Birding Lake Sorbulak

Halfway through April, the migration starts to speed up significantly. During the first week of the month, we had our final snowfall in the city, which resulted in four lovely Black-throated Accentors near my house on the east side of town. A little more than a week later, the temperature already reaches 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), which seemed a perfect opportunity to escape the city for some birding at the lake system of Sorbulak. The lakes are located northwest of Almaty on around 60km (37 miles) from the city's outer zones, situated in the natural depressions of the Karaoi plateau. A vast semi-desert area surrounds the lakes with scarce vegetation. However, these sewage reservoirs are an IBA (Important Bird Area) and a huge attraction to many exciting species such as the very rare Pallas' Fish-Eagle and healthy White-headed Duck populations.

Together with Dana, we headed out in the early morning to the smaller lakes on the system's east side. Birds such as Common Myna, Rook, and Eurasian Magpie are recorded quickly in the villages on the way to Sorbulak and regularly seen throughout the day. We drove along the canals that connect the lakes and noticed significant numbers of Citrine Wagtails migrating north. We were lucky to spot the vast majority of adult males in breeding plumage. Their bright yellow heads contrast heavily with the canals' dark waters, simply outstanding to admire them again after a long cold winter. They are accompanied by Masked Wagtails, the personata race of White Wagtail. More waders include Wood Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, and Little Ringed Plovers. When driving along the canals, we were delighted to sight three large bells of Demoiselle Cranes gliding north overhead. An impressive flock estimated a total of 250-300 cranes.

At the beginning of spring, usually dull semi-deserts flaunt with the greenery of grass and small plants. The fields brighten up with pops of colorful bright blues of the Iris tenuifolia. The delicacy of these flowers is a true delight for sore eyes. When photographing the blooming flowers, I discovered a small group of four Black-bellied Sandgrouse. It is always a pleasure to come eye-to-eye with this adorable species. The Central Asian sandgrouses are largely migratory compared to their counterparts on the Iberian Peninsula due to the region's harsh winters. The vast plains are usually covered with a thick layer of snow, making it impossible to forage further.

At the most extensive lake, we came across a giant White-tailed Eagle nest. We drove a little further to have the sun in our back and discovered a beautiful adult breeding. Looking at this massive individual with a wingspan of 244cm (96 inches), the cherished nickname of 'flying door' seems correct. The raptor is monotypic, with only sometimes the groenlandicus race regarded separate. This sighting marks one of the day's best, especially enjoyed by Dana, who started birding less than a year ago.

At the lake, thousands of ducks join in the less windy places near the reedbeds. The vast majority of birds are Tufted Ducks and Red-crested Pochards numbering in the thousands, while the exquisite Garganey and Common Pochard less numerous tallying in the hundreds. Here a small group of nineteen Dalmatian Pelicans hunkered down on a small island in the middle of the lake. Another species worth mentioning is the Slavonian Grebe (Eared Grebe in the USA). Undoubtedly one of my favorite grebes on the planet (with Hooded Grebe from Argentina as my absolute favorite!).

Some bushes located in the lee are used by a couple of Siberian Chiffchaffs of the race tristis, whereas the only Brambling of the day is found hiding in the same thicket. Daurian Shrike is foraging actively and provides us with excellent views. Small numbers of Black-throated Thrush are found together with Black Redstart and Common Chaffinch in a tiny opening amidst the woods. One of the day's final sightings is with a unique desert-dweller in the form of Desert Finch. The species is scarcely distributed mainly throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, making it a stroke of absolute luck to come across. Therefore, we were lucky to spot one adult male in a group of four.

We end the day in Almaty with a delicious plate of steak and fries, finalized by a Valencian bonbon coffee! Another great day comes to an end along the enchanting Silk Road in Central Asia.

13 April 2021

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