Tuesday, 20 January 2015

4000 miles to Lhasa – in a Toyota minibus

Bob Vaughan

A birding trip across the roof of the world with Hannu Jännes as bird guide, organized by Birdquest (official write-up with better pics here http://www.birdquest-tours.com/pdfs/report/CHINA%20-TIBET-%20REP%2014-ebook.pdf

The trip started in Xining central China (Qinghai) then down to Nangqian on the Eastern edge of Tibet and then back up past Lake Qinghai and over to Golmud and Ruoqiang on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert in Western Xinjiang province before crossing the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa.  Mapping this is quite difficult as many of these towns are small but here is a try on a world scale:

The Chinese language has become much easier now they’ve stopped drawing and written it down properly, for instance q, x and j are all apparently pronounced “ch” as in China, although why one letter is chosen over the other (or ch)  isn’t obvious and sometimes they are used interchangeably (except in China). In a similar way many birds in this region have at least two names, one geographical or descriptive and the other after the person who first described the species e.g. Tibetan or Roborowski’s Rosefinch, and sometimes you can use all three e.g. Tibetan or Black-winged or Adam’s Snowfinch.  This goes a bit further with some of the Snowfinches, five of them under Birdlife International taxonomy are now very boringly known as Ground-sparrows (not to be confused with Ground Sparrows of Central and South America). So the White-rumped Snowfinch becomes the White-rumped Ground-sparrow or indeed Taczanowski’s Ground-sparrow or Mandelli’s Ground-sparrow with Mandelli's Snowfinch or Taczanowski’s Snowfinch as back-up. I prefer Snowfinch, Ground-sparrow sounds like a Chinese spice.

The first couple of days of the trip were spent north of Xining in a beautiful hilly wooded area called Huzu Bei Shan. Blue Eared (or Elwe’s) Pheasant was spectacular and fortunately the Chinese, Gansu and Alpine Leaf Warblers were easy to identify as they were singing. The supporting cast of Spotted Bush Warbler, White-throated Redstarts, Himalayan Beautiful and White-browed Rosefinches, Chestnut and Chinese Thrushes and Slaty-backed Flycatchers and a male of an isolated race of Red-flanked Bluetail (albocoeruleus) all showed mouth wateringly well. 

Retracing our steps back to Xining there was a sandstorm so we waited until next morning to drive up a rocky escarpment overlooking the town. We found a pair of Pale Rosefinch, now split from Sinai Rosefinch, amongst singing Gowlewski’s Buntings

and an inquisitive Przevalki’s (or Rusty-necklaced) Partridge. After breakfast we headed to the vast Qinghai Lake where a selection of water birds were found with the first of many Hume’s Groundpeckers. This charismatic bird is apparently most closely related to our Great Tit and should now be referred to as a Ground Tit.

Black-necked Cranes strutted the lakeside and a few Pere David’s (or Small) Snowfinches (Ground-sparrows) hid in the short grassland. We then went south to some rather European looking fields where a Wryneck duly popped up, the Yellow Wagtails were Eastern however and the Finches Mongolian! Pine and Black-faced Buntings showed well, and so on to Gonghe for an overnight stop.

The next day was a 400 mile drive over the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau down to Yushu on good roads over some high passes. The first pass gave us a huge male Guldenstat’s (or White-winged) Redstart  and many Rufous-necked Snowfinches (Ground-sparrows).

and a few Prince Henri’s (or Tibetan) Snowfinch (still a Snowfinch). The highest pass was Bayankala Shan at 4824 metres (15,827 feet) where, as always, the pass was adorned with prayer flags so I walked up and took a picture.

