Trip Report to Kazakhstan
This was a birding holiday organised by Naturetrek www.naturetrek.co.uk that I was meant to take part in 1998 but due to illness had to cancel at the last minute. Since then I have tried to visit
11th May Heathrow –
12th May Almaty - Bayseit - Charyn Gorge.
13th May Bayseit.
14th May Bayseit – Nurley – Nurley Marshes – Almaty Space Observatory
15th May Almaty Space Observatory – Cosmos Station- Big
16th May Almaty Space Observatory – Almaty –Temboli –Konshengal
17th May Konshengal –
18th May Konshengal –
International flights to Almaty via
As this was a ‘package tour’ (cost £1895 each) with all accommodation and food provided we only took about $300 US Dollars each with us. However I exchanged about $100 US Dollars to Kazakhstan Tenge at Almaty airport when we arrived, with which I bought a couple of fizzy drinks at Konshengal. Naturetrek provided free bottles of water throughout the tour but this does get a bit boring after 4 or 5 days. Other than an early morning walk in Almaty on the first day, we were in remote areas without any shops. We had a few free bottles of wine offered at some meal times but there was no opportunity of buying any beers except at the space observatory. We would have needed about £5 worth of money if we had been lucky enough to have had ‘use’ of the space observatory telescope. I exchanged most of my Tenge back to US Dollars at Almaty airport before we flew home.
The weather was hot (30°+ C) and sunny in the deserts but cold and sunny at the space observatory when we were at an altitude of 9 000 – 11 000 feet high. We had some sleet at night in the mountains.
The steppes and deserts were a mixture of dry stony ground with scattered bushes of small scrub. Artesian wells at some places acted as good spots to lure thirsty birds. The Kokpek Pass of Charyn consisted of rock outcrops with rocky side valleys. The space observatory was accessed in a 4x4 bus up a steep mountainous tarmaced road to a height of 11 00 feet where snow still lingered on the tops of the
The Steppes of Charyn Charyn Gorge
Sogaty Plain Big
Paul and I drove through the night to arrive at Heathrow at 5am for our 8am flight to Almaty via
We arrived at Almaty airport at 12.30am where we collected our luggage, exchanged some US Dollars into Kazakhstan Tenge and boarded a minibus to take us to our city hotel for what remained of the night. We arrived at the hotel around 2am and after completing formalities went to bed.
Paul and I met up with the tour guide (Reg Thorpe) before breakfast and walked to a local city-centre park where we were surprised by the lack of birds. We had brief views of Nightingale and Lesser Whitethroat but better views of Common Myna and Oriental Crow. A perched Hobby at the hotel added to our list before our 7am breakfast.
We had a long drive to Bayseit and the group of 11 participants, Reg, local guide and driver all watched for birds sitting on the almost continuous wires through never-ending villages along the route. Our minibus was far too small for the number of people and birding gear and we felt crammed in. With scopes and camera equipment we certainly needed more space. We added European Bee-eater, Long-tailed Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike, and other common birds to our list before arriving at our guest house where a rather large lady blocked the doorway. There was certainly no welcome or drinks as we removed our boots and trundled our luggage up stairs to various bedrooms.
Lesser Grey Shrike
Lunch on the plain
We admired a mixed group of vultures that included: Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture and Egyptian Vulture that eventually settled on the ground for us to admire through the telescopes. Black-bellied Sandgrouse took flight as we drove across the plain to an area where we admired a party of Lesser Kestrel. Paul located a Turkestan Shrike sitting on a bush in a valley whilst lunch was being prepared for us. A couple of Long-legged Buzzard were also in flight here.
Calandra Lark flew over us whilst Skylark and a Shore Lark ran around in the grass. A Tawny Pipit graced the side of us as we left to head back to the road.
Back on the road we stopped to admire two distant Demoiselle Crane that Paul and I were pleased to see, as this was a tick for us. We headed back down the gorge stopping en route where we saw Grey-necked Bunting.
