Welcome to Birdquest
Birdquest's Snow Leopard Special is an extraordinary adventure in the very best place on earth for seeing and photographing Snow Leopards. Your chances of seeing one are close to 100% and multiple sightings are quite possible in the mating season in February/March! If you are fortunate you will also get some great images, but don't count on it, for 'The Cat' is by its nature highly unpredictable. Join us for a unique experience in Ladakh, a very special part of the world.
Wednesday 1st March —
Tuesday 14th March 2017
Leaders: Mike Watson and Jigmet Dadul
Group Size Limit: 9
Tour Category: Mostly moderate walking (but at high altitude) and mostly basic village homestay accommodations and fairly simple camping in cold conditions
The bewitching Snow Leopard is one of the most evocative mammals of our planet and on this special tour we will make a big effort to see this once, as far as wildlife enthusiasts are concerned, near-mythical creature in the majestic mountains of Ladakh.
Although everyone knows about this extraordinary mammal, very few people have ever laid eyes upon it, but in the remote valleys of the Hemis National Park in Ladakh in the western Himalayas we stand an extremely high chance of observing ‘the grey ghost of the mountains’. We will have to spend plenty of time scanning wild and barren mountain slopes, but with a week in the area we should be able to get decent views, or better, of this most alluring of cats. The chances are close to 100%! February/March is the mating season for the Snow Leopard, and we actually have a very good chance of multiple sightings during our visit. We will also be doing our level best to get some reasonable images of Snow Leopard during our visit, and sometimes there is the chance to photograph these beautiful cats at closer range, especially when they are at a kill or mating.
Ladakh, 'land of high passes', situated in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in northern India, is by far the best place in the world to get to grips with this fascinating creature. Until quite recently, it was virtually impossible to see a Snow Leopard in the wild and the stories of very lucky people who had bumped into one by sheer chance have been perpetrated ad infinitum. Although the Snow Leopard occurs in twelve countries in Central Asia, sightings of this incredibly secretive cat were always sporadic. But now, with the help of our very knowledgeable Ladakhi guide/tracker, Jigmet Dadul, and his expert team, who have studied Snow Leopards for many years and developed an extraordinary knowledge of this elusive creature, we will explore several secluded valleys of the Hemis National Park, where a healthy population of this enthralling mammal survives.
The fauna of Ladakh has much in common with that of Central Asia in general and that of the Tibetan Plateau in particular. The Hemis National park naturally holds good numbers of other large mammals, including Bharal or Blue Sheep and Ladakh Urial, while smaller inhabitants include Woolly Hare, Royle’s Pika, Red Fox and Mountain Weasel.
Hemis is also an interesting place for birds and we should see Himalayan Snowcock, Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker, Hill and Snow Pigeons, White-winged (or Güldenstädt’s) Redstart, Wallcreeper, Robin and Brown Accentors, Tibetan Snowfinch, Fire-fronted (or Red-fronted) Serin and Streaked Rosefinch. The Hemis National Park is of course the main venue of this tour, but we will also visit the Indus river valley, where Ibisbill and Solitary Snipe live, and another valley where Siberian Ibex can be found along with the Grey Wolves and Snow Leopards that prey on them.
Ladakh is the highest plateau of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, with much of it being over 3,000m (9,800ft). It spans the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges, and the upper Indus River valley. The Ladakh and Zanskar ranges have no really major peaks; their average height is a little less than 6,000m (19,700ft), but few of its passes are less than 5,000m (16,400ft). Ladakh is a high altitude desert as the Himalayas create a strong rainshadow, denying entry to the monsoon clouds. Natural vegetation mainly occurs along water courses and on high altitude areas that receive more snow and have cooler summer temperatures. The main source of water is the winter snowfall on the mountains. Recent flooding in the region has been attributed to abnormal rain patterns and retreating glaciers, both of which might be linked to global warming.
Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and culture. It is sometimes called ‘Little Tibet’ as it has been strongly influenced by Tibetan culture. We will have an opportunity to visit one of Ladakh's most famous and spectacular buddhist monasteries at Thikse, and we will also be able to explore Leh with its interesting old quarters, City Palace and eyrie-like Victory Monastery.
In the past Ladakh gained importance from its strategic location at the crossroads of important trade routes, but, since the Chinese authorities closed the borders with Tibet and Central Asia in the 1960s, international trade has dwindled except for tourism. Since Ladakh is a part of the Kashmir dispute, the Indian military maintains a strong presence in the region.
Day 1 The tour starts early this morning at Leh airport (flights from Delhi generally arrive at breakfast time). We will be transferred to our hotel in Leh for an overnight stay.
The flight over the Western Himalayas from Delhi to Ladakh is usually spectacular, with views of ice- and snow-encrusted peaks stretching away towards the horizon. As Leh is situated at an altitude of about 3,300m or 10,800ft, we will take it easy today and start to get adjusted to the thin air of Ladakh. Ladakh is one of the few remaining abodes of Buddhism and the Leh area is home to a number of impressive religious buildings, including the Shey, Thikse, Spituk and Stok monasteries. These show unique prayer wheels, chortens (stupas), statues of Buddha, thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings) and prayer flags. This afternoon we will pay a visit to Thikse monastery.
We will also explore a couple of interesting areas for birds near Leh. The town is situated in the Indus valley, not far from where the Zanskar river joins its turbulent waters, and a ribbon of vegetation lines the river in this otherwise barren landscape. Human settlements, however, are more richly vegetated due to irrigation and are surrounded by fertile fields and trees. Natural vegetation commonly seen along water courses includes Tibetan Buckthorn, willows, wild roses, Tamarisk and caraway, while natural vegetation in the unirrigated desert around Leh includes capers, rhubarb and several species of aromatic Artemisia (wormwood).
A few pairs of the strange but beautiful Ibisbill inhabit the shingle banks of the Indus river. Small marshes and pools hold Mallard and other wildfowl, Common Moorhen and Common Coot. We will search for the little known Solitary Snipe at the edge of stony streams. In the willow groves and fallow fields we should find species like Oriental Turtle Dove, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough and Cinereous Tit.
Day 2 After breakfast we will transfer to the roadhead in Hemis National Park, situated at an altitude of about 3,600m or 11,800ft.
From the roadhead it is only a little over an hour's walk, gently uphill alongside a river, to our campsite situated at about 3,700m or 12,100ft. Our luggage will be carried by donkeys and ponies and on our walk we will get acquainted with the more common birds and mammals of these magnificent mountains. After settling in to our camp, where we will spend 8 nights, we will have our first opportunity to look for Snow Leopards from a nearby viewpoint.
Days 3–9 Seven full days to look for Snow Leopard, Blue Sheep (their main prey species), other mammals and birds, and enjoy the spectacular scenery of Hemis. Hemis National Park is a high altitude area in the eastern Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is India's only protected area inside the Palearctic ecozone and with its 4,400 square kilometres it is presently the largest national park in South Asia. The park is bounded on the north by the Indus River, and includes the catchments of the Markha, Sumdah and Rumbak rivers, and parts of the Zanskar Range. The park houses numerous Tibetan gompas and holy chortens within its boundaries. These include the famous 400-year old Hemis Monastery. Hemis was a destination and transit point on the silk routes across the Tibetan Plateau. The highest mountain in the park is Stok Kangri (6,123m or 20,090ft), which dominates the area and offers simply magnificent views.
Hemis National Park is probably the best place in the world to try to see the fabled Snow Leopard. The park is home to a viable breeding population of about 200 of these big cats. This magnificent mammal occupies alpine and subalpine areas, generally between 3,350 and 6,700m (11,000 and 22,000ft) in Ladakh, and is currently restricted to the mountain ranges of Central Asia in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the Pamir Mountains, the Tian Shan, the Karakoram, Kashmir, the Kunlun, and the Himalayas to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, the Sayan, the Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north. The total estimated population is 4,080-6,590. However, the effective global Snow Leopard population (those likely to reproduce) is suspected to be fewer than 2,500. The Snow Leopard features on the endangered species list as it is still widely poached and persecuted for its coat and as a recent substitute for the high-priced tiger bones used for Chinese medicine. Other individuals are killed by herders because of raids on domestic stiock.
Hemis National Park is an especially good habitat for this predator as it has abundant prey populations. The prey base for this apex predator is primarily supported by Bharal (Blue Sheep, Argali (Great Tibetan Sheep), Ladakh Urial (Shapu) and livestock. Smaller prey consists of marmots, Woolly Hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as Himalayan Snowcock and Chukar. Considerable predation of domestic livestock occurs, which brings it into direct conflict with humans. Herders will kill Snow Leopards to prevent them from taking their animals. Loss of natural prey animals due to over-grazing by domestic livestock, poaching and defence of livestock are the major cause for the decreasing population of Panthera uncia. Snow Leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Snow leopards are smaller than the other big cats and stand about 60cm (24 inches) at the shoulder. They have long thick fur, and their base colour varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or gray in colour. Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Snow Leopards' tails are long, very thick and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are very thick due to storage of fats and are very thickly covered with fur, which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep, as well as serving as a counterweight when they are moving or climbing rapidly. The Snow Leopard cannot roar and its vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls and wails.
Snow Leopards usually live above the treeline in mountainous meadows and in rocky regions. They prefer broken terrain and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85cm (33 inches) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals. Like other cats, Snow Leopards use scent marks to indicate their territory and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock and mark protruding rocks with their cheek glands. They are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.
We will spend the best part of every day scanning the nearby and more distant mountain slopes in the hope of finding and photographing this most wanted creature. We will be amidst some of the most impressive mountain scenery the world has on offer. Our man on the spot has an uncanny rapport with the cat and knows the best areas to find this elusive creature. He will point out the pug marks, show us the scrapes and scat and encourage us to smell the scent marks under overhanging rocks. We stand a very high chance of getting to grips with one of the most mythical animals on earth, perhaps several times, but we will have to keep our eyes open as this beautiful animal can be extremely difficult to spot due to its secretive and elusive nature and perfect camouflage. Once detected it has the ability to vanish in front of the eyes of the observer and the name ‘the grey ghost’ given to it by local people refers to this remarkable characteristic.
As well as 'The Cat', we should encounter a nice selection of other mammals in these forbidding mountains. The Bharal or Blue Sheep is the most abundant mountain ungulate in Ladakh. This gregarious animal displays characteristics of both sheep and goat and lives on high altitude pastures, steep rocky slopes and open hillsides. The Ladakh Urial or Shapu is another unique mountain sheep that inhabits these mountains. The population is declining, however, and presently there are not more 3000 individuals left in Ladakh. The Urial is endemic to Ladakh, where it is distributed only along two major river valleys, the Indus and Shayok. The squat Himalayan Marmot is abundant on open, grassy stone-strewn slopes, but all or most will be hibernating at this season. Other interesting mammals here include Woolly Hare, Royle’s Pika, Red Fox and the extremely agile Mountain Weasel.
The birdlife of these barren mountains is limited and is distinctly Palearctic (temperate Eurasian) in character. We will surely hear the characteristic whistles of Himalayan Snowcocks emanating from high meadows and spot this large gamebird while it searches the alpine meadows for bulbs and tubers, or calls from a prominent point. Chukars abound and favour the vicinity of fields and villages. Rock and Hill Pigeons, and sometimes Snow Pigeons, can be found on precipitous cliffs. The raptor guild is well represented and we should find Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle and Saker. Torrents are inhabited by both White-throated and Brown Dippers, while small damp areas can attract Solitary Snipe. Common Ravens patrol the skies and vocal parties of Red-billed and Alpine or Yellow-billed Choughs forage on the slopes. Scrubby areas hold Robin Accentors and Streaked Rosefinches. Other species we should find here include Tibetan Snowfinch, Brown Accentor, Fire-fronted Serin, Twite, Plain Mountain Finch, Blyth’s Rosefinch (split from Red-mantled) and Rock Bunting.
Day 10 After a last early morning watch for Snow Leopard at Hemis we will retrace our steps to Leh and continue by road to a remote Ladakhi village for a three nights stay at very simple village guesthouses.
Days 11-12 We will explore the surroundings of a Ladakhi village situated at about 4,000m (13,000 ft), staying with a charming local family for three nights. Here we will have further chances for Snow Leopard sightings and in particular we will be looking for Grey Wolf and Siberian Ibex, both of which are regularly seen in this area. This is also a great area for finding Urial, yet another wild goat species characteristic of Ladakh.
Day 13 This morning we will return to Leh for a well deserved overnight stay at our very comfortable hotel. There will be the opportunity to explore the town this afternoon.
Day 14 The tour ends early this morning at Leh airport.
Tibetan Plateau Extension Option: After the tour, providing there are enough participants wanting to visit the area, we will arrange a short extension to the only easily accessible part of the Tibetan Plateau in March in Ladakh. Our main reason for visiting this remote area is to see and photograph the attractively patterned Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass). They are usually reasonably approachable here, still in their shaggy winter coats at this time of year. The Tibetan Argali or Nyan may also be encountered. It is the largest wild sheep in the world, standing 3.5 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2m) at the shoulder and sports a very nice set of impressive horns. We should also come across some interesting birds. Black-necked Cranes have usually returned to the area by mid-March (and are often very approachable), Tibetan Snowcocks inhabit the surrounding mountain slopes, Tibetan Partridge is regularly recorded and we may even encounter the impressive Tibetan Sandgrouse and Blanford's (or Plain-backed) Snowfinch. Winter camps of hardy nomadic pastoralists can also be seen in the area and are fascinating to visit. The extension will be of 4 days/3 nights and include two nights either in a homestay or camping at over 4000m (13,000ft) altitude, followed by a final night at an hotel in Leh. The cost will depend on the number of participants. Please contact us if you are interested in this extension.
Important: Unless you are very confident of your ability to rapidly adapt to transition to high altitude, based on repeated past personal experience, we would highly recommend that you fly into Leh a day or two before the tour starts so that you can get used to the altitude. Leh area is an interesting place to have some extra time, with some fascinating and spectacularly-situated monasteries. Our office can make hotel, transfer and excursion arrangements on request.
Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotel in Leh is of very good standard. The homestay accommodation is clean but basic, with a pit toilet. During the camping section each participant will have their own tent. Although the tents are two person tents, we do not feel they are roomy enough for two normal-sized people plus luggage. Couples may of course opt to put luggage in one tent and sleep in the other. As well as the sleeping tents, there is a large dining tent with gas heater, a kitchen tent, a toilet tent and (on demand) a shower tent. The limited roads we use range from good to moderate.
Walking: The walking effort can be moderate if you wish, but the more energetic will have the option for some more demanding hiking if desired. There is often no need for energetic hiking in order to see Snow Leopards. They can regularly be seen from the valley bottoms. However, hiking to higher altitudes may improve the chances of finding a cat at a kill or having some other interesting encounter.
Climate: Predominantly dry, with a mixture of sunny and overcast weather (sunshine is the norm here in Ladakh). Some light snow is likely. Temperatures range from cool to cold, and can be very cold at night and in the early morning, ranging from highs averaging around -3 to 3°C (26-38°F) in the shade (it feels warmer in direct sunlight) to lows averaging about -10 to -15°C (5-14°F). The air is very dry in Ladakh, so low temperatures do not feel as cold as in moist climates. You will need a good down jacket and other clothing and footwear that will keep you warm in such conditions.
Mammal & Bird Photography: Opportunities are good, but with a limited variety of species. You have to be fortunate to get good photographs of Snow Leopards, as opposed to more distant shots.
Photographic Equipment: For Snow Leopards, which are often fairly distant to distant, the ideal lenses are usually a 500mm, 600mm or even 800mm prime, often with converters. (If your budget does not run to big prime lenses, a high quality 400mm f5.6 or a 100-400mm or similar zoom with converters on a crop-sensor type body can be a viable alternative.) For close Blue Sheep and many other subjects, including some scenic shots (e.g. distant monasteries on crags or distant mountain peaks) a 200mm or 300mm will often be useful. Ladakh is full of panoramic views and a wide-angle in the 17-28mm range is ideal. You can get wonderful results with many subjects with a high quality digital compact camera with a 20x or higher optical zoom, but you will most likely struggle with Snow Leopards unless they are unusually close. If you have questions about what equipment you ought to bring, please contact us.
Important Information for Pound Payers: Kindly note that the Pound prices shown here are based on post-EU-referendum exchange rate reality, unlike the website prices of most UK bird tour operators which are still based on outdated and hugely higher pre-referendum exchange rates. Consequently you can rest assured that we will not have to adjust these prices upwards at invoicing, unless the Pound falls significantly further, and if there is any recovery by the Pound you will receive the full benefit of the cost-saving by way of a price reduction at invoicing.
Tour Price: £2980, €3510, $3900 Leh/Leh.
Price includes all transportation, all accommodations, all meals, bottled water, some drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, all tips for local drivers/guides, camp staff and for accommodations/restaurants, leader services.
Base prices for this tour are determined in US Dollars, the currency in which we pay for most tour services. The exchange rates applied at the time of costing were: £1 = $1.310 and €1 = $1.110. For those not paying us in US Dollars, prices may be adjusted (either downwards or upwards) at the time of invoicing should there be a change in the exchange rate. See booking information.
Single Room/Tent Supplement: £96, €114, $126 (Leh hotel nights only).
During the camping nights all participants have their own individual tent. At the homestay (3 nights) there are twin rooms, but anyone wanting single accommodation is welcome to use a tent.
Deposit: £350, €450, $550.
Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.
Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: www.atol.org.uk/ATOL Certificate
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