Blackthroat

Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013.  Photo by Rob Holmes.
Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013. Photo by Rob Holmes.

The Black-throated Blue Robin (Blackthroat) was, until very recently, an almost mythical bird.  Known only from the odd scattered record in the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, with presumed wintering records in southern China and Thailand, it has been “the Holy Grail” of China birding.

The chances of seeing one were as close to zero as one could get until June 2011 when Per Alström and a team of Chinese scientists discovered a total of 14 males at two sites – Foping and Changqing – in Shaanxi Province.

I had long been planning a trip to neighbouring Sichuan Province in May this year with friends Rob Holmes and Jonathan Price and, after consulting our local guide – Sid Francis – we decided to tag on a couple of extra days to visit Changqing and try to see Blackthroat.  It was a gamble.  We knew that, in 2012, the first birds were seen in Foping and Changqing on 4 and 18 May respectively.  So it was by no means certain that they would have arrived and be on territory on 8 May, the day we had planned to visit.  And even if they had arrived, would we be able to find one?

Per had kindly uploaded some sound recordings of the Blackthroat’s song, so we knew what to listen for.  And on our arrival at Changqing we met with our guide for the day – Zhang Yongwen – who was part of the team that made the discovery in 2011.  We were as prepared as we could be, and in good hands.

Yongwen told us that we had “a chance”.  This Spring had been a little warmer than usual.  His visit with us would be the first time he had looked for the birds this year.  If successful, we would be the first people to see Blackthroat in 2013.

Our day began as a typical Spring day in Shaanxi – overcast with the threat of rain and a little chilly in a brisk breeze.  Not ideal conditions to look for a skulking robin but not terrible either – it is not uncommon for rain to last days in this part of the world in Spring.

We drove from our hotel in the “ancient” town of Huayang (which looked about 5 years old!) into the core reserve area.  The ‘road’ was an old logging track that took us into the heart of some superb habitat.  The forest in the reserve is mostly mature secondary growth with generous areas of bamboo.  In addition to Blackthroat, the reserve hosts around 100 Giant Pandas as well as Takin, Goral, Serow, Wild Boar and Tufted Deer.  The chances of seeing Giant Panda in the wild at this time of year are slim, with the trees in full leaf, but we did see evidence – panda poo!

Giant Panda poo... our closest encounter with this special mammal.
Giant Panda poo… our closest encounter with this special mammal.

After an hour’s drive, including seeing a couple of Golden Pheasants by the side of the road, we stopped at the edge of a small valley – “Wo Wo Dian” at an altitude of 2,200-2,400 metres.  It was along this valley that Blackthroat was found in 2011 and seen subsequently in 2012.  Fortunately the rain was holding off and we began the short walk to the prime area.  The sense of excitement among the group was palpable.

Blackthroat habitat
Blackthroat habitat

The search was focused on areas of dense bamboo alongside a small stream. The constant sound of running water muffled any birdsong, making it difficult to hear and identify any birds along the way…  At the first patch of bamboo, just a few hundred metres along the valley, we had a frustrating glimpse of a robin running along the ground.. but it was so deep in the bamboo that it just looked like a black shape and, after waiting patiently for 20 minutes or so, Yongwen said that the best area was further up, so we moved on…

The next stand of bamboo looked good – it was relatively open and, with a low vantage point gained by standing in the rocky stream, it was easier to see any movement.  We soon heard a robin singing…  and it sounded similar, if not identical, to the sound recordings we had of Blackthroat…  our hearts jumped.  It wasn’t long before we spotted a robin at the base of the bamboo, deep inside the thicket, and after a frustrating few minutes of half-glimpses and flight views, it finally sat up and sang from a rock – FIRETHROAT!  A robin, and a fantastic bird at that, but not the bird we were looking for…  Although disappointing that it wasn’t a Blackthroat, we were encouraged that this bird was on territory…  would this sighting suggest that the related Blackthroat was also back?

Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province.  We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird!
Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province. We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird! We later learned that this could be the most northerly record of Firethroat ever recorded.

Onwards we walked to the next area… constantly alert to listen for any song.  After no joy at the next couple of stands of bamboo, I began to feel a little deflated…  had we arrived just a day or two too early?

