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Day Seven: 15th August

Day

Today has remained very windy; ominous clouds have been skating across the sky all day and by the afternoon it became clear that another storm was brewing. A team of three Korean researchers have arrived with another Mongolian conservationist, Oggy, whom I first met three years ago at Khurkh Ringing Station, also in Mongolia. They are here to fit satellite tags to wildfowl. I have been watching the behaviour of the large flocks of ducks, and I must say: I do not fancy their chances.

It has been exciting helping them unload, because they have brought lots of food with them and also some beers which is great news! The wind was really blowing now and they made a great effort at getting their tents up in a howling gale.

Evening

Overnight ringing was quiet but I did catch two Vega gulls using the thermal imager, and in the last net round before light, Sam brought back a stunning Red-necked Phalarope that he caught with his bare hands!

The ringing has been quiet so we shut the nets early and got picked up to try for Swallows at the reservoir centre. We really want to ring the beautiful all-red fronted Tytleri race and there are lots around the centre. We have ideas to target other passerines but upon arrival at the reservoir centre it is clear that there the remnants of a massive party happening.

We try to stay out of the way as it is a pretty untidy scene. I fail completely and a chap grabs me and takes me over to his family, so at 9 AM I find myself drinking a massive cup of vodka and then some pretty dodgy alcoholic mare’s milk. They speak no English and I speak no Mongolian but I pose for photos with all the family and then manage to escape to join Sam targeting the Swallows.

We have been pretty unsuccessful but still we’ve managed to ring a couple, along with a brood of nestlings. It occurs to me that this is the seventh country across three continents where I have been lucky enough to ring Barn Swallow.

The goose conference has come to Ugii and we meet up with them for a great evening of culture including throat singing, traditional dancing and more than a little vodka. These folks are passionate about goose conservation around the world and one chap in particular struck me, as he was part of one of the original committees that designated the first RAMSAR[1]  sites.

Day Eight: 16th August

Morning

We opened nets just before dawn to enable us to give a little ringing demonstration to some of the goose conference. It was a lovely little session with Red-necked Phalarope, some stunning brick-red Curlew Sandpipers and several Long-toed Stints. This was a most interesting session demonstrating bird ringing to spectators from several different countries. Sam has left to go to Khovd Ringing Station in western Mongolia; I am sad to see him go because it leaves me on my own in terms of language. The interesting thing with this place is that it seems to be in a constant state of flux.

Our team is now Adiya, Mandakh, and me; but only Adiya and me as the ringers, so it is alternating net rounds with no rest and I have to admit that I am starting to get very tired now. As the water levels change, I have had to move a lot of the nets to optimise the positions, to ensure we can continue to catch. I am just off on a long walk now because I really want to find Mongolian Lark at night.

Later

I march quickly to the extent of the area I know and it is where we meet a farmstead. They have massive and very aggressive dogs out here and I do not want to get caught out by them. The advantage is that I have the thermal camera, so I can look out for them. They have sensed me, or at least something, from several hundred metres away and I stand still and watch them as they pace around rather purposefully. They settle down and I walk quietly away in the other direction. I then come across the subject of their rage when I see a Corsac Fox through the thermal.

 

Corsac fox seen through the Pulsar Axion 2 XG35 thermal imaging monocular.

It is pretty wary and trots off, so I get back to thinking about birds. I capture several Asian Short-toed Larks and then see another lark that looks a bit different, but before I turn the torch on, it has flown a short distance. Instinct kicks in and I follow, get near, and turn the torch on. It is a Horned Lark! It is very jumpy and runs away. I follow and sweep the net just as it flies away, this is a pretty good capture!

I return to base and take Adiya out dazzling on a spit out into the lake. There has been a small roost of Cormorants and we want to find out if they are approachable. It is impossible to approach stealthily but it is amazing to see how confused they are in the dark. The capture is actually really easy. We return to camp and place the Cormorant in a large keeping cage ready for the morning.

Day Nine 17th August

Morning

The morning’s ringing session is memorable, as I am supervising three Russians, two Mongolians, and a visiting Dutch ringer; particularly interesting as I am still new to the birds of this area and many of the birds are being colour ringed.

The Horned Lark turns out to be in wing moult and is quite scruffy. It is of the sub-species known as Steppe Horned Lark, so in theory it is the same species that I have ringed in Canada, but one day it might be split.

I then turn to the Cormorant and it is not an easy bird to handle, with sharp claws and a bill that is strong and sharp. The Korean researchers fit a satellite transmitter onto it before release.

Afternoon

We are running out of options for dazzling now as the geese have finished moulting and stay out on the lake. We have found where the Spoonbills roost and decide to have a go for them. In the same way as with the Cormorant, the Spoonbills are very easy to approach and we capture one with the net using the thermal imager.

We also come across a Teal feeding in the marsh and, despite a very noisy approach, we manage to catch it. The mist netting has picked up and we ring a superb variety of birds in the morning, including White-winged Black Tern, Long-toed Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Temmincks Stint, an amazing six Red-necked Phalaropes, and the only Lapwing of the Autumn.

Red-necked Phalaropes (left), Spoonbill (right)

The Korean researchers have failed to catch any ducks, but they have managed to satellite tag the Spoonbill for their studies. It is late afternoon and I realise that there has been a small influx of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and there are at least five Pere Davids Snowfinches with them.

Shorelark (left), Terek Sandpiper (right)

Evening

It is now the last night. I am ready to go home as I am so tired, but it is still sad to leave these lovely people and this amazing place.

I am out for the last dazzling session and decide to try for waders. They are mostly unapproachable, which may be due to them being in migration mode. I do manage to capture a Common Snipe and a Little Ringed Plover.

Day Ten: 18th August

Morning

I grab a few hours’ sleep and then crack on with the pre-dawn mist net rounds. This pre-dawn round is magical; the sun is rising over the mirror-like lake and it is wonderful to watch the Phalaropes spinning around on the wader scrape.

The dawn net round sees plenty of birds in the net, but there is a great big lump of a bird at the far end splashing in the water. I skate across slippery mud as fast as I can and the bird is a Ruddy Shelduck! It has actually flown through the net but has got a loop of net caught over a claw in a figure-of-eight — this is a very lucky capture.

Ruddy Shelduck (left), Cormoran (right)

Returning to camp, this is my last chance to try for the Pere Davids Snowfinch. I set a little dog-leg of two-shelf nets and put an mp3. player on with the Snowfinch call as an experiment, along with Pallas’s Reed Bunting call. The idea is that the buntings will get drawn in and may drag a Snowfinch with them.

Later

It is a lovely last morning ringing with a good variety of waders and I am delighted to ring two of my favourites: Terek Sandpiper and Broad-billed Sandpiper. Surprise of the day is a Dusky Warbler that somehow managed to catch itself in a wader net.

The Passerine net has worked brilliantly, and I have ringed twelve Pallas’s Reed Buntings, five Pere Davids Snowfinches, a Citrine Wagtail, and quite a few of my favourites: the Tree Sparrow. I think it is brilliant that the last bird I ring during my time here in Mongolia is a Tree Sparrow… a bird that I spend so much time conserving at home.

Leaving the Camp

I have been packing in between net rounds and, sadly, I have to take the last net in. I am picked up from the ringing station and taken to the Reservoir Centre to be collected by a ‘taxi’ at 11am. I wait outside in high winds with occasional hard showers. The hours tick by and still no taxi. I contact my hosts and am not getting any answers. I was looking forward to a night in a hotel with a shower and a good bed, the likelihood of this happening is now slim and I start to get concerned that I won’t even get to Ulan Bataar.

Eventually at 17:00 the taxi arrives and my bag is stuffed into the boot. The car is packed with one family of four in the front and another family of four plus me in the back. Not a word is spoken for the entire 6-hour journey and I am dropped off at the airport ready to get straight onto the plane.

Pere David’s Snowfinch (left), Roosting Tree Sparrows through the Axion 2 XG50 (right)

Devices mentioned in these diaries and available at TJ Focus: Pulsar Axion 2 XG35  

 

Notes

[1] RAMSAR sites are wetlands designated under the criteria of the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands as areas of importance for containing rare and unique wetland types. These areas are so designated due to their importance in conserving biological diversity. Since December 1975, RAMSAR has provided the only international mechanism for protecting sites of global importance. Find out more here: https://www.ramsar.org/

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