Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction

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

xinjiang (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)
The largest provincial-level entity in China, Xinjiang or ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined and is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Alaska. From 19-30 July 2017, I made my second of two trips to the ‘autonomous region,’ exploring the Tianshan and Altai mountains and Jungar Basin in Northern Xinjiang. (Wikipedia/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 Tit Parus 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 Tit Parus 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 Goose Anser anser
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Whooper Swan C. cygnus
Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Common Shelduck T. tadorna
Garganey Spatula querquedula
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata
Gadwall Anas strepera
Mallard A. platyrhynchos
Northern Pintail A. acuta
Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina
Common Pochard Aythya ferina
Tufted Duck A. fuligula
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Common Merganser Mergus merganser
White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix
Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar
Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis
Black Stork Ciconia nigra
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Egret A. alba
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis
Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca
Shikra Accipiter badius
Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus
Upland Buzzard B. hemilasius
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
Ruff Calidris pugnax
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea
Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus
Common Greenshank T. nebularia
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola
Common Redshank T. totanus
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans
Little Tern Sternula albifrons
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
Black Tern C. niger
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Hill Pigeon C. rupestris
Stock Dove C. oenas
European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
Oriental Turtle Dove S. orientalis
Eurasian Collared Dove S. decaocto
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus
Common Swift Apus apus
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
European Roller Coracias garrulus
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
European Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
White-winged Woodpecker D. leucopterus
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni
Common Kestrel F. tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby F. subbuteo
Saker Falcon F. cherrug
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides
Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Pale Martin Riparia diluta
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Common House Martin Delichon urbicum
Coal Tit Periparus ater
Willow Tit Poecile montanus
Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus
Great Tit Parus major
White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus
Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis
Eurasian Skylark A. arvensis
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Sulphur-bellied Warbler P. griseolus
Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei
Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides
Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola
Great Reed Warbler A. arundinaceus
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola
Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana
Barred Warbler S. nisoria
Desert Whitethroat S. minula
Lesser Whitethroat S. curruca
Common Whitethroat S. communis
Common Blackbird Turdus merula
Mistle Thrush T. viscivorus
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos
Bluethroat L. svecica
Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus
Black Redstart P. ochruros
Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka
Desert Wheatear O. deserti
Isabelline Wheatear O. isabellina
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
Citrine Wagtail M. citreola
Grey Wagtail M. cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi
Tree Pipit A. trivialis
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus
European Greenfinch Chloris chloris
Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Twite Linaria flavirostris
Common Linnet L. cannabina
Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus
Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri
House Sparrow P. domesticus
Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Pine Bunting E. leucocephalos
Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii
Ortolan Bunting E. hortulana
Common Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus

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

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon

Qinghai 2016 Week 1-2 Highlights

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.

Other posts in our Qinghai 2016 series:

Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai
Qinghai 2016 Week 3 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights
A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies
Qinghai 2016 Weeks 5-6

Qinghai 2016 Week 7
Qinghai 2016 Week 8

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:

2 Red-crested Pochard at Eling Lake (34.902685, 97.709949), near source of Yellow River

226 Common Merganser at Eling Lake

8 White Eared Pheasant in Kanda Gorge (32.314561, 96.624807) and at Baizha Nature Reserve (31.966314, 96.535097)

A pair of White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon dolani pause from their evening forage to gaze warily at the camera. Kanda Gorge, Nangqian County, 5 July 2016. Elev. 3980 m. White Eared Pheasant is listed as Near Threatened because of habitat loss and poaching. In Kanda Gorge, the species seems to be doing well. This pair was feeding in the open next to the road.
White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon dolani pause from their evening forage to gaze warily at the camera. Kanda Gorge, Nangqian County, 5 July. White Eared Pheasant is listed as Near Threatened because of habitat loss and poaching. (Craig Brelsford)

1 Przevalski’s Partridge at “Przevalski’s Site” (36.457249, 98.502578), a birding area in the Dulan Mountains

7 Tibetan Partridge at nunnery (32.291641, 96.512173) in Kanda Gorge, at mouth of Kanda Gorge (32.277059, 96.485171), and along Mekong (Zaqu) River

Tibetan Partridge, 5 July 2016. Craig Brelsford.
Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae, Kanda Nunnery (32.291641, 96.512173), 5 July. (Craig Brelsford)

5 Golden Eagle noted at various places

6 Black-necked Crane at Qinghai Lake (36.877808, 100.228673) and in Maduo County

26 Lesser Sand Plover ssp. atrifrons breeding on edges of high-altitude lakes as well as in drier steppe country

5 Ibisbill on tributaries of Mekong River in Nangqian County

One of the stars of the Tibetan Plateau, Ibisbill is the sole species in the family Ibidorhynchidae. This highly specialized shorebird is adapted to life along shingle-bed rivers at elevations between 2000 m and 4400 m. We found this pair in Yushu Prefecture in a stream next to the G214 at 4020 masl.
One of the stars of the Tibetan Plateau, Ibisbill is the sole species in the family Ibidorhynchidae. This highly specialized shorebird is adapted to life along shingle-bed rivers at elevations between 2000 m and 4400 m. We found this pair in Yushu Prefecture in a stream next to the G214 at 4020 masl. (Craig Brelsford)

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

This male Tiger Shrike stunned us. What was a mainly lowland species, usually found at altitudes no higher than 1000 m and no further W than the Sichuan Basin, doing at 3670 masl in Qinghai?
This male Tiger Shrike stunned us. What was a mainly lowland species, usually found at altitudes no higher than 1000 m and no further west than the Sichuan Basin, doing at 3670 masl in Qinghai? (Craig Brelsford)

1 Black Drongo, another interesting record for Qinghai

2 Henderson’s Ground Jay in scrub west of Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878)

Henderson's Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. 30 June 2016. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500.
Henderson’s Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878), 30 June. (Craig Brelsford)

1 southern record of Mongolian Lark south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia

2 White-browed Tit in scrub at KM 2189.5 on G109 (36.778749, 99.653861) near Heimahe (36.729239, 99.779524)

16 Sichuan Tit in Kanda Gorge and at Baizha Nature Reserve

7 White-browed Tit-Warbler at my reliable site near Heimahe as well as at Baizha

25 singing Yellow-streaked Warbler in Baizha Nature Reserve as well as in riparian scrub along Mekong River

Yellow-streaked Warbler, Baizha Nature Reserve, 7 July 2016. 3900 masl.
Yellow-streaked Warbler, Baizha Nature Reserve, 7 July. (Craig Brelsford)

8 Gansu Leaf Warbler in stand of conifers at 36.973133, 102.441300 in Huzhu County

22 Sichuan Leaf Warbler at Baizha Nature Reserve

29 Greenish Warbler at various sites, including high-altitude scrub

7 Tibetan Babax at nunnery in Kanda Gorge as well as at mouth of gorge

1 Dark-sided Flycatcher at Baizha Nature Reserve

2 Siberian Rubythroat in Huzhu County. This mainly Siberian breeder has a disjunct breeding range extending across northern Qinghai, southern Gansu, and northern Sichuan

5 Chinese Rubythroat in scrub (36.758683, 99.663055) near Heimahe as well as at Yankou Shan (33.199406, 97.466606)

White-tailed Rubythroat in scrub near Heimahe, 29 June 2016. Elev. 3600 m.
Chinese Rubythroat in scrub (36.758683, 99.663055) near Heimahe, 29 June. (Craig Brelsford)

47 Slaty-backed Flycatcher, all at Baizha Nature Reserve

2 Przevalski’s Redstart, colorful China endemic noted at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578) in Dulan Mountains west of Chaka

Przevalski's Redstart, Dulan Mountains, 1 July 2016. Elev. 3820 m. We found a pair, both of which are shown here. Note the all-black tail of the female.
Przevalski’s Redstart, Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. We found a pair. Note all-black tail of female. (Craig Brelsford)

76 Hodgson’s Redstart, always in greener, forested areas such as Huzhu County and Baizha Nature Reserve

11 Plumbeous Water Redstart, all at lower elevations at Baizha

109 Black Redstart, a species well-adapted to high-altitude desert, semi-desert, steppe, and scrub

6 Güldenstädt’s Redstart breeding as low as 3800 masl around Heimahe. Also known as White-winged Redstart

7 Chestnut Thrush in forests in Huzhu County

107 Kessler’s Thrush at various sites, usually in high-altitude forest and scrub, sometimes around farms and villages

1 Maroon-backed Accentor at Baizha Nature Reserve

3 Przevalski’s Finch at two sites near Heimahe

3 White-winged Grosbeak near Chaka and in Kanda Gorge

2 Blanford’s Rosefinch at Baizha Nature Reserve

2 Tibetan Rosefinch on barren saddle, elev. 4700 m, above Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449)

9 Blanford’s Snowfinch in semi-desert and high steppe, sometimes occurring alongside its congener Rufous-necked Snowfinch, which we usually were finding in slightly wetter habitats

