The New Birds of Kazakhstan

Submitted by on

The New Birds of Kazakhstan by Arend Wassink. Published by Arend Wassink, Postweg 64, 1795 De Cocksdorp, Texel, The Netherlands. Pp382. 2015. Sample priceseg WildSounds £42.99 (Post free UK mainland: www.wildsounds.com), direct from publisher €49.50 (Including P&P: www.birdsofkazakhstan.com).

A personal review

More and more of Kazakhstan is becoming accessible to tourists and visitors. It stretches from the northern Caspian Sea 2925km east to the fabled Altai Mountains some 25km from Mongolia (separated here by a short but mountainous border between Russia and China), and from 55.4°N in the boreal forest, or taiga, south to 45.47°N just below the Kyzylkum Desert, through which flows the Syrdarya (Shardara) River north and west to the remnants of Aral Sea, passing near the Baikonur Cosmodrome as it does.

Kazakhstan is vast, its 2.7 million km² comprising six terrestrial biomes:

  1. Boreal forest in the far north and around the high mountain ranges of the Altai.
  2. Eurasian steppe in a band from the northwest to the southeast.
  3. Eurasian desert and semidesert from the Caspian lowlands east across southern regions.
  4. Eurasian high montane, comprising the Tien Shan east through Zhungarskiy Alatau and northeast through the Saur Mountains to the Altai.
  5. Irano-Turanian montane flora: the Karatau Mountains and the cliff-faces of the Ustyurt Plateau This biome does not appear on the species account maps.
  6. Sino-Himalayan forest of the Tien Shan.

There are some 15 distinct habitats within and shared across these biomes, which when considered with the assorted river systems and wetlands, provide conditions attractive to a wide variety of breeding, migrant and wintering birds. Before you even look at this book, I urge you to put some of these names into Google Maps, when you can begin to appreciate the scale of and fascination with this amazing land.

The book is a successor to the similarly-titled 2007 volume by Arend Wassink and Gerard Oreel which was the first bird book on Kazakhstan widely available to western birdwatchers and ornithologists, and in particular to monoglot English speakers. Like that book, the new tome benefits firstly from the photo-editing talent of René Pop – its additional 100+ pages allow the inclusion of more photos of superb quality – and secondly from masterly copy-editing by Gerard Oreel. The habitat and landscape images in the 26 pages of Introductory Material are in the ‘you could almost be there’ category, but what brings it all to life is the way the explanatory text flows to convey ideas and information with passion and style.

Up to 10 September 2015, 499 species had been recorded in Kazakhstan: these records all have been assessed by applying current standards of acceptance, an approach not without its detractors. Many older previously accepted records could not be validated because, for example, known specimens had been lost or disposed of during times of political and economic upheaval, or original documentation had likewise been lost or destroyed.

The succinct species accounts in the book follow a standard pattern of headings, not all of which are applicable to each account:

  1. Subspecies.
  2. Status. Where a species’ status is given as Vagrant, the only other heading is ‘Records’.
  3. Habitat.
  4. Breeding distribution.
  5. Non-breeding distribution.
  6. Migration.
  7. Note(s).

This layout enables quick access to any species’ relevant data.

Each species (save Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris) has its own occurrence map whose background fill comprises the five largest biomes. The method of illustrating species areas of occurrence is simple and effective, though arrived at by eclectic means: green represents residency, red breeding, blue wintering and black migrating. Where lines denote areas, arrows on the lines point towards the distribution. The symbols for specific records, occurrence throughout the country and the possibility of breeding, wintering or migrating use the same set or a subset of these colours. A vast amount of information is thus apparent pictorially.

This book is not simply an update of the previous book. Many (all?) earlier accounts have been reviewed and revised. Much more data has been obtained or made available concerning the contents of the previous book, as can be seen from the 29 two-column pages of references in font size 8. Since the first book, the amount of in-country bird survey work, bird recording and simple birding has produced a plethora of data. A perusal of the Acknowledgements section reveals that a wealth of scientific information from many museum collections, from molecular analyses, and from national and regional record-keepers and databases has been absorbed and assessed, and that recent data from knowledgeable authors, photographers, bird tour leaders, independent birders (all from many countries), and especially from Kazakh nationals, has been incorporated.

It’s quite obvious that a Handbook could have been produced, but quite sensibly, the most pertinent aspects have been distilled into this book instead. Now from my own, perhaps narrow point of view as the person who compiles the reference lists for the OSME Region List of bird taxa, this book has been invaluable, because a number of the references it cites I had either overlooked or had not been aware of, and these I have been able to obtain either from the WWW or from that marvellous resource, ResearchGate (www.researchgate.net/home). So, The New Birds of Kazakhstan has not only informed the ORL directly as I updated it from all the book’s species accounts, but also indirectly via me playing detective, because the additional references I downloaded led to other pertinent references und so weiter.

However, the sheer pleasure that comes from reading about the 17 new species for Kazakhstan since the first book, from my enhanced ability to picture in my mind where any species may occur in that country, from hugely improving my geographical knowledge of the country, especially the iconic mountain ranges of Central Asia, from my improved acquaintanceship with the kaleidoscopic tapestry of habitats and from the sheer quality of the product (the paper, the covers, the care in the design), has made constructing this review an exercise in what to omit to keep it to a readable length.

