Our birdwatching tour to China begins with an afternoon departure from London Heathrow to Chengdu (Sichuan), where we arrive about lunchtime on day two.
After transferring to our hotel in the cultural centre of Chengdu and checking into our rooms there, our first birding is just a short walk away in Baihuatan Park. Resident species include Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Black-throated Bushtit, Vinous-throated Parrotbill and White-browed Laughingthrush. In May, these might also be joined by migrants such as Taiga Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler, with Collared Finchbill and the chunky, yellow-billed Chinese Grosbeak also possible. Night Chengdu
CHENGDU SOUTHWEST TO LABAHE
Adjacent to our hotel, the Culture Park is typically Chinese, a place where people gather to walk about exercising. Exploring paths beside the river and in the park in the early morning we may be rewarded with views of local Himalayan White Wagtails - and even Citrine Wagtail on the river.
After breakfast we leave Chendu and begin our drive southwest, initially along one of many new highways, then west along the Tianquan River to a small village at Yujia. Crossing a footbridge we spend the late morning checking the trails here for Ashy-throated Parrotbill, Swinhoe’s Minivet, the white-headed form of Black Bulbul, the brilliant Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and the tiny Rufous-faced Warbler. We could well see the distinctive, black-crowned form of Grey-headed Woodpecker (treated as a separate species by some), plus our first Red-billed Blue Magpies.
After lunch we continue west before turning off the main road and heading north up to our first hotel in the Labahe Nature Reserve (Mt. Erlang National Forest Park), on the heavily forested eastern slopes of Mt Erlang. Our new hotel sits next to a rushing river, with Brown Dipper plus Plumbeous Water and White-capped Redstarts nesting. Night Labahe
LABAHE NATURE RESERVE
We have two full days to explore this excellent area, with its mix of woodland habitats across a range of altitudes from 1600m to 2700m (5200 to 8900ft) holding a multitude of key bird species.
Labahe is regarded as one of the best sites to find the beautiful Red Panda, and in the early morning we will check the trees for it and other notable species. This area is also home to Red-winged Laughingthrushes – superb in flight as they flash their red wings – and the bamboo thickets hold elusive Fulvous, Golden, Three-toed and Great Parrotbills. Delightful White-collared Yuhinas and Black-throated Bushtits pass through in small flocks, and amongst the numerous Elliot’s Laughingthrushes we might hope for Spotted Laughingthrush and Golden-breasted Fulvetta. However, perhaps highest on everyone’s list of ‘most wanted’ species are two exquisite pheasants: the brilliant (almost gaudy) Temminck’s Tragopan, and the elegant Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. On our 2019 tour, we were lucky to see both spectacularly well!
In May, when the mixed woodlands will be coming into leaf or flowering, early morning starts will help us to find birds when they are most active. This is a terrific spot for tits: Fire-capped, Yellow-browed, Yellow-bellied, Green-backed, Japanese, Coal and Père David’s Tits are all possible. Phylloscopus warblers are well represented too and we will get stuck in to their various songs and calls. Species to watch for include the common Sichuan Leaf Warbler as well as Ashy-throated and Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, while the bright-and-stripy Kloss’s Warbler is a must-see! Now treated as ‘Phyllocs’, old-school Seicercus warblers are often rather trickier to see, with Bianchi’s Warbler being the most common (and easiest to view), but we also put in time for Marten’s, Alström’s and Grey-crowned Warblers... hoping they deign to come out!
The forest also holds Blue-fronted and White-bellied Redstarts (the latter another skulker), the diminutive Chestnut-headed Tesia, and Fujian Niltava. Red-bellied Pallas’s Squirrels scramble about the branches as we search for Darjeeling Woodpecker and, overhead, immense White-throated Needletails stitch through the deep blue skies. Two further nights Labahe
LABAHE TO LUDING
With only a relatively short distance to drive today, we have time this morning for a further walk by the river. Slaty Buntings can be found on the slopes and Little Forktails frequent the bases of waterfalls that feed it. Here, there is also an outside chance of Streaked Barwing.
Mid-morning we descend from Labahe towards Luding County, stopping for a fine lunch at a roadside restaurant in Xingou. Here the G318 (China National Highway) passes, with cyclists following its 5,476 kilometres from Shanghai to Lhasa and beyond – an amazing feat of endurance! We spend time birding a quiet side road, with a chance of Kloss’s and Eastern Crowned Warblers, Chinese Bamboo Partridge and Russet Sparrow, plus Brown-flanked and the recently described Sichuan Bush Warblers.
Heading up the old road towards the high pass to Luding, we will stop before the top tunnel through the Erlangshan Pass to enjoy a spell of birding along a quiet track. We could well hear and see the localised Emei Leaf Warbler, Chinese (Song) Thrush and Stripe-throated Yuhina, and re-acquaint ourselves with both Marten’s and Bianchi’s Warblers.
Heading through the tunnels, we cross to the drier western side of Erlangshan and the town of Luding, our destination this evening, where we arrive for dinner and a two-night stay. Our hotel is close to Luding Bridge, the site of the single most celebrated event on Mau’s Long March through China. Night Luding
BIRDING THE ERLANGSHAN PASS
An early start is needed today to get to the best habitat along the old road to the Erlangshan Pass. We wind out of town and off the main road, then stop on the lower slopes to look ffor the amazing Firethroat – one of the special birds of this tour! The mix of trees and bushes here is perfect for them and we will devote some time to getting good views of this little cracker. Not quite so colourful, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Chinese Thrush and Black-browed Bushtit also inhabit the bushes and trees, where the buzzing calls of Spotted Nutcrackers are often heard.
After a picnic breakfast, we continue to ascend the Erlangshan Pass. As we climb higher, the handsome Chestnut Thrush and snazzy Yellow-throated Bunting might be seen and, as the vegetation gradually thins out, we hope to encounter four different rosefinches: Vinaceous, Sharpe’s and Chinese White-browed as well as Crimson-browed Finch (which is really a ‘rose-finch’). Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits can also be found here, along with smart Rufous-breasted Accentors that sing atop the scattered trees.
Close to the top of the pass at an altitude of 3300m (10,800ft), we descend the south side a little, where the mix of scrub and bamboo hosts Black-faced Laughingthrush, both Great and endemic Grey-hooded Parrotbills, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Rufous-bellied Niltava, whilst in patches of rhododendrons we could be lucky to find the stunning Golden Bush Robin.
As we descend we will hope for ‘seconds’ of Firethroat, plus a chance to see Buff-throated Warbler. We'll also be searching for such treats as White-browed Fulvetta, both Black-streaked and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, Rufous-tailed Babbler, Hill Blue Flycatcher and the surprisingly smart Brown-breasted Bulbul.
After an exciting day of birding we return for a second night at our Luding hotel. Night Luding
LUDING TO RILONG
After our bird-packed day in Luding County yesterday, today is mainly a travel day as we ‘re-position’ ourselves, heading north through some amazing upland scenery to the higher altitude mountains near Rilong, where we spend the next three nights. [Roads in this part of China are currently undergoing major works and our local guide will give advice as to which is the easiest route to take!]
Driving through increasingly spectacular landscapes, we'll stop from time to time to stretch our legs - or perhaps to admire a Golden Eagle or Himalayan Vulture soaring overhead. White-capped Redstarts dot the boulders along the gushing rivers and we could well find a trio of captivating corvids: Daurian Jackdaw and Red-billed and Alpine Choughs. After a long journey today, in the evening we arrive at our comfortable hotel on the edge of town at Rilong, with views towards Mount Siguniang at 6250m (20,500ft) - though you may have to wait until daylight to see it. Night Rilong
RILONG & BALANGSHAN
The two full days we spend around Rilong are destined to be two of the most memorable – being both literally and metaphorically the high point of the tour! It is here that we have access to some higher elevations. Our early mornings offer the chance of three more fine pheasants: incredible-looking White Eared Pheasants are generally less shy than the distinctly unusual Koklass Pheasant - but the real star here could well be the iridescent Chinese Monal, shining in the early morning sun.
As the day warms up, Common Rosefinches (here a different colour to Western birds) begin to sing, as do Buff-barred and Two-barred Warblers; Rufous-vented Tits pick about the cliff face and handsome Dark-breasted Rosefinches and Grey-headed Bullfinches perch in the eye-level bushes.
Pushing higher, we head towards the highest part of the incredible Balangshan Pass at around 4482m (14700ft). Stopping as we go, we have a good chance of finding Brandt's and Plain Mountain Finches as we search excitedly for the unbelievably brilliant, wing-wafting Grandala, a vision in blue - and “bluer than a very blue thing!” Further careful checking of the ridges and rocky slopes might produce views of Snow Partridge on distant rocks and though hearing Tibetan Snowcock is invariably easier than actually seeing one, we do have a chance here – in 2019 two crossed the road by the bus! Chunky Red-fronted Rosefinches and Alpine Accentors join the throng of high-altitude species.
Heading over the pass to the drier and warmer side, we will again stop as we descend on our way down to Rilong, checking the slopes for dark-hooded Snow Pigeons and birds of prey. Himalayan Buzzards could well be joined - and dwarfed - in the skies by immense Himalayan and Cinereous Vultures, and Lammergeier.
On a very different scale, passerines to watch for include the lovely Blue-fronted Redstart, citrine Alpine Leaf Warblers in areas of low scrub, Twite (of the race miniakensis) and the localised Sichuan Tit, with its buzzing, Willow Tit-like call. Plus there are two more rosefinches to add to our growing collection: the crimson-bodied Streaked Rosefinch and the exquisite Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. But the real prizes here are the stunning Chinese Rubythroat – often found alongside Rufous-breasted Accentors – and the tiny and elusive White-browed Tit-warbler; we will work hard to find them on the bushy hillsides. On the river a White-throated Dipper would make for a fitting end to a fine day in the mountains!
Next morning will see us heading back up towards the summit of Balangshan for further investigation of the high pass area. If we have not already seen them, a couple of ‘new’ pheasants await us here: Golden and Blood Pheasants - and if we missed them yesterday, we have another chance to look for Tibetan Snowcock as they forage snow patches. We also hope to find the vociferous Verreaux’s Monal Partridge in the lower bushes, where Giant and Barred Laughingthrushes also live - but (like the pheasants) both can be tough to see!
In the lower spruce forests not far from our hotel, we will spend time looking for the appealing, white-faced Przevalski’s Nuthatch that creeps along branches high in the treetops. Here on roadside cliffs, Wallcreepers can sometimes be found nesting. Two further nights Rilong
BALANGSHAN TO MAERKANG
An exciting day of birding and travel begins with a pre-breakfast outing to see if we can ‘fill any gaps’ or to a patch of mixed woodland near Rilong.
Leaving Rilong, we first travel west then swing north, following the Fubian River through the mountains to Fubianxiang. We break our journey here with a stop for lunch, before continuing on our way north. As we drive, we have a chance for Salim Ali’s Swift, Daurian and Hodgson’s Redstarts, the appealing Long-tailed Rosefinch and the stripe-headed Godlewski’s Bunting. It will be hard to not keep stopping!
Encircled by awe-inspiring mountains, at the lofty Mengbishan Pass (4100m/13400ft) we may well find our first Upland Buzzard and the attractive Kessler’s Thrush. Eventually we arrive at the modern town of Maerkang (Barkam), for dinner and a two-night stay.
Next morning, we head back out to the forests of the Mengbishan Pass, devoting our time to finding the key species of this forest. This is a good spot to find the monochromatic Sichuan Jay (a relative of Siberian Jay) and the corking Maroon-backed Accentor, plus Chinese White-browed and Pink-rumped Rosefinches – the former bleating like lost lambs. We will also hope for Himalayan Bluetail, Collared Grosbeak or maybe a calling Black Woodpecker or singing Long-tailed Thrush. Roving tit flocks may well hold Grey Crested Tit or Hodgson’s Treecreeper. On the forest floor we will check for White Eared Pheasants or yet more Giant Laughingthrushes.
Dropping a little lower, we enter the realm of White-winged Grosbeak, Chinese Fulvetta and (can you believe it!) yet another rosefinch: the frosty-faced Three-banded Rosefinch - although this will probably our last new rosefinch of the tour! As a bonus, we have further chances to watch for the attractive Blood Pheasant, along with the streaky Chinese Babax and maybe our only chance of White-throated Kingfisher of the local race fokiensis. Two nights Maerkang
MAERKANG TO RUO’ERGAI
With a fair distance to cover today, we make an early start from Maerkang for Rou’ergai, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Aside from having a picnic breakfast and a sit-down lunch, stops en route will be relatively short - but very sweet!
We should see our first eastern Black Kites today and, before heading out of the majestic Qionglai Mountains, we will make a stop for our first chance of both White-browed Tit and White-browed Tit-warbler. As open areas of grassland and bushes appear, marking the start of the Tibetan Plateau, we might see our first Azure-winged Magpies, Plain Laughingthrush, Siberian Stonechat and maybe the odd migrant passing through, such as Brown Shrike amongst the numerous Grey-backed. As the landscape levels out a little, we should also pick out our first stately Black-necked Cranes, Ruddy Shelduck and the bulky Himalayan Marmot.
As the valley opens out further, a photogenic meandering river - plus a series of ox-bow lakes - form a sinuous area of wetland. Pale Martins hawk with Barn Swallows, and Brown-headed Gull and Common Redshank occur in flooded meadows alongside buzzing Oriental Skylarks and eye-catching black-backed ‘Tibetan’ Citrine Wagtails that like to sit up on grass stems. The presence of a few more prey items such as Plateau Pikas adds a realistic chance of finding Saker Falcon (here of the race milvipes) as well as an honorary ‘raptor’, Chinese Grey Shrike. Although thinly distributed, we will be keeping our eyes peeled. Black-winged Snowfinch is also one to look for as we continue north.
For our final stop of the day on the last stretch driving east towards Ruo’ergai, we pause by scrubby hillsides for the unique, rosy-tailed Przevalski’s Finch. Patience may well be required, but as we wait we will hopefully find the pale-faced khamensis race of Horned Lark – possibly to be treated as a species in future - and rusty bellied Black Redstarts.
We should arrive at Ruo’ergai (Zoige) in daylight, with time to settle into our rooms before enjoying a delicious meal at the hotel. Night Ruo’ergai
BAXI FOREST & TIBETAN PLATEAU
Rising early to make use of the early part of the day, we head east for around 20 miles to reach an area of forest near Baxi. In the crisp, early morning air we'll scan for the immaculate Blue Eared Pheasant and might also encounter Red Deer, Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush and the Woolly Hare (!), which all make their homes here. In the relatively old woodland with some remarkably tall pines, ‘real’ Common Pheasants, Plain Laughingthrushes and Chinese Leaf Warblers can also be found.
Venturing ‘off piste’ along a couple of forest trails may reveal such treats as Snowy-browed, Hill Blue and Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Chinese Nuthatch, Yellow-streaked Warbler and Chinese Fulvetta. But our real targets are Chinese Grouse and Crested Tit-warbler – both seen on our 2019 tour! We also have another chance to find the impressive Giant Laughingthrush, with its song full of mimicry.
Returning west, we have lunch back in town, before taking the well-made road north onto the Tibetan Plateau. Here we head into an open landscape, dotted with herds of domesticated Yaks, alive with thousands of tiny, black-nosed Plateau Pikas, snowfinches and bizarre, jumping Ground Tits. White-rumped Snowfinches nest in the pika burrows, and there will also be flurries of Rufous-necked Snowfinches. Upland Buzzards loaf about watching for easy pickings amongst the pikas – as do the occasional Saker Falcons. A nearby wetland holds yet more interesting species, including Black-necked Cranes and perhaps a few migrant waders - but we have another important ‘target’ here: the big Tibetan Lark.
As another exciting day's birding draws to a close, we will head back to town for dinner and our second night at the hotel. Night Ruo’ergai
RUO’ERGAI TO DUJIANGYAN
We take an early breakfast in town this morning before heading back to Baxi Forest for one last chance to pick up specialities such as White-browed Tit or Crested Tit-warbler. From there, we steadily descend to the Gar Tai Pass at 3,800m (12450ft), hoping to come across the delicious little White-browed Tit-warbler and fabulous Siberian Rubythroat.
The long journey back towards Chengdu will take up most of the rest of the day, as we travel along roads through Sichuan’s spectacular mountains. Gazing from the window and drinking in the superb scenery as we drive will give us time to reflect on the many memorable moments of the tour. Evening arrival at our hotel in Dujiangyan, which lies just 40 or so miles to the northwest of Chengdu. Night Dujiangyan
FLY CHENGDU TO LONDON
Our flight home today is scheduled to depart Chengdu in the early afternoon. So for those that wish, there should be time to enjoy an optional pre-breakfast walk locally, hoping to pick up a last few species for the tour, such as Asian Koel.
After breakfast, we transfer to Chengdu Airport and check in for our flight home. Evening arrival at London Heathrow later the same day, where our spring birding tour to China concludes.