shanghaibirding.com is a leader in covering Qinghai birding. Editor Craig Brelsford has led three trips to Qinghai. The most important was the 57-day expedition in the summer of 2016. Craig also led birding trips to Qinghai in 2013 and 2014.
This post covers the eighth and final week, Sun. 14 Aug. to Sun. 21 Aug. 2016, of the Qinghai 2016 birding expedition. Elaine Du and I spent most of Week 8 in Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. Amid stunning scenery, we found Tibetan Wolf, discovered a new location for Przevalski’s Partridge, and around Lake Xiligou had a rare eastern record of Water Rail as well as Qinghai favorites Black-necked Crane, Tibetan Lark, and Henderson’s Ground Jay. The lake held Black-necked Grebe and a noisy super-flock of 4610 Ruddy Shelduck, and Mongolian Goitered Gazelle were in the hills behind. Near Chaka we had Mute Swan, and at a site south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia we noted Dusky Warbler, the 195th and final species of our two-month trip.
WORKING ‘VACATION’ IN WULAN
Elaine and I had spent 15 straight nights in our tent when in the afternoon of Sun. 14 Aug. we pulled into Wūlán Xiàn Hóngxiáng Jiǔdiàn (乌兰县鸿翔酒店, +86 (0) 977-8245666, 36.927295, 98.479888). This comfortable hotel in Wulan Xiancheng would shelter us for the next three nights. We did no more birding on the 14th. The next day, the 15th, a group of Elaine’s former co-workers who happened to be vacationing in the area stopped by our hotel for a big lunch. As in Xining in July, our vacation-within-a-vacation gave us the breather we needed.
Our explorations resumed on Tues. 16 Aug. In the morning, we reconnoitered the north side of Lake Xiligou (36.838594, 98.462896), the little-birded saline lake south of Wulan. The elevation around Lake Xiligou is 2950 m (9,680 ft.), more than 1100 meters (3,610 ft.) lower than chilly Hala Lake, where we had spent the previous week.
At a productive marshy area (36.899263, 98.494709) we heard Water Rail calling from the reeds, picked up trip-first Richard’s Pipit, and welcomed back Tibetan Lark to our Qinghai list. The scrub nearby yielded a single Henderson’s Ground Jay.
Despite those successes, approaching Lake Xiligou from the north was not optimal, because the lake is shrinking, and the shrinkage is most pronounced on the north shore. The more remote south shore, by contrast, which we visited in the afternoon, was a revelation.
The show started while we were still in the semi-desert. We found a black-tailed gazelle that did not bound away like a Tibetan Gazelle, but galloped. It was Mongolian Goitered Gazelle Gazella subgutturosa hilleriana. We found 12.
As we approached the south shore, we heard a roar coming from the water. The source was Ruddy Shelduck, of which we counted 4610. Next in numbers was Brown-headed Gull (625), Black-necked Grebe (275), and Black-winged Stilt (210). 4 bugling Black-necked Crane made up with charisma and grace what they lacked in numbers. Lake Xiligou also yielded a single Greylag Goose, 7 Common Shelduck, 20 Northern Shoveler, 4 Common Pochard, 1 Great Crested Grebe, and 35 Pied Avocet.
Driving out in the dark, we found 3 jerboa, two of them long-eared and presumably either Gobi Jerboa or Mongolian Five-Toed Jerboa, and the third short-eared and long-tailed and presumably Northern Three-toed Jerboa. What fun it is to watch these “jumping mice” (跳鼠) hop across the chaparral.
THE BACK COUNTRY OF WULAN COUNTY
On Wed. 17 Aug. Elaine and I were back on the road, exploring the area south of Wulan and north of Dulan (36.299080, 98.091569). Here Elaine and I found some of the best scenery and most remote country of the Qinghai trip. We drove for hours, not passing a single car. We saw more Przevalski’s Partridge than people, the result of our finding a new site (36.826334, 97.965649) for the species 66 km (41 mi.) southwest of Wulan. The covey contained 13 birds. The site, at elev. 3380 m (11,090 ft.) and with well-vegetated hillsides and steep cliffs for roosting nearby, meets the basic demands of the species and may hold the partridges throughout the year.
On Thurs. 18 Aug., on the way to Jinzi Lake (36.719109, 97.886371), we found a group of Mongolian Goitered Gazelle sprinting across the road. I once again noted the power and speed of these animals. Jinzi Lake is a spring-fed freshwater pond, elev. 2990 m (9,810 ft.). Here we found adult and juvenile Black-necked Grebe and Great Crested Grebe. At the lake we added to our Qinghai 2016 list Eurasian Coot, and later in the desert Tarim Babbler joined the list. We studied carefully the short-toed larks in the marshy areas near the lake. All were Asian Short-toed Lark.
I drove into a sand dune and got stuck. With our handy shovel I dug the car out. I learned two lessons from the incident. First, sand is treacherous; never approach it flippantly. Second, always have tools in your car, especially in remote places. Without that shovel, I would not have been able to dig the car out. I would have been at the mercy of some local—assuming we had found someone. Because we had the shovel, we were able to continue birding after a short delay.
On the morning of Fri. 19 Aug. we found a watering hole in the desert near Jinzi Lake. The pool attracted Desert Whitethroat, a lone Temminck’s Stint, Tarim Babbler, several Isabelline Wheatear, and a Citrine Wagtail.
On the afternoon of Fri. 19 Aug. Elaine and I were driving through Lianhe Cun (36.622738, 98.233933). We did a double-take. Someone had hung bird netting along the main road, in plain view. The nets were apparently some ill-advised attempt to protect the local crop of wolfberry growing in the gardens behind. Wolfberry or gǒuqǐ (枸杞) is an edible fruit grown in irrigated cropland in Haixi Prefecture.
The scheme was not only callous but also futile, as nearly all the birds could see the netting and were flying over it into the gardens. The only result the netting was having was to kill a few of the birds—and demonstrate the ignorance of the net-setters.
I saw two Black Redstart enmeshed in the netting. They were alive and struggling. In full view of the farmers, who were selling their wolfberry just yards away, I pulled out my knife and cut the redstarts out.
It was quite a job. The netting catches onto any irregular surface—claws, toes, wings, bill. And the redstarts are fragile. If I squeezed the frightened bird even a little too much, it would die in my hand. As I handled one of the beauties, a sleek adult male, the redstart pecked weakly at my fingers.
I set the redstarts free and drove off. I looked at the hard-bitten farmers, their faces wrinkled like raisins after years toiling in the desert sun. I told Elaine: “Poor folks can be materialistic, too—all that cruelty for a measly couple of yuan.”
