Friday 31 May 2024

Armenia 2023 - Part 5

With breakfast not being served until 9am that gave us enough time to explore the immediate surroundings of the Dili Vita Guesthouse. It didn't take us that long to connect with several of the area's target species such as Green Warbler and Ehrenberg's Redstart (see eBird checklist here). A single Red-breasted Flycatcher was also a nice bonus.

After breakfast we took a drive up into the wooded hillside towards an ebird hotspot that looked good for Semicollared Flycatcher and Green Warbler. We saw and heard both species quite easily and to be fair the habitat was excellent for both and all you really needed to do was pull in off the road somewhere, walk into the woods and you'd come across both species in a short space of time. (See eBird checklist here).

Semicollared Flycatcher



So with those species well covered we headed back towards the northern edge of Lake Sevan and stopped at a small inlet called Hradzan estuary where we hoped to see some water birds. I think overall it was a little bit disappointing here and the breezy conditions didn't help (See eBird checklist here).

We more or less called it a day at this point and headed back towards the Dili Vita Guesthouse for dinner.

The following morning prior to checking out we spent a little around the grounds of our guesthouse. This dapper male Ehrenberg's Redstart was the undoubted highlight.

Ehrenberg's Redstart, Dili Vita Guesthouse, Armenia

Not the greatest poses or perches but it did sing us a little tune!


I also noted another male Common Redstart in the vicinity of the guesthouse but this individual appeared to be of the nominate race rather than 'samamisicus' or Ehrenberg's Redstart. Now this is either a poorly marked 'samamisicus' male (i.e. in terms of the white panel on the wing) or it really is a nominate male and both nominate and subspecies 'samamisicus' can co-exist in the same area - something I need to research.


Presumed male nominate race of Common Redstart

Dili Vita Guesthouse, Armenia


View from the Dili Vita Guesthouse of the wooded slopes of the Dilijan NP

Dili Vita Guesthouse main reception and garden

We decided that before leaving the Dilijan area itself, that we should try to do a bit better with photos of Green Warbler, after all when would we ever be likely to see them again? So, we returned back to our spot from yesterday morning (flushing several roadside Hawfinches en route). We staked out a singing Green Warbler and gave it an hour. Honestly, it was tricky though. The bird was favouring some trees on a steep wooded slope and closer approach would just mean that we would be looking up at the bird rather than level with it. Ultimately, I / we had to settle for these rather distant and cropped photos.

Green Warbler, Armenia



I did fare slightly better with this male Semicollared Flycatcher.


And that was where we elected to leave the Dilijan area and start making our way over towards Mount Agarats where some excellent birding awaited us. More on that to follow!

Friday 24 May 2024

Armenia 2023 - Part 4

Having enjoyed a relatively late breakfast (8am), we checked out of our B&B, said our thanks and goodbyes to our host Anna and took to the road once more.

Our eventual destination late that day would be the Dilijan National Park. Habitat-wise somewhere completely different to the fishponds of Armash or the dry arid hills of Vedi. Therefore we could obviously expect a whole different suite of birds. The initial stages of our journey took us along the ancient Silk Road and over the Selim Pass. We pulled over just north of the Orbelian Caravanserai (a traditional resting place for those travelling the Silk Road). In these high mountain meadows we had singing Whinchats, Meadow Pipits and Northern Wheatears. Nick also had a small group of Honey Buzzards heading north over the pass. 

Views from the Selim Pass along the old Silk Road

Ideally what we were looking for along this stretch of road was any kind of suitable habitat for Radde's Accentor. But suitable habitat was not easy to find. At the next spot as we walked out across a mountain meadow we kicked up a largish-looking Snipe. Not knowing if we were in the region for breeding Great Snipe or not (we weren't) and not having any real clue myself as to how to distinguish Great Snipe from Common Snipe based on flight views or open wing and tail patterns. Something in my head told me that the presence or absence of a white trailing edge on the wing was a helpful identification feature. I immediately and entirely focused my binocular view on the trailing edge of the wing and could not see a trailing edge on our bird. Whether that mean Great or Common I didn't know but I knew there was no trailing edge on this bird. Nick being far more clued in than me on conundrums like this had also been able to take in the white-borded dark mid-winged panel. So, whilst neither of us got time to take a photo and we couldn't relocate the bird we were both happy to call it as Great Snipe, a good find and a lifer for me!

