April 29, 2007

28 APR 2007, SW-side Khar Us Nuur, c.40 km ESE from Khovd
- K. & A. Braunlich
The ice which still covered large parts of Khar Us Nuur (Khar Us Lake) about two weeks ago (see photo; the visible shoreline is about 20 km long) has completely melted away. Despite strong (and warm) wind 56 spp were logged today.

Ice breaking up at southern Khar Us Nuur, 16 April.
Photo © A. Braunlich

The southern part of Khar Us Nuur consists of a reedbed-island zone, measuring c.17 x 8-11 km. This huge wetland is very difficult to overlook and hundreds of waterfowl seen here today (16 species; the commonest species being Red-headed Pochard) are only a tiny fraction of the overall number which may reach many thousands during this time of the year.

The reedbed-island zone of southern Khar Us Nuur, c.17 km across.

© Google Earth

The lake is important for the globally threatened White-headed Duck, being the easternmost breeding site for the species world-wide. Today 9 males and 6 females were seen. The large congregations of ducks, shelducks and geese attracted an adult Golden Eagle, a species breeding in the nearby mountains. First observations for the spring included 4 pairs of Demoiselle Crane, 3 Black-winged Stilts, a flock of 7 Caspian Terns resting in the mixed colony of Pallas’s and Mongolian Gulls, 33 Eurasian Spoonbills, 1 Black-necked Grebe, >10 Western Marsh Harriers, and 1 Grey Plover. Among the dozens of Common Redshanks, Kentish Plovers and Avocets feeding along the muddy shoreline several Greater and Lesser Sandplovers (the latter of the northern subspecies group mongolus/stegmanni) were spotted. Passerines were more difficult to find due to the strong wind. Of interest were two loose groups of Desert Wheatears, totaling c.40 birds.

Reed dwellers at Khar Us Nuur. Photo © A. Braunlich

April 23, 2007

Important Bird Areas in Mongolia

If the degradation and loss of natural ecosystems in Asia are to be halted, and the essential services and products they provide are to be maintained, it is vital that the negative impacts of economic development on biodiversity are mitigated, and that proactive measures are taken to conserve the region’s highest priority sites. The Important Bird Area (IBA) Programme of BirdLife International is a contribution towards these goals. The programme aims to identify and protect a network of critical sites for the world’s birds. It began in Europe in 1985, and was adopted as a global initiative by BirdLife International in 1994. In Mongolia, work on an IBA inventory began in 1999. Results were published in 2004 in the milestone publication Important Bird Areas in Asia: Key Sites for Conservation.

The Asian IBA Programme has five long-term objectives: (i) to provide a basis for the development of national conservation strategies and protected areas programmes; (ii) to highlight areas that should be safeguarded through wise land-use planning, national policies and regulations, and the grant-giving and lending programmes of international banks and development agencies; (iii) to provide a focus for the conservation efforts of civil society, including national and regional NGO networks; (iv) to highlight sites that are threatened or inadequately protected, so that urgent remedial measures can be taken; and (v) to guide the implementation of global conservation conventions and migratory bird agreements.

A workshop "Towards the identification and safeguarding of important areas of natural habitat in Monglia" was held in Ulaanbaatar from 19 to 20 April 2007. The workshop was organized in recognition of Mongolia's global importance for biodiversity and its rich natural habitats, and the increasing need to conserve these resources alongside Mongolia's economic development. The workshop was organized by BirdLife International and the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, on behalf of the Ministry of Nature and Environment and The World Bank, and with the support of the National University of Mongolia, the Institute of Biology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, WWF Mongolia and the Wildlife Conservation Society Mongolia Programme Office.

During the two-day workshop about 40 specialists from Mongolia, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, the UK and the USA discussed options for the protection of IBA, threats and pressures on IBA and how to mitigate them, and compiled new information on existing and potential new IBA. A new Mongolian IBA inventory was drafted. In addition to the 41 existing IBA, 37 potential new IBA were identified.

The 41 existing IBA in Mongolia.

37 potential new IBA were identified during the workshop.

For further information and contributions to the IBA Programme in Mongolia please contact Mr. Nyambayar Batbayar from the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center in Ulaanbaatar. E-mail: bnyamba@magicnet.mn
mid-APR 2007, Tsetserleg - K. Schleicher
On 15 April I observed for the second time a White-backed Woodpecker which was pecking at the inside of a cracked bone in the city park of Tsetserleg (compare pictures from 29 March). After the woodpecker finished searching for food I examined the bone. There was fresh marrow in it with traces of the woodpecker’s bill, proving that the woodpecker(s) are specialised in feeding on marrow.

New spring arrivals around Tsetserleg were: 12 Apr 1 Booted Eagle (dark morph). Last year Booted Eagle bred successfully in mountain forest two kilometres north of Tsetserleg. 13 Apr 1 Pied Wheatear (singing) and Black Redstart (ssp. P. o. phoenicuroides; singing). 14 Apr 2 Mongolian Gulls resting on the ice of Tamir river. 15 Apr, at the wet area adjacent to the airport: 2 Eurasian Rooks, 2 Citrine Wagtails, 4 Common Starlings, 12 Mallards, 2 Bar-headed Geese, and 1 male Common Teal.

Booted Eagle. Photos © K. Schleicher

I have to withdraw the record of 31 Eurasian Jackdaws from 9 April. A closer look through the telescope on 15 April revealed that at the same site only Daurian Jackdaws in first-winter plumage were present. Their number had increased to c.1,500. I had mistaken these dark birds for Eurasian Jackdaws.

Comment by Axel:
Daurian Jackdaw has three distinct plumages: juveniles and adults are pied, while first-years are largely black. The variation in head streaking of first-years, often mentioned as a key separation feature from Eurasian Jackdaw, is related to time of year. One consequence of that may be that first-winter Daurian Jackdaws are often confused with Eurasian Jackdaws.

First-winter Daurian Jackdaws which lack streaking on the ear-coverts closely resemble juvenile Eurasian Jackdaw. They are, however, readily separable from first-winter and adult Eurasian Jackdaw by their lack of a pale grey nape. In addition, first-winter Daurian Jackdaw has a glossy back throat which contrasts with the sooty-black upper breast. Furthermore, the iris colour is always dark in Daurian Jackdaw, but ranges between light grey and white in Eurasian Jackdaw. This last difference is diagnostic at all ages, except for recently fledged juvenile Eurasian Jackdaws, which have dark irides.”
from: Leader, P. J. 2003. Identification of Daurian Jackdaw. British Birds 96: 520 - 523

I checked several Daurian Jackdaws flocks, often consisting of hundreds of birds, in Ulaanbaatar on 16/17 April 2007. The percentage of adult birds in these groups was mostly 1-2% only; the majority were birds in first-winter plumage.

Daurian Jackdaw, adult. Ulaanbaatar, 16 April 2007.
Photo © A. Braunlich

Daurian Jackdaws, first-winter plumage.
Ulaanbaatar 16 April 2007. Photo © A. Braunlich

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.)

19 MAR 2007, Ulaanbaatar city beauty - A. Braunlich
I am for a few days in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, attending an Important Bird Area workshop (info will follow). Today, on the way to the venue I heard the song of a Long-tailed Rosefinch penetrating the traffic noise in a very busy street. During the last years I have seen now several times this species in downtown Ulaanbaatar, even singing in backyards which were almost devoid of bushes or trees. But more easily they can be found at the edge of Ulaanbaatar along the willow-fringed Tuul river, or in the Nairamdal Park in town.

Long-tailed Rosefinch. Photo © A. Braunlich

BTW, I am taking the photos posted on Birding Mongolia with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30, an 8 Mega pixel camera with a fixed 12x optical zoom Leica lens and a 1.7x tele conversion lens.

April 15, 2007

15 APR 2007, SW-side Khar Us Nuur, c.40 km ESE from Khovd
- K. & A. Braunlich
7˚C, overcast, 50 species logged, incl. 10 species of duck. More than 80% of Khar us nuur (the Mongolian word “nuur” means lake) remain covered by ice. However, the first shorebirds defied the arctic conditions and were feeding along the partly ice-free shoreline: 26 Pied Avocets, c.30 Kentish Plovers, 1 Little Ringed Plover, 2 Common Redshanks, and >50 Northern Lapwings. At an island which holds a gull colony since many years c.220 very vocal Great Black-headed Gulls gathered together with Mongolian Gulls Larus (vegae) mongolicus. 2 Common Sand Martins and 2 Common House Martins were early arrivals. A beautiful male Lesser Kestrel rested on the ground in the desert steppe adjacent to the lake, and a pair was seen in mountains nearby.

April 14, 2007

14 APR 2007, Khovd - A. Braunlich
New species today, seen for the first time this spring were 1 Bar-headed Goose, 3 Eurasian Crag Martins, and 2 Yellowhammers. Wheatears (all four species) arrived in numbers, and Water Pipits were very common along the river (>90 logged).

April 13, 2007

13 APR 2007, Khovd - A. Braunlich
In the afternoon we got the second rain shower of the year. It is unbelievable that air can smell this fresh – after many months of treating our lungs with dust and the smoke from the yurts. About 80% of the c.30,000 people in the town of Khovd live in yurts.

Our house (the apartment block in the centre of the photo)
is surrounded by the traditional white Mongolian yurts.
The plots are separated from each other by wooden fences.
Photo from autumn 2006 © Axel Braunlich

A walk along the river after the skies cleared up was quite successful, with 36 species logged, including 8 new for the year (marked with an *): 3 Whooper Swans*, 16 Water Pipits, 6 Citrine Wagtails, 1 Grey Wagtail*, 45 Masked Wagtails, 13 Siberian Chiffchaffs, 2 Bluethroats*, 1 Hoopoe*, 1 Stock Dove*, 2 Western Jackdaws*, and 58 Black-throated Thrushes. Behind the stadium a little wheatear-party took place, with 1 male Pied, 1 male Isabelline (singing), 3 males and one female Northern and 3 males Desert Wheatears* in an area of c.2 hectares. A dark morph Booted Eagle* resting nearby was – as always – mobbed by Carrion Crows. The local Black-eared Kite roost has increased to c.250 birds.
The Birds of Kazakhstan will be published in the 2nd week of April 2007

Kazakhstan is a huge (with 2.7 million square kilometres about 1.7 times the size of Mongolia) and diverse country, stretching from Europe almost to Mongolia. The two countries don’t share a common border, but are separated by a c.40 km long stretch of the Chinese-Russian border in the Altai. The easternmost point of Kazakhstan is c.340 km WNW from Khovd. The number of bird species recorded in Kazakhstan and Mongolia is rather similar (498/c.470).

For anyone interested in the bird fauna of the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion (to which western Mongolia belongs) the new book will be an important reference.

The Birds of Kazakhstan
by Arend Wassink and Gerald J Oreel

This full-colour book brings together invaluable information on status, habitats, distribution and migration on the birds of Kazakhstan, packed into 288 pages.

All 498 species recorded in Kazakhstan (up to early 2007) are covered, and more than 900 maps and graphs give their breeding and temporal distribution. The text, including the introductory chapters, is further illustrated by maps, watercolour paintings and many photographs.

The Birds of Kazakhstan is an essential reference for anyone with an interest in the avifauna of Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

For more information (including ordering instructions), see

April 11, 2007

11 APR 2007, Khovd - A. Braunlich
A light shower yesterday afternoon was the first rain in Khovd since last autumn. Today it was rather warm (15˚C) and the first green grass emerged (at least 1 mm visible!). A very early Turkestan Shrike Lanius (isabellinus) phoenicuroides rested behind the stadium (last year’s first observation was on May, 10th!). Other notable sightings of migrants included 9 Black Redstarts (of the red-bellied ssp. Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides), 5 (incl. 2 sing.) Siberian Chiffchaffs, 23 Black-throated Thrushes, one hybrid Black-throated x Red-throated Thrush, and a flock of 8 Bramblings.

