Discovery of a breeding site of Great grey Owl, Ural Owl and Northern hawk Owl in central Mongolia. (Sep 2016)

In the autumn of 2016, mid-September to be exact, after returning from my a year long study in the UK, I immediately headed to my homeland in Arkhangai province to rest my mind and reunite with the nature I am so attached to.

Joined by my nomadic herder cousin who brought me an extra horse to ride in the mountains, we set off for a 3 day long horse-back journey deep into the Taiga forest.

It was challenging in the beginning since I hadn’t ridden a horse for some 2 years, but eventually, instincts ingrained since childhood came back easily, and I adapted to the slow pace of horse riding.

I didn’t expect to see anything special on this expedition. I just wanted to relax and explore some remote parts of these mountains which I had never had a chance to visit during my childhood.

After a full day ride, we reached a sacred mountain which is the highest in the region. We started ascending the mountain in the afternoon and summited the peak as the sun was setting.

While we climbing to the top, a sudden cold hailstorm came down on the mountain. It was mid-September so as soon as the sun sets, a thick layer of ice started to form on the ground. We rushed down to the spot where we had tied down our horses. We mounted them quickly and started our descent. By this time, it was already dark, and although it was challenging to find our way back through narrow trails in the dense old coniferous forest and rocky scree, the beautiful night gave us the feeling of early winter.

Once we reached the foothills of the mountain, we found a winter shelter for livestock built by nomads and spent a really cold night there.

The next morning was chilly, with ice cover still sitting on the ground. Since we allowed our horses to graze and rest throughout the night, we all felt refreshed and headed back home not realizing one of my dreams would soon come true.

For a long time, I had been fascinated by the creatures of the night. Since I am an avid birdwatcher, owls have always been my favorite bird family. Some of the bigger owl species found in our part of the world are commoner Palearctic species such as Eagle Owl and other taiga dwellers such as Ural and Long-eared Owls. Other species were a mystery to me, not really knew where they occur and how to find them.

A typical Siberian Larch forest at the southern edge of the Taiga forest

A few kilometers from our overnight campsite, we reached a mature coniferous forest. It was a mixed forest dominated by Siberian pine and Siberian larch trees. As we penetrate the forest seeking a shortcut, only a few meters into the forest from the open area, a large bird got flushed and landed on a nearby tree. Instinctively I knew that it was an owl species judging by its slow and heavy flight. As I got a better view of it, I felt completely stunned. A large owl with flat facial disk and dark circles around yellow eyes meant a Great Grey Owl!

Great Grey Owl © Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu

Long have I dreamed of seeing this bird, but I never expected to see it in my homeland. The bird was very calm and allowed us to approach within a few meters. Since I was traveling on horseback, I hadn’t brought my telephoto lens, so I only managed to capture a few low-quality images with my landscape lens.

After half an hour of observation, we left the bird in peace. We continued our journey but soon realized the forest was impenetrable, so returned to the forest edge. There I was struck by lightning for a second time. Another species of owl was there waiting for me. A beautiful Northern Hawk Owl! It was just like a dream of me visiting a Scandinavian forest on an owl watching tour.

Northern Hawk Owl © Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu

The owl was hunting actively so it did not mind my presence at all. In the meantime, I spotted the second individual a few hundred meters downhill. Still stunned by my sheer luck, my cousin and I slowly trotted downhill where a small flock of Black Grouse got flushed from a dense patch of vegetation.

Both owl species were already accounted for in the Mongolian bird list, so they must have been recorded by Mongolian and Russian collaborative expeditions during Soviet times. Also, there has been another record of a Great Grey Owl in the Khentii mountains recently and it was subsequently published in a photo book. But my sighting was the first proven record from this region.

The following spring, in 2017, I visited the owl site again with a group of European birdwatchers and found my Great Grey Owl hunting at the same forest edge. Nearby an adult Ural Owl with 4 fledglings nested in a cavity of a large tree. Surprisingly, while inspecting the Ural Owl nest area, we got startled by a Black-billed Capercaillie which took off from its roosting tree, only 20 meters away from the Ural Owl nest.

The Northern Hawk Owl pair was still present not minding humans at all. It’s possible the birds don’t see humans regularly in this remote mountain valley. Therefore, were unaffected by our presence. Additional bird species found in the Owl territory were Eurasian Woodcock, Three-toed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Eversmann’s Redstart, Siberian Tit and Red-throated Thrush.

So called "ghost of the Taiga forest", a Ural owl guarding its territory. © Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu