Swinhoe’s Rail in Shanghai

The rarities just keep on coming here in Shanghai. The latest is Swinhoe’s Rail, seen at the Magic Parking Lot in Nanhui on Sat. 29 Oct. 2016 by a trio of Shanghai bird photographers. The photo above was taken by one of the three, Chén Qí (陈骐).

This amazing find comes on the heels of Shanghai’s first record of Crow-billed Drongo on 11 Oct. and Pomarine Skua on 19 Oct. What a birding month October 2016 was in Earth’s largest city!

Swinhoe's Rail Coturnicops exquisitus, Magic Parking Lot, Nanhui, Shanghai, Sat. 29 Oct. 2016. One of the rarest birds in China. Photographed by Shanghai photographer Chén Qí (陈骐; net name 上海爷胡子). © 2016 by Chén Qí. Used with permission.
Swinhoe’s Rail Coturnicops exquisitus, Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229), Nanhui, Sat. 29 Oct. 2016. Photographed by Shanghai photographer Chén Qí (陈骐; net name 上海爷胡子). © 2016 by Chén Qí.

I got the news about the rail from Chén Qí’s wife, Wāng Yàjīng (汪亚菁). Near dark, as I was returning home after my own eventful day at Nanhui, Wāng Yàjīng called me to report that she had just seen a strange bird. The bird, Yàjīng said, popped its head out of the bushes at the well-known photographers’ setup at the edge of the lot. It showed half its body and disappeared. The episode lasted a few seconds, Yàjīng said.

One look at the photo Yàjīng sent me, and there was no doubt: Swinhoe’s Rail.

The smallest rail in the world, Swinhoe’s Rail is also one of the least-known. The IUCN lists it as Vulnerable.

On Sun. 30 Oct. 2016, photographers maintaining a long vigil saw the rail again.

ANOTHER UNUSUAL SIGHTING: BLACK-NAPED MONARCH

Black-naped Monarch, Wusong-Paotaiwan Park, Shanghai. Photo by Kai Pflug.
Black-naped Monarch Hypothymis azurea. Photo by Kai Pflug.

The next day, Sun. 30 Oct. 2016, Kai Pflug found Black-naped Monarch at Wusong-Paotaiwan Wetland Park in Shanghai. Kai was acting on information from Chinese bird photographers who had discovered the bird earlier. The monarch is almost certainly wild. It is a first-winter bird, not the more beautiful adult male that presumably would be of greater interest to collectors, and in Kai’s photos one sees none of the damage common to birds kept in a cage.

Black-naped Monarch has been noted in Shanghai before, most recently on 2 Nov. 2014 by Stephan Popp and Xueping Popp. In China, H. a. styani usually ventures no further north than Guangdong. H. a. oberholseri is resident in Taiwan.

For more records of unusual birds in the Shanghai area, see our Sightings page.

88 SPECIES FOR US

Siberian Rubythroat, Magic Parking Lot, Nanhui. 29 Oct. 2016. Craig Brelsford.
On Saturday this Siberian Rubythroat mesmerized photographers at the Magic Parking Lot for hours. (Craig Brelsford)

You know your birding area is rich when Nordmann’s Greenshank fails to capture the headline. On Sat. 29 Oct. 2016, the day the Swinhoe’s Rail electrified Shanghai birders, my partners Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du, and I spotted the Endangered Nordmann’s in the defunct nature reserve (30.920500, 121.973167) at Nanhui, near the skua site at 30.923915, 121.954738. We speculate that Saturday’s adult-winter Nordmann’s is the same individual we saw in the area on 15 Oct. and 20 Oct. and possibly as far back as 17 Sept. and 3 Sept.

Other highlights Saturday were 54 Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill found exclusively in the defunct nature reserve, further underscoring the critical importance of that highly threatened parcel of land. Joining Nordmann’s in the high-tide roost were 2 Ruff, a Near Threatened Red Knot, and 2 of our day’s 4 Saunders’s Gull, a Vulnerable species uncommon in Shanghai.

Long-eared Owl, Magic GPS Point, Saturday. Sharp-eyed Chén Qí spotted the owl and called us over. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-eared Owl, Magic GPS Point, Saturday. Sharp-eyed Chén Qí spotted the owl and called us over. (Craig Brelsford)

We had Japanese Grosbeak in Microforest 8 and Long-eared Owl at the Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551). Among our season’s firsts were 2 Tundra Bean Goose, Black-necked Grebe, 5 Goldcrest, Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, 3 Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and 2 Dusky Thrush. Buntings finally are arriving in numbers, with Yellow-throated Bunting (16) and Chestnut Bunting (3) debuting on our Autumn 2016 list. We had a lucky 88 species in all.

Daurian Redstart, Microforest 1, Nanhui, 29 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Daurian Redstart, Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635), Nanhui, 29 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

Throughout the day, the effectiveness of the Nanhui microforests was on display at Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). The tiny wood, which we visited off and on, was hopping with hungry migrants, grounded on a breezy day. Brambling, Daurian Redstart, and Yellow-bellied Tit were the tamest, but as the day wore on even shy species such as Japanese Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Black-winged Cuckooshrike were coming out into the open. Photographers were present, but no one was using mealworms; the forest birds were attracted solely to the habitat offered by a stand of trees no bigger than a tennis court.

Two East Asian species of Turdus thrush in Microforest 1. 1a-1c: Japanese Thrush Turdus cardis, male. 2, 3a, 4a: Japanese Thrush, female. 3b, 4b: Grey-backed Thrush T. hortulorum. Male T. cardis distinguished from Chinese Blackbird T. mandarinus by smaller size and white belly covered with black arrowheads. Japanese and Grey-backed females are harder to separate (3a, 3b), in part because both are shy and rarely come into the open. In Japanese, the arrowheads run farther down the flanks (4a) than in Grey-backed (4b). 4a: Nanhui, 7 Nov. 2015. 4b: Yangkou, Jiangsu, 4 Oct. 2013. All others Microforest 1, Nanhui, 29 Oct. 2016. All by Craig Brelsford.

Other microforests held Eurasian Woodcock, Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Robin, Taiga Flycatcher, and White’s Thrush, Eyebrowed Thrush, and Pale Thrush. Dark-sided Flycatcher and Siberian Rubythroat were at the Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229), Asian Stubtail at the Magic GPS Point.

We netted season’s first Buff-bellied Pipit during a 35-minute stop at the sod farm near Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Red-throated Pipit were present in smaller numbers (3) than six days earlier.

Day Lists
Lists are generated on eBird then adjusted to comport with my first reference, the IOC World Bird List.

List 1 of 2 for Sat. 29 Oct. 2016 (9 species)

Comparison of Shanghai-area pipits in winter plumage. 1, 3a, 4b: Buff-bellied Pipit. 2: Water Pipit. 3b: Red-throated Pipit. 4a: Olive-backed Pipit. (Craig Brelsford)
Comparison of non-breeding Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens japonicus with other Shanghai-area pipits. Buff-bellied is mainly greyish-brown above with a poorly streaked mantle, pale lores, and yellowish-pink legs (Panel 1). Water Pipit A. spinoletta blakistoni has brownish-black legs and a smudge on its lores (2). Buff-bellied Pipit (3a) shows much less streaking on mantle and crown than Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus (3b). Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni hodgsoni/yunnanensis (4a) shows two spots on the ear coverts: a whitish spot in the upper rear corner and a black spot below it. Olive-backed Pipit has a supercilium buffish before the eye and white behind it. Buff-bellied Pipit (4b) has unspotted ear coverts and a supercilium buffish or whitish throughout. 1, 3a: sod farm near Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742), Shanghai, 29 Oct. 2016. 2a: Near Wucheng Zhen (吴城镇; 29.180555, 116.010175), Poyang Lake area, Jiangxi, 8 Nov. 2014. 3b: Nanhui, Shanghai, 24 Jan. 2016. 4a: Yangkou, Jiangsu, 3 May 2014. 4b: Hengsha Island, Shanghai, 29 Nov. 2015. All by Craig Brelsford.

