Thursday, September 29, 2011

Leh Pangong tso

So here we were.... all rested and raring to go to the famed Pangong Tso, two thirds of which is in China and the remaining one third in India. Just as we set out, we saw the beautiful rock bunting.
Rock Bunting
The drive to Pangong Tso through Changla is through very beautiful countryside. Pretty barren as the rest of the area, but teeming with wildlife. The valleys were a lush green before we ascended the mountains towards Changla.
Stunning greenery in valleys with barren mountainsides as the backdrop

I think the most common little brown birds we saw there were the brandt's mountain finches. They were there by the scores....

Brandt's mountain finch

Frozen lake
Just short of the pass we were treated to two most beautiful sights. Dozens of robin accentors which we desperately tried to photograph and the elusive Himalayan Snowcock which just strolled across the road without realising the excitement he had thrown us in!

Robin Accentor

Himalayan Snowcock


Right after the frozen lake, we came across lots of little marmots... they are really the cutest creatures I have seen. We even spotted two young ones wrestling!
Horned Lark
The horned lark was also fairly common on the journey.. I think we must have had at least two or three sightings that day.

Citrine wagtail

Hill pigeon
The hill pigeons and the citrine wagtails were abundant... Lots of beautiful birds to see and an amazing experience all round. I hope everyone gets round to seeing this 'Land of Gompas and Passes'. You'll fall in love with it!
Eurasian Hobby

Yellow wagtail

White capped water redstart

Desert Wheatear

Plain Mountainfinch

Watercock chicks


At Changla, with the Zanskar range in the background
Oriental turtle dove

Monday, August 29, 2011

Srinagar - Kargil - Leh

Our cab arrived right on time and we set out for Kargil by 0800 hrs. It promised to be a rather long drive… I was rather apprehensive of the road conditions since most of the passes had just opened thus leaving little time for the Border Roads Org. to maintain them.
The journey up till Sonmarg was very ordinary. In fact, there was rather a lot of traffic on the roads and excepting the verdant paddy fields, there was little to see. As we crossed Sonmarg and went further ahead towards Baltal (which is the Amarnath yatra base-camp), things started changing. The traffic was still heavy, but the flora and fauna were certainly showing a marked shift towards the drier and scrubbier side.

Ascending the Zojila pass is quite an experience! The road is very steep in places and is non-existent in others. Less than half way to the highest point of the pass, the mountains from being lush green turn a dusty brown and very rocky. Miniature glaciers and a very fine sprinkling of grass at random wet spots is the topography of the place. 

This picture was taken almost at the highest point of the pass and is one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have set eyes on! Nothing really grows there, but even the light smattering of grass on high steep mountainsides and the frozen rivulets are awe inspiring in their beauty!

Imagine my surprise when I found a grey wagtail (male) happily chirping away there along the road-side oblivious to the passing vehicles! In fact, we kept seeing little brown birds zipping across the road which we could not see clearly enough to identify. How frustrating that was! We also saw some redstarts but weren’t lucky enough to get decent shots then.

Descended the Zojila and the landscape altered even more. Gone were the green oasis-like edges of the little rivulets flowing through the valleys. The terrain was at once vibrant with colours… shades of blues, purples, pinks, browns and greys that the mountainsides wore, and at the same time very barren, desolate and bleak.

Crossed the Namkila and we descended towards Drass. Along the way, we saw Red and Yellow billed Choughs. My first sightings and thus, we stopped to take some pictures. Our cab driver certainly thought we were nuts since he couldn’t understand why we so desperately wanted to photograph ‘Kawwa’! Little did we know that they were abundant henceforth…

Red billed Chough

Yellow billed Chough

The mountainsides were dotted with sheep and a few goat scrounging around for the wee bits of grass they could nibble at on those unproductive hillsides.

Drass is the second coldest inhabited place in the world. In winters, the temperatures dip to as low as -60˚C. Drass is a quaint little settlement with just the one street catering to the tourists’ requirements of food and beverages and the little grocers for the locals.

Moving forward, we had our first sighting of the Black billed magpie which are also plenteous in those parts.

Black billed Magpie

A night halt in Kargil had been planned and therefore, we looked forward to relaxing after a long day's journey.

Kargil is a beautiful little town .. the busy waters of the Indus flowing with the backdrop of Apricot orchards and snow capped peaks in the distance... makes for a very picturesque canvas!

The drive from Kargil the next day towards Leh was dotted with lots of stops for sightseeing.. the first one being the monastery at Mulbekh for the monolithic statue of 'Maitreya', the future Buddha.

About an hour's drive ahead is the monastery of Lamayuru which is nestled among the mountains and seems to be growing out of the very mountainsides it resides on. A few hundred metres ahead of it is a place variously called  'boiling milk' or moonscape. It is a pure clay formation made by water probably over hundreds or maybe thousands of years.  A beautiful place indeed!

Descending into the valley beyond Lamayuru gave us our first glimpse of the white capped water redstart and the handsome Chukar. It very shyly scampered across the road, turned to look at us at the edge of the cliff and then quickly went out of sight. I was thrilled to have spotted one of the more famous though fairly common birds of the area. The common rosefinch and the Oriental Turtle dove also gave us good sightings.

White capped water redstart


Common Rosefinch

Oriental Turtle Dove

The view of the Zanskar range from this point just short of Nimmu is something that will stay with me forever. The magnificence of the Himalayas and the breathtaking beauty of the majestic mountain range is eternally etched in my memory.

At Nimmu, we decided to halt for lunch. A sumptuous lunch of thukpa and momos later saw us at peace with the world and in no tearing hurry to reach our destination.

 Arrived at leh and rested for the evening so we could be fresh and well accimatised so we could start on the next leg of our journey through the 'Land of Gompas and Passes'.............. report in the next instalment :-)



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sightseeing and birding in Srinagar

Our journey to Srinagar was uneventful… however our stay was anything but! Having never been to the beautiful city, I looked forward to discovering whether Srinagar quite lived up to the sometimes (over) hyped descriptions of it. Especially the birding to be had there. Though nowhere in our itinerary was a birding excursion planned, I had high hopes of spotting at least the common and some not-so-common winged specimens during our sightseeing there.

The first evening after reaching was spent just recuperating from the journey which had been rather tiring. A few of our party including the children discovered renewed energy on seeing the mulberry trees surrounding the holiday home which was to be our base in Srinagar. A half hour of pandemonium followed with everyone reaching out to the nearest branches which were absolutely covered with the fruit.

Tickell's Laughingthrush (F)
At dusk we noticed a pair of birds on the lawns, probably trying to appease the insatiable appetite of fledglings in the nest since they kept making harried trips to and from the tree nearby. To be absolutely fair, it was the female who did most of the foraging while the male kept a lookout. They were a pair of Tickell’s Laughingthrush as I later confirmed from my birding guide.

The next morning, our time out was at 0800 hrs, so we thought a short walk early in the morning might yield some birds. The dawn breaks very early there and to our amazement, it was light before 5 am and we awoke to the chirping of the numerous birds busily going about their morning’s business. Quickly, we got ready and were out. Considering the morning haze and the low-lying clouds, we did not expect much but did see some Himalayan bulbuls, sparrows (which were ubiquitous), common stonechats, black kites, an unidentified eagle, a bay backed shrike, sunbirds, black bulbuls and doves. Not bad for an hour’s walk.

Visited Pahalgam in the day. What an outstandingly beautiful countryside it is. We saw the saffron fields on the way, stopping to buy some too. Halfway there, the canal from the river appeared alongside the road. So now we were travelling beside the hasty waters of the irrigation canals with their brightly festooned floral edges keeping us mesmerised. Soon enough, we came upon the river Lidder and followed its banks upstream to Pahalgam. A little stroll along the river yielded plumbeous water redstarts, grey herons, lots of pond herons and blue rock thrushes.  
Plumbeous water Redstart (M)

Plumbeous water Redstart (F)

Grey Heron
On the way back we stopped by a stream to have a little impromptu picnic. What a heavenly feeling to gingerly dip one’s toes in the ice cold waters and feel all the fatigue from the day miraculously melt away…

At dusk, the pair of Tickell’s Laughingthrush was again busily foraging on the lawns. They were pretty confiding and really allowed us the time to observe them. A movement caught my attention and I followed to find a brown fronted woodpecker! Unfortunately, the light was so far gone by then that the best picture I could manage was one which only confirmed identity, not otherwise printable!

Grey Bushchat (M)

Grey Bushchat (F)
The next day’s routine was much the same except that the destination was Gulmarg. Spotted a booted eagle with a kill during our morning walk. Quite a sight that was!

Booted (?) Eagle with prey
The route to Gulmarg is not as picturesque as the one to Pahalgam. All the same, it had it’s own perks. The numerous road-side stands selling cherries and strawberries were very tempting and needless to say, we promptly stopped to buy some. YUMMM! The best cherries I have ever had!

Gulmarg was beautiful. The ski slopes were snow capped only in the upper reaches while the lower ground was a glorious carpet of lush green grass and the most vibrant flowers… Even the grass on the edges of the roads was like manicured perfection.

Russet Sparrow

Blue rock Thrush

The place was teeming with birds as soon as we left the cacophony of the touts behind us. There were numerous russet sparrows, grey bushchat pairs, abundant blue rock thrushes, various warblers and of course, the black kites.

The way back through the walnut tree-lined avenues was otherwise quiet and we made good time, getting back to Srinagar with time to catch a Shikara ride at the Dal lake. The waters of the Dal are totally infested with weeds and efforts are on to remove them. Hope it happens sooner than later and restores the fabled beauty of the place.

Black crowned night Heron

No sooner had we set out in the Shikara, that we saw black bellied terns circling around. A little further off, we noticed a coot, a few watercock chicks with their mom keeping an eye on them, a few pond herons and a black crowned night heron.

Back to our holiday home and we decided to turn in early for the next leg of our trip to Kargil and Leh. I will cover that part of the journey in my next instalment. We did come back to Srinagar to board the flight back to Delhi and onwards to Goa. We were in Srinagar then for a day, visiting the gardens and lakes. A lot of the fruit trees drew our attention since they were laden with fruit… apricots, mulberries, cherries, apples (still pretty raw) and walnuts.

Himalayan Bulbul

Eurasian Goldfinch

The highlight of this day was the excellent birding in the evening with sightings of the Eurasian goldfinch, the oriental white eyes, the lesser whitethroat, golden orioles which were common, paradise flycatchers, streaked Laughingthrush, numerous great tits and the omnipresent bulbuls. We were totally surprised to see the blue headed rock thrush there which we see in Goa quite regularly.

Oriental White eye

Common Stonechat

Streaked Laughingthrush

Lesser Whitethroat

Great tit

Apricot laden tree
It was an amazing journey through the magical valley of Kashmir. I left with the promise that I would be back. Some day.