Birding the Gaoligong mountains

The Gaoligong mountains, spanning 500 kilometres along the Yunnan-Myanmar border, near the tropical edge of the Himalayas, are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

Running north-south from the Tibetan Plateau, the mountains channel some of the world’s most impressive rivers – the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze – which help supply more than 3 billion people in Asia with fresh water.  There are volcanoes, hot springs, and some of the largest remaining untouched tracts of evergreen, deciduous, and bamboo forests.  More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the area and these mountains are also home for 154 mammal, 21 amphibian, 46 reptile species, and more than 1,700 insects.

The north-south orientation of the mountains and rivers provide natural corridors for seasonal migration and, as the elevation drops, subtle changes in vegetation create an incredible range of biomes and plant life which, in turn, make the animal species in Gaoligong so unique and abundant.  Alpine meadows give way to sub-alpine forests, deciduous broadleaf forests and finally to tropical monsoon forests. These vertically distributed climatic zones hold around 5,000 plant species, fifty-five of which are rare or endangered.  This means you can go from a scene reminiscent of the Alps to the jungle in one day.  And, along the way, you’ll watch the flora and fauna change with every step.

Vinetree location 1

It is easy to see why the location was chosen for an ambitious, luxury and small-scale sustainable ecotourism project.  Situated on the edge of the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, Vinetree Gaoligong Tented Resort has been designed to minimise its impact on the environment while maximising the benefit to the local community and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience.  With fifteen guest tents and five public areas (including a wildlife-focused library) erected in the canopy, supported by stilts and connected by a wooden boardwalk, it’s a wonderful place to connect with nature.  Simply open the flaps covering the huge ‘windows’ of your tent and you’re immediately at eye-level with the treetops, listening to the wonderful sounds of babblers, laughingthrushes, sunbirds and, at night, even owls.

All of the waste from the resort is taken out of the forest for processing, the employees are all local people from the nearby villages and the chefs use only local ingredients to showcase wonderful Yunnan cuisine.

The mastermind of the project and CEO of the operation is Koko Tang, a local Yunnanese and former corporate lawyer trained in the UK.  She is passionate about providing unforgettable experiences for the tourists while helping to conserve nature.  She even has a dream to bring back the struggling Skywalker Gibbon to the forest around the resort.  Given the unsustainable nature of much of mainstream tourism and Koko’s attention to detail at Vinetree, she deserves to succeed and, if she does, her project could serve as a wonderful example to others in China and overseas.

TT with Koko and John
Koko with Terry and John.

As part of the “soft opening” for the resort, Koko asked John MacKinnon and me to help run a birding weekend for families, introducing them to the biodiversity, leading bird walks, providing talks and, at the same time, helping to generate a snapshot of the biodiversity of the area to develop a guidebook to the birds.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and, despite the frequent rain (summer is rainy season in these mountains), we enjoyed a wonderful few days with some brilliant families from all over China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Xinjiang.

We had so much fun with the children.. setting up camera traps, listening to birdsong at dawn, holding a drawing competition, moth trapping at night and even enjoying a shadow play about a crane and a turtle performed by local villagers.

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We recorded 66 species of bird – see full list here – and one species of snake, Calamaria yunnanensis, a non-venomous range-restricted species, unique to Gaoligongshan.  Best of all was the feedback session at the end when Emily told us she “never wants to go to Disneyland again but instead to wild places like Gaoligongshan”..!

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Koko showed us some outstanding photographs of a Red Panda that frequented the fruiting trees adjacent to the resort last autumn..  she’s hoping it will return this year and, from looking at the amount of soon-to-be-ripe fruit on the closest fig tree, there must be every chance this September/October.

What better experience than to savour a glass of your favourite red whilst watching the rarest red of them all – the Red Panda!

