Dec 5, 2008

Sichuan Birdwatching - Sichuan a Birding Hotspot

Chinese Fulvetta - one of the China endemics that can be found in Sichuan

Sichuan Birding
For a variety of reasons, Sichuan is a fantastic birding destination. Within easy reach, of the provincial capital Chengdu, are diverse habitats, ranging from sub-tropical mountain forest to the high grasslands of the Tibetan plateau. These areas home a great diversity of species, which include the countries richest list of endemics and breeding endemics.

Through ongoing taxonomical studies – new distinct species are constantly being recognized among birds that were formerly recognized as sub-species – and Chinese checklists are quickly outdated. However if we were to take the Avibase – China Checklist as a reference, then we are told that China contains 53 endemics and 18 breeding endemics – an total of 71.
From the checklist Avibase provides, we can then discover that 36 of these species are found within Sichuan – making it the major endemic hotspot of China. (see list at the foot of this article)

Another reference, from The Institute of Zoology, Beijing, found at - - gives us tables and charts to further emphasize how important Sichuan is as an ornithological region.

In one of their charts, in the form of a color coded China map that relates to the density and distribution of endemic species, we can see how Sichuan (outlined in red) rates as a major species diversity hotspot when compared with the rest of the country.
Sichuan areas with high endemic lists include the Emei/Wawu areas and the Qionglai Mountain range (the famous Wolong Panda reserve, a favored birding destination, is located within this range – but due to the 2008 earthquake the reserve is now closed to the public . This range can be visited from alternative sites – including Laba He Forest park).

Sichuan almost twice the size of the UK – lies in the west of Central China , and the western regions of the province meet the Tibet Plateau and the Himalayas. Chengdu itself lies within the densely populated and intensively cultivated Sichuan basin (located within Eastern Sichuan) – but within close driving distance, to the West and North, one can already access a Sub-tropical habitat – that can be described as the Panda Zone. Further West and we are already heading up onto the Mountain Grasslands and Alpine Forest of the Tibetan Plateau.

Taken as a whole, Sichuan experiences a great variety of climates.
These range between -
A Monsoon type climate with long hot sticky summers and Short cool/cold winters - always expect a high chance of foggy hazy conditions, with little real sun or blue skies (China’s lowest sunshine hours are found in Eastern Sichuan). These type of weather conditions can be a be a problem for birders who are visiting the lower mountain sites such as Emei and Wawu – since fog/low cloud is often present around the summits.

An example of those misty conditions that can make birding difficult - howver going down often improves the situation - and amazingly if you cross high mountain passes into another valley system the weather sometimes changes.

An Alpine climate in the high west and north, where winters are long and cold and summers are short and mild – but masses of sun (bring your sunblock).

Up on the grasslands the sun can be very strong - even outside the summer period.

The Birding season
A favored birding season for visitors – especially in the sub-tropical locations - is during April/May and Early June – during the height of the breeding season, but before the summer gets too hot. During this period the temperatures have not reached their uncomfortable summer peaks, the humidity is not at its stickiest (clearer days – less risk of foggy/cloudy conditions on the sub-tropical mountains) and the type of heavy rain that’s often experienced during August and September is a rarity. During this period the birds are active – and calling – which make playback an effective method of luring birds out of dense undergrowth.
During July, August – activity dies down and birds seem to be less active and more difficult to spot at temperature and humidity levels soar.

However, in the mountainous west if you go travel to those altitudes around 4,000m it’s not unusual to find snow still lying on the high passes even during May and nights can be quite chilly up here until we get into June. The summer months of June, July and August are good months for visiting these higher regions, since they can be pleasantly warm, while the birds that live at high-altitude are still very active during these summer months.

During the spring and autumn months– all areas becoming interesting birding locations. But during these times unusual species can turn up in locations well way from the usual birding hotspots. During these months many species on passage pass through Chengdu. Sichuan also has areas where bird of prey passage can be observed.

Long-billed Plover - an interesting passage migrant and winter visitor to the muddy river areas around Chengdu.

Winter is also an exciting time, since many high altitude species flock and come down to lower heights – making it much easier to spot them. Some of the best places to watch during this period are in the valleys bellow the high mountain ranges. Winter also brings ducks – but the number and quality of suitable wintering sites is being seriously affected by population pressure. Northern migrants also over-winter in Sichuan.

Effects of the earthquake
During May 2008 Sichuan was badly affected by a huge earthquake – and a few well known birding sites suffered great damage due to landslides. Wolong and the Balang pass are no longer open to the public. However other famous sites like Emei and Wawu were almost totally unaffected by the quakes are remain fully open. Even sites like the Qingcheng Mountains – close to Dujiangyan - which were also badly affected are now once again open. However even though we’ve lost access to couple of prime birding sites – there are still so many alternative locations that still make Sichuan a birding hot spot of China.

A scence at Qingcheng Mountain where a rather large rock tumbled down the mountain during the quake - amazingly a lot of clearing work has already been completed since we took this pic in June - this area, which is desperate to get its tourist industry working again, is once again open for birding

Slaty Bunting - an endemic that can be found as a winter vistor in Chengdu

List of Endemic/Breeding Endemics found in Sichuan (after data found at – )

Severtzov's Grouse Bonasa sewerzow
Sichuan Partridge Arborophila rufipectus
Chinese Monal Lophophorus lhuysii
Blue Eared-Pheasant Crossoptilon auritum
Reeves' Pheasant Syrmaticus reevesii
Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus
Père David's Owl Strix davidi
Chinese Thrush Turdus mupinensis
Crested Tit-Warbler Leptopoecile elegans
Chinese Leaf-Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis
Emei Leaf-Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis
Sulphur-breasted Warbler Phylloscopus ricketti
Martens's Warbler Seicercus omeiensis
Hodgson's Redstart Phoenicurus hodgsoni
Père David's Laughingthrush Garrulax davidi
Sukatschev's Laughingthrush Garrulax sukatschewi
Barred Laughingthrush Garrulax lunulatus
Biet's Laughingthrush Garrulax bieti
Giant Laughingthrush Garrulax maximus
Gray-faced Liocichla Liocichla omeiensis
Rufous-tailed Babbler Chrysomma poecilotis
Chinese Fulvetta Alcippe striaticollis
Grey-hooded Fulvetta Fulvetta cinereiceps
Three-toed Parrotbill Paradoxornis paradoxus
Spectacled Parrotbill Paradoxornis conspicillatus
Gray-hooded Parrotbill Paradoxornis zappeyi
Rusty-throated Parrotbill Paradoxornis przewalskii
Sooty Tit Aegithalos fuliginosus
White-browed Tit Poecile superciliosa
Père David's Tit Poecile davidi
Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus
Sichuan Treecreeper Certhia tianquanensis
Sichuan Jay Perisoreus internigrans
Pink-rumped Rosefinch Carpodacus eos
Three-banded Rosefinch Carpodacus trifasciatus
Slaty Bunting Latoucheornis siemsseni

Nov 26, 2008

Sichuan Birdwatching - Birding at the Top Of the World

Giant Laughingthrush - one of those wonderful species that can be observed in upland Sichuan

Sichuan is a gateway to Tibet – and, heading out from Chengdu, the westward bound birder will soon be entering areas of great elevation - where Western Sichuan meets the Tibetan Plateau. Here the scene is soaring mountain ranges, Yak grazed grasslands, nomadic herders, Tibetan temples and villages – a land of Eagles and Vultures – a unique experience in terms of birding and culture

This rolling grassland scenery was taken on the road to Ganzi

The Grasslands
If you travel from Chengdu on the famous 318 Lhasa route – within around 6 hours you’ll get to Kangding. Within this small city you’ll suddenly notice that Tibetans, often dressed in traditional clothing, have become a common part of the street-scene. Kangding is also the gateway to the grassland areas that lie close by – but if you’re traveling in this direction it can be a good idea to stay in Kangding for a day to start your acclimatization for altitude. The next part of your journey west will then take you over the 4,300m Zhedou Mountain pass – with its Accentors, Blood Pheasant, White-eared Pheasant, Himalayan Rubythroat, Grandala, Himalayan Griffons, Lammergeier and a host of other species – where going over “onto the other side” finally brings you onto the Grassland . From here you can get to destinations like Tagong, Yajiang, Litang, Dao Cheng, Ganzi and Dege. This area is spectacular to say the least – rolling grasslands – alpine forest, the best of which we’ve found around around Yajiang (where Derbyan Parakeet is still hanging on). On the Grassland you get up into a whole new world – the clock goes backwards when looking at some of the nomadic folk who come in from the mountains with their Yak herds. The birds are also exciting, and apart from those named above include– Snow pigeon, Hume’s Groundpecker, Snowfinch species, Rosefinch species, Kessler’s Thrush, Giant Laughingthrush, Golden Eagle Upland Buzzard and Ibisbill.

