2005 WEST CHINA TOUR to SICHUAN
A slight movement in the secondgrowth below the road caught my eye. Koklas Pheasant! I pointed out the bird to the participants, but he had moved out of sight. We quietly edged along the road in hopes of seeing it again. Another movement caught our attention and several of the participants got a quick look. We watched for a while but the vegetation was quite dense and the pheasant seemed to have disappeared. A song of the Chinese Babax distracted us and we turned to the opposite side of the road to try to see it. The babax pair was apparently near their nest and was quite furtive but gave us a few quick glimpses. Suddenly our interpreter, Nado, called our attention to the Koklas Pheasant, a fine male crossing the road behind us. As we turned quickly, the startled pheasant flew across the road and landed at the foot of a steep bank. We watched him struggle up the bank, mostly in the open, getting fine views of him at only 25 meters. Other pheasants were 6 male Blood Pheasants seen at length from the bus, 2 distant Chinese Monals, a male and a female on different days, some 25 White-eared Pheasants on four days, numerous open views of Common Pheasants, and several spectacular closeup glimpses of the Golden Pheasant. Add to this excellent scope views of Snow Partridge, fine closeups of Tibetan Snowcock, a distant pair of Chestnut-throated Partridges, and a good look at a Tibetan Partridge. A nice Chinese Grouse rounded out our chicken coverage.
Among the more interesting birds we saw: Black Stork, Red-crested Pochard, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Monk Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Saker Falcon, Black-necked and Demoiselle Cranes, Grey-headed Lapwing, Wood Snipe, Great Gull, Hill and Snow Pigeons, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Little Owl, Himalayan Swiftlet, White-throated Needletail, Black-capped and Crested Kingfishers, Eurasian Wryneck, Rufous-bellied, Crimson-breasted, White-backed, Three-toed, Black, and Bay Woodpeckers, Tibetan Lark, Yellow-hooded Wagtail, Blyth's Pipit, Collared Finchbill, Tiger Shrike, White-throated and Brown Dippers, Alpine and Maroon-backed Accentors, White-browed Shortwing, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Rufous-headed Robin, Firethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Hodgson's, White-throated and White-bellied Redstarts, Grandala, White-crowned Forktail, Long-tailed, Chestnut, White-backed, and Chinese Thrushes, Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler, Chinese Babax, 7 laughingthrushes (Plain, Snowy-cheeked, Barred, Giant, Spotted, White-browed and Elliot's), 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted, Spectacled, Streak-throated and Dusky), White-collared and Black-chinned Yuhinas, 4 parrotbills (Great, Three-toed, Spectacled and Vinous-throated), Chestnut-headed Tesia, Chestnut-crowned and Aberrant Bush-Warblers, 12 Phylloscopus warblers (including Buff-throated, Yellow-streaked, Lemon-rumped, Chinese Leaf-, Hume's Leaf, Two-barred and Sulphur-breasted), Rufous-faced Warbler, Goldcrest, White-browed and Crested Tit-Warblers, Dark-sided, Ferruginous, Slaty-backed, and Slaty-blue Flycatchers, 14 tits (including Black-browed, White-necklaced, Fire-capped, White-browed, Rusty-breasted, Yellow-bellied, Yellow-browed, and Tibetan Ground-), Chestnut-vented, Snowy-browed, and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Eurasian and Sichuan Treecreepers, Gould's Sunbird, Slaty and Chestnut-lined Buntings, Tibetan Serin, Grey-capped Greenfinch, Twite, Plain and Black-headed Mountain-Finches, 7 rosefinches (including Blanford's, Beautiful, Pink-bellied, White-browed, Streaked and Red-fronted), Grey-headed Bullfinch, Collared and White-winged Grosbeaks, White-rumped Snowfinch, Crested Myna, Sichuan Jay, Blue and Azure-winged Magpies, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Daurian Jackdaw, and Carrion and Collared Crows.
With some of the most magnificent scenery on earth, delicious Chinese food, and a good local team, this is one of the world's great birding adventures.
2002 WEST CHINA (SICHUAN) TOUR #1
As I rounded a bend in the trail, a male Temminck's Tragopan ran across a clearing above the trail and disappeared. I stopped and played a tape recording of his voice in hope that he wasn't too spooked and was curious. No luck. Repeated playback brought no response and we were not able to find him again. It was the morning of our second day in our optimal tragopan area and a leader's worst nightmare was shaping up--a leader-only bird. We had heard several tragopans, but tape playback brought no response. We walked farther along the trail. About two hours later, I spotted another male Temminck's Tragopan in the open, up-slope from the trail, only about 30 meters away. In a loud whisper I said, "tragopan." Fortunately the trail was wide and level so that most of the group got a look at the bird as he walked up the hill. As he disappeared, I took the folks who hadn't seen it yet back along the trail to try for a look. As we rounded a bend, the tragopan came into view above us, walking downhill. He quickly reversed and went in the direction of the rest of the group. We backtracked again and reached the group just as they were watching the tragopan cross the trail about 30 meters ahead of them as it headed downhill across a semi-open area. For the next five minutes we all had excellent views of this spectacular pheasant as it moved to the other side of a gully and posed for some great scope views as it paused occasionally to look back at us.
Later in the trip, as we walked up a rocky stream-bed, a Chinese Grouse ran ahead of us and around a bend. We got the group together and slowly rounded the bend. As we came into view the grouse walked hurriedly up the stream-bed. Fortunately the stream was fairly straight at that point and everyone got on it and had an excellent look as the grouse paused to turn around and take a look at us before continuing out of sight. We had excellent luck with the galliformes this trip, with the Chinese Grouse, 4 of the 5 possible partridges, and all 8 pheasants, for a total of 13 species: Chinese Grouse, Snow Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, Chestnut-throated Partridge, Tibetan Partridge, Blood Pheasant, Temminck's Tragopan, Koklas Pheasant, Chinese Monal, Blue Eared Pheasant, White-eared Pheasant, Common Pheasant and Golden Pheasant.
Other interesting species were: Red-crested Pochard, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Monk Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon, Black-necked Crane, Wood Snipe, Great Gull, Hill and Snow Pigeons, Little Owl, White-throated Needletail, Eurasian Wryneck, Rufous-bellied and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, Tibetan Lark, Blyth's Pipit, Brown-rumped Minivet, Collared Finchbill, Tiger Shrike, Chinese Grey Shrike, White-throated Dipper, Alpine and Robin Accentors, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Firethroat, Golden Bush-Robin, Hodgson's, White-throated, Daurian and White-bellied Redstarts, Grandala, White-crowned Forktail, Plain-backed and Scaly Thrushes, Chestnut, White-backed and Chinese Thrushes, Spot-breasted and Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler, Chinese Babax, 9 laughingthrushes (including White-throated, Plain, Snowy-cheeked, Moustached, Barred, Giant, Spotted, and Elliot's), 7 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted, Chinese, Spectacled, Streak-throated and Dusky), White-collared and Black-chinned Yuhinas, Great and Three toed Parrotbills, Chestnut-headed Tesia, 11 Phylloscopus warblers (including Buff-throated, Yellow streaked, Buff-barred, Chinese Leaf-, Hume's and Sulphur-breasted), Rufous-faced Warbler, White browed and Crested Tit-Warblers, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Black-browed and White-necklaced Tits, Fire capped Tit, Tibetan Ground-Tit, Songar, White-browed, Rusty-breasted, and Yellow-bellied Tits, Snowy browed and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Gould's Sunbird, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Slaty Bunting, Chestnut-lined Bunting, Tibetan Serin, Black-headed Mountain-Finch, 8 rosefinches (including Dark-breasted, Pink-bellied, Vinaceous, Three-banded, Spot-winged, and Red fronted), Collared Grosbeak, Russet Sparrow, Rock Petronia, Sichuan Jay, Azure-winged Magpie, Red billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, and Daurian Jackdaw.
