CHINA IN WINTER TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
China in Winter: Day 1 Our China in Winter tour begins this morning at Beijing, from where we will drive southwards to the Tianjin area for an overnight stay.
This afternoon we will make our first visit to the low-lying shores of the Gulf of Bohai, where our primary target will be the large numbers of rare Relict Gulls that winter in this area.
Other gulls that winter regularly in the area include Vega Gull (including the form mongolicus, known as Mongolian Gull), the ‘taimyrensis’ form of the Lesser Black-backed Gull (which may, in fact, be a hybrid population with Vega Gull), Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) Gull, the rare Saunders’s Gull, Kamchatka Gull (sometimes split from Mew or Common) and Black-headed Gull.
China in Winter: Day 2 After a second visit to the Gulf of Bohai, if need be, we will skirt the Beijing metropolis and head into the mountains north of the city for a two nights stay. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
China in Winter: Day 3 In the Beijing mountains we can wander amongst orchards and quiet valleys with woodlands and scrubby hillsides that hold wintering Siberian Accentors and Pallas’s Rosefinches, and resident endemic Beijing Babblers (formerly Chinese Hill Warbler), Plain (or Père David’s) Laughingthrushes, Silver-throated Bushtits and Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches, and near-endemic Chinese Nuthatches in particular.
Other species we are likely to find include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Oriental Turtle Dove, Grey-headed, Great Spotted and perhaps Grey-capped Woodpeckers, the near-endemic Chinese Bulbul, Dusky, Naumann’s and Red-throated Thrushes, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, the near-endemic Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Japanese and Marsh Tits, Willow Tit (the form here is part of the ‘Songar’ group, sometimes treated as a distinct species), Eurasian and Red-billed Blue Magpies, Azure-winged Magpie (nowadays regarded as specifically distinct from the Iberian population), Large-billed Crow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Brambling, Oriental (or Grey-capped) Greenfinch, Godlewski’s, Rustic and Little Buntings, and the smart Yellow-throated Bunting.
If we are fortunate we will find a Pine Bunting or two. We have even seen Japanese Waxwing in the area, but this is an unpredictable species and we will consider ourselves lucky if we come across a flock.
China in Winter: Day 4 Today we will return to Beijing and catch a flight to the city of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province situated not far from the famous Poyang Hu. From there we will travel to Wuyuan in eastern Jiangxi for a two nights stay. These days the drive is a fast one on one of the many modern expressways.
China in Winter: Day 5 This morning we will explore a wide, fast-flowing river where the rare and little-known Scaly-sided (or Chinese) Merganser winters in fair numbers. We should obtain great views of at least a few and quite possibly a dozen or more of these beautiful ducks, watching them feeding in the river or chasing each other during territorial squabbles. We also have a good chance of finding the localized Long-billed Plover on the gravel banks.
The Wuyuan area also features a series of other specialities, notably including the endemic Huet’s Fulvetta and skulking endemic Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, the restricted-range Mandarin Duck, Pied Falconet and Chinese (or Yellow-billed) Grosbeak, such near-endemics as Collared Finchbill, Chestnut Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Chinese Hwamei, Masked Laughingthrush and Yellow-bellied Tit, and the sought-after Yellow-browed Bunting (which winters here in good numbers). We even have a fair chance of coming across the restricted-range Short-tailed Parrotbill and perhaps the near-endemic Collared Crow (although this is now increasingly rare and hard to find).
Other species we may well find during our visit include Long-tailed Shrike, Grey Treepie, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Daurian Redstart, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Red-billed Leiothrix, Crested Myna, Black-throated (or Red-headed) Bushtit and Meadow Bunting. Winter visitors from northern Asia include Grey-backed Thrush and Tristram’s Buntings.
[Interestingly, the Blue-crowned or Courtois’s Laughingthrushes that breed around several villages of the Wuyuan area in spring and summer retreat deep into inaccessible hill country in winter. You can see them on our Southeast China tour in spring, but then there are no Scaly-sided Mergansers or Yellow-browed Buntings present.]
China in Winter: Day 6 Today we will return to Nanchang and then continue to the edge of the Poyang Hu wetland complex, situated to the south of the great Yangtze River, passing across a plain covered in fallow paddyfields and small villages where we should find the near-endemic Red-billed Starling. This is a good area for finding Baer’s Pochard, but as this is an increasingly rare species, finding any amongst the mass of commoner ducks requires both persistence and luck. Other birds that can typically be found here include Brown Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail and Red-billed Starling.
