Qinghai 2016 Week 8

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

The view from our room at the hotel in Wulan. A new public square adds life to the town.
The view from our room at the hotel in Wulan Xiancheng. A new public square adds life to the town. The elevation here is 2950 m. The weather in August is warm and dry, a welcome contrast to the cold we endured the previous week at Hala Lake. (Craig Brelsford)

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, more than 1100 meters lower than chilly Hala Lake, where we had spent the previous week.

This is the productive marshy area at 36.899263, 98.494709. We heard Water Rail calling from the reeds.
This is the productive marshy area near Wulan Xiancheng at 36.899263, 98.494709. From these reeds we heard the squeals of Water Rail, and nearby we found Tibetan Lark. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Mongolian Goitered Gazelle, Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016.
Mongolian Goitered Gazelle, Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016. Goitered Gazelle ranges from the Arabian Peninsula to China. The IUCN lists it as Vulnerable, mainly because of poaching and habitat loss. The latter problem is glaringly acute in Qinghai, where numbers of domestic livestock continue to increase, straining the land and pushing the wild ungulates out. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Elaine Du walks through a sea of grass near the south shore of Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016. In the distance the town of Wulan can be seen.
Elaine Du walks through a sea of grass near the south shore of Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016. In the distance the town of Wulan can be seen. (Craig Brelsford)

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

Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, 17 Aug. 2016.
We found this Przevalski’s Partridge at a spot (36.826334, 97.965649) 66 km southwest of Wulan. Endemic to China, Alectoris magna has a compact range that extends from northeastern Qinghai to central Gansu. It is similar to Chukar Partridge A. chukar and is distinguished from it by the chestnut line on the neck. This line gives rise to its other English name, ‘Rusty-necklaced Partridge.’ (Craig Brelsford)

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 southwest of Wulan. The covey contained 13 birds. The site, at elev. 3380 m 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.

Asian Short-toed Lark, in semi-desert near Jinzi Lake, Wulan County, 19 Aug. 2016. The four panels show a single individual, a juvenile. Note the stubby bill, the noticeable extension of the primaries beyond the short tertials (Panel 2), and the streaked breast (4). Hume's Short-toed Lark and Greater Short-toed Lark show tertials overlapping the primary tips, and neither has streaking across the breast.
Asian Short-toed Lark in semi-desert near Jinzi Lake, Wulan County, 19 Aug. 2016. The four panels show a single individual, a juvenile. Note the stubby bill, the noticeable extension of the primaries beyond the short tertials (Panel 2), and the streaked breast (4). Hume’s Short-toed Lark and Greater Short-toed Lark show tertials overlapping the primary tips, and neither has streaking across the breast. (Craig Brelsford)

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. 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.

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula margelanica.
Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula margelanica near Jinzi Lake. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

RESCUING REDSTARTS

Dunes and mountain near Lianhe Cun, Dulan County, Qinghai, 19 Aug. 2016.
Dunes and mountain near Chacha Cun (36.674281, 98.133550), Dulan County, Qinghai, 19 Aug. 2016. Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4, F/11, 1/500, ISO 500. (Craig Brelsford)

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.”

TIBETAN WOLF

View looking north at 'Przevalski's Site' in the Dulan Mountains, 19 Aug. 2016.
View looking north at Przevalski’s Site in the Dulan Mountains, 19 Aug. 2016. The point here is 36.460567, 98.503088. The base of Przevalski’s Hill, where Przevalski’s Partridge often gather, is visible to the left of the gully. The wolves were found on the farthest ridge back. Przevalski’s Redstart have been found on the conifer-spotted sunlit hillside in the mid-ground. Pine Bunting often sing from the base of Przevalski’s Hill and in the grass in the foreground. (Craig Brelsford)

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 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 peeked in, 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.

THE END

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.

