Birding Mongolia in August
—a Belgian perspective

by Luc Lens & Hilde Eggermont

From 8 to 28 August 2013, my wife Hilde and I made a wonderful birding trip across south and central Mongolia, thereby visiting continental sand dunes in the Gobi region, montane lakes in the Altai, endless steppes with saline lakes, and the southernmost fringes of the taiga belt. The trip was designed by Axel Bräunlich whom I met through a common friend at BirdLife International. Axel’s itinerary was outstanding in every respect: bird-wise, landscape-wise, travel-wise and even weather-wise. Local logistics were meticulously taken care of by Abu and his wife who found us an excellent driver and cook and provided us with lots of advice.

After our early morning arrival in Ulaanbaatar we were picked up by Abu and Amraa, a very active local birder, for an afternoon trip to the UB ponds near the airport. Here we saw our first four lifers of the trip, namely Swan Goose, Demoiselle Crane, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Long-tailed Rosefinch. Amraa also found a recently-fledged Yellow-breasted Bunting that quickly attracted its beautiful parents.

Yellow-breasted Bunting fledgling at UB ponds.

Next day we enjoyed a large group of Azure Tits along the Tuul river and made a quick sightseeing visit to the city centre.

People scene in Ulaanbaatar city centre.

Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar.

Then we boarded a domestic flight to the Gobi town of Dalanzadgad where we were welcomed by our very friendly and helpful cook and driver. Next morning we birded a small plantation that produced an unexpected Daurian Starling and then drove to Dalanzadgad to buy (lots of) food and drinks! After enjoying seven Arctic Warblers in the central street park, we started our birding journey that would take us west to Yolyn Am, Khongorin Els and Boon Tsagaan Nuur, north to Khukh Nuur and Ogii Nuur, east to Hustai Nuruu NP and Tereldsh, and finally back west to Ulaanbaatar.

Thanks to the up-to-date site information from Axel and Abu of Birding Mongolia we managed to see all our target species (and so many more) and the landscape was really delightful. In Yolyn Am we found both a pair of Mongolian and Brown Accentors feeding a cuckoo nestling, and the little stream produced a very fine selection of birds that came to drink, best of which were Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch and Grey-necked Bunting.

Mongolian Accentor feeding a cuckoo fledgling,
sitting on a Savin Juniper Juniperus sabina at Yolyn Am.

The drive to Khongorin Els produced two most elegant Oriental Plovers, our first Pallas’s Sandgrouses, and—most unexpectedly—two Mcqueens’ Bustards! Khongorin Els is of course most famous for its impressive continental sand dunes.

View on the Khongorin Els sand dunes.

A walk through the sand dunes of Khongorin Els.

However, we were mainly concentrating on the Saxaul forest remnants that soon produced beautiful delicate Saxaul Sparrows, Asian Desert Warblers and the Saxaul (Steppe Grey) Shrike.

Wrapping up the bird report at the camp of Khongorin Els.

From there we made the long—but never boring—trip to Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a large saline lake that is famous for its Pallas’s Fish Eagles and Relict Gulls.

Glorious birding in nothingness.

The first species already greeted us when setting up the tents, the second one played it a bit harder but four Relict Gulls eventually showed well during the second day.

Juvenile Pallas’s Fish Eagle at Boon Tsagaan Nuur.

An adult Brown-headed Gull moulting into winter plumage was an unexpected bonus, but most spectacular where the thousands of Eurasian Spoonbills and the very fine selection of waders, including Little Curlews, Long-toed Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers.

Next we made the long journey to the high altitude lake of Khukh Nuur, enjoying marvellous landscapes…

Endless landscape en route.

… delicious food…

Our cook in full action

… very friendly people

Pit stop along the way to Khukh Nuur:
meet and greet with a nice Mongolian couple

… and good numbers of raptors close to the track.

Cinereous Vulture en route.

Saker Falcon en route.

Less than ten minutes after pitching our tents near a Mongolian Gull colony, thirteen distant Altai Snowcocks showed very nicely in the telescope and were still present there during the next morning. However, the real price bird of this area is the elusive White-throated (Hodgson’s) Bushchat, and after two days of searching we found both a male and a female—beautiful comparison with the very numerous stejnegeri Eastern Stonechats! Other lifers were Rufous-backed (Evermann’s) and White-winged (Güldenstädt’s) Redstarts and the peculiar sushkini subspecies of Asian Rosy Finch.

After enjoying the legendary Mongolian hospitality we set out for our next destination, which was the beautiful lake of Ogii Nuur.

