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PALLAS'S CAT

Pallas’s Cat, Tso Kar [Mike Watson]

We were already thrilled by a great morning at Tso Kar that included Argali, Ground Tit, Upland Buzzard, Blanford’s Snowfinch and point blank Tibetan Sandgrouse but there was even more to come in the afternoon to make this my ultimate Tso Kar day and one of my best wildlife days ever. After a late lunch and a short break we set off again, hoping for a wolf, the last piece in our jigsaw, or so we thought. While cruising along slowly and checking some roadside birds I noticed a small cat trotting along the snow-free road ahead of us. It couldn’t be surely, could it? Well it was! Otzer turned on the gas and as we neared it, the cat veered off the road and crouched in front of a small raised patch of ground only a few metres away as I fired off a few frames at what was now clearly a Pallas’s Cat!!! Significantly rarer and more difficult to see in Ladakh than Snow Leopard, Jigmet mentioned that although he had now seen Snow Leopard more than 300 times but this was only his second Pallas’s Cat! The cat was clearly very cross at being disturbed and headed off across a nearby snowfield, pausing to scowl back at us every now and again. All three of our cars could watch its progress across the deep snow, a huge WOW moment for all of us. After a while a search party was assembled and Jigmet and his boys tracked the cat to a gully around half a kilometre away, where its trail went cold on bare ground. Time ticked away and the group of searchers dwindled, some connecting with a wolf that David Salt had spotted walking across the snow in front of the vehicles back at the roadside. However, after everyone else had given up and gone back to the Eco Resort at Thukje, Gyaltsen and Changchuk re-found the cat sitting at the entrance to a den in a small outcrop. Sadly too late for anyone to return in daylight and all that could be done was to admire the face-only portraits on their smartphones at evening meal.

Pallas’s Cat tracks at Tso Kar [Mike Watson]

Pallas’s Cat den, Tso Kar [Mike Watson]

Next morning we woke up and under clear skies it really was flipping freezing - a minimum of -32 Celsius was recorded just before dawn. Tso Kar acts as a cold sink for the air on the surrounding mountains. Our guys had stayed up all night keeping the vehicles ticking over so we were ready to roll. We headed out to the Pallas’s Cat den again but in a nutshell there was no sign this morning of its feisty little occupant, who was either fast asleep inside or had moved off to another nearby bolt-hole, of which there appeared to be several, along with more than one set of tracks! We had lunch and decided to get out of Tso Kar and enjoy some heating back in the Indus Gorge at Chumathang, our results at Tso Kar being well and truly off the scale. We crossed the now much snowier Polokonka La without incident, seeing a few Tibetan Snowcocks and en route Jigmet conjured up some great views of Stolicka’s Mountain Voles roadside at Puga Somdo, much to the delight of our small mammal enthusiast Linda. Some of the hot springs had plumes of ice frozen over them, such is the extreme cold here that boiling water freezes in the air.

Pallas’s Cat, Tso Kar [Mike Watson]

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NATIONAL CHAMBAL SANCTUARY

Indian Skimmer sunset, Chambal River

WE HAD TWO CRUISES ON THE WONDERFUL CHAMBAL RIVER again this time and these were the most productive photo sessions of the whole tour with some of us taking well over 2,000 photos per day of numerous different subjects. The highlight of a cruise along the Chambal River is undoubtedly an encounter with the second largest crocodile in the world, the long-snouted Gharial (second only to the monstrous Saltwater Crocodile). We saw plenty of them including a few large-nosed males, amongst the more widespread Marsh Mugger crocodiles. The National Chambal Sanctuary was declared in 1978, mostly to protect this critically endangered, fish-eating crocodile. Named after the Nepalese word ‘ghara’ meaning earthenware pot, referring to the enlarged growth on the end of the snout of mature males, which can grow to six metres long and one tonne in weight. There are fewer than 400 breeding pairs left in its remaining range, a mere 2% of its former distribution, which used to include Pakistan, Burma and the Brahmaputra. A truly magnificent animal! We also had some really bonkers close encounters with a huge Marsh Mugger Crocodile, which thankfully decided not to join us in our boats.

Marsh Mugger, Chambal River

Gharials enjoying late afternoon sunshine, Chambal River

Another major attraction here is the endangered Ganges River Dolphin and the encounter we had this year was easily my best so far, with numerous semi-breaches and I even managed a (albeit record) shot of one this time. They seem to favour the same deep section of the river that I have seen them in year after year, downstream of a couple of river islands and upstream of a large meander, just as they are supposed to. These creatures face a range of threats from pollution to water development projects, hunting (Ganges and Brahmaputra) and entanglement in fishing gear but happily they continue to flourish in the Chambal River.

Another brief glimpse of a Ganges River Dolphin, Chambal River

A rich variety of wildlife can still be found on the Chambal, including pretty much all of the characteristic species of the large slow-flowing rivers of the Gangetic drainage system that were once found all over northern India. It is like stepping back in time and other relics included Red-naped Ibis, Comb Duck, Black-bellied and River Terns. Also here were: flotillas of Bar-headed Geese grazing on the weed in the river; Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans and the impressive Pallas’s Gull from Central Asia, Ruddy Shelduck, paired up and a couple of Golden Jackals on the prowl. We also photographed a pair of nesting Pied Kingfishers; a crazy Striated Heron perched on one of the abandoned pontoons that allowed approach to almost within touching distance plus a furtive Brown Crake along the nearby riverbank.

Great Thick-Knees, Chambal River

As the sun was setting on our evening cruise we finally caught up with another major target here, the amazing Indian Skimmer, with its ‘snapped-off’ shorter upper mandible, bouncy flight and even living up to its name with a little skimming. There was only a pair this time, however, we were relieved to see them at all once we knew skimmers had not been seen for around 10 days and lots of folks had gone home disappointed lately. Although the light was fading fast by now, they even arranged themselves in the reflections of the orange sun on the water – FANTASTIC STUFF!

Indian Skimmer, Chambal River

Once the thick morning mist had cleared our next cruise also afforded several opportunities to photograph some attractive River Lapwings (now a threatened bird of the Indian Subcontinent’s large slow-flowing rivers) and the peculiar Great Thick-knee. A 960km long tributary of the filthy River Yamuna, the Chambal River has evaded development and its inevitable pollution owing to the river being considered unholy! The river reputed to have been cursed by a princess as well as carried the blood of thousands of sacrificed cows, ironically saving it from the even worse fate that has befallen the other rivers around it. Our very pleasant lodge near the Chambal was as delightful as ever and a wonderful evening meal here was followed after dark by some Common Palm Civet photography in the lodge gardens. In daytime there are usually some interesting birds in the near vicinity and this year’s visit again resulted in some good photo opportunities of Spotted Owlet. We were sorry to head back north to the bright lights of Agra, then Delhi via the bizarre empty new Yamuna expressway and the next stop on our tour, the ‘Kipling Country’ of Madhya Pradesh state.

Striated Heron on an old pontoon, Chambal River

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THE DEMOISELLE CRANES OF KHICHAN

A Demoiselle Crane comes in to land in a packed feeding compound at Khichan.

KHICHAN IN RAJASTHAN IS KNOWN LOCALLY AS 'THE PARADISE OF THE CRANES'. Once in position early next morning, on the rooftop of one of the houses overlooking the famous walled crane-feeding compound, masala chai and biscuits to hand, the first of several thousand cranes started to appear on the horizon. Each morning the cranes alight on open ground around the town until they are almost all assembled and then their leader of the past few years (at least) ‘broken-leg’ decides it is safe to land. This amazing creature has migrated across the Himalayas at least four times since I last saw him/her with a dangling leg creating what must be an incredible drag on an already exhausting migration. ‘Broken leg’ circles the compound several times before landing, this time despite a daring feral moggy that was trying to catch the pigeons, which are also attracted to the free meal of grain. Eventually the cranes are more or less all crammed inside the compound, jostling for position to eat the grain put down for them by the Jain villagers, a practice that has continued here for over 150 years (the grain is now put down in the evening after the cranes have departed for their roosting grounds and it is ready for them immediately in the morning). Their elongated secondary plumes forming interesting patterns as they fed. Images alone do not do justice without the whirring of wings overhead and the deafening cacophony of the excited cranes. Whilst ‘paradise’ is wide of the mark, the cranes of Khichan are certainly one of the most amazing ornithological spectacles of the world. As always it was time to leave all too soon and make our way to Jodhpur from where, following an unsuitable flight schedule change, we had a long and rather grim drive along a so-called highway to Delhi, ready to start the next stage of our Indian adventure.

Demoiselle Crane, Khichan

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TO RAJASTHAN

Jain Temple, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

NORTH OF GUJARAT LIES RAJASTHAN, HOME OF BRIGHT COLOURS and impressive moustaches. En route to the desert city of Jaisalmer, we spent some time walking the length of Shiv’s main street taking photos of the Rajasthani people in the market there. Toyota Innova MPVs have transformed road travel in India and this journey, albeit quite long at nine hours was again a pleasure compared to the 12 hours of slow-moving bus torture the first time I did it. On the other hand, Jaisalmer is sadly not the evocative desert fortress that it was on my first visit in the 1990s, now that more than 2500 wind turbines surround it. Unfortunately I am yet to see the fort there lit up by a golden sunset on this tour, in my last four visits the sun has dipped prematurely into either rain or dust clouds. In the evening we made a short visit to the desert festival and together with thousands of local people we enjoyed watching some local musicians and dance acts. It was a little bizarre to be herded into a foreign tourist pen and forced to sit down to watch the performances. Next morning we took our usual city tour of golden sandstone Jaisalmer, starting with the Jain temples in the old fort, then continuing on to a city view point, the old havelis (intricately decorated former merchants’ houses) and finally ending up at an excellent fabric shop where the ladies battered their plastic!

The streets of Jaisalmer are packed with interesting people and things at which to point the camera and a few hours hardly do it justice. Jumbled shops, ornate temples, weathered faces, huge moustaches, bright colours, fortress architecture and numerous wandering animals provide at least one million interesting subjects. Jaisalmer thrived during the height of the silk trade but with the partition of India in 1947 all cross border trade ceased and it became a sleepy backwater at the end of the line. The rise of tourism has changed its fortunes recently along with tensions between India and Pakistan, which has resulted in a large military presence here. Again as usual, we saw many Indian Gazelles (or Chinkaras) on the journey to the east through the Thar Desert, which is unsurprisingly the world’s most densely inhabited desert, on our way to the small town of Khichan. We paused for photos of these as well as a gang of vultures, crowded around the carcass of a dead cow near the town of Phalodi. Following the disaster of Diclofenac, almost all vultures in this area are now winter visitors from further north in Asia and this flock comprised Eurasian Griffons and at least ten impressive Cinereous Vultures.

Jain Temple, Jaisalmer

Leeloo, a village lady from near Zainabad comes from Rajasthan. These are her marriage bands.

Chinkara (or Indian Gazelle), near Phalodi, Rajasthan

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