A Long Story on a Few Birds
Trip Report: China, October 9-27, 1997

Mike Houle ("Novice Birder"), La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA; Houlem@aol.com


Thursday 09 Oct 97

80°F. The crisp, clear fall weather is here but the heavy haze of China's industrial progress is omnipresent. Shanghai is like plowing and planting in the spring, sprouts by May, blossoms by June, fruit by July and August, and fully grown plants by Sept and Oct. Buildings keep on springing out of the ground everywhere. Woke up to see Eurasian Tree Sparrows out of the hotel window. Also saw a Black-and-white Wagtail? and a Long Tailed Shrike. Walked over to the Shanghai Zoo and saw large numbers of Light-vented Bulbul (formerly Chinese Bulbul), Eurasian Blackbird, Spotted Dove, Azure-winged Magpie and flocks of Great Tit (lifer). Saw a single Common Kingfisher (they operate from branches just inches above the water). Saw a pair of Black-crowned Night Heron fly in at dusk and one juvenile.

Saturday 11 Oct 97

Went to the Shanghai Botanical Gardens and saw the same birds as the Zoo. Of special interest was a roosting flock of Black-crowned Night Heron just to the right of entrance #2 and a single Common Sandpiper in a stream that runs through the gardens.

Sunday 12 Oct 97

The Shanghai Harbor is formed where Suzhou Creek meets the Mother River of Shanghai, the Huangpu, which is itself a small feeder to another river which feeds the Yangtze. I wanted to see some water birds after traveling hundreds of miles along the rivers in Sichuan last June without seeing a single water bird. The Acres of Park are almost all concrete, with the occasional splash of a bush or two. After an hour, I spotted a single grey and dark bird hovering and feeding over the harbor. It hovered, pecked stuff out of the debris for a full ten minutes. Finally it came over to rest high on a billboard sign, out of harm's way. It was a Rock Dove, the one and only bird seen in the first hour. In fact, it was very strange to be in a major city park without House Sparrows or Rock Doves. China may have the solution to these two pests. I have seen "Whole Sparrow Pie" and "Dove Pie" on the menus. Unfortunately, they also have many other song birds on the menu. I was able to examine a small flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows at length since there were no other birds. They are colorfully marked. As I was leaving, I was thrilled by the beautiful song of the Light-vented Bulbul. I was able to examine the beauty of two of them. What a reward for a slow day. No birding trip is bad, some trips are just better than others.

Monday 13 Oct 97

80°F At the Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai. The only bird seen was a lifer, a Eurasian Siskin working in a tree above the gold fish pond. No other birds.


Thursday 16 Oct 97

47°F, windy, spitting snow. Harbin is the Capitol of Heilongjiang, the northernmost Eastern Province in China, at the 46th parallel, north of the north end of North Korea, north of Vladivostock, Russia. We walked the Riverside Park along the Songhaua Jiang River in Harbin when the river was quite low. In four hours, there were no gulls, ducks, shore birds, nothing. The lack of birds along the waterways is disturbing. We finally saw a single bird which was difficult to id. It had a russet colored crown and nape with two parallel, black lines, exactly like a Horned Lark, which stopped where the horns should appear. After a space, the two black lines continued down the hindneck. The single bird flew down from a tree to the bottom of the steps along the river and secretively pecked away at the sunflower seed shells found there. Sorry, no id. At dusk a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows flew in to the shore and six Rock Doves played on the island. No other birds!

Saturday 15 Oct 97

At the Sun Island Park, Harbin, we saw several Coal Tit, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, the Carrion Crow (lifer), and another lifer in the Wood Nuthatch. There were several up close and personal. At the top of a tree-covered hill we had a single Eurasian Treecreeper work its way right up to us, within 3 feet. What a way to greet my third lifer of the day. There were very few birds, and no water birds on the numerous water canals and ponds.

In the afternoon we returned to the River Park and saw a flock of Rock Doves, and a few Eurasian Tree Sparrows. We then went to the Harbin Zoo where there was lots of cover, but saw only one Eurasian Tree Sparrow. It is spooky to see so few birds.

Our tour guide did say at the Zhalong Reserve at Qigihar City, 200 km west of Harbin, they have outlawed hunting for the past fifteen years. They have flocks of Red-crested, White-naped, Siberian White and Demoiselle Cranes at this 84,000 acre wetlands preserve and 230 other birds. At Dailing, about 150 km north of Harbin, is another forest reserve where more than 140 species are found, all native to Northeast China. The prime time for these two reserves is March/April and September/October. I would make it September if I was to return to Harbin. I was not able to make it to either reserve. The sun came out only for a short time on Saturday, but the industrial haze hangs heavy over Harbin.


Monday 17 Oct 97

72°F, clear crisp Oct weather. The weather in Beijing was clear blue skies for the eight days I was there. We stayed at the Grand View Garden Hotel in Beijing, next to a wonderful garden with five acres of trees, ponds, plants and old homes from an ancient Chinese story. I did not get to see this garden, but it could be an oasis for a short stay in Beijing.

