China 9: Tibetan plateau, day 3

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:Baxi text

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:
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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:TomBedford.20160518.2494-1

The local Hume’s Warblers seemed to prefer the pines:
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Small numbers of exceedingly smart, but exceedingly shy, Maroon-backed Accentors were present:TomBedford.20160518.2388-1

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. TomBedford.20160518.2434-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2506-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2460-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2421-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2539-1

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Having had a successful morning in the forest, we head back to road and descend into the nearest town, looking for food:TomBedford.20160518.9790-1

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We found a restaurant in town for lunch and ate our noodles looking at Communist propaganda, a huge picture of The Long March:TomBedford.20160518.9795-1

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 forbears1. 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:TomBedford.20160519.2740-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2611-1

Another stop produced a secretive pair of White-winged Grosbeaks. We eventually got views of these cracking big-billed beasts:TomBedford.20160518.2641-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2644-2

We found Tibetan Siskin further along the road, male and female… TomBedford.20160518.2665-1

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.. and another nice male White-throated Redstart:TomBedford.20160518.2691

The day ended in the high pine forests near the treeline:TomBedford.20160518.9819-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2702-1

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:TomBedford.20160518.2711-1

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.

China 8: Tibetan Plateau day 2

Tuesday 17th May 2016

Our first full day on the Tibetan plateau and it fully lived up to expectations. We left Hongyuan (3507m) and spent the day birding from the car as we headed north across the gently undulating plains of the plateau, to our accommodation in Zoige:Hongyuan to Zoige text

We began at first light with an unsuccessful search for Eagle Owl in a the local quarries. The smart red local Black Redstarts and Azure-winged Magpies present by the road were the only birds of note:TomBedford.20160517.1650-1

Having spent nearly a week in mountain forests, it was nice to be out in the open again. We passed a medium sized river which held Barn Swallows and a Sand Martin, plus Little and Cattle Egrets, Brown-headed Gulls and Ferrunginous Ducks:TomBedford.20160517.1659-1

We continued north, when suddenly a simply enormous eagle swept across the road, right in front of the car. I got a quick through-the-windscreen picture of this immature bird… TomBedford.20160517.1661-1

… but by the time the we had stopped and jumped out of the vehicle the bird was well over 1 km away. We puzzled over the identification of this bird, assuming it must be an Eastern Imperial Eagle {1}. Then another, smaller, raptor joined it, a falcon, a Saker. In fact a pair of Sakers, which proceeded to take turns dive-bombing the much larger eagle. Although the action was very distant, at several points the eagle flipped upside down to present it’s talons towards the diving falcons. This was magical stuff, in fabulous scenery to boot:TomBedford.20160517.1667-1

An upside down Eagle fending off a diving Saker:TomBedford.20160517.1681-1

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Boosted, we continued north, enjoying the scenery of the plateau:TomBedford.20160517.1710-1

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Further road-side birds included Oriental Skylark…TomBedford.20160517.1696-1

… and Blyth’s Pipit:TomBedford.20160517.1727-1

But the most surprising sight was on the road itself. Suddenly we noticed a human body lying face down on the road. As we approached I was relieved to see the man get up (demonstrating it was not a corpse), stretch his arms above his head, take three paces forward and then lie face down again:TomBedford.20160517.1753-1

We realised we were watching a solitary Tibetan pilgrim. There are a number of forms of Buddhist pilgrimage, but we were witnessing the most arduous: prostration pilgrimage.TomBedford.20160517.1754-1

In gyangchag, full body prostration, one prostrates oneself to help purify human delusion, negativity and bad karma. It shows reverence for the Triple Gem, the three core concepts of Buddhism: the Buddha (the highest state of consciousness achievable); the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Sangha (the enlightened community). Each prostration involves the hands and elbows, then the toes and knees and then finally the forehead being placed in contact with the floor. Or in this case in the roadworks. Then one stands, takes three paces forwards and repeats the process. The physical challenge of lying down flat and then standing up every three paces is enormous. The pilgrim, above, has protective clothing over his knees, hands and forehead. Some pilgrims cover thousands of kms in this fashion, their journey, understandably, taking years. This made me reflect that, as we had seen in our first hotel in Dujiangyan, whilst the Chinese were obsessed with the “lucky” number 8 (to the extent that the Beijing Olympics began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds after 8:08pm) Tibetan culture revolves around the number 3. No wonder they can’t commensurate their differences.

Leaving the pilgrim to continue his repeating pattern of movement, we climbed into a small side valley and saw more raptors. Firstly, Upland Buzzard:TomBedford.20160517.1793-1

Secondly, a small group of Himalayan Griffon Vultures that had descended to feed on a huge pile of Yak corpses by the side of the road:TomBedford.20160517.1802-1

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We then began searching this area of gently sloping hills for passerines:TomBedford.20160517.1806-1

Our target was a taxonomic oddity. It’s names over the years reflect the fact that these birds appear somewhere between a Bunting and Rosefinch and have long, pink tails. They have been called Pink-tailed Buntings, but have also been classed as Pink-tailed Rosefinch. Some also call them Long-tailed Rosefinch and/or Bunting. The modern preference is for Przewalski’s Finch. But then some say Przewalski’s Rosefinch. Only one thing is certain. They are one pink, long-tailed bird and we enjoyed seeing them: TomBedford.20160517.1848-1

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Other breeding birds of the upland slopes of the Tibetan Plateau included Tibetan Partridge…TomBedford.20160517.1888-1-2

 … Robin Accentor and perhaps the least satisfactory view possible of a Tibetan Snowfinch. This Himalayan Marmot only posed briefly outside of it’s burrow:TomBedford.20160517.1904-1

We also enjoyed seeing Hume’s Ground Tit. This is a charismatic bird that has had as many names as Przewalski’s Finch. The definitive Oriental Bird Images lists the English synonyms used for this bird: “Hume’s Groundpecker, Hume’s Ground Pecker, Hume’s Ground-pecker, Hume’s Ground Jay, Hume’s Ground-jay, Hume’s Groundjay, Brown Ground Jay, Hume’s Ground Chough, Hume’s Ground-chough, Brown Ground-chough, Tibetan Ground Jay, Tibetan Groundjay, Tibetan Ground-jay, Little Ground Jay, Little Groundjay, Little Ground-jay, Ground-tit, Tibetan Ground Tit, Tibetan Groundpecker”. From these descriptions you could get the idea that this bird is somewhere between a Chough and a Jay. In fact it is small and Ground Tit works much better:TomBedford.20160517.1916-1

Forgetting that I was at over 3500m altitude, I ran 100m up a 45 degree slope to catch up with this feeding bird. By the time I got there my heart was beating so fast and powerfully that I could feel each deafening heartbeat pounding throughout my whole body,  jolting my arms, shaking the camera. I have never before photographed a bird while being so breathless: TomBedford.20160517.1942-1

