(Updated 7 May 2014)
The recent financial meltdown and consequent tour operation slowdown gave KingBird Tours the opportunity to reorganize its tour offerings. We are again open for business as an internet company offering private tours to groups from one to ten participants. We no longer offer scheduled tours. Look at our TOUR ITINERARIES section to see the places we visit and the kinds of tours we operate. Then tell us where you want to go, how many days you have, how many people, etc.
KINGBIRD'S TOUR EXPERIENCE IN CHINA
Thirty years ago, in May and June 1984, we pioneered birding tours in China with our first birding expedition to Sichuan. It was a 5-week trip that covered both the Wolong Panda Reserve and Emei Shan. It took 3 years to organize, including several trips to Beijing for negotiations with the Forestry Ministry. The officials there were new at the tour business, but fortunately the official in charge of all China's reserves had been to Taman Negara National Park in Malaya and his guides there were using my SE Asia guide to identify the birds. That introduction was a tremendous help. We chose Wolong Panda Reserve as it was the site of George Schaller's panda studies. Thus there was a precedent for having foreigners there, as well as some familiarity with them. Further, Sichuan has the highest percentage of any province of China's endemic and special species.
That first expedition was a difficult one, with some camping and trekking, snow, sleet, rain, mud, dismal accommodations, wretched roads, disgusting toilets, etc. There were things we were not allowed to see, things we could not photograph, plane flights full of smoke, surly air hostesses in dowdy, dirty clothes, antiquated aircraft, woefully polluted cities, those drab Mao suits that all Chinese wore, etc. But it was glorious. We saw birds that hadn't been seen by Western ornithologists since before World War II, the scenery on the eastern slopes of the Tibetan Plateau was magnificent, and the food excellent. We had a grand time.
The first tour had only 2 participants, Leslie Hogan and Kathy Ferguson. The official in charge of all China's natural reserves, Wang Meng Hu, accompanied us for the entire trip to see what it was all about. Since then, we've operated 2 more expeditions and 10 tours to Sichuan. We've also operated tours in Tibet, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan in NW China), Yunnan (SW China), Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, South China (Guizhou and Jiangxi Provinces), and Beidaihe (NE China) for a grand total of 3 expeditions and 23 tours. Further, I've done an extensive series of exploratory trips in most provinces for a total of nearly three years' birding experience in China, and a list that includes sightings of all but 11 of the over 1,200 bird species known from China (not all seen in China).
The changes in China in the last 30 years are staggering, certainly the most rapid, radical physical transformation of a country in the history of the world. In 1984, most roads in Chengdu were unpaved, none outside of Chengdu were paved. Currently, all but perhaps only 1 or 2 days travel are on paved roads. In 1984, all accommodations, save Chengdu, were quite grim, and Chengdu was not very pleasant. Now most accommodation is comfortable, with only a few basic places. Then, Chengdu was a dowdy, dirty industrial city with no new buildings -- now it has many new and modern buildings, shops and hotels, as well as freeways, elevated highways, etc.
By now, the Sichuan Tour is a classic, one of our most popular tours. It has evolved over the years and is now better than ever, with more birds and much more comfort. It is still the best tour for pheasant sightings, with 9 species possible. The scenery is out of this world. And the food is getting even better. Sichuan remains our premier and signature destination in China.
In July 2013, I made a 9-day birding trip to Costa Rica with Andrew Vallely, Dale Dyer, and Paul Sweet. Andrew and Dale are writing a field guide to the birds of Central America and were doing field work for their book. It was quite an enjoyable trip with over 200 species seen in some out of the way sites, such as: Creat Curassow, Boat-billed Heron, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, 18 species of hummingbirds, 6 trogons, including the Resplendent Quetzal, Laughing Falcon, Scarlet Macaw, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Zeledonia, etc., etc., etc.
In September 2012, I accepted an invitation by the Colombia Nature Travel Mart Business Matchmaking Forum 2012 to join a 10-day birding familiarization tour and local tour operator meeting session. The birding tour visited Santa Marta, Rio Blanco Nature Reserve, Otun Quimbaya, Los Nevados National Nature Park, Km.18 Cali, and several other sites for a superb look at some spectacular birds and country. My list total of 351 species included 46 species of hummingbirds, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, 4 guans, Bogota Rail, Santa Marta and Rufous-fronted Parakeets, Santa Marta Screech-Owl, a Masked Trogon feeding in a farmer’s pigpen, 5 species of antpittas in 2 hours at Rio Blanco, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, 29 tanagers, etc., etc., etc. One of the hummers perched on my finger as it fed---magic! Meeting some of the local operators was quite enjoyable and gave a tantalizing view of superb potential for future tours.
Prior to the 2008 South Sumatra Tour, Janet Castle, Gillian Eller and I went on a short expedition to a site where the recently rediscovered Sumatran Ground-Cuckoo has been seen several times in the Bukit Barisan National Park in South Sumatra. On our second day there, we managed good views of this little-known and secretive bird. Other interesting birds seen on the expedition were: Bronze-tailed Peacock-Pheasant, Blue-tailed Trogon, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Rhinoceros and Helmeted Hornbills, Fire-tufted Barbet, Olive-backed Woodpecker, Green Broadbill, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Sunda Minivet, Blue-masked Leafbird, Sunda Forktail, Sunda Thrush, Malaysian Rail-Babbler, Horsfield’s Babbler, Marbled Wren-Babbler, Grey-headed Babbler, Black and Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes, Fulvous-chested, Grey-chested, Rufous-chested and White-tailed Flycatchers, and Sumatran Drongo.
Following the 2008 Lesser Sundas Tour, our Indonesia guide, Sumaraja, and I visited Wetar and Kisar to try to find the endemic species there. On Kisar, we readily found the Leti Friarbird, Philemon kisserensis. Kisar is a small, very dry island, covered mostly in savanna, thus few birds: Barred Dove, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Olive-headed Lorikeet, White-shouldered Triller, Rufous-sided Gerygone, Ashy-bellied White-eye, Zebra Finch, etc.
Wetar is a larger island with some low mountains and more forest, as well as several endemics. We found the birds we hoped most to see: Wetar Ground-Dove, Black-necklaced Honeyeater, Lichmera notabilis, Crimson-hooded Myzomela, Myzomela kuehni, and Wetar Figbird, Sphecotheres hypoleucus. Other species seen were: Bar-necked and Slaty Cuckoo-Doves, Black-backed and Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves, Pink-headed Imperial Pigeon, Rainbow and Olive-headed Lorikeets, Olive-shouldered Parrot, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Moluccan Scops-Owl, Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher, Wallacean Cuckooshrike, Orange-banded Thrush, Timor Stubtail, Timor Blue Flycatcher, Plain Gerygone, Flame-breasted Sunbird, Scaly-breasted Honeyeater, Tricoloured Parrotfinch, Timor Oriole, and Wallacean Drongo.
In March 2006, following the Philippines Tour, I spent a week in Sri Lanka, trying to see the recently discovered Serendip Scops-Owl and recently split Ceylon Bay-Owl. With the help of Deepal Warakagoda, the discoverer of the new scops-owl, we saw a pair of the scops-owls on our first night out. The Ceylon Bay-Owl was far more elusive though and, while we heard one on 3 nights, we were unable to see it, perhaps due to the bright moonlight.
Following the 2005 Sulawesi / Halmahera Tour, I made a 3-week visit to the Sula and Banggai Archipelagos east of central Sulawesi, and the Togian Islands just north of central Sulawesi, which included 2 days on Mangole, 11 days on Taliabu, 2 days on Banggai, 4 days on Peleng and 2 days on Batudaka. The trip involved 13 boat rides for 74 hours total aboard boats ranging from 4-10 meters to car ferries. The worst one was a 150 km. 6-hour dash in an open 10-meter long boat against the wind in choppy seas the length of Taliabu – we got thoroughly soaked. Fortunately the water was warm.
The 2 days on Mangole were lost to standing-by for the boat to Taliabu. My 10 days on Taliabu and Seho were quite rewarding with 8 of the 10 endemics seen: Sula Scrubfowl, Sula Scops-Owl (Otus sulaensis), Sula Pitta, Slaty Cuckooshrike, Sula Cuckooshrike, Peleng Thrush, Henna-tailed Flycatcher, and Helmeted Myna. I missed the Taliabu Owl and Bare-eyed Myna. Other interesting species were: Great-billed Heron, Jerdon’s Baza, Oriental Honey-Kite, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Oriental Hobby, White-faced Cuckoo-Dove, Maroon-chinned Fruit-Dove, Silver-winged Imperial Pigeon, Moluccan King-Parrot, Moluccan Hanging-Parrot, Sulawesi Nightjar, Black-billed Kingfisher, White-rumped Triller, Golden Bulbul, Gray’s Warbler, Pale Blue and Island Monarchs, Drab Whistler, and Ivory-backed Woodswallow.
My one afternoon and evening birding on Banggai produced the Peleng Scops-Owl (Otus mendeni), a Sulawesi Owl, and little else. Peleng was richer with: Sula Scrubfowl, White-faced Cuckoo-Dove, Maroon-chinned Fruit-Dove, White-bellied and Silver-winged Imperial Pigeons, Yellow-breasted Racquet-tail, Moluccan Hanging-Parrot, Peleng Scops-Owl, Black-billed and Ruddy Kingfishers, Sula Pitta, Slaty Cuckooshrike, Cicadabird, Golden Bulbul, Henna-tailed Flycatcher, Pale Blue and Island Monarchs, Helmeted Myna, and Ivory-backed Woodswallows. Slender-billed Crows were on both Banggai and Peleng. I saw no trace of Banggai Crow.
The recently described Togian Boobook, Ninox burhani, is common on Batudaka, but it took 9 hours on my one night there to see one.
Following the 2005 Philippines Tour, I spent a week in Samar in hopes of seeing a Mindanao Bleedingheart. Recent reports and our experience indicate that this exquisite endangered pigeon is fairly – common in the Samar Natural Park in central Samar. However, "fairly common" doesn't necessarily translate into easy to see. It was only on the sixth day of our search that we finally got a good look at one, in spite of hearing and/or glimpsing several of them daily. The quick three- or four-second view I had was worth the effort. The bleedingheart flushed up from the ground and landed on a branch about one meter above the ground offering a brief profile view of a breathtakingly beautiful bird. While the plate in the new Philippine guide is an attractive one, nonetheless the painting was done from faded museum skins by inexperienced artists who had never seen these birds in the wild. The plate does not do the bird justice. In fact, all the birds in the plates in the book have what is best termed a "muddy look" because of the generally poor specimen material available to the artists. Other interesting species found were: Amethyst Dove, Pink-bellied Imperial Pigeon, Black-faced Coucal, Philippine Trogon, Rufous-lored and Silvery Kingfishers, Mindanao and Rufous Hornbills, Azure-breasted Pitta, Yellowish Bulbul, Black-crowned Babbler, Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Chestnut-tailed Flycatcher, Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher, and Blue Fantail.
In May 2004, a hitherto unknown species of rail was discovered on Calayan Island in the Babuyan chain of islands just north of Luzon. In August 2004, it was described as a new species, the Calayan Rail, Gallirallus calayanensis. Shortly after my Samar visit, I visited Calayan for a week to have a look for it. The 7-hour boat ride from northern Luzon to Calayan is an unpleasant seasick special which is often canceled because of rough weather. The rails are in the center of the island, requiring camping. Fortunately, they are fairly common and not particularly shy. While we heard three the first day, we saw none. However, on the second day, we saw a total of six rails and had several excellent views. It was a great thrill to see this distinctive new species, which is apparently restricted to part of the forest on Calayan Island. It appears to be at least semi-flightless. Other species of interest noted on the island were: Japanese Sparrowhawks, Whistling Green Pigeon, Ryukyu Scops-Owl, Northern Boobook, Ninox japonica, Purple-throated Sunbird and Lowland White-eye.
Following the 2004 South Sumatra Tour, I visited the mountains of E. Java for a few days of scouting for future tours. It was quite interesting. I got good views of the E. Java race of Grey-breasted Partridge, an excellent candidate for a split. Other interesting species were: Javan Hawk-Eagle, Pink-headed Fruit-Dove, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, Yellow-throated Hanging-Parrot, Sunda Cuckoo, Javan Frogmouth, Blue-tailed Trogon, Javan Kingfisher, Black-banded Barbet, Orange-spotted and Sunda Bulbuls, Sunda Whistlingthrush, Crescent-chested Babbler, Javan Bush-Warbler, White-bellied Fantail, Golden Whistler, White-flanked Sunbird, and Grey-throated Ibon.
In early September, Dennis Yong and I traveled to the mountains of eastern Sarawak in north central Borneo to try and find the Dulit Frogmouth, known only from 7 specimens collected in E. Sarawak in the early 20th century. It was the only Asian frogmouth whose call was not known. While there are one or two recent unsubstantiated sight records from outside its known range, this frogmouth was one of the great remaining mysteries of Bornean ornithology. After a week of searching, we heard a sound about 0430 in the morning that we instantly knew was the object of our quest. In the next hour before first light, we got good tape recordings and a superb lengthy sighting at about 15 meters distance at just above eye level. We visited the bird again the next morning for some more tape and another view, a most satisfying conclusion to our mini-expedition.
Other birds seen were: Crimson-headed and Crested Partridges, Crested Fireback, Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove, Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Sunda Scops-Owl, Javan Frogmouth, Green Broadbill, Straw-headed Bulbul, Malaysian Rail-Babbler, Pygmy Ibon, Crested Jay and Short-tailed Magpie.
Dennis' time was up, so I shifted on my own to a different site for another mini expedition of one week. There I hoped to find the newly split Dulit Partridge, Rhizothera dulitensis, Hose's Broadbill and Black Oriole. A recent visit by the nomadic Penan hunters apparently wiped out all the local chickens, so I had no luck with the partridge. The oriole was also strangely absent. Fortunately, the Hose's Broadbill was fairly common and I was pleased to be able to watch several pairs of this lovely species for about an hour of observation time, as they fed in a fairly low and close fruiting fig. Other interesting species seen were: Jambu Fruit-Dove, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Dusky Broadbill, Puff-backed and Finsch's Bulbuls, Bornean Wren-Babbler, White-necked Babbler, Maroon-breasted Philentoma, and Long-billed, Spectacled, and Bornean Spiderhunters. The monsoon rains started in earnest this week and limited birding time, but it was great fun.
Following the 2004 Philippines Tour, I made 2 week-long mini-expeditions
to northern Luzon and northern Mindanao to try to see two endemics that I had
not yet seen. The first was to Isabela Province in NE Luzon in an attempt to
see the Olive-lored (Isabela) Oriole. I did manage to see the oriole after several
fruitless days of searching. On the first day I found a small patch of bamboo
that had flowered and was now in seed. For three days, I spent time in both
the morning and afternoon watching the bamboo, hoping a Green-eared Parrotfinch
would fly in to feed on the seeds. Just before sunset on the third day, I saw
about six small birds fly into the bamboo. Even against the sky, I could see
that they were green. Tally ho! They gradually moved lower in the bamboo, allowing
superb views against a dark green background from about 20 meters (60 ft.).
The birds fed in a kind of frenzy, moving rapidly about. As I watched, the number
of birds seemed to increase. About a third of the birds were fine adults. After
feeding for about ten minutes, they all took off, at which time I counted at
least 30 individuals, but there could have been 40. It was wonderful to be able
to see this difficult bird well. While it is probably not rare, it is nomadic
and lives in quite scruffy habitat which birders don't frequent, resulting in
very few birder sightings. The minimum of 30 seen is likely the highest number
seen at one time in many years. Other birds seen were Green Racquet tail, Golden-crowned
and Luzon Striped Babblers, and Striped Flowerpecker.
The second mini-expedition was centered on the southern slopes of Mt. Kitanglad in north central Mindanao at a site where I had tried 3 years previously to see the Mindanao (Goodfellow's Jungle-) Flycatcher and failed. This time I camped at the site rather than walk in every day. I spent 6 days on site and managed finally to see this very difficult species on the fourth and fifth days. It turned out that we were camped in the territory of a pair of the flycatchers, but never saw either of them well. I did get a good look at another bird several hundred meters away from the campsite, however. Other birds at the site were Mindanao Racquet-tail, Mindanao Scops-Owl, Mindanao Eagle-Owl, Blue-capped Kingfisher and Apo Sunbird.
Thus I picked up 3 more endemics for my Philippine list, leaving only 8 species (including 6 endemics) on the Philippine list that I have yet to see.
In August and September 2003, I spent six weeks in Indonesia looking for new birds and birding sites, and taking its political temperature, visiting Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Lombok in the process.
SE Kalimantan on the island of Borneo was my first stop where I spent a week pursuing two hitherto extremely difficult species, the Bornean Ground-Cuckoo and the Bornean Peacock-Pheasant. I managed several excellent close-up views of the ground-cuckoo and spent a marvelous 15 minutes with a fine male Bornean Peacock-Pheasant between 8-12 meters distance, often in the open. Crested Fireback, Large Frogmouth, Rhinoceros and Helmeted Hornbills, Olive-backed and Orange-backed Woodpeckers, Banded and Black-and-yellow Broadbills, Rufous-tailed Shama, White-chested and Horsfield's Babblers, Rufous-chested Flycatcher, and Black Magpie were on hand to enhance the experience.
The next three weeks in southern Sumatra offered superb birding, including: Grey-breasted, Red-billed and Ferruginous Partridges, Salvadori's Pheasant, Bronze-tailed Peacock-Pheasant, Green-spectacled Pigeon, Blue-tailed Trogon, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Dusky, Silver-breasted, Long-tailed and Green Broadbills, Schneider's and Sumatran (P. venusta) Pittas, Sunda Minivet, Sunda Robin, Sunda Forktail, Shiny and Brown-winged Whistlingthrushes, Malaysian Rail-Babbler, Sumatran Babbler (Trichastoma buettikoferi), Long-billed, Rusty-breasted and Marbled Wren-Babblers, Fulvous-chested and White-tailed Flycatchers, Sumatran Drongo, and Sumatran Treepie.
The most exciting observation was a brief sighting of a pair of Salvadori's Pheasants. I had been to Mt. Kerinci 4 or 5 times already and missed this one. It was pheasant number 48 for my seen list and my last Asian Pheasant on the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Species) list. There are still several forms I've yet to see (such as Sumatran Pheasant, Lophura hoogerwerfi, and Hainan Peacock-Pheasant, Polyplectron katsumatae) which may or may not be species, as well as the sole African pheasant, the Congo Peafowl.
The heart of my Sumatra trip was a 10-day trek into a still largely pristine area adjacent to Gunong Kerinci Seblat National Park. Aside from the birds, I saw a spectacular Red-headed Krait, whose scarlet head and tail are quite striking. Though only 15 inches in length, we gave him all the room he wanted, as this fellow (which can reach 2 meters in length) is quite deadly. Most unbelievable was the 2-meter-high blossom of the Amorphophallus which we found. It had a base extruding from the forest floor about five inches high and about five inches in diameter. Above that is an inverted bell-shaped flower about four feet high which is creamy on the outside and purplish on the inside. Inside the bell and extending well above it is the 6 feet plus tawny shaft which is about 5 inches in diameter, tapering toward the top. We were exceedingly fortunate as this flower is rare and the monster bloom lasts only a day. Actually the huge flower we saw was a runt, as they sometimes reach 4 meters in height.
Two days in Lombok and a week in Jakarta rounded out my Indonesian adventure.
After a three-year absence, I noted some significant changes in the political climate. The serious problem areas such as northern Sumatra (Aceh), the Maluku Islands and Irian Jaya remain and will be off limits for the foreseeable future. However, while political instability is still endemic, the prospect of random violence due to local outbreaks is probably less than it was, although the runup to next year's elections is likely to increase instability until the elections are over. The likelihood of further high profile bombings is strong in spite of the Indonesian government's recent beginnings toward a crackdown on extremists. Avoidance of places where foreigners tend to congregate will continue to be necessary. On balance, security seems improved over the previous four years.
In late March 2003, I visited Hainan Island, off the SE coast of China, to see the recently described Hainan Leaf-Warbler. It was common and easy to see at a reserve in the southwestern part of the island. Following Hainan, I traveled to northern Guangdong Province in SE China to try again to see the highly endangered White-eared Night-Heron, which is extremely difficult to see because of its rarity and nocturnal habits. I had made three previous trips to see this species, one to the type locality in Hainan and two to Guangxi Province, and failed, leading me to believe I might never see it. This time I was more fortunate and got several good views. It was a great thrill to finally catch up with this fellow.
In May 2002, I twice visited Emei (Omei) Shan in central Sichuan Province of China to get better acquainted with the species of the Golden-spectacled Warbler complex and see the newly described Sichuan Leaf-Warbler, Phylloscopus emeiensis. Catching up with these fellows completed the Sichuan list for me.
In June 2002, I made a brief visit to northeastern Jiangxi Province of China to see the rare, local, and little-known Yellow-throated Laughingthrush. It has recently been found to nest in a few loose colonies and I was pleased to be able to spend a few hours watching them. This was my third attempt to find them, the other two trips being in winter, a season in which they have yet to be found.
In early August 2002, I visited the Taiwan-owned Matzu Islands, just off the East China coast of Fujian Province. The Chinese Crested Tern had been found nesting in these islands two years ago, the first confirmed records in 70 years or so, easing fears that the species might already be extinct. They apparently did not breed there in 2001. However, in late July 2002, several pair were found breeding again in the Matzu Islands. I was very fortunately able to spend an entire day watching 5-6 adults and 1 nearly fledged youngster from a distance. It was one of my most exciting and satisfying field experiences to see this beautiful "ghost" come to life. The Chinese Crested Terns were in a large colony of Great Crested Terns.