It has now been 18 years since we operated our first Sichuan tour. The changes in the landscape are little short of astounding. Then, the only paved roads were in Chengdu, now there are only four (of 22) days of unpaved roads. In two years, all the roads we use will be paved. in 1984, most of our accommodations were grim; today all the accommodations are comparable to what existed in Chengdu in 1984, while those in Chengdu today are quite nice indeed. In 1984, Chengdu was a sleepy, dirty, run down industrial city; now it is a gleaming new city bristling with activity. One thing hasn't changed much, the food was quite good in 1984 and is even better now. As a corollary to all this development, one might think that the birding would have deteriorated markedly. While a few of our birding areas have been beaten up, we're seeing the same species we saw 18 years ago. A total ban on logging of native forests and stricter laws are beginning to have an effect. Our only serious birding loss is the Rufous-headed Robin, where yaks were allowed to gobble up the bird's cover in its favored valley. We were able to talk to the director of the nature reserves in that area and he has promised action (domestic yaks have been banned from Jiuzhaigou, but a few still roam there).
The Sichuan Tour was and is one of our most spectacular and interesting trips. We saw 264 species (+14 heard only) on this one, which is a few more than we saw on our trips in the 1980s. We hope you'll join us on our next one.
2002 WEST CHINA (SICHUAN) TOUR #2
We were walking back downhill along a trail after a very pleasant morning's birding that included a brief view of a female Golden Pheasant. Suddenly there was a bit of commotion in front of us as a male Golden Pheasant flew off to our left, offering only a glimpse. Fortunately, the bird quickly reversed course and flew right across the path below us in full splendid view only about 15 meters away, presenting a spectacular flash of color against the bright green foliage. Wow! Later in the tour, we were standing in a parking lot in the forest at Jiuzhaigou Reserve when one of our group spotted a large bird gliding low overhead. Blue Eared Pheasant! We got our binoculars on it as it glided past to land in the forest nearby in an exciting and fortuitous sighting. Then there was that Snow Partridge at 5 meters from the bus, the pair of Chinese Bamboo-Partridges that flew up into a nearby tree for an excellent view, and that female Temminck's Tragopan with her week-old chicks that walked across the track right in front of us. The grouse, partridges and pheasants dominated our attention, and, as on the first tour, we saw 13 of the 14 possible species, missing only the Koklas Pheasant.
All in all, the tour was pretty much a copy of Tour #1, the main difference being the lack of migrant shorebirds which gave us a somewhat lower species seen total of 246 species. The rather dryer and warmer weather was compensation. Some of our other more interesting sightings were: Pallas's Fish Eagle, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, spectacular scope views of a pair of Tawny Fish-Owls, a couple of clumsy attempts by a Little Owl to capture a Tibetan Ground-Tit, great scope looks at the Tibetan race of the Chinese Grey Shrike, a likely split, great close-up views of both rubythroats, Isabelline Wheatear, Long tailed Thrush, fine close views of Spotted Bush-Warbler, Crimson-browed Finch, and Brown Grosbeak. A great tour, with good company, grand scenery, good food and great birds.
PHEASANTS, PANDAS, RHODODENDRA AND YAKS
BACKCOUNTRY WEST SZECHWAN AND EAST TIBET
(1991 KingBird West China-Sichuan Tour)
Francis B. Randall
I always asked, "So what is the future of Hong Kong?"
They always smiled. "Who knows?..."
Hong Kong has been, and will be for six more years, the most famous entrepôt port in the world. For a generation, from the Communist conquest of China in 1949 to the gradual opening of Communist China to foreign visitors in the late 1970's, Hong Kong was as tense and intense a Romantic spot as any place on the planet. It was the only place in the geographical and human vastness of China that the world could get to. It was precariously perched on the very scales of the fire-breathing Dragon, whose sufferance might end at any moment in a blast of all-consuming flames. It was a tiny, distorted, baleful and wonderful afterlife of Old China. It was a small collection of sharp, tossed, tropical peaks denuded of forest, around bays jammed with picturesque tenements of millions of refugees from Chinese Communism on land, and even more picturesque tenements of hundreds of thousands of refugees in massed rows of boats on the water--interrupted by clusters of ultra-modern high rise office buildings. It was the city where everything licit and illicit was eagerly offered you by merchants of twenty nationalities for a quarter the price. When Lenin said, "When the time comes to hang the last capitalist, he'll sell us the rope," he was unwittingly capturing the frenetic and precarious spirit of Hong Kong commerce. It was the city where every tenth man was a counter-intelligence agent spying on and spied on by counter-counter-intelligence agents across the valley. It was the city where beautiful women slithered out of their slit skirts to surrender themselves passionately to strong-jawed, taciturn men about to leave for secret missions to Red China and their deaths. It was the city of beautiful, lively, hokum novels and movies. It was the city of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, of Macao, of The World of Suzie Wong.
That Hong Kong is dead now, and it can never come again. When Red China opened its gates to capitalist tourists (and thereby became first Mainland China and then simply China), the Romantic action moved on from Hong Kong to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Pottery Army. The British built massive housing projects for the people in the boat cities and for many of the people in the slums. Hong Kong commerce hums with China itself, but its international prices are no longer a magnet for us. And Great Britain's Iron Lady jellyishly agreed to surrender Hong Kong to the Chinese communists in 1997, so every one of the 6_ million people in Hong Kong who can possibly do so is departing with all his wealth to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, to Brisbane and Vancouver, to London and New York. Hong Kong, 1840-1997, R.I.P.
In May 1991, a group of us gathered to spend three of these last days of Hong Kong birding (of all things?). We were in the hands of an able and pleasant young Englishman, Richard Lewthwaite, and his able and pleasantly young English assistant, Mrs. Wendy Young. They drove us from before dawn to after dusk, through and past all the famous clusters of high-rises--many of remarkable sculptural/architectural shapes--subcities, historic sites--phantasmagorically--to relatively and absolutely wild sites one wouldn't have thought could exist in so densely crowded a city-state. We drove over the saddle by Victoria Peak to Aberdeen Country Park, an oasis of protected woods chortling with laugh-ingthrushes. We adjourned to the nearby Hong Kong Zoo, where in the enclosure with half a dozen vanishing Red-crowned (or Japanese) Cranes (only c. 1,200 left in the world) Mr. Lewthwaite thought, correctly, that we could find the elegantly marked Black-throated Laughingthrushes coming in from the wild to mooch zoo food. We retreated to a really beautiful wooded gorge, seemingly miles from any city, the Tai Po Kau Nature Preserve, where the strikingly colored Fork-tailed Sunbird was eager to display its metallic green cap to us, and where, on a second early visit, we tracked down the shy and uncommon Hainan Blue Flycatcher.
The great birding site in Hong Kong is the Mai Po Marsh on the shore of the northeastern part of the New Territories, disputed between the preservationists trying to save the mangroves and their rich bird life and the local fishermen who poison the mangroves to try to get rid of the birds and of us. There are still thousands of birds there of dozens of species--in full view of oil tanks and shipping--including, during our searches, the rare, fuzzy-silvery-gray Nordmann's Greenshank and the rarer Black-faced Spoonbill. Four of the latter were sweeping their strange bills from side to side in the shallow water in apparent unison and full confidence in life. They were about one and a half percent of the world's total population of c. 270. They breed only on four islets off North Korea--not a very good choice for birds if they want to survive--and winter down the coast of China to northern Viet Nam. Mr. Lewthwaite showed me an article on them which said, fatuously, that "their survival depends on complete protection throughout their entire range." No doubt. They swished their bills through the water with great vivacity, but they are even more doomed than Hong Kong as a whole.
"So what is the future of Hong Kong?"
Smile. "Who knows?--I won't be here to see..."
* * *
There is a place called Tibet, the highest and most remarkable land on earth. You will not find it on any official map, only its core area of perhaps 1.8 million Tibetans, called "the Tibetan Autonomous Region." But there are in fact over six million Tibetans in the world. Over three million of them, over half of them, live on the rainier eastern third of the 1,500-mile-long Tibetan Plateau, and in the extensive, broken mountains and valleys at the eastern edge of it. They acknowledged the religious authority of the Dalai Lamas, but lived under many of their own petty kings and lesser bandits, away from the Romantic attention the world gave to the Tibetans of Lhasa.
They were conquered by a brutal Manchu general as late in the empire as the year 1909, and officially organized in two turbulent "provinces." The Manchus collapsed two years later and the East Tibetans happily reverted to independence/anarchy/banditry. The Nationalist Chinese occupied some of the lower valleys, but East Tibet was fully reconquered by the Chinese only under the Communists in 1950, and totally crushed only after the great Tibetan rebellion in 1956-59. The central and southern parts of East Tibet were formally annexed to the ancient Chinese province of Szechwan, the northern part became the "Province of Qinghai."
Our group of ten was about to become one of the few sets of the world's eyes to see this remote and still mostly forbidden region. We were a rather international group: five Americans, two Canadians, a Briton become a Canadian, an indefatigable Dutchman and a German become an Australian. We were assembled and led on this birding trip--plus, plus, plus--by Ben King, the leading authority on the birds of Asia. He has also come to be the leading ornithological diplomat of Asia. Over ten years he has somehow charmed the relevant Chinese authorities and formed an effective working relationship with the Chinese Forestry Ministry, especially the Forestry Department of Szechwan (they spell it "Sichuan"), China's bird-richest province. He has been allowed to explore wilderness China as only two or three other scientists have, notably George Schaller. He has seen, and in a number of cases rediscovered for the world, more birds of China than any other foreigner--and perhaps than any Chinese. In wilderness China, you pay for these sightings and this knowledge with your blood!--And since 1984, he has been able to pioneer and by this time virtually to perfect the conducting of small groups of birders to these remote mountains to see the world's richest assemblage of pheasants and many other spectacular to humble birds. We were a KingBird Tibet/West China Pheasant Tour. This sounds more normal and smooth than anything that can actually happen on the heights of Tibet.
We flew from Hong Kong to Ch'eng-tu, the 2,500-year-old capital of Szechuan. It used to be surrounded by magnificent Ming walls and centered on a marvelous 14th-century Viceroy's Palace. The Communists demolished the walls for the sake of traffic and blew up the palace for the sake of ideology. There are still wonderful warrens of old houses and crowded alley-life away from the new Communist avenues. And there is one more relic of a now-vanished Chinese epoch to edify the million and a half inhabitants--one of the very few giant outdoor statues of Mao Tze-tung left in all China.
We soon rushed off to the wilderness. To reach it we crossed part of one of the classic areas of Chinese civilization--the Kingdom of Shu, the Red Basin of Szechwan. The province now covers 228,000 square miles--over half of which is really East Tibet. But it contains more than 120,000,000 people--more than live in Japan--virtually all of whom are Chinese living in a great, complicated basin entirely surrounded by mountains, the original Szechwan. There they harness the waters of the many branches of the Yangtze River to grow the largest rice crop in China. They may have been the ones who first learned to grow the silkworm and work out sericulture, even before the area became Chinese; Szechwan has been a major silk center ever since.
When we set out on May 12th the entire Red Basin was gray with a dense pall of smog, from coal smoke and other forms of pollution, which the rare winds apparently never blow out of the completely enclosed basin. Under this Victorian/Impressionist cloud, the whole Red Basin was in unbroken agriculture up to and into the Old Chinese villages of gray brick houses and roof tiles (with the only trees in the landscape), up to the asphalt of the roads. The immense crop of winter wheat was ripe and being harvested. Once harvested, each little wheat field, between four low and very narrow earth dikes, was shallowly flooded and plowed with water buffalo-drawn ploughs, to prepare it for the transplanting of the rice shoots, then clustered, brilliant dense green, in scattered seeding paddies. When we returned on May 31st, the winter wheat was almost all gone, and all across the still smog-draped Szechwan, small bare-legged crews of peasants, men and women, were bent over, taking bunches of rice shoots pulled up from the seed paddies and transplanting them into the larger paddies where they would grow to maturity. The peasants, the bright green rice shoots, the darker green trees and the gray sky were all reflected in the now unbroken province of paddies flooded with water/liquid dung. The transplanting of the rice!--a classic, mythic, elemental task of billions, the very basis of Oriental civilization! The transplanting of the rice, by which China lives.
After fifty miles, Ben King pointed to dim shapes of mountains ahead: he said, "The ramparts of Tibet!" They do indeed rise just fifty miles from the great Chinese city of Ch'eng-tu, as farther north they rise just seventy-five miles from another great Chinese city, Lanchow. Here the Min River, boiling out of the mountains (Szechuan, though far inland, gets up to 100 inches of rain a year. New York gets 35 inches.), is so impressive that the Chinese took it for the main Yangtze until the late 19th century. Here is the most famous, within China, of its many immense waterworks. Prince Li Ping, governor of Shu for the First Universal Emperor in the 3rd century B.C. even before China was fully unified, and his princely son, built an island of bagged rocks in the middle of the roaring Min. They let the southwest channel roar on down the Min's natural channel. But they built a dike downstream of the island, also of bagged rocks, which forced the northeast channel through a prepared gate, the Precious Bottle's Mouth, and into a prepared network of irrigation canals that supplied 2.64 million acres of rice paddies, and has continued to do so for 2,200 years. Karl Wittvogel and others who see Imperial (and Communist) China as an "hydraulic society," based on its control of agricultural waterworks, invariably emphasize this All-Waters-Weir, a wonder of the ancient world. The Communists have enlarged the irrigated area to just over seven million acres.
On a mountain shoulder on top of the dam is the Temple of the Two Princes--to the deified Li Ping and his son. It stands in a great walled enclosure containing and surrounded by preserved forests. Therefore it was here that Ben King took us on our first Szechwanese bird walk, and it was here that we saw our first endemic Chinese bird (there would eventually be 21)--a handsome, bouncy little thing, the Yellow-bellied Tit.
* * *
On into the mountains, beyond civilization, to West Szechwan/East Tibet! Ben had planned a clockwise loop to the north northwest, that would take us, at most, about 225 miles from Ch'eng-tu, as the yak flies. But the yak doesn't fly very well, and neither did our incredibly sturdy Mitsubishi bus. So we crawled painfully, grindingly and switchbackingly over the mountains, from natural area to natural area. When we finally returned from the north end of the loop, it took two full days' hard driving.
The most depressing addition to Freudian theory has been the usually correct idea that in middle age the Pleasure Principle gives way to the Avoidance of Physical Discomfort Principle. There are some spiritual benefits from birding: birders, for the pleasure of seeing birds, willingly let themselves in for plenty of physical discomfort. We ranged in age from the late thirties to an astonishing fit and admirable seventy-five. After seeing Chinese peasants transplanting rice and Tibetan herders rounding up yaks, it would be in roundly bad taste to complain of our own discomforts. So our bus, heroically driven by Mr. Chen, who looked exactly like his fellow-Szechwanese, Teng Hsiao-p'ing, jolted us all everyday into milkshakes; we laughed while we groaned. So hotels in small, remote Chinese cities, and of course camping huts in the mountains, lack or mostly lack hot water, cold water, flush toilets, seat toilets, heat, electricity, privacy or cleanliness. We survived it in health and good humor. These things are part of the Spartan nature of Chinese life; I wish the billion and a quarter Chinese could all return to our kind of bathrooms after three weeks. They are not outrages; they are not hilarities to be described at great length, as in too many recent books on travel to China; they are not the main point of China. So we all puffed our way up slippery, rocky mountain slopes at 8,000, 11,000 or 13,000 feet. The thin air in our lungs was gloriously pure; the pheasants we saw on top were magnificent; the large, varied and delicious Szechwanese meals in camps and hotels--blazing with Chinese peppers, ginger and hua chiao ("numbing balls"), which first tingles and then numbs the tongue--like coca leaves--were a delight of Chinese civilization, and our sleep was the loglike sleep of the tired and the just. We came out of the mountains leaner if not noticeably meaner. We had for a time, at least, defied our middle age. It was the Good Life.
* * *
Our first goal was the Wolong (Resting Dragon) Panda Reserve. It is the flagship of China's thirteen Panda reserves. It is 440,000 acres of mountains up to 20,000 feet rising on both sides of a valley whose floor is way down at 4,000 feet. The belts of the various species of bamboo, on which the Pandas live, stretch discontinuously from 5,000 to 11,000 feet in various parts of West Szechwan/East Tibet. (The Panda is not a Chinese animal but a creature of the complicated Chinese-Tibetan borderlands.) There may be 1,500 Pandas left alive. Plus/minus. There have been about 80 censused in Wolong, their largest single population, which is too bad if the theory that a viable carnivore population requires a minimum of 100 individuals for sufficient genetic diversity is correct. Furthermore Wolong's Pandas are disposed 50 on one side of the valley and 30 on the other, and they cannot cross the valley floor and the cultivated lands in it of c.4,000 Tibetan and Chinese villagers. Three have been trapped and carried to the other side: no go; they can't establish themselves in the territory of existing Pandas.
Pandas are carnivores that have adapted to eating bamboo. They still have a carnivore's short digestive tract, dependent on rich meat to eat, so they can't get much out of nutrient-poor bamboo leaves and stems, and have to keep eating, Schaller found, 12 hours a day. Therefore they can't, physically, much less psychologically, stock up for a journey and explore for new bamboo across a pass. When they die out in one part of their range, they have never been known to repossess it, even if the bamboo is intact. They are, in fact, pretty inert creatures. They are slow to mate; they often don't conceive; they still more often don't bring their cubs to live birth, or rear them successfully. They, like the California Condor, "don't seem to want to survive," and probably 95% of them disappeared before men even entered the picture. But they are so cute!
Now that masses of men have entered every valley in Pandaland, dividing them up into 20 or more isolated, inviably small populations, now that hunters take them for their pretty skins, and more recently for zoos, or set traps for ungulates that get Pandas (a terrible problem, too, for African gorillas), now that more and more of their forests are invaded, chopped and made uninhabitable for Pandas every day.... To be sure, there are 13 Panda reserves (not all have Pandas anymore), and laws providing jail sentences and even execution for various offenses against Pandas. But who enforces these laws? Very, very few, in vast, difficult terrain. Mostly local villagers recruited as guards, on the imported Western theory, "Enlist the local people in the cause of conservation." But most local guards have never been trained to know much about Pandas or to do anything active to protect them. And what Chinese or Tibetan peasant guard would be so unethical as to turn in his brother, or even his wife's second cousin, just for eating or selling a Panda? While we were preparing to go, Newsweek reported that $110,000 in Taiwan can get you a Panda (or a Chinese Tiger) skin delivered within 5 weeks.
The World Wildlife Fund has decided that it wasted a few million dollars building the Panda Breeding Center down in Wolong Valley. We saw most of the 17 Pandas now kept there. They were sitting against the concrete walls of their cages, with bamboo fronds sticking between the bars, their heads slumped down on their chests in a way that in humans would be deep depression or even catatonic withdrawal. They are alive and well fed, but only one baby Panda has been born alive in the ten years of the institution, and it died itself in 2 years.--It was a depressing place.--If the Chinese government put as high a priority on saving the Panda as it has, at various periods, on economic growth, military strength, and Communist ideological purity, it could, at a minimum move tens of thousands of people out of the Pandas' former valleys, resow them with bamboo, and hope at least to slow their decline. Of this, "there is little immediate prospect."--Giant Pandas are awfully cute! But in our lifetime or that of our children, they are doomed.
* * *
The pheasant situation is discouraging but not so immediately hopeless. China boasts 25 species of pheasants, I think (we were to see 8), and they are in varying degrees of peril. The afternoon we reached Wolong and early the next morning we scrambled up the rocky, grassy, muddy gorge wall a few hundred feet into the second growth to find Golden Pheasants. This brilliantly spectacular bird is known to you all, since it has been in English aristocratic gardens since at least 1735, and disports its golden comb, orangey front and long, brilliant tail in almost every zoo. In its native bush it isn't shy about uttering its scratchy call (the finest songster of the Phasianidae seems to be our rooster!). But it can conceal its golds and oranges quite effectively in the young trees. At various times, small groups of us would briefly see halves or thirds of one or another. Still, one can't mistake a Golden Pheasant!
The next day we all climbed a switchbacking trail 1,600 feet up the opposite gorge wall to the forests above. We passed through a belt of bamboo, to which the Pandas were said to have descended to eat the young shoots. Of course we didn't see a wild Panda, just some broken, eaten bamboo and some bamboo-filled Panda scat. We asked one of our Chinese conductors, "What is that pink-flowering bush scattered in that forest?" and he said, "Lhododendlon." And when we got to it, it was indeed Rhododendron, toward the northern end of the world's greatest Rhododendron belt in Szechwan, Yunnan, and the Eastern Himalayas. There are many places where massed Rhododendra "light up the sky like a forest fire" (William Bartram on the Rhododendra of our Great Smokies); we saw one cliff, late in the trip, 200 feet high, half a mile long, solid Rhododendron flowers. But in Wolong the bushes came singly or in small clusters, set in forest walls and flats of dark green, coniferous needles and light, baby green, new deciduous leaves "with the unspeakable loveliness of a solitary spray of blossoms arranged as only a Japanese expert knows how to arrange it" (Lafcadio Hearn). On the gorge walls they were all small magenta flowers the size of our wild azaleas on small-leaved bushes, like the Rose-Purple Rhododendron of our Smokes. Higher up, these mixed with larger-leaved, larger trees of larger white or pink-white blossoms, like the Giant White Rhododendron of our Smokies. Thereafter, whatever birds we sought, in whatever forests, we sought and found in the vicinity of Rhododendra.
Over the top of the gorge wall, at 8,600 feet we camped for 3 nights at George Schaller's former Panda Research Station, now in some decay, both physically and scientifically. Our quarry there was the pheasant I think the group thought handsomest of all, Temminck's Tragopan, not unknown in our zoos, either. It has a larger body but shorter tail than the Golden Pheasant. Its entire front is blood-red but speckled with many white spots with black circles around them. Both sides of its face are a bright, light, iridescent blue. The name "Tragopan"--goat of Pan--refers to the "ears" the several Tragopans bear. This pheasant, too, did not exactly rush to show itself off.
At last we switchbacked down the beautiful trail and were jolted in our bus much higher up the opposite gorge wall to a dilapidated camp building at 10,900 feet, amid wild snow peaks all around and usually wilder cloud effects. Here, in 3 nights and days, in enveloping cloud or burning blue sky sun, at timberline or on the tundra above it up to the snows, we sought other pheasants and found more partridges, snowcocks, and other sizeable, pheasant-like birds. First Ben looked through the cloud, across a ravine, and showed us a white phantom on the broken ground, a White Eared Pheasant. Then he "activated the Chestnut-throated Partridge club," by playing its squawking cry to a woodsy slope. Several squawked back, and took their time showing themselves, but eventually a pair flew up to the middle of a pine tree to look at us.
At freezing dawns we would bus up toward 13,500 feet, praying for the sun to break over the east ridge soon and burn us. Small groups of Yaks grazed on the high grass. Two deer, of uncertain species, were spotted way across the gorge. Banks of large, pale yellow Tibetan poppies caught the sun. Even way up there, in streams flowing from just-melted snow, there were White-capped Redstarts, striking black and russet birds with bright white caps--who can also be seen in the rain forests of Assam. Tibetan Snowcocks stared down at us from the skyline of a ridge, amid the streaky snow; fat birds, strongly white-streaked, with red face patches--and a delightful willingness to stay where they could be seen. But the show was stolen by the Grandalas, middle-sized birds of black and intense, deep, electric blue (like Asian Fairy-bluebirds), which hopped about, near us, glowing in the high altitude sun, in the mixed snow, rocks and wildflowers.
Ben's reputation as a finder of birds is based mostly on knowledge and experience, of course, but also on sheer persistence. We had a fine demonstration of this on these grassy heights to the edge of the snow. He'd gotten us up at 5:30 AM to seek the Wood Snipe down a grassy cliff from the road. The search was long, hard and unsuccessful. He calculated that we must have come a little late. The next morning--no, it wasn't morning yet--he got us up at 4:30 AM and returned to that slope in the gloaming. The more fit among us disappeared with Ben up that grassy cliff and over the ridge. They returned over an hour later, a bit haggard but wreathed with smiles from a sighting of the Wood Snipe, 25 feet away. I believe this was the exercise that enabled Ben to cure a brief backache!
* * *
After a week it was time to leave the magnificent mountain area called the Wolong Panda Reserve. Over the high pass, of course--up in the snows at maybe 14,600 feet. At the top, Chinese road signs and Tibetan prayer flags. The "flags" are strips of cloth, 6 inches to a foot wide and up to 20 feet tall, mounted on bending bamboo poles, inscribed with often faded Tibetan sacred phrases. West, into Tibet proper, was an endless gorge to descend, ended by a 20,000-foot castle of an ice peak. We descended the endless gorge, and gained views of the highest mountain in the region, Siguniang, an ice castle of almost 21,000 feet, by which there are said to be paradise valleys where the great trees have not yet been cut.
The gorge was one of a great many in East Tibet (some 18,000 feet deep!--such as the Yangtze Trench) in which half the Tibetans in the world live, not nomads on the plateau, not monks in oasis cities in the desert, but farmers on gorge bottoms, cultivating tiny fields below the larch slopes and snow peaks. The present Dalai Lama came from such a valley north of where we were, not 100 miles from Lanchow. Yak pastures above, woods and Rhododendra and Tibetan villages at the middle levels, deforestation and Chinese towns way, way down at 7,000 feet.--This irregular intermixture of Tibetans and Chinese would try the patience even of the Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, if they were on a commission to draw a boundary between Tibet and China.
Tibetan houses, in these borderlands, are sturdily built in several styles of irregularly laid fieldstones without mortar, using wood generously for gates, doors, windows and eaves, with flat, slate-like stones for roofs. The wooden parts are often brilliantly painted in loud, splashy colors, and bold whitewash designs are often painted on the very fieldstone walls. This is all very different, indeed, opposite in spirit, from the reticent Chinese houses of gray brick and roof tiles in Szechwan. Assemblages of Tibetan houses bear many piles of firewood, fully visible. They are topped and surrounded by prayer flags and other religious paraphernalia. Most villages and farmsteads had Sacred Arrays near them, collections of poles bearing prayer flags, often topped with a finial of bull's horns enclosing a bird. I spotted a number of destroyed small monasteries and a very few active ones. Every so often there were chortens, the bell-shaped sacred monuments of Tibet, usually spanking new. (Up on the plateau there would be two monasteries with ranks of 24 chortens before them).
It is not hard to tell Tibetans from Chinese. Tibetan farmers wear cloth garments, not the nomads' yakskins, made of sewn lengths and patches of several bright colors--all loud to the Chinese. Women might also wear the characteristic "aprons" of horizontal cloth stripes, and worked silver headbands, earrings, cummerbunds and other ornaments, studded with large, irregular turquoises, carnelians and other bright-colored stones--all barbaric to the Chinese (indeed, something like Navajo jewelry). One party of girls going to a ceremony could have walked straight into a costume museum exhibit. Every so often we saw monks--shaven heads, brick-red capes. One cluster of them at a crossroads was loaded down with paraphernalia for a ceremony, including steep cone-hats of straw. They were accompanied by costumed laymen on horseback, some with great worked horns.--These small flashes, at intervals, of the great Buddhist tradition of Tibet, were fascinating and immensely cheering--and extraordinary for their regional differences from the core Tibetan tradition in and around Lhasa.
We could have told the Tibetans from the Chinese even if both were dressed in blue jeans. Chinese are, rather famously, usually self-controlled in their movements and behavior, self-contained and precise. (Yes, there are Taoist sages, drunken poets and other exceptions.) Tibetans are usually--even monks, even women--more striding and generally assertive in their walk and motions, more facially mobile, more personally intrusive, even across the hopeless language barrier. (The Chineseness of our translators prevented any serious communication.) There really weren't very many Westerners who show up in these borderlands save with Ben King, once a year; we were objects of some curiosity. Tibetan men have perfected the techniques of staring at us from one foot away, of placing their heads between our faces and the bird books we were studying, of reaching for our binoculars to look through them, too, of guffawing at our appearance and behavior. The women's faces were flushed, the men's darkened by the high-altitude sun; all their hands were dark and rough. Neither nature nor culture induces overmuch washing in Tibet. Americans and Chinese alike find all this rather crude and peasantike; Americans are apt to make more allowances for the sheer magic of being Tibetan. (There are, of course, suave university graduates in Lhasa; we didn't meet them in these high valleys.)
A journey in East Tibet no longer involves fighting off bandit attacks, but one still spends days descending gorges, ascending gorges, crossing high passes, descending gorges.... In his explorations, Ben once found and now took us to an upper gorge at about 13,000 feet, which preserves a glorious, open, high altitude forest. Here the Koklas Pheasant was only minimally helpful in showing himself, but many of the smaller birds were more conscious of what they are for. China is blessed with 20 species of rosefinch; we were to see 9 of them. Finches are not unknown in America. Rosefinches all have some rose on their chests, and more on other parts--each species requiring close study of the two plates in Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee's Birds of China to identify (if the Tibetan will get his head out of the way). Though not "brilliantly" colored, they are a very handsome and perky set of songbirds. The one called the Beautiful Rosefinch is by no means unanimously in first place. My favorite was the Pink-bellied Rosefinch, really rosy fore and aft. A pair of them were building a nest on a clump of grass by the road in this high forest. Somehow, our prolonged enjoyment of them at fearless and unselfconscious work, that exhilarating high altitude morning, inspired all the unscientific, anthropomorphic delight that humans have felt in all ages and cultures in the presence of songbirds. That male rosefinch seemed exactly what Pushkin described in what many Russians judge to be the most beautiful poem in their language:
God's little bird
Knows neither toil nor care;
Does not bustingly weave
A long-enduring nest;
In the long night it slumbers on a twig;
Let the fair sun rise
And the little bird harks to the voice of God,
Ruffles up its feathers and sings....
* * *
The next day, we ascended an endless gorge and went over a high pass--but not down, for we had reached a lobe of the 1,500-mile-long (east-west) Tibetan Plateau. We were 4 days up on that plateau, from 11,000 to 13,000 feet. It is much lower than the Central Tibetan parts of the plateau, which average 16,000 feet, and much better watered by the recently past March-April snows. Consequently it was, when we saw it, a green, green, grassy tableland of rounded ridges, shallow valleys, swamps and lakes--a great fertile land under a big sky, a mile and a half higher than a similar American pastoral paradise in, say, Montana.
The great green plateau was covered with animals--small groups of horses every few miles, densely packed flocks of sheep in the hundreds, scattered feeding yaks, 2,000 or so in each section of valley a couple of miles long. I didn't make a cumulative count, but we must have seen hundreds of thousands of sheep, in sum, and over a million yaks. (Technically, yaks are the bulls of Bos grunniens; the cows are Naks. There are many yak-cattle hybrids, which look more like yaks than cattle, called Dzos --and other words, and other spellings.) These were all domestic animals; there are a few wild yaks left, somewhere out on the hopelessly high Central Plateau. But they look nothing like our domestic cattle ranges in the West. They are more like the Pleistocene profusion of mammals on Africa's Serengeti Plains.--And any American, seeing the long valleys black-flecked with yaks, has to be reminded, with a pang, of our mighty, vanished herds of buffalo--especially in this year of Dances With Wolves. The yak, like the buffalo, is such a shaggy, primeval beast! Yet we wandered within feet of these heavy and powerful shaggy black bulls without giving it a thought. After all, we saw little Tibetan boys herding them as little Chinese boys herd water buffalo. We saw them in trains, laden with sacks, trudging off to the endless horizon. We saw a few being ridden. We saw thousands with bright red ribbons on their horns, and other (simple) religious paraphernalia.--Yet they remain powerful, black, shaggy, primeval beasts! I saw 3 emerging from a pool, dripping streams of icy water and glaring at us. "Oh Pleistocene day!" (Theodore Roosevelt). One dawn I saw a group of 5, amid the hoarfrost covering miles of grass (spring in Tibet!), their own black backs covered with hoarfrost, still sleeping (birders get up before yaks), but breathing steam into the icy air. Beasts!
Where the yak is, there Tibetans are also, and where yaks and Tibetans are, that is Tibet, no matter what the maps say. On the great grassy plateau, most of the Tibetans were nomads (plus a few villages and some monasteries). And most of the nomads were Khams, the largest, fiercest and most famous of Tibet's nomad tribes. They live in broad tents of black yak skins (and sometimes in smaller tents of white canvas). The Kham men wear stiff black yakskin robes, and often brilliant scarlet headbands, half covering wild hair. Their faces are dark and dirty. They stared and often glared at us, confidently and insolently. I wouldn't want to be attacked by them! When their killer mastiffs attack travelers, they look on dispassionately to see who wins. The Kham women show no signs of psychological repression. They are even more apt to wear all the gorgeous jewelry they possess than Tibetan villagers. The Khams are fierce, intractable, ungovernable, free and proud. They are at the opposite pole of traditional Tibetan personality from the much better known (or better romanticized) quietest, mystical, Tibetan monks. The Khams are absolutely magnificent!
Among the Kham nomads we found the Tibetan Lark, the world's largest, well, uh, lark. Among the Khams we saw splendid Common Pheasants, posing in the pitiless sun. It's a degrading name for so glorious a bird. There are, I believe Ben said, 31 races of " Common" Pheasant; the one Europeans and Americans know best is the Ring-necked Pheasant. Tibet's have black heads and necks that turn iridescent blue in the sun, with more iridescence toward the rear. Their tan bodies are delicately scored with many black lines and their long tailfeathers are even more delicately barred with black lines. They need be ashamed before no uncommon pheasant alive.--Among the Khams, one day, we found up to 12 Black-necked Cranes; another grand but tragic and doomed bird. There are only c. 900 left, nesting by a number of northeast Tibetan high lakes and swamp pools such as the one we sloshed through for them. They have white or whitish bodies and black heads, necks and bushy tailfeathers. They stand 5 feet high. Like the Khams, they are absolutely magnificent. Unlike the Khams, they are about to disappear.
* * *
Our final goal was the Jiu Zhai Gou (Nine Village Valley) Nature Reserve. This is a sizeable tract of mountains up to 16,500 feet around a Y-shaped valley from 10,000 down to 7,000 feet. Parts of the valley are wrecked by logging but parts are still in splendid woods. It used to have pandas but they all left in the mid-1980's when the local bamboo bloomed and died on them. It is being developed as a tourist resort by the Chinese government right now, and indeed, buses full of vacationing Chinese were enjoying the woods during our 4 days there. Zhao Ziyang, before he fell from power before the Tien An Men Square Incident, said, "Guilin has the grandest scenery in China and the world, and Jiu Zhai Gou surpasses Guilin." What he meant, what is particularly admired, is not so much the mountains and the forests, but the 5 miles or so, on the valley floor, of lakes and waterfalls. Some upstream copper ore fills the rivers with copper sulfate in solution. This turns the rivers and especially the lakes they form intensely blue, and, being poisonous, prevents any algae and renders the lakes preternaturally clear. Strongly colored lakes are far more admired in the Far East, from Japan to Java, than in the West (though we do like Crater Lake). Furthermore, most of the lakes spill over broad terraces in dozens of tiny parallel waterfalls, from 3 to 50 feet high, directly into the next intense blue lake--miniature versions of the Iguassu Falls effect--and then in dozens of more tiny falls directly into the next intense blue lake, and so on. All this is seen from dozens of paths and plank walks, between and through evergreen and baby green trees, from progressive sequences of identified viewing points.
To us, the lakes and falls of Jiu Zhai Gou were a beautiful and interesting natural phenomenon. To the Chinese, they are clearly much more. They are a huge natural Chinese garden. All the elements of a great Far Eastern garden are there, physical and symbolic: intermixed land and water in a number of ways, intermixed Yang and Yin--the progressive viewing a whole too complex to be comprehended from any one point--the garden walk that is like the unrolling of a long painted scroll. In Chinese (and Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese) culture, the found nature of Jiu Zhai Gou embodies almost without modification some of the most traditionally valued emotions and philosophical concepts. We must have been in the first few hundreds of Westerners ever to see this great sight a-borning. In not too long it will be as famous as Guilin or Yosemite. It is very moving to be in very near the birth of a miracle.
But we were there, in the first place, for the birds. (Well, some of us subversively peeled off to admire and love the Tree Peonies. These wild progenitors of the hundreds of kinds Chinese gardeners have developed since the Han Dynasty are plants up to two feet high, with light green leaves remarkably like marijuana, bearing numbers of inch and a half blossoms of intense rose-pink.)
After a full day's walk with very little luck seeing pheasants, Ben took us early the next morning up the other branch of the Y-fork to about 10,000 feet. Very soon Ben's goddess Orni smiled on us, and a perfect male Blue Eared Pheasant came out on a log, 100% visible, and stayed for 20 minutes. He was 500 to 600 feet away, but that made him very good in binoculars and excellent in the telescope. It's a Blue Pheasant with Ears, not a Pheasant with Blue Ears. The blue body was rather a slaty blue-gray, with a white patch on each side of the tail. His face was bright deep red, and his white "ears" ran up diagonally into delightful tufts. At first we politely took quick looks through the telescope so that none of us would miss him. As he showed signs of just turning into a plastic model on that log, we all took more leisurely and satisfying turns. That must have been as fine a view of a pheasant in its remote homeland as any group could get. To make our cup run over, a male Vinaceous Rosefinch, with lots of brick red, spent another 10 minutes perched at the tiptop of a little tree, about 15 feet away. And 15 minutes later, down the road, Ben played his taped calls of the Blood Pheasant, and presently 4 of them--3 males and a female--pecked their way slowly across an allée of grass in the bushes. They are not in fact anywhere near so blood red as the Tragopans, but are nonetheless handsome and satisfying birds.--For birders, it would be hard to surpass or even equal that early morning hour, and even Ben King could not, though he effectively cleaned up with viewings of most of the lesser birds he was after during our last 2 days.
* * *
From Jiu Zhai Gou, it takes 4 days to get back to America. The first 2 days were an heroic drive by Mr. Chen down the deforested, eroded gorge of the Min River--an alas more typical specimen of Chinese mountain country than the paradisiacal forests and grasslands we had spent most of our time in. Some 50 miles of the road were being "improved," which made them an almost uninterrupted line of mud wallows into which buses whole could sink, lines of jagged rocks that would tear up tank treads, and giant boulders that needed to be blasted to smithereens before we could proceed. Small crews of half a dozen to a dozen men--boys most of them--were at work every few hundred feet. It was a small version of how the Great Wall got built.--Our Mitsubishi bus eventually emerged in somewhat the condition of the Memphis Belle after its 25th bombing run over Germany, but it kept rolling on to Ch'eng-tu and hot baths.--Considering the general difficulties of life in China, our Chinese crew and our 3 vehicles did amazingly well by us, and everything Ben planned and negotiated for was done very much as planned.
* * *
I have been fortunate enough to make many journeys to far lands, but this one was absolutely extraordinary. Ben King created himself, so to speak, as a field ornithologist and as a maker and leader of bird tours, in the rain forests of monsoon Asia. I first had the privilege of traveling with him in Indonesia and then in Malaysia; I still can't get used to the idea of freezing with Ben. But in the last 10 years he has made the terra incognita of the wildernesses of China the center of his research and touring. This Tibet/West China Pheasant tour is now his most remarkable trip, his signature piece. If you are a serious birder, and you could make this trip, I think it would be madness not to, in the short time before the birds disappear and/or China relapses into civil disorder. I'm not at all sure a duffer like me had the right to take the place of a serious birder this year--though my companions were all very pleasant and indulgent of my limits. I don't suppose any non-birder would or should consider the trip, but even if, somehow, a person came along who believed, with Oscar Wilde, that "Nature is a vast empty space where the birds fly about uncooked," how could he find the remote but ancient Szechwanese heartland of China, the high valleys and higher plateau of East Tibet--less visited even than Lhasa--anything but absolutely extraordinary?
I shall never see the like of it again.
[Editor's note: Prof. Francis B. Randall is a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He has recently published his memoirs as an E-book "History Papers: A Teaching Life" on pocketpcpress.com. It is available for downloading from Amazon.com.]
PHEASANTS IN BACK COUNTRY WEST
SZECHWAN AND EAST TIBET
(1991 KingBird West China-Sichuan Tour)
Francis B. Randall
The ornithologist Ben King has an excellent claim to be the leading field authority on the birds of Asia. He has also come to be the leading ornithological diplomat of Asia. Over the years he has somehow charmed the relevant Chinese authorities and formed an effective working relationship with the Chinese Forestry Ministry, especially the Forestry Department of Szechwan (or Sichuan), China's bird-richest province. He has been allowed to explore wilderness China as only two or three other scientists have, notably George Schaller. He has seen and, in a number of cases, rediscovered for the world more birds of China, including pheasants, than any other foreigner--and perhaps than any Chinese. In wilderness China, you pay for these sightings and this knowledge with your blood!
Since 1984, as head of KingBird Tours of New York, Ben King has been able to pioneer and virtually to perfect the conducting of small groups of birders to these remote mountains to see the world's richest assemblage of pheasants and many other spectacular as well as more humble birds. In May 1991 Ben led an international group of ten of us--a "KingBird Tibet/West China Pheasant Tour," to become one of the few sets of the world's eyes to see this distant and still mostly forbidden region.
Our first goal was the Wolong (Resting Dragon) Panda Reserve. It is 440,000 acres of snow-capped mountains up to 20,000 feet on both sides of a valley whose floor is only 4,000 feet. Eighty pandas eat the bamboo on the mountain slopes, nominally protected, all too often poached. Seventeen Pandas are held in the Panda Breeding Center in the valley. They looked catatonic and don't breed. The future of the Panda is grim.
The pheasant situation is discouraging, but not so immediately hopeless. China boasts 25 species of pheasants in varying degrees of peril, chiefly from relentless destruction of their habitat. We were to see eight. In Wolong valley the somewhat spartan guest house, whose best suite once received Prince Philip and his bodyguard, lies just below a steep mountain well of rocks, grass, bushes and growing pines--good habitat for the Golden Pheasant. This famous and spectacular bird is known to you all, since it has been in English gardens since at least 1735, and disports its golden comb, orangey front and long, brilliant tail in almost every zoo. We made two scrambling expeditions up the slope, in the rains, to find it. It isn't shy about uttering its scratchy call. (The finest songster of the phasianidae seems to be our rooster!) But it can conceal its golds and oranges quite effectively in the young trees. At various times small groups of us would briefly see halves or thirds of one bird or another. Still, one can't mistake a Golden Pheasant!
The next day we climbed a switchbacking trail 1,600 feet up the opposite gorge wall to the forests above. On the top of the wall, at 8,600 feet, we camped for three nights at George Schaller's former Panda Research Station, now in some decay, both physically and scientifically. Ben's quarry there was the pheasant I think the group thought handsomest of all, Temminck's Tragopan, not unknown in our zoos, either. We tramped on trails through the forests of bamboo and blooming rhododendron to find it. It has a larger body but shorter tail than the Golden Pheasant. Its entire front is brilliantly blood-red, speckled with many white spots with black circles around them. Both sides of its face are a bright, light, iridescent blue. The name "tragopan,"--goat of Pan--refers to the 'ears' the several tragopans bear. This pheasant, too, did not exactly rush to show itself off.
At last we switchbacked down the beautiful trail and were jolted in our bus much higher up the opposite gorge wall to a dilapidated camp building at 10,900 feet, amid wild snow peaks and wilder cloud effects. From here, for three nights and days, in enveloping cloud and burning blue sky, at timberline or on the tundra above, we sought other pheasants and found more partridges, snowcocks and other sizeable, pheasant-like birds. First Ben looked through the cloud across a ravine and showed us a white phantom on the broken ground, a White Eared Pheasant. Then he 'activated the Chestnut-throated Partridge Club' by playing its squawking cry to a woodsy slope. Several squawked back, and took their time showing themselves, but eventually a pair flew up to the middle of a pine tree to look at us. At freezing dawns we would bus up toward 13,500 feet to tundra, covered with yellow Tibetan poppies, at the edge of the snows. There Tibetan Snowcocks stared down at us from the near skyline of a ridge: fat birds, strongly white-streaked with red face patches--and a delightful willingness to stay where they could be seen.
After such a week in the Wolong Reserve, we were shaken in our bus over a snowy, 14,600 foot pass for a week in the high gorges and higher grasslands of what is by Chinese law the province of Szechwan, but is actually Eastern Tibet. There we saw the Tibetan people reviving after a very dark age: gaily painted wooden villages, some rebuilt monasteries, dark tent encampments, proud, assertive, jewel-decked peasants and nomads, and their herds of tens of thousands of yaks darkening the rain-green grassy plateaux. In the forest at one 11,000-foot pass a Koklass pheasant was only minimally helpful in showing himself. Out on the grasslands we saw a number of Common Pheasants, posing in the pitiless sun. It is a degrading name for so glorious a bird. There are, I believe, 31 races of 'Common' Pheasant. Tibet's have black heads and necks that turn iridescent blue in the sun, with more iridescence toward the rear. Their tan bodies are delicately scored with many black lines and their long tail feathers are even more delicately barred. They need be ashamed before no uncommon pheasant alive.
Our final goal was the Jiu Zhai Gou (Nine Village Valley) Nature Reserve in northern Szechwan, a sizeable tract of mountains up to 16,500 feet around a Y-shaped valley filled with remarkable, copper ore-tinted, intensely blue, small lakes. After a full day's walk with many birds but very little luck seeing pheasants, Ben took us early the next morning to a lake at 10,000 feet. Very soon a perfect male Blue-eared Pheasant came out on a log, 100% visible, and stayed 20 minutes. He was 500 to 600 feet away, but that made him very good in binoculars and excellent in the telescope. It's a blue pheasant with ears, of course, not a pheasant with blue ears. The blue body was rather a slaty blue-grey, with a white patch on each side of the tail. His face was bright deep red, with his white "ears" ran diagonally into delightful tufts. At first we politely took short looks through the telescope so that none of us would miss him. As he showed signs of just turning into a plastic model on that log, we all took more leisurely and satisfying turns. That must have been as fine a view of a pheasant in its remote homeland as any group could get. To make our cup run over, Ben played his taped calls of the Blood Pheasant 15 minutes later and presently four of them, three males and a female, pecked their way slowly across an alley of grass in the bushes. For birders it would be hard to surpass, or even equal, that early morning hour.
This journey was absolutely extraordinary. I shall never see the like of it again. In the last ten years, Ben King has made the terra incognita of wilderness China the center of his research, the signature piece of his tours.
[Editor's note: Prof. Francis B. Randall is a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He has recently published his memoirs as an E-book, "History Papers: A Teaching Life" on pocketpcpress.com. It is available for downloading at Amazon.com.]
[Editor's note: This report was originally published in the World Pheasant Association News 36, May 1992, and is here reproduced with the permission of the World Pheasant Association.]