Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Are you interested in a fuller appreciation of the birds of the Shanghai region? If so, then visiting Shanghai’s exciting coastal sites is not enough. You need to go inland, to the hilly interior. You need to visit the Tianmu Mountains. In this two-post series, Shanghai birder Komatsu Yasuhiko and I introduce you to the mountain range in Zhejiang. This first post was written by me and describes the key birds and habitats at Tianmushan. I also discuss my first trip to Tianmu in May 2015. In the second post, Hiko describes his July 2018 trip to the mountain. — Craig Brelsford

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?

gingko-tianmu-brelsford
Some of the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world grow in the dreamlike forest near Longfengjian (龙凤尖), part of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The ginkgos, with their distinctive leaves, share the slopes with stands of giant Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica. Among the bird species these rich forests hold are Elliot’s Pheasant, Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush. (Craig Brelsford)

Tianmushan is a mountain range 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. The thickly forested slopes are the place closest to the city where large numbers of south China species can be seen. Elliot’s Pheasant, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Moustached Laughingthrush, Hartert’s Leaf Warbler, and Spotted Elachura are just a few of the south China species recorded at Tianmushan and scarce or unrecorded in Shanghai. Silver Pheasant, Koklass PheasantSlaty Bunting, and Crested Bunting are also at Tianmu.

With elevations reaching 1506 m (4,941 ft.), Tianmushan offers a refreshing contrast to Shanghai’s coastal environments. Springtime is the best time to visit, but summer offers good birding and a respite from the lowland heat, and in autumn migrants and wintering birds can be seen.

The best-known birding area at Tianmushan is West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. The reserve boasts a forest worthy of a fairy tale. Below Xianren Ding (仙人顶), the highest peak in the area, a boardwalk trail leads through a land of giants—stands of Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica 25 m (82 ft.) high and a thousand years old. What is claimed to be the only wild Ginkgo biloba trees in the world are also in this magical garden. Look here for Black Eagle, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, and Buffy Laughingthrush, among many other species.

Japanese Cedar
Japanese Cedar Cryptomeria japonica, West Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:

— The 12.7 km (7.9 mi.) road between Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201) and the hotels on the floor of the valley. Longfengjian serves as the parking area for the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding.

Forest
Forest at point on road below Longfengjian, West Tianmu, November. Elev.: 1020 m (3,350 ft.). Note the bamboo in foreground, the bare trees in mid-ground, and the southern-temperate forest in background. West Tianmu offers high-quality habitat at the place where north and south China meet. (Craig Brelsford)

Take the bus to Longfengjian and walk the road back. You’ll descend about 700 m (2,300 ft.). Find Koklass Pheasant along the road, Little Forktail along the streams, and Short-tailed Parrotbill amid the bamboo. You could combine this walk with a visit to the Japanese Cedar forest and Xianren Ding and thereby cover in a single day an altitudinal range of more than 1000 m (3,280 ft.).

— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.

Densely vegetated area
Densely vegetated area near entrance to West Tianmu, elev. 330 m (1,080 ft.). I took this picture during my November 2015 visit to Tianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

This is one of the broadest areas in the valley and offers streamside habitat as well as scrub, garden, and secondary forest. Asian House Martin breed in the eaves of the ticket office and other buildings, the forest holds Grey-chinned Minivet and Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and the streams are good for White-crowned Forktail.

KEY BIRDS OF TIANMUSHAN

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha

Koklass Pheasant
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha ranges from the Himalaya to eastern China. At Tianmushan the species may be common. I got this photo at Tangjiahe Nature Reserve in Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela

Crested Serpent Eagle
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela with serpent, East Tianmu, May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis

Black Eagle
Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis is often seen cruising low over the forests at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo
In the forest below Xianren Ding in May, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus flew straight at me, crying loudly in response to my whistled imitation of its call. I got this photo at Laoshan, Nanjing in July. (Craig Brelsford)

Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis

Swinhoe's Minivet
Swinhoe’s Minivet, Nantianmu. (Craig Brelsford)

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus

Black Bulbul
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, a common bird at Tianmushan. (Craig Brelsford)

Mountain Bulbul Ixos mcclellandii

Mountain Bulbul
Mountain Bulbul, another south China bulbul common at Tianmushan. I found this one at East Tianmu in May 2015. (Craig Brelsford)

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler
At Tianmu, the piercing whistle of Brown-flanked Bush Warbler is often heard in spring. (Craig Brelsford)

Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis

Hartert's Leaf Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis, Emeifeng, Fujian, May. Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu found Hartert’s at West Tianmu in July 2017, and Paul Hyde found it there in April 2019. (Craig Brelsford)

Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus

Moustached Laughingthrush
Moustached Laughingthrush, Yunnan, February. Noted by Larry Chen, Komatsu Yasuhiko, and Zeng Qiongyu at West Tianmu in July 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

Buffy Laughingthrush Garrulax berthemyi

Buffy Laughingthrush
Vocal skulkers, Buffy Laughingthrush are more often heard than seen. At Tianmu, look for them in the forests below Xianren Ding, where I got this photo in May. (Craig Brelsford)

Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri

Little Forktail
Look for Little Forktail along Tianmu’s many rushing streams. (Craig Brelsford)

White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti

White-crowned Forktail
White-crowned Forktail sometimes venture away from rushing streams, but they still require damp forest with at least a trickle of water nearby. (Craig Brelsford)

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

Russet Sparrow
In the villages and countryside around Tianmushan, we found more Russet Sparrow than Eurasian Tree Sparrow. (Craig Brelsford)

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami

Crested Bunting
Crested Bunting sang for us at East Tianmu in May. The photos here show adult males except female bottom right. All were taken near Longheng, Guangxi in December 2015, except top right, taken 8 May 2015 at East Tianmu. The Tianmu male was found at 30.338425, 119.514693, an area of bare, rock-studded cliffs and scattered bushes—ideal habitat for this species. (Craig Brelsford)

MY FIRST TRIP TO TIANMUSHAN

I have made two trips to Tianmushan, both in 2015. I spaced the trips six months apart in order to see the site at opposite ends of the year. Here is my account of the first trip, which took place in May. (Click here for our trip of November 2015.)

Thurs. 7 May 2015
Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park (Hángzhōu Nántiānmù Sēnlín Gōngyuán [杭州南天目森林公园]), 30.184555, 119.472668

Today my wife and partner Elaine Du and I scouted Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park, 255 km (159 mi.) southwest of Shanghai. We noted 21 species. We had Swinhoe’s Minivet, heard 11 Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and saw 3 migrant Grey-streaked Flycatcher. We also found a pair of local poachers.

We entered and exited Hangzhou Nantianmu Forest Park by driving past an unmanned gate. I remarked to myself that a gate unmanned in the middle of the day is a strong indication that a park is being managed incorrectly. Elaine and I drove up the mountain, stopping at a gazebo where we found Russet Sparrow and the minivet. At the end of the road we met the poachers. They arrived on a moped. I saw their speaker and cages and told them that hunting wild birds is illegal in China. The younger poacher nodded as though he understood. The older man smiled nervously.

We drove back down the mountain. I said to Elaine that poaching must be pervasive around here if two guys can drive up a mountain with their poaching gear in full view.

Later, just outside the park gate, I told a villager that poaching was going on in the nearby park and asked him where I could report the crime. The villager said, in a friendly way, that the poachers take just “a few” (少) birds and that they do it just for fun (玩儿). The villager’s instinct to protect the lawbreakers shows how acceptable poaching is to him and presumably his fellow villagers.

The Russet Sparrow were able to make a living in the park because of the seeming absence of the more aggressive Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today and on the ensuing three days in the Tianmu Mountains, Russet Sparrow was our default sparrow, commonly noted in town and country, and much more numerous than Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which in most places was absent.

Fri. 8 May 2015
East Tianmu Mountain Scenic Area (Dōng Tiānmùshān Jǐngqū [东天目山景区]), 30.342422, 119.509490

Elaine and I noted 30 species at East Tianmu. The highlight was finding one of our target species, a singing male Crested Bunting. Driving down the mountain road in the park, at an elevation of 600 m (1,970 ft.), we approached a bus stop, next to which was a quarry with steep walls. Immediately I was reminded of the roadside cliff in Yunnan where I had seen a female Crested Bunting in 2014. I stopped the car and spotted a Crested Bunting atop the highest conifer in the area. It sang a simple song over and over. A pair of Meadow Bunting were in the area.

Earlier, at the upper terminus of the cable car, Elaine and I saw a Crested Serpent Eagle carrying, you guessed it, a snake on the highest and last ride of its life. We walked from the upper terminus of the cable car to Zhaoming Temple (Zhàomíng Chánsì [昭明禅寺], 30.349009, 119.515961). I found a leech in the leaf litter and showed it to Elaine. The creature quickly attached itself to my glove. East and West Tianmu Mountain are the most leech-infested places I have ever birded.

Beautiful Zhaoming Temple, 1,500 years old, blends into the valley. We saw 2 Eurasian Jay, heard Yellow-bellied Tit and Collared Owlet, and on the way back down found 2 Grey Treepie and heard Great Barbet.

