SICHUAN, CHINA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Sichuan, China: Day 1 Our Sichuan, China birding tour begins this evening at Chengdu. Chengdu is situated near the western margin of the fertile plains of the Red Basin, not far from the high mountains that form the outer ramparts of the Tibetan Plateau.
Sichuan, China: Day 2 Today we will drive to Tangjiahe, one of China’s Giant Panda reserves, for a two nights stay. Our route first takes us across the flat countryside of the Red Basin and through a very Chinese landscape of intensively cultivated patchwork of small fields, little villages of old-style cottages and tall clumps of bamboo. Some things seem little changed, whether it is the Chinese farmers planting the new rice crop or the villagers buying and selling from the market stalls, but as we pass through the rapidly modernizing towns and cities of Sichuan, complete with high-rise buildings and an incredible amount of on-going construction, we will have an inkling of just how much China’s economic boom has spread from the coast deep inland. Even the roads are a surprise to newcomers, with long stretches of expressway! After a time we reach the mountains and our pace of travel slows.
Along the way we should see a few open country species such as Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret, Barn Swallow and Long-tailed Shrike. We will break the journey after reaching the foothills. Here amongst a mosaic of woodland patches, bamboo, cultivation and small hamlets we may well encounter the endemic David’s Fulvetta, the breeding-endemic Swinhoe’s Minivet and such near-endemics as Chinese Bulbul, Collared Finchbill, Chinese (or Mandarin) Blackbird, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Chinese Hwamei and the impressive Yellow-billed Grosbeak. More widespread species include Spotted Dove, Red-rumped Swallow, Himalayan Wagtail, the arboreal Forest Wagtail, Oriental Magpie-Robin, White-crowned Forktail, the delightful little Rufous-faced Warbler with its high-pitched, teetering song, Rufous-capped Babbler, White-browed Laughingthrush, Eurasian Jay, Black-throated Bushtit, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and perhaps the smart Tiger Shrike.
Sichuan, China: Day 3 Tangjiahe is a fabulously scenic area. Deep forested gorges with rushing rivers are towered over by imposing mountains. Deciduous forested slopes give way to a carpet of bamboo and alpine meadows and steep coniferous ridges. The quality of the habitat is soon apparent. Large mammals are reasonably common, and we have an excellent chance of finding impressive species such as Takin and Chinese Serow, as well as Reeve’s Muntjac and Chinese Goral.
There are many avian riches to be found in the reserve, including the spectacular endemic Golden Pheasant (quite easy to see at Tangjiahe, unlike most other places in Sichuyan or more widely China), the breeding-endemic Zappey’s Flycatcher, Baikal Bush Warbler (with its insect-like song), the breeding-endemic Emei, Claudia’s and Chinese, and breeding near-endemic Kloss’s and Sichuan Leaf Warblers, endemic Three-toed and Spectacled Parrotbills, shy Spotted and endemic Elliot’s Laughingthrushes, the sneaky endemic Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler, spectacular Golden-breasted and endemic Grey-hooded Fulvettas, the near-endemic White-collared Yuhina, the splendidly bold, endemic Chinese Wren-Babbler (a member of the recently created Cupwing family), the endemic Sooty Bushtit, Fire-capped and near-endemic Yellow-bellied Tits, the localized endemic Sichuan Treecreeper (a species of high-altitude conifers), and the skulking endemic Slaty Bunting. This fantastic reserve had been largely ignored by birders until the rare endemic Przevalski’s (or Rusty-throated) Parrotbill was discovered in the reserve. Formerly known from Jiuzhaigou, it disappeared from there in the last great bamboo die-off, and had not been seen for some years before being rediscovered at Tangjiahe. Accessing the right habitat requires effort and entry may not be possible, but we will go in search of this special bird if we can.
Other more widespread species that we have our first chance to encounter include the shy Koklass Pheasant, the vocal Large Hawk Cuckoo, Himalayan and Lesser Cuckoos, Asian Koel, Grey-headed, Grey-capped, Great Spotted and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, the colourful Long-tailed Minivet, Eurasian Wren, skulking Indian Blue, White-browed and Golden Bush Robins, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Redstart, Blue Whistling Thrush, Rufous-gorgeted and Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Brown-flanked, Yellow-bellied and Aberrant Bush Warblers, Bianchi’s Warbler (the first of the confusing former Golden-spectacled Warbler complex), Greenish, Large-billed Leaf and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, the secretive Pygmy Wren-babbler (now a member of the Cupwing family), Yellow-browed, Coal, Grey Crested and Green-backed Tits, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Large-billed Crow, Olive-backed Pipit, Grey Wagtail and Vinaceous Rosefinch. If we are fortunate, we will encounter one or two of the less common species of the area, such as the imposing Tawny Fish Owl or the unobtrusive Ultramarine Flycatcher.
Sichuan, China: Day 4 After some final birding at Tangjiahe we will drive northwestwards to the Jiuzhaigou region for a two nights stay.
Sichuan, China: Day 5 Jiuzhaigou is a scenically magnificent area of high, snow-covered peaks, dense coniferous and mixed forests, often cloud-wreathed hillsides covered in flowering rhododendrons and azaleas, bamboo thickets and a host of alpine flowers. The scenic beauty of the area is famous throughout China.
Endemics we will be concentrating on include the magnificent Blue Eared Pheasant, the splendid Père David’s Owl, the impressive but sometimes elusive endemic Barred Laughingthrush, Spectacled Fulvetta, the attractive Père David’s Tit and Przevalski’s Nuthatch, while other important species are the near-endemic Salim Ali’s Swift, Chinese Nuthatch and Tibetan Serin (or Tibetan Siskin). As we explore the area we should also encounter a number of other species such as Chestnut Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Daurian Redstart.
The prime speciality of Jiuzhaigou used to be the lovely Rufous-headed Robin. This little-known and extremely elusive species was only known (as a breeding species) from the neighbouring province of Shaanxi before we discovered it at Jiuzhaigou in 1984 (the first record from China in the modern era. Sadly the tiny population now appears to have died out, perhaps through habitat change, so we are unlikely to see this jewel of a bird.
Sichuan, China: Day 6 After some final birding in the Jiuzhaigou region we will continue westwards, climbing over high, spruce- and scrub-clad passes, until we come to the high grasslands of the edge of the Tibetan Plateau itself, a wild landscape where swarthy Tibetan herders still graze their yaks, ponies and sheep, and where the nomadic lifestyle still continues into the 21st century. Eventually we will arrive at Ruoergai which will be our base for the next three nights.
Sichuan, China: Days 7-8 From Ruoergai, we are able to explore a mix of habitats ranging from ancient conifer forest to the rolling grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau.
In the former we will be searching for a handful of very special birds including the endemic Severtzov’s (or Chinese) Grouse, the bold endemic Verreaux’s Monal Partridge, the uncommon and unobtrusive Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (represented here by the dark and distinctive funebris subspecies), the secretive Maroon-backed Accentor, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, the endemic Chinese Thrush, the breeding-endemic Yellow-streaked Warbler, the superb little near-endemic Crested Tit-Warbler, the impressive endemic Giant and Snowy-cheeked (or Sukatschev’s) Laughingthrushes, the endemic Chinese Fulvetta, Rufous-breasted Accentor, the very localized endemic Sichuan Jay, the endemic Chinese White-browed Rosefinch and the impressive, near-endemic Three-banded Rosefinch. We’ll also have another chance to look for the much-wanted Blue-eared Pheasant and the magnificent Père David’s Owl.
In the more open grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, crossed by meandering rivers, and dotted with marshes, we will look for another set of special birds. We may awake to a crisp early morning, with mist hanging low over the wide grasslands which will gradually clear to reveal the deep blue sky that is typical of remote, high-altitude regions. The star attraction of this fine area is the rare and endangered near-endemic Black-necked Crane, which still breeds in some of the wetlands. The supporting cast is a good one too! Best of all are the delightful little near-endemic Ground Tits (formerly known as Hume’s Groundpecker or Hume’s Ground Jay, these strange birds are now thought to be aberrant tits rather than ground jays) that bound across the steppe like some kind of bizarre wheatear, stopping every so often to peck furiously at the ground. Other goodies include the impressive Upland Buzzard, the near-endemic Tibetan Lark, the impressive near-endemic Chinese Grey Shrike (here of the large dark Tibetan form), the smart endemic Kessler’s Thrush and the charismatic, near-endemic Tibetan, White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches.
We shall also search valleys clothed in high altitude scrub for the near-endemic Tibetan Partridge, the lilac-tinged White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, the endemic White-browed and Sichuan Tits, Dusky Warbler, the breeding-endemic Alpine Leaf Warbler and the endemic Plain (or Père David’s) Laughingthrush. The most wanted bird in this characteristic habitat is the endemic Przevalski’s Finch (also known as Pink-tailed Finch), an interesting species that is now placed in its own family.
Other more widespread species in this region of China include Common Pheasant (indigenous here), Black Stork, Greylag Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Common Merganser (or Goosander), Himalayan (Griffon) Vulture, Black Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Himalayan Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Common Kestrel, Common Redshank, Common Tern, Common Cuckoo, Eurasian Hoopoe, Horned Lark, Oriental Skylark, Rosy and Blyth’s Pipits, the lovely Citrine Wagtail (here of the attractive black-backed race calcarata – Tibetan Wagtail), Asian House Martin, the attractive Himalayan Bluetail, Black Redstart (complete with red belly here), Blue-fronted Redstart, Siberian Stonechat, Long-tailed Thrush, Buff-barred Warbler, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Eurasian and Asian Azure-winged Magpies, Red-billed Chough, the smart Daurian Jackdaw, the huge Tibetan race of the Northern Raven, Rufous-vented and Japanese Tits, Grey-backed Shrike, Twite (of the interesting interior Asian form, which may represent a distinct species), Himalayan Beautiful and Common Rosefinches, Grey-headed Bullfinch and Godlewski’s Bunting. We may also see one or two of the more uncommon species such as Bar-headed Goose or Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
We should also encounter good numbers of pikas and perhaps a few larger mammals such as Tibetan Fox or Grey Wolf which are attracted to the sometimes abundant prey.
Sichuan, China: Day 9 Today we will have time for some final birding in the Ruoergai area before heading south to Maerkang for an overnight stay. We will pass through some incredible landscapes, enjoying the unfolding scenic marvels that seems to stretch forever. When we can manage to take our eyes off the snow-covered peaks and rolling grasslands, we will look for any of the Tibetan Plateau specialities that we have not yet found and we will also keep a keen eye out for the increasingly rare Saker Falcon. There is also a chance for Ibisbill along the rivers. We will also likely encounter other species such as Hill Pigeon, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hodgson’s Redstart and Blue Rock Thrush. If we still need to, we will visit an area of coniferous forest which holds Przevalski’s Nuthatch.
Sichuan, China: Day 10 In the early morning we will climb up high into the mountains by road to an area of coniferous forest on Mengbi Shan where we will have another chance to look for some of the specialities of the high altitude spruce forest. We may well also add a few new species such as the huge Black Woodpecker, the smart White-throated Redstart, Greenish Warbler, Goldcrest, the near-endemic Chinese Babax, Carrion Crow, the attractive endemic Pink-rumped (or Stresemann’s) Rosefinch and both White-winged Grosbeak and the even more impressive Collared Grosbeak. With luck, we will also encounter the handsome Rufous-bellied Woodpecker.
We will then make our way to Wolong for a three nights stay. As we head down from the mountains the Tibetan influence gives way to scenery influenced by the Han Chinese. Towards the end of our journey we will cross the incredible Balang Shan pass for the first time, an area that we will revisit in the coming days. We will have an opportunity to try for the superb Wallcreeper during the journey.
Sichuan, China: Days 11-12 The Wolong Giant Panda Reserve is world famous as a result of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s research and conservation efforts to save the species from extinction. The pioneering work on pandas by George Schaller was carried out in this beautiful region of forested mountains, bamboo thickets, alpine meadows and jagged, snow-covered peaks. During our stay in this wonderful part of China we will be able to explore areas from about 2000m right up to the high alpine zone above 4000m. We shall be birding amidst some breathtaking mountain scenery, with the surrounding peaks rising to over 5500m and the even higher peak of Siguniang visible in the distance.
By using a road that climbs over the Balang Shan range by way of a high pass at over 4500m we can drive right up to the habitat of Tibetan Snowcock, Snow Partridge and the amazingly beautiful but endangered endemic Chinese Monal. At the highest altitudes, where patches of snow-free rocks project above the snow, we may well find gorgeous, indigo-coloured Grandalas, Alpine Accentors, Red-breasted Rosefinches and restless flocks of Plain and Brandt’s Mountain Finches feeding on insects in this seemingly inhospitable environment.
Here also we will look for the incomparable endemic White Eared Pheasant, for we should find these magnificent creatures feeding out in the open early in the morning. At dawn the loud, barking calls of Koklass Pheasants ring out across the forest.
The rare Blackthroat has been found breeding here occasionally in recent years, so we do have a slim chance of seeing this splendid bird, while in the thickets of bamboo amongst the forest the strikingly-plumaged endemic Firethroat can be enticed into view. We will also have our first (but not best) chance to see the incomparable Temminck’s Tragopan, and if we are lucky will come across one of the rarer species such as Crimson-browed Finch. We shall also have a second opportunity to catch up on a number of species we may have missed elsewhere.
Amongst the many other species we should encounter in this wonderful reserve are Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), the handsome Snow Pigeon, White-throated Dipper, the stunning endemic Chinese Rubythroat, Chestnut-crowned Bush Warbler, the breeding-endemic Martens’s Warbler, Alpine Chough and Streaked Rosefinch. If we are in luck we will also encounter Mountain Hawk-Eagle.
Sichuan, Birding: Day 13 After some final birding at Wolong, we will drive to the town of Luding for a two nights stay, admiring more spectacular scenery as we go.
Sichuan, China: Day 14 From Luding we shall explore the seldom-visited reserve at Erlang Shan, which is home to a number of interesting species. Here, we have our first chance of encountering the superb near-endemic Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, one of the most beautiful but most secretive of China’s pheasants. We will also be looking for Grey Nightjar, Grey-crowned Warbler, the endemic Rufous-tailed Babbler (or Rufous-tailed Moupinia) and the uncommon, near-endemic Sharpe’s Rosefinch. The stunning Firethroat is particularly easy to see here. This area also offers our best chances for both the near-endemic Black-browed Bushtit and the rare and elusive, near-endemic Streaked Barwing.
Other species we may well see in this fine area include Bay Woodpecker, the secretive White-tailed Robin, Grey Bushchat, Ashy-throated Warbler, Dark-sided Flycatcher, White-browed Fulvetta, Stripe-throated Yuhina, the beautiful Gould’s Sunbird, Japanese and Chestnut-flanked White-eyes, and Hair-crested Drongo.
Sichuan, China: Day 15 After some final birding at Erlang Shan we will make our way to Labahe for a two nights stay.
Sichuan, China: Day 16 At higher levels at Labahe the areas of evergreen broadleaf woodland give way to deciduous woodland and ultimately open scrubby, grassy or bamboo-covered areas and stands of mixed coniferous-rhododendron forest (some of the latter will still be in flower at this season). From the summit ridge, reachable by a well-maintained boardwalk, some superb vistas can be had across a seemingly endless series of mountain ridges. The main purpose of our visit to Labahe is to encounter the incredible Temminck’s Tragopan, which can be positively easy to see here! We will also be searching the bamboo for Great and Brown Parrotbills, and the uncommon Fulvous Parrotbill, while more widespread birds we may well encounter here include Himalayan Swiftlet, Brown Dipper, White-browed Shortwing, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Black-chinned Yuhina, Spotted Nutcracker, Russet Sparrow and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. Labahe is a superb area and we will also have chances to catch up with other species we may not have seen so far, such as Lady Amherst’s Pheasant and Streaked Barwing.
Sichuan, China: Day 17 After another morning at Labahe we will continue our journey to Longcanggou for a three nights stay.
Sichuan, China: Days 18-19 The recently redeveloped reserve at Longcanggou has only become popular in birding circles in recent years. We will explore a track that winds up through attractive mixed forest all the way up to the bamboo zone at the top.
Here, in the bamboo, we will seek out our prime target, the little known Grey-hooded Parrotbill, which is usually not too difficult to find. Emei Liocichla is another localized endemic, and this is also an excellent place to see the recently-described endemic Sichuan Thrush and the endemic Sichuan Bush Warbler.
Other specialities here include the restricted-range Chinese Bamboo Partridge, the attractive, near-endemic Red-winged and endemic Buffy Laughingthrushes, the near-endemic Ashy-throated Parrotbill, the endemic Dusky Fulvetta, the sweet-singing, breeding-endemic Chinese Blue Flycatcher, and the restricted-range Chestnut-vented Nuthatch.
More widespread species include Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo, White-throated Needletail, White-backed and Darjeeling Woodpeckers, the sneaky Speckled Piculet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-tailed Minla, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Verditer, Ferruginous and Brown-breasted Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, the skulking White-bellied Redstart, and the skulking Spotted and Brown Bush Warblers.
Longcanggou is a very birdy location, and as well as the new species we will also have another chance for many other goodies such as Temminck’s Tragopan, Emei Leaf Warbler, Three-toed and Brown Parrotbills, Sichuan Treecreeper and Fire-capped Tit.
We also plan to visit an area nearby where we will have a good chance of finding the rare and elusive endemic Golden-fronted Fulvetta, as well as the diminutive, near-endemic Golden Parrotbill.
Sichuan, China: Day 20 After some early morning birding at Longcanggou we will return to Chengdu, where the our Sichuan birding tour through this incomparable part of China end this afternoon.
NORTHERN YUNNAN EXTENSION
Yunnan, China Extension: Day 1 The tour starts in the evening at the town of Lijiang, situated in northern Yunnan province in southwest China, where we will stay for three nights.
Yunnan, China Extension: Days 2-3 Lijiang is the principal settlement of the Naxi people, a matriarchal society with some fascinating social customs and the old town, dating back to the 12th century, is well worth seeing. At this point the mighty Yangtze river makes a long loop to the north before resuming its flow towards the China Sea, forming a natural boundary to the spectacular, snow-capped peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains, rising to over 5500m (18000ft), that tower above the town. This ornithologically little known area offers a feast of dramatically beautiful scenery, with deep valleys clothed in deciduous and coniferous woodland giving way at higher altitudes to alpine meadows and icy peaks.
Some special birds can be found in the Lijiang area and in particular we will be wanting to see the rare and localized endemic White-speckled (or Biet’s) Laughingthrush (though depressingly this species is becoming increasingly difficult to find due to trapping), the inquisitive near-endemic Rufous-tailed Babbler (or Rufous-tailed Moupinia), the smart Black-headed Sibia, the secretive Rusty-capped Fulvetta, the smart Black-breasted Thrush, the little-known, near-endemic Brown-winged Parrotbill, the near-endemic Black-bibbed and Black-browed Tits, the near-endemic Yunnan Nuthatch and Black-headed Greenfinch.
Other more widespread species that we may encounter include Asian Barred Owlet, Brown-breasted and Himalayan Black Bulbuls, Grey-winged Blackbird, Black-faced, Davison’s Leaf and Buff-throated Warblers, the localized Rosy Minivet, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, Green Shrike-Babbler, the endemic Spectacled Fulvetta (a different-looking subspecies compared to those we’ll see in Sichuan), Chestnut-tailed Minla, Buff-bellied Flowerpecker and Black Drongo. We will also have a first encounter with a number of species that will become very familiar in Sichuan.
Yunnan, China Extension: Day 4 We will spend much of the day birding around Lijiang. Afterwards we will take a short flight to Chengdu in Sichuan province where we will join up with those arriving for the main tour.