China 15: lowland birding around Dujiangyan

Tuesday 24th May 2016

Essentially a travel day, but there was some morning birding around Dujiangyan in the Chengdu basin, before the drive south to Longcanngou.

We awoke in Dujiangyan to the aftermath of last night’s Sichuan hotpot. Vast quantities of oil and hot spices have a predictable effect upon the gut. Details are not necessary here, but suffice to say that we now refer to this local specialty as Sichuan Hotbot. We meet Roland round the corner from the hotel and indulge in some local park birding. House Swifts cuts swathes above us, our fourth species of Swift on the trip so far:TomBedford.20160524.4411-1

Then two cracking birds in quick succession. The wonderfully named Fire-breasted Flowerpecker flew in to perch on a nearby tree…TomBedford.20160524.4427

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.. and then Roland located a Northern Boobook Owl perched in a large tree next to some local tower blocks. Any day that you see an Owl is a good day:TomBedford.20160524.4459

We moved into a local park and found Swinhoe’s Minivets and Forest Wagtails in the treetops. At ground level, some humans were engaging in Tai Chi:TomBedford.20160524.4481-1

Whilst others were teaching their dogs to dance to music. This is apparently unremarkable behaviour in China:TomBedford.20160524.4473-1

The local insect life was interesting too:TomBedford.20160524.4485-1

When Sichuan hotpot is your local specialty, emergency toilets are essential. We found these at the edge of the park:TomBedford.20160524.4484-1

Having checked out of our hotel, we then drove the short distance to the hills just outside of town, visible in the background, below:TomBedford.20160524.4488-1

It was Drongo time. We were greeting by calling Drongo Cuckoo and Hair-crested Drongo; a Black Baza drifted overhead whilst we watched Japanese White-eyes and Rufous-faced Warblers; a Pallas’s Squirrel scuttled through the canopy. Chinese Bamboo Partridge called, but remained hidden. Slightly higher up Indian Cuckoos called and we had our only glimpse of Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher. Rural folk worked the land:TomBedford.20160524.4525-1

Best of all, we caught up with another Forktail species. We had tantalizingly brief views of an adult and a juvenile Slaty-backed Forktail flitting about in a stream.  As lunch approached we drove back into Dujiangyan, finding a Long-billed Plover on the shingle banks of the river in town. After lunch we traveled south through Sichuan towards our final destination, Longcanggou, a mountain of forest, mud and rain. The drive through cool hills and tea plantations, punctuated by huge advertising hordings, was typically Chinese. As we climbed the foothills below Longcanggou we paused to see Elegant Bunting and Lesser Cuckoo and were then surprised to see this Chinese Water Snake (?) cross the road in front of us:TomBedford.20160524.4613

It had the distinctive habit of hiding it’s head behind the curls of it’s body:TomBedford.20160524.4633

At dusk we checked into our accommodation for the first of 3 nights. Ominously, the rain began to fall again.

Next: Longcanggou: dragging gems from a fog shrouded, mud covered mountain.

China 14: Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, day 2

Monday 23rd May 2016

A morning spent attempting to get into the mountains around Tangjiahe, followed by an afternoon drive south towards Chengdu.T2 text

Dawn breaks and for the first time in 36 hours it has stopped raining. There is low cloud clinging to the forests but we are optimistic about our chances of getting into the core zone with it’s special birds. TomBedford.20160523.4214-1

One very special bird that I was getting increasingly concerned about seeing was Temminck’s Tragopan. Ever since our first glimpse on day one at Wolong and our second slightly longer glimpse at Balangshān, we have been patiently waiting for a decent look at this spectacular orange and blue pheasant. From the reports that were reaching us of conditions and sightings at Longcanngou, our final destination on this trip, we were not guaranteed to see Temminck’s Tragopan there. So in order to see one of the most iconic birds of this region, we had to get up into the mountains around our hotel. And we have to do this today, as we were due to depart the area this afternoon. To do this we have to hire a Tangjiahe guide, access to the higher areas is forbidden without one. Our optimism lasts about as long as Roland’s first phone call to reserve centre. They tell us that we will not be able to ascend today due to a landslide on the approach road. This is deeply frustrating. Wanting to make the most of a dry dawn we scout around the short walks close to the hotel. On the river are a pair of Crested Kingfisher and a Brown Dipper:TomBedford.20160523.4178-1

On a small sidestream we call in our first forktail. These are special birds and like many special birds they have no interest in hanging around human beings. In a flash of black and white a White-crowned Forktail appears, perches for a moment and then is gone:TomBedford.20160523.4187-1

We move into the forest across the bridge from the hotel. A sign welcomed us:TomBedford.20160523.4198-1Noted. It turned out to be a good day a for wacky signs.

There are Blyth’s Pipits, a calling Great Barbet, Yellow-bellied Tits and the usual phylloscopus warblers. If it is flicking one wing, then it is a Claudia’s Leaf Warbler:TomBedford.20160523.4199-1

Eventually we pick out an Ultramarine Flycatcher in the canopy, this Slaty Bunting was rather more co-operative:TomBedford.20160523.4227-1

But Roland is nothing if not persistent. Eventually his persistence pays off. We get a call from hotel reception informing us that we can access the higher areas of the mountain. Then we get a call saying that we can’t. We head back to the hotel for breakfast, depressed at the uncertainty. Eventually we get a green light to go and it stays on. We take a 9:15am bus up the into the adjoining valley. Half way up we pass the landslide. The scale of it had us shaking our heads in sad laughter. Imagine that a small child had tipped over a bucket of earth and had left it on the roadside. Well, it probably wasn’t even that big. To think that this tiny pile of earth was the cause of us missing most of the morning on the mountain was laughable, had it not been true. There was no time for us to hire a Reserve guide. We would just ascend as high as we could with what was left of the morning and make the most of it. A Tibetan Macaque skipped across the bridge as we approached the trail-head:TomBedford.20160523.4240-1

We began walking up the trail, Spotted Bush Warblers called loudly, Large-billed Leaf Warblers were singing in good numbers. We pass what is perhaps my favourite ever warning sign… TomBedford.20160523.4242-1

… before coming across a noisy party of White-throated Laughingthrushes:TomBedford.20160523.4253-1

We get up to a decent altitude, into Tragopan territory. We scan the tracks, any open areas, the trees. We keep climbing. We enter an area with a bench or two, where there is short grass near the track. Roland tells us that we are close to the Tragopans’s roosting area. With hindsight, I think Roland knew what was up ahead. He calmly tells us that perhaps today is not going to be his day to find a Tragopan, perhaps Ian and I should go ahead on the track. Slightly puzzled we follow his instructions. Three minutes later in my extreme peripheral vision, I catch a glimpse of a dark partridge-like bird leaving a branch and flying down into thick vegetation to our right. I indicate that I have seen something to Roland and Ian. Scanning though the thickets, I am suddenly brought to a halt by a movement of the most vivid orange: TomBedford.20160523.4257-1

Remaining fractionally calmer than on my first encounter with Temminck’s Tragopan, I manage to announce that I have a male Temmincks Tragopan. Or rather I can see it’s back, moving sedately though the undergrowth, glowing like a bright orange cushion. Then it lift’s it’s head and the luminous blue face stares back at us. We are getting into serious Tragopan time: TomBedford.20160523.4263-1

Even better, our splendid male, continues his progress and to a chorus of gasps, wheezes and intakes of breath from Ian and I, breaks cover, revealing all his finery:TomBedford.20160523.4271-1

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Roland, if you are reading this, then thank you for stepping back and letting us stumble across these magnificent birds ourselves. I did however, pay in blood for the Tragopan. Lying in the leaf litter watching the Tragopan, I acquired my first leech bite, my first token of Asian birding:TomBedford.20160523.9992-1

We had to leave the core zone unexplored. Yesterdays rain and this morning’s inefficient bureaucracy had deprived us of those pleasures. It was time to descend, though we were still on a Tragopan-high. We came across Giant Parrotbills and more Golden-spectacled Warbler splits: Alström’s Warblers and Chestnut-crowned Warblers:TomBedford.20160523.4310-1

From Tangjiahe we then spent the afternoon driving south towards Chengdu. Various stops produced Daurian Redstart:TomBedford.20160523.4361

Yellow-bellied Tit…TomBedford.20160523.4382

… and my only half decent picture of Large-billed Leaf Warbler:TomBedford.20160523.4397-1

We stopped for lunch in Qingxi (I think), a town with a real feel of rural China:TomBedford.20160523.9974-1

Our lunchtime noodles were made in front of us, then boiled before the vegetables were added:TomBedford.20160523.9969-1

Men in Qingxi. The young:TomBedford.20160523.9976-1

The old:TomBedford.20160523.9986-1

And the middle-aged:TomBedford.20160523.9985-1

For me, rural china in this area was dominated by two things: paddyfields and huge adverts. The paddyfields were particularly abundant in the Chengdu basin:TomBedford.20160523.0013-1

Whilst huge adverts are a common theme across most of Sichuan and Eastern Tibet. They ranged from the enormous… TomBedford.20160523.9995-1

… to the surreal:TomBedford.20160523.9996-1

We finished the day back in Dujiangyan, where we insisted that Roland took us out to try a local specialty, Sichuan hotpot (pics by Ian): IMG_5802-1

There is a spicy side (the left side in the photo above) and a plain side.IMG_5803-2

Various meats, fish and vegetables are bought and dipped into the hot oil. Imagine a form of very hot spicy, oily fondu, involving dipping meats of an eye-opening selection of  animals. Then imagine the effect that this has on your guts overnight. Then times that by ten. That is Sichuan hotpot.

Next: Birding the foothills of Dujiangyan and onto Longcanngou.