Today was the day to say goodbye to the Areni Wine Cellar B&B. After breakfast on the terrace we packed up and paid our bills to Anna. It is an excellent base for exploring both the immediate area and the Vedi/Armah region. You can find my review, along with other positive comments on Trip Advisor.
Much of our route to the Dilijan region would be along the Silk Road. Initally we would head for the Selim pass then drop down to the western shore of Lake Seven. The at north-west we would diverge from the Silk Road (which carries on to Yerevan) and drive in the direction of Dilijan.
Just over an hour after leaving Areni we reached the top of the Selim Pass. We parked just north of the Caravanserai, the traditional resting place for medieval travellers. Walking out onto the mountain pasture under grey skies we were serenaded by Skylarks. Meadow Pipits and Whinchats were also very much in evidence.
Overhead a few Long-legged Buzzards patrolled and a late party of Honey Buzzards hurried north.
In these open expanses there was no habitat that would favour our target species – Radde’s Accentor. We drove about 1 km further north and explored another area of pasture criss-crossed by ditches. Here at >2000 m we kicked out a Great Snipe. Our disbelief meant that we didn’t really notice where it landed and after 20 minuted abandoned our search.
Continuing along the road we dropped into a wide valley and could see a settlement to our right. The farm building and dry stone walls tallied with the descriptions from some trip reports.
A Good Deed
Meeting Duncan LSE Requestf or Help
After this excitement we said our goodbyes to Duncan who naturally was keen to press on Noravank. Not least as he already had seen Radde’s Accentor on Mount Aragat. We drove a short distance upstream and parked. First bird we saw on a dry stone wall on the far side of the stream was a Bluethroat of teh Caucasian subspecies luristanica. Crossing the stream we asked the owner if he minded us birding his property and he waved us on.
If Armash was the fantasy fish pond then Selim was a surreal sweetieshop stocked with desirable WP taxa.
Another early start with a packed breakfast saw us heading North from Areni. Our destination was the the range of arid hills that lie East of and above Armash. Previous reports are inconsistent in the way they name the three principle sites. The poor positioning of the eBird hotspot pins further confuses matters. The table below along with my annotated map and the subheadings in this post may offer some clarity.
Alternative Name (Google Maps)
I used a combination of eBird and Google Maps to navigate us to this site. However, in turns out that the eBird coordinates are at the entrance to the wadi, by a settlement with some running water. We walked across a stony plain either side of the water course but frankly saw very little in breezy overcast conditions. Just a few Isabelline Wheatears and Greater Short-toed Larks. Turns out that we should of started much further up the wadi – see Armash revisited.
As we returned to the car Graham picked up a large falcon terrorising a distant flock of Rosy Starlings. No time to get images but good enought views to determine it was a Saker (WP #74x). We hung around for a bit, but it did not reappear. Driving out of the wadi a monochrome wheatear with a complete back tail-bar flew across the road – Finsch’s Wheatear
With the warming sun raptors became more active and a mixed flock of vultures; Lammergier, Egyptian and Black appeared overhead. My ebird checklist is here.
It was getting on for mid-morning by the time we reached this steep sided gorge with running water. Here we found many more Finsch’s Wheatear and Eastern Rock Nuthatch – both species with recently fledged young. Other than that the only obviously new species was Little Ringed Plover. Moreover as the morning wore on the canyon was filling up with day trippers. May 9th is Victory Day in Armenia, a national holiday, and we were birding a popular picnic spot!
Leaving the gorge there were a number of Black-headed Buntings singing in the field margins. All in all somewhat underwhelming ,and not a hint of Grey-necked Bunting or Upcher’s Warbler. My eBird checklist is here.
It is easy to see why there are historic records of Mongolian Finch from both this site and Vedi Springs. A combination of accessible drinking water in high altitude desert. There are plenty of recent records from nearby Türkiye, but the species has not been seen in the Vedi area since 2015. Interestingly Duncan Bulling (see Birding The Silk Road) had drinking Desert Finches a few days later. Again we should almost of certainly of continued deeper into the habitat.
