Mongolia - Steppe, Taiga & Gobi-Altai Mountains
Thursday 18th May – Monday 5th June 2017
Black-billed Capercaillie extension 6th - 10th June
Mongolia is one of the most untamed countries on earth with more than 80% of the land remaining as wilderness. This amazing land is Central Asia at its best and, of course, the former domain of Genghis Khan and the heart of the great Mongol Empire. This trip will be a real adventure as well as a very memorable birding experience with some awesome scenery, visiting vast wetlands, grasslands, Taiga forests and mountains. Beginning in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbataar, we will visit a wide variety of habitats on this tour, spending most nights out in the wilderness in traditional Mongolian “gers” and tented camps in order to be close to the wildlife. Visiting larch forests and river valleys, where we will see a wide variety of Asian migrant species, allows us to search for some really spectacular birds including Azure Tit, Black-billed Capercaillie, Rufous-backed (Eversmann’s) Redstart and several species of woodpecker. Wetlands and Steppe will be a feature of this trip and these areas will provide some wonderful open-country birding which allows us to get great views of a large number of ducks & geese, shorebirds, larks, pipits, finches and raptors. Fantastic birds including Steppe Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Saker Falcon, Demoiselle Crane, Swan Goose and Mongolian Lark are likely to be our companions in these habitats and targets will include Oriental Plover, White-naped Crane, Pallas’s Fish Eagle and Relict Gull. We will also find ourselves in semi-desert and mountains where we can see birds typical of Central Asia - finches, shrikes, raptors, buntings and chats – as well as some special attractions including Wallcreeper, Altai Snowcock, Henderson’s Ground Jay and Pallas’s Sandgrouse. The tour will conclude in Ulaanbataar but not before visiting the beautiful Hustai National Park where Preswalksi’s Horse roams free and birds such as Meadow Bunting, Amur Falcon and Daurian Partridge are likely.
The short extension specifically targets the rather hard-to-find Black-billed Capercaillie, lurking within the taiga forest of the northern mountains. While hunting for this star species we will enjoy some more spectacular scenery and hope to find Three-toed Woodpecker, Hazel Grouse, Chinese Bush Warbler as well as birds such as Red-throated Thrush, Taiga Flycatcher and many more “Siberian” migrants.
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Days 1 - 2 UK – Ulaanbataar - 18th to 19th May
Overnight scheduled flight from London Heathrow to Chinggis Khaan Airport, Ulaanbataar, Mongolia. Upon arrival in the afternoon you will be transferred to the Hunnu Palace Hotel where we will rest and have dinner together.
Day 3 Around Ulaanbatar - The Tuul River
Having rested the birding begins with a lovely day’s excursion to the Tuul river valley and nearby low, rocky hills a short distance outside of Ulaanbataar; even this close to the capital city the untamed nature of the country is obvious. This area of willow woodland, farmland, meadows and riverine habitat will give us our first taste of the Mongolian countryside and should give us views of one of the first specialities of the trip; the lovely Azure Tit. This introduction to the birds of this amazing country will allow us to get to grips with a wide selection of species including White-capped Penduline Tit, Hill Pigeon, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Daurian Jackdaw, both Meadow & Pine Butnings as well as Daurian Redstart. Investigating a number of good birding spots we also have a good chance of finding White-backed & Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, White-cheeked Starling, Isabelline Wheatear, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Two-barred Warbler, Brown Shrike and Azure-winged Magpie while visiting some pools will likely reveal some birds we are more familiar with such as Great Crested Grebe, Whooper Swan, Goosander and other waterfowl. Black Stork, Booted Eagle and other raptors may be seen overhead while Black-eared Kite and Red-billed Chough will be seen even in the city while (Oriental) Rook and Oriental (Carrion) Crow will allow us to debate the merits of splitting them over dinner back in Ulaanbataar. Night in Ulaanbataar.
Days 4 - 5 Yolyn Am - Gobi-Altai Mountains
A one hour flight to the town of Dalanzadgad takes us to the edge of the Gobi Desert. Over the course of two days we will explore the valleys, hill slopes and mountain ridges of this wild and scenic area and enjoy some excellent birding. One of the most highly-anticipated species will be the beautiful Wallcreeper which can readily be found here but we will also be looking for Kozlov’s (Mongolain) Accentor which is the only endemic breeding species in the country while Brown Accentor, Blyth’s Pipit, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Beautiful Rosefinch and Mongolian Finch are all species we should enjoy seeing here. At well over 2000m the Gobi Altai Mountains provide some spectacular scenery and as might be expected it is a good place for raptors. This area is a great place for getting good views of Lammergeier and it possible that we will see out first Saker Falcons and maybe Upland Buzzards of the trip as well as the massive Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture and Golden Eagle. With habitat at this altitude we also have our first chance of Altai Snowcock, although our best chance will come later in the trip. With two days to explore this area we should be able to find the area’s specialities as well as a large number of more widespread species such as Rock Sparrow, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Barred Warbler, Alpine Accentor, White-winged Snowfinch, Eurasian Hoopoe and many others. Our Mongolian birding adventure may also surprise with a good number of potential mammal sightings and in this area Siberian Ibex, Red Fox, Alashan Souslik, Mongolian Pika, and Midday Gerbil are all frequently seen ; it also here that we get our first taste of a truly Mongolian experience, staying in a “ger” camp.
Days 6 - 7 Khongoryn Els
As if the Gobi Altai were not spectacular enough our destination on day six is breath-taking, the shifting sand dunes of Khongoryn Els – this is what everyone’s idea of a desert really looks like. We will be birding along the route between Yloyn Am and Khongoryn Els and can expect Lesser Kestrel, Long-legged Buzzard as well as our first Pallas’s Sandgrouse, hopefully in large numbers. Our ger camp gives us a splendid view of the environment here and there is some great birding to be had with Saxaul Sparrow, Desert Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler in the arid areas but a small stream and watered areas should turn up birds such as Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, Richard’s Pipit, Steppe Grey Shrike and many others.
Over the course of our stay here we will have plenty of time to find all the target birds and make the necessary excursions to relevant habitat for the birds we have not seen up to this point. This may include our first Henderson’s Ground Jay and certainly we will make sure that we get great views of Pallas’s Sandgrouse. There could be some interesting migrants to see too.
Day 8 Orog Nuur
On day eight we will drive through valleys in the Gobi Desert, birding along the way until we reach what may be something of a surprise, the desert lake of Orog Nur. One of the main reasons for visiting this site is that it is home to one of the speciality species of this region: Henderson’s Ground Jay. This exciting bird spends much of its time running around, foraging on gravel-strewn ground, among scattered bushes but it also has the habit of sitting at the top of bushes in order to call and display; although it is not a common bird we will make a special effort to find it and have an excellent chance in succeeding in this. At the same time we are likely to find Asian Desert Warbler as well as other interesting birds such as Asian Short-toed Lark, Crested Lark, Isabelline Wheatear, Desert Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike and Steppe Grey Shrike. If we are lucky we may get a sighting of Long-legged Buzzard as it hunts over the rocky surroundings. As if those species were not enough, we have another opportunity to enjoy some wetland species at the lake itself and some awesome scenery before spending the night in a tented camp. Our time in the Gobi region is sure to be a memorable one and a few mammal sightings are also likely; Long-eared Hedgehog and Gobi Jerboa are both interesting creatures.
Days 9 - 10 Ikh Bogd (Gobi-Altai Mountain Range)
A short journey will deliver us into the high mountains of the Gobi-Altai region. Ikh Bogd is the tallest in the range at a height of 3957 metres and will provide a stunning backdrop to our birding here. Driving though areas littered with boulders and streams lots of new birds await us although finding them will require some effort in this steep habitat. The goal here is Altai Snowcock which we will try to find calling from an exposed rocky perch but there will be many other species such as Grey-necked Bunting, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Barred Warbler, Godlewski’s Bunting, Mongolian Finch, White-winged Snowfinch and Pied Wheatear to enjoy. Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon Vulture are also frequently seen in these mountains and Chukar Partridge is probable too.
At the highest altitudes there are further target species for us to search for with hopefully the conditions allowing us access by vehicle to the heights of 3600 metres+, if not there will be some hiking, but there we can find the rare White-throated (Hodgson’s) Bushchat, Asian Rosy Finch, Water Pipit, Brown Accentor, Alpine Accentor and Kozlov’s Accentor. The beautiful White-winged (Guldenstadt’s) Redstart should also be a bird that will be remembered for a long time. We will stay two nights here in order to search for all of these tricky species staying in a tented camp surrounded by some more fabulous scenery.
