CENTRAL ASIA: KAZAKHSTAN, UZBEKISTAN & TURKMENISTAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 1 Our Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan birding tour begins this morning at Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.
From the city, we head southwards towards the border with Tajikistan, where we will stay overnight in the Zaamin area.
Zaamin National Park hosts some beautiful mixed forest of junipers and broad-leaved species and the mountains here on the Uzbekistan-Tadjikistan border are in fact an outlier of the Tien Shan range. This scenic area holds several specialities, including in particular the splendid yellow-breasted form of the Azure Tit (which is sometimes split as Yellow-breasted Tit) and the range-restricted Blyth’s Rosefinch, a species that occurs from this region southeastwards to Pakistan and Ladakh. In addition, Hume’s Whitethroat is restricted as a breeding bird to Central Asia and Iran, while Rufous-naped Tit and White-capped Bunting breed only in southern Central Asia and the western Himalayas.
We should also come across Griffon and Himalayan Vultures, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Booted Eagle, wild as opposed to feral Rock Doves, Red-rumped Swallow, Common House Martin, Common Starling, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Mistle Thrush, European Greenfinch, Common Rosefinch and Rock Bunting.
During this season there are sometimes migrant European Honey Buzzards moving through the Chatkal and more rarely a Crested Honey Buzzard puts in an appearance.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 2 After some further birding at Zaamin we will head westwards to the city of Samarkand for a two nights stay.
Later this afternoon, there will be an opportunity to admire the remarkable architecture and intricate decoration of Samarkand’s rich heritage.
The historic city of Samarkand on the Silk Road was founded over 2500 years ago and was the capital of the empire of Sogdiana. Alexander the Great, who took the city in 329 BC, wrote that “everything I have heard about the beauty of Marakanda is true, except that it is more beautiful than I could imagine”.
Later Samarkand became the capital of the great Mongol conqueror Timur, the centre of an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to the Ganges. Unlike Tashkent, its great rival, which was completely rebuilt after the disastrous 1966 earthquake, Samarkand still possesses many visible reminders of its long and wonderful but turbulent history. The skyline of the city is punctuated by the huge domes and minarets of its mosques, tombs and religious schools, in particular the stunningly beautiful Registan complex, the enormous and as yet only partly restored mosque of Bibi Khanum and Timur’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir. Alexander’s words are as true today as they were then.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 3 Samarkand is situated in the Zeravshan valley below the mountain range of the same name, itself an outlier of the Tien Shan. Beyond the city limits, fields and orchards fill the wide Zeravshan valley but eventually, these give way to grassy uplands, rocky crags and wooded valleys as we enter the foothills of the Zeravshan range. Here we will be concentrating on finding such special birds as White-winged Woodpecker, Hume’s Short-toed Lark, the beautiful White-throated Robin, Finsch’s Wheatear, Upcher’s and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Eastern Rock Nuthatch and especially the handsome Red-headed Bunting. The local form of the Great Tit is sometimes split as Turkestan Tit.
Additional species we may well encounter include Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Hobby, Chukar Partridge, Alpine Swift, Eurasian Crag Martin, Cetti’s, Eastern Olivaceous, Eastern Orphean and Greenish Warblers, Common Nightingale, Pied Wheatear, Blue and Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrushes, Common Blackbird, the splendid Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Indian Golden Oriole, Red-tailed (or Turkestan) Shrike (breeding only in Central Asia and Iran), Lesser Grey Shrike, Western Jackdaw, Rook, Northern (or Common) Raven, Rock Sparrow, European Goldfinch (the local form here is sometimes split as Grey-capped Goldfinch) and Corn Bunting.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 4 This morning we will take the modern high-speed train that nowadays connects the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand to Bukhara. We will overnight at Bukhara.
Bukhara was one of the great trading cities of the ancient Silk Road. There will be an opportunity later this afternoon to explore the old city. One can only gaze in wonder at the intricate architecture of Bukhara’s famous mosques and Islamic schools.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 5 This morning we will explore some wetland areas with adjacent scrub on the fringe of the Kyzyl Kum desert, where our main targets will be Marbled Duck, the lovely White-tailed Lapwing, the restricted-range Menetries’s Warbler, Sykes’s Warbler and genuine wild Common (or Ring-necked) Pheasants.
Other species we are likely to encounter in the Bukhara region include Little Grebe, Great and and perhaps Pygmy Cormorants, Grey and Purple Herons, Great Egret, Glossy Ibis, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Black Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Shikra, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Collared Pratincole, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Little Stint, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Little Tern, Laughing and Eurasian Collared Doves, Common Cuckoo, Little Owl, Common Swift, Common Kingfisher, beautiful Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters, European Roller, Eurasian Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Oriental Skylark, Barn Swallow, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), the Black-headed form of the Western Yellow Wagtail, the Masked form of the White Wagtail, Clamorous Reed Warbler (of the form brunnescens, sometimes split as Indian Reed Warbler), Common Whitethroat, Pied Bush Chat, Isabelline Wheatear, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Spotted Flycatcher, Long-tailed Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, the aptly-named Rosy Starling, Common Myna and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. More uncommon possibilities include Little Egret, Common Greenshank and European Turtle Dove.
Afterwards, we will transfer to Turkmenabat, a town situated on the Amu Darya River and just over the Turkmenistan border, where we will stay overnight. We will explore the desert country outside Turkmenabat this afternoon.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 6 A prime target in the Turkmenabat region will be the uncommon and localized Zarudnyi’s Sparrow, nowadays treated as distinct from the Desert Sparrow of the Sahara Desert and restricted to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and perhaps Northeast Iran. This is a species we used to see here regularly on visits to the area during the days of the Soviet Union and its aftermath and is a species we refound here recently.
Another much-wanted bird will be the striking Turkestan (or Pander’s) Ground Jay; a member of an entirely Central Asian and much-sought-after group of species that seem to have rather loose affinities with the corvids. This is one of the easiest ground jays to find and we have a good chance of seeing our first examples at the roadside, while we can expect to find more by walking into their desert habitat. We will be able to study this strange but beautiful endemic bird as it runs about the sandy desert or glides between bushes on stiff wings, exposing its wing pattern of brilliant white trimmed with black.
A characteristic bird of the Kyzyl Kum is the delightful Asian Desert Warbler, which typically plays hide and seek with birders amongst the low bushes, but can sometimes be observed poised delicately on top of a shrub, uttering its scratchy song. Other good birds we should find in the area include Great Grey Shrike of the Central Asian form pallidirostris (sometimes split as Steppe Grey Shrike), Desert Whitethroat, the perky little Streaked Scrub Warbler (a monotypic bird family) and Desert Finch. In addition, we may well find some Spanish Sparrows amongst the many House Sparrows of the migratory form bactrianus (a potential split).
Mammals are mostly inconspicuous but are likely to include Tolai Hare and Long-clawed Ground Squirrel.
Afterwards, we will return to Bukhara for an overnight stay.
[Please note: in the event that the Turkmenistan border is closed to tourism at the time of the tour (something that can happen unpredictably) we will spend an extra night at Bukhara and explore areas of the Kyzyl Kum desert in Uzbekistan where all the above species are straightforward to find with the exception of Zarudnyi’s Sparrow.]
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 7 This morning we take the high-speed train back to Tashkent. From Tashkent airport, we will catch an afternoon flight to Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan, for a four nights stay.
The city is named after its famous apples and lies at the foot of the steep-sided Alatau range, whose peaks climb to over 4000m and form a snow-white wall to the south of the city. The highest peak here is Mount Talgar (4951m), which dominates the whole area. This pleasant city, with its 1.3 million inhabitants, wide streets and many trees, stands on the site of a former silk road town, but little remains of the past after the ravages of earthquakes, avalanches and mudslides.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Days 8-9 The Zailiyskiy Alatau range, part of the Tien Shan chain, is surely one of the most splendid places in Central Asia. Birding in this magnificent area is carried out against a backdrop of some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Asia. Huge, jagged, snow-covered peaks will tower above us on all sides as we search for high altitude birds.
With a road that continues right up to 3400m, birding here is mostly quite easy. Amongst majestic forests of Tien Shan (or Schrenck’s) Spruce and along the rushing rivers we will look for the attractive Blue-capped Redstart (a speciality with a limited distribution in Central Asia and the western Himalayas), as well as Brown Dipper, Blue Whistling Thrush, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Spotted Nutcracker and the uncommon Willow Tit (the local form is sometimes split as Songar Tit).
Higher up, the juniper-spattered slopes hold such major Central Asian specialities as Black-throated Accentor, Eversmann’s Redstart and Red-mantled Rosefinch, as well as the superb Himalayan (or White-tailed) Rubythroat (which outshines even its Siberian cousin in its striking plumage), Red-fronted Serin, White-winged Grosbeak and the tiny, lilac-coloured White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, while areas with boulders are favoured by Sulphur-bellied Warbler.
The alpine meadows are the home of Water Pipit, Brown Accentor, Altai Accentor (a speciality of Central Asia that occurs in winter in the western Himalayas), and Plain Mountain Finch, whilst from the high crags the curlew-like whistles of Himalayan Snowcocks float down the gullies. These turkey-sized gamebirds, another speciality restricted to Central Asia and the western Himalayas, can be hard to track down in some parts of their range, but here they are positively easy and we should be able to get good enough views to appreciate the delicate hues of their exquisite finery.
At the highest altitudes, amongst the most desolate rocky terrain where boulders and crags project from the snow, we should encounter the attractive Güldenstädt’s Redstart and if we are lucky that avian butterfly, the delightful Wallcreeper.
Overhead we will look out for the distinctive silhouette of the Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), as well as Golden Eagle and swirling flocks of both Alpine and Red-billed Choughs.
Another target species in these mountains is the enigmatic Ibisbill, which we have a very good chance of finding at the margins of an alpine lake. These very distinctive and curious-looking waders (which are usually placed in their own family, Ibidorhynchidae) can be surprisingly hard to discern amongst the grey boulders of their favourite habitat. They used to be routinely found in this area, but increasing disturbance by all-terrain vehicles is putting their survival at risk.
Other regular species include Common Wood Pigeon, Tree Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Eurasian Wren, Goldcrest, Coal Tit and sometimes Eurasian Treecreeper.
If we are really in luck we will encounter one of the most rarely seen birds of the area, such as Black Grouse, Tengmalm’s (or Boreal) Owl or Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker.
Mammals are not a conspicuous element of the fauna, but we may see a herd of Alpine Ibex picking its way across the precipitous crags and observe some ever-alert Altai Marmots at the entrances to their burrows.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 10 New motorways have hugely shortened the journey time, so today we will make a day trip to the dramatic gorge country of the Charyn River. The high plains of the area are bordered by rugged mountain ranges, some still snow-covered at this time of year. Through the midst of these high plains and mountains, the Charyn River has carved out one of the greatest canyons on earth with spectacular red and ochre cliffs, pinnacles and other formations.
Here we will be looking in particular for Pallas’s Sandgrouse (sometimes numerous here, but usually present in much smaller numbers), Pale Martin, Mongolian Finch, Grey-necked Bunting )surely this is the easiest place in its range to find this attractive bird), the smart, Pine Bunting (a hard bird to see away from Central Asia or Mongolia) and even Meadow Biunti9ng. An interesting supporting cast includes Steppe Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and Saker Falcon (although it is getting rarer by the year, thanks to illegal egg and chick collecting paid for by wealthy Gulf Arab falconers!).
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 11 Today we travel out into the Taukum desert to the northwest of Almaty for a two nights stay in a traditional-style yurt camp set up by our local agents. It is a wonderful experience to stay far out in the deep desert in relative comfort.
Along the way, we will visit a series of wetland areas that holds Black-crowned Night Heron, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Ruddy Shelduck, White-headed Duck, numerous migrant waterfowl and shorebirds, Caspian Gull, and sometimes Little Bittern. There is also a fair chance for Little Bustard.
Upon arrival, we will begin our exploration of the Taukum desert.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 12 A vast expanse of flat or rolling desert, the Taukum is a wonderful place for birding. Here the endangered Caspian Plover occurs in small numbers, greatly outnumbered by Greater Sand Plover, and we have an excellent chance of finding this attractive bird during our stay (during one tour we actually found a nest!).
The other star attraction of the area is the even more endangered Macqueen’s Bustard, which we could encounter in the early morning or the evening as they emerge from the more bushy areas. Sadly their numbers are still diminishing but we still have a good chance of a sighting.
Small artesian bores are thinly scattered across this wild landscape, inhabited only by a few Kazakh herders, and here in the morning many Black-bellied Sandgrouse, together with numbers of Pallas’s Sandgrouse on occasion, gather to drink in their traditional manner. The wells also attract Calandra and Bimaculated Larks, while Lesser Short-toed Larks sing away above the aromatic Artemisia (wormwood) flats. While walking along the brushy wadis, which are rich in herpetofauna, we may find a European Nightjar of the pale eastern form unwini. We will also have another opportunity to find ‘Steppe’ Grey Shrike and Desert Whitethroat and with a bit of good fortune, we will encounter the splendid Saker Falcon.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 13 Not too far away to the north is the Ili River. This forgotten corner of Kazakhstan has some interesting habitats. Groves of old and gnarled Turanga trees (a kind of poplar, Populus euphratica, that looks more like a pollard willow) have colonized the moist valleys between the imposing sand dunes that border the wide Ili river and its various channels. Here, we can expect to find the enigmatic Yellow-eyed Pigeon sunning itself in the treetops or on the telephone poles. This little-known and unobtrusive bird breeds exclusively in Central Asia and winters in Pakistan and northwestern India. The population of this attractive species has declined dramatically this century and very few westerners have ever had the privilege to observe it, either on the breeding grounds or in its winter quarters.
The ash and poplar woodlands along the Ili also hold the attractive Azure Tit (here of the more typical white-breasted type), while Black Stork is an uncommon possibility in the area.
