Uzbekistan: Birding in the Chimgan and Beldersay area, Tashkent Province, 2nd - 3rd May 2015

Published by David Alan Showler (dashowler AT hotmail.com)

Participants: David A. Showler, David Hodkinson

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Introduction

The environs of the Beldersay resort and nearby Chimgan village, lying about 90 km NE of Tashkent city in the Chatkal Mountain Range of the western Tien Shan, is a popular one-night stopover destination for birdwatching tour groups. This locality is also easy to access by independent birders and could be done as a day trip from Tashkent. The primary reason for visiting is the availability of the West Himalayan endemic rufous-naped tit, and that several other sought after Central Asian species (including white-winged woodpecker, yellow-breasted tit and white-crowned penduline tit) are easily seen here.

The area lies within the Ugam-Chatkal National Park, dominated by the imposing snow-capped peaks of Greater Chimgan rising to 3,309 m. There are areas of open coniferous woodland on the rocky montane slopes dominated by juniper Juniperus sp. with scattered deciduous trees including whitebeam Sorbus sp., interspersed with alpine meadows. In the lower flatter terrain there are scrubby cattle- and horse-grazed pastures with scattered hawthorns Crataegus sp., fruit trees and poplars Populus sp. and occasional streams, and the turbulent Marble River runs through Beldersay Gorge.

At the beginning of May 2015, after six weeks working on a conservation project in the Kyzylkym Desert of central Uzbekistan, we had the opportunity to make a two day visit to the area. This trip report summarises what we saw with an annotated bird species checklist presented at the end. It does not detail getting to Uzbekistan, visa requirements, health issues etc. but we give some important tips on money and accommodation issues that are useful to highlight for independent birders wanting to visit.

Money

Take US$ dollars with you to Uzbekistan. This is the most widely accepted and preferred foreign currency. Many money changers, particularly in the ‘silk road’ cities, will also exchange euros. One can readily exchange U$ dollars (larger bills of $100, $50 and $20) for the Uzbekistan Cym (pronounced ‘som’) on the ‘black market’ which is blatantly open, with many shopkeepers etc. offering to change money, and most travellers do this, it is no secret. In spring 2015, one could get around 4,200 Cym/US$1 (or perhaps more), whereas the official bank rate was 2,200 Cym. As a general rule, pay for everything in Cym.

Getting to Beldersay/Chimgan from Tashkent

Despite perhaps some misconception that access is difficult unless on an arranged tour, Beldersay resort (modestly developed for skiing and other outdoor activities, at an altitude of around 1,600 m) and nearby Chimgan village (5 km to the north) are easy to get to by independent travellers. The destination is popular with Uzbek day trippers and others travelling from Tashkent (locals pronounce it ‘Toshkent’) hence there are many private and shared taxis (and occasional public buses) available from the city.

After 6-weeks in the desert, we flew to Tashkent from Bukhara on the evening of 1 May and stayed at the plush and expensive 5-star Grand Mir Hotel (www.grandmirhotel.com) in the city centre but the project was paying so cost was immaterial (and a novel change for us having been living in rather spartan conditions). There are many cheaper options available (see e.g. www.lonelyplanet.com/uzbekistan/tashkent/hotels). From the hotel we were going to book a taxi to depart at 07:30 next morning but an entrepreneurial receptionist offered to take us (as it was his day off) with his cousin driving, for about the same price as a taxi (Cym 120,000, equivalent to about $28). This arrangement had the advantages that: (1) we could stop en route to look at birds (we did so twice for 10 and 15 mins, total journey time to Chimgan about 2 hours), and (2) he spoke English so could help with accommodation arrangements when we arrived. Getting one’s own private taxi (as opposed to a shared one or bus) would also allow you to stop occasionally if your driver were amenable to this (i.e. a little more money for any such time spent).

We departed at 07:30 (after an excellent eat-all-you-can breakfast) on the morning of 2 May. East of Tashkent, the road runs across a flat agricultural plain and follows the River Chirchiq (Chirchik) to Gazalkent town. It then winds south eastwards into the foothills of the Chatkal Range up to the Beldersay junction. The resort area itself is situated a couple of kilometres to the east of the main road along a winding valley side-road (with the large Beldersay Hotel visible on the slope of Kumbel Mountain at 1,600 m). Just after this junction, the main road goes over a pass at about 1,700 m, then loops round north and down to Chimgan. When returning to Tashkent, one could carry on downhill from Chimgan to Choruoq Ombori Reservoir and Hozikent village but this route is a bit further. We went back the same way we came, picking up a taxi (beaten up old Lada) at 15:30 the next afternoon from the upper (south) end of Chimgan by the chairlift, shops and small roadside market where several taxis were available. The price was Cym 80,000 ($19) to Buyuk Ipak Yoli metro station in east Tashkent. From here we got another taxi (Cym 10,000) without difficulty, to the Grand Mir (15-20 min drive). One could alternatively get the metro into the city centre (cost 1,000 Cym).

Accommodation

There are several accommodation options if planning to stay overnight. It is probably easiest to stay at the Beldersay Hotel (Beldersay Oromgohi) where most tour groups reside. It is a bit pricey ($178 for a standard double room with breakfast) although if only staying one night this is not too bad and the receptionist at your hotel in Tashkent could check the price and book it for you. We carried on to Chimgan (a 15 min drive further down the main road) and stayed at the Raki Nur Hotel (2 km down the road to the north of the chairlift/shops/market and just before you get to Chimgan village proper). It is a rather run-down, large, austere 1960-70s Soviet-era building located 200 m west of the main road (i.e. left-hand-side as one heads down to Chimgan village), visible from it through a row of tall poplar trees and sign-posted ‘Rake Nur’ on the east side of the road. It lies at about 1,630 m altitude and has an impressive panorama of Greater Chimgan (beating the view at Beldersay). There are some recently renovated rooms and we stayed in one, a small clean apartment with two beds, bathroom and balcony (220,000 Cym; $52 for the two of us). They would have made us dinner but we had some provisions with us. Breakfast was 12,000 Cym (< $3) and well worth it (rice pudding, pancakes with cherries and syrup, bread, butter, cheese, two fried eggs and a pot of green tea).

When travelling in Uzbekistan it is very important that you register at a hotel/guesthouse to account for where you have stayed each night. When you leave, the proprietor will stamp, date and sign a card with the hotel address on it. Keep these cards as they may be inspected (e.g. by police or customs when you leave). As we had been working In Uzbekistan we had a visa stamp in our passports that allowed us to stay at hotels where foreigners cannot otherwise readily stay without prior arrangement. Such was the case at the Raki Nur, this hotel not having the ‘official stamp’ (that those hotels have that are permitted foreign guests) that one requires as a foreign traveller if you don’t already have this authorisation. However, there are one or two other accommodation options in the Beldersay-Chimgan area, e.g. Hotel Chimgan (mentioned in Lonely Planet at $15/night/person) but it was not readily apparent where this was, although we didn’t look or ask.

Birding

On the drive up through the hills in the morning, we stopped a couple of times and did some roadside birding, there was little traffic. Highlights included 2 Indian golden orioles singing from roadside poplars, 4 Asian paradise flycatchers along a scrubby stream gully (about 3 km before the Beldersay junction) and several yellow-breasted tits in blossoming roadside bushes.

The Beldersay and Chimgan areas have been modestly developed as ski resorts and offer other activities outside the winter season (e.g. hiking, horse-riding and hang-gliding), and is popular especially at weekends amongst Uzbek day-trippers and groups camping on the streamside meadows. We visited at a weekend but it was easy to avoid people and find nice places to walk. After checking into the Rake Nur (yellow-breasted tits and a white-winged woodpecker in the hotel garden), we crossed the main road and gently hiked up the slope opposite, first through some rough pasture and scrub patches where there were several white-crowned penduline tits, a Turkestan tit and numerous Hume’s warblers. Butterflies on the wing included orange-tips, pearl-bordered type fritillaries and a single swallowtail. Higher up there were many flowering yellow gageas, red tulips and golden crocuses, and one or two small skinks were scurrying around. We reached some patchy open juniper woodland with small whitebeams and deciduous shrubs on steeper rocky terrain and stopped on a ridge at the base of some rocky crags, Greater Chimgan looming behind, for a picnic lunch. Best birds included Himalayan griffons, a lammergier, singing rufous-naped tit, sulphur-bellied warbler, singing Eastern rock nuthatch, a pair of blue-capped redstarts, a flock of red-fronted serins and a white-capped bunting. Later in the afternoon we birded along a stream between the Chimgan chairlift and camping area and had good views of a sulphur-bellied warbler and several rock buntings, amongst other things. At dusk a blue whistling-thrush was hopping around by a wet ditch in the hotel grounds with one seen a little earlier up the road, and soon after dark two Eurasian scops owls were calling.

The next morning turning left down the minor paved road (heading northwest) at our hotel entrance and walking through scrubby pasture, small fields and poplars, birds included a couple more white-winged woodpeckers, numerous mistle thrushes, many singing blackbirds, Hume’s whitethroats and nightingales, and two pristine pairs of hawfinches. Along the stream (Aksay River) 700 m or so down the road from the Rake Nur, a single male paradise flycatcher and a white-throated dipper were observed. We then headed uphill to the Beldersay area, birds of note being a booted eagle, black vultures, alpine swifts, numerous yellow-breasted tits and white-crowned penduline tits, several more sulphur-bellied warblers and a singing white-capped bunting. Despite spending some time in the juniper woodland (much more extensive around Beldersay than Chimgan) we did not manage to see any more rufous-naped tits.

For those wishing to access higher altitudes but not wanting to walk, there are two chairlifts operative (at least at weekends) from 10 am. The larger one at Beldersay takes about 25 minutes to reach 2,300 m on Kumbel mountain and might be worth going on (but there was a long queue by mid-day so get there early; we didn’t do this).

In summary, it was well worth the effort to make this visit, spectacular scenery, pure mountain area, great birds and other wildlife, and we recommend even just a rapid day-trip if you are in Tashkent with a day to spare.

References

Ayé R., Schweizer M. & Roth R. (2012) Birds of Central Asia. Christopher Helm (an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing).

Mayhew B., Elliot M., Noble J. & Masters T. (2014) Central Asia travel guide 6th edition. Lonely Planet.
Lonely Planet website: www.lonelyplanet.com/uzbekistan accessed: 24/5/15

Species Lists

For simplicity as most birders will be using this guide, species order, and vernacular and scientific names, follow Ayé et al. 2012. Several taxa that have been subject to ‘lumping’ within this publication but are often considered good species are highlighted. Over our two day stay we recorded a total of 70 bird species (68 seen plus Eurasian scops owl and winter wren heard only).

Chukar Alectoris chukar – occasionally flushed from rocky slopes, up to 5 seen daily.

Barbary falcon Falco pelegrinoides – a pair soaring over crags high above Chimgan village.

Common kestrel Falco tinnunculus – 2-4 daily.

Eurasian hobby Falco subbuteo – 1-2 daily.

Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus – 1 adult soaring over crags high above Chimgan village.

Himalayan griffon Gyps himalayensis - 2-4 daily around crags above Chimgan village and Beldersay.

Cinereous vulture Aegypius monachus – 3-4 daily.

Western marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus - 1 en route along the River Chirchiq near Gazalkent.

Black kite Milvus migrans - 1 in Beldersay Valley.

Long-legged buzzard Buteo rufinus – 1 -2 each day over Chimgan village and Beldersay.

Booted eagle Aquila pennata – 1 (adult pale phase) soaring above Beldersay Pass.

Common tern Sterna hirundo – several en route along the river between Tashkent and Gazalkent.

Feral pigeon Columba livia – several daily.

Woodpigeon Columba palumbus – 6+ daily of the race casiotis (buff neck patch rather than white as in C. p. palumbus).

Common cuckoo Cuculus canorus - 1 on hillside above Chimgan village.

Eurasian scops owl Otus scops – 2 calling at dusk close to the Rake Nur Hotel, Chimgan.

Common swift Apus apus – 3-4 daily.

Alpine swift Tachymarptis melba – 2 cruising above Beldersay Pass on our second day.

European roller Coracias garrulus – several on both days including around nesting holes.

European bee-eater Merpos apiaster - 3 over the Chimgan Valley and 2 over Beldersay Valley.

Eurasian wryneck Jynx torquilla – 1 above Chimgan (a passage migrant).

White-backed woodpecker Dendrocopus leucopterus – 3-4 daily around Chimgan, including within the grounds of the Raki Nur Hotel. Quite vocal and most often observed in large poplars.

Common magpie Pica pica – common, 12+ observed daily.

Yellow-billed chough Pyrrhocorax graculus – 1 over hillslope above Chimgan village.

Rook Corvus frugilegus – at least 1 near Chimgan village.

Carrion crow Corvus corone – fairly common with 10+ observed daily.

Common raven Corvus corax - 1-2 daily over crags.

Eurasian jackdaw Corvus monedula – 1 (race soemmerringii distinguished by narrow white half-collar around rear of neck) over fields near Chimgan village.

Indian golden oriole Oriolus kundoo – on drive up approximately 3 km before Beldersay turn, 2 males observed in roadside poplars located by loud fluty whistling.

‘Turkestan tit’ Parus major’ bokharensis-group’ – 3-4 daily including one taking nesting material into cavity in old concrete telegraph pole on slope above Chimgan village. Turkestan tit is sometimes treated as a full species.

‘Yellow-breasted tit’ Cyanistes c. flavipectus – common around Chimgan including one taking nesting material into hole in a road lamp within the grounds of the Rake Nur Hotel. Treated as a subspecies of azure tit C. cyanus in Ayé et al. 2012, it is often considered a good species.

Rufous-naped tit Pariparus rufonuchalis – 1 high up on slope above Chimgan village in open whitebeam and juniper woodland, frequently singing.

White-crowned penduline tit Remiz coronatus – fairly common, usually seen foraging in bushes and small trees on lower slopes and orchards/scrubby fields; best located by thin (truncated) reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus-like call.

Eurasian crag martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris – several around rocky crags above Chimgan village.

Red-rumped swallow Cecropis daurica – several daily, including collecting mud for nests.

House martin Delichon urbicum – a few around Chimgan village and a large active nesting colony on an old Soviet tower-block building by roadside just south of Chimgan towards Beldersay.

Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita – 3-4 daily of the race tristis (passage migrants).

Sulphur-bellied warbler Phylloscopus griseolus – up to 5 or so daily; rather skulky, keeping low in short scrub in boulder-strewn areas, best located by rather flat ‘tyup’ call.

Hume’s leaf warbler Phylloscopus humei – common and easily located by disyllabic call. Song (heard several times) comprising a thin drawn out note resembles that of a redwing Turdus iliacus flight call.

Greenish warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides – 1 in juniper woodland above Chimgan village.

Barred warbler Sylvia nisoria – 1 on drive up 3 km before Beldersay turn.

Hume’s whitethroat Sylvia althaea – fairly common (15+ each day) including numerous singing individuals. The song is distinctively different (louder, richer) to that of S. curruca but sufficiently similar to be recognised as a ‘lesser whitethroat-type’ species.

Asian paradise flycatcher Terpsiphone paradisi - observed daily; on drive up approximately 3 km before Beldersay turn, 3 females and a male (rufous phase) observed in scrubby gully with small stream, one individual flying across the road; a single male in trees by the stream (Aksay River) just below the Raki Nur Hotel, Chimgan, and 2 females and 1 male in Beldersay Valley.

Eastern rock nuthatch Sitta tephronota – one singing from top of massive boulder on rocky slope high above Chimgan village.

Winter wren Troglodytes troglodytes – 1 heard singing on slope above Chimgan village.

Common myna Acridotheres tristis – common and conspicuous.

Common starling Sturnus vulgaris - 2-3 daily.

Blue whistling thrush Myophonus caeruleus – 1 in grounds of Raki Nur Hotel and 1 by bridge over River Aksay in Chimgan, and 1 in Beldersay Valley above Marble River.

Common rock thrush Monticola saxatilis – 1 in Chimgan Valley.

Blue rock thrush Monticola solitarius – 3-4 daily on higher rocky slopes and crags.

Eurasian blackbird Turdus merula – common at lower elevations, many singing; 1 recently fledged young observed in garden in Chimgan village.

Black-throated thrush Turdus atrogularis – 1 skulky individual in low scrub above Chimgan village (a passage migrant).

Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus – fairly common and quite confiding, of the pale race bonapartei.

Common nightingale Luscinia megarynchos – fairly common, many singing including 2, one morning from telegraph wires. The race present, L. m. golzii (dull brown upperparts with contrasting rufous tail), is sometimes afforded full species status ‘Eastern nightingale’.

Blue-capped redstart Phoenicurus caeruleocephala – a pair in open juniper woodland on slope above Chimgan village.

Black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros – several each day on rocky slopes.

Siberian stonechat Saxicola maurus – several each day of race S. m. maurus.

Pied wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka – several each day.

Spotted flycatcher Muscicapa striata – one each day.

Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus – several around Chimgan village.

White-throated dipper Cinculus cinculus – 1 along stream (Aksay River) below Rake Nur Hotel, Chimgan, race leucogaster.

‘Masked wagtail’ Motacilla alba personata – several seen daily. This distinctive race of white wagtail is sometimes given full species status.

Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea – several observations on both days, mostly around streams.

Tree pipit Anthus trivialis – ones and twos overflying each day.

European greenfinch Carduelis chloris – 1 below Raki Nur Hotel and at least 3 in the environs of Chimgan village, giving typical wheezing calls and fluty song from trees.

Red-fronted serin Serinus pusillus – flock of approximately 15 birds in juniper woodland on rocky slope above Chimgan village; several seen/heard in Beldersay area.

Common rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus – 4-5 around the Raki Nur Hotel and nearby fields.

Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes – 2 beautiful pairs (a bright male accompanied by a pale, poplar bark grey-coloured female) in poplars below the Raki Nur Hotel.

White-capped bunting Emberiza stewarti – single males each day; one in juniper above Chimgan village and one singling from juniper in Beldersay Valley.

Rock bunting Emberiza cia – fairly common, best located by high-pitched thin penetrating ‘tsi’ call.