Below is one of my favorite shots from Kazakhstan. It makes me wish I could paint. I would love to spend an entire day lost in creating this shot of a brown bird, with a stunning sky blue and rust patch on his throat, surrounded by golden reeds:
It's a bluethroat, these are actually possible to see in Alaska during the breeding season, then they head to Asia for the winter. However, it is a common bird in Europe and Asia. I love it, in my neck of the woods I have a common yellowthroat in the reeds, over there, it's a bluethroat. Although, it's not a warbler, it's actually in the family turdidae...same as American robin.
We birded our way through Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve on our way to our evening accommodations. I hope you're not tired of the long range shots of Kazakhstan. Our information about the country said that there are fewer than six people per square mile...when you are out of the major cities, you could feel it. What a treat to be out in the middle of nowhere and at times not hear the sound of human or machinery.
When we did encounter locals while we were birding, it was almost always Kazak cowboys--sometimes it was a joint effort of husband and wife and at other times, a lone cowboy on a horse with his trusty canine companion beside him.
One of the items that was noticeable in my itinerary for Kazakhstan was the note that we would be going to Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve and "small huts provide simple accommodation. We recommend a sleeping bag for this overnight stay." The photo included with the brochure showed the small huts surrounded by snow. I was fortunate that our visit was late enough in the spring that they snow had melted.
The huts were indeed simple accommodations that included two beds, a night stand, and a tv (it barely got one channel and was intended for searching out severe weather reports)--the shower was outdoors and the toilet was an outhouse (more on using the adventures of going outdoors later).
Before I left, I wondered how I could pack my sleeping bag--it's huge and easily takes up half a large suitcase. Fortunately, Mr. Neil (being a well experienced traveller) loaned me a tiny yet oh so warm silk sleeping bag. I was grateful for the toasty sleeping bag, the sleeping quarters were sparse and meant for researchers working the nature reserve and the extra warmth was much appreciated as the temps felt like they got down into the 40 degree Fahrenheit range.
Check it out, one of the most common birds in the world--the barn swallow! I think even though this is the same species as the one I see in North American, it seemed to have a longer tail--must be a regional difference. We had already done a full day's birding on our way to the research station with the huts. The plan was to spend the night, try out some new Swarovski equipment in the morning and then head off to see the sociable lapwing. It was a delight around the research station for anyone remotely into photography--we arrived last in the afternoon and the light was perfect. We were cut loose from the formal part of the tour and given time to explore the area while our evening meal was prepared for us. An excited group of birders at a remote research station, surrounded by new birds in perfect light while food and beer was being gathered for us when the sun went down--how could it not be more perfect than that?
There were some bugs. None of my photos do the bugs justice. I even got a video of my buddy Clay walking up through the grass to kicking them up, but YouTube just does not have the quality to convey the quantity. Here's a link to a photo of a hatch of mayflies...this sort of conveys it. They didn't really bite, but every time we took a step in the grass, a swarm flew up and they just kind of floated and would hang near your hears, or accidentally get inhaled into your nose. Corey and I both remarked at how miserable our respective spouses would be having all these bugs all over the place.
It also explained why there were so many swallows around the research station.
But the birding was just grand! I think the above is now one of my all time favorite does. It's called an Oriental turtle dove and the coloration reminded me of a kestrel--heck the birds have pointed wings, so when flying they look very much like a kestrel.
I was very excited to see one of these--this is a Eurasian tree sparrow. There's actually a small introduced population of these birds in St. Louis, MO. But it's more fun to see a bird in its natural habitat. Quite a few hung around the research station, very similar in habit to the house sparrow.
As I was walking along, I heard a very familiar sound...it took a moment to register...what was that sound...I know I should know it...then it hit me:
It was a merlin--just like the one's we see in Minnesota. Merlins can have different color variations, some are dark and some are light. In the US, usually the prairie merlins are lighter in color. Well, here we were in the short-grass prairie area of the Steppes and this was hands down one of the lightest merlins I had ever seen in my life. Merlins are a falcon like a kestrel or a peregrine. One of the things that all falcons of the world have in common is a malar stripe. That stripe that goes vertically down under each eye. Click on the photo links to some falcons: peregrine, kestrel, hobby, lanner--note that they all have that stripe? Merlins have a lighter malar stripe in general, but this bird was so pale, he looked like he had no stripe at all.
Speaking of familiar birds, we also saw several magpies. Here we call them black-billed magpies, there they are just magpies--both have the same latin name: Pica pica. Yes, I choose you.
Quite a few of the birds were out and about eating the insects we were kicking up. Above is a tree pipit that would fly off the wire and go for them.
Here is a spotted flycatcher that was also going after the insects. This bird was actually perched near a bird banding station. Some nets were out, but they were closed and tied up--easy for the birds to see and difficult or them to become trapped. The flimsy insects did get caught in them and the flycatcher took full advantage of the situation, flying down get the bugs trapped in the nets. This bird was not the brightest bulb on the tree...the next morning, one of the researchers unfurled the nets and withing moments...
The spotted flycatcher was caught in the nets and banded (or ringed as they call it over there).
As the light became too dim to photograph, all of us made our way back to the station for nourishment. I avoided tap water on this trip (and for those curious, I did not get any shots before I left, my tetnus was updated, and I opted to not get any of the Hepatitus or Typhiod vaccines). I stuck with bottled water, Fanta, beer, vodka, wine, and aquavit.
Meals were interesting, you would get something like the rice and meat dish seen above and you would think, "OK, we're near China, this is going to have an Asian flavor to it." It did not, it was quite bland and refused to make any kind of flavor statement. It was good filling food, but not a taste sensation. I would say that the one constant with all our meals was tomatoes and cucumbers. Those were served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Often in the form of a salad with a light dill vinagerette or as in the case of our packed lunches--just raw. Bread was also a constant--we either had very dry crusty bread or a fried dough ball...kind of like a donut without the sugar.
After dinner we sat around a bonfire with our box beer. The fire was no small feet--trees are few and far between on the Steppes, so it was made with wood from old crates or collapsing building near the station.
We were treated to the music styling of a young woman not only dressed in traditional costume, but also played a small guitar of Kazak folk tunes. It started with her and later her father played a few tunes on the instrument. The small guitar looking instrument only had two strings, but both players got incredible harmonies out of it. I caught a little on my camera--and do listen, it's incredible for how simple and instrument it looks:
A lovely way to end a day of amazing birding and it was exciting to know that more adventures awaited us.