Kazakhstan May 16—31, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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VENT’s fourth comprehensive tour of Central Asia was our most successful yet, sighting 265 species of birds, 16 mammals, and a variety of interesting reptiles. Many of the birds were in dazzling breeding plumage and full song. Native plants were flowering extensively. We birded in a huge variety of habitats including feather steppe, irano-sindian hills, turanga woodlands, sand deserts, rock deserts, huge wetlands, alpine fields to the snow line, juniper forests, and sino-himalayan deciduous forests. Predictably, weather conditions were equally variable—beautiful spring days, some days cold and bleak with strong gales, rumbling thunderstorms, and hot days in the arid zone. The food was excellent including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Every day brought new sightings and our convivial group rated the overall tour highly. We plan to be back in 2016.

The critically endangered Sociable Lapwing in Khorghalzin Nature Reserve.

Critically endangered Sociable Lapwing, Khorghalzin.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our first outing into the field took us south of Astana on a fine clear day with not too much wind. Exploring some larch windbreaks, we quickly found and scoped up several Fieldfares, glassed our first Lesser Whitethroats and Great Tits, and enjoyed the delightful Azure Tit, a Spotted Flycatcher, and a Steppe Buzzard. Working the fields adjacent to a nearby reservoir, we had superb views of Montagu’s, Pallid, and Western Marsh harriers, often interacting with each other and vocalizing. In scrubby thickets we came to grips with Booted Warbler, Common Rosefinch, and Blyth’s Reed-Warbler while a secretive Cetti’s Warbler gave good views for some folks. Plump Bobak Marmots kicked off our mammal list. Exploring wetlands produced superb White-winged Black Terns and Black-tailed Godwits in perfect alternate plumage. Northern Lapwing, Northern Wheatear, Western Yellow Wagtail, two subspecies of White Wagtail, Siberian Stonechat, and Bluethroat rounded out the session that finished with a quartet of beautiful Demoiselle Cranes giving a great fly-around performance. We did some mercy shopping for two folks whose bags missed the connection in Chicago and were feeling a bit stranded courtesy of United Airlines! Then it was dinner and off to bed for a great day to come.

It was to be a full day of action in the Khorgalzin Nature Reserve in very different conditions from those we had experienced the previous day. The temperature plummeted to 50 degrees F and a stiff wind and consistent rain made it feel much colder. The rain also made the clay tracks we went birding on slippery and difficult to drive and we could not explore as far afield as we would have liked. Despite this we had a super day recording some 80 species with just about every bird in mint plumage, ready for breeding. We enjoyed excellent success with the four main central Asian specialties: Black Lark, White-winged Lark, Black-winged Pratincole, and the critically endangered Sociable Plover; great views of all.

Pallas's Gull in breeding plumage with Steppe Gull near Khorghalzin.

Pallas’s Gull in breeding plumage with Steppe Gull.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

It was a roll call of further excellent birds: Whooper Swan, Red-crested Pochard, Dalmatian Pelican, Great Bittern, Terek Sandpiper, Slender-billed Gull, Pallas’s Gull, Short-eared Owl, and Red-footed Falcon. Equally special was the shorebird, waterfowl, and larid spectacle that included hundreds of spectacular Ruffs; stunning Black-bellied, Kentish, and Common Ringed plovers; Spotted and Common redshanks; Marsh and Wood sandpipers; Little and Temminck’s stints; Dunlin and Red-necked Phalarope; Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt; and hundreds of White-winged Black and a sprinkling of Black and Gull-billed terns, with Eurasian Shelduck and Common Pochard.

It is amazing the difference a day can make, as we awoke to sunshine, no wind, and a glorious day. First cab off the rank was a European Honey-Buzzard that was loafing on the ground and making half-hearted attempts, it appeared, to catch insects. Russet Ground Squirrels were out of their burrows, and we watched a pair of Mew Gulls steal a vole off a Jackdaw. More new birds came our way including our first of many European Bee-eaters, a Common Cuckoo you could almost touch, Green Sandpiper, a sneaky Common Grasshopper-Warbler, Tawny Pipit, Greater Short-toed Lark, Wood Pigeon, and a good view of Long-legged Buzzard. We had stunning views of Bluethroat, more Black and White-winged larks, a fly-by quartet of Sociable Plovers, and enjoyed the antics of testosterone-driven Ruffs. Eventually we had to return to Astana where we were able to reclaim the two lost suitcases after some serious detective work and make the flight to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

