Winter blog

Golden Eagle and Mongolian Gazelle

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.

Golden Eagle and Mongolian Gazelle

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.

Golden Eagle and Mongolian Gazelle

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.

Upland Buzzard – dark morph
Upland Buzzard – pale morph

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.

Saker

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.

Daurian Partridges

Daurian Partridge

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.

Red-mantled Rosefinch
Red-mantled Rosefinch

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.

Pere-davids Snowfinches

Pere-davids Snowfinches

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.

Bolormunkh talks to local herder

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.

Kobdo Pheasant

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.

Rough-legged Buzzard

Rough-legged Buzzard

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.

Probable Chinese Grey Shrike

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.

Kobdo Pheasant

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.

Kobdo Pheasant

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.

Brandt´s Mountain-finch

White-winged Snowfinch

Some random birding around Ulgii provided us with about 10 Great Rosefinches, 6 Long-eared Owls and both Argli Sheep and Siberian Ibex.

Great Rosefinch

Long-eared Owl

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.

Little Owl with Gerbil

Thanks to Bolormunk for some outstanding days in the field!

Bolormunkh smiling

Silas

Birding the United Arab Emirates

Purple Sunbird

In late January and early February I visited UAE along with my family. So although this blog is not related to Mongolia I’m gonna post it here anyway. The first days of our visit were used at a conference, and the last week was used on a holiday. During the first days I only watched birds around the hotel in Sharjah and Dubai. Though I have visited Israel and East African there were a few easy lifers for me even in the city. White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls were easy to see in the hotel garden along with Purple Sunbird and Delicate Prinia.

Red-vented Bulbul

Delicate Prinia

Other good birds at the hotel included Sooty Gull (one even swimming the the hotels pool), Indian Silverbill, Western Reef Egret and Indian Roller.

Sooty Gull

Indian Roller

A real surprise was a first winter Black-legged Kittiwake along the shore outside the hotel.

A visit to Dubai and the butterfly island was much fun. My most-wanted bird during the trip was present there – the Socotra Cormorant. In Dubai I only got distant views, but it turned out that the species was easy and common along the coast further north.

Socotra Cormorant

As the conference ended we moved further north and rented both a car and an apartment in Ras al Khaimah. It turned out that Socotra Cormorants would be seen from the hotel balcony and they even roosted on the boulders outside the building complex called Pacific Rak.

Socotra Cormorant

The first trip we made was to Wadi Shaam in the north of the UAE right on the border with Oman on the Musandam peninsula. I got good advice from both Adbulhakim Abdi and Tommy Pedersen (both Swedish birders) – Tommy runs the uaebirding.com homepage.

The Wadi Shaam was really beautiful, but a bit difficult to bird with kids. Good birds included Chukar, White-speckled Bulbul, Plain Leaf Warbler, Desert Lark and Little Green Bee-eater.

Arabian Green Bee-eaters

Desert Lark

I had one full day of birding on my own. First I visited a wet-land in Ras al Khaimah. It was really nice with good species like Grey Francolin, Long-legged Buzzard, two Crab Plovers, Bank Myna, Terek Sandpiper, Greater Flamingos and plenty of Socotra Cormorants.

Grey Francolin

Crab Plover

I then visited Hamraniyah Fields, but it was very dry and didn´t produce much of interest. So I headed on the Wadi Bih, which is located to the north. The dry mountain landscape was truly impressive – and reminded me somewhat of Mongolia although the temperatures were quite different.

Wadi Shaam

At the first stop I first located two Striolated Buntings. I´ve only heard the species once before in Israel. This time the birds showed very well in the dry wadi.

Striolated Bunting

Shortly after I found a Blue Rock Thrush chasing a Hume´s Wheatear on a steep slope. Eventually the wheatear came down and showed of really well. A lifer for me.

Hume’s Wheatear

Hume’s Wheatear

As I watched the Hume´s Wheatear I noticed two pipits on the ground. It turned out to be Long-billed Pipits – a species I have only seen in Israel earlier. They showed amazingly well as they seemed to hold a territory in the area.

Long-billed Pipit

Other good birds in the area included Brown-necked Ravens, Grey Francolin, Plain Leaf Warbler, Sand Partridge and Chukar. Surely a great place for birding.

