Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, China
Jon Hall suggested I post an account of a recent encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai Province, China. Below is a write-up of the morning with a couple of accompanying photos. Video footage can be seen at: https://birdingbeijing.com/2016/08/13/pallass-cat/
Qinghai, located on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau and almost as large as Turkey, is probably China’s premier mammal-watching province. With fabulous grasslands, cathedral-shaped high mountains and magnificent gorges through which raging, tumultuous, rivers – including the head waters of the mighty Yellow and Yangtze – crash and tumble their way to the eastern seaboard, it is a spectacular place to visit at any time. The added attractions of sought-after mammals including Kiang, Tibetan Gazelle, wild Yak, Wolf, Bear, Lynx, Pallas’s Cat, Chinese Mountain Cat, Leopard and the ghostly Snow Leopard make Qinghai a dream for mammal-watchers.
Despite living in China for more than 5 years, until July this year I had never visited Qinghai. After participating in a 3-day conference in Yushu on “Biodiversity on the Tibetan Plateau”, followed by a wonderful 10-day break with my partner, Marie, and then another 4 days participating in a “Wildlife Watching Competition” with the Chinese NGO, 山水 (Shan Shui), I have now visited three times in a little over a month. This account focuses on our encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake.
Although Marie and I knew there was a chance to see some mammals during our trip in August, we had very little information about specific sites and resolved simply to explore and to enjoy what we saw. We followed a traditional birding route that took us from Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province northeast to Huzhubeishan and, from there, back to Xining and west to Qinghai Lake, a vast and relatively shallow salt lake at 3,200 m elevation. From there we headed south in the direction of Yushu as far as the Er La Shan Pass before returning to Xining for the return journey to Beijing.
By exploring some of the tracks and valleys off the beaten track, it was relatively easy to escape the crowds of tourists that flock to Qinghai Lake in summer. And it was during one of these explorations that we were fortunate to encounter a mammal that was high on our list of ‘most-wanted’ – Pallas’s Cat.
We had already enjoyed multiple encounters with Tibetan and Red Foxes and prolonged, but distant, views of two different Wolves. As we packed some water and snacks and headed off for a hike into the valley, we didn’t know what to expect, except perhaps some stunning scenery and likely sightings of local specialities including Lammergeier, Saker, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Tibetan Partridge. Only a few minutes into the walk we spotted some Asian House Martins circling around a large crag, mingling with Crag Martins and Salim Ali’s Swifts. A Tibetan Partridge called from an area of rocky scrub. As we pressed on further, and before we reached the beginning of the impressive gorge, I spotted some movement on a grassy slope.. I raised my binoculars and was astonished to see not one, but two, Pallas’s Cats. I froze, instinct suggesting that any movement would cause them to run away as fast as they could.. after all, we were only 25-30 metres away. I needn’t have worried. I whispered, or at least I thought I whispered, to Marie – “Pallas’s Cats!” in a voice that was as quiet as my excitement would allow. She looked at me with disbelief as I began to set up the telescope. She looked through the telescope to gain a good view in case they bolted and made a noise that I can only describe as “excitedly high-pitched” before reaching for her camera. We were both beaming as the cats, clearly well-grown kittens, were oblivious to our presence and just continued playing, practicing their hunting skills on each other and rolling about like large balls of grey fur. Elated, we just stood and watched… what a privilege to see such intimate behaviour so clearly, in beautiful early morning light. Fortunately I had taken with me my iPhone adaptor and I began to record some video footage with my iPhone 6 and Swarovski ATX95 telescope as Marie took some still photos. The kittens could not have been better subjects. We were mesmerised.
It dawned on us that the mother was likely out hunting and that there was a very real possibility that she could return at any time. Almost as soon as we had discussed that thought the kittens suddenly stopped playing and stared intently across the grassland. I scanned with my binoculars to establish what had caught their attention and, to my delight, the mother was trotting towards the kittens with a freshly caught pika in her teeth. Wow.. As I quickly trained the telescope towards her, she stopped, dropped the pika and slowly, very slowly, turned and crawled into a small hollow before raising her head, almost in slow motion, to stare at us. She had seen us and we were obviously too close for her liking. The kittens were reluctant to leave the safety of the den and we suddenly felt like unwanted intruders. Not wishing to disturb this young family, we gathered our things and began, slowly, to walk away from the den. I expected that the mother would remain motionless, watching us, until we were out of sight. However, we had moved less than 10 metres before she leapt up, grabbed the pika and trotted towards the kittens. I scrambled to point the telescope, still with iPhone attached, towards her and, fortunately, was able to capture the moment the kittens ran towards her to collect their breakfast.
The mother was clearly still a little nervous, her tail twitching, so we decided to walk on into the gorge and leave them in peace. As we walked further, it was as if we were walking on air. If we didn’t see anything else during the whole day, or indeed the rest of the trip, it mattered not a jot. We had experienced something special indeed.