Przevalski’s FinchUrocynchramus pylzowi is neither finch nor bunting but the sole member of its own family, Urocynchramidae. Its outer primary is two-thirds the length of the next primary—in finches and buntings, this feather is vestigial. The tail is long and graduated, with the outer feathers much shorter than the central ones, much unlike the typically notched tail of a true finch. Przevalski’s Finch diverged from what became Fringillidae and Emberizidae before those families were established in their present forms. It also has a well-developed tenth primary, whereas in typical finches and in buntings the tenth primary is vestigial. It is endemic to China, its range centering on Qinghai; also present in eastern Tibet, western Sichuan, and southwestern Gansu. Occurs at elevations between 3050 m and 5000 m (10,010-16,400 ft.). Inhabits scrubby hillsides and rhododendron thickets near water; often on ground, sometimes (particularly outside breeding season) in flocks. Both sexes have crown and upperparts buff-brown (neck more grey, most obvious in male, which also may show rose-pink tinge on upperparts), finely streaked blackish on crown and rump and broadly streaked blackish on mantle and back. Male is rose-pink on short supercilium, throat, breast, undertail coverts, and outermost tail feathers (folded tail looks entirely red from below), and has whitish lower belly and flanks, the latter with slight dark streaking. Buff tips to greater coverts form indistinct wing bar. Female lacks rose-pink; has whitish-buff lores, supercilium and underparts, and is finely streaked blackish on breast and flanks. Juvenile similar to female but more heavily streaked and with obvious rufous wing-panel. Long-tailed Rosefinch has double white wingbars. Bill thinner than bill of rosefinches: brown above, pinkish below. Feet brown. Song a hurried, unmelodious phrase of scratchy whistles and chirps, reminiscent of a reed bunting’s but with the rhythm of goldfinch. Call somewhat resembles a deep, scratchy Eurasian Tree Sparrow; another is a metallic trill. — Craig Brelsford
See our coverage below for descriptions and photos of this unusual bird of the Tibetan Plateau. Write us: email@example.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 PikaOchotona huangensis, Pallas’s CatFelis manul, LynxLynx lynx, Snow LeopardUncia uncial, WolfCanis lupus (21 individuals!), Tibetan FoxVulpes ferrilata, Mountain WeaselMustela altaica, Kiang (= Tibetan Wild Ass) Equus kiang, Wild BoarSus scrofa (a range extension!), Alpine Musk DeerMoschus chrysogaster, White-lipped DeerPrzewalskium albirostris in full rut, the ultra-rare Przevalski’s GazelleProcapra przewalskii, Wild YakBos grunniens, ArgaliOvis ammon, Tibetan AntelopePanthalops hodgsonii, and Blue SheepPseudois nayaur.
Among the highlights/my personal favourites/most interesting records were:
Szechenyi’s Monal-PartridgeTetraophasis 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 SnowcockTetraogallus 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 PartridgePerdix 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 PheasantIthaginis cruentus
A covey of no fewer than 24 scoped out on a bare slope near Nangqian on 16th.
White Eared PheasantCrossoptilon crossoptilon
470 bird-days. Noted near Nangqian on three dates, incl a shocking 355 in a day!
Blue Eared PheasantCrossoptilon 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.
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!
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 GoshawkAccipiter gentilis
Seven bird-days. Noted on four dates—not a local speciality, granted, but typically a species hard to get prolonged looks at …
Steppe EagleAquila 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 CraneGrus 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!
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 SnipeGallinago solitaria
A single individual was seen up close at Nine Ibisbills Spot on 12th!
Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus
A single distant flock of 38 was all we managed …
Eurasian Eagle-OwlBubo bubo ssp
One scoped in desert poplars on 22nd—its presence outraged the resident pair of Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus.
Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jokata
One along the Mekong on 16th.
Tibetan Grey ShrikeLanius 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 TitPoecile 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 TitPanurus 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 LarkMelanocorypha 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 BabblerRhopophilus 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 BabaxBabax 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 FulvettaAlcippe 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 RedstartPhoenicurus 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 SnowfinchMontifringilla 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 AccentorPrunella 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 FinchUrocynchramus 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 RosefinchCarpodacus punicea
Four bird-days. Unexpectedly—due to the lateness of the season—noted near Nangqian on three dates.
