Steppe is defined as a plain without trees (although some occur near lakes and rivers). This definition in no way encompasses the vastness of the steppe of central Kazakhstan. Standing on the grassland juts looking at the horizon, noticing the curvature of the Earth and admiring the unspoilt view is truly and amazining experience. Mile upon mile of flat, open grassland, but not by any means all the same. The grass species vary and sometimes very small shrubs are found. There are also areas of bright green that turn out to be shallow marshes, ideal for migrant waders and breeding terns. Sometimes, there are also signs of the industriousness of the people of Kazakhstan in the form of a row of telegraph poles marching across the landscape – ideal for perching raptors. Much of the Steppe has been lost to agriculture but about 150km south-west of the Kazak capital Astana lies Korgalzhynsky Zapovednik, a nature reserve where true, undisturbed steppe, and its inhabitants, can still be found. This reserve, which admits visitors only by prior booking, contains huge grasslands and many lakes, both large and small.
Accomodation on the more remote areas of the steppe is basic but comfortable and the local people are very welcoming and friendly. Wooden huts house two or four people whilst meals are taken in the comfort of a traditional yurt, amazingly good at keeping out the wind and rain should the weather turn. Bad weather isn't necessarily a bad thing though, as seeing a storm over the grasslands can be another awesome experience.
As well as being a vast grassland the steppe contains many lakes of varying sizes. These attract many shorebirds passing through on migration and hold many breeding species. Many lakes are edged with extensive reedbeds. Kazakhstan Birdtours can show you the many bird species associated with the lakes on the steppe. The highlights can be Black-throated Divers with young, breeding-plumage Red-necked Grebes, many hundreds of Great Cormorants and Whooper Swans, the world's most northerly breeding Greater Flamingoes, booming Great Bitterns, Western Marsh-harriers, many ducks including White-headed Ducks, Garganeys and Red-crested Pochards, hundreds of Slender-billed Gulls and Steppe Gulls, plus Caspian and Black-headed Gulls and many Caspian Terns.
Waders included Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh, Green, Wood, Terek and Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Little and Temminck's Stints, Ruff, Ruddy Turnstone, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, and sometimes hundreds of summer-plumaged male and female Red-necked Phalaropes.
In the reedbeds can be found 'Caspian' Reed Warblers, Savi's Warblers and Moustached Warblers and Bearded Parrotbills, and on the bushes, Isabelline Shrikes, Citrine and Sykes's Wagtails, Grasshopper Warblers and Bluethroats.
A key species to see on the steppe is the endangered Sociable Lapwing. Thanks to our local knowledge we know where to find these rare and special birds.
In the far south-east of Kazakhstan lies the city of Almaty, at the feet of the mighty Tien Shan Mountains. We stay in a comfortable hotel with the mountains for a view from the room balconies. The hotel has well-wooded gardens and we had Great Tit, Shikra and, every night, singing European Scops-owl.
To really see the birds of the mountains you must stay in the mountains, not just nearby. We head up the mountain road towards our stop for the night, an astronomical observatory. En route we may see Azure Tits, Common Mynas, Common Rosefinch and Greenish and Hume's Warblers, Blue Whistling-thrush and the tianschanica subspecies of Common Treecreeper.
Right next to the observatory is an area of juniper bushes and spruce trees. This habitat is home to some excellent mountain species: Himalayan Rubythroat, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-browed Tit-warbler, Black-throated Accentor, White-winged Grosbeak and Eversmann's Redstart, all seen well on previous trips. Also recorded here is Red-mantled Rosefinch, and, soemtimes, the very-hard-to-see Red-breasted Rosefinch, normally only found very high up in the mountains.
Scree and patchy grass is another habitat of the mountains and one that attracts its own series of birds. Hodgson's (Plain) Mountain-finches can be common as can be Water Pipits. Amongst the Hodgson's we have found Brandt's Mountain-finch, normally a bird of much higher altitudes. Brown Accentors are found here as are Red-fronted Serins.
We also visit another part of the observatory that is much higher up the mountain. Here we are birding in the snow, searching for truly alpine species: Altai (Himalayan) Accentor, Güldenstädt's Redstart, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs. Plus the bird we have been hearing since we were within reach of the snowline: Himalayan Snowcock. With some effort we usually locate this bird, sitting up on a rock giving its far-carrying curlew-like call.
