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Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China Birding
7-27 June 1998
by Mike Kilburn
In 20 days Richard Lewthwaite, Jim Hackett and I travelled a massive 7,000km in a birding trip covering a number of sites in Xinjiang, China's northwesternmost and largest province. Much of China is seriously underbirded, and Xinjiang, at the unfashionable western edge of the Middle Kingdom, is even less well known than other provinces. The shining light in the ornithological wilderness is Professor Ma Ming of the Academia Sinica's Institute of Biology, one of China's few field ornithologists and the only resident birdwatcher in this huge area. With Ma Ming's guidance and an excellent exploratory report from Jesper Hornskov we followed a route which took us into three mountain ranges, to a number of lakes and rivers and across two of the world's largest deserts. Little additional information exists on Xinjiang, but most of what there is can be found in the journals of the OBC.
We had an extremely enjoyable trip and saw a stack of birds. Due to the lack of information on Xinjiang's avifauna we made a number of significant discoveries, including the addition of at least two species (Calandra Lark and Eurasian Greenfinch, and possibly White-rumped Swift) to the China list, and added significant updates on the range and status on a number of provincial and national rarities. Our total for the trip was 230 species.
Many of Xinjiang's specialities are Western Palearctic and Eurasian birds at the easternmost limit of their range, many of which are only found in the north and west of the province. These include species such as Little Bittern, Fieldfare, Red-backed Shrike, Yellowhammer, Western Marsh Harrier, Bee-eater and Capercaillie. In addition, several species are near- endemics to the province, including Biddulph's and Henderson's Ground Jays, Blue-capped and Eversmann's Redstarts, and other birds with limited distribution which are probably easier to see here than elsewhere in the world (e.g. White-winged Woodpecker).
Our trip took us from the capital, Urumqi south east to the Turpan Depression, where we stayed at the Institute of Biology Desert Research Station at 72m below sea level. The highlight of the drive through parched stone desert plains and hills was Urumqi's massive wind farm - over a 20km stretch we drove alongside 30 metre high twin blade windmills turning away in the hot dry wind. It looked like a Pink Floyd album cover.
Turpan was a rasping 38 celcius, but eager to begin birding we strolled around the garden, finding a confiding family of Isabelline Shrikes, a Hoopoe, Common Cuckoos in a variety of plumages and a Barred Warbler with mad yellow eyes singing from the top of a poplar. An evening walk in the Botanical Gardens produced Turtle Doves, a Little Owl and what we believe were two singing Olivaceous Warblers. This was our first significant discovery of the trip - there are only two previous records from Xinjiang (although three years on the debate continues) . We enjoyed good views of the birds singing strongly and showing the long, slightly uptilted 'broom handle' bill. Exercising caution we, did not eliminate rama Booted Warbler until the next morning. On the way back to the Research Station a European Nightjar churred once as the gloom gathered.
Next morning an Olivaceous Warbler, between avoiding the murderous attentions of an Isabelline Shrike, sang from a prominent perch. We headed for Bosten Hu, the largest freshwater lake in Xinjiang. During the 350km drive we climbed out of the Turpan Basin through dessicated sandstone gorges and dunes seeing only Yellow-breasted Buntings.
Eventually we emerged onto a high plateau covered with small pebbles and battered tamarisks. This windswept plain proved productive, delivering Desert and Isabelline Wheatears. Our best birds were Long-legged Buzzards, two families of Ravens, Blue Hill Pigeon and four funereus Great Grey Shrikes. The latter are ground nesters, using the burrow of a species of desert rat. Local legend claims the rat and the shrike were cousins as they lived in such close proximity.
Star bird of the drive was a dark and bedraggled immature falcon mooching on a telegraph pole. It was Peregrine-sized, but the black moustachial streaks did not meet on the forecrown, which was the same streaked tawny brown of the rest of the crown, while the lower face was pure white. The two large white rear headlights on the hindcrown almost formed a pale collar. It was moulting out rufous-tinged breast feathers. The upper breast was streaked black with a spattering of spots lower down, giving way to broken barring on the belly and flanks. Its Saker-like jizz in flight and the contrasting grey rump and tail confirmed it as a Barbary Falcon, probably a first summer female, a species unrecorded in Xinjiang away from the western Tian Shan (there are records from Golmud in Qinghai).
After several hours drive we snatched an hour's birding on the NW corner of the lake that evening. It was an area of superb reedbeds and despite the wind and failing light we logged our first Great and Little Bitterns, Red-crested Pochard (RCP), Yellow-legged Gull, Whiskered and Little Terns, Great Reed Warblers and European Reed Warblers (fuscus) - a possible split.
The next day we birded the west end of the lake, seeing two Hobbies, Long-legged Buzzard and Desert Wheatear in the flat dry desert scrub running down to the lake shore, but the giant reed beds were disappointing. We did see a Great Bittern, and roadside pools held Great Egrets, Black-winged Stilts and breeding Black-headed Gulls. Birding some ponds at the edge of the reed bed was extremely productive. Unusually for China there was no sign of hunting, and we enjoyed wonderful views of RCP and Ferruginous Ducks, several Little Bitterns in rampant, pink-billed breeding plumage and heard the dismal booming of Great Bitterns. Common House Martins flashed over the ponds with the Swallows and a Bluethroat singing atop some reeds was giving everything he had - pouring out his song and flashing his blue and red target of a breast like a police car in hot pursuit.
Also bouncing about in the reeds were several Bearded Reedlings and two Paddyfield Warbler families. The latter were seriously skulking, but when seen looked as much like prinias as only long-tailed skinny accros (and prinias) can. Top tick was a reeling Savi's Warbler, picked out by Jim on a distant reed. Tape playback brought it closer, where it misbehaved atrociously, crawling about in the bottom of the reeds and giving nothing away. The dunes to the south of the lake gave only Asian Short-toed Lark and an appreciation of how little time you need to spend in the desert before you start dreaming about aircons and long, cool ice-filled drinks.
Leaving the lake we stayed in Korla, our entry point into the Tarim Basin and the nearest town to Lop Nur – China's nuclear weapons playground. Our target the next day was Puhui, an oasis and farming district on the desert fringes in the Tarim river valley. On the way we found our first major target bird – Biddulph's Gound Jay. A family of five were bouncing about on some dunes, giving us fabulous views. Their jizz, as they hop and bound around, clearly full of curiosity, is halfway between Eurasian Jay and Hoopoe. When feeding they jab their decurved bills furiously into the sand, under twigs and into tussocks, with all the unrestrained vigour of a customs official rooting in a drug runner's washbag. Eventually they flapped away on piebald wings and shouted from the top of a Desert Poplar until we left them alone.
Puhui is an agricultural area carved out of poor quality saltmarsh. We picked up singing Red-headed Buntings, numerous Desert Lesser Whitethroats, Eurasian Stock Dove, and Booted Warbler. But our best birds of the morning session were a party of six flyover Pallas' Sandgrouse and a couple of soaring Black Storks. After lunch we hit the reservoir and immediately struck gold when a pale phase Booted Eagle soared over. A very small, compact eagle, it flew just above the poplars allowing excellent views of the bright white 'headlights' on the top of the shoulder. The same woodland held a Chinese Hill Warbler - a bird which is clearly closer to the babblers than any warbler, Barred Warblers, looking massive at close quarters, and two soaring Black Storks. A Little Bittern flushed from the edge of the reservoir, and Richard found three White-winged Woodpeckers. The wing patch is massive, making them very distinctive, even 100 yards away. Fast running out of time we went in search of the saline pool and found our only Black-necked Grebes of the trip - five birds wafting about in the heat haze. The same pool also held Great Crested Grebe, Ruddy Shelduck and moulting Black-headed Gulls doing a fair imitation of Brown-headed Gull.
A monster 600 km drive took us across the Taklamakan, the world's second-largest and most treacherous desert. A relatively unexciting trip birdwise, but the scenery as we drove through the Desert Poplars, across the Tarim River and into the dunes was awe-inspiring. The unreality of the place was added to by the roadside cafes every hundred km or so. Without exception they looked like a Mad Max set. Either shanties of corrugated iron or concrete blockhouse compounds, they were bestrewn with the corpses of trucks, cars and other unidentifiable machinery which had died in the desert.
