Guest Post 2: Jesper Hornskov in Guangxi

The author of the second in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is unlikely to need an introduction for anyone who is interested in birding in China. But for the benefit of those not lucky enough to have gone birding in the distant corners of this vast country under his guidance, Jesper Hornskov is a China-based Danish birder who has been living, birding and guiding birders in China for around 20 years. His full profile is at the end of this post. Having had the pleasure of birding with Jesper on my very first birding trip in China, the day after I arrived in Beijing (to see Ibisbills!), and several times since – including an awesome trip to Yunnan Province – I can honestly say that he is one of the best field birders I know (what is it with the Scandies, eh??). He is also a great guy with a very Brit-friendly sense of humour… Enjoy.

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A Relaxed Family Holiday (With a Few Birds!) by Jesper Hornskov

By January the novelty value of N China’s largely agreeable winter – with blue skies the norm and temperatures in Beijing, even with a windchill factored in, never below the ‘bearable’ range – had worn off. Though there was really little cause for complaint except that the continued lack of snow made the Chinese capital increasingly bleak we found it prudent to plan a turn in the south: bring on leafy trees and soft, moist air!

Its outstanding birdwatching opportunities made Yunnan – China’s SW-most and biologically richest province – seem a tricky place to pull off that longed-for ‘relaxed family holiday’ so my wife and I settled for neighbouring Guangxi – nice and green, but without the birding potential that finds one falling into the habit of being on distant hilltops before sunrise!

We reached Nanning, the provincial capital, by plane PM on January 12th, 2011 and caught a taxi to the hotel in town which friends had recommended (and indeed booked for us at a favourable rate!).

Day-to-day (in brief):

13 January: Took a taxi to Qingxiu Shan, a large, ridgetop park/scenic area on the edge of the city. It was a pleasant place for a walk (all the while breathing the hoped-for ‘soft, moist air’): not hard to get away from people, and not crowded; in particular the section over towards Longxiang Pagoda had some decent forest, and a couple of bird photographers whom we later ran into at Shiwan Dashan told us that Qingxiu Shan indeed is the provincial capital’s prime site. Yellow-browed Warblers were calling everywhere, Japanese Whiteeyes were flying back and forth giving their rather Siskiney calls, and in one particularly away-from-people gully we even found a group of Hwameis, a species of Laughingthrush sometimes refer’d to as ‘Melodious Laughingthrush’. This name is well deserved – but its varied, powerful song has made it probably the most popular cagebird in China, much sought by illegal (but widely tolerated) bird trappers as an especially able songster is worth serious money once it has made its way to one of China’s affluent cities.

14 January: We visited ‘Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants’ (there’s apparently another botanical garden as well) in the morning, finding the grounds dense with greenery and with considerable birdwatching potential – we did not do it full justice (but did find several smart Black-breasted Thrushes) as not only were we being picked up by friends at noon but we took time to seek out the clinic’s herbal specialist and purchased various remedies (the miraculous effects of which we are still waiting for at the time of writing!).
In the afternoon we walked along the Yong River on a newly constructed promenade – pleasant enough, but not especially rewarding bird-wise, though we did get close encounters with the ubiquitous Japanese Whiteeyes.

15 January: We caught the 11:30 Longzhou bus from Langdong bus station (busses are @ hourly and we would undoubtedly have got seats even if we hadn’t bought tickets the previous day). The bus was ten minutes late getting underway and then we had half an hour’s drive W across the city before turning S onto the highway – exit for Longzhou, 30-odd kilometers from the town, at 14:20. The further S we travelled the nicer the surroundings – planted bamboos swaying in the breeze; water buffaloes grazing by a river; karst hills in wintry sunshine.

Upon arrival we were met by our host, catching motor tricycles (one for each – what with our bulky luggage we couldn’t both fit into one of the tiny contraptions) to the nearby Longjia hotel while our host followed on his own motorcycle. After a very late lunch we walked over to Zhongshan Park, which turned out to be attractively diverse if somewhat lacking in dense tangles: ‘some tall trees, very few flowers’ – among the highlights were wintering Black Bulbuls (white-headed morph birds are very attractive!), an obliging Red-flanked Bluetail, a close-up Brown Shrike still in immature plumage, and a smart female Japanese Thrush.

