Wildlife Holidays in Caucasus

The Caucasus is a land of contrast and intriguing combinations. Situated between the Caspian and Black Seas, this spectacular region is dominated by the towering peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, which form a natural barrier between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. This unique location results in an ecological, historical and cultural melting pot that, along with the astonishing scenery, makes the area amongst the most fascinating to visit in the world. Its value for nature in particular is remarkable; listed as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots, the region’s varied habitats – from snow-capped crags to steppes and coastal lagoons – support 6,400 species of higher plants (1,600 of which are endemic), around 400 bird species and iconic mammals such as Persian Leopard, Brown Bear and Wolf. From a Western European perspective, it is perhaps this heady mixture of familiar and exotic species that gives the Caucasus its greatest appeal.

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Operations Manager
Dan Lay

Our Specialist Recommends

"The Caucasus region is an incredibly exciting destination for the keen naturalist with superb species found amongst spectacular scenery. Indeed, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are undoubtedly Western Palaearctic’s best-kept birdwatching secrets and, not only that, the area offers a fascinating set of species across all taxa!"

Operations Manager - Dan Lay

The Caucasus

The nation of Azerbaijan is one of the Western Palaearctic’s best-kept birdwatching secrets. Here, a vast range of different habitats and climatic zones – subtropical forests, barren steppes, and mountain plateaus – supports a bewildering variety of species, including an exhilarating fusion of Eastern European and Western Asian avifauna. The most productive seasons to visit are spring and autumn, when it’s possible to encounter a mixture of residents, breeding visitors and passage migrants. Of these, it is the migrants that provide Azerbaijan’s most awe-inspiring avian spectacle.

In particular, the area known as the Besh Barmag bottleneck – a narrow coastal strip between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea – is amongst the most dramatic places on Earth to witness migration in action. Birds wishing to avoid both open water and harsh mountain peaks are funnelled through this corridor, which, under the right conditions, can play host to vast travelling flocks. Spring can be excellent for raptors, including Pallid Harrier and Lesser Spotted and Steppe Eagles, but it is autumn when the experience is at its most overwhelming; on the best days, over 100,000 individual birds of over 60 species, including Dalmatian Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant and Little Bustard, are recorded.

This visible migration might be Azerbaijan’s most impressive wildlife event, but there is far more to see. Shirvan National Park’s open steppes protect a thriving population of Goitered Gazelle, while its lakes, ponds and scrublands support specialities such as White-tailed Lapwing, Black Francolin, Marbled Teal and Isabelline Shrike. Higher up, the hill forests of the Talysh Mountains provide refuge for Caspian Tit, Semi-collared Flycatcher and Black Stork, while rocky areas above the treeline are home to Asian Crimson-winged Finch, Blue Rock Thrush and Alpine Accentor. Perhaps most excitingly, the very greatest altitudes of the Gizilgaya Plateau, at over 3,000 metres above sea level, host true mountain specials such as Caucasian Snowcock, Güldenstädt's Redstart, Great Rosefinch and Lammergeier, alongside the possibility of the relict Caucasian Grouse and even packs of Wolf.

Besides the wildlife, Azerbaijan offers stunning geology and culture. In particular, the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains over 6,000 rock engravings representing 40,000 years of history and pre-history, dating from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages. Many of these depict examples of the fauna and flora inhabiting the region during prehistoric times. Today, the site is also home to arid-adapted birdlife including Western Rock Nuthatch, Finsch’s Wheatear and Long-legged Buzzard. Another famous geological feature of the country are the so-called ‘Candy Cane’ mountains, where fine, stacked layers of red and white shale create an alluring, almost confectionery-like effect, and Golden Eagle can sometimes be seen soaring overhead.

