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.
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.
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!
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.
The PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) is still at Lingshan and has been successfully ‘twitched’ by a few Chinese birders this week. I have just received the photos below from ZHANG Yong, reproduced here with his kind permission. Wow!
ZHANG Yong also saw more than 300 ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) at close quarters…
UPDATE: here is a short video of the redstart taken on Sunday 23 February.
And a couple more pictures taken at the weekend. On several occasions it sang!
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!
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.
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.
No health implications.
Few hypersensitive individuals should reduce outdoor exercise.
Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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!