• Machiel Valkenburg

    The Yellow-eyed Pigeon (Columba eversmanni) is a unique species described back in the 1800s by the Prussian biologist and explorer Alexander Eduard Friedrich Eversmann (23 January 1794 – 14 April 1860). The species has declined significantly, and we focus primarily on this beautiful bird in the dry Turanga forests near Lake Balkhash.

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Machiel Valkenburg

    In the Bogety Mountains near the Chinese border, we have patience, and we adept as low position and get eye-to-eye with the peculiar Mongolian Finch. They tend to come in to drink in the late afternoon at artesian wells known by us, and sometimes they drink together with the rare Pallas’s Sandgrouse. A wonderful bonus!

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Machiel Valkenburg

    In the semi-arid plains and steppes, we find the Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Approximately 200km north of Almaty, we position ourselves at some wells where a large selection of other local specialists pass by besides these gorgeous sandgrouses. We hope to photograph Demoiselle Cranes, Bimaculated Larks, and Long-legged Buzzard from our comfortable Tragopan Hide!

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Machiel Valkenburg

    In some years, the nomadic Rosy Starling occurs abundantly depending on the availability of orthopterans (locusts and other grasshoppers). The Sorbulak Dam is one of the best places to get very close to the most attractive starling in the Palearctic region.

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Machiel Valkenburg

    Another hardcore species with distribution primarily spread out across Central Asia is the colorful Red-headed Bunting. Its characteristic call is uttered mainly from the top of a thorny bush or feathery reeds, giving us great opportunities for excellent imagery.

    Machiel Valkenburg © 

KAZAKHSTAN & KYRGYZSTAN:

A bird-photography expedition; Highlights of Central Asia

In the heart of Central Asia, we find the attractive countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Kirgizia). For a long time, known for their wide variety of rare Western Palearctic species and alluring steppe species like Black Lark and White-winged Lark. Everything is on a wide scale in Kazakhstan, which is not surprising; it is the ninth largest country in the world! Vast expanses of flat steppe grasslands merge into sandy and stony deserts. While touring, you'll discover the most fabulous destinations overflowing with charm. Among them, the mysterious and grand rocky formations of Charyn Canyon. The abounding shades of dazzling orange and superior views of these rifts will never leave anybody indifferent. The mighty looks of the towering canyon transit into some endless plains of the Sogety Valley, seemingly deserted but brimming with life. Dotted here and there are saline and freshwater lakes that create small oases in the middle of the desert. They act like magnets to nesting and migrant birds in need of food and rest. Much more highlights wait for us in this grand country. Following along your itinerary, you'll find yourself in a miniature bird wonderland – the Turanga forest. The tiny woodland is abundant with amusing figures of trees twisting and turning in most various shapes. This scenery appears as if from under the gifted hands of Salvador Dali.

In sharp contrast, we find the petite state of Kirgizia. The 'Switzerland of Central Asia' is well-known for its massive sky-scraping peaks of Tien Shan Mountains - an extension of the Himalayas - edging onto China, rising to over 20,000 feet. 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 higher up. Here we aim to find our much-desired high mountainous species. 

Images that speak for themselves! This venture aims to capture breathtaking photos of the shy and alluring species home to Central Asia. Therefore, the logistics of this exciting venture are different from a regular bird-watching holiday, during which we try to find as many species as possible.

During photography journeys, we focus on the image quality of a few specific Central Asian birds. In contrast, we try to find you as many sightings as possible during a bird-watching trip. Therefore, the itinerary presented in this file is developed to bring us to the best locations at the best possible times, keeping in mind the sun's position, the bird's life cycle, and we keep in mind background colors that complete the task of unique images with atmosphere.

Our tactics include camouflage clothing and covers to blend into the local environment as much as possible. Under full cover, we position ourselves near several artesian wells or water-holes. However, especially in the mountains, we will have to walk small distances; staying mobile in these areas is vital as the montane birds make feeding rounds and come back to the same zones regularly. We advise bringing along a light-strong lens for the times spent near the artesian, while a lightweight and more portable lens will come in handy when photographing in the mountains.

Rubythroat Birding Tours operated its first and highly successful tour in 2007, and since we established ourselves as the leading ground operator of several of the largest tour companies in the world. As a result, our tours became a true joy for bird photographers around the globe! We are sure that participants will be delighted with this extraordinary Central Asian experience.

Throughout this photography journey, we have a specific shortlist of exclusive species in mind. We will primarily aim at these species to get the best possible images. Besides these targets, we will receive many opportunities to photograph other sublime species as by-catch. Here below, we describe the potential species in Group A & Group B.

Group A: exclusive targets

1. Ibisbill
2. Caspian Plover
3. Greater Sand Plover
4. Demoiselle Crane
5. Pallas’s Sandgrouse
6. Black-bellied Sandgrouse
7. Yellow-eyed Pigeon
8. White-winged Woodpecker
9. Red-tailed Shrike
10. Rosy Starling
11. Asian Desert Warbler
12. Saxaul Sparrow
13. Rufous-backed Redstart
14. White-winged Redstart
15. White-crowned Penduline-Tit
16. White-browed Tit-warbler
17. Azure Tit
18. Brown Accentor
19. Black-throated Accentor
20. White-tailed Rubythroat
21. Red-mantled Rosefinch
22. Asian Crimson-winged Finch
23. Mongolian Finch
24. Sykes’s Warbler
25. Red-headed Bunting
26. White-capped Bunting
27. Pine Bunting
28. Gray-necked Bunting

Group B: possible by-catch

1. Black-winged Stilt
2. Little Ringed Plover
3. Little Stint
4. Temminck’s Stint
5. Red-necked Phalarope
6. Long-legged Buzzard
7. Eurasian Scops-owl
8. Pallid Scops-owl
9. European Bee-eater
10. European Roller
11. Lesser Kestrel
12. Steppe Gray Shrike
13. Horned Lark
14. Greater Short-toed Lark
15. Bimaculated Lark
16. Calandra Lark
17. Lesser Short-toed Lark
18. Eurasian Skylark
19. Blyth’s Reed Warbler
20. Hume’s Warbler
21. Greenish Warbler
22. Lesser Whitethroat
23. Brown Dipper
24. Spotted Flycatcher
25. Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin
26. Common Nightingale
27. Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush
28. Siberian Stonechat
29. Blue-capped Redstart
30. Isabelline Wheatear
31. Desert Wheatear
32. Pied Wheatear
33. Rock Sparrow
34. Songar Tit
35. Gray Wagtail
36. Western Yellow Wagtail
37. White Wagtail
38. Water Pipit
39. Altai Accentor
40. Common Rosefinch
41. Common Myna

Highlights

  • Enjoy magical photography sessions with some of the most sought-after species in the Palearctic.

  • Several days of a beautiful expedition in the wilderness of the Central Asian deserts – the best sites staked out for you!

  • Explore the skyscraping Tien Shan Mountains in search of exciting Himalayan bird species.

  • Get a sight of packs of wolves near Taukum desert or elegant Goitered Gazelle graciously prancing away in the flat fields of Sogety Valley. 

  • Superb photographic opportunities throughout, both wildlife and landscapes.

  • Explore the endemic woodlands of Turanga forest in search of Yellow-eyed Dove, Saxaul Sparrow, White-winged Woodpecker, and Turkestan Tit.

  • Have fun photographing frisky fliers like Mongolian Finch and Asian-Crimson winged Finch in the Sogety plains.

  • Be amazed by the astonishing beauty of Charyn Canyon, rich with flocks of Pallas's Sandgrouse's, Demoiselle Cranes, and Rose-colored Starlings, and many other specialties.

  • Tour is led by our knowledgeable and skillful Rubythroat photography leader Samuel Bloch.

Itinerary

  • You leave home and depart for Almaty (airport code ALA) in Kazakhstan.

  • Early morning arrival in Almaty followed by a drive east to the astonishing landscapes in Charyn River Gorge. Full days of photography and cozy nights in Hunting Lodge.

  • We pass the border to Kyrgyzstan with a visit to a valley with Pine Buntings. We arrive in the early evening in Karakol, located on the shores of Lake Issyk Kol.

  • We head towards great heights visiting the Chon Ashuu pass, and we explore the valley for the amazing Ibisbill and other high-mountainous species. Our enjoyable outing ends with a return to the hotel in Karakol.

  • Full day of driving towards Almaty, entertained by lovely scenery and occasional stops for birding en-route. The day is rewarded with a hearty dinner in the hotel back in the city.

  • We adventure into the Taukum desert with a large set of spectacular species and migration in full swing. Our nights are spent in a traditionally authentic yurt camp.

  • Full birding days around Turanga Forest, focusing on some highly localized species like Saxaul Sparrow and Yellow-eyed Dove.

  • A grand final day spent in the breathtaking Tien Shan Mountains searching for some more rare mountainous species. Be sure to look out for the Himalayan Snowcock!

  • Farewell at the Almaty airport, and return towards home. OR fly to Nur-Sultan to continue the Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve tour for some more photography adventures.

What’s Included?

  • English-speaking photographic guide throughout.
  • Ten nights of accommodation, ranging from attractive, comfortable tourist hotels, an excellent yurt camp, and a basic hunting lodge off the beaten track.
  • Full board scheduled meals in restaurants or picnic lunches in the field, depending on the itinerary.
  • All land transfers by comfortable Mercedes Sprinter.
  • Led by experienced and professional Rubythroat photographic leader Samuel Bloch.
  • Use of excellent Tragopan hides.
  • Visa support (if needed).

What’s excluded?

  • International flight to/from Almaty.
  • Personal expenses; laundry, telephone costs etc.
  • Alcoholic drinks.
  • Extra rooming not mentioned in the itinerary.
  • Meals on day one.
  • Single room accommodations.
  • Travel and health insurance.

Recommended Photography Equipment:

  • One or more camera bodies.
  • Telephoto lens with a minimum of 400mm.
  • A light-weights zoom lens, for more flexibility in the mountains.
  • Wide-angle lens (we will travel through some amazing landscapes).
  • Converters in the range of 1.4 & 2.0 (optional).
  • Flash (we have an opportunity for Eurasian Scops Owl).
  • Tripod or monopod, according to taste, and head.
  • For low-angle situations we recommend a tripod that can spread flat, ground pod or bean bag.
Image

Costs: $3200 or €2775, excluding international flights to/from Kazakhstan

Single supplement:   $420 or €353

Deposit: : $560 or €470

Group size: minimum 4 and maximum 6   

Availability: Spaces available   Leader: Samuel Bloch

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MAIN FOCUS:

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PHOTOGRAPHY

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BIRDS

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LANDSCAPES

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MAMMALS

SPECIES SEEN:

150-210

DIFFICULTY:
 

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MEDIUM

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Extended Tour Program

Days 1: To Almaty.

Clients depart from home towards the largest city of Kazakhstan, Almaty. There are several options, but they are best coming in by way of Istanbul (Turkish Airlines) or Kyiv (Ukrainian Airlines). Both operators also have connections when departing Kazakhstan from Nur-Sultan. If you like to come in earlier, please contact the RBT office, which will gladly help with additional hotel bookings.

NIGHT: on aircraft.

PrunellafulvescensPine Bunting

Days 2 – 3: Sogety Valley and Kokpek pass.

After arrival at the Almaty airport in the early morning, we gather up. We leave Almaty immediately and travel 125 miles (200 km) east to one of the more spectacular and well-known sites in Kazakhstan - the red, yellow and black canyons of the Charyn River Gorge. The drive east will see us stop for an exciting site with nesting White-crowned Penduline-Tits. We spend a significant amount of time using the best lights. Other birds in the vicinity are ‘golzii’ Common Nightingale and Corn Bunting, singing their songs in a gorgeous setting of fresh green fields dotted with red poppies here and there and the towering Tien-Shan mountains reaching for the blue skies in the background.

We head east with chances of photographing an illustrious set of birds; Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Mongolian Finch, Asian Crimson-winged Finch, Asian Desert Warbler, White-capped Bunting, Gray-necked Bunting, and Azure Tit are the key targets. Other possibilities to come into the viewfinder as by-catch are Red-tailed Shrike, Horned Lark, Lesser Kestrel, Greater Short-toed Lark, Eurasian Linnet, and European Scops Owl.

In the Kokpek pass, we focus on the attractive White-capped Bunting. The setting of this steep gorge makes it challenging, but the past results show that perfection is achievable in capturing this handsome bunting. With a healthy amount of patience matched with Rubythroat Birding Tours expertise of the landscape, you’ll have the most excellent chances of completing the project successfully. Next, we will take a walk in the plains to locate the Asian Desert Warbler and take a closer look at it singing from small flowering wormwood bushes. 

Our main routine in the Sogety Valley evolves around several morning and afternoon visits to certain artesian where leaking pipes create small bird magnets. First, we wait for incoming attractive Mongolian Finches and Gray-necked Buntings. Then, several much larger Asian Crimson-winged Finches should pass by for a drink. The star of these artesian wells is the magic Pallas’s Sandgrouse, of which small numbers breed in the Sogety Valley. Our tactic is to position ourselves, and to blend in with the environment, near the wells. We lay flat on the ground using camouflage gear, a perfect method to blend in with the surroundings. Birds hardly notice our presence. Another tactic involves splitting the group between the nearby wells for more private time with the birds. Every participant will spend the same amount of time at each well during the stays near the Chinese border. 

After this splendid session, we drive to our basic guesthouse, located in an oasis of the Charyn River. Then, finally, we will reach our final target in the garden. The Azure Tit occurs numerously in this location, providing excellent opportunities for breath-taking images just before dinner.

NIGHT: Hunting Lodges.

MelanocoryphabimaculataDendrocopos leucopterus

Day 4: Drive to Karakol - Kirgizia.

The day starts with spending a few hours at the artesian well before our journey continues in the southern direction towards the Kyrgyz border, where a lunch stop might render cute Rock Petronia. Finally, stops at Lesser Kestrel colonies might deliver iconic images of Central Asian landmarks and these cute falcons. They are usually found around several small graveyards, a little macabre but perfect.

When we move to a higher evaluation, the ground becomes more suitable for growing crops. In these agricultural lands, Ruddy Shelduck and Demoiselle Crane are plentiful. We visit an area teeming with large numbers of breeding Pine Buntings; combined with the afternoon lights, we will enjoy an excellent time. 

We continue into Kyrgyzstan and arrive in the early evening at our lovely guesthouse, where a fantastic dinner awaits us.

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel Karakol.

Day 5: Chon-Ashuu (May Saz).

Today we drive up to great heights with an excursion to the Chon Ashuu pass, which is the tallest pass we visit during this tour. With a dazzling 3822 meters, we go today way past the tree line and look for a unique set of avifauna. The nearby wild streaming river holds both White-bellied and Brown Dipper. Lammergeyers are patrolling the sky. The lush meadows are home to one of the strangest waders of the world; the elusive Ibisbill. Eversmann's Redstart, together with Himalayan and Brown Accentor's, are pretty common up here. The gorgeous White-browed Tit Warbler is one of the hard-to-find species just as his colorful friend the Güldenstädt's Redstart! Greenish and Hume's warblers are common in the open patches of mature, mixed deciduous/coniferous forest. We cover some distance on our feet, walking in the majestic scenery of green valleys and small juniper scrubs most of the day. When coming across the desired species, we will spend a significant amount of time photographing these wonders.

We return to our lovely guesthouse in Karakol in the evening, where we enjoy another flavorful dinner.

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel Karakol.

Sykess WarblerPrunellaatrogularis

Day 6: Karakol to Almaty.

We return to Kazakhstan and drive back to Almaty. This day is a full transfer day; we spend most of it admiring the landscape from the bus. A stop in one of the small villages along the road might render Red-rumped Swallows; Indian Golden Oriole; Lesser Grey Shrike; Long-tailed Shrike; Greenish Warbler and lovely Laughing Doves. End of the afternoon, we arrive back at our hotel in Almaty for a refreshing shower after a long day!

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel Almaty.

Days 7-8: Taukum Desert Adventure.

The coming days will be long but very fascinating. We set sails 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. During our drive north into the desert, few stops will focus on a colony of Rosy Starlings and a small pond with several pairs of White-headed Ducks. Here our camouflage suits come in handy and present extraordinary opportunities. Other nearby possibilities are European Rollers and European Bee-eaters.

The coming two nights are in and around the comfortable yurt camp of Rubythroat Birding Tours. A luxurious tented camp, a nomadic dwelling traditionally used by the local inhabitants of this beautiful country. The base is strategically placed near the best spots around the village of Kanshengel. We are within walking distance of the breeding zones of Greater Sand-Plover and Caspian Plover while Red-headed Buntings sing loudly and are near whenever we want. In the evenings, the Great Jerboa’s emerge from their hideouts for great sightings and photo moments.

Most of our time in the Taukum Desert will evolve again around the migration concentrated near a set of artesian wells. In this environment, water means life, and we will focus the mornings and evenings in these locations in the same style as we did in Sogety Valley. The birds we might expect to photograph superbly are Black-bellied Sandgrouse, more chance for the rare Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Masked Wagtail, Bimaculated Lark, Calandra Lark, Demoiselle Crane, and Desert Finch. Other birds that drop by for a sip might include a wide selection of various forms and races of Western Yellow Wagtail with ‘beema’ being the most numerous and Bluethroat, Gray Wagtail, Temminck’s Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Brown-necked Raven, and Mongolian Finch.

At the torrid first part of the afternoon, we will turn for an extended lunch followed by a siesta. Then, we head out again in the late afternoon before the best lights of the day will be present.

NIGHT: Comfortable luxurious yurt camp.

Day 9-10: Taukum Desert & Turanga Woodland.

Today is a beautiful day in which we will encounter a wide variety of habitats and some elegant birds and other wildlife. Awakening amid this remote desert, we will likely be watching the impressive display of McQueen's Bustards close to our camp. Final moments are spent near the wells or on the nearby species of the base.

We leave our trusted camp to set forth along narrow back-roads through various steppe/desert habitats to an area of unique Turanga woodland. We should encounter such specialties as Turkestan Tit and Saxaul Sparrow. Extra attention goes out to finding White-winged Woodpecker and Pale-backed Pigeon (Eversmann's or Yellow-eyed Dove). Finally, we have the late afternoon and morning lights of the next day to complete our goals. If we are fortunate Pallid Scops-Owl is the final cherry on the pie. They occur commonly in the village of our guesthouse, and some night photography will challenge our skills.

Isabelline Wheatears and Red-tailed Shrikes are seen as well, but we must diligently search for Steppe Grey Shrike. Other possible species along our way include Pied and Desert wheatears, Rock Petronia, Spanish Sparrow, gorgeous tiny Azure Tits, and the unique Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. Finally, on day ten, we drive in the afternoon back to Almaty.

NIGHT, DAY 9: Basic guesthouse near Zheltorangly Turanga Forest. 

NIGHT, DAY 10: Comfortable tourist hotel Almaty.

Azure TitLong legged Buzzard

Day 11: Tien Shan Mountains.

We have a full day in this glorious high-altitude landscape to find an incredible array of alpine specialists. Black-throated, Altai and Brown accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-winged Grosbeak, and the incomparable White-browed (Severtzov's) Tit-warbler await us! We will descend a short distance by coach to the Big Almaty Lake, where wide, braided, stony river beds are home to the utterly unique Ibisbill. We will look for species such as Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Red-billed & Yellow-billed choughs, Plain Mountain-finches, White-winged (Güldenstädt's) Redstart, all higher up in the mountains at an altitude of 10,500 feet. The star-attraction this day, which we have an excellent chance localizing: Himalayan Snowcock.

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel Almaty.

Day 12: Almaty to home.

After a splendid holiday in Central Asia, it is time to depart home. We say goodbye from Almaty Airport, from where clients return home. Those continuing on the Korgalzhyn National State Park extension will fly this day to the capital Nur-Sultan.