Saturday 5 July 2014

Some Mongolian Birds

Demoiselle Crane, the smallest of the world's 15 cranes, is a common breeding species in Mongolia. Pairs mate for life and raise two chicks. After the breeding season they form large flocks and migrate to grasslands and wetlands such as the Little Rann of Kutch in Western India to escape Mongolia's fierce winters. Also here are a few larger White-naped Cranes, a rarer species whose main population is in Manchuria, on the borders of China and Russia. 

This Saker Falcon was nesting in an old Raven's nest in a Siberian birch on the edge of the rolling steppe typical of northern Mongolia. As we watched it, we heard a commotion behind us: an immature Golden Eagle was flying through the territory, being harried by the male Saker. These feed mostly on rodents, and are declining through habitat loss and being taken from the nest as eggs or chicks to be sold to Arab falconers. Here's an interesting fact about falcons: just recently studies have shown that they are not related at all to hawks. They are now placed between the woodpeckers and parrots!

This immature Steppe Eagle is another raptor that helps to keep a check on the huge populations of ground-squirrels and voles. In many areas we walked in, the ground was littered with burrows (which were also used as nest-holes by birds such as Isabelline Wheatear and Père David's Snowfinch). The adults are much darker; in winter they migrate mostly to East Africa. 

The rocky gorges of the Gobi mountains hold healthy populations of Bearded Vultures. There is a move to use this name in preference to Lammergeier ('lamb vulture') since they don't take lambs and don't deserve that reputation. Raptors do not need any more bad press! The wing-span is almost three metres, and they are famous for dropping large mammal bones onto rocks below to expose the marrow that is their particular favourite food. With long wedge-shaped tail and widely separated primaries, they have a unique silhouette and a brilliantly elegant flight-style.

And now for something completely different! The Mongolian Lark is a spectacular large lark, 20 cm in length: very distinctive too with rufous crown and wings, and startling white secondaries in flight. They are common in areas that are not too overgrazed, with cover for nesting and an abundance of weed seeds. But most of the steppe we travelled through has suffered the ravages of too many flocks and herds. Trampling of eggs and chicks must be a constant problem for larks in Mongolia. 

The Swan Goose is a declining species, since it is hunted in its Chinese wintering grounds. (Click on the image to enlarge). One lake we visited had a grazing flock of 500 or so, which made a wonderful sight as they flew over us to rest on the water. Around the capital Ulaanbaatar we came across a few families with goslings. The same lake shore had three eagle species too: Steppe, a wandering immature Golden, and a rare Great Spotted. 

The Gobi steppe has small numbers of this elegant Oriental Plover breeding. This is the white-headed male; the female has more camouflage for incubating. In the same habitat is the Greater Sandplover. We saw both species on our first morning in the Gobi, along with our first Bactrian Camels and Pallas's Sandgrouse. Like most waders, this plover has a clutch of three or four eggs. It migrates to south-east Asia and Northern Australia.

This is the male Pallas's Sandgrouse, which we usually saw in pairs or small groups. In some years they can be seen by the thousand. A century ago, they would occasionally wander to western Europe, and there have even been breeding records in Britain (Yorkshire and Moray, 1908). Now these eruptions no longer happen, presumably since the population has reduced with more steppe being converted to agriculture.    

Finally, the bird that my group seemed to enjoy more than any other: Henderson's Ground Jay. They are a true corvid, that makes a nest in an almond bush in a dry watercourse. On our last day we watched four birds for half an hour: two were burying almonds just as our jays bury acorns. Sandy coloured on the ground, they show a striking black and white wing pattern in flight. But usually they prefer to run. One we followed for a while was an expert in outwitting us, running over ridges and disappearing, sometimes doubling back on itself. Three of the above photos are mine - for the others I have to thank Mitko Petrakiev and Purevsuren Tsolmonjav.  


A week ago I returned from co-leading the first Ornitholidays tour to Mongolia. We flew via Beijing, and visited the Terelj National park first, in the north. This is the Terelj river, which flows into Lake Baikal in Siberia, on the southern edge of the great boreal forest known as taiga. By the river poplars and willows grow well; on the hillsides around grow substantial forests of Siberian birch and Siberian larch. The bird life includes Daurian Redstart, Pine Bunting, Isabelline Wheatear, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Jackdaw and Red-billed Chough. I will illustrate some of the birds we saw in the next blog - this is just an introduction to the country.  

In almost every place, we stayed in gers (the Mongolian word for yurts). This one is fancier than most - but they were all spacious, with two beds, and a stove which we needed some evenings since we had cold Siberian winds on some days. The stoves burn wood, coal, and (most commonly) dried dung. Gers are also used by nomadic herders whose large flocks of sheep and goats are a feature of the country. In Terelj we also saw plenty of yaks and yak-cow hybrids. 

In the second week we flew to the south of Mongolia, to the great Gobi Desert. Most of it is stony steppe-desert, beautifully scented with Artemisia (wormwood) when you walk on it. Mongolia is the only country with wild camels: the two-humped Bactrian. However, the ones we saw were all domesticated - many are used for riding. Not all flat, the Gobi has ranges of hills and rocky gorges inhabited by Lammergeiers and Golden Eagles.  In the flatter areas live Pallas's Sandgrouse and small numbers of Oriental Plovers. Before overgrazing became an issue, it must have been a paradise for Great and MacQueen's Bustards too. (The latter used to be called Houbara - but is now split, with Houbaras confined to North Africa and Canaries). There are also plenty of rodents - ground squirrels, pikas, voles and gerbils. 

The famous Gobi sand-dunes are confined to one small area: 160 km long, on average about 8 km wide, and impressively high. A stream flows along the bottom, making a great contrast with the lush grass and patches of blue iris. Here we found Demoiselle Cranes, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Kestrels, Asian Short-toed Larks, Saxaul Sparrows and Asian Desert Warblers. 

Here's a staff photo - our two drivers on the left, Puji our Mongolian guide, my co-leader Mitko and myself. We travelled in two Russian UAZ 4x4s - amazingly sturdy vehicles which went almost everywhere including up and down the steepest of hills. We were up on a ridge scanning for Goitered (or Black-tailed) Gazelles, which we found the following day. 

Deserts are usually defined as areas that receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Here our leading UAZ has just emerged from an axle-deep flash flood pouring across the steppe from the nearby hills where torrential rain fell one morning. The sandgrouse didn't have far to fly for a drink that day. We came away from our June week in the Gobi with our preconceptions changed - throughout our stay it was much colder and wetter there than during the same week in the UK! I'll be taking thermal gear next visit - then no doubt Gobi will be back to its usual summer baking heat.