Mongolia part 4: Barig Mountains, Sangiin Dalai Nuur, Hustai National Park, Khentii Mountains and Ulaanbaatar- 1st – 5th June 2018   Leave a comment

For this 4th and final part of the trip I’ve uploaded photos from the Barig Mountains (near to the Khangai range, Hustai NationalPark, the Khentii Mountains and Ulaanbaatar.

 

A very roughly drawn map of our route. With few roads to follow the lines on the map are only approximate. Post 1 covered from Ulaanbaatar (UB) to the Khentii Mountains, back to UB and south as far as the red dot. Post 2 covered the journey south and then west as far as the next red dot. Post 3 covered the Altai and Bodj Mountains, the intervening lowlands and the Khangai Mountains by the next red dot. This final post covers the nearby Barig Mountains, Sangiin Dalai Nuur, Hustai NP due west of UB and a return visit to the Khentii Mountains.

 

As I wrote in my last post we managed to see our target Asian Rosy Finch at White Rocks Pass (in this photo) quite quickly so with some time on our hands we headed to the nearby Barig range in the hope we might find the rare White-throiated (or Hodgson’s) Bush Chat.

 

We arrived in the early evening and set up camp in this valley. A couple of sheepdogs from a dwelling about a mile away came over. They were no trouble and hung about for the evening. All was quiet during the night until the early hours when the dogs went ballistic. We think a Wolf may have passed nearby.

 

Surprisingly the minibuses just drove up the mountain, it was incredible how they manged to get over the rocks. It was a bit like driving to the top of Cairngorm from the ski lift car park. Eventually they couldn’t get any further and we hiked the last bit. Unfortunately the weather was turning and we didn’t get the panoramic views we enjoyed at the other mountain ranges.

 

The habitat was the same as in the Bogd Mountains a few days ago, rounded boulders covered with orange lichen and like the Bogd we found Water Pipits on the rocks but no Bush Chats. They must have been held up on migration from their wintering areas in northern India.

 

We also had good views of Siberian/Stejneger’s Stonechats. The recent separation of these two species on genetic grounds has been problematic for birders. Subtle differences can be seen in 1st winter or fresh autumn plumages but these are hard to detect in worn breeding plumage. The balance of probability is that these birds south of the boreal zone are Siberian Stonechats whereas the ones we saw in the Khentii were Stejnegers. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We arrived at Sagiin Dalai Nuur in the later afternoon. The wind was still strong and the terrain, mini sand-dunes like a never ending vista of molehills, was most uncomfortable to drive on.

 

Flocks of White-winged Terns flew back and forth just above the ground …

 

… and a number of Steppe Eagles hunted the omnipresent Brandt’s Voles. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

In the evening the sun came out and gave good light for photographing species like Mongolian Lark (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… or this Asian Short-toed lark. I included this photo in the last post in error. Although we also saw this species at the lakes further south János took this photo at Sangiin Dalai Nuur. More importantly we had our only sighting of the recently split Mongolian Short-toed Lark (split from Greater STL) at this sight but no photos were taken. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We saw a great range of species here ranging from the graceful Demoiselle Crane to Corsac Fox, Asiatic Dowitcher, Oriental Plover, Red-necked Stint …(copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and the familiar, yet always graceful Pied Avocet. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

It was a difficult night, the wind buffeted the tents and soon it started to rain heavily. The next morning we tried birding in the lee of the mess tent and added Red-throated Diver and Slavonian Grebe to the list.

 

Taking down and stowing wet tents in a gale wasn’t easy but had to be done.

 

As we left we came across an enormous herd of domestic horses. This is just a small part of the herd. Although Mongolia only has about a population of 1.5 million away from the capital the livestock numbers reach close to 70 million. Much of the natural pasture is severely overgrazed and as you can see the wind whips the exposed soil away creating this pink tinged sky.

 

We had quite a way to go but at least we were now on tarmac roads! In the early evening we arrived at Hustai Nation Park, a short distance due west of Ulaanbataar. We were planning to camp just outside the park gates but when we saw there was a ger camp we pleaded with János to allow us to stay there as much of our gear plus the tents were still wet. Fortunately he agreed and gers were available. As you can see the bad weather that we experienced today was just clearing as the sun set.

 

The weather was fine the next morning when we explored the grassy slopes of Hustai National Park. A remnant of the once extensive natural grasslands that covered this area.

 

There were several raptors in this area such as this fine Saker …

 

… impressive Cinereous Vultures (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and this poorly photographed Golden Eagle.

 

Passerines like this Meadow Bunting were seen in the bushes (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Our (or at least my) main target was mammalian and no it wasn’t these endearing Tarbogan Marmots.

 

We were looking for the legendary Przewalski’s Horses but these aren’t they! Disappointingly our first sighting turned out to be feral domesticated horses. That was quite troubling because they shouldn’t be in the NP. The possibility of contaminating the gene stock of the Przewalski’s exists and worryingly the left hand individual had a short stiff mane like the wild animals. I’d have any such animals rounded up and released well away from the NP.

 

I’ve seen plenty of Red Deer in my life but never seen them running past the moon.

 

A bit further on we found the ‘real McCoy’ Przewalski’s Horses feeding with Red Deer. Why such excitement over a horse. Well, I’ve looking forwards to seeing Mongolia’s birds for a decade or two, I’ve been looking forwards to seeing Przewalski’s since I was about 10!

