Qinghai in October

by Jesper Hornskov
for shanghaibirding.com

P Benstead (Greentours), P Annesley, L Fitch, B and M Griffin, N Haggart, H Kloser, K Little, P Pilbeam, D Spencer and I visited NE Tibet, China’s Qinghai province, 7-23 Oct 2019.

It was the 6th Greentours mammal-watching trip in this area; the first was in October 2012. Our trip aimed to see as many of the unique mammals of the Tibetan highlands as we could, but in the field searching for mammals typically allows one plenty of time to record birds as well, and it is hopefully of interest what we saw at a time of the year when few dedicated birdwatchers visit this unique land. Predictably, the relatively late dates meant that some breeders had already departed for their winter quarters, and the bulk of the Siberian passage migrants, notably waders, had gone through. No matter: pretty much all the key birds are residents, and the lateness of the season has its potential advantages—we saw some of the specialities better and/or in far greater numbers than we would have in summer, and as a bonus turned up a few surprises. We recorded 178 spp of bird and no fewer than 27 species of mammal, incl Tsingling Pika Ochotona huangensis, Pallas’s Cat Felis manul, Lynx Lynx lynx, Snow Leopard Uncia uncial, Wolf Canis lupus (21 individuals!), Tibetan Fox Vulpes ferrilata, Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica, Kiang (= Tibetan Wild Ass) Equus kiang, Wild Boar Sus scrofa (a range extension!), Alpine Musk Deer Moschus chrysogaster, White-lipped Deer Przewalskium albirostris in full rut, the ultra-rare Przevalski’s Gazelle Procapra przewalskii, Wild Yak Bos grunniens, Argali Ovis ammon, Tibetan Antelope Panthalops hodgsonii, and Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur.

Among the highlights/my personal favourites/most interesting records were:

Szechenyi’s Monal-Partridge Tetraophasis szechenyi

18+ bird-days. Noted on three dates near Nangqian—undeterred by a thin layer of new snow on the ground, five gave the full territorial call as they left roost and started feeding under a juniper as we kept our scopes on them …

Tibetan Snowcock Tetraogallus tibetanus

19 bird-days. Noted on two dates near Nangqian—three swooped down landing next to a large herd of Blue Sheep, slightly startling some of them: eventually there were five, but soon they became very hard to keep track of as the snow melted fast.

Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae

c100 bird-days. Noted on at least three dates—photographed at absurdly close range as some subtle driving turned our trusty 4WDs into mobile hides …

Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus

A covey of no fewer than 24 scoped out on a bare slope near Nangqian on 16th.

White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon

470 bird-days. Noted near Nangqian on three dates, incl a shocking 355 in a day!

Blue Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon auritum

A languidly feeding covey of 16 did their best to distract us from the sight of a full stag Siberian Roe Deer Capreolus pygargus near Xining on 8th.

Saker Falco cherrug

63 bird-days. Noted on eight dates. For most of us a welcome opportunity to familiarize ourselves with a species which is declining globally: not many two-week trips allow you to take such giant strides towards full Saker Expert status!

Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus

35 bird-days. We recorded this “flying dragon” on 11 dates—eh, hang on, “recorded”? We were just BLOWN AWAY by some the views we got: TINGALING!!

Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis

Seven bird-days. Noted on four dates—not a local speciality, granted, but typically a species hard to get prolonged looks at …

Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis

Just three bird-days! At what was in the very recent past a perfect time of the year for it, only single individuals of this suddenly “Endangered”-listed species were noted on no more than three dates.

Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis

46 bird-days. Noted on six dates. Widespread overgrazing—of hills and wetlands alike—is bound to be spelling trouble for this emblematic species, and as in 2018 we were dismayed to find only around 10 present at a large wetland near Yushu on 17th: we’d counted 40 there on 11 Oct 2014, and 26 on 11 Oct 2015. Nonetheless our repeated sightings—incl two adults giving their single juvenile a dance lesson on 9th, pretty much as soon as we set foot on the Plateau—was a cheering sight … and of course delighted our photographers!

Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii

24 bird-days. Noted on three dates—although our trip prioritized mammals, all present enjoyed taking time to watch a gathering of no fewer than nine of this enigmatic, monotypic family creature en route on 12th.

Solitary Snipe Gallinago solitaria

A single individual was seen up close at Nine Ibisbills Spot on 12th!

Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus

A single distant flock of 38 was all we managed …

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo ssp

One scoped in desert poplars on 22nd—its presence outraged the resident pair of Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus.

Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jokata

One along the Mekong on 16th.

Tibetan Grey Shrike Lanius giganteus

Singles were noted on two dates. IOC (2019) is finally poised to join the rest of us in accepting giganteus as a full species: “Tibetan Grey (or Giant) Shrike” L. giganteus may be split from Chinese Grey Shrike (Svensson et al. 2009, Olsson et al. 2010, Panov et al. 2011); await improved resolution of this complex. Zheng et al. (2011) list this taxon only for “E Qinghai, NE Xizang, N and W Sichuan.”

White-browed Tit Poecile superciliosus

14 bird-days. Noted on six dates—superb views of this highly specialized and very pretty species. Zheng et al. (2011) listed the species for only “S Gansu, S Xizang, E Qinghai, and N and W Sichuan.”

Bearded Tit Panurus biarmicus

69+ bird-days. A monotypic family species, these supremely attractive birds were very much in evidence at Koko Nor and in the Qaidam, with groups taking off suggesting an irruption in progress—42 in a morning near Golmud!

Mongolian Lark Melanocorypha mongolica

11 were noted on 22nd. Listed as “Least Concern” (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22717295/94526964), but a popular cage bird in China, and juveniles are collected from nests, very likely at least locally in unsustainable numbers.

Tarim Babbler Rhopophilus albosuperciliaris

Eight near Golmud on 20th—a sunny, calm morning (one of many we enjoyed) encouraged pairs of these often skulky birds to sit right out atop desert thornbushes, allowing scope viewing.

Kozlov’s Babax Babax koslowi

26+ bird-days. Recorded only near Nangqian—best of all was a presumed family of six … “[The species] is known by just a few scattered records in this inaccessible and poorly known area, but it appears to be genuinely rather scarce and localised” (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22716515/94497919#geographic-range).

Chinese Fulvetta Alcippe striaticollis

No fewer than 18—many of them seen extremely well—in forest S of Nangqian on 14th. Now listed as a sylviid babbler by IOC (https://www.worldbirdnames.org/bow/sylvias/), away from the Alcippe fulvettas (https://www.worldbirdnames.org/bow/babblers/). Zheng et al. (2011) listed its range as “S Gansu, SE and E Xizang, SE Qinghai, NW Yunnan and W Sichuan,” and the commonly accepted English name is thus somewhat misleading.

Przevalski’s Redstart Phoenicurus alashanicus

Five bird-days. Noted on two dates—three fairly obliging males w/ a female in a plantation on the S edge of the Qiadam on 20th did not quite do the photo op posing that we’d hoped for but did allow long scope views as they fed out in the afternoon sun.

Henri’s Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici

A feeding flock of 550 strung out across the slope at Er La: a very fine sight, and possibly the largest gathering ever recorded …

Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris

Seven bird-days. Noted on two dates near Nangqian—unexpected due to the lateness of the season: the extended scope views we had were enjoyed all the more.

Przevalski’s Finch Urocynchramus pylzowi

A flighty gathering of 15-20 found on 11th (once we’d finished watching and photographing a lone wolf!) incl several males sitting up for photos. Przevalski’s Finch is a not-to-be-taken-for-granted bird which has something to offer no matter what subspecies of birder you are: beauty, interesting behavior (notably its parachute type song-flight), odd song, as well as taxonomic interest (it has for some years now been known to represent a monotypic family). We have noted this species at no fewer than 12 sites!

Red-fronted Rosefinch Carpodacus punicea

Four bird-days. Unexpectedly—due to the lateness of the season—noted near Nangqian on three dates.

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos

26+ leaving roost, squabbling and flighty, taking turns to sit up nicely (but rarely for long!), near Dulan on 21st—at this season you’d normally be delighted to see one or two!

The supporting cast included Severtov’s Grouse Tetrastes severtzovi, Przevalski’s Alectoris magna and Daurian Partridge Perdix dauurica, Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus, Chinese Spotbill Anas zonorhyncha, Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus, Merlin Falco columbarius, Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus, Black Vulture Aegypius monachus, Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Himalayan and Upland Buzzard Buteo burmanicus and B. hemilasius, Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca, Demoiselle Crane Anthropoides virgo, Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, Great Black-headed (= Pallas’s) and Brown-headed Gull Larus ichtyaetus and L. brunnicephalus, Snow Pigeon Columba leuconota, Chinese Pied Woodpecker Dendrocopus cabanisi, Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus, Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni, Hume’s Groundpecker Pseudopodoces humilis, Sichuan Tit Poecile weigoldicus, Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus, Stoliczka’s Tit-warbler Leptopoecile sophiae, Elwe’s Horned Lark Eremophila elwesi, Gansu Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus kansuensis, Giant Laughingthrush Garrulax maximus, Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa, Hodgson’s Treecreeper Certhia hodgsoni, Kessler’s Thrush Turdus kessleri, Northern Red-Flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, White-throated Redstart Phoenicurus schisticeps, Tibetan Montifringilla adamsi, White-rumped Onychostruthus taczanowskii, and Rufous-necked and Blanford’s Snowfinch Pyrgilauda ruficollis and P. blanfordi, Robin, Rufous-browed, and Brown Accentor Prunella rubeculoides, P. strophiata and P. fulvescens, Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola, Brandt’s Mountain Finch Leucosticte brandti, Pink-rumped, Chinese White-browed, Eastern Great and Caucasian Great Rosefinch Carpodacus waltoni, C. dubius, C. rubicilloides and C. rubicilla, White-winged Grosbeak Mycerobas carniceps, and Godlewski’s and Little Bunting Emberiza godlewskii and E. pusilla.

Want more information on mammal- and bird-watching in Qinghai? Reach me at enquiries@greentours.co.uk. Good birding!

PHOTOS

qinghai birds
Jesper Hornskov’s mammal-watching tour ticked some of the most coveted birds of the Tibetan Plateau. Among them are (top row) Kozlov’s or Tibetan Babax Pterorhinus koslowi; second row, L-R: Henri’s or Tibetan Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici and Przevalski’s Finch Urocynchramus pylzowi; third row: Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii and Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae; and (bottom row) Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni. These species have been shaped by the harsh climate and isolation of the Rooftop of the World. Ibisbill, the sole species in the family Ibidorhynchidae, is a highly specialized shorebird adapted to life along shingle-bed rivers at high elevations. Henderson’s Ground Jay thrives in the high altitude semi-deserts of the Tibetan Plateau. Przevalski’s Finch is the sole member of the family Urocynchramidae and is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, as are Tibetan Babax, Tibetan Snowfinch, and Tibetan Partridge. (Craig Brelsford)
mammals-qinghai
Hornskov’s team saw some of the iconic mammals of the Tibetan Plateau, among them (top row) Tibetan Fox Vulpes ferrilata; second row, L-R: Tibetan Lynx Lynx lynx isabellinus and Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica; third row: Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur and Tibetan Antelope Panthalops hodgsonii; and (bottom row) Kiang or Tibetan Wild Ass Equus kiang. (Craig Brelsford)
hornskov-qinghai
Qinghai lies almost entirely on the Tibetan Plateau. The average elevation is more than 3000 m (9,800 ft.). The high elevation and arid climate make for a thin human population; though Qinghai is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Texas, it has only a fifth as many people. (Jesper Hornskov)
hornskov-kanda
Expeditionists return to base camp after scanning the slopes for mammals. The team was in the Kanda Mountains in southern Qinghai. (Jesper Hornskov)
birders in qinghai
Happy team members warm up after yet another exciting tick. Hornskov writes that his group experienced Qinghai ‘at a time of the year when few dedicated birdwatchers visit this unique land.’ (Jesper Hornskov)

EDITOR’S NOTE

This post is the latest addition to shanghaibirding.com’s extensive coverage of Qinghai. For the complete index to our posts, please see our page Birding in Qinghai. A list of our most prominent posts on Qinghai is below.

Summer-long Birding Expedition to Qinghai: Richly illustrated, 6-post series on a 57-day birdwatching expedition to Qinghai.

Mammals and Birds of the Tibetan Plateau: Exploring mountains as high as 5100 m (16,730 ft.), our team found 98 species of bird and many key mammals, among them Tibetan Wolf.

Tibetan Bunting Leads Parade of Tibetan Plateau Endemics in Qinghai: shanghaibirding.com founder Craig Brelsford led a three-person team on a 23-day trip to Qinghai.

In addition to coverage of Qinghai and our core area of Shanghai, shanghaibirding.com has extensive coverage of other areas of China, among them

Yunnan
Xinjiang
Sichuan
Northeast China

Featured image: Wildlife watchers scan the snowy landscape during a tour in October of Qinghai. (Jesper Hornskov)
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Qinghai, June-August 2016: Part 1

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

THE FIRST TWO WEEKS

birders
Mark Waters (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Elaine Du watch Himalayan Vulture at sunset on 3 July in Maduo County. The Yellow River is visible at their feet. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine Du and I spent the first two weeks of the Qinghai birding expedition, 26 June to 10 July 2016, with Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell and his old friend Mark Waters. We covered a vast area, ranging from Huzhu County on the Gansu border in northeast Qinghai to Ga’er Monastery (31.829966, 96.487758) in southern Qinghai, near the border with Tibet.

Among the 136 species of bird we found were 40 of Michael’s 45 hoped-for lifers. Highlights:

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

226 Common Merganser at Eling Lake

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

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

Tibetan Partridge
Tibetan Partridge at the nunnery, 5 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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

White Eared Pheasant
White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon dolani pause from their evening forage to gaze warily at the camera. Kanda Gorge, 5 July. White Eared Pheasant is listed as Near Threatened because of habitat loss and poaching. (Craig Brelsford)

5 Golden Eagle noted at various places

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

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

5 Ibisbill on tributaries of Mekong River in Nangqian County

Ibisbill
One of the stars of the Tibetan Plateau, Ibisbill is the sole species in the family Ibidorhynchidae. This highly specialized shorebird is adapted to life along shingle-bed rivers at elevations between 2000 m (6,560 ft.) and 4400 m (14,440 ft.). We found this pair in Yushu Prefecture in a stream next to the G214 at elev. 4020 m (13,190 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

21 Common Cuckoo and 7 Cuculus sp. Common Cuckoo were singing at elevations as high as 4300 m (14,110 ft.)

1 Black Woodpecker at Baizha Nature Reserve. Black Woodpecker is one of several species whose ranges cover northern-temperate Eurasia in a band from Europe to northeast China then spur southwestward to the Tibetan Plateau

1 Tiger Shrike at entrance to Kanda Gorge (32.277059, 96.485171). A highly unusual Qinghai record for this species

Tiger Shrike
This male Tiger Shrike stunned us. What was a mainly lowland species, usually found at altitudes no higher than 1000 m (3,280 ft.) and no further west than the Sichuan Basin, doing in Qinghai at elev. 3670 m (12,040 ft.)? (Craig Brelsford)

1 Black Drongo, another interesting record for Qinghai

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

Henderson's Ground Jay
Henderson’s Ground Jay, Chaka. (Craig Brelsford)

1 southern record of Mongolian Lark south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia

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

16 Sichuan Tit in Kanda Gorge and at Baizha Nature Reserve

7 White-browed Tit-Warbler at my reliable site (36.758683, 99.663055) near Heimahe as well as at Baizha

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

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

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

22 Sichuan Leaf Warbler at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

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

1 Dark-sided Flycatcher at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

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

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

47 Slaty-backed Flycatcher, all at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

Przevalski's Redstart
Przevalski’s Redstart, Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. We found a pair. Note black tail of female. (Craig Brelsford)

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

11 Plumbeous Water Redstart, all at lower elevations at Baizha

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

6 Güldenstädt’s Redstart breeding around Heimahe at elevations as low as 3800 m (12,470 ft.)

7 Chestnut Thrush in forests in Huzhu County

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

1 Maroon-backed Accentor at Baizha Nature Reserve

3 Przevalski’s Finch at two sites near Heimahe

3 White-winged Grosbeak near Chaka and in Kanda Gorge

2 Blanford’s Rosefinch at Baizha Nature Reserve

2 Tibetan Rosefinch on barren saddle, elev. 4700 m (15,420 ft.), above Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449)

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

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

13 Tibetan Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici, mainly around Ela Pass

10 Black-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla adamsi, including nesting pair near Heimahe at G109 KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861)

Black-winged Snowfinch
Black-winged Snowfinch Montifringilla adamsi looking warily at cameraman before entering its cavity nest. KM 2189.5, G109, near Qinghai Lake. 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)

2 Tibetan Bunting at Kanda Pass

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

Pine Bunting
Male Pine Bunting at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. Emberiza leucocephalos fronto is endemic to N Qinghai and adjacent Gansu. (Craig Brelsford)

Mammals: Tibetan Wild Ass (steppe, Maduo County), Pallas’s Cat (night view near Maduo [Machali]), Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa (Maduo [Machali]), Plateau Pika, Glover’s Pika (Yushu [Jiegu], Kanda Gorge, Baizha), Himalayan Marmot, Tibetan Antelope (steppe), Tibetan Fox (steppe, Maduo County), Red Fox (steppe near Qinghai Lake), White-lipped Deer (scrub near Heimahe), Tibetan Macaque (fully wild individuals in Baizha Nature Reserve), Blue Sheep (half-tame herds around Ga’er Monastery [31.829966, 96.487758])

Astronomy: Amazing views of Milky Way, rings of Saturn, and bands of Jupiter as well as Jupiter’s Galilean moons on clear night in steppe near Maduo (Machali), elev. 4200 m (13,780 ft.). Used my Swarovski ATX-95.

MICHAEL’S FIRST BIG TICK: GANSU LEAF WARBLER

Gansu Leaf Warbler
Breeding Gansu Leaf Warbler in a stand of conifers at 36.973133, 102.441300 in Huzhu County, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)

On Sun. 26 June 2016, Michael Grunwell, Mark Waters, Elaine Du, and I flew from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Xining Caojiabao Airport. We rented a Mitsubishi Pajero from Shenzhou and drove 200 km (124 mi.) to Jiading (36.951698, 102.494353) in Haidong Prefecture. We checked in to the very comfortable Huzhu Yingyuan Hotel (Hùzhù Yíngyuàn Bīnguǎn [互助营苑宾馆], +86 (0) 972-8395288, 320 yuan, 36.951935, 102.480026).

The next morning, Mon. 27 June, in the gardens near the hotel we noted singing Siberian Rubythroat. Juvenile Hodgson’s Redstart were numerous, a Chestnut Thrush was collecting worms, and we found Chinese Nuthatch and Elliot’s Laughingthrush.

After breakfast, driving along the Datong River, we quickly found Michael’s target species, Gansu Leaf Warbler. It was making its easily recognizable trill from the crown of trees near the busy S302. The warbler did not show. Thinking we would find plenty of Gansu Leaf Warbler elsewhere, we drove to Zhalong Gou Scenic Area. There we noted Large-billed Warbler and Greenish Warbler but no more Gansu Leaf Warbler.

We doubled back to the hotel and checked out. We drove northwest on the S302. We enjoyed extended views of Gansu Leaf Warbler in a stand of conifers at 36.973133, 102.441300. At the pass and at the areas below the pass we found Blue-fronted Redstart and heard Chinese White-browed Rosefinch.

A BAGFUL OF LIFE BIRDS AT QINGHAI LAKE

Przewalski's
Przewalski’s ‘Finch’ in song, scrub near KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861) on the G109, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)

We next drove 330 km (205 mi.) to Heimahe, a tourist center on the southwestern corner of Qinghai Lake. We checked in to Heimahe Business Hotel (Hēimǎhé Shāngwù Bīnguǎn [黑马河商务宾馆], +86 (0) 974-8519377, 36.722987, 99.784353).

Tues. 28 June was a banner day that saw Michael tick 13 lifers. We awoke at dawn to the sound of Black Redstart singing from the top of a nearby building. Alpine Chough flew over the heads of the crowd of tourists watching the sun rise. We drove west of Heimahe on the G109. Along the way we found Ground Tit and Rock Sparrow nesting in cavities on the wall of a ditch. We stopped at KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861) on the G109. Among the highlights there were Przevalski’s Finch, White-browed Tit, Tibetan Snowfinch raising young, and three species of accentor: Robin Accentor, Brown Accentor, and Rufous-breasted Accentor.

Rufous-breasted Accentor
Rufous-breasted Accentor Prunella strophiata (top L) and Robin Accentor P. rubeculoides, KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861), 28 June. These high-country specialists are common residents of the Tibetan Plateau. (Craig Brelsford)

Kessler’s Thrush was singing at the top of the scrub-covered mountain (36.778217, 99.660255). I walked to that point, noting Twite and breeding Siberian Stonechat. Alpine Leaf Warbler were carrying cropfuls of grubs for their young, and Himalayan Vulture made a low flyover. We noted trip-first Upland Buzzard.

The long climb up the scrub-covered hill by KM 2189.5 tired everyone out. We drove back to Heimahe and rested.

In the late afternoon we birded the shore of the great inland sea. We took the G109 to 36.700053, 99.870267 and turned down a dirt track, noting our trip-first Isabelline Wheatear. We stopped and examined the lake at 36.727617, 99.883880. We had 5 Common Goldeneye, the only record of that species for the trip.

We drove along the S206 and were stunned by the thousands of yurts set up to attract tourists. The explosion of tourism along the lake has crowded out many wetland birds. After a long search we finally found a non-breeding pair of Black-necked Crane and Tibetan Lark. (To reach the mini-wetland where we found the crane and lark, leave the S206 for a dirt road at 36.750067, 99.772678. The wetland is at 36.756179, 99.785853.)

TIT-WARBLER MOUNTAIN

On Wed. 29 June our team returned to a spot I had discovered on my first trip to Qinghai in 2013. I call the spot “Tit-Warbler Mountain.” We drove to KM 2187 on the G109 and turned left onto a dirt road at 36.782112, 99.675814. We drove to the end of this dirt road (36.766994, 99.667711). We started walking toward the scrub-covered hill and topped out at the peak at 3620 masl (11,880 ft.) (36.758683, 99.663055). Along the way we found a party of White-browed Tit-Warbler, a splendid male Chinese Rubythroat, and Przevalski’s Finch. I am now 2 for 2 at that site for White-browed Tit-Warbler.

The rubythroat and tit-warblers were lifers for everyone but me. We also had Robin Accentor and Alpine Leaf Warbler. We failed to note Smoky Warbler and White-browed Tit, species I had noted on that hill in 2013. We found 10 White-lipped Deer, a species we have seen regularly at KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861) as well as on Tit-Warbler Mountain.

Michael was particularly happy, and everyone was amazed at the panorama of mountain, scrub, and pasture. High clouds softened the intense sun. We could see our Pajero in the valley far below, and in the hazy distance Qinghai Lake was blue, like a sea.

As we were watching the rubythroat, a pair of young Tibetan men arrived. They had seen us in the valley and followed us. One of the pair hardly spoke Mandarin, but the other was fluent, having attended university in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi. As Michael spent two years in Nanchang, we immediately had something to talk about. The young man said he would like to go abroad but cannot, because the Chinese government will not issue passports to young Tibetans. The Qinghai that for me is a paradise of birds and clean air is for this young man a place of restrictions and dilemmas. To be fair, though, one must note that just a few decades ago a university education for a Tibetan would have been unthinkable.

Driving back to Heimahe, we found Common Tern in a pond on the outskirts of town.

Rock Sparrow
Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia at nest hole, Dashui Reservoir (36.716292, 99.471655). (Craig Brelsford)

In the afternoon we drove 22 km (14 mi.) to Rubber Mountain Pass (36.754213, 99.606705), elev. 3817 m (12,520 ft.). Just below the pass we found Güldenstädt’s Redstart, a lifer for everyone in our party but me. We crossed the pass and on the Chaka side soon noted the transition from an alpine to semi-desert environment. The birds were different: Common Rock Thrush, Common Swift, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Desert Wheatear.

Near Dashui Qiao (36.691347, 99.457542), elev. 3370 m (11,060 ft.), we found a dirt track and pulled onto it. We followed it to Dashui Reservoir (36.716292, 99.471655). The Desert Wheatear, a pair, had chosen a prime spot for their nest, which we discovered in the tall bank of the creek. The mouth of this creek contained a Lesser Sand Plover. For neighbors the wheatear family had nesting Rock Sparrow.

CHAKA

Henderson's Ground Jay
Henderson’s Ground Jay in flight in scrub west of Chaka, 30 June. (Craig Brelsford)

On Thurs. 30 June we drove 80 km (50 mi.) from Heimahe to Chaka. We drove west of Chaka on the G109 and found the area well-known for Henderson’s Ground Jay. One good spot is just past KM 2266 if one is heading west from Chaka. The coordinates are 36.777162, 98.960870. We did not find Henderson’s Ground Jay here, but the habitat is ideal, and very importantly one can drive into the chaparral at this point. The other point, 36.772307, 98.945571, is just before KM 2268 heading west from Chaka. Here we found 2 Henderson’s Ground Jay. One cannot drive off the dangerous G109 at this point. We parked as far off the road as possible. There is no shoulder, and the road is elevated. Cars zoom by.

We found the ground jays in the late afternoon, after rainstorms had cleared the already very clean air. The air was cool and refreshing, the views superb. The Chaka area is the very definition of a basin. Mountains, the higher ones lightly dusted with newly fallen snow, surround the ground-jay spot. The vegetation is old; the woody bushes occupy little clumps of earth created by the holding action of the roots over the decades. The ground jays perch atop the bushes.

PRZEVALSKI’S SITE

Dulan Mountains
Proud and strong, this Chinese Juniper Juniperus chinensis has gazed out at the Dulan Mountains for 200 years. It clings to the slope at elevation 3960 m (12,990 ft.) at the location we call Przevalski’s Site. (Craig Brelsford)

Fri. 1 July saw us note Przevalski’s Redstart and Pine Bunting. We drove 82.7 km (51.4 mi.) west from Chaka to the turnoff at KM 2335.5 on the G109. We negotiated the dirt road carefully in our high-clearance Pajero. We parked at the entrance to the valley. Nothing had changed since my last visit in 2013. Chinese Juniper Juniperus chinensis stud the slopes, some of the trees centuries old.

Przevalski’s Partridge did not appear, so I climbed to the ridge, elev. 3990 m (13,090 ft.). Michael, Mark, and Elaine stood ready below, around the spotting scope. I saw a nesting pair of White-throated Redstart at 3960 m (12,990 ft.). I reached the ridge and walked into the next valley. I heard a single Przevalski’s Partridge calling, but Michael and Mark weren’t going to climb 400 m (1,310 ft.) from the valley floor to get to this valley. I returned to the ridge and walked back down. En route I noted Blue-fronted Redstart and Alpine Leaf Warbler. White-lipped Deer were in the scrub.

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

Michael walked up the valley to meet me. At 36.462925, 98.50332 he found Przevalski’s Redstart. He radioed me with the news, and I scrambled down the valley toward him. A male and female were together. Michael, Mark, and Elaine had a life bird.

ELA PASS AND MADUO

flat tire
On 2 July at Ela Pass Michael Grunwell guided me as I changed a flat tire. (Elaine Du)

On Sat. 2 July, the team explored Ela Pass (Èlā Shānkǒu [鄂拉山口]), elev. 4700 m (15,420 ft.). We were looking for three “Tibetans” and found one: Tibetan Rosefinch. A flat tire ate into our time today and precluded a trip to the top.

Another interesting record today was Mongolian Lark found at KM 197 on G214 south of Gonghe (共和). The elevation at that spot is 3110 m (10,200 ft.). This region of Qinghai must be the far southern extension of the range of Mongolian Lark. Just south of KM 197, the land tilts upward, the average elevation is higher by about 1000 m (3,280 ft.), and the vegetation changes from high-arid to alpine.

