Member’s Trip Reports in 2018

A Colombian Birding Adventure  – January 2018

Reporter Mary Walker

Morning on day eight dawned for us too early. The two alarms ringing in unison were a rude awakening. We were in the city of Manizales in Colombia.

Colombia is newly emerging as a top birding destination. It has an impressive list of over 1900 species of birds, found in many different habitats.

We had previously been staying in basic birding lodges, but somehow found ourselves relocated to the Penthouse suite in the Hotel Varuna. It was fabulous and brought out the child in us, as we pressed all the buttons on the multi-functioned shower and bounced around our huge room, no doubt dropping dirt and debris in our wake.

But it was short lived…………. there was birding to be done. Today we were heading to Nevado del Ruiz, which at 5321 metres is the highest volcano in Colombia, located in Los Nevados Parque National. Volcano Nevado del Ruiz’s last major eruption was in 1985, when 25,000 people died.

We wanted to be there before dawn and called at a community run cafe for scrambled eggs and corncakes (when I first read this, I thought it said scrambled eggs and corncrakes! – Ed.) Colombians accompany this with a bowl of hot chocolate, complete with a feta-type cheese floating in it. Try as we might this was a taste we simply could not acquire.

Less than an hour later we had climbed through the Cloud Forest to the Paramo and were tentatively stepping from our vehicle onto frost covered ground wondering how our bodies would react to the high altitude. Legs were wobbly, breathing difficult, but walking slowly we were OK.

Our first target bird on the way up was TAWNY ANT-PITTA. We saw him on the road, but there was not enough light to take any photos. Our second target was BUFFY HELMETCREST. Sure enough he was belting it out atop of a bush. This time the early morning light was too bright, so again no decent photos!

We spent a couple of hours above the clouds enjoying special birds. SEDGE WREN, MANY-STRIPED CANESTRO, ANDEAN TIT-SPINETAIL,STOUT-BILLED CINCLODES,WHITE-CHINNED THISTLETAIL and PLAIN-CAPPED GROUND-TYRANT, before we slowly made our way down the volcano and were able to breathe easily again.

Morning coffee time found us at Hotel Termales. Most visitors stop here for a dip in the natural hot springs. This was an option on our itinerary that we chose to decline – way too cold. It was Monday morning so thankfully we were the only folks here. What excited us was the Humming Bird Garden that attracts over 33 different species. A continual buzz of wing beats past our ears certainly tested our identification skills. We even had these delightful little birds landing on our heads and hands. SWORD-BILLED was our favourite and did indeed live up to its name. Many more including TOURMALINE SUNANGEL, RAINBOW-BEARDED THORNBILL, TYRIAN METALTAIL, VIRIDIAN METALTAIL, GOLDEN-BREASTED PUFFLEG, SHINING SUNBEAM, BUFF-WINGED STARFRONTLET, and GREAT SAPPHIREWING all zoomed about.

Too soon it was time to move on to our next destination, Tatama National Park in the Western Andes, staying at Montezuma Rainforest Lodge, which is as different as it is possible to be, to our hotel in Manizales. A rustic tiny bird-filled lodge in the middle of nowhere. Bliss.

We travelled with a Colombian company called Manakin Nature Tours and what an adventure they gave us. 526 species of bird seen, including 200 lifers.


A Good Day in the Valley     21st March 2018

Reporter Steve Chapman

With the prospect of spring-like weather with gentle winds I had originally planned to visit the coast today to catch up on winter visitors with the possibility of new spring migrants. Instead, with news yesterday of some interesting sightings at Sculthorpe Moor, I decided this morning I would stay in the valley and see what turns up. It was a good decision!

I started out checking the pools on the pig farm along Weston Road at Ringland (just up from the church). These are flood waters, and last week we had a pair of Green Sandpipers, Redshank and Dunlin. I drove along looking from the car so as not to flush anything, but no luck. I turned round and drove back to the gap in the hedge where we had seen the waders last week. This was a stroke of luck as with the new angle I was able to pick out a Little Ringed Plover on the edge of a small pool just behind the hedge. This was (as far as I know) the first sighting this year in the valley, so I quickly snapped a few record shots and put the news out on social media.

