GEORGIA - MAY 2019
After a nice herping season 2018 and a great trip to Montenegro, Yannick Francioli and I made plans to find one of our alltime favorite snakes and main herping targets: Caucasus Viper (Vipera kaznakovi). We had 3 options: We could search them in Russia, Georgia or Turkey. Every country had some advantages and disadvanteges, but after long research we decided to go to Georgia. Having read a couple of other tripreports, we were also eager to see some more of this countries herpetofauna, of course mainly the vipers. In the end we settled on a 9 day trip with our main target beeing Caucasus viper and only going for other species, if we had seen enough color morphs of them. We knew that Caucasus vipers can be really hard to find, so we had a couple of chats about our strategy: Since we were going in may, checking the highland populations seemed to be the best option, because they should be in mating season at that time. Caucasus vipers are known to have fairly low densities in these regions, so choosing the right time and place was crucial for our trip.
Yannick also contacted Guram Iremashvili, a georgian herper with a lot of expertise, who we met later on our trip. He also was so kind to help us with a cheap 4x4 car, that was highly necessary for our plans. Also, shortly before our flight Lucas Cottereau decided to join the gang, making us a team of three herpers in the beginning of our trip. Yannick flew from Glasgow to Tbilisi, Lucas from Paris and I took a flight from Frankfurt. We were all very hopefull to see a couple beautiful vipers, not knowing how amazing the trip would be in the end. To be honest, I had a couple of reasonable doubts that we would find the kaznakovi, but with these great guys we were abe to see most of the vipers on our list, way more than I had hoped for!
On our first day we drove from the airport to some nearby Transcaucasian viper (Vipera transcaucasiana) habitat, but only found Grass snakes (Natrix natrix) and lizards (Darevskia rudis and Lacerta media). Already very tired, we decided to do the long drive to th black sea coast on the same day, so we could start searching for kaznakovi on the next day. We found a decent accomodation in Kobuleti and decided to stay there for the next 4 nights.
May 17th Highland kaznakovi
We woke up very, very early with a long drive up the mountain ahead. Lucas did all the 4x4 driving and brought us up to the habitat safely. Arriving at the habitat, we were all very excited and so no time was lost for any talking or strategies. Everyone grabbed a walkie-talkie and we scattered. The habitat was a clearence in the mountain forests with some fern fields, edge habitats and rock piles. I decided to check some lower edges near a big field and after only a couple of minutes I spotted the first snake: A black kaznakovi! Having seen a lot of black adders (Vipera berus) in the black forest that spring I was a bit underwhelmed, but still it was a beautiful snake. After a couple of photos, we scattered again, this time for no more than 5 minutes until Yannicks voice came up from the walkie-talkie: "I found one, its a pretty one ... holy sh*it!". Well, he was right. Lucas and I ran to a big field, on which Yannick stood with the perfect female kaznakovi in hands. Only a couple of minutes in and we were already very happy!
Shortly after, Lucas found a nice smooth snake (Coronella austriaca). But then nothing happened for hours, so we decided to have some much needed food, water and mostly sleep. The nap paid off, because shortly after Lucas found our third and final kaznakovi female of the day. This individual was very uniquely colored: Black with a fading red stripe on the back - spectacular! Very happy we decided to head down to the mountain creek to cool off and find some amphibians. We found a couple of caucasian toads (Bufo verucossisimuss) along with some unidentified lizards (Darevskia sp.) there.
In the end it was a very nice first day, so we headed back towards the coast a bit earlier than we had anticipated.
May 18th and 19th Lowland fail and more highland fun
The 18th of may was very hot. We decided not to drive up to the highlands that day and to rather try a lowland spot, although we knew it would be even hotter. As we had already expected, it was too hot for vipers. The spot was within a small village and after a couple of hours of seeing nothing we gave up and had a little feast at a restaurant. In the evening we went back to search for Caucasian Salamander (Mertensiella caucasica) but only managed to find more Caucasian Toads, Oriental Treefrogs (Hyla orientalis) and Marsh Frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus).
The next day we went back up into the mountains. The habitat was still foggy when we arrived, nevertheless we found a black kaznakovi hidden in the bushes. Lucas and I both found a black kaznakovi that day and Yannick struck gold with a beautiful male. In recent trips we had the running gag, that I can only find black snakes so seeing a melanistic Large Headed Water Snake (Natrix megalocephala) running off gave me a funny feeling for this trip. Another interesting sight were several tracks of bears in the fern fields. Shortly before heading back down I whitnessed the battle of two Slow Worms (Anguis colchica), a very weird sight.
