Qinghai – Tibetan Plateau
13–31 August 2017
Qinghai, on the Tibetan plateau, boasts towering mountain passes, alpine forest, alpine desert, rugged grassland, marshes and wetlands – a variety of habitat that provides birders with a mouth-watering list of species. This tour will give us the chance to find specialities: Tibetan Bunting, Tibetan Babax, Pallas’s and Tibetan Sandgrouse, Ala Shan Redstart, Przewalski’s Rosefinch and Mongolian Ground-jay plus several mammals.
Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Xining via Beijing.
Days 2–3 After arrival, we need to spend two days around in Xining (which lies at 2200 metres) to help acclimatise for the tour as we will be constantly be above the 3000-metre mark and sometimes approach 5000 metres. Xining's altitude is low enough to be safe from altitude discomfort and high enough to aid acclimatization. The most common discomfort at the beginning of these trips lies with dehydration, which causes a feeling just like a hangover. To combat this we'll be doing a lot of drinking during these first few days but don't get too excited, it will be water and tea! Birding around Xining will be focused on two main sites: Xining Northern Hill, where Chinese Bush-warbler is common and Daurian Partridge is possible, and Dongxia Forest Park where the main target is the range restricted Gansu Leaf Warbler. Other birds we will look for in Xining Northern Hill include Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, Pied Wheatear and Pale Rosefinch and both Godlewski’s and Meadow Buntings. In Dongxiang Forest Park other birds may include Chinese and Przevalski’s Nuthatches, Oriental Skylark, Olive-backed Pipit, Grey-backed Shrike, Chestnut and Chinese Thrushes, Plain Laughingthrush, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Stonechat, Crested Tit-warbler, Hume’s and Yellow-streaked Warblers, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Rufous-vented Tit, Azure-winged Magpie, Daurian Jackdaw, Large-billed Crow, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Common Rosefinch, Grey-headed Bullfinch and Black-faced Bunting. Two nights Xining.
Days 4–6 On the morning of the third day we'll be driving out towards the Kokonor (Qinghai Lake). Although the largest Chinese lake, covering an area of 8300 square kilometres – our main birding sites will actually be away from the lake – Rubber Mountain and the scrubby desert area close to Chaka. Driving through this area we already go over 3000 metres with the lake lying at 3200 metres. In the surrounding grassland we'll first come into contact with species like Rufous-necked and White-rumped Snowfinches and Ground Tit – birds that will remain with us for the whole trip. The grasslands also support Plateau Pikas, which are an important food source for Upland Buzzards and Saker Falcons. The lake is interesting for Bar-headed Goose, Brown-headed Gull, Pallas's Gull, Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Pale Sand Martin, Tibetan Lark and close to Heimahe, there's a good site for Hume's Short-toed Lark. We may even encounter the endangered Pallas’s Fish-eagle. A few kilometres beyond Heimahe is Rubber Mountain and here we look for two of the most important birds of our trip; Ala Shan Redstart and Przevalski's Pinktail. This habitat also supports Blue-fronted Redstart, Brown and Robin Accentors, Alpine Leaf Warbler, White-browed Tit, Red-faced Rosefinch and Tibetan Snowfinch. Three nights Heimahe.
Days 7–8 Today we head west towards the mountains near Chaka where we will look for the endemic Przevalski’s Partridge. Other species we can find here include White-winged Grosbeak and Pine Bunting. Lower down, there is a huge contrast in scenery close to a salt-lake where we can find Mongolian Ground-jay and Pallas's Sandgrouse. This desert area is also good habitat for Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Blanford's Snowfinch and Mongolian Finch whilst marshy areas on the salt lake can give interesting waders including Red-necked Stint. Two nights Chaka.
Days 9–10 Our journey today will take us onto the G214 national highway, a route we'll follow for the remainder of our trip as we head south. A bit of road birding on the first section could give us Mongolian Lark and Pere David's Snowfinch. Our final birding destination is the Erla Pass that will take us over the 4000-metre mark. Here we have a taxing climb up onto a stony plateau that has given sightings of Tibetan Sandgrouse. There's not much field-craft involved in finding this bird: we form a line and trudge up and down hopefully flushing one up. On the way up we have chances for White-winged Redstart, Tibetan Rosefinch (we've found them in the quarry by the side of the road), and Plain and Black-faced Mountain-finches. Tibetan Snowcock can be found here and at this site we have the unique chance to look down on Lammergeiers and Himalayan Griffons. We have nearly two days to bird Erla but one of the big disadvantages of this area is the lack of quality accommodation. This means that we spend nights 9 and 10 in a very simple hotel in Qungag that will only provide outdoor squat toilets. This provides little privacy apart from having separate male and female blocks but it's a case of two nights ‘roughing it’ for some world-class birds.
Day 11 There will be time in the morning to resume our search for any of the speciality birds we may be missing if need be before we continue our journey. En route to Madoi, we will pass through good habitat for a number of species including Hill Pigeon, Little Owl, Eurasian Wryneck, Salim Ali’s Swift, Desert Wheatear, Rock Petronia, and Desert Finch. Of mammal interest, we should also see Blue Sheep. Overnight Madoi.
Day 12 From Madoi we have a long drive down to Nagqian. We will start early so we can scan the wetlands around Madoi for Black-necked Crane. Animals can also be good on this section with Tibetan Gazelle and Kiang. Five nights Nagqian.
Days 13–16 We will visit two main sites in the area. To the northeast is the Kande Pass that provides habitat for the rare and range-restricted Tibetan Bunting. The scenery is absolutely stunning here with Golden Eagle, Tibetan Partridge, Snow Pigeon, Wallcreeper, Grandala, Alpine Accentor, Elliot’s Laughingthrush, Dusky and Greenish Warblers, White-capped Redstart and Chinese Beautiful, Red-fronted and Streaked Rosefinches all possible. To the south lies Baizha Forest where we can find both Tibetan Babax and Buff-throated Partridge. Other species may include Szechneyi’s Partridge, Blood Pheasant, White Eared-pheasant, Black, Grey-headed and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, Rosy Pipit, Himalayan Bluetail, Giant Laughingthrush, Maroon-backed and Rufous-breasted Accentors, White-tailed Rubythroat, White-bellied Redstart, Long-tailed Thrush, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Grey-crested, Japanese and Sichuan Tits, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Black-streaked Scimitar-babbler, Chinese Fulvetta, Sichuan Leaf Warbler, Chinese White-browed and Three-banded Rosefinches and Tibetan Siskin.
Days 17–18 We have to retrace our drive to get back to Xining. It is a long journey but we can stop at suitable sites for any species that we are still missing. We will break the journey in Madoi for the night and arrive in Xining during the late afternoon or evening of Day 18.
Day 19 Morning flight from Xining via Beijing to London where the tour ends.
General Information The weather in Quinghai can be quite variable at this time of year with a wide range of temperatures and some rain likely. The pace of the tour is moderate, with a reasonable level of fitness required for walking, but some long days will be spent in the field with walks at altitudes up to 5,000 metres. There are a number of health requirements and you must consult your GP in this respect. Visas are required. Accommodation will be mostly in medium-standard hotels with private facilities but for two nights we will have to stay in very basic ‘truckers’ accommodation with communal toilets. Food will be mostly ethnic Chinese.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 12 with 2 leaders.