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 Locustella 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

Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes

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
Urumqi

Baiyanggou Scenic Area lies 50 km (30 mi.) southwest of downtown Urumqi. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Baiyanggou Scenic Area lies 65 km (40 mi.) southwest of Urumqi. We took the G216 out of the city and entered the scenic area on the S109. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

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 Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus, Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus, and Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, and species familiar to Western Europeans such as Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, singing Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, and European Goldfinch Carduelis 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 Duck Oxyura leucocephala, an encounter with a family of Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar, and a heard-only tick of Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes 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.

Photo

Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Baihu, Urumqi, Xinjiang, 21 July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Birders Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén scramble down a hill at Baihu, the reservoir in the western suburbs of Urumqi. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Where We Stayed

Yili Hotel (伊犁大酒店), +86 (0) 991-5198060
Address: 沙依巴克区长江路339号
Coordinates: 43.787162, 87.593397

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.

Selected eBird Lists

Baiyanggou, 20 July
Baiyanggou, 21 July
Baihu, 21 July

SAT 22 JULY 2017
Beishawo, Daquangou Reservoir, Mushroom Lake

Mushroom Lake lie north of the G312 and are accessible via the S204. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Daquangou Reservoir and Mushroom Lake lie north of the G312 on the S204. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

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 Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. We also had here our only trip record of Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria.

At Beishawo I jumped out of the car into the scrub—and came face to face with a European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. The goatsucker was roosting on a tamarisk. Soaring overhead was Long-legged Buzzard Buteo 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 Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, yet another Central Palearctic breeder confined in China to Xinjiang.

At Daquangou Jan-Erik and I counted 2500 Pale Martin Riparia diluta, 400 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, 120 Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, and a lone Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca roosting on a spit amid hundreds of wary gulls and shorebirds. We had 2 Ruff Calidris pugnax in breeding plumage, 20 Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea, and 130 Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii.

Our 35-minute visit to nearby Mushroom Lake yielded Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla 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.

Photo

Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Craig Brelsford, Beishawo, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Jan-Erik Nilsén (L) and Craig Brelsford, breakfast at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. My partner and I had left Urumqi and entered the Jungar Basin and had a week of birding ahead of us. With Jan-Erik as my partner, I could look back on my many birding trips with him in various regions of China, while in my heart I looked forward to the birth of my child. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Selected eBird Lists

Beishawo, 22 July
Daquangou Reservoir, 22 July
Mushroom Lake, 22 July

SUN 23 JULY 2017
MON 24 JULY 2017
Hongyanglin, Beitun

Hongyanglin is in Wuerhe, in the central Jungar Basin. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Hongyanglin is in Wuerhe, in the central Jungar Basin. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

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 Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama, Shikra Accipiter badius cenchroides, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, and singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. Earlier, at the excellent Kuitun Reservoir (44.770533, 84.608984), we had Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, and singing Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola.

A random stop in the semi-desert (46.326889, 85.918306) yielded Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana and Henderson’s (Mongolian) Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni. A wood near a village (46.750637, 86.191788) got us Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata plus Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni mobbing the ubiquitous Black Kite Milvus migrans.

At Kuitun and at various places along the road we have had European Roller Coracias garrulus.

Photos

Craig Brelsford (L), Jan-Erik Nilsen Kuitun Reservoir, Xinjiang, 23 July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsén study Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus at Kuitun Reservoir. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])

Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsen, reeds at Kuitun Reservoir, 23 July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Reeds surround many of the newly formed reservoirs and canals in Northern Xinjiang, providing habitat for species such as Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola. We found that species in these reeds at Kuitun Reservoir. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Video, by Craig Brelsford

Selected eBird Lists

Kuitun Reservoir (North Side), 23 July
Kuitun Reservoir (East Side), 23 July
G217-S221 Junction, 23 July
Hongyanglin, 23 July
Hongyanglin, 24 July
Arid Country S of Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July
Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July
Wutubulake, 24 July

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 Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The wetland west of Kaba where the Sedge Warbler was found also gave us Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola and Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola, both singing, as well as juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Black Stork Ciconia 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 Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus, breeding Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, European Greenfinch Chloris chloris, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis.

The birds most numerous in these riverine woodlands are Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and the bright-yellow Great Tit Parus major kapustini. Among the common non-passerines are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor and White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.

The survey of lagoons at the northeastern corner of Ulungur Lake (47.339970, 87.553458) gave us a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor and Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Anatids were well-represented; besides the Mute Swan, we also found Greylag Goose Anser anser, Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, and Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. Bearded Reedling Panurus 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 Falcon Falco cherrug and heard singing Common Quail.

Photos

Jan-Erik Nilsen scans NE sector of Ulungur Lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik Nilsén scans lagoons at the northeast sector of Ulungur Lake. The scrub and shoreline yielded European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the lagoons held Mute Swan Cygnus olor and Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. The point where I got this photo is at 47.339970, 87.553458 and was a good base of explorations of the lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford (L), Jan-Erik Nilsen, wetlands west of Kaba, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Craig Brelsford (L), Jan-Erik Nilsén, wetlands west of Kaba, 26 July 2017. Here we achieved a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. The boardwalk we are using here (48.060168, 86.395527) provides easy access to the marsh. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Plate of noddles and mutton, Beitun, Xinjiang, 125 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Whenever Jan-Erik and I would enter a town, we would ask where the best place for noodles was. This dish was one of the best of the trip. The smell of the fried mutton was mouthwatering, and the colorful red and green peppers and bright orange bowl further enhanced the appetite. The restaurant where we enjoyed these noodles is called Sàiwài Cǎoyuán Kuàicāntīng (塞外草原快餐厅; +86 150 9752 6222). The restaurant is in Beitun, in the Tengyun Hotel building at the intersection of North Fuxing Road and Xibei Road (47.359580, 87.803222). (Craig Brelsford)

Video, by Craig Brelsford

Kaba River at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 26 July 2017

Selected eBird Lists

NE Ulungur Lake, 25 July
G216 42 KM S of Altai, 25 July
Alahake, 25 July
White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 26 July
Wetlands on S229 W of Kaba, 26 July
Biesikuduke Cun, 26 July
Burqin Magic Forest, 26 July

THU 27 JULY 2017
FRI 28 JULY 2017
SAT 29 JULY 2017
Altai, Urumqi

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 Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis near our hotel and breeding Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana found along our long mountain walk. Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis also made here its only appearance on our trip list, and we had an unexpected encounter with Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus.

The highlight of our walk was however supplied by a Central Asian species: Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Thrush Monticola saxatilis and Black Redstart Phoenicurus 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 Tern Chlidonias niger.

