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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Birding the Silk Road

2023 Narrative

After a gap of six years, I returned to Central Asia with some trepidation. And indeed, since my last visit there have been a number of changes, not all for the good as far as birding is concerned. The first to impact us was the development taking place in the Chimgan Hills close to Tashkent. The massive ski resort that is taking shape there has already affected the birding and this can only get worse. Still, we managed to find Rufous-naped and Yellow-breasted Tits and the Hume’s Lesser Whitethroats were very vocal.  We eventually got good views of Indian Golden Orioles and caught up with some of the regulars such as Masked Wagtail.

A high-speed train whisked us off to Bukhara and our Silk Road exploration began in earnest.  One of our usual locations near the town here had been closed down but we found a nice little wetland with Marbled Teal, White-tailed Lapwings, and Clamorous Reed Warblers in attendance.  We also had great looks at Menetries’s Warblers here, while inside the Jeryvan Eco Centre some of us glimpsed flushed European Nightjars although the Collared Pratincoles were easier to see. Further out into the Kyzl-kum Desert we were entertained by a family party of Pander’s Ground Jays and one of the tea house gardens held Blyth’s Reed, Paddyfield and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, lots of Siberian Chiffchaffs, Ortolan Bunting, our first Rose-coloured Starlings, and numerous Common Rosefinches feeding on mulberries.

We took time out from birding to see some of the sights of old Bukhara visiting Bolo Hauz, the Ark, the Kalen complex with its towering minaret and attendant madrassa and mosque, the trading domes full of carpet and spice stalls, and ending up with a cold beer sitting around Labi Hauz, the ancient bustling heart of the old city.

Leaving Bukhara, we took the ‘golden road to Samarkand’, the fabled city of the Silk Road. Here the hills south of the city were, as always, a delight to wander around. We had wonderful views of White-throated Robin, Upcher’s Warbler, Turkestan and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Red-headed Buntings, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Wryneck, and Hume’s Short-toed Lark, while lower down we caught up with Asian Paradise Flycatcher and both Pied and Finsch’s Wheatear.  More sightseeing followed with visits to the Registan, Bibi Khanum mosque, the amazing Shar-i-Zinda, and Gir-e-amir before we took to the road again and returned to Tashkent for the night ahead of our flight to Kazakhstan.

Arriving in Kazakhstan we travelled straight to the Taukum Desert where a camp awaited us for two nights. On the way we stopped at a couple of wetlands to see Dalmatian Pelicans, White-headed Ducks, Black-necked Grebes, and a nice selection of waders.  From our camp base we headed north into the Illi River delta. Here we found Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, Saxual Sparrow, and Azure Tit. Closer to the camp there were a lot of Goitered Gazelles, a reflection of the lack of hunting during the pandemic, and Demoiselle Cranes, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Calandra Larks, and Asian Short-toed Larks.  Further out Greater Sand Plovers were also quite common, and we had a wonderful encounter with a male Pallas’s Sandgrouse.

Travelling to the east, it was saddening to find that a small spring where we used to regularly wait for various birds to drop into drink was now covered by a huge tungsten mine! However, most of the specialities of this region did show up eventually including Lesser Kestrels and Rock Sparrows at the respective nesting sites, Grey-necked and Meadow Bunting, thousands of Rose-coloured Starlings swarming over a hillside, mighty Golden Eagles patrolling a ridge, and Long-legged Buzzards, while a massive reed bed held buzzing Savi’s Warblers and noisy Great Reed Warblers.

Another aspect of this year’s tour was the poor weather, and this was more than evident in the mountains.  There was so much snow that getting to the high tops proved impossible, despite three attempts. We managed to get high enough to find some Altai Accentors and Water Pipits and a few also managed a glimpse of Himalayan Snowcock, but it must be said that the conditions were unusually challenging! However lower down it was nice to see the Ibisbills on their usual patch, and it was not long before we had found Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-tailed Rubythroat, White-winged Grosbeak, Eversmann’s Restarts, Red-mantled Rosefinch, Black-throated and Brown Accentors, Red-fronted Serin, and Tree Pipit.  Further down still, amongst the dense Tien Shan spruce, we listened to the mournful whistle of White’s Thrush from deep in the forest, watched Nutcracker calling from a treetop with Coal Tits feeding busily below.

Our final destination was the northern steppe which we reached via a flight to Astana, the newish capital. Here the open grassland had plenty of Black Larks and good numbers of White-winged Larks, all of which showed well. Pallid Harriers were unusually thin on the ground this year, but we had nice encounters with Red-footed Falcons and a large distant eagle resolved into an Eastern Imperial Eagle. We watched White-winged Black Terns and Black-winged Pratincoles hawking insects, singing Grasshopper, Booted, and Paddyfield Warblers, showy Bluethroats, gaudy Yellow Wagtails, and dapper Siberian Stonechats.  We were treated to good concentrations of waders with thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes, plus masses of Dunlin, Curlew Sandpipers, Marsh Sandpipers, Terek Sandpipers, Temminck’s and Little Stints, Ruff, and Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers all in smart breeding plumage. The Great Black-headed Gull colony was a busy as ever and they were joined by Common, Steppe, and Slender-billed Gulls. There were not too many ducks around, but the smart Garganey were nice to see and we found Red-necked and Slavonian (Horned) Grebes and whooping Whooper Swans. Our usual orchard stop gave us a fluffy Long-eared Owl chick, Red-backed Shrike, several migrant Booted Warblers, Eurasian Cuckoo, and a barely visible nesting Merlin.

The late spring was having its effect on one of the key species – Sociable Lapwing. We had heard of only five being seen, and they had not settled to breed and were wandering the vast steppe.  It was a bit of a needle in a haystack operation but after much searching and at the very last minute, we found them, and were able to get very close using the bus as a hide. And then it was back to Astana and the flights home.

 -          Steve Rooke

Created: 09 June 2023