Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Takhi Return Home

Greetings Everyone,
To see the world’s only true wild horse in its native habitat you have to travel to the far reaches of Mongolia. This wasn’t always the case. Przewalski's Horse or Takhi as it is referred to by Mongolians became extinct in the wild in the 1960’s mainly due to human persecution. The last herd was spotted in 1967 and the last individual was seen in 1969. How then can we see these wild horses today? Fortunately, 13 Przewalski’s Horses survived in zoos and all present-day horses are descended from them. In 1992 sixteen horses were released into the wild in Mongolia. One of the areas they were reintroduced into became Hustai National Park in 1998 about a 2-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar. We were on our way to Hustai National Park to see how the Takhi are faring. Once inside the park, we drove along a deeply rutted road in search of the horses on the afternoon of September 22. We spotted a herd high on a ridge about 2 km away. Park policy allows you to approach the horses to within 500 meters so we set off on foot to get a closer view. A herd of 20 were grazing on the grassy slopes above. Although aware of our presence they did not flee and we sat down to observe them.

Takhi Herd

A radio-collared mare seemed to be in charge, The stallion of the group hung back keeping a watchful eye on his harem consisting of several mares and their subadult offspring and two foals. What a privilege to spend time with an animal that once numbered 13 in the entire world! The reintroduction has been a big success and today there are around 350 Takhi in the wild.

Takhi

We were up early the following morning to photograph the Mongolian Gerbils living in a colony near our hotel. At first light, they would pop out of their burrows to warm up in the sunshine.

Mongolian Gerbils

The Park also harbors other mammals such as Mongolian Gazelles. A herd of 250 had recently returned to the park. We spotted them a long way off but set off on foot for a closer view. As we were approaching the herd, two domestic horses came galloping across the Steppe to check us out. I was surprised to see domestic horses in the Park. Despite having a different number of chromosomes, Takhi have 66 and domestic horses have 64, they can cross-breed resulting in fertile foals with 65 chromosomes. It is park policy to keep domestic horses out of the park and particularly away from the Takhi. Perhaps these were geldings used as riding horses by the park rangers.

Domestic Horses

As we continued our approach, the herd of Mongolian Gazelles became wary and we had to keep a safe distance away.

Mongolian Gazelle Herd

Tarbagan or Mongolian Marmots were common along the roadways. They would perch near their burrows and disappear as we drove past. Hustai provides a safe haven for these endangered marmots whose meat is considered a delicacy by the locals. Tarbagan Marmots are known to be carriers of the plague but it is unknown if the disease can be transmitted by eating their meat.

Mongolian Marmot

On the drive back to our hotel we encountered a herd of ten Takhi close to the road. They had come down from the high ridges to scratch on the utility poles along the road. They seemed unconcerned by the Mongolian tourists who approached them closely to get photos with their cellphones.

Tahki Rubbing Against a Utility Pole

We were up very early on our last morning to go in search of Tibetan Wolf. We were accompanied by a park ranger who knew where the wolves tend to hang out. We drove nearly to the top of a high ridge where we got out and proceeded on foot. The ranger could hear the wolves howling but we scanned in vain for them. It was difficult for me to discern the howling of a wolf from the bugling of a Wapiti or an Elk as we call them back home. It was the rutting season and the stags were competing with one another for the right to mate with the females.

Wapiti Stag

Ian Green, our tour leader, spotted four Argali far below in a distant valley. Argali are the largest species of wild sheep but were too far away for a proper photo. We returned to our hotel and packed up for the return trip to Ulaanbaatar. On our drive out of the park, we saw many Brandt’s Voles in colonies along the road. We stopped to take photos before they disappeared down their burrows.

Brandt's Vole

It was great seeing Przewalski’s Horses again after our first visit in 2005 and learning that their numbers are increasing. Once extinct in the wild, they are now considered endangered. In a time when many species are facing extinction at the hand of humans, it’s nice to encounter a true success story. Welcome home Takhi, may you continue to thrive in the wilds of Mongolia!

