Southwest China: Yunnan Province Jan 31—Feb 17, 2012

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 120) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Yunnan, with its fantastic birding, superb food, and excellent infrastructure is a perfect first visit destination for those keen to experience Chinese birding. On this tour we recorded some 316 species of birds and 7 mammals. The roll call of exciting birds was quite lengthy with highlights including Smew, Hill and Rufous-throated partridges, Hume's Pheasant, White Eared-Pheasant, Black Stork, Great Bittern, Cinereous Vulture, Black-necked Crane, Solitary Snipe, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Red-headed Trogon, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Burmese Shrike, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Daurian Jackdaw, Wallcreeper, Black-bibbed Tit, Black-browed Tit, Yunnan Nuthatch, Crested Finchbill, Gray-bellied Tesia, Black-faced Warbler, Spectacled Fulvetta, Brown-winged Parrotbill, Streaked Wren-Babbler, Red-tailed Laughingthrush, Gray Sibia, Long-tailed Wren-Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Black-backed Forktail, Long-tailed Thrush, Red-billed Starling, Fire-tailed Sunbird, and Yellow-throated Bunting.

In Kunming, on our first afternoon, we visited the lake known as Dian Chi. Here thousands of wintering Black-headed Gulls were being fed by the local people. We found a few birds around the marshy edges, including Citrine and Western Yellow wagtails, and a few Black-faced Buntings. The next morning we headed to Xishan. As we explored the forests and scrubby gullies, we racked up quite a few interesting birds including great views of Spectacled and Rusty-capped fulvettas, colorful flocks of chattering Red-billed Leiothrix, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, an immature Yellow-billed Grosbeak, Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, and Chestnut-vented Nuthatch. A brief stop at Dian Chi turned up a first year Heuglin’s Gull. In the afternoon we flew from Kunming to Mangshi where we met our driver, Mr. Wang, and after dinner we drove to Ruili.

In Ruili we explored the Moli Waterfalls. We were off to a great start with a flock of Rufous-headed Parrotbills showing well. This was followed by a flock of Silver-breasted Broadbills, several Streaked Wren-Babblers and Gray-breasted Tesias that gave unbelievable views, a White-tailed Robin, and at least two female Red-headed Trogons. A fruiting tree was jumping with Pin-tailed Pigeons. After lunch and a visit to the Burmese border, we visited a small patch of riparian woodland that hosted Eastern Crimson Sunbird, beautiful male Black-breasted Thrush, and a migrant Eurasian Wryneck.

Our second full day at Ruili commenced at Nanjingli with a rush of new species. Mixed flocks composed of Gray Sibia, Rufous-backed Sibia, Red-faced Liocichla, Gray-headed Parrotbill, and Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler gave superb views. In the afternoon we explored a nearby reservoir and enjoyed excellent views of Greater Spotted Eagle, Oriental Honey-Buzzard, the scarce Black-backed Forktail, and the lovely Rufous-necked Laughingthrush.

Heading north on a new highway, it was a bit of a navigational challenge to find a birding trail at Husadongshan. It ended up being the old highway that took us on our own private birding trail, complete with fine sightings of a perched female Crested Goshawk, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, and Brown Bullfinch. Yinjiang proved a bit noisy beyond flocks of Little Buntings, so we headed for an afternoon at Laifengshan. Scaly Thrush, Black-headed Sibia, and Streak-breasted and Spot-breasted scimitar-babblers rounded out a fine day of forest birding.

After a night in a quite unbelievable hotel (maybe 6 stars) we returned to Laifengshan. Slender-billed Oriole, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Large Cuckoo-shrike, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Silver-eared Mesia, and Black-headed Greenfinch were among the morning birds before we crossed both the Shweli and Salween rivers and made it through to the Gaoligongshan—a north/south mountain range on the Burmese border.

At the Gaoligongshan we enjoyed three full days of forest birding from our comfortable base at Baihualin. Groves of flowering "bottlebrush" trees attracted an incredible abundance of nectar-seeking forest birds. Our first morning connected with Fire-tailed Sunbird and Mrs. Gould's Sunbird in good numbers amidst Golden-throated Barbet, Beautiful Sibia, Scaly Laughingthrush, and Bay Woodpecker. Upon deeper exploration into the forest, we flushed a female Mrs. Hume's Pheasant (a global rarity) before watching a superb pair of Rufous-throated Partridges and a fulvous Scaly-breasted Cupwing. A furtive group of near-endemic Brown-winged Parrotbills—a bobbing stem tracking exercise in a weed-infested paddock—occasionally perched up like restless spirits.

The next day we pushed further into the forest reaching an altitude of 2,300 meters. We started with a bang of great birds: first a White-gorgeted Flycatcher, followed by a Slaty-bellied Tesia, and then a Long-tailed Wren-Babbler that perched on our boots. A pair of ultra rare Chevron-breasted Babblers showed for the leader, while a female Gold-naped Finch flitted in at the same location, providing jumpy views. It was challenging birding in dense understory broadleaf evergreen forest. Next in line was a Maroon-backed Accentor, and then a hiatus of bird activity that was ended by an unbelievable view of a Hill Partridge of the subspecies batemani. Dropping lower in altitude to 1,500 meters, we worked the forest edge, and it was hard to beat the jaw-dropping views of Red-tailed Laughingthrush feeding unconcernedly at 40 meters on the top of flowering spikes.

We dedicated our final full day at Baihualin to exploring the trails around the hot pools. Yellow-throated Buntings were followed by a Speckled Wood-Pigeon. Black-eared Shrike-Babbler was followed by more Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, Long-tailed Sibia, Chestnut-headed Tesia, and a pair of Bonelli's Eagles for the leader while he explored other trails in the middle of the day.

We headed north again to Dali and an amazing hotel in the old town center. What a place! Our luck with weather was down though, as gale force winds wiped out the cable car operations to our prime birding site at Cangshan. The wetlands at Erhaihu kept us well-entertained, first with poliocephalus Purple Swamphens (a rarity in China), while Ferruginous Duck, Eurasian Hoopoe, Black-necked Grebe, Rosy Pipit, Fork-tailed Swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, Red-billed Starling, Elliot's Laughingthrush, Hodgson's Redstart, Pallas's Leaf-Warbler, and shopping in the old district also kept us entertained.

On our way to Lijiang we made an extensive detour to Shibaoshan Monastery. An early morning stop in high altitude forest turned up our first Black-browed and Long-tailed tits, followed by White-naped Yuhina and a pair of Hen Harriers. A troop of rhesus macaques and a Swinhoe’s striped squirrel kept the mammal list sneaking upwards, with a female Crimson-browed Finch, stunning views of Red-billed Blue Magpies, dozens of Crested Finchbills, beautiful Black-faced Warblers, a low altitude Songar Tit, and furtive White-crowned Forktails making appearances.

In Lijiang we spent the morning exploring the spectacular Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We had some good luck here with our first sightings of Yunnan Nuthatch, the scarce Black-bibbed Tit, Gray Crested Tit, and even the endemic Forrest's rock squirrel. Lashihai was amazing for both its concentration of winter waterfowl and the development of a monumental wetland park. Scanning through hundreds of Red-crested Pochards turned up fine drake Falcated Ducks, a lone Goldeneye and Greater Scaup, a Siberian Peregrine Falcon, a hundred or more Bar-headed Geese, several hundred Graylag Geese, and close to a hundred Common Cranes, with Common Snipe and Northern Lapwing feeding close to us unconcernedly.

The next morning we pushed west to the headwaters of the Yangtse River (or more correctly Changjiang) and the impressive Tiger Leaping Gorge. The birding was back to its abundant best with Speckled Piculet, Gray-headed Bullfinch, and a Chinese Thrush giving great views, followed by a female Wallcreeper that hopped on a rockface at less than 15 meters. As we moved up in altitude towards Shangrila, we picked up a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants (here without the ring neck), black-faced bieti, White-browed Fulvetta, and a pair of rare Spot-winged Rosefinches, followed by Northern Goshawk, Steppe Eagle, and Himalayan Griffon.

At 3,200 meters in February, snow covered the mountains encircling Shangrila. Huge flocks of Plain Mountain Finches followed by a stop for a fine trio of White-tailed Eagles led to the discovery of a small flock of Smew. The stunning white males proved to be a major scope hit—and deservedly so! Leaving the Smew behind, our next breakthrough was a small flock of stunning White Eared-Pheasants. This was followed by a pair of Giant Laughingthrushes, with flocks of White-throated Redstarts and Pink-rumped Rosefinches for backup. The afternoon at Napahai produced 200 Black-necked Cranes and Black Storks. What a pleasure to walk the grasslands with displaying cranes and loafing raptors—pride of place going to the amazing Cinereous Vultures. A Chinese TV crew interviewed and filmed us; hope the subtitles work out correctly!

A final morning took us to a spectacular monastery. We were still squeezing in new birds for our trip list with an amazing Great Bittern, female Red-throated Thrush, Solitary Snipe, and White-winged Grosbeak. Our flight back to Kunming passed uneventfully. A final afternoon and morning at Xishan turned up a few new birds in the form of Plain-backed Thrush and Fire-capped Tit.

What a great trip with a great bunch of folks, steered by wonderful Liu and our placid driver Mr. Wang. Their peerless performance kept us involved in our primary task of enjoying the wonderful birding in this under-visited corner of China.