Cheeky Cats and Frosted Cheeks

Excerpt from my field journal..

1-15-2016

 “Early this morning, the dogs were barking like crazy for four hours! I just tried to drown them out by listening to music, but wondered if a snow leopard was nearby. My teammate and I would soon find out…

The day started with helping our host to herd the livestock out to graze. As the herd continued on one way, we veered off another way toward a couple kill sites from a few less fortunate goats and a sheep.

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Lovely snowy day overlooking the range behind camp where a neighbor lives

We hiked up one mountain to try to set a camera trap, but there were too many livestock tracks to find any pugmarks of a cat so we crossed a valley to a different one. The trek was cold. Not only was it -20C (and dropping), but it was also windy. The wind was blowing the snow into our faces and tiny ice crystals were falling from the sky, freezing my hair and the fur around my hood. On the way, we stopped at a neighbor’s ger (Traditonal home. Also known as a “yurt” in Russia) to warm up with some tea.

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Everything is better with a bit of frosting

The next point we hiked up to was much higher, with a steep slope covered in deep snow and top layer of ice. I took it slow since I was still acclimating but it was getting easier. Once at the top, we found a bunch of fresh snow leopard tracks. Two sets! One was smaller, so it was probably a sub-adult. Turns out we weren’t the only ones having trouble with the footing. Some tracks we found were actually long slide marks where the cats skidded down before suddenly crashing into a soft powdery spot. Such graceful creatures. We followed them up to the peak to see tracks everywhere, as well as fresh scat and scrapes. Perfect spot for camera traps!

The location is also right behind camp so when the dogs were barking obnoxiously, they were alerting us to the two snow leopards. A scat sample was even collected on a boulder directly overlooking where our gers are! I could just imagine the snow leopard dropping its load while staring down at us defiantly, the way cats do, mocking our inability to see it in person despite how close it comes to us. (Fact: Cats are jerks.) However I did catch a glimpse of a red fox trotting up a nearby slope so we had an overall great field day!”

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See those gers? Thats base camp. From this boulder, we found snow leopard scat. The cat was taunting us.

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A Ghost in the Night & the Goats that it Bites

The following is an excerpt from my journal during my winter recon expedition in a new study site within the Zavkhan province of Mongolia..

1-13-2016

“Made it out to base camp today. As we passed through the town of Aldarkhaan, which is closest to our study area for the season, I got to meet the governor. It was pretty exciting since a governor anywhere else is usually just a name on a ballot or a mention in the local news. But this governor was genuinely interested in our work and personally supportive of any projects I wanted to do to help his people. I ended up having an awkward blank response reaction when he asked what HE could do for ME! How many people can say they sampled the snuff bottle (basically just take a whiff of some tobacco) of a governor?! He also supplied my teammate and I with meat from his own stock for our entire field rations! After a meeting with him, we got into our jeeps, and the governor tagged along with his driver escorting us all the way to our camp to introduce us to our host, Bat-Erdene. Coincidently, I interviewed the host’s family the year before when they were in their summer grazing site.

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Governor’s are busy people, but he took the time to visit throughout the season

Before we got to our base camp, we stopped at one of the sites we were going to be working in to set a few camera traps. This site is a lower mountain range that is barely 2,500m. It doesn’t even have the iconic snowcapped peaks that the higher ranges currently have, and the rock formations are rounded boulders. It definitely doesn’t resemble the stereotypical jagged, mountain habitat that most people may picture when they imagine snow leopards. However, there is a lot of snow leopard activity here. It’s the same site that some herders have actually seen a couple cats, and where a park staff member got a few photos of the previous winter.

On this first field day, the snow was too dry and powdery to preserve a proper print, but we did find some scat. At one location, we came across a herder who was just returning from shooting a sheep that had been attacked by a snow leopard that night and was barely surviving. Then not far from there, a herder was driving up the “road” on his motorbike with 4 goat hides piled on the back. Those goats had also been attacked by a snow leopard very recently. He left the carcasses for the cat to return to, and agreed to lead the way back to where they were so we could take “evidence photos” and set camera traps. When we trekked up that mountain, the goats were lying within feet of each other in a location where the boulders around them were shaped more like a corral. Most likely, the goats panicked and got confused, while the predatory instincts of the cat were switched on to kill as many as it could (snow leopards have been known to kill up 50 sheep/goats in a corral in one night!). There were faint snow leopard pugmarks and scat around the area, and the unfortunate goats had clear bite wounds on their throats. Or more specifically, no throats at all.

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A herder returns with the hies of 4 freshly killed goats

Since I live at sea level, this first hike was a little tough, but it was perfect for acclimation. Coming across locals who had so recently lost livestock was also a strong reminder of the struggle herders have with protecting their animals from the elusive predator, and I couldn’t help but feel more empathetic about this conflict. Finally back at base camp, I realized I was pretty spoiled. Used to just living in a tent, having my own ger with a bed and stove seemed like the equivalent to a five-star hotel. Exploring the surroundings near the camp, I soon discovered some 2,000 year-old petroglyphs of ibex right above where the livestock lay down for the night. This land also has ancient history all around if you take the time to look for it.”

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Petroglyphs of ibex behind camp

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Mongolian Mammal Miscellany

A close look across the seemingly flat steppe reveals a landscape dotted with millions of holes. Rodent colonies interconnect in every direction like Swiss cheese. It’s a wonder how the free-ranging livestock roam without constantly stumbling or breaking a leg! The most common of these hole-dwellers are ground squirrels. They’re everywhere!
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Watch in front of your vehicle as it rumbles along and you’ll see dozens of them scatter out of the way for their lives. You can’t even find a spot to use as a latrine without hearing the protesting chirps of the burrow residents you’re disturbing.

Another native rodent that is responsible for many of the larger burrows is the marmot. Sometimes snacks for hungry snow leopards, marmots are the largest rodent in Mongolia. After setting up camp in the dark one evening, I discovered early the next morning that my tent was apparently set too close to some marmot burrows. Their frustrated barking was a vexing, yet understandable, reveille. 290 copy

Hares are also a bountiful food source for many predators. This hare was sitting just a few feet away from where I found some snow leopard sign at the top of a mountain.

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“If I hold still enough the two-legged creatures will go away”

Moving on to larger herbivores, Mongolia has about 12 species of ungulates, including red deer, argali, gazelle (as seen in a previous blog post “Where’s Waldo: Mongolia Edition”), and ibex. While checking camera traps, my team came across a natural salt deposit in a valley. There was much foot traffic (or should I say, hoof traffic) from an ibex herd that comes down to lick at the minerals.

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Ibex herd at a salt deposit

The przewalski’s horse, or takhi, can possibly be seen as a “poster child” for the successful recovery effort of an endangered species after it had been listed as completely extinct in the wild in the 1960’s. This is the last remaining, truly wild equine species on the planet since it has never been domesticated. From a captive breeding stock of 13, in which only 9 reproduced, there are now about 1,500 of these horses. Over 300 are in the wild, while the rest are in zoos.

Mongolia has approximately 20 species of mammalian carnivores. Two of these are fox: the globally ranging red fox, and the corsac fox.

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Red fox in Otgontenger SPA

Found throughout many steppe and semi-desert regions in Asia, the corsac fox’s yellowish coloring allows it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. So much so, that the first time I saw one, it was curled up for a nap right next to the “road” my team’s jeep was driving down. By the time I realized what I saw, it was too late! Fortunately, I got a chance to get a few photos of them after seeing others bolt off out of sight beforehand during fieldwork. Upon dozing off from hours of staring out the window in between survey sites, I spotted four small canids wrestling around. “üneg!” (the Mongolian word for “fox”) I yelled, as our driver slammed on the brakes. Corsac fox kits! They were just close enough to watch from where we sat and see well with binoculars, but not quite close enough for a good photo (see “Wheres Waldo..” post for that as well). Surely, the adults were off hunting nearby. Then just on the other side of a hill as we continued our drive, there was an adult poking its head out of a burrow. Score!

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Finally got a photo of a corsac fox!

The Tibetan wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, is one of Mongolia’s apex predators. However, they are also known to prey on livestock, causing hatred toward them by herders. Interestingly, despite a common dislike toward them, wolves are traditionally highly respected, and seen as a good luck sign if observed. In fact, a Mongolian saying is that “a wolf will only allow you to see him/her if he/she deems you his/her equal”. Coincidentally, on my first day in the field to a snow leopard site, I spotted a lone wolf casually exploring the far side of a riverbank. Having worked with wolves in the States, I was beyond ecstatic!

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OHMYGOSH!!! Wolf! …or as its called in Mongolia, chono (pronounced “chun”)

When people think of a Mongolian felid, snow leopards usually come to mind, but there is another equally important, yet underappreciated cat. Averaging around 5-9lbs (2-5kg), and recognized for being incredibly fluffy, the Pallas’s cat, or manul, is listed as Near Threatened. Coveted for its soft, warm fur, they are often poached. They are also killed for their fat and organs to be used in traditional medicine as a cure for frostbite. While in Altanbulag as part of a steppe ecology course for graduate school, my class witnessed a local biologist capture and take body measurements of a Pallas’s cat. We also had the privilege of seeing this elusive little felid in a manmade den structure.

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The Pallas’s cat: The original “Grumpy Cat”

Finally, an apex predator that is held is high spiritual regard and believed to be a guardian of the mountains, is the snow leopard (irbis). An endangered big cat found within 12 range countries, there are between 4,000-7,000 left in the wild. Mongolia is estimated to have 500-1,000 snow leopards. As you can see by that rough estimate, there is still much to learn about these highly elusive cats. Commonly referred to as “ghosts of the mountains”, snow leopards are incredibly difficult to study within their rugged, high altitude habitats in which a cat can have a home range of up to 1,000km2. They are continuously threatened by retaliatory killing by herders (even though it is believed that to kill one will bring bad luck on a household), killed by poachers for the traditional medicine trade, habitat degradation from overgrazing livestock outcompeting wild prey, and climate change.

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Snow leopard in Otgontenger SPA

A Mongolian biologist’s account of wolves

ITG International Takhi Group

Foundation for the Protection and Preservation of the Przewalski’s Horse

Pallas’s Cat: International Society for Endangered Cats, Canada

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Bikes and Bulls

Located 120km south of the Russian border in the northwestern region of Mongolia is the city of Ulaangom. Known for its nearby snowcapped mountains, crystal clear lakes, waterfalls, and mountain springs you can drink from, this was where I ended up for the last stretch of my first Mongolian expedition after spending most of a summer in the Zavkhan province finding signs from an unknown snow leopard population. I was excited about this site because there was already a study going on through my partner NGO monitoring snow leopards with camera traps. I imagined cooler days in the field and the chance to see some fresh images of the elusive big cat, while enjoying some well-needed, peaceful alone time after being around the same people nonstop for so long. Turns out I was only about half right on my expectations.

My little adventure in this site all started after landing at a tiny airport and waiting for what seemed like forever for my teammate to come pick me up. I was assuming that a jeep of sorts would pull up to the curb, where I could load all my gear and relax for the duration of a 3 hour ride to the site where I would be camping out next to a ranger’s ger. Nope! To my surprise, here he comes with a couple friends riding beside him… on a motorbike. My thoughts were “How the heck are we going to do this? Strap my gear across my back and put a bag somehow in front of you while you drive and I hang on for dear life behind you?!” My expression simply indicated the bike and my gear skeptically, before being received with a huge grin from my teammate. Yes. That’s exactly what we were going to do. So off we went, cruising down what appeared to be the only road until it turned into a rough, dirt trail, up and over slopes and rocks, making slower progress on the bike since it was weighted down.

Not long after the sun disappeared a loud pop came from a tire. Oh great, we got a flat…in the middle of nowhere…in the dark, miles from any form of civilization. Not able to go anywhere, my teammate’s friends went on ahead to get us help and bring a vehicle while we sat there snacking on some trail bologna. Eventually, we were saved and made it to my teammate’s family’s ger where I was fed some biscuits and milk tea, as 8 family members snoozed away on the floor. Not long after, we finally made it to the ranger’s ger where my tent could be set up and I could pass out, but not until after the family made me a bowl full of fatty mutton, noodles, and potatoes from scratch.

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Home sweet home

While at this site, we hopped on the motorbike and rode to the mountains where camera traps were set. The hike up the main valley was difficult since it was nothing but chunks of loose granite piled up from probably centuries of snowmelt. To get to the cameras, we had to climb, flex around narrow ledges, and stretch across boulders to navigate along. One thing about studying snow leopards is that you need to channel your “inner goat”. Compared to the blazing, breezeless heat back on the steppe where my tent was set up, the mountains offered what I considered the closest thing to air conditioning. It took hours, but the reward each day was well worth it as we were greeted with images of the resident snow leopard and a couple Pallas cats on the SD card, as well as fresh scratch marks on a tree from the snow leopard.

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A snow leopard’s method of saying “I was here”

By late afternoon, I was back at camp hanging out alone in my tent for the remainder of the day since the ranger’s family and friends were always visiting in celebration of the Naadam Festival (a major annual national holiday dedicated to honoring the three “manly sports”: horse racing, archery, and wrestling). I caught up on some reading or writing in my journal, baking in or just outside my tent, trying to curl up in the tiny bit of shade it offered. Lying nearby, the family’s dogs had the same idea. Together, we panted the rest of the day away.

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One of my panting buddies

It was so hot that eating heavy native food was the last thing I wanted to do, especially after drinking some water taken from the stream that ran right between livestock herds that apparently wasn’t boiled enough. Needless to say, my stomach and I were not very good friends so I stuck with eating bread and jam, with the occasional “canned fish” for my final week in the field. A note about that “fish”: its not the canned fish most people are used to, such as your Bumble Bee Tuna meat all nicely minced. No, this fish was pretty much sent through a meat grinder whole, cartilage, scales, eyes and all, and then canned for consumption. However, I craved protein, and there it was. Bon appétit.

