Mongolia, a land of endless steppes strewn with lakes, the spectacular Altai Mountains covered in pine and birch forests, and the vast Gobi Desert, covering one third of the country – this is a remote and beautiful country, much of it unchanged for centuries! And, with its rich avifauna, this makes it a very sought-after destination for Westerners seeking a real avian adventure. One feels that time has stood still here, where nomadic horsemen still ride across windswept steppe plains and ancient Tibetan Buddhism still flourishes. Furthermore, Mongolia is believed to be the resting place of the great ruler, Ghengis Khan, whose warriors were feared throughout this region and put the country on the World map.
Our birding tour to Mongolia will see us crossing rivers and valleys, camping in the desert, and travelling high up into the mountains, experiencing fantastic landscapes along the way. From the capital city of Ulaanbataar, we will travel south to the plains and desert. The Gobi Altai Mountains produce for Altai Snowcock, Guldenstatd’s Redstarts, Siberian Rubythroat, and Brown and endemic Kozlov’s Accentor. Wetlands at Ugii Tsagaan Nuur support such mouth-watering species as Swan and Bar-headed Geese, elegant Demoiselle Cranes, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Saker Falcon & White-winged Scoter whilst the surrounding desert scrub holds Henderson’s Ground Jay, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Oriental Plover, Mongolian Lark and Saxaul Sparrow.
From the desert we will then travel into the mountains of Terelj, first stopping to look for White-naped Crane. At Terlej, we will search for Black-billed Capercaillie, impressive Bearded, Himalayan and Cinereous Vultures, Amur Falcon, Altai Snowcock, Daurian Partridge, Ural Owl, Guldenstadt’s and Eversmann’s Redstart, Alpine and Brown Accentors, and the monotypic Wallcreeper. All the while we will be looked after by an experienced local crew, who will also do their utmost to show off their beautiful country while catering for our every need, including warm comfy beds.
This is truly a birding tour with a difference for anyone with a pioneering spirit and a desire to travel where few westerners have ever been!
Altai Snowcock, Black-billed Capercaillie, Daurian and Chukar Partridge, Swan & Bar-headed Goose, White-naped & Demoiselle Crane, Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), Himalayan & Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Saker & Amur Falcon, White-winged Scoter, Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, Oriental Plover, Asian Dowitcher, Swinhoe’s Snipe, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Ural Owl, Henderson’s Ground Jay, Wallcreeper, Mongolian Lark, Siberian Rubythroat, Brown & Kozlov’s Accentor, Azure Tit, Long-tailed, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Guldenstadt’s and Eversmann’s Redstart, Saxaul Sparrow.
Siberian Ibex, Mongolian & Goitred Gazelle, Long-tailed Ground Squirrel, Corsac & Red Fox, Tarbagan Marmot, Argali, Pallas’s & Alpine Pika, Great Gerbil, Andrews Three-toed Jerboa, Brandt’s Vole
steppe, desert, mountains, valleys, ridges, wetlands, Pine & Birch Forest, grasslands, meadows, rivers
moderate to hot with colder nights, especially in the higher lying areas
moderate to relaxed in general with a few strenuous hikes for some of the difficult specials
spectacular scenery, ancient deserts, pristine wildernesses, incredible history and culture
Day 1: Arrival in Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator) and afternoon birding at Tuul Fish Ponds and Tuul River
After arriving in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, you will be met by our local representatives and transferred to our comfortable hotel within the city. Ulaanbaatar lies at an altitude of 1 300m (4 300ft) above sea level and is nestled in the Tuul River Valley. It is a relatively recently developed modern city, with around a million people, which is about a third of Mongolia’s total population.
