MONGOLIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Mongolia: Day 1 Our Mongolia birding tour begins this morning at Ulaanbaatar, often known outside Mongolia as Ulan Bator, where we will stay overnight. Ulaanbaatar 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.
Birding amongst the willows along the Tuul (or Tola) river and amongst the nearby grassy and rocky hillsides and larch-covered slopes is rewarding and here we shall be concentrating on such specialities as Hill Pigeon, the fluffy Azure Tit, the dainty White-crowned Penduline Tit, and both Pine and Meadow Buntings. In addition, we may well see such species as Goosander (or Common Merganser), Black-eared Kite (sometimes split from Black), Booted Eagle, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Pacific (or Fork-tailed) Swift, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Common House Martin, Grey Wagtail, Baikal Wagtail (sometimes split from White), Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Lesser Whitethroat, Two-barred, Arctic, Yellow-browed, Pallas’s Leaf and Dusky Warblers, Red-throated (or Taiga) Flycatcher (split from Red-breasted), Willow and Great Tits, Brown Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Oriental Rook (now sometimes split from its western cousin), Oriental Crow (split from Carrion), Common Raven, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Common Rosefinch.
Mongolia: Day 2 We start our overland adventure this morning as we head northeastwards to the Khentiy Mountains. En route we will visit a marshy area where the spectacular White-naped Crane nests well to the west of the usual range.
Eventually we will reach the Khentiy range. We will pass through broad, open valleys with patches of larch forest and some impressive rock formations. We will have our first night of camping tonight as our resourceful camping crew will be waiting for us to organize our camping deep in the deserts and mountains of Mongolia until we finish our journey at Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia: Days 3-17 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. Birding is very different as many species we will encounter here will not have been seen earlier on our travels. In particular, we shall be focussing our attentions on a major speciality that is rarely seen elsewhere, the magnificent Black-billed Capercaillie.
Effort and persistence can be required to find the Black-billed Capercaillie, but given those we should have a good chance of some good views. The Khentiy is the best location we know of for seeing this large and impressive species.
While searching for the capercaillie, we should come across Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, the lovely Northern Red-flanked Bluetail, Spotted Nutcracker and Common Crossbill. If we are lucky, we will encounter Siberian Jay at the southern limit of its range. Sadly, serious overgrazing has nowadays caused the near-extirpation of Chinese Bush Warbler, a species that was once fairly common in the area.
As we explore the area we shall also be looking out for such species as Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eastern (or Japanese) Buzzard (split from Common), Eurasian Hobby, Oriental Cuckoo, Eurasian Wryneck, Grey-headed, Black, White-backed and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Olive-backed Pipit, Common and Daurian Redstarts, the shy Siberian Blue Robin (easy to hear, but often tricky to see), Eyebrowed Thrush, Long-tailed Tit (of the beautiful white-headed form), Coal Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, White-cheeked Starling and Black-faced Bunting. With a bit of luck we will find the impressive Ural Owl and the unobtrusive Hazel Grouse.
Mammals are not conspicuous here, but we are bound to encounter the sweet little Siberian Chipmunk, Eurasia’s sole representative of this otherwise North American group.
After leaving the Khentiy behind we head southwestwards through the heart of Mongolia towards the distant Gobi Altai range, first crossing the wide steppelands of Central Mongolia and eventually penetrating into the much drier lands of the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. There will be some new birds along the way, but essentially this is a travel day.
On the way to the Gobi Altai Mountains, in addition to Lesser Kestrel and numerous Horned (or Shore) Larks, we should find the lovely Oriental Plover (surely one of the most elegant members of its family) exhibiting its spectacular rocking display flight, as well as Greater Sand Plover in its smart breeding dress. We should also encounter the first of many Pallas’s Sandgrouse. This spectacular and remarkable bird has even occurred as far west as the British Isles during its periodic eruptions and has sometimes stayed to breed in Western Europe.
At this season, bushy areas in the Gobi often attract such migrant passerines as the superb Siberian Rubythroat, Thick-billed Warbler, and Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers. Migrant rarities regularly turn up, so we could potentially find almost anything.
The eastern Gobi Altai mountains 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 a deep and spectacular gorge. Walking here is a wonderful experience; the birdlife is exciting, the scenery splendid, the wildflowers delightful and the atmosphere quite unique.
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 Pipit constantly display flights over the hillsides. Amongst the bushes and rocks, Brown Accentors, Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches and Godlewski’s Buntings can be found. The impressive Saker Falcon, which occupies old eyries of other birds of prey, still nests in good numbers in this region and is regularly to be seen, as is the huge Upland Buzzard and the splendid Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier).
The Gobi Altai is a good place to see the fabulous little Wallcreeper, and it is quite commonplace to have several of these beautiful ‘butterfly-birds’, in full breeding plumage, flying all around as they forage for spiders amongst the rocks or utter their thin but beautiful song. We will also have our first chance to see Altai Snowcock here.
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 Eurasian Black (or Cinereous) Vulture (Mongolia must surely be the best place in the world for seeing these huge birds), Himalayan Griffon and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Golden Eagle, Common Kestrel, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift, 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 Shrike, Rock Sparrow, White-winged Snowfinch and Twite (here of the central Asian form, which may represent a distinct species). Migrants pass through the area and we could well encounter 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.
