22/06/2006
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Birding Daocheng

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Daocheng: Sichuan, China (photo: Available Light Images).

Twenty years ago western birders coming to China was a new thing. Now a multitude of tours to many excellent areas are on the market, and, as China opens its doors more willingly, the opportunities for overseas birders travelling independently to get into the hinterland are much more realistic.

When I told the well-known Chinese-based birder Jesper Hornskov that I was going to Daocheng, he said "where?"...enough said! The area offers opportunities to see high plateau Tibetan and Sichuan specialities at incredibly close quarters. Where else can you get White-eared Pheasant eating out of your hand and come eye-to-eye with Blood Pheasants?.

Daocheng is a fiercely independent Tibetan outpost, not far outside the Autonomous Tibetan Region, but geographically part of Southern Sichuan. It lies about 150km south of the town of Litang, which is the second highest city in China at a little over 4000m. Getting there is possible by bus from Zhongdian or Kanding. It is fairly well known to Chinese birders but, as far as I am aware, we are among the first westerners to go there. To the south lie the majestic mountains of Yading, rising to around 6000m and offering a stupendous display of colour and form in late October.

Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae: Daocheng, China Found on the Tibetan Plateau between 3,600 and 4,250m, this species inhabits some of the most inaccessible habitat. The variegated facial pattern and rufous nape make this an attractive species (photo: Available Light Images).

From our home in Lijiang in northwest Yunnan, it is possible to make the 500km road trip to Daocheng in around 12 hours' hard driving. The smooth tarmac to Zhongdian (Shangri-La) soon gives way to rutted mud and rocks, smoothed over by passing landslides.

We were guests of the Lama of Zhuojie Temple situated at 4000m above a beautiful valley, dry at this season, but soon to be in full 'summer plumage' with the arrival of the early monsoon rains. In April and May 2006, my wife and I made two visits to the temple, as we have been offered a cottage there and make plans to spend at least some of our year in this little haven.

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White-eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon: Daocheng, China Despite belonging to the 'eared pheasants', this particular species virtually lacks the prominent 'tufts' of the family to which it belongs. Found at 3,000–4,300m in coniferous and mixed forests, near the treeline in winter and subalpine birch and rhododendron scrub in summer, this striking Near Threatened pheasant is found only in China, where it is thought to be declining due to habitat loss and hunting (photo: Available Light Images).

For birdwatchers, the outstanding feature of the temple is the remarkable tameness of the birds; White-eared Pheasants patrol the grounds like Peacocks in English stately homes, Giant and Elliot's Laughingthrushes lurk on walls and forage amongst dry leaves, Robin, Rufous-breasted and Brown Accentors take over from China's ubiquitous Tree Sparrows, Red-billed Chough and Hill Pigeons find shelter on the eaves above. In fact, around every corner there are avian surprises; it is truly a wonderful place.

Giant Laughingthrush Garrulax maximus: Daocheng, China Although formerly treated as conspecific with Spotted Laughingthrush, Giant Laughingthrush occurs sympatrically over a wide area of southwest China with apparently no integration (photo: Available Light Images).

Carrying around a 500mm lens at 4000m is tough work. At that altitude the air is thin and cold, and, as I scurry up a hillside to 'shoot' Himalayan Griffons in the evening light, I question my sanity. But the rewards are phenomenal: coveys of Blood Pheasants and Tibetan Partridge feed nonchalantly beside the rough track, Godlewski's Buntings sing their heads off from every exposed perch and Kessler's Thrushes fluty calls emanate from the taller trees.

Kessler's Thrush Turdus kessleri: Daocheng, China This distinctive thrush has a restricted range in east-central Asia. In winter, birds move south or south-west to winter in extreme south-west China and south-east Tibet (photo: Available Light Images).

I ditch the tripod as it's cumbersome and awkward on the steep hillsides; I turn on the Image Stabilisation feature of the lens and trust to a steady hand. The light in the rarefied air is actually superb, and I have no trouble getting sharp shots, with the added mobility and reduced weight.

Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus: Daocheng, China The species takes its name from the vivid red coloring on the breast, throat and forehead of the male. At least 11 subspecies falling into two, or perhaps three, subspecies clusters were recognized by Madge and McGowan (2002). It is the only species in the monotypic genus Ithaginis (photo: Available Light Images).

Our accommodation at the temple was frugal, causing our already disrupted sleep patterns to be further interrupted by the many rats which get into our bags and patter past our heads as we lie on the rough wooden floors. White-eared Pheasants scream during the long dark night, but the gentle trill of the Pallas' Warbler brings relief and the faint light of dawn.

Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus: Daocheng, China Found at mid, or high, altitudes from western Nepal, east through Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet, northern Myanmar and the north-west areas of China, this fine pheasant undertakes altitudinal movements depending upon weather conditions, being found in alpine meadows during the summer, but descending to lower elevations in winter. It can be confiding around Buddhist monasteries where birds are allowed to go about their business without the threat of man as they are protected due to the religious beliefs of the monks (photo: Available Light Images).

The monks who maintain this temple have a deep respect for wildlife and the killing of animals and birds is forbidden; the birds clearly feel welcome here and quiet viewing will be rewarded with unparalleled views of otherwise hard-to-find Himalayan specialities.

Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus: Daocheng, China Amongst the many different species of rosefinch to be found in the Himalayas, many are more visually engaging than this particular species, suggesting a sense of humour on the part of the person who first named it! It is common across much of its range, stretching from Kashmir and northwest India eastwards to central and northern China (photo: Available Light Images).

White-winged Grosbeak Mycerobas carnipes: Daocheng, China A common, or locally common, species of juniper forest or scattered scrub near, or above, the tree line between 2,800 and 4,600m. Its range extends from northeast Iran eastwards to western and northern China (photo: Available Light Images).

For further information on this area, please contact Alister Benn on alister@availablelightimages.com.

References

Madge, S and McGowan, P. 2002. Pheasants, Partridges and Grouse. Helm, London.

The photographs in this article were taken by Alister Benn and Juanli Sun. You can see more of their stunning work at http://www.pbase.com/alibenn/.

Written by: Alister Benn, captions Russell Slack