Over the last five years, I have had the opportunity to visit various parts of China on business. While on these trips I was able to find time to bird watch in a variety of locations. Most of my bird watching was done during free time, and often I was traveling with non-birders who did not have the patience to stop and wait for a bird to show itself. Only one trip, to Emei Mountain in September 1999, was really planned as a birding trip. This is a description of some of my experiences trying to bird watch in China.
One overriding aspect of birding in China must be kept in mind. China is not an easy place to find birds. Compared to what we have available on the Gulf Coast of Texas, it might be considered as almost impossible. We are used to looking out our window and seeing tens of birds of maybe 15 different species in a five minute span. In the places I have been in China, seeing 15 different species may take several hours if at all. Only in the more remote areas have I been able to find moderate numbers of birds and species in a reasonably short time.
In early 1996, when I first visited China, I was a novice birder, only having begun birding while working in Sumatra in 1994. On my first trip to the interior of China, I was so ill-equipped as a birder that I began taking field notes on whatever writable surface I had available. The birds were not at all like the birds I had seen previously in the US, or even in Indonesia, and the only field guide I had at the time was King, et al. Field Guide of Southeast Asia. As a consequence, I saw any number of birds that I could not identify quickly, and soon I realized that I needed to write a description and hope that upon returning home I might be able to identify the birds. So, on this first trip, I used the small hotel telephone pads to record my bird descriptions as well as the hotel key wallet. I was able to identify many of the birds I saw using this makeshift system, but some I have yet to identify.
When I returned home, I knew there were several tools I needed to help me with my bird identification. First, I needed a field guide for China. After a search, the only identifiable China guide I found was Schoenberg The Birds of China. This book certainly was an improvement over King's book, but over time, it also proved to be inadequate. Second, I needed a better system for field notes. As I am not a very good artist and because writing notes in the field took precious time from observing the birds, I got a mini-cassette tape recorder that has been my companion on most birding trips since then. I simply record the descriptions while watching the birds and later transcribe the notes into chronological birding notes.
My first trips in April and May 1996 included stops in Beijing and Chengdu. These two cities were the primary places I visited during my trips. I have birded in both and during side trips from these two major cities. Most everyone knows of Beijing, but many have never heard of Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province and is located at the base of the Tibetan Plateau on a flat plain surrounded by fields of rice, rape seed (canola) and wheat. The city of approximately three million people and is where most people visiting Tibet begin their journey. On my first trip to Chengdu I birded in a small garden on the grounds of the Jin Jiang Hotel and along the river adjacent to the hotel. During this stay, I saw 8 species, including the most abundant bird, the Light-vented (or Chinese) Bulbul. These were common and usually in flocks of 5 to 10, although finding a solitary bird was not uncommon. I saw my first Daurian Redstart in the underbrush and two other species that I would see almost every trip into Sichuan, Magpie Robin and Black-throated Tit.
During the next trip in May I traveled along the mountain front in Western Sichuan. My business took me to Leshan and Ya'an in Southern Sichuan and included a weekend stop in Emei. This first exposure to Emei Shan was not very productive as we did not visit the mountain but remained in and around Emei City. Fortunately, I was able to return and bird the mountain a few years later. While in this southern portion of Sichuan, I did add new birds to my list included the Spangled Drongo in Leshan and the White-tailed Robin and the Plumbeous Redstart. Following this trip to Ya'an and vicinity, I traveled to Jiangyou, a city some 4 hours drive north of Chengdu. After two days of business we visited a Buddhist monastery situated on a mountaintop called Doutuanshan. A unique feature of this mountain was a 1000-foot chimney-like erosional peak offset from the main mountain by about 50 feet. The monks had stretched a chain across the abyss and did acrobatic performances on this chain several times a day. The route to the top of the mountain included a chair-lift ride followed by a several kilometer walk. As I was traveling with others, including my Chinese hosts, I did not have time to fully observe all the birds I saw, but two new birds did make my list, Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brown-breasted (Anderson's) Bulbul. This seemed to be a good site, and I wished I had had more time and freedom to wonder around on my own. During these early years there was a definite effort to keep us under close surveillance when we were traveling. Our business visas were actually more restrictive than tourist visas. As the relationship with our hosts grew stronger, this restrictive environment loosened significantly.