Later on Fri. 19 Aug. we found 3 Tibetan Wolf at the well-known Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578). With our trip winding down, and steadily making our way east toward Xining and the airport, Elaine and I passed by the Przevalski’s Site and decided to make a lunch stop there. We drove off the G109 and motored through the arid grassland to the base of Partridge Hill, where Przevalski’s Partridge are often found.
After lunch, I said to Elaine, “I’m going to read that slope like a book.” I was talking about the slope that rises about 700 m (2,300 ft.) from the valley floor where we were parked and is about 1500 air-meters away. During our visit in July with Jan-Erik Nilsén, I studied the slope and found Blue Sheep clinging to the nearly vertical wall.
I pulled out my Swarovski ATX-95 and mounted it atop my Manfrotto head. To reduce the effect of the wind, I was seated with the legs of the tripod unextended. As is my habit, I scanned the ridges first.
I found 3 Tibetan Wolf on the ridge. Canus lupus filchneri is a small ssp., and at first I mistook the wolves for foxes. They had black-tipped tails, ocher fur on the back and outer legs, an off-white band on the upper back, and a white muzzle and throat. They moved with ease across the slope.
Battling heat haze, I struggled to keep up with the wolves. I held on for 5 to 10 minutes, during which time I noted their efficient gait, saw them investigating every nook and cranny in their path, and watched them sure-footedly clamber up steep rocks. Elaine took a peek, her first look ever at a wolf.
The wolves disappeared, and strangely enough about 30 minutes later a flock of 40 Blue Sheep, including several lambs, moved into the area. We waited for the wolves to attack, but no attack came.
A major birding location in Dulan County, the Przevalski’s Site is so named because it is reliable for Przevalski’s Partridge and Przevalski’s Redstart. On 19 Aug. the site delivered a covey of 18 partridges, emerging as if on cue from the base of Partridge Hill for a late-afternoon feed. No Przevalski’s Redstart were found, the wheeze of Pine Bunting was no longer heard, and even that little fighter Alpine Leaf Warbler was subdued.
As I stood there watching the now-skulky Alpine Leaf Warbler, so feisty when we arrived in Qinghai in June, it occurred to me that Elaine and I had spent virtually the entire summer in Qinghai.
We continued east, to Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878). At a spot (36.787688, 98.987532) for Henderson’s Ground Jay west of town, now flooded after much recent rain, we added our 194th species of bird for Qinghai 2016: Mute Swan.
On Sat. 20 Aug. Elaine and I drove from Chaka to a point (36.206372, 100.534206) south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia. There we spent our final night. The next morning, in the scrub near our camp I found Crested Lark and Dusky Warbler, the latter the 195th and final species of the trip.
We drove to Xining Caojiabao Airport, returned the Sportage, and flew back to Shanghai.
Featured image: Dunes and mountain in remote back country of Wulan County, where I spent most of Week 8. (Craig Brelsford)
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This page covers the seventh week of our eight-week birding trip to Qinghai, from Sat. 6 Aug. through Sat. 13 Aug. 2016. Elaine and I spent that time around Hala Lake, the wild, remote, high-altitude inland sea in north-central Qinghai. With the desolate environment as our backdrop, and despite daily rain, we noted 53 bird species. Highlights:
— Discovering flocks of Tibetan Sandgrouse in perfect semi-desert habitat near Hala Lake
— Finding 7 Tibetan Snowcock in a gorge east of the lake
— On the shore of Hala Lake, attaining several interesting Qinghai records, among them Little Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Common Greenshank, and Whimbrel
— Making various less-surprising records around Hala, among them Black Stork, breeding Lesser Sand Plover (our most numerous bird), Ruddy Shelduck, Common Shelduck, Common Merganser, Bar-headed Goose, and Pied Avocet
— Watching a Tibetan Fox dig up and devour a Plateau Pika, and surmising that the area, if explored thoroughly, would yield Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Tibetan Lynx, and other powerful mammals
— Witnessing landscapes unlike any I have seen in nine years in China, with the vast, silent steppe giving way to the azure inland sea, and snow-clad peaks and glaciated mountainsides brooding in the background
— While lamenting the damage overgrazing is doing even to an area as pristine as Hala Lake, befriending Tibetan and Mongolian herdsmen, sharing stories with them, and learning about their tough, interesting lives
— Despite being alone and having only a 2WD vehicle (Kia Sportage), despite having to make approximately two dozen tricky creek crossings, and despite a ban on foreigners at parts of Hala Lake (see editor’s note below), getting into and out of the area without incident
Note: Part of the area around Hala Lake is off-limits to foreigners, a fact of which Elaine and I were unaware during our visit. Foreigners are banned from Delingha County, an administrative area that includes much of the area south and west of Hala Lake as well as the entire lake itself. Foreigners are allowed in Tianjun County, which covers the area north and east of the lake, up to the shoreline.
Foreigners caught in Delingha County can expect harassment and even detention, as was the case with German bicyclist Andreas Bruder, whom Elaine and I met at Hala. After we separated, Andreas was arrested, detained, questioned, and transported back to Hedong-Hexi, the urban part of Delingha. A memory card of his was confiscated. Birders, with their binoculars, scopes, and cameras, presumably would endure even closer scrutiny than Andreas.
As long as this harsh policy remains in place, I advise foreigners to approach Hala Lake from the east, as Elaine and I did, and remain in the areas in Tianjun County. Drive a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, as the route through Tianjun County is longer and remoter and involves more creek crossings than the road from Hedong-Hexi.
THE ROAD TO HALA
Our explorations of the Hala Lake area began on Sat. 6 Aug. Elaine and I were sitting in a restaurant in Yanglong Xiang (38.816483, 98.415873), a town in Haibei Prefecture. Laoban said, “Yes, your car can make it to Hala Lake.” We were on our way.
We got gas at the only station in Yanglong, on the west side of town. Right next to the station (38.814444, 98.411556) is the turnoff from the S204 to the Suli-Yanglong road. Driving our rented Kia Sportage, we took that road over the South Tuole Mountains, which separate the Heihe River Valley from the Shule River Valley. We noted Tibetan Fox and Tibetan Gazelle, and the next morning, Sun. 7 Aug., we found a flock of 35 Blue Sheep.
We drove to Suli (38.702633, 98.026018), a remote, dusty Tibetan town that evoked the American Wild West. At the only gas station in the valley, we met the “sheriff,” Mr. Zhou, a muscular and square-jawed Tibetan man who is the local law-enforcement officer and who knows the name of everyone in Suli. After I gave him views through our spotting scope, Sheriff Zhou invited us to his home to view his fossil collection. In his driveway, Elaine and I gazed at fossilized sea mollusks at least 50 million years old.
