One of our tent camp on the Mongolian steppes Photo: James Lidster
Lying right at the heart of the vast continent of Asia is Mongolia, the land where nomadic horsemen still ride across windswept steppes, where Shamanism and ancient Tibetan Buddhism still flourish and where, according to legend, lies the last resting place of Chinggis Khaan, leader of the once great Mongol empire. This exotic country is full of natural wonders. The vast Gobi Desert, which covers one third of Mongolia, the endless steppes strewn with lakes, the picturesque Altai mountains and the rich taiga forest – all remote, beautiful, fascinating and full of birds.
Our trip here will be more than just another birding tour - it will be a true adventure. From the capital city of Ulaanbaatar we will travel out into a forgotten land, much of it unchanged for centuries and, as befits a culture famous for its nomadic way of life, we shall camp as we go. We will gaze on stunning landscapes seen by few Westerners, and on birds most Western birdwatchers can only dream about: Upland Buzzard, Amur Falcon, Black-billed Capercaillie, Altai Snowcock, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Oriental Plover, Relict Gull, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Mongolian Lark, Blyth’s Pipit, Kozlov’s Accentor…the list goes on.
Our ground agents are skilled at showing this wonderful country to groups. We will travel in vehicles admirably suited to the terrain and stay in superb camps that are testament to their nomadic heritage. We will mingle with the locals tending their flocks of sheep and cattle, much as they have done for centuries, and we shall walk along pathways few have trodden.
Day 1: The tour starts in London with a flight to Ulaanbaatar.
Day 2: Arriving late morning in Ulaanbaatar we’ll meet up with our translator and have a relaxed introduction to birding in Mongolia, with a visit to some local lakes on the edge of the city. Species we can expect to see include Demoiselle Crane, Cinereous Vulture, Ruddy Shelduck, Citrine Wagtail and Isabelline Wheatears. The ponds can hold a lot of waterfowl and some waders, and we will check carefully for anything special like a Falcated Duck or Long-toed Stint. We’ll then head to our modern and comfortable hotel in time for dinner, with Red-billed Choughs and Pacific Swifts being two of the more common species we’ll see in the city. Night in Ulaanbaatar.
Day 3: This morning we will take an early flight south to Dalandzadgad where we meet our bus, chef and driver – our ‘home’ and ‘crew’ for the rest of the trip. Our first destination will be Yolyn Am, but on the way we could encounter our first Oriental Plovers and Pallas’s Sandgrouse, while Horned Larks compete with Isabelline Wheatears for the title of most common passerine. Once at Yolyn Am (the valley of the vulture) the birding steps up a gear. This can be a bird-rich valley and we’ll spend most of the afternoon walking along the flat valley bottom where species such as the near endemic Kozlov’s Accentor can be found alongside Brown and Alpine Accentors, Common and Beautiful Rosefinches, Godlewski’s Bunting, Twite, Blyth’s and Water Pipits, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and the red-bellied form of Black Redstart. This is also one of the best places to see Wallcreeper in the country, and there can be several pairs in a small area. In some years we have also seen Great Rosefinch in the valley. Overhead we hope to see Lammergeiers, Himalayan Vultures, Steppe Eagles and Upland Buzzard. This valley is also great for mammals with sousliks, pikas, Siberian Ibex and sometimes Argali Sheep (the largest sheep in the world) all possible.
We will spend the night at a tourist Ger camp. Here, poplar trees planted several decades ago surround the camp, providing not only shelter but also acting as an oasis for passing migrants. Over the years we have seen a large variety of birds here including many warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and buntings providing unforgettable moments such as seeing a White’s Thrush bobbing up and down in front of you, or a Siberian Rubythroat on your walk to the shower block! With little vegetation for miles around it is no surprise that this camp attracts a lot of birds, yet it is still a great surprise when a Chinese Pond Heron drops in looking for water, or a Booted Eagle decides it’s the place to spend the night. In the past some new species for Mongolia such as Forest Wagtail and Black Drongo have been found here, and in 2007 the Sunbird group found the first Red Collared Dove for the country. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp.
Day 4: We’ll head out early this morning, taking our breakfast and lunch with us for what should be a very special day at Yolyn Am. Our main target will be Altai Snowcock. If we are lucky we should see this species ‘singing’ from the dramatic ridges above us whilst eating our picnic breakfast. This is also the domain of the Snow Leopard and although seeing one would be a remarkable stroke of luck, just knowing that they are there, possibly gazing down at us, makes the place feel even more special. We’ll spend the rest of the day looking for species that we may have missed on the previous day, and also allowing for the unpredictable weather. This valley can also act as a migrant trap and the stream and rough grass could hold thrushes, warblers and buntings and species you only dream about as vagrants in western Europe or North America can be common here.
If time allows we’ll stop at the small Gobi museum on our way back to camp before once again checking the camp trees for any newly arrived migrants. In the evenings small gatherings of Lesser Kestrels return to roost near the camp, sometimes joined by Amur Falcons. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp.
Day 5: After a last check of the camp and breakfast we’ll head west and will soon be in perfect Oriental Plover habitat. Finding such a dramatic species in a bleak, and almost lifeless, desert is sure to be one of the highlights of the trip. If we are lucky we may witness its incredible display flight where the males fly in high circuits above their territory, rocking from side to side on stiff wings.
By late afternoon we should be near Khongoryn Els in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, one of the world’s largest sand dunes. This dry desert habitat will present us with some new species including the enigmatic Saxaul Sparrow as well as Desert Wheatears and Asian Desert Warblers, while Goitered and Mongolian Gazelles are both possible. From our Ger camp we can enjoy a sundowner, admiring the stunning views of the dunes, with a cold Golden Gobi beer in hand. Night at Ger camp near Khongoryn Els dunes.
