June 19, 2007

Birding highlights from a recent holiday in Mongolia - Dan Mantle

I recently took a two week break from work in the Gobi Desert to meet up with my fiancee, Beth Symonds. We only had ten days together so our holiday was very rushed but we both wanted to see a bit more this wonderful country and its varied wildlife (particularly birds). I will post a full trip report shortly but I have put together some highlights for Axel’s blog. [one thing to note: we had hoped to beat the main tourist season, which was successful, and to get the first flushes of summer. However the weather was pretty terrible every where we went, either extremely strong winds, snow storms, driving rain (the first I had seen in Mongolia), or bitterly cold. So maybe the tour companies have it right and waiting till June or July is a safer bet for a one off holiday].

May 16. Geological camp at Shinjinst to Bayankhongor
A Red-throated Pipit near camp was my first in Mongolia, other birds seen on the drive included Desert Warbler, Pallas’s Sandgrouse (we actually clipped one in the Toyota Landcruiser but it flew off strongly – thankfully), Citrine Wagtail, Upland Buzzard, and Isabelline Shrike. After a quick dinner in Bayankhongor, I decided to walk the short distance to the river at the edge of town to check for migrants in the trees on the braided river islands. (This was pretty exciting as they were the first trees I had seen in ten weeks!). I saw very few passerines however but this was more than made up for by great views of a breeding plumage Chinese Pond Heron as it flew in front of my face before landing 50m upstream. A totally unexpected bird!

Bayankhongor River (Dan Mantle)

May 17. Bayankhongor to Ulaan Baatar (UB)
I had an hour to kill before my flight to UB so I headed back to the river to check again for migrant passerines. A small fall provided Hume’s Leaf Warbler (2), Dusky Warbler, Little Bunting, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, and Lesser Whitethroat (3). Other highlights were Black Stork, Blyth’s Pipits (common), Pied Wheatear, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Citrine Wagtail (3), Swinhoe’s Snipe (3), migrating Demoiselle Crane and Bar-headed Geese. Finally classic views of a Northern Goshawk being harassed by a mob of Red-billed Chough and a Taiga Flycatcher outside the small airport made for a very enjoyable mornings birding. I finally met up with Beth at UB airport tonight, for the first time in over three months.

May 18. UB to Gun Galuut
After a typically interesting drive (one puncture and many, many crazy drivers) along one of Mongolia’s very few tarmac roads we arrived at Gun Galuut to be greeted by numerous Mongolian Lark in the short grasslands and a Saker Falcon sitting tight on a telegraph pole. The several shallow lakes and marshy areas held a good selection of waterfowl and waders but driving, icy rain made birding difficult. We braved the elements for a couple of hours and managed to see several Demoiselle Crane, White-naped Crane (1, 2), Black Stork (1), and Swan Geese (7) on the marshes a kilometre east of the Ger Camp (easily the most impressive we stayed at in Mongolia – nice clean facilities, friendly staff, and good food). Walking back to camp we hugged the edge of the hill sides and found several sheltering migrants, best of which were an Eye-browed Thrush (1), Red-throated Thrush (1), White's Thrush (1), Taiga Flycatcher (1), Little Bunting (1), and resident Pere David’s Snowfinch.

May 19. Gun Galuut
Highlight of an early morning walk was a nice mixed flock of wagtail along the Kherlen River – Citrine Wagtail (10), Yellow Wagtail (4), Grey Wagtail (1), and White Wagtail (1). Further views of White-naped Crane (1,1), Swan Geese (3, 6) at the marshes near camp were complimented by breeding plumage Wood Sandpiper (2), Spotted Redshank (3) and Temmincks Stint (2). An afternoon horse ride took us to a small copse at the base of Mount Baits where we found more migrating thrushes - Siberian Thrush (1), Eye-browed Thrush (1) and Dusky Thrush (7 - T. n. naumanni; 1 T. n. eounomus - however you want to split them). We decided against continuing our ride to the Argali Sheep viewing platform as it was becoming bitterly cold again. Two Golden Eagles dive-bombing a Black Vulture was ample compensation. Further migrants near the river included more Little Bunting (3, 2, 1), Black-faced Bunting (1), Taiga Flycatcher (1), and Pied Wheatear (3).

May 20. Gun Galuut to Hustai National Park
Similar birds to previous two days at GG were added to by a stunning breeding plumage Ruff, a single Two-barred Greenish Warbler looking lost on a short grassy slope, White-winged Scoter (10), White-winged Tern, a pale morph Booted Eagle and yet more Little Buntings (3, 1, 3). Most of the day was taken up with driving back to UB, having lunch and then continuing on the further 90 minutes to Hustai NP. Displaying Steppe Eagle (3), more Demoiselle Crane, many Mongolian Larks, Olive-backed Pipits (5), Little Bunting (2), and Isabelline Wheatears (common) were noted before dark.

Demoiselle Crane (Beth Symonds)

May 21. Hustai to UB
The main reason for visiting Hustai was to try to see the reintroduced Takhi (Przwalski's Horse) that were formerly extinct in the wild. A remarkable effort by a collection of zoos around the world. We were lucky and saw several family groups of Takhi with the local guide. The best birds of the day were Daurian Partridge, Meadow Bunting (2, 4, 2), Arctic Warbler (1), Siberian Rubythroat, Olive-backed Pipit (1), Richard’s Pipit (2), Blyth's Pipit (4), Little Bunting (1), White’s Thrush (1), Red-throated Thrush (1), Dusky Thrush (2 – T. n. naumanni), Brown Shrike (3) and a great array of raptors was topped off by views of Lesser Kestrels taking turns to chase a young Northern Goshawk (Goshawks definitely get their fair share of torment). Other raptors included multiple Eurasian Hobby, Amur Falcon, Common Kestrel, Steppe Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon, Black-eared Kite, Cinereous Vulture and Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

Takhi / Przewalski's Horse (Dan Mantle)

May 22. UB to Dalanzadgad (south Gobi Desert)
Today we spent much of the day waiting in the airport for our delayed flight. We arrived late in the evening to our Ger Camp near Yolyn Am (Gurvan Saikhan National Park).