Wadi Bih

The following days were spent with the family, but a Crested Honey Buzzard over the impressive Dubai Safari Park was a nice treat.

Crested Honey-buzzard

I did get out one more time though. One afternoon I went to Qarn Nazwa, which is famous for its Pharaoh Eagle Owls. Upon arrival I soon found both Variable and Red-tailed Wheatears. Both lifers to me, so I was really happy.

Red-tailed Wheatear

Variable Wheatear

I met two local Arabs, who had come to look for the owls as well. I was able to show them the wheatears and they offered me to go birding with them on a later occasion, but I was leaving in two days – so it didn’t materialize.

Asian Desert Warbler

A single Asian Desert Warbler also showed well at the site. As sun was setting an Arabian Oryx passed me only a few hundred meters away. Quite an unexpected surprise.

Arabian Oryx

After sunset the Pharaoh Eagle Owls finally started singing and showed briefly – but it was too dark for photography.

All in all the UAE turned out to be quite a nice place for birding, though getting out of the urban areas is a must. The fact that many areas have restricted access makes it somewhat difficult to bird, but with a little persistence the birding really is rewarding.

This Arabian Red Fox was seen from our hotel window

Silas Olofson

Birding and quarantine in Ulaanbaatar

Female Black-billed Capercaillie

It doesn’t always go as planned, right? Especially in these covid, corona, delta, omikron pseudo-apocalyptic times we live in. I think Tolkien nails my feelings about the current times quite well: “I wish it need not have happened in my time, said Frodo. So do I, said Gandalf, and so do all who live to see such times.”

I went to UB on the 8th of December. My plan was to stay for a week. But then someone at the office in Khovd tested positive for corona and my wife and kids were placed in quarantine. My wife was supposed to pick up our oldest daughter arriving from Denmark for Christmas, but due to the quarantine I stayed in Ulaanbaatar to pick her up.

Silja arrived safely along with my aunt, but someone one the plane had tested positive for corona, so we needed to spend the Christmas holidays in an apartment in Ulaanbaatar. Luckily my wife and our two other kids flew in from Khovd and quarantined with us. So we had a great Christmas celebration on our own in Ulaanbaatar.

Before the arrival of Silja and my aunt I had the opportunity to go birding several times with good friends like Bolormunkh, Batmunkh, Abu, David Baker and others.

Abu had found a spot on google maps that looked promising for taiga birds. We went there along with Bolormunkh. There was supposed to be a monastery inside the forest, but it was destroyed. Probably a long time ago by the communists, that did not like the Buddhist monasteries or any religion what so ever. But the forest was really nice.

The highlight for me were a male and a female Black-billed Capercaillie. The female showed amazingly well – and for the first time ever I located it due to its constant calling. This is also the first time I have photographed a female BBC properly.

Female Black-billed Capercaillie

Another visit to Gachuurt with Batmunkh and Bolormunkh was also rewarding. We all split up as we normally do when birding the forest. The group combined saw Siberian Flying Squirrel, Sable, Stoat, Siberian Jays and Siberian Tits, Eurasian Nutcrackers, Pine Grosbeaks and Ural Owl. A clear testimony of the richness of the taiga forest north of Ulaanbaatar.

Asralt Khairkhan Mountain in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park as seen from Gachuurt

Eurasian Nutcracker

A trip to the area around Terelj with David Baker proved to be a true woodpecker trip as we recorded Grey-headed, White-backed, Lesser and Greater Spotted and Three-toed Woodpecker during the day. The only Mongolian woodpecker lacking was the Black Woodpecker, which I expect to be the rarest of the breeding Mongolian woodpeckers. We also came across nice birds like Siberian Tit, Daurian Treecreeper and Eurasian Nutcracker.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Three-toed Woodpecker female

Daurian Treecreeper

Siberian Tit

Abu, Bolormunkh and I also visited the Songino area along the Tuul river close to UB. Birding there was really nice and many trees had berries, that attract many passerines. Red-throated Thrushes were present with around 30 individuals along with a few Black-throated Thrushes.

