Jon Hornbuckle saw 9,600 species of bird, more than anyone, ever. He was tough as nails. We were at Tangjiahe, Sichuan in May 2013. Our original five-man group was one short, but the park still wanted 10,000 yuan. Jon insisted on a prorated price of 8,000. The rep said no, and Jon said, “Tell her we’re leaving.” The rep gave in. Later, at the parking lot at the base of the mountain, the rep cheerfully announced that her boss had prepared a luncheon for us in a banquet hall nearby. “We’re not tourists,” Jon said.
We marched up the mountain, topping out at 2640 m (8,660 ft.). Jon matched us step for step. That night in the cabin, we were awakened by the hooting of Himalayan OwlStrix nivicolum. We searched with a flashlight but never saw the owl. Jon wouldn’t tick it; he had to see his birds. The next day, as I drove the team to Wolong, Jon said I was accelerating unnecessarily, and would I please stop wasting petrol?
At first, Jon’s intensity was intimidating; I had never met anyone so relentless in his pursuit of birds. As I got to know Jon, I discovered a softer side to the great lister. The world was his patch, and he explored it with the enthusiasm of a boy exploring the woods. To Jon, finding a new bird was like making a new friend.
In Xi’an I picked up Jon and his partners Dave Woodford and Phil Heath, the latter two world-class birders like Jon. We zoomed through Shaanxi and Sichuan on an itinerary that would have exhausted a much younger man. In the Qinling we ticked BlackthroatCalliope obscura, in Shaanxi we scored Crested IbisNipponia nippon, at Tangjiahe we found Przevalski’s ParrotbillSinosuthora przewalskii, at Wolong we saw Wood SnipeGallinago nemoricola, at Longcanggou we thrilled to Golden-fronted FulvettaAlcippe variegaticeps, and at Xiningzhen we eked out Silver OrioleOriolus mellianus.
After the trip, Jon and I maintained a friendly correspondence. He was among the first subscribers to shanghaibirding.com. On 6 July 2017, vacationing in the south of France, Jon was badly injured in a car accident. The accident damaged his memory, and he never recovered. Jon passed away on 19 Feb. 2018, age 74. He was a great birder, and he deserves to be remembered.
Did you know Jon? Tell your story by commenting below.
Featured image: No human being has seen more species of bird than Jon Hornbuckle, shown here at Balangshan, Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
This is some brief information for birders interested in birding Fuzhou National Forest Park, based on my trip there from 26 Feb. to 2 March 2019.
While Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui is always an interesting place to go for birdwatching, there are times when the chances of something new showing up are a bit low. Time for a short birdwatching trip, maybe? And ideally one that does not involve flights, as those tend to be delayed in China? And one that offers a chance to see some species that one can never get in Shanghai, such as Red-headed Trogon or Silver Pheasant, or a variety of bulbuls? And maybe a place that in winter is warmer than Shanghai? Time to go to Fuzhou National Forest Park.
Fuzhou National Forest Park (26.151783, 119.295526) is in the hills north of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian in southeastern China. The site is 595 km (370 mi.) southwest of Shanghai.
Fuzhou train station (make sure it is Fuzhou Fujian, and not Fuzhou South) is easy to reach by train from Shanghai Hongqiao. Fastest trains take fewer than four hours. Cost is just under 400 RMB per trip. A useful early train leaves Shanghai at 08:15 and arrives in Fuzhou a few minutes before noon. Taxis are available at the train station. For the return trip, there are several trains around 6 p.m. taking a bit longer (e.g., leaving Fuzhou at 18:11, reaching Shanghai at 22:47)—useful if you want to bird on the last day.
Though there are hotels in the park, they do not accept foreigners. The best choice is probably the Juchunyuan Ruichun Hotel as it is within walking distance of the park (about 20 minutes to the entrance). It is reasonably clean, rooms are large and lack style—ideal for birders. Cost about 300 RMB per night. They do offer half-day rentals at the end of the stay. Breakfast only starts at 7 a.m. though, too late for any self-respecting birder.
OPENING HOURS OF THE PARK
Officially, the park is open from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but in reality, it always seems possible to enter (there are several houses with people living inside the park, so a strict control would be difficult). Entrance is free.
FACILITIES IN THE PARK
There are toilets and several small food stalls selling drinks and cup noodles.
WHERE TO BIRD IN THE PARK
You need to walk around a lot to see birds—there are no hides and no ideal spots just to sit down and wait for birds. I found the middle part of the park the best to find birds, i.e., the trail marked by the triangles—but of course results may vary according to season. I have found the Qing dynasty postal trail to be good, and the slightly more remote mountainous trails somewhat disappointing.
Not that easy as there are no hides. However, some birds such as the trogons are probably less afraid of people than they are elsewhere. Better take a lens that is easy to carry, rather than a very heavy one. All the photos in this post were taken with my Nikon 500 mm f5.6, frequently with 1.4 TC. The quality is not quite as good as the bigger lenses but due to its low weight (1.4 kg), it is much better for walking around a lot (30 km on average per day) and hand-holding.
I saw 74 species in total, about 30 to 50 each day. For an idea of the birds that can be found in the park, see the eBird hotspot page: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1562636
It is generally a good idea to avoid weekends, as the park turns into a sort of outdoor karaoke place then (there is still some birding possible on the slightly more remote trails, just avoid the main paved road along the valley). As for the best month, I cannot really say, but eBird indicates the park is most visited by birders in January to March.
Featured image: Common south China birds of Fuzhou National Forest Park. Clockwise from top L: Black-throated BushtitAegithalos concinnus, Collared FinchbillSpizixos semitorques, Grey-chinned MinivetPericrocotus solaris, Blue Whistling ThrushMyophonus caeruleus. (Kai Pflug)
On 5 June 2014 on the Old Erlang Road in Sichuan, I photographed female FirethroatCalliope 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, BlackthroatCalliope 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 RobinLarvivora 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 PheasantChrysolophus amherstiae and Streaked BarwingActinodura souliei.
MAP & PHOTOS
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.
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.
Found at Shanghai’s Cape Nanhui on 1 May 2019: possible White-headed Yellow WagtailMotacilla 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).
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 WagtailMotacilla flava leucocephala, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, 1 May 2019. (Haiming Zhao)
’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 StubtailUrosphena 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 WarblerPhylloscopus schwarzi for a stubtail. A closer look at my photos revealed the longer tail and spikier bill of the Radde’s. Dusky WarblerP. 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 WrenTroglodytes 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)
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.
1. On 22 April 2019, Beijing added to breeding range of Asian Stubtail, Paul Holt added to bibliography.
Featured image: Asian StubtailUrosphena squameiceps, Changfeng Park, Shanghai, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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:
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.
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.
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.
For more on Tianmushan and other birding hotspots in the mountains of southeast China, please see the following posts on shanghaibirding.com:
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 WarblerPhylloscopus emeiensis, Spotted ElachuraElachura formosa, Sichuan Bush WarblerLocustella chengi, and Alström’s WarblerPhylloscopus 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 ThrushZoothera salimalii. I wrote about the experience in a 2016 post, “A Minor Role in a Major Discovery.”