Thursday, August 31, 2017

China: Jiuzhaigou National Park (Part 1)

With one thing and another, I have been unconscionably late in keeping this blog up to date.  For my readers who are still with me, I now take up again the tale of our October 2014 tbus our through the Chinese province of Sichuan.  Though our tour through Sichuan was not designed for naturalists, it could hardly avoid one of the great natural wonders in the world and still claim to be a self-respecting tour of the province.  That meant that we had a full day to explore the amazing coloured lakes of Jiuzhaigou National Park, a spectacle that draws as many as 40,000 tourists a day.

Traffic in the park, given the huge number of visitors, is restricted to a fleet of tourist buses that make regular stops at the various lookout points along its two main paved roads.  Private cars and buses are not allowed, so our own tour bus could only take us as far as the ticketing area at the main entrance.  From there, we were (blissfully) on our own.

A considerable advantage of this arrangement, for us, was that we were able to spend the day with our friends.  Though they were the very people who had invited us on the trip in the first place, the tour agency had assigned us to separate buses and refused to alter the arrangement.  As even meals were taken in shifts this meant that we were usually restricted to waving at each other as we entered and left the various dining halls. At Jiuzgaigou, though, we were finally together – and, as this photograph shows, we were pretty happy about it.

People come to Jiuzhaigou for the mountain scenery and for the brilliant autumn leaf show (something that we were just a bit too early to see at its best), but its chief glories are a string of lakes whose waters, thanks to a variety of dissolved minerals, are coloured in almost unbelievable shades of turquoise and jade [Note: on 8 August 2017, as I was writing this, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake damaged a number of the park's most famous sites and, I believe, demolished the walkway shown in this picture].

Birders come here too, especially in the spring. The park is home to a number of rare and local birds, and in particular is the best place in the world to see the elusive and almost unknown Rufous-headed  Robin (Larvivora ruficeps). However, the time of year to do that it's May or June, when the birds are on their breeding grounds and singing.  By now, in autumn, most of the birds were silent, absent or both. That doesn't mean there were no birds to see, but certainly - with a few delightful exceptions - they were far from obvious.

I was not surprised by this - but I had my hopes, especially at our first destination of the day. Two main roads branch into the park from the visitor centre, each following a chain of rivers and lakes up into the mountains. We spent the morning exploring the eastern (Rize Valley) road, first taking a bus to its end point - the enticing-sounding Virgin (or Primeval) Forest, with its view up to (I think) the 4588-metre peak of Mt. Ganzigongaii.

The end point of the eastern road is something called the 'primeval forest', a splendid stand of firs and deciduous trees at almost 3000 metres elevation (the name recalls the 'forest primeval' in Evangeline, though I somehow doubt that Longfellow is widely read in Sichuan). It is one of the better-known birding spots in the park, and I was hoping to spend some time here despite the total lack of evidence that there were, in fact, any birds in the area.

To our friends, though - despite the magnificent trees around us - it was "just a forest". They wanted to head down to the lakes, and though it seemed a marvellous place to me I could see their point. The lakes, after all, are what makes Jiuzhaigou famous, and we only had a day. With a sigh I bid a silent farewell to the hordes of Sichuan Treecreepers that undoubtedly were cavorting around the next bend, and boarded the bus once more for the next stop down the mountain....

...after pausing, once more, with my fellow-travellers to admire the truly spectacular scenery.

The downhill bus first let us off at Swan Lake Station,  viewing point for Grass and Swan Lakes, the highest of the lakes in this valley.  This is Grass Lake...

..And this is Swan Lake.  Eileen and Mui Ling posed for a standard tourist photograph..

...while I set off in search of bird life. 

Grass Lake, as its name suggests, has more vegetation emerging from its waters than the other lakes, and a boardwalk leading out among the reeds did, finally, turn up a bird or two.

Buff-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus subaffinis)
Buff-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus subaffinis)
There are quite a few species of leaf warbler to be found in Jiuzhaigou, either as breeding residents or migrants, and they can be the devil to identify for the uninitiated. However, after getting some much-appreciated help from Marcel Holyoak, I am more or less confident that this is a Buff-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus subaffinis). 

Buff-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus subaffinis)
Buff-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus subaffinis)
The keys to distinguishing this from a host of nearly-identical species - especially in autumn, when the birds are silent - are fine details of plumage (in this case, the absence of a wing-bar and some very faint streaking on the throat and breast) and body shape. 

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
 For those of you without the patience needed to tease out leaf-warblers, here's a much easier identification job - a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) working its way among the weeds. 

From the placid, weedy waters of Grass lake we took another shuttle down to a very different spot, a series of lakes and cascades leading to the Pearl Shoal Waterfall.  The upper two photos show you Arrow Bamboo Lake, with an elevated walkway along its southern edge (the one demolished by the 2017 earthquake).

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
trout sp
In 2014, we were still in time to enjoy both the clear waters of the lake, including a pair of Mallards and numbers of trout, quite visible below the surface.

Pearl Shoal itself is a steep cascade, fitted with a wooden staircase crammed with admiring tourists. 

It is (or, sadly, was) something to see.

How much of this, both at Pearl Shoal and at other nearby beauty spots, is left after the 2017 earthquake I am not sure - and the various cascades on these lower lakes are, by now, blending together in my memory.

Aside from its lakes, Jiuzhagou is famous for the beauty of its autumn foliage. The is a mixed deciduous forest, so at any season one can enjoy its splendid conifers...

...but, unfortunately for us, we were just a bit too early to see its fall colours at their best.   A few trees, though, were already beginning to turn. In my next post, as we continue our day in Jiuzhaigou, I will show you some of their colours close up.