parking lot of Daridag, which turned out to be a good birding spot with most of the Nakhchivan specialities around:
3           See-see Partridge
2           Egyptian Vulture
1           Long-legged Buzzard
8           Rock Pigeon
2           European Bee-eater
15         Eurasian Crag-Martin
2           Western Rock Nuthatch
1           Blue Rock-Thrush
3           Persian Wheatear
2           Black-eared Wheatear
1           White Wagtail
2           Grey-necked Bunting
6           Trumpeter Finch
1           Desert Finch

The morning in the Negram Mountains
Ilandag and the snow-covered Lesser Caucasus in the background
Persian Wheatear meets Agama
Singing Persian Wheatear
See-see Partridge
Grey-necked Bunting
Crag Martin
Negram Mountains
Habitat of Persian Wheatear
Upcher’s Warbler
Daridag
Adult and juvenile Trumpeter Finch
Bezoar Goats near Daridag
Ilandag – the impressive landmark of Nakhchivan

Day 12 / 8 June: The last full day of birding on this trip brought us first to a spot where we found Eastern Rock Nuthatch. The next stop was in a wadi where we saw:

2           See-see Partridge
2           Chukar
1           Egyptian Vulture
2           Short-toed Snake-Eagle
1           Booted Eagle
1           Long-legged Buzzard
1           Little Owl
2           Eurasian Hoopoe
6           European Bee-eater
5           Eurasian Kestrel
2           Woodchat Shrike
2           Common Raven
4           Crested Lark
6           Eurasian Crag-Martin
4           Western Rock Nuthatch
5           Eastern Rock Nuthatch
1           Upcher’s Warbler
2           Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin
2           Blue Rock-Thrush
2           Finsch’s Wheatear
4           Persian Wheatear
1           Isabelline Wheatear
1           Grey-necked Bunting
2           House Sparrow
6           Rock Petronia

Flying Eastern Rock Nuthatch
Eastern Rock Nuthatch
Little conflict between Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin and Finsch’s Wheatear

Displaying Persian Wheatear
Booted Eagler overhead
Woodchat Shrike

We then drove to Alinja Tower, which is an old fortress and regarded as the ‘Machu Picchu of Nakhchivan’. Despite it was already midday and really hot, the bird activity was good. Here we observed:

2           Bearded Vulture
1           Egyptian Vulture
2           Eurasian Griffon
1           Long-legged Buzzard
10         Rock Pigeon
50         Alpine Swift
2           Common Swift
2           European Bee-eater
1           European Roller
5           Eurasian Kestrel
4           Red-billed Chough
1           Crested Lark
4           Eurasian Crag-Martin
12         House Martin
2           Western Rock Nuthatch
6           Eastern Rock Nuthatch
1           Black Redstart
6           Blue Rock-Thrush
1           Isabelline Wheatear
4           Black-eared Wheatear
1           White Wagtail
1           Grey-necked Bunting
6           Black-headed Bunting
4           Corn Bunting
1           Red-fronted Serin
15         Rock Sparrow
Alinja Tower

Alpine Swifts
Lammergeier
Tame Blue Rock Thrush
Griffon Vultures

Urban birding at its best: Desert Finch in Nakhchivan City
Laughing Dove
Last meal in the field with Ilandag in the background
The birding group

In the morning of 9 June our flights departed to our home countries and I really hope that the participants of this trip found at home some time to recover from these exhausting birding days.

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