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 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 Pallas’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes 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.
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
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).
This post is about birding Emeifeng in the spring of 2015. The mountain in western Fujian, not to be confused with the more famous Emeishan in Sichuan, ranks high on Shanghai birders’ must-see lists. It is a reliable site for Cabot’s Tragopan, Elliot’s Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, and its vast forests provide habitat for other key southeastern Chinese species. A bit too far to drive, a bit too close to fly, Emeifeng is the perfect expedition for the high-speed train.
This post covers 28 to 31 May 2015, the second of my two four-day trips to the mountain. A post on the first trip, which took place 30 April to 3 May 2015, was published on 12 Jan. 2017.
The photo above, by Elaine Du, shows Craig Brelsford searching for Brown Bush Warbler in the pristine alpine scrub on Emeifeng, elev. 1650 m (5,410 ft.).
— Noting the five key game birds: Elliot’s Pheasant, Cabot’s Tragopan, Koklass Pheasant, Silver Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, as well as the beautiful Chinese Bamboo Partridge
— Closely studying three Phylloscopus warblers that breed in southern China: Buff-throated WarblerPhylloscopus subaffinis, Sulphur-breasted WarblerP. ricketti, and Hartert’s Leaf WarblerP. goodsoni fokiensis, as well as having close encounters with White-spectacled WarblerSeicercus affinis intermedius
— At Shuibu Reservoir, finding Blue-throated Bee-eater, a species unexpected around Emeifeng
— Finding 4 of China’s 5 species of forktail: Little ForktailEnicurus scouleri, Slaty-backed ForktailE. schistaceus, White-crowned ForktailE. leschenaulti sinensis, and Spotted ForktailE. maculatus bacatus
— Hearing the many calls and songs of the accomplished vocalist Buffy Laughingthrush
— Hearing Spotted Elachura singing along a rushing stream
— Noting 103 species, 81 on the first trip, 86 on the second. Among the birds we found were key southern Chinese species such as Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Great Barbet, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Sultan Tit, Brown Bush Warbler, Small Niltava, Verditer Flycatcher, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, and Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler
— Enjoying the clean air and unspoiled beauty of Emeifeng
Wed. 27 May 2015
During our first trip to Emeifeng, Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I agreed to bird the mountain about a month later to see the changes four weeks would bring. Today, that second trip began. As in April, Elaine and I took the high-speed train from Shanghai to Nanchang and at Nanchang boarded the train to Taining. We once again checked in to Huada Hotel (Huádà Jiǔdiàn [华大酒店], +86 598-7817777).
With my camera in the repair shop, I was denied the opportunity to take photographs. I focused harder on good old-fashioned birding and made many sound recordings. The bird photos in this post come from other trips.
On our return to Emeifeng, Elaine and I noted 57 species. Bird of the day was Elliot’s Pheasant. Other noteworthy birds were 5 Silver Pheasant and 16 Buffy Laughingthrush. Little Forktail became our fourth species of forktail seen at Emeifeng, and Yellow-cheeked Tit put on an amazing vocal display.
Elliot’s Pheasant was a life bird for Elaine and me. We found a male near the road to Qingyun Temple just above kilometer marker 8 at an elevation of 1100 m. The bird allowed us several seconds to view it before it slipped away. 4 of the 5 Silver Pheasant we noted were in a flock (3 males, 1 female) on a hillside just above km 6 at an elev. of 940 m.
As was the case four weeks ago, we noted White-spectacled Warbler only above elev. 1400 m. The song of this species, coming from various directions, was one of the most common bird sounds today around Qingyun Temple. Hartert’s Leaf Warbler was not seen, but our other two “southern” leaf warblers from our earlier trip, Buff-throated Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler, were represented by 1 individual each. Buff-throated Warbler was found along the boardwalk to Qingyun Temple and is presumably one of the same pair that I met at that spot on 30 April. The Sulphur-breasted Warbler that I found four weeks ago responded to playback with song; today’s Sulphur-breasted Warbler responded with a brief call.
Fog shrouded the Qingyun Temple area most of the day. When it finally cleared, around 15:00, birds became active, as though it were dawn. 8 Buffy Laughingthrush were the main component of a foraging party that included 3 Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. They moved through the forest next to the boardwalk. The loud, jazzy sound of Buffy Laughingthrush caused a carpenter working in the area to start singing along. Another powerful singer in that wood was Yellow-cheeked Tit. A beautiful male performed three distinct songs for us, stopping only to devour a caterpillar:
Yellow-cheeked Tit, Emeifeng, 28 May 2015 (00:18; 1.5 MB)
Yellow-cheeked Tit, Emeifeng, 28 May 2015 (00:05; 1 MB)
Besides the 8 Buffy Laughingthrush near the temple, we found a flock of 6 quickly crossing the road, 1 amid a flock of 25 Grey-headed Parrotbill, and 1 heard calling from some distant spot in the forest. A pair of Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler were foraging together and calling antiphonally. We found them near the villages in the lower country at an elevation of about 750 m.
Besides Elliot’s Pheasant and Little Forktail, Elaine and I today added Lesser Cuckoo, Masked Laughingthrush, Brown Dipper, and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker to our Emeifeng list.
For our driver we once again hired Dèng Zhōngpíng (邓忠平, +86 138-6059-6327; no English, non-smoker).
