Friday, 25 December 2020

Anamalai Tiger Reserve (Valparai area), October 2019: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

Dates: 15th to 18th October 2019

Great Pied Hornbill, among the main attractions in this landscape

The Anamalai Hills is a repository of the immense biodiversity of the Western Ghats of south India.  Somewhat surprisingly, the disturbed, plantation-rainforest landscape in the Valparai area of these hills, located as it is, surrounded on all sides by protected areas, is one of the best places to see some of Western Ghats's mammalian specialities, including endemics like Nilgiri Tahr, Lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur, Brown Palm Civet with relative ease, with chances of rarities like Brown Mongoose, Travancore Flying Squirrel and even Nilgiri Marten. There is also potential for Elephant, Gaur, Dhole, Sloth Bear and Leopard, the former two more likely to show themselves up, towering over tea bushes as they move through the landscape. Birdlife, typical of the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats, are also (or can be) on display, including such species like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Malabar Trogon, Rufous Babbler, Wynaad Laughing Thrush, Malabar Grey and Great Pied Hornbills and Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets. While there is much else to be appreciated, including an engrossing floristic and small vertebrate diversity, our focus on this brief visit, was on Great Pied Hornbill congregations (known from specific locations, seasonally, in the landscape) and some of the endemic mammals of the Western Ghats, that this landscape is known for. 

A species of Impatiens among the immense floristic diversity of the Western Ghats

Nilgiri Langur

Nilgiri Flycatcher

The climb to Valparai begins along a hairpin bend infested, steep, rocky, sparsely vegetated slope, that rises over the Aliyar Reservoir. This section of the road, upto about 700m in elevation, is a regular spot, unusually for a species mostly restricted to montane grasslands above 1750m, for the endemic Nilgiri Tahr, but this was one of those rare occasions, when we missed the ungulates on the drive up. While late in the season for rains, it was apparent, from the road-side puddles and intermittently threateningly cloudy skies, that moisture wasn't just content in hanging in the air. Higher up, the road hugs a gentler terrain, the forests increasingly dense/predominantly evergreen, exposed to the to the moister winds from the west, rising upto 1500m, through a pristine patch of montane forest, before descending into a valley of (predominantly tea) plantation-forest matrix where we would be based. The fauna too changes with the moisture gradient and elevation, with Nilgiri Langur replacing the South-eastern Langur, and birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, White-cheeked Barbet, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Rufous Babbler, especially vocal later in the evening, also made an appearance. A grove of flowering trees (species?) turned out to be magnet for the Malabar Tree Nymph, a large-winged butterfly partial to (elegantly) gliding amidst inflorescence in the canopy, as they were when we saw them. Upon reaching the Valparai Valley, an hour or so before sunset, our first priority was the check a regular spot Great Pied Hornbill, in a coffee plantation near Varatuparai (a small planation settlement). A road descending into the plantation, affords of an excellent view of the canopy rising from the planation, and, from this platform, dextrously avoiding the occasional speeding bus, we were entertained for more than an hour, watching a pair of Great Pied Hornbill, feeding on a copiously fruit laden canopy (tree species?), until they (typically noisily) flew away to roost (presumably) at dusk.  

Malabar Tree Nymph - a canopy specialist

A fruiting tree was host to a pair of Great Pied Hornbill for a good part of two days

Later that night, a brief walk inside the Puduthottam Estate, a patch of rainforest within a tea plantation, and the scene of our accommodation for two nights, produced innumerable Indian Giant Flying Squirrels, some with varying extent of greying fur on their face, making us question our ID, if some of the them could be the rarely seen, endemic, Travancore Flying Squirrel (but, as it turned out, just a racial variation of the Indian Giant), Sambar & Barking deers. This patch has potential for almost all the larger mammals found in this landscape, some of their presence confirmed with spoor and scat, including creatures of the dark like Brown Palm Civet, Leopard, Sloth Bear, but none of these relative rarities showed themselves up, that night. 