Male Red-throated Thrush

While walking on my own I briefly saw a Hooded Crow flying by. It is quite a rare bird in Mongolia and my first in the country. I only saw it very briefly flying by as it chased a Daurian Jackdaw.

Daurian Jackdaw

I called the others are we all started searching. As there are several hundred Daurain Jackdaws and Red-billed Choughs in the area along with plenty of “eastern” Carrion Crows it it was hard working scanning the flocks – and again a rather weird feeling checking the “common” Daurian Jackdaws to find the “mega” aka Hooded Crow. The situation in western Europe would be quite the opposite.

Daurian Jackdaws and Red-billed Choughs

After a few hours I finally relocated the Hooded Crow and Bolormunkh also got it as a Mongolian tick.

Hooded Crow

Some other birds around included Azure Tit, Azure-winged Magpies, Hawfinches, Siberian and Brown Accentors, Bohemian Waxwings, Grey-headed, Lesser and Greater Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers.

Siberian Nuthatch

Brown Accentor

After Songino I spent a week in quarantine in at flat in UB, but I did manage to see Azure-winged Magpie from the window. Finally after a week of quarantine and negative PCR-tests we were released and flew back to Khovd, where we spent the New Year.

I wish you all happy New Year!

A rarity in Khovd

Brandt´s Mountain Finch

The last weeks have been exciting when it comes to birding in western Mongolia. I’ve spent some time both in Khovd and the westernmost province of Bayan-Ulgii. On the drive between the two cities I came across a flock or approximately 1000 Brandt’s Mountain Finches. By far the largest flock I have ever seen.

In Khovd I have visited the plantation Otzon Chuluu, which is located just 5-10 minutes drive from home. As it is getting colder more and more birds gather in the plantation to feed on seed and sea buckthorn berries, which are present in good numbers this autumn.

Red-mantled Rosefinches are present with up to ten birds seen in a single day, though I have only seen a single red male thus far.

Long-tailed Rosefinch

Long-tailed Rosefinches are quite common and more than 20 birds seem to be present daily in the plantation. They also spread to the city itself and I have even seen it in our garden.

A beautiful trio of Brown, Siberian and Black-throated Accentors are also present in the plantation. They are not that easy to photograph, but with patience they eventually come close.

Siberian Accentor

A few White-winged Redstarts have come down from the mountains. Even though they are quite common it remains a truly wonder species to observe.

White-winged Redstart

A Rustic Bunting has been present in the plantation for weeks. It is not that common in Khovd, but during autumn they pass through in small numbers. If it winters it might be the first wintering record for Mongolia.

Rustic Bunting

On December 2nd I found a true mega in Otzon Chuluu in the form of a Eurasian Blackbird. It is only the second documented record for Mongolia. Admittedly it was a strange feeling skipping Siberian and Black-throated Accentors, Rustic Bunting and different rosefinches to look for a Blackbird. But in birding geography defines the megas.

Eurasian Blackbird

Very conveniently some of Mongolia’s top birders were just passing through Khovd an hour after I found the Blackbird. They of course made a stop and after 30 minutes of searching we relocated the Blackbird, so people from the Khurkh Ringing Station, Khurelsukh from the Khovd Ringing Station, Tseveenmyadag and Tovshintogs from Daringanga Ringing Station and of course their leader Batmunkh along with others connected with the bird.

Batmunkh and I celebrating the Blackbird… a Mongolian tick!

After seeing the bird the birders headed to Ulgii, where they ringed all the eagles of the Kazakh eagle hunters.

Interestingly on their return from Ulgii they stopped at the Khovd Stadion as they saw a flock of 13 Wood Pigeons. As they checked the area further they found a further two Blackbirds and a Redwing. Mongolia really is the place of mouth-watering rarities for a Faroese birder…

Male Eurasian Blackbird in Khovd

Silas

Back in Mongolia

Ural Owl

On by birthday on the 6th on November I returned to Mongolia after more than a year back home on the Faroe Islands due to covid-19. I flew from Frankfurt and I was really pleased to travel along with Abu, who was returning to Mongolia after 20 months away. We talked about birds for thousands of kilometers and the journey went well.

