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.

Oct 5, 2008

Laba He Forest Park

Last week we had a guest with limited birding time – who we planned to guide around the famous birding site of Wawu Mountain. At first the weather looked okay - but by afternoon everything had closed in and a quick change of plan was needed!

Cute White-collared Yuhinas are very common birds of Laba He

Luckily close-by we have a have one wonderful back-up Site – the Laba He Forest park – whose large area includes some prime birding habitat (using country roads you make this place in 2 to 3 hours from Wawu – on the motorway it's 4 hours from Chengdu).
This site is also a good place to see animals – and includes Panda habitat. Of course you stand very little chance of seeing a Panda – you will see Samba Deer, and there are very good chances of seeing troops of Short-tailed Macaque monkeys or even high altitude grazers such as Takin.

A Short-tailed Macaque - deep in thought.This is the big dominant male of the troupe

Of course there is wealth of bird life including Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, Temminck’s Tragopan and Streaked Barwing. Our birding was tough on this last trip – and although we got our Lady A and Tragapon – other birds were disappointing but they included Spotted Nutcracker and Red-billed Magpie, Bay woodpecker, Speckled Wood Pigeon and dazzling Golden-breasted Fulvetta. However no Barwing, and none of the birds we’ve seen on former visits such as Brown Parrotbill, Barred and Spotted Laughingthrushes, not even the normally common Elliot’s Laughingthrush wanted to show!!!

Here's Elliot's Laughingthrush from another trip earlier on in the year.

To get to see some of the animals the park has constructed boardwalks and viewing platforms, and there are many miles of trail – that take you up to altitudes where you can walk within primary forest and get to scope onto alpine pastures. Of course these features are also great for bird watching.
Accommodation is also good – it includes a luxury hotel – Chalet accommodation – a cheaper hotel –and even camping sites that’s out on the trail. You can get decent accommodation here for 200RMB/night – although I think anyone who demands real 5 star treatment will be disappointed.

One of the board walks - this one has mesh to give grip when wet - others don't and can be very slippy!!!

What is really great about this place is that its quiet – not the throngs of noisy local tourists that often spoil more famous sights that birders often visit in Sichuan (Emei and Jiuzhaigou come to mind here). This place is still one of those hidden gems that can make a Sichuan holiday so unique and rewarding.

Oct 3, 2008

Qingcheng Mountains

The Red-billed Leiothrix are a colorful and active bird - and easily found in many areas around Chengdu

Around 40kms from Chengdu, the town of Dujiangyan hit world headlines back in May because it was badly affected by the Sichuan earthquake. I only live 20kms from this town, and can report that, 4 months after the quake, things are very much on the mend – and that Dujiangyan and surrounding areas have once again opened up to tourists and travelers. In fact in a bid to boost the local economy – tourists are now being openly encouraged to visit this area! This is good news for birders since the town lies under a chain of small mountains (well at least small by Sichuan standards) called the Qingcheng mountains (the highest peak reaching 2,700m). There are two main tourist sites here – the most famous being called the front mountain and another quieter site called the back mountain. These mountains contain both broad-leaf and conifer habitats – and at the back-mountain you can find some very picturesque mountain streams - a lot of small waterfalls in deep narrow gorges.
There are also good birding spots away from the main tourist areas, and its possible to find rewarding rough trails – especially in the vicinity of the highest peak, Zhaogongshan – which can give some good birding.

At the top viewing point of Qingcheng Front Mountain - on a chilly, but bright, Febuary morning

Post quake, most of the trails up the Front Mountain and Zhaogongshan are completely passable – but because of landslides some of the path on the Back Mountain has been badly damaged. However new temporary tracks are being made all the time – and with a bit of a scramble it’s now possible to get to the top. However the Back Mountain is the best habitat for Forktails close to Chengdu (you can get out to Forktail sites in an hour and half from downtown Chengdu) – so for those with limited Sichuan birding time, this area could be a tick-rich location.

A Collared Owlet we caught enjoying a meal

The Front Mountain.
If you take a walk on the front mountain – then around the temples (this mountain has important religious significance for Taoists – and the walk up here is a stone stairway that links several monasteries together) you may see Black-headed Sibia together with the usual host of Collared Finchbills and during the summer the white-headed variety of Black Bulbul. These temples are also good spots for viewing the canopy of the mountain forest – and early morning summer watching may well bring – among other stuff - calling Collared Owlets, Spangled Drongos, Red-billed Blue Magpies, Black-naped Orioles or a passing Crested Goshawk.
If you take into the wooded areas down in the scrub you should easily be able to get Red-billed Leiothrix and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler . For those who are lucky, there’s always a chance for a glimpse of a quick moving Golden Pheasant – but if you don’t get to see them, you’ll certainly hear them if you're birding during spring or early summer.
All of these species are also present in the winter – but during this season flocks of small passerines, which are often dominated by Grey-cheeked Fulvetta and White-collared Yuhina. Winter also brings in altitude migrants, which of course include various species of Laughinthrush.
There have also been April reports for Temmnick’s Tragopan for this site.

A word of warning! The front mountain is a major tourist site – and, during late mornings and afternoons of holidays or weekends, noisy crowds can be the norm. Another factor that adds to birder stress are the many hawkers/vendors,who try to bend your ear in attempting to find a new customer. To cap all of this there are guys who will carry you up the mountain stairway on a stretcher like contraption built out of bamboo and canvas. Some of these folk may follow you up a path for a long distance hoping you’ll tire and hire their services. Needless to say – this can be a pain – but early mornings will get you out of the worst of this mess. You can actually overnight in the mountain monasteries (a cold experience in winter) – which sets you up nicely for an early morning watch.

We got this Grey-headed Bullfinch on the Back Mountain

The Back Mountain.
This is a far more Birder friendly site – less crowded, and away from weekends, during off-season, it can be very peaceful. Again a stairway of stone – but here there are more areas where you don’t have to climb/descend. The path follows a mountain steam and some of the small waterfalls are very nice.

In this habitat Forktails are the species of note – a single visit can bring you little, Slaty-backed, Spotted and White-crowned. To get that Slaty–backed start watching on the river stretches at the base of the mountain (well before the entrance to the mountain – you can also pick up plenty of Brown Dipper here). Little is the commonest Forktail and can often be seen flicking around in the stream that flows through the end village – White-crowned and Spotted can be seen from much of the path that leads to the summit.

Little Forktail - one of the four Forktails to be found on Qingcheng

Once again this is a good location for winter passerines – we’ve had goodies like Barred, Spotted and Red-winged Laughingthrush and that dazzler of a bird – Gold-fronted Fulvetta. This area is also a good spot to pick up that mini-woodpecker – Speckled Piculet.
As mentioned before – this place was badly hit by the quake. In the old days there was a lot of accommodation for those who wanted to stay on the mountain – but I reckon we’ll have to wait to the summer of 09 before any of that is in place again.

There are some great walks around Zhaogongshan

I’ve never seen this part of Qingcheng mentioned in any foreign bird reports – but in the area around the 2,700m Zhaogong Mountain birding can be good. To trek around here you have to use small farmer’s trails – but there is one larger path that leads to Temple on the summit. However these are not well marked routes that are found in the more popular tourist spots, but because this place is less disturbed you may get a better chance to spot Golden Pheasant. Temminck’s Tragopan has also been reported. I’ve seen Great and Grey-headed Parrotbill in this area, Spot-breasted and Brown Parrotbill have also been reported as winter birds.
It's quite possible to find accommodation on the mountain – either in the temples (there is one at the summit) or at lower elevations in small guest-houses.

Oct 2, 2008

Birding in Chengdu

Chengdu – the capital of Sichuan province – is located in the West of China. This important city, the fourth largest in China, has become a popular travel destination, especially for those who intend to visit neighboring Tibet.
For birdwatchers, even though this is a modern polluted, developing city so typical of the new China, Chengdu is a fascinating area – and even within the city boundaries there are opportunities to spot interesting species. Short drives outside the city will of course give even greater opportunities – and within a days driving you can be transported out to areas that have world-famous reputations for their ornithological diversification. If you’re more adventurous 2/3day trips will give you the chance to spot some of the species that are associated with the Tibetan plateau.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill - a common bird in Chengdu

During winter and migration periods – uncommon species can turn up in the city – there has even been a very recent record of an Ibisbill smack bang in a city center river location. But apart from vagrants it’s quite easy to find locations where an interesting variety of birds, more commonly associated with the area, can be found.
Since most visitors come in the summer then it’s the resident and summer species list that’s usually the most of interest – and this contains, even within the parks in about the city center Chinese specialties such as Black-throated Tit, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, White-browed Laughingthrush and Yellow-billed Grosbeak.
If you were a winter visitor then a city center watch could bring you Long-billed Plover and Ferrunginous Duck, Snowy-browed Flycatcher and Orange-flanked Bush Robin.
Taking trips to the outskirts of Chengdu will of course prove a big dividend for your bird watching – and a hour and a half will bring you into areas where you can watch 3 Forktail species, or get a chance to see Golden Pheasant or Painted Snipe. Again season makes a big difference and migration and winter can bring visitors from high altitude locations.

A good indication is to buy a city map – English versions are easily available and look for the green areas that indicate a park.

The best of these seems to be the park around the Dufu Cottage tourist site. This consists of a newly built park surrounding the older area of the Dufu cottage. The newly built park now has trees and shrubs that are maturing which can only improve the birding opportunities. However for best results – and less staring faces – try to get there early and if possible give it a miss on those crowded weekends. A nice feature of this park is a small lake where you can always see Little Egret (a common Chengdu bird) and maybe get a summer glimpse of White-breasted Waterhen. The big trees that are close to the lake are a good place to see Yellow-billed Grossbeaks. This lake is also a fairly good spot for winter Ferrunginous Duck (usually small flocks of 2 or 3 birds) and the whole area can throw up some interesting stuff.
The actual compound of Dufu cottage has its own park – and in here there are a lot of trees of great age – with a resultant richness in species. You have to pay an entrance fee to get in – which of course makes this a less popular destination for us guys who are regularly birding in Chengdu – but a lot of birders have given interesting lists for this little park within a park.

A male Yellow-billed Grosbeak

This is another area that contains nice old trees – and even though this place obviously contains a lot of buildings, roads and all the other stuff a large campus should have – you can still find nice little areas that are attractive to birds. This area will hold all your typical Chengdu species – but where it is good is during the migration and winter periods where those trees attract some of the more interesting species, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker is a winter visitor here – and specialties such as Golden Bush Robin have been recorded.
This location isn't such a huge crowd puller – but still many people gather here especially during weekends.

WANJIAN TOMB PARK (Yongling mausoleum)
This is a small park but again with lots of nice old trees and a burial site of some old ancient general of the Tang Dynasty – it also has some nice stagnant ponds that attract flycatching species especially during migration times. I’ve noted Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Tiger shrike and Ferrunginous Flycatcher here.
The great thing about this place is that it doesn’t attract the crowds – but you do have to pay an admission fee. It also has a nice tea house so you can sit, sip and watch!

Female Asian Paradise-flycatcher pictured at Wanjian park

Two big Rivers run through the heart of Chengdu – and for most of their lengths they are bounded by green park type areas that make them areas where you once again can spot the common Chengdu species. The river environment itself is interesting, even though most of river-banks comprise of man made wall – but during periods where water levels are down exposing mud and stone the bird watching is better.. The best areas are on the outskirts of the city – but near the center – on the river closer to the famous River-viewing Pavilion Park there is shallow river habitat and even a place in the park where there is something approaching a natural grass bank. In this kind of habitat – during migration and winter time – look out for Long-billed plover and other waders. Also during winter periods Plumbeous Water Redstart can be found. Otherwise Little Egrets are common residents and if there’s a little cover and it’s quiet then this species maybe joined by Chinese Pond and Black–crowned Night Herons. During the summer months a constant sight in this habitat will be Red-rumped Swallow.