September 8, 2013

part eight:

Hi(gh) Khangai!

text by ABu

Links to previous Mountain Birds 2012 on Birding Mongolia:

Adult Bearded Vulture, near Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A. Buchheim

Thomas high above Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © J. Langenberg

From the very first e-mail exchange between Jörg and ABu about the next trip to Mongolia, it had been our plan to set up a tour for obtaining a long list of mountain birds and as we had not recorded all the desired species in the Altai mountain range (see the previous posts linked above), we were heading now (on 18 June 2012) for the high elevation lake Khukh Nuur in the northern part of the Bayankhongor Aimag (aimag=province). This lake, at an altitude of 2600 m a.s.l., is situated not very far east of the highest mountain of the Khangai, Otgon Tenger, and hence is almost in the centre of this mountain range. At the lake we hoped to see little-known birds like Hodgson’s Bushchat or Asian Rosy Finch. To our surprise and disappointment we had not seen either in the west.

As soon as we got off the cars we saw our first Asian Rosy Finches and we hurried to pitch our tents near the colony of Mongolian Gulls to have more time for birding. The rosy finches here belong to the almost unknown taxon sushkini and a publication about the plumages of this form is on the way—so quickly join the OBC to get a copy of one of the next issues of BirdingASIA in which more pictures will be featured!

Before sunset Jörg and I went scouting for the Altai Snowcock and about one kilometre from our camp we heard one calling from the ridge. Although it took us about 30 minutes to find it we were sure to be at the right place for seeing mountains birds. If not here, where else would we have good chances to find the bushchat? So back to the camp and arrange an early start for next morning to get the snowcock seen by the complete group.

Male Asian Rosy Finch, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A. Buchheim

Female Asian Rosy Finch, Khukh Nuur,
 Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Searching for Altai Snowcock,
Khukh Nuur, Jun 2012, © A. Schneider

And here it is: Altai Snowcock, digiscoped,
Bayankhongorijn Khukh Nuur, Jun 2012, © K. Krätzel

After having seen and heard several Altai Snowcocks with some fantastic observations like two birds fighting or a bird with small chicks, we began with the exploration of the site; after breakfast, of course. On the lake we had a couple of Stejneger’s Scoters, about 200 of moulting Bar-headed Geese and some Black-throated Divers aka Arctic Loons. The allegedly highest-altitude colony of large gulls held about 150 pairs and a handful (15 nests) of Great Cormorants bred there, too. Around our camp we logged Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, certainly a migrant, and the following breeding species: Citrine Wagtail, Brown Accentor, Black Redstart, Stejneger’s Stonechat and almost annoyingly numerous, Blyth’s Pipit. A Sulphur-bellied Warbler was also singing on the slope.

Claws 2, Blyth’s Pipit, Khukh Nuur, Bayankhongor,
Jun 2012, © A. Buchheim & T. Langenberg

Blyth’s Pipit on the ground, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Blyth’s Pipit in flight, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Further along the lake we found areas with bushes and even some trees with a number of other breeding species like Common Rock Thrush, Common Magpie, Hume’s Warbler, Eversmann’s Redstart (min. 5 territories) and Red-throated Thrush. We heard Willow Grouse calling from the undergrowth repeatedly but never managed to see one.

Hume’s Warbler, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Male Stejneger’s Stonechat, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Male Red-throated Thrush, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

High above the lake, Armin came across yet another snowcock which was obviously guarding its chicks. No wonder that it immediately showed distracting display which Armin captured with his camera so nicely. On these higher plateaus we found more mountain birds. Altai and Alpine Accentors occur here side by side and the occasional Brown Accentor ventures up that high as well. Then a bird with lots of white was flying from rock to rock. No, not the bushchat, “just” a Güldenstädt’s Redstart. Finally everybody heard Jörg screaming through the radio: “I found a bushchat!” So we set up an improvised ringing camp and caught, measured, ringed and released a pair of Hodgson’s Bushchats (it actually needed two days!). No one paid any attention to the Rock Ptarmigans or the very common Water and Blyth’s Pipits anymore.

Altai Snowcock in distraction display, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A. Schneider

Altai Accentor, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Improvised ringing camp above Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A.Schneider

The most sought-after bird:
male Hodgson’s Bushchat, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Claws 3: Mr. Hodgson, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A. Buchheim & T. Langenberg

Female Hodgson’s Bushchat, Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © A. Buchheim & T. Langenberg

The two bushchats were attending a nest and the male chased away other birds while the female was incubating their bluish eggs. Not much is known about these birds (see: Bräunlich, A. & Steudtner, J. 2008. Hodgson’s Bushchat Saxicola insignis in the Mongolian Altai. BirdingASIA 9: 70-71, PDF 225 kb: download) and we were extremely glad to contribute a small piece to the knowledge.

Other birds which we encountered were Himalayan Griffon (2 on 19 June) and almost daily we had views of Common House Martins (the subspecies lagopodum has darker underwing coverts than the nominate form and is therefore often thought to belong to Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus). Birding Mongolia will deal with this topic later; but for a thorough entry we first have to catch enough individuals of either of the taxa.

The weather at this altitude was soso, at best. We had daily hail showers and a lot of clouds but luckily the heaviest snow-/hail-/thunderstorms were directed to other sites so it could have been much worse!

Tolai Hare Lepus tolai, Khukh Nuur, Bayankhongor,
Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

Common House Martins (lagopodum), Khukh Nuur,
Bayankhongor, Jun 2012, © T. Langenberg

We stayed at the lake until 20 June and left for the famous Boon Tsagaan Nuur to see and possibly catch Saxaul/Steppe (Grey) Shrike as well as try our luck on Pallas’s Fish Eagle and…

We will continue with this saga soon, so watch out on Birding Mongolia!

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