The localized and attractive Saxaul Sparrow, a Central Asian speciality, favours more bushy habitat at the edge of the desert and can sometimes be found foraging with other sparrow species at piles of animal droppings.
There is also a real but slim chance for the interesting ssaposhnikowi form of the Black-headed Penduline Tit in areas of marshland and ponds. Adult males of this interesting form (which some authorities treat as a hybrid swarm, although that is not our view) have a black face and a dark chestnut crown, while adult females resemble White-crowned. Unfortunately, the population in the accessible part of the delta has diminished owing to the desiccation of the redbeds it depends on following the Chinese taking so much of the water of the Ili before it enters Kazakhstan. It is now realised that White-crowned Penduline Tit also occurs in the area (and appears to be increasing, perhaps as a result of habitat change), with some males having an almost entirely black head, so care needs to be taken!
Mammals are not very obvious in this area but we have a good chance of seeing Goitred Gazelle.
After our birding in the Ili Delta, we return to Almaty for an overnight stay.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 14 This morning we will take a flight to Astana (before that Tselinograd and Akmola), the new political capital of Kazakhstan and then drive to the remote settlemment of Korgalzhyn for a two nights stay, birding along the way. This afternoon we will explore the wonderful, bird-rich steppes around Korgalzhyn.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 15 Astana and Korgalzhyn are situated in the dry steppe zone of central Kazakhstan. Although large areas of the virgin steppe are now under cultivation, extensive areas of natural vegetation remain. We will travel far out across the shimmering plains where the breeze ripples the delicate feather grass.
Our major targets here are the attractive Sociable Lapwing and the two special endemic Central Asian larks. White-winged Larks uttering their delightful songs from high in the sky and amazing numbers of Black Larks will be getting up from the roadsides or ‘rowing’ themselves through the air as they give their spectacular slow-motion display flights.
We should also find handsome Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers quartering the endless steppe, dainty Red-footed Falcons keeping a watch from overhead wires and superbly elegant Demoiselle Cranes striding in pairs amongst the rippling grasslands. Other species we should encounter in the grasslands include Common Quail and the interesting Central Asian form of the Twite.
The swampy margins of the shallow rivers that meander through the region and the many lakes and marshes provide habitat in particular for the endangered Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck (now definitely one of the most threatened of Palearctic waterfowl), Black-winged Pratincole (a species that birders rarely see outside Kazakhstan) and the impressive Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) Gull.
More widespread waterbirds include Great Crested, Red-necked, Horned (or Slavonian) and Black-necked (or Eared) Grebes, Eurasian Bittern, Greater Flamingo, Mute and Whooper Swans, Greylag Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Garganey, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Common Goldeneye, Pied Avocet, Ruff (the spectacularly-plumaged males should be lekking at the time of our visit), Marsh Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull (of the form barabensis, sometimes split as Steppe Gull), Slender-billed, Mew (or Common) and Little Gulls, and Caspian, Gull-billed, Black and White-winged Terns (the latter looking especially handsome as it ‘dances’ over the shallow marshes).
Flocks of migrant waders heading for northern breeding grounds often stop off at these steppe lakes at this time of year and amongst the commoner species we may well find Temminck’s Stints, Curlew Sandpipers and teetering Terek Sandpipers. Best of all are the hundreds or even thousands of pirouetting Red-necked Phalaropes.
Reedbeds and bushy areas hold Bearded Reedling and Red-backed Shrike respectively, while we could well encounter Pine Bunting at the edge of its range or even a Little Crake or a Baillon’s Crake. There is also a fascinating mixture of some of the best-singing and most confusingly-attired Palearctic warblers. Here we will be able to polish our identification skills on such species as Common Grasshopper, Savi’s, Paddyfield, Blyth’s Reed, Eurasian Reed, Great Reed, Booted and Barred Warblers.
Additional species we are likely to encounter include Steppe Buzzard (sometimes split from Common), Merlin (of the pale steppe form), Northern Lapwing, Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Common Tern, Oriental Turtle Dove, Short-eared Owl, Greater Short-toed Lark, Eurasian Skylark, Tawny Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, the Sykes’s form of the Western Yellow Wagtail, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Chiffchaff (of the Siberian form), Bluethroat, Siberian Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Fieldfare, Great Tit, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Hooded Crow and Common Reed Bunting.
More uncommon possibilities include Grey Partridge, Common Crane, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Snipe, Spotted Redshank, Green Sandpiper and Common Redstart.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 16 We will spend the day birding in the steppes befopre returning to Astana for an overnight stay and a chance to celebrate a truly wondrful springtimne journey through the Heart of Asia.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan: Day 17 Our Central Asia birding tour ends this morning at Astana.
(An airport transfer will be provided in connection with the early morning Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, by far the most convenient flight out for most participants.)