NORTHEAST CHINA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Northeast China: Day 1 Our tour begins this afternoon at Wuhan, situated on the Yangtze River in the province of Hubei, from where we will travel north to the Dongzhai National Reserve in He’nan province for a two nights stay.
Northeast China: Day 2 One of our main reasons for visiting Dongzhai is to seek out the extraordinary endemic Reeves’s Pheasant – surely one of the world’s most spectacular birds. With subtle, scaled, golden and chestnut hues, a vivid pied head pattern, and a tail that is unfeasibly long, this really is a must-see species! Our birding will concentrate on two areas of forest, as well as the rural areas adjacent to our hotel.
On the first morning we will visit an area where we have an excellent chance of finding multiple male Reeves’s Pheasants, perhaps beating their wings in display from a log to attract one of the more sombre females that may also be lurking in view.
Another major speciality at Dongzhai is the beautiful Fairy Pitta, a rare and declining species that has become hard to find in most areas. Here at Dongzhai it is still not difficult to locate.
Once we have sated ourselves with these glorious species, we will set about finding some of the other specialities of the area.
Close to the village, a population of the endangered and spectacular near-endemic Crested Ibis has become established, and we should be able to watch them feeding in the small paddies, or perhaps attending a nest. The Chinese population is currently estimated to be in excess of 1500 individuals and they are recolonizing some of their old haunts. Also here, the rapidly declining near-endemic Collared Crow is still fairly numerous, and we will make sure we get some good views of this charismatic species.
Adjacent to the village we are likely to encounter a number of other interesting species, including Grey-faced Buzzard, Chinese Sparrowhawk (which we may well witness in display flight), the smart Black Baza, the localized Grey-headed Lapwing, the smart Black-capped Kingfisher, the subtle Swinhoe’s Minivet, the noisy, near-endemic Collared Finchbill, the near-endemic Light-vented Bulbul, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, the smart, near-endemic Red-billed Starling, the recently split, near-endemic Chinese Blackbird, the near-endemic Masked Laughingthrush, the cheeky little, near-endemic Vinous-throated Parrotbill, the stunning Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, the smart Daurian Redstart, Azure-winged Magpie, Russet Sparrow and the much-desired Chinese Grosbeak.
The forests here are mostly of non-native tree species and indeed more specialities occur around the villages than in the forest proper. Nevertheless, whilst looking for the pheasants in and around the remnant native forests, we may well come across species such as Besra, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Oriental Scops Owl (they can sometimes be seen in their nests during the day here), Collared Owlet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black-naped Oriole, Hair-crested Drongo, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Brown-breasted and Mountain Bulbuls, the localized Silver-throated Bushtit (split from Long-tailed Tit or Long-tailed Bushtit), Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, the sweet-singing Chinese Hwamei and, with a bit of luck, the scarce and shy Orange-headed Thrush. Along the adjacent watercourses we may well come across species such as the impressive Crested Kingfisher, White-crowned Forktail, Blue Whistling Thrush (a black-billed form here) and Plumbeous Water Redstart.
More widespread species that we are likely to encounter during our visit to the area include Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Common Pheasant (the grey-rumped decollatus subspecies here), Chinese Pond Heron, Eastern Cattle, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Crested Goshawk, Common Moorhen, Oriental Turtle and Spotted Doves, Asian Koel, Indian Cuckoo, Asian Barred Owlet and Northern Boobook (both easier to hear than see around the villages), Common Kingfisher, Great Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Brown and Long-tailed Shrikes, Black and Ashy (here the attractive white-faced form leucogenis) Drongos, Eurasian Jay (the striking form here, pekingensis, is part of the ‘Brandt’s Jay group’), the spectacular Red-billed Blue Magpie, Eurasian Magpie, Japanese Tit, Black Bulbul (smart white-headed birds here), Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, the perky little Black-throated Bushtit, Plain Prinia, Japanese White-Eye, White-cheeked Starling, the declining Crested Myna, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, White-rumped Munia, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail (of the form leucopsis, known as Amur Wagtail), Grey-capped (or Oriental) Greenfinch and the smart Meadow Bunting.
There are also likely to be a few migrants around, and these may include Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, the recently split Stejneger’s Stonechat, Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and even a Blyth’s Pipit or Chestnut Bunting.
Northeast China: Day 3 We will spend most of the day at Dongzhai before returning to Wuhan for an overnight stay.
Northeast China: Day 4 Today we will travel to the city of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. Our routing will depend on flight and train schedules, and may be by air the whole way or a combination of a flight and then travel on one of China’s fantastic modern ‘bullet trains’. From there we drive to nearby Jiaocheng for an overnight stay.
Northeast China: Day 5 During our time around Jiaocheng we will visit a reliable site for the endangered Brown Eared Pheasant. This endemic species was once widespread in northeastern China but is now reduced to a few fragmented pockets. By searching persistently in the juniper-clad rocky hillsides, we have an excellent chance of getting great views of this superb creature. Soon after dawn their rolling, barking calls ring out across the wooded valleys, and we will look out for these huge pheasants as they forage across the adjacent hillsides, digging up roots and tubers with their powerful bills and claws. Other birds here may well include Common Pheasant, Common Kestrel, Marsh Tit, Yellow-streaked Warbler, the endemic Plain (or Père David’s) Laughingthrush, the endemic Beijing Babbler (formerly known as Chinese Hill Warbler, but now shown to be a babbler), the vocal Spotted Nutcracker, the lovely Long-tailed Rosefinch (the form here, lepidus, is potentially a good species), Grey-capped Greenfinch and Godlewski’s Bunting.
Later in the day we will take a high speed train to Beijing from where we will drive out to the west of the thriving metropolis to Jiangshuihe for a two nights stay.
Northeast China: Day 6 The rugged mountains that surround Beijing rise to over 2000m (at the summit of Wuling Shan) and form one of the northernmost outliers of the montane forests that extend across much of China. To the north the connection between the Siberian forest zone and the forests of China proper is broken by the dry, largely treeless Manchurian plain and the Mongolian steppes and deserts, while to the south the broad lowlands of the Yellow River (or Huang He) have served a similarly isolating function, resulting in the evolution of a number of endemic (or at least breeding-endemic) species and subspecies in the wooded uplands of this region. Nowadays the remaining forest cover in the area is decidedly patchy, but we will explore a couple of areas close to our accommodation which should give us a good chance to find most of the sought-after birds of the area.
The first of the major specialities here is the attractive and localized Green-backed Flycatcher, a form now widely recognized as a distinct species from Narcissus Flycatcher. (Indeed, the first-summer male plumage of this interesting form was even erroneously described as a new species to science by Chinese ornithologists in recent years, under the name Beijing Flycatcher, and given the scientific name ‘beijingnica’!) Another star attraction here is the rare and localized Grey-sided Thrush, a species now gravely threatened by habitat loss. This poorly-known bird, which only breeds in a small area of Hebei and adjacent Beijing municipal region, occurs here and we should obtain good views with a bit of effort. The localized and recently split Zappey’s Flycatcher also occurs in the lower, taller forests, and hopefully we will be alerted to its presence by its melodic song, before setting eyes on its lovely azure plumage. The fourth, and perhaps most difficult localized endemic, is Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch which, after reclassification of some subspecies, is now restricted to some areas of moist montane scrub in northeast China. While searching for these species we will hope to find a number of other good species. More widespread Chinese endemics or near-endemics include Chinese Thrush, Yellow-bellied Tit and Chinese Nuthatch, while other specialities include Chinese and Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, the shy White-bellied Redstart and the handsome White-throated Rock Thrush (though this last is quite scarce). Another bird of particular interest is the isolated xanthospila form of the Koklass Pheasant (which occurs far to the north of the main range of the species), which we may be lucky enough to track down by listening at dawn for its harsh, far-carrying calls.
Other species we may well find here include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle, Eurasian Hobby, Hill Pigeon, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo, Grey-capped Woodpecker, Olive-backed Pipit, Long-tailed Minivet, Eurasian Wren, the lovely Siberian Blue Robin, Eastern Crowned, Hume’s and Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, the elusive Asian Stubtail, Songar Tit (now often lumped back in Willow Tit), Coal Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Red-billed Chough and Large-billed Crow.
Northeast China: Day 7 After a final morning in the mountains of the Beijing region we will head south, skirting the western side of Beijing, before making our way south on the fast expressway to the thriving industrial town of Hengshui for an overnight stay. Later we will begin our birding in the area.
Northeast China: Day 8 Just south of Hengshui is a vast man-made lake which has now become well-vegetated, creating huge reedbeds and marshes. Recent explorations of the area by birders has thrown up a real surprise, as it seems to be home to a significant breeding population of Baer’s Pochards at a site well south of their former known breeding range! We should have little trouble finding this rare duck and should obtain good views of several drakes. (Typically much of the site is now under threat of development for leisure sports and recreation!) Also here is a population of the rare Von Schrenck’s Bittern, which, at this time of year, can be seen making their territorial flights over the reed beds. The fabulous Reed Parrotbill is also present in some numbers, though the elusive Blunt-winged Warbler, which also occurs here, is somewhat more difficult to see. Other new species we may see include Yellow Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Grey Heron, Ferruginous Duck (unusually this species meets Baer’s Pochard here and may even occasionally hybridize with them), the exquisite Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Kingfisher, the introduced Collared Dove, Asian Azure-winged Magpie and the sneaky Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. Later we will make our way back to Beijing for an overnight stay.
Northeast China: Day 9 This morning we will take a flight to Wulanhaote (or Ulanhot) in eastern Inner Mongolia. The arid steppe here will certainly come as a complete contrast to everything we have seen before! From Wulanhaote we will drive the short distance to Baicheng, situated just over the border in Jilin province and part of the region once known as Manchuria, for a three nights stay.
Northeast China: Days 10-11 From Baicheng we will drive out across the wide Manchurian plain, real ‘big sky’ country reminiscent of the American prairies. The steppes in this area provide one of the last refuges for the near-endemic Jankowski’s Bunting. This almost mythical species was discovered breeding in this region in the 1990s and has subsequently been found at a scattering of locations where extensive areas of grassland or scrub-grassland survive. These are habitats which have been largely cleared for cultivation elsewhere in Manchuria, so the species is now thought to be highly endangered. We shall enjoy searching for and watching this unusual species, which very few people have ever observed. These grasslands also hold a remnant population of Great Bustards, as well as Japanese Quail, the huge Mongolian Lark with its striking white wing patches, Asian Short-toed Lark, Eurasian Skylark, Blyth’s Pipit, Bluethroat, Lanceolated Warbler and the smart Pallas’s Reed Bunting. With luck, we will also come across the nomadic Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Yellow-legged Buttonquail or Japanese Reed Bunting. If conditions are right, the shelterbelts may also attract a few migrant warblers, flycatchers and buntings or perhaps even something rarer such as a Japanese Waxwing!
Assuming all goes well with our bunting quest, we will have time to make a day trip to the south to Xianghai, a huge reserve that consists of a mixture of dry, open grasslands, rivers, lakes and marshes surrounded by reedbeds and scattered elm woodlands. Xianghai is renowned for its breeding cranes (which have been kept going partly through a re-introduction scheme) and we can expect to see the striking Red-crowned (or Japanese) Crane during our visit. Watching the Red-crowned Cranes calling and dancing in their marshland home is an evocative experience. The threatened Swan Goose, Chinese Spot-billed Duck and the rare White-naped Crane all breed in the reserve, as does the rare Oriental Stork. Other interesting species we are likely to see include the striking Pied Harrier (now becoming uncommon in the area), the splendid little Amur Falcon which is delightfully common in this region, Daurian Partridge, Oriental Pratincole, Grey-headed Lapwing, Eastern Grey-headed Wagtail, Chinese Penduline Tit, the impressive Chinese Grey Shrike, Oriental Crow (sometimes split from Carrion), Oriental Rook (sometimes split from Western Rook), the piebald Daurian Jackdaw and Chestnut-eared Bunting.
Other species we may well encounter at Xianghai include Little, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Eurasian (or Great) Bittern, Great Egret, Purple Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Greylag Goose, Common Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Common Moorhen, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Northern Lapwing, Marsh and Common Sandpipers, Eastern Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Common and Little Terns, beautiful Whiskered and White-winged Terns, Common Cuckoo, Eurasian Hoopoe, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Richard’s Pipit, Brown Shrike, White-cheeked Starling, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and the gorgeous Yellow-throated Bunting. With luck, we’ll also come across one of the rarer species such as Asian Dowitcher or Manchurian Reed Warbler.
Northeast China: Day 12 This morning we will return to Wulanhaote and fly back to Beijing for an overnight. We will make a visit to the famous Great Wall this afternoon, stopping to admire this remarkable, but often unsuccessful, bulwark against the barbarian hordes. Started more than two thousand years ago, and winding back and forth for some 5,000 kilometres across northern China from the coast to the Gobi Desert in distant Gansu, this amazing structure surely epitomizes China’s three millennia of civilization and its long and turbulent history.
Northeast China: Day 13 Our tour ends this morning at Beijing.