Introduction

Does Batumi or Batumi Raptor Count ring a bell? It does among a lot of birdlovers. Batumi is a city at the coast of the Black Sea, located at the south-west of Georgia, near the Turkish border. Every autumn there is a migration of hundred thousands of birds of prey. They come from eastern Europe and a big part of Russia and they fly to Africa to spend the winter in less harsh terrains.

A lot of birds of prey use thermals to migrate, others are active flyers. During migration birds tend to follow the coastal lines. They don’t fly over open water or high in the mountains, because thermals are very weak or non-existant there. In Batumi the presence of the Caucasus and the Black Sea causes all migration to focus on a 15 km wide area, the so called bottleneck. Batumi is located exactly in the center of this bottleneck and is the ideal place to observe migration. A little bit of a history is in its place.

In 2004 Brecht Verhelst, Stijn Hantson and Nicolas Vanermen travel through the Caucasus. They spend a week in Batumi to watch raptor migration. Brecht is amazed and dreams of setting up a seasonwide count to get more accurate figures on migration. In 2007 Brecht goes to Batumi again, this time accompanied by Johannes Janssen. There are some numbers known already, but watching all these raptors migrate, makes them assume those figures are nowhere near the actual amount. The ambitious young men decide to set up a season-wide count. And they did…

In 2008 the first edition of Batumi Raptor Count took place. Under guidance of Brecht and Johannes and with the help of Jan Putteman, they counted no less than 1.054.455 birds of prey! To confirm these numbers, they decided to count again in 2009 for an entire season. More than 60 people signed up to help the count and 988.069 raptors were counted. I must clearify, they were not only just counted, but also identified and a large part was aged and sexed as well. Honey buzzards, steppe buzzards, greater and lesser spotted eagles, balck kites, short-toed eagles,… Batumi Raptor Count was a great succes!

Dieter Coelembier talks to Sharon Kesteloot (good friend of mine) about his experience as a counter and decides to go there again in 2013. Sharon likes the idea a lot and wants to get to know the Georgian culture. In mean time I got the hang of taking pictures of birds and I was asked to join them to Batumi.

2013

And suddenly, before I realize it, I’m in the airport of Batumi. It’s almost midnight… After half an hour drive, we reach Sakhalvasho. This is a little village near Batumi where the count takes place. We arrive at our guesthouse, our hosts are the family Meladze. The family consists of a 16 year old girl, her 17 year old brother, the mother and the grandmother. The father is working in Turkey at that moment. We each get assigned a room. Later we found out that the host and her mother gave us their room, talk about hospitality!

Our first night with open window is filled with an orchestra of crickets. We hear no traffic at all. There is only one road through this village, and only last year they asphalted the road. There are 165 families in this village. There is one school and no shops. Most families have a large garden, filled with everything they need to make delicious food. Cucumber, tomatoes, beans, parsley, figs, grapes, tea, nuts,… And then we have mandarins, mandarins and more mandarins,….

Honey bees are not close to extinction here. Every garden has at least 10 hives to fertilize all mandarin trees. All those bees attracts a bird with more colors than a rainbow: the bee-eater. We get to know the distinct noise he makes very fast. They announce their presence by sound first and then fly around us chasing bees. Wouldn ’t want to be a bee.. Every house has it’s own cow. Cows are a lot smaller in Georgia than back home. “Our” cow is 3 months pregnant. She gets all leftovers for dinner. During the daytime she is allowed out with her cow friends and in the evening, she comes back home. Every evening at the same time. After nagging a little, Sharon is allowed to try and milk the cow. The first time, she didn’t succeed at all. The grandmother (babushka) helps a bit and in no time the cow is milked. Only six attempts later Sharon succeeded in getting 2 cm of milk in the bucket! But then the cow kicks the bucket and all milk is lost…

Breakfast with Chadzjopoeri, some kind of cheese bread, that will keep your stomach satisfied for a couple of hours! Even with our breakfast we got served cucumber and tomatoes. They do not tend to eat a lot of meat here. Meat is pretty expensive and you have to go to a bigger town to get it. To go to town, you can take the marsjroetka, the local bus. This bus service is a unique experience. In fact they are vans who are on retirement you can say. You pay 1 lari for every time you get on., that’s between 0.3 and 0.5 euro. There are no fixed stop locations. The driver can suddenly stop, leave the van to do some shopping for someone out of the village, then return and continue driving. We had a woman in our marsjroetka who made the driver stop, she got out, went to buy cigarettes, got back in and we continued our way…

We are very excited to see the location where they do the count. It’s quite a steep walk up the hill. On the counting station, there are a mixed bunch of nationalities. French, German, Belgian, Finnish, Danes, Spanish and we could keep this going for a while. How do they recognize all these raptors… Amazing! Each counter has his own zone that he has to count. You notice they are used to each other. One of them keeps running up and down with the so called palmtop, to register all the data straight away. Behind the counters are all the tourists. They are behind a red and white ribbon. One camera is more impressive than the next one. Same as their ego’s sometimes. Suddenly a small flock of honey buzzards passes by and all we can hear is click click click click click…. You can see counting post 2 with the binoculars. It’s located 2 km away. Counting post 1 and 2 are always in contact with walkie-talkies. That way they decide which counting station counts a specific group of raptors when in doubt. Some moments it’s pretty quiet, next moment it pours raptors.

