Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Cinereous Vulture

Juvenile vulture, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2010

Species: Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

Vulture nest, Ikh Nart, April 2005

Weight, length: Cinereous vultures are the largest eurasian bird of prey and one of the largest flying birds. They are 98–120 cm (39–47 in) long with a 2.5–3.1 m (8.2–10 ft) wingspan and weigh 7–14 kg (15–31 lb)

Adult and juvenile on nest, near Baga Hairhan Uul, July 2010

Conservation Status: Near Threatened (IUCN Red List)

Nest on the face of Zorgol Uul, July 2011

Habitat Preference: Mountains, rocky uplands, forests

Vulture on nest, Ikh Nart, April 2005

Best places to see cinereous vultures: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, but common in many parts of the country.

Vulture at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009

Interesting facts:

-They are also known as the European black vulture due to the very dark color of the juveniles. The adult’s head plumage gets lighter as the bird ages.

– It has recently been established through the identification of wing-tagged birds, that a number of juvenile birds from Ikh Nart are migrating to South Korea during the winter. They are showing up at feeding stations.

– It is more common for the species to nest in trees in western parts of its range, but in Mongolia nests on cliffs are more often seen. At Ikh Nart the birds nest in some of the elm trees and a bird was recently photographed on a nest built in a larch tree in the northern mountains.

Mongolia Monday- Wildlife Profiles: Argali

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu argali ram, April 2005: This big old ram let me follow him around for about half an hour.

I’m starting the New Year with a new series on Mongolian wildlife. These will be short profiles with essential information and interesting links. First up is the animal which brought me to Mongolia in the first place, the argali, now one of my favorite subjects.

Species: Argali (Ovis ammon)

Weight, height and horn length: Argali are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A large ram can weigh as much as 375 lbs (65-170km). They stand from  3-4″ (90-120cm) at the shoulder. The horns can measure up to  65″ (165cm).

Argali rams, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, July 2009; I peeked over the ridge (after dragging my oxygen-starved body up a steep slope following my guide) and what should I see...a big group of argali rams, twelve in all.

Conservation Status: Near-threatened (IUCN Red List)

Argali rams, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009; Same trip as above, but this time the sheep were within sight of the road. I simply stood by the car and took lots of photos of these six beautiful boys

Habitat preference: mountains or large areas of rocky outcroppings in the desert steppe, some open desert; more recently found in mountain steppe (Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve)

Argali rams, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, August 2010; In all my six trips to Mongolia, going out to see argali every time, this sighting was the jackpot....five rams less than 50 yards away and I had them to myself for at least an hour.

Best Places to see argali: Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve; They may also be seen at Baga Gazriin Chuluu and Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, both local reserves (no websites)

Argali ram, ewe and lamb, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, July 2011; Typical sighting of argali up on the rocks.

Interesting facts:

-There are no argali in captivity, neither zoos or reserves. The only place to see them is in their native habitats.

– While the rams do fight it out during the annual rut for mating privileges, otherwise argali don’t have set herds or harems. Who is with who can change through the day. Rams mingle freely with ewes and lambs, form bachelor groups or wander around on their own.

– In July of 2009, I was in the right place and the right time to be the first person to ever photograph an argali swimming a river…the Kherlen Gol, which flows through Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. It was known that they do it, but since almost all the research on them is done at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, where there are no rivers, no one had ever actually seen, much less photographed, it.

Mongolia Monday- Not MORE Argali? Four Great Days At Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve

Those of you who have followed this blog for awhile know that I’ve been going to Ikh Nart since my first trip in 2005. This time I had the pleasure of sharing the reserve with a fellow artist, Pokey Park.

Wildlife being what it is, one never knows what one will see on a given trip, or even if. But this visit exceeded our every reasonable expectation. For two of the four days, it seemed like we could hardly go an hour as we drove around the reserve without seeing argali, ibex, argali and ibex in the same place or cinereous vultures, a golden eagle or other birds. And we had sightings both other days, but not nearly as often.

The universe being what it is, on our way out of the reserve we drove through one of the areas where we had had multiple sightings of argali and ibex the previous morning and saw not a single animal.

We stayed at Nomadic Journey's Red Rock Ger Camp
Ikh Nart landscape
Scanning for argali and ibex
But I was the lucky one who first spotted a single ram, who then joined up with a big group making ten all together. What a sight they were!
We maneuvered through the rocks, caught up and re-sighted them three times
They've seen something, we had no idea what
Golden eagle
A herder's winter shelter for his livestock
One of the pictographs on the rock cliff
We went to the valley where the research camp is located and got great sightings of a large group of ibex
And for a bonus, a beautiful sunset
We also were able to follow this group of ewes and lambs
How many sheep can you see?
They are totally at home in these rocky uplands
Black kite
We drove south to see the pictographs and Tibetan inscriptions on the cliff in the background
Pokey helped fill the troughs; it's a Mongol tradition that passersby will fill them if they are empty
Ibex pictograph; researchers have just started to catalog and study the cultural resources of the reserve, of which there are many
Argali ewe and lamb
Argali ram

Next week, it’s on to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.