Pine BuntingEmberiza 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 GrouseTetrastes severtzovi, Przevalski’s Alectoris magna and Daurian PartridgePerdix dauurica, Bar-headed GooseAnser indicus, Chinese SpotbillAnas zonorhyncha, Black StorkCiconia nigra, Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus, MerlinFalco columbarius, Oriental Honey BuzzardPernis ptilorhynchus, Black VultureAegypius monachus, Western Marsh HarrierCircus aeruginosus, Himalayan and Upland BuzzardButeo burmanicus and B. hemilasius, Eastern Imperial EagleAquila heliaca, Demoiselle CraneAnthropoides virgo, Eurasian WoodcockScolopax rusticola, Great Black-headed (= Pallas’s) and Brown-headed GullLarus ichtyaetus and L. brunnicephalus, Snow PigeonColumba leuconota, Chinese Pied WoodpeckerDendrocopus cabanisi, Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus, Henderson’s Ground JayPodoces hendersoni, Hume’s GroundpeckerPseudopodoces humilis, Sichuan TitPoecile weigoldicus, Asian House MartinDelichon dasypus, Stoliczka’s Tit-warblerLeptopoecile sophiae, Elwe’s Horned LarkEremophila elwesi, Gansu Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus kansuensis, Giant LaughingthrushGarrulax maximus, Chinese NuthatchSitta villosa, Hodgson’s TreecreeperCerthia hodgsoni, Kessler’s ThrushTurdus kessleri, Northern Red-Flanked BluetailTarsiger cyanurus, White-throated RedstartPhoenicurus schisticeps, TibetanMontifringilla adamsi, White-rumpedOnychostruthus taczanowskii, and Rufous-necked and Blanford’s SnowfinchPyrgilauda ruficollis and P. blanfordi, Robin, Rufous-browed, and Brown AccentorPrunella rubeculoides, P. strophiata and P. fulvescens, Citrine WagtailMotacilla citreola, Brandt’s Mountain FinchLeucosticte brandti, Pink-rumped, Chinese White-browed, Eastern Great and Caucasian Great RosefinchCarpodacus waltoni, C. dubius, C. rubicilloides and C. rubicilla, White-winged GrosbeakMycerobas carniceps, and Godlewski’s and Little BuntingEmberiza godlewskii and E. pusilla.
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.
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:
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
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
1 Black Drongo, another interesting record for Qinghai
Mammals: Tibetan Wild Ass (steppe, Maduo County), Pallas’s Cat (night view near Maduo [Machali]), Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa (Maduo [Machali]), Plateau Pika, Glover’s Pika (Yushu [Jiegu], Kanda Gorge, Baizha), Himalayan Marmot, Tibetan Antelope (steppe), Tibetan Fox (steppe, Maduo County), Red Fox (steppe near Qinghai Lake), White-lipped Deer (scrub near Heimahe), Tibetan Macaque (fully wild individuals in Baizha Nature Reserve), Blue Sheep (half-tame herds around Ga’er Monastery [31.829966, 96.487758])
Astronomy: Amazing views of Milky Way, rings of Saturn, and bands of Jupiter as well as Jupiter’s Galilean moons on clear night in steppe near Maduo (Machali), elev. 4200 m (13,780 ft.). Used my Swarovski ATX-95.
MICHAEL’S FIRST BIG TICK: GANSU LEAF WARBLER
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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)
“Qinghai, June-August 2016” contains an introduction and six parts. This is Part 1.
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.
Our three-person team drove 4724 km in 23 days, beginning and ending in Lánzhōu, Gansu. Most of our time was spent in Qinghai. We ranged from Hùzhù Běishān on the northeastern border with Gansu to Nángqiān in the south near Tibet. We also visited Qinghai Lake and the desert around Chákǎ. In Gansu, we made a foray east of Lánzhōu to Yùzhōng.
— Finding 136 species of bird amid some of the most dramatic scenery on earth
— Photographing Tibetan Snowcock in a snowstorm on Èlā Mountain
— Scrambling up a steep hillside to get photographs of Rusty-necklaced Partridge in the Dūlán Mountains
— Following a flock of Mongolian Ground Jay for an exhilarating hour at Chákǎ
— Scrambling up a mountain near Bayan Har Pass, topping out at 5078 m (the highest I’ve ever been in my life), and finding a baby Tibetan Gazelle near the summit
— Finding and photographing Tibetan Bunting on Mt. Kǎndá
— Finding Tibetan Partridge and Tibetan Babax in Kǎndá Gorge
— Getting sustained views of Przevalski’s Finch at Hēimǎhé
— Spending quiet time with Tibetan Rosefinch on Èlā Mountain
— Enjoying the stunning scenery near Gǎ’ěr Monastery, and finding a herd of 25 Blue Sheep there
— Driving for thousands of kilometers in some of the remotest country in China without a major breakdown, and living for more than three weeks at high altitude without any member of my team suffering a serious health problem
Fri. 19 July 2013
Huángzhōng (湟中), Qinghai
I awoke at my apartment in Shanghai at 0500. My flight to Lánzhōu (兰州), capital of Gansu, took off from Hóngqiáo Airport at 0810, 25 minutes behind schedule. The weather in Lánzhōu was cool (18°C) and clear, buoying my spirits as I took the shuttle bus into town. In Lánzhōu I met my partners, Jon Gallagher, a British-American birder from Maryland, and Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安), a birder from Beijing. Jon, ranked 35th on the surfbirds.com list of persons who have viewed the most species of bird, had a simple goal: to add to his list of more than 7,200 species. Xiǎo Ān, a new birder, speaks some English, and she provided invaluable services as our fixer. She even occasionally relieved me of the duties of driving. My goal for this, my first trip to Gansu and Qinghai, was to collect photographs of as many new species as possible. Good photos would be used in the book I’m writing, a photographic field guide to the birds of China. I am the sole writer and chief photographer of the photographic field guide. Our rental-car agency was Lánzhōu Bǎolái Qìchē Zūlìn (兰州宝来汽车租赁; +86 138-9335-3591; ask for Chén Chén [陈晨]). There, we picked up our Nissan Paladin (in China, the Nissan Xterra is called the “Paladin”). Renting the Paladin cost 450 yuan per day. We went to the grocery store to stock up. In the store, we saw a Eurasian Tree SparrowPasser montanus. We saw Eurasian Tree Sparrow in every town and village and occasionally in more out-of-the-way places. We headed west out of Lánzhōu. We entered Qinghai and drove through Xīníng (西宁). We wanted to drive all the way to Hēimǎhé (黑马河) on Qinghai Lake, but a traffic jam in Xīníng slowed our progress. We spent the night at a truck stop in Huángzhōng.
