above: the Great Wall looms over
the forested hills northwest of Beijing
MANCHURIA & the QINGHAI-TIBETAN
In June 2004 I joined a Sunbird
tour, led by Paul Holt, to northern China. We visited three principal areas:
1) forested hills near Beijing,
as well as ponds at the Summer Palace and other Beijing historic sites
2) grasslands and wetlands on
the Manchurian plain in northeastern China, and
3) the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau
of Qinghai [pronounced "Ching-hi"] Province,
including Qinghai Lake, the
arid Caka Valley, and the Daban Shan Mts.
The trip was remarkably successful in finding the prize birds of these
regions, including 3 endangered cranes, good views of 3 pheasants plus
a snowcock plus a grouse and 3 partridges, endemic ground-jay and groundpecker,
ten redstarts, 6 snowfinch, 5 rosefinch, Lammergeier, and Great Bustard.
It was also remarkably successful as my first foreign trip using digiscoping
as my primary photographic method. The following gallery has just a few
of the highlights:
All of the above species are restricted to northeast Asia; nearly
all are Chinese endemics or near-endemics.
Those on the bottom row have not often been photographed .
|Top row above (L to R):
Kessler's Thrush on Huzu Pass (11,500' elev.) in Qinghai Province
Mongolian Ground-Jays in the Caka Valley, Qinghai Province
Black-necked Crane near east end of Qinghai Lake
|Second row above (L to R):
Pink-tailed Bunting from a ridge near Qinghai Lake (see note below)
Ala Shan Redstart in a scrubby canyon near Qinghai Lake
Schrenk's Bittern at Xinghai Nature Reserve, Jilin Province
Note: Pink-tailed (or Przevalski's) Bunting or Rosefinch Urocynchramus
pylzowi has been problematic. It is often listed as a bunting (e.g.,
MacKinnon & Phillipps 2000) but our field impressions of behavior and
song were that it was more like a rosefinch. Recent biochemical evidence
(Groth 2000) supports the view that it is a neither a bunting nor rosefinch,
but quite possibly in its own family [Urocynchramidae]. It differs from
both buntings and finches in having 10 primaries, and appears to be a divergent
lineage in the Passeroida.
||A trip to China had not been on my immediate agenda. But around Christmas
2003, Roger Wolfe loaned me Peter Matthiessen's The Bird of Heaven:
Travels with Cranes, By the end of the book, China or Siberia had become
a priority — I wanted to see some rare east Asian cranes! So the Chairman
and I came to an arrangement: I'd visit him at Tiananmen Square (left)
and his minions wouldn't arrest me.... China is not a place that
one visits easily on your own. Very few Chinese speak English; arrangements
are complicated; and foreigners cannot rent cars. So it would have to be
search the 'net and the brochures I had filed away for east Asian tours
that promised both cranes and pheasants. The choices tended be either one
or the other.. not both. But I came upon the Sunbird tour that did both,
plus the basic tourist spots:
The June 2004 tour with Paul Holt, a Brit who is one of China's top experts,
included four Americans, three Brits and a Swede. We also had Chinese tour
agents (and drivers) at all times to sort out any difficulties. Our tour
group shot (below) was taken at Bird Island Refuge on the shore of Qinghai
1 (red arrow and number on map): Tourist spots around Beijing —
including the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace (waterbirds there), and
the Great Wall at Baideling — plus montane forests at Wulingshan
2 (white arrow & number): the Manchurian plain with grasslands
and a crane reserve with two rare cranes. This point in northeast China
was reached via a 12-hour train ride (with sleeper bunks)
3: the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau around Qinghai Lake, with forays into mountains
north of Xining (fly to Xining from Beijing). Another crane was up here
plus chances for several pheasants, snowcock, grouse and partridges
The participants were (front row, L to R): Paul Holt and Jack Siler (of
from Philadelphia); back row (L to R) David Fisher (a Sunbird leader on
his own holiday when a spot opened up at the last minute; David's knowledge
of world birds & butterflies helped immensely during the trip), Arnie
Moorhouse (sharp eyes; Douglas AZ), Don Roberson (nice cap), Sheila Deaner
(Sacramento CA), Bob Armstrong (U.K.), Claes Wallden (Sweden), Denis Blamire
(London; got his 5000th world lifer on the trip).
On this trip I most wanted cranes and pheasants.
I was very pleasantly surprised with the many other highlights.
As to cranes, I've put together a separate web page: click below
|As to pheasants, Common (Ring-necked) Pheasant was seen widely — since
I count only native species on my world list, this was a lifer for me.
We also saw three partridges (Tibetan, Przevalski's, and Daurian) and Tibetan
Snowcock. But the real highlights were:
Blood Pheasant — two males interacting up in canyon undergrowth
near our camp at Huzu Bei Shan (8000' elev.). The absolutely superb photograph
(below left) is by David Fisher. He digiscoped this in low
light; unbelievable! Just look at the shaggy nape crest on this incredible
bird! © David Fisher, used with permission
Blue Eared-Pheasant — we ended up seeing them daily in Huzu Bei
Shan; my digiscope (below right; top) was another lucky shot through the
Chinese Grouse — no photos but a male responded to tape and walked
up a limb to view us; I did a pencil field sketch (below right, bottom)
As this was a tour, I have not produced a "daily log" of sites,
nor an itinerary. Those details are on the Sunbird
website, and many of the specific spots were discovered by Paul Holt; some
are at sites accessible only by permit. However, on page two of this trip
report is a general discussion of the habitats visited (with photos) and
a list of some of the highlights (with more bird photos).
Our lodgings were good hotels or guesthouses, where available; some
smaller hotels in more remote Qinghai towns; plus two days of camping at
8000' elevation in Huzu Bei Shan park. The tents provided were very nice
with separate 'foyers' but, alas, the sleeping bag I had brought was not
rated for freezing temperatures. After two nights of these, I succumbed
to a very bad cold that had been making the rounds of other participants.
Fortunately for me the worst times were the last couple days of the trips;
others suffered through multiple days of misery. Because the trip included
camping and some marginal accommodations, and it also overlapped with her
teaching schedule, my wife Rita Carratello did not join me on this foreign
trip. She has done most of them (e.g., Uganda, Borneo, India, Brazil, Ecuador).
The standard field guide in China these days is MacKinnon & Phillipps
(2000). It is not up to the standards of some recent guides (e.g., East
Africa, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Thailand, India) but is quite adequate
for most purposes, and is much better than its predecessor (Meyer de Schauensee
1984). Unfortunately, it was hard to obtain in 2004 although I had my copy
long before the trip. I also brought along copies of selected papers on
difficult species (e.g., Manchurian Reed-Warbler). The vast majority of
birds, however, were found through Paul Holt's expertise and by using his
extensive collection of tapes.
The links below include many more photographs.
PHOTOS: All photos on this page are © 2004 Don Roberson
except the Blood Pheasant © 2004 David Fisher and used with permission;
all rights reserved. Many other shots from this trip are scattered about
this web site. Check particularly bird families, mammals, and herps listings.
Groth, J.G. 2000. Molecular evidence for the systemaic position
of Urocynchramus pylzowi. Auk 117: 787-791.
GO TO TRIP
MacKinnon, J., and K. Phillipps. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of
China. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
Matthiessen, P. 2001. The Bird of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. North
Point Press, New York.
Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1984. The Birds of China. Smithsonian Instit.
Press, Washington, D.C.
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