Day 1 Early morning arrival in Almaty, the former capital and still the largest city of Kazakhstan. We drive to Sorbulak, an area of large and small lakes in the desert northwest from Almaty and a real paradise for water birds. On an island in the largest lake we can watch a large colony of Dalmatian Pelicans, as well as Great White Pelicans. Other birds found here are Great Cormorant, Caspian and Great Black-headed Gulls, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, Collared Pratincole, Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller and European Bee-eater. Breeding ducks may include Red-crested Pochard, Garganey and Ferruginous Duck whilst passage waders can include Terek Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank and Ruff. Rare vagrants are possible here: on three previous occasions we have found a Lesser Sandplover. Another speciality bird of the area we will look for is Shikra, and there is a thousands-strong colony of Rose-coloured Starlings.
Continuing on, we will arrive in the afternoon at our camp in the Taukum Desert, a northern type desert combining clay valleys and sand Barkhans (sand dunes). We will have time to explore the area for migrants and breeding birds in the sparse vegetation and around the artesian wells before dinner. Stay for two nights in the camp.
Day 2 Before breakfast we will walk a short distance to watch the amazing display of MacQueen's Bustards. After breakfast we drive into the desert looking for Caspian and Greater Sandplovers. In amongst the myriad of Greater Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed and Calandra Larks and Isabelline Wheatears we will look for Asian Desert Warbler and the migratory form of House Sparrow known as Bactrian Sparrow. Little Owl of the pale desert form is another possibility. At the artesian wells a variety of migrants can be found including many waders such as Temminck's Stint and Red-necked Phalarope.
After lunch, we will drive to a famous petroglyph site where Eastern Rock Nuthatch breeds. En-route, we will encounter many more larks including Bimaculated and Shore (Horned) Lark of the albigula race. Montagu's and Pallid Harriers frequent these semi-desert areas. In the late afternoon we will return to the camp for dinner and watch Black-bellied Sandgrouse coming into drink at the artesian wells. With these birds we might find Pin-tailed and Pallas's Sandgrouse. Passerines including Desert and Mongolian Finches also visit the wells at this time of the day.
Day 3 We travel through the Saryesik Atyrau desert, birding en-route, as we head back to Almaty. We will look for Steppe Grey and Isabelline Shrikes, Brown-necked Raven, koktalensis Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline-tit, caspius Eurasian Penduline-tit, Desert Wheatear and Sykes's and Asian Desert Warblers, Caspian Reed-warblers and Paddyfield Warblers, Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin, Black-headed Wagtail and the halimodendri form of Lesser Whitethroat. At a Turanga grove we will look for White-winged Woodpecker, Eversmann's Dove, Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow and might find Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Overnight in Almaty.
Day 4 We will head to Charyn River – one of the most spectacular, famous and popular places in Kazakhstan, site of the Red and the Yellow Canyons. Here we will enjoy spectacular scenery and can encounter Lammergeier, Egyptian and Black Vultures, Himalayan Griffon-vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, Chukar, Horned Lark, Tawny Pipit, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears, Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock-thrushes, Hume's Whitethroat, Rock Sparrow, White-capped, Grey-necked, Rock and Red-headed Buntings, Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike, Demoiselle Crane and possible Black Stork. At a nearby waterhole we will look for Mongolian Finches coming down to drink in the late afternoon and if we are really lucky we may see some of the very local Crimson-winged Finches of the eastern race. At our small local hotel we will be serenaded to sleep by Common Nightingales of hafizi race and European Scops-owls.
Day 5 This morning we drive further towards the Ili River through the desert, where we might find Black-bellied and hopefully Pallas's Sandgrouse. Whilst waiting for Pallas's Sandgrouse coming into drink we may also find other birds including Desert Finch, Rufous Scrub-robin, Isabelline (Daurian) Shrike and Desert Wheatear. On the way back to Almaty we will visit a Pale Martin colony. Overnight in Almaty.
Extra (or alternative) day: if we stay an extra night in this area, we have the option of visiting an interesting site in the mountains near town of Jalanash. We will be at the edge of the spruce forest where we might find Common Grasshopper-warbler, Siberian Stonechat, Grey-headed Goldfinch, Common Rosefinch, Corn Bunting (buturlini race) and Pine Bunting in this small isolated patch of range. Walking into the forest we might encounter Oriental Turtle Dove (meena), Mistle Thrush of bonapartei race, Blue-capped Redstart, Fire-fronted Serin, Coal Tit of the rufipectus race and hopefully Songar Tit.
Day 6–7 It will take us about two hours to transfer to the observatory, situated at the Big Almaty Gorge of the northern Tien Shan Mountains at an altitude of over 2700 metres. Around the observatory, in flower-covered alpine meadows and juniper-covered slopes, we will look for Himalayan Rubythroat, Black-throated Accentor, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-browed Tit-warbler, Red-mantled Rosefinch and White-winged Grosbeak. Higher up in the mountains, at an altitude of 3,300 metres, we will look for Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon-vulture, Himalayan Snowcock, Altai and Brown Accentors, White-winged Redstart, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Chough and Brandt's and Plain Mountain-finches. Lower down around Great Almaty Lake and in the surrounding spruce-covered slopes, we will look for Ruddy Shelduck, Ibisbill, Blue-capped and Eversmann's Redstarts, Greenish and Hume's Warblers, Songar Tit, Spotted Nutcracker and Red-fronted Serin, whilst on the streams Brown Dipper and Blue Whistling-thrush can be found. Overnight at the Observatory.
