Monday, 2 July 2012

The Chaka depression area

It is dark, very cold and raining heavily outside! As we jump into the vehicles, our prosects for the day do not look good! We drive out of the deserted town, not a soul in sight. After around twenty minutes, we pull over to view a large flat saltbush dominated plain. If anything, it seems to be raining heavier!
The snowy mountains are never far away.
Recluctantly, we leave the dry comforts of the vehicles and scan the saltbushes. Our quarry is a bizarre bird of this not very inviting habitat, the hard to find, Henderson's Ground Jay. We decide to walk in, the ground is muddy and very slippy. We all slip slide along!

Looking for ground-jays in the rain!

 Then we see it, a large, beige shaped bird flips up on top of a bush and starts calling! It is bigger than I expected, but quite wonderful. I drink in all the details, before I realise I have my camera at hand. I start shooting! As if on cue, the rain stops and the weak sun attempts to shine. Things are looking up.
Henderson's Ground-Jay

A star Asian bird!

Other species around us, include many breeding Asian Short-toed Larks, song flighting and singing from the tops of bushes. They sound just like Lesser Short-toed Larks! This is probably a debatable species and just a race of the Lesser Short-toed. Both Desert Wheatears and Isabelline Shrikes are also dotted around. Everyone is impressed by the antics of the ground-jay and we return to the vehicles much happier than when we set out!
Mountains covered with snow on one side of the plain
- arid sandstone on the other side!
We drive a short distance into an arid, sandstone valley, reminiscent of wadis in the Middle East. By now it is getting warmer and the sun is shining brightly. We start hiking up the ascent into the wadi. Brown Accentors sing from boulders, but prove hard to photograph.
Brown Accentor.

We hear Mongolian Trumpeter Finches but they prove difficult to see at first. Persistance pays off & we all enjoy great scope views of birds on the nearby cliffs. We scan the heights and spot a Wallcreeper - always a fantastic bird to see. What's more, it is singing! Brilliant!
Photo courtesy of Derrick Wilby.

We hike out in good spirits and drive across town again, this time to a vast plain, with sparse vegetation cover, next to a giant salt lake. We are searching for an Asian mega- a species everyone has heard of, but few have seen: Pallas's Sandgrouse! The weather takes a turn for the worst. At this altitude, the weather changes are fast and sometimes furious. The temperature drops and the wind increases, with nothing to stop it, but our slender bodies. I just know it is going to be an interesting walk!

The desolate plains around the Chaka Salt Lake.

And so it proves! We spread out and almost immediately see Blandford's Snowfinch. A pair performs well, right in front of us. But then we see very little. The birds dry up and we walk and walk. We spread out further and further. After several hours we make our way back to the car and then it happens! Out of nowhere, a Pallas's Sandgrouse explodes from the ground, and flies directly away and lands about 500m away. It once again becomes invisible! However, we track it down and enjoy good, if distant, scope views. Mission accomplished, but only just!

Possibly the worst photograph ever
of a Pallas's Sandgrouse?
We move on to an area of farmland, which used to be a Gulag Prison for political prisoners. The whole area is in decay and matters are made worse by the cold, strong wind, blowing across the wide open fields. This must have been hell on Earth for those prisoners, dressed in flimsy prison clothes, with only one blanket at night. It was bad enough for us in June, with all our cold weather gear! Thousands didn't make it of course, the cold and meagre prison rations usually did the trick, over a prolonged period of time. There is no fence around the place, there is nowhere to run to. We are starting to get into the remote frontier areas now.
There is a small copse of poplars, 2 Chinese Blackbirds rocket out and we are all entertained by an Arctic Warbler, which proves very watchable.

Arctic Warbler
Still moving north in June!

We then fan out and start to comb the extensive and barren looking fields. Another explosion from below our feet and more Pallas's Sandgrouse shoot out and fly around the area. We all get good views this time, albiet only in flight. The fields contain a few Pine Buntings and Common Cuckoos call from seemingly everywhere. Even more surprising for me, was a lone Great Spotted Woodpecker in the avenue of trees. The nearest forest must be several hundred kilometres away.

Common Cuckoo

Great Spotted Woodpecker

The attractive Blue Hill Pigeon.
 Blue Hill Pigeons are quite common near the farm buildings. A more attractive bird than its cousin, the familiar Rock Dove. A male Red Turtle Dove looks cold, sat on the wires. It is getting colder and a little dark. Time to head off to our basic & mediocre hotel accomodation in Chaka.
 A typical Tibetan town!
 A shop-a -holics paradise!
Everything you need is here!
Not derelict. It is in use!

The next morning is another cold one, dark & gloomy. We decide to bird a small area of Poplar trees in town, looking for late migrants. It proves to be a good decision and the couple of hours we spent there were quite birdy. Several Common Cuckoos were again in evidence. A Daurian Starling was unusual here. A small group of taller trees held quite a few Phylloscopus warblers: 6 Hume's; 2 Greenish and best of all, 2 Pallas's Warblers.
We then returned to the former Gulag Farm, for a more thorough exploration. The weather was getting better and we had a very pleasant few hours. Pallas's Sandgrouse were again flighting around the fields. This looks to be a top site for them, better than tramping the barren plains anyway! A showy male Brambling was a good find in one field. At least 3 male Black faced Buntings were singing and at least one showed well. The buckthorn thickets held over 22+ Tickell's Leaf Warblers, obviously these birds were migrants on their way further north. They looked very different from the Tickell's I have seen before and it was no surprise to learn that this race has now been elevated to full species status: Alpine Leaf Warbler.

Alpine Leaf Warbler

We were to see many more in the coming days, high up on the sides of mountains, flitting about in small bushes. Walking around the area, produces fewer birds than yesterday, even though the weather conditions were much better. However, it was a pleasant, easy mornings birding, with a few migrants on show.
We departed this area with the sun shining, but quickly the weather deteriated into dark gloomy skies and torrential rain. We visited an area of farmland, mainly wet pastures, with a couple of small ponds nearby. It was a very green area, surrounded by a ring of arid hills. Birding was hard going in the heavy rain, but we persevered and slowly racked up a few nice species: A Eurasian Hobby sat on wires; several Citrine Wagtails dotted the wet pastureland (of both races). More Common Cuckoos were in evidence.

Common Cuckoos migrating north, in large numbers.

 Best of all, were a large group of Mongolian Trumpeter Finches which gave us good views, perched on nearby wires and generally flying around feeding & calling.
Mongolian Trumpeter Finch.

It was a very soggy afternoon, but despite the conditions we decided to explore the nearby sandstone hills. We flushed a Crested Lark, from the side of the track (a good bird here) and by checking all the bushes on the hillside we saw several Margenlenic Lesser Whitethroats. The odd Brown Accentor was also present, singing from the ridgetops.
Several Brown Accentors were in song.
But, as the rain fell harder, we called it a day and beat a retreat to our hotel. We soon found out, that we would need our energy for what was in store for us the next day!

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