Kazakhstan Birdtours with Birdseekers – May 2005
Participants David Wright, Ben Rackstraw, Trevor Rackstraw, Lynne Rackstraw, Graham Daw, Wendy Hooson, Brian Yates
Leaders Nick Bray and Svetlana Annenkova
Day 1 Friday 6th May
Everyone met on time at London's Heathrow Airport for the flight to Amsterdam and onward connection to Almaty. Everything went exceedingly smoothly and an uneventful six and a half hour flight from Holland saw us touching down in Kazakhstan where our guide, Dr Svetlana Annenkova was waiting to meet us. Following a short drive we checked in to our brand new log cabins, where some much needed sleep was the order of the day.
Day 2 Saturday 7th May
An early breakfast taken just before sunrise led to gasps of astonishment once everyone had finished eating, as the horizon was dominated by the hugely impressive, snow covered Tien Shan Mountains. Whilst our bags were being loaded onto our two vehicles, we saw a few Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper on the lake next to our cabins, whilst both Common Quail and Corn Bunting called from somewhere in the distance.
Our first stop somewhere just outside Almaty led to us seeing a few migratory Indian House Sparrows of the bactrianus race, although the views were a little obscured by the thick mist that had descended. Further on we left behind agricultural fields and the scenery changed to reveal a vast steppe landscape, which was literally filled with wall-to-wall birds. Along roadside wires, European Rollers and European Bee-eaters were common, whilst hundred upon hundred of Calandra Larks littered the landscape. With birds such as Siberian Stonechat, thousands of Rosy Starlings, Lesser Grey Shrike, Tree Sparrow, Common Rosefinch, Eastern Jackdaws (sommerringii) and Red-headed Buntings causing frequent roadside stops, time passed all too quickly.
Then we took a side road to a lake which produced a huge White-tailed Eagle flying away over the water with a large fish in its talons, whilst out on the water were several Black-necked Grebes and a Caspian Gull flew past as well. This scenery of gently undulating grassland dotted with numerous lakes was obviously very attractive to a variety of species, and at several other stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere we were able to enjoy superb views of everything with no other human beings around at all. Just before the next pond, an Ortolan Bunting and Oriental Turtle Dove were seen, whilst in the reeds surrounding the water several Great Reed Warblers were singing and showed very well. More secretive, a Paddyfield Warbler eventually gave itself up to everyone, which was more than could be said of an extremely shy Water Rail, whilst Black and White-winged Terns, Bearded Reedling and Ferruginous Duck were much more obliging. Several Dalmatian Pelicans flew along the horizon, but it was the pair of Isabelline Shrikes that really took our attention as they were extremely obliging. Further along the sandy track, a breeding plumaged Spotted Redshank and several more brightly plumaged Red-headed Buntings were also appreciated by everyone before we stopped and walked across the countryside to overlook a huge lake. This was a great spot to view from, as below us we found both Gull-billed and Little Terns, lots of Collared Pratincoles flying around overhead as well as some perched, plus a good selection of wildfowl including Garganey, Ruddy Shelduck, Gadwall, Northern Pintail and Common Shelduck. Svetlana located a singing Sykes's Warbler in an area of small bushes and we were treated to the best views imaginable of this delightful bird. Walking back to the vehicles, several Eurasian Cuckoos were seen perched right out in the open, and there was also a pair of Siberian Stonechats nearby, whilst Long-legged and European Honey Buzzards were scoped in the distance.
Our picnic lunch at the same spot was punctuated by a Eurasian Sparrowhawk herding a flock of Rosy Starlings practically inside one of our vehicles as the poor little things sought sanctuary from its merciless intentions, with several birds actually hitting the side of the vehicle and missing Lynne by inches! Anyway, after we were all suitably stuffed by the sumptuous picnic provided, a small area of woodland was searched where a singing Siberian Chiffchaff (tristis) was very entertaining and interesting to listen to, having a noticeably different song to the nominate race. Meanwhile, European Turtle Dove and a flyover Eurasian Hobby were totally overshadowed in terms of size and stature by an awesome Black Vulture (a scarce bird in Kazakhstan) that soared overhead.
