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Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan & Uzbekistan - Birding Tour

Tour Overview:

In the heart of the northern Greater Himalayas, Kazakhstan is a mountainous country interspersed with vast steppe located within Central Asia, so many of the special birds here are surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Kazakhstan is huge – the fifth largest country on Earth, but with only about two-thirds of the population of Texas. There is a great diversity of habitats and a mouth-watering array of birds special to Central Asia that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The country is a bridge between Siberia, Mongolia, the Middle East and Africa. The scale of everything is vast. Massive expanses of flat steppe grasslands merge into sandy and stony deserts. A smattering of saline and freshwater lakes act like magnets to nesting and migrant birds.

 

In sharp contrast, the massive, towering peaks of the Altai Mountains of  Kyrgyzstan, rise to over 14,000 feet (4500 meters). Here we find ecosystems varying from massive tracts of deciduous and coniferous forest cut by untamed rivers in deep gorges at lower elevations, to snow-capped peaks and flower-rich alpine meadows. There is a pre-tour extension to Uzbekistan. A country steeped in ancient history, that was replete with splendid cities and cultures based along the Great Silk Route to China – a true crossroads between east and west. We will visit fabled historical sites in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, viewing incredibly beautiful, extravagant ancient architecture. There is also a short-list of extremely special birds to be found. Several species at the western edge of their range in Asia. At the top of the list is the enigmatic and curious Pander’s Ground Jay, readily found in the stony deserts of Kyziyl Kum. Others include Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Tit and local specialties such as Pygmy Cormorant, White-tailed Lapwing, Ménétriés’s Warbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Hume’ s Lark, the delectable Yellow-breasted form of Azure Tit, Persian Nuthatch, Finsch’s and Variable Wheatears, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Clamorous Reed- Warbler.

Upcoming Departures:

2026

Main Tour: 9 - 22 May  (TBA; 2024: $6990; single supplement $680)

Extension: 2 - 9 May (TBA; 2024: $4400; single supplement $440)

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Other Tour Details:

Length: 14 Days (21 Days w/ Ext.)

Starting City: Almaty (or Tashkent on Ext.)
Ending City: Astana
Pace: Moderate
Physical Difficulty: Moderate
Focus: Birding and Culture
Group size: 12 + 2 leaders

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Almaty; Kaskelen Valley

After arrival in Almaty, we will have some time for afternoon birding in the Kaskelen Valley, searching for Meadow Bunting and other species, like European Turtle-Dove, Lesser Gray Shrike, Blue Whistling-Thrush, and Common Rose finch. A single night will be spent in a good hotel in the city of Almaty.

 

Days 2-3: Charyn Canyon and the Sogety Valley

One of our first major sites of the tour may also be one of the most spectacular, as we visit the red, yellow and black canyons of the Charyn River Gorge. Amidst this lovely scenery we may encounter beautiful species such as Chukar; Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrushes; and with luck Chestnut-breasted-, Grey-necked-,  Rock- and Red-headed Buntings. Raptors might include Egyptian, Himalayan Griffon and Cinereous Vultures, Long-legged Buzzard, Golden Eagle, and Lesser Kestrel. We will hopefully come across roadside colonies of the bizarre, pink-and-black, nomadic Rosy Starlings. In this area, we can also visit some artesian wells in the desert where birds like Desert, Mongolian and Asian Crimson-winged Finches may come in for a drink. We will spend two nights in a nearby hunting lodge, simple accommodation that is good for species like Azure Tit and Eurasian Scope Owl. 

 

The other site that we shall cover is the Sogety Valley, where we will search for one of the most sought-after species in Central Asia, Pallas’s Sandgrouse. We might also come across Steppe Eagle, Sykes’s Warbler, Asian Desert Warbler, and Lesser Whitethroat.

 

Day 4-6: The Altai Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

We will cross the border and spend three nights in the under-birded country of Kyrgyzstan, our third country of the tour!  The Altai Mountains are a range confined to Central and Eastern Asia and boast a birdlist similar to those found in the high Himalaya of India and China. Among the many mountain goodies we will be seeking will be the lilac-and-blue White-browed Tit-Warbler, gorgeous Himalayan Rubythroat, and striking White-winged Redstart, in addition to two species of dipper, (Brown and White-throated). The enigmatic Ibisbill also occurs in this area and will be a major target too. This is the only region on Earth where two species of dipper co-exist. Other possibilities include White-winged Grosbeak, Eversmann’s Redstart, Altai and Black-throated Accentors, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Red-fronted Serin, and Brant’s Mountain-Finch. Three nights will be spent in Karakol, close to the massive Lake Issyk and close to the several excellent mountain passes for birding.

Day 7: Kyrgyzstan to Almaty via Kokpek Pass

We will return to Kazakhstan, ending up in the capital city, Almaty by the end of the day. However, en-route we will go over Kokpek Pass, birding the higher reaches and surrounding agricultural areas for a wide range of species, including Chukar, Eurasian Hobby, White-crowned Penduline-Tit, Lesser Whitethroat, Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock-Thrushes, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears, Crimson-winged Finch and an array of buntings, like Red-headed, Rock, Gray-necked and White-capped Buntings. Another night will be spent in Almaty.

 

Day 8: Almaty to the Taukum Desert

We depart this morning for our Taukum Desert adventure passing through fields of poppies and other wildflowers and all with the spectacular backdrop of the icy Tien Shan Mountains. Along the way we make a first stop at the fantastic Sorbulak Lake. On the lake itself we will seek out the scarce Dalmatian Pelicans, Great Crested, Black-necked- and the amazing Slavonian grebes might be seen. This is also a great locality for White-headed Duck should we still need it. On the mudflats waders in the form of Little- and Temminck’s Stint can be common. We will enjoy an al fresco field lunch before continuing on to our yurt camp in the Taukum Desert: a surprisingly well-kitted tented camp, a nomadic dwelling used by the local inhabitants of this beautiful country. We should arrive in time for afternoon tea and an opportunity to view Black-bellied Sandgrouse nearby. Overnight in Yurt camp. 

Days 9-10: Taukum Desert & Zheltorangly Forest

The next two days are wonderful opportunities to encounter a wide variety of habitats and some fine birds and other wildlife. Awakening in the midst of this remote desert, we will try to find the amazing McQueen’s Bustards close to our camp, Caspian Plovers are breeding nearby, and Wolves are very occasionally spotted together with Persian Gazelles all before breakfast! The bustards are getting scarcer by the year and so we will need some luck to find them. Then we will set forth along narrow back-roads through a variety of steppe/desert habitats to an area of unique Turanga forests, where with a bit of luck we may encounter such specialties as Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, White-winged Woodpecker, Pale-backed Pigeon (Eversmann’s or Yellow-eyed Dove) and if we are especially lucky Pallid Scops-Owl. Along the way we will undoubtedly encounter many Greater Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed and Calandra larks and Isabelline Wheatears and Isabelline (Rufous-tailed) Shrikes but amongst which we must diligently search for Steppe Grey Shrike. Other possible species along our way include Pied and Desert wheatears, Rock Petronia, and Spanish Sparrow. Overnights in Yurt Camp. 

Day 11: Taukum Desert to Almaty

After some final birding in the Takaum Desert, we will return to the capital Almaty for another night. We will make several stops along the way including a fascinating area of ancient petroglyphs: a scrubby, rocky area for the perky Eastern Rock Nuthatch and a breeding colony of exotic Red-headed Buntings. With a bit of luck we may find something exceptional!

Nearby fringing scrub acts as a magnet for migrant and nesting birds such as Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller, European Bee-eater, Shikra, Lesser Gray Shrike, Blyth’s Reed-warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Oriental Turtle-Dove and Desert finch. Overnight in Almaty. 

 

Day 12: Almaty to Astana

This morning we take a short flight from Almaty to Astana, and then head out into some forested areas in the open steppes where Pine Bunting and Pallid Harrier will be our goals. We return for lunch to Astana and there will an optional city tour in the afternoon. Night in Astana. 

 

Day 13: Korgalzhyn

We need an early start to the day and will reach Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve at the perfect time. It possesses a collection of birdlife that has recently attracted a nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The vast wetland area, a combination of virgin steppe and lakes, is home to rare wildlife (unlikely to be seen) like Wolves, Marmots and Saiga. However, birds are the real attraction. Located at the crossroads of two migration routes, the wetlands act as a giant motorway junction service station for birds (Lake Tengiz alone has the capacity to feed 15 million birds). The area, most of which is protected as a ‘Zapovednik’ (national nature reserve), is home to over 300 species of birds, which includes one of the largest wildfowl populations in Asia. Other notable residents include pelicans, cranes and a variety of birds of prey. Our main targets for the day are nesting groups of the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing, which are getting rarer each year, and we will count ourselves luck y to see. There are many other fine attractions in this vast landscape. Roadside colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles and White-winged Black Terns in glorious breeding plumage should be dotted with migrant shorebirds. These enumerable wetlands and lakes may produce breeding Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck, Red-necked and Eared grebes, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard and Caspian Terns. More special still are often close colonies of splendid Great Black-headed Gulls, with a supporting cast of Steppe Gull! The damp grassy steppe contains elegant Demoiselle Cranes while scattered scrub, bush should hold Booted Warbler, Pallid Harrier and gorgeous little Red-footed Falcons. Two other very special birds we should find today are Black and White-winged Larks, often numerous along the roadside, both species confined to the Central Asian steppes. After a long day in the field we return to Astana.

Day 14: Departure from Astana

The tour ends this morning with transfers to the Astana airport.

Uzbekistan Extension:

Introduction:

Conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and capital of central Asia under Timur (whose family was related to Genghis Khan), Samarkand is steeped in history. A key point along the Silk Road, it is over 2500 years old. We will visit some of the most amazing sites in this World Heritage City, including the amazing Islamic Registan, the Bibi-Kanym Mosque, and the Gur-e-Amir (Timur’s tomb). The architecture of the Gur-e-Amir would later influence the construction of the Taj Mahal. We will also visit the amazing city of Bhukara and its sensational structures. While we lap up the culture, we will not ignore the superb birding opportunities all around us, seeking out White-winged Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Tit, and Pygmy Cormorant. A special expedition out towards Kyzyl Kum will be in order to search for the amazing and striking Pander’s Ground-Jay!

 

Day 1: Arrival in Tashkent (Uzbekistan)

After arrival in Uzbekistan’s capital, you will be transferred to a nearby hotel for the night. The first tour activity will be a dinner time meet up in the hotel at 6:30pm. There is no birding planned on this day.

 

Day 2: Taskent to Samarkand

We will head south from the capital towards Samarkand, looking for Azure Tit and Pied Wheatear along the way. The night will be spent in Samarkand. This is Uzbekistan’s second largest city and is thought to date back to the 7th Century.

Day 3: Takhtakaracha Pass

We will have an early morning start, driving out of the city and up into the rocky, scrub and bush-covered hills of the Takhtakaracha Pass that lies between Samarkand and Zarafshan, where Tamerlane (the Mongol conqueror) roamed in the 14th Century. High on the wanted list will be White-throated Robin along with Eastern Orphean Warbler and the obscure Hume’s Lark. Also to be found here are Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Turkestan and Yellow-breasted Tits, the extremely rare Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and White-capped Bunting. In the afternoon, we will return to Samarkand for more cultural explorations of this fascinating city.

Day 4: Samarkand to Bukhara

Early in the morning, we will check a local wetland for specialties like White-crowned Penduline Tit and White-tailed Lapwing. Later in the morning, we will continue our journey along the Silk Road to Bukhara. Formerly one of the most important trading cities anywhere in Central Asia, there is a rich and colorful history and an overwhelming number of historic sites of interest. The turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets of Bukhara provide a wonderful backdrop to our stay here, while the markets and covered bazaars are bustling, a great place to barter for a huge range of very inexpensive souvenirs such as jewelry, spices and the famous Bukhara rugs. Needless to say, we shall have some time to explore this wonderful city, including the intricate architecture and its spell-binding mosques. We spend the first of two nights in Bukhara.

Day 5: Kyzyl Kum Desert & Bukhara

The morning will be dedicated to finding one of the tour’s main specialties, the Pander’s Ground Jay , which occurs in the Kyzyl Kum desert, west of the city. In the afternoon we shall return to Bukhara for further cultural explorations of the city itself. Within the same desert surrounds, we may also encounter Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Isabelline Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Brown-necked Raven, Desert Finch, and Spanish Sparrow. Moving back toward Bukahra we’ll explore the edge of the lush oases at some lakes, reed beds and fishponds, hoping to find a large variety of birds including Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Grey and Purple Herons, Northern Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, the sought-after White-tailed Lapwing, Slender-billed Gull, Little and Whiskered Terns. We will return to in the afternoon, followed by some relaxing further opportunities to take in some last cultural sights, which will feature on this afternoon or the following morning, including the historic town center with its surrounding old madrassahs, the Kalyan Minaret – a 150-foot-tall tower built in the 12th century, and also the Miri-Arab Madrasa and Trade Domes.

