Red-throated x Black-throated Thrush

In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes…  In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce.  It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post).  It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated.  However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.

An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015
An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015.  Note the presence of both black and reddish feathers on the throat/upper breast.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast.  A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black.  And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones.  This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds.  I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED.  Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.

Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland).  This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed.  If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.

That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade.  And what a cracker it was!

Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.

2013-12-11 Dusky x Naumann's Thrush intergrade, Peking University
Superficially this bird resembles DUSKY THRUSH but look at those red markings on the breast and flanks… a good indicator of NAUMANN’S influence. Peking University, December 2013

 

2010-11-30 Dusky-Naumann's intergrade
Another bird showing characters of both DUSKY and NAUMANN’S with many reddish marks on the breast and flanks. Botanical Gardens, November 2011.

 

Jingshan Park

Just north of the Forbidden City lies a very popular park with an artificial hill (sometimes known as Coal Hill). The hill was constructed in the Ming Dynasty entirely from soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals. Why was it built? According to the dictates of Feng Shui, it is favourable to site a residence to the south of a nearby hill (and it is also practical, gaining protection from chilly northern winds). The imperial palaces in the other capitals of previous dynasties were situated to the south of a hill. When the capital was moved to Beijing, no such hill existed north of the Forbidden City, so one was constructed. Typical China!

The hill is especially impressive when one considers that all of this material was moved only by manual labour and animal power. Apparently, in 1644, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself here…

Anyway, on that cheery note, about the birds. Earlier this week I received a tip-off that there was a ‘very large’ flock of Waxwings present. So on Friday morning I spent an hour there. As usual in any Chinese public park, there were lots of people – shouting, singing, dancing, exercising, doing Tai Chi, running backwards, playing musical instruments and playing “keepy-uppy” with a sort of large shuttlecock. After wandering around the perimeter I stumbled across the Waxwing flock feeding on junipers and regularly going down to drink from a leaky hosepipe. Given the hosepipes were spraying water everywhere, there was, unusually, a small area without people. I risked a drenching to get a closer look and it soon became apparent that there were at least 50 Waxwings in the group, including some Japanese. Twice a Sparrowhawk wreaked havoc by appearing out of nowhere in its attempts to catch one (unsuccessfully) and each time this happened, the whole flock took to the air, where it became apparent that my estimate was most definitely an underestimate! In the air, I guessed at around 250 birds. Soon they returned and I enjoyed good views as these very vocal birds began to feed again.

The water also attracted other birds in the park including a nice Dusky Thrush, several Naumann’s Thrushes and a Red-throated Thrush as well as Oriental Greenfinches and a couple of Large-billed Crows. A pleasant, if slightly wet, hour…

I quite like this 'arty' image of waxwings in formation...

Two Bohemian Waxwings in 'bomber formation'

Japanese Waxwing, Jingshan Park, 8 April 2011

One of the charismatic and curious Large-billed Crows in Jingshan Park

Waxwings

A Sunday afternoon walk in Ritan Park produced an unexpected flock of at least 35 Waxwings. Unfortunately I didn’t have my binoculars with me but those that I could identify with the naked eye seemed to be of the Bohemian variety. Will try to get another look tomorrow morning to see if there are any Japanese amongst them. Libby also spotted a nice Red-throated Thrush (I’ll make a birder of her yet…!).