WHERE CHINA BEGINS

Brelsford at Eling
Elaine got this shot of me walking along the shore of Eling Lake, my camera and tripod in the foreground. (Elaine Du)

On Sun. 3 July our team drove west of Maduo-Machali to Eling Lake, one of the sources of the Yellow River, which is the source of Chinese civilization. At the place where China begins, we found 225 Common Merganser, 250 Bar-headed Goose, 2 Red-crested Pochard, 1 Common Pochard, and 27 Himalayan Vulture devouring the carcass of a sheep. On the high-altitude steppe between Maduo-Machali and the lake we found 2 Black-necked Crane, 27 Tibetan Wild Ass, 25 Tibetan Gazelle, and a Tibetan Fox.

Here near its source China’s Mother River runs clear and cold, a mountain stream. The steppe is remarkably flat and vast. Sunset was a marvel.

After the sun set, we chose a spot on the range and set up my spotting scope. We saw the bands on Jupiter as well as the moons of that giant planet, and we saw the rings of Saturn. The Milky Way was so bright, it looked like haze.

Driving back to Maduo-Machali, our headlights caught the eye shine of a plump little Pallas’s Cat. Crossing the road were 2 long-eared, whip-tailed Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa.

TWO MIGHTY RIVERS

On 4 July, our team crossed the Yellow River and the Yangtze River in the same day. We drove from the Yellow River town of Maduo-Machali to Yushu-Jiegu, the major Tibetan cultural center just south of the Tongtian River, i.e., the upper Yangtze.

En route we noted Black Drongo at an elevation of 4230 m (13,880 ft.), an unusual record. We found high-altitude specialist Streaked Rosefinch and breeding Greenish Warbler at 4460 m (14,630 ft.). We drove over Bayankala Pass, elev. 4824 m (15,827 ft.), higher than Mont Blanc, and explored an extensive stretch of untouched scrub at Yankou Shan.

From Yankou Shan, elev. 4460 m (14,630 ft.), we practically coasted down to Jiégǔ/Yùshù, elev. 3700 m (12,140 ft.). Along the way we found 2 Ibisbill fleeing the flooded stream. Mammal of the day was Glover’s Pika, found at elev. 3700 m (12,140 ft.), north of the Tongtian.

GET THEE TO THE NUNNERY (IN KANDA GORGE)!

Tues. 5 July: In China, Buddhist sites are famous for doubling as nature reserves. Take for example the nunnery in Kanda Gorge, north of Nangqian in Qinghai. Nestled deep in the canyon, the steep limestone walls holding the world out, the nunnery is a refuge for Tibetan Partridge and Tibetan Babax, species endemic to the Tibetan Plateau. Today I had the pleasure of watching Michael Grunwell, his old friend Mark Waters, and my wife Elaine add them to their life list.

Kanda holds another major Tibetan: Tibetan Bunting, found today by us at Kanda Pass, elev. 4650 m (15,260 ft.).

Far below, we found a pair of White Eared Pheasant feeding with Woolly Hare. We had another White Eared Pheasant at the entrance to Kanda Gorge, the Mekong River coursing below. Also near the mouth of the gorge, we had our surprise record of the day: Tiger Shrike.

We counted 72 Common Rosefinch, most of them in large flocks assembling toward sunset. We found it strange that the rosefinches would be forming large flocks during breeding season.

7 JULY

Elaine and Tibetans
Elaine Du asks local Tibetans about Blood Pheasant, at gate (31.882305, 96.556738) to Baizha Nature Reserve. (Craig Brelsford)

We’re in Nangqian, Qinghai. Today Elaine talked Blood Pheasant with Tibetans. We are trying to find Blood Pheasant in Baizha Forest and thought these gentlemen may know where to go. Craig admired a fine painting of male Hodgson’s Redstart outside our hotel room in Nangqian. What a nice touch, honoring your local birds in your hotel.

8 JULY: ​INCREDIBLE, BEAUTIFUL BAIZHA FOREST & GA’ER TEMPLE

Michael Grunwell used my scope to scan the slopes around Ga’er Temple, Nangqian County, Yùshù Prefecture, Qinghai. In the background you could see one of the main buildings of the temple clinging to the mountain at the lofty elevation of 4200 m (13,780 ft.). While we scanned, friendly Tibetan monks and pilgrims passed by, Bearded Vulture passed overhead, no less than six species of crow were making a living, Kessler’s Thrush and Rufous-breasted Accentor added beauty, and half-tame Blue Sheep were clinging to the cliff faces.

​POST TO SHANGHAI BIRDING WECHAT GROUP

Tues. 12 July 12:34 pm

QINGHAI UPDATE: Hello Shanghai Birders from beautiful Yushu, Qinghai! This past weekend, the second week of Elaine’s and my Qinghai expedition ended with Blanford’s Rosefinch, Black Woodpecker, and White Eared Pheasant at Baizha Forest on Fri. 8 July and on Sat. 9 July Tibetan Babax at mouth of Kanda Gorge and Ibisbill in stream along G214.

Featured image: Michael Grunwell (L) carries spotting scope to view waterfowl on Eling Lake, near the source of the Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai, 3 July 2016. To the right is Mark Waters, Michael’s old friend from England. In the background is our rented Mitsubishi Pajero. Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du were in Qinghai from 26 June to 21 August 2016. We spent the first two weeks of our expedition with Michael and Mark and noted 136 species. (Craig Brelsford)

PHOTOS

ruddy shelduck
Ruddy Shelduck on shore of Qinghai Lake, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
carcass and vulture
Himalayan Vulture lurks near carcass, 4 July. (Craig Brelsford)
elaine chaka
Elaine Du searching for Henderson’s Ground Jay in arid country west of Chaka. (Craig Brelsford)
kanda nunnery
Main house of worship at the Kanda Nunnery. Around this building gather semi-tame flocks of Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae, and Tibetan Babax Pterorhinus koslowi is reliably found nearby. Coordinates: 32.291512, 96.512200. Elev.: 3910 m (12,830 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Kanda Gorge
Prayer wheels in Kanda Gorge. (Craig Brelsford)
Grunwell, Ela Pass, Qinghai
Michael Grunwell above Ela Pass, Qinghai, 2 July. Coordinates: 35.497253, 99.518350. Elev.: 4610 m (15,130 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Qinghai
The Przevalski’s Site is in the Dulan Mountains 82.7 km (51.4 mi.) west of Chaka on the G109. It is a reliable spot for China endemics Przevalski’s Partridge Alectoris magna and Przevalski’s Redstart Phoenicurus alaschanicus, and lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of Tibetan Wolf Canus lupus filchneri. Coordinates: 36.467217, 98.499595. Elev.: 3910 m (12,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Blue-fronted Redstart
Blue-fronted Redstart showing inverted T on tail. Huzhu Beishan, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)
black-redstart
Black Redstart, Heimahe, Qinghai, June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Bar-headed Goose
Bar-headed Goose, Qinghai Lake, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub-covered mountainside
Scrub-covered mountainside above KM 2189.5 on the G109 near Qinghai Lake, Qinghai, 28 June. This site is a reliable spot for Przevalski’s Finch Urocynchramus pylzowi. Other birds using the scrub are White-browed Tit-Warbler Leptopoecile sophiae, White-browed Tit Poecile superciliosus, Smoky Warbler Phylloscopus fuligiventer, and Robin Accentor Prunella rubeculoides. Coordinates of this site: 36.778217, 99.660255. Elevation: 3580 m (11,730 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
White-rumped Snowfinch
White-rumped Snowfinch contorting its head in territorial display, along G109 near Qinghai Lake, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Left wing-flick.
Left wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)
Right wing-flick.
Right wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)
Bar-headed Goose
Bar-headed Goose stands at the point where high-altitude Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River, 3 July. (Craig Brelsford)
Michael Grunwell
Michael Grunwell scans scrub for birds in Kanda Mountains, 5 July. High-quality scrub is just one of the many attractions of this pristine location in Nangqian County. The slopes hold White Eared Pheasant and Tibetan Partridge, and among the animals found here is Tibetan Lynx. (Craig Brelsford)

INDEX

“Qinghai, June-August 2016” contains an introduction and six parts. This is Part 1.

Introduction: A Summer in Qinghai
Part 1: Weeks 1 & 2
NEXT: Part 2: Weeks 3 & 4
Part 3: Weeks 5 & 6
Part 4: Week 7
Part 5: Week 8
Part 6: Facts & Figures

This report is part of shanghaibirding.com’s extensive coverage of Qinghai. For the complete index to our posts on Qinghai, please see our page Birding in Qinghai. A list of our most prominent reports on Qinghai is below.

Mammals and Birds of the Tibetan Plateau: Exploring mountains as high as 5100 m (16,730 ft.), our team found 98 species of bird and many key mammals, among them Tibetan Wolf.

Tibetan Bunting Leads Parade of Tibetan Plateau Endemics in Qinghai: shanghaibirding.com founder Craig Brelsford led a three-person team on a 23-day trip to Qinghai.

Qinghai in October: Jesper Hornskov and his team noted 178 species of bird in October, a time of year, Hornskov writes, “when few dedicated birdwatchers visit this unique land.”

In addition to coverage of Qinghai and our core area of Shanghai, shanghaibirding.com has extensive coverage of other areas of China, among them

Yunnan
Xinjiang
Sichuan
Northeast China

Featured image: Birders walk near the shore of Eling Lake, a part of the young Yellow River. (Craig Brelsford)
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