23 May–1 June 2017
Extension to 5 June 2017
Situated on one of the Silk Roads, Kazakhstan has a huge diversity of habitats ranging from barkhans to the Tien Shan Mountains. We have an unsurpassed knowledge of the country and its birds, which include Himalayan Snowcocks and Ibisbill in the mountains, Caspian Plovers in the steppes, Mongolian Finches in the canyons and Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Saxaul Sparrows in the deserts. There is a post-tour extension for Black and White-winged Larks.
Combine this tour with our tour to Uzbekistan and save £350 on the combined total.
Day 1 Flight from London to Almaty or flight from Tashkent to Almaty following our tour to Uzbekistan.
Day 2 Following our early-morning arrival and breakfast we will drive east from Almaty to a valley in the foothills of the spectacular Tien Shan Mountains. Our main target bird will be Meadow Bunting, which is at the extreme western edge of its range here. Other species we may see include Greater Whitethroat rubicola, Common Grasshopper-warbler, Common Rosefinch and Corn, Red-headed and Rock Buntings. This is also an extremely good valley for birds of prey including Cinereous Vulture, Golden and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard and Common Kestrel, and Common Quails call from nearby fields and Daurian Partridge can sometimes be found. Along the river we will look for the leucogaster race of White-throated Dipper as well as White-crowned Penduline-tit, while Azure Tit is common here. It is also a superb valley for butterflies. We will stay overnight in Almaty, where Blyth's Reed-warblers sing in the gardens.
Days 3–4 An early-morning start will be required to drive to Konchengil for a two-night stay. En route we will visit a large lake that holds breeding Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans as well as many passage waders and a huge colony of Rosy Starlings. The desert of Saryesik Atyrau stretches for about 400 kilometres south of Lake Balkhash and this is our destination. It is an uneroded, healthy sand desert with enough vegetation to support rich plant and animal life. As we drive we will see numerous European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Common Cuckoos and Eurasian Golden Orioles. We will stop to look for the distinctive migratory race of House Sparrow known as 'Bactrian' Sparrow and Pied Wheatear of the distinctive white-throated vittata form. Colonies of the attractive Great Gerbil are scattered throughout little valleys surrounded by sand dunes or barkhans. Birds we will be looking for here include Golden Eagle, Short-toed Snake-eagle, Greater Sand-plover, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Asian Desert Warbler and Brown-necked Raven and if we are lucky Macqueen's Bustard and Caspian Plover. Larks abound in the grassy areas: Eurasian and Oriental Skylarks, Greater and Asian Short-toed, Crested, Calandra and Bimaculated Larks are all present. Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers quarter the grasslands and occasionally we find White-winged Larks. The artesian wells near our camp attract migrants and flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. We will also visit a gorge containing petroglyphs where Persian Nuthatch breeds.
Day 5 We will leave camp early and travel north towards Lake Balkhash. Numerous smaller lakes can be found in the desert and they abound with birds including Ferruginous Duck, White-tailed Eagle, Shikra, Oriental Turtle-dove, Indian Golden Oriole, Black-headed Penduline-tit and Eurasian (Caspian) Reed-warbler. Paddyfield and Sykes's Warblers and Isabelline and Southern (Steppe) Grey Shrikes breed in the arid tamarisk-covered areas nearby. Our next stop will be in remnant Turanga woodland where Pale-backed Pigeon, White-winged Woodpecker, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Turkestan Tit breed; we have also seen Pallid Scops-owl here. Continuing, we will visit an old cemetery where Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin, Lesser Whitethroat halimodendri and Saxaul Sparrow can be found. We will return to Almaty for the night.
Day 6 Today we will drive to the spectacular Red and Yellow Canyons of Charyn. En route we will make several stops for Chukar, Eurasian Crag-martin, Blue and Rufous-tailed Rock-thrushes, Hume's Whitethroat and Grey-hooded and Chestnut-breasted Buntings. The canyons are exceedingly scenic and among the birds we may encounter are Egyptian Vulture, Imperial and Steppe Eagles, Lesser Kestrel, Saker Falcon, Upland Buzzard, Demoiselle Crane and Horned Lark. In the afternoon we will visit a well where Rock Petronias, good numbers of Mongolian Finches and occasionally Crimson-winged Finches come to drink, after which we will travel to a nearby village and spend the night in a basic hotel. In the evening we will look for European Scops-owl.
Day 7 This morning we will visit a well where Pallas's Sandgrouse sometimes come to drink; if they do not appear we will search the desert but the species is highly-irruptive and not seen every year. Desert Finches can also be found here amongst the spectacular scenery of the River Ili with the foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains in the distance. In the afternoon we will make our way back towards Almaty for an overnight stay, stopping en route to visit a Pale Sand Martin colony and to look for Long-tailed Shrike.
Day 8 After a good night's sleep we will drive up to an observatory high in the Tien Shan Mountains. The journey will take most of the morning, however, because we will make numerous stops as we ascend to look for Blue Whistling-thrush, Brown and White-throated Dippers, Corn Crake, Willow Tit, Eurasian Nutcracker, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Fire-fronted Serin and Black-throated Accentor. Eventually we will arrive at Great Almaty Lake which, at an altitude of 2400 metres, offers us a chance to see the incredible Ibisbill and Ruddy Shelduck; Merlin and Black Grouse are also possible here. We will arrive at the observatory in time for lunch. In the afternoon, depending on the weather, we can either bird around the observatory area or ascend to the highest navigable point on the road at 3300 metres. Species we will look for above the treeline include Water Pipit, White-winged Redstart, Northern Wheatear, White-tailed Rubythroat, Alpine, Himalayan and Brown Accentors, European (Grey-headed) Goldfinch, Red-mantled Rosefinch and Plain Mountain-finch, while all around us the haunting calls of Himalayan Snowcock may lead us to a male high up on a rocky crag. Raptors found here include Lammergeier and Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons. Previously we have had a lot of success in finding the much rarer Black-headed Mountain-finch while even Northern Hawk Owl, Eurasian Pygmy-owl, Wallcreeper and Red-fronted Rosefinch have been discovered here on previous tours. Blue-capped and Rufous-backed Redstarts, White-browed Tit-warbler, Greenish, Hume's and Sulphur-bellied Warblers, Oriental Turtle-dove and White-winged Grosbeak inhabit the beautiful forests of Tien Shan Spruce and Turkestan Juniper and we will spend time looking for all these species. Throughout the whole area the variety of plant life is astounding, with over 6000 species recorded in this part of central Asia. We will spend two nights in the observatory.
Day 9 Following the morning’s exploration of the area around the observatory we will return to Almaty for the night, birding en route.
Day 10 We will catch an early-morning flight to London arriving later in the day.
Days 10–13 We will board an early-morning flight to the modern capital city of Astana then drive southwest through the country’s vast steppes for 125 kilometres to Korgalzhyn state nature reserve. Birding en-route we will see Red-footed Falcons at a roadside plantation as well as Black Larks, which are numerous along the road. We also have the first chance of spotting one of our main target birds here, Sociable Lapwing. Exploring the endless steppe and forest-steppe country with many large and small, fresh and salt lakes, we will look for Arctic Loon and Greater Flamingo (at the extreme edge of their ranges), Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, White-headed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, 'Steppe' Merlin, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers, Western Marsh-harrier, Steppe Buzzard (vulpinus), Demoiselle Crane, Caspian Tern, Short-eared Owl and White-winged Larks. We will stop at some marshes to admire White-winged Terns together with Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Curlew, Wood and Marsh Sandpiper. We also expect to see Black-winged Pratincole, Pallas's, Slender-billed, Caspian and Common (heinei) Gulls, Booted, Moustached and Savi's Warblers, Great and Eurasian (Caspian) Reed-warbler, Sykes's Yellow and Citrine Wagtails and the korejevi ssp of Twite called Steppe Twite. Vast numbers of Saiga Antelope used to migrate through here but sadly numbers have dwindled over the decades and the only reminder of them now are a few deep gullies in the landscape at ‘pinchpoints’ on their migration. Also present in the steppes are Bobak Marmots and large numbers of Large-toothed, Little and Red-cheeked Sousliks, Long-clawed Ground-squirrel and Common Hamsters, prey for the raptors and owls. Some years there are irruption of Steppe Lemmings and if this occurs there can be an explosion of the Pallid Harrier and Short-eared Owl population. Other years there can be vast numbers of Four-spotted Chasers. We will stay for three nights in private houses in Korgalzhyn village enjoying traditional Kazakh hospitality. Early-afternoon on day thirteen we will drive back to Astana and stop at a regular breeding site for Pine Bunting before we check into a hotel for the night in the city.
Day 14 Early morning departure for the airport to catch the flight back to London, arriving same day.
General Information The climate is variable, from cold in the mountains to hot in the deserts; some rain is possible. Accommodation standards range from good in Almaty with en-suite facilities to more basic in the Tien Shan observatory and in the village in the Suguty Valley with shared facilities. In our camp, each authentic yurt is carpeted and has two proper beds, an electric light and a recharging socket; there are shared hot-water showers and WC tents. On the extension we will be spread around several nearby houses with shared facilities. Food standards are good and most drinks are included. Transport is by comfortable minibus or four-wheel drive. There are no special health requirements. A moderate degree of fitness is required for some of the walks, especially at high altitude. Photographic opportunities are excellent. For examples of the birds photographed in Kazakhstan visit our friends at Kazakhstan Birdtours.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8; maximum group size: 16 with 2 leaders.