Xuanzhong Temple, Shanxi, 30 Dec. 2012 to 2 Jan. 2013

In 2012 I birded the entire year. On 1 Jan. 2012 I was on a plane to Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan. I spent 83 days there. In 2012 I also took major trips to Xinjiang, Jiangxi, and Jiangsu.

It’s only fitting that I ended 2012 with a bang.

I was at Xuanzhong Temple in Shanxi from 30 Dec. 2012 to 2 Jan. 2013. My goal: to photograph Brown Eared Pheasant and to improve my understanding of the birds of north-central China.

The air was bitterly cold (as low as -20 degrees Celsius) but the bright sunshine made the days cheerful. The “temple flock” of six Brown Eared Pheasant appeared every day.

Sun. 30 Dec. 2012

I caught an 8 a.m. flight from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. At Taiyuan Airport, I rented a Volkswagen Bora. I drove west about an hour through Jiaocheng to Xuanzhong Temple.

On the 4-km road that leads from the main road to the temple, I saw Azure-winged Magpie. Common Pheasant were numerous, as were Vinous-throated Parrotbill.

The temple is in a gorge at 1000 m above sea level. The hills are covered with what the locals call bǎishù (柏树, “cypress”). It is a picturesque setting.

I saw the Brown Eared Pheasant immediately. They were on a little bridge spanning the frozen stream. These pheasants are wild birds. They come and go as they please, they do not necessarily descend to the temple every day, and their diet consists mainly of wild food, even in winter.

I had two other new species on Sunday: the aptly named Plain Laughingthrush and Long-tailed Rosefinch.

I viewed the flock of Red-billed Blue Magpie that live around the temple. Eurasian Tree Sparrow are of course abundant, and there are Japanese Tit. Spotted Dove and Common Magpie live around the temple.

Driving back down the hill, I saw Eurasian Hoopoe and Grey-headed Woodpecker. I was finding Common Pheasant every few hundred meters. They were foraging on the side of the road.

I also came across a “non-temple” Brown Eared Pheasant. It ran along the road until it found a place where it could dart into the bushes.

The non-temple pheasant was a good sign. Its presence suggests that Brown Eared Pheasant may be numerous in the area, with some of them subsisting completely independent of the temple.

Mon. 31 Dec. 2012

Today, I delighted in my long and close encounter with Brown Eared Pheasant. The pheasants are tame enough to allow one a good, long look yet wild enough to retain most of their essential characteristics. I watched them fly across the valley on their short, stubby wings; observed them perching in trees; listened to their guttural coos and doglike barks; and witnessed them chasing one another.

Tues. 1 Jan. 2013

Another bright, cold day at Xuanzhong Temple. The main goal today was to improve my images of the pheasants. Long-tailed Tit made a quick passage through the valley.

Wednesday 2 Jan. 2013

On my fourth and final day at Xuanzhong, a large mixed-species flock passed through the grounds. Within the flock were Chinese Nuthatch and Willow Tit (most likely Poecile montanus stoetzneri). Coal Tit were feeding among the needle-leaved trees, avoiding the bare broadleaved trees, which were the near-exclusive choice of the Willow Tit. The Japanese Tit in the flock, meanwhile, were going regularly to the ground, but the Coal and Willow almost never went to the ground. Despite the extreme cold, a Eurasian Nuthatch was managing to find dead or dormant insects under the bark. I photographed Spotted Nutcracker high on the hill behind the temple and Beijing Babbler feeding among a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbill.

I sped back to Taiyuan Airport, returned my car, and flew back to Shanghai. At Xuanzhong, I’d ended one year and begun a new one doing what I love most: birding.

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