PHOTOS

Stunning sunset over Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016.
Stunning sunset over Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Dusk at Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016.
Dusk at Lake Xiligou, 16 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
The sand in these dunes was deposited grain by grain from the wind. Wulan County, Qinghai, 17 Aug. 2016. F/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1250.
Dunes near the Przevalski’s Partridge site in Wulan County, Qinghai, 17 Aug. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
When approached by this photographer, this Woolly Hare decided to sit tight. From a survival perspective, the strategy paid off. Nikon D3S, 600 mm F/4, F/9, 1/250, ISO 8000, hand-held. Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai, 17 Aug. 2016.
When approached by this photographer, this Woolly Hare decided to sit tight. From a survival perspective, the strategy paid off. (Craig Brelsford)
Isabelline Wheatear are abundant in the semi-deserts of Wulan County. 18 Aug. 2016.
Isabelline Wheatear are abundant in the semi-deserts of Wulan County. We counted 58 on 18 Aug. and 110 on 19 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

PLACE NAMES

Note: Many places in Qinghai have Tibetan or Mongolian names. For simplicity I have written place names only in English, simplified Chinese, and Pinyin.

Chacha Cun (Cháchá Cūn [查查村]): village Dulan County. 36.674281, 98.133550.

Chaka (Chákǎ Zhèn [茶卡镇]): town & tourist center Wulan County. 36.791576, 99.078878.

Dashui Reservoir (Dàshuǐ Shuǐkù [大水水库]): dam & artificial lake. 36.716292, 99.471655.

Delingha County (Délìnghā Shì [德令哈市]) sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture. Officially, Delingha “City” (市).

Dulan County (Dūlán Xiàn [都兰县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture.

Gahai Lake (Gǎ Hǎi [尕海]): freshwater lake Delingha County. Elev.: 2850 m (9,350 ft.). 37.128349, 97.551656.

Gonghe County (Gònghé Xiàn [共和县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Hainan Prefecture.

Haibei Prefecture (Hǎiběi Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海北藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Qinghai.

Hainan Prefecture (Hǎinán Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [海南藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area E Qinghai.

Haixi Prefecture (Hǎixī Měnggǔzú Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海西蒙古族藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area occupying all of NW & NC Qinghai & a portion of SW Qinghai. Area: 325,785 sq. km (125,786 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): slightly larger than New Mexico. Largest prefecture in Qinghai.

Hala Lake (Hālā Hú [哈拉湖]): inland sea N Qinghai in Haixi Prefecture. Second-largest lake in Qinghai. Area: 607 sq. km (234 sq. mi.). Elevation: 4077 m (13,373 ft.). 38.267875, 97.575430.

Huzhu County (Hùzhù Tǔzú Zìzhìxiàn [互助土族自治县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haidong Prefecture.

Jinzi Lake (Jīnzi Hǎi [金子海]): freshwater lake Wulan County. Elev.: 2990 m (9,810 ft.). 36.719109, 97.886371.

Lake Xiligou (Xīlǐgōu Hú [希里沟湖]): saline lake Wulan County. Elev.: 2950 m (9,680 ft.). 36.838594, 98.462896.

Lianhe Cun (Liánhé Cūn [联合村]): village Dulan County. 36.627763, 98.235107.

Przevalski’s Site: birding area Dulan Mountains, Dulan County. Turnoff at KM 2335.5 on G109. Birding area at 36.457249, 98.502578.

Qiabuqia (Qiàbǔqià Zhèn [恰卜恰镇]): urbanized area Gonghe County, seat of Gonghe County & Hainan Prefecture. Commonly referred to as Gonghe. 36.275266, 100.624701.

Map of Qinghai showing the eight prefectural-level divisions. With just 5.6 million inhabitants in an area larger than Texas, Qinghai is a vast, sparsely populated province. Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai showing the eight prefectural-level divisions. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Qinghai (Qīnghǎi Shěng [青海省]): province NW China. Area: 720,000 sq. km (278,000 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): three times larger than United Kingdom; slightly larger than Texas. Pop.: 5.6 million.

Wulan County (Wūlán Xiàn [乌兰县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture. Also known as Ulan County. Area: 10,784 sq. km (4,164 sq. mi.)

Xining Caojiabao Airport (Xīníng Cáojiābǎo Jīchǎng [西宁曹家堡机场]): airport 30 km E of downtown Xining. 36.527923, 102.040889.

Xining Prefecture (Xīníng Shì [西宁市]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Qinghai. Capital of Qinghai. Officially, Xining “City” (市).

