Thursday, 17 May 2018

South-east China - 25th April (Day 4)

We were up at 05:00 and after packing our bags commenced the short drive to the Dongtai sandflats area for our final birding session at this superb site. After breakfast of bread, bananas and sweet coffee we walked the kilometre or so across the sandflats to the waters edge. The main goal was to try to improve on our views of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. At the waters edge we walked southwards closely following the waters edge and scanning the vast flocks of superb summer plumaged Red-necked Stint as they busily fed on unseen morsels. Close investigation of the sand surface revealed many tidy polychaete worm trails, molluscs and crustaceans which fuel the birds on their north bound journey and make this site of major importance. Amongst the stint were lesser numbers of Greater Sandplover, Lesser Sandplover, Great Knot, Red Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Dunlin and Curlew Sandpiper all resplendent in their summer finery and all with the same aim of feeding and moving northbound to the Siberian tundra to breed. Alas, after two hours of searching there was no sign of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and we decided to head to the seawall scrub to search for passerine migrants. We worked our way westwards but the strong winds hampered our efforts and we saw relatively little, new species that we had not seen here yesterday were Oriental Reed-warbler, Chinese Grosbeak and Green-backed Flycatcher. On the lagoons were Pintail, Garganey and Shoveler as well as Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Black-faced Spoonbill and Saunder’s Gull.

Boarding the bus we headed one hour to the south to Yankou and the fabled Magic Wood which I had last visited on 9th November 2016. This rather unattractive area with bird park, modern hotels, golf courses, imposing wind turbines and littered with waste plastic and polystyrene makes one wonder why it is evidently such a popular spot for Chinese tourists. We birded the avenue of trees that is the Magic Wood seeing relatively little, the highlights being a cracking White’s Thrush, two Dusky Thrush, Silver-throated Tit, Yellow-browed Bunting and at least six Chinese Grosbeak. After a superb lunch of various Chinese dishes which included sweet and sour pork, liver in a black bean sauce, spicy cauliflower, sweet and sour aubergine and pork strips we began the five-hour drive south to Minjiang.

We arrived at Minjiang just as it was getting dark and birded the area around the hotel but it was probably a little late and we saw little but for a few common species such as Barn SwallowLong-tailed Shrike, Dusky Warbler and Crested Myna.

Mixed flock of Red Knot, Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover - Dongtai, Yancheng

Mixed flock of Red Knot, Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit - Dongtai, Yancheng

Lesser Black-backed Gull of subspecies heuglini - Dongtai, Yancheng

Lesser Black-backed Gull of subspecies heuglini - Dongtai, Yancheng

Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Gull-billed Tern - Dongtai, Yancheng

Olive-backed Pipit - Dongtai, Yancheng

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai, Yancheng

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai, Yancheng

Female Green-backed Flycatcher - Dongtai, Yancheng

Birding the Magic Wood, Yankhou

Landscape just outside the Magic Wood, Yankhou

Monday, 14 May 2018

South-east China - 24th April (Day 3)

Our first full birding day and we were raring to go, we were up at 05:00 and into the bus by 05:30 we were on site at the Dongtai seawall by 05:45 where we had breakfast of banana, Snicker’s bars and various bread with hot sweet coffee on the seawall. Scanning during our breakfast produced numerous Red-necked Stint running around on the sand, a flock of 60 Black-faced Spoonbill dozing on the lagoons, multiple Yellow-browed Warbler calling from the seawall scrub and best of all a flock of 15 Little Whimbrel that flew overhead. Once again, we began our birding in pursuit of Spoon-billed Sandpiper  and headed out over the sand flats to the waters edge seeing large numbers of waders with Long-toed Stint being new for the trip. Unfortunately, by the time we had reached the waters edge the tide was well on its way out and the birds remained a long way off and the hard sand was turning to sticky mud. So turning back inland we checked the large numbers of waders on the dryer sand seeing much the same range of species as yesterday but got much better views of many of them including great views of Lesser Sandplover, Greater Sandplover, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

We spent much of the remainder of the day working the white flowered leguminous scrub that has been planted on the landward slope of the seawall. There were clearly good numbers of migrant around and we recorded Tristams Bunting, Yellow-browed Bunting, Black-faced Bunting, Pale-legged Leaf-warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Alstrom’s Warbler, Korean Bush-warbler, Olive-backed Pipit, Grey-backed Thrush, Pale Thrush and Dusky Thrush. One of the highlights for me was a stunning Rufous-tailed Robin found by Andy D which eventually showed well as it hung out with a female Daurian Redstart.

