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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Sichuan

2018 Narrative

Great weather, near flawless, fluid logistics and a keen, enthusiastic group made this one of our best-ever Sichuan tours. We visited Chengdu, Labahe, the Erlang Shan Pass, Baoxing, Rilong, Wolong National Park, Maerkang, Hongyuan, Ruoergai and Jiuzhaigou National Park and multiple sites in between. We birded amongst some of the best scenery on the planet, with great looks at many of the regional specialities that included a remarkable selection of gamebirds (13 seen, and often seen superbly well, and two additional species only heard). The species that we saw included a Bird of the Tour poll-topping pair of Temminck’s Tragopans; umpteen (20 seen and 14 more heard) strutting Lady Amherst’s Pheasants; several rarefied Snow Partridges; a fantastic pair of Tibetan Snowcocks; three different encounters with gorgeously-patterned Tibetan Partridges; a great covey of Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges; close-range Blood Pheasants; two cooperative male Koklass Pheasants; no less than five resplendent male Chinese Monals; White Eared Pheasants galore and small parties of Blue Eared Pheasants on two days. Then we mustn’t forget the Chinese Grouse.

The tour started and finished in Chengdu which, with a population fast approaching 10 million, is already China’s fourth-largest city but until the very last day, we did little birding there. No sooner had the group arrived than off we set, scurrying south with a forced itinerary change. Park authorities were releasing two captive-bred Giant Pandas at Longcang Gou and the park was closed to tourists. Labahe, the site we substituted, was great however and, with three nights and parts of four days there, we saw a good number of regional specialities with four Lady Amherst’s Pheasants being seen on our first day and a stunning pair of Temminck’s Tragopans (as well as two more Lady A’s) on our second. Our tragopan encounter was a stunner; the resplendent male strutting his stuff on the flagged path where we were walking was spotted first. Certainly not in a hurry to leave, it took us a minute or two to realise why…his cryptically-plumaged mate was in close attendance and we watched the two of them for more than a quarter-of-an-hour! 

Other goodies at this fabulous forest reserve included a fly-over vocal Besra; a pair of Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons; a Large Hawk-Cuckoo that came from the horizon to check us out; a well-spotted, and well seen, couple of Père David’s Owls; a magnificent, spiralling flock of acrobatic swifts that contained at least 150 White-throated Needletails and 30 Salim Ali’s, and great studies of Darjeeling Woodpeckers. Several frenzied mixed-species feeding flocks were seen on the mountain’s conifer-clad, bamboo-strewn hillsides. One flock contained Fire-capped Tits, another several Black-browed Bushtits and multiple others demure Yellow-browed Tits. It was here too that we started our phylloscopus tally with the scarcer Kloss’s and Grey-crowned almost being drowned out by the incessant chantings of Large-billed, Claudia’s and Sichuan. With the very recent merging of seicercus into phylloscopus we finish the tour having encountered no less than 20 species of these fabulously vociferous sprites. Also at Labahe we saw five species of bush warbler with Brown-flanked, manic Yellowish-bellied, Aberrant, demure Brown, and the very recently described Sichuan all providing outstanding looks. It was here that we encountered David’s Fulvetta and Black-faced Laughingthrush; several Brown, multiple Fulvous, and some heard-only Great Parrotbills. Here also was where we saw our first Sichuan Forest Thrush (though some missed it here as they were, quite understandably, wrapped up in the tragopan fest); umpteen Ferruginous Flycatchers, Fujian Niltavas, Grey-headed Bullfinches, Slaty and Yellow-throated Buntings. At Labahe we spent a while with a male Firethroat and too long trying to see one of the many White-browed Shortwings that we heard. It was here too where we were entertained by several close, golden-fleeced, majestic Takin, arguably the best looking of all ungulates.

Moving on from Labahe we spent parts of the next two days on the Erlang Shan Pass. Here, a largely disused road, now circumvented by a tunnel that takes all the traffic, was our destination – and what a place. The ever-appealing Lady Amherst’s Pheasant performed just as predicted (we saw 12 and heard umpteen others) while other attractions included one Himalayan that we actually saw and several Common Cuckoos; our first Chinese Babax, Giant Laughingthrushes, Chinese Thrushes and Indian Blue Robins and our only Sharpe’s Rosefinch of the tour.

