On 6 February we lost to cancer the well-known and much-loved bird and animal artist Karen Phillipps. I was privileged to be her partner in our Field Guide to the Birds of China. Her loss is a huge one, not only for her family and friends, but also for the birding and conservation fraternity of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially China.
Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and spent much of her life in countries she loved among the creatures she loved, and her love is starkly clear in the great legacy of her illustrations.
She had a unique, inimitable style. Her birds and animals are not a photographic likeness nor are they an exactly measured and scientifically accurate rendering. They simply present these creatures through Karen’s eyes. They capture the essentials, omit fussy, irrelevant details, and express the living soul and spirit before her. Her pictures are clean, vibrant, and beautiful.
She carried her sketchbook, a tiny watercolour palette, and bottle of water wherever she went, and she could complete a colour sketch with added notes in a couple of minutes. Later she referred to these field notes when laying out more formal plates for the many books she illustrated. I had the pleasure of working with her not only on the China guide but also on A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali.
Karen had the ability to conceive the layout of entire plates and would paint the birds in composite scenes, sometimes overlapping and always covering as much of the white paper as she could manage. I am now assembling a new field guide, but my new artists paint single birds, and it is up to me to juggle them around across the plate, trying to make sensible arrangements that keep close to taxonomic order but place comparable species close together. Karen did all that in her head before putting brush to paper. It was an enviable talent. Sometimes, I would have preferred to include many of her “done in the field sketches” which captured so much immediate jizz of her subjects. I hope her brother Quentin, who inherits her works, will do just that. Much of her best work lies unseen in old notebooks.
Many of Karen’s paintings will be reproduced in the forthcoming New Bird Field Guide for China (The Commercial Press), where they can continue to delight and inspire China’s fast-growing bird-loving community.
The most convenient spot near Shanghai to enjoy wild China’s mountains and forests is Tianmushan, a marvelous spot to bird and hike at almost any time of year. I birded Tianmushan last November and December to catch the fall migration and fall colors at their peak. I also wanted to explore the mountain, 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai, during an underbirded season of the year.
THE NOVEMBER TRIP
On previous visits, I had stayed in hotels in the Baojiacun area just below the big reservoir and birded at the Longfengjian Scenic Area and along the road running down the valley, the most popular birding route in the area. In November I stayed at a small hotel just outside the west entrance, near the big Chanyuan Temple complex (30.323652, 119.442508). The proprietress recommended that I start at Longfengjian (30.344148, 119.440201) and hike down the trail to the temple and back to the hotel, a hike she assured me would be easy to accomplish in a single day. This route stays in the core area of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, far from any motorized vehicles.
I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunny weather. A quick check outside the hotel netted a small flock of Grey-chinned Minivet, which are easiest to find in the lower elevations around the Chanyuan Temple and the surrounding area, as well as White-crowned Forktail and Plumbeous Redstart.
Armed with a trail map, I was dropped off at the Longfengjian parking lot at 7 a.m., an hour before the official opening of the park.
In general, the best birding at Longfengjian is to be had before 8 a.m., when the gates open to the general public. Fortunately, many of the local hotel proprietors, as well as the park staff who live at Longfengjian, seem to have realized that serious birdwatchers like to start at the crack of dawn, so it is usually possible to arrive early, as long as you’re willing to pay the rather pricey entrance fee.
The weather was beautiful, although the area had not seen much rain lately, so the water level in the reservoir and streams was very low. But the fall colors—maples in particular—were brilliant, and the birds, as hoped, did not disappoint.
As soon as I entered Longfengjian, I started encountering bird waves. Figuring prominently were Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. Interestingly, these birds are much less conspicuous in the summer months. One early bird wave yielded, in addition to those three species and plenty of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, a lone Speckled Piculet.
My real target bird for Longfengjian was Koklass Pheasant, a species I have glimpsed there twice before, always in the early morning along the trail. My first galliforms of the day were a group of Chinese Bamboo Partridge that I awoke from their roost right along the trail. Shortly after that, I encountered my first Koklass Pheasant, a regal male posing right beside the trail. I froze and watched him for several minutes as he slowly and (I thought) disdainfully picked his way off through the woods. A few minutes later, I found a second male, who was almost as confiding as the first. Longfengjian appears to be a highly reliable spot to see this beautiful and unusual pheasant, but you need to arrive early—once the noisy day-trippers arrive, the pheasants fade into the deep forest.
In contrast to the abundant fulvettas, leaf warblers, and scimitar babblers, certain species that were very common at Longfengjian in the summer were not around. Grey Treepie and Grey-headed Parrotbill were not in evidence, and the Great Barbet was no longer calling, although I did see one high in a tree near the “King of Trees.” Flocks of noisy Eurasian Jay were common, however, and I did manage to find as well a small flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, although I found the latter in significantly greater numbers in the summer. As for winter arrivals, I found two Goldcrest feeding in a tall cedar.
In the skies above, a Mountain Hawk-Eagle soared briefly into view, followed a few minutes later by a massive Black Eagle flying so low that its wingtips appeared to brush the tops of the giant cedar trees.
After about 2 kilometers, I reached the trail that led from Longfengjian back down the valley to the Chanyuan Temple area. This valley is separated from the valley with the main road and stream by a high forested ridge, and is almost completely unspoiled. There is no road, and a steep, well-maintained trail descends through spectacular forest and streamside scenery, from the cool montane heights down to the subtropical woodlands at the entrance to the reserve. I encountered a few hikers and trail maintenance personnel, but also enjoyed long stretches of solitude and silence, with stunningly abundant birdlife my only company. Just after I started the long descent, a sparrowhawk of indeterminate species exploded from cover and flew off down the steep valley. It had apparently been stalking a noisy mixed flock of Chestnut Bulbul and Mountain Bulbul, the first of many such flocks, drawn to ripe wild cherries, that I encountered on this visit.
All along this downhill trail I found wave after wave of birds. The largest mixed flock I encountered included a group of 15 or 20 Grey-headed Parrotbill, as well as Yellow-bellied Tit, Japanese Tit, and Black-throated Bushtit. A second Speckled Piculet also popped briefly into view, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker landed on a nearby snag.
Because of the dry weather, the stream down the valley was intermittent, and birds were drawn to the few remaining deep pools to drink and bathe. At one pool I noticed that birds were taking turns coming down out of the trees by twos and threes to bathe and drink, a spectacle I watched in rapt fascination for 15 minutes. A trio of Orange-bellied Leafbird, all bathing at the same time, were the stars of this show. Also entertaining were the vigorous ablutions of Mountain Bulbul, Chestnut Bulbul, and Black Bulbul.
A very common migrant along this trail was White’s Thrush, drawn to the deep woods habitat reminiscent of its northern breeding grounds. A single Pale Thrush also turned up, but it appeared to be a bit early for the arrival of large numbers of other Turdus. Red-flanked Bluetail, including at least two males, were also common.
Among other smaller passerines, white-eyes were conspicuous for their absence, and I noted only a single small flock of Indochinese Yuhina passing overhead.
I saw no other raptors on the trail down, but I did catch the piping calls of a much smaller predator, Collared Owlet. As I got lower down, I began hearing the calls of Great Barbet, seldom easy to see even when the leaves are falling off the trees.
I was hoping to glimpse an Elliot’s Pheasant along the trails in the temple area, since birders have told me about seeing them there in the past, but no such luck. Visitors were many, so birding was difficult. Nevertheless, I managed to find Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and lots of Grey Treepie burbling in the treetops. Outside the entranceway, in the settled habitat around my hotel, I added to the day’s total White Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart, and Spotted Dove. In a scrubby stretch of saplings along a vacant lot, I found my last bird wave of the day, mostly leaf warblers and Huet’s Fulvetta, but also another Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and a couple of Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.
My total species count for Day 1 (November 4) was 44, a very nice result for montane habitat in November, and an indication of just how great the avian diversity of Tianmushan can be.
On Day 2 (November 5), my first bird of the day was a large flock of Eurasian Siskin wheeling and feeding outside my hotel. I decided to bird a more traditional route along the main road, hoping to find Short-tailed Parrotbill for the third straight visit. This time, I had the hotel proprietor drop me off at the first switchback on the road up to Longfengjian, from where I planned to walk the several miles back down the valley, through the village, and over to my hotel near the west entrance to the park. The area where I was dropped off can be good for forktails and Blue Whistling Thrush, and it was teeming with birds when I arrived. As usual, the main entries in the large and noisy bird wave canvassing the shrubbery on both sides of the stream were Huet’s Fulvetta, along with several more Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, a few leaf warblers, and a compact flock of Collared Finchbill. A Black Eagle soared across the valley high overhead, but never made an encore appearance.
Sure enough, before long, two forktails flew up and began picking their way among the rocks along the stream. Remarkably, they were two species: Little Forktail and White-crowned Forktail. Right after they moved off, a Blue Whistling Thrush came briefly into view. A Plumbeous Redstart completed the streamside gathering.
After that early flush of birdlife, the hike down the valley was relatively uneventful for long stretches, perhaps because of the drought. Most of the usual bubbling springs and pools were dry and silent, and even the reservoir was nearly dry. I did encounter several small flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbill, but the bamboo stands where I had encountered Short-tailed Parrotbill in the past were silent. I also found several confiding Chinese Hwamei.
Watching a Grey Treepie fly across what was left of the reservoir, I noticed a single Eastern Buzzard sitting on a tree on the far side. By this time, I was resigned to missing Short-tailed Parrotbill on this trip. As I walked past the small parking area that overlooks the reservoir, I heard a familiar twittering from a dense clump of grass. I walked over and phished, and Short-tailed Parrotbill immediately materialized in front of me, about 15 in all. These amiable little birds respond readily to playback and phishing, and are typically not shy. This time, unfortunately, a large carful of noisy tourists roared up within moments of my finding the parrotbills, and off they flew. I found them again, however, a hundred meters or so down the road, just beyond the outskirts of the village.
Beyond the village, in the bamboo-covered hillsides, the birding picked up again. As I watched a Long-tailed Shrike fighting with a Brown Shrike, a Eurasian Kestrel sailed across my field of view in the background. Four noisy Rufous-faced Warbler called from within a bamboo stand. Another large flock of Eurasian Siskin swept past.
As the road reenters the nature reserve, the bamboo and secondary scrub turns into majestic forest. Here birds and bird waves were once more all around me. The tall trees were full of Grey Treepie, and Huet’s Fulvetta trilled in the understory. As the road switchbacked down the thickly forested slope, I heard a bird wave below me, and once again found myself in the midst of a huge mixed flock, of which Chestnut Bulbul and Mountain Bulbul were the most conspicuous members. A beautiful male Grey-chinned Minivet landed on a branch right in front of me, seemingly daring me to admire his brilliant orange plumage. A male Orange-bellied Leafbird foraged in the branches right overhead, and yet another Speckled Piculet—my third of the trip—showed well. A pair of Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker also flew into view. Rounding out the wave were Yellow-bellied Tit and Japanese Tit and a few leaf warblers of indeterminate species.
Birding around the large parking area at the entrance to the temple area, I noted the last Chinese Hwamei of the day hopping about on the grass.
I returned to my hotel in the early afternoon and left for the long trip back to Shanghai, having logged a total of 54 species in two outings. Although I failed to find Elliot’s Pheasant, I achieved my other goals (re-finding Short-tailed Parrotbill and Koklass Pheasant). The walking route from Longfengjian down the trail to the Chanyuan Temple area is the best and most productive route I have yet taken, not only for species diversity but also for sheer numbers of birds. This is undoubtedly owing to the rich and unspoiled character of the forest along this route, from the mountaintop area all the way down to the valley floor.
I RETURN IN MID-DECEMBER
I returned to Tianmushan the following month, in mid-December, to experience this locale at the very end of fall. This time, I started at Longfengjian, climbed to the summit of Xianrending, elev. 1506 m (4,941 ft.), and once again descended the steep trail to the Chanyuan Temple area before hiking along the road back to the village. This time I stayed at a hotel in the village itself, just a few hundred meters below the nearly dry reservoir, at the entrance to the road up to Longfengjian. My first day, Dec. 14, was sunny and comparatively warm, and I logged some familiar friends on the early morning drive up to Longfengjian: a small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpie and a Blue Whistling Thrush at the usual spot about halfway up the road on a wire over the stream. Dawn is a great time to observe forktails along the upper portion of the road; they like to come out and forage on the road surface before the traffic gets started. I spotted five White-crowned Forktail and one Little Forktail on the way up. The landscape had changed since November. Gone were the autumn colors, leaving the deciduous forest in the higher elevations almost bare of leaves. Since this was the first time anyone had attempted hiking and eBirding in Longfengjian in December, I was free to form my own expectations about what might be there. I hoped to find wintering raptors soaring over the heights, and perhaps some interesting, previously unrecorded wintering passerines in the silent forests. I expected the summer birds to have all departed downslope or to warmer climes. However, none of these expectations were borne out.
My first encounters as I entered Longfengjian at about 7 a.m. were typical of the warmer months: Chinese Hwamei, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Huet’s Fulvetta were all in evidence in the early going. Red-billed Leiothrix were very common, in contrast to every other time I have visited Longfengjian. By the time I got to the giant trees area, I was hearing my first Great Barbet call; this species evidently remains in the high elevations at least into December, and I heard at least six during the course of the morning. Eurasian Jay and Japanese Tit were also around. I saw no Koklass Pheasant in the spots where I had encountered them before, although a covey of Chinese Bamboo Partridge was in nearly the same spot.
In the area around the mountain temple, the trees rang with woodpecker drumming, and, after a lot of frustrating rubbernecking, I not only logged Great Spotted Woodpecker, but also a Bay Woodpecker.
Once I began the ascent of Xianrending, things got even more interesting. This path climbs out of the awe-inspiring stands of giant cypress and into a pine-oak forest reminiscent of Appalachia in the United States. And it was here that the pheasants had gathered, presumably to feast on the fallen cones and masts. All along the trail, I heard scratching and foraging in the brush, although actually sighting the birds proved more challenging. My first sighting was a nice family of Elliot’s Pheasant foraging underneath a large fallen tree. They trotted off into the brush very quickly, but the male made sure to be the rearguard, allowing me a decent if brief look at this most resplendent of eastern China’s pheasants.
As the trail climbed higher and higher up the ridge, I heard more and more pheasants foraging all around me, and eventually laid eyes on two separate, beautiful male Koklass Pheasant, both of whom were quite tame and allowed me long looks as they cautiously picked their way among the leaves.
As the views opened up, I scanned the surrounding mountains for wintering raptors, but saw absolutely nothing. The black eagles, serpent-eagles, hawk-eagles, and accipiters of the warmer months were all gone. As for wintering birds, I encountered several groups of Yellow-throated Bunting among the scrub oaks near the summit, but the most interesting bird on Xianrending was a Moustached Laughingthrush, a species that had eluded me on previous visits.
The summit of Xianrending has a couple of permanent human residents who tend a weather station. I could also see that the trail did not end at the summit, but instead continued off along the ridge, deeper into the mountains. That will have to be an outing for another time!
On the way back down Xianrending, I heard more pheasants, and, right where the taller forest began, I encountered a splendid bird wave, full of species I did not expect to find this late, this high up. A sizable number of Grey-headed Parrotbill mingled with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-capped Babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, and a single Speckled Piculet as they foraged among the evergreen rhododendron foliage. That, as it turned out, was the best bird wave of the entire day.
The long, steep trail down the mountain to Chanyuan Temple was totally different from the previous month. Gone were the flocks of leaf warblers, bulbuls, leafbirds, and treepies. While I did turn up a single flock of Grey Treepie at the bottom of the trail, and a few flocks of Chestnut Bulbul chattered in the trees, much of the walk was silent. I logged only a single White’s Thrushthis time, and saw no leafbirds or minivets at all. At one point, I discovered the mournful remains of a Silver Pheasant, fallen victim to some forest predator.
