06.15- The morning call to prayer is answered by all the dogs of the village with a cacophony of barks and wailings - when that dies down the liquid call ot the Golden Oriole nesting in the Poplar tree in the garden IS the next sound.
We are in a smal hotel in Drabagly village at the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhslan, Yesterday had been all travel with a flight to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and then on by road which took in the border crossing and inspection by teams of stone faced soldiers and police. except for one jolly fellow-Jack- he was the last official we saw as we were eventually free to continue our journey into Kazakhstan.
The previous evening had seen an unseasonable snow storm in the mountains so the boss-Algirdas- said that we'd better postpone the mountains for a day and we set off for Lake Bilikul, stopping at a gorge in the Karataut hills on the way.- the bird list the first day in a new area is bound to be good. ours was 84 species. rather a long list to put here, but included many Lesser Grey Shrikes, Red-headed Buntings, Collared Pratincoles. and raptors such as Montagu's Harners and Long-legged Buzzards. The views across the plains to the high peaks of the Tien Shan were stunning and I was eager to get closer to them..
The weather the following morning was sparkling clear and l was not quite so eager when it came to mount the horse for the first time to start the ascent into the mountains. My horse was quiet. in fact so quiet that he didn't seem to want to move at all. Vladimir- one the horsemen, said that the horse could sense that I wasnt over confident and that I would have to beat him a bit to get him to move-so with a few strokes of a willow twig and extra loud shouts of a word that sounded like 'CHAIR" my mount walked grudgingly forward.
Our way took us first through birch and juniper forest with wild apricot trees. and then through Alpine meadows full of Mullen. Cranesbill, and Dianthus, the scent of the latter was heavy in the air. Star birds in the forest were Red-mantled Rosefinch and White-winged Grosbeak and the meadows were alive with the calls of Quail. The temperature was on the low side when we reached the lodge at 8000 ft so only Algirdas and I elected to sleep in a yurt (traditional felt Kazakh tent). We had one each; they have a large hole in the apex ot the root to let out the smoke from the fire, this can be interesting when the rain is driving in at an angle. to keep things dry they have to be moved around.
A short walk was necessary. the knees not being used to being on a horse for five hours. so I took one ot the paths from the lodge wtich followed the course of a stream not long before I saw a Brown Dipper and had a Golden Eagle soaring high above me; when I got back Algirdas had spotted a Blyth's Reed Warbler in a thicket near the stream.
Nina produced a good meal of salad, soup. and stuffed peppers with pure mountain water or it you preferred fresh fruit juice, wine, vodka or beer, and then it was tine to scan the two to three thousand foot slopes above the lodge; a bear had been seen one week before, but we were more than content with a small party of Ibex. I watched the dawn the next morning. the high tops gradually lit up with the rising sun. and the full moon dropped behind. Later it was on to the horses for a very steep ascent to Ulken Kiandy pass from where you look across tne deep gorge of the Kshi Aksu River to Bugulutor Mountain ,the peak covered in snow.
The ridge at the pass was over 1 0,O00 foot high and the south side was ablaze with alpine flowers, one of the most numerous being a bright yelow poppy.
Algirdas had come face to face with a bear near this spot a couple of years ago but we saw a party ot Ibex high up on a snow field; they stay high to avoid the hordes of horse flies. A pair of Horned Larks were nesting nearby, and seven species of raptor passed close overhead, Lammergeier and Himalayan Vulture amongst them. Eventually we had to drag ourselves away from the outstanding scenery and walk back to the lodge. the descent being too steep to use the horses. Unfortunately Edward, one of the party lost a camera in one patch of dense pasture. in spite of an intense search it failed to appear, the search only revealing a Greenish Warbler. No sight of bear or ibex this evening but we did see a mamrnal- a Forest Doormouse- Nina caught one in the Kitchen, a very attractive animal , more like a minature squirrel than a mouse.
21.07. A walk this morning through meadows and woodland. The meadows ablaze with flowers- there are 1300 flowering plants in the reserve- 70 species of Umbellifer and a host of Alliums just to mention a few. The woodland at first was Juniper grading into Birch, in fact one area we came to was called Ulken Kiandy which means big birches and where we stopped for lunch was called Kshi Kiandy (little birches). We flushed several parties of Chukar and Grey Partridges as we walked and in the woodland had fantastic views of Penduline, Rufous-naped, Yellow-breasted, Azure,and TurkestanTits. Vladimir and Bakshan brought the horses to meet us mid-day so we had a leisurely ride back to the lodge in the afternoon seeing a Red Marmot on the way- he was very noisy, objecting to us being in his territory.
Mount Kaskabulak was the objective for the 22nd. we didn't quite make the summit but reached the boulder scree below and passed above gulleys and north faceing slopes still covered in snow. This high alpine area over 11 ,00Oft was a botanist's paradise, such a wide variety of plants. Birds were scarce on the top but what birds! Himalayan Snowcock, Brown Accentor, Red-billed Chough, and Water Pipit. Two Sakers were over us as we had lunch. The day involved four hours on the horses and two walking, but what a thrill to reach such an isolated unspolit area. On the descent the weather changed from clear skies to rain wind, thunder and lightening so it was good to get back to base and make sure nothing was under the 'smoke 'hole in the yurt.
The weather improved a little in the evening, again good views of ibex on the slopes high above, and a most dramatic sunset with the clouds lit up crimson from below and dark grey belts of rain sweeping across. Next day although the weather looked a bit 'iffy' we set off on the horses up the Kshi Kiandy valley. Whitethroated Dipper seen on the way, then the rain started, Jaquelyn, Edward, Rhian and I found a sort of cave, but Algirdas and the horsemen were stoic and just stood still and let the rain fall as stair-rods upon them- for a while-and then the decision was taken to return to base.
24.07. Rhian's birthday- the first birthday breakfast that I've ever seen- two boiled eggs and a tomato turned into a rabbit sitting alongside a mushroom (red-capped with white spots). The horses got us back to Dzabagly village in the afternoon in time to have a look around. We saw an elderly man returning from the foothills with a load ot firewood, loaded on a cart pulled by a very small donkey, a lady making cakes' of cow-dung and straw- a major source of fuel in the area. but being overtaken by cylinder gas, and watched the cows corning home at the end of the day. Most households in the village have a cow, and after milking in the morning they are gathered by a person employed by the villagers, and taken out to a communal grazing area. and returned to their homes in the evening.
25.07. In the minibus to Aksu Canyon- 500 metres deep and looking up to the Talass mountains, the highest being Sairam.4340 metres- what a spectacle!! Short-toed, Booted and Golden Eagles seen in as many minutes. The log for the day records 20 Pied Wheatear, 2 Isabelline Wheatear, 5 Isabelline Shrikes and 3 Qreat Grey Shrikes plus lots more- aGrey-headed Goldfinch a minute before we started the return journey.
Kuskol Lake was our destination for the 26th- this is a vast lake fed from an underground water source and fringed by deep. dense reed beds. The highlight for me on this day was seeing a breeding colony ot Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, their nest holes were in flat ground grading up to a low bank; 100+ birds were in the area Algirdas told us that the Russian name for the bird was Green Bee-eater -that makes a lot of sense Looking out over the reedbeds we saw Spoonbills and Purple herons flying over and Black Kites. Marsh Harriers, and Hobbies hunting over them. We were all keen to see Dalmation Pelican. they breed on the lake but it was past the breeding season. One of the wardens took us in a small boat through a channel in the reeds and out into the main lake where there was a chance of a sighting but we dipped on the Pelicans but did get Pygmy Cormorant, Bittern, and Caspian Tern.
27.07. This was the day for Kyzylkol Lake - Algirdas had never been there before but had heard that there had been large numbers of birds there earlier in the year. It was a long drive north east through huge areas of cereal production, we passed through Karabulak and Shayan and then on over an area known as the Hunger Steppes- a dry arrid desert., often during the morning we had large numbers of Swifts going south overhead- 2 Alpine Swifts were seen during the trip. After four hours plus we reached the lake and the first scan showed large numbers of waders and ducks in the tar distance, a few birds were feeding along the water's edge closer to us - Little Stint, Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint. Greater Sand Plover. and Caspian Plover. We walked on along the shore and came to a bay with 400+ Caspian Plovers - Algirdas reckoned it could be the Largest flock ever recorded. On over a raised peninsula of sand and gravel, as we came in sight of the water the other side so a vast flock of ducks took off- in the region of 2000 Ruddy Shelduck with a few Mallard, Pintad, Red-crested Pochard, Gadw all. Garganey. Teal, and 2 Marbled Duck. A juvenile Pallid Harrier passed dose to us as we made our way back to the minibus. Sasha ,the driver had attempted to drive along the shore of the Lake and become bogged down. it' was a crust of salt over soft mud. He Jaquelyn and Edward had spent most of the time that we'd been away getting brushwood and flat stones to help to get the vehicle out- a superhuman push from everyone did the trick. and we were on our way.
The last day had come all too quickly- a brief stop at Ters resevoir added Great Black-headed Gull to the list, and then we drove across a dry area towards Koksai Gorge, I saw two birds and yelled at the top of my voice LITTLE BUSTARD"- we all piled out of the vehicle and had good views of 8. There was another bubbling call as we watched the bustards and 2 Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over.
The gorge had unusual pillars of rock along it's base,the result of water erosion on surrounding softer rock.Here we saw many flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings and 15 Long-legged Buzzards.
We travelled on a little way into the low foothils and passed a Large number of beehives, so stopped to have a look . The bee keepers bring all their hives there in the early summer so the bees collect from the wide variety of flowers- we tasted the fresh honey- it was incredible, not only sweet but you could taste the flowers in it. Lunch by a stream, the bushes around full of Greenish Warblers and then back to Dzabagly.
The hotel run by Eugene with his family and staff was excellent and he was in charge of the journeys from and back to Tashkent (without him 1 think that we'd still be stuck at the border)
A multitude of thanks to Algirdas, I have very many memories of The Wonders of the Tien Shan Mountains" but the sheer variety of the flowers of the high passes almost makes me want to change from birds to flowers.