Iran 2016

...with Simon Papps

April 5th - 19th

On the basis of this tour, Iran looks set to become one of the world's 'must visit' birding destinations in the coming years. The country covers a vast area and the range of bird species is therefore equally as diverse as its habitats, which encompass deserts, swamps, high mountains and paddyfields. We connected with Iran's two endemics – Pleske's Ground-Jay and Caspian Tit – together with many range-restricted regional specialities which are shared with neighbouring countries, including Sind Woodpecker, Sand Lark, Basra Reed-Warbler, Grey Hypocoleus, Mesopotamian Crow, Iraq Babbler and Black-headed Penduline-Tit. Add to that the likes of Crab Plover, Radde's Accentor, Pied Bushchat, Grey-necked Bunting, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Dead Sea Sparrow, Pallid Scops-Owl, Spotted Owlet, Great Knot, Shikra, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Marbled Teal and a wide variety of wheatears and you have the ingredients of a fantastic tour. The friendly people and excellent food are an added bonus.

Many thanks are due to our local guide, Ali, who's great knowledge and tireless efforts helped us to find many of the special birds.

5th-6th April : London to Tehran and Bandar Abbas.

Our flights from the UK via Istanbul ran smoothly and we arrived on time in Tehran shortly after 4am on Wednesday. We transferred to a hotel in the city for a sleep, late breakfast and some exploration of the city parks, where our first taste of Iranian birds came in the form of White-eared Bulbuls, Laughing Doves, Common Swifts and Hooded Crows, among others. Then, in the early afternoon, we took a flight to Bandar Abbas.

Upon landing at a rather hot (30°C) Bandar Abbas we transferred immediately to the beach, where a walk across the sandflats to the edge of the Strait of Hormuz provided a fantastic array of thousands of waders, gulls, terns and other waterbirds. Close to the promenade we found Greater Flamingo, Lesser Sand Plover, Kentish Plover and Terek Sandpiper. Further out, closer to the sea, were hundreds of Slender-billed and Heuglin's Gulls, with dozens of Caspian, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested and Gull-billed Terns and ones and twos of Baltic and Great Black-headed Gull and Saunders's Tern. Waders included many Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Eurasian Curlew and Eurasian Oystercatcher, while smaller numbers of Greater Sand Plover, Sanderling, Whimbrel and Ruddy Turnstone were present and a handful of Dalmatian Pelicans loafed around the margins as a nearby camel noisily disapproved of being made to bathe in the sea! The undoubted highlights, however, were Crab Plover and Great Knot, with a dozen of the former and 20 of the latter rounding off a superb first afternoon's birding.

7th April : Minab to Jask.

A palm grove on the way to Jask provided an excellent start to the day, with a big flock of Black-headed Buntings and a pair of Grey Francolins followed swiftly by several Yellow-throated Sparrows, displaying Purple Sunbirds (with the males showing off their tufts of orange feathers), a pair of Indian Silverbills, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin. Our main target of the day – Sind Woodpecker – was quickly located and we enjoyed excellent views of a male, with a female showing up later. Green Bee-eaters and Indian Rollers were abundant and showed well and the first raptors of the day – Oriental Honey-buzzard and Shikra – gave good views.

After breakfast we took a small boat out into the mangroves and found Oriental White-eye and Clamorous Reed-Warbler (with this subspecies, brunnescens, mooted as a potential split from Clamorous, as Indian Reed-Warbler), while raptors seen included Greater Spotted Eagle and Osprey. A little further out a sandbar was productive for waders and terns, with four Great Stone-curlews the highlight. Back on the boat jetty there was a strong police and army presence due to a visit from the governor of the province, but for us the main causes of excitement were a fine Bay-backed Shrike, a showy male Pied Wheatear and a family of Sand Larks.

Further along the road we made two stops in likely looking birding spots, with Variable Wheatear, Bay-backed Shrike, a pair of See-see Partridges and a Striolated Bunting at the first and Steppe Grey Shrike, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin and Short-toed Eagle at the second. After that we headed back to the hotel at Minab, where we watched a pair of Spotted Owlets hunting for moths while enjoying an ice cream outside a cafe on one of the main streets.

8th April : Minab area.

This morning we headed east from Minab along a track through a dry, flat plain. Stopping for an al fresco breakfast we soon located common birds such as Purple Sunbird, Yellow-throated Sparrow and White-eared Bulbul. Turkestan, Woodchat and Bay-backed Shrikes all showed well by the road and a Grey Francolin scurried along. A few minutes' up the track a pair of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flew overhead, and further exploration of this area proved highly productive with three more Chestnut-bellied and up to 20 Crowned Sandgrouse and excellent views of two tail-swinging Upcher's Warblers, plus several each of Desert Lark and Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin.

We walked down towards a reservoir, adding Eastern Orphean Warbler, four European Turtle Doves and a Steppe Grey Shrike. At the water's edge Grey-necked and Striolated Buntings came down to drink, a pair each of Temminck's Stint and Kentish Plover were on the mud, a Red-wattled Lapwing looked down from the scree above and a Purple Heron flew over. Out on the water were a dozen Great Crested Grebes and a fishing Little Tern.

An unexpected bonus before lunch came in the shape of meeting a local man who knew the whereabouts of a 'horned owl'. He very kindly led us to the roosting site of a Pallid Scops-Owl and we enjoyed excellent views.

In the afternoon we took a boat out into the creeks, mangroves and mudflats south of Minab. Sand Larks performed well around the boatyard. We logged 17 species of waders, including eight Crab Plovers, a super breeding-plumaged Broad-billed Sandpiper and more than 100 Terek Sandpipers. Great views were had of Dalmatian Pelican, Greater Spotted Eagle, Common Kingfisher and Western Reef Heron. Over 60 Greater Flamingos paraded on the mud, 11 Eurasian Spoonbills flew overhead and larids included Great Black-headed and Heuglin's Gulls and Saunders's, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. A dusk flight of White Wagtails rounded off the day as we set foot back on dry land.

9th April : Minab to Bandar Abbas and Tehran.

Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Alpine Swift and Pale Crag-Martin were among the birds seen on the drive from Minab to Bandar Abbas. Once there, the not-so-salubrious surroundings of the local abattoir provided amazing close views of up to three Egyptian, eight Eurasian Griffon and eight Eurasian Black Vultures, with some of the birds perched and others wheeling around fairly low to the ground. Several Red-wattled Lapwings were also in evidence.

A short drive away, Jahad Park offered a shady refuge during the heat of late morning. Migrants included several Common Chiffchaffs and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. Several Oriental Honey-buzzards and a pair of Shikras circled low overhead and two or three of the former perched in trees, giving wonderful views. To round off the visit a White-throated Kingfisher showed exceptionally well beside a small stream.

The tide was in at Bandar Abbas waterfront, so waders were notable by their absence, but this did mean better views of Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Caspian and Whiskered Terns and Slender-billed and Great Black-headed Gulls. Then it was time to head to the airport to catch our flight to Tehran.

10th April : Alborz Mountains, Balbosar and Semnan.

An early start from Tehran meant that we were climbing up into the Alborz Mountains as the sun rose, lighting up spectacular scenery. Large numbers of both Eurasian Magpie and Rook were additions to the tour list, as was the Golden Eagle which passed overhead. Various roadside stops produced Chukar, White-winged Snowfinch, Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting and Black Redstart.

After a delicious breakfast at a mountain lodge we continued on to Balbosar, where we had instant success with Black-headed Penduline-Tit as a pair gave fantastic close views. Other birds on the fish ponds and rice paddies included Black-crowned Night-Heron, Purple Heron, Green Sandpiper, Cetti's Warbler, Common Redstart, Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier and Osprey. The site was excellent for 'herps' with a variety of frogs, lizards, snakes and terrapins sighted. After further excellent views of at least two more pairs of Black-headed Penduline Tits we headed to the Caspian Sea coast to dip our toes in the water and enjoy a fish lunch.

