For three weeks in the summer of 2012 my wife and I explored Mongolia with bird guide Axel Bräunlich and the tour company Nomadic Journeys. We had great sightings including Lammergeier, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Oriental Plover, Asian Dowitcher, Relict Gull, Wallcreeper and Mongolian Ground Jay. The landscape was otherworldly and the people we met were wonderful. If you have a desire to visit a remote, beautiful and very different part of the world, Mongolia is the destination.
Mongolia lies between Russia and China and covers about a million and a half square kilometres. The Altai Mountains rise across the country in a discontinuous band and taiga (boreal forest) just encroaches from Russia in the north. Steppe (grassland) dominates the central region - ranging from luxuriant green in the east to sparse and dry as one heads south into the Gobi Desert. Mongolia’s human population is 2.75 million, making it one of the least densely inhabited places on earth.
In 1990 Mongolians replaced their communist system with a market economy and multi-party politics. Although the country is developing rapidly as a resource-exporting nation, tourism remains an important income earner and there is good infrastructure for travelers. Canadians require visas to visit. We obtained ours without difficulty from the embassy in Ottawa.
The Birding Mongolia Blog and Nomadic Journeys - Our trip began with a google search: “Mongolia” and “birding”. This led to Axel Bräunlich’s informative “Birding Mongolia” site (http://birdsmongolia.blogspot.ca/) and we quickly got in touch with him. Axel, a writer and conservation biologist based in Germany, indicated he could assemble an itinerary, facilitate arrangements with the tour company Nomadic Journeys and even act as a guide if we wanted. After research confirmed his bona fides, and the strong reputation of Nomadic Journeys, we requested that a plan be drawn up.
The standard Mongolia birding trail sweeps through northern forest, grasslands and lakes and then heads south and west to the Gobi Desert and sites in the Altai Mountains. Most birders visit in May and early June to search for valued breeders on territory or special migrants moving north to Siberia. Work prevented us from travelling until late June so our trip focused on general wildlife watching and photography rather than hard-core listing.
The Plan - Our three weeks were divided into five parts. For four days we would explore the hills, forest patches, lakes and mountain outcrops just west of Ulaanbaatar (Hustai Nuruu National Park, Lun, Bayan Nuur and Altan Uul). Next we would return to the capital city and fly an hour and a half south to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi. From there we would proceed on a five-day circuit through the desert, visiting oasis, dune, Saxaul forest, arid steppe and mountain habitats (Juulchin Gobi 1 Ger Camp, Three Camel Lodge, Bayanzag - the Flaming Cliffs, Juulchin Gobi 2 Ger Camp, Khongoryn Els - the Singing Sands and Yolyn Am - Valley of the Lammergeier).
After returning to Dalanzagad we would drive north and east for five days through the desert/steppe transition zone, stopping at oasis and rock outcrop sites (Tsagaan Suvarga - the White Cliffs, Ikh Gazriin Chuluu and the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve). Then it was north and east for two days at the wetlands on the far side of Ulaanbaatar (Gun Galuut Nature Reserve) and, in a departure from normal birding protocol, a push eastwards deep into the endless green steppe and vast gazelle herds of Dornod Province (Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve - two days). The fifth and final leg of the journey would be our four-day return west to Ulaanbaatar through the northern forest along the Russian border. This was a private tour, and while we had allocated a generous budget it ended up being very reasonably priced. Nomadic Journeys offers good value for money.
Health and Safety - Mongolia is a relatively healthy place and the only thing our cautious travel doctor could mildly recommend was a vaccine for Tick-Borne Encephalitis (TBE). Out of an abundance of caution we had the shots and treated our socks and trousers with the insect repellent permethrin. We also brought along antibiotics for stomach upset. Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling metropolis and as with all such places you want to keep one eye on your stuff and another on traffic. In the countryside dogs and drunks are said to cause occasional concern but we had no problems.
Weather and Gear - Mongolia’s continental climate means cold winters and warm summers, although it can still get chilly at night in June and July. We brought fleeces, light wool layers, watch caps, rain shells and light leather hiking boots. Rubber boots would have been helpful at the soggy-edged wetlands we visited. Most days were sunny but we did encounter one brief torrential downpour and a few minor rain showers. The Gobi was moderately hot so we birded there from dawn till ten, rested through the heat of the day and then returned to the field later in the afternoon.
We supplied our own binoculars. Axel had a scope that he used with great skill and an MP3 player to occasionally call in birds. Small headlamps were useful in the camps and we carried compact LED lights to spot wildlife at night. Insect repellent was necessary on the lush eastern steppe but otherwise we encountered no mosquitoes. Nomadic Journeys provided all the camping supplies except sleeping bags.
Photography - We brought a Canon EOS 1DM4 with an 800mm f/5.6 lens, an EOS 7D/300mm f/2.8 combo, and a Canon G-12 point and shoot. At the last minute I decided not to bring a dedicated full frame DSLR and a wide angle lens, a mistake as there were incredible scenes that the G-12 could not capture. We put the 1D/800 and 7D/300 in carry-on and had no problems bringing them on planes. The 300 on the 7D is handholdable and easy to carry long distances over the shoulder. The 800/1D combo is much heavier. At first I mounted it on a tripod but eventually took to slinging it over my shoulder and shooting hand held. When not in use I kept the gear sealed in light nylon stuff sacks to keep dust out. On longer drives I wrapped them in sleeping bags to reduce exposure to vehicle vibration.
We found small migratory birds such as shrikes and larks to be wary, often flushing just outside camera range. Resident species, from raptors to songbirds were much easier to approach, especially at springs and other water sources. To charge batteries we had a Type C European adapter (two round prongs) that we used at camps with electrical outlets. Not all places had power so an inverter/charger to plug into the vehicle cigarette lighter was a necessity.
Literature - There is no dedicated Mongolia bird guide so we utilized “Birds of East Asia” by Mark Brazil, “Birds of China” by MacKinnon and Phillips, and Mullarney et al’s “Birds of Europe”. For mammals the situation is better with Batsaikhan et al’s “A Field Guide to the Mammals of Mongolia” providing a handy reference. There are also a number of unusually good trip reports on the internet including ones prepared by Bjorn Anderson, Piet Veel, Johan Stallberg, John Hornbuckle and the tour company Birdquest. The Lonely Planet guide provided good background information and while not exactly scholarly material the Thomas Balmès documentary “Babies” and the big budget 2007 Chinggis Khan biopic “The Mongol” provided some cultural context.
Money - Almost all our costs were prepaid through Nomadic Journeys; there wasn’t much need for cash. We purchased a few souvenirs, including beautiful cashmere scarves, but most of our money (U.S. dollars) went to tips - $5 at small restaurants, $20 a day for local guiding services and a big amount for our guides at the end of the tour.
Transportation - We rolled across the steppe in a series of Toyota Land Cruisers, a comfortable but formidable light truck able to traverse rock, sand and rivers. Mongolia is said to have few roads, which is true in the sense that there are not many paved freeways, but the land is criss-crossed with vehicle trails. We bounded along them for hours, stopping to confirm our direction with local nomads and occasionally heading off road to connect up with other trail systems. The ride wasn’t very bumpy, in part because as tracks become rough drivers simply start a new lane next to the existing one. In places the roads migrate sideways some distance across the land, creating a strange furrowed topography. The actual driving was done by assigned experts from Nomadic Journeys. For most of the trip this was Suur, a skilled wheelman, mapless navigator and very nice person. He would occasionally break into quiet folk song as he drove, music that perfectly matched the landscape, making the long days in the vehicle more enjoyable. We never got stuck but did help other travelers in need of assistance.
