(Posted on behalf of Geoff Welch - International Management Plans Adviser.  Geoff works in the RSPB's Partner Development Unit (Africa, Asia and UK Overseas Territories)

Amankutan - 6-7 June

The difference between Ayakaghitma and Amankutan couldn’t have been more marked!  Ayakaghitma was hot and dry, Amankutan was mountains, greenery and an exceedingly pleasant temperature.  Situated at over 1,000 m there were even small patches of snow on the highest areas and the whole site was backed by the distant snow-capped peaks of the Zarafshan range and the Pamirs.  Where Ayakaghitma required a plus hour drive, Amankutan is within an hour of Samarkand.  And where the Ayakghitma meeting was small, almost 200 villagers were waiting for us at the local school and we had coverage by the local press and Samarkand TV!

Supporting our core team, this time we were joined by Leyla Belyalova and Simeon Fundukchiev who will be managing this part of the project.  Our transport was a Daewoo microbus into which we somehow squeezed six people, our luggage and several kilogrammes of rice and vegetables for the inevitable plov!  Our driver, Dilmurod, was the local Environmental Specialist of the State Biological Control Unit and, judging by the speed he drove at, he clearly has aspirations to be a formula one racing driver and is probably an ace at rapid reaction computer games given the way he swerved around the numerous potholes that dotted our route!

As in the Ayakaghitma meeting, the importance of the area for supporting local livelihoods came across very strongly, especially people’s reliance on livestock for meat and dairy products. Also being close to Samarkand, there is tourism potential of large numbers of people using the area for relaxation and recreation.  A long list of issues was also compiled though the majority centred around the need for controlled grazing and tree cutting to maintain and begin to restore the forest and these are likely to be the items that the project will focus on in the coming months.

 We spent the night at Dilmurod’s house and were out early the following morning for a few hours birdwatching walking from the pass that marks the boundary between Samarkand and Kashkadarya provinces back to Amankutan village through mixed juniper, walnut and hawthorn forest and scrub.  Nightingales seemed to be everywhere, closely followed by lesser whitethroats, though the latter had a very different song to the birds in the UK.  Also prominent were red-headed and chestnut-breasted buntings and spotted flycatchers.  Several of the woodland birds seemed at first sight to be familiar but closer inspection showed that the tits flitting around were actually Turkestan and yellow-breasted tits rather than great and blue tits and the woodpeckers were white-winged not great spotted.  A sudden high pitched ‘kee, kee’ kee’ from overhead turned out to be a hobby beating up a pale phase booted eagle which was obviously flying through the hobby’s territory.  Then a flash of bright chestnut and white in the tree tops transformed itself into a splendid male Asiatic paradise flycatcher but the ornithological highlight of the morning was finding a singing male chaffinch!  Chaffinches are usually only winter visitors to Uzbekistan so quite what this one was doing in June raises some interesting questions – was it a one off summering bird or could there be a small, undiscovered breeding population? The habitat certainly looks ideal. Only time and more research will tell.

The other exciting news that we learned just before we returned to Samarkand is that approval has recently been given for establishing part of the Amankutan valley as a protected area which will help safeguard this very special area for future generations to enjoy.