Extra or alternative day (recommended to start the tour) Birding around Almaty. We visit foothills of Tien Shan Mountains about 35 km west from Almaty. Our main target bird is Meadow Bunting. We may also see European Roller, Common Whitethroat (rubicola), Common Grasshopper-warbler, Red-headed, Rock and Corn Buntings and Common Rosefinch. This area is also very good for birds of prey including Lammergeier, Black Vulture, Himalayan Griffon-vulture, Golden and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard and Common Kestrel. Corn Crakes and Common Quails can be heard calling from the fields. Along the Kaskelen River we will look for leucogaster race of White-throated Dipper and White-crowned Penduline-tit. Azure Tit, of tianschanicus race, is common here and there should be lots of butterflies over the meadows.
Day 8 Departure from Almaty back to Europe.
Central Kazakhstan extension
We fly to the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, situated 1200km due north of Almaty. This part of Kazakhstan is an enormous undulating plain of steppe and forest-steppe landscapes, combined with many large and small, fresh and salt lakes, called Sary-Arka. Birding highlights here will include the abundant Black and White-winged Larks and the rare Sociable Lapwing.
The itinerary for the central Kazakhstan extension will be flexible to ensure the greatest chance of seeing all the target birds.
Day 1 We take a midday flight from Almaty to Astana, a journey of about 1.5 hours. From Astana we head for Kurgalgin Nature Reserve birding en-route. We will see Red-footed Falcons at a roadside plantation as well as Black Larks, which are numerous along the road, together with some White-winged Larks. We will stop at some marshes to admire White-winged Terns together with Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Curlew, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope and Garganey. Other birds we can expect to see include Pallid and Montagu's Harriers and Western Marsh-harrier, Steppe Buzzard (vulpinus), Black-winged Pratincole, Great Black-headed, Slender-billed, Steppe, Common (heinei) and possibly Little Gulls, Sykes's Yellow Wagtails, Citrine Wagtails, korejevi Twite and Northern Wheatears. Savi's and Paddyfield Warblers, Caspian Reed-warbler, Bearded Parrotbill and Bluethroat all can be heard and found in the reedbeds.
Day 2–3 We have two full days at this wonderful location and during this time we will visit various sites to look for Demoiselle Crane, Greater Flamingo, White-headed Duck, Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Caspian Tern, Short-eared Owl, Steppe Merlin (pallidus), a colony of Black-winged Pratincole, Sociable Lapwing, Booted Warbler, Reed Bunting and possibly some late migrants.
Day 4 Early in the morning we leave the nature reserve and drive to Astana birding en-route. We will fly back from Astana to Almaty in the afternoon.
Alakol Lake extension
Days 1–3 We will travel to Lake Alakol, a large saline lake situated not far from the Chinese border, northeast from Almaty. It takes a whole day to reach it, driving over 600km but the magnificent combination of the changing azure-blue surface of the lake, yellow desert with patches of green and flowering vegetation and grand mountains still covered with snow, are worth the journey. The birding highlight here is Relict Gull. In the early to mid 2000s the population was seriously declining, so finding even one was difficult, and we stopped doing this extension for few years. However, the birds reappeared in 2008 and since then the number of nesting pairs in the area has grown gradually, reaching 30 pairs in 2011, which gives us a good chance to see this extremely rare gull. Great Black-headed and Caspian Gulls of the eastern race are very common here and easy to see. Nearby in the mountains we can find Himalayan Griffon-vulture, Black Vulture, Steppe, Eastern Imperial and Booted Eagles, Saker Falcon, Tawny Pipit and Red-headed, Rock and Meadow Buntings. One morning we will visit a large marsh where Pallid and Montagu's Harriers and Western Marsh-harriers can be found side-by-side whilst Richard's Pipit and Pallas's Grasshopper-warbler both reach the westernmost part of their ranges. Common Quail, Oriental Lark, Black-headed and Citrine Wagtails, Bluethroat, Barred and Blyth's Reed-warblers and Common Rosefinch make up a very interesting avifauna. We will also spend time birding around the lakeshore where passage waders may include Terek Sandpiper and breeding birds include Collared Pratincole and Kentish Plover and, incongruously, Red-necked Grebe and Black-throated Diver. Overnight in lakeside hotel.
Day 4 We will drive back to Almaty, birding en-route, and spend the night in Almaty.
Accommodation In Almaty we offer a medium-standard hotel with en-suite facilities. In the mountains we offer twin-bedded rooms at an observatory with each block of three rooms having a separate shower and WC. In the Charyn Canyons area we offer a basic hotel with just three rooms having en-suite and WC facilities (others can share the showers although there are separate ladies and gentlemen's washrooms/WCs). In the desert we offer a very comfortable camp with two proper beds in each yurt with separate hot shower and WC tents. Weather conditions can be rather variable from really cold with snow in the mountains to hot in the desert and possibly windy and rainy, but mainly sunny and warm.