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.
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!
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.
The rocky slopes of Mount Amasa in central Israel typify hillsides found across much of the Mediterranean basin. The mosaic of boulders, scrub and open area is home to species such a Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinan Warbler and Woodlark. Proximity to the Judean Desert means that some desert species are also present, e.g. Mourning Wheatear and Scrub Warbler. Moreover the climate and terroir, as Ingrid and I later discovered, suits vineyards that produce very fine wine. Even more remarkable is the fact that there are wheatears all year round! I winter Finsch’s Wheatears from Turkey and the Caucasus replace the Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that breed each summer. Their Hebrew names which translate as Winter and Summer Wheatear reflect the seasonal occurance of these two species.
Wine from Mount Amasa was served in our hotel
Mount Amasa is about the same distance from Eilat as Tel Aviv. This together with the quality birding made it a sensible place to meet Yoav Perlman. Plus Yoav wanted to see if the Persian Wheatear that had spent the last two winters here had returned. We met in the car park of Tel Arad National Park an importantant archeological site with a series of well preserved artefacts dating back to the Canaanite period (Early Bronze Age). I transferred my gear to Yoav’s car and we drove the few km up the road to the trailhead.
Winter Wheatears and a Big Surprise
Under bright blue skies we walked out across a flat grassy plain towards the foothills. The elevation and strong wind made me regret not having a coat. But conversation was a good distraction and as we gained height there was plenty to see. In particular good numbers of Finsch’s Wheatear along with Stonechats and Spectacled Warblers. Yoav’s keen ears picked out other species including Woodlark and Scrub Warbler, but nothing was coming close. And there was no sign of the Persian Wheatear on its favoured ridge. To mitigate the wind chill we took shelter in a hollow to see if the wheatears would come to us.
Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
After about ten minutes with little success all hell let loose! A startled fox dashed down the path with a large raptor in hot pursuit. I tried to process what we were seeing when Yoav excitedly called it as a Goshawk. The first he had seen in Israel for ca 20 years. I was instructed to get a photo as Yoav’s camera was in his bag. The huge female did a U-turn and appeared to pitch in on the opposite hillside. We left our shelter and scrambled up the hillside, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it. I walked down the valley to try and photograph the wheatears whilst Yoav scoured the upper slopes for the Persian but with no luck.
Finsch’s Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii) –
We left Mount Amasa and retreived my car then visited nearby Arad for a quick coffee and sandwich. Our next destination was Ashalim Reservoir at the edge of the Dead Sea industrial zone. Patches of open water held plenty of duck, including an impressive 47 Ferruginous Duck. The extensive reedbeds were full of wintering Chiffchaffs feeding alongside the resident Clamorous Reed Warblers. Dead Sea Sparrows darted in and out of the vegetation and overhead were Marsh Harriers and a Long-legged Buzzard This very birdy area eventually produced our target species, African Swamphen.
African Swamphen (Porphyriomadagascariensis) – 4th January 2020
Recently the Western Palearctic taxa in the “Purple Swamphen” complex were split into three species. Western (Purple) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is found in the Iberian Penninsular and North Africa. In Turkey, the Caucausus and the Arabian Penninsular it is replaced by Grey-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio policephalus). The third species, African Swamphen (Porphyriomadagascariensis), recently extended its range northwards from the Nile Valley into Israel. To be honest it was not even on my radar for this trip and that made for an even more welcome WP tick (#718).
A Great Spotted Cuckoo put in a brief appearance which was a sure sign that spring had arrived in Israel. Unfortunately our time had gone very quickly and Yoav needed to back in Tel Aviv.
There was just over two hours of daylight left. Yoav suggested a site just off Route 90 for Arabian Warbler to visit on the way back to Eilat. This black hooded lump of Sylvia warbler starts to sing in early January and should have been easy to find. I followed Yoav’s directions to a wadi just South of Hazeva full of mature Acacias. As directed, I explored the wadi both to the North and South of the parking area but to no avail.
Wadi South of Hazeva – mature Acacias like tehse are favoured by Arabian Warbler.
Unfortunately the only Sylvia warbler I saw in the wadi was a very photogenic Sardinian Warbler. An Arabian (Great) Grey Shrike was the only one of the trip and putting the fear of God into the local bulbuls.
Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)
There was a gorgeous sunset to enjoy before I rejoined Route 90 and returned to Eilat to join Ingrid for dinner.