We walked into Mr. Zhou’s home, on a wall of which hung a portrait of Xi Jinping, and in a corner of which sat his mother, 85 and in good health. She barely acknowledged us, being immersed in prayer. Her giant prayer top, longer than a broom, spun constantly, and she never stopped shuffling her beads.
After the exciting mammalian views in the mountains and the interesting encounter with Mr. Zhou, disappointment followed in the valley. Once again, nearly every square meter was fenced off and given over to grazing. In a magnificent stretch of high-altitude steppe that not long ago held thousands of ungulates, we managed to view only 10 Tibetan Wild Ass and 38 Tibetan Gazelle—and thousands of domestic sheep.
We drove slowly into the night on the Suli-Yangkang road, still being constructed. We left this road at 37.929055, 98.385921, a point 39.6 km (24.6 mi.) north of Yangkang Xiang (37.675509, 98.635267). We drove west, toward the lake.
Rain began to fall, giving us a rare encounter with Chinese Zokor, probably flooded out of its burrow. We also saw Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa. We stopped at 37.971139, 98.085444.
STUCK IN THE BACK COUNTRY
On Mon. 8 Aug. I awoke to find a flat tire on our rented Kia Sportage. A tiny nail had caused a slow leak. We were 30 km (19 mi.) away from a paved road, 40 km (25 mi.) from the lake. As I was putting on the spare, a Tibetan Snowcock called from the ridge above.
We drove the 70 km (44 mi.) back to Yangkang Xiang, the nearest place with tire-repair shops. Our tire was repaired by a Hui man who told me that he had originally tried to overcharge me because I am foreign. (The attempt to rip me off did not surprise me; the candor did.) We threw the newly repaired tire in the trunk and drove back into the wilderness. Elaine videoed me driving across the creek.
We camped at 37.980045, 98.047005, just 3.5 km/2 mi. (and five creek crossings) from the spot from the night before. We had gone essentially nowhere in 24 hours, but we had long since factored mishaps and difficulties into the price we were willing to pay to see Hala Lake.
In the clean air the light from a slim crescent moon was casting shadows, and for the first time I could make out the bands of Saturn. I viewed Saturn through my Swarovski ATX-95 30-70x scope.
FINALLY, WE REACH HALA
The next morning, Tues. 9 Aug., I awoke at dawn and heard the calls of Tibetan Snowcock on the ridge above. I scoped a group of seven. Carrying my camera, I climbed 300 m (980 ft.) to the ridge, elev. 4400 m (14,440 ft.). I found the snowcocks, three adults and four juveniles. I saw Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snowfinch, and Blanford’s Snowfinch. All were feeding young. I noted a single Plain Mountain Finch.
From the summit the valley spread out like a map before me, and I saw that the road made not just a sixth but also a seventh and eighth crossing of the creek before leaving the valley for the steppe. Those five crossings the day before had made me nervous.
I returned to camp and met two Tibetan herdsmen. One could just barely speak Chinese, and he told us that it is possible to circumvent the sixth and seventh crossings. Yet another Tibetan arrived, Rén Qīng Cái Ràng (仁青才让). Rén Qīng was younger than the other two and spoke good Chinese. Rén Qīng watched us as we drove along the bluff above crossings 6 and 7 and descended safely to the road. The eighth crossing was a piece of cake. (Our 2WD Kia Sportage was a fine mini-SUV, but in the Hala Lake back country I would have felt safer in a larger 4WD. It would also be better to have at least one other vehicle in the group to serve as a rescue car.)
On the steppe Elaine and I witnessed scenes unlike any we have encountered in China. The valley spread out endlessly before us, with the snow-capped South Shule Mountains in the background. All was stillness and silence. There are scenes nearly as thrilling on the G214 in Guoluo and Yushu prefectures, but one views those landscapes from a busy highway, not from a unpaved road in the middle of nowhere. We met just one person on the steppe, a Tibetan herdsman on horseback who asked us to take him to Yangkang Xiang.
After driving about 30 km (19 mi.) we saw a turquoise glow on the horizon: Hala Lake. The second-largest lake in Qinghai, the inland sea covers an area of 607 sq. km (234 sq mi.). Here at the eastern end of the lake one gets one’s closest views of the father of the waters, the mighty Gangze Wujie, elev. 5808 m (19,055 ft.). That awe-inspiring peak and its siblings north of the lake are complemented by other peaks on all sides, a dramatic reminder that the water here at elev. 4077 m (13,376 ft.) has no outlet. The azure sea with snowy peaks behind is a deeply impressive sight. Except for the wind, all is silent; except for a few Tibetan herders’ tents in the distance, not a soul is around. The only signs of man are the road and the hundreds of sheep and yaks dotting the slopes.
Almost as soon as we arrived, the wind picked up, and rain started to fall. (Rain, it turned out, would bedevil us every day at Hala.) We noted species common to the high steppe, among them Tibetan Gazelle, Lesser Sand Plover, Horned Lark, and Rufous-necked Snowfinch. We turned the Sportage into our bedroom and spent the night on a bluff above the lake.
The next day, Wed. 10 Aug., the rain was less but the wind even fiercer, blowing gale-force across the lake. We drove off the elevated unpaved road toward the lake, parking well away from the soft sand fringing the inland sea. We walked a few hundred meters to the shingly shoreline, there finding 2 Ruddy Turnstone. Elaine made this video of the turbulent lake.
Hume’s Short-toed Lark were calling, and there were juveniles around. Interestingly, we were finding Hume’s Short-toed only on the shore and about 300 m/1,000 ft. inland. The larks act like stints, running frantically along the shore, picking up insects. We saw 3 Pallas’s Gull, 6 Bar-headed Goose, and 1 each of Little Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, and Brown-headed Gull.
We could stand the gale no longer; we walked back to the Sportage, on the way noting Rufous-necked Snowfinch. Back on the road, driving west across the steppe, we saw a Ruddy Shelduck foraging on the track, a Saker Falcon, 7 Eurasian Hoopoe, and 2 Isabelline Wheatear.
We made half a dozen more non-dangerous stream crossings in the Sportage before arriving at Menggu Bao, the most developed place on Hala Lake. Here, yurts await tourists who have braved the three and a half hour ride north from Hedong-Hexi—or in our case, the even longer easterly route from Yangkang Xiang. Treasuring our self-sufficiency, we bypassed the outpost and continued west. (This was a good move, as we almost surely would have been reported the moment we set foot in the lobby.)
