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Giant Panda Expedtion Tour Report 2 - 13 December 2010

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 very much 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, Ferruginous Pochard, Hen Harrier, Crested Goshawk, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Golden Pheasant, Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher, Asian Barred Owlet, Grey-capped Pygmy-Woodpecker, Water Pipit, Dusky Thrush, Little Forktail, Barred Laughingthrush, Chinese Babax, Pallas's and Tickell's Leaf-Warblers, Hodgson's Redstart, Green Shrike-Babbler, Dusky Fulvetta, Spectacled and Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Sooty and Grey-crested Tits, Wallcreeper, Spotted Nutcracker, Grey-headed Bullfinch and Yellow-billed Grosbeak. Mammalian highlights included Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel, Pere David's Rock Squirrel, Swinhoe's Striped Squirrel, the rarely seen Red-and-white Giant Flying-Squirrel, and best of all, the rarely encountered Giant Panda.

Following a long and exhausting flight from Australia; we arrived at Xian, China's fourth largest city and the bustling capital of Shaanxi province. Here we were met by our local guide and driver and set off for our very comfortable hotel in downtown Xian. On the drive to our hotel, we noticed a couple of Common Kestrels along the roadside; the tour was off and running. Once we had settled into our hotel, we ate a very pleasant lunch and then visited the original wall around the old part of the city. Here we found a few Feral Pigeons and good numbers of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. We took a very relaxed stroll through some parkland in the heart of the city, known as Revolutionary Park. New birds here included Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, Common Blackbird, the very attractive Asian Azure-winged Magpie and a large flock of White-cheeked Starlings.

The following morning we drove to the now world-famous, Terracotta Warrior Exhibit. The Terracotta Warriors were only discovered in 1974, they had remained hidden under a layer of sand and earth for centuries. The Chinese government should be congratulated on creating an attractive and very informative archeological exhibit, which we all enjoyed visiting. We were joined by hundreds of mainly Chinese tourists to view the Terracotta Warriors who had been painstakingly put together again, piece by piece. For the latter part of the morning we did some birding in parkland, surrounding the exhibit. The birding was surprisingly, very good; new birds for the tour included large flocks of Oriental Turtle-Doves, a very obliging female White-backed Woodpecker, several Collared Finchbills, lots of Brown-breasted Bulbuls, a pair of delightful Pallas's Leaf-Warblers, referred to by British birders as `The Jewel of the East`, a few Great Tits, plenty of Red-billed Blue Magpies and best of all, a couple of adult male Yellow-billed Grosbeaks. In the afternoon, we went birding along the Ba River, on the outskirts of Xian, and this too, proved very rewarding. New birds here included, good numbers of Little Grebes, several Little Egrets, a single Ferruginous Pochard, which is always a good bird to see, several Common Pheasants, a solitary Common Moorhen, a beautiful Green Sandpiper, a dazzling Common Kingfisher, a small flock of Olive-backed Pipits and a large, but very shy, flock of Little Buntings.

After driving through the sprawling suburbs of Xian, we headed south towards the Foping Panda Reserve. We broke the long drive with a birding stop at the Black River Dam, at the foot of the Qinling Mountains, before making the accent to Foping township. Here we enjoyed watching a few Great Crested Grebes, swimming amongst the far more numerous Little Grebes, there was a lone Grey Heron along the edge of the dam, and then two adult female Hen Harriers came flying overhead and stayed for quite some time, as they quartered the grassland that surrounded the dam, searching for prey. A beautiful male Hodgson's Redstart then popped up in front of us, several very beautiful Black-billed Magpies were seen at close quarters, along with a few Large-billed Crows. A walk below some steep cliffs in the Qinling Mountains produced a very close Wallcreeper, which we were able to watch creeping around the steep cliffs. This was undoubtedly one of the great highlights of the tour and we were all very pleased to have found one. Following lunch in Foping, we birded along a narrow valley, which had a fast flowing stream, running right through the middle of it. The stream was surrounded by farmland and it was a very pleasant area to do some birding, and it also gave us the chance to observe every day life, in rural China. New birds for us included the stunning Crested Kingfisher, several playful White Wagtails, a solitary Winter Wren, a couple of very interesting Brown Dippers, a couple of very attractive Blue-fronted Redstarts, even more attractive White-capped Water-Redstarts and several delightful Plumbeous Water-Redstarts. We found a couple of rather skulking Hwameis, a few Green-backed Tits and a small flock of ground frequenting White-rumped Munias.

The following morning we drove the 24 kilometres to the Foping Panda Reserve; a designated United Nations Biosphere Reserve. There were still traces of snow along the roadside, and we were very happy to have five layers of clothing on! The reserve has the highest density of Giant Pandas in the wild, and this was our main reason for visiting during the very cold winter months, when the Pandas descend to a much lower altitude and are consequently, much easier to find. From the entrance of the reserve we set off on foot to walk the seven and half kilometre to the Panda Research Centre. There is no vehicle access in the reserve, only a narrow concrete walkway. We walked quite briskly, in order to reach the reserve by lunch time, not wanting to miss out on our lunch. During the walk we stumbled across a mixed species feeding flock, which contained a few new birds for us; they included the very uncommon Green Shrike-Babbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta and the uncommon Grey-crested Tit. In the afternoon we did some birding below the research centre, where we added a couple of uncommon Mountain Hawk-Eagles, stunningly attractive Golden Pheasants, Great Spotted Woodpecker, a few very attractive Rufous-breasted Accentors, a pair of very smart Dusky Thrushes, a delightful Little Forktail, which foraged in a stream, a few very shy flocks of Chinese Babax, very confiding Songar Tits, a Eurasian Nuthatch and a few very impressive Spotted Nutcrackers.

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 and at this time of year they come down to lower elevations, where we were hoping to see one or two. As we sat in a clearing amongst the very dense bamboo forest, our local Panda trackers set off in search of a Panda. Approximately an hour later, one of them came back to tell us that they had located one. What they didn't tell us, was that it would be very tough going, all up hill and all through very dense bamboo thickets. It was a very long and arduous trek and only the three youngest members of the party, managed to keep up with our guides. Shelley and I managed to enjoy a couple of quick looks at an adult Giant Panda, before it disappeared over a ridge. Unfortunately, Michael was unable to see it. An even more difficult trek, up an even steeper part of the mountain then followed; once again, we struggled to keep up with the local guides, who were taking us to see some other species of mammal, which they did not know the English name of. Eventually, Shelley, Michael and I arrived at a small valley, where the guides told us to watch a hole in a nearby tree. They scratched the tree, but nothing came out of the hole. They tried a second tree a little further up the valley, and this time, out popped a huge Red-and-white Giant Flying-Squirrel, which glided down the valley and onto the tree that we had originally been told to watch. It then climbed up the tree and disappeared into the hole in the trunk. It was a magnificent sighting of a truly splendid mammal.

Given that it was the middle of winter and it was very cold, even the waterfalls had partially frozen over, the birding was surprisingly good, and new birds for the tour came thick and fast. These included Crested Goshawk, the very distinctive japonicus race of Common Buzzard, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, both Grey-capped Pygmy and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, White-crowned Forktail, the rarely observed and little-known Barred Laughingthrush, the more widespread Elliot's Laughingthrush, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Dusky Fulvetta, Spectacled and Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Eurasian Treecreeper, Sooty Tit, Eurasian Jay and the delightful Grey-headed Bullfinch. Michael spent a second full day with the Panda trackers and this time, he was justly rewarded with good views of a Giant Panda; well done Michael. Other mammals seen in the reserve included Perny's Long-nosed Squirrel, Pere David's Rock Squirrel and Swinhoe's Striped Squirrel.

The following morning we drove the short distance to nearby Yangxian, where we did some birding in an agricultural area, where our main target bird was the Crested Ibis, which not so long ago, was thought to be extinct. 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 1,000. In no time at all, we were enjoying scope views of several of these rather prehistoric-looking birds. It was a real treat to see these beautiful birds, in their natural surroundings. Along with the Crested Ibis there was also a supporting cast of a small flock of Common Snipe, which we saw exceptionally well in the scope, we found an Asian Barred Owlet sat on telegraph wires in broad daylight and a few beautiful Long-tailed Shrikes.

Following lunch we did some birding along the Han River, where we found large numbers of wintering wetland birds. New birds for the tour included a couple of Great Egrets, small numbers of Great Cormorants, several Ruddy Shelducks, a few Gadwall, a flock of a dozen or so Eurasian Teal, equal numbers of dazzling Common Goldeneyes, similar numbers of Common Mergansers, a couple of Northern Lapwings, half a dozen extremely range restricted Long-billed Plovers, a couple of Kentish Plovers, a single Common Greenshank, a couple of Common Sandpipers, a large flock of range restricted Pale Sand Martins, a beautiful Grey Wagtail, a couple of Daurian Redstarts, a small flock of range restricted Silver-throated Tits and a large flock of Grey-capped Greenfinches.

We were then driven to a small forested island, in the middle of a large reservoir, where the Crested Ibis roost for the night. While waiting for the Ibis to come in, we added four uncommon species of birds that were new for the tour. We observed a solitary Tickell's Leaf-Warbler very well, a pair of wintering White-shouldered Starlings, a solitary Black-faced Bunting and a beautiful Chestnut-eared Bunting.

The following morning, the day dawned sunny and bright and we birded a patch of forested hills above Yangxian, where we found a total of five new species of birds, for the tour. We enjoyed a couple of Grey-headed Woodpeckers, several White-browed Laughingthrushes, a small flock of Black-throated Tits, a few stunning Meadow Buntings and a very beautiful male Yellow-throated Bunting. Following a very fine lunch, we drove to Xian, where we spent the night at a very fine hotel.

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

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