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WORLDTWITCH - Birding in Sichuan and Yunnan, China

6 June – 29 July 2003

By Frank E. Rheindt

Formicarius (at) hotmail.com

List of Birds Observed


Sichuan
June 6 – July 12

The decision to extend my stay in Asia and to travel from Vietnam (where I had spent 10 weeks in April and May) to Sichuan took shape in Cuc Phuong NP, where I met a Swedish birder who supplied me with ample info on Sichuanese birding. SARS had been raging in China for the past few weeks, but ironically the presence of this disease re-assured me in my determination to go to West China. The provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan were relatively unaffected by SARS, whereas domestic tourism was paralyzed. I figured that I was going to be the only person at such marvelous places as Emei Shan, the Holy Mountain, or Jiuzhaigou, areas that are otherwise overcrowded and that have started to lose their "birding attractiveness" to a growing number of visitors. At Emei, the first site I visited, this proved true, but by late June the public craze had settled and tourists again started to trickle into the parks, such that the tourist spots at Jiuzhaigou were back to "madhouse normality" by the time I got there.

Climate and timing

Most birders travel to Sichuan in May and early June, when breeding activity is at its best. However, I was surprised at the great activity during my stay in June and early July, and I think that this timing was great for seeing some of the late migrants that others have missed because May was still too early, such as Firethroat in Wolong or Rufous-headed Robin in Jiuzhaigou. Moreover, it was interesting to see the great contrast in species composition at some of the sites in comparison to trip reports from May or April, especially at the higher elevations, where my general impression was that my late presence was not necessarily unfavorable. Some galliforms that had juveniles (Temminck's Tragopan, Blood Pheasant, Golden Pheasant, White and Blue Eared Pheasant) were surprisingly easy to come by.

The weather was very wet, but that should not be any different in May. Emei Shan was one of the most rainy sites, dry Jiuzhaigou sometimes gave me a rain break of a few days, but then in Wolong much time was lost to heavy rain in Sawan and Wuyipeng. Finally, in Mabian County (Huang Nian Shan), the air was so humid that it was hard to decide whether it was just misty or drizzling.

Emei Shan
June 6-15

Lucky me! SARS caused much grief over large parts of Asia, but it supplied me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch birds at one of the most fascinating bird sites on earth at a time when relatively few people were there. Though I have never seen Emei Shan at normal times, there are plenty of reports of crowds of hundreds at the Golden Summit, and endless files of pilgrims hiking up and down the trails. During my 10-day visit, I only met five other Westerners, and during the mornings you would be the only one out on the trails. Noon time would be crowded at times, but mostly just around the major temples. I found Emei to be one of the top sites I have ever visited anywhere, and I was deeply fascinated by an avifauna that changes from boreal near the top to subtropical at the base. On the downside, Emei has a chronic weather problem, with 7 out of 10 days rainy, and severe cold at the summit during my stay (in June!!!). The worst was the fourth day, on which heavy uninterrupted rain (from dawn till dusk) mixed with strong winds of gale force. On that day I saw a record 12 species, most of them common.

Logistics

Emei Town (looks more like a city) can be reached by train from Kunming and Chengdu, and by bus from Chengdu. Have a taxi take you to the entrance road to the mountain, and choose from a great array of hotels, preferably not too far from the first temple, Baoguo Si. Best to leave most of your baggage at one of those hotels, pack a small backpack with the most essential things and take a bus straight up to Jieyin Hall, the parking area at the lower end of the cable car, and from there a cable car right up to the Golden Summit. From the summit, birding is best done in a descending fashion. Accommodations during my visit were plentiful at the Golden Summit, Jieyin Hall, and at most temples below there. I spent 9 nights on the mountain, which is probably longer than most other people do, staying 2 nights at each the Golden Summit, Xixiang Pool, Xianfeng Si, Wannian Si and a last night down at the base of the mountain. I chose the temples so as to spend an equal amount of time within each elevational zone, but in retrospect – when keeping in mind that many of the summit birds can be seen more easily at Wawu Shan (see next site) – it might have been worthwhile to cut short my time around the Summit and re-invest it in the trail section between Xianfeng Si and Hongchunping, which I should have birded more intensively.

Accommodation is basic at Xianfeng Si (in monastery) and Xixiang Pool (in guesthouse or monastery), but standard to excellent elsewhere. Many of the birds I recorded at Emei differed notably from birds mentioned in other reports, possibly because many other birders go there in April and early May. Apart from the odd northern migrant you can see in those earlier months, quite a few birds seem to arrive there quite late in the spring, which is why I found early June an excellent time to come here.

Summit Area to Jieyin Hall (2500m-3100m)

The Golden Summit can be quite crowded even early in the morning, when tourists get up before dawn and hurry to the vista point to witness the singular Emei sunrise. Fortunately, most of them think that the only point where you can see the sunrise is the designated "sunrise spot", leaving the rest of the summit area undisturbed for another few hours. Elliot's Laughingthrush, White-capped Water-Redstart, Streak-throated Fulvetta and Rufous-breasted Accentor are common around the summit area, and so are Greenish and Buff-barred Warblers (at least in June) as well as Lemon-rumped Warbler and Lesser Cuckoo (also farther down). Of special interest is the dump, that regularly held Black-faced Laughingthrush, White-bellied Redstart, Large-billed Crow and Dark-sided and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. The coniferous forest around the dump (especially towards the upper cable car station and all the way down to Jieyin Hall) was inhabited by quite a few tame Chestnut Thrush families, besides Scaly Thrushes, Winter Wrens, Goldcrests, Gray-crested and Rufous-vented Tits, Eurasian Treecreepers, Bianchi's Warblers, Chestnut-crowned Bush-Warblers, a flock of Blandford's Rosefinches and even a White-browed Bush-Robin.

The main target at the summit used to be the rare Gray-hooded Parrotbill, which was at one time assumed to be endemic to bamboo growth on top of this mountain. My impression from reading a few trip reports is that not many birding groups get to see this bird on Emei Shan these days (including myself). Your best chance at it (and at a few other rare birds) is a trail that starts near the monorail station (to Ten-Thousand-Buddhas-Summit) and goes past a little pool to a fence, after which you have to follow the trail to the right, where it soon merges with the monorail track. I followed the monorail track up and down a few times (I am not aware that this is illegal, and I saw plenty of restoration workers commute back and forth along the same monorail track every time). It takes you into some open areas with dwarf-like bamboo, where I saw Brown Parrotbills, Dark-rumped Rosefinches, Golden Bush-Robins, White-winged Grosbeaks and otherwordly Great Parrotbills, besides the tireless Spotted Bush-Warbler singing from distant shrub. The scrubbier parts of this trail (before the fence) is where Aberrant Bush-Warbler and Gray-headed Bullfinch are particularly common. The surroundings of Ten Thousand Buddhas Summit are just like the coniferous forest below the Golden Summit and do not warrant the expensive monorail ticket. More open grassy pastures near the weather station hold Olive-backed Pipit, Buff-throated Warbler, Blue-fronted Redstart and (especially here, seen several times) Vinaceous Rosefinch. Jieyin Hall is within more disturbed open forest, but birds abound, and I had excellent looks at Large Hawk Cuckoo, Long-tailed Minivet, Verditer Flycatcher, Ashy-throated Warbler and Gray Wagtail there.

Jieyin Hall down to Xianfeng Si (1700-2500m)

Long stretches along the path from Jieyin Hall down to Xixiang Pool pass through some of the most magical mixed coniferous and broad-leaved forest I have ever seen. In a bamboo corner, I had Brown Parrotbill as low as 2300m, and both Darjeeling and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers showed up a couple of times, respectively. Also along this stretch I had a Spotted Laughingthrush on two different days, once coming in to my whistled imitation of its call. More common birds along there include Ferruginous Flycatcher, Green-backed Tit, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, Blyth's Leaf Warbler and Large-billed Leaf Warbler (with its simple song). Somewhere above Xixiang Bianchi's Warbler (Seicercus valentini) drops out and is replaced by a species that has caused great taxonomic confusion in the past, though most people now agree on the name Seicercus omeiensis (a species distinct from the Gray-crowned Warbler – S. tephrocephalus – of which it was considered a synonym by some). Xixiang Pool affords great views unless fogged in, and scanning the treetops and heavens produced Speckled Wood Pigeon, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Asian House Martin, Fork-tailed and House Swift as well as Oriental Cuckoo. The more open corners around the houses were replete with confiding individuals of otherwise shy species, e.g. more White-bellied Redstarts or a loud Russet Bush Warbler. Below Xixiang, around the crossroads at Yuxian Si, conifers become rare and the community again shifts: Mixed flocks or single sightings now included Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Golden-breasted Fulvettas, Rufous-capped Babblers, smart Yellow-browed Tits, skulking Pygmy Wren-Babblers, Chestnut-flanked White-eyes, Black Bulbuls, Red-billed Blue-Magpies, Gould's Sunbirds and Stripe-throated and White-collared Yuhinas. The area around the crossroads seems to be the best elevation for the fascinating Emei Liocichla, which always tended to show up in the company of the common Red-billed Leiothrix. From the crossroads, the road less traveled leads through some scenic gorge country to Xianfeng Si, though a quick walk down the more heavily frequented route (towards Chu Temple and Wannian) produced priceless sightings in the form of Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Gray-headed Parrotbills and two Moustached Laughingthrushes. The gorges between the crossroads and Xianfeng Si yielded the first in a row of 7 stunning male Temminck's Tragopans (most of them not shy at all, especially those a few hundred meters below Xianfeng), as well as Blue Whistling-Thrush, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher (also elsewhere). The impressive Xianfeng Monastery is located at the base of a secluded and shady valley, which probably accounts for the great number of more boreal-type birds occurring at this low elevation, such as Eurasian Jay, Gray-winged Blackbird and White-winged Woodpecker (nest hole adjacent to restaurant at Xianfeng Si).