Photos

European-style log cabin near Kanasi Airport, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsen)
European-style log cabin in the ethnic Russian village (48.253677, 87.016230) near Kanasi Airport. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Yurts near Kanasi Park, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Not far from the Russian-style cabin, we found these yurts of Kazakh herders. The solar panels next to the yurts are a recent addition to the ancient dwelling of Central Asian nomads. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Traffic backed up near Kanasi Park, Xinjiang. 28 July 2018. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Traffic was backed up for miles on the narrow road leading to Kanasi Park. We used the time to get our only trip record of Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Kanas Lake, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Kanas Lake, jewel of the Altai Mountains. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)

Video, by Craig Brelsford

Selected eBird Lists

Guanyu Tai-Kanasi River, 27 July
Jiadengyu, 27 July
Jiadengyu, 28 July
Suwuke Basitao-Kanasi Airport, 28 July
Wutubulake Toll Station, 28 July
Arid Country S of Wuerhe, 29 July
Shengli Road-G217, 29 July
Qinggeda Lake, 29 July

This post is the second 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

Birds of Northern Xinjiang I

“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 2.

Part 1: Introduction and Discussion
Part 2: Daily Reports
Part 3: Comprehensive Bird List

This report is part of a series on birding in Northeast China. Other reports:

Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, 2015
Northeast China, April-May 2013

THE TRIP

Thurs. 26 May 2016

Elaine and I flew from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Jiamusi, Heilongjiang. We drove to Elaine’s home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Qitaihe Prefecture. Elaine’s parents’ home became our base of operations for the next 17 days.

Fri. 27 May 2016

Today Elaine and I birded the northern temperate forest preserved in Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We saw in a completely new way birds that we thought we knew from Shanghai. For the first time in my life I heard singing Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Pale Thrush, and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The latter is rarely seen on migration in Shanghai. The former two are well-known to Shanghai birders. In Shanghai, meeting these species on migration is like meeting someone for coffee; hearing them sing today was like meeting someone for dinner.

The basic facts about Boli County are two. First, the area is rich in birds. Second, no one birds here.

We are in the heart of the breeding range of Eastern Crowned Warbler (20 today). Most birders “down south” know Eastern Crowned Warbler well but have never heard it sing; today, its song resounded through the forest. Radde’s Warbler (24 today) is another species common here. Mandarin Duck (20) breed in the forest-ringed lakes and ponds around Boli. We also had singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.

We spotted a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl at a quarry near Jiulong Reservoir just outside Boli. A parent was standing guard with two owlets. Elaine scoped them herself with our Swarovski ATX-95.

Sat. 28 May 2016

Crested Honey Buzzard ssp. orientalis, ('Oriental Honey Buzzard'), Xidaquan, 28 May 2016.
Crested Honey Buzzard ssp. orientalis (‘Oriental Honey Buzzard’), Xidaquan, 28 May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Today Elaine and I started birding at 03:40, 9 minutes after sunrise. Singing Daurian Redstart was Bird 1 of our list, which grew to 53 species.

By 09:30, we had already spent several hours at Xidaquan National Forest and were at the end of our tether. We parked on the forest road and napped. While sleeping I heard a sound I vaguely remembered—or was I dreaming? No, I was hearing Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I first heard this extreme skulker last July with Elaine and Jan-Erik Nilsén in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia.

Also on that road we had male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found Mandarin Duck in a pond deep in the forest.

We had a Siberian trifecta today with Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat, all singing. We once again found Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo as well as Indian Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Oriental Cuckoo. We found Black-browed Reed Warbler in a brushy area far from reeds; the bushes also contained Thick-billed Warbler. Above the scene soared Crested Honey Buzzard.

We are deep in the heart of the Chinese Palearctic. In places, the lush greenery in the northern temperate forest here is as thick and impenetrable as that found in Yunnan’s near-tropical Dulong Gorge, which Elaine and I visited earlier this year. I almost expect to make out a wren-babbler in the gloomy undergrowth, but there are no wren-babblers, no laughingthrushes, and no fulvettas in the Palearctic heartland. Here, the robins and bush warblers are the undergrowth specialists.

We once again found the family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl. Owlets were feeding. A parent was looking on. All seemed well. We scoped them from the other side of the valley; the owls are at the rim of a cliff made by a massive quarry.

Sun. 29 May 2016

Today around Xidaquan National Forest Elaine and I found yet more Shanghai passage migrants on their breeding grounds. The most I had ever heard from White-throated Rock Thrush and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a click or tseep; today, I recorded them in full-throated song. And what songs! White-throated’s was especially moving, melodic and slow. Recording conditions were perfect—a still, quiet morning before the rain.

We found 6 Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and got best-ever views of this shyest of species. We recorded yet more songs and calls of Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species with a surprisingly rich musical repertoire.

Peering through the undergrowth, Elaine found a Siberian Blue Robin singing, its tiny perch a small stage for a one-bird play. Siberian’s song is like a soliloquy, a series of statements punctuated by long pauses.

Mon. 30 May 2016

Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

We explored Xidaquan proper then drove down County Road Z004. (The junction of County Road Z003 and Z004 is at 45.713830, 130.359459.) In an area of hardwoods I recorded dueling songs of Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found a pair of White-backed Woodpecker.

Tues. 31 May 2016

Elaine Du (L) showing her niece Lisa Li a quartet of Little Ringed Plover in the fields behind Dawucun, 31 May 2016.
Elaine Du (L) showing her niece Lisa Li a quartet of Little Ringed Plover in the fields behind Dawucun, 31 May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine and I rested at home on a rainy day. In the afternoon the rain let up and we walked into the fields, still barren. We were with Elaine’s niece Lisa Li. We showed Lisa 4 Little Ringed Plover, and I sound-recorded 2 Meadow Bunting.

Wed. 1 June 2016

If you want to hear White’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Pale Thrush, then come to places such as Boli County, Elaine’s hometown in eastern Heilongjiang. If you want to see these species, then you will have a better chance in Shanghai, where all three spend the winter, and where they are commonly seen in inner-city parks. Today’s dawn chorus (at the wee hour of 03:00) featured spirited performances by all three of these species, plus Siberian Thrush. Their performances however were given mostly offstage. White’s never appeared at all, but its mournful one-note whistle was heard everywhere until about an hour after sunrise. Pale and Grey-backed sing powerfully but well back from the road, deep in the thickly vegetated and currently tick-infested forest. Siberian was atop his accustomed high tree near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest.

Migrants keep arriving, with Asian Brown Flycatcher appearing for the first time on this trip. Its song, a subdued twitter which I enjoyed for the first time today, is unexciting, like its drab plumage. The more colorfully plumaged Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, by contrast, has a much more colorful song, long, slow, deliberate, and loud, like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher.

Thurs. 2 June 2016

Early morning at the lake near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest, 2 June 2016.
Early morning at the lake near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest, 2 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

This morning a 01:45 wakeup call got us calling Grey Nightjar, yet another Shanghai-area passage migrant we have rediscovered here. Standing at the glorious Silver Birch Grove (白桦林) at Xidaquan National Forest, Elaine and I spotted movement in the crown. It was White’s Thrush, hopping to the top to sing. In amazement we watched this normally secretive, nay invisible, species sing a two-note song. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. In Shanghai, I have seen White’s countless times and heard it sing exactly once, in Century Park this past April. Here in eastern Heilongjiang, the situation is reversed, with the early-morning song being heard throughout the forest, and views nearly impossible.

Another big highlight today occurred when I was alone in the vast forest. By sheer luck I happened to stop just below the well-concealed nest of Northern Goshawk. I had heard the bird calling distantly and hit “record,” just in case. The forest Accipitriform swooped in, crying as it arrived. Elaine, meanwhile, 3 km away with the car, witnessed Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being chased away by Large-billed Crow.

Other highlights were a high count of 21 singing Siberian Blue Robin, a forlorn-looking tytleri Barn Swallow resting all alone in the dusty parking lot of the visitors’ area, and the rediscovery at another quarry of the local family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl.

Fri. 3 June 2016

Early-morning scene, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016. Siberian Rubythroat, Long-tailed Rosefinch, and Dusky Warbler use the scrubby area in the foreground.
Early-morning scene, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016. Siberian Rubythroat, Long-tailed Rosefinch, and Dusky Warbler use the scrubby area in the foreground. (Craig Brelsford)

Rain cut short our day, but not before an early start bought us a ticket to the dawn chorus. What a show it was.

Sat. 4 June 2016

Elaine and I returned to the hills south of Dawucun. We found Oriental Dollarbird flying overhead, noted Siberian Accentor, and saw Asian Brown Flycatcher.

Sun. 5 June 2016

For the second straight day we birded the hills south of Elaine’s home village. An Eastern Buzzard caught a snake, and we stumbled on nesting Yellow-throated Bunting.

Mon. 6 June 2016

On a rainy day we rested and visited family.

Tues. 7 June 2016

Today Elaine and I added Eurasian Wryneck, Chinese Grey Shrike, and Hawfinch to our trip list. We went exploring for new habitats and found two good new areas.

Driving south rather than southwest (toward Xidaquan), Elaine and I drove into hills reaching 450 m in elevation. We made an eight-minute sound-recording of Grey-backed Thrush and did photo and voice studies of Willow Tit (local ssp. baicalensis) and Coal Tit (ater). The latter is the same small-crested nominate ssp. known to birders in Continental Europe. Another taxon here in Heilongjiang and known to European birders is the snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit (caudatus), also noted today.

We continued driving south, leaving Boli County and Qitaihe Prefecture and briefly entering Linkou County, Mudanjiang Prefecture. Here we were dismayed, despite the stunningly beautiful agricultural scenery. Nearly every square inch of the land is taken up either by farming or forestry (conifer plantations). We turned back and found more good habitat on a forest road in the Hongwei Linchang area (45.638703, 130.547478). There, we found singing White-throated Rock Thrush.

Wed. 8 June 2016

Band-bellied Crake, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Band-bellied Crake, 8 June 2016. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near a stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. (Craig Brelsford)

Found today near Boli: incredible Band-bellied Crake. A near-threatened species, Porzana paykullii breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.

This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang Trip and a life bird for both of us.

Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied Crake was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near the stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. Elaine and I searched upstream and downstream for hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?

Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.

Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.

Fortunately for us, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km S of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km away.

Thurs. 9 June 2016

Today Elaine and I checked on our Band-bellied Crake and obtained even better sound-recordings of the rare rail. Another careful search of the creek bottom failed to turn up any more crakes. We continued exploring the area around Hongwei Linchang. We found some areas that if left untouched in a generation or two may be majestic forests again, but we have yet to find a single place on par with Xidaquan National Forest, our core research area. Today we added Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Olive-backed Pipit to our trip list.

Fri. 10 June 2016

We made our final trip to Xidaquan. Rain kept us in the car for three hours. We birded the forest then drove to Jiulong Reservoir, where we added to our trip list White-throated Needletail.

Sat. 11 June 2016

Driving on the road to Xidaquan, Elaine and I turned off at the junction at 45.700923, 130.483932 and birded that road. We found 28 singing Black-browed Reed Warbler.

Sun. 12 June 2016

We awoke at Elaine’s parents’ house, said goodbye to the family, drove to Jiamusi, and flew from Jiamusi to Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)

Next: Part 3

Previous: Part 1
Return to Explorations page.

Birds of Northern Xinjiang II

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

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides

Red-backed Shrike (L), Red-tailed Shrike. Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
In 2017 Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio (L) at sites in the northern Jungar Basin and in the Altai. I photographed this adult male on 17 May 2012 at Chonghu’er Xiang in the Altai foothills. I found the Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides (top, bottom R) near Ulungur Lake on 10 May 2012. This specimen has the bold white supercilium characteristic of the species, but the sandy grey-brown coloration of its upperparts is reminiscent of the closely related Isabelline Shrike L. isabellinus. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus

Eurasian Golden Oriole, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 15 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 15 May 2012. In 2017 we found the species only once, on 25 July at the wooded site on the G216 north of Beitun. Xinjiang is the easternmost extension of the range of this well-known European bird. (Craig Brelsford)

Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni

Mongolian or Henderson's Ground Jay, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Mongolian or Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni, arid country south of Heshituoluogaizhen (46.326889, 85.918306), 24 July 2017. A random stop in the semi-desert paid off with a family party of 4. Four days later (28 July), on our way back to Urumqi, we again found the species at that site. The Tarim Basin of Southern Xinjiang is the home of Biddulph’s or Xinjiang Ground Jay; the Jungar Basin of Northern Xinjiang belongs to Henderson’s. (Craig Brelsford)

Coal Tit Periparus ater ater

In Xinjiang, the non-crested, trans-Eurasian nominate race is found in the Altai Mountains. In 2017 we had two records, both at Jiadengyu. This race also occurs in Northeast China.

Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus

In the Tianshan, the race of Coal Tit is the crested rufipectus. We recorded it at Baiyanggou.

