After a relatively quiet spell of local birding. I was lucky to have the opportunty to find some more unusual species, including a new bird for me, on an adventure organised by Birdfinders to Northwest Kazakhstan on the very edge of the Western Paleartic.
The group led by Vaughan and Svetlana Ashby travelled to Atyrau in Kazakhstan via Moscow. We visited a number of sites around Atyrau some involving water courses and the Ural river itself and some involving tortuous treks into the Steppes, vast areas of flat dry grassland.Subtle changes in this habitat produced the 'special' birds we were after :Larks, Plovers and Cranes in particular places. Our 4 x 4 were tested on tracks through the Steppe terrain. On one occasion a loud bang was heard as we hit another hole causing a wheel to fall off. The wheel nuts were located back up the road and the driver did a great job in getting us going again.
Raptors were seen regularly in the skies with White tailed and Steppe Eagle the most impressive but Black Kite, Marsh, Pallid, Montagu's Harriers and Long legged Buzzard were also seen. For me though the star birds of day 1 were Caspian Plover and Demoiselle Crane.
The Steppes also provide a Habitat for Larks including White winged Lark a species not found elsewhere in the Western Paleartic. Other Larks included : Calandra Lark, Short toed and Lesser short toed Larks, Skylark and Black Larks.
Distant Caspian plover
White winged Lark
Warblers were few and far between although several Sykes warblers were noted and Eastern Olivaceous and Booted warblers were also seen. Isabelline Wheatear were by far the most common Wheatear of the Steppe with Pied Wheatear often seen around farms and towns. Red headed Buntings and Shrikes favoured areas with a few trees and bushes.
Small colonies of Red footed Falcons were seen at various sites, while along the river and on larger lakes Caspian and Pallas's Gulls were frequent with groups of Terns moving through: Black, White winged Black and Whiskered.
Red headed Bunting
Another bird of the muddy river edges were Black bellied Sandgrouse coming in in small numbers to drink and soak their feathers.
Black bellied Sandgrouse
Lesser grey Shrikes were the most abundant Shrike species greatly outnumbering Red backed Shrikes
Lesser grey Shrike
Hoopoe with Lesser grey Shrike
This is by no means a comprehensive account but gives a flavour of the birds of the area
Altogether a most memorable tour, and my thanks go to the organisers and to my colleages for making it so enjoyable.