When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.
Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination. With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.
What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer. On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub. This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.
Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake. I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.
On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road. We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road. As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.
As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..
The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.
We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake. The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool. However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign. We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track.. it was large and pale. We turned around and approached slowly. We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.
Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening. We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence. A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub. Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road. One, two, three.. at least four birds competing for attention. In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.
By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading. Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest. After around 100m, he stopped. He had heard something. Cutting the engine, we listened intently. And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’. Zhang Wu smiled. It was a Ural Owl. Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.
We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.
A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night. Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing.. suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers. We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts. We heard a short call and froze. It was a crake. As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song.. and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.
All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler. Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views.. at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs… then the supercilium.. and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.
We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly. It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species. I can’t wait to go back… with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered. It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.
You can download the full species list here.
One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies. Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day. This video gives a sense of their menace!