GUEST POST: ‘Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls,’ by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way–he is the author of the first, and now the second, guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls.” It is about MacKinnon’s experiences with the owls of the Daxing’anling (大兴安岭) or Greater Khingan Range in northern Inner Mongolia. The photo above, taken by Li Jixiang, is of Ural Owl, one of the great owls of that remote and wild region. — Craig Brelsford

Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls
© 2016 by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon wrote the most influential field guide ever published about China's birds.
John MacKinnon is co-author of the most influential field guide ever published about the birds of China.

She is big. Wow, she is big. But she is beautiful and she knows it. She watches me with a disdain that most beautiful ladies seem to acquire. She is a hunter–a killer, but she has every right to be so. She is the Great Grey Owl, and I have been her admirer, hoping to meet her for many years.

She is perched only 2 metres off the ground in a flimsy larch bush that looks too weak to support her great size. But in fact she is lighter than she looks. Most of her bulk is feathers. The Great Grey Owl is marginally the longest owl in the world from head to tail, and the only two or three species that may be able to outweigh her are also here in the forests of Genhe Wetland Park of Daxing’anling: Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and Snowy Owl.

Suddenly she hears a movement below her and pounces. A few moments scrabbling in the grass and she rises up again on silent, slow wing beats to settle on another small bush a few metres away. But now she has a large lemming in her beak. She transfers the lemming to the safer grasp of her foot then launches off on wide wings low over the ground, through a small clump of trees then out of sight into the larch forest beyond. I know she must have young to feed, and I want to see them also.

Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon.
Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon. ‘I meet her two boyfriends … . Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large.’

But before I find her young, I meet her two boyfriends a few hundred metres apart along the same trail leading deeper into the tall larch forest. Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large. I am gradually getting to understand their habits. They are more diurnal than I expected, and they hunt in clearings rather than in the dense forests.

But her nest is in the forest, and I still try to find out where, so I return to her favourite hunting area and watch her a few more times to see exactly where she flies each time she catches another lemming or vole.

As chief technical advisor of the Daxing’anling wetlands conservation project funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, I have other duties to attend to. I can only steal occasional moments and weekends for treks in the woods looking for birds! I have to wait two weeks before I get the chance to return and find where she hides her young.

Li Ye took this shot of Great Grey Owl in its nest in the great larch forest of the Greater Khingan Range.
Hanma Nature Reserve Deputy Director Li Ye took this shot of Great Grey Owl and chick in the nest in the larch forest.

Meanwhile, Deputy Director Li Ye of the nearby Hanma Nature Reserve has found another nest of Great Grey Owl and has taken great shots and video of the male bringing food for his mate, who sits on a large platform of sticks–probably an old crow’s nest–where she tends to two small chicks.

When I return to Genhe in July, I find Madame hunting in the same area as previously, but this time she flies less far into the forest between catches, and this time I can hear the weak, hoarse calls of a youngster. I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree. But I find only one baby–a fluffy fellow–already quite large but lacking the great broad face disk of the parents. It pours with rain, and I have to move on back to Hanma, where I have another owl family to monitor. By August I return to find there are indeed two chicks–and looking very much mature, with clear concentric facial disk rings.

Fledgling Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon.
Fledgling Great Grey Owl. ‘I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree.’ (John MacKinnon)

At Hanma it is the Ural Owl that lures me out into the dark forest at night. Ural Owl is a true wood owl and unlike Great Grey it nests in tree holes. It is smaller than the Great Grey, but at 54 cm it is still an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl, which is a common species across much of China.

On a visit the previous year I had found and photographed two fully flying young fledglings, so I headed to the same spot, hoping to find they had bred in the same area. I was rewarded by finding an adult Ural Owl perched on the stump of a dead tree. I got some pictures in the dark. I had to use a flash, so the owl’s eyes reflect back spookily.

'Ural Owl,' writes MacKinnon, 'is a true wood owl [and] an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl. ... Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter." Top: Ural Owl, fledglings, Daxing'anling (John MacKinnon). Bottom L: adult Ural Owl, Daxing'anling (Li Jixiang). Bottom C: Ural Owl with frog in rain, Raohe, Heilongjiang, 28 July 2015 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Short-eared Owl, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015 (Craig Brelsford).
‘Ural Owl,’ writes MacKinnon, ‘is a true wood owl [and] an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl. … Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.’ Top: Ural Owl, fledglings, Daxing’anling (John MacKinnon). Bottom L: adult Ural Owl, Daxing’anling (Li Jixiang). Bottom C: Ural Owl with frog in rain, Raohe, Heilongjiang, 28 July 2015 (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Short-eared Owl, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, 30 July 2015 (Craig Brelsford).
But this year I find and hear no young. It has been a very cold winter, and the season is two to three weeks later than the previous year. I think the young are still in their nest hole, and I am pretty sure I know which tree they are in: a tall dead larch with three potentially good holes or an open chimney top to choose from.

I head back to the cabin I stay in, seeing several Grey Nightjar on my way. Sometimes the nightjars perch on the road, sometimes in trees, and sometimes they give their strange clonking calls as they fly around catching mosquitoes. Did I not mention the mosquitoes? Wow, how can I forget. There were hundreds of them, and they settled all over me whenever I stopped to take pictures. Their swollen bites still itch a week later. But I am happy to have seen these wonderful owls and cannot wait to find them again in the winter, when the snow lies on the ground.

It is in the snow time that the owls of Daxing’anling really show what they can do. The great Snowy Owl is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.

Northern Hawk-Owl, by Craig Brelsford. January 15-17, 2015.
Northern Hawk-Owl, writes MacKinnon, ‘is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. … It is totally diurnal.’ Daxing’anling, Inner Mongolia, 15-17 Jan. 2015 (Craig Brelsford).

Another owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. The Northern Hawk-Owl catches birds and smaller prey in the woods. It is totally diurnal.

Other woodland owls such as the bulky Eurasian Eagle-Owl and its smaller cousin the Long-eared Owl are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes. In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest, but in winter they move south or take up residence only in the most sheltered valleys. The smaller Boreal Owl lives in the tundra forests and is strictly nocturnal and rather solitary. Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.

Long-eared Owl (1, 2) and Eurasian Eagle-Owl (3, 4) 'are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes,' MacKinnon writes. 'In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest.' 1: Zhalong Reserve, Heilongjiang, 4 May 2013. 2: Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 19 Aug. 2015. 3a, 3b: near Beidaihe, Hebei, 29 Sept. 2011. 4: Dawucun, Boli, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015. All by Craig Brelsford.
Long-eared Owl (1, 2) and Eurasian Eagle-Owl (3, 4) ‘are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes,’ MacKinnon writes. ‘In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest.’ 1: Zhalong Reserve, Heilongjiang, 4 May 2013. 2: Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 19 Aug. 2015. 3a, 3b: near Beidaihe, Hebei, 29 Sept. 2011. 4: Boli, Heilongjiang, 13 Aug. 2015. All by Craig Brelsford.

But the Great Grey stays put, hunting in the forest clearings from its low perches. This owl has amazing hearing and can detect voles and lemmings moving in their burrows underneath half a metre of snow. Like a polar bear catching seals beneath the Arctic ice, the owl can plunge to its own depth in snow and drag out these unsuspecting rodents.

In winter the larch trees lose their needle leaves. But the forest is not silent. Moose rummage in the frozen wetlands and find food beneath the snow. Lynx compete with Snowy Owl to catch Mountain Hare, which have also gone white for the winter.

Kai Pflug took this shot of Snowy Owl in Inner Mongolia in February 2015.
‘The great Snowy Owl,’ writes MacKinnon, ‘is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.’ In February 2015 Kai Pflug took this shot of Snowy Owl near Hulun Lake, west of the Daxing’anling in Inner Mongolia.

Willow Grouse, stoat, and weasel also turn white for the winter. Bears are hibernating, but the huge spotted capercaillies are active in the larch trees, eating the buds and shoots for the next year’s leaves and already starting to fight for females with their load croaking calls, fanning their tails like turkeys and eyeing the world fiercely under their red eyelids.

Daxing’anling is all about winter. The winter lasts for nine months, and summer is short. And there she rules–ice queen of China’s most northerly forests–the Great Grey Owl.

List of Place Names

Daxing’anling (Dà Xīng’ānlǐng [大兴安岭])

Map of Greater Khingan Mountains and Lesser Khingan Mountains in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, China.
Map of Greater Khingan Range (Daxing’anling) and Lesser Khingan Range in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, China. Original version of this map published in ‘Forest Dynamics and Their Phenological Response to Climate Warming in the Khingan Mountains, Northeastern China’ (http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/9/11/3943/htm). Used with permission.

Mountain range NE China (Inner Mongolia) dividing Greater Manchurian Plain & Mongolian Plateau. Range runs ca. 1200 km (744 mi.) S from Amur River, is broad in N & narrow in S, & is heavily forested throughout. Elevation of highest peak: 2035 m (6,675 ft.). In Inner Mongolia most of Daxing’anling lies within Hulunbeier Prefecture. Also called Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains.

Genhe Wetland Park (Gēnhé Yuán Guójiā Shīdì Gōngyuán [根河源国家湿地公园]): nature reserve Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. Coordinates: 51, 122.

Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains: see Daxing’anling.

Hanma Nature Reserve (Dà Xīng’ānlíng Hànmǎ Guójiājí Zìrán Bǎohùqū [大兴安岭汗马国家级自然保护区]): protected area Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. 51.32475, 122.37784.

Hulunbeier (Hūlúnbèi’ěr Shì [呼伦贝尔市]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Inner Mongolia. Area: 263,953 sq. km. (101,913 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): larger than United Kingdom; slightly smaller than Colorado. Pop.: 2.6 million. Much of Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier. Officially Hulunbeier “city” (市).

Inner Mongolia (Nèi Měnggǔ Zìzhìqū [内蒙古自治区])

Inner Mongolia occupies a vast area in northern China. The Greater Khingan Mountains lie in Hulunbeier (red), the U.K.-sized prefecture in the extreme north.
Inner Mongolia occupies a vast area in northern China. Much of the Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier (red), the U.K.-sized prefecture in the extreme north. Map courtesy Wikipedia; customized by Craig Brelsford.

Province N China. Area: 1.18 million sq. km (456,000 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): twice the size of Texas. Pop.: 24.7 million. Officially, an “autonomous region” (自治区).

GUEST POST: ‘Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic,’ by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way–he is the author of the first guest post in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic,” an account of an afternoon MacKinnon recently spent in the Altai Mountains in northern Xinjiang. MacKinnon’s photos illustrate this post, and I have added two of mine, from my May 2012 Altai trip. — Craig Brelsford

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic
© 2016 by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

My father was raised on Scotland’s Isle of Skye–a wild youth who could throw a cricket ball a hundred yards. And when I was 8 years old he delighted in taking me on walks up Blaven and the Red Hills to tell me of his own wild childhood exploits. I was much impressed by his story of once killing a ptarmigan with a stone until a few years later I visited the Cairngorms and discovered how incredibly tame that species is–a sitting duck (uggh!) at 10 metres. But those bleak alpine landscapes remain in my blood, and so it was a great delight on 5 June 2016 to join a few fellow birdwatchers of the Altai Bird Lovers Society to head up into the hills above Altai Town for a few hours bird-watching.

I had given the Society a talk in the morning, so our time was limited. It became even more shortened as the military guard at the only barrier we had to pass held us up for two hours insisting no foreigners were allowed beyond his post. Many phone calls later, we were allowed to advance. The delay was a pity, as we had to bypass several fellow birders who were stalking a rare Snowy Owl sighted earlier in the valley.

These woods echo to the calls of familiar European birds–Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, Common Nightingale, and Rock Bunting. The undergrowth was abloom with wild peonies, but we were heading for higher ground. We would have only four hours more of daylight.

Rock Bunting Emberiza cia par, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. Rock Bunting occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia par, Altai Mountains. Rock Bunting occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. Photo taken 18 May 2012 by Craig Brelsford.

The road was rough–sometimes rocky, sometimes deeply rutted in mud. It had been raining, and the mountain streams were flooding out of their banks, and we had to ford them many times. We passed out of the forests and into the open meadows. These were gloriously green with new spring grass before the Kazakh herdsmen could bring their flocks up for the summer grazing. Thousands of Purple Fawn Lilies (Erythronium sibiricum) and Cowslips (Primula denticulata) glistened in the sunlight, fluttering in the wind. Grey, Yellow, and White Wagtail skittered out of the way of our 4-wheel vehicle as it laboured up the trail. Black Kites and a lone Common Kestrel glided over the valley. Large sleepy marmots gazed at us as we drove on higher towards the snowline, and a large eagle flew just over our heads without giving us a second glance.

Black Kite in Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Black Kite in Altai Mountains. Photo taken 18 May 2012 by Craig Brelsford.

The road twisted about between great walls of snow where a digger had cut a way through, and eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border. It was indeed very similar to the landscapes of the Scottish Cairngorms, and I felt quite at home as we came to a halt and started on foot to clamber across the loose rocks and patches of shallow snow that covered the rolling hilltops. But the air was thin, and I could already feel the altitude at nearly 3000 m as I trudged ahead in a slightly desperate search to find Rock Ptarmigan.

Rock Ptarmigan, 5 June 2016. A Holarctic species, Lagopus muta in China occurs only in the Altai Mountains of N Xinjiang. Photo © 2016 by John MacKinnon for shanghaibirding.com.
Rock Ptarmigan, 5 June 2016. A Holarctic species, Lagopus muta in China occurs only in the Altai Mountains of N Xinjiang. Photo © 2016 by John MacKinnon for shanghaibirding.com.

I spotted the first one–a cock in full white winter plumage. I crept up gradually, taking pictures as I went. I did not want to alarm or disturb the bird but it seemed quite unconcerned and went about its business feeding and wandering across the snow only a few metres away. Gradually the three other birders caught up with me and took their fill of pictures. I withdrew to give the bird some peace, but the other birders were more persistent, and eventually the cock flew off with a dark female whom I had not spotted at all.

Vegetation was sparse, and there were few other birds on this bleak windswept hill, but we did see Northern Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting, and Altai Accentor. Across a valley of deeper snow I spotted another white cock ptarmigan standing out boldly against the dark rocks, and then, in amazement, I noticed our leader Tang Liming sitting quietly no more than 5 metres away from the bird.

Altai Accentor (L) and Ortolan Bunting, 5 June 2016. In China, Altai Accentor occurs in the Altai Mountains and Tianshan in Xinjiang and Tibet. Ortolan Bunting ranges from the Western Palearctic east to the mountainous regions of Xinjiang. Photos by John MacKinnon.
Altai Accentor (L) and Grey-necked Bunting, 5 June 2016. In China, Altai Accentor occurs in the Altai Mountains and Tianshan in Xinjiang and Tibet. Grey-necked Bunting is a bird of arid mountainsides that in China occurs only in Xinjiang. Photos by John MacKinnon.

It would be a long walk down to the road and back up the other side, so I headed straight across the snow. Walking gently, I found I could stay on top of the snow crust, but a couple of times I sank deeply down to my waist. Two other birders followed my trail, and soon we were creeping up the other side towards Mr. Tang and the splendid cock ptarmigan. So well-hidden was his mate that I might have walked on her had Mr. Tang not whistled a warning. Mr. Tang had already got great pictures of the pair mating, but we were content to get close ups of the two birds, again as tame as can be.

The clever cock had found a wonderful rock to shelter behind from the bitter wind, but he let his partner squat out in the open. Both birds fed for a while, and we got excellent stills and video of them showing no concern at our presence. One of the birders had nothing less than a 600 mm, and he had to hover about 30 metres back whilst we could sit with 10 m!

With light falling, we started the climb back to the car. It was a steep, wet, slippery climb, and at one point I fell sharply on my rear end. But we were elated with our ptarmigan success, and the sunset was very beautiful. We got back in the car and headed home, thinking the day was done–but far from it.

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus. Photo by John MacKinnon.
Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus. Photo by John MacKinnon.

I spotted a movement on the hillside. We stopped and myself and a Mr. Wang crept up to where I had seen another bird. We were rewarded with great views of a cock Willow Ptarmigan and his mate. They were not as tame as the Rock Ptarmigan but did let us get within 20 m or so, and somehow, despite quite dim light, my camera managed to take bright and glorious pictures as the cock strutted his stuff and gave his famous gobbling calls. Unlike the cock Rock Ptarmigan that were still in full winter plumage, the Willow Ptarmigan was in the half-white, half-brown plumage of summer. It was getting really late now, so we hurried back to the car.

We got less than 1 km when we saw a wolf trotting along not far off the road. We halted and stumbled out of the car, fumbling to reassemble cameras, but the wolf moved on quite fast, and we ended up getting back in the car, turning round and following back up the road. We now saw there were two wolves. We parked where we had seen the Willow Ptarmigan earlier, got out and looked everywhere for the wolves, but they were nowhere to be seen. Only when we turned back towards the parked car we saw them sitting watching us from further up the road. Again we followed in the car, but they were soon far away, on the other side of the stream. Again they stopped to have a good look at the strange car and humans before heading back into the snowy hills. They were both quite skinny, but they had made it through the winter, and soon there would be baby hares, marmots, rock squirrels, grouse, red deer, ibex and all sorts of potential prey to fatten on and rear their own litter of new cubs through the summer.

Grey Wolf trotting across tundra, Altai Mountains, 5 June 2016. Photo by John MacKinnon.
Grey Wolf trotting across tundra, Altai Mountains, 5 June 2016. Photo by John MacKinnon.

Now it was really dark, and all we saw on the rest of our trip down the mountain was one pipit and a small mouse trapped in the headlights.

I wanted more, and my project had indeed planned a trip of several days into the Liangheyuan Nature Reserve, but just two days after my trip into the Arctic, the army ruled that no foreigners could be permitted into the border areas, be they from the United Nations or even the royal family! And so I had to sadly abort my plans and head prematurely back to Beijing. But my few hours in the hills will remain a happy memory.

List of Place Names

Map showing position of Altai City in territory administered by the People's Republic of China. Altai City lies just north of the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility, i.e., the point in Eurasia farthest from any coastline. Red area signifies Xinjiang. The largest provincial-level entity in the PRC, 'New Frontier' is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined. Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Map showing position of Altai City in territory administered by the People’s Republic of China. Altai City lies just north of the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility, i.e., the point in Eurasia farthest from any coastline. Red area signifies Xinjiang. The largest provincial-level entity in the PRC, ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined. Map courtesy Wikipedia.

Altai City (Ālètài Shì [阿勒泰市]) county-level city Altai District

Altai District (Ālètài Dìqū [阿勒泰地区]) sub-prefectural jurisdiction Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang

Altai Town urban area in Altai City 47.825858, 88.133544

Blaven mountain on Isle of Skye

Cairngorms, the mountain range central Scotland

Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (Yīlí Hāsàkè Zìzhìzhōu [伊犁哈萨克自治州]) sub-provincial autonomous prefecture, Xinjiang

Skye, Isle of
largest island in Inner Hebrides archipelago off W coast of Scotland

Featured image: Pass in Altai Mountains, Altai District, Xinjiang. This is the place of which John MacKinnon wrote, “Eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border.” On 5 June 2016, the pioneering naturalist and author made a brief visit to this remote high country, finding amazing riches there despite a stay of only four hours. Photo © 2016 by John MacKinnon for shanghaibirding.com.