This Monday I took a cab to the Fragrant Hills, 12 km west of the Summer Palace of Beijing, arriving at 6am. It was still dark. The cab was about one hour drive for $5.00. The park is 2000 acres and rises about 2000' to a temple. I started up the wide stone pathway, but it was crowded, so I walked up through some gullies. The natives bellow out in a form of Congee, an exercise to clean the lungs of CO2. It is quite disturbing and can be a big surprise if you are watching a bird, and someone shouts about 10' behind you. The shouting goes on until about 10am. I immediately saw large flocks of Azure-winged Magpie and small groups of Black-billed Magpie which went on all day. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow were down at the entrance in good numbers. I saw lots of Yellow-browed Warblers and Great Tit.

I saw a bird I could not id about ten times in the thick brush. It had a solid grey, very plain head, short, thin, solid black bill, big black eye with a faint grey eye ring, olive back, golden flanks, a whitish bib at the grey throat/breast interface, and the top of the tail was distinctly blue. Also saw a bird about ten times which I could not id with a heavily streaked, black and tan warbler type, with a black beard (similar to a Chinese Babix) and red flanks working on the ground like a Towhee. I saw another bird several times which appeared to have the same markings as Northern Waterthrush with a large, sharp, yellow/orange stripped eyebrow and a large yellow/orange spot on the breast with a single, wide, yellow wingbar (one bird had just half crescents for the wingbar). This one turned out to be a Siberian Accentor, a lifer, and a wonderful bird to observe. Finally, I saw a pair of birds, all black like the Eurasian Blackbird, but no eye ring and a grey bill. I have seen this bird in Shanghai and Chengdu without id. Would appreciate any suggestions.

A fellow birder went to the Summer Palace and only saw the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and the Azure-winged Magpie. Not one bird on the water. This is migration, where do they go? We did finally see some water birds on a brief visit to the Beijing Zoo in one of their open ponds, the clipped swans, cranes, ducks and etc.

Thursday 23 Oct 97

Went to the Badaling Gate of the Great China Wall, about 70 km north of Beijing, as a group. The road is one-way up at the moment, but they are completing a super highway to the spot to bring in more tourists. The wall is a great sight, but it has already seen as many people on the wall in the past ten years as had been on the wall the previous 2,200 years. We saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Large-billed Crow, Black-billed Magpie and Azure-winged Magpie. The sky remained clear and blue, but it was 45°F with a 50 mph wind which made both the climb and the birding nearly impossible.

About 10 miles north of the Badaling Gate there is a fortress on the top of a large hill which the farmers made into a fortress to hold their sheep. We saw a pair of what I was certain to be Golden Eagles hovering over the fortress. We saw mules pulling stone wheels to work some of the shells off some of the grains, and on several occasions the farmers spread the grain on the highway and let the traffic do the job. You can witness the future and the past at the same moment in China today. The single, two-lane road back to Beijing gets clogged with trucks, and we sat in one spot for over two hours while the gridlock was untangled. Do not plan on a last minute trip into the mountains. Some of the tour missed their plane this day. In all, the Chinese are very helpful and friendly. They have few driving rules, and no one follows those rules. It is chaos, but you never see them shouting or cursing at anyone as everyone cuts in front of everyone.

Saturday 25 Oct 97

I found a quiet spot for birding in China. Go north through the Badaling Gate of the Great China Wall, and after another 20 miles is the Songshan Mountain Natural Reserve, a 2000 acre mountain preserve which includes an ancient virgin forest, hot springs, hundreds of springs and waterfalls, and a 6,600' mountain peak with thousands of valleys, ravines where you can do some serious birding. I hired a car, driver and interpreter for $54/day, the hotel was $30/day, and the park reserve fee was $10. The guide was formally a forester, but makes much more as a guide than as a forester. No heat in the hotel, you could see your breath in the dining room, primitive kitchen, no shower, but they did bring in a hot thermos for tea and washing. There was a natural hot spring for $1 which was super to take out the day's chill. I was the second foreign guest at the hotel this year. The food was the best I have had in China, averaging $5 per meal, mostly served as farm family style food.

On Saturday, it was 25°F in the mountains and windy, warmed to 40°F and dropped below freezing again by early afternoon. I was prepared, and I climbed from the hotel starting at 2200' to the 6000' level where the 100 falls springs is located, in seven hours, then two hours to return. I spent a lot of time with the tits, seeing a lifer, the Marsh Tit (20), about 12 Great Tit including a juvenile, and Coal Tit (25), crows, only 2 Eurasian Tree Sparrows, heard, then flushed two Common Pheasant (a nice experience to see these birds in their native mountain habitat), Black-billed Magpie, lots of Blue Magpie (Red-billed) with those long tails, a flock of 50 Vinous-throated Parrotbill which seemed to follow me down the mountain, and two Common Rosefinch, another lifer for me. The Rosefinch were stunning sitting in the open for a good long look. With the Rosefinch was a dull, olive green, plain finch of the same size, with the only color, a bright yellow rump. I thought it must have been the female, but by reference, it definitely was not. I would love to id that yellow-rumped bird. I saw one small falcon-like bird near the top of my climb, and I could see two large raptors soaring above the hotel on my way down.

