Snow Leopards in June

Its my 3rd trip to the Valley of the Cats in Yushu, Qinghai and its still so exciting! In June, Tibetan yak herders are busy harvesting the caterpillar fungus, their main source of income that will bring them income to last for whole year. I thought the chance of seeing the snow leopards would be slim since people walked everywhere on the mountains, but I was wrong. We had 2 separate sightings of SNOW LEOPARDS in different sites within 2 hours.

After 2 days of sunshine, the weather took a dramatic change and snowed heavily on the evening of day 2. We woke up to snow-capped mountains! Perhaps the Snow Leopards like the snow? After spotting one on a mountain strolling leisurely where we camped, a second snow leopard was seen hunting a blue sheep at another site! 2 sightings in 2 hours, how cool is that?!

snow leopard in June

2 separate sightings of snow leopards in 2 hours

Apart from snow leopards, mammals such as Glover’s Pika, White-lipped deers will not be missed in the valley of the Cats. Tibetan Buntings, Monal Partridge, White-eared pheasants and many other bird rarities can be seen here at 4500m!

As I have recently bought a drone, I took the opportunity to fly it in the Tibetan Plateau! The landscape is amazing as always, and its always nice to visit the yak herders who always welcome us to their homes! Once again, Yak butter tea, Yak yogurt and yak meat served! To read more about my previous sightings of Snow leopard, click here. 🙂

white-lipped deer

v

Snow Leopards in China

After seeing Amur Leopard Cat and Pallas’s  Cat, Snow Leopard is certainly next in line! Together with Terry, Tormod and Wills, we hurtled into the Valley of the Cats in the region of Yushu!

Our guide and host is a Tibetan yak herder- Sen (森), who is part of the Snow leopard monitoring group and Warden of the National Park. With his limited Chinese and us not speaking Tibetan language, body language and facial gestures came in handy. 🙂 Sen’s house is surrounded by mountains and streams;  bears and wolves are regular visitors to his house when he moves his herd of yaks to higher grounds in summer! No wonder every yak herder rears a pack of Tibetan Mastiffs.

With only 4 days to spare, we’re constantly reassured by almost every yak herder we met who showed us their videos/ photos in their phones and enchanted us with their stories of their yaks being eaten by Snow Leopards and how often they see them! Definitely in this region, if your mobile phone doesn’t have a photo of snow leopard, you’re don’t belong to the club! :-/

We held on to our hopes and we scanned the likely areas tipped by local yak herders and soon enough, Tormod spotted his first Snow Leopard on Day 2! The pressure is on for me and then on the morning of day 3, I spotted a moving rock with a long tail! It took me 10 seconds to convince myself its a Snow Leopard before I shouted to others who were scanning on the mountain top. I reminisced with joy, a cat ticked off my cat list!

Almost every noon, we’re invited to some yak herder’s home for yak meat and tea! On the noon of day 3, yak herder Chairen-nima pin-pointed us to another mountain to look for snow leopard! We were overwhelmed with tips from various yak herders, but for some reason we took his advice and went to the mountain he mentioned.

While the three men positioned themselves on a hill top, Sen and I sat in the car counting blue sheep.

Sen: 4 Blue sheep

Me: 6 blue sheep

Sen: Snow leopard.

I thought to myself” showhand?” Sen and I jumped out of the car for a better view and sure enough I saw the Snow leopard’s head bobbed up on the ridge of the cliff! I shouted towards the group on hill and Sen ran up the hill to tell them- not easy at 4700m! It took me ages to get to where the others were but we all had great views, videos and photos of the Snow Leopard for a whole 1 hour! How cool is that??!! 😛

Snow leopard

Snow leopard walked along the ridge and displayed various behaviours captured on video!

Called the valley of the cats, this region is also home to Leopards, Lynx, Bears, Mountain Weasels, Glover’s Pikas, Himalayan Marmots, Musk Deers, White-lipped Deers, etc.!

white-lipped deer.jpg

White-lipped deer

glover's pika.jpg

Fancy challenging this level of Pokemon Go? 🙂 Glover’s pika only seen at high altitudes.

At 4500m above, alpine birding was fruitful- Robin Accentors, Brown Accentors, White-browed Rosefinches, Tibetan Partridges, Vultures, Golden eagles, Lamagaias, White-browed Tits, Blue-fronted Redstarts, White-eared Pheasants, Ibisbills, etc. just to name a few!

Brown Accentors are garden birds

White browed Rosefinch is a delight to see!

Tibetan partridges roam freely everywhere

solitary snipe

Solitary snipe stays solitary.

This trip is not for the faint-hearted! Weather can be extreme from snowstorm and gustly winds with temperature varying from -10 to 10 degrees in one day plus some hiking involved!  If you don’t mind the basic accommodation, you’ll be highly rewarded with rare mammals, birds and the breathtaking landscape this area has to offer! It has been an incredible adventure for me, one to talk about for a lifetime. I will be heading back often to explore this exciting place. If you’re interested in having a pioneering experience and an unforgettable adventure, drop me a line! 🙂

 

warming up whilst scanning the mountains

The mountain where I saw my first snow leopard!

On the last night, each of us gave Sen a small gift.

And here’s a video of the road conditions!

Now that I also have a  snow leopard photo in my mobile phone, I can join the yak herders’ “club”. 🙂 I definitely look forward to going back there again!

IBISBILL- the place to see it.

The Ibisbill has eluded me for 3 years after spending much fruitless time searching for this highly sought after wader. An elegant bird with a reddish down-curved bill and black face that resides in stony, shingle bed rivers and streams is hard to find! Whenever we passed through these habitats, we always stopped to scan, hoping to find an ibisbill after all its a new bird for me and I have yet to see it!
My luck came when Brian had high-altitude sickness and we retreated to a lower altitude area in Yushu, Qinghai. We arrived in Yushu town which was around 3200m and checked in to a hotel called YuShu Sun Lake Holiday Inn, 玉树太阳湖假日酒店.
After a much needed shower, we walked out of the hotel in search for food, and almost immediately, Terry heard and saw Ibisbill in the canal right in front of the hotel! Not one but two as we moved close to see them and they weren’t skittish at all!

Found in the canal in front of the Yushu hotel

Found in the canal in front of the Yushu hotel

Along with the ibisbills also resided a white-throated dipper!

white-throated-dipper in canal in Yushu

white-throated-dipper in canal in Yushu

The canal itself is extremely birdy with also robin accentors just roosting around in trees nearby! Hopefully, when i return in search of snow leopards, the ibisbills will still be there…in the canal. 🙂

Birds and animals on Erla Shan 鄂拉山

Following the itinerary given by Paul Holt, we arrived at 730am at the bottom of Erla Shan pass(鄂拉山) after a tedious 3 hour drive from GongHe. I was very much driven by the thought of the birds that I will see at the summit which is at 4800m!

It was good to start early as the mild wind and cluttered clouds made the walk enjoyable; with every step I took, I could hear my heart thumping hard. There is no trail to follow, but I found my way up stepping on stones, gravel and giving myself a little goal ,which big stone to stop and catch my breath.

Along the way, we had breathtaking views of the mountains and saw blue sheep, tibetan wolf and even Kam Dwarf hamsters! These cuties are endemics to Western China and Qinghai and can be found on high altitudes! It never occured to me that I’d see a hamster on a mountain…these little rodents made me smile, how cute is that? 🙂

kam dwarf hamster

Kam Dwarf Hamster found on Mountains- erla shan

It took me 1.5 hrs to get to the summit- though the base of Erla Shan was 4400m and only 400m to climb up the summit, it wasnt easy at all! But I was rewarded with the magnificent views of the mountains surrounding Erla Shan. And as I catch my breath,  very soon one of the star birds came close- Tibetan Rosefinch, 藏雀!

tibetan rosefinch-male

Tibetan Rosefinch on summit of Erla Shan. 藏雀

The weather at the summit changed dramatically- from sunny, it became misty and we were careful not to fall off the mountain as the visibility was very low. I wanted very much to see the Tibetan Sandgrouse but couldnt find them. :-/

Nonetheless, I saw other birds including the Plain Mountain Finch (林岭雀), Tibetan Lark (长嘴百灵), Brandt’s Mountain Finch (高山岭雀) and some sort of Gerbil!

It was a good climb and I’m glad I did it. We’re very lucky with the weather – as soon as we popped back into the car- thunder and lightning rolled in!

tibetian lark

Tibetan Lark at Erla Shan

plain mountain finch-female

Plain mountain finch seen on way up to the Erla Shan summit

brandt's mountain finch- female

Brandt’s mountain finch on summit

gerbil

unknown colony of gerbil on base of Erla Shan

Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai, China 兔狲

As we drove along Qinghai lake, I was enthralled by the beautiful mountains and gorges, which is all part of the Tibetan Plateau. Adventurous and curious always, we decided to try an off beaten track and walk into the valley. A 2 hr walk into the valley was exhausting for me and my high altitude headache sets in as I’ve already climbed a hill the same morning (not easy over 3500m altitude)! I decided to call it a day despite Terry walked in further and saw a Tibetan Partridge!
We decided to head back to the same valley again the next day- this time we had water and food with us. It was a tranquil valley and i’ve kept my eyes wide open for a sighting of a fox or Tibetan wolf. But little did i know a much much rarer encounter awaited.
Terry: “Pallas’s Cats“!
I paused and thought to myself “pallas’s cats. Wait, its cats with an “S”, not one cat but in plural form”!
My eyes searched desperately towards where the scope was positioned..but i could only see stones! Looking through the scope could I only then see the Pallas’s cats– 2 juveniles!

first view of Pallas's cats

first view of Pallas’s cats

a pair of pallas's cats playing at their den

a pair of pallas’s cats playing at their den

juvenile pallas's cat in Qinghai

juvenile pallas’s cat in Qinghai

Not only did I have great views of the two juvenile Pallas’s cats, but also saw their mum came back to the den with a PIKA and one of the juveniles snatched the breakfast. How rare a sighting is that?? 😛 What’s more, its a new addition to my collection of Pallas’s birds and mammals edition!
We decided to move deeper into the valley for the Tibetan Partridge, leaving the cat family some privacy.

Pallas's cat heading back into den

Pallas’s cat heading back into den

It was an unforgettable moment and I felt so lucky to have such a great encounter. I seem to have some luck with cats- since my first cat encounter was the Amur Leopard Cat, three years ago- my post here! I hope I get to see the Snow Leopard cat soon which is in my bucket list.

And as for the Tibetan Partridge? I managed to see it after another hour of walk into the valley and hike up a hill. 😛

tibetan partridge in the valley with the Pallas's cats

tibetan partridge in the valley with the Pallas’s cats