Xianfeng Si down to Qingyin and Wannian Si (700-1700m)

From Xianfeng, a dead-end trail leads down to a breeding cave of Himalayan Swiftlets and to the edge of a cliff. The first few hundred meters of this trail were particularly rewarding, with a pair of Red-winged Laughingthrush, a pair of Vivid Niltava, a shy Slaty-blue Flycatcher and a single Brown Bullfinch. The main trail drops steeply from Xianfeng to Hongchunping (Black-throated Tit, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Gray-cheeked Fulvetta), a stretch that I only walked once and should have definitely spent more time in, especially when considering that this is the only spot in Emei Shan where I saw and heard the rare Emei Leaf Warbler, apart from other rarities such as unobtrusive Rusty and shy Barred Laughingthrushes. Below Hongchunping, where the trail levels out and follows the course of a stream, there is yet another shift in Seicercus warblers, this time the newly described Plain-tailed Warbler (Seicercus soror) taking over. (Note that one scientific team working on that group of birds has even recorded another species, the White-spectacled Warbler – Seicercus affinis intermedius – along the trail above Hongchunping). The stream houses Spotted and Little Forktail as well as Brown Dipper. Around there, the first Yellow-bellied Tits can be found. From Qingyin back up to Wannian is through degraded secondary habitat and bamboo in which the beautiful Chinese (Blue) Flycatcher is common. The trail down to the road from Wannian (going parallel to the cable car line through secondary growth) yielded a Hwamei and the uppermost Ashy-throated Parrotbills. Another trail leads from the dump at Wannian Temple into a side-valley until it reaches a small waterfall after more than 4km. This is good habitat, and probably your best chance at Lady Amherst's Pheasant, which I missed. Don't push it towards the end of this trail if the simple bridge is still not repaired: Climbing across the slippery boulders inflicted some serious bone injuries and wounds, apart from nearly breaking my tape gear. I found my consolation in inquisitive Dusky Fulvettas, Black-chinned and Striated Yuhinas and a Sulphur-breasted Warbler. The giant old trees around Wannian have a distinct avifauna of their own, represented by active Spangled Drongos, Asian Barred Owlets and Great Barbets. Walking a few hundred meters up the steps back to the mountain (the direct way to Xixiang) from Wannian was worthwhile, with Gray Treepie, Bay Woodpecker, a responsive Collared Owlet and a Red-headed Trogon.

The base near Baoguo Si and Fuhu Si (500-700m)

A little bit of good habitat persists behind Fuhu Si, where Brown-breasted Flycatcher is particularly conspicuous. Otherwise, habitat is degraded and mostly crowded (even during SARS) with people that prefer to stay down there rather than hike up. Secondary growth along the road between Baoguo Si and Fuhu Si produced Great Tit, Oriental Magpie Robin, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Slaty-backed Forktail, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Barn and Red-rumped Swallow, Light-vented Bulbul, White Wagtail and White-browed Laughingthrush (apart from more Hwameis and Ashy-throated Parrotbills). Farther afield, below Qingyin towards the parking area at Wuxuangang, bamboo held Rufous-faced Warblers and orchards yielded Collared Finchbills.

What I did not know at the time of my visit is a fact not yet reflected by any identification guide: There should be yet another Seicercus warbler at this elevation, which raises the tally to five species on a single mountain. According to the latest findings by Martens et al. (2002), the real Gray-crowned Warbler – S. tephrocephalus – is nearly indistinguishable from S. omeiensis farther up, but is divided from that species elevationally by the Plain-tailed Warbler (S. soror). Something to look out for in the future…

Wawu Shan
June 16-17

A large table mountain that can be seen from Emei Shan's Golden Summit on rare clear mornings, Wawu Shan came to recent ornithological fame when a Sino-German research team found a new treecreeper there. It had been known to science from a few museum skins that had been misidentified as a subspecies of the Eurasian Treecreeper. The Sichuan Treecreeper, which is now known from 7 sites in Sichuan, is most reliable in the rich fir stands on top of Wawu Shan, an area that has been spared the ax because of its inaccessibility.

Logistics

In the modern China of cable cars, tourists no longer have to climb up to the high plateau, and projects are underway to build upper-end accommodation on top to complement the basic guesthouse that's already there. From the upper cable car station on the plateau, a maze of trails leads through a fairy-like landscape of giant conifers and bamboo undergrowth, with boggy pastures interspersed.

Birds

With some knowledge of bird songs, the descending trill of the Sichuan Treecreeper should not take long to single out among the warblers and tits. The species is common, but double-check the plumage, because the Eurasian Treecreeper, which eluded me there, has been found as well.

Even before the discovery of the new treecreeper, Wawu Shan had occasionally been visited by birdwatchers in search of the Gray-hooded Parrotbill, a species previously thought to be endemic to Emei Shan, where sightings have become rare. In the bamboo undergrowth of Wawu Shan, the birds are still fairly common, and sometimes associate with Fulvous Parrotbills, another species that has become rare elsewhere. During one full day on Wawu Shan, I had several sightings of both, plus one Great Parrotbill.

Wawu Shan was the single best site for bush warblers during my trip. One full day sufficed to find six species, and with the single exception of the common Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, I had fantastic views of all of them: Gray-sided, Chestnut-crowned and Aberrant Bush-Warblers were seen in the coniferous forest undergrowth, while Spotted Bush-Warbler kept to the smaller clearings and Brown Bush-Warbler would only be seen in the boggy pastures. Mixed flocks in the undergrowth were mainly composed of Streak-throated Fulvettas and Elliot's Laughingthrushes (once also a Black-faced Laughingthrush) and – higher up in the trees – an array of tits, such as Coal, Rufous-vented and Gray-crested Tits. A family of Fire-capped Tits stayed on the uppermost branches, while a party of Yellow-browed Tits came lower down. The Seicercus up there is the largish Bianchi's Warbler, and Phylloscopus was well represented by Greenish, Large-billed Leaf, Buff-throated (in the pasture), Buff-barred and Lemon-rumped Warblers. Golden Bush-Robin and White-bellied Redstart are not particularly shy there, as opposed to Emei. Other goodies included Three-toed and Darjeeling Woodpecker, Lesser Cuckoo, Golden Eagle, White-throated Needletail, Himalayan Swiftlet, Slaty-blue, Rufous-gorgeted, Dark-sided and Ferruginous Flycatcher, Long-tailed Minivet, White-collared Yuhina, Gould's Sunbird and Gray-headed Bullfinch. Oriental and Large Hawk Cuckoo were heard only.

Jiuzhaigou National Park
June 20-27

In extreme northern Sichuan, near the border with Gansu, lies the scenically spectacular Jiuzhaigou Valley. Ornithologically, this park is a must for any visitor to Sichuan, as it combines the Sichuanese avifauna with a northern dry element of its own, comprising many species that can otherwise be found only in the more arid provinces of Qinghai or Gansu. In the new millennium, visitors to this park have to be aware that there are hundreds of thousands of people who go there every year, mostly to take pictures at one of a few dozen designated vista points along the tourist bus route.

Logistics and accommodation

From the park entrance, there is a dead end road that goes up a valley; it splits after about 10-15km. Near this fork, there is a small Tibetan village by the name of Zechawa (with a modern tourist façade). From there, both roads wind far up to about 3000m above sea-level (10-20km) in different side-valleys, each of them passing along a scenic string of lakes en route. In Zechawa, there are a couple of Tibetan guesthouses that you should definitely try staying in. However, the authorities discourage people from staying inside the park and would prefer to have you stay in one of their brand new high-rise hotels at the entrance area. Therefore, all park officials will tell you it is impossible to stay inside. If you are serious about seeing some of the good species, staying outside the park will be detrimental: They would only let you in at 8 a.m., and you would have to ride one of their overcrowded buses, which stop at every waterfall, getting you to some of the better sites by a time when most birds are having their siesta. The best thing is probably to get off at Zechawa on your first visit (without making a big deal about why you are carrying all your baggage inside the park) and discreetly look around for the guesthouses. Remember that they have no signs. No doubt park authorities know about their existence, but they seem to tolerate them as long as there aren't too many people who seek more than sardine tourism.