We continued heading north, stopping every so often to scan for birds or at known sites. This monster is a Tibetan Lark, the largest lark on the planet:TomBedford.20160517.2030-1

And I finally achieved the sort of views of a Tibetan Wagtail that I had previously only dreamed about:TomBedford.20160517.1972-1

Late afternoon found us north of Zoige in fabulous scenery and wonderful light:TomBedford.20160517.9767-1

Attentive readers will have noticed how closely cropped the grass is here. Some of this is due to Yaks, though not all of them make it:TomBedford.20160517.2138-1

This high altitude short grass is perfect for snowfinches. Most common, though unapproachable, were White-rumped Snowfinch:TomBedford.20160517.2163-1

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There were smaller numbers of Rufous-necked Snowfinch, our third snowfinch species of the day:TomBedford.20160517.2152-1

The occasional pair of Black-necked Crane graced the plateau backdrop:TomBedford.20160517.2194-1

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Apart from Yaks, another herbivore feeds on the grass, Black-lipped Pika. My notebook records “Black-lipped Pika – perhaps a million!”. The entire surface of the grass, right across the plateau, was teeming with these small mammals, popping up from burrows all around us:TomBedford.20160517.2126-1

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Such a vast supply of protein is not going to go unnoticed. There were Saker falcons here too:TomBedford.20160517.2254-1

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The local Upland Buzzards were not adverse to a Pika meal:TomBedford.20160517.2329-1

We ended the day with dinner at a roadside restaurant. Outside a group of Chinese men approached us, keen to see our phones. We brought them out and they delighted in seeing roman characters in our texts. I was even more impressed to see the Chinese characters on their phones. In English we have a choice of 26 letters from which to text. In Chinese you need to know between 2,000 and 3,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper, there are over 50,000 characters in total. How do you fit that number onto a keyboard on a smartphone? As we waited outside Roland noticed a Horned Lark fly in to land on the edge of the car park. Even better it walked right up to us:TomBedford.20160517.2296-1

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It eventually strolled right past the end of my camera lens hood and nibbled on a piece of bread a couple of metres from my right shoulder, before calling and flying off across the road. A remarkable close encounter, with one of my favourite birds.

{1} November 2016: Thanks to the wonder of the internet, Pierre, a Netherlands-based birder has put us straight on the identification of this immature eagle. This is a juvenile Pallas’s Fish Eagle, that dark mask is apparently diagnostic. Thank you Mr Pierre, our China list has just got better!

Next: a fabulous day in the forest edges of the Tibetan plateau.

China 7: Tibetan Plateau, day 1

Monday 16th May 2016

The Tibetan Plateau is vast. Stretching from western China, through Nepal into northern India it reaches Pakistan and Tajikistan in the east. It covers some 2.5 million km2, an area five times the size of France. It is the highest and largest plateau on Earth, having an average elevation of 4500m (nearly 15,000ft). It is the third largest store of ice on the planet, after Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean and is sometimes referred to as the Third Pole for this very reason. The graphic below shows land elevation over 1600m, which picks out the area of the plateau nicely:1200px-Tibet_and_surrounding_areas_topographic_map

 (Copyright the author of the work and GLOBE and ETOPO1 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

We visited the eastern edge of the plateau (around Hongyuan) an area of flat grassland surrounded by rolling hills. Much of the plateau is too arid to support grassland, with an average precipitation of only between 100-300mm,  most of which, surprisingly, falls as hailstones. The area we visited was around 3500m above sea level. Having spent a few days ranging between 2000m and 4500m, we did not suffer symptoms of altitude sickness, even though we were sleeping higher than we had ever slept before.Barkam to Hongyuan text

Our day began with a drive north from Barkam, the road following a river valley east before we turned north to head for the plateau. This was a small river valley, with deciduous trees on the valley floor and conifers on the sloping valley sides. Even here, in a relatively remote area, human development was everywhere and increasing at alarming rates. All the major rivers have hydro-plants in China, an attempt to meet the spiraling energy demands of a rapidly growing population. This reduces the flow of water downstream. Even though the road we were on looked good, the valley we were driving up was about to get a brand new freeeway. Huge pairs of concrete pillars had been built along the valley, often in the river itself. They were awaiting the road surface which would take traffic high above the water. It was hard not to feel pessimistic about the environmental impact of this road on the valley. When completed the presence of the road, combined with associated litter that would be thrown from the vehicles, would be very destructive. Obviously the Chinese still believe in “away”. That place where rubbish can be thrown, apparently without consequence. Even when we got above the freeway construction, we turned a corner and came face to face with a scene from industrial hell. The valley was suddenly filled with white and yellow fumes.  A factory belching out smoke, filling the whole valley:TomBedford.20160516.9689-1

 This is not to say that we did not see some good birds. A Spotted Bush Warbler showed well in river-side bushes:TomBedford.20160516.1115

In true Black Redstart-like style, a small electricity compound held a lovely male Hodgson’s Redstart:TomBedford.20160516.1150

We climbed higher, to around 3200m and the valley opened up. We could enjoy ourselves again and began birding in the roadside willows on the edge of the treeline:TomBedford.20160516.1155-1

Eastern Great Tit. A bird with a great latin name: Parus major minor. TomBedford.20160516.1182

There were phylloscopus warblers in the budding willows, Greenish Warbler:TomBedford.20160516.1200

The singing Dusky Warblers were nearly as elusive as the skulking autumn birds we see in the UK:TomBedford.20160516.1166-1

Having seen hundreds, I finally got close to a White-capped Water Redstart. They are stunning birds, velvet black throat, deep orange underparts and a glowing white cap:TomBedford.20160516.1244

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We checked the river sides and found our first Godlewski’s Bunting. 10 White-browed Rosefinches fed in a ploughed field. Sichuan Leaf Warblers sang from the bushes, as did this male Slaty-backed Flycatcher, delicate in orange, grey and white:TomBedford.20160516.1272

I realised I was really enjoying birding outside of the forests. There was no waiting for hours for skulking robins and the light made photography much easier. Just before lunch we stopped at a known Ibisbill site: TomBedford.20160516.1285-1

Unfortunately Chinese development had got there first. The shingle all around the traditional Ibisbill territory had been dredged for building materials. We searched upstream and down but without success. There have probably been Ibisbill nesting in this river valley for thousands of years, ice ages permitting. Now they have gone. To our knowledge no birds have been seen at this site this year.

