kaztrip2

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
June 25 - July 16, 1997

From 25 June to 11 July 1997 I was on a business trip to Almaty and Kurchatov in Kazakhstan and to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. As it was my first time in the area, I wanted to do a little sightseeing afterwards and was joined by my wife, a non-birdwatcher but very tolerant of my peculiarities, and we went to Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and Bukhara as well as to Sijjak, a small mountain village not far from Tashkent.

A few general words to start with. There is no doubt that there are many interesting and unusual species in these two countries. Unfortunately, though, there is basically no infrastructure to support the independent birdwatcher. Travel within the cities is not too difficult but visiting any sites off the beaten track can only really be done by private car, which is very expensive. In an area where the average monthly salary is of the order of $20-$30, any Westerner is viewed as a potential gold-mine, to be exploited to the maximum extent possible.

There is also little local expertise to guide visitors to the best sites to watch birds. There is an Institute for Ornithology in Almaty but I was told that the staff charge $150 per day to lead groups to birdwatching sites. The price is even higher if rare birds are sought. I spoke to someone at the Institute and didn't form a very positive impression. He offered to take me to a lake near Almaty where he said we might see 40 to 50 different species but I didn't think that $150 for this was very good value and didn't take him up on his offer.

I should perhaps also mention that a good knowledge of Russian is definitely a help in arranging transport. Most of the dealings I had in the two countries were in Russian (I do not speak any of the "local" languages but everyone I met spoke Russian), and organizing everything would have been much more difficult if I had tried to rely on English. In summary, after my experiences there and despite my preference for independent travel wherever possible, I would reluctantly recommend anyone interested in the birds of the area to consider taking a specialized and professional birdwatching tour, especially if they are not fluent in Russian.

I was relying largely on Flint, Boehme, Kostin and Kuznetsov's A Field Guide to the Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories, a reissue of Birds of the USSR but with the text unchanged. This book is about the only choice for the area and was generally good enough, although I did have problems with the range maps, which do not show any internal borders within the USSR, and which are in any case not especially accurate. In addition, there are very few pictures of birds in flight, which makes raptor identification tricky. Furthermore, some of the birds don't look especially like their pictures. I also took along Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow's Birds of Britain and Europe and was grateful for it.

My trip went roughly as follows. I spent 25-29 June in Almaty, including a day trip to a lake in the steppe on 28 June (and an attempt to reach the mountains, which closed because of the danger of mudslides). From 29 June to 3 July I was in Kurchatov in the Semipalatinsk area. I returned to Almaty on 3 July and stayed until 5 July, when I took a walk around the Medeo area (foothills of the mountains). From 6-10 July I was in Tashkent and from 11-16 July touring Uzbekistan, visiting Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Bukhara and Sijjak. The weather was unremittingly hot throughout -- up to about 45 degrees C in the shade, although there wasn't much of that -- but thankfully very dry although there were two brief evening showers while I was in Almaty. If I had had the choice I would probably have elected to go earlier in the year: May and the first half of June are apparently very pleasant in the area, and there are good numbers of migrant birds to swell the resident species.

A quick word about travelling to and from the area. My trip was paid for, but my wife was travelling privately. She did not go to Kazakhstan so was able to fly in and out of the same airport: she ended up flying with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul to Tashkent as the price (about $800) was half what she was quoted by any other airlines. On the outward journey she had to wait a few hours for her connection, but the return flight had a much better connection. She was very happy with the comfort and service and would recommend this route to anybody. We did not get commission from the company!

 

25-29 June: Almaty

I arrived in Almaty early in the morning of Wednesday, 25 June on a direct flight from Vienna and had no trouble clearing customs and checking into my hotel. I had been booked into the Hotel Kazakhstan, an overpriced monstrosity inherited from the USSR that has the major advantage of being about the tallest building in town, which made it harder for me to get lost. The hotel was perfectly comfortable, and my only real complaint was that the local prostitutes frequently telephoned me late at night to offer their services. I wouldn't have minded being disturbed earlier in the evening but being woken at 1:30 a.m. I found a bit much.

As I was on a business trip I couldn't devote myself fully to looking for the local birds except for in the early morning and the late evening. Because of the difficulties in getting out of the city, I saw nothing but the common town birds in the first few days. Perhaps the commonest was the Common Myna (Latin names are given in the full species list at the end), which was absolutely everywhere. The range has dramatically expanded since Flint et al. was written and populations are reaching plague-like proportions. Other birds seen in the centre of in Almaty include Eurasian Collared-Dove, Laughing Dove, Eurasian Hobby, Black-billed Magpie, Rock Dove (well, feral pigeons), Eurasian Blackbird, Barn Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow (less common than Barn Swallow but several small groups were seen every day), House Martin, European Turtle-Dove, Great Tit, House Sparrow, White Wagtail (the very dark-headed Central Asian race), Grey Wagtail and European Greenfinch, which was breeding in the small park behind my hotel. A few European Bee-eaters were usually to be found on the wires of the cable-car that led up the hills behind my hotel. There were also several Carrion Crows, all of the nominate race (Corvus corone corone).

