Tour Leader : Pieter Verheij
Local Guide : Tang Jun.
Day 1 Arrival in Chengdu – Sichuan
We arrived at Chengdu airport at 12.15hrs on a KLM flight from Amsterdam. Our connecting flight to Lhasa (Tibet) at 14.00hrs had been cancelled for reasons unbeknown to us. We, unfortunately, had no choice and had to stay overnight in Chengdu.
The 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Tibet on the 25th June was approaching, when almost no visitors are allowed to enter the country. We decided to go for a walk in the nearby Baihua Park which we all found very interesting. We saw several groups of the local Chinese dancing and singing together and we even came across a brass band. There were some individual musicians playing to the tourists and locals entertaining us all.
We also saw our first birds; the very common Light~vented Bulbul and White~browed Laughingthrush in the park. That evening we received another disappointing message, we did not have permission to fly to Lhasa the next day, the 9th June. It was very bad news. In collaboration with Mr Tang Jun, our local agent and birding guide for the Sichuan part of the tour, we made alternative plans.
We decided to visit the Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu and a Lake close to the town. We were even able to find a birding guide too.
Day 2 – Chengdu
We left the hotel at 08.00hrs with Duke, our guide for today, and drove to the Panda Breeding Research Centre for birding. The Centre is located just 10 km from downtown Chengdu. It is very well organized and is a rather impressive Centre for the visitor.
It is home to a large breeding colony of Cattle Egrets and Black~crowned Night Herons.
We spent the whole morning there and had excellent views of the following birds, Vinous ~throated and Aschy~throated Parrotbills, Red~billed Leiothrix, Black~throated Tit and Yellow~breasted Greenfinch. And of course we saw many Giant and Red Pandas. After lunch we went on to the large Lake close to Chengdu and had a leisurely walk around it. Here we found our first Pheasant of this trip, but unfortunately a common one. We spotted Pheasant~tailed Jacanas, Long~Tailed Shrike, Bar~headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Little Grebe and Purple Heron. Driving back to Chengdu we saw a Tiger Shrike.
Day 3 – Tibet – Namtso Lake
Finally, we were able to leave Chengdu and left our hotel at 04.30hrs for our 06.10hrs flight to Lhasa. We had no problems with our entry permits and arrived in Lhasa at 08.00hrs. Our guide, Iris, arrived shortly after us and we asked if we could stay extra time in Tibet due to our difficulties but were denied by the Authorities. To find a birding guide in Tibet is even more difficult than China, and although Iris was not really a birding guide she was good at spotting the birds along the journey.
We decided to move directly to the Namtso Lake, about 260 km north of Lhasa. There is just one road through the valley with steep mountains, at a distance though, on either side. Driving along, it wasn’t just the beautiful scenery that drew our attention, but also a young Lammergeier circling our minibus. On the whole, the birding was easy as we saw birds flying or on the grasslands as we drove.We saw Rufous~necked and White~rumped Snowfinch, a very nice Citrine Wagtail, Yellow and White Wagtails, Himalaya Griffon Vultures on the ground, Common Redstart and Horned Lark. Altogether, it was a very pleasant drive up.We started at 500m in Chengdu, 3,200m in Lhasa but now we had slowly driven up to over 5,000m. Namtso is renowned as one of the most beautiful places in the Nyaingentanglha mountain range. Its cave hermitages have for centuries been the destination of Tibetan pilgrims. A surfaced road across Laken Pass, at 5186m, was completed in 2005 enabling easy access from Lhasa and the development of tourism at the lake. There are many craft shops, tea houses and other tourist places not far from the lake. For most of us the crossing of the Laken Pass had been too much and we needed to rest to get acclimatised to the high altitude. We were unable to appreciate the beautiful scenery and the birds around the area due to exhaustion.
Next year, when we return to Tibet, we will go to Laken Pass after acclimatising to the high altitude slowly. That way we will be able to appreciate the beauty of the area with the justice it deserves. Initially we had planned to stay the night in a Tented Camp near the Namtso Lake. Finally we decided not to take the risk and drive back 80 km direction Lhasa, to a small village with some basic hotels. For many reasons, we were very happy that we took that decision. The temperature dropped down to freezing point, we were happy to go down more to a more acceptable altitude for the moment, and who knows what the bath facilities were like in a Tented Camp, not being very optimistic after the experiences of public toilets during the trip so far.
Day 4 – Tibet – Back to Lhasa
Although the hotel was basic we recovered quite well after a night’s rest, and early that morning we went out to look for the Black~necked Cranes. They are usually present in the grassland close to our hotel, but we did not see them. We would have other opportunities in Sichuan.
