We spend five nights camping in the wilds of Mongolia. Photo: Steve Rooke
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 upon 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.
We will travel in 4x4 vehicles admirably suited to the terrain and stay in superb camps that are testament to Mongolia’s 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 this morning in Ulaanbaatar where we’ll meet with our translator and our 4x4 drivers and have a relaxed introduction to our birding with a visit to a local spot on the edge of the city. Species we can expect to see include Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline Tit, Demoiselle Crane, Ruddy Shelduck, Citrine Wagtail and Isabelline Wheatears, while Pacific Swifts and Amur Falcons hawk overhead and there may also be a few migrants to find such as Little Bunting or Siberian Rubythroat. We’ll then head straight to Hustai National Park, an area of steppe and birch woodland about an hour’s drive west of the city. This is one of three locations in Mongolia where one can see Przewalski’s horses. These ancient animals were brought back from the edge of extinction many years ago with a captive breeding programme and today there is a thriving and easy to see population in Hustai. The open steppe is alive with stunning Mongolian Larks and the much plainer Asian Short-toed Lark, while Mongolian Marmots and Brandt’s Voles scurry across the grassland. On the hills there are Meadow Buntings and Blyth’s Pipits while Saker and Golden Eagles hunt overhead and Black Vultures cruise the ridge tops. Around our comfortable ger camp we’ll find Tree Sparrows to be abundant and the grounds are regularly visited by noisy Red-billed Chough. Night at Hustai National Park Ger camp.
Day 2: After spending the first half of the morning birding around Hustai, we shall head west to Bayaan Nuur in time for lunch and an afternoon of wandering around the rich wetlands. This saline lake is a hotspot for wildfowl and waders, and the small freshwater reedbeds hold breeding White-naped Cranes, Whooper Swans, Eastern Marsh Harriers, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Paddyfield Warblers, Baillon’s Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail, Common Reed Buntings, Pallas’s Reed Buntings (here of the local form lydiae, a potential split as Mongolian Bunting) and Bearded Reedlings. The grassland around the lake may hold Eastern Short-toed Lark, and we shall therefore be keeping an eye on the many Asian Short-toed Larks. 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 3: After a final check around the lake and marshes of Bayaan Nuur, we’ll continue our journey south and west towards Ugii Nuur. This large lake holds good numbers of Stejneger’s Scoter among other wildfowl and is also a reasonably regular haunt of Relict Gull on migration, although we would need some luck to find one here. The journey around the lake should reveal many more Mongolian and Asian Short-toed Larks, as well as more unexpected and unpredictable species such as Pere David’s Snowfinch and Upland Buzzards which will no doubt be keeping a close eye on the many rodents. After a picnic lunch on the lakes shore, we’ll continue towards our hotel in the town of Arvaikheer. Night in Arvaikheer.
Day 4: After breakfast, we’ll check out a local park for migrants and then drive south towards the fabled lake of Boon Tsagaan Nuur. We’ll aim to have our picnic lunch alongside a river bordered by woodland that has in the past proven attractive for migrants such as Asian Brown Flycatcher and Blyth’s Reed Warbler. We’ll then continue into the Gobi, heading off-road and into the desert. The journey may be enlivened by our first Pallas’s Sandgrouse or perhaps even Greater Sand Plover or a flock of feeding vultures. Once at the main lake of Boon Tsagaan, we’ll hopefully have time to do some birding before dinner. As long as it contains water, the river next to our camp site is usually a mecca for gulls, cormorants, Spoonbills and waders. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
Day 5: We’ll have a full day to explore the shores of Boon Tsagaan Nuur.During breakfast we may be treated to flypasts from Pallas’s Sandgrouse as they come to the small river near our camp to drink, and from then onwards the day should just get better. This is one of the most reliable sites in the world for seeing Relict Gull in breeding plumage, however they are nomadic and never guaranteed. There will be plenty of other birds to keep us occupied including large numbers of Mongolian Gulls with many Pallas’s Gulls mixed with them, plus Caspian and Gull-billed terns, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Egret, and migrant shorebirds such as Asian Dowitcher, Pacific Golden Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint. Every year is different, and we never know what we might find. Rarities in previous years have 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 Geese and the eastern form of Greylag Geese. We have also found Baillon’s Crakes out in the open, and it can be an excellent site to get views of Pacific Swift and the pekinensis form of Common Swift feeding low over the marshes. Migrant passerines may also feature, from Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers trying to hide in the short grass to Red-throated or Dusky Thrushes feeding along the small river. We may also be lucky enough to find the stunning white-headed leucocephala variety of Yellow Wagtail, the easternmost and probably rarest of the Western Yellow Wagtail forms. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
Day 6: After breakfast andpossibly some birding around the camp area, we’ll set off for Orog Nuur, a large ephemeral lake at the foot of Ikh Bogd Mountain in the Gobi Altai. Around late morning and a third of the way there, we should reach a small lake and reedbed where species such as Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, White-winged Tern, Temminck’s Stint, Paddyfield and Oriental Reed Warbler are all possible, as are possibly the most easterly Savi’s Warblers in the world. We have also discovered this marsh seems to hold breeding Water Rails and can be another excellent site for Baillon’s Crake.! Moving onwards through the Gobi towards Orog Nuur, we should have time to look for that most fabled of desert inhabitants, Henderson’s Ground Jay. These striking birds prefer bushy areas in the desert, and we’ll be passing a couple of such areas on our way to the lake and our campsite along the lake shore. On arrival at the lake we should have time for some lakeside birding as this site holds Eurasian Bittern as well as an array of migrating waders. After dinner, we’ll be lulled to sleep by the sounds of booming Bitterns, ‘wikking’ Black-tailed Godwits and singing Richard’s Pipits and Asian Short-toed Larks. Night camping at Orog Nuur.
