Saturday, 5 July 2014


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.  

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