Archive for the ‘Mongolia’ Tag

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 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.


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



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



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


IMG_1081 tent with a view

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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


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



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


IMG_2404 Yoliam NP at dawn

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


IMG_2441 Yoliam NP

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


IMG_2446 Yoliam NP

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



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



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


IMG_2436 WW Snowfinch

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



… Brown Accentor …



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


IMG_2462 Lammergeier

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


IMG_1124 Terbish & Nastaa in Yoliam NP

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


IMG_1125 Yoliam NP

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



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


IMG_1127 buses arriving Yoliam NP

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


IMG_2581 Yoliam NP + yaks

Later passing herds of grazing yaks …


IMG_1129 Yoliam NP

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


IMG_2541 Yuliam NP gorge

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


IMG_2517 Citrine Wagtail

… a male Citrine Wagtail …


IMG_2498 Mongolian Finches

… localised Mongolian Finches …



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


IMG_2567 Wallcreeper male

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



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


IMG_2572 Hayl's Central Asian Viper

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


IMG_2603 Oriental Plover site

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



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



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


IMG_1163 vew from the bus

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


IMG_1144 inside a ger-e

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



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


IMG_2637 a ger camp + dunes

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



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


IMG_2615 hoope, saxual tree and dunes

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



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


IMG_2648 camels

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



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


IMG_2671 desert sunset

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



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


IMG_2690 campsite 6

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


IMG_2675 desert plants

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


IMG_2678 Grey Wagtail

Along the stream we found familiar birds like Grey Wagtail …


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


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


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

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)


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)