May 20th Lowland kaznakovi
Already very happy with our kaznakovi finds, we decided to stay in the lowlands for our last day at the black sea coast. We went back to the village and had no success with vipers in the morning, only finding a couple of Darevskia lizards. I decided to cross a gate on a road with some fern fields in search of the snakes and was attacked by 2 dogs near a farm. Gladly I did not get hurt, but next time Ill think twice before tresspassing into someone elses property. At noon, all of a sudden Yannick found the craziest kaznakovi I had ever seen. It was a small adult female that still had some youth coloration.
We then had lunch and debated on whether to head further inland for Vipera transcaucasiana or to stay at the coast and try another kaznakovi spot. We chose the kaznakovi option, and boy was it a good decision. We arrived at the habitat in the late afternoon with a thick cloud cover above. Yannick decided to check a beautiful path next to a creek, while Lucas and I hit the fern fields. After seeing another black kaznakovi I got a call that Yannick had found a red juvenile. We went over to the creek and had a very short photo session. My black snake curse has seemed to have returned and so I went back to the fern fields for redemption. After 5 minutes I saw a black male kaznakovi laying on a small bush, 5 minutes later another black male fleeing in the ferns. Hopeless I went to check on the first black male for some in situ and finally found my redemption: A very nice orange striped female kaznakovi - the curse had been broken. I called the guys to see my find and shortly after Lucas found a very pretty green lizard (Lacerta media).
We went back to our car and drove all the way to Borjomi National Parc that night.
May 21st Bye bye Lucas and Vipera transcaucasiana
We arrived at the Parc in the late night and searched for Salamanders. Again we had no success, but Lucas found a very pretty Tree Frog.
The next day, after only a few hours of sleep, we searched for Transcaucasian Viper without any success in the morning. Sadly Lucas had to fly back home on a short notice, so we drove him to the train station. Returning to the habitat, things had changed and we quickly found 2 Vipers: A juvenile and a silver looking male. It got very hot after that and so we decided to head to Tbilisi at around noon to get some rest.
May 22nd Steppe Habitats
We woke up early again, to meet Guram and drive to the south-eastern part of Georgia. Arriving at a steppe habitat, we began searching for the ever so illusive Shemakha Viper (Vipera shemakhensis) with no success. Nevertheless it was a very nice habitat and we found some Dwarf Snakes (Eirenis collaris) and Cat Snakes (Telescopus fallax) along with a tortoise (Testudo graeca). The landscape was full of blossoming flowers, a very beautiful sight, sadly nothing my nose was very pleased by. So for the rest of the day I was knocked out from my allergies. Another knocked out thing that day was our car. In the middle of the grasslands it gave up on us. Guram made a couple of calls and had quickly fixed the problem gladly.
We then proceeded to travel further south to a almost desert like habitat at the border to Azerbaijan. On the road we saw a lot of birds: Hoopoes, Owls, Rollers and Bee Eaters were only a couple of the many species along the road. Our goal was a small canyon, habitat of Blunt Nosed Vipers (Macrovipera lebetina) and Javelin Sand Boas. Due to the stricking heat in the desert we only found lizards including a very cool Schneider's Skink (Eumeces schneideri) and a glass lizard (Pseudopus apodus). With more hopes for vipers on the next day we returned to Tbilisi for the night.
May 23rd Greater Caucasus
Since the main target on our list had already been checked, we just went with which ever habitat had the best weather. On this day it was the greater caucasus, where Caucasus Subalpine Vipers (Vipera dinniki) live. The weather was quite cold and it was overcast ... the perfect pelias (subgenus of Vipera) weather. The scene at the viper habitat was breathtaking. After quite a while I managed to find a female viper. Only a couple of meters from where she was laying, Yannick spotted a second one, very similary looking. We continued herping in this alpine landscape and found a couple Smooth Snakes (Coronella austriaca) and Caucasian lizards (Darevskia caucasica). In the afternoon it cleared up a bit and shortly after we found the next viper, this time a very beautiful male. I was a bit skeptical of this species, since the prettier specimen occur way more west in the caucasus mountains, but this one was a nice surprise. Also the habitat was nice to herp in, so we had a pretty good time there.
On the other side of the mountain river we spotted an abandoned old farm and since the sun had already started to set on our side of the valley, we went over there to check it out. To get there we had to cross the river over some old and rusty pipes with some ripped fences along the sides - sketchy but cool. Next to the farm we were lucky enogh to find some Green Toads (Bufotes viridis) and Long Legged Wood Frogs (Rana macrocnemis). On our way back to Tbilisi we made a stop at a restaurant for some delicious georgian food.
May 24th Lesser Caucasus
We met Guram in Tbilisi very early, given our 4,5 hour drive ahead. Arriving on the plateau, the weather seemed perfect and we so we began our search for one of my main targets: Armenian Steppe Viper (Vipera eriwanensis). Although conditions seemed perfect we could not find any vipers there, however we saw a couple Sand Lizards (Lacerta agilis brevicauda).
A bit frustrated we gave up and decided to look for Darevsky's Viper (Vipera darevskii). Guram told us that he had heard of viper reports from hikers on a mountain nearby. We decided to have a look there rather than going to the known darevskii spots. As we arrived, storm clouds were rolling in and while we hiked up to the potential habitat the wind began to increase. Shortly after we scattered, it even started raining, but nevertheless Yannick suddenly found a female Vipera darevskii - Site confirmed! Our celebration of the find was broken up by a hail storm. Up in the mountains we had no place to hide, so we had to sit it out up there. Gladly it passed after a couple of minutes and the sun came back out for a short time. Only around a minute after the sun came back out, Yannick even spotted a second darevskii, with hail still laying in the rock crevaces next to it. Happy again, we decided to return to the car but a thunder storm came rolling in, leaving us panicking for a second time that day. The weather in these high altitudes changes very quikly and so after a really strong and heavy thunderstorm, the sun came back out and the ground got dry in minutes. We went back to the eriwanensis habitat for an evening herping session, but had no luck again, so we decided to drive back to Tbilisi. There Guram showed us another very cool lizard species: Caspian Bent Toad Geckos (Tenuidactylus caspius). This species has been introduced to Tbilisi, where it lives in old rocky walls.
May 25th The final morning
My flight back home departed around 4pm, so we decided to visit a habitat close to Tbilisi on our final moring. Guram showed us one of his favorite places to find Blunt Nosed Vipers (Macrovipera lebetina) and Javelin Sand Boas (Eryx jaculus). The spot was very sandy and arid. Due to the heat, we decided to flip for the Sandboas on a rocky hillside, where Guram had found a couple already. After a while of us finding nothing but invertebrates and tortoises, Guram showed off his skills, finding 3 Blunt Nosed Vipers, a Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis) and a dwarf snake (Eirenis collaris) in a very short time. I later spotted a Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus) and a fleeing Whipsnake (Platyceps najadum). It took a while, but then we finally found what we were looking for: A fairly small but very cute Sandboa! It was my first Sandboa and, what a weird snake it was. Kind of like a reptile form of a slug ... but in a cool way.
Our time for photography was short, beacuse we had to head back to the airport. Guram and Yannick, whose flight took off later that night dropped me off and drove back to Tbilisi. It was a very worthy last day of this trip!
In conclusion, it was a very successfull trip. We foud our main target more quikly than we had thought and therefore had time to see some more of georgias herpetofauna. The only important thing we had missed was sleep, but that was okay given our great time. Of course there also are some species we could have found to make this trip even better, but that thought alone seems a bit spoiled. I want to thank everyone on this trip for an amazing time. Lucas Cottereau, Yannick Francioli and Guram Iremashvili are great guys and I had a lot of fun travelling this country with them.
Leaving Georgia was a bit sad in the end. The delicious food, the beautiful herp and species and landscapes, and the great road rage made me feel very at home in this amazing country! Needless to say, we will be back. Especially to see some more kaznakovi. As said in the beginning, this species was one of our dreams to ever see in the wild and seeing a lot of them made us come back even more in the end! But the landscapes alone make Georgia worth a second trip. Always focused on snakes we hardly had any time appreciating the beautiful and wild places we got to whitness there.
Here are my 7 favorite images taken on the trip (of course all vipers, because the species were so great). Thank you for reading the report and enjoy!
Darevskia sp. (not identified)
Lacerta agilis brevicaudata