“Dry and Sunny, a Break from Winter Weather” – OP Assignment #4

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It doesn’t get much drier and sunnier than Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Above, Khongoryn Els, the famed “Singing Dunes,” stretch across the landscape. See nine additional photos from our October 2014 trip below.

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As in any desert, no resource is more precious than water.

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Well adapted for this parched climate, over a million Mongolian Gazelle flourish in arid steppe grasslands which include portions of the Gobi. Mongolia’s grasslands are considered to be one of the world’s last, great wilderness areas.

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Red-billed Choughs, a striking member of the crow family, close out the day at Yolyn Am Canyon…

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Earlier in the day a magnificent Siberian Ibex, protective of his harem, kept a wary eye on an approaching photographer.

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As we journeyed, we stayed with families in their gers (yurt homes). Here, aruul, a type of cheese, bakes into a hard cake on a tray atop a ger.

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Not only dry but extremely cold and windswept, winters in the Gobi can be unforgiving. The worst of them are know as zud and can wipe out millions of livestock.

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The nighttime skies were spectacular.  The Big Dipper hangs over our lighted ger. 

Not all deserts have camels, of course, but they certainly add an exotic element. In Mongolia, two-humped Bactrians are utilized for transportation, meat, milk and the most excellent cream cheese we’ve ever tasted. Here, Barbra’s mount and I exchange inquisitive looks.

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Our eight-day trek through part of the Gobi Desert was one of the highlights of our two-year stay in Mongolia. Not only did we get to briefly experience the lifestyle of one of the world’s few remaining semi-nomadic people, we also got to sample new foods, see exotic animals we’d read about in books as children, feel the Singing Dunes hum mystically through our bodies…  and, yes, riding a camel to seldom-visited sand dunes was a first and it was fun. At Bayanzag (pictured above), the legendary Flaming Cliffs where the first fossilized dinosaur eggs were discovered, we even found a large, fragile skull with teeth intact and a spine radiating out several feet, the fossilized remains of some species that no longer walks the earth. It’s 20° F (-7° C), a north wind swirling falling snow as I write this. A trip back to the Gobi through photographs was indeed a nice break from winter.

Next Thursday: Assignment #5 – Motivational Moments: the things that get us out of bed at 4:00 AM to go out and shoot; or that inspire us to sit for hours waiting for a capture. I already have a few ideas in mind. Stay tuned!

Snow and Flowers: It’s Spring in Mongolia!

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Our most recent heavy snow was just two weeks ago, and we’ve had a few flurries since then. But out in the countryside near Ulaanbaatar, wildflowers have begun to grow in profusion. 

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Snow drops (above) are among the very first flowers to show.

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Notice the small red ant on the right side of the photo. The centers of these particular flowers reveal a tell-tale indication of their age, with the youngest flowers having yellow centers. Most of the early wildflowers are small. But they’re everywhere, and close examination they often reveals intricate beauty…

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…making us wish we knew more about these splashes of color.

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And happy to come across something as familiar as Alaska’s state flower, forget-me-nots.

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There’s wild rhubarb, too, and wild mint and caraway are abundant.

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But it’s the flowers that capture our attention.

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And leave us vowing to take a botany course when we return to Alaska.

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The scene in Ulaanbaatar just over two weeks ago on May 11. 

Common Merganser with Chicks, Tuul River, Ulaanbaatar

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A healthy family of common mergansers (Mergus merganser) indicates an abundance of small fish in the Tuul River on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Mergansers are large diving ducks that subsist primarily on fish, although the young also fill up on aquatic insects such a the larva of mayflies and stoneflies. They make their nests in cavities in trees, sometimes a good distance from water. Less frequently, mergansers nest in holes in cliffs or high banks. They can be found on open water throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and are a good indicator of clean water and healthy populations of small fish.

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If you look closely, you can make out the serrations on her bill – the perfect adaptation for holding onto fish. In contrast to the females, the drakes’ heads are dark green, their flanks are white and their backs are black. Although common mergansers are usually encountered on freshwater lakes and rivers, they are frequently seen in coastal bays and estuaries as well.

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A baleful eye tells us we’ve approached close enough. Undisturbed this family went about their business, dipping their heads underwater in search of food as they paddled along the river’s current breaks.

Little Ringed Plover

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Little Ringed Plover, Charadrius dubius, Tuul River, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Nikon D4, Nikkor 200-400mm lens, 1.4 teleconverter.

At about six inches (15 cm) from bill to tail and weighing just an ounce and a half or so (40 g), little ringed plovers are common along the Tuul River near Ulaanbaatar. Their small size, pale pink legs and bright yellow eye rings are diagnostic. These wary little birds seem to bob their heads and scurry back and forth along the shoreline constantly, hence the Latin “dubius” which means moving to and fro. They’re ground nesters. Among the shoreline rocks and pebbles, their light brown or grey speckled eggs are virtually invisible. As fall approaches, little ringed plovers migrate to Africa where they spend the winter.

We’re now at 40 species and counting in our urban birding adventures in and around Ulaanbaatar.

Red-billed Chough: Corvids are Cool

Red-billed chough

Striking a regal pose after a morning of catching grasshoppers: Close cousins of crows, ravens, jays and magpies and adaptable to both urban and wilderness environs, choughs are common around Ulaanbaatar.

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The convention: On the crest of this rocky hill, there were dozens of choughs. A hundred. Maybe more. Many of them were gathered around a cluster of chough feathers near these rocks. A fox? A kite? An eagle or hawk? Some predator had diminished their numbers by one. The entire flock was concerned.

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Choughs in dawn light, hanging together, winging their way across the mountains and steppe near Ulaanbaatar.

Black-Veined White Butterfly

Black-veined white (Aporia crataegi), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

For a few days in late June, maybe a week, these black-veined whites (that’s their name) were everywhere. In the air, in the bills of birds, sipping on purple flowers. And then they were gone. In that one week, they were beautiful…

Urban Birding: First Flight – Isabelline Wheatear Chicks Feeding and Fledging

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Tired of waiting for mom, this isabelline wheatear chick (Oenanthe isabellina) faced the morning sun and achieved its first airborne moments. (11 additional photos.)

Many species of animals are highly adaptable – if given half a chance. Until recently, this construction site in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, was steppe grasslands. Chock full of the abandoned rodent holes isabelline wheatears seek out to make their nests, it was perfect habitat for these passerines.

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But as Mongolia’s population continues to grow, the grasslands which once seemed limitless are shrinking. This fortunate adult and her mate successfully reared a pair of chicks in a cavity beneath an old truck tire. Here, safe from the stray dogs that plague this city, and unnoticed in a lot that has yet to be developed, the chicks’ parents have been able to forage the steady supply of grubs and insects their offspring thrive on.

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Unfortunately, these will likely be the last wheatears to brood on this lot. On our morning run today, we noticed that the bulldozers have arrived. Yet another apartment building and adjoining parking lot will replace the last remnants of suitable habitat.

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We had been observing the adult wheatears in this area for some time. But only on this, the final day the birds were here, did we realize a nest and chicks were in such close proximity. We shot these photos through a locked gate, at a far enough distance that it was a challenge to get clear captures.

At one point we observed an interesting behavior. The chicks were pecking at a piece of plastic. The mother, observing this and perhaps understanding, somehow, that ingesting the plastic could be fatal to her offspring, picked up the rubbish and flew off several meters from the nest before dropping it and returning.

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There seemed to be no sating the young birds’ appetites…Isabelline wheatear mom feeding chicks 1 nThe adults returned again and again…

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With much anticipation…

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Their stubby wings and chubby bodies hardly seemed to bode well for flight. Was it out of boredom or hunger – or something even more primal – that prompted one of the birds to begin vigorously stretching its wings?

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Suddenly it occurred to us. These little guys are going to fledge, right now!

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And just like that…Isabelline wheater mom last look around nest n

The female returned for a final look at her empty nest, then caught up with the chicks. They hid behind a a pile of rusted junk, and that was the last we saw of them.

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Who would suspect that a a nest of birds was once here, hidden safe and well-fed beneath this rotting tire?

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A while later, we encountered this juvenile perched on the ledge of an apartment near ours. Where will they go next year? It’s a question with no easy answer in a world that continues to fill up with people.