Sat. 20 July 2013
We drove to Qinghai Lake. We stopped at a village in Èrlángjiàn (二郎剑) at the southeastern corner of that inland sea. Here we saw our first Black RedstartPhoenicurus ochruros. Black Redstart would be one of the most commonly seen birds on the trip, occurring in towns and villages, on farms, around ruins, along roads, and in mountains. We saw Ground TitPseudopodoces humilis. Formerly thought to be the world’s smallest crow, Ground Tit now holds the title of world’s largest tit. Throughout the trip, we saw this species regularly above 2500 m. At the village we saw a pair of Hill PigeonColumba rupestris, another bird found nearly everywhere we went. Also here were Feral PigeonColumba livia. We left the village and drove down a dirt road leading toward the lake. I found and photographed my first Isabelline WheatearOenanthe isabellina. We saw our first Horned LarkEremophila alpestris. Horned Lark would be seen in nearly every environment we traversed, from the deserts around Chákǎ to the cold mountain pass at Èlā. In most places, they were the most abundant lark. Another common lark was Oriental SkylarkAlauda gulgula. We found Oriental Skylark in most of the grasslands we visited. Still another common lark was Hume’s Short-toed LarkCalandrella acutirostris. We saw Rock SparrowPetronia petronia. We saw about 30 Pallas’s GullIchthyaetus ichthyaetus. We saw our first of many Upland BuzzardButeo hemilasius. Upland Buzzard was by far the most commonly noted raptor on the trip, seen in nearly all types of habitat. From Hēimǎhé we drove into the Rubber Mountains, stopping at km 2189.5 on the G109. The most numerous snowfinch there was Rufous-necked SnowfinchPyrgilauda ruficollis. We saw about 25. Rufous-necked Snowfinch was the most commonly seen snowfinch on our trip. We saw two of the big scavengers of the Tibetan Plateau: Bearded VultureGypaetus barbatus and Himalayan VultureGyps himalayensis. We saw Himalayan Vulture in most places we visited and Bearded Vulture in a few. We saw Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto. Passerines: Grey-backed ShrikeLanius tephronotus, about 20 Tibetan SnowfinchMontifringilla adamsi, a single male Streaked RosefinchCarpodacus rubicilloides, TwiteLinaria flavirostris, Eurasian MagpiePica pica, and Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchos. The latter two species were commonly encountered in various habitats and at various elevations throughout the Qinghai trip. We saw Grey WagtailMotacilla cinerea and White WagtailMotacilla alba; we spotted these species at various places in Qinghai. We saw no Citrine Wagtail anywhere on the Qinghai trip. We saw our first Red-rumped SwallowCecropis daurica as well as our first Asian House MartinDelichon dasypus. We would encounter these species at various locations in Qinghai, with the swallows being more common than the martins. We checked into Mínzú Bīnguǎn (民族宾馆; +86 974-8519360). Accommodations were spartan, and my bathroom stank, but the staff was friendly.
Sun. 21 July 2013
All morning at km 2189.5; photographed Przevalski’s FinchUrocynchramus pylzowi. I found a male and a female. Neither finch nor bunting, Przevalski’s “Finch” is rather something in between, having diverged from what became Fringillidae and Emberizidae before those families were established in their present forms. Its graduated tail is much unlike the tail of a true finch, and it has a well-developed tenth primary, whereas in typical finches and in buntings the tenth primary is vestigial. We saw 5 Robin AccentorPrunella rubeculoides. Robin Accentor was one of the more common birds around Hēimǎhé; we were seeing about 20 per day in our three days there. Almost as numerous was its congener, Brown AccentorPrunella fulvescens. I captured a spectacular set of photographs of a juvenile Rosy PipitAnthus roseatus. We saw two species of mammal. One was a Woolly Hare Lepus oiostolus. It fed unconcerned by us even as we crawled to within 5 m of it. I’ve seen hares in petting zoos more fearful of humans than was this totally wild individual. We inadvertently startled a Red Deer Cervus elaphus. The individual, a fawn, galloped up the scrubby hill, showing great stamina at that altitude, and disappeared beyond the crest. We saw two species of Phylloscopus warbler: Smoky WarblerPhylloscopus fuligiventer and Alpine Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus occisinensis. We ended up seeing about 20 per day in the area. I got a record shot of Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus. We frequently came upon Siberian StonechatSaxicola maurus. I drove the team to “Rubber Mountain Pass” (elev. 3817 m), where for the first time I saw Güldenstädt’s RedstartPhoenicurus erythrogastrus; we found a male and a female. I saw a single Tibetan LarkMelanocorypha maxima and Tibetan Snowfinch. On the western side of the pass, the climate was noticeably dryer. After taking a nap in the quiet desert, we drove back to km 2189.5. As we were walking through the valley, we witnessed a serious two-car accident. The driver of an expensive SUV had foolhardily tried to overtake an 18-wheeler going uphill; a car coming downhill in the opposite lane couldn’t brake in time, and the SUV swerved to avoid a head-on collision. The two vehicles glanced off each other, but the impact was still great. Although uninjured, the persons involved must have been horrified by the near-fatal collision; they sat miserably on the side of the road, awaiting rescue. The SUV couldn’t be moved and continued to block traffic in the right-hand lane. Watching through my binoculars, I was reminded of how dangerous driving is in China, and I vowed to do everything I could to avoid an accident. We were unable to find Alashan Redstart. Jon saw a single Salim Ali’s Swift, and we all saw many House SwiftApus nipalensis as well as Common SwiftApus apus. A pair of Rosy Pipit had a nest in the area. I photographed my first Himalayan Marmot Marmota himalayana of the trip. At the car, I photographed my first Eurasian HoopoeUpupa epops of the trip.
Heading back toward Hēimǎhé, our team explored a side valley unmentioned in others’ reports. Just at the entrance to this valley, we were delighted by a pair of Plateau Pika Ochotona curzoniae. The pair was more curious than afraid of our car and posed at the entrance to their burrow. I photographed a Red-billed ChoughPyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax. Back at Hēimǎhé, near Qinghai Lake, we found about 12 Brown-headed GullChroicocephalus brunnicephalus. The gulls were in breeding plumage, showing the distinctive brown head with black border. Jon used the spotting scope to find 4 Black-necked CraneGrus nigricollis, around 20 Bar-headed GooseAnser indicus, and 10 Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea. There were 6 MallardAnas platyrhynchos, a fast-flying flock of 12 Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo, Common TernSterna hirundo, and Eastern Cattle EgretBulbulcus coromandus. We saw a Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius.
Mon. 22 July 2013
At Hēimǎhé this morning we drove up the new valley. An old Tibetan lady needed a ride, so we took her with us up the dirt road. She spoke only Tibetan. Driving up the valley, we photographed a male Güldenstädt’s Redstart. We found 3 Pale MartinRiparia diluta. As we were walking toward the first scrub-covered mountain, we saw a herd of 9 Red Deer on the ridge top. As we were walking up the mountain, we saw 10 Robin Accentor in perfect early-morning light. The handsome birds were perching atop the bushes and singing. Even though we were early in the trip, the high altitude, lack of sleep, and lack of regular meals were already wearing me down. But watching those beautiful accentors, my energy came back. On the mountain, I got views and photos of 2 White-browed TitPoecile superciliosus and 3 White-browed Tit-warblerLeptopoecile sophiae. We saw 2 Smoky Warbler. Jon and I spent a little time nailing the ID of the Smoky Warbler. A combination of geographical location, plumage (non-barred, “brown” Phylloscopus), and especially voice compelled our ID. Using my neat new Olympus DM-650, I recorded this individual’s powerful song; later, I compared my recording to recordings downloaded from xeno-canto.org. Here is the song I recorded of the Smoky Warbler (01:38; 2.4 MB):
We saw Blue-fronted RedstartPhoenicurus frontalis. With their blue hood, adult males are unmistakable; females are distinguishable from other Phoenicurus females by the presence of black tips to all tail feathers and by the clicking contact call. A pair of Twite had made a nest on the mountainside. We drove to Hēimǎhé for lunch, then back across the Rubber Mountains, stopping again at Rubber Mountain Pass. I once again noted the many Tibetan Snowfinch there. Near Chákǎ, we saw Isabelline Wheatear along the road. After checking into Qīngyán Bīnguǎn (青盐宾馆; +86 977-8240254) in Chákǎ, we drove about 10 km west of the small city. There, we found habitat suitable for Mongolian Ground JayPodoces hendersoni. Sure enough, we saw 2 through Jon’s spotting scope. I walked in, camera in hand. Jon, standing near the car on the side of the G109, guided me by walkie-talkie. I was unable to track down the ground jays. In the flat chaparral I found Asian Short-toed LarkCalandrella cheleensis. We drove back through town to a random spot east of town on the highway. Along the way we found Black-faced BuntingEmberiza spodocephala. We saw 10 Common RedshankTringa totanus. We walked into the desert. Mrs. Huáng found a single Mongolian Ground Jay and photographed it. I arrived too late to see the ground jay.
Tue. 23 July 2013
At 0500 our team drove west of Chákǎ along the G109. Peter Collaerts, a Fleming who had recently been to Qinghai, recommended a place to me. We left the highway and drove slowly across the desert to the base of the Dūlán (都兰) Mountains. We started walking. Soon we saw Alashan RedstartPhoenicurus alaschanicus, also known as Przevalski’s Redstart. Eating breakfast on the mountainside with Jon, we heard the calls of Rusty-necklaced PartridgeAlectoris magna. A covey of 20 to 25 moved down slope. I climbed up the mountainside to meet them. It was exhausting work to climb a mountain at 3800 m with 13 kg of gear. Rusty-necklaced Partridge ranges from northern Qinghai to central Gansu. It’s very similar to Chukar Partridge, being distinguished from it by the russet line running alongside the black line on its ear coverts and neck sides. A family of 8 Eurasian Hoopoe was present in the valley. We saw and heard Red-billed Chough, Meadow BuntingEmberiza cioides, a single Carrion CrowCorvus corone, and Himalayan Vulture. Down the valley, near the abandoned farm buildings, we found a pair of Rock Sparrow, an Oriental Skylark, and a pair of Black Redstart. After a long rest, we drove across the arid rangeland toward Chákǎ. Turning down another dirt road, we found a Desert WheatearOenanthe deserti. Farther along the G109, we stopped yet again, having seen a large raptor on the ground a few hundred meters away. It was only an Upland Buzzard. In the distance were 3 male Tibetan Gazelle Procapra picticaudata. I photographed 2 White-rumped SnowfinchOnychostruthus taczanowskii. The snowfinches stayed near a colony of Plateau Pika. Exhausted, we drove slowly back to Chákǎ.
Wed. 24 July 2013
In the morning, I was feeling weak, but I managed to drive the team to the village near km 2238. There, I saw my only Azure-winged MagpieCyanopica cyanus of the trip. Other birds at the village: Grey-backed Shrike, Eurasian Collared Dove, and Great Spotted WoodpeckerDendrocopos major. Reading others’ reports carefully, we found the place where Pallas’s SandgrouseSyrrhaptes paradoxus had been reported. The place is the rangeland around km 2238. There, I spotted a single Pallas’s in flight. Near the place where we saw the sandgrouse, I photographed, for the only time on the trip, Blanford’s SnowfinchPyrgilauda blanfordi. At 1600, after a four-hour rest at Qīngyán Bīnguǎn, we went back to the bushy rangeland west of Chákǎ where we’d seen Mongolian Ground Jay. Jon reminded me of a simple rule of birding: If you want to find a bird, then go back to the place where you or others have seen it. “Bird the birds!” Jon cried. This time, we found a party of 5 Mongolian Ground Jay. For one splendid hour, we followed these birds across the range. We saw one catching a lizard, we saw them running fast on the ground, we saw them flying, we saw them perching. I achieved good photographs. Eurasian Hoopoe were shadowing the ground jays. I had my first views ever of Isabelline ShrikeLanius isabellinus. There were about 15 in the area. There were also about 5 Grey-backed Shrike. A flock of about 25 Hoopoe suddenly took flight, a grand sight.
Thurs. 25 July 2013
The rain today allowed me to sleep in. I needed the rest. After a good bowl of beef noodles at the restaurant next door, Jon, Mrs. Huáng, and I checked out of Qīngyán Bīnguǎn in Chákǎ. The drive to Gònghé was easy. We checked into Hǎinán Bīnguǎn (海南宾馆; +86 974-8512773). In the parking lot of the hotel, we found Japanese TitParus minor. At the southern end of the loop road at Gònghé, on the southern edge of the city not far from Gònghé Gorge, we drove down a side road. We were hoping to find good habitat for our target species, Desert Whitethroat and Pale Rosefinch. At a bridge near a village near a brick factory, in the steady rain, we found a single Desert WhitethroatSylvia minula. Later, a bit farther down the road, we found a singing Black-faced Bunting, and later, Grey-capped GreenfinchCarduelis sinica. Doubling back, we found Crested LarkGalerida cristata. Black Redstart were common all along the road. We saw a single Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus.
Fri. 26 July 2013
The rain continued until around noon. Our team took advantage of the down time. Mrs. Huáng and Jon took our Nissan Paladin to the tire shop in Gònghé to patch a slow leak in the tire. Later, we drove to Gònghé Gorge, elev. 2800 m, along the G214 just south of town. We saw a Daurian PartridgePerdix dauurica. The partridge was crossing the dry streambed. Our target bird here was Desert Whitethroat. When Gònghé Gorge failed to produce any whitethroats, we decided to go back to the place where we’d found the whitethroats yesterday. We found 4 Desert Whitethroat at that spot. Back at the gorge, I photographed a Common Rock ThrushMonticola saxatilis and (from a distance) a Daurian Partridge. I saw Rock Sparrow and Ground Tit. I got a record shot of Common Kestrel. Going back into town, we saw a Eurasian CootFulica atra.
Sat. 27 July 2013
Èlā Shānkǒu/Wēnquán (鄂拉山口/温泉)
Today we drove on the G214 from Gònghé to Èlā Pass, elev. 4499 m. On the way to the pass, we stopped at a pasture along the G214. The elevation there was 3800 m. There we found a typical mix of Tibetan Plateau birds, among them Rock Sparrow, Rufous-necked Snowfinch, Kessler’s ThrushTurdus kessleri, and Pink-rumped RosefinchCarpodacus eos. Within five minutes of our arrival, we had already seen a single male Tibetan RosefinchCarpodacus roborowskii. Endemic to Qinghai and Tibet, Tibetan Rosefinch breeds on the most barren, rockiest portions of the alpine tundra. It is regularly reported at Èlā Pass. We saw dozens of Henri’s SnowfinchMontifringilla henrici. Juvenile Henri’s Snowfinch were so abundant that one feared stepping on them. Parents were arriving with payloads of insects, stuffing them into the gaping mouths of the juveniles. Endemic to the eastern Tibetan Plateau, Henri’s Snowfinch was formerly considered to be a subspecies of White-winged Snowfinch (M. nivalis). We saw another high-altitude specialist, Red-fronted RosefinchCarpodacus puniceus. We saw a pair. No passerine breeds at higher altitudes (to 5700 m) than Red-fronted Rosefinch. A walk across the tundra netted views of Tibetan Lark and Horned Lark. I was surprised to see a single Tufted DuckAythya fuligula and a Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos. By the road, I found a Kam Dwarf Hamster Cricetulus kamensis. In the late afternoon, I walked from the pass to the saddle and from there to the rounded top of the lower peak. The elevation there is about 4700 m. The place is desolate; there, the tallest plants barely reach 3 cm in height. Few animals can survive there. One of the hardy survivors is Tibetan Rosefinch. With the entire mountaintop at his disposal, this individual, a male, for some reason landed just a few meters from me. I watched the rosefinch dip his head between the tiniest of stones, finding there the tiniest of plants, out of which he would extract a mouthful of the tiniest seeds. Here indeed is a bird suited to life on the Tibetan Plateau. Before climbing to the top, I was met by two Tibetan boys, brothers. They were curious about the three strangers with the heavy equipment. My policy in Qinghai was simple: See a kid, hug a kid. I picked them up. Mrs. Huáng took some shots of us. The older boy spoke little Mandarin; the younger spoke none. The boys were summering in the high pastures with their family. We spent the night in Wēnquán, a gritty town that reminded me of small towns I’d seen in Alaska. Just as in the Arctic, in summer the towns high on the Tibetan Plateau look as if they’ve just emerged from winter. There are no good hotels in Wēnquán; we stayed in a dump that provided a well for water and an outhouse over a stream for a toilet.
