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?

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