Once I reached the bottom, however, my fortunes improved. The area around the lake still had a considerable number of birds, including a Common Kingfisher, and along the road itself, wintering Eurasian Siskin and Brambling adding to my tally, along with a second Speckled Piculet. By the time I returned to the hotel, after many miles of walking, I had tallied a respectable 43 species, to which I added a late-day surprise at the hotel itself: a Collared Owlet, harried by little birds as he perched conspicuously on a wire right outside my room!
The following day, Sunday, I would have to return to Shanghai in the afternoon, so I resolved to spend the morning birding along the road and in the village. After getting up, I decided to bird the brushy backyard area of the hotel itself, and found not only a nice White-crowned Forktail along a drainage ditch, but a Blue Whistling Thrush as well—both species a bit surprising to find in the middle of town, and nowhere near any stream. A walk up along the road past the reservoir yielded my third Speckled Piculet of the trip, as well as small numbers of other local stalwarts like Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and Rufous-faced Warbler. A short afternoon hike in the other direction, along the winding road over to the main entrance and the Chanyuan Temple area, yielded my first Meadow Bunting for this location.
In all, over the course of a day and a half of December birding, I found well over fifty species. I saw no raptors, wintering or otherwise, and the only wintering species were also findable in Shanghai (Daurian Redstart, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brambling, Eurasian Siskin, and Yellow-throated Bunting). Notable was the absence of white-eyes and yuhinas, so abundant in the spring. On the other hand, many of the typical summer species were still around, and pheasant species, in particular, were conspicuous in the late autumn woodlands with the diminished foliage.
Some overall comparisons of fall with spring and summer are in order. Warbler diversity, so characteristic of Tianmushan in the warmer months, is down by early November and all but absent by December—yet Rufous-faced Warbler, retiring and hard to find in June, are abundant fall migrants and probably winter residents. Certain species I found in profusion in June atop Longfengjian had moved down to lower elevations in November, most notably Grey Treepie and all bulbul species. Other summer species, like Orange-bellied Leafbird and Grey-chinned Minivet, were still present in November but not observed in December, and perhaps leave the area altogether during the winter months.
Tianmushan deserves to be better recognized as an outstanding birding locale, and not only for the birds themselves. It preserves a truly noteworthy stretch of primary forest easily accessible to even casual hikers, and a large variety of trees, flowers, and insects besides. A number of difficult-to-find birds can be found there easily, among them Buffy Laughingthrush, Short-tailed Parrotbill, and Koklass Pheasant, and further exploration of this enchanting area is bound to turn up more surprises.
MORE INFORMATION ON TIANMUSHAN
My eBird lists for November and December 2019 (minus sensitive species) can be found at the following links:
In late January I set off with my wife to Yunnan, intending to spend a couple of weeks in sunny, subtropical Xishuangbanna, birding and touring. No sooner had we arrived in Kunming, than the vague unease over the coronavirus afflicting Wuhan crystalized into full-fledged panic. Overnight, stores, parks, and public places shut down, airports, streets, and train stations emptied, and breath masks came out. Not just Wuhan and neighboring cities, but virtually all of China went into lockdown, with more than a billion people hiding indoors.
At the first opportunity, we returned to Chengdu and the relative security of my wife’s apartment. On my first day in Chengdu, I resolved to go forth and visit some familiar local parks and bird habitat, curious about the effects of the lockdown on China’s birdlife. Following is my account of that day, and the birds.
Chengdu, like Kunming (and, I imagine, the rest of China), is a virtual ghost town, with the hysteria over the coronavirus keeping nearly everyone indoors, hoarding food and only venturing forth furtively to buy food at the one or two stores still open, faces covered with masks. The fear is palpable, and the only thing missing are cinematic zombies. The avenues and streets of this enormous metropolis, usually choked with noisy, chaotic traffic, are nearly empty, and most of the jetliners are gone from the sky. Nothing like this has ever happened in world history—a vast country, holding roughly one fifth of the world’s population, paralyzed with fear.
