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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Mongolia

2018 Narrative

We arrived into a Mongolian spring deep in the grip of a very dry season, which seems to be de rigueur in many parts of the world recently. Half of the group arrived a day early, and while we waited for the remainder of the group to arrive we checked out a riparian area on the edge of Ulaanbaatar. Here, several pairs of Azure Tit and White-crowned Penduline Tits were the highlights, and our gentle introduction to Mongolian birding also included Black-eared Kites and Upland Buzzard, as well as the ubiquitous Red-billed Choughs and highly localised Azure-winged Magpies.

A last minute change to the flight itinerary meant our first day was spent travelling to Gul Galuut, an area of marsh and steppe with a large lake nearby. On arrival, we found the lake to have good numbers of wildfowl including three Stejneger’s Scoters, a group of 38 Pacific Golden Plovers and a surprising and all too brief fly-through Oriental Plover. A nearby marsh held more waders, and we managed to find nine Broad-billed Sandpipers and both Red-necked and Long-toed Stints among the Little Stints and Dunlin. Our first Mongolian Larks entertained us in flurries of white wings and chestnut caps, but the highlight was surely our first Pallas’s Sandgrouse; a group of three were found sitting by the track and allowed close approach by the bus for several minutes. Down at the Ger camp, migrants were still in evidence and included a confiding Lanceolated Warbler creeping around the base of the Gers, while over in the riverside willows, a couple of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers competed with a Thick-billed Warbler, Dark-sided and Taiga Flycatcher, Dusky Warbler, several Pallas’s Leaf Warblers and a Siberian Rubythroat for dominance over our attention.

A pair of Pére David’s Snowfinches were found feeding chicks in their underground nest out in the steppe area, and a couple of pairs of White-naped Cranes (surely the most elegant of cranes?) were out in the overgrazed marshes, looking a bit wary with the lack of reeds. Moving back to Ulaanbaatar the following day, we had chance to look over the lake again, which resulted in the discovery of Mongolia’s first Velvet Scoter among the Stejneger’s Scoter flock.

Our flight to Dalanzadgad gave us views of the vastness of Mongolia. On arrival, we checked out a small farm reservoir (one Ferruginous Duck) and then began our off-road adventure. Our Ger camp in the southern Gobi is surrounded by a plantation of rather sorry-looking poplars, but there is enough greenery to attract a few migrants. Thick-billed and Barred Warbler, plus two Hawfinch and two Rose-coloured Starlings were the best of the bunch, and a couple of pairs of dapper Daurian Shrikes were nesting in the grounds. Our reason for staying here was to explore the nearby gorge of Yolyn Am, and here we easily found our main target, the near endemic Kozlov’s Accentor. Perhaps not blessed with amazing looks or charisma, but it makes up for it with understated rarity, breeding only in remote mountains and semi-deserts of Mongolia and remaining stubbornly little-known. Despite our best efforts, we could not find any Altai Snowcocks this year, and other groups reported the same problem, perhaps the prolonged dry spell and resulting increased grazing pressure had forced them to move from this area. However, other delights on offer included great views of Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown Accentors, Blyth’s Pipits, White-winged Snowfinches almost taking food from the hand, a small flock of Twite, a pair of Golden Eagles quartering the hillsides, Lammergeier overhead and one of the trip highlights for many, prolonged and close (oh so close!) views of Wallcreeper at eye level and only a few meters away. This is surely one of the best places to see this iconic species, and despite the vastness of the cliffs towering over the trail, we do seem to be able to see them in the valley bottom at this location. A bonus was provided by a Hays Pit Viper, mobbed by Isabelline Wheatears as it made its way through a Pallas’s Pika colony, and then down into a burrow - presumably the one occupied by the wheatears.

Our drive west from the Ger camp started well, with stunning views of a male Oriental Plover that we initially nearly ran over on the track! A more distant female completed the set, and we also saw the first of many Mongolian Gazelles; a species that should be further east in Mongolia and its presence here is probably indicative of the drought.

A short drive took us to Khongoryn Els (or the “Singing Sands”), some of the highest and most impressive sand dunes in the World. A pair of Saxaul Sparrows were found nest building, and four Hill Pigeons did their usual trick of delighting all who saw them with their stunning tail patterns and gentle demeanour. Yes, I’m a fan! A small movement of raptors included an extreme close-up Black Vulture, plus a local Long-legged Buzzard attacking another of these avian behemoths. And then it was onwards into the Gobi. No roads, often no tracks, we just headed into the desert in the rough direction of a distant town. After a short detour to avoid a nomad shearing his camels, we came upon a Saxaul forest where a brief flurry of wings alerted us to one of our major targets, the Henderson’s Ground Jay. A quick burst of the tape and it flew in, showing well as it checked out these visitors to its remote home. An Arctic Warbler was a much more unexpected find out here, just showing what is passing over every part of this vast desert and illustrating the marvels of migration.

We set up camp for the night in the shadow of a mountain range overlooking a small distant town, the view being quite simply breathtaking. A spring had turned a small patch of the desert bright green, and we investigated the area, finding many Pied Wheatears (including a smart “vitatta” morph) and Mongolian Finches, plus a dapper Little Bunting feeding among the grasses. Most amazingly, we were visited by a totally unconcerned Five-toed Pygmy Jerboa that felt we made good shelter.

Moving onwards to Orog Nuur, strong winds affected our ground crew’s tent building abilities, and we sat out the worst of it in the bus. Driving sand and optics are not the greatest of friends! However, a pair of Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be of the form lydiae, or Mongolian Bunting, and our first Asian Dowitchers put us in a good mood. A pair of White-naped Cranes and group of Common Cranes combined with the expected Demoiselle Crane to make for a three-crane-spot, and two Eurasian Bitterns managed to fly together over the reedbeds. A brief Greater Sand Plover was the first of the trip, but the general spectacle of waterbirds was one to be enjoyed, despite the difficult conditions. In the morning, the wind had subsided, and those who ventured out before breakfast had stunning views of Asian Dowitcher. With the help of a local nomad who explained that the old track to Boon Tsagaan Nuur was now impassable, we eventually found the right track and headed west again. Getting stuck in the sand is to be expected in Mongolia, and we managed it a couple of times today! We arrived at an unnamed lake and marsh in the early afternoon, and this was a place to be savoured. With reeds that are too deep for livestock to graze, they attract breeding Oriental Reed and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers (here of the very striking race centralasiae) and a big surprise in the form of territorial Savi’s Warblers, perhaps the furthest east breeding birds in the world? Many ducks and geese, plus terns, and a feeding Booted Eagle all combined to make for a great birding spectacle, but all too soon it was time to head towards Boon Tsagaan Nuur, our base for two nights.

Boon Tsagaan Nuur is a large lake with big numbers of birds, as we found out. A huge colony of Cormorants and Mongolian Gulls on islands in the north of the lake provides a constant spectacle of birds around the lake shores, and good numbers of Swan Geese, Bar-headed Geese, Caspian Terns and stonking Pallas’s Gulls among others can be seen loafing and feeding. The marshes around the eastern fringes are excellent for breeding waders, and walking through and around them to the calls of Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers, Redshanks, Lapwings, Marsh Sandpipers, Black-tailed Godwits and a few Asian Dowitchers is really very special. Three Greater Sand Plovers were a nice surprise, but the drake Long-tailed Duck and Smew in with the ducks at the north end were even more unexpected. Just one Pallas’s Fish Eagle suggested trouble for them this year, although the large numbers of birds and fish we saw in the lake and river indicate that food potentially might not be the issue. Unexpectedly, two flyby wagtails proved to be the white-headed (leucocephalus) form of Western Yellow Wagtail.

From Arvaikheer we travelled up to Bayan Nuur via an excellent little wetland at Hugnu Khan. This contained a flock of 15 Asian Dowitchers flying around in response to repeated passes by an Eastern Marsh Harrier, a nesting pair of Black-throated Divers, a rather showy Baillon’s Crake and yet more Swan Geese and Bar-headed Geese. Arriving at Bayan Nuur, we looked for birds on the roadside marshes first, finding a Black Tern among the multitude of White-winged Black terns, plus many macronyx Eastern Yellow Wagtails, nine Asian Dowitchers and two pairs of White-naped Cranes; both with tiny fluffy chicks. The lake held five Red-necked Phalaropes, as well as multitudes of Avocets and commoner waterfowl. A Corsac Fox entertained us for a while as it hunted rodents out on an island, and several Paddyfield Warblers and Reed Buntings sang and chased each other in the reeds. An impressive figure of 75 Marsh Sandpipers were logged.

Saying sad goodbyes to our ground crew who had looked after our needs for our five nights of camping and provided truly excellent cuisine, we had the long drive east to the Khenti Mountains and our final base for the tour. This area produced a fine list of sought after species, with Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-throated Thrush, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Two-barred Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat, Black Grouse, Black and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Hawfinches, Black-faced and Pine Buntings among others amid the forests and riparian poplars and willows in this secluded valley.

Our journey back to Ulaanbaatar was broken by a visit to the World’s largest equine statue, that of Genghis Khan overlooking the steppe, and then we finished proceedings with a visit to a local cultural show and dinner at a fine local restaurant before catching our flights the following day.

– Paul French

Created: 22 June 2018