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

Observations from Stok glacier

Growing up in Leh, I have always been fascinated by glaciers and snow. As a child, I did not think of issues such as water resources and availability for drinking and irrigation. In the cropping season, we used to source water from the main stream in Leh town. There was sufficient water for everyone due to the presence of well-maintained dZings (reservoirs) in upper Leh, efficient traditional water management systems, and active Chhurpons (water managers). The stream has almost dried up now. Areas that I remember as being lush green with wheat, barley and potato fields are now either barren or have been built over. We used to source our drinking water from a community tap located a kilometre away. In the winter, I remember the difficulties we faced in bringing drinking water home.
Right up till I finished my bachelor’s degree, I remained unaware of that fact that a discipline like cryosphere studies existed that was dedicated to the study of glaciers and snow. With constant support from my family, I managed to get admission to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, which remains one of India’s top universities.

It was here that I finally got an opportunity to study glaciers and water resources in Ladakh. Now as I see Ladakh from the perspective of an earth and environmental scientist, I see immense potential for research and intervention especially in the fields of cryosphere, ground and surface water hydrology, wetlands, etc. I am currently pursuing my doctorate on glaciers and water resources in Ladakh and intend to continue working on Ladakh’s cryosphere, water resources and its societal impacts.

I have come to realise how important glaciers are as essential freshwater reserves for inhabitants of high altitude regions as well as lowland plains. Ladakh is a heavily-glaciated region in India and is home to nearly 5,000 glaciers, which accounts for about 50% of all glaciers in the country and covers an area of about 3,200 sq km. It is very difficult to study all the glaciers directly. Researchers are forced to use remote sensing technology, mathematical modelling and indirect techniques to study glacial systems on a larger extent. Such studies require ground-based data or ground-truthing for calibration and validation.

Noting Stok’s glacier melting rate

One such field-based measurement is currently being carried out by us in Leh. We are a team of glaciologists from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi led by Prof. AL. Ramanathan. We recently published the findings of our research in the Journal of Glaciology. Our research focuses on the Stok catchment in Leh district and has been underway since 2014 and continues. The research focuses on studying the health of the glacier by measuring glacier mass balance, water resources, and associated changes in the past, present and near future. Mass balance quantifies gain/loss of ice or water from a glacier each year.

The data we have collected so far suggests that glaciers around Leh are losing mass at a rate of 0.4 metres water equivalent per year or mw.e. a-1, which is similar to other Himalayan glaciers whose average mass balance rate is around -0.5 m w.e. a-1 per year. Our data includes measurements over five years and a historical analysis of three periods between 1978 and 2019. We found that the glacier was healthy in the period from 1978 to 1989 due to abundant precipitation. In this period, the glacier gained and lost mass in almost equal amount,which ensured that it remained relatively stable. However, in the decade from 1998 to 2009 the glacier suffered severe mass loss due to comparatively little precipitation and drought conditions. In the present decade from 2011 to 2019, the glacier has continued losing mass at a moderate rate.

The mass that glaciers lose through melting in summer are mainly offset by accumulation in the winter months. This winter precipitation is very significant for the health of a glacier and Stok is no exception. We have estimated that about 27% of excess precipitation is required to compensate for the glacial mass loss due to a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature.

According to our research, the average mass balance for the last five hydrological years was 0.4m w.e. per year. This means that 0.4 m or 40 cm water equivalent of ice each year has been lost from the surface of Stok glacier. A lot of these numbers seem rather abstract till they are put into context to understand them in everyday terms. For instance, the figure mentioned above is equivalent to Stok glacier losing around 30,000 water tankers of 10,000 litres capacity each year since 2014.Similarly, the amount of water that Stok glacier loses in one year is enough to support Stok village for around 10 years.Finally, the volume of water that Stok glacier holds is sufficient to support the entire population of Ladakh region for about five years. Here we have assumed water consumption at the rate of 60 litres per person per day, using the 2011 census figures and excluding irrigation needs.

This gives us an idea of the amount of freshwater reserves that we have in Ladakh as Stok glacier does not represent even one percent of total glacier volume in the region. Though, we cannot harvest the entire meltwater from these glaciers for reasons ranging from topography, remoteness, lack of technology etc.,we can optimise the manner in which we use water. The simplest way is to rejuvenate and increase the capacity of traditional water management systems, while also making the best use of available water. There have been some innovations in water management techniques including artificial glaciers, ice stupas etc, whose performance need to be critically evaluated in relation to the resources they require. The successful ones must be encouraged and replicated.

