Spring trip to eastern Mongolia

Male Siberian Blue Robin

Here comes a blog about a trip we made in May 2022 to eastern Mongolia.

Participants: Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu, Silas Olofson and David Baker (first leg of the trip)

Means of transportation: Mitsubishi Delica 4WD.

May 8th

We started our trip to eastern Mongolia by driving to Gun Galuut – a lake about 3 hours drive east of Ulaanbaatar. It is a great stop over, since getting out of Ulaanbaatar often takes quite a while due to traffic congestion and Gun Galuut is a great place for camping and birding.

As it had been rather cold and it was still early in the season the numbers of shorebirds were low, but ducks were present in good numbers. Falcated Duck, 15 Stejneger´s Scoters, 2 White-naped Cranes were all good. The local highlight though were three Long-tailed Ducks, which are quite rare in Mongolia.

White-naped Crane

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109414722

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109414719

Camp site at Gun Galuut

May 9th

After some early morning birding at Gun Galuut we drove to Jargalkhaan. Bolormunkh wanted to check the taiga forest hopefully finding some Black-billed Capercaillies. As we arrived in the afternoon we checked the forest, and it looked very promising. Good views of Red-flanked Bluetails, Black Grouse and Pallas´s Rosefinch, Three-toed Woodpeckers and Daurian Redstart were all nice. But the headlight were 8 Black-billed Capercaillies in the forest. As it was late afternoon we didn´t expect any lekking, but wanted to give them another try in the morning.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109611957

We camped on the edge of the forest and the night got pretty cold with temperatures reached about minus 15 celsius.

Jargalkhaan camp site

May 10th

We woke early and went birding in the forest. About walking only 15 minutes we started hearing Black-billed Capercaillies lekking. As it was at the end of the lekking season we didn´t experience any fierce fighting, but we managed to see the birds well for extended periods. We counted a total of 11 males in the morning.

Black-billed Capercaillie

Other good birds included Grey-headed and Three-toed Woodpecker. See ebird list below.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109611935

We then drove from Jargalkhan to the Moron plantation, where we camped. We had some time in the afternoon at the plantation, which is basically a bunch of trees in the middle of nowhere. The plantation is not dense at all, so observing and photographing birds there is quite easy.

It was obvious that migration started to gain pace. Two White´s Thrushes, 20 Taiga Flycatchers, 2 Japanese Sparrowhawks and 30 Little Buntings were all nice.

Japanese Sparrowhawk

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109611955

Camp site in Moron

May 11th

After a good nights sleep in somewhat warmer conditions we did some morning birding at Moron. Highlight were a very showy Eyebrow Thrush, a male Dusky Thrush, Swinhoe´s Snipe along with most of the birds from the day before.

Eyebrow thrush

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109738509

We then drove to the Herlen river, where we camped on the river banks. Some late afternoon birding produced the following ebird list: https://ebird.org/checklist/S109843213

Camp site at Herlen river

May 12th

After a good nights sleep on the beautiful river banks we did some birding along the river. Migration had really kicked in and there were plenty of birds to see. The riparian forest did make birding a tad difficult, but with patience most birds allowed reasonable views. Some highlights included 100 Black-faced Buntings, 300 Little Buntings, White´s, Eyebrowed, Dusky, Naumann´s and Red-throated Thrush. Six Falcated Ducks also showed very well.

Male Falcated Duck

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109738511

We then drove through the Toson Khulstai national park. While we were there it started to rain and wind picked up – and birds started raining down from heaven. Thousands of larks, hundreds of Lapland Buntings, scattered passerines out in the open like White´s and Naumann´s Thrushes and much more.

We decided to camp at a settlement to shelter from the weather. As we arrived a Long-eared Owl was sitting right next to the house seeking shelter.

Oriental Greenfinch

As it cleared up we did some birding at the settlement. For me the greatest highlight was a flock of 30 Oriental Greenfinches, which was a lifer for me. But amazing views of White´s Thrush weren´t bad either.

Camp site at the settlement

May 13th

After some morning birding we started driving towards Choibalsan. On the way we checked some lakes and scattered bushes. Bewick´s Swans were nice to see, but the highlight were more than 500 Mongolian Short-toed Larks.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S109843212

We arrived at Choibalsan in the afternoon. There we got permission to stay at the office of the Mongolian Bird Conservation Centre (http://www.mbcc.mn/). It was nice to sleep inside for a change, having both electricity and internet at hand.

Male Yellow-breasted Bunting

Some late afternoon birding produced scattered migrants like Little Buntings, Pallas´s Leaf Warblers and three Yellow-breasted Buntings.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S110016152

May 14th

As it was Global Big Day we decided to try to see as many birds as possible around Choibalsan. Highlights included Oriental Plover, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Azur Tit, Pallas´s Grashopper Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin and Yellow-browed Bunting.

Oriental Plover

We slept one more night in Choibalsan as David was leaving for Ulaanbaatar the following day.

May 15th to 20th

We found a ride to Ulaanbaatar for David and then Bolormunkh and I headed towards Buir Nuur, which was one of our main targets of the trip. On the way there we crossed the Menen Steppe with its heads of Mongolian Gazelles. A very impressive sight.

The vast Menen steppe

The Menen Steppe is quite dry, but along the road we found a small pond full of birds. We tried to wait a bit to see what showed up – and we were not disappointed. Amazing views of Lapland Bunting, Pallas´s Bunting, Little Bunting, Mongolian and Asian Short-toed Larks. Quite nice.

Mongolian Short-toed Lark

We then continued to Buir Nuur. In August 2019 Bolormunkh and I visited the area along with Abu and I was struck by its potential. Back then we had flocks of thousands of Little Curlews, loads of shorebirds and good passerines. And an absolute highlight was Reed Parrotbill.

As the area is close to the Chinese border Bolormunkh had obtained border permissions for him and I. And that came in handy as the military checked our permissions twice. When we arrived in the area we didn´t recognize it almost. Where there used to be shallow or dry reed beds we found a deep lake. That was not what we expected. Soon a local came by and we asked him about the lake. It turned out that we were on the right location, but in 2019 the water lever had been very low in Buir Nuur where as it was on its highest now. But it really didn´t matter that much. Our main target was to check the willows along the shore as I expected them to draw in a lot of migrants. And we were not disappointed.

Willows at Buir Nuur

Placed between the vast lake and the never-ending steppe the willows were magnets for birds. Just hundreds and hundreds of them. A single willow at the same time containing Siberian Rubythroat, a few Pallas´s Leaf Warblers, Taiga Flycatcher and a Eyebrowed Thrush was not at all uncommon. And since they birds had such little cover they were fairly easy to work with – Baikal Bush Warbler and Brown-cheeked Rail being the exception.

We spent three days in the willows and had some of the best birding in my life there. So many speices in beautiful plumage. Some highlights include: Little Curlew, Far-eastern Curlew, Relict Gull, Siberian Thrush, 600 Little Buntings, 350 Black-faced Buntings and 11 Chestnut Buntings.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S111386037

Camp site at Buir Nuur

May 20th to 21th

We decided to leave Buir Nuur with a heavy heart, but the urge to explore further overtook our desire for continuing around Buir. We drove to the Khalkh river delta, where the Khalkh River delta flows into the Buir Nuur. The delta looks pristine, but it completely inaccessable without a boat and military permission. So we tried some plantations further east, but compared to Buir Nuur it was really boring.

May 22th to 24th

Only two years ago members of the Mongolian Bird Conservation society (http://www.mbcc.mn/) had found a breeding area for Jankowski´s Bunting. We decided to go there and see what the area had to offer. We arrived quite late and didn´t find any Jankowski´s the first evening.

The next morning we tried again and soon I found two very elusive buntings. I used about and hour obtaining good views in the tall grass only to find out they were Meadow Buntings. So I started hiking to higher altitude and finally my first Jankowski´s Bunting – a nice male showing well.

Jankowski´s Bunting

While I was birding Bolormunkh found a Daurian Startling and we both saw several Japanese Quails.

Jankowski´s Bunting area

We weren´t quite happy with the area as birding was hard in the dense cover, so we moved to a more open area and it really paid off. Birds kept coming in from the south and soon I found my first male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and then another one. Then male Siberian Thrush, Thick-billed and Radde´s Warbler, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Tristram´s Buntings and so much more. The birding was simply breath taking. So many birds everywhere.

Male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher

https://ebird.org/checklist/S111386799

We ended up seing about 50 Jankowski´s Buntings and taking the size of the area into consideration there could be several hundred pairs, which is wonderful as the species is endangered.

After three days we decided to head on to a place white scattered elm-trees. Bolormunkh had been informed that the area could be good for migrants, so we headed there.

Camp site near the Jankowski´s breeding grounds.

May 25th to May 26th

We arrived in the afternoon and started birding right away. The birding was good and the highlights were a briefly seen Wallcreeper and an incredibly showy White-throated Rock-thrush.

White-throated Rock-thrush

The following day a thunder storm hit. It was obvious that it had brought down birds. And even before it stopped raining I went out – after all if you´re from the Faroes you are used to bird in the rain. And what a scenario. Siberian Blue Robins everywhere – the days total was estimated to 300 birds. And since they had no cover, they showed amazingly well and they called actively and appeared to set up small territories.

A flock of 6 Siberian Thrushes were also quite nice even though they were soaked by the rain.

During the next two days many birds stayed in the area and more kept arriving. Hundreds of Common Rosefinches and a 60 Chestnut Buntings in a single valley. It really was a bunting Mecca with Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed, Yellow-throated, Tristram´s, Little, Chestnut and Black-faced all recorded in the place. We only missed Chestnut-eared Bunting, when not considering the western Bunting species of Mongolia.

Right next to our camp we had displaying Oriental Plovers and recorded about 10 birds during our trip.

The highlight of the trip happened on the last day in the elm-valley. While checking the female Siberian Blue Robins I noticed a small robin on the ground. I managed to get a few pictures and saw it for less then a minute. I went to get Bolormunkh and told him that I had a likely Rufus-tailed Robin. He confirmed it from the photo, but sadly the bird had evaporated into the air.

Rufus-tailed Robin

The birding in the valley was beyond words. As we hit the peak of migration for quite a few species combined with unstable weather success was achieved. And the fact that there was no understory in the forest observing the birds was very easy – even easier than the willows at Buir Nuur and much easier than the Jankowski´s place.

We would really love to use more time in the area but I needed to head for Ulaanbaatar. If we had had a few more days we might have hit the peak of the locustellas as well, but we only saw very few of those.

Camp site in the Elm valley – note the unstable weather

On th 27th we drove to a plantation in Bulgan. Also there we had some great birding including two White-throated Thrushes, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Lanceolated Warbler and 60 Siberian Blue Robins.

From Bulgan I got a ride to Ulaanbaatar, as Bolormunkh continued birding for a few days.

Thanks to David and Bolormunkh for an epic trip to eastern Mongolia!

Silas

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