July 31, 2020
CHINA’S FASCINATING BIRDS AND WILDLIFE
By Dion Hobcroft
China has been much in the news recently for all of the wrong reasons, as the smoking gun of the coronavirus pandemic ground zero points uniquely to wildlife markets in Wuhan. The widespread belief that there are no birds in China still resonates surprisingly loudly in some circles—the belief stemming from one of Mao’s ill-fated programs of eliminating sparrows and other grain-eating birds from the vast ricefields that feed the nation. The program was a failure on many fronts. It is still a relatively little-known fact to many though, that China offers fantastic birding and wildlife experiences.
My first visit in May 1999 was to Sichuan. We flew into Cheng Du airport from Hong Kong and arrived at a fairly decrepit building with wires hanging from the roof. You would not recognize this now, as no country has modernized as rapidly as China. With my friends, we set off to do a loop of central and northern Sichuan visiting Wolong Panda Reserve, Jiuzhaigou, and the eastern Tibetan plateau. It was a formative trip for me—my first experience in rhododendron forests, Himalayan mountains, high alpine grasslands, and bamboo that could hide a Giant Panda. The people were very welcoming and friendly; the food terrific, hot, tasty, and diverse; and the scenery absolutely stunning in many places. It was, however, the birds that seemed so exotic.
In Wolong we found White Eared-Pheasant, Chinese Monal, Golden Pheasant, Temminck’s Tragopan, Himalayan Snowcock, Snow Partridge, and Blood Pheasant. Bamboo forests produced the amazing Firethroat, Barred Laughingthrush, and Golden Bush-Robin. On the roof of the mountains at Balang Shan we watched the insanely blue Grandala and Wallcreeper while Lammergeiers and Cinereous Vultures swept over us. Red Panda and the rare Wood Snipe were definite bonuses.
On the eastern Tibetan plateau, small freshwater ponds held nesting Black-necked Cranes, while we marveled at the tiny Hume’s Groundpecker and different species of snowfinches, and watched the then almost unknown Pink-tailed Bunting. It was like going back in time, as Tibetan yak herders on horseback would come out of the flurries of snow singing loudly to check us out—these curious western birders. Many vehicles still had crank-start engines! In Jiuzhaigou, a place of unparalleled beauty, we found the enormous Blue Eared-Pheasant, rare Sukatschev’s Laughingthrush, and still to this very day the only Gould’s Shortwing I have ever seen. We finished our trip with 220 species of birds seen; many had at that time been very poorly known. The only book at the time had just a small percentage of birds illustrated, and we were constantly delving into the details of the text to identify tricky rosefinches and leaf-warblers!
Over the next two decades, I led more than a dozen tours to different parts of China for VENT and showed some nearly 800 species to participants who traveled to different regions from Tibet, Yunnan, Tsinghai, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanghai, Beijing and, of course, many return visits to Sichuan. It was a golden era of birding travel in China. We encountered flocks of Siberian Cranes; rare ducks like Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser; more incredible pheasants including Elliot’s, Reeve’s, Tibetan, and Brown Eared; nesting Oriental Plovers; more than ten species of parrotbills; and a stunning array of laughingthrushes, wren-babblers, sibias, fulvettas, minlas, and so much more. Mammals are well-protected in a number of reserves, and special memories for me include the bizarre Golden Snub-nosed Monkey, incredible Takin, several encounters with wolves, and a fabulous sighting of the unusual Pallas’s Cat.
If you can look beyond the negative headlines, China is a fascinating destination for the wildlife enthusiast.
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