Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Sichuan

2019 Narrative

Four species were essentially ‘in the running’ for honours in the end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll. Two Galliformes - the majestic Temminck’s Tragopan and resplendent Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, came fourth and third respectively while two passerines, the bizarre taxonomic conundrum that is currently called Przevalski’s Finch and the spectacular White-browed Tit-warbler tied, yes tied, for first place. Both winners were pretty well unpredicted to be even in the running at the start of the tour – neither had won, or even ranked highly, in any previous end of tour poll, but our encounters with both were so spectacular and so memorable that no-one could argue with their eventual ranking.

Our first, and arguably best, Lady Amherst’s encounter was on the first full day of our 20 day mammoth tour (we’d go on to log a total of 28 of these magnificent creatures during the tour, seeing no less than 10 different individuals and hearing 18 others). It was almost midday, far from the best time to see pheasants; we’d already heard a few but this one was different. Immediately calling back, suddenly there he was standing proud atop a large rock. Remaining there for a good five minutes he strutted, turned, called and departed, only to return seconds later to do the same again. Brilliant! We were on our first full morning at Labahe and had already (repeatedly) seen a pair of Temminck’s Tragopans and a superbly obliging Chestnut-headed Tesia but this pheasant, right out in the open and in glorious sunshine, was the undoubted highlight. We’d see a total of eight tragopans (and heard two others) but our best encounter would have to wait until our second morning at our second site, Longcang Gou, when a pair appeared on the road immediately in front of our minibus. They are a stunning, absolutely stunning gamebird.

Our spectacular Przevalski’s Finch, a species now honoured with a family of its own, occurred on our first full day up on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and a full two weeks into the tour. We only saw one bird – but it was a male and it performed brilliantly. We revelled in its spectacular aerial parachuting song flights and it’s hurried, bizarrely intense song (this one weaving in mimicry of Ground Tit, Robin Accentor, Twite and White-browed Tit) as it came closer and closer. Another brilliant encounter!

White-browed Tit-warbler tied with the finch for top ranking in our end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll but it took us a while to properly see a male. First encountering this species near Maerkang on Day 12, it was another full week, and almost our last rural birding, before we satisfactorily ‘nailed’ a male. BUT boy did we nail it – having close range views of a truly spectacular creature. Superb!

This year we encountered 13 species of gamebird, and 12 of those were SEEN by the WHOLE group! These included Snow Partridge (eventually); some great looks at Tibetan Snowcock, an obliging pair of Tibetan Partridges, several Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges; Blood Pheasants galore; some superbly cooperative, remarkably confiding Chinese Monals; umpteen White Eared and several distant Blue Eared Pheasants and a couple of all-too-brief Chinese Grouse. Unfortunately we never managed to see a Golden Pheasant or, more surprisingly a Koklass Pheasant – but we tried and tried so had to be satisfied with 13 species. That’s still a remarkable haul! But that wasn’t the end of it as other goodies among the almost 300 species that we encountered included up to 78 Black-necked Cranes on each of the three days we spent on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau; some cracking looks at no less than 13 Saker Falcons; three giganteus Chinese Grey Shrikes; a superb family party of Sichuan Jays; great looks at several Grandalas; Przevalski’s Nuthatch, Firethroat, Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush, Maroon-backed Accentor, Collared Grosbeak, Three-banded Rosefinch and Chinese Rubythroat. It says a lot that we had good looks at the gorgeous Golden-breasted Fulvetta and yet the competition for honours was so strong that it only received a single point in the poll.

The tour started and finished in Chengdu which, with a population fast approaching 10 million, is already China’s fourth largest city. However up until the very last day we did little birding there. No sooner had the last of the group arrived than off we set, scurrying south to Labahe. We then explored Longcang Gou before continuing our loop north to Luding and the Erlang Shan, then Baoxing, Rilong and Wolong National Park followed by Maerkang, Hongyuan, Ruoergai and finally Chuanzhusi. With hardly a moment to spare we’d birded amongst some of the best scenery on the planet and had revelled in great looks at a good many of the regional specialties.

We spent our first two nights at Labahe searching for and seeing regional specialities such as the aforementioned Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, a Besra, and some fabulously acrobatic White-throated Needletails that cruised effortlessly around the mountain’s bamboo-strewn hillsides. We also encountered several ever-elusive Chinese Shortwings, had superb telescope views of a Chinese Wren Babbler and noted ten species of phylloscopus warbler and our first David’s Fulvetta. It was also at Labahe that we had our best views of Chinese Babax and saw our only (eight) Brown Parrotbills. Oh, and then there was the Brown Dipper right outside the hotel and the Asian House Martins actually nesting under the hotel eaves.

Longcang Gou (literally ‘Dragon Forest Valley’) was our next port of call. We didn’t see any dragons but some gorgeous forest and our phylloscopus tally grew accordingly with the rarer Emei and Kloss’s almost being drowned out by the incessant chanting of Large-billed and La Touche’s. Having heard one on our first evening it was nice to actually see a Sichuan Bush Warbler Locustella chengi,a species formally described as recently as May 2016, on our second day here – and what a view we had of it! It was also here at Longcang Gou that we had superb looks at Brown, Spotted Bush and the manic Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler and saw our only Large Hawk and Himalayan Cuckoos with the former appearing, apparition-like, out of the dense cloud. We also saw two widely separate Fire-capped Tits and, while Red-winged Laughingthrush proved typically tricky, a pair finally gave themselves up as did Emei Liocichla, but only to a lucky few. And then there were the Longcang Gou parrotbills. Great Parrotbill was the first species we saw, the rare Three-toed our second, and the even rarer Grey-hooded our third but it was the close-range encounters with several cracking Golden Parrotbills that really stole the show.

Our next destination was Luding, or more correctly the neighbouring Erlang Shan pass, where we birded along a largely disused road that’s now circumvented by a tunnel that takes virtually all the traffic. Firethroat is always among our primary targets here – and, while we heard a few, we only actually saw one bird, and our views of that one were not as good as we’d hoped. We’d search for it again elsewhere…and, 17 birds later, were eventually satisfied with views of this stunning and aptly-named skulker! Among our first birds on the Erlang Shan were our first Giant Laughingthrushes, our first Slaty-backed Flycatchers, our first Grey Crested Tits, and our only Crested Honey-buzzards,but it’ll probably be the inquisitive and vociferous pair of Barred Laughingthrushes that we’ll remember most fondly.

We travelled from Luding to near Ya’an the following day, but not before we’d spent a second morning back on the Erlang Shan Pass where 11 more (six seen and five others only heard) Lady Amherst’s Pheasants again stole the show. Leaving the Ya’an area early the following morning we next explored the lower slopes of the mighty Jiajin Shan Pass. Eight Speckled Woodpigeons, a Speckled Piculet, another Golden-breasted Fulvetta, yet another frustratingly elusive Sichuan Thrush, our only Red Crossbills of the tour, several Slaty and a fine male Yellow-throated Bunting were among that morning’s highlights. Our minibus broke down higher on the pass but the impromptu stop yielded our only leucogenis Ashy Drongo – a lowland species at a remarkable 3700 metres elevation! Unfortunately our two relief vehicles arrived too soon – and we missed the troop of 22 Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys that Qingyu’s brother watched shortly after we’d departed…Nevertheless the day we left Baoxing and headed to Rilong was our best day for the number of species with a modest 86 being logged.

For each of the following three days we’d be crossing and re-crossing the mighty Balangshan Pass as we moved from Rilong, past the mighty Four Sisters Mountains (Siguniangshan), and into the world renowned Wolong National Park. Even in June the weather atop this 4500 metres pass can be truly awful but we were fortunate and, although it was certainly cold (a chilly minus 6C early morning), long-range visibility could hardly have been better and we saw virtually all the birds that we had hoped for.

Some of us will undoubtedly long remember the immaculate cobalt-blue male Grandalas high on the pass, the Red-fronted Rosefinches (reputedly the world’s highest breeding passerine although the recently rediscovered Sillem’s Mountain Finch could perhaps also now claim this title), the rather distant but long-time cooperative pair of Tibetan Snowcocks, the Snow Partridges that we invested so much time into seeing and the Brandt’s Mountain Finches that almost shared our breakfast.

We had three magnificent full days in Wolong National Nature Reserve and, if we thought that the forest scenery at Labahe and Longcang Gou had been impressive, it sure was at Wolong. Gorgeous, old-growth forests filled the valleys while spectacularly jagged mountain peaks and rolling, flower-filled meadows dominated the higher elevations. The resplendent Chinese Monal fell at the very first attempt as did a more than respectable number of its other most prized avian jewels - our first White Eared Pheasants, Tibetan Partridge, two Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges and Alpine Thrush. We also encountered good numbers of confiding redstarts and had some brilliant performances from a modest number of fine male Chinese Rubythroats. It was here too that we saw our first Snow Pigeons, Bearded Vultures (known to many as Lammergeiers), Golden Eagles, Chinese Fulvetta, White-throated Redstart, Maroon-backed Accentor and Crimson-browed Finches.

After Wolong we made rapid progress to our next base, Maerkang. Needless to say we found even more goodies – a pair of Wallcreepers, several Black-streaked Scimitar Babblers, five Long-tailed Rosefinches of the distinctive henrici subspecies and umpteen Blue Rock Thrushes as we drove towards the summit of the Mengbi Shan, another high altitude pass on route. It was close to the summit of that pass that we found our first Northern Goshawk, Sichuan Tit and our only Hodgson’s Treecreepers of the tour.

We spent the next two nights in the attractive, and obviously ethnically Tibetan, Maerkang town and on our day excursion from there saw no less than seven Blood Pheasants, another male Chinese Monal and five more White Eareds. It was here too that we saw our first Black Woodpecker, several Long-tailed Thrushes, had a more satisfying encounter with Sichuan Tit, cleaned up on the worlds’ tit-warblers, had a spectacular encounter with a stunning male Collared Grosbeak, and heard our first Three-banded Rosefinch.