Sunday 26 Oct 97

From the Songshan Reserve Hotel, I walked up a dirt road about two miles along a large running stream to a small village of about 20 families. It was bitter cold with the north winds roaring down the canyon walls. I was dressed for winter and needed all of it. I saw many of the same birds from Saturday, but my first new bird was the Great Spotted Woodpecker, another lifer, and my first woodpecker of China. Magnificent! I found my first wrens of China, the Winter Wren at the start of the dirt road along the edge of the stream. There were about five, and one did not have a tail. It looked like a pygmy wren or pita, but it was just a wren without a tail. I watched another lifer, the Rock Bunting for a good long time. I saw several bunting types that I could not id, and saw the Siberian Accentor again today. I also saw a striking bunting with a large yellow head, thin black stripe through the eye and bright yellow below the eye stripe, plain white breast, belly and flank with a bunting-like brown and tan back. This should have been an easy id, but no luck. I did flush 7 Common Pheasant in a deep canyon and got another good look at both hen and rooster. In the deep canyon I also saw four pigeon/dove circling and finally landing on a sloped rock outcropping with a dozen already there. From that distance they seemed to be solid blue/grey. It was unique to see them in this natural setting so far from civilization.

One word of caution. I had intended to stay four days, paying for everything by credit card or change some US dollars. These remote places in China only take Chinese money. I did not carry that much and had to leave one day early. This was a big disappointment. We drove through the mountains on the way back to Beijing and stopped at the Ming Tomb Reservoir. These drivers are daredevils from hell. On a two-lane highway, with a shoulder jammed with trucks carrying coal, corn, rice, and little motor scooters, and mules pulling carts, it seems that there are always at least three lanes going in each direction. Everyone passes on the tightest blind curves, just ducking in at the last second, keeping all passengers in a near panic condition. Do not rent a car/interpreter/driver if you have a weak heart. They have just learned how to drive, they are always talking on the phone during these harrowing scenes, and they do not know how to drive. I just lay down in the back seat and pray.

At the dam there were three Common Merganser hens diving for fish. These were the first birds seen on the water since the common sandpiper seen 16 days ago in Shanghai despite my diligent search at every opportunity. We drove along the reservoir and made several stops but did not see another water bird. This is astonishing. The surrounding woods, however, do provide a quiet, private area to bird, and is only 30 minutes north of Beijing. It was 48°F in Beijing.

Monday 27 Oct 97

I went to the Beijing Zoo and saw hundreds of Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Crows, Black-billed Magpie and Azure-winged Magpie. It is not as big nor does it have quiet spots anywhere as compared to the Shanghai Zoo. I was rewarded after three hours with a new lifer, the sighting of a White-backed Woodpecker. I saw it several times and was able to positively id this beautiful bird. I then was able to watch the fairy-like Common Kingfisher which I was positive was a Blue-eared Kingfisher, several times along one of the canals. De Schauensee does not list the Blue-eared Kingfisher for Beijing, but there was no doubt about the markings. However, I will lay claim to a Common Kingfisher for Beijing.

The horrible haze in China is not the result of the fires in Indonesia. It is the result of their industrial revolution powered by coal, their traditional means of heating with coke, coal and charcoal, and their tradition of burning leaves and fields at years end to rid the fields of insects. The disappearance of birds on the waterways is due to industrial waste and pollution. But the industrial revolution also brings a mixed environmental blessing. At the moment, China has begun to dam both the Yellow and the Three Gorges of the Yangtze. This will bring a clean power equal to more than thirty nuclear power plants. It will change the sedimentation of the "River of Sorrows", as a trade off for clean power and flood control. China has closed 100 rice paper mills on the Yangtze to reduce pollution. The Crested Ibis had disappeared from the Soviet Union, Korea and Japan in the 70's. A small colony was found in Yangxian County, Shaanxi Province, a remote mountain area far from industrial spots and big cities. Japan has provided funds to China for their survival through the Japanese Bird Protection Union. The Tibet Autonomous Region has vowed to limit environmentally destructive industries to maintain the region as one of China's cleanest places. They have placed the promotion of clean industries such as tourism and ethnic handicrafts as the top of its list. Tibet has created a green belt area which has cut the wind by one half, while creating reserves for birds and animals. In the Xingiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, a land of 50% desert and wasteland, they have planted farmland forests which now protect 80% of their farmlands, planted a 5000 acre forest to provide a renewable resource of firewood for the residents and have established 20 reserves of forests and grasslands for a total of 6% of their total area to protect rare animals and birds. The effort has slowed the relentless desertification of the region and reduced the winds by nearly 50%. This is but a small step, but quite remarkable for a developing country where professors and doctors make about $180 per month. In fact, most tour guides are professionals who make far more as guides than they do as professionals. It is nice to know that even in China, there is a recognition of the need to provide habitat for our wild friends.

On the trip home we flew over the snow-capped mountains of Eastern Siberia, and as we crossed over Nome, Alaska, we were treated to a giant display of the Northern Lights with the big dipper lying on the horizon completely covered by the northern lights. What a memorable scene.

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