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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: The North

The Forests of Chinese Mongolia

2016 Narrative

Quite fittingly three owls, Ural, Great Grey and Northern Hawk, featured in the top five of our end-of-trip ‘Bird of Tour’ poll but equally unsurprisingly they were pipped to first place by the incredibly confiding and incredibly close Brown Eared Pheasants we saw on our penultimate day’s birding in Shanxi.

We saw some great birds but this wasn’t an easy tour by any stretch. Things just didn’t go our way from the very outset, and worsened dramatically when we experienced the heaviest snowfall Hailar had witnessed in the last 30 years! That, along with the horrendous and, for the time of year, record-breaking levels of pollution on our second day in Beijing, a cancelled flight, a delayed flight, a reservoir closure, and a day of heavy rain – all of which certainly taxed our patience. Nevertheless, we worked through these obstacles and came out having seen a reasonable number of our target species.

Highlights of our first days’ hurriedly-improvised birding at Yeyahu (literally ‘Wild Duck Lake’), on the northern edge of Beijing, included three Amur Falcons, a stunning male insignis Merlin, a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes, a late (and unfortunately heard-only) Yellow Bittern, a late Japanese Sparrowhawk, great looks at several Bearded Reedlings, several Chinese Penduline Tits, umpteen diminutive Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, no less than 15 Siberian Accentors and decent encounters with Pallas’s, Black-faced and Little Buntings. We enjoyed a couple of local rarities in the forms of Black-winged Kite and the first of two Long-tailed Shrikes, but the day’s chief prizes however were the four Baer’s Pochards we found amidst a Beijing record-sized flock of 49 Ferruginous Ducks from the reserve’s gargantuan tower hide!

Horrendous pollution seriously marred our second day in Beijing – a day where we’d opted to head south to Huairou reservoir instead of revisiting Wild Duck Lake. It started OK with a party of 10 exquisite Mandarin Ducks and a close-range Eurasian Bittern, but we were unable to see (partly because of the pollution) an Ashy Minivet and two Eastern (Brown-cheeked) Water Rails which remained as ‘heard only’ on our evening checklist.

Gorgeously clean, crisp skies with excellent long-range visibility awaited us when we landed at Hailar in Chinese Mongolia – and that weather continued, with a few relatively minor snow flurries, throughout much of our time around Wu’erqihan. Highlights of the drive between Hailar airport and Wu’erqihan included our first Rough-legged and only Upland Buzzards of the trip and, once there, our initial exploration of the area around this lumber town included close range looks at a Hog-badger as well as a superb, and unexpected, encounter with an actively hunting Short-eared Owl, and our first and closest of the four Ural Owls that we’d eventually see. A flock of 50 Asian Rosy Finches that settled on the road ahead of the lead vehicle were there just too briefly for everyone to enjoy – we had to wait until our fourth and final day around Wu’erqihan before we’d rectify that.

Similarly, our first encounter with ussuriensis Long-tailed Rosefinch left something to be desired, but we would go on to see them every day while in this rather frigid region of northern China. Happy, on our first day’s birding, we spent much of our first evening in a wonderful hot-pot restaurant within walking distance of our guest house.

We saw the first of our 30 gorgeous Hazel Grouse, another Ural, our first majestic Great Grey and two rather too brief Northern Hawk-owls as well as three hugely inquisitive Siberian Jays and our first Great Grey Shrike and Pallas’s Rosefinch the following day. A Northern Goshawk and two Eurasian Bullfinches enlivened the next while two more Ural Owls, five species of woodpecker, a pair of demure Azure Tits and umpteen white-headed caudatus Long-tailed Tits, five Pine Grosbeaks and an impressive haul of 30 Pallas’s Rosefinches kick-started our third day around Wu’erqihan.

Three days in, however, and there was still no sign of our primary quarry, Black-billed Capercaillie. Nor would we see a caper on our last day around Wu’erqihan – but boy did we try. It came as little consolation to learn that two separate parties of Paul’s Chinese birding friends both saw Black-billed Capercaillies, on the very same roads we drove along, within one week of our departure! Frustrated on dipping the Capercaillie we had to make do with just another Great Grey and another Northern Hawk-owl, the same five species of woodpecker, a solitary Siberian Accentor, a party of 13 very cooperative Asian Rosy Finches and our best looks at both ussuriensis Long-tailed and over 120 Pallas’s Rosefinches. We also saw some mammals during our time in Chinese Mongolia with Red Fox, Siberian Roe Deer, Wild Boar, Raccoon-dog, and Red Squirrel all being seen well. And we saw pugmarks in the snow of an ever-elusive Lynx.

It started to snow as we left Wu’erqihan in the late afternoon of Day 9, and continued to do so as we approached Yakeshi - it was snowing heavily by the time we’d finished dinner there!   Later we limped back to Hailar airport through what was essentially a blizzard and it came as little surprise that our flight back to Beijing was cancelled. It subsequently transpired that Hailar had received more snow that evening that in any 24-hour period in the last 30 years!

Fortunately, Qingyu was up to the task and secured seats for us all on the following evening’s Air China flight and managed to find accommodation in Hailar city that accepted foreigners and had sufficient number of vacant rooms for us all.

We stayed in a good hotel that night, and made the most of our unscheduled extra day in chilly Hailar. Our excursions yielded a meagre 22 species but several of these, including a party of five Daurian Partridges, a juvenile kamtschatschensis Mew Gull and a fine Japanese Reed Bunting, were new and unexpected ornithological additions. Fortunately, our next attempt at boarding a Beijing bound flight did eventually succeed and, despite further lengthy delays, we eventually made it back to the Chinese capital. As we’d lost time it made little sense to head south to Hengshui Hu and so we reluctantly dropped that part of the tour and instead headed out from Beijing directly to Taiyuan and the Brown Eared Pheasant site at Xuanzhong Temple.

It rained hard throughout our first day at the pheasant site but that didn’t stop us, nor did it prevent the Brown Eared Pheasants (all 15 of them) from putting on an extraordinarily fine show. Xuanzhong Si is after all, the very best site on the entire planet, for this the rarest of all four of the worlds’ Eared Pheasants.

The weather the following morning was truly gorgeous and we revelled in stupendous views of over 15 Spotted Nutcrackers, four Eurasian Crag Martins, umpteen Plain Laughingthrushes and Beijing Babblers, a lingering White-crowned Forktail and over a dozen of the very localised, very poorly known but strikingly attractive, lepidus subspecies of Long-tailed Rosefinch.

And there we have it, all too soon, it was over. It had been a challenging tour, with several unexpected hiccups and disappointing misses, but one with some equally memorable highlights. Highlights that ranged from the hand-fed Brown Eared Pheasants, the close-range Ural and hunting Brown Hawk-owls, the inquisitive Siberian Jays and the superb looks at Baer’s Pochard.  We saw so much in the two weeks we were in China.

This had not been the first trip to China for many of the group but it had certainly been different to what many had experienced before, and what a revelation China continues to be. We’d marvelled at the cities and the massive construction projects that were underway; we gawped at the contrast between there and rural China. We’d been treated to some outstanding food, met some delightful people, and had often had a thoroughly good time.

– Paul Holt

Created: 17 November 2016