16 January: Our host picked us up in a microbus. Stopping briefly at a market to purchase provisions it took barely an hour to reach the Nonggang reserve, where we’d planned to spend three to four days getting acquainted with an area that would perhaps – despite its longstanding status as a National Nature Reserve – have remained of minor importance to birdwatchers had it not been for the recent discovery there of a species new to science, Nonggang Babbler.

After a brief hotpot breakfast (‘To warm up; brrrrrr…’ explained our host: to us, coming from N China, it was at most chilly but to the locals it was cold!) we started on foot into the reserve, admiring the karst hills which looked very lovely, their beauty enhanced under the continuing, not-to-be-taken-for-granted winter sunshine. Finding our bird took a little longer than our host had expected (and the hunt – along obscure tracks – unfortunately cost my wife a twisted leg); indeed, finding any birds at all was comparatively hard work despite the pristine state of the forest away from the valley-bottom maize fields. Nonetheless we managed good looks at a number of more or less widespread species, including Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Streaked Wren Babbler, the recently split (thanks to the advancing techniques of DNA untangling) Schaeffer’s Fulvetta, and a vocal Lesser Racquet-tailed Drongo.

17 January: Even with a good novel to read, even re-read, the welcoming but chilly reserve hostel wasn’t the place to hole up for several days and nurse a leg injury, so we adjusted our plans – ‘another day of seeing what we can, then back to Longzhou’.

As on the previous morning, things were slow initially but little by little our host and I wrung some birds from the quiet forest – and some mammals: a trip highlight was a roving band of Crab-eating Mongoose. Half a dozen Red-flanked Bluetails, a superb male Japanese Thrush, several Bianchi’s Warblers (another split shored up by DNA analysis – how long will we have to wait before a device is marketed that beeps when we get to within a hundred meters of an unusual combination of amino acids? I’d like mine blue, product designers kindly take note!), and a diurnal Barred Owlet.

18 January: Back in town since the night before, we returned to the park after breakfast at the hotel (adding Puff-throated Babbler to our list for our adopted Local Patch), and in the afternoon visited nearby Xiaoliancheng, six kilometers out of town on Bus 2 (leaving across the square from the hotel). Jaded travelers might consider the price charged for access the most remarkable thing about this temple/hilltop fortification (over which several House Swift hung on the breeze), but we’d both seen less interesting places – the uneven steps up to the top were, however, not exactly what the doctor recommended to ease the pain of a leg injury, and so we returned to town to fit in a final stroll in the park before the farewell dinner with our host and his family.

19 January: We departed for Shangsi, gateway to the Shiwan Dashan reserve, on the 8:10 bus – there was just the one direct bus a day, but it would have been possible to catch any of several other busses and change at Chongzuo…

The recommended hotel, the Changcheng, was full so we found ourselves in the not-quite-so-recommended (but entirely adequate) Nanyuan hotel. The desk staff proved friendly and helpful, but the town itself was ‘dreadfully messy’ (the sort of place where you should think twice about visiting the local market if you’re not wearing wellies) as well as chilly.

20 January: Before breakfast I visited the park spotted as we were coming into town yesterday. At the top end of Zhonghua Road it was a ten minute walk from our hotel, straight up the road; the park, covering a minor ridge of topsoil-less, hard earth, has a nine-tier pagoda, some waste grass in erosion gullies, and planted eucalyptus trees (whose flowers attracted hordes of Japanese Whiteeyes and one lovely male Crimson Sunbird), pines, and a tangle of bamboo (home to at least one Hwamei) at the bottom. To find the last walk left along the wall behind the basketball courts when past the pagoda… however, the park is – diplomatically speaking – of limited interest: the sort of place one would not visit except on a morning when ones companion insists on a lie-in!

As in Nanning we took the time to search for miracle cures: this time we picked up some medicinal plasters – newly developed and locally produced, they were the subject of an intense advertising campaign on the local TV channel – before heading off for Shiwan Dashan at 11:30. The desk staff had helpfully organized a car for us.

Upon arrival we checked-in at the all but deserted hotel. We felt it was prudent to keep the TV switched off rather than risk coming across a channel that was showing ‘The Shining’: it was quite enough that the carpeted corridor looked oddly familiar, and that clicks echoing round the cavernous reception area (really only the sound of the receptionist’s chattering teeth) sounded very much like someone hard at work on a typewriter…
According to the locals it was, following a couple of days of grey, drizzly weather, the coldest day of the winter – fortunately, as elsewhere we stayed, the room had a heater/aircon device so once inside we warmed up quite nicely.

