Category Archives: Travel

Crossing a continent by rail – New York to San Francisco

Years ago, for some reason, I decided to take a train from Edinburgh to Istanbul for my brother’s wedding to his wonderful now-wife. Back in the near-mystical ancient times of 2010, you could only book trains in Western Europe through the DB website. Now, I could book the whole way in a few clicks, but back then I had to sit and work out the timetables and trains past Munich, then phone an office in London, speak to a nice DB employee who then spent several minutes working out the fare.

This trip had me hooked on long-distant train rides. There’s something endlessly hypnotic and soothing about doing nothing but stare out of an ever-changing window for days at a time. I have never felt so rested.

I took trains that followed the route of the Orient Express, snaking across farmland and cities of France, Germany, Austria, then through forest and mountain of Romania and Bulgaria, and, like the Orient Express, drew up finally at Istanbul’s historic Sirkeci Station, the terminus at the very end of Europe.

Rather than pulling into Sirkeci, the final stop on the historic Orient Express (the route I was following via normal trains), the last 100km of my trip were on a rail replacement bus service.

Well, it would have done, if the last 100km weren’t a rail replacement bus service. Plus ça change.

My friend invites me to California. I hate long distance flying. I decide to break it up with one of the greatest train rides in the world – New York to San Francisco. Well, almost San Francisco – it actually terminates at Emeryville, and the final journey into San Francisco is taken on a rail replacement bus service.

I schedule a day in New York first, which coincides with one of the worst blizzards in years. Everything is shut. It’s freezing, there’s almost no-one in Times Square, and the only sightseeing I can do is a wander about Grand Central Station, which is stunning..

..and contrasts nicely with my departure the next day from the 1970s bunker that is Penn Station.

(Technicalities: There is a waiting area, where you have to show a ticket to get into, and has a “maximum wait” time of 2 hours. This is also where I discovered the horror of American Public toilet lack of privacy. What the heck, America?)

Eventually, we descend to the platform. I’m shocked at how big the trains are – I know the US loading gauge was big, but these are huge double decker, steel train carriages. They look awesome!

I didn’t take this picture in New York, but look at the size of those carriages!

The train conductors organise people by carriage very carefully, to avoid people being woken up unnecessarily in the middle of the night by departing passengers. I am directed up the stairs of the carriage, and as the train gently pulls away out of New York, I’m sat next to a chatty French-Guianan who works for Amtrak and explains how, for example, the recliner and leg rest works.

Did I mention leg room? There’s about two foot of space between the seat and the one in front. The chair reclines to about 40 degrees, and there’s a foot rest that brings it nearly up into a bed.

Departing at 4pm, the train – The Lake Shore Limited – follows the Hudson River out of New York, then across to Buffalo along the banks of Lake Erie, across to Elkhart and into Chicago. The guy I’d been speaking to alights before evening, and I get two seats to myself for the night.


The Hudson River

The train is hot, though, far too warm. The vestibule in between each carriage isn’t weatherproof, and by the evening, snow has blown in, leaving them refreshingly chill in comparison to the sweaty coach. I’d bought a woollen blanket in New York but I don’t use it.

The seats are nearly flat, but having two of them to myself means I can curl up across both of them – there’s no arm rest – and despite the heat I have one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had on a train. I try out the breakfast in the restaurant car in the morning; it’s overly fancy, suffering from too much laid out on too small a table, and it’s far too expensive.

We get to Chicago a few hours late (this is normal) so I don’t get to shower or explore Chicago.

Crossing into Chicago

Instead I have a quick wander around the outside of the very grand station, take in the river that had been dyed bright green for St Patsy’s Day, then have a beer with one of the friendliest barstaff I have ever met in my entire life. I know Americans are friendly – if you meet a US citizen while travelling abroad, they are your best friend – but I really wasn’t prepared for how genuinely friendly they are. It’s ridiculous and lovely and I leave everyone a massive tip.

Chicago Station

Chicago Station

I’ve been warned that the cafe food on Amtrak is terrible, so I attempt to stock up at Chicago, but can’t really think of anything except bags of nuts and the American equivalent of a beef pot noodle thing (ingredients: chicken). Onto the train at Chicago, where I’m sat next to an incredibly nice young man, a music student, going to stay with his Uncle in the Rocky Mountains for skiing.

On the platform at Chicago

The train pulls away from the platform on time, then stops after about 10 feet. The tannoy informs us that one of the engines has broken down, and as we are on the very final carriage, we get to listen to the radio on the engineer leaning out of the back window – they are bringing a replacement engine, but it’s facing the wrong way, and by the time it’s pointing the right way round and we get underway, we’re 2 hours behind.

