ID Guide: Spotted Bush Warbler and Baikal Bush Warbler

Spotted Bush Warbler
Spotted Bush Warbler Locustella thoracica, Sichuan, China, July. Read this post to learn about Spotted Bush Warbler and its closely related congener Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

SPOTTED BUSH WARBLER

Spotted Bush Warbler Locustella thoracica inhabits Himalayas and central Chinese mountains, from southeast Tibet and northern Qinghai east across northern Yunnan to Guizhou and southern Gansu and northern Sichuan to the Qin Mountains in Shaanxi. HABITAT & BEHAVIOR In thickets and dense scrub in forest glades and alpine meadows, in summer to 4300 m (14,110 ft.), lower in winter. Shy, but breeding males sing conspicuously. ID & COMPARISON Similar to Baikal Bush Warbler L. davidi and Russet Bush Warbler L. mandelli. Breeding adult rufous-brown from forecrown to graduated tail. Crown and mantle faintly scaled. Short, narrow dull-grey supercilium conspicuous before eye, fainter behind; dark eye-stripe also most distinct before eye. Ear coverts ashy-grey. Chin whitish. Lower throat and upper breast washed grey and spotted black; distinctiveness of spotting varies by individual and season (may be totally obscured in non-breeding plumage) but usually weaker than Baikal Bush Warbler. Flanks and undertail coverts tawny brown, the latter boldly scaled white. Juvenile washed yellowish below and has weaker, yellow-tinged supercilium. Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris lacks scaling on undertail coverts and never has grey wash on breast. Russet Bush Warbler has russet ear coverts and a less prominent supercilium. BARE PARTS Bill black; legs bright orange-pink. VOICE Song a fast, streaming “trick-he-dee, trick-he-dee, trick-he-dee,” the sequence repeated continuously for several minutes; delivered also in winter. Baikal, Russet, and Chinese Bush Warbler L. tacsanowskia have a very different, buzzing song. — Craig Brelsford

BAIKAL BUSH WARBLER

Baikal Bush Warbler
Baikal Bush Warbler Locustella davidi davidi, Inner Mongolia, China, July. (Craig Brelsford)

In China, Baikal Bush Warbler Locustella davidi davidi breeds in the northeastern provinces plus Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Sichuan. Both davidi and Siberian breeder suschkini are rarely recorded passage migrants in China, with suschkini migrating east of Tibetan Plateau and davidi more numerous in coastal provinces. Winters Southeast Asia, rarely southeast China. HABITAT & BEHAVIOR In thickets and dense scrub in taiga glades, along streams, and at edges of fields, to 1400 m (4,590 ft.). Shy and difficult to observe. ID Breeding adult rufous-brown from forecrown to tail, lighter than Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica and distinctly warmer than Chinese Bush Warbler L. tacsanowskia. Short, whitish supercilium brighter and more prominent than Spotted and Chinese. Has dark eye-stripe, lacking in Chinese and Russet Bush Warbler L. mandelli. Ear coverts dull brown (not ashy-grey as in Spotted), contrasting little with crown and upperparts. Chin whitish. Lower throat and upper breast washed brown (not grey, as in Spotted) and streaked black; distinctiveness of streaking varies by individual and season (may be totally obscured in non-breeding plumage) but is usually stronger than Spotted and Russet and especially Chinese. Flanks washed brown. Undertail coverts dark brown and boldly scaled white (Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris lacks scaling). Juvenile has yellowish wash below and on supercilium. BARE PARTS Bill all-black in breeding season, yellow on lower mandible outside breeding season (Spotted all-black in all seasons); legs bright orange-pink. VOICE Song, delivered also in winter, an insect-like, raspy buzz, far different from Spotted. See sound-recording below. — Craig Brelsford

SOUND-RECORDING

Baikal Bush Warbler, Inner Mongolia, July (0:21; 4 MB; Craig Brelsford)

