J&K complete logs here.
With a lot of excitement and energy, me and Kannan landed at Srinagar airport after a long via flight from Bengaluru; and were not happy with the Go Air flight. We waited at the airport lounge itself for PK to arrive from Pune about an hour later as Amith was yet to reach.
Nothing much to say about Srinagar airport and the departure terminal hardly has anything for the visitors and being hungry we were gobbling up all the fast foods we had and PK had got some excellent chikki’s from Pune (in fact, varieties of them). After more than a couple of hours and the airport now almost closed, Amith finally came in tired crawling through the massive jams on the Jammu highway.
In terms of birding or wildlife, this would be a bumper trip for me as I would be sighting many of the species for the first time and that surely kept me excited and as it turned out by the end of the trip, I had almost 60+ new additions to my list.
Sparrows were all around the airport and so were the crows and we also managed sights of the Jackdaw and the Common Starling while on a tea break on the highway to Sonamarg. From Srinagar, we traveled to Sonamarg (about 100kms) where our stay at the army camp was arranged and the temperature dipping as the hour passed by. Reached the camp to a warm welcome and hot dinner exactly opposite to the chilling weather outside. Preparations were on at the camp for the Amarnath yatra that was scheduled to start off in a few weeks’ time.
Sonamarg camp is located away from the town, a tourist hot spot and relatively calm and peaceful. Early morning views were excellent and we ventured out for our first birding session along the highway. We went scouting in the nearby fields, streams and wherever possible and were rewarded with bounty sightings of Brown Dipper, Ibisbill (one of our prized catches), Rock Bunting, Russet Sparrow and a variety of Wagtails.
One thing to keep in mind is not to wander close to any army camp or their area, clad in birding attire (camouflage) holding the camera’s and stuff, you are bound to be questioned and chased off and if you resent, you may see a bullet or two whizz past you! That was just a warning and we did not face any such situations and to be honest the army folks were very helpful wherever we got a chance to interact with them.
After spending couple of good hours birding at Sonamarg and getting the vehicle checked, we proceeded towards Dras (about 70kms), and the journey was a very slow affair as we had to cross the dreaded ‘Zoji La’ (Zoji pass – ‘La’ means pass in many Himalayan languages) and also frequently stopping for sighting birds all along the way. The weather gods were good to us as we crossed the Zoji pass in our SX4 slowly and with caution enjoying the vistas the valleys had on offer but nevertheless to state, it’s a tricky pass to ride or drive on. Blue-whistling Thrush, Wagtail, European Goldfinch, Redstarts among others kept us occupied as we reached the Dras army camp by late-afternoon where our stay for the night was arranged and soon after we wandered off again towards Mushko valley in pursuit of some possible marked sightings.
The ride to Mushko valley was very scenic but on a narrow uphill path, enough for a vehicle to pass through and we were rewarded for our efforts with sightings of White-throated Dipper, Fire-fronted Serins and plenty of European Goldfinches along with the Common Rosefinches. On our way back, we also observed memorials (like water tanks, bus stops or just pillars) erected in memory of civilians killed during the Kargil war that brought back memories of the turbulent times the valley faced. Standing in front of the memorials and imagining an enemy shell or a rocket landing right next to us sent shivers through us as we progressed downhill to the highway and further on to the Kargil memorial site that I’ve written about here.
Back to the camp, we met up with some army officers who were inspiring to listen to and with the temperature dipping every second, it was a challenge standing out in the cold. Remember, Dras is the 2nd coldest inhabited place on earth. Our thoughts go out to those brave soldiers who have to survive in these tough conditions for the welfare of the rest of us. Hats off to them! The Dras army camp canteen has stark memories of the Kargil war in the form of holes in the walls, courtesy shells fired at the camp during the war. We retreated to our cozy beds (courtesy the thick multiple rasoi’s) with a jinxed mindset and thoughts running about the war, our trip and the valley people.
Next day, we would be traveling towards Leh…