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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Birding the Silk Road

2017 Narrative

After gathering in Tashkent we began our Central Asian adventure by spending a day in the Chimgan Hills. Our main species for the day, Rufous-naped Tit, appeared right in front of us as soon as we got out of our vehicles and proceeded to put on a good show. This was joined by Yellow-breasted and Turkestan Tits, White-crowned Penduline Tits busy nest building, White-capped and Rock Buntings, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Lesser Whitethroat, several Hawfinches, and lots of Nightingales, and Indian Golden Oriole, while overhead sailed Booted Eagles and a fine Lammergeier.

Flying down to Bukhara we found ourselves in the middle of a heatwave with daytime temperatures touching 40 degrees at times. Despite this we explored the various wetlands and reedbeds close to the town finding White-tailed Plover, smart calcarata Citrine Wagtails, numerous Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tit, Clamourous Reed Warblers, Sykes’s Warbler, ‘Thick-billed’ Reed Bunting, and a puzzling shrike which turned out to be just a very grey Turkestan Shrike. Recent rains had flooded the large pan (normally dry) and there was a modest collection of waders including Avocet, Spotted Redshank, and Red-necked Phalaropes, along with our first Slender-billed and Caspian Gulls.  Elsewhere in this area we watched a male Ménétries’s Warbler putting on a display for us, and a group of five Macqueen’s Bustards, which included one female with three young. 

Following the Silk Road across the vast Kyzl-Kum Desert we found the sought-after Pander’s Ground Jay and took our picnic lunch in a shady spot with a range of migrants including Thrush Nightingale and plenty of Greenish Warblers. We had lots of time to explore the sights of old Bukhara, taking in Bolo Hauz, the Ark, Kalen minaret and mosque, the trading domes full of famous Bukhara rugs, spices, and wonderful ceramics, and enjoyed meals away from our hotel at some great local restaurants.

Samarkand beckoned and we had a splendid few days in and around this ancient city. In the hills to the south we wandered along a valley strewn with flowering hawthorns where we had wonderful views of White-throated Robin, Red-headed Buntings in profusion, Upcher’s Warblers, Eastern Orphean Warblers, more Turkestan Shrikes, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, fleeting Asian Paradise Flycatchers, and parties of migrating Rose-coloured Starlings and European Bee-eaters. Nearby we found Hume’s Short-toed Larks and Finsch’s Wheatear. And of course there was Samarkand itself to explore with visits to the massive Bibi Khanum mosque, the town bazaar, the stunning mausoleums in Shah-i-Zindah, and Uleg Beg’s Observatory. Then we were on our way back to Tashkent where we celebrated the end of the Uzbekistan section of the tour with a superb meal in one of the city’s many restaurants.

Moving to Kazakhstan we headed north from Almaty, driving through miles of endless poppies and stopping at various wetlands to watch several White-headed Ducks, Ferruginous Ducks, the first of many Black-necked Grebes, and a hulking White-tailed Eagle. We were heading for the Taukum Desert and our camp.  From this base we ventured north to the Illi River delta where Azure Tit, Bearded Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, and Oriental Honey Buzzards were some of the highlights. Back at the camp, we dodged our only rain of the tour to look for migrants, which included a group of three Black-throated Thrushes and a Waxwing, and to search the desert successfully for Caspian Plover, finding a pair, and it was a real delight to listen to the sound of all the Asian Short-toed, Calandra, and Bimaculated Larks that filled the air around our camp.  From there, after a night in a comfortable hotel in Almaty, we headed east to the vast open plains that flank the Charyn River. Here we watched Rock Sparrows, Grey-necked Buntings, Mongolian Finches and Crimson-winged Finches coming to drink at a spring, found Horned Larks, Asian Desert Warbler, and Desert Wheatears out on the plains, and sought out Savi’s Warbler reeling away in a reedbed.  In the nearby hills there was Meadow Bunting and another fly-over Lammergeier, while lower down we enjoyed Lesser Kestrels at their colony in an old cemetery.

Returning to Almaty we next took to the mountains that had been a constant backdrop to our time so far in Kazakhstan.  Here the recent deep snow had cleared and we took advantage of some great weather to watch Güldenstadt’s Redstarts on the high pass, along with Altai Accentors and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs. Lower down we found Black-throated and Brown Accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, White-tailed (Himalayan) Rubythroat, Red-mantled Rosefinch, and loads of Hume’s leaf Warblers. Two species were proving to be elusive with both Eversmann’s Redstarts and Himalayan Snowcock difficult to locate. In the end it was the ‘Essex team’ which located them, with a fine male Eversmann’s Redstart and nice prolonged views of a pair of Snowcocks.  Further down the mountain we came across Nutcracker, a family party of Three-toed Woodpeckers, and listened to the plaintive song of White’s Thrush from deep in the pines.

Our final destination was the northern steppes where we had a wonderful first day.  Our drive out into the steppe produced roadside views of numerous Short-eared Owls and lots of Pallid Harriers – which seemed to be everywhere this year. There was also a roadside family party of Demoiselle Cranes and other roadside highlights included Red-footed Falcons aplenty, and groups of migrating Eurasian Golden Orioles. Further on we had great views of Sociable Plovers and Black-winged Pratincoles, and once in the deep steppe we were surrounded by Black Larks and White-winged Larks. There were waders in abundance and we found many male Ruff lekking, hordes of Red-necked Phalaropes, Marsh Sandpiper in breeding plumage, flocks of Terek Sandpipers, and both Temminck’s and Little Stints. Elsewhere there were thousands of Great Black-headed Gulls at a colony, along with many Slender-billed and Steppe Gulls while other distractions included Merlin, Booted Warbler, and Twite.

Our last day began well with views of a male Pine Bunting and Common Grasshopper Warbler and we went on to watch Eurasian Bittern both perched and in flight, a Pallid Harrier food pass, drifts of White-winged Black and Black Terns, fine male Bluethroats at point blank range, and a roosting Long-eared Owl. But the day really belonged to the waders as we spent a time with a huge mixed flock of more Red-necked Phalaropes (in their many thousands), Ruff, Grey Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Terek Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Avocets all in full breeding plumage, constantly taking to the air to wheel around in tight flocks before landing again. We found time to fit in a quick tour of the ultra-modern city of Astana before our tour drew to a close with flights back to London and elsewhere.

-        Steve Rooke

Created: 05 June 2017