Birds of Northern Xinjiang I

by Craig Brelsford

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 Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea

Ruddy Shelduck
In 2017 we recorded small numbers of Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea on lakes and in reservoirs in the Jungar Basin. I found this shelduck north of Burqin during my first trip to Xinjiang on 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

A common component of our wetland lists was Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. We had a high count of 300 at Daquangou Reservoir on 22 July 2017. I got these photos on the Kaba River in White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 14 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina

Red-crested Pochard
I have found Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina at four locations in the Jungar Basin, one of them the Kekesu Wetlands, where I took this photo on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

White-headed Duck Oxyura 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.

Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis

In the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou) on 21 July 2017, I used my Swarovski ATX-95 scope to find, on the ridge 2000 m distant, 2 Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. (Craig Brelsford)

Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar

Chukar Partridge
The arid hills around Baihu, the reservoir in Urumqi, offer habitat for Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar. We met this adult and its fledglings there on 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Stork Ciconia nigra

Black Stork
In 2017 we had Black Stork Ciconia nigra only once, in the wetlands west of Kaba on 26 July 2017. White Birch Forest Scenic Area is just 3 km (2 mi.) down the road from the wetlands, and it was there, hiking along the Kaba River in May 2012, that I photographed these individuals. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus

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 Eagle Aquila 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.

Shikra Accipiter 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.

Shikra, Hongyanglin (46.123909, 85.652300), 23 July 2017 (00:04; 705 KB; Craig Brelsford)

Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis nipalensis

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 Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Western Marsh Harrier
Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, arid country north of Burqin, 16 May 2012. This is a male showing the characteristic grey wings with black tips and brown coverts. The shoulders are buff, there is some white on the rump, and the tail is grey. Western Marsh Harrier is the Western and Central Palearctic counterpart of Eastern Marsh Harrier C. spilonotus. The point where this harrier was found is in the northern Jungar Basin at 47.764563, 86.782345, elev. 470 m (1,540 ft.). The Phragmites reed habitat is near the Irtysh River on the Burqin-Kaba road (S227). (Craig Brelsford)

Black Kite Milvus migrans

Black Kite
The raptor I have noted most in Northern Xinjiang is Black Kite Milvus migrans. I have found it in nearly every sort of habitat, from the Tianshan and across the Jungar Basin to the Altai. In 2017 my Swedish partner Jan-Erik Nilsén and I had high counts of 180 21 July at Baiyanggou in the Tianshan and 120 on 28 July in the arid country north of Burqin. I found this one 18 May 2012 at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla

White-tailed Eagle
On my initial trip to Xinjiang, one of my most interesting records was this White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. I found the giant 10 May 2012 flying over the semi-desert near Ulungur Lake. Among the largest of raptors, White-tailed Eagle is closely related to America’s Bald Eagle H. leucocephalus. (Craig Brelsford)

Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus rufinus

Long-legged Buzzard
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus rufinus shows considerable color variation, from a light morph to a reddish morph (L) and dark morph (R). The nominate race inhabits steppes and semi-deserts in a range extending from southeastern Europe to western Mongolia. In 2017 we noted the species on five occasions, four in the Jungar Basin and one in the Altai Mountains. We found the two individuals shown here at Wutubulake Toll Station (46.931100, 86.457300) on 28 July. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-legged Buzzard
We had this reddish-morph Long-legged Buzzard at Beishawo on 22 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo

Demoiselle Crane
In 2017 we missed Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo, but on my initial trip in 2012 I found it at three sites in the northern Jungar Basin. One of those sites was the arid country north of Burqin, where I got this photo on 16 May 2012. The steppe where I found this individual is classic Demoiselle Crane habitat—semi-desert with water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus in flight (top) and with drake Common Merganser Mergus merganser, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, May 2012. Commonly associated with coasts, Eurasian Oystercatcher has a large breeding range in the center of the Eurasian supercontinent, which includes Northern Xinjiang. In 2017, we found 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher at NE Ulungur Lake on 25 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus

Mainly a coastal migrant, Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus can sometimes be seen migrating overland. I found this flock 16 May 2012 in the arid country north of Burqin. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata

Eurasian Curlew
This individual is my only Xinjiang record of Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata. I was in the Kekesu Wetlands on 18 May 2012. The bird was likely a passage migrant, as Eurasian Curlew is not expected to breed in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa

Black-tailed Godwit
On 22 July 2017 at Daquangou Reservoir we counted 400 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa. Most of those late-July birds were passage migrants, but the species breeds in Xinjiang. The individual above, found 18 May 2012 in the Kekesu Wetlands near Burqin, may have bred in the area. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos

Common Sandpiper
The coast is where Shanghai birders commonly encounter Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, but at latitudes farther north one can view the species on its breeding grounds. Common Sandpiper breeds near water in forested areas, habitat that Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai Mountains, where I found this specimen on 18 May 2012, offers in abundance. (Craig Brelsford)

Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans

Caspian Gull
At Qinggegda Lake on 29 July 2017 we had 2240 Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans. This was by far our highest count, though we recorded the gull in lower numbers at various other reservoirs and lakes in the Jungar Basin. I had this individual at Aweitan Reservoir on 8 May 2012. Larus cachinnans cachinnans is the default Herring-type gull in Xinjiang and is characterized by its small, pear-shaped head, beady eye set high on the forehead, and long, yellowish legs. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Tern Chlidonias 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 Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus

My only sandgrouse record in Xinjiang came 21 July 2017 at Baihu. The sandgrouse were calling unseen around sunset.

Stock Dove Columba oenas

Stock Dove
The light-tipped, reddish bill, black trailing edge to primaries, and complete lack of white coloration are some of the features distinguishing Stock Dove Columba oenas from Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) C. livia. Stock Dove was numerous at Hongyanglin, the poplar oasis in the central Jungar Basin. We had counts there of 8 on 23 July 2017 and 15 on 24 July. Well-known in Europe, Stock Dove in China is found only in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur arenicola
Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis meena

A reliable criterion separating Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis meena (L panels) and European Turtle Dove S. turtur arenicola (R panels) is the reddish bare skin around the eye of the latter. We had Oriental only in the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou) on 20 July and 21 July 2017, and it was at Baiyanggou that I got the photos of Oriental above. We had European at four locations, among them Beishawo (where the photos above were taken) on 22 July and far to the north at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 26 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Common Cuckoo
In contrast to other regions of China, where cuckoo diversity is rich, in Xinjiang cuckoo species are few. The Tianshan Mountains hold only one: Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. We found this individual at Baiyanggou on 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus

European Nightjar
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Ulungur Lake, 25 July 2017. We found another at Beishawo on 22 July. In both cases, we happened upon an individual roosting in the semi-desert. In China, European Nightjar occurs in Xinjiang, western Gansu, and western and northern Inner Mongolia. (Craig Brelsford)

European Roller Coracias garrulus

European Roller
Yet another species in China seen only in Xinjiang is European Roller Coracias garrulus. In 2017 we noted the species at seven locations in the Jungar Basin, among them Ulungur Lake (25 July) and the wooded area on the G216 (25 July). I took the photos above near Burqin during my initial trip to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

European Bee-eater Merops apiaster

European Bee-eater
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Kuitun Reservoir (east side), 23 July 2017. Xinjiang is the eastern extremity of the breeding range of this species. We found European Bee-eater at various places in the Jungar Basin, among them Kuitun Reservoir (north side) (23 July) and Beishawo (22 July). The poplar oasis of Hongyanglin was a particularly rich area, with a flock of 40 on 23 July and 17 on 24 July. (Craig Brelsford)

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker
We found White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos at three sites, all of them riverine woodlands in the northern Jungar Basin. One of those sites is White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I found this individual on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus

White-winged Woodpecker
At the poplar oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017 we achieved one of the highlights of Xinjiang 2017: meeting White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus. In China, this Central Asian species is found only in Xinjiang, mainly in forested areas in the Jungar Basin. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

Black Woodpecker
During my May 2012 trip to Northern Xinjiang, a pair of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius were nesting at Burqin Magic Forest. On 9 May 2012 I photographed this adult anting. (Craig Brelsford)

Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus

Grey-headed Woodpecker
Bucking the Xinjiang trend of ‘European birds in China’ is Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus, a mainly East Asian species whose range extends through Transbaikalia and the Altai Mountains to Northern Xinjiang. I recorded the species in the Burqin Magic Forest and at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I got this photo on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni

Lesser Kestrel
We noted Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni in both the Tianshan and Altai and at various spots in the Jungar Basin. Among the characters distinguishing male Lesser Kestrel (L) from Common Kestrel F. tinnunculus are the sparse, rounded spots on the flanks of male Lesser as well as the lack of a submoustachial stripe on the grey head. Female Lesser (R) has fewer marks on underparts and underwings than female Common and has more black on the outer primaries. L: Wooded area on G216, 8 May 2012. R: Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Saker Falcon Falco cherrug

Saker Falcon
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We had the species here and at two other Jungar Basin sites. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Police officers Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction: In this first post, Craig Brelsford gives you an introduction to Northern Xinjiang and an overview of the expedition of July 2017. Bounded by the Tianshan to the south and the Altai to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China.

Northern Xinjiang

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang: Read Craig Brelsford’s notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during the 2017 expedition. In Xinjiang, birders are saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall”—in China, but not in East Asia.

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines) (you are here)

Mistle Thrush

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines): This portion of the photo gallery covers the passerines of Northern Xinjiang. Many birds well-known to Europeans, such as Mistle Thrush, were photographed by Brelsford using his state-of-the-art Nikon setup.

police officer

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang: Photos and detailed captions by Craig Brelsford offer a window into the habitats and people of Northern Xinjiang.

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Grey Wolf

John MacKinnon in the Altai Mountains of Xinjiang: The visit of the pioneering naturalist included an encounter with wolves and records of Willow Ptarmigan and Rock Ptarmigan. “We emerged on top of the world,” MacKinnon writes, “with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border.”

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