Accommodation and Food - We stayed at the upscale Corporate Hotel in Ulaanbaatar for the first night. After that it was tents - large North Face dome units for four nights in the lake and hill country west of the capital and then gers, the traditional Mongolian nomad dwelling, for the duration of the trip. Gers (pronounced “gears” and known as yurts in Russian) are an extraordinary technology - an outer shell of white canvas over a layer of felt set atop a light wooden spoke, hub and lattice wooden frame. For the most part we stayed at commercial ger camps - semi-permanent establishments featuring brick and mortar restaurant and washroom facilities surrounded by a dozen or more gers set up on concrete bases. Near the end of the expedition the Nomadic Journeys team pitched temporary gers just for us on the remote eastern steppe, a wonderful experience. Mongolia is not known as a culinary destination but we found the food uniformly good; the highlight was the traditional Mongolian fare (including Buuz - steamed dumplings) prepared by Nomadic Journey’s extraordinary field cooks. Ger camp fare was good as well - a mixture of Mongolian and western dishes.
Birds and Mammals - The commonest sightings on our trip (seen on at least half the days) ended up being Ruddy Shelduck, Cinereous Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Eurasian Kestrel, Saker Falcon (!), Demoiselle Crane, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Pallas's Sandgrouse (!), Rock Pigeon, Common Swift, Fork-tailed Swift, Hoopoe, Mongolian Lark, Asian (Lesser) Short-toed Lark, Horned Lark, Desert Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, Red-billed Chough, Common Raven, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Rock Sparrow.
In addition to enjoying the expected species, we had four particular targets: Oriental Plover, Relict Gull, Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Mongolian Ground Jay. Beyond those four, the country’s special listing attractions include Swan Goose, Black-billed Capercaillie, Altai Snowcock, Mongolian Accentor, Saxaul Sparrow and Hodgson's Bushchat. I hoped to see some of those but also had my eyes open for a group of more widespread but long sought species - Baikal Teal, Falcated Duck, Wallcreeper and Lammergier. Given the timing of our trip we would miss the full excitement of birding the Gobi Desert migrant traps - where rare or even new birds for the country are frequently found. However, even in the summer there were great opportunities to review palearctic shorebirds, something we much appreciated as North Americans.
Mammal watching was good, the highlight being the huge herds of Mongolian Gazelle on the eastern steppe. We saw smaller numbers of Black-tailed Gazelle as well as Argali (a big-horned sheep) and Siberian Ibex. Small mammal sightings included Corsac Fox, Tolai Hare, Long-eared Hedgehog and a dizzying array of pikas, ground squirrels, gerbils, jerboas, hamsters and voles. Often times the lesser rodents had to go unidentified as we moved from one location to the next. Night work with a flashlight was moderately productive but not outstanding, other trips have reported better success so it is definitely worth pursuing.
One - Ulaanbaatar - On June 23 our late night Korean Air flight from Incheon, South Korea set down in Mongolia’s capital city. The low-key inspectors quickly ensured our papers were in order and we picked up our bags and headed for arrivals. The friendly and tall presence of Axel Bräunlich was immediately apparent. He was joined by Agiimaa “Agii” Batmunkh, a young guide from Nomadic Journeys whose cheerfully calm presence and translation work added immeasurably to the trip. From the airport a transfer vehicle took us to the Corporate Hotel where we immediately fell asleep after our long journey.
Two - Hustai Nuruu National Park - We awoke at a reasonable hour on June 24th, enjoyed a good breakfast at the hotel and set out west for the forest steppe of Hustai Nuruu National Park, some 100 kilometres away. Ground travel was slow. The roads in Ulaanbaatar are congested and outside the city the tracks methodically follow the form of the land - meandering around ridges, hills and rivers. We reached our destination by mid afternoon after a stop/start birding drive from Ulaanbaatar. Roadside sightings included Daurian Partridge, Amur Falcon, Eurasian Hobby, Black-eared Kite, Cinerous Vulture, Demoiselle Crane, Hoopoe, Red-billed Chough, Mongolian Lark and Isabelline Wheatear. Hustai is also known as Khustain Nuruu National Park and Toson Hustai Nature Reserve, underlining that in Mongolia the same site can have multiple names and multiple spellings of those names.
Hustai is best known for its reintroduced population of Tahki (also known as Przewalski's Horse - pronounced pre-sha-VAL-skee’s), the last wild member of its clan. Shortly after crossing the reserve’s boundary we were able to find and study a group. From the horses we proceeded to the ger camp and checked in, with the helpful local staff hauling our bags to our tent. At dinner Agii excitedly informed us a folk band would be playing that evening. Tired, but unable to disappoint our guide, we dutifully reported to the performance after finishing our food. From the first notes we understood her enthusiasm. The band, a group of young musicians called Domag, blasted through an amazing acoustic set of traditional Mongolian songs; their instruments and voices telling of storms, charging horses and lost love on the steppe.
Next morning (the 25th) we awoke early to a cold and foggy dawn (5 degrees Celsius) and set out to explore the reserve. Bedraggled Black-eared Kites perched in the mist among the gers and Long-tailed Ground Squirrel and Siberian Marmot were conspicuous by the roadside. A brisk hike into the hills put us into a herd of Takhi, including mares and foals. Saker Falcon, Golden Eagle, Northern Hobby, Amur Falcon and Meadow Bunting were some of the bird sightings.
Three - The Lakes at Lun and Bayan Nuur - Mid morning on the 25th of June we departed Hustai and continued west through the open steppe, seeing many Upland Buzzards, Horned Larks and Lesser Short-toed Larks. Occasionally we would pass an ovoo, a Buddhist-shamanistic shrine consisting of a mound of rock set atop with blue prayer flagging. To secure a safe journey it is practice to circle these monuments three times in a clockwise direction and add some stones or an offering such as candy, milk, vodka or cash. If you are in a hurry it is okay to simply honk your vehicle's horn as you pass.
Eventually we reached Lun, a sum west of the capital city. Sums (pronounced sooms) are the second level of administrative organization in Mongolia, with aimags (the equivalent of provinces or states) being the first. The main town in each sum is also called a sum and is usually named after the sum it is found in. These towns reminded me of communities in northern Canada - collections of worn residential housing, vehicle repair sheds, construction supply yards, scattered shrubs and sparse trees, a gas station, a general store, a few government buildings, a school and a modest central plaza. Despite their bleak appearance, over the course of our trip they became a welcoming break from the rolling steppe.
In the wetlands below the Lun town site we found both Demoiselle and White-naped Crane. At the bridge to the west of the community a Chinese Pond Heron flushed up at the river’s edge, a rare bird in Mongolia. From Lun we pressed on and gradually the gray sky gave way to bright sun. Mid afternoon we reached our destination - Bayan Nuur, a large lake edged by grass, reed-beds and mudflats. An advance team from Nomadic Journeys had already set camp - a cook tent, our sleeping tents (large Northface dome units) and an enclosed field latrine. Joining us at the spot by chance was a group of German ornithologists/birders led by Andreas Buchheim - a good friend of our guide Axel! They had been in the country several weeks prior to our arrival - banding, birding, recording and photographing their way across the steppe. In addition to picking up every target species they had also discovered several new records for the country.
We transferred our bags to our tent and quickly commenced birding. Lifers came very quickly. The open water held many Whooper Swans, Ruddy and Common Shelducks, European Wigeons and Common Pochards. Axel’s scope revealed brightly plumaged Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck among the thousands of other waterfowl. The wetland at Bayan Nuur’s edge held many shorebirds, all of them a treat for North Americans and one of them - Asian Dowitcher - a world class find. Nesting Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt aggressively circled overhead, two Swan Geese flew by and a patient review of a flock of Black-headed Gulls roosting on a mud flat revealed two much coveted Relict Gulls. A large reed-bed held more species of interest to us - Reed Bunting, Bearded Tit, Oriental Reed Warbler, Paddyfield Warbler and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. In the distance the gleaming white of a nomad’s ger was visible. We saw the occupants far off on their horses but they never approached our camp.
Next morning (June 26th) under a beautiful, windless blue sky we set out on a hike around the lake. Axel cupped his hand to his ear and called out “Pallas’s Sandgrouse!” I could hear a distant “puk-puk purr” and then caught sight of a small flock flying rapidly towards us. This was another wanted bird, one I didn’t expect to encounter, if at all, until we reached the Gobi. As it turned out, they were with us most of the trip, seen on 12 of 21 days with a maximum daily high count of 400 individuals. After a few hours of happily scanning the lake and attempting to photograph various larks and pipits performing their flight songs we headed back for a huge field breakfast (eggs, sausage, donuts and tea), said our good-byes to Andreas and his group, broke camp and set out for our next destination, Altan Uul.
Four - Altan Uul is a peak 75 kilometres southwest of Hustai. It is the high point in a line of broken rock that rises up from the steppe creating a small but visually impressive mountain range. After pushing through a pass in the hills and dropping down to their far side we followed the edge of land for some time and then, approximately mid-day, nosed our way up into a beautiful, hidden, tree-lined valley. Beside the sandy bed of a dry mountain stream our two-vehicle convoy stopped and we set camp. A short hike revealed Isabelline Shrike, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Rock Sparrow and an unexpected group of Red Crossbill. After an enjoyable dinner and a night walk we retired to our tents.
Next morning we awoke early and climbed into the hills. The area is home to a raptor research station and the scientists, colleagues of Axel, had invited us to visit the site. An hour-long hike up a grass and boulder slope ended at the top of a cliff face. We positioned ourselves at the edge of the abyss and I set my camera on its tripod. Axel indicated, without promising, that Himalayan Griffon, Cinerous Vulture and Lammergeier might sweep by and provide opportunities for photography. Within minutes the parade began. Griffons were the commonest, almost always in sight and approaching close enough for photography every few minutes. Cinerous Vultures were present in good numbers too. They seemed to have some dislike for the griffons, resulting in interesting interaction shots. The best moment came when a Lammergeir swung into view, a wonderful life sighting.
Five - Dalanzadgad - Late morning on June 27th we left Altan Uul for the Ulaanbaatar airport and an hour and a half flight to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi Desert. Our nervousness about luggage limits was quickly put to rest by the eagerness of airline staff to accept as much excess baggage as we were willing to pay the fees for. As we headed south the view from the air was sobering - desolate ground spread to the horizon in a grey/brown pattern of low hills, flat plains and dry watercourses. At the Dalanzadgad airport a transfer driver picked us up in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The city seemed cheerful enough - a few high rises, a stadium, a tree-lined central promenade and, on the edge of town, a sewage lagoon. We did not stay long and were soon on our way into the desert. After only a few kilometres Axel signaled the vehicle to stop so we could look at a pair of roadside Greater Sand Plovers. A scan deeper across the flat gravel plains picked up a flash of gleaming white - a male Oriental Plover. Within four days I had three of my four big targets.
Six - Juulchin Gobi 1 Ger Camp - An hour or so from Dalanzagad we pulled into our first desert accommodations, a camp run by the official Mongolian tourism agency. After checking out our gers we strolled around the expansive fenced-in grounds, exploring the small forest of irrigated trees and staring out across the arid steppe. Isabelline Shrike and Wheatear were nesting locally. The desiccated remains of a White’s Thrush reminded us of the locale’s powerful attraction for desert-crossing migrants. A late and singing Hume’s Warbler was the only living bird still heading north. The camp itself was fine - comfortable tents, good food, clean washrooms and friendly staff. An empty dormitory, abandoned outbuildings and a tall brick chimney on the steppe gave the place an intriguing post-communist feel.
Seven - Three Camel Lodge and Bayanzag, the Flaming Cliffs - On June 28th we left Juulchin Gobi 1 and continued deeper into the desert, eventually reaching the Three Camel Lodge. This was the most luxurious accommodation of the trip - a real five star place. The beer was cold, about one degree short of ice, and the food delicious. In the distance we could see the Gobi Altai Mountains, right next to the lodge there was a low rocky ridge. Among the rocks we found nesting Desert Wheatear and an approachable Tolai Hare. At night we saw a Long-eared Hedgehog there. Upon approach it rolled itself into a perfect ball that I carefully picked up - my first ever hedgehog sighting.
On the morning of the 29th we departed early for Bayanzag - the Flaming Cliffs, an area made famous by early dinosaur explorers. The land edge was spectacular and we had a good hike through a surviving area of low, shrubby Saxaul forest. Saxaul is often the only wood to burn in the desert and has suffered severe over-harvesting. We found Desert Warbler and Steppe Grey Shrike in the remaining stand and, alerted to their presence by a loud bleating, saw a number of Great Gerbils.
Eight - Khongoryn Els, the Singing Sands - At Three Camels we met up with Suur, the driver for the remainder of the journey, and set out again through the desert. Even in this dry land a ger or livestock herd was almost always in view - wherever there is pasture in Mongolia, no matter how marginal, there are herders. The country’s human population density is very low but this does not mean wilderness abounds.
We drove for hours. After crossing a low pass in the Gobi Altai Mountains the gleaming yellow band of Khongoryn Els - the Singing Sands - came into view in the far distance. The wall of sand is high, maybe 200 metres and stretches from horizon to horizon. Sections of its base hold lush zones of grass, marsh plants and, closer to the desert edge, remnant Saxaul forest. This biological richness is created by the hydrogeological impact of the massive dune system which forces water to the surface.
Eventually we pulled into the Juulchin Gobi 2 Ger Camp, our base to explore the area. In the nearby Saxaul forest we found nesting Long-legged Buzzard, Steppe Grey Shrike, Isabelline Shrike and Saxaul Sparrow. The sparrows, a range-restricted species, were easily located along the main path into the dunes. In the grassy wetlands good numbers of Ruddy Shelduck and Common Redshank were present. We even found a wayward Little Bittern. At dawn and dusk flocks of Pallas’s Sandgrouse arrived from the deep desert to drink. First you could hear them calling - “puk-puk purr” and then they would appear, flying low and extremely fast but close enough to photograph.
Our one remaining “must see” bird was Mongolian Ground Jay. After an evening exploring the dunes we returned to camp and the manager enquired if our day had been a good one. We answered affirmatively and mentioned we had seen some nice birds. To our surprise he asked if we had got the Ground Jay. Detecting our interest he carefully explained their exact location, about four kilometers directly north of camp at the base of some low hills. We were at the spot next day at dawn (July 1) and after a tense half hour search we found a pair of them. A great birding moment! They were moving quickly through the Caragana scrub and in only a few minutes were at least a kilometre from our initial sighting point (N 43 50.046’ E 102 16.255’).
Nine - Yolyn Am, Valley of the Lammergeier - From the Ground Jays we set out east on the long drive to our next destination. As the vehicle gently pitched and rolled we stared out the windows as kilometre after kilometre of arid steppe passed by. The dunes at Khongoryn Els are an anomaly in the Gobi. Most of the landscape consists of gravel plains and rock outcrops supporting sparse grass and other low vegetation, not endless tracks of stereotypical desert sand. In the distance we saw several small groups of Black-tailed Gazelles; as soon as they detected us they would run without stopping. Mid afternoon we reached the Zuun Saikhanii Nuruu (Eastern Beauty) sub-range of the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains. Yolyn Am, a deep and narrow cleft in the rock, cuts through these hills. The valley is located in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park and is named after the Lammergeier vulture (Yol in Mongolian). Our ger camp was set on the steppe some ways from the hills.
