28 May 2011

Po Toi "Seawatching" - 17th to 19th May 2011

I spent a couple of nights on Po Toi Island last week. I  followed  Geoff "Mr. Po Toi"  Welch during his seawatching and woodland-searching routines.

I was keen to see how it is that - after five years of regular patch work on Hong Kong's most southerly island - Geoff has been largely responsible for taking the Po Toi "list" above 300 species.

Geoff's  regular seawatching takes place at both dawn and dusk. Last week we were looking out for Short-tailed Shearwaters, which were due to pass Hong Kong on their annual passage up the western Pacific.

Most of Hong Kong's migrating birds had already passed through but some "Visible Migration" was in progress, for example, this group of mixed Little Egrets and Cattle Egrets, perhaps coming up from the Philippines on their way north.

Some birds even tried to join us on the rocks....

"lucionensis" Brown Shrike

 Purple Heron

Lesser Sandplover

But most of the stuff seen, predictably, were birds you might expect over the ocean.. and quite far away, like this Bridled Tern

Sterna anaethetus

Black-naped Terns breed in HK, and this one was probably a local one on patrol..
Sterna sumatrana

During lulls in the proceedings, I amused myself by snapping the very co-operative Pacific Swifts in the area.

Apus pacificus

And it's always gripping to see frigatebirds...  Geoff had distant views on Tuesday morning, but this Lesser Frigatebird came a bit closer on Thursday in the early morning sunshine.

Lesser Frigatebird

And what about the gripping spectacle of Short-tailed Shearwater migration ?   Well, the Shearwaters obviously had a prior engagement, and failed to show at all.

That's seawatching.

An example of one of  Geoff's monthly Po Toi summaries can be found on the HKBWS website here :

Elsewhere on the island, there were some decent migrants around, like these Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, pausing on their way to Fujian Province to our northeast.

Lurking in the grasses behind Po Toi's seafood restaurant, a Cinnamon Bittern and a Yellow Bittern..

Ixobrychus cinnamomeus

Ixobrychus sinensis

Best of all, we were able to sit at the edge of the water in Po Toi's harbour and drink beer while watching this Chinese Egret, which had been around for a few days.....

Egretta eulophotes

But it seems like the egrets and bitterns are among the last of Hong Kong's spring migrant birds, so most of spring's birding excitement is over.

Sniff !

25 May 2011

Northwest Yunnan Province, Part III - Hiking to Yubeng Village

To the southwest of Kawa Karpo - the “Prince” of Meilixueshan’s peaks - lies Miancimu, the “Princess” Peak.  Both have spiritual significance for Tibetans.

The Austro-American explorer, Joseph Rock, waxed lyrical about Miancimu in his 1929 articles in National Geographic.

"....the most glorious peak my eyes were ever privileged to see. No wonder Tibetans stand in awe and worship it. It is like a castle of a dream, an ice palace of a fairy tale.... "

Such a description may seem a bit over-the-top, but Rock had come a long way through bandit-infested country to get to view the mountain.  Anyway, Rock did enough to inspire the author James Hilton to include a “perfectly triangular peak” overlooking “Shangri-la” in his 1934 book, Lost Horizon.

We modern tourists, staying on the western bank of the Mekong River, got a vehicle from Mingyong to a roadhead at Xidang Hot Springs.  From Xidang there is a 12 kilometre trek to Upper Yubeng village, which involves climbing about 1,000m to a snowy pass at an elevation of 3,700m.

The pass above Yubeng... it's all downhill from here !

We descended towards a landscape dominated by Miancimu and other snowy peaks.  I confess that I paid someone else to carry the camera this time, and the above shot was taken with Jemi's mobile phone.  I kept the tripod to lean against periodically, though, and very useful it proved. Only the view and the prospect of my first beer kept me going.

This is a morning view from the front of our guesthouse, "Hiker's Home". Miancimu is in the centre.

Lower Yubeng village from Upper Yubeng

I was admiring this view the first day we were there when I was surprised to hear a flock of parakeets.  They were quite distant, and we didn’t get much on them.  Over the next few days we got better views and were able to confirm our initial suspicion that they were Derbyan Parakeets.

Derbyan Parakeet

I'd have to report that much new construction in Upper Yubeng may be endangering the former rustic charm of the area. 

Much new construction in Upper Yubeng

Ponies near Upper Yubeng village


Jemi hiked up to the remains of the Base Camp for an ill-fated 1991 
Japanese Climbing Expedition 
Seventeen people, including local guides, were killed in an avalanche

Tibetans still perform the circular trek or "kora" around these peaks, but trying to climb to the top of the mountains is seen as disrespectful. There is still a lingering resentment among locals about the circumstances of the expedition.  
An official ban on trying to climb the mountains was later imposed.

"Base Camp" 

"Hikers Home" Guesthouse

The kitchen and dining area was in a separate building

Birds generally were quite shy, but with patience and the 800mm lens I got a few photos.

Beautiful Rosefinch

Yellow-throated Bunting

Years ago on Emei Shan I had a brief view of Gould’s Sunbird in a flowering tree and thought “It would be nice to get a photo of that !”.  On this trip we had a couple of trees in fine blossom and many photo opportunities.

Gould's Sunbird

One rainy morning on a track that contoured the mountain  I could hear pheasants in the scrub below me, and one seemed to be getting closer. I stood in the shelter of the only sizeable tree around and pointed the camera at what I thought was a likely spot for it to cross the path. I  cranked the ISO up to 1600 and the aperture to f.8 for a bit of extra depth-of-field….  I only had to wait about ten minutes before this came into the open.

Lady Amherst's Pheasant

The only Lady Amherst’s Pheasant we actually saw on the trip, although we heard many. 

15 May 2011

Northwest Yunnan Province – Part II Mingyong Glacier

With many roadworks along the way, Deqin (formerly Atuntze) is nine hours to the northwest of “Shangri-la”. Deqin is a stopover point for people taking an eight-day overland trip to Lhasa.

The main attraction in the area is Feilaisi, 15km further along the Lhasa Road, which sits opposite one of the finest mountain panoramas in Asia.  A line of thirteen snowclad peaks - all over 6,000m metres high – is called Meili Snow Mountain in Chinese, and Kawakarpo by Tibetans to whom the range is a holy site, circumnavigated by pilgrims.  The famous plant collector, Frank Kingdon Ward, (the Ward of  “Ward’s Trogon”) visited the area in 1911, and the American Dr Joseph Rock made the view the subject of his illustrated National Geographic articles in the late 1920s. 

Kawakarpo - upper left,  Mingyong Glacier - lower right

Conventional wisdom has it that Rock’s Nat Geo articles inspired James Hilton’s Shangri-la book “Lost Horizon”. Obviously, this is part of the rationale behind the name change of Zhongdian to “Xiang Ga Lei La”.

When we first visited Feilaisi in 2005 there was a line of restaurants and guesthouses on the right hand side of the road, and on the left a line of stupas among the bushes with cattle and yaks wandering around,  the tinkling of bells around their necks adding to the atmosphere.  Since then an unwelcome brick wall has appeared beside the road on the left as part of an official viewing area (Admission: RMB 30).   The view can still be appreciated from a couple of hundred metres down the road for free, and from the terrace of the place we stayed, from where I took the photo above.  

The road from Feilaisi descends to a bridge over the foaming Lancang (Upper Mekong) river, where, after paying our admission fee we drove to Mingyong village.

The 4 – 5 km track to the glacier climbs through a mixture of broadleaf and pine woodland. 

It was nice to see many irises by the side of the path

Many visitors hire ponies to get up to the glacier, but putting someone my size on a pony would be an act of cruelty, so I walked.  Besides, you can’t really take photos from the back of a pony.  As it happened, most of the woods on the way up were very quiet and I mostly used the camera and tripod to lean against.

The Tai Tze Temple was a simple building just uphill from the pony terminal and three rustic eateries

The main glacier viewing platform was a few hundred metres walk further on

Snow Pigeons foraged for crumbs around the yard

The Temple had a brazier beside it for the burning of juniper, and much barley was scattered about, to the delight of this Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and other birds.

Black-faced Laughingthrushes (G. affinis) were also emboldened by the prospect of  a free buffet

Elliot’s Laughingthrush was there, too

Pheasants and even Red Panda can appear near the temple in winter.  April may have been a bit late in the year, but this monk was keen to use my binoculars to scan for them !

Jemi went even further uphill, to the Lianhua Temple, which had more snowy surroundings and a view of Kawakarpo when the weather permits..

For the locals, the spiritual aspect of Linhua Temple makes it a "Must visit"....

Chalets near Mingyong Glacier

Having gone that far, we decided to stay in one of the chalet rooms near Tai Tze Temple  rather than hike back down the same day.  Unfortunately, many of these units have been damaged by heavy snow on the roof.  Our room had a big pole holding up the ceiling.

Breakfast of “baba” bread and Yak Butter…  best brekky of the trip, I’d say.....

A juvenile Golden Eagle circled the hills above

Prayer flags

Not a cosmic variety of birds, but Mingyong Glacier and the track to it was certainly an atmospheric place to spend a couple of days.

There is lots of historical material at Michael's Dr. Joseph Rock blog here:


14 May 2011

Northwest Yunnan Province, China - PART I "Yak-o-rama"

Yak-o-rama - "a panorama with Yaks"

We flew to Kunming in mid-April, and from there to "Xiang Ga Lei La" ("Shangri-la" - geddit?). The town was formerly Zhongdian.  The name of the town and surrounding area was changed a few years ago to promote tourism.

Lao Shay Guesthouse

Our first birding of the trip was around the shallow wetland of Napahai.  Most of the wintering birds had gone, but there was still quite a lot to see.

Northern end of Napahai

Black Storks

many Red-billed Choughs

Oriental Skylark

Himalayan Griffon Vultures feeding on dead livestock

Himalayan Griffon

"Shangri-la" and a lot of the rest of NW Yunnan lies at elevations of 3,000 metres or more.  

Traditionally a lot of the locals are Tibetans, and this atmosphere makes it an interesting place to visit, not just for birdwatchers.