Trip Reports

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1.  Georgia/Greater Caucasus April/May 2015
2.  Algarve (Portugal) December 2014
3.  Mongolia 2015

1.  Georgia/Greater Caucasus

A trip to the Greater Caucasus
 and other birding sites in Georgia
Spring 2015.

At 7am on Thursday 23rd April 2015 I met up with John Dixon and Alex and Janet Lewis in the rural landscape of Lemsford in Hertfordshire. We took a taxi to St Albans train station and headed off on a Thames Link train down to Gatwick Airport. Here we checked in with Turkish Airlines and flew out to Istanbul where a quick international transit turnaround ensured we boarded a plane to Tbilisi. Again this was with Turkish Airlines who were efficient and courteous and fed us very well on both flights.

We arrived at Tbilisi International Airport and by 8.30pm BST we were safely ensconced in our hotel rooms with heavy rain pattering outside.

Our rough itinerary was to start with a slow birding drive to the Greater Caucasus and to navigate through to the mountain gateway of Kazbegi, an alpine town which lies on the main connecting road in to neighbouring Armenia and Russia. The plan was to spend the best part of three days looking for alpine birds and regional specialities and then move on to the steppe habitat of Chachuna to the east. After this a few days were to be spent in the Davit Gareji area, littered with relict Christian monasteries among the rolling steppe country and clay hills, and an opportunity to see many birds typical of the eastern Mediterranean. Our last section was to spend a couple of days on the Javakheti Plain and then conclude our tip in Tbilisi.

After a comfortable night in a hotel at Tbilisi, Friday 24th April was a cloudy, cool day with weak rain showers and odd glimpses of the sun. We met up with driver/guide David and climbed aboard a Toyota Landcruiser which was to be our vehicle for the duration. Birds from the hotel included a couple of smart Armenian Gulls, a Night Heron, a Little Egret, a gaggle of House Martins and a squadron of Common Swifts. Feral pigeon, House Sparrow and hooded Crow were much more predictable. Other birds included Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Black-headed Gull before we began navigating out of the city.

Migration was clearly underway with Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites adorning the valley trees and bushes as they waited for the weather to improve. Our first roadside stop was at the base of a ravine with small bushes and just-arrived passerines included plenty of the very smart ‘Eastern’ Common Redstarts, a couple of Semi-collared Flycatchers, two male Red-breasted Flycatchers and a supporting cast of Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. Less migratory birds included Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Jay, Peregrine and Raven.

We travelled slowly on but stopped rather rapidly when a superb Lammergeier swooped relatively low over the car. It seems that overnight snow on the tops had pushed this stunning raptor in to the foothills. The numbers of migrant raptors bottled up in the valley continued to increase, particularly Steppe Buzzards, but also Sparrowhawks and Black Kites and we made roadside stops for a couple of Purple Herons and went on to see Yellow, 'Eastern’ White and Grey Wagtail and the first of many Water Pipits. Lunch saw us in a small café and exactly opposite a pair of Dipper were busy feeding their four fledged young.

We began to travel upwards but news came through that the mountain pass above us was blocked due to an avalanche, so we elected to bird-watch from the roadside. The first of large numbers of ‘Eastern’ Black Redstarts showed well and we saw a couple of fly-over Red-fronted Serins.

Five kilometres short of the pass and a police road block meant we were stuck for the rest of the afternoon. Much of the terrain was under feet of snow but we wandered up and down trying to locate birds of interest. A distant flock of choughs eventually came closer and we enjoyed good views of both Red-billed and Alpine. The cloud cover eventually thinned and blue sky emerged and the raptor passage started again with several Steppe Eagles spearheading the movement overhead. And where there are Steppe Eagles there are always Steppe Buzzards and other migrants included a couple of Sparrowhawks and singles of Lesser Kestrel and Hobby whizzing through the pass. A very distant small reservoir below us hosted four Red-necked Grebes. A Golden Eagle hunted the mountains opposite us but at this altitude and with the snow covering we were unable to locate any passerines.

With dusk approaching we finally made it through the pass in very challenging conditions and after an evening meal on the other side eventually we found our abode, arriving after 10pm.

An early morning start was required on Saturday 25th April, and after gulping down a quick coffee it was up the mountain slope from our student accommodation to find the alpine specialities of the region. It was shatteringly cold, and despite us wearing just about everything we had, it was difficult to remain in situ scanning the mountain slopes for our quarry. Nevertheless our patience paid off as several male Caucasian Black Grouse were found feeding out on the tussock grass and we could hear the Caucasian Snowcocks calling from the distant crags. Twite twanged and fidgeted around us and Blackbirds and Ring Ouzels flew and chacked around the nearby bushes. Red-fronted Serin and Siskin flew over but the best finches were the huge Great Rosefinches, very much a regional speciality.

These grosbeak-like birds centred their attention on bushes which looked very similar to Sea Buckthorn, using their large bills to crunch on the remnants of the fruit and stones within. The males are a spectacular purple/red colour, the females being very dull and streaked but with attractive pale edging to the remiges. Dunnocks were surprisingly very common and other familiar birds included Mistle Thrush and Wren. John managed to locate a couple of flying Snowcocks but they were lost to view and we descended to a well-earned if late breakfast.

The remainder of the morning was spent checking for migrants in a small park, and walking a gorge and fell area. A male Guldenstadt’s Redstart was a sought after bird, this species has a restricted range in this part of the world. Big, bold and gaudy it was nevertheless difficult to keep it in sight and luckily we saw three more during the day. The migrating Steppe Buzzards ran the gauntlet of mobbing Ravens and Peregrines. Other birds around the rocky ravines included Crag Martin, Rock Bunting, more Ring Ouzels and lots of Black Redstarts. Griffon Vultures loomed over the cliffs and the damp fell contained flocks of Water Pipits biding their time to migrate to higher altitudes once the snow melted.

After lunch we checked the river valley areas for migrants and bumped in to a male Wallcreeper furtively checking riverside boulders and stones. Sadly he didn’t hang around and the crimson and grey stunner butterflied away never to be seen again. A short distance further and we watched a rather nervous Wryneck feeding on the edge of the track. The river attracted good numbers of wagtails, Water Pipits, Dipper and Common Sandpipers and the bushes held a few Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs.

Birds familiar to British birders but with subtle variances in the plumage included Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Jay, Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Yellow Wagtail. A pair of Lammergeier patrolled the area for much of the afternoon, producing huge shadows as they slowly glided over the valley sides. We watched one of them eating something in a gulley late in the day, the orange-feathered  trousers of this alpine scavenger and forager looking particularly impressive as it tore at it’s unidentified and very dead supper.

Sunday 26th April was another sunny and bright day but first our contingent braved the post-dawn freezing conditions to again head up the mountain. We were treated to a spectacular series of sightings, starting with a couple of Caucasian Black Grouse and then simultaneously finding a relatively close pair of Caucasian Snowcock at the same time that a Brown Bear was located ambling through the grass and scree of the upper slopes. It was difficult to know which to ‘scope first but thankfully they all remained on view for some twenty minutes or so. Next a displaying male Wallcreeper flew past us and landed briefly on a rocky ledge below us before flitting around the buttresses far below us. Other birds around us included the ever present Water Pipits plus Northern Wheatears, Twite, Red-fronted Serins and brief views were had of Chukar and Great Rosefinch. We finished this session watching at least half a dozen blackcocks and greyhens running around and flying at range.
Another celebratory breakfast then, particularly as the bear was a new animal for Janet, Alex and John.

