Early spring tour in search of Mongolia special birds

Wild Mongolia

Monday 20th May - Wednesday 5th June 2019


Mongolia is situated in the heart of the great Asian continent, sandwiched between China in the south and Russia in the north.  With its size of 1.5 mln sq. kilometers and 2.5 million people, of which one and a half million live in the capital city of Ulan Bator, it is one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. The vast open spaces are a true wilderness, giving you a wonderful feeling of freedom and loneliness.
The nature here is shaped by the climate, which except in the spring is nothing but harsh. Bitterly cold winters with temperatures as low as minus 50 and baking hot summers at 50 + Celsius have resulted in huge deserts and steppes with little vegetation. The Himalayas further south also contribute; by receiving all the rains very little precipitation reaches Mongolia's southern parts. Despite this, Mongolia is a home to numerous wildlife and some of the rarest animals in the world are found here - the Gobi bear, the only true wild camels, Snow Leopard, Argali Sheep, Wild Ass and the recently reintroduced Prezhewalski's Horse, which was once extinct in the wild.

To visit Mongolia and watch its wildlife has long been a dream and it came true in June 2013 when I went there on a recce trip. They were a very intensive two weeks, but enough to check all the locations we have planned to visit. Plus some others we discovered while there.

There are two ways of exploring Mongolia in search of its birds - an easy one in June where one can use ger camps and hotels throughout the tour and still see a good variety of local species.

However, there is a second option. It needs to be early in the spring and requires camping in tents throughout most of the tour.  We have decided to go for this one. This is not a holiday, but a tour, or better expedition, but the reward is in the form of excellent chances of seeing Mongolia's special birds - Relict Gull, Black-billed Capercailie, Hodgson's Bush Chat, Oriental and Greater Sand plovers,  Altai Snowcock, Asian Dowitcher, Henderson's Ground Jay, Saxaul  Sparrow,  Siberian Rubbythroat, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler,  Pallas's Sandgrouse, Demoiselle and White-napped cranes, Azure Tit, Pallas's Fish Eagle, Saker and Amur falcons and Eastern Marsh Harrier.

We have two reasons to start the tour that early. The first one is the Black-billed Capercaillie. The other few tours that come to Mongolia and its birds are in June - long after lekking is over. Our trip will be there towards the end of the lek, when the birds are still very active. Additionally, on our recce trip last June we located a new site where we can see the Capercaillie with less effort. Most important the forest here is not that dense and we have better chances for proper views, instead of quick glimpses of birds that shoot off. The second reason for the early start of the tour of course are the migrants which pass through Mongolia in early spring and it gives us opportunities to catch up with some special rarities - these can well be Siberian Crane, Baikal and Falcated teals, Red-necked Stint and many more.

Along with all those specialties we will also see a number of good birds, not unusual for Europe, but quite rare - Lammergeyer, Wallcreeper, Citrine Wagtail, Taiga Flycatcher etc.

To see all that variety we will visit various habitats - the vast steppe, with some steppe lakes, taiga forests, sand dunes, saxaul "forest" and some rocky gorges. We will need to do some driving in order to cover all these habitats. We expect over 250 birds species to be recorded.


ITINERARY

Day 1 Upon arrival we shall quickly sort out the border formalities at the small airport in UB and less than two hours or so drive will bring us into Gun Galuut National Park, east of the capital city. If there is no need of a rest after the night flight we can visit a couple of wetlands where we will find Demoiselle and White-naped Cranes, the beautiful Goldeneye, Bar-headed Geese, Velvet Scoter, White-winged Black tern and many more. Houbara Bustard may also be seen and if we are lucky enough we can spot the rare Argali sheep. Overnight in a ger or tent camp.

Day 2 Drive further east for a couple of hours until we reach the taiga edges where we will look for one of the prime species - Black-billed Capercaillie. Stops en-route at a few smaller wetlands which despite being small may need most of the day to be checked carefully. Arrival at the camp late in the afternoon where we will have an early night as the next day requires very early start. Overnight in a tent camp.

Day 3 Early morning start as we need to be near the lek as early as possible, best if we arrive while it is still dark. We will try to locate the birds and it needs us to be absolutely quiet. We will also search the forest for Hazel Grouse as well as Red-throated Thrush, Daurian and Common redstarts, woodpeckers, plus Daurian Jackdaw, Olive-backed Pipit, Eyebrowed Thrush and Pine and Meadow buntings in the surrounding meadows, where we will spend the rest of the day.

Day 4 In case we need another try for the Capercaillie we will do so and when ready will head west, passing UB and our goal is Hustai National Park. On the way we will stop at a couple of sites near UB where we will look for Azure Tit, Fork-tailed Swift, some warblers - Two-barred, Yellow-browed, Pallas's Leaf, Arctic and Dusky, also Brown Shrike etc. Late in the afternoon we will arrive in the national park where we will stay for one night. If time permits we will explore the park's territory, which is a home to the recently reintroduced Prezhewalski's Horse. The animals have adapted surprisingly well to the extremes of the climate and the predators and there are now more than 70 foals born in the wild. We can see the horses late in the afternoon when they come to drink by the small creeks; with some luck we can also see Mongolian Gazelle and even a Wolf. Driving and walking on the set trails into the park we can see many raptors - Oriental Honey Buzzard, Amur and Saker falcons, Upland and Long-legged Buzzards, Black and Bearded Vultures. Great Bustard is also possible.

