Mongolia part 1 – Ulaanbaatar, Gun Galuut and the Khentii Mountains: 18th-22nd May 2018   Leave a comment

As I said in my last post my blog has been resurrected and as well as catching up with my more recent travels I intend to go back and post more about trips that I didn’t cover previously.

The most obvious example of this Mongolia, a country I have been wanting to visit for decades but have never got round to. The wide open plains and deserts, high mountains and forests have always appealed but as I have travelled more and more in Asia the number of new birds that I would get on a trip to Mongolia declined to a mere seven (and I only got to see five of those).

What finally made my mind up to go was the fact that I had been targeting birds that had occurred in the UK. I was never going to see all of the 618 bird on the British List in the UK itself but I’d have a go at seeing all (but the two extinct ones of course) somewhere in the world. By 2018 there was just one left, Red-throated Thrush. The only accepted British record was of one that spent nine days at  the Naze in Essex in autumn 1994. Due to work commitments I couldn’t go until the Friday night of the 9th day. Of course it had gone by the morning. Mongolia represented my best chance of seeing this species so in 2018 I finally decided to go. I’m so glad I did.

Mongolia is a landlocked country in east Asia and in spite of its size of 1.5 million km^2 it is only bordered by China and Russia. It is the most sparsely inhabited sovereign state in the world with a population of only 3.3 million half of which live in the capital. There is little arable land and most of the terrain is desert, steppe or mountainous. 30% of the population still lead a nomadic lifestyle. This gives it a population density of just 2/km^2 compared to 432 in England. Our tour took us first north-east to the Khentii Mountains, then back to Ulaanbaatar then due south into the Gobi Desert. After visiting sites in and around the southern Altai with passed through the Khangai Mountains before passing through Ulaanbataar to revisit the Khentii Mountains.






IMG_1039 UB

At nearly 48 degrees north Ulaanbaatar is a comparable latitude to Vienna in Austria and at nearly 107 degrees east is further east than Jakarta in Indonesia. The centre looks modern but much of the city is a sprawling mass of huts and gers (yurts) as ever increasing numbers of Mongolians flock to the capital looking for work.

IMG_1041 Gvt buildings & square in UB

The government building are fronted by a series of canopies designed to look like the roofs of traditional gers.

Our first birding was along the Tuul River, which flows out of the Khentii through Ulaanbataar. Here we saw truly wild Mandarin Ducks unlike the feral ones that occur in the UK.

Of course as there is (or was) continuous forest cover across Eurasian a lot of species that can be found in northern Europe occur in the forests of Mongolia as well, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker …

… and Willow Tit. Tour leader János Oláh sent a set of photos to tour participants and where possible I’ve used his photos as they’re so much better than mine!  (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

In other case we see ecological replacements of European/West Palearctic birds eg Chinese Penduline Tit rather than Eurasian Pendulaine Tit …

… and the striking Daurian Jackdaw rather than our familiar Western Jackdaw.

One bird that just creeps into the Western Palearctic but has never occurred in the UK is the drop dead gorgeous Azure Tit. But I guess its a case of familiarity breeds contempt, if Azure Tits were common and you found your first Blue Tit you’d be enthusing about all those lovely yellow bits!(photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Eurasian Red Squirrel is a species with a range across the boreal zone but the ones in Mongolia look very different from our familiar British ones.

In the afternoon we headed for Bogd Khan, an area just outside the city.  Ulaanbataar has massively increased in size in recent years as nomadic people have upped their yurts and set them on the city outskirts. There’s been no infrastructure development to support this. The gers in the photos are tourist ones so that vistors to Ulaanbataar can spend a night in one and have a true ‘Mongolian experience’ without really leaving civilisation.

This forest had some great birds to including Taiga Flycatcher (sometimes called Red-throated Flycatcher) the eastern equivalent of the European Red-breasted Flycatcher. (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Another ‘eastern equivalent’ is Pine Bunting, the eastern relative of Yellowhammer, with which it hybridises and to my ears sounds just the same. This is a female …. (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

… and this is the male (Pine Bunting – photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Although they occur as close to the UK as northern France and so should be quite familiar, I think the bird of the afternoon was this female Black Woodpecker, which gave fantastic photo opportunities (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

The next morning we left the city in two rather tatty, quite uncomfortable, yet tough-as-nails Russian minibuses for what was to be 17 nights of wild camping. On the main road east from the capital we paused briefly as the gigantic statue of Mongolia’s best known leader, Chinggis Khaan, usually referred to in the west as Ghengis Khan. The 40m tall stainless steel statue sits on top of 10m high visitor centre and museum and was built in 2008. Visitors can ascend through the body of the horse to a viewing platform in its head. Of course as it was a birding trip there wasn’t time to do any more than take a few photos.


IMG_2134 Chinggis Khaan

Although Chinggis Khan was probably responsible for the greatest genocide in history there were positive aspects to his reign. See what Wikipedia has to say about Mongolia’s most famous son clickhere 

We moved on to the lake at Gun Galuut. This was supposed to be our first introduction to the steppe lakes, but in practice it held some very important birds that weren’t seen elsewhere on the tour. Almost all of the grasslands in Mongolia are unfenced and the enormous numbers of grazing stock (horses, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats and camels number 65 million compared to the 3.5 million humans) wander at will.

