Daurian Partridge: Birds of Mongolia

Daurina partridge pair n

We encountered these softball-shaped Daurian partridge (Perdix daurica) in the pre-dawn of a December trip to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park.

Any day we see a new species of bird or other animal is a good day. On a recent three-day trip to Hustai, we had several such encounters. Nothing was any cuter than these relatives of pheasants and quail that would have fit perfectly in our cupped hands.

daurian partridge back n

We startled them, a covey of 14, as they were feeding on seeds on the coldest morning to date this winter in Mongolia. Maybe it was the sub zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, or the fact that none of us – including the birds – were fully awake. But uncharacteristically they let us hang around and snap a few photos in the blue morning twilight. The orange beard-like feathers and gray side whiskers are part of their fall and winter plumage. 

Daurian partridge bokeh n

Named for the Daurian region of Russia, the average Daurian partridge is about 11 or 12 inches (28 to 30 cm) from head to tail and weighs around one half to three quarters of a pound (225 to 340 grams). The main part of their diet consists of seeds, which are abundant on Mongolia’s steppe grasslands. Insects and berries also figure into their diet, when available. Partridge are ground nesters, having developed a long-term dislike of heights (such as tree branches) when, Daedalus (father of Icarus of Greek legend) threw his nephew Perdix off the Athena hill in a fit of anger. Not wishing to experience another such fall, members of genus Perdix avoid high places to this day. So the legend goes.

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But they do fly, and this is the more usual view of Daurian partridge. Twice, previously, while hiking the Mongolian steppe we’ve had our startled hearts stop in our chests as a thrumming whoosh of wingbeats exploded practically underfoot. Once the birds have flushed, it’s difficult to approach them again, although you can sometimes track them down by listening for their rix, rix, rix, call as they regroup. 

Hustai (Khustai) National Park, Mongolia: Biodiversity and Ancient Carved Gravestones

Przewalski's horses a n

Wild Takhi, or Przewalski’s horses, graze the vast, rolling steppe lands of Mongolia’s Hustai National Park. Extinct in the wild by the late 1960’s, Takhi were reintroduced to Hustai in 1992 and have since flourished. Unlike the ferel “wild” horses of North America, Takhi are a true wild species – the only remaining wild horse in the world. We visited the park on a day when wildflowers and raptors seemed to be everywhere.

Located in Central Mongolia about 60 miles (100 km) west of the capital of Ulaanbaatar, Hustai National Park provides habitat for dozens of species of mammals and over 200 species of birds. Sixteen species of fish swim in the cold waters of the Tuul river which borders the southern edge of the park. On the day we visited in early August, recent rains had prompted a profusion of wildflowers.

Harebell n

Above, abundant hairbell blooms added vibrant splashes of color to the steppe as did pink bloom, (below). Interesting to us is that both species were familiar from hikes on the Alaskan tundra. 

Pink bloom n

marmots n

In any given year, as many as 150,000 marmots inhabit Hustai’s 195 square miles, providing food for the park’s foxes, wolves, lynx and birds of prey such as golden eagles.

black kite n

With our 200-400 mm lens in transit from the Nikon repair factory, we weren’t able to obtain the captures we wanted of the golden eagles and the beautifully marked lammergeiers we encountered. Happily, black kites like the handsome specimen above were abundant and not particularly shy. 

Mongolian herder n

His brightly colored traditional garb striking against the hazy pastels of the steppe, this nomadic herder was tending a mixed flock of sheep and goats. These herds share the grasslands with Mongolian gazelles, red deer, roe deer and the wild Takhi. 

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Some 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, a Turkic culture left behind groups of carved granite stone figures in the Hustai area. Elbows close to the body and hands folded across the heart, it’s likely that this six foot tall figure at the Ongot grave site is mourning the loss of a leader or nobleman. 

ram head stone n

Carved sheep represent spiritual sacrifice. Elsewhere, stylized lions watched guard over the grave site.

Pika n

Safely back at the entrance of his burrow, this pica posed for a moment before disappearing. The nearby steppe is also home to gerbils, hamsters and badgers.

pink wildflowers w ladybug n

Almost glowing, maiden pinks are said to have derived their name from the crenelated edges of their petals which appear to have been trimmed with pinking shears.

chiming bells Chiming bells are familiar throughout northern climes.

Prezwalski's horses b n

Horses do indeed make a landscape more beautiful.