10 June-11 July

As we neared a site where we had previously seen the Pink-tailed Rosefinch, our anticipation turned to horror: the once luxuriant scrub that had been dense and up to 2.5 meters high was now scattered and only 0.5 meter high. The ever-increasing numbers of yaks, sheep and goats had eaten the vegetation down to a pitiful remnant, a condition becoming rampant on the Tibetan Plateau. The following day we visited a second scrub patch and were relieved to find it largely intact, although it too was less luxuriant than on our last trip. We roamed through the scrub, frequently stopping to play the Pink-tailed Rosefinch tape in hope of locating one. While the habitat was in seemingly good shape, we were perplexed by the lack of such typical birds as White-browed Tit-Warbler and White-browed Tit. After several hours of diligent searching, we still hadn’t found the rosefinch and were beginning to feel that we might not find it. Then, in checking out a broad finger of scrub, a brown bird popped up to the top of a bush and looked at me—it was the female of the Pink-tailed Rosefinch. Soon she was joined by the male. I quickly called the group over and we enjoyed some 20 minutes with this lovely pair of birds, including superb scope views. Our sighting and extended viewing was all the more gratifying as the male is exquisite and the species, always an enigma, is currently thought to represent a monotypic family.

Other particularly exciting species were: several close intimate studies of Tibetan Partridge; good views of Tibetan Eared Pheasant; great sightings of some 20 Black-necked Cranes; excellent looks at Ibisbills;  Pallas’s Sandgrouse;  several superb Derbyan Parakeets;  the second record for China of the  Yellow-rumped Honeyguide; Tibetan, Mongolian and Hume’s Larks; Pale Martin (Riparia diluta); Robin and Brown Accentors; Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats; Firethroat; Chestnut, White-backed, and Chinese Thrushes; Tibetan Blackbird; Giant and Tibetan Babaxes; Giant and Brown-cheeked Laughingthrushes;  Chinese Fulvetta;  Beautiful Sibia;  Gansu and Chinese Leaf-Warblers;  White-browed and Crested Tit-Warblers; Songar and White-browed Tits; Snowy-browed and White-cheeked Nuthatches; Wallcreeper; Tibetan Serin; Grey-capped and Black-headed Greenfinches; Black-headed Mountain-Finch, Mongolian Finch; 9 rosefinches (including Pink-bellied, Pale, Streaked, Great, Red-fronted and Tibetan), Rock Petronia; all 6 possible snowfinches; Tibetan Ground-Tit; Mongolian Ground-Jay; and Daurian Jackdaw.

Some of the other species seen were: Whooper Swan, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow-nib Duck, Red-crested and Ferruginous Pochards, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan (Buteo burmanicus) and Upland Buzzards, Steppe Eagle, Saker Falcon, Tibetan Snowcock,  Blood Pheasant, White Eared Pheasant, Demoiselle Crane, Great and Brown-headed Gulls, Hill and Snow Pigeons, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Little Owl, Crimson-breasted and Black Woodpeckers, Yellow-hooded Wagtail, White-throated and Brown Dippers, Alpine Accentor, Indian Blue Robin, Orange-flanked and Himalayan Bush-Robins, Hodgson’s, White-throated, Daurian, and White-bellied Redstarts, Isabelline, Desert and Pied Wheatears, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, Plain and Elliot’s Laughingthrushes, Red-billed Leiothrix, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Red-tailed Minla, Spotted Bush-Warbler, Yellow-streaked, Hume’s, Golden-spectacled, Olive-crowned, and Black-faced Warblers, Goldcrest, Ferruginous and Slaty-blue Flycatchers, Vivid Niltava, Gould’s Sunbird, Chestnut-lined Bunting, Twite, Plain Mountain-Finch, Grey-headed Bullfinch, Collared Grosbeak, Azure-winged Magpie, Spotted Nutcracker, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Rook, and Carrion Crow.

We had several nice mammals, including: Tibetan Wild Ass, Tibetan Gazelle, Hog Badger and Himalayan Tahr. Much improved roads, accommodation and food are making this an easier and more comfortable trip. It was a grand adventure to one of the most spectacular and remote areas on earth. The only foreigners we saw in 22 days were members of another birding group.


The lead car stopped abruptly and Jesper and the tour members literally flew out of the Toyota Land Cruiser and focused their binoculars on the tree above them. We stopped and looked. Several birds were visible-Derbyan Parakeets. We soaked up our views of this large and little-known parakeet, endemic to the high mountains of the southeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. We were the first birding tour group to traverse SE Tibet and the parakeet was the bird we most hoped to see. We needn't have worried-we saw 223 individuals in our visit to this remote corner of the world.

We saw most of the endemic and special bird species of the Tibetan Plateau during our 4-week journey across the roof of the world: Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Himalayan Griffon, Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon, Tibetan Snowcock, Buff-throated and Rusty-necklaced Partridges, Daurian and Tibetan Partridges, Blood Pheasant, White and Tibetan Eared Pheasants, Black-necked Crane, Ibisbill, Great and Brown-headed Gulls, Hill and Snow Pigeons, Tibetan and Mongolian Larks, Hume's Lark, Pale Martin, Alpine, Robin, Rufous-breasted and Brown Accentors, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Ala Shan, Hodgson's, Blue-fronted, White-throated, White-winged and White-bellied Redstarts, Chestnut and White-backed Thrushes, Giant and Tibetan Babaxes, Giant, Elliot's and Brown-cheeked Laughingthrushes, Yellow-throated and Streak-throated Fulvettas, Beautiful Sibia, Yellow-streaked and Lemon-rumped Warblers, Gansu and Chinese Leaf-Warblers, White-browed and Crested Tit-Warblers, Black-browed Tit, Tibetan Ground-Tit, White-browed Tit, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Wallcreeper, Tibetan Bunting, Plain and Black-headed Mountain-Finches, Pink-tailed, Beautiful, Pink-bellied, Pale, Streaked, Great, Red-fronted and Tibetan Rosefinches, Crimson-browed Finch, and White-winged, Black-winged, White-rumped, Small, Rufous-necked and Plain-backed Snowfinches.

Other good birds were: Black Stork, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Lammergeier, Besra, Demoiselle Crane, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Woodcock, Pallas's Sandgrouse, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Wedge-tailed Pigeon, Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo, Little Owl, Himalayan Swiftlet, Asian Lark, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Yellow-hooded Wagtail, Rosy Pipit, Rufous-tailed Shrike, White-throated Dipper, Indian Blue Robin, Isabelline, Desert and Pied Wheatears, Rufous-tailed Rockthrush, White-collared Blackbird, Red-billed Leiothrix, Grey-bellied Tesia, Spotted and Chinese Bush-Warblers, Olive-crowned Warbler (Seicercus whistleri), Black-faced Warbler, Small Whitethroat, Dark-sided and Ferruginous Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied and Vivid Niltavas, Songar Tit, Snowy-browed Nuthatch, Gould's, Green-tailed and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Pine and Chestnut-lined Buntings, Mongolian and Desert finches, Scarlet Finch, Brown and Grey-headed Bullfinches, Spot-winged and White-winged Grosbeaks, Russet Sparrow, Rock Petronia, Mongolian Ground-Jay, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Daurian Jackdaw, Rook and Carrion Crow.

The more interesting mammals were 84 White-lipped Deer, Tibetan Wild Ass, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Fox, Blue Sheep and Hog Badger. It was a grand trip with some of the most magnificent scenery on earth.


The way down looked pretty steep so we opted to continue along a high ridge at over 15,000 ft. (4,600 m.), until we reached a more gradual slope down. It was early afternoon and we'd spent the morning on this ridge in magnificent surroundings and great birding. We'd had superb looks at the Tibetan Rosefinch, one of Tibet's most difficult and sought after endemics. It has only been a few years since it had been rediscovered after many years with no records. We had also had good looks at Tibetan Snowcock, White-winged Snowfinch, Black-winged Snowfinch, White-rumped Snowfinch, and Plain and Black-headed Mountain-Finches.

But we still had yet to find a Tibetan Sandgrouse, the most difficult of Tibet's endemic birds to find, although it is far more widespread than the rosefinch. So we continued along the ridge, spread out to increase our overage. On and on we walked. Suddenly Jesper Hornskov called to us and motioned for us to join him. We walked toward him, wondering what he'd found. When we reached him, he pointed out a tiny mottled chick about 20 feet away. "It's a Tibetan Sandgrouse,"he said. We looked at the little fellow, which couldn't have been more than a day or two old and looked nothing like mama. We kept our distance and waited for the return of its parents. Soon, Dan Guthrie announced "Here they come!" About 50 yards away, two adult Tibetan Sandgrouse were walking diffidently toward us in their slow shuffling gait. I watched in awe as they continued nervously toward us, clucking quietly to one another. This was my last Asian sandgrouse and it seemed to me at the moment the most beautiful of all. They kept up their approach until they were about 30 ft. away and then began to circle. We watched, entranced, as this pair of lovely birds slowly moved around us. After about five minutes of soaking up their beauty, we left them to get on with their family life.