De-icing the train next to us as we wait

The train crawls through fairly non-descript American farmland and towns, this being my first time in the USA everything is interesting. But I do have a walk through the train. I’m sat in “coach”, reclining seats on the top deck, below us is divided into a smaller seated compartment, then a luggage rack, then 4 small toilets off a corridor and a “lounge” – a tiny room with a large mirror, plastic seats and sinks. One of the toilets has a bit of extra space and is labelled “changing room”. As the restrooms are otherwise tiny and there’s no shower in coach, this bit of privacy with space to strip off without dropping everything down the loo then have a wash is much welcome.

Coach class

Four more coach carriages ahead is the Sightseer Car, with windows curving up into the roof, and downstairs from there, more café seating and a tiny little kiosk selling the worst instant meals you’ve ever had, soft drinks and light refreshments. I ate a hot dog, it was literally the most horrible thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Beyond this is the restaurant car, and beyond that, the mythical land of $600 compartments. My seat in coach cost $170, for the whole 74 hour trip.

At most of the small towns you can alight for ten minutes to get some fresh air. Once again, the carriage on this train is far, far too hot. The conductors organise their carriage efficiently; everyone in mine is either travelling the whole route, or are all getting off at the same stop. So while we cross the Mississippi I can sit on my own, but not long after the carriage fills up again so I am sat again next to my music student friend.

Crossing the Mississippi

The next morning, we pull into Denver and have a 30 minutes wait. My neighbour leaves, and from there, the scenery quickly changes from flat expansive farmland to something much more exciting – we begin the climb into the Rocky Mountains.

Pulling into Denver

This involves climbing the “Big Ten”. As the conductor explains over the tannoy, this is a series of switchbacks so the trains can gain maximum height in a small geographic area. Hoppers filled with rocks and gravel have been welded to the track here to act as a windbreak from the gales blowing down from the mountains, and as we climb out of the plains, the scenery become utterly stunning and it doesn’t stop for another 2 days.

The Big Ten

craning for a view in the sightseer car

We follow gorges and snake through the mountains, pass the scene of a recent goods train derailing, and are told to look out for a herd of Elk, then meet the Colorado River, and follow alongside it for about 300 miles through the mountains, pass lodges and towns. It’s pretty incredible.

mountains

accident

ski lodges

Following the Colorado River

Following the Colorado River

Following the Colorado River

The rocks get redder and redder and we arrive at Grand Junction;

Following the Colorado River


The freeway into Grand Junction

from there, we pass through incredible canyons and into Utah. It’s late afternoon now, and I’m sat in the Sightseer car, where one of the conductors is reeling off facts and sights about everything we see to two older ladies. I join their table, spurred by tales of how you meet the most amazing people on this train journey.

Following the Colorado River

It’s traditional for Colorado River Rafters to moon the California Zephyr as they pass; this still being wintery weather, it looked like I was going to miss out on this ancient tradition but no! Right towards the very end of our time running alonside the Colorado, I got to catch a couple of guys absolutely belt back to the water’s edge to flash their arses at the train. Hooray!


You can just make them out in this shot..

The conductor who gave a running commentary was amazing, his father and grandfather worked the railroads, and his brother right now is driving the train. He points out film locations, ghost towns, names rocks and mountains and is generally delightful to listen to.

the cafe from Thelma & Louise

Transportation Ridge…

Can you make out the outlines of a battleship, steam train, and a couple of trucks? You probably could if I had a better camera.

However, once the sun sets and there’s no more landscape to talk about, him and the older ladies turn instead inexplicably to the worst racism I’ve ever heard.

I get up and sit instead with a man I’d noticed earlier, with an ear piece, sitting and pouring over timetables and charts and making notes in a thick dossier. I’d assumed he was working for Amtrak, but no, he’s called Eric and he is the most epic trainspotter ever. Over the following day, I learn more from Eric about US trains than I could ever have hoped for.

I learn that train enthusiasts in America are called “foamers” i.e. Foaming at the mouth. I also eat a cheese-filled bread snack that is actually worse than the hot dog I had the other day. Amtrak only just saves itself by also serving frosty Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Another hot and stuffy sleep (this train has about 6” more legroom than the last one) and I wake up as the train pulls through Nevada Desert.

I sit and have breakfast with Eric, who I’m not sure has moved since last night. He’s travelling with his wife, who I think is sitting in Coach rolling her eyes, he has detailed timetables and descriptions of the entire route, plus incredible knowledge. He also has an in-ear radio, which not only lets him hear members of the train crew talking to each other and central dispatch, but also automated markers on the line. These monitor things like the temperature and sound of train wheels, and broadcast them in an automatic voice, sounding a bit like an eerie numbers station, and allow train crews to pick up on any faults early on.

At one point the chief conductor comes over and takes a look, and it’s just magically American, this man in uniform slowly and deliberately scratching his head, licking a thumb and paging through the timetables before drawling “Well gosh darn, I ain’t never seen nothing like this before”

After the desert, we hit Reno, and from there we head into the Sierra Nevada. This is yet more spectacular scenery, but unlike the Rockies, this is thickly forested which makes getting pictures to capture it difficult.

Into Sierra Nevada

We pass Donner Lake, the scene of where the infamous Donner Party, pioneers crossing into California, got stuck for a winter and ended up eating each other to survive.

Donner Lake

We go through snow tunnels and mountain passes, crossing the highest point on the entire trip – Eric tells me there used to be a turntable up here – and you get a real sense of how cut off it can get up here. Heavy snow clearing equipment is used to keep the tracks clear, and it’s double tracked, the second track being built some time after the first and along a slightly different route.

The Highest Point

We also pass the California Zephyr from the other direction – that’s quite cool! A train leaves in both directions every day.

Eric continues to reel off facts and points out highlights from the window; particularly interesting stations and these old train sheds that are going to be pulled down.

As the day progresses, we descend into unusually green California, then through flooded plains and alongside the bay, Eric pointing out the Suisan Bay Reserve Fleet, a load of moored mothballed warships, and over an old railway bridge dwarfed by the interstate. On the horizon, I can see the Golden Gate bridge and the skyscrapers of San Francisco.

As we get ready to detrain, I thank Eric for a fascinating narrative of the trip, and he tells me that if I’m really interested, there’s a model railroad club with a scale model of the stretch from Davis to Emeryville I should definitely check out.

I alight in Emeryville in the blazing sunshine, but can’t see where to collect my luggage. I ask a café assistant, who is as happy and friendly as everyone else, who tells me that they bring it round on a little buggy. Enough time for me to finally get a picture of the engine.

Departed New York Penn Station 15:40 Wednesday, Change in Chicago Thursday, arrive Emeryville 16:10 on Saturday – 71 hours and about 3,000 miles.

Buy tickets from Amtrak
Seat 61 details of this trip

Some tips:

    Bring food – if you are nice to the guy in the cafe, he’ll give you hot water. They won’t heat food up for you however.
    Wet wipes, loose clothing, clean socks and/or sandals. You will become extremely smelly on this trip. There’s space to change clothes and have a freshen up, but the tap water is not much more than a useless dribble. Anti-bacterial wet wipes are your friend.
    Ear plugs, because everyone snores and chews loudly.
    Most stops are for at least 10 minutes, unless you’re way behind schedule. Go outside! You won’t regret fresh air and a look at the scenery.

Georgia Bird List

Here’s an exciting list of all the birds I saw in the Republic of Georgia between 1 September and 8 October 2015:

Levant sparrowhawkAccipiter brevipes
GoshawkAccipiter gentilis
SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus
KingfisherAlcedo atthis
Red-throated pipitAnthus cervinus
SwiftApus apus
Great egretArdea alba
Grey heronArdea cinerea
Steppe buzzardButeo buteo vulpinus
SanderlingCalidris alba
DunlinCalidris alpina
Kentish ploverCharadrius alexandrinus
Ringed ploverCharadrius hiaticula
Slender-billed gullChroicocephalus genei
Black-headed gullChroicocephalus ridibundus
White storkCiconia ciconia
Black storkCiconia nigra
Marsh harrierCircus aeruginosus
Pallid harrierCircus macrourus
Montagu's harrierCircus pygargus
Lesser spotted eagleClanga pomarina
Stock doveColumba oenas
RollerCoracias garrulus
RavenCorvus corax
Hooded crowCorvus cornix
quailCoturnix coturnix
Blue titCyanistes caeruleus
Little egretEgretta garzetta
RobinErithacus rubecula
Peregrine falconFalco peregrinus
HobbyFalco subbuteo
ChaffinchFringilla coelebs
MoorhenGallinula chloropus
JayGarrulus glandarius
OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus
Booted eagleHieraaetus pennatus
SwallowHirundo rustica
Little gullHydrocoloeus minutus
Caspian ternHydroprogne caspia
Red-backed shrikeLanius collurio
Yellow-legged gullLarus michahellis
Broad-billed sandpiperLimicola falcinellus
Bee-eaterMerops apiaster
White/pied wagtailMotacilla alba
Yellow wagtailMotacilla flava
Black-crowned night heronNycticorax nycticorax
Black-eared wheatearOenanthe hispanica
WheatearOenanthe oenanthe
Golden orioleOriolus oriolus
Great titParus major
House sparrowPasser domesticus
Honey buzzardPernis apivorus
Crested honey buzzardPernis ptilorhynchus
CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo
Green warblerPhylloscopus nitidus
Willow warblerPhylloscopus trochilus
Krüper's nuthatchSitta krueperi
Common ternSterna hirundo
Sandwich ternSterna sandvicensis
BlackcapSylvia atricapilla
Ruddy shelduckTadorna ferruginea
WrenTroglodytes troglodytes
BlackbirdTurdus merula
63 species!

Batumi Botanical Gardens

Because of logistical reasons involving an angry Georgian lady, my colleague Alice and I had an unexpected day off, so we decided to find the Botanic gardens. Opened in 1912, Batumi’s Botanical Gardens (Georgian, try this for information in English) is one of the highlights of the area. We caught a bus, which included a courtesy charon fruit from the driver, and eventually found our way into the gardens.

The gardens are very impressive, covering 107ha, divided up into several different phytogeographical zones. We were both ready to check out the bamboo plantation – I’ve never been in one – but were tragically stopped by the f*cking mosquitoes, which were possibly tiger mosquitos – I swear I have never had such bad bites, so many or such a bad reaction!

Moving on, we kept bumping into a German birding group, helpfully pointed us at a bird darting high in the trees… a Krüper’s nuthatch (Sitta krueperi)! Also pretty sure we heard a white-backed woodpecker. No pictures due to rubbish camera.

Elsewhere in the gardens, was this lovely little Japanese garden with frogs, toads and koi.

There are also a few graves in the park, including that of the founder and this of Sergei Hinkul, the first head of plant introduction.

There does seem to be a major problem with what looks like an invasive, Ivy-like plant. It has blanketed the cliffs between the gardens and the sea, swallowing up whole trees and buildings. There’s signs of where it’s been cut back from creeping up the trees in the park itself, and I’d guess it must be a threat to the gardens but I can’t find any information about it online.

At the far end of the park, we found a cafe for a lunch of beer and katchipouri. Near to the cafe was an ornamental seafront park, with campsite, and just beyond that a lonely disused rail station looking out at the Black Sea.

An excellent day. However, at the exit of the park was a collection of little cafes and a shooting gallery where the targets were silhouettes of birds-of-prey…

Bazieri

Here in Georgia, I’m working to monitor the illegal hunting of raptors during the Autumn migration. Alongside the men shooting these raptors, are those practicing the much older tradition of Falconry; called the Buzzeri in the local language. They preferentially take Sparrowhawks, and say that they can have one tame in a matter of days – it’s very interesting when compared to the method for taming hawks in the UK; here, for example, they never hood the bird. My Russian/Georgian isn’t good enough to understand the exact details unfortunately, but it is an extremely well respected tradition out here.

(yes yes that’s a peregrine, not a sparrowhawk)

They use a captive shrike, usually (but not always) hooded by sticking leather or shell over the eyes, tied to the end of a stick and waved about behind an upright net.

When the sparrowhawk stoops to take the prey, it’s caught up in the net, carefully removed, wrapped in a handkerchief and placed in the shade for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, the Buzzeri will select the best bird from the day and release the rest.

The sparrowhawks are used to hunt quail in the Spring, and at the end of the season are released, with new birds caught the following Autumn.

So when we are out monitoring hunting rates, there’s often a local Buzzeri nearby, and, Georgian hospitality being a matter of great pride, they’re always keen to share their lunch and a glass of the local firewater, Chacha, with us!

Gonio Fortress

In 2011, while travelling across the border from Turkey to Batumi, we passed a stone fortress on the outskirts of the city. Today I went to have a look at it, Gonio Fortress.

One sweaty Matrushka ride from Batumi later, I paid three Lari entry fee and had a wander. The inside of the 5m walls was almost empty, a flower and tree-lined walk up the centre with a few things of interest dotted about. Unfortunately, the signage is extremely sparse so I didn’t really know what was what. You can hire a guide at the cash desk, but I preferred to save money and make it up as I went along.

