February 28, 2008

Deep winter birding in Khovd – Andrew Laurie

It has been a cold few weeks, with minimum temperatures regularly below -35 deg C and maximum temperatures rarely going above -20 deg C and often staying below -30 deg C. We have had a couple of days of heavy snow, and smaller amounts on other days. The cold weather eased off a bit for a few days around 5th February but has now (18th February) returned.

Bird watching has been a challenge, with eyes freezing to the binoculars, and digital camera autofocus ceasing up because of the cold. Fingers get cold too, so that using the manual focus is also difficult! I have been amazed at the bird activity in this cold weather.

White-throated Dipper

Particularly striking has been the sight of White-throated Dippers zipping along their mainly frozen stream, landing at the open patches and walking into the water to feed as if it was a beautiful summer day!

White-throated Dippers

The dippers spend quite a lot of time under ice overhangs along the stream, which rises from a spring and then flows for up to two kilometres before it is completely frozen over. It is a narrow stream with tiny tributaries fed from other springs, and the dippers use even these little channels of less than 50cm width.

The Dipper Stream

I have heard them singing away to themselves their sub song under the ice on several occasions. I have visited the stream on eight occasions between 14th January and 9th February and numbers counted have varied from 6 to zero (Axel and I counted 11 on one day in early December 2007).

On 26th January there was only a single pool open on the stream, and only one dipper and one Common Goldeneye in the pool. I saw the goldeneye (assuming it was the same bird) on both the 19th and the 26th January: it made a wide circling flight of well over a kilometre diameter each time I disturbed it, and then returned to the stream.

Common Goldeneye

White-throated Dipper

Although I cannot be sure that I counted all the dippers each time I visited, because of their habit of hiding under the ice, I am almost sure that there were none there at all on the 1st February when there was not a single open stretch of water on the stream. Where they went I do not know but they were back again by the 4th (one) and 7th (four).

White-throated Dippers

Horned Larks are pretty well ubiquitous on the walk out to the stream, with their calls a constant backdrop. There were Red-billed Choughs on occasion too, but not in large numbers. One was particularly unafraid of me as it searched for something to eat among the snow.

Red-billed Chough

I noticed many of the passerines too had a shorter flight distance when it got really cold. On 8th February I was out early at the Otzon Chuluu site, and was able to get much closer than normal to flocks of Eurasian Tree Sparrows with several Horned Larks, Rock Sparrows, and the odd Pere David’s Snowfinch, feeding together on the ground in a large open patch in the plantation.

Pere David's Snowfinch (top left) and
Rock Sparrow

They, and separate large flocks of Meadow Buntings were extremely active – in sunlight, but at a shade temperature of -30 deg, the Sea Buckthorn still has some freezedried berries on it, and attracts rosefinches – Spotted Great, Red-mantled, and Long-tailed Rosefinch, but in much smaller numbers than the Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Godlewski's and Meadow Buntings.

Red-mantled Rosefinch

Godlewski's Bunting

Twite were also present on several occasions, and three times I saw a Merlin swoop over feeding areas releasing a cascade of alarm calls from the birds below. Other birds sighted regularly: Carrion Crow almost every trip, Common Raven, Eurasian Magpie, Great Tit on the trees on the way out of town. There was a Brambling on 12th January, and an unidentified thrushlike bird on 8th February. I saw a Hare too on three occasions, twice at Otzon Chuluu and once at the Dipper stream.


See pictures (all photos © A. Laurie) of some of the birds active here in Khovd in such severe winter weather – and some of the general scenery too, and the ice overhangs under which the Dippers shelter and sing.

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