China: Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau of Qinghai
Pheasants and prayer flags in the Heavenly Kingdom
Sichuan offers some great birding, a cool mountain landscape, and superb, internationally famous cuisine. The spectacular scenery ranges from the mighty mountain pass of Balang Shan, surrounded by towering snow-topped peaks, to the scenic wooded valley of Jiuzhaigou, dotted with jade and turquoise-colored lakes and dramatic cascades. It is no coincidence that some Chinese people refer to Sichuan as the ‘heavenly kingdom’. For the 2013 tour we have moved the Tibetan Plateau section to Qinghai, with it’s greater avian riches on offer, including six snowfinch species, and the monotypic family Przevalski’s Rosefinch or Pink-tailed Bunting.
Day 1: Arrival in Chengdu. After arrival in Chengdu, we will transfer to a hotel in the city.
Day 2: Chengdu to Gong Gang Li Pass to Jiuzhaigou. An early morning departure will see us leave the capital behind as we head into northern Sichuan and our first Tibetan areas on the tour. This is a long drive (some eight hours or so), but near the latter part of the drive at least, there will be some good birding opportunities. We will be heading north and heading through a high pass en-route, and skirting the edge of the Tibetan Plateau too, both of which will offer new birds for us aplenty. Around the scrub and grasslands of the plateau we could encounter Kessler’s (White-backed) Thrushes foraging in the open pastures, along with Ring-necked Pheasants, here looking splendid in their true native home. While in the patches of scrub Songar Tits, Tickell’s Warblers, and Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches are possible, along with the endemic Plain (Pere David’s) Laughingthrush. When we reach the spruce-covered pass at Gong Gang Li, we will have some other, very different, targets in mind, such as White-throated Redstart, Himalayan Bluetail, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, and Maroon-backed Accentor. However, we will be hoping more than anything to bump into one of the mixed flocks in the area that come complete with crests, tits, and sometimes nuthatches, and possibly too the endemic and beautiful Crested Tit-Warbler.
At the end of the day we will check into a grand hotel (actually the name literally means “Grand”), in the bustling Tibetan town perched on the edge of Jiuzhaigou National Park, one of the most scenic parks in Sichuan, and also one of the most popular, which will become immediately evident from the size of this sprawling tourist town, come city. At night we will have the opportunity to look for Gray Nightjar near our hotel.Three nights will be spent at a hotel in the town of Jiuzhaigou.
Days 3 – 4: Jiuzhaigou. Two days will be spent in this famous park (among Japanese and Chinese tourists anyway, though strangely overlooked and little known amongst westerners), chasing Chinese endemics and dropping jaws in reaction to the phenomenal scenery. Chief among the birds in the park is the rare and elusive Rufous-headed Robin which will put in a concerted effort to see while there. Other possibilities will include Pere David’s Tit, Chinese (Snowy-browed) Nuthatch, Sooty Tit, the breeding endemic Chinese Leaf-Warbler, as well as Indian Blue Robin, Tibetan Serin, or Przewalski’s Nuthatch, among other species like Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher (now not considered a flycatcher but a “Fairy-flycatcher”, a largely Africa family), White-bellied Redstart, Elliot’s Laughingthrush, and Black Woodpecker.
Outside the park we will spend the late afternoon combing a scrubby hillside (for the fitter members of the group – this is a short, though very steep climb up loose gravel and earth), for Spectacled Parrotbill, Spectacled Fulvetta, Plain (Pere David’s) Laughingthrush, Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.
Day 5: Gong Gang Li Pass to Maerkang via the Tibetan Plateau. This is mainly a travel day, but what a travel day; much of the day will be spent birding and our trip list is expected to leap up as we pass through a rich area of Sichuan’s Tibetan Plateau en-route to the fascinating Tibetan town of Maerkang. The start of the day will see us return to Gong Gang Li Pass in the wee hours of the morning in the hope of finding a pair of Blue Eared-Pheasants feeding out in the open in the early hours of the day, before traffic increases and disturbance drives back into the spruce to hide for the remainder of the day. This bird always requires a bit of luck, though this is one of the best sites in Sichuan for the species. We will also have further chances to search for Crested Tit-Warbler around the pass, along with the rare Sichuan Jay, and Collared Grosbeak.
