Our birdwatching tour to China begins with an afternoon departure from London Heathrow to Chengdu, where we arrive about lunchtime on day two.
Our first birding will be in the city of Chengdu itself, where having checked into our hotel rooms we pay a visit to the local Baihuatan Park. Resident species include Spotted Dove, Light-vented Bulbul, Chinese Blackbird, Vinous-throated Parrotbill and White-browed Laughingthrushes. In May, these might also be joined by migrants such as Taiga Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler, while Pale Martins hawk insects over the river. David’s Fulvetta, the gaudy Red-billed Leothrix, Collared Finchbill and the chunky, yellow-billed Chinese Grosbeak are also possible. Night Chengdu
HUAN HUA XI PARK (CHENGDU), SOUTHWEST TO LONGCANGGOU
Adjacent to our hotel, Huan Hua Xi is a typically Chinese park, where people gather to walk about exercising or chatting, doing Tai Chi or playing Mahjong. Walking the paths at Huan Hua Xi might reward us with views of Black-throated Bushtit or Rufous-capped Babbler. In stands of bamboo we should, with perseverance, get good views of the stunning Rufous-faced Warbler – one not to be missed! A lake here holds the attractive Chinese Pond Heron, whilst White Wagtails of the white-masked race alboides chase about the grass and House Swifts zap by.
Leaving Chengdu, we then head west into the foothills en route to Longcanggou, our base for the next three nights. We stop along the way for lunch and again near a suspension bridge over a river. Ashy-throated Parrotbills and Swinhoe’s Minivets occur, as do Red-billed Blue Magpies, Chinese Hwamei, the large-billed Tiger Shrike and both Japanese Tits and Japanese White-eyes. Night Longcanggou
We have two full days to explore this excellent area, with its mix of woodland habitats across a range of altitudes from 4200ft (1300m) to 7900ft (2400m) holding a multitude of key bird species.
In May, when the mixed woodlands will be coming into leaf or flowering, early morning starts will help us to find the 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 include the relatively 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! Not strictly a ‘Phyllosc’, but certain to test our ID skills, Seicercus warblers are often rather trickier to see - but well worth putting in time for as Alström’s and Grey-crowned Warblers might be joined by Bianchi’s Warbler... when they deign to come out!
This area is notable for the appealing white-faced Przevalski’s Nuthatch that creeps along the branches high in the treetops, and for Red-winged Laughingthrush – superb in flight as they flash their red wings. Golden, Three-toed, Great and endemic Grey-hooded Parrotbills, Emei Shan Liocichla (easier to hear than see), Spotted Laughingthrush and Golden-breasted Fulvetta also await our discovery. Pallas’s Squirrels scramble about the branches as we search for Darjeeling Woodpecker and overhead Himalayan Swiftlets stitch through the deep blue skies. Two further nights Longcanggou
LONGCANGGOU TO LUDING
Meeting early for a pre-breakfast walk, we'll enjoy another hour or two of birding around Longcanggou, perhaps watching Black-naped Oriole or Russet Sparrow or listening to Lady Amherst’s Pheasant calling on distant hillsides.
After breakfast, we set off towards Luding County, going via Tian Quan and the tunnels through the Erlangshan Pass. Though we've a good distance to travel today, we will stop to bird along the way, visiting an area of forest where the secretive White-browed Shortwing and Alstrom’s Warbler can be found.
A nice lunch will be taken Yujia village, south of Ya’an, before we swing west and then north to reach our next hotel.
At 2,000ft (600m) elevation, a spell of afternoon birding on the southern side of the Erlangshan Pass could produce the lovely Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and Ashy-throated Warbler. A series of new tunnels have shortened the drive to the town of Luding, our destination this evening, where we arrive for dinner and a two-night stay. Night Luding
BIRDING THE ERLANGSHAN PASS
An early start to the day is needed to get to the best habitat along the old road to the Erlangshan Pass. In themselves, Lady Amherst’s Pheasants are truly stunning, but we will be here early for 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 Song 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 ‘rosefinch’). Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits can be found here, along with very smart Rufous-breasted Accentors that sing atop the scattered trees.
Once over the pass at an altitude of 9,800ft (3000m), we descend the south side a little, where the mix of scrub and open ground will help us scan for views of the exquisite Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Walking down an old gravel road we look and listen for Black-faced Laughingthrush and Rufous-bellied Niltava, whilst in patches of rhododendrons we could be lucky to find the stunning Golden Bush Robin.
Sichuan Leaf Warblers nest low down in the bushes - but with such majestic vistas we may well be distracted! Yet another lovely Phyllosc, the Alpine Leaf Warbler is often to be found here and we'll also be searching for such treats as White-browed Fulvetta, Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-tailed Babbler, the water-loving White-capped Redstart, Hill Blue Flycatcher and the surprisingly smart Brown-breasted Bulbul as well as a much more familiar bird - Goldcrest!
After an exciting day of birding we return for a second night at our Luding hotel. Night Luding
LUDING VIA ZHE DUO PASS TO RILONG
After our bird-packed day in Luding County yesterday, today is mainly a travel day as we arc northeast through some amazing upland scenery to Rilong, where we spend the next three nights.
Our route will take us up and over the Zhe Duo Pass at 14100ft (4300m) and on to Xin Du Qiao, where we break for lunch. We'll stop from time to time to take in the magnificent landscape and 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 next hotel - in Rilong, a Tibetan-style town full of character, at an elevation of 10500ft (3200m). Night Rilong
RILONG & BALANGSHAN
During two full days around Rilong we shall have access to some higher elevations, where early mornings offer the chance of three more stunning 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 and dark hooded Snow Pigeons become active, as do birds of prey. Himalayan Buzzards could well be joined - and dwarfed - in the skies by the immense Himalayan and Black Vultures, and Lammergeier. On a very different scale, passerines such as the stunning Blue-fronted Redstart, orange-flanked Himalayan Bluetail and Asian Brown Flycatcher feed busily the bushes.
On reaching the highest part of the incredible Balangshan Pass at around 14,800ft (4500m), we have a good chance of finding Brandt's and Plain Mountain Finches, and search excitedly for the unbelievably brilliant 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.
As we head back from the summit on our way back down to Rilong, we will check an area of low scrub for the chiffchaff-like Buff-throated Warbler and yet another superb rosefinch – this time, the crimson-bodied Streaked Rosefinch. But the real prize here is the stunning Chinese Rubythroat – a recent 'split' with the division of what was formerly ‘White-tailed Rubythroat’ into two species - a fitting end to a fine day in the mountains above Rilong!
Next morning will find us heading back up towards the summit of Balangshan for further investigation of the high pass area. Three ‘new’ pheasants await us here - though Golden and Blood Pheasants are usually somewhat easier to find than the amazingly colourful but elusive Temminck’s Tragopan! And if we missed them yesterday, we have another chance to look for Tibetan Snowcock as they forage snow patches.
Giant and Barred Laughingthrushes also inhabit the slopes, but (like the pheasants) both can be tough to see. As we 'reach for the stars', Maroon-backed Accentor, Hodgson’s Treecreeper and the diminutive Chestnut-headed Tesia should hopefully prove a little easier to track down, along with Twite (of the race miniakensis). Plus there's yet another exquisite rosefinch to add to our growing collection: Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, looking resplendent in purple-pink. Two further nights Rilong
BALANGSHAN TO MAERKANG
An exciting day of birding and travel begins with a pre-breakfast visit to a patch of mixed woodland near Rilong. It's a good spot to find Sichuan Jay and Crested Tit-warbler, Pink-rumped Rosefinch (still they come!) and the stunning, tail-bobbing Siberian Blue Robin. The wren-like call of Taiga Flycatchers betrays their presence and we should see a rufous-throated male or two about the trees, where other goodies to watch for can include Daurian and Hodgson’s Redstarts, the appealing Long-tailed Rosefinch and the stripe-headed Godlewski’s Bunting. It will be hard to tear ourselves away from here!
Leaving Rilong, we first travel east then swing north through the mountains to Fubian (8900ft / 2700m). We break our journey here with a stop for lunch, before continuing on our way north.
Encircled by awe-inspiring mountains, at the lofty Mengbishan Pass (13,400ft / 4100m) we may well find Upland Buzzard or enjoy further views of the very beautiful Crested Tit-warbler; there are Rufous-vented and funky Grey Crested Tits to watch out for, too. Eventually, we arrive at the modern town of Maerkang (Barkam), for dinner and a two-night stay.
Next morning, we head out to the forests of the Mengbishan Pass, devoting some time to getting better views of Maroon-backed Accentor and Chinese White-browed Rosefinch. We will also be hoping for the attractive Kessler’s Thrush, Collared Grosbeak and maybe a calling Black Woodpecker; White-throated Needletails may be seen bombing through the pass, whilst the trees hold typical pine-forest inhabitants such as Buff-barred and Hume’s Leaf Warblers, and White Eared Pheasants ‘bark’ from deep within the woods.
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 Blood Pheasant here, along with the streaky Chinese Babax and desirable Long-tailed Thrush - another fine Zoothera to go with the similar Sichuan Thrush. Two nights Maerkang
MAERKANG TO ROUERGAI
With a fair distance to cover today, we make an early start from Maerkang for Rouergai, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. As well as having picnic breakfasts and 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 Qionglai Mountains, areas of grassland and bushes that mark the start of the Tibetan Plateau host the rather plain Père David’s Laughingthrush and maybe the odd migrant passing through (such as Brown Shrike) or the local Sichuan Tit, with its buzzing, Willow Tit-like call. As the landscape levels out a little, we may well pick out our first stately Black-necked Cranes, along with Black Stork, Ruddy Shelduck and the bulky Himalayan Marmot.
After a small pass, the valley opens out and the meandering river has created a series of ox-bow lakes that form a sinuous area of wetland. Great Egret, Ferruginous Duck, Brown-headed Gull, Common Tern and Common Redshank occur and eyecatching Citrine Wagtails like to sit up on grass stems. Groups of exotic Azure-winged Magpies could be about - and the presence of a few more prey items adds a realistic chance of finding Saker Falcon (here of the race milvipes). Another honorary ‘raptor’ to watch out for is Chinese Grey Shrike and, although a rare bird, we will be keeping our eyes peeled.
Smart Siberian Stonechats perch prominently on sticks and stones, and we have a chance to find the pallid and curiously wheatear like Ground Tit. Black-winged Snowfinch and the rosy-tailed Przevalski’s Finch are two more key birds to look for in the valley, along with the pale-faced khamensis race of Horned Lark– possibly to be treated as a species in future…
We should arrive at Rouergai (Zoige) in the late afternoon, with time to settle into our rooms before enjoying a delicious meal in town. Night Rouergai
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 skulking White-bellied Redstart, which all make their homes here. In the relatively old woodland with some remarkably tall pines, ‘real’ Common Pheasants, Chinese Leaf Warblers and Père David’s Laughingthrushes can also be found.
Venturing ‘off piste’ along a steeper trail may reveal such treats as Snowy-browed and Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Chinese Nuthatch, Yellow-streaked Warbler and Chinese Fulvetta. We also have another chance to find the impressive Giant Laughingthrush, with its song full of mimicry.
Returning west, a diversion onto the Tibetan Plateau will take us to fields that can be alive with tiny, black-nosed Plateau Pikas. White-rumped Snowfinches nest in the pika burrows, as do wheezy Rock Sparrows. 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. Flurries of Rufous-necked Snowfinches across the plain may well be joined by actual snow flurries… and maybe the odd Lammergeier!
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 Rouergai
ROUERGAI TO DUJIANGYAN
We take breakfast taken in town this morning before heading back to Baxi Forest for one last chance to pick up specialities such as White-browed Tit. From there, we steadily descend to the Gar Tai Pass at 12,500ft (3,800m), hoping to come across the exquisite little White-browed Tit-warbler and fabulous Siberian Rubythroat.
The long journey back to Chengdu will take most of the rest of the day, along roads through the spectacular mountains. Taking 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. 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 birdwalk locally, hoping to pick up a last few species for the tour.
After breakfast, we transfer to Chengdu Airport and check in for our flight home. Evening arrival at London Heathrow, where our spring birding tour to China concludes.