Back to Mongolia

This is a trip report of our 2022 Starling reizen journey to Mongolia, looking for Snow leopard and Pallas cat, with some added magic of autumn bird migration… I guided a group of seven enthusiasts who all wanted to see the grey ghost in the wild, and were eager to spend time in the desolate Altai mountains.
The trip started with participants leaving home turf in Brussel, Amsterdam and Marseille to meet up in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar after a long flight.

On the last Starling trip to Mongolia, Pieter-Jan D’Hondt and I made this image of a male Snow leopard. As such there was a lot of eagerness to get back and see the grey ghost in the Altai.

Going back to Mongolia ment going back to Bogi, my ultimate Steppe brother.

Can a Mongolian make you laugh? Genghis khan.

Mongolia Monday- The 6 Ecosystems – Susan Fox, American Artist


Mongolia is a huge landlocked country located in East and Central Asia bordered by Russia in the north
and China in the south. Mongolia’s temperature can fluctuate as much as 35 degrees in one day. The
country is very dry and receives only about 400mm of rainfall per year. It is known as the Land
of the Eternal Blue Sky, because it has over 250 sunny days a year.

The geography of Mongolia is super varied with the Gobi Desert to the south and mountainous regions to the north and west (average height is 1580m!). The North has taiga habitats, and the East is most known for steppe habitat. It is as such totally impossible to see the entire country, or even a big part of it, in one journey. Tough choices need to be made. And for this trip the main choice were the two cat species. Then we decided on September, in order to see some bird migration as well. August would still have lots of mosquito’s, October is already 20 degrees colder. Most of the country is hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter, with January averages dropping as low as −30 °C (with drops to -50°C occurring regularly). Hence why this period…

Nomads herding Kashmir goats

Mongolia is three times as big as France for example, but only has 3 million inhabitants, of which half live in Ulaanbaatar. Thus making it the most sparsely populated country on the planet. That is what always attracted me to it. Roughly one third of the population still are nomadic herders, and livestock is very important. There is too much livestock in Mongolia and overgrazing has a significant effect on all vegetation all over the country. The soviets had a rule that no more than 20 million domestic animals were allowed. Nowadays, there are 80 million livestock, goats- sheep-horses-camels, leading to a huge over grazing effect on nature.

Combined with a few huge droughts in recent years, Mongolians have seen their natural world change, and were eager to point that out to us.

White-naped cranes, resting near a huge Gold mine

For most of its history, Mongolia was closed off to the world and little was known about the country or
its people. Or its nature for that matter: Mongolia boasts a wide range of birds, fish and mammals but is probably best known for the Snow Leopard, Gobi Bear, Wild Bactrian Camel (only in the Gobi), Takhi (Przewalski Horse) and Siberian Ibex.

Takhi are considered by many to be the only remaining wild horse in the world

Siberian marmot in Hustai

The mighty Maral deer were rutting and it was great hearing their calls during the Hustai visit.

To me a wildlife trip in Mongolia is not only about the enigmatic species, it is also about the setting and more important, the lighting. There is so much dust in the air that you get a very special atmosphere to take images…

Raven at dawn

In total, we were 17 days away from home. The trip was split up in three parts: Hustai NP (because close to Ulaanbaatar), one week in the Eastern steppes and one week in the Altai for Snow leopards.

Going to the Eastern steppes for Pallas’s Cat

After a “short” twelve hour drive over bumpy roads, we reached the areas with higher Pallas’s cat densities to meet with our good friend Ogi, who spent a big part of his life studying this felid.

The great and vast Steppe

Base camp was specifically built for the Pallas cat quest:

Our plan was to look for the cat at dusk and dawn, and spend the rest of the day birding, since september is the month where many Siberian passerines migrate past. And O boy were we in for an impressive migration…

A red dot in the viewfinder. Siberian Rubythroat remain a mega for WP Birders, we saw dozens. Very different habitat from their breeding ground.

Pallas leaf warbler was very common

Taiga flycatcher

One of the crazy aspects of Steppe wildlife, is that they have nowhere to hide. So if an eagle owl needs to sleep, he has no choice but to sleep on the ground, relying on its camouflage.

Eagle owls were not the only ones ducking for cover, this is also what Pallas cats do. In total we saw no less than 14 different Pallas’s cats.

Starling participant photographing a Pallas’s Cat that was completely relying on its camouflage.

Such a cool animal, and also crazy that I have better pictures of Manul than I have of European wild cat, where I have spent many weeks in the field for.

The cats will lay down and trust their camouflage, but if you don’t move they will get up after some time and start sneaking away. They do this in utter slow motion, sometimes taking 15 minutes to walk 15 meters!

Slow motion escape, never losing eye contact. Such a cool animal.

The eyes usually seen by no other eye

 

I am not drunk, I am tipsy

 

The time had come for us to leave the steppe behind and travel west, to look for that other rare felid…

Altai mountains

Our plan in the Altai was to have a base camp on the edge of the mountain so we could go higher up on Snow Leopard days but also spend time in the valleys on other days. This base camp also became the best place to see the infamous Mongolian or Henderson’s ground jay, for most the highest species on the birding wish list.

A third mammal target species for this trip, is the ultra rare Saiga antelope that inhabits the desert planes between the mountain ranges. The saiga is notoriously shy and classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. An estimated total number of only 50,000 saigas survives today in Kalmykia, three areas of Kazakhstan, and in two isolated areas of Mongolia (only few thousand Mongolian saiga in total).

The valleys between mountain ranges are almost desert like, attracting dry loving species like Pallas’s grouse:

Domestic camels are also to be found in these valleys

Wherever there is a bit of water, life explodes

Mongolian whooper swans have super short wings. Very special

Tree sparrows

September means the arrival of masses of Lapland longspurs, who spend winter in Mongolia.

But the true target of this second part of the trip was of course looking for snow leopards. There are two main places in the world where you can have a high chance of seeing snow leopards in the wild: Ladakh (Indian Himalaya) and Mongolia. In Ladakh you sit in higher altitudes and it is much colder so in that perspective Mongolia is definitely more doable. Sometimes there are good sightings in other places (China, Pakistan etc.), usually when a denning female is found. Then you are sure that for some months, you can see her and the cubs around the den.

Valley in the snow leopard mountain ranges. Ibex come down to drink so snow leopards spend their nights wandering the valleys to hunt. In the morning you try to spot a cat which is making its way back up to steep slopes.

It takes a lot of effort and even manpower to see a snow leopard in a weeks time. I have seen them multiple times now both in India and Mongolia, and it is my opinion that if the leopard is not moving, you simply will not find it. We hire shepherd sons that know these mountains inside out, and spend the week prior to our arrival scanning the mountain ranges, to try and establish the whereabouts of the leopards. As such for the local shepherd community, who lose lots of wildstock to leopards, there is a vested interest in preserving these leopards. The purest form of ecotourism if you ask me.

In this view, around 3-4 snow leopards live (7-8 animals in the entire valley system). The furthest mountains in the image are around 3-5km away and at one time, you can maybe see 20-30% of the surface. So statistically, this brings it down to maybe on average one animal actually being in possible sight. Combine this with the fact that if a snow leopard makes a kill, it will not move for days and just lay in the vicinity of the kill, and you can start to grasp how insanely difficult it is to find them. That is why we have multiple spotters and seven full days of scanning, in order to try and see it.

Days and days and days of scanning is the only way to find a snow leopard.

It always starts by seeing snow leopard prey like this big Siberian Ibex

Another day in the dry mountains scanning for the grey ghost.

Golden eagle, aka Marmot hunter

Petroglyphs, thousands of years old, showing Maral deer.

And then it happened.

A super loud shout of exhilaration echoed through the mountains and it could only mean one thing. But the spotter was much higher up the slopes and we weren’t looking where he  was looking, so there was instant stress that the big cat might be out of sight. Also, I was further down the valley on lookout duty, away from other participants, so I had to run back as soon as possible. Easier said than done with all the equipment and at that altitude. Through the walkie talkie I heard it was not one but actually three leopards that were found. The most experienced shepherd in our team instantly told us that since the sun was up, they would be in the shade so we focused on the shady parts. It took around twenty minutes -feeling like twenty hours- until I finally found them again. And all of a sudden we were looking at a female snow leopard with two cubs.

