5 Reasons why you should NOT participate in Batumi Raptor Count

Since 2008, in a decade of counts, over 300 volunteers have participated in the annual Batumi Raptor Count. This year, the 11th count is held, which runs from August 17th until October 16th of 2018. Despite the positive stories you may have heard from volunteers or visitors, participation in the count or coming as a visitor is not without some drawbacks! In the spirit of transparency, we have listed the most frequently encountered problems participants face during and after their stay.

1. Watching raptors won’t ever be the same again

You could be lucky enough to see an Imperial Eagle flying 20 meters past the station. Maybe you can even hear the wind move through its feathers. Photo by John Wright.

Those fantastic days of raptor migration in your home country or in other migration hotspots? They will forever pale in comparison with what you experience in the Batumi bottleneck. Every single Honey Buzzard you see will bring back the good memories of seeing 50,000+ migrate on a single day; every harrier will remind you of the sun rising in a sky scattered with Marsh, Montagu’s and Pallid harriers; every eagle… well, you get the point. By participating, you risk becoming forever spoiled with experiencing migration of more than a million birds and around 30 species in a period of only 2 months.

A kettle of Honey Buzzards disappearing in the clouds, a regular sight in the Batumi bottleneck. Photo by Bart Hoekstra.

2. Painful fingers

At BRC we like to count birds so much, we count them one at a time! Our trusty clickers keep track of the numbers, while the most important thing counters have to do is move their fingers at the pace of birds crossing the transect line. A calm but continuous click-click-click-click is the resulting background sound throughout the day… That is until migration breaks loose and the calm clicking turns into a frenzy of rattling counters all over the station. The upshot? You will physically be able to feel the intensity of migration. The downside? Your fingers will end up hurting and we cannot guarantee you won’t develop temporary RSI-like symptoms. Imagine clicking streams of birds like in the video below, but for hours on end on all sides of the stations:

Video by Elien Hoekstra.

3. We don't count everything

At BRC we have made the decision to focus on a few key species for the bottleneck. Our aim is to count those species really well, instead of counting all species badly. These tens of thousands of Bee-Eaters flying by? All these Hobbies, Common and Lesser Kestrels? These Long-legged Buzzards or Alpine Swifts? Painful, maybe, but you will just have to enjoy them. Instead, we’ll keep you busy identifying, sexing and ageing our target species at a rapid pace. This should provide plenty of entertainment and learning experience for even the most hardcore of counters.

Yeah, you'll just have to enjoy those. Photo by Romain Riols.

A publication about the recent trends in abundance and migration timing of juveniles and non-juveniles from 10 years of standardized counts is currently under review. Keep an eye out on our website or Facebook page for an announcement when it has been published.

4. (Almost) Every day is the same

Clicking these clickers, scanning the sky through the binoculars and identifying species by scope. All. Day. Long. Photo by Martha Mutiso.

Every single day, except for the one day a week in which you have a day off, will look like this: You wake up an hour before sunrise, prepare your stuff and have breakfast. A delicious lunch prepared by the host families will be waiting for you to take to the station. Then, from sunrise until 2 hours before sunset you will be counting birds in a standardized fashion, independent of weather conditions. When you return to the guesthouse, tired but satisfied, families will provide a dinner full of Georgian delicacies, after which you’re free to do as you like.

Doing the same thing every day ensures we run a smooth count, even if tens of thousands of Honey Buzzards pass by. Video by Triin Kaasiku.

All we can offer to break the daily slur, besides the birds you’ll be seeing, is 1 day off per week in which you can explore the region (or sleep), a very international group of like-minded birders from all experience levels, a pleasant atmosphere, regular evening presentations to get to know the raptor species and each other, drinks in the Green Cafe and the occasional team visits to the nearby beach.

5. You may come back again… and again…

Sunrise from station 1. The calm before the storm in a landscape you won't quickly forget. Photo by Triin Kaasiku.

