Tuesday 9 May 2017

Mongolia - Background and Day 1 and 2 - Travel Day then Mungunmorit Area

I bumped into my old friend, Jon Hornbuckle, at the Bird Fair in 2016 and he mentioned that he was considering going back to Mongolia in 2017 and so I expressed my interesting in accompanying him. There are not many ticks for me in Mongolia but I was keen to see Black-billed Capercaillie, Azure Tit, Asian Dowitcher and Relict Gull at its breeding grounds. There is of course the cultural side of Mongolia and I was keen to experience this along with the open landscapes and remoteness that the country has to offer.

Most trips run around 2-3 weeks later than ours mainly to maximise the chances of seeing migrant species and increasing the chances of encountering species such as Hodgson's Bush-chat and Chinese Bush-warbler. We were keen to see Black-billed Capercaillie lekking and the standard tour dates often struggle to even get brief views of the species as it has stopped lekking, hence we opted for earlier dates. This earlier timing meant that migration had only just started, akin to birding in the UK in early to mid-April. As a result the diversity of warblers was not as high as some trips but we saw a lot more thrushes than the standard trip.

The entire trip was organised by Jon through Tumendelger Humbaa of Tum-Eco Tour:

Tum-Eco Tour
1-19, Dalan, Dalanzadgad,
Southgobi, Mongolia.
e-mail: tumen106@yahoo.com

My travel companions for the trip were Barry Wright, Jon Hornbuckle, Marc Brew, Rod Martins, Lorand Szucs, Richard Fairbank (http://birdingneversleeps.blogspot.co.uk) and Duncan Brooks. I had only birded with Jon and Barry previously.

Tumen provided three Toyota Landcruisers and a support vehicle for the duration, the vehicles were very good and well maintained and we had no issues with them with the exception of a single puncture. On one of the days there was another issue with one of the Landcruisers vehicle (not sure exactly what this was) but Tumen provided a temporary replacement vehicle and driver and thus we experienced no disruption to our birding. The guys in the support vehicles erected tents and cooked for us. Tumen speaks relatively little English, but enough for basic communication, his wife Oyunna speaks excellent English and helped translate. The trip went very smoothly thanks to Tumen, Oyunna and their excellent team. My only criticism would be that when we arrived at a birding site there was a lack of clear instruction as to what we were doing so that the team would scatter to bird but there was no guidance on how long we should be – this is a minor comment and one that could have easily have been resolved amongst ourselves.

We camped on a total of eight nights, the tents and sleeping bags provided by Tum-Eco Tur were of an excellent standard and kept us warm and cosy despite the often cold temperatures. I took my own sleeping bag with liner and used this while sleeping on top of the bags provided. On one night I had to get into the provided sleeping bag meaning I slept in two bags plus a liner and with a thermal top on!

I saw all the birds that I wanted to see with five notable exceptions:
  • White-backed Woodpecker – We looked for this at Terelj National Park but failed. I wasn’t convinced that Tumen knew exactly where too look for this and despite spending two sessions at his site we didn’t have a sniff.
  • Hodgson’s Bush-chat – Half of the team saw this at Barig Mountain but I was too far away and didn’t hear the shout. We also missed it at Baga Bogd because we didn’t go high enough and left the site too soon. I think we were perhaps too early to see the species and the one seen definitely gave the impression of a recently arrived migrant.
  • Altai Accentor - We missed this at Baga Bogd because we didn’t go high enough and left the site too soon.
  • Thick-billed Warbler - I think we were probably a bit too early for this species.
  • Asian Rosy-finch – We missed this at Baga Bogd because we didn’t go high enough and left the site too soon.
The weather throughout the trip was sunny and mild/warm with temperatures up to around 24c but the cool wind often meant it felt cooler. We had a few days of strong wind but with rain only on 10th May which fell as snow at higher altitudes. On 19th May the wind was very strong and we experienced a fairly significant sand storm, later that night when staying at 2,500m there was a fairly significant snow fall. The nights were cold to very cold, down to -10c.

Photography on the trip was generally hampered by two factors, firstly, the weather was mainly very sunny and there was significant heat haze from fairly early in the morning. It was light at around 06:00 until 20:00 but heat haze tended to be a significant issue from around 11:00 until 17:00. Secondly, many of the birds were present were in wetland habitats and thus birds were considerably distant this, coupled with the heat haze, often made photography difficult. 

I took with me my Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 400mm DO Mark II and a Canon 1.4 Mark III Extender. Largely this was combination was okay but in many places I could have done with the extra reach of my 500mm but the downside of this lens is the bulk and weight. While walks were not particularly lengthy carrying the 500mm lens all day in the field can be hard work so on balance I think the 400mm was a good option. I also took with me my Swarovski ATX 80 telescope which was essential and I often birded with my scope and the camera slung over my shoulder, this would not have been possible with the 500mm lens.

