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R.&B Mearns 2013

MONGOLIA BIRD WATCHING TRIP REPORT

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: Yumjirmaa, B. (Yumi)

Driver: Odkhuu (Otto)

Consulted by: Gombobaatar Sundev

Mongolian Ground Jay. © R.&B Mearns

This 3-week trip was organised for the two of us by the Mongolian Ornithological Society and Mongolica Co.Ltd. We requested a fairly slow-paced trip to give us plenty of time on our feet watching birds, mammals and butterflies etc. We wanted to get to know the habitats and species well, but did not especially want the longest possible list of birds. Because of our long interest in early naturalists we particularly wanted to see some of the birds that are named after people. We wanted to spend almost all our nights camping, with time for good walks, a little nest finding and a little photography – and that is exactly what we got!

Richard and Barbara Mearns.

Our team was excellent and looked after us well each day. They chose all our camp sites and lunch stops carefully, all of them being in excellent places in terms of scenic quality and abundance of wildlife. We thoroughly enjoyed all the different habitats we were in and had a fantastic time.

Altai Snowcock. © R.&B Mearns

Yumi, our camp manager, proved to be a terrific cook and produced wonders from the back of the vehicle. One of us has a restrictive diet and she followed it carefully, indeed we were both fit and well throughout the trip. Bayanaa, our English speaking guide, was enthusiastic and energetic on our behalf and helped us to find almost all the birds we especially hoped to see, as well as some unexpected ones. Otto, our driver, was truly excellent, on difficult roads as well as in city traffic, and was always willing to help around camp and to see to our comfort. They were good at keeping to time, more so than was really necessary, so we always knew how much time we had for walks, how long until lunch etc. We cannot praise them highly enough.

Almost every day was dry, clear and sunny. The only rain we experienced was during the last three days at Terelj. We saw over 180 bird species, 15 species of mammals, three reptiles, two amphibians and nearly 20 species of butterfly. Over 50 of the birds were completely new for us and many others we had not seen since 1985, in Israel.

Ruddy Shelduck. © R.&B Mearns

31st May & 1st June. Glasgow-London-Beijing-Ulaanbaatar (UB) Arrived about midday at UB where we were met and welcomed by our team. Some afternoon birding at gravel ponds on the outskirts of town produced nesting Demoiselle Crane, Whooper Swan, Great Crested Grebe and Common Terns; and displaying Little Ringed Plover. Also present were Garganey, Ruddy Shelduck, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Gadwall etc. Flock of about 50 Red-billed Choughs overhead. Night in hotel in UB.

2nd June. UB to Hustai National Park Breakfast in hotel. Drove westwards to Hustai National Park, on the way stopping briefly to see Mongolian Lark, Horned Lark, Eurasian Skylark, and Mongolian Jird. Fantastic view of Black Vulture flying low overhead, passing across the face of the half moon. Arrived at ger camp at Hustai about noon and found Brown Shrike on the fence. A park guide took us to an amazing valley just a few kilometres away where we saw Przewalski’s Horses, Red Deer, Siberian Marmot, Long-tailed Sousliks and a variety of raptors: Amur Falcon, Steppe Eagle, Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel and Eurasian Hobby. Brown Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Pallas’s Warbler were seen in a little gully, with Pied Wheatear and Daurian Partridge on the rocky slope above. There was time before dinner at the camp for Barbara and I to climb a hill and look out over the park. Citrine Wagtail by the camp after dinner. Night at tourist ger camp.

3rd June. Hustai National Park to Borogchin Lake Very windy at 6.00 am (the strongest wind we had). We decided to be optimistic and when we arrived further into the park amongst blue iris, Mongolian Larks, Lapwings and Demoiselle Cranes there was no wind. We drove down to the Tog River where there were herders rounding up horses and a variety of ducks and other water birds. A search among the willows produced White-crowned Penduline Tit, Dusky Warbler, Brown Shrike, Thick-billed Reed Warbler and Hawfinch. Also at this spot: Hoopoes, Black Storks and our only view of White-cheeked Starling. After lunch at the ger camp we headed west to Borogchin Lake, stopping on the way at a small wetland where we saw two White-naped Cranes, Red-crested Pochard and Western Marsh Harrier. At the large lake we had time for an evening walk and added Common Crane, Marsh Sandpiper, Greylag Goose, Spot-billed Duck, Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt and Eurasian Coot etc. Night in tent.