Driving slowly on a muddy, non-elevated dirt track, Elaine and I found a flock of 21 Tibetan Sandgrouse, a life bird for us both. We were at 38.205017, 97.520042. The extremely flat terrain, just a few meters higher than the lake, must be good habitat for sandgrouse, as we found another 32 in flocks, trios, and pairs. Juveniles were among the sandgrouse we counted; surely the species breeds in the area.
Using my iPhone, Elaine got video of the sandgrouse through our spotting scope.
We drove ever west, the nearly perfectly flat terrain broken only by the slightest of depressions, in which were puddles, ponds, and occasionally running water. We found a slight rise of dry, sandy soil and there pitched our tent. The point is 38.209028, 97.477056 and would be our home for the next three nights.
In wetter ages our camp surely was lake bed; though we were 500 m (1,600 ft.) away from the shore, our elevation could not be more than 5 m (16 ft.) higher. A few hundred meters west of our camp is the largest stream in this southwestern sector of Hala Lake. The stream is the deepest drivers must cross on the remote mountain road linking Hala Lake and Subei, Gansu, 320 km (199 mi.) from our camp.
On Thurs. 11 Aug. rain fell all day. We used the time to rest in our tent. Even after nearly seven weeks in Qinghai, we still were not fully accustomed to the high altitude. Long drives, long walks, and intensive birding tax one much more at elev. 4000 m (13,120 ft.) than at lower elevations.
The camp became our little world. Because we had set our tent on higher, sandier soil, and because I dug a little ditch on the periphery, the floor stayed dry. To block the wind blowing off the lake, I parked our Sportage close to the north side of the tent. We ate freeze-dried beef stew from Mountain House, the same brand I used while hiking the Grand Canyon in the 1980s. In the morning, when it was only drizzling, I took a bath using creek water we collected in empty Nongfu Spring bottles. Earlier in the trip, Elaine and I invested 20 yuan in a shovel, and with it I had dug a latrine. Elaine and I were clean, dry, and well-fed in our neat little camp in the wilderness.
During a break in the rain, I emerged and set my Swarovski scope atop my Manfrotto tripod and head. My 360-degree scan of the vast plain and lake took a full hour. From a distance of about 2000 meters/yards, I watched a Tibetan Fox dig up and devour a pika. I counted 8 Eurasian Hoopoe, one of which flew into our camp; watched a flying Common Raven scrutinize our camp; and admired the snow-clad peaks north of the lake.
LITTLE STINT AT HALA LAKE
On Fri. 12 Aug., the rain let up, and Elaine and I added eight new species to our Qinghai 2016 list. We birded the southwest corner of Hala Lake, including the big stream that empties into the inland sea. Among the new additions were good Qinghai records such as Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ferruginous Duck, Whimbrel, and Temminck’s Stint as well as Mallard, Grey Plover, and Common Greenshank. We once again recorded Ruddy Turnstone, we added to our Hala list Common Merganser, Common Shelduck, and Black Stork, and we had appreciable numbers of Ruddy Shelduck (85), Bar-headed Goose (80), and Lesser Sand Plover (230). We noted 29 species in all.
The brown on the Little Stint was so impressive that my first thought was not Red-necked Stint—I have never seen so dark a Red-necked Stint—but Broad-billed Sandpiper. The bird however was showing typical stint characteristics such as high pecking rate, constant, quick movements, and small size. I moved in closer, noting the bill, which was blunt-tipped, not downward-kinked, as in Broad-billed Sandpiper. The bill attracted my attention in another way: It was longer than the bill of a typical Red-necked Stint. I noted prominent white stripes on the brown mantle, a pale forehead, and very dark brown stripes on the crown. The flight feathers lacked grey coloring. Everything added up to juvenile Little Stint.
The 3 Curlew Sandpiper were in the delta of the big southwest stream and were easily ID’d. Two were juveniles with peach wash across the breast, and one was an adult molting into winter plumage.
The 2 Whimbrel were on the lakeshore, the Grey Plover and Common Greenshank in the delta. The 2 Mallard were males in eclipse plumage and were in the delta. Temminck’s Stint and Ferruginous Duck were in the delta and on the lakeshore. Ferruginous Duck showed very dark plumage, white undertail, and peaked head with no hint of tuft.
We met Andreas Bruder, a bicyclist from Dresden, Germany who had started his journey in Dunhuang, Gansu. He had cycled to Subei, ridden in a pickup truck to a point near the gate of Lanchiwang Nature Reserve, somehow slipped in, and continued on into the Hala Lake basin. (Later, near Menggu Bao, Andreas would be arrested for being in Delingha County.)
The grey sky finally blued up, but in the afternoon rain fell once again, this time in a squall. Elaine and I ran to the Kia Sportage, which I parked in an east-west orientation. So hard was the wind off the lake that I could open the south-facing windows, and nary a drop of rain fell in.
On Sat. 13 Aug., rain once again fell most of the day. We birded the lake, adding Pied Avocet to our Hala list. We decided we could not stand another night in the rain at high altitude. As darkness fell, we drove east, toward Menggu Bao, again noting Tibetan Sandgrouse at 38.205028, 97.520028.
We drove the Delingha road south in the dark and began our exodus from Delingha County.
Featured image: Week 7 of the Qinghai 2016 Expedition was spent mainly at Hala Lake. The featured image above shows some of the highlights. Clockwise from top left: glacier and mountain at the high-altitude lake, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Gazelle at sunset, and sea mollusk 50 million years old. (Craig Brelsford)
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The Qinghai 2016 birding trip began on 26 June 2016 and was originally scheduled to last a month. My wife Elaine Du and I extended the trip another month, from 24 July to 21 Aug. 2016. In Month 2 we drove 2260 km (1,400 miles) in Xining, Haibei, Haixi, and Hainan prefectures and noted 136 bird species. We discovered at previously unknown locations Tibetan Snowcock, Przevalski’s Partridge, Tibetan Sandgrouse, and Gansu Leaf Warbler. I became one of the few foreign birders to visit Hala Lake, where we found Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, and Lake Xiligou, where we found Mongolian Goitered Gazelle. At the Przevalski’s Site in the Dulan Mountains, we spied a trio of Tibetan Wolf.
This post is about weeks 5 and 6 of the expedition.
A BREAK IN XINING
The activities of weeks 5 and 6 consisted of a five-day break in Xining followed by explorations in Haibei Prefecture. Elaine and I went to Haibei to scout new birding areas in the Qilian Mountains, a place little-birded by foreigners. Our most important discovery was the poplar forests along the Heihe and Babao rivers, where we encountered woodland species such as Gansu Leaf Warbler and Chinese Thrush. Conifer forests near Qilian Xiancheng yielded Black Woodpecker, and the scrub and pastureland south of Qilian Xiancheng gave us Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Siberian Roe Deer, and Mountain Weasel. We found Güldenstädt’s Redstart at a handful of locations. We failed to find Przevalski’s Redstart.
