Tuesday 28 June 2016

Searching for the Nonggang Babbler - Nonggang, Guangxi

Nonggang was relatively unknown to most birders even in China, it was a former eco-park that's situated in Longzhou County of south west Guangxi, approximately 25-30km away from the Vietnamese border. It is now a National Nature Reserve, but the actual reserve have since been shut off to the public for unknown reasons, not even the locals can access the reserve. It was here that a bird had evaded scientists and ornithologists for centuries, hiding away in the limestone karst landscape that make up this unique area, it wasn't until 2008 that this species was first described by Chinese ornithologists Zhou Fang and Jiang Aiwu (not just a split new species, but a completely new species unknown to science!), and appropriately named the Nonggang Babbler. So far, there's been no record of this species anywhere else in the world except for the few reserves within Longzhou County, the remote area of Nonggang became an ornithology mecca overnight. It's estimated that there are only around 3,000 of these birds in the wild within their extremely limited range south west Guangxi. 

Nonggang Babbler - the star bird of the area

Typical Limestone Karst Landscape at Nonggang


After reading some information about birding in the area and asking around from a few friends for contacts of a few local connections, I decided to give Nonggang the green light! Me, as well as a few birding friends including Guangdong forest birds research buddies Captain Wong and Yuen plus two of Captain's friends; Hailey and Alfee joined up to explore this exciting region. We met up on Friday morning at Lok Ma Chau to head across the border to Shenzhen North Station, where we were to catch the 12:20pm HSR (High-Speed Railway) to Nanning, Guangxi. With HSR, we can now reach Guangxi in just 4 hours, it's a much cheaper alternative to flying there. Weather was fine and we enjoyed beautiful sceneries out the train's window for the next four hours.

View looking out from the HSR on the way to Nanning

We arrived at Nanning East Station just past 4:30pm. We met up with our pre-arranged driver, Long is a native from Longzhou county and he was to be our driver for the entire trip. From Nanning we got on the car for another four hours drive. Before we set off we managed to spot a few Ashy Woodswallow on a telegraph pole, but we were in too much a rush to stop for photographs. We also added a few birds in the car, including Black-shouldered Kites and a Hainan race Chinese Bulbul. A bit of rain had us worrying about the weather for the next two days...

First sight of limestone hills

Motorway connecting Nanning to Chongzuo

It was already dark by the time we arrived at our destination of Wang Na Village. Here we met our host Xiao Peng, he is one of the many bird guides in the villages here that have started up a thriving birding business. He explained to us what birds people have been photographing lately and made a plan for our short visit. He suggested that we visited all the nesting birds first as many of which could fledge any moment now and visit the Nonggang Babblers on our last morning. We had a late supper and went to bed early.


The next morning, we woke up to a beautiful morning. We finally got our first proper look at the karst landscape, with sugar cane fields below stretching to the horizon. It was a view to behold, but we wasted no time and had a quick breakfast before we were moved into our vehicle and onto our first destination. Just before we set off we added a flock of Yellow-bellied Warblers outside the hostel. It was unfortunate that Xiao Peng twisted his leg the day before so he couldn't join us, but Long our driver seems to know where he was going and he himself knew plenty of local birds species.

Beautiful sunrise over the limestone hills

Yellow-bellied Warbler

Along the way, we scanned for birds along electric cables, we stopped briefly for a pair of Crested Buntings. They are quite common here and can be heard singing from an exposed perch early morning.

Crested Bunting

Our car stopped in front of a village house, where we were greeted by the owner of the house. We were told to go sit at a bird hide he setup in front of a few trees at his front garden. The villagers here have developed this interesting tactic to make some extra income, whenever someone find a nesting site or an area where a certain species of bird occur regularly, they will contact the local guides, who will go setup a blind at the location. In return the finder will get to charge the people going to photograph the birds, either 30RMB or 50RMB per person, the money goes directly into the villager's bank. This became a driving force for locals to find and protect birds around them, as they now know birds can generate a handsome amount of income, we estimated each bird they find can earn them up to 8,000RMB to 10,000RMB! Which is a lot of money for a rural farmer! So, instead of taking and cooking the eggs or catching the birds for food, they now try to make sure the birds are safe from harm's way, which in a way is a good news for the birds.

We sat down and waited behind the blind, it wasn't long until a female Oriental Paradise Flycatcher appeared to feed her young at the nest. This was the first time I have seen the nest of this species, and was surprise how low they built it, just on a few branches at eye-level amongst a few trees in someone's front garden! Oriental Paradise Flycatcher can be separated from Amur Paradise Flycatchers by showing less contrast between throat and breast, this is more easily told apart in females.

Oriental Paradise Flycathcer - female

We waited a little longer and soon enough, the male arrived! A beautiful white-morph male! I've been wanting to see one of them for a long time but they have always eluded me. The smart looking bird later perched nearby to call to it's mate, we were all blessed with amazing views for a good fifteen minutes. Having had satisfying views, we happily paid the owner and hopped on the car to the next location.

Oriental Paradise Flycatcher - white morph male

On the way to our next destination, we saw a few large birds perched on electrical cables, binocular views confirm them as Eurasian Kestrels, a total of eight birds! They were feeding above a recently ploughed field, perhaps looking for insects. I was quite surprise to see this many here at this time of the year, but I guess that's birds for you...you never know!

Eurasian Kestrel - a bit of a surprise!

We arrived shortly after just a few minutes drive, a man on a scooter met us and led us through a small track along some wooded areas next to a shallow pond. We arrived at a small clearing in front of some tall bamboos where a blind was erected. A few photographers were already waiting inside, the blind was a little crowded but we just about managed to fit. It was quite a long wait but finally a parent bird returned with a beakful of worms! It's amazing how many worms they can hold onto in one go. The parent delivered the food, cleaned out some bamboo chipping from the nest cavity and took out the trash as well! Some very caring parents!

Way to the piculet site

White-browed Piculet - one of Nonggang's speciality

Hailey and Alfee did not managed any good photographs on the first few rounds, so they stayed on a bit longer. Captain, Yuen and I waited outside by the pond. We also added a flock of thirty Indochinese Yuhinas and Black-naped Monarchs. I personally added Grey-throated Babblers and David's Fulvetta. We observed a pair of Crested Serpent Eagle that drifted past very high up. Weather was stunning but extremely hot.

Crested Serpent Eagle

Deep valleys and near verticle hills

Once Hailey and Alfee got satisfied photographs, we headed to the Yellow-bellied Warbler site. Our driver Long guided us through a sugar cane field towards the base of a forested hill, there we saw a blind again setup next to some tall bamboos. Turns out this pair of Yellow-bellied Warblers had made used of an old Piculet nest, the parents came to feed their young tirelessly. We observed briefly and left them to carry on in peace. We were later told that the brood had fledged later in the day! So we were lucky to have witnessed them at their nest. It was just around mid-day so we headed back to the hostel for lunch.

Long our driver leading us through a sugar cane field

Blind setup at the Yellow-bellied Warbler nest

Yellow-bellied Warbler

After a quick lunch we headed back out, we hurried to the Yellow-eyed Babbler nest site. The sun was scorching and by the time we got to the sugar cane fields we were already soaked in our sweat. The farmer led us into his field to a little blind that they have setup. We haven't even settled our equipments and the bird already hopped into view! We quickly got our cameras ready and clicked away...This is a new species for me, and it sure is a peculiar looking bird with it's bright orange red eye-rings which give it that constant "surprise" look. One of the adult was so busy going back and forth that at one point it had to stop at the nest to pant, the weather was even too hot for the birds. They came around a few times carrying food for their three youngs. We only stayed for half an hour, making good use of our limited time!

Yellow-eyed Babbler

We wanted to head to a waterhole at first, but Long promised us that it was way too early to head over there at this time of day, he suggested us to visit a pair of nesting Black-naped Monarchs first. A brief stop by the banana plantations added Japanese White-eyes, we arrived at a village house and was led inside by a lady. She told us to go upstairs, at this point we thought it was a bit weird but we went along anyway. There, she pointed at the window that leads out to a balcony, where a blind had been setup. Looking out from the slit we immediately saw a beautiful male perched next to a nest that's built amongst some thin bamboo shoots.

And yes...you have to climb through the window

The blind on the balcony

Black-naped Monarch - male

Although this is a species I see regularly in Hong Kong, I don't usually get close up views like this! The male was soon replaced by his mate, it was his turn to go out for food, and he soon returned with a sort of fly in its mouth. But one fly cannot feed three chicks, so off they went again...the pair provided a good half an hour of wonderful views, this was hands down one of my most bizarre birding experience anywhere. We were still a bit early to head to the waterhole, so we decided to head back to our hostel to take shelter from the tropical heat.

Black-naped Monarch

At 4:30pm, we set off once again to the waterhole. It was a very short drive just around the corner and a small climb up hill have us arriving at the waterhole stakeout. We settled down and waited. We were soon greeted by a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls, very common in Hong Kong and just as common here...They played around the water and soon left, then it went very quiet for about half an hour.

Red-whiskered Bulbul - is this a shampoo advertisement?

It was around 5:15pm, just when we thought nothing would arrive and that we were wasting our time sitting here, a small flock of Pin-striped Tit-Babbler appeared, having heard them throughout the day it's nice to finally see them! A few of these lively birds hopped in and out of the water, as if testing whether the water was safe to enter.

Pin-striped Tit-Babbler

Soon, more birds started to appear, a largish bird hopped into view; a Puff-throated Bulbul, this young bird had a strange right feet but it didn't deter it from getting a good bath and drink.

Puff-throated Bulbul

Over the next hour, birds came in a constant stream, almost too quick for me to take it all in! A family of Hainan Blue Flycatchers chased each other around, there were males, females, juveniles...all looking for a dip in the cool water.

Hainan Blue Flycatcher - adult male

adult female

immature male

Immature female?

Male at bath...

A scruffy looking juvenile after a bath

A few familiar face from home, Rufous-capped Babblers joined in the party, so did the Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, they were later overwhelmed by a less familiar Grey-throated Babbler. They even brought along with them a few juveniles, which looked a bit shy to dip into the water.

Rufous-capped Babbler

Streak-breasetd Scimitar-Babbler

Grey-throated Babbler

A familiar face that carries a different name, David's Fulvetta is a split from the Grey-cheeked Fulvetta complex, this includes the Huet's Fulvetta that we get in Hong Kong. Based on geographic distribution, Alcippe davidi laotiana have a range from South East Yunan to Guangxi and North West Vietnam. Although I personally cannot tell the difference in the field at all...I will leave the confusing splitting to ornithologists.

David's Fulvetta

A late comer, a few Buff-breasted Babblers finally made an appearance. They are very drab looking babblers with not much features to speak of, but what they lack in looks is made up for by their boldness, being very inquisitive creatures and have no fear of men, a few of them hopped right into our blind and one nearly peck at my shoe!

Buff-breasted Babbler

The last to appear was a single Streaked Wren-Babbler. It's relatively large size and darker colour stood out from the rest of the smaller babblers. I have seen this species at Fraser's Hill before but the view was nothing compare to this! It was around 6:45pm and as the light dimmed we left the birds to continue with their pool party and headed back to the hostel. We celebrated a successful day with a bottle of chilled coca-cola!

Streaked Wren-Babbler


We woke up earlier the next morning, a quick breakfast and we were all up and ready to find our top target bird; the Nonggang Babbler! Weather was just as fine as the day before. Long was just on time and we hurried onto the vehicle and off we went to the Nonggang Babbler stakeout.

Morning lights outside hostel

We arrived at the bottom of a hill where an old man greeted us with a big smile. He told us to follow him up a narrow and a little treacherous path up the limestone slopes, we obeyed. As we walked up he started whistling a long whistle and was answered back by another whistle up the slope. It took us 10 minutes to get up to the stakeout point, a small clearing of rocks in the middle of the forest. The man continued to whistle as he poured out some meal worms from a small tin can onto the surrounding rocks. We waited.

The hill for Nonggang Babbler

Man whistling in the birds after placing meal worms on the "stage"

We heard some movement up the slope and a few birds appeared, one of the first was a Buff-breasted Babbler which came and took a few meal worms casually. But soon, it was chased off by a much larger and darker babbler. Sure enough, a small flock of Nonggang Babbler materialised out of thin air and onto the rocks in front of us. At first glance they look completely black, but a closer inspection through our cameras and binoculars reveals more details; white ear coverts and throat markings are amongst the first features you will see, then you will start noticing subtle colour difference of their dark brownish purple sheen mantle and chocolate coloured wings. Finally, you will see their bluish-grey eyes which pops out from their dark plumage.

Buff-breasted Babbler

Nonggang Babbler - sub-adults

Soon, we were surrounded by at least 30 of these gregarious birds, all jumping and hopping around the rocks looking for the meal worms placed there for them. We started noticing a lot of birds were juveniles or sub-adults, I take this to be a good sign that they have been breeding fairly well this year. We saw a few juveniles begging for food and being pampered gently by their parents, the parents will pick up worms to feed the young bird that follows it around. The juveniles have a very faint white ear covert and lacking much of the throat pattern.

Nonggang Babbler - adults and juvenile

Soon, a beam of sunlight shone through the canopy and onto the rocks, which provided some wonderful lighting for us to truly appreciate their subtle beauty. The adult's eyes were especially beautiful under good lighting, turning a more bright blue. Having had over an hour of closeup encounter with this amazing endemic, we slowly made our way back down the hill, feeling rather pumped that we have just seen one of the rarest bird species in the world. It's hard to imagine that only less then a decade ago this species was completely unknown to ornithologists and now we can enjoy amazing views of it in relative comfort and ease.

Nonggang Babbler - sub-adult

Nonggang Babbler - adult

For our final stop, Long drove us to a Long-tailed Broadbill nest that a few villagers found only the day before! The pair was already busy looking for materials in the forest when we arrived, flying back and forth constantly. Although Broadbills are canopy dwelling birds, these here at Nonggang had developed a new tactic in nest building by placing their nest along electrical cables! It's difficult to imagine, but when you think about it it actually make a lot of sense, as not many predator can actually reach them there, no cats can walk a thin wire like that! So there we were, happily looking at these amazing looking pair of Broadbills right by the roadside, completely mesmerized by their cartoon like features and colourful plumage. And what a way it was to end our trip at Nonggang!

Looking towards the Broadbill nest

Long-tailed Broadbill and it's nest

Long-tailed Broadbill - the busy pair

Just below their nest, another pair of Yellow-eyed Babblers seems to be busy building a nest of their own amongst the vast sugar cane field. It was still quite early but we decided to head back earlier for a cold shower and pack for our journey back.

Yellow-eyed Babbler - a classic habitat shot

Over looking Nonggang National Nature Reserve, now shut off to public

To summarise our trip, I would think Nonggang is an area well worth visiting, the scenery is beautiful and birds are plentiful. With much better road networks and infrastructure even a long weekend trip is possible. Prices are relatively cheap, we only spent around 1500RMB each for the rooms, food and transport including the railway there and back, it's really a bargain for the amount of birds this place can deliver. Don't expect anything fancy, but the hostel we stayed in now have air conditioning and ensuite bathrooms, a luxury for any travelling birders! The style of birdwatching however may not be suitable for all, as we were left with little opportunities to walk around and explore different areas, the local guides prefer that you go to the birding spots they have setup, which is not surprising considering how much extra money that can bring. I am sure there will be guides that is willing to do a bit more walking, maybe I just have to ask around next time.

Typical meal they offer at the hostel

Basic twin room with AC and ensuite toilet - luxury birding!

The hostel provided drinking water, essential for birding here in the summer...

We encountered a bit of hiccup on our return journey, as it turns out a friend of Yuen whom helped us booked the tickets had got the return date wrong. So, we had to take a train to Guangzhou and from Guangzhou back to Shenzhen, it was all a little hectic but at least we managed to get home safely. 

With the wide variety of species that overlaps with Yunan, Northern Thailand and Vietnam, plus a few local specialities, Nonggang is a great alternative birding destination if you want something a little different. I will no doubt be back in the future.

Last look at the beautiful limestone karst landscape

1Little GrebeTrain - Guangzhou to NanningY
2Cattle EgretTrain - Guangzhou to NanningYY
3Little EgretTrain - Guangzhou to NanningYY
4Chinese Pond HeronNanning to NonggangYY
5Yellow BitternTrain - Guangzhou to NanningY
6possible Black BitternNonggangYseen by Yuen, describe as dark and small egret that's likely this species.
7Black-shouldered KiteNanning to NonggangY
8Crested Serpent EagleNonggangYY
9Red Turtle DoveTrain - Guangzhou to NanningY
10Plaintive CuckooNonggangYheard
11Greater CoucalNonggangYheard
12Lesser CoucalNonggangY
13House SwiftNonggang to NanningY
14Common KingfisherNonggangY
15White-throated KingfisherNonggangYY
16DollarbirdNonggangYat least 6 seen near the top of limestone hills, likely breeding up there.
17White-browed PiculetNonggangYa pair observed at nest feeding young
18Bay WoodpeckerNonggangYheard
19Eurasian KestrelNonggangYat least 8 on telegraph wire in along road
20Long-tailed BroadbillNonggangYmany used nests, a pair building new nest on telegraph wire observe
21Ashy Woodswallow Nanning East Train StationYat least four at Nanning East Train Station carpark
22Large Cuckooshrike NonggangYone female observed
23Black-naped MonarchNonggangYYheard regularly, a pair at nest feeding young
24Oriental Paradise FlycatcherNonggangYa pair at nest feeding young, white morph male
25Large-billed CrowNonggangYY
26Barn SwallowNonggangYYY
27Cinerous TitNonggangYY
28Black-crested BulbulNonggangYheard early morning behind hostel
29Red-whiskered BulbulNonggangYYY
30Chinese BulbulNanning to NonggangYHainan race seen along roadside
31Sooty-headed BulbulTrain - Guangzhou to NanningY
32Puff-throated BulbulNonggangYone visited waterhole, another observed at Piculet nest site
33Long-tailed ShrikeTrain - Guangzhou to NanningY
34Yellow-bellied WarblerNonggangYYcommonly heard and seen, a pair nesting observed
35Pale-footed Bush WarblerNonggangYseen by Yuen, recording confirms to be this species
36Common TailorbirdNonggangYY
37Rufescent PriniaNonggangYYheard along roads in sugar cane fields
38Plain PriniaNonggangYY
39Yellow-bellied PriniaNonggangYY
40Yellow-eyed Babbler NonggangYYone nesting pair observed in a corn field, another pair observed bringing food back and forth near Long-tailed Broadbill nesting site
41Indochinese YuhinaNonggangYa flock of 30 observed near Piculet site
42Japanese White-eyeNonggangY
43Pin-striped Tit-babblerNonggangYYcommon at waterhole, heard regularly
44Rufous-capped BabblerNonggangYYcommon at waterhole, heard regularly
45Streak-breasted Scimitar-BabblerNonggangYYcommon at waterhole, heard regularly
46Large Scimitar BabblerNonggangYone heard at distance at Yellow-bellied Warbler nest site
47Grey-throated BabblerNonggangYcommon at waterhole, heard regularly
48Nonggang Babbler *NonggangYa flock of around 30 birds at stakeout, farmer had been feeding them meal worms for over a year on a regular basis, many young birds observed with a few newly fledged individuals, feeding observed. The flock was reported missing in May, likely to be nesting at the time.
49Buff-breasted BabblerNonggangYYcommon at waterhole, one at Nonggang Babbler stakeout, fearless to man, very inquisitive.
50Streaked Wren-BabblerNonggangYone at waterhole, came in at around 6pm
51David's FulvettaNonggangYcommon at waterhole, base on geographic location should be Alcippe davidi laotiana
52Chinese HwameiNonggangYYheard
53Oriental Magpie RobinNonggangYYY
54Hainan Blue FlycatcherNonggangYYcommon at waterhole, at least 2 males and 1 female with a few juveniles, one male observed behind hostel
55Crested MynaShenzhen to NanningYY
56Scarlet-backed FlowerpeckerNonggangYheard flowerpecker should be this species
57Fork-tailed SunbirdNonggangYYheard regularly
58Sunbird sp.NonggangYa sunbird species call that we didn't recognise, but unfortunately did not see the bird
59White WagtailNonggangYYrace alboides
60Crested BuntingNonggangYYcommon early morning along electric lines
61Eurasian Tree SparrowNonggangYYY
62Scaly-breasted MuniaNonggangY