Trip Report: China, July 1999

Bill Pratt, Miami, Ohio, USA;

Although I still have not identified two of the birds I saw in China, I think the time has come for me to report on what was an unusually gratifying experience in a country that some say has few birds. What I learned from my experience is that the birds are there but you have to look for them; possibly they are more wary of being killed and eaten in China, since every conceivable kind of meat is on a Chinese menu, especially duck, but in any case there are many birds in China I'm happy to say and they are mostly new species to Westerners.

I'll start with Hong Kong, which would be my pick of all sites I visited for rare and unusual birds. I saw 15 new species for my life list in just four days, and I didn't get to the prize marsh area where the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (there is such a group!) hangs out during migration season. It was July, not a migratory month, but the birds were marvelous.

My first sighting was of a RED-WHISKERED BULBUL on the terrace of the Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon, across from Hong Kong Island, but I saw many more of them around the city. Hovering overhead almost everywhere are BLACK KITES, which are quite numerous in Hong Kong, and from Victoria Peak above Hong Kong I saw DARK-RUMPED SWIFTS and a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO. Best birding of all was Hong Kong Park, which is a beautiful place to visit for any reason, with a waterfall and lotus pond in the middle, and the Flagstaff House Tea Museum for those interested in the ancient art of making tea, which was imported from China to Great Britain in the 17th Century. In Hong Kong Park, I saw SPOTTED DOVES, common around the city, as well as the ubiquitous EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. I also saw an AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE, a large beautiful bird which I encountered again many times on the mainland of China. There were BLUE MAGPIES as well, and they too are frequent in mainland China. Then there was the spectacular YELLOW-CRESTED COCKATOO, which has been naturalized in Hong Kong from a probable escape long ago. The ORIENTAL MAGPIE-ROBIN in black and white feathers was quite attractive, and so was the tiny JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, more or less resembling a Kinglet. The CRESTED MYNA was abundant in Hong Kong Park and elsewhere in the city. I saw two quite amazing Laughingthrushes, smaller than the Magpies but larger than our thrushes: the BLACK-FACED (or MASKED) LAUGHINGTHRUSH and the BLACK-THROATED LAUGHINGTHRUSH. There was a large SCALY (or WHITE'S) THRUSH on the ground, and a BLACK-NECKED (or BLACK-COLLARED) STARLING in the trees. On Kowloon, near the harbor and the Star Ferry which goes back and forth to Hong Kong Island, I saw the BLACK-FACED (or MASKED) BUNTING, the YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY, and the LIGHT-VENTED (CHINESE) BULBUL. Flying over the harbor were LITTLE EGRETS, GRAY HERONS, and PURPLE HERONS.

That was Hong Kong, and next time I go there I'm going to get in touch with the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society and make them take me on a field trip out to Mai Po, a bird sanctuary for waterbirds during migration season in the spring and fall. I'm sure it would be prime birding territory, too.

Now for the mainland. In Chungking, prior to a trip on the Three Gorges of the Yangzte River, I saw a GREATER COUCAL at a hilltop pond, and a WHITE WAGTAIL in a garden. On the Yangtze cruise, I saw the COMMON TERN, the LARGE-BILLED (or JUNGLE) CROW, the FORK-TAILED (or PACIFIC) SWIFT, the RED-RUMPED SWALLOW, and a family of monkeys perched on a rock. I also got my first sight of a CHINESE POND-HERON, which would become one of the most numerous birds I saw in all of China. There were also BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES, CATTLE EGRETS, and GREAT EGRETS along the river. In Beijing, more AZURE-WINGED MAGPIES around the campus of the Beijing Foreign Studies University where I went for a conference, and at the Great Wall at Badaling (where everyone goes to see the Great Wall because it is restored there as it isn't elsewhere) I saw the COLLARED CROW, RUFOUS-WINGED WOODPECKER, and EURASIAN KOEL (like a long-tailed crow). Around Beijing I spotted COMMON SWIFTS, GREAT TITS, HOUSE SPARROWS, and ROCK DOVES (PIGEONS). Then at the Summer Palace north of the city, I walked around the large lake and saw many birds, including the STRIATED HERON, COMMON CUCKOO, COMMON SANDPIPER, ORIENTAL REED WARBLER, and PADDYFIELD WARBLER (both warblers were flitting about in a Lotus Pond among the stems). I also saw and heard an ORIENTAL CUCKOO on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace, which is now in ruins but the grounds are lovely.

I made a pilgrimage with a group from the conference to Confucius' birthplace and tomb at Qufu and the sacred mountain of Taishan, central to Shandong (meaning "East Mountain") Province in eastern China. There I saw the ROCK BUNTING and TRISTRAM'S BUNTING, many NIGHT HERONS roosting in the trees along with CHINESE POND-HERONS and GRAY HERONS and LITTLE EGRETS, a GRAY-HEADED (or BLACK-NAPED GREEN) WOODPECKER, COAL TITS, and the two new species I haven't been able to identify. One was on Mount Taishan and looked and sang exactly like our American Meadowlark,and the other was in the trees near the Queli Inn where we stayed in Qufu, a graybrown thrush-sized bird with a definite white crown (probably an ASHY MINIVET).

The chief limitation I found for the birder in China is that there is no field guide in English for the whole of China, and so I had to use the best I could get in a Hong Kong bookstore, which is called The Birds of Hong Kong and South China. It is excellent for its area but not inclusive of all China. I hope there will be a complete field guide to Chinese birds before I go back there, but I'm satisfied with what I saw and would recommend it highly to birders. Hong Kong is the choice site; mainland China is fascinating but very difficult for the independent traveler to see. Perhaps a birding tour would be best, but that wasn't the way I did it.

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