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A Report from

Kazakhstan, May 2001,

Dave Farrow

This report was provided by Birdquest: Visit their Website
This year's tour to Kazakhstan was once again a splendid affair, with all our main targets acquired and some superb avian spectacles and memorable moments enjoyed. We began with what was really the only chore of the tour - getting past Kazakh passport and customs control! Once this had been accomplished, and after a short rest, we hit the road for the deserts of the Charyn river. Our first stop was in the rocky hills where we marvelled at numerous singing Red-headed Buntings engaging in nuptial chases, with both Grey-necked and White-capped Buntings singing from the hillsides.

Onwards to the riparian resort(!?) of the Ash Tree Lodge, which was shaded beneath trees in an otherwise desiccated landscape, with nesting Azure Tits and a background of calling Eurasian Scops Owls. Our first forays into the Turanga woods brought us thrills in the form of the rare Yellow-eyed Dove, Sykes's Warblers, Turkestan Tit, White-winged Woodpecker and the amazing sight of a trio of sparrows, namely Eurasian Tree, 'Bactrian' House and gorgeous Saxaul Sparrows, the latter mating and chirping away from the stark telephone pylons. For lunch we were joined by a White-crowned Penduline Tit, and in the open desert we found Desert Warbler, numerous groups of Greater Sand Plovers with their chicks, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, and, over the arid plain, our first flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. A small marsh provided good views of Citrine Wagtails, Bluethroats, and Yellow Wagtails of the black-headed race melanogrisea.

The dramatic Red Canyon of the Charyn River, similar to North American desert landforms, provided a stunning diversion. We did a lot of gazing at the scenery in our search for the 'enigmatic' Pallas's Sandgrouse. At the moment we were about to leave, two calling birds flew over and headed to the distant rocky hills, where perhaps a waterhole lurked. Patience was rewarded as some returned, then another group was found close-by. We had incredible views of a pair with half-grown chicks, already capable of flight, that drank from the sodden breast feathers of the male. To add to our good fortune, a flock of Mongolian Finches dropped in and fed on nearby ground. As we departed through the rocky gorge westwards we paused to look at Golden Eagle, Eurasian Crag Martin, some impressive Ibex, and a Long-tailed Shrike that kept his appointment with us in some roadside gardens!

We then made our way to the Astronomical Observatory, perched at 2800m in the Tien Shan, for a major habitat change and more great birds. In spite of the Observatory's bus giving up the ghost on the steep climb, we began with a bright sunny morning at 3500m and a spread of high altitude birds. Guldenstadt's Redstarts hopped around on the rocks, a Wallcreeper flew by, Plain Mountain Finches buzzed around and we saw Alpine, Altai and Brown Accentors. In the juniper lower down we found Black-throateds, to make it four Accentor species in a day (Where else in the world is that possible? Answers on a postcard please!). Himalayan Snowcocks called from distant crags, but we were very fortunate to find some calling loudly from a close slope where we had terrific scope views and even witnessed copulation. In the scrub-covered hills we found White-tailed Rubythroats, White-winged Grosbeaks and Severtzov's Tit Warbler. In the spruce forest we found Spotted Nutcracker, Songar Tit, numerous Blue-capped Redstarts and a single pair of Eversmann's Redstarts, a Sulphur-bellied Warbler on a rocky scree slope and the much desired Ibisbill eventually performed on a shingle stream bed. On the rivers we found both Brown and the leucogaster form of White-throated Dipper, plus some Blue Whistling Thrushes. We really experienced four seasons in a day here, our lodgings were comfortable and warm, though the nights were never clear enough for us to go star-gazing.

Descending once more to the plains, we headed out to the Taucum desert, past colonies of swirling Rosy Starlings, some Dalmatian Pelicans on a lake and our first Calandra Larks songflighting over the fields. Reaching the wide spaces of the desert we spent our nights in an ethnically authentic way, in a yurt camp. Our 'backyard' hosted feisty male Caspian Plovers, seeing off groups of Greater Sand Plovers that strayed into their territories. Macqueen's Bustards performed their unusual display, running along puffed up like a fur-ball, and the plains hosted Bimaculated, Greater Short-toed Larks as well as the local form of Lesser Short-toed Lark. A true wildlife-spectacular happened every morning! A short way from our camp, hundreds of Black-bellied Sandgrouse dropped in to drink, joined by Pallas's that gave good views as well as a single Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Desert Finches flew in to join the melee, and the resident pair of Ruddy Shelducks reacted nervously as they herded their eleven chicks around the small pond. Bushes and trees nearby attracted migrants, such as a pair of Dark-throated Thrushes, Greenish and Blyth's Reed Warblers, and both species of turtle doves. A 'desert safari' into terra-nova added more species. We basked in the views of a sun-lit Little Bittern, with a supporting cast of Ferruginous Ducks and Red-crested Pochards, White-winged Woodpecker and Saxaul Sparrows once again, whilst Short-toed Eagle and Eurasian Hobbies hunted in the shimmering skies.

Our last port of call in this wonderful array of habitats and landscapes was in the north, involving a flight to the capital of Astana. Around this pimple of human activity in the vast landscape, we headed for the wormwood steppe. Soon we began driving a swathe through the numerous Black Larks that lined the road when they weren't doing their slow-row display flights above the flat land. White-winged Larks were here though a little more discreet, and Sasha (our local heavy) took us directly to where we found a thrilling if slightly agitated Sociable Plover, which we found to be sheltering two chicks when we returned the following day. The steppe here is dotted with lakes that are in turn infested with huge numbers of birds. Many tiny migrant Red-necked Phalaropes were dwarfed by the likes of Greater Flamingoes, Whooper and 'wild' Mute Swans, and impressive colonies of dapper Pallas's, Caspian, Slender-billed and Mew Gulls. In addition we enjoyed Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagles, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers, Red-footed Falcons and numerous Demoiselle Cranes giving good views.

In the lakes and reedbeds that ring the capital, we found White-headed Ducks, Horned, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes, Paddyfield, Great Reed and Savi's Warblers, and the 'Caspian' form of Eurasian Reed Warbler. We found Booted Warblers singing in roadside weeds, and strange calls coming from the reedbed led us to several Little Crakes and a single Baillon's Crake. Some last birding in Astana at an innocuous looking patch of trees along the river Ishim provided us with the excitement of finding two singing Pine Buntings, another Azure Tit, noisy, nesting Fieldfares, an obliging Cetti's Warbler and a Great Spotted Woodpecker complete with nest hole. A thrilling end to a very successful trip. Kazakhstan continues to provide some of the very best birding in the Palearctic.
This report was provided by Birdquest: Visit their Website

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