Climate change and global warming is real and happening. It has observable effects around the globe and Ladakh is no exception. Glaciers in Ladakh are shrinking, temperature is rising, less snow and more rain is happening etc. These effects are due to a global phenomenon and cannot be stopped or reduced on a regional level. Instead we can educate the people to reduce our individual, societal and regional carbon footprint. In addition, we must also prioritise climate change resilient systems and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change.Together, we can make a significant contribution to the scientific community and serve the people of Ladakh and humanity at large.

Photographs and text by Mohd Soheb

Mohd Soheb is a Glaciologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

The annular solar eclipse

An annular solar eclipse occurred on 21 June and people were able to witness it from different parts of the country. With some advance preparation, I was able to capture the whole sequence of the annular solar eclipse in the sky above the Himalayan Chandra Telescope at the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle, eastern Ladakh.

Above: The entire sequence of the annular solar eclipse of 21 June, 2020. Photograph by Dorje Angchuk
Top photograph: A close up of the annular solar eclipse taken by the 40 cm DFM telescope at National Large Solar Telescope site in Merak, eastern Ladakh.

For this shot, I used a Sony A7s2 Rokinon 14mm @f/4 shutter speed of 1/4000s x 80 subs with an ISO setting of 400 for the eclipse timeline. The foreground was photographed without a filter at 1/40sec shutter speed and an ISO setting of 200. Each exposure was timed at an interval of 150 seconds A few passing clouds did dim the eclipse after the peak of the eclipse.

It is good to see a growing interest in astronomy. I base this observation on the fact that the Indian Astronomical Observatory had broadcast the annular solar eclipse live over YouTube. This broadcast attracted several thousand people who tuned in to watch the solar eclipse with a peak of 4,500 viewers at one point.

By Dorje Angchuk

Dorje Angchuk is an engineer and astro-photographer

Developing Hanle as a dark sky sanctuary

We are currently grappling with electromagnetic and light pollution in addition to other forms of pollution. Each of these forms of pollution have a similar negative impact on our health and environment. While the world at large is taking significant action to reduce the exploitation of nature and reduce pollution, we need to expand these efforts to also address the issue of light pollution.

Current scientific literature suggests that exposure to artificial light at night poses significant risks to human health as it disrupts our sleep patterns. At the same time, the lack of lighting in urban areas has a high correlation with high crime rates. The main challenge here is to limit people’s exposure to artificial light at night while still providing adequate lighting to ensure safety and security.

In this context, unshielded lights remain one of the main challenges. Unshielded lighting wastes illumination as it spreads light over a large area, which is unnecessary. This leads to light pollution, which reduces visibility of stars in the night sky. Outdoor lights should be properly shielded and only used when needed. Furthermore, shielded lights are not only more efficient in providing targeted illumination but also consume less electricity.

Light pollution also has a negative impact on the environment, especially wildlife. Light interferes with the natural day-night cycle i.e. circadian rhythm. Plants use photosynthesis to prepare food during the day and rest at night, similar to humans and other diurnal animals and birds. In contrast, nocturnal animals and birds are active at night and rest during the day. Light pollution wrecks havoc with this natural cycle. Urban lighting has been correlated with the disappearance of many species, and also interferes with the migration of birds and the movement of turtles.

In addition, light pollution also prevents us from exploring the wonders of the universe. Our ancestors have looked skywards since the birth of time in wonderment of the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies that light up the night sky, especially from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The wonders of the night sky have inspired philosophers, scientists and poets alike through the course of history. However, over the last 100 years or so we have started introducing artificial lights that have prevented us from seeing the night sky for the first time in history. Illumination from urban areas is very intense and light pollution spreads over hundreds of kilometres from their points of origin.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences that started a study of objects in the night sky. While astronomers have worked from human settlements for several millennia, increasing light pollution over the last century has pushed them to remote areas where population is sparse and development is limited. Astronomers study the universe by collecting faint light emitted by distant celestial objects. In order to collect such data, astronomers have been forced to establish observatories in remote areas ‘untouched’ by human ‘civilisation’ where the sky has not been polluted by light like our urban areas.

The appearance of the night sky to an observer under different amounts of light pollution ranging from a city centre to remote areas away from human habitation.

Astronomers have known for several decades that high altitude cold desert conditions like Ladakh have many clear nights and days. Such areas provide ideal conditions for astronomical studies. In the mid-1980s, there was a national effort to identify suitable sites for astronomical studies in India. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics conducted a detailed study of meteorological conditions over the Indian subcontinent and visited six prospective sites. At the end of this study, in 1994 Hanle valley in Changthang, eastern Ladakh was identified as the best site for astronomy in India.

A light pollution map of north India with the highly polluted Delhi area at the bottom centre and Ladakh at the top centre.

The Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) was established on Digpa Ratsa-ri, Hanle in 1997 where the two metre-aperture Himalayan Chandra Telescope was installed in 2000. In addition to astronomy, the observatory has also facilitated studies in geophysics, atmospheric trace gases and aerosols. This has generated employment in Ladakh and created opportunities for Ladakhis to contribute to scientific development through these projects.

Today, Hanle valley is recognised as one of the best sites in the world for astronomical studies along with Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, observatories in the Andean mountains of Chile, and European facilities in the Canary Islands, Spain. The establishment of IAO spurred Chinese astronomers to study sites in their territory and they identified Ngari prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, adjacent to Hanle, as the best site. An observatory has now been established in Ali in Ngari prefecture along with a dark sky sanctuary around it.

Over the last three decades, Hanle valley has experienced significant changes. Khaldo village near the IAO is one of the fastest-growing hamlets in the Changthang region. In 1994, there were very few settlements around Hanle. As IAO became operational, local settlements also increased in the immediate vicinity. In due course, the number of tourists visiting the valley has increased along with resulting development of tourist infrastructure. Currently, there are five to six commercial establishments in Hanle in the form of guest houses and home stays. While the current growth is concentrated around IAO, future projections suggest significant geographical expansion. Current models suggest that such developmental activities will increase light pollution, which will have a detrimental effect on the astronomical merits of the observatory site.

The modest telescope at Hanle has helped Indian astronomy advance in leaps and bounds since its installation. More facilities are being developed at Hanle that will put IAO on the global map of major astronomical infrastructure. It is hence necessary to protect the area from light pollution like other major astronomical observatories around the world.

In this regard, we must implement a dark sky sanctuary model in Hanle to cover the entire valley from Rongo village to Nilamkhul Plains and the surrounding mountains. Dark sky sanctuaries are generally established in such remote areas around astronomical observatories. In addition to promoting astronomy, such a sanctuary also provides opportunities to tourists and residents to appreciate the night sky as their forefathers, which is impossible in urban areas due to intense light pollution. It also provides a healthy developmental model for biodiversity and human communities.

There is a false notion that the preservation of dark skies requires everyone to turn their lights off and compromise on their security and developmental aspirations. Good lighting policies that protect dark skies also enhance security and support people’s aspirations. They focus on reducing glare, attenuating harsh lighting that creates shadows and focus on targeted lighting and use of adaptive technology to provide lighting solutions. A dark sky sanctuary promotes proper illumination where and when it is needed without wasting energy and polluting other areas, especially the night sky, which does not require illumination.

Reducing artificial illumination at night will also benefit wildlife in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. It will ensure that animals, birds, and humans follow the natural circadian rhythm. The restrictions and improved management of artificial lights will help improve the quality of life for wildlife and humans in the area.

The dark sky sanctuary model provides an alternative to the wasteful and unsustainable urban model of development. It promotes the use of energy-efficient lighting and appropriate shades to illuminate only the required area. Similarly, simple measures such as appropriate curtains over windows can ensure that light does not escape from homes. Outdoor lights can be switched off when everyone is indoors. While night driving is best avoided in a wildlife and dark sky sanctuary, the roads can be painted with fluorescent paints and retro-reflectors to ensure that people can drive with parking lights in case of an emergency. The use of dark sky-compliant lighting will also ensure enormous savings in terms of energy consumption and tariff.

The dark sky sanctuary can also be linked to tourism to create opportunities to educate people about the benefits of dark sky-compliant lighting and lifestyle. Numerous dark sky preserves, sanctuaries, and parks have been established around the world. Dark sky protection has been enforced around most astronomical observatories in the world with an average radius of 30 km while China has established a 2,500 sq km dark sky park in Ngari prefecture around its observatory in Ali.

By preserving the natural conditions of day and night and keeping artificial illumination to the minimum, a dark sky sansctuary enables astronomers to undertake scientific research. They are able to detect the faintest levels and highest sensitivities possible from the Earth’s surface. In addition to environmental and health benefits, such a sanctuary must also help local communities (and tourists) observe and appreciate celestial objects. Facilities can be developed to provide education and awareness on astronomy, ecology and culture through public observatories, museums and planetarium with strict regulation on use of artificial lights. Ethno-tourism can be combined with astro-tourism and eco-tourism to ensure that tourists learn practical measures for sustainable living and locals benefit economically. In time, these strategies to manage light pollution can also be extended to urban areas to improve their night sky visibility.

We must appreciate dark skies and promote dark sky sanctuaries as unique community assets and make them an integral part of our local and national heritage. In addition to the scientific benefits, such an initiative must benefit local communities by creating educational and economic opportunities. Local communities must also be educated and receive incentives to be a part of such efforts.

