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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Central Asia: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Birding the Silk Road

2024 Narrative

It has to be said that the weather during this year’s tour could at best be described as ‘interesting’.  In what seems to be a cold and wet spring across much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia we experienced a real mix of conditions including heavy rain, low cloud and fog, and a mini 40-degree heatwave. Undaunted we set out from the leafy city of Tashkent to our first stop in some low mountains.  Here the sought-after Rufous-naped Tit showed well, along with Yellow-breasted Tit, Indian Golden Oriole, Asian Paradise Flycatcher building a nest, Siberian Stonechat, Rock and White-capped Bunting and a very obliging male Blyth’s Rosefinch which sat perfectly still for ages for the telescope and cameras. 

Moving on to Samarkand we explored the hills to the south of the city where White-throated Robin, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, numerous Red-headed Buntings, Barred and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Pied Wheatears, and Turkestan and Lesser Grey Shrikes were some of the highlights. We also took time to explore this ancient Silk Road city taking in the Registan, Gur Amir, Shah-i-Zindha, Bibi Khanum mosque, and Uleg Begs Observatory. Inspired by all this splendour, we followed the golden road from Samarkand to Bukhara. Here a day out in the Kyzl-Kum desert gave us the hoped-for Pander’s Ground Jay along with other residents such as Sykes’s Warbler and Streaked Scrub Warbler. There were migrants as well including Eurasian Nightjar, Wryneck, Golden Orioles, Red-backed Shrikes, numerous Spotted Flycatchers, Common and Thrush Nightingale, a lone Brambling, lots of Greenish Warblers and Siberian Chiffchaffs, and a few very pale grey Willow Warblers.

We spent a pleasant few hours wandering the old town of Bukhara enjoying the view from the Ark, hearing about the ill-fated Great Game exploits of British officers Stoddart and Conolly, getting lost in the trading domes, and sampling a cold drink by the pool at Labi Hauz, the social centre of the town.  Venturing out of town once more we were soon looking at a displaying Macqueen’s Bustard, Little Owl, Collared Pratincoles, White-tailed Lapwings, Menetries’s Warbler, a noisy group of Streaked Scrub Warblers, and some dashing Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.  Then we were whisked back to Tashkent on the super high-speed train and soon on a flight to Almaty in Kazakhstan.

From Almaty we headed north, stopping first some wetlands where we saw our first Dalmatian Pelicans and a lone White-headed Duck, along with Black-necked Grebes, Ferruginous Duck, and Great Reed Warbler. Our camp was located in the Taukum Desert with a constant backdrop of singing Calandra and (Asian) Lesser Short-toed Larks.  Driving further north we stopped for Short-toed Eagle and Oriental Honey Buzzards before we reached the edge of the Illi River delta. Here we watched a pair of smart Saxual Sparrows at their nest site, tracked down Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, and Azure Tit in the turanga woodland. Back at the camp we explored the surrounding desert finding numerous Demoiselle Cranes, Greater Sand Plovers and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Leaving the camp (and the heat) behind we retraced our steps to Almaty and from there into the dramatic Tien Shan mountains. On the very high tops we saw a pair of Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Altai and Brown Accentor, Red-billed and Alpine Chough, Plain Mountain Finches, and Water Pipits. We also had a few Himalayan Snowcocks in flight, and a fantastic fly-past from a magnificent Lammergeier.  Lower down we had really stunning views of White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler with two males displaying to a female, and amongst the juniper bushes and spruce trees there was Nutcracker, Black-throated Accentor, Blue-capped and numerous Eversmann’s Redstarts, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, glowing White-tailed Rubythroats, hulking White-winged Grosbeaks, and Hume’s Leaf Warblers.  The ever-reliable Ibisbill is always high on everyone’s want list and although it took some searching, we eventually found one that gave good telescope views.

We next travelled east, following the Tien Shan mountains. Here we visited a variety of habitats. On a high pass we located two male Meadow Buntings. On the open plains there was Steppe Eagle, Lesser Kestrels, Asian Desert Warblers, Desert Wheatears and Rock Sparrows while at a secluded waterhole we watched Mongolian Finches coming to drink, joined by Asian Crimson-winged Finch and a male Pallas’s Sandgrouse.

Our final destination was the vast northern steppe surrounding the new capital of Astana.  It was with some trepidation that we travelled there having heard stories about extensive flooding affecting much of the region.  There was indeed much more water than usual and the steppe grass was very green and tall. Some of our usual tracks were closed due to flooding but by carefully picking our way through these areas we caught up with the star birds of the steppe.  These included a group of nine Sociable Lapwings, initially distant but then they all flew and landed closer, giving great ‘scope views. Black Larks were everywhere, and we also found lots of White-winged Larks, Great Black-headed Gulls, Black-winged Pratincoles, White-winged Black and Black Terns, and Red-footed Falcons.  With so much water everywhere the shorebirds were spread out but we did find one large gathering that included many Ruff, some males in fine breeding plumage, Curlew, Marsh, and Terek Sandpipers, Temminck’s and Little Stints, and hordes of Red-necked Phalaropes. Pallid Harrier numbers always vary, along with their main prey item of Pygmy Sousliks. This year the numbers were low and we only managed to see two, one male and one female. Booted Warblers and Bluethroats sang at us from low bushes, Paddyfield Warblers chased each other through the reeds, Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes were joined by lots of Great Crested Grebes and Red-crested Pochards, and there were plenty of Whooper Swans in large groups. The tour ended with the Kazak national dish at our hotel before we all departed for our flights home.

-          Steve Rooke

Created: 29 May 2024