Mongolia part 2: The Gobi Desert and the Gobi Altai Mountains. 22nd – 26th May 2018   Leave a comment

Although I have my own photographs of most of the subjects I have used many that leader János Oláh supplied with the tour report as they are far better quality than my own.

The last post covered our time around Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar and our time in the Khentii Mountains. After leaving there we returned to the capital and drove south for nearly 200km and camped in the desert about a km from the road.


There were a loads of Mongolian Gerbils around the camp. Rodents and other small mammals like, jerboas, gerbils, ground squirrels, voles, pikas and marmots were to be a real feature of this trip. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



After dinner some of us went out spotlighting. We were surprised to find a migrant Brown Shrike, on its way to its Siberian breeding area foraging on the ground. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



Amazingly we found this Marbled Polecat, a rarely seen mammal hunting jerbils (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).


IMG_1081 tent with a view

A tent with a view, well a view of the toilet tent. The following morning it was very windy. As I took the tent down I removed the final peg from the inner tent before I removed the the supporting struts. The wind caught it and it rolled away far faster than I could catch it. Naasta and one of the drivers jumped in the supply lorry and chased after it – it took 3km before they could catch and secure it!!



Liz befriending a lost lamb at breakfast time. As well as the Birdquest leader, János Oláh, we had two local guides, Naasta and Terbish, three drivers for the two minibuses and the supply truck and two cooks who travelled in the supply truck. At each camp site the drivers put up/took down the big dining tent and the loo tent, assembled the stove etc whilst the cooks got on with the meal (which were really varied and tasty). We put up/took down our own tents with varying degrees of success.



The morning birding brought some excellent birds the local brandtii form of Horned Lark which may be a future split (splits in the Horned lark group are inevitable, but its not clear yet whether the steppe races will be combined with the Himalayan race(s) or not),



Desert Wheatears were common throughout the desert regions, especially around habitations.



At this time of year there were still plenty of migrants about, this male Siberian Rubythroat was foraging along the edge of a dune.



If any bird typified the wide open desert landscape it was Pallas’ Sandgrouse. Named after 18th C Prussian scientist and explorer Peter Simon Pallas, this species range covers much of central Asia. In the past periodic irruptions resulted in it breeding in Europe including the UK but now it just an extreme vagrant to Europe.(copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



We would oftern see these gorgeous birds flying over in the morning on their way to a pool to drink. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



As we travelled south we came across a number of Mongolian Gazelles. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


We carried on through the stark desert landscape for much of the afternoon pausing in the town of Dalanzadgad to top up our supplies. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



Not far from the town we stopped at an area of open desert to search for the enigmatic Oriental Plover. No luck there, our best find was a number of Himalayan Griffon Vultures. This one is defending the carcass of a young camel from the others. We continued on to the Gobi-Altai National Park only to find they were shut. János managed to persuaded them to let us in and we set up camp at dusk at the foot of the mountains. A night drive brought us views of Pallas’ Cat, a rare feline but one that I’ve been lucky enough to see on three trips now. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2404 Yoliam NP at dawn

Between the previous night’s spotlighting and the 0345 wake up, there was little time for sleep. Bleary-eyed, yet full of anticipation we hiked up the mountainside in the dark. Our main target was Altai Snowcock, which would have been the my 5th and last snowcock.


IMG_2441 Yoliam NP

The sun had broken the horizon by the time we reached the top, wonderful views …


IMG_2446 Yoliam NP

… but however hard we tried we couldn’t find any snowcocks.



There was compensation in the form of a small herd of Argali rams. Probably the best set of horns on any species of wild sheep. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



Several Siberian Ibex were on display as well. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2436 WW Snowfinch

Among the birds that we did see were White-winged Snowfinch (the same species that is found in the mountains of Europe) …



… Brown Accentor …



… and on this trip at least, the ubiquitous Isabelline Wheatear.


IMG_2462 Lammergeier

The skies were constantly patrolled by a pair of Lammergeiers, now often called Bearded Vultures because the name Lammergeier translates as ‘lamb vulture’ but like all vultures they don’t prey on live animals (and in fact this species specialises in eating bone marrow by dropping long bones from a height in order to smash them open).


IMG_1124 Terbish & Nastaa in Yoliam NP

One last scan for snowcocks before it was time to descend.


IMG_1125 Yoliam NP

We had another ‘mega’ to look for in the juniper scrub at the base of the slope …



… Mongolia’s only breeding endemic (it has no true endemics as almost all birds depart south in winter or are widespread across central Asia) – Koslov’s Accentor, an accentor that makes our Dunnock look gaudy. As Anthony McGeehan said about dull yet rare birds in his book ‘Birding From The Hip’, ‘its not what it looks like that matters, it’s how it makes you feel’! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_1127 buses arriving Yoliam NP

It was now mid-morning and far below us we could see our vehicles bringing us a very welcome breakfast.


IMG_2581 Yoliam NP + yaks

Later passing herds of grazing yaks …


IMG_1129 Yoliam NP

… and drifts of winter snow that had yet to melt …


IMG_2541 Yuliam NP gorge

… we entered a gorge where we found lots of migrants and a few other specialities ..


IMG_2517 Citrine Wagtail

… a male Citrine Wagtail …


IMG_2498 Mongolian Finches

… localised Mongolian Finches …



… Black-faced Buntings … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2567 Wallcreeper male

… and best of all, the superb Wallcreeper. This species, with a range from the Pyrenees to Tibet has occurred on a few occasions in the UK, the last time just after I started birding in 1977, although I had no connection to ‘the grapevine’ in those days.



Also in the gorge was another species names in honour of Peter Simon Pallas – Pallas’s Pika … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2572 Hayl's Central Asian Viper

… and this Haly’s (or Central Asian) Viper. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2603 Oriental Plover site

From here we headed westwards, skirting the northern flank of the Gobi Altai mountains. On these endless plains our main target was Oriental Plover …



… which we not only saw well but saw in it’s bizarre wing fluttering display flight. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)



A few days further on we came across a female on the nest but we only stopped briefly to minimise disturbance. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_1163 vew from the bus

We were not to see paved roads again for more than a week. Muck of the time we were following tyre tracks in the desert, sometime we just headed for a feature in the distance and cut across country. As the day drew on the wind blew the fine sand into a dust storm. We were approaching the big sand dunes at Khongoryn Els.


IMG_1144 inside a ger-e

These sand dunes are a popular tourist destination (well popular by Mongolian standards which isn’t all that popular at all) and we were treated to a night in a ger and the chance of a hot shower and a shave.



The highlight of that night’s spotlighting was this cute Long-eared Hedgehog. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2637 a ger camp + dunes

The air was still hazy with fine dust as our supply truck left the camp the following morning.



In the thorn scrub we found Asian Desert Warbler … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2615 hoope, saxual tree and dunes

.. and in this ancient and twisted Saxaul Tree against the backdrop of the mighty dunes we found this Hoopoe …



… and the range restricted Saxual Sparrow. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2648 camels

As the day hotted up the wind got stronger and the windblown dust turned the sky pink. We saw lots of Bactrian Camels. Unlike the one humped Dromedary there are still a few genuinely wild Bactrian Camels but these aren’t they. At best they are feral but most likely are someone’s stock allowed to roam free and many have ribbon tied to their ears to identify the owner.



With the sand dunes behind us we slowly made our way across the alluvial flat lands to the north of the Altai Mountains. Sometimes we crossed dried out braided rivers where we would climb up and down the multiple (dry) channels like a roller coaster ride.


IMG_2671 desert sunset

With the sun already setting we stopped for the night by a small stream. It wasn’t the easiest place to camp, with a brisk wind it was hard to put up the tent. The ground was hard and stony and I bent most of my tent pegs doing so. In addition I hit my thumb with the hammer. Heading for the mess tent I thought I’d relax with a cold beer – only to find they’d all gone. I wasn’t best pleased and the rest of the trip the others would say ‘don’t forget to keep Ian happy and stock up with beer’!



However spotlighting that night produced one of the most delightful critters of all, Siberian Jerboa. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


IMG_2690 campsite 6

Pre-breakfast the next day we had a look along the small stream …


IMG_2675 desert plants

There were a lot of these, parasitic plants called Desert Thumb in the area.


IMG_2678 Grey Wagtail

Along the stream we found familiar birds like Grey Wagtail …


… and less familiar ones like this migrant Long-toed Stint.


Always looking for a nice image to end on I’ll post another one of the endearing Siberian Jerboa. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)


In the third instalment of our epic Mongolian journey, we’ll continue north-west re-visiting the Altai Mountains and a number of desert lakes.

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