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A Report from

China 2-10 April 2012,

Geoff Upton

This was a family/cultural holiday based mainly in the vast metropolis of Shanghai so I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of birds. Nevertheless, anxious to make the most of every bird-finding opportunity, I studied Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia and calculated a potential 147 lifers, so I reckoned on seeing at least 10 new birds.

As we only had 8 days we decided not to attempt the main tourist route (Beijing, Wall, Xi’an etc) but to concentrate on Shanghai and the historic towns of Suzhou and Tongli, finishing up with a couple of days away from it all in Moganshan – a mountain region three hours inland by bus, which seems surprisingly unknown to birders.

We travelled by public transport - trains, metro, buses, taxis – and found these to be generally good, efficient, and cheap. However, very few people away from the main tourist hotels and attractions speak English. Fortunately my son was fairly fluent in Mandarin and we found hotel receptionists generally speak good English and are accustomed to writing place names in Chinese characters to show to taxi drivers, bus stations etc. Signs in Shanghai city are written in English and Chinese and the superb metro system covering the city is very easy to use. We flew by Swissair via Zurich both ways, and were very impressed with the service and in-flight meals.

We ate superb food, often in excellent restaurants, and never paid more than about £20 for a meal for four with drinks. However, we had to choose where we ate. Top restaurants in downtown Shanghai have menus with full colour photos of the food and English translations of the Chinese characters. This is necessary as half the menu is comprised of stuff most westerners wouldn’t choose to eat. But in the cheaper ones we had to get by with sign language and hoping for the best. Street food was often delicious, and always inexpensive, but sometimes inedible. Chinese beer is excellent – Tsingtao our favourite.

Most places didn’t take MasterCard or Visa so extensive use was made of ATMs, which were plentiful in Shanghai. We were warned that Moganshan had no ATMs and as we had to pay for our accommodation in cash we had to take large amounts of cash with us from Shanghai.

Day 1: 2nd April

We arrived in our colonial-era apartment in Nanjing Road West late morning and set off to People’s Park and Square. On the way to the Shanghai Museum in People’s Square I saw my first light-vented bulbuls. These lively and attractive birds turned out to be very common everywhere we went, but I never had much luck photographing them.

Light-vented bulbuls

Day 2: 3rd April

People’s Park was only about five minutes’ walk from the apartment so I made a habit of going there early in the morning before the others were up. People were everywhere doing their early morning exercises and tai chi. As well as light-vented bulbuls and tree sparrows, the birds I saw there were spotted doves, blackbirds, yellow-billed grosbeaks, vinous-throated parrotbills, eastern great tits and a single yellow-browed warbler.

The blackbirds were very different from European ones: bigger, with markedly longer wings in flight, and with a loud, high harsh ‘plik’ call. The eastern great tits were much paler than ours with no yellow colouring at all, just grey and black, and a hint of green beneath the whitish nape.

A full day of sightseeing, the highlights being the ancient Yu Yuan garden in the old city, the Bund with its French and English colonial buildings overlooking the river, and opposite the amazing modern Pudong district with the world’s third highest skyscraper. We went up the Oriental Pearl Tower and had an excellent Hunanese meal in South Memory restaurant in the enormous and architecturally attractive Super Brand Mall. On the river were about 20 presumed Vega gulls, a common gull and 2 black-headed gulls. The Vega gulls looked pretty much like herring gulls, so it was home from home!

Pudong from The Bund. The Oriental Pearl Tower left foreground.

Day 3: 4th April

We took the metro south to Longhua to visit the ancient temple and its 10th century pagoda. There was a temple festival in progress so there were more people than usual in the temple.


Longhua temple festival

In the French district we visited the Arts and Crafts Museum and the fascinating Propaganda Museum, devoted to Mao-era propaganda posters. The curator took delight in showing us how Churchill and Eisenhower were ridiculed whereas working people from Communist countries were idealised. Propaganda was stopped by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The curator said that regrettably the only people who visit the museum are westerners – presumably it’s not in the Chinese travel guides.

Day 4: 5th April

After strolling through the antiques market in the old town we crossed the road to look at the bird, fish and insect market. Whereas we felt reasonably at home in the antiques market, this was beyond our comprehension.  Huge crickets are still kept in tiny boxes, and caged birds included bimaculated larks, oriental skylarks, bluethroats, Siberian rubythroats and verditer flycatchers.

I don’t know whether there is any relation between the catching of birds and the abundance of wild birds, but it certainly seemed incongruous to see these birds caged when there are relatively few wild birds in the city.

Day 5: 6th April

We caught a high-speed train from Shanghai Station to Suzhou, about one hour west. The city is famous for its classic gardens, many of which date back 3 or 400 years to the Ming Dynasty, and for the canals running through the old city. 

7 mile long Shantang (canal), Suzhou

In the Humble Administrator’s Garden there was plenty of noisy birdsong. I saw more light-vented bulbuls and yellow-billed grosbeaks and an oriental magpie-robin, but I suspect there were other birds besides. The garden is well worth visiting in its own right.

Oriental magpie-robin

Day 6: 7th April

After an early morning walk near the hotel, which produced more light-vented bulbuls, yellow-billed grosbeaks, a couple of crested mynas and two intermediate egrets overhead, we took a taxi to the water town of Tongli one hour to the west. I kept a look-out for birds whenever we travelled but generally saw very few from the roadside. A couple of barn swallows, a white egret (probably intermediate) and a moorhen were the only birds logged from the taxi.

Cormorants with necks wired for fishing, Tongli

Day 7: 8th April

So far I had greatly enjoyed sightseeing in China and had been delighted by the historic culture. However, I was beginning to tire of the light-vented bulbuls and tree sparrows and was ready for some bird action. After an early morning visit to the lovely Lingering Garden (busier than the Humble Administrator’s, even at opening time, but I did find a quiet bit where there was an olive-backed pipit and a Eurasian magpie) we took a bus and taxi from Suzhou to Moganshan, a mountain area further inland. Here we stayed at Sky Bungalow, part of the Naked Home Retreat, set amid bamboo stands, mixed forest and old plantations:

An afternoon walk through the forest up to Moganshan village produced a white wagtail of the leucopsis race (Amur wagtail), a pale thrush and a Himalayan black bulbul. Light-vented bulbuls, vinous-throated parrotbills and Eastern great tits were the common birds here.

Himalayan black bulbul – white-headed race leucocephalus

Day 8: 9th April

In the early morning the area around Sky Bungalow was much livelier for birds. Two Chinese bamboo-partridges ran across the garden into the dense forest, and birds found in or near the garden included a grey-cheeked fulvetta, two collared finchbills and a short-tailed parrotbill. After breakfast we walked as a family along the Old Bamboo Trail to Naked Lodge, enjoying seeing wild magnolias and azaleas in flower beside the path and dainty little blue irises on the ground. A streak-breasted scimitar-babbler appeared for a brief moment among a mixed species flock with Japanese white-eyes and grey-cheeked fulvettas.

Collared finchbill

After lunch cloud and rain set in but while the others stayed in I took the opportunity to explore the Old Bamboo Trail again and found some Tristram’s buntings, a rufous-capped babbler and some more short-tailed parrotbills.  

Day 9: 10th April

Before taking our taxi back to Shanghai I had another walk along the Old Bamboo Trail. Two mountain bulbuls sat obligingly on overhead wires, an Indochinese yuhina came close enough for me to identify, and a grey-headed parrotbill popped up beside the path. Frustratingly, I saw and heard several phylloscopus warblers but didn’t get enough on voice or plumage to be sure of their identity.

Mountain bulbul

Grey-headed parrotbill

After a taxi ride to Shanghai we got another cab to take us to the Nanhui Peach Blossom Festival, which was fun, and after an overnight stay at a hotel near the airport we boarded our Swissair plane for the flight home.


Given that the holiday wasn’t a birding trip, I ended up impressed at the number and quality of birds I’d seen (34 species, 17 of which were lifers). Moganshan does not seem to be on the birders’ map, but it seemed to have good potential and may repay effort. Two of the species I saw there – short-tailed parrotbill and mountain bulbul – were birds I hadn’t expected to see, from the distribution maps in Brazil’s Birds of East Asia. I would have loved to have more time there to sort out the warblers and look for the laughing-thrushes I thought I kept hearing.

Aside from Moganshan, birds in lowland China seemed disappointingly scarce, even where there was suitable wetland habitat. Nevertheless I would recommend everyone with an interest in history, art and culture as well as birds visits this fascinating and wonderful country.   

Birds seen in China 2-10 April 2012



Other / comments

Chinese bamboo partridge

2 at Sky Bungalow, Moganshan


Intermediate egret

2 at Suzhou, 3 or 4 probable of this species from roadside, 1 at Nanhui peach blossom festival


Common moorhen

1 from taxi between Suzhou and Tongli


Common gull

1 on river from Pudong, Shanghai


Vega gull

c.20 on river from Pudong, Shanghai


Black-headed gull

2 on river from Pudong, Shanghai


Feral pigeon

Common in Shanghai and Suzhou


Spotted dove

Present in parks in Shanghai and gardens in Suzhou and Tongli


Common magpie

1 in Lingering Gardens Suzhou; 3 or 4 from taxi between Moganshan and Shanghai


Large-billed crow

3 or 4 in Moganshan


Eastern great tit

2 in People’s Park Shanghai; 2 in Lingering Garden Suzhou; 5 or 6 in Moganshan


Barn swallow

2 or 3 from taxi Suzhou to Tongli; 7 or 8 Tongli; 1 Suzhou; 4 Nanhui peach blossom festival


Collared finchbill

2 at Sky Bungalow, Moganshan


Light-vented bulbul

20+ People’s Park, Shanghai; 20+ Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai; common in Suzhou parks and gardens, Tongli, and Moganshan

Also known as Chinese bulbul

Himalayan black bulbul

3 near Sky Bungalow, Moganshan

white-headed race leucocephalus

Mountain bulbul

2 near Sky Bungalow, Moganshan

Further north than suggested by distribution map in Brazil

Yellow-browed warbler

1 in People’s Park Shanghai; 1 probable Tongli; 2 probable Moganshan


Rufous-capped babbler

2 on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan


Streak-breasted scimitar-babbler

1 on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan


Grey-cheeked fulvetta

3 at Sky Bungalow and 2 on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan


Indochinese yuhina

1 near Sky Bungalow, Moganshan


Vinous-throated parrotbill

4 at People’s Park Shanghai, 2 near Sky Bungalow, Moganshan and 3 at Nanhui peach blossom festival


Short-tailed parrotbill

1 at Sky Bungalow and 2 or 3 on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan

Further north and apparently less scarce than suggested by distribution map in Brazil

Grey-headed parrotbill

1 on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan


Japanese white-eye

Several seen at or near Sky Bungalow and a flock of 20+ on Old Bamboo Trail, Moganshan


Crested myna

2 in Suzhou; 1 from taxi Moganshan-Shanghai


Eurasian blackbird

c.10 in People’s Park, Shanghai and other city parks; 1 or 2 at various gardens and parks in Suzhou

Large, long-winged, deep-voiced race mandarinus

Pale thrush

1 in forest near Moganshan village


Oriental magpie-robin

Single birds at Humble Administrator’s and Lingering Gardens, Suzhou


Eurasian tree sparrow

Abundant in parks and streets in Shanghai, Suzhou and Tongli.


White wagtail

2 at Moganshan

White-winged/black-backed ‘Amur’ race leucopsis

Olive-backed pipit

1 at Lingering Garden, Suzhou


Yellow-billed grosbeak

6 at People’s Park Shanghai, 3+  at Humble Administrator’s  Garden Suzhou, 2 in park in Suzhou

Also known as Chinese grosbeak

Tristram’s Bunting

4 near Sky Bungalow, Moganshan


Geoff Upton, Southern England 


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