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.  

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