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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Yunnan Province

2017 Narrative

A quick perusal of the end of tour ‘Bird of the Trip’ list yields gives a good indication of just how successful this year’s Yunnan tour was. The ever popular Red-tailed Laughingthrush, a gorgeous species we encountered on five dates, romped home in first place while Grey Peacock-pheasant came second. We actually SAW a remarkable 11 different peacock-pheasants and even had prolonged looks at a stunning, displaying male. Third place was shared between another bird-blind speciality, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, and what’s arguably Asia’s most threatened water bird – Baer’s Pochard. This year we saw just five liocichlas, and heard a few more, but 2017 was also the first time that we’d ever seen Baer’s Pochard in Yunnan – finding a handsome male on Dahaizi reservoir on the edge of Baoshan five days from the end of the tour.

The fact that both White-speckled Laughingthrush and Blue-naped Pitta, two outstanding world rarities, garnered little more than one third the number of votes that Red-tailed Laughingthrush gives some indication of how successful our trip really was while other goodies included Blue-winged Laughingthrush; Spot-breasted, Brown-winged, Pale-billed and Rufous-headed Parrotbills, Rufous-throated Partridge, Black-bibbed Tit and Mrs Hume’s Pheasant!

The network of photographic blinds that have been so popular at Yingjiang and in the Gaoligong Mountains on our previous tours continue to be expanded and there were now multiple offerings at both these sites. It’s a testimony to the popularity of these blinds that five of the top ten birds in the end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll were all seen the best, and most memorably, from one or more of these blinds.

Our introduction to birding in Yunnan was a park between Mangshi and Ruili – and what an introduction. The one kilometre stretch of flat road between the entrance gate and the car park where we had breakfast took us almost three hours to walk – but then with distractions such as a mixed flock of Pale-billed Parrotbills and White-hooded Babblers as well as a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, a pair of Rufous-backed Sibias, a typically elusive Bay Woodpecker and several Hill Blue Flycatchers, it’s easy to see why. A cooperative Yellow-vented Warbler and umpteen, yes umpteen, Streaked Wren-babblers entertained us as we continued further in to this attractive small park after the first of many hearty picnic breakfasts. Stunning looks at a female Red-headed Trogon, two Grey-bellied Tesia and no less than six Slaty-backed Forktails later it was time for more eating and lunch!

After lunch, we visited a now defunct smaller tropical park right on the border with Myanmar – and scored here as well with looks at several Large Woodshrikes, three Puff-throated Babblers and a White-rumped Shama. We also added a modest number of species to our Myanmar lists.

The next day saw us exploring a forested ridge close to Ruili town – and here again birds came pretty thick and fast with great view of both Banded Bay and Asian Emerald Cuckoos, 20 of the recently split (from Fork-tailed or Pacific) Cook’s Swifts, some superb views of our first shrike-babblers and six species of phylloscopus warbler. Other goodies on this same ridge included a cooperative Hill Prinia, a recalcitrant pair of Red-billed Scimitar Babblers and an invisible, but superbly vocal, Spot-throated Babbler. We explored a different trail in the late morning and another area after lunch and then there were the interludes with the inquisitive school children and their ice cream feast.

We moved on the following day and pulled out a few more of the area’s top drawer specialities such as an acrobatically displaying Black Eagle, a typically elusive White-gorgeted Flycatcher, six Speckled Wood Pigeons, a Blue-bearded Bee-eater, our first Chestnut-headed Tesia, a confiding Grey-bellied Wren Babbler and several parties of gorgeously painted Red-tailed Laughingthrushes.

Our next port of call was Yingjiang – with its bird blinds, pair of Blue-naped Pittas, magnificent looks at numerous Grey Peacock-pheasants, Red-headed Trogons, hornbills, Collared Falconets, Hill Mynas and laughingthrushes galore we were fortunate to have two full days here. The volcanic region of Tengchong was our next destination and, once we’d nailed Manipur Fulvetta, we spent a wet afternoon in the town park. Brown-winged Parrotbill, our primary quarry and another quality regional speciality, proved elusive – but then everything did in the heavy rain and we were forced to try again the following morning. We scored surprisingly quickly with decent looks at a flock of 25 of these diminutive parrotbills and could move on again – heading to Baihualing in the mighty Gaoligong Mountains. Stunning scenery, recently upgraded accommodation, an abundance of good food and more fabulous birding – made all that much easier with the advent of the photographic blinds mentioned earlier. We scored well with more skulkers than you could shake a stick at – a couple of photogenic White-browed Shortwings and Chinese Wren-babblers that both appeared like apparitions as if from nowhere, strutted their stuff no more than seven metres from us and then vanished just as quickly. We were also treated to fine performances from several stunningly cooperative Cachar Wedge-billed Babblers and noted two parties of this often-recalcitrant species!

Other goodies at Gaoligong Shan included some stunning looks at several Rufous-throated Partridges, a fabulous encounter with no fewer than five, one male and four female plumaged, Mrs Hume’s Pheasants that performed superbly in front of the photographic blind, more Speckled Woodpigeons, Slaty-bellied, our third species of tesia and an impressive variety of laughingthrushes (Blue-winged, Scaly and Assam as well as the aforementioned Red-tailed!)…

Leaving Baihualing we overnighted in Baoshan – but not before we’d spent some time with over 80 Ferruginous Pochards, a stunning male Baer’s Pochard and a female Baikal Teal on the edge of town. Our journey up to our final destination, Lijiang, a town whose skyline is dominated by the 5600-metre peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, has been eased considerably by the construction of another new expressway and we could afford the time to be distracted en route by the likes of Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Grey-headed Swamphen. Unfortunately, we had to make do with only hearing the singing Manchurian Reed, two Pallas’s’s Grasshopper Warblers and the Manchurian Bush Warbler that occupied the same reed bed as the Clamorous Reed Warbler. We’d hardly arrived at Lijiang when we heard the first of the historic town’s star avian attractions – a Yunnan Nuthatch. We’d see it, a nest-building pair of sordidior Spectacled Fulvettas, and Black-browed Bushtits soon enough. Early the following morning we added inquisitive Rufous-tailed Babbler, a Black-bibbed Tit and, after an awkward climb a stunning White-speckled Laughingthrush, the following day.

I wrote in a recent China 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

Created: 21 April 2017