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:



      Mongolia Mammal List: September 12 - 24, 2018

 No.SpeciesScientific NameNotes
  1Pallas’s CatOtocolobus manulTwo seen in Khalzan
  2Brandt’s VoleLasiopodomys brandtiiKhalzan & Hustai
  3Mongolian GazelleProcapra gutturosaKhalzan & Hustai 
  4Daurian Pika Ochotona dauuricaKhalzan 
  5Corsac FoxVulpes corsacKhalzan & Hustai
  6Red Fox Vulpes vulpesKhalzan 
  7Siberian ChipmunkEutamias sibiricusUlaanbaatar 
  8Saiga AntelopeSaiga tataricaKhovd
  9Siberian Jerboa Allactaga sibiricaKhovd 
 10Mid-day JirdMeriones meridianuKhovd
 11Tolai HareLepus tolaiKhovd
 12Pallas’s PikaOchotona pallasii Khovd
 13Snow LeopardPanthera uncia1 seen in Khovd 
 14Siberian IbexCapra sibiricaKhovd
 15Tarbagan MarmotMarmota sibiricaKhovd & Hustai
 16Goitered GazelleGazella subgutturosaKhovd
 17Mongolian GerbilMeriones unguiculatusHustai
 18Przewalski’s Horse Equus ferus ssp. przewalskii Hustai
 19Wapiti Cervus canadensisHustai
 20Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatusHustai
 21Argali Ovis ammonHustai

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Quest for Snow Leopards in Mongolia

Greetings Everyone,
After a successful visit to Eastern Mongolia to see Pallas’s Cats we are now flying west to the city of Khovd with our trip leader Ian Green and our Greentours group. As we neared our destination we flew over a large lake surrounded by rocky mountains about 12,000-feet high. Here we would search for a second species of cat found in Mongolia, the fabled Snow Leopard!

Jargalant Mountains

We landed in Khovd where we were met by our local drivers and divided into five 4x4’s for the drive to our ger camp in the Jargalant Mountains where we’d spend the next 6 nights. We left the main tarmac road and headed toward the base of the mountains. Marc spotted some animals running across the steppe. With their heads hung low, we knew they were Saiga Antelopes! As it was nearing dusk and they were a long way off we didn’t get a good view. Hopefully, we’d see more in the coming days. We arrived in camp after dark and sorted ourselves into a series of 10 gers that had been set up by the local community for visitors. After dinner and a short night walk, it was time for bed.

(Snow Leopard) Camp

The next morning we woke to sunny skies and after breakfast, we climbed higher into the mountains in the 4x4’s to scan for Snow Leopards. At our first viewpoint overlooking a canyon we spotted Siberian Ibex in the far distance and two endangered Saker Falcons tussled overhead but sadly there were no leopards.

Scanning for Snow Leopards

Higher up in the mountains, local horsemen were also on the search. Word came in that they had found a Snow Leopard in the morning but had lost it. Bummer, we’d try again in the afternoon.

Saker Falcon

We drove even higher after lunch to a second viewpoint to scan for the elusive cat. Again we spotted Siberian Ibex, a favorite prey for the leopards but the cats themselves were nowhere to be seen. The horsemen above weren’t having any luck either so we called it a day and returned to camp for dinner. On the drive back we spotted 4 Golden Eagles soaring overhead. These birds are now famous due to the movie “The Eagle Huntress”. It’s worth a viewing if you haven’t seen it. 

Golden Eagles

A night walk produced Siberian Jerboas, a Tolai Hare and a Red Fox. Back in the dining Ger, the resident Mid-day Jird or Gerbil was picking up crumbs that we had left behind. I’m not sure why they are called Mid-day Jird since they are mostly nocturnal. We turned in hoping for better luck with the Snow Leopards in the morning.

Mid-day Jird

Another sunny day brought much-welcomed news, the horsemen had found a Snow Leopard! 

Dramatic Sunrise

After a hasty breakfast, we raced off in our 4x4’s to the location high in the mountains. When we arrived the horsemen were anxiously waiting and pointed out the Snow Leopard on a distant ridge 3 km away! We set up spotting scopes but to my dismay, the cat looked like a grey blob. We needed to get closer. I scanned the ridges looking for possible routes. To get on the ridge above the cat meant a long walk so we opted for a closer ridge across the valley from the leopard. We headed out with Ian and some of our group along an undulating ridge. We were able to get within 2 km of the Snow Leopard. It was still a long way off but at least I could make out that it was a cat in my binoculars. It was guarding a kill (most likely a Siberian Ibex) by a large boulder from a marauding Red Fox but after a couple of hours the cat lost interest in its meal and sauntered up to the ridge and out of view. Marc was able to get a decent photo of the distant cat. Maybe tomorrow we’d find a Snow Leopard a bit closer.

Snow Leopard!

We returned to camp and decided to explore the canyon above our gers by foot.  Last night, Ian had spotted a Steppe Polecat and we wanted to see if it was still around.  We didn't find the polecat but we did see some Siberian Ibex crossing the canyon ahead of us.

