Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

by Elena Govorova
Senior Ornithologist, Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve


For birdwatchers, the main reason to visit Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve is its rich collection of East Asian birds, among them Blakiston’s Fish Owl (above), Siberian Grouse, and Scaly-sided Merganser. In addition to being a world-class birding destination, Sikhote-Alin is a vast, pristine wilderness that is home to Amur (Siberian) Tiger. Birders who dream of experiencing East Asian birds in their historical habitats should visit Sikhote-Alin.


Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve (45.293056, 136.678889) is in Ussuriland (Primorsky Krai) in the Russian Far East. The reserve is 760 km (470 mi.) east of Harbin, Heilongjiang and 2020 km (1,260 mi.) northeast of Shanghai. The reserve extends 90 km (56 mi.) inland from the Sea of Japan and covers an area of 401,600 hectares (1,551 sq. mi.).

Ninety-five percent of the reserve lies within the densely forested Sikhote-Alin Mountains, which in the reserve rise to an elevation of 1598 m (5,240 ft.). Rivers traverse the valleys, and along the coast are marshy lakes. Sikhote-Alin provides habitat for 389 species of bird, 60 species of mammal, 5 species of amphibian, 7 species of reptile, and 64 species of fish.

The reserve was established in 1935 to protect Sable Martes zibellina. Today, its most famous object of protection is Amur Tiger Panthera tigris altaica.


Birds are present year-round at Sikhote-Alin. During breeding season you can see up to 50 species a day and at other times of the year more than 20.

Classic Eurasian spruce-fir forests cover the northwestern part of the reserve. Siberian Grouse Falcipennis falcipennis, endemic to the Russian Far East, is common here. Sikhote-Alin is one of the few places in the world where birders have a good chance of seeing Siberian Grouse.

Hooded Crane Grus monacha and Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata nest in marshes in the spruce-fir forests. Other spruce-fir species are Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus, Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki, and Coal Tit Periparus ater.


Coniferous-broadleaf forests make up a large part of the reserve. The variety of birds here is comparable to that of a tropical forest. Key East Asian birds abound. Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans and Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane nest on the ground. The undergrowth is occupied by Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans, and Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami. The trees are filled with Northern Boobook Ninox japonica, Japanese Scops Owl Otus semitorques, Oriental Scops Owl O. sunia, Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus, Siberian Thrush Zoothera sibirica, and White’s Thrush Z. aurea.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana serenades under the tree crowns, while in the crowns feed Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus and Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus. Nesting in these forests is a representative of the Asian subtropics: Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus. Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus also visit the coniferous-broadleaf forests. The rocky cliffs are inhabited by White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis and the glades and edges by Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala and Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi. Nesting along the rivers are Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes, and Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus.

The wooded river banks are also the breeding grounds of two endangered East Asian birds: Blakiston’s Fish Owl Bubo blakistoni and Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus. You can find Blakiston’s in the winter on the non-freezing sections of the rivers, though views are not guaranteed. Birders visiting in July and August have a good chance of seeing Scaly-sided Merganser. During those months, birders commonly find females with their broods on the rivers. Also breeding on the rivers is Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus nests on the pebbly banks.


Oak forests cover the seaside slopes and are inhabited by various woodpeckers: Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Yungipicus canicapillus, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Y. kizuki, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, Great Spotted Woodpecker D. major, and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor. Also found here are Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla and Chestnut-cheeked Starling Agropsar philippensis. Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon is found in the meadows near the oak forests. The bottomlands are inextricably linked with Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia, and Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus.

Along the coast, observers have noted Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus, White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi, Spectacled Guillemot Cepphus carbo, Japanese Cormorant Phalacrocorax capillatus, Pelagic Cormorant P. pelagicus, Long-billed Murrelet Brachyramphus perdix, and Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus. Pacific Swift Apus pacificus, Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus, and Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius nest on the rocks by the water.

Around the seaside lakes as well as on the lower reaches of the rivers breeds Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii. Other species in these habitats are Band-bellied Crake Zapornia paykullii, Baillon’s Crake Zapornia pusilla and Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus. During migratory season, birders can note Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana.


The skies of the reserve are patrolled by Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus, Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus, Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis, and White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.

Researchers have recorded forty species of waterfowl in the reserve, among them East Asian specialties Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa and Falcated Duck Mareca falcata as well as Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus and Tundra Swan C. columbianus bewickii. Twice a year, around 53 tundra-nesting species pass through the reserve.

Researchers in winter have recorded 97 species at Sikhote-Alin. Among them are Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus, Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus, Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus, Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis, Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi, Asian Rosy Finch Leucosticte arctoa, and Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus.


