Yesterday I found my first spring migrant in the Otzon Chuluu plantation in Khovd, western Mongolia. This reminded me that it was time to write a winter blog covering my birding adventures from January to March. And an adventure it has been for sure.
In January I had a few days off in Ulanbaatar. As often before I headed out birding with Bolormunkh. As a Snowy Owl had been reported in the Sukhbaatar province southeast of the capital we decided to give the area a try.
The first day out was great. While driving along the road I spotted two large brown raptors in the distance. The species by default is Black Vulture, but as we got closer we realized it were two Golden Eagles. We soon saw that the two birds had made a kill as they were feasting on a Mongolian Gazelle. The kill was very recent as the carcass was still warm in spite of temperatures below -20 C.
By approaching very slowly the Golden Eagles allowed us to get amazing views and pictures. We were almost perplexed by experiencing this event – very likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After about 30 minutes the eagles took of and we continued our journey.
On the steppes of Sukhbaatar we saw hundreds of Upland Buzzards concentrated in areas with voles. They also offered great photo opportunities and entertainment. The variety in plumage was great with the majority of birds being light morph and a few being almost completely brown.
A few Sakers were also seen along with a flock of probably thousands of Lapland Buntings. The first night we got to sleep at a locals house and on the second day we slept at a hotel in Chinggis City.
As we talked to some locals we were pointed to an area with Daurian Partridges. They offered amazing views as they were used to people being around there – they were almost like the locals pets.
Other birds on the steppe included Mongolian Lark, Black Vultures, Greater Short-toed Larks and Brandt´s Horned Lark. The Snowy Owl didn´t show.
In February Bolormunk visited me for almost two week. During his stay we got to do some great birding. Upon arrival we did a days birding around Khovd. In Otzon Chuluu Red-mantled Rosefinches showed well with up to 10 individuals being present.
Close to the stadion we relocated the third Eurasian Blackbird for Mongolia, which Batmunkh found earlier this winter. There were also a few Bohemian Waxwings in the same area.
On the outskirts of the city we came across a flock of hundreds of Pere-davids Snowfinches. It is a small finch normally found on the steppes and mountains. It can be remarkably hard to find as it it is nomadic in winter. But likely due to the cold weather they had come the city outskirts. The birds showed really well and gave us great photo opportunities.
One day we decided to check the riparian forest along the Khovd river in the vicinity of the town of Erdeneburen. The area contains some of the densest riparian forest I have seen in Mongolia. The forest grows along the river banks and on small islands in the river itself. During summer the herders leave the area, so grazing doesn´t happen during the breeding season. The small islands in the river are inaccessible during summer, so it is a safe haven for many breeding birds like kobdensis Bluethroats, eastern Common Grasshopper Warbler and the rare and endemic Khobdo Ring-necked Pheasant ssp. hagenbeckii.
During winter the area is easily reached by driving on the frozen river and that is what Bolormunkh and I did. As we reached the area we stopped at a few places. Bolormunkh talked to some herders. The first one only rarely saw then Pheasants, but as we got further into the area a herder had seen them the very morning. He pointed us to an area, but we didn´t see it there.
So we returned to his ger (yurt) for some tea and biscuits and then we went together to another place, where the herder knew of about 10 birds being regularly present. As we reached the area Bolormunkh soon located two male Khobdo Pheasants. They were showing quite well, but remained quite skittish and disappeared into and area with tall grass. In the area we also found a female Pheasant plucked by a raptor – likely Goshawk.
As we pressed on we found four Rough-legged Buzzards perched in trees along the frozen river. Safe to say that we got amazing views! Rough-legged Buzzards are rather uncommon and eruptive in Mongolia.
We stopped to talk to another herder, who also knew of Pheasants near by. This time we didn´t find any, but a very perplexing Great Grey Shrike likely to be a Chinese Grey Shrike flew by as we checked the area. Several Northern Shrikes were also present in the area.
As we started to drive south on the frozen river we found another three male Kobdo Pheasants, which came out to forage as evening approached. Fair to sat that they offered amazing views.
Just after sunset we checked the area where a herder had seen Pheasants in the morning. And surely four males were foraging out in the open allowing us to watch them from a rather close distance.
The herder told us that just a few years ago the Pheasants were really rare, but during the last years they have multiplied in the area – and now flocks of up to ten birds are not an uncommon sight. Quite encouraging to know since the Kobdo Pheasant has a very limited distribution and is likely endemic to western Mongolia.
Bolormunkh and I also had the opportunity to visit Ulgii. On the way to Ulgii we came across a flock of about 100 Brandt´s Mountain-finches. A target species for Bolormunkh. While we observed them we also had 3 fly-by Snow Buntings, some White-winged Snowfinches and a Great Rosefinch.
Some random birding around Ulgii provided us with about 10 Great Rosefinches, 6 Long-eared Owls and both Argli Sheep and Siberian Ibex.
On the drive back from Ulgii to Khovd we obtained amazing views of a Little Owl, that had just caught a Gerbil. Quite a large prey for such a small owl.
Thanks to Bolormunk for some outstanding days in the field!