Discovering the Mongolian hospitality
when leaving Khukh Nuur.

On the way we were treated to our first heavy rain, so we took advantage to make a quick visit to the beautiful Erdene Zuu Monastery.

Visit to Erdene Zuu Monastery.

Yet luck was again on our side as the sky suddenly cleared just when we were planning to pitch our tents. An evening stroll produced an unexpected Jack Snipe—quite regular in Belgium but very rare in Mongolia—and the next morning a pair of Stejneger’s Scooters were floating on the water. The mudflats around the lake produced many new species of waders but the best record came from two Hooded Cranes flying in a migrating flock of Demoiselle Cranes.

Birding in Ogii Nuur.

We then headed to Bayan Nuur, a large lake edged by grass, reed-beds and mudflats. Upon arrival, a very fine White-naped Crane family was quietly foraging near the road, and a little further one adult and two juvenile Common Cranes where resting in a group of Demoiselle Cranes—three species of cranes at a glance … this must be Mongolia! The large reed bed held good numbers of Paddyfield Warblers, Oriental Reed Warblers, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and Bearded Tits, while an evening walk produced both Brown-cheeked Rail and Baillon’s Crake and four Pallas’s Reed Buntings. With so many good birds around we could even lure a local shepherd into some preliminary birding …

Young shepherd near Bayan Nuur.

Despite several courageous attempts the next morning, millions of mosquitoes prevented us from exploring the proper lake shores—not only were we covered by hundreds of them, they also crept in our ears, eyes and mouth—so we were highly relieved to find two Asian Dowitchers feeding among numerous other waders at a mosquito-free roadside pool opposite the lake. Class birds!!

We then went to Hustai Nuruu National Park where we quickly found a group of Przewalski’s Horses feeding high up at a mountain slope.

Watching out for wildlife at Hustai Nuruu NP.

Closer to the ground were six hunting Amur Falcons, many Meadow Buntings and a dazzling total of 52 Daurian Partridges of all ages, some only taking off one metre from our feet. Next morning we exploited a small dry valley where we found a nice selection of migrants, including Dusky Warblers, Taiga Flycatchers and an unexpected Sulphur-bellied Warbler.

Hilde & Luc resting after a dry valley walk.

During our last morning we woke up by howling wolves not so far from the tent, and meticulous spotting with the scope revealed a distant pack of five animals warming themselves in the first sunlight—another of so many highlights of the trip.

Finally we reached the southernmost boundary of the taiga belt at Tereldsh, where we met Abu who kindly joined us for a final two days of mega forest birding. We undertook a lot of climbing and searching to find a Black-billed Capercaillie.

Luc and Abu, everlasting birding ;-)

Adult breeding plumage Daurian Redstart,
Tereldsh. © Abu

We finally flushed a female less than 150 m from our camp. Leaf-warblers were a lot easier and came in mixed flocks of five species, and Red-throated Thrushes, Pine Buntings, Lanceolated Warblers and Azure-winged Magpies (a huge flock of 33 individuals) all added to the magic of this place.

Red Squirrel, Tereldsh. © Abu

Just one lifer was still missing—Daurian Jackdaw—and it was an almost apocalyptic end of the trip when Abu found us a group of 2,500 birds of mixed ages next to the tarmac road just before entering Ulaanbaatar in pouring rain, about the only rain we had during the whole journey.

Small part of a huge flock of Daurian Jackdaws
next to the tarmac road towards Ulaanbaatar

What a trip indeed …

Solitary Snipe Special

text & photos by ABu

Solitary Snipe habitat,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe has always been on my “find it!” list. Not just because I have seen it once before only (in Japan), but mainly for my desire to get some good photographs of this species. The bird I had seen in Japan was feeding at the unreachable side of a small stream which I couldn’t cross. So whenever I was out during wintertime, especially when I was birding along the sewage stream in UB, I kept looking out for it, alas I never found one. The winter 2013/2014 was a mild one, given Mongolian standards: when I arrived at the end of November, the Tuul River here in UB still had open stretches. Temperatures had been rising to above zero (32°F) even in January and the nights had been “warmer” than they had been during previous winters. Only from 30 January to mid-February the night temperatures had fallen below minus 30°C (-22°F).

Temperature is one factor, water flow is another. The summers of 2012 and 2013 can be considered as wet summers, especially that of 2013. In summer, the water level of the Tuul River was too high to allow me to walk my standard transect along it. If this held true for other regions of Mongolia, then the combined factors made the winter of 2013/2014 an ideal one for finding a Solitary Snipe. Yet it was up to me to check out the right stretch of the right river.

Of course I started nearby at the Tuul River: Nothing, not even a White-throated Dipper (another species which I have been waiting for here in UB since a while).

Then the sewage stream: Nothing.

The only other chance that arose was on 9 February during the winter birding trip with other members of the Birdwatching Club of Mongolia. On that day I finally found one quietly feeding at the Urd Tamir River, just 2 km south of the city of Tsetserleg. Bingo! Tsaaa!

I approached the snipe in slow motion, but as the ground was covered with snow it was impossible to do so silently. Always when I started to move forward, the snipe stopped foraging and did not move a feather. This clearly was a sign of discomfort. I stopped and did not move a muscle (thanks to the lack of feathers I had to adopt a slightly modified strategy). After a few seconds it was apparently convinced that I would not pose any harm, and feeding in the shallows continued. Now it was up to me to move in closer and so I did. The snipe interrupted foraging again. And I stood still again until it was feeding again. The distance between me and the bird was still too big to get good pictures. The game between the snipe and me went on for long until I finally got almost close enough, I thought. That was a bit too close for the snipe. It stretched one wing and then performed a double wing flap. This behavior is shown by many species of wader just when they intend to take flight. But that was the last thing I wanted to happen. Time for my retreat! I did so as slow as I had moved in. As soon as the snipe was feeding again I started closing the gap step by step again. It took maybe five or six more times to freeze until I was only 15 m from the bird. Every now and then, when I watched it motionless, I had fired series of shots. Now I was close enough but had not enough light anymore.

Solitary Snipe, stretching one wing,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe, double wing flap,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe, hind view,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe, checking out my lens,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

At times the snipe got alert and then moved a bit before it started feeding again. I could not figure out what it actually caught. Luckily I am not working on this species’ diet…

Solitary Snipe, moving to another foraging spot,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe, closing its eyes while feeding,
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe
Urd Tamir River, Tsetserleg, Feb 2014

As I had been birdwatching on my own I went back to the car to show my find to Amarkhuu. Then we went back to Tsetserleg for a beer.

Never give up!

Note: Solitary Snipe has once been featured at Birding Mongolia before, with photos from the Khangai Mts and Khovd, and some more general information on the species in Mongolia: click here.

part two:

Birding minus two

text & photos by ABu

Ice art at Urd Tamir River, Feb 2014

Unfortunately Huyagaa and Puujee had to leave in the morning of 9 February, so Amarkhuu and I were on our own then. We decided to try our luck on Solitary Snipe and drove c. 25 km to Tsenkher Hot Springs. Here we hoped to find it along the stream created by the spring. As we crossed the Urd Tamir River we saw that there was open water, but during our very brief stop the only bird we could add to our list was a singing Eastern Marsh Tit. The hot spring itself was disappointing. The open stream was only 100 m long before everything was frozen over—and there was no Solitary Snipe. To compensate our frustration we did some birding in the adjacent forest for an hour or so. The forest looked quite good, but despite the promising habitat we saw only a single bird: Eurasian Nuthatch. Even more frustrated we drove back to the Urd Tamir River. Not long after we had left the car we found a nice but shy White-throated Dipper. Ahhh, that was a relief! We continued and in the end we had seen even two dippers and a male Güldenstädt’s Redstart as well. Luckily, and finally, we found our Solitary Snipe which was feeding almost invisibly between some rocks!

Tsenkher Hot Springs, Feb 2014

White-throated Dipper
Urd Tamir River, Feb 2014

Male Güldenstädt’s Redstart
Urd Tamir River, Feb 2014

Solitary Snipe
Urd Tamir River, Feb 2014

The rising steam from the open water, although not much, made it almost impossible to get good photographs of the snipe and the redstart. It was a shady stretch of the river as well, and it took me more than one hour to get what I wanted. Better pictures of the snipe will be posted separately next. Two happy guys returned to Tsetserleg that evening.

After a good and much needed rest we were out searching for our target species again the next morning, on 10 February. During the morning we passed Tsenkher village and an almost bird-free steppe until we reached Ogij village in the Orchon valley near Ogij Nuur.

On our drive along the eastern banks of the river we found lots of Upland Buzzards, just as we did before. We saw more than 40 Corsac Foxes that day and this, together with the presence of so many buzzards, was a good indicator for rodent abundance. Just before we entered Kharkhorin on our way to Erdenesant village we came across a Rough-legged Buzzard, the only one during the entire trip.

Golden Eagle, near Ogij village, Feb 2014

Poor record shot of Rough-legged Buzzard,
near Kharkhorin, Feb 2014

Rough-legged Buzzard
near Kharkhorin, Feb 2014

Rough-legged Buzzard
near Kharkhorin, Feb 2014

On 11 February we went to Erdenesant Mountain, but got stuck in the snow just before we reached the site. With the help of a shovel we finally made it and saw Brown Accentors, Daurian Partridges, Eurasian Black Vultures and about 200 Bohemian Waxwings. There were also a few Red-throated Thrushes around but it was impossible to get even near-acceptable shots.

Stuck in the snow, Erdenesant Mountain, Feb 2014

Bohemian Waxwings
Erdenesant Mountain, Feb 2014

Juniperus spec. full of waxwing food,
Erdenesant Mountain, Feb 2014

The waxwings left more than footprints,
Erdenesant Mountain, Feb 2014

After lunch we went on to Dashinchilen Bayan Nuur aka Tsagaan Nuur. Not far from Erdenesant village we encountered a Bearded Vulture. One reason to check out the reeds of Bayan Nuur was a recent sighting of Bearded Tit from UB Ponds in December 2013. Although we scrutinized the reeds for almost two hours we could not find any Bearded Tit, only a single Azure Tit was around. Under the bridge we found a strangulated Barn Swallow. It is risky to use horse tail hair, apparently. At 16:00h we called it a day and went back to UB.

Bearded Vulture
near Erdenesant village, Feb 2014

Species List (48 species, without the Barn Swallow):

Common Goldeneye: one at Urd Tamir River
Goosander: two at Urd Tamir River
Bearded Vulture: few seen
Eurasian Black Vulture: up to nine, seen daily
Upland Buzzard: very common in the Orchon Valley, rare at all other sites, some pairs already attending nests, one pair was mating on a nest
Rough-legged Buzzard: a single near Kharkhorin was the only one
Golden Eagle: four seen
Common Kestrel: three seen
Merlin: seen daily, but never more than one per day
Saker: surprisingly few encountered, only one in the Orchon valley despite the mass abundance of rodents

Amarkhuu and the mature reeds
at Bayan Nuur, Feb 2014

Daurian Partridge: we came across only one group of 10 at Urd Tamir River
Rock Dove: common in the villages and towns
Hill Pigeon: only one at Erdenesant village
Eurasian Collared Dove: four in Kharkhorin
Grey-headed Woodpecker: one at Urd Tamir River
Black Woodpecker: one at Urd Tamir River
Great Spotted Woodpecker: one in Kharkhorin
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker: one in Kharkhorin
Mongolian Lark: a most impressive flock of about 12,000 near Kharkhorin, other flocks, which we saw had been much smaller
Asian Short-toed Lark: seen only between Tsenkher and Ogij sum, two flocks of about 50 each
Mongolian Horned Lark: seen daily in flocks not exceeding 100 individuals

Strangulated Barn Swallow,
Bayan Nuur, Feb 2014

Strangulated Barn Swallow,
Bayan Nuur, Feb 2014

Bohemian Waxwing: seen only at Erdensant Mountain where a flock of 200 feeding on Juniperus fruits
White-throated Dipper: two at Urd Tamir River
Siberian Accentor: one in Kharkhorin and one in Tsetserleg
Brown Accentor: seen only at Erdensant Mountain
Güldenstädt’s Redstart: a stunning male at Urd Tamir River
Red-thoated Thrush: few were seen at Erdensant Mountain
Eastern Marsh Tit: seen only at Erdensant Mountain
Willow Tit: few seen
Great Tit: few seen
Azure Tit: few seen
Eurasian Nuthatch: few seen
Northern Grey Shrike: one on the way to Tsenkher Hot Springs
Red-billed Chough: common
Daurian Jackdaw: only one in Ölzijt village
Oriental Carrion Crow: common
Common Raven: common
Common Magpie: common
House Sparrow: common
Eurasian Tree Sparrow: common
Rock Sparrow: only seen in Erdenesant village
Père David’s Snowfinch: only small flock seen
Arctic Redpoll: one in Erdensant village and two in Tsetserleg
Common Redpoll: few sightings only
Long-tailed Rosefinch: seen only at Urd Tamir River
Lapland Bunting: one small group seen only
Meadow Bunting: a flock of 30 near Ölzijt
Godlewski’s Bunting: six in Tsetserleg

Sheep highway near Tsetserleg, Feb 2014