While we are watching raptors migrate, we hear some shots. Hunting is illegal here, but it’s a tradition. It’s a part of the locals daily life. If birds fly over closeby, you follow them and pray they don’t get shot. Birds of prey become suddenly birds of pray. Our vacation flies by and before we know it, we are back at the Belgian coast. On the website of BRC we can follow the amount of raptors that were counted. They reached an amazing 1.235.609 raptors.

2014

Spring 2014. I booked another flight to Batumi, this time another friend, Catherine Sergooris, is joining me. We missed our connecting flight and get to spend a night in Instanbul. It’s mid august and it’s bloody hot!

Our taxi driver tells us a lot has changed in Sakhalvasho… I’m very curious now… I’m very happy to see the family Meladze again, we’re staying in the same guesthouse as last year. But now, the father of the family is also at home. For the first time I know, alcohol was put on the table. A great way to improve my knowledge of the Russian language (or so I think). Tchatcha is home made liquor between 40 and 70 degrees. All guesthouses in Sakhalvasho now have a name plate at their door, so you know which family lives where. Great, because houses don’t have numbers here. The count hasn’t officially started yet, but I’m drawn up that mountain to show Catherine where it will all happen. Big surprise, they made a stairs on the steepest part of the mountain! Great job! Even a bigger surprise when I got up at station one. They made a real shelter up there, made of wood, and a toilet!

A field trip tot he Chorokhi Delta, on the other side of Batumi, gets me in birdwatching mode. Glossy ibis and hopoe are regulars here. My day just couldn’t get any better when a bittern flew up just a few feet away from me. With Catherine the focus is a lot more on photography than last year. Bee-eaters, rollers, lesser grey shrike and a lot of other birds were modelling in front of the camera.It's so incredibly hot we camp on the beach. I would go in the Black Sea for 10 minutes, then go birding for 20 minutes. I ended up doing that all afternoon. Next day big blisters on my shoulders and back... Severely burnt. Shit happens. But that didn't stop me from enjoying birdwatching.

It’s the official start of the season, and there they are, a kettle of honey buzzards! It was like they waited for the count to start! Watching through my telescope for hours in a row gives me that great feeling again. Boy do I like it here! Because I am here one month earlier than last time, I see a lot of different birds. I do start to know the raptors, I’m starting to learn and distinguish them pretty good! Last three days of our vacation, honey buzzards flew by very close! Time flies when you’re having fun, and before we know it, we’re back in Belgium. The seasons ends with an amazing 1.385.391 birds of prey!

There is going to be a pub in Sakhalvasho, The Green Café. It should have been open yet, but work hasn't finished on it yet. It's delayed... It didn't open before the end of our vacation.

BRC has evolved big time during these past years. A bird festival was added to the count to attract even more birders. The eco-tourisme kicked in and tourists find their way towards the Georgian guesthouses. The locals are getting more involved in the Batumi Raptor Count, everyone gains here! BRC wants to end the hunting through education of the youth. Workshops and lessons are given in schools in the neighborhood of Sakhalvasho. The hospitality and the ambiance on the counting station, the amazing birds of prey, the adrenaline when they flew very close by, the hours of waiting that will pay off, the clicking of so many cameras, the people with the same passion you get to meet, Batumi is the place to be. I lost my heart there.

2015

It’s the 19th of September and I’m at the airport again, packed to leave to Batumi. This time I’m traveling on my own, or so I thought. At the airport I met some birders form “Mergus”. One of them was even at a little presentation about Batumi I gave at a friends place a while ago. They booked a vacation with “Starling”, a company that specializes in nature and photography tours. I met an awesome girl a little bit before I left to Batumi, I’m in a relation, but it was too short notice for her to join me to Batumi. Pity!

It feels so good to be back in Sakalvasho. I know a lot of the locals already, and a lot of counters do tend to come back, year after year to Batumi. I arranged it so I will spend half of my vacation in the guesthouse of the family Melandze, and the other half in guesthouse Dumbadze. But first things first. I want to go up the hill, it’s almost evening and the count will end in less than half an hour, but I have to go! On the way up, I pass the 2 houses where all the counters are staying, some of them had a day off. I didn’t make it to station one, a few of the counters were happy to see me again and I had to drink some beers with them… Not only the counters I know, but also a lot of new faces joined us. I feel very welcome!

Because it’s towards the end of September, there is a bigger chance to see eagles. I mean real eagles, like imperial, lesser and greater spotted and steppe eagles. On the second day, first day I was on station 1, one bird gave me goose bumps. A counter shouted: “he’s heading straight towards us!”. An imperial eagle was flying very low and straight at us. Suddenly everyone was holding a camera. The closer he came, the more intense the clicking of the camera’s sounded. What a magnificent beast! The moment he flew just over our heads, the clicking climaxed and people started to clap spontaneous. Some guys were even crying! This eagle gave me goose bumps even when I think of that moment! Everyone checked their pictures, a lot of them were very happy, some of the cursed a lot because lighting wasn’t set properly, one guy’s card was full just when the eagle approched, and one guys battery died… But still, most of the people had a very big smile and yes, I was one of those guys! Day 2 and I already got my picture of the year!

I share my room with a friend, Olivier Dochy, a great ornithologist from Belgium with a keen sense of humor. This year, instead of a birding festival, Batumi Birding announced “Eagle Week”. About 400 euro’s for a week that looks very promising. I would like to learn to identify those eagles… But 400 euro’s is a lot of money. When I finally got the programme, I didn’t like it. There were excursions to places where there were no eagles to be seen. I decided not to participate and to stick with Olivier. I am sure I learned a lot more than anyone who participated in that eagle week. I had my private tutor!

Every morning we went looking for little birds. But it has been very dry the last few months and little birds didn’t stay around for long. No problem, we still got loads of raptors to watch! I went on a trip with Olivier and Filiep to the Chorokhi Delta. I told Filiep I really would love to see a little bittern, because I had never seen one. No problem he said, give me 5 minutes. Olivier laughed. Litterly 3 minutes later Filiep whispered at me: “Wim; look there… a little bittern…what else do you want to see?” he grinned, I was happy, and Olivier didn’t believe it at first, until he saw it as well… It'sTimes like these I will never  forget!

We missed the opening last year, but the Green Café is now open. A pub run by some locals provides an ideal location to meet other birders and counters who like to go for a drink. Café is a big word in fact, it’s a nice place where you can drink beer, or tchatcha… They don’t have anything else, but who needs something else anyway? Halfway my vacation Olivier left back home. Now the room was all mine! I went with some of my new friends, an American, a Swedish guy and a Spanish girl to Chorokhi Delta again. I must say, there wasn’t a lot to see at that moment, because people were hunting there. We decided to go back and as we drove with the car past this bend, a bittern was just next to the road. I still had my camera with me, I was in the passenger’s seat and the driver’s window was open. Click! Got him! Never seen one so close and I don’t even have his entire head on my picture… Great!

This is my third time in Batumi, and every time I had a different camera and lens with me. This year I got a lens from my friend Patje Buf with me. I do like that lens a lot! Anna Sandor, the girl that monitors hunting in Batumi, even asked pictures from me to use on the background during an interview with her on Hungarian television. The season ended with 154.646 raptors counted.

2016

We are 2016 and my relationship got very serious. My girlfriend Eveline is very curious about Batumi, because I can’t stop talking about it. In January I gave a lecture about Batumi Raptor Count, in front of 113 people and raised a lot of money for BRC. We decide to book our vacation to Georgia again. I am quite confident by now, I could join BRC as a counter, I know my raptors well enough. But… Eveline is new at birding. She doesn’t know what to expect. I can’t leave her 12 hours a day. We agreed to go as ecotourists in October. On top of that, we agreed that we would go to station 1 one day, the next day we would do something else.

Sakalvasho… Love to see you again! Eveline met a lot of my friends and likes the atmosphere among the birders a lot. I got a good feeling about this… It didn’t take long for Eveline before she came up to me and suggested that we would go almost every day to a counting station. She loved it up there, staring through the telescope, trying to identify the raptors that were flying past. She got a speed course raptor identification from me and I must admit, I was very proud of her!

We stayed in the guesthouse of the family Dumbadze, this guesthouse invested a lot of money in their business. They build extra rooms, all have their own bathroom. Eveline gets along great with the hosts. Nargiz and Murman. Also their daughters Tina and Tamar got a place in her heart. She also met Dato, the son, he was helping out his dad a lot. Eveline found out I wasn’t lying about the food… It’s very tasty and there is a lot of it.

The Green Café, is closed all season. A pity, that's such a great place to meet people and have interesting conversations. Hopefully it will be open soon again!

This is the day, the day everyone wants to be on station 1, the day we will pass the million raptors! We decided to celebrate the 1.000.000 in style! Goose bumps! Check! Love it!

We decided to go for a field trip to Chorokhi Delta, at least, that was the intention. We got a lift from a local guy. He was very friendly, but didn’t speak a single word of English. So I spoke the best Russian I could… Which… was not good I suppose, because he dropped us off at a fish market… Too bad, no Chorokhi this time, but we were pretty close tot he Botanical Garden, a place you have to visit when birding in Batumi. All the counters were going out for some food and drinks to a hotel. Eveline and I were asked to join them and so we did. There was going to be some traditional Georgian dance demonstration as well. This was organized the Georgian way… Pay first, then drink and party… But after we paid, we found out there was hardly any beer and it wasn’t chilled. This didn’t ruin our party, this was a boost to make more fun!

The day after we were back on station 1. The bird on the logo of BRC is a male pallid harrier. This is without a doubt the most beautiful harrier I know. Well, this bird came to show off in front of our camera’s. A beautiful adult male. All these birds of prey make me feel so good, I really love them. Time to go home, season ended with 1.055.826 raptors.

2017

We are 2017 and my life has changed a lot. Eveline and I bought a house! A lovely house, but we need to do some renovation on it. We are rebuilding the kitchen and laundry room and we are adding another bathroom. The renovation starts in July and will last until December. Wait a minute… Does that mean I cannot go to Batumi? This would have been my fifth time and it would bet he 10th anniversary of the Batumi raptor Count…

Luckily I have the best girlfriend ever! Eveline told me I could go to Batumi. She would lead our renovation project while I could join the BRC as a counter! Love her so much! The last 2 weeks of September I would go. Just a few days before I left to Batumi, I contacted Filiep. Turned out he was on the same flight as I was to Batumi. Wohoo, didn’t have to travel alone! When I arrived in Sakalvasho, I couldn’t stay in the guesthouse of the family Dumbadze. All counters need to stay in separate houses.

When I went tot he first house, Aki, the coordinator came up to me and gave me a big hug. I was finally, after 4 years, one of them. Hélène, a new French coordinator showed me my room. I was getting nervous, did I practice my raptors good enough? Won’t I make too many mistakes? I must say, the first groups I started to doubt, they are so far away… Talked to some fellow counters and yeah, they made it clear. My guess was right. No need to doubt. I must say I really enjoyed counting, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s getting up early and staying up there for a long time. Time flies when you’re clicking, but if you got a quiet side…

The Green Café is open again! It took Johannes a whole evening and more than a bottle of tchatcha to convince the owners it would be a great idea to open the pub again. He really took one for the team! Thanks Johannes! The pub is a great place to relax and socialize. But after the beers and the tchatcha, you have to get up very early to go to your counting station. But no problem there. I never missed a minute of the count. I know already that this vacation is not one I  will go back to work well rested from. But it's so worth it!

Anne, a nice German girl, had her last day on station 1 and didn't see an imperial eagle yet. This would have been a lifer or bimbo (new bird) for her. I quickly solved that problem for her. The back of my business card is in imperial eagle from 2015, on a blue sky. This day, it was a blue sky as well... So we got proof she saw an imperial eagle that day!

At one point I was thinking about my girlfriend, while on station 1. I missed her, but then, out of the blue, I met a nice lady, a praying mantis. We had a vibe going on, she stayed by my side for a long time. I do miss her as well from the moment she left me.

Anyway, you get to know some new great people. A lot of them got a special place in my heart! Boris, Dunja and Biljana, Hélène, Maude, Fab, Anne, Frank, .... I really can't name them all, they are all great people with the same passion.  From all the people I counted with, I must admit, I enjoyed counting with Filiep the most. Very relaxing, with some jokes in between, no stress, enjoying the moment… Loved it! Filiep, you rock!

I was there on the record day of the pallid harrier migration when we counted nearly 400 individuals! They just kept on coming… Goose bumps, check! I can actually say, I got a good feeling from my counter experience. I contributed and I did pretty well. Does that mean I will count again? I don’t know, time will tell, depending on the situation. But I will be back in Batumi for sure! The season ended with an amazing 1.066.734 birds counted.

2018

Countdown has started again. My girlfriend and I are leaving to Batumi on the 16th of September and we'll be staying until the 1st of October. We are well prepared for this trip. A very light but extremely comfortable chair will be joining us every day to station 1. When I arrived there, I was surprised I didn't know anyone up there. All new counters, new coördinator, new tourists. This gave me a very strange feeling. But in the next few days, I saw a lot of familiar faces!

The guesthouse provided us with our favorite room and Oh My God, I didn't even realize how much I missed the gorgeous Georgian food!