Friday 30 June 2000

CHINA 2000: Maozhuang Forest Reserve (25-30 June)

This is the third of four postings covering a trip to the Tibetan Plateau with Jon Hornbuckle, Ashley Banwell, Ed Dickinson, Phil Heath and Barry Wright and guided by Jesper Hornskov. It is based on my scant notebook entries, unreliable memories and a report Jesper produced. Most of the photos included are digitised prints I took although a few were kindly provided by Barry and Jon and acknowledged accordingly.

We had arrived in Maduo the previous afternoon after a gruelling two day journey from a forest reserve the Sichuan border.

25 June 2000.  A clear night gave way to a drizzly dawn. We left Maduo and crossed the nearby Yellow River before driving to some wetlands near Dayematan for a field breakfast. On the way an Eagle Owl with 2 chicks was a pleasant surprise. More expected were 4 Black-necked Cranes on the wetlands, we later saw another 8, 60 Bar-headed Geese and 100 Ruddy Shelduck. We crossed Bayan Har La where I went overboard with more prayer flag photos and continued on to cross the Yangtze River, the longest in Asia. We followed it to Yushu, stopping for excellent views of two pairs of Ibisbills feeding along its banks, one with two young. I counted Upland Buzzards on the journey, most sat on telegraph poles, and reached 256 with 18 Sakers. We also saw 2 Lesser Sand Plovers, 3 Little Owls, 15 Hoopoes, 5 Long-billed Calandra and 50 Shore Larks, Dipper, 40 Black and 2 Guldenstadt's Redstarts, 10 Hume's Groundpeckers,3 Chough, 4 Rufous-necked and 6 White-rumped Snowfinches.
approaching Bayan Har La
me at Bayan Har La, an altitude of about 5000m
another proliferation of prayer flags
spot the yak

prayer stones too

views from the road to Yushu

crossing the Yangtze near Yushu

26 June 2000. We drove to the Maozhuang forest reserve, arriving at the first pass early only to discover a truck buried there blocking the road with the usual entourage standing around not doing much. We birded the scrubby hills each side of the pass with an eye on the road waiting for something to happen. After about 90 minutes exploring grassy slopes with rather sparse scrub it did. Our drivers, realising we could be stuck all day, plucked up courage to drive our vehicles on the hillside skirting the bottleneck. From a distance, on the other side of the pass, it probably looked a lot more straightforward than it actually was. We continued driving south and finally arrived at the Maozhuang forest reserve at 20:00hrs, just after dusk. Birds seen on the journey included 9 excellent Tibetan Partridges, 31 Himalayan Griffons, 2 Golden Eagles, 2 Ibisbill, 4 Snow Pigeons, Little Owl, 50 Hoopoes, Rufous-breasted Accentor, male Hodgson's Redstart, 5 River Chats, 20 Kessler's Thrushes, 2 Kozlov's Babax, Wallcreeper, 10 Grey-backed Shrikes, 40 Daurian Jackdaws, 2 Eastern Great Rosefinches, 2 White-winged Grosbeaks and 5 Godlewski's Buntings.
another blocked road
lots of standing around but our 4WDs made it off-road

Tibetan Partridge (photo: Barry Wright)

27-30 June 2000Three whole days and an early morning were spent exploring the Maozhuang forest reserve near our riverside base, a simple one storied building in a small village. Our drivers had bought supplies in Yushu and cooked all our meals. Jesper considered the food excellent, but I wasn't alone in feeling that was a rather generous assessment. We were birding steep forested valleys again and I found the up and down 1000m at a time quite tough. It was rewarding though with highlights being 4 Szechenyi's Monal Partridges, 5 White-eared and 8 Blood Pheasants, 5 Golden Eagles, 8 Himalayan Griffons, 5 Lammergeyers including a pair with a juvenile at a nest, 4 Hobbys, 12 Maroon-backed and 6 Rufous-breasted Accentors, 31 Himalayan Bluetails, 8 Hodgson's, 10 Blue-fronted and 12 White-throated Redstarts, 4 River Chats, 2 Yellow-streaked, 9 Greenish, 8 Lemon-rumped, 11 Orange-barred and a Hume's Leaf Warbler, 8 stunning Crested Tit-Warblers, 9 Slaty-backed and a Siberian Flycatcher, 5 Giant and 12 Elliot's Laughingthrushes, 4 Chinese Fulvettas, 3 Songar, 3 Grey-crested and 16 Rufous-vented Tits, 80 Crossbills, 5 Scarlet, 50 White-browed, 6 Beautiful, a Pink-rumped and 5 Three-banded Rosefinches, a Grey-headed Bullfinch, 27 White-winged Grospeaks and 8 Godlewski's Buntings. On our last afternoon we found a Pere David's Owl's feather and returned to the area before dawn the following morning but frustratingly only heard it, for a short period at some distance.

