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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Birding the Silk Road

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In the foothills of the Tien-Shan Mountain Photo: Steve Rooke

The Silk Road, Samarkand, and Bukhara—the names conjure up images of fierce Mongol hordes storming out of the east and of dusty camel trains and crowded bazaars where rare jewels and exotic spices were traded by travelers from far-off lands. Stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Tien Shan Mountains, the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are indeed richly endowed with history and culture. The varied traditions and customs of this fascinating region are matched by a wide variety of habitats. We’ll follow the Silk Road to Bukhara and beyond into the drifting sand dunes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, where we’ll look for Pander’s Ground Jay, one of the region’s special birds, before we continue our journey, taking the “Golden Road to Samarkand.”

Following this ancient trading route to Kazakhstan, we’ll seek out ancient woodlands where Yellow-eyed Stock Doves and Saxaul Sparrows still breed before we reach the dramatic splendor of the snowcapped Tien Shan Mountains, awash with wildflowers and home to Himalayan Snowcock and Güldenstadt’s Redstart. Heading north, we’ll find ourselves surrounded by the enormous skies and wormwood-scented breezes of the Kazak steppes, alive with White-winged and Black Larks and swarms of waders, gulls, and terns. Now oil-rich countries in their own right, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are developing fast but still retain an air of mystery and intrigue guaranteed to fire the imagination.

Day 1: The tour begins with the departure of the Sunbird group from London to Tashkent. WINGS participants traveling directly to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, should arrive no later than this evening (see note **, below).

Steve’s knowledge and love for the countries visited made this a memorable trip for myself and my non-birding wife. The locations were spectacular and the historical sites in Uzbekistan were top tier. This was an excellent first trip with WINGS/Sunbird, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting something out of the ordinary.

Michael Otero, June 2015

Day 2: Following the arrival of the Sunbird group this morning, we’ll drive from the airport up into the nearby mountains. The lower slopes are drenched in juniper trees that are home to Hume’s Lesser Whitethroat, Turkestan, Yellow-breasted and Rufous-naped Tits, White-crowned Penduline Tit, and White-capped and Rock Buntings. Red-rumped Swallows nest under the balconies of the local buildings while overhead we can expect Eurasian and possibly Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Oriental and European Honey Buzzards, and Hobby. The songs of Nightingales are everywhere, while the liquid calls of Indian Golden Orioles echo around the tree tops, mingling with the sharp calls of Hawfinches. Later we’ll drop down to lower altitudes, pausing at a stream to look for Asian Paradise Flycatcher. We’ll return to Tashkent and connect with an evening flight to Bukhara. Night in Bukhara.

Day 3: We’ll visit some of the wetlands that surround this old oasis town, exploring reedbeds that are home to Clamorous and Moustached Warblers as well as the Paddyfield Warbler, Bearded Tit, and the local “Thick-billed” race of Reed Bunting. Smart Citrine and Black-headed Wagtails and Bluethroats add splashes of color while White-tailed Plover in breeding plumage and Kentish Plover are common. Caspian Gulls can usually be found, and although Marbled Ducks occur here, they can be difficult to locate. We’ll also look out for flights of Glossy Ibis or Pygmy Cormorants. We’ll see the first of many Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Pied Bushchats, and there is always the chance of a Purple Heron, Collared Pratincole, or Oriental Skylark.

We’ll return to Bukhara to spend the remainder of the afternoon immersing ourselves in the splendor of the historic old town. We’ll visit the Ark, where Stoddart and Connolly met their famous demise in 1842; the Kalen Minaret, one of the few buildings left standing after the visit of Genghis Khan; the trading domes where Silk Road travelers would gather; and many other sights. There will be time to haggle over the price of a Bukharan rug, buy spices, or pause for a cold drink at Labi Hauz, the social heart of the old town, surrounded by magnificent buildings and mulberry trees that were planted in the 15th century. Night in Bukhara.

Day 4: In contrast to yesterday’s rich wetlands, we’ll venture deep into the dry Kyzyl Kum Desert to search for the handsome Pander’s Ground Jay, one of the special birds of Central Asia. These striking grey, black, and white birds spend much of their time running over sand dunes dotted with saxaul bushes, occasionally flying up to perch in a prominent position. We can also expect to see the local desert race of Little Owl, lots more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Steppe Grey Shrike, Isabelline Wheatear, and Streaked Scrub Warbler, while any small stand of trees can hold migrants, from flocks of Rose-colored Starlings and Eurasian Golden Orioles to Thrush Nightingale and Ortolan Bunting. Our guesthouse is located right in the heart of the old town, and there may be time after we return for sightseeing. Night in Bukhara.

Day 5: Venturing out of the town once more, we’ll explore a mix of dry scrub, reed-fringed pools, and open desert steppe. We’ll be looking in particular for Sykes’s Warbler, Rufous Bush Robin, and the shy Ménétries’s Warbler. The roadside wires are a good place to see Oriental and European Turtle Doves and Long-tailed Shrikes, while any pool can hold flocks of Red-crested Pochards or migrant Red-necked Phalaropes. We’ll return to Bukhara for lunch and then begin our journey along the Silk Road to the fabled city of Samarkand. Night in Samarkand.

Day 6: To the south of Samarkand lies a range of low hills where we’ll stroll along a delightful valley alive with Red-headed Buntings. White-throated Robins and Eastern Orphean and Upcher’s Warblers breed among the bushes, and Hume’s Short-toed Larks feed among the rocky outcrops. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Turkestan and Lesser Grey Shrikes and Eastern Rock Nuthatches also breed, along with a few pairs of European Bee-eaters, and we have another chance to find the striking Asian Paradise Flycatcher. We’ll look for Finsch’s Wheatear which should be feeding fledged young by now. Those interested in plants or butterflies will find much to occupy them, as this sun-drenched spot is alive with insects and flowers while, away in the distance, we can see the snowcapped Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan. We’ll return to town in the late afternoon in time to visit the stunning Registan, a beautiful assembly of turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets and one of the most famous sites in Central Asia. Night in Samarkand.

Day 7: We’ll devote the morning to visiting more of Samarkand’s treasures, possibly including the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Tamerlane, whose huge empire had its center in Samarkand; the massive Bibi Khanum mosque, once the largest in Central Asia; and the amazing Shahr-i-Zindar, the street of tombs that is a riot of colored tiles. After lunch we’ll begin the drive to Tashkent, stopping along the way for roadside birds, a bizarre colony of White Storks nesting on power pylons. Night in Tashkent.

Day 8: Leaving Uzbekistan, we fly to Almaty in Kazakhstan. On arrival we’ll drive north into the wild heart of Kazakhstan to spend two nights camping in the Taukum Desert, a vast area of undulating sand dunes and wormwood-scented grasslands. On the way we’ll stop at a large lake, where we’ll witness the bustle of a huge Rose-colored Starling colony and look for White-headed Duck, as well as any unusual migrant waders such as Terek Sandpiper or Lesser Sandplover. Night in the desert camp, where each single or couple will have a good-sized tent.

Day 9: Our camp is located near an artesian well that acts as a magnet for local breeding birds as well as numerous migrants. There is a constant stream of larks coming to drink—Calandra and Bimaculated are the most obvious, but Greater and Asian Short-toed are also frequent visitors. Other birds we can expect include flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and, if it’s a good year, a few Pallas’s Sandgrouse, as well as some of the scarce resident Greater Sand Plovers or handsome Caspian Plovers in full breeding plumage. This open desert is also home to Macqueen’s Bustard, and we’ll scan the horizon for a displaying male.

Farther north lies the delta of the Ili River, a strange area of sand dunes interspersed with marshy pools and stands of turanga trees, and home to some of the region’s most special birds. Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, Azure Tit, and the beautiful Saxaul Sparrow are all easy to see, and careful searching may reveal a roosting Striated Scops Owl. The reedbeds are home to Little Bittern, Paddyfield Warbler, and some interesting races of Penduline Tit, while the wetlands can hold anything from massive Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans to dapper Ferruginous Ducks. Later we’ll return to the camp and visit clumps of trees and small pools that can attract a dazzling array of migrants that can include anything from Oriental Turtle Doves and Barred and Blyth’s Reed Warblers to Black-throated Thrushes or perhaps a Little Crake or European Nightjar. Night in our desert camp.

Day 10: After a final morning around the camp we’ll return to Almaty. We’ll stop along the way at the same lake to see if there are any newly arrived migrant waders. As we drive, Long-legged Buzzards will be a common roadside sight, and if the rains have been good, there will be vast expanses of poppies stretching to the horizon. We’ll reach Almaty and check in to a comfortable hotel with plenty of time for “regrouping” after our two nights under canvas. Night in Almaty.

Day 11: The snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the city of Almaty, and today we’ll travel east following the line of those mountains toward China, watching the roadside wires for Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes as we go. The scenery in this part of Kazakhstan is truly inspiring with endless desert plains backed by low hills, dramatic gorges and distant snow-capped mountains. The open plains are home to Demoiselle Cranes, Lesser Kestrels, Shore Larks and Asian Desert Warblers, while the low hills and gorges host Rock Sparrow and Pine, Rock and Meadow Buntings, and any small spring could be visited by Mongolian and Asian Crimson-winged Finches and Grey-necked Buntings. Raptors could include the mighty Golden, Imperial and Steppe Eagles and on a high pass we hope to see Himalayan Griffon Vultures gliding overhead, along with Black Vultures and perhaps a Lammergeier. Night at our lodge.

Day 12: If Pallas’s Sandgrouse has avoided us thus far we’ll wait by a small drinking pool in the hope of catching sight of this elusive species. We are bound to see its more common cousin, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but Pallas’s cannot be relied on to appear, as their numbers vary from year to year. This is good Saker country, and we’ll be on the lookout for one as well as for Desert Wheatear, smart Desert Finches, Spanish Sparrows, and Pale Martins. We’ll eat our picnic lunch alongside an enormous reedbed where Savi’s Warblers reel from the reed tops. Later we’ll return to Almaty. Night in Almaty at an area lodge.

Days 13–14: We’ll drive through Almaty and climb steadily through pristine spruce forests, into the Tien Shan mountains.  We’ll stop to look for Nutcracker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Songar Tit, and Eversmann’s and Blue-capped Redstarts, and, in the mountain streams, Blue Whistling Thrush and both Brown and White-bellied Dippers.

We’ll pause at a lake located in a deep valley and scan the stony shoreline for the Ibisbills that regularly nest here, although our attention will undoubtedly be drawn to the tinkling song and striking plumage of numerous Red-fronted Serins. Once we rise above the tree line, we’ll find ourselves in a crystal-clear landscape of dense juniper bushes, flower-strewn alpine meadows, and snowcapped peaks. The juniper will be alive with the song of Himalayan Rubythroats, Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Black-throated Accentors, Red-mantled and Common Rosefinches, and White-winged Grosbeaks. The beautifully marked Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler can also be found in this habitat, along with the skulking Sulphur-bellied Warbler.

On our second day we’ll leave early to drive higher to a mountain pass where the handsome Güldenstadt’s Redstart nests and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs will be wheeling overhead. We’ll also be looking for the Altai and Brown Accentors that inhabit this mountain wilderness, along with Plain Mountain Finches and Water Pipits. We’ll have already heard the eerie calls of Himalayan Snowcock echoing around the lofty peaks, and at this altitude we should be able to look down on some calling males. Nights in a small hotel surrounded by spruce forest.

Day 15: We have the morning to spend in this wonderful habitat, looking for any species that have eluded us so far or simply enjoying the dramatic scenery or the abundant wildflowers. After lunch we’ll descend to Almaty and take an early evening flight to Astana, the bustling and vibrant new capital of Kazakhstan. It’s located in the heart of the vast Asian steppe, the sea of grass that once stretched all the way to eastern Europe. Night in Astana.

Days 16–17: We’ll have two days to explore the rich steppe habitat and all that it has to offer. Close to the town we’ll visit a small river to look for singing Bluethroat, and Barred and monotone Booted Warblers. As we venture farther afield, the extensive grassland is peppered with wetlands alive with clouds of Black and White-winged Black Terns and displaying Marsh Sandpipers, while Great Bitterns creep around the reedbeds. We’ll visit a lake that holds Slavonian, Black-necked, and Red-necked Grebes and endangered White-headed Ducks as well as a good selection of passage waders, while a small orchard can be an amazing place for a variety of migrant passerines.

Farther out we’ll enter the ancient steppe with its immense grasslands and lakes of fresh and salt water. Birdsong will fill the air, and the sense of space will be exhilarating. We’ll search the grasslands for Dalmatian Pelican, Pallid Harrier, Red-footed Falcon, Demoiselle Crane, Great Black-headed, “Steppe,” and Slender-billed Gulls, a range of waders including breeding Black-winged Pratincoles, the rare Sociable Plover, hordes of migrant Red-necked Phalaropes, and handsome Ruffs in full breeding plumage. Passerines should include Citrine Wagtail and two splendid larks—White-winged and Black—steppe birds par excellence. Nights in Astana.

Day 18: The tour concludes this morning in Astana. 

Updated: 08 June 2016

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Notes

This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

**Accommodation the night of Day 1 and transfers from and to the airport as needed are included in the tour cost for WINGS participants. Meals are not included until you join the Sunbird group arriving on Day 2.

Note: Participants may be able to connect with the Sunbird UK group in Istanbul; the Turkish Airlines flights from London stop in Istanbul on the way to Tashkent and on the return from Astana. Participants who would like to explore this option should see here

Maximum group size 12 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the tour irrespective of group size.

Single rooms or rooms with en suite facilities may not be available in some places. See Tour Information for details.