Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Kazakhstan - Sogety Valley

One of the better mornings we had during our Rockjumper 'Best of Central Asia' tour was spent in Sogety Valley, in south east Kazakhstan, close to the border triangle with China and Kyrgyzstan. This arid upland valley, and the surrounding hills and mountains, host some brilliant birds. We spent quite a bit of time on the plains, searching for our big target - Pallas's Sandgrouse.

Personally, Pallas's Sandgrous was one of my most-wanted birds. It seems that recently they have become more difficult, and sadly we failed to find any. I guess more time is needed for them. But even without those sandgrouse, birding was superb. The plains held good numbers of Brandt's Horned Larks:

And few of the famous duo - Desert Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler, so often seen together:

Desert Wheatear

Asian Desert Warbler

We then headed up towards the hills, where a small spring attracts many birds. It took us a while to reach the spring because our attention was drawn towards several singing Grey-necked Buntings on the hills. The local subspecies neobscura is much duller than cerrutti I saw in E Turkey several years ago, and their song is different. Great birds to see - especially when they are so confiding.

Eventually we made it to the spring and sat down at a safe distance, not to disturb the birds. It was very busy - during the hour or so we were there we had big numbers of Mongolian Finch, several shy Asian Crimson-winged Finches, Rock Sparrows, more Grey-necked Buntings, Black-bellied Sandgrouse - huge fun. 

A pair of Turkestan Shrikes feeding young nearby made lots of noise.

eBird checklist of Sogety Valley and hills is here.

We then headed south towards Temirliq. At Temirliq River a pair of Lesser Grey Shrikes, and a pair of White-crowned Penduline Tits, were nest-building:

Up towards the mountain pass, in a lush rocky gully, we had Meadow Bunting, Siberian Stonechat and a few other birds.

We then headed back towards Almaty, via the impressive Charyn Canyon:

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Summer minimalism

While my head and hard-drive are still buzzing with sights and sounds of Central Asia, back here in Israel reality has been very different. Since I returned I have been absorbed into a super-intensive family situation, that limits my birding to almost zero.
I am still taking part in eBird's Checklist-a-day Challenge. Today is my 176th day in a row of submitting eBird checklists. I know that according to eBird's rules it doesn't need to be every day, a daily average of checklist-per-day is sufficient, but I am challenging myself to have a meaningful birding experience every day. Kind of Bird Therapy.

It is a real challenge to keep birding every day off season. Thankfully, my dog still takes me out for walks very early in the morning to my local patch. It is rather quiet there, and very static, so I need to focus on tiny diversions from the norm. And I appreciate the relative quality of daily average (check this morning's checklist here for example). One day I had an Alpine Swift mixed with my local Common Swifts. Another day a Great Spotted Cuckoo flew over. A late Sedge Warbler was present a few days ago. Little joys. I also invested some effort in finding breeding proof for all local breeding species. For example, nice to see young of the only pair of House Martin in my town now fledged. All in all, this is a tough challenge but early autumn migration is right around the corner - can't wait to see my first Common Kingfisher back!

Whenever I get the chance, I up my birding a bit to some very local sites, where I can bird first thing and return home early. Yesterday I checked Tzor'a - Tal Shahar. Weather was pleasant early on, and there were some birds to be seen. I searched very hard for Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins at a few sites that used to hold them and still look very good, but failed. This species has crashed quite dramatically as a breeding bird in central Israel, and is found in good densities mainly along the Rift valley and in the south. So I had to make do with other fine local breeding birds - Eastern Olivaceous and Clamorous Reed Warblers, large colony of Spanish Sparrows on a huge Ziziphus tree, locally-produced Black-winged Kite, fresh juvenile Woodchat Shrike, many Little Grebe families - not too bad I guess.

Woodchat Shrike

Asian Black-winged Kite made in 2019

Spanish Sparrows

 Little and tiny Grebes

The reservoirs also held a few herons, a couple of Ferruginous Ducks (including this wing-injured male) and a straggler Common Pochard. Here are my eBird checklists for Tal Shahar and Tsor'a Peli reservoir.

Eventually I turned down to look at what most birders do in summer - butterflies. This wee Lesser Fiery Copper was sweet though.

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?