MONGOLIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Mongolia: Day 1 Our Mongolia birding tour begins this morning at Ulaanbaatar.
Very few airlines serve Ulaanbaatar and the most usual ways of getting there are via Istanbul (Turkey) or Seoul (Korea). The latter is mainly used by those travelling from the Americas, eastern Asia or Australasia.
If you wish, you can fly into Ulaanbaatar this morning via Istanbul (but not via Seoul) and join the tour. Alternatively, you may need to or prefer to spend the previous night in Ulaanbaatar. We can arrange hotel accommodation and an airport transfer on request.
Ulaanbaatar (or Ulan Bator), Mongolia’s capital and the only real city in the entire country, is a relatively modern if rather chaotic city situated in north-central Mongolia. Before the beginning of the 20th century, there were only a few permanent buildings here and in consequence, there is little of historical interest for the visitor to see. Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the city are the large stockades crowded with yurts (known locally as gers) belonging to country people who have moved to the capital. They seem wildly out of keeping with the present-day buildings, highways and vehicles that surround them and remind one just how recently Mongolia has been drawn into the modern world.
We will start off the tour with some birding amongst the willows along the nearby Tuul (or Tola) River where we shall be concentrating on three specialities: the fluffy Azure Tit, the dainty White-crowned Penduline Tit and the lovely Siberian Long-tailed Rosefinch.
This may well be the only place we see Mandarin Duck, which has increased in numbers in northern Mongolia in recent years. There is a narrative that they are introduced, but we feel a natural spread westwards is just as likely. Azure-winged Magpie is uncommon along the Tuul but perfectly possible.
We should also have our first encounters with ‘Black-eared’ Black Kite (form lineatus), Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail, the baicalensis form of the White Wagtail, Willow and Great Tits, Brown Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough, ‘Oriental’ Carrion Crow, Northern Raven and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Early migrants could include Eyebrowed, Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes.
Afterwards, we start our overland adventure as we head eastwards to the Khentiy Mountains for our first night of camping in the wilderness. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Throughout our journey through Mongolia, our resourceful and friendly camp crew will be with us to organize our camping deep in the steppes, mountains and deserts.
Mongolia: Days 2-16 During these days we will explore the Khentiy Mountains, the central Mongian steppelands, the Gobi Desert, the Gobi Altai Mountains, the wonderful Gobi lakes and the wild Khangay Mountains.
We will be camping for most nights during this period as there is a total lack of hotels and lodges in most of Mongolia! The only exception will be a total of three nights spent at so-called ‘tourist ger camps’, facilities that are only found near a very few tourism ‘hot spots’ in the country (please see details in the accommodation section). They offer more comfortable facilities and hot showers that are not so weather-dependent.
Please note that we like to keep the time spent at most places flexible so that we can respond to both climatic conditions and birding results appropriately. That is why, unlike ‘normal’ birding tour destinations, it is best not to set out a rigid day-by-day itinerary. Mongolia is definitely a place where flexibility is the best plan!
The Khentiy consist of low mountains covered in grassland on the east- and south-facing slopes and larch, pine and birch forest on the north- and west-facing slopes, with beautiful broadleaf woodland and meadows along the broad, untamed river valleys. This upland area, not that far south of the Russian border, is extremely cold in winter but there is a rapid transformation in late May and early June when warm weather turns the forests, in a matter of just a week or so, from winter grey to summer green.
We shall be focussing our attention in the Khentiy on a major speciality that is rarely seen elsewhere, the magnificent Black-billed Capercaillie. We have a special site where the birds regularly lek and so we have a good chance of some awesome views! The Khentiy is the best location we know of for seeing this large and impressive species.
As we explore the Khentiy range, we will surely find Pine Bunting and Black-faced Bunting and there are good chances for Hazel Grouse and the impressive Ural Owl. There is even a slim chance for the rapidly declining and now Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Other species we may well find include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eastern (or Japanese) Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Eurasian Wryneck, Grey-headed, Black and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart, Coal Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Spotted Nutcracker and Red (or Common) Crossbill.
More uncommon possibilities include Eurasian Hobby, Eurasian Three-toed, White-backed and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Red-flanked Bluetail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Treecreeper and Long-tailed Tit (or Long-tailed Bushtit, here of the beautiful white-headed nominate form).
Mammals are not conspicuous in the Khentiy, but we may encounter the sweet little Siberian Chipmunk, Eurasia’s sole representative of this otherwise North American group.
CENTRAL MONGOLIAN STEPPES
Providing our Khentiy birding is running to schedule, we will make a stop at the Gun Galuut wetlands before heading off for the Gobi.