To whet your appetite, here is a selected and very incomplete list of some of the iconic or more interesting non-vagrant species recorded in Kazakhstan:

  1. Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis, ssp saurensis, scarce resident Saur Mountains, ssp sewerzowi, common resident Tien Shan and Zhungarskiy Alatau.
  2. Altai Snowcock T. altaicus very rare resident Southern Altai.
  3. Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis very rare resident Zhungarskiy, Zialiskiy and Terskey Alatau.
  4. Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis common breeding migrant throughout central Kazakhstan from west to east.
  5. Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos ssp chrysaetos rare resident northeast Kazakhstan, but potentially the far more interesting ssp is canadensis, apparently a rare resident in the southern third of the country. Now IOC6.1 confines this taxon to the New World, but lists homeyeri for Uzbekistan, which adjoins southwest and south Kazakhstan. There are precedents for ‘New World’ taxa being in the eastern Palearctic, eg at least one subspecies each of Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus and Northern Grey Shrike Lanius borealis, and given that recent research (Nebel et al 2015) suggests Golden Eagle may be two or more species, (because only one North American sample was analysed, no taxonomic recommendations have been made), if A.c. canadensis is confirmed as being in Kazakhstan, that might be an incipient tick!
  6. Shikra Accipter badius ssp cenchroides scarce breeding migrant southern third of Kazakhstan (Shikra taxonomy is complex and closely related to other Accipiter species in places)
  7. Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius very rare resident or breeding migrant mountains of eastern Kazakhstan.
  8. Ibisbill Ibidorhyncus struthersii rare resident foothills and mountains of southeasternmost Kazakhstan.
  9. Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius rare breeding migrant overgrazed steppes and semideserts central-northern Kazakhstan.
  10. Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago megala scarce breeding migrant valleys of the Altai.
  11. Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus very rare irregular breeding migrant saline steppe lakes lowlands easternmost Kazakhstan, up to 1200bp.
  12. Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus scarce breeding migrant deserts and semideserts south-central Kazakhstan.
  13. Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus, rare breeding migrant coniferous & mixed forests, open woodlands mainly Western Altai.
  14. Pacific Swift Apus pacificus ssp pacificus (post-split, only two sspp) very rare breeding migrant forests with cliffs Altai Valleys.
  15. Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach ssp erythronotus common breeding migrant bushy areas in semidesert and steppes southern and southeastern Kazakhstan.
  16. Indian Golden Oriole Oriolus kundoo common breeding migrant open deciduous woodlands south and southeastern Kazakhstan.
  17. Pander’s Ground Jay Podoces panderi ssp panderi very rare resident deserts with saxaul bushes Kyzylkum Desert, ssp ilensis very rare resident sand deserts & dunes below Lake Balkash.
  18. Rufous-naped Tit Periparus rufonuchalis rare resident coniferous 7 juniper forests Western Tien Shan.
  19. White-winged Lark Alauda leucoptera common resident & breeding migrant grassy or Artemisia steppes throughout.
  20. Pale Martin Riparia diluta ssp diluta abundant breeding migrant steep banks lowlands southeast Kazakhstan, ssp gavrilovi common breeding migrant Altai and Manrak Mountains.
  21. White-browed Tit-Warbler Leptopoecile sophiae ssp sophiae rare resident from Tien Shan to Zhungarskiy Alatau 2150-3000m asl.
  22. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola abundant breeding migrant wet areas scattered with bushes Western and Southern Altai.
  23. White-tailed Rubythroat Calliope pectoralis ssp bailloni common breeding migrant Tien Shan to Zhungarskiy Alatau 2500-3300m asl.
  24. Blue-capped Redstart Phoenicurus coeruleocephala common breeding migrant open & dry coniferous & mixed forests Tien Shan to Saur Mountains 1400-2700m asl
  25.  Red-mantled Rosefinch Carpodacus rhodochlamys common resident Tien Shan to Saur Mountains 1500-2900m asl.
  26. Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi ssp polaris common breeding migrant Alpine tundras, marshes Southern Altai 2100-2600m asl.

For rosefinch aficionados, there are 10 species to track down, but whether or not you want to see a large proportion of the Kazakhstan species list in-country, you’ll have to make numerous visits. The maps in this book should be the basis of your strategy, for many areas are difficult and time-consuming to reach and explore, many locations still having poor roads and tracks – it will take a long time to do justice in achieving your target list in even a small part of the country. An additional problem you may have is that a sizeable proportion of the species occur mainly on migration, and so timing your visit is essential.

This book isn’t a field guide. It’s for people who need information, who like data to be up to date and it is of considerable value to those who make conservation decisions or need to supply evidence-based recommendations to conservation issues.  …and yet, any self-respecting birder who doesn’t sacrifice baggage allowance to take it to Kazakhstan should be held at the point of entry and politely returned to the flight departure country to obtain a copy before being allowed to return. You see, this book concisely explains where you may find your target species, and reading between the lines, the text lets you assess the odds of finding them…

Now, those of you who know or might have encountered me, may be puzzled that I haven’t held forth on bird taxonomy as is my wont. The answer is simple. Arend Wassink clearly and simply states that he follows the IOC taxonomy at the time of writing and lists the few exceptions. Where taxonomic differences exist between this book and the OSME Region List, they are easy to compare; Arend has identified the taxa and it’s not a problem that some of these might be regarded as species or subspecies where his view is the reverse. He has provided an audit trail so that any changes in future can easily be linked to past decisions, something that is spectacularly absent from some recent publications.

The short version of all the above is that if you interested in Kazakhstan’s birds do get this book and if you’re a human being who possesses a smidgen of empathy, you will enjoy it enormously.

Mike Blair 2 March 2016

Reference

Nebel, C, A Gamauf, E Haring, G Segelbacher, A Villers and FE Zachos. 2015. Mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals Holarctic homogeneity and a distinct Mediterranean lineage in the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Biol. J. Linn. Soc. June 2015: 1-13.

Reviews: