Protected for centuries, the magnificent Tibetan Eared Pheasant can be remarkably tame at a quiet mountain nunnery outside of Lhasa. Photo: Paul Holt
China is a vast country, the third largest on earth, with a dazzling array of landscapes and environments rivaling anywhere else on the planet. A good number of the nation’s 1415 or so birds are endemic or near endemic, and many are poorly known. On this popular tour we’ll explore parts of the fantastic Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the “Roof of the World,” in search of the numerous ornithological delights to be found in one of the world’s most isolated regions.
The Tibetan Plateau resulted from the dramatic geological upheavals that created the Himalayas, and this stark landscape is effectively a high-altitude desert, with more than half the plateau at over 13,500 feet. Now more accurately known as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the region is home to an impressive array of charismatic species. While we are extremely unlikely to encounter a Snow Leopard, mammals we should see include Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass), and possibly even a wild Yak. Bird life should include majestic Black-necked Cranes, the elusive Kessler’s Thrush, stunningly patterned Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) and possibly Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstarts, six species of snowfinch, numerous larks, engaging White-browed Tits, and the attractive Henderson’s Ground Jay. In more than 20 tours to the Plateau we have never failed to find Przevalski’s Finch (aka Pink-tailed Bunting), a gorgeous and enigmatic species recently placed into its own family. Spending time in forests just off the Plateau, we’ll visit Huzhu Bei Shan, an area only recently opened to foreigners and one that harbors an impressive remnant of ancient forest thronged with Phylloscopus warblers, redstarts, and buntings, as well as many other regional specialties.
A special attraction on this tour is our overnight train trip to Lhasa, a journey that is rapidly becoming one of China’s “must-do” experiences. We’ll enjoy some truly magnificent scenery and wildlife watching from our modern train, which offers comfortable four-berth sleeping compartments.
Our ultimate destination is Lhasa, the historic capital of the Tibetan region and long isolated from the outside world. A visit to this remote city will be a thrilling climax to the tour, and we’ll take time to soak up the atmosphere of this magical place and experience some of the inspiring Buddhist culture for which it is famous. Among many other species, we expect to see Tibet’s three main ornithological attractions: Tibetan Eared Pheasant, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, and Giant Babax. This tour is guaranteed to be a real adventure and one that will show you birds and places seen by very few.
Day 1: The tour begins with the departure of the Sunbird group on an overnight flight from London to Beijing. WINGS participants traveling directly to Beijing should arrive no later than this evening (see Note **, below).
Day 2: The Sunbird group will arrive in Beijing this morning and the combined group will connect with a flight to Xining, the ancient capital of western China’s Qinghai Province, and continue by road several hours north to Huzhu Bei Shan, an impressive forested reserve on the border of Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Night in Huzhu Bei Shan.
Day 3: We’ll spend the entire day in the bird-rich forests at Huzhu Bei Shan, a reserve that has only recently become accessible to foreigners. We’ll be one of only a small number of groups to have visited this amazing site. Lush grassy pastures in the valley bottoms, conifer forests on the lower and middle slopes, and stands of gnarled junipers at higher elevations all support unique avifaunas. Conspicuous species here include White-winged Grosbeak and both Hodgson’s and White-throated Redstarts, but it is the more difficult species that are Huzhu’s primary attraction. Pheasants rank highly on everyone’s list of difficult birds to see, and there are several species here: Common Pheasant should not be too difficult, but Blood and Blue Eared Pheasant, as well as Chinese Grouse and Verreaux’s (or Chestnut-throated) Monal-partridge, will require much more effort and a modest amount of luck. Even in early August the forests abound with birdsong, much of it from the many species of Phylloscopus warblers, nine of which (including the localized and recently described Gansu Leaf Warbler) make Huzhu their summer home. Other top attractions at this fabulous site include Przevalski’s Nuthatch, White-bellied Redstart, Siberian Rubythroat, and Red-flanked Bluetail of the distinctive albocoeruleus form. Night in Huzhu Bei Shan.
Day 4: After another full morning at Huzhu Bei Shan we’ll head slowly back to Xining, making numerous stops en route. On one of these we’ll search the mountain slopes near the summit of the Huzhu pass for Tibetan Snowcock and Rosy Pipit, and in the nearby roadside bushes we may find White-browed Tit, White-browed Tit-warbler, and Spotted Bush Warbler. Night in Xining.
Day 5: Leaving Xining, we’ll drive west, climb up onto the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, and head for spectacular Qinghai Hu (Lake Koko Nur), more than 10,400 feet (3200 meters) above sea level. Spending the next five days on the plateau, we’ll visit as many different habitats as our time permits. We’ll be seeing the rolling alpine grasslands at their very best, and the meadows will be awash with blossoms of buttercups, forget-me-nots, gentians, and poppies. Combine this with a backdrop of Koko Nur (or “Blue Sea Lake,” as it’s known in both Chinese and Mongolian) and dramatic, often snowcapped, peaks—what better place could you imagine to go birding! Looking at the stunning, pristine landscape, we may find it difficult to believe that we are still in the world’s most populous nation.
On the shores of Koko Nur, post-breeding Bar-headed Geese and both Pallas’s and Brown-headed Gulls and will vie for our attention. We’ll also search for, and expect to see, the rare Black-necked Crane, and we’ll have a good chance of encountering one or two Pallas’s Fish Eagles. In the neighboring grasslands, among the domesticated yaks and horses and scattered Tibetan tents, we should find species such as Tibetan and Mongolian Larks, six of the world’s eight species of snowfinch—Henri’s, Tibetan, White-rumped, Pere David’s (or Small), Rufous-necked, and Blanford’s (or Plain-backed)—plus comical Ground Tits. We’ll spend this night and the following one in a comfortable three-star hotel near “Bird Island” at the western end of this magnificent lake.
Day 6: Spending another full day at the western end of Koko Nur, we’ll have ample time to search for more of the region’s specialties. Plateau Pikas are common throughout the grasslands and constitute an important food source for Saker Falcon and the numerous Upland Buzzards. We’ll also expect to encounter large numbers of migrant waterfowl and a few waders, but the day’s primary targets will come in the shapes of the gorgeous Przevalski’s (or Ala Shan) Redstart and Przevalski’s Finch (or Pink-tailed Bunting), the latter a bizarre species that has recently been given its own family. Night at the lake.
Day 7: We’ll continue west from Qinghai Hu and spend the morning exploring a ravine rich in birds. It’s a moderately steep walk to the top, but we’ll move slowly, our steps perhaps enlivened by encounters with Tibetan Partridge, Wallcreeper, Kessler’s Thrush, Blue-fronted Redstart, glistening gem-like White-browed Tit-warbler, Eurasian Eagle Owl, or Lammergeier. In the afternoon we’ll drive over a pass to Chaka, a strange area rich in mineral salt deposits and yet with tracts of intensive and surprisingly lush agriculture. We’ll be looking particularly for Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Henderson’s Ground Jay. Twice before, we’ve even been fortunate enough to encounter several parties of the enigmatic Tibetan Sandgrouse here. Night in Chaka.
Day 8: We’ll leave early for a dry wash near Chaka where, in the early morning light, we’ll look for Przevalski’s (or Rusty-necklaced) Partridge, Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Desert Wheatear, and Mongolian Finch. In the afternoon we’ll head back east before turning south to the oasis settlement of Gonghe, where we’ll spend two nights.
Day 9: Traveling south of Gonghe, we’ll face our most strenuous day of the tour. Our destination will be the Ela Pass, which at a mighty 14,700 feet is easily the highest road pass on the tour. The pass is a regular site for Güldenstädt’s (or White-winged) Redstart and both Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches. Moreover, it is one of only a handful of reliable sites for the little-known Tibetan Rosefinch. As well as birding from the road, if the weather permits we plan to walk another 900 feet up to the summit of one of the nearby mountains. Tibetan Snowcocks breed here but are elusive, as is our primary quarry, Tibetan Sandgrouse. These beautiful birds are incredibly shy and retiring, and for much of the day we’ll slowly explore the mountainside in our quest to see the sandgrouse before returning to Gonghe for the night.
Day 10: Time permitting, we’ll spend a final morning around Gonghe searching for difficult species such as Przevalski’s Partridge and Mongolian Finch. We’ll then head back to Xining before embarking on one of those journeys most people only dream about: we’ll take an overnight train to Lhasa, the heart and soul of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Day 11: We’ll spend most of today on the train, following the world’s highest railroad. Our modern train, which offers comfortable sleeping accommodations and decent food, will take us through some outstanding scenery and right across the “Roof of the World.” Although the journey is a long one, the comfort of the train and the chance to just sit back and watch this remote wilderness unfold before us should make the trip a highlight of the tour. We’ll cross high plateaus and travel through ice tunnels before reaching the heart of the Himalayas and Tibet. We’ve previously seen Saker Falcon, Lammergeier, Ibisbill, and three species of snowfinch from the train as well as Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass), Yak, Wolf, Tibetan Fox, Tibetan Gazelle, and the increasingly rare Tibetan Antelope, so there’s plenty to look for. We expect to arrive in Lhasa in the early evening. Night in Lhasa.
Days 12-13: In the morning we’ll begin to explore this fascinating region. Surely one of the planet’s most charismatic cities, Lhasa is the focal point and spiritual heart of this deeply religious part of the world. Buddhism permeates all facets of Tibetan daily life, and the name Lhasa means “God’s Land” or “Place of the Deity” in Tibetan. We’re sure to be impressed by all that this city has to offer—Lhasa retains much of its ancient charm despite significant recent changes and a strong, modernizing Chinese influence. Now a sprawling city of almost a quarter of a million inhabitants, Lhasa remains a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists the world over and also continues to enchant even the most weary of foreign travelers.
Spending two full days around Lhasa, we’ll have time to combine the best of both worlds, spending one day sightseeing and the other birding. One of the highlights will be the Potala, the vast white and ochre fortress that soars above the flat valley bottom and dominates the city’s skyline. The former residence of various Dalai Lamas, the Potala was built in the seventeenth century and replaced an older fortress that stood on the same spot.
Once the Holy Grail of Asian explorers, Lhasa has lots to see, including Barkhor Square and the neighboring Jokhang Temple right in the heart of the old Tibetan quarter. On our other day we’ll venture about two hours out of Lhasa to a peaceful mountain nunnery where many of the area’s birds have been protected for centuries and have become remarkably tame. The main species we’ll be looking for is the magnificent Tibetan Eared Pheasant, and although they roam widely they should give themselves away by their harsh, husky barked cries. Other species here include Tibetan Partridge, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, Tibetan Blackbird, Giant Babax, and Streaked and Stresemann’s (or Pink-rumped) Rosefinches, and we have yet another chance of encountering Tibetan Snowcock. Nights in Lhasa.
Day 14: We’ll fly from Lhasa back to Beijing, arriving in time for dinner. Night in Beijing.
Day 15: The tour concludes this morning in Beijing.
Updated: 07 September 2016
- 2017 Tour Price : $7,900
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $1,440
This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
** Accommodation the night of Day 1 and transfers from and to the airport as needed are included in the tour cost for WINGS participants. Meals are not included until you join the Sunbird group arriving on Day 2.
Maximum group size 10 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the group irrespective of group size.