Island hopping in far away Hawaii

The past two weeks, Eli and I were able to combine business with pleasure, and got to visit Hawaii.

NASA Satellite image of the Hawaiian archipelago. You can instantly see big differences in local geography (dry versus wet parts of the islands) and the huge volcano Mauna Loa on the big island.

Described by Mark Twain as “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean”, Hawaii is a string of 137 islands encompassing a land area that would easily fit within the boundaries of Belgium. It lies more than 3500km away from any mainland. There are six major islands in Hawaiʻi: Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Maui, and the island of Hawaiʻi. Each has its own distinct geography, wildlife, climate and personality. My conclusion is that you need to visit them all, easier said than done when you have patient grandparents babysitting your toddlers.

The Hawaiian islands were formed only a few million years ago, by volcanic activities of the Pacific tectonic plate. Humans arrived around 2000 years ago, travelling the pacific ocean from Polynesia on wooden canoes, using the stars for navigation. In January 1778 James Cook becomes the first European to set foot on Hawaii. The Europeans brought cattle, rats, cats and other animals, which started an extinction wave on the island…

I was so keen on going there to see the nature but also to see the Kilauea volcano, which had been active for many years, when we booked the trip. Sadly weeks before we left, the volcano went dormant.

For the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit Hawaii every year, waikiki beach is what they want to see. A cocktail by the beach… Safe to say we had other priorities…

Welcome… to Jurassic Park

Steep cliffs and remote beaches with unspoilt forests. A big contrasts to the thousands of tourists in the many resorts.

Only twenty minutes by car further, and you can be walking in a barren volcanic landscape.

Hawaiian wildlife can be rare and seldom seen. There is only one species of land mammal indigenous to the archipelago: Hawaiian bat. No gulls breed in Hawaii. Only one species of wader. Only one seal species. Just two endemic butterflies. It truly is a very remote place that literally erupted from the ocean, and where many groups of animals never dispersed to.

Below the ocean surface however, much more is to be found…

We did lots of snorkling, most noteworthy were a night dive with manta rays touching us, and a cage dive for Hawaiian shark:

Wild boyz quote: “There’s a shark in the water, we’d better get of this boat”

Hawaiian shark

We sadly did not see Tiger sharks on the dive, since they swim closer to shore to hunt for seals and turtles.

Green sea turtle can be seen everywhere.

What took more time to find, was the Hawaiian monk seal, the rarest seal in the world. With a total population of only around 1000 animals. After five days of scanning beaches and little islands, we found one animal in a remote area.

Hawaiian monk seal

On the remote beach of Kaena, there is a wildlife reserve completely fenced off. Which could only mean one thing: a seabird colony worth protecting against rats and cats. This turned out to be my first ever visit to an albatross colony. Something I had been dreaming of for 20 years. Laysan albatross mainly breeds in the tropical waters of Hawaii and is a species strongly impacted by plastic pollution. I remember seeing this video many years ago:

It made me silent and since then I have always wanted to see Laysan albatross.

Huge fence above and below ground protects seabirds from rats.

Male greeting the female

Oahu has some tropical parts, where the might Banyan tree can be seen in all its glory. Some trees span 1ha of surface with their canopy.

Eli and the banyan tree

For the next days we rented a van to explore the Big island, together with my colleague Steven and his wife Michele.

Tropical forest in the big island.

Geckos are not endemic to Hawaii. They first arrived along with Polynesian voyagers over 1500 years ago. Today, there are eight gecko species in Hawaii, here shown is the Gold dust day gecko.

Years ago I was listening to a podcast with Brian Cox, and it was said that the night sky above the NASA Keck observatory, was one thing you need to do before you die.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii Island is surrounded by thousands of miles of thermally stable seas. The 4200m Mauna kea summit has no nearby mountain ranges to roil the upper atmosphere. Few city lights pollute Hawaiian night skies, and for most of the year, the atmosphere above Mauna kea is clear, calm and dry -— offering the best seeing on Earth.

From a distance, the Keck observatory looks like white dots on top of a mountain…

But when standing next to it… different gravy
The twin Keck Observatory telescopes are the world’s most scientifically productive optical and infrared telescopes. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. The telescopes’ primary mirrors are 10-meters in diameter and are each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass.