Indian Scops Owl

Orange Minivet
 
The next morning, a walk through the (much less wild seeming, in broad daylight) estate produced some usual suspects (bar a roosting Indian Scops Owl), including Indian Munjtac, Striped-necked Mongoose and the endemic Western Ghats Squirrel among them, but things go more interesting when we decided to stake out the 'hornbill tree' from the previous evening. The hornbills did not seem to be enjoy the same food for dinner and breakfast (but we were proven wrong later in the morning), however we were entertained by the buzz of morning activity around a fruiting fig tree, conveniently (except we had to dodge an occasional heavy vehicle hurtling downhill) located on the side of the road. We were attracted to this roadside spectacle by the loud calls of a large flock of Southern Hill Myna, seemingly excited by the abundance of breakfast within easy access, to happen upon somewhat quieter Yellow-browed Bulbul, Malabar and White-cheeked Barbets, Asian Fairy Bluebird, a young Great Pied Hornbill, Grey-fronted Green Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Indian Giant Squirrel and Bonnet Macaque all gorging on fruit from this one tree. Ashy Drongo, Orange Minivet and Greater Flameback Woodpecker also paid occasional visits, likely attracted by associated insect life. This was brief, engrossing window into the inter-dependence of figs and their seed dispersers (among several other known associations, but unnoticed here) - a significant component of biodiversity in tropical forests. Watching this feeding frenzy built-up an appetite for our own lunch, which was slightly delayed, 'way-sided' as we were by a typically bold/habituated troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, just as we entered the Puduthottam Estate (this little patch of rainforest-tea plantations, with a main road passing through it, is home to 100 plus of these endangered primates, with one large and two smaller splinter troops, thriving on the easy availability of food, to suite a variety of macaque palates, in a human dominated landscape). 

Asian Fairly Bluebird

Malabar Barbet

Indian Giant Flying Squirrel 

Great Pied Hornbill

An early evening until darkness vigil at the 'hornbill tree' produced the same (?), seemingly insatiable pair, the fruit-laden canopy almost their exclusive domain during the day, as well as Nilgiri Langur, Gaur, Barking Deer, Striped necked-Mongoose and Malabar Grey Hornbill, in the vicinity. Waiting after dark, in hope of the endemic Brown Palm Civet on the copiously fruiting road-side Ficus, was surprisingly bereft of reward (not even bats, evident), but the more distant 'hornbill tree' had a visitor which appeared to be the civet of choice, but could not distinguish convincingly from Indian Giant Flying Squirrel. A quiet evening otherwise, with Sambar, Indian Giant Flying Squirrel and Gaur in the darkness, on the way back to base and around. 

A troop of highly habituated Lion-tailed Macaque monkeying around 

A bull Gaur, not at his majestic best

The next morning a long trudge to the Sekalmudi Estate, preceded by a visit to the 'hornbill tree' was not especially productive (the hornbills were missing this morning and the activity on the fruiting fig was subdued as well), however our luck changed in the afternoon when were entertained by a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque, foraging (and otherwise socially interacting) along the main road that runs through the Puduthottam Estate. From here, we visited the Stanmore Bungalow, on the fringes of which the rare Brown Mongoose have been seen on occasion. While the brown version did not show, we did see the much commoner, albeit shy, Ruddy Mongoose, but the real highlight from this visit was finding a  beautiful, yellow marked with black bands species (Occelate Sheildtail?) of Shieldtail (a family of burrowing snakes known only from the hills of south India and Sri Lanka), as it moved across the concrete footpath, seemingly in search of a more congenial habitat of damp soil. Leaving here towards the Anamalai Club, our host for the night, via the Old Valparai Road, produced a satisfying sighting of a large herd of Gaur, moving up a bracken-filled, rocky slope, on a cool, cloudy evening. From the club premises, we had an unobstructed view of the surrounding open slopes and we spent the evening looking for wildlife from this vantage point. There was healthy bird activity, including the endemic Rufous Babbler before dusk and a Jungle Nightjar at the cusp of darkness. As darkness descended, a couple of shapes on the adjacent slope, revealed themselves as a Sambar stag, tentatively walking downhill and a Leopard, watching the slope ahead, perched motionless on a rock. We watched this scene for a few minutes, until the Leopard disappeared into the bracken, followed by (typically) shockingly loud Sambar alarm calls, taking a pre-dinner break. Walking out of room, taking a circuitous route to dining hall, via the unfenced club premises, turned out to be a double-edged sword, and as we turned a corner we startled a Sloth Bear and its baby, a few feet away, devouring a copious (even by their standards) outbreak of winged-termites, duly attracted to the lights of the club building. The events that ensued soon after were a bit of a blur,  with vague memories of mama bear appearing to turn threateningly towards us, as we turned and bolted into darkness of the opposite direction. Then there was a sensation of hands and feet all around and hard ground on my face, and the relatively minor injuries that resulted put paid to any further activities that we had planned for in the rest of the trip ..... 



The dominant male in a large troop of Lion-tailed Macaque

Ocellate Sheildtail Snake (probably)

Jungle Nightjar

As an aside, Sloth Bear attacks on people are a relatively frequent occurrence in this human-dominated landscape. However, although this particular situation did not result in a serious incident, it could well have turned out a lot worse for us, and sadly, for wildlife as well, as such incidents always show them off in bad light. A lesson learnt, even for seasoned naturalists like us, to be keenly aware of our surroundings, while in locations with potentially dangerous large animals, even if their presence seems unlikely (for example here within a large, well-lit clearing of the hotel premises, but the emergence of winged-termites, manna from heaven for all manner of wildlife, seemed to have flipped the balance from caution to gay abandon for this bear family...)

