During a visit to Yunnan Province, southwest China from 11-29 October 2008 I visited 9 sites for birdwatching. I made the following notes for each site. My visits to each site were brief (0.5–3 days/site). The Lonely Planet Guide to Southwest China© mentions all sites, their location and how to get there. Birds seen are listed in Annex 1.
Sites 1-5: Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve
Located in Xishuangbanna Prefecture in the far south of Yunnan, bordering Lao P.D.R. (to the south) and Myanmar (south-west). The reserve is not a single unit but rather, its name is a collective term representing several large protected forest blocks (aimed at nature conservation) and smaller forest reserves (aimed at public recreation). I visited five sites in the Xishuangbanna region, which supported tropical rainforest and evergreen broadleaved forest of varying intactness. Of these, the Yexianggu Wild Elephant Valley was the largest. This site, and the Menglun Tropical Botanic Gardens, appeared to offer the best birding opportunities among these five sites. In general, the tropical forests of southern Yunnan support avifaunal similarities with northern Lao PDR, eastern Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam: if you are well-acquainted with the birds of Indochina, you may find little of interest here. Yet it may be worth considering a birding trip to Xishuangbanna: a wide range of northern Indochinese birds are present, access to forested areas may be easier than nearby regions due to the good public transport system, and Jing Hong, the prefecture capital, is only 40 minutes flight from the provincial capital Kunming. Weather during birding in Xishuangbanna: cool and misty until mid-morning then clear skies with little cloud cover and no rain on any days.
1) Bupan Aerial Skyway Park [11 October (1330-1800), 12 October (1000-1230)]
Located near Meng La town. Open 0830-1700 hours. Supports a short (~2 km) paved nature trail through a small but intact patch of old-growth rainforest with streams, in a valley surrounded by low, forested hills. There is a 36 m-high suspended rope walkway in the canopy. Conclusion: worth a visit if you are in the area but probably not worth a dedicated trip from Jing Hong city due to its small size. Getting there from Meng La town: by taxi or take the public bus from the main bus station. The bus runs every hour (0830, 0930 etc), starting at 0830, and takes 40 minutes-1.5 hours. The last bus returning to Meng La town leaves the park at 1730 hours. Costs: Yuan 80 (USD12) entrance fee (nature trail only) or Yuan 160 (USD24) including the rope walkway. More information: see www.alianya.com
2) Banna Rain Forest Valley Reserve (12 October)
Located ~11 km from Menglun town. Open 0800-1700 hours. Supports a short (~1 km) nature trail through a small, degraded patch of rainforest. Conclusion: poor for birdwatching. This reserve is highly commercialized and is essentially an entertainment park showcasing the local Dai people, with performances, music over loudspeakers, shops etc, and receives busloads of tourists. Cost: Yuan 35 (USD5.3) entrance fee. The road between the park and Menglun town is pleasant to walk and passes a small river, the edge of the nature reserve, ricefields and some Dai villages.
3) Menglun Tropical Botanic Gardens [13 October (1100-1700), 14 October(0855-1740)]
Located next to Menglun town. Open 0800-1800 hours. The gardens comprise two sections: a “western area” of well-maintained botanic gardens on a small island in the Lusuo River, connected by bridge to an “eastern area” of natural rainforest. Conclusion: good for birdwatching. The gardens, forests and river provide a diversity of natural habitats in a small area where many common species can be seen. All areas can be accessed by bicycle or walking. The gardens are a botanic delight. A site map is available at the entrances. The “eastern area” has several short forest walks good for birdwatching and few people visit this area. North-east of the “eastern area” is a forest reserve, which can be reached from the same road leading to the eastern entrance. I visited this reserve but was told it was temporarily closed due to the presence of an ecology research team. The reserve supported rainforest and birding potential may be good. Getting to the gardens: Walk (or hire a bicycle in Menglun town and ride) to the western main entrance then head east through the gardens to the “eastern area”. Or take a taxi (plus bicycle) to the eastern entrance. In the evening, cycle back through the gardens to the main western entrance. Costs: Yuan 80 (USD12) gardens entrance fee. Other information: see http://kepu.xtbg.ac.cn
4) Senlin Gongyuan Forest Reserve (16 October)
Located east of Jing Hong city. Open 0800-1700 hours. Supports a short paved nature trail through a small but intact patch of old-growth rainforest. Probably the closest remaining patch of forest to Jing Hong city. Conclusion: if you only have a half-day for birding near Jing Hong, this is probably the site to visit. However, the reserve is highly commercialized, with busloads of tourists, captive wild animals on display, music over loudspeakers, souvenir shops etc. During my visit there was a constant stream of tourists along the trail, escorted by guides with loudspeakers. Given the intact quality of the forest there may be some good birds here. Getting there from Jing Hong: take a taxi or bus. If your taxi does not wish to wait for you, to return to Jing Hong walk down to the main road and wait for any passing bus. Costs: Yuan 50 (USD7.6) entrance fee. Bale (2001) reported better luck and birdwatching conditions here in February 2001; possibly the site has become more commercialized since then.
