Snowy Owl Workshop Report 2020

In late December 2019 / early January 2020 I ran a photographic workshop for Snowy Owls in Ontario, Canada in winter. I had previously scouted this part of Canada and location back in January of 2019 (Read the Trip Report) and had found the owls to be of sufficient quantity to make it viable. Importantly, It was also a location where it was possible to get sufficiently close to the owls.

Two weeks prior to our workshop things were looking really promising for fantastic snow cover as there had been a good dump of snow to cover the local farmland in a white blanket. Unfortunately, temperatures warmed in the days prior to our arrival and by the time we were on site the snow had pretty much melted. As a result our first day was spent photographing the owls mostly in flight as we had no opportunity for static shots in snow.

The weather gods heard our pleas over our welcome dinner on the first evening and we had good snow fall our first night and on our second day with enough of the white stuff to sufficiently cover the ground. It then continued to snow on occasion throughout the rest of our workshop and it wasn’t until our second last day that temperatures again started to warm.

We spent our days during the workshop photographing Snowy owls both in the morning and late afternoon when the owls are at their most active. Typically we were in the field shortly after first light and shooting until 11am and then back in the field by 2pm and shooting until we lost the light. During the midday hours the owls tend to be less active and are effectively resting. This gave us plenty of opportunity to photograph the owls.

Overcast light is generally preferred in my experience for this sort of photography. Minimalist backgrounds and white on white high key images are more evocative than messy farm land backgrounds and we made every effort to work to this mantra during our shoots. Our second and third days proved the most productive with photographs of the Snowy owls in wonderful snow and snowfall. We also had some good sightings of Hawk Owl, but it was at quite a distance and the photographic opportunities were limited.

Due to my extensive travel schedule this year (I am leaving for New Zealand and onward travel to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica in just a few days) I have not had time to process any more than the few photographs I am posting here on my blog and on social media.  If you would like to see additional photographs please be sure to check out the Canada portfolio on my website at www.jholko.com which includes photographs from my 2019 scouting trip.

Snowy Owls remain my absolute favourite bird to photograph. They are incredibly majestic, beautiful birds that are extremely photogenic with their yellow eyes and speckled white feathers. The opportunity for high key, monochromatic photographs of these stunning birds in a winter setting is fantastic in this part of Canada and I will again return in January of 2021 to lead another workshop dedicated to the photography of Snowy Owls. If you are interested in joining us there are now only three places remaining before we will be sold out. You can drop me an email to register your interest.

2019 A Retrospective and 2020 Whats in Store?

As is tradition on my blog, every year I do a “What’s in Store” post for the new year as well as reflect back, and wrap up the year that was (its a great way for me to keep a record of my travels and photography and also helps me prepare for the coming year). 2019 was a frantic year and when I look back at all the destinations and all of the photography its actually hard to reconcile that it all happened in a single year. It was a year that included many superb photographic destinations and some really incredible experiences (Cuba and Mongolia were an incredible way to finish the year).

In equipment terms 2019 was relatively quiet for me with no major changes to my camera body line-up; although I did update several lenses including the 600mm f4L IS MKII to the MKIII version and the 400mm f2.8L IS MKII to the MKIII. I had not planned to update either lens, but the significant weight savings (and redistribution of that weight) offered in the new MKIII versions was too much for me to resist. This year I did supplement my two Canon EOS 1DX MKII’s with a mirrorless EOS R for my landscape photography. I really feel that the mirrorless offering from Canon is just fine for landscape and general work, but falls well short of my needs as a wildlife tool. Of course, we are now staring down the barrel of the new Canon EOS 1DX MKIII and I expect to take delivery of this new camera early in the new year.

My gear pick for the 2019 year (I always choose something I actually own) is the Canon 600mm F4L IS MKIII. The new MKIII offers very considerable weight savings over the MKII. Perhaps more importantly though is the way in which the weight has been redistributed with the bulk of the weight now at the rear of the lens. This makes the entire lens much easier to handhold for extended periods. 2019 will be very interesting in the equipment arena.  As above, I expect to take delivery of the new Canon EOS 1DX MK3 early in the new year. I think it is safe to say that I expect the majority of new lenses Canon releases in 2019 to be in RF mount only. We are also likely to see a new mirrorless camera from Canon – either a replacement for the EOS R, or a higher specification machine. I suspect we will get a high mega pixel mirrorless offering.

Last year I am gave the nod to Inherit the Dust by Nick Brandt for my book pick of the year. For 2019 I am giving the guernsey to Vincent Munier’s  Tibet. Vincent has continued to produce absolutely superb imagery that is subtle, yet powerful. His photographs are highly emotional and Tibet contains some beautiful work that will be enjoyed across countless viewings. I definitely recommend you check it out and consider adding it to your library. Over the course of this year I also published my own favourite twelve photographs here on my blog. Please be sure to check them out and let me know what you thought.

In competition terms, 2019 was a great year for me with the overall win as the Victorian Nature Photographer of the Year. This was the third year in a row I have taken out either the Documentary or Nature category. I was also a finalist in the 2019 Documentary and Landscape categories as well we being a finalist  in the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards – Nature Photographer of the Year.  As I have written before I have stopped entering competitions that judge only the digital image and instead have focused my efforts only on print competitions.

2019 was also another massive year for me both with destinations visited and the huge number of international miles travelled. The year kicked off in mid January with a winter scouting trip for Snowy Owls to Canada (Read the Trip Report).  This scouting trip proved extremely fruitful with fantastic photographic opportunities of these magnificent owls in a winter setting. As a result of this scouting trip I will be leading a sold out workshop to this part of Canada early 2019 (I am actually leaving for Canada December 28th).

At the completion of my Canada trip I had a few days at home before I made my way up to Finland for my winter wildlife workshop (Read the Trip Report). Winter in Finland is an absolutely wonderful time of year to visit and photograph in this region of Scandinavia. On this workshop we had really fantastic encounters with Golden Eagle, Otters, White-tailed Eagles, and more. One afternoon alone we spent several hours photographing wild Otters as they played and fished in the partially frozen lake. This was a shoot none of us are likely to quickly forget as it was extremely cold with temperatures hovering around -35ºC as we lay on the frozen lake.  We also took advantage of the snow covered landscape.

From Finland I travelled to Iceland to lead my annual expedition to photograph Arctic Fox on the north-west peninsula in Winter (Read the Trip Report).  This was the third time I have taken a small group with me into the nature reserve as this is an area very near and dear to my heart. During the expedition the participants made between ten and twenty thousand plus photographs per person which gives you a really good idea of just how many incredible opportunities and encounters with Arctic Foxes we experienced during our time in the Nature reserve. Many of our encounters lasted several hours and on multiple occasions we had the luxury of choosing our backgrounds and angle of view for our photographs.

From Iceland I travelled north to Svalbard for both a small group snow mobile expedition to photograph Polar Bears and other wildlife on the sea ice in Winter (Read the Trip Report) and to subsequently lead my annual winter workshop in search of Polar Bears, Arctic Fox, Reindeer and dramatic Arctic landscapes (Read the Trip Report). For the Snow Mobile expedition we spent around a week exploring the archipelago of Svalbard in winter via snow mobile in temperatures as low as -30º Celsius in search of Polar Bears. As well as our encounters with Polar Bears we also photographed Arctic Fox and Reindeer.

From Svalbard I travelled much closer to home and lead two back to back workshops to the Great Ocean Road in Victoria and onto Tasmania (Read the Trip Reports). Both of these workshops were structured to provide outstanding and varied opportunities for landscape photography as well as the opportunity to see and experience the wild coastal region of the Great Ocean Road and World Heritage Wilderness areas of Tasmania. Both of these locations offer world class landscape opportunities, yet both remain relatively unknown on the world stage (at least for now). We photographed the fantastically varied landscape of these two locations and also enjoyed the fantastic fresh food and produce both of these locations are well known for. To those of you who have enquired about future Tasmania workshops – the short answer is ‘yes’, but not in the next couple of years.

After Australia I returned to Svalbard for my yearly expedition north of Longyearbyen to photograph Polar Bears living and hunting on the sea ice (Read the Trip Report). With our small group of just twelve photographers and our ice hardened expedition class ship we were perfectly prepared for ten days of Arctic photography under the midnight sun and it turned out to be an absolute gem of an expedition. July and August are just a fantastic time of the year to visit Svalbard. With twenty four hours of daylight (the sun never sets this time of year) the opportunities for photography are literally non-stop and we took advantage on many occasions to photograph late into the evening and early hours of the morning. This was the first time I witnessed an actual Polar Bear kill and it was incredibly exciting. The stalk and kill happened right in front of our ship as we were parked alongside a large ice-flow. It was a magical moment rarely witnessed and even less rarely photographed.

After a short break I travelled to the Faroe Islands (Read the Trip Report) where I led my first landscape workshop to this wonderful series of remote islands. The Faroe Islands offer some of the most rugged and beautiful sea cliffs I have been fortunate to experience and photograph. During this workshop we explored many of the islands and hiked many kilometres as we explored the region. We also took the opportunity on several occasions to photograph Puffins along the cliff edges. 

From the Faroe Islands I returned to Australia to re-equip before I returned to Iceland where I led two back-to-back expeditions to the East Coast of Greenland with Daniel Bergmann (Read the Trip Reports). For these two expeditions we flew by private charter flight from Reykjavik in Iceland to Constable Point on the East Coast of Greenland where we boarded our sailing ship, the Donna Wood. For both our expeditions we chose to sail north to the rugged and scenic Bjørneøer Islands (Bear Islands) where we made landings at both sunset and sunrise for contemplative landscape photography. Along the way we photographed many of the gigantic icebergs that drift as giant sentinels silently through the fjord system. For our landings in this area we were blessed with a magnificent iceberg with a full arch that was grounded against a stunning mountainous backdrop and we spent many hours in this location with the late afternoon and early evening light. The landscape topography in these islands is a landscape photographers paradise with beautiful boulders and stunning back drops in every direction. The East coast of Greenland remains, in my experience, one of the most incredible locations on earth for landscape photography. I will be returning to the East Coast of Greenland in both Winter and Summer 2020 and 2021. Look for  more details on my website at www.jholko.com

From Greenland I travelled to Finland for my October 2019 Wolverines and Wolves of Finland workshop. This workshop was dedicated to the photography of Wolves, Wolverines and Bears. I arrived a week early to pre-scout many of the locations I wanted us to try to photograph in order to ascertain which hides (and in what locations) were having the most activity and at what time of the day. By pre scouting I ensured we had the best possible opportunities with the most action for our time in this beautiful part of Finland. This was well worth the effort and time as everyone who participated in this trip came away with a spectacular portfolio of photographs. In particular, we had absolutely outstanding opportunities with a wild wolf pack and I will be sharing some of these photographs over the coming months both here on my blog and in the Finland portfolio on my website.

After Finland I travelled to Camaguey in Cuba to open my new exhibition ‘Antipodas’ with friend Paul Murray.  Thanks to Paul’s and our curator Juan Carlos’s extensive preparations the opening was a smash success and the the exhibition has now moved into its next phase and location in Santiago de Cuba. From Santiago de Cuba the exhibition will move to Havana before it concludes late February 2020. This was my first visit to Cuba and I found it a fascinating melting pot of cultures and an absolute street photographers paradise.

I then wrapped up the year with a personal trip to Mongolia to photograph the Pallas Cat (Read the Scouting Report). This was most likely the most difficult shooting of my career with extreme cold and many hours and days spent searching for this elusive wild cat. During the two plus weeks I spent searching the vast lunar-like landscape of Mongolia in winter I had less than half a dozen photographic opportunities with the Pallas Cat. Nevertheless, I was able to capture some photographs that I am extremely happy with and I will be sharing them online here over the coming months.

All up I led a total of twelve separate international workshops and expeditions in 2019  spread across the globe (not including personal work such as my trip to Cuba and Mongolia as well as one-on-one Print workshops). A quick count tallies up well over sixty plane segments and over sixty thousand exposures (not all keepers unfortunately!) It was a fantastic (although frenetic) year and I just want to thank all of you who I was fortunate to meet, travel and photograph with throughout the year. It was real privilege to share in such remarkable destinations with so many fantastic passionate photographers – thank you.

2020 is ready to get underway and I am really excited about whats in store. In late December I will be returning to Canada to lead my sold out workshop to photograph Snowy Owls in winter. This workshop has long been sold out, but there are still a couple of spaces left for 2021 if you are keen to join me to photograph this beautifully majestic owl in a winter setting.

From Canada I return to Australia for just a few days before I leave for the South Island of New Zealand where we will depart on my thirty day sold out Antarctica Ross Sea Expedition. During this expedition we will also be visiting some of the sub-Antarctic islands including Snares Island (home to the Snares penguin) and MacQuarrie Island. This will be my first visit to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica and I am really excited about what opportunities we will have during this expedition. In particular, it is my hope that we may encounter and have the opportunity to photograph Emperor  Penguins on icebergs!

After the Ross Sea I will have a few days at home before I head north for Iceland and my annual Arctic Fox expedition to the Hornstradir Nature reserve. For this expedition we will be staying in a small remote cabin that is rustic, but functional and clean and we will have up to 10 hours of good light during the day with which to photograph the Arctic foxes. With luck, we may also see and photograph the spectacular Northern lights. The 2020 expedition has long been sold out, but there are still a few places on the 2021 expedition – just drop me a note to register your interest.

From Iceland I will travel directly to the east coast of Greenland to lead two brand new SOLD OUT expeditions via snow mobile for both Polar Bear and Musk Oxen in a stunning winter setting. I have been utilising snow mobiles in Winter in the Arctic for quite a few years now and have found the opportunities afforded by exploring via snow mobile to be truly unique and very special. This year I am moving my operations for Snow mobile from Svalbard to Greenland specifically to take advantage of the opportunity to photograph Musk Ox in winter.  Due to the continued expressions of interest I will likely have a similar offering for 2021 – details to come soon.

At the conclusion of the snow mobile expeditions I will lead my SOLD OUT annual winter ship expedition in Svalbard in search of Polar Bears, Arctic Fox, Reindeer and Arctic landscapes. The main focus of this expedition will be Arctic winter light, landscape and wildlife. In April the light conditions in Svalbard are magical. The 2020 expedition is long sold out and places are already limited for the 2021 expedition. If you would like more information or would like to reserve one of the remaining places for 2021 please drop me an email at any time.

After I finish the winter season in the Arctic I will have a few weeks break back in Australia before I head back north for my midnight sun Summer Svalbard expedition. We will depart from the small town of Longyearbyen and sail up to the edge of the permanent pack ice where we will spend our time searching for and photographing the king of the Arctic. With 24 hour daylight under the midnight sun we will have hours and hours of light for photography.  Whilst Polar Bears and other wildlife are the main attraction on an expedition such as this it needs to be said that the landscape opportunities in Svalbard are nothing short of breathtaking. Soaring bird cliffs, plunging glaciers and dramatic mountainous scenery means there is quite literally something for every photographer. If you have never been to Svalbard you should absolutely put it on your bucket list. There are still a few places available if you would like to join us.

From Svalbard I will return to Australia for a brief respite before I head to Russia for my first expedition to Wrangle Island. I am really excited about the opportunity to travel and photograph in Wrangle Island. Reports from expeditions earlier this year included sightings of up to fifty Polar Bears on several expeditions.  I will be offering Wrangle Island again in 2021 from August 16th until August 30th 2021 and details will be on my website very soon. Drop me an email for further details or to register your interest.

After I complete Wrangle Island I will head back to Australia and onto Greenland where I will lead a ship based expedition to Scoresby Sund on the East coast of Greenland.  This expedition is a ‘fly-in, sail out’ trip that will depart from Reykjavik via charter plane and land at Constable Point in Greenland. Flying to Greenland saves us two days sailing across open ocean and means we have more time for exploration and photography. We will then sail back to Iceland at the conclusion of our expedition. This 2020 expedition has long been sold out, but there are still a few places available on the 2021 expedition. Be sure to check out the Adobe Spark presentation HERE.  Just drop me an email to register your interest. You can check out a portfolio of photographs from Greenland on my website at www.jholko.com

After Greenland I will return to northern Finland to lead my new workshop for Wolverine and Wolves in a fiery Autumn setting. I first scouted this trip in Autumn two years ago and found it to be an absolutely superb time of the year for both Wildlife and Landscape photography in Northern Finland. At this time of year the Wolverines and Wolves are active and the bears have not yet begun to hibernate. Additionally the Autumn colour is in full swing which makes for outstanding backgrounds. This workshop is for a small group of just five photographers – only two places remaining before it will be sold out.

 In November I will again return to Union Glacier, deep in Antarctica to lead a sold out expedition to photograph Emperor Penguins. This will be my fifth expedition to Gould Bay and it remains one of the most amazing and incredible experiences I have had anywhere on earth.  I was last in Gould Bay back in 2018 (Read the Trip Report) and next years expedition will be my fifth sojourn to Union Glacier and the remote sea ice at Gould Bay. This is a region of Antarctica that is extremely remote and that is home to one of the largest Emperor Penguin colonies in Antarctica.  It is an absolutely incredible place to visit and photograph these remarkable birds. Due to rising costs this may well be my last expedition to the sea ice of Gould Bay.

And finally to round out the 2020 year I will return to Mongolia in December to lead a small group of just five photographers on an exploratory expedition in search of the enigmatic Snow Leopard.

For those of you that have managed to make it this and would like a hint of what else is further down the track: I am working on a new expedition to South Georgia in October of 2021. At this time of year there will be heaps of snow to photograph the King Penguins, the Elephant Seals will be fighting and importantly the pesky and ferocious fur seals will not yet have arrived en mass. I am not quite ready to start taking bookings as yet, but you can pre-register (no obligation) now if you want to secure a place.

Lastly and certainly not least, I want to wish all of you a very safe and happy New Year and may 2020 be one of amazing light and experiences for all of you. See you in the New Year!

Departing for Canada and Snowy Owls 2020

Christmas has come and gone and early tomorrow morning I am already heading back to the airport (one last time this year!) to make my way to Canada for my sold out Snowy Owl Workshop. For this workshop I am packing the usual assortment of cameras and lenses (I do not yet have the Canon EOS 1DX MKIII, but I am told I will have it very soon). Since this is a very specialised workshop I am packing only a few lenses. Based on previous experience most of the images will be around the 400mm mark so the new Canon 400mm f2.8L IS MKIII will be my primary lens.

  • 2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII Cameras with spare batteries
  • 1 x Canon 400mm f2.8L IS MKIII
  • 1 x Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS MKIII
  • 1 x Canon 24-70mm f4L IS
  • 1 x Canon 1.4 MKIII TC

If you are interested in photographing Snowy Owls in a winter setting there are now only a couple of places left on my 2021 workshop before it will also be sold out. You can drop me an email if you have any queries or to register your interest. You can also check out the sort of photographs you can make of these magnificent owls in the Canada portfolio on my website at www.jholko.com.

Mongolia Winter 2020 Expedition – In Search of the Snow Leopard

In December next year I will be leading a brand new small group expedition to Western Mongolia in winter to find and photograph the enigmatic Snow Leopard. The catalyst for this expedition was my recent scouting trip to Mongolia in winter to photograph the Pallas Cat (Read the Trip Report). What I discovered and learned during my trip was that the local nature photographers regard the Pallas Cat as harder to find and more difficult to photograph than the Snow Leopard (Having now spent two weeks tracking and trying to photograph this cat I can confirm it is not easy). What I also discovered was an absolutely fantastic lead on a chance to photograph Snow Leopard in Western Mongolia in winter. As a result I will be heading back to Mongolia in December next year to lead a small group of just three other photographers on an expedition to find and photograph the Snow Leopard in winter. Due to the initial interest I received after my Pallas Cat report the three places are already spoken for and the expedition is already sold out. If you were keen to photograph Snow Leopard in winter my drop me an email as there is already a waiting list on a possible future 2021 expedition. Photograph below courtesy my guide in Mongolia.

Mongolia Pallas Cat Field Report December 2019

A few days ago I returned home from my scouting trip to Eastern Mongolia in the depths of their frigid winter to try and photograph one of the worlds rarest, least known and most elusive wild cats – the Pallas cat. You can read my introduction to this project HERE. As it turned out, I discovered whilst on this shoot that the local Nature and Wildlife photographers in Mongolia and most of Asia regard the Pallas Cat as much harder to find and photograph than the enigmatic and iconic Snow Leopard. So much for my planning and research. Fate it seems is not without a sense of irony…

It is important to clarify, that this scouting trip was not a precursor to a future workshop. Put simply, the Pallas cat is just too elusive, too shy and too hard to find to be able to reliably run even a small group workshop for this amazing animal. On top of this, the lack of basic infrastructure such as running water, flushing toilets, hot showers and the requirement to tent camp in temperatures between -40C and -15C in the middle of a very remote location mean that it is an exceptionally tough environment in which to work. The only heat I had during my time in the field was provided by burning coal in a small fire stove in my tent. It was, without doubt, the toughest shoot I have personally undertaken.

As this was not an official workshop and I was operating effectively on my own (with a local field guide) I decided to simply publish my raw unedited dot point field notes (along with some raw video journal footage), instead of an offical trip report. These are the notes I made on a daily basis in my tent during the evenings. They are a summary of my days activities and thoughts.

In summary, I believe I found a total of three individual Pallas cats during the two and a bit weeks I was in the field. I photographed cats on five seperate occasions, but I do think two of these cats were on reflection the same cats as I had previously photographed. Pallas cats have little in the way of distinguishing features from what I can tell, and my assertion that two of them may have been the same cat has more to do with their overall size and relative location where I photographed them.

I have not as yet had time to process any of the actual photographs I made during this expedition. Instead, I am including the video logs I made on a semi-daily basis along with my dot point field notes. The actual photographs I will release next year as a portfolio of work on my website at www.jholko.com

I want to sincerely thank my local fixer and field guide who worked tirelessly with me in the field as we scoured the lunar-like landscape for kilometre after kilometre in search of this rare cat. On a daily basis we walked many kilometres across the frozen landscape in search of this cat in temperatures that were often hovering between -20C and -40C. Trying to put into words the difficulty of searching and photographing in this environment is impossible. All I can really say is that the inner region of eastern Mongolia in winter is as brutal an environment as I have ever worked. The cold is insidious and relentless; the cat elusive and ghost like in its rare appearances.

Pallas Cat Scouting Trip Field Notes

Day 1 – Depart for Beijing. Flight on time. Get a few hours sleep to break the monotony. Arrive Beijing and transit through for international flight to Ulaanbaatar. Why do security make me pull every single camera and lens out of my bag? Is the bag really x-ray proof? Flight departs for Mongolia on time. Its a two and a half hour flight, but we circle the airport at Ulaanbaatar for an hour. Unable to land due to high winds we are forced to fly the two and half hours back to Beijing.

Back in Beijing, we sit on the tarmac for what seems like an hour before they unload us into a transit area. Stuck for four hours we are told we will try again at 18:00 tonight.

Board the plane again for Mongolia. I sleep the two and a half hours it takes and wake as the wheels touch the tarmac in Mongolia. Its -28C when I disembark – frigid. I collect luggage and meet my local fixer who transports me into the city for one night in the hotel. I am tired. I hope I can find this cat.

Day 2 – I wake at 5am; unable to sleep further. I take a shower and check email and go for breakfast and coffee at 7:45am. I am supposed to meet my fixer at 8:30am in reception. I am ready and waiting at 8:15am. 8:30 rolls around and no one shows up; then 9am and then 9:30am. Finally at 10:30am my fixer and local guide arrive. They blame peak hour traffic. Welcome to Ulaanbaatar.

We load the 4WD – a Toyota land cruiser. It is supposed to be about 600km out into the wilderness. We drive all day. The roads are better than I expected, but the going is slow. Lots of snow on the road and we can barely do 80km per hour. We break for lunch at some random truck spot. The noodle soup is hot and hearty. We drive all afternoon and into the evening before we turn off onto a dirt snow covered trail. I have long since lost my sense of direction. Its pitch dark and we are barrelling along a snow covered road like it is the Jakarta rally. Another hour drifts past and then another…We have been driving for nearly ten hours before we arrive at basecamp. There are approximately six gyrs (tents) set up. We have some dinner – I think its beef, it might be horse; I have no idea. But I am hungry and devour it. Outside the Gyr its -35C; but inside its about 20 degrees and quite comfortable. I am shown to my private Gyr where there is a small bed, a wash basin and a coal fuelled fire to warm the tent. I unpack and crash.

Day 3 – I wake at 5am and lie in bed for an hour before getting up to dress. It is still dark. Outside its -35C and I can hear the wind rustling the outside fabric of my Gyr. We head out into the field after some breakfast to begin searching. Its icy cold and the air is super dry. It doesn’t take long; maybe an hour or two before we find a Pallas cat hunkering down between two boulders out of the wind. The Pallas cat must feel cornered as it bolts out of the rocks and into the nearby grass and snow. Out in the open I grab my chance to make some photographs of this incredible cat. The wind blows the snow across the landscape. Is it going to be this easy every day? I had not expected to find a cat so quickly and to be able to get photographs of it out in the open. This feels like a gift.

Day 4 – I am awake by 5:30am and after a quick breakfast am already out in the field prior to sunrise searching rocky outcrops for the Pallas cat. I walk maybe four hours across the frozen lunar landscape. Going from rocky out crop to rocky outcrop searching for signs of passing of the Pallas Cat. It is hard to find fresh prints. There are many horses in the area as well as Corsak Fox and the foot print left by the Pallas cat is small and easily missed.

Finally, in the afternoon after hours of searching I find a cat; hidden deep inside a rocky nook on top of one of the Mongolian Steppes. I set up a hundred metres or so away and wait for the cat to come out near sunset to start to hunt. I only have to wait an hour or so before the cat emerges. It is hesitant and shy. It scans its surroundings and spots me easily; even though I am wearing full camouflage and hidden in the grass and snow. It hisses and backs away slowly. I take the opportunity and grab some photographs. The snow is a bit patchy and the photography is difficult.

Day 5 – Today we plan to take things a little more slowly. I still wake at 5am after a restless night. The small bed in the Gyr is like a plank of wood and it seems hard to get the temperature regulated inside the Gyr. It’s either too hot or too cold. I woke at 1am in a sweat and had to go outside for a few minutes to cool off. By 5am I was freezing cold, despite the many quilt layers.

We head out into the field around 9am. Its warmer than yesterday, nearer to -10C, but I can hear the wind so I know it will be cold out in the field. The plan today is to try and find another Pallas cat, and then set up a portable hide to try and get some photographs of hunting behaviour.

Found a Pallas cat den site with fresh tracks around it, I set up the hide and hunker down to wait. My field guide believes the cat is inside the den; but I have my doubts. Hours drift past.. Nothing. No sign of anything other than a Raven overhead. I can feel frustration starting to seep into my bones and I finally call it quits in the late afternoon. No sign of the cat all day.

 

Day 6 – The wind is howling outside my tent when I wake at 5:30am. Its going to be frigid and icy out there today. I lie in bed an hour trying to force myself to get up and make coffee.

Spend the entire day searching in difficult conditions; strong wind makes it tough walking. Find one Pallas cat hidden deep in a rocky outcrop and decide to try and wait it out.  Hours go past and the cat shows no sign of leaving the safety of its natural wind shelter so I decide to abandon it and keep looking.

Near sunset the wind begins to drop and small snow flakes are falling. The light is magnificent, but there is no sign of the Pallas cat… or any other wildlife. I search until dark before giving up and heading back to my Gyr for the evening. The reality of how difficult this cat is to photograph is starting to seriously hit home. Even when I find a cat, its hidden deep in the rocks and impossible to photograph.

Day 7- Waking at 5:30am seems to be the norm for me now. Breakfast is quick and we are out looking for the Pallas cat before 7am. It doesn’t take very long before we find one, hidden in some rocks as I have come to expect. It becomes a waiting game. Either I am going to get too cold and give up, or the cat is going to come out to hunt. Finally, unable to feel my toes or fingers any more and around 3:30pm the cat emerges and I am able to get some photographs of it amongst the sparse snow and grass. A long day, but worth the wait.

Day 8 – I think I jinxed myself with the 5:30am wake-up as this morning I was awake by 3:30am and could not get back to sleep. I lie in bed for a couple of hours pondering yesterdays shoot before I get up for some coffee and breakfast. Its another blue sky day; so I decide to take the morning off and spend the afternoon trying to find Saker Falcon, Eagle Owl and Little Owl; both of which are regularly spotted in this area.

I get a few shots of Little Owls during the day, but there is no sign of other raptors, outside of a few buzzards.

Day 9 – Searched from 8am until nearly sunset and nothing. Some days the candy bar, some days the wrapper…Super windy all day. I am starting to wonder if I am going to achieve my vision of photographing this enigmatic cat in the snow. I scan the photographs I have already taken in the evening. I have a few I like, but I am missing the iconic shots I really want to capture.

Day 10 – Breakfast at 6am is now my norm and we are out in the field again before sunrise. Another very windy day with freezing temperatures. Just staying warm and hydrated in this environment consumes a huge amount of energy and effort. Searched all day, finally found cat right on sunset in a small snow covered area. I grab the opportunity and photograph the cat in the snow. This feels like mana from heaven after the last few days.

Day 11- Re-invigorated by the success last evening I am out in the field well before sunrise and head back to where I photographed the cat yesterday evening. We find the  cat on sunrise not far from our position last night. The light is fantastic and I grab as many photographs as I can before the cat bolts for shelter in the rocks. This morning feels like a bonus and I decide to take the afternoon off and recharge my batteries.

Day 12 – I take the morning a little slow and head out bout 10:30am. Search all day long, but find nothing. Its cold; perhaps somewhere around -30C today. I am starting to feel worn down. Long days in the field, lots of walking in freezing wind and relentless searching. The photographic opportunities seem few and far between.

Day 13 – Head out out early again this morning. After yesterdays bust I am keen to put in the hours and find a cat. I realise I am running out of days. It is a blue Sky day. Its warm, the warmest day so far with temperatures around -10C.  I search all day long, going from rocky area to rocky area, but there is no sign of a cat anywhere. I cant even find any prints. I suspect all the cats are out hunting in the warmer weather. The rodents, gerbils and vols are out today and its the first time I have seen them regularly so it makes sense the cats are also out hunting. Yet I cant find one. Frustration.

 

Day 14 – Today is my final full day in the field. There is loads of fresh snow on the ground from a blizzard last night. Great drifts have piled up against the hills – stunning conditions. I hope I can find a cat today in the snow. The light this morning is stunning. A mix of soft overcast light with pastel colors. Although I feel I have many great photographs I would love one more opportunity with this rare cat. Especially as there is some snow still falling in the air. 

Jackpot! Found a cat in the snow early morning. Some wonderful photographs of the cat sitting in the snow as the falling flakes piles up on its fur. This is what I came all this way for.  What a way to finish up this trip. I feel deeply blessed to have had this time with this rare cat in such a beautiful environment. This is an incredibly harsh place, lunar-like, sparse, frozen and desolate; yet this cat survives here. Amazing animal.

Day 15 – Final day this morning. Early breakfast and on the road by 7:15am. Eight hour plus drive back to Ulaanbaatar.  It has been an incredible trip. I am grateful for the experiences I have had in the field with the Pallas cat and I feel I have the photographs I came for. My thoughts are turning to home.