A Bird Effect update by Ceri Levy.
To complete his film Ceri has travelled to the Kazakhstan Steppe to see the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing on its breeding ground. This is the third diary entry from that trip, the first and second can be found here and here respectively.
Jim has arranged a bird guide, Madina Dyussebayeva, to take us to the Almaty birding hotspots to find some particular rarities such as Ibisbill, White-Tailed Rubythroat and the elusive Himalayan Snowcock, which is found at the highest point of the Tien Shan Mountains, a dizzying altitude of 3,340 metres. This is where the Russian Cosmos research station (or Cosmic Ray Station) is situated. It is where scientists once wore their Cold War white coats and studied pulsars and X-Rays from outer space. This should be a good test for my heart to see if it copes with going so high. (A few years ago I had a heart attack on top of Tower 42 while birdwatching – that was a mere 182 metres!)
We drive up the snowy mountains and as we climb higher and higher, the air is changing, becoming colder and thinner. We stop as a flock of Mountain Finches swirl in the freezing air and Red-Fronted Serin line the route.
I already feel my lungs wanting more air as we arrive at the top of the mountains. It looks like a set for a Stephen King film, derelict in the main and defunct machinery lies everywhere. It is -5 up here, and getting colder as the fog and snow rolls in. At this altitude my legs are unsteady and my head believes I am walking at odd angles even if I am walking perfectly upright. It is disorientating and my breathing becomes heavy on anything other than the flat. As we are walking up a mountain this is a constant challenge and any sighting of a bird brings welcome relief as we stop, regain our breath and I.D. each flying creature.
Jim finds a Güldenstädt’s Redstart and as we wander the site we find Alpine Choughs. It becomes difficult to see more than a few feet in front of us, which married with the altitude is scrambling the balance and the senses. I see a sign, which makes no sense at all and possibly that is the most sensible thing about it. We head back down to a more breathable height.
Off to Almaty Big Lake this morning to find an Ibisbill. Jim is annoyed we couldn’t find the Snowcock up at the Cosmos summit yesterday and states he will find one before we venture off. Madina says that’s impossible at this range as the Snowcocks will be on top of the high mountains, which surround us. Jim hears a birdcall echoing in the gigantic space around us, scopes the nearest, and yet pretty far, mountain ridge, steps back from the scope and says defiantly, “Himalayan Snowcock in the scope.” I look in the scope and there is the bird peering over the edge looking down upon us. It is Satanic birding at its very finest: uncanny and just a little unnerving. Jim looks pleased with himself and now birding’s dark master is going to track down the Ibisbill.
We walk a couple of clicks to the bird’s preferred area of vast mud flats behind the lake. Jim is nervous about finding the bird as the rain begins to fall. This is THE bird that he wants to see. He scopes the muddiness incessantly. And then he splutters, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” His excitement is palpable and he gets us on to the bird. It is an odd creature, a giant wader with a large red drooping bill and a black band across its chest. As I look at it, the euphoria is broken as a pair of armed soldiers confronts us, asking for passports and papers. Having been told to carry my ID on me at all times, I have left mine in the car. This does not go down well. This road leads to the Kyrgyzstan border about 20kms away, and I do not fancy being marched off to face questioning as to whether I may be an illegal immigrant, arms dealer, drug smuggler or terrorist. I have to persuade them I am just a lowly birdwatcher. Thus trying to delay the issue I suggest they might like to see a really rare bird through the scope. One soldier has a look at the Ibisbill, which makes his partner angry. As they argue, they move off back towards the Kyrgyzstan border having forgotten about my documents, and as they disappear from view, I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a quick reminder of just how alien this place is. We head off to my passport.
We arrive at another 70’s sci-fi movie set, the Observatory, and in a short time we find every target species is available for viewing. Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-winged Grosbeak, Black-throated Accentor, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-browed Tit Warbler and the White-tailed Rubythroat, a beautiful jewel of a bird, which proves to be a disgracefully easy bird to view. Only a few hours previously these birds had been images in books and now they are stamped on our retinas forever. Magical.
We get back to the hotel and prepare to leave Kazakhstan. We are on the 2AM flight to Frankfurt and then back to London just in time for breakfast. At the airport our flight has been delayed until 3AM. There is an external security gate, which we have to pass through to enter into an empty check-in area, but officious armed guards are not permitting anyone through, thus causing a huge backlog of a hundred or so irate would-be passengers. Someone we chat to makes a break for it and sneaks through “security” unseen by the guards. I just want to check-in ahead of the inevitable stampede that is brewing and not hang around here. Having seen how it’s done, I turn to Jim and say, “Shall we?” We wait until the guards are sipping their cuppas and not watching us. Now is our moment and we nip through into the vacant space. Other people see what we have done and they try to do the same. The guards stop them but we are through and are the second people to check in without a problem. We take a seat and wait. Next stop, Germany. It’s the middle of the night but I feel exhilarated. This is how it should be when travelling in extreme parts of the world. It should be different, and finding myself awake in the middle of the night, totally disconnected with our Western way of living, is a perfect end to the trip. It’s been an adventure and I have Jim, Rob and the Sociable Lapwing to thank for this ultimate experience.
I think about the bird we came to see and I realise I now have a deeper connection with this specific creature and I don’t want to see the Sociable Lapwing become extinct. Conservation needs more money and more people to appreciate the dangers that face so many of our species. I will do what I can to help and spread the word. In the meantime I head to a stern looking woman at passport control. As she hands me back my passport I say thank you in the little Kazakh I have learnt, “Rakhmet!” The sternness disappears from her face in an instant and a huge smile spreads across it instead. This is Kazakhstan in a nutshell for me. A harsh exterior belies the warmth within the people we have met. I smile back at her, she gives me a little wave goodbye and I am down the tunnel to the plane. “Rakhmet, Kazakhstan.”
I am walking down Knightsbridge and I am stopped in my tracks. I smell Kazakhstan. An elegant, middle-aged woman sweeps past me and I realise it is her perfume that has taken me back. I shout out, “Artemisia! It is the smell of the Steppe, madam!” She looks at me, smiles quizzically, and then she and the Steppe waft away into the distance. There will always be a reminder of Kazakhstan in the unlikeliest of places.
Check out The Amazing Journey website to follow the story of the Sociable Lapwing Project.
Donations can be made to the project here.