Other than that, field time in Ulaangom was relatively tranquil. Almost like a mini vacation. The only “hazard” I really had to deal with were naughty goats trying to climb my tent while I was inside or waking up to the ranger’s bull sticking his head in my tent flap innocently watching me sleep. Creepy cow.

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The nosey bull. The Mongolian word for “cow” is “ünee”

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Mongolia is For the Birds

The land of “eternal blue sky” just wouldn’t be complete without its avian inhabitants. With about 60 families, making up 427 species, Mongolia offers a unique destination for bird lovers. Most well known are the Golden eagles, since they have traditionally been used in the ancient art of falconry by the Kazakh to hunt game for their mounted handlers.

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A young Golden eagle

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Me holding a Golden eagle. Heavy bird!

To satisfy your inner tourist, you can even hold a Golden eagle (or Cinereous vulture if you’re up for supporting a 30lb/14kg bird on your arm, as opposed to the 8lb/4kg eagle) near the giant Genghis (Chinggis) Khan statue outside Ulaanbaatar.

Vultures, such as the Bearded vulture pictured below on the left, and the Cinereous vulture pictured on the right, have a spiritual significance in many cultures throughout the Himalayas. Through a “sky burial” ceremony, a body is offered to the vultures to carry the soul of the deceased to the heavens, where it can move onto the next life. In Tibet, these scavengers are believed to be “Dakinis”, which are an equivalent to “angels”. It is considered to be good luck for your soul if vultures feed on your remains in Mongolia as well.

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Others of the 51 species of raptors in Mongolia also include, hawks, buzzards, falcons, kites, harriers, and owls. Since there are very few trees or places to perch out on the steppe, these birds can most often be found resting on the ground when not soaring high above looking for prey. So ironically, if you want to see some impressive birds, don’t look up. Look down!

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Rough-legged buzzard

Approximately 29 of Mongolia’s bird species are listed as Endangered. One of these is the Saker Falcon, which is actually the country’s national bird. I was fortunate to see a nest of Saker chicks in a reserve in Altanbulag, as well as an adult on the way to Otgontenger SPA!

Cranes symbolize longevity and happiness throughout Asia. Mongolia has 6 species of these large, graceful birds. One of the most common cranes you can see strutting along riverbanks in the summer is the Demoiselle crane. Standing at 35-38in/80-96cm, the Demoiselle crane is also known as the world’s smallest crane species.

There are a wide variety of songbirds to keep an eye out for too. Upon reaching the top of a mountain to search for snow leopard sign, I heard a lovely tune from this Blue-headed rock thrush.

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Blue-headed rock thrush

He allowed my teammate and I to stand there and simply enjoy his melody for quite some time before flying off to find a more rewarding audience. Another common, yet charming bird is the White wagtail. My team was camped outside a ranger’s cabin for a few days when this fellow perched up on the fence post to twitter away as a herd of feral horses grazed nearby. Between his song, the horses, and the rapids from the stream that flowed right next to our camp, it seemed like a very Zen sort of moment.

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White wagtail

In rural areas, the sound of loud clucking from Chukar partridges will echo throughout the mountains. As the sun descends, and you snuggle into your sleeping bag, your lullaby will be the never ceasing call of a cuckoo. Then again, your alarm will also be the never ceasing call of a cuckoo. Occasionally, you may hear the churring of a nightjar, hiding among the rocks, perfectly camouflaged. In more urban areas, a flock of Red-billed choughs will be sure to entertain you as they hover effortlessly above rooftops, riding up and down the gusts of wind like a carnival ride while calling almost gleefully to their comrades. So whether you want to witness the arrival of migratory birds, keep a tally of the extensive list of aquatic dwellers, or behold the magnificence of one of the many raptors, Mongolia has it all for both avid birders and casual observers alike.

Mongolian word for “bird”: shuvuu

List of Mongolia’s Birds

Mongolian Red List of Birds

Sky Burial Tradition

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“Where’s Waldo”: Mongolia Edition

Mongolia is best known for its wide-open spaces. Standing in the middle of the steppe, you really do get a sense of how endless it seems. It stretches as far as the eye can see until the land and sky appear to become one. In the mountains, the rugged terrain is riddled with varying shades of greys and tans within the rock formations. Vegetation is sparse, with short, overgrazed grass in most areas, and skeletal-looking shrubs. Trees are very few and far between as well. In other words, there are not many structures around for shelter. This means that wildlife has had to adapt the ability to blend in efficiently with their environment to avoid being seen by predators or prey.

In Mongolia, humans and wildlife don’t often cross paths, so wildlife is very skittish in the event that they do. For researchers, who need to find and observe wildlife, spotting well-camouflaged animals in a vast landscape is incredibly challenging. It becomes more of a game of “Where’s Waldo”. If you ever find yourself working in habitats like this, be aware that if you do see wildlife and are determined to get photos, a camera with a GREAT zoom would be most recommended. If you’re like me, and on a tight budget, you may end up having to make do with a simple “point and shoot” camera (I have a Canon SX170 IS).

Although photos taken with a more basic camera may not be ideal for publishing in a magazine, they illustrate a more realistic picture of what its actually like to see wildlife in many remote locations. At the very least, you’ll have a collection of images to drive family and friends crazy as they try to find what you saw. So depending on how you look at it, your “bad photos” could actually be made into something quite fun. Below is a series of photos taken in Mongolia of various wildlife. Try to find the critter(s) before looking at the copy that gives it away!

I’ll start off easy to warm you up..
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One of the coolest crickets I’ve ever seen! Check out that cryptic coloring! This bad boy is the size of your thumb and has bright blue on the inside of his back legs.

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Now try this one..

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See the “bowling pin”? You’ll end up hearing this chukar partridge from across the mountain range with its loud, obnoxious clucking, but its color and pattern helps it to blend in nicely with the lichen covered rocks.

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Out on the open plain and don’t think you can see much? Gotta be quick!

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Look closely as those 7 tan specks before they disappear over the hill! Thats a fleet-footed herd of gazelle.

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::Insert Jeopardy theme song here::

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Its a hoopoe!

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Hmmm…what do we have here? I’ll give you a hint. There are 3.

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Corsac fox kits! Before this photo was taken a fourth ducked into a burrow.

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You’ll have to excuse the slightly fuzzy quality of this next photo. It was zoomed as far as it would go across a valley.

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Spotted this herd of ibex right after we set a camera trap by a natural salt deposit that they’ve been visiting.

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How many did you count? I’ll post a 3rd, more close up version of this one. Follow from the shrub near the bottom left corner diagonally to the top right corner. Spoiler: There are 11 ibex.

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Not hard enough? Here you go. No, it’s not just a photo of rocks.

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Right there! The last 3 ibex catching up with the herd!

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Whew! So you just did a massive hike up and around an entire mountain range, looking for snow leopard signs. Time to get back to camp for some grub! Mmm…boiled mutton and potatoes, washed down with boiled water, slightly flavored with tea…again. But where’s camp?

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Oh! There it is!

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Home sweet home…for a couple days at least. My tent is the faded orange one.

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Thanks for playing my little seek and find game!

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Scat, Tracks, and Dead Things

Oh, what a lovely thought it is to want to actually catch a glimpse of the elusive species that you are studying after trekking many miles in a remote environment! How grand it would be to be able to get a NatGeo worthy photograph to share with the world and frame on your wall! You may see wonderful camera trap images of wildlife from other projects and envision similar shots on your trail cameras, totally ignoring or unaware that there were hundreds of fuzzy blurs or blades of grass swaying in the breeze for every awesome image. While these may be ideal scenarios of gathering data on species populations, more often than not, scientists gather information they desire from less “charismatic” means…

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Ah, scat. That travel-sized package of almost everything you want to know about an animal’s diet, health, genetics, or even behavior based on where its located.

Bottle up and analyze enough of these puppies, and you can put together a pretty good picture of how many individuals of a species are occupying the same area (Skin cells rub off on the outer layer of scat so DNA can be obtained from that). You can also find out who may be breeding with who based on overlapping territories, and discover how individuals are utilizing their range.

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Snow leopard scat found under a ledge at an elevation of 3500m.

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Marmot toilet found in a small cave at 3200m

By finding scat of other species, you can start to do a biodiversity study in an area with your target species. From the locations of where those are found, you can get an idea of how the different species share the same space and resources. For example, this could especially be useful for anyone interested in studying resource partitioning between different carnivore species.

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I went for a walk at a bog in my hometown and found some fox scat on the boardwalk. Couldn’t resist a good ‘ol scientific poke

Footprints to a Different Life

Although not as information jammed as scat, tracks have their own stories to tell. They’re the remnants of movement patterns that can lead you to a habitat’s most used resources and most travelled “wildlife highways”.

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Wolf tracks on an ATV trail in Ely, Minnesota

Tracks indicate a general existence of a species in an area, even if for all other monitoring methods an animal seems invisible.

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Snow leopard tracks. They aren’t nicknamed “ghosts” for nothing!

Sometimes you can get lucky and find the tracks of different species around each other. Perhaps they simply passed through at different times, or maybe there was a predator-prey interaction that took place there. Then you’ll have your very own “CSI” investigation!

