Eurasian Eagle-Owl is the biggest owl in the world. A pair lives in a quarry about a km south of Elaine Du's home village. We couldn't believe our good luck when we found them! Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/5, 1/250, ISO 2000.

Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Introduction

Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, 2015: Introduction
“Birding the Amur River Basin in China’s Great Northeast”
By Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du
© 2015-2020 by Craig Brelsford

“Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015” contains an introduction and five parts. This is the introduction.

Introduction: Birding the Amur River Basin in China’s Great Northeast
Part 1: Introduction to Hulunbeier & First Trip to Elaine’s Hometown
Part 2: Hulunbeier, July 2015
Part 3: Eastern Heilongjiang
Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown
Part 5: Facts & Figures

Instead of going to the familiar places in China to clock up new additions to life lists, why not get to some remote areas where you have a good chance of finding something new?

— John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, p. 16

MacKinnon’s pioneering spirit influenced this report. Elaine and I noted 229 species while fulfilling our goal of going into underbirded areas of northeastern China.

This report covers a short trip to the region in January 2015 and a longer trip from July to September 2015. Except for brief entries from Hohhot in south-central Inner Mongolia, the entire report covers eastern Heilongjiang and the Hulunbeier region of northeastern Inner Mongolia—both areas part of the great Amur River Basin in northeast China.

Arctic Redpoll
In January, hardy Arctic Redpoll were toughing out temperatures below minus 30. (Craig Brelsford)

The January trip was our introduction to the region. Elaine and I birded with Brian Ivon Jones and experienced cold such as I had never felt before. The lowest temperature we had was -36°C (-33°F). Among our highlights were Northern Hawk-Owl, White-backed Woodpecker, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Great Tit, and Arctic Redpoll.

Elaine and I then traveled to Dawucun, her home village in southeastern Heilongjiang. There, on 21 January 2015, Elaine and I were married in the simple farmhouse where she grew up. I was pleasantly surprised by the good birding around Dawucun. Never walking more than 2 km from Elaine’s house, we noted Rough-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit, Siberian Accentor, and Eurasian Bullfinch.

In the summer, Elaine and I returned to the region. With Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén at our side, we spent 11-24 July exploring Hulunbeier. The three of us drove our rented Honda CR-V 2533 km (1,574 mi.), covering the main habitats of Hulunbeier, among them the northern-temperate and taiga forests of the Greater Khingan Range and the arid grasslands around Hulun Lake.

Baikal Bush Warbler
A highlight of the summer trip to Hulunbeier was finding Baikal Bush Warbler. (Craig Brelsford)

Among the 170 species we noted were breeding Scaly-sided Merganser at Yikesama Forest and Swan Goose at the excellent Modamuji wetland. Other highlights: Great Grey Owl and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler at Wuerqihan; Demoiselle Crane, Oriental Plover, and Isabelline Shrike around Hulun Lake; breeding Arctic Warbler near Genhe and at Yikesama; Baikal Bush Warbler near Genhe and at Hanma Reserve; House Sparrow and Blyth’s Pipit at various locations; Hazel Grouse at various locations and Black Grouse at Hanma; nesting Common House Martin in Galaya; Pacific Swift and Common Swift in the towns; banded Red-necked Stint near Modamuji; 5000 Sand Martin and Bearded Reedling at Modamuji; and Pallas’s Reed Bunting ssp. lydiae and Common Starling at Wulannuo’er. We saw no deer except Siberian Roe at Hanma. Among our other mammals were Grey Red-backed Vole, Northern Pika, and Sable at Yikesama; Pallid Ground Squirrel near Labudalin; and Mongolian Gerbil at Modamuji.

Ural Owl
On 28 July, during a heavy rainstorm in eastern Heilongjiang, this Ural Owl jumped onto the road, grabbed a frog, and alighted on a branch with its prize. (Craig Brelsford)

Next came two weeks (26 July-8 Aug.) in eastern Heilongjiang, again with Brian Ivon Jones. The trip began and ended in Jiamusi and took us on a loop through areas along the border with Russia, principally along the Ussuri and Amur rivers. We drove our rented Toyota Highlander 2918 km (1,813 mi.). This part of the trip was a disappointment, mainly because seas of maize have eaten up hundreds of square kilometers of bird habitat. Still, we managed to find Oriental Stork in unexpected places such as Tongjiang; at Qixing River we found breeding Red-necked Grebe and noted Red-crowned Crane, White-naped Crane, and Reed Parrotbill (ssp. polivanovi, “Northern Parrotbill”); and at Qindeli Farms we saw Black Woodpecker and Mountain Hare.