The birds, the people, the country, the food, there are plenty of reasons to come back one more time. And many participants do come back as counter or coordinator, time and again, despite the hardships described above. It is quite likely you will plan to come again next autumn the moment you have ended your stay and leave Georgia for your home country. Consider this before you plan to come only once.

So what?

If after reading this you still think you want to participate, you can read more and apply here . But… you have been warned!

This blog originally appeared on the website of OSME, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

VisMig Highlights May 2018

What a crazy month! May started off relatively slow, but quickly turned out to be a month I won't forget soon. April produced a disappointingly small number of summer visitors, but that was definitely compensated largely by May. Still, a lot of birds are missing, conditions must have been very tough this year in the Western Sahara…

Interesting records in chronological order

May 5th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Not a very exciting count, except for a European Serin and a whopping 205 Great Black-backed Gulls migrating north. The number of GBBGs counted would remain high for the first half of May. It appears it's not only summer visitors that are extremely late this year. The cause of this late migration? I have no idea, both April and May have been exceptionally warm months so you'd expect the opposite…

May 6th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Finally, a good and enjoyable May count, in which the effect of easterly winds was immediately visible. Two Gull-billed Terns flew past, both of which I managed to make record shots of (see below). Also, 48 Northern Wheatears were counted migrating north, a new record count for our site. Oh, and our very first Alexandrine Parakeet.

Gull-billed Tern #1.

Gull-billed Tern #2.

May 7th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

For a raptor fanatic in this part of The Netherlands, any day with a ringtail harrier is a good day. And this would be one of those days. Having already seen another Gull-billed Tern and a short, so-so sighting of a Golden Oriole, I expected that was the best the day would produce. But then, just before he was about to leave, Gerjon picked up a slender ringtail at quite a distance south of us. The bird was on a trajectory to fly past really close, so I had plenty of time to prepare my camera and observe it for a good while. While following this bird, the first Turtle Dove of the season and a probable 2nd one flew through the same view, but I remained focused on the harrier, so didn't get any good views.

2CY Female Montagu's Harrier (photo compilation).

It's interesting how hard these birds are when seen at a distance, especially in worn and bleached spring plumage, when clear features start to disappear. My thoughts kept going from Montagu's to a Pallid and back, although when it came closer it was a clear Montagu's. Have a look at the compilation below of this particular bird.

2CY Female Montagu's Harrier (photo compilation).

If given poor distant views at the wrong angles, one could easily think this is a Pallid: there is a faint collar visible, and thus a dark boa, the fingertips are not particularly dark in comparison with the rest of the hand (beware of the shadows in this photo), the dark trailing edge to the hand is almost invisible and the body moult is quite limited.

The rest of the day produced 2 Short-Eared Owls, another European Serin and a (late?) adult Caspian Gull.

May 8th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

The fourth day in a row with a properly easterly wind. Barnacle Geese were already flying well from the start of the count, with large groups of birds flying distantly over the city and the sea. When one group was about to fly closer to us, Gerjon jokingly told us to find a Red-breasted Goose in the group. Well, so we did: Rob found an odd looking Goose in the group, which I thought looked extremely red-ish like a RbG. I did not dare to claim it as the light was at a bit of a difficult angle making everything look warmer than it is, but I had taken a few photos just to be sure. While checking them at home I did see the diagnostic mark I was unsure of in the field: a very clear white flank stripe, which nailed the identification as a true Red-breasted Goose. A new species for the migration site!

Red-breasted Goose in a flock of Barnacles.

The next hour would be fairly calm, but then in the span of a mere 6 (!) minutes: 1 Osprey flew past, 3 Gull-billed Terns started kettling on a thermal above the beach and disappeared high in the sky and Diego found a fantastic Red-rumped Swallow flying south! Crazy!

Red-rumped Swallow (photo compilation).

The rest of the day was enjoyable (2 Merlin, 2 more Osprey, 4 Wood Sandpipers, 1 Oriole), but of course pales in comparison with these few minutes.

