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The Qinling Shan, China - Birding
by Mike Kilburn
We flew from Shenzhen to Xian, overnighted and left this heavily polluted city as quickly as possible, heading south for the Qinling Shan. The drive across the plains to the mountains was flat, dull and birdless until we entered the gorge which took us immediately out of the dirt-choked air and into the foothills of the Qinling Shan. As on my previous trip here in October 97 the road was beautiful, clinging to the side of the gorge before sliding down to run alongside the rock-strewn river in its bed.
We stopped to collect Asian House Martins and found the usual White-capped Redstart, Brown Dippers, Plumbeous Redstarts and Crested Kingfisher along the river before arriving at Foping to unpack and headed for the village of Shi Yin Gou for a couple of hours birding late in the afternoon. As we got out of the car a Ruddy Sparrow hopped out from the stairwell of a village house and a Swinhoe's Minivet, one of our key target birds appeared on an overhead wire. A walk through farmland gave us Daurian Redstart, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Black-throated Tit, Rufous-faced Warbler, Collared Finchbill and Brown-breasted Bulbul, and a dead Little Grebe caught between overhead wires appears to be the first record for Foping County.
Next morning we drove up into the hills which fringe the Foping reserve. On the way we stopped to pick up our guide, and while we waited, enjoyed a superb Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and another Swinhoe's Minivet in trees above the village public toilet-cum-pigsty. After driving first along the main road, then down a track past a couple of small villages we picked up several Grey Bushchats in the cultivated land before reaching our target zone where the vegetation thickened and we stopped to begin birding in earnest at around 1900m. We found a host of breeding birds, including Speckled Wood Pigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, White-bellied Redstart, singing Brown, Yellow-Bellied and Mountain Bush Warblers, and as we go into the best areas of woodland habitat, good numbers of Golden Spectacled, Blyth's Leaf, Chinese Leaf, Hume's Leaf and Large-billed Leaf Warblers. However, elements in the group professed themselves less than totally enthralled by the conundra presented by this challenging family and we paid them less and less attention.
There was plenty else to look at - Yellow-bellied and Green-backed Tits, Elliot's Laughingthrush, White-collared Yuhina and Streak-throated Fulvettas were old friends from Sichuan, as was our best bird of the day - the Slaty Buntings. First of all we found odd birds in the woods below the pass and then, at the highest point of the trail, we found a male catching large numbers of caterpillars and remaining loyal to a small patch by the path.
This area holds Golden Pheasants, and we could hear birds calling all round us but failed to find any, despite all the usual Pheasant hunting tactics of creeping slowly along, standing still and waiting and trying to look through impenetrable foliage. Taking time to try to pick out a bird calling across a small stream, I sat on a grassy bank, half-hidden behind a friendly tree. Despite twenty minutes of diligent searching for a persistently calling bird I saw nothing. Luckily gorgeous males of any species have a deep-seated need to show off. On our walk out at the end of the day a full-blown red and gold, full-tailed gem of a male strolled casually across the path in front of us.
Frustration honours went to a chat which seemed to call with deliberate provocation from every bamboo-choked stream bed. Despite working hard, lots of pishing and taping and eventually exhausted patience, we failed to winkle one out. Compensation manifested itself in the form of a distant Crested Honey Buzzard and several calling Spotted Nutcrackers.
Next day, after hearing and seeing an Asian Barred Owlet in the hotel carpark, we went to Sha Wo, an area where much of the forest had been cut, but we still scored well, adding Ferruginous Flycatcher, a pair of White-backed Woodpecker and a calling, but coy, Lesser Cuckoo. Sooty topped the list of Tits, which also included Grey-crested, Rufous-vented, Green-backed, Great, Yellow-bellied and Coal.
After a struggle up a heavily felled slope, following the spoor of a couple of Takin, we emerged onto a ridge which is reputed to hold Blood Pheasant. It didn't, but we did get extremely close views of David's Bush Warbler and Brown Bush Warbler at our lunch stop. The highest point we reached (2,400m) delivered a number of surprises, including breeding Siberian Stonechats, Rosy Pipits and Alpine Accentors.
We were told that the timber felling was being carried out by a local co-operative and had been banned recently. However, we did see several people living in tents close to felled logs in the valley and passed several men climbing the slope towards an area where the timber had already been cut - it appears that enforcement of legislation is a problem that won't go way in China.
We stopped halfway down the slope for a breather, timing our break perfectly to select a spot where a pair of Koklass Pheasants had gone to ground. They burst out from behind us and swooped down the hill, showing little colour and only allowing identification by the broad, fan-shaped tail of the male. The same slope also offered our only sighting of Chestnut Thrush.
The next morning we returned to the Liang Fen Ya pass at Foping for a final shot at the Pheasants and the chat, which confirmed our suspicions by grudgingly revealing itself as an Indian Blue Robin for the briefest of flash views.
However the Slaty Buntings behaved rather better. Taking a break from not seeing pheasants I saw first a male then an orange female hopping about on some branches a little down the slope, clearly curious about me, but not agitated. Both birds were holding food and performing a bizarre wing flicking display that showed off their white axilliaries. Eventually the male disappeared into a tuft of grass at the foot of a spindly shrub and re-emerged minus the caterpillars. Throughout the time we watched, they continued to bring food to the nest and we obtained some wonderful video footage of both birds performing the wing flicking display and disappearing into the nest.
We then left and headed for Changqing reserve several hours to the south and west, and were delighted to arrive to find the reserve accommodation was in a block with a balcony, and that the rooms each contained a welcoming basket of fruit. As the sun went down we enjoyed the Ruddy Sparrows blobbing about on the roof and the Red-rumped Swallows wheeling above the roofs of the town.
The next day we turned down the opportunity to go into the forest to try to see a staked out Giant Panda. Instead, we spent the next day climbing the highest peak in the reserve, initially driving up a winding hill road, and then having reached the highest navigable point on the road at about 2,300m we began walking up an old logging track. Within ten minutes we came across a herd of 15 Takin moving slowly up the forested, near vertical slope above the path. They stayed in view for a couple of minutes, allowing us to see animals of all sizes and colours - from the pair of pure white calves to big golden-brown males with a full head of horns. A little further up a Goral (a species of mountain goat) had a good long look at us before sliding quietly around a bluff on a scree slope.
The highlight of our climb was running into a group of Elliot's Laughingthrushes, four Great Parrotbills, a couple of Three-toed Parrotbills, and best of all a Fulvous Parrotbill showing a straw yellow crown and blue-grey supercilium. This last one shows such an extraordinary combination of colours on the head that I never really believed it existed until it popped out to look at us!
Other birds seen well from the logging track included several splendid Golden Bush Robins, a White-capped Redstart, plenty of Large-billed, Chinese Leaf and Greenish Warblers, three Lemon-rumped, lots of Golden Spectacled Warblers ( this was in pre-split days) and a couple of Collared Yuhinas. Indian Blue Robin called from deep cover, but refused to sit up and be counted.
We stopped for lunch at the end of the logging road and headed up a slope of moss-covered scree interspersed with stands of bamboo and large (probably primary) trees. Although climbing through this area was pretty tough going we saw a couple more Golden Bush Robins, a Eurasian Treecreeper, and found a cracking male Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher. Scrambling amongst the bamboos overhanging what nominally passed for a path we found a number of Giant Panda droppings - the size of an oval tennis ball and consisting entirely of once-digested bamboo shoots and twigs. We continued to see them on the higher parts of the hill, suggesting a healthy population was present and confirming Mr Fu's assertion that this is probably the best Panda reserve in China.
On reaching the reserve's highest point at 3071m we stopped for rest and to admire the fabulous views of Tai Bai Shan to the north and sit amongst the rhododendrons and rocks. Mr Fu found a Blood Pheasant and we added a couple of Red-flanked Bluetails, a Common Buzzard and several Spotted Nutcrackers.
Our descent was a distinctly hairy experience. We climbed down a precipitous slope through an area which had been logged but not cleared of brush and branches, and was still thick with bamboo clumps. Halfway down, the path gave out and we had to force our way through the brush and cross a stream running over a cliff before finding the path again and eventually reaching the safety of the logging road.
Once we did get onto the road we had an easy walk back to the minibus, and stopped to collect another White-capped Redstart and a party of Spectacled Parrotbills, which came in to my pishing from a bamboo-covered hillside. This area of the reserve had clearly already been cut and was growing back - all logging has supposedly been suspended in Changqing now.
The next day we had only a morning in the lower reaches of the reserve. We were looking for Reeves' Pheasant, which we were told is easy to see in winter. Despite hearing a number of Pheasants call we saw none, but found compensation in the form of several Gould's Sunbirds, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Green Shrike Babbler, Eurasian Jay, a couple more Spectacled Parrotbills, and from closer to home, several Red-billed Leiothrix, Rufous-capped Babbler and Hwamei.
The drive to Yangxian turned out much better than expected as we had Chinese Bamboo Partridge and possibly the northernmost record of Black Baza, close to Changqing. A random stop in a village produced a wonderful overflow of breeding birds - beginning with a Chinese Blackbird and a Daurian Redstart, we also found a couple of Ashy Drongos, four Swinhoe's Minivets, a Grey-headed Woodpecker and both dark and white phase Asian Paradise Flycatchers, a Black-naped Oriole, overhead Red-rumped Swallows and a couple of Forest Wagtails. Somewhat stunned we continued on our way, stopping in a rather dry gully to collect Common Cuckoo, Little Owl, Long-tailed Shrike and a Manchurian Bush Warbler, which filled the valley with its disproportionately loud song.
We arrived in Yangxian in time to go out to the evening roost site for Crested Ibis, which excruciatingly decided it would use another roost site for the night and we dipped, taking little solace from a couple of Watercock which flew around calling before dusk. The next morning we had to leave early to catch our flights on to Xinjiang and Qinghai, the birds had not yet come down to the Han River to begin feeding. A major disappointment and a sad end to an exciting exploratory trip. We logged 137 species.
We have since established there are at least three roost sites used by non-breeding Ibis near Yangxian and successfully saw the birds at two of these during a short visit in October. In May the majority of birds are breeding in the mountains at some distance from Yangxian and require an major effort to go in to see. It is possible, but requires more than a day.