  • 8th May (Day 1) – Travel from London Heathrow to Ulaanbaatar via Istanbul and Bishkek. 11:30-11:15, journey time of 15.5 hours
  • 9th May (Day 2) - Arrive Ulaanbaatar 11:15 birded en-route to Mungunmorit. Night camping at Mungum Sum.
  • 10th May  (Day 3) -  Birding Mungunmorit and Gachuurt area before returning to Ulaanbaatar. Night Ulaanbaatar guest house.
  • 11th May  (Day 4) - Drive from Ulaanbaatar south to Dalanzadgad (570km). Night Dalanzadgad guest house.
  • 12th May (Day 5)  – Drive to from Dalanzadgad to Gurvan Saikhan National Park. Night camping in the National Park.
  • 13th May (Day 6) - Gurvan Saikhan National Park. Night Dalanzadgad guest house.
  • 14th May  (Day 7) - Driving from Dalanzadgad to Gobi Desert driving en-route. Night camping near to Khongor Sand Dunes.
  • 15th May  (Day 8) – Driving through Gobi Desert to Bogd with night camping beside Orog Lake.
  • 16th May  (Day 9) - Drive up Baga Bogd Mountain and birding until early afternoon, then drive to Kholboolj Lake. Night camping beside Kholboolj Lake.
  • 17th May  (Day 10) - Birding around Kholboolj Lake early AM then drive to Barig Mountain. Birding PM at Barig Mountain. Night camping at Barig Mountain.
  • 18th May  (Day 11) - Early AM birding at Barig Mountain then drive to Sangiin Lake. Night camping beside Sangiin Lake.
  • 19th May  (Day 12) - AM birding at Sangiin Lake then onto Bayan Lake. Drive to Hustai National Park with night in research centre in the park.
  • 20th May  (Day 13) - Morning birding Hustai National Park then drove to Terelj National park. Night in Ulaanbaatar 2 Hotel at Terelj National Park.
  • 21st May  (Day 14) - Morning birding at Terelj National Park then drove to Gachuurt area. Night camping at Gachuurt area.
  • 22nd May  (Day 15) - Morning birding at the Gachuurt area then drove to Ulaanbaatar stopping to bird willow scrub along Tuul River. Night in Mongolica Hotel, Ulaanbaatar.
  • 23rd May  (Day 16) - International flight from Ulaanbaatar to London Heathrow at 11:15 via Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Istanbul arriving in London at 22:30.

This was our route as originally proposed, there were some tweaks later in the trip but essentially the above depicts our route. The north-east extension early on was for lekking Black-billed Capercaillie

8th - 9th May – Travel from London to Ulaanbaatar
After a sleepless night I awoke at 05:45 on 8th May gathered my baggage, said my farewells to Sarah and Tobias and headed up the M3 to Heathrow Terminal 2. After checking in I met up with Barry Wright and had a quick catch-up before I headed for a breakfast in the Lufthansa lounge. Our Turkish Airlines flight was due to depart at 11:30 but eventually we left at 12:50 due to a delayed inbound flight as a result of increased security measures. We headed south-west over Europe over Amsterdam, Prague and Budapest before landing in Istanbul at 18:00 (duration 3 hours 10 minutes), Istanbul being two hours ahead of UK time. The transfer across the airport to the gate for our next flight was somewhat hurried but we arrived just as the last passengers were boarding. Our flight to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan departed at 19:45 around 30 minutes late and as we taxied along the runway I added Yellow-legged Gull, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw and Alpine Swift to my non-existent Turkish list. There were several hundred Alpine Swift buzzing low over the runway and I assumed they nested in the adjacent buildings, the city of Istanbul flanking the runway. We headed east over the Black Sea, skirting along its southern shore, before heading over the raptor hotspot of Batumi, across the Caspian Sea, into Kazakhstan skirting around the north of the Aral Sea before dropping down into Bishkek landing at around 03:30 local time. We left Bishkek at around 05:00 and flew north-east over the north-west corner of China before landing in Ulaanbaatar at 11:15 on the morning of the 9th May a total journey time of 15.5 hours.

The Mongolian landscape as we approached Ulaanbaatar 

The Mongolian landscape as we approached Ulaanbaatar 

Ulaanbaatar just prior to landing, the Tuul River and its vegetated flood plain is a 
significant feature of the city 

After arrival in Ulaanbaatar we met with Tumen and his team and loaded our bags into the three vehicles seeing a few first birds of the trip including Redpoll and Grey Wagtail before heading onto the streets of the city. We drove through a mix of Gers and modern apartment blocks before quickly running into a traffic jam. As we sat bumper to bumper we saw a few birds in the town including Chough, Northern Wheatear, Goosander, Rook, Raven and Black Kite. After emerging from the town we quickly found our first birding spot, a lake nestled in the vast grassy expanses which stretch away from the city. We scanned the lake picking up a range of familiar species including Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Garganey, Teal, Pintail, Whooper Swan, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Marsh Sandpiper and a pair of less familiar Swan Goose and six Demoiselle Crane. Isabelline Wheatear displayed from telegraph poles while overhead were Steppe Eagle and Cinereous Vulture. Flocks of fabulous piebald Daurian Jackdaw picked over the cow dung with equal numbers of Chough. A lady in a Ger adjacent to the lake seemed a little irate with our presence and the sound of Mongolian shouting somewhat spoiled the atmosphere. Onwards and past an imposing silver statue of Gengis Khan which surveyed the landscape we stopped at a second lake and here added Citrine Wagtail, White Wagtail of the race ocularis, Greylag Goose and Black-winged Stilt.

Adult and immature Daurian Jackdaw, the species passes through the area in large numbers in the spring and only small numbers winter. The species was particularly common around Ulaanbaatar and we saw very few away from the grasslands surrounding the city - Ulaanbaatar

Marsh Sandpiper and a single Redshank - Ulaanbaatar

Black-eared Kite - Ulaanbaatar

The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue was erected in 2008 and is a 40 metre tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog where according to legend, he found a golden whip. The statue is pointed east towards his birthplace. Visitors walk to the head of the horse through its chest and neck, where they have a panoramic view.

Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue 

Our next stop was a far larger lake, Halaikh Lake as we approached we had good views of Hoopoe, Mongolian Lark, Horned Lark and Taiga Flycatcher. Halaikh Lake was a beautiful blue lake set within the barren grasslands of the Mongolian landscape and here our team had set-up a pic-nic table with our lunch. First though we wandered to the lake shore and it was teaming with birds, large numbers of Ruddy Shelduck, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Pochard and Pintail while amongst these were smaller numbers of Slavonian Grebe (4), Black-necked Grebe (4), Demoiselle Crane (c.45), Bar-headed Goose (1), Smew (2) and the stars of the show a minimum count of 32 Stejneger’s Scoter, the males displaying avidly to the females and showing their fabulous upswept white mascara line. A 1st winter Naumann's Thrush showed well along the shoreline while the surrounding grassland held more Mongolian Lark and Asian Short-toed Lark.

Taiga Flycatcher - Halaikh Lake

Taiga Flycatcher - Halaikh Lake

Hoopoe - Halaikh Lake

Raven of race kamtschaticus - Halaikh Lake

1st winter Naumann's Thrush - Halaikh Lake

1st winter Naumann's Thrush - Halaikh Lake

Naumann's Thrush, Little Ringed Plover and Common sandpiper - Halaikh Lake

Stejneger's Scoter - Halaikh Lake

Male and female Stejneger's Scoter - Halaikh Lake

Ruddy Shelduck and Demoiselle Crane - Halaikh Lake

Demoiselle Crane - Halaikh Lake

Lunch beside Halaikh Lake

Dust devil at Halaikh Lake

We drove onwards eventually heading off-road to our campsite at Mungunmorit on the eastern edge of the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. On the way we stopped at an area of scrub where Long-tailed Rosefinch (1) and Pine Bunting (at least 15) were new birds. Bumping and bouncing across the grasslands we eventually reached the edge of the Taiga Forest where we set-up tent in fading light and gathered in the food tent for soup and noodles and a deserved Mongolian beer.

Pine Bunting - Mungunmorit Area

Pine Bunting - Mungunmorit Area

Mungunmorit Area

Our very cold campsite at Mungunmorit

Links to Other Days of the Trip (Click to View)
Day 3 -  Mungunmorit and Gachuurt area
Day 4 - Drive to Dalanzadgad
Day 5  – Gurvan Saikhan National Park
Day 6 - Gurvan Saikhan National Park
Day 7 - Gobi Desert and Khongor Sand Dunes
Day 8 – Gobi Desert to Bogd
Day 9 - Baga Bogd Mountain and Kholboolj Lake
Day 10 - Kholboolj Lake and Barig Mountain
Day 11 - Barig Mountain and Sangiin Lake
Day 12 (Part 1) - Sangiin Lake and Bayan Lake
Day 12 (Part 2) - Sangiin Lake and Bayan Lake
Day 13 - Hustai National Park and Terelj National Park
Day 14 - Terelj National Park and Gachuurt Area
Day 15 and 16 - Gachuurt Area, Tuul River and International flight