20 Sept 2017

In praise of - Pied Kingfishers

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Exuberant, noisy, full of life - Pied Kingfishers brighten a great swathe of the "Old World" from East Africa to South China...

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis

Pied Kingfisher - Ceryl rudis
These photos were taken at Mai Po Nature Reserve, Hong Kong, on 19th September 2017.

5 Sept 2017

Qinghai Province - a Snow Leopard Quest, 25th to 30th August 2017

Early morning, south Qinghai Province

We had first heard about the possibility of seeing Snow Leopards in China when we read Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”  blogposts earlier this year.

Of course wild animals don't get more attractive than big cats, so when a chance to join a tour with four other Hong Kong birding friends came up, we jumped at it.  

The trip was organised by China Wild Tour and led by Mengxiu TONG.

The possibility of having to yomp up mountain slopes with lens or telescope at 4000m + elevations had caused us to be cautious about getting used to conditions.

The others flew up to Yushu from Chengdu in the morning of the 25th.

We had a long drive from Yushu City, and arrived as dusk was falling to stay with our hosts for five nights. We had a large tent and camp beds, and meals were taken with our hosts, in an earth-floored room, cooked on a yak-dung fuelled stove.  It was here I regretted that my Tibetan is pretty much limited to "Tashi Delek".

We had brought fruit and vegetables, and these supplemented what appears to be the main Yak herder diet of flat breads, yak butter, roast meat and yoghurt. Some vegetables and barley are grown near the farmsteads.

Generally, it seems that the arduous tasks of looking after the Yak fall to the local women. Milking, herding, calving and just leading the beasts around.

Here's the view with a head torch as I headed to the "facilities" behind the cowshed. It was basic accommodation, but the important thing was that our hosts were very welcoming.

On our first morning we proceeded to the valley clearly recognisable from TT’s "Birding Beijing" video of “Valley of the Cats”...  

Yak Farm
No sooner had the vehicles come to a halt, then we were partly distracted by a party of Tibetan Partridges, but someone called “Snow Leopard” and we all glanced up - partridges forgotten - to where a fluffy large creature was walking from a rocky outcrop back along a grassy ridge. 

"Don't walk over that ridge..." I prayed....

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia
I had the 500mm and 1.4x converter ready and banged these shots off from by the car, no climbing required.  (But the shots are BIG crops.) The Snow Leopard very considerately ambled along our side of the ridge as everyone clattered their kit together to get photos.

The animal was lost to view, and later re-found beneath a rocky outcrop from where we saw it on and off for several hours. It appears that this is a favourite spot for the animal.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard view

A natural prey for Snow Leopards in south Qinghai is Blue Sheep, but they can, and do, take domesticated Yak.

Blue Sheep - Pseudois nayaur

Finally, the Snow Leopard moved off again in late afternoon, heading for the ridgeline opposite us.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Success on the first day freed us up to go and admire Tibetan Buntings in another area.  We had two full days for scenery and birding, and returned to the original valley on the fourth day (29th) , where we saw not a whisker of anything feline. This was as predicted by our hosts, who said that, knowing it had been seen on the 26th, the Snow Leopard would not return to that area for a few days.

Still, the scenery was outstanding.

Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

We came across family parties of White Eared Pheasants daily, usually in the late afternoon.  

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

One or two  other species were present to remind us we were birders.

Chinese White-browed Rosefinch - Carpodacus dubius

Common Magpie - Pica pica bottanensis

Pacific Swift - Apus pacificus salimalii

White-throated Dipper - Cinclus cinclus

Red sandstone scenery

Looking back at the trip, I must thank Carrie Ma for inviting us along.

We were very fortunate to get great views of the Snow Leopard and doubly so for getting it so early in the trip. As described in Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”, the Shanshui Conservation Centre hopes to run more tours to the area, with fees for accommodation, food, guiding and transport to supplement local incomes and compensate for Yaks lost to the Snow Leopards.

I hope this works out well.  It will be a delicate act to balance the expectations of more visitors with those of the area’s farming hosts.  Managing the welfare of a shy predator will be harder still.


Added on 8th July 2018 - via Birding Beijing, there's now a "Valley of the Cats" website !

Check it out !  https://valleyofthecats.org

3 Sept 2017

Qinghai - Birding around Yushu, 22nd to 24th August 2017

Tibetan Ground Tit - Pseudopodoces humilis

We arrived in Yushu, se Qinghai on 22nd August.  We were due to join some friends for a fairly intensive high-elevation tour on the 25th, so arrived early to acclimatise.  

