Birdingpals Trip Report

Trip Report Kazakhstan – May 18th to June 8th, 2003
by Birdingpal Mark Ashcroft

Birding with Birdingpals in Kazakhstan

From Mark Ashcroft

In May of this year, I spent a very enjoyable three weeks birding with Frank Moffat and Ian Forsyth, the first contacts I have made through 'Birding Pals'.
In early April 2003, I received e-mail from Frank, who had found my address at 'Birding Pals'. Frank had been planning a trip to China with fellow birder Ian but their trip had to be cancelled at the last minute because of travel restrictions resulting from the SARS epidemic. Searching for a last minute alternative, Frank, having visited Kazakhstan three years earlier on a three week birding tour which he had enjoyed immensely, was wondering about the feasbility of doing a similar trip independently of any tour firm.
We communicated via email over the next few weeks, while visas were arranged and a rough itinerary drawn up. I asked around my local friends and found Volodya, who had a four-wheel drive and was willing to head out into the desert and the steppe for a few days at a time. In between, we planned day trips to the mountains to search for Brandt's mountain finch and other specialities. We also got in touch with Andrey Gavrilov, the other Kazakhstan birding pal. He was already at Chokpak ringing station, situated in the mountain pass which provides a migration route from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan into Southern Kazakhstan. We decided that, after the lads had had a short rest, we would head to the station to join Andrey and his team for the final week of ringing and recording.
Frank and Ian arrived on the 18th of May at three a.m. After a short sleep, we set off for the Chinese bazaar in an over-crowded mini bus taxi, to buy a cheap tent. We found one for twenty bucks, which we figured, was exceptionally cheap. It was actually an imitation tent, just like the real thing in every detail except that it was made of some kind of tissue-paper-like material. Two weeks later, when it finally disintegrated in a sandstorm, we worked out that it had only cost the guys about 3 bucks per night to sleep under canvas. In the late afternoon we birded the city parks in Almaty, picking up Blyth's reed, Hume's and Greenish warblers, European greenfinch and Common rosefinch, Palm dove, 'hafizi' Nightingale, Masked wagtail (Motacilla (alba) personata), Eurasian sparrowhawk and a nice 'unwini' European nightjar which an obliging kid on a mountain bike knocked up out of the bushes.

The next morning I and my daughter, Oxana took the lads to Chymbulak ski resort, only 20 km from the city centre, but high in the mountains. We took the chair lifts to 3300m above sea level but the snow was too deep and soft to go far from the lift. Nevertheless, we put the scope on a flock of Himalayan griffin vultures and watched the antics of the resident yellow-billed choughs. Returning to the base, Oxana and I carried on down the hill on foot after helping the guys check in at the resort hotel. On the way down, we got blue whistling thrush and Brown dipper on the Malaya Almatinkaya River. The next day Frank and Ian returned with a list including White-tailed rubythroat, Black-throated accentor, Sulphur-bellied warbler and Himalayan snowcock, but alas, no Brant's mountain finch.

On the 21st at five a.m. we set off for Chokpak ringing station, six hundred kilometres to the West, driven by Sasha in his Volga sedan. On the way we stopped at a likely looking spot and found Ian's first Red-headed buntings. We spotterd a female first, perched on top of a bush with the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains in the background, then a beautiful male flew up to join her and began singing. While we were enjoying the sight, Frank was going through the passerine flocks moving along the trees and bushes lining the other side of the road, picking out Whitethroat and Lesser whitethroat amongst the warblers. I was happy to see so many Spanish sparrows in fine breeding colours. We added Lesser grey and Isabelline shrikes then Crested and Calandra lark, before continuing on our journey. Several other stops before Chokpak turned up Shikra, Montagu's Harrier, Black-eared kite, Southern grey and Long-tailed shrikes and numerous Hoopoes, Rollers and European bee-eaters.
Being a bird ringing centre, Chokpak is bound to produce a lot of good birds and we were up and out the next morning just after dawn looking for them. No one, however, was quite prepared for the magnificent great bustard that came slowly flapping over the pass only a few metres above our head, beak agape and white wing patches tinged rose by the rising sun. Although we were to see many other good birds over the next few days, for me that sight remained unbeaten. Later the same day we watched an enormous female goshawk circling lazily overhead, debated the distinguishing features of Oriental and European turtle doves, found Yellow-breasted azure tits in the woods (a first for all) and flushed Eurasian scops owl.

The following morning the wind had changed and, as fewer birds would be coming through the pass, we decided to go into the mountains with Andrey to see what we could find. One thing that was sure to be there was Greig's tulip - the wild ancestor of the many domestic varieties. We checked with Volodya, the ranger, who confirmed that they were in flower and took us to look at a nesting pair of Montagu's harriers before we set off up the valley. On the way to the tulip site, a hard two-hour slog over rough scree, through thorn bushes and back and forward across the stream, we got glimpses of the 'leucogaster' form of White-bellied dipper. Above the ridges on either side of the valley we saw Eurasian griffon vultures and Golden eagles. A few Chukkar were giving their strange call as we reached the tulips. As we drove back to camp across flat grassland, sending up Calandra larks, Red-headed and Corn buntings and Tawny pipits, I decided that, even though I was scratched, bruised and battered, the trip had been worth it just to see the tulips in full bloom. About half an hour before we reached the camp we came to a deep gully in the otherwise unbroken expanse of steppe and we stopped to put the 'Oazik' into four-wheel drive. We all got out to stretch for a minute and as I was walking around the van, I noticed a red flower not so far off. Closer investigation revealed a single Greig's tulip, albeit a relatively small and puny specimen.
Waking the next day to find the wind still in the wrong quarter, we headed for stone lake to ring Great and Clamorous reed warblers. We played a game, trying to agree on the identification of birds singing in the reeds and then comparing our field observations with birds in the hand which we could more reliably identify by wing-length. Our severe difficulty with a few birds might have been partly explained by our later discovery of a hybrid in the mist nets. Other birds at the lake included Paddyfield and Cetti's warblers, Cinerous vulture, Great bittern, Collared pratincole and a tidy-looking 'melanogrisea' Black-headed wagtail. After a late lunch, we carried on across steppe to a dry canyon where we had some very intense high-quality birding. Against the background clamour of over two thousand pairs of rosy starlings, we picked out breeding Lesser kestrel, Short-toed eagle, Eurasian eagle owl, Egyptian vulture, Long-legged buzzard, Eastern rocknuthatch, Pied wheatear, Upcher's warbler and Chukkar. On the way back to camp we saw our first Bimaculated larks of the trip (a lifer for Ian) and a light-phase booted eagle over Chokpak village.

Returning from Chokpak, we spent a couple of days in Almaty. I spent the first day working while Oxana took Ian and Frank to see some of the interesting sites of the city. On returning, they recounted how they had enjoyed a few very pleasant beers in one of the many street cafes. The next day I worked again while Ian and Frank went into the mountains to search out the Ibisbill at Great Almaty Lake. With my sketch-map and rough directions they located the birds in two or three hours, also spotting a male Blue-capped redstart and their own brown dipper along the way. They dipped on the Eversmann's redstart, however, and the weather hadn't been clear enough to search for Guldenstadt's at higher altitudes. We resolved to make another journey together when we returned from the Ili River
The main aim of our Ili River trip was to search for regional specialities such as White-winged woodpecker, Saxual sparrow, Yellow-eyed dove and Turkestan tit in the remnants of Tugay forest along the river banks and in the delta area before the river flows into Lake Balqash. We spent three days exploring and got all the species, several times. Other birds of note were our first Rock sparrows of the trip, Eurasian crag martin, Grey-necked bunting, a truly wild Pheasant, Ruddy shelduck, Common shelduck, Ferruginous duck, Red-crested pochard, Sykes's warbler (Hippolais (caligata) rama), Dalmatian pelican, Black tern, Gull-billed tern, Bearded reedling, 'fuscus' Reed warbler, Azure tit (white breasted) and Isabelline wheatear.