Photographs, illustrations and text by Dorje Angchuk

Dorje Angchuk is an engineer and astro-photographer

Growing quinoa in Ladakh

“Quinoa.” The first time I encountered this word was in 2015 during a conversation with my cousin. As a student of agriculture, I felt ashamed about my lack of knowledge about this crop. However, I didn’t expect quinoa or Chenopodium quinoa to become one of the finest and most satisfying experiences of my life.

As I became aware of its unusual nature, the agriculturist in me was curious to know more about it. After carrying out some initial research, I was intrigued and decided to carry out a field trial to check its viability in Ladakh.

Quinoa (Quechua kinwa or Kinuwa) is an herbaceous annual plant, which is grown primarily for its edible seed. The leafy portion is also edible as quinoa is related to spinach and amaranth. It was first used as animal fodder around 5,000 to 2,000 years back. Later, it was domesticated by humans in Peru and Bolivia.

As I conducted more research, I realised that this magical crop has immense unexplored potential and is well suited for Ladakh’s topography and climate. Ideal conditions include sandy loamy soil, temperatures must not exceed 32 degrees Celsius and is known to grown till altitudes of 4,000m above mean sea level.

Quinoa is rich in proteins, fibres, vitamins and minerals, and low on carbohydrates. It is ideal to add more nutrients to our diet along with traditional crops such as wheat, barley and buckwheat, which have high carbohydrate content. The leafy portions of the plant are rich in iron, which helps prevent anaemia and is an important aspect of the treatment of scurvy. A soup made from the seeds is known to help prevent tuberculosis. We can use quinoa as a substitute for high carbohydrate crops such as wheat and rice.

Quinoa has been globally recognised in the fitness and health sectors for its nutritional properties especially its high protein, fibre and ash content with comparatively less carbohydrates. This makes it ideal for weight-loss and muscle gain.

A cup of quinoa provides twice as much protein and about 5 gm more fibre than the same amount of white rice. In Ladakh, we can use quinoa as a substitute for rice and oatmeal. Quinoa also blends well with healthy bread. Similarly it can also be added to soup to increase its nutritional value multi-fold. The green leaves of the plant can be served as a nutritional salad. Quinoa seeds can also be mixed in local Ladakhi Kulchas (cookies) to make it even more delicious and nutritious. In the summer, they can also be added to smoothies to create new tastes and flavours. In addition, farmers can use the other by-products from the plant as fodder for their livestock.

The seeds of quinoa have an outer powdery covering called Saponins, which protects the seeds from insects and pests. Saponin was earlier regarded as a waste by-product but it turned out to have great potential for us in the pharmaceutical sector to make products such as soaps, detergents, cosmetics as well as in preparation of beer and production of fire extinguishers.

I carried out my field trial in 2016 by growing quinoa in Hundar, Nubra valley. I learnt that transplanting is the most effective way to sow this plant. However, I lacked the manpower and funds and instead opted for line-sowing. I used about 15 to 20 kg of seeds and 15 to 20 tonnes of farmyard manure to sow one hectare of land. The seeds start to germinate after a week. The plant sprouts grow rather slowly initially but eventually shoot up to and grow to over three feet in height. The plant needs proper spacing to ensure that they do not have to struggle or compete for nutrients, water and sunlight. It helps to weed the plant twice. The first weeding must be done after two to three weeks and the second after 45 days. Thinning is also done after about two to three weeks of sowing in such a way that the distance between each row is about 50cm.

The quinoa plant is drought-resistant and needs only about 25 to 30cm of irrigation per year. The watering is usually done in about 10 days intervals but the frequency depends on the soil condition. Harvesting is done after 120 to 150 days i.e. four to five months, when it shows signs of having matured. On maturity, the leaves turn yellow and start to fall off, leaving only dried seed heads on the stalk. The production of quinoa in Ladakh is about 4,000 kg per hectare. In India, quinoa is now grown in Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttarakhand though the productivity is comparatively higher in Ladakh.

The quinoa plant can provide a viable alternative crop to mitigate droughts caused by climate change. It can be grown instead of other water intensive crops during periods of water scarcity. Quinoa not only provides high nutrient value but also helps us conserve water.

As a student of agriculture, I believe that we must explore the potential of growing quinoa. The upcoming generation could harness its potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Most importantly, quinoa is a much healthier and sustainable crop as compared to water-intensive plants that are currently being introduced and grown in Ladakh. Quinoa has one of the highest economic and nutritional values as compared to other crops. It has immense potential to uplift our economy in a sustainable way while also providing us with an unparalleled source of nutrition.

Photograph and text by Tsewang Nurbu

Tsewang Nurbu completed his B. Sc in Agriculture from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu.