Severtzov’s Tit Warbler is a prize on the Central Asia tour Photo: Steve Rooke
The Silk Road, Samarkand and Bukhara – names that conjure up images of fierce Mongol hordes storming out of the east and of dusty camel trains and crowded bazaars where exotic jewels and oriental spices were traded by travellers from far-off lands. Stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Tien Shan mountains, the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are indeed richly endowed with history and culture, a flavour of which we’ll sample on this exciting tour. The varied traditions and customs of this fascinating region are matched by a wide variety of habitats. We follow the Silk Road to Bukhara and beyond into the drifting sand dunes of the Kyzyl-Kum desert, where we’ll look for Pander’s Ground Jay, one of the region’s really special birds, before we continue our journey, taking the ‘Golden Road to Samarkand’.
Following this ancient trading route to Kazakhstan we’ll seek out ancient woodlands where Yellow-eyed Stock Doves and Saxaul Sparrows still breed before we reach the dramatic splendour of the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains awash with wild flowers and home to Himalayan Snowcock and Güldenstadt’s Redstart. Heading north we find ourselves surrounded by the enormous skies and wormwood-scented breezes of the Kazak steppes, alive with White-winged and Black Larks and swarms of waders, gulls, and terns. Now oil-rich countries in their own right, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are developing fast but still manage to retain an air of mystery and intrigue guaranteed to fire the imagination. The fantastic birds combined with the rich and unique cultural heritage is sure to present a truly memorable birdwatching experience, and one that Sunbird has been sharing with people for over 20 years.
Day 1: The tour begins this morning with breakfast at our hotel in Tashkent. We’ll then drive into the nearby mountains. The lower slopes are drenched in juniper trees that are home to Hume’s Lesser Whitethroat, Turkestan, Yellow-breasted and Rufous-naped Tits, White-crowned Penduline Tit, and White-capped and Rock Buntings. Red-rumped Swallows nest under the balconies of the local buildings while overhead we can expect Eurasian and possibly Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Oriental and European Honey Buzzards and Hobby. The songs of Nightingales are everywhere, while the liquid calls of Indian Golden Orioles echo around the tree tops, mingling with the sharp calls of Hawfinches, Later we’ll drop down to lower altitudes, pausing at a stream to look for Asian Paradise Flycatcher. We’ll return to Tashkent and connect with the new high speed train that will take us along the route of the Silk Road to Bukhara. Night in Bukhara.
Day 2: Our first day out will take us to some of the wetlands that surround this old oasis town. Here we’ll explore reedbeds that are home to Clamorous and Moustached Warblers as well as the Paddyfield Warbler, Bearded Tit and the local ‘Thick-billed’ race of Reed Bunting. Smart Citrine and Black-headed Wagtails and Bluethroats add splashes of colour while White-tailed Plovers in breeding plumage, and Kentish Plovers are common. Caspian Gulls can usually be found and although Marbled Duck occur here, they can be difficult to locate. We’ll also look out for flights of Glossy Ibis or Pygmy Cormorants. We’ll see the first of many Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Pied Bushchats and there is always the chance of a Purple Heron, Collared Pratincole or Oriental Skylark.
We’ll return to the town to spend the remainder of the afternoon immersing ourselves in the true splendour of the historic old town. We’ll visit the Ark, where Stoddart and Connolly met their famous demise in 1842, the Kalen Minaret - one of the few buildings left standing after the visit of Genghis Khan, the trading domes where Silk Road travellers would ply their trade, and many other sights. There will be time to haggle over the price of a Bukharan rug, buy spices or pause for a cold drink at Labi Hauz, the social heart of the old town surrounded by stunning buildings and mulberry trees that were planted in the 15th century. Night in Bukhara.
Day 3: In contrast to the rich wetlands we saw yesterday, today we’ll venture deep into the dry Kyzyl-Kum Desert to search for the handsome Pander’s Ground Jay, one of the really special birds of Central Asia. These striking grey, black and white birds spend much of their time running over the sand dunes that are dotted with saxual bushes, occasionally flying up to perch in a prominent position. We can also expect to see the local desert race of Little Owl, lots more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Steppe Grey Shrike, Isabelline Wheatear, and Streaked Scrub Warbler, while any small stand of trees can hold migrants from flocks of Rose-coloured Starling and Eurasian Golden Orioles to Thrush Nightingales and Ortolan Buntings. Our guest house is located right in the heart of the old town and there may be time after we return for some more sightseeing.
Day 4: Venturing out of the town once more we’ll have a morning to look at a mix of dry scrub, reed-fringed pools and open desert steppe. As well as species we have already encountered we’ll be looking for Sykes’s Warbler, Rufous Bush Robins, and a few pairs of the shy Ménétries’s Warbler. The roadside wires are a good place to see Oriental and European Turtle Doves and Long-tailed Shrikes, while any pool can hold flocks of Red-crested Pochard or migrant Red-necked Phalaropes. We’ll return to Bukhara for lunch and then begin our journey along the Silk Road to the fabled city of Samarkand. Night in Samarkand.
Day 5: To the south of Samarkand lies a range of low hills where we’ll stroll along a delightful valley alive with Red-headed Buntings. White-throated Robins and Eastern Orphean and Upcher’s Warblers breed among the bushes and Hume’s Short-toed Lark feeds among the rocky outcrops. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Turkestan and Lesser Grey Shrikes and Eastern Rock Nuthatch also breed along with a few pairs of European Bee-eaters and in addition we have another chance to find a striking Asian Paradise Flycatcher and we’ll look for Finsch’s Wheatear which should be feeding fledged young by now. Those interested in plants or butterflies will find much to occupy them as this sun-drenched spot is alive with insects and flowers while away in the distance we can see the snow-capped Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan. We’ll return to the town in the late afternoon in time to visit the stunning Registan, a beautiful assembly of turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets and one of the most famous sites in Central Asia. Night in Samarkand.
Day 6: We’ll devote the morning to visiting more of Samarkand’s treasures possibly including the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Tamerlane, whose vast empire had its centre in Samarkand, the massive Bibi Khanum mosque (once the largest in Central Asia), and the amazing Shahr-i-Zindar, the street of tombs that is a riot of coloured tiles. After lunch we’ll begin the drive to Tashkent, stopping along the way to look for any birds we catch sight of, including a bizarre colony of White Storks nesting on power pylons. Night in Tashkent.
Day 7: Leaving Uzbekistan, we fly straight to Almaty in Kazakhstan. On arrival we’ll drive north into the wild heart of Kazakhstan to spend two nights camping in the Taukum Desert, a vast area of undulating sand dunes and wormwood-scented grasslands. On the way we’ll stop at a large lake where we’ll witness the bustle of a huge Rose-coloured Starling colony and look forWhite-headed Ducks as well as any unusual migrant waders such as Terek Sandpiper or Lesser Sandplover. Night in the desert camp, where each single or couple will have their own good-sized tent.
Day 8: Our camp is located near an artesian well that acts as a magnet for local breeding birds, as well as numerous migrants. There is a constant stream of larks coming to drink – Calandra and Bimaculated are the most obvious but Greater and Asian Short-toed Larks are also frequent visitors. Other birds we can expect include flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and if it is a ‘good year’, a few Pallas’s Sandgrouse, as well as some of the scarce resident Greater Sand Plovers or handsome Caspian Plovers in full breeding plumage. This open desert is also home to Macqueen’s Bustard and we’ll scan the horizon searching for a displaying male.
Farther north lies the delta of the Ili River, a strange area of sand dunes interspersed with marshy pools and stands of Turanga trees that holds some of the region’s very special birds. Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, AzureTit and the beautiful Saxaul Sparrow are all easy to see, and careful searching may reveal a roosting Striated Scops Owl. The reedbeds are home to Little Bittern, Paddyfield Warbler, and some interesting races of Penduline Tit, while the wetlands can hold anything from massive Dalmatian, and Great White Pelicans to dapper Ferruginous Ducks. Later we’ll return to the camp and visit a small stands of trees and small pools that can attract a dazzling array of migrants including anything from Oriental Turtle Doves, Barred and Blyth’s Reed Warblers to Black-throated Thrushes or perhaps a Little Crake or European Nightjar. Night in our desert camp.
Day 9: After a final morning around the camp, we head back to Almaty. We’ll stop along the way at the same lake to see if there are any newly arrived migrant waders. As we drive, Long-legged Buzzards will be a common roadside sight and if the rains have been good, there will be vast expanses of poppies stretching the horizon. We’ll reach Almaty and check in to a comfortable hotel with plenty of time for ‘regrouping’ after our two nights under canvas. Night in Almaty.
Day 10: The snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the city of Almaty, and today we’ll travel east following the line of those mountains towards China where Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes line the roadside wires. The scenery in this part of Kazakhstan is truly inspiring with endless desert plains backed by low hills, dramatic gorges and distant snow-capped mountains. The open plains are home to Demoiselle Cranes, Lesser Kestrels, Shore Larks and Asian Desert Warblers, while amongst the low hills and gorges we’ll search for Rock Sparrow and Pine, Rock and Meadow Buntings, while any small spring could be visited by Mongolian and Asian Crimson-winged Finches and Grey-necked Buntings. Raptors could include the mighty Golden, Imperial and Steppe Eagles and on a high pass we hope to see Himalayan Griffon Vultures gliding overhead, along with Black Vultures and perhaps a Lammergeier. Night at our lodge.
Day 11: If Pallas’s Sandgrouse have eluded us thus far we’ll devote time today to searching for this nomadic bird. We’ll wait by a small drinking pool in the hope of catching sight of this elusive species. We are bound to see their more common cousin, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but Pallas’s cannot be relied on to appear as their numbers vary from year to year. This is good Saker country and we’ll be on the lookout for one as well as Desert Wheatear, smart Desert Finches, Spanish Sparrows and Pale Martins. We’ll eat our picnic lunch alongside a vast reedbed where Savi’s Warblers reel from the reed tops. Later we’ll return to Almaty for the night.
Days 12-13: Today we pass through the city and climb steadily through pristine spruce forests into the Tien Shan Mountains. We’ll stop to look for Nutcracker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Songar Tit, and Eversmann’s and Blue-capped Redstarts on the way up, while the mountain streams are home to Blue Whistling Thrush and both Brown and White-bellied Dippers.
We’ll pause at a lake beautifully located in a deep valley and scan the stony shoreline for Ibisbills which regularly nest here, although our attention will undoubtedly be drawn to the tinkling song and striking plumage of numerous Red-fronted Serins. Once we clear the tree line we’ll find ourselves in a crystal clear landscape of dense juniper bushes, flower-strewn alpine meadows, and snow-capped peaks. The juniper will be alive with the song of Himalayan Rubythroats, Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Black-throated Accentors, Red-mantled and Common Rosefinches, and White-winged Grosbeaks. The beautifully marked Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler can also be found in this habitat along with the skulking Sulphur-bellied Warbler.
On our second day we’ll leave early to drive higher to a mountain pass where handsome Güldenstadt’s Redstarts nest and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs wheel overhead. We’ll also be looking for the Altai and Brown Accentors that inhabit this mountain wilderness, along with Plain Mountain Finches and Water Pipits. We’ll have heard the eerie calls of Himalayan Snowcock echoing around the lofty peaks and, at this altitude, we should be able to look down on some calling males. Nights in a small hotel surrounded by spruce forest.
Day 14: We have the morning to spend in this wonderful habitat looking for any species that have eluded us so far, or simply enjoying the wonderful scenery or the abundant wild flowers. After lunch we descend back to Almaty and take an early evening flight to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) the bustling and vibrant capital of Kazakhstan located in the heart of the vast Asian steppe, the sea of grass that once stretched all the way to eastern Europe. Night in Nur-Sultan.
Days 15-16: We’ll have two days to explore the rich steppe habitat and all that it has to offer. Close to the town we’ll visit a small river to look for singing Bluethroats, and Barred and monotone Booted Warblers. Venturing further afield the extensive grassland is peppered with wetlands alive with clouds of Black and White-winged Black Terns and displaying Marsh Sandpipers, while Great Bitterns creep around the reedbeds. We’ll visit a lake that holds Slavonian, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes and endangered White-headed Ducks as well as a good selection of passage waders, while a small orchard can be an amazing place for a variety of migrant passerines.
Further out we enter the ancient steppe with its vast grasslands and lakes of fresh and salt water where bird song will fill the air and the sense of space will be exhilarating. We’ll search the grasslands for Dalmatian Pelican, Pallid Harrier, Red-footed Falcon, Demoiselle Crane, Great Black-headed, ‘Steppe’’ and Slender-billed Gulls, a range of waders including breeding Black-winged Pratincoles, the rare Sociable Plover, hordes of migrant Red-necked Phalaropes, and handsome Ruffs in full breeding plumage. Passerines should include Citrine Wagtail and two splendid larks – White-winged and Black Larks – steppe birds par excellence. At the end of the Day 16 we’ll return to our hotel in Nur Sultan where the tour ends with transfers to the airport for flights home.
Updated: 22 January 2020