This site lies a little further South and directly overlooks Armash Fish Ponds. It is altogether rougher and more remote . Once we had figured out the 4WD settting the Toyota handled the difficult, and at times steep, track with ease. We drove as far as Surb Nshan Church (a cave) which is a traditional site for Pale Rock Sparrow. The drive Continuing on foot we checked out a Persian Wheatear site. Sadly we saw neither species – it was that kind of day. Special mention goes to a hepatic phase Cuckoo that Graham found. This is a form neither of us had seen before and one of the highlights of the trip.
Rufous phase Cuckoo (Cucuclus cuculus)
The drive back to the main road gave us views that allowed us to appreciate the scale Armash Fish Ponds. As we dropped down to
Next morning our alarms went off a stupid o’clock and we crept downstairs to collect packed breakfasts from Anna’s kitchen. At 6 am, bang on cue, a white Lada Niva pulled up outside the B&B. By arrangement out stepped two camo clad rangers from the Arpa Protected Landscape. They would take us up nearby Mount Gdnasar in search ofCaspian Snowcock. This is one of several species found in Armenia that I had not seen since an epic trip around Türkyie in 1986. Other hold outs from that tour include Bimaculated Lark, Grey-necked Bunting, Radde’s Accentor and Eastern Rock Nuthatch.
Driving North out of the village we stayed on the main road for a few km before turning East towards the mountains. The initial ascent was on tarmac, but we soon turned off onto a dirt road. One that inevitably got rougher and steeper as we gained height.
After 30 minutes or so our driver veered sharply off piste to crest a grassy ridge facing some vertical crags. We had arrived on-site!
Left, Graham taking a moment to get over the ascent Right, The Snowcock Crags
Our guides proved not only to be excellent drivers, but also top observers. It was cool when we arrived, but as the sun got up a Snowcock started to call. We were struggling but the guides soon located it and got all our scopes on it. Way too distant for conventional photography I recorded some dodgy video.
There was not much else going birdwise and sadly we saw neither Brown Bear or Bezoar. Leopard, and a few do persist in this wild and remote landscape, was never really on the cards. So happy with our Snowcock we decided to return to Areni. The lower slopes were warming up and appeared quite birdy but our time with the rangers was up. Returning to Areni we paid the agreed fee and despite the lack of common language thanked them for a wonderful experience.
Snowcock safely UTB!
Back at the B&B we took a quick break and loaded our gear into the Toyota. Our next destination, Noravank Monastery, is a newish site for Persian Wheatear. Although not rare globally this species is tricky to see in the WP. Many catch up with it wintering in Kuwait. Alternatively small numbers breed in southern Armenia or in neighbouring Nakhchivan, a landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan. The latter is hard to access and most Armenian records of Persian Wheatear are from the southern border with Iran. Hence a reliable site in the Areni region, where acccording to eBird they were already present in 2023, was very welcome.
Noravank lies at the head of a steep sided gorge just a short drive on good roads from our accomodation . There is ample car-parking, but like Khor Virap it is on the main tourist circuit and gets busy. We made two visits, mid-morning and late-afternoon; both had their moments! Of interest to the toursits are the well preserved monastery buildings which date back to the 13th century. From a birding perspective most of the action is on the stony slopes beyond the perimeter wall.
Noravank Monastery: Left, The monastery buildings. Right, The cliffs to the left of the monestary that held the Persian Wheatears
There we easily found several pairs of Eastern Black-eared Wheatear and some flightly flocks of Red-fronted Serin.
Overhead were Red-billed Choughs and Crag Martins which appeared to be nesting in the monestary buidings.
Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
Calling from the slopes we heard, and eventually saw, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Rock Nuthatch. This supersized, and very loud Nuthatch, was another of the species I had not seen since 1986.
Left, Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) and Right, Eastern Rock Nuthatch (Sitta tephronota)
Whilst this was quality birding there was no sign of the star turn. Leaving Gramham to photograph Eastern Black-eared Wheatear I slowly started to climb the scree covered slope towards the cliffs. The terrain was uncertain and it took me some twenty minutes to reach the big boulders at the base of the cliffs. Here I heard an unfamilar song not far away. Arms out-stretched and holding on tight to keep my footing I peered over the top of a big rock. A small bird with a red tail jumped up on top of some nearby boulders – Persian Wheatear (WP #743). Bollocks! If I let go to use my camera I would take a big tumble! Gingerly I worked my way to a more stable position, but the birds saw me and flew up to the high cliffs.
I managed to raise Graham on WhatsApp (the 4G network is generally good throughout Armenia). Rather than follow in my footsteps I suggested an alternative and possibly easier route. Unfortunately by the time he arrived the wheatears had completely disappeared. The site was now very busy and we returned to town to regroup. This proved to be inspired. As we got out the car by the B&B and looked up there was a Lammergier over our heads.
Lammergier (Gypaetus barbatus)
We returned later in the day. After another photoshoot with an obliging Black-eared Wheatear we clambered up the scree, but got seperated.
The Persian Wheatears responded to my tape in the area of the lower boulders. I could not see them! Fortunately Graham could and manged some record shots. Before I could join him they headed off to the high crags. More bollocks! Unfortunately the quickest route back to the car was the way we came and it was much harder going down. My very slow descent was more about caution than age (honest). But on reflection it was a huge mistake not to have packed a walking pole – enough said!
Graham making a rapid(ish) descent to the car park
Not entirely satisfactory but we had both seen and heard Persian Wheatear. At this point we decided to call it a day and returned to the B&B. There, after a restorative shower we enjoyed another of Anna’s excellent home cooked dinners. Not to mention a glass of wine from the family cellar, Unfortunately Anna’s husband seemed a touch disappointed that we sign up for a tasting of his entire range. But that could have got very messy – and we had another long day ahead of us.
Despite three trips to Georgia since 2014 I had not been able to return to the Caucasus since the pandemic. Spring 2023 represented the first opportunity for Graham and I to resurrect our trip to Armenia that fell victim to Covid in 2020. So it was with high anticipation that we departed LHR for Paris to catch a connecting flight to Yerevan. We flew Air France as the flight arrived in the evening – flights with other carriers arrive in the very early morning!
Clear of passport control and customs Graham changed money whilst I fended off the many taxi scammers. A brief call to our hotel brought a lift and five minutes later we were settling into the comfortable Kesabella Touristic House (email@example.com). After a simple al fresco evening meal and a welcome beer we retired for the night.
A good breakfast preceded the delivery of our hire car at the agreed time by local rental company CaraVan. We opted for an AWD Toyota Fortuner which proved to be a wise move. It was fine if a touch underpowered and less well specifed than the Landcruisers we drove in Kuwait. Strangely the pre-departure briefing by the agent focussed on a complimentary brolly rather than how to engage AWD! Our first destination was an area adjacent to the ancient monastery of Khor Virap about 40 km South of Yerevan..
Khor Virap from the approach road; A cloud covered Mount Ararat can be seen in the back left of the image.
The monastery lies on one of a series of low hills close to the border with Türkiye and is quite the tourist trap. Parking next to the cemetary we circumvented the entrance and headed South towards a small reedbed just across the border. White Storks fed in the small fields and a few Steppe Buzzards drifted over us. Over the border a lone Montagu’s Harrier made its way north agains the snowy slopes of Mount Ararat. Significantly the area of scrub between the footpath and the border fence held good numbers of Ménétries Warbler. A new species for Graham which, with a little bit of patience, showed very well.
Ménétries Warbler (Sylvia mystacea)
The birds in Armenia are of the nominate race Sylvia mystacea mystacea. These have a dull dusky pink suffusion to the breast and throat best seen in the right hand image.
Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)
Other species in this area included Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Black-headed Bunting and both Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes.