We had a fabulous pair of confiding Barred Laughingthrushes serenade us during lunch and it was also on the Erlang Shan where we had our most memorable Firethroat encounter. We’d eventually finish the tour having logged a remarkable total of 33 Firethroats with birds being noted on eight days but the views we had of one here were unsurpassed! It’ll be a long time before we forget the protracted views we had of it sitting still, pouring out sequence after sequence of its fantastic rambling song full of eclectic mimicry.

We saw more Lady Amherst’s Pheasants near Baoxing the following day, had great studies of a confiding Lesser Cuckoo, Indian Blue Robin and a Snowy-browed Flycatcher and struggled to predict where an elusive Red-winged Laughingthrush would appear next. This was also the day that we misidentified a captive Bearded Vulture (aka Lammergeier) as a Giant Panda! Laughter and embarrassment (in equal doses for some) all round!

Continuing on we spent the following four nights close to the mighty Four Sisters Mountains (Siguniang Shan) accessing the world-renown Wolong National Park by crossing and re-crossing the high Balang Shan Pass on all three days. Even in June, and it was the fourth of that month on our first crossing, the weather atop this 4500 metres pass can be truly awful but we were again blessed – it had snowed heavily overnight and the entire summit area was covered by four to six inches of the white stuff! Scenically stunning, our initial worries that the birds would have moved lower proved ill-founded and we saw almost all the species that we had hoped for. Some of us will long remember the Tibetan Partridges, the male Chinese Rubythroats, the superbly cooperative Tibetan Snowcocks, the immaculate male Grandala high on the pass, the Snow Partridges, the close-range Red-fronted Rosefinches (reputedly the world’s highest breeding passerine although the recently rediscovered Sillem’s Mountain Finch could perhaps also now claim this title), the entertaining roadside Brandt’s Mountain Finches and the flock of about 70 Pink-rumped Rosefinches.

Three days of magnificent weather ensued at Wolong National Nature Reserve and, if we thought that the forest scenery at Labahe had been impressive, it sure was at Wolong. Gorgeous, old-growth forests filled the valleys while spectacularly jagged mountain peaks and rolling, flower-filled meadows dominated the higher elevations. Chinese Monal fell at the very first attempt as did a more than respectable number of its other most-prized avian jewels – White Eared and Koklass Pheasants, several small parties of demure Snow Pigeons, umpteen Giant Laughingthrushes, Chinese Fulvettas, Tibetan Serins and both Spotted and Baikal Bush Warblers at almost closest focus in our binoculars. We also had great, and repeated looks, at both Alpine and Sichuan Thrushes and encountered good numbers of confiding bush robins and redstarts with Golden Bush Robin and White-throated Redstart perhaps being the best of those.

After three full days at Wolong we made rapid progress to our next base, Maerkang. Needless to say, we found even more goodies – our first Hill Pigeons, no less than 40 Eurasian Crag Martins and seven magnificent Wallcreepers and an apparent pandoo-philippensis intergrade Blue Rock Thrush as we drove towards the summit of the Mengbi Shan, another high-altitude pass on route. It was here on the Mengbi Shan that we found our Sichuan Jays (three birds) and our first Crested Tit Warbler.

We spent the next two nights in the attractive, and obviously ethnically Tibetan, Maerkang town and on our day excursion from here we lured out some obliging Blood Pheasants and had great looks at a feeding flock of four Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges. Other goodies near here included two Przevalski’s Nuthatches, our first proper looks at Long-tailed Thrush and Himalayan Bluetails and an encounter with some all-too-elusive White-browed Tit-warblers.

The same early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise routine continued as we headed to Hongyuan and then Ruoergai during the following days. The day we left Maerkang and headed to Hongyuan was our best day for numbers of species with 96 – it was also, arguably, one of the best for quality too. A pair of Chinese Grouse, the first of five species of gamebird we’d encounter, started the day well and the other gamebirds were Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge (three seen and two others only heard), Tibetan Snowcock (only heard), Blood Pheasant (four seen and two others only heard) and White Eared Pheasant (19 seen).

That was the day we saw our first Black-necked Cranes, our first Black Woodpecker (on an incongruously small tree) and actually saw a Chestnut-crowned Bush Warbler. A Hodgson’s Treecreeper put on a fine show as did, eventually, some Crimson-browed Finches.

Plain Laughingthrushes right outside our Hongyuan hotel kick-started the next day – a day that saw us add Black Stork, Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon, White-browed Tit, Smoky Warbler, Tibetan Lark, White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches to our burgeoning lists. We added umpteen more birds the following day. Some, such as Greylag Goose and Whooper Swan were effectively padders; others like the three Cotton Pygmy Geese and Pheasant-tailed Jacana were genuine vagrants while still others, such as the Blue Eared Pheasants, the Tibetan Fox, the Wolf and the Tibetan Gazelles would have enlightened even the most diehard list-driven birders among us. And who could forget the thousands upon thousands of feral yaks!

The Baxi road produced four more Blue Eared Pheasants, two more confiding Black Woodpeckers, another heard-only Three-banded Rosefinch and several Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrushes while our final site, Jiuzhaigou (literally ‘Nine Village Valley’) National Park, is spectacular. The numerous glistening turquoise and emerald chromatic pools, and pristine sinuous lakes, the charming babbling brooks, and spectacular waterfalls all with a backdrop of forest-clad massive mountains are enchanting. The lakes don’t hold many birds, but the forests here certainly do. Unfortunately, however, a sizeable earthquake in August last year had massively damaged the park’s infrastructure and necessitated a rethink of the visiting arrangements. Birders like us were well down the pecking order and we basically had to make do with an escorted sightseeing trip. Nevertheless, it was good humoured and fun and after that we left. We spent our last morning exploring a neighbouring hillside where several vociferous Spectacled Fulvettas and Spectacled Parrotbills, as well as a very cooperative Three-toed Parrotbill, did their utmost to entertain. The hoped-for Sooty Bushtit showed brilliantly (all 34 of them!) but unfortunately the same could not be said for the henrici Long-tailed Rosefinch that only three of us saw, or the heard-only Golden Pheasant. All too soon however it was time to leave and start our journey back to Chengdu. The drive south was uneventful, no shorter than expected but thankfully no longer either. It was five hours, via some of the tour’s most spectacular mountain scenery, to Maoxian. We made several stops on the way, producing five more Siberian Rubythroats, and spent the night in Maoxian before another drive of four hours the following morning. The latter took us through Wenchuan, epicentre of the tragic May 2008 earthquake that claimed the lives of an horrific 85,000 people!

We spent much of our last day in Chengdu exploring the suburban Panda Research Centre. Celebrating its 30th birthday we certainly didn’t have the sanctuary to ourselves, but persevered and saw a number of attractive new species with three very cooperative Speckled Piculets, a couple of Black-winged Cuckooshrikes, a breeding pair of Amur Paradise Flycatchers, a Rufous-faced Warbler, three Red-billed Starlings and a similar number of Chinese Grosbeak being among the best. Oh, and we also heard no fewer than seven Chinese Bamboo Partridges. From there it was on to our comfortable Chengdu hotel and after two more great meals a trip back to Chengdu airport for our flights home.

But that wasn’t the end of it as other goodies among the 300+ species we encountered had included Bearded Vultures on eight dates, no less than 74 Black-necked Cranes and four Saker Falcons. Between us we’d also encountered nine species of bush warbler including Sichuan Locustella chengi, a species that was formally described as recently as May 2016; and some rarely encountered laughingthrushes such as Snowy-cheeked, Barred, Giant and the ever-elusive Red-winged. Other quality birds included Chinese Fulvettas on five days and 11 species of rosefinch including a henrici Long-tailed. Just as last year, taxonomic conundrums included up to five ruficapilla Spectacled Fulvettas, Grey-hooded Fulvettas on two days, an intergrade Blue Rock Thrush and both black and yellow-billed Blue Whistling Thrushes.

Historically remote and difficult to access, Sichuan is still blessed with rich and varied ecosystems ranging from subtropical lowlands at sites such as Longcang Gou, through cool temperate forests to alpine grasslands on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Equally importantly, Sichuan is the heart of China’s astonishingly rich ‘endemic zone’ and harbours about two-thirds of China’s endemic birds.

We experienced so much more than some exciting birds and revelled in some truly memorable scenic drives though spectacular gorges and over impressive passes. Many of us will long remember the hillsides full of fluttering prayer flags and the tremendous hospitality we were shown throughout. As always, the list of highlights goes on and on. It was hard work, but fabulous, fabulous fun and we had a great time! 

– Paul Holt

Created: 25 June 2018