Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing. In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds. However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months. If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.
It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale. It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.
The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.
As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find. A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.
After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley. It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.
After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings. Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend. With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH. Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage. A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.
Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING. We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.
Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road. As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS. It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart. Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time.. My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”! However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau. Wow!
I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in. I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully. Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated. I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes. After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects. Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong. After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.
Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei. On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!
White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing. With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing. What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?
Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.
According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan). It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m. The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China. We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.
Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.