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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Mongolia

Tuesday 21 May to Wednesday 5 June 2019
with Paul French as leader

Price: $4,900*

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

Lying right at the heart of the vast continent of Asia is Mongolia, 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 Khaan, leader of the once-great Mongol empire. This exotic country is 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 are remote, beautiful, fascinating, and full of birds. 

Our trip here will be more than just another 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 admire stunning landscapes seen by few Westerners, and birds most Western birdwatchers can only dream about: Upland Buzzard, Amur Falcon, Black-billed Capercaillie, Altai Snowcock, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Oriental Plover, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Mongolian Lark, Blyth’s Pipit, Kozlov’s Accentor … the list goes on. 

Our local agents are skilled at showing this wonderful country to groups. We’ll travel in 4x4 vehicles admirably suited to the terrain and stay in superb camps that are testament to Mongolia’s nomadic heritage. We’ll mingle with the locals as they tend their sheep and cattle, much as they have done for centuries, and we’ll walk along pathways few outsiders have trodden. 

Day 1: The tour begins this morning in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia. We’ll meet up with our translator and have a relaxed introduction to birding in Mongolia, with a visit to some local lakes on the edge of the city. Species we can expect to see include Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline Tit, Demoiselle Crane, Ruddy Shelduck, Citrine Wagtail and Isabelline Wheatear. A small lake can hold a lot of waterfowl and we’ll check carefully for anything special like a Falcated Duck or Long-toed Stint. We’ll then head to our modern and comfortable hotel in time for dinner, with Red-billed Chough and Pacific Swift being two of the more common in-city species. Night in Ulaanbaatar. 

The Mongolia tour was superb. James was outstanding and Paul will do a great job as he takes over the tour. The camping and yurts were exceptional and made for a fantastic adventure.

Charlotte Otero, May 2017

Day 2: We’ll fly south to Dalanzadgad where we’ll meet our bus, chef and driver – our ‘home’ and ‘crew’ for the rest of the trip. Our first destination will be the plantations and ponds around Dalanzadgad where any Siberian migrant is possible. Weather plays a key part in what turns up, but migrants should be a feature of this tour and this area can produce some true surprises as well as the more expected Pallas’s Leaf, Dusky and Arctic Warblers. Moving on, we’ll head towards Yolyn Am, but on the way we could encounter our first Oriental Plovers and Pallas’s Sandgrouse, while Horned Larks compete with Isabelline Wheatears for the title of most common passerine. Once at Yolyn Am (the valley of the vulture) the birding steps up a gear. We’ll spend most of the afternoon 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, the red-bellied form of Black Redstart, and in some years Great Rosefinch. This is also one of the best places in Mongolia to see Wallcreeper, and there can be several pairs in a small area, often showing at eye level for extended periods. Overhead we hope to see Lammergeiers, Himalayan Vultures, Steppe Eagles and Upland Buzzard.

This valley is also great for mammals with sousliks, pikas, Siberian Ibex and sometimes Argali Sheep (the largest sheep in the world) all possible.

We’ll spend the night at a tourist Ger camp. Here, poplar trees planted several decades ago surround the camp, providing not only shelter but also acting as an oasis for passing migrants. Over the years we have seen amazing birds here providing unforgettable moments such as seeing a White’s Thrush bobbing up and down in front of you, or a Siberian Rubythroat on your walk to the shower block! With little vegetation for miles around it is no surprise that this camp attracts a lot of birds, yet it is still a great surprise when a Chinese Pond Heron drops in looking for water, or a Booted Eagle decides it’s the place to spend the night. In the past some new species for Mongolia such as Forest Wagtail and Black Drongo have been found here, and in 2007 we found the first Red Collared Dove for the country. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp. 

Day 3: We’ll head out early this morning, taking our breakfast and lunch with us for what should be a very special day at Yolyn Am. Our main target will be Altai Snowcock. If we are lucky we should see this species calling from the dramatic ridges above us while eating our picnic breakfast. This is also the domain of the Snow Leopard and although seeing one would be a remarkable stroke of luck, just knowing that they are there, possibly gazing down at us, makes the place feel even more special. We’ll spend the rest of the day looking for species that we may have missed on the previous day, and also allowing for the unpredictable weather. This valley can also act as a migrant trap and the stream and rough grass could hold thrushes, warblers and buntings; species you only dream about as vagrants in western Europe or North America can be common here. For those whose interests widen to include reptiles, this is also the best place to look for Halys Pit Viper, whose presence is often revealed by the mobbing of wheatears.

If time allows we’ll stop at the small Gobi museum on our way back to camp before once again checking the camp trees for any newly arrived migrants.  In the evenings small gatherings of Lesser Kestrels return to roost near the camp, sometimes joined by Amur Falcons. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp. 

Day 4: After a last check of the camp and breakfast we’ll drive west and will soon be in perfect Oriental Plover habitat. Finding this dramatic species in a bleak, seemingly lifeless desert is sure to be one of the memorable moments of the trip. If we are lucky we may witness its incredible display flight where the males fly in high circuits above their territory, rocking from side to side on stiff wings. 

By mid-afternoon we should be passing through prime Grey-necked Bunting and Mongolian Finch habitat in an area of rocky crags and small peaks, and soon afterwards we descent a huge wadi to reach the Khongoryn Els in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, one of the world’s largest sand dunes.  This dry desert habitat will present us with new species including the enigmatic Saxaul Sparrow as well as Desert Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler, while Goitered and Mongolian Gazelles are both possible. From our Ger camp we can admire the stunning views of the dunes, with a “sundowner” in hand. Night at Ger camp near Khongoryn Els dunes. 

Day 5: At the base of the dunes is a small stream with grazing meadows which host Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Redshank which breed alongside Upland Buzzard, Richard’s Pipit and Steppe Grey Shrike. The fresh water also acts as a magnet for Pallas’s Sandgrouse and tired migrants.

After breakfast we’ll begin our journey north, passing more dramatic landscapes, including an area of saxaul forest that we’ll investigate for another of Mongolia’s enigmatic species: Henderson’s Ground Jay. Eventually, we’ll choose somewhere (undoubtedly) isolated for our first night’s camping. We may be able to find a small spring in the desert, perhaps a sheltered cave area, or maybe just open desert. Wherever we camp, there are sure to be things to be found, and if birds are not so much in evidence, then a night walk may turn up jerboas, gerbils, hedgehogs and foxes. Night camping. 

Day 6: Today always feels like a real adventure as we pass through the Gobi Altai mountains. It’s a dramatic journey that can take us along the course of an old river bed or some nomadic trail into the hills and then across a high plateau into a sandier desert habitat. In most years there is a shallow lake and our species list could be boosted by numerous ducks, waders, gulls and terns. Stately White-naped Cranes stalk around the margins, and this has become a reliable site for Asian Dowticher in recent years. Careful watching may produce the local lydiae race of Pallas’s Reed Bunting - a potential split as Mongolian Bunting. Even if the lake is dry some natural springs still provide enough water for wagtails, pipits and warblers. Night camping near Orog Nuur, maybe to the sound of drumming Common Snipe, singing Richard’s Pipits, Asian Short-toed Larks and bugling Demoiselle Cranes. 

Day 7: Today promises to be rather special. An early start sees us taking our 4x4 vehicles to ascend Ikh Bogd, the highest mountain of the Gobi Altai, which reaches an impressive elevation of 3,957m (alnost 13,000 feet.) We’ll have looked up at this the previous day, and today we should be gazing down from its snowy summits. This is a very rarely visited moutnain, and we will be somewhat pioneering in our birding today. Altai Snowcock should be present, and we stand a good chance of looking down on these huge birds. Other possibilities up here include Güldenstadt’s Redstart, and there is an outside chance of Hodgeson’s Bushchat, althought it must be stressed that this is by no means guarantted. Whatever delights await us, we will be among the first Western birders to visit this sacred mountain. Night camping at Orug Nuur. 

Day 8: After a final scan around Orog Nuur, we’ll drive toward the fabled lake of Boon Tsagaan. Around early afternoon and about two-thirds of the way there, we should reach a small lake and reedbed where species such as Black-necked Slavonian Grebe, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, White-winged Tern, Temminck’s Stint and Oriental Reed Warbler are all possible, as are singing Savi’s Warblers, possibly the most easterly Savi’s Warblers in the world! Once at the main lake of Boon Tsagaan we’ll may have time to do some birding before dinner.

This is one of the most reliable sites in the world for seeing Relict Gull in breeding plumage, but they are nomadic and never guaranteed. However there are plenty of birds to keep us occupied; Mongolian and Pallas’s Gulls, Caspian and Gull-billed terns, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Egret and migrant shorebirds such as Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sandplover and Marsh Sandpiper to mention a few. Every year is different and we never know what we might find. Rarities in previous years included the first Intermediate Egret for Mongolia! Even without these rarities the lake is a very reliable site for some quality species such as Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Swan Goose, the latter often in mixed flocks with Bar-headed and the eastern form of Greylag Goose. Migrant passerines also feature, from Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers trying to hide in the short grass to Dusky Thrush feeding along a small river. We may also be lucky enough to find a stunning white-headed variety of Yellow Wagtail, the easternmost and probably the rarest of the Western Yellow Wagtail forms. During dinner we may be treated to a fly-past from Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which sometimes drop down to small river near our camp to drink. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur. 

Day 9: We have all day at Boon Tsagaan Nuur enjyoing the species we saw yesterday and also looking for anything new such as Goosander, Smew, Little Tern, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope and other migrants. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur. 

Day 10: After a final check around the lake we’ll break camp and continue our journey north. Birds start to become scarce but new species may include Mongolian Finch and Pere David’s Snowfinch. Around midday we should hit the tarmac for the first time in a week. After lunch alongside a river, whose bushes should hold a few migrants, we continue on towards Arvaikheer. After a few nights of albeit very comfortable camping, we’ll take the chance of a night in a hotel. Hot running water, power for charging batteries and cold drinks will all be very welcome before we return to camping and Ger camps for the remainder of the tour. Night in hotel in Arvaikheer. 

Day 11: After a quick check of the local park for migrants, today’s journey takes us through grasslands that are home to singing Mongolian Larks, and a small wetland with White-naped Cranes, Black-throated Divers and maybe Asian Dowitchers before arriving at Bayaan Nuur in the afternoon. This lake is another hotspot for wildfowl and waders, and the small reedbeds hold Eastern Marsh Harrier, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Paddyfield Warbler, Baillon’s Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail, Reed Bunting, and Bearded Reedling. The grassland around the lake may hold Eastern Short-toed Lark, and we shall thus be keeping an eye on 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 Bayaan Nuur. 

Day 12: After an early morning birding around the lake we’ll say a sad farewell to our camping crew and begin our long journey towards the capital and then beyond to Gun Galut. Before we reach our Ger camp we’ll pass small lakes where we often find Stejneger’s White-winged Scoters, Garganey and a surprise or twofor example, in 2018 we found the first Velvet Scoter for Mongolia! It can be a good area for waders, with Red-necked Stink being a realistic target among the more common Little Stints, while Broad-billed Sandpiper could number into double figures. This is another reliable site for White-naped Cranes, and before dinner we hope to have seen this elegant species against a stunningly scenic backdrop. A small area of riverside bushes at the camp have proved reliable for migrants over the years, and we shall make time to investigage these fully. Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Thick-billed and even Chinese Bush Warblers have all been found her in the past. Night at Ger camp at Gun Galut. 

Day 13: Before breakfast we’ll return to the flooded meadows and pools, checking that all the large white birds aren’t ‘just’ Whooper Swans as in some years Siberian Crane has been seen. On leaving the camp we’ll pass the small 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 Red-necked Stint. From there we go off-road again, and as we eventually climb up the scenery changes to wooded hillsides and rocky outcrops, home to raptors, woodpeckers, cuckoos and more. Along the way we may encounter small groups of Amur Falcons, Saker Falcon, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Eastern Buzzard and Pine Bunting. Night at Jalman Meadows Ger camp. 

Day 14: Our Ger camp is surrounded by good habitat varying from riparian poplar forest to larch covered hillsides. Lots of new tour birds live here including Daurian Partridge, Black Grouse, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Red-throated Thrush, Daurian Jackdaw, White-cheeked Starling, Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Warblers and the attractive Long-tailed Rosefinch. We’ll also spend time looking for a mythical denizen of the forest, the Black-billed Capercaillie. For those wanting to take it easy, there is even a library and massage ger, a perfect way to unwind in the mountains. Night at Jalman Meadows Ger camp. 

Day 15: We’ll have another morning around the Ger camp (the best we stay at) further absorbing species seen the previous day, perhaps plus Taiga and Asian Brown Flycatchers, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Daurian Redstart. If we are very lucky, we may even stumble across a family of Ural Owls. We aim to be back in the city around late afternoon after a stop at the very imposing Chinggis Khaan (Ghengis Kahn) statue. We’ll have time to shower and repack before a Mongolian cultural show, complete with traditional throat singers and contortionists, and dinner in a fine local restaurant near our hotel. Night in Ulanbaatar. 

Day 16: The tour concludes this morning in Ulaanbaatar.

Updated: 30 July 2018

Prices

  • 2019 Tour Price : $4,900
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $670
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Notes

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

* 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.  

The order in which we visit the various locations may change once the airline we use for the internal flight has announced its summer schedule.

Maximum group size 10 with one leader.