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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mongolia

2017 Narrative

It was a grey and drizzly day when the group arrived.  Grim for a holiday but perfect for a fall of birds close to the airport!  In just a couple of hours around the power station cooling ponds we saw Swan Geese, Long-toed and Temminck’s Stints, Eastern Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, Falcated Duck, Demoiselle Crane, Pacific Swifts, over 100 Citrine Wagtails, Pallas’s and Little Buntings, and both Asian Brown and Taiga Flycatchers, the latter perching on any wall, rock, railway line or sign post they could find! A great start to the tour, and before an early dinner and some much-needed sleep prior to an early flight to the Gobi the following morning.

Our flight was on time and we headed straight to Yolyn Am where the birds came thick and fast:  White-winged Snowfinches, Brown and Kozlow’s Accentors, Chinese Beautiful and Common Rosefinches, Lammergeier, Himalayan Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon, Twite, Chukar, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Mongolian Finch, Dusky Thrush and Brown Shrikes.

Yolyn Am is always one of the highlights of the trip, and our early flight meant we would have a second visit to the valley the following day. The plan being to get up early and try for Altai Snowcock. However, we searched in the afternoon and within 10 minutes of scanning we had already found two! We could even hear them singing from their rocky outcrops high on the mountain ridge. This was a great way to end the day.

But there was still time for a few more birds. Firstly, a male Siberian Rubythroat hiding behind two blades of grass in the middle of the desert, and in the trees at our Ger camp we saw a stunning Eyebrowed Thrush, many Pallas’s Leaf and Dusky Warblers, Little Buntings, another even more obliging Siberian Rubythroat, Amur Falcon and Lesser Kestrels and several pairs of Daurian Shrike.

The next day was clear and boded well for a good day’s birding in the mountains. We didn’t need to rush as we had seen the snowcock well. Firstly, we were treated to the spectacle of a displaying Oriental Plover very close to our camp. We were mesmerized for half an hour as one male rocked from side to side in the air at a great height, sometimes coming overhead allowing us to hear it calling and making strange clicking noises (bill or wings?) The female must have been impressed, as we certainly were! Such a privilege to see this species, miles from anywhere and looking almost like a seabird as it flew large circuits around the desert.

We had to drag ourselves away, of course.  This time to see an Oriental Honey Buzzard sitting on the desert, presumably having roosted on the ground the previous night. Then onwards to Yolyn Am, only for a perched Cinereous Vulture to slow us down again. Once at the valley we enjoyed more of the same from yesterday but we also had a list of targets to see throughout the day. High on that list was Wallcreeper and we eventually saw several, although nothing could have prepared us for the sight of one sitting on a dead baby Siberian Ibex. Seemingly collecting nest material, or possibly insects, it was a macabre but fascinating piece of behaviour. Elsewhere we saw Godlewski’s and Black-faced Buntings, some of the group saw Alpine Accentors, and a Sulphur-bellied Warbler finally showed well. Migration was much in evidence as, whilst watching a breeding Black Redstart or Red-billed Chough, a Daurian Redstart or Dusky Warbler would drop into view.

After another night at our nearby Ger camp (with a surprise Corsac Fox visiting the camp after dinner) we headed west to the impressive Khongoryn Els Dunes, seeing several Oriental Plovers and Pallas’s Sandgrouse on the journey. The biggest surprise of the afternoon was a mammal, in the form of an Asian Wild Ass (Onager), seen running away from the dunes and out of sight in the heat haze. There is a small water source at the base of the dunes and here we encountered our first Hill Pigeons along with Citrine Wagtails and lots of Asian Short-toed Larks. We spent the night at a Ger camp close to the dunes, close enough to appreciate their beauty yet far enough not to have insects drawn to the water.

We were back again the following morning and this time our target was the stunning Saxaul Sparrow. In the past they have nested in rusty pipes and the toilet block, but this year a male was singing from the small thorn-covered dunes – much more authentic! Nearby we saw Asian Desert Warbler, Steppe Grey Shrike, Desert Wheatear, Oriental Turtle Dove – all to a backdrop of displaying Common Snipe, Common Redshank and Northern Lapwing.

