Phylloscopus frenzy

At the weekend, Libby and I hired a car and drove the 3 hours to Wu Ling Shan in Hebei Province.  It’s the highest peak (2,116 metres) easily accessible from the Beijing area and is a great site for birding.  The mountain, with its steep-sloped birch and spruce forests, is home to some special species including the very local Grey-sided Thrush, Koklass Pheasant, White-bellied Redstart and, one of the prime reasons for my visit, breeding phylloscopus warblers (Hume’s Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Yellow-streaked and Chinese Leaf Warblers).

The view from near the peak at Wu Ling Shan. It felt a million miles away from sultry Beijing....
Lots of ideal phylloscopus breeding habitat

Wu Ling Shan national park charges a relatively pricey entry fee of 90 Yuan per person (GBP 9) plus 60 Yuan for a vehicle which, from a birder’s perspective, is probably a good thing as it keeps the visitor numbers down.  Although in the long-term, I can’t help thinking that fewer Chinese visitors will mean fewer local people understand and appreciate the natural beauty and biodiversity of this special area and so affording it the necessary protection may prove more difficult.

Fortunately there is a hotel inside the park, very close to the peak.  Although fairly basic, it offers comfortable and clean rooms with hot water, ‘western’ loos and decent food.  It acts as a good base – within a few metres of the hotel, one can see and hear many of the target birds.  There are few trails, so the entrance road, the road from the hotel to the waterfall car park (6kms further along) and the road from the hotel to the peak (also about 6kms) are good routes to walk.  As with most forest birding, it is advisable to have learned some of the calls and songs in advance (Xeno-Canto Asia is a vital resource) as birds can be difficult to see.  A map of the key birding areas around the hotel can be downloaded here.

The road from the hotel to the waterfall car park is very productive, especially in the early morning
Typical habitat on the slopes of Wu Ling Shan. Birch and spruce predominate.

This was my first visit to the breeding area of the local phylloscopus warblers, and I was really looking forward to getting to know them better.  Hume’s Leaf Warblers were abundant in the area around the hotel.  Their very distinctive song and calls were almost constant companions.  Chinese Leaf Warblers were common, too, often preferring to sing from the very tops of spruces.  Claudia’s Leaf Warblers were regular, displaying their distinctive alternate wing flapping, and Yellow-streaked Warblers (not very yellow and not very streaked!) were around in reasonable numbers, too.  All of these birds appeared to have distinctive behavioural traits, as well as unique vocalisations.

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. I found two nests with birds feeding young.
Chinese Leaf Warbler. A typical song post for this species which is similar to Pallas’s but with a paler rump and lacking the ‘shadows’ on the tertials. It’s song is also very different.
Claudia's Leaf Warbler. The bright orange bill stands out and, on this photo, you can just make out the 'flared' supercilium. Flicks its wings alternately - another good characteristic of this species.
Yellow-streaked Warbler singing in the rain. The only phylloscopus without wing bars breeding in the area. Recalls Radde's but structure, leg colour and lack of peachy undertail coverts (not to mention song) clinch the id.
Yellow-streaked Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. Not very yellow and not very streaky...!

The phylloscopus warblers were pretty active throughout the day but some of the other birds required an early start.  Koklass Pheasant is a species that is very difficult to see but, thankfully, they do have a distinctive call.  The only problem is that they only seem to call around dawn.  June at Wulingshan meant dawn was at 0400.  I heard at least 3 birds between 0415 and 0445 with another (or one of the same) briefly at 0515.  Grey-sided Thrush is another dawn (and dusk) bird.  They were singing for around an hour from dawn (0400-0500) but soon quietened down once the sun began to warm the mountain sides.

Grey-sided Thrush, Wu Ling Shan

The supporting cast included several Rosy Pipits near the peak, Chinese Song Thrush, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo, White-bellied Redstart (common but very skulky), Songar, Yellow-bellied and Great Tits, Bull-headed Shrike, Wren, Kestrel, Eurasian NuthatchGrey Nightjar, Godlewski’s and Yellow-throated Buntings.

The stunning Yellow-bellied Tit breeds on Wu Ling Shan

Dalian – Day Seven

Today was tough going.  The wind got up almost immediately after dawn (after a still night) and just kept on increasing in strength.  By mid-morning there were white tips to the waves offshore and I estimated that the wind speed was around 25mph SSE.  After our third taxi driver picked us up from the hotel at 0430 (the first two did it once and said never again!) and dropped us at the lighthouse, we immediately made our way to the ridge for visible migration.  There were a few hirundines to keep us interested early on and, around 0645, a small flock of 5 Chinese Grosbeaks (yes, they were Chinese – we checked!) flew around the point before settling near the lighthouse.

Jesper Hornskov and his clients for the Qinghai trip arrived yesterday for a couple of days ‘pre-tour’ visit of Laotieshan but today they were going up the coast for the Black-faced Spoonbills and waders (similar to our trip on Saturday).  They were leaving at 0715 and we had spaces on the bus if we wanted to go.  At 0700, with it looking like a quiet day, Spike decided to go with Jesper but I decided to stay at Laotieshan.  As I write this, I don’t know how they got on up the coast but, for me, today was hard work…  Very little visible migration and, with the wind so strong, it was difficult to find passerines in the swaying branches…  Nevertheless, again I saw some good birds.  Highlight was a probable Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (similar to Eastern Crowned but smaller and lacking the yellow wash to the vent).  Also, I refound the (or found a new) male Russet Sparrow as he sang from a treetop near the lighthouse.  Four Daurian Starlings were new for the trip and singles of Chinese Egret, Oriental Honey Buzzard and a day-calling Oriental Scops Owl ensured there was interest throughout the day.

We really need some rain to mix things up a bit.. Although there is clearly turnover each day, the volume of birds has been decreasing daily since we arrived, almost certainly due to the clear weather and southerly winds.  The forecast for tomorrow is for some showers, so maybe that’s just what we need..  Only two more days to go so fingers crossed for the ‘big one’…!

Russet Sparrow (male), singing in the lighthouse garden, Laotieshan, 17 May 2011
This Black-naped Oriole came in off the sea, landed in the lighthouse garden and sang constantly for about 5 minutes before moving inland

Species List (in chronological order of first sighting).  Note that I am not recording Common Magpie or Tree Sparrow (too numerous to mention):

Fork-tailed Swift (9)

Japanese White-eye (2)

Dusky Warbler (2)

Barn Swallow (passing at around 60 birds per hour)

Great Tit (4)

Oriental Greenfinch (4)

Chinese Pond Heron (2)

Black-tailed Gull (150+)

Common Pheasant (4)

Red-rumped Swallow (passing at around 50 per hour)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Vega Gull (1)

Chinese Grosbeak (6)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Chinese Egret (1) – passed the lighthouse heading east

Chinese Bulbul (4)

Eye-browed Thrush (1)

Daurian Starling (4)

Yellow-browed Warbler (8)

Amur Falcon (1)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Goshawk (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (6)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (1) came in off sea at 0855

Asian Brown Flycatcher (4)

Radde’s Warbler (2)

Siberian Blue Robin (2)

Russet Sparrow (1) – singing male in lighthouse garden

White-cheeked Starling (1)

Ashy Minivet (3)

Black-naped Oriole (1) – in off sea

Oriental Turtle Dove (1)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (3)

Oriental Scops Owl (1) heard only, calling at 1230

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (2)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (4)

Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (1)

Grey Streaked Flycatcher (1)

Lanceolated Warbler (2)