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31 May–7 June 2017

Another ground-breaking tour by Birdfinders to remote northwest Kazakhstan where, to the west of the Ural River (so within the WP boundary), we will search for a number of species reaching the edge of their ranges including Demoiselle Crane, Black-winged Pratincole, Black and White-winged Larks, ‘Steppe’ Horned Lark, Sykes’s Warbler and Red-headed Bunting with also the possibility of Caspian Plover and Sociable Lapwing.

Day 1 Overnight flight from London Heathrow via Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to Atyrau, a major oil city.

Day 2 Morning arrival in Atyrau, where we will be met by our local guide and transport. The airport is conveniently sited to the west of the Ural River so every bird we see from the start of the tour will be within the Western Palearctic! We will immediately head west out of the city and explore Barkhans, lakes and marshes, looking in particular for several species that are at the westernmost extremities of their breeding ranges: Sykes’s Warbler, Black-winged Pratincole, White-tailed Lapwing and Siberian Stonechat. A number of other species which are either scarce or highly-localised in the Western Palearctic can be also found here including Dalmatian Pelican, Caspian Gull, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Eastern Olivaceous, Moustached and Paddyfield Warblers, Desert Wheatear and Western Yellow (Black-headed) Wagtail. We will have a picnic lunch to maximize our birding time. Eurasian Penduline-tits of the rufous headed caspius sub-species breed here and there have been records of both Black-headed Penduline-tit and hybrids; Black-headed Penduline-tit is not currently on the Western Palearctic list so it is well worth doing some fieldwork here. We will return to Atyrau to spend the night.

Day 3 After breakfast we will drive north out of Atyrau keeping west of the Ural River so, once again, every bird we see will be in the Western Palearctic. Currently accepted as only a sub-species, lineatus Black Kite, known as Black-eared Kite, which is common here, is a likely split. It is approximately 500 kilometres to our next destination; with a picnic lunch en route, we will arrive mid-afternoon and begin our search for the larks! Both Black and White-winged Larks breed here in the steppes at the westernmost edges of their ranges. Although both species breed close to each other they have subtly different habitat requirements with Black Larks preferring more open, sandy areas. Calandra, ‘Steppe’ Horned and both Greater and Asian Short-toed Larks can also be found in the area. Depending on house availability, for the next three nights we will either take rooms with local families in the nearby village or camp.

Days 4–5 We will have two full days to explore the area to give us the best chance of finding our target birds in this vast landscape of steppes, semi-deserts, marshes and lakes. We will keep our eyes open for raptors all the time with Pallid Harrier and Imperial and Steppe Eagles all possible. The lakes will contain colonies of gulls, possibly including Pallas’s Gull, whilst we may find Asian Desert Warbler in the desert scrub, Booted Warbler in the bushes around the lakes and ‘Steppe’ Horned Lark, Isabelline Wheatear and ‘Steppe’ Twite in the more open areas. Other possibilities include Demoiselle Crane, Little Bustard and Southern ‘Steppe’ Grey Shrike. Any reedbeds may host the thick-billed race of Reed Bunting but the real prize will be Red-headed Bunting which is, again, at the western edge of its range here. Anything can occur in this little-explored area: Sociable Lapwing, Caspian Plover and Pallas’s Sandgrouse have been found here sporadically so anything is possible!

Day 6 After some early-morning birding, we will undertake the long drive back to Atyrau, birding en-route of course, and stay overnight in a hotel.

Day 7 This morning we will return to some sites to the west of the city and around the Ural River delta, where we will look for species we may have missed previously. After a picnic lunch we will head to the airport for a mid-afternoon flight to Astana, where we will spend the night.

Day 8 As our return flight to London is not until mid-afternoon, we will drive northwest out of the city this morning to a reliable site (outside the Western Palearctic) for Pine Bunting. This is a species that is difficult to catch up with in its breeding and wintering ranges elsewhere. After lunch we will return to the airport to catch our flight back to London, arriving early evening.

General Information The pace of the tour is moderate but with a reasonable degree of fitness required, as there could be walks of several miles across sand dunes in the heat. The road conditions range from adequate to non-existent and some long drives are involved. The weather can be highly variable so appropriate clothing and footwear is required. Accommodation standards vary widely from good in the hotels to basic in homestay (staying with local families in spare rooms) or camping. En-suite facilities will exist only in the Atyrau and Astana hotels with shared facilities at homestay or in camp.

Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 10; maximum group size: 16 with 3 leaders.

White-winged Lark

White-winged Lark

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