Driving to Sorbulak Lake gave us an Isabelline Wheatear, another Long-legged Buzzard and hundreds more Calandra Larks. At the reservoir a large congregation of Dalmatian Pelicans could be seen, whilst a group of 15 Demoiselle Cranes were appreciated by all. Several Black-eared Kites (lineatus) were flying around and perched on the water's edge, whilst at a small pool 4 Little Gulls, Temminck's Stint, Grey Plover, Pied Avocet, breeding plumaged Ruff, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Eurasian Wigeon and Eurasian Teal were seen.
Leaving here we continued our journey north, stopping in the heat of the mid-afternoon to view a huge tree that Svetlana said usually attracts migrants out here in this otherwise treeless domain, and boy was she right! We christened it 'The Tree of Dreams' as in this lone tree we saw Hume's, Greenish, Blyth's Reed, Sykes's and Barred Warblers, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Nightingale of the hafizi race, several Common Redstarts, Common Rosefinch, Siberian Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher, Lesser Grey Shrike and House Sparrow. Also in the immediate vicinity, Bimaculated and Crested Larks, Tawny Pipit and Pied Wheatear were also seen. From here it was only a short drive out into the Taukum Desert where our camp was situated. Pausing by an Artesian well we were privileged to see a breeding plumaged male Caspian Plover and an equally impressive Greater Sandplover. They both showed incredibly well and in fact even though we passed this spot several times over the next couple of days, these birds were never present here again! As we savoured these superb views, two more sandplovers flew in, as did several Black-bellied Sandgrouse, a couple cracking Desert Finches, several Greater Short-toed Larks and some Sykes's Wagtails (beema).
The way to the camp was rather rough as we drove across the desert, but once we had all settled into our yurts we walked up onto a small scrub covered sand dune, locally called a Barkhan and found a MacQueen's Bustard displaying nearby. The bustard was in full view for several minutes, puffing his feathers up and running across the desert to another Barkhan before disappearing. Several more Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over as we returned to camp, whilst a small flock of Common Swifts of the pekinensis race flew low overhead.
What a day and I'm sure I speak for the entire group in praising the birding potential of this superb country. The combination of an attractive and remote location, awesome scenery and the great birds contributed in making this a day we will always remember. By the close of play a creditable 106 species had been seen today.
Day 3 Sunday 8th May
With a slightly later breakfast this morning, some of us rose early and scanned the surrounding area from the Barkhan near the camp. It was rather cold this morning and a cool wind had picked up overnight, but this didn't seem to affect bird activity too much as there were many Greater Short-toed Larks singing all around, whilst Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-headed Bunting and Sykes's Warbler were also seen, whilst a flyby Great White Egret was a surprise out here in the desert. We then decided to walk down to the Artesian well where White and Grey Wagtails, Oriental Turtle Dove and a few Lesser Short-toed Larks all came down to drink, whilst several flocks of Rosy Starlings flew over.
After breakfast we headed off to a series of low lying hills and along the road a Demoiselle Crane flew over and landed nearby amongst the poppies that covered the landscape for many miles, making a wonderful setting. We made a search for Oriental Skylark here without success, so continuing on saw yet more Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Hobby, Common Cuckoo, Pied Wheatear, a couple Bluethroats, the orientalis race of Carrion Crow and several smart Isabelline Wheatears. A little later, a young female Montagu's Harrier gave a great display of hunting and a Horsfield's Tortoise was seen along the roadside before we arrived at our next scheduled stop amongst the hills. Amongst the rocky gullies here were many petroglyphs, ancient drawings of various animals from previous civilisations. Walking here produced a couple Ortolan Buntings, House Martin and European Roller, before a pair of Eastern Rock Nuthatches was found. They gave great views through the scopes as they clambered amongst the rocks and the male called from an overlook. As time was pressing, with us being due back at camp at 1pm we returned to the vehicles, seeing Red-rumped Swallow and Red-headed Bunting along the way. The drive back to camp was punctuated when Svetlana spotted our first White-winged Lark along the roadside, so we all got out of the vehicles and were treated to some close flight views of this much-wanted species.
