Saturday, 13 May 2017

MONGOLIA 2017: Dalanzadgad and surrounding areas (11-13 May)

This is the second blog covering a trip to Mongolia with Jon Hornbuckle, Duncan Brooks, Marc Brew, Simon Colenutt (see for a more detailed account with superb photos), Rod Martins, Lori Szucs and Barry Wright. We were being guided around by Tumen Humbaa and had spent two days mainly in the Taiga north of Ulaanbaatar. Now it was time to head 600km south into the Gobi to Dalanzadgad ...

11 May. After a warm, almost hot night and a basic do-it-yourself breakfast in the Khongor Guest House we left Ulaanbaatar at 06:30 for the long drive south to Dalanzadgad and the Gobi. The grassland around Ulaanbaatar with its Daurian Jackdaws and Mongolian Larks soon gave way to stony desert. We stopped at a couple of roadside pools seeing a few waders and some smart Citrine Wagtails. The first Pallas’s Sandgrouse of the trip came in to drink at the first and I ended the day having seen 48 in small parties of up to six. We stopped at a roadside transport café for lunch but a lack of choice lead me to a meat option, something I do my best to avoid, and mine was incredibly stringy. I ended up with enough of it stuck in my teeth which took a couple of days of mild toothache to completely dislodge. For me it was easily the worst meal of the trip. We started seeing grassy tussocks amongst the desert and the landscape flattened out with views of distant hills. It was late afternoon when we arrived at Tumen and Oyunna’s Guest House in Dalanzadgad. It was a comfortable newly built property with just enough beds for us all, although Simon was on the landing and Tumen, Oyunna and the rest of the crew slept elsewhere. The Guest House was situated on the edge of town overlooking a small reservoir and the edge of the desert. It also had an Isabelline Shrike in its extended courtyard. We birded outside to dusk concentrating on the edge of the pool, a small fenced area containing a few trees and some tall grass nearby. Barry found a male Pallas’s Reed Bunting in the latter although it only gave flight views to most of us. Another Isabelline Shrike and two Red-throated Thrushes were doubtless migrants while some snipe were seen but not identified with any confidence.

leaving Khongor Guest House
Ulaanbaatar Power Station
Wild Ass, this one looked like an Eyeore
Mongolian Gazelles in the Gobi
little vegetation here
Demoiselle Crane
a very elegant bird we never tired of seeing
Ruddy Shelduck, present on just about every pool we past
Horned Lark drinking at a roadside pool 
the race concerned, brandti, was very washed out, a trait common to many desert passerines
Pallas's Sandgrouse cautiously coming in to drink
this group were all males

this male preferred to drink from the opposite side of the pool
but was soon on its way
Pallas's Sandgrouse presumably returning with water for their mates 
another Demoiselle Crane

Asian Short-toed Lark
more apparently empty Gobi
Temminck's Stint on the next roadside pool
Long-toed Stint with displaced feather, long toes just visible

Long-toed Stint and Little Ringed Plover
Marsh Sandpiper
Citrine Wagtail

a different individual
with Long-toed Stint
a slightly greener bit of the Gobi
rather tatty camel, doesn't seem happy to see us
Camels crossing the road 
me in the Gobi
distant hills on the horizon
nomad camp
Isabelline Shrike on the wall of the Dalanzadgad Guest House courtyard