John and I will be returning to Vinetree Gaoligong for a further three visits, once in each season, to gain a more complete sense of the birds and other wildlife around the resort throughout the year.  The next is scheduled for late October – can’t wait!  In the meantime, if you are interested in staying, please do check out their website and book – you won’t be disappointed.

Big thanks to Koko, Emily and the team at Vinetree for hosting us so well and to the families, especially the children, from all over China who were so engaging and who made it such a fun experience.  After the last few days, the future of China’s wildlife is a little brighter..!


Guest Post 1: John Holmes – “Birding The Hump”

As trailed, here is the first in a series of ‘guest posts’ from people living and/or with long experience of birding in this vast country.   I hope the series, to be published occasionally over the next few months, gives the reader an insight into the diversity of the birdlife, the challenges faced in squaring China’s development with environment protection and, most of all, a taste of what it’s like to go birding in this wonderful country.

The first guest post comes from John Holmes and covers an area called the Gaoligongshan in Yunnan Province, south-west China.   The Gaoligongshan is located in the western Yunnan highlands very near border of China and Burma. It was declared a Nature Reserve in 1983 and, in 1992, the World Wildlife Fund, designated it a level A grade protected area. The reserve is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, established in 2003, and as such a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Birding “The Hump” – birds and history in Gaoligongshan

Imaw Bum, over the border in Burma

The himalayas curl eastwards from India around the northern tip of Burma, and then extend southwards as the Hengduanshan in north-south ranges divided by three of asia’s great rivers – the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Salween.  These forbidding peaks were known as “The Hump” to the World War Two allied cargo plane crews, who supplied the Chinese army in Yunnan province from airbases in Assam, northeast India. Long distances, high mountains and unpredictable weather – as well as threat of Japanese air attacks – all contributed to a high loss of life.
Gaoligongshan – featured in the BBC’s “Wild China” TV series – is the most westerly of these high ranges, over two hundred kilometres of mountain ridge rising to 5,000 metres in places.  In fact, much of the Gaoligongshan ridgeline marks the borders of Burma and Yunnan Province. The would-be traveller is advised to buy the Nelles map of Southern China for an introduction to the geography of the area. The best field guide, as for most of western Yunnan, is Craig Robson’s “Birds of South East Asia”.

Baihualing, headquarters of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, is a justly famous birding site, and has been known to modern birders for a few years now.  In this post I want to highlight a slightly more northerly section of the reserve, which can be birded from a public road between Lushui and the border town of Pianma. We birded the area in April and again in October 2009.

More info here :

Getting there:

To get to Lushui from the Baihualing turnoff you first go 60 km north along route       S 230 to Liuku.  12 km north of Liuku is the hotspring village of Lushui and the Pianma road turns left, uphill to the west.  It is 84 km to Pianma.

On public transport, there are regular seven-seater minibuses plying the route from Liuku’s eastern bus station.  A 14-seater minibus leaves the western bus station (acroos the river) at 12:30.  Usual journey time is 2 ½ to 3 hours.

Gold-naped Finch

The first 40km or so takes you through much-cultivated hillsides but then you enter the Gaoligongshan reserve area through a red metal archway near an abandoned hill resort.  Nearby is a government centre concerned with breeding Red Pandas but it is not open to the public.  Just up the road from the reserve boundary we found a small party of Gold-naped Finches, feeding on wild raspberries. In both April and October the finches were pretty much at the same spot.  Generally, though, the edible-sized birds were very shy.  The reason for this became obvious when we came upon a turbanned Lisu hunter, complete with crossbow and small retriever dog.

The road then proceeds through some bare and damaged hillsides until the highest point of the road (around 3,000 metres elevation) at km 58.5.  In the 1920s this was known to British explorers as the “Hpimaw Pass”.  But the best habitat is further over, on the western side of the mountain.  Descending towards Pianma, roughly  between km 64 and km 76 is a stretch of road with damaged remnants of primary forest, but enough secondary growth, bamboo and rhododendrons to harbour a fine variety of birds.

