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!

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