By Aki Aintila
Imagine thousands of raptors literally swarming, continuously gliding, in one gigantic stream. The stream reaches from just overhead to many kilometers to the north, almost as far as your naked eye can see. When you raise your optics to your eyes, you see even more birds joining in.
Other birders surround you, all gazing at the masses of birds in pure awe. The soundscape is dominated by the almost-neurotic clicks of pocket clickers as volunteer counters keep track of the numbers as the birds pass by.
Suddenly, the pattern changes: A new stream of raptors flies in, right next to the previous one, and more birds appear, circling in thermals over the hills further away. Among the counting team, the coordinator keeps track of the overview of the migration and organizes the count so that different counters tally different streams. Other counters keep their eyes on the streams as well, searching for other species, such as Black Kite and various harriers. When things get hectic, the pace of the birds seems unreal; as many as 150 buzzards may pass the count station within one minute.
During the last days of August, there’s no need for imagination, as you can witness this spectacle yourself. This is what the peak migration of honey buzzards in Batumi, capital of Adjara, Georgia, is like. Situated in the southwestern corner of Georgia and on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, the raptor migration in this region has been monitored by a nongovernmental organization called Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) since the autumn of 2007.
Phenomenal Numbers of Raptors
Many people come to the spot just for the Honey Buzzards. With totals each autumn running between 550,000 and 650,000 individuals, the species is the most numerous in the Batumi bottleneck. This consists of more than 45 percent of the estimated world population, showing how crucial the bottleneck is for monitoring and conservation of the species.
Although Honey Buzzards are one of the most iconic species for this area, Batumi is much more. As Honey Buzzards highlight the beginning of the monitoring season, the second half is a feast for Steppe Buzzards and large eagles. It’s possible to see thousands of harriers, tens of thousands of Black Kites, and hundreds of eagles. Falcons, Ospreys, and Sparrowhawks bring more diversity to the species composition, and many people have seen up to 20 raptor species in a single mid-September day. Reaching a total of one million raptors every season since 2012, Batumi is the biggest autumn flyway for soaring birds in the Western Palearctic, reaching total numbers that cover a crucial percentage of the global population of many species.
Steppe Buzzards (from 250,000 to 500,000 individuals) and Black Kites (from 90,000 to 110,000 individuals) are the next mass migrants after Honey Buzzards, approaching five to ten percent of the estimated global population. The Batumi bottleneck forms an important migration passage for Short-toed Eagles (1,500 individuals), Marsh Harriers (8,000 individuals), Pallid Harriers (900 individuals), Montagu’s Harriers (5,000 individuals, and more than 6,000 additional, unidentified), Booted Eagles (8,000 individuals) and large eagles (4,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles, 150 Greater Spotted Eagles, and 300 Steppe Eagles). These are rounded averages, as the totals can fluctuate. For example, the autumn of 2015 saw 440 Greater Spotted Eagles and 530 Steppe Eagles!
And it’s not just about the season totals—the daily migrations can be simply overwhelming. When the migration is on, you’ll never know when you may witness raptor migration history. I suspect the people who witnessed the migration of 280,000 raptors on October 2, 2014—the largest passage of raptors ever seen outside the Pan-American flyway—will remember it for the rest of their lives. That day was an epic show for Steppe Buzzards and eagles, but the honey buzzards can storm in as well. September 2, 2012, holds the regional daily record for these birds, with 170,000 individuals—and that’s just Honey Buzzards. Other days for the record book were August 27, 2015, with 110,000 Honey Buzzards, September 27, 2013, with 160,000 Steppe Buzzards, and September 2, 2012, with 2,000 harriers.
The migration is highly diverse within the two-month season, reaching more than 30 species of raptors, not to mention the vast plumage variation of many monitored species, like harriers and eagles. Within these groups, identification provides many challenges, with numerous variations and overlapping identification characteristics and details. Sometimes aging or relying on arcane details is the key to correct identification. In Batumi, even the most experienced observers admit that not every bird can be identified.
Volunteer Counters Make the Difference
All in all, Batumi offers many challenges for birders. One can just enjoy the flux of birds – numerous beyond imagination, or enjoy the high variation of different species and plumages, or face some of the most difficult identification challenges these raptors can offer. You can do this as a regular visitor or join as volunteer counter for BRC.
BRC is a nature conservation organization focusing on long-term monitoring and conservation of the raptor species that pass the Batumi bottleneck, and for international promotion of this important migration hotspot. The count season is from August 17 to October 16, and the project relies on volunteer counters and donation-based funding. Each season more than 30 volunteer counters arrive from across Europe, with some people coming from the United States and Australia. BRC welcomes both beginner and experienced birders for the count. They use two regular count stations situated three kilometers from each other. Radiotelephone connections are used to communicate the progression of the migration, where to look for the next flocks, and to agree on which station counts which birds. The project also uses a specific count protocol to ensure the integrity of the collected data, including, for example, systematic count instructions, identification instructions, and distance codes to record birds. BRC also uses tablets in both count station for real-time data entry and reporting.
“As long as there will be at least a single bird from a single species able to travel half the world as though responding to a silent call, and a single person to witness it, looking up at the sky and living as a single heart and soul, hope will remain for a better future.”
This mind-boggling paradise for raptor fanatics has a darker side. Despite the national legislation, illegal hunting of raptors in the Batumi region is a major conservation issue. BRC estimates that 10,000 raptors are shot every autumn. In relation to the overall numbers that pass by the bottleneck, some species are not heavily affected, whereas low-flying species, such as harrier, tend to have a higher probability of getting shot, and the proportion of killed birds to the whole population is higher – high enough to have a potential impact on the global population.
Hunting for sport, as a social activity, and for extra food seem to be the common reasons to go shooting. Falconers shoot other raptors to feed their sparrow hawks. BRC, with fellow organization SABUKO, aims for community-based conservation by informing and involving local people rather can confronting the hunters, and focusing on the monitoring, impacts, and background factors of the hunting. The change, the organizations believe, should come from within the local community, not forced by people from outside.
For this, raising awareness of the issue, monitoring it, and bringing more and more people to witness the outstanding and unique raptor migration are the primary goals of the organizations. The hunters don’t know the origin of the birds they shoot, but as far as we know, the bottleneck gathers birds from a vast landmass, from North and Central Europe to the Ural Mountains and beyond. The next Honey Buzzard that is shot down might be from Finland, the next Lesser Spotted Eagle from Poland, or the next Pallid Harrier from Kazakhstan. Many of the birds that get shot would have gone all the way to sub-Saharan Africa, some of them migrating for the first time, and some of them having already made the round trip many times before.
“As long as there will be at least a single bird from a single species able to travel half the world as though responding to a silent call, and a single person to witness it, looking up at the sky and living as a single heart and soul, hope will remain for a better future.” – Aurélie Chaput, full-season counter during the 2015 BRC autumn count
How You Can Get Involved
Follow these links to learn more about the organizations helping to raise awareness of the issues facing the raptors of Batumi, and how you can contribute:
Explore the website of the Batumi Raptor Count.
See daily count results since 2008.
Find out more about SABUKO, fellow organization for nature conservation in Caucasus region.
Learn more about birding in Batumi.
Help maintain the migration survey with a small donation: Click here to contribute.