Ladakh visit 16-27 June 2016

On the 16th of June 2016, after much packing and rechecking to ensure nothing – camera, binocs, field guide – was left behind, we left for Leh, Ladakh for a 10 day birding trip. One hour flight later, we found ourselves in Leh breathing thin mountain air. Luggage found, we left for our hotel where Shashank was waiting for us.  The first day was to be spent resting to get acclimatized so after a quick meal we crashed for the day in our rooms.

Luckily birding didn’t have to wait too long, as, for our first lifer of the trip we didn’t even have to leave the warmth and safety of our rooms. The first lifer came in the form of Eurasian Magpies looking beautiful in black and white with a bluish gloss to their tails. They spent most of the day in the vegetable patch below our window. A black redstart male in shiny orange and black was also busy nearby as he and his mate carried food for hungry mouths in their nest. Hopeful of good days of birding ahead we retired early that first night.

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The long way to Hanle

Day one found us in our car early in the morning ready for the long drive to the Hanle plains. En route we stopped at the Shey marshes where we spotted the second lifer of the trip: Carrion Crow. The bird flew in and landed on a rock very far away. A very unsatisfactory sighting. Luckily another pair flew in to land close by on a rock. The pair gave us good views of their glossy black plumage and left us satisfied. A Mountain Chiffchaff popped up very soon after: another lifer for us. Thrilled with these birds and their sightings we left for Hanle. Even during the drive bird diversity was good with Tibetan Snowfinches, Mongolian Finches (which were everywhere), Red-Fronted Serins, Northern House Martins, Common Swifts, Great Rosefinches and their smaller but just as pretty relatives Common Rosefinches giving us great views. A Wallcreeper on a rock in the middle of the Indus was another great lifer as well. Chukars turned up, as did Hill Pigeons along with their commoner cousin, the Rock Pigeons. As we crossed Mahe bridge and neared Hanle, Ruddy Shelducks and Bar-Headed Geese turned up along with herds of Tibetan Wild Asses or Kiangs. A Common Tern was a nice addition as were Horned and Hume’s Short-toed larks.

Choughs were also common along the route and it was interesting to watch Red-Billed Choughs turning over even the biggest and heaviest rocks with their down curved beaks. Yellow-Billed Choughs were also found in good numbers. It took almost the entire day to reach Hanle, and the long drive was made more difficult by a long stretch of poor roads.

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Day two found us heading for the Hanle marshlands where we were hoping to get two of the most important lifers of our trip: Black-Necked Crane and Tibetan Lark. Twites perched on a fence while Desert Wheatears and Horned Larks- very common birds in Ladakh- turned up as well. A flock of Brandt’s Mountain Finches were feeding in a field and their relative- a Plain Mountain Finch fed alongside them, allowing ‘learning through comparison’.

Once at the marshlands we started our lookout for the cranes we were after. Shashank soon spotted the nest of an Upland Buzzard and the bird landed on a rock giving us good views of its dark brown and white plumage and also its feathered tarsi. And then finally, there it was – the much sought after Black-Necked Crane sitting on a nest in the middle of a small patch of marshland. Setting up the scope we watched as the crane looked around from all sides for the slightest sign of trouble. After getting cracking views through the scope, we continued to watch as the Crane stood up showing us the two eggs that it was incubating. Next it was time to look for the Tibetan Lark. Shashank with his keen eyes spotted two very big larks flying in the distance. These larks are massive!The real challenge was to scope them very quickly as they would come out in the open for one or two seconds and them move as quickly as they came! Finally as we were returning to the car, another Tibetan Lark landed on a mound and this time it gave us fabulous views of its plumage, its huge bill and of course showing us its huge size. Hugely satisfied we left the spot carrying with us the memorable photographs and sightings of India’s biggest lark. On the afternoon drive we spotted two more individuals and one of them showed off its hunting skills, by expertly catching a slug-like insect quickly with its huge bill. Other highlights on the afternoon drive included 4 more cranes, another Upland Buzzard and a nest of a Hume’s Short-Toed Lark with chicks.

Our last morning at Hanle landed us the Groundpecker. This beautiful but extraordinary member of the tit family fed close to the car and gave us some impressive views of its whole body, the down curved beak and of course the wheatear-like stance. We soon spotted another Groundpecker and the pair then took off. We soon found them again on the ground looking for food and after shooting pictures to our heart’s content we left the spot. Herds of Kiang dotted the plains while a Lesser Kestrel (another lifer) flew past our car. In the slightly more wetter areas Horned Larks were everywhere and we saw the amusing sight of a parent being hounded by an overgrown hungry mouth! A few Voles posed for us as well and one even had a swim in the stream! On the way back we once again encountered the Groundpecker pair digging out a nest and defending it against Desert Wheatears. We then drove back to Leh and rested for the night.

