Trip Report: China, July 24 - September 3, 1998

Jerzy Dyczkowski, Warsaw, Poland;

I owe thanks to Steve Bale, Urs Geiser, Ian Levis, Gail Mackiernan, Georges Olioso, Oskar van Rootselaar, Mikael Rosen and Tom and Marie Tarrant for various birding information about China, and Joanna Szczesniak, Adam Werblinski and other Tramp people for their travel experiences.

I travelled with three friends around China for six weeks. The main purpose was the "cultural" sights, and birding was usually considered secondary. Nevertheless, sometimes the birds took over - in Emei Shan and Putuoshan, for example. Since we visited no major reserve or bird hotspot, this report can be of use for a person coming to China for general tourist or business purposes and birding on spare time. We visited the following places (most are famous Chinese tourist sights, well described in guidebooks):

Spelling of names follows Goncharoff N., Storey R., China - a travel survival kit (Lonely Planet).

Practical information

We used Lonely Planet guide: Goncharoff N., Storey R., China - travel survival kit, 1996 (the new edition - China - was published during our trip) and as an addition Mandarin Chinese Phrasebook by Lonely Planet. This was almost the sole source of travel information, generally excellent and packed with very practical stuff (like - where to sleep in Emei Shan if all hotels are full or how to avoid being cheated by Chinese pedicab driver). We made our way (communication, hotels etc.) following LP, and I justly recommend it to every visitor to China, whether budget (like us) or luxury. It covers big cities and all tourist destinations - both known and little known.

For birds I used De Schauensee The Birds of China and King, Woodcock The Birds of South-east Asia. The first of these is based on museum specimens and not to be recommended in the field. Unfortunately, it was the only guide I could get in Poland, and buying a bird book in China proved impossible. However, modern field guides to China can be bought in Hong Kong.

My impression of China was: extremely interesting but tiresome country. The three biggest problems were: habit of ripping off every Westerner, incredible noise and spitting. If you want to bird in peace in most parts of China, there are high chances that someone (or a group of people) will stick to you, persuading you to take their rickshaw or buy something or just start watching behaviour of a strange foreigner. The Chinese should be the easiest people to interest in birding. Whenever you stop and raise binoculars or make notes, nearby people come to see what is going on, peek unceremoniously around your shoulder or ask to try bins. Compared to this, speaking no Chinese was a minor problem (advantage?), although few Chinese spoke English.

I also produced a trip report of interest for general tourist, which I can forward on request.

Very useful Web information about birding in China and Chinese hotspots (including Emei Shan) can be found on the commercial server of Kingfisher Bird Tours.

General birding impression

China seems a very poor country for visiting birder. In Europe, travelling across the countryside, you always see some birds, at least Starlings and crows. We made long train trips (including to Turpan - 48 hours one way), and for the most part, nothing could be seen - maybe 1-10% of birds I would have expected in similar European landscape. Apparently, Europe is not so bad for birds! When you go by foot with the binoculars to the park or countryside, you actually see something - almost exclusively small passerines and near-passerines in the bushes. One wonders what happened to larger birds elsewhere? Probably, the last ones were wok-fried during the Qing Dynasty. Probably, for the bird attractions of China - like pheasants or cranes - you need to visit isolated, well protected reserves, where habitat remains.

Sites of interest:


This largely Muslim city lays in the desert oasis in the far Xinjang Province, China's Wild West. Beautiful and lively, grapes growing everywhere. Isabelline Shrike, Desert Finch and Collared Dove are common at the city outskirts. Also, I was pleased to see very many Hoopoes. At the dried-out Muslim cemetery, I heard a familiar call - and saw two Green Sandpipers flying over the desert! We hired a taxi with the local tourist bureau at Oasis Hotel and went around the couple of sights around the city. One was Aydingkol salt lake, second lowest depression in the world (after the Dead Sea). The lake was difficult to reach, and we had to gently persuade our driver to go. The sight there was incredible - the dry, white plain covered with crystallized salt, with the hills in the distance, on which clouds cast dark violet shadows. The only blue came from distant mirages at the horizon, merging with the blue sky. Turpan offer a whole range of otherworldly landscapes, including the Mars-red mountains and desert. During the way around, there were some birds: a buzzard, almost certainly Long-legged, a kestrel, some larks, many shrikes. Frankly, at this time I was more interested in sights than ticking species. Of course, the driver (although speaking no English) would understand "stop!" so birding would be possible. Next morning we went to Jiaohe, ruins of the ancient city, with the remains of walls and temples preserved by the dryness. The only inhabitant was a Little Owl, hunting from the ancient walls in the low morning light. Later, from the train to Dunhuang, I saw a total of four Gazelles train, and two Redshank at the temporary pool in the desert.


