China has a huge range of habitats. These include the highest peaks in the world, the largest high-altitude plateau in the world, both hot and cold deserts, some of the world’s most spectacular wetlands, great grassy steppes, seashores, and a range of forest types from permafrost tundra in the north-east, through temperate coniferous and broadleaf forests over most of eastern China, to tropical forest in the extreme south. Birds use all of these habitats, but each species uses only some of the wide range available. Recognizing habitat is a key to correct species identification.
Many birds in China show seasonal changes in distribution and/or habitat use, tending to live further north of higher up mountains in the summer months and migrating south or descending in altitude in winter. Indeed, the east coast of China is an important flyway for birds that breed in extreme northern latitudes but migrate south in winter. Some of these stay in the southern parts of China itself, whilst others fly on way south to equatorial regions of Indonesia.
The habitat map shows the main habitat types used by birds and given in their descriptions. The map is generalized and simplified. It should be appreciated that land relief is also significant. Where mountains stand out of an area which at sea level may support subtropical evergreen forests, the vegetation at higher altitudes will vary through montane formations, which often resemble vegetation of lower altitudes much further north. Thus, we find subalpine and alpine vegetation in tropical mountains, as well as in the extreme northern latitudes of the country.
The major vegetation types mapped are:
1. Cultivated areas are extensive in the east and south of the country. Such lands are mostly farmland but may contain woods, orchards and plantations, as well as land under fallow. All these provide habitat for some bird species, and in spring and autumn many migrarnts have to pass though these lands on passage.
2. Alpine meadows are extensive areas of the Tibetan plateau and smaller areas on some of the major mountain ranges of south-west and north-west China. They have a rather rich, though stunted, vegetation and a distinctive bird fauna including some rare mountain species. Grassy steppes from a wide swathe across northern China, being wetter and lusher in the east and becoming gradually drier to the west. Somewhat specialized grasslands grow on some of the loose loess soils in the Yellow River valley.
3. Bare land consist of areas of bare rock or generally great height or steepness, or areas of mobile sand dunes where there is no vegetation at all.
4. Deserts include three main types. Cold deserts are found on the Tibetan plateau at altitudes of over 4000m, where cold dry conditions limit the growth of plants; hot desert fall into two main types, sandy and stony. Each desert type has its own flora, and some plants, spring into life on those rare occasions when it rains. The birds of desert are limited, but some species specialize in desert conditions.
5. Forest. These include several sorts:
6. Scrub includes a variety of secondary formations of low stature resulting from deforestation, fire or general degradation of vegetation caused by grazing and cutting. In the east of China, where most of the original forest has been cleared, these scrub areas provide the best cover for many bird species.
7. Wetland include a wide range of types, from northern swampy marshes and lakes to the great lakes of the Yangtze valley, small alpine marshes of the Tibetan plateau, salt pans of Xinjiang in north-west China and mangroves and shorelines of the tropical south. In total area wetlands are not extensive and hardly show up on a vegetation map of this scale, but these are some of the most important areas for birds and many of the most spectacular and most endangered species in China are wetland specialists.