We had reserved the final part of the day to try for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper once again, but with heavy rain and a force 5-6 northerly wind most of us bowed out leaving Andy D to head out to the waters edge with Tang-Jun while the rest of us worked a different area of scrub. We didn’t add a great deal to the list of species we had seen earlier but for a skulking Siberian Rubythroat. Andy D managed to find a winter plumaged Spoon-billed Sandpiper right in the dying hours of daylight – he was very please with this and he certainly deserved his reward in the fairly dire weather conditions. We toasted Andy's success over some cold beers in the evening and planned to head back to this fantastic birding spot tomorrow for our final morning.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Three Lesser Sandplover with Greater Sandplover (centre bird), Kentish Plover and Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Greater Sandplover and Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Greater Sandplover and Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Lesser Sandplover - Dongtai, Yancheng

Red-necked Stint - Dongtai, Yancheng

Mixed wader flock with Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Greater Sandplover, Lesser Sandplover and Broad-billed Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Exhausted Barn Swallows on the sand - Dongtai, Yancheng

 Merlin of one of the eastern subspecies, presumably pacificus - Dongtai, Yancheng

Breakfast - Dongtai, Yancheng

Birding at Dongtai, Yancheng

Birding at Dongtai, Yancheng

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit - Dongtai, Yancheng

Terek Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Terek Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Marsh Sandpiper - Dongtai, Yancheng

Light-vented Bulbul - Dongtai, Yancheng

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher - Dongtai, Yancheng

Yellow-browed Bunting - Dongtai, Yancheng

We were a bit stuck with the identification of this Bunting but believe it to be a female Black-faced Bunting - Dongtai, Yancheng

Altrom's Warbler - Dongtai, Yancheng

Yellow-browed Warbler - Dongtai, Yancheng

Korean Bush-warbler - Dongtai, Yancheng

Rufous-tailed Robin - Dongtai, Yancheng

Daurian Redstart - Dongtai, Yancheng

Sunday, 13 May 2018

China (SE and Xianjiang) - Background and Day 1 and 2

Having visited south-east China in November 2016 and having dipped Cabot’s Tragopan I had, since then, had plans to go back and try again for this species plus Blue-capped Laughingthrush and Chinese Crested Tern so when Ian Merrill contacted me about a trip to south-east China for these species I leapt at it – even before I had told Sarah. In addition, the plan was to go for Reeve’s Pheasant and then to Xianjiang in the north-west of China for Xianjiang Ground-jay, Blue-capped Redstart, Eversmann’s Redstart and Red-mantled Rosefinch. There were a potential 25 or so ticks for me but I thought that if I got 30 ticks that would be good going.

The entire trip was booked by Ian through Tang-Jun of China Bird Tour ( and I had little involvement in the itinerary. Tang-Jun was very responsive to email and the trip was generally very well planned with just the right amount of time to see all the birds at each of the sites. While Tang-Jun is clearly good at the organisation of a trip and was invaluable for sorting day to day logistics we didn’t consider him a great bird guide. He knew the locations of the birds and new of specific territories and approximate areas of where to find the key species but his knowledge of bird calls and general field identification skills fell short of what one would expect of a good bird guide. It was largely left to us to find and identify the birds and as a result we certainly missed a fair few ‘padders’. He was also often to be found on the phone while on trails or loitering around the vehicle smoking while we were birding rather than out with us finding the birds – this was largely left to us. Personally, I felt that for the money we had paid (around £4,000 each all inclusive) we should have had an excellent birder and logistical manager which Tan-Jun was not. That said I would have little hesitation in recommending Tan-Jun but I would definitely not take it for granted that he will show you all the Phylloscopus warblers (for example) and I would definitely try and negotiate on the price for this very reason. Throughout the trip, Tang-Jun had organised transportation (generally a bus and driver) and booked all of the accommodation. All food and water was provided within the cost and we had to pay for personal items, mainly beer, ourselves.

