Meeting Report: Scottish Birds in Mongolia

Date: 
28 March 2015
Speaker(s): 
Barbara and Richard Mearns

The annual meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society held in Galloway 2014–2015 took place in Castle Douglas. Illness of the intended speaker at the eleventh hour meant that the membership was greatly indebted to Barbara and Richard Mearns, respected ornithologists, who agreed to step in as replacements to present a talk, Scottish Birds in Mongolia.

Richard's mother visited the country in the 1930s. The Mearns like to "go camping in the middle of nowhere in fine weather". On a map, to locate Mongolia, a Communist country till the 1990s, find Lake Baikal and move southwards. Arriving in gridlocked Ulaan Bator, 4,500feet above sea level, and having teamed up with a trio arranged for them by the Mongolian Ornithological Society, comprising driver of their sturdy Russian vehicle (with spare petrol tank), guide and female cook, they sought the wide open spaces of northern parts of this country of three million people, almost half of whom live in the capital, in a land twenty times the size of Scotland and for which there is no published ornithological guide book.

Richard stressed that the birds they largely planned to show by means of their excellent photography were not birds that had migrated between Scotland and Mongolia, but rather species whose range extended from Scotland as far as Mongolia.

They aimed to track down Pallas's Sandgrouse, a bird that has occurred in Scotland only ten times in the last few years at, for instance, Southerness and Torrs Warren.

The great tit, nuthatch and common buzzard were widespread, as they are in Scotland now, although the nuthatch is a recent arrival north of the border. Immediately the audience was impressed by the quality of the photography and the couple's success in viewing an immense number of species in three weeks.

Richard undertook to cover wetland and scrubland habitats. Shallow lakes were more productive of sightings than large deep ones. Whooper swans, tufted and pochard duck were very much in evidence, just as they are at Mersehead and Caerlaverock, but it was a thrill for them to see for the very first time whooper cygnets. Flocks of greylag geese were to be seen, but they were a different, greyer form. Rarer Scottish species such as the Eurasian spoonbill, which bred in Kirkcudbright a few years ago, white-tailed sea eagle, black-winged stilt and the black-throated diver were viewed. Snipe, plover, dunlin, curlew and cormorant were among the many species added to their list. As it was June they came across nests of eggs and chicks.

On the Mongolian grassland of the Eurasian Steppes camels were encountered: they were not wild but owned by someone. There were huge numbers of livestock, such as compact horses for riding and eating, red deer and even recognisable, but far from prize-winning, belted Galloways.

Predating species, like foxes, fed vast numbers of Brandt’s diurnal vole to their cubs; black vulture and griffin vultures were aplenty, but not many crows or ravens roamed the plains. Sadly the first (but not the last fortunately) Pallas's sandgrouse they spotted was dead and being consumed by a saker. Intriguingly, sandgrouse wet their breast feathers in order to give water to their chicks. Some other open country species they chanced upon were grey shrike, characteristically perched on top of a bush just as can be seen in Scotland occasionally; wheatear; and one not found in Scotland — Henderson's ground jay, feeding voraciously on crickets.

Barbara described mountain habitats up to ten thousand. It was a relief their trusty vehicle could access many of them. They were eager to locate the snowcock, "a must-see for the only time in their lives", which is only to be found in the highest mountains of central and southern Asia and which caused them to rise in eager anticipation at 5 o'clock, one morning. The size of a partridge, this lovely bird of limited flying ability and which can survive the winter cold to minus 40°C, was spotted and photographed clinging to a rock face. Lammergeier and golden eagle feed on chunky marmots, a mammal that huddles together underground in winter for warmth. Other sources of food are Daurian pika, whose up to three litters a year offer sustenance, as do Pallas's pika. Snowfinches and rock thrushes were added to their expanding list.

Moving to forested situations, Barbara showed collared doves, which caused a sensation on first appearing in Scotland in the 1950s and is now common here. Tree sparrows and swallows (a different sub-species from ours), crossbills and pine bunting (like our yellowhammers) flew around. To see huge flocks of choughs, about 500, was a marked contrast to Scotland, which has only about 80 breeding pairs on the west coast.

They were advised to sit quietly by a stream in the heat of the day and the birds would come: sure enough white wagtail were breeding there and twite and hawfinches emerged, as did flocks of sheep, goats, yak with their nomadic herders, who were frequently seen, even though there are thirteen times as many horses as people in Mongolia.

Interested in lifestyle, the couple spent a few nights in a tourist ger camp. Barbara was keen to witness the construction of a ger, the standard accommodation of nomadic families, who move about four times in a year, but tend to return to the same places. Gers, made of well-patched skins, fitted to a circular wooden framework can last 100 to 150 years and can be erected in half an hour. Once the central wood-burning stove is lit the interior becomes warm and comfortable. The beautiful painted doors add variety and colour to a settlement. In summer the wind blows through for coolness. The women work hard. They milk the animals, make cheese and accomplish many other chores. Seven times as many girls as boys attend university and hence they are better-educated.

Rain towards the end of their trip freshened the foliage and enhanced the scene for photographing plants, butterflies and the natural world in general.

A question arose: who was Pallas? The Mearns have made a special study of such people and in 1988 their highly-rated publication, Biographies for Birdwatchers appeared. The immediate response: "Peter Simon Pallas was an 18th/19th Century German zoologist". A comment from the audience was that, although the speaker had come to hear about S.R. Crockett, she found Barbara and Richard’s talk very enjoyable. Enthusiastic applause followed.