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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Lhasa and the Tibetan Plateau

2016 Narrative

This year two closely related species ran away with the end of tour ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll and, quite fittingly for a tour that explored two very different areas, one was in Qinghai and the other in Tibet! Top honours in this year’s poll also went to one of the very last species we added to our group list – the ludicrously close range, braying Tibetan Eared Pheasants that we saw on our last full day’s birding at a site near Lhasa. We’d heard this attractive regional endemic calling on a distant mountainside just before dawn and it took a while before we all eventually saw that bird – one of a small covey. We saw more and watched them feeding and braying somewhat closer as we drove up the mountain later that morning. Thankfully we could drive up and none of us had to make the strenuous hike up to this, the very best site perhaps on the entire planet, for the pheasant! We’d see still more Tibetan Eared Pheasants, some at almost petting range besides the monastery midday! Stunning, simply stunning.

We’d seen the other two Tibetan endemics, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush and Giant Babax, superbly well and relatively easily earlier that morning and had then concentrated on the area’s other avian delights – its Pink-rumped (or Stresemann’s) Rosefinches, its Tibetan Partridges and a surprise in the form of a male Crimson-browed Finch. It was at this same site that we struggled, really struggled to get views of the gargantuan Tibetan Snowcock. The latter appeared, typically as if from nowhere, cackling as they flew across the ridge tops well above us and that was it…they were gone. A tad disappointing but who could complain we’d had a great day – and one that would be enlightened further by a roadside Ibisbill as we headed back to Lhasa.

The second ranked species had come much earlier in the trip – actually at the very opposite end of the tour – on our first full day as we birded our way from Xining to Huzhu Bei Shan. Once again we heard them first, but this time our quarry, a covey of Blue Eared Pheasants was already close and all we had to do was sneak up to them quietly and wait for them to come to us – and what gorgeous views we had of this, another Chinese endemic.

The tour had started well with an on-time KLM flight in to Beijing and a smooth domestic connection from there east to Xining, the historic capital of north-western China’s Qinghai province. Once there we headed almost straight on for two full days at Huzhu Bei Shan – a fabulous forested reserve to the north. On some of our previous visits we’ve camped here, but the road’s been improved to such an extent that in recent years we have been able to do day visits from Qinghai’s provincial capital. This year however, just as last, we were again fortunate in that foreigners were still being allowed to stay in the government guest house close to the reserve’s best birding. We’d leapt at the opportunity to stay on site and it paid off. As always we had a number of primary targets here at HBS – Chinese Grouse, Przewalsky’s Nuthatch and Gansu Leaf Warbler being chief among these and, by the end of our time here, some of us had seen all three – only the ever elusive grouse had eluded a few. As is often the case Gansu Leaf Warbler fell easily but Przewalsky’s Nuthatch demanded a tad more effort before it was satisfactorily bagged. Other goodies at Huzhu included decent numbers of gorgeous redstarts, Black Woodpecker, Chinese Nuthatch, White-browed Tit and Streaked Rosefinch to mention but a few. Unfortunately, we heard but never had even the briefest sneak peek at the reserve’s Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges…

The day after we left Huzhu saw us venturing up on to the Plateau proper and even before we’d summited and even before breakfast we’d scored with our first, of many, Hume’s Groundpeckers (now the rather less appealingly named Ground Tit), Blyth’s Pipit and rather distant Pine Buntings! Moving on the habitat and avifauna changed abruptly to rolling grasslands with larks, including the attractive Mongolian and hulking Tibetan, galore. We didn’t neglect Qinghai Lake, Koko Nur to some, with its waterfowl, gulls, migrant shorebirds, a party of close-range, gorgeous Plain Snowfinch and last but certainly not least our first Black-necked Cranes.

