Qinghai, June-August 2016: Part 2

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

INTRODUCTION TO PART 2

Part 2 covers the third and fourth weeks of our birding expedition in Qinghai. 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 our two-month trip occurred in Week 3, when we found Tibetan Lynx (above). We 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

Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo in the rain, along X308, 13 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Jan-Erik, Elaine Du, and I spent 12-13 July exploring a scenic and birdy 85-km (53-mi.) 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 elev. 4752 m (15,590 ft.), 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.

Tibetan Partridge and Woolly Hare
Tibetan Partridge and Woolly Hare, 12 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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 elev. 5700 m/18,700 ft.) bird in the Palearctic, and Streaked Rosefinch, another high-altitude breeder.

Red-fronted Rosefinch
Red-fronted Rosefinch along X308 in Yushu County. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

White-browed Tit
White-browed Tit in scrub along X308 in Yushu County. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Blue Sheep
Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur feels its way down a rock face along the G214 near Shanglaxiu, Yushu Prefecture, 14 July. (Craig Brelsford).

Kanda Nunnery (32.291641, 96.512173) 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 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.

White-browed Tit-Warbler
White-browed Tit-Warbler, Kanda Mountain, elev. 4250 m (13,940 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

All the unpleasantness with the dogs melted away the moment we saw the lynx. It was around 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!

lynx
The cat slinks away. The lynx gave us a few seconds of its time—and a memory to last forever. (Craig Brelsford)

“Wild cat!” I cry to my partners, hitting the brakes and reaching for my camera. The lynx posed only a moment before trotting away.

I waited nearly half a century to glimpse a lynx. My partners also had never seen a lynx. This is the Central Asian subspecies of Eurasian Lynx, also known as Himalayan Lynx and Turkestan Lynx. We found the lynx at elev. 4550 m (14,920 ft.).

Kanda Mountain
Kanda Mountain is in Nangqian County in southern Qinghai. Few places offer so enticing a combination of stunning scenery and good birding. I took this photo the morning after we saw the lynx near the place where the encounter occurred. Near this point one can find White Eared Pheasant, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Babax, and Tibetan Bunting. We found Blue Sheep on the slopes above. Some of the local Tibetans told us that Snow Leopard still roam the area. (Craig Brelsford)

Lynx roam throughout the Northern Hemisphere and are mainly associated with boreal forests. Alpine meadows at 4550 m 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 m (14,440 ft.). At Kanda Pass, elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.), 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)

Elaine Du
Elaine Du viewing Saturn through our Swarovski ATX-95 spotting scope at Kanda Pass (32.314561, 96.624807), elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Star-gazing at Kanda Pass was even better than it was 3 July near Maduo-Machali, probably because we were higher by 400 m (1,310 ft.). 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)

Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch
Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus, Kanda Mountain. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Ziqu River
Ziqu River near Jiangxi Forest Management Area. Note the rich conifer forests in this wetter, greener area of Qinghai. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

artwork
This is an example of the beautiful artwork being produced by the students at the Jiangxi Huimu Vocational Training School in Jiangxi Village, Nangqian County. The detail here is amazing. Genqiu told us that if even the slightest mistake is detected, then no matter how far along the painting is, the canvas will be discarded and the painter made to start again. (Craig Brelsford)

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 (12,070 ft.); we rose to 4000 m (13,120 ft.). 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.

Craig and Tibetans
Craig gets advice on bears from local Tibetan men, Jiangxi Village. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)

The reports of bear aroused our curiosity, and we scanned the slopes and ridges looking for one. 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:

Sichuan Leaf Warbler, trill, Jiangxi Forest Management Area, 16 July (00:25; 1.8 MB)

Sichuan Leaf Warbler
Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Jiangxi Forest Station. (Craig Brelsford)

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 [0] 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.