Pianma Road Km 64

Spotted Nutcracker, Fire-tailed Sunbird and Wallcreeper were seen near km 64. Fire-tailed Myzornis in a bamboo-lined gully was a bonus and other birds noted were Black-throated Parrotbill, Brown-winged Parrotbill and five species of Laughingthrush, including White-throated, Grey-sided and Scaly.  As at Baihualing, Yellow-browed Tit and Black-eared Shrike Babbler were very common.  A small pool near a bend in the road at km 75 was very active, and we finally got good views of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler there. Pygmy Blue Flycatcher and Brown-throated Treecreeper made brief appearances.

Black-throated Tit

The good woodland ends at another red metal arch denoting the edge of GLGS reserve and Pianma town is about 9 kms beyond. Pianma has one bingguan (Hotel) licenced to accept foreigners.  It is on the right of the main street.  It is too far to walk to the birdable woodland from town, so birders would have to negotiate a Taxi or motor tricycle to take them back up to the woodland in the morning.

The Museum

An interesting feature in the town is a museum containing a reconstructed DC3 cargo aircraft that crashed in the area in 1943, although the wreckage was not brought to the attention of the authorities until 1996. There is a memorial to the young plane crew, an American and two Chinese. Display boards describing the routes taken and historical reasons for the “Hump” airlift operation are mostly in Chinese, but the maps and photos are clear enough.

After the British annexed upper Burma in the 1880s Army surveyors arrived in the Pianma area and – with the arrogance of the late-Victorian era – told the locals where they considered that the boundaries of the Britsh Empire ended and China began.  For almost sixty years Pianma and the nearby hill sides were “Burmese” Territory, and references to “Hpimaw Valley” in British accounts of the period are referring to the area around present-day Pianma. 1949 was a year of change for both China and Burma, and around that time China re-asserted control of the Pianma area.

The Plant Hunters

Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler

In the early 20th century a number of foreign adventurers., attracted by the flora (and sometimes the fauna) of Gaoligongshan explored the region. Frank Kingdon Ward passed through Hpimaw in 1914 and 1919, when he climbed a mountain called Imaw Bum (in Burma) to the west of Pianma.  Ward , mostly known for his  plant discoveries, was to secure the first specimen for science of Ward’s Trogon in northern Burma in 1926.  According to his book “Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World” the bird – a female – was actually shot by one of his Lisu porters with a crossbow.

Golden-breasted Fulvetta

Gaoligongshan  was also “worked” by local collectors employed by the Scottish plant hunter George Forrest.  Forrest based himself at various times at Dali and at Tengchong, both towns familiar to present-day birders doing a “circuit” of  western Yunnan.  Forrest and his staff collected plants on a grand scale for commercial nurseries and, in the early 1920s, also collected birds for Lord Rothschild, whose bird and animal specimens later formed the basis of the Natural History Museum collection at Tring. Forrest (who died near Tengchong in 1932) did not knowingly discover any new bird species, but the west Yunnan races of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler and Golden-breasted Fulvetta are named after him.  History, however, has been waiting in the wings. After nearly a century of DNA analysis and “splitting”,  a full species – Phylloscopus forresti – Sichuan Leaf Warbler now bears his name.

Black Eagle


My thanks to the reader for getting this far, and my thanks to Terry for allowing me to ramble on about some of my interests on his blog.  A discussion of local history may seem irrelevant to some hardcore “listers”, but for me much of the fun in birding is seeing the local wildlife in a geographical and cultural context.

I hope this inspires more people to go and check out birding in Gaoligongshan !

About the author:
John Holmes has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1978. He was lured into birding by some of Hong Kong’s more spectacular species, encountered on walks in the New Territories. He made his first birding trip to China in 1986. Since then, together with his wife Jemi, he has travelled and photographed birds in many parts of China, as well as neighbouring Asian countries. John and Jemi’s photos have appeared in numerous magazines and books, including Handbook of the Birds of the World.