We drove slowly back to Lhasa, having many stops to watch birds, but also to have a closer look at the bridges decorated with Prayer Flags, or to watch a local woman taking care of the Yaks. We wanted to be back at Lhasa for lunchtime to visit the Xiongse Valley with its famous Monastery, which is also a good place for birds.
A small group went to visit the Monastery in the Xiongse Valley about 30 km from Lhasa. The last 400m had to be done on foot, not an easy route at high altitude. The birding however was very rewarding; White~throated Redstart, Tibetan Bunting, Giant Babax, Beautiful Rosefinch, and many more.
The others took a rest and had a walk to the Summer Palace, located in a nice park, not far from the hotel.
Altogether the trip to Lhasa had been too short to acclimatise fully to the high altitude.
The impressions of this Chinese Province were very promising and we will give a lot of thought for next year on how it will be included in the tour of China.
Day 5 – Back to Chengdu
Today we had to leave Lhasa (Tibet) and return to Chengdu. We left the hotel at 08.15hrs for the hours drive to the airport. Leaving Tibet was not a problem and after a relaxed flight we arrived back at Chengdu at 12.00hrs.
This was the official starting and collecting day for the main tour but because all of our guests had done the pre~extension tour there was no need to stay in Chengdu.
Tang Jun, our guide for the main tour, collected us at the airport and after a very nice lunch we started the 4 hours drive to Wawushan. On route we had some stops and saw Forest Wagtail, White~cheeked Starling and several other birds.
Day 6 – Wawushan
Mondag 13th of June,To see Lady Amherst’s Pheasant one has to be on the spot at dawn. We decided to take the chance and leave the hotel at 05.00hrs and get on the road. The best spot we were told was between 5 and 10 km from the entrance gate. We drove very slowly but unfortunately we only heard the bird and did not see it.We had planned to go to the summit in the cable car lift but we could clearly see that the mountain was covered in rain clouds. We decided not to go up and continue birding along the road. We had some rain and the visibility was poor but we managed to see several interesting species. After lunch we took a rest after which we went out to look for Lady Amherst’s Pheasant again, but unfortunately we had no luck.
Day 7 – The Summit of Wawushan
Tuesday 14th of JuneWe left the hotel at 06.30hr, which was a relief after our 5am start the day before. We drove the 25 km to the cable car slowly to be there for 08.00. We were looking all the time for Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, but did not see it yet again. We had breakfast along the road of coffee, fruit and bread. It takes 27 minutes to climb the 700m in the cable car to reach an altitude of almost 3000m.The weather was beautiful and we had a fantastic day spotting many wonderful birds. We had lunch in the restaurant on the summit and did more birding afterwards. We left at 17.00 as the cable car was closing, very reluctantly as we had enjoyed such a pleasurable day. At the summit, there were some great walking trails and it was easy walking for everyone.
Birds we saw were, Ashy~throated, Great, Brown, Fulvous, Golden and Grey~headed Parrotbills. We saw several species of warblers such as Ashy~throated, Emei Leaf, Buff~barred and Golden~spectacled Warblers. There were Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Grey~hooded Fulvetta and Elliot’s Laughingthrush. We also had very good views of Golden Bush Robin.
The weather at the summit can be very variable. Fog and rain are common and it can be very cold, but we had one of our lucky days with abundant sunshine which gave us wonderful views over the area. It was a very enjoyable and satisfying day for everyone.
Day 8 – Another day in Wawushan
We had a late start today because we had decided to do some birding along the road towards the summit. It was around 8 o’clock when, all of a sudden, in front of our minibus was a Lady Amherst’s Pheasant (a nice male) walking sedately along the road. These things always happen when our cameras are not ready! Unfortunately, we only got photographs of the tail of this beautiful bird before it disappeared into the bushes. (See photo inlay.)After that the morning was quiet for birds but improved as the day progressed. We had good views of Chestnut~crowned Warbler, Eurasian Jay, Crimson~breasted Woodpecker, Streak~throated Fulvetta, Plumbeous Redstart and many more.
Day 9 – Transfer to Rilong
We left the hotel after breakfast driving the whole way back to Chengdu and from there to Wenshuan where we had a very nice lunch. Later we passed the epicenter of the 2008 earthquake where much of the area was yet to be reconstructed. We would normally have stayed in Wolong but the hotel was still being rebuilt and therefore we had to drive to the next city, Rlong, on the other side of Balangshan. We enjoyed the first part of the journey with stunning scenery and were lucky to see a Golden Pheasant walking along the road, but we then encountered very thick fog for a couple of hours going higher up the pass. We were very grateful to have a good and safe driver in Mr Song. Going down the other side of the pass our guide spotted a pair of Wallcreepers feeding young on the nest.
Day 10 – Balangshan
We had another early start this morning to look for Chinese Monal. The best spot was 1.5hrs drive on the other side of the pass and some of the fittest of the group walked up the slopes with the guide. The others stayed below and were surprised by a pair of noisy White~eared Pheasant; also they saw Great Parrotbill, Common Rosefinch, Plain Mountain Finch, Rosy Pipit and more. The expedition uphill was not a success for everyone and just one person saw the beautiful Chinese Monal.It was very cold at the summit and we decided to descend to the lower area where it was much warmer. Walking down we had excellent views of the White~capped Water Redstart, White~browed Rosefinch and many Crag Martins. We made several stops and marvelled at the beautiful flower covered slopes, which were a great spectacle for us all to see. There were several orchid species there too.We found Alpine Accentor, Plain Mountain Finch and Rosy Pipit in good numbers. We saw, at close distance, a Common Cuckoo having a meal and good views of a Snow Pigeon. At another stop we had superb views of Blue~fronted Redstart and the White~tailed Rubythroat, which was in and out of a nest feeding young.The White~tailed Rubythroat was, without doubt, the winner of the day for us all.
Day 11 – Balangshan
Today, one of our fellow travellers had to leave at 05.00hrs and we all arose to wish him farewell. After he left we went to the summit again, but there was very dense fog and we abandoned the plan and drove around different areas with clear views.We saw several nice birds, Jankowsti’s Bunting, Himalaya Griffon Vulture, White~browed and Dark~breasted Rosefinch, Grandala (on the higher slopes), Kessler’s Thrush and other birds we had seen before. We then had lunch at our hotel, took a rest and decided to leave again in the afternoon for some birding at lower altitude. We drove for about half an hour and stopped at an excellent place for birds. We found a pair of White~throated Redstart feeding young in the nest, and had good views of Goldcrest, Golden Eagle, Common Kestrel, Hill Pigeon, Grey~headed Woodpecker, Rufous~vented Tit and more.
On the way back we went to the same place to see the Wallcreepers and there they were again, feeding young. They gave the photographers in the group excellent opportunities for photographs.
Day 12 – Transfer to Maerkang
Being in China, in one of the best places for seeing the Chinese Monal it is very disappointing when you don’t see it. Today we had to travel to Maerkang, a distance of only 160 km, which gave those of us who wished to go back to the Balangshan slopes for a last chance of seeing this beautiful bird. The others were able to lie in and have a relaxed breakfast!We drove up the slope, passing the 4157m point, and down the other side but it was not to be. The summit was clear today but dense fog on the other side. Back to the summit we went again and walked around. We had Alpine Accentor posing nicely amongst the flowers, and also Brandt’s Mountain Finch. We had a very close view of the beautiful, male Grandala (what a bird!). We saw the female further on, a drab brown compared to the beautiful male.
We could not have wished for better views or scenery and this bright blue bird was startling amongst the yellow flowers. Tang Jun, our guide, told us it was the fog that had brought him to this site. Normally they are only seen at a great distance so we were very lucky.It compensated fully for not seeing the Chinese Monal. We left Rlong finally at midday heading for Maerkang. Maerkang has a strong Tibetan influence and many Tibetans live here. The scenery is absolutely stunning and their architecture has a strong Tibetan influence and we saw some wonderful houses.
We were maintaining contact with another birding group two days ahead of us and they were giving us relevant information re the checkpoints on our route and that there was a risk that the Authorities would not let us pass. We decided just to continue and see what ensued further north.
We stopped at the Denghi forrest, 30 km before Maerkanf, for our target bird, the Sichuan Jay. We did hear it and we actually saw it too.
We arrived safely at our hotel late in the afternoon with no problems encountered at the checkpoints.
Day 13 – Birding in Denghi Forest
We left the hotel early to look for Blood Pheasant. We heard it first and in no time we found a small group of birds almost on the summit. We all had good views. We walked down slowly again looking for Sichuan Jay. We saw several birds, but the highlight of the morning was a Rufous-breasted Accentor posing like a professional model for five minutes.
On our way back to Maerkang for lunch we stopped several times to take photographs of the stunning scenery and interesting buildings. We also came across some colourful Praying Wheels that are found in this area. After lunch and a short rest we returned to the Denghi forest. We stopped in a place renowned for its Black Woodpecker, and saw several in the distance. We waited patiently and were rewarded by one landing in a tree very close to us of which we all had excellent views of this nice bird.We continued on our journey and found many lovely species, but no new ones for us.
Day 14 – Transfer to Ruoergai
We left the hotel for a long drive of 340 km to Ruoergai, of which the first 80 km was through a beautiful gorge. We stopped for breakfast and saw a pair of Rufous~bellied Woodpeckers on the other side of the river. We were lucky to find a bridge to cross and got permission from the owner of the land to get closer to the Woodpeckers.Our next stop was at a local farm to try the Yak yoghurt, which was really very nice. We were now driving through the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau and had many stops enjoying the birding. Black~eared Kite, Kessler’s Thrush, Rock Sparrow, Little Owl, Hume’s Groundpecker and Black Redstart were just some of the birds we saw. We had lunch in Hong Yuan, which is one of the larger villages in this area, and then continued our journey through the grasslands and big Yak herds. The farmers are living in tents and are here just for the summer months, after which they will move their herds south for the winter.We stopped often because the birding was very productive and we also saw several Marmots and the much smaller Chinese Red Pika.
We stayed that night in a hotel in Ruoergai which was quite nice (like all the hotels so far) on the inside. From the outside it appeared to be a group of old buildings, and we could not imagine how nice the inside was until we went in.
Day 15 – Birding around Ruoergai
This morning we wanted to go to the Baxi Forest at 1.5 hours drive from the hotel. Our target bird was the Chinese Grouse but unfortunately the weather was very cold with dense fog which made it very unpleasant. We walked up some slopes but found ourselves in heavy rain and then waited in the minibus for an hour but gave up and went back to the hotel. We saw a Chinese Grey Shrike on the way back.In the afternoon the weather improved considerably and we went out and saw Black~necked Crane, Tibetan Lark, Oriental Skylark and had excellent views of the Saker Falcon mobbed by a Tern. We even saw a pair of Siberian foxes being chased by a Marmot.
Day 16 – Transfer to Juizhaigou
Because of yesterdays bad weather we went again to the Baxi Forest and went up some slopes looking for the Chinese Grouse. We saw Grey~headed Bullfinch, Three~banded Rosefinch, Elliott’s Laughingthrush and more, but no Chinese Grouse. When we descended we were stopped by the police and were told to turn back. The reason they gave was that further along there were some dogs and they wanted us to avoid any problems with them!
After lunch in a small village we started on our journey to Juizhaigou and we had many birding stops along the way. As we got closer to Juizhaigou we noticed the difference in the area as we were approaching a tourist centre catering for more than 1,500.000 visitors per year.
Day 17 – N. P. of Juizhaigou
Birders have to be in the Centre before the tourist flow begins at 07.00hr and no private cars are allowed, only the regulated buses that drive up and down in the park. Our guide found us a lorry that was going near to Orange~flanked Robins. We stopped at the site for an hour and heard them, but only caught a glimpse of the actual bird. The Park is really beautiful with lakes, mountains and vegetation and you can imagine that many people like to come for a visit, but for birders it was not very appropriate as there were too many people around.
Day 18 – Gonggangling Forest
Today we went to Gonggangling Forest, about 50 km from our hotel, and we drove as high as we could. We had a very nice walk down the slopes , on a track, seeing birds such as Rufous~vented Tit, Grey`headed Woodpecker, White~browed Rosefinch, Grey~backed Shrike, Chinese Leaf Warbler, White~bellied Redstart, Plumbeous Redstart and many more. We were lucky to find our way back to the main road as no one wanted to climb back uphill.
After lunch and a rest we left again to have a look at a large lake not far from Juizhaigou. We found some Warblers, the always present Chestnut Thrush and a Blue~throated Flycatcher. We had to go back early due to a thunderstorm.
Day 19 – Back to Chengdu
This “recce tour” has given us the experience we needed in order to organise future birding tours in Sichuan. We had some wonderful experiences and also we need to change some of the details, but that is why a “recce-tour” is so important to us and future plans.We had not been very lucky with the weather, due to some cold and rainy days and we also had a lot of fog. However, the accommodation and food had been very good.We will also advise future travellers that being on higher altitude is something that needs extra time to acclimatize to.The birding was good and the species different from many other places, we saw a good 234 species, which we think is a very good result.Finally, a big “thank you” to our 5 fellow-travellers who joined us on our Sichuan China experience!
Travelling together as Friends