Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How We Safari on the Steppe

Sukhbaatar's biggest attraction is probably the swan migration (fascinating aimag museum with the only local examples of Dariganga silverwork notwithstanding)...BUT there's an amazing diversity of wildlife in the province.  This is good, because the topography kinda sucks - it's sort of like driving through Kansas - and watching for animals gives you something to do between napping and hitting your head on the ceiling when you hit one of the ruts in the road a little too hard.
Not - it turns out - the most common wild bird.  That would be the red-billed quelea (#stupidtriviaquestions)

No, I'm not talking about sparrows, although there are plenty of those...this one's for Engrish and one of the last questions from the last terrible quiz at Hennessy's.  Real, honest-to-goodness wildlife - we saw marmots, foxes, hawks, eagles, and even a wolf (which Enkhaa assures us is an auspicious sign - we would have taken it that way anyways, since our school mascot is the wolf).  Sadly, I never managed to get photos of most of them.  :-(
If I was a biology teacher, I'd want to bring my students out here, because you can actually see the food chain in action.  At first I wondered why there were so many birds of prey...there's not exactly an abundance of perches or nesting areas (although maybe I don't exactly understand what eagles look for in their nesting grounds).  Then I realized that there's plenty for them to eat.  They can eat the marmots and the foxes, who also eat the marmots.  The eagles may be the apex predator in this empty land - they could take down a wolf, after all, and since golden eagles can kill small deer, I'm pretty sure they could eat the wolves' main prey as well - gazelle.
Engrish regaled us with stories about her last trip to Sukhbaatar along the way, and one thing she mentioned was the THOUSANDS of gazelle they saw.  Perhaps I thought she was exaggerating.  After all, I recently read an article that said 52% of the earth's animal population has died off since 1970, and even though the gazelle is protected, this sparsely inhabited corner of Mongolia borders China, where they eat anything with four legs but tables and chairs (it's not racist if it's something the Chinese say themselves), and if it has medicinal properties an animal could be driven to extinction.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to see she wasn't far off the mark.  If there weren't a thousand gazelle on the plains of Sukhbaatar, it was damn close.  I saw the first eight.  They were well-camouflaged in the tall grass, and most of the time it was their movement that gave them away.  
They were skittish, and were off like a shot as soon as we got near.  Enkhaa liked to race them, which made it hard to get good photos of them (I was thinking I'd like a macro to be my next lens, but it's possible I need a bigger zoom...)  Sadly it was raining on our way back and we didn't see nearly as many.  Still, with all the animals and the tall grass, it was easy to imagine that we were on our own personal safari.

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