We had started our climb at 4:30 in the afternoon at 14,000 ft. It was a steep 40-50% grade and we were now at about 15,000 ft. Each step was a great effort, 20 or 30 steps and we had to rest again. We'd played an eared pheasant tape over and over with no response. Finally, we got a reply from two widely spaced individuals, both well above us. We scanned the slopes above us to no avail. We trudged higher, scanned more, trudged higher, scanned more, and trudged higher. The pheasants called only occasionally, still well above us. We kept climbing and scanning, but no luck. It was now 7:30 and the light was beginning to fail. We had only a few minutes left before we needed to start down so we'd have enough light to see the path. So we climbed some more and scanned some more. Then there it was in my binoculars, the Tibetan Eared Pheasant, standing amidst the vegetation high above us, surveying his patch and us. We quickly got the scope on him and watched as he moved slowly, picking up a few morsels, here and there. Gradually others came into view until we counted 9 adults and 6 half grown young. We watched these large and attractive pheasants until sated, then began the walk down.

We were sitting on a rocky ridge at 15,000 ft. Jesper Hornskov had seen a Snow Leopard here 3 years ago and we were scanning the surrounding tundra slopes and rocky outcroppings just in case. Meanwhile we enjoyed watching the Tibetan Gazelles, the various snowfinches and a stunning male White-winged Redstart. Suddenly Judith Sugden gasped, "There is one." She pointed out a greyish cat with a very long tail walking across the tundra 500-600 meters away, moving upward toward a large rocky outcropping. We took turns watching through the scope as it strode easily up the hill. Our initial impression was of a smaller cat, but the distance and nothing to compare it to made size difficult to judge. As we watched, we could make out a black tip to the tail with a couple of narrow black subterminal bands. The color of the upperparts was a medium gray, with a rusty area on the rear of the upper part of the hind legs. As we watched, we began to feel it was large enough for a Snow Leopard. When he reached the rocky outcropping, he lay down on a large flat rock for a few moments before getting up again and walking around the back side of the rocks and disappearing.

We still don't know what it was. There are three possibilities: Snow Leopard, Pallas's Cat and Chinese Desert Cat. I looked at Snow Leopard and Pallas's Cat skins at the American Museum of Natural History and watched the Snow Leopards at the Bronx Zoo for over an hour. I was also able to view some photos of Pallas's Cat at the Bronx Zoo. There appear to be neither skins nor photos of Chinese Desert Cat in New York. If it had been a Snow Leopard, it should have shown some spots on the pelage. The coloration of the cat was a good match for Pallas's Cat, but I didn't feel it was either that small or that fluffy (it has very long fur). This may turn out to be one of those mysteries we'll never solve. In any case, it was a thrilling sighting, for while the Snow Leopard is rare, endangered and exceedingly difficult to see, the other two cats are far less known.

Our goal on this trip was to see as many of the Tibetan endemic species as possible. We were quite successful, seeing every one that was known to be in the area we covered: Tibetan Babax, Giant Babax, Tibetan Bunting, Ala Shan Redstart, Buff-throated Partridge, Rusty-necklaced Partridge, White Eared Pheasant, Pink-tailed Rosefinch, Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush, Crested and White-browed Tit-Warblers, Tibetan Ground-Jay, White-backed Thrush, Tibetan Lark, Plain-backed and Rufous-necked Snowfinches, Pink-bellied Rosefinch, Tibetan Partridge, and White-browed Tit.

In addition we saw many other interesting species, such as Black-necked Crane, Ibisbill, Small Snowfinch, Great and Streaked Rosefinches, Pale Rosefinch, Lammergeier, Saker Falcon, Upland Buzzard, Hume's and Asian Larks, Mongolian Finch, Mongolian Lark, Gansu Leaf-Warbler, Wallcreeper, Red-crested Pochard, Rock Petronia, Brown and Robin Accentors, White-winged Redstart, Snow Pigeon, Himalayan Grifton, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Daurian Partridge, Mongolian Ground-Jay, Pallas's Sandgrouse, White-bellied Redstart, Snowy-browed Nuthatch, Black Stork, Whooper Swan, Bar-headed Goose, Great Gull, Yellow-nib Duck, Brown-headed Gull, Eurasian Eagle-Owl (3 sightings), Little Owl, Rufous-tailed Shrike, White-throated Dipper, Alpine Accentor, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Grandala, Giant and Plain Laughingthrushes, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Songar Tit, Pine and Chestnut-lined Buntings, and Grey-headed Bullfinch.

Mammals were much in evidence with numerous Tibetan Gazelles, a few Tibetan Wild Asses, a lone wolf, several weasels, some Bharal or Blue Sheep, several foxes, numerous pikas (of 3 or 4 species), lots of marmots, and some Wooly Hares. Put all these great birds and mammals in the grand setting of the Tibetan Plateau with its undulating tundra, snow-capped peaks and intense and constantly changing weather and you have a magnificent trip. We'll be repeating it in June 2001. See you then!