In May on my way home, I did my first birding in Hong Kong and discovered that Kowloon Park provided me with more species in two hours of birding than I normally saw in Chengdu in twice that time. Some species of note on this first trip were nesting Rose-ringed Parakeets, Common Koel and Greater Coucal, a Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike and the Masked Laughingthrush.
My next two trips were in the fall of 1996, first in October and then again in November. Again I finished my China birding in Hong Kong, and it was very rewarding. On October 19, early morning birding in Kowloon Park yielded 24 species. As comparison, on the way into China I stopped in Beijing and saw 4 species, one of which was the Tree Sparrow, the only abundant bird I found. It was during these two trips that I explored Chengdu for good birding spots. What I found during my morning wanders were two large parks that would provide me with interesting and consistent birding on all my trips to Chengdu. The two parks were called Remin (People's) Park and Baihuatan (100 flower) Park. Both are public facilities within walking distance (less than 2 miles) from the Crown Plaza Hotel in the center of Chengdu. In addition to open green space and trees, they both have lakes, ponds, and creeks. There are rides for children, refreshment stands, and both are heavily used throughout the day, particularly on weekends. Despite the heavy usage, over the years I was able to find a wide variety of birds. For a typical birding outing I would leave the hotel before dawn and usually walk to Baihuatan Park and be there when the park opened. I was never alone in the park, as there were always several groups doing Tai Chi or Qi Tiang to music from a boom box. Two of the species that I would regularly find on these park trips were the White (Pied) Wagtail and the Common Kingfisher with its brilliant blue back. The White (Pied) Wagtail is one of my favorite birds because of its striking black and white patterns and its constant tail bobbing.
As one can imagine, I was quite a curiosity, with my fair skin and relatively tall stature and binoculars. When I stopped and looked into the trees, everyone nearby would watch and try to determine what I was doing. As I spoke little Chinese I was unable to explain. Over the years, I learned the Chinese word for bird (Niao) and this was a moderate help. I took a number of English-speaking Chinese friends along to bird watch with me. When they explained what we were doing, we were usually looked at as if we were slightly, if not totally, crazy.
Only once did my bird watching cause distress. One morning I was walking along the river in Chengdu heading toward the Baihuatan Park when a bird flew onto the roof of a building across the river. Naturally, I trained my binoculars on the building and the bird. Before long a young man approached me, and through his gesturing and louder than normal speech, I understood that he didn't think I should be looking at this building. I believe he thought I was spying. I tried to explain though saying Niao and flapped my arms like flying, but he would have none of it. As he got more agitated I had the good sense to walk away. As I was leaving, the White (Pied) Wagtail, which was the instigator of this incident, flew toward us and as he flew overhead, I pointed to it and the young Chinese man showed recognition and bowed slightly. He raised up and smiled and showed that he understood what I had been doing and offered to shake my hand in friendship. This is typical of the people I met, tough businessmen but ultimately friendly.
In Kowloon Park, I found a Red-billed Magpie and watched several Black Kites soar overhead. Another common bird was the Red-whiskered Bulbul with its bright red patch on the side of its face. As mentioned above this was a very good outing that included a Peregrine Falcon and a European Kestrel.
This trip took me to the two outlying cities of Zigong and Jiangyou from my base in Chengdu. Zigong proved to be a very poor place for birding. Directly behind the hotel there was a park on the top of a long linear hill overlooking a river. Despite this seemingly ideal location I rarely saw birds that were not caged. It was very frustrating to get up early and walk through the park and hear beautifully singing birds only to come upon a group of men sitting around talking while their caged birds sang away. I also visited Leshan again. Leshan is the home of a monstrous Buddha carved into the hillside over looking the confluence of two rivers carrying water from western Sichuan mountains into the Yangtze River. There is a lot of park area around this tourist attraction, and I was able to do some birding here as well. Since I was traveling with a group of non-birders, my time was limited, and the results reflect this as I only identified one species, the Great Cormorant flying over the river.
