Mongolia part 3: Bogd Mountains, lakes of Kholbooj, Orog Nuur and Boontsagaan Nuur and the Khangai Mountains – 26th May – 1st June 2018.   Leave a comment

In the last post I showed some photos of the southern Gobi-Altai Mountains and parts of the Gobi Deserts that lies to the south and north of the mountain range. This post covers part of the Altai known as the Bodg Mountains, the desert/steppe lakes of Kholbooj, Orog Nuur and Boontsagaan Nuur.

As with the last two posts I have included a number of photos from tour leader János Oláh as they are so much better than mine. These were supplied to the clients with the tour report.

 

As we travelled west from we spent some time to the south of the Bogd Mountains and had to climb up a pass to reach the northern slope. This ‘chorton’ a Buddhist shrike was at the top.

 

Of course once we had descended to the desert on the northern side of the mountains we saw yet more Pallas’ Sandgrouse … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… but our main target was one of Mongolia’s avian specialities, Henderson’s (or Mongolian) Ground Jay (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There are four species of ground jay in the world, all inhabitants of arid areas in central Asia and named after ornithological pioneers: Henderson’s (above) Mongolia and northern Tibet, Pander’s in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Biddulph’s in NW China and Pleske’s in Iran of which I’ve seen the first two. There used to be a fifth, Hume’s Ground Jay of Tibet but DNA evidence showed that it belonged in the Paridae not the Corvidae – so it went from being the smallest crow in the world to the biggest tit in the world. (although other nominations are available for that honour). (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

From these desert plains we continued on to the lakes at Kholboolj Nuur and camped overnight and later went up to the Bodg Mountains above, however as we visited a number of other lakes after our descent from the Bodg I’ll treat all the lakes together and show pics from the mountains first.

 

The long ascent to the Bogd was up this very rough track.

 

There were wonderful views to the desert to the desert to the north.

 

Eventually we reached the top and started scanning the distant ridges.

 

Having dipped on it in the Gobi-Altai our main quest was the elusive Altai Snowcock. Finding a ‘fat partridge’ in this vast area would be no easy task but eventually one was heard.

 

The bird, seen here in the bottom left of the photo was eventually found on the far side of the valley. This photo is greatly enlarged. Some of the group saw another in flight at much closer range but I missed it.

 

Of course I’d like to show what one looks like close up so here’s a photo from Goyo Mongolia Tours

 

Among the many other sightings we had in this scenic area were Guldenstadt’s Redstart (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

 

… Ala Shan Ground Squirrel …

 

… and lower down Chukar (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… and Hill Pigeon (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest). However we failed to see our other main target White-throated (or Hodgson’s) Bushchat. They should have arrived from their wintering grounds in India by now so we were pretty disappointed not to find this very localised species.

 

On our descent the views over the desert lakes were stunning.

 

We spent one night at the lake of Kholboolj Nuur.

 

Naasta had brought some small mammal traps with him which meant that as well as spotlighting we had a chance to see Gerboas, Jirds etc in the morning.

 

This is an Andrew’s Three-toed Jerboa (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We spent another night at a lake called Bootsagaan Nuur. The wind would get up in the afternoon and create mini tornadoes on the far shore.

 

On the north shore of Bootsagaan Nuur was this crescent shaped sand dune know as a a barkan. The wind blows the sand more strongly at the distal parts of the dune and so moves it forwards more creating the characteristic shape.

 

The barkan made a great lookout, the local lad has cycled over to see what we were doing whilst the local goat shows its indifference (photo copyright Liz Charter). The sparsity of people through this remote part of Mongolia meant you could drive for 20km and see one yurt with a couple of horses or motorbikes outside and a herd of sheep, goats or camels and then drive another 20km before you found another.

 

I said in the first posts that our Russian vans were uncomfortable although reliable. This was particularly true for our tall Dutch companions, Wim and Willem, although Tim was almost as tall. On most trips there is daily seat rotation but on this trip that was impossible as the taller guys just couldn’t fit into the smaller of the two vehicles.

 

At Bootsagaan Nuur on one side there was a ridge of alluvial material which could almost hide a camel.

 

You’re looking the wrong way Naasta! Actually there were three Pallas’ Fish Eagles on the ridge and Naasta is trying to photograph one of the others.

