Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ladakh... One of its kind... A Cold Desert

India, being a country of various habitats, makes it one of the best destinations for wildlife. We have Rainforests of Western Ghat & North-East, Grasslands of Central India, Deserts of Rajasthan, Rann of Gujarat, Coastal line along Western, South & Eastern areas, Himalayan ranges on North, Himalayan Foothills, and the cold Desert of Ladakh... Rarely you find such variety in a single country. We are very fortunate!

This was my second trip to Ladakh and first with the group. Last year I went to Ladakh to see how the logistics etc. can be planned. The batch was from 8th July to 17th July 2013 & after the batch, Pallavi, my wife joined me for another 6 days. So for me it was 17 days in Ladakh!! :-)

Myself & Adesh, we reached a day before on 7th July, just to discuss with our Hotel (Hotel Bijoo) owner Mr. Bijoo Khan regarding the stay, food, travel arrangements etc. Hotel Bijoo, located near Leh market is one of the best places to stay in Leh. The rooms are neat & clean and food is excellent. The staff here is very courteous & always smiling. Highly recommended!! We reached early morning at 8Am and were greeted by hotel staff and Mr. Bijoo.

First 1 & 1/2 days were compulsory rest for all the participant to acclimatise. To keep participants busy we have arranged a presentation on Ladakh, including, topography, climate, birds, mammals etc... It was in two parts... 1st days was for topography & mammals & 2nd day for birds. This was just to give all an overview of Ladakh as a birding & wildlife destination. The presentation went on very well and now the participants were roaring :-) to go out. The Itinerary was designed in such a way that the participants will get to see some glimpse of Ladakhi culture along with birds, mammals & landscapes. Places like Shey Marshes, Hemis National Park, Kardungla Pass, Tanglangla pass, Tsokar, Changla Pass, Pangong Lake along with Thikse; Hemis Monastery we re included.

Shey Marshes (Alt. 3400 mtrs)

Around Leh, there are some good birding locations. The Choglamsar bridge, Sindhu Ghat (both along Sindhu river), Spituk (base of Rumbak Valley trek) etc... 

Shey marshes are just 7-8kms from Leh, along Sindhu (Indus) river. A lot has been written about this place by many renowned bird-watchers, but unfortunately the place is now degraded. Once a breeding ground for variety of wild ducks is now home for few domesticated ducks. But still Shey marshes does not disappoint you; lovely green marshes & surrounding areas gives you good views of birds like Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Citrine (in full breeding plumage) & White Wagtails, Hoopoe, Black Redstart, Mountain Chiffchaff etc..

Hemis National Park (Alt.3500 to 6400 mtrs)

Also called as Hemis High Altitude National Park, is largest National Park, not only in India but in South Asia with area of around 4400 The park gives one of the best landscape views of rugged mountains. Famous for elusive Snow Leopard, Hemis NP is also equally good for birding. Fire-fronted Serins are very commonly seen here along with Mangolian Finch, Chukar Partridge, Golden Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Hill Pigeon, Bluethroat, Blue Rock Thrush etc... Hemis NP is best place in Ladakh, to see Blue Sheeps also called as Bharals.

Khardungla Pass (Alt.5800 mtrs)

Road to Nubra Valley from Leh goes through Khardungla Pass, one of the highest motorable road in the World! The drive is not very long one... but if you are a birdwatcher then keep a day or so for this drive. The stops on the way will give opportunity to get some lifers, including Chukar Partridge, Brown & Robin Accentors, Red-billed & Yellow-billed Choughs, White-winged (Güldenstädt's) Redstart, Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture), Golden Eagle, Brandt's Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snowfinch etc... Its not advisable to spend more than 10-15 minutes at Khardungla Pass because of high altitude. 

Tsokar (Alt.4600 mtrs)

If you are bird-watcher and visiting Ladakh, Tsokar is THE place for you. Best birding place in Ladakh. Birding here includes Tibetan Snow Finch, Great Rose Finch, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Little Owl, Great Horned Lark, Blanford's Snow Finch, Northern Raven, Tibetan Partridge, Upland Buzzard, Eastern Saker Falcon, Twite, Eurasian Linnet, White-winged Redstart, Desert Wheaters etc.. Tsokar has salt water as well as fresh water lakes. These lakes are breeding grounds for Ruddy Shelducks, Bar-headed Geese, Great Crested Grebe, Common Terns, Brown-headed Gulls, Lesser Sand Plovers, Common Redshank etc... Interestingly, we saw one Rosy Starling, in breeding plumage also in Tsokar. Also excellent place to see some mammals like Red Fox, Tibetan Argali, Tibetan Wolf etc... The vast plains of Tsokar are home to Tibetan Wild Ass as well.


Pangong (Alt.4500 mtrs)

No words to describe beauty of Pangong lake... The sheer beauty of blue water surrounded by snow-capped mountains is  breathtaking! If you are visiting Pangong, make sure that you stay there. Pangong is most scenic in the evening, as the light changes, the water color and the reflection of mountains gives you some splendid photo opportunities. Those who visit Pangong from Leh for single day return, miss the REAL Pangong! 

Yes, there are birds as well...( you tend to just forget everything else, than the blue water & mountains here) Brown-headed Gull, Pallas's Gull, Common Merganser, Lesser Sand Plover breed here. Himalayan Mormots are best seen on the way to Pangong, near Changla pass.

Nubra Valley (Alt.3000 mtrs) 

Another scenic beauty from Ladakh. This valley seperates Ladakh & Karakoram ranges and is formed by two rivers, Shyok & Nubra (Siachen). You can see some vegetation at the bottom of valley, in fact the old name of this valley was Ldumra, meaning Valley of Flowers! For a bird-watcher this valley holds a very rare & special bird, called White-browed Tit Warbler. A very habitat specific birds, found only in Seabuckthorn (Leh Berry) forest around Hunder and Panamic areas. Other birds include Hume's Whitethroat, Black Redstart etc... Cape Hare, Nubra Pika is also commonly seen in Seabuckthorn forests, also Red Fox is seen.

A 35mtrs high statue of Maitreya Buddha, facing down the Shyok river, facing Pakistan is a star attraction in Nubra Valley. Bactrian or two-humped Camel ride also attract tourists here.

Ladakh - Jispa - Manali - Chandigarh

While coming back from Ladakh we (myself & Pallavi) drove down to Chandigarh via Jispa (Lahaul & Spiti dist.) and Manali. Have read a lot about this route being stunning in landscapes & all in various reports. But our experience was different. We started from Tsokar for Jispa (Lahaul & Spiti). The road was horrible (in fact there was no road!), small landslides all the way making vehicles move slowly. Also roads are small, so you cant stop your vehicle. As far as landscapes are concern, one who is coming from Ladakh, the landscape till Jispa is almost the same. The tree line starts after Jispa. One night hault at Jispa & we started for Manali. The landscape changed, but the roads were same. Birding was good nearby Jispa; we saw European Goldfinch, Blue-capped Redstart, Fire-fronted Serin, Rock Bunting, Streaked Laughingthrush etc...

Birding in Ladakh is totally different than any other part of India. But there are some similarities between some birds & mammals seen in this cold desert & hot deserts of Little & Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat & some parts of Rajasthan.
  • The Asiatic Wild-Ass is seen in Little Rann of Kutch, where as Tibetan Wild-Ass is seen in plains of Tsokar.
  • We get Desert Fox in Kutch and Red Fox in Ladakh
  • In India we get two species of Desert Finch, Trumpeter Finch in Kutch and Mangolian Finch in Ladakh
  • Greater Hoopoe Lark in Kutch and Great-horned Lark in Ladakh
  • The Wheatears are found both in hot as well as Cold Desert.
  • Desert Jerds (small rodents) are found in Kutch, whereas Mountain Voles are found in Ladakh 
Similarities like these are very interesting to observe...

Ladakh is a must visit place to everyone, forget about birds & mammals, but just for its unmatched beauty. The vast open Landscapes, barren but colorful mountains, mighty Sindhu (Indus), Zanskar & Shyok rivers, and last but not least loving & caring Ladakhis... All are one of its kind!

**Thanks to Sandeep Dhumal for allowing me to use his images of White-browed Titwarbler & Blue Sheep (Bharal).


  1. wonderful... a different blog post about ladakh birding!

  2. Mandar !! not just interesting but quite informative trip report., particularly the discussion abt cold n hot deserts' bio-diversity .. .. Loved it !!

  3. Mandar I loved the blog as it is much more lnformative for the Birders I have a dream to visit this place only for birding. Thanks

  4. Very useful blog for first time travellers and the others too. Well supported by pictures. Thanks, Mandar.

  5. Simply superb. Very informative. Hope to do this trip.....keep writing

  6. Very Nice Mandar. Though we have visited Ladakh, ek visit mein pet nahi bharta. Will join you guys next year for sure :)

  7. The blog is so descriptive and vivid that I felt as if I am part of the group.

  8. excellent blog Mandar - specially appreciate the comparisons between the hot & cold desert species

  9. Excellent birding trip - not only birds you encounters many ladakh mammals; Is it self planned and guided or it has been organized by any operator. If the second - then please share the details - i am too keen to explore ladakh..

    1. It was a guided Bird-watching trip, organised by Nature India. I have an organisation called Nature India, wherein we organise guided Bird-watching trips all over India. Do send an email to with your email & contact details for more info.

  10. Yes, Ladakh.... a unique paradise for Nature lovers, and it has some kind of magic... it is the air or arid cold desert..scenery...awesome..and what I loved was the local people are Happy and touches the soul.

  11. Excellent presentation..I am sure it will be a great inspiration to many bird watchers and enthusiasts.

  12. Very well written blog. Beautiful photos too... Very informative as well as entertaining...

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  14. Very well written blog. Beautiful photos too... Very informative as well as entertaining...

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