Male Przevalski’s Redstart at Lingshan joined by a female!

On Saturday I visited Lingshan again (it’s become my favourite winter birding site!) with Wu Lan.  On arrival, we were of course keen to see whether the male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) was still on site.  We were greeted by a family who told us that it had moved on.. it had apparently been seen on Tuesday but a photographer had visited the site every day from Wednesday to Friday without success….

We decided (of course) to have a look anyway.  But after half an hour of staring at the sea buckthorn bushes in its favoured gully, we decided to move up to the peak and check for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES… (粉红腹岭雀). We drove up, enjoying a large group of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) on the way (at least 50 were present) but, again, the top was birdless… no sign of any Rosy Finches…

We decided to walk down the old road, an open south-facing valley, scattered with sea buckthorn bushes.  We soon spotted our first GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) and encountered the usual RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫) competing for the still significant stock of sea buckthorn berries.  We thought to ourselves that, if the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS were still here, there must be a good chance that the PRZEVALSKI’S was still around, too..

As we made it to the bottom of the valley we stumbled across a stunning male CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH (红眉朱雀) and it showed spectacularly well for several minutes, allowing prolonged views through the telescope to examine its wonderful pink plumage.

We hit the new road at the bottom of the valley and instead of walking back up along the new road (the usual routine), for some reason we decided to walk back up the valley to the car.   Now with the sun behind us, we followed the shrub-lined dyke as we headed north.  We soon encountered a female redstart and, with white-edged tertials and secondaries, this bird was not the expected female GULDENSTADT’S….  We stood still and it gradually showed itself.  I knew we had something good…  I suspected it was a female PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART and I took some photos as it fed amongst some birch scrub.

Female PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 8 March 2014
First winter female PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 8 March 2014

 

Female PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 8 March 2014
Female PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 8 March 2014
Female PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 8 March 2014.  The 2nd record of PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART in Beijing this winter, the fourth ever and the first female.
Female PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 8 March 2014. The 2nd record of PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing this winter, the fourth ever and, we think, the first ever female.

It was cool to watch this bird catching insects and it was interesting to see that it was smaller and daintier than the more powerful female GULDENSTADT’S.  I knew I had photos that would make this bird identifiable and so, after a few minutes, we moved on, now more confident that the male (which Wu Lan had yet to see) was probably still around.

We drove back to the site of the male bird but, again, its favoured sea buckthorn bush was empty…  I decided to take a walk up the gully and around some scrub to check out the wider area..  and no sooner had I walked 5 metres, there it was – the male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART.. !  I gestured to Wu Lan and she hurried over.  We enjoyed splendid views and we immediately called the Wang family (who had driven up to the top to look for the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES)…

A few minutes later the Wangs arrived and we enjoyed superb views as the redstart posed on prominent perches as it caught the first insects of the spring…  high-fives all round!

Male PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 8 March 2014.
Male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 8 March 2014.
The Wang family, shortly after connecting with the male PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART..  smiles all round!
The Wang family, shortly after connecting with the male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART.. smiles all round!

On my return to Beijing I immediately sent the photos of the female redstart to Paul Holt (currently in Yunnan), who has experience of female PRZEVALSKI’S and he quickly confirmed what we suspected – it was indeed a female PRZEVALSKI’S (thanks Paul!).  Amazingly, the second record of this species in Beijing this winter, the fourth ever and, we think, the first ever female.  Lingshan continues to surprise….  and if that wasn’t enough, we also heard (distantly) BROWN EARED PHEASANT (褐马鸡)…  another very tough bird to see (or hear) in the capital.

Brown Eared Pheasants

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…

Brown Eared Pheasant, Jiaocheng, Shanxi Province, China
A very cooperative male Brown Eared Pheasant
Check out my hair-do
Watching you, watching me..
The light back and tail helps to break up the BEP's shape when snow is on the ground in winter
Can it be any easier?