The Peoples Republic of China, or The Middle Kingdom as it is known, is large; about the same size as the United States of America, but with roughly six times the population. The majority of people live in the agricultural East and South, leaving huge expanses of the West more sparsely populated. As one would expect from a country spanning 35 degrees of latitude and 65 degrees of longitude, the geographic diversity is equally enormous; tropical rainforests in southern Yunnan, alpine valleys of the eastern Himalaya, endless grasslands, deserts and cultivated valleys surrounding some of the worlds longest rivers.
This variety provides a variety of habitats for Wildlife. China has, according to one measure, some 7,516 species of vertebrates including 4,936 fish, 562 mammals, 403 reptiles, and 346 amphibians. There are around 1250 species of birds, including over 60 endemics, comprising, for example 14 ‘Pheasants’, 7 Laughingthrushes, 4 Parrotbills and 4 Rosefinches. The country is also excellent for Cranes, with 7 species regularly recorded, and for Tits, with a staggering 28 species.
Of the mammals iconic species like Giant Panda are endemic with Asian elephant still found in two provinces, deer, antelope, sheep and goats abound with also camel, yak, pigs, cattle, and the wonderful pangolin. Porcupines, squirrels, beaver and many small rodents and a great number of bats the list goes on. Among the unusual are red panda, pika and strange cattle chamois or gnu goat known as the takin. For entomologist there is much including over 1300 species of butterfly. China is, in every way, a country of superlatives.
Unfortunately, the pressure imposed by the huge population spells bad news for the wildlife; apparently nearly 8% of the country is set-aside as reserves, but this does not mean the areas are protected. Logging and hunting persist, the waterways are polluted beyond belief and much of the northeast is under threat of desertification as a result of merciless deforestation in the north. The government in Beijing has firm plans to do all it can to extend the protection of wildlife, but the recovery will be slow, and quite probably too late for some of the countries more vulnerable endemics.
If the possibility of amazing birds encourages you to get on a plane and discover the wonders yourself, the logistics of travel have to be considered. Even in the largest cities of Beijing and Shanghai, very little English is spoken, and once you are out in the countryside, a shouted “hello” is about all you will get. The prices for foreigners are often inflated, so be prepared to haggle, and even though the freedom of movement has improved tremendously in the last two decades, some hostility and bureaucracy may still be experienced in more remote areas.
In light of these potential difficulties, many of the birders deciding to visit China come on tours, of which there is a great selection. The endemic heartlands of Tibet and Sichuan are popular destinations, as are Beidaihe and Happy Island on the east coast. The latter having been a Mecca for birders for nearly 20 years now, as they arguably offer the best chances to encounter ‘Sibes’; the Shorebirds, Warblers, Flycatchers, Buntings and Chats that occur as vagrants in Europe and North American.
For those prepared to get stuck in, China offers an excellent adventure; language problems, questionable sanitation, erratic drivers, rugby scrum queues, wonderful/terrible food, unreliable bus timetables, and in some areas, the potential of altitude sickness. Areas of prime habitat can be devoid of bird life, whilst polluted drainage ditches can be alive with Buntings and Warblers. The sense of being somewhere foreign is always profound.
Top Birding Site:
Lashihai-Wenhai Watershed Reserve
Discover the Lashihai/Wenhai Watershed reserve, with the Lashihai ecotourism company. At an elevation of 2500 meters, Lashi Lake (half an hour from Lijiang) is the largest highland lake in Lijiang County, and an important habitat for over 57 species of migratory birds – including protected species such as the black-necked crane, whooper swan and black stork.
High altitude wetlands of Koko Nor, grassland specialties and the Snowfinch/Rosefinch capital of the world.
The areas of Wolong and Jiuzhaigou are on the tour circuit. High-altitude birding, spectacular scenery and perhaps 30 endemics.
Xishuangbanna, for tropical rainforest birds like Pittas and Broadbills. Ruili for SW endemics and stragglers from Myanmar. The wetlands of CaoHai for Black-necked Crane. Fantastic old towns with ethnic minority populations and in my opinion, the best culture in China.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Googlemaps™