January 15, 2012

Birding Mongolia in September 2011

part 2: Gun Galuut Nature Reserve
text & photos © Axel Bräunlich

After my half-day trip to the UB ponds I met John McLoughlin, leader of a Bird Holidays tour, in the Grand Khaan Irish Pub in Ulaanbaatar. John has been running autumn birding trips to Mongolia for several years now, and I can highly recommend these. He kindly offered me a lift to Gun Galuut, and I ended up joining him and his small group for the next few days, visiting the marshes in the valley of the Kherlen River not far east of UB, and also Jalman Meadows in the Khentii Mts.

We left UB the next morning (on 4 September), heading east on the asphalted main road. After a rather uneventful drive (c. 3 hrs including a stop near the main road where we saw 9 Eurasian Black Vultures) we eventually reached Gun Galuut, some 130 km from UB. This interesting little (c.20,000 ha) steppe–wetland nature reserve near the Kherlen has become an important birdwatching destination during the last few years. It has been featured here on Birding Mongolia several times: A wonderful day at Gun Galuut by Abu, 27 August 2011; 23 May 2009 by Abu; and May 2007 by Dan Mantle. See also additional data from 2010 given at the end of this post.

Juvenile Baikal Teal, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

The weather on the 4th was fine and dry, with a gentle breeze only. After occupying our gers (yurts) at the Steppe Nomads Ger Camp we visited the Tsengiin Burd wetland, immediately to the south. Highlights in this area of grazing marshes with many small ponds were a juvenile Baikal Teal, a flock of 7 adult White-naped Cranes, and a well-showing Eurasian Bittern. We spotted also several Siberian Marmots and two Corsac Foxes. Later on we visited the “larger” lakes (they are not really “large”: Lake Ikh Gun covers c. 60 hectares only), but we covered this area much better the next day. A Tolai Hare was at the ger camp.

Eurasian Bittern, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

5 September 2011 was another nice day, with a maximum temperature of 18°C (64°F). An early morning walk through the camp near the river with its few planted bushes produced 1 Yellow-browed and 11 Dusky Warblers, 1 Taiga Flycatcher, 1 Brown Shrike and a Black-faced Bunting. After breakfast we visited the lakes, where we found as absolute highlight for the trip two Siberian Cranes near Lake Ayaga. We identified them as adult. However, see Abus recent post (with good photos of the cranes!) were he explains why these very birds (seen already on 22 August) are not fully adult.

A nice bonus was a large (diameter including legs c. 7 cm) spider on the steppe between the lakes:

Wolf Spider (South Russian Tarantula)
Lycosa singoriensis

Over 400 Demoiselle Cranes were on the move in the area, and in addition we found both Bar-headed and Swan Geese and a host of waders and wildfowl. These included 5 Little Curlews, Stejneger’s Scoter and a Eastern Spot-billed Duck amongst the large number of wildfowl present.

Whooper Swan parent, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

Whooper Swan family, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

In the late afternoon a thunderstorm moved in, with rain, and freshening-up winds (Beaufort 5–6, max. 11 m/s).

After a stormy and rainy night the morning of 6 September was rather cold, 7.5°C (45.5°F) with high winds (Beaufort 7, max 14.2 m/s).

The lakes held a similar array of birds but there was no sign of the previous days Siberian Cranes. A new bird was a Northern Hobby. So we headed on to our next and final camp at Jalman Meadows. On the way (still very close to Gun Galuut) one can see the large coal mines of Baga Nuur, which provide fuel for Ulaanbaatars power plants (see previous post on air pollution in UB).

Open pit coal mine at Baga Nuur

Species List Gun Galuut 4–6 Sept 2011

Great Crested Grebe – Two birds on 5/6th.
Black-necked Grebe – 18 on 5th.
Slavonian Grebe – 4 on Ikh Gun on 5th.
Great Cormorant – Only two birds present.
Grey Heron – Fairly common, with a count of 20 birds on the 5th.
Eurasian Spoonbill – A group of seven birds were on the marshes on 4–6th.
Eurasian Bittern – An interesting record of one feeding out in the open on the grazing marshes on the afternoon of the 4th.
Whooper Swan – One family party with five young and two additional pairs.
Swan Goose – A flock of 52 birds were on the marshes on 4–6th.
Bar-headed Goose – 9 birds, including juveniles, on 4–5th.
Ruddy Shelduck – At least 110 on the 5th.
Eastern Spot-billed Duck – One with Mallards and Northern Pintails on the 5th.
Eurasian Wigeon – Good numbers, with at least 150 on the lakes on 4–6th.
Gadwall – Just three birds on the marshes on the 4th.
Common Teal – Present in good numbers, with several 100s seen.
Mallard – Present in good numbers, several dozens seen.
Northern Pintail – A large count of c.650 birds in one flock near Ikh Gun on the 5th.
Garganey – Peak count of 20 on the 4th.
Baikal Teal – A single juvenile with Garganeys on the grazing marsh pools on the 4th.
Northern Shoveler – Small numbers, with 32 counted on the 5th.
Common Pochard – A flock of at least 38 birds on one the large lake, Ikh Gun.
Tufted Duck – Seen every day during our three-day stay. 50+ seen.
(Asian) White-winged Scoter / Stejneger’s Scoter – An immature was with the diving duck flock on Ikh Gun on the 5th.
Common Goldeneye – Large numbers were feeding on Ikh Gun, where we counted c.150 birds on the 5th. Also, 30 on the grazing marshes on the 4th.
Smew – Two redheads on Ikh Gun on the 5th.
Goosander– A party of four birds feeding on Ikh Gun on 5–6th.
Black-eared Kite – A a few recorded every day.
Eurasian Black Vulture – 5 on the 5th.
Western Marsh Harrier – A juvenile hunted the marshes on the 5th providing a comparison with the following species. The plumage was a uniform dark brown with contrasting cream wing-covert patches.
Eastern Marsh Harrier – An adult male was seen well both in flight and on the ground on the 5th. An juvenile female was watched on the 6th. In contrast this was a rather scruffy looking bird with heavy streaking to the head and underparts.
Hen Harrier – Single “ringtails” were encountered on the 4th and 6th.
Steppe Eagle – Seen on the 4th.
Upland Buzzard – One on the 5th.
Merlin – 1 juvenile sheltered from the wind near the ger camp on the 6th.
Common Kestrel – Two on the 5th.
Northern Hobby – One on the 5th.
Saker Falcon – One hunting crickets on foot (!) close to the ger camp on the 4th.
Eurasian Coot – Seen only in small numbers on 4–6th.
Eastern” Baillon’s Crake – 1 juv. and 4 pulli, extra posting about this observation will follow.
Demoiselle Crane – Common, with at least 440 passing trough on the 5th.
Siberian Crane – Two subadults on the marshes at Ayaga Lake on the 5th.
White-naped Crane – Seven adults cranes were present on Tsengiin Burd.
Pied Avocet – Two by the big lake on the 5th
Little Ringed Plover – At least two juv birds recorded.
Pacific Golden Plover – Good numbers, with a large flock of 80, mainly adults, on 4–6th.
Grey Plover – One summer plumaged adult feeding on the flats on 5–6th.
Northern Lapwing – over 300 on the grazing marsh on the 4th.
Common Snipe – max. 17 on the 5th.
Black-tailed Godwit – 300+ birds on different marshes on 4–6th.
Little Curlew – Up to five birds seen well on the marshes on 4–5th.
Eurasian Curlew– A group of three birds feeding around the lakeshore at Ikh Gun on the 5th.
Spotted Redshank – Found in small numbers, 4–6th, with at least 22 birds on the 5th.
Common Redshank – Several were seen on the marshes, both adults and juveniles.
Marsh Sandpiper – At least three at Lake Ayaga on the 5th.
Common Greenshank – Up to four on 5–6th.
Green Sandpiper – Up to five on the 5th
Wood Sandpiper – Up to 5 birds on 5–6th.
Common Sandpiper – Up to five birds on the 5th.
Little Stint – A party of five juv. on the 5th provided a nice comparison with the following species.
Red-necked Stint – At least 12 juveniles on the 5th.
Temminck’s Stint – Two on the 5th.
Broad-billed Sandpiper – One juvenile on the 5th.
Curlew Sandpiper – 13 juveniles on the 5th, six seen there the following day.
Ruff – At least fifty counted on the marshes on the 5th.
Red-necked Phalarope – Two fresh juveniles on the pools on the 5th.
Black-headed Gull – Seen daily, 4–6th, in small numbers.
Common Gull – At least four on the large lake, Ikh Gun, on 4–6th.
Mongolian Gull – Small numbers were present on the lakes on 4–6th.
Mongolian Lark – Surprisingly rare, with only two on the 4th.

juvenile Mongolian Lark, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

juvenile Mongolian Lark, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

Asian Short-toed Lark – Seen in good numbers.
Eurasian Skylark – Small numbers seen only.
Richard’s Pipit – Six on the 7th.
Blyth’s Pipit – One at the river near the ger camp on the 5th.
Grey Wagtail – 2 near the ger camp on the 4th and a total over 25 on the 5th.
White WagtailM. a. baicalensis, seen regularly, max. c. 30 at the ger camp on the 5th.
Citrine Wagtail – c. 10 at the ger camp on the 5th.
Eastern (Siberian) Stonechat – Two birds showed well on the marsh on the 4th.
Isabelline Wheatear – Three on the 5th.
Northern Wheatear – Seen in small numbers.
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – One on the 4th.
Yellow-browed Warbler – One on the 5th.
Arctic Warbler – One on the 4th.
Dusky Warbler – 11 at/near the ger camp on the 5th.
Taiga Flycatcher – One on the 5th.
Brown Shrike – One on the 5th.
Common Magpie– Small numbers seen daily.
Red-billed Chough – Commonly seen.
Carrion Crow – Commonly seen.
Common Raven – Commonly seen, including a flock of 8 on the 5th.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – Commonly seen.
Rock Sparrow – At least 13 roosting in the ger camp on the 5th.
Common Reed Bunting – Several (minimum 6) were in the reedbeds on the smaller ponds on the 5th. They appeared smaller than nominate Reed Buntings, heavily streaked below with bright rufous fringes to the flight feathers and coverts. The calls were also different, a series of buzzing calls unlike the more frequently heard down-slurred “pssoo”.
Little Bunting – 1 resting at the pools on the 5th.
Black-faced Bunting – 1 in the ger camp on the 4th.

