During the course of a business trip to western Kazakhstan in early April I flew from Germany to Aqtau, right at the coast of the Caspian Sea. The job assignment was to head inland the following day for a week of monitoring birds and reptiles, which goes to show just how hard some of us have to work for their dime. The shores of the Caspian Sea are excellent birding grounds, and I had great expectations and hopes for a few hours’ birding there. This was a business trip however, not a private holiday, and all my travel schedule allowed for at Aqtau – potentially, hopefully – were two short time windows:
after arrival at the airport and before my trip inland & after my return from the trip inland and before my departure. Complicated stuff.

The “before-period” was meant to go as follows: arrive from Germany in Aqtau at 2:00 in the morning. Get up at 6:00 am and bird until 9:00 am. Have breakfast at the hotel at 09:30 and be picked up by our local staff at 10:00 to head inland.
A reasonably good plan, I thought. Well, it wasn’t:
While 02:00 am Kazakhstan time was 11:00 pm German time and thus easily manageable, 06:00 am in Aqtau was 03:00 am in Germany. That’s a bit early to wake up for some birding, especially after just a few hours of uneasy sleep.
I slept in. Until 09:00 Aqtau time, which was a reasonable 06:00 am German time. I had a quick breakfast and was downstairs at 10 minutes past pick-up time.
Too bad.

The second period was much easier: we arrived back at Aqtau around noon, had our final meetings at the office and I was back at the hotel around 06:00 pm. My flight home was during the night, so there was no time for sleep anyway.
Good, no time to sleep is time to be birding, and so I evaluated my options: walk from the hotel inland for even more steppe birds than I had seen during the days before, or walk down to the coast?

I glanced out of my hotel window to gather more data on geography in order to come to a satisfying conclusion:

As the view from the hotel towards the steppes didn’t hold out the promise of getting inundated and overwhelmed by sheer masses of Demoiselle Cranes, Steppe Eagles, and Caspian Plovers upon leaving the hotel in this direction, I decided to head in a different direction – the opposite direction – towards the waterfront.

 

This turned out to be a good plan as the landscape’s birding promises here were also not in the direction of massive steppe bird congregations, but at least of some birds. Any birds. Whatsoever.
Waterbirds!

Kazakhstan had seen two days of extreme weather just before my return to Aqtau, with unusual amounts of rain and a severe storm. The Caspian Sea, a lake by definition, therefore had a surprisingly wild and wicked surf!

And in the middle of the waves, just beyond the rocky coast line, I soon spotted several small bundles of feathers negotiating the whitewater. To my utter surprise, these turned out to be scores of Black-necked Grebes. Now, I have seen these dark aquatic dynamos on numerous occasions and in a variety of habitats (mind you, all were aquatic).  On lakes, bays, lagoons, salt pans, you name it – but always on calm waters with a surface as smooth as glass.
Not so this time, and although there were other attractions at the waterfront, I must say that just watching these birds surf the waves was possibly the main attraction of the day, and one of the best images to take with me as a memory of a remarkable trip.

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Written by Jochen
Jochen Roeder was born in Germany and raised to be a birder. He also spent a number of years abroad, just so he could see more birds. One of his most astounding achievements is the comprehension that Yellow-crowned Night-herons do not exist, as he failed to see any despite birding in North America for more than two years. He currently lives near Heidelberg, one of the most boring places for a birder to live, a fact about which he likes to whinge a lot. When he is not birding or trying to convince his young son that patiently scanning some fields for migrants is more fun than working the jungle gym of a playground, he enjoys contemplating the reasoning behind the common names of birds. He first became famous in the bird blog world on Bell Tower Birding.