Pink-tailed Bunting (now Przevalski’s Finch), a taxonomic enigma that was once a rosefinch then a bunting and now has its own family, was arguably our primary quarry near Qinghai Lake and it didn’t take us long to find them. Finding an adult male proved trickier and took more time – but wow didn’t it perform superbly! It was these spectacular close range views that, despite the heavy rain, gave it third place in the end of tour popularity contest. Surely this gorgeous little Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau sprite deserved no less? At this same site we also watched our first Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches, Tibetan Snowfinches, had storming looks at a couple of Bearded Vultures (Lammergeiers), a Eurasian Eagle-owl and party of genuinely inquisitive spectacular White-browed Tits. And then there was the Little Owl as we walked back to our vehicle, the Himalayan Vultures, the Bar-headed Geese and the Ruddy Shelducks, all species the Plateau’s rightly famed for… Oh and I almost forgot – the afternoon yielded great looks at a pair of Tibetan Partridges.

After a while of searching we found an adult Pallas’s Fish Eagle and two species of fox not far from our hotel the following morning before moving on and venturing up and away from Qinghai Hu. We paused on the Rubber Mountain Pass to enjoy the views, and some close range Tibetan Snowfinches, before descending in to the deserts to the west. On our way down we found our first Plain-backed Snowfinches, Desert Wheatears and Mongolian Finches and, eventually, a very cooperative pair of Mongolian Ground-jays, several Isabelline Shrikes and a whole swath of waders.

Leaving Chaka and its salt deposits we had another forlorn attempt to see Rusty-necklaced Partridge. Disappointed we moved on to Gonghe. More weather related hotel problems there meant that we tried out a new hotel – it worked out OK. The day after that saw us taking two vehicles to a 4500 metre pass in our quest to find some higher altitude species such as Plain Mountain Finch, White-winged Redstart and Tibetan Rosefinch. Unfortunately, and obliging snipe on the summit of the pass defied all attempts to identify it!

For many of us the 24-hour train journey from Xining to Lhasa was a highlight of the entire trip – the beds were comfortable, the food as good as it gets on a Chinese train and the scenery on this, the planet’s highest rail road, often stunning. Scaling the Tangula Shan Pass and peaking at 5072 metres the rail trip also produced a large number of interesting birds including no less than 23 Black-necked Cranes, 95 Upland Buzzard, 42 Saker Falcon, 203 Common Raven and no less than 420 Eurasian Hoopoe! But it was the seven species of mammal that included eight Tibetan Foxes, 24 Tibetan Antelope, 695 Tibetan Gazelle and the 116 Kiang that were the real highlights of the journey.

Lhasa lived up to our expectations and we spent much of our first full day in Tibet sightseeing in and around the Potala and the Jokhang Temple. The next day, our final full day’s birding, produced several more highly sought after species – the Tibetan Snowcocks and Tibetan Eared-pheasants have already been mentioned and at this same site we also encountered a few Tibetan Partridges, Tibetan Blackbirds, Streaked and Stresemann’s Rosefinches to mention but a few.

Once again however we experienced much more than just a tally of birds and mammals. We experienced the real China. Yes, there was the staring and the spitting (but both in significantly lesser doses than was the case ten years ago) but there was also the warm hospitality, the friendliness of our guides and agents and of course the food. The varied and plentiful food is, for many, a particularly appealing feature of Sunbird’s China tours and the culinary curiosities and delights never ceased.

The views we had up on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau were often truly spectacular. Distant (and sometimes not so distant) snow-capped peaks, small glaciers, the seemingly endless rolling Tibetan steppe grassland dotted with domesticated yaks, goats and sheep and with the turquoise waters of Qinghai Hu as a back-drop. Who wouldn’t have been impressed?

And then, all too soon, it was all over. We’d seen so much in the two weeks we’d been in China. This had not been the first trip to China for most of the group – but it had certainly been different to what many had experienced before and what a revelation it had been. We’d marvelled at the cities and the massive construction projects that were underway; we’d gawped at the contrast between there and rural China where fields were still being ploughed by bullocks and grain dried on the roads. We’d been treated to some outstanding food, met some delightful people and basically had a thoroughly good time. Right now is clearly the time to be visiting China.

-Paul Holt

Created: 19 September 2016