Having flown the equivalent of Stockholm to Madrid, we awoke in a considerably more advanced spring environment. Heading east towards the Kyrgyzstan border we made our first stop in an ecotone of agricultural country and extensive poplar stands. It was rich with birds and we admired our first European Rollers, Lesser Gray Shrike, and singing Corn and Red-headed buntings while European and Blyth’s reed-warblers played hide-and-seek in thick cover. Nightingales were singing with a vengeance and we admired several skulkers as they regaled us from thickets. As we drove east, the countryside became increasingly more arid and we birded in some gorge country of Irano-Sindian scrub. We taped up a Hume’s Whitethroat, watched a pair of Rock Buntings, and found our first Chukar. Machiel picked up a spike of vegetation that managed to lodge inside his eye. Despite our best measures we could not remove the spike. We had to send him to the hospital where it was removed by the surgeon on duty with a needle—ouch! While this was going on, we checked into the hunting lodge and birded the grounds. The major highlight was finding a superb adult male Goitered Gazelle that gave a rare photographic opportunity. After dinner we spotted a Eurasian Scops-Owl. The next day I found one nesting and it gave a rare daytime view.

White-winged Larks, a Central Asian endemic of the Feather (Stipa) steppes.

White-winged Larks, a Central Asian endemic.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our full day in the Sogeti-Charyn area started with a search for the Pallas’s Sandgrouse and, as luck would have it, we were quickly successful and scoped this enigmatic central Asian specialty. The wind was back with a vengeance in this vast plain encircled with snow-capped peaks of the Tien Shan. It was a great day for raptors as we notched up Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Golden Eagle, and the first of many Long-legged Buzzards. One of the staple food items for the birds of prey in this area is the Great Gerbil which we encountered frequently. Also new for our tally were Ruddy Shelduck; Steppe Gray Shrike; Lesser Short-toed Lark; Horned Lark; Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush; Desert, Pied, and Isabelline wheatears; Eastern Orphean Warbler; Rock Petronia; Mongolian Finch; the stunning Crimson-winged Finch; and the beautiful Gray-necked Bunting. At night some folks tracked down a European Nightjar. In between all the birding we visited the spectacular Charyn Canyon.

We explored up towards the Kyrgyzstan border, birding in the mountains that had received a heavy cover of snow from the previous day’s windy and stormy weather. Today was, however, just beautiful: warm, balmy, and wind-free! Raptors were again a major highlight as we enjoyed the antics of a nesting colony of Lesser Kestrels plus excellent studies of gigantic Himalayan and Cinereous vultures. A stroke of luck found us studying a Common Grasshopper-Warbler that was a bit of a lost migrant in an open field giving uncharacteristically excellent views! Other birds included Linnet, Citrine Wagtail, Water Pipit, Red-billed Chough, plenty of Eurasian Hoopoes, and a brief Black Stork for some.

A showy Ruff in Kazakhstan.

A showy Ruff in Kazakhstan.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The next part of our adventure took our group to the Taukum Desert where we camped for two nights in yurts with Bactrian Camels for company. Before arriving at the desert, we made a stop at Lake Sorbulak that was home to one hundred or more Great White Pelicans. Our next stop was the Wishing Tree, a lone outpost for a fallout of migrant passerines. Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, behemoth Barred Warblers, and a superb male Ortolan Bunting, between numbers of Hume’s Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Greater and Lesser whitethroats, Blyth’s Reed-Warbler, and Common Nightingales were amongst the highlights. Arriving at the desert we commenced our search for the key species, locating several Greater Sand-Plovers, good numbers of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a female Corsac Fox with four kits. A night drive turned up the unbelievably cute Small Five-toed Jerboa.

Our full day in the desert covers a big area in remote central Asia as we seek our target species. We started off with a major rarity when Bart found an obscure finch at a great distance near an artesian well. When relocated, the coral-orange bill revealed a male Trumpeter Finch, the fifth record for Kazakhstan. With patience we documented the sighting with photographs, a new bird for Machiel in central Asia. It was the beginning of a mega day. Our next stop produced Bearded Reedling, “Thick-billed” Reed Bunting, Paddyfield Warbler, and Ferruginous Duck. This was followed by the beautiful Saxaul Sparrow and Syke’s Warbler. Hot on their heels came Turkestan Tit, White-winged Woodpecker, and a great perched view of the rare Yellow-eyed Pigeon. Back in the wetlands near Topay we coaxed up a Savi’s Warbler, followed by a very cooperative Cetti’s Warbler, while both Great and Little bitterns gave lengthy close flight views. A fallout migrant trap was full of hundreds of passerines, the best being a Black-throated Thrush. We watched briefly as the locals played a game of goat carcass polo (buzkashi). You really are out in the sticks here folks!

Black Lark, a bird synonymous with Central Asia.

Black Lark, a bird synonymous with Central Asia.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A final morning and the hoped for male Macqueen’s Bustard was missing in action, the female probably incubating her clutch. Bart continued his excellent form from yesterday when he spotted a pair of Caspian Plovers about a mile distant. After a cautious approach we enjoyed fabulous views of the male and female of this increasingly difficult desert rarity. Monna then joined the party when she located a basking Karaganda Pit Viper—not everyone’s cup of tea, but a rare treat for the herpetologists! A last hurrah was a Eurasian Stone-Curlew, a rare sighting in Kazakhstan. We returned via the Tamagaly Petroglyphs, a World Heritage Site dating from the Bronze Age of rock carvings of ibex, onager, and aurochs. A family of nesting Persian Nuthatches was a treat, the adults working tirelessly to feed their four fledglings.

The final leg of our Kazakhstan tour transported us high into the Tien Shan mountain range. Basing ourselves out of the astronomy observatory at nearly 2,700 meters above sea level, we could drive up to 3,300 meters to the old space research station—Cosmostantia. Our first objective was to observe the Ibisbill at Big Almaty Lake. With the necessary permits in place in this sensitive border region, we eventually located a single Ibisbill that allowed excellent scope views. Plenty of new birds awaited us in this spectacular alpine region. On the first day we added Himalayan Snowcock; Brown Dipper; Eurasian Wren; White-tailed Rubythroat; Blue Whistling-Thrush; Mistle Thrush; Eversmann’s, Blue-capped, and Common redstarts; White-winged Grosbeak; Red-mantled Rosefinch; a cracking pair of White-browed Tit-Warblers; and Lammergeier to mention some. The beautiful European Red Squirrel, Red Fox, and Gray Marmot kept the mammal list ticking over.

Goitered Gazelle on the Sogeti Plain.

Goitered Gazelle on the Sogeti Plain.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our second full day in the Tien Shan, the early risers again enjoyed a lengthy scope session with a pair of Himalayan Snowcocks whose mournful curlew-like whistle is a classic song. Later we birded up to Cosmostantia, adding the high altitude Brown Accentor, Yellow-billed Chough, and beautiful White-winged Redstart. A big highlight was finding a herd of 14 Siberian Ibex, an elusive mountain goat that included four males with their impressive massive recurved horns. Birding lower down we had great encounters with flocks of Fire-capped Serins attracted to dandelions, display flighting Tree Pipits, and several Plain Mountain-Finches. Songar Tit performed well on two occasions while both Eurasian Woodcock and Eurasian Sparrowhawk gave views.

The final birding session in the Tien Shan saw us trying to clean up various species. We had excellent views of the scarce Sulphur-bellied Warbler. While observing this species, the delightful Turkestan Red Pika popped up out of the scree slope, our 16th mammal for the tour. Lower down the mountain we cleaned up Coal Tit and the gray race of Goldcrest found in the Tian Shan.  We finished with views of Spotted Nutcracker and an amazing encounter with a trio of the rare tianshanicum subspecies of Eurasian Treecreeper. In between we enjoyed many great birds like the Rubythroat, Snowcock, and Tit-warbler again. Returning to Almaty, we prepared to fly to Tashkent in Uzbekistan the following morning. Kazakhstan had been outstanding. Special thanks to Machiel, Bota, Aleksei, and Lionard—all great members of Team Kazakhstan—for doing such a fantastic job!