As I haven’t been in Murcia during the last month, I will tell you a bit about the adventures my wife and I enjoyed on our recent trip to Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
Just three of us caught the flight from London Heathrow and we were then joined in Istanbul by a guy from Scotland. A well-travelled Dutch couple completed the group when they joined us in Tashkent. Our party of six felt quite intimate and it was fortunate that we gelled so well as we were going to be in close company during the next nine days. Thankfully, our three local guides were waiting for us at the airport. Jahongir, our driver, spoke Uzbek and Russian, but no English. His daily uptake of Coca-cola was a minimum of three litres, so we were fairly sure that he would not fall asleep at the wheel on our long journeys. Olim was an 85 year old Uzbek ornithologist who only spoke Russian and whose attempts at pronouncing English bird names was a constant source of amusement, especially the ‘Hippy Bird’ he kept on referring to, which turned out to be a Hoopoe (Upupa Epops). He suffered unmercifully during the trip as we constantly reminded him of it, but he was amused by this continuous reference to the ‘Hippy Bird’. Our final guide was Arnold, who spoke fluent Uzbek, Russian, English and Spanish and who took on the roles of teacher, mum and friend. He was super-organised and quite wonderful. If my wife, Jessica, had been allowed to take him home with us, she would have done it!
After missing a night’s sleep on the flight to Tashkent we went on a 3 hour drive by mini-bus up into the mountains near the Tajikistan border. Who needs sleep? It’s over-rated! The scenery was quite spectacular and the snow still covering the mountain tops added to the atmosphere. The birdwatching was interesting, but could be quite hard work at times, because apart from the numerous Rollers (Coracius Garrulus) we were seeing, most of the birdlife was hiding away in the thick juniper trees on the mountainside.
We were hearing Nightingales (Luscinia Megarhynchos) singing from within the thick shrub cover, but little else. Eventually, our persistence paid off and we managed to see two of our target birds. The first a beautiful male White Capped Bunting (Emberiza Stewarti) singing at the top of a juniper tree.
It is a bird that is only found in Central Asia, mainly in those countries known as the ‘Stans’ (eg Uzbekistan, Afghanistan etc). Our second target was a small hyperactive bird that looks remarkably like our common Blue Tit, but the colours of the plumage were quite different. Instead of the familiar blue, white, yellow and green, the bird we were looking for appeared identical, but was blue and white with a yellow blotch on its chest. It is another Central Asian bird called a Yellow Breasted Tit (Cyanistes Cyanus Flavipectus), which is a sub- species of Azure Tit. These frustrating birds were constantly on the move and we only enjoyed fleeting views as they searched for small caterpillars amongst the dense foliage. Fortunately, Anne- Marie, our Dutch companion managed to get a photo of the bird.
Besides the juniper covered mountain sides, there were alpine-style meadows where a number of different Shrikes were hunting large insects and we felt very fortunate to see three different species: Turkestan(Lanius Phoenicuroides), Long Tailed (Lanius Scratch) and Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius Minor). These birds have a similar physical structure to our Spanish Shrike, the Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius Excubitor), but all of them are smaller and have different colours to their plumage. They are mini birds of prey that hunt large insects and have the habit of hanging their prey on the spikes of trees as an improvised larder; hence their nickname of ‘Butcher birds’. All very gruesome! A Giant Shrike would make a good monster in a horror film!
After a couple of days in the mountains, it was time to move on. This included a drive back to Tashkent to catch a high speed train to the historic city of Samarkand on the famous Silk Road. The 2 hour train journey was very comfortable on a Spanish-built TALGO train.
Samarkand was the capital of Uzbekistan’s most famous son, Amir Timur, who conquered and founded the Timurid Dynasty in the 13th Century. His empire stretched from Istanbul in the West as far as Delhi in the East. He left, as part of his legacy, some magnificent buildings of Islamic architecture in the old capital. They have certainly passed the test of time and we spent several hours visiting these impressive sights.
Our birding meant long drives from the city up into the mountains and high meadows, mainly at silly o’clock. Most of the time these journeys were an opportunity to observe and enjoy the passing scenery. Our mission on this first excursion from Samarkand was to find a bird called a White Throated Robin (Irania Gutturalis).