Birds noted at sod farm south of Pudong International Airport (31.112586, 121.824742), Pudong, Shanghai, China. Mostly cloudy, breezy. Low 13° C, high 18° C. Humidity 75%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind N 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 85 (moderate). Sunrise 06:08, sunset 17:06. SAT 29 OCT 2016 06:55-07:30. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis 3
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Eurasian/Oriental Skylark Alauda arvensis/gulgula 15
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 12
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 3
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 20

List 2 of 2 for Sat. 29 Oct. 2016 (83 species)

Brambling, Nanhui, Shanghai, 29 Oct. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
Brambling, Nanhui, 29 Oct. 2016. We found these birds in Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). Famished after the long flight south, the bramblings were very tame, allowing me to get these close-ups. Male Fringilla montifringilla (R) shows marked variation between breeding and non-breeding plumage; the female (L) shows less. All plumages show a white rump (L). Breeding male has an all-black bill, but in winter the bill is yellow with a black tip, like the female. The glossy blue-black head of breeding male becomes rusty-fringed in winter. Brambling breed across Eurasia and are present throughout the winter in Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. List includes birds found at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Mostly cloudy, breezy. Low 13° C, high 18° C. Humidity 75%. Visibility: 10 km. Wind N 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 85 (moderate). Sunrise 06:08, sunset 17:06. SAT 29 OCT 2016 07:55-17:00. Craig Brelsford, Elaine Du, & Michael Grunwell.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser serrirostris 2
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope 32
Mallard A. platyrhynchos 6
Eastern Spot-billed Duck A. zonorhyncha 300
Northern Shoveler A. clypeata 31
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 200
Common Pochard Aythya ferina 15
Tufted Duck A. fuligula 40
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 20
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis 1
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 60
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret A. intermedia 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 150
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia 8
Black-faced Spoonbill P. minor 54
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 30
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 1
Pacific Golden Plover P. fulva 1
Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus 50
Kentish Plover C. alexandrinus 700
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa 3
Red Knot Calidris canutus 1
Ruff C. pugnax 2
Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus 2
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 1
Dunlin C. alpina 200
Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola 1
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus 1
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus 70
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 30
Nordmann’s Greenshank T. guttifer 1
Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis 10
Saunders’s Gull Chroicocephalus saundersi 4
Vega Gull Vega Larus vegae vegae/L. v. mongolicus 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus heuglini 1
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica 1
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia 3
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 10
Long-eared Owl Asio otus 1
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus 2
Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 10
Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata 1
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 20
Yellow-bellied Tit Periparus venustulus 6
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 20
Goldcrest Regulus regulus 5
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps 1
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 1
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler H. fortipes 3
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus 2
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 3
Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler P. borealis/examinandus/xanthodryas 4
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 6
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 5
Japanese Thrush T. cardis 8
Eyebrowed Thrush T. obscurus 2
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 5
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 2
Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica 1
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans 6
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 12
Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla 1
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 18
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 1
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 18
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 100
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla 6
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 1
Japanese Grosbeak Eophona personata 1
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami 5
Yellow-throated Bunting E. elegans 16
Chestnut Bunting E. rutila 3
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 3

WORKS CONSULTED

Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae. Of particular use was p. 56, “Water Pipit and Allies (in fresh winter plumage).”

Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.
Join Shanghai Birding for the very latest bird sightings in Shanghai.

Brelsford, Craig, moderator. Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group. Rough drafts for parts of this post were written by Craig on Shanghai Birding. News about the rail was first circulated on Shanghai Birding. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on our Sightings page.

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Thrushes and pipits.

Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of pipits by Mullarney.

Qinghai 2016 Week 4 Highlights

On Sun. 24 July, Elaine Du and I drove our partner Jan-Erik Nilsén to Xining Caojiabao Airport, completing our second week with the Beijing-based Swedish birder and fourth in Qinghai. This trip started on 26 June with Michael Grunwell and his old friend Mark Waters. Since then, Elaine and I have noted 168 species of bird, driven 5800 km, and birded six of the eight prefectures of this province, which is thrice the size of the United Kingdom. I have been attacked by dogs at Kanda Nunnery, met a Living Buddha at a Buddhist art school, scoped the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter in the clear Tibetan Plateau air, and photographed Tibetan Lynx.

After four weeks birding at high altitude without a day off, and after nearly collapsing in exhaustion Sunday night in our hotel room here in Xining, Elaine and I made the only logical choice: We have decided to extend our Qinghai trip three more weeks, into August. You can say we’re crazy about Qinghai, or you can say we’re just crazy.

Elaine and I relaxing at an Italian restaurant in Xining on Monday night. After non-stop, high-altitude birding for a month, we were ready to kick back.
Elaine and I relaxing at an Italian restaurant in Xining on Monday night. After non-stop, high-altitude birding for a month, we were ready to kick back.

My wife and I are currently resting up here in the capital of Qinghai, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. Trading our birder’s hat for a tourist’s, we have taken in the sights of Xining, a city that has long been a crossroads of Han, Hui, and Tibetan culture. Dongguan Mosque dates from 1380, Ta’er Monastery from 1583. Western culture has arrived: On Monday night Elaine and I shared a steak at an Italian restaurant, and I drank a Hoegaarden.

Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. Last week, our team covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining (both marked in black). Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of Qinghai with the eight prefectural-level divisions in white. Last week, our team covered the 800 km from Yushu/Jiegu to Xining (both marked in black). Map courtesy Wikipedia.

Jan-Erik’s second week with us saw us range from the town of Yushu (Jiegu) (33.002242, 96.978488) north through Maduo County and Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449) and into the desert around Dulan before a final night in Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878) and a long ride to Xining Caojiabao Airport (36.527923, 102.040889). We noted 69 species. Highlights:

Greylag Goose Anser anser
2 in pond west of Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878). First record for Qinghai 2016 trip.

Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus
952 in lakes in Maduo County (4250 masl) and at Lake Donggeicuona (35.290072, 98.537098) in Maduo County (4100 masl).

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
1 at Lake Donggeicuona. My first record on Tibetan Plateau.

Great Egret Ardea alba
1 at Donggeicuona. My first on Tibetan Plateau. Unexpected in region (according to A Field Guide to the Birds of China).

Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus
1 surprising record along G214 in Maduo County at lofty 4250 masl.

Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
1 sub-ad. 24 July in semi-desert between Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878) and Heimahe (36.729239, 99.779524).

Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis

Himalayan Vulture pausing as it rips apart a lamb carcass, near Ela Pass, 20 July 2016. Juvenile looks passively on, never once interrupting the meal of the adult. Who says vultures lack table manners?
Himalayan Vulture pausing as it rips apart a lamb carcass, near Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), 20 July 2016. Juvenile looks passively on, never once interrupting the meal of the adult. Who says vultures lack table manners?

Amazing scene 20 July near Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449) in which juvenile waited patiently while adult ate its fill of lamb carcass.

Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis
16 around Maduo County wetlands, at Donggeicuona, and at Chaka.

Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
4 in pond with Greylag Goose west of Chaka. My first on Tibetan Plateau.

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
59 around Chaka. Unexpected (according to A Field Guide to the Birds of China).

Little Owl Athene noctua

Little Owl stands at attention below Yankou Shan, 18 July 2016. Elev. 4430 m.
Little Owl stands at attention below Yankou Shan (33.199406, 97.466606), 18 July 2016. Elev. 4430 m.

Owlets examined us near Yankou Shan (33.199406, 97.466606) in Yushu Prefecture.

Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus giganteus
4 in semi-desert W of Dulan.

Mongolian Lark Melanocorypha mongolica
4 in grassland between Chaka and Gonghe-Qiabuqia (36.275266, 100.624701).

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
1 (first record of trip) across from hotel in Chaka (36.791576, 99.078878).

Desert Whitethroat Sylvia minula
1 singing individual and 1 dead individual in semi-desert W of Dulan.

Tibetan Rosefinch Carpodacus roborowskii

Tibetan Rosefinch (female), Ela Pass, 20 July. Note robust size of the Tibetan Plateau endemic, a bird built for high country and harsh weather.
Tibetan Rosefinch (female), Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), 20 July. Note robust size of the Tibetan Plateau endemic, a bird built for high country and harsh weather.

1 female at Ela Pass (35.497608, 99.511449), elev. 4499 m, on G214, Hainan Prefecture.