Ibisbill - I'm afraid this is my best shot of this bird, which is amazingly well camouflaged in around the stones within its favoured habitat.

Plain Mountain Finch - up on the top of Zhedou Mountain

Maerkang and Rou Er Gai
These again are fantastic areas – Maerkang being situated in more rural valley type situations with fantastic stone villages that are built up onto the mountain sides. You can also find the ancient “watch tower” constructions in this area – but nobody really knows what exact functions these buildings played (theories jump between - defense, storage, village status-symbol). Much of the area is more arid than the grasslands further south but we still meet forest - especially on Mengbi Mountain (Mengbishan) – a location which gains its birding fame as a location for spotting Sichuan Jay.
Ruo Er Gai is a wet land – but there are other habitat types close by. The species that draw birders here is the Black-necked Crane. But we also have two highly interesting Laughing thrushes located here – Plain and Snowy-cheeked.

Hume's Groundpecker - in the field this bird, when seen flying, resembles a Wheatear.

Grandala - the Jewel of the high passes

Juizhaigou and Songpan
As a famed tourist destination – certain places in this area suffers a bit from over development, noisy tourist crowds and high prices. But if you keep out of the way of the charter traffic there are still peaceful areas and of course a lot of interesting birds.
Once again a scenic stunner – here we have a lot of good forest habitat.
One of the great bird in this area is – Blue-eared Pheasant. A good way to get around is by horse trekking - even though you need a steady hand to use your binoculars on the back of a horse.

Tibetan Snowfich - this one was see close to Litang

Blue-eared Pheasant - this picture isn't too steady, but it was taken from a Horse!!!!

Oct 25, 2008

Sichuan Birdwatching - Birds from our October trip to Tagong, Moxi and Erlang.

The mighty 7,ooom peak of Gongga Mountain seen from the Kangding Airport road - if you don't see any birds in this area then at least you have this sight to console you. However we saw birds - scroll down to see them.

We made this trip mainly to check out the travel situation passed Kangding - this area has been closed over the summer because of an Olympic security clamp-down. The good news is that the area is again open - although there are still checkpoints. As a foreigner I was expecting to be stopped - but the only time a policeman came to talk to us was with a big smile and kind advice - telling us about a road that was under repair and giving us an alternative route (the new Kangding Airport to Tagong "track" is now open - although not finished it's quite okay for all vehicles).
During this trip we got to the Tibetan grassland of Tagong (still in Sichuan about 8-10 hours drive from Chengdu) - we then headed to Moxi - and finished up doing some walking around the Erlang Mountain.
We took pictures of 32 species - but saw many more. Notable species that we saw but didn't get pics of are - a female Temminck's Tragopan (Erlang), a single Hobby and many Oriental Honey-buzzard migrating over the Erlang pass, 3 Streaked Barwing (Erlang), Rusty-breasted Tit (Erlang and Moxi), Rusty-capped Fulvetta (Moxi), Grey-breasted Prinia (Yanzi Mountain), Moustached Laughingthrush (near Luding) and Brown Parrotbill (near Kangding).

Scroll down to get a few pics of some of the other birds.
To see pics in a larger format - just click on them.

Better start with a picture of the photographer - the better half. She has recently highjacked the camera - and is starting to become a bird photo nut. As for me - I'm learning how to shut-up constantly scream-whispering - "take that, take that, take that........."

Yellow-legged Buttonquail - I'm starting to fall over this bird - only a week or so ago it was a lifer! We got a more or less repeat of our encounter at Laba Ha - a bird crossing the road. This time at about 2,000m on a place we call Yanzi Mountain - the road between Kangding and Moxi.

White-winged Redstart - this was a lifer. This bird winters around Tagong - a real stunner. (Don't confuse this bird with white-capped Water Redstart - which has a very similar illustration in the guide book. In the field they have a whole other look)

White-browed Rosefinch - a couple of noisy males. my wife thought they sounded like goats!!! Again up Yanzi mountain about 2 minutes before we ran into the Buttonquail

Another White-browed species - this time - White-browed Tit Warbler. This is a quality bird - we saw this at about 3,500m on the Tagong side of Zheduo Mountain. This is a male - but it isn't that well marked - but still a hansdsome blighter.