Getting back I felt a bit breathless but slowed down and got my gear together to walk out over the valley for the major target, Roborovski’s (or Tibetan) Rosefinch. We set-off but I soon felt very groggy and disorientated with an immense thirst, Tom gave me a bottle of water which helped a bit. I really needed a rest so I staggered back to the bus where John kindly said I could pinch one of his mountain sickness pills. I swallowed one and sat back – then a message came through that they’d got the Rosefinch. No way - I set-off as fast as I dare using my tripod as a crutch and found them with a glorious male Roborovski’s feeding at about 20 feet. The female was a little further off, so with the mega in the bag I was looking forward to getting down to Yushu at a mere 12,000 ft. My headache developed nicely and I later discovered that I had been bleeding directly into my front sinuses above my nose. Acute Mountain Sickness is not pleasant but the antidote is worse – next day in the morning my fingers felt as though they were connected to the electric mains and in the afternoon I felt incredibly tired, dragging my feet along - I vowed not to do any more pills. The prospect was that we were going higher later in the trip, and the only cure for MS is to go lower, but of course there is no down in the middle of the Tibetan plateau. The Upland Buzzards were waiting.

The upper reaches of both the Yangtze and Yellow River flow down off the plateau and through Yushu, the town was almost entirely obliterated by a large earthquake in August 2010, with over 2500 people killed and 12,000 injured. Since then it has fortunately been completely rebuilt, and the restaurant and hotel were just fine. Leaving town in the early light we found a Spotted Great Rosefinch (severtzovi) which was formerly split but is now rather unfashionably lumped back in with Great Rosefinch. They don’t do lumping in South America. My bird of the day however was a pair of Ibisbill with two large young on a riverside, a new family.

It is a shame my camera was on the wrong setting, this should have been a good photo…

We abandoned a stop for Red-fronted Rosefinch as the rain had set in but later the rain eased and we stopped opposite a steep hillside where we had good scope views of five Blood Pheasant, a pair of White-eared Pheasant and a Tibetan Babax. Later that afternoon we went up a beautiful sunlit gorge where further White-eared Pheasants showed well, a large Himalayan Marmot sat squeaking at us to let its chums know we were around and I finally caught up with the attractive Snow Pigeon.  Next morning we went further up the same gorge to a high pass with meadows and crags to either side looking for Kovlov’s (or Tibetan) Bunting. The bird duly performed very well until the cloud rolled in.

Back down in the gorge we visited a nunnery where Tibetan Partridge and Elliot’s Laughingthrush ran around and a Pink-rumped Rosefinch perched up. It was rather wet by now and the head monk (yes, does seem a bit liberal) invited us back to his place for the traditional beverage of hot water. We stayed a bit further south in Nangqian for two whole nights, not an attractive place but the upper reaches of the Mekong flow through it.

The expedition today was into the Beizha forest, with the first stop a steepish climb…

Towards the top, over those rocks at the top, three adult and three young Szechenyi’s Monal (or Buff-throated) Partridges fed rather nervously out under some trees. On the way down we disturbed two Blood Pheasants. We then entered a valley with a fast flowing stream, on the other side of which the very high pitched song of a Maroon-backed Accentor could just be heard, though it proved impossible to see. The forest area was very productive with Dark-sided and Slaty-backed Flycatchers, a pair of Giant Laughingthrushes, some active Crested Tit-Warblers, Chinese Fulvetta, Przelvalski’s Nuthatch, Black Woodpecker and a male Long-tailed Minivet. Sadly I was not quick enough to see the Three-toed Woodpecker when it suddenly flashed across the road. Lunch was spent in bright sunshine in an open valley accompanied by Daurian Jackdaw and both Coughs. Two covered trucks arrived and many novice monks in their red habits jumped out and disported themselves on the grass.

The next stage was a journey back north, apparently eastern Tibet is closed to visitors due to unrest and so we had to retrace our steps, in the rain. After a superb breakfast of freshly baked doughnuts at a café in Yushu we climbed back through the high passes. The weather cleared and we explored an open hillside. Almost straightaway a pair of Przevalski’s (or Pink-tailed) Finch perched just of track on some low bushes, beautiful birds which are now assigned to their own family and probably the most wanted bird for all. They put on a good show followed by a White-tailed Rubythroat and a Streaked Rosefinch with a supporting cast of Kessler’s Thrushes and Robin Accentors. A truly memorable hour of top quality birding.

Onwards across the moors we saw a pack of five Grey Wolves raiding an island with nesting Bar-headed Geese, on the other side of the road a splendid male Lesser Sand Plover stood in a small pool.
Overnight was at a very small town with a huge town square and a very good restaurant at all at an altitude of 15,250 ft. I have a theory that beer is good for aclimatisation to high altitude conditions and that theory was duly put to the test with few adverse side effects. In fact more generally I believe beer is good for many things, particularly urination. Onwards, with the bus making increasingly strange noises, the front suspension having suffered some malfunction. Although the roads were generally very good there is a lot of construction going on with new roads and bridges being built everywhere. Sometimes we would be on the new road, with the old road to one side and the new motorway being constructed to the other side which was feed by huge lorries on a supply road next to that. China’s ecomomy is clearly doing well, though much of the population we saw was relatively impoverished.

That was the end of the first leg, the next stage was across the top of the Tibeten plateau and we revisited Qinghai Lake, this time at the western end where it was stilll remarkably blue. Here we met a pair of Black-necked Cranes, the huge Tibetan Lark and a few Pallas’s Gulls before contuiinuing to Chaka for three nights.
Next morning we explored the steep sides of a valley and soon connected with Ala Shan Redstart, a highly range restricted species. This mega was accompanied by a number of Brown Accentors, Przevalski’s and Daurian Partridges and then some incomparable Wallcreepers.

This was another new family for me as I have dipped in the Pyrenees a couple times, rather a long way to catch up but all the more appreciated. A flocking shepard then lead us to a magnificent remote valley but although we heard distant Himalayan Snowcock there was no show. In the afternoon we explored a wet land area adding the black-backed form of Citrine Wagtail ssp calcarata sometimes (correctly) split as Tibetan Wagtail and a distant Little Tern. Next day we visited a valley to the east of Chaka for another potential split the weigoldi form of Smoky Warbler which showed well. A Red-fronted Rosefinch finally performed for us and wandering back we found another Pink-tailed Rosefinch. We headed back via a desert area and after some searching found a few Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) Snowfinches, Mongolian Finches and Larks and finally the main target - Hendersons Ground Jay trotting between the tussocks. Hannu picked up two distant flying Pallas’s Sandgrouse and I managed to latch on to them for a brief (but definative) glimpse , the others weren’t so lucky. Our final morning in Chaka saw us back in the first valley and here we found Daurian Grey Partridge, good views but my pictures have apparently detriorated rapidly from colour to sepia-tinted. I guess he is OK though. Walking back in the rain we found a rather soggy Chinese Grey Shrike ssp tibetanus a good split, as Tibetan Grey Shrike, but not accepted by the IOC (yet….) and so on to Golmund for an overnight before the 750km drive to Ruojiang.

The early scenary on this drive was really impressive, largely open plains with distant snow capped mountains. The small café we stopped at for lunch served excellent fresh food where multiple dishes were presented with a variety of stir-fried vegeatables, home made noodles, meat and sauces all cooked in an open kitchen. In fact all the places we visited throughout China served great food, plenty of fresh produce cooked and flavoured well, some spicy some just delicately tasty. The only quirk was that the rice was usually the last item to be served up to us, I suppose because it took a while to boil. This area is not all idylic though, some miles later we did go past a huge asbestos mine just outside a small town. There was white dust billowing everywhere, I suspect the life expectancy of the locals might be limited.  After just 350 miles we passed through the craggy Altun mountains into the Tarim basin and the edge of the Taklimakan desert in Xinjiang province. Before entering the basin we stopped in a dry valley to find some more potential splits: Desert Lesser Whitethroat ssp margelanica aka Margellanic Lesser Whitethroat and Isabelline Shrike ssp arenarius, split as Xinjiang or Chinese Shrike by some, the many Spotted Great Rosefinch were again severtzovi lumped back with Great Rosefinch. Just a hundred miles or so more into the desert and we reached Ruoqiang. 

The next morning we went into the desert, where a large shallow lake had created an unearthly mist

from out of which appeared a Sexual Sparrow (spelt Saxaul)

and the alienesque Biddulph’s Ground Jay.

These were ticks for all, we had breakfast and wandered out into the sandy area chasing a calling White-winged Woodpecker. It called we followed, it disappeared, it called from elsewhere and so on, but we eventually nailed it and yes I can honestly say it wasn’t a Gt Spot.  I did not nail the Desert Lesser Whitethroat though, but it is lumped with Margellanic isn’t it? By this time the sun was burning down so we retraced out steps across the trackless waste. Ken set-off in his fashion and I followed soon realising that the others had gone another way – schoolboy error. I decided to follow Ken rather than find the main party for two reasons - I didn’t want to split the group any further and I had no water. We then had to admit that neither of us knew where the hell we were apart from lost in the Taklimakan desert and neither of us had any water. After a little while we heard a distant truck, which meant road over there somewhere, so we headed for road over there somewhere. We found road over there and then had to decide which way to walk, we went that way. No drama, the bus appeared to appear in the heat haze and lo we were saved from certain death. Now that the mist had evaporated the shallow lakes turned up some new birds, an oddly familiar mix of birds like Starlings, Black-headed Gulls, Avocets, Northern Pintail and an ordinary Citrine Wagtail. In the afternoon it was hot and windy and time for something a bit more exotic, how about a Tarim Bush-dweller? This is a local potential split of Chinese Hill Warbler and although a skulker it showed really well on a gate, until I pressed the shutter. It wasn’t a very picturesque gate. A Barred Warbler showed briefly. This area has both the wierd and more familiar birds, West meets East. Talking of which Marco Polo came through Ruoqiang in 1273 when the town was known as Lop, it is officially part of the Silk Route between the Middle East and China and is an ancient transit point between Mongolia and Tibet - well cool. It now looks thoroughly undistinguised with the usual ubiquitous concrete buildings and wide roads, I saw no vestige of cool, maybe it is hidden away. The place is surrounded by wonderfully bleak desert though: on our way back to Tibet we stopped to (let the others) connect with some Pallas’s Sandgrouse and there were singing Desert Wheatear getting ready to appear on the East coast of the UK later that year. Our return journey to Golmud was uneventful apart from the vicious sandstorm which blew away any sight of the road and distributed asbestos over many square miles. We arrived in Golmund late but as ever the supper was super, although the beer was a little like Ruoqiang (not as cool as I had hoped).

And so into Tibet…now owned by the Chinese and I understand the Llamas have fled to South America. The weather was good as we crossed the plain and drove up on to the plateau. First stop on the plateau was a magnificent open area with snow-capped peaks to the south with a glacier sliding down the highest peak, Yuzhu Feng.

Our first Tibetan Antelope and many Gazelles fed on scraps of vegetation on the plain, Sakers fed on the numerous Pika, but overall there were few birds, just the ubiquitous Rufous-necked Ground-sparrow.

We moved on down the main road then took a left to bump down a stony road for hours at a very slow pace. We were accosted by some bandits who’d lost a flagon of monks oil, but we sent them away because we were after Tibetan Sandgrouse. We finally got to the area where they had been seen last year and we spread out and walked slowly and breathlessly across the boggy ground. Inevitably I was at the wrong end of the line when they were found and had a half mile stomp up hill. I arrived gasping for oxygen but the six beautiful Sandgrouse continued to feed in the sunshine oblivious to their admirers. We spent some time gripped by our quarry and summoning the energy to trek back to the bus. The bus journey back was slow and tortuous and we arrived as it got dark at the salubrious “Ritz” Budonquang the major local resort and our highest overnight stop.

The rooms were basic, but they lit an open fire to keep out the piercing cold. While dining at the fine restaurant behind the black pick-up above I  had a bad thought. With the door and window shut to keep out the cold how much would the fire compete with us for any spare oxygen. I had plenty of time to consider slow asphixiation as a pack of Tibetan Mastiffs barked incessantly all night. I got up about 02-00 to attempt to piss on the dogs. The sky was crystal clear and ablaze with myriad stars, quite the best starry night display I’ve seen, I suppose I was nearer to them and there was no polluting air in the way.

Next day was sunny and notable more for the mammals than the birds, there were plenty of the long- horned Tibetan Antelope

and quite a few rather charming Kiang or Tibetan Wild Ass. In a curious way it was often possible to guess what this simple beast was thinking.

An apparently wild Yak stood quite close to the road and stared at us quite motionless. We were lucky the yak was on it’s own as if there had been two together then they would have started talking as they do, yakety yak. Then a large Grey Wolf trotted across the road in front of the bus, it acknowledged us with a rather fierce expression before wandering into the wilderness.

We went over Tangkula Pass which was the highest point of our journey at 17,200 ft asl where there were many Brandt’s Mountain Finch (but no Sillem’s!).

The road to Lhasa is lined with many checkpoints. We must have had to stop and show papers at about ten of these, each one taking 10-30 minutes, but finally we arrived in Lhasa arguably the best guarded capital in the world. We visited a local park for Lord Derby’s Parrakeet, the provenance of these birds is a little doubtful as they although they live wild locally the ones in town may be escaped cage birds, but I guess it’ll go on the list.

On our final full day we got ourselves to a nunnery – the famous Shuksep Nunnery near the top of a steep valley. Giant Babax and Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush interupted our usual picnic breakfast, a little further in the Nunnery grounds Tibetan-eared Pheasants were mincing around quite unconcerned.

It took a bit of climbing but we eventually bumped into a Tibetan Snowcock which called from a nearby crag and then decided to walk right up to us!

Further on up Ken found a smart White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-warbler and on the way down Tibetan Blackbird showed well. A visit to the river basin gave us Russet Sparrow and telescope views of a Palla’s Fish Eagle.  A great morning.

The afternoon was culture time with a visit to the unique Potala Palace which clings to the largest peak in town. That’s the Palace at the back behind pretty lady and stupa.

The Palace entrance is at the top, via many many steps. Inside there are practising monks (with mobile phones) but it is largely a museum to the mind-bogglingly complex Tibetan form of Buddhism with intensely ornate old artifacts representing former adepts and it acts as a shrine to previous Dalai Lama’s. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso fled to India in 1959 and maybe the last, he has not decided whether to be reincarnate himself (and continue the line) but he has suggested that if he does then the next Dalai Lama may be a women "Why not? What's the big deal?" he said. The Chinese government has claimed control of this popular religion, and reincarnation.

Next stop was a real monastery where similar golden artifacts were to be found amongst the monks. In the courtyard novice monks were meditating deeply while their opposite number was jumpimg up and down clapping to distract them. But life’s like that, just when you think you’ve reached Nirvana someone stamps on your toe. By the way Nirvana literally means “blown out” as in candle, in the wind or maybe a whaft of teen spirit?

We had a final meal and three of us departured next morning for the flight to Chengdu, a huge bustling city. With an afternoon to kill Ken and I made for Du Fu's Thatched Cottage, a park on the western outskirts. We took a taxi and explored this rather pretty and popular park, it was hard work in the late afternoon heat but:

2 Collared Finchbill
Chinese (or Light-vented) Bulbul (common)
White-browed Laughingthrush (common)
10 Vinous-throated Parrotbill
2 Black-throated Tit
Chinese Blackbird (T. mandarinus – maybe a race of T. merula) (common)
2 Rufous-faced Warbler
2 Red-rumped Swallow (a few of the striated race daurica or japonica?)
1 Little Egret

As afternoon wound to a close we decided to try to get back to the hotel, which raised a few questions. Where were we, where did the buses go, how did you pay for buses, how do you flag a taxi? We found a map and eventually got our bearings and trudged off, the taxis just went passed us but after half an hour I saw one stop so I ran up and sat down in it – apologising to the girl who had got there first (sort of) and waved our map at the driver. It worked and he drove off, insanely fast, into the rush hour traffic, overtaking on the outside, swinging through the lanes on the wide and very busy roads with no sense of ballistics or momentum. We hung on and arrived intact with only a small dent to his taxi – good man. The meal in the Hotel was probably the worst we had the whole trip, we should have gone out again.

Overall I saw 221 birds with 98 ticks and three new families – quality rather than quantity on an epic tour through the most amazing scenery.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A slav to love

What more little black and white blobs.  Yup! Since jono has already top trumped everyone and queared the pitch on the Wansteadbirding site, I have no option...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Self assessment

It's around this time we are forced to our self-assessments at work - a completely pointless and tedious task - which are completely ignored once I've written what they want me to say.  I hate my job, but it pays the bills, when I can be arsed to pay them; it pays my pension, which will probably outlast me; and allows me to give me money to environmental causes, pathetically matched by the huge American firm I work for. That my contributions are just pissing in a Jovian storm doesn't make me feel that really the whole work thing is that great.

Anyway this is my self assessment for the thing I do enjoy, namely birding.

Last year year listing wise was my worst for many a year (225 species), but there were new additions.  A few new additions.  Too few additions:

  1. Myrtle Warbler (Feb 15th, Durham)
  2. Red-flanked Bluetail (Feb 16th, Marshfields Gloucestershire)
  3. Two-barred Crossbill (Lyndeford Arb, Norfolk)
  4. Spectacled Warbler (7 June, Burnham Overy, Norfolk)
  5. Short-toed Eagle (June 21st Ashdown Forest, Sussex)
  6. Collared Pratincole, 26th July (Minsmere RSPB)
  7. Ross's Gull (31st July, Topsham, Devon)
  8. Masked Shrike (25th September, Kilnsea Yorks)
  9. Siberian Rubythroat (5th Oct, Levenwick, Shetland)
  10. Lanceolated Warbler (7th Oct, Quendale, Shetland)
  11. Eastern Bonellis Warbler (10th Oct, Scalloway, Shetland)
 All of which puts me in close reach of the magical 400.  So target one is acquired!

Ok so the targets I set last year failed miserably: getting my Kent and Suffolk lists over the 200 mark.  I managed Kent once, and Suffolk slightly more. So no prizes for guessing how that went. I think I only managed Norfolk on a handful of occasions.

Best trips: Shetland of course, but great days out to Ashdown Forest (twice), Topsham (with Marco for the gull), and a trip to Norfolk with Mr Fisher (who also did the second trip to see the Eagle) for the Speccy.

London had a bad year though I missed out on a few good birds by being away in Cambridge, there just weren't that many we didn't see on the patch.  Rainham only had a Spotted Crake, and a warbler that shall remain nameless.  Slim pickins indeed.  I did however win the London Bird Club patch challenge with probably the lowest score for years.  I couldn't be arsed and I won't be listing for Rainham again. Luckily Howard is taking up the Patchwork Challenge mantle, where I got beaten on points by some arse from Wanstead and a guy from Luton (that's the Inner London League for you).  To put it in perspective Dave Mo thrashed my pitiful Rainham total (obviously the regulars would have done so too), but with Kev Jarvis out of the running there was not much pressure, though Gary James did brilliantly at Galleon's Reach and thoroughly deserved to beat me.

So other targets:

I will go to Shetland again

I will see as many new birds at Wanstead as I can

that's it