Sunday, June 9, 2019

Kazakh steppes

The final days of the Rockjumper tour I was leading were spent in the steppes and wetlands around Nursultan (until recently Astana...). Together with our sharp-eyed local guide Andrey, we birded one day west of the city, and another day south. Birding was fantastic, with non-stop action both in quality and in numbers. Insect load was seriously heavy this year, perhaps due to exceptionally wet winter and very hot spring (climate change anyone?), and did effect our birding, especially in the vicinity of wetlands and during the hot mid-day hours. However, despite this limitation, we all had a great time. There are too many highlights to include in a single post, so I will try to be concise.

Perhaps the rarest species we saw is the globally Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing. We had them in several sites on both days, enjoyed and appreciated them immensely. I know them well from Israel in winter, but seeing them on their breeding grounds, in full breeding plumage, was something else. We treated them with utmost care and respect, and did not chase them around for better photos or angles. This pair actually flew towards our minibus and posed. We drove off quickly.

Sociable Lapwing - male

Sociable Lapwing - female

We often found the lapwings accompanied by another threatened species, Black-winged Pratincole. Lovely birds.

Another prominent steppe bird was Demoiselle Crane - elegant, beautiful and pleasantly common:

The lark scene on the steppes was dominated by two quality species, both Central Asian specialties - Black Lark, and White-winged Lark.

Black Lark

White-winged Lark

It was brilliant to see Booted Warblers in good densities at more humid steppe sections. Now I feel prepared to find one in Israel. Interesting that in Uzbekistan we found them breeding in deep desert habitat, compared to Sykes's Warbler that breeds there in Tamarix scrub.

Booted Warbler

In the same habitat by wet meadows and wetland edges, Bluethroat, Sykes's Yellow Wagtail and Siberian Stonechat also breed in good densities.

Two prominent hunters, patrolling over the steppes, were Short-eared Owl, frequently encountered day-foraging, and the stunning Pallid Harrier.

We had one encounter with Saiga on the steppes - two youngsters that were rather tame (shame on the horrible heat haze and harsh light that killed my photos). Their mother fled at amazing speed as soon as it spotted us.

The wetlands were rich and exciting. Each one was different, depending on their water levels, salinity, nutrition richness etc. Some wetlands held fantastic numbers of Red-necked Phalaropes and other staging shorebirds. One wetland held an estimated 30,000 phalaropes - it was impossible to capture this by camera.

Mixed flock of Red-necked Phals, Curlew Sands, Dunlin and Little Stint

Another wetland held a large breeding colony of Pallas's, Steppe, Russian Mew and Slender-billed Gulls.

Pallas's Gulls and guests

Steppe Gull 

Other wetlands held large numbers of breeding White-winged and Black Terns, providing excellent photographic opportunities as they surface-forage.

Wetland reedbeds and wet grassy edges are what Paddyfield Warbler need - some males were singing ferociously from reedtops:

Scattered woodlands held the beautiful Pine Bunting, and breeding Red-footed Falcons:

I eBirded on the road all the birds seen on tour, and took many more (too many?) photos during my days in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. My eBird checklists, and photos and audio I uploaded to Macaulay Library, can be seen through my public eBird profile here (KZ and UZ).

This concludes my Rockjumper 'Best of Central Asia' tour updates. I hope you enjoyed - join me there in 2021?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tien Shan blast

Today our Rockjumper group had a blast of a day in the Tien Shan mountains above Almaty. It was our acclimatisation day, so we birded mid-elevations, up to about 2600 m.

Big Almaty Lake

Tien Shan birding

Quality birds just kept on coming. Highlights included Ibisbill - 2 adults attending at least one super-cute fluffy chick, brief views of White-browed Tit Warbler (TBC tomorrow...), initial distant views of Himalayan Snowcock (TBC tomorrow...), Eversmann's Redstart, Himalayan Rubythroat, Brown Dipper, Black-throated Accentor, White-winged Grosbeak and Red-mantled Rosefinch. Fantastic. Can't wait to get up higher tomorrow!

Himalayan Rubythroat - what a cracker

Eversmann's Redstart

Brown Dipper - any aquatic experts out there can identify what it's caught?

Black-throated Accentor

Red-mantled Rosefinch

White-winged Grosbeak

Ibisbill - sorry about the heat haze. No public access to where they were, so distant photos.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

First days in Kazakhstan

Our Rockjumper group's first days in Kazakhstan have been excellent. I will expand more when I get back home; in the meanwhile, here's a quick on-the-road summary:
We stayed in Taukum Desert, in a camp near Kenshengel for two nights. En route we stopped at Lake Sorbulaq that was teeming with birds - waterfowl, shorebirds, pelicans (Great White and Dalmatian), and most impressive was a colony of about 10K pairs of Rosy Starlings by the lake shore. Incredible. In Hebrew their name translates to 'Locust Starling' - now I understand why. We keep seeing many huge colonies and flocks of thousands.

Dalmatian Pelican

In the Taukum Desert we connected well with our main target species, Caspian Plover and MacQueen's Bustard. The plovers were with chicks so we kept a fair distance away from them. Scope views were great. So cool to see them on their breeding grounds, after having them both on their wintering grounds in East Africa, and on migration in Israel.

Also Greater Sand-Plovers breed on the semi-desert plains:

Many Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen, but no other sandgrouse species:

I especially enjoyed the dawn chorus (starting at 02:30!), with a multitude of lark song (Calandra, Bimacs, Greater, Lesser and Asian Short-toed), Isabelline Wheatears and Red-headed Buntings. Fantastic.

Classy bird

Quite many raptors in the desert - eagles, harriers, and a bunch of vultures feeding on a dead cow.

Cinereous Vulture

A visit to Turanga Forest delivered the goods - the sought-after and beautiful Saxaul Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Pigeon and Azure Tit.

Saxy Sparrow 

Azure Tit

Now we're close to China-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan birder triangle - tomorrow should be good!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The best of Uzbekistan

I am already in Kazakhstan now with my Rockjumper group. There are many good things to say about Uzbekistan, but internet connection is not one of them. Tonight, in Almaty, is my first encounter with at least partial wifi for the last few days. I have many stories to tell ad photos to share about our week in Uzbekistan, most of which will be when I return home. In the meanwhile, here's an impressio of what I felt was our best day of birding in Uzbekistan. We birded the whole day at and near Takhta-Karacha mountain pass. The first hour of the morning at the pass was brilliant - great birds just kept coming, in golden light. It was really fun. We continued birding the pass after another lovely picnic breakfast, then descended and checked some lower elevations. Besides the Rufous-tailed Flyctacher I wrote about in my previous post, we had so many more birding highlights:

Eastern Rock Nuthatch - bird with an attitude

White-throated Robin

Stunning Red-headed Bunting

Hume's Short-toed Lark

Upcher's Warbler

Finsch's Wheatear

Indian Paradise Flycatcher

Lammergeir photobombed by Pamir Mts.

Several large flocks of Rosy Starling went over the pass very quickly:

More photos on this eBird checklist.