List of Mammals Seen*


Jungle Striped Squirrel Funambulus tristriatus
Three Striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus palmarum
Indian Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista philippensis philippensis
Indian Giant Squirrel Ratufa indica maxima
Common Leopard Panthera pardus
Sloth Bear Melursus ursinus
Ruddy Mongoose Herpestes smithii
Striped-neck Mongoose Herpestes vitticollis
Indian Gaur Bos gaurus
Indian or Red Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Sambar Cervus unicolor
Bonnet Macaque Macaca radiata
Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca Silenus
Nilgiri Langur semnopithecus Johnii
South-eastern Langur Semnopithecus priam

*Doubtful sighting of Brown Palm Civet

Highlight Birds Seen


Nilgiri Flycatcher
Jungle Nightjar
Rufous Babbler
Indian Scimitar Babbler
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta
Malabar Grey Hornbill
Great Pied Hornbill
White-cheeked Barbet
Malabar Barbet
Greater Flameback Woodpecker
Southern Hill Myna
Grey-fronted Green Pigeon
Orange Minivet
Asian Fairy Bluebird
Indian Scops Owl
Crested Serpent Eagle 
Black-shouldered Kite
Malabar Parakeet
Vernal Hanging Parrot
Malabar Whistling Thrush

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Borneo, The land of dipterocarps, August 2014: A pictorial report

Author: Ravi Kailas

Bornean Orangutang at Kinabantagan

Borneo, the Earth's third largest island, and home to among its great rainforests, was high on my bucket list of places to visit, for its reputed natural history splendours. Happily I managed a foray in August 2014, to a tiny corner of the island, in the Sabah province of Malaysia and was duly amazed by the diversity of animals, and their great rainforest home, albeit experiencing a mere fraction of the island's considerable natural riches (only lowland, interior forests and their denizens on this visit). For a visitor without a focussed list of target species, but rather to soak in whatever came my (often solo) way, I ended up with sightings of Bornean Orangutang, Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, Philippine Slow Loris, seven out of eight species of Hornbill, including Helmeted, found on the island, the rarely seen Bornean Ground Cuckoo, Storm's Stork, Bornean Falconet, Jerdon's Baza, Saltwater Crocodile and Water Monitor Lizard aplenty, among a variety of other creatures reflective of the immense diversity of tropical rainforests. However, the experience was enriching, not just because of what I could see in isolation, but also, the overall experience, the sounds, smells, humidity, light (or the lack of it!) in the forest interiors, the mesmerising morning mist that envelopes the canopy, as much as the sights within, among the giant trees of undisturbed Dipterocarp forests (the predominant lowland forest type of Borneo, which is incidentally, home to the most diverse, albeit rapidly depleting, of this forest type). While, it would have been more than nice to add a Sunda Clouded Leopard or so onto the list of sightings, or at least, one among Colugo, Pygmy Elephant or Leopard Cat, this was a very satisfactory first time visit to the island. 

Report*

Kinabantagan River - wildlife rich, albeit disturbed forest along the Kinabantagan River


Proboscis Monkey at Kinabantangan

Dates: 8th to 11th Aug 2014

A satisfactory variety of wildlife, including a female & young Bornean Orangutang and an adult male, several of those curious looking, pot-bellied (and this with a spartan diet of leaves & fruit) Proboscis Monkey, Southern Pig-tailed Macaque, the ubiquitous Prevost's Squirrel, Saltwater Crocodile, Water Monitor Lizard, the endangered Storm's Stork, Diard's Trogon and that fleeting glimpse of the rare Bornean Ground Cuckoo, teasing us with a pervading call, seemingly just from behind the first layer of undergrowth, six species of Hornbill, Jerdon's Baza, Buffy Fish Owl, Asian Palm Civet and Blue-eared Kingfisher, the latter three at night. Almost all sighting effort from the boat, with some minor forays on foot, exploring the narrow band of disturbed forest (a various stages of logging), along the river. Misses from here included Bornean Elephant, which are relatively easily seen in this location, as also the Oriental Bay Owl, which can be seen around my accommodation, with some effort, which I am guilty of not putting in, at night. While this was a window to the tropical rainforest of southeast Asia and its occupants, including the typically, 'equatorial' mid-afternoon thunderstorm, this location did not satisfy the aesthetic expectations of a rainforest experience. 

Diard's Trogon

Asian Palm Civet

Buffy Fish Owl

Wrinkled Hornbill, one among 8 species found on the island

The endangered Storm's Stork


Danum Valley Conservation Area - Pristine dipterocarp forest and associated diversity of wildlife

Philippine Slow Loris

Looking towards Dipterocarp canopy in the early hours of the morning

Dates: 11th to 15th Aug 2014

This is reputedly among the best protected, lowland rainforest locations in Borneo, and without basis for comparison, my forays into these forests of immensely tall dipterocarp trees, suggested nothing that disputed this status. Walking indistinct trails, inside the dark, humid interiors of the forest, and exploring the more wildlife-sighting friendly periphery, while not as productive for sheer numbers as the experience at Kinabantangan, produced rarities like the Helmeted Hornbill as well as a selection of species including Philippine Slow Loris, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Gibbon, a species of otter (smooth coated?), a nocturnal mustelid (some kind of ferret badger?), Bornean Falconet, flying lizards and tree skinks, various frogs, spiders, ants and leeches that were not seen in the earlier location. There was also a single, female Bornean Orangutang, in the periphery of the forest and close to my accommodation. Among the enduring memories also from here, the multifarious sounds of the rainforest, the scene of morning mist lifting from the treetops, as the day warms up, a microclimate unto its own, the forest floor alive with fallen fruit, seed, rotting wood and their predators.... 


Bornean Falconet, among the smallest birds of prey on Earth

A species of Tarantula

Dipterocarp seed

A species of tree skink

Rainforest biodiversity

Rainforest biodiversity

Red Leaf Monkey

Sepilok - a small patch of healthy rainforest, home to rehabilitated Bornean Orangutang among other wildlife:

Dates: 15th to 16th Aug 2014

A brief visit here was not especially productive, but the healthy forest patch and the convenient canopy walkway (note: to be avoided during an electric storm!) promised much in terms of birdlife and other arboreal wildlife. There were also trails into the forest, that could be productive for typical rainforest biodiversity as well ground feeding specialists like pittas. While not a wildlife moment, it was quite something to see a semi-wild fully grown, male Orangutang, walk into an open air restaurant in the periphery of the reserve (where I was having a dinner), and towards one of the nearby tables, possibly gesturing (not especially proficient in Orangutanese), to join in for a meal! 

*An ideal extension to the itinerary would have been a visit to the Mount Kinabalu area, to appreciate the changes in biodiversity with altitude. Could have also planned a visit to Mabul (well known for marine diversity) as well as Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Logistics Etc*

Travel

Travelled by air to Sandakan (well connected to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur) and by road (private taxi) to Kinabantangan and from there to Lahad Datu (the gateway to Danum Valley - the accommodation arranges transfers from here). 

On the return, by road (private taxi) from Lahad Datu to Sepilok, and flew out from Sandakan. 

Typically easy road travel on good roads (none of the sectors longer than 4-5 hrs), and mostly through Oil Palm plantations (sigh). 

Lodging 


Kinabantagan 

Entering the Kinabantangan Jungle Camp

Water Monitor Lizard on campus 


Stayed at the Kinabnatangan Jungle Camp - a rustic affair, furnished comfortably enough (but don't expect luxuries, like fancy soaps, high end bed linen etc in your room, at least as of 2014, but rather that slightly damp/a touch mouldy feel to the interiors, as is typical of damp locations), in a well wooded patch along the river. The place is owned by an ace local birder, Robert Chong, and is well set-up for keen nature enthusiasts. Host went out of the way to cater to my 'eggetarian' diet, with eggs, rice and a tasty veggie dish seemingly made with jungle greens, among the staple nourishment on my visit there. White-capped Shama, Water Monitor Lizard and Prevost's Squirrel aplenty on campus, but potential for much other wildlife in the vicinity, if one puts in the requisite effort, I would imagine. 


White-crowned Shama were ubiquitous on campus

Danum Valley 

Danum Valley Field Centre

Stayed at the superbly located Danum Valley Filed Centre, on the edge of pristine rainforest. There is much wildlife that visits around the campus - I saw Helmeted Hornbill, Bornean Gibbon, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Falconet, Orangutang, otters (sp?) and a whole host of birds, practically outside my room - but also trails of varying lengths leading into pristine rainforest. While the centre offers 'guided' night walks, night drives and a sunrise experience (seeing the mist clear over the canopy from a high point), all worthwhile, there is not much interpretation from the 'guides', who just take you around for the activity (language can be an issue as well). For the the day forays on the trails into the forest, you are pretty much on your own, and unless you are experienced with jungle navigation (and even if you are not), you might want to buddy up and not get lost together (the former advice I did not take, but found my way around well enough to tell the tale!). 

Overlooking the rainforest canopy at sunrise

Danum Valley Field Centre

The field centre offers double rooms, dorms and tented accommodation and my room turned out spartan, but comfortable enough, but more importantly felt well connected with the outside environment. The centre in well visited by international tourists and had a cosmopolitan vibe. They take special requests for vegetarian meals and turned out surprising tasty (expectations prior to the visit was of a very remote location, but turned out not the case), with dedicated mains for lunch and dinner. 

Sepilok

Quite a resorty location and nothing of value that I can add for a better natural history experience. I stayed at the relatively fancy Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, which was nice after the simpler fare over the past week or so. 

*All this information from 2014 and not quite sure of relevance/accuracy as on date



Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Spiti Valley, including Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, September 2019: A trip report

Author: Ravi Kailas

The Spiti River as seen from the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary

Breathtaking (a touch of altitude sickness induced pun intended), the apt adjective for my visit to the high altitude, the trans-Himalayan cold desert region of Spiti, in September last year. As is typical on my trips, the focus was on the region's wildlife and I had great hopes for plenty of Himalayan Ibex and Blue Sheep sightings, and perhaps of a glimpse or two of Siberian Weasel and Stone Marten disappearing behind a boulder or the like, as well as a marmots and pikas, likely favoured prey of the aforementioned mustelids. And there are Snow Leopard here too (still hunting Bharal and Ibex, on the treacherous higher slopes though, at this time of the year), among the best places on Earth to see these big cats, and Tibetan Wolf, but I did not entertain realistic hopes of seeing either. As it turned out, I did see Blue Sheep aplenty, a distant herd of Himalayan Ibex and Red Fox, but surprisingly no pikas or marmots (so abundant in neighbouring Ladakh) and no stone martens and weasels, despite trying in the appropriately rock strewn slopes along streams of snow-melt. Birdlife was a lot quieter, both in abundance and diversity, than expected (in comparison to the riches of Ladakh, albeit that visit in July - so likely that many of the summer visitors to the trans-Himalayan region had already left), with only Lammergeier, European Goldfinch, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Rock Bunting, Hill Pigeon, Brown Dipper, both Choughs, Indian Blue Robin, Eurasian Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Chukar, Bluethroat, Desert Wheatear, Tickell's Leaf Warbler and a handful of others on view (including from Spiti and from entry and exit routes via Manali and Simla respectively). There were also a a handful of butterflies and a species of skink, active in the mid-afternoon heat, in meadows as high as 4600m. The landscape of the Spiti Valley is as spectacular as it is stark, scoured by wind and eponymous Spiti River, resulting in dramatic relief, packed into a small area - a microcosm of neighbouring Ladakh, where such drama is interspersed with gentler, vast open plains. The transparent, star-studded skies that this region is known for, however, eluded for much of the visit, marred by fast moving clouds or worse, barring a couple of nights, when the heavens shone from above. Then there are ancient Buddhist monasteries, oasis of serenity in the, harsh windswept landscape, among the treasures to savour in this region, along with its natural history riches and spectacular landscapes. Six (when two of them are sub-optimally spent nursing headaches and nausea) nights in Spiti, is not nearly enough to explore and appreciate this vast landscape and its unique wildlife and this trip, was, I imagine, just a precursor to a few more to this region. This visit to Spiti also reminded me of the potential unpredictability of travel through a 'Himalayan' wilderness, where travel times are dictated not just by distances, the raw beauty that mesmerises you to linger longer than you planned (or wise) or the automobile at your disposal, but also the unexpected twists that put you are at the mercy of nature for a safe and timely passage and Spiti is perhaps one of the few nooks left in the world, where mother Earth is still the steward of such matters, even deep into the 21st century. 

Dates

18th to 26th September 2019

Places Visited

Manali Wildlife Sanctuary (from Manali); Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary (from Chicham Village & Key); Pin Valley NP (from Tabo)

Detailed Report

Day 1: Arriving a day earlier, by road (8 hrs, busy road, nice scenery after Kullu) from Chandigarh, an altitude acclimatisation day in Manali (1900m) for the 4000m plus days ahead in Spiti, with a side visit to the Manali Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary, difficult to locate (Google Maps, helped broadly, and the rest was walking around in the vicinity and stumbling across a sign pointing to a bridle path into the sanctuary) turned out to be an extent of Deodhar (a type of conifer) forest on the fringes of the town. Arriving there around 7 AM on a cool but sunny morning, and walking a trail for about 2 hours, turned out to be productive for Indian Blue Robin, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Bar-tailed Tree Creeper, Scaly-bellied & Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Spot-winged & Green-backed Tits, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Black-throated Thrush and Rock Bunting, among a handful of butterflies and (the ubiquitous around Manali) Kashmir Rock Agama basking in the warming morning sun. Much of this bird activity was concentrated around a little stream, where the forest opened out into meadows and bordered a rural landscape of apple orchards, overgrown with wild shrubs. 

The coniferous forest at the Manali Wildlife Sanctuary

A butterfly (Kashmir Large-Green Underwing?) in the Manali Wildlife Sanctuary

Kashmir Rock Agama

Manali, at least in the lean tourist season when I visited, was unlike most other overwhelmingly crowded, but otherwise underwhelming, Indian hill stations, located, superbly, in a valley where the refreshingly glacial meltwater coloured Beas River is a constant companion, and surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks rising above forested hill slopes. 

