KASHMIR & LADAKH - TRIP REPORT

I first visited Kashmir in April 1987 and again in July 1988. I was not birding at the time, but can remember well seeing Orange bullfinch on Shankracharya hill, European bee-eaters and rollers on power lines all over the valley, Eurasian jackdaws in fields, Little bitterns in Dal and Nagin lakes, White-throated dippers in streams and Mistle thrushes in parks. Most of these birds were familiar to me from Europe. It was only later when I started birdwatching again, that I realized that Kashmir is the border of their distribution.
Ladakh I visited in July-August 2002. By then, I already birded for two years in South India. I remember how easily birds can be approached and when I started filming birds on video a few years back, I started planning this trip.

General Information

Srinagar and Leh can easily reached by flights from Delhi. By road, Srinagar is connected by bus to Jammu. Leh is connected by bus to Srinagar and to Manali and from both destinations it takes 20 hours.
Getting around I would recommend using taxi. In Kashmir there is fixed price taxi to any destination. In Ladakh it is usually negotiable. Travel agent usually arranges visiting Eastern Ladakh and there are plenty in Leh. Ask young travelers for information for prices. They would usually know the correct price. Taxis from other states are not permitted in the state other then Srinagar and Leh.

We usually started birding every day at 5am after drinking coffee (which is part of my camping gear in the car). Most days we took a few hours break in the middle of the day, but some days it was all day birding. Fortunately it was never too cold, compared to my first visit to Ladakh in 2002 when I remember ice on the tent in the mornings. In Kashmir we had little rain almost every day but usually only for few minutes. Western and central Ladakh was usually cloudy and eastern Ladakh was very windy.

Ladakh is heaven for photographers. The population being Buddhists, animals and birds were never hunted and they have no fear of humans. You will need time to let the birds feel comfortable with you around, but once they do, you will be able to get good shots from short distance.
Negotiating prices is an art in India, especially in Kashmir and Ladakh. Rooms usually worth 500 Rupees were offered for 2500. Even things that looks standard, like the permit to visit Eastern Ladakh that we paid 450 for a week, was offered for 1000 in another place. In Leh, I found Chonglamsar road to be the area where prices for anything were reasonable. Try to seek advice from young travelers about prices.

Places visited

13-14 June - Manali to Udhampur via Bir
15-19 June - Lidder valley – Pahalgam, Aru, Lidderwat
20 June - Kashmir valley, Haigam Rakh, Walur lake
21-22 June - Dachingam National Park
23-24 June - Suru valley – Lankerchey, Sankoo
24-25 June - Rizong monastery
25-26 June - Leh
29-29 June - Rumbek valley – Rumbek, Yuruche, Ganda-La pass
29-30 June - Leh – Shey marshes, Hemis
1-2 July - Pangong lake – Chang-La pass, Rumtse
3-5 July - Tso-Kar – Rumtse, Taglang-La pass, Tso-Kar, Startsapuk
5-7 July - Sumdo valley – Tso-Kar, Puga, Upper Sumdo, Tso-Moriri
7 July - Tso-Kar to Rothang Pass
8 July - Manali

Literature

We found the book “Birds & Mammals of Ladakh” by Otto Pfister very useful. Pfister lists the important bird areas, describes every bird and mammal, their calls, seasons, habitats and behavior, status and distribution and most important, typical area of encounter. The book “A Birdwatcher Guide to India” by Krys Kazmierczak and Raj Singh is very good for all of India.

I left my home in Goa, south India, and drove for four day to Great Himalaya National Park in Himachal Pradesh, to participate in a 10 days trek to search for Western tragopan. This was where I met Tim Mitzen and it was very easy to convince him to join me for a birding tour in Kashmir & Ladakh.

After resting for few days and servicing the car in Manali, we drove via Bir and Udampur to Pahalgam on the east side of Kashmir valley. Pahalgam is a popular hill station on the junction of Shashang and Lidder rivers at 2130m. High mountains with conifer forests and many open meadows surround it. Pahalgam is not short of overpriced hotels and after one night, we drove to Aru, 12km up the Lidder valley. Aru, at 2400m, is now inside a wildlife sanctuary, which means that building more houses is no longer allowed. The village looked the same as I remember it from my first visit in 1988 and it is still the most beautiful place in the Himalaya. There are four guesthouses in Aru and we stayed for four nights at “Milky-Way” for 500 Rupees per night (Bilal 9419435832/9797000434). They can organize trekking in the area.

Ibisbill was not on our list for Lidder valley and we were very happy and surprised to see one on an island in the river as we passed the toll gate a few km before Pahalgam. We saw the bird again on the way back five days later. This time it was with a chick.

First morning we birded the area from Pahalgam to Chandanwari on the Sheshang river. Other days we birded around Aru with one day trekking to Lidderwat and back. Nearly all the forests are conifer with only a short stretch of probably planted trees near the road just before reaching Aru. That was where we saw the only pair of Orange bullfinch of the trip. Western crowned warbler could be heard everywhere. Otherwise, the forest was quiet and very few birds were seen even though we were birding for 7-8 hours every day. Rufous-naped tit was fairly common. We saw a pair of Mistle thrush, one Himalayan monal and a group of four Spectacled finches.

Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, at 1600m, is 100km from Pahalgam. After long frustrating negotiations we booked a hotel behind the boulevard for 1000 Rupees. The hotel was from colonial time and most important, it had a parking place. We stayed there for four nights. Usually tourists in Srinagar stay on houseboats on Dal or Nagin lakes. This would be inconvenient as getting off the boat early morning would be difficult. First morning we started in Nishat Bagh, a garden built by the Mughul emperors in the 17th century. Then we drove to Haigam Rakh, a small lake in the west of Kashmir valley 30km from Srinagar, which is now a protected area. We were lucky to meet the forest guard who arranged for us to go in a small boat into the reed beds. By then it was late in the morning and we only saw Little bitterns and Clamorous reed warblers. Both birds were very common. We could not locate any Blunt-winged warblers. Later on we drove to the nearby Lake Walur, the biggest lake in the valley, and then circled around on the way back to Srinagar. We scanned the lake several times, but only found Whiskered terns and Pheasant-tailed jacanas. Little bittern was not found on Dal and Nagin lakes.

The rest of the time in Kashmir was spent in and around Dachingam National Park. This park was once the Maharaja’s hunting ground and now it is well protected and the only place where grazing of domestic animals is prohibited and grassland is well preserved. It is also the only place in the Himalaya I know where a lower altitude river landscape is protected and provides refuge for large animals in winter. It is no longer necessary to obtain permission to visit the park and it is an easy half hour drive from Srinagar so it is no problem to reach there early in the morning. A guide is compulsory and you do want one as black bears are very common and can be dangerous. We were lucky to have Nazir Malik (9419732201) who speaks good English and knows many birds by their call. Our main target bird was Kashmir flycatcher and Malik took us to the edge of the forest to search for it. We did not see the flycatcher, but saw a very large Himalayan black bear. Later in the morning Malik was busy and following his advice, we went to another valley to search for the flycatcher but without any luck. Late in the afternoon we came back to the park and Malik sent us to search near a sheep-breeding farm, an area that is part of the park. We did not see the flycatcher, but did see a large male leopard from close range. On the way back to the park entrance, we saw a family of Red-billed blue magpie, a bird I did not see on the Dachingam bird list. Next morning, Malik took us to Central Dachingam where we searched for Hangul (Kashmir stag). This is a type of Red deer endemic to this park and much endangered. After climbing for about an hour on a grassy hill, we located one female. We also saw another two black bears. The Hangul chased one of them. In the afternoon we took a shikara (local boat) ride in Dal and Nagin lakes and next morning early we started driving to Ladakh.