5) Yexianggu Wild Elephant Valley [17 Oct (1330-1800), 18 Oct (0530-1800), 19 Oct (0500-1000)]
Located north of Jing Hong city. One of the largest forest blocks in the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve. Most of the reserve is restricted-access and not accessible to the casual visitor. The Yexianggu (pronounced ‘yay-shang-goo’) Wild Elephant Valley is a portion of the reserve open for public visitation and is highly commercialized: it supports a museum, restaurants, souvenir shops, hotel, and cable-car. Its name is derived from a small group of Asian Elephants which inhabit the reserve and occasionally visit the valley to feed; at such times, visitors may see wild elephants in close proximity. Conclusion: probably the best public site for forest birding near Jing Hong. At least one full day is recommended, accounting for the return trip from Jing Hong (1 hour each way). If you have more time, an overnight stay is better. I stayed for 3 days/2 nights in the park.
Accommodation: the best for birdwatching are 12 cabins along a raised boardwalk at the end of the cable-car ride (or about 3 km / 40 minutes walk from the reserve entrance). The cabins are simple: a single/double bed with sheets, concrete floor and walls, corrugated-iron roof, drinking water, a small bathroom with cold water, and electric light. No cooking facilities. If you wish you can store excess luggage at the reserve entrance office. Guests are not allowed to walk the nature trail between 1800 and 0800 hours due to the potential presence of elephants, so you are essentially restricted to your cabin after dark. You should bring: toilet paper, towel, snacks, food (for at least breakfast and dinner if you want to minimize daily trips to the restaurants at the reserve entrance, which given the large crowds is recommended), water bottle. You do not need to bring a sleeping bag or mosquito net. The cabins are over-priced but you are at least within the forest. You do not need a guide even if this is recommended to you: the trail is paved, well maintained, sign-posted, at least two rangers sleep in one of the nearby cabins every night, and you are provided with a map of the reserve. I booked my stay through the Forest Café in Jing Hong city (Ga Lan Nan Lu Road, +86-691 8985122, email@example.com, owner Sarah). Unless you have the reserve office phone numbers and speak Mandarin, it is best to book through the above café or your guesthouse in Jing Hong because reserve staff do not speak English.
Getting there from Jing Hong city: take the public bus from the No. 2 Bus Station, or take a taxi. Costs: Yuan 180-200/night (USD27-30) forest cabin; Yuan 65 (USD10) reserve entrance fee (not included with accommodation); Yuan 50 (USD6) cable-car ride one-way (not included with accommodation).
Note: If you are hoping for a quiet forest experience, this is not it. The first sweepers pass your cabin around 0730 and the first busload of tourists – led by a guide with a loudspeaker – pass your cabin door around 0830. Tour groups and loudspeakers move along the nature trail from 0830 – 1600 hours. There is only one trail, and you and the tour groups are on it. On one day I estimated over 700 tourists passed me on the trail. There is a brief window of quiet birding in the late afternoon and during my stay the evenings were quiet (I was the only guest on one night and one of three guests the second night). There are no paths which might take you away from the crowds and rangers are strict that visitors stay on the trail for safety. Before visiting, perhaps contact the Science and Research Institute of Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Jing Hong city and see if it would be possible to arrange a ranger-guided walk or stay elsewhere in the reserve. Bale (2001) reported better birdwatching conditions along the same trail in February 2001; possibly the site has become more commercialized since then. Additional bird species recorded by Bale (2001) are included in the site list as “SB”.
