Sunday, 15 July 2012

The day for doing something stupid!

I hadn't done anything stupid for a while now, this was about to change! In fairness, it was collective stupidity, not just my brilliance alone! Why do we always get up in the pitch dark? We arrive at the selected mountain pass far too early, maybe a couple of hours too early! It is bitterly cold, where did all that sunshine go? I look skywards, I don't like what I see! Fast moving dark clouds, filled with snow! A Tibetan guy stops on his motorbike, he warns us about the looming storm. I seem to be the only one listening. The lure of the rare calls, it is an obsessive call, one that all answer.

 We start to climb up the mountain. Steep, you don't know the meaning of the word. But it is not the legs that ache the most, it is my lungs! We are very high and it shows on us. We toil upwards, until we reach some small bushes which dot the hillside. The habitat for another rare and rarely seen species - the almost mythical Koslov's Bunting! We find them quite easily, but are stood at quite an angle, difficult to use the scope here! We all gorge our eyes on this brilliant bird! It is an absolute cracker!

Koslov's Bunting

Tibetan herb gatherers
The weather starts to close in on us,
as we ascend the mountain.

 Reluctantly we move upwards. We are reluctant on two fronts, one to leave such a brilliant bird and the other -  the other looms over us, a succession of false ridges. We trudge and as we trudge, we wheeze & puff. I eventually get to ten paces before each rest! Did I really do all this crap all those years ago in South America? I look across at the others, everyone is knackered! I am to the left of the main party and I see an easier way to the summit. At least I think it is an easier way. I use the contours and gain height rapidly (or kind of rapidly)! The rest of the party get further and further away, up a very steep incline. I leave them be and turn my attention to my goal. My goal lives on the very tops & I mean the very tops! Anyone who has looked for Snowcocks of anykind, knows what I am talking about! This time it is the Tibetan Snowcock that I am looking for. It is getting darker and it starts to snow! I climb higher and get to the summit, just as the snow swirls around me & makes visibilty difficult if not impossible.

It is one - honest!
Then I see it in the swirling mist of low cloud and snow. The snowcock runs towards me & I freeze! I get good views through my bins & manage to rattle off a few shots in the deteriating conditions. I look around, all the landmarks have been swallowed up in the snow. It is time to find a spot to sit this one out. A large boulder gives partial shelter from the fiercely driven snow. I can hear a snowcock nearby, but can't see more than a few metres in front of me. The snowcock goes quiet & so do I. Two hours later I am still there. The weather doesn't look good. I have to think about getting off this mountain. A short break in the weather allows me to make a break for it & I head straight down the mountain, virtually in a straight line. My reasoning is to get as low as possible before the storm returns. My descent is fast but not without danger. The terrain is uneven & pretty sheer. It is also getting very slippy in the snow. I shudder at the thought of taking a fall. I concentrate harder! Two thirds of the way down a see a friend looming out of the mist. Pete has the same idea as me, get as low as possible, as fast as possible. I then walk through some kind of barrier, as suddenly I am no longer in snow & I can see again. But just a few metres higher, the snow is carpeting the ground with renewed vigour. I plod on knowing I made the correct call. I then see the others straggled across the mountain, doing the same as me. We all make it safely back to the road. Remarkbaly, everyone saw at least one Tibetan Snowcock. Amazing considering the visibility. All of us know we made a bad call. We should have birded lower today & not scaled the mountain. No chance of walking the entire summit ridge for Grandala today!

Dramatic roadside scenery.

Ironically, now we are all lower & on the road, the sun comes out. We bird the scrub, next to the road and see several Himalayan Rubythroats.
Male Himalayan Rubythroats singing.

The sun shines in late afternoon & we bird the braided river just on the outskirts of Nangqian.

On the outskirts of the town.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The gorge country of Qinghai.

It rained heavily for most of the night. I know this for a fact, as the roof leaked and water poured virtually non-stop, on to the carpet, right next to my bed! Despite this minor set back, I slept well and was raring to go! It was dark outside as we climbed into the four wheel drives, but not cold! Great! First time for everything! Yushu was deserted at this early hour but we could see the destruction that the earthquake had wrecked on this town. Lots of tents and temporary shelters still to be seen. I look to the skyline as dawn is breaking and see that this town is in a wonderful setting. The Mekong river has carved a huge gorge through the landscape & this is the route we followed out of town. It was a nice drive.

The road out of town.
Dramatic gorges line the road.
As we slowly descend, it gets greener.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at the base of some high cliffs. It was nice to be here and quickly we spied our prey - the rare and range restricted Roborovski's Rosefinch. A male perches nicely high above us. Yet another stunning Rosefinch to add to our ever burgeoning lists! A rather drabber, sandy female is found nearby. A lone Robin Accentor reminds us that we are still quite high.

Who would have thought that the Mekong river
 gets so big & travels so far?

 Everyone is smiling this morning after this start! We move on further down the valley, closely following the mighty Mekong.
The sun comes out and light plays across the gorges that flank us on both sides. It is a stunning location, more akin to the Alps, than Asia and a far cry from those endless grasslands and those high mountain passes.
White-eared Pheasant habitat.

Our destination is Nangqian our base for the next five nights! It will be great to stay put for a while. But before we get there, we have a couple of stops for birding. One of our stops is a lightly wooded valley with large open areas, we scan feverishly, because one of our most wanted birds hides and lives here - the magnificant White-eared Pheasant! Quickly, we find a couple, then a few more, until eleven are seen dotted across the hillside. They are quite far, but still provide good scope views. What a bird!
Himalayan Griffons are regular, soaring above the cliffs and an Ibisbill is spotted on the river. Grey-backed Shrikes sit atop high trees. Magpies suddenly become common, these being the bottanensis race of the Common Magpie, which could soon become split as the Tibetan Magpie.

It looks the same in this view!
Check out the primaries!
Daurian Jackdaw.

Another crow, the Daurian Jackdaw also becomes common.

Jesper and I decide that we are having withdrawal symptoms - we haven't yet climbed a steep hill today. We quickly climb an incredibly steep hillside to discover that the others didn't fancy it and are still on the road far below! I am rewarded by my first brilliant White-browed Tit-Warbler. What a bird! I now have the complete set!
We gingerly descend the severe slope and all re-united, we spot a couple of Kozlov's Babax. A bizarre bird, quickly bouncing up and down along the ground between bushes. Kessler's Thrushes seem to be everywhere. Our first Pink-rumped Rosefinches are found and appear to be locally common.

Very shy McNeil's Deer.
A herd of Red Deer are spotted - these of a distinct race known as McNeil's Deer, maybe a future split.
The endemic White-lipped Deer.

White-lipped Deer are seen further down the valley.
We all experience all four seasons today, bright sunshine interpersed with everything else, including a huge destructive hail storm which has to be seen to be believed!

The entrance to the town:
Buddist influence is everywhere.
It is getting late, as we enter Nangqian, our temporary home for the next few nights.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The road to Yushu

It was almost a pleasure, to rise from my bed in the pitch dark, pack up & leave. The dogs had been magnificent, managing to bark continously for the whole night! Not much sleep, a little tired, but lets get on the road. Today is a travel day, we have to drive to Yushu (the place that was destroyed by the earthquake, a few years ago - 3,000 dead).

Ever changing & totally fascinating skies
Typical landscape that we travelled through.

Herds of grazing Yaks were common.
Tibetan Wild Ass were also seen
 in good numbers today.
A great animal, in a great setting!

The unusual looking, Tibetan Gazelle

Tibetan Gazelle were also present in small herds, along the way. They seem to graze on the meagrest of pasture, often just tiny lichens, on patches of rock.

At most high passes, there are prayer flags -
these have been blown down by the wind.
The bleak & forbidding pass

The road to Yushu!
The main road is in the centre of the photo!
Brandt's Mountain Finch is often one of the
 very few species as this altitude.
We will drive through the plateau region, dotted with large marshes, cross a very high, bleak pass and then its all downhill to Yushu. The town is a bit lower than where we have been the last few days, so we should sleep a little easier.
We drive for over two hours and then stop. The surroundings are plateau grasslands, but with lakes and marshes dotted around. We spot a distant Tibetan Fox.
The weird, but wonderful Tibetan Fox.
Black necked Crane
A total of 16 Cranes were seen today.
Then a great pair of Black-necked Cranes. Lots of Bar-headed Geese & Ruddy Shelduck, the former with goslings. It feels quite strange seeing Common Terns flying over, this far from the coast. This race is slighlty different from the ones we are used to seeing.

Common Tern

Bar-headed Geese
Ruddy Shelduck
Upland Buzzard in its upland setting.
Upland Buzzard
This dry stone wall cairn, was errected
by the local people, for the buzzards to nest on!
A Saker sits on a telegraph post. Upland Buzzards are common along the way. The authorities have actually errected nesting posts for them, as formerly they were breeding on pylons and causing a bit of a headache. The buzzards collect any kind of rubbish, to adorn their nests. They appear to be thriving.
Hume's Groundpecker
 Hume's Groundpeckers are seen wherever we stop, they always seem to be on the go, a real busy bird!The other Hume's, this time the Short-toed Lark is also common on these grasslands.
Hume's Short-toed Lark
As you loose altitude,
there is much more vegetation.
Birding in sunshine - an absolute pleasure!
The rare White-lipped Deer
After crossing the pass, we descend rapidly and soon see small amounts of vegetation on the sides of the mountains. These stunted, dense bushes prove to be home to a wide variety of species. The endemic White-browed Tit is easily seen. Alpine Leaf Warblers share their home. Also our first Kessler's Thrushes are noted. What a great bird! Very similar to our own Ring Ouzel in both stature and behaviour. A confiding Citrine Wagtail gives us great views & Brown Accentors are singing from the hillsides.

The endemic, White-browed Tit.
Kessler's Thrush
Citrine Wagtail
Alpine Leaf Warbler
Despite all these great species, Jesper is keen to move on & we continue to Yushu. We are now rapidly loosing altitude and around 35 kms from the town, Pete spots an Ibisbill on the river. We rapidly stop and pile out of the vehicles. For the next hour we are treated to some great birding. in the small grove of Poplar trees migrants are everywhere. There are over 30+ Common Cuckoos, Common Rosefinch and a couple of Eastern Rock Buntings. Tibetan Partridges are also seen, but unfortunately not photographed.

A poor photograph of a great bird!
This little grove of Poplar trees,
was full of migrants.

Eastern Rock Bunting
Brown Accentor
It is late when we arrive at the hotel. Then it starts to rain, quite hard. After a good meal we all retire for the night, as we have a big day in the morning.