This was the third Field Guides tour to Mongolia, covering many of the key sites and habitats in central, southern and north-eastern Mongolia, including steppe, desert and boreal forest, and we succeeded very nicely. It was again a late, dry spring here, and some species like waders, wagtails and warblers were scarce or absent, but breeding was certainly in full swing. Staying primarily in ger camps was fun, but you have to get used to the low doorways and starlit nocturnal treks to the bathroom.
Most came in early to get recovered and oriented, and a couple of folks did a cultural tour, which included the National Museum and the Dinosaur Museum, well worth doing and recommended.
On day one we went to Songino and some riparian habitat along the Tuul River, and picked up the first Mongolian birds, including Asian Azure-winged Magpie, White-cheeked Starling, a nice assortment of wildfowl and Demoiselle Crane. Long-tailed Rosefinch showed nicely, as did Azure Tit and White-crowned Penduline Tit, plus White-backed Woodpecker. The big star though, was a totally unexpected Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker in the wrong habitat, a lifer for all.
Bogd Mountain strict Nature Reserve next day was good with Thick-billed and Dusky Warbler, Booted and Golden Eagle, Pine Bunting and a literally huge bonus in a massive female Eurasian Eagle Owl sat on a cliff face with 3 large fluffy chicks nearby.
Next, we headed up to Terelj and stayed at a very remote ger camp close to a lovely boreal forest site for Black-billed Capercaillie which had been lekking here the previous week. Despite the good conditions, scat and feathers, luck was not with us, but it was a superb area, with Chinese Bush Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and Pine Bunting singing. There is even a chance of wolf here as they often hear them at night by the camp.
Terelj NP had really beautiful Siberian larch and pine forest, with many lovely wildflowers like globeflower, grass of Parnassus and yellow pasque flower. Birds included Gray-headed, Great and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, Common and Oriental Cuckoo, Pine and Black-faced Bunting, Red-throated Thrush, Eastern Buzzard, Willow and Marsh Tit and two sightings of Ural Owl.
Next it was off to Hustai National Park, seeing the striking Mongolian Lark, and the much duller Asian Short-toed Lark being common as well. Later that day we had a great experience watching the Przewalski's Wild Horses (Takhi) in the park, a remarkable creature that has come back from near extinction and looks just like the cave paintings of those horses with erect manes. Beautiful pale buffy and blonde colouration too; a striking creature that is reintroduced here and looks to be doing quite well.
Other good mammals here were pikas, Red Deer and the delightful large Mongolian marmots, and Ian encountered a large Daurian Hedgehog when he was on a visit to the bathroom early morning, which the guys actually caught and showed us next day. Birds included Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Amur and Saker Falcon, Rock Sparrow and Meadow Bunting. A huge and severe storm with constant rolling thunder like something from the Western Front luckily by-passed us, but destroyed a section of the main highway not far away, and we were very lucky to get through the floodwaters en route to Ugii Lake.
Heading west, we stopped at Dasinchilen wetland and Tsargaan lakes. Swan Goose and Bar-headed Goose showed nicely, also White-naped and Common Crane plus an unexpected Hooded Crane, and the rather distinctive Mongolian Gull. We had poor views of Relict Gull too, which regrettably disappeared before we could get any closer. Passerines included Pere David's Snowfinch and Paddyfield Warbler, as well as Reed Bunting. Driving to Ugii Lake, we had a neat bonus with a display flighting lark that proved to be the recently split Mongolian Short-toed Lark, called for some unknown reason Sykes's Short-toed Lark by the Cornell/Clements authorities.
The Ugii Lake area gave us terrific views of White-tailed Eagle and a very fortunate find of Pallas's Fish Eagle, Swan and Bar-headed Geese, Whooper Swans, White-winged Scoter and Red-crested Pochard, plus a few shorebirds including Eurasian Curlew and Marsh Sandpiper, and a vagrant Slender-billed Gull.
The ancient Mongol capital of Khar Korin has a large temple complex which was home to Red-billed Choughs and Blyth's Pipit. Later, a large wetland at Elsen Tasarkhai (Burd marsh) gave us a pair of White-naped Cranes with chicks, summer plumage Asian Dowitcher, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Swan Goose, Bar-headed Geese with many goslings, and several Eastern Marsh Harriers.