Leaving the cold drinks and hot showers of the Ger camp behind it was time for our adventure to turn up a notch. We headed north driving across seemingly unnavigable featureless desert and seeing our first Mongolian Ground Jays and more Pallas’s Sandgrouse. After passing a small town for a fuel stop we made our way into the mountains, a narrow gorge being the only road to the northern side of the mountain range. Our camp that first night wasn’t expected to be bird-rich and, apart from seeing Horned Larks and Isabelline Wheatears, we were seemingly alone. After a filling breakfast the next morning we were soon on our way again. The lake of Orog Nuur was visible in the distance and held water (which is never guaranteed). It seemed so close but we had to carefully pick our way through soft sand and winding dirt tracks through the low scrub.

Once at the lake we were keen to start birding, and not long after lunch we had already found our first Asian Dowitchers, ‘booming’ Eurasian Bittern, more Demoiselle Cranes, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Swan Geese, Eastern Marsh Harrier and flocks of White-winged Terns. Our backdrop to dinner that evening, and again before we woke up, were scores of Radde’s Toads plus singing Richard’s Pipit and Eastern Yellow Wagtails.

You could spend weeks exploring Orog Nuur but further west is the even more exciting Boon Tsagaan Nuur, and after breaking camp we were on the ‘road’ again. First, we stopped to enjoy more Mongolian Ground Jays before arriving at a small spring which held breeding Slavonian Grebe, Bar-headed Geese, Red-crested Pochard, Oriental Reed Warbler and a surprise Tawny Pipit, as well as Greater Sandplover and scores of common waterfowl including Garganey and Northern Pintail.

Once at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, and like every other day-camping, we were told by the ground crew to go birding so they could set up the camp unhindered by our ‘help’. They set up camp close to the stream that feeds the lake and within no time we had seen several Pallas’s Fish Eagles including one right over our heads. The stream itself, with its steep muddy banks and shingle islands, was home to breeding Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, but more surprising was a migrant Dusky x Nuamann’s Thrush hybrid and a Terek Sandpiper both of which dropped in briefly. As always there were many Great Cormorants, Grey Herons, Mongolian Gulls, and Common Terns - all using the stream as a corridor between the lake and their breeding grounds somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In contrast to the rest of the tour we were suddenly seeing more Pallas’s Sandgrouse here. They have been common everywhere but during the last couple of years, perhaps due to more winter rainfall,  they have been in smaller numbers than normal.

After another excellent dinner, washed down with red wine and Mongolian Golden Gobi beer, we fell asleep only to be awoken to the sound of singing larks. The air was full of Asian Short-toed and Horned Lark song, and a Siberian Chiffchaff and Olive-backed Pipit had taken our tents to be the closest thing to a migrant stop-over, while Pallas’s Fish Eagles were dotted amongst the livestock.

Today we had one special target to see, Relict Gull. It took a couple of hours of searching through Pallas’s Gulls, Caspian and Little Terns, Black-crowned Night Herons, Swan and Bar-headed Geese, Goosander and waders, and there it was, a beautiful adult Relict Gull. Noticeably larger than the Black-headed Gull standing next to it, but it had a jet-black head and white eye-lids. Gulls aren’t to everyone’s liking however this was a stunner!

With the pressure off, we had a relaxing lunch by our camp and a chance to shower. This was most welcome as the temperature had increased considerably. In the afternoon we explored further afield, finding another pair of Relict Gulls, Asian Desert Warbler, and more Asian Dowitchers.

The distances we were covering each day weren’t huge but the journeys could take some time due to the difficult terrain. Today was no exception and so it was that we left the lake behind, knowing that a hotel with hot running water, power for charging camera batteries, and cold drinks was waiting for us. We still managed to do some birding en route, seeing Lesser Kestrels and lots of Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Steppe Eagles, and Père David’s Snowfinches. A short stop in Bayankhongor produced Arctic and Hume’s Warblers, Siberian and Spotted Flycatchers, and our first tarmac road for over a week.

