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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 shanghaibirding.com 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 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)
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)
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 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)
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 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 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)
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 shanghaibirding.com 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)
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)
SCENES FROM NORTHERN XINJIANG
Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus, Burqin Magic Forest. (Craig Brelsford)
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, 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)
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 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)
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)
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)
This ethnic Kazakh police officer asked me to memorialize our brief acquaintance with a photo. Burqin, 25 July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
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, 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)
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])
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)
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)
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)
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)
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THE FIVE-POST SERIES
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.
. Oxford University Press, 2000. Our first reference in Northern Xinjiang. A Field Guide to the Birds of China
Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan.
HarperCollins, 2009. Our second reference in Northern Xinjiang. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed.
Despite being published back in 2000, the pioneering work co-authored by
John MacKinnon, , 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 A Field Guide to the Birds of China 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 farwestchina.com 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!
This post is the fifth in a five-post series about birding in Northern Xinjiang.
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Introduction
Northern Xinjiang, July 2017: Notes
Birds of Northern Xinjiang I
Birds of Northern Xinjiang II
Habitats of Northern Xinjiang
Other shanghaibirding.com posts on Xinjiang:
Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon
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). Subscribe! Send an email with
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