Well-spotted in the Bamboo, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. Herewith we present “Well-spotted in the Bamboo,” John’s third guest post for our site. In it, John introduces the bird community of Jinfoshan, the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains in the city-province of Chongqing. John’s bird of the trip was Spotted Laughingthrush (above), a “quiet, gentle bird” of mountain forests and one of seven species of laughingthrush at Jinfoshan. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

I recently was invited to join a workshop of the China Bird Watching Association to review three years’ monitoring of wintering data on Scaly-sided Merganser. The attraction was that the meeting was to be held in Jinfoshan National Nature Reserve in Nanchuan District, Chongqing. So I added a day to my trip for birdwatching and ended up on the top of this spectacular mountain for three days. Whilst floods were raging in Hubei and Anhui, we 40 birdwatchers enjoyed beautiful weather—blue skies and only occasional quick showers of rain to liven up the bird life.

At an elevation of 2251 m (7,385 ft.), Jinfoshan is the highest peak in the Dalou Mountains. The reserve was recently added to the South China Karst World Heritage Site. It is also listed as an important bird area on account of its having Reeves’s Pheasant. Jinfoshan combines ease of access with great birding trails and pristine habitats. It deserves much more attention, but it is not well-known to most birders.

Jinfoshan offers a great chance to view vertical stratification of flora and fauna, since you rise quickly—at first by shuttle bus and then by cable car through the subtropical evergreen valleys, temperate mixed forests, and finally subalpine forest and meadows.

Birds of the lower country
Birds of the lower country and hotel gardens at Jinfoshan. Top: White-collared Yuhina Yuhina diademata. Bottom: Vinaceous Rosefinch Carpodacus vinaceus (L) and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha. (John MacKinnon)

I did not have time to explore the lower levels, but even whilst waiting for the shuttle bus we could see Red-billed Blue Magpie, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Whistling Thrush, Russet Sparrow, and Plumbeous Water Redstart. Overhead circled Crested Honey Buzzard.

Our meetings were in a fancy five-star hotel. My own room had a bath big enough to swim in! But the real attraction was to get out into the surrounding forest whenever the meeting schedule gave us a chance.

Not that the meeting was not interesting in itself! I was impressed to see so many motivated and very professional presentations by the various monitoring teams. More rivers and reservoirs get monitored each year, and more than 1,000 wintering Scaly-sided Merganser were recorded in the winter of 2016-17. The Association has also done a magnificent job in developing the species as a lovable and charismatic emblem of conservation in China.

Even from the hotel windows and gardens there were plenty of birds to see. Olive-backed Pipit and White Wagtail were nesting on the grassy flat roof, and Verditer Flycatcher perched temptingly on prominent perches (though proved skittish for photography). The woods echoed to the calls of Large-billed Leaf Warbler and Bianchi’s Warbler. Green-backed Tit were in full breeding plumage; White-collared Yuhina was the most visible bird. The most beautiful of the common birds was certainly Vinaceous Rosefinch, the males of which were gorgeous in their deep purple plumage.

The cable-car ride offered amazing views of the deep gorges and lush forests. Great flocks of swifts circled their nesting sites on the sheer limestone cliff faces. In fact, these were mixed flocks, with Pacific Swift, House Swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, and Asian House Martin all visible.

Enter the woods and you meet a different complex of birds. The undergrowth is thick with bamboo, and indeed this site was historically within the range of Giant Panda and may again be considered as a site for reintroduction.

Birds of Jinfoshan forests
Birds of the mountain forests. Top: Black-headed Sibia Heterophasia desgodinsi. Bottom: Red-tailed Minla Minla ignotincta (L) and White-bellied Green Pigeon Treron sieboldii. (John MacKinnon)

A rustling in the trees revealed feeding White-bellied Green Pigeon. Busily collecting moths and other insects were Red-tailed Minla, whilst the Blue-winged Minla were more leisurely preening each other after a morning bath. Black-headed Sibia sneaked in and out to collect small fruits. Flocks of Grey-hooded Fulvetta rattled alarm in the bamboo in mixed flocks with Rufous-capped Babbler and some very pretty Black-throated Parrotbill.

Whilst colleagues at the merganser meeting swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics, I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. I was jealous of the others getting nice photos of Slaty Bunting and White-bellied Redstart, but I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.

One of the most extraordinary bird calls consists of many dozens of high-pitched notes merging together into a prolonged whistle. The entire call lasts almost a minute, but the caller is elusive. Finally I nailed it down and photographed the caller in the act—an elusive Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler.

Another bird making loud and rather melodious calls was Red-billed Leiothrix working their way among the undergrowth collecting food for their nearby nestlings. Chinese Babax sneaked about on the forest floor.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘For me,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush.’ A mainly Himalayan species, Ianthocincla ocellata ranges into China east to Jinfoshan and Shennongjia in Hubei. (John MacKinnon)

Jinfoshan boasts seven species of laughingthrush. The lower sectors are home to White-browed Laughingthrush, Moustached Laughingthrush, and White-throated Laughingthrush. Near the reserve summit in open scrub and in the forested limestone forests, the common Elliot’s Laughingthrush creeps about, making low, quiet glides and gentle calls.

For me the highlight of the trip was meeting flocks of rather approachable Spotted Laughingthrush—a species with a much more restricted China distribution, being a Himalayan species extending in mountain forests as far as Jinfoshan and Shennongjia. This is a quiet, gentle bird, hopping about on the forest floor searching under leaves and through the moss.

Spotted Laughingthrush
‘Whilst colleagues … swarmed the site with an array of expensive cameras and optics,’ MacKinnon writes, ‘I stayed deep in the forests, looking for laughingthrushes. … I had my own rewards in the damp bamboo.’ Here is MacKinnon’s biggest reward: close views of the gorgeously patterned Spotted Laughingthrush. (John MacKinnon)

I sat among fluffy rock squirrels and watched their antics. They took me back to my favoured sites with warm memories of being among the Giant Panda of Wolong in Sichuan and the hilly forests of Bhutan.

Featured image: Spotted Laughingthrush Ianthocincla ocellata, Jinfoshan, Chongqing. (John MacKinnon)
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John MacKinnon in Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

On Sat. 8 April I birded Cape Nanhui with John MacKinnon. John is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, the most influential book ever written about China’s birds. On John’s first visit to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, we noted 84 species. John and I were joined by veteran birders Michael Grunwell and Russell Boyman and the outstanding high-school birder Larry Chen.

We gave John the Grand Nanhui Tour, starting at Luchao to the south and ending 30 km north at Binhai. Heading back to the city, we made a brief stop at the sod farm just south of Pudong Airport, where we found a single Oriental Plover.

Oriental Plover
Russell Boyman (L) examines Oriental Plover 8 April at the sod farm south of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Conditions at the sod farm were decidedly not favorable to a plover. The jets were noisy, the farmers were busy, and there was a whiff of pesticide in the air. Why would the plover choose such a subpar area? Because the sod farm roughly approximates the steppe habitat required by the East Asian specialty. Oriental Plover are long-distance athletes, marathon runners between Australia and Mongolia, and incredibly tough. Despite the poor habitat, our bird likely will survive its brief visit to Shanghai and muscle its way up to the breeding grounds. For more on Oriental Plover in Shanghai, see my post Rites of Spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Nanhui yielded 23 Marsh Grassbird performing the song flight at three locations, and we saw 10 Endangered Great Knot and 1 Near Threatened Curlew Sandpiper. We had a pair of Rufous-faced Warbler and a Common Starling.

Also: Garganey 57, Greater Scaup 1 (Dishui Lake), Little Curlew 31 (flock), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 11 (first of season), Red-necked Stint 1 (first of season), Wood Sandpiper 1 (first of season), Peregrine Falcon 1, Dusky Warbler 1 at Magic Parking Lot (possibly wintered there), and Reed Parrotbill 18.

Birds of Cape Nanhui
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April. Top: Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis is common in much of south China and a vagrant to Shanghai. Bottom L: A vagrant to Shanghai, Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris is often seen associating with White-cheeked Starling Spodiopsar cineraceus. Middle R: Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea assuming breeding plumage. Bottom R: Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus. In Shanghai stunning adult males such as this one are less often seen than the less-colorful females. Red-flanked Bluetail breeds from Japan west to Finland. (Craig Brelsford)


John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon co-authored the most influential field guide ever published about China’s birds.

Our partner, John MacKinnon, co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Published in 2000, the book has sold more than 50,000 copies and remains the only bird guide in English covering all China. John also wrote the first and second guest posts in the history of shanghaibirding.com.

John is witty and a fine storyteller. He had us roaring with tales drawn from his six decades as a researcher in Asia. The funniest story was about the doctor back home in Britain. Every time John straggled in, the doc would call in his students, so that they could study the strange new tropical disease John had contracted.

“I never cared about my health, because I never expected to live this long!” John said.

John also talked about his masterpiece, A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Field Guide. Had it merely been a window for Westerners to the birds of the world’s most populous country, then John’s work would have been important enough. The Field Guide, however, in translated form has introduced tens of thousands of Chinese to the birds of their own country. John’s Chinese name, Mǎjìngnéng (马敬能), is known by every birder in China.

John faced obstacles unknown to field-guide writers in North America and Western Europe, where birding has been practiced for 200 years. His sources were often thin, he said.

“For range maps, I had nearly nothing from Russia,” John said. “A Chinese book had ranges stopping at the Chinese border. Another book had no paintings, only descriptions.”

To critics who unfairly compare John’s Field Guide to field guides covering more developed parts of the world, John had this to say:

“You’ve got to finish something. We finished the book. We could have waited and said, ‘Oh, another species has been split, we must revise,’ but at a certain point you have to say, ‘We must go with what we’ve got.’”

To this day, no Westerner has repeated John’s feat. Others talked; John acted. One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment in John’s heart.

John is a handy photographer and got off some good shots, three of which are displayed in the Day List at the bottom of this post. Here are some photos I took of the pioneer birder and naturalist.

John MacKinnon, Michael Grunwell
John MacKinnon (R) and Michael Grunwell examine one of John’s photos at Cape Nanhui, 8 April. (Craig Brelsford)
The team at Nanhui. L-R: Michael Grunwell, John MacKinnon, Russell Boyman, Larry Chen. (Craig Brelsford)
MacKinnon and birders
Everyone wanted a turn with the distinguished author. Top panels: John MacKinnon with Larry Chen (L) and Russell Boyman. Bottom: Michael Grunwell poses and gets an autograph. (Craig Brelsford)


Marsh Grassbird were singing in the large reed beds at Nanhui. They were most conspicuous at the reed bed south of the Holiday Inn (30.870711, 121.942976). The species, listed as Near Threatened by IUCN, was also noted in the pristine reed bed (30.931790, 121.949169) associated with the defunct wetland reserve.

Marsh Grassbird
Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis at the large reed bed (30.870711, 121.942976), Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 8 April. Marsh Grassbird is among the least-known members of Helopsaltes. The populations at Cape Nanhui went unmentioned by Kennerley and Pearson in their landmark book Reed and Bush Warblers (Christopher Helm 2010). Kennerley and Pearson were aware of the breeding population on Shanghai’s Chongming Island but even there could not say for certain whether the grassbirds were residents or summer visitors. Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge is the extreme shyness of the bird. Outside breeding season, when it undertakes song flights, Marsh Grassbird remains hidden deep within the Phragmites reed beds that are its preferred habitat. The other reason is the extremely fast rate at which its reed-bed home is being destroyed. At Cape Nanhui and other places in China, this Near Threatened species could disappear before researchers get a chance to study it. (Craig Brelsford)

The reed beds at Cape Nanhui may be the last stronghold of Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis on the Shanghai Peninsula. The species is highly dependent on large reed beds. In areas where only strips of reeds remain, the song of Marsh Grassbird is never heard. Its partner species, Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for official bird of the city-province of Shanghai, is only slightly less dependent on large reed beds.

One of the areas where last year my partners and I noted Marsh Grassbird performing its song flight has been flattened. No song of Marsh Grassbird was heard there Saturday. A few Reed Parrotbill were calling in one of the strips of reeds left standing.

Much needs to be learned about Marsh Grassbird in Earth’s largest city. Birders, look for the fluttering song flight, and listen for this song:

Marsh Grassbird, April, large reed bed at 30.870711, 121.942976, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai (00:07; 1 MB)


List 1 of 1 for Saturday 8 April (84 species)

Photos by John MacKinnon
Birds of Cape Nanhui, 8 April. Clockwise from top L: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-faced Warbler, Little Curlew. (John MacKinnon)

Birds noted around Pudong Nanhui Dongtan Wetland (Pǔdōng Nánhuì Dōngtān Shīdì [浦东南汇东滩湿地]; 30.920507, 121.973159), Pudong, Shanghai, China. We covered the coastal road between Binhai (Bīnhǎi Zhèn [滨海镇]; 31.006250, 121.885558) and Luchao (Lúcháo Gǎng [芦潮港]; 30.851109, 121.848455). Among the points along this 30 km stretch are Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), a site providing access to the reed beds at the mouth of the Dazhi River (Dàzhì Hé [大治河]); Big Bend (31.000321, 121.938074); Microforest 4 (30.953225, 121.959083); Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635); Magic Parking Lot (30.884898, 121.968229); Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551); South Lock (30.860073, 121.909997); Eiffel Tower (30.850531, 121.878047); & the Marshy Agricultural Land (30.850707, 121.863662). List includes birds noted at Dishui Lake (30.908702, 121.945124). Cloudy, hazy; low 13° C, high 18° C. Wind E 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 147 (unhealthful). Visibility 5 km. Sunrise 05:34, sunset 18:18. SAT 08 APR 2017 07:00-16:55. Russell Boyman, Craig Brelsford, Larry Chen, Michael Grunwell, & John MacKinnon.

Garganey Spatula querquedula 57
Northern Shoveler S. clypeata 4
Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope 2
Falcated Duck M. falcata 25
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha 35
Eurasian Teal A. crecca 2
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula 25
Greater Scaup A. marila 1
Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica 3
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 3
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis 8
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus 20
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 31
Great Egret A. alba 3
Intermediate Egret Egretta intermedia 1
Little Egret E. garzetta 95
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus 9
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus 1
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 40
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra 20
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus 13
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus 27
Little Ringed Plover C. dubius 7
Oriental Plover C. veredus 1 at sod farm S of Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742)
Little Curlew Numenius minutus 31
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris 10
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata 11
Curlew Sandpiper C. ferruginea 1
Red-necked Stint C. ruficollis 1
Dunlin C. alpina 30
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago 8
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 3
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1
Spotted Redshank T. erythropus 4
Common Greenshank T. nebularia 20
Wood Sandpiper T. glareola 1
Common Redshank T. totanus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 25
Little Tern Sternula albifrons 1
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis 13
Spotted Dove S. chinensis 2
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops 1
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 2
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach 2
Oriental Skylark Alauda gulgula 20 singing
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 200
Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus 35
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 13
Rufous-faced Warbler Abroscopus albogularis 2 (pair)
Japanese/Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis diphone canturians/H. borealis borealis 4 singing
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler P. proregulus 1
Yellow-browed Warbler P. inornatus 1
Marsh Grassbird Helopsaltes pryeri sinensis 23
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 6
Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 8
Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana 100
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris 1
Red-billed Starling Spodiopsar sericeus 42
White-cheeked Starling S. cineraceus 17
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus 18
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea 2
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum 1
Pale Thrush T. pallidus 11
Dusky Thrush T. eunomus 55
Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus 3
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 1
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius philippensis 1
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri 3
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 75
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata 3
Eastern Yellow Wagtail Motacilla tschutschensis 8
White Wagtail M. alba 28
Richard’s Pipit Anthus richardi 1
Olive-backed Pipit A. hodgsoni 8
Buff-bellied Pipit A. rubescens japonicus 7
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica 1
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata 23
Little Bunting E. pusilla 16
Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala 13
Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi 8

Featured image: John MacKinnon (R), co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China, with Craig Brelsford, executive editor of shanghaibirding.com. (Larry Chen)
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Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. Herewith we present “Daxing’anling: Kingdom of the Great Owls.” It is about MacKinnon’s experiences with the owls of the Daxing’anling (大兴安岭) or Greater Khingan Range in northern Inner Mongolia. The photo above, taken by Li Jixiang, is of Ural Owl, one of the great owls of that remote and wild region. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

She is big. Wow, she is big. But she is beautiful and she knows it. She watches me with a disdain that most beautiful ladies seem to acquire. She is a hunter—a killer, but she has every right to be so. She is the Great Grey Owl, and I have been her admirer, hoping to meet her for many years.

She is perched only 2 metres off the ground in a flimsy larch bush that looks too weak to support her great size. But in fact she is lighter than she looks. Most of her bulk is feathers. The Great Grey Owl is marginally the longest owl in the world from head to tail, and the only two or three species that may be able to outweigh her are also here in the forests of Genhe Wetland Park of Daxing’anling: Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and Snowy Owl.