Birds abound at these lakes, we saw resident wildfowl like Stejneger’s Scoter and Whooping Swan and migrants like these Pacific Golden Plovers on route to the arctic (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

But the outstanding spectacle at the lake was the large number of White-winged Terns

White-winged Terns breed on lakes from the Baltic eastwards to the Sea of Japan and are a familiar site over much of the Old World tropics during winter, however the sight of a flock of them in summer plumage is one of the delights of Plaearctic birding. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Scanning across the lake I asked what was that distant group of four gulls with black heads. János said they were just Black-headed Gulls, but I hadn’t realised that he had been looking in a different direction. It’s a good job we moved closer to the birds I found as they proved to be Relict Gulls, one of the most wanted species on the entire trip. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull as a breeding bird is restricted to two lakes in easternmost Kazakhstan, and a few lakes in  Mongolia and one in northern China. It was considered a race of Mediterranean Gull until 1971. We were not expecting it here, rather on lakes further south – where we failed to see any more! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull was one of the five life bird I got on the trip. The only other place they can be seen is on east coast of China in winter. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull almost completes my list of the world’s birds. Just Lava Gull on the Galapagos to go. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


In the drier areas we found good numbers of the elegant Demoiselle Crane (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Sorry to include this poor photo but this is the only one I got of a distant White-naped Crane. One of the key birds of the trip. Also in the photo are a number of Ruddy Shelducks.

We moved on to the Khentii Mountains and made camp in the valley below. Our camp site is just visible to the left of the top of the tallest burnt stump. It was cold during the night but it was a lovely location. Normally the visit to the Khentii Mountains is left to the end and has been offered as an optional extension. The main reason for the visit is to see the highly elusive Black-billed Capercaille. Late May isn’t the best time for them but an earlier visit would mean missing other migrant species that wouldn’t have arrived. János had come up with the idea of going twice; at the start and end of the trip, which involved more driving but gave us the best chance of seeing both sets of birds. As you can see it was a long slog up the hillside from the campsite, made worse by the fact that the only sightings of the ‘Capers’ where of two females seen briefly in flight by one or two clients at the front. It was disappointing to say the least.

After an unproductive morning we descended to the campsite. Our best encounter that morning was with this nesting Cinereous Vulture. As the slope was so steep we could see straight into the nest, even though it was at least 10m up in the tree (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Fortunately János had a cunning plan. Local guide Naasta was in contact with a warden who knew of  lek site. It surely would be too late in the year to see the males lekking (for example I’ve never seen Western Capercaille lekking despite 20 or so visits to Scotland in late April, May and June) but perhaps a few would still be hanging about in the area. The drive through the forest and open hillsides took most of the afternoon. Northern Mongolia forms the southernmost extent of the great ‘taiga forest’ that extends from Scandinavia to Kamchatka. Note the hills are mainly covered with larch, this conifer can survive extremely low temperatures in winter even lower than pine or fir and is the dominant conifer in central Siberia/northern Mongolia. To cope it is deciduous and drops its needles in the autumn so in spring the trees are fresh and green like a broad leafed forest. The bare areas are due to exposure to the wind rather than deforestation.

We eventually met up with the warden. Naasta, János disappeared with him to scout out a suitable campsite. In the meantime we found this shrike. The only ‘grey shrike’ taxon on the list was ‘Steppe Grey Shrike, considered a full species for a while, but now subsumed back in Great Grey Shrike again. However  its a bird of the south of Mongolia in the saxual scrub. It wasn’t until we got home that several of us realised that this was Northern Grey Shrike, the grey shrike that occurs in eastern Siberia and northern North America. As János didn’t see it, it never went on the trip list.

However the next species, right next to our campsite was for me at least, one of the trip’s top birds, a smart male Red-throated Thrush. As I explained in the intro this was the only bird that is on the UK List that I haven’t seen anywhere in the world. Situation remedied for now at least.

Our second campsite was in a beautiful location but once the sun went down it became very cold. In spite of the stove in the mess tent we felt very chilly as we ate our dinner. I couldn’t get my thicker sleeping bag inside my case and so brought a relatively thin one thinking I could always sleep in my fleece. By the end of the night I was wearing every layer I could find, T-shirt, two sweaters, fleece, three pairs of socks two pairs of trousers. Water bottles inside the tent froze and the temperature at 0345 when we arose was measured at -14C.

We could hear the Black-billed Capercailles from the camp, we only had to walk a few hundred yards and then, creeping ever closer, we could see them through the trees. On most trips this view would more than satisfy but we were in for a real treat. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

The very low temperatures had pushed these hardy birds back into full lek mode. We had the most stupendous views as up to ten Black-billed Capercaille males  strutted around, called from the trees and displayed to the females lurking in the shadows. In a lifetime of watching wildlife I have encountered hundreds of gob-stopping moments but this was up there with the best. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

This is our local guide Naasta (actual name Dalannast Munkhnast) – photographed later in the trip in the Altai mountains.

On the way back to Ulaanbataar later that morning we stopped at his ger just outside the city.

His wife had cooked us a nice meal. Although it looks small from outside the ger looks bigger on the inside (like a Mongolian Tardis) and with its thick padding would be quite comfortable, although I wouldn’t want to visit the outside loo in the depths of a Mongolian winter.

But it’s always best to end with a bird photo so I’ll finish this first post on Mongolia with one of the highlights of the trip, if not one of the highlights of my life – the majestic Black-billed Capercaille (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

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