Home Again. And Album Of “I Was There” Photos

Five wonderful weeks in Mongolia just flew by. I managed to spend three of those weeks in the countryside: two weeks doing the “wildlife watching” tour with nationally-known sculptor Pokey Park and then a week of camping with a guide/cook and driver.

Lots of great reference and stories to match will be posted here in the weeks to come, but for now I’m still catching up and working on a couple of new projects, about which  more later.

In the meantime, here’s a collection of the photos that have me in them, most taken by our great driver/guide, Khatnaa, who brought his own camera and who definitely has an eye as a photographer.

Lunch up in the mountains of Hustai National Park
Mongol horse ride #1 at Arburd Sands ger camp
Stupa at Zorgol Uul, a mountain not far from Arburd Sands
Probably my favorite photo from the trip; I met these women in 2008 when my husband and I went to Arburd Sands and I was thrilled to see them again this year; Lkhamsuren, on the right, is the widow of famous horsetrainer, Choidog, whose son, Batbadrakh, is now family patriarch; Surenjav, next to me, and I somehow connected in 2008 even though we couldn't talk to each other due to the language barrier. She's 92 now and is Batbadrakh's brother's mother-in-law. Being Mongolia, neither expressed any real surprise at this western woman who they met three years ago walking into the ger one morning to say "Sain bain uu"
Orphaned argali lamb at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve research camp
Happiness is a nice ger and comfy del at Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve
After the second longish hike up a steep slope in one morning, I was rewarded with this great view of the valley of the Kherlen Gol; Chinggis Khan almost certainly knew and rode through this place
Mongol horse ride #2 at Jalman Meadows ger camp, up north in the Hentii Mountains, and overlooking the valley of the Tuul Gol, which also flows through Ulaanbaatar
The second night of the camping trip, I got to stay overnight with a herder family for the first time. It happened to be the home of my driver, Puugee, who on the right. Next to me on the left is Hashchuluun, his wife, then a lady who I did not catch the name of and, finally, Puugee's oldest son, one of three

Mongolia Monday- It’s My 400th Post! 10 Of My Favorite Mongolia-related Websites

Hard to believe it, but I have reached 400 posts. I started my blog on December 10, 2007. It doesn’t seem like it has been that long. It’s become part of my weekly routine and a fun way to share my art and my travels.

I also really appreciate the support and comments that I get from my readers. Thank you!

Now, on to Mongolia Monday! Today I’m going to post links to 10 of my favorite sites, ones that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning about Mongolia or who is planning to go there.

Procession of the horse tail standards, Naadam, 2009

1. News.mn: http://english.news.mn/home.shtml– News.mn has consistently been the best place I’ve found for keeping up with what is going on in Mongolia. There is also the UB Post, which is better known, but the load time on the site is glacial.

Peace Avenue, Ulaanbaatar, September 2009

2. Asian Gypsy: http://asiangypsy.blogspot.com/– He doesn’t post nearly enough, but this is definitely my favorite blog written by a Mongol. I get the email feed so that I don’t miss a post.

3. Weather Underground: http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/44292.html– Want to know what the weather is like in Ulaanbaatar? Here it is.

Lightning storm at Arburd Sands ger camp, July 2009

4. Altan Urag: http://www.altanurag.mn/en.html– One of the best known groups to come out of Mongolia, Altan Urag (which means “Golden Lineage”, a reference to the family and descendents of Chinggis Khan), describes themselves as a “folk rock band”, which means an amazing synthesis of modern western and traditional Mongolian music, including morin khuur and khoomii (horsehead fiddle and throat singing). Their music can also be heard in movies like “Khadak” and “Mongol”. And their website is waaay cool.

Morin khuur, Union of Mongolian Artists gallery, Ulaanbaatar

5. Ganbold: http://www.ganbold.com/– Ganbold, who currently lives in the USA, is a graphic designer and artist with a very impressive client list. I had clicked on a banner ad he had placed on a Mongol site and really liked what I saw. Then, sometime later, a “Ganbold” left a comment on this blog. I clicked the url in the commenter info. and. low and behold, it was the same person! We’ve stayed in touch on and off since then. The home page of his website is, literally, a work of art. Click “Enter”. Highly recommended for bird lovers.

6. Budbayar Boldbaatar: http://www.budartist.com/– I absolutely adore his work, but Budbayar is also standing in for the many, many excellent artists that Mongolia produces and who deserve to be known to the world.

Palace of Culture, Ulaanbaatar; home to the Mongolian Modern Art Gallery

7. Circle of Tengerism- http://www.tengerism.org/– One thing that many westerners do know about Mongolia is what we call “shamanism” and the Mongols call “Tengerism”. “Tenger” is Mongolian for “sky”, also known as The Eternal Blue Sky or Eternal Heaven. This ancient belief system has survived centuries of persecution and suppression and today is an active part of the culture of the country.

Shaman's drum- Mongolian Modern Art Gallery, Ulaanbaatar

8. Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve- http://www.ikhnart.com/home.html– My entry point into Mongolia in 2005, Ikh Nart is where I’ve been able to become actively involved in conservation and working with local herders. The reserve is home to the world’s only argali research project.

Argali ram- Ikh Nartiin Chuluu

9. Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve- http://www.argalipark.com/– Very different habitat from Ikh Nart, but also home to a population of argali sheep. This reserve was set up by the local government and is administered by a community association. Visitors can ride a horse or in a yak cart, try Mongol archery, take a boat out on the river and hike the surrounding area.

Camel ride?- Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

10. Nomadic Journeys- http://nomadicjourneys.com/– Finally, a tip of the hat to the tour company that I have relied on to get me around Mongolia since 2006. The website not only describes their trip offerings, but is a wealth of information about Mongolia, the country, land, people and wildlife.

Tahilgat Hairhan (a sacred mountain), Tsenkher Tenger (blue sky) and Gazar Zam (earth road); Minii Mongol (my Mongolia)

“Mongol Horse #5-Evening Run” Accepted Into “Art And The Animal”!

Mongol Horse #6 - Evening Run 24x36" oil

I’m proud to announce that “Mongol Horse #5-Evening Run” has been accepted into the Society of Animal Artists 51st Annual Exhibition of “Art and the Animal”.  The subjects are part of a herd of horses which wandered past the Red Rocks ger camp at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve when my husband and I were staying there in 2008.

Currently I’m down on the Delaware Coast. My artist friends, Guy Combes and Andrew Denman, and I are planning to spend tomorrow exploring Assateague and, if we have time, Chincoteague islands.

Mongolia Monday- The Story Of A New Argali Painting, Part 1

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…

Morning "scouts".

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.

Last look.

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.

New Painting Debut! “Cinereous Vulture, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, Mongolia”

Cinereous Vulture, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, Mongolia 16x20" oil on canvasboard

I happen to love vultures, who form a big part of nature’s clean-up crew. Cinereous vultures are the largest raptors in Eurasia. They can weigh up to 30 lbs and have a 10′ wingspan. As it turns out, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu is a “hotspot” for them, with almost 250 known nests, a quarter of which are used each year. One of the interesting things about this species, as you can see from my painting is that, unlike other vultures, the adult’s heads are not bare of feathers.

It has recently been learned that that a large number of juvenile vultures, many of which are born and fledge during the spring and summer at Ikh Nart, winter in South Korea, thanks to a combination of GPS radio collars, wing tags and dedicated observers.

So far, the species seems to be doing well in Mongolia. I sincerely hope that continues because they are always an impressive sight as they soar overhead in the beautiful blue skies.

Mongolia Monday- I’ve Been Appointed To The Ikh Nart Working Group!

Sunrise in the valley where the research camp is...with argali

I’m proud and pleased to announce that I am one of four Americans and seven Mongols who have recently been appointed by the Dornogobi Aimag Governor (an aimag is the equivalent of a state or province) to the Ikh Nart Natural Resource Area Working Group!

Ancient Turkic grave; there have been humans at Ikh Nart for a very long time

Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve is becoming a model for how a reserve or park can be managed in Mongolia, which has set aside one of the largest percentages of its land area of any country, 13%, as protected in some way.

Pictographs near a well

The other Americans are Dr. Richard Reading, the Vice President for Conservation at the Denver Zoo, who in charge of the research camp that was established at Ikh Nart in 1994; retired Anza-Borrego California State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen, (Anza-Borrego is officially a sister park to Ikh Nart and its supporters have been very generous in their support of Ikh Nart, donating both money and equipment like spotting scopes and binoculars) who will continue to nurture the sister park relationship; and retired state park employee Lynn Rhodes, who has been offering her expertise on law enforcement policies and training.

Dr. Reading inspecting a cinereous vulture nest

I have been tasked with continuing to support Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s craft collective and also to publicize Ikh Nart and the collective outside of Mongolia.

Ikh Nart moonrise

The Mongols in the Group include the scientist in charge of argali research for the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa), who has become a good personal friend; the head of the aimag’s environmental agency; two soum (county) governors; the reserve ranger; and a representative of the local herders. So I will also have an opportunity to see how another country’s government operates at a local level.

Four Siberian ibex

I feel very privileged to be included in this on-going effort to conserve a very special place and to work with the Mongols in doing so.

Local herder Choibalsan and I at the end of the Earthwatch project, April 2005; I still see him most times I visit the reserve

UPDATE AS OF MARCH, 2012: As of a few months ago, the Working Group decided to create an advisory council on which the four westerners would serve. I am now a member of that council. My direct work with the collective, Ikh Nart Is Our Future, has not changed.