Days 11 - 12 Buuntsagaan Lake
After taking breakfast in the camp we will drive to Buuntsagaan, another desert lake which together with previously visited Orog Nuur and other lakes forms a large Ramsar wetland in the Gobi Desert. This saline lake is one of the largest in the region and one of the prime sites for several key species. Pallas’s Sandgrouse will be a much-anticipated bird and our time here should give us an excellent chance to get fine views of this wonderful bird. If we have not previously seen Pallas’s Fish Eagle we will surely get to grips with this bird here and spending time searching the lake and scanning the flocks of Black-headed Gulls we have our best chance of seeing the rare Relict Gull, still a very little-known bird. Pallas’s Gull should also be found here – quite a bird in its breeding plumage - and there will be plenty of other waterbirds too; Greater Sand Plover, Red-crested Pochard, Whooper Swan, Caspian Tern and many other scarcer birds to look for. At this location the never-ending skies, huge open spaces and remoteness will make home, and even Ulaanbataar, seem like a million miles away. We will spend the nights in a nearby “ger” camp.
Day 13 Arvaikheer Town
Today we will start our journey north, heading out of the Gobi and back into the rolling Steppe. Our ultimate destination will be the town of Arvaikheer but we will be searching the Steppe for photo opportunities of birds we have already seen plus using our time to find birds of this habitat that we have not already encountered. The star attraction on this day is likely to be Oriental Plover which breeds in this part of Mongolia and we will put in a big effort to get the best views of this stunning bird. Many of the species we see along the way will have become familiar; Steppe Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Richard’s Pipit, Mongolian Lark and perhaps a few surprises before spending the night in a local hotel.
Days 14 - 15 Bat Ulziit
After breakfast we will set out on the drive to the Khangai Mountains and another change of habitat. These high mountains in the centre of Mongolia have areas of verdant larch forest where we have our best chance of finding Black-billed Capercaillie. It will not be an easy search and we may have to do a lot of walking in order to find it, but this will allow us to look for other special birds such as the lovely Rufous-backed (Eversmann’s) Redstart and Siberian Tit. Here we also have more chances to enjoy Siberian Rubythroat, a species that birders should never tire of seeing, Common Rosefinch, Dusky Warbler, Common Redstart and Red-flanked Bluetail. Of course, being in the mountains means more raptors and here we stand a chance of seeing Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon Vultures as well as more Cinerous Vultures. Here we will spend two nights at a tented camp in another beautiful location on the forest edge.
Day 16 Khugnu Tarna - Ugii Nuur
We continue our adventure traveling across this vast wilderness after another open air breakfast. Our drivers will take us to another lake and once again as we travel there will be chances to stop and admire raptors – Saker Falcon, Cinereous Vulture, Steppe Eagle and Upland Buzzard are all birds that we will become familiar with over the course of our journey.
Ugii Nuur is a large freshwater lake, 27 square kilometres in size, and is designated as a Ramsar site due to its importance to waterbirds. Here we will see a number of the species seen at our previous wetland site and have the chance to find any that eluded us previously as well as add to our list of waders. Swan Goose can be particularly abundant here as well as other waterfowl and there is a second chance to find Asian Dowitcher too. At the waterside White-winged Black and Common Terns will be plentiful and we can get to grips with Mongolian Gull here. Exploring Ugii will provide us with more huge, wide-open spaces with Demoiselle Cranes hopefully providing an interesting soundtrack and it is here that we have a first chance of seeing Pallas’s Fish Eagle, although if we do not see it here we will track it down later on the trip; White-tailed Eagle is also a possibility. Wetland birding always rewards scanning of the bird flocks and rafts of wildfowl and if we have good luck we may find something unusual, perhaps Dalmatian Pelican or White-winged Scoter. Once again we will overnight in a “ger” camp but the birding does not stop on arrival at these locations, we are out in the wilderness and around our camp it is likely that we will be accompanied by Rock Sparrow and Pere David’s Snowfinch as well as other open-country species.
Day 17 Hustai National Park
Heading into Khustai Nuruu National Park after lunch we will arrive at our final birding site of the trip. This is where the endangered Przewalski’s Horse has been reintroduced, a species which was domesticated by the ancient Mongols and which once again roams the open Steppe. Here, among the grassland, rocky outcrops and scattered woodland we will find some excellent birds including the very attractive Meadow Bunting and breeding Amur Falcon. Golden Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Himalayan Griffon and Mongolian Lark are all frequently seen here and we may be lucky enough to find a Daurian Partridge or two scurrying along in open country. This will be the final night for everyone to enjoy sleeping in the traditional Mongolian “ger”.
Day 18 Hustai NP – Ulaanbataar
We will soak up the atmosphere of our final morning in the Mongolian wilderness with more birding in Khustai Nuruu national park with good photographic opportunities of Mongolian Lark, Asian Short-toed Lark and Greater Short-toed Lark while in the open skies we will have our final opportunity to appreciate several species of raptors in flight; Saker Falcon, Upland Buzzard, Steppe Eagle and Cinereous Vulture will hopefully be familiar by this time, but none the less spectacular for it, as we head back to Ulaanbataar. There may be time to revisit the Tuul River Valley to look for any species that we missed on our first day’s birding before our farewell dinner back in Mongolia’s capital city.
Day 19 End of Tour - 5th June
Morning transfer to the airport for our return international flights back to the UK/Europe and conclusion of a wonderful tour.
Black-billed Capercaillie Extension:
Days 19 - 21 Gorkhi–Terelj National Park - 6th to 8th June
Our short extension takes us a little Northeast of Ulaanbataar, in our 4-wheel drive transport, after breakfast, making the journey to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. This is an area of beautiful valleys, rocky outcrops, wild flower meadows and large areas of larch forest; indeed, this is the most southerly extension of the vast Eastern boreal forest known as taiga. As this time of year is the breeding season, birdlife should be plentiful.
We will check into the tourist “ger” camp at the national park on arrival, where we will base ourselves for the duration, and go out in search of the large number of new birds that await us. The main focus will be the tough-to-find Black-billed Capercaillie, a species that will require some lengthy walks through the rolling, open forest. We will concentrate our efforts on an area that is known to be a regular nesting site in anticipation of finding this spectacular bird in full breeding display. Exciting Eastern species that we expect to find include the very beautiful Pine Bunting and Red-throated Thrush with Olive-backed Pipit, Dusky Warbler, Oriental Cuckoo, Red-flanked Bluetail and the stunning Siberian Rubythroat all probable too. Our time here will give us plenty of opportunities to walk in this beautiful area and we are sure to come across species that are both new to us as well as those that are familiar. Asian Brown Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch, Greenish Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Black-faced Bunting, White-backed Woodpecker and Black Woodpecker are likely to be seen alongside Great Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Willow Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch while finding Chinese Bush Warbler will take a little more effort. Three-toed Woodpecker is another tempting species that we will be targeting here, never common but we have a great chance to see it here. Hazel Grouse, Eastern Buzzard, Black-faced Bunting and plenty of Yellow-browed Leaf Warblers will make this an exciting extension.
Day 22 Return to Ulaanbataar - 9th June
On our final morning of birding will see us visiting the forest once again for any species not yet seen and/or wetland areas. On our way back to the city we will have time to stop at the very impressive Chinggis Khan monument on the open Steppe. Depending on what we do on this morning we may have time to revisit the Tuul river just outside the capital city before enjoying a final dinner together.
Day 23 Departure - 10th June
Transfer to the international airport for flights back home.
Leaders: Nick Upton and local guides.
Ground Price (Main): £3350.00 - Ulaanbataar/Ulaanbataar
Ground Price (Ext): £695.00 - Ulaanbataar/Ulaanbataar
Airfare: £800.00 - £900.00 (Approx) - UK/UK
Single supplement: £tba
Group size: Minimum for tour to go ahead 6 and maximum 12 with 2 leaders.
Included in cost: Accommodation, Transport in 4-wheel drive vehicles, all meals, English-speaking guide, all entrance fees and permits, road tolls.
Not included: International airfare, travel insurance, visas, departure tax, sleeping bags, excess baggage, alcoholic drinks, tips and items of personal nature.
Accommodation: The remote and undeveloped nature of Mongolia means that accommodation is simple. In towns and cities we will stay in hotels, but further afield we will stay in tented camps and tourist “gers” (a ger is the traditional Mongolian tent, better known in the west as a “yurt”).
Tour Code: As Mongolia is a wild and undeveloped country there will be long drives in order to get to the best birding locations and find birds in the wide open country. Delays due to weather or road quality are possible, but any such delays will simply be treated as birding stops. Some locations require participants to be able to walk safely on rocky trails, carry their own luggage and be able to walk for up to 3 hours in a day. Expect a dry climate with cold mornings, high temperatures in the middle of the day and cool evenings. However, the Mongolian climate can be quite unpredictable and severe so there can be cloud or even some rain and, at times, stiff breezes.
Photos copyright Mongolica.
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