Day 2: An early start (0535, negotiated from 0430 with my driver, who was worried about potential traffic snarls at Rohtang Pass), on a cool, clear morning, towards the village of Chicham in the heart of the Spiti Valley. The initial part of the drive through montane forest in the valley, climbing into the alpine meadows, with views of jagged snow capped peaks and waterfall infested slopes, while approaching the 4000m Rohtang Pass, was botanically interesting for a number of wild flowers on display (in the meadows especially) and a handful of birds including Himalayan Griffon, Red-billed Chough, Brown Dipper, Upland Pipit and White-capped Water Redstart among them. Although we did not connect the dots then, the fast developing misty clouds, within touching distance from the road leading to the pass, as the morning warmed, seemed to be a sign of changing weather in the region. 



Floral diversity around Rohtang

Floral diversity around Rohtang

Red-billed Chough

Reached the pass, completely snow-free at this time of the year, around 0815, in time for a breakfast of aloo paratha and tea (Punjab’s influence extends beyond its plains!), before entering an increasingly sparsely vegetated, Trans-Himalayan landscape, greeted by bright sun and the deepest blue skies imaginable. A little beyond ahead of the pass, the dirt road leading to Spiti bifurcates from the one leading to the Lahaul Valley and Ladakh beyond. Views here of the icy blue Chenab River, carving its way through sparsely vegetated slopes that rise above the valley we traverse, along a road that is reasonably road-car worthy but for a handful of crossings of mountain streams that blend into the road (even these were negotiated adroitly by locals in their puny Suzuki’s), which, however, promised to be a sterner test for man (I mean human, for those sensitive to these things) and machine at other times of the year. This stretch leading from the Rohtang to beyond the Kunzum Pass (4500m), about a 5 plus hr drive, was also quite isolated, barring sparse traffic and from where I have very little recollection of any settlements of note. Lunch was at a Dhaba at the turn-off to Chandra Tal, the first significant settlement for a while, and well stocked with such incongruous ‘goodies’ like packed potato chips, instant noodles etc to go with the (not quite) local fare of rajma-chawal and aloo gobi. From here it is a descent into the scenic, relatively populated Spiti Valley, onto better roads (tarmac after the village of Losar), and an ascent into the dramatic Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, best known for its regular Snow Leopard sightings in winter, before reaching the charming village of Chicham (4200m) at 1630, duly tired from the bone rattling long drive and the effects of thinner air. Sadly though, despite a motivated occupant looking keenly, there were only a handful of relatively common birds, including Blue Rock Thrush, Alpine Chough, Black Redstart, Common Buzzard and Eurasian Kestrel and no mammals, to go with the dramatic scenery. 

Black Redstart, among the modest diversity of birds seen in Spiti during this trip

The Icy blue Chenab as seen after descending from the Rohtang Pass towards Spiti

Still verdant, the landscape turned progressively drier closer to the Spiti Valley (see below)

The landscape around the 4600m Kunzum Pass, before descending into the Spiti Valley


The next thing I remember was the drama of the Milky Way rising above the barren mountains around Chicham, as seem from my (comfortable) bedroom window at the Nomad's Cottage - my host for the next  three nights - on a cold, windy night. 

The core of the Milky Way as seen from Chicham


Day 3: A fitful night duly followed by that dreaded combination of altitude induced headache and nausea in the morning. Dragged myself though, with the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary at my doorstep, for a short excursion to a dramatic gorge that divides the Kibber and Chicham villages. The drive upto the new bridge across the gorge and a few minutes taking in the raw beauty of the chasm - the sheer sides of which are known to be regular sites for Snow Leopard and their prey - produced only Eurasian Crag Martin and Black Redstart on this cloudy, windy morning. Later, mid-morning, looking from the balcony at Nomad's Cottage, a distant herd of Himalayan Ibex traversing the upper slopes on the far side of the gorge and a pair of Lammergeier riding the thermals in the relative warmth of the late morning, as I sipped on warm water infused with garlic - a local cure for altitude sickness as suggested by the landlady. 

The deep gorge between Chicham and Kibber

The only sighting (of this distant herd) of Himalayan Ibex from this trip 

Lammergeier

Later that afternoon, an excursion back to the gorge, adjacent to the slope we had seen Ibex earlier, in hope of more and photo opportunities, turned out very quiet, with only Lammergeier and Hill Pigeon on show. After an hour or so looking here, a drive to the edge of the sanctuary boundary, towards Losar, presented an opportunity to appreciate the dramatic path that the Spiti River had carved through the landscape from high ground, but did nothing to improve wildlife sighting luck, with only Eurasian Kestrel and Desert Wheatear among the spartan birdlife on show. 