Later we will head for the little township of Wu Cheng, our base for the next three nights. Situated on a large island in the midst of the Poyang wetlands, for part of the year, the causeway that connects the island to the mainland lies under deep water! Just beyond our guesthouse at Wu Cheng is a large pagoda positioned at the northernmost point of the island, built on the site of a lighthouse built centuries ago on the orders of the Chinese emperor to guide shipping heading up to Nanchang. Decidedly Chinese-style, flat-bottomed barges ply the river channels, often loaded down with unlikely cargoes such as piles of bamboo poles or mountains of hay that almost completely obscure their bulky wooden superstructures, whilst overhead small groups of cranes and geese make their way between the wetlands.
China in Winter: Days 7-8 Poyang Hu is the largest freshwater lake in China, covering about 3000 square kilometres. After the spring and summer rainy season, the water levels fall progressively – creating a mosaic of residual lakes surrounded by dry land around the periphery of Poyang Hu itself. It is these shallow residual lakes which are of prime importance to waterbirds and following the discovery of an enormous concentration of rare cranes and other species in 1981 a reserve of 22,400 hectares was established by the Chinese authorities. This extensive reserve, situated at the northwestern corner of the Poyang complex, is one of the great waterbird sanctuaries of the world, although as yet few people know much about it and even fewer have actually visited it (our first visit, in 1988, was the first-ever by a birding tour!). During our time here we will explore a series of lakes and their surrounding marshland, and also the Gan and Xiu rivers that flow into Poyang Hu itself near Wu Cheng.
Undoubtedly the most exciting birds of the Poyang area are the cranes. Up to 2000 Siberian Cranes, up to 1000 White-naped Cranes and much smaller numbers of Hooded and Common Cranes winter in the area and impart their own special magic to it. The V-shaped skeins passing overhead and the cranes dancing and calling to each other along the lake shores are amongst the most evocative sights and sounds in the avian world. We could also come across one or two Sandhill Cranes (of the ‘Lesser’ subspecies) that have failed to cross the Bering Strait from their Siberian breeding grounds and instead headed south to winter.
Up to 200 Oriental Storks winter in the area, probably a large proportion of the world population of this critically endangered bird, as do many hundreds of Eurasian Spoonbills.
The star attraction amongst the hordes of wildfowl found in the area is the huge numbers of Swan Geese. Over 10,000 winter in the entire Poyang region – the majority of the world population. Other wintering geese include over 5000 Greater White-fronted Geese, several hundred Taiga Bean Geese and Tundra Bean Geese, and smaller numbers of Greylag Geese. Lesser White-fronted Geese are also present in small or moderate numbers, although they are often hard to locate amongst the far more numerous Greaters.
Up to 2000 Bewick’s Swans occur here as well as large numbers of ducks, including Common Shelduck, the handsome Falcated Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, the beautiful Smew and Common Merganser (or Goosander). We also have a moderate chance of coming across the rare and endangered Baikal Teal, surely one of the world’s most beautiful ducks.
The diversity of wintering shorebirds is not very great, but there are large flocks of Pied Avocets and Spotted Redshanks. One of the most enigmatic birds in Asia, the poorly-known Swinhoe’s (or Asian Yellow) Rail sometimes overwinters here (indeed we have seen it on several occasions in the past), but it is a species in sharp decline and nowadays if we see this little mite flutter up from the ground displaying its broad white wing patches we will count ourselves extraordinarily fortunate.
Other specialities include the impressive, near-endemic Chinese Grey Shrike, the restricted-range Marsh Grassbird (or Japanese Swamp Warbler), the tiny Chinese Penduline-Tit and Pallas’s Reed Bunting.
More widespread species of the Poyang area include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Eurasian (or Great) Bittern, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets, Black-winged Kite, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, Eastern (or Japanese) Buzzard, Japanese Quail, Common (or Ring-necked) Pheasant (here in its natural haunts), Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Northern Lapwing, Kentish Plover, Common Snipe, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Spotted Dove, Common, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Oriental Skylark, Barn Swallow, Zitting Cisticola, Plain Prinia, Red-flanked Bluetail, Black-collared and White-cheeked Starlings, White Wagtail, Buff-bellied (or American) and Water Pipits, Scaly-breasted Munia and Black-faced and Chestnut-eared Buntings.
China in Winter: Day 9 This morning we will return to Nanchang and catch a flight to Nanning in Guangxi province in far southern China. From Nanning, we will drive to the remote settlement of Nonggang for a two nights stay.
China in Winter: Day 10 Nonggang is situated not far from the border with Vietnam and is surrounded by spectacular ‘karst’ mountain scenery, every bit as dramatic as that which surrounds far more famous Guilin. During our birding here, we will enjoy some fine backdrops of steep limestone peaks with forest clinging to the cliffs. The massifs rise abruptly from green fields and orchards, peppered with tiny villages.
The area came to prominence in the ornithological world in 2008 when a new species of babbler, Nonggang Babbler Stachris nonggangensis, was described from the area. The babblers nest high on the mountains in summer, making seeing one a challenge in the steep terrain, but in winter they come right down to the base of the hills, visiting feeding stations that the locals (many of whom are former bird-trappers) have constructed to attract both birds and Chinese bird photographers to the area! We can expect brilliant views of the babbler as a result.
Another mega-bird of this area is the rare and endangered White-eared Night Heron, which Birdquest discovered here during our South China Expedition in 20129. We will definitely be doing our best to locate this much-wanted bird during our stay.
Regular visitors to the bird hides include the lovely Blue-rumped Pitta, the spectacular Indochinese Green and White-winged Magpies, David’s Fulvetta, Buff-chested Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler, Black-throated Laughingthrush, White-rumped Shama and Hainan Blue Flycatcher.
Other species we may well encounter include Chinese Pond Heron, Eastern Cattle Egret, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Black Baza, White-breasted Waterhen, Spotted Dove, Greater Coucal, Asian Barred Owlet, Common Kingfisher, the beautiful Long-tailed Broadbill, Brown Shrike, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Eurasian Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Sultan Tit, Japanese and Yellow-cheeked Tits, Red-whiskered, Sooty-headed and Puff-throated Bulbuls, Barn Swallow, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, Common Tailorbird, Pale-footed Bush Warbler, Grey-throated, Yellow-eyed and Chestnut-capped Babblers, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Indochinese Yuhina, Japanese White-eye, Olive-backed Sunbird, the near-endemic Fork-tailed Sunbird and Crested Bunting.
China in Winter: Day 11 This morning we will return to Nanning airport and take a flight to Sanya, situated on the southern coast of the large island of Hainan off southern China.
From Sanya, we drive inland to Tian Chi (‘Heaven’s Lake’) in Jianfengling National Forest Park, a beautiful area in the mountains where we will stay for three nights.
Depending on flight schedules we should manage some early morning birding at Nonggang or late afternoon birding at Jianfengling.
China in Winter: Days 12-13 The Jianfengling National Forest Park protects an extensive area of upland native forest in the interior of Hainan.
Here we will be looking in particular for the endemic Hainan Leaf Warbler (which is easy to find), the endemic Hainan Partridge (which is shy, but which we have a good chance of seeing with persistence) and the endemic Hainan Peacock-Pheasant (which we only have a slim chance of seeing). Another major target is the Hainan (or Swinhoe’s) Laughingthrush, a very distinctive island endemic form which has only recently started to be treated as a full species, rather than a race of Black-throated Laughingthrush.
Other great birds in this fine area are the restricted-range Chinese Barbet, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush, Huet’s and Dusky Fulvettas and Yellow-billed Nuthatch, all of which we should see. The near-endemic Fork-tailed Sunbird is also present, as is Pale Blue Flycatcher (both represented by fairly distinctive island subspecies).
More widespread species include Common Emerald Dove, Green-billed Malkoha, Mountain Scops Owl (tricky to see), Grey Nightjar, Silver-backed Needletail, Asian Palm and House Swifts, Red-headed Trogon, Grey-capped Pygmy and Rufous Woodpeckers, Greater and Lesser Yellownapes, Grey-chinned and Scarlet Minivets, White-bellied Erpornis, Bronzed and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Mountain Bulbul, Spot-necked Babbler, Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Orange-bellied Leafbird and White-rumped Munia.
China in Winter: Day 14 This morning we will explore a wetland area that holds the restricted-range and rather localized White-faced Plover, a Chinese and Southeast Asian shorebird now treated as a full species distinct from Kentish Plover. We will also encounter a good selection of other waterbirds, likely including the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill.
Afterwards, we will return to Sanya airport, where our tour ends in the afternoon.
[Sanya is served by flights from all major Chinese gateway cities, and there are also some direct international flights. We can easily arrange a domestic flight out of Sanya on request, even if you are not arranging your international flights through us.]