Saturday, 30 June 2012

A journey across the roof of the World - the beginning.

It is the 1st June & I am excited! I am winging my way over Iran, flying to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in western China. I love daylight flights, but unfortunately, cloud prevents me seeing the terrian far below.

I am on my way!

I arrive after a very comfortable flight- thank you Ethiad Airways! I book into a nearby hotel and have an interesting meal. I think it was pigeon, but not too sure! The beer was good though!
My first meal in China: pigeon!

Chinese beer is surprisingly good!
Better than their spelling!
I find a quiet little bar, with an all mod cons bathroom! I just had to take a photo!

I know. I am easily amused!

After an uneventful nights sleep, I arrive at the airport again, for my internal flight to Xining. Chengdu Airport is modern and very efficient, I wasn't expecting this in China! I had preconceived ideas, which turned out to be completely unfounded.
It even looks a harsh land from space!
Xinging, is further north-west and a bit of a frontier town. It lies among arid hills and it is those hills which we are here to explore. I have a tedious four hour wait for the others to arrive from Bejing. Jesper Hornslov is our guide, a long time resident of these parts. Greetings over, we motor up into the hills on the outskirts of town.
Xinging, with its pollution, hovering over the city!
 The land is farmed, on all but the steepest slopes.
 It is a steep climb, through eroded sandstone hills, recently replanted with trees. Birds are scarce, only the Red-billed Choughs gracing the skies, releave the montony.

Red billed Chough
The handsome Meadow Bunting.
A striking male Pied Wheatear.

 We spot Meadow Buntings and see distant Daurian & Przevalski’s Partridges. Our main quarry, the Sinai Rosefinch eludes us. This is an isolated and distinct race, maybe a good species in the waiting? The overcast skies and steadily rising wind, make for an early exit, to our hotel.
A striking contrast to the previous days scenery.
A great spot to be birding.
It is big country. Can you see the boys,
birding on the ridge?
Prayer flags adorn all the highest peaks
 & mountain passes.
An early start see us driving to Dong Xai, a beautiful forested area, which is a bit of an attraction for the local people. It lies at around 2,600 -2,800 metres and is a land of rounded forested mountains and beautiful valleys. A stark contrast from the previous days birding. At first it is very cold, but as the morning warms up, the birds become more active and we are treated to a plethora of forest species, some with very localised distributions: Grey-headed Woodpecker; WillowTit of the affinis race, which used to be known as Songar Tit; Rufous vented Tit; the beautiful Crested Tit-Warbler; Yellow streaked Warbler (which is a bit of a Radde's Warbler look alike); the recently split Gansu Leaf Warbler; lots of Hume's Warblers, (they semed to be everywhere) and Greenish Warblers, singing for all they are worth.

Rufous vented Tit

Both Pere David's and Elliot's Laughingthrushes were diving for cover; Goldcrests called from nearly every conifer tree, with a few Eurasian Treecreepers, here of the bianchi race. But, best of all went to the two Nuthatches: Chinese and the beautiful Przevalski's. Whow! Chestnut Thrushes sang from the tops of trees and Siberian Rubythroats sank from deep within thickets.
 We slowly climb up through beautiful wooded valleys, some containing buckthorn trees, which here, are very different from the mass of buckthorn we see on the English east coast. The birds kept coming! As we gained height, we started to log several species of brightly coloured Redstarts: Black Redstarts were common, deep in the undergrowth were White bellied Redstarts and on the tops of bushes, showy Hodgson's and the magnificent White-throated.
The spectacular White-throated Redstart
A recently fledged, White-throated Redstart.

The afternoon was bathed in bright sunshine and it is a lovely walk back down in the late afternoon light. Throughout the day we both heard and saw Pheasants, here in thier natural habitat. The race here does not have the white ring around the neck, instead it is a mass of iridescent bottle green. A really splendid bird!
Back at the hotel, we enjoy a nice Chinese meal and I thumb through the fieldguide. Lots of good species to be logged! I feel the trip really gets going in the morning, as we slowly drive up onto the Tibetan plateau. I don’t sleep well, the combination of high altitude and excitement prevent sleep.
It is dark as we all clamber into our vehicles, it is also quite cold. We quickly leave the rapidly expanding city behind and head on a lonely road to Koko Nor. This is one of those fabled ornithological collecting locations in the last century. It is a huge inland lake surrounded by rolling grasslands and at around 3,200 metres is quite low by Tibetan plateau standards!
We travelled along the southern shore of this great lake.
A glimpse of Koko Nor.
Before we go any further, I had better outline the political problems in this part of the world.
 The Tibetan sovereignty debate refers to two political debates:

·    the first is whether the various territories within the People's Republic of China that are claimed  as political Tibet, should separate and become a new sovereign state.
·    many of the points in the debate rest on a second debate, about whether Tibet was independent, or subordinate to China, in certain parts of its recent history.

The area marked yellow, it the autonomous region of Tibet.
The orange area, is either regarded as part of China,
or part of Tibet - dependent upon your point of view!
History is somewhat confused and unclear as both sides ruled the other for periods of time. We were in Qinghai province, which is a western province of China. However, it has not always been so. Both the people and the landscape are pure Tibetan in character and nature. It is only recently that the Chinese have arrived here in ever increasing numbers. The difference between the two peoples and their cultures is very striking.
At least one Tibetan family here, is thanking the British for their stance on this thorny issue!
A bit of a strange sight on the Tibetan plateau!
This Tibetan question will not easily go away and unknown to us all, was to come and haunt us in the near future!
It is dawn and we clamber out of the vehicles. The cold wind hits us full on and even standing still, the air is rarified. I quickly pull on my hat and gloves. We are searching for a rare and difficult species, the Tibetan Grey Shrike. For some reason it is a highly localised and scarce bird, but Jesper states this is the spot to see it! A shout goes up, it is perched on the wires. We all enjoy scope views, before it flies off.

Not my best shot - but it is a Tibetan Grey Shrike!
A recent victim of the Shrike?
This is a Black-faced Bunting.
It is a vast, brooding, ever-changing landscape.
Immense, empty spaces are the norm here.

High, snow-capped mountains
are always in the background.

I look around my unfamiliar surroundings. It is a bleak and seemingly barren landscape, the cold begins its inward journey and starts to invade my body. We are all happy to return to the vehicles and drive a little further. I hope the sun will shine!
Pete, wondering what that gold,
 shiny thing is, in the sky!
An hour later the sun is up and is shining! The landscape is transformed as the new light of day dances and plays across it. As we alight from the vehicles we are surrounded by the song of larks. Not one, but many species, all vying for our attention. The most conspicious and numerous is the the Oriental Skylark. A bird I know well from the UAE. But this is not the shy and quiet species on its wintering grounds. It is transformed into a zephyer of a bird, cascading us with unrelenting song, as its bursts with energy all around us. They seem to be song flighting everywhere, the noise is almost defeaning!
Oriental Skylark displaying.
Slowly I become aware of other species around us. Horned Larks (Shore Larks to many, but far from any shore here) chase each other and one quickly realises that anything with black on the tail, is probably going to be this abundant species.
Horned Lark.

Mongolian Lark.
What a whoppa!
Then I see it, a huge lark catapulting into the sky. The has a massive black & white wing pattern! Then it lands and I can see it perched atop a fence post. What a monster this is! I gorge myself and I can’t believe what I am watching down the telescope. Mongolian Larks appear to be everywhere, song flightling, fighting over territory and most of all, singing.
Yours truely, enjoying a tasty snack of Yak biltong!
I withdraw my eye from the scope and gaze around. A pair of snowfinches flash by. I climb the fence and start to explore the long yellow grass. The sun climbs further into the sky and starts to give some warmth. I walk slowly, partly because of the altitude and partly because everywhere I place my boots I seem to kick up another bird. I now realise that I am really here – I am birding the Tibetan plateau! I smile and begin to enjoy myself.
The ever-changing weather on the plateau.
All too soon it is time to move on. This is a remote and hard land, but one of harsh beauty. I remind myself that this is the middle of summer and I am still a little cold! I can’t imagine what is is like in winter! I shudder at the thought and watch the landscape unfold, as we motor on. Mountains with shiny white snow are on the left. They rise up abruptly from the plain. Then in the far distance, I see a blue haze. We will soon be at Koko Nor (Tibetan name) or Qinghai Lake (Chinese name).

We are getting there!
Any student of the history of ornithological exploration of Asia, will know the name. The old books and journals are full of references to it and of course, the list of birds recorded here. I stare at the lake and shudder, but not with cold this time, I am excited to be here and I still can’t quite believe it!
Interested locals!

A couple of Tibetan girls and their father ride over on their ponies. We decline their offer of a ride, and instead concentrate on the short grassland and the distant lake shore. Ruddy Shelducks are dotted around, both Hume’s Groundpeckers and Hume’s Short toed Larks compete for our attention.
Ruddy Shelducks are common here.
The very strange, Hume's Groundpecker!
The former is a strange species, apparently an aberrant tit! It is certainly very aberrant! It looks a bit like one of those South American Miners (not the ones which were trapped, but the birds)! It constantly bobs it head and is difficult to photograph, as it is so active in its endless search for those little grubs, it so adors. It was to be our constant campanion over the coming weeks.

The very plain Hume's Short-toed Lark.
Hume’s Short-toed Lark was a new bird for me, as this was the first time I had been sure of its identity. I looked hard and close. The problem is it is very similar to the Greater Short-toed Lark, which is a common bird here in the UAE. I have spent twenty years scouring the fields looking for an odd Short-toed Lark among its commoner brethern. Having seen these birds, I am now sure I have not recorded this species in the UAE.
Breakfast was al fresco out of the back of the truck.
Breakfast on the go!

Common Swifts of the pekensis race flew overhead (see separate post on this topic). I managed to get some shots.
Common Swift of the eastern pekensis race.
Time for a stroll!
This would be a Ramsar site in Europe!

But, it was now time for a little walk. Across the road, was a lake and marshland, small by Tibetan standards, but  would be a major national nature reserve in the UK! It was packed full of waterfowl!

 Black necked Grebes were calling and rapidly building nests. Their larger cousin the Great crested Grebe already had young, some hitching a ride on a parents back in true grebe fashion! A Whooper Swan sat tight on her nest, while her mate patrolled the area nearby.

Black necked Crane
Endangered, around 6,000 pairs in the world.

Then something walked into view – a sedate Black-necked Crane, one of two pairs on this marsh. This was a most wanted species and is a sacred bird for the Tibetan people. It ticks all the boxes, being beautiful, rare and found in a fabled land far away from where most of us live our lives. Photographs were hard to get because of the heat haze –yes the sun had arrived with a vengence. It shines with a strength of utmost intensity at these rarified altitudes. My already weathered face, endured a further assault from the elements.

Eastern Grey Lag Goose.
As we walked around the marsh, the variety and numbers of birds was staggering. They were all cramped in and competing for space and resources. Eastern Grey Lag Geese and beautiful Bar-headed Geese were fantastic to see in their natural surroundings, far removed from the ornamental lakes which they are found in Europe. These were wild birds in a wild setting –magic!

Bar-headed Geese.

We eventually tear ourselves away & drive a little further, to a spot called Rubber Mountain! It is a high mountain pass with great birding right by the roadside. Three species of snowfinch showed well.

This unusual vegetation on the hillsides,
 held some very special birds.

But the undoubted highlight was the Pink-tailed Bunting. This a bizarre species of uncertain taxonomic affinites. It has alternately been placed in the bunting, then rosefinch families & is currently treated as an ancient, stand alone family. It is a cracking looking bird, well worth the climb up the steep hillside!

Pink-tailed Bunting - nothing special so far!

It certainly lives up to its name!
It is dark, cold and raining by the time we get to our basic hotel. But, what a day we have had in the field! A really great day.