Yushu (“Jyekyundo” in Tibetan) lies at 3,900 m.  We had last been there in 2007.

It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2010.

So with a couple of spare days to fill, the first thing we did was to pop round to the town’s Xinhua Bookstore for a local map.  For a modest outlay of 6 RMB we got a sheet with a city map on one side and a map of Yushu Prefecture on the other, bordered by pictures of local attractions.

Yushu City, Qinghai

Up at the “Tagdar lookout” we had views of the city, some rather shy Pikas, and a Little Owl in the last couple of hours of daylight. The map gave us an excuse to chat with the locals about what to see.

Little Owl - Athene noctua

On the map was a photo of Black-necked Cranes with an arrow to where they could be found; - Long Bao National Nature Reserve, about 70 km northwest of town on Route S308. The locals concurred that the area was “good for birds”.

On the morning of 23rd August we headed out to Long Bao NNR, and and saw quite a lot of stuff from the road.  We had hired a Taxi for the morning, and the driver seemed to enjoy the outing, too. 

The S 308 road runs across the valley floor at 4,200metres

Black-necked Cranes were there, in four different family groups. There were Whiskered and Common Terns, Bar-headed Geese and Ruddy Shelduck.  It was probably a bit late in the breeding season to see all the summer breeders.

Long Bao NNR was reported on - as a potential Ramsar Site - in the Oriental Bird Club publication, FORKTAIL (Issue 29) in 2013.

Black-necked Crane - Grus nigricollis

A Red Fox with a pika in its’ mouth was an early highlight (but not for the pika, obviously.)

Red Fox - Vulpes vulpes

Red Fox - Vulpes vulpes

A dense population of Pikas was a sight to behold.  

Plateau Pika - Ochotona curzoniae

Plateau Pika - Ochotona curzoniae

Plateau Pika - Ochotona curzoniae

Mountain Vole - Sp.

Mountain Vole - Sp.

Mountain Vole - Sp.

Himalayan Marmot - Marmota himalayana

Snowfinches included Rufous-necked and White-rumped.  

Rufous-necked Snowfinch - Pyrgilauda ruficollis

White-rumped Snowfinch - Onychostruthus taczanowski

Confiding Tibetan Ground Tits were everywhere.

Tibetan Ground Tit - Pseudopodoces humilis

Tibetan Ground Tit - Pseudopodoces humilis

On the way back to town we passed a Tibetan Wedding party, and also later saw some Himalayan Griffon Vultures on the ground close to the road.

Himalayan Griffon Vulture - Gyps himalayensis


A chat with some local had revealed that Le Ba Gou - a popular weekend picnic area, was also good for birds, so we headed that way the following day (24th August).  It was 30km east of Yushu on the old main road, G214.

The area is part of the San Jiang Yuan (Three Rivers) National Nature Reserve. 

Ibisbill - Ibidoryncha struthersii

We were lucky to find one Ibisbill from the old road, but this juvenile had a drooping right wing, so we wondered how long it would survive.

A party of Common Mergansers at the rivers edge was a nice find, 

Common Merganser - Mergus squamatus

but even better, soon afterwards we interrupted a large party of Tibetan Partridges going down for their morning drink.

Tibetan Partridge - Perdix hodgsoniae

Tibetan Partridge - Perdix hodgsoniae

The rocky hillsides were a good environment for the attractive Glover's Pika.

Glover's Pika - Ochotona gloveri

White Eared Pheasants were spied on the hillside as well. A party of twelve with at least two young.  

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

In the picturesque valley of Le Ba Gou we saw many Elliot’s Laughingthrushes...

Elliot's Laughingthrush - Trochalopteron ellioti

Le Ba Gou, or "Ziqiong Valley"

A plaque near a picnic area declared that the area is also known as "Ziqiong Valley".


We did a circuit, following a paved road over the mountaintops to Batang, near Yushu Airport. 

Mountain Pass

In fact the road comes out to route G 214 near Princess Wencheng Temple, south of town,  near the airport.  The new PW temple is bigger and a lot more ornate  than ithe earlier version which we had visited in 2007.  There seems to be a lot of rock-carving and painting going on all over the county.

Two birding half-days were enough for us in Yushu’s thin atmosphere, but we felt we were adapting well.