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?

Zwaar weer

La provocation fait avancer les choses…

Elke logisch nadenkende mens die weet wat er de komende jaren aan economische dreigingen op ons afkomt, weet ook dat we helemaal niet klaar zijn om onze toekomstige welvaart zónder groei te realiseren. Nochtans slaat Tim Jackson de nagel op de kop en is dit de sleutel tot een duurzame toekomst. Kenneth Boulding verwoordde het alsAnyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”
Groei wordt precair nu de menselijke overpopulatie de draagkracht van de planeet begint te bedreigen. De dreigingen zijn: dure energie en grondstoffen, hoge vergrijzingskosten en schulden, sterke immigratie en nog onbekende kosten door de effecten van de gevaarlijk dalende biodiversiteit en de opwarming van het klimaat. Elke verstandige mens ziet deze dreiging van snelle verarming aankomen en wil zich daar op voorbereiden. Om dat in België te kunnen, weten we al een jaar of vijf, moeten we eerst ons bestuur reorganiseren, door het transparant, sober en efficiënt te maken. Moeilijk is dat niet: het buitenland is ons al jaren voor, we hoeven simpelweg te kopiëren.
De bestuurlijke chaos, het ongenoegen en de enorme inefficiëntie die hier ontstaan zijn na decennia wafelijzers en compromissen laten immers niet meer toe deze zware economische en ecologische uitdagingen aan te gaan.

In het actuele debat rond de staatshervorming missen zij die snel willen “springen” de kans om voor de evidente, grondige hervorming van onze chaotisch en inefficiënt bestuurde staat te gaan. Wie heeft baat bij nóg meer wafelijzerpolitiek en compromissen met nog meer hopeloze versnippering van bevoegdheden tussen de verschillende beleidsniveaus. Het moet echt beter, het moet efficiënter. Check deze samenvatting eens…

Volgens mij moeten beide landhelften dringend solidair zijn. Roepen “On est demandeurs de rien” is alvast geen eerste stap in de goede richting. Het land splitsen lijkt helemaal te gek voor woorden: als we zelfs BHV al niet gesplitst krijgen (iets wat door een rechter vastgelegd is)… Een bedrijf dat op dergelijke manier bestuurd zou worden, zou al meermaals failliet geweest zijn, en dat wil toch wat zeggen.


Na lang beraad zijn de winnaars van de Argus fotowedstrijd bekend gemaakt.

De enige foto waarvoor ik echt wou meedoen – de vliegende zilvermeeuwen – kon geen potten breken en eindigde buiten de prijzen.
Groot was mijn verbijstering dan ook dat de kabeljauwen met een eervolle vermelding eindigden en de Meloenijs foto verkozen werd tot winnaar in de categorie Natuur in een broeikas…
Eind goed al goed dus. Een extra motivatie in de immer voortdurende queeste om een goede fotograaf te worden…

Verslijming van de Noordzee

Geen slapjanussen die kwallen, maar heuse toppredatoren in verstoorde voedselwebben…

Fishing down the foodweb in de zuidelijke Noordzee gekoppeld aan de opmars van kwallen (figuur opgesteld door Hans Hillewaert en mezelf).
Let op oorkwal, fint, ansjovis, mul, makreel, zeebaars, kleine pieterman, kabeljauw, Calanus helgolandicus

Met de uitdrukking “fishing down the foodweb” wordt bedoeld dat visserijen zich in het begin doorgaans richten op de grootste soorten, die het meest commercieel interessant zijn, maar vaak ook minder goed bestand zijn tegen een intensieve visserijdruk. Doordat het bestand van deze top predators sterk achteruit gaat, worden de kleinere soorten minder gepredeerd waardoor het bestand aan kleiner soorten kan toenemen. Vervolgens zijn deze soorten de volgende doelsoorten voor de visserij.

Uit wereldwijd wetenschappelijk onderzoek is meermaals gebleken dat kwallen het goed doen in deze overbeviste systemen, ze tieren welig op het voedsel dat niet langer door de vissen wordt gegeten.

Kwallen eten zowel de vissenlarven en -eitjes op, als het zoöplankton waarmee deze larven zich voeden. Ze ageren dus zowel als concurrent  en als predator van de vissen. Dit in combinatie met een zeer hoge reproduceerbaarheid en het feit dat ze  zelf amper op het menu staan van andere soorten, leidt tot een probleemsituatie (trofisch doodlopend straatje) waaruit soms geen uitweg mogelijk is. Op deze manier kunnen kwallen toppredatoren worden,  visbestanden reguleren en deze verder onder druk zetten.

Kwallen worden in de Noordzee vooral gereguleerd door licht, watertemperatuur, zoutgehalte en voedselaanwezigheid, die op hun beurt beïnvloed worden door grootschalige atmosferische patronen in windrichting en zeestromingen. Deze atmosferische patronen zitten vervat in de Noord-Atlantische Oscillatie (NAO). Hoe groter de NAO, hoe meer warm Atlantisch water er richting Noordzee stroomt (Atlantic inflow) en hoe meer kwallen er in onze wateren blijken voor te komen.

Enkele van onze kleinere kwallensoorten: Wijzerszin beginnend van bovenaan:
Beroe cucumis, Mnemiopsis leidyi, Bougainvillea
sp. en Amphinema dinema