The charming Red Panda is just one of the fascinating creatures we’ll look for in Sichuan’s richly endowed forests. Photo: Paul Holt
Sichuan province, right in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, is a fabulously bird-rich region, home to the bulk of China’s endemic birds and the majority of its Giant Pandas. On this exciting trip we’ll concentrate on seeing the endemic and near-endemic species as well as sampling the cuisine, genuine hospitality and dramatic scenery for which this region is rightly famous. Although the wild mountainous terrain and torrential rivers have combined to keep the province isolated until relatively recently, today the rich diversity of habitats and a well-developed tourist infrastructure make Sichuan an appealing destination for a birding tour.
The great diversity of Sichuan’s habitats, ranging from the subtropical lowlands of the Red Basin and evergreen foothill forests to alpine meadows and dramatic snow-capped mountain peaks means the province has a remarkable wealth of birds. Lying at the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Sichuan also has the richest concentration of Chinese specialities and holds around two-thirds of the entire country’s endemic birds!
We’ll visit numerous sites on this tour, each one is different, each has its own charm and each its specific bird life. We’ll start our explorations in Longchang Gou, a valley that cuts in to several of the mighty peak that rise abruptly out of the Red Basin. Then we’ll visit Luding town and use it as a base from which to explore a different set of mountains. Next we’ll move north towards Siguniangshan and neighbouring Wolong National Park, the latter famed as the home of China’s few remaining Giant Pandas, but also renowned as a haven for a large number of spectacular birds. Then we’ll venture into the rolling grasslands at the extreme eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau where we’ll search for specialities such as Black-necked Crane and Rufous-necked Snowfinch before descending to the strikingly attractive Jiuzhaigou National Park, with its dramatic alpine scenery, turquoise lakes and myriad waterfalls which have to be seen to be believed. Without a doubt Sichuan is the very best of China!
Day 1: The tour begins in London with an overnight flight to Chengdu, via Amsterdam.
Day 2: Arriving in Chengdu, Sichuan’s attractive provincial capital, around midday we’ll set off across the Red Basin to Longchang Gou where we’ll spend three nights.
Days 3-4: We’ll spend a few days exploring several different habitats in the surrounding mountains – ranging from deciduous forest on the lower slopes to tracts of bamboo and stands of mixed coniferous-rhododendron forest higher up.
Some superb birds occur here and we’ll concentrate on finding a couple of very localised endemics - Grey-hooded Parrotbill and Emei Shan Liocichla. Parrotbills are particularly well represented in Sichuan and in addition to Grey-hooded we would also hope to see Great, Three-toed, Ashy-throated, Fulvous and Golden. Numerous warblers, including eight bush warblers and no fewer than 17 species of phylloscopus warbler can be seen on this tour and a good number of them breed here. Other possibilities in this area include magnificent White-throated Needletails, Maroon-backed Accentor, White-browed Shortwing, Vinaceous Rosefinches and Grey-headed Bullfinch. Here too we have a chance of encountering the gorgeous Temminck’s Tragopan and Lady Amherst’s Pheasant.
Golden-spectacled Warbler has recently been split into a number of different species, four of which occur in Sichuan, and we’d expect to encounter three of these attractive sprites as we explore this region. These mountains’ mid-altitude forests will ring to the sounds of Oriental, Lesser and Large Hawk Cuckoos, making it a challenge to distinguish more subtle vocalists such as Emei Shan Liocichla and Slaty Bunting. We’ll spend three nights in a comfortable guest house near the base of the mountain.
Day 5: After another morning searching for specialities that we might have missed earlier, perhaps including the likes of Chinese Bamboo Partridge (much easier to hear than it is to see) and Whistling (previously Hodgson’s) Hawk Cuckoo, we’ll leave and drive to the town of Luding where we’ll spend the next two nights.
Day 6. We’ll spend the day exploring the Erlang Shan – the first of several roads that cross passes in Sichuan that have now been circumvented by a road tunnel. The fact that the traffic now uses the tunnel means that our birding should be undisturbed. Lady Amherst’s Pheasants are common on Erlang Shan and we expect to encounter several, hopefully including a resplendent adult male. Other target species here will include one of Sichuan’s premier avian jewels - the fabulously named Firethroat. We should be able to find at least one of these truly world class songsters. The supporting cast should include species such as Slaty-backed Flycatcher and Spotted Nutcracker. Night in Luding.
Day 7: After a final morning near Luding we’ll drive on to our next base near the city of Ya’an.
Day 8. Leaving Ya’an, we’ll wind our way through deep valleys and narrow gorges eventually reaching Rilong. a thriving tourist town at the foot of the mighty ‘Four Sister’s Mountains’. We’ll spend four nights here.
Days 9-11: Dominated by spectacular mountains, Rilong is an ideal base from which to explore neighbouring Wolong reserve. World-renowned as the headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund’s project to save the Giant Panda, Wolong has much to offer the birder. The whole area is scenically stunning and, although we’re unlikely to see a wild Giant Panda (though we have seen Red Panda in the reserve), the spectacularly forested mountains, extensive stands of bamboo, stunning alpine meadows and rugged snow-capped peaks harbour some truly outstanding birds.
We’ll spend three full days exploring the area and will have numerous options during our time here. We’ll cross the mighty Balangshan Pass on a daily basis and will spend a while around the summit which, at just over 4500 metres, is the highest point we’ll reach on the entire tour. Small coveys of scurrying Snow Partridges and Tibetan Snowcocks are regularly seen on the scree slopes besides the road, as are Grandalas, the males resplendent in their cobalt-blue plumage. Other high altitude specialities could include Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Alpine Accentor, Brandt’s Mountain Finch and Red-fronted Rosefinch. On another day we’ll start earlier, cross the pass in darkness and descend in the hope of finding Wood Snipe displaying over some of the higher alpine meadows immediately before dawn. Koklass Pheasant and Kessler’s Thrush both breed close to the tree line here and, while the former is elusive and difficult to see, we’re sure to hear its unpleasant barking calls ringing across the valleys.
With luck, we might also find a covey of spectacular White Eared Pheasants or perhaps even a Chinese Monal. Further down on the mountain’s mid-slopes we’ll search for both Barred and the mighty Giant Laughingthrush, and Chinese Leaf Warblers, Chinese Fulvetta and Sichuan Mountain Thrush could all follow. Nor will we neglect the mammals – the park boasts reasonable populations of Himalayan Marmot and both Blue Sheep and Takin.
Day 12: Leaving Rilong we’ll wind our way through another series of valleys and cross a few more small passes on our way to Maerkang where we’ll spend two nights.
Day 13: We’ll spend the day searching for birds on the Zhegushan pass. Chestnut-throated Partridge and Blood Pheasant are both reasonably regular here and other targets include the strikingly patterned Przewalsky’s Nuthatch, gorgeous White-browed, and the even more appealing Crested Tit Warbler, Chinese Fulvetta, Crimson-browed Finch and Tibetan Siskin. We will also have our first chance of Three-banded Rosefinch here. Night in Maerkang.
Day 14: After another morning on the Zhegushan Pass we’ll continue to the mighty Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau proper. We’ll stop just as we crest the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau where, amid the more gently undulating grasslands we’ll explore a couple of isolated stands of conifers, searching in particular for the endangered endemic Sichuan Jay as well as Sichuan and White-browed Tits, and Plain and Elliot’s Laughingthrushes. We’ll spend the night in Hongyuan.
Day 15: Moving further onto the Plateau, past tented camps and fields of yaks we’ll constantly scan for more special birds such as comical Hume’s Groundtit, hulking Tibetan Larks and both White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches. Our destination will be Ruoergai, a relatively modern Tibetan settlement right in the heart of some exciting plateau birding. In the afternoon we’ll head off to search the surrounding steppes for parties of majestic Black-necked Cranes and, with luck, we might also find a Saker Falcon or Chinese Grey Shrike.
Day 16: We’ll leave the Plateau this morning and take a minor road over the spectacular La Ma Ling pass to Jiuzhaigou. We’ll make numerous stops to search for species such as Sichuan Jay, Daurian Jackdaw, Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush and Pink-rumped Rosefinch. Night close to Jiuzhaigou National Park.
Days 17-18: Spending two days at Jiuzhaigou, we’ll have time to explore a number of sites both inside and just outside this wonderful sanctuary. Scenically, Jiuzhaigou must rank as one of the most spectacular mountain areas in Asia. Startlingly jagged snow-capped peaks flanked with alpine meadows, extensive stands of bamboo and large tracts of dense coniferous and mixed forests abound. But in truth it’s the myriad waterfalls, the pools, and especially the multicoloured small lakes for which this park is rightly famous. A few Tibetan villages also survive, each with their own attractive wooden dwellings. Unable to take our own vehicles inside the park we’ll use the reserve’s frequent shuttle bus services to explore a number of the better birding sites. Rufous-headed Robin is virtually unknown away from here, so we’ll spend time searching an area of mixed forest for this remarkable bird. Other sought-after species include Chinese Nuthatch, Rusty-breasted Tit, Sooty Bushtits, and the noisy Spotted Laughingthrush. We’ll venture back into the coniferous forest on another day to search for Chestnut-throated Partridge, Chinese Grouse, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, the enigmatic Sichuan Wood Owl, Himalayan Bluetail, Snowy-cheeked Laughingthrush and White-winged Grosbeak. On one day we’ll also look for the diminutive Spectacled Parrotbill.
Day 19: On our final morning around Jiuzhaigou we’ll explore an area outside the park where both Snowy-cheeked and Barred Laughingthrushes are more regular, and where we’ve also seen Three-toed Parrotbill. In the afternoon we’ll start our journey back to Chengdu. Night in Jiangyou.
Day 20: Continuing south to Chengdu we’ll arrive in time to visit the Panda Breeding Centre on the edge of the city. Besides Pandas, birds here include Rufous-faced Warbler, White-browed Laughingthrush, Grey-headed and Vinous-throated Parrotbills and Yellow-billed Grosbeak. Night in Chengdu.
Day 21: We’ll catch a flight back to London where the tour concludes.
Updated: 31 August 2016