So I did the only rational thing: I strapped on my backpack and binoculars, and headed out with my wife to see how the birds were faring during the apocalypse. After all, birds across China have become accustomed to the obnoxious behavior of the Chinese, many of whom regard them as fit only to be chased, harassed, trapped, eaten, and otherwise stressed; this is why birds here are, for the most part, remarkably wary. I have assumed that this state of affairs has been the norm in China for at least a thousand years; now it was time to see if, in the sudden absence of people, bird behavior would change accordingly (a few years ago, the History Channel produced a fascinating miniseries called Life After People in which it was speculated how the world would change if people suddenly disappeared; never did I imagine I would get to witness something akin, even if temporary).
With the weather overcast and intermittently drizzly, we decided to limit our walk to the park and riverfront near my wife’s apartment building, where on a typical walk, I can find 18-20 species. I noticed that the big heron rookery on the river island nearby was not as clogged with birds as it usually was. Roughly 50 Grey Heron and one or two Little Egret were hanging out there—far less than the usual number. The reason soon became apparent as we walked along the river—the birds were feeding all up and down the river in much larger numbers than usual. With none of the usual noisy pedestrians and throngs of fishermen to harass them, they were enjoying unfettered access to all the fish, in some cases squabbling like seagulls over their catches.
In the park itself—almost devoid of people except for a few elderly, some of whom weren’t wearing masks and didn’t seem to care about all the craziness (after all, they’ve seen much worse)—the birds were everywhere. White-browed Laughingthrush, usually shy habitués of dense thickets and foliage, were foraging openly on the deserted lawns in large flocks. Chinese Grosbeak, normally perched high in trees away from stone-throwing children, unleashed dogs, and other harassers, were mixing with flocks of Eurasian tree sparrows on the ground. And birds that I seldom or never find in this urban setting were also about: Rosy Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, and Plumbeous Redstart. On this part of the river, Mallard flocked, along with a small group of Chinese Pond Heron, another bird relatively scarce in this area. Further downstream, I saw Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover. After a walk of only a little over an hour, covering a mile at most, I had 29 species and had noted a lot of new behavior patterns.
On the other hand, some birds did not appear to notice that anything was amiss. One of my favorite Chinese birds, the endearing and intricately-patterned Black-throated Bushtit, is friendly and curious in normal times, and today they were no different. These diminutive, energetic birds came flocking to my phishing wherever I walked, perching close by in sizable flocks, curious and unafraid.
Unfortunately, on the way back, I noted some activity that served to remind why the birds of China are so remarkably skittish: a middle-aged man with a slingshot stood shooting at sparrows and bulbuls, shouting angrily at them all the while, doubtless under the illusion that the birds are somehow responsible for this disaster. After all, China has embarked on bird pogroms before, scapegoating them for disease outbreaks and other calamities.
Anyway, I plan to make further forays, to Bailuwan Wetland, a major eBird hotspot only a few miles from my wife’s apartment, and other less urban areas, in the coming days, to see how the wildlife in such places is faring. During my last visit to Bailuwan little more than a week ago, I was watching the large flock of Ferruginous Duck that winters there, along with several other species of waterfowl, when along came a Chinese family. The father immediately began urging his children to scare up all the ducks so they could watch them fly, completely indifferent to the foreigner who was trying to observe them. They proceeded to shout and scream and thoroughly scare up hundreds of waterfowl. I expect that the coronavirus has purchased those birds a temporary reprieve from that kind of harassment.
Postscript: My wife and I did indeed visit Bailuwan Wetland Park the following day, and found it empty. As anticipated, the Ferruginous Duck, along with Eurasian Coot and Common Moorhen, were enjoying the unwonted tranquility. The surrounding woods were also birdier than usual, with even a shy Chinese Hwamei making an appearance alongside a flock of laughingthrushes.
At the time of this writing, the initial hysteria seems to be subsiding, with more and more people coming out of hiding, but the parks are still empty and the birds are still enjoying this interlude of relative freedom from harassment. This morning’s walk along the river yielded a very robust 34 species.