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Notes from Mongolia (2002 Field Season)
Nyambayar Batbayar — in Mongolia Project    Share

Cinereous Vulture in Mongolia
Cinereous Vulture in Mongolia
I left Boise early February with my wife, Bayarmaa, and daughter, Nomin, for home far away on the other side of the globe. We were so happy to see our families again in Mongolia. Particularly, I was excited to begin collecting breeding ecology data on little-studied Cinereous Vultures in mountains and steppes of Mongolia. The Cinereous Vulture is a glorious bird, the largest among the Old World vultures. Its foot is almost bigger than an adult man's hand, and its wingspan is longer than our stretched arms. The Cinereous Vulture is the commonest among vultures in Mongolia; however, very little is known about this bird. My study objectives were simple but not easy to achieve, included finding and monitoring nests, collecting data on vulture food and nesting habitat, and trapping vultures and attaching radio transmitters to find out where they go to search for food.

I had three different sites where vultures are observed often, Bogdkhaan Mountain, Khustai Mountain, and Erdenesant Mountain in the central part of Mongolia. Sites differ by the absence or presence of livestock, rocks, trees, elevation, and physical formation. Generally, they characterize the central Mongolian mid-elevated mountains and hills with most rocks formed in the southern slope and some forests cover the northern slope. Among mountains there are wide and narrow valleys and crop fields. Livestock and nomadic herders are distributed erratically. The Bogd Khaan and Khustai areas have very few livestock, whereas livestock fill the Erdenesant area.

At the time we arrived in Mongolia, it was still winter and freezing cold. Spring had definitely not arrived yet. After settling in, I began to prepare for my months of long field work. One of the things I had to solve immediately was finding a field assistant who could work with me for over six months in the field. After discussing this with some of my university professors I chose a student, Sumiya, as my assistant and co-worker. Sumiya studies at the State Pedagogic University of Mongolia and he became my trusted friend in the field.

One evening of a chilly day of late February, four students from Mongolian State University and myself arrived near my first field site around 11:30 p.m. There is no hotel or house in the countryside of Mongolia and it was not possible to stay in a tent. Instead we stayed at a ger, a felt-covered dwelling of nomads, with a herder family. The next day was the first of those days that waited us.

In the morning we began carefully searching for nests along mountain sides. The day started out with typical chilly winter air and nice blue sky. Seldom I felt my cold feet in my lightweight Timberland hiking boots. Next time I will bring my warm winter footware. Actually, I don't like those heavy boots because they are too cumbersome for me.

Our first nest, on top of a tree, was found at around 10 a.m. The first thing we saw on the nest was a huge vulture laying its egg. It appeared this bird had been sitting still for days in this stormy cold weather. There was some snow edged between the vulture's body and the nest ledge and there was snow on the vulture's back. While looking through a telescope, I thought, "Born on this snowy day, this nestling will be a tough one." By mid-day we had found three more active nests, and one inactive nest.

We stopped at a ger placed just in front of a big rock outcropping below a snow covered rocky mountain for lunch. A young herder man with smiling eyes and a fox fur hat welcomed us. His name is Tsegmid, age 28, and he had a wife and a son. They served us with hot black tea and tsuivan with mutton. We talked about the Cinereous Vulture and what we were doing, and the weather forecast, which is a never-ending topic among herders. "This year's winter was not as bad as it was last year," Tsegmid said. He continued, "Three weeks ago one of my horses died, the next day I saw over 30 vultures eating that horse. After two days there was nothing left but the skeleton. Many livestock die in the spring. I believe you will see them more often." Nomads had suffered badly due to several years of harsh winter that has depleted many livestock and threatened the herder's way of life. Later we became Tsegmid's family's constant visitors and good friends, but not just because of their tea, meal, and warm ger. Mountains with rocky slopes surrounding their ger were perfect habitat for nesting Cinereous Vultures. It was a good place to study vultures. We found over 20 vulture nests, both active and inactive, within a two kilometer radius from Tsegmid's ger.

Nyamba Batbayar takes notes of prey remains.
Nyamba Batbayar takes notes of prey remains.
After lunch we continued working. Eventually, a light storm began. The steppe was flat as a table in the snow, and it seemed there was no difficulty in driving through the steppe. However, we could not drive through the snow, and once we even got high centered in snow. The later it became the harder it was to drive on the road. So we had to go back to the herder family we visited that morning to wait out the storm. Unfortunately, the forecast said the storm might continue for two to three days. We drove back to Ulaanbaatar to bring back the students and to pass the storm. This was just the beginning of a whole six months that was ahead of us, conducting vulture study in the mountains and steppe of Mongolia.