Day 7: Today promises to be rather special. An early start sees us taking our 4x4 vehicles to ascend Ikh Bogd Mountain, the highest mountain of the Gobi Altai, which reaches an impressive height of 3,957m. We’ll have looked up at this the previous day, and today we should be gazing down on Orog Nuur from close to the summit. This is a mountain very rarely visited by birders, and we’ll be somewhat pioneering in our birding today. Altai Snowcock are present in decent numbers, and we stand a good chance of looking down on one or two of these bulky birds. Other possibilities up here include Brown, Alpine and Altai Accentors, Güldenstadt’s Redstart and the highly localised sushkini form of Asian Rosy-finch, plus there is also an outside chance of the highly-desired and enigmatic Hodgson’s Bushchat, although it must be stressed this is by no means guaranteed. Even more outrageous would be a sighting of either Snow Leopard or Pallas’s Cat, both of which are present. Whatever delights await us, we’ll be among the few western birders to have visited this sacred mountain. On the way down we should have time for a few stops along the canyon with Black Redstart, Grey-necked Bunting and Mongolian Finch firmly in our sites, and perhaps even our first chance of Kozlov’s Accentor. Night camping at Orog Nuur.
Day 8: Leaving the fabulous surroundings of Orog Nuur we have a long drive through some stunning desert scenery to the Khongoryn Els, a succession of huge sand dunes that stretches for about 100 kilometres. Out here we shall feel very much in the middle of nowhere, but birds are available for the sharp-eyed; Desert Wheatears and Pallas’s Sandgrouse should be seen in a few places, and if we haven’t managed to catch up with them, we can certainly expect to find Henderson’s Ground Jay today. These characterful birds are found at low density, but usually perch atop bushes between rapid chases along the desert floor. We shall also be on the look-out for Black-tailed and Mongolian Gazelles, both of which can occasionally be seen kicking up the dust as they sprint over the desert dunes. A narrow canyon we squeeze through should provide us with nesting Crag Martins, Mongolian Finches and Upland Buzzards, but the view as we emerge into the desert beyond is worth the drive alone. Night in Gobi Erdene Ger camp, from where we can enjoy a sundowner and admire the views of the dunes with a cold ‘Golden Gobi’ beer in hand.
Day 9: Khongoryn Els, one of the world’s largest sand dune complexes, are contained within the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. At the foot of the main dunes is a small stream with grazing meadows. Here familiar species such as Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Redshank breed alongside Long-legged Buzzards, Richard’s Pipits and Steppe Grey Shrikes. The fresh water can also act as a magnet for tired migrants. A nearby river that forms a boundary between the marshes and some smaller dunes is a regular haunt of the enigmatic Saxaul Sparrow as well as Desert Wheatear while the subtly marked Hill Pigeon may be seen dropping into drink. From here we journey further south, passing through a mountainous area which is a favoured by Chukars, before we descend into a wide wash that has Asian Desert Warbler. While looking for these we are sure to see beautifully patterned Variegated Toad-headed Agamas scurrying over the ground, flashing their tails scorpion-like when threatened. Moving ever southwards, we may stop at a village where migrants should feature, and then onwards and into the deep Gobi where the flatter and more barren areas are the haunt of Oriental Plovers. We shall make a concerted effort to find this, one of the world’s most enigmatic shorebirds. The white heads of the males stand out like beacons in the desert, and with luck we may even be treated to their bizarre wing-rocking display flight. We’ll spend the night at a tourist Ger camp. Here, poplar trees bordering the camp provide not only shelter but also act as a magnet 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 to be expected that this camp attracts a lot of birds. In the past some new species for Mongolia, such as Forest Wagtail and Black Drongo, have been found here, and in 2007 our group found the first Red Collared Dove for the country. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp.