May 12th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

In summary: a good count, but not as exciting as the last ones. A Purple Heron, Glaucous Gull, Curlew Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint and my first self-found Dotterel were the highlights. Despite the good species list, migration was quite slow, which gave us a good time to talk. Coincidentally, just while we were discussing the local Sand Lizard population, one flew past accompanied by a Common Kestrel.

Adult male Common Kestrel with a Sand Lizard.

May 16th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Northerly winds were predicted, so the expectation was to see waders. Well, these showed up, but in low numbers. Seabird migration was nice nevertheless. I saw a very late Guillemot/Razorbill (or perhaps it was a Puffin?) fly directly away from me, so it had to be left unidentified. The Glaucous Gull was still present.

2CY Glaucous Gull following a small fishing boat.

If not for the continuous stream of Gulls migrating north, this would probably have been a very boring count.

A continuous stream of GBBG, LBBG and HG was going north.

May 21th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

With very good migration of Swifts from the start of the count, I knew this was going to be a good day. Soon a Hen Harrier flew north over the sea, a species that's increasingly rare here. When I saw what looked like a Whinchat fly in the corner of my eye (it was actually a Wheatear), it turned out a Woodchat Shrike was at the foot of our dune! Unfortunately I was not the one to discover it. Most likely this bird was the one seen a day before close to the Maasvlakte, 21 kilometers to the south.

2CY Male Woodchat Shrike.

Despite showing nicely, the bird was only seen by the three counters that were present at that moment for about 45 minutes. Later the bird was relocated and seen by only one observer 1.5 kilometers to the north.

2CY Male Woodchat Shrike (photo compilation).

While photographing the Woodchat Shrike, an Icterine Warbler was singing shortly nearby, which is a nice record for us as well.

By the end of the day (an almost 14 hour count for me), we had amassed a total of 6400+ Common Swifts, another Dotterel, 3 Honey Buzzards, 2 Purple Herons and a migrating Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Other highlights were the good number of waders and 15 Marsh Harriers.

May 24th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

My longest count so far this year: over 15 hours. And what a count it was! By far the best day of the spring season! Because of regular light rain many birds were pushed down and therefore easier to pick up. As a result we have seen very good numbers of waders for our site, even flying quite well around noon, which makes you wonder how much is flying over invisibly in conditions without rain. By the end of the day we had counted almost 1000 waders in total, of which 337 Common Ringed Plovers, 183 Grey Plovers and 23 very late Purple Sandpipers!

Adult and 2CY Common Shelduck.

But it was not only the waders that were flying well. Because of the rain, Swifts and Swallows were flying in incredible numbers as well. Especially House Martins were very ‘sensitive’ to the rain, as we'd count them mostly when there was a temporary rain shower, after which they would quickly move out of view again. By the end of the day we had counted 12672 Common Swifts and 671 House Martins flying north, the former of which is a new record count for our site!

But then the raptors… We counted:

  • 7 Ospreys, a tie with our previous record day, but failed to find an 8th one indicated so well by the panic among the Gulls
  • 5 Honey Buzzards, our 2nd best spring number and a very welcome sight as they flew nicely overhead
  • 1 Hen and 7 Marsh Harriers
  • 12 Common Kestrels flying north, a very good number in spring
  • 1 Merlin
  • 2 Hobbies

Adult female Osprey.

Adult male Honey Buzzard.

But… the best bird of the day? Just when I had decided to leave in a few minutes, I discovered a small yellow-ish Falcon a bit to the south. Well, you guessed it, a cracking Red-footed Falcon! She graced us with her presence while catching insects on her northerly flight. What a fantastic bird! Unfortunately it had gotten quite dark already, so the photos are a bit noisy, but… whatever. :-)

2CY Female Red-footed Falcon (photo compilation).

That upperwing and uppertail barring, so bold it looks like the bird is wearing armor:

Juvenile flight feathers, some moulted greyish and barred upperwing coverts and tail feathers, barred underwing coverts and still an entirely female-type body plumage nail this as a 2CY female Red-footed Falcon.

Heard only once, but confirmed at home, there was also a Common Rosefinch at the dunetop in the morning. It's surprising how unnoticed that flight call can go, just listen to the 2nd call in the recording below:

In summary: an insane day!

May 27th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

A very hot day with thunderstorms all around us, for which we had to stop counting for a while. Despite the weather, migration was still good for waders, raptors and Swifts. Nice highlights were the almost 7000 Swifts, 2 Ospreys, 4 Honey Buzzards, 25 Spotted Flycatchers and what must have been a Great Snipe! The description for the latter is on Trektellen (in Dutch).

May 29th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

The last count of the spring season and for me the start of a break from counting actively for a few months. I have to prepare for the Autumn count of Batumi Raptor Count, so I will probably only be able to count sporadically. The last count showed that migration is finally coming to a stop here in The Netherlands. The only highlights were a Turtle Dove and at least one, but possibly two Common Rosefinches singing just north of our dunetop. A rare sight: we were accompanied by a young Rabbit.

A young European Rabbit.

And that concludes a fantastic month of VisMigging and one of the best spring seasons our counting site has ever known, with the highest spring totals ever for: Great White Egret, Spoonbills, Woodlark, Common Swift, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail (sp.), Song Thrush, Black Redstart, Greenfinch. And one of the best years for a.o.: Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Black-backed Gull, Mistle Thrush, Brambling, Common Reed Bunting. This list was compiled on the 24th of May. It's quite likely we can add a few species to this shortlist, but that will happen at a later time.

Since I don't expect to do any serious counting before I migrate to Georgia this Autumn, this is also the last monthly overview for a while. I'm not sure if I will have time to compile one when I'm coordinating the Batumi Raptor Count of this year. Speaking of which: We're still looking for counters! ;-)

VisMig Highlights April 2018

Another month has passed, already. April had highlights, of course, but overall it was still a bit of a disappointing month, with still quite low numbers of summer visitors. This is quite an unusual situation, possibly a result of adverse weather conditions on the Sahara crossings for many species taking a Westerly route. But, nevertheless, here we go:

Interesting records in chronological order

April 2nd, 2018 — De Vulkaan

A very long count given the circumstances: seven hours in continuous rain. However, I predicted this would push birds down, and so it did. By the end of the day we had counted a new record number for The Hague: 373 White Wagtails (spec.)! This has contributed significantly to the best ever spring total of these birds, with already over 2000 counted birds on April 3rd, whereas the previous maximum for an entire ‘spring’ period (until July) was only 1561 birds (in 2005). Perhaps not the most spectacular species, but a fantastic number nevertheless! Also, my first Barn Swallow and no less than 3 Little Ringed Plovers.

April 4th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

First House Martin for the year and also the first photographed bird for The Netherlands. And a cracking migrating Tree Creeper, taking off right above our heads up to an altitude of around 30 meters and then flying north. Nothing spectacular apart from that.

 The Netherlands' first photographed House Martin of 2018.

The Netherlands' first photographed House Martin of 2018.

April 6th, 2018 — Breskens

Actually my first ever visit to Breskens, The Netherlands' prime migration hotspot in Spring. What a place and what a day! Highlight of the day was an adult Glaucous Gull, a bird I was so flabbergasted to see I forgot to photograph it, despite flying by so close. Incredible record for April and generally in The Netherlands (adults are very rare). Very enjoyable numbers of Meadow Pipits and Barn Swallows, but still really low numbers for this time of the year. Bramblings, on the other hand, were flying in crazy high numbers, with 2215 birds counted in a day, mostly passing in compact groups very close to the counters.

My first Purple Herons of the year.

Other birds worthy of a mention: my first Purple Herons (finally), a Black Kite I picked up a few kilometers south but didn't come any closer, a Hooded Crow, a fantastic Caspian Tern just before my departure and a Corn Bunting.

A curious White Stork flying overhead very closely.

April 7th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

I was expecting to see my first for roughly 2 weeks already, and there it was: my first Osprey of the year. As applies to so many other species, a late first. Another Black Kite, 4 Ring Ouzels, a possible Corn Bunting, a ticking bunting that turned out to be a Little Bunting, an oddly sounding Tree Pipit (could be Olive-backed), and a nicely showing Short-Eared Owl. A slow day with quite enjoyable birds in the end.

April 9th, 2018 til April 15th, 2018 — Georgia

Upcoming Autumn I will be one of four coordinators of the Batumi Raptor Count. To prepare more efficiently for this year's count, we went to Georgia for a week. The week was mostly filled with meetings and administrative work, but there was some time for birds as well. Although we did not do a full-blown count in typical BRC style, we did 2 short counts and there were many birds to be enjoyed. Mostly Black Kites and Steppe Buzzards with relatively good numbers of Lesser Spotted Eagles. On the first day in the village (Sakhalvasho), many thousands of Black Kites passed on the coast. I'm sure if we would have done a count on that day we would have set a new Spring-record on Trektellen.

A kettle of Black Kites ‘gloupsing’ into the clouds. Gloupsing (BRC jargon) comes from the sound that you hear when a bird disappears into the clouds, a generally faint ‘gloups’.

Of course quite a few Eagles were left unidentified, so could have been Steppe, Imperial or Greater Spotteds. Besides the few Pallids I have seen (3 adult males, 1 adult female), at this time in spring also Hen Harriers are relatively numerous, a species that generally migrates too late to be picked up during the Autumn count.

Weather in spring — at least for this week — did not push all too many birds to the coast, so many birds were seen migrating in the mountains, but remained unidentified.

April 19th, 2018 — Breskens

A second day in Breskens, which started off very nicely with a Red-rumped Swallow flying past very closely. Again I found a Black Kite, which this time migrated past quite a bit closer, but still too far away for photos. (But I had seen plenty in the previous week, so whatever). I was occupied with an interesting looking Harrier, which turned out to just be a ‘regular’ Hen Harrier, while a Marsh Sandpiper flew past, so I missed that bird. Have a look at the full count for details, while I let the pictures do the rest of the talking:

I wish I'd get to see more of these beautiful Mediterranean Gulls where I live. Truly fantastic birds! Maybe in the future this will be a more regular sight, as they are progressively colonizing more Northern parts of the country.

Photo compilation of a (Common) Cuckoo.

A Spoonbill that got a little too close and then got startled by the shutter-frenzy of all present photographers.

April 21st, 2018 — De Vulkaan

If you are fancy like a Ring Ouzel, you betcha you're not going to sit in the shade.

Not a particularly good count, but some Little Terns a few Raven and a very obliging Ring Ouzel (above) still made for an enjoyable count.

Photo compilation of a Common Kestrel (presumably a 2cy male).

April 25th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Six Beaufort westerlies, but a boring count in general, except for a shortly present and singing Grasshopper Warbler and a 2cy Glaucous Gull, a species much less common this winter than in the winter of 2016-2017. Also, for some reason we have a few pairs of Barnacle Geese flying around often this spring. One of the nicest geese in The Netherlands if you'd ask me, so I had to grab the opportunity for a shot.

Barnacle Goose

April 27th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Southern winds, so most of the birds flew past very high, but I did manage to pick out a few niceties: my first Whinchat of the year, a Purple Heron, a very obliging Northern Wheatear and the first Ortolan for The Netherlands for this year. Remarkably, at the moment of writing (the 5th of May), it still is.

We see a decent number of Wheatears migrating past. Oddly enough they very often end up ‘falling’ from the sky and then perching very close to us. Clearly our small dune top seems to attract them, despite having flown hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

The local pair of Jays is showing quite well, flying continuously back and forth to and from a presumed nest.

April 29th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

The last count of April in overall windless conditions with a sea calm and mirror-like. As a result the Common Scoters that were migrating north could be seen from much further away than usually, resulting in a nice number for April of 668 birds. Also, finally a decent number of Barn Swallows (519). And because I don't want to end without a photo, below is the only bird of the day that was photographed: a species we don't see up close so often, but that is oh so present on our sound recordings.

Rose-ringed Parakeet

And that concludes April 2018. Let's hope for a better May…