Despite bad weather at the start of the tour with several feet of snow to greet us on the first night, the Birdfinders tour to Kazakhstan this year logged a record number of species, 240 in total. The mountains gave us Brandt's and Plain Mountain-finches, plenty of Himalayan Snowcock, stunning Himalayan Rubythroat and White-winged Grosbeak, Black-throated, Brown and Himalayan Accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler and Severtzov's Tit Warbler, whilst Ibisbills were again breeding at Great Almaty Lake. We couldn't get to the summit so we were pleased to find Güldenstädt's Redstarts also at the lake close to Eversmann's Redstarts, Songar Tit and Red-fronted Serins. Both Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon-vultures gave prolonged views as did Brown Dipper feeding young. Down at the lakes the Lesser Sandplover we found whilst looking at Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans was the first for Kazakhstan for about 17 years!
On the steppe, Macqueen's Bustard were almost common but a surprise were three White-winged Larks with the expected Calandra, Bimaculated, Greater, Lesser and Asian Short-toed Larks. We found a Pander's Ground-jay nest but no bird, only Asian Desert Warblers. Black-headed Penduline-tits proved easy this year although Steppe Shrikes were substantially outnumbered by Isabelline Shrikes. Saxaul Sparrows 'chirped' next to Sykes' Warblers and Rufous Bushchats whilst White-winged Woodpeckers, Eversmann's Dove and Turkestan Tit were easily found and gave amazing views.
To the west in the river valleys White-crowned Penduline-tit were also common, although it took a while to track down Pallas's Sandgrouse this year, but Desert Finches kept us entertained while we waited! As usual, Rose-coloured Starlings, Common Cuckoo, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike and Red-headed Buntings were everywhere, whilst at Charyn, Azure Tits were breeding.
Following the long journey to Alakol Lake we were privileged to see the highlight of the trip, a full breeding plumage Relict Gull feeding 10 yards from our boat. By the amount of film used this bird must have been sponsored by Fuji! In the hills behind the lake, Siberian Meadow and Rock Buntings were seen side by side and Eastern Imperial Eagle and Saker conveniently sat on telephone poles. In the marshes, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers quartered side by side whilst Richard's Pipit, Bluethroat and Barred Warbler all displayed. White-headed Ducks were a surprise find en-route to the Altai extension, where over 60 Black Larks were seen. The highlight of the extension however was a huge female Altai Falcon chanced on by the side of the road totally eclipsing all the Steppe Eagles we had just seen. This bird made Saker and Peregrine seem small! Other highlights of the tour were countless millions of poppies in a sea of red spread across 100s of miles, with parties of Demoiselle Cranes in them, lots of tortoises, hares, gerbils and Ibex and the contrast between camels 'parked' next to yurts and Mercedes parked next to villas only a few miles away!