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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: The Southeast in Winter

2014 Tour Narrative

It took us a while – it was already lunch time – but you could sense the relief when we spotted our first. It was a long way off, swimming mid-channel but from its long crest we were certain of its identity. Making sure that we’d all seen it we summoned our coach and set off upriver in pursuit. We were near Wuyuan, a picturesque backwater in central China’s Jiangxi province, and had just found this region’s main quarry – Scaly-sided Merganser on a fast flowing stretch of river. We drove at least one kilometre closer, bailed out and quickly found a small flock, including a superbly adorned adult male. And then we had lunch! Brilliant and after the lengthy wait and huge relief, it came a little surprise that the merganser was voted bird of the trip in our end of tour poll.

We also saw a massive six and not our usual five species of crane on the trip (we found a couple of Sandhills – a Chinese rarity towards the end of the tour) so it was fitting that two cranes, Siberian and Red-crowned, came in second and third in the same poll. What’s more to the point we were blessed with superb views of all of them. Our first Siberians flew over us at breakfast (yes we did a lot of eating!) on our very first day at Poyang Hu and we’d go on to see a massive 420 (one eighth of the entire world population) of these fantastic creatures later that same day – many of them very close! We stopped our coach to view our first equally majestic Red-crowned Cranes when we were at Yancheng National Nature Reserve on the coast north of Shanghai – and we stopped it again an hour or so later when we found four birds, two adults and two attendant juveniles, much closer. One of the juveniles had clearly spent the night shin deep in one of the neighbouring pools as it had a small ring of ice frozen to its left leg! We’d see a total of 68 Red-crowned Cranes at Yancheng that day – a tally that represents a modest 3% of its world population! The critically threatened, rapidly declining and fabulously bizarre Spoon-billed Sandpiper, (we saw just two of this increasingly rare little sprites near Fuzhou, our first port of call), came joint fourth along with the diminutive, but stunningly attractive, Pied Falconet.

Once again I had thought that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to improve on the birds that we had seen on our previous South China in Winter tours but I was wrong…this year’s tour surpassed them all in several respects. Numerous people view our South China in Winter tour as a water bird special and in many ways it is – the spectacle of tens of thousands of swans, geese and ducks at Poyang Hu in particular must be one of Asia’s premier avian attractions. But the tour is much, much more than just a water bird special. And while the final bird list was just 213 species and isn’t huge by any stretch this tour boasts an impressive array of specialty species, such as the aforementioned Scaly-sided Merganser and Baikal Teal, while Pied Falconet and passerines such as Japanese Waxwing and Bull-headed Shrike all have great appeal. Our one and only waxwing put in an appearance near the imaginatively named ‘Crane Farm’ at Yancheng NNR while our only Bull-headed Shrike, a female, was at a semi-regular site near Wuyuan. Both were well appreciated!

The tour’s birding essentially started near Fuzhou, in southeastern China’s Fujian province and highlights of our first day there included two Eastern Marsh Harriers, 29 Caspian Terns, our first Chinese Penduline Tits, three Stejneger’s Stonechats and two Blue Rock Thrushes of the distinctive eastern philippensis subspecies. As if that was not enough, our first day in the Middle Kingdom also produced the first Horned (or Slavonian) Grebe in Fujian for over 100 years! The next day we headed over to a small island in search of Spoon-billed Sandpiper – and fairly quickly found two of these gorgeous but (terminally?) declining birds. Other highlights after an uneventful boat ride over to ‘Eel Beach’ included a fly-over Black-faced Spoonbill, large numbers of shorebirds including a Eurasian Oystercatcher of the scarce osculans form, our only two Red-necked Stints of the tour and 17 diminutive Saunders’s Gulls. We had a fabulous day’s birding, a day that set the tone for what was to become a superbly bird rich tour.

Our third day of birding took us to an area of quality forest right on the edge of Fuzhou city where we heard no less than five of the globally threatened White-necklaced Partridges; excellent looks at a couple of Silver Pheasants; three Lesser Coucals and a fabulous and repeatedly in our-face-flock of Large Woodshrike. Add two rather curious Chinese Hwamei, two Kloss’s Leaf Warblers, our first forktails and no less than 20 Fork-tailed Sunbirds. Another great day.

We had planned to have flown from Fuzhou to Nanchang but that had been scuppered by the cancellation of our flight! Instead, we travelled first class on the new high-speed train – and, once we’d organised the luggage and appeased our baggage handlers, this worked to our advantage as we actually arrived in Wuyuan earlier than we’d anticipated, and certainly earlier than we would have, had we flown.

As noted earlier it took us a while, a good while, to find Wuyuan’s primary avian attraction its Scaly-sided Mergansers. Other goodies in this fabulously picturesque area included decent numbers of exquisite Mandarins Ducks, two Long-billed Plovers, several Masked Laughingthrushes and umpteen, attractive and unusually cooperative Yellow-browed Buntings.

Our luck held as we moved on and we managed to avoid the fog that can plague Poyang Hu, our next port of call and this huge wetland area lived up to, and even surpassed, some of our expectations. It’s notoriously difficult to estimate numbers in large flocks of birds but we certainly had plenty of practice. In this respect the lakes at Shahu and Dahuchi, both hosting tens of thousands of water birds, were particularly outstanding. Here our day tallies included a remarkable 6530 Tundra Bean Geese, 11045 Tundra Swans and tens of thousands of ducks (with upwards of 2000 Falcated Duck, 4600 Eurasian Wigeon and 1600 Common Pochard). We also managed to find a few rarities including a vagrant Snow Goose, five Black Stork and most unexpectedly another pair of Scaly-sided Mergansers! Needless to say Poyang Hu’s cranes were our chief quarry and we were blessed with excellent looks at the expected four species (Siberian, White-naped, Common and Hooded). Add to this good numbers of Oriental Stork, several Lesser White-fronted Geese and a pair of Brown Crake and we had a great time here as well.

Reed Parrotbill graces the spine of the Field Guide to the Birds of China and is arguably the most attractive parrotbill on the planet. Luckily, it was one of the very first birds we encountered at Yancheng NNR on the coast north of Shanghai. It was colder in coastal Jiangsu but the birds didn’t seem to mind and, as long as the new birds kept on coming, neither for that matter did we. The hoped-for Red-crowned Cranes, only recently replaced by Golden Pheasant as China’s ‘National Bird’, performed superbly well.

We explored a tiny fraction of Shanghai city later that afternoon, rode what should have been, but wasn’t (it was on a go slow) the fastest passenger train on the planet – the high speed Maglev train. We had a short walk along and then a boat across the famous, soon to be tragically infamous, Bund and even found time to go for a coffee and a cake.

Most of us had caught up with Pale Thrush at Yancheng but others had to wait until we visited a park on the edge of Shanghai the following morning. This park also held several White’s Thrushes – the latter our final new bird of the tour.

I wrote last year ‘How many of us knew, in advance of our trip, quite what to expect in modern day China and how many of us went home with altered opinions as to where the Middle Kingdom’s heading? Now more than ever China’s a land of incredible contrasts and accelerating social change, a land of considerable personal wealth juxtaposed with near grinding poverty, a land of thriving elitism, rampant ambition and a populace with an enviable work ethic. Right now’s the time to visit China and we were privileged indeed to see some of the more impressive parts of it’. In these days of a major global economic downturn, all this still holds true.

Updated: January 2015