Hazel Grouse
In July and August, Hazel Grouse were commonly noted in Hulunbeier and Heilongjiang and were one of several species that contributed to the ‘Northern European’ ambience. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine and I spent 9 Aug. to 8 Sept. at Dawucun. The month at Elaine’s parents’ house was a high point in my birding career and one of the most satisfying moments in my years in China. The birding was excellent, and even better was combining birding with family. Elaine and I would bird in the morning and afternoon and in the evening have dinner with her parents, sisters, and nieces. We basked in the love of her parents, who were happy that their daughter was home.

Elaine and I rediscovered the quiet hills 1.5 km south of her village, and we made a major discovery: Xidaquan National Forest, 9400 hectares (36 sq. mi.) of old-growth secondary woodland just 21 km (13 mi.) from Dawucun. Xidaquan had never been properly birded before, and the park managers welcomed our research, giving us free admission in return for a list of the species we noted. We made 12 visits.

Radde’s Warbler
Xidaquan, the forest reserve Elaine and I discovered near her hometown in Heilongjiang, has added to our understanding of the birds of the Shanghai region. There, we are able to see on their breeding grounds birds that in Shanghai are passage migrants. An example is Radde’s Warbler. (Craig Brelsford)

We noted 91 species around Dawucun and Xidaquan. Among the highlights were discovering a pair of Eurasian Eagle-Owl while birding with Elaine’s young nieces at the quarry near Dawucun. We found Eurasian Eagle-Owl at two other locations, one of them in Xidaquan, where we also noted Ural Owl and Long-eared Owl. Eastern Crowned Warbler were singing loudly and defending territory deep into August, and Radde’s Warbler were behaving likewise into September. We regularly noted classic northeast China taxa such as Coal Tit ssp. ater, Eurasian Nuthatch ssp. amurensis, Eurasian Jay ssp. brandtii, Willow Tit ssp. baicalensis, and Marsh Tit ssp. brevirostris. At Xidaquan we saw Mandarin Duck, Asian Stubtail, Thick-billed Warbler, Eurasian Treecreeper, Siberian Thrush, Pale Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat, and Long-tailed Rosefinch; in the hills behind Dawucun we had breeding White-throated Rock Thrush, Asian Brown Flycatcher, and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher as well as Northern Goshawk, Chinese Grey Shrike, Grey-backed Thrush, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Eurasian Red Squirrel; and in Elaine’s parents’ back garden we had Daurian Starling as well as regular nighttime visits by the eagle-owls.

Simple List of the Species of Bird Noted in Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015 (229 species)

Greylag Goose Anser anser
Swan Goose A. cygnoides
Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Ruddy Shelduck T. ferruginea
Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Gadwall Mareca strepera
Falcated Duck M. falcata
Eurasian Wigeon M. penelope
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha
Northern Pintail A. acuta
Eurasian Teal A. crecca
Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa
Northern Shoveler Spatula clypeata
Garganey S. querquedula
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Tufted Duck A. fuligula
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus
Hazel Grouse Tetrastes bonasia
Black Grouse Lyrurus tetrix
Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena
Great Crested Grebe P. cristatus
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis
Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Von Schrenck’s Bittern Ixobrychus eurhythmus
Striated Heron Butorides striata
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron A. purpurea
Great Egret A. alba
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis
Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter soloensis
Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis
Northern Goshawk A. gentilis
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus
Hen Harrier C. cyaneus
Pied Harrier C. melanoleucos
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus
Upland Buzzard B. hemilasius
Eastern Buzzard B. japonicus
Ruddy-breasted Crake Porzana fusca
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
White-naped Crane Antigone vipio
Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo
Red-crowned Crane G. japonensis
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus
Oriental Plover C. veredus
Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola
Pin-tailed/Swinhoe’s Snipe Gallinago stenura/G. megala
Common Snipe G. gallinago
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Little Curlew Numenius minutus
Eurasian Curlew N. arquata
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Green Sandpiper T. ochropus
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Long-toed Stint C. subminuta
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Mew Gull Larus canus
Vega Gull L. vegae
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida
White-winged Tern C. leucopterus
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Hill Pigeon C. rupestris
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
Eurasian Collared Dove S. decaocto
Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis
Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus
Common Cuckoo C. canorus
Oriental Scops Owl Otus sunia
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Great Grey Owl S. nebulosa
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus
Long-eared Owl A. otus
Northern Hawk-Owl Surnia ulula
Little Owl Athene noctua
Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus
Common Swift Apus apus
Pacific Swift A. pacificus
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Yungipicus canicapillus
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
Great Spotted Woodpecker D. major
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Merlin F. columbarius
Amur Falcon F. amurensis
Eurasian Hobby F. subbuteo
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Isabelline Shrike L. isabellinus
Chinese Grey Shrike L. sphenocercus
Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Daurian Jackdaw Coloeus dauuricus
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Carrion Crow C. corone
Northern Raven C. corax
Coal Tit Periparus ater ater
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris
Willow Tit P. montanus baicalensis
Great Tit Parus major kapustini
Japanese Tit P. minor
Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Mongolian Lark Melanocorypha mongolica
Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Sand Martin Riparia riparia
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum
Asian House Martin D. dasypus
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus
Radde’s Warbler P. schwarzi
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus
Arctic Warbler P. borealis
Two-barred Warbler P. plumbeitarsus
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler P. tenellipes
Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Black-browed Reed Warbler A. bistrigiceps
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Baikal Bush Warbler Locustella davidi
Lanceolated Warbler L. lanceolata
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
Northern Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei polivanovi
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris
White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus
Daurian Starling Agropsar sturninus
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum
Pale Thrush T. pallidus
Red-throated Thrush T. ruficollis
Naumann’s Thrush T. naumanni
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta
Dark-sided Flycatcher M. sibirica
Asian Brown Flycatcher M. dauurica
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane
Rufous-tailed Robin L. sibilans
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Mugimaki Flycatcher F. mugimaki
Taiga Flycatcher F. albicilla
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus
Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis
Citrine Wagtail M. citreola
Grey Wagtail M. cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi
Blyth’s Pipit A. godlewskii
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus
Long-tailed Rosefinch C. sibiricus ussuriensis
Pallas’s Rosefinch C. roseus
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica
Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea
Arctic Redpoll A. hornemanni
Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus
Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos
Meadow Bunting E. cioides weigoldi
Tristram’s Bunting E. tristrami
Chestnut-eared Bunting E. fucata
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi
Common Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus

Itinerary (all dates 2015)
For more information on places visited, see “List of Place Names” in Part 5.

Part 1a: Hohhot and Introduction to Hulunbeier

11-12 Jan.: Hohhot
13-16 Jan.: Wuerqihan
17 Jan.: Wuerqihan & Kuduo’er

Part 1b: First Trip to Elaine’s Hometown

19-23 Jan.: Dawucun

Part 2a: One Day in Hohhot

02 April: Hohhot

Part 2b: Hulunbeier, July 2015

11 July: Wuerqihan
12 July: Wuerqihan to Genhe
13 July: Genhe to Hanma
14 July: Hanma to Mangui
15-18 July: Yikesama
19 July: Mangui to Labudalin
20 July: Labudalin to Manzhouli
21 July: Manzhouli & Hulun Lake
22 July: Hulun Lake & New Barag Right Banner
23 July: Wulannuo’er
24 July: New Barag Left Banner & Modamuji

Part 3: Eastern Heilongjiang

26 July: Mudanfeng
27 July: Hulin
28 July: Yueyahu & Dongfanghong
29 July: Naoli River
30 July: Naoli River & Honghe
31 July: San Jiang
01-02 Aug.: Fuyuan
03-04 Aug.: Qindeli Farms
05 Aug.: Qindeli Farms & Tongjiang
06 Aug.: Tongjiang & Qixing River
07 Aug.: Qixing River

Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown

11-16 Aug.: Dawucun
17 Aug.: Xidaquan
18 Aug.: Dawucun
19 Aug.: Xidaquan

21 Aug.: Xidaquan

23 Aug.: Hengmei Gardens
24-25 Aug.: Xidaquan
26-28 Aug.: Dawucun
29 Aug.: Xidaquan
30 Aug.: Dawucun
31 Aug.-02 Sept.: Xidaquan
03-04 Sept.: Dawucun
05-06 Sept.: Xidaquan
07 Sept.: Dawucun
08 Sept.: Xidaquan

Featured image: Eurasian Eagle-Owl is the biggest owl in the world. A pair lives in a quarry near Elaine Du’s home village of Dawucun, Boli, Heilongjiang. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/5, 1/250, ISO 2000.

Next: Part 1: Introduction to Hulunbeier & First Trip to Elaine’s Hometown
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