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The IBA lies in the Karatal flood-valley district of the Southern-Balkhash (Sary-Ishykotrau) semi-desert sandy plain, part of the large Ili-Balkhash-Alakol desert depression in south-eastern Kazakhstan, 350km from Almaty, near the village of Kopbirlik. The Southern Balkhash natural province is, in general, characterized by a harsh, essentially dry, continental climate with moderately snowy and cold winters (the average temperature of January is -12 to -15C) and dry hot summers. The annual precipitation is 100-150 mm. After the Ili river, the Karatal maintains the second largest flow among all the water courses of the Balkhash basin. Its flow is sustained mainly by melt water from the collective catchments of the upper Dzhungar Alatau and reaches a maximum in June-July. To the north of Zhalmandy village, from the point where the main stream is crossed by a bridge, the Karatal splits into branches and transient stretches of open water. The main watercourse passes to the west of Kopbirlik and enters Lake Balkash through an almost impenetrable reedbed. At the outer reaches of the river there is an array of waterbodies of varying size and hydrological regime. The largest lake is reckoned to be Kanbaktykol that was formed in the wake of a large deluge in the late 1950s. Along some parts of the flood valley there are stands of Elacagnus angustifolia, Populus diversiolia and Salix sp. riverine forest. The lower reaches of Karatal river run between two moderately sized sandy massifs – Bestas and Zhamanzhal – consisting of low ridges extending in the direction of what appears to be a wind-rose created by two major force lines consolidated by seasonal winds eroding the loose substate from the north-west and north-east alternately. The rate of eroding the sand massifs into separate strands of dunes varies from 3 to 30 m. The sands form the main area of interest and alternate here and there with plots of wetland habitat and stretches of clayey desert. The part of Lake Balkhash immediately connected to the Karatal estuary consists of expansive reedbeds. The shoreline has numerous small bays and coves with scattered small islands. Although on the whole a rather shallow waterbody, Lake Balkhash, in its eastern parts, reaches depths of 15 m, with a maximaum of 26.5 m. The maximal warming of upper stratum of the water (28-30oC) occurs in July. Freezing takes place in November, with ice reaching, at the final stage of the process, a thickness of 60-70 cm, and, in especially harsh winters up to 100 cm. In mild winters large stretches of water often remain unfrozen. Thawing starts in March, with the last remanats of ice disappearing in the second half of April. In the eastern parts of Lake Balkhash the water is brackish (up to 5%), has an emerald-tinted hue and is clear to a depth of 10-12 m. The waters of the Lake are characterized by a rather moderate level of bio-organic productivity determined, primarily, by fluctuations in the water's mineralization. Adjoining the Karatal delta there is a large number of lakes representing the remnants of the receded waters of Lake Balkhash. During periods of deep flooding these lakes reestablish their connections with Lake Balkhash.
Waders are the most numerous birds during the breeding season (June) - Himantopus himantopus and Vanellus vanellus- plus terns and ducks (Netta rufina, Anas platyrhynchos and Anas clypeata). Individual Casmeroides albus are also frequent. During autumn, and possibly spring, migration the lake complex supports hundreds of thousands of shore- and waterbirds. The cluster of lakes (Ashysu) on the left bank of the Karatal river appears to be the most important area. More than 70,000 birds, both local breeding birds and non-breeders from elsewhere (especially Bucephala clangula), have been recorded on the largest lake in this complex. It is assumed that towards the end of the autumn passage the lakes attract large numbers of birds from the remote northern regions. Since most the lakes contain very saline water, they may remain open as late as December. Passerines typicla of desert habitats are very common at the site. Frequently encountered raptors include Buteo rufinus, Haliaeetus albicilla, Aquila nipalensis, Aquila heliaca and Accipiter gentilis (on passage).
Non-bird biodiversity: The dense reedbeds of the shore zone and of the Karatal delta are inhabited by large populations of wild boar and roe deer. The sand dunes have abundant rodent populations, the most conspicuous of which appear to be susliks (Citellus), jerboas (Allactaga) and gerbils (Rhombomys opimus).
BirdLife International (2020) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Lower reaches of the Karatal River. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 19/02/2020.