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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Mongolia

Monday 1 June to Tuesday 16 June 2020
with Paul French as leader

Price: $4,950*

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Pallas’s Sandgrouse against a backdrop of Gobi Desert dunes Photo: James Lidster

Mongolia lies at the heart of the vast continent of Asia. It’s a land where nomadic horsemen still ride across windswept steppes, where shamanism and ancient Tibetan Buddhism still flourish, and where, according to legend, lies the last resting place of Chinggis Khan, leader of the once great Mongol empire. This exotic country is also full of natural wonders: the vast Gobi Desert, which covers one third of Mongolia; the endless steppes strewn with lakes; the picturesque Altai Mountains; and the rich taiga forest—all remote, beautiful, fascinating, and full of birds.

Our trip will be more than just a birding tour; it will be a true adventure.  From the capital city of Ulaanbaatar we’ll travel into a forgotten land, much of it unchanged for centuries, and, as befits a culture famous for its nomadic way of life, we’ll camp as we go. We’ll gaze upon stunning landscapes seen by few Westerners and on birds most Western birdwatchers can only dream about:  Upland Buzzard, Amur Falcon, Black-billed Capercaillie, Altai Snowcock, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Oriental Plover, Relict Gull, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Mongolian Lark, Blyth’s Pipit, Kozlov’s Accentor—the list goes on.

We’ll travel in 4x4 vehicles admirably suited to the terrain and stay in surprisingly comfortable camps that are testament to Mongolia’s nomadic heritage. We’ll mingle with the locals tending their flocks of sheep and cattle, much as they have done for cent centuries, and we’ll walk along pathways few have trodden.

Day 1: We begin this morning in Ulaanbaatar where we’ll meet with our translator and our 4x4 drivers, followed by a relaxed introduction to our birding with a visit to a local spot on the edge of the city. Species we can expect include Azure and White-crowned Penduline Tits, Demoiselle Crane, Ruddy Shelduck, Citrine Wagtail, and Isabelline Wheatear, while Pacific Swift and Amur Falcon hawk overhead. There may also be a few migrants such as Little Bunting or Siberian Rubythroat. We’ll then drive to Hustai National Park, an area of steppe and birch woodland about an hour west of the city. This is one of three locations in Mongolia where one can see Przewalski’s horses, ancient animals brought back from the edge of extinction many years ago through a captive breeding program. The open steppe is alive with stunning Mongolian Lark and the much plainer Asian Short-toed Lark, while Mongolian marmot and Brandt’s vole scurry across the grassland. On the hills there are Meadow Bunting and Blyth’s Pipit, while Saker and Golden Eagle hunt overhead and Black Vultures cruise the ridge tops. Around our comfortable ger camp we’ll find Tree Sparrow to be abundant, and the grounds are regularly visited by noisy Red-billed Chough. Night at Hustai National Park ger camp.

It was the experience of a lifetime. Wonderful birds, wonderful open spaces, cross country travel in SUVs, nights in spacious tents and gers, fed at times by an award-winning Mongolian chef. I was particularly interested in seeing shorebirds, and we saw 28 species, including all four stints, spotted redshanks, ruffs in breeding plumage, and the beautiful oriental plover.

Will Risser, May 2019

Day 2: After spending the first half of the morning birding around Hustai, we’ll drive west to Bayan Nuur in time for lunch and an afternoon of wandering around the rich wetlands. This saline lake is a hotspot for wildfowl and waders, and the small freshwater reedbeds hold breeding White-naped Crane, Whooper Swan, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Paddyfield Warbler, Baillon’s Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail, Common Reed and Pallas’s Reed Buntings (the latter the local form lydiae, a potential split as Mongolian Bunting), and Bearded Reedlings. The grassland around the lake may hold Eastern Short-toed Lark, and we’ll have to pay attention to the many Asian Short-toed Larks. The lake itself can be full of ducks and waders, attracting the attention of the local White-tailed Eagle. Night camping near Bayan Nuur.

Day 3: After a final check around the lake and marshes of Bayan Nuur, we’ll continue our journey south and west towards Ugii Nuur. This large lake holds good numbers of Stejneger’s Scoter, among other wildfowl, and is also a reasonably regular haunt of migrant Relict Gulls, although we would need some luck to find one. The journey around the lake should reveal many more Mongolian and Asian Short-toed Larks, as well as more unpredictable species such as Père David’s Snowfinch and Upland Buzzards, which will no doubt be keeping a close eye on the many rodents. After a picnic lunch on the lake’s shore, we’ll continue towards our hotel in the town of Arvaikheer. Night in Arvaikheer.

Day 4: After breakfast, we’ll investigate a local park for migrants and then drive south towards the fabled lake of Böön Tsagaan Nuur. We’ll aim to have our picnic lunch alongside a river bordered by woodland that has in the past proven attractive for migrants such as Asian Brown Flycatcher and Blyth’s Reed Warbler. We’ll then continue into the Gobi, heading off-road and into the desert. The journey may be enlivened by our first Pallas’s Sandgrouse or perhaps even Greater Sand Plover or a flock of feeding vultures. Once at the main lake of Böön Tsagaan, we’ll hopefully have time to do some birding before dinner. As long as it contains water, the river next to our camp site is usually a mecca for gulls, cormorants, spoonbills, and waders. Night camping near Böön Tsagaan Nuur.

Day 5: We’ll have a full day to explore the shores of Böön Tsagaan Nuur. During breakfast we may be treated to a passage of Pallas’s Sandgrouse as they come to the small river near our camp to drink, and from then onwards the day should just get better. This is one of the most reliable sites in the world for seeing Relict Gull in breeding plumage; however, they are nomadic and never guaranteed. There will be plenty of other birds to keep us occupied, including large numbers of Mongolian Gulls with many Pallas’s Gulls among them, plus Caspian and Gull-billed terns, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Egret, and migrant shorebirds such as Asian Dowitcher, Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Long-toed Stint. Every year is different, and we never know what we might find. Rarities in previous years have included the first Intermediate Egret for Mongolia! Even without these rarities, the lake is a very reliable site for species such as Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Swan Goose, the latter often in mixed flocks with Bar-headed Geese and the eastern form of Greylag Geese. We have also found Baillon’s Crakes out in the open, and it can be an excellent site to get views of Pacific Swift and the pekinensis form of Common Swift feeding low over the marshes. Migrant passerines may also feature, from Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers trying to hide in the short grass to Red-throated or Dusky Thrushes feeding along the small river. We may also be lucky enough to find the stunning white-headed leucocephala variety of Yellow Wagtail, the easternmost and probably rarest of the Western Yellow Wagtail forms. Night camping near Böön Tsagaan Nuur.

Day 6: After breakfast andpossibly some birding around the camp area, we’ll set off for Orog Nuur, a large ephemeral lake at the foot of Ikh Bogd Mountain in the Gobi Altai Mountains. Around late morning and a third of the way there, we should reach a small lake and reedbed where species such as Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, White-winged Tern, Temminck’s Stint, and Paddyfield and Oriental Reed Warblers are all possible, as is the most easterly Savi’s Warbler in the world. We have also discovered that this marsh seems to hold breeding Water Rails and can be another excellent site for Baillon’s Crake. Moving onwards through the Gobi towards Orog Nuur, we should have time to look for that most fabled of desert inhabitants, Henderson’s Ground Jay. These striking birds prefer bushy areas in the desert, and we’ll be passing a couple of such areas on our way to the lake and our campsite along the lakeshore. On arrival at the lake we should have time for some lakeside birding, as this site holds Eurasian Bittern as well as an array of migrating waders. After dinner, we’ll be lulled to sleep by the sounds of booming bittern, “wikking” Black-tailed Godwit, and singing Richard’s Pipit and Asian Short-toed Lark. Night camping at Orog Nuur.

Day 7: Today promises to be special. We’ll take our 4x4 vehicles to ascend Ikh Bogd Mountain, the highest mountain of the Gobi Altai, reaching almost 13,000 feet. We’ll have looked up at this the previous day, and today we’ll be gazing down on Orog Nuur from close to the summit. This is a mountain very rarely visited by birders, and we’ll be doing a bit of pioneering in our birding today. Altai Snowcock are present in decent numbers, and we stand a good chance of looking down on one or two of these bulky birds. Other possibilities up here include Brown, Alpine, and Altai Accentors, Güldenst?dt’s Redstart, and the highly localised sushkini form of Asian Rosy-finch. There is also an outside chance of the highly desired and enigmatic Hodgson’s Bushchat, although it must be stressed this is by no means guaranteed. Even more outrageous would be a sighting of either Snow Leopard or Pallas’s Cat, both of which can be present. Whatever delights await us, we’ll be among the few Western birders to have visited this sacred mountain. On the way down we should have time for a few stops along the canyon with Black Redstart, Grey-necked Bunting, and Mongolian Finch firmly in our sights and perhaps even our first chance of spotting Kozlov’s Accentor. Night camping at Orog Nuur.

