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.

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