Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Bhutan Birding by Markus Lilje

The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has, perhaps surprisingly for such a small country, long been considered as one of the top spots for many world birders to get to experience the wealth of fauna that this part of our world has to offer. In particular, this country provides a wonderful introduction to Asia and the Indian Subcontinent and manages to combine this with a great cultural and general wilderness experience that can’t be matched by many other destinations. Despite some challenges that the country is facing now with rapid development, it will continue to have the most extensive remaining forests in the Himalayas and be the best place to look for many of the regions most wanted birds. So you are considering heading to Bhutan but are unsure when to go and which one of our tours to join?

Rockjumper offers two tours to Bhutan every year. So what are the differences between the two? Here I will help contrast the two and give positive and negative sides to both. I include the extension we do to the Assam state of India in the discussion, but will cover this in more detail during the specific species section.

The reason we visit this part of the world with all its great attractions mainly during the second half of March and into early May, is that this is early spring with most birds very active and calling as they are preparing for the breeding season or just starting to breed by the end of this time window.

There are two main groups of birds, whose different behaviors influence what is finally likely to be recorded on the two tours. The one group consists of the birds that use the Himalayas and surrounding plains as their wintering ground, before they fly north to breed high up in the Tibetan plateau area or beyond in other parts of Eurasia. The second group is composed of the birds that spend the northern winter in more tropical parts of Asia and then migrate north to use the Himalayas to stage their breeding attempts in spring. An additional group can be made up comprising the altitudinal migrants that can be seen on both tours, but potentially at widely variable altitudes as they move up as the season becomes warmer.

So generally the first tour is better for migrant ducks, redstarts and shorebirds, while the second tour gives better chances for some cuckoos and a number of birds that are easier to locate because they are more vocal and predictable as we move into their breeding season.

So to get to some specific species:
Although Bhutan is not a place birders go to look for waterbirds, those that are seen are usually more likely to be found on the earlier tour, before they head north. The first tour in Bhutan has better chances to find Wallcreeper, which moves up to very high altitudes by the end of April. Another similar one is Snow Pigeon, which is still possible on the second tour, although most birds are out of range. Redstarts, especially White-throated and Hodgson’s are likely on the first tour too, before they head up and north. Great Cormorant is still around during the first tour, before they breed to the north in Tibet. Northern Goshawk is still around at this time of year and there is more of a chance to find some of the migrant thrushes. A few of the high-altitude flycatchers are still lower down and can be easier to find. Alpine Accentor, Eurasian Wren and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch are other birds that are often too high up by the second tour. Generally this time of year is also more likely to produce vagrants, although this is never something that can be expected of course, but we have found some interesting waterbirds as well as thrushes and other species for example.

The later tour usually takes place from mid-April and has a better chance for species like Chestnut-winged, Indian, Plaintive, Lesser, Hodgson’s Hawk- and Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoos. Many species are also more vocal at this time of year, sometimes making them easier to find – some examples include Large-billed Leaf Warbler, the shortwings, tesias, Ward’s Trogon, a few laughingthrushes, Broad-billed Warbler and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler. Some species like some of the parrotbills sometimes only reach their high-altitude ranges later when the bamboo gets better and can be hard to locate during the first tour, although some of these species are just always really hard to find.

During the extension in India, the total number of species recorded during the first and second tours can be a little different, although again most of the birds that are unlikely on a later tour are not usually the species that birders travel to this area for. Gadwall, Garganey, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck, Common Shelduck, Northern Pintail, Greylag Goose and Eurasian Wigeon are typical examples. Bar-headed Goose is far more common on the first tour, although it is still sometimes around by the time we get there on the second tour too. Daurian Redstart is possible on the earlier tour, while a number of shorebirds like Common and Spotted Redshanks and Temminck’s Stint are around the Kaziranga NP wetlands in larger numbers too, as are Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings. All the harriers are migrants, heading north in April, although Pied Harrier tends to stay around Kaziranga a little longer. If the rains have come early there are a few birds that become possible on the second tour, that include Rain Quail, Bristled Grassbird and a few species of cuckoo, while Ruddy Kingfisher can sometimes be heard in Nameri NP.

A huge factor that influences the birding in the Himalayas is the mixed flocks of birds we are sometimes able to watch moving through the forests. These seem to be encountered more frequently earlier in the year, before the onset of breeding and the birds settling down in smaller territories. Connecting with many flocks birding does not guarantee a larger list by any means, but is always a great way of seeing birds and sometimes coming across larger numbers or more opportunities for watching bird behavior as they feed nearby.

It is very important to remember that the seasons can be quite different in different years, with warmer temperatures hitting the area a few weeks earlier in some years than in others. This will obviously have a potentially big influence in when some species will still be around and at what time they will move to higher altitudes. In some years birds will start calling later because it may still be colder, while in other years some birds start breeding early and will behave in a shyer fashion and stop associating with flocks earlier. Generally the first tour is still quite cold, which you clearly feel during the camping portions of the tour, although on the flip side the temperatures at lower altitudes during the second tour can get quite hot and birding gets quiet during the middle of the day. The flowering season for rhododendrons is quite long and we generally experience this spectacle on both tours, although this again can be quite different from one season to the next. Magnolia flower earlier in the season and are best seen on the first tour, although the trees at higher altitudes flower later and can still be seen during our second tour here.

So there really is no obvious or easy answer and it may well depend on what areas have been visited before as there are some species that are more likely on the earlier and some that are easier during the later tour. In the end as with any birding tour or destination, there is always a smattering of luck required and you may find some great fruiting or flowering trees on one tour and not on the next.

So just to recap: Most of the really big targets that most participants want to see on this tour are roughly equally likely on both tours, so I would say the decision would depend on other specific targets for everyone. Ibisbill, all the pheasants, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Himalayan , the different Wren-Babblers and Beautiful Nuthatch as well as the great variety of minlas, yuhinas and fulvettas would not be considered easier or more tricky on either of the two tours. The first tour is better for migrant ducks, shorebirds, redstarts and generally for flocks. The second tour is more likely to deliver a variety of cuckoos, calling laughingthrushes, tesias and a marginally better chance for Ward’s Trogon. In addition some of other interests can be taken into account – mammals, cultural and scenic differences are very small, with even similar numbers of flowering orchid and other plant species on the two tours. It is slightly more likely to rain on the second tour, which again can help in providing the occasional sweeping views across the Himalayas. The first tour is colder, but manageably so, while the second can have some hot days. The total bird species recorded on the first and second tours are extremely similar and there is certainly not one of these tours that stands out as the obvious one to choose – either way you can be assured that a spectacular and sometimes overwhelming experience awaits you in this wonderful part of the world!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A Morning in a Kalahari Leopard’s Life by Adam Riley

Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-242

Leeudril is a waterhole situated along the dry Nossob river north of Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This 15,000 sq mi Kalahari desert reserve straddles the South African and Botswana border regions and was created when two national parks were merged – these being South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. Kgalagadi means “place of thirst”, an apt name for this arid region of red sand dunes and dry savanna. However two fossil riverbeds are situated within the South African sector of the park, the Nossob and the Auob and underground water along these riverbeds results in lusher vegetation thus attracting herds of ungulates and their ever-present predators. Several artificial waterholes that have been placed along these riverbeds are a magnet for wildlife and Leeudril is one such location.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-003
At 8am on Tuesday 30th August 2012, we arrived at Leeudril after leaving nearby Tweerivieren camp and were thrilled to spot a young female Leopard next to the water tank. She circled around the tank a few times and chased some doves before walking closer towards us and disappearing into a small copse of trees. After a few minutes she leapt out of the trees and headed straight for our parked vehicle, seeming very intent.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-016
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-033
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-047
You can notice in the above images how the Leopard uses her eye-lids as hoods to protect her sensitive eyes from the bright sun as she sprinted towards us. She then spent half a minute silently poised behind our vehicle and as I watched her in my side-view mirror I could see she was completely oblivious to human presence as she had something more important in mind. She then paced across the road and stood on the edge of a patch of taller grass.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-050
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-058
Leeudril is a waterhole situated along the dry Nossob river north of Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This 15,000 sq mi Kalahari desert reserve straddles the South African and Botswana border regions and was created when two national parks were merged – these being South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. Kgalagadi means “place of thirst”, an apt name for this arid region of red sand dunes and dry savanna. However two fossil riverbeds are situated within the South African sector of the park, the Nossob and the Auob and underground water along these riverbeds results in lusher vegetation thus attracting herds of ungulates and their ever-present predators. Several artificial waterholes that have been placed along these riverbeds are a magnet for wildlife and Leeudril is one such location.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-061
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-068
People are often surprised that large predators kills smaller species but its actually a common phenomenon and I have previously seen a Leopard carrying a dead African Wild Cat at Punda Maria in Kruger National Park and Lions killing a Black-backed Jackal in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The killing of other predators eliminates competition for prey and at the same time also provides calories, so is doubly beneficial.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-083
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-101
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-138
Our Leopard then proceeded to walk back towards her copse of trees from which she had emerged, obviously her place of safety. The Wild Cat was such a large individual that the Leopard actually struggled to walk normally whilst dragging it along. Finally when she arrived, she effortlessly scaled a tall tree and reappeared on an open horizontal branch where she proceeded to lick some blood from the Wild Cat’s puncture wounds.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-171
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-198
This branch was  her dining room and remains of her previous meals, mostly dove and sandgrouse feathers, were in prominence. The Leopard was still a slight, young animal and this may have even been her first larger kill. Her immaturity further evidenced itself when she started swatting her victim with typical catlike playfulness, and ended up knocking the Wild Cat out of the tree! The Leopard then descended and seemingly forgetting her recent conquest, she scampered out towards the waterhole itself.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-237
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-240
Here she posed for a few minutes in all her glory, rolled in the dust and then trotted back to the copse of trees.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-249
Along the way she picked up two thorns in her back left foot-pad. Sitting down, she raised this leg and pulled them out using her teeth, after a few more paces, she then raised her front right leg and pulled out another thorn! Thereafter she dragged the African Wild Cat into the deep shade where she began to feed on her victim.
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-271
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-273
Leopard Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP SA AR-290
Its always special to locate and observe a Leopard, this most beautiful and stealthy of cats, but even more exciting to have been fortunate enough to have witnessed such incredible behavior.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Hummingbirds of Folha Seca by Adam Riley

Tucked away inside a rare remnant patch of Brazil’s critically threatened Atlantic rainforests is a slice of paradise called Folha Seca (meaning “dry leaf”). Here Mr Jonas Dabronzo, as kind and intelligent a gentleman as you would ever wish to meet, owns a secluded home that has become a Mecca for hummingbirds and a myriad of other avian gems. Mr Jonas religiously feeds his flock of hummingbirds that hover around his porch and an incredible 22 species have been attracted to this haven. A visit usually reveals around 10 species and this blogpost is a celebration to some of these amazing birds that frequent Mr Jonas’ feeders. Even more amazing than the hummingbird diversity is the incredible volume of individuals that buzz around the porch and garden. Folha Seca is situated near Ubatuba between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero and if you plan to visit, please contact Mr Jonas in advance to ensure the timing is not inconvenient for him. Mr Jonas does not charge for visits but a donation of a few bags of sugar is always welcome as the hummingbirds consume a vast volume! Mr Jonas can be contacted by emailing j.dabronzo@uol.com.br or calling him on (12) 38482587.

The Black Jacobin is one of the commoner hummingbirds of the Atlantic rainforests, ranging from northern Argentina into Brazil. Image by Adam Riley

A Black Jacobin in flight.  Image by Adam Riley

The Brazilian Ruby is an absolute stunner and endemic to south-eastern Brazil. Image by Adam Riley

A Brazilian Ruby’s glittering throat can only be appreciated when viewed at the correct angle. Image by Adam Riley

The Swallow-tailed Hummingbird is one of Brazil’s largest species. Image by Adam Riley

The Sombre Hummingbird is another endemic of south-eastern Brazil’s Atlantic rainforests. Image by Adam Riley

Also endemic is arguably the most attractive of all the hermits, the unusual and endemic Saw-billed Hermit. Image by Adam Riley

As can be seen from this image, the White-vented Violetear is aptly named! Image by Adam Riley

A hovering Violet-capped Woodnymph. Image by Adam Riley

A male Black-throated Mango, one of South America’s more widespread hummingbird species. Image by Adam Riley

The female Black-throated Mango is quite distinctive. Image by Adam Riley/Rockjumper Birding Tours

A Versicoloured Emerald, although not as brilliantly adorned as other hummers, makes up for it with its subtle patterning. Image by Adam Riley

A Versicoloured Emerald about to enjoy a scratch. Image by Adam Riley

A Glittering-throated Emerald aptly poses with a folha seca (dry leaf) at Folha Seca! Image by Adam Riley

A Glittering-throated Emerald foraging. Image by Adam Riley

Everyone’s favourite at Folha Seca, adorable and miniscule, Festive Coquette’s are incredibly habituated and regularly buzz around one’s ears, a magical experience! Image by Adam Riley

 The tiny Festive Coquette in flight. Image by Adam Riley

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Snow Leopard hunt by Adam Riley

It was our third day in high elevation Hemis National Park, we had awakened before dawn and chugged down a mug of life-giving coffee before ascending a few hundred yards to a knoll above our tented camp in the Rhumbak Valley.

Our group watching the first Snow Leopard from a knoll above our camp in Hemis National Park

At this very spot, on our first afternoon in the park, and within half an hour of officially beginning our Snow Leopard search, our expert local spotter had exclaimed “Shan!!” – the Ladakhi name for Snow Leopard. After a few tense moments and some mild panic, we had all trained our telescopes on a Snow Leopard stalking across a far mountain slope. The distance was extreme, estimated at 2.5-3km, even the cat’s spots were hard to discern, yet we spent an enthralling hour and a half watching it sunning itself on a rock, then rolling like a tabby in loose gravel before setting off, at a remarkably rapid pace, across the mountain slope until it disappeared above a cliff face. Moments later it came barreling down the cliff in a chase, scattering a herd of Blue Sheep in all directions, however it didn’t seem to reach striking distance of any of them. It then disappeared over the mountain ridge, seemingly in disgust! “High fives” were shared all round, we were elated! We had 9 days in the mountains and by the first day we had already actually clapped eyes on this, the Gray Ghost of the Himalayas, albeit distantly. Seeing a wild Snow Leopard is every wildlife enthusiast’s dream, probably the ultimate and most elusive wildlife experience on the planet. This Holy Grail of sightings was until quite recently, virtually impossible, requiring months of extreme endurance for even the slimmest glimmer of hope. Peter Matthiessen’s famous book Snow Leopard describes such an attempt that proved ultimately unsuccessful in his primary goal of glimpsing a Snow Leopard.

View of our camp in the Rhumbak Valley

Knowing this, we were certainly far from disappointed by our experience but we of course all dreamed of a closer view. So the next day we trekked to the Tarbung Valley, lying below our camp. It was on the upper slopes of this valley where our distant Snow Leopard had been observed. By the end of the day our eyes were stinging with the effort of incessantly scanning the slopes surrounding us for another view of this cryptic feline. I hadn’t imagined that there would literally be millions of locations within view at any time where a Snow Leopard could be hiding! By sunset we felt that we were faced with a near impossible task and were grateful for the extreme luck to have obtained our first sighting! However, we were somewhat encouraged by spotting at least 10 herds of Blue Sheep (locally known as Bharal) on the slopes around this lower valley. These sturdy mountain sheep are the preferred diet of the Snow Leopard in this part of its range and the high density of prey was a good indication that a predator should be around!

A small herd of Blue Sheep take fright in Hemis NP

Our guide explained that camera traps scattered at strategic sites in the three valleys around our camp had revealed that there were no less than 11 resident Snow Leopards in the immediate vicinity! An astounding density for a large predator, especially in such a cold, desert-like environment. Furthermore, the total population in Hemis National Park is estimated at 50-60 individuals, making the park an important genetic reservoir for this species which is classified on the IUCN’s Red Data List as Endangered. In case we had any doubts, our guide led us to one of these camera traps where he hauled out the camera and as we flicked through the past few weeks’ images, we were amazed to see close-up shots of Snow Leopard after Snow Leopard; males, females, cubs, taken both at night and day!

Day three had dawned bright and sunny once again. In fact these days in late October were just stunning, and despite being at 3,900m in elevation, the conditions necessitated no more than a t-shirt! However as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, a remarkable phenomenon occurred; the mercury literally plummeted more than 20 degrees centigrade to below zero over a short time. We opted for a pre-breakfast scan at the knoll above camp from where we had lucked into our first sighting. This time it was our assistant Snow Leopard spotter who uttered the magical word, and after a scramble we were again all watching a much closer Snow Leopard in the Tarbung Valley. The cat actually appeared almost golden in the early morning light and this time we could admire its magnificent thick, blotched pelt, extremely long tail and large head. Snow Leopards are the subject of recent taxonomic debate, sometimes being placed in their own genus Uncia (from their earliest Western name Ounce, an ancient name first given to the Eurasian Lynx; which also occurs in Hemis National Park). However most recent research places them amongst the Panthera. This is the genus of the typical large cats including Lion, Leopard, Jaguar and Tiger. In fact genetic evidence indicates that the Snow Leopard’s closest living relative is the Tiger. Our Snow Leopard sat, quite Cheetah-like, before stalking off and once again rolling in the gravel, apparently an indication of the desire to mask its scent before a hunt. We realized that we could place ourselves much closer to our dream target if we hiked down into the valley where we had spent the previous day, so we left one of our spotters on the knoll with a radio and we descended with bated breath, by-passing camp and breakfast en route!

The far slope of the Tarbung Valley where our 2nd Snow Leopard had been spotted

Half an hour later we were on the slope opposite to where we had seen our Snow Leopard and with directions from our spotter we managed to relocate the cat. It was barely visible at the top of an outcrop about 300m away, cautiously peering over the rocks at us. We settled down and trained our telescopes, cameras and binoculars on the far slope and slowly but surely, our leopard gained confidence until it lifted its whole head and stared at us. After an hour, a pleasant surprise awaited us when our camp staff arrived with hot breakfast and coffee in tow and served us a delicious meal in situ as we marveled at the Snow Leopard! Hard to believe this was real! As the sun rose and the day heated up, our cat dozed off, all we could see was a paw and the top of its head. Lunchtime rolled around and once again we were treated to another hot meal brought up from camp.

Enjoying a hot meal whilst watching a Snow Leopard – more than we could have wished for!

Snow Leopard peering over a rocky outcrop in the Tarbung Valley

As the shadows lengthened, a herd of ten Blue Sheep made an appearance on the scene. They slowed grazed their way up from the stream cutting through the valley, heading in the general direction of the rocky outcrop in which our Snow Leopard was resting. Closer and closer they approached and our adrenalin levels began to rise, but then the lead sheep changed direction and started moving back down the hill. Seven in total descended but two adults and a juvenile kept moving towards the danger zone…..

Ten Blue Sheep entered the scene and began grazing their way to where the Snow Leopard was hidden

After an hour the sun dipped over the horizon and the temperatures started to plummet. The three upper sheep stopped grazing and lay down, seemingly bedding down for the night, and we guessed that the show was over. In fact some of our group decided to head back to camp. However after another quarter of an hour these three sheep started grazing again and continued making their way to the lusher grasses growing along the base of the outcrop in which our Snow Leopard was still snoozing. Suddenly the Snow Leopard detected the presence of its prey and sat up on its haunches for the first time since we had relocated it. It began to bob its head from side to side, a clear feline sign of measuring distance and perspective in planning an attack. We could not believe our fortune, could we really be treated to a Snow Leopard hunt – this was beyond our wildest dreams? Then the leopard was moving and it headed along the top of the outcrop, disappearing on the hidden slope opposite to where the sheep were grazing.

The Snow Leopard slinks into a fault line in the rocks above the grazing Blue Sheep

Two minutes later it appeared half way down the outcrop and slightly above the Blue Sheep. First it sat up trying to relocate its prey and once locked on, the cat slunk low and crept into a fault line that ran across the outcrop towards the sheep. Half way across the rocks, it sunk into a hollow, just the top of its head visible as it kept a careful watch. The two adult sheep now began moving away from the attack zone, did they have an instinct that danger was near, or did they know from experience not to dally near rocks where leopards might lie in wait?

The three Blue Sheep unwittingly approach the rocky outcrop, the Snow Leopard's head is visible at the very top middle of the image

However the young sheep carried on oblivious heading higher up the slope along the edge of the outcrop, and closer and closer to the hidden Snow Leopard. By this stage we were all at our wits end and shaking with excitement, was the Snow Leopard going to charge, why was it taking soooooo long? My shoulders were aching with the effort of holding my camera ready for the pounce.

The Snow Leopard launches its attack and bounds down the rocks towards the young Blue Sheep which turns tail and flees

And finally in a blur, everything happened. The Snow Leopard leapt from its cover, bounding across the rocks in great leaps towards the young Blue Sheep. All three sheep took to flight, creating dust trails in their wake. The speed at which the Snow Leopard closed ground on the young sheep was remarkable as it barreled off the rocky outcrop to open ground, clearing a large rock en route.

The Snow Leopard’s great leaps allow it to gain ground on the young sheep

Within seconds the Snow Leopard was on the hapless sheep. After careful scrutiny of images, it seems that the Blue Sheep lost its footing as it tried to escape but in the process it kicked up a load of gravel and dust, right into the Snow Leopard’s face, temporarily blinding the cat. This gave the sheep a vital break and it was able to pull away from the leopard which kept at its heels but was several critical paces behind.

The Blue Sheep loses its footing but in the process kicks gravel and dust into the Snow Leopard’s face temporarily blinding the predator and allowing the sheep to escape the attack

The two adult sheep has gone their separate ways, one heading downhill away from the danger and the other, possibly the younger sheep’s mother, scrambling up a steep slope. At this point, our young sheep made a tactical error and instead of fleeing downslope, it tried to follow the upper sheep.

Dust trails ahead of the young sheep indicate the direction of escape of the adult sheep. The Snow Leopard’s target chooses the upper route and pulls away from the Snow Leopard

The slope became incredibly steep, almost vertical, and this gave the Snow Leopard its chance to gain ground on its shorter legged target.

The slope steepens and the young Blue Sheep begins to lose its lead

Both the adult Blue Sheep can be seen in this image, one at the bottom left and other at the top left. Towards the centre of the image is the young Blue Sheep with the Snow Leopard right behind

The Blue Sheep tried to ascend an almost vertical slope to escape its pursuer

Finally the young sheep realized the leopard was almost upon it and bravely pulled a u-turn, heading back down the slope in the direction from which it had come. Snow Leopards have extremely long tails, up to a meter in length and besides storing fat, the tail is utilized as a ‘scarf’ in the winter. This tail is also a valuable rudder and balancing device, thus the Snow Leopard was easily able to perform its own abrupt u-turn and track the sheep back down the slope.

The Blue Sheep and Snow Leopard make about turns, notice how the Snow Leopard’s huge tail assists its balance

The Blue Sheep takes a great leap down the slope but it cannot match the 15m (50ft) bounds of the cat

The young sheep cleared a massive jump, but it was the beginning of the end as it could not match the 15m (50ft) jumps that a Snow Leopard can achieve, and within moments the cat was right on its heels.

The Snow Leopard makes its second attack and stretches its paw out to ankle-tap the sheep

Extending a paw, the Snow Leopard seemed to ankle-tap the sheep and as it rolled, the cat leapt onto sheep and immediately latched onto its throat. This take at such high speed and on a steep slope meant gravity took its affect and the cat and sheep tumbled over and over each other until the Snow Leopard took control of the situation. The Snow Leopards’ thick pelts have long been highly sought-after artifacts by the people who share its Central Asian range, providing amazing insulation in the cold, but another reason their pelts are so thick must be to protect the leopard when it takes rough tumbles across its rugged, rocky environment.

Contact is made and the Snow Leopard immediately latches onto the sheep’s throat

Predator and prey tumble head over heels down the steep and rugged slope

Finally the Snow Leopard manages to take control of the situation, still firmly attached to the sheep’s throat

For at least 3 minutes the Snow Leopard lay alongside the young sheep, firmly attached to its throat as it suffocated its prey, the Blue Sheep feebly kicking its hind legs intermittently.

