PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing!

Saturday started out badly.  I had arranged to take visiting British birder, Alastair Henderson, and Li Xiaomai to Lingshan to look for GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) and ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀).  As I left my apartment at 0550, the smog was awful (registering over 400 on the Air Quality Index; to put this into perspective, a reading below 25 is considered healthy by the World Health Organisation – see footnote below for a rough guide).  I knew that the air would be better in the mountains but, nevertheless, I wondered whether it would be a good day to be outside at all….

I shouldn’t have worried.  As we reached the base of Lingshan, the air was certainly clearer than in the city and, as we ascended the access road, it cleared further until we could see blue sky, the sun (hallelujah!) and the peak of Lingshan to the west.  It was a glorious day and, even in -9 temperatures, with very little wind it didn’t feel too cold.

As usual on trips to Lingshan, my first stop was a small gully a few hundred metres from the plateau of the road.  This small ‘valley’ holds a few sea buckthorn bushes and was the place I first found GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter.  It usually also plays host to many other species including thrushes, tits, accentors, buntings and rosefinches.

Almost immediately a bird flashed across the road and into a sea buckthorn bush in the gully.  I called out “redstart” and, with my binoculars trained on it as it began to devour some of the yellowy-orange berries, I could see it was not the expected GULDENSTADT’S  (红腹红尾鸲) but instead it was a stonking male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲, also known as “Alashan Redstart)!!  I quickly extended the legs on my tripod and trained my telescope onto the bird, and it showed magnificently, allowing us to see its beautiful mix of orange, grey, black and white plumage.  Wow!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.  Likely to be a first-winter male due to browner and more worn remiges when compared with the tertials.
PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.  As one Twitter follower described its plumage as a "like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch"..  I can see what he means...
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014. As one Twitter follower described its plumage is “like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch”.. I can see what he means…
PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski's Redstart at Lingshan.
Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski’s Redstart at Lingshan.

After grabbing a few record photos with my camera, I sent a message via the Birding Beijing WeChat group to put out the news.  Within 10 minutes, a minibus full of Beijing Birdwatching Society members arrived…!  I knew the WeChat group was an efficient way of spreading news but that was ridiculous…. Beijing city is over 2 hours away!

The BBWS gang had, of course, coincidentally pre-arranged a trip there.  On the way up they saw us at the gully and stopped to say “hi”.  When I told them what we were watching, their jaws dropped!

Unfortunately, the redstart had disappeared as we chatted and, after explaining where the bird had been, Alastair, Xiaomai and I decided to go further up the mountain to look for the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) while the group waited for the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) to reappear.

We drove up the few hundred metres to the top and scanned the slopes where the finches had been last week.  But to no avail.  Not even an ALPINE ACCENTOR (领岩鹨).   

We decided to spend some more quality time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) and, as we descended, we passed the BBWS gang coming up..  they had connected splendidly with the redstart and several of the group delighted in showing me their fantastic photos which eclipsed mine by some margin!  They carried on to look for the rosy finches as we descended.

We were preparing our lunch (of pot noodles!) at the PRZEVALSKI’S site when my phone rang.  It was Zhang Shen, one of the BBWS guys.  I could hear camera shutters in the background as he told me that they had found a flock of “several hundred” ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)…  wow!!  Balancing our pot noodles – now full of boiling hot water – we drove the few hundred metres to the top of the mountain to join the others.  And sure enough, there was a huge flock of ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) wheeling around the peaks.  Unfortunately they were mobile and hardly settled for more than a few seconds at a time.  But they were definitely ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)!  Thanks guys!!

After seeing the flock several times in flight but without seeing these special mountain finches on the ground, we reluctantly left to spend a little more time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) before heading back to Beijing.  As we watched the redstart at close quarters, it even began to sing – a sort of quiet subsong that reminded me a little of a EURASIAN SKYLARK (云雀)…  what an awesome bird.  And occasionally it interacted with one or two of the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲), with the GULDENSTADT’s clearly dominant and chasing the PRZEVALSKI’S off the berries a few times while we were there.

A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART chasing away the PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (红腹红尾鸲) chasing away the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

I knew the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) was an excellent record.  It’s a China endemic that breeds in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia Provinces and is very rare in the east.  I had a vague feeling that there had been just one previous record from the capital – a specimen collected more than 80 years ago.  Some initial research has revealed the following:

One was recorded at nearby Xiaolongmen in a winter survey 1992-1994, date unspecified (per Li Ming – reference: Sun X, Wang l, “Ecological analysis and classification of forest bird communities at XiaoLongMen, Beijing”, Chinese journal of ecology, 2001, 20(5):25-31 ).  However, the specimen from 20 December 1919, referred to in “The Birds of Hopei” (Shaw, 1936) was taken by Rev Wilder from the border between neighbouring Hebei Province and Shanxi Province, meaning that it is not a Beijing record. Shaw also states that Rev.Wilder observed one “in the mission of his compound of Tsung-hsien”.  “A Synopsis of the Avifauna of China” (Cheng Tso-hsin, 1987) describes Przevalski’s Redstart as “Accidentally in Tongxian of Beijing Municipality”.  Tongxian (which may be an alternative spelling of “Tsung-hsien”) is an area in the south-east part of Beijing Municipality.  It is not mountainous and seems a strange place for one to turn up!  More research needed..!  The Lingshan bird is therefore possibly the third record for Beijing and the first for at least 20 years.

Many thanks to Alastair, Xiaomai and to the BBWS gang for their company on the day – and in particular, to Zhang Shen for alerting us to the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)… It was great to see so many birders out and about in Beijing!

Footonote: The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Beijing and what the AQI “score” means.  Yesterday the AQI was over 400…! It should be noted, though, that the AQI will vary greatly according to location and, in the mountains to the west of Beijing, the AQI will very likely be significantly better than the city.

AQI Air Pollution
Level
Health Implications
0–50 Excellent No health implications.
51–100 Good Few hypersensitive individuals should reduce outdoor exercise.
101–150 Lightly Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
151–200 Moderately Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
201–300 Heavily Polluted Healthy people will be noticeably affected. People with breathing or heart problems will experience reduced endurance in activities. These individuals and elders should remain indoors and restrict activities.
300+ Severely Polluted Healthy people will experience reduced endurance in activities. There may be strong irritations and symptoms and may trigger other illnesses. Elders and the sick should remain indoors and avoid exercise. Healthy individuals should avoid out door activities.

11 thoughts on “PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing!”

  1. Lovely pictures and exciting finds! I’m missing a lot about eastern China, but the air-quality is not one of those things. Looking forward to getting back before too long and enjoying the Chinese birds again.

  2. Fantastic find Terry. New birds just popping in up for ya! I’m very much expecting that the environmental board of China will come up with new AQI specially designed for China where the AQI starts from 300 and ends up at 3000 while 300 is excellent and 3000 is severely polluted ;-)

    1. Hi Scott. Thanks for the comment. The gully is approximately 1,700-1,1800 metres asl. It’s low for Guldenstadt’s (and Przewalski’s) but they seem to be annual there in good numbers. There is much we still don’t know about the birds of Beijing, let alone China! Terry

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