These wetlands hold breeding White-naped Cranes (although we will see these splendid birds later in our journey), but more importantly, they offer a first chance for migrant Relict Gulls. The species has become harder to find in Mongolia in recent times, so every chance is worth taking!
There will surely be lots of waterbird species at Gun Galuut that we will see again later in the tour but a rarity or two could well be turned up and this also seems to be a regular migration stopover for Swinhoe’s Snipe.
After leaving the Khentiy behind, we head southwestwards through the heart of Mongolia towards the distant Gobi Altai range, first crossing the wide steppe lands of central Mongolia and eventually penetrating into the much drier lands at the northern edge of the Gobi Desert.
The moister steppes of central Mongolia hold Amur Falcon, Demoiselle Crane, Eurasian Skylark, Mongolian Lark, Asian Short-toed Lark, ‘Oriental’ Rook and Isabelline Wheatear.
Further south we will break our journey in the Delgersogt region. This is a good area for migrants recuperating after crossing the Gobi and we could easily turn up the unexpected. It is also a great area for seeing mammals including Corsac and Red Foxes, Mongolian Gazelle, Tolai Hare and Brandt’s Vole. We will go out spotlighting around our camp in search of Mongolian Silver Vole, Mongolian Clawed Jird (or Mongolian Gerbil), Campbell’s Desert Hamster and even Midday Gerbil (yes, this one is often more active at night!) and Daurian Hedgehog. The beautiful Steppe and European Marbled Polecats are both real possibilities here, although not usually easy.
As we progress further towards the Gobi Altai Mountains, through very sparsely inhabited landscapes (with no towns, just occasional small settlements and scattered yurts) we should find numerous Horned (or Shore) Larks and perhaps Crested Lark, but our most important target is the lovely Oriental Plover, surely one of the most elegant members of its family, and we may witness its spectacular rocking from side to side display flight. We should also come across Greater Sand Plover in its smart breeding dress and will encounter the first of many Pallas’s Sandgrouse. This spectacular and remarkable sandgrouse has even occurred as far west as the British Isles during its periodic eruptions and has sometimes stayed to breed in Western Europe.
During this season, bushy areas or small plantations in the Gobi often attract such migrant passerines as the superb Siberian Rubythroat, Thick-billed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Two-barred, Arctic, Yellow-browed, Pallas’s Leaf, Dusky and sometimes Greenish Warblers, Taiga, Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers and many other species. Rarities regularly turn up, so we could potentially find almost anything!
GOBI ALTAI MOUNTAINS
The eastern Gobi Altai mountains, which are protected by the huge Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, rise to around 2600m and have a timeless beauty. At night the stars sparkle brilliantly overhead out of the clear desert sky and in the early morning the ranks of rugged peaks, stretching away into the far distance, are sharply defined. During our visit, we will explore the valleys, slopes and ridges, as well as the deep and spectacular Yolyn Am gorge (Yolyn Am means ‘Valley of the Bearded Vulture’). Walking here is a wonderful experience; the birdlife is exciting, the scenery splendid, the wildflowers delightful and the atmosphere quite special.
The little-known Kozlov’s Accentor, Mongolia’s sole endemic breeding bird, can be found amongst the dwarf junipers and the poorly-known Blyth’s Pipits constantly display-flight over the hillsides. Amongst the bushes and rocks, Brown Accentors, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and Godlewski’s Buntings can be found. The huge Upland Buzzard and the splendid Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) are typical of this part of Mongolia. The impressive Saker Falcon, which occupies the old eyries of other birds of prey, has, however, suffered greatly from the depredations of egg smugglers feeding the insatiable falcon obsession of wealthy Gulf Arabs. Once common in Mongolia, it is now in rapid decline, but in this area, it still survives.
Yolyn Am is a good place to see the fabulous little Wallcreeper and we should see this beautiful ‘butterfly-bird’, in full breeding plumage, foraging for spiders amongst the rocks or uttering its thin but beautiful song.
In some years Père David’s Snowfinches nest in the area, using the abandoned holes of pikas and gerbils, but if they are absent we will catch up with the species later in our travels.
More widespread species we may well find here include Cinereous (or Eurasian Black)) Vulture (Mongolia must surely be the best place in the world for seeing these huge birds), Himalayan and Griffon Vultures, Golden Eagle, Common Kestrel, Chukar Partridge, Common Cuckoo, Common and Pacific Swifts, Eurasian Hoopoe, Eurasian Crag Martin, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Black Redstart (of the smart rufous-bellied race phoenicuroides), Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Barred Warbler, Isabelline (or Daurian) Shrike, Rock Sparrow, White-winged Snowfinch and Twite (here of the central Asian form, which may represent a distinct species).
Many migrants pass through the area and we could well encounter various warblers, Northern Wheatear, Common Rosefinch, either form of Pallas’s Reed Bunting and perhaps some Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzards soaring by as they head for the boreal forest far to the north.
The Gobi Altai has quite a lot of mammals and we should see Siberian Ibex and the magnificent Argali (the horns of the mature males of this huge wild sheep are so impressive!). There is even a chance for Pallas’s Cat. Every now and again some lucky people get to see a Snow Leopard or two in the area, so we can always dream! More mundanely, we should see Pallas’s Pikas and Mongolian Clawed Jirds (or Mongolian Gerbils) scampering about their colonies. Other likely mammals include Alashan Ground Squirrel.
From Yolyn Am we will head for Khongoryn Els, a spectacular area of huge sand dunes fringed by bushy areas. Here, we can expect to find Hill Pigeon, Desert Wheatear, ‘Steppe’ Great Grey Shrike and the attractive and localized Saxaul Sparrow, while the desert flats in the surrounding region hold Turkestan Short-toed Lark (greatly outnumbered by Asian Short-toed Lark) and often extraordinary numbers of Pallas’s Sandgrouse (we have counted up to 1000 or more together on occasion!).
Spotlighting should turn up the cute Hairy-footed Jerboa and with luck the attractive European Marbled Polecat, one of their chief predators.
The Gobi is a desert because the climate is so dry, rather than because of the temperature. In winter temperatures are below freezing for months, but at this season conditions are usually pleasant and the meltwater seeping down from the nearby Gobi Altai allows wildflowers to thrive. Mongol horsemen ride across the semi-desert steppe, attending the herds of horses, cattle, sheep goats and domesticated Bactrian Camels that are a feature of the area. Further from the mountains, the conditions are more arid and sand dunes and stony or silty desert with low bushes take over from the dry steppe. In places that strange drought-resistant miniature tree the saxaul flourishes.
As we progress towards the Gobi lakes, we will enjoy some superb scenery with great mountain massifs looming high above the vast inter-montane basin through which we are travelling. We may well encounter Mongolian Gazelles and the shy Goitered (or Black-tailed) Gazelle. There is even a chance for the rare Asiatic Wild Ass (or Kulan). Eventually, we will reach the first of a number of wetlands we will visit in the Gobi.
GOBI LAKES (Orog Nuur, Kholboolj Nuur, Boon Tsagaan Nuur and Ikhes Nuur)
The wetlands of the Gobi are a real surprise; to find any water in a desert is surprising and to find large wetlands even more remarkable. The answer lies in the snow-melt and rainwater runoff from the Khangay mountains to the north, much of which flows southwards into the internal drainage basin of the Gobi, doomed to evaporate away under the hot desert sun of summer. The attractiveness of these desert wetlands for birds varies with the amount of precipitation in the Khangay, but even in dry years, some are still good. We shall be concentrating on three or four large wetlands: Orog Nuur, Kholboolj Nuur, Boon Tsagaan Nuur and if need be Ikhes Nuur.
These large brackish lakes are situated a little to the north of the Gobi Altai range, which dominates the middle distance beyond the blue waters of these ornithological meccas, creating a landscape of dramatic beauty.
The bird which we have come so far to see ‘because it is there’ is the once near-mythical Relict Gull, one of the rarest birds in Asia. For many years it was known only from a single specimen collected over the Mongolian border in Chinese territory and was often dismissed as just a hybrid, or an aberrant individual. Only in recent decades has its true status as a rare and endangered relict species, restricted to a few breeding colonies in Central Asia, been established. Even today, not a very large number of birders have ever seen one in the field. These particular lakes are regular localities for this attractive species.
Boon Tsagaan Nuur used to host a breeding colony of Relict Gulls, and we saw them there reliably for many years. Nowadays, however, the breeding colony is no longer present and birds turning up at Boon Tsagaan or the other lakes are simply migrants.
Seeing this bird, and in its smart breeding plumage, is a major goal of the Birdquest Mongolia tour so if we have not seen any by the time we explore Boon Tsagaan we will definitely continue westwards to Ikhes Nuur, where there is a regular breeding colony. The drive on to Ikhes is a long one (taking much of a day) but we can cut up to Khukh Lake in the Khangay Mountains from there by a different route rather than backtrack. And of course, on our tour, we have the contingency time to allow this to happen. If we end up going on to Ikhes Nuur, we will try to fit in a visit to Sharga reserve to see the bizarre-looking Saiga antelope.
These lakes would be wetlands of major importance in their own right even without their famous Relict Gulls and at this season waterbirds are particularly numerous, with many migrants augmenting the breeding species throughout the month of May. Rare, long-necked Swan Geese and attractive Bar-headed Geese will be grazing in the wet meadows. Pallas’s Fish Eagles can still be found (although they are fast-declining) and smartly-plumaged Asian Dowitchers can regularly be found feeding in the shallow marshes. Boon Tsagaan, in particular, is one of the most reliable places we know of for seeing Baillon’s Crake.
Migrant shorebirds, often in their smart breeding dress, are an attractive feature of the wetlands. The most frequently encountered species include Siberian (or Mongolian) Sand Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Little, Temminck’s and Long-toed Stints, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone, while less commonly recorded species include Pacific Golden and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Sanderling, Red-necked Stint, Dunlin, Curlew and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank.
Amongst the many other species we may well encounter are Great Crested and Black-necked (or Eared) Grebes, Great Cormorant, ‘Eastern’ Great Egret, Grey Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Whooper Swan, Mute Swan (here of the truly wild population that inhabits the original Central Asian range), Greylag Goose, Ruddy and Common Shelducks, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common and Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous and Tufted Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Wstern Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Coot, Common Crane, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Redshank, the impressive Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) Gull, Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls, ‘Mongolian’ Vega Gull, Gull-billed, Caspian, Common, Little, Black, Whiskered and superbly elegant White-winged Terns, Pale Martin (a dry country nester), Barn Swallow, Richard’s Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, the ‘Eastern Grey-headed’ form of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Paddyfield and Oriental Reed Warblers, Bearded Reedling (or Bearded Tit) and the interesting lydiae form of the Pallas’s Reed Bunting which may get split as Mongolian Bunting.
Less regularly observed waterbirds include Eurasian (or Great) Bittern, Falcated Duck, Eastern Spot-billed Duck and Smew.
Migrant passerines are usually about and these often include Siberian House Martin and Pallas’s Reed Buntings of the nominate form.
The Gobi wetland zone is the best place on our route for the superb Mongolian (or Henderson’s) Ground Jay, one of a group of five enigmatic species that are usually placed amongst the corvids (although recent research shows that one has closer affinities to the tits!). All of these strange birds inhabit the remote desert or high steppe regions of Central Asia, making them some of the most sought-after Palearctic birds. Mongolian Ground Jay favours sandy or gravel areas with a sparse covering of bushes and the birds spend their time running across the open ground in search of invertebrates, regularly pausing to peck at the substrate. Every now and again they perch on a bush or a low rise to utter their piping calls before flying off low over the desert displaying the huge white patches on their wings. Another typical bird of this habitat is the perky little Asian Desert Warbler. In rocky areas, colonies of Mongolian Finches can be found nesting, the males subtly handsome in their pink and buff plumage.
New mammals in this area could include Long-eared Hedgehog, Pallid Suslik and Siberian Jerboa.
The mountains of central Mongolia come as a complete contrast to the desert wetlands. As we gain altitude the desert scenery gives way gradually to steppe, with the ochres, yellows, creams and greys of the arid lands giving way to the greens and browns of the grasslands. As we pass through the rocky foothills we will stop to look for Grey-necked Bunting.
Our main goal will be to visit the high altitude tundra, at up to 3000m or more above sea level, which (happily) we can drive right up to at remote Khukh Nuur. The ultimate speciality here is the threatened White-throated (or Hodgson’s) Bushchat, a rare and little-known bird that has only rarely been seen by westerners in recent years. We should find one or two pairs of this very handsome Saxicola, which makes a stonechat seem dull in comparison, at a favoured location.
Indeed, the stonechat is not the only star attraction here as Altai Accentor, the spectacular Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart, Brandt’s Mountain Finches and the sushkini form of the Asian Rosy Finch (known as ‘Khangay Rosy Finch’) are also present in this wild, beautiful and immensely scenic place, where the snow patches linger on well into June. Best of all, one can watch Altai Snowcocks here without any need for serious mountain climbing! The males utter their strange curlew-like calls, typically from a prominent location, while the birds move about the slopes digging up bulbs and tubers.
The lake itself holds few waterbirds, but they do usually include Common Merganser (or Goosander).
In the higher reaches of the Khangay Mountains, patches of dwarf willow occur in the more secluded valleys. Stejneger’s Stonechats are particularly common here and we could also encounter Willow Grouse. Smart Pallas’s Reed Buntings (of the nominate form) sing from the few shrubs amidst a wonderful tapestry of alpine flowers.
On sheltered, north-facing slopes the larch forests are home to the beautiful Eversmann’s (or Rufous-backed) Redstart, the smart Red-throated Thrush, Hume’s Leaf Warbler and the uncommon Pallas’s Rosefinch, while the low scrub and rocky crags harbour Ortolan Buntings. Along the river valleys, areas of willows hold migrant Spotted Flycatchers.
As we work our way eastwards through the Khangay, we will stop along the way to watch Black Stork, Steppe Eagle and Daurian Jackdaw, and perhaps find a roosting Eurasian Eagle-Owl. Amongst this enchanting scenery, with its flower-spattered meadows, we will surely come across fat Tarbagan Marmots and Long-tailed Ground Squirrels.
Eventually, we will emerge into the plains once more and we will surely visit two of the small but bird-rich steppe lakes. Here there are numbers of Whooper Swans and Demoiselle Cranes, as well as Black-throated Loon (or Black-throated Diver), Stejneger’s Scoter, Horned (or Slavonian) Grebe in full breeding plumage, the shy Brown-cheeked Rail and Common Reed Bunting. Around the lake margins, numerous Mongolian Larks can be found breeding and it will be enjoyable to watch these spectacular birds song-flighting and chasing off their rivals. Mongolian Short-toed Larks also breed here but are far fewer in numbers.
KHUSTAI NATIONAL PARK
As we head back towards Ulaanbaatar, we will make a stop at the Khustai (or Hustai) National Park to see the reintroduced Przevalski’s Horse (or Takhi as it is known in Mongolian). Other likely mammals include Red Deer, Daurian Pika, Mongolian (or Tarbagan) Marmot and Long-tailed and Daurian Ground Squirrels.
The park is a good place for Lesser Kestrel, Daurian Partridge, White-cheeked Starling, Père David’s Snowfinch (which nests in the abandoned holes of pikas and gerbils) and Meadow Bunting. It also serves as a backup area for White-crowned Penduline Tit, a bird that can be a bit elusive.
Mongolia: Day 17 After some final birding we will return to Ulaanbaatar for an overnight stay in a comfortable hotel.
As we approach the city the wilderness gives way to the modern (and often, as in this case, ugly) world and we will think ourselves fortunate to have travelled through such a remote and beautiful part of our planet.
Mongolia: Day 18 Our Mongolia birding tour ends this morning at Ulaanbaatar. Airport transfers will be provided.
KHURKH VALLEY & SIBERIAN CRANE EXTENSION
Khurkh Valley: Day 1 Leaving Ulaanbaatar behind, we will head eastwards and then northeastwards until we reach the wetland-studded Khurkh Valley. Here we will camp for three nights in a truly marvellous birding area.
On our way to the Khurkh Valley, we will detour into a different part of the Khentiy range in order to try for two boreal forest species at the southern limits of their distribution, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. By this stage of the season, Oriental Cuckoo should have arrived to breed.
Khurkh Valley: Days 2-3 The valley of the Khurkh River is a great place to visit from spring to autumn. Not only are there a series of bird-rich wetlands but the surrounding wetland edge and hill country offers different grassy, rocky, bushy and woodland habitats that attract a different suite of species.
The prime attraction of the Khurkh wetlands is the rare and Critically Endangered Siberian Crane! Thanks to the protection of their wintering grounds in China, what once seemed an inexorable slide towards extinction has been halted and the eastern population still numbers in the thousands. We have a very high chance of seeing some of these truly magnificent cranes during our visit. The beautiful and almost equally spectacular White-naped Crane breeds here in some numbers and we should also come across some Hooded Cranes. What a combination!
This will be our last chance to see several other wetland species, including Eastern Marsh Harrier. The extensive steppes in the area still hold a population of Great Bustards and Japanese Quail is also possible.
The Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting still breeds in small numbers in the area, as does the more numerous Chestnut-eared Bunting.
Chinese Bush Warbler is an uncommon, late-arriving summer visitor in Mongolia. It should be present in the area at the time we visit so we have a pretty good chance of connecting with this rather tricky speciality. Rather easier is Lanceolated Warbler, another late-arriving species.
Khurkh Valley: Day 4 Today we will return to Ulaanbaatar for a night in a comfortable hotel.
Khurkh Valley: Day 5 The extension ends this morning at Ulaanbaatar. Airport transfers will be provided.