After lunch at the camp we visited a wadi about an hours drive away, which was filled with bushes and held a couple flocks of Spanish Sparrows, as well as both Isabelline and Steppe Grey Shrikes, Chukar, Rufous-tailed Bush-robin, Lesser Whitethroat (halimodendri), Barred Warbler, Eurasian Hoopoe and European Turtle Dove. Surprisingly, we had some rain here which turned into a prolonged and serious affair on our return to camp this evening.
Day 4 Monday 9th May
After a night of heavy rain we awoke to clear skies at dawn and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the camp staff who had done a marvellous job in producing such great meals and drove off towards pastures new. Within an hour the scenery changed to reveal more frequent and pronounced rolling sand dunes covered in scrub (Barkhans), with numerous small reed-fringed pools dotted around the landscape. As we approached the first of these pools a Long-legged Buzzard was seen bathing in a large puddle of water in the road.
The first pool was very interesting with Cetti's, Paddyfield and Caspian Reed Warblers (fuscus) and a Reed Bunting of the race pyrrhuloides in the reedbed, several Sykes's Warblers in the surrounding scrub, a very smart and showy Bluethroat, plus several Black Terns and 3 Great White Egrets flying over. The next lake gave us a Shikra on its nest, flyover Golden Oriole, a Little Bittern and Common Kingfisher, before we saw a couple brown-headed Penduline Tits that were either the Caspian race of Eurasian or another remote possibility being female Black-headed Penduline Tits, but we also nailed White-crowned Penduline Tit as well. In the surrounding trees both Azure and Turkestan Tits showed really well, before continuing on our journey. A few miles along the same road, several Saxaul Sparrows brought our vehicles screeching to a halt and we scoped a male bird which really did look spectacular as the sun caught the rusty-orange on its face – and yes they are sexy birds according to David. Our next stop at a reedbed surrounding a small pool gave us more examples of the brown-headed Penduline Tits as well as a definite Eurasian Penduline Tit.
Eventually we arrived at the famous Turanga grove where within just a few minutes several Yellow-eyed (Eversmann's) Stock Doves, White-winged Woodpecker and more Turkestan Tits were nailed. Further scrutiny revealed an immature Steppe Eagle flying overhead, before we had another excellent picnic lunch. Afterwards we spent a little more time here and were fortunate to observe a pair of White-tailed Eagles talon-gripping and a smart male Red-backed Shrike. As we drove away 3 immature Steppe Eagles were seen on the ground but unfortunately flew away as we drove closer, and along the road there was also a pair of Montagu's Harriers, a fine male Pallid Harrier and numerous European Bee-eaters adorning the telegraph wires. At the Muslim cemetery we enjoyed more views of Saxaul Sparrow, as well as a singing Rufous-tailed Bush-robin, Stone Curlew, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears and a distant Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush.
It was a long drive back to Almaty, but the journey was literally bird-filled once we descended into the steppes as the telegraph wires were littered with huge numbers of European Rollers, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Grey and Isabelline Shrikes, European Bee-eaters and Red-headed Buntings.
Once we had enjoyed a refreshing shower at our hotel, a fine evening meal and some cold beer was consumed avidly. We had enjoyed a wonderful stay in the yurts and the sound of all those Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks with the evocative bubbling call of Black-bellied Sandgrouse will live long in our memories – a simply wonderful experience.
Day 5 Tuesday 10th May
We woke before first light to the sound of a torrential downpour which didn't ease up until mid-morning. As we drove east away from Almaty the scenery was once again wonderful with a vast open steppe-type landscape, but our route then took us towards Kokpek Pass which is a beautiful mountainous habitat with tall peaks bordering a narrow valley. We stopped at the base of this valley for some hot drinks and were lucky to get superb views of a pair of Golden Eagles, with initially one bird soaring around before dropping down to perch next to a previously unseen mate. In the gorge behind the café there were several new birds for us, starting with a superb male White-capped Bunting singing from a rocky outcrop and we were treated to great views of up to 6 individuals. Also here were several Rock Buntings and a brief Sulphur-bellied Warbler that disappeared amongst the bushes on the rocky hillside above us.
Within a kilometre another steep-sided canyon gave us Pied Wheatear, Chukar, Blue Rock Thrush, a distant Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and several more White-capped Buntings. A Hume's Lesser Whitethroat (althaea) created quite a bit of interest being totally different to the usual form we had been seeing on a daily basis and a Saker flew over. We also had another delicious picnic lunch here, after which we drove over the pass through stunning rounded rock-topped hills where the pale bactrianus race of Little Owl was perched on the skyline and our first Grey-necked Bunting sang from a rocky outcrop.
From here the road descended to the Canyons of the Charyn River, some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip, with huge red coloured gorges all around and an ideal photo stop. In fact, quite some time was spent here enjoying the view and warm sunshine before returning through the pass and heading towards the vast stony desert. Everyone split up and headed off in different directions, resulting in some good views of a female Desert Wheatear and a couple Shore Larks. Next up was a visit to a nearby water hole, where we positioned ourselves a short distance away from the water so as not to disturb the birds and after a short wait several Mongolian Finches flew in to drink. In fact we counted 39 individuals, showing a range of plumages from bright full breeding plumaged males to some in immature plumage. However, a brief visit by a stunning male Crimson-winged Finch stole the show and completely overshadowed a bathing Grey-necked Bunting. So with all target species safely tucked under our belts we headed off to our hotel for an overnight stay.
Day 6 Wednesday 11th May
After spending the night in a rather basic local hotel we were up early, with some of us seeing Grey-crowned Goldfinch, European Greenfinch (turkestanica), Laughing Dove, Great Tit and a fine Long-tailed Shrike before leaving soon after breakfast for the drive out into the desert. We positioned ourselves to view a small pool where over 25 Desert Finches and a pair of Common Rosefinches were coming down to drink. Several parties of Black-bellied Sandgrouse numbering over 30 flew over, but just when we became a little disheartened 6 Pallas's Sandgrouse flew by giving their distinctive call. Unfortunately the views were brief and the birds didn't return so we drove off across an increasingly bumpy road in search of them but were unsuccessful. More Black-bellied Sandgrouse, another displaying Macqueen's Bustard, singing Sykes's Warbler and a fine male Desert Wheatear were the highlights. So we retraced our steps and headed off towards Kokpek Pass, taking lunch in a small valley where an Egyptian Vulture, a scarce bird here, was sitting on a nest and up to 3 distant Golden Eagles were soaring. So we drove up into the pass and did a short raptor watch that gave us a pair of awesome Saker Falcons flying overhead for several minutes, as well as a flock of Eurasian Crag Martins and more Rock Buntings.
Leaving here we started the return journey to Almaty, taking a detour and stopping below some hills where an immature Himalayan Griffon Vulture caused a few i.d headaches before flying directly overhead, and a Booted Eagle (look at the tail!) was also seen. Moving on, we paused to check an old Sand Martin colony and had brief and distant views of a flock of Pale Martins. Whilst here, a Eurasian Hobby and a Common Kestrel were seen locked in a talon grip over a Tree Sparrow the kestrel had just caught. They crashed to earth straight in front of us before the Hobby gave up and flew off leaving the poor sparrow at the mercy of the kestrel!
The rest of the drive back to Almaty was uneventful, apart from a brief 'bush stop' along an avenue of trees where a Eurasian Golden Oriole, Corn Bunting and a Common Quail were all seen.
Day 7 Thursday 12th May
After driving across Almaty this morning we began the ascent up into the Tien Shan Mountains, where our first stop alongside a fast flowing stream produced a Brown Dipper that seemed to be nest building under a small bridge. We watched it for ages as it fed, sometimes totally submerging and always on the move. Also here was a brief Azure Tit, as well as a Great Tit and a Grey Wagtail of the melanope race, being much darker grey on the mantle. Driving up higher we saw a Common Buzzard, before stopping to watch the first of three Blue Whistling Thrushes this morning, with one bird in particular being very close and obliging and totally oblivious to our presence.
Further up still amongst the pine forest we had excellent views of a pair of Merlins (lymani) perched on the treetops, as well as a Coal Tit (rufipectus) before a pair of Blue-capped Redstarts was located nearby. One bird in particular came very close and we watched it for quite a while, before driving further up seeing Golden Eagle and Lammergeier flying across the valley. As we watched the redstarts, a Red-fronted Serin began singing and was eventually pinned down to a bare tree and what views we had! So we were obviously on a roll and walked up the road a little way with Graham picking up a Spotted Nutcracker perched on the other side of the valley.