WEEK 4

Jan-Erik Nilsén
Jan-Erik Nilsén scans a pond near the Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, 19 July. Elev. 4240 m. (Craig Brelsford)

Jan-Erik’s second week with us was Elaine’s and my fourth overall. We ranged from Yushu-Jiegu (33.002242, 96.978488) north through Maduo County and Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449) and into the desert around Dulan before a final night in Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878) and a long ride to Xining Caojiabao Airport (36.527923, 102.040889). We noted 69 species. Highlights:

Greylag Goose Anser anser
2 in pond west of Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878). First record for Qinghai 2016 trip.

Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus
952 in lakes in Maduo County (elev. 4250 m/13,940 ft.) and at Lake Donggeicuona (35.290072, 98.537098) in Maduo County (elev. 4100 m/13,450 ft.).

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
1 at Lake Donggeicuona. My first record on Tibetan Plateau.

Great Egret Ardea alba
1 at Donggeicuona. My first on Tibetan Plateau. Unexpected in region (according to A Field Guide to the Birds of China).

Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
1 surprising record along G214 in Maduo County at lofty 4250 m (13,940 ft.).

Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
1 sub-ad. 24 July in semi-desert between Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878) and Heimahe (36.729239, 99.779524).

Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis

Himalayan Vulture
Himalayan Vulture pausing as it rips apart a lamb carcass, near Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), 20 July. Juvenile looks passively on, never once interrupting the meal of the adult. Who says vultures lack table manners? (Craig Brelsford)

Amazing scene 20 July near Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449) in which juvenile waited patiently while adult ate its fill of lamb carcass.

Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis
16 around Maduo County wetlands, at Donggeicuona, and at Chaka.

Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
4 in pond with Greylag Goose west of Chaka. My first on Tibetan Plateau.

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
59 around Chaka. Unexpected (according to A Field Guide to the Birds of China).

Little Owl Athene noctua

Little Owl
Little Owl stands at attention below Yankou Shan (33.199406, 97.466606), 18 July. (Craig Brelsford)

Owlets examined us near Yankou Shan (33.199406, 97.466606) in Yushu Prefecture.

Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus giganteus
4 in semi-desert W of Dulan.

Mongolian Lark Melanocorypha mongolica
4 in grassland between Chaka and Gonghe-Qiabuqia (36.275266, 100.624701).

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
1 (first record of trip) across from hotel in Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878).

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula
1 singing individual and 1 dead individual in semi-desert west of Dulan.

Tibetan Rosefinch Carpodacus roborowskii

Tibetan Rosefinch
Tibetan Rosefinch (female), Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), 20 July. Note robust size of the Tibetan Plateau endemic, a bird built for high country and harsh weather. (Craig Brelsford)

1 female at Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), elev. 4499 m (14,760 ft.), on G214, Hainan Prefecture.

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides
2 (pair) aggressively defending territory in semi-desert west of Dulan.

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla

rosefinches
This montage shows two individuals, one (1, 2) a male Great Rosefinch, the other (3-5) a male Streaked Rosefinch. The birds were photographed 22 July within a few hundred meters of each other in the semi-desert west of Dulan in Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. The elevation here is 3340 m (10,960 ft.). Note the more strongly streaked back of the Streaked Rosefinch, the darker flight feathers, and the smaller white spots on its breast. The two species are deceptively similar, a situation neatly summed up by the Chinese name for Streaked Rosefinch: ‘pseudo-Great Rosefinch’ (拟大朱雀). (Craig Brelsford)

2 males found near Streaked Rosefinch; no defense of territory, no streaking on back, larger white spots on breast, browner wings.

Tibetan Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici
2 at Ela Pass.

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos fronto
8 singing males at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578) in Dulan Mountains west of Chaka.

MAMMALS

Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa Allactaga sibirica

Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa
Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa, near Maduo-Machali (34.911354, 98.211208), 19 July. This photo, taken by the light of the headlights of our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, serves as an introduction to this unusual rodent but doesn’t nearly do it justice. To fully appreciate the jerboa, one needs to see the lightning-fast movements of what the Chinese call ‘Five-toe Jump-mouse’ (五指跳鼠). (Craig Brelsford)

6 noted after dark 19 July at elev. 4250 m (13,940 ft.) 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 (8.6 mi.) 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).

PHOTOS

pink-rumped rosefinch
Pink-rumped Rosefinch Carpodacus waltoni, female, Jiangxi Forest, 17 July. (Craig Brelsford)
giant l'thrush
Giant Laughingthrush Ianthocincla maxima on sheep’s skull, Jiangxi Forest, Qinghai, 15 July. (Craig Brelsford)
road near school
Jan-Erik birds the road near City of Yushu Jiangxi Huimu Vocational Training School’ (32.076395, 97.063995). (Craig Brelsford)
artwork at the school
Artwork produced by ‘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. (Craig Brelsford)
lower kanda gorge
Lunch stop, lower Kanda Gorge, 14 July 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
sleeping elaine
Elaine Du sleeping at Kanda Pass, elev. 4680 m (15,350 ft.), 15 July. Weeks on end at high elevation tax the body, and good rest is essential. (Craig Brelsford)
tibetans
Jan-Erik Nilsén (second from L) and Craig Brelsford laughing with Tibetans along County Road 308 (X308), 12 July. (Elaine Du)
Craig and Tibetans
While Tibetans including the kangbo in red get a taste of Craig’s camera, Craig nurses a hot coffee. Jiangxi Forest, southern Qinghai, July 2016. (Elaine Du)
Craig crossing stream
Craig Brelsford crossing stream to get photos of Great Rosefinch. (Elaine Du)

INDEX

“Qinghai, June-August 2016” contains an introduction and six parts. This is Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yunnan
Xinjiang
Sichuan
Northeast China

Featured image: Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountains, Qinghai. (Craig Brelsford)
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Qinghai, June-August 2016: Part 3

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

INTRODUCTION TO PART 3

Part 3 covers weeks 5 and 6, in which we birded mainly in Qilian County in northern 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.

A BREAK IN XINING

Xining
Skyline along Nanchuan River in Xining. After weeks birding at high elevation, Elaine and I spent 24-29 July relaxing in the capital of Qinghai. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Elaine and Craig
Elaine and I relaxing at an Italian restaurant in Xining on 25 July. After non-stop, high-altitude birding for a month, we were ready for a break. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Eurasian Eagle-Owl
Driving in the pitch dark near the Yong’an River, Elaine and I heard the grating calls of a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl. This is the juvenile; note the lack of ear tufts. By some measures the largest owl in the world, Bubo bubo ranges across Eurasia, from Spain to Sakhalin. We found the owls at 37.676941, 101.270580. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Mountain Weasel
The spectacle of this Mountain Weasel terrifying the poor birds was comical, but we respectfully noted the speed and agility of the carnivore. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

pasture
The sun sets over our camp at Majiu’s uncle’s pasture in Qilian County. (Craig Brelsford)

NOTES

— 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.

Good scrub habitat along S302 in Qilian County, 31 July 2016. Elev.: 3360 m. Near this point (37.682194, 101.061444) we found Siberian Roe Deer as well as Güldenstädt's Redstart and Streaked Rosefinch.
Good scrub habitat along S302 in Qilian County, 31 July. Near this point (37.682194, 101.061444), elev. 3360 m (11,020 ft.), we found Siberian Roe Deer, Güldenstädt’s Redstart, and Streaked Rosefinch. (Craig Brelsford)

— 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.

Willow Tit
Willow Tit Poecile montanus affinis, 1 Aug. P. m. affinis differs only slightly from Sichuan Tit P. weigoldicus, the form found in south Qinghai (Yushu and Nangqian counties). Both taxa have cinnamon underparts and never show a crest. I photographed this tit in the conifer forest 12 km (7.5 mi.) south of Qilian Xiancheng (38.117957, 100.190286). (Craig Brelsford)

— 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

Heihe River forest
The tall poplars in the Heihe River riparian forest create a park-like atmosphere and contrast greatly with the semi-desert looming behind. Some of the trees in this forest are more than 300 years old. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Small-leaf Poplar Populus simonii
Small-leaf Poplar Populus simonii is the predominant tree in the forests along the Heihe and Babao rivers in Qilian County. Here is a typical leaf, with the wrinkly trunk of an old poplar in the background. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Chinese Thrush
We found this Chinese Thrush in the poplar forest along the Heihe River. A Chinese near-endemic, Turdus mupinensis ranges across much of central China. It is closely related to Song Thrush T. philomelos but is more heavily spotted and has more prominent wing bars than its westerly counterpart. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Eurasian Treecreeper
Eurasian Treecreeper, one of several woodland species found in the poplar forests along the Heihe and Babao rivers. (Craig Brelsford)

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)

Northern Goshawk
Juvenile Northern Goshawk, riparian forest, 3 Aug. Identifiable as juvenile by coarse streaking on underparts. Adult has barred underparts. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Jiabo Hot Spring, Qinghai
Jiabo Hot Spring (38.790355, 98.665485), on the S204 in Qilian County. (Craig Brelsford)

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).

Water Pipit
Water Pipit at Jiabo Hot Spring, with Robin Accentor in background. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

PHOTOS

forest
Conifer forest along Heihe River, elev. 2820 m. This forest is at 38.231934, 99.991251, 27.5 km (17.1 mi.) from Qilian Xiancheng, and is accessible from the S204. Hard to reach and little disturbed, rich conifer forests grace the slopes around Qilian Xiancheng. (Craig Brelsford)
Dongguan Mosque
Dongguan Mosque in Xining supports a community of Common Swift. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Eagle-Owl
Eurasian Eagle-Owl at cliff-side roost in Haibei Prefecture, 30 July. (Craig Brelsford)
Oriental Skylark
Oriental Skylark near Banjie Gou, 31 July. (Craig Brelsford)
White-rumped Snowfinch
White-rumped Snowfinch stands atop a cow patty at sunset, 31 July. (Craig Brelsford)
Mountain Weasel
Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July. Mustela altaica is found in central and east Asia. It is listed as Near Threatened in part because of the changes to its main habitat, mountain meadows, through over-grazing. (Craig Brelsford)
valley
Valley south of Qilian Xiancheng at 38.083892, 100.175667. Elev. 3370 m. (Craig Brelsford)
Spotted Dove
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. 1 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Heihe River poplar forest
In the Heihe River poplar forest, a spring keeps the earth green, attracts birds from the surrounding semi-desert, and sustains a lush woodland habitat in arid northern Qinghai. Water from the nearby river also regularly spills into the forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Wryneck
Eurasian Wryneck licks up ants at edge of riparian forest along Heihe River, 3 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Gansu Leaf Warbler
Gansu Leaf Warbler, Heihe River poplar forest, 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Heihe River Valley
Heihe River Valley near village of Dipanzi (38.083889, 100.175667), elev. 2650 m (8,690 ft.). Poplar forests line the river on either side. As one travels upstream, the valley grows narrower, the poplar forests disappear, and conifer forests predominate. (Craig Brelsford)
Jiabo Hot Spring
Panorama of area around Jiabo Hot Spring, 5 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

INDEX

“Qinghai, June-August 2016” contains an introduction and six parts. This is Part 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yunnan
Xinjiang
Sichuan
Northeast China

Featured image: Highlights from northern Qinghai. Clockwise from top left: poplar forest, Mountain Weasel, neon lights of Xining, and Eurasian Eagle-Owl. (Craig Brelsford)
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Qinghai, June-August 2016: Part 4

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

INTRODUCTION TO PART 4

Part 4 covers Week 7, spent mainly around Hala Lake. The featured image above shows some of the highlights. Clockwise from top left: glacier and mountain at Hala Lake, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Gazelle at sunset, and sea mollusk 50 million years old.

