Birdwatching news and bird photography from Transcaucasia - by Kai Gauger and Michael Heiß

Donnerstag, 26. März 2015

Winter trip 2015. Greater Caucasus.


Text © K. Gauger & M. Heiß

After the awful dump at Besh Barmag we drove via Quba into the Greater Caucasus in order to see a much nicer landscape. Our plan was to reach Xinaliq regardless the possible snow cover or expected cold temperatures high up in the mountains. Nobody of us has ever been there in winter, so we were pretty excited.
The first kilometres offered us brilliant views of the Caucasian winter, but we missed the birds along the road in the lower forested altitudes. We saw mainly Blackbirds, Mistle Thrushes and three Goshawks.

Driving through the Caucasus © Michael Heiß
Caucasian winter wonderland © Michael Heiß
Above the tree layer we had a spectacular sighting of a Lammergeier that was circling above a canyon at about 1.500 m asl. At the same location we observed 35 Red-billed Choughs, 1 Ring Ouzel, some European Goldfinches and a surprising Great Grey Shrike. As it was already late we drove down to our hotel where we spent the night.

Impressive Lammergeier © Lukas Pelikan
Less snow than expected © Pia Fetting
The next morning started with freezing cold -6°C and a calling Black Woodpecker. We headed further to the ancient village Xinaliq. Along the road we saw two beautiful Horned Larks and our first birding stop in the village Cek produced great views of a Wallcreeper and 4 Alpine Accentors. Along the river we saw several White-throated Dippers.

Checking Cek for birds © Michael Heiß

Wallcreeper © Kai Gauger

The asphalted road led us further to Xinaliq and arriving there we were happy that we had no trouble with snow and the sun warmed us with about +6°C. The weather conditions above 2.000 m asl were much more comfortable than in the lowland. A little hike up to 3.000 m asl produced more sightings of Lammergeiers, Griffon Vultures, Horned Larks, 27 Chukars, 42 Alpine and about 220 Red-billed Choughs. We also observed the spectacular hunting of up to 3 Golden Eagles preying on Caucasian Snowcocks at Qizil Qaya.
After a long day we left Xinaliq in the evening and had once again a comfortable night in our hotel.

Flock of Red-billed Choughs © Kai Gauger
Picturesque Greater Caucasus © Michael Heiß



Road to Xinaliq © Michael Heiß
Red-billed Chough along the road © Michael Heiß
Xinaliq in winter © Michael Heiß
Impressive rock formation named Qizil Gaya... © Michael Heiß
...where we observed Golden Eagles hunting for Caucasian Snowcocks © Steve Klasan
High mountain birding can be very relaxing © Lukas Pelikan
Great panorama © Pia Fetting
Sunlit Xinaliq in the evening © Michael Heiß
The following day we drove down to Qusar, where we checked orchards and arable land for some wintering species. Besides the common species we were really happy to see two quite tame Red-fronted Serins. Until these two individuals, we had only disappointing observations of this species. Another big disappointment was that we had no observation of Pine Buntings, which was one of the highlights from our last winter birding trip. Near Qusar, we saw about 120 Yellowhammers and checked each individual carefully. At least 5 individuals showed features of both species and we logged them as possible hybrids Emberiza citrinella x leucocephalos. Another birding stop in the lowland forests of Samur-Yalama produced as a new species for the trip: a single Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

Yellowhammers and a possible hybrid (upper left) © Michael Heiß
Long-legged Buzzard © Michael Heiß
Beautiful Red-fronted Serins © Michael Heiß
Azeri birdwatcher © Michael Heiß

Freitag, 13. März 2015

Winter trip 2015. Besh Barmag: Gulls, gulls, gulls...


Text © K. Gauger & M. Heiß 

After a night in Qəbələ we continued the way back to the coast. Unfortunately, the weather along the mountains was all but good with low clouds, rain and no visibility at all. So we couldn't enjoy the beautiful landscape. Thus birds were rare and there is nothing to tell except three Imperial Eagles along the road in Gobustan, including a pair at the nest, and a Peregrine.

