Wuyipeng and My Progress As a Birder

Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station is one of the best birding sites in China. Set in thick forest 550 m above the Shaotang River Valley at an elevation of 2570 m, the abandoned panda research station near Wolong, Sichuan is reachable only by foot. The steep climb and complex avifauna intimidate the young birder–but challenge and fulfill the experienced birder.

I know, for I have been both. In July 2010 I made my first visit to Wuyipeng. I was a new birder, alone and untrained. Wuyipeng overwhelmed me. When I returned in 2017, I had seven years of study under my belt, I was with my mentor Michael Grunwell, and we hardly missed a bird.

In 2010 I was hooked on bird photography. I carried to the top my equipment, all 10.5 kg of it. At the time, I had only one way of intensely experiencing a bird–by photographing it. Photography was my sole pathway to intensity because, at the time, I knew little about birds.

Two types of habitat predominate around Wuyipeng. The first (top) is secondary mixed hardwood-conifer. Among the species we noted in this habitat were Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis, Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus, Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, and Chestnut Thrush Turdus rubrocanus. The second habitat (bottom) is bamboo. Among the species we saw here were Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Aberrant Bush Warbler Horornis flavolivaceus, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis. (Craig Brelsford)
Two types of habitat predominate around the station. Top: mixed hardwood-conifer. Among the species we noted in this habitat were Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis, Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus, and Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes. Bottom: bamboo. Here we found Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Aberrant Bush Warbler Horornis flavolivaceus, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis. (Craig Brelsford)

The more I learned about birds, the less obsessed I became with photographing them. I developed new ways of relating to birds–observing them closely, studying their habitats, recording their voices, and writing about them.

And crucially, by 2017 I had made friends with birders who know more than I about birds. Michael Grunwell is one of them. Michael has been building his life list since he was a teen-ager in the 1970s. Michael not only knows birds, but he also knows how to know birds.

Like your mother at the grocery store, Michael arrives at a site with a shopping list–his target species. He has read up on the species he wants and knows what to look for.

For example: Michael and I arrive at a creek deep in the forest. “Creekside habo!” I say to Michael. “What’s your target?”

“Play Chinese Wren-babbler,” Michael says.

I pull out my iPhone and find a recording of Chinese Wren-babbler that I downloaded from xeno-canto.org. I Bluetooth it through my speaker, and within seconds I get a response.

Chinese Wren-babbler Pnoepyga mutica, along stream (30.991680, 103.160400) near Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, Wolong, Sichuan. Elev. 2570 m. 20 May 2017 (00:03; 1.7 MB)

Had my birding skills remained at the level of 2010, and had I not partly assimilated Michael’s birding style, then I would have missed Chinese Wren-babbler and many other species. I would have been bored, for in the dark, lush forest, photo opportunities are few (and in any case, this time I wisely decided not to lug my camera up the hill). Because I had progressed beyond photography, I was highly stimulated and had a sense of control. It was a great feeling.

The difference in elevation between Jinjiapo (2020 m) and Wuyipeng (2570 m) is 550 m (1,810 ft.). The steep climb is a fromidable barrier and keeps out all but the most dedicated and fit birders. (Craig Brelsford)
The difference in elevation between the valley bottom (2020 m) and Wuyipeng (2570 m) is 550 m (1,810 ft.). The steep climb is a formidable barrier, keeping out all but the most dedicated birders. (Craig Brelsford)

Even a non-birder would feel good up there. Wuyipeng achieves a perfect balance: It is developed just enough to allow access, being one of the few places in the area with a good hiking trail; yet it remains a wilderness, for the steep climb is a formidable barrier, and visitors are few. In 2010 and again in 2017, we saw no one.

Making Wuyipeng even more interesting is the greater region of which it is a part. Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan are, ornithologically speaking, the Center of Asia. Himalaya, Indo-Malaya, Palearctica–like tectonic plates, the great eco-regions collide here. Various groups of birds, most notably the parrotbills, have their center of distribution in or near Sichuan (Robson).

Michael Grunwell viewing mixed flock of six species of tit amid ruins of Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station, 20 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Michael Grunwell viewing six species of tit amid the ruins of the Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station. The multimillion-dollar panda research center was abandoned in the wake of the Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008. The station is one of the few open areas in the forest and is an outstanding place to view birds. (Craig Brelsford)

The avian diversity here is unmatched in the temperate world. During a bird wave at the station, a single tree held six species of tit: Fire-capped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps, Yellow-browed Tit Sylviparus modestus, Coal Tit Periparus ater, Yellow-bellied Tit Pardaliparus venustulus, Pere David’s Tit Poecile davidi, and Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus. That is half as many species of parid in a single tree as are found in the entire United States and Canada.

The mountain also yielded six members of a single genus, Phylloscopus: Chinese Leaf Warbler P. yunnanensis, Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides, Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler P. claudiae, Emei Leaf Warbler P. emeiensis, and Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti.

We had Indian Blue Robin at Lama Temple as well as on the steep hillside leading to Wuyipeng. (Craig Brelsford)
At Lama Temple (31.029363, 103.166572), where I got these photos, as well as on the steep hillside leading to Wuyipeng, Michael and I thrilled to the song of Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea. The song, described by Collar as ‘a sweet jumble of rapid trilling notes,’ is similar to the song of Siberian Blue Robin L. cyane, which I studied in Heilongjiang in 2016. Unlike the Siberian Blues I met, which invariably sang from thick cover close to the ground, the Indian Blues we found would often sing from perches high in the trees, as in the photos above. (Craig Brelsford)

We had Firethroat singing in thick undergrowth on the hillside, and just a few meters away a heart-stopping encounter with male Temminck’s Tragopan tiptoeing across the trail. Golden Pheasant called unseen, exquisite Indian Blue Robin and Chestnut-headed Tesia were singing, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta added color. We had a migrating flock of 40 Tibetan Serin.

We noted 49 species in all. Michael called 20 May 2017 one of his best birding days in his four years in China. I called it one of my best birding days, period.

Wuyipeng was the biggest but certainly not the only highlight of our four days, 18-21 May 2017, in the Wolong-Balangshan area. Michael and I covered altitudes between 2000 m and 4500 m on the 79-km stretch of the S303 between Wolong and Rilong. We noted 110 species.

Gamebirds of Balangshan. Clockwise from L: Snow Partridge, White Eared Pheasant, Blood Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Gamebirds of Balangshan. Clockwise from L: Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa, White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon, and Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus. We noted all three species on the trip, but these photos came from earlier in my birding career, when my chief focus was photography. The Snow Partridge I photographed 29 July 2010 above Balangshan Pass (30.9108, 102.8947), the White Eared Pheasant 7 Aug. 2011 at Pujie Temple (29.158287, 100.176267), and the Blood Pheasant 1 Aug. 2011 at Pamuling Temple (30.101555, 101.181815). All three locations are in Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)

Gamebirds were richly represented. We noted eight species: Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa, Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge Tetraophasis obscurus, Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus, Temminck’s Tragopan Tragopan temminckii, Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha, White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilonGolden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus, and Lady Amherst’s Pheasant C. amherstiae.

At the famous tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226) we made only a half-hearted effort to see Chinese Monal, which Michael had seen before. Higher up, we looked for but missed Tibetan Snowcock.

To the list of the six leaf-warbler species from Wuyipeng we added Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis, Buff-barred Warbler P. pulcher, and Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei, giving us a total of nine over the four days.

We found Collared Grosbeak and Sichuan Thrush along the S303, we spotted Grandala on the slopes at high altitude, and in the alpine scrub we found Sichuan Tit, Chinese Rubythroat, and Chinese Fulvetta.

Sichuan Thrush (Craig Brelsford)
Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, Wolong-Balangshan Road (S303), 30.891258, 102.975770 (3380 m), 21 May 2017. This is the second member of the Plain-backed Thrush complex that I have photographed. In June 2014, in collaboration with Per Alström, I photographed Himalayan Thrush Z. salimalii at Dulong Gorge, Yunnan. (Craig Brelsford)

The route from Wolong over the Balangshan Pass to Rilong is a marvel, one of the great drives of China. The new Balangshan Tunnel reduces the driving distance between Wolong and Rilong from 96 km to 79 km.

A series of tunnels linking Wolong to the G213 and Chengdu has been completed, a monumental feat of engineering.

With the improvements in infrastructure, and with the continued expansion of the rental-car industry in China, Wuyipeng and Balangshan are now open to Shanghai birders with only a few days to spare, as was the case with Michael and me.

After a full workday 17 May, we flew that night from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Chengdu. We picked up our car from Shenzhou, drove 125 km (three hours) to Wolong, and at daylight on 18 May were taking in the dawn chorus at Lama Temple.

We stayed at the clean Lín Huì Fàndiàn (临惠饭店, +86 153-5143-1887, +86 152-8151-1256). For our night on the Rilong side, I once again used Kāi Fù Shān Zhuāng (开富山庄, +86 150-8250-0382).

We birded half a day on 21 May before calling it a trip.

As Michael and I departed the mountains for Chengdu, zipping through the world-class tunnels, we reviewed the eventful past four days. I thought further back to 2010, when the road to Wolong was bumpy, dusty, and dangerous, and when I knew little about birds.

I have become a better birder. Wuyipeng and Balangshan have become easier places to bird. Progress is occurring, and on more front than one.

VIDEOS

Quiet moments in the forest near Wuyipeng.

In 2010, I carried my heavy equipment to the top. I was laughing even then.

SOUND RECORDINGS

Below, a selection of my sound-recordings from the Sichuan trip. For even more sound-recordings and photos, and for our day lists from Sichuan, please see the eBird citations in the Bibliography below.

Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017 (00:16; 1.5 MB)

Firethroat Calliope pectardens, trail to Wuyipeng, 20 May. 30.999205, 103.154595. (01:54; 6.1 MB)

Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea, Lama Temple, 18 May (00:43; 2.5 MB)

Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata, Wuyipeng, 20 May (00:48; 3.5 MB)

Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps, along S303, 21 May. 30.891258, 102.975770. (00:04; 987 KB)

Martens’s Warbler Seicercus omeiensis, Lama Temple, 19 May (02:54; 8.6 MB)

LIST OF PLACE NAMES

Dawn, Wolong-Balangshan Road, 19 May 2017. (Craig Brelsford)
Dawn, tunnel area (30.877921, 102.966226), Wolong-Balangshan Road, 19 May 2017. As well as one of the best birding areas in temperate Asia, Wolong-Balangshan is a place of great natural beauty. (Craig Brelsford)

Balangshan Pass (Bālángshān Kǒu [八郎山口]): mountain divide & birding area, Sichuan. Elev. 4481 m (14,701 ft.). 30.9108, 102.8947.

Lama Monastery: see Lama Temple.

Lama Temple (Lǎma Sì [喇嘛寺]): birding site & place of worship, Wolong. Elev. 2230 m (7,320 ft.). 31.029363, 103.166572.

Rilong (Rìlóng Zhèn [日隆镇]) (30.9935765, 102.8299713): town W of Balangshan Pass on S303. Also known as Sìgūniángshān Zhèn.

Sìgūniángshān Zhèn (四姑娘山镇): another name for Rilong.

Wolong (Wòlóng Zhèn [卧龙镇]): town E of Balangshan Pass on S303. 31.0395827, 103.1984586.

Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station (Zhōngguó Bǎohù Dàxióngmāo Yánjiū Zhōngxīn, Wǔyīpéng Yěwài Guāncházhàn [中国保护大熊猫研究中心, 五一棚野外观察站]): research center in thick forest near Wolong. Damaged & abandoned after Wenchuan Earthquake of 12 May 2008. Elev. 2570 m (8,430 ft.). 30.994128, 103.159845. Begin your walk at Jīnjiāpō (金家坡, 31.004395, 103.151987). Park your car at any of the local folks’ homes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36952551. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: July 15, 2017). Note: This is the first of five lists we made for 18 May 2017. This list covers Lama Monastery.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954305. Note: This is list 2/5 for 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954394. Note: List 3/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954414. Note: List 4/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36954445. Note: List 5/5, 18 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980196. Note: List 1/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980217. Note: List 2/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980192. Note: List 3/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36979053. Note: List 4/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36980247. Note: List 5/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36978948. Note: List 6/6, 19 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37003578. Note: List of birds noted at Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37021548. Note: List 1/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37022288. Note: List 2/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37026720. Note: List 3/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37029131. Note: List 4/5, 21 May 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37081320. Note: List 5/5, 21 May 2017.

Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). P. 748 (Indian Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

eBird. 2017. eBird hotspot: Wuyipeng Research Station, Sichuan, CN: http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L947367. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [Web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: July 15, 2017).

Robson, C. (2006). Family Paradoxornithidae (Parrotbills). P. 292 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 12. Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

BIRDS NOTED IN SICHUAN, 18-21 MAY 2017 (110 SPECIES)

Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus
Snow Partridge Lerwa lerwa
Verreaux’s Monal-Partridge Tetraophasis obscurus
Temminck’s Tragopan Tragopan temminckii
Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus
Lady Amherst’s Pheasant C. amherstiae
White Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon crossoptilon
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus
Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus
Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove) Columba livia
Snow Pigeon C. leuconota
Speckled Wood Pigeon C. hodgsonii
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus
Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides
Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus
Common Cuckoo C. canorus
Salim Ali’s Swift Apus salimalii
Great Barbet Psilopogon virens
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major
Bay Woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug
Long-tailed Minivet Pericrocotus ethologus
Grey-backed Shrike Lanius tephronotus
Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Fire-capped Tit Cephalopyrus flammiceps
Yellow-browed Tit Sylviparus modestus
Coal Tit Periparus ater
Rufous-vented Tit P. rubidiventris
Yellow-bellied Tit P. venustulus
Pere David’s Tit Poecile davidi
Sichuan Tit P. weigoldicus
Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus
Black-browed Bushtit Aegithalos iouschistos
Chestnut-vented Nuthatch Sitta nagaensis
Hodgson’s Treecreeper Certhia hodgsoni
Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis
Chinese Wren-babbler Pnoepyga mutica
Pygmy Wren-babbler P. pusilla
Chestnut-headed Tesia Cettia castaneocoronata
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes
Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler H. acanthizoides
Aberrant Bush Warbler H. flavolivaceus
Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis
Buff-barred Warbler P. pulcher
Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti
Chinese Leaf Warbler P. yunnanensis
Hume’s Leaf Warbler P. humei
Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides
Large-billed Leaf Warbler P. magnirostris
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler P. claudiae
Emei Leaf Warbler P. emeiensis
Martens’s Warbler Seicercus omeiensis
Bianchi’s Warbler S. valentini
Rufous-capped Babbler Stachyridopsis ruficeps
Black-streaked Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus gravivox
Chinese Babax Babax lanceolatus
Spotted Laughingthrush Garrulax ocellatus
Giant Laughingthrush G. maximus
Elliot’s Laughingthrush Trochalopteron elliotii
Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrysotis
White-browed Fulvetta Fulvetta vinipectus
Chinese Fulvetta F. striaticollis
Grey-hooded Fulvetta F. cinereiceps
White-collared Yuhina Yuhina diademata
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Sichuan Thrush Zoothera griseiceps
Chestnut Thrush Turdus rubrocanus
Fujian Niltava Niltava davidi
Verditer Flycatcher Eumyias thalassinus
Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea
Chinese Rubythroat Calliope tschebaiewi
Firethroat C. pectardens
Grandala Grandala coelicolor
Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus
Slaty-blue Flycatcher Ficedula tricolor
Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher F. strophiata
Blue-fronted Redstart Phoenicurus frontalis
Plumbeous Water Redstart P. fuliginosus
White-capped Redstart P. leucocephalus
Daurian Redstart P. auroreus
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae
Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris
Rufous-breasted Accentor P. strophiata
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail M. alba
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni
Plain Mountain Finch Leucosticte nemoricola
Dark-breasted Rosefinch Carpodacus nipalensis
Common Rosefinch C. erythrinus
Pink-rumped Rosefinch C. waltoni
Vinaceous Rosefinch C. vinaceus
Sharpe’s Rosefinch C. verreauxii
Chinese White-browed Rosefinch C. dubius
Twite Carduelis flavirostris
Tibetan Serin Spinus thibetanus
Collared Grosbeak Mycerobas affinis
Slaty Bunting Emberiza siemsseni

Featured image: Themes from Wuyipeng, 20 May 2017. Clockwise from top L: Craig Brelsford in sea of bamboo; male Firethroat Calliope pectardens (photo from Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, 5 June 2014); sign at Wuyipeng Field Monitoring Station; rich forest near station. All by Craig Brelsford.

GUEST POST: Let the Birding Gen Flow, by Michael Grunwell

Editor’s note: Michael Grunwell (above) is a British birder who last month moved from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia. Michael spent four years in China, two in Nanchang and two in Shanghai. During that time, amid a full-time career and while providing for his wife and three children, Michael noted more than 700 species of bird in the Middle Kingdom. As if his personal commitments were not challenging enough, Michael faced another obstacle: a lack of “gen,” or basic birding information. In this essay, Michael contends that in China, getting gen is too difficult. Among “people in the know,” writes Michael, a “cheery, clubbable atmosphere” stifles the free flow of information. “China needs a great deal more published articles on sites and species,” he maintains, and he looks forward to a day when birding info in China will be “logged by and accessible to all.” — Craig Brelsford

Let the Birding Gen Flow
© 2017 by Michael Grunwell
for shanghaibirding.com

Exactly 33 years ago, I went on an independent birding trip to Peru. We faced Maoist insurrection and genuine danger–and we had better gen on where to find birds than China has in 2017.

China needs a great deal more published articles on sites and species. It is not right that most of the birding days in various bird-rich parts of China are unpublished and unavailable.

There seems to be a cheery, clubbable atmosphere which stifles real gen.

Take Sichuan, for example. Most Western birders on a trip to that province are taken to major sites such as Labahe and Balangshan. Very little precise gen is ever published about where species are seen.

Glowing accounts of yet another glorious China trip are written up by the tour companies and uploaded to Cloudbirders. These so-called “reports” are devoid of precise gen and should be seen for what they really are, which is infomercials.

With the growing popularity of bird-observation sites such as eBird, it has never been easier to make records that are timely, accurate, and most important, public. I note that the vast majority of the eBird hotspots in Sichuan have lists posted by independent birders–and almost no tour companies.

I do not agree that freedom of information damages commercial guiding. Take Turkey, for example. Although the main birding sites in that country are well-known, birders still pay big money for tours, because most people who go on tours are not list-obsessed but just normal people who want a hassle-free trip. I published a report on sites around Istanbul 13 years ago; a few years ago, I saw an advert for a bird tour going to the same places for a handsome price.

Another example is Sri Lanka. All the sites for the endemics are well-known. I recorded all the endemics in only five and a half days in 2011, and I wrote a full report that did wonders for my guide’s business.

Other examples are Florida, Arizona, The GambiaMajorca, and even my home country, the United Kingdom. In all these cases, there is more than enough accurate, precise gen amid a thriving bird-tour industry.

In stark contrast to the foregoing stands China. It still astonishes me that, time and time again during my four years in China, I had to rely on a handful of trip reports for basic gen. China has a population of 1.4 billion, and there is no simple, clear Web site giving basic information on the Top 10 birding sites in western China!

I want every day’s birding in China to be logged by and accessible to all. Am I idealistic? Indeed I am. Knowledge about Chinese birds needs to grow, and fast. We must escape the current sclerotic situation, in which keen birders are waiting for crumbs to be thrown from the table of those in the know.

If you want an example of what the future could be like, then look no further than this Web site, shanghaibirding.com. Craig Brelsford is committed to cooperative birding, providing complete and precise details of bird sightings and birding locations. On Shanghai Birding, the companion WeChat group, Craig and other users regularly post news of and directions to sightings within minutes of discovery.

That’s the way it should be–a birding culture dedicated not to the profits of the commercial birder but to the enjoyment of the common birder. A healthy birding community is run by common birders and for common birders.

Featured image: Clockwise from top L, Michael Grunwell (L) with fellow shanghaibirding.com contributor John MacKinnon at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April 2017 (Craig Brelsford); Michael using the spotting scope at Ga’er Monastery, Qinghai, 8 July 2016 (Craig Brelsford); Michael with Craig Brelsford (R) at Cape Nanhui, 4 April 2016 (Elaine Du); Michael with old friend Mark Waters (R) in Huzhu County, Qinghai, 27 June 2016 (Craig Brelsford).

Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Editor’s note: Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form.

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

'Gansu' Bluetail. This second-calendar-year male had not attained breeding plumage but was singing powerfully. Craig Brelsford.
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m. (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017 (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher bear little resemblance to one another but were long classified as a single species. The situation was owing more to a dearth of research than to any intrinsic ID difficulties among the two species. Craig Brelsford.
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu, 29 April 2012. R: Wulingshan, 10 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

L-R: Jan-Erik Nilsén, Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford. Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017.
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m, the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June 2017. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more about birds than Michael and Jan-Erik.

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m to summit. Nights and meals at Fúlíng Kuàijié Jiǔdiàn (伏凌快捷酒店), +86 314-7631888, +86 187-3147-7899.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Why: See Highlights. ’Nuff said!

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. Eaton related his experience with the form:

“I’ve seen [‘Gansu’ Bluetail] north of Xining, Qinghai Province, as well as at Huzhu Beishan and Dong Xia. Though they superficially look similar to Red-flanked/Siberian Bluetail, they differ significantly vocally–as they do from Himalayan Bluetail, which is found breeding to the southeast and south in nearby Sichuan and eastern Qinghai” (Eaton, in litt., 2017).

James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male 'Gansu' Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June 2017.

Zappey's Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis. © Craig Brelsford (craigbrelsford.com, shanghaibirding.com). 11 June 2017. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Photo taken at 40.565367, 117.472742 (elev. 1330 m). Craig Brelsford.
Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, Wulingshan. Found 11 June at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m. Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae. Wulingshan (雾灵山), Hebei, China. Elev. 1610 m, on road above "Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot," 40.569817, 117.474469. Craig Brelsford.
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding–albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (BeijingHebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

References

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 24, 2017). Editor’s note: This is the Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Eaton, James. E-mail message to author, 18 June 2017.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. Top: Baihualing, Yunnan, 10 Feb. 2014. Bottom: Rongshu Wang, Yunnan, 26 Jan. 2014. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus, Botanical Gardens, Shanghai. Top: 25 Dec. 2011. Bottom: 24 Dec. 2011. All by Craig Brelsford.

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler in Shanghai

Seen at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui on Sun. 4 June 2017: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. Veteran British birder Michael Grunwell and I found our 4 Kamchatkas in Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), the largest of the tree plantations on the landward side of the sea wall. The species is an all-time first for the Shanghai eBird list.

Just after sunrise, Michael and I, as is our wont, were doing “drive-by birding”–creeping along the edge of the road, listening out for birds. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar sound.

My gut said, “Hard, loud–Taiga Flycatcher?”

Taiga was not even close, of course. Note, however, what my gut was not saying: “Arctic Warbler,” a bird whose call I know well. This call was decidedly not an Arctic’s, though it soon dawned on us that we were hearing some type of leaf warbler.

To see why my gut did not say Arctic, compare my recordings of the tight “tzit” call of Arctic Warbler with the looser call of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler:

Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu (32.560095, 121.041956), 16 May 2015 (00:09; 1.9 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), Cape Nanhui, 4 June 2017 (00:25; 4.9 MB)

Michael and I skidded to a stop and poked our heads into the green tangle of locust trees. The call was being followed by a song. Only upon hearing the song did I think of Arctic Warbler. But here too, the song, though similar, was distinctive–wavier than the straight trill of Arctic. Look at the spectrograms below.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus.

The spectrogram above is of my recording 4 June 2017 of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Note the pattern: downward sweeps followed by an upward sweep. No one would liken that song to an insect’s. Below, the spectrogram of my 2015 recording of the song of Arctic Warbler. Note the straight, cricket-like trill.

Spectrogram of Craig Brelsford's recording of Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis.

Here are the recordings whose spectrograms are shown above:

Arctic Warbler, Yikesama National Forest, Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia (52.150833, 121.465639), 16 July 2015 (01:00; 3.2 MB)

Kamchatka Leaf Warbler, Microforest 4, 4 June 2017 (00:48; 9.3 MB)

After hearing several song-call cycles, Michael, my more experienced partner and the man who has taught me more than anyone about birding, first said the words “Kamchatka Leaf Warbler.”

Michael has birded the Indonesian islands of Flores and Komodo, where Kamchatka Leaf Warbler winters. Michael said that, last winter, walking through the forests there, he heard dozens of times the call of P. examinandus.

“I know that call,” Michael said.

I whipped out my Olympus DM-650 voice recorder and recorded the calling and singing warbler. Meanwhile, we caught our first glimpse of the individual. It was clearly an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler.

What is an “Arctic-type” leaf warbler? An Arctic-type leaf warbler is a member of one of four closely related taxa divided among three species: Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus, and Arctic Warbler P. borealis borealis and P. b. kennicotti.

Per's map of Arctic-type warblers.
Leaf-warbler expert and Shanghai Birding member Per Alström is the person most responsible for our current understanding of Arctic-type leaf warblers. Alström’s PDF, from which this page is taken, is a handy introduction to leaf warblers in China and is downloadable through shanghaibirding.com.

Arctic Warbler is by far the most widespread breeder in the complex. P. b. borealis breeds across northern Eurasia, from Scandinavia to northeast China and the Russian Far East. P. b. kennicotti breeds in western Alaska.

As their names suggest, Japanese Leaf Warbler breeds mainly in Japan (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu), Kamchatka Leaf Warbler mainly in the southern Kamchatka Peninsula (as well as on Hokkaido and Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands).

In 2010 Shanghai Birding member Per Alström et al. proposed the current way of viewing the Arctic-type warblers. Previously, the taxon examinandus was putative, not even reaching the subspecies level; Alström and his team showed that examinandus, with its distinctive song and call, merits recognition not as a subspecies of Arctic Warbler but as a species in its own right.

Of the three Arctic-type species, Japanese Leaf Warbler most stands out, being on average yellower than the two others. Arctic and Kamchatka look much more alike.

There are, however, some slight differences. Kamchatka is said to have a “marginally longer bill, tarsi and tail” than Arctic (del Hoyo & Collar). Sure enough, the Kamchatka I photographed is long-billed. Take a look below.

Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both by Craig Brelsford.
Arctic Warbler (top) and Kamchatka Leaf Warbler. Both birds show the classic features of Arctic-type warblers, among them a long supercilium that does not reach bill base, a dark smudge on the lower mandible, and mottled ear coverts. Kamchatka is said to be slightly greener on average than Arctic, a description that these photos do not contradict. The bill of Kamchatka is also marginally longer than Arctic’s, and in these profile shots one notes the longer bill of the Kamchatka and the stouter bill of the Arctic. I would not suggest basing an Arctic-Kamchatka ID on plumage and bare parts. Plumage and bare parts can, however, enhance the quality of a song- or call-based ID. Top: South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997), Cape Nanhui, 13 May 2017. Bottom: Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083), 4 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Michael and I heard our loudest song and calls during that first, early morning encounter. However, we heard Kamchatka calling throughout the day.

Our new Shanghai record, combined with late-May and early-June records from nearby Zhejiang, suggests that in this region, once the wave of Arctics passes through around 15 May, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler may be the Arctic-type to look out for.

Bibliography

Alström P., T. Saitoh, D. Williams, I. Nishiumi, Y. Shigeta, K. Ueda, M. Irestedt, M. Björklund & U. Olsson. 2011. The Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis — three anciently separated cryptic species revealed. Ibis 153:395-410.

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37369822. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

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 group. Discussions with various birders, chief among them Hangzhou birder Cheng Qian, who had information about sightings of P. examinandus in Zhejiang. Beijing-based Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsén also provided timely advice. To join Shanghai Birding, fill out the form on the shanghaibirding.com Sightings page. Please state that you wish to join Shanghai Birding. You may also friend Craig Brelsford (WeChat ID: craigbrelsford). In your friend request, please make it clear that you wish to join Shanghai Birding.

del Hoyo, J. & Collar, N. (2017). Kamchatka Leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/1343935 on 6 June 2017).

Jackett, N. 25 Feb. 2016. First Kamchatka Leaf Warbler recorded for Australian Mainland. eBird Australia: http://ebird.org/content/australia/news/first-recorded-kamchatka-leaf-warbler-for-australian-mainland/. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: June 6, 2017).

Featured image: Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus. On 4 June 2017 at Cape Nanhui, birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford found the individual pictured here and three others. Photos by Craig Brelsford.