29 June 2013

Jiuzhaigou Part II...CHINA (3rd June)

After some long hikes, and some frustrations the day before within this popular, well-regulated, park, our man on the ground Frank, (a legend in his own lifetime by virtue of the phenomenal food provided by him throughout the tour, whether it be in or out of the field; AND his ability to negotiate around some of the trickiest issues when birding in China-i.e. roadblock and the like), rustled up a private vehicle for us within Jiuzhaigou for the day. This led to my best day of birding of birding within the park in all my 6 visits to the area. We started by heading up to the highest point within the park, Long Lake (3150m/10,300ft). Although this area is very popular among tourists, for the amazing views over this scenic lake, which is surrounded by peaks capped with white tops, and draped on their lower slopes by tall pine forests, the first buses were not due until later, and so we enjoyed some time alone (bar some staff setting up their stalls for the day). However, before we had even reached the end of the road, which terminates at the lake, a large blue shape at the road verge, caused us to call the bus to sudden halt: Blue Eared-Pheasant. In the ensuing panic to get the bus manoeuvred into position so all could see the bird well enough, the bus driver backed the vehicle into a stone wall! Amazingly, the driver merely laughed at this, his pride a little crumpled like the bumper, and then re-positioned the vehicle. Unfortunately  by that point the bird had retreated back into the pines, so we got out and surveyed the grassy slope, in the forlorn hope of finding it again, only to witness the bird scamper out from cover and cross a broad, open patch of grass in full view of all of us!

Once we reached Long Lake, several attempts were needed to persuade the shy Snowy-cheeked (Sukatschev's) Laughingthrush to show to us, the third individual tried with remarkable success for a notoriously shy bird. We got it just in time before the first large batch of tourists arrived for the day, which was our queue to leave for lower elevations....This largely meant a revisit to the "Robin Valley" on the hunt for the elusive, though handsome, Rufous-headed Robin. This bird has currently just one known breeding site, (this narrow valley), which boasts only around 4-5 territories. The bird's presence was quickly confirmed though, through its rich, almost nightingale-like song, but over several hours we got only frustration as a few glimpsed the bird, but none with full satisfaction. Finally, after lunch and not a lot else, we went for a walk deeper into the woods, where, amazingly, a male hopped onto an open trail in front of us, and allowed us all more than respectable views as it remained there for a few treasured minutes!

Our next stop was a scenic one within the Rize Valley - at Pearl Shoales - an absolutely dramatic set of interlinked cascades, many of which have tall trees growing out of the water within them. We weaved our way past the Buddhist prayers flags, and joined the crowds admiring a very special landscape indeed, where we were sidetracked by the odd bird too, such as White-throated DipperWhite-capped Dipper, and even a male Rufous-bellied Niltava just off the official trail.

Finally, we rounded out the day with Maroon-backed Accentor, a group of Three-banded Rosefinches, and the odd male Vinaceous Rosefinch at the Primeval Forest.

 The next day we were to traverse the Tibetan Plateau en-route to the Tibetan town of Maerkang. A long, though bird-packed day...

27 June 2013

The Long March...CHINA (2nd June)

This was the first of two days for us in Jiuzhaigou National Park, in northern Sichuan. This park, designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a World Biosphere Reserve, consists of a number of dramatic valleys dotted with Tibetan villages, which lend to its name "Valley of Nine Villages". As a birder, traveling to this park presents its own challenges: the park does not open until 07.00am (well after dawn), and your movements within the park are restricted by having to use the large park buses. Although, us birders, do get frustrated by these rules, it is hard not to see why they are necessary, when they can get over a million visitors in a single year. Still, the valley remains poorly known to western tourists, strangely, in spite of its extraordinary beauty, it is rare to see western tourists in the park, which are outnumbered massively by Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists.

Our regular way of getting around the park rules, is to track down a local driver who will drop us off at places between the official bus stops, or take us up to some of the official areas before the first park buses, and tourists, arrive. This has worked well over the past 5 years for us, but came unraveled on this day, when our man on the ground, Frank, simply could not find anyone willing to do this. (Although, while he was looking we did find a Spectacled Fulvetta beside the large LCD screen at the park entrance!). What this meant for us was, we had to undertake our very own "Long March", and head 4km up the road to a narrow valley where we'd hoped to find the park's rarest bird: Rufous-headed Robin. As we walked up towards the "Robin Valley" we managed to find some interesting birds though: more Daurian Redstarts (one of which was actually hopping along the high-tech ticket barrier as we entered the park); our first angry Sooty Tits (an endemic species); and an aggressive  Chinese Nuthatch, which took particular exception to hearing another nuthatch in its territory.

