Birding Hotspot: Ladakh – a high-altitude melting-pot
by Otto Pfister from BirdingASIA 1, June 2004.
Ladakh, the isolated high-altitude western extension of the vast Tibetan Plateau in the northwestern Trans-Himalayas, part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir states, is almost 100,000 km2 in area and stretches from approximately 75°50’E to 80°E and 32°30’N to 37°N. Two major mountain chains, the Himalayas to the south and west, and the Karakoram to the north, define Ladakh’s natural boundaries, whilst the Zanskar and Ladakh ranges run through its centre. The limited annual rainfall of around 500-1,000 mm in the western region occurs mainly in winter, when the rugged valleys become covered by heavy snow. The eastern and north-eastern areas bordering Tibet are dominated by high-altitude, cold, windswept plains with some extended marshes and a few lakes, rolling hills and wider valleys. There the vegetation is desert-like with annual rainfall rarely exceeding 100 mm per year. During winter, the climate is Arctic, frequently falling below -30°C in the upper plains, yet the region enjoys a short but pleasant summer from the end of June until mid-September. Ladakh’s population is estimated to be fewer than 150,000, mostly living in scattered hamlets within the Indus Valley.
Ladakh is not regarded as a birding paradise. Its vastness and remoteness, combined with its difficult and limited accessibility, have encouraged few to spend sufficient time studying the birds in its hostile valleys, hills and plains. However, lying as it does on the boundary of the Palearctic – Oriental zoogeographic regions, and also partly within the Tibetan biome, Ladakh has a diverse avifauna. Many species are breeding migrants and the region is an important staging post for birds crossing the mighty Himalayan range during their spring and autumn migrations. To date, around 310 species have been recorded. Resident species are mainly altitudinal migrants, breeding at high elevations, but descending in winter. Breeding summer migrants arrive during April and May, and most have departed by the end of August. A few species, mainly breeding in the northern Palearctic, arrive between October and early December to winter in Ladakh.
The most diverse group, however, are the passage migrants, which pass through Ladakh on spring migration from late March to May, and from the end of August to November in the autumn. Autumn migration includes wetland species which tend to avoid Ladakh in spring when the marshes and lakes are still ice-bound. Generally, migrants are commoner in central and eastern Ladakh than in the west. Little is known about migration through the region, but observations suggest that most species migrate at night, directly crossing the Himalayas, whereas a few species follow the Indus Valley. Sudden changes in weather conditions can produce spectacular falls of migrants, especially at key stopover sites such as Hanle, Chumur, Tso-Kar and the Shey-Tikse region.
Wildlife hotspots in Ladakh
Below are some locations that are accessible to foreign visitors, where it is possible to see a wide variety of species.
The Suru Valley
Visitors travelling through Kashmir and entering Ladakh from the west usually stop overnight at Kargil (at 2,700 m elevation, the lowest part of Ladakh). From here, a road leads south alongside the Suru River from which it is possible to explore the meadows, scrub and fields along the main and side valleys. The best birdwatching areas are between Sanko and Parakachik, and the stretch leading to Rungdum. Here, specialities include Firecapped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps, White-tailed Rubythroat Luscinia pectoralis (nominate race), several warblers, including the mysterious Longbilled Bush Warbler Bradypterus major and Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri. The upper, higher parts of the valley are drier and hold fewer species, generally those found in eastern Ladakh.
The Rizong Monastery
Monks protect the area around the picturesque Rizong Monastery. Around the poplar and apricot groves, and alongside the small river, it is possible to find a rich variety of Ladakh’s “lowland” species, including Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii, Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria and Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. The area, however, is most famous as one of the best places to see Ladakh urial, and further up towards Ulle ibex has been seen.
Hemis National Park and the Rumbak Valley
About 10 km west of Leh a small side-valley off the main Indus Valley leads south to Rumbak. The willow- and buckthorn-covered slopes hold many bird species, whilst towards the Ganda-La Pass higher-elevation species are found. Sought-after birds include Brown and White-throated Cinclus cinclus Dippers, Wallcreeper, Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus, Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis, Rock Bunting Emberiza cia, rosefinches and mountain finches. It is an excellent place to find mammals, notably urial, blue sheep around Rumbak, and argali above Yurutse.
Shey marshes from Choglamsar to Tikse (including Agling, near Leh)
The area is a must for any birdwatcher in Ladakh, and can be reached by following the river upstream from the bridge at Choglamsar, 7 km east of Leh, or by continuing to Shey and turning right off the main road at the fishponds 18 km east of Leh, passing through the marshes and crossing the irrigation channels to reach the river. Explore the wetlands and riverbanks along the Indus, including the thick buckthorn patches, the shoreline and grazing land. These areas are excellent for many species including Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, Water Anthus spinoletta and Rosy A. roseatus Pipits, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii and Hobby in summer, or Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, White-winged Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogaster and Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides in winter.
