Guest Post 6: Jan-Erik Nilsen

This is the latest in a series of guest posts from China-based birders.  Written by Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Swedish birder who has lived in China for 3 years, it’s an account of a recent trip into the mountains around Beijing.

Haitou Shan Mountain, Hebei Province, Saturday, 23rd June 2012.

Beijing is from SW clockwise to NE surrounded by mountain ranges and several peaks reach above 2000 m. From about 1500 m to the tree line at about 1900-2000 m, a more Northern vegetation of coniferous forest and birch trees can be found. The changing vegetation zones on the mountainsides bring an interesting diversity of bird species.

With a peak reaching to 2200 m, Haitou Shan should be the second highest in the greater Beijing area and it’s located N of the Guanting Reserve (where Ma Chang is located) in Hebei province. I have climbed this mountain two times before, then with a hiking group and no time for birding. I noticed abundant numbers of Hume’s Warblers and other interesting birds and that’s why I have nursed a plan to return by myself for proper birding, a plan to be executed this day.

Driver Mr Chen picked me up in Beijing at 01.00, in the tropical hot and very early morning. We drove the 4th ring road towards the NW, not much traffic so far, but on the Badaling Expressway trucks suddenly crowded, and we hit a traffic jam even before we had entered the mountain area NW of Beijing. We found ourselves caught among big trucks, most of them for coal transport, now emptied and on the way back to the coal fields in Inner Mongolia or Shanxi.  Soon the traffic slowly began to move again, the police had narrowed the road at a certain point to reduce the traffic further on. In mornings, evenings and nights, the number of trucks on the Badaling Expressway and all the way to Inner Mongolia can be enormous in both directions. Once, on a trip by car along the 500 km way to Hohhot, capitol of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, I hit several traffic jams and the normal 5 h ride became 10 h.

We lost some 30 minutes here before we were up to full speed again, continuing the expressway until we had crossed the bridge over the Guanting Reservoir. On the other side of the reservoir we turned north and found our way to the Dahaitou village at the western foot of the mountain.  I noticed the first shade of the morning light at 03.45 but, due to the overcast skies, birding was hardly possible until 04.45, and we arrived at Dahaitou at 5.00. Last time at the same mountain, the hiking guide told me Dahaitou was the name of the village where we started the climb. It was not, and I realised it could take hours to find the right village, so I just started to hike on a track up the mountain that looked good.

The peak of the mountain and some of its many subordinated peaks where disguised in mists and clouds, bringing a mysterious feeling to the peaceful morning. Later the mist gradually decreased, lower hanging clouds disappeared, and little by little revealed spectacular views of the hills and mountains.

After one hour the track still existed but looked as if it had hardly been used for a hundred years or so. I continued anyway, and soon found myself in a several hundreds meter radius bowl, three quarters surrounded by 50 or 100 m high steeps. As giving up has never been my favourite option, I found a less steep part and climbed up there, through jungle-like dense vegetation, without any sign of a decent track. I targeted a coniferous forest some 300 m higher up, I knew it would be easier to hike there. But long before, the slope became steeper, the vegetation more dense and even more difficult. I had to grab branches of trees for each step to keep my balance.

I looked at the mountain, still disguising its highest peak in clouds and mist. A Songar Tit perched in a dead tree a few meters in front of me and looked curiously at me – a behaviour I recall from their cousin Siberian Tit in Northern Scandinavia – and soon another one joined. I bet they wondered why this strange beast could be so stupid to try to climb such difficult terrain. A glimpse on the watch convinced me it would take too long to make it to the coniferous forest.  I went down again, becoming very mindful of how steep and difficult the climb up had actually been, and it was even more difficult to climb down.  It took a lot more than a little effort to find the right way down and avoid the steep sides bordering the ‘bowl’, but I did find a way down, and all in all I had some good birding too, during this 4,5 h hike.

A Large Hawk Cuckoo called, Yellow-bellied Tits were around, interesting Phylloscopus warblers such as Eastern Crowned, Claudia’s, Chinese Leaf and Yellow-streaked Warblers were singing. The highlight was a Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, at only 1300-1400 m altitude. I encountered this species above the tree limit, where they normally reside, last time I climbed the mountain.  That was actually only a km or so away, so it’s not a long distance flight for them.