On Sunday 29 June I had an evening flight to Semipalatinsk, so I filled in the day before then by taking a walk in the hills behind my hotel. The truth is that I was hoping to find White-winged Woodpeckers in the small woods at the top, but when I arrived there I found the area packed with locals playing loud music on their portable radios, and the only birds in sight were Magpies. Still, on the way down a pair of Whitethroats were well seen flitting through the scrub, and as I rounded a corner in the track, a Grey-hooded Bunting hopped out onto the ground in front of me and let me watch it for 2-3 minutes. This is a very attractive bird, by the way, and the eye-ring is much more prominent than the illustration in Flint et al. suggests.

 

28 June: Steppe and Mountain Foothills near Almaty

On Saturday 28 June I hired a car and driver for the day and was taken first to a large and very polluted lake in the steppe to the North of Almaty, about 40 minutes' drive from the centre of town. This is apparently a well known birdwatching site and probably where the person from the Almaty Institute of Ornithology would have taken me. The roadside wires along the way provided good looks of Hoopoe, European Roller, European Bee-eater and Rufous-tailed Shrike (which I expected to be common in Kazakhstan but the 50 or so I saw turned out to be the only ones all trip), and there was a very large colony of Sand Martins along the bank of the stream that feeds the lake.

The lake itself is very large and shallow with reedbeds at the "near" end but otherwise with unbroken visibility across the water. In short, perfect for birdwatching. The first species to catch my attention was White Pelican: 40-50 were swimming on the surface, and a further dozen or more flew in during the next few hours. I scanned them all in vain for a Dalmatian Pelican, which would have been a "lifer" for me, but it was not to be. Oh well.

Also easily visible on the lake were several pairs of Ruddy Shelduck (definitely countable here) and Common Shelduck as well as a small group of Gadwall, and several Red-crested Pochards. The commonest ducks were Northern Shovelers. Waders included Common Redshanks, Common Sandpipers, two pairs of Black-winged Stilts, a single Little Ringed Plover, and a small flock of Northern Lapwings. There were also a number of small plovers on the far bank but the distance was far too great for me to have a chance of working out what they were. A small, dilapidated building was near the edge of the water, and a Rosy Starling was perched on the edge, feeding three young. Nearby, what looked like a small jetty was occupied by Common Terns, Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls, and two Caspian Terns flew noisily by while I was watching. A single Grey Heron and several Great Cormorants were standing on the edge of the jetty, and a pair of Great Crested Grebes was swimming nearby. An adult Yellow Wagtail (the dark-headed "feldegg" subspecies found in the area) was feeding young by the edge of the water.

I walked along the bank to the reedbeds and actually saw a Blyth's Reed Warbler before I heard it, a very rare occurrence, at least for me. This bird was perched near the top of a tall reed stem and gave very good scope views before it started singing. There were several others in the reeds but none allowed so clear looks as the first one. I should confess that my identification was based to a large extent on the bird's location: this should be much the commonest Acro of that general size in the area, where Marsh and Reed Warblers are extremely unusual. I could safely eliminate Paddyfield and Great Reed by looking at the bird, so what else was left? Okay, it may not be the most professional way in the world of identifying warblers but it's my list!

In front of me was the lake and behind me was -- nothing. Steppe, without a break or a change in vegetation for as far as I could see. Luckily, though, there were telephone wires cutting across it (where would we be without them?) and these served as perching posts for European Rollers and Red-headed Buntings, which were very common. Their characteristic song was heard throughout the area, and many birds gave very good looks. The grass and small bushes held a number of larks, most of which were Calandra Larks (with the white trailing edges to the wings very prominent when they flew) but I spent ten minutes or more trying to come up with an alternative identification for a small, sandy-coloured lark that could only have been a Desert Lark. The bird was so close that the focussing on my binoculars was struggling to cope and it was singing clearly, so the identification is as certain as I ever can be with larks, even though Flint et al. suggest that the species is found nowhere near where I was.