There is another significant reason for visiting the mountains, for a bird many people have as their top bird to see when visiting Kazakhstan – Ibisbill. The lake, one of the sources of water for the city of Almaty, is situated below the lower observatory and holds two breeding pairs and we usually have no difficulty finding at least one individual. The lake is also home to a few pairs of Ruddy Shelducks although they actually breed in amongst rocks on the mountain sides. The trees around the lake also hold Coal Tit, Red-mantled Rosefinch and Tree Pipit.
The south-east of Kazakhstan has large areas of desert and arid grassland. Kazakhstan Bird Tours visits the Taukum Desert to the north-east of Almaty, part of the Land of Seven Rivers, and the canyonlands to the west of the city.
We stay in a camp in the Taukum Desert, tents and yurts provide the accomodation. This desert ranges from arid short grass, to arid longer grass, to sandy desert and contains many exciting bird species. Both Greater Sandplover and Caspian Plover breed in the area as do Demoiselle Cranes and all are relatively easy to find as are Black-bellied Sandgrouse. A dawn trek into the desert allows us to watch the peculiar display of Macqueen's Bustard, all the time with the sound of larks all around: Calandra, Greater Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed are all common.
In this vast, barren area local knowledge is key and that's where our guides come in. In the middle of nowhere is an abandoned dwelling. From this old building grows a tree and in that tree can be found the nests of the migratory race of House Sparrow and of Spanish Sparrows. There are areas of scrub rising from the sandy desert and these hold Great (Steppe) Grey Shrike, the halimondendri race of Lesser Whitethroat, Sykes's Warbler and Bimaculated Lark. Animals can also be found out here and we found Horsefield's Tortoise and Persian Gazelle.
South of the Taukum Desert the land first changes to longer grassland and then becomes rocky and mountainous. In the longer grasses White-winged Larks can be found amongst the other larks. Lark song is everywhere. Moving on to the rocky areas we find a valley with many rocky outcrops. On many of these rocks are Bronze Age petroglyphs showing various animals hunted by ancient people in this area.
The birds are good in this area too. Eastern Rock Nuthatches and Pied Wheatears breed here, Red-headed and Grey-necked Buntings are quite easy to find and Chukars can be both heard and seen. Small streams allow bushy growth attracting Isabelline and Red-backed Shrikes, Blyth's Reed-warbler, Hoopoe, European Roller and Common Rosefinch and Golden Eagles can be seen soaring around the peaks.
The desert camp lies at the edge of the Land of Seven Rivers, the main river being the Ile. We also explore this area, driving north through an area of low, undulating hills and small lakes, known as the Barkhans, across the mighty Ile River and on to explore other habitats.
The Barkhans area can be very productive, especially around the lakes and ponds that are dotted amongst the scrub-covered dune-like hills. The drier areas are home to the huge Eurasian Eagle-owl and to Brown-necked Ravens, often seen mobbing the owls! The lakes and surrounding vegetation attract many species. The open water holds Black Tern, Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck. Reedbeds hold Great Bittern, Paddyfield Warbler and a large-billed, pale-backed race of Common Reed-bunting.
In some areas large trees can be found around the lakes, which attract yet more bird species. European Honey-buzzards and Shikras can be found here as can Azure Tit, Turkestan Tit, European Golden Oriole, White-winged Woodpecker and White-crowned Penduline-tit – a mouth-watering selection.
Larger areas of reedbed are also present in places, attracting Great Egret, Cetti's Warbler, more White-crowned Penduline-tits and their close relation, the beautiful Black-headed Penduline-tit.
Saxaul bushes attract Saxaul Sparrows that nest in holes. Fortunately these birds also nest in mausoleums in a certain Muslim cemetery, making them easy to find. Kazakhstan Birdtours visits this cemetery and the surrounding area of bushes and small trees and, although it is some drive to get there it is well worth the effort. Saxaul and Eurasian Tree Sparrows are easily found. Other birds here include Common Nightingales singing out in the open on top of trees, Isabelline Shrike, Rufous Bush-robin, Asian Desert Warbler, Sykes's Warbler, Common Whitehtroat and Pied Wheatear.
