Qinghai, June-August 2016: Part 1

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com


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

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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)
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, 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)


“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

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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Qinghai, July-August 2013

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

“Qinghai, July-August 2013” is part of a series on birding in Qinghai. Other reports in the series:

Qinghai, June-August 2016
Qinghai and Gansu, July 2014


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.

Rusty-necklaced or Przevalski's Partridge
Rusty-necklaced or Przevalski’s Partridge Alectoris magna, near Chaka, Qinghai. Elev. 3820 m. A Chinese endemic, Przevalski’s Partridge ranges from northern Qinghai to central Gansu. It is very similar to Chukar Partridge, being distinguished from that species by the russet line running along the black line on its ear coverts and neck sides. (Craig Brelsford)


— 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

Brelsford, Huáng, Gallagher
L-R: Craig Brelsford, Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安), Jon Gallagher, Baizha Forest Reserve, Qinghai, China, 3 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Sparrow Passer 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.

Rufous-necked Snowfinch
Rufous-necked Snowfinch Pyrgilauda ruficollis, Heimahe, Qinghai. Elev. 3440 m. (Craig Brelsford)

Sat. 20 July 2013
Hēimǎhé (黑马河)

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 Redstart Phoenicurus 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 Tit Pseudopodoces 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 Pigeon Columba rupestris, another bird found nearly everywhere we went. Also here were Feral Pigeon Columba livia. We left the village and drove down a dirt road leading toward the lake. I found and photographed my first Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina. We saw our first Horned Lark Eremophila 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 Skylark Alauda gulgula. We found Oriental Skylark in most of the grasslands we visited. Still another common lark was Hume’s Short-toed Lark Calandrella acutirostris. We saw Rock Sparrow Petronia petronia. We saw about 30 Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus. We saw our first of many Upland Buzzard Buteo 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 Snowfinch Pyrgilauda 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 Vulture Gypaetus barbatus and Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis. We saw Himalayan Vulture in most places we visited and Bearded Vulture in a few. We saw Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto. Passerines: Grey-backed Shrike Lanius tephronotus, about 20 Tibetan Snowfinch Montifringilla adamsi, a single male Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides, Twite Linaria flavirostris, Eurasian Magpie Pica pica, and Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos. The latter two species were commonly encountered in various habitats and at various elevations throughout the Qinghai trip. We saw Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea and White Wagtail Motacilla 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 Swallow Cecropis daurica as well as our first Asian House Martin Delichon 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.

Przevalski's Finch
Przevalski’s Finch Urocynchramus pylzowi, Heimahe, Qinghai. Elev. 3450 m. 21 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Sun. 21 July 2013

All morning at km 2189.5; photographed Przevalski’s Finch Urocynchramus 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 Accentor Prunella 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 Accentor Prunella fulvescens. I captured a spectacular set of photographs of a juvenile Rosy Pipit Anthus 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 Warbler Phylloscopus fuligiventer and Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis. We ended up seeing about 20 per day in the area. I got a record shot of Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus. We frequently came upon Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus. I drove the team to “Rubber Mountain Pass” (elev. 3817 m), where for the first time I saw Güldenstädt’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogastrus; we found a male and a female. I saw a single Tibetan Lark Melanocorypha 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 Swift Apus nipalensis as well as Common Swift Apus 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 Hoopoe Upupa epops of the trip.

Plateau Pika
Plateau Pika Ochotona curzoniae near Heimahe. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax. Back at Hēimǎhé, near Qinghai Lake, we found about 12 Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus 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 Crane Grus nigricollis, around 20 Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus, and 10 Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea. There were 6 Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, a fast-flying flock of 12 Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, and Eastern Cattle Egret Bulbulcus coromandus. We saw a Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius.

