Habitats of Northern Xinjiang, clockwise from top L: oasis with sere mountains looming in background, Hongyanglin; semi-desert at Fukang-Beishawo; Altai mountain meadow at Kanasi Park; semi-desert, reeds, and reservoir at Baihu, Urumqi. All by Craig Brelsford, except bottom L, by our driver Sūn Yǒng Bǎo (孙永宝).

Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

In this, the fifth in my five-post series on birding Northern Xinjiang, I offer you photos of the various habitats in which I birded. — Craig Brelsford

A semi-desert steppe called the Jungar Basin covers most of Northern Xinjiang. The basin is studded with oases, many of them near waterways such as the Irtysh River. In recent decades, as the human population has grown, runoff from the mountains has been channeled into reservoirs, important for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The Jungar Basin is bounded on the south by the Tianshan Mountains and on the north by the Altai Mountains. Both ranges offer classic alpine habitats, and the Altai, parts of which are closer to Moscow than to Shanghai, holds many species of bird more common in Europe than in China.

The map below traces our 2017 itinerary through this vast, underbirded region. Noteworthy birding areas are marked.

Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken by Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Map of Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken in July 2017 by birders Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. We birded from Baiyanggou in the Tianshan Mountains to Lake Kanas in the Altai Mountains. In between we discovered areas in the northern, central, and southern Jungar Basin, the vast semi-desert steppe covering most of Northern Xinjiang. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

The photos below show some of the habitats in which I have birded in Northern Xinjiang. Farther below, you can enjoy my other shots in “Scenes from Northern Xinjiang.” Still farther below are the references for this five-post series as well as my acknowledgements and dedication.

