This post is about birding Emeifeng in the spring of 2015. The mountain in western Fujian, not to be confused with the more famous Emeishan in Sichuan, ranks high on Shanghai birders’ must-see lists. It is a reliable site for Cabot’s Tragopan, Elliot’s Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, and its vast forests provide habitat for other key southeastern Chinese species. A bit too far to drive, a bit too close to fly, Emeifeng is the perfect expedition for the high-speed train.
This post covers 30 April to 3 May 2015, the first of my two four-day trips to the mountain. A post on the second trip, which took place 28 to 31 May 2015, will be published two weeks from today, on Thurs. 26 Jan. 2017.
The photo above shows Elaine Du searching for Brown Bush Warbler in the pristine alpine scrub on Emeifeng, elev. 1650 m (5,410 ft.).
— Noting the five key game birds: Elliot’s Pheasant, Cabot’s Tragopan, Koklass Pheasant, Silver Pheasant, and White-necklaced Partridge, as well as the beautiful Chinese Bamboo Partridge
— Closely studying three Phylloscopus warblers that breed in southern China: Buff-throated WarblerPhylloscopus subaffinis, Sulphur-breasted WarblerP. ricketti, and Hartert’s Leaf WarblerP. goodsoni fokiensis, as well as having close encounters with White-spectacled WarblerSeicercus affinis intermedius
— At Shuibu Reservoir, finding Blue-throated Bee-eater, a species unexpected around Emeifeng
— Finding 4 of China’s 5 species of forktail: Little ForktailEnicurus scouleri, Slaty-backed ForktailE. schistaceus, White-crowned ForktailE. leschenaulti sinensis, and Spotted ForktailE. maculatus bacatus
— Hearing the many calls and songs of the accomplished vocalist Buffy Laughingthrush
— Hearing Spotted Elachura singing along a rushing stream
— Noting 103 species, 81 on the first trip, 86 on the second. Among the birds we found were key southern Chinese species such as Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Great Barbet, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Sultan Tit, Brown Bush Warbler, Small Niltava, Verditer Flycatcher, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, and Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler
— Enjoying the clean air and unspoiled beauty of Emeifeng
Simple List of the Species of Bird Noted Around Emeifeng, Fujian, China, 30 April 2015 to 3 May 2015 and 28-31 May 2015 (103 species)
Chinese Bamboo Partridge
Chinese Pond Heron
Eastern Cattle Egret
Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove)
Oriental Turtle Dove
Asian Barred Owlet
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Red-billed Blue Magpie
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler
Brown Bush Warbler
Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler
Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler
Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush
Blue Whistling Thrush
Plumbeous Water Redstart
Blue Rock Thrush
Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush
Grey Bush Chat
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Wed. 29 April 2015
Elaine and I took the high-speed train from Hongqiao Railway Station in Shanghai to Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi. There, we transferred to the train to Taining. We checked in to the perfectly adequate Huada Hotel (Huádà Jiǔdiàn [华大酒店], +86 598-7817777).
What a first day at Emeifeng! Elaine and I noted 49 species. We heard White-necklaced Partridge, saw Silver Pheasant, photographed Buff-throated Warbler and Collared Owlet, and missed Cabot’s Tragopan and Elliot’s Pheasant. We got close views and good sound-recordings of White-spectacled Warbler, and we found a pair of Small Niltava.
Elaine and I drove up the mountain this morning with our easygoing driver, Dèng Zhōngpíng (邓忠平, +86 138-6059-6327; no English, non-smoker). The 30 km trip from Taining to Emeifeng started at Huada Hotel. In the lower country we found Chinese Sparrowhawk and Oriental Dollarbird. We saw the single male Silver Pheasant at 1150 m. Just below the end of the road at 1450 m, a bird wave included 2 stunning Yellow-cheeked Tit, the Small Niltava, and the Collared Owlet.
At the top we met Steven An, who was leading a bird tour that included Tony Sawbridge. After those birders left, we had the lodge area to ourselves. Large Hawk-Cuckoo were uttering their mad cry of “Brain fever!” 2 Black Eagle were soaring elegantly above. A Crested Goshawk appeared briefly.