On the way back from the delta we took another, more southerly route through the Takaum Desert then across some very flat clay steppe on the Bozoi Plateau. Tour groups often get easy MacQueen's Bustard here, but we didn't know where to look and dipped the species. We did see our first Black-bellied sandgrouse, Greater, Lesser and Asian short-toed larks and Rufous bush chat. In the Takaum dessert we observed several individuals of an apparently intermediate form of Isabelline shrike, having the paler flanks and colder greyer head colour of 'isabellinus' but also the darker well-defined mask of 'phenocuroides'.
A stop at an artesian well provided some of the most intense birding of the trip. It was quite amazing to see so many Phyloscopus and Acrocephalus warblers in the middle of such barren steppe. After an hour and a half I retired to the van well and truly beaten. We returned to Almaty via Sorbulak Lake and it's spectacular 5 km long colony of Rosy starlings, said to number around a quarter of a million birds. We had time to pick up a few more Dalmatian pelicans, a Eurasian marsh harrier and several Yellow-legged gulls before being ordered back to the road by some para-military types waving guns. We had, apparently trespassed on a restricted zone. Our camouflaged friends softened a bit when they realised we really weren't stealing fish or netting birds but they refused to entertain any possibility of us remaining for even a few more minutes birding.

We returned to Almaty , where I worked and sat my Russian exam, while Frank and Ian returned to the mountains to search again for Brant's mountain finch and the other species they had missed. They located Red-mantled rose-finch, White-browed tit-warbler, Water pipit, Altai accentor and Plain mountain finch before the weather once more turned against them. We would try one last trip on our return from the south-eastern deserts. Hopefully the weather would settle over the coming days.
Our next trip was to Charyn Canyon, the Sogeti Mountains and plain and the deserts along the eastern end of the Ili River. We were heading towards the border with China but planned to stay off the main roads as we got nearer in order to avoid the various pre-border posts and patrols. We had packed food and water for three days along with a couple of bottles of vodka, a glass or three of which before retiring, the guys were becoming quite accustomed to.
Two hours after setting out from Almaty we entred the Kokpek pass through the Sogeti Moutains, which are really no more than low rocky hills. We stopped at a side valley and climbed up looking for white-capped buntings. We could hear singing males but it took almost an hour to locate one amongst the broken rock and scrub. We carried on to the head of the valley, finding another four or five singing birds plus two Rock buntings. Returning to the van at around lunch time we filled the kettle and started to root around in the van for snacks. We couldn't find the bag with the bread and cakes and after a few minutes of ...'but I thought you packed it.' we concluded it was still sitting next to the fridge in my kitchen. We drove on to the small village of Kokpek, the last habitationbefore the plains, and stocked up on fresh bread and cakes. At least we had realised while there was a shop close by.
As we approached the Sogeti plain we found a family of Ruddy shelduck on what was no more than a large puddle. In a rocky area with a small quarry we found Grey-necked buntings and nesting Long-legged buzzard. Out on the plain proper, we watched Horned larks, Tawny pipits, Isabelline wheatears and Black-bellied sandgrouse. In the air we saw a Steppe eagle and then a large flock of Lesser kestrels hunting insects. As we were approaching Charyn Canyon two dots in the distance turned out to be Demoiselle cranes. We drove on hoping to get a better look but they had disappeared.
Our camping spot for the night was a very picturesque spot in the canyon which Volodya reached with some admirable four-wheel driving. While unpacking the van we came across the bread and cakes which we believed had been left behind. No one could remember packing them. In the morning, a quick search in the river-side trees turned up Nightingale, Common rosefinch and Great tit, then we drove back up onto the plain. On the way out of the canyon we surprised many Chukkar and saw several Pied wheatears. On top, various species of larks were around, along with a Richard's pipit and some Isabelline wheatears and we watched a dark-phase Booted eagle soaring low overhead. Sandgrouse were heard but not seen. We were all hoping for a Pallas's sandgrouse but this was not to be the day. Retracing the previous day's route we screeched to a halt after a black head and neck was spotted in some low vegetation. Two Demoiselle cranes, presumably the two from the previous day, were feeding quite close to the road. We set up the scope and after ten minutes or so, the birds seemed to relax and carry on feeding out in the open, allowing us superb views.

