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.
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.
Editor’s note: My photos of the year, 2016. Clockwise from top left: Cinereous Vulture on Chongming Island in January kicked off a year that saw a parade of interesting sightings in Shanghai; ultra-rare Band-bellied Crake was the highlight of my three-week trip to a never-birded area of Heilongjiang; on 10 Dec. members of Shanghai’s ever-growing birding community had a big day out at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui; in a two-month expedition to Qinghai, meeting this Tibetan Lynx was my biggest thrill.
Happy New Year! This post is a photographic summary of my birding year 2016.
Here are images of birds more commonly noted in the Shanghai region.
From 16 Feb. to 5 March, Elaine and I were in Yunnan, where we explored the Dulong Gorge, a remote valley in the northwestern corner of the province. Birding there is excellent, and the views are sublime.
After days of rain, we were rewarded with this moon-set at dawn on 26 Feb.
We noted 170 species of bird at Dulong. One of the best was Grandala.
For its combination of stunning beauty and strong Himalayan character, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin was Craig’s Bird of the Trip.
Birds have plenty of places to hide in the thickly vegetated Dulong Gorge. Sometimes we got lucky, as with this Chestnut-headed Tesia.
Elaine and I spent most of the summer in Qinghai. We noted 195 species of bird, but our most unforgettable moment was supplied by a mammal. This is Tibetan Lynx.
Tibetan Partridge was commonly noted in eastern Yushu Prefecture.
Another great chicken: White Eared Pheasant.
At desolate Hala Lake, elev. 4077 m, we found Tibetan Sandgrouse.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch is hardy. It thrives at high elevations.
Henderson’s Ground Jay is master of arid scrubland …
… while Isabelline Wheatear is master of the semi-deserts of Wulan County.
We had great partners in Qinghai. One of them was Michael Grunwell.
Landscapes in Qinghai are beyond beautiful. Here are my favorites.
A closer look at the dunes.
I used my iPhone 6 for this image of a Chinese Juniper gazing out at the Dulan Mountains. The tree clings to the slope at elev. 3960 m.
From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. The area was never properly birded before we arrived there, and our discoveries have been many. The biggest highlight was Band-bellied Crake.
Mandarin Duck breed in Boli County. We found this drake in a small pool deep in Xidaquan Forest.
In the Manchurian forest, woodpeckers abound. The most common species is White-backed Woodpecker.
Elaine Du is my wife and partner. The year 2016 was our third in a row of non-stop birding. Although she is happy birding and has put together an impressive life list, the Heilongjiang native is never happier than when she is in her hometown.
Through thick and thin we tough it out. Here we are smiling despite being confined to our tent during a rain shower at Hala Lake.
At Eling Lake in Qinghai, where the Yellow River and China are born, Elaine and I posed for this self-portrait.
Elaine is a little short, but she never gives up. In Dulong Gorge, she improvised a way to see Grandala, a life bird.
Elaine is proud of the remnant Manchurian forest near her home in Boli. Here we are in front of a stand of Silver Birch.
People like Elaine’s family put food on the table for the city folks.
The Shanghai Birding Community
In 2015 I started shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group. In 2016, the number of readers of the Web site and members of the chat group steadily grew. On 10 Dec., the day of the Shanghai Birding Christmas party, I led a group of birders to Cape Nanhui. There we found a pair of Red-crowned Crane, a first for mainland Shanghai. Here is the group after the historic event.
This post is about my Qinghai 2016 summer birding trip. It covers the eighth and final week. The featured image shows dunes and mountain in the remote back country of Wulan County, where I spent most of Week 8.
A post on Weeks 5-6 was published Thurs. 27 Oct., and Week 7 appeared Thurs. 10 Nov. Together, this and the two previous posts cover Month 2 of the two-month trip.
For more on the first month, please see these posts:
The Qinghai 2016 birding trip began on 26 June 2016 and was originally scheduled to last a month. My wife Elaine Du and I extended the trip another month, from 24 July to 21 Aug. 2016. In Month 2 we drove 2260 km (1,400 miles) in Xining, Haibei, Haixi, and Hainan prefectures and noted 136 bird species. We discovered at previously unknown locations Tibetan Snowcock, Przevalski’s Partridge, Tibetan Sandgrouse, and Gansu Leaf Warbler. I became one of the few foreign birders to visit Hala Lake, where we found Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, and Lake Xiligou, where we found Mongolian Goitered Gazelle. At the Przevalski’s Site in the Dulan Mountains, we spied a trio of Tibetan Wolf.
