Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ladakh... One of its kind... A Cold Desert

India, being a country of various habitats, makes it one of the best destinations for wildlife. We have Rainforests of Western Ghat & North-East, Grasslands of Central India, Deserts of Rajasthan, Rann of Gujarat, Coastal line along Western, South & Eastern areas, Himalayan ranges on North, Himalayan Foothills, and the cold Desert of Ladakh... Rarely you find such variety in a single country. We are very fortunate!

This was my second trip to Ladakh and first with the group. Last year I went to Ladakh to see how the logistics etc. can be planned. The batch was from 8th July to 17th July 2013 & after the batch, Pallavi, my wife joined me for another 6 days. So for me it was 17 days in Ladakh!! :-)

Myself & Adesh, we reached a day before on 7th July, just to discuss with our Hotel (Hotel Bijoo) owner Mr. Bijoo Khan regarding the stay, food, travel arrangements etc. Hotel Bijoo, located near Leh market is one of the best places to stay in Leh. The rooms are neat & clean and food is excellent. The staff here is very courteous & always smiling. Highly recommended!! We reached early morning at 8Am and were greeted by hotel staff and Mr. Bijoo.

First 1 & 1/2 days were compulsory rest for all the participant to acclimatise. To keep participants busy we have arranged a presentation on Ladakh, including, topography, climate, birds, mammals etc... It was in two parts... 1st days was for topography & mammals & 2nd day for birds. This was just to give all an overview of Ladakh as a birding & wildlife destination. The presentation went on very well and now the participants were roaring :-) to go out. The Itinerary was designed in such a way that the participants will get to see some glimpse of Ladakhi culture along with birds, mammals & landscapes. Places like Shey Marshes, Hemis National Park, Kardungla Pass, Tanglangla pass, Tsokar, Changla Pass, Pangong Lake along with Thikse; Hemis Monastery we re included.

Shey Marshes (Alt. 3400 mtrs)

Around Leh, there are some good birding locations. The Choglamsar bridge, Sindhu Ghat (both along Sindhu river), Spituk (base of Rumbak Valley trek) etc... 

Shey marshes are just 7-8kms from Leh, along Sindhu (Indus) river. A lot has been written about this place by many renowned bird-watchers, but unfortunately the place is now degraded. Once a breeding ground for variety of wild ducks is now home for few domesticated ducks. But still Shey marshes does not disappoint you; lovely green marshes & surrounding areas gives you good views of birds like Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Citrine (in full breeding plumage) & White Wagtails, Hoopoe, Black Redstart, Mountain Chiffchaff etc..

Hemis National Park (Alt.3500 to 6400 mtrs)

Also called as Hemis High Altitude National Park, is largest National Park, not only in India but in South Asia with area of around 4400 The park gives one of the best landscape views of rugged mountains. Famous for elusive Snow Leopard, Hemis NP is also equally good for birding. Fire-fronted Serins are very commonly seen here along with Mangolian Finch, Chukar Partridge, Golden Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Hill Pigeon, Bluethroat, Blue Rock Thrush etc... Hemis NP is best place in Ladakh, to see Blue Sheeps also called as Bharals.

Khardungla Pass (Alt.5800 mtrs)

Road to Nubra Valley from Leh goes through Khardungla Pass, one of the highest motorable road in the World! The drive is not very long one... but if you are a birdwatcher then keep a day or so for this drive. The stops on the way will give opportunity to get some lifers, including Chukar Partridge, Brown & Robin Accentors, Red-billed & Yellow-billed Choughs, White-winged (Güldenstädt's) Redstart, Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), Golden Eagle, Brandt's Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snowfinch etc... Its not advisable to spend more than 10-15 minutes at Khardungla Pass because of high altitude. 

Tsokar (Alt.4600 mtrs)

If you are bird-watcher and visiting Ladakh, Tsokar is THE place for you. Best birding place in Ladakh. Birding here includes Tibetan Snow Finch, Great Rose Finch, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Little Owl, Great Horned Lark, Blanford's Snow Finch, Northern Raven, Tibetan Partridge, Upland Buzzard, Eastern Saker Falcon, Twite, Eurasian Linnet, White-winged Redstart, Desert Wheaters etc.. Tsokar has salt water as well as fresh water lakes. These lakes are breeding grounds for Ruddy Shelducks, Bar-headed Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Common Terns, Brown-headed Gulls, Lesser Sand Plovers, Common Redshank etc... Interestingly, we saw one Rosy Starling, in breeding plumage also in Tsokar. Also excellent place to see some mammals like Red Fox, Tibetan Argali, Tibetan Wolf etc... The vast plains of Tsokar are home to Tibetan Wild Ass as well.


Pangong (Alt.4500 mtrs)

No words to describe beauty of Pangong lake... The sheer beauty of blue water surrounded by snow-capped mountains is  breathtaking! If you are visiting Pangong, make sure that you stay there. Pangong is most scenic in the evening, as the light changes, the water color and the reflection of mountains gives you some splendid photo opportunities. Those who visit Pangong from Leh for single day return, miss the REAL Pangong! 

Yes, there are birds as well...( you tend to just forget everything else, than the blue water & mountains here) Brown-headed Gull, Pallas's Gull, Common Merganser, Lesser Sand Plover breed here. Himalayan Mormots are best seen on the way to Pangong, near Changla pass.

Nubra Valley (Alt.3000 mtrs) 

Another scenic beauty from Ladakh. This valley seperates Ladakh & Karakoram ranges and is formed by two rivers, Shyok & Nubra (Siachen). You can see some vegetation at the bottom of valley, in fact the old name of this valley was Ldumra, meaning Valley of Flowers! For a bird-watcher this valley holds a very rare & special bird, called White-browed Tit Warbler. A very habitat specific birds, found only in Seabuckthorn (Leh Berry) forest around Hunder and Panamic areas. Other birds include Hume's Whitethroat, Black Redstart etc... Cape Hare, Nubra Pika is also commonly seen in Seabuckthorn forests, also Red Fox is seen.

A 35mtrs high statue of Maitreya Buddha, facing down the Shyok river, facing Pakistan is a star attraction in Nubra Valley. Bactrian or two-humped Camel ride also attract tourists here.

Ladakh - Jispa - Manali - Chandigarh

While coming back from Ladakh we (myself & Pallavi) drove down to Chandigarh via Jispa (Lahaul & Spiti dist.) and Manali. Have read a lot about this route being stunning in landscapes & all in various reports. But our experience was different. We started from Tsokar for Jispa (Lahaul & Spiti). The road was horrible (in fact there was no road!), small landslides all the way making vehicles move slowly. Also roads are small, so you cant stop your vehicle. As far as landscapes are concern, one who is coming from Ladakh, the landscape till Jispa is almost the same. The tree line starts after Jispa. One night hault at Jispa & we started for Manali. The landscape changed, but the roads were same. Birding was good nearby Jispa; we saw European Goldfinch, Blue-capped Redstart, Fire-fronted Serin, Rock Bunting, Streaked Laughingthrush etc...

Birding in Ladakh is totally different than any other part of India. But there are some similarities between some birds & mammals seen in this cold desert & hot deserts of Little & Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat & some parts of Rajasthan.
  • The Asiatic Wild-Ass is seen in Little Rann of Kutch, where as Tibetan Wild-Ass is seen in plains of Tsokar.
  • We get Desert Fox in Kutch and Red Fox in Ladakh
  • In India we get two species of Desert Finch, Trumpeter Finch in Kutch and Mangolian Finch in Ladakh
  • Greater Hoopoe Lark in Kutch and Great-horned Lark in Ladakh
  • The Wheatears are found both in hot as well as Cold Desert.
  • Desert Jerds (small rodents) are found in Kutch, whereas Mountain Voles are found in Ladakh 
Similarities like these are very interesting to observe...

Ladakh is a must visit place to everyone, forget about birds & mammals, but just for its unmatched beauty. The vast open Landscapes, barren but colorful mountains, mighty Sindhu (Indus), Zanskar & Shyok rivers, and last but not least loving & caring Ladakhis... All are one of its kind!

**Thanks to Sandeep Dhumal for allowing me to use his images of White-browed Titwarbler & Blue Sheep (Bharal).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Indian Skimmers

Name: Indian Skimmer
Location: National Chambal Sanctuary
Date: 4th Feb.13

Different birds have different type food & different method of feeding. Some birds have unusual beak size & shape as per their feeding behavior. Like Crossbills have mandibles crossing at the tip, which is useful in in separating scales of conifer cones & eat the seeds, Spoonbills have spatulate beak useful to feed only in water, Herons & Darters have daqgger-like beak to spear & grasp fish, Pelicans have pouched beaks, used as nets for scooping up fish.

Similarly Skimmers have Lower mandible longer than upper, so that when feeding it flies low over the water with lower mandible skimming through water & when fish is encountered the lower mandible is lifted to catch the fish. Indian Skimmers largely feed at dusk and rest during the day. The breeding is in Apr-May, during courtship, male goes to catch the fish & offers it to female. Larger the fish, healthier is the male Skimmer, that's how female chooses the mate.

We observed a group of 37 Skimmers going from one end of the Chambal river & settling down for sometime before going across the river. Sometimes one or two birds will come to check & then rest of the flock. When sun is up & scorching, they will put orange beak inside the wings & rest.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Greater Hoopoe Lark

Indian Roadrunner - Greater Hoopoe Lark

When I saw this bird in GRK, running fast in rann, it reminded me of another bird called, Roadrunner, found in North & West America. It was running continuously in a very typical style. It looked as if it prefers running than flying :-)

Greater Hoopoe Lark is found in parts Africa, Arab countries & Indian subcontinent. It prefers desert habitat. They feed on insects, small lizards & seeds. Normally Larks have finch like beak, as they are predominantly seed eaters, but this one feeds on insects / lizards & hence has long, curved beak to probe inside the mud or sand. Also since it lives in endless dry areas like Rann, it has long legs to run faster & search for food.

But its breeding display is like a typical Lark. In short song-flight, male rises steeply upward, with fluttering wings, to display striking black wing pattern, then flips over & nose-dives with wings folded to the same perch. Its called "Hoopoe" Lark not because of the long beak, but because of the slow, floppy start to the song flight, similar to that of Hoopoe. Female is noticeably smaller with shorter-beak.

Since this is named "Greater", there must be "Lesser". Lesser Hoopoe Lark is found in similar habitat in Somalia & it is endemic to Somalia.