Caught by the River

The Kazakhstan Diaries.

17th November 2013

Image 1The Isles of Scilly Sociable Lapwing © Tom Tams

A Bird Effect update by Ceri Levy.

For several years now I have had a yearning to visit the Kazakhstan Steppe and film the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing on its breeding ground. This idea has been gnawing away at me, as the very first piece that I filmed for The Bird Effect was the 2008 appearance of a Sociable Lapwing on the Isles of Scilly and the ensuing twitch for it. This will be the opening action of the film, viewing the bird from a birdwatcher’s point of view. My travels have taken me from watching birdwatchers, becoming one, travelling through various strata of the bird world and eventually working in some small way as a conservationist and I need the film to reflect this. So what better way to end The Bird Effect than by filming the same bird from the point of view of the conservationist and documenting the work that is being carried out in Kazakhstan by the Sociable Lapwing Project to try and save it from extinction. By bookending the film with the Sociable Lapwing, it reflects my cycle from birdwatcher to conservationist. So after much talk with my old mate Jim Lawrence, who runs BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions programme, and who is heavily involved in the project, this is to be the year I finally realise my dream and there is something incredibly romantic, wild and exciting about telling people that I am off to the Kazakh Steppe.

The plan is for Jim and I to visit the project, which is run by the RSPB (BirdLife’s UK partner and conservation project leader) and ACBK (the project partner in Kazakhstan), and is studying the migration and breeding progress of the bird in the face of potential extinction and trying to ascertain what the issues are that threaten the birds’ existence. Rob Sheldon, the RSPB Sociable Lapwing project leader, has worked wonders and arranged for us to stay with him in Korgalzhyn, a small village a few hours out of the brand new capital, Astana, and which is right in the heartland of the Steppe and the birds’ breeding grounds. This is an opportunity to see conservation in action and also to film what I am certain will be the last piece in the Bird Effect jigsaw.

Day 1

We are collected from our hotel and are on the road to Korgalzhyn. The further we head out of Astana the more the road begins to disappear, turning into a muddy and earthy red substance. Jim is already spotting birds galore including a Red-Footed Falcon, and then a Pallid Harrier, one of the most beautiful and elegant raptors in the world. This gets us so excited and we want to stop the car for a good look but as we drive on we are surrounded by dozens of them sweeping and zooming past our car at regular intervals. We give up counting after 42 have shot past us. The only one I had ever seen before was a recuperating bird that had been gunned down in Malta. This is a majestic way to see my first free flying Pallids. What a start to a trip.

Adult Male Pallid HarrierPallid Harrier © Jim Lawrence

We arrive in Korgalzhyn and are taken to our new abode, where we meet Rob Sheldon, who introduces us to our hosts Boris and Irena, who own the farm we are staying on. As Rob says our names, Irena repeats them. “ Jim…” and pronounces my name as “Carey”. She starts laughing and repeats our names again but quicker. “ Jim… Carey! “ Pause… a laugh, “Jim Carey! You are Jim Carey! Very, very funny!” Laughing, she turns on her heel and heads into the main house and we find that we have become one comedian. He must be big out here.

We enter the main house and the table is spread with food I have no clue about. There are savoury fried balls, which I am told are made of pike, freshly caught by Boris, salads of various types and some type of pasta with meat filling, called Manti. All is delicious. Irena works on the food on the other side of the kitchen and her cat wanders up and down the work surface helping with the preparations. Tea, or chai, to give it its correct name, arrives regularly. I am not going to go hungry here and am completely stuffed by the end of the meal.

Then it is out for a birdwatch with Jim, Rob, Ruslan and Timor, the representatives of the ACBK. The vastness of the Steppe is extraordinary. The heady smell of the sagebrush artemisia, which grows everywhere, pervades my senses and is akin to a mix of lavender and sage, slightly familiar, occasionally acrid and yet quite intoxicating, one moment enjoyable and beguiling and the next all too much and impossible to shake off. This is the scent of the Steppe. I am also told that artemisia has been one of the main base notes in many perfumes for centuries as well as being a major constituent of absinthe. This makes sense to my scrambled senses.

It is also the season for wild tulips, which appear in bright patches all over the landscape. This is considered their birthplace but we are told that these beautiful flowers are now endangered.


We are at a large lake and the amount of birds is staggering. We see a flock of Black-winged Pratincoles, terns, gulls and waders, and what becomes one of my favourite birds of the trip, White-winged Black Terns in full plumage. Meanwhile Jim spends his time chasing after a White-winged Lark, an extreme lifer for him, and he is delighted when he catches up with one… then two… and finally three. It’s a cracking start to the trip and tomorrow we will go and see the bird we came all this way to see.

WWBT1White-winged Black Terns © Jim Lawrence

Dinner is a selection of Kazakh dishes and too much vodka for some. I don’t drink these days, but happily egg others on to keep on drinking and as the shots don’t show a sign of abating I leave them to it and head for my bed. I jump into it and land with a hard slap. I discover that my bed consists of three sloping, warped planks of wood of differing heights, widths and lengths with no mattress. I realise the error of my choice and within a short time I realise that the best place to sleep is the floor amongst the spiders and Steppe creatures that co-habit our room. Here in my ground-dwelling heap of bedclothes, I will actually sleep well for the rest of the week, and tonight as I drift off, I begin to dream of visiting the Lapwings in a few short hours.

Donations to the project can be made here.

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