Przewalski’s (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill

Przewalski's (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill, Tangjiahe, Sichuan Province, 5 May 2013
Przewalski’s (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill, Tangjiahe, Sichuan Province, 5 May 2013.  Taken with a drenched Canon EOS7D and no functioning autofocus!

The Przewalski’s (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill (Paradoxornis przewalskii) is another special bird seen on our Sichuan/Shaanxi trip.  Remarkably, this bird was not seen at all, anywhere on the planet, between 1988 and 2007, when it was rediscovered at Tangjiahe in northern Sichuan by Bjorn Anderson.  And today, Tangjiahe remains the only known site for this species.

Perhaps fittingly, seeing this bird requires some effort.  Not only must birders navigate the sometimes complex access arrangements for foreigners to Chinese nature reserves but there is also the small matter of a tough and treacherous 3-4 hour (each way) hike up a steep and muddy path to the birds’ habitat – stands of bamboo in mixed forest.  Allowing time to search for and see the bird and the return hike means that one must leave very early in the morning and, if you want to minimise the risk of not seeing the bird, stay overnight in what can best be described as a wooden hut up the mountain.

As we were pushed for time, we opted for a one-day visit and so arranged for the obligatory guide to meet us at 0600 for the hike up.  Unfortunately, as is often the case in Sichuan in Spring, it was raining…  and it didn’t stop all day.  This made the climb slippery and treacherous, especially on the steep, muddy parts of the trail and on the log bridges, several of which must be traversed en route.

Given the weather, there wasn’t a lot of bird activity during the upward hike, which enabled us to make steady progress.  We reached the first wooden hut after about 2 hours, where we took a short break.  The push to the second hut would take a further hour and it is this section that is steepest.

Personally, I find it best to get into a rhythm when climbing and, often, that means progressing at a different pace to one’s companions.  Being a little younger than Sid (sorry, Sid!) I started to put a little daylight between us as I focused on the climb (Sid has suggested replacing this sentence with “Sid cut a debonair figure as he gallivanted in circus trapeze artist style over the primitive path that led to the giddy heights of Parrotbill country”.  Clearly an accurate description – Ed).

I lucked in on a smart male Temminck’s Tragopan that stood on the path in front of me for a few seconds before slowly melting into the forest… and it wasn’t long before I reached the second hut.  I was drenched and immediately stripped off my wet clothes and put on a dry t-shirt that I had, unusually, had the foresight to take along.  As I stood in the ‘porch’ of the hut to shelter from the rain and wait for the others, I took a sip of water and ate a few peanuts whilst basking in the satisfaction of making it to the top in good time.

After a few minutes, the guide came running up the path towards me gesturing wildly…  At first I thought something must have happened to Sid.. but using my (bad) Chinese, I realised that what he was saying was that Sid had seen the parrotbill…!  Clearly, in my focused push to the top, I had walked right past the birds!

I walked down the path for around 100 metres or so to where an elated Sid was punching the air and sporting a huge grin.  He had just seen, at close range and with the naked eye, two Przewalski’s Parrotbills!  I looked around but they were nowhere to be seen… they had momentarily passed Sid at head height and then proceeded down the slope into an inaccessible valley….

I congratulated Sid and, after a fruitless few minutes hoping that they might return, we eventually decided to continue up, rest for a while at the hut, and then begin to search for the birds in the bamboo around the hut.  It was here that Paul Holt had seen the birds last year and there was a lot of good habitat.

Our guide made a very welcome fire and, after a few minutes warming ourselves on the flickering and popping flames, we began to dry out a little and decided to begin our search.

Almost immediately, right outside the hut, we caught a brief glimpse of two parrotbills but before we could train our binoculars on them they were gone.  Frustrating!  After a thorough search of the area, there was no further sign, so we decided to walk down to the area of Sid’s earlier sighting…  Here, we could hear and see bird activity and, with a bit of ‘pishing’ we began to attract a few tits…  then two different birds flew in and sat up on the bamboo… Przewalski’s Parrotbills!!!  They showed incredibly well, just a few metres away, climbing stems to get a better view of us and calling frequently.  I grabbed my camera but, by this time, it was so wet that the autofocus had stopped functioning and I could barely see through the misted up viewfinder.  A quick wipe with some damp tissue enabled me to at least see shapes through the viewfinder and I began to take a few images, adjusting the focus a little each time in the hope that at least one or two of the images might be in focus.

We enjoyed the company of these birds for probably 2-3 minutes but that time went by in a flash.  And just as quickly as the parrotbills arrived, they disappeared back into the thick bamboo.

Wow.  The hike had been worth it.  We had just seen Przewalski’s Parrotbill, a bird that had “gone missing” for almost 20 years.

We walked back up to the hut to make the most of the remaining fire and, after drying out a little and reflecting on the magic moments we shared with this bird, we began our descent.

If climbing had been tricky, descending was even trickier…  the persistent rain had made the path treacherous and we both slowly edged our way down, gripping onto the bamboo to avoid slipping into the steep ravines.  Our progress down the first part of the descent was slow and required concentration..

Habitat at Tangjiahe
Habitat at Tangjiahe

On the way up our guide had warned us about wild Takin, in particular in the areas of dense bamboo.  Surprising one was not recommended… they had been known to attack humans and, in cases where that had happened, their tactic was generally to ‘knock you off the mountain’.  This warning had faded into the back of my mind by this time but was soon front and centre when I heard a loud grunt, just a couple of metres away, followed by a crashing sound through the bamboo just above me.  I froze.  The guide, sensing danger, immediately ran over and started to shout very loudly.  He grabbed a stick and started to bash the bamboo… trying to create as much noise as possible.  Fortunately the animal, whatever it was, ran uphill and into the dense bamboo rather than down and towards me.  Phew.

The rest of the descent was relatively uneventful, apart from the odd slip and slide on what had become extremely treacherous logs and mud.

One of the log bridges at Tangjiahe.
One of the log bridges at Tangjiahe.

The return took us just under 3 hours and we were back at the beginning of the walk by 4pm.  We were relieved but also elated.

“I’m never doing that again!” said Sid.

Relief.  Sid sports a big smile after completing the descent.
Relief. Sid sports a big smile after completing the descent.
The author, having safely completed the hike at Tangjiahe.
The author, having safely completed the hike at Tangjiahe.