January 12, 2013

4.5 hours in the shade

by Andreas Buchheim

Today, 10 January 2013 was my first bird watching day since I arrived shortly before Christmas.

I parked the car at the uppermost end of the road and went uphill; only to be stopped by a security guard after walking for just 50 metres. After explaining where I wanted to go (and possibly after he had realized that I was just a birdwatcher = “harmless idiot”) I could pass and enter the forest. I started walking up Zaisan Valley (see also here) at around 9 a.m. at minus 35°C. 

Birding at these temperatures and in this particular valley has several difficulties. Leaving the cold aside (I was dressed properly), for me winter birding is always quite difficult as I am wearing glasses. These easily get frosted thus I have to take them off. Though I am not as blind as a mole without them, it is definitively more difficult to find birds with unaided eyes. Furthermore, walking quietly is impossible on the snow, so I had to stop over and over again to be able to hear calls. At minus 35°C nobody likes to stop for long, that’s for sure! Then there are the pikas. One has to learn how to ignore the many alarm calls of the Northern Pikas that inhabit the boulder fields. Otherwise one wastes too much time searching for a bird that has just called, but the calls actually had been uttered by one of these ground-dwelling mammals.

As the valley has steep slopes on both sides and is on the northern side of Bogd Khaan Uul (Uul = mountain) it receives only little sunshine so I was curious to see how much sunshine it actually get during the time with a low winter sun, mainly because I wanted to know whether I should take my camera next time or leave it at home as I did today.

The lower part of the valley has some open forest areas with larch Larix sibirica and birch Betula sp. dominating. Then there are more and more bushes as undergrowth plus a lot of baby trees indicating that there is less grazing pressure. In fact, I did not see any grazers. Every now and then boulder fields form open areas. Still, larch dominates but as one ascends, the number of evergreen pine trees Picea obovata and Pinus sibirica increases. Neither of these species has many cones this year.

Birding was hard work as always in those boreal forests with a very low bird density. Apart from the birds (full list below) I saw none of the pikas (but heard them), two Eurasian Squirrels Sciurus vulgaris and—best of all—a very active Siberian Flying Squirrel Pteromys volans! The light grey-and-white creature with its big black eyes and the dark flank streak even sallied several time from one tree to another, covering distances up to 7 m.

I was able to watch it down to less than 15 m—this was fantastic! I spent 6 hours in the valley but had only 1.5 hours sunshine down in the forest. When I returned it was still minus 20°C.

Bird List (18 species)

Great Spotted Woodpecker: 2
White-backed Woodpecker: 1
Three-toed Woodpecker: 4
Bohemian Waxwing: 1
Willow Tit: 30+
Eastern Marsh Tit: 45+
Eurasian Nuthatch: 30+
Eurasian Treecreeper: 1
Common Magpie: 1
Eurasian Jay (Brandt’s Jay): 7
Spotted Nutcracker: about 25
Oriental Crow (Carrion Crow): 2
Common Raven: 2
Mealy Redpoll (Common Redpoll): 26
Eurasian Siskin: 10
Eurasian Bullfinch (Grey Bullfinch P. p. cineracea): 11
Pine Grosbeak: 60+ (one big flock)
Meadow Bunting: 1

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