Four years ago this week I was enjoying a great trip in the Kazak Altai, a chance to see black and white-winged lark and Pallas' sandgrouse and much more.
The toad-headed agama Phrynocephalus spp. found around Lake Zaissan may be specifically distinct
29/6/05 Journey through desert to Zaissan camp
The birders were up for an hour before breakfast to chase up the azure tit but despite some earnest searching we failed to find the birds and headed back to the hotel. Breakfast was soon over and we climbed aboard the 4WD minibuses for the twelve-hour journey that was to take us to the camp on the shores of Lake Zaissan.
We broke the journey at numerous places. First stop was the first of many in the Kalbinsky Hills, here we saw our first meadow buntings, a fantastic adult imperial eagle, a black stork and got to grips with our first butterflies, many of which were familiar including ringlet and large heath but others that were a bit more spectacular including some truly enormous apollos and the splendid Hipparchia autonoe.
A second stop at a lay-by produced clouds of butterflies that were interested in salts left by evaporated “lay-by fluids”. Huge numbers of blues predominated and a number of fritillaries included high brown. The birders had in the meantime wandered off and had found fieldfare, Blyth’s reed warbler, more meadow buntings, common rosefinches and a singing Cetti’s warbler. Overhead a sub-adult steppe eagle allowed us to appreciate the structural differences between this species and imperial eagle. The botanistas meanwhile had disappeared up a hill and came back looking satisfied.
Next stop was in some relict pine forest that was interesting but rather quiet although we heard tree pipit, watched a nice male red-backed shrike and enjoyed a roadside stand of Dactylorhiza umbrosa. A short way up the road we stopped again to admire a roadside clump of burning bush Dicthamnus angustifolia.
Next stop was at a roadside yurt where both before and after a good lunch we searched for plants, butterflies and dragonflies. Butterflies here included northern chequered skipper, Limnetis sidyi and hellmanni. Golden orioles flew overhead busy feeding young. Tearing ourselves away we headed for the ferry that was to take us over an arm of the lake. Before the ferry ‘terminal’ we stopped and searched the sand dunes for the endemic Zaissan toad-headed agama. We found them to be common here and even saw some territorial males curling up their tails and posturing. Also here we saw some black terns and our first Caspian gulls.
After the ferry crossing (try the smoked bream) we drove onwards eventually hitting the dirt roads and the desert proper and driving off into the middle of nowhere. A few birds were seen en route, including black lark, but we had little time to stop at this stage and reached our camp at 2015 in time for a late dinner and bed.
30/6/05 Zaissan camp area and Kein Kerish
We woke up to find the flags of Kazakstan and GB flying proudly over the camp. The birders had a look around before breakfast, Tony found the first of many white-winged larks and there were also a few shorelark around camp. The first white-tailed eagle was applauded but we were to see 3-4 regularly around the shoreline of the lake over the next few days.
After breakfast we headed west along the shoreline towards the peninsula, en route we found some gypsum (desert rose) outcrops and a small aster Tragopogon marginifolia. The walk out also produced our first Caspian terns and great black-headed gulls made occasional appearances overhead too. The small pools on the other landward side of the beach were chock-a-block with Libellula quadrimaculata and looked a picture covered in fringed water-lily Nymphoides peltata. Numerous other species of dragonfly and damselfly were also present and a juvenile bluethroat played hide-and-seek along the edge of the pool ashamed of his dowdy plumage. On the way back we headed through the desert, past a few semi-nomadic families that spend the summer grazing their animals here and searched in vain for sun-watcher. We did get a number of white-winged larks, black larks and short-toed larks for our trouble though.
Lunch was big and taken in the heat of the afternoon made us all a bit drowsy but before long we were back in the buses for the drive across the Kein Kerish. This spectacular rock formation was a large version of our campsite and looked superb from the top of the escarpment where we parked the vans. It was almost impossible to judge scale here as your brain becomes convinced that such a formation must be vast but when you get down you find that things are much smaller than they appear. Navigation is another matter though as the place is a maze. The birders spread out searching for the charismatic Mongolian finch (but sadly we could not find it) in the process we had good views of desert wheatear and John found us a family party of lesser whitethroats (sub-sp halimodendri). On the valley floor mini-groves of Nannophytum delighted us all, with their ancient looking, bonsai-like appearance.
For Van 2 though the best was yet to come. Abandoned by Van 1 we pulled to a stop when Ruth noticed two sandgrouse flying up the road towards us. We all climbed out and they eventually flew on to drink at a pool. They looked good for Pallas’ sandgrouse but the distance was too great to be sure. We headed towards them but re-filling took just a short time and soon they were on their way. Luckily they did not fly far and we slowly stalked them becoming more convinced of their identity until we were standing right next to the pair which fed unconcernedly nearby. The views at close range were stupendous and both Tony and I entered a state of bliss – for years this bird had occupied our imaginations and now finally it had been laid to rest. The rest of the crew looked on in amusement and enjoyed the excellent views of this beautiful bird. It was unfortunate that the other van was not present though and when we eventually found them along the way they were a little disappointed. But it was time to return for dinner – a spectacular affair of fish soup and fresh zander, pike and catfish (fried and boiled). How we ate.
At 2230 we staggered up the hill and bashed around in the dark for jerboas, things were pretty quiet but we managed poor views of one lesser jerboa, which bounced away rapidly and also connected with a corsac fox as we wound down the campsite wadi.