Our next section of the day was spent driving to higher altitudes, and an hour at one strange geological formation was particularly good for obtaining close views of Kestrel, Red-fronted Serin and Red-billed Chough. Here we also located a migrant Tree Pipit, another flighty Wallcreeper and lots of Black Redstarts exhibiting a variety of plumages.

Next we ascended to the snowfields in the hope of finding Snowfinch. We were fortunate to find two pairs on territory – they seemed to like the short section tunnels permitting road transport at times of heavy snowfall. Even tiny melt areas attracted birds, so keen were they to establish their territories. Most of these birds were Water Pipits, but there were also plenty of Black Redstarts, White Wagtails, Twite, Northern Wheatears and Ring Ouzels defining their summer and we saw yet another Wallcreeper on a road bridge parapet. A little lower and a pair of Shore Larks (or Horned Larks if you prefer) were located, the male of this particular race looking very distinctive with the solid black lines creating the white facial mask and the crown horns flapping in the breeze.

The cool thin air and glaring snow was hard on the senses, so we descended back to Kazbegi and to lunch. Three big meals a day was becoming nicely repetitive!

The afternoon of our last full day in the Kazbegi area was spent checking for migrants but it seemed we were a touch early for Caucasian Chiffchaff, and this high up at least a week too early for Green Warbler. Still we found plenty of Chiffchaffs of two races to check and plenty of Willow Warblers too. What was probably the same Wryneck was seen again but a Moustached Warbler in a track-side bush was totally unexpected! This is a bird I hadn’t seen in years and we spent a long time watching this individual as it declined to leave ’it’s bush’. A very pale Red Fox galloped past and other avian migrants included Red-breasted Flycatcher, what appeared to be a ‘Western’ Common Redstart, Lesser Whitethroat and similar fare. Other birds new for the trip during the day included a singing Hoopoe, Bullfinch and Common Treecreeper. The only butterflies on the wing appeared to be just one variety of tortoiseshell.

Monday  27th April was another clear and bright start and we elected for an early morning climb up the nearest mountain slope. New migrants singing on the alpine slopes included Tree Pipit and Cuckoo. Most of our sightings were repeats of the previous two days with Great Rosefinch and Caucasian Black Grouse easy to see and the Caucasian Snowcocks anything but! The dawn air was milder and the birds had pushed further up the slopes in response. Numerous Ring Ouzels fed around us and a small party of Crossbills in a conifer plantation at the edge of the village were new for the trip.

After our breakfast we bundled our gear in to the vehicle and began a slow drive to the region of Chachuna, a finger of Georgia east of Tbilisi and sandwiched between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. With a couple of obligatory roadside stops on the way, we eventually crossed the high mountain pass and headed south, but not before we espied two more fabulous Wallcreepers and another Horned Lark.

A pocket of beech woodland nestled on the valley side provided views of Semi-collared Flycatcher, Common Redstart, our first Green Warblers of the trip and we heard a Caucasian Chiffchaff singing. Nuthatch, Spotted Flycatcher and Blackcap were also trip firsts and we watched a pair of Red Squirrels clambering up and down an ancient Beech. Another roadside stop for migrants didn’t pay off but the Rock Buntings gave better views this time.

Lunch at a service station well south of Tbilisi preceded a wander across quite different grassland habitat behind it. Crested Lark, Black-eared Wheatear and Corn Bunting were all vocally obvious, as were the noisy flocks of Common Swifts and Bee-eaters overhead. All of a sudden the swifts collectively hurtled off in one direction but not before one of their number was knocked to the ground and retrieved by a marauding Peregrine.

Calandra Larks were also on territory and were rowing the air furiously during their song-flights and we saw our first Georgian Starlings and Rooks. Singles of Ortolan Bunting and Tawny Pipit made it on to the day list and it was off on our travels eastwards again.

The rolling steppes and rounded bush-covered hills were quite different, and there were now vineyards and plenty of Walnut trees in addition to small orchards, fields of wheat and shepherded flocks of sheep. Another roadside stop in a scrubby area yielded our first Red-backed Shrike, Barred Warbler, Whitethroat, Common Nightingale and Stonechat and we heard Quail and an overflying Red-throated Pipit. We pressed on and the last 30 kilometres along the Chachuna track brought views of several Long-legged Buzzards, a Montagu’s Harrier, an adult Imperial Eagle, an adult Egyptian Vulture, a Little Owl, a couple of Isabelline Wheatears, Woodchat Shrikes and a Menetrie’s Warbler plus plenty of jangling Corn Buntings and noisy Calandras.

Another early morning wander on Tuesday 28th April in a new territory was exciting, as we were accompanied by a whole new suite of birds. Just-in Black-headed Buntings shared bushes with Ortolans, shrikes and Common Nightingales; warblers included Menetries, Grasshopper, Willow, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat. A huge White-tailed Eagle dominated the sky-line and flocks of hirundines and Bee-eaters rippled overhead. Birds on the ground included a flushed Quail, Black Francolin, six species of corvid, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, three species of wagtail and three species of pipit and Penduline Tits were found to be quite common.
A couple of large abandoned buildings on a reservoir dam proved to be a good spot to watch four Lesser kestrels including a splendid adult male and we spent quite a while watching these busy little falcons.

Our accommodation was cottages once constructed for workers to create a nearby dam and were well-maintained. Other cottages and buildings nearby were pretty dilapidated but provided some excellent nesting opportunities for clouds of Swallows and House Martins plus a few pairs of Jackdaw, Starling and single pairs of Pied Wagtail and even Pied Wheatear. Garden bushes had plenty of chirping House Sparrows with an occasional Spanish Sparrow joining them, and a colony of Tree Sparrows was nearby. Raptors cruising about included Imperial Eagle and a solitary Golden Oriole called musically from shrubs coming in to flower. Alex even espied a Barred Warbler in one of the garden bushes.

The food in Georgia is very good, often dominated by salad, crusty bread, various cheeses and yoghurt. Eggs, chicken and fish is popular too and the continental-style sometimes Mediterranean growing conditions provide an array of familiar vegetables and fruit as well as regional olive groves, vineyards and plenty of honey. With this foundation, the home-cooked meals provided for us in the very isolated location at Chachuna were both wholesome and very enjoyable.

After our lunch, the afternoon was spent at a couple of other locations within this reserve, specifically scanning for raptors and seeking out specific birds in quite arid conditions. Our viewpoint overlooking a couple of sandstone stacks was sufficient to observe 18 species of raptor which included a distant Saker Falcon, a Red-footed Falcon, Honey Buzzard, three species of vulture and three species of eagle. The second part of the afternoon in to the evening was spent exploring dry wadis and open thorn-bush countryside which produced plenty of Eastern Orphean Warblers, Pied and Black-eared Wheatears, Rock Nuthatch, Lesser Short-toed Larks and large numbers of Rollers and Bee-eaters. A couple of Scop’s Owls called in trees close to our accommodation that night but we couldn’t locate them.

Wednesday 29th April and another full day in the Chachuna area. Most of the birds were repeats of the previous two days and an early morning jaunt allowed us to concentrate on obtaining better and close views of singing Nightingales, Menetrie’s Warblers and plenty of others. Short-toed Eagle  made it on to the trip list with several individuals having just arrived and immediately displaying, and there were more Golden Orioles, Cuckoos and just a solitary Turtle Dove. We didn’t encounter any of the interesting mammals that inhabit this area which includes just a few Brown Bears and rather more Golden Jackals and Wolves. Even the shepherds rarely see these creatures but it is thought that the populations are at least stable in the area and it seems they move freely over the borders of the several countries joined to Georgia. Snakes are common in this area and we came across both a live and a dead example of the huge slow-worms that live here too. They were up to four feet long and thick bodied, very much giving the impression of a large snake. Apparently a favourite of the Short-toed Eagles too!

With more migrants arriving, isolated bushes provided perches for Lesser Grey, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes, the short grass was home to five species of lark plus good numbers of Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, aerial insect hunters included waves of Bee-eaters and Common and Alpine Swifts and every thermal carried a migrant raptor or two. A few dead sheep attracted, among others, Black Vulture, Raven and Imperial Eagle. Superb birding in super habitat.

That afternoon we drove some 40 km to a nearby town to make way for some more arriving birders. Here we stayed at a university building in student accommodation, the grounds hosting Hoopoe, a pair of Red-backed Shrikes, the seemingly constant presence of Red-breasted Flycatcher and a colony of Rock Sparrows. Scop’s Owl called here too after nightfall.

Early morning risers on Thursday 30th April were treated to excellent views of Green Warblers. Our rooms were on the second floor and we were level with these lively phylloscs as they fed in the conifers outside our landing windows. After breakfast it was then a slow and lengthy drive to the extreme south-west of Georgia which included the upland Javakehi Plain, its lakes and deep-cleft rocky gorges. Routine roadside birds included shrikes, raptors and the like and in the late afternoon we had arrived at our guesthouse-style accommodation near Vardzia and the famous living caves complex.

En-route we had taken a variety of stops and the weather changed dramatically with periods of rain, cold wind and thunder and lightning. This downed plenty of migrating birds, the most obvious being the raptors as they flew low or sheltered to avoid the worst of the extreme weather. Our stints of birding provided views of Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles and plenty of Steppe, Long-legged and Honey Buzzards. A few of the villages on the upland plateau were home to nesting White Storks and a small reed-fringed lake proved attractive to a variety of sheltering migrants.

Friday 1st May dawned cold and grey but with the promise of sunshine even though the forecast suggested more rain. Indeed the sunshine won much of the battle and it proved to another superb birding day.

After an early morning walk around our abode, we stopped off at the small reed-fringed lake we visited briefly yesterday. On this occasion we were able to confirm the presence of numerous Little Crakes scampering around the reeds. Other good birds included our first close view of a Caucasian Chiffchaff and also Moustached Warbler, Little Bittern, Common Bittern, Great Reed Warbler and other reed dwellers, whilst overhead the raptor migration continued with Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Steppe Buzzards, Black Kite and our first good view of a Levant Sparrowhawk. The mountains and hills were alive with Marsh Harriers and several Montagu's Harriers included a smart melanistic male.

Our second lake on the Turkish border provided plenty of White and some Dalmatian Pelicans, four species of grebe, Spotted Crake, Bearded Tits, White-winged Black Terns, Citrine Wagtail and common wildfowl. Some nearby roadside stops located a couple of Common Cranes, these birds of a race that do not exhibit red on the head.

The third lake was full of White-winged Black Terns and also a Whiskered Tern, two Little Gulls and two Slender-billed Gulls. Other good birds included Glossy Ibis, loads of Red-necked Grebes, Black-tailed Godwit and Wood Sandpiper. After a very late lunch, we walked up some hillsides to a high elevation and found some Rock Thrushes, Horned Larks, lots of Skylarks, Twite, Ring Ouzel, Black Redstart, Lesser Spotted Eagle, a Wryneck and of course flocks of Water Pipits. We eventually arrived back at our lodgings just after 8pm and a late supper.

An early morning jaunt the following day (2nd May) took us in to a craggy gorge near to our accommodation and we found more Caucasian Chiffchaffs, plenty of Rock Nuthatches, Black-eared Wheatears, Rock Buntings, some Blue Rock Thrushes and migrants in the shapes of Common Redstarts, a nightingale sp, Ortolans, Tree Pipits and common warblers. Red-backed Shrikes chased each other around calling noisily and a couple of Lesser Grey Shrikes watched on in disdain.

After breakfast we noticed that the raptors were on the move so we drove to a high area and spent the remainder of the morning watching the raptors as they wheeled and soared overhead.

Today it was the turn of the Honey Buzzard to dominate in respect of numbers with hundreds passing over us in squadrons. Levant Sparrowhawks were also moving in numbers and we espied 15 different species of raptor in about three hours. A large migrant flock of Yellow Wagtails descended at one point and songsters included Woodlark and Tawny Pipit. Other obvious transient migrants included yet more Bee-eaters, Tree Pipits and Ortolan Buntings. 
The tilled garden at our accommodation proved attractive to Rock Bunting, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail and Tree Sparrow, with the nearby swollen river hosting Kingfisher, Cormorant and Dipper.

The weather on the high ground was wet and windy so in the afternoon we elected to return to the small reed-fringed lake not far away which had entranced us the last two days. Here we were again treated to excellent views of a variety of warblers in the reeds which included Reed, Great Reed, Sedge and Moustached as well as a couple more Caucasian Chiffchaffs. As many as six different Little Crakes showed briefly, but were much more furtive than before (probably due to the band of children fishing the shallows) and herons included Night Heron and Purple Heron. 
Some low-flying Crag Martins kept me entertained and my efforts at capturing them digitally proved very challenging!

Sunday 3rd May and after a wet start to the  morning the weather improved and we drove up to 2000 metres and birded a couple of freshwater lakes on the Javakheti Plain. Here it was cold until the sun came out and it was obvious that the wet early morning had brought quite a number of migrants down. Despite very little cover on this upland plateau, warblers were hopping around in weeds and stalks and very low leafless bushes, and raptors dawdled overhead along a broad front. I took full advantage of the sparse cover to target and photograph a male Barred Warbler hopping about on some twigs, not a species renown for providing nice open views!

The lakes held waterfowl which included Ferruginous Duck, Pintail and Garganey and the more interesting waders were Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, Greenshank and Ruff. A large falcon attacking the waders caused them panic and us some confusion as to which species we were dealing with. In the end we decided it was a sandy (and aberrant coloured) Peregrine, albeit that the initial views suggested a Saker. Night Herons had formed a breeding colony and White Storks were fairly numerous.

Up to fifty Marsh Harriers were either displaying over these upland marshes or were passing through overhead, with still good numbers of Montagu's Harriers also passing through. About three pairs of Common (Caucasian race) Cranes were trumpeting and nest-building and Armenian Gulls were present in the hundreds. 
The remainder of the day was then spent driving to the capital Tbilisi and our last full day of birding Georgia was over.

Our last morning and the early afternoon in Georgia (Monday 4th May), was spent wandering around the old part of Tbilisi and the botanical gardens (more like an arboretum) south of the Mtkvara River.

We notched up some bird sightings, which included Green Warbler, Common Redstart, Black Redstart, Armenian Gull, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Black Kite, as well as experiencing a little culture. The following morning saw us catch our Turkish Airline flights back to Heathrow via Istanbul and the excellent birding trip in this very interesting country was over.

Neil McMahon

May 2015

2.  Algarve (Portugal) Dec 2014.

The Algarve at Christmas.

A Naturetrek trip to Southern Portugal in December 2014.

Leaders Nuno Barros & Neil McMahon

Day 1 


Intrepid naturalists from a variety of places and airports in the UK converged on the Algarve city of Faro as part of an organised Naturetrek expedition to explore Southern Portugal. Here we were met by a local guide Nuno Barros and after sorting out a couple of Mercedes mini-buses headed east to the harbour town of Sagres on the south coast of the Atlantic.