Day 6: At the base of the dunes is a small stream with grazing meadows. Here familiar species such as Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Redshank breed alongside Upland Buzzards, Richard’s Pipits and Steppe Grey Shrikes. The fresh water can act as a magnet for Pallas’s Sandgrouse and tired migrants.
After breakfast we begin our journey north, passing more dramatic landscapes, and choosing somewhere undoubtedly isolated for our first nights camping. Species around the camp could vary from Asian Desert Warblers and Isabelline Shrikes in the saxaul scrub to Golden Eagles and Pied Wheatears in the mountains. Night camping.
Day 7: Today always feels like a real adventure as we pass through the Gobi Altai mountains. It’s a dramatic journey that can take us along the course of an old river bed or some nomadic trail into the hills and then across a high plateau into a sandier desert habitat. In most years there is a shallow lake and our species list could be boosted by numerous ducks, waders, gulls and terns. Even if the lake is dry some natural springs still provide enough water for wagtails, pipits and warblers. Night camping near Orog Nuur, maybe to the sound of drumming Common Snipe, singing Richard’s Pipits, Asian Short-toed Larks and bugling Demoiselle Cranes.
Day 8: Our aim today is to reach the fabled lake of Boon Tsagaan. On the way we’ll first look for Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground Jay, a near endemic often found in this area. In the afternoon we should reach a small lake and reedbed where species such as Black-necked Grebe, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, White-winged Terns, Temminck’s Stint and Oriental Reed Warbler are also possible. Once at the main lake of Boon Tsagaan we’ll hopefully have time to do some birding before dinner. This is one of the most reliable sites in the world for seeing Relict Gull in breeding plumage, but they are nomadic and never guaranteed. However there are plenty of birds to keep us occupied here including Mongolian and Pallas’s Gulls, Caspian and Gull-billed terns, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Egret and migrant shorebirds such as Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sandplover and Marsh Sandpiper. Every year is different and we never know what we might find. Rarities in previous years included the first Intermediate Egret for Mongolia! Even without these rarities the lake is a very reliable site for some quality species such as Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Swan Goose, the latter often in mixed flocks with Bar-headed and Eastern Greylag Geese. During dinner we may be treated to a fly-past from Pallas’s Sandgrouse, which sometimes drop down to the lake to drink. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
Day 9: All day Boon Tsagaan Nuur enjoying the species we saw yesterday and also looking for anything new such as Goosander, Little Tern, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope and other migrants. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
Day 10: After a final check around the lake we’ll break camp and continue our journey north. Birds start to become scarce but new species may include Mongolian Finches and Pere Davids Snowfinches as we pass through dramatic scenery in splendid isolation. After a few nights of albeit very comfortable camping, we’ll take the chance of a night in an hotel. Hot running water, power for charging batteries and cold drinks will all be very welcome before we return to camping and Ger camps for the remainder of the tour. Night in hotel in Arvaikheer.
Day 11: Today’s journey takes us through grasslands that are home to singing Mongolian Larks, and small wetlands with White-naped Cranes and maybe Asian Dowitchers before arriving at Bayaan Nuur. This lake is another hotspot for wildfowl and waders, and the small reedbeds hold Eastern Marsh Harriers, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Paddyfield Warblers and Bearded Reedlings. The lake itself can be full of ducks and waders, attracting the attention of the local White-tailed Eagle. Night camping near Bayaan Nuur.
Day 12: After a few more hours birding around the lake we’ll begin our long journey towards the capital and then beyond to Gun Galut. Before we reach our Ger camp we pass some small lakes where we often find Stejneger’s White-winged Scoters, Garganey and a surprise or two. This is another reliable site for White-naped Cranes, and before dinner we hope to have seen this elegant species against a stunningly scenic backdrop. Night at Ger camp at Gun Galut.
Day 13: Before breakfast we will return to the flooded meadows and pools, checking that all the large white birds aren’t ‘just’ Whooper Swans as in some years Siberian Crane has been seen here. On leaving the camp we pass the small lakes again, and as it is migration season we’ll see if anything new has dropped in overnight. This will be our last chance for wildfowl and waders, and we may be rewarded with a Slavonian Grebe, Falcated Duck or Red-necked Stint. From there the scenery changes to wooded hillsides and rocky outcrops, home to raptors, woodpeckers and cuckoos. we may encounter small groups of Amur Falcons, Saker Falcon, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Eastern Buzzard and Pine Bunting. Night at Jalman Meadows Ger camp.
Day 14: Our next Ger camp is surrounded by good habitat which we’ll take time to explore. This varies from riparian Poplar forest to Larch covered hillsides, all home to a variety of species including Northern Goshawk, Black Grouse, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-throated Thrush, Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Yellow-breasted and Black-faced Bunting, Grey-headed, White-backed, Lesser spotted and Black Woodpeckers, Eurasian Wryneck, Azure and Willow Tits, Dusky, Pallas’s, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Greenish Warblers and the attractive Long-tailed Rosefinch. We’ll also spend time looking for a mythical denizen of the forest, the Black-billed Capercaillie, a bird we had good views of on the 2016 tour. Night at Jalman Meadows Ger camp.
Day 15: We have another morning around the Ger camp (the best camp we stay at!) enjoying similar species to the previous day, plus Taiga and Asian Brown Flycatchers, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Daurian Redstart. For those wanting to take it easy there is even a library and massage ger, a perfect way to unwind in the mountains. We aim to be back in the city around late afternoon after a stop at the very imposing Chinggis Khaan statue. There will then be time to shower and repack before a Mongolian cultural show near our hotel, complete with traditional throat singers and contortionists. Night in Ulaanbaatar
Day 16: We transfer to the airport to connect with our flights to London where the tour concludes later the same day.
Updated: 31 August 2016