Robin Accentor
Robin Accentor Prunella rubeculoides, Heimahe, Qinghai. Elev. 3520 m. 22 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Mon. 22 July 2013
Chákǎ (茶卡)

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 Martin Riparia 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 Tit Poecile superciliosus and 3 White-browed Tit-warbler Leptopoecile 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 Redstart Phoenicurus 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 Jay Podoces 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 Lark Calandrella cheleensis. We drove back through town to a random spot east of town on the highway. Along the way we found Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala. We saw 10 Common Redshank Tringa 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.

White-rumped Snowfinch
White-rumped Snowfinch with Plateau Pika, near Chaka, Qinghai. Elev. 3635 m. 23 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Redstart Phoenicurus alaschanicus, also known as Przevalski’s Redstart. Eating breakfast on the mountainside with Jon, we heard the calls of Rusty-necklaced Partridge Alectoris 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 Bunting Emberiza cioides, a single Carrion Crow Corvus 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 Wheatear Oenanthe 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 Snowfinch Onychostruthus taczanowskii. The snowfinches stayed near a colony of Plateau Pika. Exhausted, we drove slowly back to Chákǎ.

Mongolian or Henderson's Ground Jay
Mongolian or Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni, near Chaka, Qinghai. Elev. 3080 m. 24 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Magpie Cyanopica cyanus of the trip. Other birds at the village: Grey-backed Shrike, Eurasian Collared Dove, and Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major. Reading others’ reports carefully, we found the place where Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes 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 Snowfinch Pyrgilauda 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 Shrike Lanius 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.

Blanford's Snowfinch
Blanford’s Snowfinch Pyrgilauda blanfordi, near Chaka, Qinghai. Elev. 3140 m. 24 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Thurs. 25 July 2013
Gònghé (共和)

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 Tit Parus 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 Whitethroat Curruca minula. Later, a bit farther down the road, we found a singing Black-faced Bunting, and later, Grey-capped Greenfinch Carduelis sinica. Doubling back, we found Crested Lark Galerida cristata. Black Redstart were common all along the road. We saw a single Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus.

Desert Whitethroat
Desert Whitethroat Curruca minula, near Gonghe, Qinghai. Elev. 2710 m. 26 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Partridge Perdix 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 Thrush Monticola 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 Coot Fulica atra.

Tibetan Rosefinch
Tibetan Rosefinch Carpodacus robrowskii, Ela Shan, Qinghai. Elev. 4660 m. 27 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Thrush Turdus kessleri, and Pink-rumped Rosefinch Carpodacus eos. Within five minutes of our arrival, we had already seen a single male Tibetan Rosefinch Carpodacus 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 Snowfinch Montifringilla 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 Rosefinch Carpodacus 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 Duck Aythya fuligula and a Common Sandpiper Actitis 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.

Tibetan Snowcock
Tibetan Snowcock Tetraogallus tibetanus, Ela Shan, Qinghai. Elev. 4667 m. 28 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Sun. 28 July 2013
Mǎduō (玛多)

Today I found Tibetan Snowcock Tetraogallus 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 Finch Leucosticte nemoricola. Another lonely bird up there was Brandt’s Mountain Finch Leucosticte brandti. On the round summit of Èlā Mountain, I watched a flock of Common Raven Corvus 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.

Henri's Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici, Ela Shan, Qinghai. Elev. 4499 m. 27 July 2013.
Henri’s Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici, Ela Shan, Qinghai. Elev. 4499 m. 27 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Mon. 29 July 2013
Yùshù (玉树)

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).

Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii, near Nangqian, Qinghai. Elev. 3750 m. 31 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Tues. 30 July 2013
Nángqiān (囊谦)

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 Bunting Emberiza 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 Bunting Emberiza godlewskii. Earlier in the day, at the lower reaches of Kǎndá Gorge, we found a pair of Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha 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 Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus, Eurasian Crag Martin Hirundo 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.

Tibetan Bunting Emberiza koslowi, near Nangqian, Qinghai, China. Elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.). 30 July 2013.
Tibetan Bunting Emberiza koslowi, near Nangqian, Qinghai, China. Elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.). 30 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Tit Poecile 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.

