Greening Up

Early Season in the Dalbay Valley

When we arrived at camp this year on the 1st June, we were all struck by how brown and yellow it looked. There was virtually no green vegetation out on the steppe slope, and the ground around the camp itself was mostly dust with hardly any plant material, green or otherwise. Even Ariuna Lkhagva, an ecologist who has been visiting this valley for a decade (and currently PhD student at University of Wyoming) said that this year the valley seemed to be particularly hard hit. We don’t know the reason for this; perhaps more intensive grazing through the winter months, or maybe a combination of grazing and unfavourable weather – perhaps even a result of the very dry summer last year?

Maybe this year the growing season is just slow to get started? Last year, likewise arriving at the beginning of June, I was thrown into the thick of a beautiful show of steppe flowers – the nodding heavy purple Pulsatilla flowers (Pasque flower in vernacular English, perhaps due to their early flowering habits?), the bright splashes of the short yellow Iris. And a host of other flowers – small blue Amblynotus (a forget-me-not like species) and bright blue Gentian eyes, the leggy weedy white of the Arenaria (Sandwort), the tall abundant star-like white Thalictrum (Rue), and the common classic yellow flowers of several Potentilla species (Cinquefoils/Strawberries). More notably perhaps, last year most of the grasses (Poa, Festuca, Hierochloe, Koeleria) and the sedge (Carex) started flowering in significant numbers just a few days after our arrival. This year however, there still isn’t any sign of this yet, and we are wondering if the season will ever catch up!

We’re not the only ones interested in flowering grasses…

Other news at camp is that late last night we had the arrival of two vehicles and an influx of people champing at the bit to do field ecology, including two of the Principal Investigators (Bazartseren Boldgiv and Brent Helliker), Ariuna, and several Mongolian undergraduates, as well as Hascha, our cook. The camp was consequently a hive of activity from early this morning, unpacking food to add to the stores, starting chores, pitching tents, exploring the steppe, watering plots, moving fence posts, chopping wood etc etc.


First Update from Dalbay Valley

The PIRE Mongolia field-crew sent to Dalbay Valley, Northern Mongolia, from the USA arrived there safely, though fatigued, on the 1st June. This signalled the end of over 4 solid days of early mornings, severely interrupted or non-existent sleep, airports, flights, cancelled flights, the inevitable visits (three) to the Immigration Office, and hours stuck in Ulaanbaatar traffic. At least one amongst us retired to bed at 6 pm that night and rose about 14 hours later.

In contrast to the days of travel, things have been very quiet and sedate at the field site for these first few days. On the American front, there are the two postdocs – Pierre Liancourt and myself, two PhD students – Aurora MacRae-Crerar and Dan Song, one hardy undergrad –
Michael Blaha, and the Luce Scholar Michael Gr√ľndler who survived the winter here and therefore almost classifies as Mongolian. On the Mongolian front there is Undrakh who is currently making the camp comfortable and functional in every way conceivable, and Anouka, our cook.

The experiment was all laid out the first full day at camp. There was no vehicle at camp, and no horses, and therefore the materials to construct the open-top chambers (OTCs) and open-sided chambers (OSCs) were transported to all of the plots by Shanks’ Pony. While PIRE Mongolia does not subscribe to gender stereotypes, it must be admitted that the carrying was done by the guys, while the girls satisfied their domestic instincts by unpacking all the boxes and arranging the office ger in a nice orderly fashion. The girls did see some outdoor action though, as we constructed the OTCs, and taped up their sides to block the wind-flow (thereby promoting their warming effect).

Open-sided and open-top chambers at work

A communal carrying exercise was also conducted yesterday morning when we applied the first of the weekly watering treatments. Each of the watered plots receive 10 litres of water, once a week, which equates to a rainfall of 4.5 mm. Therefore, 140 litres of water had to be transported to the upper slope without the assistance of either motorised vehicle or horse (still absent from camp). The evening before we brainstormed ideas for this feat, but having no ropes or pulley system, and no long extent of pipe, next morning we were to be found carrying the water canisters with our own hands – very good exercise.

Ice on Lake Hovsgol

Other than that, I’d like to report that there is still a good deal of ice on the lake. And there is a solid patch of ice over the river by camp too. It must be about 1 m thick, and the edge is made of beautiful thick sharp icicles and has a glacial blue hue. This doesn’t stop Dan Song from bathing every day, however. We hear the Cuckoo perpetually –
starting from about 4 am, and continuing through till dusk. Occasionally, when still in bed, Demoiselle Cranes pass through our camp, issuing their harsh croak. Their croak is very discordant, set against their slim and elegant frame, and their aristocratic plume. There is also a colony of seagulls close to camp, making it sometimes seem like we are on a seaside jaunt. We believe they are feeding off the Lenok as it passes up the river to spawn. I think that’s it for bird life, and human life. More anon.

A Summer Summary

Thanks to

The Calm After The Storm

Since all the Americans (but two) left camp four days ago, we have had very odd weather, and an odd atmosphere in general. The final week or so of the undergrads’ and PI’s experience in Dalbay was one of rain every day (or rather, every night), and frequent showy thunderstorms overhead. Since they vacated however, we have only heard thunderstorms as distant long rumbles, storm clouds gathering and morphing elsewhere while the bright blue August sky stubbornly remains overhead. Yesterday, at about 6.30 pm, we were called from the ger by Dan Song to observe the looming terror of a post-atomic bomb mushroom cloud. It was a phenomenal sight, positioned some way to the south-east. We speculated that World War III had just started and calculated the length of time we still had to enjoy the scenery of Dalbay. Thankfully, twenty-four hours later everyone is fine, so maybe it was just a storm cloud after all?

And it is hot! So hot today that there has been a quiet lethargy in camp. Despite that though, jobs on the to-do-before-we-leave list are getting crossed off each day, and we’re well on target to be able to leave the field in a fortnight satisfied with a job well done. It is the stage of the season when samples clutter every space – brown and white sharpie-labelled bags put out to dry. Soil samples, root samples, litter samples, leaf samples. The information we want, the data, lying there tantalisingly before us in raw form. Going through the whole process of living in the valley, does make the science so very interesting, the questions so worth the answering: daily observing the minute changes as the plants respond to the season’s progression, collecting the detailed information from our experiments, seeing the samples gathering around us.

And as I finish this blog, large raindrops finally pelt the ger. Rain at last, after 4 days of thick lethargy-inducing atmosphere. It could be a good storm.

Fairies and Feces

Since Naadam, Pierre and Laura have significantly loosened the undergrads’ reigns. With species monitoring in the past, students have been working hard on their independent projects.

Playing with fecal matter more than the average dung beetle, Michael and Patrick have been stinking up the gers in pursuit of their individual projects. Collecting fresh samples from the neighboring herder has proven a messy task. Patrick is interested in the short term decomposition of the dung and its effects on the surrounding soil. Soil cores beneath the droppings will be taken at the end of the season. Michael has spent time mapping dung density and distribution to understand the grazers’ role in nitrogen transfer throughout the system. He has also placed samples strategically along the slope to study decomposition on a long term scale. The samples will be collected and analyzed next year.

Laura, Pierre and Rachel have been continuing their work on fairy rings since Naadam. After monitoring plant species in 20 rings across the slope, they are now collecting and processing leaf and root samples. By studying plant traits in the middle, outside, and within the ring, we can better understand the effects of the ring on the surrounding plant community.

In other news, as time left for the undergrads wanes and workload increases, quality time has also increased. Pierre’s guitar is a constant throughout camp, providing a soundtrack for the many card, frisbee and volleyball games that occupy our nights. The sky has also been particularly clear the past few nights, allowing for shooting star-watching and constellation spotting.

Michael Blaha and Rachelle Glade
Upenn undergrads, class of 2014

The Bounty of the Steppe

Out here in Dalbay, we don’t mine the grassland for data alone. And while the steppe indirectly provides us with yaks and cows for meat and dairy, the growing species themselves can be quite tasty.

Take, for example, rhubarb, which flourishes on some of the rocky and sandy slopes near camp. The leaves may be seriously poisonous, but the red and sour stems make for a tasty jam or cobbler. Pie would be nice, but the whole question of pie tins, flaky crusts, and ovens is quite the deal-breaker.

When walking through the area near the river, wild onion is easy to come by. A couple species from the Allium genus grow in wetter sections and taste like a mixture between green onions and garlic. Plucking a leaf, anyone can start to munch on the bottom and enjoy.

On rainy days, the scent of thyme may slowly waft up from the grass underfoot. Thymus gobicus, the low growing, tiny shrub, easily takes to the drier areas of the valley. The leaves have a wonderful smell that even lingers on the hands after touching them. We haven’t yet mixed it in with food, however.

Wandering into the forested areas of Dalbay, Vaccinium obviously coats the ground. This genus provides innumerable berries, including the familiar blueberry. Currently, little green spheres tantalizingly hang from the bushes, teasing us for now. They’ll ripen up in the first half of August, but only once the American undergraduates, Brenda, and a certain project coordinator leave. For now, the Russian preserves purchased in Muren will have to suffice.

Although these naturally growing treats add some great flavor, the true substance this year comes from Tricholoma mongolicus. These wild growing mushrooms create some of fairy rings studied by Boldgiv, Professor of Ecology at NUM, and Undrakh, a masters student at NUM and our esteemed camp manager. But these mushrooms, which can sell for up to $70/kilo in Chinese markets made for quite the delicacy when some collected samples from the forest found their way onto our dinner plates.

Painstaking science, and a gust of wind.

We are past the middle of July now, and everyone is well into the routine of intensive data collection. The American undergraduates are working on some interesting personal projects, reminding me of just how painstaking ecology can be.

There is Anna, for example, who is comparing the rates of pollination between plant species in and out of the open-top chambers. She has to collect flowers that have senesced but still have a green stigma, and carefully dab the top of the stigma onto a little spot of melted fuchsin jelly upon a microscope slide – this transfers any pollen stuck to the surface of the stigma into the slide for future counting (to be done back in Philly). It is quite comical to see Anna at work in the office ger, like an alchemist, melting a blob of vivid pink jelly over the flickering light of a big black candle.

Q, meanwhile, is collecting quite a number of seeds from all of the plant species that we find in our experimental plots. This is so that various seed “traits” can be measured to help us answer questions regarding the factors structuring the vegetation communities in the steppe. This requires him to monitor the populations of each species on the upper and lower slopes in order to collect the seeds at the optimum moment – when they are ripened but not yet dehisced (that is, fallen off, or dispersed from the parent plant). Right now, Q is resident seeds expert, and can tell you the exact state of seed development for about forty or so species.

Yet another painstaking undergrad is Audrey who is investigating the grasshopper communities and the effects of their herbivory on the plant communities. During the first stage of her project – getting to know the grasshoppers – the entomologist in her has come to the fore, and she looks a natural with her capturing net, jars of ether soaked cotton wool, and insect pinning equipment.

I will leave it at that for the moment regarding the undergrad projects and you will have to wait for another day to hear the details about the work of Michael, Patrick, and Rachel.

Some further updates from the field though, to acquaint you with the current surroundings of the Dalbay Valley… Maybe it was the fact we spent three days away and hence saw a difference when we got back, or maybe the plants had just reached a critical stress level through lack of water, but things had really changed when we returned from Naadam. On the Saturday, all the plants looked bright and healthy. The following Wednesday, however, many of the large Aster alpinus flowers had wilted before opening, new flowers on the spikes of Veronica incana had not opened while the lower flowers had withered away, Potentilla acaulis leaves had curled up in the open-top chambers and started to turn brown; Carex leaves had turned flame orange at their tips. Two thunderstorms the past two evenings have not seemed to ameliorate the situation for the plants – this is what living in a semi-arid grassland is like!

Talking of the thunderstorms, last night we had a spectacular gust of wind! We watched the electric storm approach us from a long way off –
in the mountains beyond the lake. The thunder came in long deep rolls and the lightening was a good as the best fireworks display – a wonderful rosy pink colour. Then the wind and rain started at camp. As it was evening, most of us were relaxing in one or other of the gers –
myself in bed, reading the last chapter of the Dicken’s novel that has been my companion for the past 2 months. One or two teasing gusts of wind rattled the ger a little, making us look around at each other with a little bit of excitement. Then, of a sudden, a huge gust blew and the ger seemed fit to fall over – it seemed to slant against the pressure and our belongings (hung up over the wooden spokes of the ger roof, or slatted into the lattice wall) rained down on us, I was buried in my bed by photographs, a lucky horseshoe, notepaper, jumpers, socks, and other garments. This gust is worth noting though, as Clyde (Goulden) reports that one observation made by many of the herder families he is interviewing in the area is that there are many more strong winds occurring in recent years than formerly. And apparently this trend might be becoming apparent in the regional meteorological data, as there are more days of the year with wind speeds reaching over 20 mph.

Enough for now, we may report of future storms though, as thunder rolls again as I type…