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KHUVSGUL LAKE AND TAIGA FOREST

The highlight of northern Mongolia is the famous Khuvsgul Lake and the taiga forest. Often called "Mother Ocean", Khuvsgul Lake is a growing lake created by the plate rifting among the snow-capped mountains. The higher altitude and permafrost allow few species to survive including yaks, reindeers, moose and musk deer.

 

LAKE KHUVSGUL

Often called "Mother Ocean", Khuvsgul Lake is a growing lake created by the plate rifting among the snow-capped mountains and it is getting larger. Khuvsgul Lake stretches from the north to south for 136km (84 miles) and relatively narrow 36.5 km (22.6 miles) in width. The color of the surface has different shades of blue and green depending on the depth of the lake which reaches 267 m (875 f). It’s the second-largest freshwater lake in Asia by volume and holds 70% of the surface freshwater of Mongolia. 


In late November, Khuvsgul Lake starts to freeze on the surface and by the end of February, the ice is as deep as 3 meters (9.8f). That’s when Mongolians travel to the north for the Ice Festival. This is a great opportunity to appreciate the fantastic view of the lake, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks and the million artistic shapes of the ice crystals, man-made ice sculptures, nicely dressed local herders and reindeer sleds!

TAIGA AND TSAATANS

Khuvsgul, located in the northernmost of the country, is a famous destination of Mongolia for both locals and foreigners. It is named after Lake Khuvsgul which is the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia by volume and the second-largest by area. If you have been in the Gobi, the Khuvsgul area is the exact opposite: large green forest, turquoise-colored lake, dotted yaks, and flower beds. 

In Mongolia, where do you think your Christmas tree come from? Yes… Most Christmas fir trees are from the Taiga forest. Imagine a Christmas without the tree and a spinach salad without pine nuts!!! The great source of our enjoyment, the taiga forest is the world's largest land biome which covers some of the Scandinavian countries, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Japan. The taiga is the terrestrial biome with the lowest annual average temperatures after the tundra and permanent ice caps. So it makes the place a wonderland for reindeers who favors the cold temperature. The people who herd these reindeers are not the Santa or his elves, but Dukha or Tsaatans. They are native Siberian Uigurs and now they are Mongolia’s only nomadic reindeer herders.


According to the official stats, there are only about 100 families left in the Darkhad country in Khuvsgul Taiga. Reindeers are used for milk and dairies, transportation, hunting, and more. These reindeers were at the danger of inbreeding and extinction and now they are counted up to 2400 after the successful introduction of the new herd brought from Tuva, the westernmost Siberia. 

 

MONGOLIAN FRESHWATER FISH SPECIES

The landlocked, dry country of Mongolia has 36 different species of fish that reside in the rivers and lakes of 3 different basins: The Arctic Ocean Basin, The Pacific Ocean Basin and The Central Mongolian Internal Drainage Basin.

TAIMEN OR TUL - HUCHO TAIMEN

Endangered

The Taimen, scientific name Hucho taimen, is a species of fish that is a Salmonidae family. Adults of this species usually grow to be around 70-120 cm (28 to 47 inches) in length and between 15-30 kg (33 to 66 lbs). This species usually has an olive green colored head that blends into a reddish-brown color at its tail. It is only found in freshwater, usually, rivers and streams that have swift currents, although they have also been found along coastal rivers and at altitudes above 1500 m (4,921 f). 


This species is native to the countries of Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China. According to the ICUN Red List, the Taimen has been listed as a vulnerable species overall since 2012 but has been listed as being endangered in Mongolia as its population has declined by 50% since the 1980s. These species face many major threats, including pollution, illegal fishing, climate change, recreational fishing, road construction, damming of rivers, mining and sedimentation, and erosion.

THE AMUR PIKE - ESOX REICHERTII

Vulnerable

The Amur Pike (Esox reichertii) is a species of pike that is a member of the Esocidae family of freshwater fish. An adult of the species can grow to be up to 115 cm (45 inches) in length and weigh up to 12 kg (27 pounds). They have a silver-colored body that has small, black spots on it. This species is native to the Amur River system that runs through China, Russia, and Mongolia and can only be found there.


The Amur Pike has yet to be assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, so it is unknown what its current status is if it faces any major threats and what its population trend is.

KHUVSGUL GRAYLING - THYMALLUS NIGRESCENS

Vulnerable

The Khuvsgul Grayling (Thymallus nigrescens) is a species of grayling that is a member of the Salmonidae family of ray-finned fish. An adult of this species usually grow to be between 17 to 20 centimeters (6.69 to 7.78 inches) in length. This species has a silvery colored body with blue colored upper and lower fins. 


The species is endemic to Mongolia and is only found in Khuvsgul Lake. The Khusvgul Grayling has yet to be assessed by the IUCN Red List, so it is unknown what its current status is and what its population trend is. It is known that the species faces pressures from climate change, water pollution, illegal fishing and increased development in the area.

THE SHARP-SNOUTED LENOK - BRACHYMYSTAX LENO

Vulnerable

The sharp-snouted lenok (Brachymystax leno) is a species of fish that is a salmon and a member of the family Salmonidae family of ray-finned fish. Adults of this species grow to be around 70 centimeters (28 inches) in length. This species is a light reddish color with a black colored top side and some black striping on its sides. They inhabit the deep cold waters of rivers and can be found under the ice during the wintertime.


This species is found in the central and eastern parts of Russia, northeastern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia as well as in northeastern China. The sharp-snouted lenok has yet to be assessed by the IUCN Red List, so it is unknown what its current status is and what its population trend is. It is known that the species has declined in certain areas due to pollution and over-exploitation.

 

BIRDS OF THE NORTH

Khuvsgul Lake is not a common area for birding. However, there is Erkhel Lake midway to Khuvsgul Lake. Located at the coordinate of 50° and 100°, this saltwater lake is at lower altitude and wind shielded, making it a good home to many migratory of Mongolia.

DEMOISELLE CRANES (GRUS VIRGO)

Near threatened

When the Demoiselle crane was first taken to France from the steppes of Russia, Queen Marie Antoinette gave the delicate and maiden-like bird its name.  Demoiselle means a young lady with grace and symmetry of form and movement.

As the smallest member of the crane family, demoiselle cranes are easily identified by their graceful features, slim build, striking red eyes, and ear tufts. This shortest of cranes has a wingspan of 155–180 cm (5 – 6 ft).   Male and female demoiselles do not vary in external appearance, but males do tend to be slightly larger than females.  

A white line extends from the corner of their red-eye to the back of their head and there is striking black on the neck, extending down over the chest and ending in a plume. During display, the demoiselle can elongate feathers (tufts) on the sides of the head. Two additional key distinguishing characteristics are short toes and a short bill. The shorter bill adaptation proves a useful trait for more efficient hunting/foraging. Shorter toes mean these cranes can run in grassland habitat.

Demoiselle cranes sleep standing on one leg.  Demoiselle cranes are both solitary and social behavior. They are solitary when preening, bathing, shaking, scratching, stretching, ruffling, and feather painting.

They are a diurnal bird, active during the day when they forage, preen, nest, and look after their young during the breeding season.  During the night, they rest securely on one leg while their head and neck are tucked under or on a shoulder. In the non-breeding season, they socialize within flocks.

Demoiselle cranes are spotted all around Mongolia, even in Gobi.  This species frequents open shrubby plains, steppes, savannahs, and various grasslands, often near water: streams, lakes or wetlands.


The cranes are considered generalists and opportunists.  They are omnivores, mainly eating seeds of grasses and cereal grains.  They will also eat insects (Coleoptera), lizards, worms, snakes, and rodents and small vertebrates. So, with head down, their shortened bills peck at the ground, hunting for prey. 

High flying birds with special lungs on a hazardous path. 


These cranes are migratory birds. From August to September, they gather in flocks of as many as 400 individuals and begin their treacherous journey south. To reach wintering grounds in India they risk sub-zero conditions flying across the Himalayan mountains. During this leg of the journey, they can reach altitudes of 16,000-26,000 feet, making them one of the highest-flying birds on the planet. They achieve great heights by having specially adapted lungs that help them breathe oxygen more efficiently.  During March and April, they fly back north to the nesting grounds. The flocks on the return migration number only 4 to 10 birds.  


Could the cranes take a lower elevation, less hazardous route like crossing the range via the Khyber Pass? Yes, but the preferred route appears to have been hard-wired by countless cycles of migration. 

Demoiselle cranes breed in Central Eurasia, from the Black Sea to North East China and Mongolia.  The breeding season for these birds is from April-May, extending to late June in the north part of the range. Cranes are monogamous. A pair generally stays together for their whole lives but only if reproduction is SUCCESSFUL. They perform beautiful ritual displays in courtship as well as in social behavior. The courtship dance involves a long, intricate series of coordinated bows, runs, jumps, and tossing of plant material in the air.  Other cranes will join in - circle the pair and dance and fly up. Demoiselle’s dances are more energetic compared to other cranes.  They are described as “more ballet-like” with less leaping.

Nesting sites are on dry ground, gravel, cultivated areas, or in open ranges where any higher grass may be used as concealment. The female lays two eggs directly on the ground. Sometimes they will attempt to camouflage the eggs by using vegetation or little stones, but the construction is at best, minimalist. Incubation lasts about 27-29 days and involves both adults. The downy chicks are grayish-white with a light brownish head. Both parents feed the chicks and very soon after hatching, they will be following adults to foraging areas. At about 55-65 days they fledge; at 10 months they become independent. 

A pair becomes territorial and aggressive, and will seriously defend their nesting area, sometimes luring a predator away from the nest through a type of “broken-wing” distraction display.

The Dancing Cranes – and the curse.  Mongolians call them Dancing Cranes and believe that the person who hurts crane chicks are cursed for life.

Threats: Currently, populations of these cranes are not endangered. The IUCN Red List states that the total number of Demoiselle cranes is about 230,000-261,000 individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers today are increasing. However, their migration is treacherous. Many birds die from fatigue, weather, and hunger and are hunted by golden eagles.

RED-BILLED CHOUGH (PYRRHOCORAX PYRRHOCORAX)

Least concerned

"Chough" was originally an alternative onomatopoeic name for the gray-headed inquisitive crow, the jackdaw, Corvus monedula. (Onomatopoeic meaning a name given based on its call.)  The similar red-billed chough, formerly very common in Cornwall, became known initially as "Cornish chough" and then just assumed the name "chough". 

Clearly this passerine has glossy dark plumage, a long curved red bill, and red legs. The adult red-billed chough is 39–40 cm (15–16 in) in length, has a 73–90 cm (29–35 in) wingspan, and weighs an average 310 g (10.9 oz). 

It is unlikely to be confused with any other species of bird.  Although the body is crow-like, the voice crow-like “chaw”- “chaw”, the bill and legs are distinguishing features.

What may not be so apparent is that it has a “buoyant” acrobatic flight with the primaries widely spread.  What may also be not so apparent is its propensity for mountainous areas. Primary habitat is high rocky crags.  In fact, the corvid has been spotted at 7,950 meters (26,080 ft) on Mount Everest – a high mountain crag indeed! 

The red-billed chough is a non-migratory resident throughout its range.  Breeding grounds extend from Ireland through southern Europe and North Africa to Central Asia, India and China. 


Choughs play hide and seek with food.  This chough often feeds in flocks, in short, grazed grassland, mainly consuming invertebrate prey.  Prey includes insects, spiders, and beetles, with ants and larvae of craneflies (Tipulidae) probably being most significant.  A close relative - the Central Asian chough - will handily perch on the backs of wild or domesticated mammals to feed on parasites.

It not only uses its long-curved bill to up pick ants, dung beetles and emerging flies but it also digs for underground grubs and invertebrates. A typical excavation goes as deep as 2–3 cm (~1 in) which reflects a thin soil and probably the depths at which many invertebrates occur. However, it will probe as deep as 10–20 cm (4–8 in). Hop, walk, run then probe, or maybe dig so vigorously, dirt is flying over its back – all the while wing-flicking and tail-flicking.

Choughs have been known to hide food in cracks and fissures, at least in captivity, concealing the cache with a few pebbles.  The question becomes, does it remember where those caches are.

The red-billed chough pairs for life.  The red-billed chough begins breeding at the age of three and normally raises a single brood each year.  Once the bond has been established, the pair exhibits strong mate and site fidelity.  


Look for the chough nest in Khatgal!  The nest is composed of roots and stems of various plants, may be considered “bulky” and is lined with wool or hair. The nest may be constructed in a cave or a fissure in a cliff face.  

A nanny might even help with feeding young.  The chough lays three to five eggs 3.9 by 2.8 cm (1.5 x 1.1 inches) in size and weighing 15.7 g (1/2 oz). Six percent of the egg weight is shell. They are spotted in various shades of brown and grey on a creamy or slightly tinted ground. Egg size is independent of the clutch size and the nest site but may vary between different females.

For 3 weeks, the male will feed the female while she incubates eggs.   After the eggs hatch, she “broods” the helpless downy chicks for about ten days.  Both parents share feeding during this time and on occasion, a nanny will even help feed the young. Chicks fledge after a month but remain in a family group for another 1½ months. In late autumn, families gather into flocks to prepare for winter foraging or communal roosting. 

Temperature and rainfall have a huge impact on the survival of the young.  Juveniles have a 43% chance of surviving their first year, and the annual survival rate of adults is about 80%. 


These birds have a lifespan of about seven years, although the age of 17 years old has been recorded. 

Kestrels assist in defense.  Peregrine falcons, golden eagles and the Eurasian eagle-owl are all predators of the adult red-billed chough. The raven will prey on hatchlings.  

 

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