Mongolia’s Impressive Red Deer

red deer stag pair n

Red deer stags (Cervus elaphus) in early morning light. Among the world’s largest deer, this species shares an extinct ancestor in common with North American elk: Megaloceros, the massive Irish elk. 

Historically, red deer ranged from the British Isles east through Mongolia and other parts of Asia and south into northern Africa. Until about two decades ago, their numbers in Mongolia were strong with some 130,000 individuals taking advantage of forest, steppe and mountain habitat. In recent years, however, poaching has decimated red deer herds in this country as their antlers command increasingly high prices as an ingredient in traditional medicines in China and elsewhere. Even National Football League players in America have been implicated in purchasing these medicines. Elk and red deer grow new antlers each year. When the antlers are growing, they are covered in soft tissue and are said to be “in velvet.” This is when the antlers are valuable.

Here’s the problem for the elk and deer. Some studies indicate there may actually be health benefits gained from using medicinal antler and regardless of the science, a lot of people believe they derive benefit from the antler. The trade is annually running over 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, and it is destroying populations of these magnificent animals. Although no recent population surveys have been conducted, it is believed that there are now fewer than 10,000 red deer in Mongolia.

red deer males bedded down n

On a recent trip to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, we encountered a herd of approximately 100 mature male red deer. Separated by sex during the winter months, females were miles away in a different part of the park. These stags will drop their anglers in early spring.

Among deer, only Alces alces – called moose in North America and Eurasian elk in Europe and Asia, North American elk (wapiti), and sambar deer are larger. Adult male red deer attain weights between 550 – 770 pounds (250 – 345 kg). Some subspecies grow even larger. The extinct Irish elk, Megaloceros, which occupied much of the same range as modern-day red deer, was believed to have attained a weight of 1,500 pounds (700 kg) and had truly massive, moose-like antlers – perhaps contributing to its demise. Because of their value as a food and game species (these are the “harts” and “stags” of European hunting lore), red deer have been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, Chili and Argentina.

red deer males on alert n

We stalked these deer stooping and crawling for about half a mile (1 kilometer). Suddenly nearly all of them stood up – 100 animals including the ones outside the frame of this photo -, made nervous by an approaching rider on a horse.

red deer femals on snow n

Rutting season occurs in autumn. The rest of the year females and young form distinct groups away from the mature males.

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It’s not just poachers that prompt vigilance among red deer. This wolf track spotted near a herd of females and young was fresh.

red deer 3 males gathering scent n

Some scent on the air kept causing the largest of these three males to look back. 

red deer running over hill n

Dozens of stags stream over a break in the hillside. In a land where nomads and their herds have shared the landscape with wild animals for millennia, the countryside would seem empty without the red deer. As Mongolia’s human population continues to grow, it will become increasingly necessary that places such as Hustai National Park are protected if the deer are to continue to thrive.

Takhi – A Success Story in the Land of Chinggis Khan

Takhi w magpie full n

Magpie and takhi (Przewalski’s horse) – old friends reacquainted in a scene that has played out for many thousands of years but that was sadly interrupted in those decades during which the takhi were extinct in the wild. 

In 1967, somewhere on the arid steppe of Mongolia’s Western Gobi Dessert, the last small herd of wild takhi was seen. Two years later, only one horse remained. And then Equus przewalskii vanished completely from the wild. Although closely related to modern domestic horses, takhi were never tamed. This differentiates their status as “truly wild” from the ferrel mustangs of America which are descendants of domestic horses.

In their natural environment, wolves were their main predators, and the dry, harsh, cold conditions of the steppe would invariably claim victims each winter. But the main cause of the demise of the takhi was probably due to its being hunted for meat.

Takhi nursing winter n

Takhi form small family groups comprised of a lead stallion, two or three mares, and their offspring. These family groups loosely intermingle with other families as well as with bachelor stallions which often travel in pairs or groups of three. Stocky and with zebra-like manes, takhi are comparatively small, standing only about 48 – 56 inches tall at the shoulders. They have 66 chromosomes, two more than any other species of horse. 

