We should see the rare White-speckled Laughingthrush in Yunnan. Photo: Alistair Benn
Lying in the most south-western corner of China, Yunnan is a province that has received very little attention from birders and yet one that holds some of the most alluring species and exciting habitats in the whole of Asia. The area’s close proximity to Myanmar (formerly Burma) coupled with the ease of travel with good roads, often excellent hotels, and superb food are sure to make for an exciting trip full of some really special birds.
On this new tour we’ll visit an area in northern Yunnan, where the rare White-speckled Laughingthrush was recently rediscovered, and then a number of sites close to the border with Myanmar in western Yunnan. The entire area, much of it on the Ancient Southern Silk Road, is a historical treasure trove replete with numerous attractions. We’ll start by visiting historic Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its distinctive architecture. The skyline of this quaint town is dominated by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a year round snow-capped peak that reaches almost 5600 metres and it’s the woodlands near there where we’ll search for another speciality, Yunnan Nuthatch.
Gaoligongshan, our next port of call, featured in the BBC’s Wild China TV series, and it’s easy to see why. Early 20th century naturalist-adventurers such as Frank Kingdon Ward explored much of this area and here among the rich plant flora (the Nature Reserve boasts over 1,400 species of higher plants) we’ll search for avian delights such as Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Cachar Wren Babbler, Gould’s Shortwing and Black-breasted Thrush. Next we’ll move on to Tengchong, another historic settlement and another scenically stunning area surrounded by clusters of young volcanoes. We’ll concentrate here on finding Brown-winged Parrotbill and Slender-billed Oriole before heading east to Nabang, a small town nestled low down right beside the Myanmar border. Sought-after species here include Pale-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Scimitar-babbler, Collared Myna and Vinous-breasted Starling. Our final port of call will be Ruili – another border town and one also blessed with good quality forest on its door step. Here we will look for species including Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Cook’s Swift, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Scarlet-faced Liocichla and Pale-billed Parrotbill before heading back to Beijing.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Beijing.
Day 2: Arriving in Beijing we’ll connect with a flight south to Mangshi in western Yunnan. It’s unlikely that we will arrive in time to do any birdwatching and so we will almost certainly drive straight to our hotel.
Days 3-4: Today we’ll head south from Mangshi to Ruili. Known as the home of the Dai ethnic group, Ruili is bordered on three sides by Myanmar and is a large, prosperous border settlement. The import of gems, jade ware and jadeite from neighbouring Myanmar have helped create China’s largest jewel market. Many of the low lying ridges immediately around Ruili are still also cloaked in good quality forest and with two days here we’ll concentrate on finding some of this area’s specialities. These include the likes of Jerdon’s Baza, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Brown Wood Owl, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Black-throated and Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Pale-footed Bush Warbler as well as both Pale-billed (previously Lesser Rufous-headed) and Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills. With a bit of luck we might also come across a Hodgson’s Frogmouth or a Spot-throated Babbler. Nights in Ruili.
Day 5: After another morning near Ruili searching for species that we might have missed earlier, we’ll head off to Nabang, a much smaller settlement than Ruili but another that’s nestled besides the Myanmar border. Night in Nabang.
Days 6-7: Spending two full days around the tiny border settlement, we’ll have ample time to see many of the area’s lower elevation ornithological delights. Some, such as Grey Peacock-pheasant and Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, are genuinely rare and decidedly elusive but others, hopefully including Black-tailed Crake, Grey-headed Parakeet, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Collared Treepie, Red-billed and perhaps even Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers, Rufous-capped and Yunnan Fulvettas are less so. The forests here abound with birds and in our quest to see a representative sample of them, we’ll explore a couple of forest trails and a small reserve not very far from our hotel. This is the best area in the whole of China for seeing species such as Oriental Pied, Great and Wreathed Hornbills, White-hooded Babbler, Golden-crested and Collared Mynas and Vinous-breasted Starling as well as both Sapphire and Hill Blue Flycatchers. At times Myanmar will only be a stone’s throw away, and the river where we’ll look for Ibisbill is actually the border, so we’re sure to add species to our embryonic Myanmar list as we go.
Day 8: After a final morning at Nabang we’ll drive onto Tengchong, an area famed for its mild climate, its ancient volcanoes and geothermal springs. Tengchong also played an important role during the Second World War when Allied pilots flew sorties over ‘the hump’, resupplying Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. We’ll spend the night in a comfortable hotel in Tengchong.
Day 9: We may be woken by the attractive song of Black-breasted Thrush - the first of a handful of Tengchong specialities that we’ll spend the morning searching for. A pleasant bird-thronged park holds our other targets - Mountain Bamboo Partridge, the localised Brown-winged Parrotbill and Slender-billed Oriole along with other species and we’ll spend several hours here before heading on to Baihualing.
Our spectacular route will take us through deep valleys and across impressive dividing ranges and, while the roads are now excellent and our progress likely to be rapid and easy, this wasn’t always the case. Indeed it’s the region’s former remoteness that has kept it an intact, vast refuge for an extraordinarily rich biodiversity. The Gaoligong range, sandwiched between the mighty Salween (Nujiang) river and neighbouring Myanmar encompasses a wide variety of habitats from subtropical evergreen forests up to snow-capped peaks and glaciers at over 6,000 metres. We’ll no doubt be enthralled by the richness of the fabulous Gaoligong forests – forests that several early plant hunters, such as George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward (themselves immortalised by plant and birds that carry their names) explored for rhododendrons and other garden-worthy plants. We’ll spend three nights in the reserve’s comfortable Baihualing Guest House.
Days 10-11: Spending two full days based at Baihualing right in the heart of Gaoligong Shan’s incredibly varied forests we’ll have a reasonable amount of time to find some of its avian wonders. In stands of bamboo we’ll search for delights such as Broad-billed Warbler and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler while deep forest gullies will hold more secretive species such as the often reticent Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler, Spotted and Grey-bellied Wren Babblers, Blue-winged and the gorgeous Red-tailed Laughingthrush. We’ll explore several forest trails, including one that was previously part of the Southern Silk Road. Other special species will include Black-headed and Blyth’s Shrike Babblers, Beautiful Sibia, Spot-breasted Parrotbill and with luck, even Gould’s Shortwing. Three tesias, Slaty-bellied, Grey-bellied and Chestnut-headed, also inhabit the moss encrusted lush forest. Hill and Rufous-throated Partridges are, unfortunately, both much more likely to be heard than seen while other secretive forest denizens include both Silver and Mrs Hume’s Pheasants. There’s now a series of bird blinds, constructed by enterprising locals for Chinese bird photographers, and we hope to be able to visit at least a couple of these during our stay as they can afford spectacular views (and marvellous photographic opportunities) of a number of rarely seen east Himalayan specialities.
Day 12: After a final morning we’ll leave Baihualing and the mighty Gaoligong Mountain range for a short drive north to Baoshan.
Day 13: Leaving Baoshan early we’ll have our longest drive of the tour as we head north to Lijiang. Our drive’s now much shorter thanks due to a recently completed expressway and takes just half a day. We expect to arrive in Lijiang in time to do some local birding and will spend the night in a very comfortable hotel right on the edge of Lijiang’s historic old town, a district that dates back more than eight centuries. Originally inhabited by the ethnically distinctive Naxi cultural group, Lijiang is an extremely attractive modest-sized town. Once a confluence for trade along the old pack horse road, Lijiang old town is famous for its orderly Naxi architecture with its distinctive system of waterways and bridges. Recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lijiang is now a booming tourist resort with equal numbers of visitors drawn to the town’s rich cultural heritage and to the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a year round snow-capped peak that boasts the northern hemisphere’s southernmost glacier. At almost 5600 metres, this impressive mountain dominates the town’s skyline – and remains proudly unclimbed! Time permitting we’ll either spend the late afternoon searching for Yunnan Nuthatch, the province’s only endemic bird, or exploring Lashihai, a bird-thronged lake a short distance to the west of town where we hope to see Falcated and Ferruginous Ducks, while small flocks of Common Crane strut amid the tiny fields where Black-headed Greenfinches also feed. We’ll spend two nights in Lijiang.
Day 14: We’ll spend a full day around picturesque Lijiang and will leave early for a site where the poorly known and globally threatened White-speckled Laughingthrush was recently discovered. Other target species in the rich forests here include the fabulously inquisitive Rufous-tailed Babbler, Black-bibbed Tit, vociferous but melancholy Black-headed Sibia, Black-streaked Scimitar-babbler, Chinese Babax, Elliot’s Laughingthrush, Rusty-capped and Spectacled Fulvettas, White-collared Yuhina.
Day 15: After a final morning in Lijiang we’ll take a flight to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, before another from there back to Beijing. Night in a hotel near Beijing’s International Airport.
Day 16: After a leisurely breakfast we’ll catch a flight back to London where the tour concludes later the same day.
Updated: 30 January 2017