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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Birding the Silk Road

2018 Narrative

After an all too brief sleep, we were up and eager to begin and spent our first morning in the Chimgan hills above Tashkent. The cool air and juniper covered slopes harboured our main target for the day, and we were delighted when a Rufous-naped Tit came bounding in through the trees to put on an extended show for us at close range. Also here were diminutive White-crowned Penduline Tits, stunning Yellow-breasted Tits, many Hume’s Leaf Warblers and Hume’s Lesser Whitethroats singing their distinctive songs. Nightingales belted out a chorus from deep cover, a White-winged Woodpecker was all too brief, as was a fine male Indian Paradise Flycatcher. A couple of Himalayan Vultures joined the Griffons and Black Vultures overhead, along with two migrating Crested Honey Buzzards. A good view of a Woodpigeon revealed its creamy buff rather than white collar and reminded us that even the common species can be rather different this far from home.

For the first time, we took the high-speed train from Tashkent to Bukhara rather than flying. The train proved very comfortable, although arriving just after a meltingly hot heatwave was a slight shock to the system. Thankfully, the 40 degrees of the previous days petered out overnight to leave much more pleasant temperatures for our stay in this historic town. In two mornings around the Tudakul area we managed to find three White-tailed Plovers, a very cooperative Ménétries’s  Warbler, Long-tailed Shrike, many Sykes’s Warblers and distant Dalmatian Pelicans, as well as the first of many, many Rollers, both Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters, Clamorous Reed Warbler and Rufous Bush Robin. Several Little Owls lined the road too, peering down at us as we drove slowly past.

The dry conditions made birding the dying reeds difficult, and the pools usually filled with ducks were but a distant memory. However, we were to catch up with most of the missing species at a later date.

Elsewhere around Bukhara, we had two attempts at finding Macqueen’s Bustards, finally succeeding with a very distant female and chicks, plus a briefly displaying male. Both of these tested the limits of both the scope and the eyes of everyone, and comments as to what country they were in may have been slightly justified! This was not to be a problem with our jaunt into the depths of the Kyzyl-Kum desert. Our main target, the enigmatic Pander’s Ground Jay was found at our first attempt, and we tracked a pair down feeding a fledged family of four. Typically, after wandering across the desert in pursuit of these, an adult was found while having breakfast back at the bus sat up on the wires! From then on we found and enjoyed a further two pairs from the bus as we sped through the desert on the new highway.  Most unexpectedly, a fly-by phyllosc’ proved to be a vagrant Green Warbler making its way through the saxaul bushes. Lunch in a nearby teahouse provided some migration interest, as a flock of Rose-coloured Starlings hung around, several Golden Orioles perched up and warblers included Blyth’s Reed, Paddyfield and Chiffchaff.

We also had time for a guided tour of Bukhara, taking in the Bolo Hauz mosque, the Ark, Kalen Minaret and Kalen mosque among other antiquities. Making our way to Samarkand, we spent the first day in the hills overlooking this historic city. Early morning rain soon cleared to reveal a stunning area of huge rocks, meadows and junipers. Here, stunning White-throated Robins and White-capped Buntings sang, Eastern Rock Nuthatches fed chicks and a two Hoopoes indulged in an epic display of territorial butterfly fighting. Red-headed Buntings were also common, as were Pied Wheatears (including a nice male of the rare form ‘vitatta’) and Turkestan Shrikes. A Hume’s Short-toed Lark eventually gave itself up with some great views by the cars, and a Long-tailed Shrike was slightly unexpected up here. Moving back down the road, we called into an old pioneer camp, where Greenish Warblers seemed to be everywhere, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler skulked in the grass and an Indian Paradise Flycatcher disappeared as soon as it had arrived, a male Finsch’s Wheatear was defending his newly fledged brood further down the hills. Bird of the day for our local guide Timur was the Common Crossbill we found feeding on buds next to the road, many miles from the nearest conifer! There was time the next day to explore the best of what historic Samarkand has to offer, and we took in the sights and sounds of Amir Timur’s mausoleum, the splendour of the Registan and its three Madrassas, Bibi Khanum’s mosque, the town’s bazaar, Shar-i-Zindah and Uleg Beg’s observatory. From here, we returned to Tashkent, arriving in time for a wonderful farewell dinner in a local restaurant.

The Kazakhstan leg of the tour kicked off from Almaty, where we first headed north into the Taukum desert and our camp at Konshengel, a remote village that boasts a fine line in migrant rich gardens and a couple of artesian wells. From here we ventured further north to the edge of the Illi River delta, an area of desert, reedy pools and turanga woodland. The main draw here is the couple of pairs of Saxaul Sparrows that call a remote bus stop home, plus a couple of pairs of Yellow-eyed Stock Doves and a White-winged Woodpecker that can be found in the woodland. With these safely under the belt, the supporting cast of Azure Tit, Rufous Bush Robins, White-tailed Eagle, migrating Crested Honey Buzzards, and a diminutive and rather sandy halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat were all located. Around the camp itself the well drew in many birds to drink, including flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and two Pallas’s Sandgrouse on our initial arrival there. This desert nomad is never easy in Kazakhstan, so we were delighted by these two females around the pool and another flying in on our last morning. The dawn chorus of larks reached a peak here, with many Asian Lesser Short-toed, Calandra and Bimaculated Larks around us, while Red-headed Buntings did their best to join in. Our desert wanderings found several breeding Greater Sand Plovers. Another feature of the desert between here and Almaty was the sheer number of Rose-coloured Starlings. Countless thousands cruised over the landscape in sinuous flocks, while smaller flocks of several hundred fed at the roadside.

