Tien Shan: Successful but wet week 1

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

With temperatures reaching above 40C in Bishkek, group 1 was more than ready to get up to our Alpine base camp where cool weather abounds. On the way there we had our lunch stop at the top of the Too Ashu mountain pass. Looking down on the Suusamyr valley was a fantastic way to break up the driving. When we arrived at base camp we quickly settled in, thanks to Bek, Beka and Volodya having already set up tents for everyone. We did pitch our third yurt all together tough.

Training on Tuesday and Wednesday morning went well and so we were able to get out for our first transect walk Tuesday afternoon. We went to Sary Kul valley, where interestingly this year there is a shepherd’s yurt for the first time. And not only that, while talking to him he told us that a week ago he had come across what he thought was a dead snow leopard cub. Unfortunately he did not take any pictures, and even more unfortunately is the fact that this cub was found dead, but this does give us a very strong indication of snow leopard presence in the valley.

We have also been up a few other valleys, including Issyk Ata valley, where we have previously discovered snow leopard tracks. There was a lot of snow in the higher elevations, and so we were not able to get up as high as we would have liked, but Volodya found two good locations to set up camera traps. Beka has also placed camera traps along the ridge in another valley near our base camp. However, even with all the effort we’ve put in so far, the weather is very uncooperative. As I mentioned in my initial diary entry, it has been an unusually wet summer, and that is very true up in the Alpine valleys too. I don’t think we’ve had a day without rain yet! As a result, we’ve only had direct sightings of secondary snow leopard prey (marmot and snow cock), but with one week left to go there is still lots of time left for group 1 to collect more data!

Something else very special that happened during the first week was the birthday celebration of the grandson of our shepherd neighbour. It really felt as though all the shepherds in the entire valley showed up for the party! There was lots of food, Kyrgyz traditional games like wrestling and Kok Boru (horse polo), and an opportunity for us to ride horses, meet lots of local people, and get dropped right into an amazing cultural experience!

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Tien Shan: Base camp set

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

The staff, a truck and a few cars made it to our base camp location in the mountains and started, and have now mostly finished, setting up.

We have put up two of the three yurts and are waiting for group 1 to build the third. Within minutes of our arrival, we had our shepherd neighbours, who have by now become friends, there to help us. Kyrgyz culture is definitely one of friendship and lending a helping hand!

I am now back in Bishkek for last minute shopping and arrangements and group 1 starts tomorrow, Monday. I hope everyone arrives safely and on time. See you all tomorrow morning, group 1.

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Germany: Final results and diary entry

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany www.biosphere-expeditions.org/germany

Peter & I dropped team 2 at the airport on Friday morning after a pleasant last evening together on Thursday.

Here is a summary of what team 2 achieved: 330 km of survey routes were covered on foot and 31 km by bike. 89 scat samples were collected (and have been deep frozen for dietary analysis). Of those 89 samples, 14 samples were fresh enough for DNA analysis and for this were also put in ethanol. Our findings were made in eight different cells of the European 10 x 10 km grid. Overall, the results of teams 1 and 2 were very similar. Well done to both!

Taken together, the resulting total numbers of this year’s expedition are exceptional: More than 200 (!) wolf scat samples were deep frozen for dietary analysis. They will be forwarded to the official wolf monitoring authority of Lower Saxony for final evaluation. 25 scat samples were fresh enough for DNA analysis and put into ethanol, to be analysed in the laboratory over the coming few months. All findings were collected over 638 km of foot survey walks and 100 km of bike surveys in 29 different 10 x 10 km cells of the European grid. Even more findings, which were classified as C3 (hint but not conclusive proof of wolf) are: seven tracks and 50 more scats that were too old and had no wolf typical smell, as well as one sighting of three wolves that could not be proved by a picture, because Jelle and I were not quick enough 😉

Once again these numbers exceeded Peter’s expectations! Thank you to everyone on the team – you have done a fantastic job! Our thanks go also out to the wolf commissioners Kenny, Holger & Theo, as well as to Dorit and Lotte who supported the project by sharing their time & knowledge with us. And of course thanks also to the staff at NABU Gut Sunder who made us feel at home and kept us so well fed, as well as our overnight base Kenners LandLust. Peter & I very much enjoyed our time with you all and it has been a great pleasure to work with you.

We hope you have arrived back home safely when you read this or are enjoying your holidays. Thank you once again and we hope we will meet again in the future, on an expedition or somewhere else on this beautiful planet of ours.

All the best,

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Germany: Wolf sighting!

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany www.biosphere-expeditions.org/germany

After survey day four, the expedition freezer is almost spilling over with scat samples.

Peter, Sylvia, Siggi, Sita and Sebastian went to the very south of Lower Saxony on Thursday and completed survey walks in three groups. No findings there so far, but we have only started to investigate a small part of this potential wolf territory.

Anja, Beate, Dorit, Latika & Mark met Theo again in “his” area. Split into two teams, they recorded a total of 21 scats over 28 km walked.

The overnight team brought back two bin bags full of samples and a huge file of completed datasheets. Eleven more DNA samples were put in ethanol. Late returns from the far-away survey areas, prolonged hand-over procedures with Peter due to the large number of findings, as well a countless number of pictures to be processed had us postpone our review until after dinner.

It was during the review that Jelle reported to the team in detail the very first wolf sighting during the expedition (in Luechow Danneberg district). A roe deer kill had been reported to wolf commissioner Kenny in the morning before the overnighte team headed out to his patch. Walking quietly on a forest path, Jelle and Malika noticed a movement no more than 20m away in the undergrowth and in about the same moment realised that it was quite a big wolf standing up, turning around and running away. Immediately behind were two smaller wolves. It was all over in a second. They were gone before we could even think to take out any cameras or datasheets. Still, what an experience! We probably disturbed them while they were dozing and digesting their roe deer meal.

Christina and Andy, surveying the area nearby, where the wolves headed to when they ran away from us, were very late for their pick-up the same afternoon, because they had to collect many, many fresh scat samples.

We are pretty sure now where the core area of this wolf pack is. DNA analysis will show whether there are new pups this year.

Another successful and exciting week is almost over. More on the overall results soon…

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Tien Shan: We’re getting ready

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan www.biosphere-expeditions.org/tienshan

Summer is finally here and with that comes Biosphere Expeditions’ annual snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, in cooperation with NABU Kyrgyzstan.

My name is Amadeus DeKastle, and I’ll be leading the expedition again this summer. This will be our fifth year working in the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range.

The expedition scientist, Dr. Volodymyr Tytar, will be arriving in Bishkek later today, whilst I and our two local NABU guides, Bek and Bekbolot, are already here and getting everything prepped, including some new yurts for base camp, because last year a stormed ripped through the valley and destroyed our mess tents.

Bekbolot next to the new yurt, all packed up
New yurt
Expedition storage at NABU HQ in Bishkek

If you have not had a chance to read through the dossier and previous reports, please do so. There is a lot of information in there that will be vital to you being able to be as involved as possible during your time here. In addition to some light reading, please download an app called “Lapis Guides” from either the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. We will be using this app to collect some supplementary data in the area on birds, butterflies, and petroglyphs. This spring and summer has already proved to be very “wet”, so please make sure you have appropriate “wet weather” clothing and boots.

Safe travels group 1. I look forward to meeting you at the Futuro Hotel. Please be on time so we can get started on our journey as soon as possible. It is a long drive, and the sooner we leave, the sooner we’ll have supper and get settled into base camp.

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Germany: Off on the overnight research trip

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany www.biosphere-expeditions.org/germany

On our first full survey day on Monday, we surveyed the local wolf pack area (Celle district) again and also went south of base to look for signs of another wolf pack reputed to be there. Three groups (five teams) walked 78 km on that day and the total number of findings were twelve scats (which were all too old for further analysis) and a couple of unclear tracks in soft sand.

This Tuesday morning, some of us (Christine, Jelle and Andy and I) are about to head off on an overnight research trip again. The rest will stay at base and split into two teams to meet up with shepherd Holger in the afternoon.

I’ll update everyone on our findings on Thursday.

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Germany: Start again, with group 2

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany www.biosphere-expeditions.org/germany

We’re on our second citizen science helping now, with a team of eleven from all over the world: Latika & Mark (U.S.), Jelle (Netherlands), Andy & Sebastian (UK), Situ (China) as well as Anja, Beate & Christina (Germany) and Siggi & Sylvia (Germany) on their second week.

We’ve been on our introductory visit to Wolfcenter Dörverden , this time with our guided tour led by founder and director Frank. Now at NABU Gut Sunder, Peter is giving his tracks & signs identification and documentation talk. More training on the expedition equipment is to follow this morning before we head out for a data collection practicing walk in the afternoon together with wolf commissioner Theo. Biologist Dorit and student Lotte will also be joining the team again this evening to lend their support during the week ahead. The weather forecast is promising. How much will we find this week? Stay tuned.

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Germany: 376 km and 157 scats…

Peter & I dropped off group 1 at Bremen earlier today and here is the summary of what we have achieved:

We covered 307 km on forestry roads and paths on foot and an additional 69 km on bikes.

Over this distance we only found two wolf tracks, but they were under 100 m in length; tracking conditions have not been good generally as the ground is very dry. A 100 m track is a very tough ask, but it is what the official state monitoring protocol requires in order to accept a track as being made by a wolf. It is the one sure sign that tells wolf from dog, because dogs run around much more erratically, whereas wolves save energy and have a real purpose to their gait.

But we made up for the lack of tracks by finding 157 scats. Yes, you have read right. 157! Anyone who ever says that citizen science can’t make great contributions to wildlife research and conservation may now forever hold their tongue! Of the 157 scats, 46 were too old for any further analysis; 111 were good enough for dietary analysis (which will be done over the next few months) and of those 111, 11 were good (i.e. fresh) enough for DNA analysis (also over the next few months)

Looking at the geographical distribution, the 111 scats were found in fourteen different cells of the European 10 x 10 km grid. Compared to last year, the team covered about the same distance within five survey days, but the number of findings is exceptionally high. So we’re getting better with age!

Remember those Biosphere Expeditions priorities of safety, science, satisfaction? Safety: Fine, nothing untoward happened. Science: Bloody hell, well done team 1! Satisfaction: Comes with the science and the days out in the field, but also with a great base and staff at NABU Gut Sunder (thank you!).

Highlights? Visiting the shepherd & wolf commissioner Holger and his guarding dogs was surely a great opportunity to look behind the scenes of a livestock owner and breeder of guarding dogs. Holger is one of those enlightened shepherds who accepts wolves belong in this landscape and creates an opportunity out of the challenge by becoming a wolf commissioner and dog breeder. We need more people like Holger! Being in the field with wolf commissioner Theo and benefitting from his obvious knowledge, not only of the wolf packs in his area, but also of all other wildlife, the dynamics within a forest habitat and nature itself, is also quite an experience. And then there was the excursion to the far north-eastern part of our study area, which gave us the opportunity to operate in a different landscape.

Our last night together on Thursday was spent – where else – around the campfire. For some it lasted into Friday….

Thank you to everyone for making this a fun and very effective week. I hope you all enjoyed the last week as much as Peter & I did. Safe journeys back home!

Team 2, you have big boots to fill and I look forward to meeting you all tomorrow morning at 11:00.

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Germany: 99 scats in six days!

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany www.biosphere-expeditions.org/germany

It’s already expedition day five and all the teams have been out in the field every day – time for an update on our activities! After the introduction & training days on Saturday and Sunday, we split ourselves up into four groups and went to different locations each day.

We conducted an intensive survey in the Celle district close to base on Monday, but unfortunately the scat samples of the resident pack we found weren’t fresh enough for DNA analysis.

On Tuesday & Wednesday a team of four went north (district Luechow–Dannenberg) for an overnighter. Clare, Susanne, Rudolph & I camped in the backyard of Kenny’s Biohotel Kenners LandLust and were briefed on the survey routes by wolf commissioner Kenny himself. (Wolf commissioners are local people trained in wolf surveying and assisting their community with reporting and dealing with wolf-related incidences. They are important links between local communities and the state’s efforts in monitoring wolves and dealing with the consequences of their presence). It is known that two packs reside on Kenny’s wolf commissioner patch, but DNA sampling of individuals is missing, so our main job was to hunt for fresh scat from which DNA can be extracted. So we hunted and we found. 65 (!) samples, to be exact, with fewer than ten fresh enough for DNA sampling. It was way past midnight when Peter, with Lea assisting, finished sorting, labelling and freezing them.

Other teams went to the districts of Harburg, Heidekreis and Holzminden. Some of these areas called in and requested that we come and survey them. This is quite a change from last year, when there was a lot of skepticism about citizen science. But we stuck at it and our 2017 report, and the great results detailed therein, has silenced the critics.

No results in Holzminden (a new area), but we made a first assessment and will continue looking for proof of wolves. Some of us met wolf commissioner Theo again, who took a group out investigating “his” area. Others met shepherd Holger and his guarding dogs.

Overall we found 99 (!) scats samples so far, 13 of which were fresh enough to attempt DNA extraction and analysis.

I’ll let you have a review of the first week shortly; Friday will be the last day of group 1. For now enjoy the pictures and some wolf howling, and those preparing for the next week, get ready, get excited! The weather here was changeable up until Tuesday, but next week is meant to be warm and dry throughout.

Continue reading “Germany: 99 scats in six days!”