Birding in Kashmir was rather disappointing. We did not see Kashmir flycatcher, Fire-capped tit, Tytler’s leaf warbler, European bee-eater, White throated tit, White throated dipper and Kashmir nuthatch. However, Kashmir is beautiful and well worth the effort to visit, especially for mammals. Malik recommend coming in the middle of September for mammal watch.
Early morning 23rd June we drove from Srinagar via Sonmarg and Zoji-La pass (3530m) into Ladakh. From Sonmarg we had to trace our way back 15km to buy petrol. There are very few petrol pumps in Ladakh and you better be prepared. Shortly after the pass, we started seeing birds and mammals typical to Western Ladakh; Fire-fronted serin, Twite, Plain mountain finch, Common rosefinch, Mountain chiffchaff and European goldfinch. Tim pointed out that the marmots we saw were Long-tailed marmot. Later on, we only saw Himalayan marmot. We drove by Drass, the coldest place in India and visited the war memorial monument to 430 Indian soldiers that died during the battle on Tiger Hill in 1999. We reached Kargil in the afternoon and took a detour from the main road to Leh into Suru valley. We drove for 30km on the only good road since Sonmarg to Lankerchey where we stayed in Malla guesthouse for 500 Rupees. (Hadee 9419445378/1985203016). We birded in Lankerchey in the afternoon and in the morning 10km up the road from Sankoo. Suru valley gets more rain than other parts of Ladakh and it is greener in the sense that the mountains have more grass. The valley is almost completely covered with agriculture and we hardly found any natural habitat. Red fox was common and we only saw birds that we had already seen the day before. Later in the morning we drove to Kargil, fuelled, and drove onwards to Mulbekh where the Muslim area ends and the Buddhist country starts. We drove on via Namika La pass (3780m) and Phatu La pass (4091m) to Lamayauru. Near Phatu La we saw the only Mongolian finch of the trip. Lamayuru is an important monastery in Ladakh and a convenient place to stay, but we continued down to the Indus river and followed it up until Rizong monastery where we stopped for the night. Rizong monastery is on a side valley from the Indus river at the end of 7km link road. It is possible to stay for free in very simple rooms. Dinner is served together with the monks. A donation is encouraged. On the hills around the monastery we saw the first Blue sheep. This is the commonest of the three type of mountain sheep found in Ladakh. Birding was disappointing. Except for Chukar and Black redstart that posed to camera, we only saw Mountain chiffchaff and Great tit.

From Rizong we drove for about 70km along the Indus river to Spituk where the valley opens wide and it is another 13km to Leh, at 3500m, the capital and the only city in Ladakh. We found a room in Rainbow Guesthouse near Chonglamsar road for 400 Rupees and stayed for two nights. I had a chance to wash and service the car and we enjoyed good food and relaxed a little before continuing to Rumbek valley.

For those who want to trek in the more popular treks in Ladakh, it is not necessary to hire horses, carry camping equipment and food. All you need now is a small backpack with warm clothes and your birding gear because the local community launched a homestay program. Villagers were trained to host tourist in their homes and the result is that now you can stay in a beautiful clean local room and have three meals for 500 Rupees. We went for three days to Rumbek valley. We drove from Leh to Spituk, crossed the Indus river and drove to Zinchan (There is no homestay in Zinchan, so don’t plan on staying there) where we parked the car and walked through a narrow gorge for three hours until the valley opened. The gorge is forested at its base with willow trees. This type of forest is typical to all the riverbeds of western and central Ladakh. Birds are few with mainly Mountain chiffchaff, Hume’s lesser whitethroat and Great tit. Towards the end of the gorge we saw a Wallcreeper. Where the gorge ends the upper valley begins. The valley is wider and supports little agriculture. There is a little tea stall on the junction of two small rivers. The right one will take you to the nine houses of Rumbek village at 3700m where we stayed the first night. In the afternoon we birded the area from the village upriver towards Stok pass. Just after the agriculture fields, we encountered the first of the Caragana plants, the main natural plant of Ladakh and the home of many Ladaki birds. It is here where we saw the first Great rosefinch, Tickell’s leaf warbler and Robin accentor. Up the valley we found a dead cow with twelve Himalayan griffons and two Lammergeyers around it. On the following day, we traced back to the tea stall and went up the first river for two hours to Yuruche, our next homestay. On route we saw the first Golden eagle and two White-throated dippers. Yurutse at 4100m is a one-house village. The house is a beautiful three floor building and looks like a little castle. Only one family live in Yurutse and it is the last village in the valley. Strong winds prevented us from doing much for the rest of the day. In the morning we went up to Ganda La pass at 4970m. The other side of the pass is Marka valley and it is much recommended to continue and trek into the valley, which is the core of Hemis National Park. Little before the pass, we saw two male Argali, the largest and rarest of the mountain sheep in India, with an estimated 250 animals remaining. Before the clouds started to form, we went down to Yurutse, collected our luggage and went down in a few hours all the way to the car and then to Leh. Birdwise, Rumbek valley was disappointing, like Rizong and Suru valleys and Kashmir. We did not see our main target bird, Himalayan snowcock nor Streaked rosefinch, Brown accentor and Sulphur-bellied warbler, common birds I remember from my visit 10 years ago. Carrion crow is another bird that was common in Leh on my previous visit which we did not see this time and we only saw one Eurasian cuckoo, a bird I saw and heard everywhere 10 years ago.

Next day we went to Hemis, 40km from Leh to see the famous Hemis festival. On the way we stopped in Shey marshes, a birding site that has seen better days. We did not search for Ibisbill as we saw this bird well in Kashmir. We saw Eurasian cuckoo and Brahminy starling. Afternoon in Leh we prepared for the last part of the trip: Eastern Ladakh. First you must obtain a permit, which any travel agent can arrange in a day. The permit is valid for seven days and costs 450 Rupees. You are only allowed to visit Pangong, Tso-Moriri and Tso-Kar lakes. We tried to get a permit to visit Hanle province where Black-necked cranes nest, but it was impossible. Next we went to buy jerrycans with 40 liter extra fuel, to check if our camping gear was not damaged and lastly to buy some snacks incase we got stuck without food.
Early morning 1st July we drove from Leh to Pangong lake via Chan La pass, the third highest pass in the world at 5300m. Before the pass we started to see typical East Ladakhi birds like White-winged redstart and Brandt mountain finch and on the pass we saw Alpine accentor. Birding on rout, we reached the lake for lunch. There are many overpriced campsites next to the lake with restaurants, so food is not a problem. Birds were few as I remembered from my previous visit. The lake, like other lakes in Ladakh, is an important breeding ground for water birds, but only Common merganser is a bird found here and not in other lakes. We camped in an open field a few km north of the lake and I spent most of the time filming common birds. Next morning we drove for 30km along the lake only to find out that with our permits we can only go back to Karu 40km from Leh and not use the road via Chushul to Tso-Moriri as I did in my visit in 2002. It was about 3pm that we reached Karu with two litter of fuel in the tank. Fortunately Karu has a petrol pump. We reorganized and decided to continue to Rumtse, the last village in Ladakh, before Tanglang La pass. We were lucky to find a homestay in a village a few km before Rumtse and I was very happy to wash both the car and myself, as the amount of dust inside was unbearable!

Next morning we drove towards Tanglang La pass, the second highest pass in the world at 5360m. A few km before the pass Tim called me to stop as he spotted Tibetan snowcock. Two birds above the road gave us a good view and enough time for video. Maybe our luck was about to change. Little later, after the pass we saw the first herd of Tibetan wild ass (kiang). We drove down to Morre plains and stopped for breakfast at a junction where the road to Manali meets the road to Tso-Kar. 13km further and the valley of Tso-Kar at 4650m, opened with view over the brackish water lake. The road follows the north side of the lake and reaches a marshy area. There I spotted the most important bird of the trip, a bird I had missed 10 years ago: Black-necked crane. There is no need for a permit to Hanle anymore. The cranes are in Tso-Kar. We drove a little further and reached the main village, Takje with its monastery above it. The villages around Tso-Kar are inhabited by nomads who come and stay there in winter, so in summer they are mostly uninhabited. There are few camps catering for tourists. We were offered tents without bathrooms for 2000 Rupees in one of the camps and arranged with them to eat there and use our own tents for free. Food was basic, dhal, rice, few vegetables and chowmein, but price was reasonable. Later on we drove along the lake and found a family of Black-necked cranes and I managed to film the parents with chicks. We definitely saw eight different individuals and a guide we met later on confirmed the presence of 10 cranes in Tso-Kar with three breeding pairs. Tim was keen to fin Hume’s groundpecker, so following information we had, we headed to Startsapuk, the sweet water lake in the south of the valley. It is a little tricky to drive to Startsapuk as it involves off-road driving and the risk of sinking in soft ground. We ended up walking for a few km around Startsapuk but since it was very windy and late, we had to turn back before we reached the village where the groundpecker is known. The following morning we waited near our camp for Tibetan sandgrouse to come and drink in the springs near our tents. When we realized it was not happening, we headed again to Startsapuk. On the way, not far from camp, we saw two upland buzzards. One was foraging on the ground not far from us. To reach Startsapuk lake by driving you have to drive for over 10km towards Tso-Moriri and then turn off the road to the right and follow the dirt road in the nalla and always keep to the left. We managed to reach the village on the side of the lake. It was deserted and only birds were around feeding on flies on the marshy ground near the lake. We found nests of Plain-backed snowfinch, Hume’s Short-toed lark and Hume’s groundpecker, whose nest is very similar to a nest of a bee-eater. In the lake we saw breeding Ruddy shelduck, Great Crested grebe, Common tern, Brown- headed gull and coot. We did not see any Black-necked grebe. We drove back to camp for lunch and in the evening we searched and found a family of Little owls on the north part of the village about 10 minutes walks from camp. Next morning Tim went to look for Tibetan sandgrouse on the area below the monastery and I went to film the Little owl. Filming went quickly with the Owl so I drove farther north to look for Sandgrouse, stopping and listening in different places. It wasn’t long before I located four birds flying towards the lake. Shortly after I located two birds foraging nearby and managed to get close for filming. Then I went to bring Tim and together we located a bird on a nest and a pair with two chicks.