A Steppe Eagle over Kanshengel was impressive, as was the number of migrants around the village. Many Hume’s Leaf Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats were the main attraction, but the numbers of Spotted Flycatchers were equally impressive, while Nightingales skulked and Barred Warblers hulked.

After a night back in Almaty, we embarked out east towards the Chinese border around the Charyn river area. A quick stop at a nice reedbed gave us great views of Savi’s Warbler and ‘Thick-billed’ Reed Buntings, and then it was on to the deserts and open plains of the Charyn valley. Here, we found nesting White-capped Bunting in a picturesque roadside gorge, followed by a steady stream of Mongolian Finches and Grey-necked Buntings coming to drink at a small spring. It only took an hour or so for the Asian Crimson-winged Finch to grace us with extended views. This was followed by great looks at Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Wheatear and Horned Lark in the plain heading back to the road. At least three Macqueen’s Bustards put on a show the following morning, with one male doing the full headless chicken routine and making for much better views than were had near Bukhara. In the hills, a couple of Meadow Buntings were easily found, and our first Lammergeier cruised over. The colony of Lesser Kestrels put on a decent show at one the many impressive Islamic cemeteries we passed, and our final stop of the day was at a small mixed colony of Pale and Sand Martins, allowing us to attempt to get to grips with the subtler identification features - or just enjoy seeing them whiz around!

After another night in Almaty, we headed up into the mighty Tien Shan mountains. The weather decided to be kind, and we were treated to azure skies and t-shirt temperatures as we climbed up to the dizzying heights of the cosmic ray station at 3300m. Here, Himalayan Snowcocks put on an amazing show for us, within easy binocular reach of the road. A pair of Brown Accentors decided to disprove the theory that there were getting harder every year up here, while a pair of Altai Accentors were found around the station itself, along with a trio of Güldenstädt’s Redstarts and a couple of Plain Mountain Finches. Moving down into the Marble Valley, all of the specialities fell one by one; Himalayan Rubythroat was singing straight away, and the first of many White-winged Grosbeaks was enjoyed. A pair of Sulphur-bellied Warblers gave incredible views, and that most elusive denizen of the junipers, the White-browed Tit-Warbler eventually gave good views to all, as did Red-mantled Rosefinch. Further down in the woodland, Eversmann’s Redstart proved surprisingly easy to get fantastic views of, as did Blue-capped Redstart, Black-throated Accentor, Songar Tit and the unique Ibisbill. Nutcrackers, Blue Whistling Thrushes, White-throated and Brown Dippers completed our parade of the mountain species, while the only realistic possibility to not perform as well as it could have done was an elusive Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. In fact, we did so well in the mountains we had time to revisit a wetland site north of Almaty. These lakes vary in size and quality, but despite the strong winds we had great views of nesting White-tailed Eagles and flocks of both White and Dalmatian Pelicans.

Our final birding area was the steppes around Astana, the nation’s isolated capital in the north of the country. Entering the steppe south west of Astana, we soon encountered our first roadside Demoiselle Cranes and Pallid Harriers, quickly followed by that most iconic of Kazakhstan’s steppe specialities, Black Larks. And they were pretty much everywhere! Sometimes in company with gorgeous White-winged Larks, these two species were a highlight of the day. Also on the roadside was a ploughed field (or small English county!) that contained two flocks of Sociable Plovers, and watching them indulge in chases and displays was a real treat. Other highlights of the day included hundreds of Ruff in their breeding finery, Black-winged Pratincoles, over 600 Pallas’s Gulls, lots of Booted Warblers and several roadside Red-footed Falcons. Moving into a different part of the steppe the next day, we first visited an area of scrubby riverine bushes where a pair of Pine Buntings were quickly found, along with a brief Moustached Warbler, showy Bluethroats, Red-backed Shrikes, Fieldfares, Oriental Turtle Doves and yet more Booted Warblers. After this, we enjoyed a host of migrating waders at a highly productive pool, including around 60 Terek Sandpipers! Also here was another pair of Sociable Plovers, while elsewhere during the afternoon we found Blyth’s Reed Warblers, Greenish Warblers and Common Rosefinches all as grounded migrants in a rather productive orchard.

After the wader spectacular, there was just enough time for a brief tour of the burgeoning new city with its smorgasbord of architectural delights, before our final dinner together and goodbyes at the airport.

 -        Paul French

Created: 19 June 2018