Pretty pleased with the way the day was going I asked my driver to take me into the mountains near Almaty so that I could have a look for some of the rarer species that are supposed to be found there. I had been warned that the mountains could be closed due to the danger of mudslides (there had been a lot of rain shortly before my arrival) but was confident that a small amount of US dollars would solve the problem. I was wrong: trust my luck to run into the only non-bribable policeman in the area! There was no way through to the large artificial lake where the locals like to relax at weekends so instead we took the right-hand fork in the road to a small village at 1800-2000m in the foothills, and I got out to see what I could see.

Initially things didn't look great. I was clearly not the only person who had hoped to visit the mountains that day, so the stream by the village was lined with people carrying picnic baskets and blaring radios. Surprisingly, a pair of Azure Tits was not disturbed by the noise and continued disappearing with food into a small hole near the top of a wall. I watched them for about quarter of an hour before deciding to walk along the stream through a mountain ravine and see what I could see.

The village itself had few birds of interest, although Twites were common and singing nicely from the telephone wires, and three Common Cuckoos were lined up on another telephone wire in plain view. I reached the stream and sat on a prominent overlook, watching a young Yellow Wagtail being fed by both parents. The next half an hour probably provided the best birdwatching of my whole trip. First to appear was a Brown Dipper, which made its presence known by calling loudly as it flew upstream to perch briefly just in front of me. The call note was extremely similar to that of our own European ("White-throated") Dipper, and the bird's behaviour was also similar, as it bobbed up and down on the rocks in the fast-flowing stream. I was only sorry that it stayed for such a brief time.

A few minutes later my attention was caught by a very dark-backed Three-Toed Woodpecker that landed on a pine tree on the opposite bank and worked its way up and around the trunk before disappearing from view. I was initially puzzled by the coloration (although the identification was clear) but Flint et al. show a picture of a dark-backed form of the species that is found in Central Asia. While trying (unsuccessfully) to re-find it I noticed a pair of Blue Whistling-Thrushes in the trees, and these came down to drink (and to hunt for insects?) at the edge of the stream. I had seen the species in Hong Kong, where it is common on and around Victoria Peak, but it was here at the much higher altitude that my field guides tell me it prefers. I watched these birds for a while before glancing up and seeing a medium-sized eagle land in a small pine at the top of the opposite side of the ravine. Luckily it was in plain view and the scope soon revealed it to be a Booted Eagle. I gazed for a few minutes until the eagle took off, and only then did I realize it was one of a pair that had been in the tree. Both birds soared off together down the valley and I eventually lost them from sight.

I figured it would be hard to top that and was feeling in need in a rest (don't ask me how I always manage to contract a cold when the temperature is so high) so I went back to Almaty and my hotel.

 

30 June - 3 July: Kurchatov (Semipalatinsk Area)

There isn't much point to my going into great detail on this part of the trip as Kurchatov is still closed to private visitors. It was the heart of the former USSR's nuclear missile testing programme and is now a small town with a large nuclear research centre trying to come to terms with independent existence. To reach it I had a two-hour flight from Almaty to Semipalatinsk followed by a slightly longer ride across seemingly endless steppe. It was almost dark when we landed so I formed no real impression of the countryside, and it was only the next morning when I realized that Kurchatov lies on the banks of the River Irtush and is actually quite pretty.

Over the next few days I was able to take several early morning and late evening walks along the river and to see a number of interesting birds. Black Kites were common over the river and the town (I saw about thirty or forty of them at the main rubbish dump), and Herring and Black-Headed Gulls and Caspian, Common and Little Terns were all seen flying past. I've already been taken to task on the "Herring Gulls", by the way: they were only seen once and on the opposite bank (about 100m away), when I was looking towards fairly strong sunlight. I couldn't take any pictures and can give no more precise information on the subspecies. Sorry!

One of the commonest birds in just about every area with long grass was the Paddyfield Warbler. At least five or six pairs were in the grassy verges on the edge of the guest house, and far more were in the unkempt patches of long grass by the institute where I was working. The birds didn't appear at all shy and allowed repeated good looks. Also common in the grass by the institute was the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica). Most of them were clearly L. s. pallidogularis, with long, red bars across the throat (where our L.s. svecica and L.s. cyanecula have red or white dots) but several had instead white bars. Unlike the European subspecies, the birds were not at all shy, and I had prolonged and very close looks at them. Unfortunately, none of my books tells me whether the white-barred form is a distinct subspecies (that co-occurs: the two forms were often seen together singing from the same strand of barbed wire) or whether the red colouration in the throat-band simply takes longer to develop.

There were several other species of note in the town. One was Montagu's Harrier: a glorious male swept very closely past me one lunchtime and even without my binoculars I could clearly see the bars on the wings. And the Carrion Crows in the area were all Corvus corone cornix - I must have crossed the big dividing line during my journey. The European Goldfinches lacked the dark heads of our European birds: Flint et al. refer to them as "Central Asian form." One evening I was treated to the sight of a fully grown young Common Cuckoo being patiently fed by a pair of Yellow Wagtails. Out of curiosity I waited to see how the cuckoo flew and was slightly disappointed to see that its flight was very straight and direct (it swerved only to try to shake off the persistent mobbing of the crows), unlike the proud parents. There is some truth to genetics after all. (I have a doctorate in the subject so am entitled to be skeptical!)

One day I saw an immature Great Spotted Woodpecker in the centre of the town, here at the very tip of its range. My heart leapt as I thought I was seeing my first White-winged Woodpecker but it was not to be. Finally, I heard my only Locustella of the trip, a high-pitched, persistent buzz that could only have come from a Grasshopper Warbler.

I was taken on two excursions while staying in Kurchatov and both of them produced some new birds. The first was a trip to one of the research reactors, located (for safety reasons) about an hour's drive away across the steppe. Unfortunately I was operating on a fairly tight schedule and so could not stop to look around for birds in the steppe. However, a flock of Lesser Kestrels was flying noisily around the outhouses of the reactor complex, and a pair of Northern Wheatears was also seen. On the way back, we drove at 70 kilometres per hour past a small flock of Sociable Lapwings but didn't have time for me to take a close look. Luckily the birds are fairly hard to mistake so I wrote them down.

My other excursion was along the River Irtush for a picnic (to give us all an opportunity for some more informal discussions about work). The day was much more relaxed so I was able to put in for quick stops at the Kurchatov rubbish dump on the way to and from our destination. I'm sure I was thought strange, but my hosts seemed to understand when there among the scores of Black Kites we saw a beautiful, close pair of Demoiselle Cranes picking fussily through the rubbish. The birds gave wonderful, close looks and provided a real highlight of my whole trip.

The picnic spot itself was pretty enough, but by the time we had arrived it was mid-morning and most bird activity had ceased. Lots of bee-eaters were flying around, unperturbed by the ubiquitous Black Kites, and I patiently checked them, hoping for Blue-cheeked (the Russian name is "Steppnaya Shchurka", or Steppe Bee-eater, so it did seem likely) but they were all European Bee-eaters. After our picnic I went for a short stroll, listening to the Yellow-breasted Buntings (the males have a lovely habit of singing from the tops of small bushes and of not moving around, so they are perfect for finding in the scope) and stumbled across the most unexpected bird of the whole trip. It looked just like a Collared Flycatcher but the range of this species is so far from where I was that I was convinced I was seeing a new species of flycatcher or chat, and I took extensive notes on the bird (without looking at my field guide - the English way!). I even patiently recorded the complete white collar around the back of the bird's neck and its flycatcher-like behaviour, lack of wing-flicking etc. Only when I went over my notes that evening did I realize that I had produced a pretty near perfect description of an adult male Collared Flycatcher, a bird I know well from Austria but that is not supposed to be found anywhere near where I was. No other bird in the former USSR can be confused with it, so my identification, based on 5-10 minutes of fairly close observation in very good light, should stand.

I think my hosts had expected rather more birds to be in the area and so were fairly disappointed for me, and after lunch they offered to take me slightly further upriver to a small, dead arm. After about twenty minutes we arrived at a small pool, and I immediately saw a White-headed Duck swimming and diving there. This was a new bird for me, and I was surprised just how little was above water. The duck may be described as "medium-sized" in the field guides but in murky water it can look very small indeed as most of it is submerged! The only other birds in the pool were a female Gadwall with five young and a Marsh Sandpiper standing in the reeds at the side. Paddyfield Warblers, of course, were everywhere.

The final surprise of the day came on the return to Kurchatov, when a pair of Pallid Harriers soared low over the road. Our car stopped and I got out to look at them: no doubt at all over the identification as the wing-bars of the more common Montagu's Harrier were completely absent. I confess freely that I had to check Flint et al. for the Russian name to tell my hosts -- it translates as "Steppe Harrier". So why weren't there any Steppe Bee-eaters?