MORE ON QINGHAI 2016

Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai
A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies
Qinghai 2016 Week 1-2 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 3 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Weeks 5-6
Qinghai 2016 Week 7

Featured image: Dunes and mountain in remote back country of Wulan County, where I spent most of Week 8. (Craig Brelsford)

Qinghai 2016 Week 1-2 Highlights

In photo above, Michael Grunwell (L) carries spotting scope to view waterfowl on Eling Lake, near source of Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai, 3 July 2016. To the right is Mark Waters, Michael’s old friend from England. This post covers the first two weeks of our Qinghai 2016 expedition.

Other posts in our Qinghai 2016 series:

Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai
Qinghai 2016 Week 3 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights
A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies
Qinghai 2016 Weeks 5-6

Qinghai 2016 Week 7
Qinghai 2016 Week 8

Elaine Du and I were in Qinghai from 26 June to 21 Aug. 2016. We collected a huge amount of material and have been publishing it in bits and pieces here on shanghaibirding.com. In this post, we offer you the highlights of the first two weeks of the trip, 26 June to 10 July, which we spent with Shanghai-based British birder Michael Grunwell and his old friend Mark Waters.

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

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

226 Common Merganser at Eling Lake

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

A pair of White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon dolani pause from their evening forage to gaze warily at the camera. Kanda Gorge, Nangqian County, 5 July 2016. Elev. 3980 m. White Eared Pheasant is listed as Near Threatened because of habitat loss and poaching. In Kanda Gorge, the species seems to be doing well. This pair was feeding in the open next to the road.
White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon dolani pause from their evening forage to gaze warily at the camera. Kanda Gorge, Nangqian County, 5 July. White Eared Pheasant is listed as Near Threatened because of habitat loss and poaching. (Craig Brelsford)

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

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

Tibetan Partridge, 5 July 2016. Craig Brelsford.
Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae, Kanda Nunnery (32.291641, 96.512173), 5 July. (Craig Brelsford)

5 Golden Eagle noted at various places

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

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

5 Ibisbill on tributaries of Mekong River in Nangqian County

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

21 Common Cuckoo and 7 Cuculus sp. Common Cuckoo were singing at elevations as high as 4300 m

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

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

1 Black Drongo, another interesting record for Qinghai

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

Henderson's Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. 30 June 2016. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500.
Henderson’s Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878), 30 June. (Craig Brelsford)

1 southern record of Mongolian Lark south of Gonghe-Qiabuqia

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

16 Sichuan Tit in Kanda Gorge and at Baizha Nature Reserve

7 White-browed Tit-Warbler at my reliable site near Heimahe as well as at Baizha

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

Yellow-streaked Warbler, Baizha Nature Reserve, 7 July 2016. 3900 masl.
Yellow-streaked Warbler, Baizha Nature Reserve, 7 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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

22 Sichuan Leaf Warbler at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

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

1 Dark-sided Flycatcher at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

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

White-tailed Rubythroat in scrub near Heimahe, 29 June 2016. Elev. 3600 m.
Chinese Rubythroat in scrub (36.758683, 99.663055) near Heimahe, 29 June. (Craig Brelsford)

47 Slaty-backed Flycatcher, all at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

Przevalski's Redstart, Dulan Mountains, 1 July 2016. Elev. 3820 m. We found a pair, both of which are shown here. Note the all-black tail of the female.
Przevalski’s Redstart, Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. We found a pair. Note all-black tail of female. (Craig Brelsford)

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

11 Plumbeous Water Redstart, all at lower elevations at Baizha

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

6 Güldenstädt’s Redstart breeding as low as 3800 masl around Heimahe. Also known as White-winged Redstart

7 Chestnut Thrush in forests in Huzhu County

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

1 Maroon-backed Accentor at Baizha Nature Reserve

3 Przevalski’s Finch at two sites near Heimahe

3 White-winged Grosbeak near Chaka and in Kanda Gorge

2 Blanford’s Rosefinch at Baizha Nature Reserve

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

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

This Rufous-necked Snowfinch shows the distinctive head pattern of the species, with black eye-line and submoustachial stripe, white throat, and reddish band on neck-sides. Pyrgilauda ruficollis is a common species of the Tibetan Plateau, with a range nearly perfectly coterminous with the Rooftop of the World. I took this photo 29 June 2016 near Heimahe at an elevation of 3480 m.
This Rufous-necked Snowfinch shows the distinctive head pattern of the species, with black eye-line and submoustachial stripe, white throat, and reddish band on neck-sides. Pyrgilauda ruficollis is common on the Tibetan Plateau, its range nearly perfectly coterminous with the Rooftop of the World. I took this photo 29 June at the base of Tit-Warbler Mountain (36.766994, 99.667711). (Craig Brelsford)

