A ‘Window’ To Gaze At BirdsThe Mongol Messenger
Ulaanbaatar /MONTSAME/ Photographer L.Jargalsaikhan took photos of around 370 of the total 513 species of birds recorded in Mongolia to date. His photos have their very own theme as each of them highlights the bird’s grace and beauty rather than its character, lifestyle, and sustenance. That is maybe why the line ‘like the birds, praise the warm red sun casting long shadows on its way down to setting’ comes into my mind at this moment. Everyday has its space in time where unpredictable encounters await us. There is no way to tell what bird will be chirping as the sun rises tomorrow. We had the opportunity to interview Jargalsaikhan and it was as if all birds were welcoming the morning sun.
Just like the best feeling you experienced today would never fade away, there is no end to the world’s tomorrows. We recommend reading the interview, where never ceases to be chirping sounds of birds, with the feeling as if you were gazing at the beauty of the nature through the window.
- I NEVER TAKE PHOTOS OF CHICKS AND BIRD NESTS -
Mongolia is home to a large number of bird species, most of which migrate. People mostly believe that a lot of bird species inhabit steppes and the Khangai region. What about the Gobi region? What species live there and how many of them have you come across?
-Experts deem that Mongolia has a great number of bird species. Of the total of 513 bird species recorded in Mongolia, around 80 percent are migratory birds. Therefore, it is important to take into account how much time the bird will spend in Mongolia when choosing the photo-shoot location. Several species of birds oftentimes gather on small springs during their migration through the Gobi region.
There are also unique species like Mongolian ground jay and chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) that got relatively used to the Gobi region.
Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar)
You just said many migratory birds pass through Mongolia. Does that have anything to do with the country’s geographical location?
-Mongolia has a vast territory extending west to east. Various bird species from Australia, Asia, and India migrate through three major flyways - eastern, central, and western Mongolia.
Which flyway do the birds mostly use?
-On their way to the Siberian taiga, East Asian birds stop by Buir Lake in Dornod aimag and Ulz and Onon river basins in Khentii aimag, where some of them stay behind to summer or lay eggs. Some species bypass Lake Baikal to go to Torrey Lakes of the Russian Federation. Unique birds from India, Pakistan, and South Asia pass through the central region. As for those heading to Europe, they stay in the country’s western region, including Khovd aimag.
You have been specializing in the photography of birds over the past decade. Was there anything that triggered your interest and did you have any particular influences? Why did you choose birds among all other wild animals?
-Before this, I worked in the field of mining rehabilitation and that required me to know the answers to numerous questions such as what does environmental restoration mean, how does the nature restore itself, and so on. Therefore, it was even necessary to explore plant science. All that brought me close to the nature and I started photographing birds in the meantime.
There is a talented photographer named N.Gansukh, who had started taking bird photos before me. Also, researchers’ work entails photographing the species. In my case, for the last decade, I have been trying to call attention to the beauty of birds. Although there is no definite explanation as to why I do this, my current profession certainly brings me joy and I am totally engrossed in the life of these species.
Birds are easily startled and are quick to get away from humans. Only larks and pigeons are used to human presence. Is there any way to photograph a bird from young age to maturity?
-One can photograph the growth of their pet bird however they want, but there is almost no way to do so with wild birds. Besides, I do not take photographs of baby birds and bird nests.
Why so? Is it because nomads have been very respectful and cautious around bird nests from ancient times?
-Photographers have been sticking to the principle of not burdening the bird since the emergence of bird photography in Britain and the United States. It is especially not allowed to approach or startle birds during their mating season. Also, going too near a bird’s nest pushes the chicks to danger. Researchers and photographers should abide by the rules and not cross the line even though they work to protect and draw attention to birds. That is why I always warn others about this.
- I AM IN MY SEVENTH YEAR OF TRYING TO GET A SHOT OF GREAT BUSTARD -
Great bustard (Otis tarda)
How much closer can you get to the bird?
-Thank you for asking this. Everyone has personal space and the same goes for birds. For example, it is hard to come near carnivorous birds that feed on small rodents and corsac fox as such space can be quite big for them. They will not let you come that close as there are a small number of animals that can overpower them even on the land.
So it feels like how they sense varies from species to species. You need to keep a distance of at least 3-5 meters around small birds and 30-50 around the large carnivorous ones.
Why do you not tell others what bird you are planning to photograph or where you are going?
- I used to go hunting with my friends a lot before becoming a photographer. I was not the one hunting, but fresh air and outings to the countryside surely are enjoyable and campfire story time after dinner is a rare pleasure. While talking about this and that during that time, I heard that one should not be so full of themselves and brag around before pursuing wild animals, and that lesson from long ago guided my instinct to believe that I must reveal the secret only after spotting the bird I was looking for and taking its picture rather than bragging beforehand. There is another reason.
Could you tell me what that reason is?
-A lot of people catch and sell rare and unique birds after discovering their location. I try to prevent that from happening. It is a responsibility of landscape and wildlife photographers to prevent the nature from harm and protect the wild animals. I am sure that our photographers realize this duty.
L.Jargalsaikhan with ornithologist friend Ts.Purevsuren
People recently started taking a liking to travel and adventures. What about you? What does travel mean to photographers?
-I do careful planning before each journey. First of all, I ask my researcher friends from where I can find exactly what species of bird. I start the planning almost a year ahead by looking up the bird's migration season and then deciding on my travel buddy.
A short while ago, I made a small trip to Marshall Bridge to see white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus) that enjoys icy water. On the way, there was a little trouble because my car went into ice. And after two hours of roaming around, I am here with you giving an interview.
White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus)
Did you fulfill your purpose?
-No, I could not. Well, you have to track down the bird first and there is only less than 20 percent chance that you will succeed in taking the pictures.
It seems that bird photography is only for those who are determined and patient, is that right?
Are there any requirements, in addition to having some morals as you mentioned earlier, for being a bird photographer?
-Just as you said, it is all about patience. You are not allowed to make any sudden movements. When a bird flies away as I come closer by a meter or two, I just leave it be instead of persisting in taking its photo.
What was the hardest bird for you to photograph?
-It was great bustard (Otis tarda). During its mating season, the displaying ones dance with their tail turned up and head tucked up. I wish to capture that exact moment, but unfortunately, the species does not let anyone near during its breeding period. I have been chasing it for seven years.
Are you not persisting too much?
-It is a different matter. I stop persisting when the bird gets away. That is why taking its photo remains a dream for me. It is wonderful to have interests and dreams of one’s own. It would be boring to stare at pigeons and larks that are close to humans through one’s camera lens every day.
Could you tell me about the most beautiful bird of Mongolia that you have photographed?
-There is one species called European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) that has rainbow colored plumage.
European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Mongolia’s national birds are eagle and falcon. But, what beautiful and unique birds do you recommend tourists to check out?
-Professionals may name numerous birds here. Ornithologists would definitely recommend rare species to protect them and raise their populations. As for me, the one that might pique tourists’ interest is crane. The bird summers in Onon and Ulz river basins in Khentii aimag. So the tourists can enjoy nature’s beauty when they are at it. People do not pay much attention, but Mongolia has some species of cranes that are extremely rare. All of white-naped crane (Antigone vipio), hooded crane (Grus monacha), and the Siberian crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus) that now have small populations spend the summer in Khurkh town in Binder soum of Khentii aimag. The eagle festival – an inseparable part of the Kazakh culture – attracts a lot of tourists to Mongolia. For me, the crane festival held in Binder soum is the same as that one. One important difference is that there is no such thing as capturing the crane, training it for hunting, or feeding it, in other words, it burdens no animal. Those who have seen a large flock of cranes in the nature just like the gathering of swans would know how magnificent it could be.
Hooded crane (Grus monacha)
Siberian crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus) and White-naped crane (Antigone vipio)
It appears that you travel a long road to capture the photo of the most unique bird, am I right?
-The longest trip I took was to Bulgan soum of Khovd aimag. I traveled over 4,000 kilometers for that destination. But, when you are pursuing a bird, how many kilometers you travel or how you travel hardly matter. What matters the most is capturing the bird’s photos just the way you wanted.