Upland Buzzard. © R.&B Mearns

4th June Borogchin Lake to Ugii Lake

Awoke at 6 am to the sound of Whooper Swans, Common Cranes and camels. Went along the shore of the lake with Bayanaa – the only place where the mosquitoes were really troublesome. Waders included Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Lapwing (with chicks), Black-winged Stilt, and Asian Dowitcher in breeding plumage. Good views of another White-naped Crane, Black-necked Grebe, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Bar-headed Geese etc. Began to see butterflies, including species of swallowtail and clouded yellow, and at the water’s edge there were Mongolian Toads. After lunch at camp we headed for Ugii Lake, stopping occasionally for Steppe Eagles just a few feet from the vehicle, obviously attracted to the huge numbers of Brandt’s Voles that were scurrying around everywhere. One or two Sakers seen in flight. At the lake we saw four Grey Plover in breeding plumage, White-tailed Eagle and Bayanaa found us our first Père David’s Snowfinch. Our tourist ger camp was perched on a hill overlooking the lake and Choughs, Tree Sparrows and the red form of Barn Swallow were all nesting amongst the buildings. Just across the fence we watched a fledged brood of Père David’s Snowfinches being fed by the adults. Evening meal and night at tourist ger camp.

Small Snowfinch. © R.&B Mearns

5th June. Ugii Lake to Karakhorin

Up at 5.00 and photographed the Choughs and Tree Sparrows. Out on the lake we could see White-winged Scoters. Drove around the lake before breakfast and found a flock of about 25 Whooper Swans, White-tailed Eagle but no sign of Pallas’s Fish Eagle. Instead we had wonderful views of Corsac Foxes, one with cubs and another hunting and killing Brandt’s Voles. Stopped to visit a cliff with an Upland Buzzard nest with three very large young, and there was a Bar-headed Goose nest there too. Breakfast at the ger camp at 9.30 am, then we drove to some small ponds where we stayed a few hours and had our lunch. These were probably the best ponds for their size that we have ever seen – packed with ducks, waders and terns. White-winged and Common Terns were nesting alongside Avocets and Mongolian Gull. Bar-headed Goose had a brood of goslings and a Swan Goose was on a nest. Black-necked Grebe, Marsh Sandpiper, Lapwings and stilts also present. At another pond we saw a flock of six Eurasian Curlews. At Kharkhorin we drove a little way into the hills and we climbed up a valley with big old larches to see Pine Bunting, Ortolan Bunting, Rock Thrush, Hoopoe and Willow Tit. Night in tent.

Pallas's Fish Eagle. © R.&B Mearns

6th June. Kharkhorin almost to Nariinteel.

Started the day at camp by photographing Isabelline Wheatears attacking Long-tailed Souslik. At 7 am arrived at a Sea Buckthorn plantation on the outskirts of Karakoram where we had permission to go birding. Very quickly saw Pallas’s Reed Bunting amongst the buckthorn. On the walk along the fringe of poplars there were nests of Black Kite, Upland Buzzard, Carrion Crow, and three or four Common Kestrels. Oriental Turtle Dove and Richard’s Pipit also present. Our lunch stop was in a rather green and lush pass between the hills where we had a few hours of wandering about; found Horned Lark nest with eggs and again watched Isabelline Wheatears attacking sousliks. Near Arvaykheer we found a couple of male Oriental Plovers – and saw one of them in its extraordinary display flight. Camped beneath a rocky outcrop where there were Choughs, Brown Accentor, Ruddy Shelducks, Daurian Pikas and Mongolian Silver Voles. Night in tent.

