October 24, 2008

Russian Conservation News

A new edition (PDF, 2.7 MB) of Russian Conservation News (in English and Russian) can be downloaded here. The issue contains an article on the planned Altai Pipeline (a gas pipeline), which might affect Mongolia, too.

October 22, 2008

Wild Bird Migration and Influenza Research Study – Mongolia 2008

by Taej Mundkur, Flyway Programme Manager, Wetlands International

The largest mass infection and death of wild migratory waterbirds due to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 occurred at Qinghai Lake in the People’s Republic of China in mid 2005. Over the next two months, deaths of wild birds occurred at Erkhel Lake in Mongolia and in S Russia along the Kazakhstan border. These incidents suggested a possible migratory bird linkage even though there was little precise information on movements of affected species between these regions. To gain better insight on the movement of avian diseases through migratory birds, to better understand sources of virus introduction at the domestic and wild bird interface, and to gather information on the precise migratory routes of wild waterbird species in the region, FAO with partners including Wildlife Science and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the US Geological Survey (Western Ecological Research Center, and Alaska Science Center) launched a pilot project on Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus and Swan Geese Anser cygnoides in 2006 in the Eastern Asian Flyway. As a follow up to this original project, and based on the need to learn more about migration and disease ecology in both the Central Asian and East Asian Flyways, an international expedition was undertaken to Mongolia in July-August 2008.

A Swan Goose being marked with a satellite

transmitter by USGS staff Dr Sabir Bin Musaffar
(on right) and Eric Palm, in E Mongolia, July 2008.
© Taej Mundkur.

The partners included the Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Disease Operations (ECTAD)’s Wildlife Disease Programme from United Nations-FAO-headquarters in Rome, the US Geological Survey (Western Ecological Research Center, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and Alaska Science Center), and the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences that studied the migratory and disease ecology of Bar-headed Geese Anser indicus in west-central Mongolia and Swan Geese in E Mongolia. In addition, working in cooperation with the University of Wales Bangor, University of Birmingham, University of Tasmania, and University of British Columbia in west-central Mongolia, work was undertaken to examine flight performance and physiology of Bar-headed Geese that migrate over the mighty Himalayan range by marking 31 birds with heart rate loggers.

The bird capture sites included Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake in west-central Mongolia and Hyachin Tsagaan (Ikh Delger) Lake in E Mongolia, the latter is part of the famous Mongol Daguur Specially Protected Area. Both sites are on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance and on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site Network. Both areas are important breeding and moulting areas for Bar-headed Geese, Whooper Swans, Swan Geese, Ruddy Shelducks Tadorna ferruginea, Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula and other migratory waterfowl as well as staging sites for waterbirds during migration.

Overview of migratory paths of satellite marked
Swan Geese from E Mongolia to China and
the Korean Peninsula (as at 21 October 2008).
click image for larger format

Birds were captured during the short post-breeding moult period when adults are flightless. Tracheal and cloacal swabs and blood samples were collected from all the birds for avian influenza testing at the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) which was facilitated by the Department of Veterinary Service of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Mongolia.

Blood sample collected for influenza testing
in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

To study their migratory routes, 23 Bar-headed Geese were marked with GPS satellite transmitters and 39 with GPS tracking loggers while 15 Swan Geese were marked with GPS satellite transmitters. Updates of bird movements are posted bi-weekly on the USGS website. In addition, 113 Bar-headed Geese and 38 Swan Geese were ringed and colour marked with green and white neck collars or leg bands. One Whooper Swan was also marked with a green and white leg band. Reporting of resightings of these colour-marked birds will provide additional data on the migratory patterns on these species.

Dr. Tseveenmyadag Natsagdorj of the Mongolian Academy
of Sciences handles a Whooper Swan caught for influenza
testing and migration research in E Mongolia, July 2008.
© Taej Mundkur

Bar-headed Goose released with a green and white
neck collar marked in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

Any person observing a colour-marked bird is requested to contact Dr. Tseveenmyadag Natsagdorj (N. Tseveenmyadag) and Dr. Taej Mundkur with information on the location and date of observations, colour and number of the band, as well as other bird species (and numbers) observed with the marked bird. Photographs of marked birds will also be appreciated.

