Wild Ladakh - Beyond High-passes and Monasteries
At an average altitude of 11000 ft. (3300 MSL) above sea level, Ladakh is known for high passes, pristine lakes, mesmerizing mountain scape and beautiful monasteries. This upland desert (part of the Trans Himalayas) hosts a very unique habitation of flora that blossoms mainly on the water trickling out of the glaciers and wetlands. Some rare animals and birds call this part of the Himalayas as their home given it’s climatic and geographical conditions. Although some of the birds do migrate during the harsh winters (temperature ranges from -18 to -40 Deg. Celsius) but for many species this is their only home come what may.
There are a number of places across Ladakh which are very productive for bird photography and include Hemis National Park, the grounds of Shey near Leh, Pangong Tso & Spangmik, Hanle flats, Tso Kar and Tso Moriri lakes and the plains beyond Hunder bordering the Gilgit-Baltistan region of PoK. The bird and wild animal species with geographic and climatic conditions however a number of finches, Eurasian Jay’s and Chif chaf’s are pretty common birds along with Himalayan Blue-Sheep aka Bharals, Himalayan foxes and Marmots.
The primary attractions of Ladakh for any bird photographer are the Himalayan Snowcocks, Chukar Partridges, Black-necked cranes, Finches, little owl and Tibetan Sandgrouse which are unique to this place and rarely found in other regions of Asia (except Tibet, parts of Bhutan and some central Asian grounds). Apart from the birds, Tibetan Wolf, Argali (mountain sheep), Red Fox and Kiang (aka Tibetan Wild Ass) are some of the mammals that can be photographed around these places.
Our photography expedition started off from driving south of Leh towards the Hemis National Park, crossing the beautiful Indus river valley. As we drove beyond Stakna, there were literally hundreds of Chukar Partridges feeding along the road but the moment we used to slow down and try to capture, they would either move down the valley or take a small flight up hill. Given just a day of acclimatization, none of us were ready for the ascent and we moved on. Much to our surprise our guides knew the best place in Hemis where the partridges roamed freely albeit with caution, but this was a big relief for us since it wasn’t difficult as we had encountered earlier. We also found Eurasian Jay, Red-fronted Serine and Mountain chif-chaf at this place and were able to make some memorable images.
The next day we drove southwards for Pangong Tso (the blue lake surrounded by Snowcapped Mountains) and were advised to avoid Khardung La Pass that’s marred with frequent traffic jams due to ongoing roadwork and the tourists pouring in. As the vehicle moved up Chang La Pass we spotted a flock of Chukars and Snowcocks yet again but much to our dismay the Snowcocks were too far up. We continued our journey towards Pangong braving the long army convoys on the narrow roads of Chang La, which is at an altitude of 17536 ft (5344 MSL) and offers some spectacular views of the Thiksey valley.
We stopped around the Shyok valley to photograph the Himalayan Marmots (Squirrels), these mormots are the size of large house cat and are fun to watch and photograph. This species is found across Ladakh from an elevation of 3500 MSL and above. The Marmots in the area are in danger due to tourists feeding biscuits, chips and other snacks and we saw an individual which has rashes all over its body, this practice of feeding continues unabated despite the sign boards along the stretch not to feed these wild animals. The scenic Pangong Tso is a destination unto itself and attracts thousands of tourists with its sheer beauty but as with any other tourist destination this place is on the edge of being destroyed as it is also home for the Greater Crested Grebes, Brown Headed Gulls, Lesser Sand plovers and Bar-headed Goose among other birds. We also photographed Horned Larks, Twites and Common Sandpiper along the lake coast.
The quest for birds continued south of Pangong along the lake towards Chushul passing Merak and other small hamlets. The journey here is very tiring due to ther terrain and road conditions, we just followed the dirt track used by the Army. We did see a herd of Kiang and birds in this stretch but photography isn’t allowed up to Chushul. Further down from Chushul we did find Citrine Wagtails, Twites, White wagtails and the Red-billed Chough’s around a stream and luckily, we could photograph. The road to Hanle becomes a little more bearable after you cross the Indus river near Mood.
We found few pairs of Black-necked cranes Crane (IUCN Red List – Vulnerable) foraging in the marshes, but these were on the other side of the fence and the journey continued looking for more favorable spots. These cranes summer in Ladakh and high altitude Tibetan plateau and spend their winter in Phobejika valley Bhutan and Eastern Arunachal in India. At this point although we were exhausted of the long arduous journey, we decided to give a try when we found a pair in distance. Foraging in the marshes. This came with another challenge, the cranes got alerted with our presence and started moving further away. To top it all a storm was building in the distance and approaching cranes was even worst due to the marshy patches, but finally patience and persistence finally paid.
Hanle is a vast flat land surrounded by mountains, the entire area smells of Sulphur (due to excessive Sulphur content in the soil) and crawling makes it very difficult due to wet patches. But the place offers excellent opportunities for photography. We captured some good images of Upland Buzzard, rarely photographed Tibetan Larks, Brown Accentor, Hume’s Ground Pecker, Kiangs and Himalayan Red Fox. What we really missed was the Eurasian Eagle Owl pair since the roosting area was disturbed by the feral dogs in the region. The feral dogs throughout Ladakh have become a menace for wildlife in general and specific to birds especially since lack of food drives them to hunt bird nests, birds (Shelducks, Cranes) and juveniles including the Eagle Owls. Even heard of stories about pack of feral dogs hunting the Kiangs (need to be verified) and the Forest department hasn’t found a way out yet.
After a very productive days we were northbound towards Leh occasionally sighting some Rudy Shelducks and Black-necked cranes and we hit a a large stream before Tso-Kar. Although the distance isn’t much, but the terrain coupled with dirt track makes the journey pretty tiring. The highlight of the area was of Red Fox pup that was quite curious and played with soft drink bottle strewn across the road (A menace of human intervention in the pristine habitat or so to say)
At these grounds we found Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Marmot, Twites, Great Rose Finch and wagtails along with Accentors (Robin and Brown). This is a relatively easier terrain or maybe it felt so after some of the harsh terrains that we had seen earlier and the fact that we acclimatized by now. Our final destination Tso Kar was something that we had never experienced. The salty lake that fumes Sulphur gas and the overall atmosphere was something very unique and unheard of, It felt as if it’s straight of a Hollywood movie. The finches here are pretty bold and we managed to capture some excellent images. However, the two main species, Tibetan Sandgrouse & Little Owls are the most difficult ones as these are well camouflaged to their surrounding and very shy.
Wildlife photography in Ladakh is challenging due to the terrain, altitude and lack of oxygen at places that impacts the efficiency. But it’s also rewarding in terms of species sightings, gorgeous landscape and dramatic light even the night sky offers some excellent opportunities for photography.
- Leh is connected by Air to Delhi, Mumbai and Srinagar
- Travel by Road is either via Manali or Srinagar
- Inner Line Permits required travel beyond Leh
- Permits are issued by District Administration located in Leh for places to be visited and require ID proof for Indian residents and Passport & Visa copy for Foreigners
- Leh has some very good hotels however other places have basic yet good accommodation
- Allow at least one day of acclimatization in Leh before proceeding further
- Carry prescription medicines and other generic medicines as well as tablets to treat altitude sickness.
Text and images - Shivayogi Kanthi