Yolyn Am was one of the best places for birding and photography on the tour. A clear, sparkling stream runs down the valley and the water attracts many birds from the dry mountains. We had one morning (July 2) to explore the area and I tried to pack as many activities into the time as possible - birding, photography, hiking and general sight seeing. The day began very early; we set out in the darkness and arrived at the valley’s gate just at dawn. A small group of Siberian Ibex were by the road and White-wing Snowfinches fluttered at our feet in the parking lot, clearly someone had been feeding them. The valley at the trailhead is quite wide and the surrounding hills relatively low and gentle. Axel began calling out birds in the beautiful, still, blue-sky morning - first Black Redstart, next Brown Accentor and then the coveted Mongolian Accentor. This subtle bird was singing from a patch of juniper scrub on one of the first rock abutments edging towards the trail. Pallas’s Pikas were everywhere and I raced between capturing their antics and photographing snowfinches higher up in the rocks.
As we proceed deeper into the valley the mountains closed in and soon the way narrowed to the stream, the path and cliff faces rising up to our left and right. Many Red-billed Choughs and Himalayan Griffons circled overhead. They were joined by two name sake Lammergeirs. Yolyn Am has a reputation as a good place to see Wallcreeper, a mythical species I had long-studied in books. Many of the reported sightings are from far up the cliff walls so I just about fell down when Axel and Jodie called me over to see one drinking at eye level in the stream. After quenching its thirst it returned to gleaning the rock face for insects - darting, hopping and fluttering its stunning butterfly wings as close as three metres away. Other birds drinking and bathing in the stream included Alpine Accentor, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch and White Wagtail. Altai Snowcock, a bird we decided not to pursue, are also at Yolyn Am and can be found in the heights, reachable by hiking up the sloping ridgelines from the valley floor.
When we reached an ovoo marking the last sunny spot along the path I hung back, hoping to secure some bird photos. From out of nowhere a Black Drongo appeared and alighted on the shrine. After firing off some quick shots I hurried to find Axel. There are only a few records of this species for Mongolia and I knew he needed it for his list. Axel was waiting at the point where winter ice blocked the trail and he studied the images carefully. We rushed back to the ovoo - and no drongo. From the shrine we slowly returned to the car park, searching for the vagrant with no success. On our hike out we did encounter a steady flow of late arriving tourists heading down into the valley. As we reached our vehicle the wind suddenly picked up. Dust swirled, the sky darkened and it began to rain.
Ten - Tsagaan Suvraga, the White Cliffs - There is a fascinating museum at the entrance to Yolyn Am and after a comprehensive stroll through its exhibits we got in our vehicle and returned to camp. Next day (July 3) we drove fifty or so kilometres to Dalanzagad and unsuccessfully checked the city’s tree-lined main promenade and the small garden forest at the stadium for migrants. Next stop was the sewage lagoons on the edge of town (43°35'8.35"N, 104°26'32.19"E). The birding was better there; sightings included a variety of shorebirds, a family of Hoopoe and a pair of Crested Lark. Best of all Axel found another Black Drongo. Much relief and happiness all around!
The gravel plain on our way out of Dalanzagad produced a pair of distant Oriental Plover. Then we settled back for the long drive to Tsagaan Suvraga, the White Cliffs. There are no road signs on the steppe so in the course of our travels we would stop occasionally to talk with local herders about the path ahead. On the way to Tsagaan Survaga we pulled up to a ger to confirm directions and found a woman disassembling the tent, an awkward task as she was holding a baby at the same time. We hopped out of our vehicle, the infant was passed to Jodie and the rest of us set about breaking camp - the nomads were on the move. The husband pulled up on his motorcycle and we secured the tent’s frame and felt insulation to it. Then we loaded a bunch of heavy items into our Land Cruiser, mother and child climbed in, and we set off behind the bike.
Upon arrival at the new grazing location the nomad family offered us cups of ingenii hoormog (camel milk beer) pulled directly from the large steel can it was being brewed in. The white, frothy, opaque liquid contains about 3% alcohol and tastes like a tangy, goat cheese-flavoured yogurt drink. Travel books recommend caution when sampling such things but we suffered no ill effects. Next we were offered aaruul - cubes of soft camel milk cheese in its pre-hardened stage. It was very good. The hard chunks of dry aaruul we tried later on the trip were not as much to our taste. After the beer and cheese the herder produced a bottle of shimiin arkhi - camel milk vodka, a clear liquid fermented to maybe 15% alcohol. There was a brief ceremony involving flicking drops of it into the wind and then we pounded back. The vodka tasted like goat cheese liquor, if you can imagine that.
Late afternoon we reached Tsagaan Suvarga, parked near the cliff top and got out to survey the fantastic scene - an abrupt wall of multi-hued sedimentary layers overlooking a desolate plain of eroded pinnacles of orange, brown and yellow rock. At the cliff edge Common Swifts and Lesser Kestrels swirled around and hung in the wind just metres away. It would have been an extraordinary opportunity for flight shots but for the spitting rain and darkening skies. From the overlook we continued on to our ger camp and settled in. An after dinner night walk produced nothing on the steppe so we swung by the camp’s small rubbish dump. Detecting movement in a discarded cardboard box, we gently tipped the container over and a mother and baby Long-eared Hedgehog rolled out. Not a pristine wilderness experience but still a neat encounter. Next morning we explored an oasis near the camp; two dozen large elm trees scattered over a square kilometre or so. A family of Steppe Grey Shrike allowed close approach. Axel’s keen ears detected the distance bubbling song of an oriole, which turned out to be a sub-adult of the Black-naped variety - another very rare bird for the country.
Eleven - Ikh Gazaryn Chuluu - From the oasis we continued on to the distant ger camp at Ikh Gazaryn Chuluu. Mid day a spectacular storm rolled in across the steppe. The black wall of weather quickly enveloped us, bringing a tremendous downpour that reduced visibility to near zero. Water rushed in torrents across the ground and immediately flooded the trail. Overhead, lightening and thunder flashed and boomed simultaneously. Axel reassured us that the vehicle was a Faraday cage, providing theoretical protection against electrocution. The worst of the storm passed in fifteen minutes and after half an hour the sky lightened and the wind disappeared. We reached our destination late in the afternoon on July 4th.
Ikh Gazriin Chuluu is a relatively small zone of broken granite that rises up from the surrounding steppe in an otherworldly array of rounded outcrops and jagged peaks. Our ger camp was pleasantly placed in a valley amongst the hills. After settling in we enjoyed a great dinner (delicious chunks of goat) and a pleasant but sighting-free night walk. Next morning we awoke early to a clear sky and hiked for several hours through the strange but beautiful landscape, being careful not to get turned around in the maze of rock formations. Sightings included Daurian Partridge, Chukar, Pied Wheatear, Godlewski’s Bunting and several active Cinerous Vulture nests. Mid-morning we said our goodbyes to the camp staff and set out for Ikh Nart.
Twelve - Ikh Nart, or more properly the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, covers about 660 square kilometres of rocky upland and semi-desert steppe. Lying east of Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, the protected zone shelters 600-700 Argali, the world’s largest wild sheep, as well as some 150 Siberian Ibex and a host of other bird and mammal species. Our base for exploring the area was Nomadic Journey’s Red Rock Ger Camp. All our accommodations in Mongolia were good, but the Red Rock model was the best and hopefully its example will spread. Like other camps it was clean and friendly but its ecological footprint was by far the lightest. Careful water, waste and power conservation measures were in place, measures that did not detract at all from our comfort and convenience. The absence of brick and mortar infrastructure provided a rustic feel that we really appreciated.
On the afternoon of our arrival (July 5th) I spent some time wandering with my camera among the rock outcrops around the camp. Pallas’s Pikas were everywhere. The commonest birds were Northern Wheatear, Desert Wheatear and Rock Sparrow. Next morning we awoke before dawn and set out on foot across the steppe. Our destination was a scientific research station about an hour’s hike away. We were barely out of our camp when a big Argali ram climbed atop a boulder to inspect us. Silhouetted against the orange sunrise, the big sheep made for an interesting photograph. Other sightings on our journey included a Cinerous Vulture nest, several more Argali and a group of distant Siberian Ibex.
Eventually the science station came into view, beautifully situated in a tree-lined valley among the reserve’s rocky hills. When we reached the actual camp several sleepy researchers emerged to greet us. Although tired after a long night of tracking hedgehogs, they were still happy to host visitors. Just below the station a spring bubbles up through the sand and the clear water attracts many birds. Along with Khongoryn Els and Yolyn Am, the location offered the best bird photography of the trip. The common summer residents (Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Rock Sparrow and Mongolian Finch) were all very tame and I simply sat on a rock beside the water source and shot away. During spring and fall the site is visited by migrants but these warier birds apparently require a bit more stealth to photograph.
More information about Ikh Nart is available at http://www.ikhnart.com/home.html
Thirteen - Gun Galuut Nature Reserve - July 7 marked our departure from the Gobi, but to reach a new ecozone the day’s drive would be a long one - many kilometres from arid Ikh Nart to the lush wetlands at Gun Galuut on the far side of Ulaanbaatar. The highlight of the journey was a pair of Oriental Plover with a downy youngster. They were in the familiar gravel plain/sparse grass habitat but unlike the previous sightings these ones were close and allowed excellent views.
Gun Galuut is approximately 130 kilometres east of the capital city and protects a 200 square kilometre area enclosing a large steppe lake, a nearby series of inter-connected small ponds and, over a ridge, the Kherlen River valley. The wide valley houses the Steppe Nomads Ger Camp, a grassy plain and a large marsh. Sightings around the camp included Barn Swallow, White Wagtail and Rock Sparrow. Black Stork and White-winged and Common Tern were present in the marsh. While not as rich as Bayan Nuur the main lake still held a good collection of waterfowl and its gravelly banks provided studying views of Red-necked Stint, Temminck’s Stint and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The ponds hosted a rare Grey-headed Lapwing and a scan through a large flock of Demoiselle Crane revealed two Hooded Cranes. The very rare Siberian Cranes that sometimes summer in the area were not to be seen.
Just outside the ger camp a strange singing from the grass led us to a large colony of Brandt’s Vole. The valley also held a healthy population of Siberian Marmots, with large family groups dotting the plain. After the collapse of communism most of the country’s marmots were shot and sold in commercial meat markets so it was good to see the animal making a comeback. Elsewhere the landscape is dotted with their abandoned burrow mounds, a sad sight. I did not have much success photographing the wary animals but my plan - hiding in the grass beside one of their burrows - paid off in a different way. A beautiful Corsac Fox intermittently popped up to look at me and by moving forward every time it dropped back underground I was able to get close enough to take some photos.
Fourteen - Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve - We pulled out of Gun Galuut at six in the morning on July 9th and continued east - at first on a paved road and then back to dirt trails. Our distant destination was Toson Hulstai Nature Reserve, 4,700 square kilometres of steppe ecosystem spread across Khentii and Dornod aimags in eastern Mongolia. Birding tours do not typically visit this part of the country as no special listing targets are present. We were drawn by a desire to see one of the world’s last great grasslands and the large herds of Mongolian Gazelle that still roam the area. As we pushed eastward the familiar dry steppe morphed into endless waves of high, lush, green grass. Lulled into semi-sleep by the slow rocking of the vehicle I opened me eyes at one point to the startling sight of a Japanese Quail flying alongside us, keeping pace, close enough to grab. Countless Mongolian Larks flushed up from our path.
We did not reach Hulstai until four in the afternoon, a long day of driving. There are no commercial camps in this remote place so Nomadic Journeys set up temporary gers for us in the steppe wilderness. The logistics of this were fairly complex; the first sight of our encampment was a supply truck parked on a low rise in the land. We pulled up to a warm welcome from Batjargal, Anand and Yondon from Nomadic Journeys. The reserve’s chief ranger, Amar, who would guide us to the gazelles, joined them. Under a tarp in the back of the truck were the hub, spokes, lattice and canvas covers for two gers, plus cots, stoves, chairs, bedding and other camping supplies. The team set to work assembling the camp, we assisted as best we could. The first step was the placement of the ger’s door. They must always face south and it is not polite to step on their wooden threshold. Next the lattice walls were unfolded, the central hub was raised, spokes attached and the canvas wrap secured. Then a cook tent was pitched, the latrine pit dug and enclosed and in an hour or so our little steppe village was assembled. In the evening light we scanned the surrounding lonely land. Japanese Quail called from the grass all around. Mongolian Larks drifted through the air, performing their flight song. In the distance we could make out one or two gazelles. The initial sighting turned into several small groups and as dusk set in we realized hundreds of the beautiful animals were assembled across the far hillsides.
Although declining in numbers, the Mongolian Gazelle is still one of the most numerous large animals in the world with a total population of about 1.5 million. They are nomadic, moving in groups from 20-30 individuals to herds of 5,000 and more. Rather than following set routes, the distance and direction of their travel depends on local weather and grazing conditions. In June and July small bands of females separate out to give birth, rejoining the main herd as soon as their babies are ready to travel.
On the morning of July 10th we awoke early and set out with Amar to see gazelles. Several trails cut across Hulstai and while we frequently had the antelopes in view the ranger continued on to where he believed the main concentration could be found. We eventually stopped at the edge of a low hill and walked quietly to the height of land. From the top we surveyed a long green valley and perhaps 7,000 gazelles. The air was filled with the sound of mother and young ones bleating to one another, like the noise from a giant seabird colony. At our feet a baby one suddenly leapt up and hurried after its more distant mother. Backing away we sat for a while staring in wonder at the huge herd. The spectacle, like something out of Africa, was extraordinary, perhaps the highlight of the whole trip.
Approximately 100,000 Mongolian Gazelle are killed each year, some on a subsistence basis by herders, others by commercial meat hunters. Toson Hulstai provides an important refuge from this harvest. More information about the reserve and its ongoing conservation work is available here:
Fifteen - Olziyt Khairkhan - On July 11th we broke camp and said our goodbyes to Ranger Amar and Toson Hulstai. From the reserve we continued north towards the Russian border. The plan was to set another gerscape camp beside the Onon River at the edge of the taiga. As the day passed the rolling steppe gradually transformed into hillier country and small patches of birch and larch forest began to appear in sheltered valleys and on south-facing slopes. Eventually our trail reached the river and we turned westward and followed its bank upstream until we arrived at our destination, an area known as Olziyt Khairkhan. Our campsite was beautifully situated in a meadow next to the willow-lined river. To our back the ground rose in a series of gentle hills and rock outcrops covered by areas of open steppe and large stands of mature pine forest.