Mammals are well represented, with Siberian Ibex being fairly common and Argali (an impressive wild sheep) still being present in the area, while hordes of Pallas’s Pikas and Midday Gerbils scamper about their colonies. Even the fabled Snow Leopard still prowls these mountains, although we had better not hold out any hope of encountering this rare, persecuted and ultra-shy creature.
In some areas where the Gobi Altai borders on the Gobi Deseret the main Gobi Desert are huge creamy-white sand dunes that early or late in the day look quite spectacular as the shadows pick out the curvaceous, wind-blown patterning.
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 and here, in this strange open bushland amidst the desert, we can expect to find Desert Wheatear, Steppe Grey Shrike (split from Southern Grey) and most especially the attractive and localized Saxaul Sparrow, while the nearby desert flats hold Asian Short-toed Lark and often extraordinary numbers of Pallas’s Sandgrouse (we have counted up to 1000 or more here!).
From now on the wilderness adventure starts in earnest as we head westwards into even more sparsely inhabited country. From the saxaul forest we will head northwards through the Gobi, skirting various massifs of the Gobi Altai en route. As we progress we will enjoy some superb scenery with the great mountain massif of Ikh Bogd Uul looming high above the vast inter-montane basin through which we are travelling. We may well encounter Mongolian Gazelles and, if we are lucky, the shy Goitred Gazelle or even the rare Kulan or Mongolian Wild Ass. Eventually we will reach the first of several wetlands we will visit in the Gobi.
The wetlands of the Gobi are a real surprise, for to find any water in a desert is surprising and to find huge 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. 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 two large wetlands, Orog Nuur and Boon Tsagaan Nuur, as well as some smaller wetlands we have found to be productive.
Orog Nuur and Boon Tsagaan Nuur are large brackish lakes 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 almost 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, only a comparatively small number of ornithologists have ever seen one in the field. These particular lakes are regular localities for this attractive species.
Boon Tsagaan Nuur and Orog Nuur would be wetlands of major importance in their own right even without their famous 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 and in drier areas we will encounter our first Demoiselle Cranes. Pallas’s Fish Eagles can still be found (although they are fast-declining) and sometimes smartly-plumaged Asian Dowitchers feed in the shallow marshes. Boon Tsagaan in particular is one of the most reliable places we know of for seeing Baillon’s Crake.
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, Western 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 Gull (split from Caspian), Gull-billed, Caspian, Common, Little, Black, Whiskered and superbly elegant White-winged Terns, Eurasian Skylark, Pale Martin (split from Sand Martin or Bank Swallow, and a dry country nester), Barn Swallow, Richard’s Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Eastern Grey-headed Wagtail (sometimes split from Eastern Yellow), and Pallas’s Grasshopper, Paddyfield and Oriental Reed Warblers. Migrant shorebirds, in their smart breeding dress, are an attractive feature of the wetlands. The most frequently encountered species include Lesser Sand Plover, Little, Temminck’s and Long-toed Stints, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone, while less commonly encountered species include Pacific Golden and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, Sanderling, Red-necked Stint, Broad-billed and Green Sandpipers, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank. A few migrant passerines are usually about and these often include the smart but rapidly declining Yellow-breasted Bunting. Less regularly observed wildfowl include Falcated Duck, Chinese Spot-billed Duck and Smew.
The Gobi wetland zone is the best place on our route for the superb 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 of Palearctic birds. Henderson’s Ground Jay favours sandy or gravely 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.
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, 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. The ultimate speciality here is the threatened Hodgson’s (or White-throated) 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 Redstart and Brandt’s Mountain Finches and the uncommon Asian 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.
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 are also likely to encounter Daurian Partridge and perhaps Willow Grouse. Smart Pallas’s Reed Buntings 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 Redstart, the smart Red-throated Thrush and Hume’s Leaf Warbler, while the low scrub and rocky crags harbour Ortolan Buntings. Along the river valleys, areas of willows hold migrant Spotted Flycatchers and sometimes a lingering Naumann’s Thrush or two.
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 also pause in a beautiful river valley where a dramatic gorge has a regular nest of 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 spend a night at Sangiyn Dalay Nuur, a small but bird-rich steppe lake. Here there are large numbers of Whooper Swans and Demoiselle Cranes, but the most interesting denizens are Stejneger’s Scoters (split from Velvet) and Horned (or Slavonian) Grebes in full breeding plumage. 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. Greater Short-toed Larks also nest here, while in some areas the ground is littered with the burrows of Daurian Pikas and Brandt’s Voles, both of which we should be able to watch scampering over the grasslands.
Eventually we will head back towards Ulaanbaatar. The steppe en route usually holds the attractive Amur Falcon and we will make a stop at the Hustai National Park to see the reintroduced Przevalski’s Horses. The park is also a good place for Daurian Partridge, Père David’s Snowfinch and Meadow Bunting.
Mongolia: Day 18 After some final birding we will return to Ulaanbaatar for an overnight stay in our comfortable hotel. As we approach the city the wilderness gives way to the modern (and mostly ugly) world and we will think ourselves fortunate to have travelled through such a remote and beautiful part of our planet.
Mongolia: Day 19 Our Mongolia birding tour ends this morning at Ulaanbaatar.