After spending considerable time in the narrow valley searching for the elusive Rufous-headed Robin, only a few of us who were positioned at the front of the line, (Dixie and I, mainly), got a good look (or indeed any look) at the robin, and so we vowed to return the next day. So, we dropped down lower in the valley and walked around one of the myriad scenic lakes in the valley, where we found several parties of the endemic Spectacled Parrotbill hiding in the reeds, and, finally, found a Pere David's Laughingthrush on the dry scrubby hillside above our hotel in the town, to round out the day later on.

While we had endured some frustrations, (the long march, the robin etc.), we had added some key new birds, and I relished another day, and more challenges, in Jiuzhaigou to come the next day...

24 June 2013

REAL Pheasants...CHINA (1st June)

Leaving Chengdu at the crack of dawn we hunkered down in the van, and prepared for the Long Drive north into Tibetan country. Our destination was to be the bustling tourist Mecca of Jiuzhaigou, although we planned some stops en-route. Lunch in Songpan, one of the key stop off places on Mao's famous Long March, was interesting for the variety of Yak elements on offer to eat, such as these rows of Yak testicles for sale. For the group at least, they remained unsold!
After lunch we began scouring the agricultural fields which were being toiled in by many a Tibetan going about their daily business. Accompanying them were a fair number of Ring-necked (Common) Pheasants, here in their native home looking more appealing than some other places I have seen them over the years.

Finally, we rose up to the pass, Gong Gang Ling, where a passing flock alerted us to the presence of a pair of Crested Tit-Warblers foraging within the tall spruce trees. Down lower, near ground level, Chinese White-browed Rosefinches, a cerulean-backed male Himalayan Bluetail, and a blue-and-orange Slaty-backed Flycatcher provided an eye-catching supporting cast to avian events. As ever a merry band of leaf-warblers was also present, with Buff-barred, Greenish, and Sichuan Leaf-Warblers all present that chilly afternoon.

At the end of the day we checked into our Jiuzhaigou hotel, and readied ourselves for our first foray into the park of the same name the next day...

23 June 2013

Back to Chengdu...CHINA (31st May)

A final morning was spent on the mountain, mixing it up between the upper and lower slopes of Longcanggou. We began lower down in an area where a new road penetrates through pines and mixed broadleaf trees. We hit another flock there which, like a few days earlier, held Red-tailed Minla and male Ultramarine Flycatcher. Likewise we also saw another Slaty Bunting, although this time a female. A new addition to the mobbing flock of passerines attracted to my Collared Owlet tape was a Chestnut-crowned Warbler, one of the few from this group (seicercus warblers) that are easily identified on sight, rather than the need for sound.

Higher up the road, we, again, bumped into a small group of Temminck's Tragopan chicks scuttling off the side of the road, but, best of all, found a Little Forktail foraging alongside a small waterfall. Over a field lunch prepared meticulously by Frank, our man in Sichuan, which comprised of Chinese noodles, seasoned with chili oil, sesame oil and Chinese vinegar, we were visited by a pair of Great Parrotbills, and a confiding Brown Bush-Warbler sang alongside.

Next stop Chengdu, then on to Gong Gang Ling and Jiuzhaigou...

21 June 2013

Tragopanlets...CHINA (29-30 May)

Two further, full, days were spent birding the slopes of Longcanggou, south of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. This site has risen to more prominence in recent years as a stand-in site for the now closed Wawu Shan. So, where birders would search for bush-warblers, parrotbills, and a host of regional specialities (e.g. Emei Leaf-Warbler, Emei Liocichla etc.) on neighbouring Wawu Mountain, now Longcanggou has adopted the mantle.
The first of these days dawned wet, and surprisingly chilly for the southern shans, with the best activity coming from late in the morning onwards into the afternoon. A migrant male Tiger Shrike was found lurking in the forest, and we caught up with the odd Great Parrotbill, in exactly the place it wasn't the day before, but was the year before! In the afternoon, after a male Chinese Blue Flycatcher required some "going in" to extract views of it from within the thick bamboo; I noted a new road that had built through a mix of broadleaf and coniferous trees, ironically, as part of a re-forestation programme. 
This looked promising and so we walked down, flanked by conifer plantations on the one side and the rich and varied greens of a broadleaf woodland in springtime, on the other. The conifers produced the first blood though, with the high-pitched song of a male Slaty Bunting giving its position away to us. Further down the road, we adopted the well-worn tactic of playing the recording of a Collared Owlet to try and stir up the various passerines (songbirds) calling in the area. This worked best on this occasion than at any other time on the trip, (which never yielded the owl though). Long-tailed Minivets and Yellow-browed Tits were typically quick to react, rising to the tops of the trees and calling angrily. However, then the same canopy area was quickly alive with other, less predictable, visitors:  a lone Green Shrike-Babbler appeared just before a pair of Red-tailed Minla (a shock lifer for me) popped up too, closely followed by a Blue-winged Minla too, and then, the biggest surprise of all, an ivory-and-cerulean blue male Ultramarine Flycatcher! Late in the day we did a bit of crosscountry to access a narrow, in-forest river, where we finally all got cracking looks at a Pygmy Cupwing (formerly Pygmy Wren-Babbler), a species which had been toying with us all day long.

For our final, full, day we again decided to hike up to the upper slopes. A short stop lower down though quickly produced a hoped-for, though never guaranteed, pair of Golden Parrotbill, the bird that the term cute was created for. Driving on up the road further, we again came across some Temminck's Tragopan chicks crossing the road, one of which lingered for just enough time to hear the sound of my camera shutter working overtime. Reaching the marsh at nearly 2450m, we quickly realised that the cloud had not yet descended and visibility was atypically good for the place, and therefore quickly pushed on further in the hope of finding a pair of Sichuan Treecreepers which I had found on my scouting trip to the site a year earlier. The treecreeper remained un-found; even after a treecreeper was found in the same area, it turned out to be the more widespread Hodgson's Treecreeper, though still a new trip bird for us. We lunched in the area, in the hope the rarer treecreeper might appear, taking in instant rice, a singing, and scoped, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, and a Black-faced Laughingthrush as we did so. Then we turned about face and began to head down, when the unmistakable trill of a Sichuan Treecreeper reached our ears. A little duel ensued before the bird teed itself on a near dead fir tree. It was a great achievement  as I had missed it on my actual tour there last year, at this very same spot, and made the five-mile round hike worthwhile. We descended, picking up a pair of Brown Parrotbills around the marsh as we did so...

We just had one, final, morning left at Longcanggou, before we would have to head back to Sichuan's capital, and move deep in Tibetan country...

19 June 2013

Birding the Sichuan Shans...CHINA (28 May)

Our day on Loncanggou (our first of three), continued, post-Tragopan, and post-post-Tragopan celebrations, with a try for a more local species, and one which could proveas tricky as a tragopan to see: Emei (Grey-faced ) Liocichla, a rare and local species of laughingthrush that occurs on only a few mountains (shans) in SW China. Last year, in spite of hearing many, many of their loud calls at this "new" site it took us until the eleventh hour to get any kind of view of one. I seriously did not want to go through that again. So in the afterglow of the tragopan, and with one calling closeby, I initiated a tense and intense duel with the bird. It swiftly moved closer, evidenced by the jerky movement of the nearest fronds of bamboo, but no sign of the bird itself. Then suddenly its inhibitions were lost and pair pounced onto an open branch in a large broadleaf tree overhead. No repeat of last year, and so we could quickly move on!
Moving uphill, by vehicle, then by foot we checked out a spot where Nick Bray (again) had informed us that an earlier group had found a nesting pair of the rare Grey-hooded Parrotbill, another rare and local Chinese endemic, which we had missed altogether last year. Not so, again, this year, with a pair of these diminutive creatures popping up into the bamboo, barely 50 metres into our walk. If only all rare and local species would behave like this it was set to be one hell of a tour!

We pushed on upslope with the lure of further parrrotbills and key species, making it to a highland, bamboo-fringed marsh, the home of parrotbills and bush-warblers we hoped; and so it proved. Spotted Bush-Warbler (the most attractive of a rather attractive bunch), came in spectacularly well, doing everything but crawling across my shoe, and a fortuitous meeting with another bird guide on site (Loncanggou was crowded this year compared to last when we were the only group to visit during our time there), Sid Francis, who sent a messenger over (mid-Bush-warbler) to let us know our other main target bird there, Brown Parrotbill, was showing. I was getting to like all these other bird guides around, they were doing all the work for me (I assure you though I passed on info to them too, which I sincerely hope was also helpful!) We soon got mist-drenched views of the parrotbill, the descending mist scuppering our plans to head a little higher to the site of Sichuan Treecreeper. On the way back down the mountain in the afternoon we also added the endemic Pere David's Tit (another looker), and Golden-breasted Fulvetta (a serious looker), a Russet Bush-Warbler (NOT a looker), and the local, though unimpressive ( to my group anyway), Emei Leaf-Warbler too.
More from Loncanggou in Sichuan's southern Shans to come...

17 June 2013

Tasty Tragopans...CHINA (28 May)

This was to be the first landmark, red-letter day of the tour. We arrived at the Tiger Forest Resort in Loncanggou the evening before, where I swapped notes with another tour leader on site-Nick Bray-he was interested in our Barred Laughingthrush and Lady A news from Erlangshan, his next destination and I was, of course, interested in his tragopan news in particular from Longcanggou. Nick described an area where we had seen some females recently, and although not enthused about females, we had little choice but to try this spot on this morning. On arriving at the area, I soon realised this was almost the same spot where I had seen a spanking male on my scouting trip with Frank here last year. As we climbed out of the van, I glanced downslope, only to lock eyes with a male Temminck's Tragopan! It was looking alert, and by the time the rest of the group had got off the bus it had managed to slink back into the obscurity of the bamboo, where just a few hints of its red plumage could be made out. 
With most of the group having missed it, I tried the recording, at which point this splendid male came marching out of the bamboo onto the open slope, where it remained, looking immaculate and alert for 5 minutes, allowing scope views, and being completely tolerant of our loud exclamations at its extraordinary appearance. Another male, and a couple of females were noted closeby too, and by the end of the morning with some parties of chicks seen, we had amassed up to 10 individual tragopans, my personal best day count! The photos alongside may be poor, although hopefully even these show that the bird was NOT.

The remainder of the morning was spent working our way up to a marsh higher up, which offered, we hoped more special birds, notably parrotbills...

16 June 2013

Erlangshan...CHINA (25-26 May)

For the second consecutive year the Chinese government, and its never ending plans for tourist development in the country threw the proverbial spanner in the works for this year's Sichuan/Qinghai tour. Last year with the closure of the key birding site of Wawu Shan for tourist development for a number of years, we successfully checked out two new other sites: Loncanggou and Labahe. We had intended to visit both of these on the custom tour which I just led, but the government then closed Labahe also for further tourist development, leaving a gaping hole (especially where pheasants are concerned) in the itinerary. And so we tried Erlangshan, in the hope this would yield "Lady A", and some other goodies. Thankfully, while not a direct replacement for Labahe (where were easy the Temminck's Tragopans for example!?) , it worked well. In two morning "pheasant runs" we bumped into two different male Lady Amherst's Pheasants, the first one being a real thriller, in full breeding dress which casually sauntered across the road, while the second one was a dowdy immature male, with only glimmers of the beautiful plumage to come here and there. 

Also found at the site were a pair of glowing Golden Bush-Robins within the alpine scrub, and a superb pair of Barred Laughingthrush, which can often be a difficult endemic to see well, though clearly not this year. We also enjoyed two species of dipper sharing the same river: White-throated and Brown Dippers, and got spectacular looks at a buff-breasted morph of the Scaly-breasted Cupwing (formerly known as Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler). On top of that before we had even got to the site we racked up Chinese Hwamei (which was recently split from the Taiwanese form), which was found singing behind a random roadside restroom stop, the bird being attracted by the racquet coming from a caged one hung up by a local passing truck driver; unexpected!

Next up was high pressure stakes to find the tragopan at Loncanggou...

Into the Far East...CHINA (24 May)

OK, I have been "marooned" within the social media "blackhole" that is China. Yes, no Facebook, no Twitter, and of course, no blogging. It was hard to cope, but now I can get on with updating as I would have liked...
This was a custom tour of two provinces in China, Sichuan, the so-called Heavenly "Kingdom", and Qinghai to the north. After a marathon 36-hour journey I arrived in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu. This is quite possibly the biggest city that you've never heard of; some 14 million people! After a day recovering from rigours of international travel all of us spent a day touring the birding sites within the city. The city is spotlessly clean, unlike much of rural China, and the parks hold some great birds. We started out at the former home of a famous Tang Dynasty Poet, Du Fu, where we soon found some of the birds we were seeking: a dainty Rufous-faced Warbler led us to him by its soft tinkling calls, a butch Collared Finchbill posed for photos, while Chinese Grosbeak took a little more effort to find, but was eventually seen at all the three sited we visited in the city that day. Other common birds included Chinese Bulbul, Mandarin Blackbird, and Vinous-throated Parrotbill. With news that there had recently been a migrant Firethroat at the migrant hotspot of Chengdu University we took a stroll a round their well-manicured grounds, but only found a good resident in the form of White-cheeked Starling with no migrants in evidence.
 Lastly, we visited the extremely popular Giant Panda Breeding Centre, where the starts of the centre were out of their ai-conditioned rooms (I kid you not), and feeding outside on their prized bamboo shoots. The birds were good there too with Red-billed Leiothrix (formerly known as "Peking Robin"), Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler and Oriental Greenfinch, along with a confiding young White-browed Laughingthrush (unlike many other shy Chinese laughingthrushes in this respect).

At the end of the day our man-in-Sichuan, the legendary "Frank" took us for our first Sichuan meal of the tour, which was superb bar the dish of Yak cartilage which was not popular among anyone apart from maybe Frank! The Kung Pao Chicken was a better choice!

More from my adventures in the Far East to come soon...