Southwest Yunnan birding inc Gaoligongshan and Hornbill Valley

Southwest Yunnan Birding Holiday

Martin, Maya and David Williams

This was a family holiday, with strong birding - and photography - elements [chiefly for Martin, main author here], from  24 March to 4 April 2016.

For most of the trip, we were very kindly guided by Cheung Ho-fai, former chairman of the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, who now lives in Baoshan, west Yunnan and has a wealth of experience in the area. Ho-fai now aims to boost birdwatching and conservation in Yunnan.

Others have seen far more species, written more in-depth birding trip reports.
These notes are instead aimed at giving some impressions regarding places, along with some notes on conservation - especially the apparent value of bird photography tourism based on hides and feeding/watering stations for forest birds; plus a few questions that may be worth answering.

Gaoligongshan - Gao Family Mountains [Mountains] range

The Gaoligongshan range is akin to a southern spur of the Himalayas, running north-south along the west bank of the Nujiang [known as the Salween in Myanmar]. There’s a huge national nature reserve here; around 600km long, and with altitudes ranging from around 700-3916m. Habitats range from broadleaf sub-tropical forests to alpine shrubs and meadows, with rainfall mainly in summer: making for a huge diversity of plants and animals, including over 500 species of birds.

Gaoligingshan 1: Baihualing - Hundred Flowers Ridge
Easy Birding from Hides; Tougher Elsewhere

Baihualing village is the main base for visiting and exploring the reserve. Here, we stayed at the reserve headquarters, which has fair accommodation - a twin bed room with en suite bathroom for us, and a rather outsize looking building [education centre?] nearing completion. Could see reserve money being spent here; but up above could not really see evidence of money being spent for actually conserving the plants and animals - not even trails, signage other than along old Silk Road; an old shelter has been left to fall into ruins.

Just above the reserve hq is a village eco lodge, part of an “agricultural cooperative” project, which is also a place to stay and eat. [If you head to either place, note the village shops are very simple: best to bring up any biscuits, chocolate etc you might want for snacks while out and about.]

The village is on a hillside above the Nujiang valley, and reached by a relatively new metalled road. There’s something of a mini boom in ecotourism here, driven by bird photographers (most from within China - I met some from Taiwan, also a small party from Inner Mongolia who had made three trips here), also by hikers, some of whom make a 25km trek up and over a pass at 3200m, to Tengchong county to the west. This route is especially notable as it follows the Southern Silk Road - for trade between China and places like India to the west. Nowadays, all seems quiet at a small, high car park, surrounded by grassy areas and trees, yet a sign says it’s called Old Street and there used to be inns, restaurants and more there.

Though I readily find a description of “primeval forest” here, it appears to be mostly secondary. Given the history of being on southern Silk Road, would be unsurprising if much timber had been cleared in the past, for building etc etc.

Feeding and watering stations with bird hides: easy peasy

The best birding proved to be in forest above the village. Especially near and at the feeding and watering stations that have been set up in at least 30 locations, and are overlooked by small hides made from poles and netting. The foods for birds seemed to be mealworms plus some fruits; water was carried to some places in big plastic containers - and was surely especially welcome to birds as winter here can be dry, and days sometimes hot.

These hides offer the easiest way of seeing and photographing a remarkably wide range of forest birds, including notoriously skulking species like tesias and Gould’s Shortwing. It turned out that the man or men [only men?] operating each hide kept informed of visiting species, especially if any were notable and likely to interest bird photographers (birders being in the minority here). They know the names in Chinese.

Hides could be booked, perhaps a day in advance; the cost was per camera, and typically 40 yuan per camera, though one or two operators are somewhat breakaway, seeking more money. There were seats in the one hide I tried: sawn off logs, with cushions.

In front of hides, areas tend to be landscaped, in efforts to meet photographers’ demands - which often means getting unimpeded shots of birds, so might mean too much clearing if care is not taken.

I was in two minds about hides: great for seeing birds and taking photos, yet somehow slightly “zoo like” - visit this hide for tesia, this one for shortwing etc etc. Also I can get fidgety, and I was keen to explore. So I spent most time walking; and only went in one hide for maybe two hours: it was remarkably productive, with photography helped by excellent light.

Birds coming to the hide included Rufous-fronted Barwing, Red-tailed Minla, Dark-throated Thrush, Blue-winged Laughingthrush [only place I saw this species], Red-tailed Laughingthrush, Large Niltava.

Walking in the forest with the hides, it was noticeable that while there were bird flocks (“waves”) at times, birds did seem concentrated near the hides: in at least one case, feeding on fruit/flowers with nectar just above, suggesting the hide site was carefully chosen. Some hides were surprisingly far from the dirt road above the village: maybe 300 metres or more in a few cases I guess. This has helped lead to there also being charges for carrying camera gear and tripods to and from hides; you can even order a lunchbox to be brought to a hide!

While the hides are set in very good forest, they are perhaps outside the reserve. At least, those I saw were below the small forest guard post.

Walking in the forest

The higher forest - up in the reserve proper - was quieter; indeed, it was hard to find birds at times.

Despite being driven up soon after dawn, I saw no pheasants - Mrs Hume’s or otherwise - along dirt roads. Partly as even at this time, the main dirt road was quite busy with trekkers and others also being driven up; but also, Ho-fai tells me pheasants are harder to see nowadays. Maybe, then, there is less bird protection away from the hides area.

There’s a deep ravine a little north of the village; two stone footpaths lead into it, and it’s possible to make a circuit by dropping down to the stream, following it, then leaving by the other trail: maybe 4 hours or more required. We only walked down the lower trail to the stream; not with so much time for birding, and mainly to see the stream and a hot spring pool.
The hot spring pool is a fun place for a warm bathe; hot spring waters are collected in a pool that locals have created using a simple stone wall. Next to it there’s a picturesque series of cascades, and about 20 mins further up - along a rather dodgy path - is a large waterfall [evidently a winter site for Scarlet Finch; I saw none, perhaps partly as too late in the season].

I greatly enjoyed spending time at Old Street, the high car park. It’s a wonderful vantage for overlooking the area, down to lowlands. A Black Eagle flew over fairly close.

Also, there’s a cluster of trees that were in flower, attracting many birds to the nectar: especially Buff-barred Warblers, also Yunnan Fulvettas, an elusive Fire-tailed Sunbird, Red-tailed Laughingthrush. Himalayan Bluetails.

A male Red-throated Thrush was a surprise to me.

I also walked up the trail - the old Silk Road - from Old Street. Very, very quiet forest; but continued till I reached a somewhat level area, with signpost indicating this is the second stop along trail over the pass. A bird guide told me that can see birds including Cutia here, though it was a little early for the flowers and he’d seen few birds in recent days. It was pretty quiet there; two or three Beautiful Sibias, a pair of Gould’s Sunbirds put in brief appearance, and a Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker was calling from a distant tree.

Martin Williams