Editor: Settle in; this is a long but fascinating read.
Often, when we think of China, images of swollen, smog-choked cities swarming with millions of people come to mind. However, while these imageries can undoubtedly be true, to birders who have ventured to Sichuan, other more alluring images come to the fore. The ancient Chinese dubbed this southwestern province the “heavenly kingdom,” and those who have been there would likely understand why. Venture out from those people-peppered urban centers, and there is a land of outstanding beauty: towering snow-topped peaks, dark spruce forest-cloaked slopes, and roaring mountain rivers dominate the landscapes, where gorgeous birds like flashy pheasants, quirky parrotbills, and stunningly adorned robins occur on the scenic flanks of these mountains, or “Shans”. This is the China I know, and refer to here…
As a professional tour leader of more than ten years, I am frequently asked questions like: “What is your favorite place to bird?”, “What is your favorite bird?”; “Which country do you like best?”, and so on.
This column will seek to give some (highly personal) answers to such questions, but here I am going to select the single best day’s guiding I have experienced thus far, in my short guiding life. These are the wonderful days that I have spent birding the flanks of Balang Shan (mountain) in Sichuan. On fair weather days, and I must stress that, there are few better places to be with a pair of binoculars on planet Earth. Here, I explain why, and hope to convince some who have not traveled there, to go there.
Balang Shan is located in Sichuan, a province also known as the “land of abundance,” in reference to its vast resources such as rice to feed its significant population. However, this moniker could well also be applied to the birds, for it is a great land of abundance where avian items are concerned, being rightfully regularly chosen as a first birding trip to China, for those looking for either a first injection of endemics and specialties to China, or those looking to do just one trip to this vast country. Sichuan has a rich history dating back to at least 3000 BC, when it was occupied by the ancient Shu and Ba people, which were eventually eliminated by the proceeding Qing dynasty, later superseded by the Han dynasty. Modern day Sichuan is made up of an eclectic mix of Han, Tibetan, Yi, Qiang and Nakhi peoples, which has given rise to an extraordinarily diverse culture reflected in the myriad religions found there, such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Sichuan is a province that encompasses a high plateau in the northwest, (part of the mighty Qinghai-Tibet Plateau); sprawling lowlands in the east (the Sichuan Basin); and towering mountains in the southwest, an extension of the great Himalayan chain. Balang Shan is an immense mountain that lies within the Qionglai Mountains within that third region of Sichuan, which rises to an impressive 5,040 m (16,530 ft.). However, it is not even the tallest mountain in the immediate area. “Four Girls Mountain” (or Siguniang Shan) reaches 6,250 m (20,505 ft.), and can be seen from the pass on Balang, but title of the province’s highest mountain goes to Gongga Shan, which tops out at a staggering 7,556 m (24,790 ft.).
Balang Mountain lies with the enormous Wolong Reserve, and can be reached by car from the village of Wolong (or “Shawan”), a mere 30 km (19 mi.) away. While that may not seem like a significant distance, what is significant is the change in altitude during the journey. The village lies at around 1,500 m (4,920 ft.), but continues all the way up to the pass at Balang Shan, at 4,500 m (14,760 ft.), passing through wooded valleys, by rushing mountain rivers, emerging into stunted alpine scrub, and finally to alpine meadows largely devoid of trees, interspersed with barren-looking slopes of loose rocky scree. The range of habitats that can be covered in a single day yield an incredible day’s birding. While the bird list may be low, as higher altitudes are typically species poor, the sheer beauty of both the scenery, and the birds that dwell on this magnificent mountain more than make up for the relative paucity of numbers.
Among the birds that call Balang Shan home are such delectable creatures as the deep purple, thrush-like, Grandala the breathtaking Firethroat, just one of several exquisite robin species that occur on its flanks, along with the well-named Golden Bush-Robin and striking Himalayan (White-tailed) Rubythroat.
But most of all, Balang is famed as the realm of pheasants, and not just any pheasants, at that: the scarlet-and-blue Temminck’s Tragopan, a large dramatic species of “horned pheasant” creeps furtively among the stunted trees on its more well vegetated slopes. The shimmering iridescent Chinese Monal stalks open alpine pastures in the early mornings, which is also when the ghost-colored White Eared-Pheasant also dares to emerge from cover, when its ermine-colored coat provides almost no camouflage at all. Then, higher still, where verdant vegetation breaks down into near colorless scree, and the birdlife shrinks to nearly nil, is the robust Tibetan Snowcock, which roams in areas with birds like Snow Pigeons and Red-fronted Rosefinch for company.
Birders traditionally schedule trips to Balang Shan (and Sichuan, in general) during the Chinese springtime, either in May or June. However, even then, it is not uncommon to find yourself birding with snow underfoot. This should, however, not dissuade you from going there, for this is when Balang is at its most resplendent indeed. There are areas near the lofty pass where a complete panorama of 360° can be had, with immense 4,000 m (13,120 ft.) peaks visible from every angle. It is literally a place where the words “awe-inspiring” feel like they were created.
So how would a typical day at Balang Shan look? If you were looking to “clean up,” as hard-core birders would say, (i.e. see absolutely everything), then your day starts early, very early indeed. For, just where the stunted montane scrub gives way to open alpine meadows lies the home of the rarely seen, and time-sensitive Wood Snipe. This mountain wraith emerges pre-dawn to take aerial display flights, giving its rattling, metallic-sounding “song,” as it does so. It is then when it is at its most visible, which is not to say they are by any means conspicuous. These spring flights are ordinarily given in the half-light before dawn has truly broken. Furthermore, this aerial pageant is just that; aerial, so aerial and high in fact that the bird can appear little more than a passing insect to the naked eye. However, leave your arrival time to when the sun is fully up, the snipe will lead you on a true snipe hunt; once fully light the birds fall silent, descend to ground level, and once more merge perfectly back into the background, where they are nigh on impossible to see on their favoured slopes, high above the roadside where the birders are located. Although, you could theoretically walk into their meadows to try and locate a snipe, this is no small undertaking at these lofty altitudes, which I have found to my peril, having physically collapsed when trying to do so in my younger, more carefree, and ignorant years!