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ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

Mongolian Owls @ minus 50C (1 Viewer)

Your other lifers have provided some amazingly good compensation for the lack of owls so far Kevin! Not a word about Hazel Grouse, Rough-legged Buzzard or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker?

BTW love the nose-diving Hawk Owl - better than Tom Daley . . . or Wayne Rooney!


Ha Ha - waaay better than Rooney's ;)

Hazel Grouse, Rough-legged Buzzard & Lesser Spotted Woodpecker : hold your horses o:D
Day 5 : Wednesday 4th February 2015 (distance covered 246 kms)

It’s a Rat’s Life

More of the same, identical looking, bumpy lanes, deep forests and snowy fields .... without the GPS I'd have no idea where we were !

First big tick for me was the extremely noisy, and very large, Black Woodpecker who seemed intent on felling every tree it alighted on - such an incredibly powerful strike from that weapon of destruction - a pile of large wood chips and bark amassed at the base of each tree, bearing witness to the devastation !
Mr Zhang spotted the bird first and once we’d pinpointed it he advised it was OK to get out of the car, we probably wouldn't spook the bird if we were quiet and moved slowly, to try to get shots. So the three of us descended, set-up and then tramped through the deep snow trying to position ourselves close enough, and at the right angle, to get a clean shot (the larch trees being close enough together that they often provided a spider’s web of branches to shoot through).

However every time we got within 25-30m it would fly off deeper into the forest, leaving us frustrated in it’s wake. Not far though, just 20-30m so not enough to deter us from moving slowly forward to try again, and again, and again ! At something like 300m or so from the car enough was enough, the walk back was a lot more draining and we were all exhaling large white clouds of moisture into the frigid air with each stride.

Next up was one of the highlights of the trip, my second Northern Hawk Owl was on sentry duty, not over-enamoured with our possibly less than subtle approach, it took to the air then came down 400-500m away, well out of reach. We watched from afar for a while until it was mobbed by a likely Carrion Crow and it then disappeared into the next clearing - where we eventually found it again, after Mr. Zhang had dug the Jeep out of the deep snow for a second time.

Finally, after another failed approach on foot when it moved off to a fortuitously positioned pole, roughly100m away from us, we got to within 30-35m by approaching very slowly in the car before it then, excitingly, permitted us to dismount and start rattling off the shots.

After 10-15 mins it suddenly took off and went into a steep, almost vertical, dive, just 20m further on from it's previous perch (so maybe 50-60m from where were still shooting from, next to the jeep), it crashed violently into the dry snow sending powder flying high into the air, this quite possibly rendering it’s victim incapable of resistance. After 5 mins of inactivity (from our perspective) a head popped up as the owl scouted around to make sure it wasn't in any sort of danger, it then disappeared again, I assume it was dispatching it's victim so it wouldn’t struggle during the lift and carry.

As I mentioned in a post above, I then made a most frustrating mistake, I had stood there for near on 15 mins (or at least it seemed like that to me) from the time the owl had hit the snow but my fingers (inside the liners but outside the mittens) were now frozen solid and of course, Murphy’s Law then came into play as in the 1 minute I spent trying to warm them up on the heat pad inside the mittens, the shot I had been waiting for, of the owl lifting off with the rat, passed me by as it took off from the scene of the ambush and climbed with it's heavy prey (a large rat ?) to a nearby tree, sitting for a moment to gather it’s strength before disappearing deeper into the forest to enjoy it's hard-earned prize.

See this sequence above in Post #6.

Another Lifer arrived in the form of Dev’s superior knowledge ! We had spotted some very cute Silver Throated Bush Tits flitting on one side of the road, and then over to bushes on the other side (this in a quite open, Taiga-like, area) when Dev mentioned that these had now been split from the Eurasian Long Tailed Tits and were now known as Silver Throated Bush Tits. Nice !
Our final surprise of the day was our second owl, perched surprisingly close (just 20m into the forest) to what constitutes the main road that far out from any residential area, a scream went up inside the car as it was spotted and we urged our guide, Mr Zhang, to back up. However the Ural Owl, a bird of nervous disposition at the best of times, was having none of it and before we could get any shots off (well I got just the one, attached below) it was heading into the safety of the forest depths. For a birder these were good views, for those intent on capturing the moment in digital format, frustrating ! However that was tick #2 of the 5 owls on my Most Wanted list.

Pics Attached :

1) The only grab shot of the Ural Owl I could manage
2) The only semi-decent shot, in desperately poor light, I could get of the Long Tailed Rosefinch
3) Baikal Bullfinch (cineracea)
4) Sorry, very poor shot of the Black Woodpecker (such a tease this bird) !
5) Marsh Tit

Day List : 15 No number given means numerous viewings.

Bullfinch, Baikal (cineracea)
Crow, Carrion (80+)
Jay, Eurasian (brandtii)
Owl, Northern Hawk (1)
Owl, Ural (1) * L
Redpoll, Common
Rosefinch, Long Tailed (12+)
Rosefinch, Pallas' (<6)
Shrike, Northern Grey (1)
Sparrow, Tree
Tit, Marsh
Tit, Silver Throated Bush (5/6) * L
Woodpecker, Black * L
Woodpecker, White-backed (1) * L

Plus one Corsac (Kirsa) Fox, seen at a distance of about 400m running across a field on the outskirts of Wuerqihan.

Trip List now stands at : 31
* New For The Trip
L= Lifer


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Silver-Tailed Tits?

Do you mean Silver-throated Kevin, like this one - http://orientalbirdimages.org/search.php?p=5&Bird_ID=1404&Bird_Family_ID=&pagesize=1

I'm surprised they get that far up, thought they would all be caudatus, the white-headed ssp - http://orientalbirdimages.org/search.php?p=4&Bird_ID=1404&Bird_Family_ID=&pagesize=1

Brilliant birds whatever they look like!

Thanks for alerting me to this error Mark. Dev originally found some reference to the split on Terry's website. However that possibly does not refer to the species in this area and having checked further via IBC etc. I think the bird is a sub-species of Silver-throated Tit (white-headed though not caudatus but A. g. vinaceus which is given for this vicinity). I may be wrong of course !

I've attached the only shot I have below. This was not taken at the time we saw the 'Silver-throated' (taken a couple of days earlier), however I believe they are the same species we saw. The HBW link below giving it as a year-round resident in this region.




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Day 6 : Thursday 5th February 2015 (distance covered ca. 200 kms)

Five Tantalising Seconds

Our last day in Wuerqihan as this afternoon we will checkout around 15.30 for a 2.5 hour taxi bride to Hulun Buir where we will be picked up for the next leg of the journey to XiQi, another 3.5 hrs, to arrive around 22.00. Snowy, Eagle and Little Owls, Pere David's Snowfinch and Asian Rosy Finch are some of the hoped for goodies on offer.

However we have an earlier start (07.00) and 8 hours to clinch my nemesis and our #1 target in this location, the GGO. Hopes were not high for this bird since 4 unproductive days lay behind us. Mr Zhang told us to come back in May/June when he can promise 7-10 GGOs a day ! Ah, but will the Snowies be here, was my mostly rhetorical reply. No, only December thru sometime in March, after that they are in Siberia (a little bit further to travel).

It was barely light and ISOs were sky high, when Mr. Zhang screeched to a halt (as much as you can on ice and snow covered roads) and U-turned. Hulingxiao !! He exclaimed (that’s Chinese for Great Grey Owl). However we had just started heading back when the bird launched itself across the road and headed off into the depths of the opposite forest. 5 tantalising seconds of the great bird itself.
Mr Zhang stopped the car and we set up our cameras on mono/tripods and then slithered in the snow 2-3m down the bank under the chain link fence Mr Zhang was holding up. We then set off in pursuit of our most prized quarry, 100m with minds alert and eyes peeled, 200m further we trudged, turn right then another 100m ... to a boardwalk leading back to an entry gate to the forest and finally, despondently, back to the Pajero.

So owl #3 on the 5 Most Wanted list had been ticked, even though we failed to get a single shot between us and no matter how unsatisfactory the views were in retrospect. It did feel a bit like snacking on an energy bar when what you really craved was a full steak dinner though.

Mr Zhang drove us to a spot where he regularly picks up a variety of woodpeckers ; Three-Toed, White-backed, Lesser, Grey-headed and Great Spotted. Unfortunately out of season for the gorgeous Rufous-bellied. As soon as we entered the forest here we could hear the noisy calls of the woodpeckers and there were 5 of them going from tree to tree, however unlike the woodpeckers we’d spotted so far these stayed in, or very close to, the canopy. Great Spotted Woodpecker and White-backed Woodpecker eventually being ID’d though getting good shots proved very tough. We had no sooner returned to the 4x4 and moved off when we spotted a couple of Grey-headed Woodpecker and after getting some shots of these drove off and soon saw a couple more as we turned onto a smaller track.

