Birdfinders 2006 Kazakhstan tour was once more a great success. This year we started in the Tien Shan Mountains enjoying great looks at Azure Tit, Brown Dipper and Blue Whistling-thrush even before we got into the mountains proper. As we reached the tree-line, new birds arrived thick and fast with Ruddy Shelduck, Himalayan Griffon-vulture, Greenish and Hume's Warblers, Black-throated Accentor, Blue-headed Redstart and Red-fronted Serin all somewhat eclipsed by wonderful views of a pair of Ibisbills. With the weather holding, we checked into the observatory, ate lunch and then headed straight up into the high mountains. At the higher observatory we had an amazing encounter with a Lammergeier, which just circled, over our heads for 15 minutes. Seeing Common Cuckoo at 3,300m (way above the tree-line) was somewhat incongruous but both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs were more expected. No fewer than five Güldenstädt's Redstarts were seen (a new record) together with both Brown and Himalayan Accentors, Red-mantled Rosefinch and good numbers of Hodgson's Rosy-finches. A full day at the observatory next day gave us the opportunity to catch up with mountain species we still needed and these included Himalayan Snowcock, Rufous Turtle-dove, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Himalayan Rubythroat, Eversmann's Redstart and White-winged Grosbeak. We had a major surprise when a Northern Hawk-owl seen by several members of the group, the first in this area for several years. Our return journey down the mountains gave us Spotted Nutcracker and amazingly another species rarely recorded in these mountains, a calling Eurasian Pygmy-owl. As we headed east along the old Silk Road, new birds came thick and fast again with European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Red-rumped Swallow, Masked Wagtail, Long-tailed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Eurasian Golden Oriole and vast flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings. After a torrential rainstorm, a European Scops-owl serenaded us to sleep.
Our day in the Surgaty Valley was both very rewarding and eventful! At our usual gorge, Hume's Whitethroats, Pied Wheatear, Blue and Rufous-tailed Rock-thrushes and Red-headed, Rock and White-capped Buntings all showed well before we moved on across the Surgaty Valley stopping for Long-legged Buzzard, Steppe Eagle and Lesser Kestrel. Another stop gave us good numbers of Grey-necked Buntings whilst at Charyn Gorge, a short period of heavy rain didn't deter birding and we were soon enjoying the wonderful views of the gorge as well as the nearby colony of Egyptian and Monk Vultures and Himalayan Griffon-vultures together with our first Isabelline Shrikes of the tour. A walk across the Surgaty Valley failed to produce Pallas's Sandgrouse but did add Greater Short-toed Lark, Shore Lark, Isabelline Wheatears and Southern (Steppe) Grey Shrikes. Our final stop of the day (or so we thought!) was at a waterhole where we enjoyed good numbers of Mongolian Finches (c55) as well as Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Rock Sparrow and many other species previously seen. On our return journey, a Saker Falcon was a nice find but just as we settled down for our journey back to Almaty we endured not one but two punctures. Fortunately, all our drivers in Kazakhstan are also resourceful mechanics so despite a delay of a couple of hours we made it back to the hotel seeing a European Nightjar en-route!
Our three-day excursion into the Barkhans started well at Sorbulak with large numbers of Dalmatian and White Pelicans, Red-crested Pochard, Western Marsh-harrier, the first of a series of Booted Eagles, Caspian Gulls, four Whiskered Terns (a good record in this part of Kazakhstan), Lesser Short-toed and lots of Calandra Larks. During lunch we watched the vast and spectacular colony of Rose-coloured Starlings. Our stop at the 'magic tree' didn't disappoint with a number of passage Blyth's Reed-warblers, which a flock of nine Demoiselle Cranes in the nearby desert was a nice find. Eventually arriving at Konchelgil, we stopped at a new artesian well where Desert Finches were added to our lists. Finally, after checking into our camp, we visited another well where Short-toed Snake-eagle, Collared Pratincole, Bimaculated Lark and two flyover Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were all new. I say camp, but Birdfinders camps are far from basic with electricity for lights in the tents and charging batteries, carpets on the floor, proper beds and bedding, indoor hot water showers and separate tent toilets! During our middle day we just birded around the Barkhans rather than enduring a long drive to look for White-winged Larks and Eastern Rock Nuthatch, which we knew we would see later. An early-morning pre-breakfast excursion was immediately rewarded with wonderful views of several Macqueen's Bustards so with time in hand we stopped off at the water well again and lo and behold enjoyed superb and prolonged views of a male Pallas's Sandgrouse. So into the Barkhans again and soon we were enjoying the first of many Greater Sandplovers. But Caspian Plovers were more elusive this year and we had to drive further than usual. Fortunately, we had a four-wheel drive and after a couple of hours we found a stunning male Caspian Plover. Just to add icing to the cake we also enjoyed great looks at an Asian Desert Warbler. After lunch we visited a Spanish Sparrow colony and then revisited the waterholes seeing many of the previously seen birds. Our return journey to Almaty was very rewarding with many Ferruginous Ducks, Montagu's Harriers, great looks at several Shikra, no less than four White-tailed Eagles, a real, wild Common Pheasant, good numbers of Eversmann's Doves (yellow eye-rings seen!), a White-winged Woodpeckers nest, good numbers of Brown-necked Ravens, great looks at Paddyfield and Syke's Warblers, Turkestan Tits and displaying Saxaul Sparrows.
And so to Alakol Lake. These days the journey isn't quite as arduous as the roads have been considerably improved. A few stops were made en-route with a Black Stork by the roadside and excellent views of a pair of nesting Eastern Rock Nuthatches as well as an unexpected Pale Martin. Arriving at the lake with plenty of light left, we enjoyed the first of many Great Black-headed Gulls. Our first day at the lake was spent looking for the near-mythical Relict Gull. Siberian Stonechat, Bluethroat and many new commoner species were seen but only one member of the group enjoyed a brief fly-over encounter with the gull. In the afternoon, we headed up into the mountains where the highlights were four species of eagles (including Eastern Imperial) and Meadow Bunting. Evening 'seawatch' but still no Relict Gull. Next day. Morning 'seawatch' but still no Relict Gull! So we headed to some marshes, which proved highly rewarding with Richard's Pipits (westernmost edge of their range), good numbers of Oriental Larks and Barred Warbler. One of the prime reasons for visiting this site is for Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers and although we normally find one bird, we were astounded to find up to five birds including three seen. Again, at the extreme western edge of their range. In the afternoon, we chartered a boat for our Relict Gull quest. Heading along the lakeshore we enjoyed great views of large numbers of Great Black-headed Gulls (good breeding year with many young), many Caspian Gulls and a single Caspian Tern. With gathering storm clouds we headed back checking a last flock of Black-headed Gulls and then there it was, a full adult summer-plumaged Relict Gull. The journey back to Almaty next day somehow seemed shorter!
Next day we flew to Astana to start our steppes extension. The drive to our basic accommodation in the reserve (much better than a daily 350km return journey) was pretty eventful with Pallid Harriers, Red-footed Falcons, several Sociable Lapwings, Steppe Gulls, Short-eared Owls, Sykes' Yellow Wagtails, the first of many Black and White-winged Larks and Hooded Crows. The lakeside setting of the accommodation can only be described as idyllic. We spent the next two days in the reserve where Black-throated Diver, Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Great Bittern, Greater Flamingo, Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, White-headed Duck, Osprey, 'Steppe' Merlin, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Pratincole, Red-necked Phalarope, Slender-billed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Booted and Savi's Warblers and Twite were the highlights. There are however, another two things I should mention. Firstly, the huge numbers of voles in the steppes this year resulting in high numbers of predators (we even saw a vole chasing one of the cats at the accommodation!) and the large flock of 40 post-breeding Sociable Lapwings which we saw which surely much be a record on a bird tour. On the last day, we headed back to Astana, birding en-route, where we made a final stop at a site near the presidents Dacha for Pine Bunting. We not only successfully saw the birds but also added 'Siberian' Chiffchaff and managed to escape being arrested by the presidential guard.