Tuesday 9 October 2018

Mongolia, the journey continues.

This is the second Mongolian blog and the contents are Birds of Prey only. We were aware there were opportunities to catch and ring Birds of Prey but were not aware of how the birds were caught prior to our arrival to the Khurkh Bird Ringing Station.

Wedged between Russia in the north and China in the south is Mongolia the second largest landlocked country in the world. To the east and slightly north from the capital city Ulaanbaatar is KBRS, it is probably one of the remotest areas around the world at 1200 metres above sea level. It is as if time has stood still, but most famously, Mongolia is the resting place of Chinggis Khaan which roughly translates to "Universal Ruler" who came to power uniting all the countries famous warriors from the different nomadic tribes and went on to conquer large chunks of China and Central Asia.

It takes 9 hours to get there, mostly on dirt tracks. This is a stunning country, with great blue skies, amazing landscapes, grasslands and in our case lots of habitat with scrub trees running along the side of a small river which became a magnet for all the amazing birds we caught. The landscape was forbidding but beautiful and sitting quietly all you could hear were birds, literally only birds.
Daily around the tops of the hills and valleys we could scan the horizon constantly watching birds of prey soring in the blue skies above, going over one hill top to the next. Often we would see birds of prey squabbling with each other and sometimes the small birds chasing off the larger ones.

The list of Birds of Prey we saw including those we caught are as follows. I might have missed a few.


Lesser Kestrel, first one caught and ringed for KBRS.
Common Kestrel
Japanese Sparrowhawk
Amur Falcon
Hen Harrier
Long-eared Owl


Black-eared Kite
Steppe Eagle
Sakar Falcon
Black Vulture
Upland Buzzard
Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Steppe Eagle
Eastern Marsh Harrier
Pied Harrier

Colin extracting an Amur Falcon. There is a line of 4 x 60ft nets on top of one of the highest hills. This is where all the Birds of Prey were caught and seemed to be reasonably successful. We had to close the nets on several occasions because the wind speeds became to high, the nets became like big sails and then a few hours later it had calmed down again. Other birds were also caught in the nets, Pine Bunting, Chough, Daurian Jackdaw, Magpie and Rook. Access to the nets was about a 20 minute walk the long way round which was not so steep. The nets could be viewed with binoculars from the Yurt.

Common Kestrel

Common Kestrel, nothing special about this I hear you say, but it is the first one I have ever ringed, no matter where I have been to so I was very pleased to have done it.

Japanese Sparrowhawk. Very similar to our Sparrowhawks at home but much smaller birds. To give you an idea the wing length of one of the two caught was 165mm with a weight of 109.6gms. One of my UK birds I caught last year had a wing length 203mm with a weight of 166.3gms, a considerable difference.

We had two German guys with us for the two weeks we were there, Abu and Jonas. Both these guys as well as the Mongolians hold their birds differently than we do for taking pictures the emphasis holding the wings and tails like all the wing and tail pictures on this blog, including this Japanese Sparrowhawk and other birds. I have to say I have never seen it done in the UK but these guys were very experienced at it and no birds came to any harm. As you can see I was able to get some stunning pictures.

Japanese Sparrowhawk

The Amur Falcon for me was the most exciting bird of the trip. I had read about them before the holiday and really hoped to catch at least one. Three birds were caught in the first half of the first week, then they were gone. 

Their diet is mainly insects, grasshoppers and beetles which they catch on the wing  but do catch small birds and amphibians. At the ringing station it was noticeable that there was a large population of grasshoppers.

We were told that the best way to age this Falcon was to look under the wings. The grey colour between the white spots on the primaries and secondaries is rather narrow making this bird a juvenile. On adult birds the spacing between the white spots is larger. We had to be reliant on Batmunkh for help when it came to some of the birds of Prey because there was no reference books like Bakers guide to Identification of European Non-Passerines to help out.

They breed in south eastern Siberia and northern China. I have read they actually migrate half way around the world in large flocks to over winter in South Africa. They weigh around 150gms but have the strength, stamina and bodily reserves to fly the 13000km from their breeding grounds to their wintering quarters, feeding on the wing as they go.
It is estimated 110,000 birds have been recorded arriving in South Africa during the main migration period. Enroute many birds are trapped and killed for food in India. Education has improved this and reduced these deaths.  Amur's feed on insects on the wing, most of the insects they eat are mosquitoes and it is said this has helped to reduce malaria.

The Lesser Kestrel was a new bird for the Ringing Station.

The Lesser Kestrel is smaller than the common Kestrel. It has long pointed wings and a long tail. Males and females are distinguishable by colouring. This bird is a female, the head and back are mid brown, males have a blue/grey head and cheek and a darker brown back, they also lack the tail feather bars as can be seen on this female.

Just the one Long-eared Owl was captured.

Long-eared Owls do migrate, The numbers in the UK do increase with the arrivals from the continent during Winter. They arrive from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia and Mongolia. We do know for a fact one bird ringed in Cumbria was found  8 months later in western Russia 3,279km from its ringing site.

This bird is a juvenile Hen Harrier, caught in the nets at the top of the hill. Processing the bird first and then fixing a tracker.

All Birds of Prey have excellent eyesight which they use to locate their prey.
To keep them calm and not distracted by anything a small hood is fitted over its head. The hood is only removed when the bird is ready to be released.

First it was aged and then wing and weight was done prior to fitted a transmitter.

A satellite transmitter in the form of a back-pack is mounted to track large birds on migration. It is a two person job and the young lady is Tuvshee. Who looked after us in Ulaanbaatar and throughout the holiday and was also an experienced ringer and assistant ringer to Batmunkh.

Fixing it to the top of the body below the head of the Harrier is done using tapes and tying from underneath and the end of the ties goes up between the wing and the flanks of the bird and then through the eyelets on either side of the transmitter and tied off. Loose ends then removed.

From what I understand the tracker regularly transmits, these signals are monitored somewhere in Northern China.

The finished bird. I do not know how heavy the tracker is on this Harrier but I did pick one up and it felt very light, maybe the weight of 30-40gms.

Batmunkh is going to release the Hen Harrier. The bird is relaxed and ready to go.

Always like to take a head picture, all Birds of Prey have such piercing eyes.

It looks strange with the transmitter on its back but the bird was fine and lifted off the ground and flew into the distance and it was gone.

To sum up, this was an awesome holiday the long journey time to get there was well rewarded. We caught lots of new species, we had 1600 birds in 10 days, had some really wonderful Mongolian company, learnt a great deal, including their culture and went to an amazing part of the world which was breathtakingly beautiful.
A very big thank you to Batmunkh and Tuvshee for all their help when we were finding out about the Kurkh Bird Ring Station which started back in January/February this year and for the many replies from the many emails we have sent to Batmunkh over the year. I can honestly say he is now a friend to all of us The team was myself Charlie Sargent, Stu Brown, Paul Ashworth and Colin McShane. A big thank you to Colin for finding this holiday and convincing us all it would be a holiday of a lifetime and for doing all the organisation for the trip.
Finally another big thank you to Nyambayer Batbayer (far right seated) who is the Director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre in Mongolia for spending time with us and taking a big interest in our plans for the two weeks we were there and also sharing with us and explaining all the projects that are currently being worked on in the huge country of Mongolia, see for further information. www.wscc.org.mn

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