IRAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Iran: Day 1 Our Iran birding tour begins at Tehran with a morning flight to Zahedan in the northern part of Persian Baluchistan, from where we will head northwards to the remote town of Zabol for an overnight stay.
Our main purpose in coming to this remote corner of Iran is to observe the poorly-known Sistan (or Afghan) Scrub Sparrow, which is nowadays sometimes split from Dead Sea Sparrow and which is endemic to eastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan.
As well as the sparrow, there are also Mourning Wheatears of the eastern form (sometimes treated as a distinct species under the name Eastern or Persian Mourning Wheatear). We will also encounter a number of more widespread species that will also feature during the rest of the tour.
Iran: Day 2 We will have time for some more birding around Zabol before we head for Bam for an overnight stay, enjoying the wild scenery of Baluchistan as we travel towards the southwest.
Iran: Day 3 This morning we continue our journey to Minab in southern Baluchistan, where we will stay for two nights. The journey will take us through a stark desert landscape, punctuated by patches of irrigated agriculture, date gardens and tree-lined wadis. This afternoon we shall have our first chance for birding in the Minab region.
Iran: Day 4 From our base in Minab, we will explore southwards along the Mekran (or Makran) coast of Persian Baluchistan. This is an extremely inhospitable region of barren ‘moonscape’ deserts, saline flats and coastal sand dunes, with temperatures regularly soaring to the high 40s Centigrade (well over 100 Fahrenheit) in July and August. There are, however, some patches of acacia and tamarisk woodland in the dry river beds, and it is here that we will focus much of our attention.
We are now in an area where the Palearctic Region and the Oriental Region meet. The star attractions are Sind Woodpecker, a species endemic to Iran and Pakistan, and the near-endemic Afghan Babbler (split from Common and shared only with adjacent Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Primarily Oriental species that extend into the Palearctic in this area include Grey Francolin, Red-wattled Lapwing, Spotted Owlet, Indian Roller, Sand Lark, White-eared Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Bay-backed Shrike, House Crow, Common Myna, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Chestnut-shouldered (or Yellow-throated) Sparrow and Indian Silverbill.
Additional species we are likely to encounter include Oriental Honey Buzzard (a winter visitor to the groves in the coastal plain), Black Kite, Shikra, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Collared Dove, Laughing Dove, Pallid Swift, Green Bee-eater, Crested Lark, Barn Swallow, Graceful Prinia, Sykes’s Warbler (split from Booted), and Southern Grey and Rufous-tailed Shrikes. With luck we will also find Brown-necked Raven.
We will also explore the adjacent coast, where the long sandy beaches, mudflats, tidal inlets and patches of mangrove support such interesting breeding species as Striated (or Green-backed) Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Western Reef Heron, the strange Crab-plover (this sole member of a monotypic bird family is a winter visitor to the area, but some should still be present), Great Thick-knee and Indian Reed Warbler (split from Clamorous). We also have chances for Great Knot and two more specialities, Sooty Gull and White-cheeked Tern, although all are uncommon and often tricky to find.
Other species we may well find in the coastal habitats of the area include Little Egret, Grey Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Dalmatian Pelican, Western Osprey, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Kentish, Lesser Sand, Greater Sand and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Sanderling, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Terek, Common, Curlew and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone, Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua), Black-headed, Slender-billed, Caspian and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and Caspian, Gull-billed, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Sandwich, Common, Little and Saunders’s Terns.
Iran: Day 5 After some final birding in the Minab region, we will drive to Bandar Abbas for an overnight stay. Bandar Abbas is a major port on the shores of the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. We will spend time this afternoon checking out the numerous shorebirds and terns that frequent the coastline and mudflats adjacent to the city.
Iran: Day 6 This morning we will visit Kuh-e-Genu, an isolated mountain rising to 2370m, only 25km north of Bandar Abbas. The spectacular winding road up the mountain takes us through a variety of vegetation zones until we end up in scattered junipers.
Special birds we will be looking for here include See-see Partridge, Pale Crag Martin, Desert Lark, Long-billed Pipit, the restricted-range Hume’s Wheatear, Variable Wheatear, Streaked Scrub (or Scrub) Warbler (now considered a monotypic bird family in its own right), Upcher’s and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Rock Nuthatch and Striolated Bunting. We should also come across Red-rumped Swallow and Blue Rock Thrush.
Later in the day we will catch a flight to Ahvaz in the province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran for a three nights stay.
