Rare Photos of Female Firethroat

On 5 June 2014 on the Old Erlang Road in Sichuan, I photographed female Firethroat Calliope pectardens. One of the least-known chats in the world, Firethroat is shy, the female particularly so, and photos of the female are rare.

The photo above shows an adult female and not a first-summer male, as a first-summer male would have white flashes at the base of the tail (Round & Clement 2015, 86). We eliminate Firethroat’s sister species, Blackthroat Calliope obscura, on the basis of range (Blackthroat breeds farther north) and by the presence at the height of breeding season of male Firethroat in the area where I photographed the female. Note the legs, darker than the pale-legged female Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea (Collar 2005, 747).

To acquire my shots, I spent parts of four days in a tent, my portable photo blind. The female first appeared on Day 2, but the definitive images came only in the final minutes of the final day. My partners, Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) and Jon Gallagher, commiserated with me at first and rejoiced with me at last, and for their cooperation I am grateful.

I embargoed the photos nearly five years before publishing them today. I held back because I was hoping to write a photographic field guide to the birds of China, and I was saving my most valuable photos for the guide.

The Old Erlang Road is an ideal birding location. The road, which used to be part of the Sichuan-Tibet highway but has been superseded by a tunnel, remains in serviceable condition. The lush forests are a stronghold not just for Firethroat but also for many other sought-after birds, among them Lady Amherst’s Pheasant Chrysolophus amherstiae and Streaked Barwing Actinodura souliei.

MAP & PHOTOS

Range of Firethroat (Craig Brelsford/Wikipedia)
Firethroat breeds in the mountains of central China, as well as in southeastern Tibet and adjacent Arunachal Pradesh, India. The non-breeding range is poorly understood. There are records of Firethroat from Bangladesh, northeastern India, northern Burma, and northern Thailand (Alström et al. 2013, 96; Bunkhwamdi et al. 2015). Old Erlang Road is in central Sichuan, the heart of Firethroat’s breeding range. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat habitat, Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, 5 June 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
I found the female at the bend in the road center-left. Her mate was engaged in a song-duel with another male on the opposite side of the road. Firethroat were singing at various other places along the Old Erlang Road, suggesting an appreciable presence of the species there. Coordinates of this site: 29.854737, 102.259133. Elevation: 2740 m (8,980 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat setup. (Craig Brelsford)
For four days I sat in my tent with my 600 mm f/4 lens jutting out. I was aware that I was making a major investment in a single species and that as a result I would miss other species on a road rich in birds. I reasoned that any birder could get a good haul there, but that it would be a service to birding to produce the definitive image of a rarely photographed species. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female. (Craig Brelsford)
This photo, taken 3 June, records the moment when I first beheld female Firethroat. Note the olive-brown upperparts, with an intriguing dash of slate on the back and scapulars; the rusty-buff flanks and undertail coverts; the lack of white in the tail; the white lower abdomen; and the plumbeous legs. This shot represented progress, but I wanted more. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female. (Craig Brelsford)
By 4 June, I had spent three days in the tent. Despite the enticement of the mealworms, the female could not bring herself to move beyond the periphery of the setup. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat, adult female. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female, 5 June 2014. In the final minutes of my fourth and final day, I achieved this perfect profile shot. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female, Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, China, 5 June 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Here’s another profile shot, this time of the left side. Note the slaty-blue hues on the breast-sides and abdomen. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female. (Craig Brelsford/shanghaibirding.com)
Compared to its sister species Blackthroat Calliope obscura, female Firethroat (above) is presumed to have ‘a paler, more contrasting throat, slightly warmer or more prominently rufous-tinged tail and paler, warmer, more buff (less deeply brown-washed) breast and flanks’ (Round & Clement 2015, 86). (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult male, Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, China, 4 June 2014. Altitude 2740 m (8,980 ft.). (Craig Brelsford/shanghaibirding.com)
This male was almost certainly the mate of our female above. Note the slaty plumage from crown to rump, brownish-black wings, black face and neck-sides, white neck-patch, and white flashes on the base of the tail feathers. ‘This male is a first-summer,’ writes Per Alström. ‘First-summer males actually look like adult males except for browner remiges, primary coverts, alula and sometimes some (outer) greater coverts’ (in litt., 2019). (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens. (Craig Brelsford/shanghaibirding.com)
As the days wore on, the male grew more and more at ease around my setup, often lingering for a minute or two before darting back into the undergrowth. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, Craig Brelsford
On Sichuan’s Old Erlang Road in the first week of June 2014, at the height of breeding season, this male Firethroat was in the company of a female and singing powerfully. (Listen here to my sound-recording [2 MB; 01:18].) The elevation was 2740 m (8,980 ft.). I heard other Firethroat singing at altitudes as low as 2450 m (8,040 ft.). Most published descriptions of Firethroat have the altitudinal limit of the breeding range no lower than 2700 m (8,860 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Calliope chats. (Craig Brelsford)
Calliope is a genus of East Asian chats known for the powerful songs of the males and cryptic coloring of the females and for their fondness for dense, damp undergrowth. The genus comprises Firethroat and four other species, three of which are pictured here. The type species and the one most familiar to birders is Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope, male top L, female top R. Blackthroat C. obscura (bottom L) is the species most closely related to Firethroat and one about which even less is known than Firethroat. It breeds in central China mostly north of Firethroat’s range. Chinese Rubythroat C. tschebaiewi (bottom R) breeds on the Tibetan Plateau in high-altitude thickets and scrub. Chinese Rubythroat was formerly considered conspecific with Himalayan Rubythroat C. pectoralis, not pictured. (Craig Brelsford)
Birds of Old Erlang Road, Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)
A ribbon connecting the Sichuan Basin and the Tibetan Plateau, Old Erlang Road is an outstanding birding location. The lush montane habitat supports an astonishing variety of birds, among them Claudia’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus claudiae (top) and Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti (center L), two of the 10 species of Phylloscopus recorded along the road. Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides (bottom R) and Ashy-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora alphonsiana (bottom L) are two of the many species on Old Erlang Road rare or absent on the adjacent Tibetan Plateau. (Craig Brelsford)

WANT TO GO?

China Dreams Tour (www.chinadreamstour.com) runs trips to Old Erlang Road and other hotspots in Sichuan. Book your trip by clicking on the image below.

Ad for China Dreams Tour, Sichuan tours

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, Per. (2019). Email to author, 16 May.

Alström, Per; Song, Gang; Zhang, Ruiying; Gao, Xuebin; Holt, Paul I.; Olsson, Urban; Lei, Fumin (2013). Taxonomic status of Blackthroat Calliope obscura and Firethroat C. pectardens. Forktail 29, pp. 94–99. Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Alstrom-et-al.-2013-Blackthroat-and-Firethroat-taxonomy-FORKTAIL.pdf (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Sichuan & Yunnan, June 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/sichuan-yunnan-2014/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. (2017). Wuyipeng and My Progress As a Birder (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wuyipeng/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 July 2017 (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Bunkhwamdi, W.; Manawattana, S.; Kanjanavanit, R.; Round, P. D. (2015). A photographic record of Firethroat Calliope pectardens wintering in northern Thailand with a reassessment of a specimen record of Blackthroat C. obscura. BirdingASIA 24, pp. 37-42. Available at
https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Firethroat-BA24.pdf (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). Pp. 747-9 (Firethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Black-throated 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.

Round, P. & Clement, P. (2015). Firethroat Calliope pectardens and Blackthroat C. obscura: notes on winter plumages and habitats. BirdingASIA 23, pp. 84-87. Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Firethroat-Blackthroat.pdf (accessed: 18 May 2019).

REVISIONS

1. On 16 May 2019, observation by Per Alström added to caption to photo of male Firethroat.

Featured photo: Firethroat Calliope pectardens, rare photo of adult female, Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, China, 5 June 2014. Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens, 1/200, f6.3, ISO 4000. This photo and all the photos in this post copyright © 2014-2019 by Craig Brelsford. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of the photos in this post is strictly prohibited. Send requests to info@shanghaibirding.com. (Craig Brelsford)

Mysterious Yellow Wagtail at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai

Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala. The discovery by Haiming Zhao provoked excitement and uncertainty among Shanghai birders. Certain aspects of the wagtail, notably the pale mottling on its mantle, cast doubt on an identification of White-headed. “Those pale/odd-looking feathers are unusual for leucocephala,” said Gomboo Sundev, a bird-tour leader in Mongolia, where leucocephala breeds. “I have never seen such an individual of the subspecies in Mongolia” (in litt., 2019).

Beijing-based British birder Paul Holt also noted the anomaly: “I was surprised … by the Shanghai bird’s mottled mantle” (in litt., 2019). Per Alström, co-author of Pipits and Wagtails, called the pale feathers on the mantle and scapulars “puzzling” (in litt., 2 May 2019). Both experts noted the pale base to the lower mandible of the Shanghai wagtail, also unexpected in leucocephala.

Students of Yellow Wagtail will not be surprised by the uncertainty. The Yellow Wagtail complex is a “systematic conundrum”; the various subspecies of the complex often “defy separation under the biological species concept” (Tyler 2004, 689). Interbreeding of the various subspecies occurs “freely at overlap zones, producing fertile hybrids” (689), often making it the case that “the direct parentage of Yellow Wagtails cannot be deciphered” (725). There is furthermore the prospect of partial albinism, a phenomenon that can make other subspecies of Yellow Wagtail appear white-headed (Alström & Mild 2003, 80, 269, 282).

In the case of leucocephala, another reason for the uncertainty is the sheer lack of knowledge about the race, even among elite ornithologists. Holt describes White-headed Yellow Wagtail as a “poorly known subspecies” (2019); Alström says his experience with the race is limited to “a few specimens and only one live bird” (in litt., 7 May 2019); Sundev told me he has seen the subspecies only about a dozen times (2019). The lack of information forces even great birders such as Holt to speculate: “The million-dollar question is whether [the mottled mantle and pale basal half of the lower mandible of the Shanghai bird] fit within the range of variation in leucocephala, or are they suggestive or even indicative of less than thoroughbred genes?” (2019).

Why is so little known about leucocephala? The biggest reason is the remoteness of its breeding range. White-headed Yellow Wagtail breeds in sparsely populated northwestern Mongolia, at places such as Khar-Us Lake (48.083328, 92.541368) and Durgun Lake (47.673106, 93.451188) (Sundev 2019). Alström and Mild say the race breeds also in areas adjacent to northwestern Mongolia, such as the Tuva Republic of Russia and “probably … northernmost Xinjiang” (2003, 281). Even the wintering range is uncertain; Alström and Mild say leucocephala “probably winters mainly in India but the exact wintering grounds are not known” (281).

The verdict on the Shanghai wagtail? “I would say it is leucocephala,” Sundev said. Holt agreed: “I would think that these [a White-headed Yellow Wagtail found in Hong Kong in April and the Shanghai wagtail] are the first two records of leucocephala for the whole of eastern China.” Alström, however, was less than fully convinced: “I’m not aware of a leucocephala with such a pale-mottled mantle as the Shanghai bird—although I can’t say they don’t occur” (7 May 2019).

PHOTOS

L: Haiming Zhao, R: Gombobaatar Sundev
L: The unusual Yellow Wagtail seen at Cape Nanhui, Shanghai on 1 May 2019. Note the pale mottling on the mantle. R: White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Mongolia. (L: Haiming Zhao; R: Gombobaatar Sundev)
Possible Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
‘The encounter with the Western Yellow Wagtail was totally unexpected,’ said Shanghai birder Haiming Zhao, who discovered and photographed the bird. ‘The location where I found the bird is in a big area in Nanhui which has many trees newly planted. I came across this Western Yellow Wagtail when I went by this area searching for buntings. I was in my car looking at the ground 10-15 meters away to the left when I saw this special bird. Its bright gray head and yellow lower body were so eye-catching and had made it easily distinguished out there from a flock of eastern yellow wagtails on the ground’ (Zhao in litt., 2019). (Haiming Zhao)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail (Gombobaatar Sundev)
White-headed Yellow Wagtail on the breeding grounds in northwestern Mongolia. (Gombobaatar Sundev)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 2 May.

Alström, P. (2019). Email to author, 7 May.

Alström, P., Mild, K., & Zetterström, B. (2003). Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press.

Holt, P. (2019). Messages to WeChat group Shanghai Birding, 1 May.

Sundev, G. (2019). Emails to author, 3 May.

Tyler, S.J. (2004). Family Motacillidae (Pipits and Wagtails). Pp. 689, 725 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2004). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Zhao, H. (2019). Text messages to author, 2 May.

Featured image: Mysterious Yellow Wagtail, possibly White-headed Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)

Elon Musk, Please Help Save Cape Nanhui

Dear Mr. Musk:

Tesla Gigafactory 3, the facility that you are building in Pudong, is next door to Cape Nanhui, one of the best birdwatching areas in China. Visionary Shanghai residents have attempted to establish a nature reserve at the Cape and had little success. Can you help?

Shanghai by satellite (NASA/Craig Brelsford)
Tesla’s new Gigafactory 3 is just 3 km inland from one of the most overtaxed coastlines in the world. As the latest exploiter of the resources of the Chinese coast, Tesla has a duty to counterbalance the impact its factory will have by helping establish a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui. The only coastal wetland reserve in mainland Pudong, a Cape Nanhui Coastal Wetland Reserve would preserve a natural area of indisputable worth, open up the world of nature to millions of Shanghai residents, and help erase the ecological deficit of Shanghai, a chronic environmental underperformer. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

That we call to you for help is only natural, inasmuch as you sited your factory so close to the coastline of Cape Nanhui, the headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay and the most southeasterly point of Shanghai. The shape and location of Cape Nanhui make it a particularly important point on the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway. Nanhui is, however, completely unprotected; not a square inch of the environmentally valuable coastline there has been set aside for conservation.

Indeed, in recent years, as a result of the development of Pudong of which your Gigafactory is a major part, Cape Nanhui has been sliced, chopped, dredged, drained, and abused. The transformation has been great, but not so much as to have robbed Nanhui of all its environmental value. The site remains highly worthy of rehabilitation and protection.

With its new factory almost literally casting a shadow over one of Earth’s most important coastlines, and as a new corporate resident of Pudong and neighbor to Cape Nanhui, Tesla has a clear duty and opportunity to help save Cape Nanhui.

Tesla should help protect Cape Nanhui for the following reasons:

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

Reed Parrotbill
A symbol of Shanghai, Reed Parrotbill is a highly charismatic and attractive bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this near-threatened species than at Cape Nanhui. (Craig Brelsford)

Critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank use Cape Nanhui. Around 2 percent of the world’s endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of near-threatened Marsh Grassbird and near-threatened Reed Parrotbill. If the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed, then the latter two species will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai.

(2) When it comes to conservation, Shanghai is clearly underperforming. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province, which is larger than the U.S. state of Delaware. There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in the megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the dramatic East China Sea coast of Shanghai, where Asia’s largest river meets the world’s most important migratory flyway.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui would light a fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders at Nanhui
Shanghai birders at Cape Nanhui. These people are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, they are nonetheless laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Shanghai Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland Reserve.” A day at Cape Nanhui would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster appreciation of the natural world.

If Pudong New Area can be an economic powerhouse, if it can boast a Tesla factory along with its world-class airport and world-famous skyline, and if it can offer world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must ensure world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I hope you agree, Mr. Musk, that the case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui is truly clear-cut.

Mr. Musk, you have both a responsibility to understand the environmental degradation that is occurring in Pudong and especially at Cape Nanhui, and an opportunity to be a leader in marrying commerce and conservation. Please tell us how Tesla proposes to do its part to help conserve your new neighbor, Cape Nanhui. Comment below or write to me (craig at shanghaibirding.com). I’ll make sure that the right people read your message.

Kind regards,

Craig Brelsford
Executive Editor
shanghaibirding.com

Season of the Stubtail

’Tis the season of the stubtail in Shanghai. Every year in April and May, and again in September and October, birders in Earth’s Greatest City record Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps. Migrant stubtails are no strangers to the inner city; the photo above, for example, was taken at Changfeng Park, deep in Shanghai’s urban jungle.

In Shanghai, most of my records of Asian Stubtail have come from the microforests that dot the sea wall at Cape Nanhui. Migrating stubtails can, however, turn up in any wooded area. In his apartment complex recently, in a wood of about 25 square meters, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Asian Stubtail. Hiko’s find bears out Kennerley and Pearson: Migrating Asian Stubtail, they write, is “opportunistic and likely to utilise any area of coastal or inland woodland or scrub offering shade and undisturbed areas for feeding” (2010, 557).

If Asian Stubtail is seen clearly or photographed well, then one can readily appreciate its distinctiveness. No other warbler in our region has its large-headed, bull-necked, stubby-tailed structure. The long, creamy supercilium is prominent, as is the contrastingly dark eye-line. The bill is fine and pointed, the legs are long and conspicuously pale, and the crown shows faint scaling.

Once on Lesser Yangshan, the island hotspot off the coast of Shanghai, I mistook Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus shares the dull, uniform plumage of Asian Stubtail and like the stubtail has a long supercilium, but it has a longer tail and shorter bill. Observers of Asian Stubtail in its winter range must separate it from shortwings and wren-babblers, while viewers of the species in its breeding range need to distinguish it from Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 556).

A common passage migrant in Shanghai, Asian Stubtail breeds in Beijing, Hebei, and Northeast China and adjacent Ussuriland as well as southern Sakhalin Island, the four main islands of Japan, and the Korean Peninsula. The winter range includes Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi and much of Southeast Asia (Holt in litt., 2019; Brazil 2009, 340; Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 557).

I have noted breeding Asian Stubtail in Heilongjiang and Hebei (10 June), migrating Asian Stubtail in Jiangsu and Shanghai, and a possibly wintering Asian Stubtail on 15 Nov. 2014 at Wuyuan, Jiangxi. Regarding the Jiangxi record, the presence of the species in mid-November at that latitude (29.2142, 117.5626) is surprising but not inconceivable; Brazil (2018, 290) reports that some Asian Stubtail winter in southern Kyushu, which is farther north than Jiangxi. The Wuyuan stubtail was singing intermittently; the best explanation may be that it was a first-winter bird.

Asian Stubtail, “sit” call and short song, Wuyuan, Jiangxi, 15 Nov. 2014 (16 MB; 01:37)

PHOTOS

Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Yangkou (Rudong), Jiangsu, September. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps is a tiny, brown-backed, terrestrial warbler with a short, square tail, a prominent, creamy supercilium extending onto the nape, a proportionally large head giving a bull-necked appearance, a long, narrow bill, and conspicuously pink tarsi and toes (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 558-9). The species breeds in temperate northeast Asia and winters in southern China, Indochina, and Burma. It is a common migrant through the Chinese coastal provinces. This photo of a migrating stubtail was taken in September at Yangkou, Jiangsu (32.560387, 121.039821). (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May 2009. (Craig Brelsford)
Though secretive, Asian Stubtail ‘is not a particularly shy species and will approach a stationary observer closely’ (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 557). In Heilongjiang, I once watched a stubtail emerge from the frenzy of a bird wave, perch on a branch higher than I was tall, and emit at full volume its insect-like song. (Craig Brelsford)
Urban wood providing habitat for migrating Asian Stubtail, Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
In April 2019 in this tiny wood in Pudong, surrounded by skyscrapers, alert birder Hiko found his Asian Stubtail. On migration, the ground-dwelling warbler needs only an approximation to the shady, secluded woodland in which it breeds. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtai , Shanghai, April 2019. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
This is the Asian Stubtail that was using Hiko’s tiny wood. ‘I have a habit of checking that place each time I bird,’ Hiko said. ‘And on that day I saw a buffy supercilium and was like, “Oh shoot, maybe stubtail.”’ Especially during migration season, experienced birders know that even marginal habitats can yield birding gold. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Stubtail in typical habitat, Xidaquan National Forest, Heilongjiang, August. Kennerley and Pearson describe Asian Stubtail as ‘skulking and elusive, frequenting the shady recesses of the forest floor. … It feeds almost exclusively on the ground, searching for small insects and spiders amongst fallen leaves and twigs.’ As here, however, ‘A bird will clamber higher into scrub or bushes occasionally’ (2010, 557). (Craig Brelsford)
Habitat of Asian Stubtail, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)
Lush undergrowth in deciduous forest predominated by Silver Birch Betula pendula, Xidaquan. This is the spot where I photographed the stubtail above. Breeding Asian Stubtail, write Kennerley and Pearson, requires ‘thick undergrowth with ample leaf litter and fallen logs, often along rock-strewn gullies and stream beds’ (2010, 557). Coordinates of this site: 45.706108, 130.303313. Elevation: 540 m (1,770 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Species similar to Asian Stubtail. Clockwise from top: Radde's Warbler, Lesser Shortwing Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Eurasian Wren. (Craig Brelsford)
If seen well, Asian Stubtail is easy to identify, but glimpses of the secretive bird often are fleeting, and confusion can arise. Like stubtail, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi (top) passes through Shanghai on migration, breeds in Northeast China, and has a conspicuous supercilium. Note however the much longer tail and spikier bill of Radde’s. Dusky Warbler P. fuscatus (not pictured) also has a longer tail and like Radde’s spends much less time on the ground than Asian Stubtail. Eurasian Wren Troglodytes troglodytes (center L) is tiny like Asian Stubtail and has a long, fine bill, but it lacks a supercilium, is much more likely to forage in full view at eye level, and cocks its tail straight upward (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 556). In Southern China, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophris (center R) and Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler Napothera epilepidota (bottom) are secretive, ground-dwelling birds with nubby tails, but they lack the prominent supercilium of Asian Stubtail. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, M. (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brelsford, C. (2017). Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/gansu-bluetail/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 June 2017 (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2014). Wuyuan & Poyang Lake, November 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/wuyuan-2014/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2015). Inner Mongolia & Heilongjiang, 2015: Part 4: Second Trip to Elaine’s Hometown (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/inner-mongolia-heilongjiang/part4/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Brelsford, C. & Du, E. (2016). Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/explorations/boli-may-june-2016/). Report on shanghaibirding.com (accessed: 18 May 2019).

Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). P. 588 (Asian Stubtail) 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.

Holt, P. (2019). Series of text messages between Holt and author, 20 April.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

REVISIONS

1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.

Featured image: Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)

Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019

by Paul Hyde
for shanghaibirding.com

Wanting to swap the concrete jungle of Shanghai for a few days of fresh air and stunning scenery, a friend and I headed to the mountains of Zhejiang for some hiking and birding. We spent two and a half peaceful days at Tianmushan (天目山). As we visited outside of peak times, we barely saw another soul as we wandered around the mountain and inside the picturesque Scenic Area. Using the reports by Craig and Hiko as a guide, we were fortunate to encounter many of the area’s specialty birds. We recorded 61 species in total, with the main highlights being:

3 Koklass Pheasant
Silver Pheasant
Short-tailed Parrotbill

Other birds generally out of range in Shanghai included:

Black Eagle
Black Kite
Collared Owlet
Great Barbet
Crested Kingfisher
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Orange-bellied Leafbird
Chestnut-crowned Warbler
Rufous-faced Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler
Indochinese Yuhina
Buffy Laughingthrush
Rufous-capped Babbler
Grey-headed Parrotbill
White-crowned Forktail
Little Forktail

Day 1, Mon. 1 April 2019

We hired a rather plush BYD car and drove the 270 km (170 mi.) from Shanghai to our inn, Hǎisēn Nóngzhuāng  (海森农庄; 135-0681-8151), as mentioned in Hiko’s report. We arrived at around 10:30 a.m. and once unpacked, we took the shuttle bus to the top of the mountain, Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201), and slowly walked the 14 km down the mountain. As was not the case with Hiko, our bus fortunately allowed us to continue past the checkpoint without entrance tickets to the Scenic Area, and so we avoided slogging up the mountain and instead enjoyed a leisurely walk downhill.

Around the top entrance to the Scenic Area, we noted skulking Chinese Hwamei, Yellow-throated Bunting, Brambling, and Eurasian Jay. Great Spotted Woodpecker were drumming noisily. The walk downhill began quietly, and often the mountain would be deathly silent, the silence only being pierced as we hit upon a small wave of birds. The first wave contained Hartert’s Leaf Warbler in full song, as it was throughout our visit. A group of Indochinese Yuhina brought me my second lifer in quick succession, with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in amongst the group.

The pattern of alternating silence and quick, noisy action continued, with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Chestnut-crowned Warbler adding much interest to the walk. As we approached the bottom of the mountain, the day’s highlight arrived. My ears were on high alert following Hiko’s report of regular Short-tailed Parrotbill sightings in this area. Sure enough, I heard a trill and a group of 6 inquisitive individuals appeared in response to playback, hopping remarkably close to see what the fuss was all about. The day was rounded off when just a minute down the road, more activity revealed another highlight, a flock of Grey-headed Parrotbill.

Back around the hotel, Russet Sparrow were the common sparrow.

Day 2,  Tues. 2 April 2019

This morning we asked our hotel owner to drive us up to Longfengjian at 6 a.m., as the public shuttle bus doesn’t start operating until later on. Drawing on his guanxi, he got us into the park earlier than the advertised 8 a.m. opening time. This allowed us to explore the park, where we heard the familiar call of Collared Owlet. Actually seeing the birds is usually a struggle, but we were lucky enough to stumble across a pair duetting in the open. Our main hope first thing in the morning, however, was finding pheasants, as a group of friends had found Elliot’s Pheasant on the mountain a few weeks earlier. With this information in mind, we were listening out for any noise in the dense undergrowth. A little rustling noise caught our attention, and we glimpsed a Silver Pheasant scuttling away. Further on, the highlight of the trip occurred as we spotted a pheasant scurrying in the long grass. It kindly crossed the path ahead of us and paused for a few short seconds, allowing us to enjoy a resplendent male Koklass Pheasant! To our surprise, we encountered two further male Koklass Pheasants in similar situations. Other highlights inside the Scenic Area included Great Barbet, two Black Eagle soaring overhead, a large flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, and a Blue Whistling Thrush. An Orange-bellied Leafbird sang loudly near the entrance and posed obligingly.

We left the Scenic Area and walked down the mountain, enjoying many similar birds as yesterday and making for a total of 23 km of walking for the day.

Day 3, Wed. 3 April 2019

We again asked the hotel owner to drive us to the top of the mountain and again strolled down. One bird that we hoped to find but that had eluded us on days 1 and 2 was Little Forktail. We had seen several White-crowned Forktail near the many streams, but had no luck with Little Forktail.

The day started with some nice additions to the trip list: A pair of Grey-headed Woodpecker, several Red-billed Blue Magpie, good views of Brown Dipper and Mountain Bulbul, as well as the welcome sight of more Short-Tailed Parrotbills. Ready to admit defeat after checking every stream three times over, we finally found a pair of Little Forktails on the stream right next to the lower ticket entrance to the park. Contented, we headed back to the car and began the journey home.

About a kilometer into our journey, a Crested Kingfisher perched on a wire over a stream, a great ending to the trip.

PHOTOS

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha (Paul Hyde)
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha in bamboo undergrowth at Tianmu. The species is commonly recorded on the mountain, and it is likely that a well-established population exists there. Other gamebirds present in the nature reserve are Silver Pheasant Lophura nycthemera and Elliot’s Pheasant Syrmaticus ellioti. (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana. (Paul Hyde)

FURTHER READING

For more on Tianmushan and other birding hotspots in the mountains of southeast China, please see the following posts on shanghaibirding.com:

Tianmushan

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)
Tianmushan in July
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip

Other

Emeifeng 2015, Part 1
Emeifeng 2015, Part 2
Home to Shanghai (Plus a Jaunt to Fujian)

Featured image: Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, April 2019. (Paul Hyde)

Per Alström Interviewed on Radio Beijing International

Per Alström
Per Alström

Whether they know it or not, all birders, Chinese or foreign, operating in China have been influenced by Per Alström. Radio Beijing International interviewed Per in November 2018. In the interview, Per talks about speciation, taxonomy, his early interest in birds, and his difficult and ground-breaking initial expeditions to China in the 1980s. Get to know this friendly giant of birding by listening to the interview below (23:56; 13 MB).

The image above shows some of the species that the Swedish ornithologist has either discovered or redefined. Clockwise from top left: Emei Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa, Sichuan Bush Warbler Locustella chengi, and Alström’s Warbler Phylloscopus soror (Per Alström).

I have known Per since 2013. In the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan in 2014, I played a small part in Per’s discovery of yet another species, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.  I wrote about the experience in a 2016 post, “A Minor Role in a Major Discovery.”