our base at Maozhuang, we were staying in the white building on the left
the river was too deep and fast flowing to cross other than by bridge
the nearby village

good forest remained up above the valley floor, although it was predominantly conifers
views west from Maozhuang

view east from Maozhuang
Three-banded Rosefinch, the only bird I saw that Jon caught at Maozhuang was fortunately his best, although mine was a poor effort photographing it
30 June 2000. After a brief and unsuccessful look for Pere David's Owl at dawn we had breakfast at Maozhuang we left to drive to Nangyen on the Mekong River. It was raining which did little to improve the condition of the road but we made reasonable progress and with few stops arrived in time for a mid-afternoon bowl of noodles. Most of us then went down to the river in search of Ibisbills although I only saw one. Other birds recorded after leaving Maozhuang included 2 Himalayan Griffons, Upland Buzzard, Quail (heard), 6 Snow and 80 Blue Hill Pigeons, 3 Hume's Short-toed Larks, Dipper, 4 Hodgson's Redstarts, 10 River Chats, 13 Kessler's Thrushes, 3 Tibetan Magpies, 5 Hume's Groundpeckers, an Alpine and 10 Common Chough, 15 Rock Sparrows, 30 Tibetan Twite, 6 Scarlet and 30 Pink-browed Rosefinches and a White-winged Grosbeak.
views from the road between Maozhuang and Nangyen

half Ash, Phil, Jon and Ed crossing the road to find a restaurant in Nangyen. Me lagging behind was normal but did reflect my enthusiasm for noodles
Nangyen Hotel 
the Mekong River at Nangyen
me by the Mekong
good Ibisbill habitat, although on this occasion I only saw one

Saturday 24 June 2000

CHINA 2000: Er La to Changmahe (18-24 June)

This is the second posting covering a trip to the Tibetan Plateau with Jon Hornbuckle, Ashley Banwell, Ed Dickinson, Phil Heath and Barry Wright and guided by Jesper Hornskov. It is based on my scant notebook entries, unreliable memories and a report Jesper produced. Most of the photos included are digitised prints I took although a few were kindly provided by Barry and Jon and acknowledged accordingly.

We'd arrived at the desolate Er La pass the previous afternoon, done a quick acclimatization recce up to the saddle and seen Roborovski's Rosefinch before continuing the short distant to Wenquan for the night.

18 June 2000. We returned to Er La pass and anxiously started the long climb up to the plateau. I'm not too good going up hills, particularly at altitude, and deliberately left my telescope and tripod in the vehicle to make it easier as I didn't want to fall too far behind. As it turned out the climb was much less arduous than I feared and I made it to the plateau with the others. It didn't take too long to spread out and find a pair of Tibetan Sandgrouse unobtrusively feeding on the stony desert floor. When the others wandered off scanning the slopes I monopolised Jesper's telescope, the only one we'd brought up with us, and gave the sandgrouse my full attention. They didn't move very far and towards the end of this time I realised why, they were accompanied by three mainly stationary, very small and very well camouflaged chicks. I noted that both parents were feeding the chicks although not while we were close to them. Several times when one of us stood up or moved the female shuffled off, belly low to the ground with wings partly extended and fluttered for a 'broken wing' distraction. The male did so once, rather less enthusiastically with one wing. Both parents were pecking at the ground but I couldn't determine whether they were feeding on small plants or insects. Both adults called to the chicks, a quiet seep seep, presumably telling them not to move. When the others left and I retreated the parents came closer and the chicks ran to them. They were absolutely superb and I watched them for 2.5 hours at 25-75m range. It was one of my best ever birding experiences. Elated we returned to the vehicles after seven hours, during that time I'd seen 2 Ruddy Shelduck, 2 Himalayan Griffons, 2 Tibetan Snowcock, the sandgrouse family, 40 Shore Larks, Pale Martin, 5 Guldenstadt's and 10 Black Redstarts, 4 Robin Accentors, 6 Rufous-necked and 8 White-winged Snowfinches, 6 Hodgson's and 20 Brandt's Mountain Finches and Roborovoski's Rosefinch. A brilliant morning. Back at the motel in Wenquan I wandered along the river seeing 34 Himalayan Griffons and a Black Vulture, an adult Lammergeyer, 2 Upland Buzzards, 8 Blue Hill Pigeons, an excellent Saker, 2 Dippers (one a brown morph), Guldenstadt's and 10 Black Redstarts, 12 Hume's GroundpeckersRufous-necked and 2 White-rumped and a Black-winged Snowfinch and 5 Twite.