We packed our tents after breakfast and drove towards Tso-Moriri through Polokongka Pass towards Puga. A few km before Puga near the “Nomadic Residential School” we saw another pair of Black-necked crane. In Puga we turned right and drove towards Sumdo. Shortly after, the riverbed started to be covered with Caragana plants and the habitat looked better towards Upper Sumdo. We saw a heard of Blue sheep grazing on the side of the road. A little before the village we noticed activity in the riverbed. Plenty of birds including Black and White-winged redstarts, twits, Tibetan snowfinch, Red-billed chough and others were foraging together with marmots and pikas. We stopped for a while and it wasn’t long before Tim located Tibetan partridge. We had a reasonable look, but following the success we had had in the last few days, we hoped for video shots. The partridge did not show again, but waiting there we were rewarded with White-tailed rubythroat. Later we drove to Tso-Moriri at 4650m. The only place we had to show our permit was before Korzok, the little settlement on the west side of the lake. We saw families of Bar-headed geese on the side of the lake by the road. We camped in Korzok for the night and were happy to leave early in the morning. It is not a nice place and as far as birding, there is no reason to go to Tso-Moriri. The marshland on the north part of the lake that was teaming with waterfowl ten years ago has now disappeared due to overgrazing. The only interesting bird for us was Brown accentor, but then we saw more of them when we drove back to Upper Sumdo. I still had to catch up with some common birds for my video and Upper Sumdo was an excellent place. While I was filming Robin accentor, Tim found Tibetan partridge standing under a Caragana plant. The bird stayed long enough for me to come with my camera and, ignoring us, started foraging. Later it had enough of us and of an Indian bird photographer (who had been lucky to pass by with his driver and his guide) and ran towards us as to chase us away. Later on we drove back to Tso-Kar and on the way near Puga we saw another Tibetan partridge with similar behavior. The bird photographer Sabir Malik joined us and we took him to Startsapuk to photograph Hume’s groundpecker. It was his guide who gave us the information about the numbers of cranes. He also showed us that there is a way to drive around the lake. We camped again in the same campsite and in the morning started to drive towards Manali. We saw another Little owl on a bush in Morre plains. We drove on via Lachlung La (5060m) and Baralacha La (4880m) passes and reached Keylong (3500m) in Lahul valley in the afternoon. Lahul valley is in Himachal Pradesh and is usually an overnight stop over for travelers between Manali and Leh. We decided to continue, as it would usually be a four-hour drive to Manali. However it was not to be. Just after Rothang pass (3955m) a landslide prevented us from proceeding and we had to camp another night. Before nightfall we saw Alpine accentor and I had a good video shot of Royle’s pika. In the morning it took some time before the Public Work Department cleared the road and we arrived to Manali (2000m) later in the morning.