Another special habitat in this area is Turunga woodland. As well as being good for Turkestan Tit and White-winged Woodpecker this habitat is home to Eversmann's (Yellow-eyed) Dove. Also here one can find Eurasian Hoopoes and Eurasian Rollers.
To the east of Almaty lies a must-visit site: Charyn Canyon. This is an 80km long canyon cut into the sandstone by the Charyn River. It is very reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in the US although somewhat smaller. However, standing on the edge of a cliff looking down it does not feel small at all! Apart from some trees and bushes along the river the area is very arid. There is a high plain of short grassland that holds an race of Horned Lark that has no yellow and is the geographical centre of Asia, as far from the sea as it is possible to get on Earth.
Other birds found around the canyon and surrounding mountains include Lammergeier, Monk Vulture, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, Chukar, a sandy-coloured race of Little Owl, Eurasian Crag-martin, Red-headed and Grey-necked Buntings, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears and Rock Petronia.
Quite nearby to Charyn is the Nurly Desert and it is here we spend time waiting by waterholes to see what comes to drink. Although the ground is very sandy there are areas of scrubby bushes, usually near the waterholes that are created by leaking irrigation pipes. These give way to short-grass as one moves away from the water.
The waterholes attract many species of birds but there is one star bird to be found here. Many Black-bellied Sandgrouse come to drink and checking each as they fly in is worth while because a few will be Pallas's Sandgrouse. Also inhabiting this area are Isabelline Wheatears, Barred Warbler and Desert Finches. Raptors include Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Hobby and Lesser Kestrel, and occasional pairs of Demoiselle Cranes can be found.
Lake Alakol is a 90km long brackish-water lake situated at the foot of the Dzungharian Mountains in far eastern Kazakhstan, near the border with China. The lake itself has both large and small islands plus areas of marsh and scrub. The mountains are easily reachable and the high valleys can be very good for birds.
The area where Kazakhstan Birdtours stays is on the lake shore, by a lagoon of brackish water. Common Terns are abundant here, including the dark-billed longipennis race, as are Sand Martins. Other species found include the superb-looking Great Black-headed Gull, both Caspian Gull and Tern, Grey Heron and Terek Sandpiper plus European Bee-eaters and European and Oriental Turtle-doves. If you are lucky a Relict Gull might fly over – this is one of the best sites on the lake for them. Abundant around the houses are Black-headed Wagtails, Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Common Nighingales. Eurasian Hoopoes nest around the houses where we stay.
Only minutes away from where we stay is a superb marsh, with grassland, reedbeds, open water and shingle and sandy shorelines. On arriving we can admire Paddyfield Warblers, Siberian Stonechats and singing male red-spotted Bluethroats, and listen to Common Quails, all with the backdrop of the beautiful Dzungharian Mountains.
The open water is the feeding ground for White-winged Terns, the shore home to Collared Pratincoles and Kentish Plovers. Garganey, Red-crested Pochards and Dalmatian Pelicans are easy to find and we see geniune wild Greylag Geese and maybe some Whooper Swans. Migrant waders include the eastern race of Eurasian Curlew, with a very long bill, Curlew and Wood Sandpipers and beautiful summer-plumaged Little Stints. Ruddy Shelduck, Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts are found here and Western Marsh-harriers hunt over the reeds.
This close marsh is by no means the only marsh in the area. Another marsh can hold drumming Common Snipe, Great Reed-warbler, summer-plumaged Red and Black-necked Grebes. Another marsh about an hour and a half drive away, worth the effort I assure you, holds Richard's Pipit, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers, Long-legged Buzzard, Isabelline Shrike and singing Cetti's and Barred Warblers. This marsh is also the westernmost outpost of Pallas's Grasshopper-warbler. The area is also good for dragonflies, with many thousands of individuals often being seen.
The nearby Dzungharian Mountains, not a high as the Tien Shan, hold edge-of-range Meadow Buntings. Also here we can find Rock Bunting, Red-billed Chough, Red-fronted Serin, Rose-coloured Starling, White-throated Dipper and Pied Wheatear. Raptors are good here with Eastern Imperial Eagle plus Monk Vulture, Lammergeier, Black Kite, Eurasian Hobby and Common Kestrel.