Birding: Wildlife abounds in Kunming

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Anywhere you go in Kunming, so long as it's outside, you can find wild animals. It's true, and I'm not just talking about invertebrates. I'm talking about birds. Every morning after I drop my son off at school, I head on over to Yunnan University with a pair of binoculars. I spend about an hour each morning walking around campus listening and looking for little feathered gems flitting about the branches or skulking in plain sight.

You might be surprised to hear it, but I guarantee you can spot at least ten different species of bird on that campus alone, within an hour. Of course, during spring and fall migration, when some of Asia's most spectacular birds move from their wintering grounds in Southeast Asia to central China and Russia, you can spot a whole lot more. In fact, over the last four years of birding on campus I have recorded over 100 different species of bird.

Blue-winged Minla (蓝翅希鹛) image credit: lonelyshrimp
Blue-winged Minla (蓝翅希鹛) image credit: lonelyshrimp

Birding in the Spring City

You can see more than a dozen types of birds on that campus on any given day. They are residents, sticking around throughout the year and even breeding on campus. Other places in Kunming will yield many different species year round depending on the habitat. Green Lake Park, for example, has much more than just its famous Black-headed Gulls, which only spend the winter in Kunming. Gray Herons, Little Egrets, Chinese Pond Herons, Eurasian Moorhens and more can be found just about any day.

Although I love seeing resident birds, nothing can compare to spotting an unexpected bird during migration. In the spring and fall, many species make a tremendous journey from Southeast Asia, north to central China and Russia, or vice-versa. April and September are your best chances to catch these passage migrants that may stop in Kunming to forage along their way.

Verditer Flycatcher (铜蓝鹟) image credit: Rakshit Pandey
Verditer Flycatcher (铜蓝鹟) image credit: Rakshit Pandey

Although there's many intriguing birds to be found in the micro-forest on the Yunnan University campus, or the willows along the lake, I do not limit myself to just these places. Yunnan probably contains more biodiversity than all of the United States and Canada combined. A lot of us city dwellers tend to forget this.

Having gotten in the habit of trying to see new birds, I have travelled to some of Yunnan's most biologically stunning landscapes. I've also travelled to some of Kunming's more obscure 'wastelands' in search of bird habitat. Areas in the peri-urban fringe with successional habitat and makeshift temples intrigue me. They're also good for finding many birds.

Gould's Sunbird (蓝喉太阳鸟) image credit: Jason Thompson
Gould's Sunbird (蓝喉太阳鸟) image credit: Jason Thompson

So why do I like birds so much? Well, for starters they are visible. Birds are mostly active during the day, can have very bright and attractive plumage and are more or less hiding in plain sight. They are also vocal. I challenge any reader to go to an urban park and just listen for five minutes. In the spring and summer you're going to hear birdsong. At the end of each vocalization there's a wild animal. Go find it!

Bird migration also makes seeking out species all the more rewarding. You never know what's going to turn up. Like the charismatic Taiga Flycatcher, for example. This bird weighs no more than 12 grams, but each year flies from Thailand to Siberia. That's a journey of more than 6,400 kilometers. Every spring and fall, Taiga Flycatchers en route to breeding or overwintering grounds can be spotted in Kunming. Look for open areas with scrubby vegetation and some trees.

Siberian Rubythroat (红喉歌鸲) image credit: JJ Harrison
Siberian Rubythroat (红喉歌鸲) image credit: JJ Harrison

But to be honest, it's not birds exactly. Birds are a gateway to learning about and appreciating the natural world. When I'm out birding, I'm also out hiking. I'm not just looking for birds, I am looking for habitats. I know certain birds have habitat associations where they are more reliably found.

When I see a cool bird I realize I am seeing a whole species assemblage, a whole ecosystem through the lens of my binoculars. In my search I am noticing so many things that had previously been invisible to me. I'm constantly learning. And I'm seeing a lot of beauty that slips past most.

Taiga Flycatcher (红喉姬鹟) image credit: Polen2018
Taiga Flycatcher (红喉姬鹟) image credit: Polen2018

How can I start birding?

All you need to bird is curiosity for nature and a decent pair of binoculars — I recommend Celestron 8×42 bins, which can be purchased on Taobao. If you want to identify what you're seeing you'll also want a field guide. A Chinese version of Birds of China, by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps — including English species names — can be picked up at Mandarin Books.

When I started birding in Kunming I was amazed at what I could find. I never took a clunky field guide out with me but just made mental or sometimes written notes of what I was observing and referred back to the literature when I got home. After a while I could identify most of the common urban species but, even to this day, I am always being surprised by what shows up in town.

Black-throated Tit (红头长尾山雀) image credit Robert tdc
Black-throated Tit (红头长尾山雀) image credit Robert tdc

Best places to go birding in Kunming

The best spot to bird is your own patch. A 'patch' in the birding world is like a birder's home turf or a spot good for birding regularly. For me that has been Yunnan University. When I first started birding there I never would have imagined that I'd see 112 species there. And I'm still counting. Find a place convenient with some different habitat types — grassy areas, stands of trees, scrub or mudflats and open water — and look in those niches where people are typically absent.

Of course there are well-known birding hotspots in the city. My all-time favorite is Bamboo Temple, Jiaoye Park and the forested valley that separates the two. Lots of excellent habitat and its only a 25-minute bike ride from the center of town. The Western Hills can also be very good, but I tend to eschew crowds and have a personal hatred for those tourist busses that cart people up and down the mountain — I'm trying to record bird songs here...

Outside of Kunming, Yunnan has some of China's most renowned birding destinations aorund. Baihualing (百花岭) in the Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山), and various places in Yingjiang County (盈江县) in Dehong Prefecture top the list.

Black-throated Tit image credit: GameBirds
Black-throated Tit image credit: GameBirds

Useful resources

eBird. eBird is a website developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that logs sightings of birds all over the world. On the site you can find birding hotspots, recent sightings, and check out tons of images and audio recordings. You can also contribute your own sightings to the world's largest citizen science archive!

There's still a lot about birds, their seasonal movements and abundance, that is still unknown. By going out and birding your local patch you'll be able to contribute useful information to birders and the scientific community. But even if listing on eBird is not your thing, getting outside and aquatinting yourself with the flying, non-human residents of the city can be lots of fun.

Uncredited images: Alex Nickley

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Nice article, Alex - not my thing, but I can see how it can become an interesting hobby.

Not a twitcher myself but I've seen/heard some interesting birds in Ma Liao He Park 马料河公园, a usually quiet(ish) park following a slow flowing river with lots of reeds and ponds. There is a dam with a lake behind it at one end too.

Why not get a camera. Would have been really nice to see your photos instead of photos picked from www.

Has anyone ever seen the God bird in Yunnan? The hornbill. The God of all birds.

On top of that I suggest ppl to learn the Hornbills significance in Asia. From Jingpo to Nagaland and from nagaland to Borneo.

The Hornbills - God of the birds - fate now, is similar the the God of the Animals (The Tiger),

Not a good one.

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