 

I don’t know how Naasta’s photo came out but János’ were superb! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There was a great variety of birdlife around the lakes from the local race of Merlin … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… resident species like Asian Short-toed Lark … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… to migrant Pallas’ Grasshopper Warblers, affectionately know as ‘PG Tips’ by British birders on the account of the pale tips to the tail. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Particularly interesting were the Pallas’ Reed Buntings. Peter Simon Pallas must have more birds named after him than any other ornithologist, at least as the colloquial names are concerned. Three races occupy the boreal forest zone from north east Russia to the Pacific but the race lydiae occurs only around the Mongolian wetlands. With the increased amount of white in the wing and a very disjunct distribution it must be a candidate for splitting. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Of course it was the wildfowl and other wetland birds that were the main attraction around these lakes. We tend to associate Whooper Swans with northern climes as our wintering birds come from Iceland but here were breeding whoopers at the same latitude as Rome! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Bar-headed Geese are some of the highest flyers of all birds as they overfly the Himalayas at altitudes of 8000m+ to reach their winter grounds in northern India. Birds incredible ability to cope at altitude seems to have a very ancient origin. 250 million years ago all the continents came together to form Pangea, the resultant massive outpouring of volcanic rock and CO2 at the end of the Permian period caused the greatest mass extinction of all time with 95% of species dying out. Oxygen levels dropped to as low as 12% at sea level. One group of reptiles evolved a highly efficient gas exchange system in their lungs, they went on to become the dinosaurs and as O2 level rose again they were able to become massive due to their improved respiration allowing efficient oxygenation of all the tissues. Birds of course were an offshoot of the dinosaurs and after the next mass extinction 65 million years ago they diversified like never before. Other Permian reptile groups that maintained the inefficient earlier lung system became the mammals and eventually us. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Swan Geese are a rare and localised species seen In Mongolia and parts parts of China and south-east Russia.

 

Just as Greylag Geese are the wild origin of domestic geese so Swan Geese are the wild origin of the domesticated ‘Chinese goose’ (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

The widespread Ruddy Shelduck was plentiful. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We are used to seeing Goosander on large rivers rather than desert lakes. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There were plenty of Demoiselle Cranes in the area (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Waders included Greater Sandplovers although we couldn’t find any Lesser Sandplovers in spite of their specific name being mongolicus … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the more familiar Little Ringed Plover – usually abbreviated to LRP, was a regular site. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Baillon’s Crakes, here of the nominate race which might be a different species from the European ones, patrolled the lake edges. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

This photo allows for some size comparisons. The smaller birds are Common Terns, (here intergrades between our familiar red-billed birds and the eastern race longipennis). The large terns are the huge Caspian Terns but lauding over it all is the massive Pallas’ Gull – yet another species (the 5th in this post alone) that has been named after PSP. The gull asleep in the middle is Mongolian Gull a somewhat variable taxon that no one really knows what to do with.

 

But probably the most sought after bird on these lakes (except perhaps Relict Gull, which we didn’t see here but did see at the start of the trip) is Asian Dowitcher. I have seen this rare wader a few times in the wintering areas or on migration but this was the first time I’ve seen it in breeding plumage or in numbers – we had 45 in total.

 

Although its head shape is similar to its North American cousins, this is a bigger bird, more godwit sized and has a striking white underwing. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Well it was time for us to leave the bird rich although windy lakes and head for the Khangai Mountains. On route we stopped at the town of Bayankhonogor to restock and had our picnic lunch. As well as it being the first town we had seen for eight days it was our first tarmac road for eight days as well.

 

As we turned off the road and headed into the mountains we passed the Buddhist monastery of Erdenesogt.

 

Birds regularly seen in the uplands included Red-billed Chough … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… Upland Buzzard (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… and Saker Falcons, regrettably a declining species due to trapping for falconry … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the pretty little Mongolian Finch (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We arrived in the Khangai Mountains in the late afternoon and set up camp in this pass. Hume’s Leaf Warblers and Ortolan Buntings serenaded us that evening.

 

Local yak herders came by on horseback. Much stock herding is now done by motorbike so it was nice to see that the traditional approach is still upheld in some areas.

 

Some came over to see what we were up to and Liz asked if she could have a photo with them. They insisted she get on one of the horses.

 

Birds in the area included the widespread Common Rock Thrush, which breeds in the mountains of Europe as well as Asia … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the pretty Eversmann’s Redstart (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Probably the best bird in this area was the lovely Asian Rosy Finch. This is a different form to those I’ve seen in Japan or in the the Aleutian Islands and is good ‘insurance’ against a future split (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

The Rosy Finch was seen at the scenic White Rock pass.

 

 

We still hadn’t seen the elusive White-throated Bush Chat and we were running out of options. János suggested another mountain range to the north-west and so we headed in that direction. That, the grassy plains of Hustai NP and our return to the Khentii Mountains will be the subject of the final post in this series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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