Landlocked Xinjiang, capital Urumqi, is a huge region with three big mountain ranges. These are: the Altai, shared with Russia in the north, the Tien Shan in the centre and the Kunlun-Altun Mountains in the south along the border with India and Pakistan.
Between these three mountain ranges are two deserts, with the feared Taklamakan desert in the south being the largest. There the enigmatic Xinjiang (formerly Biddulph’s) Ground Jay still clings to existence, although numbers are declining due to overgrazing and other environmental damage. In some semi-desert areas both Great Bustard and McQueen’s Bustard may still be found. The fringes of the Taklamakan Desert are a place of many ruins of ancient civilizations. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk is a very readable account of early 20th century archaeological discoveries by foreign adventurers in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang has a palearctic avifauna, with many species at the eastern ends of their ranges. European Bee-eater and European Roller are colourful examples. In the far west, at the town of Yili, the former Russian Consulate is now a hotel, set in a compound with mature trees. Here there are Turkestan Tits. In spring the song of Nightingales and Eurasian Cuckoo can be heard.
Heaven Lake in the Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains) is a three-hour drive northeast of the capital. The pines around the lake hold Three-toed Woodpecker, Blue-capped and White-winged Redstarts, Black-throated Accentor and Fire-fronted Serin.
South of Urumqi, the oases around the city of Turpan are sites for Azure Tit, Little Owl and Barred Warbler.
The biggest nature reserve in China is the Arjinshan National Nature Reserve in the southeast of Xinjiang. It covers 46,000 sq km of steppe, desert and lakes. However, it is remote and undeveloped, with as yet no visitor facilities.
Xinjiang was the site of discovery of one of China’s most enigmatic birds. In 1929, near the Karakoram Pass, Dutchman J.A.Sillem shot two specimens of mountain finch that were originally considered to be an odd race of Plain Mountain Finch. In 1992 the specimens were reassessed in Holland and it was decided they should be upgraded to a full species. Live examples of “Sillem’s Mountain Finch” have not been seen in the wild since the original specimens were collected.
Xinjiang has a few active birders, some of whom recently found a significant population of the endangered White-headed Duck breeding on reservoirs near Urumqi.
No account of birding in Xinjiang would be complete without mention of Professor MA Ming, of the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography. As well as being a prolific author, Prof. MA is a very well-known and dedicated champion of birds and their habitats throughout this vast region.