Coal Tit, Baiyanggou (43.474525, 87.191575), 20 July 2017 (01:39; 19.1 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 28 July 2017. Jiadengyu (贾登峪), Xinjiang, China.
Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, 28 July 2017. We achieved records of this race at Jiadengyu, where this photo was taken, and near the Kanasi River. Both sites are in the Altai Mountains. Race baicalensis occurs also in Northeast China. (Craig Brelsford)

Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus

Azure Tit, woodland along G216 23 km (14 mi.) N of Beitun, Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus occurs both in Xinjiang and Northeast China. We found this species at sites in the Tianshan Mountains (23 at Baiyanggou on 21 July 2017) as well as in wooded areas in the Jungar Basin (3 at Hongyanglin on 24 July). This photo was taken in the woodland along the G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, on 8 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Great Tit Parus major kapustini

Great Tit Parus major kapustini, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Great Tit Parus major kapustini is still another race of tit that occurs both in the extreme northwest and northeast of China. With its classic bright-yellow underpart coloration, kapustini is highly reminiscent of the Great Tit of Europe. I have recorded kapustini at various sites in the Tianshan as well as in riparian woodlands in the Jungar Basin. One of those Jungar sites, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, lies just 225 km (140 mi.) north of Hongyanglin, where we recorded the pale form turkestanicus, discussed below. I got the photo above at White Birch on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus

Great Tit Parus major turkestanicus, Hongyanglin, 24 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
In the oases and forests of Central Asia, including the poplar forest Hongyanglin in Xinjiang’s Jungar Basin, a special tit occurs: Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus. This pallid form more closely resembles Japanese Tit P. minor of Shanghai and eastern China than the bright-yellow Great Tit P. major kapustini. We found these birds 24 July 2017 at Hongyanglin. (Craig Brelsford)

Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis

Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis, arid country N of Burqin, Xinjiang, 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We found Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis at various places in the flat, arid, treeless steppes of the Jungar Basin. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus

White-crowned Penduline Tit, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Burqin Magic Forest, 12 May 2012. On our 2017 trip, Jan-Erik and I found the species once, on 25 July at the wooded site on the G216 north of Beitun. This species is similar to eastern China’s Chinese Penduline Tit R. consobrinus but is more closely associated with trees. (Craig Brelsford)

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus

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.

Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
In 2017 in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou) and Altai (Jiadengyu), we recorded nominate Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Hume’s is closely related to Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus. Yellow-browed, which is unlikely but possible in the Altai, usually shows a more distinct upper wing bar and has a profoundly different song (cf. sound-recording of Hume’s below). This individual was photographed at the Altai Mountain site Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Baiyanggou (43.424997, 87.165514), 20 July 2017 (00:44; 8.4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis

Common Chiffchaff, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
On 27 July and 28 July 2017 at Jiadengyu, the site at the entrance to Kanasi Park in the Altai, we found nesting Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis. Note the strongly greyish-brown coloration of this individual, especially on the crown and nape. There is hardly a trace of the more greenish hues usually seen in Common Chiffchaff P. c. collybita. (Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Chiffchaff, “heep” call, Jiadengyu (48.504120, 87.125695), 27 July 2017 (00:29; 5.5 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus

Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 27 July 2017. Near Kanasi River in Kanasi Park, Xinjiang, China. Photo taken at a rock face at 48.702008, 86.997155. Elev. 1420 m.
On 27 July 2017 near the Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, Jan-Erik and I found Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. A pair of these wallcreeper-like birds were browsing a cliff-face the way their congeners browse the crowns of trees. In arid Central Asia, a leaf warbler has evolved that exploits a decidedly un-leafy habitat. (Craig Brelsford)

Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama

Sykes's Warbler, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama, found 23 July and 24 July 2017 at the poplar oasis Hongyanglin (46.123909, 85.652300). We found males defending territory and a parent feeding young. In China, this Central and Southwest Asian breeder is found only in Northern Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Sykes’s Warbler, hard “tek” call, Hongyanglin, 24 July 2017 (00:24; 4.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

Sedge Warbler, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. We found this singing male 26 July 2017 in wetlands on the S229 west of Kaba (48.060168, 86.395527). In their landmark study Reed and Bush Warblers, Kennerley and Pearson do not describe Sedge Warbler as occurring on Chinese territory (2010). Our Xinjiang sighting is an extreme eastern record of this well-known Western Palearctic and Central Asian breeder. (Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola

Paddyfield Warbler, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola, arid country north of Burqin, 16 May 2012. I found this acro in the northern Jungar Basin in Phragmites reed habitat near the Irtysh River (47.764563, 86.782345). In 2017 Jan-Erik and I found the species on 26 July in the wetlands on the S229 west of Kaba and at Kuitun Reservoir on 23 July. As in the photos above, the July 2017 records involved a singing male. Kennerley and Pearson note that in Xinjiang Paddyfield Warbler is ‘apparently expanding its range due to irrigation projects’ (2010, p. 332). The specimen we found at Kuitun Reservoir certainly does not contradict that hypothesis, for the reedbeds in which it was singing were in large part a result of the large irrigation project in that area. (Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler, song, Kuitun Reservoir, north side (44.779020, 84.586502), 23 July 2017 (00:11; 2.1 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler, song, wetlands west of Kaba (48.060168, 86.395527), 26 July 2017 (00:07; 1.4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
On 18 May 2012, during my initial visit to Northern Xinjiang, I was privileged to find, in two thickly wooded areas 97 km (60 mi.) apart, singing Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum. About the birds shown here, Hong Kong-based bird expert Paul Leader writes, ‘Both birds can be readily identified as Acrocephalus warblers (rather than Iduna) on the basis of the long and very full undertail coverts and a lack of pale/whitish webs to the outer tail feathers (very clearly uniform in your photos). Once we’ve established that they are acros, habitat alone precludes anything other than Blyth’s Reed. The structure, especially primary projection, is spot-on for that species. The only other could be a massively extra-limital Marsh Warbler (!), but your birds are emarginated on PP 3-5, and on Marsh (and Eurasian Reed) only P3 is emarginated’ (Leader, in litt., 2017). Center R: Hualin Park (47.865992, 88.119787), Altai City. Others: thickly wooded garden of my hotel in Burqin (47.700558, 86.854760). (Craig Brelsford)

Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus zarudnyi

Great Reed Warbler, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus zarudnyi, 1 of 4 found at Daquangou Reservoir on 22 July 2017. We also had 2 at Ulungur Lake on 25 July. China listers must come to Xinjiang for this species, well-known to Western Palearctic birders. (Craig Brelsford)

Great Reed Warbler, territorial song, Daquangou Reservoir, 22 July 2017 (00:34; 6.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana

Asian Desert Warbler, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana, arid country south of Heshituoluogaizhen (46.326889, 85.918306), 24 July 2017. Jan-Erik and I guessed well, stopping randomly in the semi-desert and getting our only trip record of this Central Asian arid-country specialist. (Craig Brelsford)

Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria

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.

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 22 July 2017. Beishawo (北沙窝), Xinjiang, China. Elev. 460 m
We recorded Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula at sites throughout the Jungar Basin, with the specimen shown here found at Beishawo on 22 July 2017. In China, Desert Whitethroat occurs in the arid northwest. It is paler and occurs in drier habitats than Lesser Whitethroat S. curruca. (Craig Brelsford)

Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca

Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca. Top L, R: Burqin, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. Bottom L: 27 July 2017. Hotel area near main gate to Kanasi Park, Xinjiang (48.504120, 87.125695). (Craig Brelsford)
In Xinjiang I have found Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca at sites in the Tianshan and Altai and in wooded areas in the Jungar Basin. Top L, R: Hotel garden near Irtysh River, downtown Burqin (47.700863, 86.855065), 18 May 2012. Bottom L: Jiadengyu (48.504120, 87.125695), Kanasi Park, Altai, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis

Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. © Craig Brelsford. 20 July 2017. Baiyanggou, Xinjiang
We recorded Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou, 8 on 20 July 2017, 14 on 21 July) and Altai (Kanasi River, 5 on 27 July) and at a single Jungar Basin site (wooded area on G216, 2 on 25 July). (Craig Brelsford)

Common Whitethroat, Baiyanggou (43.424997, 87.165514), 20 July 2017 (00:51; 9.9 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 14 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Like most starlings, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is a wanderer, and it is occasionally recorded in Shanghai. In China, only in Xinjiang is the species an established resident. I have recorded the species at various Jungar Basin sites, among them White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I took this photo on 14 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Rosy Starling Pastor roseus

Rosy Starling, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Rosy Starling Pastor roseus ranges from southeastern Europe to Northern Xinjiang. I found a pair on 18 May 2012 feeding along the G217 just east of Burqin. This is the male. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Blackbird Turdus merula intermedius

Common Blackbird, Kaba, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Xinjiang is the only home in China to Common Blackbird Turdus merula intermedius. This form is smaller than Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus of eastern China and has a sweeter song. I have recorded Common Blackbird in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou), at oases and wooded areas in the Jungar Basin (Hongyanglin), and in city parks. I found this individual on 13 May 2012 in a small park in the center of Kaba (48.057806, 86.415389). (Craig Brelsford)

Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis

Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
At Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012, I found breeding Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis. China listers need to go to Xinjiang to find this species, whose breeding range includes the Altai and Tianshan. (Craig Brelsford)

Fieldfare Turdus pilaris

Fieldfare, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
At a small park in the center of Kaba (48.057806, 86.415389) on 13 May 2012, I found breeding Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. One pair’s nest was in the crotch of a tree just a few feet above the heads of the many passers-by. The easy harmony between man and bird reminded me more of parks in Western Europe or America than China. I found this adult in White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus

Mistle Thrush, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We recorded Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus numerous times in the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou). We found the species once again as we drove north toward the Altai Mountains, for example in the Burqin Magic Forest on 26 July 2017. I took the photo above in the wooded area on the G216 on 8 May 2012, during my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata

Spotted Flycatcher, Xinjiang. L: May 2012. R: July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
I have recorded Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata in the Altai Mountains as well as in riverine woodlands in the Jungar Basin. My high count was 7 at the wooded area on the G216 (25 July 2017). Spotted Flycatcher is yet another species common in Europe and found on Chinese territory exclusively in Xinjiang. L: Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. R: Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos golzii

Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 24 July 2017. Hongyanglin (红杨林), Xinjiang, China. Photo taken at 46.123909, 85.652300. Elev. 300 m.
At the poplar oasis Hongyanglin on 24 July 2017, we thrilled to the song of Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos golzii. The bird sang only intermittently, probably because it was late in the year. I have also noted Common Nightingale at Hualin Park in Altai City. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Nightingale, snatches of song, Hongyanglin, 24 July 2017 (00:09; 1.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus

Eversmann's Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 21 July 2017. Baiyanggou, Xinjiang, China. Bird photographed at 43.474525, 87.191575. Elev. 2080 m.
A major target for us was Rufous-backed or Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus. Jan-Erik and I found this uncommon Central Asian species 21 July 2017 in the foothills of the Tianshan (Baiyanggou). A male was singing and defending territory in a pine forest at 43.474525, 87.191575, elev. 2080 m (6,820 ft.). Note the cocked position of the tail above. MacKinnon (2000) reports that the male flits its tail ‘up and down, not sideways.’ (Craig Brelsford)

Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides

Black Redstart, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Note the white forehead of this Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides. This race often shows a white forehead and can resemble a hybrid between Black Redstart and Common Redstart P. phoenicurus. I took these photos 27 July 2017 at Jiadengyu, the area near the main gate to Kanasi Park in the Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus

Siberian Stonechat, Chonghu'er Xiang, Xinjiang, 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We recorded Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus in the Tianshan and Altai. This image of an adult male comes from Chonghu’er Xiang, 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka

Northern Wheatear (L) and Pied Wheatear, Xinjiang, 17-18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
I have noted Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe (L) at various sites in Northern Xinjiang, among them the loess hills north of the Tianshan and the Jungar Basin. The photo above is of a breeding male and was taken 17 May 2012 in the foothills of the Altai (Chonghu’er Xiang). Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka (R) was noted at Baihu on 21 July 2017, and I have seen it at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai, where I got the photo above on 18 May 2012. Also recorded by us in Northern Xinjiang were Desert Wheatear O. deserti and Isabelline Wheatear O. isabellina. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

Chaffinch, Hualin Park, Altai City, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We recorded Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs in wooded areas in the northern Jungar Basin and in the Altai. I photographed this female (L) and singing male (R) at Hualin Park in Altai City on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

European Greenfinch Chloris chloris

European Greenfinch, Burqin, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
When on 18 May 2012 I found this European Greenfinch Chloris chloris in the garden of my hotel in Burqin (47.700863, 86.855065), I began to realize how acutely underbirded is Xinjiang. Wanting to know the distribution of the species in China, I opened up my copy of MacKinnon and Phillipps’s Birds of China—and couldn’t find an entry. In 2017 we recorded the species on 25 July at the wooded area on the G216. (Craig Brelsford)

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

European Goldfinch, Chonghu'er Xiang, Xinjiang, 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
We recorded European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis in the Tianshan and Altai and in woodlands in the Jungar Basin. I photographed these birds in the foothills of the Altai (Chonghu’er Xiang) on 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Twite Linaria flavirostris

Twite Linaria flavirostris, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Twite Linaria flavirostris occurs throughout western China. In Northern Xinjiang, I have noted the species in the Tianshan and Altai as well as the Jungar Basin, with a high count of 90 at Wutubulake Toll Station on 28 July 2017. I found this bird on 18 May 2012 at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai. In size and shape, Twite resembles Common Linnet L. cannabina, but Twite has a longer and more deeply forked tail. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Linnet Linaria cannabina

