Tales From The Field: Baby Marmots In Yellowstone National Park

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In June of 2005, I spent some time in Yellowstone National Park, doing what most visitors do….driving around wildlife spotting. On this day I’d gotten going fairly early in the morning so when I pulled into the parking area at Sheepeater’s Cliff, I had it all to myself, at least as far as other humans.


I got out of the car with my camera and had started to walk towards the basalt cliff formation when I saw movement. A yellow-bellied marmot! I hadn’t seen one in the park before, much less been able to get good photos. And not just one, but three! A mother with her kits. All I had to do was slowly sit down and watch the show. Here are some of my favorite shots from that special morning.

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The youngsters started to play and they were a riot! I was in plain sight but they just carried on as if I wasn’t there.

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They heard something and ran back up to mom.

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But almost immediately started up again.

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Back to the ground for a wrestling match.

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Back up onto the rocks and a little tidying up.

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This is when you mentally say “Thank you” to your model.


Back down to the ground and time for some King of the Rock.

Then I heard a car pull in behind me. Fair enough. Heard a door close and footsteps. And some guy walks straight past me towards the marmots with a dinky point and shoot camera. And in an instant they were all gone into the rocks, leaving the guy standing there apparently too dumb or uninformed to realize what he’d done. Needless to say I was pretty irritated at him for interrupting and scaring them off because he couldn’t keep his distance and didn’t take a cue from what I was doing.  But at least I’d already gotten a bunch of great photos.

The rule of thumb in watching any wild animal is that if you do anything to alter its behavior you’re too close. Period. Non-negotiable. We can come and go as we please. The places where people see wildlife are the only homes they have and it and they need to be respected. I understand the temptation to want to get close, but anyone who has done any amount of animal watching knows about “the one step too many”. Please don’t take it.

The reward for patience and stillness…

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Mongolia Monday- Tsagaan Sar=great food

We hosted our Mongolian friend, her husband and two other couples for a Tsagaan Sar party this past Saturday night. Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and the name means “White Moon”. In Mongolia, it’s about three days of visiting, gift-giving and lots of food and drink. As I was thinking about what to post today, I realized that I haven’t written about the food and, when I poked around my photos, found that I’ve ended up with quite a few images (I take pictures of everything). So, here’s an “album” of Mongolian food, with commentary. My apologies in advance for any homesickness this may cause my Mongolian readers.

Salt deposit, western Mongolia
Salt deposit, western Mongolia

One of our stops when I was in western Mongolia in 2006 was this huge salt deposit. And, yes, we drove right out over that “bridge”. If you’ve ever played the game “Civilization”, then you can understand how this resonated with me. For how many thousands of years have people been coming here to get salt?

Harvesting salt, western Mongolia
Harvesting salt, western Mongolia

There happened to be two men doing exactly that. Some of our party had to give it a try. At the end of the handle is a scoop with holes in it to let the liquid run out. It seemed to be trickier to do than it looked, so the local guys were pretty amused.

Mongolian BBQ during the Earthwatch project, 2005
Mongolian BBQ during the Earthwatch project, 2005

The brown meat in the bowl is goat. The “Mongolian BBQ” that we get in the US is a Chinese invention and has nothing to do with how real Mongols eat. Their diet has traditionally been meat and dairy, diary and meat. Sheep and goats are slaughtered by cutting a slit in the stomach area, inserting a finger, hooking and pulling a vein (Thank you, Narantsogt, for the correction from what I had previously written. He has more info in the comments section) . Pretty humane and it keeps blood from going all over in a country where there isn’t extra water for cleanup.

Real Mongolian BBQ, Arburd Sands
Real Mongolian BBQ, Arburd Sands

Here’s the meat in the pot after the foal branding at Arburd Sands. We were invited, but it was getting dark and it looked like the guys were settling in for a very convivial evening that was going to run very late.

Goat meat, Khomiin Tal
Goat meat, Khomiin Tal

Sometimes the goat is simply butchered and hung up in the ger for use. I was told that this much goat meat would feed 3-4 Mongols for about two weeks. The humidity in Mongolia hovers around 10% max., so meat will keep in the dry air. On the other hand, the Mongols have been eating this way for centuries and have defenses against whatever might get into the meat. Westerners don’t, so we have to be careful what we eat. The head will be on the menu too. Nothing is wasted.

Meat for sale
Meat for sale

We stopped in a soum center (county seat) in western Mongolia for lunch. While we were waiting for our food, I saw these three ladies with meat to sell. They saw me take the picture and I went over and managed to tell them that I was from California. More smiles. Hope they sold out.


Maybe the most beloved item of Mongolian cuisine. Families make thousands of them for Tsaagan Sar. Generally the filling is mutton. I asked if I could take pictures and, from their expressions, their reaction was along the lines of, “Well, if you want to photograph something sooo ordinary, be our guest….What will those visitors think of next?” I guess the equivalent here would be taking pictures of a McDonald’s. I ate four. I practically had mutton fat running down my arm. They were one of the best things I’ve ever had when traveling. I can’t possibly miss them as much of the Mongols, but I’m really looking forward to my next trip.

There’s a recipe for buuz here. We’ve done them now with lamb and on Saturday we used ground beef. We are going to try to find mutton later this year.

On to dairy:


Aruul is essentially dried milk. Mare’s milk is heated up on the ger stove and separated. The solids (which Narantsogt says he remembers as cheese and yogurt) are mixed with water and flour and formed into a variety of shapes and put out in the sun to dry, usually on the top of the ger. It tastes kind of like an slightly acidic yogurt and is an acquired taste, I would think, for most westerners. It took me about three bites. Careful bites, with my molars, because this stuff is hard. But it’s the perfect snack food in the field. Pure protein.

Mongolian "clotted cream"
Mongolian "clotted cream"

We were visiting a ger adjacent to Hustai National Park and, instead of aruul, I was offered this: pure cream to spread on the bread. Oh my goodness. I really had to get a grip on my manners, because I could easily have eaten all of it. But one has to remember that the Mongols will give you the last of what they have and do without in order to meet their obligations as hosts and many live pretty close to the edge.

Then they handed me a glass, which I assumed at first was the usual milk tea. After a few sips it dawned on me that it had to be the legendary airag (or kumiss, fermented mare’s milk). This was in September, so it was very late in the airag season. It can be “problematical” for western digestive systems and the feedback loop is very, very short. I decided to throw caution to the winds and drank about 4-5 oz. No problem. Whew.

Airag, vodka, cheese, Arburd Sands
Airag, vodka, cheese, Arburd Sands

Last year, at Arburd Sands, we were hosted by a local horse trainer and his family, who have 300+ horses. So there was LOTS of airag. This vessel was full to the brim. Fortunately, we weren’t expected to drink the entire contents of those rather large bowls. I think the idea was more for the host to be able to demonstrate the household’s generosity by offering brimming cups. The vodka was Chinggis Khan Gold, I think, which was excellent. The little cubes behind it were a soft cheese. Also delicious.

Finally, a menu item that I have not had the opportunity to try yet, but which is probably as near and dear to as many Mongol’s hearts as buuz. That would be….marmot.

Siberian marmot, Hustai National Park
Siberian marmot, Hustai National Park

The Mongols who like marmot, REALLY like marmot. When speaking of it, they get this kind of far away look as if remembering every bite they’ve ever had and are savoring it all over again. I’ll leave the hunting details to another time. If any Mongols reading this want to send me an accurate description and/or account, I’ll gladly post it. The traditional preparation involves gutting the animal and removing the fur with a, wait for it, blowtorch. Then it’s cooked over a  fire. On a cultural note, it turns out marmots living in Mongolia are the original disease vector for the bubonic plague (Black Death) that hit Europe in the late 1340s.

When you’ve come in from the countryside, there are lots of good restaurants in UB, including…a Chinese-style Mongolian BBQ, which has proved to be very popular with the actual Mongolians.

BD's Mongolian BBQ, Ulaanbaatar
BD's Mongolian Barbeque, Ulaanbaatar

If you are going to Mongolia, get the Lonely Planet guide.

For more on Tsagaan Sar and things Mongolian, I HIGHLY recommend the Asian Gypsy blog.

Aperture and a Few Favorite Photos

In between trying to get a number of paintings done, I’ve spent one full day of each of the last two weekends importing my images into Aperture, the digital photo manager that I had pre-installed on the iMac. I think I’m almost halfway there. All of Kenya 2004, Mongolia 2005 and 2006, two trips to Wyoming and one to Montana are in, plus some personal stuff and photos of paintings. The two trips to Mongolia come to 5,792 total. Kenya 2004, the art workshop safari with Simon Combes and nine other artists, totals 5,116. Wyoming, which includes Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the areas around Jackson and Dubois totals 3,824. Can you imagine how much paper and ink it would have needed if those had been prints? Or plastic, paper and ink if they were slides? And how much shelf space I’d need. So far, it’s all on the iMac’s hard drive, which will be backed up to our Buffalo Terastations.

Digital is by far the most environmentally friendly way to acquire and store images and music. I’m ready for movie downloads to our tv anytime now.

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Aperture’s image organization system is based on projects, albums and folders. Half the battle was understanding how I would want to find things well enough to set up the essential system before I started importing. I finally went with projects based on location. Images can only be in one project, but can be in multiple albums. So, I’ve done the initial imports into country projects that have specific location albums in them. Therefore, the Mongolia project has albums for Hustai National Park 2005, Hustai National Park, 2006, Khomiin Tal 2006 and so on. I had realized when I was still working with IMatch on the PC that I needed to be able to not only go to a specific location, but also when I’d been there, so this time every location name also includes the year. The next step will be to copy all the animals into specific species albums, along with various landscape features like rocks and trees, time of day like sunsets, and weather features like clouds. Everything will be batch keyworded and have appropriate metadata added. Maybe by the end of baseball season.


Marmot at National Museum of Wildlife Art (He’s real.)

I bought an after-market book on Aperture with a DVD tutorial that I’m working my way through. I got a handle on importing and dove in because my images look so completely stunning on the glossy 24″ iMac monitor that I needed to start working from it immediately. I’ve been cruising through a bunch of my photos this afternoon, especially all my argali reference from Mongolia, and I can honestly say that for the first time I can really see what my 6mb Nikon D70’s can do. Wow.


Local herder and I at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia

My paintings are going to take a big step forward. John Banovich, who I was fortunate enough to have a workshop with, told us that “you are only as good as your reference”. That is so, so true. I can’t even believe that I ever thought that 4×6 or even 5×7 prints would give me a good result. I now have the equivalent of huge transparencies that I can work from in daylight.

Hope to post some new paintings by late next week. Heading down to San Francisco for the weekend and taking along a blue heeler from the shelter who needs to go to rescue. Next entry I’ll tell the story of my first transport two weeks ago. Super short version-four dogs, ten hours driving.