Birds of Mongolia

10 oktober 2019  ·  James Lidster  ·  3614 × bekeken

Gombobaatar Sundev & Christopher Leahy. Bloomsbury/Helm Field Guides 2019. ISBN 978-0-7136-8704-0. Paperback, 280pp. Price: € 31,99

I can’t remember ever waiting so long for a bird book, from my first visit to Mongolia in 2004, when there were already plans for a field guide, to my last visit in 2017 when I had long since given up hope of ever seeing it reach fruition. 

Just 15 years later than planned and with an illustrious history filled with authors and their egos it’s finally here, and in about a month there will be a second field guide published. Just likes buses you wait an age and then two come at once!

First things first, do you need to take this book on a trip to Mongolia, the simple answer is YES. In the early years of visiting Mongolia it was necessary to take a whole library of books with you, from the Collins Bird Guide (ANWB), Lewington’s Rare Birds of Europe, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Birds of South East Asia and the Birds of China, just to make sure that you covered any potential species you might encounter. At the same time you didn’t know which species were on the National list, although knowledge of neighbouring countries gave you a rough idea of what to expect. Latterly there were also Helm guides for East and Central Asia, so as the years went by less luggage allowance was taken up with books, even more so with the advent of e-books. Although nothing really gets a fire going in your ger (yurt) better than a copy of the Birds of China, a book which caused me more headaches as a guide than any I can remember, as various clients tried to discuss difficult ID problems using a book that was not fit for purpose.

But now the country has its own field guide, and at the same time has become a very popular birding destination with a great mix of difficult to find or localised species. Species such as Black-billed Capercaillie, Altai Snowcock, Oriental Plover, White-throated Bush Chat, Henderson’s Ground Jay and Kozlov’s Accentor alongside all those species that western European birders dream about such as Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Lammergeier, Pallas’s Gull, Siberian Rubythroat, Azure Tit and Wallcreeper. Couple this with improving infrastructure (if that’s a good thing?) and a young and enthusiastic population of birders in the country then it can only be a good thing that we finally have a field guide. As the book states ‘this first field guide to the birds of Mongolia will give birdwatchers, as well as all lovers of wilderness and the natural world, a sense of how much Mongolia has to offer, and – if its natural heritage is not preserved, what it stands to lose.’

The book begins with a very useful and interesting introduction to Mongolia and its birdlife with nice photographs of the various biotopes and short sections on migration, conservation, protected areas and important birding areas along with the usual sections on how to use the book and topography.

Field guides are of course often judged on their plates, and for many people the plates here will be familiar. There is a sort of Helm house style and many of the same plates have been used for East Asia, Central Asia and now Mongolia. In theory reusing so many plates should speed up the publication of such a field guide, but that didn’t seem to help here. The artists are also familiar and include some of the top names among bird artists including John Gale, Alan Harris, Ren Hathway and Brian Small. So although there are different styles used, on the whole the plates are very good.

From other people I have spoken to the maps seem to appeal, so it must be me. The maps are small but that’s no different from the Central Asia book, but the authors have chosen to show the altitudes in 3 shades of grey on every map (which I like), but by the time you lay a migration colour on top there appear to be all manner of shades of colour going on. It just takes some getting used to. The green for resident and blue for wintering species are much more obvious, and interesting to see which species remain or move to Mongolia to enjoy the balmy -40 degrees weather in the winter: Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Buzzard, Northern Shrike, the redpolls, Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting, joining a limited list of residents including the gamebirds, woodpeckers, Lammergeier, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Northern Raven and Horned Lark which all eke out a living in incredibly harsh conditions. 

The species included raised a few eyebrows and this is linked with my biggest problem with the book. With the amount of time it has taken to put the book together and despite the authors stating that they ‘reached out to foreign birding groups known to have visited the country’ it really does feel that more effort could have been made to make the book as complete and up to date as possible. It may be that some problems arose from fallings out between past and present authors, that some records were lost or not shared and obviously there has to be a cutoff point somewhere. This point may come across as being personal but also reflected in the acknowledgements where many of the American or European tour leaders aren’t mentioned despite them having visited the country on numerous occasions and providing lots of data. I wonder how hard they really tried to access this information? 

As an example no-one ever asked for my records, and having visited the country 11 times for 2-3 weeks a trip I have a lot of information. In the last few years this was input via but before I learnt about modern technology like Observation and eBird everything was kept in good old notebooks. Of course if I saw a common species like an Isabelline Wheatear somewhere it may not be very interesting, but breeding bird records surely are? All records of rare and vagrant birds were submitted to the Mongolian Bird Taxonomy and Rarity Committee, and accepted, and some are still not mentioned (eg Black-naped Oriole photographed in 2006, Rosy Pipit photographed in 2014). Again this could all be political but it would seem like very little work to add these kind of small details? In 2016 I met a friend of the junior author which led me to emailing him asking if he would like my records. Although they were interested it was now too late as the book was at the copy-editing stage, and that was in late 2016, over 2.5 years before publication. It was stated that the information would be useful for an unlikely second edition, which basically put me off sending anything. 

But back to the book and the species included in the main text. Species such as Mountain Hawk-Eagle, with 4 illustrations for a species with one record that states ‘lacks documentation’. Grey-faced Buzzard is a similar story. This space could have been better used for more identification information. Doubtful or undated records of Red-footed Falcon are less irksome as it’s nice to double check that there isn’t one sitting amongst the Amur Falcons. Long-tailed Duck is listed as a vagrant, with 4 X’s on the map, but only 3 dates/locations listed, whereas it has been annual in recent years. Savi’s Warbler occurs much further east than shown on the map.

For Long-billed Dowitcher it states one record from July 1977 but also states ‘possibly migrates through eastern Mongolia, late April to early June and mid to late August.’ Although this seems a little strange, the species does breed in Siberia and this sort of information shows how much is still to be learnt.

Otherwise the text is brief and to the point, it’s not going to help you separate stejnegeriand maurusSiberian Stonechats nor is there information about the lesser whitethroat races that occur, but maybe that’s asking too much… But even with well-studied species such as Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipits the text doesn’t go into any details about plumage differences.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the subspecies occurring, such as Great Egret, Dunlin, Merlin and Eurasian Skylark and there are some intriguing records such as two records of Wandering Tattler, one in 1903 and ‘several’ in mid-August 1972.

In the back of the book is ‘Recent vagrants and hypothetical records’ where it also states that ‘these records have all been thoroughly reviewed and accepted by the Mongolian Bird Taxonomy and Rarity committee’, so surely they aren’t really hypothetical? This is a nice section but could have been more up to date. Surely an amazing record like the winter record of a Baird’s Sandpiper in 2017 could have been squeezed in? Admittedly it’s a species unlikely to occur frequently in the country but for completeness sake would have been nice. For completeness sake it would also have been good to include a complete checklist of the birds of Mongolia.

That all being said it’s not fair to compare a country like Mongolia with such well visited countries, where thousands of birders share tens of thousands of records, and this book is a great introduction to the ornithological riches of this amazing country. It’s still a work in progress mapping out the exact distributions of some species, and for the pioneering birder there are exciting discoveries still to be made. In the summer of 2019 a well photographed Water Rail was exactly that and one of seemingly only a handful of records for the country and not the ‘expected’ Brown-cheeked Rail, and in 2018 careful checking of the Stejneger’s Scoters led to the discovery of the first Velvet Scoter.

It’s a brilliant country, with lovely people and now a great book to help those visiting and to inspire the next generation of local birders!

James Lidster


Max Berlijn  ·  11 oktober 2019  04:52

James weet jij wat er gebeurt is met dit boek? Volgens mij is het nooit echt verschenen. Axel Braunlich was voor mij altijd DE man voor info over Mongolië maar ik zie nergens zijn spoor in dit boek?

James Lidster  ·  11 oktober 2019  07:40

Dat is hetzelfde boek Max, alleen door ruzie, onenigheid etc wilde ze Axel niet meer gebruiken. Heel jammer en nu staat ie alleen in het dankwoord. 

Sybrand de Bruin  ·  11 oktober 2019  07:54

In the 'literature' in this book, as well as in the introduction(s), the two-parts book by Echcecopar & Hue (1983) on China, Corea and Mongolia is never mentioned. Perhaps it is because the book(s) are in French, perhaps for other reasons. I think the books, though never having visited Mongolia, are quite worthwhile to 'have' if you are interested in the area.

I quite 'like' the new guide to Mongolia, but perhaps should have waited for the other one that's going to be published 'soon', having read the above mentioned points by James Lidster.

James Lidster  ·  11 oktober 2019  10:01

The next field guide will be interesting, the plates probably not as good as the Helm guide, but maybe the text will be more thorough and up to date. 

Sander Bruylants  ·  11 oktober 2019  20:36

Here you can compare plates between both books. The page with parrotbills and bearded reedling can be found in both previews.

Wether you like plates or not is a bit subjective, but I like the ones in the second book, especially the addition of the lines pointing towards the described character.

James Lidster  ·  27 oktober 2019  00:24

I have now had the chance to look at both books, and the Helm guide (despite all its faults) is still much better than the 2nd field guide

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