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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

China: The South in Winter

Sunday 12 January to Monday 27 January 2025
with Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu as leaders
and our primary target, Scaly-sided Merganser. (ZW)and our primary target, Scaly-sided Merganser. (ZW)
  • and our primary target, Scaly-sided Merganser. (ZW)

    and our primary target, Scaly-sided Merganser. (ZW)

  • Moving north our next target will be Spoon-billed Sandpiper. (VW)

    Moving north our next target will be Spoon-billed Sandpiper. (VW)

  • Despite the cold temperatures, hardy Daurian Redstarts winter in small numbers...(PH)

    Despite the cold temperatures, hardy Daurian Redstarts winter in small numbers...(PH)

  • well as Large Scimitar Babbler...(VW) well as Large Scimitar Babbler...(VW)

  • Often difficult, we’ll spend time trying to see, the island endemic Hainan Partridge... (VW)

    Often difficult, we’ll spend time trying to see, the island endemic Hainan Partridge... (VW)

Understandably given its huge size, China has a massive variety of habitats and an equally varied and fascinating avifauna. We’ve been offering tours to China for more than two decades and this new tour is a major overhaul of a firm favorite – our winter waterbird spectacular. We still visit Poyang Hu National Nature Reserve, an outstanding site with its fabulously evocative cranes where for more than a decade we’ve been seeing four, occasionally five, species: Common, the mythical Siberian, White-naped, Hooded and rarely even a vagrant Sandhill Crane. The supporting cast has included a world-class list of waterbirds and we’ve seen, and expect to see thousands of Swan Geese, hundreds of Falcated Ducks and at least a few Baikal Teal, plus huge parties of Oriental Storks, while nearby we stand a good chance of encountering reasonable numbers of Scaly-sided Mergansers at their most reliable wintering site anywhere in the world. Other specialties should include spectacular Mandarin Ducks and diminutive Pied Falconets. We also have a chance of seeing the rare Baer’s Pochard, and perhaps even a Japanese Waxwing or with luck a wintering Swinhoe’s Crake!

Our radically revamped itinerary now includes visits to two sites on tropical Hainan Island, Nonggang Nature Reserve in Guangxi, and some birding in Beijing, China’s historic capital and political center. We’ll spend several days on Hainan Island, where we’ll target the islands endemics – Hainan Leaf Warbler, Hainan Partridge and if we’re extremely lucky Hainan Peacock-pheasant. Other species in the rich tropical forests include Large Scimitar Babbler, Spot-necked Babbler, Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler and both Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush and the monachus form of Black-throated Laughingthrush. Further north on the island we have a very good chance of seeing the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper at one of its most accessible regular wintering sites. That area also hosts a fascinating selection of night birds including Bay and Eastern Barn Owls. Leaving Hainan, we’ll visit Nonggang reserve in Guangxi, a site that shot to ornithological fame early this century with the discovery of the aptly named Nonggang Babbler. Comprehensive surveys have shown it to be rare, but it’s easy to see from the photographic blinds that enterprising locals have built. After Poyang Hu and a couple of neighboring sites we’ll return to Beijing where we’ll search for species such as Siberian Accentor, Pallas’s, Chinese Beautiful and Chinese Long-tailed Rosefinches and Güldenstädt’s Redstart.

China has come a long way in the past two decades or so. Besides hosting an increasing number of comfortable hotels, this fascinating country now boasts an impressive transport infrastructure, and we’ll make good use of it on this unusual tour.

Day 1:  The tour begins this evening in Beijing. Night in a hotel near Beijing Capital International airport.

Day 2:  After breakfast we’ll fly south to Sanya at the southern tip of tropical Hainan Island. Well known for its gorgeous beaches and as a winter tourist destination for mainland Chinese, it’s been developing at break-neck speed in recent years. Fortunately for birders, areas not too far away still hold some impressive forests and a rich array of highly sought-after species. We’ll visit the very best of these, Jianfengling, where a National Nature Reserve protects an extensive area of upland native forest. A comfortable resort and forest boardwalk give us ideal access and we’ll spend three nights and two full days here searching for our target species. These include three island endemics - Hainan Leaf Warbler, the elusive island Hainan Partridge and extremely elusive Hainan Peacock-pheasant. The warbler is common and relatively easy to find, the partridge invariably requires a degree of stealth and modicum of patience while the Peacock-pheasants largely down to luck. Night at Jianfengling.

Days 3 & 4:  Spending two full days at Jianfengling, we’ll have ample time to look for other specialties in the rich forest. These include a variety of nightbirds such as Mountain and Collared Scops Owls as well as the impressive Brown Wood Owl. Both Red-headed Trogon and the grouchy sounding Blue-bearded Bee-eater aren’t uncommon and rather vocal, the demure Silver-breasted Broadbill far less so. Other vociferous species should include Sultan Tit, Clicking Shrike-babbler, Streak-breasted and Large Scimitar Babblers, Spot-necked Babbler, Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler and both Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush and the monachus form of Black-throated Laughingthrush. The diminutive Yellow-billed Nuthatch, a species whose disjunct range otherwise restricts it to a handful of mountains in Vietnam and south-eastern Laos is often fairly common close to our guest house as is White-crowned Forktail. Hainan is the winter home to variety of mostly skulking thrushes that could include Orange-headed, Japanese and Eyebrowed Thrushes as well as flycatchers including Hainan Blue, Pale Blue and Mugimaki.

Day 5:  After a final morning we’ll leave Jianfengling and drive north, about halfway towards Haikou, the provincial capital. Danzhou Bay on the island’s west coast has recently been found to hold modest numbers of wintering Spoon-billed Sandpipers, one of the world’s rarest and most enigmatic waders and that’ll be our next destination. Danzhou’s coastal mudflats, just a short distance from our hotel, are now arguably the single best site in the whole of China, and one of the most accessible reliable sites on the planet for Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The extensive areas of heavily corrugated, sandy mud flats exposed at low tide appear to be irresistible to this species, and as many as a dozen “spooners” have been found here in recent winters. With the first individuals of this superbly distinctive species probably arriving in mid-September, and a few remaining into early May, our tour is perfectly timed to coincide with the period when this diminutive shorebird is at its most dependable. We’ll spend two nights and parts of three days in the Danzhou Bay area.

Day 6:  Besides large numbers of other shorebirds, hopefully including the very localized White-faced Plover that was recently split from Kentish Plover and east Asian specialties such as Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers (with luck the latter including both Siberian and Tibetan forms), Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint, our other target species this area include King (or Blue-breasted) Quail and an impressive array of poorly known owls - Eastern Barn, Eastern Grass and Oriental Bay Owl.

Day 7:  After a final morning in the Danzhou Bay area we’ll continue north on to Haikou before flying a short distance north to Nanning in southwestern China’s Guangxi Province. From there we’ll drive east to Longzhou for a two-night stay.

Day 8:  Nonggang Babbler, a species only discovered at the start of the current century will be our primary target during our time in Guangxi. It’s rare, with a world population recently estimated to number less than 1300 individuals, but luckily for us it’s locally common and easy to see in its namesake nature reserve. Very close to the Vietnamese border and surrounded by spectacular limestone karst scenery that is just as dramatic as that around the world-renowned Guilin, this area is still rather remote. Here lush forests cling to seemingly impossibly steep massifs that rise abruptly from the flat and intensively cultivated valley floor. Enterprising locals have established a series of photographic bird blinds that have proved hugely attractive to both birds and local bird photographers and it’s in these bird blinds that we’ll spend much of our time. Other regular visitors to the bird blinds include Blue-rumped Pitta, the Indochinese Green and White-winged Magpies, Black-throated Laughingthrush (here of the nominate chinensis form), and Hainan Blue Flycatcher.

Day 9:  We’ll spend most of the day again in the Nonggang Nature Reserve searching for species such as Chinese Barbet, White-browed Piculet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Black-crested Bulbul, Limestone Leaf Warbler, Buff-breasted Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler and David’s Fulvetta that we might have missed earlier. In the afternoon we’ll head back to Nanning, spending the night in a hotel close to the airport.

Day 10:  This morning we’ll fly from Nanning north to Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province. We’ll then drive, via a series of wetlands near Jiujiang where we’ve seen Baer’s Pochard, on to Wuyuan, a picturesque small town in the northeastern corner of the province. Home to several more target species, Wuyuan is a reliable site for the tiny Pied Falconet, Mandarin Duck and Red-billed Starling. Night in Wuyuan.

Day 11:  We’ll spend the entire day around Wuyuan, searching for some of the area’s other specialties with the rare Scaly-sided Merganser one of our main aims. Up to sixty birds have been counted wintering here in recent years, and we’re likely to find a few parties of this attractive sawbill. Other species along this stretch of river could include Long-billed Plover and Black-collared Starling, while elsewhere around Wuyuan we’ll look for Yellow-browed Bunting, that magnificent songster the Chinese Hwamei, and, with luck, Japanese Waxwing. Night in Wuyuan.

Day 12:  We’ll spend the morning searching for Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Grey-sided and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, Gray-chinned Minivet and, with luck, a Spotted Elachura of Short-tailed Parrotbill, along with any species we might have missed the day before. In the late afternoon we’ll start the journey to Poyang Hu. Night outside the nature reserve.

Day 13:  It shouldn’t take us long to reach the world-renowned Poyang Hu from our hotel and we’ll spend all day exploring this fabulous reserve. Poyang Hu is subject to huge annual fluctuations in its water level: the lake covers up to 2,000 square miles during the summer rainy season, but water levels can fall by as much as 50 feet by the end of the winter, shrinking the lake to an area less than 10% of its summer maximum. The result is a mosaic of shallow residual lakes, and it’s the combination of these along the fairly mild winters that creates ideal conditions for tens, even hundreds of thousands of waterbirds.

One of the most important wetlands in the world, Poyang Hu holds the planet’s largest concentrations of several threatened or endangered species. The magnificent Siberian Crane is undoubtedly the reserve’s star attraction, with more than 95% of the world population (3,200 birds) wintering here; even larger numbers of the equally majestic White-naped Crane winter here. Hooded Crane is decidedly scarcer, but we expect to encounter several of them among the huge flocks.

We’ll make extensive use of boats during our stay at this huge wetland. The ancient tradition of cormorant-fishing is still practiced at Poyang Hu, and we might even see a group of these tethered working birds. Thousands of Tundra Swans, Tundra Bean Geese, Greater White-fronted and Swan Geese spend their winter at Poyang Hu alongside hundreds of Oriental Storks and huge swirling flocks of Spotted Redshank and Pied Avocet. Other, less conspicuous species include Marsh Grassbird and Baikal Teal. With a great deal of luck, we might even find a Swinhoe’s Crake. Night at Yongxiu, a small town just outside the reserve.

Day 14:  We’ll leave Yongxiu early and drive a short distance south to spend the morning exploring Nanjishan Reserve. Marsh Grassbird and Swinhoe’s Crake are more regular here than at Poyang Hu, and we’ll concentrate on those two species in particular. In the afternoon we’ll return to Nanchang airport for our flight back to Beijing. We’ll spend the next two nights in a comfortable hotel close to Beijing Capital International Airport.

Day 15:  This morning we’ll depart early on our drive into the mountains west of the Chinese capital. Being significantly further north, Beijing boasts a very different avifauna to those at our previous sites. Today’s destination holds extensive stands of berry-laden Sea Buckthorn that frequently attract large numbers of thrushes (predominantly Red-throated, Dusky and Naumann’s) as well as gorgeous Güldenstädt’s Redstarts, Chinese Beautiful, Pallas’s and the recently split Chinese Long-tailed Rosefinch as well as both Bohemian and, if we’re lucky, Japanese Waxwings. Red-billed Choughs, Plain Laughingthrushes and Beijing Babblers, Godlewski’s and Meadow Buntings are usually common while other species could include Cinereous Vulture, Spotted Nutcracker and perhaps even a Northern Shrike.

Leaving in the early afternoon we’ll make a couple of stops in the lowlands as we head back to the bustling metropolis including a visit to a wetland on the city’s western flank where we’d hopefully be able to find a party of Daurian Jackdaws, a near-endemic Chinese Grey Shrike, Reed Parrotbill or a Bearded Reedling. Night again in Beijing.

Day 16:  The tour ends this morning at Beijing Capital International Airport.

Updated: 03 October 2023


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Questions? Tour Manager: Erin Olmstead. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size 10 with two leaders.  

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