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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2019 Narrative

Our first morning was spent along the Tuul River just west of Ulaanbaatar, birding and waiting for the last arrivals to join. This mix of poplars and willows along the Tuul river usually makes for a great introduction to Mongolian birding, and toady was no exception. Resident Long-tailed Rosefinches and Azure Tits delighted, along with migrant Little Buntings, Brown and Taiga Flycatchers, Amur Falcons, a rather retiring Siberian Rubythroat and a stunning male Pallas’s Reed Bunting. In a change to our advertised itinerary, at short notice we had decided to forgo another night in ‘UB’ and head west early, taking in a night at the nearby Hustai NP. A nesting Saker on the way in was bookmarked for further views on the way out, but the main attraction here is the herd of reintroduced Przewalski’s Horses. Once extinct in the wild and down to small numbers in captivity, 12 viable females were reintroduced to Mongolia and the rest is history. Herds now exist in three locations, and Hustai is by far the most accessible. It’s not all about the ponies however, and we enjoyed great views of many Mongolian and Asian Short-toed Larks, Meadow Buntings, Blyth’s Pipits, Demoiselle Cranes and several raptor species including four Golden Eagles and a migrating flock of 43 Oriental Honey Buzzards. Our mammal list began too, with an inquisitive Least Weasel investigating the various Brandt’s Voles burrows, and Steppe Marmots calling from the hillsides.

Onwards to Bayan Nuur: A saline lake with some more freshwater marshes and reeds at its southern end, this site always promises and usually delivers. Investigating the marshes first, a pair of stately White-naped Cranes and a nesting pair of Whooper Swans immediately drew our attention, but several macronyx Eastern Yellow Wagtails and the distinctive and localised tytleri Barn Swallows entertained us while we had lunch, and it quickly became apparent that the reedbed held several lydiae Pallas’s Reed Buntings. This race is a local breeder and differs in plumage and breeding ecology to the more northerly breeding polaris birds, one of which we had seen previously as a migrant near UB. Perhaps it would be better named Mongolian Bunting, to reflect its breeding range? About 20 of them were in the reedbed, and we watched as some of them gained height and disappeared, although a further 20 or so were seen around the main lake later on. Larger waterfowl included several Swan Geese and Bar-headed Geese, both of which are major specialities of Mongolian wetlands. A group of snipe contained about nine ‘Swin-tails’, an awful name that combines Pintail and Swinhoe’s Snipes when they are not displaying and become basically unidentifiable in all but the most ideal of circumstances. Other waders including a flock of over 250 Temminck’s Stints on the main lake, along with several Long-toed and Little Stints. A stunning Spotted Redshank was a crowd pleaser, but the small flock of Lapland Buntings that were mobile around the marsh were more unexpected at the end of May. A second pair of White-naped Cranes and a pair of Common Cranes completed the day nicely. Our night at Bayan Nuur was also our first night camping, and we quickly became accustomed to the incredible food that our camp chef could produce. With large tepee tents and a separate dining tent, there was no real hardship about this camping! Also much in evidence here were Pere David’s Snowfinches, and during our drive the following day we estimated about 100 of these delightful small finches.

