China: Birds & Culture Apr 16—May 01, 2015

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Our tour was very successful with largely excellent weather, smooth logistics, good food, and some great sightings. We recorded 225 species of birds including several extremely rare species: Baer’s Pochard, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Crested Ibis, Siberian Crane, and Jankowski’s Bunting leading the charge. We also enjoyed some fabulous mammals—ten species like the outrageous Golden Snub-nosed Monkey and an excellent Asiatic Black Bear. Add in a supporting cast of Great Bustard; Great Bittern; White-naped, Hooded, and Red-crowned cranes; Smew; Mandarin Duck; Oriental Plover; Zappey’s Flycatcher; and ten species of buntings to mention a few, and you can see why it was so much fun. What follows is an account of our adventure.

Siberian Cranes

Siberian Cranes— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


A fabulous spring day to start our tour in Beijing included bluish skies and warm temperatures. We enjoyed our usual stroll around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, taking in giant bronze lion statues, dragon gargoyles, and building points lined with mythical animals. The cherry blossoms and peonies were flowering; it was all quite idyllic, beyond the occasional crowd congestion of both international and domestic tourists at certain spots. Some birds were on the move as well, and I never would have predicted the Eurasian Woodcock that flew right over us in the main square, giving a great view as it lumbered overhead. We also enjoyed a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk and several Red-billed Starlings amongst more traditional fare like Azure-winged and Eurasian magpies, Tree Sparrow, Barn Swallow, and numbers of Common Swifts.

The next morning we visited the Summer Palace with gray skies and cooler temperatures. My eyes did an absolute double take when I laid them on a fine male Baer’s Pochard—one of the world’s rarest ducks. It was only the third I have seen in twenty-five years birding in Asia. He was keeping good company, consorting with both Mandarin Ducks and Falcated Teal. It was an extraordinary start to the day. Next we were attracted to songful and fresh-plumaged Pallas’s Leaf-Warbler; nesting Common Kingfisher; Crested Myna; White-cheeked Starling; both Great Crested and Little grebes; a small flock of brilliantly colored Long-tailed Minivets; skulking Red-flanked Bluetail female; both Gray-capped Pygmy and a fine Great Spotted Woodpecker; a large flock of migrant Yellow-bellied Tits; and a single Oriental Turtle-Dove. Migration was in full swing. After a tasty lunch we commuted to the Ming Tombs. In the carpark we found a loafing flock of Oriental Greenfinches and, best of all, a nesting pair of Chinese Nuthatches. We decided to scout around a nearby reservoir that held some promise by producing an Osprey making off with a large fish and a Mongolian Gull. To finish our day we headed to the Stone Pavillion, an avenue of huge sculptures of warriors and animals that leads to the royal burial sites, half to impress, half to intimidate guests and visitors. It started well with a good view of Chinese Grosbeak, improved with a pair of Red-throated Thrushes, and peaked with a lovely male Gray-faced Woodpecker of the pale-headed subspecies found in this part of China. It had been a very good day.

Yellow-bellied Tit

Yellow-bellied Tit— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Wild Duck Lake, a protected wetland some 60 miles west of Beijing, was the object of our attention in once again fabulous spring conditions. We walked around the lake at a leisurely pace and watched an excellent diversity of birds. Great Bitterns and Ring-necked Pheasants boomed and chacked respectively, but kept well-hidden. We were to see both species well later on the tour. Reedbeds were alive with chittering flocks of delightful Vinous-throated Parrotbills and good numbers of Pallas’s Bunting, many males in near perfect breeding plumage. We had great views of both Bearded Reedling (one female carrying food suggestive of breeding, which is not known to occur this far south) and Chinese Penduline-Tit. Scarcer ducks included a pair of Garganey, at least three Red-crested Pochards, and a pair of high flying Ruddy Shelducks. Raptors included several beautiful Eastern Marsh-Harriers and a single Great Spotted Eagle, while shorebirds were highlighted by the striking Gray-headed Lapwing and a huge flock of migrant Northern Lapwings. A drumming Gray-faced Woodpecker and good numbers of Daurian Redstarts rounded out our visit. After lunch we climbed the Great Wall of China at Badaling, stretching our legs as far or as little as we wished over a couple of hours at this quintessential destination. We said farewell to our story-telling guide, Willy, who was quite a character.

Our flight to Xian progressed smoothly and we met our new guide, Wolf. We approached the Terracotta Warriors through the gardens and despite the throng of people found some good birds. First up the cute Black-throated Tit gave a cameo appearance, and things ramped up a notch when a Chinese Hill-Babbler turned up. Next a big flock of Bramblings flew in, and we watched Russet Sparrows nibbling in a pine. A Tolai Hare was spotted hopping around. Then we toured “The Warriors” and it was great, taking in all pavilions and some folks buying an autographed guide from the farmer who made the original discovery. On our return walk we picked up Spotted Nutcracker, Brown-breasted Bulbul, and the spectacular Red-billed Blue Magpie. Next we endured a frustrating drive to Foping where we were denied access to a motorway due to our vehicle size and detoured into a maze of roads before we could finally navigate our way out. Dinner was excellent, and eventually we made it through to our hotel for a well-earned rest.

Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Foping was stunning the next morning—blue skies, spring flowering Azaleas, and mountains that stretched from one horizon to the next. We visited the “Golden Valley”—a site at the end of a fairly remote mountain valley where a feeding station in the cooler months of the year attracts a troop of Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys. These bizarre primates were in fine form and permitted fabulous views. The infants tumbling about and alpha male at close proximity were sensational. The birding, initially a bit slow, increased in quality as the morning progressed. A female Crested Goshawk was found perched, and we later saw the pair display flying overhead; delightful Green-backed Tit, Mountain Bulbul, and Gray-headed Canary Flycatcher gave good views joined by wing-flipping Claudia’s Leaf-Warblers, delightful Sooty Tits, and the colorful Chestnut-crowned Warbler rounding out the session.  On the drive to the next venue we stopped to take in a pair of Brown Dippers, came to an abrupt halt for a spanking Crested Kingfisher, shortly followed by another stop for a Ring-necked Pheasant for the subspecies with no ring neck! At Yangxian we observed three nests of the ultra-rare Crested Ibis. What a treat to see this enigmatic bird that came so perilously close to extinction, and full credit to the Chinese authorities for protecting this bird to the point of recovery. We also enjoyed a male Swinhoe’s Minivet in the scope amongst a bunch of birds in this agricultural-woodland organic mosaic. The area is kept chemical-free for ibis conservation.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey— Photo: Dion Hobcroft




After breakfast we birded along the riverside at Yangxian. As usual, it was pretty lively with many of the birds sighted in perfect breeding plumage. Amongst the highlights were at least six Crested Ibis, Temminck’s Stint, Green Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, the scarce East Asian endemic Long-billed Plover, Black-headed Gull,  another Crested Kingfisher, glowing Citrine and Western Yellow wagtails, Oriental Skylark, Richard’s, Blyth’s, and Red-throated pipits, plus a pair of the rare Collared Crow. We then made the lengthy drive to Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, leaving Shaanxi and crossing into Sichuan. We encountered some extensive road works for a hydro project before making it to our posh hotel for a lovely dinner. One stop produced excellent scope views of Ring-necked Pheasant, Eurasian Kestrel, Siberian Stonechat, Gray Bushchat, and our first White-browed Laughingthrush. Also seen on the drive were Himalayan White Wagtails and a single Common Buzzard.

Our full day at Tangjiahe dawned clear and fine. After sighting a few birds around the hotel like a migrant Little Bunting and White-capped Redstart (the leader was lucky enough to find a Chinese Serow) we made the drive to Motianli. En route we stopped at some high cliffs for a scan where practically the first thing spotted was an Asiatic Black Bear, up in a tree eating leaves. Although not overly close, the scope views were quite fine. Lucky us—my first sighting of this species in China, a nation which has a reputation to improve when it comes to bears. The birding along the ancient road was quite lively, and we enjoyed good views of the Golden-breasted Fulvetta; Red-billed Leiothrix; singing Emei, Kloss’s, and Claudia’s leaf-warblers; Marten’s and Gray-crowned warblers; and a soaring Mountain Hawk-Eagle. Lower down we found a small party of White-throated Laughingthrushes, a scarce species in Sichuan, plus Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. Stopping back at the cliffs, we relocated the same bear, briefly watching it shinny down its feeding tree. Cheryl located a pair of Long-tailed Gorals that gave great scope views. Adding to our mammal tally was a fine Wild Boar.  Lower down in the valley a sweet song led us to a superb male Zappey’s Flycatcher—the rare breeding population of Blue and white Flycatcher in central China. Recently recognized as a valid species, it is both poorly known and very scarce. Late in the day we added a few more birds to the trip list, the best of which was Little Forktail, but also included Greenish and singing Chinese Leaf- warblers.

Crested Ibis

Crested Ibis— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The sun was shining again at Tangjiahe, and an early stroll produced an excellent pair of White-crowned Forktails, a party of Elliot’s Laughingthrush, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker. After breakfast we scoped the first of three Reeve’s Muntjac—a small species of barking deer endemic to China. The birds began to heave as the morning warmed up, and we enjoyed a female Golden Pheasant, White-collared Yuhina, Gould’s Sunbird, responsive Alstrom’s Warbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, Slaty Bunting, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, and David’s Fulvetta. A good discovery was a solo hefty male Tibetan Macaque, a rather intimidating primate who was acting as guardian of the bridge! A Takin was spotted distantly on a high ridge but, frustratingly, quickly disappeared in thick cover before it could be scoped. After lunch we made the drive to Chengdu, spotting a few new birds like Long-tailed Shrike, Oriental Magpie-Robin, and Chinese Pond-Heron. In the heart of this massive city we set up in our fine hotel and had dinner overlooking the central business district.

Zappey's Flycatcher

Zappey’s Flycatcher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft









A visit to the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre was next on the agenda. We enjoyed fine views of captive Giant and Red pandas. As usual, the extensive bamboo gardens here produced a few quality birds, the best of which were a confiding pair of Chinese Bamboo-Partridges—a species that normally appears on the list as “heard only.” Also of note were a singing migrant Large-billed Leaf-Warbler and Plain Flowerpecker. Undoubtedly, the most unusual sighting though was a handsome Stripe-tailed Rat Snake we discovered, thanks to the mobbing by Red-billed Leiothrix and White-browed Laughingthrush. It was parked in a tree and seemed in digestive mode; we could see its tongue flicking as the birds fussed around it. Eventually both the birds and we lost interest.  After coffee and sandwiches we negotiated the city to make it to the airport; after a slight flight delay we were settled into our hotel in Beijing, ready for the third phase of the tour—Inner Mongolia and Jilin provinces, six hundred miles to the north.

Arriving in Wulan Haote we met up with Mr. Li and Ms. Wang. The weather turned against us, as it was a very hot day with strong winds. We drove to the first site for Jankowski’s Bunting and, as luck would have it, we found a female plumaged bird straight away and a bunch of handsome Meadow Buntings. After noodles and ice cream we visited another site for this ultra-rare bird, hoping for a singing male, but it was a lost cause in the furnace-like conditions, and apart from a brief possible sighting, it was all Meadow Buntings and a pair of Daurian Partridges in flight. Cutting our losses we headed to Xianghai Nature Reserve. En route we had beautiful Chinese Gray Shrike, Oriental Pratincoles, Eurasian Hoopoe, Daurian Jackdaw, and Rook. Best of all was a stunning male Oriental Plover in full breeding plumage. We watched it doing this amazing rocking flight display and scoped this most elegant bird in the short grass prairie. A stop at a productive wetland produced hundreds of Bewick’s Swans, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and crisp Pied Avocets—all tame and very close.

Chinese Hill-Babbler

Chinese Hill-Babbler— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Our full day at Xianghai Nature Reserve is perhaps the most important birding day on the tour. With temperatures now very pleasant, it was going to be excellent, and we totaled 101 species for the day! We were off to a good start with a male Tristram’s Bunting in the hotel gardens, along with Taiga Flycatcher, Chinese Hill-Babbler, and Olive-backed Pipit. Amur Falcons were on migration and we observed several males catching dragonflies. A Great Bittern lifted up out of the reeds for a prolonged flight view. We observed a single Red-crowned Crane, three White-naped Cranes, and a party of both Hooded and Common cranes. A total of 24 species of ducks, geese, and swans were seen during the day including both Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese and Whooper Swan. The biggest crowd pleaser was a small flock of Smew, always stunning. The rarest, however, was a single Lesser White-fronted Goose, a difficult bird to see anywhere. The three most outstanding shorebirds were a trio of Little Curlews, a single Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and a stunning Little Stint in foxy breeding plumage. Other birds added to the trip list included Eared Grebe, Great Cormorant, Eurasian Oystercatcher (the distinctive eastern race osculans), Spotted Redshank, Whiskered Tern, Common Snipe, and Reed Bunting.

White-naped Cranes

White-naped Cranes— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Tumuge National Protected Grassland is a rare remnant of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, now mostly all plowed up for corn, soy, and agriculture in general. It covers about 100 square kilometers. It is a great place for larks, the showiest of which is the striking Mongolian Lark. Great Bustard numbers seemed to be stable and perhaps increasing here; this year we spotted nearly 30 birds and enjoyed (from a distance) the lekking behavior of these shy and endangered turkey-sized game birds. In the beautiful Siberian Apricot grassland habitat of the Jankowski’s Bunting we struggled to find any buntings. In the end we located a single pair, the male of which was scoped a few times for some good views. With only 250 birds in the known population, it is amongst the rarest birds in the world. Let’s hope the Chinese conservation authorities can save this enigmatic bird.

We had good luck with some other grassland birds, finding a pair of Japanese Quail, a single Yellow-legged Button-quail, and a Daurian Partridge. We had a spectacular fly-by of two males and a female Pied Harrier and a great view of a single male Merlin both perched and hunting over the short grass, giving the larks the flight for their lives. We enjoyed a flock of Common Cranes, displaying Eurasian Curlews, a pair of Carrion Crows, and several Oriental Pratincoles. One of our cars became stuck in some soft soil and we called a tractor to pull it out. We returned to Baicheng for a bowl of noodles and a well-earned siesta.

Eastern Marsh-Harrier

Eastern Marsh-Harrier— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


On our last day of birding the target was the incredible Siberian Crane. Mr. Li’s colleague had phoned in news of a large flock staging at Wen Bao Shan, close to the junction of Inner Mongolia and Jilin and Heilonjiang provinces. He was right on the money, and we were able to approach a flock of some 200 cranes feeding in a corn field. Mixed in with the Siberian Cranes was a small flock of White-naped Cranes. Viewing from the vehicles in the early morning light, we had excellent views of both species. We birded along the road of the protected wetland area and found a single Oriental Stork soaring over, a lucky break for us. There were a lot of birds commuting over the road including large flocks of Greater White-fronted, Taiga, and Tundra Bean geese, plus good numbers of Common Cranes. Large numbers of buntings were on migration, and a sparkling little song led us to a beautiful male Japanese Reed Bunting in summer plumage—an excellent discovery. We also spotted a migrant Dusky Thrush; flushed a pair of Japanese Quail; watched Pied Harrier, Amur Falcon, and Eurasian Sparrowhawk hunting over the grasslands; and added the last bird of note to the tour list—a pair of Bank Swallows! A red-bellied tytleri Barn Swallow was also of interest. With the wind picking up we moved to have lunch at a nearby city, Zhanglai, where they have a wetland park. In hot, windy conditions the birding was not great here, but we finished with a final hurrah, spotting a fabulous Great Bittern feeding out in the open.

The next day we flew to Beijing and on to home. It had been an excellent tour and I would like to thank the guides, Willy, Wolf, and Lili; the drivers Cai, Qing, and Li; and the wonderful Mr. Li and Mr. Ma in Xianghai and Tangjiahe respectively, for making our trip so successful

Tai Hola

Dion Hobcroft (aka “Big Ham”= Beckham)