By 1970, the only living specimens existed in a few zoos and private ranches. Extinct in the wild, it seemed only a matter of time till their official extinction from the planet would be announced.

Then something truly remarkable occurred. In a cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian biologists, the horses were reintroduced to Mongolia’s Khustai (Hustai) National Park where they’ve been thriving even since.

takhi with red deer n

On a morning bright with ice needles in the air and a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, takhi and female red deer (Cervus elaphus) share a piece of rugged terrain in Mongolia’s Khustai National Park. 

takhi stallion pair n

In full winter coats, these wild takhi are as beautiful as they are tough.

We counted ourselves as lucky to have spent a few days in Khustai during some of the coldest stretches of winter. The deeply rutted dirt roads were quiet, wildlife was abundant, and the horses seemed only mildly curious regarding our presence.

takhi in summer field

Takhi can readily be viewed in summertime as well. We can’t say which season is more beautiful. There are wild horses in this world still. That is beautiful.

Big, Beautiful Grizz Chillin’ at the Edge of an Alaskan Forest

Grizzley admiring nails n

We caught this Alaskan grizzly bear chillin’ on the edge of a forest on a cool, overcast morning in mid-summer. With nails like that, who wouldn’t lie around admiring them? (Six more photos.)

Grizzley looking straight on n

The previous day, I (yours truly, Jack Donachy) managed to drop and break “the big lens.” But this sleepy guy barely paid us any attention as we photographed him from the safety of our Chevy, so the 70-200 mm with a 1.4 teleconverter got us close enough. Hard to say how many cars had driven by this big, blonde-brown hulk without noticing that morning. We stayed with him – and he with us – for about half an hour.

Grizzly the Thinker n

He’d doze off for a bit, wake up, think about whether or not to get up (or maybe he was trying to remember where he’d left his car keys last night), give a little sigh and then drop off to sleep again. 

grizzly sleeping  a n

Grizzly looking to his right n

And then he’d wake and take a look around.

Grizzly picking up scent n

Eventually a scent on the air caught his attention…

Grizzly ambling off diorama n

And he ambled off. Almost looks like he’s posed in a diorama. The overcast morning light really made the colors pop.

Birds of Mongolia: Daurian Partridge

Daurina partridge pair n

We encountered these softball-shaped Daurian partridge (Perdix daurica) in the pre-dawn of a December trip to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park.

Any day we see a new species of bird or other animal is a good day. On a recent three-day trip to Hustai, we had several such encounters. Nothing was any cuter than these relatives of pheasants and quail that would have fit perfectly in our cupped hands.

daurian partridge back n

We startled them, a covey of 14, as they were feeding on seeds on the coldest morning to date this winter in Mongolia. Maybe it was the sub zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, or the fact that none of us – including the birds – were fully awake. But uncharacteristically they let us hang around and snap a few photos in the blue morning twilight. The orange beard-like feathers and gray side whiskers are part of their fall and winter plumage. 

Daurian partridge bokeh n

Named for the Daurian region of Russia, the average Daurian partridge is about 11 or 12 inches (28 to 30 cm) from head to tail and weighs around one half to three quarters of a pound (225 to 340 grams). The main part of their diet consists of seeds, which are abundant on Mongolia’s steppe grasslands. Insects and berries also figure into their diet, when available. Partridge are ground nesters, having developed a long-term dislike of heights (such as tree branches) when, Daedalus (father of Icarus of Greek legend) threw his nephew Perdix off the Athena hill in a fit of anger. Not wishing to experience another such fall, members of genus Perdix avoid high places to this day. So the legend goes.

daurian partridge flying away n

But they do fly, and this is the more usual view of Daurian partridge. Twice, previously, while hiking the Mongolian steppe we’ve had our startled hearts stop in our chests as a thrumming whoosh of wingbeats exploded practically underfoot. Once the birds have flushed, it’s difficult to approach them again, although you can sometimes track them down by listening for their rix, rix, rix, call as they regroup. 

A Whale of a Tour: Cruising Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park

humpback breaching c n

In what seemed to be sheer exuberance, this humpback whale heaved himself out of the sea again and again, the perfectly executed cannonballs sending up enormous showers. From eagles to orcas and sow bears with cubs to mountain goats with kids, a recent cruise of the Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward presented opportunities to photograph a number of Alaska’s wildlife stars.  