This Rufous-necked Snowfinch shows the distinctive head pattern of the species, with black eye-line and submoustachial stripe, white throat, and reddish band on neck-sides. Pyrgilauda ruficollis is a common species of the Tibetan Plateau, with a range nearly perfectly coterminous with the Rooftop of the World. I took this photo 29 June 2016 near Heimahe at an elevation of 3480 m.
This Rufous-necked Snowfinch shows the distinctive head pattern of the species, with black eye-line and submoustachial stripe, white throat, and reddish band on neck-sides. Pyrgilauda ruficollis is common on the Tibetan Plateau, its range nearly perfectly coterminous with the Rooftop of the World. I took this photo 29 June at the base of Tit-Warbler Mountain (36.766994, 99.667711). (Craig Brelsford)

13 Henri’s Snowfinch, mainly around Ela Pass

10 Tibetan Snowfinch, including nesting pair at G109 KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861) near Heimahe

2 Tibetan Bunting at Kanda Pass

11 Pine Bunting at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578)

A male Pine Bunting sings in the Dulan Mountains W of Chaka, Wulan County, 1 July 2016. Elev. 3820 m. The bunting shown here is a member of ssp. fronto, endemic to N Qinghai and adjacent Gansu. Emberiza leucocephalos fronto is resident in its range, which is disjunct from that of the nominate ssp.
Male Pine Bunting at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. Emberiza leucocephalos fronto is endemic to N Qinghai and adjacent Gansu. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

L-R: Mark Waters, Michael Grunwell, and Elaine Du watching Himalayan Vulture at sunset on 3 July 2016 in Maduo County, Qinghai. Yellow River just visible at their feet. As soon as the sun set on 3 July, our team turned its attention to the heavens, enjoying in the clear Tibetan Plateau air stunning views of the Milky Way, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6.
Mark Waters (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Elaine Du watch Himalayan Vulture at sunset on 3 July 2016 in Maduo County. The Yellow River is visible at their feet. (Craig Brelsford)
Michael Grunwell scans scrub for birds in the Kanda Mountains, 5 July 2016.
Michael Grunwell scans scrub for birds in Kanda Mountains, 5 July 2016. High-quality scrub is just one of the many attractions of this pristine location in Nangqian County. The slopes hold White Eared Pheasant and Tibetan Partridge, and among the animals found here is Tibetan Lynx. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Ela Pass (Èlā Shānkǒu [鄂拉山口]): elev. 4499 m (14,757 ft.). 35.497608, 99.511449.

Eling Lake (Èlíng Hú [鄂陵湖]). Also known as Ngoring Lake. 34.902685, 97.709949.

Guoluo Prefecture (Guǒluò Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [果洛藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area SE Qinghai.

Haidong Prefecture (Hǎidōng Shì [海东市]): sub-provincial administrative area E 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.

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.

Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. From 26 June to 10 July 2016, the birding team of Michael Grunwell, Mark Waters, Elaine Du, and Craig Brelsford covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining, marked in black. Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. From 26 June to 10 July 2016, the birding team of Michael Grunwell, Mark Waters, Elaine Du, and Craig Brelsford covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining, marked in black. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

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.

Qinghai Lake (Qīnghǎi Hú [青海湖]): largest lake in Qinghai. 36.877808, 100.228673.

Wulan County (Wūlán Xiàn [乌兰县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture.

Xining (Xīníng Shì [西宁市]): capital of Qinghai & most populous city on Tibetan Plateau.

Yushu County (Yùshù Shì [玉树市]): sub-prefectural administrative area Yushu Prefecture.

Map of Qinghai showing Yushu Prefecture in yellow and Yushu County in pink. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai showing Yushu Prefecture in yellow and Yushu County in pink. (Wikipedia)

Yushu Prefecture (Yùshù Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [玉树藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area S Qinghai.

Zaqu River (Zāqū [扎曲]): name for upper reaches of Mekong River in Qinghai.

A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies

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!

Bar-headed Goose, Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016. F/7.1, 1/800, ISO 1600.
Bar-headed Goose, Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Isabelline Wheatear 1/3. F/14, 1/400, ISO 1600. Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. 18 Aug. 2016.
Isabelline Wheatear 1/3. F/14, 1/400, ISO 1600. Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 18 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
F/16, 1/320, ISO 800.
F/16, 1/320, ISO 800. (Craig Brelsford)
F/16, 1/250, ISO 1600.
F/16, 1/250, ISO 1600. (Craig Brelsford)

Henderson’s Ground Jay is also known as Mongolian Ground Jay. Despite the ground in the name, these birds fly just fine.

Henderson's Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 30 June 2016. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500.
Henderson’s Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 30 June. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500. (Craig Brelsford)
Henderson's Ground Jay in flight. Chaka, 30 June 2016.
Henderson’s Ground Jay in flight. Chaka, 30 June. (Craig Brelsford)

When agitated, breeding White-rumped Snowfinch does a wing-flicking display reminiscent of Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. Qinghai Lake, 28 June.

White-rumped Snowfinch contorting its head in territorial display. Along G109 near Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016.
White-rumped Snowfinch contorting its head in territorial display. Along G109 near Qinghai Lake, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Left wing-flick.
Left wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)
Right wing-flick.
Right wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Gansu Leaf Warbler at Huzhu Beishan, 27 June 2016.
Gansu Leaf Warbler at Huzhu Beishan, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Gansu Leaf Warbler, riparian forest along Heihe River, Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 4 Aug. 2016.
Gansu Leaf Warbler, riparian forest along Heihe River, Qilian County, 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Jiangxi Forest Station, Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture, 17 July 2016.
Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Jiangxi Forest Station, Nangqian County, 17 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, 17 Aug. 2016.
Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, 17 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

While we’re on partridges, what about this charismatic Tibetan Partridge, a semi-tame specimen at the nunnery, Kanda Gorge, Yushu Prefecture.

Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July 2016.
Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.”

Robin Accentor in scrub above KM 2189.5 on G109 near Qinghai Lake. 28 June 2016.
Robin Accentor in scrub above KM 2189.5 on G109 near Qinghai Lake. 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Siberian Stonechat in hovering flight near nest, 28 June 2016.
Siberian Stonechat in hovering flight near nest, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Tibetan Snowfinch looking warily at cameraman before entering its cavity nest. KM 2189.5, G109, near Qinghai Lake. 28 June 2016.
Tibetan Snowfinch looking warily at cameraman before entering its cavity nest. KM 2189.5, G109, near Qinghai Lake. 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Przevalski's 'Finch' in song, 28 June 2016, KM 2189.5.
Przevalski’s ‘Finch’ in song, 28 June, KM 2189.5. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Blue-fronted Redstart showing inverted T on tail. Huzhu Beishan, 27 June 2016.
Blue-fronted Redstart showing inverted T on tail. Huzhu Beishan, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)

We had a memorable moment with Black-necked Crane near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture.

Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou.
Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou. (Craig Brelsford)

More bird + land: Bar-headed Goose at point where Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River, Guoluo Prefecture.

Bar-headed Goose stands at the point where high-altitude Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River. 3 July 2016.
Bar-headed Goose stands at the point where high-altitude Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River. 3 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl at cliff-side roost in Haibei Prefecture, Qinghai, 30 July 2016.
Eurasian Eagle-Owl at cliff-side roost in Haibei Prefecture, Qinghai, 30 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. 2016.
Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Amazing Tibetan Sandgrouse near Hala Lake.

Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, Haixi Prefecture, 10 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala, 10 Aug.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Brandt’s Mountain Finch may look unexciting, but just watch it fly.

Brandt's Mountain Finch is a small but powerful bird, taking long, straight flights at altitudes topping 5000 m. I found this individual 9 Aug. near Hala Lake at an elev. of 4400 m.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch is a small but powerful bird, taking long, straight flights at altitudes topping 5000 m. I found this individual 9 Aug. near Hala Lake at an elev. of 4400 m. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July 2016.
Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July. (Craig Brelsford)

King of the high-altitude falcons: Saker.

Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 1 Aug. 2016.
Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, 1 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Goitered Gazelle, a Vulnerable species. Ranges from Arabian Peninsula to China. We recorded it in Wulan County.

Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. 2016.
Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Tibetan Gazelle was waiting for us at sunset in the mountains north of Hala Lake.

Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

We noted Glover’s Pika at various places in Yushu Prefecture. This little guy is marketable!

Glover's Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July 2016.
Glover’s Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July 2016.
Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

The sand in these dunes was deposited grain by grain by the wind. Wulan County, 17 Aug. 2016. F/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1250.
The sand in these dunes was deposited grain by grain by the wind. Wulan County, 17 Aug. F/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1250. (Craig Brelsford)

Other posts in our Qinghai 2016 series:

Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai
Qinghai 2016 Week 3 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights

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. (Craig Brelsford)