Sunday 28 May 2017


On 9 April 1978 I went to Portland to see an Alpine Accentor but was keen to return home so as not to miss the Sussex Ornithological Society's AGM that evening. Alan Kitson was giving a talk about his British Council 'exchange' visit to Mongolia in February-July 1977. At that time it was effectively a forbidden destination and Alan's talk, presented in local dress, left a lasting impression on a naive 23 year old. The 1978 SxBR Report of Council rather dryly reported it as "The annual general meeting was well attended and Mr. A. Kitson gave an illustrated lecture on his six months sojourn in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It was an illuminating and interesting talk and we were privileged to see slides of a number of species rarely or never previously photographed." Weren't we just! Later Alan produced three papers in British Birds in late 1978/early 1979 on the identification of Siberian vagrants, he returned to Mongolia on another British Council award in autumn 1979 and produced further notes in British Birds in 1980. 

Mongolia then stayed off my radar for many years. Even when it opened up for tourists it was a destination that wasn't very practical to do independently and the early 'overland' type tours were not at all bird oriented and likely to be intensely frustrating. Bird Tour companies started going (e.g. Birdquest from 2010) but it was quite expensive and, by then having travelled to the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau and Japan, there were not many new birds on offer. 

In 2016 Jon Hornbuckle asked me if I'd be interested in a reasonably priced private trip organised by local tour operator and birdguide Tumen Khumbaa of TUM-ECO Tour. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss and didn't take long to decide that I definitely was. Eight of us went in May 2017, the others being Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Simon Colenutt, Rod Martins, Lori Szucs and Barry Wright.

A couple of weeks before departure I bumped into Alan and mentioned I was going and had a brief chat about the country and his trip. I returned home the next evening to find he had very generously left me his field notebook and an article he had published in Country Life to borrow. His notebook was a real treasure and put my efforts completely to shame, so much so that I felt like binning the lot!

pages from ARK's notebook - Pallas's Reed Bunting
Long-tailed Rosefinch
Asiatic Dowitcher
Ortolan Bunting and Mongolian Lark
my notebook 7 December 1979 - barely legible pencil scrawl (pencil used to allow corrections), no attempt at artwork, very scant detail
my notebook 19 May 2017 - now reduced to species lists and if lucky brief diary entries but at least digital photography enables images of varying quality to be captured of many birds
Pallas's Reed Bunting Mongolia 13 May 2017
Asiatic Dowitcher with Black-tailed Godwits Mongolia 18 May 2017 - second bird from the right, note thicker bill and red belly
Mongolian Lark Mongolia 18 May 2017
Swan Goose 19 May 2017

More detailed postings of the trip are in the May 2017 folder.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Seaford seawatch (27 May)

Saturday 27 May. Back from Mongolia which has no sea at all a SE wind tempted me over to Seaford for what will probably be my last spring seawatch of the year. JK, Matt and Bob were in situ when I arrived at 06:00. JK and I stayed to 10:30, the others having left by then although Matt made a brief return visit to bring us the news that Seaford Head was very quiet. Between 06:00-10:30 I recorded the following flying East: 86 Gannets, a Shag, 423 Common Scoter, 3 Oystercatchers, 2 Sanderling, single Whimbrel and Turnstone, single Great and Arctic Skuas, 2 adult Mediterranean Gulls, 37 Sandwich and 2 Common Terns, a Razorbill, 4 Guillemots and 6 unidentified auks. I thought it a reasonable return for a late seawatch and certainly enough to keep our interest while hoping something better might fly past. Later Megan and I took Cookie around the Adur Houseboats seeing 2 Little Egrets.

Friday 26 May. A brief look produced 6 Swifts over the house at dusk.

Thursday 25 May. A brief look produced 8 Swifts over the house at dusk.

Wednesday 24 May. Megan and I took Cookie to the Adur. Work continues along the east side which remains closed making it necessary to walk into the town to do a circuit. We walked across the old Toll Bridge and along by the airport and back to avoid doing so. I saw a Little Egret, 2 Shelduck, 2 Oystercatchers, 2 Reed Warblers, a Whitethroat and a few ordinary gulls. 

Tuesday 23 May 2017

MONGOLIA 2017: Hustai and Ulaanbaatar (20-23 May)

This blog finishes our Mongolian trip. I was with Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Simon Colenutt (see for a better illustrated account of the trip), Jon Hornbuckle, Rod Martins, Lori Szucs and Barry Wright. We were being taken around by Tumen and Oyunna Humbaa of TUM-ECO Tour (Tumendelger Humbaa <>) in three Landcruisers with a UAZ support vehicle. We were now on the final leg of our trip and were heading to Ulaanbaatar and a return visit to the conifer forests to the northeast.

20 May. I was awake at 05:00 with Marc, who I was sharing a room with, saying it had snowed overnight and was still doing so. Looking out of the window everything was white! I had slept really solidly and this came as something of a surprise. I put on several layers including waterproof over trousers and went out at 05:30, walking up above the toilet block to the nearest small patch of bushes. Viewing conditions were difficult with a strong wind and light snow but from the sheltered side I saw an Olive-backed Pipit, Black-throated Thrush, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler and Little Bunting. I was soon joined by Barry and we headed up the valley towards some larger patches of bushes and trees. Out of the first we flushed a White’s Thrush and were soon seeing more thrushes, Pallas’s Leaf, Yellow--browed and Dusky Warblers, 3 Cuckoos, Hobby and Taiga Flycatcher. We returned for breakfast at 07:00, seeing the White’s Thrush again as we past its clump, although in hindsight I wished I’d stayed out. Simon had seen 16 Siberian Rubythroats in the side valley opposite while Marc had seen two White’s Thrushes, one up another side valley and ours. After a quick breakfast I went up Simon’s valley seeing 12 Siberian Rubythroats, Pallas’s Leaf and Two-barred Greenish Warblers, the latter causing some identification uncertainties. The weather was improving with snow flurries rather than a fledgling blizzard. More grounded migrants were found with the pick of the bunch being a smart male Yellow-breasted Bunting Barry and Simon saw further up the valley. We returned to camp at 09:00 and left soon after, a male Common Redstart under the huts being the first of the trip. The vehicles flushed lots of Wheatears from the track as we drove out of the valley and soon dropped below the snowline, although it was still sleeting. We made a few roadside stops by bushes seeing a selection of migrants at each – 6 Eyebrowed Thrushes here, 5 Common Rosefinches there, Taiga Flycatchers and Brown Shrikes everywhere.  We drove to a more rocky area where Marc and Lori saw the only Daurian Partridge of the trip, fortunately I’d seen them previously. On the way out of the park we saw Prezwalski’s Horses, something we had been looking out for. They became extinct in the wild in the 1950s but in 1992 sixteen were released from captivity into what was to become Hustai National Park. We saw 21 and I have to admit I was pleased to do so - they were quite nice. Back at the Park HQ there was a Brown Flycatcher in a gully near the car park. We had a quick look in the shop for souvenirs to take home but nothing caught my eye – no carved wooden horses for example and the cashmere scarves were expensive and an uninspiring brown colour. We drove back into Ulaanbaatar and stopped for lunch at a Korean place by the Tol River. The main bird I was still hoping to see was Azure Tit and I knew we would be looking for them in willows by the Tol River. Always keen to try for birds at the first opportunity I skipped lunch and scrambled down a steep bank to the willows. At this point they backed onto the river 50-100m away, extended 300m to the road in one direction and much further in the other. I spent an hour of so along a 800-1000m section of the river and it was brilliant. Pishing almost immediately brought in a Great Tit but it was some time later before a superb Azure Tit came in to investigate. All the time Taiga Flycatchers were calling, I counted 32, there were also Siberian Rubythroats, Brown Shrikes, Two-barred Greenish Warblers and on the gravel river bank 12 Little Buntings. A few White Wagtails around the car park were mostly Baikal but included one Swinhoe’s (ocularis). We left Ulaanbaatar, called in again at our favourite supermarket – I ventured in this time, it was much like any other although appeared a good bit cheaper, not that I bought anything. We drove to Teralj National Park along a wooded valley seeing Pine Bunting and Hawfinch at one stop. At Teralj we checked into the rather lavish Ulaanbaatar Hotel 2, seeing Siberian Rubythroat and Dusky Thrush by its garbage hut overflow, no doubt attracted by the smell. We birded the nearby open forest to 20:30 seeing another 10 Siberian Rubythroats and a superb male Siberian Blue Robin in a small damp area and Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Coal Tit, Nuthatch and more Little Buntings. A good meal in the hotel capped off another great day.
the unexpected view from our window
I headed for the nearest bushes, behind the toilets
our accommodation, nice and cosy inside