My travel companions for the trip were Ian Merrill, Andy Deighton, Barry Wright, Volkert van der Willigen, Martin Kennewll and Andy Bunting. I had travelled extensively with all previously and it was great to spend time with a group that gets on so well for an extended period of time.

The weather during the trip was very variable. At Dongtai on the first couple of days it was cool and overcast with a strong wind and showers. The middle section of the trip was generally variable with a few showers, sunny periods and temperatures of around 15-24c. At Emeifeng we experienced a fair amount of fog and rain, typical of this site which is located at around 1,500m. In the Taklamakan Desert in Xianjiang in the north-west of China it was dry and warm with temperatures around 27c. In contrast, in the Tian Shan Mountains in Xianjiang, we had a day of heavy snow settling to around 15cm and temperatures of around 0c. We were under-prepared for the snow and it was a cold days birding!

Generally this was a very comfortable journey with few health issues encountered and hygiene standards and accommodation were largely good. There were many mosquitos at in Xianjiang and as a result the site was quite an unpleasant place to bird. We also contracted a bout of food poisoning from the aeroplane food when we flew from Wuhan to Urumqi with Urumqi Air. The day after the flight, and with a five hour drive to complete, most of us were feeling decidedly dodgy and multiple toilet stops were made. The accommodation at the top of Emeifeng is of a poor standard being damp and dirty with mouldy beds. I understand that others stay in the village at the bottom of the mountain and this may well be a better option, although where we stayed the birding was on our doorstep.

Photographic opportunities on the trip were generally good although at Emeifeng weather conditions were far from suitable with fog and rain. I took with me my Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 400mm DO Mark II and a Canon 1.4 Mark III Extender.  Largely this combination was suitable for the conditions.

Summary Itinerary
  • 21st April (Day 1) – International flight from London Heathrow at 13:40.
  • 22nd April (Day 2) – Landed Shaghai Airport at 08:00. Drive to Jianggang. Birding Dongtai PM. Night Green Tree Hotel, Jianggang.
  • 23rd April (Day 3) – Birding Dongtai all day. Night Green Tree Hotel, Jianggang.
  • 24th April (Day 4) – Birding Dongtai AM. Then drive to Yangkou to bird Magic Wood. Drive to Mingjiang to south-east of Shanghai. Night Holiday Inn, Mingjiang.
  • 25th April – Birding Nanhui in the Mingjiang area then fly Shanghai to Fuzhou at 16:30.
  • 26th April – Birding on Shanutan Island AM and then to Fuzhou Forest Park PM. Night in Fuzhou close to Forest Park.
  • 27th April – Birding Fuzhou Forest Park AM then drive (7 hours) to Emeifeng. Birding Emeifeng PM. Night in the accommodation at the top of Emeifeng.
  • 28th April - Birding Emeifeng all day. Night in the accommodation at the top of Emeifeng.
  • 29th April - Birding Emeifeng all day. Night in the accommodation at the top of Emeifeng.
  • 30th April – Birding Emeifeng AM and then 8-hour drive to Wuyuan. Birding Wuyuan PM. Night at Wuyuan.
  • 1st May – Birding Wuyuan area all day. Night at Wuyuan.
  • 2nd May – Drive of around 10-hours from Wuyuan to Dongzhai. Birding Dongzhai PM. Night Dongzhai.  
  • 3rd May - Dongzhai birding all day. Night at Dongzhai.
  • 4th May – Birding Dongzhai AM then drive to Wuhan. Flight from Wuhan to Urumqi (13:30) then to Korlor landing at 20:40. Night in Korlor.
  • 5th May – Drive 6-hours from Korlor to Luntain. Then birding in the Taklamakan Desert south of Xiaotang PM. Night in Luntain.
  • 6th May – Birding in the Taklamakan Desert south of Xiaotang PM. Then drive 5 hours to Korlor and fly to Urumqi at 18:45. Night Urumqi.
  • 7th May – Birding at Nanshan in the Tien Shan Mountains until 17:00 then drive to Urumqi (1 hour) and fly to Beijing at 18:15 landing at 22:45. Hotel in Beijing.
  • 8th May – International flight departing Beijing at 11:15 and landing at London Heathrow at 15:30 (duration 10 hours 30 minutes).
Map showing the key sites and species recorded during our trip. Zoom into map and click on pins for more details.

21st and 22nd April - International Flight and Dongtai Sandflats, Rudong, Jiangsu
Heading to Heathrow Airport at 09:00 on 21st April, I made good time and was through check-in and security by 11:00 giving me a couple of hours to relax in the British Airways lounge before my 13:40 flight to Shanghai. Boarding the bus to the aeroplane, I met with Barry, Ian, Andy D and Andy B before we were transported, seemingly halfway across the airport to our awaiting plane. I spent the 10.5-hour flight reading up on the birds we would be looking for, having a few glasses of wine and catching up on some much needed sleep – the previous week had been hectic at work and I had been suffering from a definite case of sleep deprivation. Our flight made good progress and while we arrived around 15 minutes early the long taxi across Shanghai Airport meant that we were on stand at around 08:00, our scheduled arrival time. Passing through the formalities of the airport we emerged at around 09:15 where Volkert and Tan-Jun (our guide) were waiting for us and we were soon on the bus heading out of city north bound to Jianggang. We drove through the rather featureless Chinese landscape of arable fields, wind turbines, new towns and seemingly empty tower blocks before eventually turning off the main road to the coast and past a vast solar farm through coastal reclamation to the seawall that borders the Dongtai sandflats. I was last here on 10th November 2016 and there seemed to have been a great deal of change with new car parking areas and a large expansion in the area of lagoons and excavations occurring behind the seawall.

We first headed north along the seawall and scanned the mudflats. There were vast numbers of wader with many thousands of birds present seemingly carpeting the mudflats. We recorded Red-necked Stint (probably the most abundant species), Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Far-eastern Curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Asiatic Dowitcher, Lesser Sandplover, Greater Sandplover, Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Knot, Red Knot, Redshank and Greenshank. Overhead were the constant ‘kek’ calls of beautiful summer plumaged Saunder’s Gull – small dainty gulls somewhat like a mix of Franklin’s Gull and Little Gull – real stunning little birds. These calls were mixed with the display calls of Common Tern of the subspecies longipennis and those of Little Tern. Driving further south along the coast we wandered across the now sand-based substrate and the prime feeding area of our main target here, Spoon-billed Sandpiper. As we walked we scanned the large flocks of waders which were dominated by Red-necked Stint, Barry eventually picked up a Spoon-billed Sandpiper but the rest of us failed to get onto it as it wandered into the main flock part of which then took flight. We wandered further to the waters edge and I located a further Spoon-billed Sandpiper but amongst the large number of Red-necked Stint the others failed to get a good view and I eventually lost the bird amongst the throngs. We also added Gull-billed Tern and Caspian Tern to the list but failed to get everyone onto the main target. Still, we had all day tomorrow at the site to try and we headed to the hotel for much needed dinner, beer and bed.

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Saunder's Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

The constant calls of Saunder's Gull created the soundscape as they flew overhead at Dongtai

We initially identified this gull as Vega Gull but now consider it to be a Mongolian Gull, any comments would be gratefully received. HBW makes life easy, they lump Mongolian and Vega with American Herring Gull and call the three aggregated subspecies Arctic Herring Gull - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Probable Mongolian Gull, same bird as above - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Common Tern of eastern subspecies longipennis - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Common Tern of eastern subspecies longipennis - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Little Tern - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Little Tern - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Far Eastern Curlew - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Far Eastern Curlew - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Far Eastern Curlew, note the dark rump that distinguishes this species from Eurasian Curlew - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Far Eastern Curlew - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Large flock of mixed waders - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong

Red-necked Stint, Greater Sandplover and Kentish Plover - Dongtai Sandflats. Rudong