Amidst of rugged mountain hemmed Drukpa’s valley, simply getting there is soul enthralling. Timeless monasteries, stark mountains kissing glistening blue sky, high passes, wavy desert landscape, lake, palaces, Stupa, and her semi-nomadic Changpas constituting her idyllic niche finds eloquence in many writings. Here, Buddhist compassion harmonizes the rhythm of life with nature. Besides its’ unscathed beauty, Ladakh is endowed with rich varieties of wildlife including 286 birds’ species. But due to its’ vastness and remoteness combined with its difficult and limited accessibility, birding at Ladakh is very hard and challenging. Even walking at 10-15 degree gradient at 4,000-5,500 m msl is tiresome that too with heavy photographic gears. Low level of oxygen shall be felt at every stride. Further, steep mountain clefts and gargling streams cutting across the plateau makes birds’ search difficult.
Ladakh falls under Palearctic eco-zone and also partly within the Tibetan biome; it has a diverse avifauna, not found elsewhere in India falling under Indo-Malayan Oriental eco-zone. Interestingly, some bird species found in this cold desert are also found in hot desert of western part of India. Many bird species found in Ladakh are breeding migrants and some are passage migrants. Breeding summer migrants arrive during April and May, and leave by the end of August. A few Palearctic species, mainly breeding in far north, arrive between October and early December to winter in Ladakh. The passage migrants are most diverse group, passing through Ladakh on spring from late March to May and in autumn from the end of August to November. Here is an account of my 10 days birding trip of early September, 2019 but as words fall short to portray this incredible experience, let the grace, magnificence and etherealness of some species of birds captured through lens in this gorgeous land be my tribute here.
Up in Thiksay Gompha of Gelugpa sect, built in mid 15th Century-Mahakal protects everyone and ordains life and death in the valley below. Here, 15 m high Maitreya Buddha bestows eternal bliss. Inside the twelve storied Thiksay Gompha, resembling Potala Palace of Lhasa, dark ambiance and smell of incense thickens the air into mysticism. Down in the courtyard and adjacent meadow birds congregate. Magpies hop at parapet , Hill Pigeons forage at courtyards…..
Indian mystery bird - Ibisbill is often considered as one of the most soughed after birds and happens to be one of the signature birds of Ladakh. Whoever comes from Ladakh, proudly possess photographs of Ibisbill and Chukar partridge. It is usually found in Indus river bed near Chuchot with long down curved bill, probing under rocks or gravel for variety of terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates including caddisfly, mayfly larvae and often for small fish. But after a prolonged search, in late morning found this lone Ibisbill at Indus bed near Spituk village but it confined to shingle banks and sides of fast flowing Indus river.
This chunky bird is one of the most commonly found birds of Ladakh. During this trip, Chukar partridges were found foraging with juveniles at Hundar, Tsomiri and this partridge was found on way to Lamayuru foraging for wide variety of seeds and small insects. Mostly found in the inner ranges of the Western Himalayas to Nepal. In Kashmiri mythology, Chukar partridge is believed to have unrequited love with the moon. In one version - on full moon night it is believed to fly towards it constantly, until gets tired, falls and dies......
Most commonly found bird in Ladakh is Eurasian Magpie, known for its’ intelligence and mischief. Found this magpie while at Leh - one can hardly escape its’ laughing call. Ladakhi folklore says, if this magpie builds nest with big mouth, it fore-tales good harvests in lower hills and narrow mouth fore-tales good harvests in upper-hills. Magpie is omnivorous-feeds on small birds, eggs, small mammals, carrion and grains.
Red-billed Chough another commonly found bird in Ladakh with long curved red bill and red legs. In Ladakhi folklore, Red-billed Chough is always blamed for its’ sinister sister Eurasian Magpie in birds assembly. Because of its red bill and legs, Red-billed Chough is always indited for eating carrion but in reality it feeds largely on insects, spiders and ants. In one sharp and crisps morning, this Red-billed Chough was found foraging at Tsokar plane.
Usually Himalayan Birds are colourful but in this cold desert, mostly drab, gray and brown coloured birds are found. Such dull colour perhaps helps them in camouflaging. Mountain Chiffchaff, an altitudinal migrant, is most commonly found warbler in Ladakh region. This small roundish grey-brown leaf-warbler feeds on small insects and spiders. Found this Mountain Chiffchaff in one morning at Hundar hopping at branches and searching for insects’ larvae. Due its small size, it often becomes easy prey to Eurasian Magpie, Crows and Common Kestrel etc.
