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.

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New photos of the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan

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!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014.  What a stunner!
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014. What a stunner!
PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014.  Must be a candidate for the most beautiful Phoenicurus species?
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014. Must be a candidate for the most beautiful Phoenicurus species?
Y贺兰山红尾鸲吃沙棘_filtered
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan. The sea buckthorn berries are a big attraction for this bird.

ZHANG Yong also saw more than 300 ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) at close quarters…

Some of the 300+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES currently at Lingshan.
Some of the 300+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES currently at Lingshan.

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!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.
Early on Sunday Lingshan was enveloped in freezing fog, resulting in some beautifully frosted backdrops to this special bird.
Early on Sunday Lingshan was enveloped in freezing fog, resulting in some beautifully frosted backdrops to this special bird.

 

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.

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!

 

An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui
A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.
The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.
A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches
PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..
Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.
The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.
The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan
吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.
Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The wound was bad.
The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray
The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.

RIP.

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!

Jan-Erik Nilsen visits Lingshan

I am delighted to publish another guest post from Jan-Erik Nilsen who has been systematically exploring the mountains around Beijing this summer….  Here is a report of his visit to Lingshan, west of Beijing City.

Trip report from Lingshan mountain, Saturday, July 14th.

Lingshan is located west of the capital and, reaching a height of 2303 m, it is the highest peak in the larger Beijing area.

Driver Mr Lu picked me up at 6.30 and, via Starbucks at Guo Mao for coffee, we went towards the west, first along the 3rd ring road, then along the G109 road. The road follows a river through a valley and gives some nice mountain views, especially the last part before reaching Lingshan. The villages along the road looked comparatively prosperous, every fence and house was recently painted, the bricks in the walls in perfect order. Quite different from along a similar river valley road to Baihua Shan, just some 20 km to the south where I went the weekend before, where the villages looked rather poor. At 10.30 we reached the parking at the end of the road, at an altitude of 1500 m, on the eastern side of Lingshan.

A Claudia’s Leaf Warbler sang in a strange way at the parking, kept me busy until it uttered more familiar calls. A Yellow-streaked Warbler sang, a male Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, and a male Russet Sparrow jumped among the cars and contributed to a good birding start.

Russet Sparrow, Lingshan car park

There are two options to get to the top. A 3-hour hike, or a 20-minute ride by cable car to 1900m followed by only a 1-hour hike. Loudspeakers on the cable car were screaming Chinese heavy metal music – this Chinese band could rather have left this particular music genre to the British and American bands who know how it should be done. The hiking track ran just beside the cable car, so the choice actually became 20 minutes of Chinese heavy metal or 2 hours. A simple choice – cable car of course. The slope is covered by birch trees, except a wide alpine meadow with flowers and butterflies under the cable cars and on both sides of the hiking track. From 1900m to the peak, it is mostly rocky alpine meadows, and a few patches of birch trees. Cattle, horses and yaks keep the grass short and other vegetation low.

The view from the cable car at Lingshan
An alpine meadow at Lingshan

I hiked towards the peak, which had so far been obscured by clouds, but after a while the sun broke through and the peak was revealed. I spent more than an hour up there, and enjoyed spectacular mountain views. New clouds passed all the time, some touched the peak and it became very foggy during shorter intervals, else min. 20 km visibility. It’s cooler in the mountains than in the city, a main reason why this Scandinavian enjoys doing mountain trips during the 35C hot Beijing summer.

Lingshan peak in the clouds

On the way down, a group of yaks had approached the track and a group of 20 Chinese tourists took pictures of them. So did I, and in my search for the perfect angle I happened to come close to the leader bull. So far it had been lazy resting on the ground, with all other yaks feeding around it. The bull stood up and began to walk firmly towards me. I ran away and it stopped after a few meters, but it continued to stare at me. The 20 tourists may have been more scared than I was, but I don’t recommend anyone to assume a 1000 kg yak bull will be a particularly friendly animal, however cosy they may look.

I saw some passerines that briefly jumped up to a big rock 200 m up on the mountain, so I went up there to check them. A group of 5 Beautiful Rosefinches. The strange thing was that the group of yaks continued to stare at me when I went up there, and even though there was a group of people much closer to them. It seems I had been labelled of ‘bad standing’ among the yaks on Lingshan.

“What are you lookin’ at?”

The mountain tracks were crowded, lots of tourists, some of them bringing their dogs, some people supplying horse rides for the tourists, a few vendors along the track, and at the peak they regularly fired off firecrackers. Despite that, some nice birds were seen. Rosy Pipits on the way, and a pair of Rosys close to the peak carried food in their bills, proving they are breeding here. A Red-billed Chough called. I counted 8 singing Chinese Leaf Warblers along the way and the total count of Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches was 12. How could you not fall in love with a bird with such a beautiful name?

Rosy Pipit, Lingshan.
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch (female), Lingshan

Back at the parking again, I found more Russet Sparrows.  The total count became 5, one carrying food in its bill so they must be breeding there, too. It’s too far north, outside their area according to the books, but it’s not the first time Chinese birds have different ideas of their breeding area than what the books teaches. Ref. Spike Millington, he has observations of Russet Sparrow from Baihuashan and Lingshan and Jesper Hornskov in an e-mail says it is fairly common north of Huairou, so it seems it is not very remarkable in the Beijing mountain areas anymore.  McKinnon writes it ‘lives in flocks in upland open forest, woodland or scrub near cultivation, and in the absence of House Sparrow it becomes a bird of towns and villages’. For the Beijing area Tree Sparrows could replace House Sparrow in this statement. Tree Sparrows are normally just about everywhere where there is a house or a human, but I saw none of them up here, giving the space to Russet Sparrows.

On the way home, east of Lingshan, we stopped to take pictures on some dramatic slopes, and saw three Red-billed Choughs.

Let me try a not very scientific assessment of the four mountain areas, all in the larger Beijing area, I have visited in June and July this year; from SW to NE Baihuashan, Lingshan, Haitoushan and Wulingshan. Wulingshan and Haitoushan have deeper, more diverse and lush mountain forests and larger areas of coniferous forests, which will likely provide more species. Wulingshan is the best for birding, but based just on what the forests look like, I think Haitoushan is in the competition, and could deserve more attention. Baihuashan and Lingshan have more birch forests, and they have alpine meadows of a kind not found on the other two – especially Lingshan which has vast alpine meadows.

Wulingshan and Haitoushan have forests in a character of their own. They are more virgin and deep enough to bring a certain mysterious feeling. A kind of feeling difficult to describe but I think many who have wandered into a deep forest in Scandinavia is familiar with it. Even if you are alone, deep into the forest, it feels like someone is watching you. Entities from ancient myths will soon not seem so unlikely anymore. You begin to feel uncomfortable. You get lost. You cannot find the way. When you finally come out of the forest you are far from where you thought you would be. Some people, me not included, are scared of walking alone into such forests.

No one should hesitate to go to Lingshan because of the many tourists or the heavy metal loudspeakers. The alpine meadows are vast and very nice, peaceful areas can be found just a hundred metres off the track. The meadows bring more Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and Rosy Pipits than elsewhere, they can hardly be missed at Lingshan. The road to get there has some spectacularly nice views, and on the way you can have a look at Cuandixia, a village of over 70 Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard houses. I would certainly have stopped there if I hadn’t run out of time.

And if you go – don’t forget the sun-block!

 

Full species list:

Common Pheasant   Phasianus colchicus     1 heard along the road, E of Lingshan
Rock Pigeon Columba livia ca 10
Black-billed Magpie Pica pica ca 10
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 1 heard + 3 in a group seen along the road, E of Lingshan
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos ca 15
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 5
Yellow-bellied Tit Parus venustulus 2
Yellow-streaked Warbler Phylloscopus armandii 3 singing
Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis (sichuanensis) 8 singing
Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei 1 calling
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (Blyth’s Leaf Warbler) Phylloscopus claudiae (reguloides) 1 singing
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 1 singing
Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans 5 (2 m 1 f 2 looked juv)
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea 1
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus 4 (1+1+1 pair)
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus davidianus (pulcherrimus) 12
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides 4