This year's Kazakhstan tour can only be described as exceptional with a whole host of difficult, rarely-seen or just rare birds. From the first morning when a White Stork was seen flying over Sorbulak and a pair of Slavonian Grebes found on a small lake there, it was obvious that this was going to be a record-breaking tour. The White Stork is very rare in the extreme south-west of the country with no recent breeding records but to find one in the centre of the country was amazing. Whilst Slavonian Grebe occasionally breeds in the north of the country our pair on breeding habitat was an exceptional record so far south. Also on the lake were both Dalmation and White Pelicans, a male Shikra perched about 10 metres from the bus, Long-legged Buzzards, two each of Steppe and White-tailed Eagles and single Booted Eagle and Short-toed Snake-eagle, Oriental Turtle-doves, European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Black-headed Wagtails, Lesser Grey Shrikes, a huge colony of Rose-coloured Starlings and Red-headed Buntings. En-route, we saw plenty of Pied Wheatears and at our usual 'magic tree' a wealth of displaced migrants including Spotted Flycatchers and a Desert Lesser Whitethroat. From our comfortable desert camp (electricity, proper beds and toilets and hot water showers), we enjoyed superb views of Demoiselle Cranes, no less than 14 Macqueen's Bustards, Pallas's Sandgrouse, Asian Desert Warblers building a nest, lots of Greater Sandplovers and Caspian Plovers (including a superb male which was so bright it resembled Oriental Plover), Steppe Grey and Isabelline Shrikes, Bimaculated and White-winged Larks, Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks, Rufous-tailed Rock-thrushes and Desert Finches. The most amazing find was however, a flock of 45 Oriental Honey-buzzards (with a few European Honey-buzzards) migrating over the Tamgaly petroglyph site followed by a Saker Falcon! The Grey-necked Buntings seemed almost less than noteworthy after that event!
En-route back to Almaty we stopped at garage where in the adjacent trees we found a veritable wealth of migrating birds including Blyth's, Great and Clamorous Reed-warblers, Paddyfield Warbler, Common Nightingale (hafizi), Common Rosefinch and strangest of all, a Brambling! Next, we worked the Ile lakes in the Barkhans seeing Ferruginous Duck, Syke's Warblers, Azure and Turkestan Tits and Brown-necked Ravens, whilst in the Turanga groves we easily found White-winged Woodpeckers and Eversmann's Doves. The major surprise however was firstly finding a Striated Scops-owl at daytime roost, then a pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. The scops-owl is not only rare and rarely seen but, to our knowledge, has never been photographed before in the country. A slight detour gave us excellent views of Saxaul Sparrow and Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin whilst two more Oriental Honey-buzzards flew overhead. Back at the hotel in Almaty, Masked Wagtail and Long-tailed Shrike were nice additions.
Next we headed east into the Surguty valley where we stayed overnight at a basic hotel (still more comfortable than camping in this cold, barren landscape!). Here, we found Egyptian Vultures on the nest, breeding White-crowned Penduline-tits, Blue Rock-thrush, four species of buntings in the canyons including both Rock and White-capped Buntings. Hume's Whitethroats, good numbers of Himalayan Griffon-vultures, incredible views of a pair of Monk Vultures on the ground, Lammergeier and another Saker Falcon and Horned Larks. At a waterhole, no less that 150 Mongolian Finches came into drink accompanied by four Crimson-winged Finches together with Tawny Pipit and Rock Sparrow. On the way back to our hotel we watched a mixed colony of Sand and Pale (recently split) Martins whilst in the evening, we enjoyed good views of Laughing Dove and Grey-headed Goldfinch followed at dusk by super views of a Eurasian Scops-owls for comparison with yesterday's bird!
Up into the mountains and the weather was far from kind. We persevered however and were rewarded with Blue Whistling-thrush, Brown Dipper, Ruddy Shelduck, all three redstarts (Blue-capped, Eversmann's and the gorgeous Güldenstädt's), Spotted Nutcracker, a pair of Ibisbill on the nest (watched from a safe distance), Himalayan Snowcock, Altai, Brown and Black-throated Accentors, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Chough, Songar Tit, Plain Mountain-finch, Red-fronted Serin, Red-mantled Serin, White-winged Grosbeak. The most amazing event however, was a Wallcreeper landing virtually at our feet following a snowstorm! Greenish and Hume's Warblers were abundant as usual but both Sulphur-bellied Warbler and Severtzsov's Tit-warbler were difficult this year due to the very late spring. As usual, the most beautiful bird here, Himalayan Rubythroat, was warmly received by all!
On to Alakol Lake and our pleasant lakeside cabins. En-route, we secured wonderful views of Eastern Rock Nuthatch whilst at the lake a great deal of effort was put into seeing Relict Gull (successfully with an adult and second year bird). There were plenty of Great Black-headed Gulls whilst a nearby muddy spit gave us a female Lesser Sandplover, another rarity for the country. Meadow Buntings put in a good performance in the Dzungarian Mountains and a European Nightjar was watched at just two metres at daytime roost, but this was totally eclipsed by a pair of Sakers sat on the ground just 50 metres away! At a nearby marsh, Richard's Pipits and Siberian Stonechats were common this year, and a hybrid Isabelline/Red-backed Shrike initially resembled Brown Shrike! Common Quail were present in good numbers and we heard a Corn Crake. A good find was two breeding pairs of Oriental Lark. Around the hotel Eurasian Golden Orioles were very conspicuous, as were the breeding Eurasian Hobbies but a male Himalayan Citrine Wagtail on the lakeshore was at a very low level.
On the Astana steppe extension the birds certainly didn't 'let up'! As we headed towards Kurgalgin, we encountered first Red-footed Falcons, then the start of Black Larks which as usual were numerous. A few White-winged Larks provided supporting cast as we entered the Kurgalgin reserve (most companies don't even visit the reserve proper), where we stayed for three nights in lakeside cabins. The star bird here is always Sociable Lapwing and once again we achieved superb views without disturbing this critically endangered bird. About 73 pairs breed on the reserve and this may account for half the world's population now. Supporting cast included Black-throated Diver and Greater Flamingo breeding almost side-by-side (where else in the world?), White-headed Duck, wonderful, ghostly, Pallid Harriers, squadrons of dainty White-winged Black Terns, Red-necked Phalaropes (c.100,000!), Black-winged Pratincole, Booted Warbler, the endemic sub-species of Twite and most amazing of all, four Desert Finches, the second record for the reserve! Finally, at the last gasp, on our way back to Astana airport for the flight home via Almaty, we added the last new bird of the tour, a male Pine Bunting.
This was indeed a most outstanding tour with an amazing total of 270 species recorded which we believe is a record for a tour of Kazakhstan. Birdfinders does however, offer the most extensive tour of Kazakhstan and we use the best bilingual birdguide in Svetlana Annenkova.