The Snow Leopard spends three minutes suffocating its prey

Only when it was certain the sheep was dead did our predator finally release its fatal grip and rest alongside its upcoming meal for several minutes catching its breath after such an extreme effort. For the first time in minutes, the Snow Leopard became aware of us again, ensuring we had not moved and were posing no threat on the opposite slope.

The successful Snow Leopard scans its surroundings whilst it catches its breath after ensuring the Blue Sheep is dead

Finally the Snow Leopard picked up the Blue Sheep and dragged it across the open area, pretty much following the route of the chase, back to the fault line in the rocks and finally over the rocky outcrop and out of our view where presumably it feasted on its well-deserved meal!

The Snow Leopard begins to drag its victim back into the rocky outcrop from where it had attacked

Taking a rest from the hard work of carrying its upcoming meal

The Snow Leopard drags the sheep across the rocky outcrop and out of view of the observers before it begins to feed

By this time the light was fading fast and we arrived back in camp half an hour later in the pitch dark, still not quite believing what had unfolded before our eyes!

This was truly an incredible encounter we had been so, so fortunate to witness; a full Snow Leopard hunt from beginning to end including the take and kill. Our Snow Leopard spotter had been working in Hemis for 16 years and he had never seen this happen before nor knew anyone else who had been as fortunate as us. Film crews and professional photographers have spent months and sometimes even years following Snow Leopards and although several thrilling hunts have been captured, as far as we are aware, no successful hunt has ever been photographed! I am exhilarated therefore to be able to share my images and story of this hunt with you.

The scene of the Snow Leopard hunt in the Tarbung Valley – the white line begins at the point where the Snow Leopard spent the day and tracks the route of the leopard’s stalk along the back of the rocky outcrop and then across the fault line in the rocks. The blue line follows the route of the Blue Sheep as they grazed towards the rocky outcrop. The red line follows the chase with the yellow dot indicating the first failed attack and the red dot being the final kill position

This event was observed during a tour arranged and guided by INDRI – Ultimate Wildlife Tours www.indritours.com. INDRI offer Snow Leopard expeditions annually in October and February, combined with a Royal Bengal Tiger and Indian One-horned Rhinoceros extensions. They also arrange and guide other wildlife tours globally to the world’s last remaining wildernesses in search of iconic wildlife.

Rugged scenery in montane Ladakh, the snow covered peaks of Hemis National Park are visible in the background

The 4,400 square kilometre Hemis National Park is the largest park in the whole of South Asia. It is accessed through the high altitude (3,500m) city of Leh, capital of Ladakh in Jammu-Kashmir State, north west India. Regular flights operate from New Delhi offering phenomenal views flying over the Great Himalayan Range. Ladakh, also known as Little Tibet due to the local influx of Tibetans after the Chinese take-over of Tibet, is situated on the border with Tibet but several hundred kilometers east of the volatile and disputed Pakistani Kashmir boundary. Leh and its surrounds are well worth exploring, in fact essential since its necessary for most people to acclimatize here for at least one full day before beginning their Snow Leopard expedition in nearby Hemis National Park.

Monasteries such as this abound in the vicinity of Leh

Several impressive temples and monasteries are dotted around Leh and the birding can be excellent with species such as Ibisbill, Solitary Snipe and Mountain Leaf Warbler to name but a few. Access to Hemis National Park is via a short drive to Zingchen and this scenic route offers the best chance for locating the long legged and large bossed Ladakh Urial also known as Red Sheep. The road comes to an end near the boundary of Hemis and from here it’s an easy walk of less than an hour to the base camp in the Rumbak Valley (3,900m). Within the vicinity of camp and its surrounding valleys, 11 Snow Leopard are resident. For those with additional time, it is worth hiking deeper into the park to Kanda La pass (4,900m) and here Woolly Hares are much commoner as are their main predator, the Eurasian Lynx. The huge Argali, another species of wild sheep, also occur here. Wolves can be encountered anywhere in the park. Birding opportunities are limited with fairly low diversity at this elevation but typical species include Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Himalayan Snowcock, both species of chough, White-winged Redstart, Brown Accentor and Fire-fronted Serin.

Urial or Red Sheep is another of the Snow Leopard’s prey species

Lammergeiers also known as Bearded Vultures are a common sight in Hemis NP

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