Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. 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).
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).
I have known Per since 2013. In the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan in 2014, I played a small part in Per’s discovery of yet another species, Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii. I wrote about the experience in a 2016 post, “A Minor Role in a Major Discovery.”
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 days as a full-time birder, as well as my 10-year sojourn in China, were 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 inevitable 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 WarblerLocustella 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 Pallas’s Grasshopper WarblerLocustella certhiola and Paddyfield WarblerA. agricola, 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.
Video, by Craig Brelsford
Kaba River at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 26 July 2017
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.
Today Elaine and I birded the northern temperate forest preserved in Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We saw in a completely new way birds that we thought we knew from Shanghai. For the first time in my life I heard singing Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Pale Thrush, and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The latter is rarely seen on migration in Shanghai. The former two are well-known to Shanghai birders. In Shanghai, meeting these species on migration is like meeting someone for coffee; hearing them sing today was like meeting someone for dinner.
The basic facts about Boli County are two. First, the area is rich in birds. Second, no one birds here.
We are in the heart of the breeding range of Eastern Crowned Warbler (20 today). Most birders “down south” know Eastern Crowned Warbler well but have never heard it sing; today, its song resounded through the forest. Radde’s Warbler (24 today) is another species common here. Mandarin Duck (20) breed in the forest-ringed lakes and ponds around Boli. We also had singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
We spotted a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl at a quarry near Jiulong Reservoir just outside Boli. A parent was standing guard with two owlets. Elaine scoped them herself with our Swarovski ATX-95.
Today Elaine and I started birding at 03:40, 9 minutes after sunrise. Singing Daurian Redstart was Bird 1 of our list, which grew to 53 species.
By 09:30, we had already spent several hours at Xidaquan National Forest and were at the end of our tether. We parked on the forest road and napped. While sleeping I heard a sound I vaguely remembered—or was I dreaming? No, I was hearing Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I first heard this extreme skulker last July with Elaine and Jan-Erik Nilsén in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia.
Also on that road we had male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found Mandarin Duck in a pond deep in the forest.
We had a Siberian trifecta today with Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat, all singing. We once again found Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo as well as Indian Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Oriental Cuckoo. We found Black-browed Reed Warbler in a brushy area far from reeds; the bushes also contained Thick-billed Warbler. Above the scene soared Crested Honey Buzzard.
We are deep in the heart of the Chinese Palearctic. In places, the lush greenery in the northern temperate forest here is as thick and impenetrable as that found in Yunnan’s near-tropical Dulong Gorge, which Elaine and I visited earlier this year. I almost expect to make out a wren-babbler in the gloomy undergrowth, but there are no wren-babblers, no laughingthrushes, and no fulvettas in the Palearctic heartland. Here, the robins and bush warblers are the undergrowth specialists.
We once again found the family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl. Owlets were feeding. A parent was looking on. All seemed well. We scoped them from the other side of the valley; the owls are at the rim of a cliff made by a massive quarry.
Today around Xidaquan National Forest Elaine and I found yet more Shanghai passage migrants on their breeding grounds. The most I had ever heard from White-throated Rock Thrush and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a click or tseep; today, I recorded them in full-throated song. And what songs! White-throated’s was especially moving, melodic and slow. Recording conditions were perfect—a still, quiet morning before the rain.
We found 6 Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and got best-ever views of this shyest of species. We recorded yet more songs and calls of Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species with a surprisingly rich musical repertoire.
Peering through the undergrowth, Elaine found a Siberian Blue Robin singing, its tiny perch a small stage for a one-bird play. Siberian’s song is like a soliloquy, a series of statements punctuated by long pauses.
We explored Xidaquan proper then drove down County Road Z004. (The junction of County Road Z003 and Z004 is at 45.713830, 130.359459.) In an area of hardwoods I recorded dueling songs of Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found a pair of White-backed Woodpecker.
Elaine and I rested at home on a rainy day. In the afternoon the rain let up and we walked into the fields, still barren. We were with Elaine’s niece Lisa Li. We showed Lisa 4 Little Ringed Plover, and I sound-recorded 2 Meadow Bunting.
If you want to hearWhite’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Pale Thrush, then come to places such as Boli County, Elaine’s hometown in eastern Heilongjiang. If you want to see these species, then you will have a better chance in Shanghai, where all three spend the winter, and where they are commonly seen in inner-city parks. Today’s dawn chorus (at the wee hour of 03:00) featured spirited performances by all three of these species, plus Siberian Thrush. Their performances however were given mostly offstage. White’s never appeared at all, but its mournful one-note whistle was heard everywhere until about an hour after sunrise. Pale and Grey-backed sing powerfully but well back from the road, deep in the thickly vegetated and currently tick-infested forest. Siberian was atop his accustomed high tree near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest.
Migrants keep arriving, with Asian Brown Flycatcher appearing for the first time on this trip. Its song, a subdued twitter which I enjoyed for the first time today, is unexciting, like its drab plumage. The more colorfully plumaged Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, by contrast, has a much more colorful song, long, slow, deliberate, and loud, like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher.
This morning a 01:45 wakeup call got us calling Grey Nightjar, yet another Shanghai-area passage migrant we have rediscovered here. Standing at the glorious Silver Birch Grove (白桦林) at Xidaquan National Forest, Elaine and I spotted movement in the crown. It was White’s Thrush, hopping to the top to sing. In amazement we watched this normally secretive, nay invisible, species sing a two-note song. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. In Shanghai, I have seen White’s countless times and heard it sing exactly once, in Century Park this past April. Here in eastern Heilongjiang, the situation is reversed, with the early-morning song being heard throughout the forest, and views nearly impossible.
Another big highlight today occurred when I was alone in the vast forest. By sheer luck I happened to stop just below the well-concealed nest of Northern Goshawk. I had heard the bird calling distantly and hit “record,” just in case. The forest Accipitriform swooped in, crying as it arrived. Elaine, meanwhile, 3 km away with the car, witnessed Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being chased away by Large-billed Crow.
Other highlights were a high count of 21 singing Siberian Blue Robin, a forlorn-looking tytleriBarn Swallow resting all alone in the dusty parking lot of the visitors’ area, and the rediscovery at another quarry of the local family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
Today Elaine and I added Eurasian Wryneck, Chinese Grey Shrike, and Hawfinch to our trip list. We went exploring for new habitats and found two good new areas.
Driving south rather than southwest (toward Xidaquan), Elaine and I drove into hills reaching 450 m in elevation. We made an eight-minute sound-recording of Grey-backed Thrush and did photo and voice studies of Willow Tit (local ssp. baicalensis) and Coal Tit (ater). The latter is the same small-crested nominate ssp. known to birders in Continental Europe. Another taxon here in Heilongjiang and known to European birders is the snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit (caudatus), also noted today.
We continued driving south, leaving Boli County and Qitaihe Prefecture and briefly entering Linkou County, Mudanjiang Prefecture. Here we were dismayed, despite the stunningly beautiful agricultural scenery. Nearly every square inch of the land is taken up either by farming or forestry (conifer plantations). We turned back and found more good habitat on a forest road in the Hongwei Linchang area (45.638703, 130.547478). There, we found singing White-throated Rock Thrush.
Found today near Boli: incredible Band-bellied Crake. A near-threatened species, Porzana paykullii breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.
This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang Trip and a life bird for both of us.
Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied Crake was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near the stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. Elaine and I searched upstream and downstream for hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?
Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.
Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.
Fortunately for us, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km S of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km away.
Today Elaine and I checked on our Band-bellied Crake and obtained even better sound-recordings of the rare rail. Another careful search of the creek bottom failed to turn up any more crakes. We continued exploring the area around Hongwei Linchang. We found some areas that if left untouched in a generation or two may be majestic forests again, but we have yet to find a single place on par with Xidaquan National Forest, our core research area. Today we added Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Olive-backed Pipit to our trip list.
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
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.
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).
My first visit to Pudong’s Cape Nanhui came on a cold, cloudy day in January 2016. I was disappointed. How could this place, deserted and dull, be the favorite of Shanghai birders? How did this place become one of the hottest birding spots in China?
I arrived by public transport and birded mostly around the Magic Parking Lot (30.884988, 121.968091), the wooded area and migrant trap at the tip of the Cape. Back then I didn’t know it was magic, and I found few birds. I knew little about China and even less about Asian birds, and I had been painting only occasionally.
Seasons have come and gone, I have visited the Cape numerous times, I have broadened my knowledge of ornithology, I have taken Chinese painting lessons and resumed my work with watercolors, and I have honed my ability to draw and paint birds. Now, my vision of Cape Nanhui hardly could differ more from that initial impression.
Now, I love Cape Nanhui. Now, I paint Cape Nanhui.
Through my many visits over several seasons, my vision of Cape Nanhui evolved. I realized that the landscapes of Cape Nanhui are just the sort of landscapes that inspired those great masters, the Chinese painters of old.
I pictured those Chinese masters being deeply moved by the beauty of the vast reed beds, the reeds swaying gently in the breeze. Using traditional Chinese tools (rice paper, paint brush, and black ink), I attempted to reproduce the motions, forms, and shadows of the reeds of Nanhui, the way the Chinese masters would have done.
I painted in winter, with Eurasian Teal alongside a fishing boat.
I painted in autumn—two cranes exhausted from their migratory journey.
Again in summer I went, this time painting an egret among the reeds.
I went again and again, each time getting a new impression of Cape Nanhui.
MORE THAN JUST REEDS
Cape Nanhui is not only reed beds, but also mudflats, meadows, and eight tiny wooded areas that we Shanghai birders call the microforests. With my watercolors, I strove to paint each habitat of Cape Nanhui.
I painted a reed bed with the buildings of Lingang emerging in the mist above the reeds (as the mountains in the Chinese shanshui paintings); I painted the wind turbines rising like the mills of Cervantes in Don Quixote; I painted the mudflat and East China Sea crossed by the long Donghai Bridge; I painted a magical Japanese Paradise Flycatcher on the branch of a microforest tree.
CAPE NANHUI, SUSTAINER OF LIFE
A nubby promontory between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai. Silt from the Yangtze River gave birth to Cape Nanhui, and even today Nanhui lives at the pace of Asia’s greatest river.
The silt is rich, allowing plant life to proliferate, and attracting animals—insects, fish, amphibians, and of course birds. Some, such as Reed Parrotbill, are residents; some, such as Yellow Bittern, breed there; some, such as the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, winter there; and still others, among them the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann’s Greenshank, pass through Nanhui while making their astonishing long-distance migration along the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway.
Month after month, season after season, I went to Nanhui with my binoculars, telescope, paper, and black pen (a Mitsubishi uni-ball). I observed carefully, trying to understand and capture with my eyes the distinctive motions and details of each bird, and to reproduce my visual impressions with my pen. It is essential for me to draw birds in the field, to actually see them, as it is moments in the field with birds when one’s experience is the most intense and intimate.
Once home, following the field notes I made, and occasionally referring to great photographs my fellow Shanghai birders have taken, I carefully applied watercolors to my drawings.
During the cold winter at Cape Nanhui, we can spot winter visitors coming from northern China, Korea, Japan, and Siberia, among them Eurasian Teal, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Dusky Thrush. There are also resident species such as Black-crowned Night Heron.
In spring, as temperatures rise and the days lengthen, and during autumn, as summer heat succumbs to the first cold winds, passage migrants can be observed at Cape Nanhui.
The waders arrive at Cape Nanhui after flights of thousands of kilometers on the Flyway. Birds such as Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, and Far Eastern Curlew use Nanhui as a stopover. In autumn, these waders are en route to places as far south as Australia; in spring, they are headed north, many to Siberia.
Another group of migrants are the passerines, at Nanhui found often in the microforests. Among them are colorful beauties such as Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Fairy Pitta, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, and Black-naped Oriole.
CONCLUSION & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
It took me time to understand and appreciate Cape Nanhui. I look forward to continuing to explore this rich, unique, and beautiful place. May Cape Nanhui live forever, not only in the hearts of all Shanghainese, but also in the hearts of us foreign visitors.
I dedicate this post to Craig Brelsford, founder and editor of this superlative website, shanghaibirding.com. In a series of posts in 2016, Craig called for the conservation of Cape Nanhui and thereby initiated a new era of awareness about the conservationist value of the Cape. Craig is the birder who more than any other person illuminated my path to Cape Nanhui.
Thanks to Craig, Kai Pflug, plusQ, and Chloe for sharing photos with me, many of which served as visual aids for the paintings displayed here.
Featured image: Microforests dot the shoreline of Cape Nanhui, the most southeasterly point of the city-province of Shanghai and one of the most important birding hotspots in China. (Louis-Jean Germain)