Demoiselle Cranes Grey-necked Bunting Back at the guest house we enjoyed an evening meal together. The fact that the courses all arrived together was a feature we would get used to! After the checklist was completed everyone disappeared to bed. Paul was disappointed at the lack of any beer to buy! 13th May Rose-coloured Starling Most of us rose early to wander the gardens before breakfast. Here we admired White-crowned Penduline Tit, Golden Oriole, Rose-coloured Starling and White-winged Woodpecker. After a bowl of porridge and two fried eggs (another feature we would get used to) we set off for the Sogaty Plain into the
Back at the guest house we enjoyed an evening meal together. The fact that the courses all arrived together was a feature we would get used to! After the checklist was completed everyone disappeared to bed. Paul was disappointed at the lack of any beer to buy!
Most of us rose early to wander the gardens before breakfast. Here we admired White-crowned Penduline Tit, Golden Oriole, Rose-coloured Starling and White-winged Woodpecker. After a bowl of porridge and two fried eggs (another feature we would get used to) we set off for the Sogaty Plain into the
It was now very hot and we drove to
Back down through
Black-veined White Butterflies White-capped Bunting
After surviving another night of hard springs coming through the mattress and some interesting mis-understanding between our guides (i.e. the local guide was sticking to his plans no matter what our guide decided) we headed out towards Nurley but not before I had shouted to Paul that I was watching an Azure Tit. This was one of our ‘wanted ticks’. Paul was quick to join me as we admired this little beauty.
Stopping at Nurley Marshes we added some more species that included Great Reed Warbler, Black-headed Yellow Wagtail, Savi’s Warbler, Reed Bunting, Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler, Marsh Harrier and Spanish Sparrow to the list.
Azure Tit Savi's Warbler
We drove back to the guest house where the departing procedures were no more convivial than the welcome we had received and loaded the luggage into the trailer to drive back to Almaty. Here we exchanged vehicles part-way up the mountainside for a 4x4 bus which was much more acceptable as we had more room. We also had lunch at a picnic spot whilst we watched Greenish Warbler and Mistle Thrush. A little later we watched Blue Whistling Thrush too as it responded to a tape. After lunch the bus climbed up the now-tarmaced mountain road heading for the space observatory in the
We proceeded further on up the mountain and stopped at
As soon as we had had our fill of the Ibisbill we wandered along a footpath overlooking the lake where a Himalayan Rubythroat gave us good views. A Black-throated Accentor sang from well above us too. A Grey Wagtail danced around in a little stream feeding into the lake.
We continued up to the space observatory where we were to spend two nights. Confusion reigned as we organised rooms with many swops being done as other groups arrived. The shared facilities were basic and ‘us’ women had to sing loudly whilst visiting the toilet with a non-closing door. I was one of the lucky ones to have a warm shower before the option was freezing cold water or get scalded! However the meal was taken with bottles of wine and Paul enjoyed a few beers, which made him a happy man. He slept on the floor at night though as he could not cope with the springs in the mattress.
Before breakfast the group set off behind the space observatory for some early-morning birding. We enjoyed views of White-winged Grosbeak and more Himalayan Rubythroat before locating a Sulphur-bellied Warbler.
Himalayan Rubythroat White-winged Grosbeak
A Red-mantled Rosefinch was enjoyed by all before Brown Accentor was added to the list. A Bluethroat was also seen before we returned to have breakfast. Breakfast consisted of porridge and once again this was followed by yet more fried eggs.
Once breakfast was over we boarded the bus and proceed higher up the mountain to 11 000 feet to the Cosmos Station. En route we stopped to look at Plain Mountain Finch at the side of the road. At the final barrier, where we left the bus, we were assaulted with birds instantly. Water Pipit in their pink breeding plumage was fantastic to see as was Himalayan Accentor.
Paul at the Cosmos Station
We looked for and found Güldenstadt’s Redstart on top of one of the buildings. It was a shame that it was just too spooky to photograph. Overhead Red-billed Chough and Alpine Chough soared above us in the wonderful sunny weather. A Northern Wheatear graced us with its presence before we started the long search for the snowcock.
Himalayan Accentor Alpine Chough
It proved to be a very long search as we walked around the side of the mountain. By now, some of the group were suffering from the effects of altitude and walking was proving difficult in the thin air. I was suffering from tingles in my feet and hands. However I joined the search for the snowcock. We searched the scree and mountainside in vain before finally giving up and re-boarded the bus. Luckily the driver stopped on our descent to give us another chance of searching another part of the mountain. After a short while I spotted a Himalayan Snowcock, but before I could get the group onto it, it promptly disappeared behind a rock. A tense few minutes ensued before it re-appeared as not one Himalayan Snowcock but two Himalayan Snowcock. I was very relieved to say the least as the group got out of the bus and enjoyed scope views of them!
I was now suffering from altitude sickness as was relieved when we lost a few thousand feet and descended back down to the space observatory for lunch. After taking some medication I was a bit slow for the birding back down by
We added Tree Pipit to our list before returning to the space observatory for our evening meal. We negotiated with the local guide to arrange observing the stars through the space observatory telescope for a small fee. However, the temperature had plummeted and sleet had started to fall, completely obscuring the sky and so one of the events I had been looking forward to, did not take place. Grrrrr……
It was not until the second or third stop that we eventually found a singing Songar Tit. Our luck was out though for Nutcracker and we did not see one on our trip. Several Grey Wagtail entertained us as we walked by the fast-flowing mountain stream and admired the Spring flowers. We stopped once again to watch Brown Dipper and I heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling but did not see it.
Lower down the mountain we switched back into the cramped minibus and set off through the city traffic for the long drive to Konshengal. We stopped just off the road by some trees where we admired a summer-plumaged Barred Warbler, a pair of Shrika, some Rufous Turtle Dove and a Red-headed Bunting whilst lunch was being prepared. It was now very hot and we sought the shade of the bus whilst we ate.
Temboli Red-headed Bunting
After many miles the thunder clouds were gathering and we watched lightning in the distance. We arrived at Temboli where we were advised not to take cameras as the authorities do not allow the taking of photographs of the rock carvings that are present here. This proved to be a mis-understanding and I bitterly regretted having left my camera in the minibus. We walked about half a mile across stony desert where Bimaculated Lark were present as well as good numbers of Red-headed Bunting. Once we reached a marshy area Red-rumped Swallow were amongst the hirundines. Lesser Whitethroat were also plentiful.
I was a bit under-whelmed by the rock carvings having been spoilt by aboriginal rock carvings two years ago in
Our return walk produced Siberian Chiffchaff. We made it back to the bus just in time as the heavens opened and rain fell. This was to have dire consequences for us, as the spot for White-winged Lark was only given a minute or so as the guide assured us he know of a better spot later on in the trip, when he hoped the weather would be better. Unfortunately I had developed a bad migraine and only had one tablet left, which I wanted to save for the flight home. I was very relieved to arrive at the tented camp and went straight to bed, missing the evening meal, which I was told was the best meal of the trip yet.
Konshengal Campsite Restaurant and Cookhouse!
Unfortunately I had suffered in pain from my migraine all night and was not fit enough for the early morning birding at first light. I decided to take my last tablet, as I could see that otherwise, I would miss the whole day’s birding. By the time the group returned from their travels to see Caspian Plover and McQueen’s Bustard I felt a bit better. Although I was disappointed not to have seen the birds I have been fortunate enough to have seen both species well in
Paul using the washing facilities The landscape at the campsite
After a good breakfast we set off on a long drive to
Long-legged Buzzard nest
The water of the lakes at Topar gave a refreshingly different habitat after all the blandness of the desert. We knew we would be ‘padding out’ the trip list here, with little in the way of ‘lifers’ but still nice to see, especially in Summer plumage. Tufted Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Little Grebe, Black-headed Gull, Common Tern, Coot, Moorhen, Gadwall all seemed common but Black Tern were good to see in all their finery. Dalmatian Pelican and White Pelican were soaring around on the thermals as Great White Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron flew by. Bearded Tit called but I was the only one to see them. Paul and I enjoyed good views again of Azure Tit as they collected nesting material.