The long waited spring came. It brought us warm air and later a wonderful mixture of songs of passerine birds. Vultures were still incubating their eggs. So we continued searching for nests and the remains of dead animals. We mostly found very old bones. The new and fresh carcasses were very rare. Also we tried to capture vultures. Unfortunately we did not trap any vultures. Dogs and ravens were quite common, and vultures were incredibly conscious of our capture site. When a dog or raven got caught in the leg snares we had to release them; when we went to the trap the vultures always recognized us and fled the area. One thing we noticed about ravens was the countryside ravens were smarter than city ravens. They never got caught easily, whereas city ravens were caught almost right after we placed the snares. That was really interesting, because I never had tried to trap ravens before.

On 3 May we found our first nestling. The nest was located on a high cliff. Soon we discovered a new nest in different mountains with a much bigger nestling. My guess is it was probably six to eight days old. There were around 60 pairs that we know were waiting for their hatchling to pip out of the egg.

The beginning of summer was nice and rainy. "The land received more precipitation this year than previous years. Early spring flowers bloomed slightly earlier than normal. We are going to have one great summer this year," said herders. The land quickly changed its dirty color into green. The pink color of flowering almond bushes adds an astonishing blush on this green coat. Yes, the herders were happy because young animals will soon eat fresh grass. Soon herders will move from spring places to summer places for new pastureland. We kept monitoring nests and eggs.

Cinereous Vulture chick hatching.
Cinereous Vulture chick hatching.

Vultures seemed to have a little bit of trouble readily finding food. The reason is more likely because not many animals were dying or suffering from lack of food. Vultures seemed to be flying far distances to find food for their nestlings. Nevertheless we often see about the same number of vultures at study sites. Certainly we had no idea whether we were watching the same birds we saw earlier in the season or new birds coming from other areas.

Nyamba's Mongolian assistants, Sumiya and Boldoo, hold a recently trapped<br /> Cinereous Vulture.
Nyamba's Mongolian assistants, Sumiya and Boldoo, hold a recently trapped
Cinereous Vulture.
We continued our efforts to capture vultures, but at the trap site we waited for days not seeing a single vulture where there once used to be many vultures flying. We discussed and changed the trapping place to near a herder family. We believe vultures know where they will most likely find a dead animal. That is the area where livestock are present. The previous place was farther from the herder's ger in an effort to avoid conflict with dogs. On 8 July, the very first day at the new place, we captured our first vulture using a big bownet we designed. That day we started trapping at 1140. The first vultures landed at 1221. Very soon 2+2+1+2 and more vultures landed. Some began to fight each other. Sumiya pulled the rope at 1223. I was watching the event from a distance. The bownet worked wonderfully. Actually, I did not believe my eyes at first and how the bownet worked and covered five vultures at the same time so fast. That was wonderful work. Five vultures were caught in the net just after he pulled the rope. But they all managed to escape before Sumiya reached the net. One end of the net was torn. Because there was no place we could get a stronger net in Mongolia, we continued using this net for trapping.

We quickly reset the net for an afternoon of trapping. Vultures began to land near the trap around 1530. Around 1600 vultures gathered, six in the air, 16 on the ground. Sumiya pulled the rope at 1613 and this time three birds were caught in the net. When Sumiya reached the net one of them escaped and two were left. Boldbayar, my other assistant who joined in our team later, and I ran to the trapping station as fast as we could. Before we reached the net a second vulture escaped through a new hole made by the first vulture. We had only one vulture left on our hands. We banded him and put on a wing tag and radio transmitter. After release, the bird perched on the ground and tried to pull off the wing tag and transmitter. Soon he flew off and disappeared over a mountain to the north. Later we devoted a great deal of our time and gasoline searching for this bird within a radius of 30 km and listening for the beeping signal from its transmitter. Unfortunately we did not locate this bird again until the end of our field work. The bird must have come from other areas. Surprisingly, after three weeks of its absence and silence, one day our receivers caught a weak signal from the northwest for about 30 minutes. It seemed to me to be saying, "I'm here. I'm here. Come and get me. I'm here."

By mid-July, the green grass that once covered the land is gone. The grasses were swallowed by animals and withered by days and weeks with temperature over 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 F). In this country 33 degrees Celsius is considered a natural disaster phenomenon. Many springs and wells are dried out. Some nestlings looked to be beginning to be dehydrated. Continuously torched by the sun, not receiving any drops of rain, the pasture has been wiped out. It seemed there is no hope left for the grasses to restore. Green color has been changed to yellowish. The only rain we got was the rain of 10 July. Mother Nature again put herders in jeopardy. Herders were talking about moving far away to find a good place and also slaughtering animals and selling them for food and clothes before winter comes. Some said, "Vultures are going to have plenty of food this winter."

The end of this year's field work is nearing. We have located over 150 nests this year. We lost almost half of the nestlings, though we also have many successful fledglings. By banding young vultures and taking habitat measurements we successfully finished this year's many months of continuous research. Some of my objectives were not complete and we could not trap as many vultures as planned. Indeed, it was a pretty challenging summer for me and for my team. We learned a lot more than we expected. Nevertheless it is the beginning of understanding the Cinereous Vulture's breeding ecology and behavior. The experience and the information we gathered during the field season are invaluable.

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