Mongolia’s Enigmatic Wildlife

The “Gray Ghost” (Snow Leopard), Bactrian Camel, Pallas’s Cat, Altai Snowcock, and much more.

This is one of our new series of tours that we are calling Enigmatic Wildlife Tours (EWT). While most birding and wildlife tours focus on seeing as much as possible, very few focus on quality encounters with the least known and most charismatic wildlife on the planet. Tropical Birding’s new EWT tours focus on encounters with some of Earth’s most desirable and poorly-known species, and we shall use our time to make sure we maximize our chances of unforgettable encounters. While we do so, we shall certainly enjoy all the other wildlife around us, and not neglect all the other surrounding beauty. It’s important to mention that while we will do everything we can do to find these rare animals, nothing is guaranteed.

Mongolia needs little introduction – its wilderness is near-legendary and it is home to the Mongol horsemen descendants of the famous Ghengis and Kublai Khan. It remains a land as exotic as it is mysterious. Nomadic tribes still live on Asia’s most extensive plains, hemmed in by incredible mountain landscapes. Although the wildlife is the focus of our exploration of this area, it is hard not be impressed by the remarkable history and lifestyle of the Mongolian people. This tour targets two of the most amazing mammals on the planet, the “Gray Ghost” (Snow Leopard) and Bactrian Camel. We have good chances for Snow Leopard at low altitudes and in summer (rather than in frigid winter in India, where most other groups go for the world’s most enigmatic big cat), but we will need to be glued to our scopes as we scan for this master of camouflage. In addition, we will see a slew of other wildlife on this summer trip, rather than be confined to the icy slopes of the high Himalayas in winter. The other “mega” mammal here is the Bactrian Camel; some of the last 1400-odd remaining wild camels exist in the Gobi-A, a remote wilderness where very few have ventured. Even just the chance of finding this incredible double-humped rarity is enough to get the adrenaline flowing. We will be in the best area on Earth for this beast. Pallas’s Cat is another realistic target at a few breeding locations. This squat-faced alpine cat embodies everything that is a wildlife enigma: rare, stunning, strange, and desirable. Even with our focus on rare mammals, there will be plenty of time for birding too. We will target many of the amazing rare and local birds of Mongolia, including Altai Snowcock in the high-altitude Gobi, Henderson’s Ground-Jay, majestic Saker Falcons, the stunning Oriental Plover in breeding plumage, the cryptic but elegant Pallas’s Sandgrouse, and Mongolia’s only endemic, Kozlov’s Accentor.


This 17-day trip is fairly comprehensive, and we cover more than enough terrain to get a real in-depth feel for Mongolia and nearly everything it has to offer, including spending a few nights in the famous Yurt tents, as well as some mobile tented camps that will be fairly rustic (the only accommodation in the most remote and beautiful of Mongolia’s landscapes). For those that have not yet had enough, we have a 3-day extension to the comfortable Hustai NP not far from Ulanbataar. This glorious wilderness area is where the Przewalski’s Horse was saved from extinction, and they breed there now. We might also encounter Siberian Jerboa, Steppe Polecat, and Mongolian Lark.

We would be ecstatic to get even remotely close to the
We would be ecstatic to get even remotely close to the "Grey Ghost". (Otgonbayar Baatargal)

Due to the logistical challenges of visiting such remote areas, and unpredictable road conditions, this itinerary may be modified with little advance notice. However we will make every effort to reach all the key regions for the region’s remarkable wildlife.

Day 1: Ulaanbaatar. Today we arrive in the strange capital of Mongolia. Without much history it is a strange hodge-podge of modern buildings and nomad tents, that betray Mongolia’s recent development from a much more traditional past. In the afternoon we will enjoy a stroll down the tree-lined Tuul River, where we are likely to encounter the first of our central Asian specialty birds such as Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline-Tit and White-cheeked Starling. However, the riverine scrub may also hide some buntings, tits and leaf-warblers. The river may also hold Common Merganser, and some shorebirds.

The riverbeds near Ulaanbaatar are home to the stunning Azure Tit.
The riverbeds near Ulaanbaatar are home to the stunning Azure Tit. (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Ulanbataar to Arvaikheer. Our long drive west takes us into the Mongolian steppe, and we’ll make our first search for one of Earth’s most interesting shorebirds – the Oriental Plover. These chestnut-breasted beauties breed here in low densities, but with enough scouring we ought to find them. We may also see vultures at a carcass, an increasingly rare phenomenon anywhere in Asia these days. After the long day we check into a small hotel in Arvaikheer.

The open steppe is home to Oriental Plover, one of Earth’s standout shorebirds.
The open steppe is home to Oriental Plover, one of Earth’s standout shorebirds. (Otgonbayar Baatargal)

Day 3: Orog Lake. Today we drive farther west, visiting the impressive Orog Lake en-route. As the dunes and cracked parchment of the desert gets drier we keep an eye out for Midday Jird, Mongolian Antelope, Asian Desert Warbler, the stunning Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground-Jay, and at the lake some waterfowl and shorebirds. We overnight in a mobile tented camp tonight. Although things will be simple, the amazing wilderness of where we are ought to make up for that!

Midday Jird ( a type of gerbil) is common at Hustai NP and elsewhere in Mongolia.
Midday Jird ( a type of gerbil) is common at Hustai NP and elsewhere in Mongolia. (Keith Barnes)

Days 4-5: Ikh Bogd Uul. Our main target in these rugged mountains is an amazing a local enigma. Here the curlew-like ringing calls of the Altai Snowcock ring across the valleys, but it is no easy feat to see these birds and we will require much effort to find this amazing gamebird. However, reaching the hills and getting into the habitat for the bird is not straight-forward, and so we’ll be utilizing the 4×4 vehicles to get into the core area where we can find this, the most elusive snowcock on Earth, another true enigma. But there is plenty else to look for here including Grey-necked and Godlewski’s Buntings, Pied Wheatear (vittata), Black Redstart, Brown Accentor, Barred Warbler, White-winged Snowfinch, Mongolian Finch, Twite, Bearded and Himalayan Vultures, and Chukar. If the mountain road is in good condition, we will climb 3400 m asl mountain to get high altitude species including Hodgson’s Bushchat, Asian Rosy Finch, White-winged and Guldenstadt’s Redstarts, and Water Pipit.

The Altai Snowcock is in the same region as the Snow Leopard and would be a great find.
The Altai Snowcock is in the same region as the Snow Leopard and would be a great find. (Otgonbayar Baatargal)

Day 6: Shinejinst. To access the Gobi-A Wilderness – one of Earth’s most untouched wilderness areas – we need to push further into the desert and today will be another long driving day, but not without its rewards. We overnight in Shinejinst.

Days 7-10: Great Gob-A Strictly Protected Area. Great Gobi-A Strictly Protected Area provides habitat to many endangered species such as the Siberian Ibex, Argali sheep, Gobi Brown Bear and Wild Bactrian Camel. This was included in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 1990 as one of the largest biosphere reserves in the world (5.3 million hectares). The main targets in this land will be to track down and maybe photograph Wild Bactrian Camel, Asiatic Wild Ass, Goitered Gazelle, with an outside chance of Snow Leopard. In this wilderness, we will stay in tented camps visiting oases, plains and mountains.

We spend a lot of time looking for Snow Leopard - the most enigmatic of the big cats.
We spend a lot of time looking for Snow Leopard - the most enigmatic of the big cats. (Otgonbayar Baatargal)

Days 11-14: Tost and Toson Bumbyn Nuruu. This recently declared Nature Reserve is one of Mongolia’s first. Its main aim is as a sanctuary for Snow Leopard, and we will visit the Snow Leopard Trust to learn more about their work and to engage a skilled local guide to give us our best chances of finding the ‘Grey Ghost’. Nothing is guaranteed, but these guys are among the most skilled in the world at finding this elusive animal. We need to be prepared for many hours of scanning the rugged terrain where this cat blends in so well. While searching, however, we can hope to see their main prey: the Bighorn Argali and Siberian Ibex. Some night-drives in this area can deliver some superb animals including the Large-eared Jerboa (perhaps the planet’s most endearing rodent – just google it!), Pygmy Jerboa, Steppe Polecat and Pallas’ Cat.

We visit a breeding area for Pallas’s Cat, and our luck may depend on whether we find a den.
We visit a breeding area for Pallas’s Cat, and our luck may depend on whether we find a den. (Otgonbayar Baatargal)

Day 15: Khongoryn Els. Emerging from the true wilderness have a long drive east before we enter the sand dune and Saxual scrub desert. This unique and different habitat supports Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground-Jay and the habitat specific Saxual Sparrow. We also know a local artesian well that attracts the stunning Pallas’ Sandgrouse.

Day 16: Yolyn Am. Heading farther east we make our way towards Gobi Gurvan Saikhan NP, but will be sleeping in yurts for the night as we explore the incredible Gobi Altai mountains that rise up above 2500 m. However, it is the surrounding spectacularly beautiful mountains that offer us our most desired quarry. The juniper stands hold Mongolia’s only near-endemic, Kozlov’s Accentor. While searching for this specialty we ought to encounter Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown Accentor and Godlewski’s Bunting. There are some spectacular raptors here, none less impressive than the massive Lammergeier for which the valley is named. But others including the massive and impressive Saker Falcon and Upland Buzzard patrol these skies, and Cinereous and Himalayan Griffon Vultures soar and we will always be alert to their potential presence. On the mammalian front, Ibex are present, as are the huge Argali sheep, but we would have to be lucky to see them; Snow Leopards also occur, but we will have to be happy just being in their presence, as these shy cats are extremely seldom seen here.

The stunning Lammergeier is a frequent and welcome sight on this tour.
The stunning Lammergeier is a frequent and welcome sight on this tour. (Keith Barnes)

Day 17: Yolyn Am to Ulanbataar and Departure. After some final birding in the Yolyn Am area we will slowly return to Dalanzadgad where we will fly to Ulaanbaatar where the main tour draws to a close. For those continuing on the extension we will overnight in the luxury of a hotel in Ulanbataar.

Hustai NP extension – 4 days

Day 1: Ulanbataar. After arrival in the capital, we overnight in Ulanbataar.

Days 2-3: Hustai NP. We drive 100 km west of Ulaanbataar, to a delightful Yurt camp near the Khentii Mountains, and the gateway to the incredible Hustai NP. The main objective is to see the Przewalski’s Horse, which almost went extinct, but is recovering well and can be seen in places like Hustai. Other mammals include Red Deer, Mongolian Gazelle and Wild Boar. This amazing place is even home to Gray Wolves and Eurasian Lynx, but we have only the slimmest chances at encountering one of these rare mammals. Golden Eagle, Mongolian Lark, Whooper Swan, Daurian Partridge, Black Stork and Little Owl are some of the interesting birds we might find here. We will be based in a comfortable Yurt camp for two-nights.

Hustai is the place where Przewalski's Horse was saved from extinction, and they are doing well there now.
Hustai is the place where Przewalski's Horse was saved from extinction, and they are doing well there now. (Keith Barnes)

The stunning Mongolian Lark is certainly the most striking lark in the country.
The stunning Mongolian Lark is certainly the most striking lark in the country. (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Hustai NP to Ulanbataar. After another morning s Hustai we pack-up and return to Ulanbataar where the extension draws to a close.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Finding open country species is not dependent on extremely early starts. However, we will have a few earlier starts to look for certain birds. Breakfast is typically served around 7:00am. Mongolia is a huge country, and we do a lot of driving on this tour. This is likely to be the most difficult element of the trip, with long days on unpaved and rutted roads. However, this is the only way to access the most remote areas with the very best birds and mammals, so it is an unavoidable hardship. There will also be a fair amount of night-drives offered to see some of Mongolia’s best nocturnal mammals. These will always be optional, so if you would rather get some rest you can easily skip some of them.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. You will need to be able to walk at least 3 miles (5 km) per day on average, some of that on mountain trails, although these are not slippery. We will walk slowly, especially at altitude. Most of the mammals will be searched for from the vehicles or from lookouts.

CLIMATE: Usually mild to hot (mostly 50°-90°F, 12°-30°C), but it can get cold in the mountains and may even reach freezing on occasion. On the open plains it can get very windy, but mostly it is a just a light breeze.

ACCOMMODATION: This is not a tour for those looking for luxury. In Ulanbaatar we stay in good tourist hotels, which have private bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. While off the beaten track (much of the tour) we will be camping in basic gers, which are nomadic Mongol-style huts. These will have beds, a wash basin and heater. The bathrooms and dining facilities are separate, and fairly basic. Warm water is often available, or can be arranged. There will be limited electricity when we stay in the gers. In the remote Gobi-A and Tost reserves we will be in A-frame tents in very basic conditions. We will have solar-shower facilities and camp toilets.

FOOD: Food will mostly be local stews, potatoes, and simple salads. Although vegetarians can be catered for, in general the choices of food in these remote locations are rather limited. If you have strict dietary requirements, please speak to the office before booking.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is not a Photo Tour, and the objective is to observe the wildlife of the region. However, there will be ample opportunities for casual photography, and we will indulge them whenever time permits

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best taken during late spring or early summer to maximize sightings of rare mammals and breeding birds.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Historically Mongolia has been a country that has not had strong diplomatic relationships with other nations and most nationalities required visas. The only exceptions are citizens of the USA, Canada, Japan and Malaysia. Almost all other nationalities require visas. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 16 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 17 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee during meals are available; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 17 if taking only the main tour, or to the afternoon of day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on the designated arrival and departure days (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 17 (and to day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a domestic flight from Dalanzadgad to Ulaanbaatar; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the city hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.