A WEEK AROUND HALA LAKE

Tibetan Sandgrouse
Our bird of the week for Week 7: Tibetan Sandgrouse. Elaine Du and I found 53 at Hala Lake on 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Craig Brelsford
Craig Brelsford, Silhouette Against Ocher Hillside, Suli-Yanglong road, 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Kia Sportage
Our Kia Sportage at the gas station in remote Suli. Mr. Zhou is far left, talking to the attendant. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

fossils
Mr. Zhou’s fossil collection. 70 million years ago, the Indian Subcontinent began crashing into Asia, a process that continues to this day and that is the force creating the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. 50 million years ago, the sea between the Indian Subcontinent and the rest of Asia finally closed. Therefore, the fossilized sea mollusks shown here cannot be younger than 50 million years of age. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Craig Brelsford
Craig Brelsford tightens the spare on Kia Sportage near Hala Lake. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Elaine Du
Elaine viewing the planets at twilight. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Tibetan Snowcock
Tibetan Snowcock above our camp at 37.980045, 98.047005. The hills lining the stream gave us two views of this high-country game bird in two days. The area east of Hala Lake must be a prime location for this species. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Panorama near Hala Lake. 9 Aug. 2016.
Panorama near Hala Lake, 9 Aug. The coordinates here are 37.973072, 98.050575 and the elev. is 4340 m. These arid heights are the home of Tibetan Snowcock. (Craig Brelsford)

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.)

Ren Qing directs Craig
Rén Qīng directs Craig (driving the Sportage) down a steep path near creek crossings 6 and 7. (Elaine Du)

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.

Hala Lake
Steppe, sea, and sky: Hala Lake. (Elaine Du)

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.

TIBETAN SANDGROUSE!

Tibetan Sandgrouse
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, 10 Aug. This juvenile is one of 53 sandgrouse we found that day. The presence of juveniles was encouraging, for it confirmed that we had found a breeding site. Juvenile Tibetan Sandgrouse show only a trace of orange on the throat and lack the pin tail. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Hala Lake
Shingly shore of Hala Lake. (Elaine Du)

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.)

Tibetan Sandgrouse
This Tibetan Sandgrouse is an adult female and is identifiable as such by the fine barring on the mantle, coverts, and tertials. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Prime Tibetan Sandgrouse habitat near Hala Lake.
Near Hala Lake (in background), we found this prime Tibetan Sandgrouse habitat (38.205017, 97.520042). Gravelly semi-desert near a lake at high altitude: This is the environment in which Tibetan Sandgrouse thrives. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

RAIN …

Elaine and Craig
Elaine and Craig waiting out the rain in the tent. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Elaine Du
Elaine Du washes up at our camp (38.209028, 97.477056). Elaine and I keep a clean camp and stay civilized in the wild. A key component of staying civilized is a simple latrine, into which all our wastewater goes. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Little Stint
Little Stint at Hala Lake. Even in these poor photos, the mantle and scapular V’s are visible, as are the pale forehead and split supercilium. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Whimbrel
Whimbrel, Hala Lake. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

PHOTOS

Saker
King of the high-country falcons: Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, 6 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Tibetan Gazelle
Tibetan Gazelle at sunset, near Suli, 6 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
skull
A sheep’s skull wards off evil under a bridge near Suli, 7 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Craig Brelsford
Craig Brelsford studies the planets through his spotting scope at camp on 8 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Brandt's Mountain Finch
Brandt’s Mountain Finch feeding young. (Craig Brelsford)
Brandt's Mountain Finch
Brandt’s Mountain Finch is a small but powerful bird, taking long, straight flights at altitudes topping 5000 m. I found this individual 9 Aug. near Hala Lake at an elev. of 4400 m. (Craig Brelsford)
Operating around camp
Operating around camp on a rainy day at Hala Lake. (Craig Brelsford)
Sky, mountain, and water
Sky, mountain, and water at Hala Lake, 12 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

INDEX

“Qinghai, June-August 2016” contains an introduction and six parts. This is Part 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yunnan
Xinjiang
Sichuan
Northeast China

Featured image: Hala Lake highlights. Clockwise from top left: glacier and mountain, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Gazelle, and sea mollusk 50 million years old. (Craig Brelsford)
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