In the afternoon we finally reached Besh Barmag. Some birding in the bushes and at the beach quickly showed that there are a lot of birds in the area. Most prominent were of course the gulls. We pitched our tents at the traditional site to stay here for two nights. In the evening we had a nice campfire and were curious what the next day might bring. But before a little night excursion produced a flushed Short-eared Owl and, much better, a long and close observation of a Jungle Cat- great!

 
Gulls and morning light on the snow-covered caucasus © Steve Klasan

Our camping site at Besh Barmag © Michael Heiß
The next day started with early birding and walking to the dump. The camping site, the bushes, the migration watchpoint, the lagoon, these are all nice places. But to be honest, the dump is really disgusting. Streams of slaughterhouse wastewater and tons of poultry dung produce a weird scenery. But exactly therefore the place is full of birds. 
After several estimations we finally noted 100.000 gulls of which ~60% were large ones and ~40% heinei-Mew Gulls. They were sitting at the beach, swimming offshore and flying around in huge clouds. These clouds were building eddys down to the feeding and despite the poor quality this video gives a little impression of the steady gull stream to the delta of the main wastewater outflow.
We were wondering what the eagles and vultures might feed her. But just until an old tractor brought a hanger of dead or even more or less living chicken and dropped them off. Now we knew...
The maximum count of White-tailed Eagles was 205, Black Vultures were at least 42, Black Kites about 30 and also each a handful of Griffon Vultures, Long-legged Buzzards and immature Imperial Eagles were around. Other numerous species were thousands of Rooks, hundreds of Jackdaws, 300 Grey Herons and some thousand Starlings.
Fresh food for eagles, vultures, wolves and jackals © Kai Gauger
...and chicken feet with tomato sauce for the gulls © Michael Heiß
Gull feeding © Kai Gauger
Too much gulls © Michael Heiß
A few of more than 200 W-t Eagles and 40 Black Vultures © Kai Gauger
Juvenile Imperial Eagle © Kai Gauger
Immature White-tailed Eagle © Kai Gauger

Among the gulls we managed to find Azerbaijan's second Glaucous Gull (after the first one at the same site in April 2012) and the first ever Herring Gull. It was hard to get close to the huge, chaotic and rather shy mass and there might have been a lot more to find... The discussion about how much barabensis are amoung the cachinnans is still going on. But there were basically no dark birds (heuglini, fuscus) as we know from migration times.
Other birds to mention were some migrating flocks of ducks, two unidentified divers, 8 Dalmatian Pelicans and 12 Flamingos and each the only Red-breasted Merganser and Woodcock of the trip. There were quite a lot songbirds in the bushes but nothing new for the list. Very interesting and great to observe were about 10 Water Rails on just a few meters along one of the bloody creeks.


Distant Besh Barmag © Michael Heiß
The sky full of birds © Michael Heiß
2cy Glaucous Gull in flight © Steve Klasan

The same Glaucous Gull on a framework © Lukas Pelikan
Azerbaijan's first Herring Gull © Cornelius Schlawe

A flock of Flamingos resting at the shore © Michael Heiß
Water Rail at a bloody creek © Kai Gauger

...and everywhere are the gulls © Michael Heiß

Donnerstag, 26. Februar 2015

Winter trip 2015. The west: Varvara and dry Ajinohur region


Text © K. Gauger & M. Heiß

Coming from the south we had a short stop at the Aggöl entrance, but we could not enter the national park. We then decided to check the nearby steppes, but due to bad road conditions we did not much birding in this area. However, we saw our first Red-fronted Serins of this trip, 5000 Little Bustards, a Great Grey Shrike and along the channels we found several Cetti’s and Moustached Warblers.
 
Muddy dam near the Aggöl National Park © Pia Fetting
It is good to have 4WD © Michael Heiß

We drove further north and reached Varvara in the afternoon. Varvara is a water reservoir close to Mingecevir and offers excellent birding opportunities. Stops at the dam and the surrounding wetlands produced 3 Whooper Swans, 40 Ruddy Shelducks, 1 male Ferruginous Duck, 30 Dalmatian Pelicans, several Great and Pygmy Cormorants, 45 Black-crowned Night Herons, 1 Black Vulture, 1 White-tailed Eagle, more than 30 Black-winged Stilts, about 25 White-tailed Lapwings, 10 Black-tailed Godwits, 45 Armenian Gulls, 12 Pallas’s Gulls, 8 Whiskered Terns, 1 Grey Wagtail and a few Red-fronted Serins.

River sandbank full of birds and trees full of excrements © Kai Gauger
Distant Ferruginous Duck © Michael Heiß
Hunting Whiskered Tern © Kai Gauger
Pygmy Cormorant © Kai Gauger
Black-crowned Night Heron © Michael Heiß
White-tailed Lapwing © Kai Gauger

Black-winged Stilt © Kai Gauger

We spent the night in a hotel in Mingecevir. The next day we birded around Mingecevir but found nothing special. Aftrer a stop at the huge bazar in the city we drove further to the reservoir. Unfortunately, the water level of the lake was too low to see any birds from the dam. So we wasted no time in this area and drove to the Ajinohur. But here we had the same problem. The lake was empty and the surrounding steppes were extremly dry, a result of a long-lasting drought. No waterbirds at all was a pity. Also the other birdlife was suffering from the bad conditions and we saw just 4 Black Vultures, 2 Imperial Eagles, 3 Hen Harriers, 6 Long-legged Buzzards, 1 Peregrine, 2 Little Bustards, 15 Lesser Short-toed Larks, 3000 Calandra Larks, 40 Mistle Thrushes, 2 Ring Ouzels and about 15 Rock Sparrows.

Usually, there is water and some birds in the Mingecevir reservior © Pia Fetting
The Ajinohur lake was also empty © Michael Heiß
Calandra Larks, but no White-winged or Black Larks among them © Michael Heiß
Peregrine © Kai Gauger
Peregrine in flight © Kai Gauger
Goitered Gazelles from the reintroduction program © Kai Gauger
Ring Ouzel © Lukas Pelikan
Preparing the camp fire © Michael Heiß
Enjoying the camp fire © Michael Heiß
Working at the camp fire © Michael Heiß
We spent the night in tents close to the Mingecevir reservoir. In the morning we saw 7 Greater White-fronted and 30 Greylag Geese, more than 35 Ruddy Shelducks, 2 Black-necked Grebes, 1 Armenian and 5 Pallas’s Gulls. Once again we heard an overflying Red-fronted Serin. Close to the Georgian border we flushed 3 Black Francolins and saw about 10 Syrian Woodpeckers. In the bushes Hawfinches, Chaffinches, Bramblings, Robins, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Goldcreast and Blackbirds were common. We also had 1 Chiffchaff, 4 Bullfinches, 2 Fieldfares and a Redwing.
A drive through the steppe around the Ajinohur Lake produced a homeyeri Great Grey Shrike, 650 Little Bustards, about 500 Calandra Larks and 150 Mistle Thrushes.
We left the Ajinohur region a bit disappointed, missing the huge flocks of Little Bustards, Red-fronted Serins, larks, Flamingos or geese we saw in 2010.
 
Camping site © Michael Heiß
Long-legged Buzzard © Kai Gauger
Merlin in the steppe © Michael Heiß
homeyeri Great Grey Shrike © Kai Gauger
Birding stop © Pia Fetting
Birding stop © Steve Klasan
You can make Shashlik out of these...© Michael Heiß
...but Fat-tailed Sheep are never alone © Michael Heiß