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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

China: Yunnan Province

2019 Narrative

A quick perusal of the end of tour ‘Bird of the Trip’ list gives a good indication of just how successful this year’s Yunnan tour was. The network of photographic blinds that have been so popular at Yingjiang and in the Gaoligong Mountains on our previous tours continue to be expanded and there were now multiple offerings at both these sites. And boy, did we see birds from these blinds! It’s a testimony to their success that eight of the top 11 birds in the end of trip ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll were seen exclusively from one or more of these blinds. While our hide-based encounters with Red-tailed Laughingthrush, Mrs. Hume’s Pheasant, Rufous-throated Partridge, and Golden Bush-robin came as no surprise, March 2019 was the first time that we’d ever seen a White-gorgeted Flycatcher or a Kalij Pheasant from one, and Paul, who has now been to Yunnan 20 times, had never come remotely close to seeing many of the species we encountered anywhere near as well as we did on this tour. Winner of the poll was again Red-tailed Laughingthrush – and at one stage we had at least nine of these gorgeous yet combative gems creatures competing for our attention from Baihualing blind - 8 on the 17 March, at least 10 from Baihualing hide and 11 the very next day!

And then there was the back-up: the White-crested, Black-throated, Scaly, Blue-winged, Grey-sided, Moustached and Black-faced Laughingthrushes; the Grey Peacock-pheasants (including a female with a single diminutive chick), the well-appreciated Golden Bush Robins, the Silver-eared and Red-billed Leiothrix, the minlas, Scarlet-faced Liocichlas, Chestnut-headed Tesias, the Mountain Bamboo Partridges and the White-browed Shortwing. All performed superbly.

Our introduction to birding in Yunnan was at Moli Tropical Forest Park between Mangshi and Ruili – and what an introduction it was! The 1.5 kilometre stretch of flat road between the entrance gate and the carpark took us almost three hours to walk, but then there were distractions such as our first Rosy Minivet even before we’d stepped inside the park gates which came as no surprise. A Jerdon’s Baza checked us out immediately after breakfast while other encounters included several skulking Grey-bellied Tesias and Streaked Wren-babblers; exciting encounters with White-hooded Babblers, Pale-billed and Rufous-headed Parrotbills and the three species of forktail along a short 200 metres stretch of stream. And then there were the first of Qingyu’s breakfasts and lunches. What a start to our Yunnan birding bonanza!

After lunch we visited a now defunct smaller tropical park right on the border with Myanmar and scored here as well with a handful of new species including our first Black-breasted Thrushes and a Yellow-bellied Prinia. The latter even found its way onto our Myanmar lists.

The following day saw us exploring a forested ridge close to Ruili town and, with over 130 species logged between us, this was the most bird-rich day of the entire tour. Here again birds came thick and fast with fabulous looks at a Brown Wood Owl and a close-range Grey Nightjar even before the sun came up! Following those were 10 Cook’s Swifts (a recent split from Pacific Swift), a fabulous vocal party of Red-billed Scimitar Babblers, a flock of three Greater Yellownapes, close range telescope looks at a Spotted Elachura, and more parrotbills in the form of four Grey-headed. After being entertained by a displaying Crested Goshawk and a group of schoolchildren during lunch, a short afternoon walk yielded no less than three Streak-breasted Woodpeckers and our first Burmese Shrike.

The following day was only marginally less species-rich and its highlights included our one and only Spot-winged Grosbeak (a fine singing male), no-less-than 25 Mountain Imperial Pigeons, great looks at a Banded Bay Cuckoo, our first Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers, several more Rufous-backed Sibias, and an elusive Grey-bellied Wren Babbler. That afternoon the Yingjiang river yielded the hoped for Small Pratincoles and River Terns.

The network of photographic blinds that have proved so popular in the Gaoligong Mountains on our previous tours have more recently been expanded and there are now almost as many in the lower elevation forests to the southwest of Yingjiang. Highlights of our time there included Grey Peacock-pheasant (we’d see five and heard at least six others); a resplendent male Kalij Pheasant, three Collared Falconets, a ‘Shaheen’ Peregrine Falcon carrying a Hair-crested Drongo, a stunning male Red-headed Trogon, half-a-dozen Oriental Dollarbirds, three Great Slaty Woodpeckers, two Oriental Pied and three Wreathed Hornbills, three stunning Collared Treepies, an obliging Large Scimitar Babbler, both Lesser Necklaced and Black-throated Laughingthrushes, a solitary Sultan Tit and three species of leafbird. It was here too that we actually saw a diminutive Collared Owlet – we heard umpteen others but that was the only one we laid eyes on during the entire tour.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing – we only heard and never managed to see the Blue-naped Pittas that Paul had seen so well here only a few days earlier, and the area’s Blue-bearded Bee-eaters were heard but not seen.

Agricultural land on the edge of Yingjiang held several other species with Striated Grassbirds, Crested Buntings, two Blossom-headed Parakeets, the range restricted Collared Myna and a Grey-headed Lapwing being among the best.

After a successful excursion to a forest near the southern edge of the mighty Gaoligong mountain range for Manipur Fulvetta, we next headed to the town park in the volcanic region of Tengchong. Here we hoped to find Brown-winged Parrotbill (and we did – surprisingly quickly) and a few other goodies before we moved on yet again, this time to Baihualing in the mighty Gaoligong Mountains. Stunning scenery, nice accommodation, an abundance of delicious food, and more fabulous birding – made all that much easier with the advent of the photographic blinds mentioned earlier. We scored well here too with memorable encounters with Hill, Rufous-throated and two Mountain Bamboo Partridges, three Mrs. Hume’s Pheasants, a tree-top cruising Black Eagle, and an impressive haul of laughingthrushes. Normally skulking species such as Chinese Wren Babbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia, White-browed Shortwing, and Golden Bush Robin lost their inhibitions, appeared like apparitions as if from now where, strutted their stuff right in front of the blinds, and then vanished just as quickly. Oh, and then there were the brilliant hide-based performances by several Slender-billed Scimitar Babblers and the three Cachar Wedge-billed Babblers elsewhere. It was a reluctant group that finally left after two and two half days at Baihualing, but other things, including a Falcated Duck on the edge of a reservoir near Baoshan, beckoned.

Our journey up to our final destination, Lijiang, a town whose skyline is dominated by the 5600-metre peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, has been eased considerably by the construction of another new expressway and we could afford the time to be distracted en route by the likes of Purple Swamphen, Clamorous Reed Warbler, and a typically-elusive Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. We’d hardly arrived at Lijiang when we found the first of the historic town’s star avian attractions: a Yunnan Nuthatch and several sordidior Spectacled Fulvettas and Black-browed Bushtits. Our first day’s Chinese Babax didn’t perform as well as we would have liked – that had to wait until the following morning when we’d see them again, as well as Rufous-tailed Babbler and a pair of inquisitive Black-bibbed Tits. Somehow we even found time for a visit to Lashihai with its geese, breeding plumaged Pallas’s Gulls and thousands of Coots, as well as its tiny villages belonging to the ethnically distinctive Naxi cultural group. Lijiang was, as ever, a fascinating place but one that we spent too little time in before another couple of flawless flights took us back up to Beijing.

I wrote in a recent China tour report ‘How many of us knew, in advance of our trip, quite what to expect in modern day China and how many of us went home with altered opinions as to where the Middle Kingdom’s heading? Now more than ever China’s a land of incredible contrasts and accelerating social change, a land of considerable personal wealth juxtaposed with near grinding poverty, a land of thriving elitism, rampant ambition and a populace with an enviable work ethic. Right now’s the time to visit China and we were privileged indeed to see some of the more impressive parts of it’. In these days of a major global economic downturn all this still holds true.

-         Paul Holt

Created: 02 April 2019