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R & B Mearns 2016

MONGOLIA BIRDING & WILDLIFE TRIP REPORT 2016

by Richard & Barbara Mearns       Download full report pdf

Photographs copyrighted by R.&B Mearns

Organized by: Mongolian Ornithological Society in collaboration with Mongolica Co. Ltd

Guide: Bayanmunkh D. (Bayanaa)

Camp Manager: Gereltuya, O. (Gerelee)

Driver: Batnyamsuren, N. (Bataa)

Consulted by: Gombobaatar, S (Gomboo)

Barbara, Bayanaa, Rick, Bataa, Gerelee © R.&B Mearns

7 May. Arrived at UB via Glasgow, Amsterdam and Moscow. Gomboo took us to Gachuurt and we were soon watching Citrine Wagtails (a species that we were to see on more days than any other bird). As we searched the woods for Black-billed Capercaillie we came across our first Red-flanked Bluetails, Naumann’s and Dusky Thrushes. Night in very comfortable hotel, on edge of forest.

8 May. Started at 5.00am and after a short climb upwards we were soon amongst several lekking capercaillie – an unforgettable experience. The pine and larch habitat was fantastic and we soon saw more Red-flanked Bluetails, a pair of Hazel Grouse and a Siberian Jay. By the middle of the day we were on a flight eastwards to Choibalsan. While waiting to meet us, Bayanaa had found a White’s Thrush, a Yellow-browed Bunting and a small flock of Grey-capped Greenfinches, so we rushed out to see them before we got our baggage. At the river on the edge of town there were more Grey-capped Greenfinches (a rarity in Mongolia), a Japanese Sparrowhawk and a Red Fox. Night in tent.

9 May. Long drive from Choibalsan to Buir Lake. Started the day with White’s Thrushes, Taiga Flycatchers and waders on the river. On the drive We had photo stops for Oriental Plover and Demoiselle Cranes. Arrived at the lake in the evening and camped near the shore: Gull-billed Terns, Temminck’s Stints, White-winged Scoters, Eastern Marsh Harriers and even a few Mute Swans. Night in tent, with a nearby grass fire sending up great plumes of smoke.

 

Oriental Plover © R.&B Mearns

10 May. All day at Buir Lake, moving to a different campsite in the afternoon. A wonderful array of waders in breeding plumage: Curlew Sandpipers and Asiatic Dowitchers being particularly striking. Marsh Sandpipers were in display flight and there were good numbers of Swan Geese and a single male Mandarin Duck. Passerines included lots of Yellow Wagtails and Little Buntings, a few Naumann’s Thrushes and a Water Pipit. At the new camp site two very approachable Relict Gulls were only 200 metres away, alongside a male Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Kentish Plover and Little Stint. An Oriental Pratincole on the beach finished off the day nicely. Night in tent, very windy but we slept through it.

 

Gerelee, our camp manager © R.&B Mearns

11 May. Buir Lake to Khalkh River. Started the day with long walks along the edges of nearby lagoons. Hundreds of Great Cormorants and many Common Pochards. We also saw our only Baikal Teals of the trip and the first of several Falcated Ducks. Black-headed Gulls and Common Swifts streaming past us as we had lunch, and the inevitable Taiga Flycatchers in the low scrub. Late afternoon we arrived at the Khalkh River where we were surrounded by several pairs of Amur Falcons. A late evening walk found us staring at an immature Northern Goshawk just a few metres from us in a low elm tree. Night in tent.

12 May. Khalkh River. For her birthday Barbara saw her first Azure Tits, a displaying Grey-headed Lapwing, a late Bohemian Waxwing, a group of Azure-winged Magpies, more Amur Falcons, Hobbies, and a pair of Falcated Ducks but the most memorable bird was an exquisite Long-tailed Rosefinch feeding in the elms – surely one of the most beautiful birds we have ever seen. After the endless steppe it was a surprise to see two Great Bustards flying over riverine woodland! In the late afternoon we drove to a new campsite on the other side of the river. Night in tent.

 

Grey-headed Lapwing and Amur Falcon © R.&B Mearns

13 May. Khalkh River to Ikh Tashgai Lakes. Awoke to the sound of White-cheeked Starlings and during breakfast a Grey-capped Greenfinch perched beside us. A beautiful walk through the elms produced Oriental Turtle Dove with a nest, Amur Falcons, Little Buntings and Pallas’s Leaf Warblers.
We were dropped off by the river for a couple of hours while the time got supplies and we were entertained by more Grey-headed Lapwings, Daurian Redstarts, Hill Pigeons, waders and buntings. After a relatively short drive to the steppe lakes, we were soon amongst more Marsh Sandpipers, Pied Avocets, Swan Geese and both species of shelducks. In the evening there was a truly spectacular hour or so when thousands and thousands of Bean Geese flew past our camp – one of the best ornithological spectacles that we have ever seen (and we are used to seeing big flocks of geese on the Scottish side of the Solway). Night in tent.

 

Bean Geese © R.&B Mearns

14 May. Ikh Tashgai Lakes. The Bean Geese roosted nearby and as they went off to feed at dawn Barbara estimated 27,000 birds but there could have many more flying in other directions. The rest of the day was filled with lake and reed-bed watching: White-winged Scoters, Black-necked Grebes, Relict Gulls, Eastern Marsh Harriers, Common Cranes with a few White-naped Cranes and three Hooded Cranes. Discovered that we were too early for most of the warblers and buntings but it was no great hardship. Night in tent.

 

Relict Gull and Pied Avocets © R.&B Mearns

15 May. Ikh Tashgai Lakes to Khalkh River. An extensive reed-bed search produced Bearded Reedling but no Reed Parrotbills. A lake and pool with over 40 Red-necked Stints was a special treat but it was hard to concentrate with so many other birds around. After lunch we made our way back to the Khalk River where we caught up with Olive-backed Pipits, Naumann’s Thrushes, Common Rosefinches and Eastern Rooks at their rookery in the low elms. Night in tent.

 

White-winged Scoters and Red-necked Stint © R.&B Mearns

16 May. Khalkh River to the Khalkh Delta at Buir Lake. The surprise of the morning walk beside the river was a Chinese Pond Heron. The delta was a beautiful spot, coinciding with one of our hottest days. A flock of over 50 Asiatic Dowitchers was quite spectacular in their brick red plumage, with a few Curlew Sandpipers even darker, and Spotted Redshanks very black. There were also Long-toed Stints, Temminck’s Stints and the usual Northern Lapwings. In the reeds and willows there were Great White Egrets and a Purple Heron. Night in tent.

17 May. Khalkh Delta to Choibalsan. On the delta we got better views of a Greater Sand Plover and then it was time for the drive back to Choibalsan. Our lunch stop was in the middle of open steppe, apparently birdless until we realised that some taller plants held a confiding Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Little Bunting and Taiga Flycatchers. Mongolian Gazelles seen again on this drive. At the river at Choibalsan birds included about 50 Taiga Flycatchers on the edge of the willows, Daurian Redstart, Olive-backed Pipit and Little Buntings. Spot-billed Ducks on the river and our only Eurasian Curlew. Night in hotel.

 

Little Bunting and Pallas’s Leaf Warbler © R.&B Mearns

18 May. Choibalsan. An exploration of the trees near the hotel produced a couple of Japanese Sparrowhawks (one clutching a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler), a pair of Amur Falcons, Common Rosefinches and our first Eye-browed Thrush. A lake about 10 miles out of town boasted a flock of 18 Spotted Redshanks, 2 male Ruffs, 2 pairs of Falcated Ducks, 20 Demoiselle Cranes, 20 Whooper Swans and a Black-faced Bunting on the shoreline. After lunch the adjacent lake surprised us with about 20 Lapland Buntings coming to drink, as did a couple of Mongolian Gazelles. A stop by a different part of the river turned up a Wryneck and a Eurasian Siskin. Finished at about 6pm to allow the team to start their drive to UB. Night in hotel.

Japanese Sparrowhawk © R.&B Mearns

19 May. Choibalsan to UB. Had a little birding near the hotel and saw more Eye-browed Thrushes, Siberian Rubythroats and a Dusky Warbler. A former classmate of Bayanaa dropped us off at a lake near the airport for a few hours where there were over 50 White-winged Scoters, 80 Common Shelduck, a small number of waders, pairs of Citrine Wagtails and a pair of Isabelline Shrikes thinking of nesting in a very small bush. Our plane was delayed for several hours because of strong winds at UB so there was no time for birding on arrival. Night in hotel.

20 May. UB to DZ. The long drive south had a few highlights, notably our best views of Black Vulture and Steppe Eagles beside the road. We stopped short of DZ to camp in some some low hills and found Asian Desert Warbler building a nest, a pair of Pallas’s Buntings, a pair of Pallas’s Sandgrouse and flocks of Mongolian Finches. Night in tent.

Steppe Eagle © R.&B Mearns

21 May. DZ to Yolyn Am. About noon we arrived at a gorge not far from Yolyn Am and saw our first tourists – as well as Mongolian Pika, Midday Gerbil, Beautiful Rosefinch and Godlewski’s Bunting. At Yolyn Am there were more tourists and more species, including Black Redstart, Stonechat, Isabelline Wheatear, White-winged Snowfinch, Dusky Thrush, Rock Thrush, Grey Wagtail, Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon. We also had excellent views of several Koslov’s Accentors. It was an extremely cold evening and so it was decided to hire a ger for the night so that it would be warmer for us and easier for cooking. Night in ger with stove.