Siberian Ibex

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies and impending rain. With the mountains socked in we couldn’t go higher to look for Snow Leopards so we headed down to look for other wildlife. We spotted a lone Saiga Antelope feeding on the steppe. Again it was a long way off but a few of us set off on foot to get a closer view. We hid behind a low hill so the antelope was unaware of our presence. A prominent feature of the Saiga is a pair of closely spaced, bloated nostrils directed downward. During summer migrations, a Saiga’s nose helps filter out dust kicked up by the herd and cools the animal's blood. In the winter, it heats up the frigid air before it is taken to the lungs. We got to within 100 meters before the Saiga got wind of us and bounded off.

Saiga Antelope

Historically the Saiga Antelope was a common species on the Eurasian Steppe numbering over a million individuals. Today their numbers have been drastically reduced to 50,000 animals by climatic conditions and over-hunting. They are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. We were very lucky to get a close look at this beleaguered animal.

Herds of domestic yaks and Bactrian Camels were now grazing the steppe where once Saiga roamed.

Bactrian Camels and Domestic Yaks

We dove to Lake Durgan for lunch where we saw a few more Saiga and many shorebirds including this cute Kentish Plover.

Kentish Plover

On the drive back to camp we flushed a large flock of Pallas’s Sandgrouse. 

Pallas's Sandgrouse

The weather grew worse and the following morning we woke to snow!

Snowstorm

We tried driving up but our vehicles didn’t have enough traction on the steep grades. We drove down into the steppe but got mired in mud so we returned to camp. With limited options, we chose to explore by foot further up the canyon near camp. We saw some birds including a dramatic view of a Northern Goshawk carrying an unfortunate Chukar Partridge but mammal-wise the canyon was quiet.

Northern Goshawk with Chukar Partridge

On our last full day at camp, the weather finally broke and we woke to sunny skies. 

Good Weather Returns

The fresh blanket of snow higher up was beautiful but limited our options for searching for Snow Leopards. It was September 20, our 32nd wedding anniversary and I told Marc a Snow Leopard would make the perfect gift. We drove to the Eastern Valley where the locals thought the Snow Leopard seen 3 days ago may have gone. 

Eastern Valley

We searched 2 side valleys where we found a total of 28 Siberian Ibex, 2 Red Foxes, and 2 Siberian Marmots but sadly no Snow Leopards. It was difficult being disappointed in such a beautiful and remote landscape. Even though we didn’t see the Snow Leopards we knew they were there possibly watching us from some rocky outcrop.
The following day we started the long journey back to Ulaanbaatar. On the drive out we encountered some Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelles and a small herd of 13 Saiga Antelope.

Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelles

We got word that our 10:30 AM flight had been delayed until 7:00 PM! The bad weather that had plagued us had also hit Ulaanbaatar canceling flights and backing up air traffic. It would be a late arrival into Ulaanbaatar. We left Western Mongolia with mixed feelings. We were hoping to have seen Snow Leopards much closer but how many people can claim to have seen a Snow Leopard in the wild? The next leg of our journey will take us to Hustai National Park in search of the world’s only true wild horse. Stay tuned to see if we are successful.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:



Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Herding Cats in Mongolia

Greetings Everyone,
Our journeys have brought us back to Mongolia in search of the elusive Snow Leopard. We ventured here back in 2005 but then our focus was trekking and cultural. During this trip, we would travel to the Jargalant Mountains in the western part of the country near Khovd where a healthy population of Snow Leopards is known to reside. We added a few days to the beginning of our itinerary in order to rest up and get over jet lag but I couldn’t resist an opportunity to look for Pallas’s Cat, a smaller feline found on the Eastern Mongolian Steppe. We were able to book a private 3-day tour from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. After arriving late the night before we were picked up early the next morning by our guide Jargal for the 10-hour drive east. Once off the main road we drove along a rutted dirt track startling a Corsac Fox. Marc was able to catch him in full flight through the windshield.

Corsac Fox

Near the small settlement of Kahlzan, Mongolian biologist Otgonbayar Baatargal (Oogi for short) had set up a tiny research camp to study Pallas’s Cats. We told Oogi we were from Vermont never expecting him to know where it was. To our amazement, he said he had collaborated with a professor, Dr. James Murdoch (Jed) from the University of Vermont! Jed is the director of the Wildlife & Fisheries Biology Program and his current research examines the ecological relationships between steppe carnivores in Mongolia, including Corsac Foxes, Red Foxes, badgers, and Pallas's cats, and the effectiveness of management strategies at protecting them. What a small world! We arrived late in the afternoon and settled in our ger, the Mongolian version of a yurt.


Ger Camp

We didn’t have much time to search for these small charismatic cats so instead Oogi suggested we go and take a look at a radio-collared one. When we arrived at the site we were surprised to find that one of Oogi’s assistants had a Pallas’s Cat in a white cotton bag. Like a large butterfly net, the bag was used to capture the cat in order to remove her radio collar. Carefully we peered inside. A beautiful cat with intense yellow-green eyes stared back. She seemed more annoyed than frightened most likely having been through this drill before.

Pallas's Cat

The Pallas’s Cat (Otocolobus maul) is the only member of its genus and is named after German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas who first described it in 1776! The genus Otocolobus comes from the Greek language and means “ugly-eared”. This cat was by no means ugly. Maybe unusual in that its eyes are in line with it ears, allowing the cat to peer over rocks exposing a tiny portion of its head while making it more difficult for prey to detect or predators to find. We admired her at close range, taking some photos before she was released. She paused momentarily before taking off to hide in the tall grass.

Pallas's Cat Out of the Bag!

This area of Mongolia has an unusually high density of Pallas’s Cats. The habit here consisted of open grasslands interspersed with rocky outcrops where the cats prefer to hide. Tomorrow we’d search for a Pallas’s Cat in a more natural setting. We returned to camp for dinner and some much-needed sleep.

Dinner Table at Ger Camp

Early the next morning we drove to Khalzan Village where we stopped to do some birding in a dry riverbed. There were some good birds here but a Eurasian Eagle-Owl stole the show. 

Eurasian Eagle-Owl

We drove past the village to an area with many rocky outcrops to start our search for a Pallas’s Cat. Along the way, we encountered a family of Demoiselle Cranes. Soon they would start their migration to the Indian Subcontinent where they will spend the winter.

Demoiselle Cranes

We parked and walked from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop peering in tiny holes and crevices to no avail. Oogi’s assistants showed up on a motorbike and like us, they had no luck finding a cat. I found it amusing that the local assistants who use motorbikes to herd horses and sheep were using them to find Pallas’s Cats, “Like Herding Cats”, I thought.

Motorbike Herding

We decided to return to camp for lunch and on the drive back I spotted some Mongolian Gazelles running across a distant ridge. We stopped the vehicle and set off on foot to see if we could get closer to them but they were very wary and continued to run. Population estimates for this species range from 400,000 to 2,700,000 but they are hunted both legally and illegally hence their fear of humans. Although seemingly abundant now, populations can crash due to disease outbreaks and harsh winters.

Mongolian Gazelles

Back at camp we finished lunch and entertained ourselves by photographing the resident Brandt’s Voles, a major food source for the Pallas’s Cats. They’d pop up out of their burrows but disappear quickly if we approached too closely or moved too quickly.

Brandt's Vole

Just then we got the call from Oogi that his research assistants had located a Pallas’s Cat! We raced off to the location to the north of Khalzan to find a Pallas’s Cat hiding in the grass at the base of some rocks. We could approach slowly to within 6 feet to get a close but obscured view. Pallas’s Cats defense strategy seems to be to hide. 

Pallas's Cat


We backed off hoping the cat would move but he remained hidden. We convinced Jargal to let us remain with the cat until it moved while the others returned to camp. We had some camp chairs in our vehicle and set them up for the wait. It was so peaceful to be alone on the Mongolian Steppe with a Pallas’s Cat just 30 feet away. As we waited, a few Brandt’s Voles popped up from their burrows. A Mongolian couple on a motorbike stopped by curious as to what these foreigners were doing. We waved and said hi and they went on their way shaking their heads. After 3 long hours, we got up to check on the cat. He was still there! His patience was outlasting ours. We got a little too close and he jumped up and sprinted off across the Steppe. We were unprepared for his hasty departure but Marc was able to get a photo.

Pallas's Cat Escapes!

Early the next morning we went off in search of more Pallas’s Cats before starting the long drive back to Ulaanbaatar. Even with the help of Oogi’s assistants, we weren’t able to find another cat. Reluctantly we continued our journey west toward the capital city. Once back on the main road, Marc was able to photograph a Steppe Eagle flying away from the highway.

Steppe Eagle Flies Away

As we neared the city, traffic ground to a standstill. My how things have changed in 13 years! Ulaanbaatar was growing at a brisk pace. High-rise apartment buildings, motorways, and fancy hotels were being constructed all around us. It was a sharp contrast to the open steppe with miles and miles of grasslands and rolling hills. After battling the traffic we finally arrived at our hotel where we would meet our group for the Snow Leopard Tour. Let’s hope our luck with the Snow Leopards will be as good as it was with the Pallas’s Cats!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route: