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 this morning in Ulaanbaatar where we’ll meet up with our translator and have a relaxed introduction to birding in Mongolia, with a visit to some local birding spots 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. A small lake can hold a lot of waterfowl and we will check carefully for anything special like a Falcated Duck or Long-toed Stint. We’ll then head to our 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 2: This morning we’ll take an early flight south to Dalanzadgad where we meet our bus, chef and driver – our ‘home’ and ‘crew’ for the rest of the trip. Our first destination will be the plantations and ponds around Dalanzadgad where any Siberian migrant is possible. Weather plays a key part in what turns up, but migrants should be a feature of this tour and this area can certainly produce some true surprises, as well as the more expected Pallas’s Leaf, Dusky and Arctic Warblers. Moving on, we head towards Yolyn Am, or ‘Valley of the Vulture’, 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 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 Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches, Godlewski’s Bunting, Twite, Blyth’s and Water Pipits, Common Rock Thrush and the red-bellied form of Black Redstart. This is also one of the best places in the country to see Wallcreeper, and there can be 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 hope to see Lammergeiers, Himalayan Vultures, Golden Eagles and Upland Buzzard. This valley is also great for mammals with sousliks, pikas, Siberian Ibex and sometimes Agali 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 border 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 to be expected 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 3: 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. The entrance to the valley holds Altai Snowcock, and if we are lucky we should see this species calling from the dramatic ridges above us as we have 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. For those whose interests widen to include reptiles, this is also the best place to look for Halys Pit Viper, whose presence is often revealed by the mobbing of wheatears.
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 4: 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 seemingly 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 mid-afternoon we should be passing through prime Grey-necked Bunting and Mongolian Finch habitat in an area of rocky crags and small peaks, and soon afterwards we descend a huge wadi to reach the 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 Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler, 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 5: 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 Long-legged 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 through more dramatic landscapes, including an area of Saxaul forest that we shall investigate for another of Mongolia’s enigmatic species; Henderson’s Ground Jay. Eventually, we’ll need to choose somewhere undoubtedly isolated for our first nights camping. We may be able to find a small spring in the desert, perhaps a sheltered cave area, or maybe just open desert. Wherever we camp, there are sure to be things to be found, and if birds are not so much in evidence, then a night walk may turn up jerboas, gerbils, hedgehogs and foxes. Night camping.
Day 6: Today always feels like a real adventure as we pass through the mountains of the Gobi Altai. 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. Stately White-naped Cranes stalk around the margins, and this has become a reliable site for Asian Dowitcher in recent years, and careful watching may produce the local lydiae race of Pallas’s Reed Bunting - a potential split as Mongolian Bunting. 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 7: Today promises to be rather special. An early start sees us transfer into our 4x4 support vehicles and ascend the mountain of Ikh Bogd, 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 from its snowy summits. This is a very rarely visited mountain, and we will be somewhat pioneering in our birding today. Altai Snowcock should be present, and we stand a good chance of looking down on these huge birds. Other possibilities up here include Güldenstadt’s Redstart, and there is an outside chance of Hodgeson’s Bushchat, although it must be stressed this is by no means guaranteed. Whatever delights await us, we will be among the first western birders to visit this sacred mountain. Night camping at Orog Nuur.
Day 8: After a final scan around Orog Nuur, we drive towards the fabled lake of Boon Tsagaan. Around early afternoon and about two thirds 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 and Oriental Reed Warbler are all possible, as are singing Savi’s Warblers, possibly the most easterly Savi’s Warblers in the World! 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 Sand Plover 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 Goose and the eastern form of Greylag Goose. Migrant passerines may also feature, from Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers trying to hide in the short grass to Dusky Thrush feeding along the small river. We may also be lucky enough to find a stunning white-headed variety of Yellow Wagtail, the easternmost and probably the rarest of the Western Yellow Wagtail forms. During dinner we may be treated to a fly-past from Pallas’s Sandgrouse, as they come to the small river near our camp to drink. Night camping near Boon Tsagaan Nuur.
Day 9: We have all day at Boon Tsagaan Nuur enjoying the species we saw yesterday and also looking for anything new such as Goosander, Smew, 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 Finch and Pere David’s Snowfinch as we pass through dramatic scenery in splendid isolation. Around midday we should hit the tarmac for the first time in a week. After lunch alongside a river, whose bushes should hold a few migrants, we continue on towards Arvaikheer. After a few nights of albeit very comfortable camping, we’ll take the chance of a night in a 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: After a quick check of the local park for migrants, today’s journey takes us through grasslands that are home to singing Mongolian Larks, and a small wetland with White-naped Cranes, Black-throated Divers and maybe Asian Dowitchers before arriving at Bayaan Nuur in the afternoon. This lake is another hotspot for wildfowl and waders, and the small reedbeds hold Eastern Marsh Harriers, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Paddyfield Warblers, Baillon’s Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail, Reed Buntings and Bearded Reedlings. The grassland around the lake may hold Eastern Short-toed Lark, and we shall thus 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 12: After an early morning birding around the lake we’ll say a sad farewell to our camping crew and 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 - for example, in 2018 we found the first Velvet Scoter for Mongolia! It can be a good area for waders, with Red-necked Stint being a realistic target among the more common Little Stints, while Broad-billed Sandpiper could number into double figures. 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. A small area of riverside bushes at the camp have proved reliable for migrants over the years, and we shall make time to investigate these fully. Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Thick-billed and even Chinese Bush Warblers have all been found here in the past. Night at Ger camp at Gun Galut.
Day 13: Before breakfast we’ll 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 Terek Sandpiper. From there we go off-road again, and as we eventually climb up the scenery changes to wooded hillsides and rocky outcrops, home to raptors, woodpeckers, cuckoos and more. 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 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 Daurian Partridge, Black Grouse, Siberian Rubythroat, Red-flanked Bluetail, Stejneger’s Stonechat, Red-throated Thrush, Daurian Jackdaw, White-cheeked Starling, Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Black-faced Bunting, Grey-headed, Lesser spotted and Black Woodpeckers, Eurasian Wryneck, Azure and Willow Tits, Dusky, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Warblers and the attractive Long-tailed Rosefinch. We’ll also spend time looking for that mythical denizen of the Siberian forest, the Black-billed Capercaillie. For those wanting to take it easy there are library and massage gers, as well as shower gers; a perfect way to unwind in the mountains. 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. If we are very lucky, we may even stumble across a family of Ural Owls. 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, complete with traditional throat singers and contortionists, and dinner in a fine local restaurant near our hotel. Night in Ulaanbaatar
Day 16: The tour ends this morning in Ulaanbaatar.
Updated: 19 June 2018