June 1st – 14th 2010

June 11th : A new experience in this trip was planned for the day: a trip to the mountain on horses, which would allow us to climb the slopes faster. We rode for an hour or so before our first stop. From there, we could already hear the strange curlew-like song of the Caucasian Snowcock. We managed to see 3 of them on ridges very far on the other side of the valley. Closer to us, raptors were patrolling: 2 Lammergeiers, 1 Golden Eagle, a few Griffon Vultures. Red-billed Choughs were common and noisy and Yellow-billed Chough a lot scarcer. We also found an Alpine Accentor. A second stop at the summit of a slope covered by small trees allowed us to hear and see two typical species of the Caucasus: the Caucasian Chiffchaff and the Green Warbler. At least 2 of each were singing. Serge and I decided to leave the horses at this place with Pavel and started to climb in the direction of a rocky slope just recently uncovered by the melting of the snow and situated at the base of a cliff. This area looked perfect for finding the high mountain passerines of the Caucasus. And it was. We quickly found a male and two females Great Rosefinch in the boulders. What a fantastic bird! Further up, 3 Snowfinches flew over and a few Ring Ouzels were feeding here and there. Near the top of this slope, Serge also sighted a Wallcreeper.

A group of about 70 East Caucasian Tur (an endemic Caucasian goat) was also in the area. We were still hearing Caucasian Snowcocks, this time a lot closer, and we finally managed to see a pair quite well. A third bird was walking with the goat group, which was now on top of the cliff. As our escorts later told us, these two species are known to associate quite often, apparently for improving their chances to detect dangers.
All this together made it for a fantastic day. But the only redstarts we had seen were Black Redstarts. Even in the rocky areas at the altitude of 3000 m…

June 12th, 2010: Today, we explored the same areas as the day before, this time without horses. Several walks around the village didn’t bring any new species. We were in particular trying to find the Caucasian Black Grouse, but we were too late in the season, the lek was not used anymore, and finding one of them was now just pure luck. This time, we didn’t succeed.

June 13th, 2010: Having failed to find Güldenstädt´s Redstart, we decided to drive to the next valley, where our guide had seen them earlier in the season. The village where we were going, was just on the other side of the summit on which we had seen our first Snowcocks two days before, but it took almost 3 hours to get there on a tricky and very impressive road up this new valley. The whole landscape was very impressive in fact and, quite unexpectedly quite different from our high mountains. The width of the valley especially, was reminding us more of Himalaya (or at least of what we´d seen of Himalaya in documentaries). The scenic mountain village is built on a “hill” on the top of this valley, at an elevation of 2500 m. Almost an island in the mountains. It is not hard to understand why people settled there, since it is almost impossible to launch an attack on it.

We were however not interested in the conquest of this place, so we peacefully drove through it and drove up the mountain as far as our Lada Niva could take us (and even a bit further). And then, it was each of us against the slope, in the hope of reaching as close to the 3700 m summit as possible. We passed by the camp of shepherds, who had arrived there a few days before after completing the transhumance, and continued in direction of the summit at our pace.

As we arrived at the bottom of the cliffs, at an elevation of about 3200 m, where rocks were progressively replacing alpine meadows, Serge and I stopped to decide how to prospect the area. We didn´t have time for a lot of hesitation. About 100 meters in front of us, a male Güldenstädt´s Redstart flew past! Not a single doubt was possible; the white wing-panels on black wings were so obvious. We finally found one pair and one extra male in the area. The pair appeared to have it nest somewhere up in the cliff and was coming down to take caterpillars from a small marshy area.
Over us, a pair of Lammergeiers, a Black Vulture, a few Griffon Vultures, a Peregrine and the usual Red-billed Chough were flying. Serge continued up the mountain to reach the summit while the rest of us stayed with the redstarts and Pavel succeeded to take a nice photo of the male. Meanwhile, Serge had at least 7 Caucasian Snowcocks up in the mountain. On the way back, alpine species were still making the show. More than 25 Snowfinches, 5 Great Rosefinches and 8 Horned Larks were seen on our way back to the village, alongside several Water Pipits.
June 14th, 2010 : After a last (failed) attempt in the morning by Serge to find the Caucasian Black Grouse, we finally left our high-level base to go back to the plain and Baku. A few last stops were still in our plans though.
The first one was done at a Collared Pratincole and Black-winged Stilt colony just next to the highway. Then, quite unexpectedly, at a random stop along the way near Gilazil and as we were looking at two Marsh Harriers, we spotted an eagle was soaring in the sky. Our first thought was that it was an Imperial Eagle, a species breeding not far from there. But as it came closer, we finally identified it as an immature Steppe Eagle, probably a late migrant.
The last stop in a bushy area quite close to the Caspian Sea was also productive: 2 Lesser Grey Shrikes, 1 Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, 2 Rosy Starlings, at least 3 Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robins and a Greek Tortoise.
And that was it. We came back to Baku for a last dinner with our azeri hosts and a last short night in the datcha.

June 15th, 2010: Early morning, there was time to review the checklist just before heading for departures.

Benoît Paepegaey, France


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