‘Misty mountains w/ intermittent drizzle PM. Walked easy-to-walk trail upstream along river from hotel [where a trail map was obtained free of charge] – we went as far as the spot quite reasonably designated Fairyland on Earth’. Before dark I did the open area around the hotel/park entrance while my wife returned to our room to make sure that the heater hadn’t given up the ghost; then we had dinner across the river (the hotel’s dining room being shut there was little choice!). Several Eurasian Siskins were perhaps of greatest interest in a local context, but we felt it justified to spend more time on a pair of showy Slaty-backed Forktails!

21 January: The weather improved considerably – the clouds were higher at dawn, and by early afternoon the sun ‘kind of almost came out’. Before breakfast I again worked the open area near the hotel and was rewarded with unbeatable views of a male Grey-backed Thrush, a single Chinese Blackbird (one really doesn’t need the DNA kit to realize there was never any justification for considering this conspecific with Eurasian Blackbird – as still done by Handbook of the Birds of the World!), several Puff-throated Bulbuls, and a fast-flitting Besra. Later we walked beyond where we’d been the night before, my wife’s leg having by now so benefited from miracle cures that we could do most of the climb up towards ‘Nine Dragons Pine’, adding Silver-eared Mesia and a cooperative orange-and-glowing-blue Fukien Niltava.

22 January: The weather remained vastly improved compared with the day we arrived. Before breakfast I again worked the open area and forest edge around hotel/reserve entrance, adding a slightly out-of-range Orange-bellied Leafbird to what I’d seen previously. Then I tried a different track up towards ‘Nine Dragons Pine’ through lovely forest, getting a tempting view of the summits – one would want an early start to get there: maybe on our next ‘relaxed family holiday’, if my wife’s leg has recovered by then! – and good looks at both Grey-headed Parrotbill and several hard-to-beat Long-tailed Broadbills that were feeding quietly in the canopy of trail-side trees.

Back in Shangsi by 6 PM – we’d hoped to continue on to Dongxing without returning to what we’d considered a charmless town, but the first bit of road was reported to be dodgy.

23 January: Taking the direct bus would have allowed us to see some reportedly superior scenery. Unfortunately, today’s bus might or might not, on account of another dodgy road made dodgier by overnight rain, arrive from Shangsi in time for the scheduled 13:30 departure, and the grumpy lady at the ticket counter would not sell any tickets until she’d personally seen the bus. Hmmm! Well, if the road was that bad it’d be a tough, uncomfortable ride, and it could even get dark before we reached the last, most scenic section (which even if it weren’t dark wouldn’t look its best on a gloomy, drizzly afternoon).
Thus we caught the 12:00 bus to Fangcheng (en route ‘hardly any trace of worthwhile habitat’), from where busses on to Dongxing, on the border with Vietnam, run every quarter of an hour.

At Dongxing we checked into the Wangchao hotel, c100m from the bus terminal. We had made a reservation over the Internet but discovered we needed to pay a small surcharge for an essential upgrade to a room with an aircon heater. Having grabbed a quick bowl of rice noodles we started our explorations by travelling by taxi to Waitan Park… first thing we discovered was that inside the town ‘proper’ taxis are best avoided as they don’t run by meter and the drivers really don’t want any runs except lucrative longer-distance ones. One should thus either go by public bus (and for this our hotel proved ideally situated), ‘golf cart’ (electric buggies serve as city shuttles), or motor tricycle. The park proved a waste of time – a few lost-looking trees on a tidal creek: the sort of place the natives may visit to eat seafood and drink beer in the tented restaurants (now all closed!), with no chance of anything more exciting than Japanese Whiteeye. Accordingly, we wandered upstream along the promenade past unloading fishing boats, eyeing the overgrown ground across the creek, and stopping locals to learn more about the possibilities. The far side of the creek turned out to be Vietnam, and sure enough the border bridge soon heaved into view – to get there we had to detour through an alley, passing a café (speciality: dog stew – unfortunately, on account of the rice noodles it was still too early for dinner), and numerous shops selling figurines carved out of hardwood, bulky furniture carved out of hardwood, and even gift boxes of chopsticks made of hardwood. Along the way we were accosted by pointy-hatted Vietnamese women trading in cigarettes and perfume, and by the border bridge we found the indoor ‘Vietnam market’ – we gave the various kinds of dried fish a miss (if only because how badly they’d stink up our suitcase!), likewise the instant coffee (like 3-in-1 Nescafe only much cheaper – and undrinkable!), but the mooncakes filled with durian paste proved irresistible. It was an excellent place to pick up a few presents, and we did not forget to engage in a bit of friendly haggling. Several of my wife’s friends are now proudly wearing bracelets made from polished water buffalo horn – a real bargain at two for the price of three!