Cleaned, refreshed, and recharged we set off to our last campsite with the aim of reaching Bayan Nuur by the afternoon. Our first stop en route was to a small wetland. Here we saw flocks of geese, breeding White-naped Cranes, Eastern Marsh Harriers, summer plumage Black-throated Divers, and more Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Oriental Reed Warblers, and White-winged Terns. We were all now used to riding along bumpy roads but the next section took some beating, or perhaps WE took some beating! Thankfully it didn’t last long and soon we were surrounded by singing Mongolian Larks - surely one of the best larks in the world?

The water level at Bayan Nuur was low, but this wasn’t a problem. Within minutes we had seen an adult White-tailed Eagle, Paddyfield Warblers, Pallas’s and Common Reed Buntings, Bearded Tits, another couple of pairs of White-naped Crane, and a great selection of ducks including a fine drake Falcated Duck.

After our last camping breakfast, it was time to say goodbye to most of our ground crew who had looked after us so well for the last week. The tents were erected for us, we certainly didn’t go hungry, we got to shower every two days, our beds were made for us, and we rarely had to carry our own bags - not really camping when you look at it like that!

Our journey took us back the capital then on to Gun Galuut. Despite, or because of, the increasing wind there were a few surprises at the lakes. Best of all was a Grey-tailed Tattler, but resplendent Red-necked Stints amongst the Littles were much appreciated, as were Long-tailed Duck and Red-necked Grebe alongside Stejneger’s Scoter.

The grazing marsh at Gun Galuut held more White-naped Cranes and Whooper Swans, Asian Dowitcher and large numbers of Mongolian and Eurasian Skylarks. Our mammal list increased as well with Argali Sheep and Mongolian Marmots.

It’s always good to save Jalman Meadows until the end of the tour, although not always possible with flight schedules being as they are in Mongolia. Here we settle into a secluded camp, set close to a wooded river valley and surrounded by ridges covered in coniferous trees. For the second year our local guide came up trumps by finding us two male Black-billed Capercaillies! He made us work a little bit harder than last year, but it was worth it. We weren’t far from the road when, in the middle of the afternoon, we spotted them, motionless for a while before slowly slinking off into the depths of the forest. In that forest half of the group even stumbled upon a Wolf before it, too, vanished.

So, not only having seen one of the best birds in Mongolia, we were also staying at the best Ger camp. We celebrated our day with Chinggis vodka, Gobi beer, and French wine, as well as some delicious food. After dinner we could have fires in our gers, or wake up to having someone light a fire for us. Can’t think of a better, or warmer, way to wake up.

Birding around Jalman is always great and over the course of a day and a half we saw Ural Owl, Black Grouse, Grey-headed, Lesser spotted and Black Woodpeckers, Daurian Partridge, Eurasian Wryneck, Azure and Willow Tit, Red-throated Thrush, seemingly endless Siberian Rubythroats, Blyth’s and Olive-backed Pipits, Long-tailed Rosefinch, White-cheeked Starling, Oriental and Common Cuckoos, Brown Shrikes, Lesser and Common Whitethroats.

The resident Isabelline Wheatear at the Ger camp is also noteworthy. Not only had he mastered other bird calls but he was also very adept at impersonating a horse, motorbike horn, and what sounded like a girl crying!

We could have stayed at Jalman for days, perhaps making the most of the library ger, the massage ger or even the sauna ger. But as all good things must come to an end we made our way back to Ulaanbaatar, stopping for lunch at the Chinggis Khaan statue, before finding time to repack our bags and enjoy a cultural show in the city.

Mongolia continues to attract more tourists, and rightly so as it really is a very special country. It’s always a treat to go birding there but the trip is made all the more enjoyable by Man (our translator) and the rest of our ground crew. Man was always on hand to share his knowledge and love of his country, as well as becoming more of a birder each year and answering all our requests with a seemingly tireless smile - good practice for the coming months as his baby daughter Amu was born just a couple of weeks after the tour!

Created: 03 July 2017