Edwin, our well-travelled Dutch birder, was very anxious to find this bird as it had been his childhood dream to see it. The first couple of hours were fruitless and Edwin was getting quite nervous as we returned to the mini bus for our breakfast. Our food was beautifully laid out on picnic tables so we could sit and enjoy our leisurely meal. After breakfast, we moved off in the opposite direction and lo and behold there was a beautiful male White Throated Robin singing and staking out his territory close to our path. He was extremely obliging as he moved to the tops of trees on his boundary and sang exuberantly to reinforce his territorial claim. Needless to say I don’t know who was the happiest, Edwin or the Robin! On second thoughts, it was probably Edwin!
As we continued on our path Jessica disturbed a small Warbler carrying several insects in its beak. It was about to approach its nest in a rose bush she was walking past. It was an Eastern Orphean Warbler (Sylvia Crassirostris) that entertained us for half an hour as it continuously ferried small insects to its obviously hungry kids. They are sub-Saharan migrants that breed in the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It has a very close relative, the Western Orphean Warbler (Sylvia Hortensis) that breeds in Murcia. Visually they appear very similar, with just some subtle plumage coloration separating them.
As we moved higher onto ground with sparse shrub cover we were keeping an eye out for a small dull brown bird that blends in amazingly well with the ground. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The bird in question was a Hume’s Lark (Calandrella Acutirostris), a true mountain specialist only found in Southern and Central Asia. It was clearly our lucky day as within 5 minutes we found it serenely sitting on a rock enjoying the sunshine and trying to ignore the strange people staring at it. It probably thought we were very rude – obviously foreigners!
The next day we moved onto Bukhara where much of the old part of the city dated back to the 7th century. However, beforehand there was just time for one very quick trip to a National Park on the outskirts of Samarkand. Fortunately, Olim was good friends with the Director, so the security guards let us enter.
We had a single quest, which was to find a roosting Scops Owl (Otus Scops). They are very common summer visitors to Murcia that are commonly heard, but hardly ever seen. This is because they are nocturnal birds with a cryptic plumage that helps them blend in with the tree trunks they cosy up to when roosting. I often hear them calling around our house in Murcia, but never see them. Scops Owls have a striking similarity to Yoda from Star Wars! I hope you enjoy the photo half as much as I did taking it!
Bukhara was my favourite city, as the old part was quite small and felt very intimate. I also managed to speak with some local university students who wished to practice their English language skills. One of the students had the ambition of being a politician – very strange for a young man. I didn’t think, bearing in mind his ambition, that he would mind me asking a controversial question, so I asked what was the Uzbek opinion of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine? Evidently, the great majority of the older generation, particularly those who lived under Soviet rule, believe the Russian news and everything they are told by Vladimir Putin, so they support the invasion. However, the younger generation, who had access to social media (especially Telegram) were probably split 50-50.
We spoke to very few people in English during our time, but we had quite a lot of interaction with local people who continuously asked us to have our photos taken with them; even a large group of ex-Soviet army military veterans who had served in Afghanistan for 3½ years in the mid 80’s. They were are all friendly, charming and very respectful, but I wouldn’t have wanted to upset them. Some of them looked like very hard men.
From Bukhara we had some very early starts (3.30am) to get out into the desert whilst the temperatures were cool enough for birding. Our main target was to see a bird called a Pander’s Ground Jay (Podoces Panderi) that led us a merry dance in the desert, but we eventually managed to get some very distant and heat haze affected views. However, I was more impressed by some small Passerines that we saw flitting around some puddles near a group of buildings. They were Desert Finches (Rhodospiza Obsoleta), a shy bird I had never seen previously. We ended up getting some very close views as one of the Finches flew into a window and Olim (our Russian speaking ornithologist) managed to rescue it and cradle it in his hands until it recovered.
On our final day in the desert we came to a shallow inland lake. Any water in a desert is a magnet for wildlife and so it proved to be, as we came across a very rare Wader feeding quietly on the shoreline. It was a Terek’s Sandpiper (Xenus Cinereus) and a very rare vagrant in Western Europe. It is identified by its upturned beak and yellow legs. It is named after the River Terek that flows into the Caspian Sea and where it was first discovered breeding in the 18th century. I was absolutely delighted to add this bird to my lifetime list and it was so unexpected and the perfect end to my Uzbek birding.
I would like to thank Ann-Marie Schuurmen for allowing me to use her lovely photograph of a Yellow-Breasted Tit.
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