The 2015 WildArt Mongolia Expedition, Part 5: Dorgon Nuur

Khar Nuur
Khar Nuur

After our relaxing break on the shores of Khar Nuur, we headed south along the east side of the lake to the beginning of the channel that joined it to Dorgon Nuur. What is interesting about all this is that Khar Nuur is a freshwater lake and Dorgon Nuur is 4% saline. One map I have shows the area of salinity in pink instead of blue. It starts at the far northern point of the channel, but I have been able to find no documentation or explanation for it, other than a suggestion that maybe there are salt deposits in that area.

Like everywhere else in Mongolia, the herder’s horses run loose in the countryside when not be used. Visitors consistently write or post about seeing “wild horses”, assuming that they are the equivalent of American mustangs, which are feral domestic horses. Mongol horses are very independent-minded, aren’t approachable by strangers and can give their owners a good run for their money trying to catch them. But the takhi/Przewalski’s horse is the only surviving true wild horse.

Local Mongol horses.
Local Mongol horses

There were lots of birds…cranes, herons, cormorants, gulls, terns, plovers, to name what I saw just passing by.

Traveling along the channel
Traveling along the connecting channel we saw a pair of demoiselle cranes

When we started out the ground was covered with species of low and high grasses. As we went south, the vegetation became more sparse and obviously adapted to less rainfall. The mountain in the background with its top in the clouds is Jargalant Hairkhan Uul, again an upcoming destination.

Vegetation change
Vegetation change

The vegetation finally petered out and we were running on hard gravel. I didn’t know how well these mirages would photograph and was pleased with what I got.


The “road”, which at this point was the treadmarks of previous vehicles, led away from the water for awhile on what was becoming sandier ground, but still hard.

Hard ground
Sandy ground with Jargalant Hairkhan Uul in the background. The channel is mid-photo on the left.

A second group of horses eyed us as we drove by.

More horses
More horses

We passed this group, drove on a bit and then just as I saw the four horses in the distance (next photo below), the driver stopped and said “Saiga!”. And there they were…four of them, two females with calves running right past the horses, who just stood there watching them go by. I kept shooting until they disappeared into the dunes in the background. We drove on a bit and suddenly I thought to tell the driver to stop. I got out my GPS and took a reading of our location. I was expecting to look for saiga on the plain on the other side of the lake and also to the south, not here. Then I asked the driver, who grew up in the area, if he had ever seen them on the east side up along where the channel was and this far north and he said no. So on my to do list very soon now that I’m caught up on a bunch of work I’ve had to do, some of which had deadlines, is to consult with the saiga researchers I know about and see if I’ve recorded something new. Whatever I find out, I’ll post about it.

Four saiga antelope
Four saiga antelope

We finally reached the shores of Dorgon Nuur and I got this shot of wild greylag geese taking off.

Dorgon Nuur
Dorgon Nuur

We were driving south on the east side of the lake, which is quite large. It is almost 15 miles long and 12 miles wide. The photo below shows the view to the south where the lakeshore curves around to the west.

Dorgon Nuur
Dorgon Nuur

We had nice easy driving for a time on this grass “earth” road.

Grassy road
Grassy road

Then we came to the stretch that I’d been warned about, at which the shore became sand. My tour company person had told me that the southern part of the lake was known as the “Riviera of Mongolia” because it’s where the sand meets the water.

Sandy road
Sandy road

He had also told me that when the lake level was high the only way to go forward was to drive into the water and that it would be up to the driver to decide whether or not to go. If not, it meant a really long detour to get around this section. And, in fact, here we were, with the “road” having disappeared completely into the water. We stopped and the driver got out and went to reconnoiter the situation around the bend of the dune. Would we go on? Or have to go back?

Driver checking out the situation

And here’s why we couldn’t just cut inland a bit and go around…high dunes of loose sand. One could see that horses moved through and over them just fine. So passage around this part of the lake only became a problem when cars, vans and trucks came along.

Dune next to where we were stopped
Dune next to where we were stopped

The driver came back, made a “going for it” gesture and off we went. I took the photo below through the windshield. The tires on my side seemed to stay a little on the wet sand. No way did the driver want the wheels in the loose stuff higher up. Getting stuck doing this would have meant a long, long delay. No roadside assistance in Mongolia unless someone stopped. And we hadn’t seen another vehicle all day. This was clearly a “road less traveled” and then some.

Around the dune
Around the dune

We made it around the dune and picked up the road again, which was on sand, but not too soft.

Around the corner
Around the corner

We came upon a pair of whooper swans and stopped so I could get some photos of them.

Whooper swans
Whooper swans

And then we came to another, even longer, stretch of dunes that came right down to the water. Once again the driver got out to see what was ahead. Took a look, came back to the car, got in and off we went.

Another recon
Another recon

This time I set my Nikon D750 for video. I’d been having some problems with the lens, so this is a little out of focus, but it gives the feeling of what road travel is like in a way that still photos can’t.

Now we could see that there was a grassy edge the rest of the way.

Clear sailing ahead
Clear sailing ahead

We finally arrived at the curved south end of the lake. No more sand. This was rock and gravel. And a beach!

At the south end of the lake
At the south end of the lake

With camels!

Bactrian camels
Bactrian camels

The beach is a weekend destination for local people who live in Chandmani, the soum center (county seat) an hour or two away.

Local people
Local people camping out and swimming in the lake

We headed farther off down the beach (Love using the word “beach” in a post about Mongolia and am enjoying it while I can!) and picked a spot to set up the tents. It was quite windy, but not cold.

Our campsite
Our campsite

The surrounding scenery was great. And then, to end an adventurous (for me, anyway) day, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.

Sunset, Dorgon Nuur
Sunset, Dorgon Nuur

The next morning brought calm weather and hordes (the only word in Mongolian that has made it into English, along with a version of “hooray”) of mosquitos. We packed up as quickly as possible and headed on west and then south to look for critically endangered saiga antelope. And that will be the subject of the next Expedition post.





The WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014, Part 1: Ulaanbaatar to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

A river of pink...
A river of pink…

I’ve been back home in California for a week now after eight great weeks in Mongolia . I’ve downloaded and started to categorize over 9000 images. All my journal and sketchbook drawings, along with the watercolors I did, have been scanned or photographed. Now it’s time to share both the WildArt Mongolia Expedition 2014 and then some of the other special places and experiences I had. You can find general information on the Expedition here.

The Expeditiion’s first stop this year was the Steppe Nomads Eco Camp, located in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, which is about two hours east of Ulaanbaatar. This is my third time there and, as expected, it was a great starting point.

Close-up of the flowers.
Close-up of the flowers, which are a species of wild primrose (Primula farinosa)
Baits Uul
Baits Uul. There are around 60 argali in the reserve, mostly up on this mountain.
Mongolian toad
Mongolian toad. There are not many species of amphibians in Mongolia, but this toad is found in a variety of places in the country.
Kherlen Gol.
Kherlen Gol. The river that runs through the reserve.
This was a special sighting along the endangered whooper swan and a family of bar-headed geese.
This was a special sighting along the river….an endangered whooper swan and a family of bar-headed geese.
We also saw a pair of demoiselle cranes, one of the species on our list.
We also saw a pair of demoiselle cranes, one of the species on our list.
My first reacion
My first reaction when I saw dandelions for the first time in the country here at Gun-Galuut in 2009 was sadness that this “weed” had also invaded Mongolia. Then I remembered….here they’re a native!
Beautiful bi-color iris (Iris lactea)
Beautiful bi-color iris (Iris lactea)
Wild iris growing by the river.
Wild iris growing by the river.
Nyambayar Batbayar
Nyambayar Batbayar, a leading crane researcher who has been a Facebook friend of mine for years, was one of the leaders of a group from the International Crane Foundation who were also staying at the ger camp. Nyambaa, who you will meet again a couple of posts from now, was trying to photograph barn swallows in flight. I just happened to be able to catch him with the rainbow in the background.
We passed a couple of small lakes
We passed a couple of small lakes on our way north after leaving the reserve. There were horses on both sides of the road, so a great photo op!
Mongol horse foal.
Mongol horse foal. There were a lot of foals to see and photograph.
Then this local herder rode by...
Then this local herder rode by…
This small lake, which one passes
This small lake, which was on the opposite side of the road from the one with the horses, is known for the number and variety of birds that can sometimes be seen on and around it. This year there were whooper swans nesting out in the middle. In the background is the Baganuur coal mine. When I first came to this area in 2009, the waste piles were off in the far distance. I was shocked at how close they have come to the lake and the road. This photo sums up one of the major conservation challenges Mongolia faces: balancing the needs of people for fuel and the economic development that resource extraction like mining provides and the needs of wildlife and those same people for a safe and clean environment. Learning about these issues and how art can be of service is really the main goal of my WildArt Mongolia Expeditions.

Next time, we’ll be heading up into the Han Hentii Mountains, on our way to Binder Aimag and the International Crane Festival.


An Earth Day Album Of 25 Endangered/Threatened Species I’ve Seen

It’s clear that one lesson we, as a species MUST learn, is to share. All of these animals have just as much right to be here as we do. As they go, in the end, so shall we.

I’ve never made a point, for the most part, of specifically seeking out endangered or threatened species to photograph for my paintings. But, as it’s happened, in less than ten years I’ve seen two dozen, plus one, all in the wild. Quite a surprise, really.

Sometimes they’ve been pretty far away, but that in no way diminished the thrill of seeing them. Close-ups in a zoo or other captive animal facility can be useful, within certain limits, but seeing a wild animal in its own habitat, even at a distance, is much more satisfying and gives me ideas and information for my work that I couldn’t get any other way.

In no particular order, because they are all trying to survive on this planet:

Takhi, Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Monk Seal, Kauai, Hawaii, United States
Wolf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
White-napped crane, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Mongolia
White Rhino, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya
Laysan Albatross, Kauai, Hawaii, United States
Tule Elk, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, United States
Rothschild's Giraffe, Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya
Nene, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Desert Bighorn, Anza-Borrego State Park, California, United States
Grizzly Bear, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States (Bear 264)
Saker Falcon, near Hangai Mountains, Mongolia
Green Sea Turtle, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Grevy's Zebra, Lewa Downs Conservancy, Kenya
Lammergeier, Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Mongolia
California Condor, Central Coast, California, United States
African Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya
Hawaiian Hawk (Juvenile), Volcano National Park, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Siberian Marmot, Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Whooper Swans, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, Mongolia
Cheetahs, Masai Mara, Kenya
Apapane, Hawaii Big Island, Hawaii, United States
Trumpeter Swans, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States
Cinereous Vulture (Juvenile), Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia
Argali, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, Mongolia

Mongolia Monday- 6 Great Places To See Wildlife

The travel season is almost upon us. I’ve got my plane tickets for my July departure to Mongolia. For anyone else thinking about or planning to go there, I thought I’d offer one list a week for six weeks, of six “themes” for things to see, with six suggestions.  I’ll start with the one that’s probably nearest and dearest to my heart – wildlife viewing destinations. I’ve been to all of them at least once.

Takhi grazing, Hustai National Park

1. For horse-lovers, Hustai National Park is a must if you are going to Mongolia. It is one of three places where tahki (Przewalski’s horse) have been reintroduced and is only about two hours west of Ulaanbaatar, mostly on tarmac road. You may also see marel (a species of elk), Mongolian gazelle, marmots and a variety of birds, such as demoiselle cranes, golden eagles, saker falcon, and black storks. There is a permanent ger camp that is open year around. The main building has a pleasant dining hall. There are three large concrete “gers”. One houses a gift shop, one has displays about the park and another is where presentations about the park are given by staff scientists. You can explore the park by vehicle, on foot or horseback. When I was last there in the fall of 2008, there were 15 harems of over 200 horses.

Reedbeds, Khar Us Nuur National Park

2. Bird-watchers should consider traveling out to western Mongolia to go to Khar Us Nuur (Black Water Lake) National Park. Khar Us Nuur is the second largest freshwater lake (15,800 sq km) in Mongolia . The Khovd river flows into it, creating a large marsh/wetland that is home to the largest remaining reed beds in Central Asia. The lake provides habitat for wild ducks, cormorants, egrets, geese, wood grouse, partridges, the rare relict gull and also the herring gull.  May and late August are the best birding times.  Another freshwater lake, Khar Nuur (Black Lake), which is connected to Khar Us Nuur via a short river called Chono Kharaikh, hosts the migratory and globally threatened dalamatian pelican. Direct access to the lakeshore is limited due to the reedbeds, but there is open shoreline near the soum center (county seat) on the north shore and an observation tower on the east side. As far as lodging, I can’t make any recommendations since I was rough camping when I was there, but I’m sure there’s something in or near Hovd, the main town. From Ulaanbaatar, flying to Hovd is the only practical way to get there since it’s about a thousand miles west of the capital.

Siberian ibex, Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park

3. The legendary Gobi is home to Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, created partly as a refuge for an endangered population of wild bactrian camels. They are in a remote and inaccessible (except for researchers) part of the park, however. There are also snow leopards and argali, which visitors should not expect to spot. What there is a good chance of seeing are Siberian ibex, pika, two species of gazelle, steppe eagles, golden eagles, lammergier or bearded vultures, black vultures and a variety of smaller birds. I stayed at Nomadic Journeys’ Dungenee eco-ger camp, which is taken down at the end of each season, leaving almost no trace. The kitchen and dining “room” are in connected gers. The setting is terrific, on an upland that has the park’s mountains in one direction and the Gobi stretching out in the other. To get there from Ulaanbaatar one either drives south on the main road, which is an earth road and takes, I think, two days, or flies into Dalanzadgad, which takes about two hours.

View of Steppe Nomads Ger Camp overlooking Kherlen River; the wetland is off to the right with the base of Mt. Baits behind it, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve

4. A relatively new park, Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve is only a couple of hours east of Ulaanbaatar, mostly on tarmac road. There are two main wildlife attractions here: around 100 argali mountain sheep, which live on Mt. Baits and a wetland area with endangered white-napped cranes, along with a variety of other birds like cinereous vultures, demoiselle cranes, black storks, whooper swans, ducks and terns. The permanent ger camp has a lodge which houses a dining hall and bathroom facilities. There are many activities to choose from besides wildlife watching, including boating, archery, yak cart and horse riding, hiking and homestays with herder families, all of which provide employment for local people. This was the first stop on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition in July of 2009.

View from my ger, with passing summer rain storm, Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve

5. I knew nothing about Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve when I arranged to go there as part of my July 2009 Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition other than it had argali. I was only there for two days, but they were two of the most memorable days I’ve had in four trips to Mongolia. The reserve is home to about 60 argali, which are more tolerant of people and vehicles than the ones I’ve seen elsewhere, along with Siberian ibex, cinereous vultures, columbia rock doves and other birds.  The rocky uplands cover a smaller area than Ikh Nart (no.6 below), and are easy to get around in on foot or by vehicle. There is a ger camp tucked up against one of the rock formations with an amazing view down the valley. A concrete “ger” serves as the dining hall and has a covered patio area. There is a toilet/shower block, for which the water is heated by solar power. Baga Gazriin Chuluu is about a six hour drive on an earth road southwest of Ulaanbaatar.

Argali ewe with two lambs; one with radio collar, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve

6. And last, but certainly not least, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve, my destination when I first went to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project in spring of 2005. Ikh Nart may be the best all-around place to see wildlife in the country. There are argali mountain sheep, Siberian ibex, corsac fox, red fox, tolai hare, cinereous vultures, golden eagles, black kites, kestrels and many other birds. Nomadic Journeys also has an eco-ger camp here, Red Rocks, and offers guided and unguided trips. It is a great place to hike. There are fabulous rock formations, some of which have Tibetan inscriptions carved on them. You will need a GPS since, while there are some dirt tracks, there are no marked trails. This was the third stop on my Artists for Conservation Flag Expedition in July of 2009. Ikh Nart is a seven hour train ride or a five to six hour drive south and slightly east, mostly on tarmac, from Ulaanbaatar.

There are more photos in other posts on this blog. Look under “Mongolia” on the blog roll at the right or do a name search.