Peregrine Bird Tours
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Peregrine Bird Tours

Snow Leopard Expedition Tour Report
3rd - 18th September 2011

Simply put, this was a marvellous and highly successful tour, we saw all the bird specialities that we were hoping for and more and we also saw all the mammal specialities, which were many. The main aim of the tour was to see Snow Leopard and this was achieved on three separate occasions. We also saw many other very interesting animals which unfortunately, many of which are now highly endangered. Highlights amongst the birds included Black-necked Crane, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Ibisbill, White-winged Redstart, Wallcreeper, Robin and Brown Accentors, Plain and Brand's Mountain-Finches and Plain-backed and Black-winged Snowfinches. Vagrants always add spice to any tour; and while birding along the Indus River we observed an Indian Pond-Heron, which is a very uncommon vagrant to Ladakh and we also found the first ever Eastern Orphean Warbler, seen in Ladakh.

The long flight from Australia to Delhi, in India, via Bangkok, in Thailand, was long and tiring, but uneventful. Early the following morning we took the short flight from Delhi to Leh, where we were met by the local ground operator and transferred to the very comfortable Hotel Omasila, which had spectacular views of the snow-clad Himalayan peaks. While relaxing on the large terrace of the hotel, drinking tea, coffee and ice cold soft drinks, we enjoyed our first bird sightings; there were the usual Feral Pigeons as well as a couple of Oriental Turtle-Doves, several Mountain Chiffchaffs and a single Eurasian Magpie, which were all seen very well. In the afternoon we had a quite walk through the dusty streets and bazaars of Leh. We enjoyed clear blue skies and a great deal of sunshine, it was very hot, somewhat surprising for the month of September.

The following morning we drove to nearby Trisul Lake, to do some real birding. We were not to be disappointed; on the lake itself we found a large flock of 10 or so Garganey, a few Northern Shovelers, half a dozen or so Northern Pintails, a solitary Common Moorhen, half a dozen Eurasian Coots, a single Black-winged Stilt, a single Lesser Sandplover in non-breeding plumage, a single Wood Sandpiper and an immature Whiskered Tern. In the scrub surrounding the lake we added a Common Hoopoe, a Tree Pipit and a rather skulking Bluethroat. We spent the rest of the morning birding along the various channels of the Indus River. Here new birds included a Common Greenshank, a couple of Green Sandpipers, large numbers, 40 plus of both Citrine and White Wagtails and a solitary female Black Redstart. By far the best bird that occurs along the Indus in these parts, is the highly localised Ibisbill, but it is a very uncommon bird here. Therefore, we were very pleased to observe a solitary bird at very close quarters, as it was feeding in a very shallow stretch of the river. It was unusually tame. We then found a very occasional visitor to this area, an immature Indian Pond-Heron, a very good find in this area. With the temperature nudging 30 degrees Celsius in the shade, and there was no shade, it was hard going and it was not the sort of weather we had been expecting. Suddenly, a small warbler popped into view and we watched it catching small insects for a little while. It was a first winter Eastern Orphean Warbler, a bird that has not previously been recorded in Ladakh, however, it is a common passage migrant throughout adjoining Kashmir, just a little to the west.

Following a picnic lunch, we visited the Shey Marshes, were the only new bird, was a flock of a dozen or so Temminck's Stints, some where still in full breeding plumage, what a super day.

The following day was mainly taken up by the long and very bumpy drive to Tso Kar Lake. We made many birding stops along the way. Close to Choglamsar we saw a couple of Northern House Martins. Close to Karu, we had great looks at a very confiding Chukar. Close to Upshi, we observed a fine pair of Blue Rock-Thrushes and then made a surprise find of a single Plain-backed Snowfinch, which is an uncommon and extremely range restricted species. In and around Lato, new birds included beautiful Hill Pigeons, a Common Cuckoo, we found a small breeding colony of Eurasian Crag Martins, a pair of Rosy Pipits, a confiding female Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, an immature Indian Golden Oriole, a flock of a dozen or more Rosy Starlings, unfortunately all immatures and a few Red-billed Choughs. While enjoying a picnic lunch, close to Rumtre, we watched 10 or so Himalayan Griffins, a few Lammergeiers, several exquisite White-winged Redstarts, a delightful pair of Sulphur-bellied Warblers and a Robin Accentor feeding a fledgeling. We made a brief stop at Tang Lang La Pass, at 5,359 metres, it is one of the highest motorable (only just,) roads in the world. New birds here included Common Kestrel, Brown Accentor and a huge flock of Brandt's Mountain-Finches. On arriving at Tso Kar Lake, where our tents had already been put up for us, an hour or so's birding produced Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Brown-headed Gull and Horned and Hume's Short-toed Larks. We were also fortunate to find a a pair of Black-necked Cranes with a large offspring, this is one of the most endangered birds in the world. Even more surprisingly, we found a flock of 14 Tibetan Sandgrouse, which we were able to watch feeding on the ground. We were also very pleased to see large numbers of Tibetan Asses and a colony of Stoliczka's Mountain Voles.

We spent half the following morning biding along the edge of the very large and very saline Tso Kar Lake. New birds came thick and fast. We found all three species of grebes that occur in this part of the world Little, Black-necked and Great Crested. There was also Grey Heron, Gadwall, Red-crested Pochard, Common Redshank, Little Stint, Common Tern, European Roller, a very occasional bird in this part of the world and Common Raven. Amazingly, we found five Grey Wolves along the edge of the lake, which we were able to see very well, for a long period of time. There was also one very brave Red Fox, tailing the pack, at a reasonable distance, at his own discretion. The rest of the day was spent driving back along the murderous road to Leh. The journey was rather uneventful, apart from a large flock of Blue Sheep, feeding on a rocky scree slope.

Following breakfast we were driven to the Zingchen entrance of Hemis National Park. Where we began our quest for the Snow Leopard. From here we hiked for an hour up the Rumbak Valley to our camp site. During the hike we were greeted by our first Great Tit of the tour. After lunch at the camp site, a short walk up the trail, produced Hume's Leaf-Warbler and Blue Whistling-Thrush. We also enjoyed very close looks at a party of six Blue Sheep, the favourite food of Snow Leopards!

The following day was our fist full day in Hemis National Park, and our first full day looking for Snow Leopard. We spent the whole day exploring the Tarbung Valley. It was tough going, but we were rewarded with four new birds for the trip; a stunning Wallcreeper, numerous Fire-fronted Serins, a few Streaked Great Rosefinches and several Alpine Choughs, but alas, no Snow Leopard. We returned to camp by mid-afternoon, very tired with a greater appreciation of the difficulty of observing the mythical Snow Leopard.

The following day we spent the whole day searching the Husing Valley. We found a small flock of perched Common Rosefinches in the Rose-hip bushes and a couple of very skulking Eurasian Wrens. We also came across a couple of female Spotted Great Rosefinches, also in the Rose-hip bushes. While having lunch at the head of the Husing Valley, our local guide Smanla managed to put a pair of very distant Himalayan Snowcocks in the scope. Although we tried very hard we failed to find Snow Leopard, although we did find very fresh pug marks, in some soft mud. It was a beautiful sunny day today and the scenery was simply spectacular and we also got very close to large numbers of very tame Blue Sheep. We enjoyed dinner in the dining tent and just as we finished, our Snow Leopard Guide Smanla, called out 'Snow Leopard'. In the distance a Snow Leopard was sat on the top of a cliff looking down at us. In no time at all we had it in the scope, the light was fading, but we could clearly see the head of the animal quite well. It was a sighting, not a good sighting, but it was a good start.

