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KAZAKHSTAN

18–27 May 2019
Extension to 30 May 2019

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 Snowcock and Ibisbill in the mountains, Caspian Plover in the steppes, Mongolian Finch in the canyons and Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Saxaul Sparrow 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 £300 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 picnic 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, here at the extreme western edge of its range. 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, Himalayan Griffon, Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), Golden and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard and Common Kestrel, while Chukar is common and Common Quail and Corn Crake call from nearby fields. Along the river we will look for the leucogaster race of White-throated Dipper as well as White-crowned Penduline-tit; Azure Tit is common here. This is also a superb valley for butterflies. We will stay overnight on the outskirts of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, where Blyth's Reed Warblers sing in the gardens.

Days 3–4 An early-morning start will be required to drive to Konchengil desert camp for a two-night stay. En route we will visit Sorbulak, a vast landscape of one large and many smaller lakes that hold breeding Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans as well as many passage waders such as Terek Sandpiper and Temminck’s Stint. Other birds may include White-headed Duck, Garganey and White-tailed Eagle and there is a huge colony of Rosy Starlings. The desert of Saryesik Atyrau stretches for about 400 kilometres south of Lake Balkhash and this is our final destination on day three. It is an uneroded, healthy sand desert with enough vegetation to support rich animal and plant life. As we drive we will see numerous European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Common Cuckoos and Western (Black-headed) Yellow Wagtails. We will stop to look for the distinctive migratory race of House Sparrow known as 'Bactrian' Sparrow. 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 Black-bellied and, if we are lucky, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Demoiselle Crane, Short-toed Snake-eagle, Greater Sand-plover, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Asian Desert Warbler and Brown-necked Raven. We will have to work harder, however, to find both Macqueen's Bustard and Caspian Plover. Larks abound in the grassy areas and include Eurasian Skylarks, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Crested, Horned, Calandra and Bimaculated Larks, whilst Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers quarter the grasslands looking for unwary birds. On day four we may also visit a gorge containing petroglyphs where Persian Nuthatch breeds and where we will have chance of seeing Grey-hooded Bunting, Hume’s Whitethroat, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-tailed Shrike, Ruddy Shelduck and possibly Desert Finch; Imperial Eagle, Egyptian Vulture and Saker Falcon also nest in the area. We will spend all of day four in these environs covering as much as possible of this vast area and only returning to camp for dinner. Two nights in yurts in Konchengil desert camp.

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, Shikra, Oriental Turtle-dove, Indian Golden Oriole, White-crowned Penduline-tit and Eurasian (Caspian) Reed Warbler, while Sykes's Warblers and Southern (Steppe) Grey Shrikes breed in the arid tamarisk-covered areas nearby. Our next stop will be in remnant Tauranga woodland where Pale-backed Pigeon, White-winged Woodpecker, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Great (Turkestan) Tit breed; we have also seen Pallid Scops-owl here but we will be very fortuitous to find one at a daytime roost. Next we will visit an old Muslim cemetery where Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin, Lesser Whitethroat halimodendri and Saxaul Sparrow can all be found. We will then return south to a hotel in Kapshagai, around 50km north of Almaty, to put us in a good position for the drive east tomorrow and avoid the worst of the traffic in the city.

Day 6 Today we will drive to the spectacular canyons of Charyn River. En route we will make several stops looking for Chukar, Eurasian Crag-martin, Blue and Rufous-tailed Rock-thrushes, Hume's Whitethroat and Grey-hooded and Chestnut-breasted Buntings. The canyons are extremely scenic and among the birds we may encounter are Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures, Himalayan and Eurasian Griffons, Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), Imperial and Steppe Eagles, Lesser Kestrel, Saker Falcon, 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 further east to the small town of Chundzha, close to the Chinese border, where we will spend the night in a basic hotel.

Day 7 This morning we will spend time in the Sugaty Valley and Boguty Mountains, trying to catch up with species we may have missed. The River Ili with the singing barkhans and the foothills of the Dzungaria Ala-Tau Mountains in the distance provide a spectacular view! In the afternoon, we will make our way back towards Almaty, stopping en route to visit a Pale Martin colony and to look for Long-tailed Shrike, for a three-night stay to the south of the city at the base of the Tien Shan Mountains.

Days 8–9 On both days we will drive up into the Tien Shan Mountains. The first day’s journey may take most of the morning as we will make numerous stops to look for Blue Whistling-thrush, Brown and White-throated Dippers, Willow Tit, Eurasian Nutcracker, European (Grey-headed) Goldfinch, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Fire-fronted Serin and Black-throated Accentor. Eventually we will arrive at Great Almaty Lake, which, at an altitude of 2500 metres, offers us a chance to see the incredible Ibisbill and Ruddy Shelduck whilst Merlin and Black Grouse are also possible here. We will take packed lunches with us and, 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 to the old Komostation at 3300 metres. Weather can quickly change so we will need to be flexible with our itinerary. Species we will look for above the treeline include Water Pipit, White-winged Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Alpine, Brown and Himalayan Accentors and Plain Mountain-finch, while all around us the haunting calls of Himalayan Snowcock may lead us to spot a male calling from high up on a rocky crag. Raptors found here include Bearded Vulture 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-tailed Rubythroat, White-browed Tit-warbler, Greenish, Hume's and Sulphur-bellied Warblers, Oriental Turtle-dove, Red-mantled Rosefinch 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.

Day 10 After an early breakfast, we will head back down through the city to catch an early-morning flight to London via Astana, arriving later in the day or take the following extension.

Extension

Days 10–12 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 look for the colony of Red-footed Falcons at a roadside plantation followed shortly afterwards by Black Larks, which are numerous along the roadside from now on. We will also have the first chance of spotting one of our main target birds here: Sociable Lapwing. Over the next two full days, we will explore 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 (both at the extreme edges of their ranges), Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, White-headed Duck, Common and Red-crested Pochards, Tufted Duck, 'Steppe' Merlin, Pallid and Montagu's Harriers, Western Marsh-harrier, Common (Steppe) Buzzard (vulpinus), Demoiselle Crane, Caspian Tern, Short-eared Owl and White-winged Lark. We will stop at various marshes to admire colonies of breeding White-winged Terns and Black-winged Pratincoles together with passage Little Stints and Curlew and Wood Sandpipers. Breeding waders include Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit and Marsh Sandpiper. We also expect to see Pallas's, Slender-billed and Common (heinei) Gulls as well as the numerous Steppe barabensis race of Caspian Gull. In the vast reedbeds Paddyfield, Moustached and Savi's Warblers and Great and Eurasian (Caspian) Reed Warblers all breed whilst Booted Warbers breed in rank vegetation alongside water courses. Western (Sykes's) Yellow and Citrine Wagtails and the korejevi race of Twite called Steppe Twite also breed here. Vast numbers of Saiga Antelope used to migrate through this reserve 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 and Long-clawed Ground-squirrel, prey for the raptors and owls. Some years there are irruptions of Steppe Lemmings and if this occurs there can be an explosion of the Pallid Harrier and Short-eared Owl populations. 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.

Day 13 Early morning departure back to Astana airport to catch an early-afternoon flight to London, arriving the same day.

General Information The climate can be highly variable, from cold and wet in the mountains to hot and dusty in the deserts. Accommodation standards range from good in Almaty with en-suite facilities to more basic 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. Visas are not required for UK citizens for stays of 15 days or less. For examples of the birds photographed in Kazakhstan visit our photo galleries.

Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8; maximum group size: 16.

Black Lark

Black Lark

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