Common Linnet, Baiyanggou, Xinjiang, 20 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
We had Common Linnet Linaria cannabina in the Tianshan and at sites in the Jungar Basin. In this photo from Baiyanggou, the bright red breast and loud song of the male cause the little bird to stand out in a thick patch of Northern Wolfberry. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus

Red-fronted Serin, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus ranges from Turkey in the west to Xinjiang and Nepal in the east. At Baiyanggou in the Tianshan, we had counts of 38 on 20 July and 30 on 21 July 2017. The adult has a fiery orange oval spot on the forecrown. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 20 July 2017. Baiyanggou, Xinjiang, China.
Juvenile Red-fronted Serin has a rusty-brown head and lacks the red spot. (Craig Brelsford)

Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri
House Sparrow P. domesticus
Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus

Saxaul Sparrow, Xinjiang, 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
At Beishawo on 22 July 2017, we had four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri (pair shown above), our only trip record of Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis (whose spherical nests we viewed), Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus, and House Sparrow P. domesticus. (Craig Brelsford)

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, Xinjiang, May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Singing male Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, near Burqin, 18 May 2012. This form is well-known to birders in Shanghai, where it is a common passage migrant. (Craig Brelsford)

White Wagtail Motacilla alba personata

Masked Wagtail Motacilla alba personata, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Masked Wagtail Motacilla alba personata was recorded by us numerous times in the Tianshan Mountains, Jungar Basin, and Altai Mountains. I took this photo at Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi

Richard's Pipit, Baiyanggou, Tianshan Mountains, Urumqi, Xinjiang, 20 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Many ‘European’ birds in Xinjiang have ranges whose eastward expansion ends in or near the province. In the case of Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, the situation is reversed; the westward extension of this East Asian bird’s range is just to the west of Xinjiang, in Kyrgyzstan. Note the long hindclaw and diamond-shaped blackish centers to the median coverts, telltale characters of Richard’s Pipit. Baiyanggou, 20 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris

Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris, Altai, Xinjiang, China, 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
My sole record of Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris came 17 May 2012 at Chonghu’er Xiang, a village in the foothills of the Altai. As is the case with many of the species in these posts, the Gobi Desert bars further eastward expansion of the range of Tawny Pipit, and in China this well-known European bird is found exclusively in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis

Tree Pipit, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 9 May 2012. I have noted Tree Pipit in riparian Jungar Basin woodlands such as White Birch and in the Altai and Tianshan. Tree Pipit is closely related to Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni, which occurs (if at all) in Xinjiang only as a vagrant. Tree Pipit lacks the black spots on the ear coverts of Olive-backed, and the duller supercilium of Tree has no black border above it, as is the case in Olive-backed. (Craig Brelsford)

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

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.

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos leucocephalos

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos leucocephalos. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 20 July 2017. Baiyanggou, Xinjiang, China. Elev. 2080 m.
We recorded Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos leucocephalos on 20 July and 21 July 2017 at Baiyanggou. I found this female feeding young hidden in a roadside bush at elev. 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Rock Bunting Emberiza cia

Rock Bunting Emberiza cia, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. I took this photo at Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana

Ortolan Bunting, July 2017, Altai Mtns. (Craig Brelsford)
A major target for us in the Altai was Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, which in China breeds only in these mountains. We found 6 on the slopes above the Kanasi River on 27 July 2017. The grey breast band, yellow-tinged throat and submoustachial, and prominently streaked mantle help distinguish this adult-male Ortolan from Grey-necked Bunting E. buchanani, which also occurs in the Altai. The first-winters we found elsewhere as well as the cricket in this bird’s bill are signs that breeding has occurred here. Sometime in the next six weeks after this photo was taken, this bird and the young it was feeding would have vacated the area and begun the long journey to sub-Saharan Africa, where Ortolan Bunting spend the winter. I took this photo at 48.712288, 86.982187, elev. 1710 m (5,610 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, Guanyu Tai-Kanasi River, 27 July 2017 (1:00; 11.5 MB; Craig Brelsford)

This post is the fourth 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

Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

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.

Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken by Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. (Google/Craig Brelsford)
Map of Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken in July 2017 by birders Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. We birded from Baiyanggou in the Tianshan Mountains to Lake Kanas in the Altai Mountains. In between we discovered areas in the northern, central, and southern Jungar Basin, the vast semi-desert steppe covering most of Northern Xinjiang. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

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.

Baiyanggou, 21 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Foot of Tianshan Mountains at Baiyanggou Scenic Area, 21 July 2017. Using our spotting scopes, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found on the ridgeline, 2000 m distant, Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. The area around the car yielded Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus and Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Coordinates of this site: 43.424675, 87.163545. Elevation: 2040 m (6,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, Tianshan, 21 July 2017. This scrub offered a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski's Bunting E. godlewskii. The coordinates of the spot are 43.454783, 87.202597, and the elevation is 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, 21 July 2017. This site at Baiyanggou, 52 km (32 mi.) south of Urumqi, yielded a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii. Coordinates: 43.454783, 87.202597. Elev.: 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat in which we found Eversmann's Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus.
Habitat at Baiyanggou in which we found Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus21 July 2017. The redstart, a male, was using the pastures and edge of the coniferous forest and was defending territory. Here also were Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus and Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Coordinates: 43.474525, 87.191575. Elev.: 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Tianshan mountain pastures and conifer forest. Among the species we found here were Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. The coordinates of this spot are 43.443733, 87.132903, and the elevation is 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Ethnic Kazakh herders spend the summer in the Tianshan mountain pastures at Baiyanggou. On 21 July 2017 we found here and in the adjacent conifer forests Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. Coordinates: 43.443733, 87.132903. Elev.: 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess habitat south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the base of the hill we heard the call of Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess hill south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the green vegetation at the base of the hill we heard Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. We drove through mile after mile of beautiful loess country at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains. Coordinates: 43.561508, 87.206833. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
We visited Baihu for 90 minutes late on the afternoon of 21 July 2017. We were looking for and found White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala as well as Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. The semi-desert around the lake yielded Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar, Pallas's Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus, Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. The spot is in Urumqi, west of downtown at . Elevation 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik and I visited Baihu on 21 July 2017. The reservoir and surrounding reeds yielded White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the surrounding semi-desert gave us breeding Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar and Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus. As settlement continues in Northern Xinjiang, reservoirs and irrigation canals are becoming an increasingly important habitat for birds. Baihu lies 13 km (8 mi.) west of downtown Urumqi. Coordinates: 43.816992, 87.435352. Elev.: 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This interesting site 65 km (40 mi.) N of Urumqi gave me my introduction to the southern Junggar Basin. Jan-Erik and I found here Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula. The site yielded four species in Passer: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. We counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This site 65 km (40 mi.) north of Urumqi gave me my re-introduction to the Jungar Basin, the vast, arid steppe that makes up most of Northern Xinjiang. The site yielded four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Among the other species we found were Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, and Desert Whitethroat S. minula. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, and we counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Stony desert, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Stony semi-desert in Jungar Basin. Searching for Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Jan-Erik and I spent an hour here on 23 July 2017. We came up short on the sandgrouse but managed to find Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis and Crested Lark Galerida cristata. Coordinates: 45.291384, 84.781396 (junction of G217 and S221). Elev.: 330 m (1,080 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Typical habitat at Hongyanglin. In the poplars we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks below held breeding Sykes's Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding site were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. We visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. The coordinates are 46.120654, 85.654598, and the elevation is 310 m. (Craig Brelsford)
In the poplars at Hongyanglin we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks held breeding Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding Jungar Basin oasis were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. Jan-Erik and I visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.120654, 85.654598. Elev.: 310 m (1,020 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Arid country between Wu'erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen. This random stop in the arid Jungar Basin gave us our only trip records of two species adapted to the great arid steppes of Central Eurasia: Henderson's Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The random stop occurred 24 July 2017; on 28 July 2017 we drove slowly past, noting again here Henderson's Ground Jay. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Arid country between Wu’erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July 2017. Our random stop here paid off handsomely, as we got our only trip records of two arid-country specialists: Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The site lies 23 km (14 mi.) south of Heshituoluogaizhen on the G217. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Puddles at Ahe'erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Roadside ponds at Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Puddles such as these were numerous along the many miles of highway we traveled, and they often were productive. The ponds here were especially good, yielding Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, and Common Redshank T. totanus. A small woodland next to the hamlet adds to the attraction of this site, which is on the G217, 31 km (19 mi.) north of Heshituoluogaizhen. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We stopped here mid-afternoon and had a flyby of Saker Falcon Falco cherrug. Sharing the skies with the falcon were Common Swift Apus apus and Pale Martin Riparia diluta. The scrubby area around the reservoir was productive, giving us Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, and Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. Coordinates: 46.892338, 86.386340. Elev.: 1260 m (4,130 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Jan-Erik scanning the NE quadrant of Ulungur Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik scans the northeastern quadrant of Ulungur Lake, at 1035 sq. km (400 sq. mi.) one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The advice of shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon put Ulungur Lake on our itinerary: ‘If you have time,’ John wrote, ‘you should look at the small saline ponds and reed beds along the NE shores of Lake Ulungur. They are packed full of breeding waterfowl’ (MacKinnon, in litt., 2017). John’s words proved abundantly true. Jan-Erik and I spent the morning of 25 July 2017 at Ulungur Lake and had a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor, 19 juv. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, 80 Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina, 180 Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, 240 Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, 1 Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, and 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Walking through the scrub, we lifted a roosting European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. Reeds along the shore held Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1,580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodlands on G216, 25 July 2017. The coordinates of this spot are 47.544827, 87.898782. (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodland on G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, 25 July 2017. Large trees and rank undergrowth (including wild cannabis) characterize this outstanding site. A visit of less than two hours in the midday heat yielded a who’s who of ‘European’ species, among them European Roller Coracias garrulus, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, and European Greenfinch Chloris chloris. Coordinates: 47.544827, 87.898782. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Pond and marsh along G217 at Alahake. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Marsh and pond along G217 at Alahake, between Burqin and Altai City. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 26 July 2017. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
An outstanding birding site, White Birch Forest Scenic Area is on the Kaba River, a tributary of the mighty Irtysh River. I have made five visits to the site, four in May 2012 and one on 26 July 2017. Among the birds I have found here are Great Tit Parus major kapustini, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. Our visit in 2017 yielded a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The avifauna, verdant glades, and vast birch forest are strongly reminiscent of Northern Europe. Coordinates: 48.076867, 86.342950. Elev.: 490 m (1,610 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Wetlands on S229, the outskirts of Kaba in the background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola, both species found singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. (Craig Brelsford)
Wetlands on S229, outskirts of Kaba in background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of singing Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola, both singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. Coordinates: 48.060168, 86.395527. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest, 26 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest is a riverine woodland at the confluence of the Burqin and Irytsh rivers. The birch forest and corresponding avifauna are similar to those of White Birch Forest Scenic Area 59 km (37 mi.) northwest. Burqin Magic Forest is a breeding site for Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius. Other woodpeckers found here are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, and Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus. I visited Burqin Magic Forest in May 2012 and again on 26 July 2017. Coordinates: 47.724565, 86.840598. Elev.: 460 m (1,500 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Alpine meadow and coniferous woodland in the Altai Mountains, Kanasi, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Altai Mountain meadow and coniferous woodland at Kanasi, 27 July 2017. These highlands are in the extreme north of Xinjiang, near the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The site, which is closer to Moscow (3370 km [2,090 mi.]) than Shanghai (3500 km [2,180 mi.]), holds many species better known in Europe than in China, among them Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana. Other species we found here were Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. Coordinates: 48.712367, 86.982445. Elev.: 1720 m (5,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River, 27 July 2017. This outcrop is the home of a most unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: . Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, 27 July 2017. This natural wall is the home of an unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: 48.702008, 86.997155. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture and picnic grounds near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu. (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu, 27 July 2017. Here and in the gardens around the hotels we picked up Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, the white-foreheaded Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides, and an unexpected Xinjiang record of Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus. Coordinates: 48.492609, 87.147366. Elev.: 1490 m (4,890 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Heart of the Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. This point lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City on an unpaved mountain road. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Heart of the Altai Mountains near Xiaodong Gulch. On 18 May 2012 I managed to briefly enter this enchanted world and get this photo. Even though I was unable to reach the highest country, I still found many good birds, among them Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis and Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. In June 2016 John MacKinnon managed to go higher, reaching the snowy passes and finding Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus, Rock Ptarmigan L. muta, Altai Accentor Prunella himalayana, Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani, and Mongolian Wolf Canis lupus chanco. John wrote a guest post for shanghaibirding.com about his trek into these mountains. The point photographed here lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo, 10 May 2012, Altai, Xinjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
With Altai Mountains in the background, Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo stand on the shore of Aweitan Reservoir, 10 May 2012. At this outstanding reservoir site I found Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans, Red-tailed Shrike Lanius phoenicuroides, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Among the migrating ducks were Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Gadwall M. strepera. The site lies 28 km (17 mi.) south of Altai City on the G216. Coordinates: 47.642361, 88.020278. Elev.: 650 m (2,150 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG

Bactrian Camel, Burqin Magic Forest, Xinjiang, 12 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Red Deer, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Xinjiang, 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Yarkand Deer Cervus elaphus yarkandensis. Members of this endangered subspecies of Red Deer appeared at dusk at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, northern Jungar Basin, Xinjiang, 16 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, arid country north of Burqin (47.920242, 86.835243). To create this image, I lay on my belly to get the birds as low in the frame as possible. I then narrowed my aperture on my 600 mm f/4 lens to f/22, allowing me to capture the mountainous background and convey a sense of the vastness of the sparsely populated northern tip of Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Hongyanglin, Xinjiang, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
As the sun set at the beautiful Jungar Basin oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017, I used my iPhone 6 to create this photo of the dying light caressing a poplar. (Craig Brelsford)
Wild Marijuana at the well-watered streamside site along the G216. 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Wild cannabis is one of the many plant species making up the rank vegetation at the well-watered open woodland along the G216. (Craig Brelsford)
Thundering Kanas River, Altai Mountains, Northern Xinjiang, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Thundering Kanasi River, Altai Mountains. These turquoise waters flow south from Kanas Lake, eventually finding the mighty Irtysh River and flowing north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217 in Altai District, Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217. The Islamic presence in Northern Xinjiang is relatively recent, being a direct consequence of the Dzungar genocide of the 1750s. The campaign wiped out the native Dzungar people, who were Buddhist, and replaced them with various groups, among them the Hui and the Kazakhs, who are Muslim. The atrocity was orchestrated by the Qianlong emperor, a member of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Craig Brelsford)
Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. (Craig Brelsford)
Dinner plate bearing likeness of Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. In parts of China where the Han do not make up the ethnic majority, portraits of the founder of Communist China are often on prominent display. The displays are not so much an expression of support for Communism as they are a reminder of Han supremacy. (Craig Brelsford)
Wusu Beer, northern Xinjiang, July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Condiments for noodles, Wusu Beer, and tea, with plate of plain noodles just visible behind the beer. Wusu Beer is a surprisingly good local brand with a taste similar to that of Tsingtao. With afternoon temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), a Wusu and plate of noodles were a fitting reward after a long birding day. (Craig Brelsford)
Ethnic Kazakh police officer. Burqin, Xinjiang, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman, Wutubulake, 28 July 2017. With my movie-star looks and monster camera, many people in Xinjiang took me for a superstar photographer. I did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, Xinjiang, 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. I took this picture in the final hours of my final day of my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. I was smitten with the region and sorry to leave, and I swore I’d be back. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford (L) and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Xinjiang, July 2017. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
American birder Craig Brelsford (L) and Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén return cheerfully to base camp after an unsuccessful search for sandgrouse, central Jungar Basin, 23 July 2017. A birder with decades of experience and blessed with an extremely sensitive ear, Jan-Erik is one of the best foreign birders ever to operate in China. I never tire of telling the story of Jan-Erik and the Siberian Bush Warbler. Near Genhe, Inner Mongolia in July 2015, my wife Elaine, Jan-Erik, and I were speeding down the highway in the middle of a conversation with the wind roaring through the open windows. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ I hit the brakes and backed up, and there it was. I said to Jan-Erik, ‘I didn’t know you had so much experience with Siberian Bush Warbler.’ ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘That was only the second time in my life that I’ve found the species.’ (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Police officers with Jan-Erik (far L) and Craig Brelsford. (Craig Brelsford)
In Xinjiang Jan-Erik and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), passing through dozens of checkpoints along our route. We made it through each time without incident. Indeed, the police can be friendly, as those here, at a checkpoint near Burqin; the photo was their idea, not ours. At the checkpoints, being a Western foreigner was at most a minor hindrance. Our driver explained why: ‘They’re not looking for people like you.’ The checkpoints are for internal security, with young Uighur men being the main target. (Craig Brelsford)
The team at Wu'erhe, 23 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
The team at Wuerhe, 23 July 2017. L-R: Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Jan-Erik Nilsén, Craig Brelsford. We had just returned from beautiful Hongyanglin, our Wusu beer was cold, and our noodles were hitting the spot. We were tired and sweaty and very happy, for we were giving Xinjiang our all. (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik Nilsen and Craig Brelsford with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (大师兄/Craig Brelsford)
Birders Jan-Erik Nilsén (second from L) and Craig Brelsford (second from R) feast with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. Like many of the Han settlers we met in Xinjiang, these men were brimming with civilizational confidence and optimism. They believe deeply, and told me frankly, that as good as things are now in China, they are sure to get better, especially in Xinjiang. These gritty, practical men are nationalists, and their mission is to Make China Great Again. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东]/Craig Brelsford)
Our final moments with Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, 29 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Our final moments with our driver, Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, after midnight on 30 July 2017. Later that day, Jan-Erik and I flew home, Jan-Erik to Beijing, I to Shanghai. Eighty-eight days after this photo was taken, my son was born, and a further three months later, I returned to America, ending my 10-year sojourn in the Middle Kingdom. After traveling tens of thousands of kilometers in China as explorer, student of ornithology, and bird guide, Xinjiang 2017 was my swan song, my final expedition in China. With Jan-Erik at my side, my time in China could scarcely have ended on a higher note. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

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.

DEDICATION

Tiny
Elaine and Tiny

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.

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

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).

Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Editor’s note: Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form. — Craig Brelsford

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

'Gansu' Bluetail. This second-calendar-year male had not attained breeding plumage but was singing powerfully. Craig Brelsford.
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m (6,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017 (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher bear little resemblance to one another but were long classified as a single species. The situation was owing more to a dearth of research than to any intrinsic ID difficulties among the two species. Craig Brelsford.
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu, 29 April 2012. R: Wulingshan, 10 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford. Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017.
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m (6,949 ft.), the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June 2017. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more than Michael and Jan-Erik.

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m (3,120 ft.) to summit. Nights and meals at Fúlíng Kuàijié Jiǔdiàn (伏凌快捷酒店), +86 314-7631888, +86 187-3147-7899.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph (190 mph) and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai.

James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male 'Gansu' Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June 2017.

Zappey's Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 11 June 2017. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Photo taken at 40.565367, 117.472742 (elev. 1330 m). Craig Brelsford.
Blue-and-white Flycatcher found 11 June 2017 at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m (4,360 ft.). Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record from Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Elev. 1610 m, on road above "Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot," 40.569817, 117.474469. Craig Brelsford.
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m (5,280 ft.) on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding–albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (BeijingHebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

References

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Note: This is the Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. Top: Baihualing, Yunnan, 10 Feb. 2014. Bottom: Rongshu Wang, Yunnan, 26 Jan. 2014. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus, Botanical Gardens, Shanghai. Top: 25 Dec. 2011. Bottom: 24 Dec. 2011. (Craig Brelsford)