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Searching for a grumpy cat on the roof of the world

Searching for a grumpy cat on the roof of the world

Earlier I wrote something about what led up to my trip to India and finally seeing the ‘grey ghost’ of the Himalayas: the Snow Leopard! However when I prepared for the trip, it turned out that it was also possible to see another new cat: the Pallas’ Cat! A friendly birder told me that there had been some very nice pictures of Pallas’ Cat taken in the town of Hanle last summer. This got my attention immediately because in my opinion Pallas’ Cat is the most special and attractive small cat in the world. I just love it with all the hair, the typical ‘grumpy look’ and the thick banded tail. The pictures from Hanle looked very nice indeed! However, it turned out to be difficult to get to Hanle as a non-Indian person and for a long time it was uncertain whether I would be actually able to get there. About a week before departure, however, I received confirmation that it would be possible to visit Hanle if we were to spend the night in another place called Nyoma. So that’s how the plan came together!

Unfortunately, the Pallas’ Cat plans got seriously messed up because I didn’t manage to catch my connecting flight to India, so I ended up in Ladakh no earlier than Saturday instead of Thursday which was the day I was supposed to arrive. However, after this particular bit of bad luck, the tables turned in my favor when the Snow Leopards showed themselves so exceptionally well in the first few days that the Pallas’ Cat plans were back in motion! So on Wednesday, March 2, our car set out from Rumbak Valley on a journey of about seven hours to the village of Nyoma.

Although it was a long way driving we had some very nice interruptions along the way. It started with a small but nice mixed species flock which had a much desired bird for me: Mongolian Finch!

Mongolian Finch (and Twite)

Then I spotted some dogs walking on the ice of the Indus river below. But were they dogs? I called to stop the car and soon it became clear: these were Tibetan Wolves! Two were of a color which can be expected from a Wolf, but one was completely black. We were able to watch them for a while. That they were walking on the ice of the Indus river for sure added something to the sighting!

Tibetan or Himalayan Wolves (at the moment considered to be a subspecies of Grey Wolf)

I also shot some video of the encounter which I posted on Youtube.

After this fabulous encounter we drove on and after a while we saw our first Kiang: the largest wild equid in the world. Although they turned out to be very common I really liked seeing them.


We also saw some beautiful landscapes.

We also saw a Golden Eagle sitting nice and close, but the light was horrible. Still, it was a nice encounter.

Golden Eagle

Unfortunately it was not possible to have quick look around in Hanle that same day because it was an hour and a half drive back and forth from Nyoma. So our hope was pinned on the next day! In the last light of the evening we enjoyed looking at the Robin and Brown Accentors.

Robin Accentors

Robin and Brown Accentor

At 6 o’clock we left Nyoma and at about half past 8 we arrived in Hanle. There we had a view of the steppes of the plateau at about 4500 meters altitude. A local guide from Hanle met us there and we carefully scanned the steppe. We started the day with a skinny Red Fox.

Red Fox

Unfortunately, a Pallas’ Cat did not show itself. In the meantime I enjoyed myself with the ever-present Horned Larks that were now looking particularly attractive for a picture while they were foraging on the ice.

Horned Lark

The Kiangs also looked photogenic although the domestic horses tried their best to mess up the shots.


Then local guide shouted that he saw a Pallas’ Cat. I ran towards the telescope, but did not see anything resembling a cat.

We went to try another place. On the way I suddenly saw a Lammergeier. When we stopped the bird took to the sky and started circling above our car! It took a while for it to gain altitude. That was also a very cool experience: having such a massive bird at an altitude of fifteen meters circling above our heads!


After that we had another look with the telescope at a different spot. While the guides were scanning Andreas and I tried to get some record shots of rodents that we first thought were pika’s, but later turned out to be Stoliczka’s Mountain Vole.

Stoliczka’s Mountain Vole

Then I saw something that looked exciting. A ruddy animal that from a distance looked like a Tibetan Fox. However, when we got closer, it turned out to be a house cat! They are really everywhere…

House Cat

Then just when I was finally able to photograph a Tibetan Lark properly (important target species!). Another shout came that they had seen a Pallas’ Cat! We quickly ran to the telescope, but we were too late because the animal had apparently moved on very quickly. The Tibetan Lark had also flown off as soon as we started running, but luckily I still had some nice shots.

Tibetan Lark

It seemed like we we were just blowing opportunities for the Pallas’ Cat, but there was no despair yet because there was still plenty of time left. The morning was almost at an end though.  We finished the morning with a sleeping Eurasian Eagle Owl.

Eurasian Eagle Owl

In the afternoon we went to a beautiful plateau at about 4800 meters altitude to look for Tibetan Gazelle. The place was filled with the omnipresent Kiang.


We also found a gazelle with the telescope, but it was very far away. A little further we found another one and managed to approach it relatively close. However, the heat haze ruined the pictures.

Tibetan Gazelle

Heat haze was actually the most annoying problem in this place. As soon as the sun was up a bit it showed on the pictures. This made it very challenging to take sharp pictures.  The Kiangs posed nicely though, also at a short distance.


At the end of the afternoon we installed ourselves at a vantage point to have another try for the Pallas’ Cat. I was already starting to get a bit nervous and was very glad we would have an extra day tomorrow. Originally I would have had only one full day to search. On this day there was about an hour daylight left… Then the local guide called again that he saw a Pallas’ Cat! Third time’s a charm, I went behind the telescope yet another time and didn’t see it at first, but then after a few moments of staring through the telescope I suddenly saw something move! There was my first Pallas’ Cat! Cat number 19! Through telescope I could very clearly see the characteristic shape of the cat and its distinctive way of moving. However, it was too far for photos.

So we had to get closer! We had to drive quite a bit and couldn’t keep our eyes on the cat all the way so it was quite difficult to determine exactly where the animal had been. Still we put in an effort. When we walked through a field, dozens of Tibetan Sandgrouses suddenly flushed: another important target species! We also found some birds sitting but no time to invest in good pictures: the cat had priority.

Tibetan Sandgrouse

We stopped a little further to scan for the cat. And after a short while found it sitting with its back to us. Carefully we tried to sneak up on the animal, but it soon noticed us and took off. Still, I now finally had my record shots!

Pallas’ Cat

When we drove away we found a beautiful Eurasian Eagle Owl perched on a slope. I also couldn’t resist taking a few more pictures of the Kiang.

Eurasian Eagle Owl


We were also treated to an awesome sunset.

Then we drove the one and a half hour back to Nyoma. From the doorstep of our homestay I also tried to take some astropictures, but the conditions were not very good.

So our day ended very well. The next day we would try to get even better pictures of the Pallas’ Cat!

That day we also got up an hour earlier so we would be sure to be at the rock formation before sunrise. That’s where the den of the Pallas’ Cat was supposed to be. We kept a careful eye on the place for two hours, but there was no trace of the Pallas’ Cat. We did see a Merlin which is apparently a rarity here.


I was also finally able to photograph Great Rosefinch, which was still an important target species for me.

Great Rosefinches

An Upland Buzzard made an attempt to catch a Horned Lark, but didn’t succeed.

Upland Buzzard

So after the sun was well up we drove to another place where our local guide quickly found a Pallas’ Cat with the telescope! We could see it quite well through the scope, but it was not possible to approach it from where we were standing. So we drove all the way around to find a better place. Pretty quickly we found the cat back. The cat was busy hunting. We carefully stalked the animal, stopping every time the animal looked at us. That worked so well that we were finally fifteen meters behind the cat while it was intently watching a vole!

Pallas’ Cat

We laid there for a few minutes and then the vole hid and the cat looked around and saw us. We started taking pictures.

The cat looked back again and seemed to think that the clicking of our shutters was very suspicious. He took another closer look.

Then he seemed to think that he didn’t trust this situation after all and crept away keeping very low to the ground, looking at us with his trademark grumpy look. Pallas’ Cat also has a very distinctive way of moving around and it was awesome to watch this as well. We finally had good pictures!

Pallas’ Cat

A little further the cat even crossed the ice and that also resulted in a nice picture.

Pallas’ Cat

The mountain vole escaped with its life.

Stoliczkas Mountain Vole

Then we had pretty much got the most of our week in Ladakh. So we could relax and see what the rest of the day would bring us, for sure a great feeling! We saw another Pallas’ Cat by chance which darted over the rocks into its den. Unfortunately I didn’t see him. I couldn’t resist taking a few more pictures of the Kiang when they were close.


Towards the end of the afternoon we again found a nice group of Tibetan Sandgrouses that I went to sneak up on. That worked really well and I got my desired photos of this beautiful bird species.

Tibetan Sandgrouse

I missed a Tibetan Fox because of this, but you can’t have everything! We ended our time in Hanle with a stunning sunset.

The next day we drove back to Leh and on Monday we boarded the plane to our next destination: Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary!

Want to read more about the start of this trip and see some cool pictures of Snow Leopards? Click here!

And if you just want to skip to the next part: read all about the special birds and mammals of Eaglenest here!

If you want to go straight to the final bit and look at some pictures of Tigers, Leopards and a Rusty-spotted Cat and watch some nice video’s, have a look here!


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