Elaine and I noted 63 species. The highlight of the day was finding Blue-throated Bee-eater and Oriental Dollarbird on a utility wire above Shuibu Reservoir. Blue-throated Bee-eater was new to our Emeifeng list and a lifer for Elaine. Other new birds were Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Common Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black-naped Oriole, Black Drongo, Red-billed Starling, and White-rumped Munia.
Michael Grunwell joined Elaine and me. We noted 54 species. Elliot’s Pheasant were seen in poor light, Cabot’s Tragopan appeared at an elevation of about 1400 m, Blue-throated Bee-eater were present by Shuibu Reservoir, and Brown Bush Warbler were staking out territories at the top of the Emeifeng altitudinal layer-cake.
The Elliot’s were near Shuibu Reservoir at an elevation of about 750 m. As darkness was falling, Michael, walking ahead of us along the road, inadvertently flushed a sub-adult male. Elaine and I arrived in time to see 5 females (or perhaps fledglings) exploding into flight from positions just a few meters from us. The tragopans were seen earlier but also in low light, this caused by fog.
The Blue-throated Bee-eater are a mystery; the species apparently has not bred in the area in recent memory. The habitat around Shuibu Reservoir seems favorable. There are plenty of vertical surfaces of soft earth in which to construct cavity nests, and the artificial lake is at a remote location, near the Fujian-Jiangxi border.
We noted all our Brown Bush Warbler at altitudes of 1500 m to 1700 m (between Qingyun Temple and the radio tower). At Emeifeng, the dense alpine scrub that Locustella luteoventris favors occurs only at those altitudes. Confident in their nearly impenetrable tangle of vegetation, the extreme skulkers allowed us to peek in from distances of less than 2 m. I recorded the soft, monotonous song of this species, like a sewing machine running or an automobile idling.
Brown Bush Warbler, sewing-machine song, Emeifeng, elev. ca. 1600 m, 30 May 2015 (00:06; 266 KB)
Brown Bush Warbler, sewing-machine song, Emeifeng, elev. ca. 1600 m, 30 May 2015 (00:24; 999 KB)
The three of us wanted to explore more of the high country on the peak directly opposite the radio tower, but clouds again engulfed the ridgeline, and rain started to fall.
A search for Spotted Elachura between kilometer markers 12 and 13 got us wet feet but no bird. Hartert’s Leaf Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler also were not noted, a surprise given that we had heard these species singing and defending territories a month earlier.
Besides Brown Bush Warbler, Elaine and I today added Black Bittern and Asian Barred Owlet to our Emeifeng list.
Elaine and I noted 48 species. From the lodge area atop Emeifeng we walked to the little tower on the slope opposite the radio tower. The little tower sits amid pristine alpine scrub and is reachable only by foot. We walked to an elevation of about 1650 m. We were searching for Russet Bush Warbler and failed to find it. We found species similar to those in the scrub between the radio tower and Qingyun Temple, among them Brown Bush Warbler and Buff-throated Warbler.
Earlier, on the dirt road behind the locked gate in the lodge area, Mr. Deng came running back to me, signaling for me to come. We tiptoed a few steps, and there she was, the queen of the high forest, a female Cabot’s Tragopan. She was standing on the edge of the forest track. The tragopan did not flee but foraged calmly in front of us for two magic minutes before creeping silently into the forest.
The magic feeling continued in the alpine scrub. We saw no evidence of logging; the scrub is there not because an older forest was cut, but because Mother Nature intended it that way. The place exudes health and balance. Grass grows lushly, and one can look at almost any spot on the ground and find many types of colorful insects. Butterflies flit from flower to flower. When the clouds parted, we enjoyed the commanding view of the forest below. Flybys of Great Barbet and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush enlivened the scene. White-necklaced Partridge, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, and Lesser Cuckoo called from hidden locations below. Buff-throated Warbler were busy patrolling their territories, standing sentinel atop the shrubs. Brown Bush Warbler were not calling spontaneously, and their presence might not have been detected but for their vigorous response to playback.
The day was nearly windless, and few tourists were visiting the top. The golden silence was broken only by birds, among them a drumming Speckled Piculet. The songs of Blyth’s Shrike-babbler and White-spectacled Warbler carried far. In the contest of laughingthrush songs, Chinese Hwamei took the prize for power, and Buffy Laughingthrush won for melody. Here is a selection of what we heard:
White-spectacled Warbler, Emeifeng, 31 May 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)
Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Emeifeng, 31 May 2015 (00:10; 1.2 MB)
Speckled Piculet, Emeifeng, 31 May 2015 (01:10; 3.6 MB)
Driving back down the hill, we found a male Silver Pheasant at ca. 1300 m and a female Elliot’s Pheasant at ca. 1200 m.
In addition to Speckled Piculet, Black-collared Starling was new to our Emeifeng list.
Birds Noted Around Emeifeng, Fujian, China, 30 April 2015 to 3 May 2015 and 28-31 May 2015 (103 species)
鸳鸯 (yuānyāng) Aix galericulata
9 on 2015-05-02
23 on 2015-05-03
1 on 2015-05-28
15 on 2015-05-30
Coastal province SE China. Pop.: 37.7 million. Area: 121,400 sq. km (46,900 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): 20% larger than Jiangsu (but with less than half as many inhabitants). Same size as North Korea & Pennsylvania; slightly smaller than Greece.
Jiangxi (Jiāngxī Shěng [江西省]): province SE China W of Fujian.