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, although we will also allow time to sample Iran’s rich cultural heritage.
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, and look for the striking Crab Plover on the shores of the Gulf. 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) or even a rare Asian Cheetah.
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 IKA 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, Chestnut-shouldered 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.
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, Great Thick-knee, and the striking Crab Plover which winters here in small numbers along with a variety of other waders and waterbirds. 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, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin and, with luck, Grey-necked Bunting. Nights in Minab.
Day 5: Today we 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 are 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 long one with a morning transfer to the airport for a flight to Tehran. Upon arrival in Tehran we’ll be picked up by our 4x4 vehicles for the drive 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 simple local hotel.
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 Persian, Pied, Northern and Finsch’s Wheatears. Nights at 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. Later we’ll continue to Sari, the capital of Mazandaran province, for an overnight stay.
Days 12-13: We 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, See-see Partridge, Black-bellied and Crowned Sandgrouse, Desert, Bar-tailed and Crested Larks, Pale Crag Martin, Trumpeter Finch, Steppe Grey Shrike, Asian Desert Warbler, Scrub Warbler, Desert Wheatear, Masked Wagtail, Desert Finch, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, and, with luck, Cream-coloured Courser and Hooded Wheatear. Early in the season, migrants including Green Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatchers pass through the region and we also hope to find the rare Onager (Asian Wild Ass). A few Asiatic Cheetahs still roam these remote steppes but with less than 100 remaining in the wild in Iran our chances of finding one are equally remote. Nights at Qale Bala.
Day 14: We leave Touran and drive westward to return to Tehran. En-route we’ll stop in some places near Parvar Protected Area to look for more birds, notably White-throated Robin, Pale Rock Sparrow and Trumpeter Finches. Night in Tehran.
Day 15: Those not taking the extension will transfer to the airport for the flight back to London where the tour ends later the same day.
Day 15: 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 16: We 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 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 17: We 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 for the night.
Day 18: We transfer to the airport for our flight back to London where the tour ends later the same day.
Updated: 22 November 2016