China is pheasant heaven. Most are concentrated in western China, in particular pheasant hot-spots such as Sichuan Province. However, there are one or two in the Beijing area, including the rarely seen Brown Eared Pheasant (BEP). There used to be a site not far to the west of the capital where one could see these shy birds but, as with many good birding spots, a road was built right through it and now, if they are still there (I am not aware of any recent sightings), they are much more difficult to see.
So it was with excitement that some Chinese birders recently discovered that the BEP could be seen quite regularly at a small temple on a hilltop in Jiaocheng in Shanxi Province (west of Beijing). Here the monks feed the pheasants in the winter and they can be seen around the temple, which lies in prime juniper-forested mountains. Around this time of year the birds tend to pair up and move up the mountain side to breed, so it was taking a chance that I decided to make the journey last weekend with Jesper Hornskov and visiting British birder, Richard Gregory.
Brown Eared Pheasant (as opposed to Brown-eared Pheasant) is unusual in pheasants in that the sexes are very similar, the main difference being that males have large round ‘spurs’ on the backs of their feet. It is endemic to northern China and, being resident in small numbers only in Shanxi and Hebei Provinces (and probably also some remain in Beijing municipality), it is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.
We were VERY fortunate during our visit. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the temple at dawn, we heard at least one calling from the juniper wood above the temple. Shortly afterwards two (almost certainly different birds) flew in to the partially cleared area just below the temple and began to probe around for food. The male delivered an almost Common Snipe-like drumming call at regular intervals and there were at least two other birds above the temple responding. One of the locals told me that there are around 20 birds in the area, many of which come to the temple in winter to take advantage of the food put out by the monks but, at this time of year, most have already moved further up the mountain to prepare to breed. The one pair that is still frequenting the temple treated us to spectacular views as they gradually gained confidence and moved up to the area from where we were viewing, even hopping onto the wall only a few metres away. Brilliant!
After enjoying these birds for around an hour, and sensing that the activity was over for the morning, we decided to take a walk up the track above the temple to look for other birds (both Long-tailed and Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches were seen in the area recently as well as Nutcracker and Songar Tit). The walk took us up through some fantastic original juniper forest habitat where we saw, after a bit of effort, at least 10 Long-tailed Rosefinches (of the subspecies lepidus – which look quite different to the siberian birds I have seen in Dalian) and double figures also of Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches, the latter unfortunately restricted to flight-only views. Nutcrackers of the eastern race were our constant companions and these birds looked very different to the birds I have seen previously in Scandinavia. This race of Nutcracker has a very tan base colour with reduced spotting underneath and much white in the tail – in fact the tail was almost completely white with dark central feathers.
Above the junipers, on the more open ground we expected to see a few raptors. We did, but only a few Eurasian Sparrowhawks, two Kestrels, a single Common Buzzard and a migrating Eastern Marsh Harrier. The walk in itself was fantastic as the sun gradually heated us up from a chilly 2-3 degreed C in the early morning to a balmy 13 or 14 later in the day. A Black Stork circling overhead just as we were leaving was a nice bonus. We left feeling well-exercised and very lucky to have enjoyed such spectacular views of these special birds.
Big thanks to Jesper for making the arrangements and to both Jesper and Richard for their excellent company on the trip. Below are a few images and I will soon post a link to a short video of the pheasants, including their strange call…