Next stop was a (undisclosed) site in the north of the WVBS recording area where I sat and watched 3 Goshawks for about 15 minutes. From their size it looked like 1 female, 1 male and 1 I wasn’t sure about. They disappeared from view for a while but then a male and female reappeared. With the female high above the male started its display of ‘wing- clapping’ which is brilliant to watch. It was very relaxing there with Skylarks singing all around, Buzzards displaying and a Reed Bunting calling in the hedge behind me. I was shaken out of my reverie though with a message from Dave Appleton that he had found a drake Garganey at Bintree Mill. I quickly jumped back in the car and soon caught up with Dave at the Mill and we had excellent scope views of this truly stunning bird.

Next stop was Sculthorpe Moor (Hawk and Owl Trust) where I had excellent views of Mealy Redpoll, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin, Brambling, Red Kite, Chiffchaff calling and Marsh Tit singing. Sadly no sign of the Willow Tit, Firecrest and Willow Warbler that that been reported yesterday.

As the reserve was soon closing it was time to head home, but on the way I took a detour to Bylaugh church and sewage works, where I had singing Chiffchaff (my first of the year), singing Goldcrest and Grey Wagtail. Back along to Elsing Mill where I saw a Barn Owl hunting over the water meadows, and 2 Sparrowhawks ( male then a bit later a female) dashing in to trees by the river.

The Great White Egret had been reported at Sparham Pools again today so I had a quick scan from the Easthaugh road but no luck. It was starting to get dark so time to call it a day – a good day!


Coincidentally, one of our members had a birding trip to Southern Spain at the same time as our group visit (our reports in Members Field Trips 2018)…………….

A Day In Tarifa

Charles Sayer 25th April 2018

An early walk along the cliffs which overlook Morocco: it is riot of colour as southern Spain has had a spring much like ours – cool and wet. Kidney vetch scrambles over clumps of yellow Sea Aster. Borage, Honeywort and Star of Bethlehem are on the banks and higher up are stands of stunning red/pink Gladiolii. The whole area is a mixture of reds, yellows, whites, blues and pinks amongst the green of the coastal sierras. In the low scrub Sardinian Warblers are rattling while each thicket seems to hold a Nightingale bursting into full voice. Stonechats are everywhere and one or two Whinchats have just arrived.
Suddenly overhead is the flight call of Bee-Eaters: 2, then 6 are joined by another 10, 12, 15 and soon between 30 and 40 are around my head, too close to focus with binoculars. And as quickly as they come, they continue inland – but are soon replaced with 2 smaller flocks which have just crossed the strait.
Raptors start to move: 6 Black Kites and a Honey Buzzard: Lesser Kestrels are flying East along the cliffs as they cross the coast, so I scuttle off for breakfast and ponder where to go for anymore birds of prey. The SE wind will push birds towards Tarifa where we are staying. We elect for the watch-point at El Estrecho, about 2 miles East. On arrival there are a several people looking towards where we have just come from [we should have stayed on the roof terrace!]. There is a thermal of about 100 birds which look like Black Kites, but are very distant. Back to Tarifa: nothing moving: move again to between Tarifa and El Estrecho: migration seems becalmed although the wind is strengthening. Maybe birds are being pushed beyond Tarifa. 2 Egyptian Vultures and a Short Toes Eagle tempt us to stay. Out at sea 120 Flamingoes pass out of the Med and into the Atlantic – a shimmering pink against the blue sea.
We move again to Los Lances, 2 miles north of Tarifa, and immediately birds start coming in off the sea. Black Kites and Booted Eagles are arriving – a steady flow of about 60 birds. Behind us is a thermal of 55 Black kites, 10 Booted Eagles [ both plumage phases ], 6 Honey Buzzards, 2 Egyptian Vultures, and 4 White Storks. More Black Kites are pouring in over Tarifa. A Black Stork comes in alone. More Booted Eagles and a single Imperial Eagle pass over…… and then the passage stops……….apart from the continuous arrival of Swallows, Red Rumped Swallows, Swifts and more Bee-Eaters. While on the beach there is a selection of waders which include Kentish Plovers, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Whimbrel and Bar Tailed Godwit. 2 Audouin’s Gulls are with the Yellow-legged and overhead there is a display from 8 Collared Pratincoles.
The soaring birds we saw were roughly 450-500 Black Kites, 40-50 Booted Eagles, 4 Egyptian Vultures, some distant Griffons, 10 Honey Buzzards, 4 Short-Toed Eagles, 1 Imperial Eagle, 20 Lesser Kestrels, 1 Black Stork and 10 White Storks.
100’s of Swallows and Swifts: about 200 Bee-Eaters and 8 Collared Pratincoles all added up to a really good day.


