The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Asia

SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH, INDIA

In Search of the Grey Ghost of the Mountains

Sunday 1st March – Saturday 14th March 2020

Leaders: Mike Watson and Jigmet Dadul.

14 Days Group Size Limit 9
Tibetan Plateau Extension

Saturday 14th March – Wednesday 18th March 2020

5 Days Group Size Limit 9
Monday 1st March – Sunday 14th March 2021

Leaders: Dani López-Velasco, Jigmet Dadul and

14 Days Group Size Limit 9
Tibetan Plateau Extension

Sunday 14th March – Thursday 18th March 2021

5 Days Group Size Limit 9

Birdquest’s Snow Leopard Special tours in Ladakh, India are extraordinary adventures 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 the norm in the mating season in February/March! Join us for a unique experience in Ladakh, a very special part of India and indeed the world. There is some great birding and other mammals to see in Ladakh in northwesternmost India as well, including Himalayan and Tibetan Snowcocks, Tibetan Partridge, Solitary Snipe, Ibisbill, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Groundpecker (or Ground Tit), Blanford’s and Black-winged Snowfinches, Great Rosefinch, Blue Sheep, Siberian Ibex, Urial, Argali, Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) and Grey Wolf.

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 in northwest India.

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, while being utterly different from that of most of India. 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 birding and we should see such birds as 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 region of India’s 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 after this mighty river crosses into India from Tibet. 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 very broad expanse of the Himalayas in northwest India 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. Having had the good fortune to be part of India, its Tibetan Buddhist traditions have not been under pressure. 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 between India, Tibet and Xinjiang 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.

The optional Tibetan Plateau extension offers some truly great birding, including a series of bird species either absent from the main itinerary, like Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Groundpecker (or Ground Tit) and Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) Snowfinch, or more easily seen here, such as Tibetan Partridge, Upland Buzzard and Black-winged (or Tibetan) Snowfinch. It also features additional mammals such as the feisty Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass) and the impressive Argali (or Nyan), the world’s largest wild sheep. As well as these extra birds and mammals, the scenery along the awesome Indus Gorge and on the bleak and windswept Tibetan Plateau is a draw in its own right. Winter camps of hardy nomadic pastoralists can also be seen in the area and are fascinating to visit.

Birdquest has been operating Snow Leopard tours and Ladakh birding tours in India since 2013.

Acclimatizing: Unless you are very confident of your ability to rapidly adapt to transition to high altitude, based on past personal experience, we would highly recommend that you fly into Leh a day 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. During the extension we stay at a basic but heated guesthouse at Tso Kar. The roads we use range from good to moderate.

Walking: The walking effort during the main Snow Leopard Special tour 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. The walking effort during the Tibetan Plateau extension is easy to moderate.

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 during our Snow Leopard Special tour to Ladakh, but with a limited variety of species. You have to be fortunate to get close 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.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers, camp staff and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: Main Tour: £360, $470, €410. Tibetan Plateau Extension: £110, $140, €120.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)


2020: £3400, $4250, €3740. Leh/Leh.
Tibetan Plateau Extension: £1000, $1250, €1100. Leh/Leh.

Single Supplement: 2020: £110, $140, €120.
Tibetan Plateau Extension: £50, $70, €60.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

The single room supplement only applies to the hotel nights in Leh. 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.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH, INDIA: DETAILED ITINERARY

Snow Leopard Special: Day 1  Our Snow Leopard and birds tour of Ladakh, India starts early this morning at Leh airport (flights from Delhi, the capital city of India, generally arrive in the morning). We will be transferred to our hotel in Leh for an overnight stay.

The flight over the Western Himalayas from India proper 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 birding 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 also search for the little known Solitary Snipe at the edge of stony streams. Among the willow groves and fallow fields, birding forays should produce Oriental Turtle Dove, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough and Cinereous Tit.

Snow Leopard Special: 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.

Snow Leopard Special: 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 India’s 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 birding the small damp areas can turn up Solitary Snipe. Common Ravens patrol the skies and vocal parties of Red-billed and Alpine or Yellow-billed Choughs forage on the slopes. Birding in the scrubby areas should reveal Robin Accentors and Streaked Rosefinches. Other species we should find here on our birding excursions include Tibetan Snowfinch, Brown Accentor, Fire-fronted Serin, Twite, Plain Mountain Finch, Blyth’s Rosefinch (split from Red-mantled) and Rock Bunting.

Snow Leopard Special: 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.

Snow Leopard Special: 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.

Snow Leopard Special: 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.

Snow Leopard Special: Day 14  Our Snow Leopard and birds tour to Ladakh, India ends this morning at Leh airport.

TIBETAN PLATEAU EXTENSION

Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 1  The tour starts this morning at Leh, from where we will drive to Tso Kar, a remote saline lake situated on the Tibetan Plateau in eastern Ladakh, where we will stay for three nights.

Our journey will take us along the course of the awesome Indus Gorge and as we continue eastwards in the direction of its source, near Mount Kailash in Tibet, the sacred river narrows and becomes a rushing Himalayan torrent, sometimes flowing under sheets of ice. One cannot underestimate the importance of the river to the subcontinent. For neighbouring Pakistan, the Indus provides much of the irrigation of its main agricultural region, the Punjab. Even the name India is derived from the Indus. Our route will take us along one of the world’s most spectacular roads as we pass through some very impressive mountain scenery in the deep gorge.

We will make a couple of birding stops along the way where side valleys join the Indus. Here we should find Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), Solitary Snipe, the extraordinary Wallcreeper, White-throated Dipper and Black-throated and Robin Accentors. We should see our first Kiangs (or Tibetan Wild Ass) before we ascend the Polongkongka La pass. Needless to say there will also be stops to admire the awesome scenery.

Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Days 2-3  During our time at Tso Kar we can expect to have great encounters with the attractively patterned Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass). Tibetan Argali (or Nyan) should also be encountered. This is the largest wild sheep in the world, standing 3.5 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2m) at the shoulder, the rams sporting an impressive set of horns, some measuring as much as 190 cm (6.2 ft) in length and weighing up to 23 kg (51 lb)! Grey Wolves are also frequently seen in this area and still pose a threat to the livestock of animal herders here. Guinea-pig like Ladakh Pikas haunt rocky areas or even stone walls, emerging on warmer, sunny days.

Birding is also great here, featuring such interesting birds as Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Partridge, the impressive Tibetan Sandgrouse, the strange Groundpecker and Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) and Black-winged (or Tibetan) Snowfinches. All of these are regularly recorded. Black-necked Cranes have sometimes returned to the area by the third week in March (and are often very approachable), as have Ruddy Shelducks.

Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 4  After some final birding and mammal watching around Tso Kar, we will return to Leh for a welcome night at a comfortable hotel.

Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 5  The tour ends this morning at Leh.

SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH, INDIA TOUR REPORT 2019

by Mike Watson

View Report

SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH, INDIA TOUR REPORT 2017

by Mike Watson

View Report

SNOW LEOPARD SPECIAL: LADAKH, INDIA TOUR REPORT 2016

by Mike Watson

View Report

Other birding tours by Birdquest that also feature large and spectacular mammals include: