Two interesting bird records from Ladakh

Birds are a fascinating part of our natural heritage. There are various hot-spots for birds in Ladakh that never fail to reward an observant birdwatcher. Unlike known bird-watching hotspots, two interesting avian records from Ladakh, sighted from a remote, rugged, and windy hamlet in eastern Ladakh called Pang. Located at an altitude of around 4,500m above mean sea level, Pang is an important stopover for travellers using the Manali-Leh highway and is about 173 kms from Leh town. It comprises of a few shops and tent accommodations, where most vehicles halt for a break during their long hectic journey.

House crow in Pang. Photo by Anil Kumar

On 2 July, 2019, one of us (Iqbal Khan) was travelling from Manali to Ladakh for a field visit. During a stop at Pang, an interesting bird was noticed and duly photographed too. The bird was in the company of a flock of yellow-billed chough or Chunka Khaser (Pyrrhocorax graculus) and hill pigeon or Phorgon (Columba rupestris). At first sight, it looked like a juvenile of Eurasian magpie or Kataputit/Khashamburu (Pica pica bactriana) as it hada pied body and a short tail. However, its black and yellow bill suggested that it was not a magpie. I took several photographs and the bird was later identified as a rosy starling Pastor roseus. According to current literature, the rosy starling winters in India and breeds in Central Asia and southeast Europe. It is rare passage migrant in Ladakh. While, there have been a few observation records of them from Ladakh in the past, the July 2019 record seems to be the first photographic record from the region.

Rosy starling at Pang. Photo by Iqbal Ali Khan

This is reminiscent of a similar visit to Ladakh on 2 October, 2016 when one of us (Anil Kumar) was surprised to spot a house crow (Corvus splendens) at Pang. This photographic record seems to be the highest altitude record (4,502m above mean sea level) for the species. Most field guides for birds report that the distribution of house crows is limited to 2,400m above msl. However, there are a few records of house crows from high altitude areas in Himachal Pradesh such asKoksar (3,200 m) and Darcha (3,330m). Previous records from Ladakh are from Karu (3,500 m) and Hanley (4,240 m). There is one record from 15 June, 2012 of a house crow near Tashigang village in Spiti Valley (4,460m above msl).

Given Ladakh’s location at the crossroads of Central Asia, Tibet, South Asia, and West Asia, it is an important staging location for birds migrating between these regions. These two records suggest that fascinating things are constantly taking place around, which we often overlook.

By Iqbal Ali Khan and Anil Kumar

Iqbal Ali Khan (Goshan, Drass) and Anil Kumar are associated with the Northern Regional Centre of Zoological Survey of India, Dehradun