Saturday 5 November 2016

China Wetlands - Background and Day 1 and 2 - Travel and Beijing Area

I have only ever been on one organised group tour and that was the Sunbird tour to Kenya back in January 2004 and I have always preferred to travel with groups of friends but when I read the account of the Birdquest China Wetlands Tour running in 2016 I was very tempted to join. The headline species for me were Siberian White Crane (I actually came across the tour by Googling where to see this species), Hooded Crane, White-naped Crane, Red-crowned Crane, Scaly-sided Merganser, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Baikal Teal and Falcated Duck plus a good selection of eastern buntings and thrushes that I had not seen before. So, temptation overwhelming me I booked the trip and couldn’t wait to head east for all these mouth-watering new birds.

The tour ran from 5th-18th November with an optional extension to Guizhou for four days after the trip. I opted not to join the extension, the main species was Black-necked Crane which I had seen before in Tibet otherwise the species were largely a selection of laughingthrush, babblers and some additional montane species. There were relatively low numbers of new birds and thus I could not warrant the additional time-off or cost. The main tour was priced at £3,480 and I paid for the single room supplement of an additional £351 plus international flights. However, the cost of the tour was increased by £556 after the fall in the value of the pound following the farcical moment of UK history delivered following the referendum vote on 23rd June.

My travel companions were:
  • Alec and Catherine Gillespie (British living in Australia);
  • Bill Porteous (Shetland Islander living in Panama); and
  • Rienk Nieuwland (Dutch).
And our leader was Hannu Jannes from Finland. Birdquest dealt with all the travel arrangements but for the booking of the international flight (although they are able to deal with flight arrangements) and obtaining visa’s (although all required paperwork was provided) – this was easy after the complex arrangements for my Alaska trip earlier in the year. Birdquest booked my internal flight at the end of the trip from Fuzhou to Shanghai.

The weather throughout the trip was overcast and dull (poor for photography) with some heavy rain (mainly overnight). Mornings were often misty and damp. It was mostly cold, even very cold (thermals, gloves and multiple layers required) and the normal birding attire was a down jacket and Gore-tex with walking boots and, regularly, wellies. We had one very windy morning on the 8th November and one largely sunny mid-morning to late-afternoon on the 11th November after a very murky start. The 17th November was warm and sunny with temperatures around 25c – this was unseasonably warm.

Photography on the trip was generally hampered by three factors, firstly, the weather was mainly overcast and dull with frequent fog, mist or rain. Secondly, many of the birds were present either within woodlands and hence light levels were low or were on wetland habitats and thus birds more distant. Finally, the birds in China do not allow close approach, this is probably mainly due to the Chinese insistence on hunting birds (and most other wildlife) and hence they do not allow close approach. This latter factor became very apparent through the presence of hung Bittern ready for eating within one of the hotels we stayed in. Hence, these are my excuses for generally fairly poor photographs with a lot of noise!

I took with me Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 400mm DO Mark II and a Canon 1.4 Mark III Extender. Largely this was combination was okay but in many places I could have done with the extra reach of my 500mm but the downside of this lens is the bulk and weight. While walks were not particularly lengthy carrying the 500mm lens all day in the field can be hard work so on balance I think the 400mm was a good option. I also took with me my Swarovski ATX 80 telescope which was essential and I often birded with my scope and the camera slung over my shoulder, this would not have been possible with the 500mm lens.

  • 4th November (Day 1) – Fly London Heathrow to Beijing 10:45-05:30 (12 hour flight with Beijing being 8 hours ahead of UK.
  • 5th November (Day 2) – Land Beijing then birding in the afternoon at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. Night in Auspicious Business Hotel, Beijing.
  • 6th November (Day 3) – Birding orchards in Dingling area of the Ming Tombs then overnight train from Beijing to Yancheng. Night on train from Bejing to Yancheng.
  • 7th November (Day 4) – Arrive Yancheng early AM then birding around Yancheng (Reed farm and Yancheng Crane Nature Reserve). Night Qing Shan Hotel, Quigyanggang.
  • 8th November (Day 5) – Birding Yancheng area (fish ponds south of Qingyanggang and grounds of the Agricultural Institute). Night Qing Shan Hotel, Quigyanggang.
  • 9th November (Day 6) – Birding Yangcheng at the Reed Factory then drive (110km) south to Dongtai. Afternoon birding Dongtai and Magic Wood at Yangkou. Night Dafeng Hotel, Yanghou.
  • 10th November (Day 7) – Morning birding Dongtai then long drive (c.600km) to Wuyuan rest of the day. Night Huayi Hotel, Wuyuan.
  • 11th November (Day 8) – Birding Kengkou morning then drive to Xiao Qi for lunch before driving rest of the afternoon to Nancheng (c.300km). Night Galactic Peace International Hotel, Nancheng.
  • 12th November (Day 9) – Most of day birding Nanjishan before heading to Poyang Hu late afternoon. Night Hexiang Hotel, Poyang Hu.
  • 13th November (Day 10) – Birding Wu Cheng area of Poyang Hu Reserve all day. Night Hexiang Hotel, Poyang Hu.
  • 14th November (Day 11) – Wu Cheng area early AM then drive to Emeifeng Mountain. This was a change to the Birdquest itinerary and was initiated due to the thick fog at Wu Cheng. Night Garden Lodge, Emeifeng Mountain.
  • 15th November (Day 12) – Birding Emeifeng Mountain all day. Night Garden Lodge, Emeifeng Mountain.
  • 16th November (Day 13) – Morning birding Emeifeng Mountain then drive to Changle, Fuzhou. Night in Jinfeng Guohui Hotel, Changle. 
  • 17th November (Day 14) – Birding Shanyutan Island and adjacent wetland reserve and agricultural area. Night in Jinfeng Guohui Hotel, Changle. 
  • 18th November (Day 15) – Birding in Nanshan Park Fuzhou from 08:00-10:00 then fly Fuzhou to Shanghai 13:20-14:50. Long stopover in Shanghai Airport the fly British Airways Shanghai to London 01:55-06:50 (12.55-hour flight).

