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.
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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.