Transportation

Private vehicles are banned inside the park and you depend entirely on the park buses, which run from approximately 8 a.m. through 4 (rarely 5) p.m. Be forewarned: Buses fill at the entrance, and for some reason, bus drivers feel they don't have to stop for any additional person along the way. If you stay inside the park (which you hopefully will), it is awfully hard to get on a bus in the morning to take you to either of the two end points of the road, where birding is particularly good. Don't stand in the middle of the road to try to make them stop, because the bus drivers have no regard for human life. They nearly killed me on two occasions. Even if you manage to get up there before noon, you may be stranded there if you don't stay near the parking area to make sure the last bus is still around. Jiuzhaigou bus drivers are a nasty breed, and they won't pick you up even if they know they are the last bus. Other birders have managed to pay locals to take them to either Long Lake or Primeval Forest before dawn, which seems to be the only alternative to a night hike if you want to be there in the early morning. All in all, Jiuzhaigou is a place where you will do a lot of walking after dark to get back to the guesthouse. As tough as that seems, it helped me bag some nice nocturnal wildlife, such as a mother and a group of juvenile Eurasian Eagle-owls begging for food above Panda Lake.

Birds

Most of the scrubby, degraded hillsides at the park entrance are too steep to access, but one isn't (Great Tit, Oriental Turtle Dove, Gray-backed Shrike), and this is a good area for a few species that won't be seen inside the park in better habitat, most notably the Spectacled Parrotbill, a shy individual of which I saw on the first morning.

A flock of Snow Pigeons regularly fed on the fields around Zechawa (Daurian Redstart on roofs). The old scrub and secondary forest behind the guesthouses in Zechawa (Godlewski's Bunting, Collared Finchbill) held a calling but invisible pheasant (presumably Golden). A mixed flock at the forest edge around there provided consolation, however, in the form of two Barred Laughingthrushes and a Rufous-bellied Niltava.

The section between the road fork and Pearl Shoales is a rewarding area to look out for lower-elevation species that won't be seen farther up: I had Chinese Nuthatch, Slaty Bunting, Indian Blue Robin, Chinese Thrush and Yellow-bellied Tit along there. Behind the restrooms at Pearl Shoales, an inconspicuous trail leads far up a side-valley and is a good way to evade the crowds. I walked it for several kilometers all the way to a large alpine meadow. In the past, people have seen Rufous-headed Robin at the second of two man-made reservoirs along this trail. However, despite intensive searching, I failed to locate them there (elsewhere instead, see below). Nonetheless, this area was particularly rewarding, since it held several species I didn't record elsewhere in the park (Sooty Tit, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Pygmy Wren-Babbler, Crimson-browed Finch), along with an array of goodies that were also seen elsewhere in the park (such as 2 sightings of a Severtsov's Grouse, Père David's Tit, Chinese Leaf Warblers, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Maroon-backed Accentor, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Orange-flanked Bush Robin, White-bellied Redstart).

Blue Whistling-Thrush, White-throated Dipper, Plumbeous and White-capped Water-Redstarts, Mallard and Chinese Pond-Heron inhabit a variety of lakes, streams and waterfalls that cover entire hillsides like a veil. From the intersection, take the right road to get to Swan Lake and the Primeval Forest (at about 3000m). This forest is one of the most intact patches you can easily access, though it tends to be crowded at noon (if so, escape the crowds by walking down the less-frequented, but equally gorgeous trail section between "Primeval Forest" and "Swan Lake"). Good birds I saw in this enchanting habitat include Black Woodpecker, Long-tailed Thrush, Dark-breasted, White-browed and Three-banded Rosefinch as well as an absolutely stunning Père David's Owl in bright daylight. People used to see Rusty-throated Parrotbill up there, but the bamboo it had been recorded in seems to have died off meanwhile, which makes the latter a difficult species to find anywhere on earth.

Taking a left fork at the intersection takes you to the Long Lake, also at around 3000m. There is less good forest around there, but more variety of open alpine habitats and transitional zones to forest. Trails are sparse, and you will have to do some light climbing to get to a few of the more interesting corners, especially the rocky scree towards the right as you arrive at the lake: This is where I had White-throated Redstart, Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Gray-headed Woodpecker; families of Blood Pheasant and Blue Eared-Pheasant (at the base). The tall scrub around the lake yielded three rosefinches, most notably Vinaceous, as well as a badly-harassed Tawny Owl of the race nivicola and the confusing "Songar" Tit. (Its English name is certainly a misnomer, given that recent molecular analyses show that the subspecies Parus s. songarus should best be included in the Willow Tit Parus montanus, whereas the local Sichuanese race affinis, which had previously been subsumed under the Songar Tit Parus songarus, is genetically well distinct). In secondary scrub between Long Lake and the dry reservoir below it, I glimpsed one Sukachev's Laughinghthrush on a lucky evening, besides recording a tame Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler and a Blue-fronted Redstart family.

One most rewarding trail splits off to the left from the road to Long Lake just 3-4 km above Zechawa and leads along a stream and farther up as close to the snow as you wish. The base of this trail is where I finally saw and heard Rufous-headed Robins towards the end of my stay, after searching in vain elsewhere. Chestnut-headed Tesia, an unexpected White-cheeked (Przewalski's) Nuthatch, more Maroon-backed Accentors, Spotted Nutcrackers, a Tibetan Siskin and four more sightings of Severtsov's Grouse were most welcome along the flatter parts of this trail. On another note, the higher and steeper parts (above where the path leaves the streamside, about a 2-3hr march from the road) were the only places in the park where I saw bamboo in old-growth coniferous forest. This is where I had an unexpected encounter with an individual of the Sichuan Treecreeper on two different days, a bird that has an unmistakable song I know well from Wawu Shan. This record constitutes a considerable range extension, hundreds of kilometers north of where it had previously been found in Central Sichuan (manuscript submitted). Below the Sichuan Treecreeper, I also recorded both Eurasian and Bar-tailed Treecreeper along the same trail. Above the treecreeper site, where the forest becomes more dwarf-like, I detected a flock of Giant Laughingthrush and a party of the funny Collared Grosbeak, next to some Three-banded Rosefinches and Tickell's Leaf Warblers.

Other species I saw at Jiuzhaigou are listed as follows: Great Spotted and White-backed Woodpecker, Lesser Cuckoo, Fork-tailed Swift, Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Minivet, Large-billed Crow, Blue Rock Thrush, Chestnut Thrush (common at low elevation!), Slaty-backed Flycatcher (old conifers), Dark-sided, Gray headed Canary and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Goldcrest, Eurasian Nuthatch, Winter Wren, Green-backed, Gray-crested, Coal and Rufous-vented Tit, Asian House Martin, Eurasian Crag Martin, Spotted Bush Warbler, Buff-barred, Lemon-rumped, Greenish, Large billed Leaf, Blyth's Leaf and Bianchi's Warbler, Elliot's Laughingthrush, Streak-throated Fulvetta, White-collared Yuhina, Olive-backed Pipit, White and Gray Wagtail, White-winged Grosbeak and Gray-headed Bullfinch. Four species were heard only: Oriental, Eurasian and Large Hawk Cuckoo as well as Gray Nightjar.

Du Fung's Cottage Park (Chengdu)

A visa renewal left me stranded in the pleasant metropolis of Chengdu for a full day. There are two birders' choices for killing time in Chengdu, the Panda Breeding Center and the lush Du Fung's Cottage Park, which centers around the former adobe of one of China's most revered poets. Needless to say, early morning is an important time to be in this park, especially if you are as unlucky as I was and hit a weekend day. The park fills up with people quickly, but even so, some of the better species were seen later in the day.

Birds

This must be the easiest site on earth to see Vinous-throated Parrotbills, which – around the entrance area towards the spacious picnic lawns – feed on bread crumbs like the equally present Tree Sparrows. Unlike most of its congeners, the White-browed Laughingthrush is equally easy to spot. Red-billed Starlings are apparently also there in the summer (contra a couple of other sources); however, I did not see them inside the park, but on the higher solitary trees that adorn the picnic lawns. These trees are the only places where I also had a few Yellow-billed Grosbeaks. In the denser vegetation and remoter corners inside the park, Rufous-faced Warbler, Collared Finchbill, Rufous-capped Babbler, Black-throated Tit and White-rumped Munias were remarkable finds. The Eurasian Blackbirds there have a far more varied repertoire than ours back home, mimicking other songbirds and even Large Hawk Cuckoos. Eurasian Cuckoos are common inside the park, and so are Common Kingfishers, White Wagtails, Light-vented Bulbuls, Great Tits and Oriental Magpie Robins. Outside, towards the construction sites that are closed off by a wooden fence, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Myna and Hoopoe were notable. Other sightings include Barn and Red-rumped Swallow, Long-tailed Shrike, Red Collared and Spotted Dove as well as House Swift.