Iran: Days 7-8 The city of Ahvaz lies on the vast alluvial plain of the Karkheh, Dez and Karun rivers which rise amidst the snow-capped peaks of the Zagros Mountains far to the north. Much of the plain is now a treeless desert with scattered patches of irrigated agriculture, but along the Karkheh and Dez rivers there are narrow strips of dense riverine woodland, dominated by tamarisks, poplars and Salvadora persica. These woodlands have been protected since the 1960s as the last remaining natural habitat of the critically endangered Mesopotamian Fallow Deer.
We will spend some time exploring these woodlands, and while we will have very little chance of seeing the deer, we will have no difficulty in finding Grey Hypocolius, a common breeding bird in this area. Somewhat like a cross between a grey shrike and a waxwing, this curious Middle Eastern endemic is now widely recognized as belonging to its own monotypic family. We should also find Dead Sea Sparrows breeding in the thickets, along with many European Turtle Doves. Other notable breeding birds of the area include Egyptian Nightjar (this must surely be the easiest place to see this sought-after species!), Ménétries’s Warbler and the distinctive Mesopotamian Crow – a very black and white form of the Carrion/Hooded Crow complex that is now sometimes considered to be a separate species.
More widespread breeding species include Black-winged Kite, Black Francolin, Eurasian Stone-curlew, Common Wood Pigeon, White-throated Kingfisher, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Common Nightingale and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.
There are many small wetlands along the rivers, as well as some large lagoons, and here we may find Pygmy Cormorant, Western Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco and Purple Herons, the threatened Marbled Duck, Grey-headed Swamphen (split from Western or Purple), Collared Pratincole, White-tailed Lapwing, an assortment of migrant waders including Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Pied Kingfisher, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Zitting Cisticola and both Clamorous and European Reed Warblers.
Where there is a rich growth of marsh vegetation we shall concentrate on finding another great specialty of this region, the little-known Iraq Babbler. This very local and now globally threatened species is largely confined to the Mesopotamian marshes in neighbouring Iraq, but extends over the border into southwestern Iran.
Our prime target, however, will be the Basra Reed Warbler. Although first described as a distinct species by Ticehurst in 1920, the status of this distinctive form (intermediate in size between European Reed Warbler and Great Reed Warbler) remained controversial until the 1990s. Long known to breed in the Mesopotamian marshes on the Iraqi side of the border, it has more recently been found to breed in the Iranian portion of the marshlands.
As we explore this area we will stop briefly to admire the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, a very impressive step pyramid of great antiquity that dates back to the 13th century BC and the Elamite dynasty.
Iran: Day 9 This morning we will catch a flight to Tehran. Iran’s capital is a large, relatively modern city at the base of the Elburz Mountains, situated at about 1600m (5250ft) on the edge of the great central desert basin. Behind the city the snow-capped peaks of the Elburz rise to well over 4000m (13,100ft).
After our arrival we will drive up the dry and barren south-facing slopes of the Elburz almost to the snow-line and then down through the luxuriant forests and meadows on the northern slopes. En route we should encounter some of the commoner birds of northern Iran, such as Common Kestrel, Common Swift, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Eurasian Hoopoe, White Wagtail, Cetti’s Warbler, Eurasian Magpie, Rook and Hooded Crow. We will pause at a high pass where there is a good chance of finding White-winged Snowfinch and Water Pipit.
Eventually we will arrive at Kelardasht in the Chalus region, where we will spend two nights. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration this afternoon.
Iran: Day 10 During our time in the Kelardasht area we will visit some beautiful areas of forest. The star attraction here is the Caspian (or Hyrcanian) Tit, a split from Sombre Tit, a species with which it was mistakenly lumped: it is in fact more closely related to Willow Tit. Caspian Tit is restricted to the Caspian forest zone stretching from eastern Azerbaijan to northeastern Iran. Other major specialities in this habitat are Green Warbler and Semi-collared Flycatcher, two restricted-range summer visitors to the area.
We are now very much back in the Western Palearctic avifaunal subregion, and indeed the majority of the birds of this area scarcely differ from those found in British woodlands and thickets, including such species as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Common Cuckoo, European Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, European Robin, Common Redstart, Common Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher, Coal, Great and Eurasian Blue Tits, Eurasian Jay and Common Chaffinch.
Other species that we are likely to encounter in this habitat, or in open areas of grassland with stones and shrubs, include Eurasian Hobby, Wood Lark, Tawny Pipit,
Red-backed Shrike, Siberian Stonechat, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet Common Rosefinch, and Corn, Ortolan and Black-headed Buntings.
We will also head up into the higher valleys in the Elburz Mountains in search of some high-altitude species. Prime targets in this spectacular habitat with a backdrop of snowy peaks include Caspian Snowcock, Radde’s Accentor and Red-fronted Serin.
In addition we may well come across Golden Eagle, ‘real’ Rock Doves, Alpine Swift, Horned Lark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Grey Wagtail, White-throated Dipper, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch, Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting. There are also good chances for Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) and Wallcreeper.
Iran: Day 11 After some final birding in the Kelardasht area we will descend to the intensive rice lands of the Caspian Sea coast and then head eastwards to Sari for an overnight stay. Along the way we will visit one an area of lowland forest where we should see the smart Red-breasted Flycatcher, as well as Long-tailed Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch. We will also visit a reed-fringed lake near the Caspian Sea (which has a surface 26m or 85ft below sea-level!). Here the restricted-range Black-headed Penduline Tit is easy top find. Other species we may well find in the area include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Little Bittern, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Common Kingfisher, Great Reed Warbler and perhaps Moustached Warbler. A number of migrant shorebirds should be present, along with Whiskered and White-winged Terns.
Iran: Day 12 Today we will head eastwards to Bastam near Shahrud for an overnight stay. En route we will spend some time exploring the drier slopes of the eastern Elburz in search of such specialities as the lovely White-throated Robin (also known as Irania), Finsch’s Wheatear, the diminutive Plain Leaf Warbler (a bird little bigger than a Goldcrest), Hume’s Whitethroa and Asian Crimson-winged Finch. As we continue onto the northern rim of the Central Plateau, the landscape becomes increasingly arid. Other likely new birds today include Lesser Kestrel, Isabelline Wheatear
Iran: Day 13 This morning we will look for Bimaculated Lark and we even have a chance for Red-headed Bunting, here at the southwestern edge of its distribution. Other new species in this area are likely to include Long-legged Buzzard and Greater Short-toed Lark. Afterwards we will head eastwards to the vicinity of Touran National Park for a two nights stay in a small village. This afternoon we will commence our exploration of the Touran area.
Iran: Day 14 Iran’s largest reserve, Touran National Park, lies at the northeastern edge of the great Dasht-e-Kavir desert, about 150km east of Shahrud. Established in 1973 and covering 18,000 square kilometres, this vast reserve protects a wide range of semi-desert and desert habitats from Artemisia steppe in the arid foothills of the Elburz in the north through bushy Zygophyllum steppe, sparsely vegetated sand dunes and bare stony plains to the immense salt wastes of the Dasht-e-Kavir proper in the south. We will have the best part of two days to explore this wonderful area.
Our primary target will be the highly localized Pleske’s Ground Jay, not only a member of a uniquely Central Asian group of aberrant corvids, but also a species endemic to the eastern deserts of Iran. The predominant vegetation in its favoured habitat is Zygophyllum, a desert shrub which can grow to two metres in height, and we will wait for a ground jay to pop up on top of a bush to give its ringing call, or try to keep up with this swift runner as it dashes between the bushes.
We will also be looking out for a number of other birds characteristic of much of Iran’s central plateau, a number of which are major specialities, including Egyptian Vulture, Cream-coloured Courser (usually hard to find), Black-bellied and Crowned Sandgrouse, Pallid Scops Owl, Bar-tailed and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Desert Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, Steppe Grey Shrike, the enigmatic Pale Rockfinch (or Pale Rock Sparrow), and Desert and Trumpeter Finches. We should also encounter the stately Macqueen’s Bustard (split from Houbara), which is still a fairly common breeding species in this area, but finding one or two may require persistence.
In the rugged mountains of Touran we will be wanting to see Red-tailed (or Rufous-tailed, or Persian) Wheatear and Grey-necked Bunting, both of which breed here in good numbers. Eurasian Tree Sparrows occur alongside House Sparrows in the attractive local villages, which comprise mud brick, flat-roofed houses arranged in a step formation so that the villages look like defensive citadels.
Vast numbers of migrants pass over the deserts of Iran in both spring and autumn, and while the great majority doubtless make the desert crossing in a single hop, the luxuriant vegetation at the many small oases always seems to attract stragglers, such as European Roller, European Nightjar, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-throated and Tree Pipits, Citrine and Yellow Wagtails, Green and Willow Warblers, Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers, and Rosy Starling whatever the weather. Larger migrants such as Pallid Harrier and Steppe Eagle also make a pause in the reserve.
Touran is one of the last strongholds of the Asiatic Wild Ass, or Onager, in Iran and, although numbers have been much depleted in recent years, we have a very good chance of seeing this endangered species. The critically endangered Asian form of the Cheetah still survives here, but sadly visitors to the reserve have virtually no chance of an encounter.
Iran: Day 15 After some final birding in Touran we will head westwards along the northern edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir to Tehran, where the tour ends this evening.