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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Sichuan

2017 Narrative

Great weather, near flawless logistics and a keen, ever enthusiastic group made this one of our best ever Sichuan tours. We visited Chengdu, Longcang Gou, Erlang Shan, Baoxing, Maerkang, Hongyuan, Ruoergai and Jiuzhaigou National Park and birded amongst some of the best scenery on the planet, had great looks at most of the regional specialties including a remarkable 15 species of gamebird. These included several Snow Partridges; a fantastic pair of Tibetan Snowcocks; a gorgeously patterned Tibetan Partridge; umpteen encounters with Chestnut-throated Monal Partridges; a Chinese Bamboo Partridge that enlightened our very last day; Blood Pheasants galore; a cooperative male Koklass Pheasant; three resplendent Chinese Monals; several White Eared and a small party of Blue Eared Pheasants; umpteen Lady Amherst’s Pheasants and a couple of Chinese Grouse. We also heard, but unfortunately never managed to see, a Golden Pheasant. A remarkable haul, remarkable!

And then there were the Temminck’s Tragopans, encountered on six dates. We saw a female with a tiny chick at Longcang Gou, two males on the Er Lang Shan pass near Luding, another male on the lower slopes of the Balangshan Pass in Wolong National Park, a superb male that ended up being the Bird of the Trip after it was lured back on to the road near Maerkang, a heard-only encounter in Jiuzhaigou National Park and a final male not far outside that same park close to the end of the tour.

But that wasn’t the end of it as other goodies among the almost 300 species we encountered included Bearded Vultures, no less than 47 Black-necked Cranes, Sichuan Jays on four days, two cracking Saker Falcons, eight giganteus Chinese Grey Shrikes, Sichuan Jays at four sites, up to eight Firethroats on five different days, great looks at Grandalas, four species of nuthatch and three species of treecreeper including the recently described Sichuan. Taxonomic conundrums included up to four ruficapilla Spectacled Fulvettas on two dates and six cinereiceps Grey-hooded Fulvettas on two. We also saw both black and yellow-billed Blue Whistling Thrushes ‘together’ at one site.

We also encountered seven species of bush warbler including Sichuan Locustella chengi a species that was formally described as recently as May last year; no less than 15 species of phylloscopus warbler and some rarely encountered laughingthrushes such as Snowy-cheeked, Barred, Giant and the ever-elusive Red-winged. Other quality birds included Emei Shan Liocichlas that were at least heard daily during our time at Longcang Gou; Chinese Fulvettas on three days; eight species of parrotbill including the poorly known Three-toed and rarely seen Grey-hooded; 11 species of rosefinch including a pair of henrici Long-tailed and several encounters with Three-banded. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the two House Sparrow encounters.

Unfortunately, however this year we saw rather fewer mammals of note although our encounter with a Red Panda at Longcang Gou was certainly memorable.

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 to Longcang Gou. We spent three nights and parts of four days there searching for, and seeing, regional specialities such as Temminck’s Tragopan (we managed to see a female with at least one chick on our second full day on the mountain); repeated encounters with acrobatic White-throated Needletails that cruised effortlessly around the mountain’s bamboo strewn hillsides; up to six Ferruginous, three Chinese Blue and four of the poorly known tienchuanensis Sapphire Flycatchers; ten Fire-capped Tits. It was here too that we started our phylloscopus tally with the rarer Emei, Kloss’s and Buff-throated almost being drowned out by the incessant chantings of Large-billed and La Touche’s. Red-winged Laughingthrush proved tricky (as it always does) but eventually gave itself up to a lucky few. And then there were the parrotbills.

Remarkably the rare and extremely localised Grey-hooded Parrotbill was almost the first species we saw and it fell at almost the first attempt – and what cracking little performer it was. Golden took a bit longer but then stole the show from the none-too-shabby Golden-breasted Fulvettas it was sharing the bamboo with. Three-toed took a while but we were then rewarded by great looks. Other specialities at Longcang Gou included the manic Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler. But it was far from all plain sailing here however as we only managed to hear, and not actually see, Sichuan Forest Thrush, Chestnut-headed Tesia and Sichuan (formerly Scaly-breasted) Wren-babbler. Fortunately, we’d rectify some, but not all, of these omissions at other sites later in the tour.

Erlang Shan, and a largely disused road now circumvented by a tunnel that takes all the traffic, was our next destination – and what a place. Lady Amherst’s Pheasant performed just as predicted (we saw five and heard 10 others on the Erlang Shan), as did our first of eight Firethroats. The latter, initially singing from deep in cover, eventually came right out and sat still, its fantastic rambling song full of eclectic mimicry.

Among a mass of other species, we noted four Golden Eagles, at least 40 Spotted Nutcrackers, a male Red Turtle Dove, perhaps as many as 10 Chinese Babax, a fabulous pair of Barred Laughingthrush, our first Black-streaked Scimitar babblers and Spectacled Fulvettas as well as five fine male Yellow-throated Buntings. It was here also that we watched, and photographed, two apparent Black-browed x Sooty Tit hybrids – one of very few times that such hybrids have been seen in the wild.

Umpteen more Lady Amherst’s Pheasants were heard early the following morning but it was the couple of spectacular encounters with Sichuan Bush Warblers, a fine male White-bellied Redstart, Slaty Bunting and no less than 23 Alström’s Warblers that really stole the show. We’d seen so much that we were running late and had little time to stop when we reached the mighty Jiajin Shan Pass (4114 metres) later that afternoon. No worries – we knew that for each of the following three days we’d be crossing and re-crossing the even higher Balangshan Pass as we moved from Rilong, past the mighty Four Sisters Mountains (Siguniangshan), and in to the world-renowned Wolong National Park. Even in June, and it was the fourth of that month on our first crossing, the weather atop this 4500-metre pass can be truly awful but we were again blessed and saw almost all the birds that we had hoped for. Some of us will undoubtedly long remember the male Chinese Rubythroats, the superbly cooperative Tibetan Snowcocks, the immaculate male Grandalas high on the pass, the pair of 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), and the entertaining, roadside Brandt’s Mountain Finches.

Three magnificent days ensued at Wolong National Nature Reserve and, if we thought that the forest scenery at Longcang Gou 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 – a pair of Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges, our first Koklass and White Eared Pheasants, several small parties of demure Snow Pigeons, umpteen Giant Laughingthrushes, and eventually a Chinese Fulvetta at almost closest focus in our binoculars. We also saw good numbers of confiding redstarts with White-throated perhaps being the best. It was here too that we encountered our only pair of relatively lethargic, hulking Great Parrotbills. And then there were the surprises – a White-breasted Waterhen miles from the nearest water at 4420 metres.

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, pandoo Blue Rock Thrushes and Long-tailed Rosefinches of the distinctive henrici subspecies as we drove towards the summit of the Mengbi Shan, another high altitude pass on route. It was here too that we found our first Sichuan Jays at Paul’s very first site, were enthralled by a stunning performance from the all too often, all too elusive but this time remarkably inquisitive, White-browed Tit-warbler. It was also here that we encountered our first Chinese Grouse – but it was a frustratingly brief, leader-only encounter. Fortunately, we’d go on to see this species very well as we drove from Ruoergai to Jiuzhaigou later in the tour.

We spent the next two nights in the attractive, and obviously ethnically Tibetan, Maerkang town and on our day excursion from there lured out the obliging Temminck’s Tragopan mentioned earlier. Other goodies near here included a Koklass Pheasant and two obliging Chinese Grouse a fantastic performance from a Black Woodpecker and our first encounter with Three-banded Rosefinch. Following lunch, we headed slowly up on the Plateau where parties of Daurian Jackdaws greeted us.

The same early-to-bed, early to rise routine ensued at Hongyuan and Ruoergai the following days by which time we’d also added a good number of the Plateau’s premier avian specialities - Black-necked Crane, Saker Falcon, White-browed Tit and three species of snowfinch to our burgeoning list. And who could forget the thousands upon thousands of feral yaks! 

Our final site, Jiuzhaigou (literally ‘Nine Village Valley’), is spectacular. The numerous glistening turquoise and emerald, chromatic pools and pristine, sinuous lakes, the charming babbling brooks, and spectacular waterfalls all with a back drop of forest clad, massive mountains are enchanting. The lakes don’t hold many birds but the forests here certainly do. What’s more, despite receiving an immense three million visitors a year and tens of thousands of day visitors, it’s easy to escape the crowds and within minutes of clambering off the shuttle bus you can be totally alone.

A spectacular encounter with a Baikal Bush Warbler started things off well during our first morning at Jiuzhaigou, while a cooperative Sichuan Treecreeper, one of China’s most recently described endemics, also performed well, but took much longer to do it, in the Primeval Forest. From there we descended to Reed Lake where a hepatic female Lesser Cuckoo welcomed us while a Hair-crested Drongo, several parties of Spectacled Parrotbills, and an ever-elusive Fujian Niltava and our first White-crowned Forktails combined to keep us enthralled.

On our second day in Jiuzhaigou we explored a different area and were soon watching Chinese Nuthatches and Rusty-breasted Tits. After two full days in the park we left, spent time exploring a neighbouring hillside where several vociferous Spectacled Fulvettas entertained us. The hoped for Sooty Bushtit and yet another Temminck’s Tragopan were seen, but too briefly for many. All too soon however it was time to 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 route – pauses that produced our only Siberian Rubythroats of the tour 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!

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’d experienced so much more than some exciting birds and had 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’d been shown throughout. As always, the list of highlights goes on and on…It had been hard work but fabulous, fabulous fun and we had a great time!

  -        Paul Holt


Created: 03 July 2017