Bird list (names follow the first addition of Birds of India by Grimmet & Inskipp 1999)

Kashmir

  • Chukar
  • Himalayan monal
  • Brown fronted woodpecker
  • Himalayan woodpecker
  • Scaly breasted woodpecker
  • Great barbet
  • Common hoopoe
  • European roller

Common kingfisher
White throated kingfisher
Pied kingfisher
Eurasian cuckoo
Rose ringed parakeet
Common swift
Rock pigeon
Oriental turtle dove
Eurasian collared dove
White breasted waterhen
Common moorhen
Common sandpiper
Ibisbill
Pheasant tailed jacana
Red wattled lapwing
Whiskered tern
Black kite
Lammergeyer
Himalayan griffon
Eurasian sparrowhawk
Golden eagle
Booted eagle
Common kestrel
Eurasian hobby
Little grebe
Little egret
Cattle egret
Indian pond heron
Grey heron
Little bittern
Black crowned night heron
Long tailed shrike
Rufous treepie
Red billed blue magpie
Spotted nutcracker
Red billed chough
Yellow billed chough
Eurasian jackdaw
House crow
Large billed crow
Eurasian golden oriole
Long tailed minivet
Yellow bellied fantail
Black drongo
Brown dipper
Blue capped rock thrush
Blue whistling thrush
Tickell’s thrush
Mistle thrush
Indian blue robin
Asian brown flycatcher
Rusty tailed flycatcher
Slaty blue flycatcher ultramarine flycatcher
Bluethroat
Black redstart
White capped water redstart
Plumbeous water redstart
Common stonechat
Grey bushchat
Common starling
Common myna
White cheeked nuthatch
Bar tailed treecreeper
Rufous naped tit
Spot winged tit
Great tit
Green backed tit
Winter wren
Barn swallow
Himalayah bulbul
Black bulbul
Striated prinia
Oriental white-eye
Brownish flanked bush robin
Clamorous reed warbler
Tickell’s leaf warbler
Ashy throated warbler
Greenish warbler
Large billed leaf warbler
Western crowned warbler
Goldencrest
Streaked laughingthrush
House sparrow
Russet sparrow
White wagtail
Grey wagtail
Citrine wagtail
Yellow breasted greenfinch
European goldfinch
Spectacled finch
Orange bullfinch
Rock bunting
Chestnut eared bunting

Long tailed marmot
Himalayan black bear
Leopard
Hangul (Kashmir stag)

Ladakh

Tibetan snowcock
Chukar
Tibetan partridge
Bar headed goose
Ruddy shelduck
Northern shoveler
Common merganser
Common hoopoe
Eurasian cuckoo
Common swift
Little owl
Rock pigeon
Hill pigeon
Oriental turtle dove
Black necked crane
Common moorhen
Common coot
Tibetan sandgrouse
Common redshank
Common sandpiper
Lesser sand plover
Black winged stilt
Brown headed gull
Common tern
Lammergeier
Himalayan griffon
Upland buzzard
Eurasian hobby
Common kestrel
Golden eagle
Great crested grebe
Long tailed shrike
Hume’s groundpecker
Black billed magpie
Red billed chough
Yellow billed chough
Large billed crow
Common raven
White throated dipper
Brown dipper
Blue whistling thrush
Blue capped rock thrush
White tailed rubythroat
Blue throat
Black redstart
White winged redstart
Desert wheatear
Brahminy starling
wallcreeper
Great tit
Eurasian crag martin
Northern house martin
Lesser whitethroat (hume’s)
Mountain chiffchaff
Tickell’s leaf warbler
Hume’s short toed lark
Oriental skylark
Horned lark
House sparrow
Tibetan snowfinch
Plain backed snowfinch
White wagtail
Grey wagtail
Citrine wagtail
Alpine accentor
Brown accentor
Robin accentor
Fire fronted serin
European goldfinch
Twite
Plain mountain finch
Brandt mountain finch
Mongolian finch
Common rosefinch
Great rosefinch
Rock bunting

Wooly here
Long tailed marmot
Himalayan marmot
Argali
Blue sheep (baharal)
Tibetan wild ass (kiang)
Red fox
Ladakh pika
Royle’s pika

Photos by Tim Mitzen

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