Today Mongolia will hold its fourth presidential election. But enough about that. (Seriously, all my Mongolian friends are profoundly bored with the two choices offered to them this go ‘round, both of whom are very well-known to everyone. If you really must have details, here y’go.) It’s May, and what else is there to think about, really, other than migratory birds?
We all have our thing to keep our minds in balance, don’t we? Mine is tromping around outdoors looking for and identifying different kinds of birds – birding. What? Oh, right, yes, and meditation too.
Birding gets me completely out of my head and kind of merged with the surrounding environment. Just about every time I go out is enjoyable, but yesterday was epic. I’ve fallen in with a couple of Brits, Brian and Tom, who combine two excellent qualities: being sharp world birders and easy company. We have also befriended local birders, and yesterday Ishee accompanied us to Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve, about two hours east of town.
Gün-Galuut was formed on the one hand to protect known habitat of the wild argali sheep. But, while large mammals are all cuddly and stuff, the main draw for us was that Gün-Galuut also preserves the westernmost breeding grounds for the rare White-naped Crane, only about 5000 of which remain in the world.
On the way out, I finally got a chance to admire the gigantic silver statue of Chingghis Khan recently erected.
It’s pretty impressive, and I hear that for about ten bucks you can go all the way up inside of it and look out on...well, what you look out on at ground level – an endless expanse of grass. We passed on that experience and continued on to the reserve. We’d be doing plenty of squinting across what must be the world’s largest front lawn, for free.
As we neared the reserve, the day began auspiciously with a totally unexpected lifer for everyone, the very handsome Oriental Plover. (For you non-birders, a “lifer” is birding shorthand for a “life bird,” that is, a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life. It gets marked down on your “life list,” or the list of all the bird species you’ve seen in your life. Given that there are about 10,000 bird species around the planet, this habit can build into obsession and competitiveness rarely seen in the natural world. I’m infected, but I have a comparatively mild case. A recent book, at the top of my must-get, um, list, documents the full-blown pathology.)
The rest of the habitat – blending short-grass steppe; shallow, semi-saline lakes; tussocky marshland; a section of Mongolia’s longest river, the Kherlen; and low, craggy hills, proved to be a veritable playground for spring-fevered birders. Not only was the avifauna itself amazing, but the Mongolian steppe setting provided spectacular framing and some funny interchanges you wouldn’t have many other places on Earth:
“Raptor drifting in, 10 o’clock, heading left. OK, now past the camel herd and over the yaks. Passing the black and white yak...now!”
“Which one, the hybrid yak or the yak yak?”
“The yak yak.”
The highlight, of course, was the exquisite elegance of the two White-naped Crane pairs we located. Again, the vista could not have been more superbly Mongolian. My camera doesn’t have much of a zoom, so I circled the crane location:
We also got to see them engage in their unique courtship behavior of throwing their heads to the sky and exchanging ululating vocalizations. It felt like a rare privilege, almost sacred somehow. (I should refer you to Peter Mathiessen’s wonderful tome, The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes.) All over the steppe, in fact, the male birds were trotting out their best moves for the ladies, in both earthbound and aerial dance displays amplified by lusty song. We caught a quite unabashed pair of Little Ringed Plovers in the act of “treading,” and at least one lark couple mated successfully, though their judgment might be a little off, stitching a nest together as they did in the middle of a cow pie:
All of us had a multiple-lifer day, but I had the big haul with eight, all uniquely gorgeous. Other than the crane and plover, I added Asian Short-toed Lark, Bar-headed Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Spotted Redshank, Falcated Duck, and Temminck’s Stint, as well as the delicate Marsh Sandpiper as a new bird for Mongolia (yes, we keep lists for individual countries; it gets way worse than that, you don’t even want to know).
I should also say that if you ever visit Mongolia, I can unreservedly recommend the tourist ger camp at the Gün-Galuut, Steppe Nomads.
Was anyone else here a Bugs Bunny fan? That’s where the post title’s from.