7th June Nariinteel to Bayankhongor

The two of us got up at 5.15 and wondered around on our own until breakfast. Photographed the Brandt’s Voles and watched Rock Sparrows feeding young. Lunch stop was by a river at Nariinteel, having worked up an appetite by climbing a nearby hill with Bayanaa: Golden Eagle and more Rock Sparrows and Daurian Pikas – and a spectacular view up the valley. Just before Byankhongor we explored some willows by the river but it was rather quiet and between us found only Eurasian Cuckoos, Ruddy Shelducks, Magpies and the inevitable Black Kites. Night in hotel.

8th June. Byankhongor to Buuntsagaan Lake

Did not leave town til mid-day because the team had to get supplies, water & petrol, so we had a welcome rest. Drove south- west and first stop was for a few Black Vultures at the remains of a carcase near the road. During our lunch stop we found Horned Lark nest with eggs, saw a small party of Pacific Swifts skimming low, found a Pallas’s Sandgrouse feather and saw a few butterflies including a small, well-marked fritillary. On our way to the lake we saw our first sandgrouse – dead on the road ahead with a Saker perched on it! Nearby there were other sandgrouse, our first Greater Sand Plovers and Tuva Toad-headed Agamas – and later a pair of Mongolian Ground Jays. We arrived in time for an evening walk and had tremendous views of Pallas’s Fish Eagles (2 adults and five juveniles). Black Storks, Kentish Plovers and a flock of about 80 Spoonbills also gave us a taste of tomorrow’s birds. Night in tent.

9th June. All day at Buuntsagaan Lake

Awoke at 5 am and on looking out of the tent saw a stream of Cormorants, Ruddy Shelducks and Mongolian Gulls flying by, and there was a juvenile Pallas’s Fish Eagle not far away. Bayanaa led us down to the lake shore and we soon saw Pallas’s Gulls and a few Relict Gulls – mixed in with 25 Caspian Terns, Black-headed Gulls, Common Terns etc. During breakfast we had a visit from four British birdwatchers (the only other birdwatchers we saw during the trip). We went out after breakfast and checked the shore for waders finding Greater Sand Plovers, Common Redshank, Dunlin, one Temminck’s Stint and two Broad-billed Sandpipers. After lunch Barbara & I headed further along the shore seeing Pacific Golden Plovers, Turnstone, and the Relict Gulls again. Asian Short-toed Lark nest with eggs on the way back. Night in tent.

10th June. Buuntsagaan Lake to Orog Lake

Drove around to another part of the lake to search for waders but nothing new. Had a wonderful breakfast watching scores of Pallas’s Sandgrouse flying all around us, as they returned from drinking at the lake. Nearby there was a Cormorant colony on an offshore gravel bar and in the water beside it we were surprised to see four Long-tailed Ducks. As we headed east we stopped in Bayansayr for water and had excellent views of Hill Pigeon. Our next stop was a series of reed fringed pools where there were nesting Avocets, Greater Sand Plovers and Kentish Plovers. Citrine Wagtails were carrying great beaks full of damselflies to their chicks. Ruddy Shelducks and Black-headed Gulls had young. Also present were Spot-billed Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Oriental Reed Warbler, White-winged and Black Terns. Finished the day near Orog Lake, watching Mongolian Ground Jays (two adults and two youngsters). Night in tent.

Bar-headed Goose. © R.&B Mearns

11th June. Orog Lake to Bogd Mountains
At 6 am I went out and photographed the Mongolian Ground Jays and a Great Grey Shrike; Barbara heard Greenshank from the tent. It was a slow drive into the mountains but we were quickly rewarded with White-winged Snowfinches in our camp, while nearby there were Rock Sparrows and several pairs of Rock Thrushes – though best of all was an adult Lammergeir perched on a cliff that later circled over our camp. In the afternoon Bayanaa took as to a patch of snow and a trickle of water where Mongolian Finch, Twite, Water Pipit, Brown Accentor and a Hawfinch came down (did the Hawfinch nest in the low junipers? There were no other trees). Evening walk down the valley produced Pallas’s Pika and Black Redstart. Heard Altai Snowcock as it got dark. Night in tent.

12th June. Bogd Mountains

Up at 5.30 am to see Altai Snowcock and they soon appeared on the ridges above us, quite distant but over the next couple of hours we got pretty close to them. A few Argali Sheep also appeared on a ridge. After breakfast Barbara photographed a ger being erected. Bayanaa went off with a herder on a motorbike to get information about the road ahead and the possibility of finding Güldenstädt’s Redstart, so we headed down the valley to some bushes. Here we found two Isabelline Shrike nests, one with eggs, one with chicks, a Rock Thrush nest with eggs and a Saker nest with three very large young. Several Barred Warblers were singing. Afternoon sitting by the stream produced the same birds as yesterday, plus Crag Martin. Godlewski’s Bunting on the way back. Night in tent.

13th June. Bogd Mountains

In the morning on the nearest ridge we could see snowcocks from camp without binoculars. After breakfast drove up the mountain – flowers everywhere, and where we stopped to camp there were Güldenstädt’s Redstart flying from boulder to boulder as they searched for insects. Only other small birds were Brown Accentor, Water Pipit and Black Redstart. After lunch Bayanaa took us to the edge of a precipice where we had spectacular views of Orog Lake as Lammergeier, Black Vulture, Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon Vultures soared past, sometimes above, sometimes below us. Several short walks from camp. Night in tent.

Lammergeier. © R.&B Mearns

14th June. Bogd Mountains

At 7am we went with Baynaa to a large snowpatch and waited to see what would come: an Altai Snowcock appeared 100 metres away from us and headed up the hillside, while Brown Accentors fed close to us (found their nest with eggs). After breakfast we headed off on a long walk across the tops. Because of the altitude (3500metres) we didn’t have much energy and did not get as far as we hoped but had a truly wonderful day: another accentor nest, more Güldenstädt’s Redstarts, Water Pipits, Alpine Accentor (and Baynaa saw Altai Accentor). Brandt’s Mountain Finch at close quarters was a real highlight. Raptors above were again quite spectacular, as were the flowers at our feet, including our first Orange Globeflowers. In the evening Barbara and I went down to some rocks where we found another Brown Accentor nest. Night in tent.

15th June. Bogd Mountains to Taatsyn Tsagaan Lake

Made the most of our precious time in the mountains by getting up early and headed down a gully where I photographed Altai Snowcock, Alpine Accentor and marmots. At camp a rather tame pika was also well photographed. After breakfast we headed down the mountain stopping briefly at some bushes but there was nothing new except an increase in butterfly numbers. Our lunch stop was by a spring near Orog Lake where Mongolian Finches, Asian Short-toed Larks and Mongolian Lark came to the water. Arrived at the lake at 6 pm and walked down to the shore. More Avocets, Greater Sand Plovers and Kentish Plovers than ever seen before, many with chicks. Terek Sandpipers and Marsh Sandpipers hard to get close to. Common Crane over camp. Night in tent.

16th June. Taatsyn Tsagaan Lake to Nariinteel

After breakfast at 7am we went down to the lake but nothing new. Drove north, stopping for Desert Wheatear, and when an Oriental Plover male was seen from the vehicle we made it our lunch stop. Great views of the plover and in the vicinity were the usual Isabelline Wheatears, Horned Larks, Père David’s Snowfinches. Camped at a grassy spot near Nariinteel where we had a few hours to roam around, didn’t need to go far to see Citrine Wagtail, Hoopoe, Little Ringed Plover, Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Wheatear, Pied Wheatear and Grey-necked Bunting. Night in tent.

Altai Snowcock. © R.&B Mearns

17th June. Nariinteel to Arvaykheer

Awoke at 6 am and Barbara & I had a short walk, getting better views of the Grey-necked Bunting, and a Black Vulture landed close to us on the rocks above. On the road, after breakfast, we stopped at a Long-legged Buzzard nest with young. The next excitement was a group of about 30 vultures at a goat carcase (Black, Himalayan and Eurasian Griffons) just a little way off the road. Lunch was at a small lake tenanted by Green Sandpipers, Demoiselle Cranes, Kentish Plovers and both species of shelduck. Dinner and night in hotel.

18th June. Arvaykheer, Sangiin Dalai Lake and onwards towards UB

Late start as the team stocked up with supplies. Had lunch at the lake where we saw large numbers of Whooper Swans, more Green Sandpipers, and a great many Pochard (though viewing was poor because of heat haze). Close views of two Arctic Loons on a pool was a big surprise for us. Closer to the vehicle we found a Mongolian Lark’s nest with eggs, Citrine and Yellow Wagtails and Upland Buzzards. We camped in a very scenic spot well off the road where we added Meadow Bunting to our list – but the highlight of the day was a pair of Demoiselle Cranes with two chicks. Night in tent.

19th June. To UB and on to Terelj

Up early for a walk with Bayanaa produced Daurian Partridge and Collared Dove. But after breakfast we had to head to UB. As we approached the city we saw a huge flock of choughs feeding at the roadside (about 500 birds). The drive through UB is best forgotten but once clear of the city we were soon in lush green flowery meadows and camped beside towering larch trees. The contrast to the preceding days was amazing: lots of butterflies and flowers and many birds were different, notably Black Woodpecker and Olive-backed Pipit (two nests found). Red Squirrels were almost black with a white belly. On an evening walk after dinner Barbara & I searched some low wet willow scrub and after some difficulty had unforgettable views of a singing male Siberian Rubythroat. Strange noises at dusk not identified but think it was perhaps a mammal. Night in tent.

20th June. Terelj
Bayanaa took us on a walk through the meadows and larch forest. Olive-backed Pipits in song flight, Common Rosefinch singing, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Nuthatch on woodland edge. A pair of Lammergeiers were at a cave in the rocks above us, and a couple of Siberian Roe Deer came crashing past us. After a leisurely breakfast we drove on up the valley steadily climbing up to a pass where we stopped in the larches. This was our starting point for three walks in search of Black-billed Capercaillie (a bird we only heard and found feathers of). On the first walk found a Eurasian Sparrowhawk sitting on its nest and saw a Lesser Whitethroat. It rained for the first time! On the second, longer walk we encountered wonderful woodland flowers and Greenish Warbler. The two of us had an evening walk downstream and heard Oriental Cuckoo. Pine Bunting nest with eggs close to camp. Night in tent.

Pine Bunting. © R.&B Mearns

21st June. Terelj

Up at 5.30 to look for capercaillie but no luck. Afterwards headed down hill to the poplars beside the river. Bayanaa took us through the trees towards our camp and the first thing we saw was a female Goldeneye on a branch of the river, with ducklings. This was followed by good views of Daurian Jackdaws, Daurian Redstarts (two nests with young), and a close view of Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. At camp young Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker were heard calling from their nest hole. After lunch Barbara & I roamed around close to camp and saw Red-throated Thrushes, Jay, and found a Black-faced Bunting nest with eggs. Taiga Flycatcher made a close approach to us and found a possible Dark-sided Flycatcher on its nest. The day finished with a traditional Kkorkhog meal and as we went to bed we saw a Ural Owl above us in a dead poplar. Night in tent.

22nd June. Terelj to UB

Got up early to make the most of our last morning in the field but it was cold and damp and little was moving. In UB we said goodbye to our faithful guide Bayanaa (he was off to western Mongolia the following day). Arrived at our hotel about mid day and shortly afterwards Yumi took us shopping for souvenirs. Rest of day relaxing at hotel and packing.

23rd & 24th June. UB-Beijing-London-Glasgow Yumi and Otto took us to the airport and we said our farewells. Barbara cried when we took off because she was so sorry to leave.