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Central Asia, May 2006

“Three perfect days in the mountains were a perfect end to the tour.  The weather could not have been better and in the glorious sunshine, the birds performed beautifully.  A stunning male Servertov’s Tit Warbler danced around the bush tops just feet from us, as did a fine Sulphur-bellied Warbler, while an equally obliging male Eversmann’s Redstart was seen on all three days.  On the high pass we had three male Güldenstadt’s Redstarts, Brown and Altai Accentors and superb views of Himalayan Snowcock on the slopes below us.  Lower down a pair of Ibisbills was on their usual haunts, Brown and White-bellied Dippers showed well, and Nutcracker, Three-toed Woodpecker and Songar Tit were just some of the other stars.  Even the evenings were fine, allowing some stargazing through one of the massive telescopes.

Looking back from our farewell traditional Kazak meal in Almaty, it seemed like ages ago that we had set out along the Silk Road, beginning with a day around the Chimgan Hills where Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Turkestan, Yellow-breasted and Rufous-naped Tits, Waxwings, and Rock and White-capped Buntings were some of the highlights. 

Samarkand gave us our first taste of the wonders of the Silk Road, as well as a wonderful day’s birding with Eastern Rock Nuthatch, White-throated Robin, Eastern Orphean and Upchers Warblers, Red-backed, Isabelline and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Hume’s Short-toed Lark and more Asian Paradise Flycatchers.  In Bukhara we wandered the old streets admiring the towering minarets and blue domes, and found time to indulge in a little retail therapy, haggling in the bazaar over some of the famous Bukharan rugs.  Outside of the town we had fantastic views of a pair of Ménétries Warblers, as well as hordes of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Pied Bush Chats, Rufous Bush Robins, smart Citrine Wagtails, noisy Sykes’s Warblers, and White-tailed Plovers.

The road to Khiva was a long one but well worth the effort, not least for the encounters with Pander’s Ground Jays and of course, the chance to explore the remarkable old town itself.  And then it was back to Tashkent and a superb meal at one of the town’s trendy new restaurants to mark the end of the Uzbekistan section of the tour.

We began our travels in Kazakhstan by travelling east to the desert plains that surround Charyn Gorge.  Here we found nesting Pine Buntings and Himalayan Griffon Vultures in a remote valley, Grey-necked Buntings and a large group of Lesser Kestrels close to our camp, and Shore Larks, Desert Finches, Desert Wheatears, and Greater Sand Plovers out on the plains.  As comfortable as the camp was, it was good to break the journey to the next one with a night in an Almaty hotel.

The drive north from Almaty to the camp at Konchengel included a visit to a small artesian well, where we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of singing Calandra Larks, and later a stop at the famous Tamgaly Tas rock carvings with its numerous Pied Wheatears.  There were raptors along the way as well including many Long-legged Buzzards and a single Greater Spotted Eagle and at least one photo stop for some of endless wild poppies.  The desert around our camp yielded some displaying Maqueen’s Bustards, small flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Bimaculated and Lesser Short-toed Larks, more Greater Sand Plovers, and of course some superb adult Caspian Plovers together with chicks. 

Further north still we touched the edge of the Ili River delta and found Yellow-eyed Stock Doves, White-winged Woodpeckers, and Azure Tits in the old turanga woodland, and Saxual Sparrows nesting in a nearby bus shelter!  An adult White-tailed Eagle sailed overhead and there were numerous Ferruginous Ducks and Black and White-winged Black Terns on the many small pools.  Later a large campfire under a starry sky and some local vodka rounded off a good visit to the Taukum Desert. 

Flying north to Astana we had two days to explore the steppe surrounding the new capital.  The weather held fine for us and we enjoyed prolonged and close encounters with Sociable Plovers and Black-winged Pratincoles, as well as several White-headed Ducks on a small lake, and hordes of migrant Red-necked Phalaropes.  The extensive reedbeds was where we found Paddyfield, Savi’s, Grasshopper, Moustached and Booted Warblers, as well as more colourful Bluethroats, Siberian Stonechats and Common Rosefinches.

Although a dry year out on the steppe when compared to normal, the stars of the show, Black and White-winged Larks performed well, and we found Great Black-headed Gulls at their usual colony, had some really close views of ghostly Pallid Harriers and dancing Demoiselle Cranes, and encountered a variety of other birds from tiny Twite to Short-eared Owls and Red-footed Falcons.  And from there it was back to Almaty and into the mountains for the finale.  Along the way we had seen a lot of good birds, gazed on some stunning scenery and some spectacular buildings, and perhaps most important, had a lot of laughs.”  Steve Rooke

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