The normally elusive Black-billed Capercaillie should be possible on this tour. Photo: Cun Zhang
China is a vast country, the third largest on earth. It is no surprise therefore that it boasts a dazzling array of landscapes and environments that rivals anywhere else on the planet and which harbour a multitude of exciting birds. On this tour, we’ll visit Beijing, the huge province of Nei Mongol (Chinese Mongolia) and smaller ones of Hebei and Shanxi in our quest to seek out some of the nation’s impressive array of charismatic species.
We’ll explore a small part of the fantastic and isolated northern Nei Mongol region with our tour running at a time when many normally elusive species are easier to find. There will be several sought-after birds but chief amongst them is the stunningly patterned Black-billed Capercaillie and we have a reasonable chance of obtaining views of this scarce bird. The supporting cast will include a host of owls, such as the stunning Great Grey Owl and Northern-hawk Owl, and possibly both Ural and Tengmalm’s Owls, as well as Siberian Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Azure Tit and both Long-tailed and Pallas’s Rosefinches. Near Beijing we expect to see the recently split Beijing Babbler as well as Mandarin Duck and possibly Baikal Teal, while elsewhere we’ll visit the best sites in the world for Brown Eared Pheasant and the perilously endangered Baer’s Pochard.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Beijing.
Day 2: We’ll arrive in Beijing in the early morning and immediately drive east to Nanpu, a site on the coast of neighbouring Hebei province. Night in Nanpu.
Days 3-4: We’ll spend these two days birding around Nanpu and will explore the extensive area of saltpans and the vast coastal mudflats in our quest to see its specialities. Most of the world’s Relict Gulls winter here and we should see a decent number of this and Saunders’s Gull, another poorly known larid. Nanpu’s perhaps best known for its fabulous wader migration and, while most of this will be over by late October, we should see a few of the later migrants and perhaps a few lingering Great Knots and Terek Sandpipers. We could also see large numbers of passerine migrants such as Buff-bellied and Olive-backed Pipits, Little and Pallas’s Reed Buntings along the coastline itself. Small numbers of the gorgeous Reed Parrotbill, arguably east Asia’s most attractive parrotbill, breed at Nanpu and we expect to see a few of these as well as one or two vociferous Chinese Grey Shrikes. While many of the saltpans should hold good numbers of Pied Avocets and Common Shelducks we also hope to find a few migrant waterfowl. Falcated Duck should be one of the commonest and, with a bit of luck, we should be able to find a few Baikal Teal or even some geese. Tundra Bean is the commonest goose in this part of China but there are several others that we might also encounter. Nights in Nanpu.
Day 5: We’ll return to Beijing today aiming to arrive in plenty of time to explore an area north of the city. Several of the tiny marshes around Huairou reservoir hold small numbers of Brown-cheeked (or Eastern) Water Rails while raptors here should include good numbers of Hen and a few lingering Eastern Marsh Harriers, and perhaps an Upland Buzzard or two. Diminutive Chinese Penduline Tits should be possible, their presence betrayed by their faint, breezy calls, while attractive Daurian Redstarts are quite common, as are a whole host of East Asian buntings including Godlewski’s, attractive Pine, Pallas’s and even Japanese Reed Buntings are possible. We could see large flocks of Daurian Jackdaws while other specialities in this part of Beijing include Plain Laughingthrush and the recently split Beijing Babbler, and possibly even Chinese Nuthatch. We’ll spend the night in Huairou town.
Day 6: Leaving Huairou we’ll head back to Beijing airport for a two-hour flight north to Hailar in the mighty Nei Mongol province. Our destination will be Wu’erqihan, a small lumber town, just over a two-hour drive further north but we’re sure to see a few birds such as Common Raven, Steppe Eagle or our first diminutive Long-tailed Rosefinch along the way. After lunch in Wu’erqihan we’ll head out again. We’ll be part of only a small number of foreign birders to have visited this amazing site and to have explored its extensive tracts of larch forest that support an impressive variety of hardy, northern birds. Night in Wu’erqihan.
Days 7-10: Spending four full days around Wu’erqihan will give us plenty of time to discover its many avian riches. The Wu’erqihan area was once extensively logged and we’ll use the old logging tracks around this northern outpost to explore the massive areas of forest in our quest to see our target species. Great Grey Owl, among the most majestic of northern owls, isn’t uncommon here and we’d expect to see several, as we would Northern Hawk-owl. The latter frequently sits, sentinel-like, conspicuously atop a tall conifer and can often be spotted at long range. Ural and Tengmalm’s Owls are also present in these northern forests but they are secretive and we’ll need a bit more luck to connect with either.
We have several species of gamebirds to seek out. Common Pheasant and Hazel Grouse should not be too difficult, and Black Grouse is possible with a modest amount of luck. However, the real prize will be a sighting of the little-known Black-billed Capercaillie. This large gamebird is resident in these cold forests and we’ll be focusing our attentions on finding it. While they’re not particularly rare here they are quite secretive however autumn is the very best time of year to see this enigmatic species. Females are relatively easy to see but hopefully we’ll also connect with a handsome, spotted male.
Turning our attention to smaller birds, Pine Grosbeaks can be similarly elusive but with ample time our chances of finding this species are also quite good. Long-tailed Rosefinch breeds locally, its numbers swollen by migrants in late autumn, and we shouldn’t have any problem finding this diminutive sprite, or its rarer northern cousin, Pallas’s Rosefinch. Siberian Jay is another scarce resident but we know several specific sites and are confident of locating at least one. Rough-legged Buzzard will also be on the agenda, as will a whole host of woodpeckers that includes the diminutive Lesser Spotted, White-backed, Eurasian Three-toed, and the mighty Black. Among the smaller birds there will be frosty Azure Tits and the engaging white-headed caudatus race of Long-tailed Tits to entertain us, along with attractive Asian Rosy Finches, Bohemian Waxwings and, with a bit of luck, a Siberian Accentor. There are mammals to seek out as well with Siberian Roe Deer, Raccoon-dog and possibly Lynx, all ensuring that we’ll never be short of things to look for. Considering the massive areas of pristine landscape that we’ll be surrounded by it will be difficult to believe that we are still in the world’s most populous nation!
We’ll spend four nights in a comfortable, warm hotel in Wu’erqihan and on the evening of Day 9 we will return to Hailar airport for a flight back to Beijing where we’ll spend the night in a hotel near the airport.
Day 11: After a pleasant breakfast, we’ll head south from Beijing taking the expressway to Hengshui Hu, a wetland site that has recently been discovered to hold good numbers of Baer’s Pochard – one of Asia’s rarest and most threatened ducks. Baer’s Pochard breed here and we’ll concentrate on getting good looks at this perilously threatened bird along with other wildfowl including Ferruginous Duck, while other species here also include the attractive and vociferous Reed Parrotbill. We’ll spend the night in another comfortable hotel right besides the lake. Night in Hengshui Hu.
Day 12: We’ll spend the morning around Hengshui Hu, exploring its reed beds, dykes and pools, and mid-afternoon will take a train northwest to Taiyuan, the historic capital of Shanxi province. We’ll spend that night in a hotel near Taiyuan.
Day 13: Leaving early we’ll drive a short distance from Taiyuan to an historic monastery nestled low in the nearby hills. This monastery has recently become known as a brilliant site for seeing the magnificent Brown Eared Pheasant. Although this Chinese endemic is reasonably widespread in northeast China it is rare, secretive and therefore difficult to see well, away from this site. Here, thanks to the protection afforded it by the Buddhist monks, these hulking pheasants have become habituated to people and roam freely around the temple complex and neighbouring woodland. Often giving their presence away by their harsh, husky barked cries and it is not uncommon to see them feeding at almost point blank range. Spotted Nutcrackers are also locally common while other birds around the temple should include include Long-tailed Rosefinches of the rare central Chinese lepidus form. These birds are very different to those we’ll already have seen in Chinese Mongolia and are a likely future split. Night near Taiyuan.
Day 14: After another morning with the Brown Eared Pheasants, we’ll take a high-speed train from Taiyuan back to Beijing arriving in time for dinner. Night close to the airport in Beijing.
Day 15: We’ll transfer to the airport in time for flights back to London where the tour ends later the same day.
Updated: 17 November 2016