April 19, 2007

(I was contacted by Daniel Mantle, a keen birder who is based in the Gobi for some time. Although birdlife at his barren local spot is rather sparse early in the year we can expect some exiting observations from him. Axel.) Here is his first post:

MAR to mid-APR 2007, Gobi near Shinejinst - D. Mantle
I will be in Mongolia for at least this year. I am working as a contract geologist and will be based near Shinejinst (south-central Mongolia, c.4 hours south of Bayangkhongor). I am pretty much confined to the small basin I am working in and the immediate surrounds. In March the birding in the area was extremely sparse. There are no trees or even shrubs/bushes in the area and certainly no surface water (well at least not at this time of year). The only vegetation in the basin is grass (or what is left after the livestock has been at it) and a very low (5 cm) growing lavender-scented herb/shrub on a few of the hills. I only saw about ten species in the basin in the whole of March. Horned Lark and Northern Raven were the only regular species but their were days when I would spend up to 12 hours outside and see only one or two birds. There are a few spots where I am guaranteed flocks of up to 50 Horned Larks but other parts of the basin were utterly birdless. The highlights in March were stunning views of Lammergeier, Long-legged Buzzard, Pere David's Snowfinch, and Hill Pigeon (if that can be considered a highlight).

Isabelline Wheatear. Photo © D. Mantle

Now migrants have started to move through in the last week or so. In Shinejinst the first definite migrant was a Citrine Wagtail (5/4/2007) that landed briefly at a well we had dug for our drilling operations. This bird cheered me up no end as I was becoming a little disconsolate about my birding opportunities in such a barren area. It was a stunning breeding male and a bird that I have only ever seen twice before in the UK and France. The next day a Steppe Eagle (6/4/07) moved north but this could easily have been a local bird moving over but a Black Vulture and a Common Buzzard also moving north along the same ridge line the following day had me thinking these birds may be early migrants. The only regular bird of prey in the area is very pale Upland Buzzard that I see every few days. I also heard my first White Wagtail flying over this day (7/04/07). This bird was soon followed by more White Wagtails (mostly personata and a few baicalensis) over the following days. Having seen no wheatears before the 9th of April, all four local species (Isabelline, Northern, Desert, and Pied in decreasing abundance) turned up that day. I am outside working for most of the day so am pretty sure there were no wheatears before this date. Within a few days there were Isabelline Wheatears across the basin and they have now begun displaying (at least I presume it is a display - hovering in a perfectly still position in mid air, often with a piece of grass in their bill). The Isabelline Wheatears are abundant across the highly grazed flat central portion of the basin and also in the surrounding low ridges but the Desert and Pied Wheatears are rarely far from the hilly edges. The first Hoopoe flew over our camp on the morning of the 15th, the day after a violent and prolonged dust storm that shutdown all drilling operations. I awoke on the morning of the 16th to see that a fresh fall of snow had covered the basin but several new birds had also arrived over night. A beautiful male Lesser Kestrel was resting on a soil heap from the well and Lesser (Asian) Short-toed Lark, a Twite, and 3 Rock Sparrows had joined the foraging flocks of Horned Larks (these new species to my area list may only have been locally displaced birds due to the overnight snowfall). To be honest, I have never spent so much time in an area of such low diversity. This isn't a complaint, I think the area is spectacular and the birds and now some of the mammals I am seeing are great but a few bushes or trees to pull in a few more migrants wouldn't go astray.

(Two winters ago in Khovd I had one of my "local patch walks" when I managed to see zero individuals of zero species… Winter birding in Mongolia can be tough! Axel.)

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