Archive for the ‘Cinereous Vulture’ Tag

Southern Spain – Lynx special: 5th-11th January 2020.   Leave a comment

Spain is my most visited country outside of the UK. Previously have made 14 trips there: two to Mallorca, three to the Canaries, two to the north and north-east and two to the south or south-east. In addition I’ve made five visits to Bilbao, return boat trips from Portsmouth, mainly for seawatching and cetaceans in the Bay of Biscay.

However I’d never been there in winter and although I had seen the ‘avian specials’ there were a few that I wanted better views of or ones I had only seen before they were split from other more widespread forms. But most importantly, there was a mammal that I really wanted to see, the endangered Iberian Lynx.

Although my other trips to Spain were arranged by myself, on this occasion we opted to go with BirdQuest. Some of my friends had tried to see the lynx, sometimes with success, sometimes without, but I knew the BirdQuest leader Pete Morris well and he has an excellent record of finding the target species, so joining him seemed the best plan. Margaret was keen to come as well, and we decided to add on a number of days on our own at the end to explore Madrid (which will be the subject of the next post).

Pete is also an excellent photographer and uses 1st class equipment. He provided a CD of photos to the clients, so with permission I’ve used many of them in this post as they are superior to mine. All his photos are marked ‘©PM/BQ’ ie ‘copyright Pete Morris/BirdQuest’. The remainder, unless marked otherwise are mine.

 

After meeting at Madrid airport we drove south, stopping at Castillo de Calatrava la Nueva, from where we had this great view and saw species like … ©PM/BQ

 

this rapidly disappearing Black-winged Kite … ©PM/BQ

 

… the common (and truly wild, unlike in the UK) Red-legged Partridge … ©PM/BQ

 

… the widespread Black Redstart (this one’s a female) … ©PM/BQ

 

… gorgeous Black Wheatears … ©PM/BQ

 

… Thekla’s Lark, which can be told from the similar Crested Lark by its preference for rocky habitat, different song and a shorter bill with a curved culmen. ©PM/BQ

 

The big surprise though was finding an Alpine Accentor which usually winters at higher altitudes. My first Alpine Accentor was an even bigger surprise, I was at Portland in April 1978 on one of my first ever visits when someone said ‘have you see the accentor?’. I had no idea what he was talking about but he directed me to a point on the the cliff edge where Dorset’s first Alpine Accentor was feeding – my first UK rarity and there was no body else watching it but me! ©PM/BQ

 

After dark we arrived at our rural hostel in the Sierra de Andújar, so it was the following day before we discovered what it looked like. ©PM/BQ

 

Our next couple of days were spent along the La Lancha road in the Sierra de Andújar.

 

There were plenty of Red Deer visible along with some Fallow Deer (of true wild origin here unlike in the UK) … ©PM/BQ

 

… and I was delighted to see some Mouflon, a species of wild sheep that was a lifer for me. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course many of the species we saw were familiar from home like Dartford Warbler (that breeds just up the road from my house), one of the few Sylvia warblers that doesn’t migrate south in winter.

 

Also present were Long-tailed Tits, here of the rather different race irbil. ©PM/BQ

 

Firecrests have become quite common in the south of the UK in recent years, no doubt as a result of global warming. We had fantastic views of several along the road. ©PM/BQ

 

Along with the closely related Goldcrest, Firecrests are the smallest European birds. ©PM/BQ

 

Overhead we saw good numbers of Common Ravens. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course there were Spanish specialities too. Mainland Spain (away from the Canaries and Balearics) has no endemic birds, but there are four that are endemic, or nearly so, to the Iberian Peninsula. The first is Iberian Grey Shrike.

 

Pete’s photo shows the pinkish tinge to the flanks well. Originally a race of Great Grey Shrike, the southern group of races (from Iberia and the Canaries across N Africa and the Middle East to Central Asia) were split off as ‘Southern Grey Shrike’, but this did not agree with DNA findings. More recently the Iberian form has been split as a ‘stand alone’ species and the other southern forms lumped back into Great Grey Shrike – although I doubt if this is the last word on the subject. See my posts on India and Mongolia for more. ©PM/BQ

 

The second Iberian endemic is Iberian Magpie. Birds very similar to this are found in Japan, eastern Russia and eastern China. It used to be thought that Portuguese navigators returned from the Far East with these birds which then escaped and established a population in Iberia. That idea was quashed with the discovery of 40,000 year old bones in a cave in southern Spain. DNA evidence has shown that the two populations diverged long enough ago to be considered separate species. ©PM/BQ

 

However I would query if Iberian Magpie is the best English name. Several of the clients thought that when Iberian Magpie was called they were referring to this bird above. Having heard something about Eurasian Magpie being split (that’s the Maghreb population not the Iberian one, although a different race these are decidedly the same species as the one we get in the UK) they thought this was the bird being discussed Wouldn’t it be better to call Iberian Magpie, Iberian Azure-winged Magpie and the other species Asian Azure-winged Magpie. OK, its a bit of a mouthful but the Iberian/Asian bit would be dropped for field use and there would be no confusion. ©PM/BQ

 

Picus viridis sharpei 033.jpg

The third Iberian endemic is Iberian Green Woodpecker. I have seen this species on all my visits to southern Spain but this is the first time I’ve seen it since it was split from our familiar European Green Woodpecker. Neither Pete or I got a decent photo of this bird so I’ve taken one from Wikipedia by Luis García

 

But the fourth endemic was the one I most wanted to see, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Back in 1984, before it was split from Eastern Imperial Eagle, I saw it twice – distantly in Monfragüe and close, but briefly though the trees in Doñana National Park. There is no doubt I’d seen the species but I wanted better views and that’s what we got, we could watch this individual for ages until … ©PM/BQ

 

… it took off and flew right over head. We saw this species several times over three days but it’s not clear just how many individuals we saw. ©PM/BQ

 

Also seen were a number of Eurasian Crag Martins … ©PM/BQ

 

… and as the weather warmed up so the vultures appeared. Up to 40 Eurasian Griffon Vultures put in an appearance (anyone whose read my account of our trip to India will know there has been a catastrophic decline in vulture numbers in Asia, but as yet Spain seems unaffected) … ©PM/BQ

 

… as well as a number of Cinereous Vultures.

 

Originally known as Black Vulture, this species isn’t as Pete’s photo shows, black but rather a greyish-brown. The name Black Vulture is also occupied by a quite unrelated, but mega-common New World species. There was a misguided attempt to change the name to ‘Monk Vulture’ but a change to Cinereous seems a good idea all round. ©PM/BQ

 

We’d had a great first day in La Lancha but no luck with lynx. So it was a cold, early start the next day.

 

As the sun came out there were great views over the wooded hills …

 

… as the early morning mist cleared.

 

Eventually we had a distant view of the Iberian Lynx. Although too far for decent photos we could a watch a pair for an extended period through the scope.

 

We also had good views of a closer pair wandering through the scrub but all the photos ended up being rear-end shots. The reason that the period from Christmas to early in January is the best to see the lynx is because the females are on-heat and the males follow them around wherever they go and as such they are (unlike other times of year) visible in daylight.

 

The group was pretty strung out along when Pete found a pair right by the road. Just about everyone got there in time before they skulked off into cover. From Wikipedia: The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus) is a wild cat species endemic to the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In the 20th century, the Iberian Lynx population had declined because of overhunting and poaching, fragmentation of suitable habitats, as well as the decline in population of its main prey species, the European rabbit caused by myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. Fortunately, with protection the lynx seems to be making a slow recovery. ©PM/BQ

 

We also visited the nearby Jándula Reservoir. On the rocky scree above the dam we saw some Iberian Ibex, my third new mammal of the trip.

 

Whilst we were eating our picnic lunch a Black Stork flew over, a most unexpected find in January when they are supposed to be in Africa. ©PM/BQ

 

Next to the dam there were a couple of tunnels, one for the road, the other it would appear, as an overflow conduit in case of flooding.

 

In the roof of the tunnel we could see a number of roosting bats inside crevices. This is a Daubenton’s Myotis. ©PM/BQ

 

On the fourth day of the trip we left early (well not that early, about 0700 as it didn’t get light until well after 0800) and headed north to the plains south of Cuidad Real. There was still a frost on the ground when we arrived and it was bitterly cold, but there was no sign of rain, on the plain or elsewhere. ©PM/BQ

 

This is the sort of habitat loved by bustards and sandgrouse, open fields without hedges and only the occasional tree visible.

 

Soon we located flocks of Little Bustards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. ©PM/BQ

 

We followed the flocks down and tried to observe them on the ground. ©PM/BQ

 

The beautiful Little Bustards showed well in flight but were too elusive to photograph on the ground … ©PM/BQ

 

… however at least a few of the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse posed for photos. ©PM/BQ

 

Even more elusive were the Great Bustards. These magnificent birds still occur in good numbers of the Spanish steppes. ©PM/BQ

 

An adult male Great Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing in at up to 5.8kg. For the last 15 years or more a reintroduction program has being trying to produce a viable population of these magnificent birds on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and in 2019 it was announced that they had succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population of over 100 birds. I have been to Salisbury Plain a number of times to see them and the odd bird has reached Dorset in winter. Some birders are opposed to this reintroduction, something I don’t understand at all. Mankind was responsible for their destruction, the last Wiltshire bird was shot in 1832, and mankind should, if possible, be responsible for correcting past mistakes. ©PM/BQ

 

There are few more thrilling sites in European birding than seeing a Great Bustard in flight. ©PM/BQ

 

The following day we were back in the Sierra de Andújar where we saw more Iberian Lynx, including a very close female with cubs that were almost invisible in deep vegetation (I never did see the cubs) and explored some damp meadows where Hoopoes and Mistle Thrushes could be found.

 

In the late afternoon we explored the river around Encinarejo. ©PM/BQ

 

A few birds were seen around the river, such as this Common Kingfisher but I missed the flyover Goshawk … ©PM/BQ

 

However we did well for herps seeing a Horseshoe Whip Snake hiding in a rock crevice (I actually flushed it and saw it enter the crevice), this Vaucher’s Wall Lizard. ©PM/BQ …

 

… and this Stripeless Tree Frog (which seems to have a fairly obvious stripe down it’s side!) ©PM/BQ

 

We stayed by the river until sun set in the hope of seeing Tawny Owl, which we heard but didn’t see despite putting a lot of effort in. Views of the moon reflected in the water made it all worthwhile.

 

The following day we packed up and left Sierra de Andújar and headed for Laguna de Navaseca not that far from Cuidad Real. The commonest bird was Greylag Goose, not the feral ones that we see in Dorset but wild birds from central Europe here for the winter.

 

Half a dozen scruffy immature Greater Flamingos were also seen … ©PM/BQ

 

… along with a few Western Swamphens (once lumped in with Grey-headed Swamphen shown in my recent posts about India) … ©PM/BQ

 

… the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilt …

 

… and a few Black-necked Grebes. In the UK, although a few pairs breed we usually only see this species offshore where they occur regularly around Poole and Weymouth. ©PM/BQ

 

There were two ‘sort after’ ducks on the lagoon, a Ferruginous Duck which although visible never lifted its head up and several White-headed Ducks. ©PM/BQ

 

White-headed Ducks (WHD) has an interesting history. Although the eastern populations seemed secure, the Spanish population was under severe threat from hunting and by 1977 only 22 remained. Action by Spanish conservationists has seen their numbers rise to 2,500. Then a threat from the UK was realised. The related North American species Ruddy Duck had formed a feral population in England, originally from a few birds that escaped from Slimbridge and were now wintering in Spain and hybridising with WHD. It was clear that if nothing was done then the western population of WHDs would disappear into a hybrid swarm. Then feral Ruddy Ducks were found with WHDs in Turkey so even the eastern population was under threat. Under EU legislation the UK had no option but to cull our Ruddy Ducks. Yes, I miss seeing the delightful Ruddy Duck back home and regret they had to be killed, but prefer to see the bigger picture – that the global conservation of a threatened species (WHD) takes precedence over the enjoyment of a few UK birders who want to see a bird (Ruddy Duck) that is after all abundant in its native America. See here As an aside this brings up an interesting question, WHDs in the UK have always been considered escapes and indeed some of them are, I’ve posted images on this blog of one from St James Park, London that clearly falls into that category. Now when Ruddy Ducks were common there were a number of apparently wild WHDs discovered with them in England. The logical explanation isn’t that there was a mass break out of captive birds but the two species had paired up in Spain and the WHDs had migrated north with their Ruddy mates in spring. As soon as Ruddy Ducks were culled then WHD occurrences stopped. A strange co-incidence or should WHD be added to the British List as truly wild bird? ©PM/BQ

 

The margins of the lagoon yielded three top-class passerines – Bluethroat which Pete managed to photograph … ©PM/BQ

 

…plus Penduline Tit (photo by Martin Mecnarowski) …

 

… and Moustached Warbler – which neither of us did. (Photo by Marco Valentini)

 

Nearby we saw large flocks, possibly totalling over a thousand, of wintering Common Cranes. ©PM/BQ

 

A couple of Marsh Harriers may have spooked … ©PM/BQ

 

… as some of them soon took to the air.

 

Later we visited an area where White Storks were already building their nests. I was of the understanding that wild populations (as opposed to some of the northern European reintroduction schemes) were totally migratory and the only birds to remain in Europe throughout the winter were birds too sick to make the long journey to tropical Africa. I was clearly wrong. ©PM/BQ

 

Having dipped on Eurasian Eagle Owl at the start of the trip we were keen to visit Pete’s back up site. There was no sign of it until it was almost dark and then it appeared on the top of the crags and gave great views in the fading light. ©PM/BQ

 

We were still enjoying the deep hoots of the Eagle Owl when the moon rose above the cliff. We then headed for our hotel in Daimiel, a short distance from Cuidad Real where we were two days earlier. You may wonder why the trip wasn’t arranged around four consecutive nights in the Sierra de Andújar. and two in the Cuidad Real area. The answer was simple, the main purpose of the tour was to see the lynx and if weather or other circumstances had prevented us from doing so earlier in the week then then the itinerary would have to flexible enough to accommodate an extented stay at La Lancha.

 

On the last morning of the trip we spent several hours driving to Pinares de Peguerinos, an area of mountainous forests north-west of Madrid.

 

Here we expanded our list with birds like Common Crossbill … ©PM/BQ

 

… and the lovely European Crested Tit. ©PM/BQ

 

This species has a strange distribution occurring in coniferous forests from Spain, through the Alps, the Balkans, and northern and eastern  Europe with an outpost in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. Thus to an English birder it seems strange to see them as far south as Spain. As you can see from the photo, the beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed all week remained until the last day. ©PM/BQ

 

But the bird we most wanted to see in these forests was Citril Finch. I saw this species in the mid 80s in the Austrian Alps but views were brief, then again in Andorra in 2006 but have never seen it as well as this. ©PM/BQ

 

Well all that remained was to drive back to Madrid airport. There Margaret and I said our goodbyes to the group and got a taxi to our hotel for the cultural part of the trip. The BirdQuest group at Pinares de Peguerinos, Far left co-leader Dave Farrow, Margaret is in the middle dressed in black and I’m on the far-right (my location, not my politics!). ©PM/BQ

 

But it would only be fair to end with the best sighting of the trip – the superb Iberian Lynx. ©PM/BQ

 

It had been an unusual trip, the first of the many BirdQuests I’ve done without a life-bird. But I had three new mammals including one that falls into ‘mega category’. In addition I had my best ever views of a number of Spanish specialities. We both thought it was a most enjoyable trip.

The next post will deal with our three-day extension; our visit to Madrid and Toledo.

 

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.

 

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)

demoiselle_crane2_JO

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)

Western India part 3: Desert National Park and Jaisalmer – 16th-18th January 2016   Leave a comment

This post covers our time at Jaisalmer. visiting the Desert National Park (DNP), the Fossil Wood Park and the ancient citadel.

 

IMG_2800 Hotel foyer

We had three nights at this very attractive hotel. We checked in during the afternoon and had time to spend a couple of hours in DNP before dark.

IMG_2699 Desert NP

Much of the DNP is what you would expect, that is desert; either low desert scrub, arid grassland or, in a few places, bare sand dunes.

IMG_2696 cattle in Desert NP

However there seems to be very little control over the use of the park and a large proportion has been taken over by pastoralists or is used for agriculture. The most famous inhabitant of the park is the Great Indian Bustard, a bird that once occurred over much of peninsular India but is now down to a few hundred individuals, mainly in DNP (plus one site in Gujarat where breeding has not been recorded for decades).

IMG_2823 turbines and pylons

If any Great Indian Bustards attempt to leave the Park they will be in trouble, on one side is the Pakistan border where they are likely to be shot for sport and the other three sides are ringed with up to a thousand wind turbines and associated electric pylons, a death trap for a large, heavy flying bustard.

IMG_2666 Stoliczka's Bush-chat

Another rare inhabitant of DNP is Stoliczka’s Bush-chat which we saw very well.

IMG_2674 BC Sparrow-lark

Naturally we saw many open country birds including flocks of Black-crowned Sparrow-larks ….

IMG_2686 Bimac

…. and the much larger Bimaculated Lark, which is showing its maculations off rather nicely in this pose. By far the commonest lark was Greater Short-toed Lark which occurred in the flocks numbering in the thousands but all remained distant and unapproachable.

IMG_2790 LB Pipit

Pipits were represented by the more familiar Tawny Pipit and somewhat similar Long-billed Pipit (above).

IMG_2769 Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatears were if not common, at least regular. This species differs from the female of our familiar Northern Wheatear by its larger size, more upright stance, larger amount of black in the tail and the wing coverts concolourous with the mantle making the alula appear more obvious. Although I have seen many Isabellines wintering or on passage in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and breeding in Central Asia I have always dipped when attempting to twitch vagrants in the UK.

IMG_2695 Desert Wheatear

Desert Wheatears were commoner than  Isabellines and although this shot is not as sharp as I would like, it does show off the ID features quite well, including the all black tail.

IMG_2965 Southern Grey Shrike

Most shrikes were Southern Greys (race laharota) ….

IMG_2729 Daurian Shrike

…. but we also saw a number of ‘isabelline’ shrikes. It is claimed that the word isabelline, referring to a pale yellow-brown or creamy-brown colour arises from a vow that Isabella of Castille made in 1491 to not change her clothes until the (eight-month) siege of Grenada was accomplished. Isabelline Shrikes are usually split into two species but the vernacular names are somewhat confusing. I prefer to call the more westerly phoenicuroides Turkestan Shrike and the easterly isabellinus Daurian Shrike (above) and use the name Isabelline just for the combined species. Bizarrely it is the more easterly taxon that occurs as a vagrant to Europe. Phoenicuroides winters mainly in Africa, isabellinus in the Middle East and India

IMG_2969 Laggar

There were quite a few raptors in the park, including this Lagger Falcon ….

IMG_2780 Long-legged Buzzard

…. Long-legged Buzzard (here a pale morph individual) ….

IMG_2725 Shikra

…. the little Shrika, a species of sparrowhawk ….

IMG_2773 Black Vulture

…. and the huge Cinereous Vulture. Often described as a flying barn door, this impressive bird is often called Black Vulture in the UK but this invites confusion with the well-known and ubiquitous Black Vulture of the New World. Cinereous, meaning ash-grey, isn’t strictly correct, they are more of a dark brownish-grey colour but it is a lot better than the dreadful ‘Monk Vulture’ that was proposed by ‘Dr Shamrock’ a decade or so ago. Cinereous Vultures are one of the biggest of the Old World raptors.

IMG_2707 White-eared Bulbul

Other birds seen included White-eared Bulbul which is slowly spreading westwards into the Western Palaearctic ….

IMG_2986 CCC

…. and after much searching and at the 11th hour, a group of Cream-coloured Coursers.

IMG_2741 Indian Bustard model

But in spite of much searching it seemed like the only Great Indian Bustard we were going to see was the giant model outside the park HQ. I was in the lucky position of having seen the species well in 1986, a time when they were much commoner, but to the rest of the group this was the raison d’être of the trip. we later found out that a rival tour group had to extend their time at DNP to three days in order to find any, something that would have annoyed me as it would have meant dipping elsewhere.

IMG_2765 Bustards poor

Mid afternoon we had a lucky break, a local birder had found a group quite some distance from where we we searching. We got there as soon as we could but the heat haze was dreadful and the birds just walked away if we tried to approach any closer. We had acceptable views of nine females, but as you can see no quality photographs.

Great Indian Bustard Arpit Deomurari Gujarat IBC

As a result I have posted this excellent photo from the Internet Bird Collection (taken in Gujarat the only other area to have any remaining Great Indian Bustards) by Arpit Deomurari.

IMG_2841 Fossil Wood Park

The following morning we visited the neighbouring Fossil Wood Park. The structures in the photo are shelters protecting fossilised tree trunks dating from the Jurassic period, 180-130 mya.

IMG_2829 Fossil Wood Park

Unfortunately in an attempt to protect them from theft or vandalism the fossil trunks are enclosed in wire cages.

IMG_2817 Desert Lark

Of course we were here for the birding and as the fossil wood was on rocky slopes we saw a number of species that were absent (or harder to see) in DNP, including Desert Lark – a bird that occurs as multiple subspecies, each one with plumage exactly matching the base colour of its desert habitat.

IMG_3549 Red-tailed Wheatear

We had excellent views of ‘red-tailed wheatear’. Like Isabelline Shrike this has been recently split into two species, the westerly xanthopyrmna Kurdish Wheatear and this one, chrysopygia which sometimes retains the combined name of Red-tailed Wheatear, but I prefer the vernacular name of Persian Wheatear as it immediately identifies which is the western and which is the eastern species.

IMG_3463 CB Sandgrouse pair

We also had some good views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse making good use of what little shade was on offer.

IMG_2847 Jaisalmer

As we returned to Jaisalmer we could see the ancient fort, one of the largest fortifications in the world, rising above the plain.

IMG_2860 Jaisalmer

We had a tour around the ancient town during the hot part of the day near the ‘Bloody Good View’ hotel ….

IMG_2858 Jaisalmer

…. made our way past the shop selling ‘child’ beer (? chilled beer) ….

IMG_2867 Jaisalmer fort

…. and made our way to the ancient citadel that dominates Jaisalmer.

IMG_2868 Jaisalmer fort

Built in 1156 but damaged and rebuilt many times during its turbulent history, the fort consists of three massive concentric walls.

IMG_2873 acrobat

This young girl was showing off her acrobatic skills for the tourists.

IMG_2910 Jaisalmer

Then we entered the ancient, narrow, medieval streets of the old town.

IMG_2907 Jaisalmer

There were more cows and dogs in the road than vehicles ….

IMG_2901 Jaisalmer

…. and some cows had learnt that they could go from house to house in the hope of some spare chapatis.

IMG_2940 Jaisalmer

These ancient merchants houses or havelis have incredible stone carved facades, this one took 50 years to complete  ….

IMG_2924 Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer grew rich on the taxes imposed on passing caravans during the spice trade and this shows in the wonderful buildings …..

IMG_2917 Jaisalmer

I took loads of photos of these architectural wonders but can only room to show a few here.

IMG_2927 photography prohibited

Say no more!

IMG_2626 Desert sunset

So I’ll end this post on the Desert National Park with a desert sunset.