Qinghai and Tibet: Pink-tailed Bunting and the Potola Palace

Tibet is spectacular. Birding here requires a journey through immense ice-clad mountains, rolling golden-green plains, and vast aquamarine lakes. Scattered monasteries are home to whirling prayer-wheels and chanting monks who still conduct sky-burials. For many birders, the main motivation to visit is the Pink-tailed Bunting, a taxonomic oddity that is now widely recognized as being in its own family. Qinghai is one of the few regions where this enigmatic bird is regularly seen. Our visit coincides with breeding, so we expect vocal and displaying birds at our reliable stake-outs.

The tour begins in Xining, where we bird the Rubber Mountains and the spectacular Koko Nor, a huge highland lake dotted with Bar-headed Geese and Greater Black-headed Gulls. Stately Black-necked Cranes and immaculate Mongolian Larks dwell in the marshy fringes. The surrounding plains and rocky outcrops hold Hume’s Lark and up to six species of snowfinch. Robin and Brown accentors are surprisingly common, and scrub covered hillsides hide the endemic White-browed Tit and pastel-painted White-browed Tit-Warbler. We crest the Rubber Mountains, perhaps seeing a Lammergeier or Golden Eagle gliding majestically overhead, and descend into the dry Gobi-like scrub surrounding Chaka. Here Tibetan horseman roam, and stark salt lakes lie in the shadow of towering Himalayan peaks. Our time will be spent searching for Henderson’s Ground-Jay, a gregarious, cursorial corvid with a striking black-and-white wing pattern. While striding through this cold desert we also hope to find Pallas’ Sandgrouse and Mongolian and Desert Finches.

This tour offers an abundance of redstarts; Ala Shan Redstart is the toughest of the group
This tour offers an abundance of redstarts; Ala Shan Redstart is the toughest of the group (Keith Barnes)

Craggy valleys hold a small population of Alashan Redstart, a scarce north-central China endemic. Amongst a spectacular collection of gamebirds we hope for the endemic Prezwalski’s Partridge and scarce and beautiful Tibetan Partridge. Passing Heimehe, we head south to the forbidding Er-La Pass. At 14,765ft (4500m) high, this is an unforgiving place. We’ll hike up to 15,750ft (4800m) to seek out Plain and Brandt’s mountain-finches, White-winged Redstart, Roborovski’s Rosefinch, Tibetan Snowcock, and Tibetan Sandgrouse. These crags support Blue Sheep and Tibetan Gazelle, and a decade ago a birding tour even saw a Snow Leopard here. We return to Xining and flock-filled, forested hills. Amongst a huge selection of leaf-warblers we will be on the lookout for Gansu Leaf-warbler, Crested Tit-warbler, Songar Tit, and Snowy-browed and Chinese Nuthatches.

Day 1: Arrival in Xining.
Day 2: Xining to Rubber Mountains.
Day 3: Rubber Mountains and Koko Nor area.
Days 4: Rubber Mountains to Chaka.
Days 5-6: Chaka.
Day 7: Chaka to Er-La Pass.
Day 8: Er-La Pass.
Day 9: Er-La Pass to Gong He.
Day 10: Gong He to Datong.
Days 11: Datong Forest to Xining.

Tibetan Eared-pheasant is the main treat around Lhasa
Tibetan Eared-pheasant is the main treat around Lhasa (Keith Barnes)

Lhasa extension
Those venturing to Lhasa head for the train station to begin a comfortable journey over the roof of the world. The scenery is heavenly, and passing through the immense Kekexili Wilderness Area we will survey scenes reminiscent of Africa’s grassy savannas. The plains are scattered with Tibetan Gazelle and Tibetan Wild Ass; rarer still are Tibetan Fox, Tibetan Wolf, Tibetan Antelope, and Wild Yak. After nearly 24 hours we arrive in the capital of Tibet. The next morning we explore the incredible Potola Palace, the most recognizable and striking structure in Tibetan Buddhist culture. Later we head for a remote nunnery that supports three southern Tibet specialties: Giant Babax, Prince Henry’s Laughingthrush, and Tibetan Eared-Pheasant. On our way back to Lhasa we’ll be sure to stop for Ibisbill before returning to Xining.

The Potola Palace
The Potola Palace (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Board train to Lhasa in the evening.
Day 2: Conclude train trip to Lhasa through Kekexili Wilderness Area.
Day 3: Visit Potola Palace and other cultural sites in Lhasa.
Day 4: Birding near Lhasa.
Days 5: Fly from Lhasa to Xining.

Please note that all foreign visitors to Lhasa require the Chinese government’s approval of special permits; these can only be issued two weeks prior to arrival and can be rejected without explanation. Thus a some flexibility and understanding is required for those interested in visiting this highly sensitive and unpredictable area.



CLIMATE: Although it is summer and in general temperatures are mild (50–70°F), rain, snow, and sleet are possible at any time at this altitude, especially on high passes.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. This trip involves little physical effort, with a bit of walking on relatively flat ground. The altitude takes some getting used to, and provided we move slowly should not be a problem if you have not experienced altitude sickness before.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly good, with very simple accommodation at Er-La.