Back in the Sogeti Mountains, we took a track into another side valley and came across a cliff with nesting Golden eagle, Egyptian vulture and Lesser kestrel. It was turning out to be a good day. We diverged again from our approach route at the small town of Chillik after filling up the van with fuel. Now we were heading for Burundusu and the old untarred road running through the scub and salt-pan desert on the south bank of the Ili River. Driving this stretch was difficult from the start but it was to prove well worth the trouble. An artesian well after the village of Burundusu held Black-billed desert finch, Lesser short-toed larks, European turtle dove and Lesser grey shrike. Further down the road we came across several flocks of Yellow-eyed pigeons before finding the one we had all been waiting for - Pallas's sandgrouse. A pair rose from the edge of the road as we drove past and we all jumped out and had a good look as they wheeled round then settled again. An hour later Ian got another pair. As the scrub thinned out, the day got hotter and our lips began to chap from the salt and soda in the wind. We were driving on the hard sand as it was easier than the road and we stopped several times to look at Rufus bush chat, Sykes's warbler, Southern grey shrike and Black-bellied sandgrouse. As evening approached, the wind began to pick up and we worried that we might not find a sheltered spot to camp in. We came across a small flock of Greater sand plovers but keeping the binoculars steady in the wind was near impossible and the driven sand was stinging our faces. A shallow dry gully was the only shelter and before Frank and Ians tent was even half erected, it was completely destroyed. My tent fared better, though we had to put rocks on top of the pegs to hold them in the ground. Ian slept in the van with Volodya while Frank and I piled into the tent. The wind was ripping at the fabric and the poles were bent to maximum. I had a nightmare about guys in camouflage banging on the tent withsticks.
The next day we retraced our route and stopped at a likely spot for Desert warbler. We located one bird after half an hour and also found a few Desert wheatears. These birds were particularly interesting because of their colourarion. Instead of the usual light peachy-brown, the males were ashy-grey coloured, like pale phase black-eared wheatears. We couldn't find any reference to this form in the literature. As we approached the turn-off to the Ili River, we spotted three Black storks in the air. On the river bank we watched Great white egret, Great cormorant and many of the species we had seen on previous days. We returned to Almaty exausted but determined to squeeze in one last trip to the mountains.
This time I joined the trip and as we approached Great Almaty Lake it became apparent that we were in for some excellent weather. Our driver, Sergei, took us as high as he could to the Cosmostantsia at over 3 000 metres above sea level. We passed a Himalayan snowcock on the way up. From the road end, determined to find Brandt's mountain finch at last, Frank and I climbed higher, leaving Ian to hunt for Guldenstadt's redstart around the station buldings. We returned tired and unsuccessful to find that Ian had located the big fellow on a small ridge on the opposite side of the pass. We climbed up the ridge and found that a pair had nested in a wooden shed.

The weather stayed with us and we got most of the other high altitude birds we expected - Yellow-billed and Red-billed choughs, Plain mountain finch, Altai accentor and Lammergier. On the way downhill we had Water pipit, Fire-fronted serin, White-tailed rubythroat, Sulphur-bellied warbler, Black-throated and Brown accentors, Red-mantled rose finch and Northern wheatear. Nothing we hadn't seen before but a fine last day to a fantastic three weeks birding. We diverged as we approached our agreed meeting point. Just before the rain started, Ian and I found a Bohemian waxwing that perhaps forgot to return north after the winter. We reached the car just as the rain came in torrents and we huddled inside waiting for Frank. After twenty minutes, with no sign of the rain abating or Frank, we decided to drive up the track a bit. We met Frank strolling down the track wearing his waterproof, carrying an umbrella and sporting a large cheesy grin. He then began to describe the' absolutely stonking' views he had just had of a male Eversmann's redstart. Ian initially suggested turning round and leaving him to walk the rest of the way down the track but was soon mollified by the thought that he now had one more reason to return to Kazakhstan in the future. And the Brandt's mountain finch? Well, there's no such thing, is there?

Bird Observations in SE- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan- September 2003
by Birdingpal Johannes Kamp

Between 03/09 and 30/09/2003, I had the opportunity to travel across Eastern Kazakhstan and parts of Kyrgyzstan, subsequent to a University expedition to the South-Siberian Altai mountains, accompanied by two friends (Antje Bremermann & Timo Lübben, both from Oldenburg, Germany). We all study landscape ecology in Germany. Our trip was not dedicated to birdwatching but to seeing the country and especially to see the ecological conditions in some high mountain areas. Nevertheless, in some parts, I had the chance to see a big variety of interesting birds. In the following, I´ll try to describe some places we visited and the avifauna we discovered there.
We started in Northern Kazakhstan, coming from Russia by train, and visited Semey (Semipalatinsk). A planned trip to the Dzugharian Alatau, a high mountain range close the Chinese border, had to be cancelled, because we did not get the necessary travel permits for this sensitive border region. After some days in Almaty, the former Kazak capital, we set off for the southeastern part of Kazakhstan to see some desert landscape. Having returned, we prepared well for a mountaineering trip to Kyrgyzstan. It took us ten days to walk an extended route between Almaty and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. We relaxed for three days on the northern shores of the lake and finally went off for another day to another arid mountain area 100 km north of Naryn. On 30th of September, we returned to Germany from Bishkek Airport in the Kyrgyz capital.
Compared to what it should be possible to see, we didn´t get that much. But considering the fact that our journey was not dedicated to birdwatching, we saw a lot of nice species. Probably the breeding season is the best time to watch all the interesting Central Asian species, so for best results, go in may/june (mid june for the mountains).
There is much information about birding in the mentioned countries on the web, so I will not go into detail except for our personal observations.
1. Almaty KAZ 7/8. & 12.9.2003
While waiting for your registration you can get the first impression of Central Asian avifauna in the various Almaty parks. The biggest, Panfilov Park, has a lot of big trees and bushes, but is quite busy, especially at the weekends. A nice place is some smaller green, park-like areas surrounding the government buildings at the northern part of Almaty. Common Mynah (Acridotheres tristis) is very characteristic for the whole city. Our results further included Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), Hume´s and Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus humei & trochiloides) and a nice European Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) sitting on a park bench in front of a small pool on a concrete path (looking for fish?). In autumn, raptor migration can be strong and we saw several Hobbies (Falco subbuteo), a Red Footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus) and lots of Black Kites (Milvus migrans).
2. Charyn Canyon KAZ 9-11.9.2003
This is a famous touristic area, a picturesque canyon with steep walls and impressive scenery. Situated in desert-like surroundings, the River Charyn is the only place where plants can grow and therefore an oasis for migrating birds. The slopes are inhabited by a variety of raptors. On the plains above the canyon, you should be able to discover many of the Central Asian desert species.
To reach the area, you can take the 5 a.m. public bus from Almaty-Sayakhat to Kegen and get off where the bus crosses the river. From this place, it´s about 15 km on foot to the north to reach the "real" Charyn Canyon (following the path on the plateau!), but interesting birdlife already exists in the surroundings of the bus stop. We missed the early bus and hired a taxi in Almaty (you should avoid the loud, talkative drivers in front of Sayakhat Bus Station and look for drivers in the smaller streets around - prices will be halved). We payed 4000 Tenge for the car, but official fares seem to be higher. For the way back, hitching from the mentioned bridge is possible, but it may take time. Most cars are jammed with people going to Almaty markets. We came back in a marshrytka (minibus) for 500 Tenge each.
We tried to reach the canyon directly from the bus stop and walked along the river to the north (there is a small footpath), but I would not recommend this, because sometimes you have to fight against awful thorn shrub and after 15 km to go back if you don´t have equipment for real climbing passages. Nevertheless, this way down the canyon is great and you can bath, sleep outside and be sure that you´ll not meet anyone. You should be careful of scorpions and snakes (we saw both, but no idea which species). In every case you should bring your own supplies (including water, food and fuel - there is not much timber in the area), as it seems to be impossible to get these things in the area.
Birdlife was dominated by raptors and we got superb views (often very close!) of more than 10 different Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), a pair each of Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) and Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus), Black Kite (Milvus migrans, more than 50 migrating along the canyon), Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus), Saker (Falco cherrug) and we watched an adult Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) feeding a juvenile on the rocks with bones. Other sightings (mostly on the plateau) included European Roller (Coracias garrulus), Hoopoe (Upupa epops), Citrine, Grey and Masked Wagtail (Motacilla citreola, cinerea & personata), Pied and Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka - quite common - and Oe. isabellina). Close to the road, we flushed a big flock of Bimaculated Larks (Melanocorypha bimaculata), around 300 to 400 birds (!) . Chukars (Alectoris chukar) inhabit the Canyon with hundreds of birds. Along the trees in the riverbed, we saw lots Hume´s and Greenish Warblers (around 50), White- crowned Penduline Tit (Remiz coronatus) and Lesser Whitethroats (Sylvia curruca) probably migrating over the day. A single White-capped Bunting (Emberiza stewarti) was the only bunting we saw.
Northern Tian Shan: Zailiskii Alatau KAZ/KIR 13.9.-22.9
From Almaty, we trekked to Lake Issy Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The ten-day-trip (shorter routes are available and trained sportsmen need as little as four days) is a high alpine route with some passes over 4.000 meters, which should be tackled only by trained, healthy people. We brought all our equipment, including tent, food supplies and glacier equipment; the latter is needed from our point of view (some strong Russian guys we met climbed the passes successfully in linnen sport shoes, but we don´t recommend that). Water is available constantly from rivulets and it´s nearly sterile. You can find detailed recommendations, hints and descriptions of the trekking area on the web. Be sure that you have sufficient maps for any trips in the high mountains.
From Almaty, we went to Medeu Ice Rink by bus (40 Tenge per Person) and continued to Shymbulak ski resort (around 2000m) by private car (250 Tenge per Person, maybe overpayed).
Small itinery for the following days:
13.9. Ascent (ropeway available), staying overnight beneath Bolshoi Talgarski Pass
14.9. Descent to Talgar Valley, pleasant walk along the river Talgar. Camping at the head of
the valley (many good camping spots)
15.9. Ascent to Pass Turistov (Tourist´s Pass, 3930 m), bivouac half way due to extremely bad weather with strong snow fall.
16.9. Crossing of the pass, descent to Ozernaya Valley north of Bolshoye Almatinskoye Ozero (Great Almaty Lake). Overnight stay.
17.9. Crossing of Ozernyi Pass (3507 m), descent to the large Chong-Kemin Valley (upper part).
Long trip to lake Dzhasyl Köl (3000 m)
18.9. Early morning decampment, exhausting ascent on the completely snowed Aksu-glacier to Vostochnyi Bosteri Pass (4110 m), fascinating landscape, good conditions, excellent weather, but we failed about 50 meter in front of the pass because of impassable crevasses. Result: a bitterly cold night close to the glacier´s margin at 4000 m asl.
19.9. Second attempt, this time through the easier Aksu Pass (4050 m). Descent to Chong-
20.9. Day of rest at the upper Chong-Aksu, curing altitude sickness symptoms.
21 and 22.9., slow descent to Grigorievka/Issyk-Kul, interrupeted by many invitations of local cattle-herders.
The lower slopes of the Northern Tien Shan are covered by relict-like patches of Tien-Shan Spruce (Picea schrenkiana), partly forming bigger stands. The high alpine areas are characterized by tundra vegetation is characteristic with hard grasses, lichens and lots of flowers is characteristic for the higher belts, often interspersed with large boulder fields. Intermontane valleys are now tree-free. You normally get the impression of steppe-like meadows. Bird observations (most interesting species extracted):
Around Medeu (guided by M. Ashcroft, Almaty)
Azure Tit (Parus cyaneus) 6-10, Hume´s Warbler, around 40, most numerous passerine, Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus) 1 in moist spruce forest close to a rivulet, Brown and White-bellied Dippers (Cinclus pallasii & Cinclus cinclus leucogaster), Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus).
Shymbulak to Talgar Valley
Most numerous and characteristic birds are Chough (Phyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes, up to 50 birds). A middle sized owl sat at dawn on a balustrade of the rope-way middle station, but it was already to dark to identify it. Many thrushes (Mistletrush, Turdus viscivorus and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris) strayed around, but the highlight was a Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) that gave nice views at a rocky area close to the pass. An adult Golden Eagle and four Himalayan Vultures (Gyps himalayensis) soared above the pass. The calls of Himalayan Snowcocks (Tetraogallus himalyaensis) have been heard very often.
Talgar valley
We were happy about records of three species of redstarts: Blue capped, Rufous backed and Black Redstart (Phoenicurus caeruleocephalus, P. erythronotus & P. [ochruros] phoenicuroides) were observed along the river. Plain Mountain Finch (Leucosticte nemoricola) was present with flocks of about 40 birds during the descent from Talgarski Pass. At 3900 m close to Turistov Pass, an exhausted Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava ssp.) was seen roosting on the completely snowed glacier.
Ozernaya Valley
Between Bolshoye Almatinskoe Ozero and Ozernyi Pass, we again saw Lammergeier & Himalayan Vulture. Short-toed Larks (Calandrella brachydactyla) were flushed from the dry steppe grass, a flock of seven Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) were migrating during the day and probably crossed Ozernyi Pass. The gravel embankments in the rivulet held lots of Grey Wagtails, Dippers and a superb pair of adult Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii), which came quite close whilst we kept quiet. During the ascent to Ozernyi Pass (a comfortable road has been recently opened), we saw members of the typical mountain avifauna community like Altai Accentor (Prunella himalayensis), Plain Mountain Finch, two nice males of Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla) and a loose flock of ten (both juvenile and adult) Güldenstädt´s Redstarts (Phoenicurus erythrogaster). The males of the latter showed interesting first- winter plumage.
Chong- Kemin Valley
A swampy mire close to the river produced roosting Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), Pintail Snipe (Gallinago stenura) and Great Snipe (Gallinago media). Another Ibisbill was seen. The steppe areas on the river terraces were nearly bird-free.
Aksu Valley
Descending the valley, we had good views of Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), Merlin (Falco columbarius), Himalayan Vulture and Lammergeier. A family of Ibisbill (two adults and two juveniles, fed in the Aksu River). At least 25 White-bellied Dippers were counted along 15 km of the river . Around 50 European Goldfinches (Carduelis (c.) caniceps) used thistles close to human settlements.
Northern Shores of Lake Issyk Kul (23.-25.9.)
a) Grigorievka
Five km south of Grigorievka, at 'Grigorievkaya Pristan' , we erected our tents at the sandy beach and relaxed for one day. The lake itself is deep (down to 600 m) and mesotroph, so not many "seabirds" are able to find food. On the water surface and the beaches, we only had Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), Steppe and Black-headed Gulls (Larus cachinnans and Larus ridibundus, around 50 each), Crested (2) and Black-necked Grebe (15) (Podiceps cristatus & nigricollis). A night roosting place of Masked Wagtail was visited by more than 200 birds. Far more interesting are the shrubby areas just behind the shores, often some kilometers large and consisting of a "jungle" of sallow thorn and other bushes, interspersed with small brackish lagoons and old apple yards. In the period of our survey, in this areas roosted several hundred individuals of Cetti´s Warbler (Cettia cetti) and dozends of Phylloscopus warblers (Chiffchaff, Greenish & Hume´s Warbler). Further passerines were two juv. Black-throated Thrushes (Turdus [ruficollis] atrogularis), Bluethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Isabelline and Steppe Grey Shrike (Lanius isabellinus phoenicuroides and Lanius excubitor pallidirostris), Azure Tit (vey common), Common Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris), Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus, 2 juv.). Along the street to Grigorievka, the telephone wires were used by Eurasian Rollers, Hobbies and Red-footed falcons. In the bushes, we flushed Eurasian and Egyptian Nightjars ( Caprimulgus europaeus and aegyptiacus) and Quails (Coturnix coturnix). Birds of the nominate race of Wild Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) are abundant.