The Shetland Islands in June

Reporter Cath Robinson

I’ve just come back from 10 days holiday on the Shetlands, partly on our own and part as an organised trip with a company called Shetland Nature on their Discover Shetland trip which encompasses birds, flowers, geology and archaeology on a romp around the archipelago.
June in Shetland is not the time to go for the blow-in rarities but is wonderful for the masses of breeding birds, especially the seabirds. There is endless daylight, great coastlines and relatively few people with little used roads. The bonus of the oil industry means that the local Shetland council is affluent and can provide excellent community facilities; can mend potholes and provide a cheap and frequent ferry service. There just aren’t many trees. And no voles. So no raptors apart from the Merlin, no resident owls and no woodland birds.
We spent a weekend in Lerwick where I shall remember seeing an Arctic Skua from the bus stop and a Great Northern Diver and a pair of Red Breasted Mergansers from my bedroom window.

On our first day we got the ferry from Lerwick (Bearded Seal on the slipway)to the neighbouring island Bressay then walked across this island (spotting our first pair of many Red Throated Divers in a loch en route:) to hail the ferry to take us over to the island of Noss, a National Nature Reserve. On the far side the cliffs rise to 180 m and appear white from the 10,000 pairs of Gannets and their guano! It’s an amazing sight seeing them crammed on the ledges and wheeling around in the sky, plummeting into the sea to feed all the while with the background whiff of a sea bird colony. The other breeding seabirds are Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags , Fulmars and Kittiwakes. Noss is the fifth largest Great Skua (Bonxies) colony in the world and has an occasional Arctic Skua breeding but these are pretty much pushed out by the Bonxies. The numbers seem tremendous but it is sobering to note that only really the Gannets are doing well here and last year was a bad year for the other seabirds especially for the Bonxies, the Guillemots and the Kittiwakes which had the lowest count on record, just 44 nesting pairs down from 10,000 pairs in the 1970s. We came back later in the week to see the cliffs from the sea but then you miss the sound of the drumming Snipe, the flight displays of Meadow and Rock Pipit and Skylark and the chuckling of the Wheatears. And the eerie calling of the Grey Seals.

Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve provided another opportunity to see seabirds close up especially Puffins and Fulmars, an excellent photo opportunity. But the trip to the island of Mousa was a real highlight. We went once at dusk and walked along to the wonderfully preserved Mousa broch. As the light was fading a bit, you could begin to hear a churring and squawking noise coming from the rocks of the stone walls and the scree along the path and then from inside the broch. And then the Storm Petrels began to fly in, often circling the broch inside or out several times before disappearing between the chinks in the walls. It was a truly mystical and eerie experience. Our later daytime trip was also good; finally nailing Twite, which had been elusive, and being dive bombed by Arctic Terns despite us keeping to the path. I’ve never heard or seen so many drumming Snipe. And we came across some recently fledged Shetland Wrens by the shore so cute that I nearly missed the boat back.
Our travels took us to Unst , the most northerly of the Shetland Isles where we walked to Hermaness NNR which houses another Gannet colony (only 30,000 pairs here). We saw Ravens here too. It also houses the world’s 3rd largest Bonxie colony of close to 1000 pairs. And you can spot Muckle Flugga from the cliff tops: the most northerly lighthouse in the UK (and used to be the most northerly inhabited island before the light was automated). And it was on Unst rather than Fetlar (where the RSPB manages the Loch of Funzie reserve for them) that we saw our first Red Necked Phalarope. And Golden Plover, Whimbrel and Curlew. And Otters.
I went to the Orkneys last year and this was an interesting contrast. Orkney has far more fertile land so more agriculture especially beef: I’ve never seen so many bulls in their fields! Not much woodland but more than Shetland and only a small amount of moorland. I saw Hen Harrier and many Short-Eared Owls. There were seabirds but not in anything like the numbers in Shetland (although we didn’t go to Westray and only sailed past Hoy). But common to both were nesting Oystercatchers everywhere (including on a roundabout on the main road into Kirkwall), Red Throated Divers and all to a soundtrack of birdsong especially Skylarks and Curlew. And wonderful coastlines, endless days, many ferries, variable weather, not too many people and island life. I’m really not sure if I prefer the Western Isles or the Northern Isles now but I do know that on a fine day there is no better place to be than one of them.