Day 10: After an early breakfast and quick check of what migrants are lurking in the trees, we head back into the nearby Gobi Altai and Yolyn Am, or ‘Valley of the Vulture’. Once at Yolyn Am the birding steps up a gear. This can be a bird-rich valley and we’ll spend most of the day 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 Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches, Godlewski’s Bunting, Twite, Blyth’s and Water Pipits, Common Rock-thrush and the red-bellied form of Black Redstart. White-winged Snowfinches are abundant and this is also one of the best places in the country to see Wallcreeper, with several pairs in a small area often showing at eye level for extended periods. In some years we have also seen Great Rosefinch in the valley. Overhead we should see Lammergeiers and Himalayan Vultures. This valley can also act as a migrant trap and the stream and rough grass could hold thrushes, warblers and buntings. For those whose interests widen to include mammals and reptiles, this is also the best place to look for Halys Pit Viper, whose presence is often revealed by the mobbing of wheatears, plus we should be treated to great views of various ground squirrels and endearing pikas, while Siberian Ibex inhabits the cliffs above us. This is also another location for Altai Snowcock and while scanning the ridge tops, we’ll be conscious that both Pallas’s Cat and Snow Leopard are once again possible, but seeing their prey is far more likely. Back at the camp we’ll check out the trees once more where the list of migrants could include Pallas’s Leaf, Two-barred, Arctic, Thick-billed, and Dusky Warblers, as well as Brown Shrike, Hawfinch and Common Rosefinch. Daurian Shrikes nest in the grounds and in the evenings small gatherings of Lesser Kestrels return to roost nearby, sometimes joined by Amur Falcons. Night Juulchin Gobi Ger camp.
Day 11: After an early morning birding around the Ger camp we’ll begin our long journey back north towards the capital and then beyond to Gun Galuut. This drive will take all day, with time for a few short stops and lunch along the way. Before we reach our Ger camp we’ll pass some small lakes where we often find Stejneger’s White-winged Scoters, Garganey and a surprise or two - for example, in 2018 we found the first Velvet Scoter for Mongolia! It can be a good area for waders too, with Red-necked Stint being a realistic target among the more common Little Stints, while Broad-billed Sandpipers could number into double figures. This is another reliable site for White-naped Cranes and impressive flocks of Demoiselle Cranes can fill the sky. Night at a Ger camp at Gun Galuut.
Day 12: A small area of riverside bushes in the grounds is yet another reliable spot for migrants and we shall make time to investigate these before breakfast. Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper and even Chinese Bush Warblers have all been found here in the past. After breakfast we’ll journey into the hills and beyond a large marsh area, checking that all the large white birds aren’t ‘just’ Whooper Swans as in some years Siberian Crane has been seen here. Once in the hills we have further chances of Père David’s Snowfinch, but the main reason we are here is to see the world’s largest sheep, the Argali. These can be common, and we may be lucky with other smaller mammals too such as Daurian Ground Squirrel or even a Siberian Jerboa. On leaving the camp we pass the 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 Terek Sandpiper. From there we go off-road once more, pausing to investigate a rocky outcrop for territorial Common Rock-thrush and nesting Steppe Eagle. We soon find ourselves surrounded by trees as we reach the start of the Siberian taiga forest. We’ll spend a few hours investigating a patch of woodland that has become quite reliable in recent years for one of the most famous and hard to find inhabitants of the eastern taiga; the Black-billed Capercaillie. This will also be a great place to find Pine Bunting, with males singing from the tops of small trees. From here we continue to our award-winning ger camp where we’ll spend the next three nights. Night at Jalman Meadows Ger camp.
Days 13-14: Jalman Meadows 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 an exciting array of species including Daurian Partridge, Black Grouse (whose wonderful bubbling calls can be heard from our Gers), Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Grey-headed, Lesser spotted and Black Woodpeckers, Eurasian Wryneck, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Red-throated Thrush, Daurian Jackdaw, White-cheeked Starling, Azure and Willow Tits, Dusky, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Warblers, Black-faced Bunting, and the attractive Long-tailed Rosefinch. If we failed on the first afternoon, we’ll also dedicate an early morning to looking for Black-billed Capercaillie. For those wanting to take it easy Jalman Meadows is a great place to relax or try your hand at Mongolian archery or horse riding! Each ger is equipped with a wood-burning stove and, should the weather turn inclement, there is always someone on hand to light it for you, even first thing in the morning. Jalman Meadows is designed to have an ultra-low impact on the environment and is a perfect place to unwind in the mountains while surrounded by some great birds. Nights at Jalman Meadows Ger camp.
Day 15: We’ll have another morning around the Ger camp enjoying similar species to the previous days before setting out for our return to Ulaanbaatar, possibly locating a family of Ural Owls on our way. We’ll aim to be back in the city around late afternoon after a stop at the very imposing Chinggis Khaan statue. Before dinner there will be the chance to attend a Mongolian cultural show, complete with traditional dancing and throat singers. Night in Ulaanbaatar.
Day 16: The tour ends this morning in Ulaanbaatar.
Updated: 06 January 2020