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Sunbird – Itinerary

Price Pending


Maximum group size: 10 with 2 leaders

We’ll search for Pleske’s Ground Jay in the northern steppe. Photo: Ali Alieslam

In the land lying between the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south sits Iran, the ancient country once known as Persia.  Now widely regarded as belonging within the Western Palearctic, this is a magical place where one of the world’s oldest civilisations first developed, and one that is blessed with incredibly beautiful and varied natural habitats. These are home to some wonderful wildlife, including some highly sought-after birds which will be the focus of our tour.

From the capital, Tehran, we fly south to the shores of the Persian Gulf where a wealth of waterbirds await us. Moving on to Minab, we’ll seek out some of the first specialities of the country, including the endemic Sind Pied Woodpecker. In the areas surrounding Ahwaz, we’ll search for Iraq Babbler, Grey Hypocolius, and Dead Sea Sparrow, whilst amidst the breathtakingly beautiful mountains that lie to the south of the Caspian Sea we’ll seek out Caspian Snowcock, Caspian Tit, Radde’s Accentor, and Persian Wheatear. Moving to the remote steppes and arid deserts of the Touran National Park we hope to encounter perhaps the star bird of the tour, the enigmatic Pleske’s Ground Jay, along with other delights such as Macqueen’s Bustard, See-see Partridge and Asian Desert Warbler. We may also catch sight of a group of Onager (Asian Wild Ass) which thrive here.

For those wishing to see more than just Iran’s natural wonders, we offer a short post-tour excursion to the fabled city of Isfahan.  Here we can gaze on Maidan-e-Naghsh-e-Jahan, one of the largest squares in the world which has to be seen to be believed, as well as other glowing examples of Islamic art, including two of the world’s greatest mosques. We’ll also wander through the incredible Qeisarieh Bazaar and the dappled shade of gardens planted many thousands of years ago. With the passage of time Iran is now welcoming visitors to sample the rich culture and fabled hospitality of this land of legend and mystery. With the re-opening of embassies and direct flights from the UK, we have a unique opportunity to visit a country that has so much to offer anyone interested in birds, wildlife, or the road less travelled.

Day 1:  The tour begins with an overnight flight from London to Tehran’s IKIA airport. 

Day 2: After arrival and meeting up with our local guide we’ll transfer to Mehrabad airport for our flight to Bandar Abbas. This is one of Iran’s major southern cities as it is situated on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Habitats here consist of stony plains with scattered vegetation and bushes, almond and pistachio woodlands, and rocky cliffs. Upon arrival we’ll visit the city’s coastal areas to look for Caspian Terns, Eurasian Spoonbill and lingering flocks of winter waders which could include Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, many Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers, Grey and Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel, and Temminck’s Stint. This is also a good place to see the monotone Indian Sand Lark. Later we’ll drive to Minab for the night. 

Days 3-4:  Minab is famous for its fishing and agriculture and is surrounded by a rich variety of habitats. Our birdwatching excursions will include an early morning drive towards Jask, where palm gardens and local orchards create an ideal setting for many woodland birds. Here we are hoping to find Oriental Honey-buzzard, Spotted Owlet, Indian Roller, Laughing Dove, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow-throated Sparrow, Isabelline Wheatear and the very common Purple Sunbird.  However, the main focus of our attention will be the rare and regional endemic Sind Pied Woodpecker, although we need to check carefully to make sure we are not looking at hybrids with the very similar Syrian Woodpecker.

In the drier areas and wadis we may find Graceful Prinia, Little Green Bee-eater, White-eared Bulbul, Turkestan and Bay-backed Shrikes, Pallid Swift, Pale Crag-Martin, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Indian Silverbill, Afghan Babbler and Variable Wheatears. Turning our attention to the coast we’ll explore mangrove forests that create one of the most pristine habitats on the shores of the Persian Gulf, an excellent place to find Indian Pond Heron, Dalmatian Pelican, and Great Thick-knee. The striking Crab Plover winters here in small numbers and there may be a few late birds yet to depart to their breeding grounds.. Northeast of Minab we find ourselves on a drier, open plateau with scattered bushes that is the haunt of Grey Francolin, Chestnut-bellied and Crowned Sandgrouses, Upcher’s Warbler, and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. We’ll also visit a lofty stony hillside to search for Hume’s Wheatear and the strange Pale Rockfinch. Nights in Minab. 

Day 5: Today we’ll return to Bandar Abbass to connect with a flight to Ahwaz. Depending on flight times there may be a chance for some birding close to Bandar Abbass before the flight. Upon arrival in Ahwaz we’ll transfer to our hotel for a three night stay. Night near Ahwaz. 

Days 6-7:  These two days will be devoted to exploring the areas north of Ahwaz where two major rivers, the Dez and the Karkhe, create ideal habitat for some special birds such as Iraq Babbler, Grey Hypocolius, Basra Reed-Warbler, Dead Sea Sparrow and the possibly distinct ‘Mesopotamian’ Crow. Other notable species in this region include Black-winged Kite, Egyptian Nightjar and Ménétriés’s Warbler. We should also encounter large numbers of Red-wattled Lapwing as well as Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Collared Pratincole, and European Turtle Dove, while rarities can come in the form of Pied Bushchat and Namaqua Dove. Time-permitting, we’ll also explore the huge Shadegan lagoon where we hope to see White-cheeked Terns and Marbled Duck, albeit at some distance.  Nights near Ahwaz. 

Day 8: Today is a long one starting with a morning transfer to the airport for a flight back to Tehran. Upon arrival we’ll be picked up and taken by 4x4 vehicles to Kelardasht, a small town located on the northern slopes of the Alburz mountain range. Here we’ll find ourselves in a totally different world as we drive along a beautifully scenic mountain road connecting the barren slopes of the southern Alburz to the lush broad-leaf forest of the northern Alburz and Caspian Sea coastal areas. We’ll stop en route to admire the scenery and to look for Rock Sparrows which are at home in this rocky terrain. Later we’ll arrive at Kelardasht for a three-night stay at a local hotel. Night in Kelardasht.

Days 9-10:  Our time here will be taken up with seeking out some more special birds such as the little-known Caspian Tit. We’ll drive along dirt roads on the northern slopes of the Alburz Mountains that surround Kelardasht, where oak and scattered hawthorn trees create the best conditions for this elusive bird. Our 4x4 vehicles will be essential for us to reach the beautiful upper forest areas at over 2000 metres, and birds we can expect to find here include Eurasian Wryneck, Green Woodpecker, Sombre Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Ortolan Bunting. 

Another iconic bird of the region is Caspian Snowcock. This majestic bird lives at very high altitudes in the Alburz, Alam Kooh and parts of the Zagros Mountains, and we’ll need to drive to elevations of between 3500 – 4000 metres to reach its lofty home. On the way up there are some other great species to look for including Black Redstart, Red-fronted Serin, Radde’s Accentor, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, and possibly the beautiful Wallcreeper.  Lower down we’ll visit grazed hillsides which are perfect habitat for Woodlark,  Pied, Black-eared, and Isabelline Wheatears. Raptors can be surprisingly scarce in this mountain region but we hope for a sighting of a mighty Lammergeier or a Golden Eagle soaring overhead.  While in the mixed deciduous forest close to the town we may find singing Green Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Nights in Kelardasht. 

Day 11: The southern shores of the Caspian Sea dominate this part of Iran and today we’ll drive to the eastern coastal regions to an area close to Babolsar.  Here we’ll visit small ponds and rice fields along the shoreline where we have the chance to see another highly localised species - Black-headed Penduline Tits which should be busy weaving their distinctive nests in local willow trees. We’ll also pass through extensive Caspian Hyrcanian forest – a rich mix of broad-leaved woodland unique to this region where we hope to find the striking local race of Great Spotted Woodpecker. Later we’ll continue to Sari, the capital of Mazandaran province, for an overnight stay. 

