Urban Birding in the World’s Coldest Capital City: A Winter Walk along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River

redpole on dark background 2 n

Redpoll, (Acanthis flammea)                                     Mongolian: Дөлөн цэгцүүхэй,

On a December morning with temperatures hovering around -13 degrees Farhenheit (-25 C) we fueled up with bacon and grits and walked from our apartment to the nearby Tuul River to check out the local bird scene.

Ulaanbaatar from frozen tuul n

Mist gently lifts from a patch of open water on Mongolia’s Tuul River. Along the shoreline to the right, frosted willows appear as sprays of white. In the background, dawn arrives on Ulaanbaatar, a rapidly growing city of just over one million inhabitants doing their best to stay warm with the country’s abundant coal. 

great tit ground n

Great tit, (Parus major)                                               Mongolian: Их хөхбух

Relatives of the familiar chickadees of North America, these are one of the more common and colorful passerines in and around Ulaanbaatar.

azure tit on tree n

Azure tit, (Parus cyanus)                                               Mongolian: Номин хөхбух

Abundant but more shy than great tits, these beautiful little birds are seldom seen in the city itself, but we saw several during our walk along the Tuul.

penduline tit nest n

We found two of these mitten-shaped nests – the work of white-capped penduline tits, (Remiz coronatus), (Бургасны ураншувуу). Like the buds of the tree it’s hanging from, the nest is dormant. Although the birds who made this nest will not use it again, male penduline tits, which arrive before females in the spring, use abandoned nests as indicators of suitable breeding habitat. Some Mongolians and other Asians hold a belief that these nests have medicinal powers – a belief unsupported by science – and collect them, a practice which has directly resulted in a decline in penduline tit numbers.

eurasian tree sparrow front n

Eurasian tree sparrow, (Passer montanus)                   Mongolian: Хээрийн бор шувуу

Much like pigeons, tree sparrows seem to show up wherever humans live. Presumably these friendly little birds have essentially co-evolved with people. Within the city of Ulaanbaatar they occur in flocks in a variety of habitats. But along the Tuul River, their numbers thin as passerines more adept at thriving without the spoils of humans outcompete them. By the time one crosses the river and enters the forests of Bogd Kahn Mountain, tree sparrows are almost entirely replaced by tits, finches, nuthatches and other birds.

eurasian magpy shimmering n

Eurasian (or common) magpie, (Pica pica)                  Mongolian: Алаг шаазгай

In urban settings magpies are often quite approachable, however the magpies along the Tuul proved wary. We worked to get this photo of a bird puffed up against the cold, a streak of emerald-green shimmering along the length of the tail. Generally scavengers and foragers, the magpie’s hooked beak is a tell-tale sign that it will assume the role of predator given the opportunity.

carrion crows wings n cadis n

Carrion crows, (Corvus corone)                                         Mongolian: Хар хэрээ

We found a group of crows targeting caddisfly larvae in a shallow riffle that hadn’t yet frozen, as is evident by the caddisfly casing in the beak of the bird on the left. The crows were using the edge of the ice to access this bounty. Perhaps they learned this behavior by observing dipper birds, a species that also frequents open water such as this during winter to feed on insects and small fish.

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Scattered across the ice near the riffle where the crows were feeding, we found a number of empty caddis larvae casings. The larva that built this home from fragments of wood and tiny pebbles probably belongs to the Northern case maker group, family Limnephilidae. The fact that caddisflies are apparently abundant in this stretch of the Tuul indicates that despite urban development, water quality remains good.

white throated dipper Tuul n

White-throated dipper, (Cinclus cinclus)                  Mongolian: Гялааномруу хараацай,

Bee-like rapid wingbeats and an electric buzzing cry alerted us to the presence of a dipper bird near the same water the crows were using. What threw us was the flash of white as the bird zoomed by; in America and Japan we’d seen only brown dippers. This one disappeared under the icy water and came up with a fairly large minnow. Any day we can check off a new species is a good day.

The mix of willows, poplars, cottonwood and pines along the banks of the Tuul, as well as the river itself, constitute a biologically rich greenbelt in the heart of a rapidly growing city. Here’s to hoping that the citizens of Ulaanbaatar recognize what a treasure this is and insist on its protection.

We invite comments, corrections, discussion and further information from our readers.

12 thoughts on “Urban Birding in the World’s Coldest Capital City: A Winter Walk along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River

  1. Nice. I am in Ulan-Ude, and our bird folk here are virtually the same, excepting that exceptional Azure tit. I have never seen one here. But we have had some waxwings stopping by our window, and last year we saw bullfinches, I haven’t seen them yet this year. Great photography! Gracias.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Just so you know, your web address – the one linked on your comment – is broken. I typed in the address and bookmarked your site for future reference and look forward to reading the information there. We just got back from a three-day trip to Hustai National Park, which is about 2 hours west of Ulaanbaatar. Haven’t looked closely at our photos yet, but we think (hope) we got some good shots of falcons, partridge, red deer and the wild takhi (Przewalski’s horses) this park is known for. So we hope you’ll stay tuned for that post. We’re always happy to cross paths with like-minded people… and are envious of your encounters with waxwings as we haven’t seen any in Mongolia yet. They’re one of our favorite birds. Stay in touch. JD

    • Glad you stopped by, David. We’re enthusiastic amateur birders and wildlife watchers. If you ever want to connect for an outing, let us know! We keep looking for those three-toed woodpeckers you mentioned in your post, but haven’t gotten lucky yet. As to the cold, after considerable experimenting with solutions for icy fingers, we’ve settled on gloves by Mountain Hardware that we’re pleased with – keeping gloved hands inside mittens till we shoot. Let us know if you come across any identification errors! Cheers, Jack

  2. Nice observations! I heard some people saw a White-throated Dipper somewhere in Tuul river. They were you guys! My friend went to same place this afternoon and photographed that dipper. Thanks for sharing your birding information. You can see my bird photos on my flickr. Cheers, Puujee

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