It was time to cheer ourselves up with food. We had a traditional Chinese lunch, noodles and (Yak?) meat, with Jasmine tea. It has now been a full week since I lasted used a knife and fork, probably my longest period without cutlery since I learnt to use them as a child! TomBedford.20160516.9709-1

These children were playing outside of the restaurant. They have a certain Tibetan look to them:TomBedford.20160516.9703

Post lunch things started off with a bang – a roadside Common Pheasant! Our first truly wild one. The abundance of this species in the UK, due to over 30 million birds per year being released into the wild by the shooting industry, meant that we did not linger long over it. Note the lack of a white neck collar on the Sichuan birds:TomBedford.20160516.1293-1

The willows by the road held more warblers, mostly Hume’s Warblers (below), but with glimpses of birds that looked good for Arctic and Eastern Crowned Warblers. TomBedford.20160516.1342-1

We then climbed up onto the plateau proper, to the treeline:TomBedford.20160516.1371-1

With more open habitat, raptors began to appear. There were lots of distant Himalayan Griffon Vultures, but this juvenile Lammergeier flew right overhead. As it passed I noted that it was the tattiest Lammergeier I have ever seen. On inspection of my pictures I changed my opinion: perhaps it was simply just the luckiest. That hole in the bird’s right wing is the result of a gunshot, not feather moult:TomBedford.20160516.1369-1

A more pristine Black-eared Kite:TomBedford.20160516.1397

There then came two psychedelic bundles of colour. The first, the marvelous White-browed Tit Warbler:TomBedford.20160516.1411-1

The second a hitch-hiking Tibetan monk. We gently refused his request for a lift, as we were not going anywhere quickly. We were then pleased to see him overtake us on the back of a motorbike a few minutes later:TomBedford.20160516.1389

White-browed Tits were charismatic residents at the edge of the treeline:TomBedford.20160516.1469-1

Below,Ian and Roland survey the last of the trees before we drive across the plateau. Here Ian picked out an Oriental White-eye in a flock of Buff-barred Warblers, a ridiculously northern record for such a tropical species. A genuine vagrant or the product of the Chinese tradition of releasing birds for luck? Luck for whom one wonders?TomBedford.20160516.1491

Our first impressions of the Tibetan plateau were of flat grassland, backed by hills. The section of the road nearest the edge has a number of “tea houses”, tents to you and I, where tourists can spend money on tea, horse rides and can photograph the traditional Tibetan bunting (paper, not bird) covered poles.TomBedford.20160516.9726-1

To us, the birds not the bunting, were immediately more eye catching. The grazed turf held large flocks of Red-billed Chough and Daurian Jackdaws:TomBedford.20160516.1511-1

There were Azure-winged Magpies perched in distant bushes, Eurasian Cuckoos and Oriental Skylarks filled the air with song while Black-eared Kites wheeled over feeding Ruddy Shelducks:TomBedford.20160516.1598-1

It was at this point that we were pulled over by an unmarked Chinese police car:TomBedford.20160516.9735-1

Whilst some of us in the car thought that being arrested for photographing Ruddy Shelducks was a clear case of police harassment, I disagreed. You simply never know where those ruddy ducks have come from or have been. Roland’s fluent Chinese reassured the police officers that we were simply mad westerners looking at birds and we were free to continue on our eccentric way. The day ended in late afternoon rain watching Black-necked Cranes and oh, sorry officer, the autofocus has picked out the Ruddy Shelduck again…TomBedford.20160516.1610-1-2

… and quite simply the best wagtail in the world. Some call it Tibetan Wagtail. Some prefer the calcarata subspecies of Citrine Wagtail. It doesn’t matter. It is simply a ball of luminous yellow and black and was fabulous to see:TomBedford.20160516.1559

Next: Eagles, Snowfinches and Accentors on the plateau.

China 6: Balangshān and into Tibet

Sunday 15th May

Balang to Brkham text

Our final morning on Balangshān, before we continue north towards the Tibetan Plateau. The rain has continued overnight and it rains all through the 50 minute drive to the mountain. As we begin to ascend, the temperature drops and the rains turns to snow. By the time we reach the road tunnel it is apparent that it has snowed all night. 8-10cm of fresh snow coats the forest. I have never seen heavy snow on deciduous forest before. But then I have never seen deciduous forest at 3500m before:IMG_4293-1

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We scan the higher slopes to see if we can find a Monal coming down to feed from its roost site. After 30 minutes or so Roland locates a male Monal descending through the snow. Of all the views of Chinese Monal I had anticipated, tobogganing was not one of them:

:

With little other bird activity we descended to check the mid-altitude slopes of Balangshān . I wondered how insectivores survived in such conditions? TomBedford.20160515.9564-Pano

We soon found out – the sky was filled with large flocks of Plain Mountain Finches and Rosy Pipits all descending from higher altitudes. Birds were pouring out of the sky, landing on the roadside and on verges to feed in snow free areas:TomBedford.20160515.0753-1

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Then into this monochrome scene, a  vivid flash of colour: a fabulous male Blue-fronted Redstart perched up close to the road:TomBedford.20160515.0743-1

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We stopped for breakfast, more porridge from the car… TomBedford.20160515.9569-1

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… before driving, for the final time, up and over the pass and down the other side of Balangshān. We rose above the clouds, up to 4500m and then dropped down to head towards Rilongzhen:TomBedford.20160515.9575-1

Birds had clearly descended from the higher slopes down onto this of the mountain too. A large flock of several hundred Brandt’s Mountain Finches fed by the road:TomBedford.20160515.0811-1

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There then followed a procession of great birds, most of which performed nicely for the camera which also benefited from the light reflected off the snow. Male White-throated Redstart:TomBedford.20160515.0855-1

Pink-rumped Rosefinch:TomBedford.20160515.0882-1

Streaked and Pink-rumped Rosefinches:TomBedford.20160515.0890-1

White-browed Rosefinch:TomBedford.20160515.0886-1

And another stunning male White-throated Redstart:TomBedford.20160515.0949-1

A Grey-headed Woodpecker was a surprise, especially as it perched up on a rockface for a while:TomBedford.20160515.0894-1

We then approached Rilongzhen, still high enough to have a dusting of snow, although when the sun broke through the radiation was fierce at this altitude. TomBedford.20160515.1015-1

At Rilongzhen we had an enforced stay of about about an hour as the road was closed for roadworks. There was a large wave of warblers above the village, mostly Alpine Leaf Warblers. Again, it was extraordinary to watch phylloscopus warblers feeding in snow covered bushes, although these high altitude species must be adapted to occasional late falls of snow:TomBedford.20160515.0977-1

Red-billed Chough wheeled overhead, Crossbills were in the pines; warblers were Greenish and Alpine Leaf Warblers and we had our only glimpse of Chinese Babax. A flock of Snow Pigeons glided past, flying like no other pigeon species we had seen. Their effortless, light wingbeats were more reminiscent of gulls. A distant singing  Przevalski’s Nuthatch was a bonus:TomBedford.20160515.1001-1

Once the road was re-opened at midday, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving north and at some unsigned point we enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. We pass through rural villages in the river valley. This small boy is standing next to a cigarette stall:TomBedford.20160515.9602-1

