Thursday, 14 September 2017

Fun frolic and bird trip to Leh: 28 Jul to 05 Aug 2017

I did a wonderful birding trip to Leh - a little heaven on earth. A different kind of heaven that one has to breathe and experience oneself to know what it is all about. Well though I did go there for birding and am writing about it - it may not serve as a pure guide that one would expect out of a trip report - but then I will try to pen down all the tips and tricks that pop up in my mind. The reason I am saying this is that firstly, we were four birders that had initially planned for the trip - unfortunately, one family emergency struck out Mr Mahesh - that left us with three of us. His seat was grabbed by my daughter - a Leh visit enthusiast but no birder. Secondly, being from the armed forces - I had the privilege to be hosted almost at all locations by Army and that takes out all the tips that I could have given for stay and the expenditure involved. Finally, the river Indus was in full spate and that restricted our visit to some places we had planned. Nevertheless - there are a million more things that I can share. One more thing - before I get into it - my daughter too is a blogger and I will insert the snaps she clicked during the trip and her videos to make this write-up more interesting.

Spotted Great Rosefinch

Let’s begin with how this all really began. Well after seeing the movie ‘Big Year’ for the fifth time - I decided that my non-birder wife should also see this to appreciate what I am doing chasing birds of the feathered variety. So as I sat screening the movie for my wife with a gun on her temple - I thought to myself - what would it be like to do a Big Year for myself - no competition - but a Big Year to see as many species I can of Indian Subcontinent. As I knitted a plot - I was surprised to see my wife actually enjoying the movie so that gave me a kind of impetus to go along with my plan. So that is how this year saw me visit Goa, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and many a visit in my backyard of Chandigarh to keep the count inch forward. Every birder knows that after a stage we have to keep running otherwise the species count just levels off and then there is nothing you can really do about it. In the eBird list, I was ranking around 19th this time and I really wanted a count of minimum 25 species to jump up to enter the single digit rank in eBird.

Umm… 25 species it was - though I had planned to visit Leh sometime in my life - as I poured over the eBird data - I realised that I could manage a 25 lifer count in Leh. Well now the big question was - was it worth it? Would the budget justify the trip for 25 lifers? The complete list was just about touching 50/55 in this season. The sweltering heat of the plains of India and a hope for fresh mountain air tipped the scale in its favour. Also, a great friend of mine was posted at Leh and had promised to chalk out an itinerary for my trip with tying up all logistic support. The final push was my daughter who had been pestering me for more than a year now to visit Leh.

The plan was simple - get into my car and drive via Manali to Leh and back via Kargil and Srinagar. My brother, who was floating around in Srinagar, and whose advice I took for planning the trip crossed out return via Srinagar due to protests there and reported stone pelting. So - route in and route out was via Manali. Next, I posted on our Chandigarh Bird Club site and asked if anyone was interested in this trip. It took about a minute for the balance three seats to be booked.  The Volunteers were a couple - Mr and Mrs Ramakrishna and Mr Mahesh. As I mentioned - Mr Mahesh eventually had to back down due to some personal reasons and my daughter happily stepped in to occupy the fourth seat.

Leh is at approximately at 10,000 feet above sea level and we were to stay above that level at times at 14,000 or 15,000 feet. Some of the passes we were planning to cross were above or around 17,000 feet, the rarified atmosphere is one of the greatest challenges there and having served in Leh almost two decades back in a helicopter unit reminded me a number of casualties we picked up due to mountain sickness. The preparation was almost two months long during which I started a fitness routine and impressed upon the rest also to follow it. We consulted a doctor and started taking a tablet ‘Diamox, 250mg’ for three days in all before the trip. I believe that it improves the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. (please do consult your doctor before having this medicine, it has side effects and not suitable for all). Next, we stocked some commercially available disposable Oxygen bottles. The links to anything useful would be at the end of the write-up.

Unlike my other trip reports - this one is a long long one...

As the morning light lighted the mountains around us - the sight that greeted us was that of grandeur...
The birding before Rohtang Pass after Manali

Road to Rohtang Pass
Himalayan Griffon (Near Threatened) gave such good sightings at Rohtang Pass that I was looking forward to seeing them on our way back.

There was a huge breeding flock in cliffs in the distance as we were about to cross the pass... (Gyps himalayensis)

Himalayan Buzzard (Buteo refectus): if the ID seems wrong please do leave a message.

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax himalayanus) - the largest  of the subspecies of Red-billed Chough

A beautiful specimen of Rock Bunting (male) (Emberiza cia)

There were frequent flocks of European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Some great sightings of Blue-capped Redstart (Phoenicurus coeruleocephala)

Day One 28 Jul 17: Chandigarh-Mandi-Kulu-Manali-Keylong. The plan was to start early morning for Manali and cross Rohtang Pass to do a planned night halt at Keylong. The height of the place was 10,000 feet and it was to begin our acclimatisation too. The total distance from Chandigarh to Keylong was 424 km and Google gave the expected time as a little over 12 hours. We had planned to kick out at 0200 in the morning and actually did manage to kick out and start at 0220. That was not bad considering that we had to rearrange the luggage to fit the boot not less than three times. Our first cup of tea was at Mandi - a small township before the Kulu. We had driven more than five hours non-stop till there. The tea shop was on banks of the River Beas and our first bird observations were White-eyes, Sparrows and a pair of crimson sunbird. 

Just short of Manali we were stuck in a traffic jam that lasted almost an hour. In Manali, we had a short refuelling halt and continued to Rohtang Pass. There are two permits that one had to have, first one was for entering Manali, second for crossing Rohtang. Manali permit cost ₹ 300 and for crossing Rohtang enroute to Leh cost ₹ 50. Both can be paid for and obtained online (what I too did) the permit window is up to six days before travel. While preparing and reading for the trip I was given to understand that those unprepared for this in the peak tourist season can procure them with help of hotels they stay in Manali - but can cost a bomb with someone paying almost as much as ₹ 7,000/-. Please Click Here for going to the site. The permit sample is attached below. Please do remember that one a certain number of vehicles are permitted to Cross Rohtang pass so - earlier you get the permit - the better it is. Exactly at mid day we had shown the permit at Gulaba post and were on our way to Keylong. The road so far was great - till Rohtang - but the road from Rohtang till short of Keylong was Very bad. It took us a total of 16 hours to reach Keylong. The Night halt was at Circuit House. basic accommodation, no food so we went out for the first eating joint, closest to the Circuit house and were back. It was also our last day of the medicine we were taking and the first day of acclimatisation - that being so there were no headaches etc so all in all - all was well. My darling car was full of dirt so found a tap with running water and a pipe and made it shine again. 
Day break of day two...
Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus)

Sightings of the European Goldfinches continued till the trees and the green cover disappeared

Rufous-vented Tit
The trees soon disappeared giving us glimpse of the terrain to come...
...and soon this was the state of the road and it continued so...
Alpine or the Yellow-billed Chough 

Hill Pigeon, notice the white rump, white belly and shows a white necklace on tail in flight.

Brandt's Mountain Finch or the Black-headed Mountain-finch (Leucosticte brandti). Commonly seen

Horned Lark, Saw commonly throughout the trip. more pictures to come...

Common Raven (Corvus corax tibetanus)

Black-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi): Also known as Tibetian Snowfinch

Black-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi)

Day Two 29 Jul 17: Keylong - Leh We had planned to be out early next day - and we were out of the Circuit house at 0700 having cleared our bills the previous night. Today, there were three Passes to be crossed - Baralachung la, Lachalang la and Taglang la - the last being the second highest motorable road in the world or so we were told - it is mighty high at 17,480 feet. The road till a place called Pang was bad, actually calling it bad would not do justice - it was a miserable travel till Pang after Pang, however, the road was good and going was great - especially after hitting the Moore Plains. We had a few halts enroute for Breakfast at ZingZing Bar, and dinner at Cafe Cloud. These were over and above the halt, at every bird, we saw enroute. Google gave a travel time for this 358 km stretch nine and half hours. We took 15 hours. All in all, not a bad day with some very good sightings of European Goldfinch and Northern Raven and a few lifers of the trip - the Horned Lark, Yellow-billed Chough, Plain Mountain Finch and Alpine swifts.

Shanti Stupa on the hilltop at Chanspa, overlooking the Leh town, built by Japanese Buddhist Bhikshu

Sight from the Shanti Stupa overlooking the location of the unit I served - middle left green Hangars.

At "Hall of Fame", Leh

Enroute to Magnetic hill and beyond
Driving along the Indus river in full spate. and the only day with good roads...

Just outside the town on the road - the prayer wheel
Came across some wild Lavenders growing on a hill side along the road

Blue Rock-thrush - one of the first bird other than sparrows and Eurasian Magpie in the town

Eurasian Magpie, (Pica pica)

Variable Wheatear (sub species: picata), male

Variable Wheatear (sub species: picata), male

Variable Wheatear (sub species: picata), female/sub-adult

White Wagtail

...and the favourite bird of mine Chukar Partridge

Day Three 30 Jul 17: was planned as a lazy day and it turned out to be one. We went to the Leh Shanti Stupa (built by the Japanese), saw the Hall of fame (near the airport) and drove down to a place called Moonscape on the Leh-Kargil road near Lamayuru. The birding along this route was not great with only one lifer ticked today, Chukar Partridge. Lamayuru was about 120 odd km from Leh and we were back in time for an early dinner hosted by my dear friend Col V Parmar at the Tibetan Kitchen. It was a wonderful evening and after a delicious dinner, we were tucked back in bed. 

Enroute to Hemis, a bike accident made us stop at this point and give some assistance. Managed to see a couple of bird without identifying them... ;-(

Cannot give a pass to show some pictures of Hemis Monastery. This is enroute to the Monastery about 2 km short. 

Stairs of Hemis

The sight as we enter the Monastery

A view from the courtyard of Hemis

Buddhist Prayer Wheels on the side walls in the courtyard

Yeah - that my daughter...

The courtyard...

Chukar Partridge as we returned from the Monastery

There were a total of about ten sightings of these birds, mostly as flocks. Will list this bird as fairly common and 100% sighting 

Birds seen in the Shey Monastery swamps. This is a must stop. Unfortunately our stop was too short for a great birding though we saw many birds like this Long-tailed Shrike among others

Common Finch, Shey swamps

Citrine Wagtail, Shey swamps

Common Hooppe at Shey swamps - again a bird seen very very often during the trip

White wagtail (sub species: alboides) also the Himalayan White Wagtail (Juv) When I saw this bird my heart almost skipped a beat - seemed like forest wagtail (this is nowhere the range of the bird) It is only after some research that I came to know the bird. This bird has eleven sub-species.

House Sparrow, another very common bird

Citrine Wagtail, seen many times during the visit along the river around 10,000 feet or so

Same bird as above...

Just could not ignore this bird no mater how many times we saw it - Chukar Partridge 

Fire-fronted Serin,  fairly common sites at particular locations, groups of upto 10  to 20 birds

Bird of same flock...

White-winged Restart - once again a visible bird, especially in the right habitat near camps. This bird near the Pass Chang la

White-winged Redstart

Black-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla adamsi), very very common.

Female of the bird above, Black-winged Snowfinch

Robin Accentor (Prunella rubeculoides)

Same bird as above. If you have a different opinion of ID please leave a message

White-throated Dipper

The bird was collection insects and waited till we moved off to a distance - had a nest around perhaps.

Same bird as above
The amazing Night sky of Ladakh

Day Four 31 Jul 17: Leh-Darbuk-Pangongtso-Darbuk I had some very ambitious plans, ambitious but doable would be more like it - I planned to go to Pangong Tso Lake via Darbuk and Tangtse. That plan also meant we us to take the route crossing Chang la, let’s just say it is the third highest pass motorable pass in the world. As it is the plan was ambitious - just to put a twist in the story - let’s say I had a flat tyre. We had planned early morning start - after refuelling. As I filled fuel I noticed the front left tyre with little less tyre pressure and got it filled. Pure instinct made me check the pressure again and it was going down and sure enough, there was a bleed. I was travelling with a tyre repair kit but once again trusting my instinct I saw what seemed to be the nail on the side wall of the tyre. Now - all that majority of tubeless tyre users would be knowing - the side wall seepage of air or a puncture cannot be repaired. I did the next best thing - I went to a tyre repair shop and got a tube inserted after having the nail pulled out. In any case what I had thought to be a nail turned out to be a thorn - probably impaled a day before. All this delayed us almost an hour and a half. Couple this with a visit to Hemis Monastery, a monastery that was re-established in 1672. There is an interesting / though controversial story of this monastery. It was in 1984 that one Russian journalist claimed that the monastery was visited by Jesus, who travelled to India during his ‘Lost Years’. This was part of the promise that I had with my non-birding daughter to make her stay and visit great. The visit to the Monastery was outstanding. Our visit was over by mid day (1215 to be precise) and as we wet course we got some outstanding sights of Chukar Partridge infact the best ones of the trip. We crossed Chang la (17,300 feet) at 1400 hrs and ticked another few lifers along the way - Tibetan Snowfinch, White-throated dipper, Robin Accentor and White-winged Redstart. I was advised by Mr Narbir, our stalwart of the Chandigarh birds to keep our ears open while crossing the Chang La pass for Himalayan Snowcock. Crossing the pass I did hear the calls and twice we tried to stop the car and look out but could not figure out the source of the sounds and gave up. This was the closest encounter I had of Snowcocks. We reached Darbuk at 1600 hrs and postponed the visit to Pogangtso Tso to next day. This was also to be the night that I had promised my daughter to do some star gazing at night and if possible - some night photography. As it turned out we hit the bed in good time and I shook my daughter at 0230 at night to wake her up to the clear skies. The stars were shining like a million diamonds and it took time before we took our eyes off that and I set up the camera for some shots of the sky. At around 0300 I set my camera and after taking a couple of shots of the milky way - set it up for a small time lapse and hit the bed as my daughter stayed on till the light hit the sky and woke me up. The star time lapse is included in the write-up.
Enroute to Pogangtso - a fairly good road

Pogangtso. Hardly any birds there - a few Common Merganser, One unidentified tern, and one Brown-headed Gull

The spot that declared Pogangtso to the world - the 'Three Idiots' movie spot in the middle distance.

Moving from Pogangtso to Chushul

...and before I go on - there were roads under construction but none that I could drive on...

Lovely but over grazed spots enroute. How I wish now - that I had some more time to chill there...

Not too many birds during our drive - I had expected a couple of 

Route to Razangla Memorial - out of bound for most Indians and foriengers... China to the left

And the wilderness continues - no vehicular traffic or a person crossed us for 4 hours ;-)

Razangla Memorial in middle of nowhere. 1962 - 114 soldiers out of 123 laid down thier lives against the invading 3,000 Chinese soldiers. A humbling experience to salute the flag that fluttered there...

The roads again continued with a threat of rain on the horizon

The road - became a road as we closed on to Chushul enroute to Nyoma

Red-billed Chough

Plain Mountain Finch

Same birds as above... the Plain Mountain Finch (Leucosticte nemoricola)

Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe desert)

Family of Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)

...Okay - you will have to suffer more pictures as this was one heck of a lifer for me...


A pair of Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

The Mergensar family yet again...

Common Tern (Stema hirundo)

Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Black-winged Snowfinch

House Sparrow - again surprisingly common

Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka)

Same birds as above

Great Black-headed Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)

Same bird as above the ID differing from Steppe Gull by the non-breeder dark patch from eye to nape.

Black-winged Snowfinch

Robin Accentor (Prunella rubeculoides)

Brandt's Mountain-finch in foreground with Horned Lark in background

I had expected a lot of rosefinches but had to sttle with two and this - the Spotted Great Rosefinch I got one lifer.

We saw this bird on four days and on two days it gave us opportunities by sitting fairly close to us.

Saker Falcon (Falco c. cherrug)
Same bird if there would be some ID suggestions

Same bird showing off the pattern of the back

Looks close to Desert Wheatear, ID suggestions welcome

Twite (Linaria flavirostris)

Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) Spotted a total of 3 birds on two seperate days.

Lifer ;-)

Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus) This was a single bird seen near Razangla memorial and I had no bird to compare this with for size. I am not classifying it as a greater as I feel that the length of the bill is equalant to distance of bill to rear of eye - one of the identification listed in Ripley Guide of Birds of South Asia

Same bird as above

Saw this bird on two days and singly. Hume's Short-toed lark (If you have a ID conflict please post a message)

Juv Horned Lark

Day Five 01 Aug 17: Darbuk-Pangtso-Darbuk-Chushul-Nyoma We left Darbuk after packing up our stuff at 0545 hrs and took us three hours to reach Pogangtso Tso. I had expected a lot of birds here, the brown and black headed gulls, a lot of finches - that was not to be with a few sightings of Goosanders and one Brown-headed Gull and a pair of Crested Grebe. After spending a great deal of time at the lake we went back to Darbuk loaded our stuff and were off to Chushul. We reached Chushul and we got good birding - with a few lifers like upland pipit, Black-necked Crane and Brandt’s Mountain Finch. Though the lunch was tied up there at Chushul and we were to go further - we had a bite near the lake and set course back to Nyoma for the night halt. The Indus was in a spate and river waters were threatening the road. The night fell as we reached and we crossed a portion of the road that had disappeared from view. My daughter was on GPS, Mr Rama’s wife was praying and I was trying to guess where the road was. Suddenly we saw some military personal shining torches towards us - as I got down - the person standing on the other side of the disappeared road was saying - stay left - right side has a ditch submerged in the water. I took a long breath and drove on and luckily crossed the patch of water. That was the time I thanked the Almighty, the army personnel who had shouted the directions and continued. We thought we overshot Nyoma - turned back and after asking for directions again were on the same route with the unit with whom our stay was tied up ahead of the town. It was dark and all of us were tired. We just had a bite and fell down dead sleep.

Nyoma to Tso Moriri lake - one of the good days...

The roads were present and a tear rolled down my eyes - I almost wanted to get down and kiss the ROAD...

Like all days the scenic extravaganza was worth every penny I spent comming here...

We passed a small lake before reaching Tso Morirri

Okay - reaching near the Tso Morriri the roads were bad but still there...

Tso Morriri is one of the important breeding places for Bar-headed Geese. The one the left is an Adult with two Juv

Common Kestral - saw no less than three during the day

Brown Dipper (Juv) (Cinclus pallasii)

Black Redstart (Juv)


Black Redstart (Juv)

Mountain Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus)

Saw a lot of birds after a patch of scrub along a river enroute to Tso Morriri

Fire-fronted Serins were a constant sighting off and on, here and there...

Black Redstart

White-winged Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus)

Female of Spotted Great Rosefinch

Saw a lot of Common Hooppoe - definately more than two dozens during the trip

Northern Wheater (ID doubt? - please leave a comment)

Twite - heard this one singing - it justifies it's name as it calls out to itself over and over again...

Ruddy Shelduck or Brahimini Duck

Upland Buzzards at the lake

Second picture just because the one on the right has turned its head left

Bar-headed Geese with a Juv

Common Sandpiper (Atitus hypoleucos)

Same bird

Same bird

Another Spotted Great Rosefinch with great views..

Common Kestral

Another bird not ID so far

Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens)

Same bird, lifer and fell in love with the mask

Same bird

Mountain Chiffchaff

...Okay you might have guessed it - there is no bird in this picture
...and while the birders were birding - the Cup-O-Noodles were disappearing one at a time...

Ever present Chukar Pheasant

Sulphur-bellied Warbler

Greenish Warbler - a lot of weightage of ID on it's call

Eurasian Crag-martin. The ID will be updated if wrong.

Day Six 02 Aug 17: Nyoma - Tso Moriri - Chumatang - Kiari. We were up and out of our snug beds and on the road after an early breakfast at 0645hrs. The drive to Tso Moriri promised a lot of birds and a lot of birds we did see. Unfortunately, though I missed my target species and only a few birds joining the lifer list. Twite, Great Snowfinch and Mountain Chiff are worth the mention. The Mountain Chiffchaff was being hunted by me for a long time now with every bird earlier near Chandigarh turning out to be a Common Chiffchaff. Other than this there were good sightings of other mountain finches, snow finches and Serins. We turned back on the same road back and turned towards Chumtang were hot sulphur baths awaited us. We stopped there for an hour and were rejuvenated. The Sulphur hot bath was almost a miracle.  Drives for 12 hours plus every day for past five days was taking a toll on me but this one hour in boiling hot water made me fresh and with life enough to continue for the next few days. From the hot springs to our choice of halt for the night was another half an hour away at Kiari. The drive was good and we were at our destination at five minutes shy of eight pm. I had a surprise lined up there - I was meeting one of my colleague/friend from the army after 27 years. The meeting was great and inspite of self-proclaimed abstinence from alcohol for the trip the drinks were served and readily consumed only to have a splitting headache next day morning. A late night followed by fears of a fairly early morning start was the last I remembered before hitting the bed dead asleep.

The Shraddhanjali hillock in Kiari with my unit's emblem on the hutment in the right and Red-yellow Emblem on mid left

Another day with bad roads enroute to Tso kar.

Tso kar in the distance - missed the Little Owls here...

Caught the photographer photographing us.

Yes - after Tso kar we were on the Leh Keylong road and we did have a peace of mind as we rode a good road till we hit Pang
Sometimes the sky was unreal - the sky so blue that it was unbeleivable...

From Pang the same painful drive started

Crossing one of the pass

Brown-headed Gull on a overflowing river near Kiari

Okay - the gulls do swim

Ruddy Shelducks in flight short of Tso kar

May be Juv Ruddy Shelducks

The dancing Black-necked Cranes
Just when I had given up hope as Hanle was struck out from the visit - there they were. Photo courtesy Mrs Shobana

Too close to my car window to focus - Mrs Shobana hung out of the car to click these snaps. I was sitting frozen lest I scare them. They gave full one minute of hopping around before they flew off.

With the sun fast setting and I had almost called off the birding when came across this huge flock of Himalayan Snowcock

Though I did hear the birds earlier but only now I had them in full sight.

Was so glad to see the chicks in the flock. A lifer like no another

Day Seven 03 Aug 17: Kiari - Tso Kar - Sarchu. Though we were all up and ready in time the next morning, I had one invitation from my parent unit that was in Kiari, the Solaan Sikh. It involved a small Gurudawara function followed by tea with troops and a Breakfast in the officer's mess. The day could not have started better with memories of my initial days of the army as a young officer came flooding. During tea with troops organised by the Commanding officer, I came across five individuals who were in the unit when I served the unit some 20 years back. I could have spent the rest of the living the anecdotes of the past but went on to Officer's Mess where another pleasant surprise awaited me. This unit had been commanded by my father and it was a nostalgic moment seeing his pictures adorning the walls among all the 'Great Old Men' of the unit, as the Commanding Officers are referred to as in the Army. The breakfast was taking eating to a whole new level with half a dozen variety of Paranthas, South Indian dishes and of-course eggs to order with Lassi to wash down the breakfast. Given half a chance I would have hit the bed again but the sun was high and we had miles to cover. There were some birds that I had intended to hunt here notably the Black-necked Crane, Tibetian Sandgrouse, Little Owl and Hume's Groundpecker. Seeing the time - and the distance I was left with - also the likely conditions of the roads - I would be surprised if we got enough time there to hunt for these birds. I was right on almost all the counts.  The route to Tso Kar was the same we had taken to and from Tso Moriri till a tri-junction - and we were really looking forward to the rivulet leading up to that junction as we saw lots of birds along that route and were looking forward to some new ones. Though we saw a great deal of Black Redstarts, Mountain Chiffchaffs and Serins, there was no addition to any new species along this route till the tri-junction. After the turning we as we entered the plains leading to the lake we saw a pair of Black-necked Cranes in the distance. That took the total we saw during this trip to three and due to the distance, I was actually disappointed. At the lake, we had a small army det awaiting us. They took us to a company of our unit with some snacks and a hot cup of tea. While I sipped tea the rest of the three were busy taking pictures and trying their hands at time lapse photography. We were short of time so we hardly got time for looking for the Little Owls, Groundpeckkers and sandgrouse and were on the road again.  I will always carry the regret of getting the timing wrong - we would have got some great sightings of the birds here if I was to spend some time here. Fortunately for us, as we drove on - and short of meeting the main Manali-Leh highway we saw a pair of Groundpeckers. The birds were on my side of the car and sitting so close that my camera refused to focus on them. I was so afraid that if I moved the car I will scare them away that I switched off the car. Oh, what a sighting it turned out to be. Mrs Shobana sitting on the opposite site did not get too great a view I suppose but she managed to shoot some records shots. We reached Sarchu well in time. Seeing the success of our first attempt at star photography - my daughter was again pestering me for another attempt - this being our last night in Leh-Ladhak area. The night fell, we had hit the beds and the alarm sounded at midnight but there was a layered cloud outside so I went back to sleep. The night was as dreamless as last six days...

Was so happy so see the Himalayan Griffon

Okay - those are the same birds...

Yellow-billed Chough or the Alpine Chough

The bird dis give us some good shots.

Plain Mountain Finch (Leucosticte nemoricola)

The flora - lush green carpet of grass and flowers of all colours and hues...

White-capped Redstart

As we crossed Rohtang Pass - I had given up my hope of so many lifers - but then life has a way to surprise you in unexpected places and unexpected ways... Bearded Vulture the Lammergeier

Next is the series of pictures in which the bird drops a bone on stone to break it and then comes to recover it to drop it again. The prize - Bone Marrow

Okay here it comes...

The bone - looks like a hop bone of a small mamal is on the lower left on the plain surface of rock. During the next pass it dropped the bone iwht such accuracy at the same place from not less than a few hundred feet in air.

Inspection of the bone - did not seem to have done the work as it was in air again.

There goes the bone to be dropped again.

The second bird

A close up shot of the bird that I almost fell in love with.

The Buzzard we saw while going - was still on the same group of trees. (psst - it could have been a different individual)

European Turtle-dove

Day Eight 04 Aug 17: Sarchu - Manali - Chandigarh. We left Sarchu after an early morning Breakfast at 6:40 am. The road till the Manali - Leh Highway was not so good but after hitting the highway it turned better. Then came the stretch that was from Pang to short of Keylong - bad was not the word that I would use. I was feeling very sad as the trip was ending and my target birds had gaping holes to be filled. Tibetian Sandgrouse, Tibetian Partridge, Tibetian and Himalayan Snowcock, Golden Eagle, Bearded Vulture, Little and Eurasian Owl and White-browed Tit Warbler were some of it. I was about to miss almost all of them as I crossed the Rohtang Pass on to Manali. Well, I must say that birds had different plans and did not want me to leave the valley disappointed. I heard the Snowcock sound and I was all ears trying to figure out the location. I did not have to try too hard as a huge flock (I counted 19) was some 50-100 yards away from the road. I parked the car and were snapping at the birds for good fifteen minutes. This location was short of Baralachung la. seeing this flock really lifted my spirits and I was happy to close my log books and thanking my stars for ticking these beautiful birds. As we crossed the Rohtang pass - the location mentioned in my day one as a breeding site for Himalayan vultures - we stopped yet again to admire at these magnificent birds and there amidst them I saw two bigger and more majestic bird - the Bearded Vulture or the Lammergeier. I parked the car and was in no mood to move ahead before soaking in this beauty of a lifer. The bird gave me more than a great sighting - it gave me an insight to one of its behaviours - see this bird loves bone marrow - so it takes a bone and drops it on stones to crack it before savouring the marrow. A juv did just that - as I was sat observing and trying to click the snaps it dropped a piece of bone it was carrying - dropping a hundred feet on a rocky side of the mountain and then coming to pick up the prize. Unfortunately for the Juv bird - the bone did not seem to crack and it carried it yet again so a greater height and different place. We moved on and next, we reached the ZingZing Bar - a few hundred meters away. There as we ordered and took our meals I continued looking at the vultures circling overhead.

As we reached Manali - the dark clouds overhead threatened us with a spell of rain. I closed and packed up my camera and the list of this magnificent Leh trip and settled for a drive back home. Rain splattered us and the intensity grew. The sky too became dark and I was proposed very seriously by Mr and Mrs Ramakrishna to halt for the night. I had some other fears hounding me. As per a person there - the rains had just started and the app I use for weather forecast predicted heavy rains for next few days. There are trouble spots that are known for landslides along this route and I intended to clear them before the rains resulted in landslides. As we crossed Mandi the rain was lashing out with all the intensity and it was no longer raining cats and dogs - instead, it was raining elephants and horses. Lightning struck all around us and in one case my daughter and myself say lightning strike a tree and the tree in flames. After being in Army for 22 years sometimes you get an impression that you have seen it all - well this was my first and my heart was skipping every other beat but I put on a brave face and continued. We reached Chandigarh past midnight and I must have done it right as I read in the newspapers next days with one and a half km of road with two buses full of travellers buried under a land slide. The havoc that rains created that day and the next are historical.

Mammals seen during the trip:

Ibex (if the ID is not correct please leave a message)

Same pair - female and Juv as above

The friendly Marmot

Ladhak Woolly Hare


Ladhak Wild Ass

Okay - that is just a skull on a rock...


Ladhak Woolly Hare

Pikka (do not know the sub-species, could be large eared)

Blue Sheep

Closing Notes: We did a total of 2,527km from my home in Chandigarh to Chandigarh. Leh was an unknown Shangri la unknown to most in the days I served in Army and was posted there almost two decades back. Now it has become a bucket list for many after the movies like 'Three idiots' opened up the places like Pogangtso lake to the world. I saw thousands of camps dubbed eco camps that had sprung up every where so if you do your research right you will not have a problem of getting a bed. As far as birding goes - the place is a desert and the birds not as common as it seems to be. You really have to spend time and effort and looking back at my trip I feel I might have targeted the trip a little too aggressively. I mean there were days with no roads - a 350 odd km drive taking 12 hours. Part of the problem may be that the itinerary was made by a non-birder who was interested in me seeing more places than a birder possibly can - I remember birding with my friends in Sikkim and coming across a mixed hunting pack and covering 10 km on a good road and a perfectly good vehicle in 6 hours. May be in a different time I would have given 2 days more to this circuit and done better.
The second was the unprecedented rains. Even the Indus river was in full spate - that made the roads worse than they would have been - and possibly I would have seen and spotted more birds along Indus that we did. There was not a green patch on banks of Indus that was not raging with waters. Birds like White-browed Tit Warbler would have been possible perhaps if the shrubs were out of the waters along Indus - the best spotting reported in and around Leh itself.
Next problem was the logging the birds and making the lists. There was no network anywhere. Even at places, it was there - it had been down due to the rains for past few weeks. That makes logging of the birds on eBirds impossible. When I made lists offline and try to log in a lot of times the birds were logged in such huge stretch of distance that the eBird refuses to acknowledge the bird is found in that range. I will give you an example. I started logging birds as we crossed Rohtang Pass till Keylong. I saw just 18 species during this leg - but the birds were far and in-between so eBird refused to accept the record of Red-billed Chough that I saw there. So even when you go through my check lists please take them with a pinch of salt.

Tips and Tricks: I will list advice I would give to any birder who wants to venture out to Leh driving themselves.

1. Physical fitness: Like I have mentioned before and at the cost of repetition - a trip to Leh needs preparation physically. One has to be fit. Even in Army, I saw many a person fall to Mountain sickness. There is one part that you cannot help - that is your physiological makeup, you may be a person prone to mountain sickness more than others and that is just too bad. The second part that you can help is - abstain for some time from smoking and drinking, be physically fit, walk or run a few miles for a month or so atleast before you are on your way to Leh. It may not be correct to demoralise you but in Nyoma - a Colonel narrated and incident of a 'few days back' - as he put it. A newly married couple bought a new Pajero and drove down to Leh. They got struck near Tsokar and the couple were reached after a day of search and the husband had succumbed to mountain sickness with the wife too recovered in a serious condition.

2. Acclimatisation: You have to believe me when I say so - if you have not seen the Himalayas then you have no idea what the mountains are. They dwarf your mind and soul. They are not the mounds of earth packed anywhere else in the world - they are the Mighty Himalayas. Plan your trip in a way that you spend atleast one to two nights at 10,000 feet before heading up above that level. There will be times you have to cross higher - like we did after our first day with three passes at 16,500 to 17,800 feet range - spend the least amount of time there - there will be time enough to click selfies and photography. The next level of acclimatisation should be 12,000 feet and finally above 14,000 feet.

  • Though I would not suggest this as an alternative to acclimatisation but taking a regime of four days of Diamox helps increase the capacity of blood to carry oxygen. It helped us all well but please remember it has some unpleasant side-effect where one of us four fainted after the first day of dosage, and two had moments of nausea and upset stomach. I do not know if all this was related to this medicine - but please consult your doctor before taking a course.
  • Next, we carried portable Oxygen cylinders and that I would strongly suggest that this is a must. But like all things - know how to and how much to use the oxygen cylinders. It must be an item in your backpack I suggest this one. Oxy99 Portable Oxygen Can With Oxygen Face Mask. Whenever you feel light headed take four to five puffs and you will find your mind clear up. Between four of us, we bought 8 cylinders of oxygen (a little lower capacity than listed above) and sipped up 7 of them dry. In all, we used them when crossing passes 15,000 feet and above and we crossed such passes 8 times. Also as days passed we were using less oxygen than we did the first few days.
3. Connectivity: Only the post paid Airtel or BSNL connections worked where they worked. The connectivity is very very very poor. (yes I have typed 'very' - three times to stress it). There are some STD booths here and there but other than Leh and a few odd locations nothing worked. I had been given a BSNL sim by my colleague and I had postpaid Airtel - to my mind they were as useless as carrying no phones. Don't get me wrong - most of the selfies and time-lapse and so on and so forth were on my trusty iPhone but then that was all. Having said that - we could in places communicate home all the days there except on the day five. Again if we had to choose one over the other then BSNL was the better of the two.
4. Vehicle: I am no motorbike rider - having ridden it only once in my entire lifetime for one odd year so I will say a word and other than that will give it a go. Harley? forget it. Among others - I saw all the bikes and there were lots of them, Bullets, Kawasaki's etc By lots of them we might have come across three to four hundred motorbike riders and a few dozen cycle riders. Beyond this, my expertise is just not there. Even as I was making a decision about driving to Leh, I was advised by two schools of thought. First was to drive down in Innova - I could have managed the car as my brother has one and I too owned it some years back and was comfortable with it. Reasons were very logical - they were one of the common vehicles on road in Leh, the repair was easy and locally available. The ground clearance was good at 174mm and got a huge space to lug luggage. It had a spare tyre. The second school said - drive your Audi Q3. An automatic all wheel drive with an almost same ground clearance at 170mm. The boot was small and it has no spare wheel. Well well before somebody points out - it does have a spare wheel that is called doughnut wheel. That is good for the vehicle to reach a repair point and that too on a good road and nothing else.

I voted in favour of Audi and since I was the only vote - Audi Q3 won. The reasons were, driving comfort, four wheel drive and fuel efficiency were just too much to ignore. I would like to elaborate the fuel efficiency part. Both have a 60-litre tank. The Innova does 12 km to a litre on a highway and drops to a mere 7 to 8 km per litre in city and lower on hills. Q3 did 18-20 on highways, 12-13 in cities and I was yet to test it in hills. Finally, it did a wonderful 11 km to a litre on worst off road hills ranging from 10,000 feet to 17,800 feet. Since I had not expected any refuelling from Leh to Manali - I would have had to carry fuel for Innova and for the Audi the circuit was doable without refuelling. The last straw in addition to this was the advice I took from Mr Mohit Kohli, who lectures on vehicles professionally, said to me - people have no idea when they talk about a car of a class of Audi,  'Audi does not break down - it is just not built like this'.

Well since there are no places to repair the car for miles at a stretch I took two precautions - Firstly, I bought amiciKart® Complete Tubeless Tyre Puncture Repair Kit With Box (Nose Pliers + Cutter + Rubber Cement + Extra Strips) and kept two spare tubes and Bergmann Typhoon Car Tyre Inflator (Blue). The reason for the tubes inspite of having a repair kit was - in tubeless tyres if the puncture is on the side wall - it cannot be repaired so a solution is to insert a tube and run the car till you can replace the tyre. This theory was tested as we did have a side wall puncture on the third day and one of the two tubes I was carrying was used up.

Finally, I took one Tow Chain, the link is as given. I have infact been carrying it in my car for some time now. 5 Tone 3.5M stainless steel Car Tow Rope Strap Belt Towing Ropes Real materials Tough and durable Steel Wire Towing Pull Rope 

5. Clothing: It was not expected to be very cold as per the forecast, nevertheless, we took warm clothing catering for a drop to 5-10 degrees centigrades. Okay, once again I will point out - 5-10 degree while crossing the passes is NOT cold. I have seen temperatures minus 40-degree Centigrade in Leh in winters. Graceway Unisex Reversible Balaclava (4MK9, Black & Sky, Free Size) or the ski caps were kept handy though we used them only sparingly.

Hiking shoes are a must as was proved whenever we had to step out of the car. I used hiking shoes of Quechua bought from decathlon with ankle support but frankly, I think it is time for me to move on to Columbia or Salomon. The first order I placed after reaching back was to buy Salomon hiking shoes Salomon Cagliari Mid GTX Suede Hiking Shoes, Men's (Phantom/Magnet/Bistro Green).  Okay, the choice here will make you mad so I will not talk about it anymore.

6. TitBits: We carried some titbits to eat and munch along but I will take you a little beyond that. There have been many an instance when a land slide has held up traffic for hours before it gets cleared up by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation). The first-hand experience was of my cousins who had done a trip a few months back during last summers and were struck in such a situation for 14 odd hours. two things that you are likely to run out of is water and meal. So we tucked in water every where we got it - and it was available adequately at every Dhaba or a tea shop. We carried a couple of Cup-O-Noodles. This coupled with Sterno 70146 Outdoor Folding Camp Stove and QUECHUA 2 PERSON ALUMINIUM COOKSET would have been ideal but unfortunately, they did not get delivered on time.

Next, I had instructed everyone to carry chairs for the trip and they were good to sit around and have a bite at a place of our choosing rather than looking around for stones to sit on. you will be spoilt for choice of camp chairs but we carried Divinext Folding Camping Portable Chairs and they served us well.

7. I have already spoken about the permits required for entering Manali and Rohtang pass and I cannot emphasise it enough. The link to get the permits is posted in the day one of write-up. Here I am giving the snap shot as to how the passes look like. Do apply in time and get them.
Green Permit to enter Manali

Congestion Charges to cross Rohtang Pass. 

8.  Camera: Lastly, one place where I misereably failed - the roads as one can imagine were dusty like hell. I did not cover my camera and by the end of the day - due to the dust on the lens degraded my photographs considerably. Please cover your camera with a cloth of suitable size - a trick I learnt during my Uganda birding trip. Carry adequate cards, atleast speaking about myself I was dog tired to transfer the pictures to the laptop before hitting the bed. An extra battery is also welcome. But I was so over prepared that I could have done the whole trip without charing the camera battery (two batteries with three sets of AA batteries for the camera grip). I would suggest you to keep this Matin M-6328 Small Size Goat Hair Dust Brush. I have found this almost indispensable.

If you have reached till here - I must congratulate you - I do not know if I could ever read the amount I have written down over last one month. Also if you liked it - please do follow the blog - it really ups the morale to continue hammering the keyboard. Leave a comment - a good, bad and ugly will do nicely. If there is an ID that needs updating please do leave comment. I will X-check and update if the ID requres update - it is important as the list is uploaded in eBird and I would not like it to be wrong in any way.

... Good bye till I travel again...