Friday, 19 May 2017

MONGOLIA 2017: Kholboolj to Hustai (17-19 May)

This blog continues our Mongolian trip. I was with Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Simon Colenutt (, 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 homeward leg of our trip and were heading north then east back towards Ulaanbaatar.

17 May.  I walked down to the nearer, saltier Kholboolj lake soon after dawn but other than several small groups of Pallas’s Sandgrouse flying over and 2 Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Taiga Flycatcher in the grass around the edge it was very quiet. After breakfast we drove north on dirt roads seeing more flocks of sandgrouse including one of 18 and another of 19. They continued until I made the mistake of adding up how many I had seen. It was 99 and there I remained, missing a final flock that Barry saw. We hit a tarmac road and made significantly faster progress. On one 5km section we counted 29 Steppe Eagles sitting beside the road, presumably grounded migrants. Most were in pairs. We continued making good progress until the road was blocked off by 2m piles of earth every 500m or so. Most vehicles left the road just before these obstructions and rejoined immediately after although some kept to tracks running parallel to it. There appeared to be no evidence of any work being done on the road and it was hard to see why vehicles were not supposed to use it. A few kms before Bayankhongor we lost sight of the lead vehicle and with the town in view we stopped 500m short of a river to wait for it. Barry, Simon and I took the opportunity to walk along some willows towards the river almost immediately seeing our first Cuckoo of the trip in the first willow and another Taiga Flycatcher in the second. An encouraging start but unfortunately what other migrants the willows held were to remain a mystery as we were called back by our driver. We’d overshot the rendezvous and immediately did a U-turn to join the others in a village we had passed without really noticing. Oyunna was buying supplies for our visit to Barig Mountain, although rushing back just to sit around a village square for half an hour seemed unnecessary. After photographing a Chough and some prayer wheels in the village, and a bit more sitting around, we continued on to Barig Mountain, back south on the tarmac road before turning off northeast. The track became rougher and we ended up driving up a shallow valley bottom, stopping where it started to steepen. This was to be our campsite. After a quick lunch we drove steeply up to the summit of Barig Mountain, at 2700m. There was no track and each vehicle weaved its own preferred route between large scattered rocks. At the top we spread out and walked around for several hours. We saw a few migrants amongst the rocks but of the hoped for Hodgson’s Bushchat there was no sign although a strong wind was probably not helping. No snowcock either although the habitat didn’t appear to be particularly suitable. I saw a superb White’s Thrush and flushed two Red-throated Pipits, a familiar call I had not heard for years. It was not easy to keep tabs on where everyone was on a convex hill. Our vehicles were being moved too as the drivers tried to keep sight of us. We started to head back but our vehicle managed to lose sight of the others and we drove around for 10 minutes or so looking for them unsuccessfully. In the end we opted to return via a more distant ridge in the hope we might find something there. We didn’t but from it saw Tumen’s vehicle coming down off a shoulder on the other side of the valley. We headed back down to the campsite where the tents had been erected and dinner was being prepared. After dinner I followed the stream in the valley bottom down for half an hour seeing Pied and Isabelline Wheatears but little else. After some debate we decided to try Barig Mountain again in the morning but despite some nice migrants were not particularly enamoured with the place and didn’t hold out much hope.
male Pallas's Sandgrouse near Kholboojl Lakes
male and female

seeing this species regularly and in reasonable numbers was one of my trip highlights

Red-cheeked Ground Squirrel
Pere David's Snowfinch

roadside Steppe Eagles

prayer wheels

the campsite being set up at Barig Mountain
nearby Raven's nest
spreading out on Barig Mountain

Water Pipit

White's Thrush at Barig Mountain
with no vegetation around flushing this from amongst the rocks shown above was an unexpected delight

Tolbagan Marmots

returning to the campsite
Tumen took a different route

Grey Wagtail below the campsite in warm evening light

Isabelline Wheatear
 18 May. We left camp at 06:00 and drove back up to the top of Barig Mountain to look for Hodgson’s Bushchat again. The plan was to hopefully find it and return for a late breakfast. Once art the top we spread out and covered the same area we had the previous day. The wind had dropped somewhat but any early confidence I had soon dissipated as we covered the hillside - stonechats are usually quite obvious if they are about. I was contouring back along the lower slopes having seen a few migrant Olive-backed Pipits and a Siberian Rubythroat when I heard a shout. It seemed to have come from above me but being almost deaf in one ear I’m not very good on directions. I headed up and just caught a glimpse of Lori going over a rise. At least I was heading in the right direction. Not quick enough unfortunately. A bushchat had flown across in front of Barry and landed. He’d got Jon and Tumen onto it before it moved out of sight. Lori saw it when it reappeared briefly for before promptly vanishing. We spent another hour searching the area but to no avail. Its behaviour may have been that of a new arrival. Rather frustrating but at least I’d seen the species before, albeit in 1982. We gave up at 10:00 and drove back to camp for breakfast. We left at 11:00 and headed back to the main road towards Ulaanbaatar. We stopped at some small pools just off the road where we saw Asian Dowitcher, Pacific Golden Plover, Curlew Sandpiper and 10 Pallas’s Sandgrouse flying over. We continued on to Sanglin Dalai on another tarmac road with earth barriers, seeing a Black Stork by a small river as we neared our destination. We arrived at 18:30 and while camp was being set up near the smaller of the two lakes we birded around it until we were called for dinner at 20:30. Highlights were Demioselle Cranes, a male Hen Harrier, two adult White-winged Black Terns, four more Black Storks and a selection of different aged Mongolian Gulls. A Terek Sandpiper had also been seen on a pool between the two lakes.

Northern Wheatear on Barig Mountain

Olive-backed Pipits

Siberian Rubythroat
Water Pipit
Mongolian Lark
on the lookout for aerial predators

a very smart bird

even more so in flight, although this photo leaves much to the imagination
leaving the campsite
Pere David's Snowfinches
Saker on nest

Cinereous Vulture struggling to take off

Himalayan Griffon Vulture
still eating

Pacific Golden Plover and Shelduck on a roadside lake
also Ruddy Shelduck, Black-tailed Godwits and an Asian Dowitcher
the dowitcher was more solidly red with somewhat shorter legs and a thicker bill

first-summer Mongolian Gulls. Currently considered a race of Vega Gull it was recently thought closer to Caspian Gull while not that long ago they were all Herring Gulls.
the left had bird in particular has the look of a Caspian Gull about it
roadside Gers
Upland Buzzard on nest

another horse monument
Arvaikheer town centre
Arvaikheer suburbs - we diverted there to take a local kid home who had twisted his ankle falling off a wall outside the store where Oyunna bought some supplies

garden Ger

prayer flag and monument

roadside Black Stork

roadside Demoiselle Crane

such an elegant bird was hard to tire of
Mongolian Gulls at Sanglin Dalai

Simon, Lori and Marc returning for dinner

19 May. We were out by 05:30, first seeing the Terek Sandpiper then checking the big lake and returning to the nearer one where Rod and Duncan found a showy if distant Baillon’s Crake. Jon saw a reddish wader fly over with some godwits and it was no surprise when returning for breakfast at 08:30 Marc had seen an Asian Dowitcher on the Terek pool. It took priority, obviously, and gave the sort of views we had been hoping for. After a quick breakfast we left at 09:30 for the long drive to Hustai. At first we were on tarmac then we headed north on a dirt track before joining another main road to Ulaanbaatar. The weather was worsening with the wind picking up and some dark clouds appearing. Soon after turning onto the metalled road we stopped at Bayan Lake, a superb marshy and reedy area beside the road. The wind made viewing difficult but it was alive with birds, the most obvious being several majestic White-naped Cranes and lots of wagtails which kept flying into the reedbed – I estimated 100 Citrine and 25 Eastern Yellow. Tumen wandered into the heart of the wetland and re-emerged at lunch to tell us he’d seen a Brown-cheeked Rail along the edge of a patch of reeds in the middle of the marshy area. One look at Tumen’s boots had me changing into an old pair of deck shoes and we followed Tumen in for it. My feet were soon wet but at least I wasn’t damaging a pair of boots. What then ensued was very frustrating as twice I was standing next to Marc and once Simon when they had brief views but I was looking into slightly the wrong place. Fortunately it eventually gave itself up. Barry and Simon had seen Bearded Tit in the reeds nearby. It is one of my favourite birds and I went to look but the wind wasn’t helping and they were keeping very low. They seemed destined to remain heard only when a male briefly showed at the top of a reed in response to some desperate pishing. It was almost as good as the rail, appearing very washed out. We continued driving to Hustai National Park, at times enveloped in minor dust storms blown up by the wind with visibility down to less than 100m. We turned off to the National Park entrance seeing an Osprey on top of a telegraph pole sitting out the dust storm on the way in. Very incongruous. We arrived at the headquarters at 18:30 and checked-in although we were staying at a Research Centre deep in the park. We set off on increasingly indistinct tracks across grassy hillsides eventually leaving them entirely to head up a valley with scattered trees and over a shallow ridge, flushing a Woodcock on the way. We were now attempting to navigate by SatNav but never were closer than 1km to our destination which appeared to be behind a range of hills. We were badly lost, the other vehicles were no longer following, and the weather was worsening with some light sleet. We retraced our steps without finding the others and called in at a distant Ger to ask a local. The lady there waved her arms a lot in different directions but I’m not sure we learnt anything. With the light starting to fade we retraced our steps to try and find the others - in particular the support vehicle had our tents and sleeping bags. We soon found them, it turned out that one vehicle had had a puncture, the wheel being quickly changed, and the support vehicle had run out of fuel and needed refilling from Jerry cans. The others had no better idea of where we should be going but at least we were all together. We drove to another Ger and after a long discussion with several occupants one of them was employed to guide us. It was then a 10km drive in the dark to an isolated valley with a number of cabins. We arrived at 22:00, were found rooms in two of the cabins and Oyunna quickly prepared a very welcome warm meal. It was very cosy in the cabins with the wind whistling around outside. It turned out this wasn’t the research centre we were supposed to be staying at. That, according to the SatNav, was 11kms away although it turned out that our destination’s co-ordinates had not been fully entered so who knows? Another enjoyable day with a bit of drama.

Whooper Swan on Sanglin Dalai
prayer flags but as the only cover for a mile in any direction one needed to watch where one stepped
Mongolian Lark
Common Crane over Sanglin Dalai

Asian Dowitcher

solar panel - check, motorbike - check, satellite disk - check 
marsh by Bayan Lake
Swan Geese on Bayan Lake
Common Crane
White-naped Cranes at Bayan Lake


Swan Geese

male Eastern Marsh Harrier

horses at Bayan Lake
sand storm on the main road

sheep on the main road
off-track in Hustai National Park
its that way, or is it?

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