24 June–11 July 2017
This fantastic tour, which sees us birding in the bamboo-rich panda zone and on up to the high alpine grasslands of the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, should enable us to see some of the most enigmatic birds of China, including Blue and White Eared-pheasants, Temminck's Tragopan, Chinese Monal, Tibetan Snowcock, Black-necked Crane, Ground Tit, Firethroat and Rufous-headed Robin. We will also have a chance of finding Red Panda.
Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
Day 2 After arrival at Chengdu Airport, we will drive for about four hours to Wawu Shan, an area of spectacular high peaks and mixed coniferous and evergreen broadleaf forest with a rhododendron and bamboo understorey. It lies very close to Emei Shan, another popular Sichuan birding spot that sports a similar birdlist, but it is far less commercialised and crowded and offers easier access, via cable car and pathways, to areas of prime birding and Red Panda habitat. We will first visit the lower and mid sections. These are areas of mixed forest and bamboo, where Lady Amherst's Pheasant and Temminck's Tragopan are often seen on early morning and late evening drives along the park access road. We will also be looking and listening for Chinese Bamboo-partridge, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo, Red-billed Blue-magpie, Green-backed Flycatcher, Little and White-crowned Forktails, Yellow-bellied and Yellow-browed Tits, Sichuan Bush-warbler, Chinese Babax, Red-billed Leiothrix, Grey-faced Liocichla, Chinese Hwamei, Buffy and Red-winged Laughingthrushes, Golden and Ashy-throated Parrotbills, Streak-throated and Black-streaked Scimitar-babblers, Pygmy Cupwing, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Dusky, Grey-cheeked and Golden-breasted Fulvettas, Black-chinned Yuhina, Bianchi's and Martens's Warblers, Large-billed, Claudia's, Kloss's and Emei Leaf Warblers and Slaty Bunting. In the evenings we will search for Himalayan Owl as well as Flying Squirrels and other night mammals from our base, the park hotel, close to the lower cable car station, where we will spend three nights.
Day 3 Since this site can sometimes be affected by low cloud, our birding schedule on Wawu Shan will be weather-dependent. If the weather is good today, we will ascend to the tabletop summit. At 3000 metres high, the top section is covered by virgin pine forest with a very thick understorey of bamboo. This special habitat houses a very interesting selection of parrotbills and is also a location where we may find Red Panda. Target birds will include Lesser and Oriental Cuckoos, Himalayan Swiftlet, Darjeeling and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Eurasian Nutcracker, Brown, Fulvous, Giant and Grey-hooded Parrotbills, White-bellied Redstart, Golden Bush-robin, White-tailed Robin, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Aberrant, Brown and Spotted Bush-warblers, Buff-barred and Greenish Warblers, Sichuan Treecreeper, Black-faced, Elliot's and Spotted Laughingthrushes, Eye-browed Wren-babbler, Grey-hooded Fulvetta, Stripe-throated and White-collared Yuhinas, Rufous-vented Tit, Gould's Sunbird, Common and Vinaceous Rosefinches and Grey-headed Bullfinch. For those who want a better chance of Red Panda there will be the option to stay away from the park hotel in more primitive accommodation at the top of the mountain and join up with the main group the next morning.
Day 4 Depending upon the weather and on the birds still needed, we can bird either the middle/bottom section or the top section of the mountain.
Day 5 Following some early-morning birding we will drive for about seven hours, via Chengdu, to the Wolong/Balang area. Wolong is well known for its large Giant Panda Reserve and Balang Shan is a stupendous 4500-metre high pass which will give us the opportunity to find high-altitude species. When we reach the area, we will stop and watch birds in the lower Wolong area where we will have our first chance to locate Golden Pheasant, although most encounters with this shy bird will involve hearing its call. We should arrive in time to bird the lower valleys around Sawan where birds may include Temminck's Tragopan, White-throated Needletail, Pacific Swift, Firethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Daurian Redstart, Black-browed, Fire-capped, Pere David's and Yellow-browed Tits, Barred and Spotted Laughingthrushes and Green Shrike-babbler. Three nights in Sawan village at an altitude below 3000 metres.
Day 6 We will start early so we can drive up onto the Balang Shan Pass to look for pheasants, including Chinese Monal, Blood and Koklass Pheasants, White Eared-pheasant and Verreaux's Partridge, which can be found at the edge of the forest. At the very top of the pass, at 4500 metres, we will look for Tibetan Snowcock, Snow Partridge, Grandala and Red-fronted Rosefinch, but our chances will be very much in the hands of the weather as low cloud is a common problem at this location. Other birds we may see during the day include Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Snow Pigeon, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits, Chestnut and White-backed Thrushes, Buff-throated Warbler, Alpine Leaf Warbler, White-browed Tit-warbler, Blue-fronted and White-throated Redstarts, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Giant Laughingthrush, White-browed Fulvetta, White-winged and Collared Grosbeaks, Common, Dark-breasted, Chinese Beautiful and White-browed Rosefinches, Alpine Accentor and Plain and Black-headed Mountain-finches, while Blue Sheep are regularly spotted on the rocky summits.
Day 7 Wood Snipe occurs in the Balang Shan Pass area but, to see the roding birds, we will have to be on the pass before dawn, which means a very early departure. We will also have further chances for pheasants and, if we have time, we will traverse the Balang Shan pass to the Rilong side, which will give us our best opportunity to see Himalayan Rubythroat and Crested Tit-warbler.
Day 8 This morning we will bird the lower valleys of Wolong if we still need Golden Pheasant and to have another look for Firethroat. After lunch we will again drive over the Balang pass but this time carry on along the road for another couple of hours and stay overnight in the town of Xaojing at an altitude of under 3000 metres.
Day 9 The three-hour drive to Mengbi Mountain will take us over another 4000-metre-high pass and into Sichuan Jay country. The more energetic of us will be able to access small, steep-sided valleys, where the willow scrub conceals Chinese Grouse, while those who want easier birding will be able to scan Alpine forest and high grassland from the roadside. Our target birds today will include Sichuan Jay, White Eared-pheasant, Severtzov's Grouse, Chinese Fulvetta, Long-tailed Thrush, Chinese Beautiful, Three-banded and Pink-rumped Rosefinches. The top of the pass is another location where we will have a chance of picking up Chinese Monal and Crested Tit-warbler. Overnight in the large and important town of Maerkang, again below the 3000-metre mark.
Day 10 After breakfast we will drive up onto the high Ruo Er Gai grasslands. The 170-kilometre drive is normally long and tortuous but, by the time of our visit, the new road should be completed, cutting our journey time down to just three hours. Ruo Er Gai is a vast high-altitude grassland at an elevation of just under the 4000 metres. Here we should find one best of the birds of the tour: Black-necked Crane. Other target birds will include Ring-necked Pheasant, Ruddy Shelduck, Ferruginous Duck, Brown-headed and Pallas's Gulls, Whiskered Tern, Upland Buzzard, Black (Black-eared) Kite, Sichuan Tit, Pere David's Laughingthrush, Azure-winged Magpie, Dusky Warbler and Citrine Wagtail. Overnight at Hongyuan at an altitude of 3500 metres.
Day 11 Today we will drive for 150 kilometres over the high grassland to Ruo Er Gai Town, looking for Black-necked Crane en route. We will also check out some of the quarries for nesting Eurasian Eagle-owl while other speciality birds may include Tibetan Partridge, White-rumped and Rufous-necked Snowfinches, Ground Tit, Chinese Grey Shrike and Rock Petronia. Two nights at Ruo Er Gai, at an altitude of 3500 metres.
Day 12 A forty-minute drive will take us to Baxi, where the plateau grassland meets Alpine forest habitat, perfect for Blue Eared-pheasant, Sichuan Leaf Warbler and Yellow-streaked Warbler. The scrub areas at the edge of the grassland are also good for White-browed Tit and this is another good Severtzov's Grouse location. Sukatschev's Laughingthrush can also be found in the area. In the afternoon we will visit Flower Lake, which is the best location for Tibetan Lark. On certain sections of the grassland there are vast numbers of Black-lipped Pika and Himalayan Marmot so we will keep our eyes open for Tibetan Fox and Wolf. Birds of prey, particularly Upland Buzzard, are always seen in good numbers around the Pika colonies and we will have a good chance of a seeing Saker Falcon. Black-necked Cranes and Lesser Sand-plovers are also found in the area.
Day 13 In the morning we will have another chance to explore the Baxi area, after which we will drive to Jiuzhaigou, hopefully along the new road presently under construction and scheduled to open in 2012, over a 4000 metre high pass and through Tibetan Snowcock and Sichuan Jay habitat. If we arrive with daylight left, we will enter Jiuzhaigou National Park to try to pick up a couple specialties, Spectacled Fulvetta and Spectacled Parrotbill. With no accommodation in the park itself, we will spend the next three nights in a hotel just outside the park at an altitude of just under 3000 metres.
Day 14 All day will be spent in Jiuzhaigou National Park on a mission to see the near-mythical Rufous-headed Robin. Hopefully the bird will be singing but, even then, it is an incredibly difficult bird to see. We will also look for Blood Pheasant, Snowy-browed Nuthatch, Chinese and Long-tailed Thrushes, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Maroon-backed Accentor, Chinese Leaf Warbler, Grey-crested and Sooty Tits and Tibetan Serin.
Day 15 Our second full day's birding at Jiuzhaigou will give us another opportunity to locate Rufous-headed Robin. If we were successful yesterday, however, we will concentrate on other areas in this primeval forest: the rare Pere David's Owl has been spotted in full daylight at this site. Although popular park areas can be full of noisy tourist groups, the birds seem well habituated to this environment and often seen surprisingly unaffected by the bustle of visitors. Other sections of the park, especially the boardwalks that lead between sites, are often amazingly quiet. We will spend time looking for species we may have missed yesterday and enjoying the spectacular scenery of the park with its wonderful forests and waterfalls. New birds may include Bar-tailed Treecreeper. Sometimes, Takin can be seen grazing on the high grasslands.
Day 16 Today we must drive back to Chengdu. This will take about eight hours but we will stop for birding en route. At Pingwu, we will search for Collared Scops-owl in the old temple. Two nights in Chengdu.
Day 17 This morning we will go to the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, but not only for Giant Pandas as it is also a good birding site, with both Yellow-billed Grosbeak and Vinous-throated Parrotbill possible. In the afternoon we will visit a river location in the south of the city where we can find Long-billed Plover and other birds may include Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Rufous-faced Warbler, Plain Prinia, White-browed Laughingthrush and Forest Wagtail.
Day 18 Sadly, we will have to return to Chengdu airport for our international flight home, arriving back in London late evening.
General Information The weather in Sichuan 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 easy, with only a moderate level of fitness required for walking, but some long days will be spent in the field with walks at altitudes up to 4,600 metres. There are a number of health requirements and you must consult your GP in this respect. Visas are required. Accommodation is in medium-standard hotels all with private facilities. A mixture of western and Chinese food will be available.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 14 with 3 leaders.