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides
2 (pair) aggressively defending territory in semi-desert W of Dulan.

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla

This montage shows two individuals, one (1, 2) a male Great Rosefinch, the other (3-5) a male Streaked Rosefinch. The birds were photographed on 22 July 2016 within a few hundred meters of each other in the semi-desert west of Dulan in Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. The elevation here is 3340 m. Note the more strongly streaked back of the Streaked Rosefinch, the darker flight feathers, and the smaller white spots on its breast. The two species are deceptively similar, a situation neatly summed up by the Chinese name for Streaked Rosefinch: "pseudo-Great Rosefinch" (拟大朱雀).
This montage shows two individuals, one (1, 2) a male Great Rosefinch, the other (3-5) a male Streaked Rosefinch. The birds were photographed 22 July 2016 within a few hundred meters of each other in the semi-desert west of Dulan in Haixi Prefecture, Qinghai. The elevation here is 3340 m. Note the more strongly streaked back of the Streaked Rosefinch, the darker flight feathers, and the smaller white spots on its breast. The two species are deceptively similar, a situation neatly summed up by the Chinese name for Streaked Rosefinch: ‘pseudo-Great Rosefinch’ (拟大朱雀).

2 males found near Streaked Rosefinch; no defense of territory, no streaking on back, larger white spots on breast, browner wings.

Henri’s Snowfinch Montifringilla henrici
2 at Ela Pass.

Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos fronto
8 singing males at Przevalski’s Site (36.457249, 98.502578) in Dulan Mountains west of Chaka.

Mammals

Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa Allactaga sibirica

Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa, near Maduo (Machali), 19 July 2016. This photo, taken by the light of the headlights of our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, serves as an introduction to this unusual rodent but doesn't nearly do it justice. To fully appreciate the jerboa, one needs to see the lightning-fast movements of what the Chinese call "Five-toe Jump-mouse" (五指跳鼠).
Mongolian Five-toed Jerboa, near Maduo-Machali (34.911354, 98.211208), 19 July. This photo, taken by the light of the headlights of our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, serves as an introduction to this unusual rodent but doesn’t nearly do it justice. To fully appreciate the jerboa, one needs to see the lightning-fast movements of what the Chinese call ‘Five-toe Jump-mouse’ (五指跳鼠).

6 noted after dark 19 July at elev. 4250 m on steppe west of Maduo-Machali (34.911354, 98.211208). Although we found jerboas along paved roads, we had more success along dirt roads, where traffic was less. A particularly good dirt road is 13.8 km from Maduo-Machali on the X731. It can be accessed from the X731 at 34.976612, 98.100317. The dirt road is on the right-hand side of the X731 for drivers coming from Maduo-Machali.

Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus
ca. 1000 in rangeland west of Chaka. Presence of this huge herd on 23 July probably was the factor dooming Jan-Erik’s chances of another look at Henderson’s Ground Jay.

Tibetan Wild Ass Equus kiang
166 on 21 July around Gouhua, a site near the border of Guoluo and Haixi prefectures and first covered by Jan-Erik, Brian Ivon Jones, and me in July 2014. This site remains the single-richest spot for Tibetan Wild Ass that I have seen.

Red Fox Vulpes vulpes
3 (1 on 22 July at Przevalski’s Site, 2 on 18 July near Maduo-Machali).

Tibetan Fox Vulpes ferrilata
7 (2 near Maduo 19 July, 5 [2 ads., 3 juvs.] 18 July near Maduo-Machali).

Selected Place Names

Lake Donggeicuona (Dōnggěicuònà Hú [冬给错纳湖]): lake Maduo County, Guoluo Prefecture. Elev.: 3950 m (12,960 ft.). 35.290072, 98.537098.

Gouhua (Gōuhuā [沟花]): valley ca. 30 km W of Huashixia in Dulan County, Haixi Prefecture. Elev.: 3990 m (13,090 ft.).

Machali (Mǎchálǐ Zhèn [玛查理镇]): town W Maduo County. Commonly referred to as Maduo. 34.911354, 98.211208.

Featured image: Jan-Erik Nilsén scans a pond near the Yellow River in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai, China, 19 July 2016. Elev. 4240 m. Photo by Craig Brelsford using iPhone 6.

Studying Northeast China Woodland Birds in Elaine’s Hometown

From 26 May 2016 to last Sunday (12 June), Elaine Du and I were in her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest, and noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we enjoyed for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.

In this post, you will get an introduction to Boli and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine and I combine birding with family. There are as well 31 of my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.

For the full report on our spring 2016 trip, including daily lists and a master list detailing where and when we encountered each species, click here. For the report on Elaine’s and my first two trips together to her hometown, click here.

Why Should Birders Care about Boli?

Silver Birch Grove (白桦林), one of the attractions of Xidaquan National Forest in Boli County, Heilongjiang.
Silver Birch Grove (白桦林), one of the attractions of Xidaquan National Forest in Boli County, Heilongjiang.

Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.

Background

Boli County lies within the Amur Basin of Northeast China. It is part of Qitaihe Prefecture in eastern Heilongjiang, not far from the Sino-Russian border. Map courtesy Wikipedia.
Boli County lies within the Amur Basin of Northeast China. It is part of Qitaihe Prefecture in eastern Heilongjiang, not far from the Sino-Russian border. Map courtesy Wikipedia.

In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.

In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a 9,400-hectare reserve in the Laoye Mountains. Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.

For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.

Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June 2016.
Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June 2016.

Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)–“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.

The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.

Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve–12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.

Key Birds

Streamside habitat at Xidaquan, 28 May 2016. Gray's Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler use the thick vegetation along the unseen stream. Siberian Rubythroat and Thick-billed Warbler forage among the scrubby plants in the foreground. Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo call, and Dusky Warbler sing. Eastern Buzzard soar overhead.
Streamside habitat at Xidaquan, 28 May 2016. Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler use the thick vegetation along the unseen stream. Siberian Rubythroat and Thick-billed Warbler forage among the scrubby plants in the foreground. Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo call, and Dusky Warbler sing. Eastern Buzzard soar overhead.

A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the species mentioned above as well as more habitat-sensitive species such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.

The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.

Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii

Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. As soon as it called, I knew we had struck gold; I pulled out the camera and went to work. Nikon D3S, VR 600mm F/4G, F/9, 1/1000, ISO 1600.
Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. As soon as it called, I knew we had struck gold; I pulled out the camera and went to work. Nikon D3S, VR 600mm F/4G, F/9, 1/1000, ISO 1600.

Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.

Band-bellied Crake, Hongwei Linchang, Boli, 9 June 2016 (00:26; 2.6 MB)

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo

We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata

Mandarin Duck atop a shed, 28 May 2016.
Mandarin Duck atop a shed, 28 May 2016.

Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos. Female in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan, 1 June 2016.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos. Female in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan, 1 June 2016.

The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor

Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus

Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus

Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus

In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.

Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka

We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.

Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii

Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.

Coal Tit Periparus ater ater

If this bird looks familiar to European birders, it's because it's the same nominate race of Coal Tit found in Continental Europe. Photo taken in hills S of Boli Town on 7 June 2016.
If this bird looks familiar to European birders, it’s because it’s the same nominate race of Coal Tit found in Continental Europe. Photo taken in hills S of Boli Town on 7 June 2016.

The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.

Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)

Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis

Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.

Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus

The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan National Forest, 29 May 2016.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan National Forest, 29 May 2016.

The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.

Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)

Eastern Crowned Warbler 2/2, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:40, 2.4 MB)

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi

Radde's Warbler is a powerful singer and among the most conspicuous birds at Xidaquan National Forest.
Radde’s Warbler is a powerful singer and among the most conspicuous birds at Xidaquan National Forest.

Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.

Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)

Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus

Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes

Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus

Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)

Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis

Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Oriental Reed Warbler, Jiulong Reservoir, 10 June 2016 (00:06; 1.8 MB)

Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.

Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)

Thick-billed Warbler Iduna aedon

Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.

Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)

Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata

Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella fasciolata

Gray's Grasshopper Warbler on rare foray out of undergrowth. Xidaquan, 29 May 2016.
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler on rare foray out of undergrowth. Xidaquan, 29 May 2016.

In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)

Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica

Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.

Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.

Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.

Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)

White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea

One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.

White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)

Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum

This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.

Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)

Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana

We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.

Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)

Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans

Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.

Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)

Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope

Siberian Rubythroat singing on utility wire, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.
Siberian Rubythroat singing on utility wire, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016.

Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.

Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia

Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis

I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.

White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)

Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and four days each in winter and summer 2015.

Meadow Bunting
Emberiza cioides weigoldi

Resident, recorded by us in winter, summer, and spring (five days in spring 2016). Seen at edges of farmland and in open areas near forests. Never in deep forests.

Meadow Bunting, forest edge at Dawucun, 31 May 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami

Forest bunting, with some association with conifers, commonly seen along the forest roads. Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and six days in summer 2015.

Tristram’s Bunting, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:11; 1.2 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans

Forest bunting with a preference for deciduous habitats. Sings loudly and aggressively defends territory. Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 16 days in summer 2015.

Yellow-throated Bunting 1/2, song, hills S of Boli Town, 5 June 2016 (00:12; 1.3 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting 2/2, alarm call, hills S of Dawucun, 7 June 2016 (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala

Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, May 2016. In spring, the song of this bunting is one of the most common bird sounds in the region.
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, May 2016. In spring, the song of this bunting is one of the most common bird sounds in the region.

One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.

Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)

Species of Bird Noted in Boli County, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (84 species)

Mandarin Duck
Mallard
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Common Pheasant
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Crested Honey Buzzard
Northern Goshawk
Eastern Buzzard
Band-bellied Crake
Little Ringed Plover
Common Sandpiper
Hill Pigeon
Oriental Turtle Dove
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo
Indian Cuckoo
Oriental Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo
Eurasian Eagle-Owl
Grey Nightjar
White-throated Needletail
Oriental Dollarbird
Common Kingfisher
Eurasian Wryneck
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker
Black Woodpecker
Common Kestrel
Eurasian Hobby
Ashy Minivet
Brown Shrike
Chinese Grey Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Azure-winged Magpie
Eurasian Magpie
Spotted Nutcracker
Carrion Crow
Large-billed Crow
Coal Tit
Willow Tit
Japanese Tit
Barn Swallow
Asian House Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
Long-tailed Tit
Dusky Warbler
Radde’s Warbler
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Arctic Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Thick-billed Warbler
Lanceolated Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler
Chestnut-flanked White-eye
Eurasian Nuthatch
Siberian Thrush
White’s Thrush
Grey-backed Thrush
Pale Thrush
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Blue-and-white Flycatcher
Siberian Blue Robin
Rufous-tailed Robin
Siberian Rubythroat
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher
Daurian Redstart
White-throated Rock Thrush
Stejneger’s Stonechat
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Siberian Accentor
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Olive-backed Pipit
Hawfinch
Long-tailed Rosefinch
Grey-capped Greenfinch
Meadow Bunting
Tristram’s Bunting
Chestnut-eared Bunting
Yellow-throated Bunting
Black-faced Bunting

Birds We Missed

The deep forest at Xidaquan. This seemingly stable environment shows a very different set of birds according to the season. In the area where this photo was taken, in August and September 2015 Elaine and I found Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Yellow-browed Warbler. We saw none of those species in May and June 2016. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, White's Thrush, and Lanceolated Warbler were in the same area in spring 2016.
The deep forest at Xidaquan. This seemingly stable environment shows a very different set of birds according to the season. In the area where this photo was taken, in August and September 2015 Elaine and I found Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Yellow-browed Warbler. We saw none of those species in May and June 2016. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, White’s Thrush, and Lanceolated Warbler were in the same area in spring 2016.

The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.

Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.

Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.

Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.

Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.

Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.

Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.

Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.

Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016.
The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan National Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, 10 June 2016.

List of Place Names

Boli: name that may refer to either Boli County or Boli Town.

Boli County (Bólì Xiàn [勃利县]): jurisdiction in Qitaihe Prefecture, SE Heilongjiang. Area: 3,962 sq. km. Pop.: 370,000.

Boli Town (Bólì Zhèn [勃利镇]): urbanized area in & administrative center of Boli County. 45.752960, 130.579479.

Changbai Mountains (Chángbái Shān [长白山]): range running from SE Heilongjiang S to North Korea. Laoye Mountains near Boli are part of Changbai Mountains.

Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村]): village in Boli County, Qitaihe Prefecture, Heilongjiang, 3 km from Boli Town. Birthplace of Elaine Du. 45.732679, 130.589612.

Heilongjiang (Hēilóngjiāng [黑龙江]): province NE China. Area: 454,800 sq. km. Area (comparative): slightly larger than Sweden & California. Pop.: 38.3 million.

Hongwei Linchang (Hóngwěi Línchǎng [宏伟林场]): area in Boli County S of Boli Town. Important birding spot at 45.638703, 130.547478.

Jiamusi (Jiāmùsī Shì [佳木斯市]): prefecture-level city E Heilongjiang.

Jiulong Reservoir (Jiǔlóng Shuǐkù [九龙水库]): reservoir in Boli County S of Boli Town. 45.706874, 130.517068.

Laoye Mountains (Lǎoye Lǐng [老爷岭]): offshoot of Changbai Mountains. Xidaquan National Forest is in the Laoye Mountains.

Qitaihe (Qītáihé Shì [七台河市]): prefecture E Heilongjiang of which Boli County is a part. Area: 6,221 sq. km. Pop.: 920,000.

Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园]): forest reserve in Boli County, Heilongjiang. 45.727751, 130.317316.

Main gate to Xidaquan National Forest, 2 June 2016.
Main gate to Xidaquan National Forest, 2 June 2016.

Selected Bibliography

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Co-first reference (along with Collins Bird Guide) in Northeast China.

Brelsford, Craig. A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China. (Work in progress; notes and drafts in Craig’s laptop. Please help us create this field guide by making a donation.)

del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions.

Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm.

Lynx Edicions. The Internet Bird Collection. ibc.lynxeds.com

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Oriental Bird Club. Oriental Bird Images. orientalbirdimages.org.

Smith, Andrew T. & Yan Xie, eds. Mammals of China. Princeton University Press.

Mullarney, Killian, Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterström, Peter Grant. Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins. Co-first reference (along with Birds of East Asia) in Northeast China.

Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.

Equipment

Elaine's niece Lisa Li (R) tries out Elaine's Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 binoculars while her aunt shows her a quartet of Little Ringed Plover in the fields behind Dawucun, 31 May 2016.
Elaine’s niece Lisa Li (R) tries out Elaine’s Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 binoculars while her aunt shows her a quartet of Little Ringed Plover in the fields behind Dawucun, 31 May 2016.

Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95

Featured image: Drake Mandarin Duck, found in a small pool deep in the forest at Xidaquan National Forest on 1 June 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.

Band-bellied Crake in Heilongjiang!

Found today, 8 June 2016, in Boli, Heilongjiang, China: Incredible Band-bellied Crake. A Near Threatened species, Band-bellied Crake (斑胁田鸡, bānxié tiánjī, Porzana paykullii) breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.

This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang 2016 Trip and a lifer for both of us.

Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty.
Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. I achieved this image using my Nikon D3S and 600 mm F4 lens. I shot in manual mode with the following specs: F9, 1/1000, ISO 1250. My camera and lens were mounted atop my Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber Tripod and MVH502AH video head. Sun, photographer, and bird were nearly perfectly aligned. I took the photo on a sunny morning at 06:40 Beijing time, exactly 3 hours and 13 minutes after sunrise. At this latitude and at this time of year, one’s shadow is longer than one is tall until about four hours after sunrise, and during that time the soft, ‘northern’ light is wonderful to play with.

Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near a stream at a site we discovered yesterday. Here is the call I recorded (00:10, 2 MB):

Elaine and I searched up- and downstream for four hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?

Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.

Band-bellied Crake, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. Photo by Craig Brelsford.
Band-bellied Crake, by Craig Brelsford.

Amazingly, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat just 15 km south of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is just 21 km away.

My wife Elaine Du and I are on a 17-day trip to her hometown of Boli in eastern Heilongjiang. Our trip started 26 May 2016. We birded the area twice in 2015, and I wrote this report.

Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, 8 June 2016, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. Photo by Craig Brelsford.