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A photo essay from Phil's recent visit to the Far East.



In February, I travelled to China to set up two tours. One involved trying to see Giant Panda in the wild, the other was to establish whether it was possible to see the countries most iconic birds.



Arriving at Xi'an, I quickly checked in to his hotel & had a quick walk around the local park,




My hotel at Xi'an (above) and the tranquil scene in the local park.



Brown-breasted Bulbul was a common bird in local parks.




It was still winter and light snow greeted us at the entrance to Foping Nature reserve. Here a wonderful gate had been made in the shape of a panda's eyes.




We set off walking towards the research station as horses brought our bags. On the way, we quickly located Songar Tits and various woodpeckers, but the star was undoubtedly the delightful Sooty Tits (above).





The trail to the research station was excellent. A concrete path followed a stream lined with moss-covered rocks and bamboo.




Brown Dippers and Little Forktails (below) accompanied us on our way.




An new accommodation block had just been finished  at the research station. The photo above was taken from my bedroom in it. The staff and wardens lived in the blocks in the photo.





Dawn the next day was cool but warmer than expected for February.





Elliot's Laughingthrush: Flocks of bulbuls and Laughingthrushes would descend on the berry-laden bushes around the buildings.






Our trackers gathered and set off to search for pandas.  These guys are incredible. They were brought up in a tiny village nearby & spent their childhoods roaming these forests. They know all the favourite hangouts for large mammals.





Meanwhile I ambled along the forest trails in search of birds like Golden Pheasant, Naumann's Thrushes and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.





We would regularly pass panda footprints and pooh on the trail. There were clearly a lot of pandas here. The two big green lumps in the photo were very fresh!!






We bumped into bird flocks that allowed excellent views. Many families were new to European birders, while common birds were represented by different races. The Golden-breasted Fulvetta (above) was a personal favourite.


The Chinese Coal Tit differs from ours by having a crest!




PANDA !!!!!..............."Quick run"




Our trackers had found a panda asleep up a tree & this was on the first day!!!




We quietly watched it, while taking the odd photo. He waited to see if it had noticed the sound of the shutter, but luckily the wind was in my face and the panda remained oblivious to our presence.




The panda did not realise we were there and licked its lips. It gently started to stir .






It stretched and groomed its dirty feet, still drowsy and bleary-eyed. The trackers told us it was a female, hiding from the males that were searching for mates.

As she climbed down the tree, someone cracked a twig and off she ran. This was no tame animal and the speed that it moved meant there was no chance to follow it in the dense bamboo. That day we found 3 pandas!!!!! that is luck!







That night we celebrated our panda and the pressure was off. We could chat with the locals while planning the next day's birding.





Day 2




The village below the research station was a great place to look for farmland birds.

The gardens were full of pheasants at dawn. Later they were joined by flocks of rosefinches, buntings, yuhinas and bulbuls.



Blue-fronted Redstart




Elegant Bunting (or Yellow-throated Bunting)





Red-billed Blue Magpies were very common here.




A grey-headed Lapwing fed in the small fields next to the village.





Day 3..........back in the forest





Spectacled Fulvetta: Various species of fulvetta and parrotbill called from dense bamboo




Our trackers took us up a steep valley to a place where we could search for Giant Flying Squirrels.




More than 1m across, this was a flying carpet!!!!.......the most amazing of sights.




Day 4.............Golden Monkey day!

Yet another action-filled day. We decided that it was worth trying to reach high elevation to search for this special primate. Not normally a monkey-lover, these cuties had a soft powder blue face that complemented their golden coats.





Day 5, 6, 7, 8...........

Having seen most of the target mammals, Phil concentrated on birds.

Plumbeous Redstart (above) darted among the boulder-filled streams and Collared Finchbill (below) sand from rhododendron scrub.









Grey-headed Bullfinches fed in the weedy meadows and Red-flanked bluetails chased Blue-fronted Redstarts (below) by the houses.





Day 9...........SNOW!!!!

Now I know the Qinling mountains get a lot of snow in winter, but I assumed that winter was over having only seen it on the high peaks. Dawn today was a BIG shock.

Even more exciting was the panda tracks that led straight by our window!!





Rufous-breasted Accentors fed around the village gardens







The scenery was incredible, a photographer's dream.








We were able to follow the tracks of Serow (a strange kind of deer) and the Golden Takin (above). This was a strange mammal that looked like a strange kind of massive forest bison. They live in the forests in winter, but go up to alpine meadows in summer to feed. We were careful not to approach too closely ! 






Visiting a new place is not just about checking hotels, finding birds, and familiarising oneself with the terrain. I met an elderly couple that invited him in to warm my feet. We shared walnuts and chocolate, while waiting for the kettle to boil.

The recent snow made it obvious that the timing of any tour would be vital. Although it is easy top see panda tracks in winter, the chance of stepping off the track or getting cut off by bad weather meant that it would be wiser to come in spring. I soon established that the pandas are actually at lower elevation and easier to encounter then. There are also more males roaming around then as it is the height of the mating season. 






Having made many new friends, I hiked out of the reserve on the most wonderful of days. The setting was almost fairytale like.






The snow was soon gone as we descended and headed for Yang County.







The misty mountain passes were filled with new birds.



Vinous-throated parrotbills would pick among roadside weeds






Collared Crow is very localised and not always easy to find






We checked the boulder-strewn river for Wallcreeper and Ibisbill. Our local guide had never seen a Wallcreeper and it was a bird he was keen to see. I assured him that the habitat was perfect for wintering birds............within minutes we had seen both!




Two pair of Ibisbill called from the water's edge.










Checking into the hotel, we were out birding the next day in rural Shaanxi Province.

Rufous Turtle Doves (above) were everywhere. As well as Dusky and Naumann's Thrushes, Olive-backed Pipits and Little Buntings.





Our real target was the recently rediscovered Chinese Crested Ibis.






A total of perhaps forty birds were located before it was time to return to Xi'an.




Asian Barred Owls were very common in the villages. Even showing well in the day.




Chinese New Year




Back at Xi'an, I took time out to visit local restaurants, see the new Year decorations and the old city walls.
















At night the city was transformed.















A short drive from the hotel was one of the great wonders of the world. The discovery by a farmer of thousands of life-size soldiers is an amazing tale. Work is still ongoing to piece them all together, but the display is magnificent.











Chickens were decorated in celebration of the New Year.

[ This looks like a box of Jewelled Pittas ???? ]






From Xi'an I travelled to various localities further south and east.  First stop was Poyang Lake




Hundreds of cranes gather here for the winter. They arrive in October but in February, they start to disperse over a wide area. At this time it gets very wet and it is harder to find the birds.

With local help, I managed to locate some Siberian Cranes (the white bird in the picture above) among White-naped (below), Hooded and Common Cranes. This is the most reliable place in the world to see this iconic bird.






Many Chinese birds have suffered serious declines. Some like these Swan Geese can now be tricky to see in Asia. Substantial declines have been observed in the population of this species in parts of its breeding range in eastern Russia and Mongolia (BirdLife International 2001) and the global population is suspected to have decreased rapidly. In the same marshes, numbers of the eastern race of Bean Goose gathered.




The local farmers and fishermen move around the flooded fields on punts.






It came as a shock to see lots of Pied Kingfishers here. They are usually associated with warmer parts of the world.






Common Kingfishers are very confiding living and feeding side by side with the fishermen.





The Oriental White Stork is listed as Endangered because it has a very small population, which has undergone a rapid decline.






Spot-billed Duck is the most numerous wildfowl here at this time.





Peking Duck does not count on any life-list!!!!!!






The many canals and flood channels were lined with duck farms. The food attracted large flocks of starlings and mynahs.




Next stop was the agricultural areas near Wuyishan



We scoured the fields for egrets and the elusive Brown Crake






Long-tailed Shrikes were very common and a rare black morph (below) occurs here




Our local guide had found a Bull-headed Shrike here recently & sure enough it was still in the same area when I arrived.





Star billing in this region must go to the Scaly-sided (or Chinese) Merganser. A long search of suitable rivers in the rain eventually allowed good looks at 2 pairs. In 2001, BirdLife International estimated that as few as 1,000 mature individuals could be left? Recent estimates are more optimistic.




Little Buntings were common in the hedgerows and meadows.





We climbed higher into a national park as snow fell. Again, China became a fairy-tale setting for birding. And surprisingly it didn't feel cold!!!!









Because there had been a rain shower that was followed by a sudden drop in temperature during the night, the leaves, buds and flowers were sealed with ice. Each flower on this magnolia tree is coated in ice.





Our hotel for the night was surrounded by snow-laden bamboo-covered hills.



The weight of the snow bent the giant bamboo almost double.








Parties of Grey-throated Minivets (above) worked their way through the trees

accompanied by Yellow-cheeked Tits (below)





Red-flanked Bluetails were everywhere along the roads





As we climbed to higher elevation, the snow became deeper





and the icicles longer!!!!!!!




Our target here was Cabot's Tragopan and Silver Pheasant.






a sharp eye spotted a female sheltering in a small rocky hole by the roadside but it was a smart male that I really wanted to see.






By calling into the forest, we enticed a male down through the snow-covered branches. He started calling and displaying to us, beating his wings against his chest.







Again, I learnt that weather at this time of year was not reliable for bringing groups, highlighting the importance of doing a recce





The coast south of Shanghai was very warm and the park at Fuzhou was filled with flowering trees dripping with birds.





Mountain Bulbul (above) and Orange-bellied Leafbird (below) were feeding among the blossoms







Birds that are rare vagrants to the UK are common here. This allowed me to get good looks at Pallas's Warbler (above), Yellow-browed Warbler and White's Thrush (below).









The small estuaries, creeks and sand bars provide feeding grounds for hundreds of shorebirds.






Within 15 minutes of scanning through flocks of Sanderling and Dunlin, I had located four Spoon-billed Sandpipers!!!!




Three Spoon-billed Sandpipers together............amazing!!!!!







This unique little bird is on the verge of extinction, but a few spend each winter here.







Black-faced Spoonbill is another seriously threatened species. I found four on a nearby saltpan.




Saunder's Gull winters here in small numbers.