 

Przewalski’s Horse is the only true ‘wild horse’ all others such as the mustang of North America or the brumby of Australia are feral domesticated horses. The species became extinct in the wild in the late 60s due to hunting. A number of individuals existed in zoos but after WW2 there were only 9 in captivity. A individual captured from the wild in the 50s was used for breeding and brought in much needed genetic diversity. By the end of the 90s some 1500 individuals existed and after re-introduction programs over 400 now exist in Mongolia with a smaller number in China.

 

With cave paintings from Palaeolithic Europe of stocky horses with upright manes and muscular cheeks dating back 35,000 years ago or more it is tempting to conclude that Przewalski’s were the ancestors of modern horses. In fact the two lineages diverged over 160,000 years ago, long before modern humans had left Africa. In fact the ancestor of the modern horse is more likely to have been the Tarpan which went extinct in Poland in the 19th C. Photo credit: French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Regional Direction for Cultural Affairs, Rhône-Alpes region, Regional Department of Archaeology.

 

Another photograph of this magnificent  (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Now it was back to ‘civilisation’ and the traffic of Ulaanbataar. It took quite a few hours to cross the city from the west to the east but eventually we made our way back to the Khentii Mountains and camped at the same site as we did on day two of our trip.

 

There was no need to climb up to look for Capercailles so we checked riverine forest and low scrub for two late arriving migrants, Yellow-breasted Bunting and Chines Bush Warbler.

 

We certainly added quite a few species to our trip list, many species had arrived during the last two weeks but how ever hard we tried we couldn’t find our two targets. This was likely due to different reasons. the Bush Warbler is a very late arrival from its wintering grounds and by the middle of June would have been common. The tour could have been run later but we would have had no chance for the Capercailles. The Yellow-breasted Bunting was absent for a very different reason. Once abundant it has now become Critically Endangered due to mass trapping for food in China.

 

Among the birds we did see were Greater Spotted Eagle (the most ‘fingered’ of the ‘aquila-type’ eagles) …

 

… Common Rosefinch …

 

… a female Daurian Redstart …

 

… and lots of Olive-backed Pipits … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and the inevitable Daurian Jackdaws (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Eventually we headed back towards Ulaanbataar we watched the locals crossing the Tuul River …

 

… and then did it ourselves.

 

Our final camp of the trip was in this grassy meadow beside a large rock outcrop.

 

We searched in vain for Chinese Bush Warbler but had to content ourselves with more Red-throated Thrushes just two weeks ago that had been my number one wanted bird) …

 

… Two-barred Warblers …

 

… and Pallas’ Leaf Warblers. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

János suggested a last spotlighting session but we declined as we were tired, so he sat alone by the mess tent and spotlighted a Wolf trotting away into the forest! The following morning those up before it got light were treated to a Grey Nightjar but I just heard it from the tent. Here is most of the group for a final photo with János second from the left and Terbish on the far-right. The three drivers and two cooks, whose names I can’t remember did us proud with excellent driving and meals throughout.

 

The trip wasn’t quite over, we returned to Ulaanbataar for a final night and after 16 nights under canvas enjoyed the luxury of a hotel with all the amenities . However there was still time for some final birding the next day.

 

Compared to the natural wonders of the deserts, mountains, steppes and forest of Mongolia navigating the industrial heart of Ulaanbataar was a bit of a come down.

 

Our destination was an area of scrub and ponds which was rapidly disappearing due to development and has probably vanished completely by now.

 

Among the birds we found was this beautiful male Long-tailed Rosefinch. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We also found Azure-winged Magpies. This species has, or rather had, an unusual distribution – eastern Asia and Iberia. I was once told by an eminent ornithologist that this was due to Portuguese sailors bringing them back from Macao and releasing them at home. However sub-fossil remains in Spain from long before humans existed in Europe and differences in plumage and DNA showed that hypothesis to be invalid. They are now treated as two species. The Asian form keeps the name Azure-winged Magpie whilst the Iberian one is know as Iberian Magpie. I was in Spain earlier this year and all the clients still confusingly called the Iberian one Azure-winged Magpie. It would have been better the world checklists had used the rather longer Iberian A-WM and Asian A-WM. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Well it took a while but we eventually found a singing male Yellow-breasted Bunting. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

This species used to have a breeding range from Finland to the Pacific but now few are found west of Lake Baikal. In the 90s I saw 150+ in eastern Russia and in 2005 100 in Cambodia and in 1993 I even saw one in Dorset but sightings are few and far between now. The reason for the decline is mass trapping for food in China. Apparently its the done thing to knock off work and pop down to a local bar and eat a few ‘rice birds’ which means Yellow-breasted Buntings or related species. This species is echoing the Passenger Pigeon, a once abundant species hunted to extinction for food in just a couple of decades. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

I’ll finish these four posts with one of my favourite mammal from the trip which I’ve wanted to see since about 1960 when I was given a Time-Life book as a present – the enigmatic Przewalski’s Horse.

 

So concludes my trip to Mongolia, some 228 bird species seen but only five ‘lifers’ (out of a possible seven) Altai Snowcock, Relict Gull, Koslov’s Accentor, the recently splt Mongolian Short-toed Lark and Red-throated Thrush. Even the stunning Black-billed Capercaille I had seen before briefly in Kamchatka. But the scenery, the great mammals and the adventure of travelling and camping in such a wilderness was outstanding. If you’ve travelled a bit in the Palaearctic then Mongolia won’t do wonders for your life list but will be one of the best travel experiences of your life.

 

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