Suddenly she hears a movement below her and pounces. A few moments scrabbling in the grass and she rises up again on silent, slow wing beats to settle on another small bush a few metres away. But now she has a large lemming in her beak. She transfers the lemming to the safer grasp of her foot then launches off on wide wings low over the ground, through a small clump of trees then out of sight into the larch forest beyond. I know she must have young to feed, and I want to see them also.

Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon.
Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon. ‘I meet her two boyfriends … . Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large.’ (John MacKinnon)

But before I find her young, I meet her two boyfriends a few hundred metres apart along the same trail leading deeper into the tall larch forest. Like Madame, they are relatively tame, and I can approach quite close to take photos. One has got wet in the night rain and looks rather miserable with straggly wet feathers. They are smaller than the female, but still pretty large. I am gradually getting to understand their habits. They are more diurnal than I expected, and they hunt in clearings rather than in the dense forests.

But her nest is in the forest, and I still try to find out where, so I return to her favourite hunting area and watch her a few more times to see exactly where she flies each time she catches another lemming or vole.

As chief technical advisor of the Daxing’anling wetlands conservation project funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, I have other duties to attend to. I can only steal occasional moments and weekends for treks in the woods looking for birds! I have to wait two weeks before I get the chance to return and find where she hides her young.

Li Ye took this shot of Great Grey Owl in its nest in the great larch forest of the Greater Khingan Range.
Hanma Nature Reserve Deputy Director Li Ye took this shot of Great Grey Owl and chick in the nest in the larch forest. (Li Ye)

Meanwhile, Deputy Director Li Ye of the nearby Hanma Nature Reserve has found another nest of Great Grey Owl and has taken great shots and video of the male bringing food for his mate, who sits on a large platform of sticks—probably an old crow’s nest—where she tends to two small chicks.

When I return to Genhe in July, I find Madame hunting in the same area as previously, but this time she flies less far into the forest between catches, and this time I can hear the weak, hoarse calls of a youngster. I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree. But I find only one baby—a fluffy fellow—already quite large but lacking the great broad face disk of the parents. It pours with rain, and I have to move on back to Hanma, where I have another owl family to monitor. By August I return to find there are indeed two chicks—and looking very much mature, with clear concentric facial disk rings.

Fledgling Great Grey Owl, by John MacKinnon.
Fledgling Great Grey Owl. ‘I find the young fledgling clumsily clambering about in the larch trees and making short flights from tree to tree.’ (John MacKinnon)

At Hanma it is the Ural Owl that lures me out into the dark forest at night. Ural Owl is a true wood owl and unlike Great Grey it nests in tree holes. It is smaller than the Great Grey, but at 54 cm it is still an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl, which is a common species across much of China.

On a visit the previous year I had found and photographed two fully flying young fledglings, so I headed to the same spot, hoping to find they had bred in the same area. I was rewarded by finding an adult Ural Owl perched on the stump of a dead tree. I got some pictures in the dark. I had to use a flash, so the owl’s eyes reflect back spookily.

‘Ural Owl,’ writes MacKinnon, ‘is a true wood owl [and] an impressively large bird. It looks, sounds, and behaves like a giant Himalayan Owl. … Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.’ Top: Ural Owl, fledglings, Daxing’anling (John MacKinnon). Bottom L: adult Ural Owl, Daxing’anling (Li Jixiang). Bottom C: Ural Owl with frog in rain, Raohe, Heilongjiang, July (Craig Brelsford). Bottom R: Short-eared Owl, Honghe Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, July (Craig Brelsford).
But this year I find and hear no young. It has been a very cold winter, and the season is two to three weeks later than the previous year. I think the young are still in their nest hole, and I am pretty sure I know which tree they are in: a tall dead larch with three potentially good holes or an open chimney top to choose from.

I head back to the cabin I stay in, seeing several Grey Nightjar on my way. Sometimes the nightjars perch on the road, sometimes in trees, and sometimes they give their strange clonking calls as they fly around catching mosquitoes. Did I not mention the mosquitoes? Wow, how can I forget. There were hundreds of them, and they settled all over me whenever I stopped to take pictures. Their swollen bites still itch a week later. But I am happy to have seen these wonderful owls and cannot wait to find them again in the winter, when the snow lies on the ground.

It is in the snow time that the owls of Daxing’anling really show what they can do. The great Snowy Owl is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.

