PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing!

Saturday started out badly.  I had arranged to take visiting British birder, Alastair Henderson, and Li Xiaomai to Lingshan to look for GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) and ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀).  As I left my apartment at 0550, the smog was awful (registering over 400 on the Air Quality Index; to put this into perspective, a reading below 25 is considered healthy by the World Health Organisation – see footnote below for a rough guide).  I knew that the air would be better in the mountains but, nevertheless, I wondered whether it would be a good day to be outside at all….

I shouldn’t have worried.  As we reached the base of Lingshan, the air was certainly clearer than in the city and, as we ascended the access road, it cleared further until we could see blue sky, the sun (hallelujah!) and the peak of Lingshan to the west.  It was a glorious day and, even in -9 temperatures, with very little wind it didn’t feel too cold.

As usual on trips to Lingshan, my first stop was a small gully a few hundred metres from the plateau of the road.  This small ‘valley’ holds a few sea buckthorn bushes and was the place I first found GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter.  It usually also plays host to many other species including thrushes, tits, accentors, buntings and rosefinches.

Almost immediately a bird flashed across the road and into a sea buckthorn bush in the gully.  I called out “redstart” and, with my binoculars trained on it as it began to devour some of the yellowy-orange berries, I could see it was not the expected GULDENSTADT’S  (红腹红尾鸲) but instead it was a stonking male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲, also known as “Alashan Redstart)!!  I quickly extended the legs on my tripod and trained my telescope onto the bird, and it showed magnificently, allowing us to see its beautiful mix of orange, grey, black and white plumage.  Wow!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.  Likely to be a first-winter male due to browner and more worn remiges when compared with the tertials.
PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.  As one Twitter follower described its plumage as a "like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch"..  I can see what he means...
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014. As one Twitter follower described its plumage is “like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch”.. I can see what he means…
PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski's Redstart at Lingshan.
Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski’s Redstart at Lingshan.

After grabbing a few record photos with my camera, I sent a message via the Birding Beijing WeChat group to put out the news.  Within 10 minutes, a minibus full of Beijing Birdwatching Society members arrived…!  I knew the WeChat group was an efficient way of spreading news but that was ridiculous…. Beijing city is over 2 hours away!

The BBWS gang had, of course, coincidentally pre-arranged a trip there.  On the way up they saw us at the gully and stopped to say “hi”.  When I told them what we were watching, their jaws dropped!

Unfortunately, the redstart had disappeared as we chatted and, after explaining where the bird had been, Alastair, Xiaomai and I decided to go further up the mountain to look for the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) while the group waited for the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) to reappear.

We drove up the few hundred metres to the top and scanned the slopes where the finches had been last week.  But to no avail.  Not even an ALPINE ACCENTOR (领岩鹨).   

We decided to spend some more quality time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) and, as we descended, we passed the BBWS gang coming up..  they had connected splendidly with the redstart and several of the group delighted in showing me their fantastic photos which eclipsed mine by some margin!  They carried on to look for the rosy finches as we descended.

We were preparing our lunch (of pot noodles!) at the PRZEVALSKI’S site when my phone rang.  It was Zhang Shen, one of the BBWS guys.  I could hear camera shutters in the background as he told me that they had found a flock of “several hundred” ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)…  wow!!  Balancing our pot noodles – now full of boiling hot water – we drove the few hundred metres to the top of the mountain to join the others.  And sure enough, there was a huge flock of ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) wheeling around the peaks.  Unfortunately they were mobile and hardly settled for more than a few seconds at a time.  But they were definitely ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)!  Thanks guys!!

After seeing the flock several times in flight but without seeing these special mountain finches on the ground, we reluctantly left to spend a little more time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) before heading back to Beijing.  As we watched the redstart at close quarters, it even began to sing – a sort of quiet subsong that reminded me a little of a EURASIAN SKYLARK (云雀)…  what an awesome bird.  And occasionally it interacted with one or two of the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲), with the GULDENSTADT’s clearly dominant and chasing the PRZEVALSKI’S off the berries a few times while we were there.

A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART chasing away the PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (红腹红尾鸲) chasing away the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

I knew the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) was an excellent record.  It’s a China endemic that breeds in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia Provinces and is very rare in the east.  I had a vague feeling that there had been just one previous record from the capital – a specimen collected more than 80 years ago.  Some initial research has revealed the following:

One was recorded at nearby Xiaolongmen in a winter survey 1992-1994, date unspecified (per Li Ming – reference: Sun X, Wang l, “Ecological analysis and classification of forest bird communities at XiaoLongMen, Beijing”, Chinese journal of ecology, 2001, 20(5):25-31 ).  However, the specimen from 20 December 1919, referred to in “The Birds of Hopei” (Shaw, 1936) was taken by Rev Wilder from the border between neighbouring Hebei Province and Shanxi Province, meaning that it is not a Beijing record. Shaw also states that Rev.Wilder observed one “in the mission of his compound of Tsung-hsien”.  “A Synopsis of the Avifauna of China” (Cheng Tso-hsin, 1987) describes Przevalski’s Redstart as “Accidentally in Tongxian of Beijing Municipality”.  Tongxian (which may be an alternative spelling of “Tsung-hsien”) is an area in the south-east part of Beijing Municipality.  It is not mountainous and seems a strange place for one to turn up!  More research needed..!  The Lingshan bird is therefore possibly the third record for Beijing and the first for at least 20 years.

