The Caucasus



The mountainous landscape of Armenia is dotted with historical highlights, but also offers some of the best birding in the Western Palearctic. Despite the absence of a seacoast, the country is remarkably diverse: from the splendid marshes of the Aras valley to the alpine meadows of its many mountain ranges and the dry gorges of the south, extremely different habitats can be found often within just a few kilometres distance. This is the place where many species of Indian origin reach their westernmost distribution.

The country is easy to visit: people are extremely friendly, food is good and there are many nice accommodation options available. Yerevan, the capital, forms a convenient base from where most destinations can be reached as a day trip. However, it is worth staying in little villages near the birding sites or camping out in the nature to fully enjoy the early mornings.

Armenia’s highest peak, mount Aragats, forms a good starting point. Starting from the lower reaches, you will experience different habitats as you walk or drive up the slopes. From the south, you can drive up the mountain to an altitude of 3200m, where an astronomic observatory is located with a restaurant near the lake that serves delicious trout. Alternatively, you can walk up the mountain by following one of the trails that start near the Amberd fortress. The lower reaches of the mountain are covered in grassy steppe. Here Tawny Pipits are numerous, and large flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings hang around. Bimaculated Larks are present, but it is easier to see them at nearby mount Ara. From about 2500m, you reach a landscape with boulder fields, grassy patches and juniper scrub. It is here that the best birding is to be done. Raddes’ Accentor and White-Throated Robin are easy to find, but Crimson-winged Finch has proven more difficult in recent years. Red-tailed Rock Trushes, Ortolan Buntings and Common Rosefinches are very abundant here, and in wetter places you can find the magna subspecies of Bluethroat. You often see Griffon and Bearded Vultures soaring over the mountain. The herds of sheep managed by Kurdish nomads provide plenty of food to them. Still higher up, the landscape changes again and snow is usually present until late in July. Here you can observe alpine species such as Alpine Accentor, Horned Lark and Red-billed Chough. Descending eastwards through the ancient crater will bring you past some cliffs that are good for Wallcreeper, and here you also find some gorgeous natural swimming pools.

If you’re up for some higher temperatures, head down to Vedi. A number of gorges run through the arid hills, forming nice sandy cliffs where many species breed. It is quite important to start in the early morning, because activity here drops very fast when the sun starts to burn. Finsch’ and Black-eared Wheatear, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, Rufous-tailed Bush Robin, Pale Rock Sparrow, Roller and Upcher’s Warbler are very easy here, but Grey-necked Bunting and Trumpeter Finch can be a bit harder. If you don’t find them straight away, it may be worth trying out another gorge. In the past, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Mongolian Finch have also been observed here.

A mere 20km down Armenia’s main road are the Armash fishponds. You need a permit to visit this area, but it is worth the effort. The area hosts a wealth of cool waterbirds. About 220 species have been recorded at the site so far. They include Pygmy Cormorant, White-headed Duck, Marbled Teal, Ferruginous Duck, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis, Cattle and Little Egrets, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters, European Roller, White-tailed Lapwing, Collared Pratincole, Little Crake, Eurasian Thick-knee, Gull-billed, Little and White-winged Terns. In the reeds and shrubs you will find a wealth of warblers:  Eastern Olivaceous, Upcher’s, and Menetries, along with Great Reed, Sedge, Cetti’s, Savi’s and Paddyfield.