China 13: Tangjiahe Nature Reserve

Sunday 22nd May 2016

In summary, dawn till dusk rain and then some:T1 text

 Yesterday evening we had arrived in the pouring rain at the rather sumptuous hotel in the Tangjihae Nature reserve. We awoke in the dark the following morning with the rain still pouring down. It continued raining all day and into the following night.

We stood on the steps of our accommodation block, looked at the rain and the low cloud clinging to the forested hills above us and made the easy decision that ascending the steep and muddy trails to higher altitude would not happen today. As we were here for two nights, this was not a major problem, we could always go up for the best birds tomorrow. Today we would limit ourselves to seeing what we could in the valley around the hotel. As we stepped from our hotel large flash of blue and white leapt from a nearby roof – a Crested Kingfisher, a large white and blue ‘fisher that had been eyeing up the small artificial lakes in the hotel grounds.

The drive down to the bridge on the nearby river produced a female Golden Pheasant that scuttled up the bank away from the car and the perhaps the wettest Hoopoe that I have ever seen:TomBedford.20160522.3760-1

The highlight (if you can call it that when there was no light, poor visibility and the subject was pretty distant) was a remarkable mammal, a Takin:TomBedford.20160523.4236-1

Takin are huge. Nearly the size of Muskox, they share the equally grumpy personality of their arctic cousins. Being British, I wondered if the weather may have played a part in this.

We disembark at the bridge, a known site for a huge fish-eating owl, the Tawny Fish Owl. Roland tells us that a bird usually roosts in the trees overhanging the river. As the trees are large, but very open, it does not at first appear a difficult task to find one of the world’s largest owls. However, after 15 minutes of searching we are beginning to wonder if the rain has forced the owl to roost elsewhere. Ian and I wander down a track down the far side of the river, scanning the branches above us for the shape of an owl. We pause at a view point and read an information sign telling us of the battle that occurred here. We chat about history being written by the winners. Our pleasantries are interrupted by Roland appearing, gesturing urgently at a tree right in front of us. We move slightly to our left and there, right out in the open, is a huge owl:TomBedford.20160522.3764-1

It is enormous, the size of a large dog. How on earth did we walk past that? The owl, having being totally focused on the river, suddenly becomes aware of our presence and flies to the other side of the river, perching up slightly higher in the canopy:TomBedford.20160522.3786-1

Having admired this magnificent, though rather damp beast, we then spend the reminder of the morning working our way along the tarmacked road that leads up to the trailhead to the higher paths. Despite the weather, the birding is quite good. We encounter a couple of large tit flocks containing Yellow-bellied, Black-throated and Green-backed Tits, with Black-chinned Yuhina and the usual wing flicking Claudia’s Leaf Warblers. A new phylloscopus warbler is the bright Sulphur-breasted Warbler:TomBedford.20160522.3817-1

There are Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Brown Dippers on the river and singing  Alström’s Warblers, another Golden-spectacled Warbler split, named after Per Alström. Asian Koels call and we get a brief glimpse of a probable Jungle Flycatcher and Grey-winged Thrush. Rufous-faced Warblers, their call a perfect mobile phone ringtone, sing from roadside trees, ignoring the steady downpour. We also come across a spectacular Red-billed Blue Magpie devouring a large insect:TomBedford.20160522.3835-1

Dutch Birding

We head back to the hotel for lunch. Here we encounter a Dutch tour group, who have tales of incessant rain and mud both from their stay here and in Longcanngou, our next destination. Their pessimism inspires us slightly and after lunch we set out along the river valley, walking upstream from the hotel. Before we leave the hotel grounds I explore the small artificial lakes within the hotel grounds. Plumbeous Water Redstart are ubiquitous across this region of China and sure enough there is a pair on the water feature:TomBedford.20160522.3998-1

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As well as a White Wagtail, a presumed leucopsisTomBedford.20160522.3901-1

I then flush two buntings that had been hidden away feeding beneath the willows next to the pools. They are elusive. It takes about 20 minutes to get clear views of the two birds, by which time we have been joined by the Dutch tour group. The larger bird is a female Black-faced Bunting:TomBedford.20160522.3984-1

The smaller one, a Little Bunting:TomBedford.20160522.3988-1

A phylloscopus warbler joins them in the willows, a Dusky Warbler:TomBedford.20160522.3951-1

Black-faced Bunting, Little Bunting and Dusky Warbler. Combined with the low light levels, cool temperatures and incessant rain, this afternoon had the feel and species selection of a late October day on Lundy. The autumnal feel continued with a saturated Brown Shrike:TomBedford.20160522.4005-1

And a damp Blyth’s Pipit:TomBedford.20160522.4030-1

The Lundy illusion was broken when an accipitor flashed down the river,  landing at the base of a post to consume it’s prey. It was a smart male Chinese Sparrowhawk:
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Mature trees held displaying Asian Koel…TomBedford.20160522.4104-1

… a Ferruginous Flycatcher and Crimson-breasted Woodpecker. 4 White-throated Needletail flashed overhead, reminding us of yesterday’s Needletail-fest. As the afternoon drew on we came across a large rock overhang on the far side of the river. Sheltering under the overhang was a troupe of Tibetan Macaque:TomBedford.20160522.4134-1

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I found it impossible not to get anthropomorphic when viewing creatures so similar to ourselves. The larger adults appeared cold, damp and fed up. The Macaque troupe looked the same. Even our jokes were feeling the strain. Below, the adult at the rear, far right, holds out a hand to help a young Tibetan Macaque up:TomBedford.20160522.4129-1

Snub-faced Golden Monkey also occur here in the winter, but at this time of year most are much higher up. We head back to the hotel, get another glimpse of a Crested Kingfisher on the way back and end up back at the hotel, feeling as damp as the Blyth’s Pipits and Chinese Pond Herons feeding on the lawns:TomBedford.20160522.4157-1

Next: Access issues, landslides and the return of the glowing cushion…

China 12: Jiuzhaigou to Tangjihae

Saturday 21st May 2016

Essentially a travel day, beginning with another attempt to see Rufous-headed Robin in Jiuzhaiguo National park: J to T text

We awake in the Zechawa Community Village, at the bottom of the Keze valley, over 2000m high in the Jiuzhaiguo National park. Today is our second, and final, attempt to see Rufous-headed Robin. First light reveals a change in the weather. Low cloud and mist hugs the thickly forested slopes. The dawn chorus is a fantastic mixture of special birds: Himalayan Owl, Golden Pheasant, Himalayan Cuckoo, Claudia’s and Large-billed Leaf Warblers amongst the thousands of singing phylloscopus warblers:TomBedford.20160521.3429-1

We walk 45 minutes up to the Robin site. Once again the silence of one of the world’s greatest songsters was deafening. We spend the first few hours of light waiting and listening, but without success. Gradually we come to terms with the fact that we will not see Rufous-headed Robin. In fact, at the time of writing, no Rufous-headed Robins have been reported from Jiuzhaiguo National park in 2016. As this area of  secondary growth forest, between 2400-2600m, here and in one nearby valley are the only known territories on the planet, this is ominous news for the long term survival of the species. Two years ago there were up to three singing males here, last year just one on one day and this year none. We are too late. The only hope is that, as we saw with the recent Blackthroat discovery at Wolong, any remaining Rufous-headed Robins have discovered suitable breeding habitat elsewhere. Amongst the other birds that we do see are more Père David’s Tits, another Chinese Nuthatch and this scruffy Nutcracker… TomBedford.20160521.3410-1

… but eventually we are forced to admit defeat. We walk down to catch the bus back to the National Park entrance. Whilst we wait for a bus we notice a flock of swifts feeding under the low cloud base. Swifts have a special place in most birder’s hearts and quite rightly so. They are the purest manifestation of flight. Years can pass without them touching solid ground, most sleep and mate on the wing. China hosts a multitude of exciting swifts, including the species many regard as The Ultimate Swift: White-throated Needletail, the fastest bird on the planet and one that I have been waiting to see since I first read about them as a young boy.