Days 12-13: We’ll have two days to immerse ourselves in the Touran National Park.  As there are no hotels here, we’ll spend two nights in local houses in Qale Bala village located on the boundaries of the Park. Touran consists of vast steppe, semi-arid deserts and arid mountains. In the north we find the Artemisia-Zygophyllum steppe, which is the main habitat for the endemic Pleske’s Ground Jay, which we’ll find scurrying over the dunes or sitting up on a prominent perch. Sharing this habitat will be Macqueen’s Bustard, Desert, Bar-tailed and Crested Larks, Trumpeter and Desert Finches, Steppe Grey Shrike, Asian Desert and Scrub Warblers, Desert Wheatear, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, and, with luck, Cream-coloured Courser. Hills behind our village are home to Persian Wheatear and Grey-necked Bunting, while the village itself is home to Eurasian Scops Owl and Blue Rock Thrush.  The few waterholes may attract a variety of migrants and we’ll also hope to find the rare Onager (Asian Wild Ass).  A few Asiatic Cheetahs still roam these remote steppes but with less than 80 remaining in the wild in Iran our chances of finding one are equally remote. Nights at Qale Bala. 

Day 14: We’ll leave Touran and drive westward to the Parvar Protected area. Parvar is a portion of the east-central Alborz Mountains located north of Semnan. They span the divide between the semi-arid steppe on the southern slopes and the upper levels of the humid Caspian forest in the north. A deep, rain-shadow valley runs east-west through the centre of the reserve, with spectacular cliffs and scree slopes and some of the finest Juniperus forest in the Alborz. These dry hillsides are ideal for certain birds and we’ll be looking for White-throated Robin, Turkestan Shrike, Eastern Orphean and Plain Leaf Warblers, Red-billed Coughs and lots of Linnet and Red-fronted Serins. With luck, we’ll also see Finsch’s Wheatear in the more open rocky areas. Night in a modest hotel in Mahdishahr.

Day 15: We’ll spend the early morning birding around the Parvar area where we’ll have the chance to catch up with any species we may have missed, and also hopefully encounter some new ones such as the hulking Crimson-winged Finch. Later we’ll drive on to Tehran. Night in Tehran.

Day 16: Those not taking the extension will transfer to the airport for the flight back to London where the tour ends later the same day.

Isfahan extension: 

Day 16:  Those taking the extension will leave this morning to drive directly to Isfahan, and after checking in at our hotel we’ll spend the remaining part of the day exploring this beautiful city, the third largest in Iran and famous for its carpets and handicrafts as well as its history and architecture. Our first port of call is likely to be one of the world’s grandest squares – the Maidan-e-Naghsh-e-Jahan - a massive open space defined by rows of elegant buildings and which still has goalposts from polo played there in the 17th century. 

Other places we’ll take in include the Ali-Qapu Palace, with its enchanting music rooms and balcony overlooking the Maidan from where the Safavid kings watched polo games; two of the Islamic world’s greatest mosques – the Sheikh Lotfollah and the Imam – each boasting magnificent architecture and tilework; and the Qeisarieh Bazaar with hundreds of shops displaying the arts and handicrafts for which Isfahan is world-famous. Night in Isfahan. 

Day 17: We’ll have a full but relaxed day devoted to sightseeing and soaking up the atmosphere. We’ll visit the famous bridges of Shahrestan, Khajou, and Sio-se-pol; the Armenian Quarter with several churches including the important Cathedral of Vank, and the magnificent Friday Mosque with the famous Uljaitu Mihrab (Prayer Niche) of the Il-Khanid period. The Friday Mosque is considered a museum of a thousand years of Persian religious architecture and ranks as another of the world’s greatest mosques. From here we’ll drive to the Chehel Sotun Palace, built by Shah Abbas II in the 17th century. Located at the end of a long pool, the name means Forty Columns which refers to the way its 20 columns are reflected in the pool. Night in Isfahan. 

Day 18:  We’ll drive back to Tehran today, and along the way we’ll stop at the charming town of Kashan to visit the historical Fin Garden. This beautiful garden was first planted during the Safavid period and kept alive with water from the nearby Sulaimanieh Spring and was expanded by the Zand and Qajar monarchs who added many open pavilions. We’ll also visit a fine example of a 19th century merchant’s residence known as Taba-Tabai House, a little gem of a building that has a beautiful stucco dome and some intricate inlaid mirror work. Later we’ll continue to Tehran. Night in Tehran. 

Day 19: This morning we’ll transfer to the airport for our flight back to London where the tour ends later the same day.



Updated: 01 December 2017