Classic China: Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau

Sichuan has China’s most dramatic mountains, all of its best endemics including pheasants, parrotbills and rosefinches, austere Tibetan buddhist temples, and a rich varied cuisine that makes it the finest part of the country to visit for birding. 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 most 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. 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 unique birds, not least the elegant Black-necked Crane, gorgeous White-browed Tit-Warbler and Przevalski’s Pinktail, a monotypic family and therefore a must for family listers. If you only do China once, this is the place to choose.



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.

Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler occurs right in Chengdu
Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler occurs right in Chengdu (Charley Hesse)

Day 2: Chengdu to Longcanggou. We will travel to Loncanggou via Ya’an. Here we will look for birds like Brown-rumped (Swinhoe’s) Minivet, Forest Wagtail, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Ashy-throated Parrotbill. 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 to search for our first specialties of the area, like Brown Bullfinch and Sichuan Bush-Warbler. Three nights will be spent in Loncanggou. (Note – The entry policy changes every year. If this site is not accessible, an alternative site will be substituted.)

Pheasants like Temminck's  Tragopan are the highlights of many Sichuan tours
Pheasants like Temminck's Tragopan are the highlights of many Sichuan tours (Sam Woods)

Days 3-4: Longcanggou Forest Park. We will spend two full days working this park, which has only recently been uncovered as a birding hotspot; 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 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.

Golden Parrotbill is the cutest of all parrotbills
Golden Parrotbill is the cutest of all parrotbills (Nick Athanas)

The stunning white-headed form of Black Bulbul found around Loncanggou
The stunning white-headed form of Black Bulbul found around Loncanggou (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Longcanggou Forest Park to Wolong. Today will be a long driving day, but we will make some brief roadside stops en-route. After some final birding at Longcanggou, we will backtrack to Chengdu, then head west into the mountains and onto our rustic lodge in Wolong situated at 1900m (6200ft) elevation. We will spend the next three nights here, below Balang Shan, arguably the most spectacular site of the tour.

Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan
Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan (Keith Barnes)

Days 6-7: Balangshan area. We will have two full days to bird the varied localities and elevations on Balang Shan. Once again, our attentions will be drawn to pheasants 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. Other species we will be searching for include Chinese 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. We will have two nights at a rustic lodge in Wolong.

Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan
Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan (Keith Barnes)

Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan
Balang Shan is the scenic highlight in Sichuan (Keith Barnes)

Day 8: Wolong to Maerkang. On this day we will have our last birding in the Balang Shan area, before heading to the city of Maerkang. En route we will be on the lookout for Wallcreeper, Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Gray-headed Bullfinch, Black-browed, Gray-crested and Rufous-vented Tits. After the drive, we may have time to bird Mengbishan in the afternoon, which is home to a long list of birds, including Crested Tit-Warbler and Sichuan Jay. The next two nights will be spent at a comfortable hotel in the town of Maerkang, situated at 2400m (7800ft) elevation.

Rufous-vented Tits roam spruce forests in mixed species flocks with other tits
Rufous-vented Tits roam spruce forests in mixed species flocks with other tits (Keith Barnes)

Day 9: 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.

Sichuan is rosefinch heaven; over ten species can be seen on this tour!
Sichuan is rosefinch heaven; over ten species can be seen on this tour! (Sam Woods)

Day 10: 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, Przevalski’s Pinktail, 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, or Pinktail, was rediscovered in Sichuan
The Przevalski's Rosefinch, or Pinktail, was rediscovered in Sichuan (Keith Barnes)

Day 11: Baxi Forest and the Tibetan Plateau. Our day will start 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. 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 Falcon and Upland Buzzard.

Sichuan Tit; a highly local endemic
Sichuan Tit; a highly local endemic (Sam Woods)

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

Day 12: 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.

Up to five species of accentor can be found on this tour, including the beady-eyed Maroon-backed
Up to five species of accentor can be found on this tour, including the beady-eyed Maroon-backed (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Gonggangling to Chengdu. 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 morning in this area, we’ll head back to Chengdu for the last night.
Day 14: Departure from Chengdu. You will be transferred this morning to the airport for departure.

A whole batch of endemics await in Sichuan, like this Chinese Fulvetta
A whole batch of endemics await in Sichuan, like this Chinese Fulvetta (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This is a fairly 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 quite active with little downtime, although we will try to give clients an hour off before dinner. 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 including birding stops.

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. Central China is wet, and the changeable weather in springtime is likely to also include some rain.

ACCOMMODATION: Usually good, but fairly basic at Longcanggou and Wolong in particular. All have full-time electricity and hot water; and most 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 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 13; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 14; 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 13; 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.