Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. Radio Beijing International interviewed Per in November 2018. In the interview, Per talks about speciation, taxonomy, his early interest in birds, and his difficult and ground-breaking initial expeditions to China in the 1980s. Get to know this friendly giant of birding by listening to the interview below (23:56; 13 MB).
The image above shows some of the species that the Swedish ornithologist has either discovered or redefined. Clockwise from top left: Emei Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted ElachuraElachura formosa, Sichuan Bush WarblerLocustella chengi, and Alström’s WarblerPhylloscopus soror. (Per Alström)
This post is the first in a five-post series about my birding expedition of July 2017 to Northern Xinjiang. In the northern half of China’s largest and most northwesterly province, the birds, natural scenery, and people, including people wearing the uniforms of the state, are intensely interesting. In the photo above, top left, my longtime birding partner Jan-Erik Nilsén scans Ulungur Lake, a gleaming jewel in the arid Jungar Basin and an important stop on the Central Asian-Indian Migratory Flyway. Bottom right, friendly ethnic Kazakh police officers pose with Jan-Erik and me at one of the hundreds of checkpoints dotting Northern Xinjiang. The two birds symbolize the uniqueness of the avifauna of Xinjiang. Top right is Ortolan Bunting, representing the many species in Northern Xinjiang more closely associated with Europe than China. Bottom left is Sulphur-bellied Warbler, an unusual leaf warbler adapted to rocky habitats, and one of many Central Asian species that in China occur mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang.
In this first post, I give you an overview of my 12-day expedition and an introduction to Northern Xinjiang. In the second post, I offer you the notes I took while on the ground. The third and fourth posts are a gallery of my photos of the most interesting birds I saw, both in 2017 and during my first trip to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012. The fifth and final post is a collection of habitat shots as well as pictures of the scenery, mammals, and people of Northern Xinjiang. To read in order the five posts, simply keep scrolling down this page. You may also go to the bottom of any of the five posts and find there an index to the series.
Bounded by the mighty Tianshan Mountains to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China. The area is still little-known to birders, and many discoveries remain to be made there. May this series convey to you the enthusiasm I have for the region, and may it aid you as you plan your own trip to Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford
When in February 2017 my wife, Elaine Du, informed me that she was expecting our baby, I knew that my 10-year sojourn in China was coming to an end. Elaine and I agreed that I would do a final big birding trip before the birth of Tiny. I chose Northern Xinjiang.
I had visited Northern Xinjiang once before, in May 2012. I was captivated by the beauty of the region, its remote position in the heart of the Eurasian supercontinent, and the underbirdedness of the area. I vowed to return.
For the 2017 trip, I chose as my partner my friend and mentor Jan-Erik Nilsén. No birder has taught me more about birding than the Beijing-based Swedish birder, who like me arrived in China in 2007. Xinjiang would be my ninth birding expedition with Jan-Erik. We chose the dates 19-30 July 2017.
Jan-Erik, our Chinese driver, and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), covering an area from the provincial capital Urumqi and the Tianshan Mountains in the south to Kanas Lake and the Altai Mountains in the north and visiting a score of Jungar Basin sites in between. We noted 160 species of bird. (For our complete list, please scroll to the bottom of this post.)
We recorded China rarities Siberian Chiffchaff, Yellowhammer, and Sedge Warbler and Xinjiang rarity Eurasian Siskin in the Altai. We scoped Himalayan Snowcock in the Tianshan, found four species of Passer at Fukang-Beishawo, ticked White-headed Duck at a bird-rich reservoir in Urumqi, saw Asian Desert Warbler and Henderson’s Ground Jay at a random stop in the semi-desert, and at beautiful Hongyanglin oasis found Common Nightingale, White-winged Woodpecker, and Sykes’s Warbler.
The latter two species were among the many Central Asian specialties we enjoyed. Others were Red-fronted Serin and Eversmann’s Redstart in the Tianshan, Eastern Imperial Eagle at Daquangou Reservoir, Sulphur-bellied Warbler in the Altai, and, at various sites in the Jungar Basin, Turkestan TitParus major turkestanicus.
We recorded well-known European birds that in China are found mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang. We had Common Quail and European Turtle Dove in the Jungar Basin and daytime views of European Nightjar roosting in the scrub. European Goldfinch and Common Linnet were found at both the northern and southern ends of our route, while Spotted Flycatcher, European Greenfinch, and Ortolan Bunting were recorded only in or near the Altai Mountains. European Bee-eater and European Roller were commonly seen along power lines in the Jungar Basin, and in the riparian woodlands along the Irtysh River and its tributaries, we recorded impressive numbers of Common Chaffinch and Great TitParus major kapustini.
July 2017 was a beautiful moment in my life. Elaine was going strong in the fifth month of her pregnancy, and I was looking forward to the birth of my son. Knowing Northern Xinjiang would be my last big trip, I savored every moment. During the long drives across Jungaria, Jan-Erik and I recalled our rich history as birding partners, which included trips to Qinghai in 2016 and 2014 and Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia in 2015.
Northern Xinjiang was the culmination not only of my birding career in China but also of my decade-long study of Chinese language and culture. I had arrived in 2007 not knowing enough Chinese to take a taxi. By 2017, I was a fluent speaker of Mandarin. I had arrived in China convinced that the Western-style liberalization of China was at hand and that events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics would transform the People’s Republic into a giant Taiwan. By 2017, I was viewing the Middle Kingdom much more soberly.
Northern Xinjiang was a good place to let go of my final illusions about China. Gazing at the gleaming new highways of Northern Xinjiang, noting the ubiquitous police presence and multitudes of checkpoints, and witnessing the steady influx of Han settlers, I felt the ruthlessness, growing efficiency, and grim seriousness of the Communist state. After passing through yet another security checkpoint, I said to our driver, “That was easy.” He replied, “They’re not looking for people like you.” The target, our driver said, is Uighurs.
Whereas minorities such as the Uighur face persecution and the possible extinction of their culture, the Han people I met in Xinjiang were full of civilizational confidence. In the towns and cities through which we passed, the average Han seemed happier and more polite than the Han I would meet in the crowded provinces back east. Was it the dry, sunny climate that kept them cheerful? Was it the Lebensraum that Han people enjoy living in the sparsely populated province, larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined?
To birders who may be scared off by the word “Xinjiang,” my message is, fear not; Northern Xinjiang was very much birdable in 2017. The vast region is far different from Southern Xinjiang, where most Uighurs live, and where persecution is greatest and security tightest. Indeed, the large police presence in Northern Xinjiang impedes crime of all kinds, making the region safe. As for the quality of the birding in Northern Xinjiang, let the list below and my photo galleries in posts 3 and 4 speak for themselves.
Birds Noted in Northern Xinjiang, China, July 2017 (160 species)
Greylag GooseAnser anser Mute SwanCygnus olor Whooper SwanC. cygnus Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea Common ShelduckT. tadorna GarganeySpatula querquedula Northern ShovelerS. clypeata GadwallAnas strepera MallardA. platyrhynchos Northern PintailA. acuta Red-crested PochardNetta rufina Common PochardAythya ferina Tufted DuckA. fuligula Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula Common MerganserMergus merganser White-headed DuckOxyura leucocephala Common QuailCoturnix coturnix Chukar PartridgeAlectoris chukar Himalayan SnowcockTetraogallus himalayensis Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus Black-necked GrebeP. nigricollis Black StorkCiconia nigra Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo Little BitternIxobrychus minutus Grey HeronArdea cinerea Great EgretA. alba Black-crowned Night HeronNycticorax nycticorax Crested Honey BuzzardPernis ptilorhynchus Himalayan VultureGyps himalayensis Steppe EagleAquila nipalensis Eastern Imperial EagleA. heliaca ShikraAccipiter badius Eurasian SparrowhawkA. nisus Black KiteMilvus migrans Long-legged BuzzardButeo rufinus Upland BuzzardB. hemilasius Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus Eurasian CootFulica atra Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus Pied AvocetRecurvirostra avosetta Eurasian OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus Northern LapwingVanellus vanellus Kentish PloverCharadrius alexandrinus Little Ringed PloverC. dubius Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa RuffCalidris pugnax Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea Temminck’s StintC. temminckii Terek SandpiperXenus cinereus Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos Green SandpiperTringa ochropus Common GreenshankT. nebularia Wood SandpiperT. glareola Common RedshankT. totanus Black-headed GullChroicocephalus ridibundus Pallas’s GullIchthyaetus ichthyaetus Caspian GullLarus cachinnans Little TernSternula albifrons Gull-billed TernGelochelidon nilotica Caspian TernHydroprogne caspia White-winged TernChlidonias leucopterus Black TernC. niger Common TernSterna hirundo Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove)Columba livia Hill PigeonC. rupestris Stock DoveC. oenas European Turtle DoveStreptopelia turtur Oriental Turtle DoveS. orientalis Eurasian Collared DoveS. decaocto Common CuckooCuculus canorus European NightjarCaprimulgus europaeus Common SwiftApus apus Eurasian HoopoeUpupa epops European RollerCoracias garrulus Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis European Bee-eaterMerops apiaster Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor White-backed WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucotos White-winged WoodpeckerD. leucopterus Grey-headed WoodpeckerPicus canus Lesser KestrelFalco naumanni Common KestrelF. tinnunculus Eurasian HobbyF. subbuteo Saker FalconF. cherrug Red-backed ShrikeLanius collurio Red-tailed ShrikeL. phoenicuroides Eurasian Golden OrioleOriolus oriolus Eurasian MagpiePica pica Henderson’s Ground JayPodoces hendersoni Spotted NutcrackerNucifraga caryocatactes Carrion CrowCorvus corone Pale MartinRiparia diluta Barn SwallowHirundo rustica Common House MartinDelichon urbicum Coal TitPeriparus ater Willow TitPoecile montanus Azure TitCyanistes cyanus Great TitParus major White-crowned Penduline TitRemiz coronatus Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus Bearded ReedlingPanurus biarmicus Horned LarkEremophila alpestris Asian Short-toed LarkAlaudala cheleensis Eurasian SkylarkA. arvensis Crested LarkGalerida cristata Eurasian NuthatchSitta europaea GoldcrestRegulus regulus Common ChiffchaffPhylloscopus collybita Sulphur-bellied WarblerP. griseolus Hume’s Leaf WarblerP. humei Greenish WarblerP. trochiloides Sykes’s WarblerIduna rama Sedge WarblerAcrocephalus schoenobaenus Paddyfield WarblerA. agricola Great Reed WarblerA. arundinaceus Pallas’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes certhiola Asian Desert WarblerSylvia nana Barred WarblerS. nisoria Desert WhitethroatS. minula Lesser WhitethroatS. curruca Common WhitethroatS. communis Common BlackbirdTurdus merula Mistle ThrushT. viscivorus Spotted FlycatcherMuscicapa striata Common NightingaleLuscinia megarhynchos BluethroatL. svecica Eversmann’s RedstartPhoenicurus erythronotus Black RedstartP. ochruros Common Rock ThrushMonticola saxatilis Siberian StonechatSaxicola maurus Northern WheatearOenanthe oenanthe Pied WheatearO. pleschanka Desert WheatearO. deserti Isabelline WheatearO. isabellina Common StarlingSturnus vulgaris Western Yellow WagtailMotacilla flava Citrine WagtailM. citreola Grey WagtailM. cinerea White WagtailM. alba Richard’s PipitAnthus richardi Tree PipitA. trivialis Common ChaffinchFringilla coelebs Common RosefinchCarpodacus erythrinus European GreenfinchChloris chloris Red CrossbillLoxia curvirostra Eurasian SiskinSpinus spinus European GoldfinchCarduelis carduelis TwiteLinaria flavirostris Common LinnetL. cannabina Red-fronted SerinSerinus pusillus Saxaul SparrowPasser ammodendri House SparrowP. domesticus Spanish SparrowP. hispaniolensis Eurasian Tree SparrowP. montanus YellowhammerEmberiza citrinella Pine BuntingE. leucocephalos Godlewski’s BuntingE. godlewskii Ortolan BuntingE. hortulana Common Reed BuntingE. schoeniclus
This post is the first in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.
In the image above, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén scans the rocks for Northern Wheatear near Kanasi Airport, 28 July 2017. The point where Jan-Erik is standing is in the Altai Mountains, at the extreme northern tip of Xinjiang, an area closer to Moscow than to Shanghai. In this post, the second in my five-part series on Northern Xinjiang, you will read my notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during my expedition of July 2017. — Craig Brelsford
WED 19 JULY 2017
THU 20 JULY 2017
FRI 21 JULY 2017
On Fri. 21 July 2017, my Beijing-based Swedish partner Jan-Erik Nilsén and I were at Baiyanggou (43.424675, 87.163545), 65 km (40 mi.) southwest of Urumqi in the Tianshan Mountains.
Among our highlights were spotting-scope views of Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis, central Palearctic specialties Eversmann’s RedstartPhoenicurus erythronotus, Red-fronted SerinSerinus pusillus, and Azure TitCyanistes cyanus, and species familiar to Western Europeans such as Common QuailCoturnix coturnix, singing Common WhitethroatSylvia communis, Tree PipitAnthus trivialis, Common LinnetLinaria cannabina, and European GoldfinchCarduelis carduelis. I missed Blue-capped Redstart Phoenicurus coeruleocephala, and Red-headed Bunting Emberiza bruniceps and Grey-necked Bunting E. buchanani have been recorded at Baiyanggou.
Not all our activity has been in the Tianshan. A quick trip to Baihu (43.816992, 87.435352), a reservoir in the western suburbs of Urumqi, got us views of White-headed DuckOxyura leucocephala, an encounter with a family of Chukar PartridgeAlectoris chukar, and a heard-only tick of Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus.
In Xinjiang, Jan-Erik and I are (and the Han settlers here like to say we are) saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall,” in China, but not in East Asia. We are in Central Asia, thousands of kilometers from the sea, near the center of Eurasia, as the birds we have noted show. Today, with the Tianshan as our backdrop, Jan-Erik and I stood on wavy loess hills made from the buildup over eons of dust borne by wind from distant places on the supercontinent.
The people we have met so far are mostly Han, settlers or descendants of settlers from the east, mainly the northern provinces. As I have noted in other areas of China where Han settlement is recent, everyone here speaks standard Mandarin. There is no local Chinese dialect. As I have been trained in standard Mandarin, my ability to communicate with the locals is greater here than in other areas of China where the vernacular is a non-standard form of Chinese.
I arrived from Shanghai late on Wed. 19 July 2017 and spent Thurs. 20 July alone at Baiyanggou. Jan-Erik arrived late on Thurs. 20 July from Beijing.
Our driver today and throughout the trip was Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), +86 180-9964-0966. Yong Dong is a Han who was born in Urumqi, knows Xinjiang, dabbles in photography, and drives well. We recommend him.
Convenient location in downtown Urumqi, near several excellent Xinjiang-style restaurants and fruit stores selling dried Xinjiang fruit. Clean room, friendly staff. Restaurant and tea bar downstairs. We also stayed here our final night.
SAT 22 JULY 2017
Beishawo, Daquangou Reservoir, Mushroom Lake
On Sat. 22 July 2017, Jan-Erik and I left Urumqi and began our journey north. Our first stop was Beishawo (44.374603, 87.881042), an outstanding semi-desert site 85 km (53 mi.) north of Urumqi. Later, we birded Daquangou Reservoir (44.424510, 85.989695), a compact wetland 170 km (106 mi.) northwest of the provincial capital.
Beishawo delivered four species of sparrow: Saxaul SparrowPasser ammodendri, House SparrowP. domesticus, Spanish SparrowP. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree SparrowP. montanus. We also had here our only trip record of Barred WarblerSylvia nisoria.
At Beishawo I jumped out of the car into the scrub—and came face to face with a European NightjarCaprimulgus europaeus. The goatsucker was roosting on a tamarisk. Soaring overhead was Long-legged BuzzardButeo rufinus rufinus. We missed Eurasian Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin Cercotrichas galactotes.
After a long drive west through new towns and farming communities populated by Han settlers, we arrived at Beihu, also known as Daquangou Reservoir, north of Shihezi. Here I had my first-ever look at Great Reed WarblerAcrocephalus arundinaceus, yet another Central Palearctic breeder confined in China to Xinjiang.
At Daquangou Jan-Erik and I counted 2500 Pale MartinRiparia diluta, 400 Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa, 120 Pallas’s GullIchthyaetus ichthyaetus, and a lone Eastern Imperial EagleAquila heliaca roosting on a spit amid hundreds of wary gulls and shorebirds. We had 2 RuffCalidris pugnax in breeding plumage, 20 Curlew SandpiperC. ferruginea, and 130 Temminck’s StintC. temminckii.
Our 35-minute visit to nearby Mushroom Lake yielded Western Yellow WagtailMotacilla flava thunbergi.
On the long drive west to Daquangou, we passed through several checkpoints without incident. It is good to have a firm itinerary so that you can tell the police exactly where you intend to go. The procedure is uniform—a quick noting of passport numbers and sometimes questions about purpose of trip and destinations.
SUN 23 JULY 2017
MON 24 JULY 2017
On Monday night, 24 July 2017, our team was 700 km (435 mi.) north of Urumqi in Beitun, near Ulungur Lake. For the past two days we had been birding top-notch locations along the highways.
Our greatest highlights were at the amazing poplar forest at Hongyanglin (46.120667, 85.654611), where we had White-winged WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucopterus, Sykes’s WarblerIduna rama, ShikraAccipiter badius cenchroides, Turkestan TitParus major turkestanicus, and singing Common NightingaleLuscinia megarhynchos. Earlier, at the excellent Kuitun Reservoir (44.770533, 84.608984), we had Whooper SwanCygnus cygnus, European Bee-eaterMerops apiaster, and singing Paddyfield WarblerAcrocephalus agricola.
A random stop in the semi-desert (46.326889, 85.918306) yielded Asian Desert WarblerSylvia nana and Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground JayPodoces hendersoni. A wood near a village (46.750637, 86.191788) got us Spotted FlycatcherMuscicapa striata plus Lesser KestrelFalco naumanni mobbing the ubiquitous Black KiteMilvus migrans.
At Kuitun and at various places along the road we have had European RollerCoracias garrulus.
TUE 25 JULY 2017
WED 26 JULY 2017
Ulungur Lake, riverine woodlands, Altai
On Tuesday 25 July and Wednesday 26 July, Jan-Erik and I birded Ulungur Lake and wetlands and riverine woodlands in the Jungar Basin. We were powering ever northward, and by the night of 26 July we were in the Altai Mountains, the northern tip of Xinjiang.
Among the highlights were a rare China record of Sedge WarblerAcrocephalus schoenobaenus. The wetland west of Kaba where the Sedge Warbler was found also gave us Paddyfield WarblerA. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes certhiola, both singing, as well as juvenile BluethroatLuscinia svecica and Black StorkCiconia nigra. We looked for but could not find Corn Crake Crex crex.
Riparian woodlands line many of the streams feeding the mighty Irtysh River. These delightful, park-like poplar forests yielded many Palearctic passerines, among them Eurasian Golden OrioleOriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline TitRemiz coronatus, snowball-headed Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus caudatus, breeding Mistle ThrushTurdus viscivorus, Azure TitCyanistes cyanus, Tree PipitAnthus trivialis, European GreenfinchChloris chloris, and European GoldfinchCarduelis carduelis.
The birds most numerous in these riverine woodlands are Common ChaffinchFringilla coelebs and the bright-yellow Great TitParus major kapustini. Among the common non-passerines are Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor and White-backed WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucotos.
The survey of lagoons at the northeastern corner of Ulungur Lake (47.339970, 87.553458) gave us a pair of Mute SwanCygnus olor and Eurasian OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus. Anatids were well-represented; besides the Mute Swan, we also found Greylag GooseAnser anser, Common ShelduckTadorna tadorna, and Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula. Bearded ReedlingPanurus biarmicus were present, and I once again stumbled on European Nightjar roosting in the scrub.
Drives in China’s largest province are long but we bird as we go. From the car we have seen European Roller and Saker FalconFalco cherrug and heard singing Common Quail.
THU 27 JULY 2017
FRI 28 JULY 2017
SAT 29 JULY 2017
Jan-Erik and I wrapped up Xinjiang 2017 with two days in the Altai Mountains at Kanasi Park followed by a long drive south across the Jungar Basin to Urumqi.
Kanasi yielded “European” species whose ranges in China extend only into Altai. Among them were breeding Siberian ChiffchaffPhylloscopus collybita tristis near our hotel and breeding Ortolan BuntingEmberiza hortulana found along our long mountain walk. Willow TitPoecile montanus baicalensis also made here its only appearance on our trip list, and we had an unexpected encounter with Eurasian SiskinSpinus spinus.
The highlight of our walk was however supplied by a Central Asian species: Sulphur-bellied WarblerPhylloscopus griseolus, a wallcreeper-like bird and one of the most interesting leaf warblers in the world.
As Jan-Erik and I walked under a blazing sun, the heat intense, we admired, high on the cliff above, Common Rock ThrushMonticola saxatilis and Black RedstartPhoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides.
Near the base, a nearly vertical rock face, I noticed movement. Sulphur-bellied Warbler were browsing the rocky surface the way their congeners browse the crowns of trees. In arid Central Asia, a leaf warbler has evolved that exploits a locally common but decidedly un-leafy habitat.
The drive of 760 km (472 mi.) back to Urumqi took two days. We broke up the trip with stops at promising habitat. Among the species we noted were Long-legged Buzzard, Henderson’s Ground Jay, and handsome Saxaul Sparrow.
We ended our birding Saturday at Qinggeda Lake near the provincial capital. The 160th and final species of our 10-day trip was Black TernChlidonias niger.
In this and the next post, posts 3 and 4 of our five-part series, I offer you an illustrated list of the interesting birds that I have recorded in Northern Xinjiang. The posts are divided into passerines and non-passerines, with this post showcasing the latter. The image above shows three of our key birds of Xinjiang 2017: clockwise from left, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-fronted Serin, and Eversmann’s Redstart. — Craig Brelsford
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea
Red-crested PochardNetta rufina
White-headed DuckOxyura leucocephala
On 21 June 2017 we scoped 2 at Baihu, the reservoir in the hills west of downtown Urumqi. We considered ourselves lucky to get the distant view, as there have been only a handful of records of this rare duck in Northern Xinjiang.
Little Bittern is yet another species whose range across Eurasia is checked by the deserts of western China. The species occurs no further east than Xinjiang, where in 2017 we recorded it in reservoirs and lakes in the Jungar Basin.
Eastern Imperial EagleAquila heliaca
On 22 July 2017 at Daquangou Reservoir, we found, distant but unmistakable through our scopes, an adult or sub-adult Eastern Imperial Eagle. The raptor was standing on a spit amid hundreds of wary gulls.
ShikraAccipiter badius cenchroides
At Hongyanglin on 23 July and 24 July 2017, we heard Shikra calling unseen from the dense poplar forest. Race cenchroides is a summer visitor to Xinjiang.
UPDATE, 16 Dec. 2018: I originally published here a set of three photos of a dark morph Buteo that I mistakenly ID’d as a Steppe Eagle. The photos have since been removed. The misidentified Buteo was photographed by me at Baiyanggou on 20 July 2017. Later, we noted but did not photograph Steppe Eagle at two locations in the Altai Mountains.
Western Marsh HarrierCircus aeruginosus
Black KiteMilvus migrans
White-tailed EagleHaliaeetus albicilla
Long-legged BuzzardButeo rufinus rufinus
Demoiselle CraneGrus virgo
Eurasian OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus
Eurasian CurlewNumenius arquata
Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa
Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos
Caspian GullLarus cachinnans cachinnans
Black TernChlidonias niger
On 29 July 2017 we recorded 2 Black Tern at Qinggeda Lake, a reservoir in the northern suburbs of Urumqi. This marsh tern is common in Europe but rare in China, breeding only in Xinjiang. Vagrants sometimes reach the coast.
Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus
My only sandgrouse record in Xinjiang came 21 July 2017 at Baihu. The sandgrouse were calling unseen around sunset.
Stock DoveColumba oenas
European Turtle DoveStreptopelia turtur arenicola Oriental Turtle DoveS. orientalis meena
Common CuckooCuculus canorus
European NightjarCaprimulgus europaeus
European RollerCoracias garrulus
European Bee-eaterMerops apiaster
White-backed WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucotos
White-winged WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucopterus
Black WoodpeckerDryocopus martius
Grey-headed WoodpeckerPicus canus
Lesser KestrelFalco naumanni
Saker FalconFalco cherrug
This post is the third in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.
During my initial visit to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012, I found birds that I missed in July 2017. The image above shows four of them. Clockwise from top left: Black Woodpecker, Rosy Starling, Demoiselle Crane, and Rock Bunting. In this fourth post in my five-post series, I offer you an illustrated list of the notable passerines of Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford
On 26 July 2017 at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Jan-Erik and I glimpsed 2 members of the snowball-headed nominate race. The nominate ssp. ranges across most of Eurasia, from northern Europe to Japan, and in China is found in the northern tip of Xinjiang and in the extreme northeast.
At the semi-desert site Beishawo on 22 July 2017, we achieved our only trip record of this robust, distinctively barred, yellow-eyed warbler. The bird was skulking in tall bushes, not particularly close to water. Race merzbacheri is described by MacKinnon as an uncommon breeder in Xinjiang, but I have noted the race as well in western Gansu.
On 26 July 2017 at White Birch Forest Scenic Area (48.078487, 86.344951), we achieved a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The call of our bird matched that of Yellowhammer or the closely related Pine Bunting E. leucocephalos. The yellowish coloration from throat to vent of our bird strongly suggested Yellowhammer. As Yellowhammer is known to breed as far east as Lake Baikal in Russia as well as in north-central Mongolia, vagrancy to Northern Xinjiang must often occur, especially in the Altai Mountains and riverine woodlands of the northern Jungar Basin.
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.
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.
SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG
BIBLIOGRAPHY 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.
Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.
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.
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.
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).
Editor’s note: Are you interested in a fuller appreciation of the birds of the Shanghai region? If so, then visiting Shanghai’s exciting coastal sites is not enough. You need to go inland, to the hilly interior. You need to visit the Tianmu Mountains. In this two-post series, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko and I introduce you to the mountain range in Zhejiang. This first post was written by me and describes the key birds and habitats at Tianmushan. I also discuss my first trip to Tianmu in May 2015. In the second post, Hiko describes his July 2018 trip to the mountain. — Craig Brelsford
WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?
Tianmushan is a mountain range 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. The thickly forested slopes are the place closest to the city where large numbers of south China species can be seen. Elliot’s Pheasant, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush, Hartert’s Leaf Warbler, and Spotted Elachura are just a few of the south China species recorded at Tianmushan and scarce or unrecorded in Shanghai. Silver Pheasant, Koklass Pheasant, Slaty Bunting, and Crested Bunting are also at Tianmu.
With elevations reaching 1506 m (4,941 ft.), Tianmushan offers a refreshing contrast to Shanghai’s coastal environments. Springtime is the best time to visit, but summer offers good birding and a respite from the lowland heat, and in autumn migrants and wintering birds can be seen.
The best-known birding area at Tianmushan is West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The reserve boasts a forest worthy of a fairy tale. Below Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the highest peak in the area, a boardwalk trail leads through a land of giants—stands of Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica 25 m (82 ft.) high and a thousand years old. What is claimed to be the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world are also in this magical garden. Look here for Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush, among many other species.
At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:
— The 12.7 km (7.9 mi.) road between Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and the hotels on the floor of the valley. Longfengjian serves as the parking area for the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding.
Take the bus to Longfengjian and walk the road back. You’ll descend about 700 m (2,300 ft.). Find Koklass Pheasant along the road, Little Forktail along the streams, and Short-tailed Parrotbill amid the bamboo. You could combine this walk with a visit to the Japanese Cedar forest and Xianren Ding and thereby cover in a single day an altitudinal range of more than 1000 m (3,280 ft.).
— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.
This is one of the broadest areas in the valley and offers streamside habitat as well as scrub, garden, and secondary forest. Asian House Martin breed in the eaves of the ticket office and other buildings, the forest holds Grey-chinned Minivet and Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and the streams are good for White-crowned Forktail.
I have made two trips to Tianmushan, both in 2015. I spaced the trips six months apart in order to see the site at opposite ends of the year. Here is my account of the first trip, which took place in May. (Click here for our trip of November 2015.)
Thurs. 7 May 2015
Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park (Hángzhōu Nántiānmù Sēnlín Gōngyuán [杭州南天目森林公园]), 30.184555, 119.472668
Today my wife and partner Elaine Du and I scouted Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 255 km (159 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. We noted 21 species. We had Swinhoe’s Minivet, heard 11 Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and saw 3 migrant Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We also found a pair of local poachers.
We entered and exited Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park by driving past an unmanned gate. I remarked to myself that a gate unmanned in the middle of the day is a strong indication that a park is being managed incorrectly. Elaine and I drove up the mountain, stopping at a gazebo where we found Russet Sparrow and the minivet. At the end of the road we met the poachers. They arrived on a moped. I saw their speaker and cages and told them that hunting wild birds is illegal in China. The younger poacher nodded as though he understood. The older man smiled nervously.
We drove back down the mountain. I said to Elaine that poaching must be pervasive around here if two guys can drive up a mountain with their poaching gear in full view.
Later, just outside the park gate, I told a villager that poaching was going on in the nearby park and asked him where I could report the crime. The villager said, in a friendly way, that the poachers take just “a few” (少) birds and that they do it just for fun (玩儿). The villager’s instinct to protect the lawbreakers shows how acceptable poaching is to him and presumably his fellow villagers.
The Russet Sparrow were able to make a living in the park because of the seeming absence of the more aggressive Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today and on the ensuing three days in the Tianmu Mountains, Russet Sparrow was our default sparrow, commonly noted in town and country, and much more numerous than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which in most places was absent.
Fri. 8 May 2015
East Tianmu Mountain Scenic Area (Dōng Tiānmùshān Jǐngqū [东天目山景区]), 30.342422, 119.509490
Elaine and I noted 30 species at East Tianmu. The highlight was finding one of our target species, a singing male Crested Bunting. Driving down the mountain road in the park, at an elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft.), we approached a bus stop, next to which was a quarry with steep walls. Immediately I was reminded of the roadside cliff in Yunnan where I had seen a female Crested Bunting in 2014. I stopped the car and spotted a Crested Bunting atop the highest conifer in the area. It sang a simple song over and over. A pair of Meadow Bunting were in the area.
Earlier, at the upper terminus of the cable car, Elaine and I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle carrying, you guessed it, a snake on the highest and last ride of its life. We walked from the upper terminus of the cable car to Zhaoming Temple (Zhàomíng Chánsì [昭明禅寺], 30.349009, 119.515961). I found a leech in the leaf litter and showed it to Elaine. The creature quickly attached itself to my glove. East and West Tianmu Mountain are the most leech-infested places I have ever birded.
Beautiful Zhaoming Temple, 1,500 years old, blends into the valley. We saw 2 Eurasian Jay, heard Yellow-bellied Tit and Collared Owlet, and on the way back down found 2 Grey Treepie and heard Great Barbet.
Our day began before dawn, when I ate breakfast on the patio of our room near the entrance to East Tianmu. I saw 4 Hair-crested Drongo and a Red-rumped Swallow nesting on the underside of the patio on which I was standing. We got past the gate at East Tianmu and drove to the end of the paved road and down the dirt road to its end, noting there Blue Whistling Thrush, White-crowned Forktail, and Brown Dipper as well as 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill and the first of many Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.
Our plan was to bird the road and temple then walk to the top of the mountain, where a friend told me Short-tailed Parrotbill and Slaty Bunting may be found. Rain dashed those plans, and I have yet to find either of those species in the Tianmu area.
Sat. 9 May 2015 and Sun. 10 May 2015
West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve (Tiānmùshān Zìrán Bǎohùqū [天目山自然保护区], 30.344148, 119.440201)
On Saturday Elaine and I noted 28 species. We spent most of the day in the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding at West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. Fog and large, noisy crowds suppressed our total.
The next day we returned to the Xianren Ding area and enjoyed a banner day, noting 42 species. The highlight was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo appearing out of nowhere and flying straight at my head. The cuckoo was responding to the most effective “phish” I ever did, a whistle imitating its call. 5 Buffy Laughingthrush gave rise to the hope that at Tianmu the species may be locally common. Black Eagle flew low over the forest, Speckled Piculet joined a bird wave, Eurasian Jay and Black Bulbul were visually conspicuous, and Indian Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Collared Owlet, and Rufous-faced Warbler were more often heard than seen. Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brambling were among the migrants noted, with Grey Wagtail a possible breeder and White Wagtail already feeding fledglings.
Elaine and I arrived at the Japanese Cedar forest at 5:55 a.m., well before the crowds. The cool, quiet forest was full of enchantment and buzzing with birds. Chinese Hwamei cut melodiously through the silence. A standard bird wave included Black-throated Bushtit, Huet’s Fulvetta, and Indochinese Yuhina. White-crowned Forktail zipped along the creek.
As the hours wore on and noisy hikers began to pass through, Elaine and I followed an abandoned trail a few hundred meters. The trail is leech-infested, but with regular inspections of our clothing and socks pulled high over our pant legs, we managed to pick off every leech before it found our flesh.
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a species I hadn’t noted in five years. The cuckoos were calling from deep cover near the trail. My phish caused them to call loudly and fly in a circle around us. The call and vivid colors of this beautiful cuckoo made for an impressive spectacle. Those thrilling moments gave me energy as I drove back to Shanghai.
This post is the first in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.
Short-tailed Parrotbill (above) is perhaps the most compelling of the south China specialties found at Tianmushan. In this second of our two-part series on the Tianmu Mountains, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko tells us of his July 2018 trip to the mountain in Zhejiang. — Craig Brelsford
Eight members of our school birding club, five experienced birders and three beginners, visited the Tianmu Mountains July 2-6, 2018—a week before the high season, so as to avoid the influx of tourists. Despite the high humidity that early on knocked my camera out of action, our club managed to find many species native to south China that are unattainable in Shanghai.
On the day of our arrival, we followed our routine from July 2017 and hiked between our inn, Haisen Nongzhuang (海森农庄), and another inn around 2 km uphill, Qinquan Shanzhuang (清泉山庄). The hike takes around 40 minutes one way and is famous in our club for its reliable Short-tailed Parrotbill, a species that in China occurs only in a small range in the southeast. The parrotbills are most readily found around dawn and evening.
At the abandoned inn Yulong Shanzhuang (玉龙山庄), located on the shore of the lake, we spotted nests of Asian House Martin forming dozens of rows on the dilapidated three-story building. Hundreds of adults were lined up on the edge of the roof, forming what seemed at first glance like a neat row of pebbles. The sky was filled with a swarm of adults circling around like a tornado.
On the side road that brought us down to the inn was a Huet’s Fulvetta, a nice addition to the day list. Continuing along the main road, we heard and saw a flock of Short-tailed Parrotbill, next to the bamboo forest just several hundred meters away from where we had them last year. Since we had some spare time, we continued uphill for another kilometer or so from the inn originally intended to be our destination, finding a Brown Dipper feeding in the stream along the way.
Since the walk does not require much time, we had many morning and evening walks between the two inns, during which we had more sightings of Short-tailed Parrotbill and visuals on Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Chinese Sparrowhawk, Rufous-faced Warbler, White-crowned Forktail, Meadow Bunting, and Common Kingfisher. We were further motivated to take the morning and evening walks here due to the presence of a staircase leading directly to the stream next to the inn at the destination, where we frequently sat on the rocks and soaked our tired legs in the clear, cool water.
On the second day, we were planning to take the hotel shuttle bus up to Longfengjian (龙凤尖), the entrance of the scenic area, so that we could hike back down the road. Upon finding that we did not have tickets for the scenic area, the bus driver dropped us off 7 km away from the destination, at a guard post beyond which only shuttle buses, authorized vehicles, and pedestrians are permitted access. We decided to bird the road 7 km up to Longfengjian.
It was an exceptionally humid day for an already humid place, and it showered regularly throughout our three-hour walk. During the hike, our ears were filled with the cat-like calls of Black Bulbul, the cricket-like trills of Rufous-faced Warbler, and the whistling song of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler. Every few minutes, trees beside the road were flooded with mixed flocks of Indochinese Yuhina, Black-throated Bushtit, Japanese White-eye, and Yellow-bellied Tit. Flocks of Black Bulbul, Light-vented Bulbul, Chestnut Bulbul, and Vinous-throated Parrotbill were also very common. Plumbeous Water Redstart marked every few meters of the stream, and Asian House Martin frequently flew over our heads.
Our first highlights came about 2 km up the road. On the hillside, we were able to spot Red-billed Leiothrix and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. After walking another hundred meters uphill along the road, we heard a Spotted Elachura from deep inside the vegetation. Using playback, we were able to draw it closer and make a recording, but we were not fortunate enough to obtain a visual on the secretive bird. Around halfway to the destination, a White-crowned Forktail hopped out of the ditch next to the road and came into full view. On the last several hundred meters of the road, we were able to spot 2 Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in a flock of Indochinese Yuhina, Japanese Tit, and Black-throated Bushtit.
On the third day, we declined to bird due to inclement weather. On the last day, the weather cleared enough for us to enter the scenic area. While fending off leeches hiding along the narrow mountain trails and fixing our eyes on the steep staircases, we managed to find a Little Forktail and a Blue Whistling Thrush at a pavilion next to a narrow stream. We also had a flock of Grey-chinned Minivet flying over our heads.
Upon reaching the bus stop, only a few of us had the stamina to continue up to Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the peak, so the club split up. The group climbing up the peak, which included me, had visuals on a Eurasian Jay, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and Great Spotted Woodpecker. At the very peak, we were rewarded with a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush on the weather station tower—a lifer for many of us. The way down was nearly disastrous, however, as we were pounded by heavy rain. Meanwhile, the group resting at the temple close to the bus stop had a Eurasian Jay and a Great Barbet on a treetop.
West Tianmu is a great choice for us students, since we are on a budget and have little means of transportation available to ourselves. To do this trip, instead of taking the bullet train like last year, we took a bus running regularly between People’s Square in downtown Shanghai and our inn at Tianmu. Taking this bus greatly increased our birding time, as it saved us the trouble of transferring to different vehicles multiple times. We recommend West Tianmu without reservation to anyone wishing to get bonus lifers in addition to the regular coastal and city birds around Shanghai.
This post is the second in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.