Birds of Mongolia

Published on 08 September 2019 in Book reviews

By Gombobaatar Sundev and Christopher Leahy

Helm Field Guides, 2019 

Pbk, 280pp; 113 colour plates and 18 colour photos, ISBN 978-0-7136-8704-0

£27.00 buy it from the BB Bookshop

This is the first field guide to the birds of Mongolia, a country now firmly on the map for world birders thanks to a suite of very special birds, including the elegant Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus, the enormous Black-billed Capercaillie Tetrao urogalloides and the enigmatic Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus.

Ironically, the review copy arrived the day after I departed for a trip to Mongolia in June (but since my luggage went AWOL for two weeks, it would have remained unopened). Reading it now, I can definitively answer some of the questions that birders may have struggled with hitherto on visits to Mongolia armed only with a collection of field guides to the surrounding countries: What are those small unstreaked Acrocephalus warblers in the reedbeds of the central lakes? How many lark species am I seeing? Are these Western Yellow Motacilla flava or Eastern Yellow Wagtails M. tschutschensis? (Answers: Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola, six (or seven, see p. 182), and mostly Eastern Yellows.)

This long-awaited field guide from the Helm stable comprehensively fills that yawning gap in our knowledge of the birds of this fascinating country and covers 503 species. It follows the familiar field-guide format of facing pages for illustrations and text (and very useful distribution maps), with plates contributed by no fewer than 12 of our best contemporary bird artists. The illustrations of raptors, warblers and thrushes are particularly good showing a helpful variety of plumages, for example of the various buzzards Buteo.

Mongolia lies at the crossroads of Asia, with Russia to the north, China to the south and east and the steppes of Kazakhstan to the west. Those vast grasslands are a predominant feature of the Mongolian landscape, which sees a transition north to south from Siberian boreal forest through the Khangai and Altai mountain ranges, to the steppe (peppered with freshwater and saline lakes), and then the sand dunes and saxaul scrub of the Gobi Desert. 

The introductory sections include an overview of the various habitats (illustrated with colour photos), a brief history of ornithology in Mongolia, bird conservation and key organisations in the country. A useful six-page section on birdwatching in Mongolia, with key sites and advice on logistics, would be a good inclusion in future field guides to other regions.

The text for each species is concise yet comprehensive, subdivided into Identification, Voice, Habitat, Behaviour, Status and, where appropriate, Conservation and Taxonomy. The Status notes are especially useful as they explain which species are vagrants – and list the dates and locations of their occurrences. An appendix of ‘recent vagrants and hypothetical records’ updates this to 2016 but not beyond so does not include, for example, the 2018 record of Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, a first for Mongolia.

Visiting birders will have much to contribute to the growing body of knowledge accumulated by Mongolia’s small and hardworking group of resident birders – and this book will be an essential tool for visitors and residents alike. It should be the first item you pack on a visit to Mongolia – but keep it in your hand luggage, just in case…

Adrian Pitches