Tree Sparrow in Dalanzadgad, doing much better across Asia than in Sussex
12 May. We were out at 05:30 and birded around the fenced trees and grassland by the guest house seeing Naumann’s, Red-throated and Black-throated Thrushes, a pair of Desert Wheatears, about 10 Rock Sparrows and three Isabelline Shrikes. We returned for breakfast at 07:00, packed most of our stuff and departed at 07:45 for a two day trip to the Yoliim Am (Eagle Valley). A random stop soon after arriving had Barry reaching for his telescope. Our vehicles had flushed a small passerine from near the road and up into a bush in a small side valley opposite. It was our first Kozlov’s Accentor, rather like a very washed out Dunnock but surprisingly nice despite that. Following it up we saw a pair, a pair of Brown Accentors and a migrant White’s Thrush flying around a rocky gully. We continued seeing our only Guldenstadt’s Redstart of the trip (rather briefly), a close adult Lammergeyer and two Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches. We arrived at a parking lot, with tame White-winged Snowfinches in residence, and walked down the main valley and into a narrow gorge seeing Lammergeyer, Eastern Black Redstart (with a very white forehead), more accentors, a selection of pipits (Tree, Olive-backed, Water and Blyth’s) and a superb Wallcreeper. We returned to the parking lot and drove to a nearby open valley where our tents had been erected and a late lunch was waiting. We then drove to another area via Upland Buzzard and Saker’s nests and ending up in a rocky gorge where a mini glacier covered a stream. We tried an arid valley nearby where another White’s Thrush seemed out of place, not that there was any suitable habitat for miles. We returned to the campsite for dinner at 19:30 then, when it was dark, most of us fitted into two vehicles for a spotlighting session. It wasn’t cold, surprisingly, despite having the windows open looking for animals although I was pleased to have a coat, woolly hat and gloves. The hoped for Palla’s Cat didn’t appear but a superb and very jumpy Mongolian Three-toed Jerboa made it worthwhile, just as well as well as we saw nothing else. We were out until 23:30 and once back I was more than ready to climb into my tent, notes only partly written. Marc didn’t appear at all disappointed not to have come.

early morning male Desert Wheatear

female Desert Wheatear
Crested Lark
one of the local Isabelline Shrikes
the Dalanzadgad Guest House
our vehicles in the courtyard
Upland Buzzard

desert track to the Yol Valley, Tumen's vehicle hidden by dust
Ger encampment and another UAZ van
first views of Kozlov's Accentor
Kozlov's habitat 
Siberian Ibex on a nearby peak
another Kozlov's Accentor

it had a very small eye, a fiery orange colour which was rarely visible

Guldenstadt's Redstart page from Alan Kitson's 1977 Mongolia notebook.  I didn't manage a photo of the one we briefly saw but Alan's drawing more than makes up for it 
White-winged Snowfinch in the parking lot

Isabelline Wheatear

Haly's Pit-Viper, the only snake we saw all trip
we were told It was also the only poisonous snake in Mongolia

it was actually very small
the main Yol Valley, the gorge was reached by following the snow around to the left
another Kozlov's Accentor
adult Lammergeyer
the gorge
Eastern Black Redstart
Wallcreeper on the rock face

a flash of crimson in flight but it was too quick for me to capture 

Little Bunting

Grey Wagtail

Upland Buzzard on (part of) its enormous nest
its mate was nearby

Cinereous Vulture

Golden Eagle
poor photos but an appropriate species to be seen in Eagle Valley (Yoliin Am)
more off-road driving
Lori at the end of the road
large cairn with prayer flags and horns
even Tumen couldn't drive through here
me on the other side

heading back
Saker on nest

more off-roading

White's Thrush
an exciting bird to come across anywhere but more so when seen out of normal context. It seemed as out of place as Dave Cooper’s on Unst last year (see his blog here)

our camp site
13 May. I woke at 05:45 after a good night’s sleep in my tent. I finished yesterday’s notes so as not to fall behind and had a half hour walk up an adjacent hillside before breakfast seeing Kozlov’s Accentor and Olive-backed Pipit. After eating we returned to the main valley and back up the gorge which Tumen referred to as the vulture’s bedroom. When we arrived only one Himalayan Griffon was on view on the mainly obscured cliff face of a steep side valley and Tumen told us we were too late. It still seemed quite early but I’d not been overly concerned to see them. A few migrant thrushes including another White’s, Little and Black-faced Buntings, Twite and another Wallcreeper made our return to the gorge worthwhile but we didn’t linger. Almost back at the parking lot we flushed a very tired looking drake Mandarin from a small stream - an unexpected migrant that didn’t have the energy or inclination to fly far. It made us wonder what did pass through these valleys on migration. Back at the cars over 40 Himalayan Griffons appeared overhead, presumably having been out of sight roosting in the vulture’s bedroom the whole time. Oriental Plovers had been next on the agenda but back at the vehicles it became obvious that time was slipping away and much to my disappointment a revised plan was suggested leaving them to the afternoon. We drove back to Dalanzadgad and some distance out into the desert beyond to a lake to the south. There were a selection of wetland birds including our only Chinese Pond Heron and Eastern Spotbill and first Kentish Plovers and Little Stints of the trip. After some time – everyone walking off in different directions with no clear idea of when to return – we drove a short distance to an orchard/allotment in the middle of the desert. Birding here produced nesting Ravens and migrant Siberian Chiffchaff, Eyebrowed Thrush, Brambling and Pallas’s Reed Bunting with several Isabelline Shrikes patrolling the edges appearing to be on the lookout for tired migrants. We returned to Tumen and Oyunna’s guest house at 14:30 for a late lunch although I skipped it preferring to walk around the garden/scrub. My hopes of a peaceful walk were soon shattered when a group of noisy school children decided to follow me shouting questions which I ignored. They were quite tenacious although they became bored when I headed out into the desert. An unidentified snipe, Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes, 3 Isabelline Shrikes and 3 White-cheeked Starlings were still present in the fenced area while the pair of Desert Wheatears was nearby. After lunch we drove out of Dalanzadgad on a dirt track heading south. As we approached a range of hills we left the track and our three vehicles spread out across the hillside. We were looking for Henderson’s Ground Jay and, as we had quickly learnt in Mongolia, were driving where we would consider it unimaginable outside of a Top Gear Challenge. We were soon climbing parallel to rocky gullies which the lay of the land sometimes forced us to cross. We covered some distance with no success. Simon, Barry and I walking at one stage feeling ‘traditional methods’ might be more successful but they were not, only serving to put us some distance behind the other vehicles. Tumen, in the lead, then looped around and started heading back down to cover another section of the hillside and was soon on the radio to say they’d found one. We all converged on their vehicle and soon saw a pair of Henderson’s Ground Jays which we ‘shepherded’ along obtaining decent views but only distant photos. Stunning birds but they were completely eclipsed when on the drive back across a featureless stony plain towards Dalanzadgad I saw a male Oriental Plover from the car. We screeched to a halt and obtained excellent views of it especially when it ran around our car. I was expecting it to be good, it was voted bird of the trip in a couple of Birdquest Trip Reports I’d seen and I’d been very impressed with Dave Cooper’s photos from Cambodia (see his blog, again, here), but even so the brightness of its plumage took me by surprise as did the length of its legs despite DC’s photos preparing me for them. We eventually left it, not realising as we did so that Marc, Duncan and Rod were watching a female they assumed we had seen. One of the downsides of having three vehicles - each had a CB radio but we rarely thought to use them. We returned to Dalanzadgad where we spent the last hour of the day birding in a smallholding on the edge of town. Here we saw Japanese Grosbeak, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, several Dusky and Red-throated Thrushes, Wryneck, Bluethroat (which I missed), Common Rosefinch and Pallas’s Reed Buntings. A brilliant end to the day, we returned to Tumen and Oyunna’s guest house for a very welcome meal.
White-winged Snowfinch back in the parking lot
Siberian Ibex


Black-faced Bunting


Isabelline Wheatear

Brown Shrike
Yol Valley entrance
Gobi south of Dalanzadgad

lake south of Dalanzadgad
the orchard
the only cover for miles around
Isabelline Shrike
on the lookout
returning to Dalanzadgad
Dusky Thrush near the Guest House
Naumann's Thrush
and White-cheeked Starling

snipe provided the biggest identification challenge and this one near the Guest House was no exception
cairn and prayer flag (no horns)
looking for Ground Jays, Mongolian style

looking back to Dalanzadgad

Henderson's Ground Jays
with its mate keeping both eyes on us

Siberian Stonechat
Taiga Flycatcher
we were becoming accustomed to them popping up anywhere
Oriental Plover, almost as I first saw it - through the opposite car window at 30 kph

those legs were made for running

it was easily bird of the trip for me
Dusky Thrush in the smallholding on the edge of town

Dusky and Red-throated Thrushes, there were several of each in the smallholding
Red-throated Thrush
Red-throated Thrush

Chinese Grosbeak

male Pallas's Reed Bunting
female Pallas's Reed Bunting

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