24 January: After brunch we caught a tricycle to Guomao Market, a bus from there to Jiangping (on the road back towards Fangcheng; on the way out of town the bus passed in front of our hotel but by then it was full… a state of affairs which did not prevent the driver from stopping and picking up a few additional passengers!), and from there a #12 bus to Jiaodong village. A quicker way of doing this – apart from taking a taxi – would have been to get on any bus towards Fangcheng and get off on the main road at junction after the one for Ban Ai (sign posted in English). We walked the embankment E from the parking area at Jiaodong, taking in the mangrove & checking the ponds (temporary home to a scattering of commoner shorebirds such as Kentish Plover, Stilt, and Greenshank); then back past the village and W along another embankment to the main road. A newly burnt-over patch had attracted a band of Masked Laughingthrushes which – in the tradition of Laughingthrushes everywhere – vanished as soon as we’d come upon them.

Back on the main road we flagged down a passing bus back towards Dongxing and got off at the junction for Zhushan, catching a taxi motorcycle down to the village where we had a bowl of rice noodles before setting off towards the famously ancient, huge Banyan Tree. We found here a peaceful area of scattered hamlets, dense groves of bamboo, swaying casuarinas, paddyfields, vegetable plots – quite birdy with lots of Black Bulbuls, a Short-tailed Bush Warbler, a wintering Grey-headed Flycatcher plus the odd Richard’s Pipit, and, encouragingly, the area clearly had good migration season potential. We’d meant to get on the next bus (the #6 bus from Dongxing runs directly to the Banyan Tree area – another one to catch in front of Wangchao Hotel if you have no objections to standing!) but a friendly local insisted on taking us the last couple of kilometers on his motorcycle.

The mangrove here is also part of Beilun Estuary NNR. On this somewhat windy, misty afternoon there didn’t seem to be many waders about but the tideline was adorned with Little Egrets (and of course dense with fishnets), and the place ‘felt good’. It would have been possible – and undoubtedly worth the trouble – to carry on along a dam E from the Banyan Tree area.

Another place to explore would be the river just E of Jiangping: the road R for Shanxing is just before the bridge over the river – one could walk either embankment out towards the sea.

25 January: We caught the bus for Hongshigu (‘Red Rock Valley’) in front of our hotel on a clammy morning of low cloud. The bus soon climbed into the hills along the road we would have come along if we’d caught the direct bus from Shangsi – even this close to town it was quite pretty, and the bus pulled in at a small town (where market day was in progress) before reaching the terminus. We were informed that busses back run every half an hour until 19:00. We walked into the valley on a narrow concrete road, past farm houses and paddyfields, taking the 1st R turn up the hill on a newly concreted-over track, finding Shek Mun valley on the left. We followed the not-quite-finished trail (a sign warned that if we were bitten by snakes or hit by falling rocks it would be our own fault!) along the pretty stream, rejoining the track where a parking lot was being constructed. The track continued uphill as a narrower dirt track but we headed down – quite a satisfying outing: reasonable weather, pretty scenery, a fair scattering of mostly widespread birds such as Red-billed Blue Magpie, a couple of Eastern Cattle Egret mixing in with water buffaloes, Olive-backed Pipits, and Ashy Drongo. Back in town we returned to the Vietnam market by the border bridge before dinner.

26 January: Drizzle throughout the morning – ‘abandoned idea of returning to the Zhushan area for some walking/birdwatching along quiet stretch of coast (and maybe E beyond where we’d been the other day)’. We caught the 12:45 bus for Beihai, and from the bus station there a car to Zelin hotel, which we’d found and booked on the Internet. The hotel proved pleasant, with a reasonably priced, newly refurbished room and the best-yet aircon heater…

We chanced upon the nearby Zhongshan Park and went round that – nowhere near as rewarding as its Longzhou namesake but ‘quite delightful, with some huge trees’ – before strolling on to Beibu Wan Square, and finally locating a good restaurant.