Back at the village, a village elder approach me and pointed out a track in a more southern direction.  We could drive the car up there for 15 min, from where I began a new hike.  The vegetation here was a little different from the last place, higher trees and less jungle-like.  After half an hour I saw something looking like a red carpet.  When I came closer I found the red carpet was spread over the stairs leading to a temple. Smoke came out from the doorway, so dense I could hardly see through it. I stepped into the temple and faced three gods staring at me from an altar. Their eyes arranged so they all three stared on you just when entering the temple, and it made the three of them look very alive.

The smoke came from incense burning in a pot in front of them, and fresh fruit had been put on the altar. Someone had obviously served the altar earlier today. I nodded to the three gods to show them respect and then left. I continued the track up the mountain, the track became very bad after a while and time was running out.  The climb to the top would total 3-4 hours on a good track; there was no way I could make it that quick on this way up. So I returned, was back at the car at 13.15, after a 3,25 h second hike. Two tries in a day, but never reaching higher than about 1600 m.

The birding was quite alright also at this second hike. An Oriental Cuckoo calling, a singing White-bellied Redstart, and a Yellow-throated Bunting. The same Phylloscopus species again, except the Yellow-streaked was replaced by a Hume’s Warbler. I believe there will be a lot more Hume’s Warblers higher up the mountain, as they were very abundant the two times I went up there before. An Asian Stubtail was singing, or what we shall call the insect-like noise this 9-10 cm very small bird produces. Ref. Paul Holt, Beijing is the southern limit of the species.

I recorded calling and singing birds on my iPhone and confirmed them on Xeno-Canto at home, which worked very well, except for a few calls still to be identified.

It’s difficult to compare the birding of Haitoushan with the more frequently birded Wulingshan, NE of Beijing, as I didn’t reached that high altitude here, but I guess this place can provide similar species. An advantage of Wulingshan is of course the simple access to high altitude by car.

The temple was named Long Wang Miao, Dragon King Temple, and my Chinese teacher later explained the main god here was the Dragon King, a mid-level Dao god mainly in charge of making rain.

Early morning view over Dahaitou village.
Misty morning, somewhere up there is the 2200 m peak of Haitou Shan.
Long Wang Miao, The Dragon King Temple.

Full species list:

Common Pheasant 4 calling
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Large Hawk Cuckoo 1 calling
Oriental Cuckoo 1 calling
Rock Pigeon 2
Amur Falcon 3 Dahaitou + 8 on telephone lines N of Dahaitou
Red-billed Blue Magpie 1
Black-billed Magpie 2
Spotted Nutcracker 1
Large-billed Crow 4
Euarasian Blackbird 1
Siberian Blue Robin 1 singing
Daurian Redstart 4
White-bellied Redstart 1 singing
Eurasian Nuthatch 1 calling
Winter Wren 2 singing
Marsh Tit 1
Songar Tit 5
Coal Tit 1
Yellow-bellied Tit min. 15
Eastern Great Tit 2
Long-tailed Tit ca 25
White-browed Chinese Warbler 2 calling
Asian Stubtail 1 singing
Yellow-streaked Warbler 1 singing
Chinese Leaf Warbler 2 (1 singning+1 calling)
Hume’s Leaf Warbler 1 calling
Eastern Crown Warbler 7 singing
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler 7 ca, singing and calling
Vinous-throated Parrotbill ca 5
Eurasian Tree Sparrow ca 5
Grey-capped Greenfinch 2
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch 1 seen and calling
Godlewski’s Bunting 2
Meadow Bunting 3
Yellow-throated (Elegant) Bunting 1m

Butterflies of 3 types ca 50

Jan-Erik Nilsén is a Swedish birder who has worked in Beijing for 3 years for a Scandinavian food company. Before that he lived in Denmark for 5 years.  During his spare time he very much enjoys the many interesting birding sites in the Beijing area and has found Beijing/China rarities such as Common Ringed Plover and Pallid Harrier.