We drove on a little further and reached a small stone bridge over a little stream that was fringed by small willows. We expected this might be good for singing Bluethroat so we pulled over and had a bite to eat before setting off along the bank. At this point we bumped into another British Birder (Duncan Bulling) and shared information about Persian Wheatear at Noravank Monastery and our recent Great Snipe encounter. At the bridge we had a Black-bellied Dipper (my first Dipper in ten years!!), feldegg Yellow Wagtail, Common Cuckoo and an odd Armenian couple who needed help changing a flat tyre!

Duncan lends a hand with the jack!

We didn't have anything in the willows but further up the track we could see a small settlement of tumble-down and ramshackle dwellings that looked like the place that had been referred to in some recent rip reports and certainly warranted further investigation. 

The best birds are often in the most unappealing places and no disrespect to the people living in this settlement but it was pretty basic and scruffy. But........we enjoyed an excellent few hours birding around this spot. I think the trip highlight was the first bird we laid eyes on here, a stunning male luristanica race of Bluethroat. We also found our Radde's Accentor here, plus a male Common Redstart, a smart male Black Redstart of the race ochruros, Water Pipit and Lesser Grey Shrike.

Radde's Accentor

Male Black Redstart (race ochruros)

Male Common Redstart

Nick advised me that the Bluethroat was favouring a certain spot around the dry walls so I decided to position myself comfortably nearby and hope that the bird would show well. 

Bluethroat's favoured spot

I wasn't disappointed and all I needed to do was sit comfortably with my back against the stone wall and wait for the bird to come into view. At several points it was literally on the stone wall above my head paying not the slightest bit of notice to me. I captured what in my opinion are amongst my favourite ever images of this species and in fact of any bird species I've ever photographed.

Having filled our boots here we set off on our journey once again, passing along the western edge of the huge Lake Sevan before reaching our digs at the Dili Vita guesthouse amid the rolling hills and lush deciduous forests of the Dilijan National Park. It was here where we would hope to see Green Warbler, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Ehrenberg's Redstarts.

Armenia 2023 - Part 3

The day started at a place called Vedi Springs, which sits to the east of the famous Armash fish ponds and is an area of dry canyon with a gorge that slowly runs up into arid hills. We parked at the spring being serenaded by several Hoopoes on arrival.

We walked up the gorge either side of a dried out wadi that held small numbers of common migrants such as Common Whitethroat, several Spotted Flycatchers and a Lesser Whitethroat. At the end of the wadi there were a few Isabelline Wheatears and some Greater Short-toed Larks. In truth we needed to go further up the gorge to see better birds but we didn't know that at the time so feeling a little disappointed we retraced our steps back to the car. Back where we parked I picked up a largish falcon chasing a flock of Rosy Starlings which turned out to be a Sakar. This was a lifer for me and a WP tick for Nick. Driving out from Vedi Springs we came across a male and female Finsch's Wheatear (another lifer for me), we spent a little bit of time with these birds but left them alone when we realised they were visiting a nest. The road on the way out was a bit like driving through a landfill site but it didn't stop this smart Rufous Bush Robin from singing its heart out amongst the rubbish and debris.


Our next port of call was only a short distance away (Vedi Hills), much the same habitat and much the same birds. Both Eastern Rock Nuthatch and Finsch's Wheatear had recently fledged young. Red-backed Shrikes were also present and a Little Ringed Plover was seen along the mountain stream which ran parallel to the path. I had several Rock Sparrows and a pair of Trumpeter Finch near the top of that gorge. From there we moved to another spot known as Oorts Gorge or Vedi Gorge (it gets confusing and I'll refer you at this point to Nick's Blog for a very helpful geography lesson).

