By Jesper Hornskov
Situated in western China, Qinghai is the ideal place to see a mix of Central Asian specialities, Chinese/Tibetan endemics, and isolated populations of otherwise mostly Siberian species. In zoogeographic terms we will be visiting the Tibetan Plateau and its eastern fringes, with the latter showing particularly strong affinities with the least accessible parts of neighbouring Sichuan Province, known for its avifaunally rich Panda reserves.
While the scenery is fully on par with the very best of Sichuan and Tibet, tourism is far less developed in Qinghai, and it is cheaper to travel there.
Drawing on unequalled birding experience in Qinghai (fifteen tours during 1995-2002; six years' residence in the province) the following itinerary has been carefully planned to take in as wide a range of habitats as possible. At the same time sufficient field hours have been allowed to ensure that all specialities can be properly searched for, at a realistic pace. We shall be expecting to see around 200 species in Qinghai, with additional ones possible as we pass through Beijing.
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DAY 01: Morning flight from Beijing, China's capital, to Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, c1,700 kilometers west of Beijing.
Heading for the fabled Koko Nor we'll leave Xining behind and soon gain altitude. After a quick lunch in one of the Wild West-style towns that dot this part of the world we'll reach the plateau by early afternoon and many birds later Heimahe, a minor crossroads town at the SW corner of the lake where a newly built motel will be our home for two nights.
Having now reached c3,200 m we're already among true Plateau species, and will be expecting to see Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, various ducks (amongst them Red-crested Pochard), Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Upland Buzzard, Saker, Great Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls, Common Tern, Little Owl, Long-billed Calandra, Mongolian, Hume's Short-toed, Oriental Sky and Horned Larks, Richard's Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Black Redstart, Isabelline Wheatear, the entertaining Hume's Ground-pecker, Rock Sparrow, and White-rumped, Pere David's and Rufous-necked Snowfinches.
DAY 02-03: As well as providing some outstanding birding our stay at Koko Nor will also help us acclimatize, minimizing the risk of any of us suffering altitude-induced discomfort.
Behind Heimahe a number of valleys give access to stunted scrub which is home to an array of very special birds
- we should see our first Robin Accentor, Himalayan Rubythroat, Stonechat, Kessler's Thrush, Tickell's and Dusky Warblers, Stoliczka's Tit-warbler, the endemic White-browed Tit, Tibetan Snowfinch, and Pine Bunting. Our main quarry will be Przevalski's Redstart, arguably the prettiest of the genus (and undoubtedly the one fewest birders have seen), with the aberrant Przevalski's Rosefinch possible in the same habitat.
A stony point below Heimahe overlooks the muddy shore of Koko Nor. Here we should be able to find breeding Mongolian Plover, and perhaps migrants such as Greater Sand Plover, Turnstone, and Temminck's Stint.
It is often possible to get fairly close to Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, GBH and Brown-headed Gulls, and various Larks, and photographers may want to set their own pace here.
We'll be keenly mindful of the possibility of vagrants turning up: the Koko Nor area is a magnet to stray migrants,
a Yellow Bittern doing its vertical-skulk routine in grass barely an inch deep being an off-beat trip highlight in June 1999, and a lovely male Tiger Shrike in scrub near a pair of Przevalski's Rosefinches was a much appreciated bonus on another occasion.
One morning we'll start early for the desert W of the lake to visit what is usually a reliable site for the strange
Henderson's Ground Jay. Several groups of Pallas's Sandgrouse are usually seen, and it is frequently possible by careful stalking to obtain views of the birds on the ground. Blanford's Snowfinch, a dry-ground specialist, is easier to find here than anywhere else we'll visit. Przevalski’s Partridge, Asian Short-toed Lark and Desert Wheatear are additional species to look for.
After a last look at Koko Nor we'll turn south in the afternoon to spend the night at relatively low altitude.
Day 04: Driving on to wind-raked Maduo we will stop for anything of interest along the way - Chinese Grey Shrike is sometimes seen, Daurian Partridge is around but can prove elusive, while Great and Eastern Great Rosefinches are frequently present in a barren-looking gully. We should be able to find Mongolian Trumpeter Finches en route, and with luck Desert Finch, here at the E-most limit of its range. Although we will not attempt to cover the highest altitudes fully today a minor effort could well yield the enigmatic Roborovski's Rosefinch, as well as Tibetan Snowcock, Guldenstadt's Redstart, Eurasian Snowfinch, and Plain Mountain Finch.
DAY 05: A stop at a huge wetland S of Maduo is likely to produce several pairs of Black-necked Cranes, and we might see a Pallas's Fish Eagle. Summering Steppe Eagles are occasionally present, and we'll scan the tarn-dotted expanse for the stately Kiang (= Tibetan Wild Ass), and Tibetan Gazelle, a graceful browser which unlike the severely endangered Tibetan Antelope remains quite common.