The drive to Semnan was punctuated with a couple of stops. At the first there was a flock of over 100 Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which included two apparently melanistic individuals, plus a male Spanish Sparrow, while dozens of Alpine Swifts and several Common Swifts passed overhead. A second stop, near Firozooz-Koh, produced four Eurasian Hoopoes, a hepatic female Common Cuckoo and a Syrian Woodpecker. Closer to Semnan a Steppe Buzzard was perched on a post as the sun dipped below the horizon.

11th April : Parvar Protected Area and surrounds.

The road to Parvar produced a pair of Pied Wheatears, several Northern Wheatears and a splendid male Citrine Wagtail, which were swiftly followed by a pair of Isabelline Wheatears at the entrance to the track. Two small mountain pools played host to 10 Green Sandpipers, a Marsh Sandpiper and three Red-necked Phalaropes, while Horned Larks, Red-billed Choughs and Eurasian Skylarks flew around and the first of the day's half a dozen or so Golden Eagles sailed overhead.

Upon arriving at the oak/hawthorn forest almost the first bird we located was the endemic Caspian Tit, adding us to a very small band of European birders to have seen this species. Nearby were Mistle Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat and Common Whitethroat (much less rufous than birds in the UK), while a pair of Lammergeiers circled in the distance. As we progressed through the open woodland we had several more sightings of 10 or more Caspian Tits throughout the day. Other birds seen included Coal, Eurasian Blue and Great Tits, Chaffinch, Rock Bunting, Rock Sparrow, Eurasian Kestrel, Steppe Buzzard and Common Raven.

We descended to a small farm, adding Common Redstart of the form samamiscus, Grey Wagtail, Blackcap and Eurasian Wren to the list. Continuing further along the road we had good views of Red-fronted Serins and a Wood Lark. Nearby we came across a large flock of more than 50 goldfinches, the bulk of which were Eastern Goldfinches. Shortly afterwards we were turned back by park guards, who told us that the road out was impassable. Retracing our route we enjoyed further good views of many of the species already seen, plus close sightings of Wild Boar. Two fine male Finsch's Wheatears rounded off another superb day.

12th April 2016: Parvar.

Another early start this morning as we headed for some of the high peaks in the Alborz Mountains. Stopping near the snow-line and scanning the crags we located many Chukars, Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush in display flight, two or three Alpine Accentors, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Golden Eagle and Eurasian Crag-Martin

We continued as far as we could by four-wheel drive, until thick snow and ice covered the road, and then continued on foot up a slope until we reached a coll about 2,800 metres above sea-level. Despite extensive searching there was no sign of the hoped-for Caspian Snowcocks, with the search hampered by the low snow and high winds. However, fine reward for our efforts came in the form of two or three singing Radde's Accentors. Other birds in this area included a pair each of Siberian Stonechat and Eastern Goldfinch, Water Pipits, Black Redstarts and more Red-billed Choughs and Golden Eagles.

After a traditional Persian lunch of 'dizi' (lamb, chick-peas and potatoes), we explored the surrounding area and found several Western Rock Nuthatches and three or four Finsch's Wheatears, together with good numbers of Bezoar (Wild Goat), while a pair of Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrushes and a flock of Red-billed Choughs put on a fine show for the cameras.

13th April 2016: Semnan to Touran.

Our first stop today, at a small abad (farm) 45km west of Damghan, yielded instant results with a pair of Long-legged Buzzards, one perched on a pylon and the other flying around, while flocks of Rooks and Red-billed Choughs patrolled noisily. The highlight, though, was a trio of warblers in a small clump of bushes – with singles each of Green, Eastern Orphean and Ménétries's. The last species showed well eventually as it sang from various songposts. As we departed a pair of Masked Wagtails gave great views beside a small water tank.

In the afternoon we continued to Touran. A roadside stop produced a family of very showy Scrub Warblers and a pair of Desert Wheatears. Further along the road another impromptu pause resulted in very good views of a pair of Greater Short-toed Larks and a flock of eight Desert Finches which perched obligingly on overhead wires. Near Qaleh-bala a small abad hosted three or four Red-breasted Flycatchers, a pair of Pied Wheatears and a slightly out-of-range Pied Bushchat which performed splendidly as it hawked for insects. We rounded off the day with good views of a Eurasian Hobby perched close to the village, where we spent the next two nights in a local house and received a very warm welcome and copious amounts of tea and delicious food!

14th April 2016: Touran.

Arriving at the ranger station first thing – to pick up our escort for the day – we quickly found three Shikras within 50 metres of each other (surely migrants), a Western Yellow Wagtail (of the race beema – Sykes's Wagtail) and a Rose-coloured Starling. Heading out into the desert we stopped briefly to add Bar-tailed Lark to the tour list

We paused at a raised viewpoint which afforded views over the surrounding area. From here we located about eight Onagers (Wild Asses). But the main event was the endemic Pleske's Ground-Jay, of which two perched obligingly in the tops of bushes for prolonged periods. A singing Asian Desert Warbler and pairs each of Crowned Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatear, Greater Short-toed Lark also performed well.

Driving further into the desert we found several Steppe Grey Shrikes, while a small spring had attracted a pair of Little Ringed Plovers, a Grey Wagtail and a Western Yellow Wagtail. Exploration of nearby farms – oases of green – yielded Purple Heron, Long-legged Buzzard, perhaps 20 Red-breasted Flycatchers, 10 Green Warblers, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and a Common Nightingale of the eastern race golzii.

The road back to a late lunch in Qaleh-bala kept on producing new and interesting birds, including Grey-necked Buntings, a family of Hooded Wheatears, a flock of Trumpeter Finches and a pair of Eastern Rock Nuthatches feeding young at a nest. Later in the afternoon, along the same road, we watched a Saker Falcon mobbing a Long-legged Buzzard while a Golden Eagle passed overhead. We ended the day back where we started, with more prolonged views of Onager and three Goitered Gazelles, while Desert and Northern Wheatears showed well.

15th April 2016: Touran to Tehran.

Red-breasted Flycatcher inside the guest house is a great way to start any day, and today one was in the tree in the interior courtyard as we ate breakfast. Today was essentially a travel day, with a long drive from Touran to Tehran, but we stopped a few times en route for birding. Desert Wheatears, Long-legged Buzzard and a perched Golden Eagle were the highlights of Touran. Rock Sparrow and Horned Lark were noted in the more mountainous areas to the west.

The persistent heavy, thundery showers perhaps made this the best day of the tour to be on the road rather than out in the field, but by the time we were 150km from Tehran the skies had cleared and a stop by a small river produced a summer-plumaged Cattle Egret, a pair of Pied Wheatears, male Common Redstart and male Siberian Stonechat. Reed Bunting and Eurasian Reed-Warbler were new for the tour list and the chorus of hundreds of frogs made an impressive sound.

16th April 2016: Tehran to Ahvaz and Shush

An early start this morning to catch a flight to Ahvaz. We were through the airport and out on the road by just after 9am, quickly noting several new species for the tour list, with additions including Pied Kingfisher, Black-winged Kite, Collared Pratincole, Sand Martin and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. As we headed north-west towards Shush Red-wattled Lapwings and White-throated Kingfishers became increasingly common.

Our first brief roadside stop led to good views of Afghan Babblers, adult and young Mesopotamian Crows and the first of many singing Graceful Prinias. The second stop, at a reedy wetland, provided a good look at a pair of their rarer cousin, the Iraq Babbler, along with two Eurasian Marsh-Harriers, a Purple Heron and low-flying Pied Kingfisher and Black-winged Kite.

Not far away, another reedy wetland on the margins of a small village turned up a couple of Green Bee-eaters among a flock of a dozen Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, a female Little Bittern scooting over the reedbeds and several Clamorous Reed-Warblers. The star prize, however, went to a Basra Reed-Warbler, which although rather shy, eventually showed well several times at close range.

After lunch in Shush we drove to the national park ranger station, adding a pair of Grey Hypocolius along the entrance track. A walk around the compound with one of the rangers revealed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and European Turtle Doves. A loose colony of Dead Sea Sparrows was nest-building, with many of the males singing from the tops of their dome-shaped nests. Smaller numbers of European Bee-eaters showed well too, while two Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robins, a Black Francolin, three Turkestan Shrikes, several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and a singing Ménétries's Warbler rounded off another excellent day

17th April

Our first stop of the morning, south of Alhael, was notable for great views of perhaps eight Little Bitterns perched up in the reeds and flying back and forth – including six in the air together. Dozens of Collared Pratincoles and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawked overhead for insects and Clamorous Reed-Warblers and Graceful Prinias reeled off their songs. An unexpected bonus was a male Namaqua Dove, which showed very well. Later in the day, a few miles away, we saw a female, so presumably there is a breeding population in the area.

We continued to the River Dez, which was flooded in places due to the recent heavy rains. Here a drake Garganey passed overhead and flocks of Pied and White-throated Kingfishers were joined by a single Common Kingfisher. A short distance along the road a pair of Pygmy Cormorants flew low overhead.

Continuing in the direction of Shush, another stop by the roadside quickly revealed a pair of Pied Bushchats. Exploration of the adjacent reedbed area gave good views of singing male Dead Sea Sparrows, several Iraq Babblers and a very obliging Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin in full song.

After lunch in the historic old town of Shushtar we stopped in another similar area of reedbeds and open forest. Here highlights included Black-winged Kite, several singing Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and at least three Grey Hypocoleus, which perched up and gave excellent views. The journey back to Ahvaz was enlivened by the sighting of a European Roller.

18th April

The Shadegan Lagoon instantly produced two new species for the tour – Little Grebe and Common Tern – which we watched as our boat trip was negotiated. And the new species kept coming with Ruff and Moustached Warbler added soon after setting off from the jetty.

Several Squacco Herons broke cover as we chugged along the narrow channels through the reeds, and soon we reached some open muddy areas with shallow pools where loose colonies of Little Terns and Collared Pratincoles were in evidence. White-tailed Lapwings proved to be quite common and we had excellent views of up to 20, often at close range.

It was hard to know where to look sometimes, with dozens of Black-winged Stilts, Graceful Prinias and Clamorous Reed-Warblers all around, Eurasian Marsh-Harriers circling overhead and a good selection of passage waders which included Dunlin, Little Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Common Snipe, Wood Sandpiper and at least 100 Marsh Sandpipers. Herons and terns were also much in evidence, with Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, Purple Heron and Little Bittern.

Some surprising passerine encounters – no doubt all migrants – were Common Redstart, Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, Tree Pipit and Turkestan, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes. Eventually, after two or three miles, we reached the open expanses of the lagoon, where new birds for the tour included 10 or so Marbled Ducks, two Pied Avocets and dozens of White-winged Terns. Add to that hundreds of Slender-billed Gulls and Great Cormorants, plus good numbers of many of the species already mentioned above, and it made for a remarkable spectacle. On the return journey we enjoyed further views of many of the same species, plus a Zitting Cisticola and a couple of Mesopotamian Crows.

After lunch in Ahvaz we took a late afternoon flight to Tehran, staying overnight in a city-centre hotel and catching an early morning flight back to the UK, arriving on time mid-afternoon.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at

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