That was the end of my brief stay in Kurchatov, and on 3 July I once again took the bumpy ride across the steppe to Semipalatinsk for the flight to Almaty. At least it was daylight this time, and I hoped to have a better look at some Sociable Plovers but we didn't see any. The telephone wires were covered with small birds, including several wheatears, but my colleagues were worried that we would be late for the flight, and so we couldn't stop. The near impossibility of identifying anything at 70 kilometres per hour on a bumpy road probably robbed my trip list (and my life list?) of three or four new species but there was nothing I could do. I was grateful that a Steppe Eagle stayed still on the top of a telegraph post until our jeep was very close and only then flew off, giving me a wonderful look at this supposedly common species (that I, however, only saw once more on the whole trip). Kestrels were fairly common but remained unidentified although if I had to choose I would plump for Common Kestrels based on the fact that they were almost all seen singly. On the other hand, the Russian for Lesser Kestrel translates as "Steppe Kestrel" and there is a reason for that.

 

4-5 July: Back in Almaty

Friday 4 July was a working day, and in the evening I decided I had been neglecting my sightseeing so visited the Almaty Cathedral. A young Eurasian Sparrowhawk was perched out in the open in the woods of the surrounding park and after a few minutes the mother arrived, bearing what looked like a newly fledged Great Tit. She then flew off to join the father, giving me wonderful looks at this species, supposedly uncommon in Central Asia. Shikra (Accipiter badius) is much more common, but the hawks were seen well and lacked the characteristic dark throat stripe that identifies Shikra.

On Saturday I made another attempt to see some of the montane species. The mountains were still "dangerous" and so closed, but I was dropped off at the Medeo, a large sports complex about twenty kilometres from Almaty and at an elevation of probably about 2000m. There were regular buses to and from the centre of town, so I was free to spend as long as I liked up in the hills and to make my own way back. Unfortunately, the birdwatching was not very good (possibly because my ride up to the top was over an hour later arriving than had been arranged, so I missed the best part of the day) but Common Rosefinch was very common, and there were several small groups of Greenish Warblers giving good looks and calling loudly. I also saw my only Mistle Thrush of the entire trip, and nearby was a mixed flock of tits, with Coal, Great, and Azure present (but still none of the local specialities). The most frustrating event was hearing an unfamiliar and unidentifiable call from deep within a thick pine tree and failing in over an hour to catch as much as a glimpse of the source.

 

6-10 July: Tashkent

What I didn't like at all was the fact that the only weekend flight from Almaty to Tashkent (in Uzbekistan) left at 4:30 on Sunday morning. Just as bad, because of the time difference between the two countries it also arrived at 4:30 on Sunday morning. I checked into my hotel (the "Uzbekistan") in the centre of Tashkent feeling decidedly groggy, but the bright sunlight made sleep impossible so I took a walk around the local park.

Tashkent is a funny city that looks like a failed attempt to rebuild Moscow in the Central Asian desert. It is filled with broad, tree-lined avenues (I was grateful for the shade) that look strangely out of place when the surrounding countryside is seen. Still, it does provide some shelter for birds, and even in the town a number of species were seen. One of the commonest (apart from the Common Myna) was the Long-tailed Shrike, and a pair was feeding young just by the hotel. A larger park in the town (by the "Palace of Friendship of Nations") contains a large artificial lake where it is possible to hire rowing boats or to go swimming. Despite the large amount of human activity, a pair of Common Kingfishers was in residence and allowed repeated good looks over the next few days. Common Terns flew over the surface, and the nearby fountains (invariably used also as bathing places for children) were the haunt of small flocks of Red-rumped Swallows. Common Swifts circled high overhead, their noisy calls mixing with those of Laughing Doves and Eurasian Collared-Doves.

I was actually working in a suburb of Tashkent called Ulughbek, named after the famous Uzbek astronomer whose observatory is located in Samarkand. The Institute of Nuclear Physics in Ulughbek is surrounded by a large wooded area, and in my lunch breaks I was able to wander around and look for birds. It was blisteringly hot, and the birds were not very active. Nevertheless, the calls of woodpeckers were loud and clear, and Great Spotted Woodpecker would have been very far out of its range, so I investigated further and came up with a pair of White-winged Woodpeckers. They did look very similar to Great Spotteds (and I think were recently considered a subspecies) but after looking for a long time I managed to convince myself that there is more white on the wings.

The woods also held Common Wood Pigeons and a pair of Eurasian Hobbys that perched in the top of a tree while I admired them. There were tits everywhere, and these looked much greyer than the Great Tits in Kazakhstan, although they were the same size. Chalk up Turkestan Tit at last, a recent split perhaps (from Great Tit) but definitely a new species. It turned out to be very common throughout Uzbekistan, except in the mountains. The final species I saw in the area was Eurasian Golden-Oriole, which also turned out to be very common in the country in all wooded areas.

