2012 Tour Narrative
In Brief: Once again I thought that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to improve on the birds that we had seen on the four previous South China in winter tours, but I was wrong. The final bird list was a satisfying and record-breaking 228 species – a tally that still isn’t a huge one but a tally that boasts an impressive array of speciality species such as Lesser White-fronted Goose, Baikal Teal, Baer’s Pochard, Dalmatian Pelican and Oriental Stork. But for many of us it’s not just the global rarities that give this tour its unique appeal but the sheer spectacle of seeing tens of thousands of birds at a single site – and to this end the innumerable swans (1500+ at one site), geese (8150 at another) and ducks (with day counts of 1750 Gadwall, 2200 Falcated Duck, 2960 Common Pochard and 3070 Common Merganser) not to mention the spoonbills, storks and cranes that we saw at Poyang Hu that will linger long in many of our minds.
In Detail: We spotted our first from the coach, partially hidden, but standing tall behind a line of reeds. Scrambling out and walking closer we set up our ‘scopes. Three (two adults and an attendant juvenile) Red-crowned Cranes lined up in-front of us - and they were stunning. We were at Yancheng National Nature Reserve, the fourth and final major site on this exciting tour’s itinerary and we would go on to see quite a few more of these majestic creatures. Red-crowned Crane, the rarest of the five species of crane we’d see on this tour, would top the end of tour ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll and less than half-an-hour after spotting these we had detected the runner up – a party of inquisitive Reed Parrotbills busily feeding in the same line of reeds that had earlier obscured our view! Reed Parrotbill graces the spine of the Field Guide to the Birds of China and is arguably the most attractive parrotbill on the planet! Incidentally Red-crowned pipped Siberian by an impressive 30 points and Hooded Crane by a massive 46!
Third place in the same poll went to the critically threatened, rapidly declining and fabulously bizarre Spoon-billed Sandpiper – a bird that we’d see just four of in the Minjiang Estuary in south-eastern China’s Fujian province. That was on the tour’s very first full day and, as if four of one of the world’s rarest and most sought after birds wasn’t enough, we also saw no-less-than 17 Black-faced Spoonbill and our first 13 Saunders’s Gulls later in the day. This, our first day in the Middle Kingdom had been a fabulous day’s birding, and had set the tone for what was to become a superbly bird rich tour. We’d all have ‘scope views of an exquisite male Japanese Robin in Fuzhou Forest Park the very next day before flying northwest to Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province. Heading to Wuyuan we watched ten Scaly-sided Mergansers, our rarest duck and our primary quarry in a fast flowing river on the edge of this picturesque backwater of northern Jiangxi, before going on to watch Mandarins Ducks and a rather distant Pied Falconet. It was while we were waiting for the falconet that we spotted our first Siberian Crane – an individual that drifted leisurely high overhead, pre-empting the crane spectacle that we’d be treated to at Poyang Hu.
And then there were the unseasonal oddities – the 300 Barn Swallows and the lone Sand Martin at Yancheng – the national rarities with a fine male American Wigeon also at Yancheng being new for mainland China – and being followed by another addition to the country’s avifauna in the shape of a trickier male Redhead there the very next day!
We’d see Masked Laughingthrush, two confiding Brown Crakes, six Long-billed Plovers and umpteen Black-collared Starlings. We’d again managed to avoid the fog that can plague Poyang Hu and on our first day there we saw 5000 Swan Geese as well as Siberian, White-naped and Hooded Cranes. The weather was probably close to being as good as it gets in South China in mid-winter and we made full use of it by enjoying fantastic views of many, many species.
We’ll probably never know just how many Great Bitterns there were in Yancheng’s reed beds – but they were very conspicuous and there were undoubtedly more there than in the entire British Isles! Chinese Grey Shrike fell easier this year than ever before – but the hoped for Japanese Waxwings that we twitched in a suburban Shanghai park proved just too elusive.
I wrote the following in last year’s tour report ‘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. Paul Holt
Updated: February 2010