Oorts Gorge was a where we were hoping to find Grey-necked Bunting. The intent was to drive as far a church called Surb Nshan and search the area beyond it. I say church, it was actually a cave. We endured a slight mishap with the 4x4, but once Nick figured out the settings we were back on our way. We parked up near the church / cave and began walking the area searching for our Buntings. Once again we failed to come up with the goods but we did have what was for me one of the top birds of our trip, a female rufous phase or hepatic Cuckoo, a form neither of us had up that point seen before.

Rufous-phased or Hepatic Cuckoo


I also had fleeting views of a small bird of prey that my guess was it was a Levant Sparrowhawk.

Probable Levant Sparrowhawk

I also had a male Red-backed Shrike which as it perched up I noted it had a steel ring on it left leg which appeared to have the numbers '35651'. I'd love to know the origins of this ring so if you're reading and think you might be able to help then pop a message on the comments section and I'll forward some photos.

Ringed male Red-backed Shrike (number possibly 35661)

After that we returned to what would be the last night at the excellent Areni Wine Cellar guesthouse. We took dinner early and indoors this time as thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed outside.

Armenia 2023 - Part 2

Day 2 began early as Nick had organised for two rangers from Arpa Protected Landscape to pick us up at our B&B and drive us up the mountains to see Caspian Snowcock. Our mode of transport was a rather rickety Lada Niva 4x4 which at first didn't look up to the job but in reality it had no problems hauling all four of us plus our gear up the steep, narrow and rough mountain tracks to where the Snowcocks were. I'll refer readers now to Nick's blog for photos and videos.

After 30 minutes or so our guides pulled the Lada over and shut the engine off. We hauled ourselves out, set up our scopes and began to scan the sheer rock face opposite us for Caspian Snowcock. It was really chilly at first but as the morning warmed up the first few plaintive notes of Caspian Snowcock echoed out across the crags. Thankfully we had our guides with us and they were soon able to pinpoint the bird, no mean feat given the vast expanse of rock!

Having both enjoyed good views and sounds of the Snowcocks, our guides returned to our B&B where we enjoyed a fine breakfast!

Breakfast time

Nicely re-fuelled we headed out once again, this time to the nearby Noravank Monastery. The main target here was Persian Wheatear. We birded around the monastery itself and on the rocky slopes behind, which, being away from the visitors, is where we had most of the birds. There was a pair of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, a pair of Blue Rock Thrush, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, a small flock of Red-fronted Serin, plenty of Crag Martins and several White Wagtails. 


Female Blue Rock Thrush


Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Noravank Monastery, Armenia     

Crag Martins, Noravank Monastery, Armenia

To be fair to Nick, he made more of an effort to locate Persian Wheatear than I did. He did suceed too although views were brief. By the time I caught up with him the bird had disappeared further up the steep rock face behind the monastery and I never got sight of it. We decided the best idea was to return to the B&B for an afternoon siesta, let the crowds dwindle a little at the monastery and then return later in the afternoon in the hope that the Persian Wheatear would have come back down the rock face.


Back to our B&B for a welcome siesta

We did score an unexpected bonus bird as we climbed out of the car at the B&B when a Lammergier drifted over - lifer for me!

Fortified by our mid-afternoon nap, we returned to Noravank and tackled the steep and rocky slope once more. I managed to hear and briefly see a Persian Wheatear, Nick was less successful. 


A truly rubbish record shot of a Persian Wheatear!

The birds soon booted right back up the steep cliffs behind the monastery and we decided at that to call it a day. We returned at around 8pm to our digs, where we enjoyed a fine dinner of minced lamb wrapped in vine leaves all washed down with a glass of our proprietors eight year old red. We hit the hay early ready for a day at Armash Ponds.