Hill Pigeon. Photo © A. Braunlich
early APR 2007, Tsetserleg - K. Schleicher
First records of spring arrivals around Tsetserleg (for comparison in brackets first observations from Khovd, which is c.730 km to the WNW from Tsetserleg; obs. A. Braunlich): 5 Apr: one Black-throated Thrush (28 Feb); 7 Apr: one female Common Chaffinch (30 Mar), one singing Isabelline Wheatear (7 Apr); 9 Apr: one singing Northern Wheatear (8 Apr), and at a wet area with a creek next to the airport: 8 (6 in courtship flight) Northern Lapwings (1 Apr), 3 White Wagtails M. a. baicalensis, 2 singing Eurasian Skylarks (24 Mar). Species which also have been observed, but not as first records for the year are 44 Ruddy Shelducks, and a flock of 72 Eurasian Jackdaws and 2 Daurian Jackdaws.

The first Hill Pigeon clutch (2 eggs) was in the loft of my apartment on 3 Apr. Black-eared Kites are common by now and can be watched circling in pairs over their nesting trees.

During the last two weeks I had several times the chance to observe Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches Carpodacus (pulcherrimus) davidianus in birch/willow scrub. The highest number was 12-15 (with only 2 males in the flock) on 29 March.

Male Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch. Photo © K. Schleicher

Female Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch. Photo © K. Schleicher

Waterbird Population Estimates - 4th edition available online

One of the criteria to identify Important Bird Areas (IBA) for congregatory birds is "The site is known or thought to hold, on a regular basis, >/= 1% of a biogeographic population of a congregatory waterbird species". In order to use this criterion, it is necessary to have estimates of 1% of the population of each species. And here you can find them:

It is over three months since the book Waterbird Population Estimates - fourth edition was distributed. The publication is now available for download on the Wetlands International website via the following link:
The download includes all the tables, in Excel spreadsheet format, together with the introductory chapters as a PDF file. The size of the zipped file for download is 1.7 MB. Before you download the file you will need to complete a simple registration procedure.

April 8, 2007

First record of Desert Finch for Mongolia - A. Braunlich

When checking a flock of Twite in a poplar plantation in Khovd today, I discovered a larger, plain brown finch among them. I immediately identified it as DESERT FINCH Rhodospiza obsoleta by its sandy-brown plumage, the thick black bill and the pink/white markings in the wing. After taking a few photos it flew away. I relocated it a while later, then resting together with Eurasian Tree Sparrows at the edge of a road. Pale lores and dark brown, pale edged tertials confirmed that the bird is an adult female in breeding plumage. (Males have black lores and tertials; non-breeding birds have black-tipped pale beaks.)

Desert Finch breeds in SE Turkey and the Middle East trough Iran, Afghanistan, N Pakistan, and in Middle/Central Asia from the SE Caspian east through the foothills of the Tian Shan to the western Kunlun Shan in the south and discontinuously in the north through W Xinjiang, N Qinghai and Gansu to the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia. A claim of three observations from different areas in Mongolia in August 2001, listed in an unpublished trip report (copy in my library) would seem best regarded as unproven given the lack of any comments and lack of substantiating evidence.

The observation today would constitute the first confirmed record of Desert Finch for Mongolia if accepted. (Desert Finch is species no. 197 for Khovd since late October 2005. And a great bird to become species no. 350 on my personal Mongolia list!).

Desert Finch, 8 April 2007 Khovd. Photos © A. Braunlich

April 7, 2007

7 APR 2007, Khovd – A. Braunlich
During a WWF office outing c.5 km to the north of Khovd town (just at the perimeter of what I call would call "my local spot”) I saw six species for the first time this year: A pair of Black Storks at their nest in a cliff (occupied since many years), a flock of 15 Common Black-headed Gulls (migrating NE; one of the very few species which can be seen actively migrating here), 1 male Black Redstart, 2 Isabelline Wheatears, 2 male Pied Wheatears, and two Siberian Chiffchaffs. Impressive: The extension of the ice-cover on the river (see photos).

Grey Heron on the rocks. Photo © A. Braunlich

Buyant gol north of Khovd today.
…and in May 2006. Photos © A. Braunlich

April 6, 2007

6 APR 2007, Khovd - K. & A. Braunlich
Unfortunately I got the bug this week and had to watch birds rather on Planet Earth than somewhere outside – which is a shame, since I must have missed several arrival dates… It was very warm today (here, above 15 Celsius in early April is VERY warm!). The main stream of the Buyant gol, the fast flowing river on the west side of town, is still completely frozen. But branches are beginning to melt, and there are some open puddles. The sky above Khovd, which was so long dominated by wintering crovids has been definitely taken over by Mongolian Gulls (77 today) and Black-eared Kites (c.150) by now. A two-hour walk in the afternoon resulted in no less 29 species in total and ten new species for this spring: 6 Greylag Geese (species no. 196 for Khovd since late Oct 05) flying east, 3 Mallards, 1 Eurasian Wigeon, and 2 Eurasian Teals (for any larger waterfowl numbers one must drive c.40 km to Khar Us Nuur National Park), 1 Great Black-headed Gull, 1 Grey Heron, 2 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, 1 Steppe Buzzard (but one already seen here by Valdemar Holmgren on 1 April), 14 Citrine Wagtails (11 superb males!), and a flock of 8 Water Pipits. The latter two species were resting in plantations which are flooded by the owners/keepers these days (but there is neither green grass nor any green leaves or flowers to see yet). Other species today include 1 Upland Buzzard, 1 male Eversmann’s Redstart, 6 Black-throated Thrush and 4 Masked Wagtails.

April 3, 2007

2 APR 2007, Khovd – A. Braunlich
A short late afternoon walk, overcast, +5˚C. Today’s highlight was a Mistle Thrush, species no. 195 for Khovd since late October 2005, and species no. 349 on my personal Mongolia list! 2 male Guldenstadt’s Redstarts, 7 Evermann’s Redstarts, 1 Red-throated and 7 Black-throated Thrushes, 2 Long-eared Owls, and 3 Black-throated Accentors were resting in the poplar plantations near the river. The roost of Black-eared Kites is building up, with 112 birds counted at the edge of town at dusk.

Long-eared Owl. Photo © A. Braunlich
29 MAR 2007, Tsetserleg - K. Schleicher
In the small city park of Tsetserleg a male White-backed Woodpecker was exploring cracked bones. The bird moved straight from one to the next and examined three different bones within five minutes. After looking inside...

it rolled its body sideways on the ground in order to pick at the inside of the bones.

Photos © K. Schleicher

The woodpecker seemed to be used to this kind of food search. It cannot be ruled out that it has got accustomed to feed on marrow or arthropods this way. Bones scattered all over the city are not unusual. Tsetserleg has many street dogs which crack bones of slaughter remains.

As a new spring arrival a Black-eared Kite was seen flying over town today.

April 1, 2007

Early spring at Khar Us Nuur National Park

After the fierce Mongolian winter (temperatures drop regularly well below minus 30˚C) the dry, cold and windy spring is always a crucial time for the nomads living in and near Khar Us Nuur National Park in the Great Lakes Basin in western Mongolia. WWF Mongolia has been supporting the national park and the local people since more than 10 years. For more information about Khar Us Nuur National Park: click here.

Whirlwinds are common in spring. Photo © A. Braunlich

Spring in the steppe can be a tough time for kids.
Photo © A. Braunlich

On Saturday (31 March) I went with my colleagues from the WWF Altai-Sayan Field Office in Khovd to the southern part of the national park to talk with rangers about a new checkpoint. After our visit some time was left for birding. Although the 1500-square kilometer lake is still >99% frozen (there’s an ice cover well into April, see photo from April last year) a few waterbirds arrived already: 3 Great Egrets, 1 Grey Heron, 5 Ruddy Shelducks, c.50 Greylag Geese, 78 Mongolian Gulls, 2 Tufted Ducks, and c. 60 dabbling ducks (to far away to be identified). Other species seen included 100s of Horned Larks (all of the white-faced local subspecies E. a. brandti), c. 30 Rock Sparrows feeding among Horned Larks, 2 Lapland Buntings, 8 Hen Harriers, 1 Little Owl, 1 Peregrine Falcon, 1 migrant Reed Bunting (thin-billed, as opposed to the thick-billed resident subspecies), many Bearded Tits, and several singing Lesser Short-toed Larks (every year the earliest singers in the park).

Horsemen crossing the completely frozen
Khar Us Nuur, 9 April 2006. Photo © A. Braunlich