Wednesday, 26 June 2013

It's a Pere David's Owl....!

After yesterdays mega tick I was quite looking forward to a relatively calm day but this was not to be the case. We arrived at the far side of Gongangglin Forest just after sunrise and set about our Chinese Grouse hunt and after waiting at a clearing for a while we got distracted by a singing Long-tailed Thrush which didn’t perform as we would have liked. So at that point we split into smaller ‘teams’ and headed in different directions. A few of us searched for thrushes but only had Tibetan Siskin and a few other common species, but as we got back to the coach for breakfast Keith was waiting and offering me his camcorder to see what he’d just filmed. Well, after the shock of seeing a Pere David’s Owl staring back at me from his viewing screen we literally legged it to the last known spot with his wife, Lynne, leading us to the correct spot. Fortunately a few others were there already looking for grouse – and then the beast called, a deep double-hoot. Must admit I had the old shakey-hand syndrome as the bird continued to call for half an hour and I fired off a few notes from the I-pod but it just called back. Finally it flew and gave us a glimpse of this mythical forest-ghost. Well, it gave us the runaround and eventually flew off up the hill and out of sight, but continued to call. I wasn’t for giving up and after a protracted and exhausting trek up a steep slope we had it perched next to a tree trunk, but looking through bushes so no clear shot. What a relief! So we headed back to the coach for breakfast, but one person had been missing throughout all this. So I dragged Russell back up the hill and into the forest where the bird was still calling at 10am (!) and within a matter of seconds we had the beastie close by on a bare branch right in front of us – time to celebrate this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ bird with clenched fist and a little dance…! Definitely bird of the trip for me…!

Pere David's Owl

 So we then said goodbye to 3 of our team before heading off to Jiuzhaigou where a few Spectacled Fulvettas were a good addition to our list before an early night.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Sukatschev's, Slogging and a Partridge..!

This was the morning of the great grouse hunt as we scoured Baxi Forest for Severtzov’s (Chinese) Grouse and is one of those sessions that either produces the goods or absolutely nothing. Well, it started off slowly as we crept quietly up a promising forest ride, and with only a quick view of Blood Pheasant and Black Woodpecker to show for it. After an hour of walking up and down the forested hillside it was only natural that we would split into smaller groups, however nothing much happened for a while. A couple of us walked up a relatively steep ride into the hill and as I was tinkering with a White-bellied Redstart Lynne spotted a bird feeding quietly on the grassy floor behind me. As I turned around I couldn’t believe my eyes as it was the endemic Sukatschev’s Laughingthrush – not your average endemic, but the rarest of the lot here in Sichuan. 

Sukatschev's Laughingthrush

It was just hopping around in the open about 15 feet in front of us and it didn’t care we were there. Of course I’d left the camera in the coach. So I ran back down the hillside to find the rest of the group, seeing nobody until I made it back to the coach and rounded up a few people. Some time later we had made it back up the hill and after an anxious wait the bird reappeared to our relief. But with a couple of the guys still M.I.A I ran back down to the bottom of the hill and found Trevor and Kevin and I crawled back up the hill for a 3rd time and this made me feel really ill at this altitude. The bird had disappeared but we relocated it a little later and had crippling views of it calling from a small bushy tree. As we celebrated a movement off to our left in the shadows caught my eye and I turned and saw the elusive pimpernel (I mean grouse!) run across a clearing. Shouting to the guys to follow it I ran up the hill and cut across the hillside, through dense thorn and birch-type scrub to try and head it off and completely knackered myself in the process and as I headed down Trevor & Kevin said they’d seen it. What a relief. But only the 3 of us had, so the rest were a little disgruntled to say the least. As we headed down the hill the others were coming up and wanted a crack at the grouse, so up I went for a 4th time and it was now that I felt very, very sick. Needless to say the grouse weren’t around so we finally got to the coach for a breakfast at 10am!

We then decided to return to ‘Gansu Valley’ but that proved to be quiet again (despite near perfect sunny conditions) so went to a nearby restaurant. Afterwards we drove slowly back up towards the plateau and I decided to stop at a favourite little spot of mine, and what an excellent decision it was. Just as we were trying to suss out a potential new Rosefinch for us Keith shouted the immortal word “PARTRIDGE” which took a few seconds to register with me. 

Tibetan Partridges

But then we ran up to his position and after frantic directions a pair of Tibetan Partridges were in my bins – omg! I’ve always wanted to see this bird but never really knew where to look for it in Sichuan – its like a needle in a haystack being so scarce here. But here we were, about 40 yards from two absolutely stunning beauties. The magnitude of our sighting took a little while to sink in and we enjoyed 10 minutes on the birds as they picked their way up a small bank and disappeared into the bushes. YES!! 

White-browed Tit-warbler

There was also an obliging pair of White-browed Tit-warblers here, another White-browed Tit and several Alpine Leaf-warblers. We were on a high for a while and with the rare laughingthrush and partridge  in the bag it had been a very good day, although the grouse dip soured it a little for some!

All that was left was to drive to  our next hotel for the night, via a singing Siberian Rubythroat that eventually showed quite well.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Day on the Plateau

It was rather chilly as we stood in the cold early morning air waiting for Blue Eared-Pheasant to appear at Baxi Forest. I think we got there a little bit too early but as it got lighter birds started to appear, with Kessler’s and Chestnut Thrushes, Godlewski’s Bunting, Black-eared Kites, Daurian Jackdaw, Eurasian Cuckoo and others to keep us occupied during the stake-out. The sound of birds singing from the valley below us was phenomenal and it is wonderful to listen to the forest waking up, even if you can’t feel your fingers! 

Blue Eared-Pheasant

Anyway, scopes were trained on the opposite hillside for the big blue one to appear when all of a sudden there’s a flurry of wings and the pheasant flies in and lands on the slope below us. It’s the closest and far and away the best view I’ve ever had of this stunning bird. It remains for a good twenty minutes, feeding quietly on the slope below us before walking sedately away into the forest. Wow! 

Chinese Nuthatch

Przewalski's Nuthatch

We leave here and drive to a favourite part of this lovely forest and within just a few minutes a Chinese Nuthatch flies in and lands right above us and we get excellent views. Then I’m sure I’ve got a response from Przewalski’s Nuthatch and sure enough just a few conifers away there it is! A huge double-whammy and smiles all around – the only shame is I’ve got the settings on my camera wrong and these pics are taken on 1000 iso! Just then some movement in a near bush leads us to a pair of Siskins which I assumed were Eurasians, but then two adult Tibetan Siskins materialise in the same bush! So not sure about these dark, streaky siskins now…? 

Tibetan Siskin

So we are on a roll and walk into the forest where a high pitched noise has us freezing. Surely it can't be Chinese Grouse? I leg it around in a large loop to try and flush it towards my group, but as I hit a trail going in the right direction something scuttles off up ahead and there’s the grouse (in fact 3 of them). So here’s the dilemma – do I take the photo before getting the group? Well I didn’t and backed off slowly before running down to the group, passing a Sichuan Jay on the way (what?!) and we go on a grouse hunt, but to no avail, although a Black Woodpecker is some compensation. So I’m thinking we should return early doors tomorrow.

Well, we are positively buoyed by our success and head off to a nice little valley where I want to get Gansu Leaf-warbler but the weather is having other ideas. We are now experiencing cold weather and drizzle. This isn’t good for singing warblers but within 100m of our walk along the track there’s one calling, but it doesn’t play ball at all. Further along another sings but unlike last year when they went mad at my ipod this time they don’t respond. But after a while one comes in and calls a little and we get decent looks at it. Further along the track we get a surprise in a Pallas’s Leaf-warbler, plus a few other things like Godlewski’s Bunting, Common Rosefinch etc. But there’s not a lot else and as we walk back the heavens open and it pours down, getting us soaking wet.

So after lunch at a local restaurant, a quick few minutes back at the hotel to change into drier clothes and we’re off to Flower Lake with blue skies all of a sudden. I’m feeling the pressure to find snowfinches along the road and wondering just how this will pan out. Lucky for me then that something flies up from the roadside and we screech to a halt and reverse and wow, there’s a Rufous-necked Snowfinch

Rufous-necked Snowfinch

A mad minute of giving directions to a bird 30 yards away ensues before calm returns and then I spot a White-rumped Snowfinch further away. Amazingly both species prove to be common along the road this year, with the latter species especially so. 

White-rumped Snowfinch

We watch our first ones for a while and really enjoy watching the snowfinches chasing the Pikas from their burrows.


Marmot - "Eric, Eric Eric..."

 Up at the lake we take the parks bus 3kms down to the boardwalk and spend an enjoyable time scanning the water and marshes, surrounded by fantastic wide open grasslands complimented by huge snow-capped mountains on the horizon. 

Out on the lake we get Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Greylag Goose and other common things. A Great Bittern flying over the marsh is a bit bizarre, and another heard booming surely means they breed here. A Purple Heron and a few White-winged Terns are new for the tour, whilst lots of egrets, Black-necked Cranes, Lesser Sandplovers, Tibetan Wagtails, Tibetan Larks, Common Terns and others make for a rewarding time here. A late migrant Arctic Warbler sheltering under the boardwalk was truly bizarre and just goes to show you never know what to expect here. As we drive back to the hotel a few Upland Buzzards are noted and we arrive back tired but very happy with the day.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Tibetan Plateau

My favourite day of the tour so far, as we drive from Maerkang up onto the Tibetan Plateau and eventually reach our excellent hotel at Rouergai in the early evening – and I think this is one the most impressive birding journeys as you cram a lot into 12 hours or so. 

Scenery on the Tibetan Plateau

The scenery is very impressive as we leave the pine-clad valleys and reach the wide-open vista of rolling grasslands and soft, rounded hills in the distance. After breakfast in a roadside restaurant we stopped just on the edge of the forest alongside a mountain river where Pere David’s Laughingthrushes were seen feeding on the opposite bank and our first Common Pheasant was found. No Ibisbills were present along the river so we continued upwards until at the edge of the plateau, amidst scrub-choked narrow valleys we found White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-warblers to be rather common and spent some time watching these delightful little sprites, with the males being a resplendent concoction of lilac, purple and pink.

White-browed Tit-warblers

At the same valley we also had nice views of this Golden Eagle, loads of Himalayan Griffons and a singing Kessler's Thrush.

Golden Eagle

Himalayan Griffon

Kessler's Thrush

Well we did very well with all the target species encountered and I was especially pleased to get good views of a White-browed Tit after a few unsuccessful attempts at various places. 

White-browed Tit

There was also a nice Dusky Warbler, Olive-backed and Richard’s Pipit and our first of many Rock Sparrows at the same place. We also had Yellow-streaked Warbler, plenty of Chestnut and Kessler’s Thrushes, Tibetan (Citrine)Wagtails, Little Owl, Ruddy Shelducks, Common Merganser, Eurasian Hoopoe, Hodgson’s Redstart, Siberian Stonechat, Azure-winged Magpie, Twite and at least 15 Black-necked Cranes

Azure-winged Magpie


At one area we had Oriental, Horned and at least 6 immense Tibetan Larks in a meadow next to the road, and this is the first time I’ve seen the big beastie away from Flower Lake. A real surprise find was a pair of Tibetan (Chinese) Grey Shrikes along the road and although the birds weren’t that close it was a nice view in the scopes. Plenty of Marmots and Pika were also noted, and a Tibetan Fox looked a little out of place during the midday heat.

Upland Buzzard


Saker about to dive bomb the buzzard

I think he got the buzzard...!

 Raptors were well represented with numerous Black-eared Kites, and Upland Buzzards became increasingly common, and throw in our fantastic earlier views of Himalayan Griffons and a cracking Golden Eagle as well. But the views of a Saker nest with five (yes 5) almost fledged young, and both adults bringing in small rodents for them to feed on. It really was like the things you see on t.v and when an Upland Buzzard, which must have had a nest out of sight in the same quarry, flew in a few times only for the adult Sakers to dive-bomb it repeatedly. What a show and an immense privilege to witness such nature in the raw.

Hume's Ground-tit

 Getting closer to Rouergai we got very close views of the endemic Hume’s Ground-tit, which became majorly abundant during the course of the afternoon. 

Tibetan Snowfinch

But a surprise find came in the shape of a family of Tibetan Snowfinches right beside the road to end a particularly fun and enjoyable day.