Birds en-route included flocks of Azure-winged Magpies, Spotless Starlings and Cattle Egrets and much smaller numbers of House Sparrow, Kestrel, Rock Dove, White and Grey Wagtails. It was actually quite green, the low-lying vegetation and orchards clearly recovering from the dry heat of the late summer and autumn and in vivid contrast to the white-washed houses with Terracotta-coloured roof-tiles.

The well-maintained highways were generally quiet of traffic as we trundled in to Sagres, and then found our comfortable four star hotel, Memmo Baleeira. This hotel is built on a low cliff-top and very much overlooks the quaint harbour with its multi-coloured fishing boats and the more spectacular rock islands and buttresses further out.

Most of us had been travelling all day and most of the previous night, so a restaurant meal was the perfect tonic, particularly when it was within view and a short walking distance from the hotel.  Here we enjoyed a variety of dishes including Pizza, fresh sardines, the local sea-bream (Dourada) and squid.

We then checked in properly to the hotel and after a mid-afternoon briefing we headed off in two groups – one exploring the roadside bushes/vegetation and harbour of Sagres, the other electing to wander the nearby peninsular of Cape St Vincent. Good birds included Red-billed Chough, Sardinian and Fan-tailed Warbler, Blackcap, lots of Chiffchaffs and Black Redstarts, Stonechat, the locally scarce Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, more wagtails plus Common Sandpiper, Turnstone and Whimbrel 

Gulls included Mediterranean, Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged and a Bonxie flew past. Gannets, Cormorants, Shags and a Little Egret added variety. A single Purple Sandpiper at Sagres harbour and Blue Rock Thrush at Cape St Vincent were the highlights.

After an excellent evening meal at the hotel we were all rather tired from a day of travelling and after the log call turned in for some sleep and regeneration!

Day 2    
Tuesday 24thDecember

Christmas Eve blessed us with warm sunshine, blue skies and little or no wind. After a very comprehensive breakfast we headed back to the east to bird-watch in Praia de Faro, part of Ria Formosa Natural Park. Taking advantage of the low tide,  we quickly found good numbers of waders on the tidal creeks which included Whimbrel, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin, Little Stint, Grey Plover, Kentish Plover and Ringed Plover. An Arctic Skua displaced some of the many Mediterranean Gulls present and two fishing Ospreys also caused some temporary disturbance.

As we walked along the wooden board-walk here, passerines included Crested Lark, Hoopoe, Serin, Sardinian Warbler, Chiffchaff, Black Redstart and Common Waxbill. Gannets fished out to sea and flocks of Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls loafed on the mudflats. Spoonbills were numerous and included a couple of colour-ringed birds. One adult Spoonbill caught a small eel and it took it quite a time before it could subdue and swallow it. We watched Whimbrels catching crabs, knocking the legs off and then gulping them down. The locals were out in force raking over the mud and silt for shell-fish.

After spending a couple of hours here, we re-traced out steps and then drove down to some old salt pans and broken woodland next to a golf course at Quinta do Ludo, where we enjoyed a quiet lunch. Afterwards we undertook a small stroll to Quinta do Lago lagoon and observatory. Here, two showy Little Bitterns included a smart male and up to six Purple Swamphens waded about in the vegetated margins mostly at close range. A Hoopoe or two showed very well and a flock of Azure-winged Magpies broke cover and fed on invertebrates on the golf course fairway. Other good birds included a Ferruginous Duck, Kingfishers, Marsh Harriers and five species of warbler. Back in the Ludo, several Bluethroats, apparently of the white-spotted form also put in appearances and the wader list swelled with the addition of Avocet, Green Sandpiper, Ruff, Common Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit. 

Not to be outdone in the warm sunshine, butterflies in the shape of Large and Small Whites, Red Admiral, Painted Lady and Clouded Yellows twirled and spun around us – not bad for Christmas Eve!

Regrettably dusk approached and we travelled back to our very comfortable hotel at Sagres. In Portugal much of Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve and we were spoilt with a four course evening banquet and copious fine wine. A superb conclusion to a stunning day’s birding.

Day 3 

Wednesday 25th December
Our plan for Christmas Day was a day out to the highest mountain in the Algarve region – Monchique. But before that, and seizing a chance to enjoy a memorable fair morning, we visited Boca do Ria area, just a few kms from Sagres. This is a splendid small valley leading to a sandy beach where there were plenty of interesting passerines including a flock of Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows, Thekla Larks, Blue Rock Thrush, Common Waxbills, a timid Dartford Warbler, five species of finch and the first of many Corn Buntings. The journey upwards yielded roadside views of Black-winged Kites and Common Buzzards as well as the more numerous Eurasian or Common Kestrels.

Heading Northwest, the summit of Monchique – called Foia – was cool and breezy but most importantly it was clear. And what a view! On a clear day the majority of the Algarve coastline stretches out before you and it is a magnificent 360 degree view. Birds were minimal however, and after notching up Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Wren and Dartford Warbler and our only Sparrowhawk of the trip, we headed for lower climes to consume our packed lunch.
A little lower down and a wander through light woodland in Caldas the Monchique, provided views of Iberian Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin and the usual Black Redstarts and Grey Wagtails. Additional species of butterflies appeared in the shape of Brimstone and Speckled Wood and then it was time for our drive to the serene setting of our hotel overlooking the stunning harbour of Sagres, nestled in the Southwest of the Algarve.

Day 4 

Thursday 26th December 
On Boxing Day morning the itinerary was a little different as we explored the scrub and fields to the West of Sagres, and then drove the short distance to the peninsular and lighthouse of Cape St Vincent. This area, particularly Vale Santo area, which means ‘Sacred Valley’, is a site for a dwindling population of Little Bustards and we knew we would have to be fortunate to spot them. Nuno was on top form and soon had a couple spotted well-hidden on the ground, shortly afterwards transforming in to a flying flock of eleven birds which circled around and finally disappeared over a nearby ridge. The same grassy plain hosted Red-legged Partridges, Little Owls, four Short-toed Larks and plenty of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Lapwings. A small area of rocks was an appropriate perch for a pair of stunning adult Peregrines as they surveyed the area in much the same way as us! With stunning light, it was difficult to break away from this iconic duo but there were more birds to find!

A mobile flock of Red-billed Choughs kept us moving but with so many distractions they eventually disappeared over the horizon without us managing to obtain close views. One of the distractions was a third Peregrine Falcon, this time a juvenile bird. A flock of Crag Martins hawked over the scrub and the bushes fidgeted with the constant flitting of Stonechats and Sardinian Warblers. An interesting flower was identified as a Friar’s Cowl.

The rocky outcrops of Cape St Vincent proved fitting to the Black Redstarts there, several of which were the resplendent black adult males. Gannets fished the swell and Yellow-legged Gulls drifted overhead. A traditional Portuguese restaurant in Sagres proved popular in sampling the local seafood and Algarve cuisine delights.
With the sunny weather and mild conditions prevailing, we then ventured East to Salgados Lagoon, also locally referred to as Pêra Marsh. Here we were treated to an avian extravaganza!  The shallow waters attracted waders including Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Snipe, Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Sanderling and Avocet. Bathing and resting Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls attracted two rather distant adult Audouin’s Gulls, but it was good to appreciate the jizz and plumage characteristics even at long range.
Good numbers of ducks included Mallard, Pintail, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, three Garganey and other water-dwellers included plenty of Little Grebes and a solitary Black-necked Grebe. Big birds included two Greater Flamingos, White Storks, a small gathering of Spoonbills, and the fourth Peregrine of the day. Small birds showed well in the shape of singing Corn Buntings, Fan-tailed Warblers and plenty of Chiffchaffs. With dusk approaching a couple of Marsh Harriers flopped over the lagoon and it was time for us to meander our way back to Sagres and another sumptuous evening meal. The daily mix of strong sunshine, clear air and distant banks of cloud ensured that both the sunrises and sunsets were stunning.

Day 5 

Friday 27th December
The 27th December was a day planned for our journey to the central plateau mostly to the east of the town called Castro Verde, in the Alentejo region. A little bit of a journey from Sagres, but good birds seen well from the roadside included Red-billed Chough, Raven, Southern Grey Shrike and of course plenty of Azure-winged Magpies! The large extensive fields and central plains are home to the huge and majestic Great Bustard, and it was this species that we sought to locate. A flying bird and then a small group of birds at great distance was preliminary stuff, and we enjoyed closer views of plenty of Stonechats, Corn Buntings and charms of Goldfinches. A couple of Black-winged Kites were seen both perched and in flight and a couple of Hen Harriers quartered off in to the distance. Kestrels and Common Buzzards were quite numerous but unfortunately we failed to connect with any eagle species.

Lunch was a very enjoyable affair, with superb traditional Portuguese cuisine being served up in ‘Paradise Café’ in the centre of Castro Verde. It was clear that the family running this very special place took great pride in serving up oodles of fresh and beautifully-cooked food and despite everyone partaking there was plenty left-over. We then waddled back to our vehicles and drove out to the east of the town. Unfortunately the wind had become cooler and it was rather grey but we quickly found some closer Greater Bustards and enjoyed ‘scoping these big birds ‘strutting their stuff’. Unfortunately a flock of Calandra Larks remained distant but closer birds included more Corn Buntings, Red-legged Partridges, Lapwings, Golden Plovers and other birds of this open farmland scene. Red Kites were in good numbers and cruising about in all directions and White Storks and Cattle Egrets were gleaning for insects and grubs in areas of turned earth. The only Carrion Crows of the trip were present in reasonable numbers and good numbers of Southern Grey Shrikes scanned from wires and bushes. Skylarks, Crested Larks, Spotless Starlings, Meadow Pipits and House Sparrows were encountered in flocks and a leucistic Corn Bunting looked pretty stunning!

As the afternoon became even greyer, we drove up to a viewpoint and scanned the plains for miles in each direction. Magnificent views and then we quickly located a pair of Common Cranes feeding on a field below and further scanning provided views of two more large flocks of Great Bustards. A scarce bird in Portugal, a couple of Dunnocks called from nearby cover. Just as we were leaving, a Little Owl was spotted and then a large flock of Common Crane flew in to view, some one hundred and eighty birds flying to roost. We then drove back south west, squinting in the beautiful sunset as we headed towards our coastal retreat.

Day 6        
Saturday, 28th December

Our last full day in the field was on the 28th December and we decided to ditch the vehicles and take a walk around the nearest coastal headland from our hotel at Sagres, Ponta da Atalaia. Low-lying scrub and stony ground was the dominion of Thekla Larks and plenty of Stonechats, Sardinian Warblers and the like, but a flushed Richard’s Pipit wasn’t necessarily anticipated. Finches included Greenfinch, Linnet, Goldfinch and some well-watched Serins. Views over the harbour provided familiar birds such as Gannet, Yellow-legged Gull and Sandwich Tern. Flitting small birds can be very insistent, and Chiffchaff, Fan-tailed Warbler, Blackcap, Black Redstart and Stonechat tantalised us with brief views before we returned back to our temporary abode.

A short drive later found us tramping through some coniferous woodland patches nearby, and it wasn’t long before we located our target species in the shape of Crested Tits and Short-toed Treecreepers. The rolling trill of the Cresteds was sufficient for most of us to be able to follow these lively sprites in the dense cover and the Short-toeds eventually showed relatively well. A Wall Brown butterfly was a good find but a plethora of fungi remained mostly unidentified.

Our packed lunch called but before we chomped through our sandwiches a splendid adult male Hen Harrier quartered the nearby heathland. Although only showing briefly, a couple of parties of Woodlark were seen and both Nuthatch and Raven made it on to the day list.

Nuno then guided us over to the nearby west and wild Atlantic coast where the surf flew and the waves crashed in to the headlands of Carrapateira. A few Gannets and gulls braved the swell but it was otherwise quiet. A flock of Jackdaws were probably the largest flock encountered on the trip.

A re-visit to the Sacred Valley area provided very good views of up to fifty Red-billed Choughs, further examples of the curious flower Friar’s Cowl, a Little Owl and another brief Richard’s Pipit. A pair of Southern Grey Shrikes emitted their very sharp high pitched call as Common Buzzards and Kestrels hunted the low-lying bush plains.

Our final bird-watching of the holiday was fittingly at the enigmatic Cape St Vincent. Ignoring the day-trippers, an adult male Peregrine cruised and stalled overhead in the strong wind all the time we were there, at one stage coming within range of a camera or two. A couple of Shags flew around the rocky outcrops and other pelagic species included Gannet, Cormorant and Yellow-legged Gull. Gannets here plunging in late afternoon light, right off the cape, a view fit to subsist in all our minds as a farewell dance. And so we finished our bird-watching trip to the Algarve with the sight of a silky sunset, partly eclipsed by the Cape St Vincent lighthouse.

The birding was over, but we still had time to participate in the Dine Out treat the hotel arranged for us. This included a local gastronomy feast in two classy nearby restaurants, before the final log of the week, back at the hotel. 

3.   Mongolia June 2015

Birding Mongolia
An Ecotours trip in June 2015

For some of us the journey to Mongolia commenced on Wednesday 10th June as the participants from the UK began the long journey east with inter-connecting flights via Berlin and Moscow. Our two intrepid colleagues from the USA of course came the other way around and via Seoul!

The plan was for all of us to meet at the capital of Mongolia, the enigmatic city of Ulaanbaatar. And after the usual stories of missed flights, some bureaucracy and not just a little fatigue, on the morning of Friday 12th June we found ourselves all gathered together at the UB City Hotel and all rather excited about what lay ahead. None of us had travelled to the poorly-visited country of Mongolia and it quickly became evident that we would be relying very heavily on our ground crew of Uugan and Unaar and the three drivers. Balazs of course has led tours to Mongolia on several occasions and Attila’s research on the anticipated species proved invaluable right from the outset.

The twelve day ground excursion was very much vehicle-based, the three 4WD vehicles and drivers required to cope with our luggage, passengers, available optics and lunch-time picnics on a daily basis.

An early excursion around the edge of Ulaanbaatar hinted at the calibre of birds to come, notching up Red-billed Chough, Daurian Jackdaw, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Kestrel, Black Stork, Ruddy Shelduck, Azure Tit, Common Rosefinch, Long-tailed Rosefinch,  White-crowned Pacific Swift, Penduline Tit and Hoopoe. Birds within the metropolis were dominated by Tree and House Sparrows and Pacific Swifts.

However the tour started properly on the Friday morning and after breakfast we ventured to our first venue which was an area to the east of the city next to the River Tuul. Here we enjoyed our first views of Amur Falcon, the first of many confiding Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers of the trip plus more views of the sought-after Azure Tit and White-crowned Penduline Tit and Long-tailed Rosefinch. Other birds included a Booted Eagle on the city outskirts, fly-over Demoiselle Cranes, Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser and familiar corvids in the shape of Magpie, Carrion Crow and Raven. Other familiar riverine birds were Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover and Grey and White Wagtails.

