Monday, 9 September 2019

Sakhalvasho Raptor Watch Point, Batumi

Sunday-Monday, 8-9 September

Ten days after visiting the Cazala raptor watch point above Tarifa on the western end of the Mediterranean Sea I find myself on a mountain top at Sakhalvasho about 16km north of the city of Batumi, Georgia on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.  What a difference.  Sakhalvasho is the now place to observe raptors by the thousands as they make their autumn return migration to Africa and amazing to think that the site was only really discovered as a birding hot spot about ten years ago.

From the watch point at Sakhlavasho

Our first visit was on Sunday, the day after arriving by train from Tbilisi, and the forecast was absolutely awful with the promise of torrential rain and storms.  However, arriving on the mountain top at 8.30 and greeted by Black Kite and Marsh Harrier along with calling Bee-eaters not a sign of rain.  Lots of cloud but quite calm.  And so it remained until we set off back to the old town of Batumi at 3.30pm.  On the other hand, the overcast weather of low cloud seemed to have held up most of the birds and looking at the final count for the day it was then lowest total since 23 August.  Indeed, check out the "Batumi Raptor Count" site for the day and you will see that the reporters actually use the word "boring!"

A passing Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Whilst we had regular passages of Bee-eaters and Barn Swallows and a good number of Rollers later on, most off the raptors, save for an early morning passage of harriers were very high and lost in the cloud.  To say that I was amazed by the eventual total is an understatement.

Of the birds seen, most were Black Kites followed by Honey Buzzard but it was lovely to see a number of Sparrowhawks and old Spanish favourites such a Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle and a Black Stork.  In addition, I did get to see my first Steppe Buzzard but only as a result of it being pointed out by one of the very experienced raptor recorders.

The "Official" count for the day (4691) was as follows (small birds are not counted):

A small kettle of raptors

Black Stork  1  
    
White Stork  2  
    
Osprey  2  
    
Honey Buzzard  2709  
    
Short-toed Eagle  1  
    
Lesser Spotted Eagle  1  
    
Booted Eagle  85  
    
large eagle sp  1  
    
Marsh Harrier  287  
    
Pallid Harrier  2  
    
Hen/Montagu's/Pallid Harrier  58  
    
harrier sp.  1  
    
Montagu's Harrier  9  
    
Black Kite  1101  
    
raptor sp.  1  
    
MediumRaptor  301  
    
Steppe Buzzard  70  
    
Woodpigeon  2  
    
European Roller  57  
    

Totals: 4691 individuals, 19 species, 11:05 hours commencing 06.45

The newly-constructed raptor watching shelter
During the early months of this year the local Tourist Board has built this impressive watch point rather than have the now many birders standing out on an exposed grassy area near the woods on the mountain side.  Not only shelter and toilets about to be added but the site owner has installed an industrial fridge holding cold drinks and his teenage children arrive everyday to prepare and sell coffee.  Coupled with chairs and tables how decadent is that!

So what did I make of this my first experience at Sakhalvasho?  Most of the passing birds are high, indeed very high and you certainly need a scope and experience in identifying raptors by silhouette and movement.  Very few came close enough for good sightings by binoculars never mind the naked eye.  Counting was undertaken by a good-sized group of experienced birders with set target areas to observe and then results are coordinated and collated for the final total.  On both days there were at least ten recorders and a combined total of at least twenty birders.

For me, migration of raptors at Sakhalvasho was about the actually movement of the birds.  You would see numbers gradually increase as raptors formed kettles (groups spiralling upwards on thermals) before achieving their desired height whereupon they would then stream southwards, usually just about the mountain summits but also passing through the valley below us.

And whilst the birds were above and around us, very close to hand, within a couple of metres, was a couple of dragonflies resting on cut stalks.  But what might they be?  Perhaps a reader with more expertise will let me know so that they can be properly identified.

Name these dragonflies!


Monday was a completely different kettle of fish (I wonder how that expression came about?) with lovely warm sunshine and increasing cloud over the mountain top.  The birds could now be seen settling and streaming southwards and even a few lower individuals for the benefit of birders like me with good views of both Sparrowhawk and Hobby plus a late low-flying Osprey towards the west and sea.  Again, hundreds of Bee-eaters along with a smaller number of Barn Swallows and even an early morning passage Sand Martins.

Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
In addition, more Booted Eagles and another Black Stork along with Pallid, Montagu's and Marsh Harriers.  However looking at the final total for the day it would appear that another visit by Crested Harrier had also been recorded.



Black Stork  15  
    
Osprey  3  
    
Egyptian Vulture  1  
    
Honey Buzzard  5802  
    
Crested Honey Buzzard  2  
    
Short-toed Eagle  4  
    
Lesser Spotted Eagle  6  
    
Booted Eagle  33  
    
large eagle sp  2  
    
Marsh Harrier  73  
    
Pallid Harrier  15  
    
Hen/Montagu's/Pallid Harrier  35  
    
harrier sp.  2  
    
Montagu's Harrier  15  
    
Black Kite  3320  
    
raptor sp.  2  
    
MediumRaptor  529  
    
buzzard sp.  254  
    
Steppe Buzzard  35  
    

Totals: 10148 individuals, 19 species, 12:16 hours

Osprey Pandion haliaetus
So what does this suggest to me as an individual?  If you want to see mass migration in large numbers, the spectacle rather than identifying every individual bird, then certainly Sakhlavasho is the place to be.  On the other hand, Tarifa will produce smaller numbers but a closer relationship giving far better opportunities to study the actual bird.  Perhaps I should reserve judgement until I have visited a few other local birding sites as to deciding whether or not a return visit might be on the proverbial cards!

Hobby Falco subbuteo
But, of course, this is only a brief snap shot based on two days.  I am sure that there must be occasions when the raptors do fly low just as in the same way, especially following bad weather when the birds are held up at the coast, when you can see streams of raptors and other birds making the relatively short crossing to Africa from the southern coast of Spain in the Algeciras - Tarifa area.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus


Check out the accompanying website at http://www.birdingaxarquia.weebly.com for the latest sightings, photographs and additional information

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