China: Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau

For the first-time visitor to the vast country of China, Sichuan is a natural choice; fantastic mountain landscapes, a captivating culture, and, of course, lots of birds too. This part of China is so scenically spectacular it was long ago dubbed the “Heavenly Kingdom” by the Chinese themselves. When people think of Chinese birds, they think of pheasants and parrotbills in particular, and this tour is particularly rich in these bird groups. There are chances at some of the beautiful of all Asian birds, like the iridescent Chinese Monal, ghostly white White Eared-Pheasant and hulking Tibetan Snowcock among the stunning landscapes of the high mountains, with the exquisite Lady Amherst’s Pheasant at Erlangshan too. Parrotbills are likely right from the word go, as they even dwell within Sichuan’s capital, and half a dozen species or so are regularly seen on this tour. Other well represented groups on this itinerary are accentors, laughingthrushes, redstarts, and rosefinches. Combined with our time in Sichuan’s high mountains, or shans, will be a side trip onto the Tibetan Plateau, with it distinct culture, and distinct birds, not least the elegant Black-necked Crane, gorgeous White-browed Tit-Warbler and Przevalski’s Rosefinch, a monotypic family and therefore a must for family listers. If you only do China once, this is the place to choose.

PLEASE NOT: The itinerary is being updated for 2018, with the tour adding another site. The website will be updated soon with this change.




Day 1: Arrival in Chengdu
After arrival in Chengdu, we will transfer to a hotel in the city for one night. For early arrivals, we can visit a city park in the afternoon, which may see us encounter our first parrotbill of the tour (Vinous-breasted), in addition to Oriental Greenfinch, David’s Fulvetta, Chinese Blackbird, and White-browed Laughingthrush.

Pheasants like this tragopan, are the highlights of any Sichuan tour
Pheasants like this tragopan, are the highlights of any Sichuan tour (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Chengdu to Longcanggou
We will travel to Loncanggou via Ya’an to look for birds like Brown-rumped (Swinhoe’s) Minivet, Forest Wagtail, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Ashy-throated Parrotbill on the way. In the late afternoon, we shall check in to our lodging for the next three nights, on the edge of Longcanggou Forest Park. There may be some time in the late afternoon ton search for our first specialties of the area, like Brown Bullfinch and Sichuan Bush-Warbler. Four nights will be spent in Loncanggou.

Just one of many, many mountain vistas that haunt this tour
Just one of many, many mountain vistas that haunt this tour (Sam Woods)

Days 3-5: Longcanggou Forest Park
We will spend three full days working this park, which has come to light only in recent years; mixed forest and woodland types within the park offer up a varied and long bird list. The area is especially rich in parrotbills, with Great, Brown, Golden, and even the rare Gray-hooded all possible there. Longcanggou is also home to some very local species like the shy Gray-faced (Emei) Liocichla, and Emei Leaf Warbler, in addition to (Chinese) Blue-throated Flycatcher, Pere David’s Tit, Slaty Bunting, and the gorgeous Golden-breasted Fulvetta. With luck, Temminck’s Tragopan, can also be seen too. These nights will also be at simple lodging on the edge of the park.

The well-named Golden Bush-Robin
The well-named Golden Bush-Robin (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Longcanggou Forest Park to Luding
A final morning will be spent at Longcanggou, going after whatever we still need, before we continue on to the town of Luding for a two-night stay, for exploring Erlangshan the following day.

The shockingly beautiful Firethroat can be found on Erlangshan
The shockingly beautiful Firethroat can be found on Erlangshan (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Erlangshan
This mountain has recently been attracting birders for the chance to see rare birds like Lady Amherst’s Pheasant and Rufous-tailed Babbler (also known as Moupinia); other possibilities at this scenic site include Barred Laughingthrush, the amazing Firethroat, Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler, Chinese Babax, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, Golden Bush-Robin, the gorgeous Gould’s Sunbird, Chinese (Song) Thrush, and Vinaceous Rosefinch. A second night will be spent in Luding.

Rufous-vented Tit are pleasantly common in high spruce forests
Rufous-vented Tit are pleasantly common in high spruce forests (Charley Hesse)

Day 8: Luding to Rilong
This comprises largely a travel day, as we move from one area of spectacular scenery, to one that can even be said to be a higher standard in this regard still, the town of Rilong, which sits just below the mighty mountain of Balang. En-route, as we head ever higher, we will make some brief roadside stops, which could yield Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeier, or even the rare Przevalski’s Nuthatch. The first of three nights will be spent in the Tibetan town of Rilong, just below Balang Shan, arguably the most spectacular site of the tour.

