Yeniugou : Back to the “Sillem Valley”
Last year during an aborted trek i took a few pictures of an unknown bird, that later turned out to be long lost Sillem’s Mountain Finch. This coincidental rediscovery attracted some attention from the birdwatching community, and i had long planned to revisit the area, possibly with local researchers who were interested in confirming the bird status as a distinct species by taking a DNA Sample. Several contacts were made but at the end schedules did not match, and on May 21st it was just me and guide Dordje heading toward the Kunlun mountains for a 2 weeks search. The plan was to first explore the area around the Kunlun pass and the base camp of the Yuzhu Feng (6180m), at elevation 5000m, where the Sillem’s Mountain Finch could possibly occur. The place is accessible by car, there is a small guesthouse and some restaurants at Budongquan 20km away, so it was a good way to acclimatize before undertaking the more demanding trek back to last year’s sighting location.
The 2 and half day exploration proved unsuccessful however, no Sillem’s Mountain Finch was found, and not even a single Tibetan Rosefinch, a species closely related to sillemi which was observed intermingling with it at the sighting location. Of course this does not prove anything, 2.5 days for a single observer is short and i could only cover a small area, in rather poor weather conditions overall. The Yuzhu feng base camp is only 108 km east of last year’s sighting location on the same mountain range, so i still believe it is possible it occurs in the area. For future visitors, Yuzhu feng base camp location is 35.627983, 94.202463 on Google Maps/Earth, and is accessible by an 8km dirt track that meets the main Golmud-Lhasa road 2 km South of the Kunlun pass. The area is bordering the Kekexili nature reserve, and it is the best place i know for observing and photographing wild ungulates : Wild Yaks, Tibetan Antelopes, Tibetan Gazelles and Kiangs are all fairly abundant and can be watched from the road, sometimes at close range.
After those 3 days the car drove us up the Yeniugou valley until the entrance of the self dubbed “Sillem Valley”, right where we started the trek last year. Only notable change was a small camp of road workers and a construction machine building a road leading inside the valley toward a mining site located 10km or so higher in a side valley. No much of a surprise to me, Western Qinghai is a major mining exploration area and over the last 5 years i have seen mining sites springing up all along the Kunlun range, further and further to the West.
With quite a load to carry as we planned for 8 nights camping we took 2 days to walk the 22km or so to the sighting location, where we established base camp. The next 4 days i could explore the surroundings, starting of course with the slope just above the camp, where i found the bird last year, but also looking at different slope orientations, gradients, elevations and vegetation cover.
However the outcome was pretty poor number wise : i had only 2 sightings of Sillem’s Mountain Finch, one of 4 birds (1 male, 3 females) just meters away from last years’s sighting location, and another of a single female who was with a group of Tibetan Rosefinches, a mere 1.5 km away on the same slope. At least i could get fairly close range pictures showing better details than what i got last year. I will elaborate more on Sillem’s Mountain finch in an upcoming post.
Tibetan Rosefinches and Brandt’s mountain finches were all found much more numerous than Sillem. Horned Larks, White-rumped, Rufous-necked and Blanford’s Snowfinches, White-winged Redstart and a pair of Ravens completed the list as for passerines around Base camp. Other interesting findings in the vicinity were several groups of Tibetan Snowcocks, more often heard than seen, and 3 single Tibetan Sandgrouses that flew overhead. Raptor wise, several single Lammergeiers (one flying just above me at a pass, obviously checking my “condition”), a group of Himalayan and Black Vultures feeding on carrion, a pair of juvenile Steppe Eagles, 1 single Saker Falcon and numerous Upland Buzzards.
I did not see so many mammals, but interestingly i came across 2 herds of Tibetan Antelopes, one of 20 animals including a single male, one of 10 females and youngs. I have seen Antelopes before in Yeniugou but never in groups of more than 5 animals, so it’s a good sign that Antelopes are slowly making their way back into the Valley. They were abundant in the early 1990s, but Shatoosh trade related poaching apparently wiped them out of the valley completely in just 10 years (Harris&Loggers, 2004). Other mammal sightings included Tibetan Gazelles and Kiangs mostly in the lower parts of Yeniugou valley, a herd of around 100 Wild Yaks near the entrance of “Sillem Valley”, around 15 Blue Sheep near the same location, 1 Red Fox near base camp (seen several times, once carrying a prey, suggesting a den in the vicinity), and 1 Eurasian Badger, who funnily was closely followed by a pair of juvenile Steppe Eagles. And of course many Plateau Pikas and Himalayan Marmots. I could not see any Argali Sheep, and unfortunately the hoped-for large predators stayed out of sight (Wolf, Brown bear, Lynx and Snow Leopard all occur/have occurred in Yeniugou valley). Wild areas with proper habitat remain aplenty, but likely the increasing mining exploration activity as well as the increasing number and size of domestic herds in the main Valley have displaced shy animals into more remote areas.