2001 NW CHINA TOUR, Xinjiang Province

We walked out into the grassy field where we had seen Corncrakes on our last tour. I played a tape and got a quick reply. I played the tape again and the Corncrake replied while moving closer through the dense two-foot-high grass. Unfortunately, the bird was in another field enclosed by a sod fence, which we didn't want to climb over for fear of making a mess of it. A few more squawks from the tape and the crake's reply was closer and more agitated. However, the grass came right up to the fence and it seemed unlikely we'd be able to get a view of the bird. So we walked away from the fence and played the tape again in hopes of stirring up another crake. Meanwhile the crake behind the fence continued to call and seemed to be right next to the fence. We were of mixed minds about what to do when a couple of the local people rode up on horses. One of them was the owner of the field and told us he wanted us to leave. Jesper talked to him in Chinese. The man was adamant about our departure. While Jesper negotiated, I played the tape in hopes a Corncrake would magically appear before we had to leave. The crake behind the fence continued to sound more excited and we wished we'd spent our short time trying to see him. The negotiations seemed to be deadlocked when all of a sudden the Corncrake popped into view on top of the fence. We hurriedly put the scope on him for superb looks while the negotiations continued. We at least wouldn't have to leave the field empty-listed. Finally Jesper wore down the field owner who accepted a 200 yuan visitor's fee and allowed us to continue our birding. About this time the Corncrake flew off the fence toward us and approached very close, often in the open, for even better views. As we looked for other birds in the field, the Corncrake continued to follow us, swearing at us constantly, even though I had long ceased to play the tape. The poor fellow's hormone levels must have been well nigh unbearable for him to behave so boldly.

This was KingBird's second foray into the remote recesses of the Chinese Turkestan of old, extreme NW China in Xinjiang Province. Our expanded 2001 itinerary brought us into the foothills of the Altai Mountains near Kazakhstan and Mongolia in addition to the central route through the Tian Shan Mountains followed on the first trip.

Xinjiang's only endemic bird, the Xinjiang Ground-Jay, was elusive as usual, but we ultimately found a nest and got excellent views. An adult Egyptian Vulture, not far from the Kazakhstan border, was the first record for China. While not firsts for China, several Eurasian Griffons in the Altai Mountains and some 30 Calandra Larks are not yet on the China list. We found a flock of 24 Collared Pratincoles, only the third record for China. Good close looks at mama Black-bellied Sandgrouse and her chick were a treat as were the three fully fledged young Pallid Scops-Owls with one parent. Other good birds were: Little and Great Bitterns, Black Stork, Whooper Swan, Red-crested and Ferruginous Pochards, Lammergeier, Monk Vulture, Steppe and Booted Eagles, Lesser Kestrel, Saker Falcon, Himalayan Snowcock, Chukar, Common Quail, Common and Demoiselle Cranes, Yellow-legged and Great Gulls, Whiskered, White-winged and Black Terns, Pallas's Sandgrouse, Hill and Stock Pigeons, Common Wood-Pigeon, European Turtle-Dove, Laughing Dove, Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Little Owl, European Bee-eater, European Roller, White-winged and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Bimaculated and Asian Larks, Tawny Pipit, Red-backed and Rufous-tailed Shrikes, Lesser and Steppe Grey Shrikes, Rufous-streaked and Black-throated Accentors, Common Nightingale, White-tailed Rubythroat, Bluethroat, Rufous-backed and Blue-capped Redstarts, Isabelline, Desert and Pied Wheatears, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Black-throated and Mistle Thrushes, Chinese Babbler, Bearded Parrotbill, Cetti's Warbler, Grasshopper, Rusty-rumped and Savi's Warblers, Caspian Reed-Warbler, Blyth's and Great Reed-Warblers, Booted Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Greater and Small Whitethroats, Barred Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, White-crowned Penduline-Tit, Songar, Turkestan and Azure Tits, Corn, Rock, Grey-hooded, Red-headed and Reed Buntings, Chaffinch, Fire-fronted Serin, European Goldfinch, Twite, European Linnet, Mongolian and Desert Finches, Saxaul Sparrow, Rosy Starling, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Mongolian Ground-Jay, Spotted Nutcracker, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Eurasian Jackdaw, Rook, and Carrion Crow.