After a first month with Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén that saw us drive 5800 km (3,600 miles), Elaine and I were ready for a rest. We spent the nights of 24-29 July 2016 in Chengxi (downtown Xining) at Jingjiang Hotel (Jǐngjiāng Jiǔdiàn [景江酒店], +86 (0) 971-4323333, 800 yuan, 36.632578, 101.780914). We birded little in Xining. We found impressive numbers of Common Swift at Dongguan Mosque (36.615301, 101.797987). Air pollution was negligible, belying Xining’s reputation as one of the cities with the dirtiest air in China. The five-day break at “low-altitude” Xining, elev. 2280 m (7,480 ft.), came at the perfect time and completely reinvigorated us.
ENTERING THE QILIAN MOUNTAINS
Our first three days back out, 30 July-1 Aug. 2016, saw us cover the area between the capital of Qinghai and Qilian Xiancheng, 300 km (186 mi.) to the north. The G227, the main Xining-Qilian highway, offers much good high-altitude scenery and good scrub but in tourist season is packed with cars. The S302 and S204 are less busy.
This leg brought us the family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl, found in pitch darkness on a dirt road along the Yong’an River, followed the next day (31 July) by views of Siberian Roe Deer and near-threatened Mountain Weasel. We found the eagle-owls, two adults and a juvenile, on a cliff (37.676941, 101.270580) at 3220 m (10,560 ft.). The family consisted of two adults and a juvenile. They were calling to each other, a hoarse “yipe”:
Eurasian Eagle-Owl, cliff near Yong’an River, 30 July 2016 (00:57; 3.1 MB)
The Mountain Weasel was found in pasture off the S302 at 37.906618, 100.381936. We noticed a raucous group of White-rumped Snowfinch, Rufous-necked Snowfinch, Ground Tit, and Horned Lark. The cause of their excitement was the weasel, which was raiding the pika burrows. For an hour we watched the weasel pop into and out of the holes, searching for prey.
We were joined by Majiu (马九), a 16-year-old Tibetan high schooler, and his uncle, a herdsman. Majiu, whose height is 1.8 m (5’11”), was wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey and said to me in English, “Basketball is my life.” He is the star of his team at Qilian Ethnic High School in Qilian Xiancheng.
After dark, in Majiu’s uncle’s tent, Majiu’s uncle’s wife served us Tibetan milk tea and bread. We showed them Saturn through our scope.
— The Siberian Roe Deer was seen in broad daylight in scrub along the S302 at 37.682194, 101.061444. This was my best look ever at Siberian Roe Deer and first in summer pelage. We noted its yellow-brown coat and stocky build.
— Qilian Xiancheng, a tourist center occupying a stunning location on the Qinghai-Gansu border, teems with tourists and has many restaurants and stores. There we recorded Spotted Dove, a species that in Haibei Prefecture is near the western edge of its range.
— An interesting spot is 38.117957, 100.190286, a conifer forest 12 km (7.5 mi.) south of Qilian Xiancheng on the S204. There we noted Black Woodpecker, Rufous-vented Tit, and Willow Tit (ssp. affinis). Many other conifer forests cling to the slopes around Qilian Xiancheng. This one was the easiest to access.
POPLAR FOREST ON THE HEIHE RIVER
The highlight of our time in Haibei was finding forests of Small-leaf Poplar Populus simonii along the Heihe River and Babao River near Qilian Xiancheng. The best forest is across the Heihe River from Dipanzi Village at 38.212130, 100.160214. Among the trees, some of which are 300 years old, we found singing Gansu Leaf Warbler. This is probably a previously unknown breeding site of this little-known species.
The Gansu Leaf Warbler at the Dipanzi forest were singing in the same fashion as on 27 June, when Elaine, Michael Grunwell, and I found the species in coniferous habitat in Huzhu County (36.973133, 102.441300). The song consists of quickly delivered opening “tzit” fragments, usually followed by a sharp trill:
Gansu Leaf Warbler, poplar forest on Heihe River, 3 Aug. 2016 (01:35; 4.6 MB)
Gansu Leaf Warbler was the most numerous but not the only leaf warbler in the poplar forest. We had in addition Buff-barred Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, and a single Alpine Leaf Warbler sneaking in from the adjacent semi-desert to forage around the spring.
The forest also gave us five trip firsts: Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Treecreeper, Chinese Thrush, and, flying high above and caught by the sharp eye of Elaine, Black Stork.
We arrived at the poplar forest on the afternoon of 2 Aug. We had to wait until the morning of 3 Aug. to catch the dawn chorus. Gansu Leaf Warbler led the way. Common Cuckoo called at dawn and into the morning, and Chinese Nuthatch returned to our trip list. Hodgson’s Redstart and White-throated Redstart were feeding juveniles.
We estimate a total of 3 Northern Goshawk in that forest, one of them a juvenile and probably the offspring of the other two. Being woodland birds, the goshawks were a constant presence in the small forest, and their regular flybys startled the other birds. In the recording below, the resident Azure-winged Magpie scream as the goshawk approaches.
Northern Goshawk with Azure-winged Magpie, poplar forest, 2 Aug. 2016 (00:23; 1.7 MB)
Another similar poplar forest is along the Babao River 7 km (4.4 mi.) from Qilian Xiancheng at 38.211356, 100.190371. Here too were Gansu Leaf Warbler. Unlike the quiet Dipanzi forest, accessible only by unpaved roads, the busy S204 runs through the Babao River forest.
EXPLORING THE HEIHE RIVER VALLEY
The next 48 hours, from the afternoon of 4 Aug. to the afternoon of 6 Aug., Elaine and I spent exploring the Heihe River Valley along the 200-km (124 mi.) stretch of the S204 from Qilian Xiancheng (38.176712, 100.247371) to Yanglong Xiang (38.816483, 98.415873). Our goal here once again was to discover little-birded areas. We indeed found such areas, places few foreigners ever see, but in them were few birds of great importance. To our trip list we added Water Pipit nesting at Jiabo Hot Spring (38.790355, 98.665485).
In the upper Heihe River Valley the scenery, not the birds, was the star. Stretches of the valley are every bit as stunning as the better-known areas along the G214 between Gonghe and Yushu. The landscape we were admiring in the Heihe Valley was particularly reminiscent of the landscape along the X731, which runs through the upper Yellow River Valley in Maduo County. In both places one sees a powerful stream near its birthplace coursing through a broad valley, with the mountains that are the father of those waters looming behind. (There are more snowy peaks at this northerly location.)
As we drove west along the Heihe River, we came to appreciate the rareness of the riverside poplar woodlands that we had left behind. We found just one or two more. As we rose, the gorge grew steeper, and conifer woodlands predominated.
Featured image: Weeks 5-6 of the Qinghai 2016 Expedition were spent mainly in Qilian County, in the far north of Qinghai. The featured image above shows some of the highlights. Clockwise from top left: poplar forest in Qilian County, Mountain Weasel, neon lights of Xining, and Eurasian Eagle-Owl. (Craig Brelsford)
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Elaine Du and I spent the first two weeks of the Qinghai trip, 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)
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Last Sunday 21 Aug. Elaine Du and I returned to Shanghai from Qinghai. We had arrived in Xining on 26 June, and we spent exactly eight weeks in the sparsely populated province. We drove 8054 km (4,994 miles). I lost 5 kg (11 lbs.). On Sunday Dusky Warbler near Gonghe became our 195th and final species of the trip.
While in Qinghai, Elaine and I made new friends and deepened our friendship with our first-rate partners Michael Grunwell and Jan-Erik Nilsén. And the memories … let me tell you ’bout the memories.
Better yet, let me show you them. Ready?
I found this downy Bar-headed Goose at sunset on 28 June on the shore of Qinghai Lake, whose blue sheen you can see in the background. This youngster has much growing to do before he’ll be ready to make the flight across the Himalaya to India for the winter. Will he get strong enough in time to make the frightening trip? Strength, my lad, strength!
Last week I created a photo essay, “Little Birds in a Big Land,” in which I photographed Isabelline Wheatear from a distance, with mountains, sand dunes, and scrub visible in the background. It was an intense, 90-minute photo workout with that arid-country specialist, well-adapted to the semi-deserts of Wulan County.
Henderson’s Ground Jay is also known as Mongolian Ground Jay. Despite the ground in the name, these birds fly just fine.
When agitated, breeding White-rumped Snowfinch does a wing-flicking display reminiscent of Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. Qinghai Lake, 28 June.
The top two photos displayed below are of Gansu Leaf Warbler (the lower of the two from our newly discovered breeding site along the Heihe River in northern Qinghai); the bottom one is of Sichuan Leaf Warbler. Note the cleaner lower mandible of Gansu Leaf Warbler and compare it to the typically darker lower mandible of Sichuan. In summer, when we met these species, they were singing, and the songs of the two species differ much. In winter, when the birds are quiet, bill color is a good way to begin to identify these two similar-looking species.
I sound-recorded Gansu Leaf Warbler:
Gansu Leaf Warbler, Qilian County, Qinghai, 3 Aug. 2016 (01:35; 4 MB)
We found a new location for Przevalski’s Partridge along some back roads in Wulan County. Rusty-necklaced Partridge (alternative name) looks much like Chukar, but note the rusty line.
While we’re on partridges, what about this charismatic Tibetan Partridge, a semi-tame specimen at the nunnery, Kanda Gorge, Yushu Prefecture.
Birds of KM 2189.5 along the G109 near Qinghai Lake: Robin Accentor, a Siberian Stonechat that wasn’t happy when we stumbled upon its nest, Tibetan Snowfinch using the embankment for a nest, and that one-of-a-kind species that is neither finch nor bunting but derives from a line independent of the two: Przevalski’s “Finch.”
Blue-fronted Redstart is also sui generis, the only blue-headed Phoenicurus. Females are tougher to distinguish from other female redstarts, but note the inverted T, shown here on this male. Females have it too, and it is distinctive.
We had a memorable moment with Black-necked Crane near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture.
More bird + land: Bar-headed Goose at point where Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River, Guoluo Prefecture.
On a moonless, pitch-black night we heard a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl making strange sounds. I shot the owls by the light of our headlights. We were in Haibei Prefecture.
I had long wanted to put Chinese Thrush in my camera. Here’s the moment when I achieved that goal. I was at the riparian forest along the Heihe River in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture.
Amazing Tibetan Sandgrouse near Hala Lake.
Brandt’s Mountain Finch may look unexciting, but just watch it fly.
Do these Himalayan Vulture disgust you? Why? They’re only doing their job—a very important one. And they have manners. Note that the juvenile doesn’t interfere with the adult as it feeds.
King of the high-altitude falcons: Saker.
Who cares about Spotted Dove? When you’re in a city park in Shanghai, then you don’t care about Spotted Dove. When you’re in Qilian County, Qinghai, the extreme west of its range, then you care about Spotted Dove.
Goitered Gazelle, a Vulnerable species. Ranges from Arabian Peninsula to China. We recorded it in Wulan County.
Tibetan Gazelle was waiting for us at sunset in the mountains north of Hala Lake.
We noted Glover’s Pika at various places in Yushu Prefecture. This little guy is marketable!
This Mountain Weasel is one of the cutest little killers you’ll ever meet. Like all weasels, it’s almost completely carnivorous. In Haibei Prefecture one afternoon, Elaine and I watched this little dude dart into and out of the pika burrows, terrorizing the local birds and pikas. The fruitless attempts were comical, but we noted with respect the speed and agility of this star performer.
There’s something sensuous about those smoothly curved sand dunes—and in that soft sunset light. Right time, definitely right place.
In a few weeks I’m going to be missing Qinghai big-time, and scenes like these are going to be why. There’s no place on Earth like Qinghai, no place under the sun like the Tibetan Plateau.
Featured image: Elaine Du and Craig Brelsford, Eling Lake, Qinghai, where the Yellow River and Chinese culture are born, 3 July 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Greetings from Xining! Elaine Du and I have been relaxing here after birding Qinghai for four weeks straight, from 26 June to 24 July 2016. Recently, I described for you the events of our fourth week. The third week, 11-17 July, took place entirely within Yushu Prefecture and featured the arrival of Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. The highlight of Week 3, and indeed of the entire trip so far, was finding Tibetan Lynx. We also noted 93 bird species, discovered new birding sites, immersed ourselves in Tibetan Buddhist culture, and saw evidence of attacks by Brown Bear.
X308, A LITTLE-KNOWN, BIRDY ROAD
On 11 July I picked up Jan-Erik at Yushu Batang Airport, at elev. 3890 m (12,762 ft.) the eighth-highest civilian airport in the world. I videoed Jan-Erik’s plane as it flew in.
Jan-Erik, Elaine Du, and I spent 12-13 July exploring a scenic and birdy 85-km stretch of County Road 308 (X308). The route starts at the junction on the G214 15 km south of Yushu (Jiegu); the junction is at 32.869631, 97.070772. The route ends at Xiao Sumang Xiang near the Qinghai-Tibet border. The midpoint is Dagela Pass (4752 m), which divides the Yangtze and Mekong watersheds. On either side of the pass is scrub more pristine than any I have seen in Qinghai. In many places, the scrub covers entire slopes, from the tree line hundreds of meters above to the X308 on the valley floor.
Our X308 route is a good place to find Tibetan Partridge. We noted 28 without really searching. In one dreamlike scene, a pair of Tibetan Partridge were feeding at dusk with a Woolly Hare.
Among our other X308 highlights were Alpine Accentor at Dagela Pass and, on the slopes below, Grandala and Güldenstädt’s Redstart. We noted Red-fronted Rosefinch, the highest-breeding (to 5700 masl) bird in the Palearctic, and Streaked Rosefinch, another high-altitude breeder.
The scrub delivered close views of White-browed Tit and White-browed Tit-Warbler as well as Common Cuckoo and Greenish Warbler. In the streams were Ibisbill, White-throated Dipper, and Brown Dipper. Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Vulture, and Golden Eagle soared above. Among the most conspicuous birds were Kessler’s Thrush (39), found mainly around the scrub, and on the grassy slopes Brandt’s Mountain Finch (50) and Tibetan Snowfinch (25). We noted a single Snow Pigeon.
A group of eagle-eyed Tibetans gave us close views of White-lipped Deer. Two truckfuls of these hard-working men skidded to a stop near us, curious about the foreigners with the telescope on the side of the X308. None spoke Chinese. As one of the men was trying out my binoculars, another man was pointing to the scrub-covered slope and giving me the three symbol with his fingers. Finally I understood: 3 White-lipped Deer just visible in the scrub above. The buck looked formidable and the two does appeared healthy.
We returned to Yushu (Jiegu) and there spent the night of 13-14 July.
DOGS, LYNX, AND BEARS, OH MY!
On 14 July we set off again, this time heading south on the G214 to Nangqian County and Kanda Mountain. We found Wallcreeper along the G214 as well as on a sheer limestone wall in the narrows at Kanda Gorge.
Kanda Nunnery is nestled in a valley above the Gorge and is an easy place to pick up Tibetan Partridge and Tibetan Babax. We saw a partridge but were stymied in our quest to view Tibetan Babax by a pack of watchdogs. As I was walking toward the car, Elaine, who had been resting in the car, suddenly emerged, startling the dogs, which had been lying near the car. Elaine climbed back into the car, and the dogs surrounded me, growling and baring their teeth. Nine days earlier, I had fed and seemingly befriended the very dogs that were now snarling at me. I first tried standing firm, but still they closed in. Then I kicked them, but when I went for one, the other four would nip at my heels. I finally had no choice but to jump onto the hood of our Mitsubishi Pajero. One of the nuns came out and chased the dogs away.
All the unpleasantness with the dogs melted away the moment we saw the lynx. If you have read my recent post, then you know the story. Everyone was deeply moved and happy. Lynx roam throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are mainly associated with boreal forests. Alpine meadows at 4550 masl may not be classic lynx habitat, but our specimen was very much well-suited—a sleek, supple, healthy cat, probably feasting regularly on the Blue Sheep, Himalayan Marmot, Plateau Pika, Woolly Hare, and gamebirds that are abundant at Kanda.
Just before finding the lynx, we observed a group of White-browed Tit-Warbler at 4400 masl. At Kanda Pass, 4680 masl, we found the local Tibetan Bunting within minutes of our arrival. Here is the male singing:
Tibetan Bunting, Kanda Pass, 14 July 2016 (00:33; 2.9 MB)
Star-gazing at Kanda Pass was slightly better than it was 3 July near Maduo, probably because we were 400 m higher. I could not keep my eyes off Saturn, its ring clearly visible. The Galilean moons of Jupiter were easy to pick out, and we saw the bands ringing the gas giant.
The next morning, 15 July, just below Kanda Pass, Jan-Erik’s sensitive ear once again proved its worth. He correctly assumed that the rosefinch in front of us was not the more commonly noted Pink-rumped Rosefinch but Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. I recorded the call of the individual shown below:
Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, Kanda Mountain, 15 July 2016 (00:49; 2.7 MB)
We drove over Kanda Pass to the eastern side of the mountain, passing through good scrub habitat and getting a view of singing Chinese Rubythroat. We followed the X830 to Maozhuang (32.266550, 96.824579) and continued south through the scenic gorge of the Ziqu River, a tributary of the Zaqu River (upper Mekong River). Finally we arrived at the forest station, Jiangxi Forest Management Area (32.076777, 97.009417), just a valley away from Tibet.
At the gate, the friendly Tibetan guard asked us what we wanted to seek there. “Birds,” Elaine said. “Birds? You won’t find many,” he said, and let us in.
In Jiangxi Village we camped on the grounds of an institution called the “City of Yushu Jiangxi Huimu Vocational Training School” (32.076395, 97.063995). There, students, under the tutelage of two monks, study Buddhist-style painting. Their works are beautiful, the students are polite, and the kangbo (monks) are wise and kind. The school is an outpost of civilization in the wilderness.
We were befriended by Genqiu (根秋), a student from Kangding, Sichuan. We taught him English; he revealed to us his dream of going to the United States to see his cousin.
Genqiu took us to the studio, where 20 students were painting a wall-sized canvas that will take months to complete while one of the kangbo chanted Buddhist prayers. Later, Genqiu and his master showed us sacred paintings worth thousands of yuan. I felt I had been plugged into a Matrix, a beautiful, higher world of art, order, and peace.
On 16 July the school was visited by a huofo (活佛, “living Buddha”). The huofo smiled at me and said, “America.” Genqiu said, “I have been at this school for three years and had never seen a huofo. You have been here one day and already seen a huofo.”
We drove through the gorge. The school is at elev. 3680 m; we rose to 4000 m. As we ascended, farms and settlements grew farther apart, and the locals started telling us of attacks by Brown Bear. At first we thought the folks were telling tall tales, but we kept hearing the same story—that a local man had been mauled and had to be taken to Xining for treatment. On 17 July, as we were driving back to Yushu, we met a man who showed us the damage two Brown Bear caused when they broke into his farm.
Needless to say, the bear reports aroused our curiosity, and we scanned slopes and ridges looking for the powerful mammal. We found none, but our search bore fruit with good views of Sichuan Deer (Cervus canadensis macneilli) and at dusk a distant view of White Eared Pheasant.
The steep valleys around Jiangxi Forest Management Area and the Ziqu River gave us a rare Qinghai record of Japanese Tit as well as Black Kite, Black Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Sichuan Tit, Long-tailed Minivet, Giant Laughingthrush, Tibetan Babax, and Dark-sided Flycatcher.
On the grounds of the school, birds roamed freely and fearlessly. Large-billed Crow cawed throughout the day, Elliot’s Laughingthrush were ubiquitous, Kessler’s Thrush used the lawns, and Slaty-backed Flycatcher called from the copses. There were three species of pigeon: Snow Pigeon, Hill Pigeon, and Oriental Turtle Dove. The trill of Pink-rumped Rosefinch was commonly heard, and Hodgson’s Redstart and White-throated Redstart were the two main representatives of Phoenicurus. Salim Ali’s Swift and Crag Martin were in the area, and we noted Red-rumped Swallow.
Jan-Erik and I paid special attention to leaf warblers. We found Yellow-streaked Warbler, Buff-barred Warbler, Sichuan Leaf Warbler, and Greenish Warbler and have an unconfirmed record of Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. I sound-recorded Sichuan Leaf Warbler:
After staying two nights at the school, on 17 July we returned to Yushu (Jiegu) via Xiao Sumang Xiang and the X308. En route we found a pair of White-winged Grosbeak. The scrub on either side of Dagela Pass held Chinese Rubythroat, Blue-fronted Redstart, Robin Accentor, Brown Accentor, and Streaked Rosefinch. Tiny pools held Ruddy Shelduck, all the White Wagtail we saw were of the ninja-masked ssp. alboides, and breeding-yellow Citrine Wagtail looked like drops of sunshine on the green pastures.
We spent the night of 17-18 July at Yùshù Kōnggǎng Jiǔdiàn (玉树空港酒店; +86  976-7800777). This hotel is a good choice for birders needing a rest after days birding at high altitude. The restaurant is good and the shower in your room is separated from the rest of the bathroom. We paid 320 yuan per night.
Featured image: Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur feels its way down a rock face along the G214 near Shanglaxiu, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai, 14 July 2016. Elev. 4300 m. (Craig Brelsford)
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On Sun. 24 July, Elaine Du and I drove our partner Jan-Erik Nilsén to Xining Caojiabao Airport, completing our second week with the Beijing-based Swedish birder and fourth in Qinghai. This trip started on 26 June with Michael Grunwell and his old friend Mark Waters. Since then, Elaine and I have noted 168 species of bird, driven 5800 km, and birded six of the eight prefectures of this province, which is thrice the size of the United Kingdom. I have been attacked by dogs at Kanda Nunnery, met a Living Buddha at a Buddhist art school, scoped the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter in the clear Tibetan Plateau air, and photographed Tibetan Lynx.
After four weeks birding at high altitude without a day off, and after nearly collapsing in exhaustion Sunday night in our hotel room here in Xining, Elaine and I made the only logical choice: We have decided to extend our Qinghai trip three more weeks, into August. You can say we’re crazy about Qinghai, or you can say we’re just crazy.
My wife and I are currently resting up here in the capital of Qinghai, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. Trading our birder’s hat for a tourist’s, we have taken in the sights of Xining, a city that has long been a crossroads of Han, Hui, and Tibetan culture. Dongguan Mosque dates from 1380, Ta’er Monastery from 1583. Western culture has arrived: On Monday night Elaine and I shared a steak at an Italian restaurant, and I drank a Hoegaarden.
Streaked RosefinchCarpodacus rubicilloides
2 (pair) aggressively defending territory in semi-desert W of Dulan.
Great RosefinchCarpodacus rubicilla
2 males found near Streaked Rosefinch; no defense of territory, no streaking on back, larger white spots on breast, browner wings.
Henri’s SnowfinchMontifringilla henrici
2 at Ela Pass.
Pine BuntingEmberiza leucocephalos fronto
8 singing males at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578) in Dulan Mountains west of Chaka.
Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa Allactaga sibirica
6 noted after dark 19 July at elev. 4250 m on steppe west of Maduo-Machali (34.911354, 98.211208). Although we found jerboas along paved roads, we had more success along dirt roads, where traffic was less. A particularly good dirt road is 13.8 km from Maduo-Machali on the X731. It can be accessed from the X731 at 34.976612, 98.100317. The dirt road is on the right-hand side of the X731 for drivers coming from Maduo-Machali.
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus
ca. 1000 in rangeland west of Chaka. Presence of this huge herd on 23 July probably was the factor dooming Jan-Erik’s chances of another look at Henderson’s Ground Jay.
Tibetan Wild Ass Equus kiang
166 on 21 July around Gouhua, a site near the border of Guoluo and Haixi prefectures and first covered by Jan-Erik, Brian Ivon Jones, and me in July 2014. This site remains the single-richest spot for Tibetan Wild Ass that I have seen.
Red Fox Vulpes vulpes
3 (1 on 22 July at Przevalski’s Site, 2 on 18 July near Maduo-Machali).
Tibetan Fox Vulpes ferrilata
7 (2 near Maduo 19 July, 5 [2 ads., 3 juvs.] 18 July near Maduo-Machali).
Featured image: Jan-Erik Nilsén scans a pond near the Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai, 19 July 2016. Elev. 4240 m (13,910 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
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Tibetan Lynx Lynx lynx isabellinus, 14 July, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai, China. Sunset. With me at the wheel, my birding partners and I are driving up the Kanda Mountain road. I look left and see the lynx. It is motionless, looking at us. What luck! What a stunning sight!
“Wild cat!” I squeak to my partners, hitting the brakes and reaching for my camera. The lynx posed only a moment, and I got these images. Then it trotted away.
I waited nearly half a century to glimpse a lynx. My partners, wife Elaine Du and Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén, also had never seen a lynx. This is the Central Asian subspecies of Eurasian Lynx, also known as Himalayan Lynx and Turkestan Lynx. The elevation here is 4550 m (14,920 ft.).
My settings were off; I had just photographed a White-browed Tit-Warbler at close range in bright sunlight. Nikon D3S, 600 mm F/4, 1/20, F/10, ISO 640. “Shoot first, adjust later.” The lynx wasn’t going to wait. Photoshop can bail you out, to a point. I did manage to lower my shutter speed while shooting.
I’m writing you from Xining, capital of Qinghai. Elaine and I have been birding Qinghai since 26 June; we have just begun our fifth week in this province. Jan-Erik joined us for two weeks. On Sun. 24 July we dropped our partner off at Xining Airport. Along with goodbyes and thanks, the word “lynx” was on everyone’s lips.