People standing next to the telescope… Up close you can only be deeply impressed. When the sun sets, these huge telescope doors slide open, and nocturnal researchers begin their day.

Looking at a sunset from above the clouds

NASA telescope doors slide open. The research begins.

Selfie of Eli, Michele, Steven and myself in front of the most stars I have ever seen… and the milky way galaxy.

Kilauea volcano sadly was no longer erupting during our stay. But the hissing and the sissing was still impressive, combined with the completely burnt landscape. We traveled through dozens of kilometers of just molten rock.

Where almost no life was to be seen. Except for the true plant survivors that managed to find a way.

Life finds a way…

On the islands, there is only one group of animals found in higher diversity: the birds. Birds populated the Hawaiian islands millions of years ago and then started to diversify. It resulted to a staggering amount of endemic species, that only live (or sadly, lived) on these islands.

99% of the birds we saw, where the same ten species, like this yellow billed cardinal. The endemics seemed nowhere to be seen…

The story of the Hawaiian endemics deserves to be told…

Honeycreepers wear the crown of Hawaiian birdlife.

In May 2023, the Hawaiʻi State Senate passed a resolution that designates August 8th as Hawaiian Honeycreeper Celebration Day. The Hawaiian Honeycreeper is a subfamily of finches that made their way to the Hawaiian Islands 7.2 million years ago during the formation of Niʻihau and Kauaʻi islands. When Oʻahu began to form between 4 and 2.5 million years ago, the blank canvas of molten rock allowed these birds to explore and create major divergences in the Hawaiian Honeycreeper species. The subsequent evolutionary changes made all 50+ known species endemic to the Islands. 

Today, only 17 species remain, with a few species having less than 200 individuals alive. And many of these living only on one specific island. A sad story indeed:

Honeycreeper diversity

Adaptive radiation leading to great diversity.

As humans and other plants and animals (including mosquitos) came to the Hawaiian Islands, their survival has come into question. There are now only seventeen species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers left, and they are in grave danger of becoming fully extinct. Some died off already a century ago, from overharvesting. The image below shows a traditional cape, that needed the lives of 80.000 birds. Not smart to do if there are so few of each species.

The main reason for Hawaii to become bird extinction capital of the world, is a parasite: Avian Malaria.

Temperature and elevation affect the distribution and intensity of avian malaria in Hawaii. Climate change is aiding the rapid movement of disease into disease-free forests. At low elevations, mosquitoes breed year-round, and disease transmission is too intense for most native bird species to persist. At mid-elevations, up to 1500 m, disease is more seasonal, and some native species persist. Only at the highest elevation forests, above 1500 m, are temperatures too cool for mosquitoes and the malaria parasite to develop, resulting in forest habitat with little to no disease transmission. However, climate change is allowing mosquito populations to invade new areas, increasing disease distribution across the Hawaiian Islands.

Luckily a lot of the pristine forest is protected and still is to be found. We hiked up in search of these very special birds that feed on nectar, from flowering trees:

After a few days searching we were finally in the right high altitude habitat… and there it was: the stunning Liwi

In flight they sound like a woodpecker flying by. When seated they are so weird looking. I had never seen anything like it.

This concluded the trip. Hawaii is not a destination I would have thought to want to visit. But O boy did its diversity in habitats and scarce but special wildlife make us want to go back…

Big thanks to Medtronic for making this possible!!

Eyes rarely seen: looking for India’s big cats

This is the trip report of the 2023 STARLING India trip I guided over the last 2 weeks.

As you can see, this trip was mainly aimed towards seeing and identifying as much plant species as possible:

For me it’s all about them plants.

Now, where to begin… there is so much to tell about India’s wildlife.
First of all, I have never seen a country that divides opinions more than India does. So many people tell you “I WILL NEVER GO THERE” or “I WILL NEVER GO THERE AGAIN”, and are very adamant as to why they think that way. Persons I spoke to consider India a very crowded place, with open sewers and too much garbage everywhere. And when you travel there, most of the journey is being spent on the toilet, creating something that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.