Pushing on over the grand though rather desolate Bayankala pass (at c5,000 m we're here on one of the highest roads in the world) we will eventually descend to the Yangtze and, a short way up a tributary, the town of Yushu.
A combination of relatively oxygen-rich air, the prospects of a hot shower at the best hotel in town, and, hopefully, a session with a family of Ibisbills en route should ensure that we arrive in colourful Yushu in high spirits...
DAY 06-12: Before returning to Yushu in the evening of Day 12 we will have seven days in which to thoroughly cover the valleys, ridges, and passes in the vicinity of remote Nangqian. Searching scrub, juniper thickets, spruce forest, alpine grassland, and wind-blown rocky summits we should see a range of very special birds: Szechenyi's
Monal Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, the stunning White Eared Pheasant, Snow Pigeon, Grandala, Chinese Song Thrush, the weird, extremely retiring, and highly localized Kozlov's Babax, Chinese Fulvetta, Tibetan Grey Shrike, Tibetan Magpie, Yellow-billed Chough, Tibetan Snowfinch, Pink-rumped, Three-banded, Eastern Great, Red-breasted and Przevalski's Rosefinches, and the startlingly pretty Kozlov's Bunting are all among the expected species.
Among the more widespread species occuring here are Golden Eagle, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Blue Hill Pigeon, Fork-tailed Swift, Asian House Martin, Olive-backed Pipit, White-throated Dipper, Rufous-browed & Brown Accentors, Himalayan Rubythroat, Hodgson's, White-throated and White-bellied Redstarts, Giant and Elliot's Laughingthrushes, Songar Tit, Grey-backed Shrike, Red Crossbill, Daurian Jackdaw, and Godlewski's Rock Bunting.
Ibisbills are usually present along the upper Mekong at Nangqian, and we have a fair chance of getting close enough to photograph one. Vast buckthorn thickets exist along the river, and these can hold quite a few migrants in season; barring strays we may, however, have to be content with Kessler's Thrush nearby, Rock Sparrow and Citrine Wagtails on the flats, Common Terns over the river, and Himlayan Griffons and Lammergeiers high above - few birds favour the buckthorn for breeding.
By the time we start our return journey we will be in the privileged position of being familiar with most of the birds of this grand, truly inaccessible region.
Day 13-14: Before arriving at a small town near the DAY 15 target area we will stop for anything of interest along the way - the little-known Pallas's Cat is present at a pass where we’ll make a stop, and Tibetan Gazelle is regularly seen at close range.
Day 15: We will today explore the forbidding Er La pass where Roborovski's Rosefinch is usually seen. Although the species occurs in rather low density we have managed to find it on all visits since 1995, prior to which this Qinghai endemic had gone unseen by Westerners for four decades.
Other species usually seen here are Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Alpine Accentor, Guldenstadt's Redstart, Eurasian Snowfinch, and Brandt's and Plain Mountain Finches. Blue Sheep are seen on nearly all visits; wolves are around but often elusive, while Snow Leopard, the superbly camouflaged top carnivore of these bleak uplands, is one to dream about. Mind you, dreams come true occasionally: we saw a Snow Leopard in this area in 1995!
Day 16: We'll make our way back to Xining. We have sufficient time to look for anything we may have missed on the way south.
The comforts of Xining - hot shower, nice bed, a choice of beer - will be most welcome after so many days on the road...
Day 17 Starting early we'll devote most the day to forest north of Xining, working an attractive area of spruce and birch forest with adjoining terraced fields and buckthorn scrub, but it is the warblers, and in particular the endemic Gansu Leaf Warbler, only very recently reaccepted as a valid species, which will take centre stage today. Also of considerable interest are Siberian Rubythroat, White-throated and White-bellied Redstarts, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.
Less demanding than the warblers is a fine set of other birds: Common Pheasant, Pere David's Laughingthrush, and Songar Tit. Also-possibles include Oriental Turtle Dove, Southern Spotted and Chinese Bush Warblers, Chinese Nuthatch, and Grey-headed Bullfinch. If we have not already encountered the retiring, outrageously beautiful Crested Tit-warbler or the little-known Przevalski's Nuthatch we will be encouraged that there is nowhere better in the world to search for them than where we are today, and a special effort to find these real star birds is likely to bear fruit.
DAY 18: We'll return to Beijing. We will have time to revisit the eroded hills on the outskirts of Xining before departure. Our chief target here will be the fairly common local race of Sinai Rosefinch, distinctively different-looking from the Middle East form and with a different call. The attractive Meadow Bunting is more widespread generally but we are unlikely to come across it anywhere else on our itinerary. The endemic Przevalski's Partridge & Mongolian Trumpeter Finch may also be encountered elsewhere on our travels.
DAY 19: Departure.