Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ladakh (July 2019) - Birding at the highest level

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.

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.

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.

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!

Nalsarovar (October 2019) - A Bitter(n) twitch in the tale!

The few months immediately post the monsoon are always filled with anticipation for a birder, for it is the season of surprises. It is the time of year when vagrants and rarely seen birds seem to magically manifest in places across the country. Not a week goes by without a record of a rare sighting somewhere in this vast avian paradise that is our country. And this October threw up two such beauties: an enigmatic Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Delhi and a Little Bittern at Nalsarovar in Gujarat. The former made one cameo appearance, but the latter provided a patient audience to hundreds of interested subjects, yours truly one of them.

One weekend in September, the ever-resourceful Latif bhai posted a picture to his WhatsApp friends that had many of them sitting up in surprise and no little delight. It was a Little Bittern, a bird otherwise found in regions further west of India with only scattered sightings across the country. And many made the trip to Ahmedabad and then onwards to Nalsarovar. The temptation of a trip was too much to resist for Sriram and me,  and so, the following Sunday, we joined the rest of the followers. 

A red-eye midnight flight to Ahmedabad was on the menu since we needed to reach the location by dawn. At the airport, we were picked up by the effervescent Kunal bhai, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 2:30 a.m. On being asked how he was so perky at such an unearthly hour, he revealed that he'd come to pick us up straight from an all-night dandiya programme. I'd forgotten that Ahmedabad doesn't sleep for a whole ten days during the Navratri festival in October! He took us to an all-night jalebi-fafda joint and duly fortified, we set forth towards Nalsarovar. And reached there well before dawn so we all took a bit of a snooze before Latif appeared.

So, this Little Bittern is a vagrant to India; in other words, while it's been reported reasonably regularly across the country, it does not appear in numbers like other migrants and the locations are varied and sightings sporadic. Hence the celebrity status. And what are celebrities without the attendant paparazzi? And we added ourselves to this list along with at least 20 other people from far and wide, that Sunday morning. Of course, the bittern does not think of the photographer while taking residence; for the little swamp and reeds that it took up bordered a house and the spot where we took up positions adjoined their washroom. So the locals were a bit bemused by the extent to which this bunch of 'looneys' would go to get one bird! And that too in their backyard, right next to their loo.

Black-breasted Weaver
Anyways, the star was reluctant to get out early that day and it did test our patience a bit. The first appearance was amidst the reeds with just a head here and a neck there, before it vanished again. Then, a flock Black-breasted Weavers entertained us for a bit while we waited. We then moved out to give the family some privacy to finish their morning duties before resuming our vigil. Being the diva, it needed play that part so it led all of us a merry dance, appearing in one place while we focused on another and then promptly vanishing into the reeds as we laboured to change position. All said, it did give us some decent photos, albeit in not the best light, but to get to see this exceptionally rare bird was a treat in itself.

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
We headed out from the spot and went for a spin in the adjoining areas to search for some others. Nalsarovar always throws up something new and we were hoping for the resident Red-necked or Laggar Falcons to make an appearance. These two didn't make an appearance but  Latif and Sriram got good photos of Sarus Cranes and then a flock of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse turned up in decent light. A lovely local lunch and we were sated, done for the day. And that was that. A short and very sweet trip to a place that always throws up a surprise or seven every year.

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.


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

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.