13 Henri’s Snowfinch, mainly around Ela Pass

10 Tibetan Snowfinch, including nesting pair at G109 KM 2189.5 (36.778749, 99.653861) near Heimahe

2 Tibetan Bunting at Kanda Pass

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

A male Pine Bunting sings in the Dulan Mountains W of Chaka, Wulan County, 1 July 2016. Elev. 3820 m. The bunting shown here is a member of ssp. fronto, endemic to N Qinghai and adjacent Gansu. Emberiza leucocephalos fronto is resident in its range, which is disjunct from that of the nominate ssp.
Male Pine Bunting at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578), 1 July. Emberiza leucocephalos fronto is endemic to N Qinghai and adjacent Gansu. (Craig Brelsford)

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

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

L-R: Mark Waters, Michael Grunwell, and Elaine Du watching Himalayan Vulture at sunset on 3 July 2016 in Maduo County, Qinghai. Yellow River just visible at their feet. As soon as the sun set on 3 July, our team turned its attention to the heavens, enjoying in the clear Tibetan Plateau air stunning views of the Milky Way, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6.
Mark Waters (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Elaine Du watch Himalayan Vulture at sunset on 3 July 2016 in Maduo County. The Yellow River is visible at their feet. (Craig Brelsford)
Michael Grunwell scans scrub for birds in the Kanda Mountains, 5 July 2016.
Michael Grunwell scans scrub for birds in Kanda Mountains, 5 July 2016. High-quality scrub is just one of the many attractions of this pristine location in Nangqian County. The slopes hold White Eared Pheasant and Tibetan Partridge, and among the animals found here is Tibetan Lynx. (Craig Brelsford)

PLACE NAMES

Note: Many places in Qinghai have Tibetan or Mongolian names. For simplicity I have written place names only in English, simplified Chinese, and Pinyin.

Baizha Nature Reserve (Báizhā Sēnlín Zìrán Bǎohùqū [白扎森林自然保护区]): protected area Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture. Junction of G214 & X832 at 31.966314, 96.535097. On some maps, X832 is called “Ranniang Section” (Ránniáng Duàn [然娘段]). This is the road that leads toward the nature reserve. At another turnoff (31.964250, 96.573340), bear right, leaving Ranniang Section, & continue on to the reserve.

Chaka (Chákǎ Zhèn [茶卡镇]): town & tourist center Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 36.791576, 99.078878.

Ela Pass (Èlā Shānkǒu [鄂拉山口]): elev. 4499 m (14,757 ft.). 35.497608, 99.511449.

Eling Lake (Èlíng Hú [鄂陵湖]). Also known as Ngoring Lake. 34.902685, 97.709949.

Guoluo Prefecture (Guǒluò Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [果洛藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area SE Qinghai.

Haidong Prefecture (Hǎidōng Shì [海东市]): sub-provincial administrative area E Qinghai.

Hainan Prefecture (Hǎinán Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [海南藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area E Qinghai.

Haixi Prefecture (Hǎixī Měnggǔzú Zàngzú Zìzhì Zhōu [海西蒙古族藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area occupying all of NW & NC Qinghai & a portion of SW Qinghai.

Heimahe (Hēimǎhé Xiāng [黑马河乡]): village on SW shore of Qinghai Lake in Gonghe County, Hainan Prefecture. Major tourist center. 36.729239, 99.779524.

Huzhu County (Hùzhù Tǔzú Zìzhìxiàn [互助土族自治县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haidong Prefecture.

Jiegu (Jiégǔ Zhèn [结古镇]): urbanized area E Yushu County. Commonly referred to as Yushu. 33.002242, 96.978488.

Kanda Mountains (Kǎndá Shān [坎达山]): high country Nangqian County. Elev. at mouth of Kanda Gorge, near Zaqu River: 3670 m (12,040 ft.). Elev. Kanda Pass: 4680 m (15,350 ft.). Junction of G214 & road leading to Kanda Mountains: 32.315911, 96.454165. Mouth of Kanda Gorge: 32.277059, 96.485171. Kanda Pass: 32.314561, 96.624807.

Kanda Nunnery: religious institution Kanda Gorge. Reliable site for Tibetan Partridge & Tibetan Babax. Elev.: 3910 m (12,830 ft.). 32.291641, 96.512173.

Machali (Mǎchálǐ Zhèn [玛查理镇]): town W Maduo County. Commonly referred to as Maduo. 34.911354, 98.211208.

Maduo County (Mǎduō Xiàn [玛多县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Guoluo Prefecture.

Nangqian County (Nángqiān Xiàn [囊谦县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Yushu Prefecture.

Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. From 26 June to 10 July 2016, the birding team of Michael Grunwell, Mark Waters, Elaine Du, and Craig Brelsford covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining, marked in black. Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. From 26 June to 10 July 2016, the birding team of Michael Grunwell, Mark Waters, Elaine Du, and Craig Brelsford covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining, marked in black. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

Qinghai (Qīnghǎi Shěng [青海省]): province NW China. Area: 720,000 sq. km (278,000 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): three times larger than United Kingdom; slightly larger than Texas. Pop.: 5.6 million.

Qinghai Lake (Qīnghǎi Hú [青海湖]): largest lake in Qinghai. 36.877808, 100.228673.

Wulan County (Wūlán Xiàn [乌兰县]): sub-prefectural administrative area Haixi Prefecture.

Xining (Xīníng Shì [西宁市]): capital of Qinghai & most populous city on Tibetan Plateau.

Yushu County (Yùshù Shì [玉树市]): sub-prefectural administrative area Yushu Prefecture.

Map of Qinghai showing Yushu Prefecture in yellow and Yushu County in pink. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai showing Yushu Prefecture in yellow and Yushu County in pink. (Wikipedia)

Yushu Prefecture (Yùshù Zàngzú Zìzhìzhōu [玉树藏族自治州]): sub-provincial administrative area S Qinghai.

Zaqu River (Zāqū [扎曲]): name for upper reaches of Mekong River in Qinghai.

A Batch o’ Qinghai Goodies

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!

Bar-headed Goose, Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016. F/7.1, 1/800, ISO 1600.
Bar-headed Goose, Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Isabelline Wheatear 1/3. F/14, 1/400, ISO 1600. Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. 18 Aug. 2016.
Isabelline Wheatear 1/3. F/14, 1/400, ISO 1600. Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 18 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
F/16, 1/320, ISO 800.
F/16, 1/320, ISO 800. (Craig Brelsford)
F/16, 1/250, ISO 1600.
F/16, 1/250, ISO 1600. (Craig Brelsford)

Henderson’s Ground Jay is also known as Mongolian Ground Jay. Despite the ground in the name, these birds fly just fine.

Henderson's Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 30 June 2016. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500.
Henderson’s Ground Jay, scrub W of Chaka, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture. 30 June. F/6.3, 1/6400, ISO 2500. (Craig Brelsford)
Henderson's Ground Jay in flight. Chaka, 30 June 2016.
Henderson’s Ground Jay in flight. Chaka, 30 June. (Craig Brelsford)

When agitated, breeding White-rumped Snowfinch does a wing-flicking display reminiscent of Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. Qinghai Lake, 28 June.

White-rumped Snowfinch contorting its head in territorial display. Along G109 near Qinghai Lake, 28 June 2016.
White-rumped Snowfinch contorting its head in territorial display. Along G109 near Qinghai Lake, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Left wing-flick.
Left wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)
Right wing-flick.
Right wing-flick. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Gansu Leaf Warbler at Huzhu Beishan, 27 June 2016.
Gansu Leaf Warbler at Huzhu Beishan, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Gansu Leaf Warbler, riparian forest along Heihe River, Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 4 Aug. 2016.
Gansu Leaf Warbler, riparian forest along Heihe River, Qilian County, 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Jiangxi Forest Station, Nangqian County, Yushu Prefecture, 17 July 2016.
Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Jiangxi Forest Station, Nangqian County, 17 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture, 17 Aug. 2016.
Rusty-necklaced Partridge, Wulan County, 17 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

While we’re on partridges, what about this charismatic Tibetan Partridge, a semi-tame specimen at the nunnery, Kanda Gorge, Yushu Prefecture.

Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July 2016.
Tibetan Partridge, Kanda Gorge, 5 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.”

Robin Accentor in scrub above KM 2189.5 on G109 near Qinghai Lake. 28 June 2016.
Robin Accentor in scrub above KM 2189.5 on G109 near Qinghai Lake. 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Siberian Stonechat in hovering flight near nest, 28 June 2016.
Siberian Stonechat in hovering flight near nest, 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Tibetan Snowfinch looking warily at cameraman before entering its cavity nest. KM 2189.5, G109, near Qinghai Lake. 28 June 2016.
Tibetan Snowfinch looking warily at cameraman before entering its cavity nest. KM 2189.5, G109, near Qinghai Lake. 28 June. (Craig Brelsford)
Przevalski's 'Finch' in song, 28 June 2016, KM 2189.5.
Przevalski’s ‘Finch’ in song, 28 June, KM 2189.5. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Blue-fronted Redstart showing inverted T on tail. Huzhu Beishan, 27 June 2016.
Blue-fronted Redstart showing inverted T on tail. Huzhu Beishan, 27 June. (Craig Brelsford)

We had a memorable moment with Black-necked Crane near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, Haixi Prefecture.

Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou.
Black-necked Crane in flight, Lake Xiligou. (Craig Brelsford)

More bird + land: Bar-headed Goose at point where Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River, Guoluo Prefecture.

Bar-headed Goose stands at the point where high-altitude Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River. 3 July 2016.
Bar-headed Goose stands at the point where high-altitude Eling Lake empties into the young Yellow River. 3 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl at cliff-side roost in Haibei Prefecture, Qinghai, 30 July 2016.
Eurasian Eagle-Owl at cliff-side roost in Haibei Prefecture, Qinghai, 30 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. 2016.
Chinese Thrush in riparian forest along Heihe River, Haibei Prefecture. 4 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Amazing Tibetan Sandgrouse near Hala Lake.

Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, Haixi Prefecture, 10 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala, 10 Aug.
Tibetan Sandgrouse, Hala Lake, 10 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Brandt’s Mountain Finch may look unexciting, but just watch it fly.

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.
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)

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.

Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July 2016.
Himalayan Vulture, Guoluo Prefecture, 20 July. (Craig Brelsford)

King of the high-altitude falcons: Saker.

Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Saker Falcon, Haibei Prefecture, 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, Haibei Prefecture, 1 Aug. 2016.
Unusual record of Spotted Dove in Qilian County, 1 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Goitered Gazelle, a Vulnerable species. Ranges from Arabian Peninsula to China. We recorded it in Wulan County.

Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. 2016.
Goitered Gazelle near Lake Xiligou, Wulan County, 16 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

Tibetan Gazelle was waiting for us at sunset in the mountains north of Hala Lake.

Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. 2016.
Tibetan Gazelle near Suli, Haixi Prefecture, 6 Aug. (Craig Brelsford)

We noted Glover’s Pika at various places in Yushu Prefecture. This little guy is marketable!

Glover's Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July 2016.
Glover’s Pika, Yushu Prefecture, 4 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July 2016.
Mountain Weasel, Haibei Prefecture, 31 July. (Craig Brelsford)

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.

The sand in these dunes was deposited grain by grain by the wind. Wulan County, 17 Aug. 2016. F/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1250.
The sand in these dunes was deposited grain by grain by the wind. Wulan County, 17 Aug. F/7.1, 1/200, ISO 1250. (Craig Brelsford)

Other posts in our Qinghai 2016 series:

Tibetan Lynx, Kanda Mountain, Qinghai
Qinghai 2016 Week 3 Highlights
Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights

Featured image: “We Are Family!” sang Sister Sledge back in ’79. Here’s the Chinese-American adventure team, Elaine Du (L) and yours truly—partners, spouses, family. We were at Eling Lake, Qinghai, where the Yellow River and Chinese culture are born. The date was 3 July 2016. This is a self-portrait, engineered (as indeed every picture in this post was engineered) by Craig Brelsford using the Nikon D3S and 600 mm F/4 lens. (Craig Brelsford)