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Sichuan and Shaanxi - China Tour Report
4th - 25th June 2009

Our tour to the heart of China was very enjoyable, even if it did get a little strenuous at times. We were able to get well off the beaten track and see for ourselves, how life is lived in rural China, which is in great contrast, to the rapidly modernizing way of life, currently enveloping the larger cities and towns of China. We enjoyed birding in some incredibly beautiful mountains, experienced tasty food and saw some superb birds and mammals. Birding highlights included such beautiful and difficult to find species as Crested Ibis, Mandarin Duck, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Temminck's Tragopan, Golden and Lady Amherst's Pheasants, Hill Pigeon, Crested Kingfisher, Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Citrine Wagtail, Blyth's Pipit, Swinhoe's Minivet, Spotted Bush-Warbler, White-browed Tit-Warbler, Emei Leaf-Warbler, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, White-throated Redstart, Little Forktail, Snowy-cheeked and Red-faced Laughingthrushes, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Spectacled and Ashy-throated Parrotbills, White-browed and Rusty-breasted Tits, Sichuan Treecreeper, Spotted Nutcracker, Grey-headed Bullfinch and Slaty Bunting. Mammalian highlights included Moupin Pika, Woolly Hare, Masked Palm Civet, Reeve's Muntjac, Takin, the rarely seen Long-tailed Goral, and best of all, superb and lengthy looks at the equally seldom encountered, Asiatic Black Bear.

Following a long and exhausting flight from Australia; we arrived at Chengdu, China's fourth largest city and the bustling capital of Sichuan province. Before leaving the plane; Chinese quarantine officers came aboard and checked everyone's temperature by pointing a hand-held mechanical device at each persons forehead. One hapless Chinese girl was promptly removed from the plane to be tested for Swine Flu, we all felt for her. Once we had disembarked from the plane we had to go through quarantine, where Michael was given a thorough grilling by up to half a dozen quarantine officers. At length I managed to convince them that Michael had only a slight cold and not Swine Flu. We were then met by our local guide Zu and our driver Cheng, who welcomed us to Sichuan, telling us, that we were the first birding group to visit the area since the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan, 13 months earlier.

Following a good nights sleep, in a very comfortable hotel in downtown Chengdu. We began the long drive to Wawu Shan Geopark, driving through the fertile Red Basin. While driving through the sprawling suburbs of Chengdu we managed to see Cattle Egret, Feral Pigeon, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, Light-vented Bulbul, Black Drongo, Crested Myna and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. In and around the town of Mingshan, still birding from the bus, we added House Swift and Long-tailed Shrike.

After driving through the large town of Yaan, we headed towards Wawu Shan Geopark, but made a couple of birding stops along The Quing Yi River. The birding here proved to be very good and we added Little Egret, Indian and Common Cuckoos, Grey-headed Woodpecker, both White and Grey Wagtails, several attractive Collared Finchbills, Brown-breasted and Himalayan Black Bulbuls, Brown Dipper, many Blue Whistling-thrushes, Common Blackbird, both males and females of the delightful Plumbeous Water-Redstart, good close looks at both Little and White-crowned Forktails, Grey Bushchat, Hawamei, Coal and Great Tits, Japanese White-eye, Grey-backed Shrike, Hair-crested Drongo, Red-billed Blue Magpie, White-rumped Munia and Grey Treepie. We also made a surprise find of three female Mandarin Ducks along the edge of the river. We were also very pleased to find a flock of 15 or so, range-restricted Ashy-throated Parrotbills. On entering Wawu Shan Geopark, our only new bird was a superb female Lady Amherst's Pheasant, who walked across the road in front of us and then perched on a concrete roadside balustrade, before disappearing into the forest.

The following morning before breakfast we drove slowly down the mountain hoping to see a pheasant or two along the roadside! In no time at all we saw a male Temminck's Tragopan at the side of the road and we slammed on the brakes. To our surprise, the bird did not dash away into the forest; it stood on top of one of the concrete balustrades and just looked at us. The light was not great, as it was still early in the morning, even so, we could see every feather! A little further down the road and a second male Temminck's Tragopan did the same thing, this time in better light, the views were breathtaking; he then jumped off the concrete balustrade and began to forage in the middle of the road! Continuing down the road a Red-winged Laughingthrush flew across the road in front of the bus, enabling us to see it fairly well.

Following breakfast we decided to take the cable car, onto the top of the plateau. Here we birded along the walking trail but unfortunately there was low cloud and most of the time we could only see a few metres in front of us. Occasionally, the clouds would rise and enable us to see a few birds before clouding over again. Despite the appalling weather, we managed to find Horsfield's Cuckoo, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, Buff-throated, Buff-barred and Bianche's Warblers, Large-billed and Klossi's Leaf-Warblers, Brown-breasted and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, a pair of Elliot's Laughingthrushes were observed foraging on the track, we found a small flock of Streak-throated Fulvettas, a very showy White-collared Yuhina and Mrs. Gould's Sunbird. The highlight here was our observation of several recently split Sichuan Treecreepers, as they climbed the trunks of ancient fir trees. On returning to our hotel, by cable car, we walked the road for a little while, adding Green-backed Tit and Stripe-throated Yuhina, to our ever growing list. While on the plateau we also encountered our first mammal; we enjoyed observing a solitary Swinhoe's Striped Squirrel, as it climbed along the branches of a nearby tree.

The following morning we awoke to find it raining hard, which unfortunately, it did for most of the day. Undaunted, we spent all day birding at different altitudes along the road in the park and we even managed to find some highly sought-after species of birds. We enjoyed scope views of Speckled Woodpigeon and Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeons sitting side by side, in the same tree. We watched a small flock of White-throated Needletails, which had a lone Himalayan Swiftlet amongst them. We very much enjoyed watching close Long-tailed Minivets and both Greenish Warbler and Emei Leaf-Warbler feeding juveniles. The Chestnut-crowned Warbler is a real gem and we enjoyed good looks at one or two. Red-billed Leiothrix added some class to the day list, which we rounded off with Black-chinned Yuhina and Black-throated and Yellow-bellied Tits. We also saw our first Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel, which was to prove much more common later in the tour, in the Foping Biosphere Reserve.

The following day was a very long travel day as we drove from Wawu Shan to Tangjiahe National Park, which took us all of 14 hours, due to road works, which were made necessary by the massive earth quake that hit the area 13 months previously. To us the rebuilding of the roads was a minor inconvenience, on one occasion, it took us 12 hours to drive 300 kilometres! To the people living in Sichuan the quake was devastating. On the afternoon of 12th May 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan Province, killing approximately 90,000 people and leaving a further 18,000 missing. Over 15 million people live in the area affected by the quake; many of them lost both their homes and loved ones in the earthquake. Within hours the Chinese government responded with a massive relief effort; military aircraft, trains, trucks, and helicopters all began to converge on the area en mass, including 300, 747 flights from Beijing and Shanghai, carrying personnel and supplies. 100,000 troops were flown in, 450,000 tents, thousands of tons of high protein biscuits, instant noodles and water. Large sections of seven expressways were severely damaged; the bases, tunnels and bridges of five national highways and 10 provincial highways were also destroyed. In rural areas alone, more than 17,000 kilometres of roads were demolished. The rebuilding effort is of massive proportions; to witness the people of Sichuan rebuilding their roads, homes and lives, was a tribute to the resilience of the Chinese people.

As we drove through Wawu Shan Geopark, a Eurasian Jay flew across the track ahead of us. Close to a hydro-electric dam, we stopped for tea and coffee and in the nearby scrub we watched a Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher and a Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler. Several Chinese Pond-Herons were seen in the rice paddies we passed and a couple of Spotted Doves flew past. A petrol stop produced Oriental Magpie-Robin and White-browed Laughingthrush. A small dam held three Little Grebes, we saw a Black-naped Oriole fly in front of the bus and a Common Kestrel was also observed flying along the roadside. At another petrol stop, we found a beautiful male Russet Sparrow. Along the river leading to Tangjiahe National Park, we watched a pair of Crested Kingfishers and Frank saw a Black-capped Kingfisher. We also saw a Eurasian Magpie, on the road ahead of us.



On our first day in Tangjiahe National Park, we spent the morning birding along the road, above our accommodation. Here we saw a splendid Crested Goshawk performing its ariel display flight, had close looks at a female Red-collared Dove, enjoyed good looks at a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, brief looks at a Great Spotted Woodpecker, watched a flock of Asian House Martins, saw lots of Claudia's Warblers, watched a superb male Korean Flycatcher, a few flocks of Chinese Fulvettas, a few Large-billed Crows and a family party of splendid Slaty Buntings. In the afternoon we birded at a lower altitude in the park, which returned us, an adult male Asian Koel, a very active Marten's Warbler and a small flock of diminutive Rufous-capped Babblers. However, the icing on the cake today, were the mammals; we saw lots of Pere David's Rock Squirrels messing around amongst the boulders along the edge of the river, enjoyed excellent looks at the normally very secretive Reeve's Muntjac and best of all, we enjoyed superb and prolonged looks at an Asiatic Black Bear, out in the open, just across the river. He put on a superb display for us, as he foraged around in an area of abandoned farm terraces.

The morning of the following day was spent walking a rather slippery and very steep walking trail that led to the Grand Meadow. It was very tough going and the birds were few and far between. We set off early in the morning, in the hope of finding a Golden Pheasant along the roadside, as we had with Temminck's Tragopan. Our bus came to a screeching halt when a small game bird was spotted at the side of the road. Unfortunately, the bird ran across the road and disappeared up the hillside. It was the seldom seen, Chinese Bamboo Partridge. The bus came to a second screeching halt, when a male Golden Pheasant was seen in the middle of the road. The bird walked over a small rise in the road, so we disembarked from the bus and proceeded to follow it, on foot. To our great surprise the bird continued to walk down the middle of the road, allowing us brilliant looks at what must surely be one of the world's most beautiful birds.

Before starting our long walk, we ate a picnic breakfast and while doing so, we enjoyed prolonged looks at another of the world's most beautiful birds, the stunning White-capped Water-Redstart, which sat on a boulder in the middle of the river. The valleys rang with the song of Claudia's Warbler but the difficult walk only produced one new bird, a flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes, which we saw very well.

In the afternoon, we walked a section of the main road in the park. New birds included a fine Eurasian Hoopoe and a pair of fairly obliging Vinous-throated Parrotbills. The afternoon, was bright and sunny and it was the first time on the tour that we had not had overcast and cloudy conditions. This enabled us to look for birds flying above us. This produced a small flock of Fork-tailed Swifts and a distant pair of Golden Eagles, soaring over a couple of high peaks. As we continued along the road, a large and very noisy front-end loader rumbled past us. As it did so, it flushed a huge Eurasian Eagle-Owl from its roosting place in the forest; the owl flew across the river in front of us and disappeared into the forest, on the opposite side of the river. Try as we may, we were unable to relocate it. As Frank was scanning the hillside he noticed a mammal on the steep cliff face, in the forest. This allowed us to enjoy good scope views of the very seldom seen Long-tailed Goral.

The following day dawned bright and sunny, so we went for a long walk along the nature trail. It was a beautiful deciduous forest and yellow daisy's carpeted the forest floor but once again, birds were few and far between and the only new bird for us was a small flock of rather plain Grey-cheeked Fulvettas.

In the afternoon we birded the road above our accommodation where a Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler, actually showed itself and we saw our second male Golden Pheasant, in a small depression by the roadside. It was in full sunlight and it even hopped up onto a rock, so that we could see it even better. The colours of the feathers were extremely vibrant, the reds and yellows, in particular, appeared to shimmer in the sunlight, it was a thrilling experience. A little spotlighting after dinner produced a Masked Palm Civet, in the grounds of our hotel.

The following day was a very long travel day; as we drove from Tanjiahe National Park, to Jiuzhaigou. As we approached the town of Qingxi, we stopped to observe a Daurian Redstart which we saw along the roadside, some of the group also saw a couple of Grey-capped Greenfinches. On the approach to the town of Gucheng we made roadside stops to look at a Peregrine Falcon, which flew by, a pair of Oriental Turtledoves and a splendid Asian Barred Owlet, which was perched on roadside telegraph wires. In the afternoon we did some birding at the Huang Tou Liang Mountain Pass, in oak, juniper and rhododendron woodlands. Birds were plentiful here; a Common Buzzard flew overhead, Rosy Pipits in full-breeding plumage were displaying overhead, Rufous-breasted Accentors perched in the tops of nearby bushes. A pair of seldom-seen Spotted Bush-Warblers, scolded us from the top of another nearby bush, Blue-fronted Redstarts flitted from bush to bush, a flock of Beautiful Rosefinches flew around for a while, perching occasionally, before flying away. Tickell's Leaf-Warblers were plentiful; we watched a very obliging White-winged Grosbeak and best of all, a superb adult male White-browed Rosefinch, sat on the top of a small bush and posed perfectly for us. Late in the afternoon, we enjoyed great looks at the beautiful Chestnut Thrush, along the edge of the road.

The next morning our first birding stop was at Gan Sea Lake, where we found small numbers of Mallards and a Black-capped Kingfisher. We then went for a long walk in an upland area, which produced a flurry of birds. We were able to watch a Lammergeier fly close by; small numbers of more common Himalayan Griffons were also seen. We saw several Common Pheasants of the distinctive Sichuanensis race, an Oriental Skylark was seen along with Blyth's Pipit, several superb Kessler's Thrushes, a nesting pair of White-browed Tit-warblers were greatly appreciated, there were a few Dusky Warblers and splendid male Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats sang their hearts out from the tops of bushes, a White-throated Redstart showed briefly, along with several Siberian Stonechats and we enjoyed great looks at the endemic White-browed Tit and a pair of Woolly Hares.