6) Mt. Cangshan Nature Reserve (Dali) [21 Oct (1400-1800), 22 Oct (0800-1800), 23 Oct (0800-1600)],
Mountain ranges located west of Dali Old Town and Lake Erhai, west Yunnan. The ranges extend north-south, with a maximum elevation of ~4,090 m, and support extensive conifer forest with some evergreen broadleaved forest along gullies. Mid-way between the peaks and plain is a paved trail named “Cloud Pass” that extends for many kilometers along the mountainsides, at an elevation of ~2,650 m. Conclusion: excellent site for birdwatching. The site supports a diversity of resident and migrant montane bird species, is easily accessed from Dali town for a day trip, the trail makes for easy birdwatching, few people visit this area, and for extended stays there is a guesthouse located along the trail. Getting there from Dali Old Town: take the cable-car up to Zhonghe Temple (20 minutes, stunning views), then walk up the steps behind the temple to the trail. I stayed at the Higherland Inn (www.higherland.com, behind the Zhonghe Temple) for two nights. The guesthouse is comfortable and serves simple but good food. Guesthouses in Dali town can help you book accommodation at the inn. Bring warm clothes. Costs: less than Yuan 100 (USD15) for cable-car ride and reserve entrance fee; Yuan 30-70 (USD4.5-10.6)/night at Higherland Inn. Weather during days of birding: clear, warm days with no cloud cover or rain; nights cold.
7) Black Dragon Pool park and Elephant Hill (Lijiang) [25 October (0730-1300)]
Small recreational park and hill located next to Lijiang Old Town, northwest Yunnan. Low shrubs, grassland and some pine forest. The low pines at the base of Elephant Hill are a known stakeout for Giant Nuthatch Sitta magna (although I spent several hours here unsuccessfully looking for the nuthatch). Conclusion: the close proximity to Lijiang Old Town and possibility of Giant Nuthatch make this site worth visiting. Getting there: 15 minutes walk from the old town to the park entrance. Costs: Yuan 80 (USD12) park entrance fee. Weather during birding: cold, misty.
8) Tiger Leaping Gorge (between Lijiang and Diqing towns) (26-28 October)
Popular trek along the Yangtze River within the Haba Snow Mountains Nature Reserve, northwest Yunnan. The trek passes through steep mountainsides which support a mosaic of cultivated land and terraced fields, grassland, heath, conifer forest, and broadleaved forest. The river flows through steep gorges. I walked the ‘classic’ tourist trail, from Qiaotou town along the upper trail through the mountains, descending to the main road and then down to the gorge itself. Conclusion: if you enjoy moderately demanding trekking as well as birdwatching, this is a good place to visit; if you prefer less strenuous birding then give the mountain trail a miss. Stunning scenery. My birding highlight was a Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria on the gorge walls below Tina’s Guesthouse. Getting there: take the public bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou town. If you wish to visit the gorge without doing the trek, take a second bus from Qiaotou town to Tina’s Guesthouse. The path from the road to the bottom of the gorge is steep. Costs: not recorded but include bus fees and a park entrance fee. Weather during birding: heavy mist and light rain most of the time; cold.
9) Lashihai Nature Reserve (Lijiang) [29 October (0800-1400)]
Large lake north-west of Lijiang town at 2,400 m elevation with fringing fields and scattered trees. Lake provides critical refuge for a variety of waterfowl, cranes and other wetland birds. Conclusion: excellent for birdwatching. Getting there: take a taxi or the public bus heading from Lijiang to Qiaotou town (the same bus that goes to Tiger Leaping Gorge). By bus the wetland is about 20 minutes ride outside Lijiang and is clearly signposted in English. From the main road, walk half a kilometer along the entrance road to the reserve office.
Bale, S. (2001). A report from Birdtours.co.uk. Birding in Yunnan, February 21st – February 26th 2001, Steve Bale. Downloaded from: www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/china/yunnan/yunnan-feb2001.htm
Clements, J.F. (2008). Clements Checklist of Birds of the World. Sixth Edition, Checklist 6.3.2, December 2008. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, New York.
Taxonomy & nomenclature follows Clements (2008) unless marked *. Species seen by Bale (2001) at Yexianggu are marked "SB". The table lists 161 species, principally widespread species, few rarities; email me if you would like a copy