Kazakhstan – a Birdwatching Tour

Chris Collins travelled on our Kazakhstan birdwatching tour and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Syke's Warbler, Kazakhstan

It may seem unusual to begin an article on a Naturetrek birdwatching holiday with a mention of trees – but bear with me!

Kazakhstan is a massive country – some 11 times larger than the UK – with a huge variety of spectacular scenery. Whether it was the majestic Tien Shan Mountains in the east of the country, the seemingly endless steppe grasslands or the splendid Kazakh semi-desert, our Naturetrek tour enabled us to sample much of this. We experienced wonderful birding and other wildlife sightings ranging from Golden Eagles soaring over snow covered peaks to, at the other end of the avian scale, tiny White-crowned Penduline Tits nesting over small lowland streams.

Perhaps one of the most impressive and memorable of all our birdwatching experiences came from our regular visits to the largely solitary trees that could be found dotted along the roadsides. These trees, usually single but occasionally in small clusters, not only broke up the vast steppe and semi-desert scenery but were also magnets for birds of all types. None of the trees were particularly large –  most being less than fifteen foot high – and they were of a variety of species: Tamarisk, Salt-Trees, Saxual and occasionally Acacias were interspersed with Apple, Apricot and Cherry-Plum which had probably germinated from fruit discarded by travellers along the roads. Although quite small and stunted many of these trees were probably of great age.

From a distance these small and rather gnarled specimens seemed to offer little prospect of good birding. Yet, as we emerged from our transport and walked towards them, the more excited we became. Small, and sometimes not-so-small, birds could be seen flitting everywhere. Binoculars and cameras at the ready we would slowly approach. Perhaps a Hoopoe or a Turkestan Shrike sitting on an exposed branch would be the first bird to be identified and then the smaller birds would start to reveal their identities. Common Redstarts, Nightingales, numerous Spotted Flycatchers and warblers of many different species could be seen darting in and out of the branches in search of insects. Barred, Hume's Leaf, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat were regularly seen, while Desert Finches, Siberian Chiffchaffs and an occasional Syke's Warbler were also spotted.

On occasions larger, and scarcer, birds were found. A Pale Scops Owl was located in a small tree next to a farmstead. A Golden Oriole was seen sitting at the very top of an unusually tall tree. A Thrush Nightingale provided tantalising glimpses. A Short-eared Owl was accidentally disturbed from its daytime roost and perhaps most unusual of all, although by no means rare, a Moorhen was found dozing quietly in the midday sun in a solitary tree. Overhead huge flocks of Rosy Starlings swooped and wheeled in unison.

Isolated in the scrub, steppe and semi-desert these trees provided food and shelter for numerous resident and migrating birds. In all, our visits to these small havens produced sightings of over 35 different species, in addition to those species found in their vicinity. Without a doubt the grand landscapes of Kazakhstan were impressive and memorable but, as is often the case on Naturetrek tours, it is the 'little things' that produce the real highlights. Our frequent visits to the 'Bird Trees of Kazakhstan' never disappointed.

Read more about our Kazakhstan birdwatching holiday here.