Beijing and Hebei Province, China, June 2003

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by Steve Bale
(please contact Steve for annotated maps to these sites)

Baihuashan, Beijing - visited on 7th June 2003

Baihuashan is in the Mentougou district of Beijing Municipality, and lies approximately 110km west of central Beijing. The area, which borders Hebei Province, contains the 3rd highest peak in Beijing, Baicaopan at 2050m, as well as Baihuashan (literally 100 flowers mountain) at 1991m.

Unlike other mountainous areas in Beijing, even these highest peaks are accessible to non-mountaineers and can be reached with relative ease along ridge walks. The area is scenically attractive with a variety of habitat, including larch forests, alpine meadows, widespread deciduous cover, extensive areas of scrub and rocky slopes. There are more than 1100 plant and 170 animal species, including - according to the literature at least - 'leopard' and, of particular interest to birders if it were confirmed, 'brown-eared pheasant'.

The area is not difficult to get to, but the journey does take much longer than a look at a map might suggest. Birders travelling to the area are strongly advised to leave early (to avoid heavy traffic on the 109 - a steep, winding single carriageway road). Or better still, why not stay the night. There is only one hotel there, not surprisingly called the Baihuashan Hotel (0)10 6085 6110. Baihuashan is a popular tourist destination, so book early to avoid disappointment.

We left at 5.30am from the 'east-central' Chaoyang district of Beijing. Our journey took three and a half hours, but this included an unscheduled detour of about 10km to Dragon's Gate Ravine (and back again). So please be aware that there is a 'Baihuashan' sign that needs to be ignored. If you want to go to Baihuashan directly do not take the right turn off the 109 that is also sign-posted to Dragon's Gate Ravine (Long Men Jian). There is a large landscape poster of the tourist area near this turning, which should be obvious (and which you should drive past!). Having said that, if you have time, Dragon's Gate Ravine may be worth a visit. If you have lots of time, why not continue along the minor 'loop road' to Lingshan, Little Dragon Gate, and finally to Baihuashan.

Also, if you are planning to spend a day getting there, there are many places along the 109 that would seem to be worth a stop. This main highway follows the Qingshui River for more than 50km. The long valley is flanked by steep mountains and is lined with woods, accessible scrub, attractive marshy areas; a lake or two; and even some patches of reeds. This area may be particularly good during migration. Even though it was late in the season, we saw 4 Black-capped Kingfishers perched on the same line of telegraph wires above the dry upper-reaches of the Qingshui River.

We arrived at the sign-posted turn-off to Baihuashan (the same sign that indicates 'Hebei-straight on') at after 8.30. Almost immediately, we were diverted onto a 'two-lane' dirt track to the left (which could in-fact be the stony-foundation of a new road that has been cut into the hillside, replacing the one-way paved road).

After a not-too-bumpy 20-minute ride, we reached the car park. The road continues up the mountain, but cars are not allowed to go further than the car park. There is a small shop near here selling basic provisions. Also, a restaurant attached to the hotel does excellent noodles if you can resist the temptation to dash up the mountain.

A few minutes uphill from here is the cable car station. The choice is straightforward. Spend 40 RMB (70 RMB for a return) for a leisurely ride up, gliding above the tops of the magnificent mature larch trees. Or walk uphill for, reportedly, two hours. We chose the former of course, so missed whatever birds there might have been between 1200m and 1800m. We had decided that the day was going to be an exploratory visit, so had a quite relaxed approach to things.

The rain, which had threatened to spoil the proceedings, stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The temperature was in the mid-teens, about 15 degrees cooler than Beijing. Although unpleasant in the wind, the weather should not have prejudiced our chances of seeing the sought after mountain species. It certainly didn't seem to have dented the enthusiasm of the many Chinese Leaf Warblers. In all, we noted 20 or more holding territory at various points above 1800m.

After alighting at the station at the top, we walked uphill along the track for about 30 minutes. The plateau of Baihuashan is covered in alpine meadows - supposedly ideal 'grazing' ground for brown eared-pheasant. Unfortunately we were there on a Sunday, so although quite early (in tourist terms) we were not early enough. So, even if the pheasant is up there - as it may well be - we had no chance of seeing it. Another area worth checking is the 'twin peaks' area.

The taller of the two peaks is Baicaopan (2050m). The Chinese name suggests that this area also has alpine meadows. To get to Baicaopan, turn right when you reach the open meadow, and head across the meadow to the Star Scrub Slope - see map (lots of bird activity here). Just beyond here there is a footpath that goes up a steep hillside. From here, continue up and up and up. The high-point, several kilometres along the ridge, can be reached via a not-too-steep path (shown above).

Unfortunately I didn't have time to explore it. Northern Hawk Cuckoo flew into and sat obligingly in bushes at the edge of the woods just before this point, as well at least 2 Blyth's Leaf Warblers. The best habitat, however, is on the left as you emerge onto the alpine meadow, towards Baihuashan itself (the peak with an aerial on top). Follow the rough track towards this point, skirting the larch forest that runs parallel to the meadows. An interesting excursion is to be found on the right hand slope of the mountain (marked as 'broadleaf forest walk' on the map). I only had time to 'run' down this trail for 30 minutes, so didn't see many birds. But the habitat is excellent.

This trail could perhaps be connected to the circular trail that returns to the base of the mountain, and could be well-worth exploring. Returned to the cable car, which stops running at 5pm (downwards; 4pm upwards). For early-birders, a walk up the mountain along the small path that keeps close to the cable car route (see map) may be the preferred option as the cable car doesn't start running until 8 am. The highlight of the all-to-brief birding session was Lesser Cuckoo; which was seen near the higher cable car station (+3 Chinese Song Thrushes).

According to the China website - one of the best English language sites on Chinese birds - the following species also occur at Baihuashan (I have only listed species of particular interest that, in my opinion, seem likely to occur in the breeding season): Yellow-streaked Warbler; Collared Scops-Owl; Eagle-Owl; Bull-headed Shrike; Blue Whistling Thrush; Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker; Nutcracker; White-throated Needletail; Golden Eagle; Chukar; Rock Bunting; Alpine Accentor; Meadow Bunting; Eastern Crowned Warbler; Daurian Jackdaw; Pere David's Laughing Thrush; Elegant Bunting; Long-tailed Minivet; Chinese Nuthatch; Fea's Thrush; Hair-crested Drongo; Koklass Pheasant; Elisae Flycatcher; Chinese Hill Warbler; Hill Pigeon; Yellow-bellied Tit; Yellow-rumped Flycatcher; and of course Brown eared-Pheasant (Baihuashan is close to its stronghold in the Beijing area, Dongling Shan). For the full Chinabiodiversity species list for Baihuashan go to (and then Beijing/Baihuashan)

Birders visit Baihuashan very rarely. I would be surprised if more than a handful of foreign birders have actually visited the mountain. Which is a shame, because I have no doubt that a few days birding here, with early starts, would undoubtedly add to the knowledge of the birds of Beijing.

Wuling Shan, Hebei - visited on 14th & 15th June 2003

There are many wonderful mountains within easy reach of Beijing, but very few, if any, that are blessed with the stature, beauty, ecosystem and accessibility of Wuling Shan. The foot of the mountain is about a two and a half hour drive from the centre of Beijing. The summit (c180km north-east of central Beijing) is reached via a 40 minute ascent along a winding, but generously wide paved road; followed by a 5 minute gentle walk. Waitao peak, at 2118 metres, is the highest point of Hebei and Beijing's majestic Yan Shan range (literally, 'swallow mountains').

The area boasts over 1800 plant species including its 'very own' species of bellflower (Campanulaceae), Adenophora wulingshanica. Although not quite a Wuling Shan endemic - it's also found across the border in Beijing's Miyun county - the 'wulingshanica' tribute serves to illustrate the importance of this state-level nature reserve.

Covering more than 180 square kilometres, the reserve is accessible from 3 directions - north, west, and south (the main entrance). Access via the South Gate is particularly appealing because it is here that you will find the very well maintained paved road that connects to the hotel and to the summit. Whereas the other 2 gates only link to mid-level car parks, that are a hike and another car journey away from the main birding areas.

To get there from Beijing, basically drive north-east down the road that runs parallel to the airport expressway, and continue to Miyun. Shortly after Miyun take a right turn, signposted to Xinglong. The road on the Beijing side is quite narrow in places, but improves after you cross the border into Hebei. At Xinglong, either continue to the mountain, or if you prefer drop the car at the park office (opposite the railway station at the 'far end' of the town) and take the park bus.

Please bear in mind that if you go by taxi, then you will have to pay for the driver and the car. At 71 RMB per person and 45 RMB for the car it's not cheap; but this is, from a birder's selfish perspective, probably a blessing as it undoubtedly deters many local tourists from visiting the reserve. In the 6 hour walk down the mountain on the Sunday we only saw a handful of cars (although the ongoing restrictions imposed because of SARS would also have contributed to the paucity of vehicles).

Beijing was in the mid-30s on the day we travelled, so it was a relief to feel the cool mountain air. In fact, when we arrived at our hotel - the Lianhua Chi (literally 'Lotus Flower Pond'), which is at 1800m - it was decidedly cold. Thankfully, the hotel had worked out that most Beijingers would arrive there ill equipped, and were only too pleased to hire out traditional mountain coats for the duration of the visit.

We donned our jackets and drove the short distance to the peak. The first bird of note there was a very vocal Rosy Pipit (the first of c6 seen at or near the top of the mountain). Wuling Shan (literally Fog-spirit Mountain) lived up to its name. Visibility was down to 50 or 60 metres for the first hour at the top. Then, as if someone had turned on the lights, the fog drifted to the north, and the mountain appeared in front of us in all its grandeur.

Godlewski's Buntings appeared from nowhere as did the first of many Chinese Leaf Warblers. Strolling down the road towards the hotel, we had a fly-by Fea's Thrush; and a quite-remarkable 'flurry' of minivets. A flock of 4 'yellow' birds flew in noisily and left again a few minutes later. Good to see that the species is still alive and well in Hebei - close to the northern limit of its known range. Also, Wren, 2 Hobbies, 2 Blyth's Leaf Warblers and a total of 10 Godlewski's. Reached the hotel at about 4 p.m. On arrival, delighted to hear the loud, distinctive song of a species that had eluded me on my travels in other parts of China. White-bellied Redstart has a remnant population in Hebei, which has somehow been cut-off from the main population that extends across much of central and western China.

The bird was calling near a rocky outcrop just beyond the wooden huts adjacent to the hotel restaurant. Hearing the bird it easy, but seeing this ultra-skulker is quite a different proposition. Waited until about dark and only managed the briefest glimpse. 2 Large-Hawk Cuckoos were somewhat easier to see as they sat out on exposed perches to shout their maddening call at each other. The scope views of this surprisingly difficult to see species were appreciated. Also, Chinese Song Thrush calling near here, but unfortunately couldn't hear the far-less-melodic Fea's. An excellent dinner at the hotel restaurant rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day. 0415 alarm call, and quickly back again to the same rocky outcrop. The White-bellied Redstarts were in full-voice - at least three birds within a very short distance of each other. But, again, no show.

Walked up the track to the north of the hotel where 2 more of them were giving it large. One, frustratingly, was very close. Decided to go in to the pine wood and walk the bird towards the corner (next to where two tracks crossed). This paid big dividends, as the bird ran into the open where we were able to enjoy prolonged views down to just a few feet. Even managed a 10 minute scope view of this very vocal bird, as it perched in the low branches of a pine tree, where is displayed an exotic combination of midnight-blue upperparts, whitish belly, and constantly flicked and fanned orangey-red 'start'. Then on to a nest of little wooden cottages, just behind the hotel. Here we found a very confiding pair of Fea's Thrushes, which kept returning to the same area to gather beak-fulls of caterpillars, before flying into the wood opposite to presumably feed their hungry young. The species has a very restricted breeding distribution - and is only known from a few sites in Hebei, Shanxi and Beijing. (in winter it has been recorded in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur, north-east India, Burma, north- west Thailand and Laos - per Birdlife International.) I had not seen the species for 9 years (Happy Island, May 1994), so was very appreciative of the birds' early-morning show.

Following breakfast we set off down the mountain. We could easily have decided to head along the west-road towards the waterfall and cable car (about 6 km from the hotel), but decided instead to try to find the footpath just around the corner from the hotel. We scrambled over an area of rocks (opposite a staircase leading to the hotel) and indeed found a good footpath that cuts through excellent habitat. However, instead of winding to the bottom the path only cut off a corner of the road. Still, it was good while it lasted - we saw many singing 'phylloscs' of 3 species: Chinese, Blyth's, and Hume's Leaf; a male Long-tailed Minivet made a fleeting appearance; as did a fem/1st-year-male Elisae Flycatcher.

We emerged onto the road at about the 24 km marker and then followed the virtually deserted road downhill for about 6 km. The very varied habitat - mixed forests, cliffs, and luxuriant vegetation - held a variety of mountain species, including 2 Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers; an odd pair of Nuthatches - Chinese and Eurasian in the same tree; Songar Tit; a crimson-breasted Long-tailed Tit; and last but by no means least, a White-throated Rock Thrush (which I failed to connect with).

We were picked up at the 18 km point at about 2pm and were back to the heat of Beijing by 5pm for a well-deserved cool beer.