Friday 22 March 2024

Armenia 2023 - Part 1

Our planned trip to Armenia in 2020 had been another casualty of the pandemic but it was a trip we were determined to try for once more. So, three years later on Saturday 6th May 2023 we flew Air France via Charles de Gaulle to Armenia arriving late in the evening to Yerevan airport. We spent the first night at the Kesabella Touristic House in Yerevan where we were served a pleasant evening meal accompanied by a cool beer shortly after our arrival.

Our first meal in Armenia

Up early the next morning , we enjoyed a tasty breakfast before taking delivery of our rental car (a Toyota Fortuner AWD). We navigated our way out of Yerevan's Sunday morning traffic and southwards towards our first port of call, the old monastery of Khor Virap. 

Khor Virap, Armenia - May 2023

A report the previous day of an Upcher's Warbler on eBird plus its relative proximity to other key Armenian birding sites such as Armash Fish Ponds, Vedi Gorge and Springs meant that Khor Virap was an obvious point to start from. It being a Sunday and a popular spot for visitors, it was busy. We found a parking place by the side of the road and walked beyond the monastery entrance towards an area of scrub and a high wire fence that I later learnt was the border of Armenia and Turkey!

We birded this spot for about an hour and a half and did pretty well. Unsurprisingly there was no sign of any Upcher's Warbler (too early perhaps) but we did have several pairs of Menetries's Warblers singing in that area some of which with patience eventually showed well. 

Menetries's Warbler, Khor Virap, Armenia - May 2023

If we saw nothing else there then I would have still been happy as Menetries's Warbler is one of those Sylvia species that I've wanted to see for a long time and it didn't disappoint I'm glad to say. We also had Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, 2 or 3 Rufous-tailed Bush Robins, Corn Bunting and Black-headed Bunting. 


Male Red-backed Shrike, Khor Virap, Armenia - May 2023

We also had distant views of Montagu's Harrier as it worked it way north against the snowy slopes of Turkey's Mount Ararat. 

We stopped briefly at a small supermarket where I managed, using what few words of Russian I know, to buy some lunch. Our next stop was the famous Armash Fish Ponds where entry is by permit only so after we presented our papers at the gate we were on our way. We hadn't gone too far when we chanced upon a colony of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, one of which did the decent thing!

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Armash, Armenia - May 2023

 This smart European Roller added a further splash of colour.

European Roller, Armash, Armenia - May 2023

We drove slowly around the tracks between the fish ponds. Surprisingly we struggled to find any spots that held waders which was a little disappointing but otherwise Armash was a treasure trove of bird species. I have honestly never seen so many Marsh Terns in one place, hundreds upon hundreds of White-winged Black Terns hawking insects over the surface of the fish ponds (we did manage to pick out one Whiskered Tern amongst them). Herons and allies were also well represented with plenty of Purple Herons, Squacco Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons. Waders were few and far between but we did have a couple of Wood Sandpipers, Grey Plovers, Black-winged Stilts and White-tailed Lapwing. There were masses of Sand Martins, so many in fact that they were causing the telegraph wires to sag with sheer weight of their numbers. Western Yellow Wagtails were numerous too, mostly flava, feldegg and intergrades (superciliaris / dombrowski).

Squacco Heron, Armash Fish Ponds, Armenia - May 2023

Wood Sandpiper, Armash Fish Ponds, Armenia - May 2023

White-tailed Lapwing, Armash Fish Ponds, Armenia - May 2023

Blue-headed Wagtail 'flava'

Black-headed 'feldegg' Wagtail

Female type Black-headed 'feldegg' Wagtail (?)

Female type 'flava' wagtail (open to correction)

One of our target birds at Armash was Paddyfield Warbler which would be a lifer for me. However, a strong breeze meant there weren't too many 'acros' (i.e. acrocephalus Reed Warblers) singing and all I could pick out were Reed Warblers and Great Reed Warblers.

Great Reed Warbler, Armash, Armenia - May 2023

By now the sun was dipping and it was time to head for our digs. It had been a long day but it was about to get longer. Our B&B in Areni looked to be a straightforward 30 minute drive but google maps was giving us a route about 2.5 hours long. This was because of small enclave of land belonging to Azerbaijan which stood between us and our destination. In order to avoid crossing into Azerbaijan and back out again into Armenia, google maps routed away from there which meant a much longer journey and one that took in narrow mountain roads, sharp switchbacks, rough surfaces and deep potholes - at night! I took the wheel and got us to Areni sometime after 10pm. We were both shattered but our B&B host Anna took good care of us and set out a delicious evening meal accompanied with a glass of red from their own vineyard. The road from hell was soon forgotten!

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Cyprus 2023 - the finale!

Our last full day started with a trip to the Asprokremmos Dam and Reservoir, it was evident that there had been a clearout of migrants and apart from two Alpine Swifts it was completely dead. Even Cape Greco on the east of the island was much quieter than the past week had been if the WhatsApp group was anything to go by.

Alpine Swifts

The best bet was to head inland to Troodos and look for mountain species such as Treecreeper, Coal Tit and Jay (all endemic subspecies). First of all though we choose to stop off at the Scops Owl hotel and see if access to the gardens might be possible later that evening. There didn't seem to be anyone at hotel reception so I called out 'hello' loudly a few times and someone came out from around the back. Now bear in mind that neither Nick or I knew for sure if this was the right hotel and I didn't expect the staff to know anything about any Scops Owl. All I could do was show them a photo or illustration of a Scops Owl and hope. So, I whipped out the Collins Guide App on my phone, showed them the Scops Owl plate and played the call and they knew exactly what I was looking for (I guess the bins around my neck and generally dusty looking appearance were a dead giveaway too). They happily pointed to the trees in the garden and said that the bird is there most evenings! Result. In return for being so nice we ordered a couple of coffees from the bar and were served up with possibly THE strongest and THE sweetest cup of coffee I have ever had!

You could trot a mouse across that coffee!!


We returned briefly to the Asprokremmos Dam to search in vain for a Red-backed Shrike before setting off towards Troodos. We enjoyed a really pleasant afternoon here, it was windy but the temperature was cooler. I found an obliging Masked Shrike and spent some time in its company whilst it hunted for beetles.

Masked Shrike

Masked Shrike

I love shrikes and Masked Shrike is my personal favourite. 

We walked the paths through the pines and enjoyed nice views of a Cyprus Wheatear singing from the top of a conifer.

Cyprus Wheatear

Our primary target here was Dorothy's Treecreeper which we picked up on call first.

Dorothy's Treecreeper

I was personally quite taken by the local race of Coal Tit which looks a lot more like a potential species split than the local race of Treecreeper.

After Troodos we drove back to Agia Varvara (via to our hotel to get some fleeces for our Owling later on). The sun was dipping now and we watched a lovely mixed flock of White and Yellow Wagtails in the warm evening light. 

Blue-headed Wagtail

One of the eastern races of Western Yellow Wagtail (or an intergrade) - hard for me to tell!

We had a large mixed flock of hirundines that we had fun trying to pick out the Red-rumped Swallows in - there were several.

Our final stop was back to the Vasilias Georgias Hotel for the Cyprus Scops Owl. Cyprus Scops Owl is not considered a full species but certainly worth seeing and hearing. A wedding was in full swing when we got to the hotel after dark but we manged perched and flight views of the bird and I recorded it singing albeit with wedding chatter in the background.



And that was that! Our final bird of the trip before we headed back to our hotel for dinner and bed. 

Almost a year later what are my thoughts on Cyprus birding? Excellent, I would highly recommend it, I loved the fact that spring passage gets going in mid to late March, when I left the UK on 31st March it felt like we were still in winter's grip. A day later we were enjoying the sights and sounds of migration. The infrastructure is good, there's a good birding scene on the island, its easy to drive around and the food is great (I love a nice Greek Salad with my grilled lamb chops). I had 12 lifers and 4 subspecies ticks.