Despite the discoveries of well-preserved Mesozoic birds, a key part of avian evolution, close to the radiation of all living birds (Aves), remains poorly represented. Here we report on a new taxon from the Late Cretaceous locality of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, that offers insight into this critically unsampled period. Apsaravis and the controversial alvarezsaurids are the only avialan taxa known from the continental deposits at Ukhaa Tolgod, which have produced hundreds of fossil mammals, lizards and other small dinosaurs. The new taxon, Apsaravis ukhaana, is the best-preserved specimen of a Mesozoic ornithurine bird discovered in over a century. It provides data important for assessing morphological evolution across Avialae, with implications for, first, the monophyly of Enantiornithes and Sauriurae; second, the proposition that the Mesozoic sister taxa of extant birds, as part of an 'ecological bottleneck', inhabited exclusively near-shore and marine environments; and third, the evolution of flight after its origin.