Day 4: A cloudy, cold, windy start to the morning, and evidently snowing in the upper slopes - a bit of weather that we seemed to have brought with us from Rohtang Pass a couple of days ago, and, according to the locals, a precursor to their harsh winter. While the village was a scene of frantic activity to stock up for the winter, we had other mundane problems and had to drive to Kaza, the district headquarters, about an hour out to fix a puncture. An opportunistic, delicious breakfast at Hotel Deyzor, where the friendly host turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia on the Spiti's natural history. Upon his advice, we headed back towards Kibber WLS and onto to the 'Tashigang Meadows' named of the eponymous village, reputedly the highest permanent settlement (4650m) in Spiti. The couple of hours spent driving around barely traversed dirt road through these high altitude meadows, with a smattering of light snow, heavier winds, and heady views of the valley and surrounding mountains, with eyes peeled for Tibetan Wolf (a known site for the species), proved productive for two herds of Blue Sheep, one comprising exclusively of adult males, and modest birdlife, all seen earlier in the trip, barring the addition of a very skittish Bluethroat around a marsh. There were also a few butterflies active in meadows - a  pleasing multi-hued scene, when viewed from afar, contrasting against a dark topsoil (which seemed characteristic of these high altitude slopes). The extensive, undisturbed grasslands here, and pockets of standing water suggests excellent habitat for fauna and given sufficient time looking, should be productive for a variety of wildlife, characteristic of this region. 

A cloudy, windy morning at the Tashigang Meadows

An all male herd of Blue Sheep

A wheatear, among the modest birdlife in these high altitude meadows

PM activity, with a drive towards Losar to the boundary of Kibber WLS, and productiveness (or lack of) akin to previous evening and barring the addition of the attractive European Goldfinch from around the village, not especially noteworthy for any sightings. 

Day 5: Acting, once again on the (good) advice from our breakfast host from the previous day, we spent the morning exploring high altitude (upto 4600m) meadows, in a loop from Kaza, via Komic and Demul, hoping especially for Stone Marten, the mix of habitat here inclusive of rock strewn slopes and streams, in addition to the meadows that resembled the ones at the Tashigang from the previous morning. The largely undisturbed, habitat, barring a couple of small settlements, a few nomadic herdsmen and their cattle, promised a productive day for wildlife, on what turned out to be a clear, sunny, even warm, window of weather. These expectations were met to an extent, with four large herds of Bharal and a trio of Red Fox in a seemingly playful display of chasing each other around a marsh, a still modest birdlife which included, Horned Lark and Robin Accentor as additions to the trip list, butterfly activity similar to previous morning and even a species of skink (Mabuya sp.?), revelling in the relative warmth of day, at 4600m! 

Blue Sheep

Some butterfly diversity at over 4500m!

The picturesque high altitude meadows between Komic and Demul 

Horned Lark

Reached the accommodation, located on the banks of the Spiti River and close to the Key Monastery, late in the afternoon and the early part of the evening was spent on a brief visit to the spartan monastery, ravaged by weather and wars, in its 1000 year history (imagine this landscape a 1000 years ago, almost entirely disconnected from rest of the world, a planet unto itself for all practical purposes!). The rest of the evening was spent savouring the sun going down and the core of the Milky Way rising from behind snow-capped peaks, from the windy banks of the Spiti River. 

Day 6: A latish start to the morning for the final leg of the journey, with an aside at the Pin Valley National Park, before exiting the Spiti valley via Tabo. Reached the borders of the Pin Valley NP after about a 2 hr drive from from Key, on a bright, sunny morning. The drive from the park entrance to the village of Mudd, where the road car worthy road ends, provided some great views of glacially scoured mountains, adorned with multi-hued vegetation/soil (mostly of yellows and reds), but no noteworthy wildlife from along along the road, which only traverses partial wilderness, via a series of small villages along the Pin River. This park, as I understand, is best explored on foot, but there was no time to do justice to that effort on this brief visit to Spiti. 

The landscape at Pin Valley NP, as seen from the village of Mudd

From the NP, it was onwards to the town of Tabo (3000m) arriving early evening, but not before our first sighting of Chukar on the trip and another Kashmir Agama, basking in the intense late afternoon sun, en-route. Later that evening, a visit to the ancient Tabo Monastery, which while not as richly adorned as some of the others in Ladakh, is among the most spiritually enticing - with an indescribable vibration - that I have entered into (especially the old prayer hall). Later that night, a couple of hours spent, observing and photographing a wonderfully transparent night sky, the first one completely clear of clouds on this trip, from a dark helicopter landing area, adjacent to town, but not before wolfing down a delicious, juicy with tahini & fresh veggies, falafel sandwich for dinner. 


Chukar

The lovely Tabo Monastery

Day 7: The day was spent exploring the banks Spiti River, a few kilometres out of Tabo, starting in a boulder strewn area, where we had seen the Chukar the previous evening. Once again, this turned up only modest results for wildlife, with no mammals and only a handful of birds, including Chukar, Tickell's leaf warbler, skulking in the clumpy bushes along a rivulet (summer breeder here?) and Rock Bunting, to show for the effort. The landscape too changes around Tabo, with a few more trees around villages, and more vegetation around water, but the slopes, seemingly more barren and arid, and less dramatic than around Kibber. The evening though, turned out rather more satisfying, with the night sky's splendours showing through transparent skies, once again. 

Rock Bunting

The North America Nebula imaged from around Tabo

The Veil Nebula imaged from around Tabo

Day 8: A longish travel day to the hill station town of Kalpa (6-8 hr drive estimated from Tabo), turned out even longer thanks to a landslide near the town of Spillo, where we spent 6.5 hrs in the vehicle waiting for the typically efficient Border Roads Organisation, to clear the debris from the road. For a while there, though, it appeared as though the rubble, constantly replenished with loose soil and rock, falling from the adjacent slope, - this stretch road along the Sutlet River, reputedly especially prone to landslides and, scarily, shooting stones - would prove insurmountable, but success at the cusp of sunset, much to the relief of the long line of vehicles (and some hardy long distance cyclists!) waiting to cross. On the other side, at Spillo, the best roadside samosa, its quality rating, (very) likely questionable, given that this was my first bite of food since breakfast, some 10 hrs earlier. Earlier in the day, the climb on some of the diciest mountain roads, narrow, with sheer drops, to Nako from Tabo, and the equally hairy descent into the valley where the Spiti River confluences with the Sutlej. 

Day 9: Another travel day, this time from Kalpa, all the way to Chandigarh, via Shimla, with very little time to look around, given the distances to cover. A pity,  having already been deprived of an evening here with delay from the landslide, considering there was healthy extent of coniferous forest around Kalpa, and excellent Himalayan views. On the descent, along the Sutlej, going past its confluence with the Baspa River, the lure of the Sangla Valley up-river .... 

Logistics Etc

Road Travel & Associated: 

While the original plan was the retrace from Pin Valley (staying in the village of Mudd as against Tabo) to Manali, upon the suggestion of my driver, Rakesh (+91 85804 87591, safe driver and an experienced hand in these parts), I decided to travel the loop and exit via Simla, which despite the longer distance, offers better (not necessarily safer) roads that the Manali-Spiti stretch. While mine was way too rushed to savour all the natural delights en-route, I would spend more time at Kibber and surroundings, Pin Valley, Kalpa and planned a visit to the Sangla Valley in a 15-20 day itinerary, if I were doing this circuit in the future. While the Manali to Spiti Valley route is scenically spectacular, it is only open for a few months every year, its dirt roads and high passes, closed for traffic in winter. The route via Nako, however, is open through the year and is the only conduit available for tourists arriving in winter for Snow Leopards around Kibber. 

While not the most economical nor eco-friendly option of travel available, given the logistics involved (travel distances, time and road conditions), I hired a Mahindra Xylo (ground clearance an important consideration for tackling sections of the road from Manali into Spiti Valley) from Manali to Chandigarh for this trip (rates about 10% higher than what you would expect to pay while hiring in less inhospitable terrain). 

While Spiti has (and has had for a few years now) a regular influx of tourists, this is still a remote region and takes considerable time and effort to get in and out of. Mobile connectivity (no/poor data when I visited, but that was due to change in 2020, I understood) is limited, especially in the Kibber area, as along the route from Manali. Things start getting a bit more 'civilised' in the Kaza-Tabo stretch, with some modern conveniences (ATM, fuel station, falafel sandwiches, mobile connectivity, puncture shops) at hand. 

Hotels

Chicham Village (for Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary): I stayed at the comfortably furnished, quaintly located, Nomad's Cottage, with superb views of the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary from its rooftop (I understand Snow Leopards have been seen from here, but I only saw Ibex from this perch. Also convenient for astrophotography and clear nights here can be quite spectacular). While the top portion of the house, where I was hosted is marketed by an outsider, the place belongs to a kindly local family, who also have a few rooms available as part of a homestay option. 

Key Monastery: While I was originally scheduled to stay in Kaza (at Hotel Deyzor) for this night, an oversight in the booking process meant that I had to break journey somewhere towards Tabo, but still within touching distance of Kibber WLS. The charmingly located Spiti Village Resort, kindly arranged for free by the gentleman who owns Hotel Deyzor, on the very windy banks of the Spiti River, was the host for one night and as it turned it a comfortable affair in their cozy cottages with modern amenities and restaurant which served a mix of Indian and global cuisine. 

Tabo: In an ideal world, I would have spent these two nights at the Tara Homestay in Mudd (no availability on those dates), but instead ended at a the Hotel Maitreya, close to the Tabo Monastery. Nothing to complain though, about this modern hotel with comfortably furnished rooms, cozily insulated from the elements, and overall good value for money. Do try the Falafel sandwich at Tiger's Den, if you are ever in Tabo.