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Mongolia – birding in the Steppes of Genghis Khan!

Henderson's Ground Jay

Henderson's Ground Jay 

Naturetrek’s Tailormade manager, Robin Smith, has recently returned from a highly successful exploratory tour of Mongolia. Here he describes his action-packed journey, the special birds and mammals of the country, as well as the incredible landscapes and nomadic peoples who call Mongolia home.

 

Mongolia only opened her doors to tourists in the early 1990’s, following the downfall of the Soviet Empire and subsequent democratic revolution. As a result, very few tourists visit and even wildlife-focused travellers venture here. This is surely set to change, as tourist facilities continue to improve and the secrets of this fascinating country are slowly revealed to the world!

 

My journey started in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. The city itself is not a particularly inspiring place, but there is some excellent introductory birding along the Tuul River, which runs through the city, and its surrounding habitats of stunted willows and shallow ponds. Here exotic species such as Yellow-breasted Bunting, Long-tailed Rosefinch and White-crowned Penduline Tit are all possible and ensured a great start to my journey!


Leaving the city far behind, I was soon journeying across the vast and seemingly endless steppe, where the promise of shimmering lakes, beautiful deserts and remote mountains – all with their exciting associated wildlife – lay tantalisingly ahead. Although overland journeys are necessarily long and are often on unpaved roads, we were constantly stopping to view birds and mammals along the way. Various ground squirrels, voles and Mongolian Marmot were the most common conspicuous mammals, and we also visited to a national park to see the endangered and wild Przewalski’s Horse, which were conveniently tracked down close to an Amur Falcon nesting colony! Throughout the journey Upland Buzzards were a common sight, as were huge circling Cinerous Vultures. Saker Falcons too were relatively common, and we encountered several nest sites on roadside wooden telegraph poles which afforded marvellous views of this impressive falcon. Other familiar steppe inhabitants included both Isabeline and Northern Wheatear, as well as various larks including Mongolian, Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks which would provide the ‘sound-track’ whenever we stopped to scope out an area or enjoy a picnic lunch. Indeed, finding a suitable location for a scenic meal was incredibly easy … one could stop the vehicle just about anywhere and the views were invariably breath-taking.

Przewalski’s Horse

Przewalski’s Horse 

During my time in Mongolia I managed to bird several impressive lakes, which varied in remoteness but never failed to produce both large volumes of birds as well as a good number of highly sought-after species. A few of the many lakeside birding highlights included excellent views of Demoiselle and White-naped Cranes, Asian Dowitcher, Falcated Duck, Spot-billed Duck, White-winged Black Tern, Bar-headed Geese and the curious looking Swan Goose. The fringing marshes also held several special species such as the vocal Oriental Reed Warbler and skulking Baillion’s Crake, whilst Eastern Marsh Harriers patrolled overhead and White-tailed Eagles and Pallas’s Fish Eagles occasionally made an appearance. After a full day of birding I would retire to a comfortable tourist ger (the local name for a yurt) camp for a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep. The gers themselves were comfortable without being luxurious, but, like the picnic spots, the locations were always incredibly scenic!

Many of Mongolia’s inhabitants still live a nomadic lifestyle, tending to their herds of goat, sheep and cattle as they move to favoured seasonal camps. Modern vehicles have replaced the heavy reliance on horses to a certain degree, but the horse is still very much central to these resilient people’s way of live. It was wonderful to stop and interact with a few nomadic families along the way, and we were invariably invited in for a cup of tea or a sample of the national drink of Mongolia, fermented mare’s milk – an acquired taste but one I thought I must try!

Robin enjoying the hospitality of local nomands

Robin enjoying the hospitality of local nomads 

Another key stop on my exploratory itinerary was to the south of the country and the Gobi Altai region. Here we enjoyed views of both Goitered (Black-tailed) and Mongolian (White-tailed) Gazelle, which were seen sprinting across the open steppe. Here huge sand dunes tower over Saxaul Forest (Haloxylon ammodendron) trees – a strange plant highly adapted to this desert landscape. Saxaul Sparrow, as their name suggests, inhabit patches of this interesting and rare habitat, whilst the striking Henderson’s Ground Jay is another key target of the area – a species we had to work hard for, but were richly rewarded with close-up views of a foraging family group! Somewhat conversely, seasonal streams and shallow pools form wetlands here during the spring and summer months, thanks to snow-melt from the nearby Khangay mountains. These seemingly out-of-place oases act as a magnet for both local as well as passage birdlife. Indeed, one of the most iconic birds of the region, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, can be seen here as they fulfil their daily need for water, which they also carry back to their young in specialised breast feathers. This was certainly one of the highlights of the entire trip for me – watching as these elegant birds flew past the massive sand dunes sounding their distinctive flight call … certainly an experience that will live long in the memory. Also in the region are graceful Oriental Plovers which breed out on the open desert steppe and are most conspicuous when performing their beautiful display flights in the spring.

Gobi Desert

Gobi Desert 

Slightly further to the north is a section of the great Altai Mountain range, which rises up to heights of over 4,000 metres. With this rise in altitude comes a differing set of birds such as Altai Snowcock, both Alpine and Kozlov’s Accentor, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Beautiful Rosefinch, Asian Rosy-finch and Wallcreeper amongst many others. It’s also another excellent raptor location with Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Saker Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard and Lesser Kestrel all in evidence. Perhaps most surprising of all though, was that this rugged mountainous region could still be explored with relative ease (based on another tourist ger camp) without the need to hike for hours on end or scramble up treacherous slopes!

My final destination on this incredible wildlife journey was to the southern fringes of the great taiga forest, an area which can be accessed via a short drive heading north-east from the capital, Ulaan Baatar. The forest here consists predominantly of pine, spruce and larch trees and presents another distinct habitat that will bolster an already impressive list of sought-after species. The elusive Black-billed Capercaillie can be seen here, although unfortunately I didn’t have time to search the upper forested slopes for this iconic and elusive bird (next time hopefully!). Instead, we birded the more accessible forests close to our comfortable ger camp and were rewarded with species such as Siberian Rubythroat, Taiga Flycatcher, Daurian Redstart, Pine Bunting, Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler and Oriental Cuckoo – to mention only a few!
My time in Mongolia was at an end, but this is only the start of Naturetrek’s explorations to this fascinating country and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to design both group and tailormade tours to this most scenic and exciting of destinations!

Yellow-breasted Bunting

Yellow-breasted Bunting 

A full tour group tour to Mongolia will be launched in our main November Winter newsletter and we will also operate tailormade holidays, with departures in 2016. We hope to run the first group tour in late May/early June 2016 to coincide with exciting passage migrants and the onset of the breeding season when Mongolian wildlife springs into life with the coming of warm and pleasant weather. To express your interest in either the group tour or tailormade holidays, please contact Robin on robin@naturetrek.co.uk or call 01962 733051