China has a problem with smoking. In particular it has a male smoking epidemic. Women rarely smoke, two thirds of Chinese men do. They currently smoke more and start earlier than ever before. The Lancet reports that during this decade, the 2010s, smoking will cause 20% of all adult male deaths in China.  “China is the world’s largest grower, manufacturer, and consumer of tobacco and has the largest workforce devoted to tobacco farming, manufacturing, and sales. Being a government monopoly, China Tobacco (the Chinese National Tobacco Corporation) provides over 7% of the Central Government’s annual revenue through both taxes and net income“. Local beliefs, including that the Chinese are less susceptible to smoking related cancers and that smoking is an intrinsic part of Chinese culture, do little to help. But then fatalism seems to be part of Chinese life. Below, this truck pulled out in front of us to dump a wrecked car into the lorry on the right of the picture as we passed right underneath it. Only us westerners were screaming:TomBedford.20160515.9610-1

In the late afternoon we reached the Mengbishān pass:TomBedford.20160515.9638-1

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We spent an hour or two searching for Sichuan Jay here, unsuccessfully, but did turn up Crested Tit Warbler and another nice zoothera thrush – Long-tailed Thrush:TomBedford.20160515.1107-1

As the light fades we descend into a beautiful traditional Tibetan village, Choktse. In this disputed region of communist China, prayers were being held at the temple:

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Prayer wheels on the bridge:TomBedford.20160515.9680-1

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The largest town in the region is called Aba, which would have presented endless pun opportunities, but we have arranged to overnight in Barkam instead. Neither sound very Chinese. But then again, the locals would have it that we are no longer in China.

Next: the Tibetan Plateau.

China 5: Balangshān day 2

Saturday 14th May

Another 4am alarm, but this time after a whole 5.5 hours sleep – bliss and I awake feeling human! I immediately wonder if Ian feels the same way after accidentally drinking a litre of contaminated water yesterday. I poke my head around the door and incredibly he reports feeling completely normal. These Australians are clearly a tough species. This is a great start to the day. We head down to the vehicle and are greeted with further good news – there are constellations above us, the skies are clear. It is an upbeat 50 minute drive from our hotel in Wolong up to the road tunnel on Balangshān: we have all had sleep, nobody has been sick and the skies are crystal clear. It is a chilly -4°C but we are all delighted to be able to see something after yesterdays struggle with the fog. As we stand, at around 3500m, waiting for dawn there is a palpable sense of anticipation. However, our first sighting of the day is not a bird but a Chinese mammal: TomBedford.20160514.0200-1

A Chinese Goral. An interesting ungulate, a mixture of antelope and goat. But things quickly get much better as Ian locates a male Chinese Monal, our main target this morning, perched on a rocky outcrop next to the old road that runs around the tunnel. Our first instinct is the right one, to admire this Himalayan beauty through telelscopes, taking in the magnificent blue back and shining gold neck patch. Then, after perhaps 3 seconds and just as we reach for our cameras, it opens it’s wings and glides down the mountain, out of view. I am surprised that a bird the size of a small turkey has such a large white rump patch in flight. Close up, Chinese Monals are quite something to behold:A Beautiful Himalayan monal bird head closeup

With a Goral and a Monal under our belts before 7am (and I’ll wager that this is the first time that this particular sentence has been added to the internet) it was time to see as much as we could before the weather closed in. Frustratingly we didn’t have long to wait. Clouds were building up below us and drifting up rapidly. This lovely Chinese White-browed Rosefinch was a nice find after failing to see one yesterday in the fog:TomBedford.20160514.0213-1

There were Blood Pheasants about, a Kesler’s Thrush hopped around on the high mountain turf and high above us Tibetan Yaks grazed:TomBedford.20160514.0243-1

Then it was time to get seriously high. We begin the drive up to the pass at 4500m. We ascended for a while and rise above the treeline. In China this means that you are approaching 4km high. Just before the serious switchbacks began, we pulled in. The clouds had caught up with us, visibility was again completely rubbish:TomBedford.20160514.9506-1

We stepped from the car and immediately I felt odd. I realised that I had developed a thumping headache. My feet felt like I was wearing boots weighted with lead in contrast to my head, which felt as light as air. I looked over at Ian, “Do you feel light-headed?“. Reassuringly, in a strange kind of way, he felt the same. So this was what oxygen deprivation felt like – we had the common symptoms of mild altitude sickness. We had a very necessary breakfast of porridge by the car and occasionally gaps began to appear in the clouds. Although every step was a strange and mighty effort that also increased my headache, there were birds to be seen up here on the scree slopes, including smart Rosy Pipits:TomBedford.20160514.0237-1

Then a Tibetan Snowcock called from close to the road. There is something special about Snowcocks. The very fact that they are only found on the world’s highest peaks means that special effort will be required to simply get into their habitat. Snowcocks also have evocative, melancholic calls that echo around their slopes. The calls of these birds, although slightly different, immediately took my mind back to the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, where I last saw and heard Snowcock.  After a short period of searching it was Roland who located the calling pair of Tibetan Snowcock. The birds seemed settled, so we climbed a short distance uphill for a better view.  Walking uphill, I was still fascinated by the inefficient way my body was operating on 50% less oxygen.TomBedford.20160514.0276

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We then we hit the switchbacks and climb up to the pass at 4500m, still surrounded by cloud:TomBedford.20160514.9518

As the ground levels off and I reach the highest point that I have ever been on Earth, we come across one of the bluest birds on the planet: a male Grandala. Technically a thrush, Grandala are found between 3900m and 5500m in the Himalayas. Our first bird was a distant female. The second a resplendent male, not only close to the road, but also hopping about amongst yellow flowers, just to set off that outrageous blue plumage. Please be warned, if you are not wearing protective eye-wear the following images may damage your sight. Grandala are super-blue:TomBedford.20160514.0350-2

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And just to show that I have not used photoshop to enhance the colours on the above images, here is some more wobbly video, hand held from the car. As you watch this video, imagine an Australian voice saying, “turn your head you f****r, turn your head!” And that, Ian, is why there is no soundtrack 🙂

We begin descending and there are just fabulous birds all over the place. A smart Red-fronted Rosefinch by the road:TomBedford.20160514.0400

A stunning raspberry red male Streaked Rosefinch:TomBedford.20160514.0468-1

And some good, albeit slightly less colourful birds, Plain Mountain Finches:TomBedford.20160514.0434

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We then descend several hundred meters to this area of stunted sea buckthorn, at perhaps around 4000m:TomBedford.20160514.9519-1

These low shrubs are home to our first target Rubythroat species: the stunning Himalayan Rubythroat. It does not take long:TomBedford.20160514.0498-1

The first glimpse of that ruby coloured throat is always a special moment. The large black lower border sets off the white moustachial stripes and supercilium very nicely, this is a dazzling bird! There were 2 or 3 singing males present. Himalayan Rubythroat seem to sit out much more willingly than their Siberian cousins, although most of the birds that we saw were quite distant. Just as I lined up the picture below of a singing male, two American cyclists passed by in the background. They were clearly more altitude adjusted than we were. Our heads were thick with hypoxia, we had pumping headaches and exertion worsened everything. But the cyclists pulled over on the switchback above us and I felt compelled to climb up and have a chat. They were endearingly modest about their achievements and fitness. This is one challenging mountain range to cycle over. TomBedford.20160514.0527-1

I wondered what the Chinese made of cycling for pleasure? China is a country where there is an apparently insatiable demand for car ownership. China makes more cars than any other country on Earth, often controversially by copying western models and selling them as Chinese designs. After thousands of years of poverty for the majority of the population, giving up the trappings of recently acquired wealth and choosing to cycle, not drive, must appear to be incomprehensible behaviour: statistic_id226032_passenger-cars---major-producing-countries-2015

Back in the sea buckthorn, we also found Rufous-breasted Accentors, delicate in orange and brown:TomBedford.20160514.0508-1

The afternoon was drawing in. We drove back up towards the pass and pulled in for one final exploration of the higher slopes. The snow patches were large up here and fittingly Roland heard a Snow Partridge calling. We climbed up higher and found a small group of Snow Partridge on the skyline:TomBedford.20160514.0550-1

Even better, and much closer, was a fantastic mixed flock of Plain Mountain Finches, Brandt’s Mountain Finches, Alpine Accentors and Grandala:TomBedford.20160514.0585-1Above and below, Brandt’s Mountain Finch.TomBedford.20160514.0595-1

Alpine Accentor. Always good to see, their plumage is full of features:TomBedford.20160514.0626-1

Then, with a few 4000m+ selfies in the bag,  it was time to head back down from the pass:TomBedford.20160514.9532  TomBedford.20160514.9548

We drove past the road tunnel and sought out another member of the phesant family, Verreaux’s Monal Partridge. Having seen Verreaux’s Eagle in Oman, I figure that any bird with Verreaux’s name associated with it must be worth seeing. We approach a group of calling birds and one of them pops it’s head up for long enough for me to get a few pictures. The chestnut throat (this bird is also known as Chesnut-throated Partridge) and red eye ring stood out well in the gloom:TomBedford.20160514.0649

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Heavy rain curtails our late afternoon birding. On the journey back into the valley for our final night at Wolong, a flash of colour reveals a roadside Black-capped Kingfisher:TomBedford.20160514.0686-1

A dinner of Yak meat, vegetables and rice awaits us before we retire. Just before I get into bed I notice a slight shaking of the room. Not entirely surprising, I have experienced sleep deprivation for days and altitude sickness today, it would not be surprising if things seemed a little wobbly at the edges. It is only when I lie down that I realise that the bed is also shaking slightly. All my tiredness is instantly removed by a rapid infusion of adrenaline: the shaking is being caused by an earthquake. Having driven through the epicentre of the Sichuan earthquake which killed over 100,000 people in 2008 only two days previously, I am immediately concerned. The news that since 2008 all buildings have to be built to withstand earth tremors is tempered by the build quality of the new accommodation block in which we are in sleeping: the windows don’t fit into the walls, the steps don’t fit into the building. I’m no structural engineer, but I know this building won’t resist much movement. I quickly look outside from the window, the village has power, no-one is in the streets. This seems good. I walk towards the other bedroom to wake Ian and Roland and then the shaking stops. It lasted perhaps 90 seconds. Deciding that there is no point in waking anybody, I go to bed and, despite my adrenaline nightcap, I am asleep in seconds.

Next: snow and towards Tibet.

China 4: Balangshān day 1

Friday 13th May 2016

Having spent our first full day on the slopes of Wolong, and what a first day it was, we plan to spend the next three days on a much bigger mountain, Balangshān. In Chinese shān means mountain and with beautiful simplicity this is conveyed in the Chinese symbol  山.  This will be the highest place I have ever been on earth, some 4500m high, nearly 15,000 feet high in old money:Balang 1 text

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At 4000m there is 50% less oxygen than at sea level and even though we have been sleeping at 2000m we expect the oxygen deficiency to provide some sort of challenge at some point. Roland briefs us on altitude sickness, we note the most common symptoms: headache, fatigue and surprisingly, complete indifference, a feeling of nothing mattering. Our target species are rare pheasants. These birds do matter to us and are best seen, and heard, in the first few hours of daylight. As we are based at Wolong, we have to undertake a 50 minute drive to arrive on site before first light. As only one morning in three has clear weather, we also have to allow three mornings in order to see the target species. This means a 4:00 am start for the next three mornings. Not necessarily what I want to hear having only had 5 hours sleep in the last 2 nights. The issue is compounded by jetlag. There is nothing as grim as waking at 2:30am when you have a 4am alarm. I was hoping for more than 4 hours sleep having had barely that since arriving in China two days previously.  Even worse, after 50 minutes of driving uphill before dawn, it is quite clear that visibility is virtually zero on the mountain. We are experiencing the worst possible weather for seeing wildlife: fog. The first few hours on the mountain were tough. It was cold, damp and very foggy. We scan from the old road that runs around the side of the mountain and see a bird walk out onto the scree slope below us. It is a female Chinese Monal! Nice, but it has none of the colour and glamour of the male, our main target, which is a spectacular glossy-blue and gold beast. We get a three second view of the female, then the fog closes in again:

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The few birds we could see were silhouettes, including a Blood Pheasant which hopped up onto the retaining wall by the road only a few metres away, but even then we could not make out any plumage details or see the colour of it’s blood-red eye or legs:TomBedford.20160513.0026-1

Ian, who got rather dehydrated on the climb above Wolong yesterday, was making dedicated efforts to regularly drink lots of water this morning. He approached me as we waited for visibility to improve and said “Roland has just given me some very bad news“. I puzzle as to what this could possibly be. It turns out that, in the dark, he has filled his water bottle from the container that held spare water for the car radiator. This was Chinese tap water that had spent the last year in a large filthy bottle. “How much have you drunk?” I ask, knowing if it was only a a few sips the risk of illness would be less. “A litre” came back the grim reply. There was no positive spin I could add, we both knew that he was on borrowed time. This was a  desperately frustrating situation and not the easiest place to be be ill. I refrained from reminding Ian of the occasion when I had two sips from a water bottle in a hide in the Spanish Pyrennes and then spent four days suffering from acute gastroenteritis. The only solution was to try to rid his stomach of the water he had drunk. I heard him retching over the retaining wall but without success. I calculated that by late afternoon Ian would probably start deteriorating. We really had to make the most of the morning! Fortunately the low cloud begins to break up, giving us glimpses of the mountain:TomBedford.20160513.9483-1

Scanning from the road before the tunnel produced what I first thought were sheep in the fog, but then reveal themselves to be our first White Eared Pheasants:TomBedford.160513.6210-1

We decide to descend to see if visibility is better lower down. This is a good move and soon we are discovering the birds of this high mountain wooded habitat. Roland, imitating a Collared Owlet song, whistles up a storm of birds that come to investigate. Stunning male Long-tailed Minivets:TomBedford.20160513.0060-1

Grey-crested Tits:TomBedford.20160513.0048

Sichuan Leaf Warblers, a toned-down Pallas’s Warbler type:TomBedford.20160513.0076 Buff-barred Warblers:TomBedford.20160513.0086

A couple of Olive-backed Pipits crept about in roadside vegetation:TomBedford.20160513.0110-1

As the sun tried to break through soaring raptors began to appear. A single Cinereous Vulture…TomBedford.20160513.0143

… and many Himalayan Griffon Vultures. Here is one soaring below us, in the valley:

We gradually began picking up birds through the afternoon, including a nice singing zoothera, the recently recognised Sichuan Forest Thrush:TomBedford.20160513.0148-1

In the late afternoon we explored a trail that led into forest with a low canopy and little undergrowth. Golden Pheasants called from deep cover. We waited in the vehicle and after a little coaxing, spotted a bright golden movement in the vegetation. Fog was building up again, sometimes closing in completely, sometimes allowing us views into the bushes. There was a break in the fog and out walked a splendid male Golden Pheasant. It was so bright, so ridiculously colourful and magnificent that it simultaneously took our breath away and stretched our credibility that such a creature could possibly be real. A feast of gold and red, with a tail three times its body length, this was the bird of the day and one of the birds of the trip:

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Here is some wobbly video of this fabulous male: 

We entered the low, dark canopy wondering what could match the colours of a magnificent Golden Pheasant? Almost immediately there is a burningly bright blue movement and a Himalayan Bluetail flies in to perch for a moment. Wow! TomBedford.20160513.0185

Good birds continue to come thick and fast – a small group of Blood Pheasants scuttles away across the forest floor, a pair of Streaked Rosefinch perch in the canopy. We turn a corner and there is a male rosefinch feeding on the ground. I grab 4 quick pictures through the branches before he departs, never to be seen again. On inspection of the pictures, we have found ourselves yet another new rosefinch species, a male Blandford’s Rosefinch, a far from expected species:TomBedford.20160513.0191-1

Roland goes first up a steep part of the path, but immediately comes flying back down with the words “Temminck’s Tragopan!“. A male had been perched just by the path. Ian and I scramble up the track and peer down into a small tree-filled valley. The glowing orange back and bright blue face of a stunning male Temminck’s Tragopan are clearly visible as a pair quickly make their way down into the valley. This time our total viewing time is about 5 seconds of obstructed viewing. Better, but having screwed up a close encounter on day one, we still need decent looks at this iconic bird. On the positive side Ian is still intact in mind and body, following his ingestion of a litre of Chinese radiator water. Will he survive the night though?

Next: Illness and earthquakes.

China 3: Wolong Mountain

The alarm went off after only 4 hours sleep. Having had only 90 minutes sleep on the overnight flight from London the night before, it was a seriously groggy start to the day, though I still recall the singing Large Hawk Cuckoo in the predawn darkness. We drive west in the dark, leaving Dujiangyan and head into the earthquake zone. On 12th May 2008, eight years ago to the day, this area was the epicentre of the Sichuan earthquake , a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people with another 20,000 missing, presumed dead. 370,000 were injured and 4.8 million people were left homeless. The road through the epicentre, which winds alongside a river at the bottom of a steep valley, is still being rebuilt. After an unpleasant (a relative term compared to the human suffering as a result of the earthquake) 15km of potholes and rough track we reached the entrance to a tunnel. It was unclear whether the “road” went through the tunnel, which appeared to be still under construction, or on a dirt track around the hill. Roland chose to go in. We drove into the darkness, not knowing whether we would emerge into daylight on the other side of the mountain or drive into a huge piece of tunnel excavating machinery. After what seemed like an eternity, we see daylight – we were through! We cleared the earthquake zone and began noting birds – our first Blue Whistling Thrush and the first of many hundreds of Plumbeous Water Redstarts we would see. We entered a large valley and began driving uphill towards Wolong:Wolong Balang text

We arrive at Wolong just before 7am, have a quick breakfast of noodles, then drive a short distance to park at the bottom of the valley. The only way was up. The first thing I noticed about the mountains of China was that the treeline is insanely high. In the Alps the highest decent trees are at around 2000m, higher than that the slopes become bare. In China the treeline finishes at around 3800m – nearly 2km higher! This means you can be walking though deciduous forest and still be well over 3500m high. I found this disorientating and was constantly amazed by how high we were, the landscape gave no clues.

A vision of black, blue and white

The trail was steep and climbed 600 metres pretty quickly. We ignored some common birds on the way up as we wanted to get to the Blackthroat site as early as possible. After 40 minutes of steep uphill walking Roland paused and called, “singing Blackthroat”. The bird was still present. However, seeing this bird would be much harder than hearing it, as it is one of the world’s great skulkers. In fact there are at least 2 birds, possibly three, present, in an area of secondary growth at about 2400m. This is exceptional luck. The first record of Blackthroat at Wolong was just last year. As we were considering a 10 hour drive, each way, to see Blackthroat later in the trip, the unprecedented arrival of multiple birds at Wolong was a huge bonus. Although, as we were to discover later, what Lady Luck gives with one hand, she will take with the other. The nearest Blackthroat sings regularly, but will not allow us a glimpse. Roland recounts a tale of a well known bird tour leader seeing a Blackthroat hop into a small patch of bamboo. He went in and waited, prepared to give the bird time to re-emerge. Six hours later he gave up, without seeing the bird again. We hear our Blackthroat change position occasionally, but the hours begin to pass and still we have no sightings.

TomBedford.20160512.9853-1Habitat at Wolong, 2400m

We listen, we look. We change our position. We try playback, we try silence. Still the Blackthroat sings from deep within close cover. We retire back to our hollow for some food. I enjoy the instant rise in blood sugar levels and feel my concentration rise and the background tiredness fade slightly. The Blackthroat has stopped singing, we think about other things. Suddenly there is a loud burst of song, Blackthroat song, from just behind us. It is so loud, pure and close that Roland says “Is that birdwatchers?”. Could there be someone on the main track using playback to try to tempt the Blackthroat into the open? Then Ian, pointing frantically, hisses “Its here! It’s here!”. I look up behind me and there, not 3 meters away, perched on bare branches just above us is a vision of black, blue and white: a male Blackthroat. We can see the complete black throat, the underparts glowing white in the darkness under the canopy, the back is blue-grey. There is no time to reach for a camera. I don’t even see the bird in binoculars. Just as my tired, slow brain takes in that we are in the presence of one of least known birds on the planet, it flicks to a perch just up hill of us – still only a few metres away, looks around and is gone. The whole encounter lasts for perhaps 5 seconds. There are scenes of quiet celebration and palpable relief.

The glowing, orange cushion of Wolong

Sleep deprivation and jet lag now begin to catch up with me and I find myself literally nodding off when we sit down, my eyes involuntarily closing. I try to concentrate on staying awake, aware that this is a critical time. We find ourselves sitting in a small hollow a short distance from the main track. I glance up at a tree-filled depression just above us. There is a strange orange glow coming from it, as if someone has turned on a bedside light with an orange shade. What is that? Am I hallucinating? I move away from Ian and Roland and peer over the rim of our hollow into the depression behind us.

Perhaps it is because I have had less than 5 hours sleep in two nights, but I can clearly see that there is a bright orange cushion moving through dense vegetation into the depression, some 5 metres up hill from me. Slowly, so slowly, the penny drops. It is a Tragopan, a male Temminck’s Tragopan and, although I can only see it’s back,  it is coming directly towards me. This is, arguably, the best bird on the planet. Looking back, this was a moment for great cool, for holding my nerve under the pressure of sleep deprivation and excitement. As it was, I humiliate myself. I slide back into the hollow where Ian and Roland are waiting and, barely able to contain my excitement, hiss “male Tragopan, coming towards us, its coming right towards us!”. I reach to grab my camera, pick it up, miss my footing and nearly fall on Roland. “You are moving around too much, it won’t come” says Roland quietly. Too right I am. No half-aware forest floor dwelling bird is going to continue it’s path towards a flapping birder, hissing and falling all over the place. I peer over into the depression above us again. It is empty. The orange glow is gone, the close encounter did’t happen. I have just seen my first Temminck’s Tragopan, yet I feel completely deflated.

We move on up the trail and become aware of the midge bites that we have all suffered whilst awaiting the Blackthroat. Our hands are covered in itchy red bites. We pick up some other nice birds, a soaring Mountain Hawk Eagle, Grey-headed Fulvetta, Long-tailed Minivet, Verditer Flycatcher, Vinaceous Rosefinch, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler and our first taste of the many phylloscopus Warblers – Claudia’s Leaf and Sichuan Leaf being the commonest.

TomBedford.20160512.9852-1Ian’s hands after the black biting midges of Wolong. The red bites remain itchy for days.

TomBedford.20160512.9906Pygmy Wren Babbler –  a cracking little fella, with a loud distinctive three note song.

TomBedford.20160512.9887Mountain Hawk Eagle, the only raptor of the day.

TomBedford.20160512.9825-1Verditer Flycatcher

TomBedford.20160512.0007-PanoA panarama from “on top” of Wolong, at about 2700m.

Eventually reaching level ground we get easier views of the canopy species. There are Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Green-backed Tits, Sooty Tits, while Himalayan Cuckoos call from nearby hilltops. Being able to watch the many phylloscopus warblers moving through the canopy from above was a real treat. These gems will get their own blog post at some point.

Ian pauses to use the bushes and this toilet break produces a great bird. Ian notices a movement through the bamboo and finds a large parrotbill perched close by, at around head height. The obvious white eye-ring, dark lores and supercilium all indicate it is a rare Three-toed Parrotbill. It promptly peels off a strip of bark, drops into a low bush and begins nest building. Result!

Shortly afterwards we find another parrotbill, this time a monster: a Great Parrotbill. This is by far the largest member of this unique family of birds. It clambers about above us, like a huge thrush. TomBedford.20160512.9928

“I hope that’s not the pet name for his penis”

In western male culture, when one man strikes a pose on the roadside, legs apart, arms flexed at the elbows, any other men present will instinctively turn away, leaving their companion to empty his bladder in relative privacy. So when Roland announces that he has to use the bushes, Ian and I turn away from him and start scanning for birds 180 degrees away from Roland. This move, strongly subconsciously, nearly reflexive, almost prevents us from seeing one of the most desirable birds of the trip. For Roland, mid-stream so to speak, sees a small bird hop out from the bamboo and begin to feed on the path. It is close enough to him that even without binoculars the startling bright red throat is immediately apparent. Ian and I, still standing 10 metres further down the path, backs turned towards him, hear his shout: “Firethroat!”. In strange contrast to my hysteria over the Tragopan, I am calm enough to pull out a quick one liner: “I hope that’s not the pet name for his penis” I quip. We run towards Roland, throwing cultural behavioural norms out of the proverbial window. As we arrive Roland calls “Firethroat on the path!”. And there, out in the open, is a truly magnificent Firethroat:

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The reality of what we have just witnessed takes a few days to sink in. Blackthroat and Firethroat, both seen within a couple of hours of each other on the very first day of our trip. This has to count as a dream start. Not even in our wildest dreams could we have hoped to see two of China’s three rare robins on day one.

China 2: Chengdu

Nine months later I found myself on board a British Airways Dreamliner, grateful that Chinese economic expansion had tempted the company to offer direct flights from London.

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It was dawn on Wednesday 11th May and we were circling Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan. A glance at a map of China reveals that there are many cities the size of Chengdu plus many that are much larger. Shanghai now has an estimated population of 34 million people. I was shocked to discover that Chengdu has a population of over 18 million and that there are 15 cities in China larger than London, with populations of over 10 million people. 1.38 billion Chinese have to live somewhere and increasingly where they live is in huge sprawling cities. Rural migration into the cities has reached the point where parents leave their child at home to be raised by it’s grandparents, the so-called “left-behind children“, while they search for work in the cities. In poor populations it still is usually the case that there is only one child per couple, despite the state relaxing the One Child policy on 1st January 2016 to allow two children before a fine is imposed.

Bird deaths at the airport

But it wasn’t the population of the city below me that first attracted my attention.It was the size of the roads. Even from the air I could see 6, 8 and 10 lane superhighways, vast, wide roads. This was a country trying to catch up with the needs of its ever growing population. The consequence of millions of people recently becoming able to afford cars generated the second thing to strike me: air pollution. There was a yellowish haze settled over the city. Only objects in the near distance appeared remotely clear, the buildings in the far distance were nearly invisible in the smog. I was already looking forward to leaving town and we hadn’t even landed yet.

Unfortunately landing produced an even more depressing spectacle. Along the far side of the airport were long lines of mist nets, each several meters high and each holding the bodies of hundreds of slowing dying birds. These nets have been erected to prevent bird strikes on aircraft. Unfortunately they only seem to catch much smaller birds, ones that could not possibly pose a threat to a rotating jet turbine engine or the passengers on board. These birds are attracted to the only large area of grass around the city and this story is repeated at airports across the country (see this Birding Beijing article). This proved to be our first experience of many Chinese state projects, done on the sort of massive scale that only a dictatorship can actualise. In China, the state owns all land. Whilst an individual may own a house, the state can decide to drive an 18 lane superhighway through your valley leaving you with nothing but a compensation claim.

Having the potential for absolute control inevitably leads to absolute state paranoia. For the visiting birder this can also have consequences. For example, there are no large scale maps available. Only the state has access to this information. The tourist is just left with nice colourful small scale tourist maps. Visiting tourists are also unable to drive in China (unless they want to go through the process of acquiring a Chinese driving licence). After some research and some discussion between Ian (in Adelaide, Australia) and myself (in Oxford, UK) we decided that we would see more birds if we used someone who knew the birding sites and could also act as driver and translator.  Roland Zeidler was our man.

Plastic fantastic

I arrive at Chengdu airport and was processed with incredible efficiency. However, I was greeted (image below) with a scene of a plastic, idealised version of nature: Pandas at play. This is something that it would appear the Chinese authorities are striving for in their management of their national parks. This theme would reoccur throughout our stay in Sichuan.

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Nature must be neat, with wild animals gambling quietly on sun dappled lawns. Paradoxically, it is an almost simplistic Disney inspired version of the natural world, which has nothing to do with biodiveristy, habitat protection or the complex wild, wet, insect and bug laden systems that have evolved over millions of years and supports a billion forms of life, but which human activity seems intent on reducing to nothing in a matter of generations.

My bag was the first one out and 30 minutes after landing Roland ran through arrivals to met me. Roland is a genuinely nice guy. A gentle man, whose natural Germanic organisational skills run up against the steel wall of Chinese state bureaucracy on a regular basis. Naturally such frustration will build up and occasionally spill out, sometimes leading to amusing outbursts. To hear Roland’s German accent cursing the Chinese destruction of forest with choice phrases such as “Zees people should be shot in zee head!” or upon seeing the horrendous plastic Las Vegas style township in Jaizhougou and grimly sighing “One bomb izz not enough” was very amusing. And we agreed with every word. Roland is also a good birder, knows most of the calls and can use payback to bring the trickier birds out. We estimate that Roland enabled us to see at least 60% more species than if we had visited the birding sites independently and gone in without a guide.

As Ian was not arriving from Australia, via Hong Kong, until that evening Roland and I went birding in Chengdu for the afternoon. We first stopped at the river, just south of the largest building on earth (in terms of volume). There is nothing else I can add about this building, it is just one huge block of steel and glass. I believe there is a beach complete with waves inside. The view from the river:

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I had my first good looks at Asian Red-rumped Swallow, with their distinctive heavily streaked breasts:TomBedford.20160511.9571

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The local doves were Spotted, the local finches were Grey-headed Greenfinches and there were White-cheeked Starlings, Plain Prinias, Long-tailed Shrikes, Crested Mynas and Vineous-throated Parrotbills in the bushes. The margins of the river held Little Egrets, Chinese Pond Herons and Night Herons, plus Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper.

In the late afternoon we visited the Bailu Wan Wetland in south east Chengdu. This was a rather more scenic spot, though once again a sanitised version of nature and the sprawling city loomed, never far from sight:TomBedford.20160511.9481

Chinese Grosbeaks, Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrike and Oriental Magpie Robin were the highlights:

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All hotel rooms begin with an 8

That evening we picked up Ian from Chengdu airport. Roland then gives us some great news. Sid has called to say there is at least one Blackthroat singing at Wolong. This is one of our major targets, but with the usual sites being inaccessible it would have required a 10-12 hour drive each way to stand a chance of seeing one of the world’s rarest and least known birds. To have one (or more?!) singing at a site just 2 hours away, meant a rapid but essential change to our itinerary. We decide to visit Wolong the very next day and overnight at a hotel in Roland’s home town of Dujiangyan.

Dujiangyan gave us our first experience of Chinese hotels and their obsession with superstition surrounding the “lucky” number 8. We were given rooms numbered 8405 and 8406. But when we entered the lift there were only 6 floors in the hotel. Roland explained that the number 8 is seen as a lucky number in China and therefore all Chinese room numbers begin with number 8. So we had to go to the fourth floor and find rooms 405 and 406 and ignore the 8. Similarly, hotels will try to get as many 8s into their phone numbers and wifi passwords as possible. We quickly noticed that often the wifi password were eight 8s in a row. In fact on a couple of occasions we didn’t even ask for the password, but just entered eight 8s and were logged on. This makes having a wifi password seem somewhat redundant: if in China just try eight 8s.

I hit the pillow at 1am, the alarm set for 4:40am. Having only had 90 minutes sleep on the plane the previous night, I was not not looking forward to hearing my alarm the following morning. Except that it would mean we were heading for Wolong!

China 1: background

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I have come to realise that my very favourite birding is high altitude birding. There is something about the combination of stunning mountain vistas, combined with the very special birds that live up there and the very physical exercise involved in getting up high, that is very appealing. First from the Alps, then to the high peaks of the Tarus Mountains in Turkey, to the Atlas range in Morocco and even further to the Canadian Rockies, some of my favourite birding experiences have been above 2000 metres. Such special habitats also hold very special birds.

In the summer of 2015 I received an email from Ian Reid, formerly of Oxford, now a resident of Adelaide, Australia, informing me that he had a significant birthday in May 2016. Ian asked if I would be interested in helping him celebrate with a birding trip to somewhere special. He enclosed a list of potential destinations, but due to my inexperience of south-east Asian birding, most of the names meant nothing to me. However, one destination jumped out of the page at me: Sichuan in China. Spring migration in China? Now that sounded VERY interesting. A little research revealed that Sichuan was not one of those Chinese island migrant hotspots with, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, Siberian migrants jumping out of every bush. Instead it appeared to offer a combination of high altitude birding with many fabulous mountain species, combined with the chance to see some of the most highly desired eastern migrants. Having seen the colours and sounds of spring migration in Europe and North America a trip to Sichuan in May also presented the possibility of seeing spring migration on the Eastern Flyway.

Three rare Chinese Robins

Rufous-headed Robin, Blackthroat, Firethroat. The holy grail of world birding. Three of the world’s rarest, least know birds. All beautiful robins, but all complete skulkers, never coming out into the open, always singing or sitting deep within cover. A nightmare to glimpse, let alone see well. They would be tough to get to, let alone tough to see. Perhaps only a few thousand people have ever seen these three species. Learning that a trip to Sichuan would give us a chance to get close to, if not actually see, three of China’s rarest robins only added to the excitement of planning the trip.

It was time to respond to Ian’s email. Beginning with the requisiteI thought you turned fifty ten years ago” line, I jumped at the chance to explore eastern Tibet and western Sichuan. The trip was on! 

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Ian did most of the basic research. Sid Francis is the go-to man for those wishing to go biding in Sichuan. When we contacted Sid in summer 2015 he was already booked for our available dates in May 2016, however he recommended his colleague Roland Zeidler, a German birder (now there’s a rarity) who has lived in China for 18 years, is fluent in English and Mandarin and has been birding Sichuan for the last 10 years. We took the plunge, booked Roland and began saving, planning and researching for the trip.