I completed a major painting last week. It’s one I’ve been anxious to take on since I spent a hour with a group of five argali rams this past July at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. I was there for six days, staying in one of the gers and taking meals with the scientists and an Earthwatch team.
I’d gotten up at 5:30am, thrown on the clothes that I’d laid out the night before, hoisted my camera pack onto my shoulder, slipped out of the ger and began a slow, careful walk down the valley.
I had learned that the only water in the area was coming from a spring just a few dozen yards from camp and that argali were coming to the valley regularly in the morning and evening. Which was quite convenient, saving me a lot of walking around and clambering over rocks trying to find them.
I picked a spot and sat down in plain view, having been told that makes them less nervous than if you try to hide behind a rock. Took a look around through my binoculars and, within a few minutes, up on the cliffs to my right…
As I watched them, wondering if anyone was going to come down, I had a feeling…and looked back over my shoulder to my left.
Less than 100 feet away.
How long they had been standing there watching me, I have no idea. Then they started to move towards the stream bed.
Oh, look, there's three!
Coming down the hill.
As I watched, the sun started to hit the tops of the cliffs. Would I get to see these guys in morning light before activity in the camp behind me spooked them?
Out into the valley as the sun comes up.
The first three crossed the stream bed to a small clump of trees. Two more rams had come down from the cliffs on the right. The Sunrise Boy’s Club was now in session.
Five rams hanging out.
There were three older adults with massive horns and two younger rams. The big guys were almost grey, their juniors a reddish-brown.
They browsed in the trees, did a little pre-rut testing (a future painting). And then….
Noise from camp. Oh, no.
But everyone settled back down. Except for this young one who decided to check me out, walking almost straight towards me. It made the others nervous at first, but they didn’t run.
It was a bit much for the three older rams.
I sat there in disbelief. For me, this is the grail of wildlife fieldwork: sitting out in plain view and having a wild creature choose to approach you.
He finally stopped and looked straight at me from about 30 feet away.
But I wasn’t so paralyzed with delight that I forgot to take pictures, getting the best argali head reference I’ve shot so far.
Returning to the group.
He finally turned and walked back to the others who, as you can see, are standing there, watching. I found myself running this little thought thread: “We didn’t get this old and big by being stupid. Let the young guy check her out.” And then imagining the adventurous ram, kind of like a young British officer, reporting back to his superiors. “No problem, sir. None at all. Piece of cake.”
I guess I was just part of the furniture by now.
But he wasn’t done yet. For a second time, he walked down the stream bed towards me.
Comfortable enough to put his head down and graze.
He finally rejoined the group. Suddenly they were up on their feet just as the light was starting to reach the valley floor. Oh, no! They’re facing the wrong way. Are they going to run up the hill?
Up on their feet.
Suddenly one of the young rams turned and bounded into the light. Yes!
Into the light. At last!
And everyone else followed, crossing right in front of me and occasionally stopping for a nibble.
A short pause.
But now I could hear movement in the camp. The group split up, two of the rams going up into the rocks.
One went right up the cliff face.
Three of them walked on down the valley in the bright sunshine.
Time to move on.
I looked behind me and saw one of the scientists from the camp. He walked past me. The rams kept moving, but never ran. It’s good they’ve learned that in this place they don’t have to fear people.
The three finally made a right turn up into the cliffs, stopping, as argali often do, to take one last look.
On Friday, Part 2 will present a step-by-step post on the painting that came out of this wonderful experience.