Now you do see things that feel that way. Just two pics I took with my phone from the car as illustration…

In India you can literally see the entire countryside being put on fire, to burn the wheat remains before the rice is planted ahead of Monsoon season. Smoke as far as the eye can see.

But when you ask me about India, I think about my previous travels into the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, looking for Snow Leopards. I think about Buddhists being the most friendly people I have ever met. I think about the fact that India has more % vegetarians than any other country in the world, and why that is not a coincidence.
It is the country that houses more bear species and more cats than any other country. It is a country of many faces.

But mainly I think about conservation, and the fact India has truly done some remarkable feats to help bring back certain species from the brink of extinction.

Left: Lions then and now. Look at the entire Asiatic lion distribution now being reduced to one little dot (arrow) in Gujarat GIR national park. Right: Tigers then and now.

When I was born, there were still more than 30.000 tigers left in the wild. In 2006 there were only 1700. Asiatic lion dropped to just twelve (12!) individuals in the early 1900’s and had their lowest numbers a century before tigers did. Indian Wild Ass dropped to 350 individuals in the mid sixties. We could give many more examples like this, just like in Europe, but what India did differently is what keeps mesmerizing me. They took hard action, and difficult action (sometimes relocating villages and thousands of people), but it had results: There are now more than 4000 tigers, 674 Asiatic lions in GIR National Park and more than 4000 Indian Wild Asses in the Little and Greater Rann of Kutch.

The purpose of this trip was not only to see and photograph these animals, but to try and learn about the Indian way of conservation. First day however we went to check out some historic New Delhi culture sites, in order to acclimatize…

Red Fort
Qutab minar, 72m high

We then visited two area’s: First the Northwestern part of India (Gujarat) with Little Rann of Kutch and GIR as national parks on our list. After that we travelled to Madhya Pradesh province in the center of the country, where some of the big tiger reserves are found. There we visited Satpura NP, Pench NP and Tadoba NP.

Cats are best found in dry seasons, so we opted for the very warm Indian Summer with temperatures regularly going over 40°C. It is not only warm, the light is also very bright and photography can only be properly done early morning and late evening. The picture below is not converted to Black-and-white but shows how hard the light can be at 9 am already. I was warned by many people about this: “forget landscape photography, and the light will not be what you want it to be. But you will love it!”

White eyed buzzard in hard sunlight.

The trip started with a visit to the salt flats of Little Rann of Kutch. For centuries, people have been flooding the land with fresh water, allowing underground salt deposits to crystallize, dry out, and be harvested. The scenery shows these manually dug out dikes, flamingos attracted to crustaceans thriving in the salty water, and dozens of salt trucks carrying the salt through the desert. A scene none of the group had seen before.

Big dust clouds from salt trucks overshadow the landscape
local salt farmer, showing how the salt crystallizes
This salt needs a few more months before it can be harvested

But Little Rann is also home to some typical dry species: Desert fox, caracal, jungle cat, striped hyena and off course the wild donkeys

Juvenile desert fox cubs in the den
NICE ass! The Indian wild ass is one of the very few remaining wild donkey species
Black drongo loves riding the ass

After this it was time to go to GIR, “only a seven hour drive” we were reassured…

Dry tropical forests of GIR NP
In summer safari’s look like this. Most trees don’t have leaves and sit out the heat until July when the Monsoons come.
Eurasian thick-knee breading

In 100 years GIR 60 X’ed their lion population. In fact, this is the only remaining population of the Asiatic lion. GIR now has around 674 lions, 400 leopards and 200 striped hyena’s so it is a carnivore paradise. Lions are lions and never care about your presence, but the leopards were proving more difficult. Thanks to our good spotters, we found a male observing us from the bushes.

The spotters saw he was thirsty and decided to go to the nearest water hole and wait. And after a while, they were proven right…

Asiatic lions differ from African lions by having fewer manes, thicker tail end and a ventral skin fold on their bellies. They are just as lazy though, of the many dozens of lions I have seen in my life, none of them were running…

Big daddy had been fighting

A brown barren landscape it was then, but occasionally there was a flash of colour, like this Black-rumped Flameback.

Also very special were the first ghost trees, of which we would see many more.