THE FINAL WEEK
This post covers the eighth and final week of my Qinghai 2016 birding expedition, from Sun. 14 Aug. to Sun. 21 Aug. 2016. Elaine Du and I spent most of Week 8 in Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. Amid stunning scenery, we found Tibetan Wolf, discovered a new location for Przevalski’s Partridge, and around Lake Xiligou had a rare eastern record of Water Rail as well as Qinghai favorites Black-necked Crane, Tibetan Lark, and Henderson’s Ground Jay. The lake held Black-necked Grebe and a noisy super-flock of 4610 Ruddy Shelduck, and Mongolian Goitered Gazelle were in the hills behind. Near Chaka we had Mute Swan, and at a site south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia we noted Dusky Warbler, the 195th and final species of our two-month trip.
WORKING ‘VACATION’ IN WULAN
Elaine and I had spent 15 straight nights in our tent when in the afternoon of Sun. 14 Aug. we pulled into Wūlán Xiàn Hóngxiáng Jiǔdiàn (乌兰县鸿翔酒店, +86 (0) 977-8245666, 36.927295, 98.479888). This comfortable hotel in Wulan Xiancheng would shelter us for the next three nights. We did no more birding on the 14th. The next day, the 15th, a group of Elaine’s former co-workers who happened to be vacationing in the area stopped by our hotel for a big lunch. As in Xining in July, our vacation-within-a-vacation gave us the breather we needed.
At a productive marshy area (36.899263, 98.494709) we heard Water Rail calling from the reeds, picked up trip-first Richard’s Pipit, and welcomed back Tibetan Lark to our Qinghai list. The scrub nearby yielded a single Henderson’s Ground Jay.
Despite those successes, approaching Lake Xiligou from the north was not optimal, because the lake is shrinking, and the shrinkage is most pronounced on the north shore. The more remote south shore, by contrast, which we visited in the afternoon, was a revelation.
The show started while we were still in the semi-desert. We found a black-tailed gazelle that did not bound away like a Tibetan Gazelle, but galloped. It was Mongolian Goitered Gazelle Gazella subgutturosa hilleriana. We found 12.
As we approached the south shore, we heard a roar coming from the water. The source was Ruddy Shelduck, of which we counted 4610. Next in numbers was Brown-headed Gull (625), Black-necked Grebe (275), and Black-winged Stilt (210). 4 bugling Black-necked Crane made up with charisma and grace what they lacked in numbers. Lake Xiligou also yielded a single Greylag Goose, 7 Common Shelduck, 20 Northern Shoveler, 4 Common Pochard, 1 Great Crested Grebe, and 35 Pied Avocet.
Driving out in the dark, we found 3 jerboa, two of them long-eared and presumably either Gobi Jerboa or Mongolian Five-Toed Jerboa, and the third short-eared and long-tailed and presumably Northern Three-toed Jerboa. What fun it is to watch these “jumping mice” (跳鼠) hop across the chaparral.
THE BACK COUNTRY OF WULAN COUNTY
On Wed. 17 Aug. Elaine and I were back on the road, exploring the area south of Wulan and north of Dulan (36.299080, 98.091569). Here Elaine and I found some of the best scenery and most remote country of the Qinghai trip. We drove for hours, not passing a single car. We saw more Przevalski’s Partridge than people, the result of our finding a new site (36.826334, 97.965649) for the species 66 km southwest of Wulan. The covey contained 13 birds. The site, at elev. 3380 m and with well-vegetated hillsides and steep cliffs for roosting nearby, meets the basic demands of the species and may hold the partridges throughout the year.
On Thurs. 18 Aug., on the way to Jinzi Lake (36.719109, 97.886371), we found a group of Mongolian Goitered Gazelle sprinting across the road. I once again noted the power and speed of these animals. Jinzi Lake is a spring-fed freshwater pond, elev. 2990 m. Here we found adult and juvenile Black-necked Grebe and Great Crested Grebe. At the lake we added to our Qinghai 2016 list Eurasian Coot, and later in the desert Tarim Babbler joined the list. We studied carefully the short-toed larks in the marshy areas near the lake. All were Asian Short-toed Lark.
