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Birding Tajikistan

BlRDING TAJIKISTAN   by William Lawrence

Santa Barbaras Bird Area software programme lists 292 species of birds in Tajikistan; The Fat Birder website says there are 343 and the National Strategy on Conservation states that resident birds include 82 species, nesters - 150, migratory - 108, wintering - 80, birds of passage - 21, as well as over 20 species of ducks and sandpipers. 37 endangered species are listed in The Red Data Book of Tajikistan. Birdlife International mentions 8 globally red-listed species for Tajikistan. There are no endemics here, but quite a few uncommon birds and many raptors, including Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon and Saker Falcon, as well as Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle and Peregrine Falcon (in winter), which can all be seen in stunning circumstances within the mountains and valleys of the Pamirs and the mountain ranges of western Tajikistan, north of Dushanbe. In the summer one can even see such exotics as Paradise Flycatcher, Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater and Little Forktail. There are four species of Wagtail here, including the Yellow Wagtail, which I have read winters all the way down in Java. The delightful trilling of Red-headed Buntings often accompanies the lower elevations of mountain walks and they can be seen perched atop telegraph wires, small bushes and clumps of vegetation in many areas in spring and summer.

At the airport and into town one is bound to see flocks of noisy Mynahs, chattering and squawking in the trees on the capital city's main thoroughfare of Rudaki Avenue, or strutting along on the pavements. Laughing Doves are also common and plentiful, especially in towns and cities, where one sees singles, pairs and small flocks scavenging on the ground all over the place. Another species easily seen is the Tree Sparrow, replacing the House Sparrow as a town bird here. Good places for birds within Dushanbe are at the Botanical Gardens, between Karamova and Nosirov Streets, as well as within the city's other public parks. There are also some examples of large birds of prey at the Dushanbe city zoo - useful perhaps for pre-trip familiarisation, but their housing is not a pretty sight. Best time to be here for birding is during the Northern hemisphere late springtime and early summer, from about April to late June, or during late summer, from late August to late September - but any season including winter can be rewarding. Weather ranges from about minus 20°C in winter to more than +30°C in summer. During these periods migratory birds are on their way between the western Siberian breeding grounds and their wintering grounds, mainly in India, while local breeding species are singing and particularly easy to observe in springtime. The mountain passes are covered in snow far into June or even July.

South for the winter. Although many other birds choose longer migratory routes, the massive mountains of the Himalayas don't stop bar-headed geese, whose astonishing flight at 30,000ft takes them over the range, mostly to India.

Tajikistan is on a number of flight paths associated with bird migrations: Land birds, as well .is various waterfowl (Ducks, Geese and Swans) migrate from India; birds of prey migrate from Africa, from as far south as Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Shore and wading birds migrate from the Arctic Circle to India and back again, visiting Tajikistan on each leg of their journey.

During September to December each year, Barn Swallows and Northern Wheatears migrate over Tajikistan on their journey from Northern Russia to Africa.

All birding I have done in Tajikistan was at a very relaxed pace, often in tandem with other activities, such as work, sightseeing and mountain walking. Virtually every river valley in the mountains North ot Dushanbe has its own resident populations of Blue Whistling-'Thrush, Brown Dipper and White-capped Water Redstart and the further one drives away from civilisation, the more abundant and varied the birdlife becomes. A few days walk into the mountains in springtime or late summer can be rewarding, particularly at lower altitudes, Alpine Chough are easy to see and populate cliffs and mountain sides, often with Northern Ravens and flocks of Red-billed Chough in the same areas.

Birds of The USSR by V. E. Flint et al, and dated 1984 is a useful publication though the images in it are not great and it is intended to cover an enormous geographic range, including Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia. I couldn't find one in Europe and finally bought my copy from a specialist bookseller in the USA for an outrageously expensive price. I also use my UK and Southern Africa bird books and CDs to help with identification and information about birds. Raffael Aye et al are currently compiling a book about the birds of Central Asia and this is due for publication around 2008. I have also found the following books useful; Birds of the Middle East, by Porter, Christensen and Schiermacker-Hansen; Field Guide to the Birds of China, by Mackinnon, Showier and Phillipps; Raptors of the World-A Field Guide, by Ferguson-Lees and Christie.

Few birders come to Tajikistan and there is little to no education about the environment here, so local attitudes to birds are coloured by the ignorance of an unenlightened population. During summer 2005 I saw at least one dead raptor almost every weekend, and sometimes saw two or three. All killed by farmers or homesteaders for reasons such as 'it was killing our chickens' or 'they are a nuisance'. On one day I saw a dead Northern Eagle-Owl and a Black Kite within the space of a few minutes, the former shot by soldiers, presumably for sport and the latter killed by a local resident to protect his chickens. Little boys in rural areas carry catapults and some of them shoot at virtually any non-human creature they come across.

Low bird densities mean that birding in Tajikistan can be quite challenging, particularly so because, as related above, a fair proportion of the national population think that anything bigger than a blackbird is a menace to society, or fair game for food or sport. Chukar Partridges and other game birds are used like fighting cocks every weekend of the year at the bird market in Dushanbe.

Having said all that, birding here can be fantastic and there are regions which are virtually uninhabited that I have yet to explore. But I hope that the opportunity to add a few rarer or unusual species to a life-list or just to enjoy watching the birds within such spectacular scenery will increasingly attract pioneering birdwatchers and intrepid tourists in the future.

William Lawrence has lived and worked in Tajikistan since 2005 and has an ongoing interest in the regions birds and mountains (email: [email protected]).
Also see:

'Birding in Tajikistan' by Ben Tavener

Around 350 species of birds can be found in the variety of habitats on offer in Tajikistan, which are especially good for mountain and river specialists, as well as being fantastic places to look for many species of birds of prey.

Of the many eagle species found here, white-tailed, short-toed, imperial, golden, Bonelli's and booted eagles will perhaps be highest on birders'lists, as well as the vulnerable Pallas's fish-eagle, Himalayan and Eurasian griffons, Lammergeier and the rare ginereous vulture.

Tajikistan is also home to eight species of owl, including pallid and European scops-owls and European eagle-owl.

Lake and river habitats should provide views of many species of goose, duck (including the vulnerable marbled teal and white-headed and ferruginous ducks), plover and sandpiper, as well as some herons, storks and bitterns. Dippers are a common sight.

From the galliformes family, keep your eyes peeled for species such as the chukar, see-see partridge, rock ptarmigan and the beautiful Tibetan and Himalayan snowcocks.

Many species of finch (including black-headed mountain-finch, red-fronted rosefinch and white-winged snowfinch) are possible here.

Areas of woodland offer the opportunity to see some of the country's Passeriformes, including a good range of corvidae, up to six species of shrike (including long-tailed), and many larks, flycatchers and warblers.

Recently, the large-billed reed warbler was rediscovered in the Pamir Mountains, much to the excitement of scientists and the birding community.