above: a Tibetan girl on the Qinghai Plateau is curious of all these foreigners
The Tibetan Plateau is a huge region in east-central Asia. Much of it lies above 10,000' elevation, and vast expanses are remote and wild. Years ago, in an effort to control and dominate Tibet, the Chinese government divided Tibet into two different provinces and gave other pieces to existing eastern provinces. The remaining area that is now commonly considered "Tibet" is the southern half of this Plateau. Our visit was to the northern portion of the Plateau in Qinghai [pronounced "Ching-hi"] Province, and this part is now known as the Qinghai Plateau. Much of our visit was focused around the southern shores of Qinghai Lake (below), a huge salt lake once called Koko Nor (spelled various ways; another is Koko Nuur, meaning, I'm told, "blue sea" in the Mongolian language). The grassy shores of the lake are now heavily grazed by sheep, goats, and yaks.

Birds of the Qinghai Plateau grasslands include:
Hume's Groundpecker (left),
Horned Lark (above), and
Isabelline Wheatear (right).

Note how all have evolved a drab pale brown (isabelline) plumage. The wheatears are recently fledged juvs.

The Groundpecker is particularly fascinating. It was long considered the world's smallest jay it was even called "Tibetan Ground-Jay" but many with field experience doubted this relationship. The bird is not the least bit corvid-like and, in fact, nests in burrows. While we were there adults were actively gathering insects (above left) to take to the young in the burrows. Recent evidence (e.g., James et al. 2003) proves that its closest relatives are the parid (tits & chickadees) and some now consider it the world's largest tit. I am not convinced. Although it is undoubtedly related to the parids, might it not be best considered its own monotypic family? This is how many treat the rather parallel situation with Wallcreeper, whose ancestors were in the nuthatch lineage but many still consider worthy of family status.

With the lovely blue-green lake and the endless sky, scenes on the Plateau can be dramatic. This is further accentuated by a huge set of sand dunes at the Lake's east end (below). If this were America, these would be preserved in the "Qinghai Dunes National Monument."

The sand dunes are at the east end of Qinghai Lake and so is an adjacent shallow freshwater lake called Xiao Bei Hu. It was that shallow wetland that hosted thousands of ducks, a huge nesting colony of Great Crested Grebes, and the obliging Black-necked Cranes shown on my "north China cranes" page.

The west end of the lake hosts the famous Bird Island: a protected colony of (mostly) Brown-headed Gulls (left) but also Bar-headed Geese, Great Cormorants, and Pallas's Gulls, among others. Bird Island is now a well-maintained tourist attraction with an entrance fee, strict hours of operation, and small trolleys to take observers out to well sign-posted observation platforms.

South and west of Qinghai Lake are rolling ridges slowly increasing in height. The lower slopes and flat bottomlands are all heavily grazed but the steep ridgelines have patches of short, dense dwarf scrub. This is habitat to numerous birds. Some highlights included Lammergeier (soaring overhead), White-tailed Rubythroat, White-browed Tit, White-browed Tit-Warbler, Beautiful & Streak Rosefinches, and the enigmatic Pink-tailed Rosefinch (photo on page one of trip report).

These foothills are also cut by small canyons and some of them have scrub habitat and steep canyon walls. We visited what was dubbed 'Paul's Canyon' (below right). It was full of birds, including Blue-fronted Redstart (below left), the rare Ala Shan Redstart (photos on page one and on a separate "north China redstarts" page), Tibetan Partridge, Wallcreeper, and Tibetan Snowfinch.

A half-day's drive to the southwest after climbing up and over 12,500' Rubber Mt. Pass is the flat and very dry Caka Valley. Here both the habitat and the avifauna changed dramatically. We were up the next day at dawn (as always), this time accompanied by the same Afghan soldiers who guard Kyber Pass (below) . . .  oh, sorry, that's just David Fisher in a borrowed Chinese Army greatcoat to help him fight off a cough & cold, and that's not a rifle but David's scope . . . .
We worked this arid country until we'd located all the major specialties Przevalski's Partridge, Great Rosefinch, and, especially Mongolian Ground-Jay (photo on page one of trip report). We also came upon this adult Blanford's (Plain-backed) Snowfinch carrying food and looking lost, until two half-grown youngsters emerged from a tiny shrub to beg (below)!
We returned to Xining after leaving the Qinghai Plateau. We had earlier spent a morning birding in a isolated spruce/fir/birch forest in mountains north of Xining (Bao Qo) but this time we were destined to drive over 11,500' Huzu Pass (below) to reach our campsite in Huzu Bei Shan national park. We left Xining at 4 a.m. so we would reach the pass by dawn with hopes of hearing and seeing snowcock and other pheasants. This was an excellent strategy: we watched a family party of Tibetan Snowcock well above the roadway, and grazing Common and Blue Eared-Pheasants below the road. Other highlights included Kessler's Thrush (photo on page one of trip report), Chestnut Thrush, Plain & Elliot's Laughingthrushes, White-browed Rosefinch, and a White-browed Tit nesting in a hole in a road-cut.
Our campsite was nestled between steep forested hills and a rushing river (above). We had individual tents provided by the tour operator but each brought our own sleeping bag. Alas, mine was much too thin for the freezing cold at night here at 8000' elevation, and by day two of camping I had succumbed to the cough & cold that had dogged Bob and David and Arnie for the preceding week. 

Ms. Q-Y. Wang, our local travel agent up on the Plateau (left; shown here in the traditional dress she wore the final day), was also our cook at the camp. Despite the difficulties, we had fine meals. And our bus driver got this huge bus down along the river.
And the river itself (above right with Sheila & Jack) was delightful. Two species of dipper frequented the stream, and there was almost always a redstart perched on one of the boulders: White-capped Water Redstart or Plumbeous or Hodgson's (photos on my "China redstarts" page).
The birding around camp (the 'upper canyon' area) and a couple kms downstream (the 'lower canyon') was excellent. It was a rich mix of spruce, fir, junipers and birch; dominate songs included Greenish and Gansu Leaf-Warbler. The forest had a few pairs of White-cheeked (Przevalski's) Nuthatch (near right; a rarely-photographed Chinese endemic) and a wide-ranging Black Woodpecker (far right). Also present were Blue Eared & Blood Pheasants and Chinese Grouse (photos/sketches on page one of trip report), Chestnut Thrush, and White-throated Redstart (photos on a north China redstart page of trip report).

Blood Pheasant proved to be the 5000th world bird for participant Denis Blamire (below left with Paul Holt on the pheasant track). Also immediately thereafter, local teens appeared to celebrate the achievement! This young girl proved to be quite drunk but well-meaning.

As for your humble reporter, the quest for 5000 or half of the birds in the world fell 4 species short this trip. But just this week the American Ornithologists' Union split Cackling from Canada Goose, so that makes it but three more . . .  Will those brighten the next foreign trip? Or will they be ticked from my armchair while reading the journals? Hard to say. But one could hardly have chosen a better species for #5000 than Blood Pheasant!
So I must conclude this was a very successful trip. I actually saw 9 of 10 species I had chosen as 'most-wanted' before the trip, and then had enjoyed others that I had not even thought likely (e.g., Great Bustard, Schrenk's Bittern). And the digiscoping efforts turned out to be a major source of enjoyment. I leave you with this Siberian Rubythroat scoped near the camp. . . .
The links below include many more photographs.
an introduction to the tour with a
gallery of highlight photos
Beijing, Wulingshan, and Manchuria
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; 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:
Alström, P., U. Olsson, and P.R. Colston. 1992. A new species of Phylloscopus warbler from central China. Ibis 134: 329-334.

Alström, P., U. Olsson, and P.R. Colston. 1997. Re-evaluation of the taxonomic status of Phylloscopus proregulus kansuensis. Bull. Brit. Orn. Club 117: 177-193.

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Dickinson, E.C., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3rd ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

James, H.F., P.G.P. Ericson, B. Slikas, F-M. Lei, F.B. Gill, and S.L. Olson. 2003. Pseudopodoces humilis, a misclassified terrestrial tit (Paridae) of the Tibetan Plateau: evolutionary consequences of shifting adaptive zones. Ibis 145: 185-202.

MacKinnon, J., and K. Phillipps. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Zheng, G., Song, Zhang, Zhang, and Guo. 2000. A new species of flycatcher (Ficedula) from China. J. Beijing Normal Univ. (Nat. Sci.) 36 (3): 405-409.






Page created 17-24 July 2004