Northern Hawk-Owl.
Northern Hawk-Owl, writes MacKinnon, ‘is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. … It is totally diurnal.’ Daxing’anling, Inner Mongolia, January. (Craig Brelsford)

Another owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, is also largely white but with black ear muffs and thin stripes across its belly. The Northern Hawk-Owl catches birds and smaller prey in the woods. It is totally diurnal.

Other woodland owls such as the bulky Eurasian Eagle-Owl and its smaller cousin the Long-eared Owl are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes. In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest, but in winter they move south or take up residence only in the most sheltered valleys. The smaller Boreal Owl lives in the tundra forests and is strictly nocturnal and rather solitary. Short-eared Owl is a grassland species that also moves to warmer locations in winter.

Long-eared Owl (1, 2) and Eurasian Eagle-Owl (3, 4) ‘are brown with black streaky plumage, long ear tufts, and fearsome orange eyes,’ MacKinnon writes. ‘In summer these two owls hunt chipmunks and pikas in dense forest.’ 1: Zhalong Reserve, Heilongjiang, May. 2: Xidaquan Forest, Boli, Heilongjiang, August. 3a, 3b: near Beidaihe, Hebei, September. 4: Boli, Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)

But the Great Grey stays put, hunting in the forest clearings from its low perches. This owl has amazing hearing and can detect voles and lemmings moving in their burrows underneath half a metre of snow. Like a polar bear catching seals beneath the Arctic ice, the owl can plunge to its own depth in snow and drag out these unsuspecting rodents.

In winter the larch trees lose their needle leaves. But the forest is not silent. Moose rummage in the frozen wetlands and find food beneath the snow. Lynx compete with Snowy Owl to catch Mountain Hare, which have also gone white for the winter.

snowy owl
‘The great Snowy Owl,’ writes MacKinnon, ‘is perfectly coloured to creep up on unsuspecting white Mountain Hare. Snowy Owl is large, with a lazy yellow-iris stare. It is pure white and variously speckled with black spots, which break up its shape and make it almost invisible in the snowy landscape.’ In February 2015 Kai Pflug took this shot of Snowy Owl near Hulun Lake, west of the Daxing’anling in Inner Mongolia. (Kai Pflug)

Willow Grouse, stoat, and weasel also turn white for the winter. Bears are hibernating, but the huge spotted capercaillies are active in the larch trees, eating the buds and shoots for the next year’s leaves and already starting to fight for females with their load croaking calls, fanning their tails like turkeys and eyeing the world fiercely under their red eyelids.

Daxing’anling is all about winter. The winter lasts for nine months, and summer is short. And there she rules–ice queen of China’s most northerly forests–the Great Grey Owl.

List of Place Names

Daxing’anling (Dà Xīng’ānlǐng [大兴安岭])

Map of Greater Khingan Range (Daxing’anling) and Lesser Khingan Range in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, China. Original version of this map published in ‘Forest Dynamics and Their Phenological Response to Climate Warming in the Khingan Mountains, Northeastern China’ (https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/9/11/3943/htm). Used with permission.

Mountain range NE China (Inner Mongolia) dividing Greater Manchurian Plain & Mongolian Plateau. Range runs ca. 1200 km (744 mi.) S from Amur River, is broad in N & narrow in S, & is heavily forested throughout. Elevation of highest peak: 2035 m (6,675 ft.). In Inner Mongolia most of Daxing’anling lies within Hulunbeier Prefecture. Also called Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains.

Genhe Wetland Park (Gēnhé Yuán Guójiā Shīdì Gōngyuán [根河源国家湿地公园]): nature reserve Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. Coordinates: 51, 122.

Greater Khingan Range, Greater Khingan Mountains: see Daxing’anling.

Hanma Nature Reserve (Dà Xīng’ānlíng Hànmǎ Guójiājí Zìrán Bǎohùqū [大兴安岭汗马国家级自然保护区]): protected area Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia. 51.32475, 122.37784.

Hulunbeier (Hūlúnbèi’ěr Shì [呼伦贝尔市]): sub-provincial administrative area NE Inner Mongolia. Area: 263,953 sq. km. (101,913 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): larger than United Kingdom; slightly smaller than Colorado. Pop.: 2.6 million. Much of Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier. Officially Hulunbeier “city” (市).

