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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Mongolia, August 12th to August 16th 2001,

Hanno Stamm

Introduction:

This report is written from memory. Whilst I did keep an accurate list of the birds seen, I did not really pay attention to anything else, as I never had any intention of writing a trip report. Therefore, I cannot really comment much on accommodation, traveling times, etc.

This was not a birding trip per se. I went to Mongolia for two reasons: a) my mother was visiting me in China, where I worked at the time, and she had always wanted to go to Mongolia, and b) after a year in Beijing I needed to escape the maddening crowds of that city.

Logistics:

I obtained my visa from the Mongolian Embassy in Beijing; it took one week and cost USD 25.00. As we did not have much time, we arranged the entire trip as a package; this was booked through Selena Travel, and cost ca. USD 800.00 per person. Service and accommodation (with the exception of Ulan Bator) was excellent throughout our stay, with a guide that spoke good English. We flew with MIAT, the Mongolian national carrier, which was not as bad as I was led to believe it would be. It helped that, for an additional USD 50.00 we got upgraded to Business Class, the free Champagne did its trick to alleviate my fear of flying somewhat.

Heaven for train engine freaks

Accommodation and food:

The hotel in Ulan Bator, near the railway station was nothing special at all. However, at the time choice was limited and over-prized. Once in the countryside, we stayed in luxurious Yurts. They are absolutely huge, but get a bit cold at night, even in summer. Throughout the night, staff would pop in and add wood to the oven located in the center of the Yurt.

Food was either excellent (my opinion), or lousy (my mother's opinion). Basically, the problem is that everything tastes of Mutton, even dishes that are entirely free of meat. Even our driver had a strong odor of rather gamey Mutton about him. An important part of bird watching, a cold beer, was readily available. There are two breweries run by Germans in Ulan Bator, their beer isn't half-bad.

This and that:

On the whole, people were friendly wherever we went. The only time I was a bit worried was in Ulan Bator, there are way too many drunken people. The other concern is the dogs: they are all over the place, and they are huge. Our guide told us that the Mongolians are very cautious about approaching a settlement without first making sure that the pooches are secured.

I think the best way to travel is with a car and driver. Most of the roads are dirt tracks at best, and I do not recall

All in all, Mongolia is definitely worth a visit, both for nature and culture. I do hope to go back next year, that time with a more bird-focused itinerary.

A word on the spelling of location names: there seems to be no hard and fast rule, I have seen Ulan Bator spelt in half-a-dozen different ways, and that is true for all Mongolian names,

Weather:

This being the height of summer, the weather was gorgeous throughout and pleasant enough during the day (T-Shirt-weather). But, as mentioned above, it does get cold at night, with temperatures dropping close to 0 at night. Coming from Beijing, which was boiling at the time, I did not bring anywhere near enough warm clothes. Visiting Terelj on early morning, I was the only person in Shorts and Sandals, much to the bemusement of the locals who were wrapped up to their eyeballs.

Books:

We used the Lonely Planet for the touristy bit. Without a dedicated bird guide, I used de Schaensee's "Birds of China" (maybe ground-braking at its time, but the drawings are horrendous by today's standards), and McKinnon's "A Field Guide to the Birds of China (excellent book) as well as a couple of European books, Collin's Guide amongst others.

Itinerary:

12th of August

Hardly slept the night before. I was playing pool with a couple of buddies, when a huge commotion started around the TV. It was CNN, and a madman had just flown the first plane into the WTC. (We would meet a few Americans a couple of days later who had been completely out of touch with the world, they were pretty shook up at the news). We arrived in Ulan Bator in the afternoon; there was not much time for anything except a quick stroll through town. The Lonely Planet states that you should spend 3 days in Ulan Bator, I suggest that 3 hours are about the maximum. Stalinist architecture at its best. Mind you, had some of the best Pretzels in my life, and the beer was good, too. Birds seen on the trip from the airport to the city were Black-eared Kite, Hen Harrier, Red-billed Chough, Carrion Crow, and Eurasian Tree Sparrows.

Ulan Bator Center in all its glory

13th of August

Off to the Mongolian Steppes. We headed southwest towards Mongol Els, a very luxurious Yurt camp in the middle of nowhere. Horses, Camels, and domesticated Yaks outnumbered humans by far; what bliss after the heaving masses of Beijing. I have to admit that I did not pay much attention to birds during the drive; I was absolutely awe-struck by the landscape.

However, I did see numerous birds. The frequent puddles of water held Grey Heron, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, and Mallard. Black-eared Kites were common, as were Hooded Vultures. Upland Buzzards were seen a few times. I felt right back in Europe with all the Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Swallows, and White Wagtails, whilst the Isabelline Wheatear did not quite fit that picture. Other birds seen were Black-billed Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Common Raven (really common in Mongolia), and, best of all, Pere David's Snowfinch.

Once in Hoyor Zagal, there was just enough time for a quick walk around some small lakes near the camp. Birds seen before a well deserved dinner, and not seen during the road trip, were Whooper Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Common Pochard, Eurasian Coot, a handful of Demoiselle Cranes (more on those later), Common Redshank, and Short-toed Larks.

As soon as the sun set, it became quite cool, but the Yurts were well heated.

Yurt Camp

14th of August

The first shock early in the morning: the water for the showers is not heated!!!! It felt like ice-cubes coming out of the showerhead, but it woke me up almost as well as the coffee that was soon to follow. Breakfast was my first experience of the fact that everything in Mongolia tastes of mutton, even toast.

Today, we were off to Karakorum, the ancient capital established by Genghis Khan. Not much left of its former splendor, but the draw here is the monastery of Erdenezuu. Really nice, and all that, but there was a small distraction: masses of Demoiselle Cranes moving overhead. They just kept coming in incredible numbers (I stopped counting at 4,000) and at a really low altitude at that. I had my mom take photos of the monastery, of which I have little recollection whatsoever. Other birds seen around this area were Common Kestrel, Herring Gull, Northern Wheatear, and plenty of Daurian Jackdaws.

We eventually went back to Mongol Els, where I had once again time for a quick stroll. Birds not seen the previous day were Northern Goshawk, Saker Falcon, Horned Lark, Red-throated Pipit, Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, and Rock Sparrow. A word of warning or two: the dogs are a menace, and distances are awfully hard to judge due to the very clean air and expansive landscape. I walked towards a little, rocky outcrop that seemed only a couple of hundred yards away; it took me an hour to get there.

15th of August

Another shocker in the morning, the water hadn't gotten any warmer. Today, we were due to head back to Ulan Bator. Trying to get warm, I took a quick spin around the camp before breakfast. I added a Great Cormorant to my trip-list, and had a Merlin almost fly into me.

The drive back was very leisurely. Picnic by a large river turned up Slavonian Grebe, 12 Black Stork, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, Spotted Redshank, and Common Sandpiper.

That evening, we watched a traditional Mongolian music performance. Apparently, the Mongolians are known for "throat-singing". Sounds pretty strange, but it was magic! Difficult to put in words, I guess you should just have been there.

16th of August

The last day in Mongolia. We left very early for Gorhi and Telj, a National park northeast of Ulan Bator. It was sunny, but bitterly cold. Of course, I could not let on that I was to stupid to bring warm clothes, so I walked around pretending I enjoyed the glacial temperatures, whilst my toes (and feet, legs, hands, ears, and certain other extremities) slowly turned to solid ice. Bring plenty of warm clothes, even in summer.

I had the car drop me off in Gorhi, whilst my mother drove on to Telj (she was cold, too, and smart enough to stay in the heated car). All was soon forgotten, however. Temperatures started climbing above freezing, the landscape was gorgeous as ever, and some good birds showed up. First up where a couple of Goosanders, and the sole Grey Wagtail of the trip. Daurian Redstarts and Red-throated Thrush were common along the river, as were Pallas's Warblers and Coal Tits. The last "new" birds seen were Eurasian Jay and Pine Bunting.

All in all, I saw 53 species, many of them spectacular. I dipped on many birds, but that was primarily because I did not look too hard.

List of species seen:

Slavonian Grebe

Podiceps auritus

Great Cormorant

Phalacrocorax carbo

Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea

Black Stork

Ciconia nigra

Whooper Swan

Cygnus cygnus

Bar-headed Goose

Anser indicus

Ruddy Shelduck

Tadorna ferruginea

Eurasian Wigeon

Anas penelope

Common Teal

Anas crecca

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

Northern Shoveler

Anas clypeata

Common Pochard

Aythya ferina

Tufted Duck

Aythya fuligula

Common Goldeneye

Bucephala clangula

Goosander

Mergus merganser

Black-eared Kite

Milvus (migrans) lineatus

Hooded Vulture

Necrosyrtes monachus

Hen Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Northern Goshawk

Accipiter gentilis

Upland Buzzard

Buteo hemilasius

Common Kestrel

Falco tinnunculus

Merlin

Falco columbarius

Saker Falcon

Falco cherrug

Eurasian Coot

Fulica atra

Demoiselle Crane

Grus virgo

Northern Lapwing

Vanellus vanellus

Spotted Redshank

Tringa erythropus

Common Redshank

Tringa totanus

Common Sandpiper

Tringa hypoleucos

Herring Gull

Larus argentatus

Short-toed Lark

Calandrella (cinerea) brachydactyla

Horned Lark

Eremophila alpestris

Eurasian Swallow

Hirundo rustica

Red-throated Pipit

Anthus cervinus

White Wagtail

Motacilla alba

Grey Wagtail

Motacilla cinerea

Daurian Redstart

Phoenicurus auroreus

Northern Wheatear

Oenanthe oenanthe

Isabelline Wheatear

Oenanthe isabellina

Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush

Monticola saxatilis

Red-throated Thrush

Turdus ruficollis

Pallas's Warbler

Phylloscopus proregulus

Coal Tit

Parus ater

Eurasian Jay

Garrulus glandarius

Black-billed Magpie

Pica pica

Red-billed Chough

Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax

Daurian Jackdaw

Corvus (monedula) dauuricus

Carrion Crow

Corvus corone

Common Raven

Corvus corax

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Passer montanus

Rock Sparrow

Petronia petronia

Pere David's Snowfinch

Montifringilla davidiana

Pine Bunting

Emberiza leucocephalos

 

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