4th-5th November
I was up at 04:30 and dashed around the house gathering the last of my bits before heading up to Terminal 5 Heathrow. I arrived at 06:45 giving me almost four hours before my flight. So after security I did some brief browsing in the shops before heading for the British Airways lounge for breakfast and champagne. The flight departed on time and all was good. I managed some sleep on the flight and chatted to a fellow passenger. We flew due east from the UK over Moscow and the south-east over Omsk, the Altai Mountains and Ular Batan. As we approached Beijing the captain announced that there was smog (well, he said fog but on landing a little later the blue haze of a thick smog was distinctive) at Beijing and that the plane would have to circle to wait for a clear space. But after 40 minutes of circling another announcement was that we were running low on fuel and would have to land at Shanghai Airport to the south so off we set. It was very smoggy at Shanghai also so I had thoughts that we may not be able to take off. Anyway, after at least two hours of waiting and negotiating an airspace we were off to Beijing eventually landing at 11:00 on 5th November.

Custom clearance was very efficient and eventually I was with our driver and heading through the dense traffic and smog that typifies modern day Beijing. The population of the city is now over 21 million people up from 13.5 million people in 2010. The traffic in the city was heavy (there are over 10 million cars in the city) and at one point we did a u-turn on a slip road seeing that the motorway ahead was at a standstill with people even turning around on the motorway to drive the opposite direction to the flow of the traffic. After a long flight I soon fell asleep in the back of the car and when I awoke we were in a more wooded landscape and I could see the Great Wall of China snaking its way up and down the hillsides. Arriving at Badaling at around 13:15 I met the other members of the tour who had just had lunch. The area was heaving with people, the Great Wall receives 20 million visitors per year, and after a short look for a Siberian Accentor that the group had seen earlier we headed out of this rather unpleasant area to the Yeahu Wetland.

The Yeyahu Nature Reserve, a 25 minute drive from Badaling, was far more tranquil, a vast wetland area with reedbeds far more extensive than I had ever seen before. Chinese families fed ducks and cycled around the shores of one of the lakes and tower hides allowed sweeping views of the scene. Yet, the smog still hung thinly in the air. First stop was at a lake where scanning the Black-headed Gull flocks we found a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake which seemed rather out of place being approximately 250 kilometres from the sea. Other birds were Common GoldeneyeArctic Herring Gull of the race mongolicus (sometimes split as Mongolian Herring Gull) and Red-breasted Merganser – it was almost like birding at home. The reedbeds produced calling flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbill, with Silver-throated Tit, Great Tit of the race minor (sometimes split as Japanese Tit) and Pallas’s Bunting while the familiar ‘ping’ of Bearded Parrotbill added a familiar touch to the scene. We headed for one of the very impressive tower hides and climbed to the top platform where we spent around an hour scanning. The highlight here was undoubtedly a flock of nine Baer’s Pochard which fed on a reed flanked pool with Falcated Duck (25) and Common Coot. This species is now Critically Endangered undergoing an extremely rapid population decline and it is thought that hunting and wetland destruction are the key reasons for its decline. Its population was most recently estimated by BirdLife International at just 150–700 mature individuals and considered to be still declining. Although a little distant, the white-eyes, pale flanks, long sloping forehead and bill and green tinged heads were visible. Other birds here included Ruddy Shelduck (eight), Common Crane (30), Eastern Marsh Harrier (one) and Hen Harrier (one). We birded here until 17:00 before battling with the traffic of Beijing to our hotel, the Auspicious Business Hotel arriving at 18:35 before heading to a nearby restaurant for my first Chinese meal of the trip.

Silver-throated Tit - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Pallas's Reed Bunting (female) - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Pallas's Reed Bunting (female) - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Chinese Grey Shrike - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Mew Gull (probably of race heinei)- Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Baer's Pochard - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Chinese Spot-billed Duck - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

View over the extensive reedbeds from the Tower Hide - Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

End of the day at Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

End of the day at Yeyahu Nature Reserve, Beijing

Life Birds;
  • Chinese Spot-billed Duck
  • Falcated Duck
  • Baer’s Pochard
  • Vinous-throated Parrotbill
  • Silver-throated Tit
  • Pallas’s Bunting
Links to Other Days of the Trip (Click to View)