Many thanks to Alastair, Xiaomai and to the BBWS gang for their company on the day – and in particular, to Zhang Shen for alerting us to the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)… It was great to see so many birders out and about in Beijing!

Footonote: The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Beijing and what the AQI “score” means.  Yesterday the AQI was over 400…! It should be noted, though, that the AQI will vary greatly according to location and, in the mountains to the west of Beijing, the AQI will very likely be significantly better than the city.

AQI Air Pollution
Level
Health Implications
0–50 Excellent No health implications.
51–100 Good Few hypersensitive individuals should reduce outdoor exercise.
101–150 Lightly Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
151–200 Moderately Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
201–300 Heavily Polluted Healthy people will be noticeably affected. People with breathing or heart problems will experience reduced endurance in activities. These individuals and elders should remain indoors and restrict activities.
300+ Severely Polluted Healthy people will experience reduced endurance in activities. There may be strong irritations and symptoms and may trigger other illnesses. Elders and the sick should remain indoors and avoid exercise. Healthy individuals should avoid out door activities.
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Asian Rosy Finches

After the snow in Beijing on Friday, my mind had been speculating as to whether new birds might turn up or, at the very least, whether the snow cover and cold snap might drive down some of the special mountain birds from the inaccessible peaks to more reachable terrain.  Lingshan was the place that I was itching to try, and so off I went…

Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain with its peak at 2,303 metres and, unlike many of Beijing’s mountains, it is accessible in winter by car (note: many mountain roads are closed in winter, nominally due to “fire risk”, at least so say the chain-smoking guards that throw their cigarette butts onto the grass and stop any cars driving up).   Getting to Lingshan is fairly straightforward by car – simply take the G109 west of Beijing and, after around the km105 post, take the right hand minor road signposted, not surprisingly, “Lingshan”.  It usually takes between 2 and 3 hours from central Beijing if leaving early morning before the traffic becomes too burdensome.

The access road at Lingshan, after the snow, was a little treacherous in places but passable with care.  The temperature was a nippy -6 when I left central Beijing, falling to -12 at the 6th ring road/G109 junction and falling further to -18 at Lingshan on arrival. However, with almost no wind, and stunning blue skies, it did not feel too cold.

Lingshan, on a beautiful crisp winter's morning.
Lingshan, on a beautiful crisp winter’s morning.
Another view from Lingshan.  With a dusting of snow the mountains in Beijing are stunning
Another view from Lingshan. With a dusting of snow the mountains in Beijing are stunning

On the way up the access road, I stopped several times to watch small flocks of birds, including many SIBERIAN ACCENTORS (棕眉山岩鹨), GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS (戈氏岩鹀) and, as I neared the top, PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀). A large flock of REDPOLLS (白腰朱顶雀) was flying around but frustratingly only the odd one or two settled in view.  There must be an ARCTIC REDPOLL (极北朱顶雀) or two among them!  A handful (I counted 7) of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) were on their usual sea buckthorn bushes.

The first thing I wanted to do was to check the slopes just beyond the derelict buildings for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀).  I stopped the car and scanned the slopes. Immediately I saw birds. My heart raced but relaxed again when I realised they were ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨). Nevertheless, a good start.

ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) are in good supply on Lingshan this winter.
ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) are in good supply on Lingshan this winter.

As I looked, I could see more and more and suddenly I saw a bird with a pale head. Unfortunately I was looking directly towards the sun, so I slowly got out of the car and walked around to the side of the slope to give me a better angle. And there it was – an ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀) ! feeding with the accentors. As I scanned, I found another, then another.. I counted 6. I watched, captivated, as they fed on the slope, gradually making their way up until they were feeding around my car! At this point I wistfully thought about my camera sitting on the passenger seat…  Suddenly, something spooked the whole flock and they rose up, wheeled around and settled a long way down the slope… I counted almost 100 birds in flight, at least 30 of which were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀). I took the opportunity to quickly make my way back to the car and settled inside with camera in hand as the flock gradually made its way up the slope again and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before several were around the car and I was able to capture some photos… All too quickly they moved across the road and to the upper slope before, again, wheeling down to the lower slopes….

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male).
ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male).  What a bird!
ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed female)
ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed female)
ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male and female)
ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male and female)
ASIAN ROSY FINCHES, Lingshan.
ASIAN ROSY FINCHES, Lingshan.
"Just landed"...
“Just landed”…

Having only seen ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀) in flight once before (last winter at Lingshan), it was brilliant to see these stunning birds so well. Their plumage is beautiful with an array of purples, browns, blacks and greys.. I hope they hang around for anyone else who might be tempted to look for them. Even without the birds, Lingshan is a beautiful place, especially in winter. Definitely one of my favourite Beijing birding sites!

One of the male PALLAS'S ROSEFINCHES at Lingshan.  At least 30 are scattered around the higher slopes, preferring the birch scrub.
One of the male PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES at Lingshan. At least 30 are scattered around the higher slopes, preferring the birch scrub.
A female or young male PALLAS'S ROSEFINCH, Lingshan.  I am not sure how to age/sex PALLAS'S ROSEFINCHES - any advice appreciated!
A female or young male PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH, Lingshan. I am not sure how to age/sex PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES – any advice appreciated!

 

Asian Rosy Finch at Lingshan

After Jan-Erik’s report of a flock of 40+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES at Lingshan on Sunday 10 March, I returned to this fantastic winter site to try my luck.  After the 2.5 hr drive from Beijing, we arrived at the peak at around 0800.  It was a fantastic morning with -7 temperatures and light low cloud causing a beautiful frost.

Lingshan in the early morning frost.
Lingshan in the early morning frost.

The cloud burned off quickly to leave a stunning vista that was reminiscent of a Christmas card.  With almost no wind, it was a super day to be on the mountain.

First stop was the slope where Jan-Erik had seen the finches on Sunday.  We scanned this and each nearby slope carefully but to no avail.  The lack of wind meant that bird calls could be heard at large distances and I was confident that given we couldn’t hear them, the Asian Rosy Finches were not around, at least not in the immediate vicinity.  After trying a few other nearby slopes we decided to have a change of scene and to move on to the site where the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS had been to see if they were still there.  They were.  We counted at least 17 (including 9 females sitting together at one point) and we enjoyed these birds for half an hour or more as they regularly dropped down to the berries.  There were two more further up the road, making at least 19 in total.  A very healthy count.  A stunning male Black-throated Thrush, along with a few Red-throated, were enjoying the same bounty.

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.  This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan. This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt's Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt's Redstart (male).  Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of "White-winged Redstart").
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male). Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of “White-winged Redstart”).

We returned to the top to the area around the derelict buildings and were gob-smacked to see a CINEREOUS VULTURE perched on a boulder close by the track, much to the annoyance of the resident Large-billed Crows, which it positively dwarfed!  Wow…  What a beast!

Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan.  This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!
Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan. This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!

Again we scanned the slopes with no luck and decided to stop by one of the ridges to have some noodles for lunch…  I was beginning to feel that it just wouldn’t be our day and that maybe the Asian Rosy Finches had moved on.  However, just as we finished the most delicious pot noodles (they taste so good when you’ve been outside all morning!), I could hear a bird heading our way uttering a finch-like call that I did not recognise..  I got on to it and saw it was accompanied by a second, and watched both through my binoculars, unfortunately in bad light, as they passed us.  From the silhouette I could see they were largish finches with an almost lark-like flight.  Sturdy birds relative to Pallas’s Rosefinch.  I suspected they were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES but wasn’t 100% sure.  Fortunately, I kept my binoculars on them and they turned and headed back towards us, this time heading right overhead.  I grabbed the camera and took a couple of record flight images as they passed.  They headed east and then banked north, eventually being lost to view behind a rocky outcrop.  I looked at the images on the camera and, although they won’t win any prizes, I thought that there was probably enough detail to identify them as Asian Rosy Finches.  This was confirmed when I looked at them on my computer screen…  Result!

Asian Rosy Finch in flight.  The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch in flight. The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan.  Patience rewarded.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan. Patience rewarded.

An adult Golden Eagle passed at head height shortly afterwards and, a few minutes later, a party of 6 Red-billed Chough.  It was still a stunning day and a real wrench to eventually tear ourselves away from the mountain top.  A couple of Racoon Dogs (apparently recently released) were also hanging around the derelict buildings but there was no sign of any Pallas’s Rosefinches.

This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.
This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.

Comment: Lingshan may well be a regular winter site for Asian Rosy Finch.  A flock of 200+ was reported from there two winters ago (6 March 2010, the report from which also lists 8 GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS) and there have now been 3 sightings this winter – a single on 2 February (per Birdtalker), Jan-Erik’s flock of 40+ on Sunday and our 2 birds this week.  Of course this winter has been an excellent one for northern species, so Asian Rosy Finch may be part of an unusual irruption but they could also be annual given not many birders visit there.  We just don’t know!  That’s one of the beauties of birding in Beijing…

Full Species List:
Whooper Swan – 8 flying west over Zhaitang reservoir
Mandarin – 6 (5 males and a female) along the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Goosander – 1 female on Zhaitang reservoir
Little Grebe – 1 on the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Grey Heron – 2 standing on the frozen Zhaitang reservoir
Cinereous Vulture – 1 perched on a boulder by the road near the derelict buildings at the top of Lingshan
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 at the top of Lingshan
Golden Eagle – 1 adult flew past the top of Lingshan
Hill Pigeon – 9
Spotted Dove – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2 seen from the car along G109 (both checked for Great Grey)
Jay – 2
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 4
Common Magpie – lots
Nutcracker – 1 heard
Red-billed Chough – 7
Daurian Jackdaw – 1 along G109
Large-billed Crow – at least 30 at the top of Lingshan
Waxwing sp – a flock of 30 seen near the 6th West Ring Road
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 2
Songar (Willow) Tit – 2
Silver-throated Tit – 3 at the top of Lingshan
Chinese Hill Babbler – one crossed the G109 in front of the car
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – a flock crossed the G109 in front of the car
Nuthatch sp – 1 calling incessantly at the top of Lingshan
Black-throated Thrush – 2 at least (including a stunning adult male with the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS)
Red-throated Thrush – 14 at least on berries at the top of Lingshan
Naumann’s Thrush – 2 seen from the car along the G109
GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART – at least 19 (at least 17 on berry bushes at the bend just below the summit and 2 on berry bushes opposite the radio mast)
Tree Sparrow – 1 at the top of Lingshan; many seen from the car along the G109
Brambling – 3 at the top of Lingshan with the redstarts
Oriental Greenfinch – 4 at the top of Lingshan
ASIAN ROSY FINCH – 2 flew over the road about 300m beyond the derelict buildings
Godlewski’s Bunting – 20+ along the road near the summit
Meadow Bunting – 6 including at least 3 singing males

Güldenstädt’s Redstart

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus), also sometimes known as White-winged Redstart, is the world’s largest redstart.  It breeds at high altitudes from 3,600–5,200 m in alpine meadows and rock-fields, moving to slightly lower altitudes in winter.  Apparently, the northernmost population, in the mountains around Lake Baikal, migrate furthest and sometimes reach northeastern China.

I had heard that this bird occasionally showed up in Beijing in winter.  However, I wasn’t aware of any regular sites and so it wasn’t really on my radar.

However, during the visit to the Mentougou District to see the BROWN ACCENTOR last week, I realised that we were relatively close to Lingshan, a mountain (Beijing’s highest peak) near the border with Hebei Province.  I had heard about this site but never visited.  We decided to take the opportunity to have a quick look and, although we didn’t have much time – only an hour at the top – I was very pleased we did.  The road to the peak was a little treacherous, but passable, and as the landscape opened up as we neared the top it was obvious that the area had potential.  This potential was realised almost immediately when we spotted some redstarts atop some berry bushes by the side of the road.  Although superficially looking similar to the common Daurian Redstart, it would be highly unlikely to find Daurian Redstarts at the top of a mountain in winter…and these birds looked BIG!  We got out of the car to investigate and, as soon as one of the males flew, showing a huge white wing patch, it was clear that this was a different redstart sp – Güldenstädt’s Redstart – a high altitude specialist.  Wow.  There were many birds present and we counted at least 17, a mixture of males and females.  We think this is a record Beijing count.  We enjoyed these birds for a good 30 minutes, and also saw several Black- and Red-throated Thrushes sharing the same shrubs, before reluctantly leaving for the journey back to Beijing.

The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name "White-winged Redstart").
The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name “White-winged Redstart”).

My report of these birds to Beijing birders caused something of a stir and, on Saturday, I returned to the spot with Per Alström and Jennifer Leung and we were joined by Swedish birder, Anders Magnussen, who had driven from Tainjin (!) and three cars full of Beijing birders led by Zhu Lei.

A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt's Redstarts.
A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.

This second visit, with more time to explore the area and more pairs of eyes, proved even more productive with an astonishing 28+ redstarts counted (Anders, who arrived before us, estimated at least 40) plus at least 60 PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING and at least 50 dark-throated thrushes (mostly Red-throated).

Three of the 60+ Pallas's Rosefinches at Lingshan.  These are females or immature males.
Three of the 60+ Pallas’s Rosefinches at Lingshan. These are females or immature males.

We also enjoyed good views of Songar Tit, 3 Cinereous Vultures and an Upland Buzzard.  We dipped on the hoped for ASIAN ROSY FINCH, 200 of which were seen at this location a few winters ago.. but that didn’t detract from a very productive day.  My thanks to Per, Jennifer, Anders, Zhu Lei and friends for their good company!