About 25 km South of Khor Virap lies one of the iconic WP birding destinations, Armash Fish Ponds. These privately owned fishponds cover ca 1,500 ha are not a nature reserve despite being their designation as an IBA by Birdlife International. The importance of Armash FP for breeding and migrating waterbirds is well understood, as is the potential for ecotourism. For example a recently opened lodge (whihc we did not know about), makes it possible for birders to stay on site.
Access is strictly by permit which is available in advance, for a small fee from Karen Aghababyan. Karen is the leading field ornithologist in Armenia and was a great source of help guidance throughtout our trip.
We briefly visited a Verdi supermarket to pick up some lunch before presenting ourself at the gate. After a short Soviet era administrative pause the gatekeeper waved us through. And just beyond the entrance we found an entrancing colony of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (Merops persicus)
Driving slowly along the bunds between the ponds we encountered good numbers of herons and Pygmy Comorants in flight. Whilst White-winged Black Terns seemed to be everywhere.
Armash Water Birds 1: Top (left to right) Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmeus) and White-winged Black Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus) Bottom, Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
Small herons such as Squacco and Black-crwoned Night Heron were abundant in the many reed-filled ditches.
Armash Water Birds 2:Left, Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), Right Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
Gone with the wind!
The birds continued to come thick and fast. Larger passerines such as Roller and Rufous-tailed Bush-robin were not hard to find.
Left, Roller (Coracias garrulus)) and Right, Rufous-tailed Bush-robin (Cercotrichas galactotes)
However, the strong breeze was keeping any Acrocephalus warblers including the much desired Paddyfield Warbler low in the reeds. Despite Graham’s excellent ear we simply could not convince ourselves we were hearing Paddyfields amongst the familar Reed Warbler cacophony. Only a few Great Reed Warblers were robust enough to brave the wind.
Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)
There were however thousands of Sand Martins and we did locate a few flocks of flava wagtails. We were pleased to pick out migrant Grey-headed (ssp thunbergi) and Blue-headed (ssp flava) amongst the local Black-headed (ssp feldegg). I hoped that we might see another blue-headed form, Syke’s Wagtail (ssp beema), en route to SE Russia. However I am content that only saw ssp flava. Pro flava features include a yellow chin, no sub-ocular mark, dark ear coverts and necklace of dark spots.
Apart from a couple of flocks of Grey Plover in flight we saw very few waders. Unfortunately there were no partially drained fish ponds to provide suitable habitat. The levels in the ponds varies from year to year and we were just unlucky. But the lack of waders and hidden Acros meant that we would return later in the trip. On our way back to the gate we did find another group of ponds favoured by some White-tailed Lapwings. A nearby ditch held a few larger waders – but it was a bit thin.
White-tailed Lapwing (Vanelllus leucurus)Left, Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and Right Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
The Long Way Home
The evening was drawing in and tiredness was catching up with both of us. Our hotel was about 80 minutes drive away. But checking Google Maps the route given was closer to 2.5 hours drive via a circuitous route. Graham took the wheel and negotiated a difficult drive over a twisty potholed made harder by the local truck drivers. But why the detour? It turns out that the fastest route to Areni goes throught the village of Karki, which is marked on maps as an eclave of Azerbaijan. Google Maps perceives this as a need to cross two international borders and adds time. In reality Karki is administered by Armenia and the main North/South road passes through with no delay. This unforced error left us both frazzled and to arrive late at the charming Areni Wine Cellar B&B. Fortunately our lovely host Anna was unfazed by this and served us a delicious evening meal on her terrace.
And if only…
It seems churlish to look back at such an outstanding day (eBird checklist here) with regret. But if the lack of waders was unfortunate, missing Paddyfield Warbler was unforgivable. What could we have done better? Needing to organise permits in advance makes it hard to work around the weather. That said being on site in the early morning might of have helped with the warblers and offered better light for photography. Most of all I wonder if it was wise to tackle such a large diverse site on day one of a trip? Some useful lessons for future trips.