Archive for the ‘Gobi Altai’ Tag

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

mongolian_grebil1_JO

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)

 

brown_shrike_JO

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)

 

marbled_polecat1_JO

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

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.

 

horned_brandts_lark1_JO

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_wheatear_JO

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

 

rubythroat_resting_JO

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

 

pallas_sandgrouse_JO

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)

 

pallas_sandgrouse1_JO

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

 

mongolian_gazelle_JO

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)

 

himalayan_griffon_JO

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.

 

argalis_JO

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)

 

siberian_ibex1_JO

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_accentor1_JO

… Brown Accentor …

 

isabelline_wheatear_JO

… 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 …

 

kozlov_accentor_JO

… 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_bunting_JO

… 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.

 

pallas_pika_JO

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 …

 

oriental_plover_male_JO

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

 

oriental_plover_nesting_JO

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.

 

long_eared_hedgehog_JO

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.

 

asian_desert_warbler_JO

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 …

 

saxaul_sparrow1_JO

… 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.

 

landscape6_JO

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’!

 

siberian_jerboa2_JO

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.