In addition we saw Mongolian Wild Ass, Ibex, wolf and gazelles. It was a superb trip. Our future plans for this one include more time in the Altai Mountains.


We had been walking on the sand-dunes for nearly three hours since sunrise with no luck. We were in the Taklimakan Desert of the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang Province, searching for the Xinjiang Ground-Jay. Then Rod Norden briefly spotted one in a bush at the top of a nearby dune. We spread out and approached the dune. Nothing. We distributed ourselves on the tops of several dunes and waited--and waited--and waited. After about 30 minutes, Phoebe Snetsinger spotted one in flight which quickly disappeared. We waited some more and finally one made several flights which enabled everyone to see it. After a while the jay settled down and we got excellent views as it fed. Still, with its mostly white wings and tail, it was at its most spectacular in flight. As Xinjiang's only endemic bird species, this was the most wanted and enjoyed bird of the tour.

We were driving in a long broad cultivated river valley when Jesper heard the telltale rasping call of a Corn Crake. We stopped and approached the area where the call was heard. An irrigation canal prevented us from getting to the edge of the field. I played a tape in what I expected would be a vain attempt to see it. Over and over I played the tape and the Corn Crake occasionally answered, seemingly right at the edge of the grain field. Finally Dan Guthrie spotted it. Several of us managed to get glimpses of its head and back amidst the grain stalks. Eventually the bird tired of the game and moved back into the field. We drove off, hoping for a better site.

Later we found a large field with several Corn Crakes calling. We felt more comfortable walking in this field than the first one as it was a fodder crop, rather than grain. So off we went. Before we got close, a Corn Crake took flight about 40 yards away and flew across in front of us giving us an excellent view. Shortly thereafter another one flew giving us another good look. The following day we flushed one at close range for still another good look. It turns out that the Corn Crake is fairly common in that area, with 4 seen and 32 others heard over 3 days.

Several days later, while high in the spectacular Tien Shan mountains, we saw Jesper Hornskov motioning us to come. We followed a narrow trail a couple of hundred yards to reach Jesper. Peering through his scope, we saw seven Ibex milling around. Their horns were quite impressive, ranging from 2-4 - feet in length. Regularly, two would face off at an angle, rear up as high as they could get on their hind - legs and then thrust forward and down, crashing into one another with their horns. We watched this rutting session for a long time, fascinated by the drama and excitement of the performance. - Those were just the highlights of a superb trip.

Other birds seen were: Great and Little Bitterns, Black Stork, Red-crested and Ferruginous Pochards, Lammergeier, Monk Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, - Chukar, Eurasian Woodcock, Pied Avocet, Yellow-legged Gull, Pallas's Sandgrouse, Hill Pigeon, Stock Pigeon, Common Wood-Pigeon, European Turtle-Dove, Little Owl, European Nightjar, European Bee-- Eater, European Roller, White-winged Woodpecker, Asian Lark, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Northern House-- Martin, Yellow-hooded Wagtail, Brown Tree-Pipit, Rufous-tailed Shrike, White-throated Dipper, Rufous-streaked and Black-throated Accentors, White-tailed Rubythroat, Rufous-backed, Blue-capped and White-winged Redstarts, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Chinese Babbler, Bearded Parrotbill, Grasshopper and Rusty-rumped Warblers, Paddyfield and Booted (Syke's) Warblers, Hume's Leaf-Warbler, Greater and Small White-throats, Desert and Barred Warblers, Songar Tit, Azure Tit, Wallcreeper, Chestnut-lined, Meadow, Gray-hooded, Red-headed and Reed Buntings, Fire-fronted Serin, European Goldfinch, Twite, European Linnet, Plain and Black-headed Mountain-Finches, Common and Great Rosefinches, Saxaul Sparrow, Rock Petronia, White-winged Snowfinch, Rosy Starling, and Eurasian Golden Oriole. We also saw the Masked Wagtail which some now split from White Wagtail. The combination of deserts, high mountains and the Central Asian fauna makes for a fascinating birding experience. We'll repeat this one in May 2001.