Wallcreeper - well you're going to have to click on the pic to get a bigger version if you want a clearer look. We often see this bird, but this is our first pic.

Twite - of course you don't have to go to Tibet to see a Twite - but its fun to see 'em here.

Tickell's Leaf Warbler - identifying Sichuanese Warblers can be a real pain in the backside - but with that strong eyestripe, yellow underside, clean green back and bill colour there ain't much doubt that we've found Mr. Tickell's bird. Tagong grassland - about 3,000m

Stripe-throated Yuhina - what a cutey. with a hair-cut like that it must be a punk-bird. This is in Forest near Erlang tunnel - a great birding location. About 10 minutes before we got this guy we'd had a brief run-in with three Streaked Barwing. There also Red Panda around here - we talked to some road menders who had seen one on the track just the day before.

Tree Sparrow - well this one is different from those back home - for starters it's perched on a Tibetan prayer-flag!!! Subspecies tibetanus - on the Tagong Grassland.

Horned Skylark (Shore Lark) - cold up here, about 4,300m on the top of Zheduo Mountain. We both had trouble holding the camera still because of a combined wind and shiver factor. Only Twite and Shore Lark up here today - lot more action at this height in the summer.

Russet Sparrow - this lovely bird looks very nice when it gives you the eye to eye stare. From a parking place near Luding.

Robin Accentor - loads of these birds around Tagong - but we could never quite get a picture in the right light. This one is in the backyard of the temple - feeding around the weeds that grow in between the stupas.

Raven - here the brilliant sunlight that you can find at high altitude helped Meggie get a magnificent photo. The bird is scavenging around some rubbish left by road workers - on the Zheduo Mountain. That same sunlight burnt my poor nose to a near cinder!!!

Olive-backed Pipit - loads of these birds about on passage. This tired bird was on Erlang Mountain.

Orange-flanked Bush Robin - these birds were flocking with Blue-fronted Redstart. In Chengdu - in some of the parks - we can also find these two species together. Moxi

Magpie - yeps, British gardeners - we get 'em here as well. But you'll be glad to find out that if you wish to set up a bird-table on the Tibetan Plateau - there are no troublesome Grey Squirells.

Lammergeier - the family is out here. That dark bird that looks a wee bit like Cinerous Vulture is a Lamme - photos can sometimes decieve. This is up Zheduo Mountain but there were also Lammergeier around Tagong.

Himmalayan Griffon - meets the moon (meeting in a natural manner - didn't bring them face to face via Photoshop - just a little sharpening on the vulture image). Lots of this bird around as usual. Zheduo, and Tagong being the main locations with a single bird on the Moxi side of Yanzi Mountain.

Hill Pigeon - on a cold morning trying to find a hot tin roof. Poor blighters have found a cold tiled version. Tagong Grasslands.

Grey-crested Tit - I lost meggie in a bush for 20 minutes, and she came back with this. Another great punk-bird!!!! Moxi.

Grandala - most birders see these birds, during the summer, on high mountain passes around 4,000m. But now in October they've already flown down - these are around 2,000m (Yanzi Mountain). The blue on the males is quite fantastic - no photo will ever capture the true quality of this bird.

Godlewski's Bunting - the common Bunting around Tagong.

Golden Eagle - not much of a pic, but everybody likes to see an Eagle. This bird was near Moxi - while we got a pair on the new Kangding airport road about an hour out of Tagong.

Elliot's Laughingthrush - Meggie really has captured the spirit of this nosy bird in this pic. Erlang Mountain.

Daurian Jackdaw - some brit birders may reckon this bird should be called Hooded Jackdaw. Tagong

Red-billed Chough - another hot tin roof seeker. A pair of glossy looking critters - posing in an intense sunrise.

Chinese Sparrowhawk - I got this one. A bit like clay-pidgeon shooting - flash - and a second to let loose with a shot. I hit him!!!

Chinese Babax - Another time I lost my wife to a bush - she was gone a long time in getting this one. We saw Baxax in Moxi and near Kangding - on both occasions in the company of Elliot's Laughers.

Brown Accentor - on pile of Yak doings. This is another bird you see in summer at the 4,000m range - but again its moved down a few hundred metres to "warmer" climes. Zheduo Mountain.

