Saturday, March 25, 2017

The 'Mountain Monarchs' of the Trans-Himalaya

The spotting scope is taking ages to set up.

Numb fingers, now encased in two pairs of gloves, twiddle ineffectively at various knobs and levers. When you think the scope is aligned properly, you peer through the eyepiece but all you can see is an expanse of snow. Tiny swirling snowflakes confuse your vision.

Finally I get a fix on the animal which must be at least a mile away. I fine-tune the focus ring, and suddenly the magnified image jumps sharply into focus. It has my complete and undivided attention.

When I pull back from the eyepiece I'm surprised to notice a long-haired youngster standing beside me. Three jeeps have pulled up behind our parked vehicle, on the track linking the high-altitude villages of Kibber and Chicham just off the Spiti valley.

'Can you see it?' he asks.

'Yes! I can see two adult males now. There are others too...'

Before I can complete the sentence he spins around in excitement, and rushes off to the three vehicles. Other youngsters tumble out from the jeeps, and are soon crowding around the scope.
It appears they are a different party from the convoy of jeeps we had encountered earlier in the day. For one, the vehicles are emblazoned with large decals stating 'Mountain Goat Adventures', or similar.

A large gentleman cannot contain his impatience - 'May I have a look?'

'Uh.. OK'.

He bends down to peer through the scope and immediately exclaims aloud - 'Arre, yeh toh barasingha hai' (which translates as - hey, these are swamp deer!)

We are, in fact, observing Ibex (Capra sibirica).

For some reason, and a puzzle to me at this particular moment, the whole group of strangers now looks immediately deflated. A couple of them take a cursory look at the Ibex through the scope, the others start to drift away.

 The first young man now asks me - ' Do you know where the snow leopard is?' 
Now with just a hint of reproach, 'I told them you were looking at two snow leopards - and that there were more' !!

I have to inform him politely that the snow leopard we had all been observing minutes earlier is farther back, below the track on our side of the hill.

The track here is too narrow to turn the jeeps around, so they reverse in much haste, the snow-covered surface causing one vehicle to lose traction and slide dangerously close to the edge, a shouted imprecation by one of the passengers at the errant driver is their departing memory...

When I later recount the incident to the others of our party they think I'm fibbing about the 'Mountain Goat Adventures' detail. The young adventure-seekers had ironically been able to observe real mountain goats (which is obviously what Ibex are) without realizing the significance. The 'barasingha' comment was rather like spotting penguins in the Sahara desert!

The Ibex are not just mountain goats - they are one of a species of 'Mountain Monarchs'.
Thus named by George B. Schaller in his seminal book - 'Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya'.

We count 23 individuals in the herd, but there could have been more. Of these, at least 7 are adult males with their wonderful backward-sweeping ridged scimitar horns and characteristic beards. The females are far less bulky with straighter smaller horns.

The Ibex herd is foraging on a steep snow slope above the gorge. They can obviously see the snow leopard feeding on our side, and so they appear relaxed. Their only other natural predator in this habitat is the wolf. But they have confidence in being in the close vicinity of vertical cliffs, knowing that they can quickly escape to these rocky crags without danger of being followed there by any predator.

We watch through binoculars and the scope as they graze on the scanty vegetation (mainly shrubs and grass). At times they dig through the snow, exposing roots to feed on. It hardly seems possible that the Ibex can get adequate nourishment in this hostile terrain, but in fact they are superbly adapted to this habitat.

Evening is approaching, so with some reluctance we must head back to Kaza and to our home-stay for the night....

The other species of 'Mountain Monarchs' that we have encountered on the trip are Bharal or Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur).

Just a day earlier, while driving up the Spiti valley from Nako to Kaza we were lucky to see two different herds from the road.

 The first herd gave themselves away by the stones that were being dislodged as they clambered up a crumbling ridge that towered above the road. We were alerted by the intermittent pattering of pebbles as we slowed to peer up at the crest of the ridge. Several bharal were visible on the knife-like arete. But it would have been far too dangerous to stop here - at any moment a large stone or even a boulder could come shooting down.

To our great delight, just a few miles further on, another herd of bharal crossed the road a mere hundred yards from the vehicle. There were 10 individuals - a solitary male and his harem.

The wide Spiti river valley and the relatively gentle terrain allowed us to disembark unhurriedly and to observe and photograph the bharal without spooking them.

After reading an earlier post some folks have asked why I couldn't bear to look at the old snow leopard again. And I actually didn't, in the half-hour we were there.

Why the instinctive reaction - to have looked away as soon as I had taken a few photographs?

Could the reason have been that we were surrounded by a noisy group of people, within cellphone camera range of the snow leopard? Indeed, such a tableaux may be relatively common in our tiger sanctuaries. But here, surrounded by the vastness of snow and rock, it was an incongruity.

Or perhaps we subconsciously carry an image of such iconic species in the mind's eye - of their physical beauty, their grace, indeed just their 'wildness'?

These supremely shy big cats have evolved over millions of years in such hostile environs . Over generations, natural selection has ensured that their genetic make-up has favoured particular fitness and survival attributes that allow this apex predator of the Trans-Himalaya to survive in a world of snow and ice and rock. Indeed, to thrive at altitudes above 3700 M, and in temperatures often falling -20 C and below. Evolutionary instincts that have given them the stealth and cunning and strength to hunt the 'mountain monarchs' in this forbidding landscape.

But to come back to our 'Old Beast'. We know he is a very old male from his appearance and from the manner in which he feeds on the frozen carcass. Some may even suggest that he would soon be retiring to the Happy Hunting Grounds. I rest my case. RIP.

Next up is a report on the birds we saw, and a lovely sighting of a red fox...

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Close encounters with the snow leopards of Spiti

19th February 2017 

We round yet another hairpin bend, and there it is.

An animal is framed in our headlights at the apex of the curve. It is perhaps closer than 20 yards from us. The legs and the tail are hidden behind a low-piled berm of snow at the edge of the road. A longish ghostly grey body is glimpsed briefly in the thickening snow flurries. And then it melts away from view - moving unhurriedly down a declivity as we remain frozen in the stalled vehicle.

Then pandemonium breaks out.

'Get the torch!'

'Where is it?'... 'in my bag' ... 'which bag?'... 'how do you get the bag open'...

Precious seconds are wasted as the torch is found. Four men tumble out in excitement from the vehicle.

A few hurried paces and then we are at the very point on the edge of the road where the animal disappeared. The torchlight illuminates a steep rocky slope now covered with a smattering of fresh snow.

And there it is again. Walking down and away from our vantage point in casual grace. Then it gains the curve of the road from where we have just ascended moments earlier. From no more than 60 yards away it turns to look back at us for several seconds, the eyes reflecting the light from the torch. The falling snow swirls and eddies around us.

And then the grey ghost vanishes from view.

We have our first sighting of a wild snow leopard, and we are technically still not yet in the Spiti valley.

Late in the day we have driven up from Khab, the magnificent confluence of the Spiti and the Sutlej rivers. The village of Nako is another couple of switchbacks away in the dark above us. We have the big one from the wishlist.

Not a bad start to our winter birding trip to the Trans-Himalaya!

But we are not finished yet with this first snow leopard. The tiredness from two full days of driving up from Jaipur has melted away. The vehicle is turned around and we go straight back down the hairpin bends to see whether we can surprise the animal again. Stinging wind-driven snowflakes are ignored as the torch is flashed from an open window. The terrain is open, yet the boulders (some snow-covered, others dark) provide perfect camouflage to the snow leopard. Let alone now in the dark, even in bright sunlight it could be just a few yards away and we wouldn't spot it. Reluctantly we turn back around.

Back again at the same hairpin bend on the road, we now cast around for spoor. A steep snow-covered embankment perhaps 25 feet high tells the tale. The mint-fresh pug-marks illustrate how the animal came down in a series of bounds to the road. CV points out that the hind paws have thrust into the same points in the snow as the front paws. There are softer single depressions in the snow behind the actual pug-marks - these were made by the end of a long bushy tail thumping into the snow to aid its descent.

The adrenaline rush would see us through an uncomfortable night in Nako.

21st February 2017

The previous day we have driven leisurely up the Spiti valley from Nako to Kaza. The weather forecast has proved incorrect, and we have encountered alternating periods of sunshine and overcast conditions with occasional snow flurries. Birds have popped up at regular intervals and have kept us alert. H has rattled off the ID's of unfamiliar species. Two herds of bharal (blue sheep) seen from the road  have allowed us longer pit-stops to observe and photograph them.

We have comfortable rooms at a home-stay in Kaza for three nights.

Today the morning has broken crystal clear. Naturally it is much colder. Despite the heroics of S (who has not only driven these treacherous roads and but has also woken at nights to turn the engine of his vehicle to prevent the engine going cold), today we can't get the vehicle started. The diesel in the tank has frozen overnight.

And so, much of the morning has gone in heating the fuel tank with a primus stove, and in pouring boiling water over assorted pipes and pumps.

When we do get started for the village of Kibber, the sun reflects brilliantly off the frozen landscape. But as often happens, trouble comes in pairs. Only a few miles from Kaza, we have to stop again. Now the radiator coolant is boiling over.

From L to R (Sahdev = the author; Happy = CV; Somendra = S; Harkirat = H)
(Unaware at this moment that our vehicle will soon be hors-de-combat for a while) 
(photo courtesy - Somendra)

 Soon a convoy of jeeps overtakes us. Each vehicle has adventurous youngsters armed with walkie-talkies and other sophisticated gear. We cadge a bottle of water from them, return to Kaza, get on some bottles of coolant, and head back out to Kibber again.

Kibber has been in the news for occasional snow leopard sightings in the winter months for several years. We already have a tick on our bucket list from our first sighting near Nako, but secretly we all want a good look at a snow leopard in daylight. This could be the day. But you have only to remind yourself of Peter Matthiessen's 'The Snow Leopard', in which the author in the company of the great field biologist George Schaller, fails to actually see a snow leopard over weeks of wandering the higher Himalayas in Nepal.

On the left bank of the Spiti river is Key monastery.

From here the road narrows and loops on towards Kibber which at 4200 M is higher than Kaza (3700 M). On another off-track leading from Kibber to Chicham, in the far distance we can see some figures getting off a parked vehicle and scrambling down a steep slope. They look animated. Some of them are gesticulating towards a gorge in the background. Soon other vehicles line up behind the first, and a steady stream of people work their way down the snow slope. We decide to investigate what the excitement is all about. 

One person has just climbed back on to the road. On being asked what can be seen down below he replies - 'there is a snow leopard on a kill!'


I'm quite sure we get off the vehicle far quicker than from the time of the first sighting. In the excitement I make two small mistakes. First, I forget my gloves. Try not to laugh, but I'm actually carrying three pairs on the trip: a thin fleece inner, a woolen pair, and a leather outer. All forgotten in my haste. Second, in my bare hands I'm now clutching a spotting scope and a tripod - not really a mistake at that very moment, but in hindsight painfully so. After all, most snow leopard sightings are from hundreds of yards away, sometimes from miles away. So, the spotting scope is a necessity I think.

We have only a short steep descent to join a vocal excited group. The trick is not to follow the exact same well-trodden snow-compressed track which is now quite slippery, but instead to dig ankle-deep into the virgin snow and gain a firmer purchase on unfamiliar terrain.

A small knot of people is gathered at the edge of the gorge. I prepare to set up the tripod and the spotting scope in order to scan the opposite cliff-face. All my fingers are numb, and alarmingly my right thumb is now turning a strange shade of blue - purple even. Not good.

I turn to the nearest person - 'where is it?'

 He leans forward and nods his head -'there'.

A snow leopard is sprawled across his kill on a shelf a mere 20 yards directly below us!

So much for the spotting scope! At this distance we do not even need our binoculars to look at the snow leopard.

It is an old male. A very old male. 

I take a good glance at it, click a couple of photographs, and then I can't bear to look at it again. A strange thing to report but that is how I feel at this moment. 

I hope to explain why. And to write about a large herd of Ibex, two herds of bharal, a red fox, and of course about the birds of the trip in the next post.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Some flowering trees of Rajasthan

Spring is usually a fleeting season in Rajasthan. No sooner has one started to put the woolens away, than Holi arrives, and last summer's mulmul shirts are quickly dug forth from storage trunks. It is in March too that some of our native trees remind us that the thar desert is not just all drab and brown.

I had occasion to make brief trips to Bhainsrorgarh (near Kota, in South Rajasthan) and to Mt. Abu in March 2016. 

Driving from Jaipur to Kota on the recently completed multi-lane highway (and through the tunnel which by-passes Bundi), has cut down driving time in large measure. En-route, hillsides blush scarlet at this time. Sadly, many of the flowering trees are stunted, some are mere bushes - the result of lopping and over-grazing. Yet the flowers are beautiful.

See if you can identify the species - lets call this one 'A'

Here is another tree when in flower looks confusingly similar to 'A' - let's call it 'B'.

'C' below here, has a somewhat restricted range compared to A and B. The hills of Mt. Abu were aflame with these trees at this time.
 Can you identify 'C'?

Next up is an iconic tree of the thar. These hardy trees are true desert specialists. The Marwar region, in particular, is where you would find them in any numbers.
'D' below 
I'm a little disappointed that I only have photos of yellow flowers of  D above. In fact, the colours vary considerably from orange to yellow. From a distance, the flowering trees seem to be laden with orange flowers, not yellow.
 'D' again 

'D' - the tree itself

And if we go back to 'C' again, here is another look at the flower:-
Here is a view of C in full flower on a Mt. Abu hillside:-

B, of course, is a tree commonly found in Indian cities.

The flowers are not the sole pointers to the identity of the trees above. There are other differences, such as the structure of the leaves, the formation of the branches, amongst others. 

See how many you were able to identify correctly from the key below:-

A = Butea monosperma (Flame of the Forest)

B = Bombax ceiba (Semal)

C = Erythrina variegata (Indian Coral Tree)

D = Tecomella undulata (Roheda)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Cheer pheasant - third time lucky

The second pheasant breaks from cover without warning. Just as with the first, there is no call. No clue to the gathering together of a heavy body. No glimpse of the unfurled wings before it launches into flight down the steep ravine. For us watchers too, there is no time to snatch up the binoculars or to point a camera lens at this gorgeous bird as it glides down towards us.

All one can do is stare in wide-eyed, wondrous enchantment.

This second bird is a male cheer pheasant. Two impossibly long central tail-feathers stream behind.  The under-tail feathers are splayed out and stiff with the caudals, making the pheasant appear twice as large as the body itself. The neck is stretched forward, with the crest laid flat along the nape. A large crimson patch around the eye is the sole splash of bright colour. The plumage is mottled with shades of brown and grey and buff, the earth tones mirroring the textures of the dried grass from which it has burst into flight.
cheer pheasant

Achingly soon, from across the ravine and above us, the pheasant is down into cover again, perhaps 60 meters away.  Now binoculars are raised, and the late evening light brightens immediately through the Nikon glass. Half shadows spring into sharp focus, but the pheasant has frozen after alighting.

Then a stalk of grass moves almost imperceptibly: a give-away in the absence of the slightest breeze. Cautiously, a long neck is periscoped up, over the level of the grass, and a bright eye fixes us in a red-orbed glare. The bird  is motionless otherwise, perfectly hidden in its domain. If you lose it in the binoculars, you have to scan the spot carefully to pick it out again. Seemingly satisfied with the lack of any apparent threat and confident in its camouflage, it now steps forward onto a just-visible pugdandi. Where the narrow track doubles back on itself, leading higher, the full length of the pheasant is profiled in the small opening. 

It is magnificent.

The cheer does not have the pyrotechnic flamboyance of a monal, nor the sartorial slickness of a koklass. Neither would its appearance startle the observer, as does the shocking contrast of silvery hackles on the blue-black plumage of the kaleej. The cheer gives the impression of understated elegance and grace. And it is almost as difficult to track down as the jujurana itself – the western tragopan. In this very area, and in the dense forest that stretches from the crest of the hill above to the adjacent mountains that comprise the Great Himalayan National Park, is excellent habitat for all four of these pheasant species.

This particular male is the ninth of the cheer pheasants that we have seen today.

cheer and ghooral ravines


The day had begun for us before dawn, with a short torch-lit hike to get into position at the base of a cliff overlooking two faces of a ravine. Our host (and guide) had received information the previous evening that cheer were calling from this area just before roosting.

It is late November, and even though the first winter snows have not yet fallen here, at 2200 meters, it is cold. Cold, particularly when you have to remain motionless, crouching in the lee of scanty cover on this exposed mountainside.

Well before the first rays of the sun fire the snow-capped mountains in the distance, a group of birds starts calling, clucking rather, in our vicinity. The sound is not loud but is surprisingly far-carrying in the still air.

'Chair!' announces our host softly. (The local pronunciation is a mix between 'chair' and 'chayedh').

The calls are answered by another group farther down the mountainside. Fantastic! So we now know that the pheasants are here. The second-hand information, gleaned from the internet, that has brought us here is indeed correct - this is cheer country.

We are in ideal cheer habitat: vertiginous south-facing grass-covered mountain slopes, fissured by boulder-strewn and vegetation-choked ravines. The poor soil and the steep gradient prevent trees from growing. However, the monsoon rains nourish luxuriant swathes of grass. Local communities have traditionally harvested this to make hay for livestock. Our hosts too have been sheep-and-goat herders and subsistence farmers for generations. Unlike many communities living elsewhere on similar mountains in the western Himalayas, the villagers here protect the cheer. Sections of grasslands, particularly those contiguous to the shrubbery and trees which proliferate in the ravines, are not cut down after the rains.  Vertical cliffs sprout grassy tussocks clinging on to clefts and ledges on the rock faces. These small pockets of cover are used by the cheer.

Every morning, the cheer start calling at 6:20 am- you can set your watch by the calls. But to see them is quite another matter.
the birders 

Today we wait in expectation, carefully scanning the area from where the calls emanate. The light grows stronger. Soon the forested mountain opposite is bathed in sunlight. The Tirthan river glitters silently far below. A male hen harrier glides past low overhead, the black-tipped primaries accentuating the supple and narrow silvery-grey wings. The cheer stop calling.

Another hour passes. A warming sun thaws a benumbed nose and cold ears. There is no movement visible from where the cheer have been calling. Warm jackets are now shed. The movement triggers a sudden response from the opposite side of the ravine: a large animal emerges into the open and climbs with sure-footed agility up the slope. It is a ghooral. Of the cheer there is no sign.

We look at each other and concur quickly with our guide that we will have to get closer to the ravine from where the cheer were calling. We begin to scramble downhill. A vertigo episode the previous week, and a 14-hour drive the day before, are handicaps that prevent me from keeping up with the others. This is not a place to miss your footing. A carelessly dislodged stone gathers momentum as it cartwheels downhill. There is nothing to arrest its fall over 500 meters to the valley below.

Pausing to catch my breath, I look down at my companions. Their body language suggests unmistakable excitement. Then the guide points towards the cliff opposite. A telephoto lens snaps up to a shooting position. We have contact!

They gesture for me to join them quickly. With one eye on the pugdandi and the other trying to catch sight of the still-invisible cheer, I redouble my efforts. Too late though! I can sense from the reactions of the birders that the cheer have taken to the wing. All I manage is an all-too-brief glimpse through the binoculars of two pheasants flying downhill in deep shadow. Most unsatisfactory.

Yet the others have had good views of five cheer - three birds had flushed earlier than the two that I did see. Photos are now reviewed. Inevitably, these are somewhat disappointing to the photographer. Shooting from bright sunlight into deep shadow, along with the cheer's camouflage in the grass, has resulted in soft images despite the close proximity of the pheasants.

This first encounter with the cheer has whetted our appetite for more. We now decide to approach the southerly ravine from where another group of cheer had called earlier. It is hot work in the bright sunlight. Again, I find myself lagging behind. A flock of alpine accentors dusts down onto rocks close-by and merges immediately into the terrain. A tiny forested copse studded with large rounded boulders rings with the sharp calls of unseen birds. Soon a pair of red-billed blue magpies emerges from the trees, playfully chasing each other, with their long blue-and-white tail-streamers floating behind.

The shadow of a raptor flits past me. It is the female hen harrier this time. At eye level and very close. She quarters low over the jagged terrain, the white upper-tail coverts brilliant in the sunlight. With the binoculars firmly focused on the harrier, I feel that I'm floating with the raptor. She dips her finely-barred left wing and checks suddenly, pirouetting in mid-air. Talons flash on dangling legs, inches above the grass. Then a languid stroke of lithe wings, and she is borne aloft.

'Did you see them?'

Reverie broken, I look up in confusion.

'The hen harrier went for the second cheer!' - my companions exclaim.


Obviously I have missed the two cheer that flushed right across from me. In the best possible light. And in the open. At eye level. It would have been a dream sighting.

The cheer had shown themselves just at the precise moment when I had the harrier in the binoculars. The harrier had feinted a mock-attack on one of the birds when it was lunging back into cover.

I would have to stew away until late evening when we did finally get a good look at the last pair of cheer. It would be third time lucky.

the homestay

Friday, October 16, 2015

Familiar Butterflies of Jaipur

Jaipur is not exactly a hotspot for butterflies in India. True hotspots would naturally include areas in the Western Ghats or in North Eastern India. However, lest the seasoned observer scoff at a checklist of the butterflies of Jaipur, do remember that a few species found here are not quite so common in the rest of the country. In particular the Arabs, several of which are indeed (as the name suggests) 'desert specialists'. Their distribution extends from the Thar desert to the Arabian peninsula.

I have been working on a checklist of the butterflies of Rajasthan (and not just of Jaipur) for several years now. Of course the lament is similar as that for other creatures of the wild: dwindling numbers and fewer sightings over time of the more interesting species. It is not for me to conjecture why in this blogpost.

Curiously enough, news fitfully trickles out that a 'butterfly park' will soon commence in Jaipur. This has been in the works for years. A few of the butterfly species being mentioned, that the authorities plan to 'catch and release' in the park, have me baffled.

For what it is worth, here are some of the familiar butterflies of Jaipur that I have observed and photographed. This is not an exhaustive list (deliberately so!), and I would look forward to hearing from you of any additions by email at

Blue Pansy - Junonia orithya

Yellow Pansy - Junonia hierta
Lemon Pansy - Junonia lemonias
Peacock Pansy - Junonia almana
Blue Tiger - Tirumala limniace
Plain Tiger - Danaus chrysippus
Striped Tiger - Danaus genutia
Common Jay - Graphium doson
Tailed Jay - Graphium agamemnon
Common Mormon - Papilio polytes
Common Rose - Pachliopta aristolochiae
Lime Butterfly - Papilio demoleus
Common Crow - Euploea core
Common Emigrant - Catopsilia pomona
Mottled Emigrant - Catopsilia pyranthe
Danaid Eggfly - Hypolimnas misippus
Great Eggfly - Hypolimnas bolina
Common Gull -Cepora nerissa
Common Jezebel - Delias eucharis
Pioneer - Belenois aurota
Small Salmon Arab - Colotis amata
Large Salmon Arab - Colotis fausta
Small Orange Tip - Colotis etrida
White Orange Tip - Ixias marianne
Common Evening Brown - Melanitis leda
Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui
African Babul Blue - Azanus jesous
Bright Babul Blue - Azanus ubaldus
Oriental Grass Jewel - Freyeria putli
Zebra Blue - Leptotes plinius
Common Grass Yellow - Eurema hecabe
Spotless Grass Yellow - Eurema laeta
Rounded Pierrot - Tarucus nara
Common Banded Awl - Hasora chromus
Indian Red Flash - Rapala iarbus
Indian Palm Bob - Suastus gremius

Copyright Reserved.
Please do not share or use the checklist and pictures in any publication or forum without my permission.

Sahdev Singh
16th October 2015