Day 8: Leaving the fabulous surroundings of Orog Nuur, we have a long drive through some stunning desert scenery to the Khongoryn Els, known as the “Singing Sands,” a succession of huge sand dunes that stretches for about sixty miles. Out here we’ll feel very much in the middle of nowhere, but birds are available for the sharp-eyed. Desert Wheatears and Pallas’s Sandgrouse should be seen in a few places, and if we haven’t already managed to catch up with them, we can certainly expect to find Henderson’s Ground Jay. These characterful birds are found at low density but usually perch atop bushes between rapid chases along the desert floor. We’ll also be on the lookout for black-tailed and Mongolian gazelles, both of which can occasionally be seen kicking up the dust as they sprint over the desert dunes. We’ll squeeze through a narrow canyon which should provide us with nesting Crag Martin, Mongolian Finch, and Upland Buzzard, but the view as we emerge into the desert beyond is worth the drive alone. We’ll arrive at our ger camp where we can enjoy a sundowner and admire the views of the dunes with a cold Golden Gobi beer in hand. Night in Gobi Erdene ger camp.

Day 9: The Khongoryn Els, one of the world’s largest sand dune complexes, is contained within the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. At the foot of the main dunes is a small stream with grazing meadows. Here familiar species such as Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, and Common Redshank breed alongside Long-legged Buzzard, Richard’s Pipit, and Steppe Grey Shrike. The fresh water can also act as a magnet for tired migrants. A nearby river that forms a boundary between the marshes and some smaller dunes is a regular haunt of the enigmatic Saxaul Sparrow as well as Desert Wheatear, while the subtly marked Hill Pigeon may be seen dropping into drink. From here we journey further south, passing through a mountainous area which is favored by chukars, before we descend into a wide wash that features Asian Desert Warbler. While looking for these, we are sure to see beautifully patterned variegated toad-headed agamas scurrying over the ground, flashing their tails scorpion-like when threatened. Moving ever southwards, we may stop at a village where migrants should feature and then move onwards and into the deep Gobi where the flatter and more barren areas are the haunt of Oriental Plover. We’ll make a concerted effort to find this prize, one of the world’s most enigmatic shorebirds. The white heads of the males stand out like beacons in the desert, and with luck we may even be treated to their bizarre, wing-rocking display flight. We’ll spend the night at a tourist ger camp. Here, poplar trees bordering the camp provide not only shelter but—as the only trees for miles around—also act as another kind of magnet for passing migrants. Over the years we have seen a large variety of birds here, including many warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, and buntings, and there have been many unforgettable moments, such as seeing a White’s Thrush bobbing up and down in front of us or a Siberian Rubythroat on a walk to the shower block! New species for Mongolia, such as Forest Wagtail and Black Drongo, have also been found here, and in 2007 our group found the first Red Collared Dove for the country. Night in Juulchin Gobi ger camp.

Day 10: After an early breakfast and quick check of what migrants are lurking in the trees, we’ll drive back into the nearby Gobi Altai and Yolyn Am, or “Valley of the Vulture.” Once at Yolyn Am the birding steps up a gear. This can be a bird-rich valley, and we’ll spend most of the day walking along the flat valley bottom where species such as the near-endemic Kozlov’s Accentor can be found alongside Brown and Alpine Accentors; Common and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches; Godlewski’s Bunting; Twite, Blyth’s, and Water Pipits; Common Rock-thrush; and the red-bellied form of Black Redstart. White-winged Snowfinches are abundant, and this is also one of the best places in the country to see wallcreepers, with several pairs in a small area often showing at eye level for extended periods. In some years we have also seen Great Rosefinch in the valley. Overhead we should see Lammergeiers and Himalayan Vultures. This valley can also act as a migrant trap, and the stream and rough grass could hold thrushes, warblers, and buntings. For those whose interests widen to include mammals and reptiles, this is also the best place to look for Halys pit viper, whose presence is often revealed by the mobbing of wheatears. We should also be treated to great views of various ground squirrels and endearing pikas, while Siberian ibex inhabit the cliffs above us. This is also another location for Altai Snowcock, and while scanning the ridge tops, we’ll be conscious that both Pallas’s Cat and Snow Leopard are once again possible but seeing their prey is far more likely. Back at the camp we’ll check out the trees once more, where the list of migrants could include Pallas’s Leaf, Two-barred, Arctic, Thick-billed, and Dusky Warblers, as well as Brown Shrike, Hawfinch, and Common Rosefinch. Daurian Shrikes nest in the grounds, and in the evenings small gatherings of Lesser Kestrels return to roost nearby, sometimes joined by Amur Falcons. Night in Juulchin Gobi ger camp.

Day 11: After an early morning birding around the ger camp, we’ll begin our long journey back north towards the capital and then beyond to Gun-Galuut Nature Preserve. This drive will take all day, with time for a few short stops and lunch along the way. Before we reach our ger camp, we’ll pass some small lakes where we often find Stejneger’s White-winged Scoters, garganey, and a surprise or two. For example, in 2018 we found the first Velvet Scoter for Mongolia! It can be a good area for waders, too, with Red-necked Stint being a realistic target among the more common Little Stints, while Broad-billed Sandpipers could number into double figures. This is another reliable site for White-naped Cranes, and impressive flocks of Demoiselle Cranes can fill the sky. Night at a ger camp at Gun Galuut.

Day 12: A small area of riverside bushes in the grounds is yet another reliable spot for migrants, and we’ll take time to investigate these before breakfast. Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, and even Chinese Bush Warblers have all been found here in the past. After breakfast we’ll journey into the hills and beyond a large marsh area, checking that all the large white birds aren’t “just” Whooper Swans, as in some years Siberian Crane has been seen here. Once in the hills we have further chances of Père David’s Snowfinch, but the main reason we are here is to see the world’s largest sheep, the Argali. These can be common, and we may be lucky with other smaller mammals as well, such as Daurian ground squirrel or even a Siberian jerboa. On leaving the camp we pass the lakes again, and, as it is migration season, we’ll see if anything new has dropped in overnight. This will be our last chance for wildfowl and waders, and we may be rewarded with a Slavonian Grebe, Falcated Duck, or Terek Sandpiper. From there we go off-road once more, pausing to investigate a rocky outcrop for territorial Common Rock-thrush and nesting Steppe Eagle. We soon find ourselves surrounded by trees as we reach the start of the Siberian taiga forest. We’ll spend a few hours investigating a patch of woodland that has become quite reliable in recent years for one of the most famous and hard to find inhabitants of the eastern taiga: the Black-billed Capercaillie. This will also be a great place to find Pine Bunting, with males singing from the tops of small trees. From here we continue to our award-winning ger camp where we’ll spend the next three nights. Night at Jalman Meadows ger camp.

Days 13-14: Jalman Meadows is surrounded by excellent and varied habitat which we’ll take time to explore. The habitat varies from riparian poplar forest to larch-covered hillsides, all home to an exciting array of species including Daurian Partridge; Black Grouse (whose wonderful bubbling calls can be heard from our gers); Common and Oriental Cuckoos; Grey-headed, Lesser-spotted, and Black Woodpeckers; Eurasian Wryneck; Siberian Rubythroat; Red-flanked Bluetail; Stejneger’s Stonechat; Red-throated Thrush; Daurian Jackdaw; White-cheeked Starling; Azure and Willow Tits; Dusky, Yellow-browed, and Two-barred Warblers; Black-faced Bunting; and the attractive Long-tailed Rosefinch. If we fail on the first afternoon, we’ll also dedicate an early morning to looking for Black-billed Capercaillie. For those wanting to take it easy, Jalman Meadows is a great place to relax or to try your hand at Mongolian archery or horseback riding! Each ger is equipped with a wood-burning stove, and, should the weather turn inclement, there is always someone on hand to light it for you—even first thing in the morning. Jalman Meadows is designed to have an ultra-low impact on the environment and is a perfect place to unwind in the mountains while surrounded by some great birds. Nights at Jalman Meadows ger camp.

Day 15: We’ll have another morning around the ger camp enjoying the exciting species of this area before setting out for our return to Ulaanbaatar, possibly locating a family of Ural Owls on our way. We’ll aim to be back in the city in late afternoon after a stop at the very imposing Chinggis Khan statue. Before dinner there will be the chance to attend a Mongolian cultural show, complete with traditional dancing and throat singers. Night in Ulaanbaatar.

Day 16: The tour concludes this morning in Ulaanbaatar.

Updated: 12 July 2019

Prices

  • 2020 Tour Price : $4,950
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $670

Notes

This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.

Questions? The Tour Manager for this tour is Erin Olmstead. Call 1-866-547-9868 or 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

We can assist with booking extra nights at our Ulaanbaatar hotel and airport transfers upon request.  

Maximum group size 10 with one leader. 

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