above: the Great Wall looms over the forested hills northwest of Beijing
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 basal 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 a tour.
I 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: 
  • 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 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 Lake.
The participants were (front row, L to R): Paul Holt and Jack Siler (of BirdingontheNet fame; 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
of north CHINA
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 undergrowth
  • 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.

Beijing, Hebei, and Manhuria
the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau
with Qinghai Lake & the Daban Shan Range
for the 6-26 June 2004 TRIP
covering birds & mammals & herps
CLICK HERE for a page on the
photos & discussion of all 10 species

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.

Literature cited:

Groth, J.G. 2000. Molecular evidence for the systemaic position of Urocynchramus pylzowi. Auk 117: 787-791.

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.






Page created 15-18 July 2004