Archive for the ‘Tuul River’ 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 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)