Abu and I

It was awesome to be back in Mongolia and after a short rest I went to check my old patch in central Ulaanbaatar – Seoul Club Park. I was sad to learn that all the shrubbery had been cleared and the parks birding potential had greatly diminished. I didn’t find anything noteworthy. In the evening Bolormunkh invited my out to eat on a Turkish restaurant and we had a great time celebrating my birthday.

As I had four days in UB before my plane left for Khovd in the west Bolormunkh and I decided to go birding the following day. We decided to head to Bag Bayan, which is an area north of UB with great taiga forest. Two years ago I found a Great Grey Owl at the location.

As we started walking temperatures were down to minus 21 Celsius. Quite a contrast to autumn birding on the Faroes. The forest was litterally alive. Tits, Nuthatches, Daurian Treecreepers and Goldcrests kept calling and showed quite well.

Goldcrest

After a while I noticed a hunting owl, which landed on the ground. We soon got good views and were happy to stand face to face with a great looking Ural Owl. It showed amazingly well and we were able to get some nice shots.

Ural Owl

We then continued hiking and came across Hazel Grouse, Three-toed, Lesser, Greater and Grey-headed Woodpeckers.

Three-toed Woodpecker

The Bag Bayan area is easily accessible and thus used frequently by hikers. It is also at an lower altitude compared to the Capercaillie-plateau. This means that Black-billed Capercaillie, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit are not as easily seen as on the plateau. We didn’t find any of these, but some Nutcrackers showed really well. They were digging holes in the ground, then throwing up nuts and seed, placing them in the holes and then covering the holes again. An awesome behavior to observe and a genius way of surviving the long, cold winter.

Nutcracker

The following day Abu joined Bolormunkh and I for a trip to Hustai National Park. It is famous for its Tahki or Przewalski’s Horses and also has other mammals and birds.

Takhi

We spent the entire day at the park and managed to see the Takhi, Wapiti, Mongolian Gazelle and Argali Sheep. The birds were few and far between, but Lammergeier, Cinereous Vultures, Mongolian Larks and Meadow Buntings were all nice.

Mongolian Lark

Wapiti

Hustai means the place with the birch trees. But it was sad to see the dying Birch forests. As the area is really dry the trees can only survive the lack of water due to the moist provided by the permafrost. But the permafrost is rapidly disappearing as it gets warmer – and the result is that the trees die at a very fast rate.

The following day Bolormunk, Abu and I visited Manzushir Monastery-area south of UB. It is the southern edge of the taiga forest that stretches more than 2000 kilometers north. Here we saw Three-toed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, the usual Tits and Siberian Nuthatches. Abu found a Siberian Ibex and I saw two Siberian Roe Deer and a snowy white Arctic Hare.

Siberian Roe Deer

All in all three good days of birding with wonderful friends.

Silas

Myangin Ugalzat and Tsetseg Nuur

Mountain slopes at Myangin Ugalzat

On the last leg of our trip to south-western Mongolia we drove north from the Great Gobi B.

There we reached the Myangin Ugalzat National Reserve, which is a mountainous area known for its population of Argali Sheep.

As we reached the mountains we passed a place with junipers and other bushes. Bolormunkh said it looked good for Sulphur-bellied Warbler (just like he had said about the Saxaul Sparrows), so we stopped to check it. I’ve looked for for Suphur-bellied Warblers quite a few times, but never found one.

Breeding site for Sulphur-bellied Warblers

We climbed the rocky slopes and soon we found several Sulphur-bellied Warblers, which eventually showed really well. A quite nice phylloscopus reminding me most of Dusky Warbler – both the song and the appearance. It is a very attractive warbler, with its prominent yellow eyebrow and dark olive coloration.

Sulphur-bellied Warbler

The birds were busy catching insects and we found a few nesting sites in dense bushes though we didn’t search for the nests themselves.

Other birds at the side included Bearded Vulture, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Grey-necked Buntings, White-winged Snowfinch, Brown Accentor and a likely Rock Bunting seen only by Bolormunkh.

We also had good views of the eastern Black Redstart ssp. phoenicuroides. I was surprised that it was so similar to Common Redstart even showing lots of white on the forehead.

After spending three hours at the site we drove on and camped in a mountain valley. In the valley we didn’t see many birds, but Marmots, Silver Voles and a Red Fox gave good views. And a Shorelark was breeding near to our camp.

Red Fox

There weren’t many birds in the morning around the camp, so we left early for Tsetseg Nuur a bit further north. The lake is known for hosting a breeding population of Relict Gulls in certain years, but the gulls seem to breed in different places each year.

Bolormunkh at Tsetseg Nuur

As we arrived we were a bit disappointed with the general conditions of the area. Severe overgrazing had left the shore almost totally void of vegetation, but on the salt pans there were hundreds of Pied Avocets, two Red-necked Phalaropes, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers and a few Gull-billed Terns flew by.

Gull-billed Tern laughing at us

We decided to end our trip there as Bolormunkh and Sakna could catch a bus to UB from a village near by. But we still had a few hours before we need to leave, so I went on a hike along the shore.

The further north I got the more birds I saw. In a pond lots of gulls were roosting and soon I found about 20 Relict Gulls along with plenty of Black-headed and Mongolian Gulls.

Relict Gull

A few of the Relict Gulls came quite close by and I managed a few pictures of this beautiful and rare gull.

When I came back to the car Bolormunkh and I looked at a map and realized that we had been using our time at the wrong place. North of the large salty lake is a smaller fresh-water lake surrounded by reeds and it looked absolutely awesome. But sadly the tickets had been ordered, so we only had time to look at the area from a distance. But surely a place ripe for future explorations.

We drove to the village where Bolormunkh and Sakna got on the bus – a ride that takes more than 24 hours – and I drove back to Khovd.

In total we saw 155 species, which ain’t too bad since we didn’t go for quantity but quality. At last a photo from one of our first days. Little Bittern!

Little Bittern – photo by Bolormunkh

Thanks to Bolormunkh and Sakna for a great adventure!

Silas

Uyench and Gobi B

Driving in the Uyench Gorge

After spending four days in Bulgan Bolormunkh, Sakna and I headed east to Uyench. We drove up a gorge, where we saw four White-throated Dippers, Grey-necked Buntings and Greenish Warblers. As the road was really bad we decided to return and do some birding in the plantations around Uyench.

Plantation and meadow in Uyench

We soon found the most promising-looking plantation and went birding. Much to our surprise we saw European Bee-eaters carrying food three times during a short period of time. Surely they had to be breeding in the area.

European Bee-eater

Another surprise were three singing Common Nightingales, which are only known to occur in Bulgan. These interesting facts made us set um camp in Uyench, so we could do some more research in the area.

Common Nightingale

The following morning we checked the plantation. Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Thick-billed and Greenish Warbler, Wryneck and the three Common Nightingales were present, but nothing more than that expect for some really showy Mongolian Finches.

We then went to look for the European Bee-eaters. Soon we saw up to five birds at the same time carrying food. So they must be breeding in the area.

At noon we drove towards the Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area. Since we were so close we’d better visit the place. As there has been some snow this winter the desert is quite green.

Crested Lark

After quite a bit of driving into the desert we came across and oasis along some some sand dunes with Saxaul Trees and other bushes growing on them. Bolormunkh said that it could be a good place for Saxaul Sparrow. Since this would be a lifer for me I was eager to check the place.

An oasis in Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area

As I started birding I found first some interesting Shrikes, then much to my surprise two Barred Warblers, a Greenish Warbler and a Siberian Chiffchaff.

Barred Warbler and Shrike

The Barred Warbler and the Shrike did the well-known warbler-shrike symbiosis.

The reason why I write “Shrike” is that some birds look like hybrids with Red-tailed Shrike influence. Still much to learn.

Then I heard a dry sparrow-like call and yes!!! A pair of Saxaul Sparrows were foraging right in front of me.

Saxaul Sparrow

They proved hard to photograph, but eventually I got some usable pictures. And as we checked the wider area a total of eight Saxaul Sparrows were seen. Quite a good number of this scarce species.

We decided to camp at the Saxaul Sparrow spot as we had seen quite a few rodent holes and tracks, which made us eager to do some spotlighting for Jerboas and other mammals. And the place was just wonderful.

The oasis

At dusk we headed out with our torches and found five Northern Three-toed Jerboas. Quite nice.

After a good nights sleep we woke up at five and started birding. Saxaul Sparrows were rather common and several nests were found. Often in abandoned raptors nests in tall trees.

Suddenly I was very surprised to hear a singing Golden Oriole in a tree. It didn’t show right away, but after a while it came out and I obtained some good views. Not a bird that I expected to see in the Gobi B.

A little later I noticed a flycatcher on a branch. As I got a little closer I could identify it as my first Brown Flycatcher of the year. Not at all common in western Mongolia.

Brown Flycatcher

I met with Bolormunkh and we decided to use more time in the desert forest. I went to check some new areas, where I found four Daurian Partridges and a Laughing Dove flew by. Sadly I didn’t get any images.

Daurian Partridge

Quite a few warblers were also present including Barred, Greenish, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroats.

Lesser Whitethroat

Eventually we decided to leave the place and head further into the Gobi B Strictly Protected Area. Our goal was to get a feeling of the site and maybe see a Khulan or Thaki – Asian Wild Ass and Preswalski’s Horse.

Great Gobi B

The roads in the area were bad, so it took more time than expected to drive around. Bolormunkh had received some information from the park manager on where to go. That paid off as we soon found a Khulan, which showed well albeit distant. We also saw at least 50 Goitered Gazelles.

It proved hard to find any road to an oasis, which the manager had suggested to us. And since we really didn’t have much reason to press on we decided to drive north out of the park to some great lake-areas. More on that later…

Silas

Bulgan Birding

Bulgan Soum in south-western Mongolia

In the south-western corner of Mongolia you find the small town of Bulgan located along the Bulgan River. This is the Bulgan in Khovd province – not to be confused with all the other Bulgans all over Mongolia.

The Bulgan river is the only Mongolian river flowing into the mighty Russian river Ob, which run out into the Arctic Ocean. Basically Bulgan is a small piece of something with a far more western feeling than Mongolian in general. I have wished to visit the place since I came to Mongolia and finally I was able to go together with Bolormunkh and his brother Sakna in early June.

Sakna flying a drone

We drove to Bulgan via Khar Us Nuur. We did some birding together at the lake, where highlights included White-headed and Ferruginous Duck, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Savi’s Warbler and a very showy Oriental Turtle Dove.

Muskrat

A Saker also showed really well perched on a electric pole along the road.

We then headed towards Bulgan, which is about 350 km from Khovd city. The drive there was absolutely stunning. Bone dry desert, river valleys and mountain passes. We made a few stops along the was as we encountered Lammergeiers, Black Redstarts, Pere-davis and White-winged Snowfinches, Sakers and even a few Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.

Guldenstart’s Redstart

At one point we passed an isolated patch of threes along a stream. We decided to make a short stop and went to check the area. Soon two Spotted Flycatchers, European Greenfinches and Greenish Warblers were seen.

A tricky Great Reed Warbler provided some excitement too as it was very elusive, but eventually showed very well.

Suddenly I see a Little Bittern fly towards we. As it sees me it turns and flies away downstream. I rush over to Bolormunkh to tell him about the bird. It turns out that he had seen in on the ground and even got a few pictures of it – but as he was photographing it took off. We tried to walk downstream to look for it, but we couldn’t relocate it.

Little Bittern is a rare bird in western Mongolia and it was a nice addition to both Bolormunkhs and my Mongolia-list.

As we reached the Bulgan River a tricky shrike showed well. Most likely it is a Red-tailed x Red-backed Shrike backcross.

Camping Site

We then drove to Bulgan, where we got permission to set up camp in a plantation. There were many different trees like poplars, apple trees and willows in the plantation. The grass was tall and it smelled like heaven. Bolormunkh had said the he expected Bulgan to feel like a different country – and he was spot on. It felt so different from the other parts of Mongolia, that I have visited. Basically it is an oasis in the desert. There is some natural riparian forest along the river, but the real attraction is the plantations and grass fields sustained by irrigation. Just amazing to see the desert bloom in this way.