Last summer while salmon fishing aboard our C-Dory Angler, Gillie, we found ourselves suddenly quite close to three massive, bubble feeding, lunging humpback whales – the largest humpbacks we’ve seen to date. The whales and the salmon were drawn to the same thing: acres of herring so dense they were causing our boat’s sonar to misinterpret the vast school as seafloor. Between netting bright silver salmon for our daughter who was visiting from California, navigating the boat and snapping photos of the feeding leviathans we were kept on our toes. At one point the whales surfaced so close to our boat we could smell their breath. It was a bit unnerving.

whales lunge feeding major marine n

One moment the seas would be calm, the gulls and kittiwakes resting on the water with just a few sentinels circling about. Suddenly the birds aloft would cry out, signaling the sitting birds to take wing… and then these three massive whales would erupt from the sea. If you look closely, you can see a panicked herring barely escaping the gaping jaws of the center whale.  

That evening when we uploaded our photos, we were disappointed to find that the best of our whale shots were marred by the presence of a tour boat in the background. And then it hit us – why not see if the tour company would be interested in the pictures? That’s how we came into possession of tickets for Major Marine Tour’s all-day Kenai Fjords National Park nature cruise, complete with and an all-you-can-eat Alaskan salmon and prime rib lunch. Having now experienced three of these tours, we give them the highest possible recommendation for anyone interested in the wildlife and natural history of coastal Alaska.

eagle on sea rock n

Eagles are common along the shoreline of the fjords, and we never tire of admiring them. Not above scavenging, these opportunistic birds will prey on salmon, other fish, seabirds and even baby mountain goats. 

This past Monday we used four of our tickets to book ourselves and friends visiting from Montana on a tour on the Spirit of Adventure – the very boat we’d photographed the previous summer. A few brief sprinkles of rain aside, it was a beautiful day, and since it was a lightly-booked weekday cruise we had plenty of room at our dining table as well as at the ship’s rails when we were viewing glaciers and wildlife.

horned puffin on cliffs n

Both horned puffins (above) and tufted puffins nest in the cliffs above the fjords. 

horned puffin swimming n

The feathery “horns” above their eyes give horned puffins their name. This one, fresh from a dive in search of small fish, popped up right next to the boat. 

Stellar's Sea Lions n

Certain places in the Kenai Fjords are important breeding grounds for Stellar’s sea lions. In recent years, their population has fallen into decline and although human overfishing may be the culprit, no definitive cause has been identified.

kittiwakes n monkey flowers n

Seep (or common) monkeyflower adorns the cliff walls of this black-legged kittiwake rookery. We didn’t spot any eggs, but the nests look complete and ready for this year’s broods. 

murres thick bill dense raft n

Meanwhile dense rafts of dozens or even hundreds of thick billed murres gather along current seams that push baitfish into tight schools where they become easy pickings. 

Dall porpoise w beak n

Reminiscent of the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brother’s cartoon fame, Dall’s porpoises can appear at any time, zipping across the sea in plumes of spray in pursuit of the fish they feed on or just a good bow wake to play in. They are reportedly capable of speeds of around 35 miles per hour (55 kilometers). On this day, the porpoises were in a playful mood and the captain hit the boat speed just right. For several minutes half-a-dozen of these sleek speedsters zig-zagged across our bow. 

Holegate glacier sluffing ice n

Although wildlife is a major draw on these cruises, the fjords are equally famous for spectacular tidewater glaciers. Above, Holegate Glacier sloughs off tons of ice at a time in thunderous cascades. Note the seagull at the upper right of the photo. 

glacier ice margaritas n

When the crew scooped up a pristine chunk of glacial ice in a net and announced that Glacial Ice Margaritas were being served, we couldn’t resist. The ice – which is hundreds to thousands of years old depending on which part of the glacier it comes from – is super dense, hard, clear and cold. 

sea otter on ice w harbor seals n

Near Aialik Glacier, dozens of harbor seals were hauled out on the ice along with quite a few sea otters such as the one in the foreground above. The National Park Ranger providing commentary aboard Spirit of Adventure remarked that prior to the Russian hunting of sea otters (which, by the early 20th century had nearly driven them to extinction) it was common to see sea otters hauled out on land. 

Orcas transient resurrection bay 2014 n

Throughout the seven-and-a-half hour cruise we kept a keen eye for orcas. The day had already been amazing – truly one for the books: leaping salmon, a sow black bear with cubs in a clearing on a mountainside, a nanny mountain goat with her young kid just above the high tide line, whales, porpoises, and a dozen or so species of sea birds all had checks next to them.

Toward the very end of the cruise, as we were nearing Seward, the pair in the above photo showed up. Kenai Fjords NP is home to three distinct types of these cetaceans: resident, transient and offshore. The three types have different diets: residents are salmon and fish eaters, transients focus on mammals such as seals and sea lions, and offshore orcas are known to hunt sharks and baleen whales. The three varieties also have different languages and DNA tests indicate that they do not interbreed. This pair – the male in back with the longer, more angular dorsal fin, the female in front with a shorter, more rounded dorsal fin – may be transient orcas.  

sleeping otter in harbor n

Even before the cruise begins there are wildlife viewing opportunities right in the harbor. This sleepy otter filled up on mussels he pulled from pilings before conking out for an after breakfast snooze. 

Ptarmigan and Cloudberries: A Walk on Alaska’s Arctic Tundra

willow ptarmigan pair n

Looking almost like exquisite mounts in a museum diorama, these Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) proved to be quite approachable. While hiking on the tundra near Point Hope in September we came across two coveys totaling about 20 birds.

cloudberries early frost

Nipped with frost, these cloudberries tasted like sorbet and were no doubt what had drawn the ptarmigan.

willow ptarmigan jack shooting n

Barbra cautiously approached the birds as I lay on my stomach, inching through the boggy terrain, shooting, hoping a few shots might come out.

willow ptarmigan solitary n

The plumage of these fall birds is in transition from the mottled browns and reds of summer to the snow white of winter. These are the same species as the red grouse of Scotland.

willow ptarmigan barbra approaching n

Barbra crouches and stalks closer to the birds. Note the densely feathered legs. The Latin lagopus translates to “hare foot” for the resemblance of ptarmigans’ feather-covered legs and feet to those of snowshoe hares. 

caribou antler fall tundra n

There’s always evidence of a rich ecosystem on the Arctic tundra. Caribou antlers, bird nests, animal burrows and an amazing array of plants are part of our walks.

brown bear track tundra beach n

Brown bears (grizzlies) are common visitors to the beaches and tundra near Point Hope. We found a set of fresh tracks along the shores of an inlet off the Chukchi Sea not far from where we encountered the ptarmigan. Red foxes, Arctic foxes, Arctic ground squirrels, weasels and caribou are frequently seen mammals. Wolves and musk oxen are less common, but also figure in the mix. In the foothills and mountains east of Point Hope there are wolverines and at higher elevations, Dall sheep. Rarely, moose are seen in the scrub willows along the nearby Kukpuk River, and during the winter months polar bears show up both on the sea ice and on land. 

snow geese lifting off n

During the fall migration, snow geese are fairly common. (Above and below)

snow geese lifting off close n

Brandt, Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks and shore birds are also common.

willow ptarmigan in flight n

When the ptarmigan finally had enough of us, they glided off a few yards, regrouped and resumed feeding. At that point we turned for home. 

cloudberries frozen in hand n

A handful of frozen sweetness for the road. 

cranes flying into the hills n

A pair of sandhill cranes lifts off above the last of the cotton grass on the tundra near Point Hope.

Paul Klaver’s Short, Power Film, Eloquently Captures an Ecosystem

Paul Klaver’s 13-minute film, Alaska the Nutrient Cycle beautifully captures the critical role wild salmon play in sustaining a rich, diverse ecosystem. Unscripted but with beautiful background music, this breathtaking footage speaks for itself. This is why wild salmon and their environments are worth fighting for, and illustrates why we oppose farmed salmon.