Ladakh is a dry and arid mountain kingdom, dominated by magnificent gorges, cliffs, plateaux and rugged snow-capped peaks. On this unique 15- day tour of Ladakh during high summer, we will be accessing its highest and most remote regions in search of many of the special birds and mammals of the Tibetan plateau. Beginning in Leh, after a spectacular trans-Himalayan flight from Delhi, we will explore stunning high-altitude and mountain landscapes in a region that lies in the rain shadow beyond the Himalaya, right on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. During five days in Leh, we will acclimatise, and enjoy the cultural and ornithological highlights (amongst them Ibisbills, Citrine Wagtails, Mountain Chiffchaffs, Tickell’s and Sulphur-bellied Warblers, Wallcreepers and Red-fronted Serins) of the Indus Valley.
After acclimatising to the high altitude whilst based in Leh, we will drive to Zingchen, a tiny settlement consisting of just five houses. Although only a short distance from Leh, we are now really in the mountains, and almost every winter Snow Leopards come down to raid the sheep pens here, and Dhole (Indian Wild Dogs) have also been seen. Zingchen is a good area for Ladakh Urial or Shapu (a local species of wild sheep) and in the evening we will look for them on the ridges above our campsite. From now on we will be looking out for typical birds of these mountains such as Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Himalayan Snowcock, Chukar, Hill Pigeon, Red-billed Chough, Alpine Chough and the exquisite Stoliczka’s Tit-warbler. Black Redstarts and Common Rosefinches are everywhere and we can also expect to see some of the less common species such as Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Plain Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snowfinch and Eastern Great Rosefinch.
Then, from Zingchen, we will visit Hemis National Park, the largest protected area in India and home to such elusive mammals as Snow Leopard, Bharal (Blue Sheep), Shapu, Tibetan Wolf and Eurasian Brown Bear, before driving to the Tsokar Wetlands. Lying south-east of Leh on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 4,600 metres, the Tsokar basin is known for its population of Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) and breeding Blacknecked Cranes, Bar-headed Geese and Ruddy Shelduck. This region also has a healthy population of Tibetan Argali (Great Tibetan Sheep), while Tibetan Wolf, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Sandgrouse and Hume’s Groundpecker are among some of the other special wildlife regularly seen here.
From our base in Tsokar, we will spend a day exploring the areas around Puga and Sumdo. The former, a couple of hours away, is best known for its hot sulphur springs and their reputed medicinal properties. The meadows, marshes, streams and high rocky slopes of the Puga Valley also provide a variety of habitats for birds. This area is known for its breeding Black-necked Cranes, which we will look for here, as well as for such other specialities as Ibisbill, Tibetan Partridge, Horned Lark, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Upland Buzzard, Hume’s Groundpecker, Tibetan Lark, Great Rosefinch and both Robin and Brown Accentors. A good variety of mammals may be seen here too, amongst them Long-tailed Marmot, Blue Sheep, Tibetan Wolf, Woolly Hare, Ladakh Pika, Red Fox and Mountain Weasel. From Puga we will drive for an hour to Sumdo, one of many Tibetan settlements in Ladakh, to enjoy the rich avifauna, including flagship species such as Himalayan Snowcock, Lammergeier and White-tailed Rubythroat. Similar species, and many more, may be encountered during a stay at Tsomoriri Lake, which lies at an altitude of 4,550 metres. This beautiful emerald-blue lake, the largest high-altitude lake in this trans- Himalayan region, is well known for both its breeding wetland birds as well as its scenic beauty. The lake (also known as the Tsomoriri Wetland Conservation Reserve) lies in the Changthang area of Ladakh and is an important breeding area for Blacknecked Crane and Bar-headed Geese. Common Redshank, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Sand-plover and many other species also breed here. We will spend some time exploring the lake and we will also visit the ancient village of Korzok, set around a Tibetan Buddhist monastery which belongs to the Drukpa path of Tibetan Buddhism and houses a Shakyamuni Buddha and other fine Buddhist statues.
Finally, a drive over the Khardung La (5,359 metres), which is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world, marks our return to Leh. We must now leave the spectacular mountain kingdom of Ladakh and fly back to Delhi where we spend our last night and the whole of the next day visiting the essential historical sites in Delhi to complete this special tour of one of the most beautiful regions on Earth.