After a few hours there, a long journey lies ahead, but one that will be punctuated by inevitable birding stops as we pass through the Tibetan Plateau. In all likelihood, with the swathe of new birds on offer, we will arrive in Maerkang in the nick of time for dinner, but with a boatload of new birds on our list, such as Hume’s Groundpecker – now amusingly called Ground Tit, Black Redstart, Tibetan Lark, Citrine Wagtail, Hoopoe, Daurian Jackdaw, Eurasian Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie, and Tickell’s Leaf-Warbler. However, the biggest prizes we will seek on this day include the soft, pastel-shaded White-browed Tit-Warbler, and endemic White-browed Tit. At the end of the day we will check into the guide’s favorite hotel of the tour, for the lobby alone: extravagant, ostentatious, but at the same time, very Tibetan. Two nights will be spent at a hotel in the town of Maerkang.
Day 6: Mengbishan. A full day will be spent on the flanks of Mengbishan, birding within the spruce forest, and checking an alpine-scrub-covered pass. The area may produce the odd Chinese Babax, and the giant Black Woodpecker. We will spend the day coasting up and down this long mountain road, which holds some quality target birds like Sichuan (Songar) Tit, White-throated Redstart, and the delightful endemic Crested Tit-Warbler. Other key species include the most striking rosefinch of all, the endemic Three-banded Rosefinch, the endemic Chinese Fulvetta, and the attractive Maroon-backed Accentor, and the often-elusive Chinese Thrush. Other possiblities on the flanks of this picturesque mountain include White Eared-Pheasant, Long-tailed Thrush, Chinese White-browed Rosefinch, the impressive Giant Laughingthrush, and alluring Blood Pheasant.
Day 7: Mengbishan to Wolong. After a final morning on Mengbishan, focusing on whatever we are still missing, we will cross the pass and head through some dry craggy valleys en-route to Wolong village, or Shawan, in the park of the same name. We will stop off en-route in a spectacular narrow valley, where Hill Pigeons nest alongside House Swifts, and there is also the possibility of finding a red-and-blue Hodgson’s Redstart or a Wallcreeper, creeping up the rocks. We will also pass over the mighty Balang Mountain en-route which offers some of the very best scenery anywhere on Earth. This may also give us a taste of some of the birds we will see in our coming days which focus on this awesome birding area.
The following four nights will be spent in a small, simple guesthouse in earthquake-affected Wolong, which only has squat toilets, though the rooms are clean, and most people on the 2012 tour voted this the best food of the entire tour. So while this is one of the more basic hotels of the tour, it is acceptable, and currently the best available in the town, the only convenient place to stay on the tour.
Day 8: Balang Shan (Wolong). With the weather being rather unpredictable up on Balang Mountain (snow is likely at this time in the spring), and so many key species being offered there, two full days will be planned in this spectacularly beautiful high altitude area. Early morning trips to the near side of the pass will be planned for the elusive and unpredictable Chinese Monal, a dazzling, multicolored, iridescent endemic pheasant that is easy in some years, and very difficult in others. Early morning visits to a check a mountain pasture for this very special pheasant will be made, and may also yield two other birds from the pheasant family: the ghostly White Eared-Pheasant pacing the slopes in the early morning, and the odd Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge scurrying through the low scrub there too. Higher up, where the pastures give way to rocky, scree-covered slopes our search for pheasants will continue with our eyes and ears open for signs of Tibetan Snowcocks foraging on these inhabitable looking slopes. These same areas may also produce the gorgeous Grandala, a colorful purple thrush that lights up these otherwise dull-colored hillsides. Up at the 14,765ft/4500m high pass itself we will check the rocky boulders for coveys of Snow Partridges, flocks of Snow Pigeons, Brandt’s Mountain-Finches, or Red-fronted Rosefinches hiding among them. While, on the other side of the pass the rocky slopes give way to low scrub, home to some very special birds indeed, including the spectacular Himalayan Rubythroat and White-browed (Svertsov’s) Tit-Warbler, as well as Tickell’s Leaf-Warblers and Rufous-breasted Accentors. Other possibilities include Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Blue-fronted Redstart, Collared Grosbeak, Spotted Bush-Warbler, Rosy and Olive-backed Pipits, and Golden Bush-Robin.
Day 9: Wuyipeng (Wolong). We will have an early start for our hike up to the research station of Wuyipeng. This was the site where famed scientist and mammalogist George Schaller worked on Giant Pandas in the 1980s. The walk up will see us rise in altitude by 500m/1640ft, and we will spend the whole morning working our way up the trail as many key species are found along the route. Although extremely difficult to see in recent years, the lower woods at the bottom end of the trail boast Golden Pheasant among their residents, and the endemic Pere David’s Tit and extremely secretive Barred Laughingthrush can also be found along the trail up to Wuyipeng, along with Scaly-breasted Cupwing (formerly wren-babbler), and the dazzling Firethroat, a major target for us in this area. The gorgeous Golden-breasted Fulvetta will not go amiss either, one of the best looking birds in this part of China. We will spend the day around Wuyipeng searching for such avian treats as the scarce and stunning Temminck’s Tragopan, the giant Great Parrotbill, the striking Spotted Nutcracker, the inconspicuous Fire-capped Tit, the beautiful Spotted Laughingthrush, and the endemic Sooty Tit.
Please note: Currently the research station has been demolished and so there are no accommodation options up there at all, so we propose we do a DAY TRIP up there, something we have done on TB’s last two trips there (2010, 2012).
Day 10: Balang Shan (Wolong). Another day will be spent at the heady heights of Balang Shan, searching for whatever we still need up there.
Day 11: Wolong to Chengdu. Depending on what road options are open to us, we may have some further time to bird around Balang Shan a little in the morning before we depart for Chengdu for another, final night. IF THE SHORT, FAST, ROUTE IS OPEN (4 hours drive), there may also be a chance to visit the Taoist mountain Qingchengshan en-route for Japanese White-eye, Sulphur-breasted Warbler or the reclusive Dusky Fulvetta before we arrive in nearby Chengdu, although this will be completely dependent on what of the earthquake affected roads are open to us at the time (an ever-changing situation). The night will be spent in Chengdu.
Day 12: Chengdu to Xining to the Rubber Mountains. A morning flight will take us north into very different Tibetan country than we have experienced previously. We will fly from the Sichuan capital Chengdu, to the Qinghai capital of Xining. Although we have a longish journey to undertake (some 200km/125mi or so), the roads are very good in this region, relative to Sichuan, and therefore our progress will be fast and by mid-afternoon we will be birding near Qinghai Lake for handsome Bar-headed Geese, on and around the lake and Hume’s Larks along the lake shore. Abundant waterbirds in the area will also give us a good chance of “list-loading in the area” too! Nearby small Tibetan settlements may play host to our first snowfinch (out of possible SIX species on this leg alone): the bearded Pere David’s Snowfinch, which may be seen alongside the decidedly more abundant Rufous-necked Snowfinch.
By late afternoon we will find ourselves in the Rubber Mountains, where our main quarry will be the enigmatic Pink-tailed Bunting, now officially named Przewalski’s Rosefinch among others. At the end of the day we will travel to nearby Niao Dao, checking for birds alongside the river on the edge of town, such as Pallas’s Gull, Little Owl, and Common Merganser. A single night will be spent in Niao Dao.
Day 13: Rubber Mountains Pass to Chaka. The day will be spent in the Rubber Mountains, surveying the skies above for Lammergeiers, Saker Falcons, and Upland Buzzards, and searching the alpine meadows, scrubby valleys, and rocky slopes for snowfinches, accentors, rosefinches, and redstarts. The rocky areas, and alpine meadows are good places to scan for snowfinches, four species of which can be found there. Some like the White-rumped Snowfinch are associated with the Pikas (a cutish rodent) colonies up there, while others like Tibetan and Black-winged Snowfinches may be found foraging on the rock-strewn slopes, while the rocky outcrops might provide nesting sites for the local White-winged Redstarts, with Streaked Rosefinch which inhabits the more scrubby areas. These latter areas will be of particular focus for us as they are home to the Przewalski’s Rosefinch, which if we did not manage to locate it the afternoon before will of course be our number one target, being not only a great bird, but a new family for all. The same areas may also produce Robin and Brown Accentors too, as well as giving us further chances at White-browed Tit. If we got these birds the day before there are plenty of other areas to search for further birds in the area if needed! In the afternoon we will transfer to a simple hotel in the town of Chaka, for a two-night stay.
Day 14: Chaka Flats. The day will be spent across the other side of the Rubber Mountains Pass, where the habitat changes markedly to a dry area of semi-arid flats below which will make for a marked contrast with the areas we will have been in previously on the tour. The main target here will be the enigmatic Mongolian Ground-Jay for sure, and a great deal of time will be dedicated to this. However, while searching for this we will have the chance to run into Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Desert and Mongolian Finches, Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, and our sixth and final snowfinch, Blandford’s Snowfinch among a host of other exciting possibilities.
Day 15: Chaka and the Rubber Mountains to Xining. Our final day will involve checking the grasslands for larks, a myriad of which occur there, including Tibetan, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, Horned, and Oriental Skylarks. However, top prize among them will be the massive Mongolian Lark, with a fairly ordinary display flight but a far from ordinary plumage with striking white wing flashes, and rufous face markings. The whole morning will be available to cover any areas which offer the greatest opportunity to plug gaps in our list. In the afternoon we will return to Xining for a grand farewell dinner, where I have no doubt people will be sad to wave goodbye to the extraordinary cuisine on offer both in Qinghai, and the more spicy variety that will become familiar in Sichuan, (non-spicy though is also available throughout that leg too).
Day 16: Departure from Xining. We will transfer you in the morning to the airport in Xining for your flights home. The tour ends in Xining airport.
Southern Shans pre-tour extension (7 days)
Day 1: Arrival in Chengdu. After arrival in Chengdu, we will transfer to a hotel in the city.
If anyone arrives early (as often happens, and is recommended), we can visit the Giant Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu in the afternoon (for an additional small fee), and kickstart our China list with White-browed Laughingthrush, Japanese (Great) Tit, Black-throated Tit, Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Oriental Greenfinch, and maybe a Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler or the odd migrant lingering in the city.
In the evening we will get our first taste of another aspect of Sichuan which is rightly famous: the internationally revered food; it is not an exaggeration to say that this tour offers some of the very best cuisine of any Tropical Birding tour.
Day 2: Chengdu to Loncanggou. The morning will be spent birding the well-manicured grounds of the Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, the former home of a famous Tang Dynasty poet. This Chengdu hotspot offers Yellow-billed Grosbeak, in addition to a pair of parrotbills: Vinous-throated and Ashy-throated. Other birds on offer could include the large Chinese form of Eurasian Blackbird, a widely proposed split, Mandarin Blackbird, the adorable Rufous-faced Warbler, the subdued Gray-cheeked Fulvetta, and the bamboo-loving Rufous-capped Babbler. Once again, there is always the chance of an unpredictable migrant in the area too, with Amur Falcon surprising us on our 2012 tour, for example!
After a morning in the city we will leave Sichuan’s capital behind and head up to the lower slopes of Longcanggou, a three hour drive away. With the closure of Wawu Shan (from spring 2012) for the foreseeable future (a matter of years) there has seen the emergence of two exciting new sites to “replace” the gap left by Wawu Shan: Longcanggou, which offers much of what was on offer at Wawu, and Labahe for some other species which are hard to see at Longcanggou. Thus, for this tour Longcanggou and Labahe are replacement sites for Wawu Shan.
In the afternoon we will check the lower slopes of Longcanggou for our first chances at some of the local specialties in the area, including Emei (Gray-faced) Liocichla and Emei Leaf-Warbler. Three nights will be spent at a simple resort just outside the park.
Day 3: Loncanggou. Our first full day on Longcanggou will be focused on the higher altitudes on the mountain. This will involve an early start to get to the top of the road shortly after dawn, followed by a 5 mile round hike to reach some areas of bamboo, fir forest, and scrub, which hold some cool montane species like, with luck, Sichuan Treecreeper, (as well as Hodgson’s Treecreeper), Three-toed and Great Parrotbills, Parrotbills, Black-faced Laughingthrush, White-browed Shortwing, and our first taste of the bush-warblers and head-scratching seicercus warblers, with the highland versions of these like Aberrant and Brownish-flanked Bush-Warblers and Bianchi’s Warbler. There is also an outside chance of a rare mammal like Red Panda which jolted us to life on our hike up the mountain on our 2012 tour!
After a longish but rewarding day on our feet, and after hot noodles in the field, we will welcome another tasty meal back at the resort in the evening, washed down with Chinese Snow beer or a cup of traditional Chinese Green Tea.
Day 4: Longcanggou. For our final, full, day on the mountain we will change our focus to the lower and mid elevations, searching for a different suite of species, like the gorgeous, and melodic, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Emei Leaf-Warbler (along with a swathe of other warblers like Plain-tailed, Martens’s, Russet Bush-, Yellowish-bellied Bush-, Kloss’s Leaf-, and Claudia’s Leaf-Warblers), Buffy and Red-winged Laughingthrushes, and also have another shot at Emei Liocichla too. Checking mixed flocks may lead us to our first of the China’s endemic tits, like Yellow-bellied Tit, which may turn up in a bird wave along with Fire-capped and Yellow-browed Tits too, which often take brisk offence to the recording of a local Collared Owlet. We will also keep an eye out for any twitching stems of bamboo as the gorgeous Golden-breasted Fulvetta, and impossibly cute Golden Parrotbill call this home, and sometimes roam the stands together, along with the more abundant Streak-throated Fulvetta.
Day 5: Longcanggou to Labahe Nature Reserve. After a final spell in Longcanggou during the morning we will head northwest to the Labahe Nature Reserve (a 2-3 hour drive away), an Important Bird Area in Tianquan county. There should be some time in the afternoon to search for our first Chinese endemic in the park, the odd, junco-like, Slaty Bunting. The next two nights will be spent in the park, in wood cabins beside a rushing river that comes complete, like many mountain rivers in Sichuan, with attendant Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts.
Day 6: Labahe Nature Reserve. The enticing mix of broadleaf woodland, deciduous mixed woodland, and coniferous forest covering the upper slopes, makes Labahe an exciting destination for birders. The lower slopes boast some rare and difficult species like Gold-fronted Fulvetta, Emei (Gray-faced) Liocichla, and Streaked Barwing, while the upper slopes hold Red-winged Laughingthrush, Black-browed Tit, Chestnut-headed Tesia, and Pygmy Wren-Babbler. Where the coniferous forest gives way to bamboo thickets and scrub at the highest altitudes we have a shot at finding the amazing Firethroat, Brown Parrotbill, White-browed Shortwing, and Spotted Laughingthrush. Sometimes mammals can make a surprise intervention here too, with Red Panda and the enormous Takin both occurring in the area, although luck is needed to find either of these, even if this maybe one of the top sites in Sichuan for both.
However, what makes Labahe most worth visiting for is the chance to encounter pheasants along the dirt road that runs up this scenic mountain, which is dominated by towering craggy sides and forest-lined picturesque rivers, which come complete with rushing white waters and powerful torrents. An early morning drive up the mountain can sometimes yield both Temminck’s Tragopan and Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, and we will keep a keen eye on the road as ascend in the only permitted vehicles in this area, the park jeeps. We will have two morning drives in order to try and track these seductive gamebirds down.
Day 7: Labahe Nature Reserve to Chengdu. After a final morning in the nature reserve at Labahe, we will head back to Chengdu, a three hour drive away. En-route we will make a short stop to try for Chinese Hwamei, which requires a little luck to see in the dense bamboo stands in the area.
CLIMATE: Cool to chilly, and damp in the mountains. Snow is possible at Balang Shan. Warm and humid in the lowlands of Chengdu and the southern Shans.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly moderate, occasionally difficult. A few of the hikes are strenuous.
ACCOMMODATION: Moderate to very good except for Loncanggou, which is basic and has shared bathrooms. All places have 24-hour electricity. We cannot guarantee single rooms are available at Longcanggou, as they have only limited rooms available.