DAY 1 Arrival in Almaty - 18th May
Arrival in Almaty and transfer to hotel. Night in Almaty.
DAY 2 Almaty - Kaskelen
This birding adventure begins in the city of Almaty, often referred to as the greenest city of Central Asia, with an impressive mountainous backdrop we can start to enjoy the landscape of Kazakhstan from the moment we arrive. Traveling a short distance south of the city we spend our first day of birding in Kaskelen Ili-Ala-Tau National Park where we will get our first taste of the wide open spaces of Kazakhstan and sample some of the beautiful scenery, birding in wooded valleys amongst attractive mountains. Here we can get acquainted with some of the commoner species of the area such as the cute Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Grey-crowned Goldfinch, which should be abundant, Golden Oriole and Common Rosefinch. As well as these species we will be searching for Siberian Meadow Bunting and Rock Bunting as they sit out on their song perches and both Blue Whistling Thrush and Blue-capped Redstart are possible too; it should be a very pleasant way to begin our stay in Kazakhstan. Night in Almaty.
Day 3 Sogety Valley & Charyn Canyon
Our journey out of Almaty this morning takes us a few hours away to one of Kazakhstan’s most well-known landscape attractions, the Charyn River Gorge, which delivers some truly stunning Central Asian scenery. Amidst this rocky semi desert we will look for some of the keynote species of the habitat such Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush and Blue Rock-thrush perched out on rocky outcrops, Chukar Partridges scurrying in between the vegetation and rocks and Hume’s Whitethroat and we will be able to enjoy several species of handsome buntings in breeding plumage; Chestnut-breasted Bunting, Grey-necked Bunting, Rock Bunting and Red-headed Bunting. As one might expect, a habitat as wild and rich as this is a good place for raptors and there are a number of strong possibilities including the huge Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture and Egyptian Vulture. Long-legged Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker Falcon and Lesser Kestrel are also exciting species we will be looking for here.
As we travel there will be plenty of opportunities for birding along the way and it is in this way we may be able to see colonies of Rosy Starlings with plenty of adults in full breeding plumage to enjoy. Later in the day we will visit a small artesian well where water leaking from pipes create some small pools which are a magnet for small birds in this arid environment; species including Desert Finch and Mongolian Finch should arrive and if we are lucky a few Asian Crimson-winged Finches should pass by for a drink alongside many commoner birds. This will be a spectacle which is a lovely end to the day before heading to our guesthouse which is located near the Charyn River in which there are resident White-bellied Dippers. Night in hunting lodges.
Day 4 Sogety Valley & Charyn Canyon
Pallas’s Sandgrouse is one of the most highly anticipated birds of the trip and we will begin the day walking in the Sogety Valley where we hope to find this highly sought-after species. This classic bird of Central Asia is by no means easy to find here but with effort and a little luck we should be able to get fine views of this species. Other species to get excited about that we have a good chance of finding here include the Endangered Steppe Eagle, cryptic Sykes’s Warbler, Horned Lark, Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat and Asian Desert Warbler whose scientific name indicates its tiny size or perhaps a Steppe Grey Shrike; as you can see, there are many great birds for us to find here. The Sogety plains are a great place to see Persian Gazelle and we have a fair chance of seeing this lovely animal.
The amazing landscapes of the Charyn Canyon are where we will spend the afternoon and excellent views of Lesser Kestrel are expected as this is a superb place to get to grips with this beautiful little raptor. Pied Wheatear and Desert Wheatear are also both species that we are expecting to see well and continuing towards the border with Kyrgyzstan we are hoping to enjoy lunch alongside the cute Rock Petronias. As we travel agricultural lands provide us with a change of landscape and habitat and there are plenty of good birds to be found here too including Upland Buzzard, perhaps Saker Falcon if we are lucky, and hopefully large flocks of elegant Demoiselle Cranes. We return home to our guesthouse where a fantastic dinner awaits us. Night in hunting lodges.
Day 5 Sogety Plains, Kokpek Pass to Almaty
Pallas’s Sandgrouse is always a tough one to find because of its skulking behaviour and scarcity in this part of Central Asia, so we have allocated plenty of time on the Sogety Plains to ensure that we have the best chance of finding these treasures. We have also scheduled some time for birding Kokpek pass which is a great way to see plenty of Rock Buntings and is also a regular haunt of another very smart, but rare, bunting: White-capped Bunting. This morning will also give us time to enjoy again many of the birds already seen as well as look for anything that has eluded us so far.
Afternoon birding will be done en-route as we travel back to Almaty. Typically stopping in various small villages along the road results in sightings of Red-rumped Swallow, Indian Golden Oriole, Lesser Grey Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike, Greenish Warbler and Laughing Dove. Back in our hotel in Almaty it will be nice to shower and relax in comfort after some dusty driving. Night in hotel in Almaty.
Day 6 Almaty to Taukum Desert
We travel out of Almaty again, this time heading into the Taukum Desert where plenty of new species for our trip await us. This is a long journey with birding stops along the way and a backdrop of the Tien Shan mountains and wildflower meadows; and, of course, birds. For sheer colour alone European Rollers and European Bee-eaters are outstanding and our stop at Sorbulak Lake should provide us with views of these impressive birds and hopefully give us some wonderful photographic opportunities. Kazakhstan is one of the strongholds of Dalmatian Pelican and we can expect to see this prehistoric-looking bird on the waters of the lake itself. Ferruginous Duck, Black-necked Grebe and the amazing Slavonian Grebe in its breeding splendour can all be found here and we will also hope for White-headed Duck. On the muddy lake edge we can enjoy some waders in the form of Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint, both of which are quite common while the very elegant Terek Sandpiper is seen annually in good numbers. We will take an al fresco lunch in the field before continuing on to our tent in the Taukum Desert. Don’t worry, this will be no normal tent but a luxurious yurt in a tented camp, the traditional accommodation of the Kazakh nomads, the design of which has changed little since the days of the Mongol Empire.
At the end of the day there is something quite special as we have afternoon tea while waiting for Black-bellied Sandgrouse to come and drink. Other birds that may make up the supporting cast for this little show could include Ortolan Bunting, Red-headed Bunting and Bimaculated Lark. If we have brought a decent helping of luck with us we might also see the stunning Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. The scenery, the birds and the ambience should be something to remember for a long time. Night in comfortable, luxurious yurt camp.
Day 7 Taukum Desert & Turanga Woodland
A wide variety of habitats is always a good way to amass a large number of species in a short space of time and that is exactly what we have today. Waking up in the solitude of the remote Taukum Desert we expect to serve up a wonderful set of wildlife sightings all before breakfast. The incredible courtship display of the increasingly rare McQueen’s Bustards will the incredible way to start the day that we hope for but if we find the Caspian Plovers in breeding plumage that nest nearby, this may be eclipsed. There is also a very good chance of spotting Wolves and Persian Gazelles!
After breakfast we will drive through a variety of steppe and desert habitats to an area of unique Turanga woodland where some enjoyable birding should give us plenty to see including some regional specialties such as Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, White-winged Woodpecker and Pale-backed Pigeon (Eversmann’s or Yellow-eyed Dove). As we travel there will be a variety of Larks for us to enjoy; these will include Greater Short-toed Lark, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Calandra Lark. Plenty of other exciting birds, typical of this type of habitat are also here to be found including smart Isabelline Wheatear and Isabelline (Rufous-tailed) Shrike and whoever is the first to spot a Steppe Grey Shrike will be very popular with the rest of the group. Other possible species along the way include Pied Wheatear and Desert Wheatear, Rock Petronia, Spanish Sparrow, Azure Tit and Black-headed Penduline-Tit. Night in comfortable, luxurious yurt camp.
Day 8 Return to Almaty
In the early morning we take a short drive in perfect habitat for breeding Greater Sand Plover and Caspian Plover. Both of these shorebird species are absolutely stunning in breeding plumage and we will have ample to time to observe and enjoy both of these wonderful birds before breakfast, after which we will break camp and head back towards Almaty.
The sweeping vistas of Kazakhstan lend themselves to birding at any spot along the way and as we travel there will be plenty of opportunities to stop and search for a wide variety of species. Stopping at a rocky area with accompanying scrub vegetation we can take a look at some fascinating ancient petroglyphs while ornithologically we will be able to see Eastern Rock Nuthatch creeping amongst the boulders and a breeding colony of Red-headed Buntings which will be one of the colourful highlights of the day. This is an area that can often turn up something unusual but regularly seen species include more colourful birds including Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller and European Bee-eater and we should be able to find some more good birds in the form of Shikra, Lesser Grey Shrike, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Oriental Turtle-Dove and Desert Finch. Night in Almaty.
Days 9 - 11 Tien Shan Mountains
The next three days will be spent at high altitude, in the fabulous Tien Shan Mountains. We will spend much of our time at an altitude of around 8500 feet, visiting the famous Astronomical Observatory where many key species from this area of Central Asia can be found. As we drive into the mountains we go through the Big Almaty Gorge and during our ascent we will stop alongside mountains streams to look for both Brown Dipper and White-throated Dipper as well as Blue Whistlingthrush. In nearby open patches of mature, mixed deciduous/coniferous forest Greenish and Hume's warblers are quite common.
The observatory is an old Soviet construction in a lovely open area of flower covered alpine meadows and juniper-covered slopes, with a 360 degree backdrop of steep alpine peaks. In this picturesque habitat we are going to seek out some superb birds including the stunning Himalayan Rubythroat as well as Fire-fronted Serin. The list of target birds that we have a very high level of potential success with is very exciting; Black-throated Accentor, Altai Accentor and Brown Accentor should all be found skulking in the low vegetation and other goodies include Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-winged Grosbeak and White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-warbler. Usually any of those species would be a potential highlight of the mountains but we have an excursion awaiting us that takes us to the wide, stony river beds that drain into the Big Almaty Lake where we are expecting to find Ibisbill!
Another of our main targets here is Himalayan Snowcock which we have a very good chance to see when we increase our altitude to around 10500 feet and of course there are other exciting birds for us to find including White-winged (Güldenstädt’s) Redstart, Plain Mountain Finch, the huge Himalayan Griffon, Yellow-billed Chouch, Lammergier and Red-billed Chough to name a few of the possibilities. Nights at Hotel Alpine Rose, Big Almaty Lake.
Our final morning in the area will be devoted to tracking down any of the species we have not already seen, leaving after lunch and descending towards Almaty. There will be plenty of time to stop for birding in the mid-altitude forests where we are hoping to connect with some more key species including Rufous-backed (Eversmann’s) Redstart, Blue-capped Redstart, Songar Tit and the scarce Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. Night at a comfortable tourist hotel in Almaty.
Days 12 -13 Almaty – Astana to Korgalzhyn
In the morning we travel to another region of Kazakhstan by flying from Almaty to Astana, around 1000km north. A three hour drive from Astana takes us to Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, part of the UNESCO designated Saryarka World Heritage Site. The vast wetland area that we will visit is a combination of virgin steppe and lakes, and as well as being the breeding grounds of one of the largest populations of waterbirds in Central Asia, it is home to wild a healthy population of wild animals including Wolves, Marmots and Saiga, although we will need plenty of luck to see any of these.
The birds are the main attraction for us though, and the globally endangered Sociable Lapwing is our main target species here. Although numbers continue to decline we know where the breeding areas are and we are should be able to gain the best views of this highly-anticipated bird. This area is also home to the world's most northerly population of Greater Flamingos, with about 3oo individuals, a species which is always impressive to see in numbers. This huge landscape is full of birdlife including colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles and White-winged Black Terns in glorious breeding plumage and there should also be some late migrant shorebirds to be found including Red-necked Phalarope, Spotted Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint and one of the most spectacular sights in the form of male Ruffs in full display. This wetland birding serves as a nice compliment to the forest and mountain birding, with huge numbers of birds to be seen in a myriad of pools, lakes and streams here. Colonies of Great Black-headed (Pallas’s) Gull are dotted around the area too and this is one of the most handsome of the world’s gulls when it is in breeding plumage. We should be able to be able to enjoy watching these at close range alongside Steppe Gull and Slender-billed Gull.
Another treat waiting for us here are good numbers of beautiful Demoiselle Cranes, feeding in the pools while other waterbirds we will be looking for include Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck, Red-necked Grebe and Eared Grebe, Whooper Swan, Great Bittern, Red-crested Pochard and Caspian Tern; plenty to keep us busy for the days we spend in this species wetland.
While wetland species will occupy much of our time here there are two other very special species, of the Central Asian Steppe, that we should find today, namely Black Lark and White-winged Lark, both of which can often be numerous along the roadside. Scattered scrub will not be ignored either as it should hold Booted Warbler and other passerines while Pallid Harrier and Red-footed Falcons can often be seen hunting here. Nights at Bibinuur guesthouse, Korgalzhyn.
Day 14 Korgalzhyn - Astana - End of Tour - 31st May
After a final morning’s birding in Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve for missed species, we will drive back to Astana where we will enjoy a large traditional meal in of the fantastic restaurants of Astana. If time permits we will enjoy a city tour to this futuristic completely newly build city in the middle of the steppe! At the end of the day we transfer to the airport for flights back to UK or, if required, a hotel for the night can be arranged.