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.

A Minor Role in a Major Discovery

Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:

In June 2014, my partners Jon Gallagher and Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) and I drove 36 hours, including one stretch of 24 straight hours, covering 1500 km to get from Emeishan in Sichuan to the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan. The reason? Per Alström was in the Dulong Gorge and was working on an exciting project, a project to which he said I might be able to make a small contribution.

Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Valley, Yunnan, China, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m.
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, Irrawaddy-Salween Divide, above Dulong Gorge, Yunnan, 20 June 2014. Elev. 3375 m. (Craig Brelsford)

We finally met up with Per and his team on the road into the Dulong Gorge. There, Per transferred to me a recording of a species new to science, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.

Little did I know that I was on the cusp of something big.

At the time, I did not know that the species was Himalayan Thrush; like any normal birder, I took the species to be Plain-backed Thrush. Per could only divulge that he was working on possible splits to Plain-backed Thrush, and could I please try to get a shot of a free “Plain-backed”? All his images, he said, were of captured birds, and he wanted shots of birds living their natural life. “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos!” I said. Per then left the Dulong Gorge, and my team entered the Valley.

Himalayan Forest Thrush, above Dulong Valley, 20 June 2014. Note the very slightly rufous-toned upper surface, dark lower lores and subocular/moustachial area, lack of distinct dark patch on rear ear-coverts, entirely dark lower mandible, hooked upper mandible, and pale pinkish legs.
Himalayan Thrush above Dulong Gorge, 20 June 2014. Note the very slightly rufous-toned upper surface, dark lower lores and subocular/moustachial area, lack of distinct dark patch on rear ear-coverts, entirely dark lower mandible, hooked upper mandible, and pale pinkish legs. (Craig Brelsford)

Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3375 m. I play Per’s recording. Attracted by the recording, a Himalayan Thrush appears within minutes, and I get photos as well as recordings of the thrush’s song. What a payoff!

Now my photos figure in the article Per and his co-authors have written on Himalayan Thrush, Sichuan Thrush Z. griseiceps, and Alpine Thrush Z. mollissima (Z. mollissima was formerly called “Plain-backed Thrush” in English but in the wake of the new discoveries takes the name Alpine Thrush). Himalayan Thrush is completely new to science, and Sichuan Thrush has been elevated to species status (having been considered a ssp. of Z. mollissima). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study.

I’m proud to have played a minor role in Per and co.’s major discovery!

Himalayan Forest Thrush Zoothera salimalii on a wet boulder in the rain, above Dulong Valley, 20 June 2014. A 'forest' thrush on a rocky outcrop? Yes, write the authors: 'At Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China, we found Himalayan Forest Thrush to be numerous in a very different habitat: on steep slopes with bamboo and rhododendron scrub and rocky outcrops and a few scattered conifers, at or just above the upper tree limit, at 3350–3500 m a.s.l. … Surprisingly, we did not observe any birds in the seemingly suitable forest immediately below despite active searching.'
Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii on a wet boulder in the rain, above Dulong Gorge, 20 June 2014. A ‘forest’ thrush on a rocky outcrop? Yes, write the authors: ‘At Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China, we found Himalayan Forest Thrush to be numerous in a very different habitat: on steep slopes with bamboo and rhododendron scrub and rocky outcrops and a few scattered conifers, at or just above the upper tree limit, at 3350–3500 m a.s.l. … Surprisingly, we did not observe any birds in the seemingly suitable forest immediately below despite active searching.’ (Craig Brelsford)

WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?

In the case of Zoothera salimalii, when we say the species is “new to science,” we are not saying that no human being had ever seen the bird before. Himalayan Thrush is locally common in its range, which extends from Sikkim in India to northwest Yunnan; thousands of birders and non-birders have seen it. “New to science” means that those observers did not understand its true nature. We did not understand that it is a species; if we thought about it at all, we assumed that any Z. salimalii we were seeing was just another Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima.

From article: 'Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar.' Note our specimen's buff throat and distinct malar.
From article: ‘Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar.’ Note our specimen’s buff throat and distinct malar. (Craig Brelsford)

Per and his team discovered that, hidden within what was considered to be a population of Z. mollissima was an entirely different bird, separated from Z. mollissima by time (3-5 million years of evolution), habitat (Z. mollissima Alpine Thrush breeds higher than Z. salimalii Himalayan Thrush), song, and morphology.

The latter two characteristics are particularly surprising and point to the difficulties of birding in the Himalaya region. Per and his team did not need a microscope to begin to see that Himalayan Thrush is different from the other species in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. All they needed to do was look and listen closely. Yet for generation after generation, this straightforward analysis was not performed. This is not surprising, considering the ruggedness of the area in which these thrushes live and its sparse population.

My bird was fit and strong--as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory.
My bird was fit and strong–as he needed to be, if he wanted to command his large, rocky territory. (Craig Brelsford)

Once Per had examined Plain-backed complex birds in the hand and through photos, he found a whole series of visible differences. Per et al. write:

Compared to Z. mollissima, Z. salimalii has a noticeably longer and deeper bill, with more arched culmen and longer hook, and the lower edge of the lower mandible is more arched (vs. straight); bill usually completely or almost completely dark including base of lower mandible, whereas the base of the lower mandible is usually pale pinkish or yellowish in Z. mollissima (though may appear mainly dark also in Z. mollissima). … 

Most individuals of Z. salimalii have a thin whitish supraloral stripe over thick blackish lores, and a very dark subocular/moustachial area, more or less connected to the dark lores, compared to more diffuse pale supraloral and weak “salt-and-pepper” lores and subocular/moustachial area of Z. mollissima. Also, Z. salimalii usually shows less extensively pale-mottled ear-coverts than in Z. mollissima, especially on the upper part, and lacks or has only a very ill-defined dark spot on the rear ear-coverts, while Z. mollissima usually shows a distinct dark rear ear-covert patch. Z. salimalii is usually ruddier in color above than Z. mollissima. Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar, while in Z. mollissima the throat is usually whiter and generally more heavily marked (often much more so) and less strongly bordered by more diffuse malar stripes. Z. salimalii has the claws paler than the toes, lacking dusky areas, while in Z. mollissima the claws are at least partly darker than or similar in color to the toes. The legs of Z. salimalii are pinkish, while those of Z. mollissima are usually brighter and more yellow- or orange-tinged.

Himalayan Forest Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m. 4 Feb. 2014.
Himalayan Thrush, Baihualing, Yunnan. Baihualing is in the southern part of the Gaoligong Mountains. The elevation here is ca. 1800 m. 4 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)

So adept became Per at discerning the morphological differences of the various Plain-backed species, he was able to determine, by photos alone, that a “Plain-backed” I had found in Yunnan in February 2014 was also Himalayan Thrush. Per used my February 2014 photos along with my June 2014 photos in his article.

The song of Z. salimalii also contrasts markedly with that of Z. mollissima, Per et al. write. They note the “mainly rasping, grating, scratchy, cracked voice” of Alpine Thrush and the “more musical … ‘thrush-like'” song of Himalayan Thrush. Indeed, according to the article, the germ of the process that led to the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was Per standing in India and simply listening to Himalayan Thrush, remembering the similar song he’d earlier heard in Sichuan of what is now called Sichuan Thrush, and contrasting those sweeter songs with the scratchier song of Alpine Thrush. Here we see Per, the scientist famous for discovering new species according to complicated DNA research, relying not on microscopes but on good old-fashioned birding skills!

Himalayan Forest Thrush powerfully shovels away dirt, leaves, and sticks as it searches for invertebrates on the forest floor. Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014.
Himalayan Thrush powerfully shovels away dirt, leaves, and sticks as it searches for invertebrates on the forest floor. Baihualing, Yunnan, 4 Feb. 2014. (Craig Brelsford)

Below, I offer you some of my recordings and videos of Himalayan Thrush.

Sound Recordings

Video (all taken by Craig Brelsford at Baihualing, Gaoligong Mountains, western Yunnan, 4-5 Feb. 2014)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), above the Dulong Gorge in remote northwestern Yunnan, 13 June 2014. The insets show Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii, which Per was there studying, and photos of which I later acquired. Photo by Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安).