On the way back to Chengdu from Jiangyou, I had the opportunity to stop at Doutuanshan again. This time I had more time to bird watch, since I had been here previously, and our hosts did not insist on our rushing to the top to see the monks perform. Additionally, this birding was at a higher elevation than most of my previous birding in Sichuan, so there were birds that I had not encountered before, including one bird I saw from the chair lift. Although I only got a glimpse of the bird I got what I thought was enough to identify it, but alas, it remains an unknown. It was a beautiful bird with an olive back and gray head and nape. Its primaries had blue on the tips and its flared tail had a white terminal band and white outer tail feathers. I think it was possibly a Blue-winged Laughingthrush or a Nepal Cutia, but I am not sure enough to call it.
After this foray into the villages of Western Sichuan, I returned to Chengdu before stopping in Hong Kong.
Including birding in Chengdu between the trips to Zigong and Jiangyou, the species I saw on this trip were the usual species and a number of unidentified birds.
I returned to Chengdu in both March and April of 1997. Both of these were short trips, and my only opportunities to bird watch were in Renmin and Baihuatan Parks, Chengdu, and in Hong Kong on the way home. In addition to the usual species, I saw my first Vinous-throated Parrotbill in Chengdu. The unidentified thrushes and other small birds continued on this trip. Kowloon Park yielded good birding again with no new species, but a good look at a Red-billed Magpie and Collared Starlings.
In July of 1997, I was fortunate to visit the village of Wolong. This is the home of a Great Panda Breeding Program and Reserve, and it is located about 2-4 hours northwest of Chengdu in the mountains. Our trip was an overnight excursion, and we were there during a local folk festival. The local people are a minority in China, and during the festival there was a party in the square with native dancing, music, and a feast that included a spit-roasted goat. It was a very enjoyable and interesting evening. The hotel accommodations were primitive but tolerable. Despite the fact that it was July, it got very chilly that night, and I was glad to have an electric blanket to keep me warm. The area surrounding the village is wooded with some high meadows and mountain streams within walking distance. The birding was not as good as I had hoped; nevertheless it was quite an enjoyable trip. Several of the memorable birds were the Gray Wagtail, Little Forktail, Greenish Warbler, and Brown Dipper.
Of course, I did a little birding in Chengdu, this time in Cultural Park, which is only a block away from Baihuatan Park. I found the lovely Russet Sparrow, with its russet-colored head and wings contrasting with its dark back. I also spotted another 'lifer' from my hotel window, the Red-rumped Swallow. This trip differed from previous ones as I returned home through Beijing. While there, I visited the Great Wall and the Summer Palace with friends. Neither of these locations was particularly good birding as I saw a total of only four (4) species, although one, the Azure-winged Magpie, was a 'lifer'.
The last trip of 1997 took me back into the mountains southwest of Chengdu. My business took me into the mountains west of Qionglai, about 65 km to the small village of Taihe. This area is not a likely place for visitors, but it represents the type of terrain and habitat that one would encounter on the way to Tibet, which is west of this area. Again, both the lack of species and the quantity of birds in this sparsely populated area surprised me. It may have been that many of the birds had migrated south by this time of year. Two first-time birds that I found were the Rufous-faced Warbler and the Collared Parrotbill, both of which are interestingly colored birds.
I finally obtained a much better field guide. Everyone in our Chengdu office was aware of my birding hobby. Thanks to Theresa Wong, our office manager and executive secretary, I now have a comprehensive field guide with good illustrations, range maps, and diagnostic field marks. Theresa was flying to Hong Kong, and she sat beside a birder from Taipei, and she noticed his field guide. He told her he had gotten it in Taipei, and Theresa took it upon herself to buy the book from him. On my next trip to Chengdu, she told me of her escapade, and I willingly paid her for the guide. It is called Field Guide of the Birds of China. Yan Chungwei, Zhao Zhenjie, Zheng Guong Mei, Xu Weixu, and Tan Yiuguan compiled it with artwork by Wang Fenying and Cheng Xueyi. The unfortunate thing about this book is that it is written in Chinese, but the common names are in English, and the scientific names in Latin making it quite useful. I have found some differences in the names used, both common and scientific, between this book and other guides and Clement's Birds of the World Checklist. On the species listings, I have tried to use Clement's names with differences found in Field Guide of the Birds of China in parenthesis. Just an another little added complication to birding in China.