We could follow them for no less than ten hours!! And I took these images at dusk, when the air was clearest.

Mother Snow leopard with two one year old cubs, enjoying the sunset.

Our mammal guide Ogi has taken many close images of snow leopards, by hiking towards the leopard once it is spotted with the scope. Some cats are not shy and will let you get to 30-40m before sneaking away. But that is easier said than done in this very steep landscape and not possible with a group of ten people.

People were super happy and we keep our 100% succes rate in seeing snow leopards in the wild. Combined with the crazy Pallas’s cat images and good birding, safe to say the trip was a success. A detailed species list will be provided on the STARLING website, together with this report.

Birding highlights included further Altai snowcock, hundreds of steppe eagles, Meadow bunting, Elegant bunting (bird of the trip), Great bustard, dozens of Saker falcons, Brown and many Isabelline shrikes, Mongolian lark, Pallas grasshopper warbler, White’s thrush, Eyebrowed thrush, Black and Red throated thrush, Eversmann’s and Güldenstadt redstart, Siberian, Brown, Black-throated and Kozlov’s accentor and several rose finches.
Mammal highlights included Steppe Polecat, Long eared hedgehog, Corsac fox, Siberian Roe deer, Mongolian and Goitered gazelle, Siberian Jerboa and many others.

                        Thank you to all

I want to come back and try to travel the Gobi area. Lets organize a trip dedicated to Gobi bear?

JM

In respect of my friend Jean Marie, I wrote this in French.

Essayez d’être ce que vous manquez à ceux qui sont décédés…

En 2011, j’étais en vacances en Norvège quand j’ai rencontré le Français le plus sympathique: Jean Marie.

Le Varanger.

Après une journée de photographie ensemble, nous avons été invités chez lui en Lorraine.

“Venez voir les chats sauvages. Vous ne le regretterez pas.”
Alors on a fait. Un week-end avec Jean Marie. Le premier week-end de tant de week-ends qui sont encore venus. Printemps, été, automne, hiver … nous y allions souvent.

Je n’ai jamais rencontré un homme avec autant de chaleur, d’altruisme et de générosité.
Il avait une maison ou tout le monde était toujours le bienvenu. Il allait vérifier nos pièges photo, demandait comment allait le bébé, puis l’a pris sur son bras tout le weekend après.

Jean Marie est décédé hier, figure paternelle pour moi et Pieter-Jan. Un bon ami pour tant de gens.
Dormez bien, tu nous manqueras.

En hommage, voici quelques photos que nous avons prises ensemble dans ta chère lorraine. Des souvenirs qui resteront toute une vie…

 

 

 

Pallas Cat and Snow Leopard in the lands of Genghis Khan

A few weeks ago, Starling reizen organised its first trip dedicated to seeing both Pallas’s cat, Saiga antelope and Snow Leopard in the wild. More specifically, the wild Mongolian steppes and Altai mountain ranges. Safe to say we -consisting of Billy, Rik, Sam, Iwan, PJ and myself- were very eager to join this maiden trip. Even if we did not know what to expect, except for a dry and chilly landscape and a lot of sheep meat on our plate.

Mongolia…really is a very quirky country:

It is one of the oldest countries on the planet, being established around 209 BC.
Three million people inhabit the 604.000 square miles, half of those inhabiting the capital Ulaanbaatar, making it the most sparsely populated country in the world.
The average elevation is 1580m, sunny days are observed around 257 days a year, and the average year round temperature measured in Ulaanbaatar is -1°C, making it the coldest capital in the world.

Our trip started with many hours of flights, before landing in Ulaanbaatar:

Cold but Gold, the vast city of Ulaanbaatar is a sight to behold.
I guess people were not expecting the city to grow that big when the coal power plant was placed.

Originally known as Orgöo, Ulaanbaatar historically moved no less than 25 times before finally settling at its current riverside location. What else would you expect when your population consists of nomadic herders, right.

Mongolia is most known for Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire he founded in 1206. Having reunited all of the tribes and motivating them to work and fight together, the Mongol empire was the largest empire that ever existed. Safe to say in Mongolia, Genghis is considered the true OG.

People visiting the Genghis Khan statue outside Ulaanbaatar.

Enough with the human stuff. Time for nature

In Ulaanbaatar, you are greeted by Azure tits. High on the wish list and a lifer for all tour participants.

Time to hit the road.

In the first week, we drove around 700km to a remote steppe area in the Southwest of the country and a hotspot for Pallas’s cat.

The wide open Mongolian steppe landscape, littered with cattle belonging to nomadic herders.

About 25% of Mongolians still live a traditional nomadic life, but life is changing fast and about 68000 herders a year have moved to Ulaanbaatar since 2001, setting up informal tent camps in the capital, but lacking facilities like water and power. The population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled in the last 10 years to 1.5 million people, with about 55 percent of the city’s population still living in ger tents.

A remarkable fact is that under the Soviet union, the country (four times the size of Germany) was not allowed to surpass 20 million livestock animals, whilst currently it is estimated that 70 million animals graze the steppes, causing depletion in some areas.
More animals means more animals at risk: Severe winters that kill large numbers of livestock are common enough in Mongolia that there is a term for the phenomenon: dzud. Dzud has been occurring more frequently in recent years, and it seems to be getting worse. Every decade has one or two winters with significant losses (up to 30% of all cattle dying!) but in previous years they have been occurring more frequent and more harsh. The winter of 2010 had temperatures dropping to -59°C, ending in massive death of livestock. The enticement of a better city life, combined with the harsh conditions in winter, made so many people switch their life around and move to the concrete jungle. Impressive to see this transition taking place.

Herd of cattle making its way through the infinite landscape

Bogii vs Oogii… Whenever there is free time, Mongols pick a fight. Easy as that.

And now… Pallas’s cat
These rarely seen felids inhabit the vast steppe landscape and are notoriously shy, so the way one goes around to see this species is by scanning from distance. Once you have found a cat, you can approach it. The animals rarely have a shelter (such as a marmot hole or rocky burrow) to run to and simply crouch down.

Early morning chilly scan session

PJ got respect from the locals, yet they didn’t know his hat was made from a roadkill fox #ecofur

Daytime was spent birdwatching and in photo hides to get close shots.

PJ being a happy camper whilst waiting for Mongolian larks to come and drink.

Shore lark

 

Upland buzzard

Mongolian gerbil liked being in the shot.

“Tony Tony, Listen. Why do squirrels swim on their back?”
“Don’t know George”
“To keep their nuts from getting wet”

Migratory red flanked bluetail had left Siberia and was now on its way south. Strange to see a boreal taiga species in the steppe landscape.

Steppe eagle at dawn

Not only living animals but also dead animals are seen everywhere in Mongolia. In tough winters, easily 20% of sheep, goats, horses, yaks and camels can die. A result is that many of these carcasses are eaten only by flies and small critters. The flat planes are not ideal for vultures since there is no place to rest, so no large groups of scavengers are present in many areas.
What remains of the dead animal is remarkably intact:

Because there is so much dust in the air, both sunrises and sunsets are bound to be impressive. Billy and PJ loved putting their skills to work and get the shot as good as they could.
I was never that much into it, but gave it a try. In the end it were the other images with human interaction in this moment that I liked most.

It is said no woman can get between a man and his tripod

More looking for Pallas’s cat

After a few days we got lucky… Billy, -probably due to the fact he had a double vision Swarovski telescope and not because of superior spotting skills- found a Pallas’s cat foraging in the steppe and the biologist that joined us was eager to get to the cat ASAP. He said that most likely it would be laying down in the grass, relying on its camouflage. It was a matter of getting there and finding it.

We jumped in the car, drove to the spot and got out. Complete silence around us. No wind, no bird songs, nothing. A very strange atmosphere.

All of a sudden I was yelled at by Oogii: “Don’t move, it’s right in front of you”. I did not move a meter but still could not see it. Felt like a dummy and it was only when the guide came to me and pointed it out, that I saw the cat laying in the grass, some 8m in front of me.

Pallas’s cat crouched down and not moving a muscle.

The best thing one can do next is place hides and make sure no more people are in sight of the cat. After some time the animal will very slowly get up and sneak away.
So that’s what we did.

First it opened its eyes

And then indeed, it very very slowly sneaked away. In a way I have never ever seen any animal behave. Complete slow motion, yet in plane sight. SO EPIC!!!

Stuff off dreams to see such a rare animal in such a way

A Mega

With this great sighting it was time to leave the steppes behind and head for the Altai mountains.
We took a plane and flew 2.5 hours west, being reminded that Mongolia is a big country indeed.

Our guide had arranged drivers, Land Cruisers and four ger tents for us to spend the following week in. A true expedition because hardly anyone inhabits this place.

Insane -unphotoshopped- scenery at dusk. The dust in the air makes for very special lighting.

In these Altai regions, steppe habitat is found at the bottom of the mountains, and it harbours the last populations of Saiga Antelope in Mongolia. We spent some days scanning for snow leopards in the higher parts of the mountains, and others for Saiga in the steppe areas.

Locals were wondered by the DJI Mavics that PJ and Billy brought. Looks good for the aftermovie PJ is planning to make.

 

 

The rough life. Herders spend winter with their family in a lonesome ger high up in the mountains,
trying to provide an income for their families as well as food for their cattle.

We gained a lot of respect for these people, who give it all they’ve got, every single day.

 

Rik and Sam on scanning duty, two brothers that travel together in their quest to see pristine nature and wildlife.

Early morning shades in base camp

Our guides had arranged two herders to spend a week with us and ride their horses up the mountains every day, in order to look for fresh snow leopard activity.
If they were to find fresh tracks, or even a kill, we would know a more specific area to focus on.

Crazy evening vibes

Tree sparrow very common everywhere

Weasel prints on a river bank

We spent quite some time looking for Saiga antelope. It is a species that few people are interested in, but I have always dreamt about seeing them. With their nose trunks, their insane running speeds (exceeding 100 km/h) and their ability to survive in the coldest and driest of steppe habitat.

Saiga artist impression by (c) Meser creations.
The nose is flexible and inflatable so helps the animal to breathe clean air during dusty summers and warm air during cold winters.

Populations of the critically endangered Mongolian Saiga antelope have plummeted by 40 percent following large die-offs due to harsh winters and viral infections (such as Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), also known as ovine rinderpest or goat plague). It is now estimated that only 3000 Saiga remain in Mongolia. The Saiga population has suffered a roller coaster ride since 2001 when the numbers dropped to only 750 animals following a summer drought and a heavy winter. However, thanks to continuous conservation efforts, the population increased to 14000 and its range increased by 13 percent in 2014. But then an outbreak of goat plague reduced the numbers to 5000 in 2017. Poaching has also reduced the Saiga population.

Because these animals are so shy and we did not want to chase them through the steppes, we settled on portraying the enigmatic Saiga in its steppe habitat:

Saiga in the steppe

PJ -aka the bone collector- went out to find some Mongolian Ibex trophies and will spend the following year filling in Mongolian paperwork to get these bad boys to his living room.

On our quest for the snow leopard, we found more prey remains…

 

Where there are healthy numbers of snow leopards, bones pile up.

Our drivers knew these mountains very well and were keen to show us the good stuff.

Can you image the feeling when grandpa camouflage here looks through his magnifying glass and points you out were the ibex are sitting, and you hadn’t seen them with your swaro telescope?
Indeed, it goes like Kendrick said: Bitch be humble.

 

Wherever there are bones, you see Lammergeiers…

The first days passed and no leopard yet. But tracks were everywhere and the weather was good. So we were hopeful. And Billy kept teasing us that he would find the leopard before we could, thanks to his brand new thermal imaging camera.

 

Another sunset after a solid day of scanning the slopes with the entire group. No cat.

The following day we were up early again and climbed the mountain to a clear vantage point where we could scan. After a few hours Billy -still probably due to the fact he had a double vision Swarovski telescope and not because of superior spotting skills?- said super calmly “looks like there is a dead animal lying there, left of the big rock”

This is the view I more or less had in my scope.

Yup, looks like an animal laying there in a rather unnatural position.

He continued still calmly as ever “That must be a fresh leopard kill no?
I said “I don’t know man, I can barely say what that is”.

Then his decibels cranked up to 11 and he yelled “there is a fucking snow leopard laying left to the big rock”

This image was taken from around 2-3km distance, and if it wouldn’t have been for the dead yak, the leopard (left of the rock) would have remained unseen, for sure.

This is where things became really really interesting. And this moment changed the agenda for the following days completely.

Oogii told us that if we were to climb the mountain slope very quietly, we would have a good chance of sneaking up onto the leopard, with possibility of a close observation.
We all got nervous… went down the valley, had a quick lunch, dressed light and all of us took just the big lens on our back. No more words were said. The steep hike began.

Heart rate 180, climbing a ridge that you know has a snow leopard laying on it, and hoping for the animal to not hear us… was a special cocktail of emotions.
And sure enough, when we peaked around the corner, we saw the dead yak and the yak’s mother… casually standing next to a sleeping snow leopard.

Uncropped image of a sleeping snow leopard. (Really sorry for the heat vibrations causing the image to be less sharp than expected)

We were baffled by the fact that the mother yak had no fear what so ever and even chased after the leopard when it ran away.

 

Fearless mother Yak keeping guard of her dead calf.
Meat is murder, that also goes in snow leopard land.

The following two days Pj, Billy and myself each sat in our hides, waiting for the leopard to show up on the kill site. He came every night but was reluctant to appear in front of our hides during daytimes. So all those many hours (getting in the hide at 5 am, getting out at 6pm) to do little more than gaping through my viewfinder, warming my hands on the (mutual!) pee bottle and hearing PJ say he was not cold at all whilst hearing Billy chatter his teeth in the tent next door.

So as a last try we did once more what we tried on the first day, sneaking up on the leopard. And this time the air was not vibrating, the cat was there and we took many images:

Huge relief to see this in your viewfinder after a few gnarly days. Big male snow leopard, high up in the Altai mountains!

That image concludes our trip.

And what a special trip it was.

Big thanks to Billy and Starling reizen in general to organize this trip.
Also big thanks to our guides Bogii and Oogii. Privilege working with you.
Big thanks to Eli for letting me do this.

People smiling.

Gravity deniers

Several weeks ago, I had the chance to visit a friend in the southern part of Belgium, who has a garden. Not any garden, a huge and wild one, with nest boxes.
Nest boxes hanging 50cm from the ground. And placed for one reason only: hazel dormice.

The hazel dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius is a small mammal and the only living species in its genus. In winter, hazel dormice will hibernate in nests on the ground, in the base of old coppiced trees or hazel stools, under piles of leaves or under log piles as these situations are not subject to extreme variations in either temperature or humidity. Dormice are almost completely arboreal in habit, true climbers that almost never walk on the ground. When it wakes up in spring (late April or early May), it builds woven nests of bark, fresh leaves and grasses in the undergrowth. The best time of year the catch them is August and September, when numbers peak.

Schermafdruk 2015-11-05 21.38.30But even then it remains really difficult to see them. I have never seen them outside of nest boxes, whilst I have seen many dozens of Garden (eikel-) and Edible dormice (relmuis). They are now almost completely extinct in Flanders, and only have strongholds in Wallonia.

IMG_1059Phone pic illustrating what it was like, to walk through Eric his garden. What a great guy.

After another rainy hour and in one of the last next boxes, PJ got lucky and managed to catch one hazel dormouse. I still don’t know how he caught it. It’s like these mice have springs attached to hem, and as soon as you open the nest box, they are launched into the tree.

We photographed it in several settings and then put it back in its original nest box.

PJ_150912_8576

 

KVG_0033

 

KVG_0015

 

KVG_0166

 

KVG_0101

 

KVG_0120

KVG_0072

The hazel dormouse requires a variety of arboreal foods to survive. It eats berries and nuts and other fruit with hazelnuts being the main food for fattening up before hibernation.

KVG_0134

We also took an empty nest box, and offered it to him/her. Home sweet home.

KVG_0251

 

KVG_0277

A big thank you to Erik and PJ.

Bye
Karl