Next was a park-like area again next to the river but on the west side of the city. East Asian specialities showed themselves here in the shape of Thick-billed Warbler, Daurian Jackdaw, White-cheeked Starling and Azure-winged Magpie. Here also we saw the first of many Saker Falcons and heard both Eurasian and Oriental Cuckoo and glimpsed a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler and better views of another Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. Birds such as Black-eared Kite, Red-billed Chough, Ruddy Shelduck and Demoiselle Crane were to be soon relegated to regular almost every-day birds!
Super warm weather with a fresh breeze and an elevation of 1260 metres ensured we were able to shake off the travel fatigue for much of the day but that evening we were all tired and ready for bed after our evening restaurant meal.

Saturday 13th June and we left the UB City Hotel on a warm, sunny day with minimal breeze. It was dry and very pleasant as we began our journey in a south-easterly direction. We came across a Genghis Khan Memorial and stopped to do a little touristy stuff! Sadly there were some captive raptors on display, although it was interesting to see how much bigger a Black Vulture was in comparison to a Golden Eagle!

Attila was scurrying around checking out the singing larks, and was soon confidently picking out Asian and Greater Short-toed Larks and a little while later the very impressive Mongolian Larks.

We drove on and the huge vista permitted us to witness the large flocks of tended grazing animals stretching across these semi-arid plains, sheep in the main but also goats, horses and cattle. Our first main birding venue for the day was an area known as Gun Galuut, part of which is a nature reserve. Here shallow steppe lakes and wetlands kept us entertained for much of the day with stunning birds, the highlights including 13 White-naped Cranes, Swan Geese, Upland Buzzards, Stejnegeri’s Scoters, Long-toed and Red-necked Stints and another Saker Falcon. The lakes supported wildfowl familiar to European birders and the dry steppe and grassy areas attracted Black Vulture, Steppe Eagle, Hobby and Blyth’s Pipit. The supporting cast was made up of Citrine and White Wagtails, Tree and Rock Sparrows, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, Horned Larks and Sand Martins. Buildings attracted the orange-underside version of the Barn Swallow, some of the birds being particularly bright.

As we slowly moved around this oasis we added Amur Falcon, Hoopoe, Eastern Common and White-winged Black Terns, a few Mongolian Gulls and further waders in the shape of Kentish Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and Black-tailed Godwit. A few hundred Demoiselle Cranes accompanied a single Common Crane and a single Eastern Marsh Harrier was the first of several on the trip, this part of the world acting as an area where Western and Eastern Marsh Harriers can be found together. A few pairs of Whooper Swan were breeding on the lakes, a couple of Bar-headed Geese flew over and both Shelduck and Ruddy Shelduck were also breeding. A couple of Black Storks, up to 30 Black-necked Grebes and some wild mammals which included Tolai Hare and Corsac Fox rounded off a fabulous day.

After our overnight stay in our first Yurt Camp, a 7am rendezvous by the nearby river for some early morning wildlife watching provided us with further views of Tolai Hare and small furry items called Daurian Pica and Brandt’s Vole. Riverside bushes attracted bird migrants such as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a single-barred Greenish Warbler, a Thick-billed Warbler and a singing Black-faced Bunting. The camp attracted plenty of the Isabelline Wheatears with their amazing repertoire of song mimicry including car horns, breeding Red-billed Chough and the super ginger/orange Barn Swallows. I mistook a couple of Twite for Eastern Linnet – doh!

After breakfast we headed north along the river valley, birding along the way. Pere David’s Snowfinch was a target species and we found a couple of pairs feeding young near an isolated Yurt.
A couple of hours slow driving and birding along sandy tracks and we arrived at a valley dominated in willow scrub, poplars and hillside larch woodland with a birch understory.  Here Blyth’s and Olive-backed Pipits were common and the former’s song-flight is very loud and continuous with a surprising array of additional calls.

Leaf warblers here were made up of singing Dusky, Two-barred Greenish and Hume’s and a brief exploration of the fabulous woodland yielded views of Hawfinch, Western Common Redstart, Common Treecreeper, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker and Willow Tit. All these species seemed to be apparent breeders in this habitat. Birds of the woodland edges included a Brown Shrike, several gorgeous singing Pine Buntings, Common Rosefinch and five species of corvid. Overhead and the raptors included Amur Falcon, Hobby, Steppe Eagle, Golden Eagle, Common (probably ‘Japanese’) Buzzard, Black Vulture, Black-eared Kite and Booted Eagle.

We enjoyed a super picnic lunch watching Steppe Eagles cavorting in the blue sky above us.
The afternoon was spent slowly driving back the way we had come, birding all the way, and we stayed again at our comfortable Yurt camp situated in wonderful habitat.

On Monday 15th June we awoke to yet another hot and sunny day with a pleasant breeze for much of it. Again an early morning wander along the river provided similar sightings to the day before, this time with a migrant Dusky Warbler as an addition.

We returned to the steppe lakes and immediately found different species of migrant waders including Turnstone and a Red-necked Phalarope. The big surprise though was a Grey-tailed Tattler which represented a new species for every single person on the trip including guides. Black-headed Gull was a trip tick but didn’t really provide the same sense of euphoria!

From about this point the buzzard situation became somewhat confusing for me as we began to see apparent Long-legged Buzzards. The difference between these and some of the Upland Buzzards were to my mind very minimal. Both birds are very large eagle-like buteos, and their jizz and hunting methods seemed identical, and the plumage traits were not always consistent. More studying required!

We than began travelling away from this area and back to Ulaanbaatar. En-route we espied a few Amur Falcons, Ravens and two migrating Crested Honey Buzzards which were to be our only ones all trip.

A lunch-time stop failed to locate the hoped-for Daurian Partridge but plenty of good birds which included Siberian Stonechat, Eastern Common Whitethroat and Siberian Lesser Whitethroat. A splendid male Siberian Rubythroat sang well from hillside scrub.

Beyond Ulaanbaatar and our venue for the afternoon was Terelj National Park with its variety of rock formations, scattered woodland and upland plateaus. Here we saw a roadside Rock Thrush (or Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush if you prefer) and subsequently arrived at a small Yurt Camp where we walked to a small wooded gorge. Excellent birding here with good views of a pair of Lammergeier, Black Woodpecker, Pine Buntings, Willow Tit, Nuthatch, Eurasian Cuckoo and similar fare. The woodland concealed singing Two-barred Greenish and Hume’s warblers and the more open areas attracted Grey and White Wagtails, singing Siberian Rubythroat and singing (but not seen) Chinese Bush Warblers.

In the late afternoon we arrived at our hotel for a couple of nights and immediately began exploring the park and woodland nearby. Daurian Redstart was found also straightaway and birds at the hotel included Hill Pigeon and Daurian Jackdaw. Birds within the woodland included Taiga Flycatcher, Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and both Willow and Marsh Tits. Ecotours donated wine and a Chinese-based meal was gratefully consumed that evening! 

After a comfortable night we started at about 6am again on Tuesday 16th June and elected to revisit the gorge from the previous afternoon. A close Siberian Rubythroat in song was much-appreciated as was the distant but visual singing Red-throated Thrush. A couple of singing Godlewski’s Buntings (similar to Rock Buntings) were new for many people and we watched a couple of apparent Japanese Buzzards and heard a Nutcracker.  We returned to the hotel for a 10am breakfast in our now familiar vehicles and at about 11am we again took to our four wheel drive capability to drive tracks to some larch forest at about 1800 – 1900 metres elevation. Here there were small numbers of Olive-backed Pipits and Pine Buntings and plenty more Blyth’s Pipits. A couple of Red-flanked Bluetails could be heard singing but were extremely difficult to see. Other birds included an impossible- to- see singing Taiga Flycatcher, Steppe Eagle, Japanese Buzzard, Raven, Eurasian Jay and yet more Willow Tits. Lunch was taken at this beautiful location, again under blue skies and with warm sunshine.

In the afternoon we descended and drove through a river ford and birded riverside parkland and light woodland. A pair of gorgeous Daurian Redstart were feeding caterpillars to their nestlings and a pair of Marsh Tit was taking food in to a high altitude nest. We found a pair of Asian Brown Flycatcher, glimpsed a couple of singing Taiga Flycatchers and a high-up canopy-loving Pallas’s Warbler and noted Great Tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

That evening’s logistics were altogether different. We said good-bye to our drivers and ground crew as they began the long road journey to the Gobi Desert, our next venue and new habitat. Tour participants enjoyed the luxury of another night at the hotel knowing that their journey the following day would be by way of an internal flight. Some of us took a brief stroll out that evening and saw distant Roe Deer on a hillside and views of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Common Sandpiper. Balazs commandeered a local man’s prized horse for a short canter along the river bank! The discovery of a table tennis table at the hotel brought out the competitive spirit in our two Hungarian guides and Uugan, and they finally called it a draw at Midnight!

The by now regular early morning walk on Wednesday 17th June was productive as the woodland alongside our hotel provided views of Lesser Spotted, Great Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpecker, a pair of Asian Brown Flycatcher, a pair of Taiga Flycatcher trying to take over the nest hole just excavated by the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed, Willow and Marsh Tits plus now familiar birds such as Daurian Jackdaw, Daurian Redstart, Common Rosefinch, Nuthatch, Olive-backed Pipit, White Wagtail etc. A Yellow-browed Warbler was a new addition to the trip-list.

After breakfast we again went back to the gorge area of the previous two days, this time in a hire mini coach that would also convey us to the airport later. Roadside stops en-route provided views of Dusky Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Booted Eagle, Japanese Buzzard and we heard both Eurasian and Oriental Cuckoo. At the gorge the resident pair of Lammergeier cruised overhead, we heard the Nutcracker again and enjoyed stunning views of a drumming male Black Woodpecker. A male Grey-headed Woodpecker showed briefly too. 

We reluctantly then left the Terelj National Park and drove back to Ulaanbaatar to catch our internal flight to the Gobi. A lunch-time stop at a restaurant en-route was very pleasant, particularly as an Azure Tit showed well in a bush outside!

The domestic flight with Aero Mongolia to Dalanzadgad took less than 90 minutes and our drivers and vehicles were waiting for us after completing a long night drive of about 500 miles. We then drove for about 40 minutes across a flat, dry and stony Gobi Desert, seeing our first flying Pallas’s Sandgrouse as we did so. Another Yurt camp was to be our welcoming abode, and we were met by the resident couple of pairs of Daurian (Isabelline) Shrikes on arrival! Other birds seemed scarce in this very sparse habitat but the bushes and structures hosted Collared Dove, Eurasian Kestrel and of course Tree Sparrows!

Thursday 18th June and a very full day indeed! Wall to wall sunshine again and deep blue skies. An early morning wander around the camp was sufficient to see Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Thick-billed Warbler, more fly-by Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Crested Lark.

After breakfast we headed out towards a couple of plantation/agricultural areas, hoping for some late migrants of interest.  En-route though a show-stopper in the form of a pair of absolutely beautiful Oriental Plovers, a world rare species but a speciality of this arid area, stopped us in our tracks. For me certainly one of the most attractive waders of the world, mostly associated with the structure, fast flight and amazing ability to cover large distances quickly on those long legs. After recovering from this we then encountered a migrant trip of 7 Greater Sandplovers in the desert.

We finally arrive at the first plantation and a female Chaffinch was the highlight! A Tolai Hare showed nicely.

The second tended area on the outskirts of Dalandzadgad was much more productive. Here we quickly located two Daurian Starlings, not an assured species for the trip. An Oriental Turtle Dove was also located but by the time we boarded our vehicle we established there were three of these associating with the local Collared Doves. A couple of ‘locustella’ warblers were flushed up but not identified and other migrants included a Barred Warbler, a Garden Warbler and a Hoopoe.

Then began a long drive to the Yolimam Valley in the Altai Mountains. On entering the valley small furry creatures became obvious as did the prolific and very tame White-winged Snowfinches. An Argali Sheep (or should that be an Argali Ram!) was seen scaling an arid peak.

At the car park we watched our first Koslov’s (Mongolian) Accentors and Brown Accentors whilst our drivers and Unaar again developed a superb midday meal. Habituated Snowfinches and Isabelline Wheatears pecked at our food and we were entranced by Red-cheeked Ground Squirrels, Pallas’s Picas, Mongolian Jirds and Alashu Suisliks as they chased each other around the slopes close to our banquet.

Feeling very full after the splendid lunch of soup, bread, meat etc. we spent the afternoon wandering up and down the Yolimam Valley which at the far end still had hard-packed snow.

Birds here included a rather distant pair of Wallcreepers, another pair of Lammergeier, a few Himalayan Griffon and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, a Saker Falcon, a Golden Eagle, Eurasian Kestrels and our first Black Redstarts of the trip which were of the orange-bellied race. Quality small birds included more of the Brown Accentors, a single Alpine Accentor, a few Godlewski's Buntings, a single unexpected Little Bunting and all-to-brief views of Beautiful Rosefinch. The support team included Pacific Swift, Crag Martin, Eastern Whitethroat and Rock Sparrow.

Siberian Ibex appeared on the crags way above and small animals squeaked all around and barely moved out of our way at almost every step. A superb place!

A steady drive back to our Yurt camp in the Gobi was then called for with us not arriving back until 9pm. An enforced stop was necessary when we came across a female Pallas’s Sandgrouse and her single chick…

Friday 19th June and the early morning migrant count of the Yurt camp amounted to probably the same individual Thick-billed Warbler and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler as the day before plus a Richard’s Pipit. After breakfast we loaded the wagons and said good-bye to this particular camp and we headed off deeper in to the Gobi Desert. We quickly found another Oriental Plover or two and spent quite some time watching one individual.

A black lump sitting in the desert turned out to be in exhausted Cormorant. We picked it up but it sadly died later, hundreds of miles from any suitable water.

Motoring along, the desert landscape changed numerous times – sometimes just the stony chive-grass type areas, other areas with moderate grass growth and other sections with low sandy dunes and ravines.

We stopped for lunch in rather wind-swept conditions, with the warm area funneling around us. Again we were treated to impossibly-nice soup made there and then and some excellent freshly baked flat bread amongst plenty of other food. A wander nearby in one of the ravines caused a Eurasian Eagle Owl to fly out but unfortunately it couldn’t be located again. Distant herds of Goitred and Mongolian Gazelles kept the mammal list looking healthy.

Post lunch we stopped to admire close views of Pallas’s Sandgrouse, only to have a Macqueen’s Bustard suddenly walk out from the low vegetation and perform what we considered to be a distraction display. We decided that if she did have young nearby it would be best for us to move on so we didn’t linger.

We were treated with some amazing scenic views and stopped several times to take it all in. Big birds in the sky included four more Lammergeiers, three Black Vultures and both Himalayan and Eurasian Griffon Vultures. Other raptors included a couple more Sakers and apparent Long-legged and Upland Buzzards. Another star bird of the trip, and the only one we saw, was a single Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground Jay. A striking bird both visually and audibly, it was also an impossibly fast runner over open ground and took some keeping up with! However we did manage to keep with it and in due course it settled down and we watched in sun-bathing in a small gully.

Other birds included plenty of Ravens, a super male Pied Wheatear and five or so Desert Wheatears and we eventually arrived at our second Gobi Yurt Camp. A short excursion after dark using Balazs’s unique method of tracking them down saw us corner and examine two super Kangaroo-like jerboas. They keyed out as a Siberian Jerboa with the smaller one apparently a Mongolian Five-toed or Northern Three-toed Jerboa.

The Mongolian Yurt Camps are well-organised and the Yurts spacious and comfortable. Most of the camps have a separate larger Yurt for meals and out-buildings for toilets, showers etc. The majority are isolated and to a point the wildlife is drawn to them as there is cover and frequently some vegetation.

The morning of Saturday 20th June brought forth a singing Desert Wheatear strutting his stuff from the roof of the restaurant and after breakfast we sauntered down to a nearby river and the Khongorum El Sand Dunes. A full summer plumage Chinese Pond Heron was not anticipated but a pair of confiding Asian (Eastern) Desert Warblers and a family party of Southern Grey Shrikes were.

We then drove a short distance to the nearby unique Saxaul Forest dune system sandwiched between the river and the stony desert. An active Upland Buzzard contained a couple of well-grown youngsters but the hoped-for Saxaul Sparrows nesting in the buzzard’s nest were not to be seen. After some toil wandering around this area, Attila managed a couple of flight views of the sparrows so it was a case of pinning them down. Birds of the ‘forest’ included Isabelline and Southern Grey Shrikes, a couple of migrant Oriental Reed Warblers (pretty much identical with Great Reed Warbler), Desert Wheatears and a few Desert Warblers. Typically we then find that the Saxaul Sparrows were nesting in metal barrier holes close to where we were parked!

A single Mongolian Finch flew past us calling, a Booted Eagle sparred with the Uplands and some smart stripy lizards were identified as Goby Racers. Quite a number of Great Gerbils were active in the dunes, these surprisingly large rodents being particularly noisy.

In the afternoon we went searching for more ground-jays in windy conditions with no success, so instead spent time watching a group of Lesser Kestrels, feral pigeons and a pair of Little Owls all around some abandoned buildings. A Long-eared Hedgehog was seen well by the group after the manager of the Yurt Camp caught it and then released it coming to its regular evening treats.

The morning of Sunday 21st June saw us depart from our second Gobi Yurt Camp and an early morning excursion yielded Desert Wheatears including independent juveniles, Asian Lesser Short-toed Larks, Ruddy Shelduck, and Pallas’s Sandgrouse and calling Demoiselle Cranes. A Eurasian Nightjar was heard churring at dawn. A vivid red sunrise was special as the light hit the dunes and distant rock slopes of the Altai Mountains. A Siberian Jerboa was trapped overnight, provided some treats and released unharmed.

A very slow and grindy drive over stone-packed desert, initially with a mountain range to our left represented a different route from the Gobi than the way we had entered. One vehicle found a ‘trip’ of Mongolian Plover (one of which was colour-ringed) but inexplicably the radios malfunctioned and the find was not enjoyed by the other two car-loads.  Other stops provided some variety with better views of Mongolian Finch, a male Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Green Sandpiper, Pied Wheatear, Golden Eagle and Black Vulture.

A craggy ravine held Crag Martin, Black Redstart, Brown and Koslov’s Accentors, White-winged Snowfinches and Godlewski’s Buntings and the region provided further views of Chukar, Lammergeier, Steppe Eagle, Saker Falcon and Isabelline Shrikes. A lunch-time stop at an isolated plantation and cultivated area provided views of a resplendent vagrant Black-naped Oriole and further mammal sightings during the day included Siberian Ibex and Goitred Gazelle.

We drove on to Dalanzadgad and stayed overnight in a hotel. Again our ground crew began their long nocturnal drive back to the capital city.

Monday 22nd June represented our last morning in and around the stunning Gobi. An early morning walk in the city park provided views of plenty of Tree Sparrows feeding fledged young, a single Isabelline Shrike and a Siberian Chiffchaff.

We had time to revisit the plantation/agricultural area which had been so productive on the 18th and exciting migrants on this occasion were made up of a Hawfinch, a Grey-headed Lapwing and two Barred Warblers, one of which was song-flighting. A stunning vagrant Slaty-backed Flycatcher represents the first record for Mongolia. Other birds included a Brown Shrike and a Hoopoe.
It was then time to take our domestic flight back to Ulaanbaatar and there it was we met our crew and were reunited with our beloved 4WDs! A two hour drive found us at another Yurt camp near to the entrance of Khustain National Park, our last main venue.

We visited the national park that evening, with many Tarbagan Marmots on show, Przewalski’s Wild Horses, Red Deer, Tolai Hare and a Grey Wolf all being espied. The dry hills and plains were good for birds too, the bushes and scrub-covered slopes providing cover for Siberian Lesser Whitethroat, Pied Wheatear, Meadow Bunting and Daurian Partridge. Raptors included both Golden and Steppe Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Black-eared Kite, Saker, Eurasian Kestrel, Amur Falcon and Black Vulture. On our drive home at dusk, Siberian Jerboas and fox cubs were seen at the side of the track.

Tuesday 23rd June and our last full day in Mongolia. We were keen to pack as much in as possible on our last day so after an early breakfast we drove for about 50 minutes to a wetland area surrounded by dry tussock grassland. Larks were here in profusion with four species singing around us in a stiff and cool breeze. It was a grey and cloudy day and the first time on the trip when we donned cold weather gear.

A dwindling lake attracted common waterfowl, Eurasian Spoonbill and both Western and Eastern Marsh Harriers, plus yet another Saker Falcon. Our main quarry however was the elusive Pallas’s Reed Bunting and after a bit of a wander we located at least two males which gave themselves up for good views. Citrine Wagtail and Richard’s Pipit joined other passerines buzzing the quartering harriers, and then it was off on a journey to a more extensive steppe lake. En-route Upland Buzzards and Black-eared Kites showed regularly, a pair of Demoiselle Cranes was spotted with two young and a couple of animal carcasses attracted Black Vultures and Ravens.

It was full-on birding when we arrived at the roadside lake with a multitude of species on view. Stunning summer plumage Slavonian Grebes swam amongst rafts of wildfowl which included Garganey, a Red-crested Pochard and even a fine drake Falcated Duck. Careful checking of a small reed-bed revealed plenty of singing Oriental Reed Warblers, a few Paddyfield Warblers, Bearded Tits, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Baillon’s Crake which proved to be a new world bird for Balazs!

Waders were well-represented with good numbers of Green and Wood Sandpipers, Black-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, a Pacific Golden Plover, Curlew and plenty of Avocets and Black-winged Stilts. The local gulls did not include the hoped-for Relict Gull but other good birds kept on coming with a splendid fly-past of White-naped Cranes, a Common Crane, a neck-collared Whooper Swan, more Spoonbills and Western and Eastern Marsh Harriers, a good number of ‘Thumbergi’ Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and of course many larks. 

With reluctance we left this area at about 3.30pm with a view to finishing our day scanning the stunning landscape of Khustain National Park and hopefully fulfill our quest for Grey Wolf. Despite plenty of effort though, a single animal at long range which may have been a wolf was the only sighting. The plentiful Tarbagan Marmots, showy Golden and Steppe Eagles and repeats of Daurian Partridge, Lesser Kestrels and more Przewalski’s Horses and Red Deer concluded a fantastic day to an amazing trip.      

Neil McMahon

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