January 22, 2013

Common Rock Thrush in display flight,
Khongil IBA, W Mongolia, Jun 2012, © Andreas Buchheim

Part one: Almost the UB Ponds as a starter

text by Jörg Langenberg

UB Ponds 5 Jun 2012 13:00-18:15 h

We were scheduled to meet Abu at Khovd airport in western Mongolia on Wednesday, 6 June, but as we arrived the day before we decided to follow his advice to visit the famous UB Ponds, and so we did. Despite the directions we had, our driver tried to find his own way to the ponds and that led us to end up on the wrong side of the river: “Welcome to Mongolia!”. After that he was convinced that it would be better to follow the advised route. We actually started below Songino Khairkhan Uul and this site held a lot of birds and we were soon very busy with prime birdwatching. Among the many birds were the following:

Common Nightjar: 1
Crested Honey Buzzard: 1 (the only one we saw during the trip)
Booted Eagle: 1
Eurasian Black Vulture: 1
Thick-billed Warbler: ca. 10 singing males

Common Nightjar, below Songino Khairkhan Uul,
Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012, © Armin Schneider

Crested Honey Buzzard, below Songino Khairkhan Uul,
Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012, © Thomas Langenberg

Near the railway bridge, Thomas spent some time for photographing the many Pacific Swifts which hunted low above the water. There and along the smelly sewage stream we came across the following noteworthy birds:

Eastern Baillon’s Crake:
1, which quickly disappeared not to be seen again
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler:
5, showing excellent along the stream
Black-faced Bunting: 1

Eastern Baillon’s Crake, below Songino Khairkhan Uul,
Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012, © Thomas Langenberg

Pacific Swift, below Songino Khairkhan Uul,
Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012, © Thomas Langenberg

Pacific Swift, below Songino Khairkhan Uul,
Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012, © Thomas Langenberg

We continued to the swan pond where we found more birds:

Whooper Swan: a breeding pair
Demoiselle Crane: 2, presumably breeding there as well
Falcated Duck: a stunning male
Eurasian Wigeon: a pair still hanging around there
White-winged Tern: more than 300, fantastic views

We could not make it to the main ponds as too many birds were around and we also had an appointment for dining. Furthermore we all were jet-lagged a bit and wanted to go to bed not that late, also because our flight to Khovd was scheduled at 06:50 am the next morning. It was obvious that we could have spent several hours more at this wonderful site.

Rests of riparian woodland
(no branches as far as cows can reach up!),
below Songino Khairkhan Uul, Ulaanbaatar, Jun 2012
© Thomas Langenberg

Read more about our trip next on Birding Mongolia soon...

January 18, 2013

Bohemian versus Japanese Waxwing

by A. Bräunlich

Two species of waxwing occur in NE Asia: The wide-spread, commoner and well-known Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus and the rather rare and globally near-threatened Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica.

Bohemian Waxwing probably nests in northern Mongolia, but it is much better known as a fairly common to very common winter visitor to many parts of the country, originating from breeders of the vast Russian taiga.

Japanese Waxwing on the other hand hasn’t been reliably recorded in Mongolia, there is just doubtful record from the eastern part of the country.

Igor Fefelov from Irkutsk commented recently on a post in Birding Mongolia that there is a powerful invasion of Japanese Waxwing this autumn/winter, with individuals occurring far west of their usual range, which lies in the Russian Far East and adjacent NE China (Japanese Waxwing doesn't breed in Japan, it's just a passage migrant and winter visitor in Nippon!). They are likely occurring together with Bohemian Waxwings, and there were even some records of Japanese Waxwing from the area around Lake Baikal.

Also, a Japanese Waxwing was trapped much further west, from a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the Tien Shan Mountains near Almaty, in southern Kazakhstan on 3 January 2013.

First-winter male Japanese Waxwing, Almaty,
Kazakhstan, Jan 2013, photo © Denis Afanasiev

According to Arend Wassink, age based on wing pattern and lack of prominent crest, sex based on broad tailbar and sharply defined throat patch.

Given these observations it seems not unlikely that a Japanese Waxwing could turn up in Mongolia, too! WATCH OUT: This is your chance for documenting the first Japanese Waxwing for Mongolia! Check each waxwing flock carefully: Japanese Waxwing can easily be picked out by its red terminal tailband (yellow in Bohemian!)! Compare the photos below.

Bohemian Waxwing, below Songino Khairkhan Uul, Jan 2012
Photo © Andreas Buchheim

Japanese Waxwing. The numbers refer to the main characters distinguishing Japanese from Bohemian: 1: reddish-chestnut scapular band (missing in Bohemian), 2: no white spots, no red waxen tips to coverts in Japanese, 3: no yellow in primaries in Japanese, 4: terminal tail band red (yellow in Bohemian), 5: yellowish patch on central belly (not in Bohemian).
Photo © Jason L. Buber, courtesy WikiCommons

If you find a Japanese Waxwing take as many photos as possible! Waxwings are often very tame, and can be approached very closely. So even a photo taken by a smartphone camera will do! Good luck!

January 16, 2013

Redecision reloaded

text & photos © Andreas Buchheim

In the morning of Saturday, 12 January 2013 I was picked up by members of the Mongolian Birdwatching Club for the Asian Waterbird Census 2013. We arrived at the UB Ponds at about 10 a.m., parked the four cars near the small bridge and started—to see nothing. There was too much steam rising from the sewage stream and the only waterfowl we saw—yes, it is more than nothing—were two flying Ruddy Shelducks and a male Mallard. Quickly it was decided to delay the count until afternoon and check-out the area below Songino Khairkhan Uul first.

On our way we did not see much, apart from several flocks of the local Horned Larks (brandti). In one of the flocks we could find even an individual belonging to the northern subspecies flava, a long expected addition to my UB winter list. The area itself had, OK, almost nothing on offer, but we managed to find a group of 15 Azure-winged Magpies, a single White-backed Woodpecker, two Great Spotted Woodpeckers, two Eurasian Nuthatches, several Mealy Redpolls, a Hawfinch and a Great Tit, not much for an area like this. There was neither a single thrush nor a Bohemian Waxwing something that didn't come unexpected—no fruits, no fruit eaters (see my October post). Luckily some Common Ravens found an immature White-tailed Eagle for us. As no one was satisfied we concluded to skip the waterfowl count and go birding elsewhere instead. After a short discussion about going to Nukht Valley or not, it was decided to give Zaisan Valley a try, mainly because of the large flock of Pine Grosbeaks that had been seen earlier (see here) and because of the fact that Nukht Valley is now totally fenced off for the public and open just only for the upper class.

The parking lot at the uppermost tourist camp in Zaisan Valley was full of cars when we arrived but somehow we could squeeze in our cars somewhere and—had some tea. During the tea break we saw two each of Azure and Great Tits. Obviously the valley is very popular with hikers, at least during the weekends. Two Pine Grosbeaks were quickly found in the lower part of the valley but further up we found about 30 more, unfortunately they were feeding high up in the trees.

Pine Grosbeak, probably a young male,
Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

Pine Grosbeak, female, this one was together
with the bird in the photo above,
Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

Although the valley was crowded there were groups of Eastern Marsh Tits, a single Willow Tit, several Eurasian Nuthatches, Eurasian Jays (brandti) and Spotted Nutcrackers, mainly because there are two table-like rocks where the hikers are putting food for the birds. We spent some time for photographing but the light was already poor (no sun from 2 a.m.) and we opted for a last site, preferably to witness our second sunset for the day.

Eastern Marsh Tits at the upper bird table,
Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

Eastern Marsh Tit, Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

Willow Tit, this bird went totally undetected until
I checked my photographs. Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

“the dagger”, Eurasian Nuthatch digging for nuts,
Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

The same bird had success, soon,
Zaisan Valley, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

At our final birding site, the riparian bushland east of the marshal bridge we flushed two Long-eared Owls which were real experts in disappearing in the bushes. We searched for birds but could not find many, just a single Long-tailed Rosefinch—a stunning male, a Great Tit and an Azure Tit. Although the Tuul Gol had some open stretches, they did not host Dipper or Solitary Snipe, so the search must continue. This could due to the presence of dozens of people who had driven across the frozen river and spending the afternoon in the sun. After a long and almost birdless day, the members of the Mongolian Birdwatching Club as well as the members of the Mongolian Academy of Science (MAS), the guys of Nomadic Expeditions and I went home. This trip was partly sponsored by the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia (WSCC). Thank you guys, it was nevertheless nice to go out birding with you!

Winter art on the Tuul Gol, Ulaanbaatar, Jan 2013

January 14, 2013

Birding Mongolia
reaches 100,000 pageviews

by Axel Bräunlich

When I moved to Khovd in western Mongolia in late October 2005 I started to send friends little reports of my local birdwatching activities by email. For the year of 2006 I compiled my observations in a 19-page report with many photos, which can be downloaded from the Surfbirds website (PDF, 2.5 MB): Local Spot 2006: Khovd - Bird migration in western Mongolia.

In early 2007 I decided that it would be better to make my observations available to a wider audience: I started Birding Mongolia. The first post from 8 March 2007 contained some info on sightings from Khovd, and also from the area around the monastery Manzshir near Ulaanbaatar. The first photos published were of a dust storm in Khovd, and of a Two-barred Crossbill at Manzshir Khiid.

Last week, after almost 300 posts and hundreds of photos, Birding Mongolia passed the 100,000- pageviews (“all time history”) mark!

The following 10 countries had most viewers, according to stats by Google:

USA 18,872
Germany 13,604
United Kingdom 9,169
Mongolia 6,841
Russia 3,666
Belgium 2,551
Netherlands 2,529
France 2,068
South Korea 1,070
India 1,010

Today Birding Mongolia offers much more than just listing my observations from Khovd: Trip reports, information on mammals and other animal groups, on conservation projects and organisations, bird rarity reports, information about birds from neighbouring countries (esp. Russia, China, Kazakhstan), news on bird taxonomy, bird migration, environmental news and much more. The web links on the right-hand sidebar constitute probably the most comprehensive collection of Mongolia resources (natural history and travel-related) on the Internet. Please have a look!

Over the past five years many people have contributed to my blog. I wish to thank all of them, and also thanks to the visitors of Birding Mongolia. Special thanks go to Andreas Buchheim aka Abu who wrote many very interesting contributions, including extensive trip reports, and provided many of his excellent photographs.

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

January 11, 2013

White-crowned Sparrow in Inner Mongolia!

(info by Jesper Hornskov via the Oriental Birding mailing list of the Oriental Bird Club)

The November 2012 issue of China Bird Watch revealed that a White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys, a North American species of the buntings and sparrows family Emberizidae was seen and photographed on 28 Oct 2012 at Yakeshi Wuerqihan forest area (roughly 280 km NE of easternmost Dornod, i.e. the easternmost part of Mongolia), NE Inner Mongolia, China, by WANG Qin. The bird was part of a mixed flock consisting of Common and Arctic Redpolls and Long-tailed and Pallas’s Rosefinches! This is the first record for China. 

White-crowned Sparrow, California, USA
(photo by Mike Baird, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

This record was followed hot on the heels by two further firsts for China, involving North American species, too: American Wigeon Anas americana on 12 Dec 2012, and Redhead Aythya americana on 13 Dec 2012, both at Yancheng National Nature Reserve, Jiangsu province (both duck records by Paul Holt & a tour group, via Oriental Birding mailing list).