Watching Birds in Mongolia

If you are not a bird lover, you might find this post tedious. However, if you are like me and love birds and are excited when you see a new one, you might find this interesting. I was talking to a friend the other day in a gazebo on a lovely day. As I talked I was gazing around the environment periodically. Suddenly I stopped mid-sentence, and said, “There’s a Wagtail!” My friend started laughing, and told me I reminded her of a dog that sees a squirrel. 

Mongolia has a reputation for being a great place for birders. Being a birder, I’m excited about this reputation. Wikipedia has a lot of species listed for Mongolia, and I have just begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities. It looks like I’ll be in northern Mongolia for the next 2 years in the vicinity of the Bulgan province. Hopefully this area is under a migratory flight path. Following is a description, with links to pictures, of birds I have either seen, or think that I’ve seen. I invite anyone to correct any errors or misidentifications you find here.

My first view of a bird in Mongolia was on the morning I woke up after my midnight arrival. I heard a sound outside my ger that reminded me of a quail. I knew it couldn’t be one this far north, and was eager to see just who it was. I put on my sweats over my pajamas, grabbed coat, gloves, camera, and binoculars, and stepped outside. There was the source of that sound: Red Billed Chough. They were mingling with Magpies and Ravens, but were smaller and really stood out with that red bill! They are found in mountainous areas, often in altitudes between 6000 and 10000 feet. They were noted by the Greeks in old times, and appear on the Cornish coat-of-arms. In Central Asia they ride on the backs of mammals to feed on parasites, and they eat invertebrates, digging with their long curved bills.

The following week, when I arrived at my host family’s house, I began seeing birds daily, and I studied them through my binoculars. (I rarely leave home without them!) One of the first days here, I found this beauty, who is so far my favorite:

This is the Hoopoe. One of the first nights after arriving, I was awake at 3:30am, and heard a three-syllable call that I was sure was a birdcall. I went outside, and it was already getting light out, but I didn’t find the bird that was calling. Next morning, I went out my gate, and there it was on a fence, making the same sound as I’d heard in the night. I’ve seen this bird daily since then, but I’ve never heard the sound again.

The Hoopoe has some unique habits. It summers in northern Asia down into China, across the Middle East and Europe.  An interesting thing about them is that they have enhanced musculature in their heads that allow them to open their bill while it is immersed in the ground. There they find insect larvae and grubs, in addition to the insects they find above the surface. The broody mother and the nestlings both have a gland that secretes a foul-smelling liquid that is thought to deter predators and parasites. The nestlings themselves are skilled defenders of the nest, as they are able to emit streams of feces at predators. They also hiss, and will strike with a wing or with their bill. No wonder they aren’t a threatened species with a skill set like this! The Hoopoes are legally protected in some countries because their preferred foods include insects considered as pests by humans. They are in the same family of birds as bee eaters and kingfishers.

A bird that I see daily is the Wagtail, and its name indicates what it does when it’s not flying. It sits, usually on the ground, and does a little dance involving bobbing its tail. One day, while I was practicing Mongolian language with a recorder, I watched one of these for about 45 minutes as it walked around on the ground looking for food, and the tail-moving was constant.

Another grey and white beauty frequents the fence tops, and is a constant companion on my walks. I believe it is a Northern Wheatear, though it engages in an identical tail bobbing action as the Wagtail, so at first I thought I was looking at 2 kinds of wagtails.

Anyone who has met a Magpie would probably recognize it again, even if it has a slightly different costume. There’s no confusing the bossy manner, loud voice, and handsome appearance. I’ve seen magpies that look like they are wearing a tuxedo. These Eurasian Magpies here in Mongolia are no exception, and are just as good-looking as the best of them, even if they are raucous.

Another resident of my village is the Jackdaw, which is black with what is shaped like a white coverall bib you would put on a young child for meals. It seems to have several calls, one of which is similar to the Red Billed Chough (above). The other sound I have heard helps me understand why my host sister mistakenly calls it a Magpie. It’s a bossy harsh sound.

My host family took me to the countryside last month, and I was delighted to spot a gorgeous large duck that was new to me. As I watched this group of ducks on a lake, some with babies, the word “blonde” kept going through my head. When I found a picture of one, I learned it was a Ruddy Shelduck. When I saw this duck, it was late afternoon, and the sun lightened the appearance, blanching out the red on its head a little, but the duck looked like it was glowing. This duck is a beauty!

Whenever I took a taxi to the nearby town, we drove past a wetland area, where I had been seeing White Egrets. Soon I began spotting Grey Herons in increasing numbers as the weeks passed. They appear to me to be larger than the Great Blue Heron, averaging 3 feet in height and with a 6-foot wingspan. They can eat larger prey than other herons I’ve seen, including young rabbits!

There are Eurasian Coots there as well, unmistakable from the road with their white face shields and beaks.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking to training, I heard the unmistakable sound of cranes. I was very excited as I scanned the sky, looking for them. I saw a pair quite high up, but the shape was familiar to me. It was a pair of cranes flying west. A few days later the same thing happened again. My host dad said that in October, thousands of cranes fly overhead, migrating to warmer places for the winter. They looked dark against the sky, so perhaps they were Eurasian Cranes, which are said to nest in northern Mongolia. These cranes are threatened by loss of habitat, both for nesting and on their migration paths. They also threaten newly planted crops, so farmers are tempted to poison them.

One evening, I was weeding the onion patch with my host sister when I heard a sweet soft bird sound. I looked up and saw a group of about twenty birds. I asked her what they were, and she told me they were swans. I couldn’t see them very well, but they looked black against the sky. I haven’t gotten enough information to find what kind of swans these were. Most of the swans that show up in northern Mongolia are white. But I’ll keep my eyes open.

A few days ago, as we were heading toward the training center in our meeker, I saw a big Black Vulture sitting on a rise in the middle of an open area. It was huge! Females are a little larger than males, and they measure somewhere between 3 feet 3 inches and 3 feet 11 inches long, and they have a wingspan of between 8 feet 2 inches and 10 feet 2 inches. Females weigh between 17 and 35 pounds. 90% of eggs hatch, and over 50% of yearlings survive to adulthood. Sometimes these vultures are known to take live prey, even a yak calf! Vultures have long been one of my favorite birds, and it’s really fun to find such an impressive specimen in this country.

 So, as you can see, I’ve been busy. More than once, I have stepped in fresh dung because my eyes were not looking at the ground. I am excited to continue my discoveries as I head through the seasons here in Mongolia. And I’ll be sure to post what I find!



8 thoughts on “Watching Birds in Mongolia

  1. Fantastic post, Kathleen! I love having the links for the visuals, but your descriptions bring the birds alive in my mind.
    Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Wow, Kathleen! I love your descriptions of all of these encounters, and thanks for posting links to pics. I have always kind of wanted to visit Mongolia and now you are giving me new motivation. I think the Hoopoe is also my favorite of them. It looks like a cross between a Flicker and a Stellar’s Jay.

  3. Very pretty pics! Love that red-billed one you first saw. You must be starting to have shorter days now, no more getting light at 3:30, right?

  4. Wonderful, Kathleen. I love birds, but not to extent you do, however I was riveted, and I so appreciated your links! When do you go north? I loved the Hoopoe

  5. Kathleen! Can you believe I’m just now getting around to reading about your birding adventures? Wow, you are quite the birder there in Mongolia. All the pics I’ve seen of you there, you are wearing your binocs around your neck 🙂 So excited for you! Ah, the Hoopoe, of course is my favorite. You are so lucky to be able to see such unique birds that don’t live on this side of the world. And the cranes….warms my heart!

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