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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: The Southeast in Winter

2017 Narrative

It didn’t take us very long – it was still before breakfast but even so 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. Not very long afterwards we spotted another, then another, and finally finished having seen two adult males and three redheads! Quite a haul! One pair had even approached quite close to our watchpoint. We were near Wuyuan, a picturesque backwater in central China’s Jiangxi province, and had just found this region’s premier avian attraction – Scaly-sided Merganser on a fast-flowing stretch of river. Given the suspense and the views it came as little surprise that the merganser was voted bird of the trip in our end of tour poll. Lots of excitement and a brilliant breakfast, what more could one ask for? Lots – and Masked Laughingthrush, Long-billed Plover and Moustached Laughingthrush also performed well for us before lunch.

A superb encounter with a party of four magnificent Silver Pheasants put that species into second place in the ‘Bird of the Trip’ poll and we also saw a massive six and not our usual five species of crane on the trip (a single Sandhill, a Chinese rarity, flew overhead at Yancheng towards the end of the tour). Three of the larger cranes, Red-crowned, Siberian and White-naped quite rightly also featured highly in the end of tour poll as did Baer’s Pochard at a site we’d never previously visited. 

Oriental Stork came sixth in the poll – we counted 2605 on our very first day at Poyang Hu and another 490 at a separate part of this massively sprawling reserve the day after. The world population of this fantastic hulking stork was estimated at just 3000 birds only four years ago, and we logged almost 100 more than that, many of them very close, at just two sites!

Three other crackers – Reed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush and Swan Goose rounded off our ten favourite and most memorable birds. We had repeated, close range views of Reed, arguably the world’s most attractive parrotbill, on both days at Yancheng National Nature Reserve, revelled in prolonged looks at an inquisitive pair of Moustached Laughingthrushes near Wuyuan and saw up to 5000 Swan Geese with sightings on four separate dates!

But it wasn’t all plane sailing. This year was the first year since we revised the tour itinerary that we failed to see the critically threatened, rapidly declining and fabulously bizarre Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We tried hard…it simply wasn’t present.

Numerous people view our South China in Winter tour as a waterbird special and in many ways, it is – the spectacle of thousands of swans, geese and ducks at Poyang Hu in particular must be one of Asia’s premier avian attractions. But the tour’s much, much more than just a waterbird special. And while the final bird list was just 230 species and isn’t huge by any stretch, this tour boasts an impressive array of speciality species such as the aforementioned Scaly-sided Merganser and Baikal Teal while Pied Falconet and passerines such as Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler and Spotted Elachura all have great appeal.

The tour’s birding essentially started near Fuzhou, in south-eastern China’s Fujian province. Our first afternoon there was very quiet but our second when we had an excursion to ‘Eel Beach’ was far from that. Highlights that day there included 10 Black-faced Spoonbills, our first Eastern Marsh Harrier, three ‘White-faced Plovers, two Great Knot, 24 Red-necked Stints and two Broad-billed Sandpipers, 29 diminutive Saunders’s Gulls, our first Chinese Penduline Tits and our first Dusky Thrush of the tour proper.

Our third day of birding took us to an area of quality forest right on the edge of Fuzhou city where our fabulous Silver Pheasant encounter stole the show. A perched Crested Goshawk and a soaring Black Eagle were our only raptors of the day. Three Rufous-faced Warblers, umpteen inquisitive Black-throated Bushtits, a great performance by our first of three pairs of Grey-sided Scimitar Babblers, a rather recalcitrant Spotted Elachura, a superbly confiding White’s Thrush and three Slaty-backed Forktail. We also heard, but didn’t see, a Barred Cuckoo-dove, a Collared Owlet, a Buffy Laughingthrush and no fewer than six of the globally threatened White-necklaced Partridges. It was a good day.

The following day a high-speed train took us from Fuzhou northeast direct to Wuyuan and we headed ‘out and at ‘em’ that same afternoon. Our primary quarry that day was the diminutive Pied Falconet but it wasn’t immediately obvious and by the time we eventually bagged on we’d already logged five Mandarin Ducks, our one and only Crested Kingfisher, no fewer than 180 Collared Finchbills and our only Brown-breasted Bulbuls of the tour, 250 Red-billed Starlings, 100 Dusky Thrushes, three White-crowned Forktails and a Brown Dipper.

We had a slightly earlier departure the following morning as we headed off in search of Wuyuan’s primary avian attraction, its Scaly-sided Mergansers. We scored in fine style and other goodies that day in this fabulously picturesque area included our first of eight Brown Crakes, two Long-billed Plovers, several Masked and a pair of Moustached Laughingthrushes while in the afternoon we saw more exquisite Mandarins Ducks, two elusive Chinese Bamboo Partridges and a few typically uncooperative Yellow-browed Buntings.

We moved on the next day and, after a picnic breakfast that was enlivened by an impressive post roost movement of corvids including our first Daurian Jackdaws, headed to a ‘new’ site near Jiujiang instead of going straight to Poyang Hu. We were in search of Baer’s Pochard, arguably Asia’s most rapidly declining duck, and we soon found a party of six birds among a flock of almost two thousand Common Pochard. Other goodies here included close range looks at good numbers of geese, a few Rustic Buntings and our first, proper looks at Chinese Grosbeak. Our generous hosts then took us to larger reservoir where we found our first Siberian Cranes and, more remarkably, another Scaly-sided Merganser!

We managed to avoid the fog that can plague Poyang Hu, our next port of call and this huge wetland area lived up to some of our expectations. It’s notoriously difficult to estimate numbers in large flocks of birds but we certainly had plenty of practice and, in this respect, the lakes at Dahuchi and Nanjishan, both hosting thousands of water birds, were particularly rewarding. Here our day tallies included a remarkable 5000 Swan, 1500 Tundra Bean and 1000 Greylag Geese, 2605 Oriental Stork and 1200 Grey Heron. We also came across yet 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 several Lesser White-fronted Geese and two cooperative Eastern Water Rails 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 and, 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 well as did a couple of Western Water Rails and a Chinese Grey Shrike.

We explored a tiny fraction of Shanghai city later that afternoon, had a short walk along the famous Bund and then a boat across the Huangpu river and even found time to go for a coffee and a snack.

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.

  -        Paul Holt

Created: 17 March 2017