Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, is probably my favourite birding site in the capital. It’s one of those sites where, walking around, it feels as if almost anything could turn up. That feeling is not irrational. With wintering PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART, Beijing’s first LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER, breeding GREENISH WARBLERS, ALSTROM’S WARBLERS, SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHERS, ‘Gansu’ RED-FLANKED BLUETAILS and GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS all discovered in the last few years, expectation is high whatever the season.
My most recent visit was with Paul Holt on Monday. On arrival it was cold, breezy and seemingly almost birdless. Around the derelict buildings, at the highest point of the road, our hopes of Asian Rosy Finch drew a blank. And there were no birds at all on the scree slopes.. However, almost the first bird we saw was a good one – a sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE. Scarce in Beijing, Lingshan in winter is certainly the best site for this monochrome predator. A check of the sheltered side valley a little lower down was more productive, with three species of rosefinch – PALLAS’S, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and LONG-TAILED. The highlight here was a count of 7 LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES of the central China lepidus subspecies, a form only discovered in Beijing two winters ago. One male, in particular, showed spectacularly well.
We walked the old road which was also relatively quiet with only one WHITE-WINGED REDSTART (a male) and an owl sp (SHORT-EARED or LONG-EARED), flushed by Paul and seen only briefly.
We decided to try an area of scrub further up the mountain and, after a 20-minute walk, we discovered four more lepidus LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES and flushed a EURASIAN WOODCOCK, scarce in Beijing especially in winter. We headed back to the car, talking about how great it was to see so many rosefinches and feeling happy with the day..
As we started to drive back to the road, a large raptor drifted past the communications tower… right at that moment, the jizz reminded me a little of Black Kite – long tail and lazy flight – but this bird was certainly not that species, it was huge! Paul immediately shouted an expletive followed by “juvenile Lammergeier”. Wow. We jumped out of the car and I grabbed my camera to take a few record shots.. As it drifted behind a hill we bundled back into the car and made our way back to the road to try to see it again.. We rounded the bend just before the road descends on the Hebei side and saw it again, this time at eye-level as it drifted north in the company of several LARGE-BILLED CROWS. The fact that we initially though the crows were RED-BILLED CHOUGHS gives an indication of its size. We watched as this magnificent bird of prey banked around and then flew directly over our heads before slowly heading northwest. What an encounter!
With the nearest known breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau, more than 1,200km to the west, LAMMERGEIER is a bird I wasn’t expecting to see in Beijing. As far as I know there is only one previous record from the capital, from Shidu, Fangshan District, in February 2008 (Wang Qin) so this is Beijing’s second.
Lingshan delivers again!
A PDF site guide to Lingshan, including travel directions and a map of the best sites, can be downloaded here.
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).
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.
As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery. The last few weeks have proved this again.
Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies). We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.
To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.
And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.
Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :
Lingshan bird (lepidus):
Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):
After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis. Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).
Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males. This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.
This was quite a shock.
We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present. So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.
We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.
It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan! What next?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.
In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes… In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce. It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post). It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated. However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast. A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black. And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones. This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds. I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED. Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.
Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland). This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed. If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.
That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade. And what a cracker it was!
Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.
When the male PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART turned up at Lingshan last winter, it was only the third occurrence in Beijing and the first for 20 years… Given the lack of observer coverage in winter, we speculated whether it might be a more regular visitor than the records suggested… and this speculation gained credibility when a female was found nearby soon after. The only way we would know the true status of this star bird was to monitor the site over the following winters to see whether they returned…
So far this November I have already made three visits to the site and, despite seeing plenty of the other high-altitude loving redstart – Guldenstadt’s – I have not seen any Przewalski’s. Was it a late migrant? Or was the occurrence of the pair last winter really a one-off? I was beginning to wonder….
Fast forward to late on Thursday evening when I received a message from Breght Vandenberghe, a Belgian birder, to say that he had just visited Lingshan and seen a male PRZEWALSKI’S! My heart leapt.. and a voice inside my head whispered:
Here is a photo from last year as a reminder of just how stunning is this spectacular species. Big congratulations to Breght for finding the Przewalski’s and huge thanks for passing on the news.
Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain and lies on the border of the Municipality of Beijing and neighbouring Hebei Province. At a little over 2,300 metres, it is high enough to attract a noticeably different avifauna to that of most sites in the capital and is a great place to connect with some difficult to see species including GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus erythrogaster, 红腹红尾鸲) and PALLAS’S (北朱雀), LONG-TAILED (长尾雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES. ALPINE ACCENTORS (Prunella collaris, 领岩鹨) are regular and, of course, last winter, Lingshan also hosted a pair of the stunningly pretty PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTARTS (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲). So it is with great anticipation that I make my first visits of the winter, never knowing what might be present. On Thursday I visited with Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra, and his wife Sisi. Thanks to the anti-pollution measures taken by the Chinese government in advance of hosting the APEC leaders’ summit (essentially shutting down polluting industry, severely restricting private cars and providing cash incentives for residents to take holidays), the weather and air quality were both stunning. And with hardly a breath of wind, conditions were perfect. Our first stop was at “Przewalski’s Gully”, the buckthorn-filled valley 100m or so below the road’s plateau. There was no sign of last winter’s star bird but GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) were present in good numbers with at least 8 males at this site plus a similar number of females. We also connected with LONG-TAILED (长尾雀), PALLAS’S (北朱雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES, a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫), some mobile flocks of COMMON REDPOLL (白腰朱顶雀), SIBERIAN ACCENTOR (棕眉山岩鹨) and a supporting cast including WILLOW (ssp songarus, 褐头山雀) and SILVER-THROATED (北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀) TITS, CHINESE HILL BABBLER (山鹛) and PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSH (山噪鹛).
After maybe half an hour we made our way up to the scree slopes to check for ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀). This species is almost certainly annual here but they are nomadic and very unpredictable, probably rotating their time among the several high peaks in the area. This time we were lucky. First, we encountered two HORNED LARKS (角百灵) by the side of the road. Then, a little further along, a small flock of ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) flew in close to us. As we were enjoying these birds I caught sight of a small woodpecker below us in some stunted birches. Small woodpeckers are not common on Lingshan, especially up high, so my immediate thought was to check that it was indeed the default GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKER (星头啄木鸟) and not the very rare JAPANESE PYGMY WOODPECKER (小星头啄木鸟). I trained my telescope on this bird and immediately noticed a bright red cap – it was a male LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (小斑啄木鸟), a very rare bird in the capital with just a handful of records (some of which are by visiting birders in the capital’s parks and almost certainly relate to mis-identified GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKERS). Just as I called out the bird to Ben and Sisi, a flock of finches flew in to join the accentors – ASIAN ROSY FINCHES! At least 4 were present at first and we were immediately distracted from the woodpecker, allowing it to slip away undetected into the birch forest. I could hardly complain – with birding this good, it would be churlish to be disappointed that I did not capture any image at all of the Lesser Spot. We continued to watch the ROSY FINCHES and, soon after, some CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES joined the group and 3 more ‘brandti‘ HORNED LARKS appeared by the roadside. Then, some chattering overhead signalled the arrival of a large flock of more ASIAN ROSY FINCHES… we estimated at least 100 birds. Wow! This flock was extremely mobile and no sooner had they settled they would lift up again and wheel around before alighting a few hundred metres away for a few seconds and then up again they went.. it was as if the ground was too cold for their feet! They finally settled on a scree slope close by and we enjoyed prolonged views of these beautiful birds… After some time with these special birds we parked up by the derelict buildings and began to check the area along the old road. This is an area with many buckthorn bushes and, in the previous two winters, has been a good place to see GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS, RED-THROATED THRUSHES and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES. It didn’t disappoint. Here there were at least 10 more male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS with at least 4 females. A mobile flock of REDPOLLS wheeled around noisily overhead and, about half way along the old road, regularly stopped to drink from a small pool. As they sat in the birch trees awaiting their turn to drink, we were able to ‘scope some of the birds and, in a sample of around 15 birds, we were able to identify 2 definite ARCTIC REDPOLLS (极北朱顶雀) sporting clean undertail coverts and beautifully unmarked white rumps. Wow – another Beijing mega-rarity. Again, these birds were highly mobile, and despite spending some time close to the drinking pool, I was not able to capture any images of the ARCTIC REDPOLLS.
Further down the old road we encountered more PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a calling LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCH and a juvenile GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) soared overhead. This was Lingshan at its best.
After enjoying a cockle-warming coffee we made another circuit of the same sites, checking thoroughly for the only bird missing – PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART. Alas, despite our search, we drew a blank. Maybe we were too early? Or maybe it’s not an annual visitor here and last winter was exceptional? Only time will tell… One thing is for sure – I can’t wait for my next visit to this special site. Big thanks to Ben and Sisi for their company on what turned out to be a memorable day.
Lingshan is a spectacular place. I first visited Beijing’s highest mountain in March 2013 and since then, over multiple visits, I have enjoyed some brilliant birding at this bitterly cold, barren and inhospitable site. It seems to be a reliable winter location for difficult-to-see birds such as PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH, GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART and of course, most recently, it hosted both male and females of the stunning PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART.
Last weekend, I made only my second summer visit. And how different it looks. Since my most recent visit in March, the mountain has been transformed with birdsong seemingly bursting from every tree and shrub on the now vivid green slopes and hillsides.
The woods are alive with CLAUDIA’S LEAF, CHINESE LEAF, EASTERN CROWNED and YELLOW-STREAKED WARBLERS. And the more open areas are frequented by CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES and DAURIAN REDSTARTS with RED-BILLED CHOUGHS wheeling overhead.
A walk along the buckthorn-filled valley that, in winter, hosts GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS and good numbers of dark-throated thrushes, revealed that these bushes are now the home of singing YELLOW-STREAKED and CHINESE LEAF WARBLERS. A short way down, we suddenly heard a different song – short, powerful and rich – that reminded me a little of the COMMON NIGHTINGALES we had recently seen in Xinjiang. Of course it wasn’t a nightingale… it was a MANCHURIAN BUSH WARBLER (Cettia canturians) – a scarce bird in Beijing and the first I had seen in the capital. It sang constantly, often from an exposed perch, allowing me to record some video…
After finding some basic, but very cheap (GBP 8 per room), accommodation, we walked along the access road after dark to listen for owls. We heard only a possible distant ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL but, at two different sites, also heard GREY NIGHTJARS pounding out their mechanical ‘knocking’ sound. A highlight was also a rare (for Beijing) view of the spectacular night sky and, by checking out the planets with a birding telescope, we were able to identify Saturn, complete with rings. Wow!
In the morning we awoke early to experience the dawn chorus and, again, walking along the main access road, we encountered CHINESE THRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED FLYCATCHER, SONGAR (WILLOW) and YELLOW-BELLIED TITS, EURASIAN NUTHATCH, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH, RUSSET SPARROW and both MEADOW and GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS, in addition to the usual chorus of phylloscopus warblers.
I am sure that, with a little more time and by covering more of the area, some more surprises would be found… after all, this is the site where Jan-Erik Nilsen recorded (two years running!) an initially unfamiliar song that, after investigation, turned out to be a PLAIN-TAILED (ALSTROM’S) WARBLER, a bird that, on current knowledge of it’s range, should not be in Beijing. And with so few birders visiting, the opportunity for discovery is vast. I’ll be back!
The status of Manchurian Bush Warbler in Beijing (with hat-tip to Paul Holt):
This species is scarce, with just 16 records in total, averaging just 1-2 records annually in recent years. Six of these are from May, including one from Lingshan in May 2004. It has also been recorded in summer (July 2005 and June 2008) at nearby Baicaopan, possibly suggesting that it is a scarce breeder in the mountains around Beijing. There is an autumn record from Kangxi Grassland (near Yanqing) on 16 October 2010 and one was photographed in the campus of Peking University in late October 2012.