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

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