I drove into a sand dune and got stuck. With our handy shovel I dug the car out. I learned two lessons from the incident. First, sand is treacherous; never approach it flippantly. Second, always have tools in your car, especially in remote places. Without that shovel, I would not have been able to dig the car out. I would have been at the mercy of some local–assuming we had found someone. Because we had the shovel, we were able to continue birding after a short delay.
On the morning of Fri. 19 Aug. we found a watering hole in the desert near Jinzi Lake. The pool attracted Desert Whitethroat, a lone Temminck’s Stint, Tarim Babbler, several Isabelline Wheatear, and a Citrine Wagtail.
On the afternoon of Fri. 19 Aug. Elaine and I were driving through Lianhe Cun (36.622738, 98.233933). We did a double-take. Someone had hung bird netting along the main road, in plain view. The nets were apparently some ill-advised attempt to protect the local crop of wolfberry growing in the gardens behind. Wolfberry or gǒuqǐ (枸杞) is an edible fruit grown in irrigated cropland in Haixi Prefecture.
The scheme was not only callous but also futile, as nearly all the birds could see the netting and were flying over it into the gardens. The only result the netting was having was to kill a few of the birds–and demonstrate the ignorance of the net-setters.
I saw two Black Redstart enmeshed in the netting. They were alive and struggling. In full view of the farmers, who were selling their wolfberry just yards away, I pulled out my knife and cut the redstarts out.
It was quite a job. The netting catches onto any irregular surface–claws, toes, wings, bill. And the redstarts are fragile. If I squeezed the frightened bird even a little too much, it would die in my hand. As I handled one of the beauties, a sleek adult male, the redstart pecked weakly at my fingers.
I set the redstarts free and drove off. I looked at the hard-bitten farmers, their faces wrinkled like raisins after years toiling in the desert sun. I told Elaine: “Poor folks can be materialistic, too–all that cruelty for a measly couple of yuan.”
Later on Fri. 19 Aug. we found 3 Tibetan Wolf at the well-known “Przevalski’s Site” (36.457249, 98.502578). With our trip winding down, and steadily making our way east toward Xining and the airport, Elaine and I passed by the Przevalski’s Site and decided to make a lunch stop there. We drove off the G109 and motored through the arid grassland to the base of “Partridge Hill,” where Przevalski’s Partridge are often found.
After lunch, I said to Elaine, “I’m going to read that slope like a book.” I was talking about the slope that rises about 700 m from the valley floor where we were parked and is about 1500 air-meters away. During our visit in July with Jan-Erik Nilsén, I studied the slope and found Blue Sheep clinging to the nearly vertical wall.
I pulled out my Swarovski ATX-95 and mounted it atop my Manfrotto head. To reduce the effect of the wind, I was seated with the legs of the tripod unextended. As is my habit, I scanned the ridges first.
I found 3 Tibetan Wolf on the ridge. Canus lupus filchneri is a small ssp., and at first I mistook the wolves for foxes. They had black-tipped tails, ocher fur on the back and outer legs, an off-white band on the upper back, and a white muzzle and throat. They moved with ease across the slope.
Battling heat haze, I struggled to keep up with the wolves. I held on for 5 to 10 minutes, during which time I noted their efficient gait, saw them investigating every nook and cranny in their path, and watched them sure-footedly clamber up steep rocks. Elaine peeked in, her first look ever at a wolf.
The wolves disappeared, and strangely enough about 30 minutes later a flock of 40 Blue Sheep, including several lambs, moved into the area. We waited for the wolves to attack, but no attack came.
A major birding location in Dulan County, the Przevalski’s Site is so named because it is reliable for Przevalski’s Partridge and Przevalski’s Redstart. On 19 Aug. the site delivered a covey of 18 partridges, emerging as if on cue from the base of Partridge Hill for a late-afternoon feed. No Przevalski’s Redstart were found, the wheeze of Pine Bunting was no longer heard, and even that little fighter Alpine Leaf Warbler was subdued.
As I stood there watching the now-skulky Alpine Leaf Warbler, so feisty when we arrived in Qinghai in June, it occurred to me that Elaine and I had spent virtually the entire summer in Qinghai.
We continued east, to Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878). At a spot (36.787688, 98.987532) for Henderson’s Ground Jay west of town, now flooded after much recent rain, we added our 194th species of bird for Qinghai 2016: Mute Swan.
On Sat. 20 Aug. Elaine and I drove from Chaka to a point (36.206372, 100.534206) south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia. There we spent our final night. The next morning, in the scrub near our camp I found Crested Lark and Dusky Warbler, the latter the 195th and final species of the trip.
We drove to Xining Caojiabao Airport, returned the Sportage, and flew back to Shanghai.
Day Lists Lists are generated on eBird then adjusted to comport with my first reference, the IOC World Bird List. All observations by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du.
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 2 (3630 m)
Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis 4 (3870-4080 m)
Güldenstädt’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogastrus 5 (3900-4280 m)
Black Redstart P. ochruros 4 (3870-4080 m)
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis 1 (3900 m)
Twite Carduelis flavirostris 1 (3860 m)
Przevalski’s Partridge Alectoris magna 13 (covey) at 36.826334, 97.965649 (3380 m)
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis 3 (3310-3380 m)
Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis 1 (3310 m)
Common Swift Apus apus 3 (3310 m)
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 3 (3300 m)
Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus giganteus 1 (3500 m)
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 4 (3310-3380 m)
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 77 (3310 m)
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris 20 (3310-3480 m)
Blue-fronted Redstart Phoenicurus frontalis 2 (3490 m)
Black Redstart P. ochruros 2 (3300 m)
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina 15 (3300 m)
Brown Accentor Prunella fulvescens 1 (3300 m)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 30 (3300 m)
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia 1 (3300 m)
Woolly Hare Lepus oiostolus 4 (3300-3380 m)
Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur 8 (3310 m)
Greylag Goose Anser anser 17 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea 45 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca 1 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 15 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1 (3000 m)
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 29 (17 ad., 12 juv.) at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 26 (10 ad., 16 non-br./juv.) at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis 2 (3000 m)
Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius 1 (3000 m)
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis 2 (3000 m)
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 49 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii 1 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Common Redshank Tringa totanus 3 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus 4 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 22 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1 (3310 m)
Isabelline Shrike Lanius isabellinus 9 (2970-3000 m)
Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni 2 (3310-3360 m)
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 3 (3410-3460 m)
Northern Raven Corvus corax 2 (3000 m)
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris 4 (3000 m)
Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis 19 (3000 m)
Sand/Pale Martin Riparia riparia/diluta 80 at Jinzi Lake (2990 m)
Tarim Babbler Rhopophilus albosuperciliaris 1 (3000 m)
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti 2 (2970-3080 m)
Isabelline Wheatear O. isabellina 58 (2950-3310 m)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 6 (2970-3000 m)
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia 1 (2990 m)
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola 2 (3000 m)
White Wagtail M. alba leucopsis 5 (2970-3000 m)
Tibetan Gazelle Procapra picticaudata 1 (3410 m)
Mongolian Goitered Gazelle Gazella subgutturosa hilleriana 6 (3240 m)
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii 1 (3000 m)
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus 1 (3000 m)
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris 3 (3000 m)
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 2 (3130 m)
Isabelline Shrike Lanius isabellinus 7 (3000-3130 m)
Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni 1 (3330 m)
Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis 14 (3000 m)
Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis 3 (3130 m)
Desert Whitethroat Desert Sylvia minula margelanica 3 (3000 m)
Tarim Babbler Rhopophilus albosuperciliaris 2 (3000 m)
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros 3 (3130-3260 m)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus ca. 300 (3130 m)
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina 110 (3000-3260 m)
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola 3 (3000 m)
Mute Swan Cygnus olor 1 in marshland along highway at 36.787688, 98.987532 (3070 m)
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea 28 (3070 m)
Przevalski’s Partridge Alectoris magna 18 (covey) at Przevalski’s Site (3820 m)
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus 1 juv. (3820 m)
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis 1 (3820 m)
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1 (3070 m)
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 8 (3070 m)
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris 1 (3550 m)
Common Swift Apus apus 8 (3340 m)
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1 (3820 m)
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 5 (3820 m)
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 25 (3820 m)
Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis 4 (3820 m)
Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis 1 (3820 m)
Blue-fronted Redstart Phoenicurus frontalis 4 juvs. (3820 m)
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina 2 (3820 m)
Woolly Hare Lepus oiostolus 7 (3000-3820 m)
Himalayan Marmot Marmota himalayana 6 (3820 m)
Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur 40 (3820 m)
Tibetan Wolf Canis lupus filchneri 3 at Przevalski’s Site (3820 m)
Delingha County (Délìnghā Shì [德令哈市]) sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture. Officially, Delingha “City” (市).
Dulan County (Dūlán Xiàn [都兰县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture.
Gahai Lake (Gǎ Hǎi [尕海]): freshwater lake Delingha County. Elev.: 2850 m (9,350 ft.). 37.128349, 97.551656.
Gonghe County (Gònghé Xiàn [共和县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Hainan Prefecture.
Haibei Prefecture (Hǎiběi Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海北藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Qinghai.
Hainan Prefecture (Hǎinán Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [海南藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area E Qinghai.
Haixi Prefecture (Hǎixī Měnggǔzú Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海西蒙古族藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area occupying all of NW & NC Qinghai & a portion of SW Qinghai. Area: 325,785 sq. km (125,786 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): slightly larger than New Mexico. Largest prefecture in Qinghai.
Hala Lake (Hālā Hú [哈拉湖]): inland sea N Qinghai in Haixi Prefecture. Second-largest lake in Qinghai. Area: 607 sq. km (234 sq. mi.). Elevation: 4077 m (13,373 ft.). 38.267875, 97.575430.
Huzhu County (Hùzhù Tǔzú Zìzhìxiàn [互助土族自治县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haidong Prefecture.
Jinzi Lake (Jīnzi Hǎi [金子海]): freshwater lake Wulan County. Elev.: 2990 m (9,810 ft.). 36.719109, 97.886371.
Lake Xiligou (Xīlǐgōu Hú [希里沟湖]): saline lake Wulan County. Elev.: 2950 m (9,680 ft.). 36.838594, 98.462896.
In photo above, Michael Grunwell (L) carries spotting scope to view waterfowl on Eling Lake, near source of Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai, 3 July 2016. To the right is Mark Waters, Michael’s old friend from England. This post covers the first two weeks of our Qinghai 2016 expedition.
Elaine Du and I were in Qinghai from 26 June to 21 Aug. 2016. We collected a huge amount of material and have been publishing it in bits and pieces here on shanghaibirding.com. In this post, we offer you the highlights of the first two weeks of the trip, 26 June to 10 July, which we spent with Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell and his old friend Mark Waters.
Among the 136 species of bird we found were 40 of Michael’s 45 hoped-for lifers. Highlights:
21 Common Cuckoo and 7 Cuculus sp. Common Cuckoo were singing at elevations as high as 4300 m
1 Black Woodpecker at Baizha Nature Reserve. Black Woodpecker is one of several species whose ranges cover northern-temperate Eurasia in a band from Europe to northeast China then spur southwestward to the Tibetan Plateau
1 Tiger Shrike at entrance to Kanda Gorge (32.277059, 96.485171). A highly unusual Qinghai record for this species
1 Black Drongo, another interesting record for Qinghai
Mammals: Tibetan Wild Ass (steppe, Maduo County), Pallas’s Cat (night view near Maduo [Machali]), Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa (Maduo [Machali]), Plateau Pika, Glover’s Pika (Yushu [Jiegu], Kanda Gorge, Baizha), Himalayan Marmot, Tibetan Antelope (steppe), Tibetan Fox (steppe, Maduo County), Red Fox (steppe near Qinghai Lake), White-lipped Deer (scrub near Heimahe), Tibetan Macaque (fully wild individuals in Baizha Nature Reserve), Blue Sheep (half-tame herds around Ga’er Monastery [31.829966, 96.487758])
Astronomy: Amazing views of Milky Way, rings of Saturn, and bands of Jupiter as well as Jupiter’s Galilean moons on clear night in steppe near Maduo (Machali), elev. 4200 m. Used my Swarovski ATX-95.
Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus 35 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea 20 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 1 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus atrifrons 1 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Common Redshank Tringa totanus 2 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus 1 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris 42 (3420-3780 m)
Common Swift Apus apus 20 (3440-3570 m)
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 2 (3410 m)
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 6 (3810 m)
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris ca. 50 (3390-3630 m)
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 20 (3390-3660 m)
Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis 5 (3390 m)
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros 18 (3370-3760 m)
Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis 1 (3370 m)
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti 2 (pair) nesting near Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Twite Carduelis flavirostris 20 (3370-3390 m)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 20 at Dashui Qiao (3370 m)
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia 3 at Dashui Reservoir (3390 m)
Blanford’s Snowfinch Pyrgilauda blanfordi 6 (3410 m)
List 1 of 2 for Sat. 2 July 2016 (7 species). Birds noted on drive between Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878) & Tiegai Xiang (35.989249, 100.194396), Gonghe County, Hainan Prefecture, Qinghai. 08:20-10:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, & Mark Waters.
