A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
A few posts back we published a photo-essay, The Very Cold Swim, in which one of our wild village foxes took an impromptu dunk when the shore ice between her and a salmon head gave way. The other day she posed for a series of portraits in lovely lighting. What a beauty!
We’ve all been there – mornings when you’re out of cigarettes and reduced to digging through an overflowing ashtray; mornings when you can’t find your Scotch glass… or the sash for your robe. Your lipstick’s smeared from the night before, your head is pounding, you can’t even look at food and you just want to know that you’re still loved. (Stone Sheep Ewe on a rainy day in Alberta, Canada)
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.
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.
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.
Rutting season occurs in autumn. The rest of the year females and young form distinct groups away from the mature males.
It’s not just poachers that prompt vigilance among red deer. This wolf track spotted near a herd of females and young was fresh.
Some scent on the air kept causing the largest of these three males to look back.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
And then he’d wake and take a look around.
Eventually a scent on the air caught his attention…
And he ambled off. Almost looks like he’s posed in a diorama. The overcast morning light really made the colors pop.
Brown with October’s cold, a gnarled desert tree frames buntings (possibly Jankowski’s) (Emberiza sp.) near our ger in Mongolia’s southern Gobi Desert .
A few miles south of the Khongoryn Els singing dunes marked our southern-most push into the Gobi.
A herdsman’s goats crowd around a rare source of water.
While driving, we encountered a species of gazelle that was new to us – black-tailed gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa).
The black-tails proved to be every bit as skittish as the Mongolian gazelle we’d been seeing throughout the trip.
After driving through an expanse of mostly sand and rock, we came into an area of small trees, shrubs and tall grasses, evidence of water close to the desert’s surface. The family gers there would be our camp for the next two nights. With water available, one of our first orders of business was good hair shampooings all around. This was to be the closest thing to a shower we had during our eight-day trek, and it was decidedly refreshing.
Jimi Carter and I lug water cans to our ger for impromptu hair washing. The effects of the mini-shower were immediately spirit lifting.
There was a large gerbil warren not far from our camp – and signs that a fox had recently visited it.
For dinner, the appetizers featured steaming bowls of temeni suute tsai (suu – te – tsay) – camel milk tea, fried bread and camel milk aarts. Aarts is similar to sweet, mild cream cheese. It was absolutely delicious, and we had to remind ourselves to save room for the main course – goat with a variety of goat meat sausages.
The sunset that night was, as usual, spectacular.
This was the most spacious and ornately decorated ger we stayed in. Note the bag of aarts – camel milk cream cheese – on the right wall. After breakfast, our host rounded up several camels for our trek to a set of dunes about three miles from the ger.
Decked out in a traditional dell, our driver, Nimka, (foreground) and our host were ready to mount up and lead the way to the dunes.
Raptors use the dunes as perches and hunting grounds. Here a cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) executes a take-off…
…and a common buzzard (Buteo buteo) soars above the landscape scanning for prey.
Evidence of a successful hunt. The porcupine-like quills are those of a hedgehog. We found several of these pellets along the ridge of the dune. Birds of prey regurgitate the undigested parts of the birds and mammals they dine on.
Camels tethered below, we ascended a fairly steep dune where we’d seen raptors perched. Although we never did encounter a fox, once again their tracks were present, along with those of hares.
We named our camels for the trek. Here Barbra’s camel, Timmy, hams it up for the camera. (The Mongolian word for camel is teme – hence Timmy the teme.)
Below: Surprisingly lush growths of various seed producing grasses provide forage for the abundant bird and rodent populations, which in turn provide prey for foxes, wolves and the Gobi’s numerous raptors.
In addition to the many buntings and sparrows around this oasis ger, there were times in the early morning when thousands of doves filled the skies.
On our second day in the Yolyn Am Canyon in mid-October, we encountered more ibex such as this handsome billy. The sheer number of raptors was astounding.
Out trusty Russian van slipped through a seemingly impossible passage. Here and there, falcon, hawk and eagle’s nests were perched on ledges along the craggy, vertical walls.
A saker falcon stretches his wings during a morning of hunting.
Small birds and mammals abound in the canyon, providing ample forage for raptors and other predators. On this morning, swarms of wheatears seemed oblivious to this rough-legged hawk, which was probably hoping to score one of the canyon’s many small mammals.
This shy pica had good reason to be on high alert.
Probably a mated pair, these rough-legged hawks were hunting along a spring creek.
During our two-day journey on foot and by van through the canyon, we saw over 20 ibex.
Bearded, muscular and with iron-like knobbed horns silhouetted against a blue Mongolian sky, this billy cast a baleful eye on us as he calmly passed by.
The shape of the tail and the gold under the chin make it easy to identify this as the Yolyn Am’s eponymous bird – a lammergeier, also known as a bearded vulture. They kept their distance. We have equally blurry shots of the canyon’s golden eagles.
Three-hundred fifty miles (560 km) south of Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi Desert is wild and remote yet accessible. (In Mongolian cyrillic, the “P’s” are pronounced as “R’s” in English.)
Coming next: The famous Singing Dunes – an Ocean of Sand