A natural gum (karaya) is exuded by the tree when the bark is damaged. This valuable substance is traditionally tapped by cutting or peeling back the bark, or by making deep gashes at the base of the trunk. Locals call it the ghost tree since its white trunk would reflect whitish in the moonlight.

One night I saw the biggest bat I have ever seen. Turned out there was a roost of Indian Flying fox nearby. Such cool animals to spend time with.

1.5kg and a wingspan of up to 1.5m wide! Truly special.
And we learned that males do urinate on themselves (easier when hanging upside down), to cool off.
Also see the juvenile on the right, attached to mom.
Female flying with juvenile attached
Hans getting right into some holy action

In Gujarat, we also saw the first of three Jungle cats whilst spotlighting. Following, we travelled east towards three tiger parks. The first one, Satpura NP is big and has approx. 50 tigers. So the statistics of seeing tiger here are rather low, but it is a greener park and I wanted the best chance to see sloth bear.

Cool landscapes to explore
I love to hold you. Stranglehold you… Lots of parasitic tree species in the teak forests.
painted storks
Crested serpent eagle up close

In Satpura we saw higher numbers of Indian bison (better known as Gaur) too.

Adult male Gaur weigh up to 1500kg. Crazy to believe that tigers can bring them down. Especially when female tigers have grown cubs, mother and cubs target Gaur together.

When you do Safari trips in India, it is much more regulated than in Africa. You get a dedicated jeep, with a dedicated driver and dedicated guide, to drive a chosen route. This means inevitably that some people in our group would see things the others wouldn’t. By doing around 20 Safari in total, I hoped observations would be plentiful for everybody and we would all see the top targets. Two big sightings were done by only one jeep: A rusty spotted cat in Satpura and the famous Blacky, the black leopard from Tadoba. I missed both.

Peacocks were seen every day. Many people (including myself) grew up seeing peacocks as farm animals, but if you step back and look at what you are seeing in these Indian jungles… truly extraordinary
Male display

Satpura was also on the to do list because it is the best place to find Indian Giant Squirrel, one of the largest squirrels in the world.
At first we only saw their silhouettes racing through the treetops, but afterwards we found an animal at a nest site.

It measures up to 80 cm
Indian giant squirrel at its nest

It took us a couple of days, but then we also finally found sloth bear families.

Sloth bears solely live of termites. The length of their claws is needed to break open termite mounts.
Whilst mother was digging in a termite mount, the juveniles moan in order for her to move so they can lick up some termites too. Sloth bears even miss some front teeth so they can suck harder when they stick their head in a termite colony. Cool behaviour.
Indian nightjar
Brown fish owl
Woolly necked stork

Then things started getting serious as we arrived in Pench NP. Pench has more tiger sightings and off course tiger was the main target species so all was now directed towards seeing the big cat.

Where there is water, there are lodges. Great birding in the lodge garden in Pench NP.
Scanning for tigers

All throughout the trip we had many sightings of grey langur primates. Most mothers were carrying infants.

Wild Red junglefowl. The true OG of modern chickens
SSSSSS make me immortal with a kiss

Lots of owls were seen:

Mottled wood owl at nest site
Indian Scops owl
Spotted owlet
White browed wagtail

After half of our stay in Pench, nobody had seen a tiger, so a healthy dose of stress was starting to creep up on us. Local people kept saying “no worries. you will see them”, but some people in the group thought it was about time the guides found them a tiger. No pressure…

So how do you find a tiger?

You find the tiger by listening to deer and monkeys their alarm calls. There are basically two big cats in the forest: leopard and tiger. Leopards are scared of tigers and move through the undergrowth with speed, implying alarm calls are short and quickly stop as the cat moves out of sight. Tigers run the show, and walk much slower, therefore alarms last much longer. Our spotters were 110% sure whether alarm calls came from tiger or leopard activity.

Sambar deer in tiger country are always very wary
axis deer
We even found two of the seldom seen four horned antilope.

At some point a guide shouted and pointed to the trees. Hans saw a rather nice pattern in between two trees and pointed it out for me. For me the sighting of the trip followed:


The same evening, we heard some very nearby monkeys alarming, and then it became quiet. Our guide proposed to wait and see what happens. Ten minutes later he exploded and whistled -or better shouted- THERE! Tiger hunting!!!
It took me a few more minutes to find it, but there she was, stalking.

Female tiger stalking prey
Then she looked at us, and came towards us…
And crossed the road 10m in front of the car. A quick growl to show who was boss and of she went.

In the following days everybody saw tigers but it was only at Tadoba national park, where the sightings increased. Tadoba, Corbett and Bandhavgarh are currently seen as the three top tiger parks.

Old jungle in Tadoba
Asiatic honey bee nest. The bees sleep against the combs and protect the nest.
Spot breasted fantail nest.
Indian Civet
Wild dogs were seen in Pench and Tadoba
The enigmatic paradise flycatcher
Orange headed thrush couple in the bamboo forests

In Tadoba five years ago a woman tried taking a selfie with a tiger and fell from the jeep. Another jeep driver quickly blocked her off from the tiger but the park decided to ban smartphone use. So outside of the park you now have people renting out digital camera’s to take a picture of your tiger sighting.

Something else I noticed outside the park, were these graves. Graves of people, killed by tigers.

Also we noticed a guide saying that some tigers are not approached, because they have killed people already. I asked him where the limit was? And he indicated that when a tiger kills 5-10 people, he has to retire in a zoo. When they kill even more, the tiger can get shot.

I couldn’t believe that so many people want to extirpate our local wolves in Europe, because they have killed a couple of sheep.

In india Tigers kill between 100-200 people a year, whilst leopards are responsible for around 600 fatalities.

In Tadoba, there have been years with 40 people killed by tigers, when they go and collect firewood from the forest. I was astounded to hear people still want the tiger and tiger ecotourism in their surroundings. Respect to them.

I think we have a lot to learn from the Indians and their patience when it comes to rewilding and conservation.

A queen resting in the bamboo forest:

Whenever a tiger is found, people gather. In the following image you see more than 100 people looking at the same tiger. The tiger, strangely, does not care at all. Only 15% of these parks is open to safari tourism, and the carnivores are often more abundant in the tourist zone than in the quiet park zone.

On the last tiger drive we found a mother with four subadult cubs. She must be a formidable hunter to feed five mouths…

And this sighting concluded the trip. We saw wild nature, well managed parks, more than 30 tigers and 25 lions, sloth bears, unique smaller mammals and around 170 bird species. But above all we met the friendliest people on the planet, who might have less than we do, but seem to be happier. Next time Kaziranga?

I want to thank a few people:

First of all our local guide Gajendra: you were amazing. Thanks also to Iqbal and Mr. Mohit himself for all the local help by Asian adventures.

Thanks to Billy for managing everything on our side: STARLING delivered a very solid trip!
Thanks to the group of ten fantastic participants who wanted to skip sleep to find mammals. What more could I ask for? Lots of hardcore photographers also, we learned a lot from each other.

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?


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.

Forgot I had a website

Hi All,

I felt bad about not posting for a very long time, so it is now time to set things straight.
Fatherhood, work, and moving into a new house, kinda filled my agenda during the last year.

I though I would share some of the most memorable images from that period…

I guess this is where it started. 3.5kg of crawling happiness, named Armand.

Many of the photo work I did last year, off course was with PJ.

Again we spent time in the Lorraine for wild cats

Where we saw many foxes; but few cats.

Yet in the end, I managed to photograph them in the Picos de Europa (Spain)

Quite some speleo adventures


Photographed a human too:

And even a bunch of hunters for a photo assignment:

I was pleased with the following image I took, nicely illustrating how roe deer have evolved in our landscape during the last 20 years. Close to our home, in a landscape with little what so ever “real” nature, roe deer now occur and are even hunted. Right in our backyards.


Took 2000 images of gulls in some French mudflats. Can’t say why, but I like this colour image, that could have been a black-and-white conversion as well.

Close to home I photographed Short eared owls

We saw dead badgers

And thanks to PJ insanely close alive ones as well:

I went to church, along with some jackdaws


Final image is a teaser to a big project PJ and I have been working on for several years: dlsr camera traps. We gather all the images we have made, and will publish as soon as we have a nice holistic story surrounding the images.

Because I hate people that just show some non-related images without a compelling story 😉