Days 5 to 12 From now on we will drive west and then south visiting few large lakes and many smaller wetlands in the steppe. We will have rough plan where to stay overnight camping but if there is a need we can be flexible and save or spend an extra night here and there. It depends on what we see and weather of course. Major wetlands will be Ogiy, Sangiyn Dalay, Orog and Boon Tsaagan lakes plus numerous small ones. We will record many wetland birds - cranes the very common Demoiselle, White-naped and Common and if lucky we can see the Siberian crane too; Bar-headed, Swan, and Bean geese, Falcated Duck and Baikal teals; Relict, Greater Black-headed, Brown-headed, Mongolian and other gulls, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked Stint, Citrine Wagtail, Blyth's Pipit, Pallas's Reed Bunting, Paddyfield Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler plus very many other familiar ducks, grebes, waders, terns and passerines. Raptors will be Pallas's Fish Eagle, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Saker Falcon,Steppe and Golden eagles, Black and Griffon vultures, Black-eared Kite. With some luck we will also find the smart Hogdson Bush Chat. Along the roads we will find many commoner species such as Ruddy Shelduck, Rock Sparrow, Pere David's Finch, Hill Pigeon and many more. On the evening of day 12 we will arrive at Baga Bogd mountain - one of the many Gobi-Altai ridges. We will drive through most of the day to get there but will break the journey with few birding stops - here we will see the beautiful Pallas's Sandgrouse, it is virtually everywhere and we will carefully look for the even more beautiful Oriental Plovers, also for the Greater Sand Plovers. We will reach the camp in the evening and will accommodate for 2 nights here.

Day 13 Today we will have earlier start, and it will be good to wake up as early as possible and explore the picturesque gorge and home of the Altai Snowcock - another Mongolian highlight. Here, unlike most of the sites where this bird is looked after we can see the calling males from the point where our vehicles will bring us. A bit of a climb however, half a mile walk and ascend about 200 meters or so will bring us even near to the displaying males and we can enjoy there gentle whistling calls, watch them feeding and eventually one will fly above us, crossing the narrow gorge and landing on the opposite slope. Another member of the family we can see here is the Chukar. Other birds we will see in the gorge are the beautiful Wallcreeper, White-winged and Mongolian finches, Common Rosefinch, Brown and Alpine accentors, Godlewski's Bunting, Chough, Golden Eagle, Hill Pigeon, Rock Sparrow and Rock Thrush. When ready we will descend a little and will be soon looking again for another of our targets - the Henderson's Ground Jay, also a pair of Greater Sand Plover. When ready - long drive and our destination is the famous Gobi's sand dunes. On the way we will see numerous Sandgrouses, Pied and Desert wheatears, Rock Thrush, Ortolan Bunting, Saker, Long-legged and Upland buzzards, Griffon and Black vultures. We will look again for the ground jays as it is a bird wonderful to watch, but also for our first encounter with the handsome Saxaul Sparrow. Goiterred Gazelles are also in the area so we have to be quick to spot them as they will disappear fast. Arrival at the ger camp in front of the sand dunes latter in the evening.

Day 14 After breakfast we will visit the sand dunes and the bird we really need to find here is the Saxaul Sparrow. In order to see it we will spend some time along the river, where the sparrows usually come to drink. There are also a few more pairs of the Ground Jay around, plus many Pallas's Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, Short-toed and Horned larks. When ready, a few hours drive, with a couple of short stops, will bring us to Yolin Am in the valley of the Lammergeyers.

Day 15 Explore Yolin Am we will see these magnificent raptors, also Saker Falcons, Golden eagles, Goshawk and Upland Buzzard. Mongolia's only endemic bird lives here - Kozlov's Accentor, as well as Brown Accentor, Common and Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and Godlewski's Buntings, White-winged Snowfinch and again the Wallcreeper. The Spotted Great Rosefinch is much rarer, but we also have a chance for this one. The gorge itself is a spectacular formation and being here is a privilege. Towards it lower end the gorge is less narrow, but more open smoothly turning into a wide valley. Here we can see Barred Warbler, wheatears, Short-toed Lark etc. Stay overnight in a nearby camp.

Day 16 Early start in order to get our return flight to UB where after arrival we can continue birding and look for the species we might have missed the previous days - Azure Tit, Azure- winged Magpie, Baikal Wagtail, Pine and Meadow Buntings. The capital city of Ulan Bator is strikingly different compared with the traditional life in the countryside gers and small settlements. There are a couple of historical and cultural sites we can visit, provided there is an interest. We can also buy some fine cashmere products to bring home as presents.

Day 17 Morning flight will take us out of Mongolia and we will arrive home latter in the evening.


TOUR MAP