Reed Bunting, Gun Galuut, Sept 2011

Note: all photos above were digiscoped (hand-held) with a Canon Powershot S95 connected by a self-made adapter to a Swarowski ATS 80 HD scope with the zoom lens (20–60x) set at 30x.

Digiscoping with Canon Powershot S95
through Swarowski ATS 80 HD

PS. In 2010 we (see post Great Knot: a new species for Mongolia) visited Lake Ikh Gun on our way to Dornod, Mongolias easternmost province.

Watching waders, Gun Galuut, Jul 2010
© J. Dierschke

Heres the
Bird list from 2 hours morning birding on 25 July 2010:

Slavonian Grebe 5 ad, breeding plumage
Great Crested Grebe – 2
Whooper Swan – 8 ad., 6 juv.
Ruddy Shelduck – 3 families (14, 8 and 5 birds)
Northern Pintail 2
Northern Shoveler 6
Eurasian Wigeon – 2
Gadwall – 7
Common Pochard 10
Tufted Duck – 13
Goldeneye 126
(Asian) White-winged Scoter / Stejneger’s Scoter – 1
Northern Hobby 1
Common Kestrel – 2
Upland Buzzard – 1
Eurasian Black Vulture – 1
Demoiselle Crane 51
Common Sandpiper 34
Green Sandpiper 1
Marsh Sandpiper – 7
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – 7 ad., breeding plumage
Eurasian Curlew – 1
Wood Sandpiper – 8
Terek Sandpiper – 8
Red-necked Stint – 9
Long-toed Stint – 1
Temmincks Stint – 1
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 2 ad., 1 juv.
Curlew Sandpiper – 3 ad, breeding plumage
Pied Avocet – 4 ad., 8 juv.
Little Ringed Plover 15
Ruddy Turnstone 14 ad, breeding plumage
Common Tern – 5 ad.
Mongolian Gull – 1 ad.
Black-headed Gull – 3 juv.
Common Swift – 4
Isabelline Wheatear – 1
Sand Martin – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 1
Mongolian Lark – 5
Common Raven – 4


egor_13 said...

A good trip!

>>Western Marsh Harrier – A juvenile hunted the marshes on the 5th providing a comparison with the following species. The plumage was a uniform dark brown with contrasting cream wing-covert patches.

-- may be dark Eastern MH. I have seen such fledglings in the Selenga River delta.

Indranil Bhattacharjee said...

Your blog is wonderful ! I would like to ask you something. Recently while travelling through the gobi desert I saw hundreds, if not thousands of small birds flying in flocks over the Gobi very low over the ground (1 -5 m). They would rise up from the snow as our vehicle approached them, fly in swarms for soe distance and then again settle down. I wondered what birds these are. Can you give me some idea?
Thanks in advance.

Axel said...

@ Igor: Thanks for commenting. Is there a way of separating such dark eastern juvs from western juvs?

@ Indranil: Thanks for your nice words! About your very numerous small birds in the Gobi: There are three species which could be involved: Lapland Bunting (Calcarius lapponicus), Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), and Asian Short-toed Lark (Calandrella cheleensis). The bunting can occur in rather large groups, but probably not in thousands. Horned Lark can form very large flocks (soemtimes 1000s), and Asian Short-toed Lark forms often flocks of 1000s of birds. Also mixed flocks can occur.

egor_13 said...

there are some good approaches:
- young Eastern MH has a well-present pale field at base halfs of five inner primaries (to look from below!), while young Western MH has other light pattern in that part of wing (by words of Bill Clark, it is very good feature for ID);
- head pattern: young Eastern MH has dark "ear-spot" doing not contact with an eye, while Western has dark "eye-band" prolonging to forward to the eye or before it;
- if the bird is definitely young and if it has a lighter rump it is exactly Eastern MH (but if it does nit have it this feature is unusable);
- if the bird is young and if it has good light pectoral band going to shoulders and back it is Eastern MH. Western have either no one or week or no expanded to the back.

However, these methods do not work in the next situations:
(a) if you deal with a hybrid Western x Eastern MH. In this case, only the head pattern can work well, and perhaps the form of the head patterns can identify hybrids (while four other approaches seem to do not);
and (b) if the bird has atypical coloration (for example, some chicks of Eastern MH have a wholly light head, and indeed no chance to use a head pattern; Western MHs can have the same feature; also completely dark chicks occur rarely in both the species).


egor_13 said...

PS: There was some discussion about a strange marsh-harrier seen in Korea: http://www.birdskorea.org/Birds/Identification/ID_Notes/BK-ID-Marsh-Harriers.shtml There is something more there.

Axel said...

Thanks for your comments Igor!