A few days ago a friend asked me which mammal I most wanted to see in China. Perhaps predictably, I said “SNOW LEOPARD”. I followed up quickly with “…but PALLAS’S CAT is a close second.” The second part of my reply is now obsolete after a stunning encounter near Qinghai Lake on Friday.
To celebrate my birthday, Marie and I have spent the last week in China’s Qinghai Province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. We have explored the shores of Qinghai Lake, enjoying the colonies of Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls, caught sight of the Tibetan Lark, the rare Przewalski’s Rosefinch and enjoyed encounters with Wolf and Tibetan and Red Foxes. Along the way we have explored some spectacular mountains and valleys, some of which are rarely visited by anyone except a few local yak and goat herders.
On my birthday we discovered a track that ran from Qinghai lake towards a stunning gorge. We were able to drive our car for about 1km before parking up and setting out on foot. The scenery soon took our breath away as we walked further upstream, the cliffs either side of us becoming ever more imposing.
Despite having only two hours to explore the gorge, we saw Lammergeier, Saker, Tibetan Partridge, Salim Ali’s Swift, Asian House Martin, White-browed Tit, Kessler’s Thrush, Alpine Leaf Warbler, Black and Blue-fronted Redstarts, Ground Tits and Rufous-necked Snowfinches. As we tore ourselves away, we resolved to be back at first light to explore further.
Heavy rain around dawn the next morning delayed our start and, after the weather improved around 0630, we set off for the journey from our hotel to the beginning of the track. Just before 7am we drank our coffee, packed some water and snacks to fuel our walk and began our expedition into the gorge, pikas scampering down their burrows as we headed across the stone-covered grassland into the valley.
After about 20 minutes we had passed the first crags, almost like practice attempts at cliff-building compared with the finished product we would encounter further into the gorge.
Suddenly, in the overcast early morning light, movement caught my eye. I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see not one but two PALLAS’S CATS scampering around some rocks on the nearby hillside. I said to Marie “Pallas’s Cat!”, as softly as my excitement would allow. I quickly set up the telescope thinking that they would almost certainly run away fast as soon as they saw us. Instead, we were treated to incredible prolonged views as these two youngsters practiced their hunting skills, chasing each other, biting each other’s tails and generally having lots of fun.
We had clearly stumbled across their den and we knew it was only a matter of time before mother, presumably out hunting, would return. To our delight, we settled down around 30-40 metres away with the kittens completely relaxed, playing right in front of us. We were enthralled. We couldn’t stop grinning to each other. I took some video with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 telescope as the kittens continued to perform. After around 40 minutes, which went in a flash, the kittens suddenly stopped fooling around and both stared intently in the direction of some nearby rocks.. A quick scan in that direction revealed the mother, slowly walking towards the den with a pika in her teeth. We froze with anticipation. Then, suddenly, she dropped the pika, turned around and, almost in slow motion, crawled to a nearby hollow before raising her head and looking directly at us. She had seen us. And we were obviously too close for her liking.. Not wanting to intrude, we began to retreat and before we had even moved 10m from our position, she returned to pick up the pika and headed towards the den, seemingly completely relaxed. Fortunately I was able to record the moment when the kittens scampered up to her, one of which grabbed the pika and took it back to the den, before being followed by its sibling and, finally, its mother. A magical moment.
This 4-minute video is a compilation of the best footage I was able to capture.
We had spoken about the possibility of seeing a Pallas’s Cat on this trip. However, not in our wildest dreams did we consider an encounter such as this.
According to wikipedia, Pallas’s Cats are usually solitary. Both males and females have territories which they scent mark. They often spend the day in caves, rock crevices, or marmot burrows, and emerge in the late afternoon to begin hunting, although when they have young, they often hunt around the clock. They are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on diurnally active prey species such as gerbils, pikas and voles.
We owe huge thanks to Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu for helping to arrange our Qinghai itinerary and for providing site information for many of the special birds to be encountered in this wonderful part of China.