Tuesday, 16 May 2017

MONGOLIA 2017: Dalanzadgad to Bogd (14-16 May)

This blog continues our Mongolian trip. I was with Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Simon Colenutt (http://thedeskboundbirder.blogspot.co.uk/), 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 <tumen106@yahoo.com>) in three Lancruisers with a UAZ support vehicle. We were now a week into our trip and were leaving Dalanzadgad in the far south of the country to head west then north.

14 May. We birded outside the Guest House from 05:45-07:20 when we returned a little late for breakfast, delayed by 3 male Siberian Rubythroats along a narrow hedge opposite, found while looking for a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that Marc had earlier seen there. We had also seen 9 Eyebrowed Thrushes, one appearing moribund, and what looked and sounded like a Reed Warbler around the fenced area while Marc saw another rubythroat behind the Guest House. There had clearly been an arrival of migrants although a last look in the hedge after a hurried breakfast only produced one rubythroat and a Daurian Redstart. We dragged ourselves away at 08:20 to drive an hour north to Tumen’s Oriental Plover site in the hope of seeing them displaying. It would be hard to beat the previous evening’s views but the display was said to be impressive and after some discussion the previous evening most of us were keen to try despite it being somewhat out of the way on what would be a long day anyway. Fortunately less than half way there, while driving across flat desert, Simon spotted a male Oriental Plover displaying parallel to the car. We stopped and watched it perform another display flight before it landed near a female we had not noticed until then. Tumen suggested the best strategy was to line up and walk towards it to encourage a further display and we had only advanced a few paces when it took off and obliged, a bizarre rapid shearing flight on stiff wings, exaggerated by its very long wings. Its tail looked long too although its trailing legs might have partly responsible. It landed near the female again but she had started to walk away. We followed but they kept their distance with further flights when we were considered too close. These still involved some shearing on long wings but lacked the rapid, exaggerated display elements. Well satisfied we headed back to the main road but soon left the tarmac and were heading west on a dirt track when we saw a pair of Greater Sand Plovers from the car, our first of the trip. Half an hour later we stopped at an isolated orchard/smallholding in the middle of nowhere. It provided the only bushes for miles around and as such was a magnet for migrants. We spent an excellent hour there seeing Wryneck, several Isabelline Shrikes, 2 Dusky and 3 Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, 2 Siberian Chiffchaffs, several Taiga Flycatchers, Siskin and Little and Pallas’s Reed Buntings. We left and continued west for an hour of emptiness stopping at a small barn where a rather annoyed looking Little Owl was resident. We continued, passing a wetland area where a few duck could be seen although it was too distant to identify any even with telescopes. Attempts to approach it resulted in a lot of wheel-spin and us almost being bogged down in soft ground – the only time we encountered such. We continued driving on rough tracks seeing another pair of Henderson’s Ground Jays before diverting slightly on an even rougher track into a gorge for a very late lunch. Here we heard and saw our only Rock Thrush of the trip, first Pied Wheatears and Godlewski’s Bunting and a Lammergeyer directly overhead. We continued westwards through stony desert with scattered bushes where we saw another pair of Greater Sand Plovers and after a bit of searching Asian Desert Warbler. The latter sometimes running mouse-like between bushes. We arrived at the Saxaul forest near the Khongor dunes, our final destination, at about 18:45, and spent an hour or so looking for Saxaul Sparrow without success. A Chinese Grey Shrike and Red-throated Thrush were the only notable birds I saw there although we later learned from Tumen that it wasn’t the best area for the sparrows. That was nearer to where we were camping and we’d look in the morning. We drove the short distance to our campsite where the tents were being set up and dinner prepared. It had been another brilliant day – very pleasant scenery, temperature, company and birds!

Eyebrowed Thrush at Dalanzadgad, this one looked exhausted and we were unsure of it would recover
Eyebrowed Thrush from Alan Kitson's 1977 Mongolia notebook, a much healthier looking bird
Taiga Flycatcher
male Daurian Redstart
female Daurian Redstart at Dalanzadgad Guest House, it wasn't the best bird lurking in the nearby hedgerow ...
male Siberian Ruybythroat, one of three playing hide-and-seek
popping out all too briefly for me to focus on
until this one did
female Oriental Plover in the desert north of Dalanzadgad
the startlingly white-headed male
a very elegant bird

Steppe Eagle
Greater Sand Plover
approaching a very isolated freeholding
inside the smallholding, the rows of trees around the ploughed field providing a windbreak and feeding area for migrants
Tree Sparrow, seen most days in Mongolia

juvenile Raven in the freeholding
Pallas's Leaf Warbler - much too fast for me to focus on, finding it in the viewfinder was a major achievement
what it should look like, another page from Alan Kitson's Mongolia notebook. The weight kept it open at the desired page
Pallas's Reed Bunting, male coming into breeding plumage

female Pallas's Reed Bunting
female Daurian Redstart
male Daurian Redstart

Little Owl in a new looking barn

distant wetland, our vehicles couldn't approach without becoming bogged down while Barry had also slipped over getting rather muddy trousers (see next photo)

Barry had a little lamb
Henderson's Ground Jay with pebble

this pebble looked paler?
Henderson's habitat
Henderson's Ground Jay nest

lunch stop
watching Pied Wheatear
male Pied Wheatear

we then saw a closer pair as we drove out

female Pied Wheatear
Oyunna in the passenger seat of the support vehicle, it was a left-hand drive which seemed appropriate as one drives on the right in Mongolia
Tumen driving his right-hand drive Landcruiser with Jon in the passenger seat. Half the vehicles in Mongolia seemed to be right-hand drive, including our three Landcruisers. It made little difference on most of the places we visited but made overtaking more challenging on the busy roads around Ulaanbaatar. Perhaps they are imported direct from Japan?

Greater Sand Plover
first views of Khongor sand dunes

Horned Lark nest beside the track

Asian Desert Warbler habitat
there it goes
Barry, Duncan (obscured), Simon and Rod  waiting for the Asian Desert Warbler to reappear
Asian Desert Warbler
its pale yellow eye really stood out

Saxaul forest at Khongor

Red-cheeked Ground Squirrel
Raven's nest
Chinese Grey Shrike
evening meal at our campsite
15 May. Another good night in the tent. Breakfast was at 06:00 giving time for a quick look around the campsite beforehand. Lori wandered a bit further and found a flock of Saxaul Sparrows so breakfast was put on hold as we went to see them. They gave reasonable views although the light wasn’t great and they were a rather flighty. After a quick breakfast we returned for better views before leaving the support crew packing up the tents and starting a long rough ride over some amazing terrain. We’d not seen a metalled road since the previous morning and even dirt tracks were something of a luxury - some of the terrain we drove over wouldn’t have been out of place on a Top Gear Special. We saw another Chinese Grey Shrike soon after leaving the campsite and more Pallas’s Sandgrouse on the way. Otherwise scenery had the edge over birds and we arrived for our usual late lunch at the entrance to Bayanlig Soum (White Cave) and were surprised to see several groups of friendly Mongolian tourists picnicking there. Where had they come from? We walked into the gorge, initially ignoring the White Cave (where humans had apparently lived 750,000 years ago). The gorge had several small caves around its rim which looked like good places for an owl to roost. I was still rather surprised that the third or fourth cave I scanned had two orange eyes glaring down at me from its entrance. An Eagle Owl and very impressive even at some distance. Several Lesser Kestrels were also flying around the gorge and we saw a male Pied Wheatear. The White Cave contained a replica caveman and woman but didn’t seem worth going far out of one’s way to see, 20m up the steps was about enough for me. We had more cross-country driving to reach the town of Bogd which we approached after fording a river. Bogd was a sizable town and the first settlement of more than a couple of Gers we had seen since leaving Dalanzadgad the previous morning. Most of the others visited a local shop for snacks while the vehicles were filled up at the garage but I walked to the edge of town for a closer view of a large statue or a horse. Not reading Cyrillic I’ve no idea what it commemorated but it was in a commanding position and the view from the horse and a male Desert Wheatear on a stupa nearby made my walk worthwhile. We continued to Ulog Nuur, a large lake between Bogd and a range of mountains we had skirted around. We scanned the lake and were fortunate to find a fine adult Relict Gull on the near shore. It was the only one we saw on the trip. We drove around to the mountain side of the lake, the support crew going ahead to set up camp a km or so from it. We followed more slowly making several lakeside stops seeing Mute as well as the more usual Whooper Swan, 30 Red-crested Pochard, 2 Bitterns, 340+ Spoonbills (most on stick nests just above the water), Eastern Marsh Harrier and Caspian Tern. It had been another great day although migrants had been almost non-existent. We had dinner overlooking the lake, it was now too distant to identify most of the birds but far enough away to be out of range of biting insects. In the morning we were driving up to Ikht Bod, the mountain behind us (although until a couple of weeks after I returned I’d thought it Baga Bogd). It offered our best chance of Altai Snowcock and a few other higher altitude species but a slight concern was that Tumen had not been before and was reliant on directions from a friend. It seemed that his best high-altitude site was quite some distance further away and difficult to fit into our itinerary. I was very conscious of the Altai Snowcock photo on the side of my tent as I turned in for the night!

Breakfast at Khongor, L-R: Simon, Jon, Rod, Lori, Marc (hidden) and Duncan
Saxaul Sparrow,
the male was rather smart, the female was less so
impressive dunes at Khongor

heading north away from the dunes

rendezvous with our support vehicle

our excellent guides Oyunna and Tumen

desert broomrape

Mongolian nothingness
distant snow-capped mountains
drive-where-you-like route
not completely replaced by Toyotas
typical Ger mod cons - satellite dish, solar panel, motorbike and UAZ van
Simon and Rod outside the local distillery
Jon decided to give it a try
I wandered off to look for a couple of Saxaul Sparrows Marc had found
eventually relocating them in the shade under a nearby bush
back in the Ger Tumen, Jon, Simon, Duncan, Marc and Rod were keeping an eye on the camel's milk vodka production. Marc even bought some ...

the 'lake' around the dark triangular hill was a convincing mirage

heading towards the White Cave

the valley of the White Cave
Lesser Kestrel near the valley rim
the centre top cave was occupied
what big eye's you've got - an Eagle Owl
climbing a bit higher brought it more into view

a wink for the camera
the White Cave itself was considerably less impressive although left me feeling rather small
leaving the White Cave

Ger, satellite dish, solar panel and motorbike ...
prayer flags

which way now?

approaching Bogd
Ruddy Shelduck outside Bogd
Bogd main street and Police Station

pow-wow by the garage, Duncan, Simon, Barry and Lori
Bogd horse
(most of) the town of Bogd
Olog Nuur

Relict Gull, in the very bright light it looked browner headed than I was expecting
it looked much more impressive when walking in the other direction
and showed the expected wingtip pattern in flight, it was the only one we saw
Upland Buzzard

Olog Nuur from our campsite
16 May. We had breakfast at 06:15 and left at 06:45 for the long and very rough drive up into the mountains of Ikht Bogd. We immediately headed for a valley behind us and followed it up until we came out on a heavily grazed short-grass plateau. At times the track, if it could be called that, merged with a dried up riverbed and was exceptionally rough. It was amongst the worst ‘roads’ I had ever been on. We headed along the plateau following a more clearly defined track up and down rather rounded hillsides, rather steeply on occasion and not for the feint hearted. We arrived at the end of the plateau, but unfortunately not the end of the mountain range, at some cliffs on the rim of a steep valley. The mountains on the opposite side were higher than where we were with the tops covered in snow. We felt the snowline was the place to be but there seemed to be no way of reaching it from where we were. We walked to the valley rim and Lori soon picked out an Altai Snowcock on our side. It was mainly facing away but we had reasonable scope views before it slipped away over a brow. We approached at an angle but never saw it again. Duncan who had sensibly opted to watch from where we were saw it fly down across the valley and start climbing up the other side although when we rejoined him we could not refind it. We spent an hour or so in the area spreading out to look for Altai Accentor, Asian Rosy Finch and Hodgsdon’s Bushchat but drew a blank on them all. We concluded that we were not high enough but were also concerned at how heavily grazed the area seemed to be. Brown Accentor, Horned Lark and Black Redstart were little consolation although the views were spectacular – way down to the lake where we had camped and across to snow-capped mountains in the distance. We appeared to have exhausted the possibilities of the area although the ever intrepid Marc was keen to stay longer. Tumen came up with a plan to visit the more distant area but it was a full day’s drive each way and we really needed to set off immediately to do it. All the ‘missed’ species were there and it seemed like a good idea despite the extra time travelling – at least driving across Mongolia was interesting, often with small lakes to stop briefly at. After a bit of faffing we drove back down. It took over an hour, then on to Bogd. Plans changed again as the reality of two day’s solid driving sunk in. Tumen knew another site where he regularly saw Hodgson’s Bushchat and the Rosy Finch was possible. It was also good for the snowcock and somewhere we had originally been going to go visit. That put us back on the original itinerary but made me wish we’d not left Ikht Bogd in such a hurry. We now had a more leisurely drive to the Kholboolj lakes where the support crew were dispatched to set up camp. On the larger of the two lakes Barry found a distant pair of Asian Dowitchers. There seemed no way to approach them but the lake appeared quite shallow and several of us waded out in various stages of undress. It was easy going at first but soon we were walking on softer mud with one’s feet sinking in erratically – snow shoes would have been ideal. We almost halved the distance but were still not close when I stopped before I slipped over. Simon and Barry continued but the birds soon flew. We returned to the vehicles and drove a short distance to the other lake where camp was set up. This lake appeared saltier and had considerably fewer birds on it although rough grass between it and the camp held Taiga Flycatcher, Little and Pallas’s Reed Bunting and what was probably a juvenile Brown Accentor. 
campsite at Olog Nuur
the 'road' up to Ikht Bogd
Chukar in early morning light
prayer flags on Ikht Bogd
looking down over Olog Nuur

Altai Snowcock
the deep valley separating us from the highest peaks on Ikht Bogd
the higher peaks on Ikht Bogd we were unable to reach
a Himalayan Griffon Vulture could soar across in a couple of minutes

Brown Accentor on Ikht Bogd

we thought at the time that we were on Baga Bogd but we weren't. We didn't visit Baga Bogd which is the higher distant range of hills
Barry with one of the rangers

local rangers
the way back down
young Lammergeyer

Chukar in better light
leaving Ikht Bogd
traditional and modern dress in Bogd

leaving Bogd
Swan Goose at Kholboolj Lakes
the point it became too deep for Tumen, Duncan and Marc having already decided wading out wasn't such a good idea
Asian Dowitcher and Black-winged Stilt
Simon kept going after I'd given up, well he is taller than I am
a rare wing flap

Alan Kitson's Mongolia notebook and the sort of views I'd been hoping for
Bar-headed Goose

campsite at Kholboojl Lakes

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