Bulgan

The birds were also different. At the camp we had European Greenfinches, Greenish Warblers and Common Nightingale singing around the clock. This is the only place in Mongolia with breeding Common Nightingales as far as I know. The birds even showed really well at times, so it was possible to study and photograph these eastern presumed ssp. golzii thoroughly.

The western cast of birds was indisputable. Golden Orioles flew by every now and then, but we only saw green birds. I did hear Golden Orioles sing in the morning, so I guess they breed there.

Another western bird that is found no were else in Mongolia is the Lesser Grey Shrike. We found a single bird in the first morning and then we even found an active nest south of the river.

In the evening we had a flock of 15 European Bee-eaters flying by in the distance. The western flavor of the place was strong.

My main target in Bulgan was the Red-headed Bunting. This bunting only breeds in Bulgan in the entire Mongolia. During our first morning we didn’t find any, but on our second day I found a female. As we weren’t quite satisfied with that we continued looking and finally found two competing males in a open area with scattered bushes. Eventually they showed really well and Bolormunkh and I were really happy.

Red-headed Bunting

Bolormunkh had checked a buddist sacred place as it had some good old trees. There he found a Linnet. We decided to visit the place again. As soon as I entered a flock of Tree Sparrows were foraging on the ground. As I checked the flock I found two Greenfinches, a Wryneck and no less than five Desert Finches. I called Bolormunkh and moments later he connected with the birds.

Desert Finch

This is the fourth record of Desert Finch for Mongolia – and the second this year. So most likely it is a regular visitor, which might even breed in Bulgan. As we checked the place the following day eight Desert Finches were present. This could indicate breeding.

In the evening we moved our camp to a new location and celebrated the Desert Finches. The next morning I went up at 5.00, while Bolormunkh slept a bit longer. I went to check the southern side of the Bulgan river. It is a nice forested areas with scattered Willows, Elms, Scrubs and Apple Trees.

As I entered the forest I found a pair of Great Tit types. The Great Tits of Bulgan show intermediate characters between Great Tit and the so-called Turkestan Tit. Most likely the population in Bulgan is the result of influxes from both east and west, which is why many of the tits there almost entirely lack any yellow colours.

During our days in Bulgan I managed a few shots of the variation of tits present in Bulgan. To safely identify a Turkestan Tit the short outer-tail feathers must be seen.

While photographing the tits I noticed a grey bird about 20 meters away. I got my bins on the bird and was very surprised. Vay to slim and long to be a Spotted Flycatcher. Then it flapped its wings, which revealed an obvious wing-bar. And then it dawned on me that I was watching a female Ashy Minivet. A species I saw the first time just in February in Thailand.

Ashy Minivet

I grapped a few record shot from the distance and rushed to wake up Bolormunkh. Soon after we were back on location, but the bird had disappeared and was never seen again.

This is the third record of Ashy Minivet in Mongolia. The other two records are from the eastern part of the country, so a record in extreme south-west was very unexpected. For instance there are no records from Xinjian in China.

Other birds during the day included these:

Barred Warbler was delightfully common

All in all Bulgan is an amazing place with a huge potential for rarities!

Total ebird list can be seen here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S70230603

Silas

Khar Us Nuur surprises

Goitered Gazelle

The Khar Us Nuur covers 1500 km2. Located on the edge of the Gobi desert and the Altai Mountains is have a little bit over everything. Huge reed beds, swamps, marshes, muddy shores and just west of the lake bone-dry gorges and dry steppe. This makes the Khar Us Nuur lake a mecca for birding.

In the end of May I spend a whole day in the area. As I reached the western steppe at sunrise two confident Goitered Gazelles (also called Black-tailed Gazelles) gave amazing views. I haven’t seem them this well since encounters in South-east Turkey.

I decided to use some time in the gorges and valleys – and they were full of birds. Hume’s Warblers and eastern Lesser Whitethroats were present all over. It was in fact hard to know where to look.

Other typical birds of these rocky desert habitat included Mongolian Finches, Pied, Northern, Desert and Isabelline Wheatear and the colorful Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush.

A pair of Lesser Kestrels were observed mating and Pallas’s Sandgrouse flew over every now and then.