Paddyfield Warbler sang in the reeds as a Common Kingfisher flew by rather quickly. Red-crested Pochard was added to the list as was Garden Warbler. We were surprised by a Common Pheasant as it strolled over the road.
Black-crowned Night Heron
Back in the minibus once again we were all complaining that we were hungry and we motored on to Turanga Forest where a picnic table was set up, whilst we explored the scattered trees for Turkestan Tit, which gave itself up rather easily. After lunch Yellow-eyed Stock Dove needed a co-ordinated walk through the trees which we then admired through the telescope. Saxaul Sparrow was found by the local guide and we all watched a couple of birds as they tried to hide themselves in a denser part of the tree.
Saxaul Sparrow Temminck’s Stint
It was a long drive back to the camp-site but we stopped en-route at a bus stop where we admired a pair Saxaul Sparrow again. We stopped at an artesian well near the camp-site where we had good views of Temminck’s Stint and Little Ringed Plover. I felt much better now and enjoyed a hearty meal back at the camp site all washed down with a nice glass of wine!
A wander around the camp-site at first light gave us some good views of Black-bellied Sandgrouse at the artesian well. Getting a good photograph of them was another matter. Paul and I felt a bit frustrated with our photography as we prefer to have our own time-scale and be on our own. However we appreciated that the remoteness and birding so much off road, local knowledge was always going to be necessary here and so Naturetrek’s trip to
After breakfast we drove 30km west of Konshengal to a spot where the local guide thought he could show us White-winged Lark. It was already very hot and I was glad I had the sense to put a bottle of water into my pocket of my ‘zip-off’ trousers. The local guide was a man on a mission and soon disappeared into the distance across the desert. Some of us attempted to follow him, but as a group we were soon ‘strung-out’ a huge distance apart. Reg, Geoff, Paul and I were within shouting distance of one another as we examined hundreds of Calandra Lark. After a fruitless search Reg, Geoff, Paul and myself decided to return up through a wadi where there were a few bushes holding a few birds. Here we enjoyed views of European Nightjar, Ortolan Bunting, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and several Red-headed Bunting. Lesser Whitethroats and a Rufous-tailed Bush-robin also added to the scene.
Rufous-tailed Bush Robin
Once the group were re-assembled back in the bus and the local guide was back from his luck-less mission, we were resigned to the fact the White-winged Lark had evaded all our attempts to see it. Quenching all thirsts we settled down to the long drive back towards Almaty.
We stopped briefly at a spot known as the ‘wishing tree’ where a lone tree is packed with birds as it is the only tree for miles around. Here we saw many Hume’s Yellow-browed Warbler and Greenish Warbler as well as a Nightingale. A Pied Wheatear put in a brief appearance too.
Lunch was taken at
Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Whooper Swan, Wood Sandpiper, Mallard, Garganey, Common Redshank, Oystercatcher were soon spotted until I found a White-headed Duck. After we had eaten we wandered over to the other side of the road where there was another big pool. Storm clouds were gathering and we quickly saw as many species as we could muster. Gull-billed Tern, Terek Sandpiper, and White-winged Terns were stunning in their summer plumage. Paul found a Lesser Sandplover that we all admired, just before a halt was called and we made it back to the bus just as the first few spots of rain fell. It turned out to be quite a storm.
We motored on back to Almaty where we got caught up in the ‘rush-hour’. We were deposited back to the hotel where after a shower and a meal we grabbed two hours sleep before heading to the airport where I exchanged most of my Kazakhstan Tenge back to US Dollars.
I would like to thank Reg and Naturetrek for a very enjoyable trip.
1. Turkestan Red Pika Ochotona rutila 15/05/2012
2. Grey Marmot Marmotta baibacina 14/05/2012
3. Desert Hare Lepus Tolai 14/05/2012 Nurley
4. Corsac Fox Vulpus corsac 14/05/2012 Nurley
5. Giant Gerbil Rhombomys opimus 13/05/2012 Sogaty Plain
6. Eurasian Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris 16/05/2012 road to Almaty Space Observatory
7. Stoat Mustella erminea 15/05/2012 Almaty Space Observatory