Day 6: Bukhara to Tashkent

After exploring further city sights around Bukhara in the morning, we shall take a high-speed train back to the capital, Tashkent, where we will spend the next two nights of the tour.

Day 7: Chimgan Hills

Our final birding day in Uzbekistan will be spent in the lush, green, Chimgan Hills. We will still be searching for some gorgeous little gems, like the stunning “yellow-breasted” form of Azure Tit and Rufous-naped Tit. Overhead we might also see European and Oriental Honey-buzzards. Our final night in Uzbekistan will be taken in Tashkent.

Day 8: Uzbekistan to Almaty, Kazakhstan

In the morning we will fly to Almaty in neighboring Kazakhstan to connect with the others joining only the main tour. We should have some time for some initial birding around Almaty, in particular to look for Meadow Bunting in the Kaskelen Valley of Ile Alatau NP .

Trip Considerations

PACE: Moderate. Very early starts are usually not necessary on the main tour. Breakfast is typically served around 7am, and on some days there will be some pre-breakfast birding. One major exception is on Day 13 when we must leave very early (4h30 or 5 am) to reach the Korgylzhyn area. Kazakhstan and  Kyrgyzstan are large countries where the birding sites are not close to each other. Therefore we must travel quite some distance. We estimate to drive around 1150 miles (1850 km) for the entire Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan trip. Lunch will be served al fresco in the field on most days, but we always attempt to return to the hotel before dark. On the Uzbekistan extension, early starts are necessary to take advantage of the cool early morning hours, and we’ll usually have breakfast around 4:30am; however we’ll usually be back to the hotel by lunch and then have a relaxing afternoon taking in the nearby cultural and historical sites.

 

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. The mountains south of Almaty, which are visited for three days, has some fairly steep and rocky trails (a walking stick helps a lot), but they are relatively short. You can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. Much of our birding in the Altai Mountains (3 days) of Kyrgyzstan will be spent at elevations above 8,200 ft. (2500 m.)

 

CLIMATERanges from cold (down near freezing early in the morning) in the Altai Mountains to pleasant around the middle elevations (about 59°-86°F, 15°-30°C),a and a bit hot at the lower elevations and in Uzbekistan (around 77°-104°F, 25°-40°C). Some rain or even snow can be expected in the mountainous areas. In the Taukum Desert it can get windy, but this pleasantly cools down the heat of the day.

 

ACCOMMODATION: In Kazakhstan (Almaty and Astana) and on the Uzbekistan extension, we stay in excellent hotels, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. In the remote Charyn Canyon and the Altai Mountains, accommodation can be very basic, and lodges have shared bathroom facilities, hot water is sometimes only available in evening hours, and electricity is erratic. In the Taukum desert we will do some camping in local traditional yurts. Each yurt is privately equipped with twin beds and is very comfortable, with plenty of space. The dining yurt is decorated in traditional Kazakh style, where we dine sitting on large comfortable pillows, the true nomad style. There are three shared erected shower-tents that can be rigged to have warm water, and there is a shared long-drop style bathroom tent. 

 

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have some decent opportunities to photograph birds and scenery.

 

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best taken during May and June, when millions of birds migrate north towards their breeding grounds in Russia.

Other Information

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of the following countries can currently enter Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan for 30 days without a visa: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and some (not most) other countries; all other nationalities require a tourist visa. The main tour is only 14 days long, so that should cover most people if they arrive and depart on the scheduled arrival and departure days. If you are planning on staying longer, then a visa will be required, no matter what your nationality. A visa is required for the extension to Uzbekistan by most nationalities (bith not UK citizens, who do not require a visa to enter for stays of 30 days or less). Travel requirements are subject to change; please double-check at least 6 weeks before you travel or ask our office staff for help.

 

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 13 (main tour only); accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7 (of the extension, if taking that); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 14 (main tour); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 8 (on the extension); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 13 (main tour); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 1 to the morning of day 8 (extension); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 13 (and from day 1 to day 7 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; airport transfers; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; one way flight from Almaty to Astana; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

 

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (if you require their services); flights other than those mentioned, such as the international flight required for extension; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa and passport fees; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

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