 

11-14 July: Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and Bukhara

By Friday 11 July my work was over and so, together with Christine (who had arrived the day before, in time to admire the Common Kingfishers on the Tashkent lake) and two colleagues from Uzbekistan, I set out across the country in search of traces of the Silk Road. Our first target was Samarkand, but I was careful to extract a promise from our driver that he would stop on the way if we saw any interesting birds. It turned out that his idea of "interesting" was very different from mine. All small birds were sparrows and by definition uninteresting, while large birds were "probably eagles" and also not worth stopping for. I felt betrayed and very frustrated by the end of the trip. Still, we did stop to look at some of the monuments in the cities we visited so all was not lost. For the guidance of others who feel like travelling in the area, we paid our driver $100 for four days which may seem a lot compared with his monthly salary of $20 but it wasn't too much for us and was a lot less than the tourist companies were quoting ($400 per person was not untypical).

Despite the fact that we were driving at a steady 60-70 kilometres per hour along a not especially smooth road, we did manage to identify some birds on the way from Tashkent to Samarkand. Eurasian Hoopoe and European Roller were both common and hard to mistake, even under the most difficult of conditions. And we saw both European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. The latter turned out to be fairly common and easy to see on the roadside telegraph wires in Uzbekistan, particularly on the road from Jizzak to Samarkand. They look very different in flight from the much more common European Bee-eater, especially when the sun falls on their backs! Long-tailed Shrikes were perched on the utility wires by all the small villages we passed, and about ten to fifteen pairs of White Storks were seen either perched on nests on telegraph poles near Jizzak or soaring over the nearby fields. Apparently they used to nest in Bukhara, but the nests have been abandoned for the past five or six years because, presumably, of the large-scale drainage of the nearby marshes.

We arrived in Samarkand in mid-afternoon, at the hottest part of the day, and started our sightseeing immediately at the Ulug Bek Observatory. A male Eurasian Golden-Oriole was sunning himself in the treetops and gave excellent views and a small Acrocephalus disappeared into the bushes without being safely identified although it was almost certainly a Paddyfield Warbler. There was nothing else of note (ornithologically speaking, that is, the architecture is incredible) until the early evening, when large flocks of Alpine Swifts appeared and screamed noisily around the monuments in the centre of town. They're the black dots on all my photographs of the Registan, honest!

We were on a pretty tight schedule so could only afford one afternoon to take in Samarkand as we had planned a trip to Shakhrisabz for the following day. The main attraction there is Timurlane's "White Palace" although there were several other buildings and tombs that were well worth seeing. For us, another attraction was the drive between Samarkand and Shakhrisabz, that crosses a highish pass through the mountains and gave us at least a chance to look for some different birds. We negotiated a ten-minute stop near the top of the pass and got out of our car to look and listen. An unfamiliar call was heard clearly, and shortly afterwards a Persian Nuthatch (also known as "Greater Rock Nuthatch") flew into view and perched on the top of a bush. It was immediately joined by several others, and the group flew off and landed on some rocks, which it proceeded to climb up. This was the only place we saw the species on our trip but it was fairly common up there, and because of its loud calls almost impossible to miss. A pair of Egyptian Vultures were soaring over the mountains (we later saw several others) and a Brown-necked Raven obligingly perched in a nearby tree and called.

All too soon our ten minutes were up, and off we set again. I was looking forward to some more time there on the return journey but to my surprise (and considerable annoyance) we took another, longer route back and didn't go near any mountains. Still, the road through the grassy plains did provide excellent looks at several further Egyptian Vultures, and a single Steppe Eagle took off from a roadside telegraph pole. Other roadside birds such as Hoopoes, Rollers, Long-tailed Shrikes and both species of Bee-eater were common, and a large flock of Rooks was near the edge of Samarkand. Crested Larks were also easy to see along the roadsides, and I once even persuaded our driver to stop and let me look at a pair. It was an effort to persuade him that not all small birds were sparrows but I'm not sure I managed to convince him of the difference.

After another evening in Samarkand we set off across the steppe to Bukhara. The roadside birds were the same as before, and I completely failed to arrange a stop. The problem was that "we" had arranged to meet someone in Bukhara, and because we had set out too late (because our driver had taken much longer to find petrol than he had expected) we could not afford the time. We didn't miss out on much, though, as our guide happily told us that all the little birds perched on the wires were sparrows or shrikes (a new word to his Russian vocabulary).

