Monday, 28 March 2016

Asiatic Lion Quest at Gir National Park, India

After a quick night back in Delhi after our Snow Leopard quest we were flying to Rajkot in the state of Gujarat, where we then drove through the hustle and bustle of town until we finally reached Gir Birding Lodge set beside the famed Gir National Park. The park protects an area of around 560 sq miles and is the last remaining habitat for fewer than 500 Asiatic Lions. Most of the park has no access and the tiny area that allows visitors has various routes that 4x4 jeeps accompanied by park rangers can roam in search of wildlife. Initially we thought it would be easy to spot lions in this park but after our 6 game drives into the park it became obvious that you need some luck on your side.
We did however get sightings on 2 trips with the last sighting of a pair mating.
Male Asiatic Lion
The female Asiatic Lion (Lioness)
These young lions were seen on our first day!
The dry park played host to many other mammals and we were delighted with excellent views of all the following.
A pair of Golden Jackals that posed nicely for us.
Spotted Deer's were very common but none more handsome than this stag
We found a few Wild Boar including a group of 12.
We found several Ruddy Mongoose and a few Grey Mongoose. This was a photo of one of the Grey's
A nice male Sambar
Hanuman Langur were seen every day and often carrying and playing with tiny babies
There were other mammals such as Nilgai and Small Indian Civet, and a host of really nice birds.
This Mottled Wood Owl took star place over its smaller cousins the Spotted Owlet and Indian Scops Owl.
Spotted Owlet
Pair of Indian Scops Owls
We had fabulous looks at this White-eyed Buzzard
A pair of Painted Sandgrouse showed particularly well right beside our jeep. This is the male.
This is the female Painted Sandgrouse
Brahminy Starlings were seen in good numbers
This was of several Changeable Hawk-Eagles that showed well
A Black Ibis poses for us on a small stream
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher was another bird typical of this park
And finally back to the Lions as this was the reason we came here.
So our trip ended with us seeing two of the rarest cats in the World.
The incredible "Grey Ghost" Snow Leopard and the Asiatic Lions of Gir NP.
Wow what a trip!!

Quest for the Snow Leopard - part 3

Moving on from Leh we headed 90 kilometres to the Ullay Valley where this time we gave up the tents for a couple nights in a homestay. This is staying in the house of one of the villagers, where you have a room with mattresses and if you are lucky a hot wood burning fire in the middle of the room. Our homestay was set all by itself way up in the mountains amongst some very impressive scenery. Not content to go back to curry after such good food camping, we took our cooks and crew with us and they happily made more wonderful meals for us!
Ullay Valley seen from the ridge beside our Homestay
We were treated many views of Himalayan Ibex and would you believe it Gina goes and spots another Snow Leopard looking down at us from the mountain ridge above our homestay. Our guides alerted other people staying in other nearby homestays and we could see them all with scopes trained towards our Snow Leopard although they were 3x further away than us. Would you believe that one of the other guides even claimed finding this Leopard himself after we had told him. Have a little respect for the real finders please! 
Another shot taken with my iPhone through the scope. The Snow Leopards head in the middle as it sat on the ridge. It was fabulous views through the scope!
We had to share our homestay with a Yak or two as you would expect.
Finally after a wonderful stay with a lovely welcoming family it was time to depart and head back to Leh before flying back to Delhi and the start of another adventure -
The search for Asiatic Lions of Gir National Park - next post

Quest for the Snow Leopard - part 2

We had made it to Hemis National Park the home of the Snow Leopard an animal so rare that less than 500 people have ever seen it. And there would be no guarantee's when you look at the endless snow covered mountains that stretch out before us. We passed a group of people on our way up and of course had to ask if they had seen "the Grey Ghost". They had actually seen 1 Snow Leopard at a distance of 3 km and they were not convinced it wasn't a rock!
We had been in camp for just 45 minutes and were just blowing up our mattresses in the tents when a shout went out that there was a Snow Leopard spotted from the nearby lookout. Even though we were told not to run because of the thin air and high altitude, how could you not run! So we were at the lookout in seconds and frantically trying to get directions so we could train our scopes on the mythical beast. Heavy breathing and scopes set up we were soon watching a fabulous Snow Leopard sat on a rock face about one third of a mile away. In the scopes it was fantastic and close enough you could see all its face and superb markings. Oh I thought, we should try and get some sort of photo in between watching so I attached my iPhone to the scope but found it was too shaky. I pressed record and let go of the phone to get a few seconds of shake less video and a great memory for all of us. I will try and add this video later! Meanwhile here is a still from it.
Snow Leopard sat for about 10 minutes
then it got up and made its way down the rocky mountain
Remember this was using my phone through a scope at a third of a mile!
Elated with this sighting which lasted 20 minutes or more we returned triumphant and out of breath back to camp. Little was we to know that our first night under canvas was to be the coldest day of the year and at least minus 25 degrees. In hindsight we could have climbed the mountain, got to camp seen the Snow Leopard and then gone back down the mountain to a nice warm hotel all in one day!!
The next day and we searched all the mountain tops where we found plenty of the Leopards food the Blue Sheep.
More Blue Sheep
On day three we got to see a fabulous Eurasian Lynx which was too distant for photos but we watched it sat for nearly an hour before it slowly set off in hunting mode!
The Lynx valley as we nicknamed it was simply a fantastically scenic area
And here we saw plenty of Lammergeiers, Red-fronted Serins, Tibetan Snowfinch, Brandt's Mountain Finch and a very nice group of Tibetan Partridges.
Within a few days the snow had melted and trying to spot any animals on the rocky mountains was proving near impossible.
The camp looked so different without the snow and it was slightly warmer too.
Lammergeiers we still being seen every day and we found footprints and scat from Tibetan Wolf, Red Fox, Pikas and even Snow Leopard. Himalyan Snowcocks were also seen just about every day, we also had an Indian Eagle Owl perched on the rocks near our camp one evening and amongst the rocks we watched Royale's Pikas scurrying around.
immature Lammergeier
Himalayan Snowcock flying over camp
Royale's Pika
Finally the day had come to leave this beautiful scenery behind and head back to the comfort of Leh.
The weather at night was uncomfortably cold, but during the day it was actually pleasant and even warm especially with all the jackets and mountain clothing we had on. What made the trip so special was the local guides and crew we had. Nothing was too much trouble, they would bring hot soup and drinks, plus a cooked lunch to us even though we had walked 4 hours from camp. Slowly though so we were probably only 1 - 3 km from camp. The food was unbelievably good and they catered for our western tastes with Pizza, Roast Chicken, Chips, vegetables, pies, soups, deserts and can you believe that all this is cooked on one large gas burner. Just look at this Apple Pie.
Here our crew and spotters. We had the very best Snow Leopard spotters. Kenrab and his team are also used by the BBC as they are so good!
Finally back at Leh we had a little more birding before heading to our next destination. Searching the river edges we eventually found this Solitary Snipe.
As well as this we also had great views of Mountain Weasel
After a day in the lovely warm Lotus Hotel Leh we set off on the next part of our Journey to the Ulley Valley.
See post - Quest for Snow Leopards part 3

Quest for the Snow Leopard - part 1 getting there!

2 years in the planning myself, Gina Nichol, Tom Bird and a group of friends, Derek & Tracey Barber, Steve Hinton, Alex Bevan and Dave Palmer all set off on our journey to Ladakh, India. After 1 night in Delhi we flew to Leh and soon arrived at our very comfy hotel for a day of acclimatization
At 3500m that's about 11500ft and a rather pleasant temperature of just minus 6 degrees we took a slow walk around town seeing a few commoner species such as the Robin Accentor , Great Tit and the common Hill Pigeons.
 Robin Accentor
The first of what we expected to be many curry's.
Later in the day we made a short drive to an area beside one of the rivers that flows near town. High on the list for most people was the unique looking Ibisbill and it didn't take us long to find 5 birds feeding along the stony river.
With the Ibisbills seen well we searched the roadside scrub finding Water Pipit, and literally dozens of White-winged Redstarts.
That was enough for our first day, remember we were supposed to be acclimatizing!
After a good nights sleep in a very warm hotel, we awoke to find it had snowed during the night, and this was the first major snow for the town for quite some time. Wth our cold weather gear on we set off in the minibus towards Hemis national Park. Along the way we witnessed several slow motion accidents because of the snow and icy roads. Out of town we made the hair raising journey up into the mountains along winding roads covered in snow with hundred foot drop offs just in case we didn't make a bend or two!
Our first stop beside the National Park sign found us a group of 12 Ladakh Urials (Red Sheep) not an easy animal to see. There were 9 males in the group making for an impressive show and a good start to our trip.
Continuing on we eventually came to a stop where we were met by a host of Donkeys waiting to carry all our equipment and luggage up the mountain. They were only small Donkeys so we all felt very sorry for them. Nevertheless it had to be done and we would have died if we had to carry any more than our binoculars and scopes.
Dave scored a success when he got put on one of the Donkeys! It took the rest of us about 3 hours to walk up to camp through stunning scenery where every rock and crevice could have been hiding a Snow Leopard.
Nearly there!
So by mid afternoon we eventually reached the area we were to camp for the next 8 or 9 nights.
The Donkeys had made it long before us and our superb team of cooks and spotters had already set up camp with hot tea and coffee and a cooked lunch waiting for us.
All around us were Chukars
That's the end of part 1 - see second post part 2