A Northern Hawk Owl had us out of the car again, wonderfully clean crisp air & gorgeous blue skies above giving lie to the low temperatures, cautiously trying to approach it (ha !). A spectacular slip ended up with me flat on my back, second nature now being to protect the lens at all costs ! Another game of stalk and move (by the owl that is) saw us get some nice shots before the owl moved off into regions we could not follow.

A pair of Ravens and a Hazel Grouse rounded out the best birds of the day list.

The early finish saw us return to the hotel at 15.15 and check out 30 mins later (an extra half day, 75rmb, was charged for the late checkout) and pack ourselves like sardines into the taxi to Hailar (Hulun Buir), me sitting with my 11kgs backpack on my knees and likewise for the guys in the back. We made good time for the ca. 150kms and, after grabbing some KFC for lunch (no McD’s here) met up with our ride to XiQi who was sporting an altogether more comfortable Nissan Bluebird, and not a moment too soon as cramp was starting to tighten my calves something rotten !

Bombing along at 120-130 kph we made very good time (after I'd insisted the driver switch off the TV program he was watching, despite pretestations to the contrary, with constant furtive glances down at the mini-TV installed in the front dial console, whilst driving) ! And arrived at the hotel in XiQi at 21.15, 5 1/2 hrs after setting off from Wuerqihan.
Along the way the landscape had undergone a dramatic change, no more hills and forests, just flat, featureless, plains stretching as far as the eye could see, truly Mongolian nomad country ..... even if sadly the ‘Nomads’ no longer exist in Inner Mongolia, you will need to go across the border to find that lifestyle now.

Pics Attached :

1) White-backed Woodpecker
2) Hazel Grouse (sorry - i don't really have a decent shot).
3) Eurasian Jay (brandtii) (Frankly a simply awful shot ! We didn't spend too much time trying to get shots of this common, but lovely, though very shy bird but I thought this might interest some people, seeing the difference to the Eurasian Jay we see in Europe(glandarius).
4) Confirmation Required ! See 5) below. Black Grouse (F)
5) Confirmation Required ! We had originally (having only seen the bird from the rear) dismissed the road-side bird as another Hazel Grouse. Clearly it isn't. So my other options may be a female Black Grouse or Spotted Capercaillie. Anyone ? I'm hoping the fully socked legs can be diagnostic. Black Grouse (F)

Day List : 17 No number given means numerous viewings.

Bullfinch, Baikal (cineracea)
Bullfinch, Eurasian (1)
Crow, Carrion (large flock)
Grouse, Black (1)
Jay, Eurasian (brandtii)
Owl, Great Grey (1) * L
Owl, Northern Hawk (1)
Raven, Northern (2) * L
Redpoll, Common
Rook (large flocks)
Rosefinch, Long Tailed (2)
Rosefinch, Pallas' (2)
Sparrow, Tree
Tit, Marsh
Woodpecker, Great Spotted (1)
Woodpecker, White-backed (4)
Woodpecker, Grey-headed (4)

Plus one Fox, seen in the headlights, as we approached XiQi.

Trip List now stands at : 34
* New For The Trip
L = Lifer


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Day 7 : Friday 6th February 2015 (distance covered unknown as I somehow managed to switch the GPS off ! ca. 250 kms).

The White Ghost

Exciting times ! Snowy Owls were on everyone's Top 2 targets list for the trip and we couldn’t wait - Shuang Long, our Mongolian / Chinese speaking guide, had met up with us on arrival and confirmed that he would pick us up at 07.30.

We had checked into this awful hotel the night before, the hotel boasting smelly rooms, incredibly noisy due to zero sound damping (faux marble floors / walls everything) and loud and continuous arguing between fellow guests, who always left their room doors wide open, I saw one guy throw & smash his mobile against a wall in a fit of pique after a bout of verbal jousting and found another sleeping on the floor of the lobby the next morning when I took my gear down around 07.00. After demanding a room change I had a rather less foul smelling room and was able to prepare for the morrow.

Picked up at 07.40 (Shuang Long, our guide, advised there was no point getting out early since these owls are day-hunters and we needed their prey to be up and about too) and went for a very nice breakfast of Mongolian pancakes, eggs, soybean milk, natural unsweetened yogurt, You Tai (a soft pastry stick) along with a strong very soft cheese, to dip them in, and a very milky tea.

We set off for the snow-covered Steppes, stretching as far as the eye can see ...... and much further than that, often for hundreds of kms. We drove for an hour before turning off the main road onto the Steppes and started driving across first trails and then just the snow-covered plains.

It didn't take us long to start finding Snowies, in fact it turned out to be an incredible day. We were still covering a lot of ground and often there were simply no trails to follow, we averaged about 250 kms a day here over the two days, more even than at Wuerqihan.

We were driving across the Steppes, checking any boundary posts, earth mounds or amongst clumps of reeds, that the Snowies like to perch on/in to get better, elevated, views of the surrounding area. Believe me it’s not as easy to spot these birds that are beautifully camouflaged for a life on snow-covered tundra. Even nesting in hollow scrapes on the ground when breeding.

Our first Snowy Owl was spotted at some 100-150m away, inconspicuously perched on the ground next to a clump of reeds. First view up close is shocking, they are very large owls at around or close to 70 cms high (males a little smaller), have a huge wingspan of up to 1.5m and are exceptionally beautiful. In fact they captivate and hold you entranced. We could hardly tear our eyes from our bins / camera viewfinders but the 4x4 had stopped maybe 40m from the owl and we were encouraged to get out slowly and edge towards the owl.

Over the next 20-30 mins we edged & crawled to within maybe 20m and then sat there whilst the owl cast glances our way, stopping and studying us face on for a few seconds up to a minute, whilst swivelling her head around to check for potential prey, or danger. This was far beyond our expectations, we had not dreamt that the Snowies would allow us so close (actually it was only the females that were unafraid, with the two males we encountered it was near impossible to get to within even 50m), fantastic !

Over the next few hours we had more, similar, encounters. The most incredible being a female perched on a fence post who allowed the three of us to approach oh so slowly (in Indian file, one person moving forward foot by foot whilst the other two stayed still and warned when she was looking directly at us) to within 10m. Ten Metres !! Simply spine tingling … and one of the most thrilling encounters of my life.

Shuang Long suddenly declared he had spotted another owl, except this time it was the final owl of our ‘Top 5 Most Wanted’ … an Eagle Owl. Apparently it was on the deck huddled up against a large clump of reeds but we had a really tough time picking it out ! Great camouflage.
We slowly circled around the clump of reeds/owl at a distance of about 25m, so we could get a better look. The owl didn’t move, confident of it’s concealment, but watched us intently.

Eventually though it took flight after a lady in the other car (there was another 4x4 with 3 birders/togs, though they weren’t always with us and apart from this one time none of them ever braved putting feet on the ground - later telling me it was far too cold for them to leave the comfort of their car :) ) got out with her bins and circled behind the owl.
The speed in which it took off was in complete contrast to the Snowies, which were relatively sedate. The Eagle Owl literally exploded into flight and was soon out of camera range …. though it’s landing site easy to find as an Upland Buzzard was buzzing it, intent on chasing the Eagle Owl from it’s territory, eventually succeeding before we could settle in to watch it again.

We had had an exceptional day, seeing 7 Snowies in total (6 certain females and 1 'disputed' bird Shuang Long declared a male though we had our doubts - it was a very nervous and very white bird though, typical of the males). Even when we weren't on the trail of a Snowy there was more to enthral ; simply gorgeous herds of the small, extremely tough, Mongolian Horses, the Eagle owl, a Little owl with prey, a kestrel with prey, Mongolian and Horned Larks (the Mongolian are not only the largest but easily the most lovely larks I've seen) and numerous buzzards. A day absolutely packed to the gills with absolutely top quality birding, even if not quantity.

Pics attached :

1. Snowy Owl
2. Little Owl
3. Rough-legged Buzzard (from 200m away, in Wuerqihan)
4. On the tundra waiting for the sunset.
5. In the snow at 50C below. Note the strong wind stirring up snow crystals.

A complete change in environment, from Taiga to Tundra, meant new birds & more Lifers … and a totally different look to the day’s species list.

Day List : 9 No number given means numerous viewings.

Buzzard, Rough-legged (3)
Buzzard, Upland (5) * L
Kestrel, Eurasian (6)
Lark, Horned * L
Lark, Mongolian * L
Owl, Eagle (1) * L
Owl, Little (1) * L
Owl, Snowy (7 x F and 1 x M)(some may or may not have been repeat viewings though we covered a vast area so it’s very possible all were in fact different individuals). * L
Sparrow, Tree

Trip List now stands at : 41
* New For The Trip
L = Lifer


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