Day 284: The Tibetan Plateau

Noah finds frosty yaks and a few birds in a spectacular fall landscape.

October 11, 2015: Pingwu, China — The Tibetan Plateau, an area in east-central Asia covering most of Tibet and parts of northern India and western China, is a place of superlatives. It is the world’s highest and largest plateau, the world’s third least-populated area (after Antarctica and northern Greenland), and it stores more ice than any other region outside the polar areas. Some people refer to the Tibetan Plateau as “the third pole.” It is five times the size of France, with an average elevation above 11,000 feet. The plateau’s extreme eastern edge reaches China’s Sichuan province, and Sid and I spent the morning on this flat grassland.

In spring, the high plateau of western Sichuan is full of life, but we had to work a little harder to find birds here in October. The yaks had white frost on their shaggy fur this morning, and the local shepherds wore cloths around their heads against the cold, leaving just a slit for the eyes. Fluttering streamers and prayer flags provided the only color. At first glance the landscape seemed very empty, but a little scrutiny revealed some interesting residents.

Sid and I arrived here yesterday afternoon and immediately found one of my most-wanted birds, the Groundpecker, otherwise known as the Ground Tita peculiar little gray bird, apparently related to chickadees, which lives in holes in the ground and likes to vigorously bob its body up and down. This morning we added a few additional birds in a patch of nearby coniferous forest, including the plump and attractive Robin Accentor. We also saw a trio of birds named after unpronounceable ornithologists: Sukatschev’s Laughingthrush, Godlewski’s Bunting, and Przevalski’s Nuthatch!

After a lunch of stuffed pasta in spicy soup, we dropped off the plateau and wound south through some spectacular gorges. This afternoon was mostly a road trip toward southern Sichuan, but we stopped long enough to admire a flock of Sooty Tits before duska nice bonus. At lower elevation, the temperature is more moderate, and valleys are carved by fast-flowing rivers, but you can still see the snowy peaks above, and the fall colors are near their peak.

New birds today: 12

Year list: 4773


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