After weeks of being out in the grasslands I was excited to be among trees and had high hopes of rapidly expanding the bird list in the new habitat. This was despite cautions from Axel that the taiga could be very quiet in July. Along the river edge we found Azure-winged Magpie, Willow Tit, Great Tit, Chestnut-eared Bunting and Daurian Redstart. The coniferous forest held Spotted Flycatcher and Oriental Greenfinch. New mammals included Arctic Hare, Eurasian Red Squirrel (black form) and a Red Fox. While these were nice sightings the woods did prove, as Axel warned, to be strangely quiet. They were beautiful to walk through but the level of song was near zero, even at dawn.
Sixteen - Öglögchiin Wall and on to Ulaanbaatar - On July 12 we dissembled the camp, said our warm goodbyes to the gerscape team and hopped back into the Land Cruiser. By the end of the tour we totaled almost 7,000 kilometres on the ground, an extraordinary figure that allowed us to experience a huge swath of Mongolia. The ambition to see so much meant we never stayed long at any one spot; sometimes the need to reach our next destination discouraged even random little stops. But in looking back there is nothing on the itinerary that I would give up and to see it all meant we had to be relentlessly on the move.
From Olziyt Khairkhan we continued west along the scenic river valley. This was Suur’s home territory so we stopped a couple times to say hello to folks. Friends at one ger produced some incredible fresh-baked bread and cheese, a specialty of the local Buryat people (a Mongol tribe living mainly in Russia near Lake Baikal). An area of larch forest held a cute little Siberian Chipmunk and several singing male Pine Buntings (an anomaly in the otherwise quiet landscape). Our destination for the day was a ger camp near the Öglögchiin Wall, an archaeological site consisting of an ancient stone rampart stretching several kilometers through the forest near the Daichin Mountain and the Khen Khentii Special Protected Area. We reached the camp late afternoon in time for a quick visit to the wall. The stone construction and open pine woodland were very beautiful and we did see Olive-backed Pipit - but again the habitat seemed strangely quiet. Back at camp we enjoyed an especially delicious dinner - Khorkhog - featuring lamb and vegetables slow cooked with hot stones in a sealed milk can.
On July 13, our last day in Mongolia, we drove from the wall back to Ulaanbaatar through beautiful rolling green forest steppe country. We arrived late in the day, cleaned up at the Corporate Hotel, enjoyed a wonderful meal with Jan Wigsten (head of Nomadic Journeys) and caught our Korean Air flight out just before midnight. We had had a wonderful trip. On the people side, things were great - from our easy camaraderie with Axel, Agii and Suur, to pleasant interactions with the conservationists, nomads, ger camp workers and town folks we encountered on the way. It can be dangerous to generalize about national character, but a calm hospitality and emphasis on mutual assistance, perhaps arising from life on the vast steppe, seem to be core values in Mongolia. The land and wildlife was equally wonderful - with stunning grassland, desert, forest and mountain scenery and beautiful birds and mammals. Mongolia is a great travel destination.
Paul Jones pauljodiATmagma.ca
Great Crested Grebe - Podiceps cristatus - Seen on 3 days our 21 day trip, daily high count 2 - Observed on the big lakes (Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut)
Horned Grebe (Slavonian Grebe) - Podiceps auritus - Seen 1 day, daily high count 1 - Gun Galuut
Eared Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis - 3 days, high count 37 - Observed on the big lakes (Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut)
Gray Heron - Ardea cinerea - 5 days, high count 12
Great Egret - Ardea alba - 2 days, high count 2 - Khongoryn Els
Chinese Pond-Heron - Ardeola bacchus - 1 day, high count 1 - June 25 in breeding plumage on the river at Lun, a rare bird in Mongolia
Little Bittern - Ixobrychus ninutus - 1 day, high count 1 - June 29, a female in the wetland at the base of Khongoryn Els in the Gobi Desert - a rare breeder in western Mongolia
Black Stork - Ciconia nigra - 3 days, high count 3 - Gun Galuut and the northern forest
Whooper Swan - Cygnus cygnus - 6 days, high count 14
Swan Goose - Anser cygnoides - 3 days, high count 1400 - Small numbers at Bayan Nuur, huge flock on an isolated lake in Dornod province
Ruddy Shelduck - Tadorna ferruginea - 12 days, high count 500
Common Shelduck - Tadorna tadorna - 6 days, high count 250
Eurasian Wigeon - Anas penelope - 6 days, high count 300
Falcated Duck - Anas falcata - 1 day, high count 1 - A beautiful breeding plumage male scoped by Axel at Bayan Nuur on June 26 - Patient scanning of the thousands and thousands of waterfowl present at this amazing lake pays off
Gadwall - Anas strepera - 3 days, high count 200
Baikal Teal - Anas formosa - 1 day, high count 1 - June 26, Bayan Nuur, breeding plumage male
Eurasian Teal - Anas crecca - 5 days, high count 300
Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos - 7 days, high count 500
Northern Pintail - Anas acuta - 3 days, high count 50
Garganey - Anas querquedula - 3 days, high count 50
Northern Shoveler - Anas clypeata - 5 days, high count 300
Red-crested Pochard - Netta rufina - 3 days, high count 2 - Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut
Common Pochard - Aythya ferina - 5 days, high count 300
Tufted Duck - Aythya fuligula - 5 days, high count 60
Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula - 5 days, high count 220
Common Merganser (Goosander) - Mergus merganser - 1 day, high count 2 - Lun
Black (-eared) Kite - Milvus migrans lineatus - 19 days, high count 33 - One of the signature birds of the trip, all kite sightings were of the lineatus sub-species, sometimes considered a full species “Black-eared Kite”
White-tailed Eagle - Haliaeetus albicilla - 4 days, high count 2 - Gun Galuut and the Onon River
Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus - 3 days, high count 3 - 3 each at Altan Uul and Yolyn Am, 1 lone bird out on the Gobi plains
Himalayan Griffon - Gyps himalayensis - 2 days, high count 25 - Altan Uul and Yolyn Am
Cinereous Vulture - Aegypius monachus - 13 days, high count 40 - Another signature presence - Common outside of the deep Gobi
Eastern Marsh-Harrier - Circus spilonotus - 2 days, high count 4 - Bayan Nuur
Eurasian Sparrowhawk - Accipiter nisus - 1 day, high count 1 - Along the Onon River at the edge of the taiga
Northern Goshawk - Accipiter gentilis - 2 days, high count 1 - Along the Onon River at the edge of the taiga
Eastern Buzzard - Buteo japonicus - 1 day, high count 1 - Along the Onon River at the edge of the taiga
Long-legged Buzzard - Buteo rufinus - 2 days, high count 1, plus 3 young at nest - Khongoryn Els
Upland Buzzard - Buteo hemilasius - 12 days, high count 23 - A frequent roadside sight
Steppe Eagle - Aquila nipalensis - 12 days, high count 9 - A frequent roadside sight
Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos - 6 days, high count 3
Booted Eagle - Aquila pennata - 1 day, high count 1 - Onon River
Lesser Kestrel - Falco naumanni - 7 days, high count 12 - Best sightings in dry, cliff areas, notably a large colony at Tsagaan Suvarga - the White Cliffs - in the Gobi
Eurasian Kestrel - Falco tinnunculus - 10 days, high count 6
Amur Falcon - Falco amurensis - 6 days, high count 13 - A bird of the northern steppe/forest, often on telephone wires and power lines
Eurasian Hobby - Falco subbuteo - 5 days, high count 4 - A bird of the northern steppe/forest
Saker Falcon - Falco cherrug - 10 days, high count 4 - Awesome!
Black Grouse - Tetrao tetrix - 1 day, high count 2 - Females in the willows at the Onon River
Chukar - Alectoris chukar - (1 day, high count 2) Calling from atop the rocks at Ikh Gazriin Chuluu in the north Gobi
Daurian Partridge - Perdix dauurica - (2 days, high count 7) Toson Hustai and Ikh Gazriin Chuluu
Japanese Quail - Coturnix japonica - (4 days, high count 20) Common in Toson Hulstai in the east, usually seen when flushed by vehicle, heard more frequently
Demoiselle Crane - Grus virgo - (16 days, high count 380) A graceful presence throughout our trip
White-naped Crane - Grus vipio - (8 days, high count 6) Seen in northern steppe wetlands
Hooded Crane - Grus monacha - (1 day, high count 2) July 7, in a large flock of Demosille Crane at Gun Galuut
Spotted Crake - Porzana porzana - (1 day, high count 1) Heard at Bayan Nuur
Common Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus - (1 day, high count 1) Bayan Nuur
Eurasian Coot - Fulica atra - (2 days, high count 30) Bayan Nuur
Black-winged Stilt - Himantopus himantopus - (3 days, high count 100) Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut
Pied Avocet - Recurvirostra avosetta - (5 days, high count 100) Bayan Nuur
Northern Lapwing - Vanellus vanellus - (9 days, high count 200)
Gray-headed Lapwing - Vanellus cinereus - (1 day, high count 1) Gun Galuut on July 8, a rare bird in Mongolia
Little Ringed Plover - Charadrius dubius - (8 days, high count 40)
Snowy Plover - Charadrius alexandrinus - (1 days, high count 6) In the wetland at the base of Khongrel Els
Greater Sandplover - Charadrius leschenaultii - (1 day, high count 4) On the gravel plains outside of Dalanzadgad
Oriental Plover - Charadrius veredus - (3 days, high count 4) 2 pairs on the gravel plains outside of Dalanzadgad and 1 single and 1 pair with 1 downy juvenile farther east
Common Snipe - Gallinago gallinago - (2 days, high count 1)
Asian Dowitcher - Limnodromus semipalmatus - (1 day, high count 5) June 26 at Bayan Nuur in the wet grass at the edge of the lake
Black-tailed Godwit - Limosa limosa - (4 days, high count 80) Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut
Eurasian Curlew - Numenius arquata - (5 days, high count 3) Northern steppe
Spotted Redshank - Tringa erythropus - (7 days, high count 100)
Common Redshank - Tringa totanus - (10 days, high count 30)
Marsh Sandpiper - Tringa stagnatilis - (2 days, high count 20) Bayan Nuur
Common Greenshank - Tringa nebularia - (4 days, high count 30) Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut
Green Sandpiper - Tringa ochropus - (9 days, high count 50)
Wood Sandpiper - Tringa glareola - (11 days, high count 500)
Common Sandpiper - Actitis hypoleucos - (4 days, high count 30)
Red-necked Stint - Calidris ruficollis - (1 day, high count 4) July 8 Gun Galuut
Temminck's Stint - Calidris temminckii - (1 day, high count 2) July 8 Gun Galuut
Long-toed Stint - Calidris subminuta - (1 day, high count 5) July 8 Gun Galuut
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - Calidris acuminata - (1 day, high count 1) July 8 Gun Galuut
Curlew Sandpiper - Calidris ferruginea - (2 days, high count 80) Gun Galuut
Red-necked Phalarope - Phalaropus lobatus - (1 day, high count 3) Bayan Nuur June 26
Common Gull - Larus canus - (1 day, high count 1) July 8 Gun Galuut
Mongolian Gull - Larus mongolicus - (5 days, high count 45) Northern steppe
Black-headed Gull - Larus ridibundus - (4 days, high count 200) Bayan Nuur and Gun Galuut
Relict Gull - Larus relictus - (1 day, high count 2) June 26 Bayan Nuur in with a large flock of Black-headed gulls roosting on the grass at the edge of the lake
Gull-billed Tern - Sterna nilotica - (3 days, high count 20)
Common Tern - Sterna hirundo - (9 days, high count 30) Northern steppe lakes
White-winged Tern - Chlidonias leucopterus - (5 days, high count 40)
Pallas's Sandgrouse - Syrrhaptes paradoxus - (12 days, high count 400)
Rock Pigeon - Columba livia - (12 days, high count 30) Feral in towns and cities
Hill Pigeon - Columba rupestris - (6 days, high count 24)
Oriental Turtle-Dove - Streptopelia orientalis - (3 days, high count 4) Northern forest
Eurasian Collared-Dove - Streptopelia decaocto - (4 days, high count 29)
Common Cuckoo - Cuculus canorus - (6 days, high count 5)
Little Owl - Athene noctua - (4 days, high count 4)
Gray Nightjar - Caprimulgus jotaka - (1 day, high count 1) Night singing at Onon River
Eurasian Nightjar - Caprimulgus europaeus - (3 days, high count 1) Night singing at Onon River
Common Swift - Apus apus - (13 days, high count 30)
Fork-tailed Swift - Apus pacificus - (15 days, high count 800)
Hoopoe - Upupa epops - (12 days, high count 8)
Great Spotted Woodpecker - Dendrocopos maj - (3 days, high count 3) Northern forest
Mongolian Lark - Melanocorypha mongolica - (13 days, high count 400) Present in good numbers in steppe country outside the Gobi
Asian (Lesser) Short-toed Lark - Calandrella (rufescens) cheleensis (17 days, high count 100) - signature roadside species
Crested Lark - Galerida cristata - (2 days, high count 2) Dalanzadgad sewage lagoons and somewhere on July 6
Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis - (5 days, high count 20) Northern steppe
Horned Lark - Eremophila alpestris - (19 days, high count 100)
Bank Swallow (Sand Martin) - Riparia riparia - (3 days, high count 10)
Eurasian Crag-Martin - Ptyonoprogne rupestris - (3 days, high count 30)
Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica - (7 days, high count 10)
Common House-Martin - Delichon urbicum - (4 days, high count 30)
White Wagtail - Motacilla alba - (7 days, high count 6)
Citrine Wagtail - Motacilla citreola - (7 days, high count 4)
Yellow Wagtail - Motacilla flava - (2 days, high count 6)
Richard's Pipit - Anthus richardi - (7 days, high count 20) Best distinguished from Blyth’s Pipit by voice and preference for lusher grass
Blyth's Pipit - Anthus godlewskii - (8 days, high count 100) Best distinguished from Richard’s Pipit by voice and preference for stonier ground
Olive-backed Pipit - Anthus hodgsoni - (1 days, high count 5) Northern larch forest
Alpine Accentor - Prunella collaris - (1 day, high count 2) - Yolyn Am
Brown Accentor - Prunella fulvescens - (1 day, high count 6) Yolyn Am
Mongolian Accentor - Prunella koslowi - (1 day, high count 2) AKA Koslow’s Accentor, singing males at the point the path first narrows along the trail through Yolyn Am
Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush - Monticola saxatilis - (3 days, high count 10) Erdenesant
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler - Locustella certhiola - (3 days, high count 3) Scoped in the reeds at Bayan Nuur and the Dalanzadgad sewage lagoons
Paddyfield Warbler - Acrocephalus agricola - (2 days, high count 12) Bayan Nuur
Oriental Reed-Warbler - Acrocephalus orientalis - (3 days, high count 10) Bayan Nuur
Yellow-browed Warbler - Phylloscopus inornatus - (1 day, high count 3) Heard in the northern larch forest
Hume's Warbler - Phylloscopus humei - (1 day, high count 1) A late migrant singing and seen June 28 in the oasis trees at the Juulchin Gobi 1 ger camp
Greater Whitethroat - Sylvia communis - (2 days, high count 3) Northern forest
Asian Desert Warbler - Sylvia nana - (3 days, high count 4) Saxaul forest at Bayanzag and Juulchin Gobi 2 ger camp at KE
Spotted Flycatcher - Muscicapa striata - (2 days, high count 4) Northern Larch forest
Black Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros - (1 day, high count 20) Yolyn Am
Daurian Redstart - Phoenicurus auroreus - (3 days, high count 5) Onon River
Siberian Stonechat - Saxicola maurus - (1 day, high count 1) Onon River
Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe - (4 days, high count 10) Northern sector
Pied Wheatear - Oenanthe pleschanka - (9 days, high count 30) Rocky terrain
Desert Wheatear - Oenanthe deserti - (11 days, high count 20) Arid steppe
Isabelline Wheatear - Oenanthe isabellina - (16 days, high count 50) Steppe
Bearded Tit (Reedling) - Panurus biarmicus - (1 days, high count 6) Bayan Nuur reed beds
Marsh Tit - Poecile palustris - (1 day, high count 3) Northern river
Willow Tit - Poecile montana - (2 days, high count 6) Northern forest
Great Tit - Parus major - (1 day, high count 3) Northern river
Eurasian Nuthatch - Sitta europaea - (1 day, high count 11) Northern forest
Wallcreeper - Tichodroma muraria - (1 day, high count 3) Spectacular eye-level sightings of this charismatic species where the trail narrows through Yolyn Am
Black-naped Oriole - Oriolus chinensis - (1 day, high count 1) A sub-adult male on July 4 at an Elm oasis near Tsagaan Suvarga - the White Cliffs - in the Gobi, a rare bird in Mongolia with less than 10 records
Black Drongo - Dicrurus macrocercus - (2 days, high count 1) We saw one on July 2 at the Ovoo along the trail through Yolyn Am and another on the next day at the Dalanzadgad sewage lagoons - a rare bird in Mongolia with less than 10 records
Isabelline Shrike - Lanius isabellinus - (16 days, high count 12)
Brown Shrike - Lanius cristatus - (2 days, high count 1) One in the northern forest and 1 out of place migrant at the Julchin Gobi 1 ger camp in the Gobi Desert
Northern Shrike - Lanius excubitor - (2 days, high count 9) Northern forest
Steppe Gray Shrike - Lanius (meridionalis/lahtora) pallidirostris - (5 days, high count 6) In the Gobi
Azure-winged Magpie - Cyanopica cyana - (2 days, high count 30) Onon River
Eurasian Magpie - Pica pica - (6 days, high count 40)
Mongolian Ground-Jay - Podoces hendersoni - (1 day, high count 2) Seen at dawn at N 43 50.046’ E 102 16.255’ moving quickly through Caragana scrub at the base of some low hills about four kilometers directly north of the Juulchin Gobi 2 ger camp at Khongoryn Els.
Red-billed Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax - (13 days, high count 190)
Daurian Jackdaw - Corvus dauuricus - (4 days, high count 500) In the north
Carrion Crow - Corvus corone - (5 days, high count 30)
Common Raven - Corvus corax - (18 days, high count 70)
White-cheeked Starling - Sturnus cineraceus - (1 day, high count 1) June 28 in the oasis trees at the Juulchin Gobi 1 ger camp
Pine Bunting - Emberiza leucocephalos - (1 day, high count 15) Common in certain Larch forest in northern Mongolia. Its distinctive buzzy song is one of the few sounds emanating from this quiet habitat.
Godlewski's Bunting - Emberiza godlewskii - (2 days, high count 1) Yolyn Am and Ikh Gazriin Chuluu
Meadow Bunting - Emberiza cioides - (3 days, high count 50) northern forest at Toson Hustai and Onon River
Chestnut-eared Bunting - Emberiza fucata - (1 day, high count 6) northern willow scrub at Onon River
Pallas's Bunting - Emberiza pallasi - (1 day, high count 1) A singing male in Caragana scrub steppe outside of Altan Uul
Reed Bunting - Emberiza schoeniclus - (2 days, high count 2) Bayan Nuur
Common Rosefinch - Carpodacus erythrinus - (1 day, high count 6) Yolyn Am
Beautiful Rosefinch - Carpodacus pulcherrimus - (1 day, high count 12) Yolyn Am
Great Rosefinch - Carpodacus rubicilla - (1 day, high count 2) Yolyn Am
Red Crossbill - Loxia curvirostra - (2 days, high count 5) A small flock in the valley at Altan Uul
Oriental Greenfinch - Carduelis sinica - (1 days, high count 18) Northern Larch forest
Twite - Carduelis flavirostris - (1 day, high count 20) Yolyn Am
Mongolian Finch - Rhodopechys mongolica - (4 days, high count 50) Yolyn Am and Ikh Nart
Saxaul Sparrow - Passer ammodendri - (2 days, high count 14) Conspicuous beside the path at the main entry point to the dune wall at Khongoryn Els. Local people indicated that they (the sparrows) were breeding in the large, rusting steel pipes littering the area.
House Sparrow - Passer domesticus - (2 days, high count 10) Ulaanbaatar
Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus - (16 days, high count 30)
Rock Sparrow - Petronia petronia - (12 days, high count 800) Arid steppe and hill country
White-winged Snowfinch - Montifringilla nivalis - (2 days, high count 200) Yolyn Am
Pere David's Snowfinch - Montifringilla davidiana - (4 days, high count 30)
Annotated Mammal List
Red Squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris - 1 in northern larch forest at Onon River, a near black individual
Siberian/Tarbagan Marmot - Marmota sibirica - (7 days, high count 30) Seen at Toson Hustai and Gun Galuut and scattered locations across the northern steppe
Daurian Ground Squirrel - Spermophilus dauricus - Eastern steppe/taiga edge
Red-cheeked Ground Squirrel - Spermophilus erythrogenys - Scattered sightings in the Gobi
Long-tailed Ground Squirrel - Spermophilus undulatus - Common Hustai to Erdenesant
Siberian Chipmunk - Tamias sibiricus - 1 in northern larch forest. This animal occurs across northern Asia from central Russia to Japan and is the only chipmunk found outside North America.
Andrews's Three-toed Jerboa - Stylodipus andrewsi - Khongoryn Els
Siberian Jerboa - Allactaga sibirica - 1 at Hulstai
Brandt's Vole - Lasiopodomys brandtii - Gun Galuut
Great Gerbil - Rhombomys opimus - 5 among the Saxual at the Flaming Cliffs, calling (bleating) loudly
Daurian Pika - Ochotona dauurica - Among the gers at our camp near the Öglögchiin Wall
Pallas's Pika - Ochotona pallasi - Abundant at Yolyn Am and Ikh Nart
Mountain (Arctic) Hare - Lepus timidus - One, in the hills above the Onon River
Long-eared Hedgehog - Hemiechinus auritus - Found at night at the Three Camel Lodge and Tsagaan Suvraga, the White Cliffs
Corsac Fox - Vulpes corsac - Three sightings - one ran quickly across the road near Altan Uul west of Ulaanbaatar - two other family groups were seen amongst the marmot colonies at the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve
Red Fox - Vulpes vulpes - One, along the Onon River
Tahki/Wild horse - Equus ferus - 38, Toson Hustai
Wapiti - Cervus canadensis - 6, Toson Hustai
Black-tailed (Goitered) Gazelle - Gazella subgutturosa - scattered sightings in the Gobi
Mongolian Gazelle - Zeren Procapra gutturosa - scattered sightings in the Gobi, vast herds on the eastern steppe
Siberian Ibex - Capra sibrica - 7 at Yolyn Am and 6 at Ikh Nart
Argali - Ovis ammon - 5 at Ikh Nart.