To the north-west, the nation of Georgia offers a similarly breathtaking variety of habitats and associated wildlife. In the Greater Caucasus Mountains, especially around the remote village of Kazbegi, high altitude specials like Caucasian Snowcock, Great Snowfinch and Güldenstädt's Redstart are often easily seen, alongside small herds of East Caucasian Tur, a wild member of the goat family. Many of these animals have their true strongholds in the vast Himalaya, but the isolated peaks of the Caucasus provide a suitable pocket of habitat on the edge of Europe. The exquisite Red-fronted Serin is wonderfully common on rocky slopes, while steep cliffs and boulder fields provide foraging grounds for Wallcreeper. Furthermore, the delightful 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church provides an excellent vantage point to scan for shy Caucasian Grouse.

During spring migration, those birds that do not take the lowland route of Besh Barmag cross the Caucasus through mountain passes. Under the right conditions these too can provide a majestic spectacle, with over 30 species of raptor recorded, including Honey Buzzard, Black Kite and Montagu’s Harrier. Other featured birds on passage are a mixture of familiar and more unusual species, from Turtle Dove, Wryneck and Cuckoo to White-throated Robin, Great Reed Warbler and Common Rosefinch.

 

As in Azerbaijan, however, it is in autumn that raptor numbers reach their awesome peak. The city of Batumi lies in a gap through the mountains no more than 10 kilometres wide, and through this bottleneck pour millions of birds, travelling between their Eurasian breeding grounds and winter ranges in Africa. Under ideal conditions, more than 100,000 Steppe Buzzards alone have been recorded in a single day, alongside a variety of eagles, storks and other species.

The steppes of Georgia are arguably even more rewarding than those of Azerbaijan. This part of the country is crossed by the Lori River, which has retained much of its original wild character. Along its tangled banks, undisturbed riverine forests support large numbers of Eastern Imperial Eagle, while scrub beneath hides coveys of Black Francolin and even Common Pheasant, here in its original native range. Nearby is one of Georgia’s cultural highlights, the beautiful rock monasteries of Davit Gareja, which are carved directly into the cliffs and date as far back as the 6th century. Of course, there is excellent birding here too, with Blue Rock Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch and Finsch’s Wheatear often seen alongside migrants such as Lesser Grey Shrike, Golden Oriole and Orphean Warbler.

Providing another range of species are the agricultural plains of Shiraki, where resident Saker Falcons are joined on passage by Pallid Harrier and flocks of elegant Demoiselle Cranes. The adjacent Vashlovani National Park, with its desert-like steppe vegetation and dry, deciduous forests supports an additional range of special birds, mammals and plants. Large mammals are typically elusive and retiring here, but do include such iconic species as Wolf, Lynx, Goitered Gazelle, and even Indian Crested Porcupine and Persian Leopard.

Although it is the smallest Caucasian nation, and landlocked, Armenia remains a fantastic birding destination, offering access to many of the same regional specialities as Georgia and Azerbaijan. However, it is also a wonderful place to search for other fauna and flora, such as butterflies and spring flowers. The country’s diverse habitats, from deserts and steppes to alpine meadows, marshlands and forests, support a huge variety of plants and insects; situated at the junction of the Caucasian and Iranian botanical provinces, Armenia is home to nearly 4,000 species of plants, over 100 of which are endemic to a nation that is only the size of Wales. Amongst the highlights are wild gladioli, salvias, orchids, bellflowers, scabious, irises and gypsophilas, including a multitude of species that have become familiar garden favourites. The butterflies are no less captivating, with over 230 species to be found, with regional specialities including Persian Skipper, Dawn Clouded Yellow and Caucasian Lesser Spotted Fritillary. As with birds, many species reach their European or Asian distribution limits within this continental crossroads of a country. It is also possible to witness massive congregations of butterflies, especially blues and whites, gathering around water courses (so-called ‘mud-puddling’). All this remarkable diversity, as with any wildlife experience in the Caucasus, is inevitably accompanied by majestic and unparalleled scenery.

The Caucasus is unlike anywhere else on Earth. No other region combines some of the best wildlife of two continents with its own distinct range of iconic fauna and flora. Whether it’s Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, travellers are certain to experience some of the world’s most majestic scenery, intriguing culture and fascinating natural history.