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KAZAKHSTAN 2002

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 Black-headed and Plain Mountain-finches, plenty of Himalayan Snowcocks, stunning Himalayan Rubythroat and White-winged Grosbeak, Black-throated, Brown and Himalayan Accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler and White-browed Tit-warbler, whilst Ibisbills were again breeding at Great Almaty Lake. We couldn't get to the summit so we were pleased to find White-winged Redstarts also at the lake, close to Rufous-backed Redstarts, Willow (Songar) Tit and Fire-fronted Serins. Both Bearded Vulture and Himalayan Griffons gave prolonged views as did Brown Dipper feeding young. Down at the lakes the Lesser Sand-plover 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 Turkestan Ground-jay nest but no bird, only Asian Desert Warblers. Black-headed Penduline-tits proved easy this year although Southern (Steppe) Grey Shrikes were substantially outnumbered by Red-tailed Shrikes. Saxaul Sparrows 'chirped' next to Sykes's Warblers and Rufous-tailed Scrub-robins, whilst White-winged Woodpeckers, Pale-backed Pigeon and Great (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, Rosy 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, Meadow and Rock Buntings were seen side by side and Imperial Eagle and Saker Falcons 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 Saker (Altai) Falcon chanced on by the side of the road totally eclipsing all the Steppe Eagles we had just seen. This bird made regular Saker and Peregrine Falcons 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!

Black Lark

Black Lark