At one point I heard a bunting singing from the top of a rock. I needed to climb a bit to check it properly – and much to my delight it turned out to be Grey-necked Bunting. Soon two more males were found in the area. It is new to me that they breed here as they normally play a bit hard to get.

Grey-necked Bunting

I then headed to the lake. My first target were shorebirds foraging along the muddy shores. The shorebirds don’t gather in one spot but are found evenly distributed along the shore though there are a few hot-spots along the shore.

Arrival of shorebirds was evident. Most common were Little and Temminck’s Stints, but Broad-billed, Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlins were also present.

Temminck’s Stint

Soon I also came across a very tame Terek Sandpiper, that walked right past me as I sat down. Soon I found another Terek and ended up with three different birds during the day.

Terek Sandpiper

Terek Sandpiper

Common and Spotted Redshanks and Marsh Sandpipers were also present in smaller numbers.

Marsh Sandpiper

Numbers of Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers were a delight as they now sport their nice breeding plumage.

Grey Plover

Pacific Plover

Kentish, Little Ringed and good numbers of Greater Sand Plovers were great as always.

Greater Sand Plover

A one point surprises started to unfold. First I had two Little Curlews flying by and then an Eastern Spot-billed Duck did the same thing. I’ve never seen either species in western Mongolia before.

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

Another great surprise were no less than 24 Asian Dowitchers in the south-western marshes. It’s both a really good looking bird and pretty rare to observe as well. I strongly suspect them to breed at Khar Us Nuur.

Asian Dowitcher

I continued to the reed beds, where I got amazing views of some busy White-headed Ducks displaying. By far the best views I’ve had in Mongolia. The population around Khar Us Nuur seems to do well and there could easily be hundreds of pairs of this endangered species breeding around the lake.

A single breeding plumage Arctic Loon showed rather well albeit a bit distant.

Arctic Loon

I finally managed to good photos of a Pale Sand Martin as it roosted of a wooden dock.

14 Ferruginous Ducks, Red-necked Phalaropes, Ruddy Turnstones, Pallas’s Gulls, Pallas’s Bunting and thee species of Wagtails also spiced a very good day of birding, where a total of 110 species were seen at Khar Us Nuur.

The day ended with a few Northern Three-toed Jerboas along the road home.

Northern Three-toed Jerboa

The total ebird list can be seen here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S69612222

Silas

Long-tailed Shrike

Greenish Warbler

The last week of May has been different when it comes to migration. Although migration started with the arrival of Evermann’s Redstarts in mid March it has been rather slow but steady since then. No huge numbers but a steady flow of birds.

The last week of May was different. We finally got some rain, wind and clouds of course… and bang… migrants everywhere. As it cleared up I checked Otzon Chuluu. Hundreds of Hume’s Warblers, 27 singing Greenish Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats, Barred, Blyth’s and Great Reed Warblers, Paddyfield, Arctic, Dusky and a few Booted Warblers were all present. Quite a warbler-party. If only Batmunkh was ringing in the Otzon Chuluu. For sure something awesome would be in the nets.

Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Barred Warbler

Hume’s Warbler

As I worked my way though the plantation I flushed a European Nightjar. It landed and I located in on the ground and even got a few pictures. I tried to get a different angle with better light, but it took off into the forest just as I was ready to get an awesome photo.

European Nightjar

As I reached the Seabuckthorn section I heard a shrike singing. Soon I saw a shrike a few hundred meters away. Grey cap, pale breast, black mask. Surely one of the good ones. I got a bit closer and was happy to realize that it was a Long-tailed Shrike. I’ve only seen it once before – in fact the first Danish record quite a few years ago.

Long-tailed Shrike

Long-tailed Shrike

Long-tailed Shrike

I sat down on the ground and waited for the shrike to approach me – which it eventually did. I got some usable pictures before it went deeper into the plantation.

I checked the “Birds of Mongolia” book to learn about its status. There is one old record of two birds mentioned in the book. But it turns out that there are no pictures or discription of the old records. Thus they are basically worthless and my record from Otzon Chuluu is the first documented record for Mongolia.

Greenish Warbler

Other birds in the plantation include Common Rosefinch, Booted Eagle, Isabelline Shrike and many others.

Olive-backed Pipit

Let us see what the next surprise will be!

Silas