Inner Mongolia (Nèi Měnggǔ Zìzhìqū [内蒙古自治区])

Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia occupies a vast area in northern China. Much of the Greater Khingan Range lies in Hulunbeier (red), the U.K.-sized prefecture in the extreme north. (Craig Brelsford/Wikipedia).

Province N China. Area: 1.18 million sq. km (456,000 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): twice the size of Texas. Pop.: 24.7 million. Officially, an “autonomous region” (自治区).
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Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic, by John MacKinnon

Editor’s note: John MacKinnon is the co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon is a pioneer in another, smaller way—he is the author of the first guest post in the history of shanghaibirding.com. Herewith we present “Far from Shanghai, Four Hours of Arctic,” an account of an afternoon MacKinnon recently spent in the Altai Mountains in Northern Xinjiang. — Craig Brelsford

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

My father was raised on Scotland’s Isle of Skye—a wild youth who could throw a cricket ball a hundred yards. And when I was 8 years old he delighted in taking me on walks up Blaven and the Red Hills to tell me of his own wild childhood exploits. I was much impressed by his story of once killing a ptarmigan with a stone until a few years later I visited the Cairngorms and discovered how incredibly tame that species is—a sitting duck (uggh!) at 10 metres. But those bleak alpine landscapes remain in my blood, and so it was a great delight on 5 June 2016 to join a few fellow birdwatchers of the Altai Bird Lovers Society to head up into the hills above Altai Town for a few hours bird-watching.

I had given the Society a talk in the morning, so our time was limited. It became even more shortened as the military guard at the only barrier we had to pass held us up for two hours insisting no foreigners were allowed beyond his post. Many phone calls later, we were allowed to advance. The delay was a pity, as we had to bypass several fellow birders who were stalking a rare Snowy Owl sighted earlier in the valley.

These woods echo to the calls of familiar European birds—Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Blackbird, Great Tit, Common Nightingale, and Rock Bunting. The undergrowth was abloom with wild peonies, but we were heading for higher ground. We would have only four hours more of daylight.

Rock Bunting
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia par, Altai Mountains. Rock Bunting occurs in mountainous areas from southern Europe and North Africa to Xinjiang and Tibet. (Craig Brelsford)

The road was rough—sometimes rocky, sometimes deeply rutted in mud. It had been raining, and the mountain streams were flooding out of their banks, and we had to ford them many times. We passed out of the forests and into the open meadows. These were gloriously green with new spring grass before the Kazakh herdsmen could bring their flocks up for the summer grazing. Thousands of Purple Fawn Lilies (Erythronium sibiricum) and Cowslips (Primula denticulata) glistened in the sunlight, fluttering in the wind. Grey, Yellow, and White Wagtail skittered out of the way of our 4-wheel vehicle as it laboured up the trail. Black Kites and a lone Common Kestrel glided over the valley. Large sleepy marmots gazed at us as we drove on higher towards the snowline, and a large eagle flew just over our heads without giving us a second glance.

Black Kite
Black Kite in Altai Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

The road twisted about between great walls of snow where a digger had cut a way through, and eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border. It was indeed very similar to the landscapes of the Scottish Cairngorms, and I felt quite at home as we came to a halt and started on foot to clamber across the loose rocks and patches of shallow snow that covered the rolling hilltops. But the air was thin, and I could already feel the altitude at nearly 3000 m as I trudged ahead in a slightly desperate search to find Rock Ptarmigan.

Rock Ptarmigan
A Holarctic species, Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in China occurs only in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang. (John MacKinnon)

I spotted the first one—a cock in full white winter plumage. I crept up gradually, taking pictures as I went. I did not want to alarm or disturb the bird but it seemed quite unconcerned and went about its business feeding and wandering across the snow only a few metres away. Gradually the three other birders caught up with me and took their fill of pictures. I withdrew to give the bird some peace, but the other birders were more persistent, and eventually the cock flew off with a dark female whom I had not spotted at all.

Vegetation was sparse, and there were few other birds on this bleak windswept hill, but we did see Northern Wheatear, Grey-necked Bunting, and Altai Accentor. Across a valley of deeper snow I spotted another white cock ptarmigan standing out boldly against the dark rocks, and then, in amazement, I noticed our leader Tang Liming sitting quietly no more than 5 metres away from the bird.

Altai Accentor (L) and Ortolan Bunting
Altai Accentor (L) and Grey-necked Bunting. In China, Altai Accentor occurs in the Altai Mountains and Tianshan in Xinjiang and Tibet. Grey-necked Bunting is a bird of arid mountainsides that in China occurs only in Xinjiang. (John MacKinnon)

It would be a long walk down to the road and back up the other side, so I headed straight across the snow. Walking gently, I found I could stay on top of the snow crust, but a couple of times I sank deeply down to my waist. Two other birders followed my trail, and soon we were creeping up the other side towards Mr. Tang and the splendid cock ptarmigan. So well-hidden was his mate that I might have walked on her had Mr. Tang not whistled a warning. Mr. Tang had already got great pictures of the pair mating, but we were content to get close ups of the two birds, again as tame as can be.

The clever cock had found a wonderful rock to shelter behind from the bitter wind, but he let his partner squat out in the open. Both birds fed for a while, and we got excellent stills and video of them showing no concern at our presence. One of the birders had nothing less than a 600 mm, and he had to hover about 30 metres back whilst we could sit with 10 m!

With light falling, we started the climb back to the car. It was a steep, wet, slippery climb, and at one point I fell sharply on my rear end. But we were elated with our ptarmigan success, and the sunset was very beautiful. We got back in the car and headed home, thinking the day was done—but far from it.

Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus. (John MacKinnon)

I spotted a movement on the hillside. We stopped and myself and a Mr. Wang crept up to where I had seen another bird. We were rewarded with great views of a cock Willow Ptarmigan and his mate. They were not as tame as the Rock Ptarmigan but did let us get within 20 m or so, and somehow, despite quite dim light, my camera managed to take bright and glorious pictures as the cock strutted his stuff and gave his famous gobbling calls. Unlike the cock Rock Ptarmigan that were still in full winter plumage, the Willow Ptarmigan was in the half-white, half-brown plumage of summer. It was getting really late now, so we hurried back to the car.

We got less than 1 km when we saw a wolf trotting along not far off the road. We halted and stumbled out of the car, fumbling to reassemble cameras, but the wolf moved on quite fast, and we ended up getting back in the car, turning round and following back up the road. We now saw there were two wolves. We parked where we had seen the Willow Ptarmigan earlier, got out and looked everywhere for the wolves, but they were nowhere to be seen. Only when we turned back towards the parked car we saw them sitting watching us from further up the road. Again we followed in the car, but they were soon far away, on the other side of the stream. Again they stopped to have a good look at the strange car and humans before heading back into the snowy hills. They were both quite skinny, but they had made it through the winter, and soon there would be baby hares, marmots, rock squirrels, grouse, red deer, ibex and all sorts of potential prey to fatten on and rear their own litter of new cubs through the summer.

Grey Wolf
Grey Wolf trotting across tundra. (John MacKinnon)

Now it was really dark, and all we saw on the rest of our trip down the mountain was one pipit and a small mouse trapped in the headlights.

I wanted more, and my project had indeed planned a trip of several days into the Liangheyuan Nature Reserve, but just two days after my trip into the Arctic, the army ruled that no foreigners could be permitted into the border areas, be they from the United Nations or even the royal family! And so I had to sadly abort my plans and head prematurely back to Beijing. But my few hours in the hills will remain a happy memory.


Map showing position of Altai City in territory administered by the People’s Republic of China. Altai City lies just north of the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility, the point in Eurasia farthest from any coastline. Red area signifies Xinjiang. The largest provincial-level entity in the PRC, ‘New Frontier’ is larger than Germany, France, and Spain combined. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

Altai City (Ālètài Shì [阿勒泰市]): county-level city Altai District

Altai District (Ālètài Dìqū [阿勒泰地区]): sub-prefectural jurisdiction Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang

Altai Town: urban area in Altai City 47.825858, 88.133544

Blaven: mountain on Isle of Skye

Cairngorms, the: mountain range central Scotland

Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (Yīlí Hāsàkè Zìzhìzhōu [伊犁哈萨克自治州]): sub-provincial autonomous prefecture, Xinjiang

Skye, Isle of: largest island in Inner Hebrides archipelago off W coast of Scotland

Featured image: Pass in Altai Mountains, Altai District, Xinjiang. This is the place of which John MacKinnon wrote, “Eventually we emerged on top of the world, with views way into the distance across the Mongolian border.” On 5 June 2016, the pioneering naturalist and author made a visit to this remote high country, finding amazing riches there despite a stay of only four hours. (John MacKinnon)
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