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Day 1: Sat 2 May London to Yerevan
After relaxing in our complimentary VIP Airport Lounge, we fly from London to Yerevan, where we will be welcomed by our local driver and local guide, and go directly to Metropol Hotel, where we stay for one night.
Day 2: Sun 3 May Armash Fish Ponds
Today will be an early highlight of the trip, as these fish ponds offer one of the most exciting birding opportunities in the entire Western Palearctic. One of the Caucasus' richest ornithological hot spots, Armash fish ponds boast the largest concentration and variety of bird life in Armenia. Nestled in the foothills of Mount Ararat, at the junction of Armenia, Iran, Turkey and Nakhichevan this is an area of extensive wetland. The terrain is mainly saline semi-desert, yet the pools, natural salt marshes, irrigation and drainage channels, standing fresh water and warm artesian springs have turned Armash into a bird paradise. The diversity of birds is impressive, with about 220 different species recorded including Red-necked Grebe, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco, Purple Heron, Pygmy Cormorant, Glossy Ibis, Garganey, Red-Crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Western Marsh Harrier, Water Rail, Little Crake, Stone Curlew, Collared Pratincole, Kentish Plover, Pied Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Wood and Green Sandpiper, Armenian Gull, and Caspian, Gull-billed, Little, Black, White-winged and Whiskered Tern. This is the only site in Armenia for Marbled Teal, White-headed Duck, Eurasian Spoonbill and graceful White-tailed Lapwing. Rare migrants may include Red-necked Phalarope, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper and Broad-billed Sandpiper,
Land diversity is also impressive and includes Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, European Roller, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Rosy Starling, Sand Martin, Yellow Wagtail, Bearded Reedling and many other passerines. The great attraction of these fish ponds lies not only in the habitats available, but also in the annual practice of draining the pools in order to harvest the fish, thereby providing a habitat exceptionally rare in Armenia, that of exposed mud used extensively by many thousands of waders during migration.
A final link in the rich chain of habitats here is the semi-desert, with Tamarisk, Camel's Thorn and Sagebrush vegetation which supports an impressive selection of warblers. The bushes and scrubby areas hold Olivaceous, Upcher´s and Menetries's Warblers and Finch's Wheatear, while dense stands of reed contain Great Reed, Sedge, Cetti's, Savi's and Paddyfield Warblers and many other passerines. Yerevan – Armash (70 km) – Yeghegnadzor (58 km). Overnight for two nights at Hotel Arpa.
Day 3: Mon 4 May Yeghegnadzor
A day of excellent birding and culture, which begins on a high plateau where we have chances of Egyptian Vulture and Crimson-winged Finch. Next we pay a brief visit to the Areni caves, where people lived 6000 years ago, and then progress to Noravank monastery, located in a narrow gorge made by the Darichay river, near the city of Yeghegnadzor. Noravank dates from the 13th century, and is best known for its two-storey S. Astvatsatsin church, which grants access to the second floor by way of narrow stones jutting out from the face of the building. The architect Siranes and the remarkable miniature painter and sculptor Momik worked here in the latter part of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The gorge is famous for its tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs, directly across from the monastery. Those who aren't interested in culture can just continue birding because it is a great site, often with Red-fronted Serins sitting on the top of the monuments! Other birds include Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Eastern and Western Nuthatches, Upcher´s Warbler and White-throated Robin.
Day 4: Tue 5 May Gndasar – Karahunj - Goris
Another spectacular day, as we leave after an early breakfast and travel by four-wheel vehicles to explore the mountains and alpine meadows. The mountain of Gndasar is 2945m high, and we drive to the higher reaches in search of Caspian Snowcock, Alpine Accentor, Snowfinch and raptors. A beautiful walk of about 1.5 - 2km is expected. This day is of course weather dependent, though we have excellent chances of finding Caspian Snowcock and many other birds perhaps including Crimson-winged Finch and Ring Ouzel. There is an outside chance of seeing Brown Bear here too.
Again we spend some time for local culture with a stopover for the Carahunge stone circles, most likely much older than Stonehenge. Carahunge is derived from: Cara = stone + Hunge = voice/echo, and the stone circle would have served for star observations and also for astronomical calculations. Of course birds are really everywhere, so while enjoying the stones watch out for raptors, Twite (Asian race), Common Rosefinch, Red-backed Shrikes …! Overnight in Goris at Hotel Mina.
Day 5: Wed 6 May Goris, Shikahogh, Meghri and Agarak
Today we drive into the Meghri region, close to the Iranian border, noting a change from the green landscapes so far to the arid southern mountains, with very permeable volcanic rocks. Early morning birders might find Syrian Woodpecker, Rosy Starling, Golden Oriole and Nightingale. In the forests around Shikahogh State Reserve we look for Red-breasted Flycatcher, Green Warbler, Semi-collared Flycatcher and Middle-spotted Woodpecker. En-route we make stops to enjoy fabulous birding for raptors, including Egyptian Vulture, Steppe, Honey and Long-legged Buzzard, Golden, Lesser-spotted, Imperial, Booted and Short-toed Eagle, Pallid and Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel and more. As we pass we will see life in the countryside with shepherds herding sheep and cows, rising in altitude as we travel, the highest point being the the Meghri Pass at 2534m. Our new hotel is situated in the green valley of the Arras river, in a lively little town called Agarak, surrounded by the brown dry mountain peaks. We stay here for two nights at the ML Hotel.
Day 6: Thu 7 May Meghri
Near the hotel we again look for Laughing Dove, Syrian Woodpecker, Hoopoe, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Nightingale, Golden Oriole and more. Today we visit nearby gorges, searching for Levant Sparrowhawk, Ménétries’s Warbler, Red-tailed Wheatear, Sombre Tit, Red-fronted Serin, Finch´s Wheatear, Eastern Rock Nuthatch and Western Rock Nuthatch. The Meghri area borders Iran, and is relatively remote and undiscovered by most birders. Its gorges are a paradise for birders, and you just won’t know where to look first! New species for Armenia are found locally every year, and in 2014 our guide Jozef found the first Armenian White-eared Bulbul here. The habitat is completely different due to the preponderance of highly permeable volcanic rocks, and this semi-desert area is a paradise for wheatears, and the best place for Sombre Tit and Levant Sparrowhawk. Egyptian Vulture is another important breeding bird in the area. At the very fertile gardens around the River Araz, we may see Golden Oriole, Menetries’s Warbler, Laughing Dove, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat and Barred Warbler, guaranteeing a good mix of birds today. Most of the area is now a nature reserve and we will have permits to gain access.
Day 7: Fri 8 May Meghri to Goris over the Tashtun Pass
An enjoyable transfer day, spent mainly in the mountains with a travelling distance of approx 160km, including plenty of stopping places for birding and short walks. We target raptors and vultures, and also walk in beech woods in the valleys. we will have good opportunities for Red-breasted Flycatcher, Semi-collared Flycatcher and Green Warbler, plus more common woodland birds including Nightingale, Golden Oriole and both Syrian and Middle-spotted Woodpecker. Shrikes are everywhere and there will be plenty of opportunities to look for Common Rosefinch and Rosy Starling. These beech woodlands are also very rich in flowers, and orchid species include Dactylorhiza romana ssp georgica and Orchis simian to name just two. The whole mountain area should be covered in flowers and many are endemic for the Caucasian area, including Frittilaria kurdica and Fritillaria caucasia. We return to the Hotel Mina in Goris for one night.
Day 8: Sat 9 May Goris, the Jermouk Gorge (Gndevank) and Yeghegnadzor
Again we are in the high mountains today, not surprisingly in a country with an average altitude of 1900mtrs! The landscape remains impressive, as does the raptor migration and local breeding birds. Egyptian Vulture, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon and possibly Eurasian Eagle-owl and Wallcreeper are among our targets. Of course, we continue to focus on passerines too, including shrikes and finches. The Jermouk Gorge is one of the prettiest in Armenia with lots of Basalt columns and of course a gorge without a monastery is impossible in this country! We will have a little walk to the Gndevank Monastery, which has a 10th-13th century round cathedral. Our travelling distance is around 125 km, and in our hotel grounds there is a possibility of Scops Owl, Golden Oriole, Nightingale and Syrian Woodpecker. We have one more night at Hotel Arpa.
Day 9: Sun 10 May Yeghegnadzor, Selim, Lichk and Sevan
After breakfast we head north towards towards Lake Sevan, a beautiful location and Europe's second highest lake. We make plenty of birding stops during our journey of around 130km, and birds en-route may include Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Goshawk, and Levant Sparrowhawk. On the Selim pass there will be a stop by the old Caravanserai, an Inn for travelers and their animals follwing the silk route to China. Here Ortolan Bunting are incredibly confiding, and should provide an excellent photo opportunity. At Lake Sevan we will explore the shores and surrounding marshes, where there should be a good selection of ducks, waders, terns, gulls, herons, wablers and wagtails. The day contains a good variation of birds from high mountains for raptors, rock steppes for wheatears, and marshes and shores for waders. Armenian Gull is virtually certain to provide good photo opportunities. Overnight in Sevan, at Hotel Best Western Bohemian Resort.
Day 10: Mon 11 May Sevan, Tsaghkunyats Mountains/Hanqavan and Yerevan
Another memorable day as we drive to the slopes of the Tsaghkunyats Mountains in search of Caucasian Black Grouse. After our search for the grouse, we spend some time in the beech woodlands lower on the mountains, again a good opportunity for Red-breasted Flycatcher, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Green Warbler and woodpeckers. These mixed beech woodlands are very rich in vegetation and of course birds, with other possible species today including Water Pipit, Lammergeier, Alpine and Radde’s Accentors, Siberian Stonechat (armenica race), White-throated Dipper, Twite and Mountain Chiffchaff. Total distance around 120 km, followed by two nights in Yerevan. www.metropol.am.
Day 11: Tue 12 May Yerevan, Byurakan and Amberd en de berg Aragats
For the early risers there is the possibility for a walk in the city in the famous Republic Square, with its artwork and monuments. After breakfast we are off again to the mountains with our final destination being the mountain of Aragats. We drive to the snow line for Caucasian Horned Lark, Rock Bunting, White-throated Robin and Raddes Accentor. Lower on the mountain we may find Lesser-spotted Eagle. Mount Aragats is located just outside Yerevan and offers good views of Mount Ararat in Turkey, a holy mountain for the Armenians not only because Noah landed here with his Ark but also because this area was populated by Armenians until 1915. At the beautiful snow-covered Mount Aragats we will visit the Amberd Burgh, a 7th-century fortress located 2,300 metres (the name means 'Fortress in the Clouds'), at the confluence of the Arkashen and Amberd rivers. We drive for about 100km today, and end the day with dinner in Yerevan, where we return to the Metropol Hotel.
Day 12: Wed 13 May Departure
A mornin flight from Yerevan to London.