May 23. Yolyn Am, Bayanzag, and Juulchin Tourist Camp
Beth saw the first snow of her life as bitterly cold conditions hampered birding at Yolyn Am followed by violent wind storms at Bayanzag and Juulchin Tourist Camp. We still saw Lammergeier, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Twite (20), Mongolian Finch (2), Godlewski’s Bunting (1, 2, 2, 1), Pallas's Reed Bunting (2, 2), Little Bunting (2, 2, 1, 1 – clearly this is the peak migration time for this species within Mongolia as we saw them everywhere we went), Black-faced Bunting (2), Beautiful Rosefinch (2), Common Rosefinch (2), Sulphur-bellied Warbler (3), Koslov's Accentor (1, 1, 2, 1), Brown Accentor (1), Blyth’s Pipit (common) and Olive-backed Pipit (1). Weather conditions stopped us from even trying for Altai Snowcock.

We tried to continue to Dunganee Valley to see the ruined Buddhist monastery but the pass was still covered in ice so this was curtailed. We did see nesting Saker Falcon, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and further Koslov’s and Brown Accentors.

As a geologist/palaeontologist I was really keen to see Bayanzag (a well known dinosaur site and also the home of the Saxaul Sparrow) but dangerous sand storms meant we couldn’t even leave the car.

Bayanzag – the photo does no justice to the storms
(Dan Mantle)

By the time we reached Juulchin Tourist Camp (not where we were staying) the winds had abated slightly but it was a last minute decision to try to bird here. The camp is protected by a row on poplars that were planted in the 1970s that now act as a brilliant migrant trap. There were several Daurian Redstart, Taiga Flycatcher, a single Asian Brown Flycatcher and a Yellow-browed Warbler sheltering in the small trees within the camp ground. Then Beth brought my attention to another bird sitting tight within the trees. Wow! It was a Yellow-billed Grosbeak – a bird I knew virtually nothing about and one that I didn’t expect to see in Mongolia. [Comment: Yellow-billed Grosbeak is a very rare passage migrant in Mongolia. According to my knowledge this is the first photographycally documented record for the country. A. Braunlich]. Beth managed to get some great record shots despite the strong winds and swirling sands. After watching the Grosbeak for half an hour we had to continue back to our base but not before one last highlight – a brilliant Oriental Plover in display flight and on the grassy desert floor.

Yellow-billed Grosbeak (Beth Symonds)

May 24. Yolyn Am and Juulchin Tourist Camp
Much the same species as yesterday, started off with a Lammergeier low overhead at our Ger Camp. The only birds we added to yesterdays list at Yolyn Am were Red-mantled Rosefinch (5-6) and Himalayan Griffon Vulture (1). I continued on to Juulchin to check for more migrants but I think Beth made the better decision to return to our ger and read. The winds reached storm force and no birds could be identified in the poplars. A single Laughing Dove that had joined the Eurasian Collard Doves around the camp made a torturous few hours birding (only ever glimpsing birds in the winds) just about worth while.

Little Bunting (Beth Symonds)

May 25. UB
A day visiting the Buddhist temple and shopping in UB.

May 26. UB to Terelj
We only had time for a few short walks near the Buveit Ger Camp and in the larch woods above Terelj village. The best birds were Amur Falcon, Pine Bunting (common near Buveit), Pallas's Reed Bunting (4), Arctic Warbler (1), and Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1).

May 27. Terelj to UB
A great mornings birding in the deciduous woodlands along the river beside Terelj village provided some fantastic close views of woodpeckers (including Black, Grey-headed, White-backed, and Lesser-spotted). A pair of Long-tailed Rosefinches were another major highlight whilst Hawfinch (8), Taiga Flycatcher, Daurian and Common Redstart, Red-throated Thrush, Arctic Warbler, and Olive-backed Pipit were common.

Black Woodpecker (Beth Symonds)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Beth Symonds)

Back at the Buveit, Pine Buntings were again common but were joined by a pair of Yellow-breasted Bunting. We had to leave shortly after lunch but still managed an hour in the deciduous woods near the park entrance. Here we saw a small flock of White-cheeked Starling (6), Wryneck (1), a pair of Three-toed Woodpecker (our 6th woodpecker species for the day), Brown Shrike (2), and Azure Tit (1).

A pair of Three-toed Woodpecker (Beth Symonds)

May 28. UB
Another day in UB before Beth had to return to Australia.

May 1-4. UB
I had four days of work in UB but still managed some birding. I left work early on the 1st to go birding with Konrad Schleicher at the UB sewerage ponds. Highlights here were a large flock of White-winged Black Tern (300-400) and 2 Whiskered Terns. On the evening of the fourth I found several Hawfinch and a dead juvenile Northern Goshawk near the Tuul River on the edge of town.

May 5. UB to Shinjinst (Gobi Desert)
Back to the field camp for another shift in hopefully less windy conditions. After my flight I managed to grab another hours birding along the river outside of Bayankhongor before setting off to Shinjinst. Again the trees proved good for resting migrants with Dusky Warbler (3), Arctic Warbler (2), Two-barred Greenish Warbler (2), and Barred Warbler (1). Arriving back to camp I saw many Pallas's Sandgrouse, Horned Lark, an Upland Buzzard, a Water Pipit and then the White-winged Snowfinch that are breeding in our ger camp. These will be among the few birds I will see in my field area for the next 6 weeks.

Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Dan Mantle)

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