27 January: Caught the bus out to Yin Tan (‘Silver Beach’) where we strolled beyond the tourist hotels and round the point. We found some casuarinas, a bit of mangrove, and behind a white wall an already largely knocked-down, largely depopulated village, the latest victim of the property development rampage… If developed as a nature reserve instead of being built over this area would be of immense value, attracting incoming spring migrants. Spring being far away (and the nature reserve just a dream soon to evaporate under the fevered gaze of speculators) we were happy – had to be! – to see several Grey-backed Thrushes, an active Dusky Warbler, and a couple of Siberian Stonechats.

Returning to town we visited the old commercial street. Dating back to around 1850 this was definitely worth seeing even if the commercial activities are now directed mainly at visiting tourists, with yet more wood carvings, assorted trinkets, scarves, plastic toys, and even Vietnamese coffee beans on offer. We also walked the chaotic, narrow residential lanes by the tidal creek.

28 January: After breakfast – again at a ‘zao cha’ place: while nothing like a Western breakfast, ‘zao cha’ has a lot more to recommend it than N China Chinese hotel breakfasts (which, it is universally agreed, have very little indeed to recommend them!), with trolleys of assorted fresh dumplings (fried or steamed; large or small), cakes, salted duck eggs, and quail eggs being wheeled around between the tables, a variety of nourishing rice gruels, and pots of freshly made tea (black, green, or flower-scented) – we again went round Zhongshan Park. This was now quite noisy with competing big-sound-system groups of dancers but nonetheless yielded another Grey-backed Thrush; this time we exited through the back into a narrow street given over to a busy, colourful Spring Festival market, and made our way the short distance over to Changqing Park, which we knew of from a map bought at the commercial street yesterday.

This park had a boating lake (with carp feeding as an alternative, land-based activity – you purchase your fish food pellets from the designated stall, and throw the empty plastic bag into the water once you’re done), a roller-skating rink, a merry-go-round, and a tall, pointy monument. Despite the lack of dense tangles we saw a couple of smart Magpie Robins in addition to yet more Japanese Whiteeyes.

Before checking out we returned to the old street for a last stroll there, as well as for some final gift-buying – with a front coming through today never really warmed up (in the morning a whistling at the aluminium window frames had informed us that it was too windy for the loo roll stuffed into the most obvious gaps to be effective), and we were glad to get a pre-departure cup of coffee.

What with a one-hour delay, we didn’t get back to our flat in Beijing until after midnight, but given that blizzards sweeping across the country were causing widespread disruption to pre-Spring Festival traffic (trips to the Yangtze basin’s famous crane and wildfowl wintering grounds are totally at the mercy of blizzards and dense banks of settled fog!) we were not complaining.

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About Jesper Hornskov
A general childhood affinity with nature and the outdoors became focused at the age of 12 (in 1975) into birdwatching: a pursuit for which Jesper’s native environment in pretty North Zeeland, Denmark, proved well suited, with migrants aplenty and as diverse breeding habitats as you could hope to find anywhere in southern Scandinavia. From early on he found enjoyment in sharing his skills, such as they were, and co-led his first trip abroad, a youth trip under the Danish Ornithological Society to southern Norway migration mecca Utsira, at the tender age of 16. Trips further afield soon followed – Israel, the southern US and Thailand/Malaysia before he was even out of high school, later long back-packing trips in Australia/Papua New Guinea, Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, India/Nepal, the Indonesian islands of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Halmahera and Timor, the Philippines (where one discovery was a site for the spectacular Steere’s Pitta) and China. It was the rediscovery of Beidaihe – on the coast of Hebei, east of Beijing – as a feasible as well as ideal place to study bird migration that brought Jesper to China. Soon, however, he stayed in the country on account of marrying locally, relocating for a while to the remote west where his wife worked and continuing all the while to study birds on passage as well as resident and breeding species of the Tibetan Plateau. A number of the places Jesper visits on his various China tours were discovered by himself during mostly independent travels. His bird tour activities got off the ground in 1994 (with a visit to Beidaihe and Happy Island!) and he has now led more than 80 trips of 1-4 weeks’ duration in China both for private groups/individuals and through established specialist operators such as KingBird Tours, Limosa, FieldGuides, Budget Bird Tours, Rockjumper Birding Tours, DOFTravel (Danish Ornithological Society), AviFauna (Swedish Ornithological Society), Norwegian Ornithological Society, and Victor Emmauel Tours (VENT). In 1997 his family moved to Beidaihe which had by then become somthing of a must-visit pilgrimage site for bird addicts from at least 4 continents. During his birding, Jesper has some time ago passed the 1,000 species mark for China.

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