Saturday, April 26, 2008

Spring is late

Spring comes late to Mongolia. I walked down by the river this afternoon 26 April to look in scrub for migrants but there were few about. Black-eared kite, Daurian Redstart, Pine Bunting and White Wagtail. On my trip to countryside on 15 April wheatears were suddenly all over steppe, well the males any way, three species, isabelline, northern and desert and Black kite were overhead but. I have seen few migrants in and around UB, a dark phase booted eagle was notable.

The drive to Tetserleg was interesting; birding from a speeding landcruiser can be like a video game, a quick identification before the bird disappears. At first the flocks of larks were challenging. Mongolian lark was easy, a big long winged bird with a large wing panel (almost like a redshank) but nevertheless a frustrating way to see a new species, with no chance to check finer plumage details , or to be sure that none were the similar but in Mongolia scarce white winged lark. Similarly I assume the large herring type gulls were in fact Mongolian Gull but from landcruiser i was unable to check critical identification features. The plumage difference of other larks less obvious, but white trailing edge to secondaries was skylark, and I soon worked out the shore larks. There were short-toed larks but could have been one or all of three species

As well as the larks the journey was great for raptors. Black Vulture probably commonest raptor but also saw 1 griffon vulture, 2 rough legged and 8 or 9 Upland Buzzard, 1 Steppe Buzzard. In Tetsereleg I was delighted to get excellent views of goshawk. First in the evening flying up a valley and then the next day a huge female appeared from nowhere to take a Daurian jackdaw from a flock about 20 metres from me, it perched on the ground killing its prey for a few seconds before flying of. In southern England goshawk is a rare bird, and inexperienced birders often try to claim a sparrowhawk as a goshawk, but it really is one of those birds that when you see a goshawk it is so different from a sparrowhawk there is no doubt. I also saw hen harrier marsh harrier and I think a pied harrier but the view was not good enough to be sure it was not an eastern marsh harrier.

There has been a change in the jackdaws over the last month. In the first half of April most were almost white bellied adult Daurian, Then in Arkhangai the dark bird predominated, and now back in UB the dark first year birds predominate and most of the pale adult birds seem to have moved on.

Escape from UB at last.

At last a trip to the countryside, escape from UB. A four day trip to Arhangai, 500km to west of UB, in the centre of Mongolia . Mercy Corps have several tourism business clients and I was going to assess the businesses, look at training needs and familiarise myself with countryside tourism.

We travelled in style, a Toyota land cruiser with MC driver and interpreter, Deegi; in the land cruiser it only took 6 hours compared to the 8 or 9 in a Russian jeep or a bus. They are building the road to the Arkhangai and the west of Mongolia, and though the sub base is down only about one third of the road is surfaced. There are still few roads in Mongolia, and there is major investment to provide roads linking the major regional centres. Away from the main centres there are no roads, just tracks across the countryside.

We skirted the northern edge of the Gobi passing sand dunes and camels; everywhere the landscape is heavily overgrazed. I knew that overgrazing and desertification are important issues in Mongolia, but was still astonished at how overgrazed and dusty the landscape was; occasional dust devils whirled across the landscape, clouds of dust marked the journey of other vehicles, and overtaking was difficult, where exactly was the vehicle in the dust cloud ahead? In 1991 there were 20 million or so animals now there are more than 40 million. With the collapse of the communist government and withdrawal of Russian support many jobs disappeared and people took to grazing livestock, many without experience. Now there are lots of poor quality animals at a time when markets are demanding quality. The overgrazing has other implications, desertification is an issue as dust storms threaten Beijing, there is also a knock on effect on wildlife as grazing extends up the hillside, the forests are destroyed by grazing, wild herbivores are threatened, wolves, snow leopards and other predators start taking more livestock, so are hunted more and the grazing pressure simplifies complex habitats. In addition climate change seems to be hitting Mongolia harder than most countries with the recorded rise in average temperatures nearly double the global average.

Mongolia must be one of the few countries in the world where people do not look forward to spring It is a difficult time for herders; the landscape was littered with dead animals, great for the black vultures and ravens, but a tough time for herders. When dry summers are followed by severe winters there is often mass starvation of animals. In 2001 and 2002 more than 10 million animals died. The Mongolians have a word for such hard springs Dzuvd.

Now back in UB the weather is windy, blowing dust everywhere with rapid changes in temperature. One day it was 25, the next day it was snowing.