This huge city, capital of Sichuan, has a number of city parks holding some birds. You can visit several in one day. I visited Wenshu Monastery holding Black-throated Tits, a family of young Goldfinch and the ubiquitous Light-vented Bulbuls (this species can be seen in every Chinese park). Zhaojue Temple in the north has among others Magpie Robins and Hwamei. In Wenhua Park I saw Black-throated Tits and Tiger Shrike, and in River Viewing Pavillon Park, Long-tailed Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie and Ashy-throated Parrotbill. On the nearby canal (doubling as a city sewer) I heard a familiar "tzing" and saw closely a female Bearded Tit - complete with long tail, rusty feathers and black-and-white feathers on the wings. I paid little significance to this, but the trouble is that this species does not occur in this part of China. Most of the previous species were seen also at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, a large, forested zoo-like area with some wild tangles of bamboo. Here I flushed numerous Night Herons, and Chinese Pond Herons and Little Egrets were there also. This is no doubt the "best" birding place of the ones visited. This place requires a taxi or bicycle for ca. 6km from Chengdu, and there is a entrance fee.

Emei Shan

This mountain, sacred to Chinese Buddhists, offered good birding. It is covered with forest, holds larger and smaller Buddhist Monasteries and is crisscrossed with footpaths laden with stony stairs. In most parts, there are relatively few Chinese tourists, who go mostly by minibuses and cable car to see the sunrise at the top. I was there for two days (one for going up, one down). On the first day, climbing was quite strenuous (despite stairs), and I feel that it would be better to go by car and cable car to the top, and spend two days descending. I saw plenty of birds from the paths, including Red-billed Leiothrix, Black Bulbul (white-headed morph), Black-chinned Yuhina and beautiful Vivid Niltava. Towards darkness, I arrived at Jieyin Hall, where there were House Martins, Pacific and Himalayan Swifts flying below, in front of the incredible cliffs. When I continued farther up in the darkness, an owl starts calling - "poo-hoo", "poo-hoo". I slept in the small Buddhist monastery just below the top. When I laid down, the whole populace, which was watching TV, went to their rooms, shouting and thumping on the resonating floor. I dreamt about an earthquake.

The second day was cold, misty and drizzly. I hurried to the top and start descending. Besides numerous birds, the mountain is inhabited by tame macaque monkeys. I saw some in Xixian Monastery - one young went into a temple, started to close the doors, then climbing on the windows, and so on! However, one tourist recalled to be bitten - so be careful, especially after the monkeys were teased by the Chinese. I stopped below Xixiang Pool where the path crossed a stream - Little Forktails and Plumbeous Water Redstarts made a good show. Further on, I met a group of elderly women pilgrims, who in typical Chinese way, pushed their way all at once and nearly precipitated me into a ravine, without even thinking. Near the path is Jiulao cave, which my guide describes as "inhabited by big bats". I went there, and saw a large colony of Himalayan Swifts. They clicked loudly in flight and positioned themselves immobile, bellies up, on the overhanging walls. There were a few bats in the cave, too. In the late afternoon, I came down to the subtropical forest zone. There were Moustached Laughingtrushes, Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers and numerous Whistling Thrushes, who feed at the paths, at the sight of man spread their round tails, and jumped away on their incredibly strong legs. One was feeding a youngster under a rocky overhang. I slept in Qingyin Pavillon, in the bottom, near another beautiful stream with the Forktail/Redstart inhabitants.

Three Gorges on Yangtze

These huge gorges are usually viewed by a two day long ferry trip. It was a trip's record, since for over 1000 km I saw three individual waterbirds - flying egrets, not a single duck, gull or tern. I also saw Black Kite, several Black Drongos on nearby Little Three Gorges, and surprisingly - a soaring eagle, most probably Golden.


Small village in the stunning landscape of triangular karst peaks along the Li River. Favourite of Westerners in China and tourists alike, it has good Western-style accommodation. You can rent a bike and move around in the beautiful landscape, pausing periodically to drink something cold in one of villages. There, the landscape is rice fields and occasional bamboo groves, and birds are mostly small - Common Tailorbird, Common Mynah, Spotted Dove, Red-vented Bulbul, Blue Rock Thrush and plenty of Common Kingfishers. There are Himalayan Swifts near Moon Hill - nearby attraction. You can also see tame Cormorants used for fishing (in rather humane way) on the night show near Yangshuo river pier, in private in the village on the other shore, opposite tourist Yangshuo or e.g. in nearby Xingping village.


We spent two days on this calm and beautiful island. On the west side there are some shrimp ponds, habitat similar to Mediterranean salt pans, and some mudflats emerging from the tide. On both days, there was a flock of dozen Chinese Egrets fishing at close range (birds of the trip!), also Grey Herons, single Little Egret, and up to a hundred waders - Curlew, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattlers. In the woods around the island there are many smaller birds and incredible views over the sea. Several Dollarbirds make a good show - the first one, seen from the distance, I took for a black raptor, until it spread its wings! There was also a Sparrowhawk (Besra?) twice seen near village and many small passerines. On the return ferry to Shanghai we saw three Black-tailed Gulls (I saw a total of just nine individual gulls in six weeks in China!) and many White-naped, Crested, Bridled, Common and Roseate Terns catching fish attracted by food leftovers, which Chinese threw messily overboard.


Ancient Chinese city famous for its gardens. These are mostly small, holding no more than ubiquitous Light-vented Bulbuls, Hwameis and Long-tailed and Brown Shrikes, but a larger one is Humble Administrator Garden, where I saw Yellow-billed Hawfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Cuckoo.


One day I spend at Zijinshan, a large wooded hill west from the city. It has some sights, which are not very spectacular. Most of area is a city park, for which you buy the single ticket and enter one temple area after another. South from the Hong Wu Tomb there is an open grassy park, with a small pond lined with white stones. Suddenly, a Chinese Pond Heron flies down, and perches immobile at a stone with neck slightly turned, looking like some modernistic sculpture. Then it starts hunting, slowly disappearing in the tall grass. Another one flies, and Striated Heron appears too. Immediately, I turn to birding. Just near, father Common Kingfisher is teaching his young to live for itself. He refuses to hand it fish, he just caught, peck at the juvenile gently, flies away, followed by its begging young. In their attics, both fly at me, turning just a meter in front.

The woods west from the Hong Wu Tomb towards the Pagodas look very similar to trampled-out suburban forests in Europe. Here are numerous Oriental Turtle Doves, Chinese Oriole, Blue Jays and Azure-winged Magpie, Gray-capped Woodpeckers, Black-throated Tit, Masked Laughingthrush and others. Night descends, but the show is not yet over! Owls start calling near the road. I go under the tree, and, miraculously, one flies at the open branch and allows itself to be seen by several tens of seconds. Basing on size (ca. that of Starling) and call (regular, disyllabic, mellow "psiuk-psiuk") I id-ed it as Mountain Scops Owl, but if somebody has another opinion, I will welcome it.

Next day, I chance at the bird market in Fuzimiao shopping district. There are Tree Sparrows for Y 3-8, White-eyes and more. Do you fancy a European Jay for Y 70 (US$ 6.60) a cute young Cuckoo for Y 100 (US$ 12.5), or a beautiful Golden Oriole for Y 120 (US$15)? With little bargaining, price goes down to Y 100... These appalling sights are common in China. Later, I go to Chaotian Palace. Miraculously, a Dollarbird appears, perches on the top of the golden roof, and starts to hunt insects, flashing its blue wing patches. I bring a chair and watch it for some time. A good end of the trip.

Bird species mentioned in the text

* - lifer; for abbreviation of places - see route at the beginning):