Pheasants; THE reason to come to Sichuan
Pheasants; THE reason to come to Sichuan (Sam Woods)

Days 9-10: Balang Shan
Once again, our attentions will be drawn to pheasants again on these days, as we spend early mornings searching for some of the most highly-prized Sichuan birds, like White Eared-Pheasant, Chinese Monal, and Tibetan Snowcock. The surroundings to our birding on these days are simply magnificent, often involving snow clad peaks as a backdrop to some of Sichuan’s best birding. We will have two full days on the mountain to stop off at various points, and pick up the varied birds that occur at varied localities and elevations on Balang Shan.

Black-browed Tit is a target in the Rilong area
Black-browed Tit is a target in the Rilong area (Sam Woods)

Others we will be searching for include White-tailed (Himalayan) Rubythroat, Rufous-breasted and Alpine Accentors, the indigo-colored Grandala, Chinese Fulvetta, Black-headed (Brandt’s) Mountain-Finch, Blue-fronted Redstart, and an assortment of rosefinches, including Red-fronted, Dark-breasted and Chinese White-browed. Another two nights will be spent in the Tibetan town of Rilong.

On the lookout for snowcocks, Snow Partridges, and Snow Pigeons on Balang Shan
On the lookout for snowcocks, Snow Partridges, and Snow Pigeons on Balang Shan (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Rilong to Maerkang
On this day we will search for birds lower down, nearer our hotel of the last three nights, before departing for another Tibetan area, the city of Maerkang, which is located near Mengbishan, a mountain just outside of town. Around Rilong, we will be on the lookout for Wallcreeper, Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Gray-headed Bullfinch, Black-browed, Gray-crested and Rufous-vented Tits, and Daurian Redstart. After a drive we should have some time to bird Mengbishan, another mountain site, in the afternoon, home to a long list of birds, including Crested Tit-Warbler and Sichuan Jay. The next two nights will be spent in the town of Maerkang.

Kessler's Thrushes is abundant at high elevations
Kessler's Thrushes is abundant at high elevations (Sam Woods)

Day 12: Mengbishan
A full day will be spent combing the spruce-covered slopes of yet another scenic mountain, something that Sichuan can genuinely lay claim to a plentiful supply of! While the jay and tit-warbler will be the undoubted main focus, there are many other exciting avian offerings here, including Verreaux’s (Monal) Partridge, Blood Pheasant, Pink-rumped, Chinese Beautiful, and Three-banded Rosefinches; the mighty Black Woodpecker, Collared and White-winged Grosbeaks, Himalayan Bluetail, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, and White-throated Redstart. At the end of the day we will return to Maerkang for the night, passing some fascinating local Tibetan architecture along the way.

White-browed Tit-Warbler is understandably popular on this tour
White-browed Tit-Warbler is understandably popular on this tour (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Maerkang to the Tibetan Plateau
While this comprises another long driving day, it will not be without avian rewards, as we climb up onto the Tibetan Plateau, with its whole new suite of birds. Along the way we hope to find Ground Tits (formerly Hume’s Groundpecker), regal Black-necked Cranes, beautiful Azure-winged Magpies (now considered a different species from the one found in Europe), and handsome Ruddy Shelducks. Stopping at shallow, scrub-filled valleys in this area may also provide two stunning birds, in the form of White-browed Tit, and White-browed Tit-Warbler, often sharing the same stand of scrub together! The same area will also be where we could find one of the main attractions of the tour, Prtzevalski’s Bunting, which occupies its own family. At the end of the day, we will arrive at the Tibetan town of Ruoergai, where will stay in a large hotel for the next two nights.

The Przevalski's Rosefinch has recently been rediscovered in Sichuan
The Przevalski's Rosefinch has recently been rediscovered in Sichuan (Keith Barnes)

Day 14: Baxi Forest and the Tibetan Plateau
Our day will open overlooking a picturesque spruce-laden valley. Our main target at this site will be the Blue Eared-Pheasant, although there will be plenty more besides, with other birds found in this area including Ring-necked Pheasant, the elusive Sukatschev’s (Snowy-cheeked) Laughingthrush, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Snowy-browed (Chinese) Nuthatch, Hodgson’s Redstart, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, and Sichuan Tit.

The Tibetan Plateau is home to plentiful Black-necked Cranes
The Tibetan Plateau is home to plentiful Black-necked Cranes (Sam Woods)

After lunch, we will move onto an area of the Tibetan Plateau itself, Flower Lake. While Black-necked Cranes will have likely already featured, another chance comes here too. White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches can be found among the pika colonies near the entrance to the lake, while Tibetan Larks are often on the wing in display flights at this time of year. Flower Lake itself plays host to waterfowl like Ferruginous Duck and Red-crested Pochard, and birds like Citrine Wagtail, and can be a good place to sight raptors, like Saker and Upland Buzzard.

Handsome Ruddy Shelducks pepper the wetlands of the Tibetan Plateau
Handsome Ruddy Shelducks pepper the wetlands of the Tibetan Plateau (Sam Woods)

Day 15: Baxi to Gonggangling
After a final morning in the valley of Baxi, where further chances at Blue Eared-Pheasant or Sukatschev’s (Snowy-cheeked) Laughingthrush may be needed, we shall hit the road, heading to our final site of the tour, Gonggangling. A single night will be spent in nearby Chuanzhusi.

White-browed Tit, a handsome endemic found on the plateau
White-browed Tit, a handsome endemic found on the plateau (Sam Woods)

Day 16: Gonggangling to Tangjiahe.
The high spruce-laden pass near Gonggangling is another site for Blue Eared-Pheasant, the rare Sichuan Jay, endemic Chinese Fulvetta and Three-banded Rosefinch, but also offers a host of other species like Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Crested Tit-Warbler, Maroon-backed Accentor, Goldcrest, and Tibetan Serin (Siskin). If we are lucky we may also find Pere David’s Owl, which is seen at this site more than any other. After a short period of the morning in this area, we shall make the drive south to Tangjiahe, our final birding stop of the tour. Two nights will be spent in Tangjiahe.

A White-tailed Rubythroat in song on Balang Shan
A White-tailed Rubythroat in song on Balang Shan (Sam Woods)

Day 17: Tangjiahe. The broadleaved woodlands around Tangjiahe offer us some final Chinese birds, and among them some treats. Roadside searches on this and the following morning might yield a Golden Pheasant or Temminck’s Tragopan, while trail wlaking might lead to finding one of Sichuan’s rarest birds, the Rusty-throated Parrotbill. We’ll also check the riversides for Crested Kingfisher and roosting Tawny Fish-Owl, and also have a chance to see a Takin, a large mammal, which is still quite abundant in this area. Aside from that the forests also offer the chance of the endemic Sichuan Treecreeper, and Spectacled Fulvetta at the forest edge.

Day 18: Tangjiahe to Chengdu. After some final early morning birding in Tangjiahe, we’ll head back to Chengdu for the last night.

Day 19: Departure from Chengdu. You will be transferred this morning to the airport for departure.

Tibetan prayer flags adorn the many high mountain passes
Tibetan prayer flags adorn the many high mountain passes (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Intense. This is a fast-paced trip that tries to maximize the number of birds seen, and we usually end up with a great list. Breakfasts are typically 5:00am-5:30am, and most days are very full with little downtime. Many breakfasts and lunches will be taken in the field. As the trip covers a lot of ground, there are a number of long drives on this tour; drives of more than 4 hours are needed on 3 days of the tour, on 2 further days, drives take all day, and on another day an 8-hour drive is involved.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the birding is done from flat or slightly inclined roads or dirt tracks. On at least three days there may be 1 mile (1.6 km) hikes on trails with some short, steep sections. Much of the tour is spent at high altitudes. Most days reach over 10,000 ft (3000 m), with two days of the trip reaching 15,000 ft (4500 m). On these days almost all of the birding will be done from roads, and only short periods of difficult walking will be done at the highest elevations.

CLIMATE: Although it is warm in Chengdu, where the tour starts and ends, most of the tour is in the mountains, where cold and sometimes wet weather can be expected. It may get down to freezing or below at night and early in the morning on about six days of the trip, usually warming up to around 40-50°F(4-9°C) in the middle of the day. It is also regular to experience some snow on Balang Shan. China is a wet country, and the changeable weather in springtime is likely to also include some rain.

ACCOMMODATION: Usually good, but fairly basic at Longcanggou and Rilong in particular. All have full-time electricity and hot water; all others have private, en-suite bathrooms. Internet is limited on this tour, and usually only available on about 6 days.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Bird photography is tough in the forested areas, but better in the open habitats on the Tibetan Plateau, and casual bird photographers should get some decent opportunities. Scenery is stunning in some places and it’s worth bringing a small camera just for that. Hardcore bird photographers will likely be frustrated due to the fast pace of the tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A visa is required. You must obtain your visa from a Chinese embassy or consulate well in advance of the tour. Our office staff will provide needed support documents for you to get your visa.

FOOD: Western-style food is not available on this tour. However, the local Sichuan food is usually superb, and some past tour participants have mentioned the food as being a highlight of the trip.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and hotel/restaurant staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 18; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 19; safe drinking water throughout; green tea is also typically provided with most dinners and some lunches at restaurants; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from afternoon of day 1 to evening of day 18; one local bilingual Chinese guide throughout; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle with driver; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in city hotels in Chengdu, Maerkang, and Ruoergai (porters are not usually available at other sites on this tour); flights; visa and passport fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.