looking back from further up the valley
me under several layers
Hobby in the snow

brighter after breakfast
below the snowline but it was still cold
Meadow Bunting
Prezwalski's Horse and foal in Hustai National Park

Prezwalski's Horse

more snow near the entrance

Hustai National Park HQ
Brown Flycatcher
driving back to Ulaanbaatar
new tower blocks going up on the outskirts
some they'd built earlier
Ulaanbaatar power stations
the city and the Tol River

Azure Tit by the Tol River 
every bit as good as I'd hoped

responded well to pishing
Little Buntings by the Tol River

Brown Shrike
out of focus Baikal White Wagtail (Motacilla alba baicalensis) and old bottle, the best I managed
a resort complex being built near Teralj National Park
Pine Bunting
Siberian Rubythroat by the hotel garbage overflow

Dusky Thrush at Teralj
Eurasian Nuthatch of the white breasted race asiatica
at its nest hole
presumed Common Snipe
another male Siberian Rubythroat
and another, this patch held several and took my day total to 27

male Siberian Blue Robin at Teralj
brilliantly long legs
just squeezed in ahead of the rubythroats as my favourite migrant

21 May.
  We were out by 05:15 to find a very cold morning with ice having formed on puddles. A quick check of the hotel’s rubbish tip for rubythroats failed to produce any although a male Common Redstart on the fence was some compensation. We wandered back into the open forest and Barry and Simon soon found an Azure Tit. After seeing it I headed for the damp area where most rubythroats and the Siberian Blue Robin had been the previous evening but it was frozen and they all appeared to have moved on. I headed back and not finding the others ended up birding along a woodland trail seeing Dusky, Naumann’s and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Daurian Redstart and several Taiga Flycatchers. We returned for breakfast at 08:00 and checked out, stopping for two hours in birch forest 5km down the road. We drove back towards the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar where we turned off to Gachuurt, driving up the valley we had previously visited. We saw several Brown Shrikes beside the track and stopped for a pair of Stejneger’s Stonechats. The support vehicle was already at what was to be our final campsite, a nice clearing at the head of the valley. The tents were already set up and lunch was soon prepared. We had previously had dinner here before returning to Ulaanbaatar after our first attempt to see Siberian Jay. I was hoping for better luck this time but the optimism I had the previous day on learning that Tumen had been sent GPS co-ordinated for a nest site were somewhat deflated on learning it was from last year. It was also pretty much in the area we had already looked. Before and after lunch we looked around the clearing and a wetter scrubby area by a stream seeing Eastern Buzzard, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brown and Taiga Flycatchers, Lesser Whitethroat, Dusky, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Greenish Warblers and a calling Ural Owl. The latter only in flight for me. We drove back up into the conifer forest to the same saddle we had visited previously, taking the same wrong turning half-way up too. It was then a stiff climb skirting the top of one hill before dropping down to climb to the top of the next, where an Olive-backed Pipit was singing. The terrain flattened out and after about 10 minutes we reached the GPS co-ordinates that Duncan had fed into his device but no jays. We continued to the furthest edge of a plateau but other than Willow Tits, Siberian Chipmunks and Pallas's Pikas it was very quiet. There was much evidence of pine nut harvesters having been on the area, we’d earlier encountered some women selling pine nuts by the road although eating them seemed more trouble than it was worth. I wondered if the harvesters had disturbed the jays causing them to move elsewhere, or even depleted their food supply with the same result? Whatever the reason we could find no jays and headed back. A jay-like call on the way back caused some excitement but was followed up and turned out to be a Nutcracker. Nice but not what we were hoping for. We returned to camp at 18:30. The Ural Owl was still calling and after a brief playback flew in to investigate - superb. It turned distinctly colder as the sun went down and we turned in early.
Common Redstart at Teralj
Magpie and Daurian Jackdaws
Daurian Jackdaws
Goosander on the river at Teralj
Naumann's Thrush
Two-barred Greenish Warbler

our hotel at Teralj
another newer hotel. The area, like Ulaanbaatar, was being rapidly developed
'Oriental' Rook
Stejneger's Stonechat on the way to Gachuurt
our campsite at Gachuurt
my 'Altai Snowcock' tent
in the event we only saw one ...
our brilliant crew

Lesser Whitethroat near the campsite
looking back down towards the campsite
Siberian Chipmunk on 'No Jay Hill'
Pallas's Pika

Nice but not the corvid we were hoping for
Ural Owl in the campsite clearing
by now the light was very poor
which added to its ghostly presence

22 May. I was up at 05:00 to find frost on the tent, although it had been nice and warm inside. I birded around the camp from 05:15 seeing singing immature male Red-flanked Bluetail and Olive-backed Pipit but little else before returning for breakfast at 06:30. We drove back up to the saddle in the conifer forest and headed back to the same area as before. A flock of 10 Crossbills flew over but otherwise birds were much as before – several Nutcrackers, Olive-backed Pipit and Coal and Willow Tits. It was definitely No Jay Hill. We returned to the vehicles where Rod, who was doing his own thing, had seen Siberian Tit but it had moved on. We headed back towards camp with a couple of stops on the way hoping to find Chinese Bush Warbler but realising we were almost certainly too early. We were back at camp at 12:45 for lunch and had an hour birding the area seeing Taiga Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat and Dusky, Yellow-browed, Two-barred Greenish Warblers. We left for Ulaanbaatar stopping almost immediately for a showy male Pine Bunting by the track. We continued to the eastern outskirts of Ulaanbaatar where we had a lengthy stop at a particularly braided and willowy section of the Tol River and quickly found several White-crowned Penduline Tits – my eighth and final new bird of the trip. We also had good but brief views of Azure Tit and a pair of Long-tailed Rosefinches, the latter male flushing just as I was about to photograph it. We skirted around the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar towards our final destination, the Mongolica Hotel to the west of the city. It was not far from the airport although we were going in the back way. We soon left the Tol River and cut in towards the city centre and before seeing anything of it headed west. We then turned south on what soon became a rough track to cross an area of what looked like wasteland that was in the process of being developed. A very brief stop at a small man-made lake/spoil pit produced a final Demoiselle Crane, Ruddy Shelduck, 2 Goldeneye and 2 White-winged Black Terns. As we approached the Mongolica Hotel we rejoined the Tol River seeing a flock of at least 12 Azure-winged Magpies on the opposite side. We arrived at the Mongolica at 18:30, a modern hotel block in a fine setting with extensive gardens of grass, scattered trees and bushes. I dumped my bag in the room I was sharing with Barry and went birding around the garden and over to the Tol River under a kilometre away. Another Azure Tit was the highlight but I also saw Mandarin, Goosander, Taiga Flycatcher, Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Brown Shrike and White-cheeked Starling. Returning to the Mongolica just before 20:00 I was delighted to see Roger and Liz Charlwood sitting on the steps. I knew Tumen was taking them and Frank Lambert around after us but hadn’t realised we would overlap although sadly Frank wasn’t arriving until the following afternoon. We had a good chat although it was cut short as they were suffering from jet lag and I was late for dinner. Roger wasn’t too jet lagged to pick up a male Amur Falcon flying over, the first we had seen. Dinner was a rather posh do in a private dining room. All the crew were there which was nice but there was no sign of Jon. I’d been the last to see him not far from the hotel entrance but we checked his room and he was nowhere to be found. The drivers left to search for him and returned soon after having found him walking back down the road. He’d taken a wrong turn and not found anyone who could understand him. The food was slow coming, particularly mine, so I left to have a shower first. Marc then made a nice speech thanking everyone for putting on such an enjoyable trip, a sentiment we all agreed with.
Gachuurt campsite early morning
Lori and Simon watching Olive-backed Pipit
this one
Nutcracker, this one looked like a clockwork model complete with winding key
mean looking Siberian Chipmunk ready for a punch-up, I did a runner ...
Simon and Duncan
Tufty, a Red Squirrel colour variant
Willow Tit excavating a nest hole

a very tatty Camberwell Beauty
male Pine Bunting

Tol River willows and Ulaanbaatar
White-crowned Penduline Tit by the Tol River

Penduline Tit nest

I was disappointed not to obtain photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch but these pages from Alan Kitson's 1977 notebook are a good substitute of this very smart bird

Tol River and Ulaanbaatar tower blocks

lots more being built
Ulaanbaatar old and new

Brown Shrike in the grounds of the Mongolica Hotel
black colour-ringed Azure-winged Magpie near the Mongolica

Azure Tit near the Mongolica
responding to pishing
final meal, me either asleep or finishing the day's notes
the rest of the table

23 May. I was out at 05:15 and walked by the river for a couple of hours before breakfast. Birds were similar to the previous evening with 2 Amur Falcons, 3 Dusky and 4 Two-barred Greenish Warblers, 17 Azure-winged Magpies, and an Azure Tit. I also saw Naumann’s Thrush and Black-faced Bunting but failed to see a male Long-tailed Rosefinch Barry had in a nearby hedge before it flew out. We said goodbye to Lori who was flying back to Australia later and left the Mongolica at 08:10 in a hotel bus. Tumen and Oyunna came with us to the airport. It had been a very enjoyable trip which they had organised well and run very smoothly and we were sad to leave. At check-in we were told all batteries had to go into hand luggage and fortunately mine were easy to extract. Not everyone complied but hold bags were x-rayed and an official came round checking baggage labels and taking recalcitrant passengers to one side to do so. Our flight was an hour late departing giving me ample time to buy a couple of small model Gers, tiny dolls in traditional dress and a cashmere scarf. We flew to Bishkek which was nice to see in daylight although we were confined to a fairly grim departure lounge. A Roller flying across the runway as we were taxiing before take-off was a surprise. We hadn’t made up any time and arrived in Istanbul just after our London flight had departed – we were all flying back to Heathrow. The Turkish Airlines staff were very efficient, once we knew where to go, and put us on a flight two hours later. Some passengers travelling to their destinations were not so fortunate and faced the prospect of an overnight stay. We arrived at Heathrow at 22:35.
early morning at the modern Mongolica Hotel
Hoopoe on the roof
Naumann's Thrush in the garden

male Mandarin by the river
this Azure-winged Magpie had a yellow colour-ring
White-cheeked Starling
Daurian Jackdaw
Dusky Warbler
Azure Tit, a fitting bird to finish with
Oyunna, Jon and Tumen outside the airport
over the Tol River west of Ulaanbaatar

the Mongolica Hotel is the grey block marginally below and to the right of centre, its close proximity to the Tol River evident

interesting looking place, just west of Ulaanbaatar
over southern Kazakhstan

coming into Bishkek
Manas International Airport, Bishkek. Despite being late and missing our connection in Istanbul I was not sorry we'd flown Turkish rather than Aeroflot

24 May. I sat around the Coach Station until 03:20 when I caught a Brighton bus, the earliest one which I could then connect on to Shoreham. I was home just before 07:00.

It had been a very enjoyable trip. A combination of an interesting destination quite unlike most other places I have been, some really classy birds I had wanted to see for years (Oriental Plover, Black-billed Capercaillie, Azure Tit), others it was great to see again (Pallas's Sandgrouse, Henderson's Ground Jay, Demoiselle Crane), exciting Siberian migrants and excellent companions. Thanks to them all and particularly Jon for organising the trip and inviting me along.