Black-crowned Night Heron   N. nycticorax               B(SP), Ch
Green-backed Heron*         Butorides striatus          Na
Chinese Pond Heron*         Ardeola bacchus             Na Ch
Little Egret                Egretta garzetta            Pu, Ch, T
CHINESE EGRET *             Egretta eulophotes          Pu
Grey Heron                  Ardea cinerea               Pu
Black Kite                  Milvus migrans              YR
Golden Eagle                Aquila chrysaetos           YR
Eurasian Kestrel            Falco tinnunculus           Si, Gu
Ring-necked Pheasant        Phasianus colchicus         Na
Redshank                    Tringa totanus              T
Greenshank                  Tringa nebularia            Pu
Green Sandpiper             Tringa ochropus             T
Common sandpiper            Tringa hypoleucus           Ch, YR, Pu
Terek Sandpiper*            Xenus cinereus              Pu
Gray-tailed Tattler*        Heteroscelus brevipes       Pu
Whimbrel                    Numenius phaeopus           Pu
Curlew                      Numenius arquata            Pu
Black-tailed Gull*          Larus crassirostris         Pu
Crested Tern*               Sterna bergii               Pu
Common Tern                 Sterna hirundo              Pu
Roseate Tern*               Sterna dougallii            Pu
Black-naped Tern*           Sterna sumatrana            Pu
Bridled Tern*               Sterna anaethetus           Pu
Hill Pigeon*                Columba rupestris           Si, train
Feral Pigeon                Columba livia
Collared Dove               Streptopelia decaocto       T
Rufous Turtle Dove*         Streptopelia orientalis     Na
Spotted Dove*               Streptopelia chinensis      Ya, Pu
Cuckoo                      Cuculus canorus             Su
Mountain Scops Owl*         Otus spilocephalus          Na
Little Owl                  Athene noctua               T
Himalayan Swift*            Aerodramus brevirostris     Ya, Em
Common Swift                Apus apus
Pacific Swift*              Apus pacificus              Em
Dollarbird*                 Eurystomus glaucurus        Pu, Na
Common Kingfisher           Alcedo atthis               Ya, Pu, Na
Hoopoe                      Upupa epops                 B(airport), T
Grey-headed Woodpecker      Picus canus                 B(SP)
Great Spotted Woodpecker    Picoides major              Na, Su
Crimson-breasted Woodpecker* Picoides cathpharius       Em
Grey-capped Woodpecker*     Picoides canicapillus       Na
Red-rumped Swallow          Hirundo daurica
Swallow                     Hirundo rustica
House Martin                Delichon urbica             Em
Pied Wagtail                Motacilla alba alboides&personata
Red-vented Bulbul*          Pycnonotus cafer            Ya
Light-vented Bulbul*        Pycnonotus sinensis
Black Bulbul*               Hypsipetes madagascariensis leucothorax Em
Japanese White-eye*         Zosterops japonica          Em, Ya
Magpie Robin*               Copsychus saularis          Ch, Ya
Common Tailorbird*          Orthotomus sutorius         Ya
Vivid Niltava*              Niltava vivida              Em
Great Tit                   Parus major
Black-throated Tit*         Aegithalos concinnus        Ch, Na, Le
Tiger Shrike*               Lanius tigrinus             Ch
Brown Shrike*               Lanius cristatus            Su, Na
Isabelline Shrike*          Lanius isabellinus          T, Du
Long-tailed Shrike*         Lanius schach               Ch, Su
Plumbeous Redstart*         Rhyacornis fuliginosus      Em, Le
Little Forktail*            Enicurus scouleri           Em
Blue Whistling Thrush*      Myophonus caeruleus         Em, Ya
Blue Rock Thrush            Monticola solitarius        Ya
European Blackbird          Turdus merula               Na
Moustached Laughingthrush*  Garrulax cineraceus         Em
Hwamei*                     Garrulax canorus            Ch, Em, Pu
Masked Laughingthrush*      Garrulax perspicillatus     Na
Red-billed Leiothrix*       Leiothrix lutea             Em
Black-chinned Yuhina*       Yuhina nigrimenta           Em
Bearded Tit                 Panurus biarmicus           Ch
Ashy-throated Parrotbill*   Paradoxornis alphonsianus
Black Drongo*               Dicrurus macrocercus        YR
Chinese Oriole*             Oriolus chinensis           Na
Common Mynah*               Acridotheres tristis        Ya
Azure-winged Magpie*        Cyanopica cyana             B(FC), Ch, Na
Red-billed Magpie*          Urocissa erythrorhyncha     Na
Black-billed Magpie         Pica pica
Large-billed Crow*          Corvus macrorhynchos        B(FC)
White-rumped Munia*         Lonchura striata            Ch, Ya
Tree Sparrow                Passer montanus
Russet Sparrow*             Passer rutilans             Ya
Goldfinch                   Carduelis carduelis         Ch
Desert Finch*               Rhodopechys obsoleta        T
Yellow-billed Hawfinch*     Eophona migratoria          Su

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; December 14, 1998