June, July, August, and September 2002

Anssi Kullberg

Since there are very few birdwatchers visiting Afghanistan for obvious reasons, I try to sum up some of my observations there during four separate journeys to Afghanistan in 2002. Trips to Kabul were made in June, July, August, and September 2002. In July, I visited also Herat in Western Afghanistan, and drove around the Herat province, and later around the Shomali plains and Bagram in the vicinity of Kabul. I also regularly visited the ISAF camp, which is located some 11 km outside of Kabul near the village of Pul-i Charkhi. In September, when I had some holidays I had my friend Christian visiting me (in Pakistan) from Finland, and as others make their holiday trips from Pakistan to Thailand or the UAE, we set out for Azad Kashmir (perhaps worthy of another report) and later from Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass and via Jalalabad to Kabul by overland route.

Most of the following observations have been made from jeep or on short stops. None of them is produced by systematic bird observation, since I always had other prior duties. So do not expect very high scientific value here. For the same reason, the big, visible or otherwise remarkable birds are over-represented compared with many secretive passerines, which may be common but I simply did not observe them. So I offer here only some positive witness evidence (“at least these species are there”), while no conclusions of any bird’s absence should be drawn.

Identifications are based on comparing my experience of Pakistani birds (using mainly Grimmet, Inskipp & Inskipp: “Birds of the Indian Subcontinent”) and from Turkestan (using the inadequate Flint, Boehme, Kostin & Kuznetsov: “Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories”). I managed to find two Afghanistan checklists from the internet. The first one I rejected immediately since it was absurd (included some South-east Asian endemics, Polynesian island birds etc. – must be some kind of editorial error). The other one seemed very sensible, but I must say that already the first bird species that I saw when first looking into Afghanistan from Torkham (that time I didn’t cross the border), namely Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), was missing on the list.

With this bulbul, we come to one interesting phenomenon: There seems to be a general westward and northward invasion of many originally Indian human habitation-bound bird species. This phenomenon has turned many books on Pakistani birds obsolete during the latest decades, and the same is case with Central Asia, where these southern species are rapidly infiltrating, having once crossed the massive natural boundaries, the Western Himalayas and the Hindukush.

First such bird to be named is of course the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), which is nowadays abundant everywhere in Central Asia. We can only guess, whether this species will first reach Europe through Astrakhan and Southern Russia, or through Iran, the Gulf, and the Middle East. I see no fundamental obstacle on this bird’s triumph towards world domination, since obviously it can resist the harsh winter of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan. A curious detail, however, is that it is missing in all the higher parts of Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan’s Northern Territories). But then you again find it on the other side, both in China’s Sinkiang, and in Turkestan.

Only some decades ago, the Indian Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) was considered a rarity in Pakistan. Now it is abundant in all major cities and smaller towns up to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, where I observed it in July 2002. An earlier Finnish birder posted in Islamabad, Mr. Mikko Pyhälä (see his excellent book: “Birds of Islamabad”), saw this species in Swat as early as in May 1996. However, now that I investigate my notes, it seems my last Magpie Robin was on the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass (the park of the Officers Mess of Khyber Rifles), but probably the species will soon get its debut on the Afghan side, once it gets past the dry sections before Torkham’s Afghan side.

Some words about the habitats in Afghanistan: Most of the country is very arid and desolate mountainous semi-desert or desert. There are, however, relatively lush river valleys around the country. They are often densely populated and cultivated. Herat has habitats largely resembling those in Northern Iran, while north of the Hindukush in areas bordering Tajikistan, and in the valleys of the Amu Darya and the Panj, there are habitats more resembling those in the Fergana Valley. The Pamir and Badakhshan parts of Afghanistan contain lots of isolated pockets with mountain forests of huge natural value. One can only guess, what all one could find there.

However, because of a quarter century of continuous fighting, Afghanistan is both dangerous for birdwatchers (mines, to name just one threat, prevent you from taking walks or treks), and an environmental catastrophe. Being a country where the population has been struggling on the limits of human survival for decades, and also being a country where every male person has a gun, you can guess, why you do not find resident birds of eatable size. As the presence of quite many raptors and some grey herons, however, suggests, Afghanistan is now again filling up with those birds that are mobile. We should remember that even though there are lots of troubles in Afghanistan still today, the country is still calmer and more stable than any time ever since the communists usurped power in late 70s. It is now also possible for daring tourists to travel in the country, so probably soon pioneering birdwatchers will also start making more regular reports from there.

Birds seen on the Kabul River are seen in countryside, mainly on those sections of the river between Kabul and Jalalabad, which are combined with some wetlands. In the city itself, the river had dried into a ditch and there were no birds apart from wagtails and like. Khyber Pass here means the Afghan side.

Notes on Species
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Seen on several occasions along the Kabul River.

Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Seen twice on the Kabul River.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Seen once on the Kabul River.

Black Kite Milvus migrans
Singles observed practically in all of the places. No flocks.

Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus
One seen flying towards north along the Khyber Pass.

Black Vulture Aegypius monachus
Very impressive; one seen near Herat.

Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
Two at Kabul airport’s outskirts. Unidentified buzzards seen elsewhere (Kabul, Herat) from distance might also be this species.

Northern Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Seen quite regularly in Torkham, mountain areas.

Shikra Accipiter badius
Seen in Jalalabad and several times in Herat centre.

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Frequent throughout.

Chukar Alectoris chukar
Seen a couple of times on mountain drives (obviously not shot into extinction).

Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Seen once along the Kabul River.

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
3 in Herat.

Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
1 in Herat, 1 assumed near Kabul.

Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii
Near Herat (incredible; sad that I couldn’t follow the bird, but this is the most logical species).

Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Near Kabul.

Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Common on mountain drives.

Feral Pigeon Columba livia domestica
Abundant throughout.

Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris
A flock obviously seen along the Jalalabad road.

Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Common throughout.

Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
Seen after Torkham.

Palm Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
Abundant throughout.

Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
Present in Kabul, but not common. For example in the Royal Palace area.

House Swift Apus affinis
Common at least in Kabul.

Black Swift Apus apus
Common throughout.

Alpine Swift Tachymarptis melba
Frequent throughout.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
Frequent along the Kabul River; also seen in Herat.

White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
Seen in Herat.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops persicus
Uncommon, but seen in Herat.

European Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Abundant both in Herat and in Kabul area.

European Roller Coracias garrulus
Frequent throughout.

Hoopoe Upupa epops
Common throughout.

Calandrella larks; supposedly Hume’s Short-toed Lark Calandrella acutirostris

Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti
Seen after Torkham, and in Pul-i Charkhi.

Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula
Around Kabul (probably abundant).

Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Abundant throughout.

Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra
Shomali plains (one).

Bimaculated Lark Melanocorypha bimaculata
Upland drives, seen once or twice.

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
On the way to Shomali plains (very surprising).

Pale Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne obsoleta
Common throughout.

Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris
Abundant, especially in Kabul.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Abundant throughout.

Wire-tailed Swallow Hirundo smithii
Several in Kabul.

Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica
Common in Kabul.

Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis
Outside Kabul.

Large Pied Wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis
Along the Kabul River, and in Kabul. Not common.

Masked Wagtail Motacilla alba personata
Abundant everywhere.

Himalayan Bulbul Pycnonotus leucogenys
Common in Torkham and throughout in the Khyber Pass; also seen in Kabul.

Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
Common in the Khyber Pass.

Red-tailed Shrike Lanius isabellinus
Outside Kabul.

Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
Abundant throughout.

Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii
Along the Jalalabad road.

Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
Frequent along the Jalalabad road.

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
1 seen along the Jalalabad road.

Isabelline Wheatear Oënanthe isabellina
Frequent, including Pul-i Charkhi.

Desert Wheatear Oënanthe deserti
Uncommon. Outside Kabul.

Rufous-tailed Wheatear Oënanthe xanthoprymna
Along the Jalalabad road (individuals).

Hooded Wheatear Oënanthe monacha
Pul-i Charkhi (obviously breeding).

Hume’s Wheatear Oënanthe alboniger
Jalalabad road (Khyber).

Variable Wheatear Oënanthe picata
Frequent along roads.

Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata
Common throughout.

Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Frequent along roads.

White-capped Water Redstart Chaimarrornis leucocephala
Frequent on mountainous parts of the Jalalabad road.

Streaked Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta
Near Kabul.

Mountain Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia althaea

Western Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus occipitalis
The Phylloscopi seen were presumably this species, but remain unconfirmed.

Common Babbler Turdoides caudatus
Common in towns (with vegetation), including Kabul.

Great Tit Parus major
Herat, Kabul.

Eastern Rock Nuthatch Sitta tephronota
Seen several times along the Jalalabad road.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Abundant throughout.

Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Abundant throughout.

Twite Acanthis flavirostris
Seen along the Jalalabad road.

House Bunting Emberiza striolata
Outside Kabul.

Brahminy Starling Sturnus pagodarum
Common in Kabul.

Common Myna Acridotheres tristis
Abundant throughout.

Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
Common in Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat.

Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
Seen in the Khyber Pass and in Herat.

Black-billed Magpie Pica pica
Abundant everywhere.

House Crow Corvus splendens
Torkham, Jalalabad. Uncommon.

Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Common throughout.

Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis
Frequent, around Herat; Shomali plains.

Common Raven Corvus corax
Khyber Pass.