PHOTOS

Bush Warblers
The dull-brown ear coverts of Baikal Bush Warbler Locustella davidi davidi (L) contrast little with the crown and upperparts. In Spotted Bush Warbler L. thoracica (R), the ashy-grey coverts show a more marked contrast. (Craig Brelsford)
Spotted Bush Warbler
Spotted Bush Warbler perching conspicuously on bamboo, Mt. Wawu, Sichuan, July. Breeding season offers birders a chance to view this normally shy and elusive species. (Craig Brelsford)
Spotted Bush Warbler
Dorsal view of Spotted Bush Warbler. Note the ‘dark, russet brown’ upperparts and the ‘dull grey supercilium, most conspicuous in front of eye but merging with crown sides behind’ (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 159). (Craig Brelsford)
Baikal Bush Warbler
Baikal Bush Warbler, Greater Khingan Range, Inner Mongolia, July. Note the buffy white supercilium and warm brown flanks. (Craig Brelsford)
bamboo-wawu
Spotted Bush Warbler habitat on Mt. Wawu (29.648976, 102.951520), elev. 2700 m (8,860 ft). Breeding Spotted Bush Warbler favors ‘rank herbage by forest clearings and alpine meadows’ (Madge 2006, 602) and ‘grasslands and pastures interspersed with low scrub and thickets, including bamboo’ (Kennerley & Pearson 2010, 160). In rich, little-disturbed bamboo seas such as this, Spotted Bush Warbler can occur in high densities. Its congener Brown Bush Warbler Locustella luteoventris also breeds here, as does Aberrant Bush Warbler Horornis flavolivaceus. Brown Parrotbill Cholornis unicolor occurs year-round. (Craig Brelsford)
Baikal Bush Warbler habitat
Baikal Bush Warbler habitat in Greater Khingan Range, Inner Mongolia (50.719844, 121.995758), elev. 820 m (2,690 ft.). Baikal Bush Warbler breeds in ‘grassy meadows with a scattering of trees and bushes,’ often near streams (Kennerley and Pearson 2010, 166). Among the other species using this rich habitat are Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes certhiola and Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi. (Craig Brelsford)

RESOURCES ON LOCUSTELLA AND HELOPSALTES WARBLERS

Click the links below for coverage on shanghaibirding.com of locustellid warblers.

Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolatus
Marsh Grassbird H. pryeri
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler H. certhiola
Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler H. ochotensis
Lanceolated Warbler L. lanceolata
Brown Bush Warbler L. luteoventris

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Daniel Bengtsson served as chief ornithological consultant for my Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, from which the species descriptions above are drawn.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alström, Per, Pamela C. Rasmussen, Urban Olsson, and Per Sundberg (2008). Species delimitation based on multiple criteria: the Spotted Bush Warbler Bradypterus thoracicus complex (Aves: Megaluridae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 154: 291–307. Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Alstrom-et-al.-2008-Bradypterus-thoracicus-ZJLS.pdf (accessed: 28 Sep 2020).

Brazil, Mark (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

eBird (2020). eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Baikal Bush Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/spobuw1/CN). Spotted Bush Warbler in China (https://ebird.org/species/spobuw3/CN). Accessed: 27 Apr 2020.

Kennerley, P. & Pearson, D. (2010). Reed and Bush Warblers. London: Christopher Helm.

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps (2000). A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Madge, S.C. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Pp. 602-3 (Spotted Bush Warbler, Siberian Bush Warbler) 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.

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Birding Emeifeng, Fujian, Part 2

This post covers 28 to 31 May 2015, the second of my two four-day trips to Emeifeng, the pristine mountain in Fujian, China. A post on the first trip is here.

The photo above shows Craig Brelsford searching for Brown Bush Warbler in the pristine alpine scrub on Emeifeng, elev. 1650 m (5,410 ft.). (Elaine Du)

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Wed. 27 May
Taining

During our first trip to Emeifeng, Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I agreed to bird the mountain about a month later to see the changes four weeks would bring. Today, that second trip began. As in April, Elaine and I took the high-speed train from Shanghai to Nanchang and at Nanchang boarded the train to Taining. We once again checked in to Huada Hotel (Huádà Jiǔdiàn [华大酒店], +86 598-7817777).

With my camera in the repair shop, I was unable to take photographs. I focused on birding and made many sound-recordings. The bird photos in this post come from other trips.

Thurs. 28 May

Birds of Emeifeng
L: Red-billed Blue Magpie. R: Verditer Flycatcher. (Craig Brelsford)

On our return to Emeifeng, Elaine and I noted 57 species. Bird of the day was Elliot’s Pheasant. We also had 5 Silver Pheasant and 16 Buffy Laughingthrush. Little Forktail became our fourth species of forktail seen at Emeifeng, and Yellow-cheeked Tit put on an amazing vocal display.

Elliot’s Pheasant was a life bird for Elaine and me. We found a male near the road to Qingyun Temple just above kilometer marker 8 at an elevation of 1100 m (3,610 ft.). The bird allowed us several seconds to view it before it slipped away. 4 of the 5 Silver Pheasant we noted were in a flock (3 males, 1 female) on a hillside just above km 6 at an elev. of 940 m (3,080 ft.).

As was the case four weeks ago, we noted White-spectacled Warbler only above elev. 1400 m (4,590 ft.). The song of this species, coming from various directions, was one of the most common bird sounds today around Qingyun Temple. Hartert’s Leaf Warbler was not seen, but our other two “southern” leaf warblers from our earlier trip, Buff-throated Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler, were represented by 1 individual each. Buff-throated Warbler was found along the boardwalk to Qingyun Temple and is presumably one of the same pair that I met at that spot on 30 April. The Sulphur-breasted Warbler that I found four weeks ago responded to playback with song; today’s Sulphur-breasted Warbler responded with a brief call.

Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush
We noted Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush on four of our eight days at Emeifeng. (Craig Brelsford)

Fog shrouded the Qingyun Temple area most of the day. When it finally cleared, around 15:00, birds became active, as though it were dawn. 8 Buffy Laughingthrush were the main component of a foraging party that included 3 Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. They moved through the forest next to the boardwalk. The loud, jazzy sound of Buffy Laughingthrush caused a carpenter working in the area to start singing along. Another powerful singer in that wood was Yellow-cheeked Tit. A beautiful male performed three distinct songs for us, stopping only to devour a caterpillar:

Yellow-cheeked Tit, Emeifeng, 28 May (00:18; 1.5 MB)

Yellow-cheeked Tit, Emeifeng, 28 May (00:05; 1 MB)

Besides the 8 Buffy Laughingthrush near the temple, we found a flock of 6 quickly crossing the road, 1 amid a flock of 25 Grey-headed Parrotbill, and 1 heard calling from some distant spot in the forest. A pair of Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler were foraging together and calling antiphonally. We found them near the villages in the lower country at an elevation of about 750 m (2,460 ft.).

Besides Elliot’s Pheasant and Little Forktail, Elaine and I today added Lesser Cuckoo, Masked Laughingthrush, Brown Dipper, and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker to our Emeifeng list.

For our driver we once again hired Dèng Zhōngpíng (邓忠平, +86 138-6059-6327; no English, non-smoker).

Fri. 29 May

Elaine and I noted 63 species. The highlight of the day was finding Blue-throated Bee-eater and Oriental Dollarbird on a utility wire above Shuibu Reservoir. Blue-throated Bee-eater was new to our Emeifeng list and a lifer for Elaine. Other new birds were Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Common Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Black-naped Oriole, Black Drongo, Red-billed Starling, and White-rumped Munia.

Sat. 30 May

Brown Bush Warbler
A monotypic species, Brown Bush Warbler Locustella luteoventris ranges from India across southern China to Fujian and Zhejiang. At Emeifeng we found the species exclusively near Qingyun Temple in high-quality alpine scrub at elevations between 1500 m and 1700 m (4,920 ft. to 5,580 ft.). We noted the bird only on the second half of the trip, with 6 found on 30 May and 5 the next day. I shot the photos here at Mt. Wawu, Sichuan. (Craig Brelsford)

Michael Grunwell joined Elaine and me. We noted 54 species. Elliot’s Pheasant were seen in poor light, Cabot’s Tragopan appeared at an elevation of about 1400 m (4,590 ft.), Blue-throated Bee-eater were present by Shuibu Reservoir, and Brown Bush Warbler were staking out territories at the top of the Emeifeng altitudinal layer-cake.

The Elliot’s were near Shuibu Reservoir at an elevation of about 750 m (2,460 ft.). As darkness was falling, Michael, walking ahead of us along the road, inadvertently flushed a sub-adult male. Elaine and I arrived in time to see 5 females (or perhaps fledglings) exploding into flight from positions just a few meters from us. The tragopans were seen earlier but also in low light, this caused by fog.

Blue-throated Bee-eater
Blue-throated Bee-eater was a surprising find in the forests around Shuibu Reservoir. (Craig Brelsford)

The Blue-throated Bee-eater are a mystery; the species apparently has not bred in the area in recent memory. The habitat around Shuibu Reservoir seems favorable. There are plenty of vertical surfaces of soft earth in which to construct cavity nests, and the artificial lake is at a remote location, near the Fujian-Jiangxi border.

We noted all our Brown Bush Warbler between Qingyun Temple and the radio tower at altitudes of 1500 m (4,920 ft.) to 1700 m (5,580 ft.). At Emeifeng, the dense alpine scrub that Locustella luteoventris favors occurs only at those altitudes. Confident in their nearly impenetrable tangle of vegetation, the extreme skulkers allowed us to peek in from distances of less than 2 m. I recorded the soft, monotonous song of this species, like a sewing machine running or an automobile idling.

Brown Bush Warbler, sewing-machine song, Emeifeng, elev. 1600 m (5,250 ft.), 30 May (00:06; 266 KB)

Brown Bush Warbler, sewing-machine song, Emeifeng, elev. 1600 m (5,250 ft.), 30 May (00:24; 999 KB)

The three of us wanted to explore more of the high country on the peak directly opposite the radio tower, but clouds again engulfed the ridgeline, and rain started to fall.

A search for Spotted Elachura between kilometer markers 12 and 13 got us wet feet but no bird. Hartert’s Leaf Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler also were not noted, a surprise given that we had heard these species singing and defending territories a month earlier.

Besides Brown Bush Warbler, Elaine and I today added Black Bittern and Asian Barred Owlet to our Emeifeng list.

Sun. 31 May 2015

Elaine Du
Elaine Du in rich alpine scrub, Emeifeng. (Craig Brelsford)

Elaine and I noted 48 species. From the lodge area atop Emeifeng we walked to the little tower on the slope opposite the radio tower. The little tower sits amid pristine alpine scrub and is reachable only by foot. We walked to an elevation of about 1650 m (5,410 ft.). We were searching for Russet Bush Warbler and failed to find it. We found species similar to those in the scrub between the radio tower and Qingyun Temple, among them Brown Bush Warbler and Buff-throated Warbler.

Earlier, on the dirt road behind the locked gate in the lodge area, Mr. Deng came running back to me, signaling for me to come. We tiptoed a few steps, and there she was, the queen of the high forest, a female Cabot’s Tragopan. She was standing on the edge of the forest track. The tragopan did not flee but foraged calmly in front of us for two magic minutes before creeping silently into the forest.

The magic feeling continued in the alpine scrub. We saw no evidence of logging; the scrub is there not because an older forest was cut, but because Mother Nature intended it that way. The place exudes health and balance. Grass grows lushly, and one can look at almost any spot on the ground and find many types of colorful insects. Butterflies flit from flower to flower. When the clouds parted, we enjoyed the commanding view of the forest below. Flybys of Great Barbet and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush enlivened the scene. White-necklaced Partridge, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, and Lesser Cuckoo called from hidden locations below. Buff-throated Warbler were busy patrolling their territories, standing sentinel atop the shrubs. Brown Bush Warbler were not calling spontaneously, and their presence might not have been detected but for their vigorous response to playback.

Rich alpine scrub
Another look at the rich alpine scrub atop Emeifeng. The grass there is lush, the turf thick, the smell of the earth fragrant. Insects abound. No goats graze, and there is no evidence of logging. The place exudes health and balance. (Craig Brelsford)

The day was nearly windless, and few tourists were visiting the top. The golden silence was broken only by birds, among them a drumming Speckled Piculet. The songs of Blyth’s Shrike-babbler and White-spectacled Warbler carried far. In the contest of laughingthrush songs, Chinese Hwamei took the prize for power, and Buffy Laughingthrush won for melody. Here is a selection of what we heard:

White-spectacled Warbler, Emeifeng, 31 May (00:03; 913 KB)

Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Emeifeng, 31 May (00:10; 1.2 MB)

Speckled Piculet, Emeifeng, 31 May (01:10; 3.6 MB)

Driving back down the hill, we found a male Silver Pheasant at 1300 m (4,270 ft.) and a female Elliot’s Pheasant at 1200 m (3,940 ft.).

In addition to Speckled Piculet, Black-collared Starling was new to our Emeifeng list.

PHOTOS

Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler
Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler was noted by us on three of our eight days at Emeifeng. Pomatorhinus swinhoei is endemic to southeast China. (Craig Brelsford)
Crested Kingfisher
A Crested Kingfisher emerges from a creek after an unsuccessful dive at Qiliping, Hubei. On 29 May at Shuibu Reservoir below Emeifeng, Elaine and I noted 3 Crested Kingfisher. (Craig Brelsford)
Asian Barred Owlet
On 30 May 2015 we noted a single Asian Barred Owlet in farmland below Emeifeng. The 30 species of pygmy owl, genus Glaucidium, occur on all the inhabited continents except Australia. Asian Barred Owlet Glaucidium cuculoides ranges from the Himalaya to Southeast Asia and south China. I photographed this individual in Yunnan. (Craig Brelsford)
Chinese Bamboo Partridge
We found Chinese Bamboo Partridge on seven of our eight birding days at Emeifeng. I photographed this pair at Hangzhou Botanical Park. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Along with Birds of Southeast Asia, my first reference at Emeifeng.

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press.

Robson, Craig. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press. Co-first reference at Emeifeng.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Per Alström sent me a recording of Hartert’s Leaf Warbler. Michael Grunwell’s recommendation of Emeifeng enticed us to go; his knowledge of the area was indispensable.

Click here for the first in our two-post series about birding Emeifeng.
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