Sept 5 2016. Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. I had expected to be happily overwhelmed by new birds both in species variety and numbers. But for the first few days at Chokpak Pass the wind blew steadily from the east keeping the numbers way down. We happily explored the area and indulged ourselves getting to know the less sensational species that prefer to make their way quietly flitting from tree to tree, forest edge to forest edge. This brought us into close contact with Lesser Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Spotted Flycatchers, Azure Tits and Turkestan Tits, the last two are both in the family Paridae and close relatives of America’s chickadees and Europe’s Blue and Great Tits.
Azure Tits must rate among the prettiest of small birds as this picture shows: the shot was taken just as it was about to be released after banding.
We took an exploratory cross-country drive to the other side of the pass, to the toe of the Tien Shan mountains. This is what I wrote in my diary; “ We wandered the short-cropped pastures cut with gullies and washes. I struggle to find a single adjective for this landscape. It is powerful and sweeping, dry and vast. It makes you slack-jawed at its sweep and leads you to picture nomads on horseback. It’s too strong and towering to be pretty . You can feel how cold it must be in winter yet sense it to be alive and vital in spring.
There are many familiar plants, both forbs and trees: thistles, yarrows, hollyhocks, hawthorn, roses, plums, elms, willows, asters and honey locusts.
The distant fields are dotted with horses and cattle. Slouched herders follow and goad the cattle across long expanses. Kestrels work the smaller scale edges and gullies, Scimitar-like Hobbys gather in small groups along tree-lines, Palid Harriers and Montague’s Harriers quarter and soar. A Short-toed Eagle sat atop electricity pylon and Common Buzzards wheel around. Pied Wheatears work the scrubby bushes together with Siberian Stonechats.”
The Short-toed Eagle was my Bird of the Day. I’d seen them two years ago in Spain and remembered how their head has a sort of hood that frames the face and gives it a distinctive profile. As eagle species go it is not terribly large, two-thirds of the size of a Golden Eagle, but an eagle is an eagle and worth admiring if you can. We stopped the van and I started taking photos. When my companions suggested moving closer for a better look I decided to stay where I was and wait for the bird to fly, as it most assuredly would. Here’s what I got.
Here is a gallery of some of the birds from that day. It is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.