Sun. 28 July 2013
Today I found Tibetan SnowcockTetraogallus tibetanus. Jon and I climbed from Èlā Pass to the top of Èlā Mountain, elev. 4800 m. From the ridgeline on Èlā Mountain, Jon and I saw a pair of snowcocks flying across the valley below. I moved down, Jon remaining on the ridgeline to direct me. Jon and I stayed in contact through walkie-talkie. The snowcocks blended in well with the rocks and were difficult to see. Just as I was about to reach the spot where we’d seen the snowcocks, it started snowing. Jon and I agreed that he would start down toward our car. I was alone. The snow was stinging my face. Finally, I made out the snowcocks and managed some dramatic photographs. Within minutes, the snowstorm was over, and I made my way back to the car. Jon was waiting for me with a swollen tongue, an allergic reaction probably brought on by the strenuousness of the high-altitude climb. We were exhausted but elated to have seen and photographed Tibetan Snowcock. Also today I had my only view on the trip of a female Tibetan Rosefinch. On the climb up, with almost nothing but rocks and sky around me, I saw, flying in and alighting on a boulder, Plain Mountain FinchLeucosticte nemoricola. Another lonely bird up there was Brandt’s Mountain FinchLeucosticte brandti. On the round summit of Èlā Mountain, I watched a flock of Common RavenCorvus corax. We drove toward Mǎduō. Along the way, on the outskirts of a town called Huāshíxiá (花石峡), elev. 4230 m, we came upon a family of Güldenstädt’s Redstart: male, female, and juvenile. Like all members of Phoenicurus, Güldenstädt’s Redstart are lovers of perches and vertical surfaces—whether natural or man-made. Amusingly, this family was making good use of a bulldozer, perching on it and probing its nooks and crannies. We found a flock of Asian Short-toed Lark. In the “Mǎduō Wetlands” we saw 10 Bar-headed Goose and 15 Ruddy Shelduck. We rolled into Mǎduō and found lodging at Lǐngguó Bīnguǎn (岭国宾馆; +86 975-8348888). In the room, I worked into the night, taking advantage of the good Internet connection to upload my best photos to the cloud.
Mon. 29 July 2013
Continuing south, we drove to Bayan Har Pass (巴颜喀拉山口 [Bāyán Kālā Shānkǒu]), elev. 4824 m. Within minutes we had found a male Tibetan Rosefinch and 6 Güldenstädt’s Redstart. Further south, we found 3 Great Crested Grebe (凤头䴙䴘, fèngtóu pìtī, Podiceps cristatus). We stopped for a long picnic lunch along the banks of the Zāqū (扎曲) River, i.e., the upper Mekong. The elevation there was 4550 m. A Brown-headed Gull flew through, and I saw a Common Sandpiper. Our exhausting day of driving (475 km) ended at Yùshù. This large town has plenty of hotels and restaurants and even an airport. We spent the night at Yùshù Kāngbā Yìzhàn Lǚdiàn (玉树康巴驿站旅店; +86 976-8816222).
Tues. 30 July 2013
We drove from Yùshù to Mt. Kǎndá (坎达山 [Kǎndá Shān]). At the pass, at about 4700 m above sea level, we found and photographed Tibetan BuntingEmberiza koslowi. Tibetan Bunting occurs exclusively on the eastern Tibetan Plateau around the border of Tibet and Qinghai. The species breeds late (chicks hatch around mid-July), so we were not surprised to see the male with his bill full of invertebrates. Later, farther down, we found Godlewski’s BuntingEmberiza godlewskii. Earlier in the day, at the lower reaches of Kǎndá Gorge, we found a pair of IbisbillIbidorhyncha struthersii. As our team approached Nángqiān, we looked forward to seeing Ibisbill along the Zāqū River. But the Zāqū River is badly polluted around Nángqiān, with runoff from the many road-construction projects staining the river brown. At Kǎndá Gorge, we saw clear water in the streams, and we knew Ibisbill would be there. Within 30 minutes, we’d found the pair. Other birds: 2 Yellow-billed ChoughPyrrhocorax graculus, Eurasian Crag MartinHirundo rupestris. At Nángqiān, we stayed at Lóngzhū Shāngwù Dà Jiǔdiàn (龙珠商务大酒店; +86 976-8873999). The bathroom stank, but the room was otherwise comfortable, and in tough, remote Nángqiān, one doesn’t get a whole lot of choices.