In the afternoon, we will drive to the nearby Tuul Fish Ponds and Tuul River to the west of the city, where we will have a relaxed introduction to Mongolia’s exciting and captivating birdlife. A short drive out of bustling Ulaanbaatar will lead us into the vast countryside with farmlands, meadows and rolling pastures being dominant features. Interesting species that we may encounter this afternoon include Ruddy Shelduck, Common Merganser, Great-crested Grebe, Little Ringed Plover, Pacific Swift, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker and Rook. We will particularly be on the lookout for such localized species as Azure Tit, White-cheeked Starling, Azure-winged Magpie, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Long-tailed Rosefinch. Amongst the willow and alder trees we may find migrants such as Taiga Flycatcher, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Dusky and Arctic Warblers as well as Eyebrowed Thrush. Smart Eurasian Hoopoes and peculiar Red-billed Choughs are ever-present on rocky hillsides and open paddocks may hold Citrine Wagtail and White Wagtail of two subspecies. The occasional Black Stork and Booted Eagle may be seen overhead with the ubiquitous Black Kites.
In the late afternoon we will make our way back to our comfortable hotel in town for our first night’s stay in this enchanting land.
Day 2: Day trip to Khustain Nuruu Reserve
We leave Ulaanbaatar early this morning for a day in the Khustain Nature Reserve, situated in a beautiful mountain steppe area about 100 kilometres west of the capital. The main attraction en route are the herds of Przewalski’s Horses, or “Takhi” as they are called by the local Mongolians. These wild horses were reintroduced in the reserve back in 1992 and nowadays the total population exceeds 200. In this game-rich reserve, we will also be on the lookout for Wolf and Red Deer. The area is also good for Daurian Partridge, while Amur Falcon breed within the reserve and we will have a chance to visit at least one breeding colony.
Days 3 & 4: Ugii & Tsagaan Lake
Over the next couple of days of our Mongolia birding tour, we will search for several of the rarest and least-seen birds in the world in this remote and spectacular landscape. Within this dry environment we will be amazed at the large waterbodies of Ugii Nuur and the Tsagaan Nuur Wetlands, which receive their water from the Khangay Mountains to the north. The rains fill the streams in these mountains which then filters south, filling the drainage basin of the Gobi Desert. Some of the wetlands are fresh-water but others are brackish or even saline.
These large water-bodies with their surrounding vegetation create fantastic feeding and breeding grounds for both passage migrants and summer breeding birds. Pallas’s Fish Eagle breed here, and can often be seen patrolling and watching from vantage points along the lake shore. The very rare Relict Gull occurs in small numbers, and we will be lucky to obtain views of this highly desired and localized species, which very few foreign birders have ever seen! Also present are Whooper Swan, Great Crested Grebe, Greylag Goose, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Brown-headed, Mongolian and magnificent Pallas’s Gulls, and Caspian, Gull-billed, Little and the very attractive White-winged Terns. A host of ducks will also be present and may include Common Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Common and Red-crested Pochards and, with luck, perhaps even Falcated Duck. In addition, a wide variety of wading birds also breed in these extensive wetlands or may be seen on passage, and we will be particularly on the lookout for the rare Asian Dowitcher, which can re gularly be found here in small numbers at this time of the year. Other possible species include Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, Ruff, Dunlin, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope and perhaps even Mongolian Plover and Terek Sandpiper. Migrant Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers are not uncommon and are often flushed from marshy patches out on the meadows.
Day 5: Elsen Tasarkhai
We have a full day of our Mongolia birding tour to explore the sand dunes, marsh land and mountains around Elsen Tasarkhai. While we can expect to encounter many of the species listed above, we will be searching for again for Asian Dowitcher, Bar-headed and Swan Goose, White-naped Crane and Black-throated Loon.
Day 6: Elsen Tasarkhai to Ulaanbaatar
Today is a long travel day, but we shall make occasional birding stops along the route back to Ulaanbaatar as necessary. We expect to reach our hotel in the late afternoon in preparation for our flight south and into the Gobi tomorrow.
Day 7: Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad and onwards to Yolyn Am
In the morning we will catch our flight at the Chinggis Khaan International Airport on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and fly about 500 kilometres south to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi region. Here we will meet our drivers and camp-staff. Upon loading up the vehicles we will bird in the surroundings of Dalanzadgad, where virtually every tree and bush acts as a magnet to migrating passerines passing through this barren land. If the preceding weather conditions have been favourable we will hopefully find good numbers of warblers and flycatchers at these sites, and with some luck the occasional vagrant.
Next on our Mongolia birding tour, we begin our epic journey towards our quaint Ger camp at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The scenery en route, driving across the plains with the spectacular Gobi Altai Mountains as a distant backdrop, is simply spectacular! Once we are upon this vast land of semi-arid steppe and grassy gravel plains, we may chance upon one of the most sought-after birds in all Mongolia, namely the endangered and much desired Oriental Plover. This is a summer breeder to these parts, wintering in Southeast Asia and northern Australia, with the males having an elaborate display flight. They begin by flying high overhead, rocking from side to side on stiff wings, and then abruptly plummeting down to land. At this time of year the Oriental Plover will be in striking breeding plumage, with its pure white head and bright rufous breast band, a remarkably attractive species! After having “checked-in” at our comfortable ger camp and enjoying a scrumptious lunch, we will head off for some initial steppe birding in the afternoon. If we haven’t already seen the Oriental Plover this will afford us a new opportunity for seeing this special species. More numerous on these plains are breeding Greater Sand Plovers and strikingly-plumaged Horned Larks.
Day 8: Yolyn-Am area
Today is devoted to exploring the wilderness of the Zuun Saikan Mountains and the bird-rich Yolyn Am Valley (which means “The Valley of the Lammergeier”). We will leave our Ger camp very early in the morning to drive for about an hour to Yolyn Am. Having driven within the mountains, we will stop and try to locate the localised Altai Snowcock, which often gives its characteristic whistling calls just after dawn. This is the best time to search for this smart and much-wanted mountain specialist and, with careful scanning, we stand a great chance of success. While exploring the valleys, slopes and ridges we will be on the lookout for a wide range of other mountain species as well, including the impressive Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), a pair of which nests in the canyons here.
Deeper inside the canyon, we have an excellent chance of finding the unique and beautiful Wallcreeper that is often seen flitting along rock faces in search of spiders, where its red, white and black patterned wings contrasts vividly against the grey background of boulders and cliff-faces, its preferred habitat. Other exciting birds to look for here include Chukar Partridge, Himalayan Griffon, the impressive Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Water Pipit, Black Redstart, Alpine, Brown and the endemic Kozlov’s Accentor, Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Twite, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Common Rock Thrush, Isabelline Shrike, Rock Sparrow, Barred Warbler and, with a bit of luck, Godlewski’s Bunting as well as Grey-necked Bunting and Spotted Great Rosefinch. Flocks of White-winged Snowfinches are regularly seen and heard calling overhead and can be very confiding while feeding along the trail. At this time of year, we may, with a bit of good fortune, see migrating raptors such as Oriental Honey Buzzard and Amur Falcon, while mammals could include the regal Siberian Ibex, the strange and extremely impressive Argali (a type of wild sheep), Pallas’s and Alpine Pikas, and Mid-day Jirds (Gerbils) that scurry in and out of the stunted alpine vegetation.
Day 9: Yolyn Am to Khongoryn Els
After some morning birding on the surrounding steppe and at some nearby farm sites and cultivations (where we again will search for migrants), we will drive to Khongoryn Els, an area of impressive, huge white sand dunes that can be seen from a great distance and which are brilliantly striking in the golden light of the early morning and late afternoon. Our drive will take us through fantastic scenery of barren landscapes and gravel plains, with the Gobi Altai Mountains as a constant backdrop. Depending on our roadside birding, we expect to arriving in Khongoryn Els late this afternoon.
Day 10: Khongoryn Els
Khongoryn Els is home to some spectacular birding, but our main target species today is the scarce and localised Saxaul Sparrow, which we will have to search carefully for in the saxaul bushes and stunted trees that dominate parts of this area. It is also here where we will be searching for one of the region’s most highly prized and enigmatic species, the eye-catching Henderson’s Ground Jay! This smart looking bird favours gravel plains with scattered vegetation and spends much of its time running across the open ground in search of invertebrates. To keep in contact, birds give a piping call from a vantage point and then fly from bush to bush, showing off large white patches on their wings. We will search hard for these charismatic birds during our time in the Gobi Desert and have an excellent chance of finding them.
Here we will also be on the lookout for the impressive Saker Falcon, often seen perched right on the ground or on rocks where they hunt prey over the stark desert plains and steppe plains. Other exciting birds that may be seen in this open environment include Pallas’s Sandgrouse (often seen in small flocks in flight), Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Asian Short-toed Lark, Steppe Grey and Isabelline Shrikes, Asian Desert Warblers and Mongolian Finch, while Goitred Gazelles are often present.
Day 11: Khongoryn Els to Dalanzadgad
Today is largely set aside for travel, but does allow us to spend time searching for any species we may have missed along the way. We shall get a good night’s rest before tomorrow’s flight to Ulaanbaatar and our next interesting birding site, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
Day 12: Dalanzadgad to Ulaanbaatar and onwards to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
Early this morning, we will take a flight from Dalanzadgad to Ulaanbaatar before transferring by road to Gorkhi Terelj National Park. Our base for the next few nights of our Mongolia birding tour will be a comfortable Ger camp. This mountainous area, which is actually part of the Siberian taiga coming down from Russian Lake Baikal, comprises vast expanses of larch forests and beautiful valleys surrounded by spectacular rock formations and green meadows with slopes full of wildflowers, and is bisected by rivers and small streams. At this time of the year the trees will be budding and birdlife should be prolific.
Day 13: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
A host of new birds await us here and may include Common and Oriental Cuckoos, Common Rock Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, Brown Shrike, Dusky Warbler, Black-faced Bunting and, with luck, if we still haven’t seen Long-tailed Rosefinch, we will have another chance for it here. Other possibilities are Eastern Buzzard (split from Common Buzzard), outside chances for the intricately patterned Hazel Grouse, Japanese Quail, Red-flanked Bluetail, Common Crossbill, Long-tailed, Coal and Great Tits, Common and Daurian Redstarts, Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Jay, Red-throated and Eye-browed Thrushes, Eurasian Nuthatch and Pine Bunting. Several species of woodpecker occupy these beautiful, verdant, temperate forests and include White-backed, Grey-headed, Eurasian Three-toed and Lesser Spotted, as well as the regal Black Woodpecker. In the evening, we will search a marshy area for Swinhoe’s Snipe, while other nocturnal possibilities include Eurasian Woodcock and Ural Owl.
One of our main targets in this area is the shy Black-billed Capercaillie. To find this species often requires a lot of time and effort and we will spend many hours hiking in its favoured habitat of ridge-top larch forest with scattered pines and grounds covered by blueberries and mosses. These walks are however optional and it is worthwhile noting that they can be quite strenuous. It is nevertheless a much desired bird and we will search hard for this impressive species in the extensive forests that cover much of the area. In the afternoon on the second day, we begin our return journey back to Ulaanbaatar and prepare for our exciting next two weeks in the fabulous Gobi Desert.
Day 14: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park to Ulaanbaatar
Early this morning on our Mongolia birding tour, we drive to the Gün-Galuut Wetland where we will look for the stately White-naped Crane. This is a rare breeding summer visitor that can be found at only a few sites in Mongolia, far to the west of its main breeding grounds in China. This is also a site for the globally uncommon Swan Goose, the smart Bar-headed Goose, breeding Whooper Swans and various ducks including Eurasian Wigeon, Garganey, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, White-winged Scoter and Common Goldeneye. This wetland is also frequented by stately Demoiselle Cranes and serves as a stop-over site for migrating waders, and we have a fair chance to see Pacific Golden Plover, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit (of the eastern subspecies melanuroides), Little and Temminck’s Stints, Curlew Sandpiper and Ruff. Breeding waders include Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Northern Lapwing, Common Redshank and Marsh Sandpiper. After a productive day’s birding here, we will drive back towards Ulaanbaatar, where we will spend another night.
Day 15: Final departure
After breakfast today we will depart for Chinngis Khaan International Airport, where the tour will conclude and we will connect with our international flights home.