Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Watching Warblers: A bird lover’s delight in Kabul

Mark Mallalieu 4 min

Did you think the vast, loud and smoggy capital of Afghanistan was the last place to watch birds? Think again. With its parks and gardens, it is an oasis for tired migrants in the otherwise rocky and dry region. Siberian Chiffchaffs, Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Bluethroats, Hoopoes and many more – they all come to rest here from April to early summer. Why we know all of this? Because AAN guest author Mark Mallalieu, head of the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) in Kabul, is a passionate bird watcher and happy to share. He explains the wonders one can discover on Kabul compounds, offers help identifying what you see – and donates some of his lucky snapshots for the slideshow you will find embedded into the text ( to find the information on each bird go to full screen mode and click ‘Show info’).

Paddyfield Warbler, seen by Mark Mallalieu at ISAF HQ

As Kabul’s trees came to life this spring they attracted thousands of small insectivorous birds, which had spent the winter in the Indian subcontinent. From early spring they moved north-west across the subcontinent, probably programmed genetically to stay south of the Karakorum and Pamirs, which are too high and inhospitable for small birds to cross safely. Thus their route takes them through Pakistan’s Punjab region and across to Afghanistan, including Kabul. They will breed in the Central Asian republics, Russia and even countries in central Europe.

Much of this part of Afghanistan is far from ideal for small birds with high metabolic rates, travelling thousands of kilometres across land just emerging from winter, and needing to feed up prior to breeding. So you might have thought that Kabul was almost the last place to watch birds – however, Afghanistan’s capital city is in fact an oasis of parks and gardens for tired migrants.

If you have never noticed this invasion, it’s because many of the species are smaller than sparrows, their plumages are dull shades of green and brown and they flit around barely noticed in the trees and shrubs around us.

The commonest species are warblers: Siberian Chiffchaffs, Hume’s Leaf Warblers, Greenish Warblers and Blyth’s Reed Warblers. The first three arrive here in early April, the last-named in early May. All but the first call and sing almost incessantly. Others warblers arrive in smaller numbers: Lesser Whitethroats, Hume’s Whitethroats, Sulphur-bellied Warblers and Paddyfield Warblers. The Sulphur-bellied Warbler likes rocky places so in Kabul it hunts for insects on walls instead. Paddyfield Warblers do like marshes, but here they seem happy in the city trees.

Delightful for the watcher, some birds are more brightly-coloured: rainbow-hued Bee-eaters or Hoopoes (black and white striped wings and a big floppy crest) for example. Bluethroats, with their distinctive throat pattern of red and blue, hop around the flowerbeds and lawns. There are vivid yellow and black Indian Golden Orioles, which also breed here, Long-tailed Shrikes, which relish the many moths and beetles, bright orange and black Siberian Stonechats and Red-throated Flycatchers in the trees, calling constantly with their urgent buzzing notes.

Actually, the females of the last two species are brown and the same is true for the Common Rosefinches, which migrate through in their thousands, forming large, flighty flocks, settling mainly in the tree-tops. The males are bright brick red or pink.

If you are from Europe or north Asia, you may see a bird that will remind you of your garden at home: a Blackbird. A few seem to pass through Kabul and probably breed close by.(1) Another such reminder of home is the Barn Swallow, which stays to breed alongside smaller numbers of Red-rumped Swallows and Little Swifts.

By early June the migrants have gone, just as suddenly as they arrived, leaving only the breeding birds. With this article appearing in the summer, the trees on your compound, will already be much quieter, but don’t worry: the migrants should be on their return journeys from the end of July through to September or October.

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As fas as I can tell, the best trees in which to find the insectivorous migrant warblers are Siberian Elms and fruit trees. Walnut trees seem especially favoured as they seem to have heavy aphid infestations. Many common exotic trees like the Tree of Heaven and Locust Trees, are largely avoided. The dense evergreen Turkish Pines are used as safe roosting sites by small birds.

So few people have ever studied birds in and around Kabul that there are undoubtedly exciting discoveries to be made. For example, a few days ago I saw two small white and buff-coloured herons flying over my house. These were Squacco Herons, a species not previously known to occur in Afghanistan. Perhaps they have colonised from Tajikistan, where they breed. Part of the fun of bird-watching is that almost every time to go out you learn something new – about what birds occur in your local area or maybe where they nest or what they eat. Walk around the building where you live or work: are there birds nesting in any holes in the walls? Are they feeding young?

If you want to take pictures, not only watch, I recommend a simple compact camera with at least a x20 zoom lens. Compare the pictures you take with images from the internet of the birds I’ve mentioned in article: that’s an easy way to identify what you’ve found above. To take really good photos, however, you’ll need an SLR camera with a telephoto lens of at least 400mm. I now use a Canon SLR with a 50mm-500mm lens, though the pictures with this article were mainly taken with a 200mm lens as I’d left the larger lens at home in the UK, not imagining I’d ever need it here.
Ideally, use binoculars as well. At the risk of stating the obvious, optical equipment could arouse suspicion, so make sure people around you know what you are doing and that, if needed, you have permission to take photos. If you can get it, there is a wonderful new field guide titled Birds of Central Asia by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer and Tobias Roth, published by Helm.(2)

Of course, you may well find birds I’ve not talked about, including the common, mainly resident species like Rose-ringed Parakeet, Common Myna, Common Magpie, Collared Dove, Laughing Dove and Tree Sparrow.

That’s a taster. There’ll be lots more species around the edges of Kabul where there are wetlands or farmland. I’d be very keen to learn what you see. Photos are especially useful if you are not sure what you have found. Please send them via AAN.

(1) Editor’s note. We saw many on a walk in early June up the partially wooded river valley above Istalif. It is north of and at a higher altitude than Kabul. [Later addendum: We heard many and saw a few in a wooded valley outside Bamian city in May 2016, even higher than Kabul, but not in Bamian city which is still significantly higher than Kabul.]

(2) Birds of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan. Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer and Tobias Roth, October 2012. Order for example from here


Birds nature species warblers