Tianmushan Featured Image. Clockwise from top L: Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Ginkgo, Indochinese Yuhina, Black Bulbul. (Craig Brelsford)

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Are you interested in a fuller appreciation of the birds of the Shanghai region? If so, then visiting Shanghai’s exciting coastal sites is not enough. You need to go inland, to the hilly interior. You need to visit the Tianmu Mountains. In this two-post series, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko and I introduce you to the mountain range in Zhejiang. This first post was written by me and describes the key birds and habitats at Tianmushan. I also discuss my first trip to Tianmu in May 2015. In the second post, Hiko describes his July 2018 trip to the mountain. — Craig Brelsford

WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?

gingko-tianmu-brelsford
Some of the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world grow in the dreamlike forest near Longfengjian (龙凤尖), part of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The ginkgos, with their distinctive leaves, share the slopes with stands of giant Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica. Among the bird species these rich forests hold are Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Buffy Laughingthrush, and Speckled Piculet. (Craig Brelsford)

Tianmushan is a mountain range 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. The thickly forested slopes are the place closest to the city where large numbers of south China species can be seen. Short-tailed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush, Hartert’s Leaf Warbler, and Spotted Elachura are just a few of the south China species recorded at Tianmushan and scarce or unrecorded in Shanghai. Koklass PheasantSlaty Bunting, and Crested Bunting are also at Tianmu.

With elevations reaching 1506 m (4,941 ft.), Tianmushan offers a refreshing contrast to Shanghai’s coastal environments. Springtime is the best time to visit, but summer offers good birding and a respite from the lowland heat, and in autumn migrants and wintering birds can be seen.

The best-known birding area at Tianmushan is West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The reserve boasts a forest worthy of a fairy tale. Below Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the highest peak in the area, a boardwalk trail leads through a land of giants—stands of Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica 25 m (82 ft.) high and a thousand years old. What is claimed to be the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world are also in this magical garden. Look here for Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush, among many other species.

Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica
Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica, West Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:

— The 12.7 km (7.9 mi.) road between Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and the hotels on the floor of the valley. Longfengjian serves as the parking area for the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding.

Forest at point on road below Lóngfèngjiān, West Tianmu Mountain, 21 Nov. 2015. Elev. here: 1020 m. Koklass Pheasant have been noted in the area. Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet.
Forest at point on road below Longfengjian, West Tianmu, November. Elev.: 1020 m (3,350 ft.). Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet. (Craig Brelsford)

Take the bus to Longfengjian and walk the road back. You’ll descend about 700 m (2,300 ft.). Find Koklass Pheasant along the road, Little Forktail along the streams, and Short-tailed Parrotbill amid the bamboo. You could combine this walk with a visit to the Japanese Cedar forest and Xianren Ding and thereby cover in a single day an altitudinal range of more than 1000 m (3,280 ft.).

— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.

Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu Nature Reserve.
Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu, elev. 330 m (1,080 ft.). I took this picture during my November 2015 visit to Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

This is one of the broadest areas in the valley and offers streamside habitat as well as scrub, garden, and secondary forest. Asian House Martin breed in the eaves of the ticket office and other buildings, the forest holds Grey-chinned Minivet and Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and the streams are good for White-crowned Forktail.

KEY BIRDS OF TIANMUSHAN

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha

Female Koklass Pheasant, Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China, 20 May 2013. Pucrasia macrolopha ranges from the Himalaya to E and N China. (Craig Brelsford)
Female Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha. This monotypic species ranges from the Himalaya to eastern China. At Tianmushan the species may be common. I got this photo at Tangjiahe Nature Reserve in Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela

Crested Serpent Eagle with serpent, East Tianmu Mountain.
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela with serpent, East Tianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis

At West Tianmu we had Black Eagle cruising low over the forest. (Craig Brelsford)
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis is often seen cruising low over the forests at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Laoshan, Jiangsu, 3 July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
In the forest below Xianren Ding in May 2015, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus flew straight at me, crying loudly in response to my whistled imitation of its call. I got this photo at Laoshan, Nanjing in July 2009. (Craig Brelsford)

Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis

Swinhoe's Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Swinhoe’s Minivet, Nantianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 7 May 2015.
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, a common bird at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Mountain Bulbul Ixos mcclellandii

Mountain Bulbul, East Tianmu, 8 May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)
Mountain Bulbul, another south China bulbul common at Tianmushan. I found this one at East Tianmu in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Lesser Yangshan, 9 April 2015.
At Tianmu, the piercing whistle of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler is often heard in spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis

Hartert's Leaf Warbler, 3 May 2015.
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis, Emeifeng, Fujian, May 2015. Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu found Hartert’s at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus

Moustached Laughingthrush, Baihualing, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Moustached Laughingthrush, Yunnan, 12 Feb. 2014. Noted by Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Buffy Laughingthrush Garrulax berthemyi

Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard before they're seen--if you can see them at all.
Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard than seen. At Tianmu, look for them in the forests below Xianren Ding, where I got this photo in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri

Little Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Look for Little Forktail along Tianmu’s many rushing streams. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti

White-crowned Forktail, Nabang, Yunnan, China, 30 Jan. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
White-crowned Forktail sometimes venture away from rushing streams, but they still require damp forest with at least a trickle of water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

Russet Sparrow (Craig Brelsford)
In the villages and countryside around Tianmushan, we found more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami

Crested Bunting. (Craig Brelsford)
Crested Bunting sang for us at East Tianmu in May 2015. The photos here show adult males except female bottom right. All were taken near Longheng, Guangxi in December 2015, except top right, taken 8 May 2015 at East Tianmu. The Tianmu male was found at 30.338425, 119.514693, an area of bare, rock-studded cliffs and scattered bushes—ideal habitat for this species. (Craig Brelsford)

MY FIRST TRIP TO TIANMUSHAN

I have made two trips to Tianmushan, both in 2015. I spaced the trips six months apart in order to see the site at opposite ends of the year. Here is my account of the first trip, which took place in May. (Click here for our trip of November 2015.)

Thurs. 7 May 2015
Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park (Hángzhōu Nántiānmù Sēnlín Gōngyuán [杭州南天目森林公园]), 30.184555, 119.472668

Today my wife and partner Elaine Du and I scouted Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 255 km (159 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. We noted 21 species. We had Swinhoe’s Minivet, heard 11 Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and saw 3 migrant Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We also found a pair of local poachers.

We entered and exited Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park by driving past an unmanned gate. I remarked to myself that a gate unmanned in the middle of the day is a strong indication that a park is being managed incorrectly. Elaine and I drove up the mountain, stopping at a gazebo where we found Russet Sparrow and the minivet. At the end of the road we met the poachers. They arrived on a moped. I saw their speaker and cages and told them that hunting wild birds is illegal in China. The younger poacher nodded as though he understood. The older man smiled nervously.

We drove back down the mountain. I said to Elaine that poaching must be pervasive around here if two guys can drive up a mountain with their poaching gear in full view.

Later, just outside the park gate, I told a villager that poaching was going on in the nearby park and asked him where I could report the crime. The villager said, in a friendly way, that the poachers take just “a few” (少) birds and that they do it just for fun (玩儿). The villager’s instinct to protect the lawbreakers shows how acceptable poaching is to him and presumably his fellow villagers.

The Russet Sparrow were able to make a living in the park because of the seeming absence of the more aggressive Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today and on the ensuing three days in the Tianmu Mountains, Russet Sparrow was our default sparrow, commonly noted in town and country, and much more numerous than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which in most places was absent.

Fri. 8 May 2015
East Tianmu Mountain Scenic Area (Dōng Tiānmùshān Jǐngqū [东天目山景区]), 30.342422, 119.509490

Elaine and I noted 30 species at East Tianmu. The highlight was finding one of our target species, a singing male Crested Bunting. Driving down the mountain road in the park, at an elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft.), we approached a bus stop, next to which was a quarry with steep walls. Immediately I was reminded of the roadside cliff in Yunnan where I had seen a female Crested Bunting in 2014. I stopped the car and spotted a Crested Bunting atop the highest conifer in the area. It sang a simple song over and over. A pair of Meadow Bunting were in the area.

Earlier, at the upper terminus of the cable car, Elaine and I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle carrying, you guessed it, a snake on the highest and last ride of its life. We walked from the upper terminus of the cable car to Zhaoming Temple (Zhàomíng Chánsì [昭明禅寺], 30.349009, 119.515961). I found a leech in the leaf litter and showed it to Elaine. The creature quickly attached itself to my glove. East and West Tianmu Mountain are the most leech-infested places I have ever birded.

Beautiful Zhaoming Temple, 1,500 years old, blends into the valley. We saw 2 Eurasian Jay, heard Yellow-bellied Tit and Collared Owlet, and on the way back down found 2 Grey Treepie and heard Great Barbet.

Our day began before dawn, when I ate breakfast on the patio of our room near the entrance to East Tianmu. I saw 4 Hair-crested Drongo and a Red-rumped Swallow nesting on the underside of the patio on which I was standing. We got past the gate at East Tianmu and drove to the end of the paved road and down the dirt road to its end, noting there Blue Whistling Thrush, White-crowned Forktail, and Brown Dipper as well as 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill and the first of many Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.

Our plan was to bird the road and temple then walk to the top of the mountain, where a friend told me Short-tailed Parrotbill and Slaty Bunting may be found. Rain dashed those plans, and I have yet to find either of those species in the Tianmu area.

Sat. 9 May 2015 and Sun. 10 May 2015
West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve (Tiānmùshān Zìrán Bǎohùqū [天目山自然保护区], 30.344148, 119.440201)

On Saturday Elaine and I noted 28 species. We spent most of the day in the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding at West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. Fog and large, noisy crowds suppressed our total.

The next day we returned to the Xianren Ding area and enjoyed a banner day, noting 42 species. The highlight was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo appearing out of nowhere and flying straight at my head. The cuckoo was responding to the most effective “phish” I ever did, a whistle imitating its call. 5 Buffy Laughingthrush gave rise to the hope that at Tianmu the species may be locally common. Black Eagle flew low over the forest, Speckled Piculet joined a bird wave, Eurasian Jay and Black Bulbul were visually conspicuous, and Indian Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Collared Owlet, and Rufous-faced Warbler were more often heard than seen. Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brambling were among the migrants noted, with Grey Wagtail a possible breeder and White Wagtail already feeding fledglings.

Elaine and I arrived at the Japanese Cedar forest at 5:55 a.m., well before the crowds. The cool, quiet forest was full of enchantment and buzzing with birds. Chinese Hwamei cut melodiously through the silence. A standard bird wave included Black-throated Bushtit, Huet’s Fulvetta, and Indochinese Yuhina. White-crowned Forktail zipped along the creek.

As the hours wore on and noisy hikers began to pass through, Elaine and I followed an abandoned trail a few hundred meters. The trail is leech-infested, but with regular inspections of our clothing and socks pulled high over our pant legs, we managed to pick off every leech before it found our flesh.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a species I hadn’t noted in five years. The cuckoos were calling from deep cover near the trail. My phish caused them to call loudly and fly in a circle around us. The call and vivid colors of this beautiful cuckoo made for an impressive spectacle. Those thrilling moments gave me energy as I drove back to Shanghai.

This post is the first in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)

Other posts about Tianmushan:

Tianmushan in July (July 2017)
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip (November 2015)

Featured image: Birds and plants of Tianmushan. Clockwise from top L: Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba, Indochinese Yuhina, and Black Bulbul. (Craig Brelsford)

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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 932 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

5 thoughts on “Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)”

  1. Long Wang Shan approached from the Anji side is terrific—much less touristy than Tianmu … rare giant salamanders.

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