July in the White Sea

Reporter Cath Robinson

We like going north in the summer: endless days, space and wildlife. So after my trip to the Shetlands, we decided that a cruise starting in Tromso and going over the top of Norway into Russia and the White Sea was irresistible. How often do you get the chance to go there? So while not especially a birding or even wildlife trip we were in places that gave us access to great wildlife sights.

Two of the most spectacular were seabird colonies on offshore islands at the northern tip of Norway where the warmer North Atlantic Drift of the Atlantic Ocean mixes with the colder currents of the Barents Sea and creates a smorgasbord for vast numbers of seabirds. The first we visited was at Gjesvaerstappen, an archipelago of islands near North Cape. One island provided a good area for breeding Gannets (although spectacularly fewer than the spectacular thousands we had seen in the Shetlands), while there were vast rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins on the sea and swirling in the air and within the flying maelstrom there were also the odd Sea Eagle and Arctic Skua.

We were able to land on the other island Hornoya just off Vadso. I had been here last year on a spring trip to northern Finland and north Norway when in mid-May there was still deep snow on the mainland (it had been a late spring) and there were still rafts of Steller’s Eiders and even a King Eider off the coast. The island was spectacular then but now the numbers were greater as the birds were well into their breeding cycle. It’s a real seabird city: an incredible assault on your senses. An amazing sight of vast numbers of seabirds and their predators; a deafening noise of calls and the overpowering aroma that is so typical of seabird colonies. So on the island and in the air and sea: Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, a few Brunnichs Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags, Greater Black backed Gulls, Sea Eagles, Arctic Skuas, Great Skuas, Ravens, Arctic terns, Goosanders, Eiders. Not bad.

Another highlight was being out on tundra. We were able to land by zodiac on very remote areas in Russia on the Kola Peninsula and also on Karin Cape guarding the east entrance to the White Sea. From a distance it looks like barren bleak moorland but up close it’s a different world. It was amazingly springy! I’m no botanist but it was a delight to be walking on this miniature arctic forest no more than a few inches high interspersed with unusual arctic flowers all hunkering down against the wind and so many berries: bilberry, crowberry, cranberry and bunchberry. And there were birds of course: Golden Plovers calling plaintively, Lapland Buntings, Red Throated Pipits. a Rough Legged Buzzard. Someone saw a Snowy Owl. And it was good to see Redwings singing, a Fieldfare, Red throated Divers.

Further south in the White Sea, we moved from the tundra (permafrost) into Taiga country and trees! Or at least trees that were taller than 2 inches. This was a lush mix of spruces, firs, birches, willows and aspens with a wonderful undergrowth of mosses and flowers. We found Redpolls, House Sparrows, White Wagtails, House Martins, Swallows, Sand Martins, an Arctic Tern colony, a pair of Black Throated Divers….and I found common blue, painted lady, white admiral and red admiral butterflies.

One glorious evening I saw three Pomarine Skuas flying round the stern of the boat trying to get some gulls to regurgitate.
And we got views of Beluga whales, like huge silver fish in the distance; fantastic views of a breaching Minke whale, and possibly Fin whales. Just imagine what we missed….!!
There was a cultural and historical side to the cruise: we visited Murmansk and Archangel and the Solovetsky archipelago, site of the Solovetsky monastery (and gulag), a pilgrimage site for orthodox Russians. And we were very lucky with the weather….

The Brown Shrike – Mega Find

Reporter Phil Borley 21 October 2018

The day was like any other, got down to Weybourne by 7.00am as usual, to look for birds. Met Russell (Page) in the car park, then started to walk west along the coast footpath towards the scrape on the Camp. Along the way the usual species like Gannet and the more Common Gulls were seen. Once at our usual viewing spot, telescopes were set up scanning the sea and looking behind over the scrape, pine trees and bramble bushes etc. First good bird of the day was a Short-eared Owl coming in-off, being mobbed by a Carrion Crow and a large gull. Thought the owl would be bird of the day. Continued scanning the sea, watching inland, usual birds seen and making records on my dictaphone. By now, Moss Taylor had arrived on Camp and was set up on his lofty perch on the high ground west of the mound. Lots of Gannets flying in both directions. The odd Red-throated Divers, gulls etc. just another day’s birdwatching, hoping to see something to add towards silver status.
Turning to look behind me over the bushes, I started to scan around with binoculars, when into view came a bird on top of a bramble bush at the rear of the scrape. Although the light was still not too good, the very dull colours of the bird in that light plus the outline of the bird, particularly the bill; I exclaimed “Oh my god, I’ve got a shrike”. Russell asked “What, where is it?” and quickly, he too, was looking at the bird. It did not stay there for long before dropping down into cover. Obviously, this bird now took precedence over any others. I recorded the time, 8.25am. Eventually we found it again in a different part of the scrape, at no time did it stay in the same place for long, thus preventing a good study. The light by now was slowly improving, but not exactly helpful. With time and more brief views, I came to the conclusion; it was probably a juv. Red-backed Shrike. Russell then said “ Shall I put it out?”, so I said “Yes you might as well”, he said “ What should I put it out as?” my reply was to put it as a Red-backed. Russell then went and alerted Moss, we were hoping, as he would walk around the scrape, he would obtain better and closer views of the bird, so we would know exactly what it was. Around the back of the scrape and with hand signals from the beach, even with us directing Moss, he was not able to connect with the bird. Eventually he came out of the camp, onto the beach to look through my telescope. As he looked to start with, he could not see it as it was sitting in a bramble bush, partly obscured from view. Then when he looked again, the bird had moved to the top of a bramble bush but it flew just as he looked at it. Moss then went back to the scrape, now knowing where the bird was, to try to get a good look.
By now Trevor Williams was fast approaching from Weybourne car park. The bird was now regularly popping up onto bushes around the scrape. Still only short views though and Trevor asked “Are you sure it’s a Red-backed, to which I shrugged my shoulders and said “From what I can only see so far, I cannot make it into anything else. He said “ What about Woodchat ?” My reply was “ No it isn’t, I’ve seen juv. Woodchat before”. Russell and Trevor had by now obtained record shots of the bird but still no positive i.d. from anyone, with Moss still wandering around the scrape. At this point, I told Trevor that the possible Todds Canada Goose had been reported leaving Cley reserve heading east with Pink- footed Geese. We needed to check the goose flocks in the fields at Weybourne, I said we might get that bird in the club area.
Now other people had started to arrive, the regulars from Kelling Quags and surrounding area, including Nigel, Ian, Paul Riley, Ian Brittain, Chris Stone – Wensum Valley birding friends, having been looking at the Siberian Stonechat at Salthouse and getting the pager message, they walked from there. Worth it for a shrike, they said. Also the big guns from Cley; Mark Golley, James Mc Callum, Eddie Myers etc. Now everyone was getting glimpses of the shrike, still no-one had suggested Brown Shrike to me. After some banter with the Wensum Valley gang, I left to look at the geese which were reported in a field east of Weybourne. Arriving at the field where the goose was, I was confronted by Trevor Williams standing on top of a gate post to get a better view. Fairy on top of a Christmas tree came to mind but they are usually prettier! Poor views of the goose meant I decided to return to Weybourne beach as this was my plan for the morning anyway. Parking at Weybourne, I was surprised how full the car park was and how many birders were heading towards the shrike. Arriving back on scene, Chris Stone exclaimed “Phil you’ve mega’ed!” I replied “What are you talking about?” He said “ It’s not a Red-backed Shrike, it’s a Brown Shrike; first for Norfolk, it’s on the pager, you must know?!” (I have a pager). He showed me the message on his pager and I could only assume whilst driving through Weybourne, the signal had not connected with my pager as it is a poor signal area. No, I had no idea! It was by now a very large crowd trying to see this bird and I managed to look at the shrike again. Now it was showing better in good light and it simply did not look anything like the early views with several distinguishing features now showing. I have often wondered just what it is like to find such a rare bird, now I know. Several people congratulated me, including James McCullum, on the find, which was nice of them. Great of Moss in enabling people to enter the Camp to get better views, good that he managed to raise some money for his charity.
The moral of the story:
Years ago, when first joining the Wensum Valley Birdwatching Society, I was told to just call the bird, it does not matter if you get it wrong because it gets people looking at it.
The Collins Bird Guide quotes: the juvenile Brown Shrike can be confused with a Red-backed. To start with it was poor light, poor views etc. I was told by some there, not to worry, I did the right thing putting it out. That’s how you should do too, no matter what level you consider your birding to be. I am not a total expert birder; no-one would get adverse comments from me if they called a common bird something else, we have all done it. It’s all about learning and leg-pulling from birding friends makes the day anyway. It’s a hobby after all. So, a great find. Fantastic bird, first for Norfolk and NENBC area. It is also my 200th bird for NENBC area (subject to peer review). Wow!

Twitching Grey Catbird at Lands End :

Tony Forster, Ian Brittain & Paul Riley. October 2018

Barely 5 miles into an 820 plus round trip and PR was wondering if he’d locked his car whilst IB had forgotten to put his green bin out! I remember the days when in our haste we’d leave the house unlocked and dustbins wouldn’t have received a second thought. Considering I’ve driven to Lands End in one go and in under 7 hours we arrived in 9 1/2 having all shared the driving, age is certainly a factor to consider these days.
A temporary car park had been set up and we managed to catch a couple of hours before dusk when the sound of closing doors brought us out of our slumbers, following the crowd we joined the assembled lines in eager anticipation.

17 years previously we had faced a similar situation on Anglesey, the first UK record and failed dismally having spent a whole day fruitlessly searching an area which remarkably was very similar to the landscape before us.
We needn’t have worried however as the bird was quickly located, less than 10 minutes, and whilst distant it soon flew towards us giving great views both in flight and perched, the icing on the cake was hearing its characteristic cat like call.

We enjoyed the Catbird for almost 3 hours with calling Chough, Raven and a possible Siberian Stonechat being the highlights before departing to Penzance for a hearty breakfast whereupon we headed to Porthgwarra. Last time we were here we’d seen Hermit Thrush in 2013, but the best we could do today was Yellow-browed Warbler, the directions for which were “follow the stream turning right by the dead cow”!
Leaving Porthgwarra at Roskestal Farm we caught up with Rose Coloured Starling, Turtle Dove and a very pale Collared Dove which had us wondering “African” but it was flushed by a car door before we could give it proper consideration.
Wasting 2 fruitless hours at Penlee Point we headed to St Just seeing Peregrine before heading to the Cot Valley, one of my favourite locations, I’d not been here for at least 5 years and whilst it looked just the same the lack of small birds was frightening. The best we could manage was single Wheatear on the tide line whilst 5 Common Buzzards and 2 Ravens provided interest otherwise single Wren and Blackbird were all that was on offer.
As darkness arrived we headed to Weatherspoon’s in Penzance in preparation for the long trek home with a detour planned into the industrialised east of London to “twitch” Beluga Whale on the Thames, do you “twitch” a Whale or does it have its own phrase?
We arrived in Gravesend in good time, again enjoying the comfort offered from sleeping in the car and were riverside at first light, surprisingly more comfortable standing up in a bitterly head on wind. We were not first there however as a guy was set up with camera and big lens but much to our surprise and amusement he had no interest in the Whale and was hoping to photograph ships passing through…
We spent 2 hours at the Imperial Industrial estate before enjoying an Asda breakfast served on paper plates with plastic utensils, has to be the worst looking and presented breakfast I have ever encountered though to be fair it did taste pretty good.
Once refreshed we spent another 3 hours searching along the shoreline, where possible, up to the Ship and Lobster pub, 2.3KM in total and whilst counting in excess of 100 Black-tailed Godwits we were unlucky with the Whale which had probably departed 2 days previously.
All in all an enjoyable 2 day trip, 51 species seen, Grey Catbird seen well and a new UK bird for us all, it was a shame we dipped the Beluga Whale but you can’t have everything, well at least not this time ?



Mongolia – In search of Snow Leopards and more

Reporter Keith & Helen Jones

When Keith and I travel we love to look for birds and mammals too – in fact anything that moves and even things that don’t move. We had almost given up on seeing a snow leopard in the wild. We have all seen the TV programmes with people trekking in the Himalaya through rocky terrain at high altitude and we knew we could not cope with that. However, then we found an itinerary where you go by Jeep up the mountains! No trekking sounded wonderful, so we booked in May 2017, and finally got to go in August this year.

We landed in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The city is home to around half of Mongolia’s population and with 1.5 million residents is a fairly modest sized city. However, the capital is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The buildings are grey and nondescript and the city sits in a natural bowl. This is not an ideal location when the only form of power is the five coal power stations which sit within the city. I think it would be fair to say the city has its own “atmosphere”.

Despite the less than promising surrounding down by the Tuul River we found Azure Tits and White Crowned Penduline Tits but even the river was not pretty. I am sure if you are reading this we are not “selling” Mongolia so far.

However, once we left the city and flew to the Altai Mountain’s we left the smog and crowds behind us. We camped in a ger camp at around 1500 metres where we had fabulous view of snow-capped mountains and valley below.

We began our quest going up the mountains and on the second attempt we saw our first snow leopard. The cat was around two miles away and only visible using strong telescopes. The cat was also difficult to see as they bend into the rocks so well. Despite this, we have an image in our heads of the silhouette of the snow leopard as it briefly sat on the top of the mountain ridge before disappearing into the rocks. Thankfully we had a second chance to get to see these wonderful creatures and we were rewarded with a second sighting of three snow leopards – a mother and two fully grown cubs. The cats were still around 1km away but we got great views and we actually watched the cats for seven hours from our vantage point. We do have some photos but there are a little grainy because of the distance.

In fact most of the animals we saw were at a considerable distance including Saiga Antelope and Goitred gazelle. The fact that the animals were distant was not really surprising. Partly because once you get to the Steppe it is just incredibly vast and also these animal have been persecuted in the past. We did see White-headed duck and a huge variety of raptors and vultures. We also saw and definitely heard over 2500 Demoiselle Cranes. The locals plant crops for them and to see so many was a real treat.

We said goodbye to our Naturetrek group and went off on an independent trip for just over a week. This was by far the highlight of our trip to Mongolia.

We began with a trip to see the Genghis Khan Memorial which is the largest stainless steel structure in the world. It is set on the steppe in the middle of nowhere and it is enormous. You can even go up inside the structure and walk up into the horses head. We also got to ride some ponies across the steppe and just take in the landscape. There are over 40 million horses in Mongolia (not a typo) so riding horses is something you feel you must do.

After this we went back to wildlife watching. Birds included this Siberian Red Throat and three juvenile Long Eared Owls.

We also had several encounters with Corsac foxes – we watched one try to take a kill from a Black Vulture and it was amazing to watch such a small fox running around the bird.

In Hustai National Park we also saw Przewalski’s Horses and our absolute highlight which was a lone wolf less than 50 metres away from where we stood. The wolf was curious and did not run away but stopped to observe us. This was our absolute highlight of the trip.

Overall we loved Mongolia but we had several issue with our Naturetrek itinerary and we are afraid we could not recommend them. We were forced to complain about several aspects of our tour and whilst we accept it is a difficult destination, many issues left a lot to be desired. In contrast our second week with Mongolica Travel was first rate.

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