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.