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 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
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…
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
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?