In what countries have you photographed birds?
-I do not specifically go to any particular country. First of all, going around the world photographing birds would bring financial problems. I do make time to take bird photos during my business trips. Before the coronavirus emerged, US photography association held a big meeting. During my participation in that event, I saw birds a lot at zoos and parks located downtown.
Speaking of zoos, I saw a few photos you took of animals other than birds. Do you have any plans to start photographing another animal?
-I have lately been taking photos of insects. I took interest in it when I was living at my daughter’s in Germany. People in Germany have a duty to plant trees and flowers every year. When a household cannot make it, the housekeeper does the planting and also takes care of the garden. One day, my grandchildren found an insect and placed it in a safe place away from people's feet. And then, before I knew it, I was already deep into taking insect pictures. (chuckles) Also, there is nothing for me to do in winter where birds are nowhere to be seen. That is why I started taking photos of insects in wintertime. I set a goal to photograph 200 to 300 insects in one winter. Five to six insects are photographed in a day.
What bird from where do you want to photograph?
-I took photos of over 370 of the total 513 species of birds in Mongolia. One thing I wish is to increase this number. The thing is, there are some low quality ones among my photos. German ornithologist, photographer Andreas Buchheim stands ahead of me in terms of photo quality and quantity. He took good quality photos of 417 species of birds over a span of 25 years.
Andreas Buchheim is a researcher and you are a photographer. So there must be a difference in what you do, is that right?
-There is, indeed. A researcher’s interest is not simply in photographing the bird, rather it lies in a detailed study of the bird. As for me, my ultimate goal is to take photos capturing the moment where the bird is most beautiful from a never-before-used angle.
But you do research about the bird you have photographed and publish the photo together with some facts about the bird on your Facebook page, Jargal’s Bird Photo. Does that not make you a researcher as well?
-Researchers do monitoring and discover rare bird species. In my case, I try to give information about the bird’s habitat and characteristics rather than posting only the photo to promote proper use of cyberspace. I hope this also contributes to the cognizance of young people.
What about the bird you want to photograph abroad?
-I wish to one day go to the Latin American country of Costa Rica, the bird paradise. I heard the country is home to over 5,000 species of birds that are all colorful like flowers.
A statistic shows that 67 million or around a fifth of the U.S. population of over 300 million are birdwatchers. What about in Mongolia?
-That statistic comes from a study conducted by the U.S. fisheries agency. The large number is related to the country’s sedentary lifestyle. To be more specific, people in the land protect their cultivated fields and farms from possible harms of rodents and birds. That is how they become familiar with the birds.
As for Mongolia, it seems that a lot of young people and travelers are interested in birds. Compared to our generation, young people have become more sensitive and cognizant following the modern development. Also, people started to learn more about birds to show them to their children, but there is no specific study on what you have asked in Mongolia.
- 15 PHOTOS AT MOST ARE CHOSEN FROM 100 SHOTS -
I heard that flamingo was once spotted in Mongolia?
-Ornithologists Ariunbaatar and Tuvshintugs studied bird diseases from the Far West to the Far East of Mongolia, visiting lakes, forests, and every other place where birds gather in large flocks and testing dropping samples they have collected. One day during that journey, they rang me to say that they spotted flamingo in Arkhangai aimag. As soon as the news arrived, I, who was in Dornogobi aimag at the time, drove overnight to Arkhangai aimag to see one flamingo the next morning. Seeing it worn out, I guessed that it had got lost from the flock. Over the span of more than 60 years, the species has been spotted in Mongolia only four times, including that one time in Arkhangai aimag. I also photographed the bird at a lake in central Turkey. Flamingo is a magnificent and outstandingly unique bird.
Have you ever discovered a new species of bird while taking photos?
-In North America, there is a bird called Baird's sandpiper (Calidris bairdii). It winters in the islands of Chile. Strangely, I came across the bird in Arkhangai aimag during a trip with my researcher friend Purevsuren and took its picture. The bird that had never been recorded in Mongolia before came to the other side of the world. Besides that, I have not spotted a new species.
Baird's sandpiper (Calidris bairdii)
At our previous meeting, you said you choose only one photo from 500 shots at times. Is that true?
-It is indeed true. For example, only 15 photos at most are chosen from 100 shots and even that 15 have to go through further selection. Some photographers take numerous shots with high-speed camera, but I prioritize quality over quantity.
Are there wild birds smaller than larks in Mongolia?
-A bird called goldcrest (Regulus regulus) that is usually seen eating on trees can be named here. There is another small greenish songbird that can be found in trees and bushes. The sound it makes is often heard but the bird itself hardly comes out.
Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)
- THE MOMENT I WAS ABOUT TO TAKE MY FIRST PHOTOS, IT FELT LIKE I WAS HUNTING -
What would you say about the first photos that you were content with or met your requirements?
-That would be a photo of mallard. “I finally captured a great shot, huh” I happily thought to myself at first glance. There is also a photo of small bird called red-flanked bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus). Now that I look at them, they are not that great, but I keep them to remember how my skills were at first.
First bird photo / Red-flanked bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus)
How did it feel to see the bird through your camera lens for the first time?
-It felt like I was about to hunt the bird down.
But there is a difference between photographing and hunting, right?
-Yes, there is. If a hunter were to come again to the hunting ground they used the day before, they would probably go back empty handed because no animal would go around the area for some days after the hunting. But if a photographer returns to the same photo-shoot location a day after, the birds will still be there. Most importantly, both hunters and photographers should not make sudden movements or sound. That is why the moment I was eyeing through my camera lens to photograph the first bird felt like I was about to hunt it down.
You must observe birds a lot even though you are not a researcher. How smart are they?
-The ultimate goal of animals is to produce offspring. Birds have the most powerful instinct when it comes to protecting their young. Falcon, for example, is a very bold bird that would attack any animal, small or big, in order to protect its chicks. Also, there is this overcautious bird called northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) that just starts attacking to protect the young as well.
Amur falcon (Falco amurensis)
Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
you ever photographed a nocturnal bird?
-I tried many times to capture photos of nocturnal bird species. Unfortunately, I could not. There are a few lucky shots of owls, but that is all. There is an Argentinian couple that specializes in the photography of nocturnal birds. Their shots are surely amazing that I admire them while also wondering just how they do it.
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)
There is an opportunity to meet them and learn from their experience, right?
-Yes. I would really like to talk with them all night and photograph nocturnal birds together (chuckles).
Nowadays, it is not that common to see birds in urban areas. What birds have you stumbled on amid the busy city?
-One of the shortcomings of our city is the fact that it does not have many parks, hence the small number of birds. When I was young, a lot of pretty birds used to gather at the open space behind State House. But now, we rarely hear bird chirps around the streets of Ulaanbaatar in both winter and summer. I sometimes come across birds seeking refuge in the city from cold snaps. In recent years, a rising number of Eurasian woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) have died from hitting tall buildings. I guess it is because their flyways pass through the city. I do not really look out for birds in the city as I usually photograph the species in the countryside.
Eurasian woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola)
What are the best time of the day and season for bird photography?
-The best season would be spring because birds are most beautiful during their mating season. In late June, they hide in reeds or around wetlands and forests. When it comes to the best time of the day to photograph birds, morning triumphs other times of the day. It is great to photograph a bird that just woke up. It is preferable to take your photos at dawn or dusk. Also, photos taken just after rain with no particles in the air come out amazing.
Are people around you also interested in birds?
-I never force those around me to be bird enthusiasts because pushing your own interests onto others is no good. But my wife knows bird names better than me. My two daughters and sons-in-law keep me informed of the unique birds they saw. It seems that they feel obliged to support me in that way (chuckles). As for my two grandchildren, they are deeply immersed in it. Well, all children are interested in animals. One day back in Germany, they found an insect and put it out in the garden away from people’s feet, saying, “Mother almost stepped on it”. I believe that love and care for animals from young age indicates that the person is growing into a kind one.
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)
European roller (Coracias garrulus)
Two-barred crossbill (Loxia leucoptera)
Bird photographer L.Jargalsaikhan / Photo by B.Chadraabal