Our day began before dawn, when I ate breakfast on the patio of our room near the entrance to East Tianmu. I saw 4 Hair-crested Drongo and a Red-rumped Swallow nesting on the underside of the patio on which I was standing. We got past the gate at East Tianmu and drove to the end of the paved road and down the dirt road to its end, noting there Blue Whistling Thrush, White-crowned Forktail, and Brown Dipper as well as 2 Grey-headed Parrotbill and the first of many Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.

Our plan was to bird the road and temple then walk to the top of the mountain, where a friend told me Short-tailed Parrotbill and Slaty Bunting may be found. Rain dashed those plans, and I have yet to find either of those species in the Tianmu area.

Sat. 9 May 2015 and Sun. 10 May 2015
West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve (Tiānmùshān Zìrán Bǎohùqū [天目山自然保护区], 30.344148, 119.440201)

On Saturday Elaine and I noted 28 species. We spent most of the day in the Japanese Cedar forest below Xianren Ding at West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve. Fog and large, noisy crowds suppressed our total.

The next day we returned to the Xianren Ding area and enjoyed a banner day, noting 42 species. The highlight was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo appearing out of nowhere and flying straight at my head. The cuckoo was responding to the most effective “phish” I ever did, a whistle imitating its call. 5 Buffy Laughingthrush gave rise to the hope that at Tianmu the species may be locally common. Black Eagle flew low over the forest, Speckled Piculet joined a bird wave, Eurasian Jay and Black Bulbul were visually conspicuous, and Indian Cuckoo, Great Barbet, Collared Owlet, and Rufous-faced Warbler were more often heard than seen. Mugimaki Flycatcher and Brambling were among the migrants noted, with Grey Wagtail a possible breeder and White Wagtail already feeding fledglings.

Elaine and I arrived at the Japanese Cedar forest at 5:55 a.m., well before the crowds. The cool, quiet forest was full of enchantment and buzzing with birds. Chinese Hwamei cut melodiously through the silence. A standard bird wave included Black-throated Bushtit, Huet’s Fulvetta, and Indochinese Yuhina. White-crowned Forktail zipped along the creek.

As the hours wore on and noisy hikers began to pass through, Elaine and I followed an abandoned trail a few hundred meters. The trail is leech-infested, but with regular inspections of our clothing and socks pulled high over our pant legs, we managed to pick off every leech before it found our flesh.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a species I hadn’t noted in five years. The cuckoos were calling from deep cover near the trail. My phish caused them to call loudly and fly in a circle around us. The call and vivid colors of this beautiful cuckoo made for an impressive spectacle. Those thrilling moments gave me energy as I drove back to Shanghai.

FURTHER READING

This post is the first in a two-post series about birding in the Tianmu Mountains.

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)

More posts on Tianmushan:

Tianmushan in July
Tianmushan in Autumn
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip

See also our coverage of other areas in southeast China:

Birding Emeifeng, Fujian (Part 1)
Birding Emeifeng, Fujian (Part 2)
Home to Shanghai (Plus a Jaunt to Fujian)
Trip Planner: Fuzhou National Forest Park
Nonggang Babbler: From ‘New to Science’ to ‘Automatic Tick’

Featured image: Birds and plants of Tianmushan. Clockwise from top L: Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba, Indochinese Yuhina, and Black Bulbul. (Craig Brelsford)
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Birding While Daddy

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

The birth of my son ended my birding career in China and catapulted me back to the United States. I returned to Florida on 31 Jan. 2018 and accepted my new status of Birder While Daddy. Here’s how I have adjusted.

Despite the daily dose of joy my son brings, my addiction to birding remains. Fortunately for me, in Florida, getting one’s birding fix is easy. On Fri. 2 March, for example, I was on my back porch, proofreading for Bloomsbury a draft of a field guide. A feeding party of woodland birds arrived in the back yard.

I stepped into a wave of wood warblers (Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler) vireos (Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo), and woodpeckers (Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). A diminutive Common Ground Dove was associating with the wave, as was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, cousin of Eurasia’s Goldcrest. A House Wren emerged briefly from the bushes; Snakebirds, also known as Anhinga, were soaring high above; and U.S. endemic Fish Crow was making its low-pitched caw.

My birding fix satisfied, I returned joyfully to work.

Walking with Elaine and Tiny along the suburban streets of Volusia County, I regularly find interesting species such as Sandhill Crane and Florida Scrub Jay, the latter the only species of bird endemic to the state of Florida. