Saturday, April 18, 2020

Nalsarovar (Jan 2020) - This place keeps on giving!


The area around Nalsarovar in Gujarat is as unlikely a birding hotspot is is possible to be. It is not the classical rich habitat like the Himalayan foothills or the Western Ghats. Neither is it a classical aquatic paradise like some of the other places. It is one large waterbody (which yields all the usual migrant species) and a lot of scrub and cultivation around. And in these environs, the skill and industry of Latif Alvani and his fellow naturalists throws up some unbelievable birds. Almost every few months, they conjure up a rare bird or three. After the Little Bittern, this time it was a Red-naped Shaheen or Barbary Falcon that he dug out.

After hemming and hawing for a few days, we set out for Ahmedabad on our usual red-eye special. This time, we would have more company; friends and ace photographers Aravind and Ram from Chennai. What was going to be a trip to Mumbai for the Forest Owlet was hijacked into a trip to Ahmedabad. And we all headed to rendezvous with Latif early in the morning, but not before filling up on some awesome jalebi-fafda at our usual spot. Early morning fortification always makes for a great day's birding! With Latif in tow, we headed to the spot to wait for the Falcon. And, being a Saturday, there were a fair number of people with the same idea, birders from far and wide wished to make their acquaintance with this sibling of the Peregrine Falcon. The only problem? A big bank of clouds that appeared from nowhere to mess this up completely.

Red-headed Bunting
Nevertheless, we birders are made of sterner(?) stuff and a few clouds would not deter us or dampen our spirits. As long as it didn't rain of course! And so we waited till the star of the show made an appearance, but he was in a skittish mood and led us a bit of a merry dance. He then disappeared for a bit before returning with a lark kill. He proceeded to polish it off and then pushed off himself, for a  well-earned post breakfast rest no doubt. We'd got some average photos in poor light, but to see this beauty itself was a treat in itself. There were other specialities in store that day, so we moved on to them. And there was some frantic activity in the bushes near the falcon spot, right next to the road. A closer look confirmed that they were Red and Black Headed Buntings. Always a treat to get these beauties. We snapped a few quick ones and headed on because we had some other specialities waiting.

Black-headed Bunting

Common Ringed Plover
We tried for the Sociable Lapwings, a bit half-heartedly, I must admit because our focus was on something else. We were en route to get the rare Common Ringed Plover, a true oxymoron if ever there was one. On the way, Aravind and the others went to get some pictures of the resident Saruses while I rested my poor aching foot. And then we headed 35 kms away to the fringes of Nalsarovar Lake, where Latif and Co had spotted the Plovers. We got into a rather fragile looking contraption that masqueraded as a boat, but Latif was confident and that was good enough for us. We passed by a rather co-operative Small Pratincole who gave us good pictures, followed by a White-tailed Lapwing. And then we saw a couple of little birds flitting about at the edge of the water; they were a bit far and the mid-day haze made the sighting not ideal, but it was the plovers! We took a long and circuitous route around that little island and disembarked. And then it was all of us on all fours and then on our stomachs as we crawled to get closer to the birds without spooking them. And we did manage some decent photos, given the really tricky light. Once we'd had our fill of bird, we realised that we still needed to eat! Stomachs growling in protest, we hastened back to land and then onwards to the delightful little dhaba where we pigged to our hearts content.

Job done, we drove around trying to look for a couple of the other local interest items, Black-breasted Weavers, Sandgrouse and a couple of other Warblers. We got the Weaver and then decided it was time to mount another (photographic) assault on our friend the Falcon. We went back to the spot and waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then he came, with another kill. The light wasn't perfect, so we slowly tried to move into position, when another vehicle got just that little trigger happy and our friend didn't seem to like it. He legged it and we waited again. The light started to fade and so did our hopes. And then, on a whim, I asked Latif to check in the trees a little further down. And lo! there was our friend, without a victim this time. Light was a challenge yet again (a recurring theme that day) but we exited Nalsarovar with a memorable sighting of a couple of really rare 'uns.

And for that I shall remain eternally grateful. To this wonderful place that keeps throwing up these special birds and also to Latif, ever-smiling and ever-willing to help.

Can't wait for this situation to blow over and get that next call from him. Till then we wait in hope.


Nalsarovar Lake Trip Guide


Nalsarovar Lake is a 120 sq. km. lake that sits between Central Gujarat and Saurashtra. Declared a Ramsar site in 2012, it is one of the finest wetland habitats in Western India and home to thousands of migratory birds in the winter. 
However, a lot of the birding happens outside the waterbody itself. And a superb guide like Latif knows all the spots.

How to get there
Ahmedabad (approx. 65 kms, 1 1/2 hours) is the closest metro, airport and large rail-head. Sanand (now a virtual satellite of Ahmedabad) is the closest town. Cars can easily be hired at Ahmedabad for the drive to Nalsarovar.

Where to stay
Again, your best option would be to stay in Ahmedabad and maybe make a day trip to Nalsarovar. As Gujarat's commercial hub, the city has a superb variety of accommodation to suit every budget. 

There is also a resort at Nalsarovar itself now. Though we didn't stay there, we did a tour of the place and it seemed quite clean and nice.


Guides

Look no further than Latif, a fantastic guide and lovely human being. He and his family pretty much cover off the guiding in that area. You can reach him on +91 91065 21394

Food
At the wetland, the Parking lot has a small snack bar which has chips and biscuits. The village nearby has some snack stalls along the highway. Latif took us to an excellent dhaba with some delicious local food, which has now become a default on every trip.

Other tips
Nalsarovar can also be combined with a trip to the Little Rann of Kutch, barely 70kms away. The road from Ahmedabad is common up to Sanand, so those going to the Rann can easily make a day stop on the way.





Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Lonavala (Feb 2020) - Quest-ral?


The hill-station of Lonavala nestles within the Sahyadris, at a comfortable driving distance from both Mumbai and Pune. Usually a destination for picnics and family outings, it made its debut on the must-visit destination list for birders only in 2019. And all that was thanks to one bird - The Lesser Kestrel, a small bird of prey from the falcon family. While this bird is a regular winter visitor to the country, sightings and wintering spots are not always reliable. A small flock had apparently collected in the backwaters of a dam in Lonavala last winter, but only a select few were 'in' on the location. This year, thanks to a kindly birder friend, a lot many more people got to see this splendid bird.

One Sunday afternoon, Sriram and I drove out to record our attendance with the Kestrel. A comfortable two hour drive and we were at the dam, given precise instructions on where to find the birds by friends who'd been there earlier. We saw them at once, but hovering and flying and not anywhere close to landing on the ground. And we waited, drove around a bit trying to track different individuals, but an hour or so passed without any luck. We both had a good look at the birds through the binoculars so that was good, but the photo ops were not forthcoming.

Until a fellow birder and kindly soul, Ronit Dutta let us in on a little secret. One sub-adult bird always perches on a group of rocks at the far side of the dam at a particular time. And, thanking him profusely, we slowly headed there, and found said bird perched very kindly on a rock. He gave us some nice pictures and we waited with him for the light to get a little better. He then allowed us, crawling on our stomachs, to get reasonably close and get some decent photos. Satisfied, we left the bird in peace and drove around, trying to scout for the lone male, in the hope that he too descends for this photo session. But he proved elusive, though his cousin, a Common Kestrel proved far more amenable to having his picture taken. 


Having got our pictures, we both called it an early evening and headed back home; happy to spend some quality time with the Lesser Kestrel but awaiting the next season to come back and get the male.


Lonavala Trip Guide

Getting there
Lonavala is about 90kms from Mumbai by road and about 2 1/2 hours by train (65 kms and 1 1/2 hours by train from Pune) It's easy to reach from either city thanks to the Mumbai-Pune expressway. This particular spot is at the Tata Dam, once it dries up in winter. 


Stay
Being a hill-station, Lonavala has plenty of places to stay across budgets and forms, from large hotels to villas on hire. It's a comfortable day trip from both Mumbai and Pune so stay is a need only if you're planning to spend a weekend there.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Desert National Park (Feb 2020) - Desert. Not Deserted.


The might Thar desert in Northwestern India, is a force of nature, covering about 170,000 square kilometres. The word desert immediately conjures up images of barren and desolate terrain with scarcely any life forms. Desolate it might be, but this desert plays host to an incredible array of wildlife; bird, reptile or mammal (beyond the stereotypical-but-uncommon-in-the-wild ship of the desert) Most critically, this is the last refuge for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard; fewer than 200 hold out within and around the 3000 square kilometre Desert National Park, somehow withstanding mankind's assault on their breeding grounds. To think this bird was in the running to be our national bird less than 60 years ago!

The challenge is compounded by the the Bustard's notoriously fussy breeding habits, unlike, say the tiger, who is a reasonably prolific reproducer, given the opportunity. Every Bustard egg and chick are priceless and all our hopes are pinned on the Forest Department's efforts to revitalise the population. More power to them!

The Bustard was of course a priority, but there were several other avian denizens that were on the wish-list here (resident and visitor) and a last minute plan somehow fell into place this February with Jay, Sriram and yours truly being led by the fantastic Musa Khan, expert on all matters avian (and otherwise) in that area. Arriving at Jaisalmer, I reflected on my last trip there a full 18 years ago, where I was pure tourist and zero birder. This time it would be just the reverse. And things just came full circle.


Arriving at Camp Banjara (our abode for the next couple of days) we quickly had a simple yet sumptuous lunch and headed out with Musa in an open gypsy. Ah, the joys of viewing (and photographing) wildlife in an open vehicle! First in focus was the Bustard (godawan in the local language) of course but before that, a lovely Black-crowned Sparrow-lark and then a false alarm. A flock of Sandgrouse settled in front of our vehicle and, noticing black on their bellies, we proclaimed them to be the rare Black-bellied species, justifiably we all thought. Musa put paid to that dream by gently point out that the more common Chestnut-bellied species also sport black bellies. Just when you thought you'd figured out birds! 


A short while later, our luck finally turned. In the middle of a lush, green, field, Musa spotted some activity. At first we could only see the neck and the head, but it was a Bustard all right. And to his right, there was another. And another. And we'd set eyes on 2% of the total global population! We waited patiently and two of them came reasonably close and gave us acceptable photos. And then we left them in peace and headed onwards, in search of more lifers. And we got a couple of Desert Larks foraging next to the road. Add in an Isabelline Shrike and another Black-crowned Sparrow Lark in good light and our first session ended very well indeed.

Common Buzzard
We had a full next day to find the rest of our targets; the only fly in the ointment was Netsi pond drying up, meaning our chances of getting Water & Buff-bellied Pipits and the much-coveted Greater Hoopoe Lark were all but over. But there was enough and more elsewhere and we set out with a lot of hope. And the desert didn't disappoint, throwing up great photo opps for Long-legged & Common Buzzards and then a beautiful Tawny Eagle who allowed us to get really close. Then we got two different vulture species (Cinereous and Griffon) having a bit of tete-a-tete. Vultures usually are not associated with good looks, but the Cinereous is an absolutely handsome bird. Don't believe me, just look at the fella on the right in the photo below...

Red-tailed Wheatear
The extended morning session continued with lovely sightings of Red-tailed Wheatears, more Desert Larks and an Asian Desert Warbler who just wanted to be photographed. But the icing on the proverbial dessert was laid on when we headed back to camp; we were feeling a bit low because the Trumpeter Finches kept eluding us, and then Musa saw something flying above the jeep and he said "Finch". And given that the only Finches in the area are of the Trumpeter variety, that word meant a lot to us. And the finches obliged by perching on a rocky outcrop for a couple of minutes. The mid-day light was harsh so the photos were mere records, but we were elated to just see this magnificent little bird. And lunch definitely tasted far better after that!

Cream Coloured Courser
The Trumpeter was the focus bird for the afternoon, and we headed to a waterhole which they frequent. Only to find it completely occupied by a herd of cattle. This bovine invasion was a serious spanner in our works; with so many large animals around, there was no way the finches would come to drink. Musa coaxed them cows to exit and no sooner had they stepped away than a couple of finches and a flock of larks came up to drink. We were just lining up a couple of good photos when a non-cooperative member of the cattle union decided to pay a visit. And said birds hastily legged it. And we had no option but to drive on and look in other places. Those other places threw up a spectacular feast, making the afternoon probably the most rewarding few hours I've spent in a long time. We started off searching for Cream-coloured Coursers, only for them to elude Musa's eagle eye. Until Jay spotted a bird right next to our jeep. And it led us to a whole flock, not more than 100 metres away. And we got some good photos of this beautiful bird. Our appetites whetted, we drove on for more.
Laggar Falcon
A cluster of jeeps indicated more good fortune. On a branch of a dead tree sat a beautiful Laggar Falcon. Eager to impress us, he flew down to perch on a mound and pose for his portfolio photos in beautiful light. And as he flew off, we caught another lifer in the background; a bunch of Punjab Ravens clustered around something. We approached them slowly and realised that they were ambushing a Spiny-tailed Lizard. The poor reptile probably stayed too far from his burrow and the Ravens immediately took their chance. It was cruel to watch, but then this is nature and we had no right to interfere with it. We left the lizard and Ravens to their fate and moved further on. And the evening would throw up another mini-lifer before we shut shop. A Variable Wheatear of the Capistrata race popped on a fence near us, leading us to fantasise about it being a super-rare Finsch's Wheatear. Alas it was still a Variable, but a beautiful bird nonetheless.

We didn't have too much time on the last morning so we were at a loose end on what to do. Musa suggested we visit a nearby waterhole and take a chance with the Trumpeters. Meanwhile, we got a lifer at the camp itself; a Plain Leaf Warbler busily flitted from bush to tree in an early morning frenzy of activity. Though photography was not really possible, we got some records of this little bird, one more to the list. And then we drove to the waterhole, only to find it completely dry. He suggested (with less conviction) another waterhole by the main road and that's where we found ourselves a short while later, with only pigeons for company.

Trumpeter Finch
A few minutes later, I saw a couple of birds land on a rocky outcrop a little ahead of us. And I pointed them out to Musa, who uttered the magic word "Trumpeter". And this time, there were no cows to keep them away from their portfolio shoot. We waited for the birds to come closer and one of them came to a lovely perch not too far from us and gave us some good photos in beautiful morning light. I'm absolutely in love with these gorgeous little birds, and they were kind enough to give me some photographic mementos that I can preserve and treasure. Job done, we headed back for breakfast and then onwards to Jodhpur for our flights.

Spectacular though this trip was, there's still unfinished business in the Desert. The Hoopoe Lark continues to elude, and that, along with the Black-bellied Sandgrouse, beckons. Here's to next time.

Desert National Park Trip Guide

Getting there
The Desert National Park, located in Western Rajasthan is accessed by the historical city of Jaisalmer, a tourist hotspot in itself. Jaisalmer is connected via air from Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur. The other airport to access Jaisalmer is Jodhpur (280 kms, 5 hours) where we took our return flight from.
The other option is the train, with trains from Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Jodhpur.

Stay
Being a tourist hotspot, Jaisalmer and the area around Sam have several stay options, ranging from the comfortable to the super-luxury. We stayed about 25 kms from Sam, at the comfortable Camp Banjara; decent rooms and good, simple vegetarian food.

Naturalists
Musa Khan is one of the best there is. His knowledge of the area and birds is nothing short of astonishing, especially given he's only been doing this for a few years. He's got an open Gypsy as well, making photography even more rewarding. You can reach him on +91 9929663413

Bird List
  1. Great Indian Bustard
  2. Black-crowned Sparrow Lark
  3. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
  4. Collared Dove
  5. Laughing Dove
  6. Asian Desert Warbler
  7. Lesser Whitethroat
  8. Isabelline Shrike
  9. Desert Wheatear
  10. Variable Wheatear (Picata, Capistrata and Opistholeuca sub-species)
  11. Isabelline Wheatear
  12. Great Grey Shrike
  13. Greater Short-toed Lark
  14. Desert Lark
  15. Lesser Short-toed Lark
  16. Egyptian Vulture
  17. Common Buzzard
  18. Common Kestrel
  19. Red-vented Bulbul
  20. White-eared Bulbul
  21. House Crow
  22. Common House Sparrow
  23. Green Bee-eater
  24. Long-legged Buzzard
  25. Common Buzzard
  26. Tawny Eagle
  27. Steppe Eagle
  28. Cinereous Vulture
  29. Griffon Vulture
  30. Red-tailed Wheatear
  31. Trumpeter Finch
  32. Tawny Pipit
  33. Black Drongo
  34. Indian Silverbill
  35. Desert Whitethroat
  36. Cream Coloured Courser
  37. Laggar Falcon
  38. Punjab Raven
  39. Plain Leaf Warbler
  40. Spotted Redshank

Hampi (October 2019) Birding in Ruins


The magnificent ruins of Hampi in Northern Karnataka house the remnants of the legendary Vijayanagara empire. And that is the sole reason why most tourists from far and wide throng the ruined palaces and temples. And then there are others like me who have one more reason to visit. Birds. For there is a bird species found amidst Hampi's rocky outcrops that is seldom found elsewhere; the enigmatic Yellow-throated Bulbul. And when a family and friends trip was planned post Diwali, the double lure of ruins plus birds was too good to pass up. There's also bears around Hampi, but that would have to happen another time.


And so one balmy October morning saw a busload of people descend on the Shiv Vilas palace, about 40 kms from Hampi, our abode for the next few days. After a couple of good ones followed by an excellent meal, we turned in for the night, ready for the ruins the next day. But I had a date much earlier in the morning. With Pompayya Malemath, Hampi's legendary bird-man. He's been making things happen for birders for as long back as I can remember and it was a privilege to make his acquaintance. 

Painted Spurfowl
While the Yellow-throated Bulbul was the piece-de-resistance, he whetted my appetite with some 'hide' birding for some of the more common species first up. Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks, Grey Francolin and some Indian Silverbills all provided some good entertainment upfront, till the star of the hide showed up - the Painted Spurfowl. This gorgeous star wasn't in the mood to indulge me that morning as he skulked about in the shadows. A mongoose's unwelcome arrival also threw a spanner in the works as said thespian quickly beat a hasty retreat, life obviously being more valuable than a portfolio. And while I assumed that was that, a lifer suddenly popped into view; a Yellow-billed Babbler. This commoner had always eluded me and to get it here, when I least expected it, was delightful to say the least. I gratefully clicked a few frames as Pompayya came to remind me about main course.

We drove to the famed ruins, and directly to the only 'live' temple there, the magnificent Virupaksha temple. I'd assumed Pompayya wanted me to see the temple before we headed to the Bulbul spot. But little did I know that the area around temple was actually where the bulbul took up residence! And so we walked the rocky area around the mighty Virupaksha hoping to sight one of the rarest of all birds found in India. And sight we did. Almost immediately. But photography was another challenge altogether.

That morning, the Yellow-throated Bulbul was in a strange mood. Sometimes, photographers call it the 'against the light' mood. Over the next hour or so, Pompayya painstakingly conjured up at least 10 different individuals. But almost all of them decided to perch at spots directly against the morning sun. Now having the bird situated between you and Lord Surya makes for the most challenging of situations for a quality photo. And so, we waited and prayed. For one co-operative bird who would come and perch in good light. In the meantime we got some sighters of other birds, including a Blue-faced Malkoha, unfortunately without any photos.

Back to the Bulbul-hunt and after many futile quests, one fine specimen of his species finally decided to oblige. He emerged from his hiding place in the thick foliage and perched on a large rocky outcrop. Not the most ideal of frames again, since I had the sky as a backdrop, but I was going to look no gift horse in the mouth. Sky in the background or not, I loosed off a few frames, grateful to have this wonderful bird out in the open and in good light. The light was turning really harsh I was running out of hope to get another shot at this bird.

That's when another of his ilk decided to also bestow a favour or two. He perched in some light on the branch of a tree and while it was no means a great perch or background, it still allowed me to get a decent shot of the bird. And those two frames pretty much made my morning. Now for the real reason why I was in Hampi, a visit to the spectacular ruins and temples. But Pompayya wasn't done with me yet; he had another surprise up his sleeve.The Indian Eagle Owl is a spectacular bird of prey; it is regal, beautiful and fierce looking, all at the same time. And it's always a joy to see one. So when Pompayya asked if I'd be interested, it took me less than a nano-second to reply in the affirmative. And we set out alongside a canal, looking at the mud-banks for signs of this bird for it usually roosts in the grasses and roots of the trees along the mud banks. One worrying sign was the evidence of the authorities concretising the sides of the canal, thus denying the Owls their roosting spots. Such is 'development' I guess.

We saw the first of our Owls quietly perched amidst some grass under the shade of a tree. He was awake and very aware of our presence. And we waited at a respectful distance and took some record pictures. And then a passing truck threw everything off gear as he decided to honk just as he passed us. And that was enough for the owl as he hastily legged (winged?) it. He went further ahead and sat in the shade of a bush as a pitstop and then found himself a much better roosting spot in the tall branches of a shady tree. We left him at peace and returned back to Hampi and the aforementioned temples and ruins. Prefaced with some delectable idlis on the idyllic banks of the Tungabhadra for breakfast.

All in all, a wonderful morning's work.

Hampi Trip Guide

Getting there
Hampi, located in Northern Karnataka is not as well connected as you'd expect it to be. The nearest airport is at Ballari (60kms away) which hosts a single flight to Bangalore every day. The other option is Hubli (164 kms - 4 hours) which also has very limited connections.
Bengaluru is the nearest metro, with the airport being a cool 350 kms away (7 hours at the least)
Hospet (13 kms) is the closest town and rail-head in case you'd like to take that route.



Stay

There are several stay options in and around Hampi, ranging from the comfortable to the super-luxury. We stayed about 40 kms away at the charming Shiv Vilas Palace Hotel in Sandur, a wonderful property with excellent service.

Naturalists

The master of the area is the incomparable Pompayya Malemath. He's a legend, knows the area better than anyone else around and is also a wonderful person. There is no argument here, if he's free and available, look no further. You can reach him on +91 9449136252.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ladakh (July 2019) - Birding at the highest level


Julley!
Ladakh is as unlikely a birding destination as is possible to get. One normally associates birds with verdant forest, coasts or even scrub and grassland. What avian life could a barren, high altitude, cold desert possibly support? Yet, defying conventional wisdom, Ladakh plays host to an incredible array of bird (and even mammal) species, some of which are seldom found elsewhere in this vast country of ours. And so, a trip to this most exotic (and extreme) of bird havens was always an exciting and potentially rewarding prospect. And when Lakpa Tenzing, close friend and naturalist extraordinaire, suggested a trip, a plan quickly fell into place. And before we could say Leh, a group of five - Lakpa, Ramesh, Manju, Jaysingh (arriving fashionably late) and yours truly were already there, acclimatising to the high-altitude, low oxygen environs.


The first day and most of the second were reserved for rest, getting used to the altitude and also to check for any symptoms of altitude sickness. Relieved that none of us were affected, we did a bit of sightseeing around Leh (including the famous Rancho's School from the movie 3 Idiots). The Shey Marshes gave us some birding, and we scored the first couple of lifers on the trip in the forms of the Eurasian Magpie and Mountain Chiffchaff. Shey had nothing more to offer and a nice stroll in Leh Market rounded off our acclimatisation. The next morning we would set out for Pangong Tso, another of Ladakh's attractions that the aforementioned film brought to national consciousness.

Chang-La, Pangong-Tso
The route from Leh to Pangong Tso takes us across the Chang-La Pass, one of the three highest motorable passes in the world. For us, it held some special avian treasures as well, with the Tibetan Snowcock at the top of the wishlist. First up though we got a couple of beautiful Chukar Partridges, a Robin Accentor making a meal of his breakfast worm and a Himalayan Weasel trying to purloin some Chukar eggs for brekkies. The Snowcock proved elusive but we would have another bite at the cherry on the way back. Once across, the proverbial floodgates completely opened up. First, Lakpa's eagle eyes spotted a White-throated Dipper in a fast flowing stream next to the road.  Then, we hit pay dirt on the banks of another stream, with lifers flowing thick and fast; a beautiful White-winged (or Guldenstadt's) Redstart, followed by Tibetan Snowfinches, Horned Larks and Twite. A little further along the same stream and we came across two beautiful Red-billed Choughs with their bright red 'lipstick' beaks. A close up of a Marmot (albeit with a paper bag in its mouth) completed a scintillating morning, topped up with a splendid breakfast of egg-noodles.

Our tented camp was about 20 kms before Pangong-Tso (the local government not allowing any camps or resorts near the lake itself) and we checked in, had a bite and headed to the lake. The lake itself is stunning, with some breathtaking views as you approach it. There were a fair amount of tourists at the lake itself, posing for selfies with '3 Idiots' poses (which we would happily take on later) Our immediate priority though was to find one really special bird - The Common Merganser or Goosander. And lo, on the banks of the lake, a little away from the tourist spots we spotted a couple of them. They were very wary, even though we were really far away and at quite a height. A passing jeep made them hustle into the water and to our delight we saw that they were followed by a bunch of chicks! We watched with great joy as they swam around with their little brood; taking care to never get too close. A few decent (if distant) frames and we were happy to slot back into tourist mode. As we headed back to camp, we realised that our birding in Pangong was pretty much done and Lakpa suggested that we head onwards to Tso Kar a day ahead of schedule.

Chang-La, Tso Kar
Very early the next morning, we headed to Tso Kar, again crossing Chang-La pass. We forded the pass just around day-break and on our way down, Lakpa kept his eyes peeled for the Snowcock. And on one particularly rocky slope, he found it! Imagine spotting a bird that is perfectly camouflaged in rocks, in pretty poor light and from a vehicle driving at 30 kms per hour. But then, that is the magic of that man. He exclaimed 'Snowcock' and we all descended from the car at the rate of knots. And as we peered into the rocky hillside, we saw a pair of Tibetan Snowcocks, with great difficulty at first as they blended into the hillside. They gave us a few decent images before melting into the rocks and we headed forth to our next destination - Tso Kar. En route, we got a couple of lifers in the form of Hill Pigeons and Fork-tailed Swifts. And then we forded the magnificent Taglangla Pass, another in the Top 3. And that was when the weather turned - suddenly, at the pass, it turned freezing cold and then actually snowed! This weird weather would set the tone for the rest of our trip.


The birds did make an appearance, in the form of a majestic Lammergeier (who perched a light year away) and a Yellow-billed Chough. And then as we stopped for lunch, we got a couple of lifers right next to our restaurant - A Hume's Short Toed Lark and a pair of Northern Ravens. Lunch giving us more than just a full stomach, we were decidedly well fortified on the drive to Tso Kar - a flock of Brandt's Mountain finches added to the overall well-being. And as we arrived in Tso Kar, Lakpa pointed to a bird on the cliffs - a Saker Falcon! I'd missed this bird by a whisker in Gujarat and it was special to to see it now, even a few hundred feet above my head. And as we were savouring this sighting, Lakpa turned us around and pointed to a faraway dot in the marsh below... through the binoculars we got our first sighter of Ladakh's signature bird - the enigmatic Black-necked Crane!

The Black-necked crane is almost exclusively found across the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining Bhutan. In India, the most reliable place to spot it is Ladakh and Tso Kar within Ladakh. Over the next few days, we'd be fortunate enough to see a few birds and some sightings at very close quarters. For now, we settled into our camp, licking our lips at the prospect of a stellar line-up of birds that Tso Kar was famous for.  And then the rain came. It pelted, poured, drizzled and generally arrived in every form it knows, killing off the entire evening session. Being inherently optimistic, we were convinced that this was freak weather, an aberration to the cloudless skies that Ladakh is renowned for. How wrong we were!

Tso Kar and around
It all started well the next morning with no signs of rain. We drove along the lake and immediately came upon another of the signature species - a Little Owl. This particular specimen led us a little dance before giving us pictures, but it was all worth it. Driving further we came across a Black-necked Crane up close. It was feeding, but on a Common Redshank. As we watched, it polished off the smaller bird and wandered off deeper into the marsh, leaving just skin, bone and feathers. We had time to investigate the slopes for a much-wanted species the Tibetan Sandgrouse, usually found in good numbers in the area. A first failure didn't deter us, we had 4 days here after all; we'd eventually find it somewhere or another. Wrong again! The rains came again that afternoon, but we did get some birding done, adding Great Rosefinches and Blanford's Snowfinch to our lists. And we also added another member, the one and only Jaysingh Morey joined us that afternoon, being held up on a work trip in Delhi. 

Blanford's Snowfinch
The next morning, we headed in another direction, seeking the Sandgrouse. We passed an army camp en route and discovered that many of them were from Maharashtra. These wonderful people keep our borders safe, under the most inhospitable conditions and always with a smile on their faces. They there were highly amused that we were out and about in such foul weather, searching for birds! They added to their warmth with a cup of tea and only after much persuasion, accepted our mumbai-packed snacks. Their good wishes brought us a Saker, (on the ground) and some quality photos of the Twite but it still wasn't enough to bring us the Sandgrouse. That afternoon, we got Little Owls, Blanford's Snowfinch and a Hume's Groundpecker plus some beautiful Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) Marmots and a Pika peeping out from his burrow. An Upland Buzzard flying right above us, closed proceedings.

Tso Kar to Tso Moriri
Great Rosefinch
Our last day in Tso Kar saw us hunt far and wide for the Sandgrouse, but to no avail. It was a beautiful day for once, with the sun shining over the lake and making for some grand scenery. More Little Owl, a Woolly Hare and even some big-cat scat (Snow Leopard anyone?) but no Sangrouse. We flitted around our camp shooting the Rosefinches that industriously zipped from perch to perch, but our minds (and hearts) were full of grouse. We had one last morning en route to Tso Moriri and we hoped that our wishes would be granted. And when we woke up, there was no rain. We packed up in a hurry to leave. And just as we were about to get into the cars, something fell on my arm. It was snow! A little bit of snow never hurt any birding, we said to ourselves as we drove out. In less than a kilometre, the landscape had turned totally white. Visibility was zero, it was a snowstorm, a blizzard of epic proportions (to city slickers like us anyways!) It was incredible to experience but sadly, not good for birding. And it would last for a couple of hours, just as we passed through some of the best areas for Golden Eagles (another key species!) Finally, we stopped at Sumdo village for some hot tea and noodles, and also to take a break and rue what was more freak weather.

Brown Accentor
At Sumdo, Lakpa made us walk around for a bit and we were rewarded with another delightful little lifer - a Brown Accentor. he gave us good photos and then a Rosefinch led Manju and Ramesh a merry dance because they hoped it was a Streaked Rosefinch (another species that had eluded us in Tso Kar) It turned out to be its more familiar Great cousin and they got back all hot and bothered. We finally drove into our little hotel on the banks of the stunning Tso Moriri (Tso is Ladakhi for lake) and like a faithful companion, the rain returned. We tried a bit of birding but it just rained incessantly and we had to call it a day. And as we prepared to head to Hanle the next morning, we just hoped for better weather, and with good reason.

Hanle
Red-fronted Serin
Set in eastern Ladakh, almost at the boundary with China, lies the little town of Hanle. It hosts the third highest observatory in the world. And why would they have an observatory in Hanle? Because it has more clear days (and nights) than most places in this country. And that's what we were counting on. En route we passed through Sumdo again and this time we got a beautiful Red-Fronted Serin first up followed by a Chinese Rubythroat. Closer to Hanle and a Desert Wheatear in some crazy plumage which made us all go mad for a while, chasing it up and down in the hope that it was a Finsch's Wheatear. It eventually remained the aforementioned Desert variety, but the good weather got us to enter Hanle on a high. We were hoping for the elusive Eurasian Eagle Owl here, along with opportunities for the Tibetan Finch, Mongolian Finch and the Pallas' Cat. Finger lickin' good!

We drove out to the spot for the Owl but found no joy there. Some other friends spotted a Red Fox in another location but we missed that too. And the next morning, we hunted for the Owl again and surprisingly, it was missing again! What was usually a reliable roosting spot for the Owl was bare. And no signs of any of the other species, so we retired for a bit of a snooze. That afternoon, Lakpa's eagle eyes got us an elusive Tibetan Lark, albeit from afar. A much needed lifer to boost the spirits. That afternoon we set out in search of the Owl again. No luck at the usual perches, but we did get another Ladakhi lifer - a Hailstorm! It started pelting down on us early evening, putting paid to any birding hopes. And that's when we decided that if it had to rain and hail in Hanle, then the weather gods were seriously upset with us. And we decided to cut short our Hanle visit and head back to Leh.

Hanle to Leh and Nubra
Eurasian Hobby
There were only two things of note on this 'travel day' - both attributed to Jaysingh. He spotted his much sought-after Common Merganser in a small roadside pond. And then, as we sped along the highway to a rainy Leh, he exclaimed - Hobby! At full speed, he'd seen and identified a Eurasian Hobby sitting on the electric wires next to the road. We called the others back and spent a pleasant few minutes shooting this stunning bird. Until a rather large truck decided to pass by while giving us the full benefit of a horn that would have been audible in Delhi! The Hobby, deciding that this music was not to his taste, promptly took flight to a slightly quieter place. And we headed back to base at Leh.

The next morning, we headed to the majestic Khardung-la Pass, to try for an equally majestic bird - the Golden Eagle. Khardung-la is the highest motorable pass on the planet, at a jaw dropping 17,580 feet. Literally a view from the top of the world! But all we could see was cloud, as the weather turned against us once more, with the top of the pass at a bone-chilling -5 Celcius. Talk about a summer holiday! There was obviously no hope of anything resembling an eagle, so we meekly quietly crossed over and headed towards the Nubra valley, keeping our hopes up for raptors but getting only false alerts for all our efforts. We went down the Nubra Valley, checked in to our lovely hotel in Hunder and headed to find the Eurasian Eagle Owl. The afternoon brought no joy so we decided to come back in the evening, because the terrain looked very promising.

We resumed our search for this elusive Owl in the evening and found absolutely no sign of life, even as 6 people fanned out and searched every nook and cranny in the rock faces of that gorge. And then it was almost dark and Jay decided to put out his scope for some star-gazing. Even as we were admiring Jupiter, a shadowy form took wing from a nearby rock face. The Owl then glided to a spot literally above us and sat there looking down at us, mildly amused at our efforts at stargazing. It was too dark for photography, but thanks to the spotting scope, we could observe the bird and its features. It then took flight and flew to the opposite face of the gorge, only a silhouette now. But for all of us, starved of anything resembling an Owl all these days, it was manna from heaven. And then, magically it doubled! One more Eurasian Eagle Owl appeared out of nowhere and sat with our friend in companionable silence. Cognizant that we were intruding into their hunting time, we quickly hastened back home.

The Golden Eagle
The final morning of our trip and one last hope for that legend of the Himalayas, the Golden Eagle. And as soon as we set out, we got a delightful surprise - a trio of Red Foxes as they trotted in the sand dunes in the valley under us. For the eagle, the area of North Pullu, just before the ascent to Khardungla, is probably the best place to spot them, weather permitting. We hoped and prayed for good weather and this time the gods obliged. And so did the eagle. Half way through to Khardung-la, a majestic, soaring form caught Lakpa's eye and he proclaimed, with no little relief - Golden Eagle. And this most regal of all raptors gave us some lovely flight shots as he glided this way and that, all around us. A passing Lammergeier joined the party for some time, not wanting to be left out of the action. All in all, it was a very happy birding bunch that ascended to Khardung-La that morning, the bright sunlight as reflective of our moods as the gloomy weather had been exactly 24 hours earlier.

A lovely Tibetan dinner in Leh was the perfect way to end what was a brilliant trip for all of us. There's much unfinished business in Ladakh, starting with the Sandgrouse, so we'll be back for sure. 

Till then...


Ladakh Trip Guide

Getting there
Ladakh is pretty well connected via its capital Leh. There are regular flights to Leh, mostly via Delhi.
There are also two options to drive, one via Srinagar (420 kms, 10 hours) - this passes through Kargil which is now a tourist destination and also a decent birding spot, especially for some of the crow species. The other option is to drive via Manali (470kms and 10-12 hours); this is more touristy and well known. The advantage of driving is that it does away with the need to acclimatise in Ladakh, given that you're ascending gradually. 

Birding spots in Ladakh
Ladakh has many hotspots where the avid birder will find joy. Some of the unmissables:
1. Shey Marshes - even as an appetiser while you're acclimatising in Leh. This can throw up some very nice surprises.
2. Chang-la to Pangong-Tso - this route throws up all the usual suspects and also some specials like the Snowcock
3. Tso Kar - This is the home of the Black-necked crane and many many more.
4. Tso Moriri, Sumdo - Many overlapping species 
5. Hanle - Famed for the Tibetan Lark, Mongolian Finch and Eurasian Eagle Owl plus others
6. Nubra (Hunder and Diksit) - for the owl and other beauties like the White-browed Tit Warbler.

Stay
Apart from Leh and Nubra, which are on the tourist trail, the rest of Ladakh is (thankfully) under exploited. Which also means that the places to stay are reasonably basic, but almost always comfortable. Your guide/naturalist will find you the best places to stay across the board.

Naturalists
Ladakh has no local bird guides, but a few people from across the country also cover it off as part of their itineraries. We went with Lakpa Tenzing, friend, brother and birder extraordinaire. You can reach him at lakpatenzing84@gmail.com or on +91 9733018122

Things to note
Ladakh is situated at extremely high altitudes, so acclimatising is critical and not optional. Please plan at least 2 days in Leh if you're flying in. If you're driving from Srinagar or Manali, the drive itself takes care of the acclimatising so you're fine.

Carry warm clothing at all times. Even in summer, it can get freezing cold in an instant so you need to be prepared.

We carried portable oxygen cylinders with us, just in case someone needed it. Thankfully, they were passed on to the drivers, never having been used. But please do carry some.You can buy them in Leh market.

Plastic is a scourge in Ladakh. They have no way to dispose plastic, so they now bury them, potentially contaminating their water sources. So please avoid plastic as much as you can. We bought regular water bottles and refilled them at every place we stayed in, thus avoiding buying bottled water. Whatever little plastic we accumulated, we carried it back to Delhi and disposed it off there. 

Please do your little bit to preserve this last piece of wonderland!