We saw two more Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges, four more Blood Pheasants, four more White Eared Pheasants and two rather-too-brief Chinese Grouse, our only funebris Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (split by some), Chestnut-crowned Bush Warbler, Przevalski’s Nuthatches, and Three-banded Rosefinches the following morning before we headed up on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau proper.

Up on the Plateau the myriad utility cables held modest numbers of Black-rumped Magpies, Daurian Jackdaws and Northern Ravens while our first Black-necked Cranes kept us entertained on our journey while Himalayan Griffons trailed us in an uncomfortably ominous fashion.

There were more cuckoos and far more (78) Black-necked Cranes as we headed to Ruoergai the following day and that was the day we saw decent numbers of Upland Buzzards (23), Saker Falcons (5), Chinese Grey Shrikes (3), and Ground Tits (27). That was also the day we saw our first TibetanLark , the world’s largest, as well as our only Robin Accentors and the stunning male Przevalski’s Finch mentioned earlier. These were the Plateau’s premier avian specialities each and every one of them.

We knew even before the tour had started that what should have been our final site, Jiuzhaigou (literally ‘Nine Village Valley’) National Park, was still closed and we’d adjusted our itinerary accordingly. The revised plan gave us an extra day around Ruoergai. What we didn’t know until we reached Ruoergai however was that the road leading from there to Jiuzhaigou had also closed – also for maintenance. Hurriedly re-jigging the itinerary Qingyu managed to book us into a hotel in Chuanzhusi – a more modestly sized town on a different route south. Remarkably it all worked out well – but that was in no small part down to Qingyu’s flawless, fluid logistics.

We headed away from Ruoergai on our first morning there, dropped abruptly off the Plateau and back into conifer forest. We’d not been at the appointed site for long when we heard a couple of braying Blue Eared Pheasants. It took a while but we eventually found three of them, our final galliform, on a distant hillside. Not much later we were watching our first, chanting, Chinese Leaf Warbler.

Our next target was the range-restricted Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush and the first three that we heard simply didn’t oblige – fortunately the fourth and fifth more than compensated offering more than satisfactory views. A fine male Siberian Rubythroat also obliged as, finally and to considerable relief, did a family party of six Sichuan Jays.

We spent our second Ruoergai morning at Hua Hu (literally ‘Flower Lake’) and were blessed with multiple sightings of Upland Buzzards, Saker Falcons and Tibetan Foxes even before we arrived on site. Once there the myriad snowfinches and larks vied with local rarities species such as Brown-cheeked Rail, Horned (aka Slavonian) Grebe, Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill and White-winged Tern for our attention.

Compounding our disappointment at Jiuzhaigou National Park not re-opening and our route there also being blocked, it soon transpired that the easiest route from Ruoergai to Chuanzhusi was also closed, albeit temporarily. Small matter – there was an alternative and off we trundled on our journey back to Chengdu. The drive south was uneventful, no shorter than expected but thankfully no longer either. It was an attractive drive – and one that yielded quite a few birds. We squeezed in some more birding the following morning – scoring spectacularly with an award winning pair of White-browed Tit-warblers as well as our most cooperative White-bellied Redstart, another Siberian Rubythroat and another pair of White-browed Tits. After that it was about a five hour drive, via some of the tour’s most spectacular mountain scenery, to Maoxian. We made rather few stops on route, spent the night in Maoxian and had another drive of just under four hours the following morning. The latter took us through Wenchuan, epicentre of the tragic May 2008 earthquake that claimed the lives of an horrific 85,000 people!

Historically remote and difficult to access, Sichuan is still blessed with rich and varied ecosystems ranging from subtropical lowlands at sites such as Longcang Gou through cool temperate forests to alpine grasslands on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Equally importantly Sichuan is the heart of China’s astonishingly rich ‘endemic zone’ and harbours about two-thirds of China’s endemic birds.

Blessed with another year of mostly decent weather, Qingyu’s flawless logistics, and a keen, ever- enthusiastic group,we reaped the rewards accordingly, making this year’s tour one of our best ever Sichuan trips. Gamebirds feature highly on any Sichuan tour but we’d seen so much more than those: nine species of laughingthrushes with some such as Snowy-cheeked, Barred, Giant and Red-winged being poorly known and rarely encountered; eight species of parrotbill including the poorly known Three-toed and rarely seen Grey-hooded; and 11 species of rosefinch including possibly as many as 12 Red-fronted, several henrici Long-tailed, and up to four Three-banded.

We’d experienced so much more than some exciting birds however and had revelled in some truly memorable scenic drives though spectacular gorges and over impressive passes. Many of us will long remember the hillsides full of fluttering prayer flags, the thousands upon thousands of feral yaks and the tremendous hospitality we’d been shown throughout. As always, the list of highlights goes on and on. It had been hard work but fabulous, fabulous fun and we’d had a great time!

-          Paul Holt

Created: 01 July 2019