Brown-breasted Bulbul - a common bird of farmland in the mid-elevation zones. This one is near Luding.

Blue-fronted Redstart - in the exact same tree as the Orange-flanked Bush Robin. This is female - but there were males around as well. Moxi.

Beautiful Rosefinch - rosefiches can be a pain to identify from the guide-book. Best get a photo and then check them out at the OBC and birdforum sites. This male is on the Tagong side of Zheduo Mountain.

Oct 6, 2008

Wawu and Emei Mountains

Fulvous Parrotbill gathering nesting material on Wawu

Within easy driving distance from Chengdu we have areas of mountain, peaking up around the 3,000m level, that are clad in lush sub-tropical forest. Two famous birding locations that meet this description are Emei and Wawu Mountains. These two sites are within a couple of hours of each other, where close distance means they can almost be birded in combination. It's important to note that the country road that joins these sites also gives chances for interesting watching. Of the two Wawu– a virgin conifer forest covered table-top, where the under storey is blanketed in a thick sea of dwarf bamboo - has become a very popular tick-spot. Emei and Wawu were unaffected by the big quake, and are totally open - everything is functioning normally including the cable-car lifts.

Both of these parks contain some spectacular species – with a wealth of bird life at all elevations. Our favorite birds at Emei include Blue-winged Minla, White-bellied Redstart and Emei Shan Liocichla ( Emei also has a Warbler named after it – Emei Leaf Warbler – and both the Emei birds are also found on Wawu). Wawu is a Parrotbill paradise with Three-toed, Fulvous and Grey-hooded all to be spied out in the thick matt of bamboo, while Great Parrotbill can be often be spotted calling from the forest trees.
To get a better idea of the long lists that can be accumulated at these sites just Google-up Emei or Wawu, and read through the numerous reports that have been written on these places. In one of those reports there is also mention of a Wawu encounter with a Red Panda.

Swinhoe's Minivet - a passage migrant spotted in parkland at the base of Emei

The best ways of watching Emei and Wawu is a vehicle/foot combination – since good birds can be seen on the many kilometers of road within both parks – roads that give access to all elevations, and ones that can also lead the birder to the smaller more secluded, non-tourists tracks. On Emei the main tourist walk-way up the mountain is a seemingly endless stone stairway – which can get slippery during wet weather. For those who don't want all that climbing, you can drive up to end the station (stopping in temples - and birding from road stops as you go) and get a cable-car up to the top. Getting onto Wawu’s summit is a15km drive to a cable-car station. Here the major walk-ways are on the summit area, and are a far more level affair than Emei's up, up and more up followed by a return journey of down, down and yet more down.

The dense forest at the summit of Wawu

So many of the species found in these locations – like Laughingthrushes, Bush Warblers, Scimitar Babblers and the big Parrotbills are such timid skulkers, that playback often seems the best way of getting decent views. We use cheap a Chinese made voice recorder and a mini-speaker – it works just fine. Always remember that you have to use great caution with this method, since excess playback risks driving a bird out of its territory.
Footwear is also something to think about – I’ve already mentioned slippery stone stairs – and those boots with hard Vibram type soles can literally act like ice-skates on wet stone surfaces. I use rubber soled sport's shoes – but then again these are often rather leaky if we take onto a wet, muddy side track. However, on most occasions, I’ll take wet feet over worrying about a badly bruised bum.

Remember both these sites can also be popular with tourists – with Emei always attracting great numbers of visitors during the summer season and national holidays (which gives one plus point – a lot of hotels to choose from). Wawu is a quieter location - which means only three hotels. The two birding hotels are those found at the summit and by the lower cable car station – both of which are in very good birding locations. If you need to spend the night at the park gates – take the hotels just outside the park – they are far cheaper. With all these places, make sure you bargain your room price – you can get discounts. It’s also a good idea to bring along some food, since the meals inside the park can be poor and, by normal Chinese standards, expensive – a few snacks will help you along.

When the birding gets too much, you could ignore those signs that warn you not to jump - at the top of Emei

The last word of warning is about the weather - both sites have an annoying tendency to cloud in. When this happens the top elevations become very difficult to watch. Sometimes in such situations – especially if it’s raining - we just pack bags and take off down the road to Laba He. But patience can pay off, since just as quickly as those mists roll in, so can they also disappear - often leaving vivid blue skies in their wake. Such is life for the Sichuan birder.