Back to Ulaanbaatar next day, then our large bags headed south with the vehicle to Dalanzadgad whilst we took the early morning Hunnu Air flight and met up with them for the Gobi-Altai sector of the trip. Khanbogd ger camp has a nice rocky valley behind it that gave us Chukar, Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, Eastern Black Redstart, Mongolian Finch, Kozlov's Accentor, Grey-necked Bunting and Godlewski's Bunting. It was also quite nearby the gorgeous Gobi Altai Mountain valley of Yolyn Am (Lammergeier Valley), where we saw Lammergeier, as well as Cinereous and Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Saker, Wallcreeper, Mongolian (Kozlov's) and Brown Accentor, Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, and many tame White-winged Snowfinch and Horned Larks. Altai Snowcock drew a blank as usual; you need great luck to see that species here. We also had a good mammal day with Ibex, Mongolian Gerbils and a really good number of vocal Pallas's Pika.
Driving into the edge of the Gobi proper was about 120 km on a somewhat corrugated road, astonishingly enough in heavy rain for much of it! Despite this we still found the remarkable Henderson's (Mongolian) Ground-Jay, and lots of Pallas's Sandgrouse, even seeing a nest with 2 eggs when Phil almost stood on an incubating bird. Desert Wheatear nests at the ger camp, which is sited near to the great Khongor sand dunes, and the saxaul forest there gave us the rare and localized Saxaul Sparrow, Daurian and Great-Grey Shrike (Steppe Grey) with terrific looks, and amazing numbers of Pallas's Sandgrouse along the river and gravel plains there, a real irruption year that we were very fortunate to experience as they seldom occur now.
A nocturnal mammal foray here was terrific, as we had a fabulous Long-eared Hedgehog, a nice look at a several Gobi Jerboa (remarkably like a diminutive kangaroo!) plus Siberian Jerboa, Five-toed Pygmy Jerboa, Desert Hamster (or yellow taxi!) and Mid-day Gerbil; not bad for a 45 minute tour of the camp perimeter.
Heading back towards Dalanzadgad we took a different, more remote route to the famous dinosaur site of Flaming Cliffs, (seeing both the rare Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelle and Zeren or White-tailed Gazelle plus Pallid Ground-Squirrel en route). A flight schedule change meant we could only do lunch at the ger camp at the famous site, then had to head back to Dalangadzad for an early morning flight next day. Still, the Flaming Cliffs site is spectacular colorful desert scenery, and we found several summer plumage Oriental Plover on the journey back as the last trip addition.
Our bags met up with us at the hotel in Ulaan Baatar next morning, and we had an enjoyable farewell dinner at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant. Many thanks to our very hard working and careful drivers Bilgai (Terelj section) and especially Bataa who was with us for the entire trip, and to Gombo, Mr Birding Mongolia, our expert local guide and organizer who did a terrific job. The young trainee Dauka was also a very handy spotter, water man, sound recorder, photographer and general helper, and I think we improved his English quite a bit. We are grateful to them for making the tour so memorable and for many kindnesses to our group. Also thanks to Sue and Rowan of Sicklebill Safaris who basically arranged things in Mongolia, and to Sharon at Field Guides who co-ordinated the whole enterprise and did her customary great job.
Thanks of course also to the group for coming along. I am glad we shared this adventurous, somewhat weather afflicted trip with good humor, and enjoyed so many memorable sightings. I hope the photos turn out nicely. Safe travels and I look forward to seeing you again on future trips, and best wishes to Larry and Ian on the rocky road to 7000 species. Thanks also to Ian for sharing his scope, and to John for some good spotting; always very helpful to have a team effort in finding things.
Mongolia is a great trip for landscapes in a very unusual country, with some rare and seldom-seen birds, and an unexpectedly good selection of mammals- why not join us for another memorable adventure there in 2020?
• Sat Jun 8: Arrival in Ulaan Baatar (UB) for those doing the cultural option. Zuchi Hotel overnight.
• Sunday June 9: Optional tour of Ulaanbaatar for early arrivals, including National Museum and the Dinosaur Museum, though Choisin Lama temple was closed this year for renovations. Highly recommended! Overnight Zuchi Hotel
• Monday Jun 10: Tuul River riparian habitat at Songino and damp thickets near the Kuwait-Mongolia Research Centre at Bogd Mt. Overnight at Zuchi Hotel. Overcast with showers
• Tues Jun 11: Steppe areas en route to Terelj NP, overnight Khadag ger camp. Fine conditions.