Smanla scouted the two near valleys the following morning and found pug marks of a small Snow Leopard at the beginning of the Husing Valley heading towards the Tarbung Valley. So we decided to visit this valley once again, as there was the very real possibility that there where two Snow Leopards in the valley. We walked and scanned in the valley all day, but with no luck, and with the temperature well above 30 Celsius, we headed back to camp, by mid-afternoon. However, all was not lost; new birds for the tour included two sightings of Eurasian Sparrowhawk, both of whom flew very close to us, we saw a rather distant Golden Eagle and we also enjoyed good close looks at a very obliging Grey Wagtail.

The following day we trekked to Urutse at 12,500 feet. Where we stayed in a very pleasant homestay. In the morning we added two new species of birds; we found the diminutive Goldcrest gleaning from the leaves of a group of trees. Later in the morning we enjoyed a very good sighting of a Brown Dipper, in the Rumbak River.

In the afternoon we enjoyed super close looks at a couple of Himalayan Marmots and later in the afternoon, we enjoyed a real treat, when a young Mountain Weasel used the dining tent as his personal playground. It was fascinating to watch the young weasel running round and round the tent and running around outside the tent. A little later in the afternoon we watched an adult Mountain Weasel, as it was hunting.

The following day we hiked from our homestay at Urutse, at 12,500 feet to Kandala Pass, at 16,500 feet and then back to our base camp in the Rumbak Valley at 12,000 feet. It was a very tough day physically, but it was a great birding day. We added three new birds to our ever growing trip list; they were Tickell's Leaf-Warbler, Black-winged Snowfinch and Twite, all where seen very well. We also saw two new species of mammals, Woolly Hare and the endangered Tibetan Argali, a species of wild goat. We were a very weary bunch when we arrived back at camp.

Our last full day of the tour. We planned not to do very much today and not to work too hard, as we were still recovering from the excesses of yesterday's activities. However, we had seen new birds every day of the tour, and this was our goal for today. We really wanted to find at least one new bird today, which would mean that we had seen a new bird on every day of the tour. However, we thought it highly unlikely that we would find a new bird today. After breakfast we set off to do some birding around the village of Rumbak, which we had not previously visited. On the way in a narrow gorge of the Rumbak Valley, we started the day off very well, with super close looks at a beautiful Wallcreeper, a bird which only I had seen earlier in the tour. As we reached Rumbak, Smanla, our Snow Leopard tracker, spotted a Snow Leopard on the mountainside. We spent the whole of the morning playing hide and seek with a magnificent Snow Leopard. We enjoyed several excellent sightings of the big cat, walking uphill, sitting still, sleeping on a rock ledge and best of all walking across a barren hillside, showing us a full side on profile, we even saw it attempt to take a Blue Sheep, but it was unsuccessful.

We ate a very pleasant lunch, it tasted even better after we had been watching a Snow Leopard for all of four hours. After lunch we walked the short distance to Rumbak Village, a very pleasant Tibetan style village, complete with its own small monastery. It had been a super morning, but we had still not added a new bird for the day. We checked every bird we found around Rumbak Village and to our surprise, we found not one, but three new birds for the tour. The first was a Eurasian Hobby, which flew past us and up the valley. We then found a few immature Plain Mountain-Finches amongst the House Sparrows in the village and feeding in the fallow fields, we found three Olive-backed Pipits, which pass through Ladkh in very small numbers. In the evening as the light was fading, an adult Snow Leopard, walked very quickly past our camp site, no more than 20 metres away from us. This had been a very special day.

On our last day of the tour, just as we were driving out of Hemis National Park, our guide Smanla spotted three Ladakh Urials, an endangered species of wild sheep, which were on the side of a cliff. We promptly stopped the vehicle and jumped out so that we could admire this very rare animal.

It had been a privilege to visit the high altitude desert of Ladakh, it is a wonderful part of the world, it was simply breathtaking, literally. We saw all the hoped for bird specialities of the region and all of the special mammals, including no less than three separate sightings of the incredible Snow Leopard, which was the main reason for visiting Ladakh. None of this would have been possible without the tireless and expert guidance of our local Snow Leopard guide Smanla Tsering, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.

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