Upland Buzzard Buteo hemilasius 1
Little Owl Athene noctua 1 (3110 m)
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica 5
Mongolian Lark Melanocorypha mongolica 1 at 35.989249, 100.194396 (3110 m)
Crested Lark Galerida cristata 3 N of Gonghe-Qiabuqia at 36.206372, 100.534206 (2920 m)
Ground Tit Pseudopodoces humilis 4
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros 1
List of Place Names Note: Many places in Qinghai have Tibetan or Mongolian names. For simplicity I have written place names only in English, simplified Chinese, and Pinyin.
Baizha Nature Reserve (Báizhā Sēnlín Zìrán Bǎohùqū [白扎森林自然保护区]): protected area Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture. Junction of G214 & X832 at 31.966314, 96.535097. On some maps, X832 is called “Ranniang Section” (Ránniáng Duàn [然娘段]). This is the road that leads toward the nature reserve. At another turnoff (31.964250, 96.573340), bear right, leaving Ranniang Section, & continue on to the reserve.
Chaka (Chákǎ Zhèn [茶卡镇]): town & tourist center Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 36.791576, 99.078878.
Hainan Prefecture (Hǎinán Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [海南藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area E Qinghai.
Haixi Prefecture (Hǎixī Měnggǔzú Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海西蒙古族藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area occupying all of NW & NC Qinghai & a portion of SW Qinghai.
Heimahe (Hēimǎhé Xiāng [黑马河乡]): village on SW shore of Qinghai Lake in Gonghe County, Hainan Prefecture. Major tourist center. 36.729239, 99.779524.
Huzhu County (Hùzhù Tǔzú Zìzhìxiàn [互助土族自治县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haidong Prefecture.
Jiegu (Jiégǔ Zhèn [结古镇]): urbanized area E Yushu County. Commonly referred to as Yushu. 33.002242, 96.978488.
Kanda Mountains (Kǎndá Shān [坎达山]): high country Nangqian County. Elev. at mouth of Kanda Gorge, near Zaqu River: 3670 m (12,040 ft.). Elev. Kanda Pass: 4680 m (15,350 ft.). Junction of G214 & road leading to Kanda Mountains: 32.315911, 96.454165. Mouth of Kanda Gorge: 32.277059, 96.485171. Kanda Pass: 32.314561, 96.624807.
Kanda Nunnery: religious institution Kanda Gorge. Reliable site for Tibetan Partridge & Tibetan Babax. Elev.: 3910 m (12,830 ft.). 32.291641, 96.512173.
Machali (Mǎchálǐ Zhèn [玛查理镇]): town W Maduo County. Commonly referred to as Maduo. 34.911354, 98.211208.
Maduo County (Mǎduō Xiàn [玛多县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Guoluo Prefecture.
Nangqian County (Nángqiān Xiàn [囊谦县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Yushu Prefecture.
Qinghai (Qīnghǎi Shěng [青海省]): province NW China. Area: 720,000 sq. km (278,000 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): three times larger than United Kingdom; slightly larger than Texas. Pop.: 5.6 million.
Last Sunday 21 Aug. Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai from Qinghai. We had arrived in Xining on 26 June, and we spent exactly eight weeks in the sparsely populated province. We drove 8054 km (4,994 miles). I lost 5 kg (11 lbs.). On Sunday Dusky Warbler near Gonghe became our 195th and final species of the trip.
While in Qinghai, Elaine and I made new friends and deepened our friendship with our first-rate partners Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén. And the memories … let me tell you ’bout the memories.
Better yet, let me show you them. Ready?
I found this downy Bar-headed Goose at sunset on 28 June on the shore of Qinghai Lake, whose blue sheen you can see in the background. This youngster has much growing to do before he’ll be ready to make the flight across the Himalaya to India for the winter. Will he get strong enough in time to make the frightening trip? Strength, my lad, strength!
Last week I created a photo essay, “Little Birds in a Big Land,” in which I photographed Isabelline Wheatear from a distance, with mountains, sand dunes, and scrub visible in the background. It was an intense, 90-minute photo workout with that arid-country specialist, well-adapted to the semi-deserts of Wulan County.
Henderson’s Ground Jay is also known as Mongolian Ground Jay. Despite the ground in the name, these birds fly just fine.
When agitated, breeding White-rumped Snowfinch does a wing-flicking display reminiscent of Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. Qinghai Lake, 28 June.
The top two photos displayed below are of Gansu Leaf Warbler (the lower of the two from our newly discovered breeding site along the Heihe River in northern Qinghai); the bottom one is of Sichuan Leaf Warbler. Note the cleaner lower mandible of Gansu Leaf Warbler and compare it to the typically darker lower mandible of Sichuan. In summer, when we met these species, they were singing, and the songs of the two species differ much. In winter, when the birds are quiet, bill color is a good way to begin to identify these two similar-looking species.
I sound-recorded Gansu Leaf Warbler:
Gansu Leaf Warbler, Qilian County, Qinghai, 3 Aug. 2016 (01:35; 4 MB)
We found a new location for Przevalski’s Partridge along some back roads in Wulan County. Rusty-necklaced Partridge (alternative name) looks much like Chukar, but note the rusty line.
While we’re on partridges, what about this charismatic Tibetan Partridge, a semi-tame specimen at the nunnery, Kanda Gorge, Yushu Prefecture.
Birds of KM 2189.5 along the G109 near Qinghai Lake: Robin Accentor, a Siberian Stonechat that wasn’t happy when we stumbled upon its nest, Tibetan Snowfinch using the embankment for a nest, and that one-of-a-kind species that is neither finch nor bunting but derives from a line independent of the two: Przevalski’s “Finch.”
Blue-fronted Redstart is also sui generis, the only blue-headed Phoenicurus. Females are tougher to distinguish from other female redstarts, but note the inverted T, shown here on this male. Females have it too, and it is distinctive.
We had a memorable moment with Black-necked Crane near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture.
More bird + land: Bar-headed Goose at point where Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River, Guoluo Prefecture.
On a moonless, pitch-black night we heard a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl making strange sounds. I shot the owls by the light of our headlights. We were in Haibei Prefecture.
I had long wanted to put Chinese Thrush in my camera. Here’s the moment when I achieved that goal. I was at the riparian forest along the Heihe River in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture.
Amazing Tibetan Sandgrouse near Hala Lake.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch may look unexciting, but just watch it fly.
Do these Himalayan Vulture disgust you? Why? They’re only doing their job–a very important one. And they have manners. Note that the juvenile doesn’t interfere with the adult as it feeds.
King of the high-altitude falcons: Saker.
Who cares about Spotted Dove? When you’re in a city park in Shanghai, then you don’t care about Spotted Dove. When you’re in Qilian County, Qinghai, the extreme west of its range, then you care about Spotted Dove.
Goitered Gazelle, a Vulnerable species. Ranges from Arabian Peninsula to China. We recorded it in Wulan County.
Tibetan Gazelle was waiting for us at sunset in the mountains north of Hala Lake.
We noted Glover’s Pika at various places in Yushu Prefecture. This little guy is marketable!
This Mountain Weasel is one of the cutest little killers you’ll ever meet. Like all weasels, it’s almost completely carnivorous. In Haibei Prefecture one afternoon, Elaine and I watched this little dude dart into and out of the pika burrows, terrorizing the local birds and pikas. The fruitless attempts were comical, but we noted with respect the speed and agility of this star performer.
There’s something sensuous about those smoothly curved sand dunes–and in that soft sunset light. Right time, definitely right place.
In a few weeks I’m going to be missing Qinghai big-time, and scenes like these are going to be why. There’s no place on Earth like Qinghai, no place under the sun like the Tibetan Plateau.
Featured image: “We Are Family!” sang Sister Sledge back in ’79. Here’s the Chinese-American adventure team, Elaine Du (L) and yours truly–partners, spouses, family. We were at Eling Lake, Qinghai, where the Yellow River and Chinese culture are born. The date was 3 July 2016. This is a self-portrait, engineered (as indeed every picture in this post was engineered) by Craig Brelsford using the Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens.