Birds of Northern Xinjiang II

During my initial visit to Northern Xinjiang in May 2012, I found birds that I missed in July 2017. The image above shows four of them. Clockwise from top left: Black Woodpecker, Rosy Starling, Demoiselle Crane, and Rock Bunting. In this fourth post in my five-post series, I offer you an illustrated list of the notable passerines of Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides

Red-backed Shrike
In 2017 Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio (L) at sites in the northern Jungar Basin and in the Altai. I photographed this adult male on 17 May 2012 at Chonghu’er Xiang in the Altai foothills. I found the Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides (top, bottom R) near Ulungur Lake on 10 May 2012. This specimen has the bold white supercilium characteristic of the species, but the sandy grey-brown coloration of its upperparts is reminiscent of the closely related Isabelline Shrike L. isabellinus. (Craig Brelsford)

Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus

Eurasian Golden Oriole
Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 15 May 2012. In 2017 we found the species only once, on 25 July at the wooded site on the G216 north of Beitun. Xinjiang is the easternmost extension of the range of this well-known European bird. (Craig Brelsford)

Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni

Ground Jay
Mongolian or Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni, arid country south of Heshituoluogaizhen (46.326889, 85.918306), 24 July 2017. A random stop in the semi-desert paid off with a family party of 4. Four days later (28 July), on our way back to Urumqi, we again found the species at that site. The Tarim Basin of Southern Xinjiang is the home of Biddulph’s or Xinjiang Ground Jay; the Jungar Basin of Northern Xinjiang belongs to Henderson’s. (Craig Brelsford)

Coal Tit Periparus ater ater

In Xinjiang, the non-crested, trans-Eurasian nominate race is found in the Altai Mountains. In 2017 we had two records, both at Jiadengyu. This race also occurs in Northeast China.

Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus

In the Tianshan, the race of Coal Tit is the crested rufipectus. We recorded it at Baiyanggou.

Coal Tit, Baiyanggou (43.474525, 87.191575), 20 July 2017 (01:39; 19.1 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis

Willow Tit
Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, 28 July 2017. We achieved records of this race at Jiadengyu, where this photo was taken, and near the Kanasi River. Both sites are in the Altai Mountains. Race baicalensis occurs also in Northeast China. (Craig Brelsford)

Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus

Azure Tit
Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus occurs both in Xinjiang and Northeast China. We found this species at sites in the Tianshan Mountains (23 at Baiyanggou on 21 July 2017) as well as in wooded areas in the Jungar Basin (3 at Hongyanglin on 24 July). This photo was taken in the woodland along the G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, on 8 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Great Tit Parus major kapustini

Great Tit Parus major kapustini
Great Tit Parus major kapustini is still another race of tit that occurs both in the extreme northwest and northeast of China. With its classic bright-yellow underpart coloration, kapustini is highly reminiscent of the Great Tit of Europe. I have recorded kapustini at various sites in the Tianshan as well as in riparian woodlands in the Jungar Basin. One of those Jungar sites, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, lies just 225 km (140 mi.) north of Hongyanglin, where we recorded the pale form turkestanicus, discussed below. I got the photo above at White Birch on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus

Great Tit Parus major turkestanicus
In the oases and forests of Central Asia, including the poplar forest Hongyanglin in Xinjiang’s Jungar Basin, a special tit occurs: Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus. This pallid form more closely resembles Japanese Tit P. minor of Shanghai and eastern China than the bright-yellow Great Tit P. major kapustini. We found these birds 24 July 2017 at Hongyanglin. (Craig Brelsford)

Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis

Asian Short-toed Lark
We found Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis at various places in the flat, arid, treeless steppes of the Jungar Basin. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus

White-crowned Penduline Tit
White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Burqin Magic Forest, 12 May 2012. On our 2017 trip, Jan-Erik and I found the species once, on 25 July at the wooded site on the G216 north of Beitun. This species is similar to eastern China’s Chinese Penduline Tit R. consobrinus but is more closely associated with trees. (Craig Brelsford)

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus

On 26 July 2017 at White Birch Forest Scenic Area, Jan-Erik and I glimpsed 2 members of the snowball-headed nominate race. The nominate ssp. ranges across most of Eurasia, from northern Europe to Japan, and in China is found in the northern tip of Xinjiang and in the extreme northeast.

Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei

Hume's Leaf Warbler
In 2017 in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou) and Altai (Jiadengyu), we recorded nominate Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Hume’s is closely related to Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus. Yellow-browed, which is unlikely but possible in the Altai, usually shows a more distinct upper wing bar and has a profoundly different song (cf. sound-recording of Hume’s below). This individual was photographed at the Altai Mountain site Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Baiyanggou (43.424997, 87.165514), 20 July 2017 (00:44; 8.4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis

On 27 July and 28 July 2017 at Jiadengyu, the site at the entrance to Kanasi Park in the Altai, we found nesting Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis. Note the strongly greyish-brown coloration of this individual, especially on the crown and nape. There is hardly a trace of the more greenish hues usually seen in Common Chiffchaff P. c. collybita. (Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Chiffchaff, “heep” call, Jiadengyu (48.504120, 87.125695), 27 July 2017 (00:29; 5.5 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus

Sulphur-bellied Warbler
On 27 July 2017 near the Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, Jan-Erik and I found Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. A pair of these wallcreeper-like birds were browsing a cliff-face the way their congeners browse the crowns of trees. In arid Central Asia, a leaf warbler has evolved that exploits a decidedly un-leafy habitat. (Craig Brelsford)

Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama

Sykes's Warbler
Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama, found 23 July and 24 July 2017 at the poplar oasis Hongyanglin (46.123909, 85.652300). We found males defending territory and a parent feeding young. In China, this Central and Southwest Asian breeder is found only in Northern Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Sykes’s Warbler, hard “tek” call, Hongyanglin, 24 July 2017 (00:24; 4.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

Sedge Warbler
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. We found this singing male 26 July 2017 in wetlands on the S229 west of Kaba (48.060168, 86.395527). In their landmark study Reed and Bush Warblers, Kennerley and Pearson do not describe Sedge Warbler as occurring on Chinese territory (2010). Our Xinjiang sighting is an extreme eastern record of this well-known Western Palearctic and Central Asian breeder. (Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola

Paddyfield Warbler
Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola, arid country north of Burqin, 16 May 2012. I found this acro in the northern Jungar Basin in Phragmites reed habitat near the Irtysh River (47.764563, 86.782345). In 2017 Jan-Erik and I found the species on 26 July in the wetlands on the S229 west of Kaba and at Kuitun Reservoir on 23 July. As in the photos above, the July 2017 records involved a singing male. Kennerley and Pearson note that in Xinjiang Paddyfield Warbler is ‘apparently expanding its range due to irrigation projects’ (2010, p. 332). The specimen we found at Kuitun Reservoir certainly does not contradict that hypothesis, for the reedbeds in which it was singing were in large part a result of the large irrigation project in that area. (Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler, song, Kuitun Reservoir, north side (44.779020, 84.586502), 23 July 2017 (00:11; 2.1 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Paddyfield Warbler, song, wetlands west of Kaba (48.060168, 86.395527), 26 July 2017 (00:07; 1.4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum

Blyth's Reed Warbler
On 18 May 2012, during my initial visit to Northern Xinjiang, I was privileged to find, in two thickly wooded areas 97 km (60 mi.) apart, singing Blyth’s Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum. About the birds shown here, Hong Kong-based bird expert Paul Leader writes, ‘Both birds can be readily identified as Acrocephalus warblers (rather than Iduna) on the basis of the long and very full undertail coverts and a lack of pale/whitish webs to the outer tail feathers (very clearly uniform in your photos). Once we’ve established that they are acros, habitat alone precludes anything other than Blyth’s Reed. The structure, especially primary projection, is spot-on for that species. The only other could be a massively extra-limital Marsh Warbler (!), but your birds are emarginated on PP 3-5, and on Marsh (and Eurasian Reed) only P3 is emarginated’ (Leader, in litt., 2017). Center R: Hualin Park (47.865992, 88.119787), Altai City. Others: thickly wooded garden of my hotel in Burqin (47.700558, 86.854760). (Craig Brelsford)

Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus zarudnyi

Great Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus zarudnyi, 1 of 4 found at Daquangou Reservoir on 22 July 2017. We also had 2 at Ulungur Lake on 25 July. China listers must come to Xinjiang for this species, well-known to Western Palearctic birders. (Craig Brelsford)

Great Reed Warbler, territorial song, Daquangou Reservoir, 22 July 2017 (00:34; 6.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana

Asian Desert Warbler
Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana, arid country south of Heshituoluogaizhen (46.326889, 85.918306), 24 July 2017. Jan-Erik and I guessed well, stopping randomly in the semi-desert and getting our only trip record of this Central Asian arid-country specialist. (Craig Brelsford)

Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria

At the semi-desert site Beishawo on 22 July 2017, we achieved our only trip record of this robust, distinctively barred, yellow-eyed warbler. The bird was skulking in tall bushes, not particularly close to water. Race merzbacheri is described by MacKinnon as an uncommon breeder in Xinjiang, but I have noted the race as well in western Gansu.

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula

Desert Whitethroat
We recorded Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula at sites throughout the Jungar Basin, with the specimen shown here found at Beishawo on 22 July 2017. In China, Desert Whitethroat occurs in the arid northwest. It is paler and occurs in drier habitats than Lesser Whitethroat S. curruca. (Craig Brelsford)

Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca

Lesser Whitethroat
In Xinjiang I have found Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca at sites in the Tianshan and Altai and in wooded areas in the Jungar Basin. Top L, R: Hotel garden near Irtysh River, downtown Burqin (47.700863, 86.855065), 18 May 2012. Bottom L: Jiadengyu (48.504120, 87.125695), Kanasi Park, Altai, 27 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis

Common Whitethroat
We recorded Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou, 8 on 20 July 2017, 14 on 21 July) and Altai (Kanasi River, 5 on 27 July) and at a single Jungar Basin site (wooded area on G216, 2 on 25 July). (Craig Brelsford)

Common Whitethroat, Baiyanggou (43.424997, 87.165514), 20 July 2017 (00:51; 9.9 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Common Starling
Like most starlings, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is a wanderer, and it is occasionally recorded in Shanghai. In China, only in Xinjiang is the species an established resident. I have recorded the species at various Jungar Basin sites, among them White Birch Forest Scenic Area, where I took this photo on 14 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Rosy Starling Pastor roseus

Rosy Starling
Rosy Starling Pastor roseus ranges from southeastern Europe to Northern Xinjiang. I found a pair on 18 May 2012 feeding along the G217 just east of Burqin. This is the male. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Blackbird Turdus merula intermedius

Common Blackbird
Xinjiang is the only home in China to Common Blackbird Turdus merula intermedius. This form is smaller than Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus of eastern China and has a sweeter song. I have recorded Common Blackbird in the Tianshan (Baiyanggou), at oases and wooded areas in the Jungar Basin (Hongyanglin), and in city parks. I found this individual on 13 May 2012 in a small park in the center of Kaba (48.057806, 86.415389). (Craig Brelsford)

Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis

Black-throated Thrush
At Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012, I found breeding Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis. China listers need to go to Xinjiang to find this species, whose breeding range includes the Altai and Tianshan. (Craig Brelsford)

Fieldfare Turdus pilaris

At a small park in the center of Kaba (48.057806, 86.415389) on 13 May 2012, I found breeding Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. One pair’s nest was in the crotch of a tree just a few feet above the heads of the many passers-by. The easy harmony between man and bird reminded me more of parks in Western Europe or America than China. I found this adult in White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 9 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus

Mistle Thrush
We recorded Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus numerous times in the Tianshan Mountains (Baiyanggou). We found the species once again as we drove north toward the Altai Mountains, for example in the Burqin Magic Forest on 26 July 2017. I took the photo above in the wooded area on the G216 on 8 May 2012, during my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata

Spotted Flycatcher
I have recorded Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata in the Altai Mountains as well as in riverine woodlands in the Jungar Basin. My high count was 7 at the wooded area on the G216 (25 July 2017). Spotted Flycatcher is yet another species common in Europe and found on Chinese territory exclusively in Xinjiang. L: Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. R: Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos golzii

Common Nightingale
At the poplar oasis Hongyanglin on 24 July 2017, we thrilled to the song of Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos golzii. The bird sang only intermittently, probably because it was late in the year. I have also noted Common Nightingale at Hualin Park in Altai City. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Nightingale, snatches of song, Hongyanglin, 24 July 2017 (00:09; 1.6 MB; Craig Brelsford)

Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus

Eversmann's Redstart
A major target for us was Rufous-backed or Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus. Jan-Erik and I found this uncommon Central Asian species 21 July 2017 in the foothills of the Tianshan (Baiyanggou). A male was singing and defending territory in a pine forest at 43.474525, 87.191575, elev. 2080 m (6,820 ft.). Note the cocked position of the tail above. MacKinnon (2000) reports that the male flits its tail ‘up and down, not sideways.’ (Craig Brelsford)

Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides

Black Redstart
Note the white forehead of this Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides. This race often shows a white forehead and can resemble a hybrid between Black Redstart and Common Redstart P. phoenicurus. I took these photos 27 July 2017 at Jiadengyu, the area near the main gate to Kanasi Park in the Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus

Siberian Stonechat
We recorded Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus in the Tianshan and Altai. This image of an adult male comes from Chonghu’er Xiang, 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka

Northern Wheatear (L) and Pied Wheatear
I have noted Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe (L) at various sites in Northern Xinjiang, among them the loess hills north of the Tianshan and the Jungar Basin. The photo above is of a breeding male and was taken 17 May 2012 in the foothills of the Altai (Chonghu’er Xiang). Pied Wheatear O. pleschanka (R) was noted at Baihu on 21 July 2017, and I have seen it at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai, where I got the photo above on 18 May 2012. Also recorded by us in Northern Xinjiang were Desert Wheatear O. deserti and Isabelline Wheatear O. isabellina. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

We recorded Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs in wooded areas in the northern Jungar Basin and in the Altai. I photographed this female (L) and singing male (R) at Hualin Park in Altai City on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

European Greenfinch Chloris chloris

European Greenfinch
When on 18 May 2012 I found this European Greenfinch Chloris chloris in the garden of my hotel in Burqin (47.700863, 86.855065), I began to realize how acutely underbirded is Xinjiang. Wanting to know the distribution of the species in China, I opened up my copy of MacKinnon and Phillipps’s Birds of China—and couldn’t find an entry. In 2017 we recorded the species on 25 July at the wooded area on the G216. (Craig Brelsford)

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

European Goldfinch
We recorded European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis in the Tianshan and Altai and in woodlands in the Jungar Basin. I photographed these birds in the foothills of the Altai (Chonghu’er Xiang) on 17 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Twite Linaria flavirostris

Twite Linaria flavirostris occurs throughout western China. In Northern Xinjiang, I have noted the species in the Tianshan and Altai as well as the Jungar Basin, with a high count of 90 at Wutubulake Toll Station on 28 July 2017. I found this bird on 18 May 2012 at Xiaodong Gulch in the Altai. In size and shape, Twite resembles Common Linnet L. cannabina, but Twite has a longer and more deeply forked tail. (Craig Brelsford)

Common Linnet Linaria cannabina

Common Linnet
We had Common Linnet Linaria cannabina in the Tianshan and at sites in the Jungar Basin. In this photo from Baiyanggou, the bright red breast and loud song of the male cause the little bird to stand out in a thick patch of Northern Wolfberry. (Craig Brelsford)

Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus

Red-fronted Serin
Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus ranges from Turkey in the west to Xinjiang and Nepal in the east. At Baiyanggou in the Tianshan, we had counts of 38 on 20 July and 30 on 21 July 2017. The adult has a fiery orange oval spot on the forecrown. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-fronted Serin
Juvenile Red-fronted Serin has a rusty-brown head and lacks the red spot. (Craig Brelsford)

Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri
House Sparrow P. domesticus
Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis
Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus

Saxaul Sparrow
At Beishawo on 22 July 2017, we had four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri (pair shown above), our only trip record of Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis (whose spherical nests we viewed), Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus, and House Sparrow P. domesticus. (Craig Brelsford)

Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis

Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Singing male Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis, near Burqin, 18 May 2012. This form is well-known to birders in Shanghai, where it is a common passage migrant. (Craig Brelsford)

White Wagtail Motacilla alba personata

Masked Wagtail
Masked Wagtail Motacilla alba personata was recorded by us numerous times in the Tianshan Mountains, Jungar Basin, and Altai Mountains. I took this photo at Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi

Richard's Pipit
Many ‘European’ birds in Xinjiang have ranges whose eastward expansion ends in or near the province. In the case of Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, the situation is reversed; the westward extension of this East Asian bird’s range is just to the west of Xinjiang, in Kyrgyzstan. Note the long hindclaw and diamond-shaped blackish centers to the median coverts, telltale characters of Richard’s Pipit. Baiyanggou, 20 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris

Tawny Pipit
My sole record of Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris came 17 May 2012 at Chonghu’er Xiang, a village in the foothills of the Altai. As is the case with many of the species in these posts, the Gobi Desert bars further eastward expansion of the range of Tawny Pipit, and in China this well-known European bird is found exclusively in Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis

Tree Pipit
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, White Birch Forest Scenic Area, 9 May 2012. I have noted Tree Pipit in riparian Jungar Basin woodlands such as White Birch and in the Altai and Tianshan. Tree Pipit is closely related to Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni, which occurs (if at all) in Xinjiang only as a vagrant. Tree Pipit lacks the black spots on the ear coverts of Olive-backed, and the duller supercilium of Tree has no black border above it, as is the case in Olive-backed. (Craig Brelsford)

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

On 26 July 2017 at White Birch Forest Scenic Area (48.078487, 86.344951), we achieved a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The call of our bird matched that of Yellowhammer or the closely related Pine Bunting E. leucocephalos. The yellowish coloration from throat to vent of our bird strongly suggested Yellowhammer. As Yellowhammer is known to breed as far east as Lake Baikal in Russia as well as in north-central Mongolia, vagrancy to Northern Xinjiang must often occur, especially in the Altai Mountains and riverine woodlands of the northern Jungar Basin.

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos leucocephalos

Pine Bunting
We recorded Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos leucocephalos on 20 July and 21 July 2017 at Baiyanggou. I found this female feeding young hidden in a roadside bush at elev. 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Rock Bunting Emberiza cia

Rock Bunting
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. I took this photo at Xiaodong Gulch on 18 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana

Ortolan Bunting
A major target for us in the Altai was Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, which in China breeds only in these mountains. We found 6 on the slopes above the Kanasi River on 27 July 2017. The grey breast band, yellow-tinged throat and submoustachial, and prominently streaked mantle help distinguish this adult-male Ortolan from Grey-necked Bunting E. buchanani, which also occurs in the Altai. The first-winters we found elsewhere as well as the cricket in this bird’s bill are signs that breeding has occurred here. Sometime in the next six weeks after this photo was taken, this bird and the young it was feeding would have vacated the area and begun the long journey to sub-Saharan Africa, where Ortolan Bunting spend the winter. I took this photo at 48.712288, 86.982187, elev. 1710 m (5,610 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, Guanyu Tai-Kanasi River, 27 July 2017 (1:00; 11.5 MB; Craig Brelsford)

This post is the fourth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Police officers Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction: In this first post, Craig Brelsford gives you an introduction to Northern Xinjiang and an overview of the expedition of July 2017. Bounded by the Tianshan to the south and the Altai to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China.

Northern Xinjiang

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang: Read Craig Brelsford’s notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during the 2017 expedition. In Xinjiang, birders are saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall”—in China, but not in East Asia.

Ruddy ShelduckPhoto Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines): This is the first of two photo galleries of the birds of Northern Xinjiang. This post covers non-passerines. Each photo in the gallery was taken by Craig Brelsford in Xinjiang.

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines) (you are here)

police officer

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang: Photos and detailed captions by Craig Brelsford offer a window into the habitats and people of Northern Xinjiang.

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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Habitats of Northern Xinjiang

In this, the fifth in my five-post series on birding Northern Xinjiang, I offer you photos of the various habitats in which I birded. — Craig Brelsford

A semi-desert steppe called the Jungar Basin covers most of Northern Xinjiang. The basin is studded with oases, many of them near waterways such as the Irtysh River. In recent decades, as the human population has grown, runoff from the mountains has been channeled into reservoirs, important for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The Jungar Basin is bounded on the south by the Tianshan Mountains and on the north by the Altai Mountains. Both ranges offer classic alpine habitats, and the Altai, parts of which are closer to Moscow than to Shanghai, holds many species of bird more common in Europe than in China.

The map below traces our 2017 itinerary through this vast, underbirded region. Noteworthy birding areas are marked.

Northern Xinjiang
Map of Northern Xinjiang, with red line tracing route taken in July 2017 by birders Jan-Erik Nilsén and Craig Brelsford. We birded from Baiyanggou in the Tianshan Mountains to Lake Kanas in the Altai Mountains. In between we discovered areas in the northern, central, and southern Jungar Basin, the vast semi-desert steppe covering most of Northern Xinjiang. (Google/Craig Brelsford)

The photos below show some of the habitats in which I have birded in Northern Xinjiang. Farther below, you can enjoy my other shots in “Scenes from Northern Xinjiang.” Still farther below are the references for this five-post series as well as my acknowledgements and dedication.

Foot of Tianshan Mountains at Baiyanggou Scenic Area, 21 July 2017. Using our spotting scopes, Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén and I found on the ridgeline, 2000 m distant, Himalayan Snowcock Tetraogallus himalayensis himalayensis. The area around the car yielded Red-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus and Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Coordinates of this site: 43.424675, 87.163545. Elevation: 2040 m (6,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrub composed mainly of Northern Wolfberry Lycium barbarum, 21 July 2017. This site at Baiyanggou, 52 km (32 mi.) south of Urumqi, yielded a feeding party of Azure Tit Cyanistes cyanus, Common Linnet Linaria cannabina, singing Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, and singing Godlewski’s Bunting E. godlewskii. Coordinates: 43.454783, 87.202597. Elev.: 1940 m (6,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat in which we found Eversmann's Redstart
Habitat at Baiyanggou in which we found Eversmann’s Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus, 21 July 2017. The redstart, a male, was using the pastures and edge of the coniferous forest and was defending territory. Here also were Coal Tit Periparus ater rufipectus and Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei humei. Coordinates: 43.474525, 87.191575. Elev.: 2080 m (6,820 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Ethnic Kazakh herders spend the summer in the Tianshan mountain pastures at Baiyanggou. On 21 July 2017 we found here and in the adjacent conifer forests Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, Goldcrest Regulus regulus, and Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. Coordinates: 43.443733, 87.132903. Elev.: 2440 m (8,000 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Loess habitat
Loess hill south of Urumqi, 21 July 2017, Jan-Erik in midground. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were breeding near the red-roofed farm building below, and from the green vegetation at the base of the hill we heard Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. We drove through mile after mile of beautiful loess country at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains. Coordinates: 43.561508, 87.206833. Elev.: 1630 m (5,350 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Jan-Erik and I visited Baihu on 21 July 2017. The reservoir and surrounding reeds yielded White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala and Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, while the surrounding semi-desert gave us breeding Chukar Partridge Alectoris chukar and Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus. As settlement continues in Northern Xinjiang, reservoirs and irrigation canals are becoming an increasingly important habitat for birds. Baihu lies 13 km (8 mi.) west of downtown Urumqi. Coordinates: 43.816992, 87.435352. Elev.: 820 m (2,690 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Scrubby semi-desert
Scrubby semi-desert at Beishawo, 22 July 2017. This site 65 km (40 mi.) north of Urumqi gave me my re-introduction to the Jungar Basin, the vast, arid steppe that makes up most of Northern Xinjiang. The site yielded four species of sparrow: Saxaul Sparrow Passer ammodendri, House Sparrow P. domesticus, Spanish Sparrow P. hispaniolensis, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow P. montanus. Among the other species we found were Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, and Desert Whitethroat S. minula. Roosting in a tamarisk was European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, and we counted 20 Long-tailed Ground Squirrel Urocitellus undulatus. Coordinates: 44.374603, 87.881042. Elev.: 450 m (1,470 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Stony desert
Stony semi-desert in Jungar Basin. Searching for Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Jan-Erik and I spent an hour here on 23 July 2017. We came up short on the sandgrouse but managed to find Asian Short-toed Lark Alaudala cheleensis and Crested Lark Galerida cristata. Coordinates: 45.291384, 84.781396 (junction of G217 and S221). Elev.: 330 m (1,080 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
In the poplars at Hongyanglin we had White-winged Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucopterus, while the tamarisks held breeding Sykes’s Warbler Iduna rama. Other birds found at this outstanding Jungar Basin oasis were Shikra Accipiter badius, Stock Dove Columba oenas, European Bee-eater Merops apiaster, Turkestan Tit Parus major turkestanicus, singing Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, and Common Blackbird Turdus merula. Jan-Erik and I visited the site 23 July and 24 July 2017. Coordinates: 46.120654, 85.654598. Elev.: 310 m (1,020 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Arid country
Arid country between Wu’erhe and Heshituoluogaizhen, 24 July 2017. Our random stop here paid off handsomely, as we got our only trip records of two arid-country specialists: Henderson’s Ground Jay Podoces hendersoni and Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana. The site lies 23 km (14 mi.) south of Heshituoluogaizhen on the G217. Coordinates: 46.326889, 85.918306. Elev.: 610 m (2,010 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Roadside ponds at Ahe’erbulage Cun, 24 July 2017. Puddles such as these were numerous along the many miles of highway we traveled, and they often were productive. The ponds here were especially good, yielding Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, and Common Redshank T. totanus. A small woodland next to the hamlet adds to the attraction of this site, which is on the G217, 31 km (19 mi.) north of Heshituoluogaizhen. Coordinates: 46.750637, 86.191788. Elev.: 1080 m (3,540 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
The reservoir at Wutubulake, 24 July 2017. We stopped here mid-afternoon and had a flyby of Saker Falcon Falco cherrug. Sharing the skies with the falcon were Common Swift Apus apus and Pale Martin Riparia diluta. The scrubby area around the reservoir was productive, giving us Common Quail Coturnix coturnix, Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, and Common Linnet Linaria cannabina. Coordinates: 46.892338, 86.386340. Elev.: 1260 m (4,130 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Jan-Erik scanning Ulungur
Jan-Erik scans the northeastern quadrant of Ulungur Lake, at 1035 sq. km (400 sq. mi.) one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. The advice of contributor John MacKinnon put Ulungur Lake on our itinerary: ‘If you have time,’ John wrote, ‘you should look at the small saline ponds and reed beds along the NE shores of Lake Ulungur. They are packed full of breeding waterfowl’ (MacKinnon, in litt., 2017). John’s words proved abundantly true. Jan-Erik and I spent the morning of 25 July 2017 at Ulungur Lake and had a pair of Mute Swan Cygnus olor, 19 juv. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, 80 Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina, 180 Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, 240 Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, 1 Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, and 2 Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Walking through the scrub, we lifted a roosting European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus. Reeds along the shore held Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus. Coordinates: 47.339970, 87.553458. Elev.: 480 m (1,580 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Open woodlands
Open woodland on G216, 23 km (14 mi.) north of Beitun, 25 July 2017. Large trees and rank undergrowth (including wild cannabis) characterize this outstanding site. A visit of less than two hours in the midday heat yielded a who’s who of ‘European’ species, among them European Roller Coracias garrulus, Eurasian Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, White-crowned Penduline Tit Remiz coronatus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, and European Greenfinch Chloris chloris. Coordinates: 47.544827, 87.898782. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Pond and marsh
Marsh and pond along G217 at Alahake, between Burqin and Altai City. A visit of just under an hour on 25 July 2017 gave us Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Red-tailed Shrike L. phoenicuroides, breeding Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi, and House Sparrow Passer domesticus. Coordinates: 47.742478, 87.523087. Elev.: 510 m (1,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
White Birch Forest Scenic Area
An outstanding birding site, White Birch Forest Scenic Area is on the Kaba River, a tributary of the mighty Irtysh River. I have made five visits to the site, four in May 2012 and one on 26 July 2017. Among the birds I have found here are Great Tit Parus major kapustini, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. Our visit in 2017 yielded a rare China record of Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella. The avifauna, verdant glades, and vast birch forest are strongly reminiscent of Northern Europe. Coordinates: 48.076867, 86.342950. Elev.: 490 m (1,610 ft.). (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Wetlands on S229, outskirts of Kaba in background, 26 July 2017. A 40-minute visit to this site yielded a rare China record of singing Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. This site also gave us Paddyfield Warbler A. agricola and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola, both singing. We had juvenile Bluethroat Luscinia svecica and Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and, in the distance, Black Stork Ciconia nigra. Coordinates: 48.060168, 86.395527. Elev.: 520 m (1,710 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Burqin Magic Forest
Burqin Magic Forest is a riverine woodland at the confluence of the Burqin and Irytsh rivers. The birch forest and corresponding avifauna are similar to those of White Birch Forest Scenic Area 59 km (37 mi.) northwest. Burqin Magic Forest is a breeding site for Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius. Other woodpeckers found here are Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, and Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus. I visited Burqin Magic Forest in May 2012 and again on 26 July 2017. Coordinates: 47.724565, 86.840598. Elev.: 460 m (1,500 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Alpine meadow
Altai Mountain meadow and coniferous woodland at Kanasi, 27 July 2017. These highlands are in the extreme north of Xinjiang, near the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The site, which is closer to Moscow (3370 km [2,090 mi.]) than Shanghai (3500 km [2,180 mi.]), holds many species better known in Europe than in China, among them Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana. Other species we found here were Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, and European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis. Coordinates: 48.712367, 86.982445. Elev.: 1720 m (5,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Rocky outcrop
Rocky outcrop near Kanasi River in the Altai Mountains, 27 July 2017. This natural wall is the home of an unusual leaf warbler, the wallcreeper-like Sulphur-bellied Warbler Phylloscopus griseolus. Also in the vicinity was a family of Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. Coordinates: 48.702008, 86.997155. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Wooded pasture
Wooded pasture near entrance to Kanasi Park at Jiadengyu, 27 July 2017. Here and in the gardens around the hotels we picked up Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, the white-foreheaded Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides, and an unexpected Xinjiang record of Eurasian Siskin Spinus spinus. Coordinates: 48.492609, 87.147366. Elev.: 1490 m (4,890 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Altai Mountains
Heart of the Altai Mountains near Xiaodong Gulch. On 18 May 2012 I managed to briefly enter this enchanted world and get this photo. Even though I was unable to reach the highest country, I still found many good birds, among them Black-throated Thrush Turdus atrogularis and Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. In June 2016 John MacKinnon managed to go higher, reaching the snowy passes and finding Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus, Rock Ptarmigan L. muta, Altai Accentor Prunella himalayana, Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani, and Mongolian Wolf Canis lupus chanco. John wrote a guest post for about his trek into these mountains. The point photographed here lies 21 km (13 mi.) north of Altai City. Coordinates: 47.979670, 88.217800. Elev.: 1420 m (4,660 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Demoiselle Crane
With Altai Mountains in the background, Demoiselle Crane Grus virgo stand on the shore of Aweitan Reservoir, 10 May 2012. At this outstanding reservoir site I found Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans cachinnans, Red-tailed Shrike Lanius phoenicuroides, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis. Among the migrating ducks were Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Gadwall M. strepera. The site lies 28 km (17 mi.) south of Altai City on the G216. Coordinates: 47.642361, 88.020278. Elev.: 650 m (2,150 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)


Bactrian Camel
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Red Deer
Yarkand Deer Cervus elaphus yarkandensis. Members of this endangered subspecies of Red Deer appeared at dusk at White Birch Forest Scenic Area on 13 May 2012. (Craig Brelsford)
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet
Ruddy Shelduck and Pied Avocet, arid country north of Burqin (47.920242, 86.835243). To create this image, I lay on my belly to get the birds as low in the frame as possible. I then narrowed my aperture on my 600 mm f/4 lens to f/22, allowing me to capture the mountainous background and convey a sense of the vastness of the sparsely populated northern tip of Xinjiang. (Craig Brelsford)
As the sun set at the beautiful Jungar Basin oasis Hongyanglin on 23 July 2017, I used my iPhone 6 to create this photo of the dying light caressing a poplar. (Craig Brelsford)
Wild cannabis is one of the many plant species making up the rank vegetation at the well-watered open woodland along the G216. (Craig Brelsford)
Kanas River
Thundering Kanasi River, Altai Mountains. These turquoise waters flow south from Kanas Lake, eventually finding the mighty Irtysh River and flowing north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. (Craig Brelsford)
Islamic graveyard
Islamic graveyard and accompanying building at Alahake, a village between Burqin and Altai on the G217. The Islamic presence in Northern Xinjiang is relatively recent, being a direct consequence of the Dzungar genocide of the 1750s. The campaign wiped out the native Dzungar people, who were Buddhist, and replaced them with various groups, among them the Hui and the Kazakhs, who are Muslim. The atrocity was orchestrated by the Qianlong emperor, a member of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Craig Brelsford)
Mao Zedong
Dinner plate bearing likeness of Mao Zedong, restaurant, Urumqi. In parts of China where the Han do not make up the ethnic majority, portraits of the founder of Communist China are often on prominent display. The displays are not so much an expression of support for Communism as they are a reminder of Han supremacy. (Craig Brelsford)
Wusu Beer
Condiments for noodles, Wusu Beer, and tea, with plate of plain noodles just visible behind the beer. Wusu Beer is a surprisingly good local brand with a taste similar to that of Tsingtao. With afternoon temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), a Wusu and plate of noodles were a fitting reward after a long birding day. (Craig Brelsford)
police officer
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Brelsford and local woman
The author with local ethnic Kazakh woman, Wutubulake, 28 July 2017. With my movie-star looks and monster camera, many people in Xinjiang took me for a superstar photographer. I did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)
Craig Brelsford
Craig Brelsford, self-portrait at Xiaodong Gulch, Altai Mountains, 18 May 2012. I took this picture in the final hours of my final day of my first trip to Northern Xinjiang. I was smitten with the region and sorry to leave, and I swore I’d be back. (Craig Brelsford)
Brelsford and Nilsen
American birder Craig Brelsford (L) and Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén return cheerfully to base camp after an unsuccessful search for sandgrouse, central Jungar Basin, 23 July 2017. A birder with decades of experience and blessed with an extremely sensitive ear, Jan-Erik is one of the best foreign birders ever to operate in China. I never tire of telling the story of Jan-Erik and the Siberian Bush Warbler. Near Genhe, Inner Mongolia in July 2015, my wife Elaine, Jan-Erik, and I were speeding down the highway in the middle of a conversation with the wind roaring through the open windows. Suddenly Jan-Erik said, ‘I just heard Siberian Bush Warbler!’ I hit the brakes and backed up, and there it was. I said to Jan-Erik, ‘I didn’t know you had so much experience with Siberian Bush Warbler.’ ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘That was only the second time in my life that I’ve found the species.’ (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东])
Police officers with Jan-Erik and Craig
In Xinjiang Jan-Erik and I drove 2866 km (1,781 mi.), passing through dozens of checkpoints along our route. We made it through each time without incident. Indeed, the police can be friendly, as those here, at a checkpoint near Burqin; the photo was their idea, not ours. At the checkpoints, being a Western foreigner was at most a minor hindrance. Our driver explained why: ‘They’re not looking for people like you.’ The checkpoints are for internal security, with young Uighur men being the main target. (Craig Brelsford)
team at Wu'erhe
The team at Wuerhe, 23 July 2017. L-R: Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Jan-Erik Nilsén, Craig Brelsford. We had just returned from beautiful Hongyanglin, our Wusu beer was cold, and our noodles were hitting the spot. We were tired and sweaty and very happy, for we were giving Xinjiang our all. (Craig Brelsford)
Nilsen and Brelsford with Han businessmen
Birders Jan-Erik Nilsén (second from L) and Craig Brelsford (second from R) feast with Han businessmen near Urumqi, 29 July 2017. Like many of the Han settlers we met in Xinjiang, these men were brimming with civilizational confidence and optimism. They believe deeply, and told me frankly, that as good as things are now in China, they are sure to get better, especially in Xinjiang. These gritty, practical men are nationalists, and their mission is to Make China Great Again. (Sūn Yǒng Dōng [孙永东]/Craig Brelsford)
final moments with Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东)
Our final moments with our driver, Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东), Yili Hotel, Urumqi, after midnight on 30 July 2017. Later that day, Jan-Erik and I flew home, Jan-Erik to Beijing, I to Shanghai. Eighty-eight days after this photo was taken, my son was born, and a further three months later, I returned to America, ending my 10-year sojourn in the Middle Kingdom. After traveling tens of thousands of kilometers in China as explorer, student of ornithology, and bird guide, Xinjiang 2017 was my swan song, my final expedition in China. With Jan-Erik at my side, my time in China could scarcely have ended on a higher note. (Craig Brelsford)


Alström, Per, Mild, Krister, & Zetterström, Bill. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003.

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., & Christie, D.A. (eds.) (1992-2011). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vols. 1-16. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kennerley, Peter & Pearson, David. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm, 2010.

Leader, Paul J. to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 17 Jan. 2017.

MacKinnon, John to Brelsford, Craig. Email message about Ulungur Lake, 15 July 2017.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, 2000. Our first reference in Northern Xinjiang.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang.


John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

Despite being published back in 2000, the pioneering work co-authored by John MacKinnon, A Field Guide to the Birds of China, was my first reference in Northern Xinjiang. John also offered me tips about Northern Xinjiang drawn from his considerable experience in the region. I got many of my ideas for the trip from the meticulously detailed reports of Paul Holt. Jan-Erik’s and my 2017 itinerary was loosely based on the June 2015 trip of Hangzhou birder Qián Chéng (钱程). Josh Summers of offered me pointers and assured me that traveling through Northern Xinjiang would be safe and fun.


Elaine and Tiny

I dedicate the Xinjiang report to my son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. Tiny, you were in Mummy’s belly when I made my final big trip in China, and you filled me with hope every day. I loved traveling around China finding birds—I love being your daddy even more. May the photos and stories here inspire your own big adventures someday!

Featured image: Habitats of Northern Xinjiang. Clockwise from top L: oasis with sere mountains looming in background, Hongyanglin; Jungar Basin semi-desert at Fukang-Beishawo; alpine meadow, Altai Mountains; semi-desert, reeds, and reservoir at Baihu, Urumqi. All by Craig Brelsford, except bottom L, by Sūn Yǒng Dōng (孙永东).

This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.

Police officers Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction: In this first post, Craig Brelsford gives you an introduction to Northern Xinjiang and an overview of the expedition of July 2017. Bounded by the Tianshan to the south and the Altai to the north, and with the Jungar Basin at its heart, Northern Xinjiang is one of the premier birding areas in China.

Northern Xinjiang

Notes on Birding in Northern Xinjiang: Read Craig Brelsford’s notes on the “European” birds of Xinjiang as well as other observations recorded during the 2017 expedition. In Xinjiang, birders are saiwai (塞外), “beyond the (Great) Wall”—in China, but not in East Asia.

Ruddy ShelduckPhoto Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Non-Passerines): This is the first of two photo galleries of the birds of Northern Xinjiang. This post covers non-passerines. Each photo in the gallery was taken by Craig Brelsford in Xinjiang.

Mistle Thrush

Photo Gallery of the Birds of Northern Xinjiang (Passerines): This portion of the photo gallery covers the passerines of Northern Xinjiang. Many birds well-known to Europeans, such as Mistle Thrush, were photographed by Brelsford using his state-of-the-art Nikon setup.

The Landscapes and People of Northern Xinjiang (you are here)

Other posts on Xinjiang:

Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way—he is the author of the first guest post in the history of Herewith we present “Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic,” an account of an afternoon MacKinnon recently spent in the Altai Mountains in Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

My father was raised on Scotland’s Isle of Skye—a wild youth who could throw a cricket ball a hundred yards. And when I was 8 years old he delighted in taking me on walks up Blaven and the Red Hills to tell me of his own wild childhood exploits. I was much impressed by his story of once killing a ptarmigan with a stone until a few years later I visited the Cairngorms and discovered how incredibly tame that species is—a sitting duck (uggh!) at 10 metres. But those bleak alpine landscapes remain in my blood, and so it was a great delight on 5 June to join a few fellow birdwatchers of the Altai Bird Lovers Society to head up into the hills above Altai Town for a few hours bird-watching.

I had given the Society a talk in the morning, so our time was limited. It became even more shortened as the military guard at the only barrier we had to pass held us up for two hours insisting no foreigners were allowed beyond his post. Many phone calls later, we were allowed to advance. The delay was a pity, as we had to bypass several fellow birders who were stalking a rare Snowy Owl sighted earlier in the valley.

These woods echo to the calls of familiar European birds—Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, Common Nightingale, and Rock Bunting. The undergrowth was abloom with wild peonies, but we were heading for higher ground. We would have only four hours more of daylight.

Rock Bunting
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia par, Altai Mountains. Rock Bunting occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. (Craig Brelsford)

The road was rough—sometimes rocky, sometimes deeply rutted in mud. It had been raining, and the mountain streams were flooding out of their banks, and we had to ford them many times. We passed out of the forests and into the open meadows. These were gloriously green with new spring grass before the Kazakh herdsmen could bring their flocks up for the summer grazing. Thousands of Purple Fawn Lilies (Erythronium sibiricum) and Cowslips (Primula denticulata) glistened in the sunlight, fluttering in the wind. Grey, Yellow, and White Wagtail skittered out of the way of our 4-wheel vehicle as it laboured up the trail. Black Kites and a lone Common Kestrel glided over the valley. Large sleepy marmots gazed at us as we drove on higher towards the snowline, and a large eagle flew just over our heads without giving us a second glance.

Black Kite
Black Kite in Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

The road twisted about between great walls of snow where a digger had cut a way through, and eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border. It was indeed very similar to the landscapes of the Scottish Cairngorms, and I felt quite at home as we came to a halt and started on foot to clamber across the loose rocks and patches of shallow snow that covered the rolling hilltops. But the air was thin, and I could already feel the altitude at nearly 3000 m as I trudged ahead in a slightly desperate search to find Rock Ptarmigan.

Rock Ptarmigan
A Holarctic species, Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in China occurs only in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang. (John MacKinnon)

I spotted the first one—a cock in full white winter plumage. I crept up gradually, taking pictures as I went. I did not want to alarm or disturb the bird but it seemed quite unconcerned and went about its business feeding and wandering across the snow only a few metres away. Gradually the three other birders caught up with me and took their fill of pictures. I withdrew to give the bird some peace, but the other birders were more persistent, and eventually the cock flew off with a dark female whom I had not spotted at all.

Vegetation was sparse, and there were few other birds on this bleak windswept hill, but we did see Northern Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting, and Altai Accentor. Across a valley of deeper snow I spotted another white cock ptarmigan standing out boldly against the dark rocks, and then, in amazement, I noticed our leader Tang Liming sitting quietly no more than 5 metres away from the bird.

Altai Accentor (L) and Ortolan Bunting
Altai Accentor (L) and Grey-necked Bunting. In China, Altai Accentor occurs in the Altai Mountains and Tianshan in Xinjiang and Tibet. Grey-necked Bunting is a bird of arid mountainsides that in China occurs only in Xinjiang. (John MacKinnon)

It would be a long walk down to the road and back up the other side, so I headed straight across the snow. Walking gently, I found I could stay on top of the snow crust, but a couple of times I sank deeply down to my waist. Two other birders followed my trail, and soon we were creeping up the other side towards Mr. Tang and the splendid cock ptarmigan. So well-hidden was his mate that I might have walked on her had Mr. Tang not whistled a warning. Mr. Tang had already got great pictures of the pair mating, but we were content to get close ups of the two birds, again as tame as can be.

The clever cock had found a wonderful rock to shelter behind from the bitter wind, but he let his partner squat out in the open. Both birds fed for a while, and we got excellent stills and video of them showing no concern at our presence. One of the birders had nothing less than a 600 mm, and he had to hover about 30 metres back whilst we could sit with 10 m!

With light falling, we started the climb back to the car. It was a steep, wet, slippery climb, and at one point I fell sharply on my rear end. But we were elated with our ptarmigan success, and the sunset was very beautiful. We got back in the car and headed home, thinking the day was done—but far from it.

Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus. (John MacKinnon)

I spotted a movement on the hillside. We stopped and myself and a Mr. Wang crept up to where I had seen another bird. We were rewarded with great views of a cock Willow Ptarmigan and his mate. They were not as tame as the Rock Ptarmigan but did let us get within 20 m or so, and somehow, despite quite dim light, my camera managed to take bright and glorious pictures as the cock strutted his stuff and gave his famous gobbling calls. Unlike the cock Rock Ptarmigan that were still in full winter plumage, the Willow Ptarmigan was in the half-white, half-brown plumage of summer. It was getting really late now, so we hurried back to the car.

We got less than 1 km when we saw a wolf trotting along not far off the road. We halted and stumbled out of the car, fumbling to reassemble cameras, but the wolf moved on quite fast, and we ended up getting back in the car, turning round and following back up the road. We now saw there were two wolves. We parked where we had seen the Willow Ptarmigan earlier, got out and looked everywhere for the wolves, but they were nowhere to be seen. Only when we turned back towards the parked car we saw them sitting watching us from further up the road. Again we followed in the car, but they were soon far away, on the other side of the stream. Again they stopped to have a good look at the strange car and humans before heading back into the snowy hills. They were both quite skinny, but they had made it through the winter, and soon there would be baby hares, marmots, rock squirrels, grouse, red deer, ibex and all sorts of potential prey to fatten on and rear their own litter of new cubs through the summer.

Grey Wolf
Grey Wolf trotting across tundra. (John MacKinnon)

Now it was really dark, and all we saw on the rest of our trip down the mountain was one pipit and a small mouse trapped in the headlights.

I wanted more, and my project had indeed planned a trip of several days into the Liangheyuan Nature Reserve, but just two days after my trip into the Arctic, the army ruled that no foreigners could be permitted into the border areas, be they from the United Nations or even the royal family! And so I had to sadly abort my plans and head prematurely back to Beijing. But my few hours in the hills will remain a happy memory.


Map showing position of Altai City in territory administered by the People’s Republic of China. Altai City lies just north of the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility, the point in Eurasia farthest from any coastline. Red area signifies Xinjiang. The largest provincial-level entity in the PRC, ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

Altai City (Ālètài Shì [阿勒泰市]): county-level city Altai District

Altai District (Ālètài Dìqū [阿勒泰地区]): sub-prefectural jurisdiction Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang

Altai Town: urban area in Altai City 47.825858, 88.133544

Blaven: mountain on Isle of Skye

Cairngorms, the: mountain range central Scotland

Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (Yīlí Hāsàkè Zìzhìzhōu [伊犁哈萨克自治州]): sub-provincial autonomous prefecture, Xinjiang

Skye, Isle of: largest island in Inner Hebrides archipelago off W coast of Scotland


John MacKinnon has played a major role in the development of MacKinnon has authored posts for the site, he has visited Shanghai and birded with the team, and he has served as a consultant and inspiration from the very beginning.

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

Featured image: Pass in Altai Mountains, Altai District, Xinjiang. This is the place of which John MacKinnon wrote, “Eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border.” On 5 June, the pioneering naturalist and author made a visit to this remote high country, finding amazing riches there despite a stay of only four hours. (John MacKinnon)
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