Day 7 : Friday 6th February 2015 (distance covered unknown as I somehow managed to switch the GPS off ! ca. 250 kms).
The White Ghost
Exciting times ! Snowy Owls were on everyone's Top 2 targets list for the trip and we couldn’t wait - Shuang Long, our Mongolian / Chinese speaking guide, had met up with us on arrival and confirmed that he would pick us up at 07.30.
We had checked into this awful hotel the night before, the hotel boasting smelly rooms, incredibly noisy due to zero sound damping (faux marble floors / walls everything) and loud and continuous arguing between fellow guests, who always left their room doors wide open, I saw one guy throw & smash his mobile against a wall in a fit of pique after a bout of verbal jousting and found another sleeping on the floor of the lobby the next morning when I took my gear down around 07.00. After demanding a room change I had a rather less foul smelling room and was able to prepare for the morrow.
Picked up at 07.40 (Shuang Long, our guide, advised there was no point getting out early since these owls are day-hunters and we needed their prey to be up and about too) and went for a very nice breakfast of Mongolian pancakes, eggs, soybean milk, natural unsweetened yogurt, You Tai (a soft pastry stick) along with a strong very soft cheese, to dip them in, and a very milky tea.
We set off for the snow-covered Steppes, stretching as far as the eye can see ...... and much further than that, often for hundreds of kms. We drove for an hour before turning off the main road onto the Steppes and started driving across first trails and then just the snow-covered plains.
It didn't take us long to start finding Snowies, in fact it turned out to be an incredible day. We were still covering a lot of ground and often there were simply no trails to follow, we averaged about 250 kms a day here over the two days, more even than at Wuerqihan.
We were driving across the Steppes, checking any boundary posts, earth mounds or amongst clumps of reeds, that the Snowies like to perch on/in to get better, elevated, views of the surrounding area. Believe me it’s not as easy to spot these birds that are beautifully camouflaged for a life on snow-covered tundra. Even nesting in hollow scrapes on the ground when breeding.
Our first Snowy Owl
was spotted at some 100-150m away, inconspicuously perched on the ground next to a clump of reeds. First view up close is shocking, they are very large owls at around or close to 70 cms high (males a little smaller), have a huge wingspan of up to 1.5m and are exceptionally beautiful. In fact they captivate and hold you entranced. We could hardly tear our eyes from our bins / camera viewfinders but the 4x4 had stopped maybe 40m from the owl and we were encouraged to get out slowly and edge towards the owl.
Over the next 20-30 mins we edged & crawled to within maybe 20m and then sat there whilst the owl cast glances our way, stopping and studying us face on for a few seconds up to a minute, whilst swivelling her head around to check for potential prey, or danger. This was far beyond our expectations, we had not dreamt that the Snowies would allow us so close (actually it was only the females that were unafraid, with the two males we encountered it was near impossible to get to within even 50m), fantastic !
Over the next few hours we had more, similar, encounters. The most incredible being a female perched on a fence post who allowed the three of us to approach oh so slowly (in Indian file, one person moving forward foot by foot whilst the other two stayed still and warned when she was looking directly at us) to within 10m. Ten Metres !! Simply spine tingling … and one of the most thrilling encounters of my life.
Shuang Long suddenly declared he had spotted another owl, except this time it was the final owl of our ‘Top 5 Most Wanted’ … an Eagle Owl
. Apparently it was on the deck huddled up against a large clump of reeds but we had a really tough time picking it out ! Great camouflage.
We slowly circled around the clump of reeds/owl at a distance of about 25m, so we could get a better look. The owl didn’t move, confident of it’s concealment, but watched us intently.
Eventually though it took flight after a lady in the other car (there was another 4x4 with 3 birders/togs, though they weren’t always with us and apart from this one time none of them ever braved putting feet on the ground - later telling me it was far too cold for them to leave the comfort of their car
) got out with her bins and circled behind the owl.
The speed in which it took off was in complete contrast to the Snowies, which were relatively sedate. The Eagle Owl literally exploded into flight and was soon out of camera range …. though it’s landing site easy to find as an Upland Buzzard
was buzzing it, intent on chasing the Eagle Owl from it’s territory, eventually succeeding before we could settle in to watch it again.
We had had an exceptional day, seeing 7 Snowies in total (6 certain females and 1 'disputed' bird Shuang Long declared a male though we had our doubts - it was a very nervous and very white bird though, typical of the males). Even when we weren't on the trail of a Snowy there was more to enthral ; simply gorgeous herds of the small, extremely tough, Mongolian Horses,
the Eagle owl, a Little owl with prey
, a kestrel with prey
, Mongolian and Horned Larks
(the Mongolian are not only the largest but easily the most lovely larks I've seen) and numerous buzzards. A day absolutely packed to the gills with absolutely top quality birding, even if not quantity.
Pics attached :
1. Snowy Owl
2. Little Owl
3. Rough-legged Buzzard (from 200m away, in Wuerqihan)
4. On the tundra waiting for the sunset.
5. In the snow at 50C below. Note the strong wind stirring up snow crystals.
A complete change in environment, from Taiga to Tundra, meant new birds & more Lifers … and a totally different look to the day’s species list.
Day List : 9
No number given means numerous viewings.
Buzzard, Rough-legged (3)
Buzzard, Upland (5) * L
Kestrel, Eurasian (6)
Lark, Horned * L
Lark, Mongolian * L
Owl, Eagle (1) * L
Owl, Little (1) * L
Owl, Snowy (7 x F and 1 x M)(some may or may not have been repeat viewings though we covered a vast area so it’s very possible all were in fact different individuals). * L
Trip List now stands at : 41
* New For The Trip