Leave Leh in a northerly direction, cross over the world’s highest motorable pass (at an impressive near-5,700 m in altitude), then descend for 2,500 m into the Nubra Valley. A small area, between Hundar in the west to Panamik in the north, is accessible to tourists. Here there are spectacular sand-dunes, small swamps and extensive stands of buckthorn which abound with birds, including a variety of shrikes, warblers (including Whitebrowed Tit Warbler Leptopoecile sophiae), chats and finches alongside waders, ducks and raptors. Few birdwatchers have visited this place, and there is obvious potential for making exciting discoveries. Mammals include fox, pika, lynx, Bactrian camel (semi-feral), and this is the only place in India where Cape hares (race tibetanus ) can be found.
In the Puga-Sumdo Valley is a wide diversity of habitats – streams, marshes, meadows, bushcovered valley floors and steep rocky slopes – which results in a rich avifauna, including flagship species such as Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae, Tibetan Snowcock, Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo (race hemachalana), Lammergeier, Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius, White-tailed Rubythroat (race tschebaiewi ) and Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis. Wolf, fox, weasel, blue sheep, woolly hare, marmot and pika are frequently recorded.
The largest lake in the Rupchu Plains, situated at an altitude of 4,650 m, can be reached in a day’s spectacular drive from Leh through beautiful panoramic scenery. The lake is the best-known and most important breeding ground for the Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus in Ladakh, and Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis and Great Crested Grebe P. cristatus can both be found there. Once an Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus was seen chasing a Brown-headed Gull Larus brunnicephalus over the lake! Accentors, rosefinches and mountain-finches can be seen in the peashrub-covered northern slopes. Mammals include blue sheep, fox, weasel, marmot, woolly hare and pikas.
Two lakes in the Tsokas Plains, Tso-Kar (a salt lake) and Startsapuk-Tso (a freshwater lake) are important breeding grounds for Bar-headed Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus and various terns and gulls. It is possible to watch Black-necked Cranes foraging in the boggy marshes east of Tso-Kar, or Tibetan Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes tibetanus coming to drink mid-morning in the northern plains. The shores of both lakes are occupied by waders, whilst the adjoining grasslands and barren hillsides host accentors, larks and finches, including Plain-backed Snowfinch Pyrgilauda blanfordi. Resident raptors include Golden Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus and Little Owl Athene noctua.
From late August onwards, flocks of migrating waterfowl and waders frequent both lakes, when, occasionally, large flocks of kites, harriers and other raptors appear. Mammals include wolf, fox, weasel, kiang (wild ass), blue sheep, argali, marmot, woolly hare and pika. Some characteristic and rare birds found in Ladakh:
- Himalayan Snowcock: A resident of steep, barren hillsides and boulder-strewn highaltitude meadows. Occasionally observed in Hemis National Park, west to Zanskar, and the Nimaling Range to the upper Suru Valley. An altitudinal migrant ranging between 3,500-5,500 m.
- Tibetan Snowcock: Encountered in similar habitat to the above, especially around Chang- La, between Rumtse and Taglang-La, eastwards above Tso-Kar and from Tsomoriri to Hanle.
- Tibetan Partridge: A resident species, occasionally found feeding in arid peashrub plains and stony slopes in high-altitude eastern Ladakh, particularly in the early mornings and late afternoons around Sumdo-Puga or the side valleys of the Hanle Plain. In summer it occurs between 4,200 – 5,200 m, but descends slightly in winter, although rarely below 4,000 m.
- Bar-headed Goose: A gregarious, common summer visitor that breeds on high-altitude lakes, marshes and larger slow-flowing rivers of eastern Ladakh at 4,000-4,700 m. Birds arrive in late April, and locally congregate into large breeding colonies. Good sites include Tsomoriri, Startsapuk-Tso/Tso-Kar, Tsigul-Tso and Lam-Tso Lakes along the upper Indus, east of Mahe, and birds are rarely seen along rivers near Shey and further west in the spring.
- Eurasian Eagle Owl: A resident throughout Ladakh, although easily overlooked. It occupies large territories up to 4,400 m. The best localities include Sumdo-Puga, north-eastern Tso-Kar, Lalpari and Hanle in eastern Ladakh, or the moraines along the Indus opposite Leh airport.
- Black-necked Crane: This species is found in high-altitude open wetlands, meadows and bogs in far eastern Ladakh, at 4,100-4,700 m. Places to see it include the Chushul area, Fukche, Lalpari, Hanle, Chumur or around Puga and Tso-Kar.
- Tibetan Sandgrouse: A high-altitude resident, occasionally encountered above 4,200 m, although descends to 3,500 m in winter. Gregarious; flocks of 10 – 20 individuals are found in stony or grassy, barren sandy plains with peashrubs in the Tso-Kar, Chumur, Hanle or Chushul areas.
- Upland Buzzard: A little-known, rare summer visitor or perhaps a resident, mainly in the eastern high-altitude plains above 4,000 m. Seen soaring singly or perched on exposed rocks or poles, particularly around Tso-Kar, Puga and Chushul. Also seen on autumn migration in central Ladakh in the Shey-Tikse area.
- Grey-backed Shrike Lanius tephronotus (race lahulensis): An occasional summer visitor, with individuals recorded in the valley, perching prominently on bushes, posts or telephone wires above open scrub, cultivation and dry slopes. Wary and shyer than Long-tailed Shrike L. schach.
- Hume’s Groundpecker Pseudopodoces humilis. An occasional summer visitor or possibly a resident in the high-altitude semi-deserts of eastern Ladakh at 4,300 – 5,500 m. Often encountered as single birds or small family parties in the upper More Plains from Rupchu eastwards and above Tso-Kar, Chumur and Hanle. Usually seen hopping with long bounces along dry gullies, although its cryptic plumage makes it easily overlooked.
- White-throated Dipper: An occasional resident throughout Ladakh at 3,000 – 5,000 m, rarer in the west, and usually seen singly along small, boulder-strewn, fast-flowing mountain rivers, perching on boulders at the water’s edge. In winter it is occasionally found along the Indus and Zanskar Rivers or their tributaries up to 3,800 m, or rarely along the Suru and Shyok Rivers. In summer it moves to around 4,000 – 5,000 m in the Rumbak, Markha, Rumtse, Tsomoriri and Sumdo areas, and is rarely found near Zuildo. The rare sordidus morph has a pale to chocolate-brown throat and breast and has been recorded around Tsomoriri and Sumdo.
- Brown Dipper: Prefers larger rivers with bigger boulders and at lower altitudes than Whitethroated Dipper in western and central Ladakh, usually around 3,400 m but rarely up to 4,000 m. May overlap with White-throated Dipper in winter.
- Tickell’s Thrush Turdus unicolor : An uncommon passage migrant or straggler to Ladakh, recorded singly near open damp meadows, plantations and in marshes in the Dras Valley, the Shey-Tikse area and the central Hanle Valley up to 4,350 m.
- White-tailed Rubythroat: An occasional summer visitor, recorded singly mainly along lower slopes with juniper or peashrub bushes and with adjoining marshes or streams. The race pectoralis is found in western Ladakh around 3,200 – 4,000 m in the upper Dras Valley and between Panikar and Zuildo. The race tschebaiewi occurs in the far eastern region at 4000-4400 m, especially around Chushul, the side-valleys of the Hanle Plains and near Sumdo.
- White-winged Redstart: An altitudinal migrant, commonly found in winter in buckthorn-covered valleys, especially in the Hundar – Diskit – Panamik, Spituk – Tikse and Zanskar regions, but only occasionally seen during summer when it disperses to highaltitude boulder-strewn hillsides, often near streams, mainly above 4,500 m although as high as at least 5,400 m, especially around the upper Rumbak and Stock Valleys towards Kardung-La, Chang-La and Taglang-La.
- White-browed Tit Warbler: An occasional resident, encountered feeding restlessly in thick cover in the lower valleys of central Ladakh up to 3,800 m, and rarely in the southern and western regions. The best areas are in the Panamik region to Diskit-Hundar, the Shey-Tikse area, around Markha and rarely around Kargil. Usually in pairs, this species is shy, alert and difficult to observe.
- Tibetan Lark Melanocorypha maxima : A locally common summer visitor, observed singly or in pairs in open wet grassland with bogs or in adjoining steppes amongst high-altitude plains. It is regular around Hanle and Chumur in eastern Ladakh, mainly at 4,300-4,500 m.
- Plain-backed Snowfinch: A rare and littleknown summer visitor to or resident in highaltitude plains in eastern and, to a lesser extent, central Ladakh at 4,100-5,500 m. The best areas are Tso-Kar and Taglang-La, with single records from the upper Rumbak Valley and the Zanskar region. Usually seen singly or in pairs in barren, sandy rock-strewn hillsides where pikas live.
- Brandt’s Mountain Finch Leucosticte brandti. A common resident of steep, stony and grassy wet slopes, moraines and meadows, mainly in central, southern and eastern Ladakh mostly above 4,000 – 5,500 m, less commonly in western regions. Most easily found in the upper Rumbak, Markha and Sumdo Valleys, the Chushul, Hanle, Chumur, Tsomoriri (around Korsak), Tso-Kar and Yoye-Tso Plains, and sparingly in the upper Suru (around Zuildo) and Zanskar Valleys. During winter flocks are found at slightly lower altitudes.
- Streaked Rosefinch: A locally common resident, observed singly or in small family parties on open, dry, bush-strewn slopes and plains in southern, central and eastern Ladakh at 4,000 – 4,700 m. Often encountered in the upper Rumbak, Markha and Indus Valleys, and the Chumatang, Yoye-Tso, Sumdo-Puga, Tso- Kar, Tsomoriri, Chumur and Chushul areas. During winter it descends to the valleys where it is easily seen in buckthorn thickets in the Choglamsar – Tikse and Hundar – Diskit – Panamik regions.
- Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla : Occurs alongside Streaked Rosefinches in summer, although favours more arid, less bushy habitats at slightly higher elevations. In winter it tends to remain at high altitudes, inhabiting sunny, snow-free slopes.