There isn’t a huge amount to see. The fort was in use in Roman times, is said to be the burial place of Apsyrtus, King Aet’s son killed by Jason (off of the Argonauts). St Matthew is also thought to be buried here, although Salerno Cathedral in Italy also makes this claim.

Here is his tomb, the holiness of the site obviously preventing me from holding a camera straight.

It was then used by Byzantium and the Ottomans, being in an important defensive coastal location. In 1878 the whole area was passed over to the Russians. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any information about when it fell into disrepair.

A rectangle of 5m tall walls, there are a few excavations ongoing in the central area, but with nothing to stop you wandering through. They look a little haphazard too, especially when compared to the neatness of the excavations I’ve seen ongoing at Hadrian’s Wall.

A Roman Bathhouse that was later converted to the eastern style by the Ottoman occupiers still stands, alongside a small museum. As with the archeological museum in Batumi, which I visited a few days ago, there’s not much to see but what’s there is impressive. I am again amazed by the quality of the glassware from the early centuries AD.

Also I saw this awesome lizard

I think I would recommend a visit if your are a complete antiquity buff; there’s not a huge amount to see or explore but there’s very definitely a historic feel to the place.

Last week’s thundery weather didn’t last and it’s still very hot and humid. I’ve never been so sweaty in my entire life, and every waking moment is spent working out where the nearest bit of shade is. This weather means that there’s still not many birds overhead; they can easily fly high over the mountains so aren’t pushed lower along the coast. This is good as it means they are not targeted by hunters; but bad as we see so very little up at our count station. A Georgian tv crew have been with us all week, filming a nature documentary, a piece for the news, and an ecotourism advert for Georgian telly. It’s been quite fun watching a nature documentary being filmed – the use of tame birds seems a bit sneaky but it was nice to come home from a presentation last night to a floodlit Scops Owl outside the door!

Chorokhi Delta

A day off today, myself and colleague Aurellie went to the Chorokhi Delta, a wetland area where the Chorokhi river meets the Black Sea. A haven for passing migrants, I’d heard great things about it.

OF COURSE it was a baking hot day and we saw very little. An egret, a kingfisher and a black-eared wheatear, with the heat haze making it too difficult to even get a decent ID on any of the thousands of gulls loafing about. Plenty of cows though.

The sun blasting down, I was jealous of the two lads who took a break in their metal detectoring to strip off and go for a swim. We ended up just siestaing under a tree for an hour and heading home.

I did get to see a load of frogs, including these two, if anyone can ID?

Batumi

Now the weather has finally turned from very hot, very humid to very humid, slightly cooler and frequent thunderstorms with accompanying torrential downpours. This means the birds are funneled low through our valley, making them both a joy to watch but also nail-biting as they are easy targets for the many hunters. It’s truly bitter-sweet as one of nature’s most amazing spectacle – thousands of raptors passing almost at arm’s length – are then quickly followed by rounds of gunfire

Ah. So I had a day off, and took myself to Batumi, the Black Sea Port that is now being pushed as “the Las Vegas” of Georgia, as the city is stuffed with casinos and hotels, waterfront promenades and a gentrified old town. Large parks separate the old town from the sea, making it a pleasant place for a stroll under the thundering sky.

The new construction projects sees a very special mix of old, Soviet and modern, with plenty of public sculpture and encouragements to architects to build things that stand out. The result is pretty odd, but I am glad that they’ve kept the old town and encouraged it to be a bit hipster.

Alphabet tower, celebrating the unique Georgian Alphabet, sadly lies neglected since construction a few years ago

And Batumi’s answer to the London Eye, the Miracle Wheel. Apparently not because it’s a miracle it hasn’t fallen over.

Europe Square (and this picture really does not do it justice!) with a statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece where either Lenin/Stalin once stood, emphasising that Georgia and Georgians see themselves as European.

Not a bad little city, although I did skip the zoo, spending all day watching raptors getting shot, I have no desire to look at depressed monkeys in tiny cages on my day off. To say nothing of the Dolphinarium.

Birds in hand

A group of Dutch researchers visit our survey station at the weekends to do some ringing. This weekend we got a few really nice birds, starting with this tasty looking quail:

A Noisy Nightingale Thrush:

and this very special Green Warbler:

The Green warbler was, until recently, considered a sub-species of the Greenish Warbler, but is now a full species and endemic to the Caucasus Mountains.