In this sleepy recreation village with an almost mediterranean flair, we spent two days. Beaches are right for bathing. Superb accomodation is available in private homes. When arriving at the local bus station, you´ll aleady get some offers, but we heard that it´s better to ask at the lokal bazars. We came into contact with "Camilla" (as we called her, forgot her real name) and we think, that her private "hostel" (12, Kalina Ulitsa, phone 42319 or 42152) is one of the best ones in the city. You can be sure that you´ll get a comfortable room, excellent breakfast and other meals and a great banya (russian sauna), for an equivalent of about 2,50 Dollars the day (all but banya included). The "staff" (Camilla and other family members) are extremely friendly !!
In the streets of the village, you´ll find European gardenbirds like Blackbird (Turdus merula), Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) and Linnet (Carduelis cannabina). Surprisingly, we saw a White-tailed Rubythroat (Luscinia pectoralis) in a garden, maybe a migrant from the mountains.
The shoreline close to the city seems to be without interest, but climbing up the valley of Baktuu-Dolon-Ata (few kilometers west of the village center) is worth one full day. It seems to be one of the best places to get an overview over the lake and the southern peaks of the Central Tian Shan. The area is really dry, but holds lots of shrub and trees close to the river. Birdlife must be rich in spring, I saw lots of desert and high mountain species, including Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus), Upland Buzzard ( Buteo hemilasius), Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), Himalayan Vulture, Hill Pigeon (Columba rupestris), Black Redstart, Godlewski´s (Emberiza godlewskii) and White-capped Bunting.
Narynski Oblast (26.-28.9.)
Leaving Cholpon-Ata, we turned south before flying back to Germany from Bishkek. By bus, we reached Balykchy at the westernmost point of lake Issyk-Kul and tried to hitch for about three hours, but did not succeed. We had to continue southwards by taxi (around five Dollars for the car and 100 kms) and stopped 5 km north of Sary-Bulak, a small village at the junction of the rivers Kara-Kudzhur and Sary-Bulak. From this spot we hiked about 20 km on the track towards the famous Song-Köl lake, but we did not have enough time to reach it. We spent two nights in the tents we were nearly forced to erect in the garden of a very nice kyrghyz family. They even offered us their beds (in a wooden house) and we were invited to breakfast and dinner both days (for free). They told us a lot of interesting details about daily life, they were farmers with apple and apricot yards at the lake and lots of cattle at summer pastures near the Song-Köl. Like the majority of all people we met in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, they were extremely hospitable and warm-hearted.
Birdlife was interesting, but we recorded only few new species - the area should be better in spring: Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Golden Eagle, Himalayan Vulture, Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Shikra (Accipiter badius), Chukar, Eurasian Roller, Dippers, Stonechat, Pied and Northern Wheatear, Ibisbill (2 ad.), Common Sandpiper. An impressive group of about 120 Azure Tit flew over our heads near the road.
Mark Ashcroft and his wife Sveta were a big help in many situations around Almaty. They gave important hints on species, observation spots and local specialties.Thanks a lot!
We used the following publications for bird identification and preparation:
GAVRILOV, E. I. (2000): Guide to the Birds of the Kazakhstan Republic.Published by the author, Almaty. (Available from
KAZMIERCZAK, K. & B.v. PERLO (2000): A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Pica Press, Sussex.
RYABITSEV, V.K. (2001): Ptitsy Urala, Priuralya, i Zapadnoy Sibiri. Thesis, Yekaterinburg (russ.). Hard to get, if you want to have a copy, please write me an e-mail.
SVENSSON, L., K. MULLARNEY, DAN ZETTERSTRÖM & P.J. GRANT (2001): The Complete Guide to the Birds of Europe.Princeton, London.

Last update 28/01/2013