Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Balangshan - The Return

As it’s China then we had some random rule imposed that our driver could not start driving until 5am (instead of the 4am I wanted) so we arrive at the monal site at 6.30am and so miss the first crucial ‘pheasant-hour’ of the day. So we stake out the tunnel area but there aren’t any Koklass Pheasants calling, although a pair of flyover Chinese Monals was quite spectacular as they took off right across the valley and over the trees and into the distant grassland. I remember this walk for the crippling close pair of Wallcreepers, literally 5 metres away, in perfect light and just above head height…. Mmmm. This small section of the old road that skirts the tunnel always turns up interesting sightings and our walk was no different, with many Common and Dark-breasted Rosefinches calling all around, Asian House Martins nesting in the walls right next to us, a perched Northern Goshawk in the scope, and our first Alpine Leaf-Warbler coming in close to check us out. 

We leave here and drive lower and walk off the road and into the ‘forest’ where a Maroon-backed Accentor is something of a surprise, but we don’t see much else and only I get to see a male Golden Pheasant scuttling along the forest floor. With rumbling stomachs we walk back to the bus, but just then a Chestnut-crowned Bush-Warbler starts to sing and after a short wait we all eyeball this under-rated little beauty singing from the nearby bushes. We follow this with much better views than we have had before of Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler and can now finally tuck into our breakfast that includes cold fries and Yak meat…… So with the sun beating down we make a bold decision to return to the trail and get better views of Blood Pheasant, as a pair walk sedately along the forest floor above us. There’s also a young Plain-backed Thrush perched nearby, some Vinaceous Rosefinches, Himalayan Bluetail, but it’s not until we decide to walk back that we find a pair of Stripe-throated Yuhinas and a few other common species. 

From here we check out some roadside stops, with only a pair of House Sparrows and another Maroon-backed Accentor to show for our efforts and then head back to the tunnel. The second lot of calling Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges defy our decent attempts to spot them, so we head up to the higher areas which by now are misty and we experience some rain. But at the obelisk area it is just low cloud and dry and we find a calling Snow Partridge relatively easily thanks to Derek’s sharp eyes. 

Watching Snow Partridge

It is way above us, perched on the skyline but the views in the scope are great, in between belts of mist rising from the valley below obscuring the bird. A Lammergeier hoves into view just over our heads but disappears into the gloom. Driving back to Rilong it rains quite a bit until we reach the lower section of valley where we walk along the road. There’s more Pink-rumped Rosefinches, flyover Golden Eagles, Black Woodpecker, Black-browed Bushtit, Streaked Rosefinch, Chinese Leaf-Warbler, an Olive-backed Pipit singing from the top of a conifer, and even an Eurasian Jay.  

Yet more fine scenery......

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Balangshan Begins.....

Up and out at 3.30am (what..??!!) and driving up and over Balangshan, arriving at the Wood Snipe spot by 5.00am – a little early I thought. However the snipes are calling for a few minutes but suddenly go silent and that’s it. Great! But the clear, starlit skies bodes well for the day and sure enough we are treated to the best weather I’ve ever experienced here. 

Balangshan Sunrise....

Scanning the slope above and we find at least 4 White Eared-Pheasants feeding out in the open – our first ‘chicken’ of the day and a good one, plus we see our first Kessler’s Thrush. It’s just a short drive down to the tunnel and once on the other side we start scanning for Chinese Monals and I’m pleased to report we quickly find a male on the slope above us, followed a little later by 2 males and a female feeding on the grassy slope just below the skyline and the views in the scope are superb. What a bird – I feel like I keep saying that frequently on this tour! Anyway, there are calling Koklass Pheasants and Verreaux’s Monal-Partridges that just won’t show, although there are plenty of other birds around us and another close Wallcreeper is much appreciated. 

Dark-breasted Rosefinch

A male Dark-breasted Rosefinch flies in and lands close by as well, and more Rosy Pipits and Blue-fronted Redstarts appear. With a long horizon dominated by craggy, snow-covered peaks this must rank as one of the most scenic breakfast spots of any tour, and we follow our picnic with a short walk along the road where a male Crimson-browed Finch is seen by all, to add to the brief views of a female earlier – a new trip bird for me in Sichuan.

Not a bad spot for breakfast....

Male Crimson-browed Finch

With clear blue skies it seems like a good decision to drive to higher areas and try for Tibetan Snowcock & Snow Partridge and a short drive later sees us scanning huge open valleys and scree slopes. A cracking Tibetan Snowcock is scoped as it calls back at us from far above and also looks pretty good in the scope. But we just cannot find any partridges, and have to content ourselves with several stunning Grandalas, Brandt’s Mountain-Finches, and flyover Lammergeier, Golden Eagles and Himalayan Griffons. There are also some groups of Alpine and Red-billed Choughs around as well. 

