Wednesday, 10 May 2017

MONGOLIA 2017: Arrival and Mungun Sum (8-10 May)

This is the first of several postings covering a trip to Mongolia in May 2017. Spectacular scenery, some great birds and excellent company made it very enjoyable. The trip was arranged by Jon Hornbuckle and we were very ably looked after by Tumen and Oyunna Humbaa of TUM-ECO Tour (Tumendelger Humbaa <>). With Jon there were eight of us, the others being Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Simon Colenutt, Rod Martins, Lori Szucs and Barry Wright. For a more detailed account of the trip illustrated with superb photos visit Simon blog -

8 May. Megan dropped me at Shoreham-by-Sea Station at 06:15 and I caught the 06:22 to Gatwick. It was on time, a fairly novel experience with Southern Rail these days. I checked-in, dropped my rucksack at over-sized baggage and went through to departure. My Turkish Airlines flight was 30 minutes late departing and took 3.5 hours to reach Istanbul but we then spent 25 minutes circling around and 15 minutes on the tarmac before disembarking. I was the first to arrive in Istanbul, Marc from Manchester soon after with Barry, Simon, Duncan, Rod and Jon as the Ulaanbaatar flight was called. We left Istanbul on time, seeing Hooded Crow and Alpine Swift from the runway. It was 4.5 hours flying time to Bishkek where we arrived after dark. After an hour or so in the terminal there it was another 3.5 hours to Ulaanbaatar.
over the Bosphorus on our roundabout approach to Istanbul Airport
coming in to land

leaving Istanbul
9 May. Sunset over the snow covered Tien Shan and Altai Mountains was spectacular as was the Gobi with small lakes apparently frozen. We arrived at Ulaanbaatar on time at 11:15, just 10 minutes late. The flight from Istanbul had been a lot more comfortable in a 737-900 than the flight there from Gatwick in an old Airbus. Lori, who had flown in from Australia a day or so before us, was at the airport to meet us with our guides Tumen and Oyunna and their two drivers. It was sunny and shirt-sleeve weather although there was a freshening wind. We were escorted to three Toyota Landcruisers which were to be our home for the next two weeks. I joined Barry and Simon in which was to be the number two vehicle, Jon and Lori were with Tumen and Oyunna in the first and Marc, Duncan and Rod in the third. We drove around the edge of Ulaanbaatar being delayed by 20 minutes by a traffic jam. A lot of development was in progress with the construction of tower blocks around the edge of the city. After stopping at an out-of-town supermarket we joined a UAZ ‘support vehicle’ and our convoy was complete. Daurian Jackdaws and Mongolian Larks were common and we stopped at several small lakes seeing a good selection of duck and waders and some Demoiselle Cranes. At Gun Galuut, the biggest, tables were set up and we had a late lunch. Here we saw at least 30 Stejneger's Scoter, a red-head Smew, summer Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes and a flock of Lapland Buntings. I would have liked to spend more time at the lake, especially as Barry saw Great Black-headed Gull there, but we had to move on. We drove to a dry forested hillside where we saw nine male Pine Buntings and, briefly, a female Yellow-breasted, our main target there, before continuing to Mungun Sum. We arrived at dusk and helped put up the tents in the dark although subsequently this would be done for us. Mine had an Altai Snowcock on the side, one of my targets for the trip but no immediate pressure there as we'd not be in their range for a week. Oyunna prepared an excellent stew as the temperature plummeted and the dining tent was put up to protect us from the wind. I put on four extra layers, waterproof trousers and a balaclava and still wasn’t that warm. My tent was very cosy with a good mattress and sleeping bag although I kept most of my clothes on. 

approaching Ulaanbaatar, white Gers (unfortunately not Gyrs) above and orange and blue roofs below predominated

Tol River just outside Ulaanbaatar, we didn't realise at the time but the Mongolica Hotel, where we would spend our final night, is just about visible between the river and right hand mountains 
I'd made it to Mongolia - just over 40 years after Alan Kitson's pioneering and inspirational visit!
out of town supermarket, unheard of in Alan's day
Cinereous Vulture outside Ulaanbaatar
Chinggis Khaan monument. Visitors could climb up to the horses head where the views must have been impressive but we were content seeing it from a distance
Mongolian Lake
rear view of  Mongolian Lark
Demoiselle Cranes, I had seen just one before this trip
a migrant Taiga Flycatcher, miles from the nearest tree or bush 
perhaps the most frequently encountered migrant of the trip with birds seen in the most unlikely places. Virtually all were males suggesting we were at the start of their migration period
Gun Galuut, a larger lake it would have been nice to spend longer at
arriving at the bunting site. We were now far from the nearest tarmac road and spending more time off than on tracks as seems standard practise in Mongolia

male Pine Bunting

our vehicles
our destination for the night was in the distant hills to the left

10 May. It was warm in the tent and I slept very well, waking at 04:45 as dawn broke. After a quick cup of tea (or coffee) and some bread and biscuits we left to walk up the nearby hill seeing Long-tailed Rosefinch and then an elusive pair of Hazel Grouse, fortunately the male stopped briefly in a gap between two trees giving me a rather distant view of its distinctive head pattern. Further up the hill, a rather gentle incline, we heard the popping sounds of a Black-billed Capercallie displaying. Following it up Lori spotted a male strutting about around 150m ahead of us. It gave good scope views before we moved in. We approached but not too successfully for my part although a second closer bird then appeared and started lekking giving good views as it emerged from behind trees although was often partially obscured. It flew across the valley and that was it for me, apart from finding a couple of tail feathers. I slowly walked back down to the campsite seeing Ural Owl, Three-toed and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Red-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart and Steppe Grey Shrike. We had breakfast, the tents were taken down and we left for the long drive back towards Ulaanbaatar, the first 40km on rough dirt tracks. The wind picked up to gale force with sleet showers. We'd been fortunate to have good weather at the capercallies. We had lunch in a roadside Ger where we watched our fried dumplings being prepared. They were surprisingly pleasant! Just before Ulaanbaatar we turned north up a dirt road along a valley bottom towards Gachuurt. At the end of the valley the dirt road became a track which we followed up into birch and conifer forest. We were driving over a layer of snow before reaching a saddle. We continued on foot, a stiff climb up to a plateau. It was somewhat sheltered but still rather breezy. Lori soon found a pair of Siberian Tits, a new bird for me that I had not really expected to see, but we had no luck with the more frequently seen Siberian Jay. Disappointing. After a good look around the plateau we headed back down disturbing a pair of Hazel Grouse by the track. They flew into trees and almost disappeared. I only saw the female and that took some imagination. We continued in vehicles to a nearby meadow where our dining tent had been set up and our evening meal was being prepared. The temperature was dropping again and the following day's forecast not good so we were pleased to have changed plans. Rather than camping here and trying for the Jay again the next day we would be moving on and saving a day with the hope of returning at the end of the trip. After a decent meal it was an hour or so drive into Ulaanbaatar were, when we found it at 22:30, we stayed in the rather basic Khongor Guest House.
Mungunmorit campsite
Rod's tent was usually the one with the pile of belongings and his Toys'R'Us bag outside
first views of Black-billed Capercallie
one of our main targets
hide and seek behind the tree trunks

Ural Owl at Mungunmorit
a ghostly presence, half way between Tawny and Great Grey Owls

Daurian Redstart
returning to the campsite
Ana, Duncan and Simon looking on as Tumen examines an AK47 abandoned in bushes
back for breakfast
Daurian Jackdaw, a common roadside bird where there is grass around Ulaanbaatar. Pale morphs such as this bird predominated. Dark birds were much like Western Jackdaws but with a dark eye.
roadside Gers, we were eating in the right hand one, once we fought our way there against the wind
dumplings being prepared inside 'our' Ger. Note fridge freezer and microwave. Lighting came through a large hole in the roof covered by a transparent plastic sheet 
sleeting on our way back towards Ulaanbaatar
our UAZ support vehicle. A popular model in Mongolia although most of those we saw were this battleship grey colour
snowy forest near Gachuurt

Siberian Tit

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