Entering one of these places didn't alter this impression. You had to push through a thick plastic curtain which kept in the aircon, for the privilege of being stared at by truckers who looked as if they wouldn't think twice about biting your arm off if the joint was out of fresh meat. The NBA finals on TV did nothing to dispel the weirdness. Nor did the orange-jacketed road maintenance crews whose job it was to sweep sand off the road. They were spread down both sides, wafting at the tendrils curling across the tarmac. The guys sweeping downwind seemed to do OK, but the ones sweeping into the wind must have had a wonderful insight into pointlessness, as half of each sweeping blew straight back onto the road again.
After a surprisingly good lunch we added a few more birds to the morning tally of Saxaul Sparrow, Long-legged Buzzard, Biddulph's Ground Jay, and Black Kite. They all came in some meadows just outside Minfeng. The best were three powder-blue European Rollers, including one on wires right by the road. Other goodies included Black Stork, a singing Bluethroat and breeding Redshanks. Arriving in Minfeng we picked up Laughing Dove and Spanish Sparrow in the first row of Poplars. A family party of Desert Finches was scrabbling around in the garden of the hotel. Too tired to look for mythical birds we left Vaurie's Nightjar for the next generation and went to bed.
The next day we headed into the foothills of the Kunlun Shan. A drive over 'gebi' desert proved a big winner as we found a family of Henderson's Ground Jays using a PLA monument as a lookout. Seeing us, they hopped and skittered across the desert and disappeared into a flood channel. Pursuing them on foot we saw the black tail, darker wings and lack of a black throat which differentiate them from Biddulph's. We stopped twice, once finding a gang of Common Rosefinches having a singing competition in the trees surrounding a tiny patchwork of fields, and the second time collecting the second record of Long-tailed Shrike for Xinjiang.
Our destination was a grassland research station which boasted its own rainmaking artillery piece. Looking up from here we could see snow-capped peaks to the south, stretching in a chain for over 100km. Behind us the Taklamakan spread away to the horizon. Top birds here were a Lammergeyer, which flew by a few metres away, a party of Brown Accentors, several White-winged Snowfinches and several Chukars. We failed to pick out a Tibetan Snowcock amongst the snowy peaks and had to return early to precede the afternoon rush of meltwater which daily turns the gentle river we forded that morning into a seething, uncrossable torrent.
The next day we headed back north, starting out from Minfeng in a serious sandstorm. I've never associated sandstorms and safe desert crossings as the snuggest of bedfellows, but Mr Li was ready and waiting for the off at 7 am, so away we went. Once we left the oasis and were on the desert road this feeling grew, as visibility became an entirely hypothetical issue. However within 15 minutes the sandstorm stopped.
After that the drive back was uneventful - Nobody had limbs bitten off at Mad Max's, and we noted an excellent 24 Biddulph's Ground Jays in a 40km stretch south of the Tarim River. An extra bonus was a group of Pallas' Sandgrouse which allowed us to watch them stroll gently about, before disappearing behind the Tamarisks. We also had three more Black Storks and two Great Grey Shrikes. When we pulled into Kuche we had covered a whopping 710 km.
The next day we headed for a reservoir close to the Tarim River. Our key targets were White-tailed and Pallas' Fish Eagle and we hoped to see breeding Black Storks as Ma Ming had made a world record count in this area a decade earlier. We added breeding Gadwall, Greylag and 43 Black Storks. The highlight was the superb views of four magnificent White-tailed Eagles perched in dead trees around the lake. We also saw a White-winged Woodpecker on a dead tree at the same spot. A small oxbow lake beyond the reservoir held over a hundred RCPs, while on the shores of this lake we had brief views of the endemic Tarim Basin Hare.
By first light we had left Kuche and the Tarim Basin and were climbing steadily between sharply jutting crags of rock. We emerged onto a stony plateau and almost immediately began seeing raptors, including Long-legged Buzzard, Kestrel and Hobby, topped by our first Lesser Kestrels sitting on wires by the road. An hour later we entered a valley with rich vegetation and agriculture lining the banks of the river - a stark contrast to the bare cliffs and crags. We flushed a male Pied Wheatear and an immature Rock Sparrow from the roadside.
Stopping for breakfast in a small town our first Azure Tit appeared in a tree next to the restaurant. As we began to climb the starkness of the desert was replaced with scrubby slopes and large trees and shrubs growing in the valley floor. Here we saw our only Rock Buntings, sporting the black headstripes which differentiate it from the similar Godlewski's Bunting and found our first Red-fronted Serins sharing roadside Rowans with several Common Rosefinches. Our first Mistle Thrush appeared atop a distant ridge.
The valley gradually transformed itself into a wide, lush-looking meadow dotted with mature deciduous trees. We locked onto our first Golden Eagle, soaring long-winged and sexy above a distant hilltop. We also added Booted Eagle, a flock of over 100 Plain Mountain Finch, Eurasian Treecreeper, two singing Red- breasted Flycatchers (possibly the first breeding record for China) of the recently split Asian race and a Northern Wheatear family, including three fledged young.
With time pressing on we ascended a steep cliff and were greeted with a small corrie lake of the clearest, chilliest blue imaginable. Reflected in its surface were the crags rising directly above the road. One held one distant speck of a Himalayan Snowcock, much to our joy.
However the view the other way over the lip of the cliff left me awe-struck - a wonderful vista of alpine meadows, fir-clad slopes and snow-capped mountains stretching into the distance - Heidi would have been impressed. Further on we drove alongside a larger lake graced by breeding Ruddy Shelduck and, demonstrating a remarkable adaptability to different habitats, thirteen Black Storks (including at least two immatures) which fed in the shallows at the head of the lake. The rocky tops also held a female Ibex which stared down at us for some time before disappearing behind a crag. A singing Common Redstart was an excellent China bird.
We climbed above the treeline and into the snow, passing through a tunnel at the road's summit of 3,000m. We found four Guldenstat's Redstarts at the pass and enjoyed an hour of fabulous raptor watching as we descended along a gravel road rutted with meltwater runnels. We saw five Golden Eagles, four Lammergeyers and 'Himagrifs', and an odd-looking Black Vulture showing a thin bar on the underwings suggesting 'Eurogrif' until common sense prevailed. We passed through a narrow defile - the Tiger's Mouth - menaced by overhanging rocks cascading meltwater as the river crashed through a narrow gorge 20m below. We emerged into a grassland zone, finding a flock of several hundred Red-billed Choughs with a few Alpine Chough added to keep things interesting. As we rounded a corner an old, knackered- looking wolf loped casually past about ten yards from the vehicle and a Lammergeyer peered at us from less than fifty yards up the hillside - sheer magic!
Further on we found White-winged Snowfinches, Black Vultures, a colony of Pale (Sand) Martins and a Red Fox hunting in the meadows. The plain itself, set at 2,500m was simply stunning. It was forty miles across by at least a hundred long, with snow-capped mountains delineating its boundaries on both sides. It took our first Merlin and a pair of Demoiselle Cranes to compete with such scenery. We pulled into Bayanbruke at dusk and enjoyed England's first World Cup win with a bowl of mutton noodles and some excellent fish from the Kaidu River. Bayanbruke was a real cowboy town - literally - at its the centre for all the livestock trading from the surrounding area. The main square was as windswept, desolate, disreputable and full of weathered (Kazakh) muchachos as any Sergio Leone filmset.
Early next morning we headed for Bayanbruke Swan Lake Nature reserve, making an epic count of 63 Shore Larks and 70 Isabelline Wheatears. We circled a vast wetland area, stopping for distant views of Whooper Swan, Mallard, Common and White-winged Terns, Redshank and distant heat haze-obscured Slavonian Grebes. Ma Ming guided us to a rocky promontory overlooking the reserve. The Kunes River twisted across the valley, inundating large areas of grass and forming pools which stretched for miles either side. Our rise was the first in a line of escarpments which embraced the river as it headed into the distant mountains. Almost all of these crags were raptor roost sites, holding Black and Himalayan Vultures, Long-legged Buzzard and Black Kites. In the river valley we saw parties of Whooper Swans, ultra-elegant Demoiselle and Grey Cranes, Bar-headed Geese with chicks, Pintail and Shoveler. Passerines included a male Rock Thrush, claiming ownership of the lookout post.
Leaving the hilltop we viewed the reserve from an extremely rickety watchtower which had been colonised by Eurasian House Martins. We saw a couple of Black Storks and watched a Red Fox causing havoc as it strolled through the grassland, provoking cacophonous screaming fits from the breeding Redshanks and Lapwings. After this all too short visit we headed north and climbed to just below the snowline, stopping for our first Water Pipits and a couple of Mistle Thrushes. We found our only Himalayan Accentors grotting about in the scrub just above the road. Much better as a birding spectacle were the Himalayan Griffons soaring very close overhead and the Black Stork which coasted over the pass.
Descending into the treeline we shrieked to a stop for a glorious male Eversmann's Redstart - the only bird in the family to show a concolourous red back and breast. It stared at us from the depths of a pine and, as its courage returned, in full view from a dead tree. Five Red-fronted Serin flipped over and a pair of Goldfinches graced a roadside tree. A Northern Sparrowhawk zipped through, but failed to turn dash into dinner. Running out of light we headed into the Kunes River valley, collecting two Crag Martins before arriving at the Avalanche and Glacier Research Station. On the river was the extraordinary grey form of Eurasian Dipper.
The next day, I stayed in bed while the others headed up to the top of the pass to look for Grey-necked Buntings, Blue-capped Redstarts and Black-throated Accentors. Rising a couple of hours later I climbed the slope behind the Research Station. 80m up, a small copse held a Black-throated Accentor. Other birds enjoying the morning sunshine included a couple of pairs of Common Rosefinch, several Common Whitethroats, a Wren, Tree Pipits, and as I hit the top, a male Blackbird. A pair of Goosanders whipped along the river at the bottom of the valley, and a Short Toed Eagle drifted calmly over my head as I crested the ridge.
The ridge was not a ridge but the top of the Kunes River gorge. Beyond the meadows and forest slopes I could see distant mountains, with the hard-lipped edge of the gorge, softened by stands of pines, creating a dramatic rocky contour far above the river. My descent delivered no Hazel Hen or Black Grouse, but I did add Azure Tit, and lower down another Black- throated Accentor singing from a treetop. The pair of Blue-capped Redstarts was more than enough reason to stop and catch my breath - the sole Redstart without a trace of red, they remind me of Magpie Robins! I had only distant views before they decided I was too scary and flipped higher up the slope.
The top of the pass posse had not seen the Accentor, although Himalayan Rubythroat and the first Common Linnet of the trip seemed like pretty good compensation. A key bird here was Black Grouse and we dedicated the afternoon to the fir-clad slopes across the river, although all we got was scratched and battered as we scrabbled up a no path valley. We did see several Blue-capped Restarts and puzzled over dark plumaged Steppe/Long-legged Buzzards. A Whitethroat in a bramble had great fun pretending to be lots of things it quite clearly wasn't.
The next day we left the mountains for a broad valley dominated by cereal fields. The first time we stopped Richard and Jim walked round the back of a village and found several Eurasian Greenfinches (the first documented records for China!) and three Corncrakes!! An excellent riposte to my Short-toed Eagle grip! Hoopoe and Common Rosefinches failed to cheer me, although a male Hen Harrier crossing the road on broad, black-tipped wings and disappearing over some poplars was a wonderful sight.
Stopping again we heard a Corncrake calling in a roadside ditch. To my absolute amazement it crossed the ditch, poked its head up out of the grass to look at us and started crexing away for all it was worth. As this was a bird I was convinced it was just about impossible to see well, enjoying views like this from only a few yards away was fantastic.
Beyond Xinyuan things continued to look up, as we found a colony of Bee-Eaters breeding in a roadside sandcliff. Two Rollers added Mediterranean colour to proceedings. The same stretch of road also yielded Golden Oriole, Olivaceous Warblers, Common Linnet and our first Rosy Starlings, Corn Bunting and Lesser Grey Shrikes - it was frankly mind-boggling!
It got better. A stop by the river delivered a quartering Western Marsh Harrier, Tawny Pipits and a chance to go after Common Quail, which eventually showed themselves, flying away on uniform brown wings - none of the contrasting wing pattern of Japanese Quails. We heard the 'wet my lips' call throughout the day. The same spot delivered a flock of Lesser Kestrels, Grey Heron and Cormorant came up off the river and a bolt of Rosy Starlings shot through.
Moving round a bluff we found a Lesser Kestrel colony wheeling about and perching on the cliffs. A couple of loudly bubbling Cetti's Warblers declined to reveal themselves.
Our attention was drawn to a lark that got up from the roadside. It was obviously bigger than the species we'd already seen, leading us to consider Bimaculated, for which there are very few records for Xinjiang. However the birds showed white trailing edges to the wings, leaving us with Calandra Lark - a first for China! However, examination of a 'Bimaculated Lark' in the Ili Forestry Bureau skin collection showed it to be a misidentified Calandra (the same collection also held 'Oriental' Eurasian Greenfinches). But for me the only contender to Corncrake's crown as bird of the day went to the pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse sitting on the road, allowing us to stop within a few feet and enjoy the most wonderful close views.
Other stops delivered Azure Tit , more Greenfinches, several Wheatears and House Sparrow, and a Yellow Wagtail showing features which closely resembled the Black-headed European race feldegg. We arrived at our hotel, the bizarre, but wonderfully tree-covered Ili Bingguan with plenty of time to collect Turkestan Tit and the Nightingales. Turkestan Tit looked like a longer-tailed Great Tit with a slightly larger white cheek patch. Not a huge thrill but a tick is a tick. The Nightingales were in a class of their own - attenuated brown birds with a long rufous tail, they completely defied my mental image of them (although recent discussions suggest they may be a good split candidate). They were all over the grounds of the hotel, singing with all the beauty for which they are famed - a fitting conclusion to an amazing day.
The next morning Jim and I headed down to the Riverside Park for a couple of hours. Fortunately the birds made up for the general scunginess of the area. These included 10 Little Bitterns, a single 'Boomer' and five Water Rails; the latter scuttled around in the reeds before emerging to show well. A snipe on a post declined specific identification, but compensation soon appeared as a pair of Oystercatchers flew over, calling to attract our attention. Also in the air were Common and Little Terns and a Great Black-headed Gull. The passerines were impressive, headed by four singing Savi's Warblers showing none of the shyness of the Bosten birds. Two male Bluethroats sang from prominent perches. Barred and Great Reed Warblers and Turkestan Tits provided support.
We returned to the hotel and had a final go at the Nightingales before spending a couple of hours with the skin collection at the Forest Bureau Offices. Many of the birds in the extensive collection were very well prepared, although a number were mislabelled. We headed north towards Sayram Hu in search of Grey-necked Buntings and Himalayan Snowcocks. Stopping just before the lake we picked up Pine Bunting and Rock Bunting singing in the tops of adjacent pine trees, and a Peregrine which soared around for a while before folding away its wings and dropping like a stone to strafe a Kestrel in the top of a fir.
Sadly short of time we passed up the chance to explore the peaks around Sayram Hu in search of Himalayan Snowcocks, but did stop at a rocky cliff to find a Grey-necked Bunting, which obliged by a) being there, b) singing out for Jim to hear it and c) revealing itself. It is similar to Ortolan, but with whitish rather than yellow moustachial stripes and a greyer mantle.
We also found a dead black and white Wheatear, which resembles no illustrated bird. The tail was similar to Pied Wheatear with a thin cross bar to the T. The wings crown and face were black with a thin, but distinct white forecrown. The throat was (I think - the only feature I didn't note) black, and the white of the breast formed a Stonechat-like half collar the sides of the neck. There was a faint peachy suffusion on the breast. The legs, feet and bill were fine and black. Ideas? Answers on a postcard. We stayed our first night in Dzungaria in Jinghe.
The next day we drove across the Junggar Desert to Karamy oiltown. So desolate is Karamy that the locals have a song about it – 'I don't want to go to Karamy, There is no water, there is no grass, and there are no birds to see'. The song aside, entertainment was provided by a few Bee-eaters and a Great Grey Shrike, but was unspectacular until we arrived and quickly found the reservoir where Harvey had claimed China's first Marbled Teals 12 years earlier. We didn't see them. We did see White-winged Tern, Caspian Tern, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt (including several oiled birds) Redshank, Lapwing, LRP, KP, Green Sandpiper, Gadwall, Great Crested Grebe and melanogrisea and simillima-type Yellow Wagtails.
The next day we added Greater Sandplover and Hobby at the reservoir before trying a couple more pools, one of which held good numbers of Garganey, Green-winged Teal, Pintail and Wigeon, as well as Bearded Reedlings. The other delivered our best bird for Karamy - a wonderful Black Tern standing a little aloof from the White-winged Terns on the same pool. It has no white on the shoulder of the wing and both the upper and underwing is uniformly dark grey, totally lacking the black/white contrast of the other. A rare bird in China.
The drive to Ulungur Hu took us through some dramatic wind-carved red sandstone, looking like something out of Death Valley, but in pink, and not so big. We climbed onto another gebi plain which produced Red-headed Bunting, Mallard, Goosander, a Great Bittern, roadside Long-legged Buzzards, Shore and Crested Larks, and three Great Grey Shrikes.
Ulungur Hu seemed to be living in its own wind tunnel - it was much too windy for Mute Swans or Pelicans to be in view, so we took solace from a Western Marsh Harrier defying the wind and three Oystercatchers feeding on the lakeshore. We also had distant views of Pallas' Sandgrouse as we left the lake. The wind had not abated the next morning so we headed for the Altai Shan. Beyond Burqin we crossed a bright green water meadow graced by almost 80 piebald White-winged Terns - an incredibly beautiful sight and one of my personal highlights of the trip. Other birds included two pairs of Demoiselles and a pair of Eurasian Curlews.
Eventually we left the plains for the foothills of the Altai Shan. Climbing a rutted track through juniper scrub we passed a family moving all its earthly goods on the backs of a couple of camels. On the tops we started to see birds. Imperial Eagle was certainly a surprise while other new birds included our first Ortolan Buntings, clearly showing yellow moustachial stripes, and a surprise Wryneck perching on the graves in a Muslim cemetery. Climbing higher we entered mixed forest and grassland meadows. We walked up the side of a hill and found Pine Bunting singing, a flyover Goshawk, and several Dark-throated Thrushes.
A mystery phyllosc with an extraordinary rufous-tinged rump and tail, resembled sindianus without being fully convincing. A Chiffchaff type, but with a pale eyering on close views, fine super. and eyestripe in a large head. The ground colour was flat grey-brown. The underparts were a pale shade of the same hue, with a buffy suffusion on the breast, demarcating a whiter throat. The bill and legs were fine and black. It had a distinctive trisyllabic 'si-su-see' call.
Further on we found a monochrome Bullfinch, Spotted Flycatcher, Black Redstart, and in a flock of swifts several birds closely resembling White-rumped Swifts A. caffer. While the size and diagnostic features fit caffer well, the huge distance from its known distribution count strongly against it. Another potential first record for China. We eventually arrived at Kanas Lake after driving through what looked like a very good birch wood. The camp overlooked a spot where the river had expanded to fill the entire valley. All around were forested hillsides. I enjoyed views of Pine Buntings and singing Ortolans, Willow Tit and numerous Black Kites.
We got hit with our first bad weather next morning. The lake, however held Pochard, Tufty, Goosander and Goldeneye, while the woods held Crossbill - my oldest and worst bogey bird! It was superb to end 15 years of crossbilllessness with a pair sat in a fir tree, and a very large male pretending to be a Pine Grosbeak until we scoped it and cut it back down to size.
The drive over to Bei Haba through excellent ungrazed meadows and grassland was superb - with a mass of yellow, purple and orange flowers poking out of the calf high grass it looked like a pointillist painting. Top birds here were Meadow Pipit, and a stack of Ortolans. As we cleared the highest pass to Bei Haba we came across logging in what must be the remnants of decent forest in the area - a depressing sight. We were cheered by a pair of Bullfinches, and as we arrived at Bei Haba, a Long-tailed Tit family, several Chaffinches and Eurasian Nuthatch.
Before descending we spent time in good meadowland, digging out calling Quail, a trio of Yellowhammers, and a couple of fantastic Red-backed Shrikes, complete with rufous backs, grey caps and black and white tails. The area held singing Booted Warblers, a cettia which can only have been Cetti's, a single Lesser Whitethroat and our only dark phase Booted Eagle. At Terek we searched the mature trees on the river, finding several Fieldfare and a Song Thrush, as well as four more Spotted Flycatchers. We heard Corncrake and Quail calling just above the town.
The next morning we spent a productive, but mosquito-infested three hours at Haba He nailing Pallas' Grasshopper Warbler singing from a streamside willow, a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers (showing an exceptional amount of white on the back and wings, and a completely unstreaked or spotted breast), lots of Fieldfares, Common Sandpipers, Azure Tits, a pair of Oystercatchers and a fine Bluethroat. Richard's single Penduline Tit rounded us out nicely.
About an hour outside the town we came across a series of marshes interspersed with sand dunes. Passing a large marsh I thought I saw a Harrier and we stopped to look for it. Jim got onto a lovely male Montagu's. It showed the black-tipped wings with a distinct 'hand', the narrow dark bar on the secondaries, and much slimmer wings than Hen Harrier.
We were still enjoying that when we latched onto another Harrier flying towards us. It was carrying a Redshank chick and as it came closer we realised that it was extremely pale, with no sign of a grey hood - Pallid Harrier! Its wings were even slimmer, almost sickle-like, with a narrow wedge of black on the primaries and no sign of the Monty's 'hand'. It got to 30 yards before veering off to sit on a dune and stare at us. Cosmic!
Other good birds were a family of Bearded Reedlings, two singing Savi's Warblers, four Black-bellied Sandgrouse and a Water Rail. More significant were three pallidirostris Grey Shrikes perched on wires near Ulungur Hu. They were extremely washed out birds with very pale faces, and bills and brownish coverts. At Ulungur Hu we picked out Western Marsh Harrier and Mute Swan amongst the reeds on the lower lake. Jim showed flair, finding a lustily singing Blyth's Reed Warbler.
The next day we moved East along the Erxis river, making only one significant sighting - a female Smew with five ducklings, the first breeding record for Xinjiang - in a roadside ditch! As we crossed the open steppe we saw a Steppe Eagle, which turned out to be the first of 30 in the next 100km. In addition, we saw 97 Black Kites, our only Saker of the trip, a pair of Merlins and 43 Long-legged Buzzards. There must have been an explosion in the local rodent population to have brought out so many raptors. We also saw a single male Pallid Harrier. After we stopped for lunch at the Ulungur River we saw no more raptors until Qitai.
We did stop once in the sandiest desert to look for Jim's nana. We found her - Sylvia nana - Desert Warbler straight away, wrapping up all the sylvias in China with this impressive yellow-brown bird. It obliged us by sitting in a bush in a tiny patch of shade, showing its yellow iris and rufous wings as it squatted with its wing held out, panting in the heat. Qitai had a big colony of swifts, and more importantly, cold beer and good food.
The next day was our only (distant) chance for Houbara Bustard. This was going fine until a bit decided to fall off the Nissan and we waited for an hour for Mr Li to make the necessary repairs. Eventually we set off across the grasslands, searching desperately for likely-looking blobs on legs. After about 10 km we astounded ourselves by finding one! It was at least 400 yards away and through the heat haze we could just about make out that it was a Bustard, and to our surprise and slight disappointment we agreed that it was a Great Bustard - a bird we had all seen well before. We decided to try to get closer in the Nissan. Cresting the lip of the valley we spotted the long grey neck riding like a pennant above the massive autumn brown body of our Great Bustard. At 80 yards the view was still affected by the heat haze. Whilst we were looking Jim asked: “What's that next to it?”
To our incredulous delight “that” was a Houbara Bustard (sub?species macqueeni), wandering around within the same scope view the Great Bustard! Over about twenty minutes we were able to approach to within twenty yards of this fabulous pair without alarming them and had the most stupendous scope-filling views as they walked calmly about in front of us. At one stage the Great Bustard sank to the ground and uttered a very gentle 'hoo' call note several times. We agreed that it was a non-breeding or post-breeding male as it lacked the white display plumes. We thought the same of the Houbara; although it had ruffled black and white feathers on the neck, these were not as luxuriant as a male in its prime. Having enjoyed them at this range for about twenty minutes we left them, although the Houbara flew off as we departed, giving us very good views of the bold black and white wing pattern.
With the exception of a record day count of 17 Hoopoes on the way back to Urumqi, this was an amazing finale, and left me with a wonderful closing image from a remarkable trip.