Monthly Archives: September 2015

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.