The endangered Swan Goose is a restricted range species, breeding in E Mongolia, China and SE Russia with an estimated population of 60,000-100,000 individuals. They migrate within the East Asian Flyway south to the Yangtze Valley floodplains in China and to the Korean peninsula. A pilot satellite marking project undertaken by the team in 2006 had confirmed the movement of birds from E Mongolia to the Poyang Lake Ramsar site, and demonstrated that birds may use slightly different routes on southward and northward migration. Two individuals that had been marked in 2006 (with red and black neck collars) were observed back at the Hyachin Tsagaan Lake during the 2008 expedition.

Nyambayar Batbayar and Ms Sarangerel of the Wildlife Science
and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy
of Sciences, holding a Swan Goose caught for influenza testing and
migration research in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

The Bar-headed Goose also has a restricted range and migrates along the Central Asian Flyway, breeding in Mongolia, Qinghai Lake and neighbouring areas of W China and Kyrgyzstan and spends the non-breeding period (northern winter) from Tibet Autonomous Region, China to S Asia (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan). Bar-headed Geese that fly over the Himalayas to reach their non-breeding destinations will encounter spatial and altitudinal gradients that pose physiological challenges to their migration. The application of special electronic monitors on some of the birds will enable researchers to study the physiologic demands during these migrations.

Overview of migratory paths of satellite marked
Bar-headed Geese in west-central Mongolia and China
(as at 21 October 2008)

click image for larger format

October 21, 2008

Pale Martin Riparia diluta in Mongolia

by Philip D. Round

While assisting Martin Gilbert and the Wildlife Conservation Society-GAINS (Global Avian Influenza Network for Surveillance) team in sampling waterbirds at Hunt Nuur, Saikhan soum, Bulgan aimag (northern Mongolia), I got a real surprise when checking the mist-nets set at the lake margin at 02:30h on 17 May 2008. Caught in a large-mesh net set for ducks was a single martin, that even my first cursory look indicated was a Pale Martin Riparia diluta – the first I have ever knowingly seen. It was roosted for the remainder of the night in a bag, and examined, measured and photographed in daylight, before release.

Pale Martin. © P. D. Round

Immediately obvious was the rather faint, blurred necklace at the junction of the throat and breast; and the blurring of the boundary between the dark ear-coverts and pale throat. The underwing coverts appeared only fractionally darker than the underside of the flight-feathers.

I was at the time unaware of, and consequently did not check, some of the other features separating Pale Martin R. diluta from Sand Martin R. riparia (outlined in Loskot 2006). But they include ear coverts that are paler, greyer than the crown in R. diluta (whereas only scarcely paler, and brown-tinged in R. riparia); a lighter-coloured short outermost primary, and more extensive tarsal feathering in R. diluta.

The wing measured 103 mm (maximum chord), the tail 50 mm and the tail fork only 5.5 mm—typically much shallower in this species than in races of Sand Martin. It weighed 13.0 g and had a fat score of 3 (after Bairlein 1995).

Pale Martin. © P. D. Round

When the bird was released, it flew off strongly heading north, calling as it left the hand. I was not primed to tape the bird on release, but the call sounded higher, more metallic and less dry and buzzy than that of Sand Martin.

While hirundines are usually diurnal migrants, one must presume that this individual had failed to find an overnight roost and kept going during the night.

Five races of Pale Martin breed from NW India to Central Asia, Transbaikalia and Siberia, largely overlapping with Sand Martin in this range. A further race, R. d. fohkienensis, breeds in central and southern China (Dickinson 2003).


Bairlein, F. 1995. European-African Songbird Migration Network Manual of Field Methods. Vogelwarte Helgoland, Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

Dickinson, E.C. (ed.) 2003 The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds the World. 3rd edn. Princeton, New Jersey.

Loskot, V. M. 2006. Systematic notes on Asian birds. 61. New data on taxonomy and nomenclature of the Common Sand Martin Riparia riparia (Linnaeus, 1758) and the Pale Sand Martin R. diluta (Sharpe & Wyatt, 1893). Zool. Med. Leiden 80-5 (13), 21.xii.2006: 213–223.

Philip D. Round
Assistant Professor, Department of Biology,
Faculty of Science, Mahidol University,

Note by A. Bräunlich:

The distribution of Pale Martin Riparia diluta in Mongolia is not well understood. The species apparently overlaps widely with Sand Martin Riparia riparia. Due to restricted knowledge of the field characters which distinguish the two species, it is very likely that quite often Pale Martin is erroneously noted down as the much better known Sand Martin. A post on the identification of the two species is in preparation: watch this space!

October 16, 2008

Central Mongolia trip, early May 2008

This year’s short spring trip (1-16 May) was well before the main migration time, which is clearly illustrated by the fact that the only Phylloscopus warbler we saw were two Hume’s Warblers at the Orchon Waterfall.

The first site we visited was Zorgel Khairkhan to the SW of Ulaanbaatar where an Oriental Greenfinch was a good find on 1 May. Next stop was the famous Yolyn Am gorge in the Gobi Altai near Dalandzadgad, which appeared to be very unpleasant due to the shiploads of huge ticks which molested us. We saw some of the standard birds there like Mongolian Accentor, Wallcreeper and four species of vulture: Cinereous, Bearded, Eurasian Griffon (1) and Himalayan Griffon (2 adults).

Mongolian Accentor, Yolyn Am.
© A. Pennekamp

From there we drove to Boon Tsagaan Nuur. The lake had a very low water-level and all of the former wetlands east of the lake were dry bare one small pond. Of the birds we saw not even the two adult Relict Gulls (7 May) seemed to be noteworthy as their occurrence at the lake is normal. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach Naiman Nuur - the road was still blocked by ice and snow - we continued our trip towards the Orchon waterfall. En route we saw a single Snow Bunting on 10 May east of Bayankhongor and a group of vultures feeding on a dead horse west of Khudshirt. These turned out to be mostly Cinereous Vultures but interestingly the rest were Himalayan Griffons (5 adults, 11 non-adults).

Himalayan Griffon, 15 km W of Khudshirt.
© A. Pennekamp

At the Orchon waterfall (no water so no waterfall!) a migrating White-tailed Eagle and 4 Crowned Penduline Tits on 12 May were the best birds. We returned to Ulaanbaatar via Ogij Nuur. Here the water level was at an all time low. Among the first birds we saw were two Dalmatian Pelicans on 13 May.

Dalmatian Pelican, Ogii Nuur. © A. Buchheim

Eastern Black-tailed Godwits, Ogii Nuur.
© A. Buchheim

Not many waders were around but one of us picked an unusual bird which was feeding close to a group of Eastern Black-tailed Godwits and was identified as Long-billed Dowitcher (13 May; second or third for Mongolia?). This was clearly the bird of the trip.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Ogii Nuur.
© A. Buchheim

Bar-headed Geese, Ogii Nuur. © A. Buchheim

Caspian Tern, Ogii Nuur. © A. Buchheim

Saker Falcon, Ogii Nuur. © A. Buchheim

A group of 20 Lapland Buntings demonstrated that winter was not over. We made our final stop at Tsagaan Nuur between Dashngshiling and Bayan Gol where we heard two singing Spotted Crakes (rare in Mongolia) singing all night (14-15 May).

White’s Thrush seeking for camouflage,
Dashinshiling. © A. Buchheim

Male Isabelline Shrike. © A. Buchheim

Thorsten Zegula, Alfons Pennekamp, Andreas Buchheim

October 12, 2008

Great Bustard research in N Mongolia

The Great Bustard Otis tarda research team led by Mimi Kessler of Arizona State University is continuing its work in northern Mongolia. This spring, they investigated the cause of death of one of the bustards harnessed with a satellite transmitter last autumn (see post from August 2007). The transmitter was found at the site of its last transmission, at a migration stopover point. They were informed by local people that the bird had been hunted and eaten. Conversations with local people have revealed that hunting Great Bustards is relatively common in some areas of northern Mongolia.

G. Natsag, undergraduate biology
student at the National University of
Mongolia, holds a Great Bustard
chick. Clutches were monitored over
the summer to track mortality rates.
Photo © A. Kessler

This year, four new bustards have been harnessed to date. The team has been observing the movements of one male, “Bayan”, in particular, who has spent the summer touring the region’s Great Bustard breeding grounds. The team has investigated these sites and the new leks identified will be proposed as Important Bird Areas.