The deflated feeling didn’t last long…  as we turned a corner, Sid heard what he thought was a short burst of Blackthroat song and, standing absolutely still and turning our heads to one side, we all heard what sounded like the beginning of Blackthroat song…  but it was distant and barely audible above the sound of the running water…  could it be one?  Or was it another mimicking Firethroat?  We daren’t presume anything but one could sense the excitement among the group.  We edged down a bank towards the location of the sound and, sure enough, we began to hear more of the song above the sound of the stream…  it matched very closely the recording we had.  The song was clearly coming from the opposite side of the stream, so we edged to the bank and sat quietly, hoping that the bird would reveal itself…  First, there was a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in the bamboo… it was a robin.  Then a second glimpse.. but both times it was gone before we could get onto it with binoculars..  A few seconds later it flew to a moss-covered rock and sang, just for a second, before diving into cover again..  There was stunned silence.. we looked at each other and smiled… we had all seen a male BLACKTHROAT!  Wow…(or maybe I should say “BOOM!”).  For the next couple of minutes, we sat in awe as the Blackthroat moved to several different song posts, delivered a short burst of song and then dived back into cover…

The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.
The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.

Whilst my attempts at photographing Blackthroat resulted in blurred twigs and images of the space where the bird had been just a split-second before, Rob managed to secure the image at the beginning of this post.  It’s an image that captures the essence of our experience – fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic and elusive bird in thick bamboo in poor light…  Sharp, in-focus, full-frame photographs are over-rated!

I also made a short recording of the song using my Canon 7D’s video facility:

After enjoying this bird for some time, we continued up the valley and encountered several more birds..  all were elusive and, although we heard at least 5 individuals, we only saw one more definite Blackthroat.  Mr Zhang also pointed out an old nest from 2012 – possibly the only nest ever discovered.

A Blackthroat nest from 2012.  Situated on a steep bank.
A Blackthroat nest from 2012. Situated on a steep bank.

The elusiveness of this bird surprised me a little.  I had expected newly arrived Blackthroat males to be more obvious…  maybe it was the weather conditions (overcast and a little breezy) that suppressed their activity or maybe they are louder and more obvious when the females arrive..  I don’t know..

In any case, I am very grateful to Sid for picking up the faint song of the first Blackthroat we saw and to Mr Zhang for his expert company throughout the day.  I am also grateful to Per Alström and Paul Holt who provided information about Blackthroat ahead of our visit.  Finally, a big thank you to Jonathan and Rob for their company on what was an outstanding trip to Sichuan and Shaanxi that ended on this magnificent high.

If anyone is heading this way and wants to explore the option of visiting Changqing National Nature Reserve to see this bird, please feel free to contact me or Sid Francis for advice.

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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!

Pallas’s Rosefinch

Pallas's Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013.  A stunning bird.
Pallas’s Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013. A stunning bird.

The Pallas’s Rosefinch (Carpodacus roseus) is a difficult bird to see anywhere.  Although it has quite a large range, its breeding grounds – the mountains of eastern Russia and northern Mongolia – are relatively inaccessible and remote.  And the wintering sites (northern China, Japan, Korea) are not necessarily reliable on a year by year basis.

Beijing in winter has traditionally been one of the best places to see this species but, in recent years, the numbers wintering around the Chinese capital appear to have declined for unknown reasons (possibly due to milder winters).

This winter, the coldest in China for over 20 years and with above average snowfall in northern China, has bucked the trend and there are good numbers of Pallas’s Rosefinch wintering in the hills around the capital, providing a good opportunity to get to grips with this species.  Singles and small groups have been reported from a number of locations around Beijing, including the Olympic Forest Park, Badaling Great Wall and Shisanling.  However, it is the ridge above the Botanical Gardens in the northwest of the city that has proved to be a real hotspot this winter.  Jesper Hornskov walks this area frequently and he first reported sightings of this bird from October with numbers gradually building to a high count of over 70 in January.

On Sunday I visited the Botanical Gardens with Beijing-based Per Alström, Jennifer Leung and visiting Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.  After birding through the gardens, and completing the steep ascent to the ridge, we rested for a short coffee break during which we were fortunate to encounter two stunning male Pallas’s Rosefinches – the target bird of our walk.  After enjoying spectacular views we walked a 2-3km stretch of the ridge before returning via the same route.  Although it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of the number of birds present, we left with the view that we had seen over 40 birds along that particular 2-3 km stretch, including at least 3 adult males.

Adult males are difficult to beat..  they are resplendent in their raspberry-coloured plumage, silvery-white bills and steely-black legs.  Females and immatures are much drabber, often displaying streaky brownish plumage with a hint of orange or pink and a pinkish rump.

If you are in Beijing over the next few weeks I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Botanical Gardens to see these birds.  But be quick – they are likely to head back north sometime in mid- to late-March and who knows when they will next be so accessible in the Chinese capital?

Full species list from the walk below.  My thanks go to Per, Jennifer and Ben for their excellent company.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 1
Eastern Buzzard – 1 seen twice over the ridge
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Spotted Dove – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 35+
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 5
Common Magpie – 13
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 12
Great (Japanese) Tit – 6
Yellow-bellied Tit – 28
Marsh Tit – 4
Silver-throated Tit – 2 in the gardens late afternoon
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4 on the way down (after going most of the day without seeing any)
Chinese Bulbul – 1 heard
Pere David’s Laughingthrush – 12
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 2 groups of 15+ each
Goldcrest – 6
Chinese Nuthatch – 1
Crested Myna – 1
White-cheeked Starling – 1
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Naumann’s Thrush – 11
Tree Sparrow – many in the gardens
Siberian Accentor – 6, including 2 seen exceptionally well around the noodle place
Brambling – over 1,000, often wheeling around in large flocks
Oriental Greenfinch – 7
Siskin – 5 (PA only)
Pallas’s Rosefinch – at least 40 (3 adult males and the remainder females or immature males).  The first two (both adult males) showed exceptionally well.
Hawfinch – 2
Godlewski’s Bunting – 5
Tristram’s Bunting – 3
Yellow-throated Bunting – 4
Mammals
Red Squirrel – 5
Pere David’s Rock Squirrel – 1

Laotieshan Autumn 2012 report

Paul Holt has just finished his report from Laotieshan this autumn, covering the period 5-26 September.  For a few of those days, towards the end, he was joined by Per Alström and me, but he generously credited us a joint authors.  The full report can be downloaded here: Birding in Liaoning 5-26 Sept. 2012 (Holt, Townshend & Alstrom) but, for the busy reader, highlights included:

Five new species for Liaoning:

• 14 bird-days with up to 11 Short-tailed Shearwaters being noted on four dates between 12-19 September;

• seven bird-days for skuas/jaegers between 12-18 September – most were unidentified but a Long-tailed Jaeger was identified on the 12th as was a single Pomarine on the 18th;

• a Swinhoe’s Minivet on the 14 September;

• a Chestnut-cheeked Starling on 6 September.

 

High counts included:

• 3,274 bird-days for Streaked Shearwater with a count of 1,605 during the 4.5 hour sea watch off the point at Laotie Shan, Lushun on the 13 September possibly being a Chinese record;

• 4,313 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1,181 south on the 23 September;

• 938 bird-days of Japanese Sparrowhawk with 446 (possibly a Chinese record) south on the 6 September;

• 16,000 Black-tailed Gulls and 5,000 Mongolian Gulls west off the point on the 18 September (possibly both Chinese records);

• 20,959 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with 10,380 on the 21 September (a Chinese record);

• 270 bird-days for Black-naped Oriole with 72 on the 6th & 62 on the 9 September;

• 20,600 bird-days for Barn Swallow with 7,500 south on 14 September;

• 56 bird-days for Asian House Martin with 37 south on 6 September;

• 90 Forest Wagtails south on 11 September;

• 3,160 bird-days for White Wagtail with 1,134 on the 11 September;

• 196 bird-days for Pechora Pipit with exactly half this number, 98 birds, on the 12 September possibly being a Chinese record

Local rarities included:

• single adult Black-legged Kittiwakes on the 12th & 18 September

• one juvenile Pallas’s Gull during a seawatch on the 18 September – perhaps only the sixth record for Liaoning;

• 1 Spotted Nutcracker on the 24 September;

 

I suspect that, with irruption species such as Varied Tit, ‘Northern’ Great Tit, Rosefinches etc on the move this autumn, October might have been exciting, too…   but there have been no birders there to find out!

First for Beijing: Grey-tailed Tattler

On Wednesday morning I met up with Shi Jin and Per Alström for a spot of birding before work.  We decided to visit Wenyu He (Wenyu River) on the north-east boundary of central Beijing (in Chaoyang District for those of you who know China’s capital city).  It had rained hard overnight but the morning was fresh and clear with unusually fantastic visibility.

We did rather well with several migrating Oriental Honey Buzzards (never common over the city centre), several Black-naped Orioles and a good count of egrets, including at least 28 Great  and 16 Little.  But the highlight of the morning was Beijing’s first confirmed record of GREY-TAILED TATTLER.  Found by Per feeding on the river edge (that’s the tattler feeding, not Per), it soon flew from the far side of the river (outside central Beijing) to the nearside (definitely central Beijing!).  It did not need to do so to be the first documented record from Beijing Municipality but, in so doing, it also became the first for central Beijing city proper!  Shi Jin could not hide his excitement at adding this bird to his local patch list and managed some great images viewable on his Chinese Currents website.  A couple of my efforts are below.

Grey-tailed Tattler is predominantly a coastal bird in China and any inland record is a good one.  To see one in the capital was most unexpected.  Well done Per – we look forward to more finds of this quality during your stay in Beijing!

Grey-tailed Tattler, Wenyu He, Beijing, 12 September 2012. A great find by Per Alström.
Grey-tailed Tattler, Wenyu He, Beijing. Showing the relatvely uniform upperparts in flight.

Observing this bird, I wasn’t sure I could separate juvenile Grey-tailed from Wandering Tattler. I asked the experts and this is what they said (with apologies for quoting their off the cuff comments!):

“Separate the two tattlers with great care.  Calls are by far the best way with Grey-tailed resembling a Ringed Plover & Wandering sounding reminiscent of a Whimbrel.  Juv. Grey-tailed have obvious white fringes on wing coverts – these are much narrower & less contrasting on Wandering.  Wandering also has a longer primary projection with often 5, not 4, pps visible beyond the longest tertial.

You need to be really close (or have a big lens) to see whether the scaling on the back of the upper legs is ladder-like as in Grey-tailed or irregularly shaped & scaly as in Wandering.  Similarly close to see that Wandering has a long nasal groove (more than half the length of its bill); Grey-tailed’s nasal groove is shorter.”

and

” juv Wandering has much more extensively dark flanks than juv Grey-tailed, if I remember correctly also darker breast contrasting more with the belly and darker upperside.  ”

So, there you go.  Always learning!  As it happens, we did hear this bird call and it was reminiscent of Common Ringed Plover, so that’s a clincher even without the images showing the nasal groove (sounds a bit like a new trend in Indie music – can you do the nasal groove?)

 

Full Species List:

Japanese Quail – 1 flushed by Per and Steve in the scrubby area to the east of the riding stables.
Mallard – 120+
Spot-billed Duck – 4
Garganey – 1
Eurasian Teal – 2
Little Grebe – 9
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12 (7 adults and 5 juveniles)
Grey Heron – 5
Great Egret – 28
Little Egret – 16
Great Cormorant – 16
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Oriental Honey Buzzard – 17 drifted south-east (9 @ 0904, 2 @ 0917 and 6 @ 1030)
Japanese Sparrowhawk – 1 probably this species SE
Grey-headed Lapwing – 3
Common Snipe – 11
Spotted Redshank – 4
Marsh Sandpiper – 1
Common Greenshank – 8
Green Sandpiper – 12
Wood Sandpiper – 6
GREY-TAILED TATTLER – 1 juvenile (a rare inland record and possibly the first confirmed record for Beijing)
Common Sandpiper – 3
Black-headed Gull – 1 juvenile/first-winter
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Spotted Dove – 2
Cuckoo sp – 1
Hoopoe – 3
Wryneck – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1
Brown Shrike – 3
Black-naped Oriole – 5
Black Drongo – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 15+
Common Magpie – 15+ feeding along the river
Barn Swallow – 30+
Red-rumped Swallow – 4+
Lanceolated Warbler – 1
Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler – 1 probable
Oriental Reed Warbler – 1
Dusky Warbler – 1 probable
Yellow-browed Warbler – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Siberian Stonechat – 9
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 2
White Wagtail – 4
Richard’s Pipit – 2
Olive-backed Pipit – 2