Preserving the Batumi bottleneck
Every autumn, millions of birds of prey make their way south from the Russian forests and plains to their warmer African wintering grounds. This migration takes them through high Caucasus, and along the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, which are difficult to cross. Nowhere is this migration more impressive than in Batumi, Georgia – a 10-km wide corridor between the Black Sea and the Lesser Caucasus mountains – where over a million birds of prey (raptors) are recorded annually.
The phenomenon never fails to impress, both in diversity and in numbers: 36 species of raptors have been recorded here, and on peak days their numbers regularly reach over 100.000 (the all-time record count for the species stands at 271.000 on 2 October, 2014, after days of rain kept the gates of the Batumi bottleneck closed and made migrants accumulate in the north).
Late August sees the passage of virtually the entire eastern population of Honey Buzzards and loose flocks of hundreds of harriers. Bee-eaters are everywhere, and small flocks of rollers add colour to the mix. In mid-September, eagles start to migrate and towards the end of the month, Steppe Buzzards start building up.
Thousands illegally killed annually
Sadly, the abundance of birds during migration has also inspired a local tradition of illegal killing. The green hills are dotted with hides where locals target low-flying migrants, especially raptors. On average, about 13.000 harriers, Honey Buzzards and eagles are killed every year. This is illegal in Georgia, but law enforcement has been limited so far.
The coastal wetlands are also frequented by large herds of hunters. Although most of them have a hunting license, many fire indiscriminately at any birds they see, thereby killing many threatened species. Sociable Lapwing, Great Snipe, Baillon’s Crake and Purple Swamphen are just a few examples of the species that have been found shot in the area.
Moreover, the whole coastal area is threatened with infrastructure development, and huge amounts of money are being invested in the construction of new resorts. The Chorokhi delta – a 500 hectare mosaic of habitats that is home to 266 species – currently does not have any protection status and is under immediate threat.
Saving the bottleneck
Raptor counters. In 2008, a raptor count showed Batumi was a major bottleneck for migratory birds along the flyway. Photo: Jasper Wehrmann
The Society for Nature Conservation (SABUKO) in Georgia and the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) have joined forces to ensure the protection of this unique area. A raptor count in 2008 put Batumi firmly on the map as a prime birdwatching destination and since then, hundreds of birdwatchers have visited Batumi. The guesthouses established in local villages have helped to generate a source of income for the local communities, and have played a major role in convincing them to give up illegal killing and hunting.
Through educational and awareness-raising campaigns, SABUKO has created strong public support for the protection of migratory birds. Responsible falconers have been involved in this work, and many of them have joined a ringing scheme, supported by the Champions of the Flyway, aimed at ending the killing of ‘bycatch’ in their nets.
The Batumi Birding Festival
Young birders in Batumi. Photo: Simon Cavailles
All of this culminates in the Batumi Birding Festival, which will be held this year from 25 September to 1 October, 2016. During this event, BirdLife will showcase the conservation work done in the Batumi bottleneck.
It is also a unique opportunity to do some of the best birding anywhere in Europe, led by some of the most famous birders and conservationists, including Dick Forsman (a Finnish ornithologist and expert in raptor identification), David Lindo (writer and ‘Urban Birder’), Rob Sheldon (conservationist known for his work with the Sociable Lapwing) and Andrea Corso (a top Italian birder).
By participating in this event, you will help us raise funds for the development of SABUKO into a full BirdLife partner, and to allow BRC to continue its annual raptor counts.
Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.