The morning fog burned off, revealing a brilliant blue sky. As the forenoon wore on, the birds retired. Elaine and I walked down a wide trail, seeing no one, reveling in the solitude, peacefulness, and unspoiled beauty of Emeifeng. We found 2 Mugimaki Flycatcher and the White-spectacled Warbler. A comparison of our recordings with those of Frank Lambert helped us ID our White-spectacled Warbler.
In the late afternoon, we found Buff-throated Warbler in a big tree near the boardwalk leading to the temple. 2 Grey Bush Chat were also using the tree.
White-necklaced Partridge were heard at various places throughout the day.
Rain and fog kept species count low (37), but the species we found were good ones, with Cabot’s Tragopan leading the list. We heard Spotted Elachura. Elaine was much impressed by Sultan Tit, and she had a close encounter with Koklass Pheasant. 9 Silver Pheasant tiptoed through the bamboo forest.
A Sulphur-breasted Warbler helped us find the Koklass. Driving slowly up the mountain road at a point about 1250 m above sea level, we heard birdsong unfamiliar to us. I walked downhill toward the sound, and Elaine walked straight to the edge of the road. There she found the Koklass, a male. She called me back, but I arrived too late. During our vigil for its reappearance, I heard its raspy call.
The Sulphur-breasted Warbler was waiting for me. This is a jewel of a Phylloscopus, golden yellow below with a boldly patterned head (golden supercilium and coronal stripe, black lateral crown stripes). Its high-pitched song is sweet music:
Sulphur-breasted Warbler, song, 1 May 2015 (00:18; 1.5 MB)
We stopped at a creek containing Pygmy Wren-babbler. Relishing the chance to see this common but little-seen bird, I crawled into the vegetation near the source of the sound. Responding to playback, the wren-babbler came closer and closer until, like magic, it popped its head out from behind a rock just a meter from me. I watched this streamside specialist for several seconds.
At the same creek we played the song of Spotted Elachura. I played it so many times that I came to know the thin, high notes thoroughly–so much so that, long after I had turned the recording off and heard the song, I checked my speaker to make sure it was off. Fearing that my wishful thinking had caused a hallucination, I decided to wait before claiming a “tick.” The song stopped, but several minutes later, I heard it again, stronger. This time Elaine heard it also. I climbed up the steep creek bed, but I never heard the song again, and I have yet to see Spotted Elachura. But we know what we heard.
We found a female Cabot’s at 1320 m, below the temple, and a male at 1260 m.
Michael Grunwell joined Elaine and me. We noted 45 species. As we drove down the X762 near the Fujian-Jiangxi border, Elaine spotted a Cabot’s Tragopan. At dusk, at the well-known spot for Elliot’s Pheasant (27.038276, 117.094207), we heard Dusky Fulvetta:
Dusky Fulvetta, short song, below Emeifeng, elev. ca. 730 m, 2 May 2015 (00:03; 897 KB)
Rain, sometimes heavy, hampered us throughout the day but let up by late afternoon. Among the new species for our trip were Mandarin Duck, Brown Shrike, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Chinese Hwamei, Slaty-backed Forktail, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, and Grey Wagtail.
We had the pleasure of leading Michael to two lifers today: Sulphur-breasted Warbler and Buff-throated Warbler.
The Mandarin Duck were seen at a small lake near the Elliot’s Pheasant site. The site is a row of fallow rice paddies at elev. ca. 730 m.
Michael Grunwell once again joined Elaine and me. Under brilliant blue skies, we noted 59 species. Hartert’s Leaf Warbler was a life bird for everyone and the third “southern” leaf warbler we found at Emeifeng, the others being Buff-throated Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler. While driving we flushed 2 Cabot’s Tragopan and a White-necklaced Partridge; in the confusion Michael managed to spot the partridge. I found yet another Silver Pheasant. We heard 2 Buffy Laughingthrush. We struck out on Elliot’s Pheasant but while searching for it found Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler. Among the other additions to our trip list were 4 Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Verditer Flycatcher, and Fork-tailed Sunbird.
The Hartert’s Leaf Warbler was found on the road to the radio tower at an elevation of 1560 m. It flicked its wings one at a time, a territorial display. It sang powerfully in response to playback (00:24; 1.8 MB):
One of our goals for Emeifeng was to positively ID, photograph, and sound-record Phylloscopus and Seicercus warblers, a task easiest to perform in spring when these birds are singing. We missed Kloss’s Leaf Warbler, but with our work on Hartert’s Leaf, Buff-throated, and Sulphur-breasted, as well as our coverage of White-spectacled WarblerSeicercus affinis intermedius, we were more successful than I expected.
Mr. Deng drove us to the radio tower. This is the highest point (ca. 1700 m) for miles around, and the habitat is alpine scrub, much unlike the forest stretching like a carpet below. Buff-throated Warbler greeted us at the top. We found an aggressive White-spectacled Warbler at 1620 m.
Visibility was excellent all day, and in the late afternoon the world was bathed in a golden hue. We left Emeifeng for Nanchang having accomplished most of our goals and with a feeling of satisfaction.
Emeifeng (Éméifēng [峨嵋峰])
Mountain W Fujian. Elev.: 1528 m (5,013 ft.) at Qingyun Temple (Qìngyún Sì [庆云寺]). Higher slopes reach elevations of 1700 m. 27.006583, 117.076389. Also Emei Feng.
Coastal province SE China. Pop.: 37.7 million. Area: 121,400 sq. km (46,900 sq. mi.). Area (comparative): 20% larger than Jiangsu (but with less than half as many inhabitants). Same size as North Korea & Pennsylvania; slightly smaller than Greece.
Jiangxi (Jiāngxī Shěng [江西省]): province SE China W of Fujian.
At Longheng, a village near Nonggang National Nature Reserve in Guangxi, Nonggang Babbler has gone from “unknown to science” to “automatic tick.” This is thanks to enterprising individuals such as Lú Róng (卢荣). Mr. Lu created a setup that he maintains daily. His Nonggang Babbler make nearly guaranteed appearances between the hours of 8 and 11. What an amazing turn of events for a species that was not discovered until 2008.
From 16-21 Dec. 2015, Michael Grunwell, my wife Elaine Du, and I were in Guangxi. In Longheng, we stayed at Mr. Lu’s home, which doubles as a lodge. We noted 76 species. Within walking distance of Longheng we had, besides Nonggang Babbler, White-winged Magpie, close nighttime views of Collared Scops Owl, the elusive Lesser Shortwing, and southern China favorites Sultan Tit, Buff-breasted Babbler, Streaked Wren-Babbler, and Black-breasted Thrush. Farther afield, driving in our rented Mitsubishi Pajero, we found Large Woodshrike in the heavily wooded valley near Longheng, White-browed Piculet and Chestnut-capped Babbler in the cane fields near Longheng, Slaty-bellied Tesia in a thicket along a farm road, Siberian Rubythroat along a stream near Nonggang village, and Red-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grey-throated Babbler, and Pale-footed Bush Warbler near Nonggang National Nature Reserve. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler and Rufescent Prinia were seen at various points, and Crested Bunting were locally abundant on the road between Chongzuo and Longheng. All of the many Fork-tailed Sunbird that we saw were male. Conspicuous by their absence or near-absence were laughingthrushes (0 species noted) and raptors (3 species noted).
Longheng involves a flight to Nanning and an easy, partly birdable three-hour drive south to the village. In the village, you can choose between easy activities such as photographing Nonggang Babbler at the setup and harder work such as owl-watching at night. The villagers are members of China’s largest minority group, the Zhuang. Even though sugar cane fills most flat areas, there is still much good habitat, and even the cane fields are somewhat birdable. In the surrounding forests you can get a good impression of tropical southeast China avifauna. The karst is a strange, romantic landscape. Thickly vegetated limestone towers rise like skyscrapers from the valley floor.
Reach Mr. Lu at any of the following numbers: +86 181-7815-7646, +86 (0) 771-8926541, and +86 181-7718-5027. Accommodation at Mr. Lu’s lodge was spartan, but his wife’s country cooking was just fine. For 150 yuan per person per day, we were getting a room, breakfast and supper, and access to the blinds.
Mr. Lu is a good birder and will be happy to go birding with you if he has the time. Mr. Lu led us to the Chestnut-capped Babbler site, and he was with us when Elaine spotted the piculets in the sugar cane. He led the owl walk that got us views of Collared Scops Owl. Mr. Lu is in his 50s, was born in Longheng, knows every square inch of the territory within a 10 km radius, and is full of valuable info.
Mr. Lu has competition: the young Huáng Yuǎn Chéng (黄远程, +86 133-1781-2383). Mr. Huang controls some of the land around the giant banyan tree just outside the village. In the wooded area near the tree, Mr. Huang has created a beautiful setup using the natural limestone as props. Mr. Huang also has a blind for viewing White-winged Magpie.
It’s possible that Mr. Lu and Mr. Huang gained their wealth of bird knowledge by hunting birds. Now, these men not only don’t hunt, but I am sure they would also stop anyone they found poaching. In tiny Longheng, a bird-photography industry has arisen, centered around Nonggang Babbler. At other places in China, notably Baihualing in Yunnan, the same thing is happening. Chinese bird photographers are the driving force behind this small industry. The lust for photos of these mainly well-off men is having a trickle-down effect, putting cash in the pockets of formerly poor farmers and creating a free-market rationale for protecting birds.
We did not look into getting permits for Nonggang National Nature Reserve. We had been warned that permits would be difficult to obtain, and I find demeaning the entire application process, in which extra scrutiny and double standards are applied to foreigners. We were happy with Longheng, and in any case the locked gate to the nature reserve lies several hundred meters deep within high-quality secondary forest, and one can bird to the gate without a permit.
Elaine Du was voted Most Valuable Birder of the trip. The election took place on the plane back to Shanghai. The democratic process evolved in this wise: Elaine cast her vote for me. Michael voted for Elaine. In a dramatic tie-breaking maneuver, I agreed with Michael and swung the election to Elaine. The engraving on Elaine’s citation reads: “For spotting and helping ID White-browed Piculet as well as for various & sundry excellent feats & good deeds, Elaine Du is voted Most Valuable Birder!”
Wed. 16 Dec. 2015
Elaine Du, Michael Grunwell, and I flew from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport to Nanning. We picked up our rented Mitsubishi Pajero. Spent night at hotel near airport.
We left our hotel and drove 150 km southwest, taking the G7211 freeway to Chóngzuǒ (崇左). From there we took secondary roads through Xiǎngshuǐ (响水) to our destination, Lónghēng (陇亨). We found Crested Bunting between Chongzuo and Longheng. At a scrubby area near Xiangshui, we found Plain Flowerpecker and female Black-throated Sunbird.
At Longheng we met Mr. Lu, a local man who has set up blinds in the forests nearby. He took us to a blind. There, Michael had his first view ever of White-tailed Robin. Small Niltava and Snowy-browed Flycatcher also appeared. In the evening, Mr. Lu took us to an ancient banyan tree near the village. White-winged Magpie flew off as we arrived.
After breakfast we were taken to a setup by Mr. Lu. Other bird photographers were there. A flock of 10 Nonggang Babbler arrived. The babblers are extremely tame, so much so that Mr. Lu has not even erected a blind. The photographers sit in the open. The Nonggang Babbler were totally without fear, at times foraging within inches of our feet. The mealworms set out by Mr. Lu are clearly a powerful attractant but are only a part of their diet. The setup also attracted Streaked Wren-Babbler, White-tailed Robin, a female Fujian Niltava, and Red-flanked Bluetail. After we were finished at the Nonggang Babbler setup, we visited another blind, where Michael picked up Black-crested Bulbul, and where I enjoyed another close view of Buff-breasted Babbler. We took a long drive on dirt roads. In one of the few places where forest reaches the road, we found Slaty-bellied Tesia. We drove back to Longheng and took a third road out of the village. This was the only road where the high clearance of our Pajero was necessary. This road led to a remote valley guarded by a skull and hound from hell. It took little imagination to see the rabid dog and scowling skull in the totally natural karst. We called this remote valley “the backcountry.”
In the morning we stumbled upon a blind near the giant banyan tree. This well-designed site is the work of the artful Mr. Huang, whom we later met. Here we found Japanese Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, and a stunning male Fujian Niltava. We drove slowly up the steep, overgrown road to the backcountry, where we picked up Large Woodshrike and Sultan Tit. We drove to the creek at Nonggang village, finding there a male Siberian Rubythroat. We drove as far as the locked gate at Nonggang National Nature Reserve. On the way to the gate we passed through very good primary or old secondary forest. We found 4 Red-headed Trogon and 12 Long-tailed Broadbill. We returned to Longheng. Mr. Lu wanted to look for Collared Scops Owl. Michael Grunwell and I followed Mr. Lu in the dark. We were accompanied by two Chinese bird photographers. Mr. Lu supplied the headlamps; I supplied the playback. We walked a few hundred meters down the dirt road. After a while we heard 2 Collared Scops Owl. We climbed through giant bamboo to the base of the cliff. We spotted the owl right above us on the bamboo. Five people were too many, and it soon left. We walked toward the other owl. The Chinese photographers half gave up and were walking back toward Mr. Lu’s house. Michael and I glimpsed a form flying through the treetops. It was the owl. We enjoyed a sustained view.
We began our day at Mr. Huang’s blind near the giant banyan tree. Mr. Huang came by and took us to another blind, set up to allow photographers to view White-winged Magpie. The magpies arrived, as expected, but only for a few seconds. We drove to Nonggang, where we found Pale-footed Bush Warbler. We drove back to Longheng and revisited Mr. Huang’s Banyan Blind. We waited until after sunset. The light was so low that I could hardly focus my camera. Our patience paid off with Lesser Shortwing.
Through the gloom we could just make out the form of a small bird. So dark was it by now that I could ID the bird only by the photos I was taking of it.
The shortwing helped itself to a few mealworms and took a bath. It had no competition. Its strategy was to wait out the bigger birds and use its tolerance for very low light as an advantage. We got sustained views and photos of a rarely seen bird.
The shortwing was the capstone on another successful project in low-light bird photography. Ever since a magical morning in June 2010, when I photographed Fairy Pitta in the pre-dawn light at Dongzhai, Henan, I have been drawn to photographing forest birds in low light.
My current setup is well-suited to this task. I place my Nikon D3S and Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens atop my Manfrotto MVH502AH video head and Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon-fiber tripod. The D3S is now a 6-year-old model; though superseded by newer models such as the D4S, the D3S remains one of the best low-light cameras ever made, easily creating usable photos at ISO 10000.
I put the D3S in mirror-up mode. I tighten the head to the firmest position and slowly follow the movement of the shortwing with my left hand, which holds the wand attached to the head. When the shortwing stops, I release my hand from the wand; because the head is tight and hard to move, the camera always rests in the position to which I guide it.
I press the button on my shutter-release cable, held in my right hand. The first press opens the mirror; I wait a second, then press the button again, opening the shutter and exposing the image.
Low light is not bad light. With patience, skill, and the right equipment, one can achieve lovely images of birds in near-darkness.
In the morning, Michael, Elaine, and I were led by Mr. Lu to a site (22.525578, 107.012304) 7 km from Longheng known to hold Chestnut-capped Babbler. We found 4 amid streamside vegetation and sugar cane. We next looked for Yellow-eyed Babbler at several sites at the edges of sugar-cane fields. We found none but got a fine consolation prize: 3 White-browed Piculet. The piculets were found in the sugar cane at 22.478903, 107.000033 and according to Mr. Lu breed in the heavily wooded village near that point. April is the best time to view the breeding piculets, he said. Our team had spread out and was alerted to the piculets by Elaine’s shouts. She didn’t recognize the piculets, but her vivid description led Mr. Lu to surmise that White-browed Piculet was a possibility. Playback attracted them back, and we all got good views. Michael was ecstatic; his last bird of the trip was a lifer.
We dropped Mr. Lu off at Longheng and enjoyed a smooth ride back to Nanning airport and an uneventful plane ride back to Shanghai.
Simple List of Species of Bird Noted Around Longheng and Nonggang National Nature Reserve, Guangxi, China, 16-21 Dec. 2015 (76 species)
Collared Scops Owl
Red-billed Blue Magpie
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler
Pale-footed Bush Warbler
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler
Grey Bush Chat
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Systematic List of Species of Bird Noted Around Longheng and Nonggang National Nature Reserve, Guangxi, China, 16-21 Dec. 2015 (76 species)
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95
Featured image: It may seem incredible that a vertebrate species in China remained unknown to science until the 21st century. That however is the case with Nonggang BabblerStachyris nonggangensis, discovered by Chinese researchers in 2008. (Craig Brelsford)