To visit Sikhote-Alin, please apply by email. State the purpose and intended duration of your visit, the itineraries you wish to follow (see below), and the number of persons in your group.

Address: 692150, Partizanskaya St., 44, Terney, Terney District, Primorsky Area, Russia
Phone: +7 (42374) 31-5-59

A representative of Sikhote-Alin will accompany you throughout your visit. Some staff members speak English.


There are daily flights from Vladivostok to Terney (45.048999, 136.620361), the village where the headquarters of the reserve is located. Usually going by plane to Terney is the fastest option (about 1.5 hours), but bad weather causes many flights to be canceled. Don’t make your schedule too tight, and have a backup plan.

If your flight is canceled, then you can wait a day and try to catch the next flight or take an uncomfortable 14-hour bus ride 670 km (416 mi.) from Vladivostok to Terney. You can also drive to Terney from Vladivostok (10 hours).

Terney has grocery stores, a hotel, post office, cafe, and clinic.


There are two main itineraries:


Blagodatnoye is 18 km (11 mi.) south of Terney. It is the starting point for the Northern Cape, Lake Blagodatnoye, and Golubichnaya Bay trails. These are easy routes that birders can complete in a day. At Blagodatnoye you can observe the birds of the oak forests and meadows and waterfowl and shorebirds on the lake and the sea. There are two observation towers and a hide on Lake Blagodatnoye. Guests can stay in a cabin near the sea. Two- or four-bed rooms are available with kitchen (gas stove, refrigerator, and cookware) and banya (Russian sauna).

Arsenyev Trail

The Arsenyev Trail traces part of the expedition conducted in 1906 by the Russian explorer of the Far East, Vladimir Arsenyev. The trail leads from the eastern slopes through a pass in the Sikhote-Alin ridge to the western slopes, passing through the coniferous-broadleaf and spruce-fir forests. The route is for experienced walkers. It takes walkers six days to cover the 56 km (35 mi.) path. Birders may wish to take even more time. There is a hide near the Kaplanovsky Salt Licks. Spaced along the trail are five cabins with bunks and stoves. Users of the trail must carry their own sleeping bag and personal items. Food is transported to the cabin by employees of the reserve.

Please note that the managers sometimes prohibit entry to portions of the reserve. Note also that travelers to Sikhote-Alin, especially those who visit in May and June, should consider getting a vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis.

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Experts say the best time to visit Sikhote-Alin is autumn (late August to mid-October). The monsoon rains have stopped, there are fewer ticks and blood-sucking insects, and the temperature of the air and water is still comfortable.

For birders, the best time to visit falls outside autumn. Migratory ducks and other waterfowl gather on Lake Blagodatnoye in April, when the weather can be cold and windy. The breeding season for most passerines is May through July, a time when midges and ticks are most bothersome. By August, when the weather and insect situation have begun to improve, the birds have already begun to depart.

For birders willing to accept the challenges, Sikhote-Alin offers an unusually rich environment in which to experience the birds of East Asia. Although no one can guarantee you tiger sightings, the birds definitely will be there!


Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve is in Ussuriland in the Russian Far East. The reserve is 760 km (470 mi.) east of Harbin, Heilongjiang and 2020 km (1,260 mi.) northeast of Shanghai. (Google Maps)
Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik
Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve stretches from the Sea of Japan inland to the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. With an area of 4016 sq. km (1,551 sq. mi.), the reserve is larger than the state of Rhode Island in the United States. Coastal sites near Terney, such as Lake Blagodatnoye, are readily accessible, while the mountainous interior is harder to reach, for logistical as well as administrative reasons. Sikhote-Alin is a zapovednik—a word meaning wilderness area or nature sanctuary, but in many cases denoting the protection of cultural or biological riches (in this case, Amur Tiger) and not just the land itself. As a zapovednik, the reserve enjoys the highest level of protection afforded by the Russian state. (Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik/Craig Brelsford)
Siberian Grouse
For birders, the attraction of Sikhote-Alin is its East Asian birds, in particular its rarities. One of the best-known is Siberian Grouse Falcipennis falcipennis, a resident of the vast, nearly untouched spruce-fir forests of the reserve. This is the male. (Konstantin Maslovsky)
Siberian Grouse
Siberian Grouse (female, above) is closely related to North America’s Spruce Grouse Falcipennis canadensis. Endemic to the Russian Far East, Siberian Grouse once occurred in the Lesser Khingan Mountains of Heilongjiang but has likely been extirpated from China. Its numbers are stable at Sikhote-Alin. (Peter Mametyev)
Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus, male. An endangered species, Scaly-sided Merganser breeds on clear-flowing rivers lined with tall trees, which it uses for nest-holes. Sikhote-Alin is among the most important areas within the merganser’s breeding range. (Valery Shokhrin)
Scaly-sided Merganser, female. In July and August, birders find female Scaly-sided Merganser and their broods in the rivers of Sikhote-Alin. (Valery Shokhrin)
Japanese Scops Owl Otus semitorques ussuriensis (above) and Oriental Scops Owl O. sunia are summer visitors to the forests of Sikhote-Alin. (Valery Shokhrin)
Birds of the forests of Sikhote-Alin. Clockwise from top: Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. During breeding season, Sikhote-Alin resounds with birdsong. On a good day out, birders can note up to 50 species. (Elena Govorova)
In April, after the melting of the ice on Lake Blagodatnoye (44.934793, 136.537586), migrating ducks begin to appear, forming flocks numbering in the thousands. Among the most numerous are Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator. Present in smaller numbers are East Asian specialties Falcated Duck Mareca falcata and Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. Numerous species of shorebird also use the lake, and Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii breeds in the surrounding meadows. (Elena Govorova)
One of the more accessible areas of the reserve, Lake Blagodatnoye has two observation towers and a hide. A day’s walk in the area gives birders views of shorebirds on the coast, waterfowl on the lake, and passerines in the oak forests and meadows. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Bay on Sea of Japan (L) and Lake Golubichnoye (44.915594, 136.525149). Around the lake, birders find Band-bellied Crake Zapornia paykullii and Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata. The sandy shore of the bay attracts migrating peeps such as Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta and Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
At Sikhote-Alin, the mixed coniferous-broadleaf forest, as seen here in the Yasnaya Valley (45.114277, 135.866303), is a showcase of East Asian birds. Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans breeds in dense undergrowth along the streams, and Siberian Thrush Zoothera sibirica sings its fluty song from the treetops. At dawn White’s Thrush Z. aurea whistles mournfully. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Spruce-fir forest covers the Columbe Valley in the northwestern sector of the reserve. Siberian Grouse occurs here along with summer breeders Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus and Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
In the oak forests on the slopes above the Sea of Japan live Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Yungipicus kizuki. In the sea below, birders in winter can find Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus and Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
October, Zabolochennaya Valley (45.236287, 136.509562). Though not prime birding season, autumn offers fall color, brisk weather, and a respite from ticks and blood-sucking insects. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Zabolochennaya Valley in the snow. At Sikhote-Alin in winter, researchers have recorded 97 species, among them Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus, Asian Rosy Finch Leucosticte arctoa, and Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)


This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. For a comparison of the birds of Sikhote-Alin with those of Xidaquan National Forest, 500 km (310 mi.) to the west in Heilongjiang, China, see the following report:

Boli, Heilongjiang at the Height of Breeding Season

See also:

Birding Northern Inner Mongolia and Eastern Heilongjiang

Birding Northeast China in April & May

Featured image: Blakiston’s Fish Owl Bubo blakistoni requires dense, old-growth forest near lakes and rivers that do not freeze in winter. Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve preserves in abundance this type of habitat, and for this reason it is a stronghold for the endangered owl. (Peter Mametyev)
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Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016: Introduction

by Craig Brelsford


In this report, you will get an introduction to Boli County and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine Du and I combine birding with family. There are as well my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.


Silver Birch Grove
Silver Birch Grove (白桦林), one of the attractions of Xidaquan National Forest in Boli County, Heilongjiang. (Craig Brelsford)

Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.


From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we heard for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.


Boli County
Boli County lies within the Amur Basin of Northeast China. It is part of Qitaihe Prefecture in eastern Heilongjiang, not far from the Sino-Russian border. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)

In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.

In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a reserve in the Laoye Mountains covering 9,400 hectares (36 sq. mi.). Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.

For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.

Elaine and Family
Elaine Du (L) with parents and elder sisters. Dawucun, 12 June. In the background are the verdant foothills of the Laoye Mountains. (Craig Brelsford)

Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)—“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.

The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.

Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve—12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.

For more information on places mentioned in the text, see “List of Place Names” in Part 3.


Streamside habitat
Streamside habitat at Xidaquan. Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and Lanceolated Warbler use the thick vegetation along the unseen stream. Siberian Rubythroat and Thick-billed Warbler forage among the scrubby plants in the foreground. Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo call, and Dusky Warbler sing. Eastern Buzzard soar overhead. (Craig Brelsford)

A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the aforementioned species as well as more habitat-sensitive birds such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.

The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.

Band-bellied Crake Zapornia paykullii

Band-bellied Crake
Band-bellied Crake stunned Elaine and me with its beauty. (Craig Brelsford)

Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.

Band-bellied Crake, Hongwei Linchang, Boli, 9 June 2016 (00:26; 2.6 MB)

Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo

We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata

Mandarin Duck
Mandarin Duck, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos

White-backed Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos. Female in wooded area off Road Z004 near Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor

Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus

Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.

Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)

Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus

Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.

Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus

In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.

Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka

We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.

Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii

Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.

Coal Tit Periparus ater ater

Coal Tit
If this bird looks familiar to European birders, it’s because it’s the same nominate race of Coal Tit found in Continental Europe. Photo taken in hills S of Boli Town on 7 June. (Craig Brelsford)

The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.

Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)

Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)

Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis

Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.

Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus

The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.

Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus

Eastern Crowned Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.

Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)

Eastern Crowned Warbler 2/2, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:40, 2.4 MB)

Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi

Radde's Warbler
Radde’s Warbler is a powerful singer and among the most conspicuous birds at Xidaquan National Forest. (Craig Brelsford)

Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.

Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)

Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus

Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes

Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus

Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)

Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis

Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Oriental Reed Warbler, Jiulong Reservoir, 10 June 2016 (00:06; 1.8 MB)

Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps

Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.

Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)

Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon

Thick-billed Warbler
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.

Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)

Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata

Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus

Gray's Grasshopper Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus on rare foray out of undergrowth. (Craig Brelsford)

In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)

Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica

Siberian Thrush
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.

Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.

Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)

White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea

One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.

White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)

Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum

This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.

Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)

Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana

We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)

Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane

Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.

Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)

Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans

Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.

Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)

Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope

Siberian Rubythroat
Siberian Rubythroat singing on utility wire, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)

Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.

Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia

Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis

I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.

White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)

Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis

Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and four days each in winter and summer 2015.

Meadow Bunting
Emberiza cioides weigoldi

Resident, recorded by us in winter, summer, and spring (five days in spring 2016). Seen at edges of farmland and in open areas near forests. Never in deep forests.

Meadow Bunting, forest edge at Dawucun, 31 May 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)

Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami

Forest bunting, with some association with conifers, commonly seen along the forest roads. Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and six days in summer 2015.

Tristram’s Bunting, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:11; 1.2 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans

Forest bunting with a preference for deciduous habitats. Sings loudly and aggressively defends territory. Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 16 days in summer 2015.

Yellow-throated Bunting 1/2, song, hills S of Boli Town, 5 June 2016 (00:12; 1.3 MB)

Yellow-throated Bunting 2/2, alarm call, hills S of Dawucun, 7 June 2016 (00:50; 3.6 MB)

Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala

Black-faced Bunting
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan. In spring, the song of this bunting is one of the most common bird sounds in the region. (Craig Brelsford)

One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.

Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)


Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus
Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus
Band-bellied Crake Zapornia paykullii
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos
Hill Pigeon Columba rupestris
Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus
Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus
Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo
Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus
Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo
Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius brandtii
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus
Oriental Magpie Pica serica
Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Carrion Crow Corvus corone orientalis
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
Coal Tit Periparus ater ater
Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis
Japanese Tit Parus minor
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus caudatus
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus
Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes
Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus
Oriental Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orientalis
Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps
Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon
Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea baicalensis
Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica
White’s Thrush Zoothera aurea
Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane
Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans
Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis
Stejneger’s Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
White Wagtail Motacilla alba leucopsis
Olive-backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis
Grey-capped Greenfinch Chloris sinica
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides weigoldi
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala


The deep forest at Xidaquan. This seemingly stable environment shows a very different set of birds according to the season. In the area where this photo was taken, in August and September 2015 Elaine and I found Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, and Yellow-browed Warbler. We saw none of those species in May and June 2016. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, White’s Thrush, and Lanceolated Warbler were in the same area in spring 2016. (Craig Brelsford)

The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.

Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.

Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.

Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.

Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.

Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.

Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.

Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.

Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.

Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.

Du and Brelsford
The husband-and-wife birding team of Elaine Du (L) and Craig Brelsford, Xidaquan. (Craig Brelsford)


“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 1.

Part 1: Introduction and Discussion
Part 2: Daily Reports
Part 3: Comprehensive Bird List

This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. See also:

Northeast China

Birding Northern Inner Mongolia and Eastern Heilongjiang
Birding Northeast China in April and May

Russian Far East

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

Featured image: Band-bellied Crake Zapornia paykullii, 8 June, Boli, Heilongjiang, China. (Craig Brelsford)
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