Brandt's Mountain-Finch

Golden Eagle


A few of us walk up a steep slope to try to get an angle on a calling Snow Partridge without success, but more incredible views and a few Rufous-breasted Accentors are some compensation. 

Great scenery...

Heading back down to Beimuping, it is hot and sunny and almost birdless although our first Chinese White-browed Rosefinch is appreciated. So its good to get under the shade of some trees and a nice quiet little area sees Ron catch a glimpse of a Golden Pheasant, there’s a shy Blood Pheasant scuttling across the trail and a Plain-backed Thrush is feeding a large fledgling. 

Ray's Alpine Accentor

So following lunch we head back up to the dizzy heights of 4000m and over in another vain search for Snow Partridge, but Ray is particularly delighted with an Alpine Accentor is found feeding beside our parked bus. To celebrate he finds us a Hog-nosed Badger feeding on a slope above the road and nearby we also find a couple of confiding male Red-fronted Rosefinches and they are totally oblivious to our presence. 

Alpine Accentor again

Plain Mountain-Finch

Red-fronted Rosefinch

The same area has closer Grandala, Plain Mountain-Finches and flyover Pacific Swifts. We check out the area over the pass but find nothing new so drop even lower and scope a singing Himalayan Rubythroat to end the day in fine style. Unfortunately it was at this point that my new camera strap came unscrewed, dumping my new Nikon camera onto the road and breaking the auto-focus mechanism – so no more bird photos from me. Great!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Getting to Balangshan

It was just getting light as we leave on the long drive to Rilong, and this is a different route to the one I normally take. These mountain roads are always a bit interesting and this morning we discover during our field breakfast that our road was blocked by a landslide and wouldn’t be open until midday. No problem, this is China and we were led by a construction crew through a tunnel with a closed sign and still unfinished! We squeezed past all the debris, scaffolding and other stuff and followed a bumpy, broken dirt track for many, many miles alongside a huge river. The upshot is we made good time and by the time we reached our lunch stop at a small town at around 1pm we only had another hour to go to the hotel.

There are no birding stops so we content ourselves with a few species such as Chinese Pond-heron, Blue Rock Thrush, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Oriental Turtle Dove and others all seen from the moving bus. The scenery is truly spectacular and we marvel at the huge river valleys and lofty peaks all around.

The scenery isn't too bad here......!

Arriving at 3pm we quickly drop our bags into the rooms and drive uphill for a few kilometres to a particular spot I always like to check out. As we arrive the rain that had been constant all day suddenly stops and the cloud begins to rise, revealing impressive snow-clad peaks. There isn’t much birdsong or activity to begin with and a little trail into the pine forest only reveals a fine male Himalayan Bluetail and both Buff-barred and Hume’s Warblers to begin with. Our patience, however, is rewarded with Black-browed and more importantly, our first Sichuan Tit and Giant Laughingthrush, and then Derek spots a calling Crested Tit-Warbler – but this bird is fast moving and flies from tree to tree before disappearing. So we walk up to the road and discover many Pink-rumped Rosefinches feeding in the bushes, along with one or two Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and spend quite some time watching them. 

Wallcreeper is always a joy to see and where else can you get such close views....?

All of a sudden a Wallcreeper flies past and lands on the small cliff beside the road and gives terrific views as it feeds on spiders and others insects. It’s always a good day when you see this bird right? The action is unrelenting, as then a large rosefinch is ‘spotted’ perched and calling from the top of a dead tree. I can’t believe my eyes, as it is a male Streaked Rosefinch – one of the most beautiful birds of the tour. Wow! 

Streaked Rosefinch

He is joined by a female but they both fly away, only for us to find them again a short while later and we get much better views. But before that we are scanning some large cliffs where Hill Pigeons are flying around and a Chinese Goral is scoped, Asian House Martins buzz us at close range, and a Snow Pigeon is scoped on the cliffs. In between all of this we admire a cracking male White-throated Redstart, Common Rosefinch, Rufous-vented Tit and check out all the rosefinches again. 

White-throated Redstart

By now it is 6pm (where has the time gone) and attempt to get back to the bus, but a Chinese Fulvetta appears, a Tibetan Serin flies past and then a pair of henrici Long-tailed Rosefinches are found. We are loving our first taste of birding on the mighty Balangshan.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Erlang Shan

Leaving the hotel at 5.15 am and there’s not much traffic as we wind our way for 45 minutes along the mountain road, reaching Erlang Shan just after daybreak. This is one of my favourite birding sites in Sichuan as there are some quality birds present on this mountain, maybe not a huge number but what is here is worth the effort to find. Our first target is Lady Amherst’s Pheasant and with the news from some other visiting birders we met last night that they couldn’t find any pheasants, I was a little worried. After some slow careful driving by our excellent driver we round a bend and BANG there’s an immature male walking along the roadside some 70 metres away. Unfortunately he skulks in some bushes at the roadside, disappears for a while before we decide to drive closer. And he’s gone. So we continue upwards for several kilometres but there’s a distinct lack of pheasants up here, so turn the bus around and drive slowly downhill. Some calling Spotted Nutcrackers are just too close to drive away from and we jump out and scope a couple of birds perched right on top of the pine trees, and there’s also our first Yellow-streaked Warbler showing well at the same spot. But no time to dally and we’re back in the bus and after several bends in the road we come across the same young male with a harem of 3 females walking along in front of us and now the entire group get tickable views. What a relief!

One of the top birds of any Sichuan tour - Firethroat.

Having heard a Firethroat call whilst we are doing our ‘chicken run’, it’s time to focus on more pressing matters and this is certainly one of the top birds of the trip. So we hop out of the bus and within maybe less than a minute all of our binoculars are trained on this stunning vision of dark blue, white and bright crimson singing back at us from the roadside bushes. What a cracker! Once this stunner has retreated to the denser bushes we drive lower and search for more goodies, with Chinese Babax and Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler giving various degrees of views to different people with neither species gives prolonged views, but our first Chestnut Thrush is more obliging. And a pair of superb Barred Laughingthrushes tantalise us initially with just glimpses of their intricate plumage as they sing from the dense carpet of bushes below, until finally coming quite close and decide to remain in a more sparsely leaved bush for us all to see. Wow! 

Barred Laughingthrush

There’s a singing Yellow-throated Bunting looking sexy on some wires, Daurian Redstarts are singing away nearby, Brown-breasted Bulbuls, and a very close and cooperative Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler.  But unfortunately it is only Derek and I that see a pair of Long-tailed Rosefinches feeding in some bushes above the road and when we draw the group’s attention to this the birds have already flown way up the hillside never to be seen again.

Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler

So we retrace our steps back up the hill a little and tackle the often tricky-to-see Indian Blue Robin that’s been singing the entire morning whilst we have been doing other things. Well this bird is typically elusive and moves around us constantly, only offering brief perched views but good enough anyway. A pair of Black-browed Bushtits show well here and are a welcome addition to our growing list and a skulking White-browed Fulvetta is seen by some of us.

Black-browed Bushtits

Breakfast is much appreciated and then we’re off back up the winding road in search of more goodies. Another stunning show from a Firethroat is even better than before and now the sun is shining and the light is much better. The next session is interspersed with some driving and then walking various sections and different altitudes and we see species such as Grey-crested Tit, yet another Firethroat, a flyover Tibetan Serin, more Daurian Redstarts and some Chestnut-flanked White-eyes before having our picnic lunch. During this time there’s more White-browed Fulvettas (at least 3 different sightings today), a large party of Black-browed Bushtits, and a family of White-winged Grosbeaks.

White-winged Grosbeak

After lunch we walk a short distance higher, enjoying some nice flocks with all of the usual suspects but get very close views of Sichuan Leaf and Buff-barred Warblers, another Yellow-throated Bunting and cracking looks at a group of Grey-headed Bullfinches

Grey-headed Bullfinch

Moving lower there’s a Greenish Warbler to test our i.d skills, and more singing Firethroats. We continue with Grey-headed Woodpecker and some brief Chinese Babax but with rain threatening there’s not much activity. 

Another Firethroat...

Just then I hear the call I’ve been hoping for – Rufous-tailed Babbler. This is another ‘mega’ Sichuan bird and one I was particularly keen to get this year having only seen it once before. A quick drive around the bend gets us to the spot and I fire up the ipod but nothing. I keep trying intermittently but no response. We decide to wait and give it some time and eventually the distinctive call of a Rufous-tailed babbler is heard from the slope above. Raymond is the first to spot it skulking in a roadside bush right in front of us but it quickly disappears. 

Poor shot of a Rufous-tailed Babbler

The next half an hour is very frustrating as we get only brief glimpses until some time later and another longish wait when we think it is all over - and the babbler flies across a clearing in front of us. After a few circuits it sits on top of a bush singing away and there are smiles all round. What a battle but we eventually nailed it! And what good timing as the very light rain we had encountered for the past hour gives way to something much heavier as we drive back to our hotel. What a good day!

Great views from Erlang Shan 

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Golden Lining....!

So can you believe it is 6.30am when we meet up at the coach for a short hop up into the hills? Honest! Walking along a nice trail into great forest there isn't much bird activity until our first Black-chinned Yuhinas appear, and then a few previously seen species such as Emei Leaf Warbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, Yellow-bellied Tit, and even more Brown Bullfinches

It was looking like a very quiet morning until Derek said he might have THE Fulvetta and I put my bins on one of the Chinese Holy Grail birds – Golden-fronted Fulvetta. Literally all hell breaks loose as at first the bird disappears into the dense foliage, only to reappear moments later in a different part of the tree. In fact there are two adults carrying food to a nest that remains hidden to us. The adults keep bringing bugs to the same spot and with these stunning birds constantly in view for half an hour at least and no more than 10 metres above our heads you can say the views are not too bad at all! From a personal point of view I am too excited to get a decent photo as the birds are in a particularly shady area of foliage  and have to calm myself down and get over that old shaky hand syndrome. Eventually when I’ve given up hope and most of the group have retreated, one of the birds comes down to just a metre above the ground and into a sparsely leaved bush right beside me and I get these photos…..

This Golden-fronted Fulvetta is one of the rarest birds seen on our tour - wow!!

Anything else after that is always going to be a poor second but a calling Bay Woodpecker shows reasonably well, and amongst numerous Chestnut-crowned Warblers a pair of David’s Fulvettas are a good find for the list. I must say our field breakfast tastes particularly nice after all of this excitement. A Brown-breasted Flycatcher a little later is also good, and Mountain Hawk-Eagle and Crested Goshawk are also spotted as well.  

Chestnut-crowned Warbler

David's Fulvetta

Returning to the lodge late morning a Grey-headed Woodpecker is watched flying overhead before we say our farewells to this great little lodge and begin driving towards our next port of call – Erlang Shan. The scenery as we drive along through enormously deep sided river valleys is truly stunning and the time passes quickly. From the window of the bus a pair of Black Bazas are seen perched on telegraph wires - pretty cool. Close to our good hotel a nice little stop below some huge slopes results in a pair of Godlewski’s Buntings, Blue Rock Thrush, Eastern Stonechat and Ashy-throated Parrotbill.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Mud, Glorious Mud......

The alarm wakes me at 4.45am and I can hear the rain outside – oh no..!!  That’s all we need as I’ve booked 2 local vehicles to take us up to the highest point of Longcanggou that it is possible to drive. Well, it is a bumpy, muddy drive and one of our vehicles gets stuck for a while in a particularly treacherous spot, but it doesn’t take too long to dig it out and we are on our way again. 

The track into Longcanggou is almost impassable in places...

Nearing the end of our drive we screech to a halt as a female Temminck’s Tragopan is walking along the track in front of us. All of a sudden the male flies down from the bank above and walks across in front of us, before walking back again and out of sight. He’s not on view for more than a minute but the stunning plumage is etched into our minds forever and what a relief I feel as this is such a huge target sighting.

With that done we park up and have breakfast and then begin the truly awful walk up to the pass some 5 kilometres away. It’s awful as this park is literally being raped with a road widening scheme and we tramp through several inches (often more) of gloopy soft mud all of the way. 

Despite the mud, the birding is still great...

Golden Bush-Robin showed really well...

It’s not fun but we are keen to explore the higher areas and on the way up see Grey-capped Pygmy and Darjeeling Woodpeckers, Buff-barred and Sichuan Leaf-Warblers, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Fire-capped Tit, a pair of Great Parrotbills, a stunning Golden Bush-Robin, a couple views of White-bellied Redstart, several Elliot’s Laughingthrushes, and we also hear a Chestnut-headed Tesia

Great habitat here....

Meanwhile, Lesser Cuckoo and Large Hawk-Cuckoo provide a constant accompaniment to our trek.

Fire-capped Tit

Elliot's Laughingthrush is common here...

Once at the pass I’m very saddened to see the lovely little marsh totally destroyed and digging machinery (and more mud) present. Yet a Spotted Bush-Warbler shows very well, as does a Buff-throated Warbler, and we get a brief view of a Red-winged Laughingthrush as it flies across in front of us. 

This Spotted Bush-Warbler was very inquisitive...
A confiding Buff-throated Warbler
This used to be a marsh....

We continue walking for a kilometre down the other side but find nothing new although the habitat is superb still. The walk back down is enlivened by Brown Parrotbill, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Bianchi’s Warbler, the distinctive local race of Eurasian Wren, but a White-browed Shortwing remains just a voice in the dense vegetation.

Brown Parrotbill was seen several times

Eurasian Wren - looking a little different.....?

It is a huge relief to reach the vehicles at 3pm and really enjoy our egg fried rice lunch before driving lower. We decide to try and get better views of Red-winged Laughingthrush but only succeed in hearing at least three different individuals, although a Mountain Hawk-Eagle flies over. 

Huge swathes of bamboo can be found here....

So we drive back to the hotel – well until one of our cars gets stuck well and truly in a quagmire of a track. Leaving it here we walk down and get brief views of singing Martens’s and Grey-crowned Warblers before the vehicle is finally free and we reach the hotel at 6.15pm for a well deserved hot shower and to clean our walking boots that have several layers of mud encrusted around them!