Trip report: Sichuan, China (May-June 2010) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods.

A Tropical Birding Custom Tour using the same itinerary as our set-departure tour.

The Central Chinese province of Sichuan provided some notable challenges this year: still recovering from the catastrophic “Wenchuan 5.12” earthquake of 2008, the area is undergoing massive reconstruction. All very positive for the future of this scenically extraordinary Chinese region, but often a headache for tour arrangements, due to last minute traffic controls leading us to regularly rethink our itinerary in the Wolong area in particular, that was not far from the epicenter of that massive quake. Even in areas seemingly unaffected by the quake, huge road construction projects created similar challenges to achieving our original planned itinerary. However, in spite of regular shuffling and rethinking, the itinerary went ahead pretty much as planned with ALL sites visited. Other challenges came this year in the form of heavy regular rains that plagued us at Wawu Shan and low cloud that limited visibility during our time around the breathtaking Balang Mountain in the Wolong region. With some careful trickery, sneaking our way through week-long road blocks under cover of darkness, birding through thick and thin (mist, cloud and rains) we fought against all such challenges and came out on top. This led to a highly productive bird tour, with around 300 species scored in our time, including a fantastic tally of 9 male pheasants all seen well by all. Indeed it could be argued that pheasants are THE reason to visit Sichuan, and no one on this tour would disagree, both Bob and Ken picking pheasant species for ALL five spots in their top five birds of the tour! Not only did we do well in terms of pheasant species, but the views were spectacular of almost all of them, from the male Golden Pheasant that lingered on an open trail at Wuyipeng, to the flurry of nine Lady Amherst’s Pheasants that were seen during one incredible day, gracing the road up Wawu Shan’s quiet mountain road, to the male Temminck’s Tragopan that used an open breeze block by the road up Wawu as a calling post in the early morning mist, allowing us to admire his intricate patterning through our well-trained scope! As if that was not enough we should also mention the surprise Silver Pheasant that shocked us near the base of Emei Shan early on the tour; and we should not forget the pair of Chinese Monals feeding quietly in a flower-sprinkled alpine meadow up on Balang Shan; or the marvelous pair of Blue Eared-Pheasants that showed up in the spruce-cloaked slopes of Baxi.

However, to talk only of pheasants is to do a massive injustice to the rest of Sichuan’s bird life. From the impossibly cute Crested and Svertsov’s Tit-Warblers, to the striking Himalayan Rubythroats singing their hearts out on the dwarf shrubs on top of Balang Shan, to the glowing purple forms of male Grandalas feeding, ground-tyrant-like, in high flower-clad mountain meadows on Balang Mountain, to the haul of 8 parrotbills and 11 pink-flushed rosefinch species, not to mention 12 laughingthrushes and 27 “warblers”, Sichuan has an amazing array of birding possibilities.

Along with this magical birding, Sichuan provided us with some of the very best food offerings available on any Tropical Birding tour. Even in earthquake-stricken areas, like Wolong, where the remnants of the former hotels still lie ghost-like for all to see, and accommodation options therefore remain limited, our local contacts worked tirelessly to ensure we had a good feed. And what a feed we had, meal after meal, providing varied and mouthwatering culinary delights to feast on throughout. In addition to the fine food, magical birds, we came upon some of Sichuan’s most spectacular scenery, from the mighty mountain of Balang, to the wide open flower-sprinkled plains of the Tibetan Plateau rimmed with snow-capped giants all around. Lastly, and by no means least, Sichuan produced some striking and unforgettable images of China, and an absorbing insight into the culture of this vibrant Asian country and surging economic powerhouse. Colorful Tibetan settlements drew our attentions away from the birds, and vividly-colored prayer flags formed a colorful backdrop to our mountain birding in other areas, while constant, intriguing insights into the intricacies of Han and Tibetan cultures were provided by our ever-attentive local guides, Jane and Philip, which left all of us with unforgettable memories of this gripping Oriental tour, that remains quite unlike any other.

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format