Wu Ling Shan: The Return

When US birder, Gina Sheridan, asked if I wanted to visit Wu Ling Shan again, I jumped at the chance.  On my previous flying visit, although I had seen most of the special birds at this site, I had missed one that I was very keen to see – Elisa’s Flycatcher.  So accompanying Gina on a 2-day visit was a great opportunity to try again.

We arrived late afternoon and, with the windows down on the way up the road to the hotel, we could hear lots of birds..  Yellow-bellied Tits, Hume’s and Claudia’s Warblers, Siberian Blue Robin, Songar Tit etc..  At the first parking spot, we stopped and listened.  Immediately I could hear a flycatcher singing and, with a little patience, we managed to see it was a stunning Elisa’s Flycatcher – result!  We had been in the reserve just a few minutes and already had seen my target bird…  We watched this endemic breeder for 10-15 minutes as it sang and fed in an area of open mature trees before continuing up the road.  A little further along we encountered a nice flock of Yellow-bellied Tits feeding next to the road and a couple of squirrels (Pere David’s?) foraged along the forest edge.  Suddenly a cracking male Siberian Blue Robin appeared and gradually came closer and closer as it made its way along the edge of the road before being flushed by one of the squirrels.  This was a good start.

Elisa's Flycatcher, Wu Ling Shan
Elisa's Flycatcher (first summer male?), Wu Ling Shan

When we reached the hotel, we dumped our bags and went out straight away to look for one of Gina’s target birds – Grey-sided Thrush.  We took the circular path up to the viewpoint near the hotel where we enjoyed good views of Hume’s Leaf Warbler and heard both Lesser and Large Hawk Cuckoos.  Then, as the light was beginning to fade, I caught sight of a thrush as it sat on a low branch.  In the gloom, we could just make out the pale eye-stripe and the dark flanks – a Grey-sided Thrush!  We had brief views of another Grey-sided Thrush on the way down but we both agreed that better views were still desired!

And so, at dawn the next day, we began to walk down the road to the waterfall car park, a 6km downhill walk that runs through some fantastic habitat.  We were soon hearing lots of birdsong – White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Song Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Chinese Leaf Warbler, Claudia’s Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Winter Wren and Daurian Redstart.  It was a pretty good show but noticeably quieter than my first visit just a couple of weeks before.  We only heard one Grey-sided Thrush singing – a real difference from mid-June when I heard probably 20+.

After enjoying good views of most of the phylloscopus warblers – including watching the very distinctive Claudia’s Leaf Warbler’s alternate wing-flapping – and brief views of the ultra-skulky White-bellied Redstart, we continued down.  Suddenly I heard a high-pitched song that I recognised from Xeno-Canto Asia.  My suspicions were confirmed when I listened to a recording I had downloaded onto my phone.  It was a Large-billed Leaf Warbler…  Brilliant!  I had not heard this bird on my previous visit and it is a scarce and very local breeder, only discovered in Wu Ling Shan a few years ago.  We listened to this bird for several minutes and enjoyed brief views as it made its way along the edge of the road.  A real bonus.

Large-billed Leaf Warbler

We didn’t hear any Koklass Pheasants – maybe they, like the Grey-sided Thrush – stop singing at this time of year.

A little further down we heard the very cool call of the Blue Whistling Thrush, a precursor to spectacular views of one of these stunning birds on the way out of the reserve.

As we were close to the waterfall car park, I decided to walk back up to pick up the car, leaving Gina to bird the area.  At this point, hordes of schoolchildren were (very loudly!) walking down from the hotel to the waterfall, meaning that hearing birds was much more difficult.  I didn’t stop too much on the walk back up.  After picking up the car, I drove down to the car park where I met a smiling Gina – she had just seen a stunning male Long-tailed Minivet and another Elisa’s Flycatcher.  Nice!  Luckily for me, the minivet returned and I enjoyed excellent views.  A male Godlewski’s Bunting sang from a nearby tree and a couple of Large-billed Crows flopped over the valley.

We had already seen most of the birds Gina wanted to see but there were still a few to go. Namely Rosy Pipit, Bull-headed Shrike and we had yet to secure views of Yellow-streaked Warbler.  The road up from the hotel to the peak was where I had seen Rosy Pipit previously, so we drove up to try for this species.  As we made our way up, the cloud began to descend, covering the top of the mountain and reducing visibility considerably.  Luckily it didn’t last too long and we were able to work the area around the peak.  Unfortunately there were no pipits singing and, after about 20 minutes, I was beginning to think we might dip.  We took the decision to drive slowly down, checking any good-looking areas…  almost immediately we picked up a pipit displaying above a stand of trees.  We stopped the car and enjoyed this bird displaying and sitting on wires for several minutes.  Phew!

After collecting our bags and checking out of the hotel (which had told us that they were fully booked that night), we had an hour and a half before our pre-arranged lunch.  So we decided to try for the Bull-headed Shrike (seen during my first visit) and also Yellow-streaked Warbler, both of which were seen within a few hundred metres of the hotel on my first visit.  We began the walk to the entrance track and, after only a few metres, we saw a thrush feeding on an area of newly-disturbed earth right out in the open.  It was a Grey-sided Thrush!  Wow…  excellent views as it collected food, clearly feeding young.  After a couple of minuted it flew into the forest.   Very nice indeed.  We then continued the walk down the entrance track to check the wires for the shrike.  No sign.  So we walked a little further and almost immediately heard a Yellow-streaked Warbler singing alongside the road.  We enjoyed very good views of a pair of these birds carrying nest material – the nest site appeared to be on the ground in a tangle of grass.  Nice.  We still had about half an hour before lunch, so we slowly ambled back to the shrike site and, sure enough, there it sat on the very same wire where I saw it two weeks previously…   We had pretty much cleaned up before lunch!

Yellow-streaked Warbler, Wu Ling Shan

We decided to head back to Beijing that afternoon but would take our time birding the road on the way down to see if we could catch up on a few more birds.  A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker was a nice addition to the trip list and we encountered more of the phylloscopus warblers all the way down.

Gina wanted to see Plumbeous Redstart – not a bird I had seen on any trip lists for this place, so I wasn’t confident.  But we stopped to check every stretch of water on the way down.  A stream ran alongside the road and there were several spots where views could be had both up- and down-stream.  It didn’t ‘feel’ great for Plumbeous Redstart but we persevered and, after leaving the reserve and finding ourselves almost back into the outskirts of Xinglong, we saw an open-ish area of water where the stream widened and was littered with large rocks.  Potential.  Then we spotted some fresh-looking droppings on some of the rocks and, sure enough, we could hear a loud penetrating call that revealed itself to be a male Plumbeous Redstart singing from a very prominent rock.  Cool!

Plumbeous Redstart (male), Wu Ling Shan
Plumbeous Redstart (female), Wu Ling Shan

The female was close by and we watched these birds as they fed, catching flies with intermittent forays into the air.  It’s always great to be rewarded after working hard to find a specific species.. and just as we thought we had missed our chance, there they were…  a very good note on which to end the visit before the 3-hour journey back to Beijing.

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