Due to its’ black crown with conspicuous black ‘hem’ on either side, resembling horns, earns its name. Down the meadow of Tsokar plane- this Horned Lark was found hovering for few seconds like pied kingfisher before plunging steeply here to ground. Horned Lark male displays this typical behavior to defend its nesting territory as Horned Lark nesting season commence from early spring. Female has streaked black crown with tiny horns.
Down below the Tsokar Monastery found this bird foraging on road at 4,553 m msl. Interestingly, Desert Wheatear is also found in hot desert of western part of India. Female has similar plumage but the rump and upper tail-coverts are more sandy brown, the lore, chin and throat pale buff and the dark parts of the tail brownish-black.
My initial predicament on the colour of Ladakhi birds made this bird to blush in pink-found this Common Rosefinch perching at low bush of gargling Shyok River bank of Nubra valley. This medium sized dumpy finch is sexually dimorphic bird and most widespread in Asia. The mature male has brilliant rosy-carmine head, breast and rump but females and young males are dull-colored with yellowish-brown above, brighter on the rump and greyer on head, buff below.....
Yet another colourful resident bird found in Ladakh is Güldenstädt's redstart- named after Johann Anton Güldenstädt, a Baltic German naturalist of Russian service. It is one of the largest redstart found in high mountains of southwestern and central Asia. After descending from the Khardung La adjacent to mountain stream at North Pullu village at 4,687 m msl, found this juvenile Güldenstädt's redstart perching on a large stone.
Tso Moriri, one of Ladakh's great high-altitude lakes, shimmers with an ever-changing series of reflections in its vivid blue waters happens to be favourite breeding ground for many waders. In one windy noon, found this duo-adult feeding juvenile with a small fish. In his landmark ethology (1914), Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, a British evolutionary biologist, immortalized its courtship display. Interestingly Great Creased Grebe believes in single parenting- in a clutch of two or more hatchlings, male and female grebes will each identify their 'favorites’, which they alone will care for and teach the survival skill....
Braving the chilly morning settling at salt crested earthen mound inside the dry and marshy Tsokar Tso for spotting this spectacular Black necked crane against the mesmerizing views around is itself enthralling. Against the sound gashing winds, alert ears longs to listen the bugling call of this vulnerable species. Found this lone Black necked crane foraging in the weavy golden-dry bed of Tsokar Tso. Every year, in March-April breeding pairs arrive-courtship display renews fidelity, incubates eggs, chicks are reared and chicks migrate with the parents in late October or early November to winter at lower latitudes. Solitude befalls, Tsokar waits for them for next year and thus life rolls.
While passing the Chang La pass, found this bone breaker-Lammergeyer or bearded vulture, a near threatened species, parching at mountain cleft. With its’ 2-3 m wingspan soars high in glistering blue sky to find carcass. In the spiritual love story ‘Samsar’ (2001) set in majestic landscape of Ladakh, Pan Nalin portrays its behavior in casting scene but dropping stone to kill lambs, of course is not its natural behaviour. Lammergeyer disdains eating flesh. It picks up bone, carrying them in flight to a height of 45-150 m above and then drops them onto rocks below, smashing into smaller pieces exposing the nutritious marrow and then swallows whole or bite through brittle bones. Its powerful digestive system quickly dissolves even large pieces.
Prayer wheels of Drukpa devout swirl - ‘Om Mani Peme Hung’- reverberate the rugged snow capped mountains, radiate boundless love towards the entire world-above, below and across unhindered, without ill will, without enmity. Tranquil the agitated souls, calms the mind renouncing earthy lusts. Here, peace and harmony intertwines into eternal timeless. Simplicity and inward happiness is life ethos. This is Ladakh-simply being here makes things learn. Wildlife, religion, spirituality and social life - all coexist in harmony. All appears exotic. Indebtedness mounts and with my gratitude, ‘thukjeche – Ladakh’.
Essentials: June to September is best time for birding at Ladakh. The easiest way to travel to Ladakh is by air. The nearest airport is Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport located in Leh. One can get government and private buses from Srinagar and Manali during June to September. If one travels by air, it is highly recommended to take rest at least for one day for acclimatization in this altitude. Though local buses are available but for reaching different destinations, car hire at fixed rates are available. Package hiring is also available roughly at Rs.5,000-5,500/- per day. Bike hiring charges Rs.1,500-2000/- per day. Bird guide charges Rs.2,500/- per day. Wide varieties of accommodations are available at Leh, Nubra and Pangon Tso but choices are limited at Tso-Moriri and Tso Kar. Advance booking is highly recommended.