It’s great to get to see these birds up close!

Feathers

Yesterday I had an incredible day with Dietrich, a German expert on feather morphology. We hiked for 8 hours through the humid subtropical forest, looking for remains of birds left by hunters, who pluck and remove head, wings and feet when they find something.

Dietrich was amazing to listen to and learn from, and I learned a heck of a lot about feather morphology! We spotted quite a few interesting things, such as the difference in barring on the undersides of these wings, from two different male honey buzzards. Is it an age thing? Or just individual variation?

And here you can see that the central tail feathers have been bleached by the sun

It’s not just big raptors that are shot, they will also take rollers, bee-eaters and golden oriole

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and we found feathers from blackbirds and cuckoos.

The most poignant and incredible moment was when I spotted an injured bird flapping through neck-deep bracken down a steep slope. Dietrich ran after it, and managed to bring it up, a female honey buzzard with a shot wing.

Her gunshot wound:

It was spectacular to see such a magnificent creature up close, but sadly as the local area lacks suitable vets or wildlife rehabilitation facilities, at the end of the day she was carefully and humanely dispatched by Dietrich.

გამარჯობა! Hello from Georgia!

I’ve been in Batumi, in the Ajara autonomous province of Georgia for two weeks now, working with Batumi Raptor Count. It’s absolutely wonderful! I’m staying in a sprawling village in the mountains that overlook the Black Sea port of Batumi and its stunning beaches. The climate is subtropical, the area was rich with citrus and tea plantations during Soviet times.

Around two dozen volunteers of many nationalities are here, mainly counting the raptor migration overhead, which sees over a million birds during the 6 week migration period, as birds from Finland and Russia are funneled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains on their way south. It is an incredible sight to behold, and I’ve yet to even seen a “big” day where hundreds of thousands of birds pass over head!

My role here is to monitor the hunting; although illegal, the BRC is working to educate the local people to hopefully reduce hunting in the area. They shoot mainly for food, the Honey Buzzard being a tasty favourite I think I will decline. I am also taking over the day-to-day running of the hunting monitoring project when the current co-ordinator heads home later in the month.

So we are up at the monitoring station at dawn, to commence counting at 6:30am, and stay there for about 12 hours. It’s been fairly quiet so far, as I missed the peak Honey Buzzard passage and it will be a little while longer before the big numbers of eagles start to arrive. The weather is a factor too, with high temperatures and clear skies mean fewer birds. During spells of heavy rain apparently the numbers of all sorts of birds are incredible – this and the 35C, high humidity mean I cannot wait for it to start raining! There’s usually at least 5 of us up there, plus ecotourists, and the banter and daft chat and in-jokes help pass the time when it’s quiet. A current favourite is John from Rutland saying “it’s a focking disaster!” which for some reason completely cracks everyone up, to the bemusement of the Brits.

I am staying in a traditional homestay. A wonderful local family – Mehrabi, his wife, daughter, mother and grandmother – put aside a floor of their house and squeeze 10 of us in, cooking all meals for us too. Georgian food is as incredible as ever, although I’m not sure about the plate of chicken gizzards I ate yesterday. In the evenings, we have a beer out overlooking the stunning views, or head to a local cafe – a simple bar with a verandah.

There are a variety of languages spoken in this area, Georgian, Russian and Turkish mostly. I’m trying to improve my Russian, and also my French with some of the French volunteers, and I’m even picking up some Georgian, which is a very difficult language with no relation to any other, to say nothing of the Georgian script!

The local wildlife, as you can probably expect, is pretty spectacular. A few of the other volunteers are also keen moth-ers, so we tend to gather around the light on the veranda at the bar and admire various species rarely seen in the UK. Birdwise, I’ve seen blue tit, blackcap, robin, white wagtail, chaffinch… and an Ortolean Bunting!

As for the big migrants – well:
Honey Buzzard;
Black Kite;
Marsh Harrier;
Montagu’s Harrier;
Booted Eagle;
Levant Sparrowhawk;
Steppe Buzzard;
European Roller;
White Stork;
Pallid Harrier;
Short-toed Eagle;
Lesser Spotted Eagle;
Black Stork;
Osprey;
Greater Spotted Eagle.

Quite impressive! I couldn’t have identified them without the help of the other volunteers, who have phenomenal skills and are just the best bunch of people to hang out with. Half a million birds have passed already since mid-August, and you can follow the progress of the raptor count here – the numbers of birds are updated every 4 hours during the day.