The potential for discovery is one of the most exciting elements of birding in Beijing. Despite being probably the most-birded part of China, new species are recorded regularly. As one would expect, vagrants make up most of the additions to Beijing’s avifauna. However it’s an indication of just how little we know about Beijing’s birds that new breeding birds are also being discovered. Last summer at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Paul Holt and I discovered GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides) – the first record of this species in Beijing – and a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii) – the second record for Beijing – both in suitable breeding habitat. At the time, we speculated about what else could be hiding on the forested slopes of this under-birded site. Our minds wandered to many outlandish possibilities, including WHITE-BROWED ROSEFINCH, CHESTNUT THRUSH and GREY-HEADED BULLFINCH. However, as if to tell us we were lacking in ambition, the next secret to be revealed by Lingshan was to be even more outlandish – the discovery of GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫), a primarily Himalayan species!
This is the story..
Last weekend, after a particularly busy May and early June involving very little birding, I decided to escape the Beijing heat for a few days to stay at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, around 100km west of the city centre. It’s usually at least 10 degrees Celsius cooler here and, of course, the birding is fantastic with a host of breeding phylloscopus warblers, range-restricted species such as GREEN-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula elisae), GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) and some spectacular Sibes such as SIBERIAN BLUE ROBIN (Luscinia cyane), ASIAN STUBTAIL (Urosphena squameiceps) and LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus).
I enjoyed a wonderful time on the slopes of the mountain, enjoying prolonged views of breeding ‘GANSU’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS (Tarsiger cyanurus albocoeruleus) and the recently discovered breeding population of GREENISH WARBLERS (Phylloscopus trochiloides).
On my final morning I decided to spend the early part of the day birding the slopes below the village by walking down the access road before heading back to Beijing around 0900. At the furthest point, just as I was about to turn around and walk back up to the car, I heard a thrush singing close by. The two most likely thrushes at Lingshan at this elevation are GREY-SIDED THRUSH and CHINESE THRUSH. It definitely wasn’t a Grey-sided and, knowing the variation in Chinese Thrush, I thought it was most likely this species. Usually, singing birds are very difficult to see but on this occasion, as I looked up the slope, I could see a thrush-sized bird perched on a bare branch on top of the ridge. Even though it was silhouetted by the rising sun, I set up the telescope to check it out. What I saw flummoxed me.. it appeared to be a blackish thrush with a clear yellow eye-ring, a yellow bill and a white wing-panel. The east Asian thrushes flashed through my head but none matched what I was seeing. Definitely not a Siberian Thrush or a Japanese Thrush… maybe it was a CHINESE BLACKBIRD with leucism (a condition of partial loss of pigmentation resulting in white patches on the plumage)? However, I had never before seen a Chinese Blackbird at Lingshan, it was atypical habitat and it didn’t sound like one… I recorded a short video and committed to following up the sighting when I was home.. By now I was a little late and needed to head back to the car for the journey back to Beijing in time to meet friends for lunch.
The original video clip, horribly backlit.
It wasn’t until the next day that I had the chance to speak to Paul Holt about what I had seen. He immediately suggested it could be a GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD, a species with which he was very familiar but that I had yet to see. After checking images of this species online, I was in no doubt that was the bird.
After alerting the Birding Beijing WeChat group, the general reaction from birders was that it was such a bizarre record that it was almost certainly an escape. One look at the known range of this species suggested why – it is largely a Himalayan bird and the nearest breeding grounds are in far southwest China – in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan.
However, it just didn’t feel right that this bird – singing on a remote mountain 100km to the west of Beijing – was an escape. A quick check of a list of species recorded in Beijing’s bird markets showed that Grey-winged Blackbird had never been recorded for sale in the capital. In itself that didn’t prove anything, however it was certainly encouraging…
The most obvious next step was to return to Lingshan to try to establish whether the original bird was alone or part of a small, previously undiscovered, breeding population.
And so, on Wednesday, I teamed up with Paul Holt and headed west. We arrived at the location of my original sighting, between km 11 and km 12 on the access road, at around 0750. Immediately we could hear, and see, a Grey-winged Blackbird, presumably the same individual as my original sighting, singing from the same perch, high up to the east of the access road. After spending a lot of time with this bird, including making sound-recordings and video, the bird stopped singing and so we headed up the mountain to check on the Greenish Warblers that were discovered in a high tract of forest last year.
The following morning, we were out at 0400 to check on the blackbird. And, as we suspected, there wasn’t just one singing male but two, and then three! The presence of multiple birds surely reduced, if not eliminated, the chance that these birds were escapes. Instead, it was most likely we had discovered a small breeding population, more than 1,500 kilometres from the nearest known breeding sites. Wow!
Grey-winged Blackbird is primarily a Himalayan bird, with the closest known populations in China being in Yunnan, Guangxi and southern Sichuan. The discovery of, most likely breeding, birds at Lingshan represents a significant range expansion.
Thanks to the excellent contributions from Chinese birders on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, especially Lei Jinyu, we now know of several records away from the known range, including 3 records each from Shaanxi and Hubei Provinces, “a few” from Hunan and a single record from Chongqing. So it is clear the species does occur, at least occasionally, away from southwest China. It seems likely that the Lingshan birds represent a relict population, survivors of what once might have been a breeding range that extended across China’s mountains from the southwest to the northeast.
Immediately after this discovery, we began to think about what else could be on this magical mountain. Speculation on the Birding Beijing WeChat group included a suggestion from Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra – “breeding SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER“. Ben found Beijing’s first record of this species last autumn in the grounds of Tsinghua University. Incredibly, within 8 hours of his message, Paul found a singing SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER in the same area as the GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS! The second record for Beijing and, given the date, indicative of possible breeding. What. A. Day.
Now, the big question is, again: what next for Lingshan?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for his, as always, valuable counsel and for his company on the second visit to Lingshan this week.
Featured Image: Lingshan in June: a magical place.