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Ibex track found not far from the snow leopard scat which was depicted earlier


Leftovers and Bits of Things Once Living

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An ex-polecat found on a bridge in Otgontenger SPA

::Sniff:: Smells like science! That distinct aroma of methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen wafting through the air are a clear sign that something dead is nearby. Of course being the naturalist or scientist that you are, your reaction may be to locate the source so you can proceed to poke at it with a stick (see above fox scat image for demonstration), initiating your own inquiry process into its identity.

If you find remains that seem partially eaten, you may be able to estimate what was scavenging off of it, possibly by noting any scat or tracks around it. Carcasses are also great bait to attract various invertebrates in an ecosystem.

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Red deer carcass in Hustai National Park, Mongolia. There were caterpillars all over it.

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Argali horn

Then there’s the miscellaneous antlers, horns, hooves, skulls, and other bones you may find scattered about in a region. In places like Mongolia, where there are millions of free-ranging livestock, the vast majority of remains you’ll find are from domestic animals. These, along with scat and tracks, can be found at the highest ridge-lines, illustrating that no part of the landscape is really safe from encroachment.

It’s Still a Good Day…

So the next time you find yourself out on a hike or in the field for a new research project, and start to feel frustrated from not seeing any wildlife, don’t be discouraged! Signs of them are all around you if you take the time to look. Keep an eye on trails, propped up on rocks, under ledges, and through terrain features like draws or ravines. A day finding nothing but scat, tracks and various other remains still counts as having a productive day in the field!

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The Power of Networking: How I Fell into Snow Leopard Research

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The first snow leopard image my team and I got in Otgontenger SPA, Mongolia

If you would’ve asked me just a few years ago what species I would end up studying or where I would be doing field work, my answer would’ve been along the lines of “wolves or coyotes” and “somewhere in the western US”. Never would I have imagined doing anything remotely related to big cat conservation. An idea like that seemed like nothing more than an impossible childhood dream. Over the years it became ingrained in my mind from my peers that I needed to focus on a “more realistic” goal of the species I would most likely be able to study. Mainly, wildlife native to my region.

In the event that I hit too many closed doors pursuing my ultimate love of carnivore conservation, there would have to come a time to choose between sacrificing time and options for my goals, or be content with whatever I could find. Carnivore conservation is an incredible passion, but it is also an incredibly competitive passion, which is hard to get into unless you are already apart of a university project or work for an agency of sorts. Without that foothold, you end up with countless cold calls, emails, and applications that you may or may not get a response from.

Have you heard of the phrase “Its often who you know that counts”? From my personal experiences of hitting one wall after the other, long past when most people would throw in the towel, that phrase rings all too true. Yet, not always in the most expected way. Having worked with renowned wolf biologist Dr. Dave L. Mech, I had hoped that studying wolves (or any canid) in the States would be much easier. I was wrong. I struggled with trying to even volunteer on coyote projects in my own state, let alone trying to land a tech job somewhere else, despite receiving responses that said “we find you are highly qualified, however…”. At some point I lost track of the government agency posts, zoo internships, nonprofit organizations, or even environmental consult jobs I tried for. I filled in the gaps between undergrad and graduate school, when I was unable to work in the field, studying carnivores, with odd jobs and university lab work.

Once I decided on a graduate program through Miami University, I continued to integrate my passion for carnivores to all my projects. I had a “Master Plan”, as opposed to a traditional thesis, all connected by a theme. All those projects had to be applied to both local and global scale communities. This is where my interest in mitigating carnivore conflicts came in. I began relating conflicts between humans and different carnivores, while engaging various demographics in my community with different types of projects.

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Goats and sheep are valuable for both their cashmere or wool, and their meat. They are often preyed upon by snow leopards, leading to retribution killings by herders

During my graduate program, I was able to choose an Earth Expedition as a field course elective through Project Dragonfly. Two courses caught my attention the most: Namibia (cheetah-herder conflicts) and Kenya (elephant, lion and hyena-farmer/herder conflicts). Those fit my Master Plan! How could I NOT be placed in one of those based on my application essay describing why I chose that course, and how it fit into all my master’s work so far?! Well, as I learned years ago, life doesn’t always work out how you hope. I was placed in the Mongolia (steppe ecology & civic media) course, which had absolutely nothing to do with any of my master’s projects. Now the hard part was to figure out how I was going to do a final study that was related to that course and top off my Capstone. I had exhausted all local options to do anything else, and trying to sort out a project elsewhere in only a few months was out of the question. Commence panic mode!

