Wednesday 18th May 2016: Baxi
Off the plateau: we went over the edge today and into the valleys to the east of the high plateau:
A cold start, -4℃ with a frost, but a beautiful clear morning to be up in the high alpine pastures. We spent the first half hour scanning the slopes for Blue-eared Pheasants, eventually picking out 4 distant birds high on the slope to the right:
Then it was into the woods. Slaty-backed Flycatchers sang from the tree tops, but it was the phylloscopus warblers that caught my eye (again). Greenish Warblers were common:
The local Hume’s Warblers seemed to prefer the pines:
Small numbers of exceedingly smart, but exceedingly shy, Maroon-backed Accentors were present:
We then moved up the slopes. It was a pleasure to get away from the constant stream of traffic and trucks on the roads and be in woodland in spring with birdsong the only sound. The sunshine only added to our contentment.
The dry rattle of calling Himalayan Bluetails was constantly heard, a Sparrowhawk and a Himalayan Buzzard soared overhead. Bianchi’s Warbler, one of the Golden-spectacled Warbler splits and Grey-headed Bullfinches flitted about, whilst a pair of Blood Pheasants scuttled up the mossy slopes:
An early contender for bird of the day was a fabulous male White-bellied Redstart, a vision of blue, white and red singing in sunlight at eye-level:
Further excitement came in the form of one of our shy targets, a Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush which showed briefly through dense vegetation. A stunning male Three-banded Rosefinch performed slightly better:
Working our way further from the road in dense pine forest we first heard and then caught a glimpse of a Long-tailed Thrush feeding on the ground. Pausing by a small glade, we experience our first great bird moment of the day. Ian picks up a movement as an all dark bird drops down from the pine branches – Sichuan Jay! Another bird drops down to join it and we settle down to watch these exquisite birds feeding on the ground at close range. There is something quite special about these subtle forest Jays. The fact that they are pretty difficult to see just adds to their allure:
Having had a successful morning in the forest, we head back to road and descend into the nearest town, looking for food:
We found a restaurant in town for lunch and ate our noodles looking at Communist propaganda, a huge picture of The Long March:
The Tibetan Plateau is part of the story of the Long March. The March was effectively a retreat by the Red Army in 1934. Having avoided a rout in south central China, a force of 87,000 marched back into northern China, via the Tibetan plateau, fleeing from the Chinese nationalist army. It is a little known fact in China that only 10,000 troops actually completed the March but, as history is written by the winners, the Long March has been used as Chinese propaganda ever since: “If you find it hard, think of the Long March; if you feel tired, think of our revolutionary forbears“1. Mao Zedong was one of the commanders on the Long March. He became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, rose to become Communist Party Chairperson and effectively ruled China between 1949 and 1976, becoming one of the most influential and controversial men in human history. The Tibetan plateau may contribute to part of the story of modern China, but the relationship between Tibet and China is far from simple and far from peaceful.
In 2008, with the world’s eyes on China as it hosted the Olympic Games, widespread discontent in Tibet led to violent protests. As a consequence the Chinese state has actively attempted to develop Tibet in an attempt to increase control over the Tibetan Autonomous Region. There has been huge investment in infrastructure and traditionally nomadic Tibetans are being housed in new towns – having an address allows state registration, and thus state control, to occur. The Chinese state political message is also very visible. Yesterday, up on top of the Tibetan plateau, we turned a corner and were greeted by an advert so large it would dwarf the Angel of the North:
This advert is simply enormous. The large articulated truck on the road looks like a toy by comparison. It is inconceivable that a western government would permit an advert of this size in a national nature reserve (a term that has precious little merit in China, but more of that later). What was even more astounding was that, according to Roland’s translation, this is an advert for the Communist Party, reading something along the lines of “Hold strong in your support for Project 355”.
It was grimly fascinating to reflect on the multitude of ways a state can attempt to influence another culture. Tourism is being used a state weapon: Tibetan culture is sold to Chinese tourists, whereupon the Tibetans become dependent on Chinese expenditure. China also has a long history of extending influence through infrastructure developments (see East Africa for example). Virtually every road that we traveled along on the Tibetan plateau was either new or being rebuilt. The roadworks could last for hours. Not that the roads lasted. Roland noted that in his experience of visiting this area over the last 15 years, a newly tarmacked road would last about 3 years before it had to be resurfaced again. This meant that most of our road-side birding was accompanied by the sound of trucks thundering by, and as is the tradition all over China, every single driver sounds their horn just to let you know that they are passing. After a while the constant thunder of vehicles and horns begins to grate. Roland once, memorably, lost it completely with a loud and incessant honker and ran into the road shouting and swearing at the driver in Chinese. The driver just honked back, louder and longer.
After lunch we continued heading east, gaining height as we went. We found Yellow-streaked Warblers in river-side bushes, the Raddes’s Warbler look-alike:
Another stop produced a secretive pair of White-winged Grosbeaks. We eventually got views of these cracking big-billed beasts:
This stop also produced one of my favourite pictures of the trip. Roland was busy impersonating a Collared Owlet and his calls attracted this inquisitive White-browed Tit Warbler, which just popped up for a moment right next to my right shoulder, a bundle of purple and orange:
We found Tibetan Siskin further along the road, male and female…
.. and another nice male White-throated Redstart:
The day ended in the high pine forests near the treeline:
We had been looking out for Chinese Grouse in the pine forests this morning, but never got more successful than hearing a couple of wing-flaps from deep within the forest. Our second chance for this much wanted species came in the late afternoon. We quietly picked our way down a forest track to an open area. Scanning the paths we initially saw nothing. Modesty forbids me to mention who it was who found the female Chinese Grouse quietly standing by the side of the track. But it was me. “Chinese Grouse on the track!” I whisper, unable to conceal my excitement. And so there was:
But only briefly. Within a few seconds it had walked quietly into vegetation and disappeared. Then one of those lovely moments that stays with you. We were just about to celebrate finally getting good looks at a great bird after a reasonable amount of work, when another Chinese Ground saunters out onto the track from the right. And it is a devastatingly good looking male:
We tried to take pictures, but if the late afternoon low light levels in the pine forest were not enough to contend with, we had just added a healthy dose of camera shake as this gorgeous male strutted his stuff, peaking our adrenaline levels. The red wattle above the eye and the all black throat may have evolved to attract female Chinese Grouse, but they had a pretty dramatic effect on us too! But, high on adrenaline, we finish the day with a disappointing miss: Sichuan Wood Owl. We spend the last two hours of light in the forest but don’t hear or see anything of our Owl. This bird was seen before and after our visit, so presumably just a case of pure bad luck. Perhaps it fancied a quiet night in? The climb back up to the car, in the dark and at that altitude, was lung-busting. The only good thing about the 90 minute drive back to Zoige along a horrendous road, was that the potholes kept Roland, our driver awake. Having ended the day without seeing the owl, we hoped for something special tomorrow.
Next: Siberian Rubythroat.
1 Adams, Martin. “Long March to mythology.” Asia Times, 2006.