We had lunch in the town of Chuanzhusi were we also saw Black-eared Kites and nesting Common Swifts and Eurasian Crag Martins. An afternoon visit to an area of upland peat bogs produced a pair of Ruddy Shelducks, which were pointed out by our tremendous driver, Mr. Cheng. A solitary Common Redshank was found, a superb Citrine Wagtail, in full breeding plumage, several Carrion Crows, a pair of Common Ravens and last but by no means least, a flock of a dozen or so Twite.

We spent the whole of the following day, along with half the population of China, or so it seemed, walking the boardwalks of the very popular Jiuzhaigou National Park. It was like a cross between a national park and a theme park, with dozens of buses driving here and there and literally hoards of Chinese tourists. The scenery in the park was spectacular and we even managed to find and enjoy several new birds. These included good numbers of Chinese Leaf-warblers, a Hume's Warbler, a couple of Grey-crowned Warblers, a pair of Slaty-backed Flycatchers and a female Orange-flanked Bush-Robin put in an appearance. We enjoyed good looks at the endemic Rusty-breasted Tit, a solitary Chestnut-flanked White-eye, a female Vinaceous Rosefinch and a superb pair of Grey-headed Bullfinches. We also enjoyed a few quick sightings of very active Siberian Chipmunks.

We spent the following day birding at high altitude at Xue Bao Ding Pass. The drive to and from the pass gave us a great insight into Tibetan culture as we drove through many Tibetan villages, with their distinctive architecture, hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags and water prayer-wheels and large herds of Yaks. At the pass itself, new birds included a pair of Hill Pigeons, a small flock of Red-billed Choughs and a large flock of Yellow-billed Choughs. We also enjoyed watching a family party of Moupin Pikas; a small rabbit-like animal that lives in burrows in the ground. During the drive back to our hotel, we stopped at a service station for a toilet break, in the town of Chuanzhusi, where we found a female Black Redstart. Just outside Jiuzhaigor; we walked the boardwalk at Gan Sea Lake, where we added several Common Moorhens and a solitary White-breasted Waterhen.

The following day was very much a travel day; as we drove from Jiuzhaigou to Guangyuan, in Shaanxi Province. For most of the journey the road was under repair, after being severely damaged during the earthquake. It was very slow going and did not produce any new birds.

The following morning was taken up with the long drive from Guangyuan to Yangxian. In the afternoon we went birding along the bank of the Han River. The main focus of our attention here was to see the severely endangered Crested Ibis. Not so long ago it was thought that this species was extinct in the wild. Then rumors began to circulate, that they had been found in a remote valley in central China. The rumors proved to be true, but even here, in 1981 the total world population was down to seven birds. With careful planning and management the number of Crested Ibis in the area is approximately 700. We would be happy with one! Shortly after arriving at the river Frank spotted a pair feeding in the shallows. We then enjoyed prolonged scope views of this attractive species of Ibis. Other new species found here and at a nearby heronry included Grey Heron, Great Egret, Black-crowned Night- Heron, Little Ringed Plover, Zitting Cisticola, Long-tailed Tit, Swinhoe's Minivet and Ashy Drongo.

The following morning dawned misty and overcast, undaunted, we birded the forested hills above Yangxian, finding two new birds, Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler and Red-billed Starling. After a superb lunch we drove to Foping National Biosphere Reserve, where we spent the night at the reserve headquarters.

We then spent the next three days birding in this designated United Nations Biosphere Reserve. The reserve has the highest density of Giant Pandas in the wild. Unfortunately, at this time of year, they are in the much cooler tops of the mountains, not around the rather basic panda research station, where we were staying. Keep tuned for a Giant Panda Expedition, in the near future, in the winter months! On the mammal front; we were very fortunate to find an adult male Takin, of the golden colour morph, right at the side of the track we were waling along, it took off in the opposite direction, at great speed. During our time here the professional panda trackers, accompanied us and seeing that here were no pandas to find for us, they were more than happy to point out some birds for us, plus I might add, some fairly fresh Giant Panda droppings. One of our more interesting finds here was a Mountain Bulbul, which according to the field-guide we were using, was several hundred kilometres north of where it should have been. Other new birds for us included Ferruginous Flycatcher, a female Rufous-bellied Niltava, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Eurasian Nuthatch, Spotted Nutcracker and Black-faced Bunting. In the mixed species foraging flocks we found the Chinese endemic Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush, the spectacular Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Spectacled Parrotbill and Sooty Tit.

This completed a most enjoyable and successful tour to China, where a good time was had by all.

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