Bukhara itself was even hotter than Samarkand, although we did drag ourselves around the impressive old town centre and took a guided tour of the fortress. No birds to speak of but plenty of architectural interest to keep us happy. And this wasn't a birdwatching trip anyway. I had hoped the next morning to have a chance to look for some of the desert species (Desert Sparrow and Rock Sparrow should have been fairly common) but was told that we had no time as the journey back to Tashkent was very long. It was, and despite leaving around lunchtime (after visits to another wonderfully kitschy palace -- the Lonely Planet guide is very dismissive but we enjoyed it -- and to the tomb of the founder of the Naqshbandi sect and his mother) it was after midnight when we returned to our hotel. Needless to say, roadside stops to look at birds were not permitted.

 

15-16 July: Sijjak

My noises about wanting some time in the mountains were heeded at last, and we were taken up to Sijjak, a small town about an hour's drive from Tashkent. The Institute for Nuclear Research has a summer camp up there where members of its staff can "relax" by the edge of the lake, and we were given permission to visit and stay a night, which provided us with a really interesting and unusual glimpse into the way people live their lives.

Long-tailed Shrikes and Eurasian Golden-Orioles turned out to be very common in the camp and the village, and we had repeated good looks at these familiar species. Carrion Crows (C. c. corone) we also common, and a pair of Eurasian Hobbys must have been resident nearby as birds were frequently to be seen flying overhead. The Central Asian forms of European Goldfinch and White Wagtail were present, and Common Mynas were never far away. There were also a few Eurasian Blackbirds in the village, and both Barn and Red-rumped Swallows were easily seen over the lake, together with a small group of Common Terns.

We were without transport (we were dropped off and collected again) so could go birdwatching only on foot, which was fine except that it was a very long and hot walk out of the village to reach any interesting areas. Still, the effort turned out to be worthwhile.

Two Long-legged Buzzards were soaring over the hilly plains and gave lovely views of their almost translucent red tails, and a single Egyptian Vulture also flew by. A pair of Spotted Flycatchers were feeding young in a roadside copse, and as I watched them I became aware of another bird, which turned out to be a female Rufous-backed Redstart. When she flew off she was joined in flight by another bird that I could not see at all well, but that might have been the male. Apparently the species is fairly common in montane forest, but the bird I saw was in scrubby trees on the edge of a rocky slope. Still, the identification was clear enough. Also on the road leading out of the village I saw and heard a group of tits. The first one I saw from behind and misidentified as an Azure Tit until it turned and I saw the broad, yellow stripe across the chest (but not as broad as appears in Flint et al.): my first Yellow-breasted Tit (which I think was recently split from Azure Tit). From then on I looked at all the tits we saw more closely, and they all turned out to be Yellow-breasted. The species was very common there.

The calls of European Bee-eaters were loud and clear, and several large groups were perched on the telephone wires, along with a few European Rollers. A single Common Raven flew overhead. Two shrikes were also perched on telephone wires, and they did not have long tails: a quick check confirmed that they were Lesser Grey Shrikes, the only ones we saw on the trip.

A little further on I heard a new song coming from a telephone wire and was soon able to identify a male Chestnut-breasted Bunting. A further three were seen and heard in the next kilometre or so, before we reached our destination, a wooded area by the side of a mountain stream. Then the bombshell struck: our guide announced that it was time to return because our car was coming to pick us up and take us back to Tashkent. There was nothing to be done but to leave, although our car did not arrive until four hours after we did. Still, our return flights to Europe were that evening (or in the early hours of the next morning) so we couldn't afford to miss our ride. By the time we left, though, it was getting too dark for it to be worth asking for bird stops and I was sure that any requests would be refused. We did see a solitary Black-crowned Night-Heron flying overhead, the last bird of our trip.

 

Summary

This was not a dedicated birdwatching trip, but even so a fair number of species was seen, including several that are hard to see out of the region. Travelling around in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was not easy but was very rewarding, and we felt glad to have been there before the big boom of tourists arrives, as it surely will. The region offers outstanding cultural attractions together with large areas of natural beauty, and we would encourage others to visit them. Birdwatching is far from easy there but is well worth the effort: good luck to any and all who are prepared to make the effort and hunt down some of the rarer species!

 

Full List of Species Seen

Great Crested Grebe     Podiceps cristatus
Great Cormorant              Phalacrocorax carbo
Great White Pelican          Pelecanus onocrotalus
White-headed Duck            Oxyura leucocephala
Ruddy Shelduck               Tadorna ferruginea
Common Shelduck              Tadorna tadorna
Gadwall                      Anas strepera
Northern Shoveler            Anas clypeata
Red-crested Pochard          Netta rufina
Grey Heron                   Ardea cinerea
Black-crowned Night-Heron    Nycticorax nycticorax
White Stork                  Ciconia ciconia
Black Kite                   Milvus migrans
Egyptian Vulture             Neophron percnopterus
Pallid Harrier               Circus macrourus
Montagu's Harrier            Circus pygargus
Eurasian Sparrowhawk         Accipiter nisus
Long-legged Buzzard          Buteo rufinus
Steppe Eagle                 Aquila nipalensis
Booted Eagle                 Hieraaetus pennatus
Lesser Kestrel               Falco naumanni
Eurasian Kestrel             Falco tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby               Falco subbuteo
Eurasian Coot                Fulica atra
Demoiselle Crane             Grus virgo
Common Redshank              Tringa totanus
Marsh Sandpiper              Tringa stagnatilis
Common Sandpiper             Tringa hypoleucos
Eurasian Oystercatcher       Haematopus ostralegus
Black-winged Stilt           Himantopus himantopus
Little Ringed Plover         Charadrius dubius
Northern Lapwing             Vanellus vanellus
Sociable Lapwing             Vanellus gregarius
Herring Gull                 Larus argentatus
Black-headed Gull            Larus ridibundus
Caspian Tern                 Sterna caspia
Common Tern                  Sterna hirundo
Little Tern                  Sterna albifrons
Rock Dove                    Columba livia
Common Wood Pigeon           Columba palumbus
European Turtle-Dove         Streptopelia turtur
Laughing Dove                Streptopelia senegalensis
Eurasian Collared-Dove       Streptopelia decaocto
Common Cuckoo                Cuculus canorus
Alpine Swift                 Tachymarptis melba
Common Swift                 Apus apus
Common Kingfisher            Alcedo atthis
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater       Merops persicus
European Bee-eater           Merops apiaster
European Roller              Coracias garrulus
Eurasian Hoopoe              Upupa epops
Great Spotted Woodpecker     Dendrocopos major
White-winged Woodpecker      Dendrocopos leucopterus
Three-toed Woodpecker        Picoides tridactylus
Black-billed Magpie          Pica pica
Eurasian Jackdaw             Corvus monedula
Rook                         Corvus frugilegus
Carrion Crow                 Corvus corone
Brown-necked Raven           Corvus ruficollis
Common Raven                 Corvus corax
Eurasian Golden-Oriole       Oriolus oriolus
Rufous-tailed Shrike         Lanius isabellinus
Long-tailed Shrike           Lanius schach
Lesser Grey Shrike           Lanius minor
Brown Dipper                 Cinclus pallasii
Blue Whistling-Thrush        Myiophonus caeruleus
Eurasian Blackbird           Turdus merula
Mistle Thrush                Turdus viscivorus
Rosy Starling                Sturnus roseus
Common Starling              Sturnus vulgaris
Common Myna                  Acridotheres tristis
Spotted Flycatcher           Muscicapa striata
Collared Flycatcher          Ficedula albicollis
Bluethroat                   Luscinia svecica
Rufous-backed Redstart       Phoenicurus erythronota
Northern Wheatear            Oenanthe oenanthe
Persian Nuthatch             Sitta tephronota
Sand Martin                  Riparia riparia
Barn Swallow                 Hirundo rustica
Red-rumped Swallow           Hirundo daurica
House Martin                 Delichon urbica
Grasshopper Warbler          Locustella naevia
Paddyfield Warbler           Acrocephalus agricola
Blyth's Reed-Warbler         Acrocephalus dumetorum
Greenish Warbler             Phylloscopus trochiloides
Greater Whitethroat          Sylvia communis
Coal Tit                     Parus ater
Great Tit                    Parus major
Turkestan Tit                Parus bokharensis (recently split from P. major)
Azure Tit                    Parus cyanus
Yellow-breasted Tit          Parus flavipectus (recently split from P. cyanus)
Desert Lark                  Ammomanes deserti
Calandra Lark                Melanocorypha calandra
Crested Lark                 Galerida cristata
House Sparrow                Passer domesticus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow        Passer montanus
White Wagtail                Motacilla alba (C. Asian form)
Yellow Wagtail               Motacilla flava
Grey Wagtail                 Motacilla cinerea
European Greenfinch          Carduelis chloris
European Goldfinch           Carduelis carduelis (C. Asian form)
Twite                        Carduelis flavirostris
Common Rosefinch             Carpodacus erythrinus
Grey-hooded Bunting          Emberiza buchanani
Chestnut-breasted Bunting    Emberiza stewarti
Yellow-breasted Bunting      Emberiza aureola
Red-headed Bunting           Emberiza bruniceps

For further information contact:
Graham Tebb G.Tebb@iaea.org