Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction

This post is the first in a five-post series about my birding expedition of July 2017 to Northern Xinjiang. In the northern half of China’s largest and most northwesterly province, the birds, natural scenery, and people, including people wearing the uniforms of the state, are intensely interesting. In the photo above, top left, my longtime birding partner Jan-Erik Nilsén scans Ulungur Lake, a gleaming jewel in the arid Jungar Basin and an important stop on the Central Asian-Indian Migratory Flyway. Bottom right, friendly ethnic Kazakh police officers pose with Jan-Erik and me at one of the hundreds of checkpoints dotting Northern Xinjiang. The two birds symbolize the uniqueness of the avifauna of Xinjiang. Top right is Ortolan Bunting, representing the many species in Northern Xinjiang more closely associated with Europe than China. Bottom left is Sulphur-bellied Warbler, an unusual leaf warbler adapted to rocky habitats, and one of many Central Asian species that in China occur mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang.

In this first post, I give you an overview of my 12-day expedition and an introduction to Northern Xinjiang. In the second post, I offer you the notes I took while on the ground. The third and fourth posts are a gallery of my photos of the most interesting birds I saw, both in 2017 and during my first trip to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012. The fifth and final post is a collection of habitat shots as well as pictures of the scenery, mammals, and people of Northern Xinjiang. To read in order the five posts, simply keep scrolling down this page. You may also go to the bottom of any of the five posts and find there an index to the series.

Bounded by the mighty Tianshan Mountains to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China. The area is still little-known to birders, and many discoveries remain to be made there. May this series convey to you the enthusiasm I have for the region, and may it aid you as you plan your own trip to Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford

xinjiang (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)
The largest provincial-level entity in China, Xinjiang or ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined and is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Alaska. From 19-30 July 2017, I made my second of two trips to the ‘autonomous region,’ exploring the Tianshan and Altai mountains and Jungar Basin in Northern Xinjiang. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

When in February 2017 my wife, Elaine Du, informed me that she was expecting our baby, I knew that my days as a full-time birder, as well as my 10-year sojourn in China, were coming to an end. Elaine and I agreed that I would do a final big birding trip before the birth of Tiny. I chose Northern Xinjiang.

I had visited Northern Xinjiang once before, in May 2012. I was captivated by the beauty of the region, its remote position in the heart of the Eurasian supercontinent, and the underbirdedness of the area. I vowed to return.

For the 2017 trip, I chose as my partner my friend and mentor Jan-Erik Nilsén. No birder has taught me more about birding than the Beijing-based Swedish birder, who like me arrived in China in 2007. Xinjiang would be my ninth birding expedition with Jan-Erik. We chose the dates 19-30 July 2017.

Jan-Erik, our Chinese driver, and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), covering an area from the provincial capital Urumqi and the Tianshan Mountains in the south to Kanas Lake and the Altai Mountains in the north and visiting a score of Jungar Basin sites in between. We noted 160 species of bird. (For our complete list, please scroll to the bottom of this post.)

We recorded China rarities Siberian Chiffchaff, Yellowhammer, and Sedge Warbler and Xinjiang rarity Eurasian Siskin in the Altai. We scoped Himalayan Snowcock in the Tianshan, found four species of Passer at Fukang-Beishawo, ticked White-headed Duck at a bird-rich reservoir in Urumqi, saw Asian Desert Warbler and Henderson’s Ground Jay at a random stop in the semi-desert, and at beautiful Hongyanglin oasis found Common Nightingale, White-winged Woodpecker, and Sykes’s Warbler.

The latter two species were among the many Central Asian specialties we enjoyed. Others were Red-fronted Serin and Eversmann’s Redstart in the Tianshan, Eastern Imperial Eagle at Daquangou Reservoir, Sulphur-bellied Warbler in the Altai, and, at various sites in the Jungar Basin, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus.

We recorded well-known European birds that in China are found mainly or exclusively in Xinjiang. We had Common Quail and European Turtle Dove in the Jungar Basin and daytime views of European Nightjar roosting in the scrub. European Goldfinch and Common Linnet were found at both the northern and southern ends of our route, while Spotted Flycatcher, European Greenfinch, and Ortolan Bunting were recorded only in or near the Altai Mountains. European Bee-eater and European Roller were commonly seen along power lines in the Jungar Basin, and in the riparian woodlands along the Irtysh River and its tributaries, we recorded impressive numbers of Common Chaffinch and Great Tit Parus major kapustini.

July 2017 was a beautiful moment in my life. Elaine was going strong in the fifth month of her pregnancy, and I was looking forward to the birth of my son. Knowing Northern Xinjiang would be my last big trip, I savored every moment. During the long drives across Jungaria, Jan-Erik and I recalled our rich history as birding partners, which included trips to Qinghai in 2016 and 2014 and Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia in 2015.

Northern Xinjiang was the culmination not only of my birding career in China but also of my decade-long study of Chinese language and culture. I had arrived in 2007 not knowing enough Chinese to take a taxi. By 2017, I was a fluent speaker of Mandarin. I had arrived in China convinced that the Western-style liberalization of China was inevitable and that events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics would transform the People’s Republic into a giant Taiwan. By 2017, I was viewing the Middle Kingdom much more soberly.

Northern Xinjiang was a good place to let go of my final illusions about China. Gazing at the gleaming new highways of Northern Xinjiang, noting the ubiquitous police presence and multitudes of checkpoints, and witnessing the steady influx of Han settlers, I felt the ruthlessness, growing efficiency, and grim seriousness of the Communist state. After passing through yet another security checkpoint, I said to our driver, “That was easy.” He replied, “They’re not looking for people like you.” The target, our driver said, is Uighurs.

Whereas minorities such as the Uighur face persecution and the possible extinction of their culture, the Han people I met in Xinjiang were full of civilizational confidence. In the towns and cities through which we passed, the average Han seemed happier and more polite than the Han I would meet in the crowded provinces back east. Was it the dry, sunny climate that kept them cheerful? Was it the Lebensraum that Han people enjoy living in the sparsely populated province, larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined?

To birders who may be scared off by the word “Xinjiang,” my message is, fear not; Northern Xinjiang was very much birdable in 2017. The vast region is far different from Southern Xinjiang, where most Uighurs live, and where persecution is greatest and security tightest. Indeed, the large police presence in Northern Xinjiang impedes crime of all kinds, making the region safe. As for the quality of the birding in Northern Xinjiang, let the list below and my photo galleries in posts 3 and 4 speak for themselves.

Birds Noted in Northern Xinjiang, China, July 2017 (160 species)

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

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

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

Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:

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

2016 Photo Highlights

Editor’s note: My photos of the year, 2016. Clockwise from top left: Cinereous Vulture on Chongming Island in January kicked off a year that saw a parade of interesting sightings in Shanghai; ultra-rare Band-bellied Crake was the highlight of my three-week trip to a never-birded area of Heilongjiang; on 10 Dec. members of Shanghai’s ever-growing birding community had a big day out at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui; in a two-month expedition to Qinghai, meeting this Tibetan Lynx was my biggest thrill.

Happy New Year! This post is a photographic summary of my birding year 2016.

Unlike 2015, which saw Elaine Du and me visit the United States, in 2016 we never left China. We birded eight months in Shanghai, two months in Qinghai, and three weeks apiece in the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan and in Elaine’s hometown of Boli in Heilongjiang.

SHANGHAI RARITIES

In a year that saw unprecedented numbers of good records in Shanghai, among them Nordmann’s Greenshank, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Rail, Black-naped Monarch, Crow-billed Drongo, Fujian Niltava, and Slaty Bunting, Elaine and I were on hand to record some of the rarities.

One of the best was Cinereous Vulture. I got this photo on 23 Jan. on Chongming Island.

Cinereous Vulture, 23 Jan. 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Cinereous Vulture, Chongming, 23 Jan. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Pomarine Jaeger was discovered at Cape Nanhui on 19 Oct., a first for Shanghai. The next day, Elaine and I got this image.

Pomarine Skua/Pomarine Jaeger Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, Shanghai, 20 Oct. 2016.
Pomarine Jaeger/Skua Stercorarius pomarinus, Nanhui, 20 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

A trio of Critically Endangered Siberian Crane took up residence on Hengsha Island around 12 Nov. On 7 Dec., I got this photo.

Siberian Crane, Hengsha, 7 Dec. 2016.
Two of the 3 Siberian Crane on Hengsha Island, 7 Dec. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Here are images of birds more commonly noted in the Shanghai region.

Grey Nightjar, Dongtai, Craig Brelsford.
Grey Nightjar, Dongtai, Jiangsu, 21 May 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

 

Northern Boobook, one of four we saw on 23 Oct. 2016 at Nanhui.
Northern Boobook, 23 Oct. 2016, Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Shanghai. Craig Brelsford.
Large Hawk-Cuckoo, 1 May 2016, Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)
Siberian Rubythroat, Magic Parking Lot, Nanhui. 29 Oct. 2016. Craig Brelsford.
Siberian Rubythroat, Magic Parking Lot, Nanhui, 29 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Dulong Gorge

From 16 Feb. to 5 March, Elaine and I were in Yunnan, where we explored the Dulong Gorge, a remote valley in the northwestern corner of the province. Birding there is excellent, and the views are sublime.

Beautiful Dulong Gorge near between Maku and Qinlangdang, 27 Feb. 2016.
Dulong Gorge between Maku and Qinlangdang, 27 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

After days of rain, we were rewarded with this moon-set at dawn on 26 Feb.

The sublime spectacle of the moon setting over the Gaoligong Mountains at dawn was our reward for enduring days and days of rain. Photo taken on Gongshan-Dulong Road near Kongdang on 26 Feb. 2016. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/9, 1/320, ISO 640.
Gongshan-Dulong Road, 26 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

We noted 170 species of bird at Dulong. One of the best was Grandala.

Grandala, Gongshan-Dulong Road, 22 Feb. 2016. Elev. 1820 m.
Grandala, Gongshan-Dulong Road, 22 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

For its combination of stunning beauty and strong Himalayan character, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin was Craig’s Bird of the Trip.

For its combination of stunning beauty and strong Himalayan character, Rufous-breasted Robin was Craig's Bird of the Trip. Our team noted 44 members of Tarsiger hyperythrus in the Dulong Gorge, all but 1 of them adult males. I got this photo at Pukawang on 24 Feb.
Rufous-breasted Bush Robin Tarsiger hyperythrus, 24 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Birds have plenty of places to hide in the thickly vegetated Dulong Gorge. Sometimes we got lucky, as with this Chestnut-headed Tesia.

Chestnut-headed Tesia, Dulong Beach, 26 Feb. 2016.
Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, 26 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Qinghai

Elaine and I spent most of the summer in Qinghai. We noted 195 species of bird, but our most unforgettable moment was supplied by a mammal. This is Tibetan Lynx.

Tibetan Lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus), Kanda Mountain, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai, China. 14 July 2016. Elev. 4550 m.
Tibetan Lynx Lynx lynx isabellinus, Kanda Mountain, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai. 14 July 2016. Elev. 4550 m (14,920 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Tibetan Partridge was commonly noted in eastern Yushu Prefecture.

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

Another great chicken: White Eared Pheasant.

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

At desolate Hala Lake, elev. 4077 m, we found Tibetan Sandgrouse.

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

Brandt’s Mountain Finch is hardy. It thrives at high elevations.

Brandt's Mountain Finch takes long, straight flights at altitudes above 5000 m. I found this individual near Hala Lake, Qinghai, at an elev. of 4400 m.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch, near Hala Lake, 9 Aug. 2016. Elev. 4400 m. (Craig Brelsford)

Henderson’s Ground Jay is master of arid scrubland …

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

… while Isabelline Wheatear is master of the semi-deserts of Wulan County.

Isabelline Wheatear 2/3. F/16, 1/320, ISO 800.
Isabelline Wheatear, Wulan County, 18 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

We had great partners in Qinghai. One of them was Michael Grunwell.

Michael Grunwell (at scope) and Mark Waters view Przevalski's Redstart at Przevalski's Site in the Dulan Mountains, 1 July 2016.
Michael Grunwell (at scope) and Mark Waters view Przevalski’s Redstart in Dulan Mountains, 1 July 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Landscapes in Qinghai are beyond beautiful. Here are my favorites.

Dunes and mountains, Wulan County, Qinghai, 17 Aug. 2016. This photo was taken at 36.826334, 97.965649, elev. 3380 m.
Dunes and mountains, Wulan County, 17 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

A closer look at the dunes.

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

I used my iPhone 6 for this image of a Chinese Juniper gazing out at the Dulan Mountains. The tree clings to the slope at elev. 3960 m.

Proud and strong, this Chinese Juniper Juniperus chinensis has gazed out at the Dulan Mountains for 200 years. It clings firmly to the slope at elevation 3960 m.
Chinese Juniper Juniperus chinensis, Dulan Mountains, 1 July 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Heilongjiang

From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. The area was never properly birded before we arrived there, and our discoveries have been many. The biggest highlight was Band-bellied Crake.

Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty.
Band-bellied Crake, Boli County, Heilongjiang, 8 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Mandarin Duck breed in Boli County. We found this drake in a small pool deep in Xidaquan Forest.

Mandarin Duck, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016.
Mandarin Duck, 3 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

In the Manchurian forest, woodpeckers abound. The most common species is White-backed Woodpecker.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos, in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan, 1 June 2016.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos, 1 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine

Elaine Du is my wife and partner. The year 2016 was our third in a row of non-stop birding. Although she is happy birding and has put together an impressive life list, the Heilongjiang native is never happier than when she is in her hometown.

Elaine and Craig, Boli, Heilongjiang.
Elaine and Craig at home in Boli, Heilongjiang, 1 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Through thick and thin we tough it out. Here we are smiling despite being confined to our tent during a rain shower at Hala Lake.

Elaine and Craig waiting out the rain in the tent.
11 Aug. 2016, Hala Lake. (Craig Brelsford)

At Eling Lake in Qinghai, where the Yellow River and China are born, Elaine and I posed for this self-portrait.

'We Are Family!' sang Sister Sledge back in '79. Here's the Chinese-American adventure team, Elaine Du (L) and yours truly--partners, spouses, family. Eling Lake, where the Yellow River and Chinese culture are born. 3 July 2016. Self-portrait taken with my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens.
Self-portrait taken 3 July 2016 with my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine is a little short, but she never gives up. In Dulong Gorge, she improvised a way to see Grandala, a life bird.

Brian Ivon Jones (L) and Elaine Du viewing Grandala for the first time, Dulong Gorge, 19 Feb. 2016.
Brian Ivon Jones and Elaine viewing Grandala, 19 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine is proud of the remnant Manchurian forest near her home in Boli. Here we are in front of a stand of Silver Birch.

The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016.
Xidaquan, 10 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

People like Elaine’s family put food on the table for the city folks.

Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June 2016.
Elaine (L) with parents and elder sisters. Boli, 12 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

The Shanghai Birding Community

In 2015 I started shanghaibirding.com and the Shanghai Birding WeChat group. In 2016, the number of readers of the Web site and members of the chat group steadily grew. On 10 Dec., the day of the Shanghai Birding Christmas party, I led a group of birders to Cape Nanhui. There we found a pair of Red-crowned Crane, a first for mainland Shanghai. Here is the group after the historic event.

Shanghai birders at Nanhui, 10 Dec. 2016. Photo by Hǎo Zhàokuān (郝兆宽).
Shanghai birders at Nanhui, 10 Dec. 2016. Photo by Hǎo Zhàokuān (郝兆宽).

Happy New Year 2017!

A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies

Last Sunday 21 Aug. Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai from Qinghai. We had arrived in Xining on 26 June, and we spent exactly eight weeks in the sparsely populated province. We drove 8054 km (4,994 miles). I lost 5 kg (11 lbs.). On Sunday Dusky Warbler near Gonghe became our 195th and final species of the trip.

While in Qinghai, Elaine and I made new friends and deepened our friendship with our first-rate partners Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén. And the memories … let me tell you ’bout the memories.

Better yet, let me show you them. Ready?

I found this downy Bar-headed Goose at sunset on 28 June on the shore of Qinghai Lake, whose blue sheen you can see in the background. This youngster has much growing to do before he’ll be ready to make the flight across the Himalaya to India for the winter. Will he get strong enough in time to make the frightening trip? Strength, my lad, strength!

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

Last week I created a photo essay, “Little Birds in a Big Land,” in which I photographed Isabelline Wheatear from a distance, with mountains, sand dunes, and scrub visible in the background. It was an intense, 90-minute photo workout with that arid-country specialist, well-adapted to the semi-deserts of Wulan County.

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

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

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

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

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

The top two photos displayed below are of Gansu Leaf Warbler (the lower of the two from our newly discovered breeding site along the Heihe River in northern Qinghai); the bottom one is of Sichuan Leaf Warbler. Note the cleaner lower mandible of Gansu Leaf Warbler and compare it to the typically darker lower mandible of Sichuan. In summer, when we met these species, they were singing, and the songs of the two species differ much. In winter, when the birds are quiet, bill color is a good way to begin to identify these two similar-looking species.

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

I sound-recorded Gansu Leaf Warbler:

Gansu Leaf Warbler, Qilian County, Qinghai, 3 Aug. 2016 (01:35; 4 MB)

We found a new location for Przevalski’s Partridge along some back roads in Wulan County. Rusty-necklaced Partridge (alternative name) looks much like Chukar, but note the rusty line.

Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, 17 Aug. 2016.
Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, 17 Aug. 2016.

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

Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July 2016.
Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July 2016.

Birds of KM 2189.5 along the G109 near Qinghai Lake: Robin Accentor, a Siberian Stonechat that wasn’t happy when we stumbled upon its nest, Tibetan Snowfinch using the embankment for a nest, and that one-of-a-kind species that is neither finch nor bunting but derives from a line independent of the two: Przevalski’s “Finch.”

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

Blue-fronted Redstart is also sui generis, the only blue-headed Phoenicurus. Females are tougher to distinguish from other female redstarts, but note the inverted T, shown here on this male. Females have it too, and it is distinctive.

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

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

Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou.
Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou.

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

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

On a moonless, pitch-black night we heard a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl making strange sounds. I shot the owls by the light of our headlights. We were in Haibei Prefecture.

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

I had long wanted to put Chinese Thrush in my camera. Here’s the moment when I achieved that goal. I was at the riparian forest along the Heihe River in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture.

Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. 2016.
Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. 2016.

Amazing Tibetan Sandgrouse near Hala Lake.

Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, Haixi Prefecture, 10 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, Haixi Prefecture, 10 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala, 10 Aug.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala, 10 Aug.

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

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

Do these Himalayan Vulture disgust you? Why? They’re only doing their job–a very important one. And they have manners. Note that the juvenile doesn’t interfere with the adult as it feeds.

Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July 2016.
Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July 2016.

King of the high-altitude falcons: Saker.

Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.

Who cares about Spotted Dove? When you’re in a city park in Shanghai, then you don’t care about Spotted Dove. When you’re in Qilian County, Qinghai, the extreme west of its range, then you care about Spotted Dove.

Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 1 Aug. 2016.
Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 1 Aug. 2016.

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

Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. 2016.
Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. 2016.

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

Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.

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

Glover's Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July 2016.
Glover’s Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July 2016.

This Mountain Weasel is one of the cutest little killers you’ll ever meet. Like all weasels, it’s almost completely carnivorous. In Haibei Prefecture one afternoon, Elaine and I watched this little dude dart into and out of the pika burrows, terrorizing the local birds and pikas. The fruitless attempts were comical, but we noted with respect the speed and agility of this star performer.

Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July 2016.
Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July 2016.

There’s something sensuous about those smoothly curved sand dunes–and in that soft sunset light. Right time, definitely right place.

In a few weeks I’m going to be missing Qinghai big-time, and scenes like these are going to be why. There’s no place on Earth like Qinghai, no place under the sun like the Tibetan Plateau.

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

Other posts in our Qinghai 2016 series:

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

Featured image: “We Are Family!” sang Sister Sledge back in ’79. Here’s the Chinese-American adventure team, Elaine Du (L) and yours truly–partners, spouses, family. We were at Eling Lake, Qinghai, where the Yellow River and Chinese culture are born. The date was 3 July 2016. This is a self-portrait, engineered (as indeed every picture in this post was engineered) by Craig Brelsford using the Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens.