Our 2004 tour of Kazakhstan was another great success. We started in the Tien Shan mountains picking up Hume's and Greenish Warblers, Azure Tit and Blue-whistling-thrush on the drive up. Birding around the snow-covered peaks we added such specialities as Himalayan Rubythroat, Altai (Himalayan), Brown and Black-throated Accentors, Güldenstädts, Eversmann's and the increasingly-scarce Blue-capped Redstart. Both Hodgson's and Brandt's Mountain-finches were seen well as were White-winged Grosbeak, Red-fronted Serin, Svertsov's Tit-warbler and the sought-after Himalayan Snowcock. A bonus was Red-breasted Rosefinch, a bird of high, isolated mountain valleys, which is normally very hard to find.
At the Sorbulak Lake area we admired the colony of 10000+ Rose-coloured Starlings and added many species to the trip list, including Dalmatian Pelican, Red-crested Pochard, Little Bittern, Ruddy Shelduck, Caspian Gull and no less than 23 Terek Sandpipers. The skies were full of lark song: Crested, Oriental, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Sky and Calandra all being recorded. Small woods held Barred Warbler and Blyth's Reed-warbler and breeding Shikra. A flyover Black Stork had many people running from the trees as it soared over our heads.
Near Konchengil we stayed in a camp in the Taukum Desert. Near to the camp we easily found Demoiselle Crane, Greater Sandplover, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Isabelline Wheatear. Next morning we watched displaying male Macqueen's Bustards, found a superb pair of Caspian Plovers and added Bimaculated Lark, Spanish Sparrow and Sykes's Warbler to the ever-growing list.
Heading south we added 10 White-winged Larks to our lark list, watched Long-legged Buzzards hunting over the desert and, in a rocky gorge, admired. amongst others, Grey-necked Bunting, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Pied Wheatear, Chukar, Isabelline and Red-backed Shrikes and Desert Finch.
Driving north, an emergency stop gave us Eurasian Eagle-owls mobbed by Brown-necked Ravens. On nearby lakes were Ferruginous Ducks and the reeds held Paddyfield Warblers. More tree-edged lakes added 10 White-crowned Penduline-tits, White-winged Woodpecker, Turkestan Tit, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Great Bittern and six European Honey-buzzards soaring overhead. A close-by reed bed held the beautiful Black-headed Penduline-tit and further up the road a Turunga woodland gave us Eversmann's Dove. Still in the desert we visited a Muslim cemetery and had excellent views of Saxaul Sparrow, Common Nightingale, Rufous Bush-robin and brief views of Asian Desert Warbler.
The next day was more desert habitat, this time we birded at waterholes known to attract birds. Black-bellied Sandgrouse we easily found and we saw three Pallas's Sandgrouse and about 20 Desert Finches. A rocky hillside added nesting Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Bunting and a pair of sandy-colored Little Owls. Charyn Canyon gave us Lammergeier, Monk Vulture, Eurasian Crag-martin and Rock Petronia. En route to our final stop for the day we added Booted Eagle. The final stop we sat near another waterhole where time rushed by as we watched 100+ Mongolian Finches, three Crimson-winged Finches, 'Bactrian' House Sparrows, Eurasian Linnets and Grey-necked Buntings coming in to drink, whilst Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush flew around the rocks above us. The day finished with Grey-headed Goldfinch next to our hotel.
Another day in the rocky hills and mountains, and what a day. A colony of Pallid Martins started the day but the really good stuff was to come: four Golden Eagles, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Himalayan Griffon-vulture and Saker chasing Rose-coloured Starlings were highlights. Rock and White-capped Buntings sang from the crags and both Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock-thrushes showed well.
For the next three days we were doing the Lake Alakol area. The drive to the lake was interrupted by the occasional stop for such birds as nesting Eastern Rock Nuthatch, four Steppe Eagles and Common 'Steppe' Buzzard. Telegraph wires held numerous European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes. At Alakol we admired breeding-plumaged Black-throated Diver, many waders, Citrine and Masked Wagtails and abundant Eurasian Tree Sparrows. A marsh near the lake held, amongst many others, White-winged Tern, Kentish Plover, Collared Pratincole, Bluethroat and Siberian Stonechat. Great Black-headed Gulls flew back and forth against the blue sky - a magnificent spectacle. Another marsh held a singing male Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler and nearby Montagu's and Pallid Harriers and Common Quail. In the nearby Dzhungarian Mountains we found Meadow Buntings, Black Stork, Golden and Eastern Imperial Eagles, Lammergeier, Monk Vulture, Common Kestrel and Eurasian Hobby.
Our first day on the steppe added White-tailed Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, Black-winged Pratincole, Steppe and Slender-billed Gulls and hundreds of Black Larks. Next day it was 100+ Curlew Sandpipers, about 300 Slender-billed Gulls and about 200 Red-necked Phalaropes. Reed beds near our camp held Western Marsh-harrier, Bearded Parrotbill, Savi's, Paddyfield and Moustached Warblers, and close-by lakes held White-headed Duck, Garganey, Red-necked Grebe and breeding Black-throated Diver with young. A highlight was finding a flock of 11 Sociable Lapwings – Kazakhstan is the place to see these birds. We had now seen all the area's specialities, including Booted Warbler, and had to head back to Almaty for the flight home. All-in-all a superb trip enjoyed by everyone with a tour total of 248 species.