Scaly-sided Merganser is a Chinese endemic. Photo: Paul Holt
Outstanding among China’s myriad variety of birds are its fabulously evocative cranes and these gorgeous creatures are always among the many highlights of our exciting South China tour. We expect to see five species of crane including mythical Siberian, White-naped and Hooded Cranes at Poyang Hu National Nature Reserve and majestic Red-crowned Cranes on the edge of the Yellow Sea. We’ve even managed to see a sixth species, Sandhill Crane, on several of our previous trips!
We’ve recently revised the itinerary adding a visit to Fuzhou, an area where we have an excellent chance of finding several of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper at their most accessible regular wintering site.
The supporting cast of birds on this exciting tour includes an impressive, world-class list of waterbirds. We should see thousands of Swan Geese, hundreds of Falcated Ducks and Baikal Teal, huge parties of Oriental Storks, and stand a good chance of encountering reasonable numbers of Scaly-sided Mergansers - again at their most reliable wintering site anywhere in the world. Other goodies should include spectacular Mandarin Ducks, demure Saunders’s and, with a bit of luck, the still poorly known Relict Gulls, while we might also find the rare Baer’s Pochard and perhaps even a Swinhoe’s Crake. We also expect to see the diminutive Pied Falconet. Songbirds too will impress; among expected endemics and near endemics are Reed Parrotbill, Red-billed Starling, Chinese Penduline Tit and possibly Chinese Grey Shrike.
China has come a long way in the last decade or so. Besides hosting an increasing number of comfortable hotels, it now boasts an impressive transport infrastructure and we’ll make good use of the impressive network of roads and airport connections on this exciting tour.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Shanghai, mainland China’s largest and most dynamic city.
Day 2: Following our arrival we’ll transfer to our airport hotel for the rest of the day. There will be an option to do some birding around Shanghai that afternoon, with the location and times to be decided nearer to departure. Night in Shanghai.
Day 3. After breakfast we’ll fly south to Fuzhou in Southwest China’s Fujian Province. Although not the capital of Fujian Province, Fuzhou has a population of about seven million, and holds considerable political, economic and cultural sway as one of the largest cities in Southeastern China. Well known for its many hot springs and banyan trees the area around Fuzhou, with its close proximity to both Taiwan and Hong Kong, is developing at break-neck speed. Fortunately for the birder the area still holds an impressive array of birds, several of which, such as Black-faced Spoonbill, Red-billed Starling and Siberian Rubythroat, are highly sought after. We’ll spent the afternoon birding around Changle before spending the night in town.
Days 4-5: Shanyutan, a small island in the Minjiang Estuary, and only a short distance from our hotel, is the single best site in the whole of China, and arguably the most accessible, reliable site in the world, for wintering Spoon-billed Sandpiper – one of the world’s rarest and most enigmatic waders. The extensive areas of heavily corrugated, sandy inter-tidal mud flats that are exposed at low tide appear to be irresistible to this species and up to ten ‘Spooners’ have been found here in recent winters. The first individuals of this superbly distinctive species probably arrive in mid-September and a few occasionally remain in to early May - so our tour is perfectly timed to coincide with the period when this diminutive shorebird is at its most dependable. Other specialities of this area include Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunders’s, one of the world’s rarest gulls. If we are successful on our first attempt to see ‘Spooner’ we’ll visit an inland, forest site on our second day – and will then search for species such as the very elusive White-necklaced Partridge, Pale-headed Woodpecker and Japanese Robin. In either case we will spend the nights again in Changle.
Day 6: We will travel up to Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province today. We’ll then continue our journey west, heading to Wuyuan, a picturesque small town in the north-eastern corner the Province. Time permitting we’ll stop off at reliable a site for the diminutive Pied Falconet and also hope to see both Mandarin Duck and Red-billed Starlings here as well. Night in Wuyuan.
Day 7: We’ll spend the entire day around Wuyuan searching for some of the area’s other specialities. The day’s primary target, the rare Scaly-sided Merganser, will be our first quarry. Up to sixty birds have been counted wintering here in recent years and we’re likely to find a few parties of this attractive sawbill. Other species along the same stretch of river could include Long-billed Plover and Black-collared Starling, while elsewhere around Wuyuan we’ll spend time looking for Yellow-browed Bunting, that magnificent songster, the Hwamei and, with luck Japanese Waxwing. Night in Wuyuan.
Day 8: We’ll spend all morning around Wuyuan searching for species we might have missed yesterday or other species such as Chinese Bamboo Partridge, Grey-sided and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, Grey-chinned Minivet and, with luck, Spotted Wren Babbler. In the late afternoon we’ll start our journey back towards Poyang Hu and will spend the night outside the nature reserve.
Days 9-10: It shouldn’t take us long to reach the world-renowned Poyang Hu from our hotel and we’ll spend two full days exploring areas in this fabulous reserve. Poyang Hu is subject to huge annual fluctuations in its water level with the lake covering up to 5500 square kilometres during the summer rainy season (during which time it is then the largest lake in China) but water levels subsequently drop, and they can fall by as much as 15 metres by the end of the winter dry season, resulting in the lake shrinking to an area of less than 10% of its largest size. These massive fluctuations create a mosaic of shallow, residual lakes, and it’s the combination of these and the region’s fairly mild winters that makes ideal conditions for tens, or even hundreds of thousands of waterbirds.
Poyang Hu is widely regarded as one of the most important wetlands in the world and holds the planet’s largest concentrations of a number of threatened or endangered species. Siberian Crane is undoubtedly the reserve’s star attraction and over 95% of the world population (3200 birds) of these magnificent creatures winter here, as do even larger numbers of the equally majestic White-naped Crane. Hooded Crane is decidedly scarcer but even so, we expect to encounter a number of them among the huge flocks of bugling cranes that we’re sure to encounter.
One of the best ways to explore this huge wetland reserve is by boat and we’ll make extensive use of these during our stay. The ancient Chinese tradition of cormorant-fishing is still practiced at Poyang Hu and we may see groups of these busy, tethered birds. Thousands of Tundra Swans, Tundra Bean, Greater White-fronted and Swan Geese, hundreds of Oriental Storks and huge swirling flocks of Spotted Redshank and Pied Avocets also spend the winter at Poyang Hu, while other less conspicuous species include Japanese Swamp Warbler and Baikal Teal. With a great deal of luck, we might even find Swinhoe’s Crake. Nights at Yongxiu, a small town just outside the reserve.
Day 11: Leaving Yongxiu early, we’ll drive south to spend the morning exploring Nanjishan Reserve to the south of the city. Japanese Swamp Warbler and even Swinhoe’s Crake are more regular here than at Poyang Hu and we’ll concentrate our attentions on these two species in particular. In the afternoon we’ll return to Nanchang airport and fly back to Shanghai. We’ll then start our journey north towards Yancheng Nature Reserve, stopping for the night at Nantong on the northern bank of the Yangtze, China’s largest and arguably most important river.
Days 12 - 13: Continuing north we’ll head to Yancheng Nature Reserve where we expect to arrive in the early-morning, allowing us plenty of time to explore some of the sanctuary’s better areas. We will spend the night at the reserve’s modern guest house and Yancheng, China’s second largest Nature Reserve, will be the focus of these two days. With a vast complex of coastal grassland, shrimp ponds, saltpans and commercially harvested reed beds on the edge of the Yellow Sea, Yancheng harbours an impressive array of species. Nearly half of the world’s 2000 or so Red-crowned Cranes winter here and we are sure to have good views of a number of these magnificent, strikingly-plumaged birds. Other highlights here include Falcated and Baikal Teal, the near-endemic Chinese Grey Shrike, Chinese Penduline Tit, the endemic Reed and ubiquitous Vinous-throated Parrotbill, plus Rustic, Black-faced, Pallas’s and possibly even Ochre-rumped Buntings.
Day 14: Leaving Yancheng we’ll head southeast to a vast area of coastal mudflat and a site where both Relict and the exquisite Saunders’s Gulls regularly winter, We hope to be able to study them both at close quarters as they hunt crabs by patrolling over the mud-fringed fishponds. Night back in Nantong.
Day 15: Heading back to Shanghai we’ll re-cross the mighty Yangtze river and we expect to arrive in time to have a sightseeing excursion into the heart of this bustling, ambitious metropolis and its intoxicating, eclectic mix of old European-style buildings and awe-inspiring modern structures.
We will return to a hotel near the international airport in Shanghai, a pulsating city that typifies the huge disparities we’ll have seen during our recent travels in modern-day China. We will have dinner and spend one final night in Shanghai.
Day 16: We transfer to the airport for the flight back to London, where the tour concludes later the same day.
Updated: 15 November 2016