Then a crazy idea clicked that my best option was to go for what was deemed as “impossible” by many people I talked to; do a field study in a foreign country without having any current contact with someone there. But how? My “advisor” was only a name on documents, and I had no way of emailing course instructors until the course actually started. By then, it would be too late to set up a field project, let alone raise the funds for it.

However, I had an unexpected “ace” up my sleeve. Long before I even knew about the Mongolia field course, I had been in contact with a snow leopard biologist and a canid biologist who had both worked in Mongolia. I had contacted the snow leopard biologist on a whim one day a few years prior, thinking it would be cool to study the cats, but knew deep down it would never happen. We stayed in touch. The canid biologist was contacted to ask about information on some of his wolf research around the same time. Unfortunately I was not able to collaborate with either of them, but the canid biologist passed along the email address to a former student who was studying przewalski’s horse-wolf interactions in Mongolia for her Phd. We swapped ideas, but ultimately I was unable to collaborate with her as well. Yet all was not lost! Her fiancé just so happened to work in the lab with Dr. B. Munkhtsog, a snow leopard and Pallas cat biologist at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

This was my last shot, so I sent Dr. Munkhtsog a simple proposal to interview herders on livestock losses to wolves. Yes, you read that right. I asked a snow leopard biologist about studying wolves because I assumed that studying snow leopards was impossible for me to ever get into. When I hit the send button, I expected another closed door, another “no”. I was certainly not prepared for a “yes”! Not only was it a yes, it was a suggestion to study both snow leopard and wolf conflicts instead! It wasn’t until a couple months later that I found out that he was the in country partner for my field course. It turned out to be one giant coincidence! Being in the course also, had nothing to do with having my proposal accepted. He receives requests all the time from students, and at the time he was already considering three other proposals, but said he really liked mine.

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My first campsite in my study area

Finally receiving a yes on such an epic experience was a dream come true. Finding out I could actually do a project on a big cat in a foreign land, was both the most exciting and most terrifying moment I had in years of struggling to find a niche in conservation. That’s pretty much it. My work studying snow leopards began with one hesitant email that was strung to a web of networking efforts. Some led to dead ends, but others led to other connections. Although it may be hard to appreciate closed doors in the moment, sometimes the best thing to happen to you in your journey is to be told “no”. It opens up options which you had no idea existed, and wouldn’t have considered if those initial options worked out. A yes may often take awhile, but the wait is worth it if you are willing to keep fighting for it. Don’t be afraid to take chances or ask questions, and never EVER give up.

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Puppy Quest, Part 3: Tracking Puppies

The transmitters that were implanted in the pups are by no means designed for ground tracking! The main point of them is to be able to locate the pups from the air and determine if a pup is alive or dead. Then if, and only if, a pup is dead, does a crew go in on foot with telemetry gear to track it. However, this was not the case. Everyday myself, and another one of my fellow techs goes out to listen for signals for both packs. We usually end up in some random remote area well away from a road or trail.

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The “Captain Morgan” stance is most efficient for radio telemetry

The key is to find high ground in order to expand the range of the radio signal from the receiver. Much bush-whacking and hiking up and down ridges, through dense swamps, is generally expected. The pups’ signals are so sensitive that being tucked under rocks, behind a tree or sibling, and windy conditions can effect the quality of the signals. The best days are when we are able to just go to a point, listen and leave. The reality is that these good days never last. As the pups get older and more mobile, rendezvous sites are moved to some new or far away location, meaning we have to find them. If the collared adult is around, triangulation on its location is the best option. From there, we may be able to determine where pups are based on the movement patterns. If no collared adult is around, the best option is to visit previous points that they were at, hoping that an area is being reused. Otherwise, after those options are exhausted, Mike goes up in the plane and locates them, giving us more of an idea of where to start.

Tracking these pups on a daily basis reinforced knowledge of using a topography map, compass, and GPS. Without these tools, and the ability to understand them, we would be lost. Depending on where a pack is at, trying to relocate the pups ends up turning into a bit of an adventure. It uses up hours of the day tromping through pure wilderness.

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Pups I saw down an ATV trail while trapping wolves to collar.Those ears!!

Often, the search for pup signals led us through thick, swampy vegetation, a perfect environment to hide and raise your kids if you’re a wolf. In this habitat, is where Nature will present someone with a beautiful surprise, such as “pink lady’s slippers”. These large, orchids are the size of a person’s fist and completely prefer to grow in extreme PH environments. Seeing wonders like these rare orchids ends up being a great way to end even the most tedious excursion to find signals.

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“Pink Lady’s Slipper” orchids

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Puppy Quest, Part 2: The “Stony” Pack

21 May 2009

Looking for the Stony pups was nothing at all like the Ojibwe. At least with the Ojibwe litter we had a general idea of where they were. For the Stony pups, all we had was a map of a “potential” area they could be in. It was like finding a needle in a haystack! I was sort of familiar with where we were headed. A few days prior, Mike had taken me up the first part of the trail towards where we were going.

Just as the day before, everyone loaded up with their gear. Today, Ron, the lynx biologist, wasn’t able to come, but another wolf biologist who worked on the Mexican gray wolf project, Dan, was with us. He had been a tech for Dave once upon a time. Since he is more on the management side of things, he doesn’t spend as much time in the field as he used to, so was happy to be with us.

The day was a lot more chilly than the day before. Once again, single file, we followed Mike. The vets struggling to keep up were not far behind. The main obstacle that we needed to cross was a clear cut. The endless number of piled sticks, logs, and partial tree stumps, made our hike more difficult and a bit clumsy. At one point, I stepped down on a stick that decided to roll on the wet ground. I immediately fell sideways toward what I noticed was a steep drop-off. Whew! Close call! Fortunately, nobody on the team seems to judge on grace. Once at the tree line, we proceeded along what appeared to be an old trail. The way we came up was semi-compact from use and had a few piles of aged, white scat.

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Female Stony pack member, later collared

The collared female’s signal was strong where we were so it was thought that she could be anywhere near us. Then as her direction was being analyzed, Dan spotted her in the trees up ahead stalking a snowshoe hare. Suddenly, both she and the hare bolted in the opposite direction. Trying to follow her signal proved impossible since she quickly disappeared toward the marsh area and pine stand at the other end of the forest.

After grounding our gear, we hiked a little further down the trail so that we could line up to cover more area as we combed for the puppies. Not a single rock, log, crevasse or dip in the earth was unsearched. Still nothing. We came to where the marsh and pine stand began to start another combing attempt where an old road (long overgrown) ran through. We walked for several hundred meters until we came up toward the ridge that our gear was. The idea was to regroup and comb where the female was spotted. Noticing some overlap of where we searched, we all began to think we weren’t going to find the pups. Then from the other side of a valley, one of the vets called for us, “HOOOO!!” She found something!

As quickly as possible, we hurried toward where she was standing and peered down to where she was pointing. There at the bottom of the valley, next to a tree, was a furry, dark gray mass of wolf pups huddling together and hoping they weren’t seen. For being out in “plain sight”, they blended in perfectly with the terrain! Only a head poking up gave them away. Now that we finally found them after a few hours of tirelessly searching, we had to catch them.

The pups seemed to pick up on our motive and slowly began to slink away in opposite directions as we carefully made our way down the valley. Each person targeted a scattering pup. Two remained huddled by the tree. As I was trying to corner one pup, I heard my name called, an as I looked that way, a pup ran straight toward me. He veered at the last second but I leapt for him, grabbing the scruff. It was actually a pretty hilarious sight, seeing everyone swiftly waddling around after a puppy just out of reach. As each pup was caught, they were placed into a fastened pillowcase and put back into the indent that was their rendezvous site. The actual den was later found among some nearby boulders.

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This 5 week old pup still has the milky, blue hue of young wolves.

A total of eight puppies were counted! It was a huge litter in comparison to our first one, which was by a first time mom. Too bad we only brought six transmitters. The two smallest pups would only be processed. For six puppies, the whole procedure took almost three hours. On top of that, mom wouldn’t be back for a few hours after we left. The poor pups would be hungry! These pups weren’t as young as the others, by at least a week or so. Their eyes were not nearly as blue, and their little ears pointed a bit more. Only one pup showed us an attitude and he just so happened to be the biggest. He was 6lbs as opposed his 4 ½-5lb littermates. As someone got near to check him out, he wrinkled his lip up to show his tiny, point teeth. The little fighter wants to be in charge some day and with an attitude like that, maybe he will. He will need every ounce of spunk to survive.

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Dave helping to measure a pup

I enjoyed the extra down time this extra large litter allowed once my job of taking measurements and ear tagging was done. It meant more time to cuddle a pup while he warmed back up in the cooler day. As I watched the pup nap in my arms, I realized how lucky I was, and that I may never experience this type of moment ever again. The remaining pups in their pillowcases kept warm in their pile. Occasionally, a few would attempt to crawl away, though it proved to be useless. “Theres another pillowcase crawling away!”

Eventually, all six pups were done and it was time for us to clean up and leave. We probably overstayed our welcome, but it was time well spent. The vets survived getting eaten by ruthless insects while they cut and stitched, and I became a pro at pup processing. Dave and Mike released the confused puppies away from our work spot, closer to their actual den while the rest of us headed up the valley to watch. A second day of working with wild gray wolf pups, a second day of unforgettable experiences. After a day like we just had, a trip to the steakhouse for dinner was in order.

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