Wed. 31 July 2013
I relaxed in a side gorge of Kǎndá Canyon. We spent the day in the canyon. I photographed a flock of 8 Sichuan TitPoecile weigoldicus. A bird of the high country, Sichuan Tit is found in coniferous forest and above the tree line between 2200 m and 4300 m. It’s a Chinese endemic, with a distribution from southeastern Qinghai and western Sichuan to southeastern Tibet and northwestern Yunnan. I found a flock of perhaps 8 birds at 4025 m above sea level.
We got close to Snow PigeonColumba leuconota. Driving in a broader part of Kǎndá Canyon, we found Daurian JackdawColoeus dauuricus on the backs of sheep. Red-billed Chough were readily seen, as were Hodgson’s RedstartPhoenicurus hodgsoni. We kept mistaking the very common Elliot’s LaughingthrushTrochalopteron elliotii for Tibetan Babax, which we were so eager to find. Drinking from the stream was an attractive red Common RosefinchCarpodacus erythrinus. As darkness fell, we found another Ibisbill along the stream.
Thurs. 1 Aug. 2013
Today we drove to Báizhā (白扎) Forest Reserve and Gǎ’ěr Monastery (尕尔寺 [Gǎ’ěr Sì]). On the way in, we saw dozens and dozens of Plateau Pika. We saw a single Tibetan PartridgePerdix hodgsoniae. We saw this species in four widely separated locations on three days. Could it be that, given the right habitat, the Tibetan Partridge is fairly common? Resting in the car along the stream, I heard the piercing note of White-capped RedstartChaimarrornis leucocephalus. Grazing on the slopes near the monastery was a herd of about 25 Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur. Corvids were abundant at the monastery. We found 3 Common Raven, 10 Red-billed Chough, 6 Eurasian Magpie, and Daurian Jackdaw. Driving down, we stopped to view a Grey Crested TitLophophanes dichrous, a Chinese White-browed RosefinchCarpodacus dubius, and a Greenish WarblerPhylloscopus trochiloides.
Fri. 2 Aug. 2013
Awoke before dawn and went to Báizhā. Birding was slow, but rabbiting was fruitful; Woolly Hare were out and about. Elliot’s Laughingthrush were conspicuous. Photographed Common Rosefinch. We found a Rufous-vented TitPeriparus rubidiventris and a single Glover’s Pika Ochotona gloveri. A White-rumped Snowfinch was foraging in the shadow of an Upland Buzzard; the buzzard was perching on a utility pole. Along the road as we drove back to Nángqiān, we found Streaked Rosefinch, Brown Accentor, and 1 Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus giganteus. In the afternoon, we went back to Kǎndá. There, we got photos of 3 half-tame Tibetan Partridge. We saw 6 Tibetan BabaxPterorhinus koslowi.
Sat. 3 Aug. 2013
Returned to the nunnery at Kǎndá. I achieved very good images of Tibetan Babax, Hodgson’s Redstart, and Common Rosefinch. Jon spotting-scoped a pair of White Eared PheasantCrossoptilon crossoptilon. Later, at Báizhā Forest Reserve, again using Jon’s scope, we found another group of White Eared Pheasant. We found another small herd (about 8 individuals) of Blue Sheep. I photographed a male Kessler’s Thrush and a female White-throated RedstartPhoenicurus schisticeps. On the dirt road at Báizhā, Jon, Mrs. Huáng, and I posed next to the Nissan Paladin for some group shots. The sun was shining, our equipment was standing next to us, and everyone was smiling. With a week to go in the trip, we already knew that we had a great team and that this trip was going to be a memorable one.
Sun. 4 Aug. 2013
We left Nángqiān and headed north. Along the way, we found, perching on fences on the side of the road, 3 Little OwlAthene noctua. We lunched in Yùshù. Continuing north out of Yùshù, we stopped at Yànkǒu Shān (雁口山), elev. 4458 m. None of our research had mentioned this great site, but Jon and I had become experienced enough to know where the good habitat was. Yànkǒu Shān is covered with pristine scrub, easily visible from the road. I got photos of White-browed Tit and immature Chinese RubythroatCalliope tschebaiewi. I found juvenile Cuculus cuckoos; were they Eurasian CuckooCuculus canorus, or Oriental? We saw 1 Tibetan Partridge and 5 Alpine Leaf Warbler. We ended up staying in a town called Qīngshuǐhé (“Clearwater River”). The water in the nearby river may be clear, but there is no running water and no indoor plumbing in the entire town.
Mon. 5 Aug. 2013
We climbed the mountain on the western side of the G214 near Bayan Har Pass. We were looking for, but failed to find, Tibetan Sandgrouse. We topped out on the rather flat summit at 5078 m or 16,656 ft. I never had been above 5000 m. In the United States, only in Alaska can one reach altitudes higher than 5000 m. It was a sunny day, very mild, with temperatures about 10°C or 50°F. Although we never found the sandgrouse, I still enjoyed the pursuit. I kept chewing on this thought: Man cannot thrive at altitudes above 5000 m. Homo sapiens is a species unsuited to such heights. 5000 m is a slightly different world. It’s a part of the earth, but it’s not a part of the normal world of man. At 5000 m, my resting heart rate was 100 beats a minute; at sea level, it’s 80. Walking up the mountain, I found 2 Irene’s Mountain Vole (原高原松田鼠, gāoyuán sōngtiánshǔ, Neodon irene). A Güldenstädt’s Redstart landed directly in front of me (just 5 m away), inspected me, and flew off. I was making 15-second videos of myself using my iPhone and sending them back to my parents and sister in America. Walking alone, I noticed a quick movement on the ground 25 m away. A baby Tibetan Gazelle was crouching low to avoid detection. Now that it knew I’d seen it, the gazelle stood up and bounded away. But the youngster couldn’t go far at that altitude. I achieved superb photos of the fragile little creature. We drove on the rough, dusty G214 to Mǎduō. As we sped along, a Golden EagleAquila chrysaetos flew across the road, just 20-30 m above the surface.
Tue. 6 Aug. 2013
Leaving Mǎduō, we found 3 Tibetan Wild Ass Equus kiang, also known as Kiang. We saw a flock of 15 Bar-headed Goose and 25 Ruddy Shelduck. We saw Tibetan Gazelle from the road. We took advantage of the constant rain to get a big chunk of the driving done. After eating lunch in Gònghé, we pressed on to Xīníng (西宁). We went to a Western restaurant and had pizza and steak.
Wed. 7 Aug. 2013
Hùzhù Běishān (互助北山)
We awoke in Xīníng and drove to the hills near the train station. Here we had a fleeting, fly-by glimpse of a single Verreaux’s Monal-PartridgeTetraophasis obscurus. We saw Meadow Bunting here as well as a pair of Plain LaughingthrushGarrulax davidi and a single Grey-headed WoodpeckerPicus canus. We drove to Hùzhù Běishān (互助北山), on the northeastern border with Gansu. Our reason for going there was to find Blue Eared Pheasant, Chinese Grouse, and Gansu Leaf Warbler. At a scenic point 3100 m above sea level, we saw Elliot’s Laughingthrush and Blue-fronted Redstart. Later, we found Plumbeous Water RedstartPhoenicurus fuliginosus. We stayed at Qīnghǎi Shěng Zìjiàchē Lǚyóu Jīdì (青海省自驾车旅游基地; +86 972-8395266).
Thurs. 8 Aug. 2013
A morning drive netted views of Hodgson’s and White-throated Redstart as well as Chestnut ThrushTurdus rubrocanus, Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius, Willow TitPoecile montanus, Olive-backed PipitAnthus hodgsoni, Grey-headed BullfinchPyrrhula erythaca, Large-billed Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus magnirostris, and Hume’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus humei. We drove to a side valley in search of Chinese Grouse. We saw 1 Slaty Blue FlycatcherFicedula leucomelanura, Chinese Bush WarblerLocustella tacsanowskia, Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis, Himalayan BluetailTarsiger rufilatus, and 2 Greenish Warbler. The woods were mainly silent here; breeding season has long since ended.
Fri. 9 Aug. 2013
Lanzhou University Yùzhōng Campus, Yùzhōng (榆中), Gansu
I slept in at Hùzhù Běishān while Jon and Mrs. Huáng went looking for Blue Eared Pheasant. While they were away, I took a short walk around the hotel and found 2 Gansu Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus kansuensis, a Grey Wagtail, 3 juvenile Chestnut Thrush, and 6 Large-billed Crow. Jon and Mrs. Huáng returned, having caught only a fleeting glimpse of the pheasants. We drove into Gansu, passing through Lánzhōu on our way to Yùzhōng (榆中). Our destination was the Yùzhōng campus of Lanzhou University. After hours of tough driving, we made it to the campus just as darkness was falling.
Sat. 10 Aug. 2013
Our reason for going to Yùzhōng was to see Pale RosefinchCarpodacus synoicus. We quickly found 12 on the loess mountain on the edge of campus. We found the rosefinches near the garbage dump. Unprocessed garbage is tossed into the gullies; what remains on top is burned. Acrid smoke was filling our lungs and stinging our eyes. Other birds around campus: Eurasian Hoopoe, Red-billed Chough, Black Redstart, Common PheasantPhasianus colchicus, Spotted DoveSpilopelia chinensis, Pied WheatearOenanthe pleschanka, and Light-vented BulbulPycnonotus sinensis. My final photo of the trip was of an Alashan Ground Squirrel Spermophilus alashanicus. The three of us drove to Lánzhōu, dropped off the Paladin, got a ride from the rental-car people to the airport, and rested at the airport for a few hours. Mrs. Huáng and I set off for Beijing. Jon’s flight took off a few hours later.
We based our trip on Björn Anderson’s 2003 report. Jon Hornbuckle gave me many helpful tips. The Web site of John and Jemi Holmes was helpful. Birdtour Asia’s Qinghai-Xinjiang Report, from 2012, proved useful. Peter Collaerts gave us a useful tip. Jon Gallagher and Huáng Xiǎo Ān are excellent partners. Thank you all.
Featured image: Jon Gallagher (L) and Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) photographing Tibetan BuntingEmberiza koslowi near Nangqian, Qinghai, China. Elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)