Leaving here we drove up to the Observatory Hotel, and were greeted by a mixed flock of Plain Mountain-Finches and Water Pipits that were busy feeding around the short-cropped grass and nearby scree slope. With a little while to kill before lunch some of the group walked outside and scanned the juniper covered hillside behind the buildings and what a good move this turned out to be as a fine male White-tailed Rubythroat was found singing from the top of a bush. The brilliant crimson throat patch literally shone in the sunlight and everyone was delighted with this sighting. In the sunshine the scenery was totally breathtaking with snow covered peaks all around.
After lunch we relocated the White-tailed Rubythroat singing from a different perch, plus a Grey-crowned Goldfinch and there was also a Black-throated Accentor singing from a small tree. Walking up the hillside we had further views of the accentor, as well as an elusive female Red-mantled Rosefinch. However, there were not many birds singing and it was very quiet so we walked around the rough track and scanned the mountainside where a flock of 300+ Plain Mountain-Finches were feeding. Just then a Himalayan Snowcock began calling and amazingly was located on top of a ridge against the sky, and through the scope the views were pretty reasonable. So we returned to the hotel for a refreshing cup of tea, during which the mist had descended, allowing us some time to relax and play table tennis! In fact the weather deteriorated later this evening and a brief snow flurry turned into a blizzard which made for a picture postcard setting.
Day 8 Friday 13th May
We awoke to several inches of snow lying over the hotel grounds and this made for quite a novel experience this morning. Just outside the hotel a male White-winged Grosbeak was seeking shelter inside a garage (!) which was really bizarre. It was a huge beast of a bird and everyone enjoyed watching him for a while before it flew off and landed in a more usual setting at the top of a snow-laden pine tree. Ben then picked up a male Red-mantled Rosefinch perched in a nearby tree, before we drove downhill through the blizzard to Great Almaty Lake. On the way another couple grosbeaks and a rosefinch were seen as well as a large flock of Plain Mountain-Finches. Walking out across the dam we saw Black-throated Accentor, Oriental Turtle Dove and a flock of Water Pipits, whilst we heard but could not find a Severtzov's Tit-Warbler, so we followed a path around the lake and scanned the far end from an overlook. After several minutes an Ibisbill was spotted mobbing a crow and we followed it flying around before landing in a little creek. The views were a little distant but through the scopes all the details could be made out. Returning along the same track a Spotted Nutcracker was calling from the top of a fir tree and a Grey-crowned Goldfinch sang from close by. Once again the scenery was breathtaking, but all too soon we had to return to the Observatory Hotel for lunch.
We hadn't been there long when an Eversmann's Redstart was found calling from a pine tree and it gave excellent views in a really picturesque setting. More grosbeaks and a Black-throated Accentor were seen before we were kindly invited by a Naturetrek group to join them in their large Russian bus to try and reach the next research station at 3300m. The drive up was an adventure and unfortunately it didn't stop snowing the entire time, but our efforts were rewarded with several cracking male Guldenstadt's Redstarts being seen. An absolutely stunning bird indeed and David led the celebrations in the manner of Alan Partridge! Also here were several obliging Brown Accentors which were appreciated by everyone and a single Red-billed Chough.
Day 9 Saturday 14th May
Everyone woke early this morning and met outside the hotel, where we were met by a thick mist that kept descending and retreating throughout the next few hours before breakfast. The snow still lay at about 10+ inches deep with a temperature of minus 3 degrees! Nevertheless we tried to find birds and it was rather exhilarating being out in such wonderful scenery. Trevor and Ben walked higher up the road seeing several White-winged Grosbeaks and Brown Accentors, whilst the rest of us stayed around the observatory buildings and were rewarded for our efforts when a White-winged Grosbeak was found in the same place as yesterday, feeding in a small patch of grass by the garage.
After breakfast we drove slightly higher up but saw nothing new so after some tea and a snack we loaded the luggage onto the vehicles and said our goodbyes to the wonderful staff who had looked after us so well. As we drove down towards the lake a Red-mantled Rosefinch gave superb views down to a few feet away as it fed on the road right in front of us. And then we headed off across the dam once again, finding a 1st year female Naumann's Thrush that could well be the first record for Kazakhstan, and enjoying superb views of a pair of Eversmann's Redstarts, but possibly the highlight was the great views of Ibisbill we had. Returning to the vehicles for our packed lunch we then had a short walk and our principal quarry, Songar Tit, was only heard but we had great views of a Red-fronted Serin in a snow covered bush at eye level. So after a while we drove lower down the mountain where a close Wallcreeper provided a fitting finale to our mountain adventure!
Day 10 Sunday 15th May
It felt like a holiday this morning (!) as we had several hours to kill before our lunchtime flight to Astana. So after a late and leisurely breakfast some of the group searched the grounds and had a very pleasant time in the warm sunshine. Highlights included 4 Eurasian Hobbies, 2 Long-tailed Shrikes, Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting. But pretty soon it was time to drive the 10 minutes to the airport and head off north to Astana where our minibus was waiting to meet us and we headed south west towards Kurgalgin Nature Reserve. It was fascinating to drive through part of this new capital of Kazakhstan, as every building was very new or was just being built and all were grand designs, even skyscrapers protruded out of the city. As we headed out into the countryside we were all astounded at the sheer scale and immense grandeur of the steppe landscape as the flat, open terrain went on for miles and miles. It was an incredibly humbling experience as we felt like tiny dots on a huge landscape.
We were also amazed at the sheer numbers and diversity of the birds here. The mosaic of steppe grassland, numerous lakes and immense reedbeds provides a veritable haven for all manner of breeding and migrating birds, and just along the roadside we saw lots of Red-footed Falcons, Steppe Gulls (barabensis), several Demoiselle Cranes, Sykes's Wagtail, Siberian Stonechat, Bluethroat and Hooded Crow. We had driven maybe 60 kilometres when the bird we all craved after appeared, the awesome Black Lark. In fact it is an incredibly common bird here but our first one was brilliant and we savoured it for ages before turning our attentions to the surrounding area where several male Pallid Harriers were quartering the grassland, as well as watching singing Booted and Common Grasshopper Warblers perched practically next to each other in the same area of low bushes..
Leaving here we passed numerous lakes and more reedbeds with flocks of Ruff flying over, along with Black and White-winged Terns, and assorted parties of wildfowl. On arrival at our chalets along the edge of a large lake everyone was keen to explore the surrounding area before dinner and we came up trumps with a Citrine Wagtail (werae), Pallas's and Steppe Gulls, Caspian Tern, Mute and Whooper Swans, Black-throated Diver, Paddyfield Warbler, several Grey-headed Wagtails (thunbergi) amongst the far more numerous Sykes's Wagtails, as well as a constant procession of Great Cormorants numbering several hundred skimming the horizon.
Day 11 Monday 16th May
The pre-breakfast crew scored this morning with Common Quail, whilst everyone enjoyed a fine Bohemian Waxwing amongst 15+ Common Rosefinches in the lone tall tree by the dining room. The Waxwing is a rare migrant in this region and we just soaked up the close views, even hearing it call on several occasions. After another fine breakfast we drove off with Alexei our local guide who took us to an area to look for Sociable Lapwing, but never reached his site as Ben spotted one from the vehicle. We all quietly got out and were privileged to watch this globally rare bird down to 40 metres away, without any haze and for a prolonged period. Wow!
Leaving here we set off on a rough track to search the numerous lakes and reedbeds in the area. Along this route were many Black Larks and quite a few White-winged Larks, but once we reached a huge lake then we were craning our necks in every direction as, once again, birds were literally everywhere and the species-mix kept changing all the time. This was obviously a good spot for northbound waders to drop into, for as well as hundreds of Ruff and lots of Black-tailed Godwits, we saw Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Dunlin, Little Ringed, Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Common Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Temminck's and Little Stints, 25+ Red-necked Phalaropes and Northern Lapwing. However, our principal quarry was Black-winged Pratincole and over 30 birds were present, some perched and others flying overhead. Meanwhile hundreds of White-winged Terns were flying all around us and calling constantly, but only a single Black Tern was seen, whilst Common Black-headed Gulls were dwarfed by numerous Steppe and several Pallas's Gulls. There were also Dalmatian Pelicans and Demoiselle Cranes flying around, as well as hundreds and hundreds of Sykes's Wagtails, whilst a surprise find here came in the form of an Eversmann's Polecat that showed frequently in the grass nearby.
The next lake held Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes and several small flocks of Red-crested Pochards, whilst further along at the next watercourse was a roost of 10+ Pallas's Gulls, as well as Caspian Tern, whilst out on the open water a Red-breasted Merganser was new for our trip. A lake full of really 'wild' Mute Swans caused a brief stop before a close Steppe Eagle and a singing Booted Warbler were seen by our vehicle. A Citrine Wagtail and some Ferruginous Ducks followed next at a reed-fringed lake, before we saw 3 Red-necked Grebes and 5 White-headed Ducks that showed really well, including three handsome drakes. There was also several Booted Warblers present, as well as Common Whitethroat, Bluethroat, Siberian Stonechat and 2 Common Redstarts in the nearby bushes. Reluctantly leaving here we drove back to base, where on the small pool below the dining hall a Terek Sandpiper flew in to join 3 Wood Sandpipers and a Temminck's Stint.
After lunch there were 2 Terek Sandpipers present, as well as Citrine and Grey-headed Wagtails (thunbergi). Then we drove to some more lakes, the first of which gave us a pair of Slender-billed Gulls, 8 Greater Flamingo's, 3 Terek Sandpipers and a pair of Common Cranes. However it was the sight of what we estimated to be nearly a thousand Red-necked Phalaropes spread out across the water that really stole the show. At the next pool we saw 6 Curlew Sandpipers and 20+ Wood Sandpipers amongst the usual Ruff, before visiting a vast reedbed and lake where there was a pair of Black-throated Divers, a drake White-headed Duck, Gull-billed Tern and an unusually showy Eurasian Bittern that gave a couple prolonged flight views. On our return to base we saw a pair of the very pale race of Merlins (pallidus) at a nest.
Day 12 Tuesday 17th May
After a night when a Common Quail called constantly outside our chalets, we awoke to clear blue skies, and the big tree held several Tree Sparrows, as well as a Spotted Flycatcher and Greenish Warbler, whilst Booted Warbler and Red-headed Bunting sang nearby. On 'our' pool, there was still a Terek Sandpiper, 3 Wood Sandpipers and a Temminck's Stint present, with a Pallas's Gull flying over. After breakfast we drove out of Kurgalgin, still being amazed by the huge flocks of Ruff passing over, as well as all the Sykes's Wagtails and immense flocks of Great Cormorants passing over the lakes and reedbeds. On the telegraph posts, both Common and Long-legged Buzzards were perched, whilst Marsh and Pallid Harriers were conspicuous, and we also saw 10+ Red-footed Falcons, Demoiselle Crane, and both Black and White-winged Terns. A stop at a small lake that we could look down on produced Merlin, lots of Eurasian Cuckoos, Blyth's Reed Warbler and a Bluethroat. Nearer Astana a pair of Grey Partridge was seen flying across the road in front of us, before we headed into the city for an excellent pizza in one of the parks. A short while later we made our way to the airport and took the late afternoon flight back to Almaty, where yet another fine evening meal was consumed avidly.
Later that evening we transferred to the airport and said our goodbyes to Svetlana. We were all impressed with her birding skills and sheer determination in finding us some excellent birds, but also her good humour was well appreciated by everyone. I would also like to thank Elena for preparing our delicious picnic lunches. So the return flight to London, via Amsterdam left on time and all too soon we were arriving back in the U.K where a wonderful tour concluded the following morning.
On behalf of Svetlana and myself I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the group for making it such a pleasure to lead. Not only had we seen many good birds, including some very interesting races of more familiar species, but the amazing and spectacular scenery was something we shall never forget. As a group, everyone contributed fully and I appreciated the good sense of humour and teamwork which resulted in such a good camaraderie.
So for one final time "Is this the way to ...........…?"
Note: Most of the photos in this report were taken by Nick Bray using a digital camera. The shots used were of the actual birds and wildlife we saw, and the photos were taken by holding the camera to the telescope after everyone had looked first. I would like to thank Wendy Hooson for the photo of Red-fronted Serin and David Wright for the Demoiselle Crane flock, Steppe Eagle and Red-mantled Rosefinch photos.