Baiyanggou, 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Foot of Tianshan Mountains at Baiyanggou Scenic Area, 21 July 2017. Using our spotting scopes, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found on the ridgeline, 2000 m distant, Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. The area around the car yielded Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus and Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Coordinates of this site: 43.424675, 87.163545. Elevation: 2040 m (6,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, Tianshan, 21 July 2017. This scrub offered a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski's Bunting E. godlewskii. The coordinates of the spot are 43.454783, 87.202597, and the elevation is 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, 21 July 2017. This site at Baiyanggou, 52 km (32 mi.) south of Urumqi, yielded a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii. Coordinates: 43.454783, 87.202597. Elev.: 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat in which we found Eversmann's Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus.
Habitat at Baiyanggou in which we found Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus, 21 July 2017. The redstart, a male, was using the pastures and edge of the coniferous forest and was defending territory. Here also were Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus and Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Coordinates: 43.474525, 87.191575. Elev.: 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Tianshan mountain pastures and conifer forest. Among the species we found here were Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. The coordinates of this spot are 43.443733, 87.132903, and the elevation is 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Ethnic Kazakh herders spend the summer in the Tianshan mountain pastures at Baiyanggou. On 21 July 2017 we found here and in the adjacent conifer forests Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. Coordinates: 43.443733, 87.132903. Elev.: 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess habitat south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the base of the hill we heard the call of Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess hill south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the green vegetation at the base of the hill we heard Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. We drove through mile after mile of beautiful loess country at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains. Coordinates: 43.561508, 87.206833. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
We visited Baihu for 90 minutes late on the afternoon of 21 July 2017. We were looking for and found White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala as well as Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. The semi-desert around the lake yielded Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar, Pallas's Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus, Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. The spot is in Urumqi, west of downtown at . Elevation 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik and I visited Baihu on 21 July 2017. The reservoir and surrounding reeds yielded White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the surrounding semi-desert gave us breeding Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar and Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus. As settlement continues in Northern Xinjiang, reservoirs and irrigation canals are becoming an increasingly important habitat for birds. Baihu lies 13 km (8 mi.) west of downtown Urumqi. Coordinates: 43.816992, 87.435352. Elev.: 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This interesting site 65 km (40 mi.) N of Urumqi gave me my introduction to the southern Junggar Basin. Jan-Erik and I found here Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula. The site yielded four species in Passer: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. We counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This site 65 km (40 mi.) north of Urumqi gave me my re-introduction to the Jungar Basin, the vast, arid steppe that makes up most of Northern Xinjiang. The site yielded four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Among the other species we found were Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, and Desert Whitethroat S. minula. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, and we counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Stony desert, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Stony semi-desert in Jungar Basin. Searching for Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Jan-Erik and I spent an hour here on 23 July 2017. We came up short on the sandgrouse but managed to find Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis and Crested Lark Galerida cristata. Coordinates: 45.291384, 84.781396 (junction of G217 and S221). Elev.: 330 m (1,080 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Typical habitat at Hongyanglin. In the poplars we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks below held breeding Sykes's Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding site were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. We visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. The coordinates are 46.120654, 85.654598, and the elevation is 310 m. (Craig Brelsford)
In the poplars at Hongyanglin we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks held breeding Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding Jungar Basin oasis were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. Jan-Erik and I visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.120654, 85.654598. Elev.: 310 m (1,020 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Arid country between Wu'erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen. This random stop in the arid Jungar Basin gave us our only trip records of two species adapted to the great arid steppes of Central Eurasia: Henderson's Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The random stop occurred 24 July 2017; on 28 July 2017 we drove slowly past, noting again here Henderson's Ground Jay. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Arid country between Wu’erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July 2017. Our random stop here paid off handsomely, as we got our only trip records of two arid-country specialists: Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The site lies 23 km (14 mi.) south of Heshituoluogaizhen on the G217. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Puddles at Ahe'erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Roadside ponds at Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Puddles such as these were numerous along the many miles of highway we traveled, and they often were productive. The ponds here were especially good, yielding Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, and Common Redshank T. totanus. A small woodland next to the hamlet adds to the attraction of this site, which is on the G217, 31 km (19 mi.) north of Heshituoluogaizhen. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We stopped here mid-afternoon and had a flyby of Saker Falcon Falco cherrug. Sharing the skies with the falcon were Common Swift Apus apus and Pale Martin Riparia diluta. The scrubby area around the reservoir was productive, giving us Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, and Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. Coordinates: 46.892338, 86.386340. Elev.: 1260 m (4,130 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Jan-Erik scanning the NE quadrant of Ulungur Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik scans the northeastern quadrant of Ulungur Lake, at 1035 sq. km (400 sq. mi.) one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The advice of shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon put Ulungur Lake on our itinerary: ‘If you have time,’ John wrote, ‘you should look at the small saline ponds and reed beds along the NE shores of Lake Ulungur. They are packed full of breeding waterfowl’ (MacKinnon, in litt., 2017). John’s words proved abundantly true. Jan-Erik and I spent the morning of 25 July 2017 at Ulungur Lake and had a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor, 19 juv. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, 80 Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina, 180 Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, 240 Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, 1 Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, and 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Walking through the scrub, we lifted a roosting European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. Reeds along the shore held Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1,580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodlands on G216, 25 July 2017. The coordinates of this spot are 47.544827, 87.898782. (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodland on G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, 25 July 2017. Large trees and rank undergrowth (including wild cannabis) characterize this outstanding site. A visit of less than two hours in the midday heat yielded a who’s who of ‘European’ species, among them European Roller Coracias garrulus, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, and European Greenfinch Chloris chloris. Coordinates: 47.544827, 87.898782. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Pond and marsh along G217 at Alahake. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Marsh and pond along G217 at Alahake, between Burqin and Altai City. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 26 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
An outstanding birding site, White Birch Forest Scenic Area is on the Kaba River, a tributary of the mighty Irtysh River. I have made five visits to the site, four in May 2012 and one on 26 July 2017. Among the birds I have found here are Great Tit Parus major kapustini, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. Our visit in 2017 yielded a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The avifauna, verdant glades, and vast birch forest are strongly reminiscent of Northern Europe. Coordinates: 48.076867, 86.342950. Elev.: 490 m (1,610 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Wetlands on S229, the outskirts of Kaba in the background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both species found singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. (Craig Brelsford)
Wetlands on S229, outskirts of Kaba in background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of singing Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. Coordinates: 48.060168, 86.395527. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest, 26 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest is a riverine woodland at the confluence of the Burqin and Irytsh rivers. The birch forest and corresponding avifauna are similar to those of White Birch Forest Scenic Area 59 km (37 mi.) northwest. Burqin Magic Forest is a breeding site for Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius. Other woodpeckers found here are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, and Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus. I visited Burqin Magic Forest in May 2012 and again on 26 July 2017. Coordinates: 47.724565, 86.840598. Elev.: 460 m (1,500 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Alpine meadow and coniferous woodland in the Altai Mountains, Kanasi, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Altai Mountain meadow and coniferous woodland at Kanasi, 27 July 2017. These highlands are in the extreme north of Xinjiang, near the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The site, which is closer to Moscow (3370 km [2,090 mi.]) than Shanghai (3500 km [2,180 mi.]), holds many species better known in Europe than in China, among them Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana. Other species we found here were Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. Coordinates: 48.712367, 86.982445. Elev.: 1720 m (5,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River, 27 July 2017. This outcrop is the home of a most unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: . Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, 27 July 2017. This natural wall is the home of an unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: 48.702008, 86.997155. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture and picnic grounds near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu. (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu, 27 July 2017. Here and in the gardens around the hotels we picked up Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, the white-foreheaded Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides, and an unexpected Xinjiang record of Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus. Coordinates: 48.492609, 87.147366. Elev.: 1490 m (4,890 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Heart of the Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. This point lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City on an unpaved mountain road. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Heart of the Altai Mountains near Xiaodong Gulch. On 18 May 2012 I managed to briefly enter this enchanted world and get this photo. Even though I was unable to reach the highest country, I still found many good birds, among them Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis and Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. In June 2016 John MacKinnon managed to go higher, reaching the snowy passes and finding Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus, Rock Ptarmigan L. muta, Altai Accentor Prunella himalayana, Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani, and Mongolian Wolf Canis lupus chanco. John wrote a guest post for shanghaibirding.com about his trek into these mountains. The point photographed here lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo, 10 May 2012, Altai, Xinjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
With Altai Mountains in the background, Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo stand on the shore of Aweitan Reservoir, 10 May 2012. At this outstanding reservoir site I found Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans, Red-tailed Shrike Lanius phoenicuroides, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Among the migrating ducks were Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Gadwall M. strepera. The site lies 28 km (17 mi.) south of Altai City on the G216. Coordinates: 47.642361, 88.020278. Elev.: 650 m (2,150 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG

Bactrian Camel, Burqin Magic Forest, Xinjiang, 12 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Red Deer, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Yarkand Deer Cervus elaphus yarkandensis. Members of this endangered subspecies of Red Deer appeared at dusk at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, northern Jungar Basin, Xinjiang, 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, arid country north of Burqin (47.920242, 86.835243). To create this image, I lay on my belly to get the birds as low in the frame as possible. I then narrowed my aperture on my 600 mm f/4 lens to f/22, allowing me to capture the mountainous background and convey a sense of the vastness of the sparsely populated northern tip of Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Hongyanglin, Xinjiang, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
As the sun set at the beautiful Jungar Basin oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017, I used my iPhone 6 to create this photo of the dying light caressing a poplar. (Craig Brelsford)
Wild Marijuana at the well-watered streamside site along the G216. 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Wild cannabis is one of the many plant species making up the rank vegetation at the well-watered open woodland along the G216. (Craig Brelsford)
Thundering Kanas River, Altai Mountains, Northern Xinjiang, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Thundering Kanasi River, Altai Mountains. These turquoise waters flow south from Kanas Lake, eventually finding the mighty Irtysh River and flowing north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217 in Altai District, Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217. The Islamic presence in Northern Xinjiang is relatively recent, being a direct consequence of the Dzungar genocide of the 1750s. The campaign wiped out the native Dzungar people, who were Buddhist, and replaced them with various groups, among them the Hui and the Kazakhs, who are Muslim. The atrocity was orchestrated by the Qianlong emperor, a member of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Craig Brelsford)
Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. (Craig Brelsford)
Dinner plate bearing likeness of Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. In parts of China where the Han do not make up the ethnic majority, portraits of the founder of Communist China are often on prominent display. The displays are not so much an expression of support for Communism as they are a reminder of Han supremacy. (Craig Brelsford)
Wusu Beer, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Condiments for noodles, Wusu Beer, and tea, with plate of plain noodles just visible behind the beer. Wusu Beer is a surprisingly good local brand with a taste similar to that of Tsingtao. With afternoon temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), a Wusu and plate of noodles were a fitting reward after a long birding day. (Craig Brelsford)
Ethnic Kazakh police officer. Burqin, Xinjiang, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman, Wutubulake, 28 July 2017. With my movie-star looks and monster camera, many people in Xinjiang took me for a superstar photographer. I did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. I took this picture in the final hours of my final day of my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. I was smitten with the region and sorry to leave, and I swore I’d be back. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
American birder Craig Brelsford (L) and Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén return cheerfully to base camp after an unsuccessful search for sandgrouse, central Jungar Basin, 23 July 2017. A birder with decades of experience and blessed with an extremely sensitive ear, Jan-Erik is one of the best foreign birders ever to operate in China. I never tire of telling the story of Jan-Erik and the Siberian Bush Warbler. Near Genhe, Inner Mongolia in July 2015, my wife Elaine, Jan-Erik, and I were speeding down the highway in the middle of a conversation with the wind roaring through the open windows. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ I hit the brakes and backed up, and there it was. I said to Jan-Erik, ‘I didn’t know you had so much experience with Siberian Bush Warbler.’ ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘That was only the second time in my life that I’ve found the species.’ (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Police officers with Jan-Erik (far L) and Craig Brelsford. (Craig Brelsford)
In Xinjiang Jan-Erik and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), passing through dozens of checkpoints along our route. We made it through each time without incident. Indeed, the police can be friendly, as those here, at a checkpoint near Burqin; the photo was their idea, not ours. At the checkpoints, being a Western foreigner was at most a minor hindrance. Our driver explained why: ‘They’re not looking for people like you.’ The checkpoints are for internal security, with young Uighur men being the main target. (Craig Brelsford)
The team at Wu'erhe, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The team at Wuerhe, 23 July 2017. L-R: Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Jan-Erik Nilsén, Craig Brelsford. We had just returned from beautiful Hongyanglin, our Wusu beer was cold, and our noodles were hitting the spot. We were tired and sweaty and very happy, for we were giving Xinjiang our all. (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik Nilsen and Craig Brelsford with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (大师兄/Craig Brelsford)
Birders Jan-Erik Nilsén (second from L) and Craig Brelsford (second from R) feast with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. Like many of the Han settlers we met in Xinjiang, these men were brimming with civilizational confidence and optimism. They believe deeply, and told me frankly, that as good as things are now in China, they are sure to get better, especially in Xinjiang. These gritty, practical men are nationalists, and their mission is to Make China Great Again. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东]/Craig Brelsford)
Our final moments with Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Our final moments with our driver, Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, after midnight on 30 July 2017. Later that day, Jan-Erik and I flew home, Jan-Erik to Beijing, I to Shanghai. Eighty-eight days after this photo was taken, my son was born, and a further three months later, I returned to America, ending my 10-year sojourn in the Middle Kingdom. After traveling tens of thousands of kilometers in China as explorer, student of ornithology, and bird guide, Xinjiang 2017 was my swan song, my final expedition in China. With Jan-Erik at my side, my time in China could scarcely have ended on a higher note. (Craig Brelsford)

REFERENCES FOR THE FIVE-POST SERIES

Alström, Per, Mild, Krister, & Zetterström, Bill. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003.

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., & Christie, D.A. (eds.) (1992-2011). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vols. 1-16. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kennerley, Peter & Pearson, David. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010.

Leader, Paul J. to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 17 Jan. 2017.

MacKinnon, John to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Ulungur Lake, 15 July 2017.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, 2000. Our first reference in Northern Xinjiang.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

Despite being published back in 2000, the pioneering work co-authored by John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, was my first reference in Northern Xinjiang. John also offered me tips about Northern Xinjiang drawn from his considerable experience in the region. I got many of my ideas for the trip from the meticulously detailed reports of Paul Holt. Jan-Erik’s and my 2017 itinerary was loosely based on the June 2015 trip of Hangzhou birder Qián Chéng (钱程). Josh Summers of farwestchina.com offered me pointers and assured me that traveling through Northern Xinjiang would be safe and fun.

DEDICATION

Tiny
Elaine and Tiny

I dedicate the Xinjiang report to my son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. Tiny, you were in Mummy’s belly when I made my final big trip in China, and you filled me with hope every day. I loved traveling around China finding birds—I love being your daddy even more. May the photos and stories here inspire your own big adventures someday!

This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon

Featured image: Habitats of Northern Xinjiang. Clockwise from top L: oasis with sere mountains looming in background, Hongyanglin; Jungar Basin semi-desert at Fukang-Beishawo; alpine meadow, Altai Mountains; semi-desert, reeds, and reservoir at Baihu, Urumqi. All by Craig Brelsford, except bottom L, by Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东).

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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 932 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

8 thoughts on “Habitats of Northern Xinjiang”

  1. Remarkable series.
    Reading these reminds me of Seebohm in Siberia, Von Humboldt at the Chinese Turkmen border; you are adding real knowledge to the Asian birding scene at all kinds of levels.
    Meanwhile Tiny is growing up, your wife appears to be that awesome lady as always, and I hope you enjoy Christmas in a traditional manner. Some things must be maintained!
    I’ll risk Pascal’s wager and say Dia leat, go dte tu slan, agus go n’eirigh an m’bothar leat. Go m’eirimid beo ag an am seo aris.
    Colm Moore
    Beijing

    1. Hi Colm, I appreciate your words because they show your grasp of what we were trying to accomplish. Jan-Erik and I were indeed aware that pioneering birding can still be done in Northern Xinjiang. We were confident that though our time would be short, just 12 days, we could nonetheless make discoveries that would help fine-tune the birding world’s understanding of the region.

      And discoveries we indeed did make: Siberian Chiffchaff in the Altai, for example, and Yellowhammer and Sedge Warbler at Kaba. (Yellowhammer was our discovery; Siberian Chiffchaff and Sedge Warbler had been recorded by others.) Even records such as Eurasian Siskin in the Altai moved the ball forward, as the species is unexpected in Northern Xinjiang.

      As you so well understand, Colm, in the remote regions of China, the intrepid birder can, if not relive the days of Seebohm and Humboldt, then at least get an after-tingle of their thrilling discoveries. You can be a latter-day birding pioneer.

  2. Nice to hear from you Craig, sadly it seems many fellow birders may not get the chance you had.
    It seems that travelling around Xinjiang is becoming ever more difficult with lengthy document checks, access restrictions and spot searches for foreigners especially.
    Anyone trying should be prepared for these delays and disappointment, a shame as its bird list is more like Europe than Asia.
    Perhaps somewhere like Qinghai is now more practical and safer.

    1. Good to hear from you, Russell. I don’t know the situation now, but a year and a half ago, when we did the trip, we faced no major problems. We planned the trip carefully, always had an answer when asked where we were going, and didn’t even try to enter areas where we knew access was restricted.

      The security situation as well as the remoteness of the area has meant that Northern Xinjiang has long been underbirded, and to us the underbirdedness was part of the allure. In just 12 days we were able to make our own discoveries (Yellowhammer at Kaba) and confirm others’ interesting finds (Sedge Warbler, also at Kaba).

      Xinjiang is risky, and not everyone, I am well aware, may be willing to take the risks and endure the hassles. For us, however, doing our small part to shed light on a poorly understood region was a worthy reward for the risks we took and delays we endured.

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