FLY LONDON-SHANGHAI, TRAVEL TO DONGTAI
Our winter birdwatching tour to southeast China begins with British Airways afternoon departure from London Heathrow to Shanghai, where we arrive the following morning. We will be met at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport by our local guide, Tang Jun, and head north through the coastal paddyfields towards Dongtai, in eastern Jiangsu Province.
The extensive mudflats of the Chinese coast, together with paddyfields of the province are the wintering grounds for wealth of Asian wetland species. We will stop at a couple of reserves, hopefully having timed our visit to meet the predicted highest tides and so maximise our chances of seeing the best possible variety of shorebirds and wildfowl. On the sandflats, we could find Dalmatian Pelican and numerous Kentish Plovers, pale orientalis Eurasian Curlews, osculans Eurasian Oystercatchers, Red-necked Stints, and Vega, Mongolian and Heuglin's Gulls.
A series of coastal lagoons and marshes hold sweeping flocks of ducks and in January there are often good numbers of Falcated Duck amongst the gatherings of more familiar Eurasian Teal, Northern Pintail and Shoveler - as well as a chance of a Baikal Teal or ten! Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Smew and Greater Scaup may also be about and the rare Black-faced Spoonbill occasionally overwinters here alongside the tip-toeing Saunders’s Gull - two threatened East Asian species that are well worth watching for. Brown-cheeked Rail (a Water Rail look-alike) is a hard-to-find species in the reedy fringes of the lakes near the port. Night Dongtai
DONGTAI & YANCHENG
We’ll spend the morning of Day 3 back at the coast to the east of Dongtai, before tracking north to Yancheng National Nature Reserve, just 90-minutes drive away. Yancheng lies at the heart of a series of wetlands along the Yellow Sea and its fine mix of habitats - including agricultural fields, scrub, reedbeds and marshes, plus freshwater and brackish ponds - are renowned for having one of the largest winter concentrations of waterbirds in Asia. So much so that Yancheng has recently been granted United Nations World Heritage status.
Key amongst the many species present is the Red-crowned Crane. The flocks of Red-crowns here can total up to 500 birds - a sizeable (but declining) proportion of the world’s population, which only numbers around 2000 individuals. Yancheng is also the wintering grounds for several other crane species: the Common Crane is by far the most numerous, but Yancheng also holds a few Hooded Cranes and sometimes one or two Sandhill Cranes that have flown in the ‘wrong’ direction from their breeding areas in northern Russia; (not many people realise that up to 10,000 ‘Lesser’ Sandhill Cranes head onto the Russian tundra from North America to breed each year, but that they typically head back east to winter in states such as New Mexico and Texas). Finding these species involves driving around and scanning the landscape for them.
It really does take two days to do this area justice and we have time to not only enjoy the cranes – often there is the spectacle of hundreds flying over and the sound is truly spine-tingling - but to sift through the large numbers of wintering wildfowl, too. If we did not see them at Dongtai, we have further chances of the sought-after Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck here, along with Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Greater Scaup and Smew. Tundra Bean Geese also winter in good numbers and amongst them we may find small numbers of the monster-billed Middendorff’s Taiga Bean Goose!
We should also encounter the pale-eyed Oriental Stork at Yancheng, where other wetland birds to watch for include Great Bittern, Hen and Eastern Marsh Harriers, and Eastern Buzzard plus a range of Eastern Palearctic gulls. Possibilities include Mongolian, Heuglin’s, Black-tailed, Vega and Kamchatka Gulls and we will be hoping to find Saunders’s Gull - and, with a large slice of luck, perhaps even a rare Relict Gull.
Patches of trees and scrub, fields and reed-fringed pools at Yancheng hold passerines. During our busy time here we should be rewarded with the endemic, yellow-billed Reed Parrotbill - looking like a Bearded Tit on steroids! Vinous-throated Parrotbills roam in small flocks, and there are Chinese Penduline Tits plus a bucket-load of buntings to look for, too. In fact, 10 or more species of bunting can overwinter here, and in amongst the big flocks of Little Buntings we may find Japanese Reed, Pallas’s Reed, Chestnut and Yellow-breasted Buntings. Add the prospect of Lapland, Yellow-throated and Chestnut-eared Buntings - not to mention Oriental Skylark, Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, Red-flanked Bluetail, Daurian Redstart, Chinese Blackbird, Pale and Dusky Thrushes, White-cheeked Starling, Azure-winged Magpie, and Long-tailed and Chinese Grey Shrikes - and you soon get the idea of what a special place this is! Three nights Yancheng
RETURN TO SHANGHAI, BULLET TRAIN TO NANCHANG & TRANSFER TO WUCHENG
Today is largely a day of travel, although we may have time for a little local birding first thing before we leave Yancheng return to Shanghai via the modern expressways and a new bridge over the mighty Yangtze River.
From the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station we take the bullet train west into Jiangxi Province, before arcing south to Nanchang – a distance of c.750 km in just three and a half hours (reaching speeds up to 300km/hr on the fastest service).
From Nanchang we drive a short distance north, travelling by bus from the airport to Wucheng, where we stay the next three nights on the edge of remarkable Poyang Lake. Night Wucheng
DAYS 7 & 8
Poyang Lake is China's biggest freshwater lake and plays host to some 160,000 wintering birds, making it one of the key habitats for migratory birds in Asia. About 95% of the world's Siberian Crane population winter here, as do 50% of White-naped Cranes and thousands of Swan Geese and Tundra (Bewick’s) Swans.
Our base at Wuchengzhen is in the southeast section of the reserve and we’ll concentrate our efforts here. During our stay we will move about mainly by bus and drive to the sites using new roads, but there is also the possibility of taking a boat trip depending on the whereabouts of the cranes whilst we are there.
Our initial focus will be on seeing the impressive numbers of cranes on the reserve. Siberian Crane is now listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by Birdlife International, with a general long-term decline in numbers. A relatively recent count of 3,750 at Poyang Lake was conducted in 2008, but the building of dams along the Yangtze River threatens the water levels on the lake. Hopefully further protection measures will help. Standing up to 1.5m in height, we have a good chance to see hundreds of these red-faced beauties, plus thousands of elegant White-naped Cranes and hundreds of Common Cranes and the scarcer Hooded Crane, as well as many Oriental Storks; Black Stork can usually be found too but in much lower numbers. This really is a place just to stand back and revel in the wondrous sight and sound of a landscape chock full of birds!
As at Yancheng, the range of species here is remarkable and we will also enjoy seeing the large numbers of wildfowl that overwinter here. An estimated population of over 2,000 Tundra (Bewick’s) Swans, 10,000 Swan Geese, 5,000+ Greater White-fronted Geese, plus lesser numbers of Greylag, Lesser White-fronted and Taiga Bean Geese can all be found on the lake. Among numerous commoner wildfowl, we also have good chances of Whooper Swan, Ruddy Shelduck and Eastern Spot-billed Duck... and who knows, we may even dare to dream of finding a Baer’s Pochard.
As well as waterfowl, there should be shorebirds a-plenty, too. Amidst flocks of Pied Avocets, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Spotted Redshank, we could find Lapwing, Greenshank, Temminck’s Stint and Marsh Sandpiper. We’ll want to check any Little Ringed Plovers carefully as Long-billed Plovers can be found here in January. Eurasian Spoonbill, Dalmatian Pelican, Brown Crake, Hen Harrier, Marsh Grassbird (formerly Japanese Swamp Warbler) and ‘real’ Mandarin Ducks and Chinese Water Deer - both being native here of course - also frequent this vast wetland area, and Ruddy-breasted Crakes call from the ditches.
However, it will not be all wetland species and the above will be more than ably supported by chances of Eastern Buzzard, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Daurian Jackdaw and Rook (here of the eastern form pastinator that looks very different to western birds as they have no bare facial skin). A plethora of possible pipits might include Richard's, Red-throated, japonicus Buff-bellied and blakistoni Water Pipits, while starlings come in the form of the commonest White-cheeked and Black-collared Starlings, and Crested Myna. The endemic Red-billed Starling is sometimes about and we’ll find ourselves back on the bunting trail again with chances of Chestnut-eared, Yellow-throated and Yellow-browed.
Although this isn’t an especially good tour for mammals, at Poyang Lake we have a chance of spotting the rare, freshwater dwelling Yangtze Finless Porpoise. Two further nights Wucheng
POYANG LAKE TO WUYUAN
This morning we set off east, cutting across the southern tip of Poyang Lake en route to Wuyuan – a fairly long drive of around four hours along highways that have only recently been built. Having taken lunch along the way, on arrival in Wuyuan County we will find ourselves in a seemingly different world of small villages and white houses along a forested river valley.
Wuyuan County, still in the Jiangxi Province (just), has been described as the ‘most beautiful countryside in China’. It is also home to some of the best-preserved ancient architecture in all China, with some buildings dating from 740AD. Whilst its relative remoteness has helped to protect its villages from too much development, its secluded rivers are also home to the highly sought-after, rare and predictably shy Scaly-sided Merganser.
If we have time at the end of the day, we will take a quick bird walk locally. There are usually plenty of birds to see, mainly bulbuls (including the stunning Chestnut Bulbul) and thrushes (including Dusky Thrush, and Grey-backed and Chinese Blackbirds). Along the river, we will be watching for Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-crowned Forktail, Rufous-faced Warbler and Brown Dipper, while a speciality of the valley is the diminutive Pied Falconet. Night Wuyuan
We spend the whole day at Wuyuan, taking time to explore the valleys, rivers and scrub-covered hillsides carefully. This area boasts an impressive list of birds, many of which will be new for our trip. Topping the bill is the rare and little-known Scaly-sided Merganser. Scanning from bridges and walking beside the river in our quest for this shy and elusive sawbill, we should see dozens of Buff-bellied Pipits, along with Mandarin Duck, Crested Kingfisher and perhaps even Long-billed Plover.
Though the mergansers like to keep their heads down, with patience we should find them. Scaly-sided Mergansers breed in NE China and eastern Russia, and come to Wuyuan for the winter. With a global population estimated by Birdlife International as being fewer than 2000 pairs, we will make this endangered bird our number one target this morning.
Turning our backs on the rivers, we’ll discover that the surrounding forest and bamboo patches are home to an equally fine range of birds. Amongst them are a hatful of rare and localised endemic species, such as the immaculate Pied Falconet, rufous-headed Short-tailed Parrotbills (which certainly live up to their name), Huet’s Fulvetta, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler and the eastern race of Moustached Laughingthrush. We also have a good chance of finding the tiny-yet-vocal Chinese Bamboo-Partridge, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Collared Finchbill, Chinese Hwamei and Fork-tailed Sunbird, whilst Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, brilliant Grey-chinned Minivets, Black-throated Bushtit and Vinous-throated Parrotbills rove in small flocks. Mountain Bulbuls also feed in small groups, but the sneaky Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler and both Masked and White-browed Laughingthrushes are more difficult to see, as is Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler. Pallas’s Leaf Warblers call from the trees and the handsome Russet Sparrow can be seen, too. Night Wuyuan
TO EMEI FENG & TAINING
We will depart early from Wuyuan and drive the 5.5 hours to Emei Feng in Fujian Province. Having stopped for lunch along the way, we’ll aim to arrive at Emei Feng by early to mid-afternoon so as to give ourselves time to search for the shy but brilliant Elliott's Pheasant, which can sometimes be found feeding at the edge of small fields and forest clearings early and late in the day.
The town of Taining lies within an hour’s drive of Emeifeng and a comfortable hotel here will be our base for two nights. Night Taining
We’ll be back at Emei Feng by daybreak (in January, the sunrises here just before 7.00am), at the start of what promises to be another superb day in the field - one that will find us searching this spectacular forested mountain for the cracking Cabot's Tragopan, as well as hoping for second helpings of the mouth-watering Elliot's Pheasant...
We will want to be on station a little before it gets light so we are in prime position for slowly driving up into the mountains in search of Elliot's Pheasant. Very shy, this large pheasant is endemic to southeast China - and Emei Feng is currently the best site to find it. During the day, Elliot’s Pheasants like to remain within patches of bamboo, but they emerge early mornings onto tracks to take grit - and to call. The mountain’s other main target is the beautiful and spotted Cabot's Tragopan. Also endemic to SE China, this fabulous pheasant is found at higher altitudes. Again, although it is difficult to see, we have a good chance of finding them as we silently walk the upper section of road. Completing a pulse racing pheasant list, we also have chances here today of both Koklass and Silver Pheasants.
Also endemic to southeast China, White-necklaced Partridge – another neat member of the Arborophila hill partridge family – can be found along the edges of the road, as can the equally smart Chinese Bamboo Partridge. Filling in the ‘gaps between galliforms’ at Emei Feng, the prospect of Collared Owlet, Bay Woodpecker, Spotted Forktail, noisy Sultan and Yellow-cheeked Tits, White-bellied Erpornis and White's Thrush will help to keep us on our toes! Night Taining
TO FUZHOU FOREST PARK
We have a longish drive southeast this morning (a little over 4 hours), as we head back towards the coast. Our destination is Fuzhou, where we spend the night at a good four-star city hotel.
Just north of the town, Fuzhou Forest Park boasts a network of trails through the forested hillsides here that give access to this exceptional patch of lowland forest. There is more great birding to be had, notably in the higher reaches of the forest, bringing further chances of White-necklaced Partridge and Silver Pheasant, but also Red-headed Trogon, Chestnut Bulbul, Slaty-backed and Little Forktails, Grey-headed Parrotbill, both Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, and Tristam’s Bunting. Night Fuzhou
FUZHOU FOREST PARK & EVENING FLIGHT TO SHANGHAI
Early morning we will pay another visit to Fuzhou Forest Park, searching especially for the Spotted Elachura, a minuscule wren-babbler, which can usually be seen with a bit of effort. This diminutive species looks a little like a South American ant-wren and has recently been reclassified and placed in its own monotypic family Elachuridae.
Fuzhou’s trees are also home to a wide range of forest species and in addition to our little spotted friend, we shall be looking for Great Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Rufous, Pale-headed and Bay Woodpeckers, Large Woodshrike, Scarlet Minivet, Asian Stubtail, Orange-bellied Leafbird, possibly a Mugimaki or a Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Eyebrowed and Siberian Thrushes, Rufous-faced Warbler, the chestnut-cheeked Indochinese Yuhina and Olive-backed Pipit.
Returning to town, we catch an early evening flight (about 90 minutes) back north to Shanghai, where we spend our final evening in China at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport Hotel, a modern, four-star hotel actually in the airport itself. Night Shanghai Airport
FLY SHANGHAI TO LONDON
We’ll breakfast at our hotel prior to check-in for our British Airways late morning flight, nonstop to London. Same day afternoon arrival back at Heathrow, where our winter tour to southeast China concludes.