The office was closed for 10 days around the Mongolian National holiday Naadam so I decided to join the World Conservation Society team studying avian influenza in wild birds in the north of Mongolia. I met up with them in Murun and we travelled to Erhel Nuur, a brackish lake just under an hours drive from Murun. Erhel Nuur was the site of two outbreaks of avian influenza, in whooper swans. After pitching camp we split into three teams and walked around the lake shore looking for dead birds. This is repeated three times a year a part of annual monitoring for avian influenza. There were only six long dead birds, but plenty of living ones. The lake is an important site for moulting waterfowl; there were 120+ whooper swans, 2000 pochard. Other waterfowl included ruddy shelduck, goldeneye, shoveller, pintail, teal, tufted duck, wigeon, gadwall. Southward wader migration was just beginning and there were curlew, wood sandpiper, green sandpiper, common sandpiper, redshank, spotted redshank, unidentified stints and avocet. The next day Martin picked out 4 falcated duck on the shoreline and we headed north to the Darkhad depression, a 10 hour drive to the north and close to the Russian border so we needed border permits. We camped overnight in a broad valley where the previous year there had been a Lammergeir. In the morning I was woken by the persistent call of Blyth’s Pipit, and Pacific Swifts screaming if front of their cliff nests.. The density of birds in Mongolian steppe is often low. Why are there so few harriers and short eared owl in Mongolia when they are abundant in seemingly similar habitat in Kazakhstan? Is it because the grassland is so over grazed and just too short?
We arrived at Darkhad the next day, pitched camp, -there were 8 students, 4 drivers, 2 cooks, 6 biologists an myself and explored the immediate area. There were flocks of bar heads on the river may be 3 or 4 hundred in total but few whooper swans, the other target species. A young white tailed eagle was still in its nest but surely ready for its first flight, common tern fished in the river and goldeneye and gadwall were on the river and pools. But there were relatively few passerines,- horned lark on the grassland, tree sparrows in the copse where earlier in the year Martin had seen lesser spotted woodpecker (I have seen more lesser spotted woodpeckers in 6 months in Mongolia than during the last 6 years birding in southern England) and heard Tengalms’ Owl.
I stayed with the team for 3 nights and we had two catches of bar heads, and left before a newly built pen was tested. In all we caught more than 70 birds. For each bird samples were taken of blood, from throat and before they were fitted with an individually marked neck collar. The collars mean the birds can be followed on their migration. Last year bar heads from Darkhad were seen in India during winter.