• Wed Jun 12: Shar Guya Black-b Capercaillie site dep. 0300 NP: then Tuul River riparian en route to Terelj. Overnight Tumen Khaan ger camp. Warm and sunny
• Thurs Jun 13: Tumen Khaan area/ Terelj riparian then to 1800 above Tumen Khaan taiga forest, good weather.
• Friday Jun 14: Tumen Khaan area 0630-0730 then 5 hours to Hustai NP, wild horse visit pm, overnight Moltsog Els ger camp.
• Sat Jun15: Heavy rain and strong wind, steppe near Moltsog then pm to Baishant dry valley in Hustai, huge thunderstorm late pm, overnight Moltsog Els ger camp.
Sun Jun 16: Negotiated floodwater that had destroyed main road to reach Dashinchilen Marsh, then to Ugii Lake and ger camp overnight. Overcast.
Mon Jun 17: Ugii Lake SW shore am, them pm to Khar Korin via N shore of Ugii Lake. Overnight Anja ger camp. Overcast then fine.
Tues Jun 18: Kharkorin temple then to Burd marsh/Elsen Tasarkhai and Hoyor Zagal ger camp. Fine conditions.
Wed Jun 19: Hoyor Zagal to Ulaanbaatar via Tuul River bridge, overnight at Zuchi Hotel. Fine conditions
• Thurs Jun 20: Early morning flight 0620 via Hunnu Air to Dalangadzad, then via plantation farm to Khanbogd ger camp. Pm to nearby dry valley, warm and sunny
• Fri Jun 21: Yolyn Am (2600m or 8200') early morning dep 0400, then pm to Mukher Shivery dry valley. Overnight Khanbogd ger camp. Overcast but pleasant.
• Sat Jun 22: Plantation near Khanbogd then drive 120 km on corrugated road into Gobi via Thuhun Balai fuel stop. Very windy and coming into heavy rain as we reached the Ground-Jay site. Overnight in cabins at Gobi Erdene ger camp.
• Sun Jun 23: Khongoryn Gol saxaul forest, then pm to nearby marsh. Night walk at Gobi Erdene. Fine conditions
• Mon Jun 24: Gobi Erdene to Flaming Cliffs (116 km 5+ hours), Bulgan plantation en route, then to Dalangadzad (90Km) arriving at hotel 1930. Fine but windy later
• Tues Jun 25: Hunnu Air to Ulaan Baatar 0745, fine conditions. Shopping options in UB and farewell dinner.
• Wed Jun 26: Early morning departures home
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
Birds of the trip were pretty uniform overall, with Pallas's Sandgrouse way up there, along with Eurasian Eagle Owl and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, though Mongolian Ground-Jay also featured, as did Ural Owl.
Marbled Polecat was of course the big winner with the mammals, though the gazelles were a welcome find, as were the ibex and the obliging Przewalski's Wild horses.
The night walk around Gobi Erdene was again very rewarding this year despite the damp conditions prevailing, with 8 species of small mammal:
Long-eared desert hedgehog (Hemiechinus auritus)- One lovely animal gave brief photo ops, quite different to the much larger and heavier Daurian Hedgehog (Mesechinus dauuricus) we were shown at Moltsog Els.
Five-toed Pygmy Jerboa (Cardiocranius paradoxus) Seen well on the night walk at Gobi Erdene, a small greyish jerboa with a long, bare and quite fat tail. Gombo and Dauka spent ages getting photos and it is seemingly rarely encountered, a new species for Phil.
Siberian Jerboa (Allactaga sibirica) One on the night walk at Gobi Erdene, it has shorter ears than Gobi Jerboa and Dauka was sure of it.
Gobi Jerboa (Allactaga bullata) The commoner one on the night walk, I saw a couple, the long ears very noticeable.
Northern Three-toed Jerboa (Dipus sagitta) A small long tailed jerboa with relatively small ears, I had brief views of one outside the fence, tentatively a new mammal for Phil.
Mid-day Gerbil (Meriones meridianus)- One running and sheltering under a bush, active at night as well as at mid-day it seems.
Desert Hamster (Phodopus roborovskii) - Four seen on the walk, known as the yellow taxi in Mongolia as they dart about everywhere! A new mammal for Phil.
Grey Hamster (Cricetulus migratorius) A small grey hamster with no dorsal stripe is presumably this species, also another new mammal for Phil.
A very poor spring for them, we saw remarkably few and I got exactly two species photographed.
A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) was seen at Khongoryn.
Totals for the tour: 189 bird taxa and 23 mammal taxa