 

Midday Jerbil and Kozlov's Accentor © R.&B Mearns

22 May. Yolyn Am to Khongoryn Els. Awoke to three inches of snow! Undaunted we set of to Yolyn Am past a herd of snow-covered Yaks and back down into the gorge. Too early and cold for most things but Grey Wagtails and Snowfinches were already active and on the middle slopes there were a few Siberian Ibex. Driving west we were soon out of the snow and our lunch stop allowed us to find a Great Grey Shrike nest and Desert Wheatears. A few poplars at a vegetable patch in the Gobi had a flock of Common Rosefinches, Brown Shrike, Great Grey Shrike and a few warblers and flycatchers. Our final stop was a small wetland, at the base of vast and spectacular sand dunes, where flocks of Mongolian Finches were coming to drink amongst a few Wood Sandpipers and Ruddy Shelducks. Night in tent.

 

Himalyan Griffon and Pallas's Sandgrouse © R.&B Mearns

23 May. Khongoryn Els and two Saxaul Forests. At 6am we were down at the edge of the dunes where Ruddy Shelducks had ducklings on the pools and Ravens had recently fledged young at a small tree half way up the massive dunes. At 9am the first Pallas’s Sandgrouse came to drink and they kept coming in pairs and small groups for the next 30 minutes. The nearby Saxaul forest was a strange new habitat for us with unusual flowers and Great Gerbils on show, plus more Ravens and a Long-legged Buzzard. Brilliant sunshine suddenly turned to rain but it quickly passed. Across the river there was green pasture adjacent to the dunes where we took on water and found a Chinese Pond Heron, Greater Sand Plovers, Eurasian Spoonbills and Lesser Kestrels. In the afternoon we drove west to another Saxaul forest and after much hard work by Bayanaa he was finally able to show us a pair of shy, elusive Saxaul Sparrows. Night in tent.

 

Great Gerbil and Cistanche deserticola (a parasitic plant on Saxaul) © R.&B Mearns

24 May. To the Middle Beautiful Mountains. Near yesterday’s spring we suddenly had a brief view of two Saxaul Sparrows perched beside the vehicle, then we were off back eastwards. Had good views of Henderson’s Ground Jays near our lunch stop. As soon as we arrived at the mountains we saw a few Siberian Ibex on the slopes, with Lammergeiers overhead. Drove up through the gorge seeing Pied Wheatears, Rock Thrushes and Godlewski’s Buntings. At supper a pair of Chukars came close to the vehicle. Night in tent.

 

Hongoryn Els and Ruddy Shelduck © R.&B Mearns

25 May. Back to DZ. Morning chorus of Mongolian Finches. After breakfast we walked down the gorge and before we were picked up we had seen an Oriental Honey Buzzard on migration. We saw a few distant Goitered Gazzelles as we headed for another plantation. Among the trees there were about 10 Collared Doves, a Siberian Rubythroat, Dusky Warbler, Arctic Warbler, and Dusky Thrush. An hour later we were in a small gorge still full of hard-packed ice so we had to walk up it to see a Saker, Lammergeier and nest building Crag Martins. At DZ we explored a couple of patches of trees and had our best view of a Red-throated Thrush and a very low Oriental Honey Buzzard. Night in tent near airport.

26 May. DZ to UB. Our morning flight left early but Yumi was there to meet us in UB and take us birding in nearby riverine woodland. Azure Tits were nesting in a tree hole, Daurian Jackdaws were collecting nest material, Long-tailed Rosefinches were singing, Hoopoes were calling, Amur Falcons were perched in the trees and we saw Azure-winged Magpies. In the afternoon she took us to conifer and birch woodland where we found nesting Black Kites, a Spotted Nutcracker within a few feet of us, three Brown Shrikes, and Choughs on the meadows and. Night in a UB hotel.

27 May. UB ponds. Yumi took us to some nearby ponds and though we did not find Yellow-breasted Buntings there were Richard’s Pipits and Black-faced Buntings singing in the willows, and White-winged Black Terns and a Little Gull on the ponds. We finished our birding for the trip with close views of a nest building White-crowned Penduline Tit.  Afternoon shopping in UB and in the evening we were re-united with our team for a memorable farewell dinner.

 

Little Gull and White-crowned Penduline Tit © R.&B Mearns

 

28 May. The early morning flight to Moscow took us over western Mongolia.

 

CARBON OFF-SETTING:  Our travels contribute to global warming so we have again offset with www.climatestewards.org    Barbara has visited their tree-planting projects in Ghana and thoroughly recommends them to anyone who wants their cash to do more than just carbon off-setting: the new woodland is mostly on school land, so students learn agro-forestry skills and get involved in wider conservation education.