Sichuan Tit
Sichuan Tit near Nangqian. Sichuan Tit is a close relative of Willow Tit, in particular races songarus, affinis, and stoetzneri, with which it once was considered to be a separate species, ‘Songar Tit.’ (Craig Brelsford)

We got close to Snow Pigeon Columba leuconota. Driving in a broader part of Kǎndá Canyon, we found Daurian Jackdaw Coloeus dauuricus on the backs of sheep. Red-billed Chough were readily seen, as were Hodgson’s Redstart Phoenicurus hodgsoni. We kept mistaking the very common Elliot’s Laughingthrush Trochalopteron elliotii for Tibetan Babax, which we were so eager to find. Drinking from the stream was an attractive red Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus. As darkness fell, we found another Ibisbill along the stream.

Daurian Jackdaw about to alight on the back of a sheep.
Daurian Jackdaw about to alight on the back of a sheep. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Partridge Perdix 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 Redstart Chaimarrornis 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 Tit Lophophanes dichrous, a Chinese White-browed Rosefinch Carpodacus dubius, and a Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides.

Tibetan Partridge
Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae, near Nangqian. Elev. 3870 m. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Tit Periparus 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 Shrike Lanius sphenocercus giganteus. In the afternoon, we went back to Kǎndá. There, we got photos of 3 half-tame Tibetan Partridge. We saw 6 Tibetan Babax Pterorhinus koslowi.

Tibetan Babax Babax koslowi, near Nangqian, Qinghai. Elev. 3910 m. 3 Aug. 2013.
Tibetan Babax Pterorhinus koslowi, near Nangqian, Qinghai. Elev. 3910 m. 3 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Pheasant Crossoptilon 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 Redstart Phoenicurus 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.

White-browed Tit
White-browed Tit Poecile superciliosus, Yankou Shan, Qinghai. Elev. 4390 m. 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Sun. 4 Aug. 2013
Qīngshuǐhé (清水河)

We left Nángqiān and headed north. Along the way, we found, perching on fences on the side of the road, 3 Little Owl Athene 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 Rubythroat Calliope tschebaiewi. I found juvenile Cuculus cuckoos; were they Eurasian Cuckoo Cuculus 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.

Tibetan Gazelle
Tibetan Gazelle Procapra picticaudata, above Bayan Har Pass, Qinghai. Elev. 5012 m (16,440 ft.). 5 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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 Eagle Aquila chrysaetos flew across the road, just 20-30 m above the surface.

Tibetan Wild Ass
Tibetan Wild Ass near Maduo, Qinghai. Elev. 4225 m. 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Tue. 6 Aug. 2013
Xīníng (西宁)

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-Partridge Tetraophasis obscurus. We saw Meadow Bunting here as well as a pair of Plain Laughingthrush Garrulax davidi and a single Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus 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 Redstart Phoenicurus 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
Hùzhù Běishān

A morning drive netted views of Hodgson’s and White-throated Redstart as well as Chestnut Thrush Turdus rubrocanus, Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius, Willow Tit Poecile montanus, Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni, Grey-headed Bullfinch Pyrrhula erythaca, Large-billed Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus magnirostris, and Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei. We drove to a side valley in search of Chinese Grouse. We saw 1 Slaty Blue Flycatcher Ficedula leucomelanura, Chinese Bush Warbler Locustella tacsanowskia, Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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.

Pale Rosefinch
Pale Rosefinch Carpodacus synoicus, Lanzhou University, Yuzhong, Gansu, China. Elev.: 1840 m. 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Sat. 10 Aug. 2013

Our reason for going to Yùzhōng was to see Pale Rosefinch Carpodacus 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 Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Spotted Dove Spilopelia chinensis, Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka, and Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus 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 Bunting Emberiza koslowi near Nangqian, Qinghai, China. Elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

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