Sichuan Schools for Biodiversity

Last week I was honoured to be invited to deliver a series of lectures about biodiversity to more than 3,500 students at schools in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. Inspired by China hosting the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity in October 2020, the local government commissioned these lectures to raise awareness of biodiversity among its students and to advance the students’ English language skills.

It was a wonderful opportunity to explain how we have lost more than 60% of the mammals and birds on our planet since 1970 and to use the example of the Soho China Beijing Swift project, where students wrote to the CEO of a major buildings company and secured commitments to make new buildings better for biodiversity, to show how young people can make a difference.

Of course, these students are lucky to live in Sichuan Province, an area with some of the most biodiverse temperate forests in the world (thanks to being shielded by the mountains during the last ice age). There are many mammals, birds and plants that are found nowhere else on Earth.

As is often the case when speaking to students in China, I was immensely impressed with their work ethic (they get up at 0630 and study until 2130 every day), their enthusiasm for nature and their creative ideas about how to make a difference.

After each lecture, the students were given an assignment to find out about a species of mammal, bird or plant found only in Sichuan, to write about why it is special and to set out their ideas for how to ensure it is protected. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing the submissions and selecting the best to be recognised by the government.

Huge thanks to 新东方 (New Oriental) for making the arrangements.

The lectures were delivered to the following schools (in a mixture of Chinese and English):

成都外国语学校初中部 – Chengdu Foreign Language School (Junior Middle School)

成都外国语学校高中部 – Chengdu Foreign Language School (High School)

实验外国语学校初中部 – Experimental Foreign Language School (Junior High)

实验外国语学校高中部 – Experimental Foreign Language School (High School)

棠湖外国语学校高中部 – Tanghu Foreign Language School (High School)

成都七中 – Chengdu Seventh Middle School

棕北中学 – ZongBei Middle School

实验外国语学校西区 – Experimental Foreign Language School (West District)


Libby and I have just spent 3 days in the Jiuzhaigou area of Sichuan Province.  “Where?”, I hear you ask..  Anyone who knows China will have heard of, and probably visited, Jiuzhaigou but to many outside, including me before I arrived in the country, it is a place name that will prompt baffled looks or shrugs of the shoulders.  It deserves better.  It’s a magical place – visually stunning and ornithologically a treasure trove.

Jiuzhaigou literally means “Nine Village Valley” and is named after the nine Tibetan villages scattered throughout the park.  The National Park is the jewel in the crown of the spectacular Min Shan mountain range and is famous (in China at least) for its vivid blue and green lakes and spectacular waterfalls.  The birding is also stupendous with original forests full of the birdsong of species difficult to find anywhere else on the planet.

The only downsides are the opening hours (7am to 6pm – ruling out dawn or dusk birding), the cost (over GBP 30 each per day) and the fact that, in high season, it attracts around 30,000 tourists every day.

Jiuzhaigou can feel a little like Disney World at times.   However, with a bit of guile, it’s relatively easy to get away from the crowds and there are some rewarding trails through enchanting forest that can be explored at leisure if you know where to look.  The avian prizes on offer include the almost mythical Rufous-headed Robin and an impressive supporting cast including Sichuan Treecreeper, Spectacled and Three-toed Parrotbills, several species of Laughingthrush and a host of phylloscopus warblers.

Here are a few images that will hopefully give you an impression of the place.

Looking down at Jiuzhai Valley from a deserted Tibetan village. The National Park stretches up two valleys just beyond the far hills in this image.

“Many-coloured Pool”.  This image has not been altered in any way – the colours are real.

One of the many vivid blue and green lakes in the Rize Valley leading to the Primeval Forest.

In places, the river runs through the forest, an enchanting landscape…

The crystal clear waters combine with old growth forest near Long Lake.

Fallen trees gather lichen underwater adding to the spectacle of the colourful lakes.

The boardwalk through the Primeval Forest – altitude 2990 metres. Sichuan Treecreeper can be found here.

Serious birders will have a target list of species to see in Jiuzhaigou.  Top of that list will be Rufous-headed Robin, a bird that is extremely difficult to see anywhere and Jiuzhaigou is traditionally the most reliable site.  I was fortunate enough to have some up to date information on exactly where to look and yet, even with that huge advantage, I failed to see one!  My excuses were that I had limited time at the specific site (45 mins in the late afternoon) and that I was on a trip to celebrate my 5th wedding anniversary, so birding was obviously NOT a priority…  🙂   I did hear three singing in the late afternoon – a beautiful short song – (whilst staring into Libby’s eyes and re-stating my vows, you understand) but the closest I came to a sighting was an indistinct shape that zipped from the canopy into a dense shrub never to be seen again.

This ‘near miss’ was just one interlude of a thoroughly enjoyable walk from Long Lake (the top of the left hand fork) down the valley to the junction at Nuo Ri Lang, a 14km stroll gently downhill along an officially ‘closed’ boardwalk.. (see map of the park here).   The fact the boardwalk on this side of the valley was officially closed meant we saw just 2 other people the whole afternoon..  and no people means more birds, even though, of course, I wasn’t looking for them….  Purely by chance, and whilst absolutely not looking for them, we encountered parties of Grey-headed Bullfinches, Pere David’s and Yellow-breasted Tits, Indian Blue Robin, Red-fanked Bluetail, Chinese and Chestnut Thrushes (the latter was common all over the park), Darjeeling and White-backed Woodpeckers, Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Large-billed Leaf, Yellow-streaked, Hume’s and Bianchi’s Warblers etc etc…  it was a mesmerising walk through superb forest habitat.  After giving myself as much time as possible at the Rufous-headed Robin site where I frustratingly heard 3 males singing, we had to move on to cover the final 4km to the road junction from where we could catch one of the last buses out of the park (everyone must be out by 6pm).  The Crag Martins breeding at the entrance to the park were a nice finale to a thoroughly enjoyable day inside Jiuzhaigou National Park.

The following day we decided against going into the park again and instead walked up a mountain trail just outside the park near the ‘helipad’.  After taking a taxi 4-5km up to the helipad itself, we walked what is probably an old logging trail that took us past an abandoned Tibetan village and through some gorgeous meadows and increasingly impressive forest.  A large clearing after about 4-5 kilometres was the perfect place for a picnic and, from here, we saw Vinaceous Rosefinches, Nutcrackers, Eurasian Jays, Grey-backed Shrikes (common), Long-tailed Minivets, a single Golden Eagle, a Speckled Woodpigeon and a singing Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler.  It looked great for Bear but thankfully (I think) we didn’t see one..  We ambled back in time to enjoy a very civilised gin and tonic and evening meal at the “Star Cafe” in town…  a wonderful retreat after a good day’s hiking.

After a good night’s sleep we were up before dawn to take a taxi to the airport (90 minutes away) for our two and a half hour flight back to Beijing.  A thoroughly enjoyable birding trip anniversary break..

Full species list to follow but here are a couple of images of the more photogenic individuals we encountered.

Elliot’s Laughingthrush. Common in the park, especially around the car park at the Primeval Forest.

White-capped Water Redstart. Almost every stream or river seemed to host a pair of these dazzling birds.

Pere David’s Tit. We encountered family parties of these enchanting birds between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes.

Grey-headed Bullfinch, Jiuzhaigou. This bird is fairly common inside the park.

Grey-backed Shrike (juvenile). This species is a common breeder at Jiuzhaigou.

Whilst listening to Rufous-headed Robins I stumbled across this impressive fungus…

Species List:

Common Pheasant – 10-12 birds seen and heard (they appeared darker than those seen in the Beijing area – a different subspecies?)
Pheasant sp – one, possibly Golden Pheasant, heard near Long Lake
Mallard – 4 on the Lower Seasonal Pool
Darjeeling Woodpecker – 2 bickering noisily below the Upper Seasonal Pool
White-backed Woodpecker – 4 individuals seen and heard scattered in different areas of the park
Sichuan Treecreeper – one heard and seen in the Primeval Forest area
Large Hawk Cuckoo – many heard only
Oriental Cuckoo – 5 heard only
Lesser Cuckoo – 8 heard only
White-throated Needletail – a pair over the town
Fork-tailed Swift – 35+ seen
Grey Nightjar – heard every evening just after dark from our hotel room
White-bellied Dipper – 1
Speckled Woodpigeon – one above the helipad on 27 June
Raptor sp – see photo.  Called like a Eurasian Curlew.  Originally I thought it was an Oriental Honey Buzzard but it is actually a Mountain Hawk Eagle!  (thanks Paul!)
Black-eared Kite – 1
Small accipiter sp – 1 circling distantly over the helipad
Upland Buzzard – 1 on a post near the airport (3,500m)
Golden Eagle – 1 soaring over Jiuzhaigou on 26 June
Grey-backed Shrike – very common
Eurasian Jay – 6 seen, including 4 above the helipad
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 3 seen above the helipad
Common Magpie – 1 near the airport on 27 June the only sighting
Spotted Nutcracker – 3 above the helipad on 27 June
Carrion Crow – 3 above the helipad on 27 June
Large-billed Crow – 1 near Long Lake on 26 June
Long-tailed Minivet – 3 above the helipad on 27 June, 1 near Long Lake on 26 June
Long-tailed Thrush – 1 seen well above the Pearl Shoals Waterfall
White-collared Blackbird – 1 seen from the car along road from airport to Jiuzhaigou on 25 June
Chestnut Thrush – very common all over the park
Chinese Thrush – 3 seen well, including a pair feeding young near the 2nd reservoir along the track behind Pearl Shoals waterfall
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1 feeding young below the Upper Seasonal Lake
Rufous-headed Robin – 3 heard singing late afternoon on 26 June but none seen
Indian Blue Robin – c12 individuals seen and heard
Hodgson’s Redstart – 1 male in town on 26 June
Daurian Redstart – 3 seen from the car on 25 June
White-bellied Redstart – many heard and 4 seen well
White-capped Water Redstart – 8 seen; appears common in suitable habitat
Plumbeous Redstart – 6-8 along the river through town and seen along suitable habitat in the park
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1 seen on 26 June
Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher – 1 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes on 26 June
Slaty-blue Flycatcher – 2 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes on 26 June
Common Stonechat – 2 seen near the airport (3,500m) on 28 June
Eurasian Nuthatch – 3 seen, 1 near the Pearl Shoals Waterfall and 2 near Long Lake.
Coal Tit – 1 seen
Yellow-bellied Tit – 3 family parties (with Pere David’s Tits)
Grey-crested Tit – a family party of 6 birds at the Primeval Forest
Great Tit – 7 seen in various parts of the park
Green-backed Tit – 2 between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
Pere David’s Tit – 6 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
Eurasian Crag Martin – breeding around the entrance to Jiuzhaigiu National Park and also in the town
Barn Swallow – 1 seen above the helipad on 27 June
Asian House Martin – c15 seen hawking over the forest on 26 June
Brown-breasted Bulbul – 1 singing near the hotel
Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler – 1 singing near the helipad
Hume’s Warbler – 5-6 heard
Yellow-streaked Warbler – many heard
Lemon-rumped Warbler – 2 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
Chinese Leaf Warbler – many
Greenish Warbler – one heard between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
Large-billed Leaf Warbler – many
Goldcrest – 2 seen in the Primeval Forest
Blyth’s/Claudia’s Leaf Warbler – many
Seicercus sp – one near Zechawa and 4-5 seen between the Upper and Lower seasonal lakes (see photos).  The birds at the higher altitude called with a short, downward slurred “cheeup”.
Plain Laughingthrush – 4 around the helipad
Elliott’s Laughingthrush – common around Long Lake and the Primeval Forest
Winter Wren – 1 heard
White-collared Yuhina – 1 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
Parrotbill sp – one seen briefly near the Rhinoceros Lake…
White-eye sp (Japanese/Oriental) – 4 seen between the Upper and Lower Seasonal Lakes
White Wagtail (ssp alboides) – several in town and around the hotel
Pipit sp (Rosy?) – 3 seen near the airport and 1 flyover at the Upper Seasonal Lake
Maroon-backed Accentor – 3-4 seen at the Primeval Forest
Beautiful/Pink-rumped Rosefinch – one seen briefly above the helipad
Vinaceous Rosefinch – a pair seen well above the helipad
White-browed Rosefinch – one singing next to the road between the airport and Jiuzhaigou
Grey-headed Bullfinch – 19 seen, including a family party of 6
Black-faced Bunting – one adult male near Zechawa
Woolly Hare – 1 presumably this species near the airport at 3,500m
Muntjack sp – brief view of a small, greyish muntjack-type deer between Zechawa and Long Lake
Siberian Chipmunk – 6
Pere David’s Rock Squirrel – 2