I traveled to China only once in both 1998 and 1999. Both trips took me to Chengdu with stops in Hong Kong and Beijing. In November 1998, I made a very quick trip and birded in Kowloon Park and Remin Park. The Kowloon Park birding was from 6:00-7:45 A.M., and the only bird I saw which I had not commonly seen before was the White-breasted Water Hen. The one visit to Renmin Park netted a total of only three species, Black-throated Tit, Light-vented Bulbul and the Yellow-billed Grosbeak (Hawfinch).
My last trip was in September 1999 and included Beijing with birding at the Summer Palace and the Beijing Botanical Gardens. I also had a short morning session in Chaoyang Park where I saw the common Beijing birds, plus my first Great Spotted Woodpecker. This small park is along the Third Ring Road and was walking distance from my hotel. I visited this park on several trips to Beijing before learning its name. The Botanical Gardens is a large and very interesting place with many diverse botanical habitats, but unfortunately I saw very few species that afternoon. At the Summer Palace that same day I got a second look at a Great Spotted Woodpecker along with Magpies, swallows and several heron species.
After Beijing, I traveled on to Chengdu and birded the open field next to our office from the window. I also played a round of golf at the Chengdu Golf Club and saw a 'lifer' while golfing, a Rosy (Hodgson's) Pipit.
Finally, the highlight of the trip was an overnight trip to Emei Shan. This is a sacred Buddhist mountain in southern Sichuan. My guide and I spent the night on the summit and awoke to a thick fog that totally obscured the beauty of this spectacular place. It did lift for about 20 minutes before we began our descent which allowed me to see several species including Blyth's Crowned Willow Warbler, Coal Tit, Lemon-rumped (Pallas Leaf) Warbler, Maroon-backed Accentor, and a White-collared Yuhina. The remainder of the day was spent walking down the mountain via the old Buddhist trails rather than the modern roadway. The fog that settled back in was a serious detriment to both birding and safety. During the first third of our decent, the fog was so thick it made walking down the uncountable number of steps very treacherous. It was simply not possible to walk and bird at the same time. The trail, 90% wet, slick steps, took all of our concentration to keep from falling. When we did stop to bird, drawn by the singing of birds, the fog was too thick to see into the heavy foliage. As the day wore on, the fog finally lifted, but the stairs remained. The trail led through the heavily foliaged mountain to a number of Buddhist temples, which provided way stations where we rested. The open areas around the temples provided some of the best visual birding along the trail. Although the forest was full of singing and chirping, I could find few birds with my binoculars. The entire hike took seven (7) hours. It was certainly not an easy 17 km walk in the woods. Despite the difficulties, the birding was very good and I saw some very spectacular species. It is an area I highly recommend, but I suggest better planning and understanding of the trip than I had. Some of the wonderful birds, all 'life' birds, I saw on the trail down the mountain were Vivid Niltava, Variegated Fulvetta, Pere David's Tit, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker and Blyth's Parrotbill. And not to forget my favorite, the spectacularly colored Red-billed Leiothrix (Pekin Robin) which was the one bird I truly wanted to see on this trip.
The following week I visited the Panda Research Center in Chengdu, which I had learned about on my previous trip to Chengdu. It is an interesting place to visit both for its museum and for birding. It has a number of various habitats on the grounds and it is outside the city, so there is less human interference than the parks I usually visited. Of the many birds I saw here two were 'life' birds, Brown Shrike and Siberian Flycatcher.
When I got to Hong Kong on the way home, there was a hurricane bearing down on the city. For 18 hours I was confined to my hotel room overlooking Hong Kong harbor and the Ferry port. Never one to be discouraged, I kept my binoculars close by, and when the eye of the hurricane came over and a calm settled over the harbor, a number of birds began flying. I noticed one was a dark, tern-like bird, and further study led me to decide I was watching my first Sooty Tern.
This ends my tale. This fall (2000), my wife and I are going to visit China for a vacation. I look forward to additional birding on this trip and with luck, I will add to my adventures (and life list) in Chinese Birding.
An asterisk in the species lists identifies 'Life' birds. I have identified a fair number of the species I have seen, but a good number are still unidentified. I have included descriptions of those I have yet to identify. I would surely appreciate any help in identification by anyone who can suggest a species name based upon my descriptions. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written for the Houston Outdoor Nature Club - Ornithology Group's Publication The Spoonbill. Publication rights are retained by both the author and The Spoonbill, and it can only be distributed with permission of the author.
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