This was our third visit to Ladakh after a gap of six years and the primary focus was to cover the Changthang plateau. During the eight birding days, we covered Tso Kar and Startsapuk Tso, Tso Moriri and Thadsang Karu, Yaye Tso, Sumdo/Puga and the Hanle area. We had some great wildlife moments but the most memorable sighting was that of a Pallas’s Cat at Hanle.
Travel Dates: 11 Aug 2016 – 21 Aug 2016
Changthang Plateau:- Tso Kar and Startsapuk Tso, Tso Moriri and Thadsang Karu, Yaye Tso, Sumdo, Puga, Hanle
Delhi – Leh: By Air
Leh – Delhi: By Air
Igoo and Chumathang: No name home stays
Druk Homestay, Hanle: This is the best place to stay at Hanle. It is situated right below the Hanle monastery and offers clean rooms with attached bathroom. The homestay is managed by the Lama ji of the monastery and his wife. Food is awesome and we loved the skew ki sabzi and the momos.
Phone: +91 94 193 09 751, +91 94 69 451 701
Mahe Retreat, Leh: A professionally managed property with excellent staff. Fully recommended
LetsLeh: Letsleh.com is an excellent resource on real time information on Ladakh. We got in touch directly with Harish and his inputs proved extremely valuable while planning our trip to this remote part of the world. When the entire taxi fleet was booked out due to heavy tourist rush and several movie shootings, one phone call to Harish ensured that we got one of the most experienced drivers to take us around. Sonam knew the Ladakh routes in and out and took us via the least used routes with maximum wildlife sighting potential.
Least to say, our trip may not have materialized without the support from Harish.
11 Aug 2016: Day 1 (Delhi – Leh (3,500m) – Igoo)
We reached Leh at 7 in the morning and directly proceeded 50 km south-east of Leh to a village called Igoo. The reason to stay at Igoo was to avoid the mad tourist rush at Leh and at the same time get closer to the Changthang area while getting acclimatized.
We spent the afternoon walking around the village; getting used to the oxygen starved environment and slept overnight at a no-name homestay.
Some of the birds spotted during the day were the Eurasian Magpie, Black Redstart, House Sparrows and a Long-tailed Shrike.
12 Aug 2016: Day 2 (Igoo – Tso Kar (4,600m) – Chumathang (4,000m))
We left Igoo early morning and proceeded to Tso Kar via Rumtse. During the drive, we encountered several flocks of Chukar Partridge along with other birds like the Red-billed Chough and Black Redstarts. After crossing Taglangla (5,320m) Tibetan Snowfinch, Twite and Horned Larks become very common.
Closer to Tso Kar, we spotted several flocks of Plain-backed Snowfinch and Tibetan Snowfinches along with Desert Wheatears and Lesser Sand Plover.
Kiangs were everywhere and we also got a chance to witness a standoff between two males.
Closer to the village of Thukje, a pair of Black-necked Crane with a juvenile was spotted.
Soon after crossing Polokong ka la (4920 meters), our luck kicked in and within a span of 5 minutes, we spotted a large herd of Bharal (Greater Blue Sheep), Zobra (Ladakh Pika), Ribong (Wooly Hare) and a bunch of mischievous and noisy Groundpeckers who were hopping around as if jumping on a trampoline.
Driving further ahead and closer to the Puga Hotsprings, Great Rosefinch, Isabelline Wheatear and White-winged Redstarts became very common.
The rest of the drive was uneventful and we settled into a nice homestay at Chumathang.
13 Aug 2016: Day 3 (Chumathang (4,000m) – Tso Moriri (4,600m) – Chumathang (4,000m))
We made Chumathang as our base for exploring the Changthang plateau and today we decided to visit Tso Moriri. Brown, Black-headed and Pallas’s Gull were in abundance around the Indus River between Chumathang and Mahe Bridge (4,050m) and so were the Wagtails and Goosanders.
We spent a lot of time between Mahe Bridge and Sumdo/Upper Sumdo area searching for the White-throated Dipper, but in vain. However, White-winged Redstarts, Horned Lark, Robin and Brown Accentors were common in this region.
Closer to Thadsang Karu (4,710m), Tibetan Snowfinches, Hill Pigeons, Plain-backed Snowfinches were seen in abundance.
Closer to Tso Moriri, Great Crested Grebe and Eurasian Cuckoo were spotted.
We also encountered several colonies of marmots on the way and had a fun time observing them, while the adults were lazing around; the young ones were seen running after each other, rolling, falling and playfully sparring.
While returning from Tso Moriri, Red-billed Chough, Groundpecker and Twite were spotted and closer to Mahe Bridge, a huge flock of Red-fronted Serin was sighted.
14 Aug 2016: Day 4 (Chumathang – Yaye Tso (4,730m) – Sumdo (4,300m)/Puga region (4,450m))
Today we decided to explore the lesser known Yaye Tso and while driving towards it, we came across a spring where we spotted several Mongolian Finches along with other birds like Eurasian Crag Martin, Brown Accentor and Tibetan Snowfinches.
Sonam told us about an old belief that there are seven lakes around Yaye Tso and whoever finds the lakes will be the enlightened one. While we were fully motivated to search for the lakes, we knew our capabilities and focused only at Yaye Tso.
Yaye Tso is untouched by tourism and we spent some great time appreciating the beauty of the lake and wondering how beautiful other lakes would have been before the onslaught of tourism.
Anyways, after lunch, we decided to again explore the Sumdo area hoping to spot the elusive White-throated Dipper, but it was not to happen. Anyways, we did encounter Red-fronted Serin, Mountain Chiffchaff, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Robin Accentor in the Sumdo region and Mongolian finches at Puga Hotsprings.
15 Aug 2016: Day 5 (Chumathang – Startsapuk Tso (4,600m))
Today we went to Startsapuk Tso and spotted birds like the Isabelline Wheatear, Horned Lark, Black-necked Crane, Plain-backed Snowfinch, Great Crested Grebe, Short-toed Larks, Groundpecker, Common Tern and a Himalayan Agama.
In the afternoon, we started our drive towards Tso Kar with the hope of spotting the Little Owl in the evening, but unfortunately our vehicle got stuck in the mud and by the time we got it on the road, it was already turning dark and we had to head back to Chumathang.
16 Aug 2016: Day 6 (Chumathang – Hanle (4,300m))
Today we drove further east into the Changthang plateau to Hanle. We also took a small detour to a village called Nidder where we found a few Great and Streaked Rosefinches along with Robin Accentors.
The drive was fantastic and we encountered several Black-necked Cranes on the way, especially the region between Loma and Rongo had a high density of Cranes. However, we were equally disappointed to see great numbers of stray dogs close to the breeding grounds of the Black-necked Cranes. With the amount of disturbance being caused to the cranes, it is to be seen how long the Cranes remain loyal to their long-established breeding grounds.
We reached Hanle by afternoon and settled at the Druk Homestay for the night.
17 Aug 2016: Day 7 (Hanle)
We started our day early morning and drove around the many Tibetan settlements around Hanle. While driving, we saw something on top of a hill. For a moment, we thought it to be a stack of stones, but soon realized that it was a Pallas’s Cat. The cat was calmly sitting on top of the hill presumably warming itself up after a cold night. We gave the cat enough space and observed it from a distance. The cat mostly remained still during the encounter, eventually realizing that it was being watched, briefly checking us out and then vanishing into the mountain steppe.
Other birds sighted during the day were the Upland Buzzard, Pied wheatear, Tibetan Snowfinch, Northern Raven, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Cuckoo, Common House Martin, Mongolian Finch and a Red Fox.