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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

Our 14th tour to Mongolia certainly came good once again, with a wonderful selection of desert, steppes, wetland and taiga species on the cards. Everyone has their own highlights of course, whether it be the displaying Oriental Plover, the surprise Relict Gull, the too-close-to-focus-on Black-billed Capercaillie, the much-wanted Hodgson’s Bushchats or something much more unexpected such as the incredible Pallas’s Cat that sat within a few yards of us. No one saw that coming! The sheer number of wetland birds is always a pleasure, whether it be the dancing flocks of White-winged Black Terns or the good looks at many of the shorebirds including five Asian Dowitchers and a pair of Tibetan Sand Plovers. As always, we not only experience this, but by camping out in the wilds (both under canvas and in Ger camps) we become part of it. Mongolia always delivers some great birding in some spectacular scenery.

Our first morning was spent in the outer environs of Ulaanbaatar, along a lightly wooded section of the Tuul river as it makes its way west from the city. Here, our first experience of Mongolian birding began with a pair of showy Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, a fine pair of Mandarins and a cracking male Long-tailed Rosefinch. A fall of migrants was in place, and below the flocks of Pacific Swifts, many Black Kites and occasional Amur Falcon, Black Vulture and Steppe Eagle, several Taiga Flycatchers competed with Dusky Warblers, Thick-billed Warblers, Arctic Warblers, Pallas’s Warblers and a Yellow-browed Warbler for insects. Azure-winged Magpies showed off their colours, and our first Azure Tits came in for some close looks. After our first fine picnic lunch, we drove westwards to Hustai NP, an area of hills and semi-steppes that holds one of the world’s last populations of Przewalski’s Horses. The horses put on a good show, as did several Meadow Buntings, Pere David’s Snowfinches and Blyth’s Pipits, and our venture down to the Tuul valley produced excellent views of White-crowned Penduline Tits and migrants such as Dark-sided and Asian Brown Flycatcher. Our mammal list was starting to build nicely too, as a duo of Corsac Foxes showed well for us as our first Saker gave an amazing encounter over our heads, joining Golden Eagle and Black Vulture on the list, both of which had shown incredibly well earlier in the day. This was where we first cut our teeth with the region’s larks too – the positively gaudy Mongolian Larks were common and gave good views, as did the less gaudy but taxonomically intriguing Asian Short-toed Larks.

From Hustai we drove west and arrived late morning at Bayan Nuur. This was our first proper wetland and the multitude of species on offer was impressive, with flocks of White-winged Black Terns dancing, White-crowned Cranes high stepping and lots of waders and wildfowl crammed around the marsh. Swan Geese and Bar-headed Geese were appreciated here, as were several Eastern Marsh Harriers and some quality reedbed passerines such as Paddyfield and Oriental Reed Warbler, Pallas’s Reed Buntings of the Mongolian form lydiae and surprisingly a Citrine Wagtail of the race calcarata, a rare visitor to Mongolia. The weather played its part during the day, but our first night camping proved spectacular in some ways with gale force winds and driving rain flattening one tent and nearly demolishing a second…thankfully the dining tent stayed up and provided shelter! Moving further west, and with the threat of further storms seemingly ever-present, we arrived at Ugii Nuur to find a superb adult Relict Gull awaiting us on the first beach we checked. It strutted its stuff with a flock of Black-headed Gulls for a while, before flying off to the south. We did relocate it further along the lake, but not before we had enjoyed views of several rhino-horned Stejneger’s Scoters, a Black-throated Diver and oodles of White-winged Black Terns. One simply cannot have too many White-winged Black Terns! A large flock of Pochards had a nice attendant group of Broad-billed Sandpipers, Red-necked and Long-toed Stints. Driving south from Ugii Nuur, we did our first section of dirt track driving on our way to our hotel in Arvaikheer, a large flock of Black Kites loitering around a village abattoir being the highlight of the drive.

Until now we had skirted the eastern edge of the Khangai mountains, now it was time to indulge in a little bit of “extra-itinerary action”, so we ascended Barig Mountain, a large plateau at the southern tip of the range. Here, at the very end of and beyond the dirt tracks, the air was thin and full of snow. Several Rock Thrush showed nicely, and Northern Wheatears demonstrated their vocal similarity to our target species on several occasions! After a long search and the help of a local shepherd (plus the 4x4’s appearing on the plateau!), the shout went up that we had found Hodgson’s Bushchat. A pair in fact, and they delighted us for a long while in the snowstorm.  After this success, and a very late lunch in Bayankhongar where the streets were closed as it was National Children’s Day, we moved south into the Gobi’s “Valley of the Lakes” and our first destination here of Boon Tsagaan Nuur. This huge lake, approx. 176 sq miles in size, is an excellent site for a range of wetland and migratory species. Lots of Bar-headed and Swan Geese headed up the wildfowl, but 30+ hulking Great Black-headed Gulls shone out of the gull flock and a stunning pair of Tibetan Sandplovers strutted around among the Kentish Plovers and Little Stints. It took a long while and a long journey to finally connect with Pallas’s Fish Eagle this year, this species has recently been proven to be a non-breeding summer migrant to these lakes and is becoming increasingly hard to find. Thankfully, our other major target here, Asian Dowitcher, proved a little more cooperative and we eventually had fine views of a pair. Around the cabins, the small garden proved popular with migrants, and a Thick-billed Warbler was joined by a Hume’s Warbler among others, and our first Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers acted as if on remote Scottish islands, creeping around in the short grass out in the marshes.  Other highlights were the regular passing of Pallas’s Sandgrouse and a close Greater Sandplover.

Boon Tsagaan Nuur was the furthest west we reached, and on the morning of the 3rd, after our complete circumnavigation of the lake, we headed east towards Orog Nuur. Our lunch stop at Bayansair marsh always produces a good list of birds and some nice birding, and this year was no exception. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers showed in the small reedbed, as did Arctic Warblers. A pair of leucocephala Western Yellow Wagtails proved once again that they breed this far east into Mongolia. Another pair of Asian Dowitcher were here, on the edge of the Black-headed Gull colony, and six Slavonian Grebes provided a splash of colour. The journey to Orog Nuur had another treat in store, as a Henderson’s Ground Jay flushed up from the trackside in an area of lush desert vegetation. It then gave excellent views for several minutes as it sat atop a bush, calling to its mate. Once at Orog Nuur, we relaxed and contemplated the next day.

From our campsite, the massif of Ikh Bogd loomed huge to the south. Our journey up a canyon was interrupted by one of the events of the tour, when a Pallas’s Cat was flushed by the vehicles and proceeded to give phenomenal views as it hemmed itself into the trackside bank. It stayed there for several minutes, and we left it where it was. On the plateau itself, we soon found Brown Accentors and a striking male Güldenstadt’s Redstart, but our quest for snowcocks ultimately ended in failure. However, some compensation was provided by incredible views of Asian Rosy-Finch, as first one then then three birds allowed approach to within a few yards. Thankfully, on the way back down the mountain the Pallas’s Cat had disappeared, but incredibly one of the cars was lucky enough to have a second, more well-marked animal walk beside their car for a few yards before it walked off up the scree slopes and quickly disappeared. Two Pallas’s Cats in a trip is incredible, two in a day is the stuff of dreams!

Another long day driving through the Gobi was rewarded with some incredible landscapes and views, and finally we arrived alongside the Khongoryn Els, a long and spectacular series of sand dunes. Our main target here was Saxaul Sparrow, a gorgeous sparrow with a very fragmented range across the deserts of Central Asia. We struck lucky with a pair in the saxaul trees here, while the Pallas’s Sandgrouse flying past filled the time very nicely before the sparrows showed. Going further east and south into the Gobi, we emerged from a canyon into a wide wash area, here we found two Asiatic Wild Ass and some decent views of Goitered Gazelle, as well as another pair of Henderson’s Ground Jays and a mobile Asian Desert Warbler.  Once out into the wide-open desert plains, the results of the rains were clear to see with several herds of Mongolian Gazelles present. Our main target was sure to be around here somewhere, and it wasn’t long before we found a pair of Oriental Plovers. This, surely one of the most beautiful of the shorebirds, combines its unique colouration with a highly distinctive long-winged/long-legged silhouette.

Our ger camp on the edge of Dalanzadgad had a good complement of bushes and consequently attracted a few migrants, including a Two-barred Warbler. Nearby, the final outlining ranges of the Gobi-Altai fade out into the desert, but even though they look small, the altitude here ensures that a range of mountain species are present. Our day in Yolyn-Am found most of these, including a pair of Kozlov’s Accentors, several Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches, many incredibly tame White-winged Snowfinches and of course, the vultures for which the valley is named; the huge Himalayan Griffon and the incomparable Lammergeier. Most amazing of all, we also found our third Pallas’s Cat of the tour, a more typically distant animal walking down a scree slope. By this point, our mammal list was growing nicely, helped by the Alashan Ground Squirrels and Mongolian Gerbils that were common around the car park here, and the Siberian Ibex and Pallas’s Pika that were deeper in the valley.

Another long drive north saw us finish up at Gun Galuut, and our Ger camp on the edge of a river with a small area of bushes just right for attracting migrants. We had Yellow-breasted Bunting here, plus Thick-billed, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Two-barred, Arctic and Pallas’s Warblers among others, along with excellent views of Blyth’s Pipit around the camp and then out in the marshes were White-naped Cranes with chicks, Stejneger’s Scoters on the main lake along with a Smew another Asian Dowitcher and the usual complement of terns and ducks.

Our final destination of the tour was into the southernmost reaches of the Siberian taiga forests, on the edge of the Gorkhi Terelj NP. It was great to see that our Ger camp here was of the same high standard it has always been, despite the passing of several lost years due to Covid. On our way into the area, we stopped at a spot we know and almost immediately found a male Black-billed Capercaillie right next to the cars. Creeping up through the trees, we enjoyed excellent views of it as just sat, unconcerned. 

The next couple of days in the riverine open woods and coniferous forests of this area gave us a suite of different and new species to those that came before, including Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-throated Thrush, Black Grouse, Eastern Buzzard, Oriental Cuckoos, Pine Buntings and Amur Stonechats, as well as some old favourites like Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Long-tailed Rosefinch. The hills and trees always come as a welcome change from the desert and steppe, but all too soon it was time to drag ourselves away and head back to the capital, via the huge statue of Chinggis Khan that dominates the eastern approach to Ulaanbaatar. Our last evening in Mongolia was spent watching the Tumen-Ekh folk song ensemble followed by a final and excellent dinner in a local restaurant.

-          Paul French


Created: 26 June 2023