Wolong National Park
July 1-8

Famed as the world's premier Panda reserve, virtually none of Wolong's visitors have ever managed to see one of China's animal ambassadors in the wild. Fortunately, Wolong lacks spectacular waterfalls, and the opening-up of Jiuzhaigou and other areas of scenic grandeur has taken off a lot of the tourist pressure that has resided on Wolong for so long. En route into the park, the nature enthusiast's heart bleeds at the sight of denuded hill-sides and logging truck weighing stations, and even within the park, most of the vegetation in the "main road valley" is secondary at closer scrutiny. Nonetheless, some better habitat survives in this park, which is a must for birdwatching visitors to Sichuan.

Three main areas have to be focused on by the birder. They are dealt with in elevational order (going upwards):

Sawan

This birding area comprises secondary vegetation on the hillsides around Sawan (or Wolong Village), where tourist buses or regular ones will take you anywhere. A construction frenzy has captured this village, and new high-rise hotels are being built (or already finished) everywhere, as China prepares for its global show-off, the Olympic Games in 2008. Secondary forest above this village has been a well-known stake-out for a few goodies in the past, not least the Golden Pheasant (of which I saw three females well, one of them leading pulli, but not a single male). The trailhead of the path that leads up this slope is now hidden behind a new hotel construction site. During one late morning along this trail, Slaty Bunting was not hard to spot, one individual coming all the way down to the construction site at the forest edge. Other notable species along this forest trail included Chinese Leaf Warbler, Yellow-bellied and Green-backed Tit, Brown-breasted Flycatcher and Indian Blue Robin. A few hundred meters down the road from Sawan, another trail leads up the slope (also on the village side of the stream), winding through fields to a little hamlet, and farther up into secondary scrub. This is where other birders have sighted the elusive Moupinia in the past, which I missed in spite of an afternoon and a whole rainy morning's investment. Instead, I saw a party of the second rarity that has brought this patch of scrub to birder's fame, namely the Chinese Babax. Good birds around the secondary vegetation up there and near the settlements included Collared Finchbill, Spotted Nutcracker, Gray-backed Shrike, White-collared Yuhina, Oriental Turtle Dove, overflying Speckled Wood Pigeons, Gray and White Wagtails and Red-billed Blue Magpies. In contrast, Brownish-flanked and Russet Bush-Warbler were heard only. The woods and scrub there were inhabited by a common Seicercus species with a trilling song, first identified by me as Seicercus tephrocephalus (sensu Alström and Olsson 1999), which (according to Alström and Olsson 2000 and to Martens et al., 2002) should now be called S. omeiensis. However, the latter publication shows that there are actually three Seicercus species in Sichuan that have trills in their song, of which the newly defined S. tephrocephalus (sensu Martens et al. 2002, non sensu Alström and Olsson 1999) may actually be more likely to occur in degraded habitat at this elevation. Reliable identification marks for this newly defined S. tephrocephalus (especially from the near-identical S. omeiensis) will have to be worked out by future field observers.

Wuyipeng Research Station

Only a few kilometers up the road from Sawan, a steep trail (left of the road as you leave Sawan) takes you up to another world, where Pandas, parrotbills and maybe even hobbits haunt a magical forest landscape. The trail to Wuyipeng Research Station is a strenuous one, but it is not too far (less than 3 km), so it took me less than an hour (with little birding along the way). Concentrated birding begins to pay off as soon as you have reached the plateau's edge. From there, walking starts to become easier, and the habitat starts to become better (primary). The Research Station is only another few hundred meters. The Station is used by scientists, apparently mostly well-funded American pandologists, but they are rarely there, and even if they are, there should be ample room for more people in the newly built facilities. Nonetheless, past visitors have found it difficult to "organize" a stay at Wuyipeng, because hassles arise wherever official pre-arrangements are involved in this country. In contrast, I just arrived at Wuyipeng on a "knock-at-their-door basis" without prior notice, and the single attendant of the station was glad to house me for three nights.

There are four trails that start out from Wuyipeng in four different directions: The main trail (which leads down into the valley) is only really worth birding along the first kilometer to the plateau's edge, but this is the only area where I had Firethroat, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Fire-capped Tit, Snowy-browed Flycatcher (1), Green Shrike-Babbler (2 occ.) and Scaly Thrush, and the edge itself is very reliable for Fulvous Parrotbill (2 occasions) and Spotted Nutcracker.

The trail that leads down-slope from Wuyipeng (left of the main trail) and the one in the opposite direction from the main trail ("Long Trail") are similar in nature; the down-hill trail peters out after only a few hundred meters, whereas the Long Trail crosses a couple of streams and carries on and on for miles (I didn't walk to the end). Both of these trails, especially the Long Trail, were very worthwhile, yielding confiding Temminck's Tragopans (up to 3 sightings per day), Koklass Pheasant (2 occ.), Scaly-breasted and Pygmy Wren-Babblers, Spotted (2 occ.) and Barred (1 occ.) Laughinghtrush, Rufous-capped Babblers, a Severtsov's Grouse, Ferruginous, Slaty-blue, Slaty-backed and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Orange-flanked and White-browed (bamboo!) Bush-Robin, White-bellied Redstart, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Père David's and Sooty Tit and Great Parrotbill.

The trail that leads uphill behind the housing complex is a partly steep ascent that eventually (after 3 leisurely hours) gives access to an absolutely stunning ridge plateau with bamboo-covered ground and century-old fir trees. There the path peters out, but following the ridge to the left and descending it on the other side will eventually get you to the "Long Trail" (which is not recommended as I almost got seriously lost there). The plateau area is where I had an unexpected encounter with the newly described Sichuan Treecreeper in full song and sight. Hence, besides Jiuzhaigou this is the second site where I had a new record of the species, though other birders recorded the species there just a few weeks after I left (according to their internet report). This plateau area is very reminiscent of Wawu Shan, not only with respect to the treecreeper and the bamboo ground cover, but also with respect to the remaining avifauna: I saw Fulvous Parrotbills, Darjeeling and White-backed Woodpeckers, two different coveys of Blood Pheasant, Golden Bush-Robin, Gray-crested, Rufous-vented and Coal Tits, Bianchi's Warblers (Seicercus valentini), Aberrant, Yellowish-bellied and Gray-sided Bush-Warbler (only hearing Brown Bush-Warbler), as well as two Black-faced and a few Elliot's Laughingthrushes.

Other species at Wuyipeng included: Gray-headed Bullfinch, Streak-throated and Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Long-tailed Minivet, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Chestnut Thrush, Yellow-browed Tit, Lemon-rumped, Large-billed Leaf and Blyth's Leaf Warbler and Gould's Sunbird. Lesser and Oriental Cuckoo were heard only.

Balang Shan Pass

From Sawan, the road winds up to the lofty heights of the Balang Shan Pass, which – at 4600m – gives birders the unique opportunity to watch birds in truly one of the most breath-taking surroundings on earth. Balang Shan is hard work: You need to be well acclimatized before venturing up there. Most birders work Balang Shan by renting costly transportation from Sawan Village and driving up there (2-3hr). Some of them discovered too late that their Chinese drivers did not really consider it necessary to get up at 3 a.m. to stand a chance at a pre-dawn display of the rare Wood Snipe.

To avoid hassle, and to save bucks, I opted for staying three nights with one of the Tibetan families at what have been called the "roadmenders' huts" a few kilometers below the pass. These people have simple clay houses along the roadside, fire their stove with yak droppings, and earn a living as yak farmers and truck repairmen. And indeed, there are many trucks that stop at their place. There are two aggregations of huts, and I strongly advise you to stay at the lower one (not the one hidden behind a serpentine), since the people at the upper huts took advantage of me in a most shameless fashion by inviting me into their house one evening when I descended from the pass and offering me all sorts of food: I was reluctant to eat much, knowing that oftentimes people would unexpectedly charge you for what looks like an invitation, and I was right when they suddenly charged me 100 Yuen (which in this country is equivalent to charging someone 50 US Dollars for a Snickers in the West). I had no other way out than to pay.

Transportation from the huts up to the pass and beyond, and down to the statue at the timberline was by hitch-hiking and involuntary walking. Make sure the driver knows you don't want to pay anything (which is not easy when you don't speak a word of Chinese). Most drivers do expect a payment of 20-100 Yuen for a few kilometers though, which I found outrageous, considering that a bus ticket to Chengdu costs 16 Yuen. Again, I had my fair share of ugly experiences with motorists, though I did meet quite a few nice and decent folks among them as well.

The birds were something more pleasant about my stay at Balang Shan. I did not spend too much time at the pass itself, and most disappointing of all was the lack of Tibetan Snowcocks, though Snow Partridges, Grandalas, Alpine and Rufous-breasted Accentors, Northern Raven, Alpine Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, a Golden Eagle, Snow Pigeon, Brandt's and Plain Mountain-Finches as well as Red-fronted Rosefinches and a giant Northern Goshawk more than recompensated me. The roadmenders' huts and the grassy slopes and thickets below held Beautiful and Dark-breasted Rosefinches, Rosy Pipits and Kessler's Thrushes, but a couple of kilometers farther down the avifauna and the habitat quickly changed, featuring Common and White-browed Rosefinches, Olive-backed Pipits, White-throated Redstarts as well as Tickell's Leaf Warblers (Spotted Bush-Warbler heard only) and finally Maroon-backed Accentors, Winter Wrens and Buff-barred and Greenish Warblers around the statue monument. This stretch of road, roughly 1 – 4 km below the huts, is where early morning visits can produce Wood Snipes, a species that eluded me. A scope would have been helpful, but was not necessary, to spot the White Eared-Pheasants on the other side of the valley. A one-day walk to this other side of the valley from the roadmenders' huts was intended to add a highly sought-after monal species to my list, but instead only produced a flushed Tibetan Partridge and a family of Tibetan hog-badgers.

Down the other side of the pass, the avifauna shifts slightly and contains some drier elements. It is best to descend (past the roadside toilet building) all the way to a longer bridge, where the first sizeable bushes dot the roadside. It is there that White-tailed Rubythroat and White-throated Dipper can be seen with a little time investment, and (in the smallest of all bushes, mostly where rocky ground is near) also the enchanting White-browed Tit-Warbler. Going farther down, where the timberline vegetation grows denser and higher, I picked up Giant Laughingthrush and finally the so-called "Songar Tit", actually the weigoldicus / affinis complex, which – in contrast to the true songarus from Central Asia – is genetically well distinct from the Willow Tit (Parus montanus). Streaked Rosefinches around there were mixed with a bunch of very confusing Pink-rumped Rosefinches (which are near-identical to the Beautiful Rosefinches I saw on the other side of the pass, though stouter, shorter-tailed, longer billed and vocalizing differently; also the females had a streakier appearance, which I was not able to verify with any existing field guide).

Some of the species that were seen widely in Wolong National Park include: Barn Swallow, Asian House Martin, Blue-fronted and Daurian Redstart, Large-billed Crow and Fork-tailed Swift.

Huang Nian Shan
July 10-11

South Sichuan endemics

Mabian County in the extreme south of Sichuan holds avian promise in the form of a couple of South Sichuanese lowland forest endemics that are on the verge of extinction: Golden-fronted Fulvetta and Sichuan Partridge. A public bus to pleasant mid-sized Mabian from Chengdu took longer than anticipated (8 hr), as the two-lane highway gradually transformed into a cattle trail. At times, traffic was just stopped for 1 – 2 hr as road construction proceeded slowly.

Trying to enter Dafengding Shan Reserve

Badly prepared logistically, and speaking about ten words of Chinese, my arrival in Mabian left me confronted with the question of where to look for these rare birds. Internet research had produced two potential sites, of which the huge Dafengding Shan Reserve sounded more promising. However, on boarding a Dafengding-bound bus in Mabian, I learned that the reserve is another 3hr from Mabian, and that foreigners are not allowed to go there without an entry permit from the authorities in Chengdu. I was referred to an office in Mabian, where the only guy who spoke English was willing to arrange a visit (despite the lack of an entry permit) against the payment of a 300 Yuan "service fee". At the time, that seemed horrendous, so I tried to negotiate. Inappropriate negotiation tactics must have made this man feel he lost face, so he retreated from business. In retrospect, it might have been worth paying, since it would have provided me with an opportunity to access some primary forest.

Huang Nian Shan, the denuded mountain

Instead, I decided to give it a try at Huang Nian Shan, Mabian's "domestic mountain", a mere 5 km outside of town, where – in the 80s – Ben King had made a few interesting observations. In his article on Huang Nian Shan, he mentioned that the area was gazetted for clear-cutting, and several people in Mabian told me accordingly. Still, I hoped I was going to find some remnant somewhere. I hired a motortaxi driver to take me up to the low pass along the road towards Huang Nian Shan. From there, a dirt track leads you to a forest guard station, where I was received with great hospitality. The guards served me some of the best food I had eaten in China, and did not charge me for food or accommodation (one night).

Birds at Huang Nian Shan

The station is at the lower edge of plantations, that gradually shift into secondary forest. Farther up near the top, where in Ben King's days the last remnants must have stood, the secondary forest grew lower, thicker and scrubbier. Even the better parts of the secondary forest about halfway up to the top were pretty bad, so I was not surprised to get not a sniff of the two endemics I had been searching for. Nonetheless, some better birds were seen, not least in the interspersed bamboo up on top, where Golden Parrotbill and White-throated Laughingthrush were the birds of the day. Mixed flocks around there contained Blue-winged Minla, Speckled Piculet, Gray-cheeked, Rusty-capped and Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Red-billed Leiotrix, Black-chinned Yuhina, Rufous-capped Babbler, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, Large-billed Leaf and Chestnut-crowned Warbler as well as Yellow-bellied and Green-backed Tit. Even the plantations were not entirely dead, yielding Lesser Cuckoo, Bay Woodpecker, Pygmy Wren Babbler and a party of Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler.

From the station, the 3km to the main road at the pass are worth walking, since the scrub holds a few specialties that I did not record in the forest, most notably Yellow-throated Bunting, Ashy-throated Parrotbill, White-browed Laughingthrush, Godlewski's Bunting (near rocky outcrops), Striated Prinia, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Collared Finchbill, Great Tit, Gray and White Wagtail, Gray-capped Greenfinch, Gray Bushchat, Red-billed Blue Magpie, circling Oriental Honey-Buzzards and even a Brown-breasted Flycatcher. Eurasian Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo and Collared Owlet were heard only.

In the forest above the station, a Seicercus with much green on the sides of the head and a fairly high, simple repetitive song was identified by me as Seicercus soror (Plain-tailed Warbler). Below the forest, in secondary scrub, I found another (much grayer headed) Seicercus with trills in its song, which confused me at the time, as I was unaware of the existence of Seicercus tephrocephalus (sensu Martens et al. 2003), a species nearly indistinguishable in song and plumage from Seicercus omeiensis (sensu Martens et al. 1999, 2003, and sensu Alström and Olsson 2000,and identical with S. tephrocephalus sensu Alström and Olsson 1999). However, while Alström and Olsson (1999, 2000) only noted the existence of one trilling Sichuanese Seicercus (namely S. omeiensis, i.e. their S. tephrocephalus in their 1999 publication) ABOVE the elevation of S. soror (and below S. valentini), it is now clear that there exists another triller of almost equal plumage BELOW S. soror, which Martens et al. (2003) assign to the original S. tephrocephalus. On grounds of vertical distribution, I therefore identify the birds of the scrub zone below the forest on Huang Nian Shan as Seicercus tephrocephalus (sensu Martens et al. 2003; English name apparently still pending).

Yunnan
July 13-29

After a little more than a month in Sichuan, I still had the remainder of July to spend in China. Therefore, an enjoyable ride on a night train from Chengdu to Kunming was accompanied by great excitement, as I knew I was about to enter Yunnan, the crossroads of the Chinese world with the tropics, and of the Himalayan avifauna with that of South-east Asia. After a quick stop in Kunming, I decided that time was going to be too short (and overlap with Vietnam too great) to include tropical Xishuangbanna in my itinerary. Instead, I opted to invest some more serious effort into West Yunnan, working my way down from the Lijiang Area to Gaoligongshan, amazing Yunfengshan and finally Ruili. Generally, I recommend birders consult Jesper Hornskov's detailed account of birds seen during several months in the field in Yunnan (see internet).

The weather was generally pleasant, apart from a 2-hr deluge in Kunming and brief showers in the southwest. This was a pleasant contrast to super-humid Sichuan. Generally, the timing (July) was probably sub-optimal, since some of the sites, especially Xishan in Kunming are more renowned for their wintering birds than for their resident avifauna. Furthermore, in high-elevation sites or temperate regions, such as the Lijiang Area, breeding time was noticeably over.

Going through Yunnan by bus and train was comfortable enough, but provided views of some of the most devastated landscapes on earth. There is not a single mountain within sight of major roads that is not completely stripped bare. Most of the sites visited did not hold any primary habitat (e.g. Xishan, Lijiang, Gaoligongshan, Ruili). In fact, one of two patches of truly primary habitat I came by (at Yunfengshan) was being depleted rapidly. It is my opinion that there is little hope for the birds of Yunnan: On bus rides in the southwest, it was evident that even remote areas near the Burmese border have been lost to the axe.

Xishan (the Western Mountain) in Kunming
July 13-14

The youthful megalopolis of Kunming with its 4 million inhabitants is the hub for visitors to Yunnan. On its western flanks there is a popular mountain (Xishan) that is visited by thousands of city dwellers on weekends, as it provides stunning views of skyscrapers amidst a landscape that is dominated by far plains and a huge "inland sea". It is also the site of a few temples, and wherever there are temples, there are urban Chinese weekend tourists. The mountain can be reached by public bus (ask your hotel clerk about the line number). I found an afternoon and a morning's birding on Xishan low-key and uneventful, though a few goodies were eventually seen. About 80% of bird individuals were of only 5 species or so, among them Black-throated Tit and Blue-winged Minla. Winter seems to be far more rewarding, and the mountain is said to teem with avian rarities at that time. If you have traveled widely in China and South-east Asia, you, too, may find that the main bulk of your summer time would be better invested in other parts of Yunnan, though Xishan is definitely a must as a quick stop-over on a free afternoon or morning in Kunming.

Birds

Most of the vegetation is mixed broad-leaved and coniferous, though most of the older trees are pines. All of it is secondary, though, and a few parts are interspersed with bamboo, such as the areas around the first temple (ca. 1 km from the entrance) and the trails leading downhill to the lakeside from here. This is where I had most specialties: Spectacled and Rusty-capped Fulvetta, the rare Chestnut Bulbul, Black-breasted and Chinese Thrush, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Crested Finchbill and White-tailed Robin. On top of the mountain, boulders dot a little plateau where Godlewski's Bunting is common. Russet Sparrow and singing Striated Prinias (the latter heard only) also favor the open scrub up here. Some of the better species in the bamboo and the taller conifers below the summit were Ashy-throated Parrotbill and Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler was heard only around here. Other birds on Xishan included: House Swift, Black Kite (of dubious subspecific affinity), White-throated Fantail, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie Robin, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Great and Green-backed Tit, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Mountain Tailorbird, Blyth's Leaf Warbler, Oriental White-eye, Red-billed Leiothrix, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, White-collared Yuhina, White Wagtail and Black-headed Greenfinch.

Lijiang Area
July 15-17

Lijiang and its surroundings are a cow. The Yunnan Board of Tourism have noticed. And they do what any owner of a cow does: They milk it. The historic center of town with its inviting Naxi architecture has long been outsized by new high-rise buildings that absorb a stream of tens of thousands of domestic tourists per annum. An entrance fee is required to set your foot on every possible and impossible piece of land in the immediate surroundings of town. And farther afield the obligatory Chinese cable car takes you from the valley to glaciers and alpine meadows, while you can spend the night in cold, pompous and seemingly out-of-place halls that are designated luxury hotels but have the charm of a mausoleum and the infrastructure of my parents' village in Transilvania.

Despite this sad recent development, a few very special birds and habitats make Lijiang one of the places any Yunnan itinerary just has to include. The prime site to be visited is Yulong Xueshan, or (in its plump translation) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Lijiang Town

Better called Lijiang City these days, past birders have managed to find amazing rarities in the scrub and the few dozen trees that remain around town, not least the Giant Nuthatch and Yunnan Nuthatch. I strongly suspect that these birds only descend to Lijiang as winter visitors, since none of the sightings was later than April. A whole morning on the wooded hill adjacent to the Old Quarter and on Elephant Hill (opposite the Old Quarter) was a complete waste of time. Entrance fees have to be paid if you approach Elephant Hill from an unfavorable direction, and also if you wish to enter the giant pagoda that was erected on the wooded hill (downtown) for want of other tourist attractions, apparently using wood from illegally logged Yunnan forests, as Lonely Planet asserts. This wooded hill was more remarkable for its exhibition of dozens of caged Hwameis that engaged in a song contest, than for its wild birdlife, which included Hoopoe, Oriental Magpie Robin, Tree Sparrow, Verditer Flycatcher, Daurian Redstart, Black-throated Tit, Brown-breasted Bulbul and White Wagtail. The bleak scrub on Elephant Hill yielded Black-headed Greenfinch, Striated Prinia, Chinese Thrush (in the remnant grove) and Gray-backed Shrike.

Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain)

A new road leads north from Lijiang towards Daju, passing en route both a financially hurtful toll booth for tourists and this impressive mountain, site of the southernmost glacier of the Northern Hemisphere and of an impressive avifauna. A huge, cold tourist complex lines the road near the base of the mountain. Accommodation is only there: expensive cold rooms, no dinner, no early breakfast, dirty public bathrooms, you name it they have it! From there, buses take you up on one of two (circular) roads to the lower cable-car station. Birding is best done on foot along either of the two roads between the hotel complex and the cable car, and – if time permits – along the inconspicuous trail that zigzags the cable car route as far up as you want (or as far up as you can get without being caught by their route inspection teams). The cable car ride is useless for birders since it takes you into eternal snow.

Habitats vary at this site: Down near the main road, a peculiar open conifer prairie is inhabited by the site's main specialty, Yunnan Nuthatch, but other good birds are equally easy to see, such as the rare Black-browed Tit, seemingly misplaced Godlewski's Buntings, Great and Green-backed Tits, Red-billed Blue Magpies as well as Long-tailed Minivets. The open fields around the housing complexes near the road provide a haven for Oriental Skylark, Common Stonechat, Daurian Redstart, White Wagtail, Large-billed Crow, Barn Swallow and Russet Sparrow. On the way up to the cable car, the conifer prairie gives way to thick scrub, which was full of avian gems during my stay: a flock of the long-awaited Moupinia, a single skulking Pale-footed Bush-Warbler, a few Giant Laughingthrushes, a White-browed Fulvetta at long last, Tickell's Leaf Warblers, White bellied Redstarts and a retiring Black-bibbed Tit. A few hundred meters below the cable car, old-growth coniferous forest takes over, and with it an avifauna that yielded Chestnut-headed Tesia, Black-faced (above the cable car station) and Elliot's Laughingthrush, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Nutcracker, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, Slaty-backed and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Gray-crested and Coal Tit, Winter Wren (far above cable car station), Buff-barred, Lemon-rumped, Blyth's Leaf, Large-billed Leaf and Bianchi's Warbler, White-collared Yuhina, Gould's Sunbird and Gray-headed Bullfinch.

Daju and the east end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge

The famous Gorge is a major tourist attraction, though few visitors make the whole two-to-three-day trek. Day visitors generally approach the gorge from its western end. Wrong info on the sparse bus connections from Yulong Xueshan to Daju resulted in a very short stay of two hours around noon. I had mainly come because I reckoned it would be an easy way to finally see my first Wallcreeper, but time was too short to get near the gorge. Instead, I killed time in the cultivated land around the village, where a number of birds were seen: Black-headed and Scaly-breasted Munia, Tree and Russet Sparrow, White Wagtail, Paddyfield Pipit, Plain and Striated Prinia, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Common Stonechat, Large-billed Crow, Common Kestrel, Oriental Turtle Dove and White-throated Kingfisher.

Yunfengshan
July 19-22

"Holy mountains" in China: The main peak of Yunfengshan, a holy Taoist mountain with a cluster of temples on top, is the same deal as many other smaller Chinese "holy mountains": During the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, brainless activism and the mad desire to do away with "the Old" accounted for the destruction or damage of temples and the extraction of most old-growth timber around them. Then, after Mao died, realization dawned, the temples were restored and cable cars were built that take you up to them for a spicy fee. To Mother Nature's chagrin, though, deforestation has continued apace. Talking with Chinese people on longer train rides, you will find out that the old man who is responsible for all this is still revered by the whole nation as if he was the best thing that could have happened to China, and the "Little Red Book" ("Quotations by the Chairman Mao", aka the Chinese Bible) is ubiquitously offered for perusal.

Yunfengshan's setting

In the far south-west of Yunnan, Yunfengshan is a small border ridge between China and Myanmar. Rich subtropical rainforests with an exotic avifauna once shrouded the area's slopes, and the rapidly vanishing remnants are still one of the most exciting places to be birdwatching in Yunnan. A mixture of public buses with hired taxis can get you to the foot of the mountain from Tengchong in 2hr if everything works out. A cable car takes you to within 500 steep meters of the temple cluster on the peak. If you want to stay longer than a day (recommended!), ask for very basic accommodation at the temples on top. Accommodation is almost for free, and their very cheap food (strictly vegetarian) is delicious.

Habitat

You might as well pay the additional fee for the cable car if time is short, because the 2-3km trail between the lower and the upper cable station leads through badly degraded bush habitat and scrub forest. Between the upper station and the peak, things start to get more interesting (especially the nice view onto a remnant primary patch from the upper cable station, where I had a Moustached Laughingthrush). Still, most habitat there is secondary re-growth that has been reinforced with conifer planting. It makes you sad to see so little ecological understanding on the part of those responsible. On the way up to the temple, there are bilingual signs in Chinese and Chinglish. One of them, for instance, says "People would have benefits from environmental protection!" While the sign is probably just trying to say that environmental protection benefits humans, the erroneous usage of the conditional just happens to make the right point, because environmental protection is NOT what's going on here. Most if not all the Chinese day tourists probably don't have a clue that what's written on the signs and what's happening around them is a great piece of irony. Most of the families seemed happy to spend a day in the jungles of yore, which are now genuine original re-planted coniferous scrub.

However, the very best birding is beyond the temple cluster: Descending the mountain on the other side, you reach a hut at a pole where an electricity line and a track starts. Following this track for only about 200-400m, there are two trails that verge off to the right (both eventually re-join) and give access to a massive side ridge featuring an extensive trail system with innumerable side trails. With time, I finally found the right way through this maze to descend all the way to the deforested valley behind the mountain, a trek of several hours. The forest on this slope is beautiful and lush, but it is being exploited as we speak: I met numerous woodcutters along there, and I saw signs of destruction everywhere. Usually, only the tallest trees are harvested, such that an intact understorey remains in most areas, but erosion is showing some bad impacts on the steeper slopes.

Birds

The avifauna of this mountain, especially the back slope, is astonishing. Some of the better treats included Long-tailed Wren-Babbler (seen daily; lush vegetation, common by sound), Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush (daily), Red-tailed Laughingthrush (2 occ.), Brown Bullfinch (3) and Chinese Babax (2 ind.). A family of Cutia (3 ad., 1 juv.) was found in conifers on the very main ridge that you descend over large parts of the "back slope", next to a Gray-headed Parrotbill. A Black-throated Parrotbill was seen on two occasions, whereas Beautiful Sibias and Rusty-fronted Barwings were more or less common. The great diversity of flycatchers (Rufous-bellied Niltava, one male Pygmy Blue Flycatcher, one male Little Pied Flycatcher, one female Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, two juvenile Ferruginous Flycatchers) was complemented by a very probable sighting (but too brief) of a Pale-chinned Flycatcher about 400m below the summit, an eye-ringed and white-lored bird exhibiting a white throat very much in contrast with the buffy-yellowish breast and brown back. An unidentified common Seicercus species that occurred from the base to the summit was very reminiscent of Bianchi's Warbler in looks and song (no trills; simple repetitions with full voice; much white in tail; much gray in head), but the latter should probably not range this far south. With the current unresolved mysteries in Seicercus systematics, it is probably best to leave it unidentified.

Other sightings include Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Stripe-throated, Whiskered and White-collared Yuhina, Black-headed Sibia (peak), Gray-cheeked, Rusty-capped, Rufous-winged and Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Chestnut-tailed, Blue-winged and Red-tailed Minla, Red-billed Leiothrix, Spotted Nutcracker (near conifers), White-browed and Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Chestnut-crowned and Black-faced Warbler, Gray-bellied Tesia (common by sound, rarely seen), Green-tailed and Gould's Sunbird, Ashy-throated (this low!), Blyth's Leaf and White-tailed Leaf Warbler, Mountain Tailorbird, Brown-breasted (valley) and Mountain Bulbul, Crested Finchbill, Yellow-cheeked, Yellow-browed, Black-throated and Green-backed Tit, one Black-bibbed Tit in a mixed flock with a few Black-browed Tits, two sightings of a Brown-throated Treecreeper, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Crested Myna and Common Sonechat (the latter two in valley), Lesser Shortwing (a singing brown ind., degraded habitat near base), White-throated and Yellow-bellied Fantail, a few Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrushes, Short-billed Minivet (in pairs), Gray-chined Minivet (in groups), Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrike, Ashy Drongo, Black Drongo (in valley), Black Eagle, Golden-throated and Great Barbet, Gray-headed Woodpecker, Little and Cattle Egret (in valley), White Wagtail and finally a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker. I only heard Lesser Cuckoo, Collared Owlet and the two-note song of the Pygmy Wren-Babbler.

Tengchong
July 22

Too large to be called a town, but too small for a city, Tengchong is a pleasant agglomeration nested between the Yunfengshan and the Gaoligongshan near the Burmese border. A wooded hill next to town called Laifengshan is a popular destination for afternoon walks and weekend picnics among the Tengchongese. The forest on this hill is old secondary, partly reinforced with conifers, and is very reminiscent of a Central European woodlot. Strolling through this forest, the song of the locally common Black-breasted Thrush strongly reminds you of blackbirds, and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Jays as well as inquisitive flocks of Great Tit make you feel at home. But then suddenly, Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, one Stripe-breasted Woodpecker (a Chinese rarity), Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, a family of Long-tailed Minivet, Ashy and Spangled Drongo and mixed flocks containing Blue-winged and Red-tailed Minla, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, Mountain Bulbul, Whiskered Yuhina, Gray-cheeked Fulvetta, White-throated Fantail and White-browed Laughingthrush quickly reminded me of where I really was. The prime reason I invested a late afternoon here before traveling on was Jesper Hornskov's account of large flocks of Brown-winged Parrotbill in this forest, and indeed they can be found reliably at the entrance to the viewing tower on top of the hill. The opener areas are good for Black-headed Greenfinch, Long-tailed Shrike, Oriental Magpie Robin and (on lawns) Paddyfield Pipit, and in thickets and undergrowth in the secondary forest I saw shy Rusty-capped Fulvettas and two Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babblers.

Gaoligongshan
July 23

Habitat

On the bus ride from Baoshan to Tengchong, you cross a number of ridges that comprise the long Gaoligong Mountain Range (or Gaoligong Shan). Lately, these mountains have made the ornithological news as a Western expedition set out to some remote corner to successfully find the Sclater's Monal (see internet). However, for independent birders who are unwilling to mount an officially authorized expedition, these corners remain inaccessible. As has been mentioned for other parts of Yunnan, most of what can be seen in the accessible parts, i.e. the road to Tengchong, is either denuded hillsides or secondary scrub. However, on the highest ridge (the second but last before you get to Tengchong), remnant forest still lines the road for a distance of a few kilometers. Internet accounts by Jesper Horskov and Jon Hornbuckle indicate that years ago someone made a sighting of a female Sclater's Monal (plus of a whole number of other goodies) in this area, so I set out from Tengchong in order to spend several days up there. I ended up staying seven hours, mainly because species overlap with what I had seen during 3-4 days in the Yunfengshan was overwhelming, and because the habitat turned out to be far worse and trashed than it had appeared from the bus. The remaining woodlots look spaciously large from the road, but in fact most of them just constitute a thin wall of trees against a large backdrop of fields and scrub, and virtually all of them are far more degraded inside than is evident from the outside.

Birds

Nevertheless, one may want to reconsider the potential of this site, taking into account how many good species I managed to find within seven hours: A huge flock of Black-throated Parrotbill in trashed bamboo as well as a few Beautiful Sibias and Rusty-fronted Barwings were probably the highlights, together with a beautiful pair of Striated Bulbul and a few Crested Finchbills. Emergent giant trees held Greater Yellownape, Golden-throated and Blue-throated Barbet as well as Mountain Bulbul, and secondary scrub was good for Gray Treepie, Gray Bushchat, Hill Prinia, Brown-breasted and Flavescent Bulbul, Black-headed Greenfinch and Great Tit. The rocky bank of the road yielded Blue Whistling-Thrush, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Plumbeous Water-Redstart and White Wagtail. Mixed flocks were plentiful, even in the afternoon, and comprised Gray-chinned Minivet, White-throated and Yellow-bellied Fantail, Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Green-backed, Yellow-cheeked, Yellow-browed and Black-throated Tit, Mountain Tailorbird, Ashy-throated, White-tailed Leaf, Black-faced and Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Silver-eared Mesia, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Whiskered Yuhina, Blue-winged, Chestnut-tailed and Red-tailed Minla, Black-headed Sibia, Golden-breasted, Rufous-winged, Rusty-capped and Gray-cheeked Fulvetta, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, as well as Green-tailed and Gould's Sunbird. Gray-bellied Tesia was heard ubiquitously.

Ruili
July 24-28

Bordered on three sides by Myanmar (Burma), Ruili is an infamous border town whose shady repute is now cultivated by the Communist Government by encouraging a large gambling and prostitution industry that creates most of the region's revenue. Birders started to trickle into the region in the 90s, discovering some great birds that can be hard to see elsewhere on earth. Virtually no primary habitat remains around Ruili, but some of the secondary forests are quite interesting. The problem about Ruili is that good habitat is fairly widely scattered and hard to find, even with the help of directions. There are several sites a birder may opt to visit around Ruili. During my 3 full and 2 half-days, I managed to get to three distinctly different areas, which are listed in chronological order below. Of these, I would definitely recommend you visit the "pumphouse forest" and surroundings, as well as the new highway west of town. The vanished lake south of town can obviously be skipped if time is short. As far as birds in town are concerned, don't miss the fabulous spectacle of about 400,000 Barn Swallows (rough estimate) perching on the wires downtown after dusk at this time of the year. Moreover, when looking for the rare Collared Myna (see pumphouse section), keep in mind that I also saw Crested Myna in town.

Rice paddies south of town

Several trip reports mention a body of water south of town that has consistently been shrinking over the years. I hired a taxi in search of this lake, but found none at the location where it is supposed to be. I got off near the big buddha a couple of kilometers south of town and just walked back to town across the paddies on the first afternoon, when time wouldn't have sufficed for better activities. I was quite angry at myself for slow reaction when I suddenly flushed a crake from a ditch that was very likely a Black-tailed Crake, but cannot be recognized as positively identified. However, other birds, some of them rather exciting, others less, helped make the pain decrease: Watercock, Painted Snipe, White-breasted Waterhen, Black Drongo, Cinnamon Bittern, Cattle, Little, Intermediate and Great Egret, Black-shouldered Kite, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Coppersmith Barbet, Spotted Dove, House and Asian Palm Swift, Common, White-throated and Pied Kingfisher, Striated Grassbird, Scaly-breasted and Black-headed Munia, Greater and Lesser Coucal, White Wagtail, Great Tit, Tree Sparrow, Striated Swallow, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Long-tailed Shrike, Plain Prinia, Oriental Magpie Robin, Oriental White-eye and two species of rather Indian distribution, namely Red-vented Bulbul and Pied Bushchat.

The ridge around the new westbound highway

A new road, which will eventually be the principal link between Ruili and the main chunk of China, ascends a ridge just west of town and – near the top – crosses it through a tunnel. There are numerous side tracks and trails that lead off to the left and to the right. From afar, this ridge appears as if clad in lush forest, but once you get there, you find a peculiar type of orchard-like secondary habitat. Over large parts, however, the giant trees in this habitat have not been cleared, such that you wander through what feels like a giant apple grove. Other parts around there only consist of thick scrub, and I even managed to find a small plot of what I would call secondary forest, though no larger than 1 – 2 ha in extent. It is important to note that there was surprisingly little species overlap between this site and the pumphouse forest (see below), possibly on grounds of elevation or habitat structure, and some of the listed specialties seem to be impossible to get down there. It would make no sense to give directions around here, and you will just have to roam across the ridge at random. The best bird seen in the park-like habitat was the rare Gray Sibia in the company of Common Ioras and even a group of Long-tailed Sibia. The large trees provided sanctuary for Greater Yellownape, Gray-capped Pygmy and Gray-headed Woodpecker, Great and Blue-throated Barbet, Green-billed Malkoha, Maroon Oriole, Large Woodshrike, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Scarlet Minivet, Thick-billed, Fire-breasted and Plain Flowerpecker, Streaked Spiderhunter, Orange-bellied Leafbird as well as a whole bag of bulbuls, among them Crested Finchbill, Black-crested, Flavescent, Ashy, Mountain, Black and the stunning Striated Bulbul. The small forest plot I found held other surprises in the form of a White-throated Bulbul (at long last), Black-breasted Thrush, Hill Blue-Flycatchers and a group of Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes. Mixed flocks up there included Blue-winged Minla, Silver-eared Mesia, Gray-cheeked Fulvetta, Striated Yuhina, White-bellied Erpornis (=Yuhina), White-tailed Leaf Warbler, Bronzed and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos, Black-throated Sunbirds (race assamensis), Gray-headed Canary Flycatchers, White-throated Fantails, Black-naped Monarchs, Mountain Tailorbirds, Golden Babblers, White-browed Shrike-Babblers and – as a little highlight – the magnificent Rusty-fronted Barwing. From the road itself, lucky views were had at perching Brown-breasted Flycatchers, sky-diving Himalayan Swiftlets, Crested Goshawk, Oriental Honey-Buzzard and Ashy Woodswallows.

The "pumphouse forest" and areas farther up

This site must not be missed by bird-watching Ruili visitors, as it provides the only chance at some of the greatest regional goodies. It is rather cumbersome to find. I recommend you download Jon Hornbuckle's March 2002 trip report for a very lengthy try at giving directions to this forest. However, even with these in my hand, it took me half a day of searching within degraded habitat at a completely different corner of town before I realized that I must be at a wrong place (at least this side trip added Rufous-necked Laughingthrush to my site list). I found it helpful to multiply Jon's meter readings by two or three. If you find that his directions could be complemented by a little extra info, try this: Go to the Old Quarter of Ruili, which you can access from the new town by crossing a large gray "Arc-de-Triomphe"-like gate. At the fountain just past the gate, take the right fork and stay on this main street until you get to a pond at the edge of town, which you have to keep to your left. Heading out of town, you soon get through a metal arch, after which you have to take the main track to the RIGHT (this is Jon's triple junction, which is really just a fork). At this fork, a grove of giant trees to your right is the spot to look out for Ruili's premiere rarity, Collared Myna, though it took me two dawn vigils and a dusk till one finally flew in. This corner is absolutely dead after 9 a.m. and before dusk. However, in the morning, it is well worth stopping here for an hour or so (even though you'll be late in the forest), with some of the rewards being Burmese Shrike, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Yellow-eyed and Chestnut-capped Babbler, flocks of Gray-headed Parakeet, Plaintive Cuckoo, Rufescent and Striated Prinia as well as Black-winged Cuckooshrike. After this fork, there will be a multitude of small side trails, which renders any directions very subjective, so it is best to just follow your instinct, focusing on the patch of forest that you can see on a hill in the near distance. At the base of the hill, the pumphouse is positioned within the lovely setting of a stream running along the forest edge into some rice paddies (Blue-tailed and Chestnut-headed Bee-eater). The stream crossing is where Black-backed Forktail is easy to see, at one of its only points of distribution within China. Moreover, Green Sandpiper and Slaty-breasted Rail showed up, as well as yet another shy and retiring crake that was very likely a Black-tailed Crake but was not seen well enough (the latter eventually had me wade through the paddies and along the stream for three hours, without ever re-surfacing).

From the stream crossing, ascend the trail along the "forest" edge and take one of the inconspicuous trails that lead to the right into the secondary growth after 200-400m, and that eventually connect to an artificial canal. The canal can be followed for a few hundred meters in either direction and provides rewarding birding, although the forest is badly trashed. Apart from species seen elsewhere in Ruili, some of the better birds found along here were Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill (in the giant bamboo at the house at the lower end of the canal), Rosy Minivet (flock), Rufous Woodpecker, Lesser Cuckoo, Slaty-backed Forktail, Eurasian Jay, Gray Treepie, Blue Whistling-Thrush, White-browed Laughingthrush, Hill and Gray-breasted Prinia, Puff-throated and a surprising Rufous-fronted Babbler, White-rumped Munia, Black-naped Oriole and Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler.

Back at the forest edge above the pumphouse, follow this same trail up for another 3 – 6 km through badly degraded scrub that gets successively better. Along this short-cut, you will finally end up in the same higher-elevation forest to which Jon Hornbuckle gives alternative directions via a village. The forest up there is probably as close as you can get to decent habitat in Ruili, though all of it is secondary. I found good birds there, even though the far distance from town makes it hard to get there early in the morning. Most notable were two different giant flocks of Gray-headed Parrotbill, comprising at least 30 individuals each and found at two far-apart locations, and an equally impressive flock of about 15 Long-tailed Broadbills. Additionally, a family of Orange-headed Thrush, a pair of Red-faced Liocichla (lush forest edge), a few Red-billed Scimitar-Babblers, a male Large Niltava, a Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, a female Asian Emerald Cuckoo and a male Chestnut-winged Cuckoo were much to my delight. Some less spectacular birds up there (apart from species already mentioned at the other Ruili sites) were Speckled and White-browed Piculet, Chestnut-vented and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Ashy and Spangled Drongo, Spotted Forktail, Yellow-cheeked Tit and Gray-throated Babbler. Large Hawk Cuckoo was heard only.

List of Birds Observed


Copyright © 1992-2012 John Wall