The birds we were watching at about 2500m altitude have been driven down by low cloud. We all know what species they are, but we all call them different names: I know these birds as Pacific Swifts. Ian, from Australia, as Fork-tailed Swifts; Roland, our local expert, as Salim Ali’s Swifts. These birds breed around the Tibetan plateau and then disappear. Their wintering grounds are unknown. There are perhaps 50 swifts, together with a scattering of Asian House Martins. Photographing them against a dark grey sky is a monochrome business, though their white rumps are occasionally obvious:TomBedford.20160521.3462-1

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This was to be the beginning of a fabulous day for Swifts and hirundines. Next up were the local Crag Martins that breed around the National Park entrance buildings:

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We drive south-east from Jiuzhaigou and, in the late morning, pull up in a steep sided valley:TomBedford.20160521.9950-1

There is a completely different selection of birds at this lower altitude. We quickly notch up Brown-breasted Bulbul, Collared Finchbill, White-browed Laughingthrush, the spectacular Red-billed Blue Magpie and Spot-billed and Vineous-throated Parrotbills. A Père David’s Rock Squirrel scuttles across the rocky slopes, whilst the Black-naped Orioles and Grey Bushchats that we see are the only ones of the trip. We eventually get distant views of Long-tailed Rosefinch, and whilst Ian and Roland attempt better views, I decide to do a spot of exploring and wander further up the road.

Glancing up I see more swifts. A small flock of Salim Ali’s Swifts feed above the highest ridge, driven down to this altitude by the increasing cloud. My ears turn to identify the source of a rising roar from somewhere up near the Pacific Swift flock. The sound is getting louder, a rushing wind, increasing in volume and getting closer. Frantically scanning the upper reaches of the valley, I pick out two shapes dropping vertically out of the sky, the source of the sound, heading directly towards the ground. Sleek powerful bullets, the two dark shapes spiral around each other as they dive. They drop below the level of the lowest ridge at such speed that the sound of the wind rushing over their wings is clearly audible over hundreds of metres. Incredulous, my mind working ahead of events, the possibility that these birds are going to power themselves into the ground at the bottom of the valley flicks through my mind. Then, at what must be the absolutely last possible moment, at tremendous speed and against incredible gravitational force, the dark shapes effortlessly pull out of their dueling dive in perfect synchrony.  The roaring sound of the the sky being ripped in two by their wings intensifies to a crescendo as the birds pulled out of their dive, then abruptly falls silent. The two birds pass over my head at the speed of jet fighters. A momentary image of dark bird with a white throat and white undertail coverts that stretch around onto the flanks was burnt onto my retina. Then they are gone. This was not birdwatching, this was pure science fiction. I have been in the presence of something supremely aerial. Never have I felt so slow, so grounded, so terrestrial.

Some time after, in my shocked state it felt like about ten minutes but it was probably about two seconds, a tidal wave of adrenaline surges over my brain. At the same moment I scream to Ian and Roland, several hundred metres down the road: “Needletails!” But by then the birds were probably in Nepal.

I have waited over 45 years to see White-throated Needletail. Could they have announced their presence in any more dramatic a fashion? I did not just see them. They announced themselves to me with the sound of the atmosphere being forced apart by their flight. I heard the splitting of the sky with their wings. And then a low altitude fly-by worthy of any airshow:TomBedford.20160521.3548-1

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But there are more. I look way down the road at Ian, who is now looking vertically up at the sky with binoculars. He turns, looks at me and simultaneously we point excitedly at the skies: “Needletails!“. Single birds scorch the air above the wooded slopes above us, skimming fast and low over the treetops:TomBedford.20160521.3659-1

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Scanning the airspace above us, flocks of White-throated Needletails are gathering, fanning out their tail feathers to soar and glide. At least 70 White-throated Needletails whirled around above us, with 30+ Asian House Martin, a few Crag Martins and a single Asian Red-rumped Swallow: TomBedford.20160521.3582-1

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And then, as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. A degree of spontaneous celebration took place in the aftermath of our Needletail experience: TomBedford.20160521.9952-1

We leave the valley and, under increasingly dark skies, we begin the long drive to Tangjihae Nature Reserve. As it gets dark, it begins to rain…

Next: Call Noah, its Tangjihae Nature Reserve!

China 11: Jiuzhaigou National Park

Friday 20th May 2016

A whole day and an overnight stay in Jiuzhaigou National Park, one of the most beautiful areas in all of China:JNP text

Tourist activity begins early in Pengfeng. I was particularly aware of this as the window in my room did not close, so the noise of thousands of tourists mobilising for their day in Jiuzhaigou National Park reached me at first light. Last night we had learnt that, in terms of visitor numbers, it was going to be a quiet day. The park averages 7,000 visitors per day, with a reported cap of 12,000 per day.  For some reason the park authorities had closed down the automated ticket selling machines, meaning all the thousands that would visit today would have to queue for tickets at the gates before gaining entry. Even worse the park gates were not due to open until 8am, with the first coaches not due to take visitors up the mountain until 8:45am. As there was a 45 minute walk from the nearest official bus stop, it could be nearly 10am before we reached the Rufous-headed Robin site.

This was far from ideal. Rufous-headed Robins, like many birds, are most active and therefore most detectable, in the first few hours of daylight. If present, our target species, one of the rarest birds on Earth, could have finished it’s singing for the day hours before we even arrived. Fortunately we had Roland. TomBedford.20160520.9887-1

We got a cab down from Pengfeng and then experienced one of the most surreal moments of the trip. At the front of the park were two lines of women. Each and every one of them was selling selfie sticks. Pink selfie sticks. We entered the famous Jiuzhaigou National Park through an archway of pink selfie sticks being thrust into our faces. This was a taste of what was to come.

Roland made sure that we were the first in the queue at the entrance gates. In picture above, Ian waits patiently, notching up Sooty Tit and Crag Martin whilst in the queue. When the park opened, using a combination of fluent mandarin and persistence, Roland ensured that we were on the first staff bus up the mountain, just after 8am. He then persuaded the driver to drop us off at the roadside, rather than at an official bus stop, so we were on site by 8:30 am. Result!TomBedford.20160520.9890-1

But that was where our luck ended. We spent the remainder of the morning slowly and quietly working our way around the traditional Rufous-headed Robin site, without hearing a single call or song. The news that no Robins had been seen here this year so far does not fill us with confidence, although potentially a migrant Rufous-headed Robin could arrive and begin singing at any moment. We catch up with lots of other good birds though, including Chinese Leaf Warblers: TomBedford.20160520.3009-1

This is another Pallas’s Warbler type, but is even less bright than Sichuan Leaf Warbler and has a completely different song. Chinese Leaf Warblers sound almost like little sewing machines rattling away. There is something reminiscent of locustella warblers in their song. A few Bianchi’s Warblers (one of the Golden-spectacled Warbler complex) were holding territory:TomBedford.20160520.3030-1

Himalayan Cuckoos (the local version of Oriental Cuckoo) called, we had glimpses of a cracking male Indian Blue Robin and a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, together with the more common phylloscopus warblers, Claudia’s Leaf and Large-billed Leaf Warblers. Prize for the most elusive bird that we actually saw was Chestnut-headed Tesia. This tiny little thing zipped around the boardwalk, calling constantly, never perching for long enough for my autofocus to lock onto it. Modern cameras are astounding pieces of technology, but my levels of amazement were taken to new levels. The picture below was actually taken through a solid branch hanging in front of me. The bird is still identifiable!TomBedford.20160520.3061-1

We then tried another site in the next door valley, Arrow Bamboo Lake. The silence of singing Rufous-headed Robins was deafening. But, nice woodland birds present included Rufous-vented Tit:TomBedford.20160520.3099-1

Père David’s Tit:TomBedford.20160520.3130-1

Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, the commonest phylloscopus warbler, one with a median crown stripe and two wing bars:TomBedford.20160520.3177-1

Fortunately Claudia’s Leaf Warblers make phylloscopus identification much easier by having the unique habit of flicking alternate wings:TomBedford.20160520.3179-1

But the nearest thing to a Rufous-headed Robin we encountered was just a better view of a Indian Blue Robin, again through much forest:TomBedford.20160520.3165-1

With the early afternoon heat being felt, we turned our attention to the fabulous scenery of Jiuzhaigou National Park:TomBedford.20160520.9924-1

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Such scenery attracts people and back on the pathways around the lakes, we came into contact with thousands of Chinese tourists. The men were doing what Chinese men do best, most were smoking heavily. The Chinese women were all armed with selfie sticks, though not many had the pink ones we had braved at the entrance. Remarkably and without warning, all around us Chinese women with a selfie sticks would fall into poses and start taking selfies, in a very unselfconscious fashion: TomBedford.20160520.9931-1

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Picking over the prostrate forms of selfie sticking Chinese tourists, we tried to keep on finding birds. Roland picked out Great Spotted and Crimson-breasted Woodpecker (below):TomBedford.20160520.3232-1

Bar-tailed Treecreeper:TomBedford.20160520.3282-1

It was getting towards late afternoon. Our failure to see Rufous-headed Robin meant that we would have to stay in the park overnight, which gave us the opportunity to try for the robin again in the morning and at first light.  We headed back to the Zechawa community village and Roland negotiated the semi officially tolerated arrangements to stay in the village overnight:TomBedford.20160520.9949-1

I thought that might be it for the day, but Roland had other ideas. He suggested that we take one of the tourist buses up towards Upper Season Lake and walk the 8-10km back downhill to the village. Unfortunately the bus ascended higher than we anticipated, leaving us to complete a 14km route march before dusk fell. The bonuses were Himalayan Bluetails, Grey-hooded Fulvettas and, at just under 3000m, our first Kloss’s Leaf Warbler (a Claudia’s type, identifiable by call):TomBedford.20160520.3327-1

We walked back into the village at dusk, serenaded by Lesser and Large Hawk Cuckoos calling from the darkening forest. It had been another long day, lots of good birds but the central character was still absent without leave. We would try again in the morning for Rufous-headed Robin. TomBedford.20160520.3317-1

Next: Needletail wonderland.

China 10: Zoige to Jiuzhaigou National Park

Thursday 19th May 2016

Today we leave the Tibetan plateau and head for one of China’s most famous national parks, Jiuzhaigou:Zoige to JNP text

But first, a pre-breakfast couple of hours of birding around Zoige. We try again for Tibetan Shrike on the usual territory outside of town, but once again are without luck. There are Ruddy Shelducks on their morning flights above the plateau and small flocks of Greylag Geese following the river through town. The rufiventris Black Redstarts up here were very smart – much more orange than black in these beauties:TomBedford.20160519.2808-1

By the river that flows through Zoige we located our only Tiger Shrike of the trip…TomBedford.20160519.2754-1

…  and we get better views of the local Brown-headed Gulls:TomBedford.20160519.2765-1

Common Terns also whipped around overhead, some gathering to perch together on the phone wires that crossed the river. Flocks of Common Terns perching on wires, something I had never seen before: TomBedford.20160517.1978-1

We then headed back to our hotel, the improbably named “Le Grand Large Hotel”. We picked up our bags and began preparing for the drive south east towards Jiuzhaigou. Whilst packing our vehicle, I saw children playing in a school yard next to our hotel in Zoige:TomBedford.20160519.2775-1

Education in China is a long and laborious process. Each school day is far longer than the equivalent day in Europe. Educational content focuses more on repetition than on analysis. Vast swaths of information await each child, who must memorise much and analyse little. Roland noted that the Chinese symbol for a child learning, 學, resembles a child with a box for a head, ready to be filled with state-controlled data. It is not simply that the nature of the language means that that there are several thousand basic characters to learn. Education is far more political than that. The very first words a child learns at school are “I am Chinese. I love China“. The nation state is named before the individual. Contrast this with my youngest daughter’s first learnt words at nursery: “I am Yasmin“. The individual does not come first in China. The primacy of the state and therefore the Communist Party, are embedded at an early age.

The fixation with memorising information also extends to the Chinese driving test. To the visiting European it appears simply incredible that such a thing even exists. Driving in China is a vaguely organised dangerous chaos. But you can only drive in China with a licence. In the theory test there are 1000 possible questions, but each candidate is informed that only 100 will be asked. Therefore all 1000 correct answers have to be memorised. A pass is given if 90% of the questions are answered correctly. The tortuous story of a non-Chinese citizen attempting this feat, and some of the bizarre questions that can be asked, is nicely recounted here. We picked up some steamed buns for breakfast from a street vendor, said goodbye to Zoige and hit the roads of south-west China:TomBedford.20160519.9823-1

We crossed the south-east corner of the Tibetan plateau where fresh snowfall greeted us at the pass at 3,875m (12,700 feet): TomBedford.20160519.9829-1

We then descended 400 metres and pulled up alongside a river valley filled with low shrubs and dwarf willows. There was birdsong. White-bellied Redstarts sang, European Cuckoos called and, even more surreal, an Asian Red-rumped Swallow glided overhead. Not an easy morning for an insectivore at 3,400m altitude. But we were here for something much more special: Siberian Rubythroats. They may skulk, but in early spring when pumped full of breeding hormones, they do respond to playback. You never forget the first time that you see the luminous red throat of a Siberian Rubythroat. It positively flashes out, enhanced by the white moustachial stripe and exaggerated by the overall plainness of the rest of the bird. Indeed, except for the throat area, Siberian Rubythroats are very well camouflaged: TomBedford.20160519.2831-1

But it is all about that throat, a red lighthouse flashing out:TomBedford.20160519.2820-1

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Even so, they do remain masters at keeping a branch or a leaf between any observers and themselves:

We worked our way down from the plateau, passing through villages and towns. There were a couple more stops in vegetated valleys that produced more Siberian Rubythroats plus White-throated Redstarts, Rufous-breasted Accentors and warblers: Hume’s, Alpine Leaf and Sichuan Leaf Warblers. We pass a mosque in one town reflecting our western location, historically influenced by Islam from Asia:TomBedford.20160519.9845-1

Over a lunchtime bowl of noodles, we were approached by this shifty looking group of men:TomBedford.20160519.9835-1

They secretively unfurled a bag of caterpillar fungus, visible in the carrier bag on the table in the picture above. This traditional Chinese remedy consists of a fungus whose spores kill the caterpillars of the Ghost Moth. The fungus then grows a fruiting body, a kind of tuber, from the caterpillar corpse, which itself goes on to produce more spores. It is this fruiting body which is used to “treat” ailments affecting the lungs, kidneys and for helping reduce erectile dysfunction. As Roland, Ian and I were drinking and breathing perfectly normally, I can only assume that the herb dealers thought that we looked like we required help in another department.

Caterpillar fungus is the second most expensive Chinese medicinal product after rhino horn. Had the herb dealers been offering us rhino horn, I am not sure that I would have been able to control myself. It is exactly these completely misplaced beliefs that power the poaching industry in Africa that has decimated the Rhino population. The influence of the behaviour of a country with 1.4 billion people stretches a long way. And there is a lot of blood on their hands:SouthAfricaRhinoPoaching2015_medium

By late afternoon we are on the edge of the forests that cover the valleys of this part of south-west China. We are here for another crack at Sichuan Wood Owl, following our failure at Baxi. Frustratingly we fail again. However, the steeply wooded valleys hold some pretty good birds. Singing male Himalayan Bluetail – surely the best looking member of the world’s Red-flanked Bluetail family?TomBedford.20160519.2880-1

Grey-headed Bullfinches are always good to see:TomBedford.20160519.2918-1

A (as yet unidentified) Pika rushed out onto the path in front of me. Perfect owl food: TomBedford.20160519.2869-1

We ended the day in glorious sunshine in the fabulous scenery around the Jiuzhaigou National Park:TomBedford.20160519.9871

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The forests held Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, our first Chinese Nuthatches and Oriental Turtle Doves. On the ground we found this lovely Chestnut Thrush:TomBedford.20160519.2983-1

We then drove into hell. The contrast between the lush green forests surrounding Pengfeng village and the straight-out-of-Vegas plastic fantastic tourist hell was almost physically overwhelming. The town acts as the accommodation hub for the thousands of daily visitors to the national park. We were completely unprepared for a 10km long strip of neon, hotels, bars, restaurants and tourists:TomBedford.20160519.9881-1

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We were here for one reason and one reason only. To hear, and hopefully see, Rufous-headed Robin. This bird was the final piece in our rare Robin jigsaw. Having succeeded with Blackthroat and Firethroat on our first day we would need some serious luck to complete the rare Robin trilogy. Rufous-headed Robin is one of the world’s rarest birds. Juveniles are completely unknown and undescribed, females are virtually never seen and there is only one record of a female being photographed. In only one area on Earth tiny numbers of singing males can be found in spring:  here in Jiuzhaigou National Park. Last year one male was heard on one day. Tomorrow we would find out if 2016 would be our lucky year.

Next: Jiuzhaigou National Park, the search begins…

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