Trip report: Sichuan & the Tibetan Plateau (Qinghai) May-June 2013 by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods

This year’s tour, despite some last minute hitches (such as the last minute closure of a birding site by the Chinese authorities for tourist development, for the second year running), was highly successful as, by visiting most of the traditional key Sichuan sites, and combining this with a final leg in Qinghai we racked up around 320 species. With the late closure of Labahe, we slotted in Erlangshan as a replacement, which yielded the “essential” Lady Amherst’s Pheasants, in addition to a stunning male Firethroat and the endemic Barred Laughingthrush. The continuing closure of Wawu Shan also meant we continued to use Longcanggou as a substitute, which produced the local Emei Leaf-Warbler and Emei (Gray-faced) Liocichla, along with Chinese Blue Flycatcher, and other key species outlined below.

Out of the 320 or so birds recorded, the list included some of the most prized species in the region: some 15 species from the pheasant family were seen, with quality looks of Temminck’s Tragopans (ten were seen in one startling morning in Longcanggou), Chinese Monals (as many as twelve were seen in a single hour on Balang Shan), and both Blue and White Eared-Pheasants to name a few. Golden Pheasant was also again seen, at the same site as last year in Wolong, and probably would have made the top five, were it not for the misty viewing conditions at the time. Along with these “true pheasants” came a long list of partridges: Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges performed exceptionally this year at Balang Shan; a covey of Snow Partridges was seen amongst the stunning scenery of Balang Shan on an extraordinary 28-pheasant day (up to 12 Chinese Monals, 6 White Eared-Pheasants, 2 Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges, 6 Snow Partridges, and 2 Golden Pheasants); and a trio of partridges were seen in just a few hours near Chaka in Qinghai (Przevalski’s, Tibetan and Daurian Partridges). Aside from the flagship pheasants there was much more to celebrate besides, including both male Firethroat and male Rufous-headed Robin seen well by all; the dawn displays of Wood Snipe among the beautiful Balang landscape; a heady list of parrotbills (7 species), including the rare Gray-hooded Parrotbill, which was seen nesting at Longcanggou, along with Brown, Great and Golden Parrotbills there too; Sichuan Jays were typically inconspicuous at first, though a group of this scarce endemic eventually showed well on the flanks of the rhododendron-cloaked slopes of Mengbishan; Mongolian Ground-Jays were easy and conspicuous on Chaka Flats; and the monotypic family Przevalski’s Rosefinch (Pink-tailed Bunting) was likewise seen with no trouble in Qinghai’s Rubber Mountains and was understandably a major highlight for some; and we should not forget another monotypic family, albeit a much more widespread one, Wallcreeper, which made us wait until Qinghai, before we were finally granted such great eye level looks at this, one of the World’s classic birds that it was comfortably voted the TOP BIRD-OF-THE-TOUR; a continual stream of rosefinches came to us in China’s shans, or mountains, with 11 rosefinch species seen, including the stunning endemic Three-banded Rosefinch in Jiuzhaigou, and the rare Sharpe’s Rosefinch on Balang Shan. There was plenty more worthy of mention from the two species of tit-warbler seen well (Crested and White-browed Tit-Warblers); the unique splash of color that male Grandalas bring to an already incredible scene up on Balang Shan; the stream of Pallas’s Sandgrouse passing overhead at Chaka on our final morning deep in Qinghai, and the six different species of snowfinch seen on the same morning; and the delightful Scaly-breasted Cupwing seen so, so well at the new site of the tour, Erlangshan (photo page 2).

And that was just the birds! The mountain landscapes, excellent food, and excellent service from our local guide (see below), also make this a very enjoyable tour for a variety of reasons. Once again, this tour proved that Sichuan’s food, and the much less known food of Qinghai, rival food from any tour on the planet. The food was superb throughout, even in the remotest areas of the tour.

Lastly, a special mention should be made for our “man-in-Sichuan”, “Frank”, who operated as our local guide and fixer throughout. This meant fixing good food in the field; fixing even better food in the many high standard restaurants visited throughout; and fixing various problems which are merely part of daily life when operating bird tours in a country like China. This ranged from negotiating passed recently erected barriers on Erlangshan (caused by a recent landslide in the area), to investigating the new site of Erlangshan shortly before the tour, when the site of Labahe was closed to all at the time, to finding a way around the many park restrictions in Jiuzhaigou. Frank has become something of a Tropical Birding legend, having worked on these tours since their inception, some eight or so years ago. His warmth and attention to detail are phenomenal, ensuring a comfortable trip for all, and feeding constant, flawless facts about the history, food, and culture of this unique country.

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