Waveney Bird Club’s tour of Kazakhstan
23rd May to 1st June 2017
This was to be WBC’s 10th international tour and the first outside of the Western Palearctic. On previous tours, we have employed our own ground agents and organised the itinerary ourselves. However, the planning for Kazakhstan was more complex involving a requirement for permits to enter national parks and to cross checkpoints near the country’s borders. Therefore, for the first time, we employed the services of a UK tour company, in this case Birdfinders, who have a vast experience in Kazakhstan and run tours there. Their brief was to overcome any hurdles on our behalf and supply a bird guide, who was familiar with the sites, a driver and interpreter that would accompany us on the tour. However, we stressed that the bird guide didn’t need to find the birds as our party would include some good birders that could find the birds if taken to the correct sites.
However, all was not plain sailing with Birdfinders as their communications between their own ground agent and themselves was less than desirable. We had no one to meet and greet us at Almaty Airport as promised and we were given the wrong time for our flight home. Furthermore, the bird guide couldn’t speak English and was totally unaware of some of the bird sites that were mentioned in the trip notes. Would we use Birdfinders again……. well it has to be a maybe!
Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, bigger than Western Europe, and hosts a diversity of habitats including: steppe-deserts, high mountains and deep gorges populated by an amazingly diverse flora and fauna, an ideal location for birdwatchers. The WBC party of 13 included: Steve Piotrowski (leader), Chris McIntyre, Roger Walsh, Rob and Helen Gooderham, Ali Riseborough, Dick Walden, Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick (recorder), Tony Butler, John Garbutt, Carol Elliott, Will Brame and Ernie Lucking.
Wednesday 24th May – D’Weasel incarcerated
Rob and Helen Gooderham
Our journey started in Suffolk at noon on 23rd May and we arrived at Almaty, after a long overnight flight via Astana, the next day at about 8.40 am local time as planned. However, our tour was not to start smoothly as there was no one holding a yellow “Birdfinders” board as was promised by our tour guide and no minibus was to be seen! We suspected that our tour rep could have become confused as we had taken an internal flight for the last leg and we were waiting outside the Domestic Arrivals, so some of us hurried over to International Arrivals! There was no sign of Birdfinders representative, so Steve made a couple of phone calls to the emergency number. Whilst Steve and others were trying to find sort out the mess, the rest of us took the opportunity to birdwatch. The first birds were Hooded Crow, Masked Wagtail and a Common Mynah, which was nesting in the hollow corner of a window. We were eventually picked up one and half hours late, changed currency, bought water and were then on our way to drop off our bags at the hotel.
The weather was warm and the spectacular, snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan could be seen in the distance. Almaty takes its name from the native apples that are grown in this region. We set off through the hellish traffic on the outer semi-industrial pot-holed roads with their degenerating ubiquitous Soviet housing blocks and snaking over-ground gas pipes. Unsurprisingly, we saw no apple orchards! After an hour, we arrived at the rather solemn Hotel Kazayka and, after dragging our luggage up three floors, we sat down for a very late breakfast or perhaps ‘brunch’. No doubt the following reports will discuss the Kazak food, but this morning we experienced our first bowl of thin milky porridge (or was it rice pudding?) of the many to come. Azure tits and Brimstones butterflies were seen from the hotel, with the Tien Shan Mountains on the Kyrgyzstani border forming a distant backdrop. Once connected with our guide, interpreter, driver and sub-driver, we gathered ourselves together and set off into the mountain foothills in search of Meadow Bunting. Our guide’s name was Valery, a man who Steve would get to know very intimately in the desert later on the tour, and our interpreter Medina (we call her Dina), a young lady who proves to be a stalwart companion throughout the trip. The driver proved to be equally stalwart and accommodated all our demanding stops, starts and long-driving days. The sub-driver carried our large baggage in a smaller vehicle, like a ghost who silently follows behind us the whole trip with little communication. We were fortunate to have such a strong and tolerant team.
Several Rollers and Bee-eaters were noted on telephone wires on route to our first birding stop. We passed through the controlled entrance to the Ile-Alatau National Park, and (as elsewhere in Kazakstan) this is a nature reserve on a vast scale, probably several times the size of a small country. We parked close to a gushing river, swollen with snow melt, and spread out to explore the area. A pair of hyperactive, nesting Blue Whistling Thrushes was watched gathering food for their young and a Siberian Stonechat and Black-eared Kites give us much enjoyment. We continued our stay with Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick prancing around the hillside trying to catch butterflies. He nets one, which on examination in the observation container, was confirmed as a Chapman’s Blue just as uniformed, National Park Rangers arrived to observe our activities. D’Weasel kindly showed them his Chapman’s Blue, but this generous act proved to be the beginning of a long and perplexing episode in our trip.
It was not clear what was happening, but there was much pacing about with mobile phones by the Rangers. We were detained for a couple of hours whilst the Rangers, Police and Border Guards, at one time as many as 13 wearing various uniforms and in seven vehicles, discussed the implications of this innocent act. The ever present Medina attempted to resolve the deadlock. Our bus was blocked by state vehicles and incongruously in this idyllic setting a rising sense of unease developed. The butterfly net, along with the collection tube complete with the Chapman’s Blue, was confiscated. Passports were demanded and we learnt that foreign visitors must carry passports at all times. Only about half our number had passports with them that compounded the growing conflict. Those with passports were asked to sign papers written in Russian. There was talk of fines, arrest and detention.
Meanwhile, we noted Turkestan Tit, Common Rosefinch, Rufous Turtle Dove, Rock Buntings, Cinereous Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Kestrel and we admired the wild peonies and roses. Two very small children galloped past on horses.
After much discussion amongst themselves, photographs and videos taken and many more mobile phone calls, most of the uniformed officers departed, the passport issue dropped and the signed papers conspicuously torn up. We thought that was an end to our ideal, but no, the Park Rangers were still unhappy about D’Weasel catching butterflies without a permit. Medina suggested that we took a picnic lunch whilst discussions continued and eventually it was decided that D’Weasel would have to visit the local Police Station for his fate to be decided there! We drove back to Almaty and waited outside the Police Station while D’Weasel and Medina were interviewed. Time passes slowly whilst we were waiting in the dusty street outside. Eventually, Helen went into the Police Station to enquire as to what is going on, which appeared very little as the powers that be were also awaiting the arrival of a more senior officer to determine the outcome. At this point, Medina suggested that we returned to the hotel leaving her and D’Weasel with the police.
We glumly ate our evening meal and awaited news. Chris Mc even had to forgo his G and T! There was still no D’Weasel – until about 9.30 pm when he suddenly burst into the dining room accompanied by Medina. It appeared that more time was needed to decide his fate, so for the time being we were back on course! Despite the loss of the confiscated net, we are all relieved but it appears we were far more concerned than the feisty and incorrigible D’Weasel!
Thursday 25th May – Our journey to the desert
John Garbutt and Carol Elliott
We awoke in the Hotel Kazayka – named after a nearby fast-flowing river that is fed by rain and snow melt flowing from the mountainous backdrop – which was situated just inside a national park. Noisy garish Common Mynahs, pretty Azure and familiar Great Tits were easily found in its grounds and a pair of Brown Dippers patrolled the river. The immediate area was very hilly, but the nearby large former capital city of Almaty is situated on a wide plain in the south-east corner of Kazakhstan, with mountains on the south side that form the border with Kyrgyzstan just 100 km away. China is about 400 km to the east.
Our room was functional with a wonderful distant view towards Almaty, but our day started with shower problems – a blocked drain and a detached shower door. The drain problem was solved by simply pushing the plug downwards thus allowing it to spring up and the door was re-hung on its runners in the upper channel.
At 7:00 am, our cases were packed and ready as we were leaving the hotel that morning for the long drive to Konchengil Camp for a two-night stay in the Taukum Desert. Heading down for breakfast we saw that (as was normal) some of our party had already been out bird-watching. Medina, our translator, arrived at 7:30 am and we set off with a new driver and coach for a short journey of about 18 km to search for Pelicans and waders. We drove past the long wall and railings that enclose the Presidential Park in Almaty with its ostentatious entrance gateway on a “T” junction with a busy major road. A lorry was stationary on this road in the third lane of four, while its driver tried to remove a wheel with a punctured tyre. This was perhaps less dangerous than in the UK because in Kazakhstan, one method of merging a third and fourth lane into one is for the vehicles in the third lane to stop and give priority to those in the fourth!
Another quirk is that the gas supply pipes, instead of being buried as they would be in the UK, are normally fitted above ground (even throughout the cities) and therefore need to be raised over gateways and roads, so that they do not cause obstructions. The result is a continuous line of yellow pipes along most roads in urban areas. And, it seemed a shame that the picturesque view from the hotel was marred by an enormous one-metre, over-ground water pipe that supplied the nearby city of Almaty from a reservoir in the mountains. Both the gas and water pipes would be unacceptable in the UK, but seemed commonplace in Kazakhstan.
Another feature of the roads is the large numbers of hitch-hikers – even young girls are commonly seen hitching lifts and perhaps we should envy the safety that they feel. Beside the road we saw a shop sign that caused much merriment and conjecture about what business “FART” would be in ….
Tonight, we would be staying in the desert and had been warned about the lack of facilities that we would have. Therefore, in order to maintain normal civilised standards, a priority was to stop at the last supermarket before entering the largely uninhabited Steppes, to buy sufficient beer to get us through two nights of anticipated trauma. A half-litre bottle of lager costs about 50p, so we bought every bottle in the supermarket and felt lucky that there was another source within short walking distance further back along the road. Our concerns about the Yurts were largely unfounded (see later).
While waiting for the beer purchase, we noted a herd of camels – introduced of course, but also Black-eared Kite, Long-tailed Shrike and an elegant Masked Wagtail (Motacilla alba personata), a race of the nominate White Wagtail (M. a. alba). We stopped where a railway line crossed the road and waited while a train pulling 44 carriages of freight went past. Rollers scanned their surroundings from wires, some unidentified corvids were noted, but also Rooks and Magpies. We then left the city and began to cross the wide plain.
Arriving at Sorbulak Lake, the most noticeable feature of this vast reservoir were the very large Carp that constantly breached the lake’s surface. Here we logged Dalmatian Pelican, Red-crested Pochard, Lesser Grey Shrike, Hoopoe, Tree Sparrow, Mallard, Shoveler, Eurasian Jackdaw, Black-headed and Caspian Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Terek Sandpiper, Common Tern, Grey Heron and Great Egret. Our guide told us that he had worked at the lake for ten years ringing thousands of wading birds.
After a short drive, and on the opposite side of the same road, we found Red-crested and Common Pochard, Tufted, Ferruginous and White-headed Ducks, Garganey, a Black-winged Stilt, Black-headed Gull, Rook, Eurasian Jackdaw, Common Coot, Eurasian Hobby, a small flock of breeding plumage Rosy Starlings (aka Rose-coloured Starlings) and many dragonflies.
We logged numerous European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Common Cuckoos on the drive and, further along the road, we saw large flocks of Rosy Starlings and a perched Common Kestrel. We stopped for petrol – essential before we disappeared further into the desert for two days – and around the petrol station were European Bee-eaters, perched Rosy Starlings, Crested Lark and Pied Wheatear. Petrol costs around 40p a litre, which emphasised how highly taxed we are in the UK! The people of Kazakhstan suffer from restricted civil rights and their electoral results may be more predictable than in the UK, but a larger majority vote than they do in our unique, outdated and fundamentally undemocratic electoral system. Next, lunch was served at “Mama’s” restaurant near Topar, but we were slow to enter the building due to Blyth’s Reed, Hume’s Leaf and Greenish Warblers, and Pied Wheatear in the adjacent bushes. Before leaving, we saw distant non-native Bactrian Camels, Barn Swallows and House Martins.
The road was surrounded by the sparsely vegetated Steppe as far as the eye could see. We stopped near a very rare plant in this habitat – a lone tree. Actually a rather poor specimen of a tree but so rare in The Steppe that it has a name: “The Wish Tree” – an attribution due to the brightly coloured scarves and other artefacts that were attached to its branches, presumably whilst making a wish? Of course, many bird species are attracted to trees so a surprising number were occupying this rare Steppe habitat with a pool of water nearby, including Greenish, Willow and Barred Warblers, Chiffchaff and Turkestan Shrike. Calandra and Short-toed Larks were nearby plus Little Ringed Plover. A large bird was seen flying towards us and soon recognised as a crane and, as it drew closer, we could see the long dark stripe of feathers down its throat and breast thus identifying it as the rare Demoiselle Crane. It landed out of sight a short distance away and we would have immediately set off to locate it except that some other excitement made a short delay necessary. There were two other trees on the opposite side of the road and one contained a cooperative Black-throated Thrush. Nearby, were Feral Pigeons, Blyth’s Reed Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, Tawny Pipits, Turtle Doves, European Bee-eaters, Rollers, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears and a Black-headed Bunting plus some large “Scarab” dung beetles.
Continuing on our journey across the Steppe, the road passed through many miles of poppy flowers that gave the vegetation redness in every direction. After a day in the desert, it became traditional to stop late in the afternoon for a beer. On this occasion, it was bought by our translator Medina as a small gesture of regret for yesterday’s events related to D’Weasel’s arrest and our encounter with the National Park Wardens, Border Guards and local police.
A sudden stop occurred to view a Saker Falcon, but this was a false alarm caused by a Long-legged Buzzard. Some of our party spread themselves across the desert and located the distinctive migratory race of House Sparrow known as ‘Bactrian’ Sparrow or Indian Sparrow, several Tawny Pipits, including some fledglings and two Tolia Hares. A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron and breeding Little Ringed Plovers frequented one of the artesian wells and a party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse came in to drink. Medina caught an Agama lizard, so that we could have a close look at it and take some photographs.
The last part of our day’s journey was towards the Yurts and, due to the flat terrain; these were visible from a considerable distance. There were nine Yurts in all – seven with twin beds and two larger ones for food preparation and dining. In addition, there were two earth toilets and a cubicle containing a pumped shower, powered by a petrol-driven generator. The generator also provided a single light in each of the Yurts plus charging sockets for phone and camera batteries. So our concerns about the quality of life in the Yurts were largely unfounded except in relation to the earth toilets, one of which had a visible colony of large Scarab beetles to efficiently perform the recycling process. Perhaps it was better not to look down? Roommates were sorted for all and Steve was to share with our intrepid guide Valery!
Of course, even in the middle of the desert, standards of chivalry must be maintained. So the ladies were first to use the shower although they had to tolerate (or did they enjoy?) the wolf whistles as they exited. Next it was Ali’s turn and we could all see that he was determined to maintain standards with his dark, sartorially elegant dressing gown – his attire marred only by a pair of cheap looking flip-flops! Clearly, the event needed to be recorded for posterity, but the photos of Ali were gate-crashed by the chef thus causing rumours about some other non-culinary services that might be available. Most obviously our chef had pulled!
So there we were in the middle of the desert of Saryesik Atyrau with probably 100 miles of Steppe between us and the nearest town in every direction. It stretches for about 400 km south of Lake Balkhash. Inexplicably, two girls appeared from nowhere and introduced their dog “Erica” (who we could see had considerably better manners than a certain male namesake that was known to us). One of the girls was studying reptiles and we noticed the following day that they were occupying a 4x4 that was parked near our Yurt village.
We drank some beers around some stones in the middle of the Yurt corral and watched an exquisite desert sunset at about 8:30 pm before entering the Mess Yurt for dinner. It was a very dark, moonless night and those that needed to use the facilities in the early hours spoke of the spectacular night sky due to the lack of light pollution. At other times, there was torrential rain and very powerful winds that caused us to wonder whether the Yurts would survive. But they did, and we slept well.
Friday May 26th – Desert Life
Our first night in Yurt camp at Konchengil was an experience that on its own should have been enough, but nature had something special in store for us. So, it was around 4 am and still in darkness that the Waveney 13 thought they were up with the larks, but not a bit of it as we experienced the most enjoyable dawn chorus that you could only dream of as we watched the sun slowly rise over flat Artemisia-covered desert. Already our group had endured the electrical storm of all electrical storms that had crashed and lit up the desert, accompanied by a tempestuous downpour that threatened to float our Yurts along with their occupants away in the night! So compared to the said storm the songs of so many Larks, mostly short-toed, Asian short-toed along with Calandra Larks all bubbling, twittering and rattling around us, was nothing more than sheer delight.
Drawing ourselves away we once more boarded the minibus (all aboard the “Skylark”) to head out into the nearby desert for the day, hopefully to find our target birds including: Macqueen’s Bustard, Pallas’s Sandgrouse and possibly White Winged Lark. Such a vast expanse of low vegetated desert that slowly rose to shrubby sand dunes was going to take some scanning: first up were two Greater Sand Plovers, a distant Long-legged Buzzard followed by small flocks of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse. Sharp eyes picked out two Goitered Gazelles adding to our mammal list, quickly followed by even more luck with two Caspian Plovers picked out in flight that landed close-by allowing crippling scope views as one was an adult male!!!! Not to be outdone on the wader front was a group of 12 Greater Sand Plovers with a Lesser Sand Plover in their midst that seemed totally incongruous in this dry desert setting. As most eyes were scanning the dune complex a call went out for White-Winged Lark sitting on a twelve-inch high “bush” which showed extremely well for everyone as it displayed to a second bird in the air as well as on the ground, a trip lifer for all. Yet more flocks of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse, a few Long-Legged Buzzards along with numerous larks kept us entertained as we made our way towards our next stop, an Artesian well that formed a cattle drinking place. The watery overspill made a very attractive draw to all the desert birds for miles around. On route at least 18 Common Ravens were encountered, three Demoiselle Cranes were found striding amongst the low desert herbage and a fly-by Marsh Harrier and at least two Montagu’s Harriers were seen. The next watering hole produced a Black-Winged Stilt and five Little Ringed Plovers. Whilst the group scanned roadside wires, four Bee-Eaters, a single Roller several Tawny Pipits were seen. Two Oriental Turtle Doves, flanking a Eurasian Turtle Dove, gave us a nice comparison on size and plumage. Nearby dwellings held two Little Owls (one of which was of the “Lilith” desert form); a Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail gave us a familiar feel to this region. Whilst searching a dryer area, one of our more intrepid members located two Bimaculated Larks but unfortunately not re-located by the rest of the party, so it was a return to the Yurts having a had very successful day in the desert, but sadly no Macqueen’s Bustards or Pallas’s Sandgrouse. However, the day was not done yet as we set about downing much-needed, refreshing beers and queuing for the single shower, with a repeat of Ali’s moves in his kimono before relaxing in his smoking jacket and cravat (joke, Ali!). There was to be an incident that would put Jerome K Jerome’s tale “Three Men in a Boat” to shame as I can reveal the story of “Two men in a shower” (names withheld – Evets and Yont!): what occurred will be exposed in my hoped-to-be best seller. Following this event, someone turned off the shower water as D’Weasel entered for his ablutions that caused another hoot of laughter, oldies on tour ..eh! The log followed another blow-out meal in the Mess Yurt and then most turned in. The few that stayed up ventured into the desert armed with torches on the hunt for small mammals, but no luck apart from an all-too brief-sighting of a small Gerbil type rodent – and so for tomorrow.
Saturday May 27th – Desert Exodus
It was exultation with a difference at 5.00 am as every lark in the neighbourhood made an individual contribution to the dawn chorus. The cacophony made it difficult to separate the species, but there was undoubtedly several hundred Calandra’s and many Greater Short-toed Larks. The minibus was soon bumping along desert tracks until we arrived at our first destination, an artesian water hole where a handily-placed concrete tank was used as a vantage point. The artesian wells near our camp attract migrants and flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but as there were still plenty of puddles in the desert, sandgrouse weren’t really expected! Two distant Goitered Gazelles caused the first shout of the day and then it was down to work scrutinising passerines as they came in for their early-morning drink. There were many Calandras and Greater Short-toed Larks, but also several Bimaculated Larks that allowed identification features to be discussed. Other highlights included a pair of Desert Finches, a single Grey Wagtail and both Tree and Richard’s Pipit; the last seen only by D’Weasel. A couple of Montagu’s Harriers were watched as they quartered grassy-desert areas and several Long-legged Buzzards were perched on boulders watching intently for gerbils and other prey. A party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse arrived to take on water just before we left for breakfast.
Brown-necked Ravens, Oriental Turtle Doves and a singing Whitethroat were noted back at camp and, soon after breakfast, we gathered our belongings and after a quick team photo with the camp team we were on our way north towards Lake Balkhash.
As we passed through the Muyunkum Desert (kum – meaning sand), a Steppe Tortoise in the road provided an impromptu stop, but this unfortunate creature was a victim of road traffic, so no photographs this time! There was another stop as another tortoise was spotted, this one alive and well and whilst cameras snapped, the first Steppe Shrike of the tour was spotted along with a pair of Turkestan Tits. Our next stop was an area of scrubby dune-lands known as the Haloxylon Forest, Haloxylon persicum being Latin for the Central Asian tall shrub White Saxaul, where we had hoped to find Saxaul Sparrow. There was a Black Kite’s nest, hosting enormous chicks, close to where the bus was parked, but our search of an area of extensive dunes revealed only a Red-headed Bunting and a Red-tailed Shrike with no sign of the sparrow.
We passed numerous smaller lakes where Black-necked Grebes, Ferruginous and White-tailed Ducks were spotted and at one stop where our guide promised Shikra, we at last caught up with White-winged Woodpecker. A bird singing from a patch of phragmites turned out to be a Paddyfield Warbler. An area of remnant poplar forest, known as Turanga woodland, was to be our picnic lunch stop, but we couldn’t sit still for long with Pale-backed Pigeon, several White-winged Woodpeckers, Shikra, Lesser Whitethroat of the race halimodendri and Turkestan Tit in the offing. Our guide said that he had seen Saxaul Sparrow here on every previous trip, but the habitat looked unsuitable and unsurprisingly there was no sign despite an exhaustive search. Our driver was getting rather anxious as we still had a 200 km drive to Kapshagai where we were due to stay overnight. We asked about an old cemetery that was mentioned in the trip notes, but our guide had no knowledge of this site. We had passed a cemetery as we approached the Turanga Forest, so went back to have a quick look! At least four Common Nightingales were singing there. but no sign of any Saxaul Sparrows.
A comfort break and beer stop at a garage on the long drive to Kapshagai was interesting. Carol who went into the garage to use the loo came out saying she would save it as the loo was a disaster zone with a slatted door that customers could see through as they queued up to pay for petrol. D’Weasel, who is always full of suggestions in these situations, said it would be best if Carol squatted down the other way so that she wouldn’t have to look at the door! This comment was met with hilarity but Carol still opted to save it! We continued on our way and noted huge flocks of Rosy Starlings coming to roost over the plains and eventually arrived at our Hotel Anma-ATA at 9.20 pm.
Sunday May 28th – Saxaul Lady
An early start for some of us allowed a bit of birding from the balcony of Kashagai Hotel – but nothing really of note. One of the best breakfasts we had followed with lovely porridge, ‘hot’ fried eggs and chai. We boarded the bus and headed off for a drive around the lake with our guide having planned another magical mystery tour for us all. It was a pleasure to travel along an exceptionally good road, more like a motorway, as we skirted Lake Kapasagai. Roller was the best bird to note on this section of the trip. Eventually, we came off the motorway and joined the more typical pot-holed, bumpy roads that we had become used to whilst being driven around the country. We sped through rolling Steppes with the occasional shepherd on horseback meandering through endless stretches of bright red poppies highlighted by distant mountain ridges. Tall spires of Hoary Mullien stood proud and invited the ever-present larks to perch awhile. This landscape was broken very occasionally by a ploughed field or make-do shipping container house.
First stop was Arharly where we failed to find some distinctive wild sheep. We did, however, watch three Golden Eagles, a Hobby, Red-headed Buntings galore, Tawny Pipit and a pair of Pied Wheatears with a nest near the top of a small mountain we climbed. On the way up, we had the immense pleasure of wandering through a mobile flock of over a 100 Rose-Coloured Starlings feeding on the herb-rich grassy slopes. European Bee-Eaters flew over our heads and more distant Hoopoes and Red-rumped Swallows circled the nearby farm. Once everyone was herded back into the bus, we set off again passing Saryozek with its distinct derelict industrial tower blocks and disused army base, giving us a stark reminder of Kazkhstan’s Russian past.
We stopped on the col of a ridge called Altym Emel where we immediately found a superb male Rock Thrush and Northern Wheatear, before heading to the top of a small hill that gave us great views of the nearby mountain tops. Black Vulture flew by as a prize for the first to reach the top, Chukars were calling from down below and a pair of Central Asian Horned Larks (showing characteristics of the race Brandti) flew on the nearby slopes to give excellent scope views. This was the less-expected of the two races that occur here. Siberian Stonechats were calling from the prominent rocky perches and Rock Buntings and Linnets were also logged. We drove a short distance down the valley and then stopped at a roadside café for lunch. Borsch was again on the menu, this time with a difference – as those who ordered ‘soup without meat’ got soup with meat and vice versa! Soup without meat came with a very neat section of lamb vertebrae taking up the majority of the centre of the dish!
We drove on again from here, experiencing one of very few heavy downpours as we reached the Eastern end of the lake and turned off to head west/south-west back towards Almaty with the moody Tian Shan mountains on our left. With dark, angry clouds and distant rain they certainly did not live up to their name of the ‘Mountains of Heaven’.
Driving on from here through Koktani, we ended up back in the lowlands and started seeing more birds from the bus including four Cuckoos appearing one after another. Then our beloved guide raised his hand to call the driver to a stop. This site – Aydarly – was apparently THE site for Saxaul Sparrow, a bird that was now high on our ‘wanted’ list. We had already missed this species earlier in the trip so this was our last chance saloon. It has to be said that we were not convinced of seeing it here either! However, within minutes, our very own top bird finder, Helen Gooderham, aka ‘The Saxual Lady’, had pulled one out of thin air. Once the excitement had died down a bit and we began to study a very showy male, it became clear that there was a little sparrow colony going on here. At least three males and one female were whizzing in and out of a hole at the top of a telegraph post. A male Tree Sparrow was also trying to get in on the act as well. We could have watched these for ages but Steve and D’Weasel found a singing Sykes’ Warbler and we happily left the sparrows to their own devices and eventually got great views of a generally secretive Sykes’. Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Turkestan Shrike, Masked Wagtail and Kestrel completed the best of the rest
The bus then took us onto the Bridge over the River Ili, an amazing new structure over a massive river. Looking at the water levels, our guide was concerned that perhaps the Chinese had built a dam upstream of this – the border being less than 50km away. Whatever the reasons for the low water levels, we tried in suitably damp habitats to find any of the Penduline Tits we were hoping for. None were to be found – but an ever-more obliging Sykes’ Warbler was great compensation. Gadwall, Black Winged Stilt and a Pheasant made for the last birds of the day. We then drove past another derelict factory on unmade roads to arrive at the Hotel Miras, Chilik. This was described to us as being ‘basic’ but turned out to be at least as good, if not better than any other place we stayed in. No beer in the hotel though – so I was sent out to hunt some down with Medina. It wasn’t far away – but what amazed me most was that the young girl who was looking after the shop used an abacus to calculate the cost of the 15 beers we purchased. Throughout all my years in education I have seen them used in schools, frequently, but never in real life. Another first!
Monday May 29th – Canyons of Charyn
Fifty six bird species was my personal tally for today as we begin our journey back to Almaty after our stay at the Hotel Miras. The day’s highlights were as follows:
D’Weasel already had his scope trained on a Long-tailed Shrike by the time I popped outside for some pre-breakfast birding. My roommate Dick Walden had missed the one earlier in the week, so I called him and he quickly scurried down to join us! The bird was nicely perched on top of a nearby tree and remained for all to see – a nice “grip back” for Dick! We also noted a pair of Laughing Doves, the only ones for the trip. At breakfast, we enjoyed our best bowl of porridge so far and then were off to Charyn to visit an area of woodland known as Ashgrove Forest. This area is an amazing desert oasis consisting of a wide belt of riverine ash trees that lies adjacent to Ashgrove Lodge – a former Russian hunting retreat. Here we heard and saw Indian Golden Oriole by the entrance gate, more Azure Tits, four Mistle Thrushes of the race Bonapartei and a Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were several nestboxes on our walk through the woods, which were specifically fixed for Scops Owls but, unfortunately, none popped their heads out during our presence.
Moving on, we staked out a water hole in the valley of the Bojuty Mountains where Pallas’s Sandgrouse often come to drink and, although unsuccessful with this species, we did manage spectacular views of around 40 Mongolian Finches, 15 amazing Crimson-winged Finch, several Grey-necked Buntings, Rock Petronias and Eurasian Skylarks. We were then off for a bit of sight-seeing at the exceedingly scenic red and yellow Canyons of Charyn. The canyon is an 80-90-km long tributary of the Ili River and a major tourist attraction. The spectacular scenery of the River Ili with the foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains in the distance was awesome.
There were no big targets, but from the viewpoints we did manage to pick up Steppe and Booted Eagles and a pair of Egyptian Vultures. The vultures appeared to be nesting in the canyon and caused chaos amongst the local Eurasian Crag Martin as they flew to and from their nesting ledge. There were several Alpine Swifts and many Isabelline Wheatears, the latter being the most numerous bird species in desert areas.
We arrived at our next birding stop in the Kokpek Mountains late morning where we climbed a steep ravine in the hope of finding White-capped Bunting. We noted a very close Golden Eagle, two Chukars, Eurasian Crag Martins and Rock Doves on the way up the gorge and then a sudden burst of song from a protruding bolder higher up led us to our quarry and we all obtained great views of this beautiful bunting through the scope.
Lunch was at a very rustic roadside café and very good bowl of soup too – with or without noodles was the choice as always! It was then on to Malovodnoe Fishing Farm to look for Penduline Tits. We were expecting to find White-crowned Penduline Tit, but Valery pointed out Black-headed Penduline Tits in the book saying that was the species that was here. We could hear Pendulines calling from lakeside willows, although it took a little time for all to get good views. Eventually, we got clear views of a Black-headed Penduline Tit and further searching revealed a pair of birds but this time they were White-crowned Penduline Tits. We couldn’t believe our eyes, surely not both species inhabiting a single site, but, yes, that’s clearly what we saw. Black-headed Penduline Tits are red-listed and endangered due to hybridisation with Eurasian Penduline Tit, so this was an excellent find. Also, the trip notes report that the species had vacated its usual site due to their habitat being trashed and burnt for grazing!
The trip notes said that we would be stopping en route to visit a Pale Sand Martin colony on our way back to Almaty but our guide hadn’t a clue as to whereabouts of this site. In rush hour traffic, it took a long time before we reached the Kazayka Hotel in the Amaarasan Canyon for our three night stay. Halfway through our evening meal, a big storm knocked out the electric supply and we completed the day’s log under candlelight. Going to bed in the dark was quite a challenge too, but it ended another fantastic day birding in a wonderful country.
Tuesday 30th May – Mountain birds in mountain weather
This was to be the group’s first day birding in Tien Shan Mountains, but we awoke to lowering grey clouds and persistent rain. The rain eased just before breakfast and a few ventured out for some birding. A pair of Brown Dippers was seen well on the nearby river, small groups of Common Mynahs flew over the hotel, a male Blue Whistling Thrush sang his lilting song and a Grey-headed Goldfinch was seen in the hotel grounds.
After breakfast, we boarded the minibus for our journey up into the Ili Alatau Mountains, part of the Tien Shan range, but sadly the light rain turned torrential as we made our ascent. Our bus stopped by our first birding site, which was near the dam on the Big Almaty Lake (altitude of 2400m). A pair of Spotted Great Rosefinches was observed feeding beside the bus and we all debunked for better views: then a flock of finches alighted in the trees above us and were quickly identified as Plain Mountain Finches accompanied by two or three Brandt’s Mountain Finches. These high-mountain birds were undoubtedly forced down to lower elevations by the severe weather – it was snowing persistently higher up. Soon the rain drove us back into the shelter of our vehicle followed by a two to three-hour wait. As we patiently waited in the bus for the rain to cease, the staccato of rain on the roof, accompanied by the gentle snoring of some catching up on their sleep, was certainly a chorus with a difference!
When the rain eventually eased, to allow birding to recommence, a singing Black-throated Accentor was quickly added to the list, then a shout of ‘Redstart!’ sent us scurrying across the road for brief flight views of our first Eversmann’s Redstart – this was closely followed by a small flock of very smart Red-fronted Serins. Moving forward towards the Great Almaty Lake, we were startled to see what appeared to be a Cyberman approaching us along the rim of the dam. Upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a policeman in a strange silver raincoat, with a hood so large that it could accommodate his enormous dinner-plate, peaked hat. He was most obviously coming over to check us out. We stood staring at each other face-to-face before Medina, scurrying from the minibus, broke that standoff by handing over papers for the policemen to scrutinise.
Crossing the dam wall was forbidden, so we took a circular route back to the village and onto a track to overlook the lake. We soon added Greenish and Hume’s Warblers, Tree Pipit and Lammergeier to the day list before stopping to admire a rather obliging Long-tailed Marmot beside the track. Some of us saw another, all too brief, Eversmann’s Redstart. On reaching a spot that afforded some amazing panoramic views over the lake, our main quarry species was discovered, a single Ibisbill sporting its decurved bill and plumage that had been perfectly evolved to match its preferred habitat of stone-strewn gushing rivers and mountain lake edges. We stopped for some time admiring this great bird, but all the while we could hear the distant whistling curlew-like calls echoing around the mountainside – this was to be our next target! Moving back up the track eagle-eyed D’Weasel quickly located the source of these eerie calls – a clear silhouette of a Himalayan Snowcock! A single individual of this denizen of the high mountain slopes was scoped distantly but well – two great birds in rapid succession after the disappointment of the rain, this was more like it! Retiring back towards the bus a pair of Azure Tits were discovered carrying food into a nest in the “Cyberman’s” hut but, remembering the problems we had with the authorities on our first day, we felt it best not stare for too long.
Back at the bus the decision was made to drive higher up the mountain. This involved negotiating ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ (the Kazakhstani Army’s border stop) where permits and passports were checked and double-checked before we were allowed access to the higher mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan. We parked near the astronomical observatory and started on foot across the plateau. Unfortunately, at this point the rain returned with a vengeance and we were forced to abandon any hopes of more birding.
Despite having lost a large part of the day’s birding to the weather some memorable birds were seen – who will ever forget the quirky Ibisbill or the enigmatic Snowcock!
Wednesday 31st May
Cloudless skies at sunrise gave great optimism that we were in for a good day’s birding as our plan was to ascend to the highest navigable point on the road (3,300m) at the Cosmos Station near the summit of the mountain. Following some pre-breakfast birding by some, who reported that the Brown Dippers and Blue Whistling Thrushes were still showing well, and the usual slop for breakfast, we were on our way. Before we departed, however, D’Weasel met a young lad in reception who had retrieved the confiscated butterfly net from the police station. He said that he had to wait two hours! There was no sign of D’Weasel’s specimen tube or the captured Chapman Blue butterfly though!
No one had any idea why we made an unscheduled stop halfway up the mountain, but Vivian later confirmed that it was for Brown and White-bellied Dippers. There were a few moans and groans as most of us wanted to press on and get to the mountain tops. There was the usual rigmarole at the checkpoint as paperwork was again scrutinised and documents checked. Passports were called for and also our immigration visas. Unfortunately, my visa was back at the hotel, so I bit my tongue and hoped that they wouldn’t match everything up! Needless to say they didn’t and we were soon on our way. We were soon driving through thick snow, which in places was so deep that our driver had to resort to snow chains. A makeshift snowplough was busily clearing the snowdrifts from the roadside ahead of us. A few shouts of “stop” on the way up resulted in further views of Plain Mountain Finch, but little else was seen.
On reaching the entrance to the Cosmos Station, we were greeted by a man who told us that we could visit the area by foot, but the bus had to be parked further down the mountain. We searched the dilapidated buildings and were surprised that our first bird was a Northern Wheatear followed by a flock of ten Red-billed Choughs. A pair of the latter was feeding chicks in one of the buildings. We soon located two of our main targets: Güldenstädt’s Redstart and Brown Accentor (five in all), but there was no sign of Altai Accentor. We decided to walk slowly down the mountain road for two to three kilometres to search further with the bus following behind. More Northern Wheatears and some Water Pipits were located, but our walk was brought to a sudden stop when D’Weasel located some large footprints that most obviously belonged to a Tien Shan Brown Bear! The bear’s presence was further confirmed by the snowplough driver who told Vivian that he had seen the bear scurrying down the slope a few minutes previously. We quickly followed the footprints over to a crevasse where stones could be heard rolling down the slopes ahead of us, but whatever was causing the disturbance was on our near side and out of sight. We hoped that we would locate the animal at the next corner of the road, but alas we didn’t – so near but so far!
We then returned to the astronomical observatory where we were rained off yesterday. Here were found a stunning male Himalayan Rubythroat (recently split from Chinese Rubythroat), several Red-mantled Rosefinches and amazing views of Eversmann’s Redstart feeding young. The last bird was particularly rewarding bearing in mind the fleeting views the previous day. Helen excelled again by spotting a White-browed Tit-warbler, but unfortunately most of the group couldn’t get onto it. As yesterday, we could hear the haunting calls of Himalayan Snowcocks all around us, but we failed to make any further sightings.
We stopped at a very popular, local picnic site as we descended further down the mountain still hoping for Altai Accentor and further views of White-browed Tit-warbler, but although we managed more sightings of Greenish and Hume’s warblers our target species weren’t forthcoming.
The group decided to split up with roughly half walking down the slope towards the Big Almaty Lake and the others through the beautiful Tien Shan Spruce and Turkestan Juniper forests in search of woodland birds. Although further views of Ibisbill at the lake were enjoyed by some, the latter group were more successful with a fantastic display from a Blue-capped Redstart and brief views of a Willow (Songar) Tit. The woodland group had somehow got locked behind a metal gate and were late returning to the bus which was waiting and ready to return to the hotel. Thankfully, Vivian knew the landowner and he summoned him to fetch a key to let us out. Another birding group reported that they had just seen Spotted Nutcracker but, after searching all day, they too had missed Altai Accentor which made us all feel a whole lot better! We finished our day’s birding by returning to the Blue-capped Redstart site and we together watched the spectacle of its feeding forays – our last tick of the trip!
Thursday 1st June – Homeward Bound
Our last day in Kazakhstan had arrived. Only a couple of people made it out prior to breakfast and birds seen included: Brown Dipper, Blue Whistling Thrush, Common Mynah and Azure Tits. Breakfast was at 6 am and the usual standard was maintained, consisting of lukewarm, watered-down porridge, fried eggs on cold plates, bread that appeared to have been hung on a washing line for a week and, to cap it all, cold cooked spam. The spam was a special treat and delivered ceremoniously after the meal and greeted to the accompaniment of Monty Python’s song SPAM SPAM SPAM, which left the proprietor more than a little bemused! At 6.30 a.m. hours, we duly boarded our minibus for the journey to the airport. For once the roads round Almaty were empty of traffic and we arrived at the Airport with plenty of time to spare for our 9.50 am flight to Astana. The flight was uneventful and we landed at 11.14 am. The next few hours was spent trying to spend our remaining Tenges (local currency) on beer and other goodies in the airport cafes. Boarding was called at 2.25 pm and take off at 2 50 pm. The best part of the flight was the approach to London with good low views of all the major city’s attractions. We landed at 4.24 pm and were on the coach by 5.15 pm. On boarding our bus for our final stage of our journey home, a goody bag full of sandwiches and drinks arrived (thank you Kathy), plus a pair of handcuffs for the D’Weasel, (pity the keys were also with them) and a children’s butterfly net for Steve. The only bird mentioned on the journey back to Ipswich was a Red Kite, where three of us from south Suffolk, duly left the coach in Ipswich. Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable and eventful trip.