January 25, 2011

A weekend in the forests of Terelj National Park

text and photos © Andreas Buchheim

Ishee, Brian and I left the heavily polluted capital to spend a night in a ger set at the forest edge in Terelj NP (some 40 km from Ulaanbaatar). As soon as we crossed the easternmost bridge of the city it brightened up considerably. After dropping our stuff in the ger we checked the riparian forest along a small stream for about 6 km. It was a rather convenient walk as we partly could walk on the frozen stream.

Ishee and Brian on the frozen stream, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Despite all the decaying trees we saw only two Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers plus a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Several Eurasian Nuthatch, a group of Long-tailed Tit, Marsh and Willow Tit, a juvenile Northern Goshawk, Common Kestrel, several Eurasian Black Vulture, few Eurasian Siskin and Brambling and the most common wintering bird Common (Mealy) Redpoll were logged.

Riparian forest along the stream, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

One of the admirers of the inhabitants of dead wood:
female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Apart from Golden Eagle and a Great Grey Shrike the best observation we made that day was of a mammal on which Ishee and Brian almost stepped onto: a Steppe (or False) Zokor Myospalax aspalax, a non-hibernating rodent (occurring in the upper Amur basin in Russia, N and E Mongolia and NE China), had left its tunnel system for an unknown reason and then tried to dig itself back into the darkness. Admittedly we could not identify it at the spot and did so only after having consulted Batsaikhan et al. (2010): Mammals of Mongolia and Smith & Yan Xie (2008): Guide to the Mammals of China. We returned to the ger at dusk for dinner and some beers.

Steppe Zokor head-on; they have a broad nose
and digging fore-feet, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Steppe Zokor, a rather plump animal with a
short tail and a quite pale coat, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

The next morning we woke up at minus 16°C inside (!) the ger whereas it was minus 30°C outside. Nevertheless we tried our luck on the Black-billed Capercaillie in a remote forested valley. Well, it turned out not to be as remote as is could have been and one of the herdsmen we asked for direction to the bird desired directly responded in asking where we were carrying our gun. Poaching as well as encroachment seems to be one of the biggest problems and the future for the bird in Mongolia seems very bleak, even in protected areas like this National Park. Wherever we went this day, all had been grazed upon and wood had been taken out (at low scale, though) also. Thus we dipped in the BBC.

Male Eurasian Siskin, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Male Brambling, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Birds seen were: hundreds of Common (Mealy) Redpoll, few Brambling, Spotted Nutcracker, another Great Grey Shrike, this one carrying a vole or an alike mammal, Black Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker and several groups of Common Crossbill. Bird of the day was a flushed Boreal Owl (aka Tengmalm’s Owl) which quickly disappeared into the forest not to be seen again. We also had hoped to come across a Great Grey Owl, but in the grassland there were very few signs of rodents and thus we did not see it. The fact that there were no buzzards around strongly indicated that it was no good feeding area for rodent-predators as well.

Moutain forest with the smog of Ulaanbaatar
in the far back, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Spotted Nutcracker, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

Anyway it was a great weekend for the escape from the pollution, for the nice birds and for the many talks about birds and more with Ishee and Brian.

Come back soon, please: flying Spotted Nutcracker, Terelj NP, Jan 2011.

January 22, 2011

Taxonomy Update #1

"Northern" Little Owl

All photos © A. Bräunlich

From the Oriental Bird Club bulletin BirdingASIA 14, Dec 2010, pp 59–67: Inskipp et al. Species-level and other changes suggested for Asian birds, 2009.

adult "Northern" Little Owl, June 2004, Ikh Nart NR

Athene (noctua) plumipes
Wink et al. (2009) studied the molecular phylogeny of various owls. They found that within Little Owl Athene noctua several distinct lineages were visible (similar to the situation in the American Glaucidium complex), indicating a high degree of geographic differentiation. Of relevance to the OBC region, they found that A. n. plumipes from Mongolia and China shows a distinct genetic lineage, and suggested this deserves specific status (“Northern Little Owl”).

young "Northern" Little Owls,
June 2004, Ikh Nart NR

view from the owl nest site onto the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu
(Ikh Nart ) Nature Reserve research camp. June 2004

original source:
Wink M., El-Sayed A.-A., Sauer-Gürth H. & Gonzalez J. 2009. Molecular phylogeny of owls (Strigiformes) inferred from DNA sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b and the nuclear RAG-1 gene. Ardea 97(4): 581–591.

adult "Northern" Little Owls,
June 2004, Ikh Nart NR

In the original publication Wink et al. wrote “Also A. n. plumipes from Mongolia and China shows a distinct genetic lineage (Fig. 1), probably indicating species status; we suggest recognising this taxon as A. plumipes". It is a bit unusual to suggest specific status for a “probable” case. Furthermore the authors didn't sample (and didn't even mention) the subspecies A. n. orientalis (according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World occurring in western China and adjacent Siberia) which could come into contact with plumipes.

January 16, 2011

Waterbird census at a chilly minus 25°C

text and photos © Andreas Buchheim

Ulaanbaatar ponds in mist, January 2011

Seems a ridiculous idea, right? It has been permanently freezing since many weeks and Mongolian Bird Watching Club members Gankhuyag P., Amarkhuu G., Amartuvshin P., Tuvshin and I teamed up yesterday, January, 15th and went out for participating in the Asian Waterbird Census. But there is overwintering waterfowl even here in Ulaanbaatar (UB). The outflow of the sewage-works is so much heated up that there is a small stream running westwards for several kilometres until it joins with the frozen Tuul Gol.

Satellite image of UB ponds: compare summer
(Jul 2009) with winter (Mar 2005). © Google Earth

Along this stretch of open water we saw Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Common Goldeneye and even a single Goosander. Not much–agreed–but clearly nice to see if the mist which is coming up from the stream would allow it.

UB ponds have areas with low bushes
and some smaller reeds, January 2011.

Of the smaller birds we saw a group of Horned Lark and 6 Long-tailed Rosefinches in the bushland. Further down there is some riparian forest, though lacking the under storey completely. But the combination of open water plus a lot of trees of which some were still carrying berries creates waxwing-heaven.

Bohemian Waxwing searching for food on the ground,
below Songino Khairkhan Uul, UB, Jan 2011.

Drinking Bohemian Waxwing; even in close-up, the mist is
hampering a clear picture, below Songino Khairkhan Uul, UB, Jan 2011.

But the waxwings were not the only birds. We saw a Red-throated Thrush, a group of 4 Pallas’s Rosefinch, 3 Common Bullfinches of the nominate subspecies, several Hawfinch, both of the redpolls and a White-tailed Eagle. Nice habitat and nice birds.

Male Common Bullfinch, below
Songino Khairkhan Uul, UB, Jan 2011.

Pallas’s Rosefinch, (presumed female) below
Songino Khairkhan Uul, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2011.

Common (Mealy) Redpoll below
Songino Khairkhan Uul, UB, Jan 2011.

Arctic Redpoll below Songino
Khairkhan Uul, UB, Jan 2011.

Thanks go to the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) for sponsoring the trip and for the members of the Mongolian Birdwatching Club for great companionship.

More to come…

January 13, 2011

Mongolia’s wilderness
threatened by mining boom

from: Earth Island Journal: Multinational mining companies eye Mongolia’s earthly fortunes. Brian Awehali for Earth Island Journal guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 11 January 2011

"After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert... " Read more...

Coal trucks, South Gobi, Mongolia,
April 2009. Photo A. Bräunlich/WSCC
6689 sq km Protected Area for
 Snow Leopards is Approved !

Snow Leopard, Mongolia. Photo by Fritz Pölking.
Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust.

From the Snow Leopard Trust blog:
As the Snow Leopard Trust reported last year, important snow leopard habitat in the Tost Mountains of southern Mongolia is covered with licenses for mining exploration. The Snow Leopard Trust and the members of the local communities were concerned about what further mining action could do to this land and its wildlife if the licenses were allowed to move into the extraction phase.

For the past 10 months the Snow Leopard Trust has worked hard and focused on helping the people of Tost develop and submit a petition and campaign that would register their land as a community-managed protected area. Twice, the application was rejected.

Now the Snow Leopard Trust is happy to announce that on Tuesday, December 7th 2010, after our third attempt, received notice that the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources approved an official ‘Local Protected Area’ for the Tost community!

Snow Leopard habitat, western Mongolia, at the Mongolian-
Russian-Chinese border triangle. July 2006. Photo M. Grimm
White-backed Woodpecker
foraging on bone marrow

White-backed Woodpecker, March 2007. Photo K. Schleicher

In 2007 Konrad Schleicher documented an unusual behaviour of White-backed Woodpecker, see his entry on Birding Mongolia. Now he published a note about it. Here’s the abstract:

Schleicher, K. 2010. Weißrückenspecht Dendrocopos leucotos nutzt Knochen als Nahrungsquelle. Vogelwelt 131: 213–215.

“White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotus foraging on bone marrow.

A previously undescribed kind of foraging has been documented for the White-backed Woodpecker in the Mongolian forest steppe. Pecking in bone fragments was observed at three occasions in the Central Mongolian village of Tsetserleg. The behaviour was documented by a series of photos. It can be interpreted as foraging on bones or components of bone fragments. This assumption is supported by traces of the White-backed Woodpecker’s bill found in the marrow of bones which had been pecked by the individuals observed. The repeated observation of this kind of foraging, as well as the targeted approaching of the bones and their intensive examination, leads to the assumption that it is a common behaviour. Thus, it may be concluded that one or several individuals of the White-backed Woodpecker have specialised on marrow or other components of bone fragments as food source.”

January 9, 2011

Scarce & rarely photographed Mongolian birds #1

Purple Heron Ardea purpurea

by Axel Bräunlich

Of the 12 species of heron and bittern (family Ardeidae) recorded in Mongolia three have already been featured on Birding Mongolia: Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus, Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax and Yellow-billed Egret Egretta intermedia.

During a trip to eastern Mongolia we observed at least adult 7 Purple Herons Ardea purpurea in the Khalkh gol (Khalkh river) Delta at Buir nuur (Lake Buir) on 6 August 2010. The herons were commuting between their presumed breeding sites in the delta and some feeding grounds a few kilometres away. Neither of the sites could be visited since the observation area is directly at the Mongolian-Chinese border and access is very much restricted.

Purple Heron, Khalkh gol, August 2010. Photo C. Bock

On 7 August 2010 we observed again 3 Purple Herons while “seawatching” – see photo below.

The Russian ornithologist Oleg Goroshko recorded the first breeding of Purple Heron at Khalkh gol/Buir nuur (and presumably the first breeding for all of Mongolia) in July 2003, when he observed 3 adults and one nest with 3 large chicks: Goroshko, O. A. 2004. Data for Waterbirds at Buyr Nuur (Eastern Mongolia). Mongolian Journal of Biological Sciences 2(1): 67–68.

From the photo above, zoomed in. Photo C. Bock.

Khalkh gol/Buir nuur is probably the only area in Mongolia where Purple Heron can easily be observed. Further west it is very rare.

Axel “seawatching”: counting over 12,000 Great Cormorants, flying from
the Khalkh gol Delta to their feeding grounds at Buir nuur. Photo S. Klasan

Sunset at Buir Nuur, August 2010. Photo A. Bräunlich

January 7, 2011

A dull day at the Tuul Gol, Ulaanbaatar

text and photos © Andreas Buchheim

The weather forecast for January, 7th was promising: a clear and sunny day with a little breeze from the west, so I decided to give the Tuul Gol (gol = river) a try. One of the most threatened habitats in Middle and Central Asia is riparian forest. Man has always preferred to settle down along water courses and thus had the biggest impact on this habitat. This holds true for the riparian floodplain forest of Mongolia, for sure! What has not been cut down for the use of fuel-wood had been grazed upon heavily and looks much degraded, or is already gone totally.

Along the Tuul Gol, which runs through Ulaanbaatar (in the southern part of the city) there is still some riparian forest left (actually rather a bush land with interspersed trees) and this is within walking distance from my flat. With some regularity I check which birds can be found along a 6.5 km-long stretch, roughly from the Marshall Bridge (connecting the residence of the president with the city) to the skiing area. Despite the bright forecast it remained thickly overcast and—since there was no wind at all—the night-smog of the city was not blown away.

Whereas in summer an unlucky bird-photographer can get stuck on the wrong side of the river, now—with the river being frozen solid—I could follow the birds freely by simply walking to the other side. So the luck was on my side this time. But birds were few and far apart. I criss-crossed the area in search for White-backed Woodpecker (usually always there but none found this time) and Azure Tit of which I saw two flocks totalling 23 birds. They very often came down to feed and they especially liked the darker areas beneath the bushes.

Azure Tit, Tuul Gol, Ulaanbaatar, they don’t look clean white!

In a cluster of poplar trees (Populus) I heard a soft “pchip”-call and together with the pecking sound coming from the same direction I went there to see which woodpecker was on duty. Ahh, another Three-toed and again a female.

Female Three-toed Woodpecker on poplar

A bit later I flushed a group of 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows and saw a hunting Upland Buzzard (it was not successful). A male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 15 Great Tits, 20 Common Ravens, 4 Oriental Crows, 25 of the beautiful Eurasian Magpie and 4 Long-tailed Rosefinches completed the set of birds for this day. More to come soon.

Female Long-tailed Rosefinch alighting (note the male in the background)

And here he is: male Long-tailed Rosefinch

January 5, 2011

Winter birding at minus 33° Celsius

text and photos © Andreas Buchheim

In the morning of December, 30th I was dropped by my wife at the base of the valley west of Zaisan Valley in the Bogd Uul, south of Ulaanbaatar. It was minus 33°C (minus 27.4° F) when I started my ascent to the top of the mountain, about 600 m higher up, and it would be a first frost-test for my camera and lens. After a while I reached the forest edge where I heard the first birds. The alarm calls of a Black-throated Thrush – a male which I could not age – caught my attention. This is one of the very few winter records of this hardy thrush for Mongolia (see comment by A. Bräunlich below). The only other thrush species for which I have a winter record from Mongolia is White’s Thrush, with a single record at Molzon Elz (near Khustai Nuruu National Park) two years ago.

All day I walked up and then down without seeing a lot of birds. I fact, the forest was almost birdless. The raptor-list remained blank and of Common Redpoll I saw only a single individual.

Ulaanbaatar in winter. I was dropped
near the Yarmag Bridge in the Tuul Valley.

Photographing was extremely difficult, not because of the cold (though my glasses as well as the pair of binoculars were permanently covered by ice), but because of the lack of opportunities. Even the usually tamer species like Three-toed Woodpecker were difficult to follow in this steep terrain. So I went home with just a few habitat-shots and some of a female Three-toed Woodpecker which allowed my approach for a few minutes. Luckily the camera and the autofocus worked well then.

Three-toed Woodpecker, female.

Three-toed Woodpecker, female.

Other birds seen at the forest edge were 2 Hawfinch and 16 Meadow Bunting. All of the 3 Siberian Accentors proved to be too agile to be caught by the camera.

A very annoying find was to realize that illegal woodcutting even occurs on this sacred (for Mongolians) mountain. At the upper ranges hundreds of trees had been felled “waiting” to be pulled down by the timber thieves.

Winter wonderland? By far not!
This former forest has been almost clear-felled.

Winter wonderland? Almost.
A closer look reveals the tracks that the pulled-down logs
have drawn in the snow (note the forgotten log).

Bird of the day was a male Grey Bullfinch Phyrrhula phyrrhula cineracea. Willow Tit, of which I saw only a mere 3 individuals were singing already despite the temperatures. What else did I see? Black Woodpecker 1, White-backed Woodpecker 3, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 2, Three-toed Woodpecker 7, Eurasian Jay (brandtii) 2, Eurasian Nuthatch 1, Common Crossbill 5 and Long-tailed Rosefinch 1, plus the usual Corvids. I returned quite exhausted but my equipment survived even the up-heating in our flat without getting flooded by condensed water. Phew!

Happy New Year 2011!

Watch this site – just as this female Three-toed Woodpecker: more on winter-birding will be posted due course.

Comment by A. Braunlich: winter thrushes in Mongolia

I recorded one Black-Throated Thrush in the grounds of the Japanese embassy in Ulaanbaatar on 8 January 2007. During my stay from late Oct 2005 to mid-Nov 2008 in the city of Khovd, western Mongolia (which has a milder climate than Ulaanbaatar) I recorded the species on migration (n=1626 birds) normally from mid-/late March to mid-May, and again from early September to mid-November. An early individual was seen on 28 February 2007.

Black-throated Thrush, Khovd, Oct 2006. Photo A. Braunlich

Another species which occurred early in Khovd was Fieldfare, with one bird each on 11 and 16 February 2006, and already 10 birds on 28 February 2007.

Fieldfare, Khovd, 31 Mar 2006. Photo A. Braunlich

Furthermore, in winter Red-throated Thrush can be seen sometimes in Mongolia (otherwise it is a common breeding visitor). The Russian ornithologist Elizabeth V. Kozlova listed the Red-throated Thrush in 1933 under “Summer Visitors which occasionally stay for the winter” for the Khentii and the Ulaanbaatar region and wrote further “It leaves the Khentei by the end of October, but small flocks remain in the region for the winter”.