From Bayan Nuur we took a new direction for the tour and drove to Ugii Nuur (with its large flocks of Stejneger’s Scoters) before heading south to the ancient Mongolian capital, Karakorum. Here we took time to enjoy a bit of Mongolian history and culture before continuing to Arvaikheer for the night, our last in a ‘proper’ hotel until the end of the tour. A quick look in a local park produced migrant Taiga Flycatchers and Dusky Warblers before we headed southwest towards one of our main sites, the inland sea of Boon Tsagaan Nuur. The journey was broken by some very close and photogenic Greater Sand Plovers and then a pair of Pallas’s Sandgrouse. Hugely enigmatic to European birders, this area is consistently good for them and we saw a good number flying around the campsite and the lake over our two-night stay. The main attraction here is the huge Mongolian Gull colony and the birds that are subsequently attracted to it, including many Black-headed Gulls and, at this time of year, an occasional Relict Gull. After much searching we finally found a fine adult Relict and debated the finer points of small gull identification. One of the world’s rarest gulls, they used to breed here but now only pass through en route to colonies further west. While searching for the Relict Gull, we could still enjoy what else was on offer, and what a veritable smorgasbord it was. The marshes were alive with waders, and a flock of seven Asian Dowitchers feeding together was a definite highlight, although we were to log 18 by the days end. Broad-billed Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints and yet more Temminck’s Stints were seemingly everywhere, and we were pretty astounded by the numbers of Citrine Wagtails, logging around 200 at the checklist, including two of the distinctive Tibetan race calcarata with their black mantles and striking huge white wingbars. Also on the wagtail front, a male of the very distinctive leucocephala race of Western Yellow Wagtail was seen, making it two years in a row for this, probably the rarest of the Western Yellow Wagtail forms and certainly the most easterly. A further 20 or so ‘Mongolian’ Pallas’s Reed Buntings were seen, but strangest occurrence must go to the two Baillon’s Crakes we found. The first was feeding in a marshy hollow with a small group of waders, eventually giving excellent views. The second was in a drier area and was first found dangling from the bill of a marauding Black-headed Gull, a flock of which were persecuting it! They dropped it, picked it up and dropped it again. Clearly we couldn’t stand by and watch the carnage unfold, so we walked towards the gull flock who naturally dispersed. The crake crouched in the grass, and we gave it about 20m of space. It had other ideas however, and after a few tentative glances in our direction, it began hesitantly walking towards us! Nearer and nearer it came, clearly intent on getting as close to its saviours as it felt comfortable with. We just stood there in wonder, and after coming within a couple of meters it turned and wandered cautiously off into an area of hollows. I like to think it was coming to say thanks, but I think checking out the suitability of us as long-term protectors rather than one-time saviours is more likely.

After two nights at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, we headed east towards Orog Nuur, another freshwater lake with attendant marshes. The journey there is enlivened by one of our best lunch stops, next to a cracking freshwater marsh with small reedbeds. This always seems to produce a surprise or two, and this year was no exception. With Ferruginous Ducks, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes, and Swan Geese and Bar-headed Geese among the commoner ducks, we made our way to a small but very productive reedbed. Almost immediately Oriental Reed and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers were found, as was a Water Rail and a couple of Baillon’s Crakes. We would go on to count no fewer than 13 Baillon’s Crakes around the marsh in what was undoubtedly a major movement of them. The rails were very interesting, as they showed no signs of being the expected Brown-cheeked (or Eastern Water) Rails, but rather displayed features of being ‘Western’ Water Rails. It’s not certain how common these are in Mongolia, but they are almost certainly more regular than thought, and definitely more regular than our third rail of the day; a male Little Crake that appeared on the reed edge, giving himself up in style. This may have been the first country record, but we await news on that…

Arriving at Orog Nuur and our rapidly assembling camp, we enjoyed an Otkar special for dinner and looked over the lake. A flock of 11 Greater Sand Plovers was nice, but we couldn’t locate any of the booming Bitterns that were audible. More Asian Dowitchers were here however, and we went to sleep with the sound of booming Bitterns and displaying Black-tailed Godwits, along with the more expected Asian Short-toed Larks and Richard’s Pipits. The following day was to be a bit special, as after an early breakfast we drove to the other side of the lake and began the long climb up Ikh Bogd Mountain, a National Park and the highest peak in the Gobi Altai range. The drive along a dry riverbed was epic in itself, but we didn’t want to waste time by stopping and pressed on until we emerged on the plateau, looking down on the Gobi and across to the Orog Nuur. The plateau was pretty wild, but with easy walking (considering the altitude!) and a sunny day it was almost balmy up there. Our first target was the Altai Snowcock, and a pair were quickly located on the slopes below us. After this success we had lunch and a pair of Asian Rosy-finch flew over us, landed a short distance away. A quick dash down the slope and we were watching them at close range, confirming them as the sushkini race, usually considered endemic to the Khangai mountains to the north but clearly well-established here on Ikh Bogd. Also here were several Güldenst?dt’s Redstarts and Brown Accentors, plus the obligatory Horned Larks (which is an amazing species, having an incredible altitudinal and habitat range here), we even saw a Siberian Rubythroat sheltering by a shrine. With further exploration, this plateau could turn up more species of interest…

Coming down the mountain was a bit birdy than going up, and we logged many Mongolian Finches and a couple of Grey-necked Buntings showed very well. After our final nights camping at Orog Nuur, we had an early start to look for that most enigmatic of desert dwellers, the Henderson’s Ground Jay. Having seen some likely looking habitat the previous day, we back-tracked and found a pair relatively easily. We then found a second pair in less favourable habitat after leaving camp! The long drive to Hongar Sands was enlivened by a lunch stop with Desert Wheatears and a Steppe Grey Shrike, but the biggest surprise of the day was finding an Arctic Warbler among the buildings at our next Ger camp. Making our way down to the small river at the base of the huge sand dunes, a pair of Saxaul Sparrows played hard to get around the bridge, and a Hill Pigeon was pretty brief, but long enough to be appreciated by all. On the road (or rather, dirt tracks) again, we stopped for a co-operative Asian Desert Warbler and then had a slight detour for fuel, stopping at a remote village. A village with trees! Not ones to miss an opportunity, we quickly scored Dark-sided and Brown Flycatchers, Black-faced Buntings, Pallas’s and Arctic Warblers and an elusive Hawfinch. Back on the road, and finally, after a lot of searching, a stunning male Oriental Plover appeared alongside the track. Given how green and lush the desert was this year, it was with some relief that we managed to find one of these mysterious waders.  And then we found three more! Cue vehicles manoeuvring for position and one leader popping up out of the sunroof, a la African safari! Continuing south to our Ger camp, we explored the trees around the camp and found several more Hawfinches, a dozen Common Rosefinches and yet more Pallas’s, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, along with a smart Little Bunting.

The following morning in the camp grounds produced a couple of Thick-billed Warblers eventually showing well enough. Then we were off to Yolyn Am in search of some key mountain species and that most important of Mongolian targets, the Kozlov’s Accentor. Happily, this was one of the first birds we saw in the valley as a pair were busy nest building. Further into the valley, and hulking Lammergeiers and Himalayan Vultures were virtually omnipresent, and two male Wallcreepers competed aggressively for the attentions of a female. A dozen or more Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches made their presence known, and a Godlewski’s Bunting sang from a lofty rock. The valley was alive with White-winged Snowfinches, while several Blyth’s Pipits carried out song flights. Most surprisingly, another Baillon’s Crake was found in the stream with no cover to hide in, and consequently it gave excellent views.

After saying goodbye to our 4x4 drivers and a flight back to Ulaanbaatar, we were met by our bus and drove to Gun Galuut. This area of lake, marsh and steppe always seems to produce something, and this year we found an Eastern Cattle Egret and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks among the throngs of commoner wildfowl and flock of 98 Demoiselle Cranes. Wader wise, a flock of Pacific Golden Plovers, a couple of Asian Dowitchers, two Red-necked Stints and a couple of Broad-billed Sandpipers were the best on offer, but out in the steppes area, birds of the day were actually mammals! Firstly, a Siberian Jerboa went ‘kangarooing’ over the land, a herd of Argali Sheep sheltered under a rock face and a couple of Daurian Ground Squirrels fed in the meadows. In the riverine bushes by our Ger camp, a Chestnut-eared Bunting was the pick of the bunch, while a Pallas’s Reed and a Black-faced Bunting also entertained us. A brief Japanese Quail was flushed from weeds, and a handful of warblers completed the ensemble.

Our final destination of the tour, Jalman Meadows, is buried deep in the Tuul Valley and the Khenti Mountains, a few hours drive from Gun Galuut. The riverine poplars, willows and scrub here supports a great cast of birds, and although we got the distinct impression that spring was rather late this year (given the freezing temperatures and strong northerly wind!), we still managed to get a good showing of birds. The Black Grouse lek by the Ger camp produced the goods, with at least four birds glimpsed through the bushes, while White-crowned Penduline Tits, Black-faced Buntings, Siberian Rubythroats and blythi Lesser Whitethroats sang from the scrub. Woodpeckers comprised Black, Grey-headed, Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted, with excellent views of all. Long-tailed Rosefinches and Daurian Redstarts entertained us, and our woodland walk produced caudatus Long-tailed Tits and Olive-backed Pipits, as well as a pair of Red-flanked Bluetails. A Lanceolated Warbler was a surprising find, flushed by walking through the bushes it actually showed quite well as it crept mouse-like on the ground between bushes, and a Nutcracker finally gave itself up for walkaway views atop a pine tree. Our major target in this area however, is also the hardest. Our local guide found a small population of Black-billed Capercaillies four years ago, and we have a good track record of locating them. This year proved tricky, but eventually we accidentally flushed a female from her nest. She flew straight up onto a nearby branch and froze, Wryneck-style. After we had all gathered and got excellent views, we left her to get back to the nest in peace.

The only thing left was the obligatory visit to the Chinggis Khan statue outside of Ulaanbaatar, and then finally our farewell dinner. An excellent and memorable tour, with great company and some wonderful birding.

- Paul French

Created: 15 July 2019