Day 1: On arrival to Almaty 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-colored Starling colony and look for White-headed Duck, 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 a good-sized tent.
Day 2: 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 are also frequent visitors. Other birds we can expect include flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and, if it’s 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 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, and home to some of the region’s most special birds. Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, Azure Tit, 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 clumps of trees and small pools that can attract a dazzling array of migrants that can include anything from Oriental Turtle Doves and Barred and Blyth’s Reed Warblers to Black-throated Thrushes or perhaps a Little Crake or European Nightjar. Night in our desert camp.
Day 3: After a final morning around the camp we’ll return 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 to 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 4: 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 toward China, watching the roadside wires for Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes as we go. 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 the low hills and gorges host Rock Sparrow and Pine, Rock and Meadow Buntings, and 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 5: If Pallas’s Sandgrouse has avoided us thus far we’ll wait by a small drinking pool in the hope of catching sight of this elusive species. We are bound to see its 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 for Desert Wheatear, smart Desert Finches, Spanish Sparrows, and Pale Martins. We’ll eat our picnic lunch alongside an enormous reedbed where Savi’s Warblers reel from the reed tops. Later we’ll return to Almaty. Night in Almaty at an area lodge.
Days 6–7: We’ll drive through Almaty 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, and, in the mountain streams, Blue Whistling Thrush and both Brown and White-bellied Dippers.
We’ll pause at a lake located in a deep valley and scan the stony shoreline for the Ibisbills that regularly nest here, although our attention will undoubtedly be drawn to the tinkling song and striking plumage of numerous Red-fronted Serins. Once we rise above the tree line, we’ll find ourselves in a crystal-clear landscape of dense juniper bushes, flower-strewn alpine meadows, and snowcapped 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 the handsome Güldenstadt’s Redstart nests and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs will be wheeling 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 already 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 8: We have the morning to spend in this wonderful habitat, looking for any species that have eluded us so far or simply enjoying the dramatic scenery or the abundant wildflowers. After lunch we’ll descend to Almaty and take an early evening flight to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the bustling and vibrant capital of Kazakhstan. It’s 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 9–10: 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 Bluethroat, and Barred and monotone Booted Warblers. As we venture farther 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.
Farther out we’ll enter the ancient steppe with its immense grasslands and lakes of fresh and salt water. Birdsong 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—steppe birds par excellence. At the end of the Day 16 we’ll return to our hotel in Nur-Sultan where the tour concludes with transfer to the airport for in time for latenight departures.
PACE OF TOUR: Participants should have a reasonable degree of fitness and be prepared for the occasional discomfort. There will be some very early starts as we need to be on site very early to avoid the intense midday heat. During an average trip there are some departures at 5:00am or 5:30am but typically the day starts around 6:00am. We usually finish around 6:00pm although there may be longer days if we have a lot of travelling to return to our hotel or if we are taking a late domestic flight.
Kazakhstan is a big place and as a result, we have to cover a lot of ground to get to all the various habitats. Consequently there are some long drives out east from Almaty, and north into the Taukum Desert - of around three hours duration. One day in the steppe around Astana involves a long drive to get to the main areas, and back. In the mountains some uphill walking is inevitable but we do all we can to keep this to a minimum.
Camping will obviously be simple (but fun…really) and you need to be prepared for that. Generally most people are surprised by just how comfortable the camping is. Everyone gets their own tent (see Accommodation below).
WHAT TO BRING:
We recommend the following:
Comfortable sport clothes & shoes
Shorts & T-shirts for hot weather
Water proofs for rainy days
Warm jacket for cool days
Mat & sleeping bag
Sun-glasses & hat for sun protection
Thick socks or house slippers (no shoes allowed in the tent)
Camera: still & video
Your favorite drinks and cigarettes
Sun care cream