Er La saddle
Er La plateau
Jon and Phil watching Tibetan Sandgrouse (the two small roundish 'rocks' slightly left of centre)
slightly more obvious Tibetan Sandgrouse above Er La, just visible slightly left of centre on the ridge 
Tibetan Sandgrouse above Er La (photo: Jon Hornbuckle). Hard from this image to see the fine barring on the female's coverts. Those of the male, on the left, are unbarred.
Er La plateau

time to leave
coming off the plateau
back in Wenquan
Wenquan's main street
down-time vehicle checks at our motel in Wenquan
outside Wenquan
19 June 2000. A travel day comprising a long drive from Wenquan to Jesper's 'secret' forest reserve near Banma and the Sichuan border. Real Tibetan Plateau scenery, lots of prayer flags, yaks and some colourful locals. Birds seen included 11 Bar-headed Geese, 17 Ruddy Shelduck, 6 Black Kites, 5 Himalayan Griffons, a Lammergeyer, 60 Upland Buzzards, a Golden Eagle, 2 Brown-headed Gulls, 2 Blue Hill Pigeons, 6 Cuckoos, a Little Owl, a Hoopoe, 9 Sakers, single Magpie, Chough and Daurian Jackdaw, 12 Ravens, 25 Hume's Groundpeckers, a Long-billed Calandra and 50 Shore Larks, 25+ Black Redstarts and 40+ Rufous-necked, 50 White-rumped and 3 White-winged Snowfinches.

Huashixia main street
Tibetan women in Huashixia
Cool dude in Huashixia
noodle bars, Jesper's answer to everything, I wasn't the only one to remain unconvinced
impressive prayer flags near Huashixia
yak and prayer flags
this was a particularly impressive collection

this was in the time of film cameras and I went a bit mad with the photos 

Tibetan Black Tent, a yurt (or Ger if in Mongolia) would be round and usually white or colourfully patterned
Hume's Groundpecker (photo: Barry Wright)
local transport south of Huashixia
heading into town
Yak herding between Huashixia and Yigikai

impressive looking Saker (photo: Barry Wright)
prayer flags near Darlag

one of the newer buildings in the centre of town contrasting with more traditional means of transport
market day?

work seemed to be going on everywhere
Darlag ladies

20-23 June 2000. Jesper took us to a forest reserve only 
once previously visited by birders. We stayed in basic accommodation near Banma and birded the surrounding forest and that within a 10km drive over the course of three and a half days. It was good forest but I found the very steep sided valleys quite challenging habitat to explore as the higher slopes always appeared more attractive than the valley floor. We often split up and on a couple of days I took some compressed biscuits and stayed out all day to save having to climb back down for lunch and back up again. As lunch was noodles I found this an easy decision although it sometime meant I was a bit slow learning of what had been seen by the others. I was also suffering a bit from poor health for the first couple of days and took things easy on our middle day. Too easily as I was too slow off the mark to look for a flock of Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babblers near our accommodation that afternoon. Jon seemed to have limitless energy, setting a net at the bottom of the valley where we started birding, climbing up the valley side and back down to check them a couple of times before and after lunch, not that he caught much of interest until a Chinese Fulvetta on our last morning. The best birds I saw at Banma were 2 Blue Eared and 12 Blood Pheasants, 4 Verreaux's Monal Partridges, Lammergeyer, BlackThree-toed and 3 Grey-headed Woodpeckers, 8 Sichuan Grey Jays, 7 Crested Tit-WarblersYellow-streaked, 5 Greenish, 25 Hume's, Large-billed, 2 Orange-barred and 5 Lemon-rumped Warblers, 13 Giant, 26 Elliot's and 4 Pere-David's Laughingthrushes, 3 Long-tailed Mountain, 3 Chestnut and 17 Kessler's Thrushes, Rufous-breasted and 3 Maroon-backed AccentorsHimalayan BluetailBlue-fronted, 21 Hodgson's and 12 White-throated Redstarts, 11 Slaty-backed Flycatchers, 3 Long-tailed, 33 Pink-rumped and 10 White-browed Rosefinches, 43 Crossbills and 3 Grey-headed Bullfinches. It was a great site but I left feeling a bit disappointed being the only one failing to find Severtzov's Grouse, despite it being seen every day we were at Banma.

Banma village, we were staying in an isolated bunkhouse by the river
view from our side of the river
steeply forested hillsides at Banma
nice when one got to the top although much of the surrounding hillsides had been cleared
one of the valleys we explored
Blue Eared Pheasant (photo: Barry Wright)
climbing up the valley's side

above the tree-line
23 June 2000. The original plan was for an early start to drive back north to Huashixia and then on west to Maduo in one long day but Jesper had learnt that the road beyond Huashixia was particularly bad. We decided to break the journey Huashixia where there was a basic motel and that gave us time for a final look on the forested hillside opposite Banma before leaving mid morning. Birds seen at Banma are included in the previous list, the morning's highlights being the Three-toed Woodpecker and Chinese Fulvetta. Time slipped away as we drove north not helped by a couple of roadside birding stops and a puncture. Late afternoon the weather deteriorated, light rain turning to sleet as we started climbing. We pressed on after dark as the only alternative was a night in the vehicle which would have been freezing as we were now above 4000m. Mid evening and still two hours short of Huashixia we came to a small farmhouse. Jesper went in to try and arrange accommodation and we were given the use of what looked like an empty cowshed. It didn't look that inviting but at least the floor was clean and generally dry and we all had good sleeping bags. Birds seen mainly from the vehicles on the drive to Changmahe included 130 Upland Buzzards, 21 Cuckoos, 8 Hoopoes, 4 Sakers, 10 Hume's Groundpeckers, 5 Grey-backed Shrikes and 40 Rufous-necked, 10 White-rumped and 2 Black-winged Snowfinches and 30 Black Redstarts.
village north of Banma
roadside stop

prayer flags near Darlag
Phil and Ed looking on, along with various monks and villagers, as a punctured wheel was changed near Darlag
probably the most exciting thing they had seen all year
23 June 2000. It was a freezing night (Jesper said it was 4500m) and our drivers providing a brew at dawn was most welcome. We continued on to Huashixia, initially with a light covering of snow all around. As we dropped altitude the snow disappeared and we made good time to Huashixia. The road from there to Maduo was very bad in places, with several trucks stuck in mud and completely blocking the road in either direction. Included in the jam was an army convoy and a lot of soldiers were standing around, some leaning on shovels in dismay. Only off-road progress looked possible for the foreseeable future although a bus had tried it and was stuck leaving the road. A couple of 4WDs made it although others became temporarily stuck including ours at one stage. We were eventually helped out, cleared the jam and made it back onto a firmer section of the road. It was with some relief that we rolled into Maduo and even the grim Gulag hotel there seemed a welcoming refuge. During the day I saw 20 species, the highlights being 45 Upland Buzzards, Lesser Sand Plover, 10 Sakers, a Long-billed Calandra and 30 Shore Larks, Robin Accentor and 12 Hume's Groundpeckers.
Ed, Jesper, Ash, Barry and Jon at breakfast after a cold night at Changmahe
Changmahe to Huashixia

below the snowline

nearing Huashixia
from the road to Maduo
for a while we made more progress off the road than on it, although at this point it was very generous calling it a road
going off road to get past the jam
 seemed a good idea, but getting both vehicles stuck wasn't
fortunately it only caused us a minor delay
others had bigger problems

the only bus we saw wasn't a great advert for public transport

nice to be back on a decent bit of road
the dog didn't look very friendly