I guess it started when I ordered the BBC series “Wild China” on DVD ahead of our impending move to China. One episode was almost exclusively devoted to Yunnan, a place I had vaguely heard of but knew nothing about. I was stunned by what I saw – not the images of China I had in my head of urban sprawl, agricultural landscapes and deserts but instead lush forests, untouched mountains and, most notably of all, amazing wildlife.
Then came an email from Jesper Hornskov, a China-based Dane and freelance bird tour leader, advertising his schedule for 2010/2011. Top of the list – 3 weeks in Yunnan Province in November. I read the blurb with eager anticipation. There were temptations like Barbets, Forktails, Hornbills, Bulbuls and Wren-Babblers. Wow.. I knew I had to take the opportunity to go while I was in China, and who better to go with than Jesper, a guide who has 20 years experience in China, has probably seen more birds in China than anyone and describes Yunnan as his local patch!
As it turned out, I was only able to participate for the middle two weeks – work commitments meant I had to arrive late and leave early – but even so I had a fantastic time and saw over 300 species, most of which I had never seen before.
Before I describe the trip, here is some background on Yunnan:
Yunnan is a Province of China located in the far south-west of the country. It covers an area of 394,000 square kilometres and has international borders with Burma, Laos and Vietnam and domestic borders with the Tibetan and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regions and Sichuan and Guizhou Provinces.
Yunnan is China’s most diverse province, biologically as well as culturally. It contains snow-capped mountains and true tropical environments, supporting an unusual array of species and vegetation types. During summer, the Great Plateau of Tibet acts as a barrier to the monsoon winds, trapping moisture in the province. This gives the alpine flora an unusual lushness.
The topographic range and tropical moisture combine to sustain extremely high biodiversity and high degrees of endemism, probably the richest botanically in the world’s temperate regions. Over 15,000 species of higher plants, of which perhaps 2,500 are endemic, can be found in the province. The fauna is nearly as diverse – Yunnan Province covers less than 4 per cent of the land in China, yet contains about half of China’s birds and animals.
And so, it was with eager anticipation that I boarded my internal flight from Beijing to Kunming and then on to Mangshi to join up with Jesper and the other participants – Geoff Bowen, Philip Duffus and Richard Robinson. On arrival at the hotel at 1130pm I was greeted by Jesper and told to be ready and in reception by 0500 the next day for the drive to the next (my first) birding destination of Longchuan. Ouch! After the pre-dawn drive we walked up a trail through fantastic forest and caught up with super birds such as Great, Blue-throated and Golden-throated Barbets, Rusty-fronted Barwing, (Eastern) Lemon-rumped Warbler, Golden Babbler and, best of all, Wedge-billed Wren Babbler, a species only relatively recently discovered in China.
Our next stop was the Yingjiang Forest Reserve. On arrival pre-dawn we could hear a Collared Owlet calling and enjoyed our first encounters with species such as the Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Striated Yuhina, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Maroon Oriole, Collared Treepie and Speckled Piculet as well as jamming in on a nice flock of Spot-winged Grosbeaks. The drive down towards Nabang produced our first (and excellent) views of Mountain Hawk Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard and, at a bridge over a fast stream, our first Forktails of the trip – both Slaty- and Black-backed.
Nabang is situated right on the border with Burma and we spent 4 full days here with alternating visits to the forest trails and river valleys. Highlights here included a magnificent Pallas’s Fish Eagle that flew right over our heads, Crested Serpent Eagle, Ibisbill, Collared and White-vented Mynas, Plain Flowerpecker, Crested Tree Swift, Jerdon’s Baza, River Lapwing, Black Eagle, Crested Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Barred Buttonquail, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Greater Flameback, Nepal Fulvetta and both Black-hooded and Maroon Orioles. Wow! A surprise was bumping into Paul Holt, well-known China specialist and guide for Sunbird, on a remote trail, complete with full sound recording equipment (he was recording Pittas). In fact Paul was the only westerner we saw in the two weeks, illustrating the fact that Yunnan really is not yet on the international tourist map. Only a matter of time, I am sure.
Only downer at this site was getting a leech on my lower back that caused me to bleed and bleed, wrecking my t-shirt in the process..
The next location saw us trying a traditional site for River Tern but without success. The site appears to be heavily disturbed and it is very likely now an ex-site for these struggling terns. Nevertheless, we did pick up 25 Common Cranes (not so common here) as well as new birds such as Paddyfield and Rosy Pipits, Long-billed Plover, White-browed Laughingthrush, Black-winged Kite and Tickell’s Warbler.
The drive to Tengchong produced the hoped for Black-collared Starling as well as Plain Prinia, Common Magpie (a good record), Bluethroat and Chinese Pond Heron.
The next day in Tengchong proved to be stunning. After an inauspicious start when we were accompanied by several Chinese early morning exercisers who seemed intent on shouting and hawking up to scare away every bird within a 10-mile radius, we were soon off the beaten track and seeing some excellent birds including the fantastic Red-faced Liocichla. A few showers also livened up proceedings in the middle of the day with a significant increase in activity post-rain. Forest birding typically involves trying to find bird flocks – species tend to move around in mixed flocks or ‘waves’ with relatively little activity in between. On this day, we were in luck. We enjoyed exceptionally close and prolonged views of gorgeous species such as Red-tailed and Blue-winged Minlas, several species of phyllosc including Ashy-throated, Buff-barred, White-tailed, Lemon-rumped and Blyth’s Leaf Warblers, Slender-billed Oriole, Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Large Cuckoo Shrike, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Brown-winged Parrotbill as well as good views of more skulky species such as Chinese Babax and Green Cochoa. After the dodgy start, this site delivered on a massive scale.
Next up was the Gaoligongshan reserve, a stunning range of mountains and forests requiring special permission to visit. Another early start meant we were on top for dawn, and what a dawn it was – simply outstanding. Looking down on broken cloud with the orangey-pink glow of sunrise was awesome. A passing Black Eagle below us was the icing on the cake. The walk up the trail was surprisingly easy and, although the vegetation was thick – a mixture of bamboo and deciduous forest – we began to see birds early on with a particularly good show by the sunbirds. We saw Fire-tailed, Green-tailed and Mrs Gould’s in quick succession (Jesper was the first to discover the sunbird migration over these mountains some 15 years ago). After enjoying these gems we began to look for the frustratingly skulking laughingthrushes. They seemed to be pretty common, calling from almost every stretch of forest, but seeing them was a different story. Often the closest we came was a moving branch.. VERY frustrating. We moved on to a wonderful clearing where, as the cloud rolled in and hid the wonderful views of the mountains, we encountered several good birds, including Rufous-browed Accentor, Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler, Himalayan Bluetail and Manipur Fulvetta before I jammed in on a stunning Golden Bush Robin which unfortunately dived into deep cover before the others could see it.. despite a 10-15 minute vigil, it never reappeared. On the trek out, after seeing a stunning Maroon-backed Accentor and just when we thought we would never see those damn laughingthrushes, we encountered two feeding out in the open at the beginning of the track… bonus! There they were, bold as brass, feeding on berries without a care in the world in the full view of any passer by. At last… Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush. The rest of the day was spent birding lower down, under the cloud cover, and produced a few good birds such as Beautiful Sibia, a very confiding Golden-throated Barbet, Grey Treepie, Black-throated Tits (gorgeous little birds) and Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler.
Next day was spent in a different part of the Gaoligongshan. With a recent landslide blocking the track for vehicles, we had a longer hike to reach the viewing area and so, with torches in hand, we set off an hour and a half before dawn to reach the clearing for first light. We made good time and were in place just as the sun was rising. Our first bird was an early rising Large Hawk Cuckoo that made a close pass as we were taking up position and from then on we were treated to a succession of good birds, interspersed with time to take in the stunning panoramic views all around. Highlight here must go to the 19+ Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers that were in view at the same time – an amazing record. These birds were clearly migrating and, at the top of the pass, found the mistletoe flowers to be a welcome food source ahead of the onward journey. A single Besra, a Greater Yellow-naped Woodpecker and a handful of Black-eared Shrike Babblers were the best of the rest. Later in the morning when the movement seemed to have slowed, we headed off further up the track with Jesper picking out both Scaly-breasted and Pygmy Wren Babblers and Yellow-browed Tit. A bit further along at a clearing, we stopped for a short break during which Geoff excelled himself by first picking out a White-tailed Nuthatch and then spotting a Collared Owlet sitting out in the relative open being mobbed by phylloscopus warblers. Nice!
My final day was spent lower down in the Gaoligongshang. Here was a reliable site for Forktails and, despite the presence of a young couple having their wedding photos taken, we were lucky enough to see both Slaty-backed and Little Forktail (a magic little bird). The walk down also produced Vinaceous Rosefinch, Brown-throated Treecreeper and a wonderful flock of Nepal House Martins that hung around overhead for several minutes. Later on we were to be treated to a smaller flock of Asian House Martins that joined the Nepal flock further up the mountainside, enabling us to compare the two species side by side. Two Black Storks flying over the mountains provided a nice interlude during a water break.
And so, it was with a heavy heart that I caught my taxi that evening to Baoshan, from where I would fly back to Beijing via Kunming. I said my goodbyes to the team – whose company I had enjoyed immensely over the two weeks – and wished I could have stayed longer to enjoy the final part of the trip at Lijiang. The journey back was uneventful and I was back home in Beijing the following evening with about 1,000 images to process! A sample below…. Full species list (and video) to follow.