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 possible lower down. Parrotbills are possible 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, and the gorgeous White-browed Tit-Warbler and White-browed Tit, the latter of which heads up a long list of endemic tit species. If you only do China once, this is the place to choose, with its world famous cuisine, often available, (even in remote areas), complementing the tour perfectly.




Day 1: Arrival in Chengdu
After arrival in Chengdu, we will transfer to a hotel in the city. 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).

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
Our day will open right in Chengdu, with a visit to the Panda Breeding Center. This will provide our only chance to see the Giant Pandas, in this World class facility. There are good birds to be had around the grounds too, like the recently split Chinese Blackbird, Oriental Greenfinch, Gray-cheeked Fulvetta, and confiding White-browed Laughingthrush. Later in the morning, we will begin the long drive to Longcanggou, which will be broken up by a stop near the city of Ya’an, for scarce 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.

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 3-4: Longcanggou Forest Park
We will spend two 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 two nights will also be at a simple lodging on the edge of the park.

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

Day 5: 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 6: 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.

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 7: 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 8-9: 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.

A White-tailed Rubythroat in song on Balang Shan
A White-tailed Rubythroat in song on Balang Shan (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 10: 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.

Day 11: 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 12: 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! 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 four nights.

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

Day 13: Baxi Forest
Our day will open with what may have by now become a familiar scene; 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. At the end of the day we shall return to Ruoergai for the night.

The Black-necked Crane occurs among the scenic surrounds of the Tibetan Plateau
The Black-necked Crane occurs among the scenic surrounds of the Tibetan Plateau (Sam Woods)

Day 14: Tibetan Plateau
A full day will be spent exploring the craggy outcrops, open grasslands, scrubby hillsides, and wetlands of the Tibetan Plateau. On the edge of the plateau we will search for the low density Chinese (Tibetan) Gray Shrike, a Saker scything through the skies overhead, Godlewski’s Buntings, White-backed (Kessler’s) Thrushes, and snowfinches (White-rumped and Rufous-necked both occurring there).

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

We shall also visit a scrubby area, where in recent years a small population of the Przevalski’s Rosefinch, a monotypic family, have been rediscovered. This would likely provide an entirely new family for all. We will also visit a huge lake, where Upland Buzzards, Citrine Wagtails, and Tibetan Larks can often be found around the edges, while on the lake itself are often a variety of waterbirds, like Red-crested Pochard and the regal, must-see Black-necked Crane. At the end of what should be another exciting days birding in the heart of China, we shall return to Ruoergai for a final night.

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

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.

Day 16: Gonggangling to Chengdu
The high spruce-laden pass near Gonggangling is another site for Blue Eared-Pheasant, but can also be good for Siberian Rubythroat, 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). After much of the morning in this area, we shall make the long drive back to Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, for the final night of the tour, where we are sure to have but one more delicious meal of Sichuan-style food.

Day 17: 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 drives of four hours or more on five days, one of which will be for most of the day.

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. There is one more difficult hike on a moderately steep trail of about 5 miles (8 km) roundtrip at Longcanggou. 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 no 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 or better, but fairly basic at Longcanggou and Rilong. All have full-time electricity and hot water. The accommodation at Longcanggou on the nights of days 2 to 4 only has shared bathrooms; 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 16; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 17; 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 16; 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.