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Day four and part of day five found us at the wooded areas of Spituk near Leh looking for the White-Browed Tit-Warbler (we had to unfortunately leave Nubra out of the trip and based on a sighting of the bird near Leh last year we had hoped to land a bonus). Unfortunately much to our dismay the bird eluded us on both the days. However both mornings saw plenty of bird activity – numerous Mountain Chiffchaffs, Bluethroats, Eurasion Sparrowhawk, Common Rosefinches and Black Redstarts, our first and only Common Merganser and Pond Heron were also sighted on those two days.

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Birding in Ulley

We then drove up to the village of Ulley in the Hemis National Park where we went looking for the Himalayan Snowcock for two days. Around the homestay in Ulley we spotted Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches, Red-Fronted Serins, Greenish Warblers and Western Crowned Warblers (heard). We spent the first evening uphill from the homestay, looking at these birds. On our way back we heard that an Ibex had been sighted  through the scope. We rushed down the slope and there it was, a female ibex showing her horns. After getting satisfactory sightings of the Ibex, we trained our bins on a Golden Eagle, another lifer that flew over the mountain. A Mountain Chiffchaff singing on a wire close-by kept us company as we prepared to turn in for the night.

Day six found us searching for the Himalayan Snowcock led by our host and local expert Norbu. Bird activity was a bit down in the early morning although we were able to get more new bird – a Rock Bunting.  A Female Ibex which appeared to be on the verge of giving birth was the best mammal sighting of the morning. The Snowcock continued to elude us, but the otherwise uneventful drive back was enlivened by the sighting of a Snow Pigeon that flew past our car.

Post-repast, the hunt for the Snowcock continued and we decided to trek up a mountain stream. Two hours and a reasonably difficult climb later, we were still minus the Snowcock. Our only solace were the calls heard on the first evening in Ulley that told us the birds were around. It was also extremely warm in Ulley and perhaps the heat forced the birds to move up further.

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Finally to Tso Kar!

Day seven found us driving to the Tso Kar.  Tibetan Snowfinches seemed to be the most common bird in this area after the Desert Wheatears. Two Black-Necked Cranes foraged in the distance as we scanned the marshes. Common Redshanks, Ruddy Shelducks, Bar-Headed Geese and other birds were also present in the marshes. But that evening we were looking for one lifer: the Little Owl. We scanned each and every rock carefully and finally Shashank found the bird.  It was sitting on a rock quietly and showing its mottled brown and white plumage. The bird perched for few moments and then flew off into the desert. Satisfied we crashed for the night.

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The morning of day eight found us driving down the paths at Tso Kar. Showing well were Lesser Sand Plovers in breeding colours of orange, white and black. The Little Owl turned up again, this time in great light, making it the focus of all optics in the car. But the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly a magnificent Tibetan Wolf that ran across the path giving us great views. In handsome black morph, the Wolf loped across the marsh allowing us to admire him for a good 10-15 minutes.

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But the real highlight of the day was about to come. After a brief lunch we headed for the two villages of Sumdo and Puga where we were hoping to get some accentors and White-Winged Redstarts which had so far eluded us on the trip.  On the way a beautiful adult Plain-Backed Snowfinch gave us excellent views of its black facial markings and we were mesmerised by the way he was feeding close to our car. We were immensely lucky to see another Groundpecker feeding close to a small stream. After the sighting of a pair at Hanle, this was another sighting of the bird so in all 3 Groundpeckers were sighted during the course of our trip.

As we crossed a large field near the Puga school, we stumbled upon an unexpected sighting of a Brahminy Starling – a bird which is usually a summer vagrant to Ladakh. A pair of Black-Necked Cranes, numerous Brown-Headed Gulls, Ruddy Shelducks, Tibetan Snowfinches and Brandt’s Mountain Finches were other birds seen on this drive. At Sumdo, we parked the car next to an open grassy area that seemed to be teeming with Robin Accentors. Two juveniles were constantly chasing an adult for food and one was on a bush begging. A White-Throated Dipper flew past us while the ever so common Tibetan Snowfinches and Brandt’s Mountain Finches obliged us with the best views possible. A White-Winged Redstart posed for us on a rock while a Brown Accentor flew and then landed on a perch  nearby. All in all a great days birding in this little patch of wilderness. On the otherwise uneventful drive back a flock of Streaked Rosefinches crossed the path while Common Tern, Gulls and a Lesser Sand Plover made final appearances for the day.

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Ending on a high

The next day found us heading back to Leh. The last day of birding was to be at Khardungla pass, the highest point where we were going to be birding at on the trip. As soon as we reached the pass Yellow-Billed Choughs foraged on the ground while a White-Winged Redstart fed in a small depression filled with garbage. Two beautiful Lammergeiers flew over us while we sipped some hot tea. Other birds seen included more White-Winged Redstarts (including one that was very obliging), Brown Accentor, Robin Accentor, Tibetan Snowfinch, Chukar, Lesser Kestrel and Black Redstart. Long-Tailed Marmots were numerous on this stretch on this otherwise very cloudy day with no activity. We ended our birding in Ladakh on a happy note.

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Thanks for reading

Maitreya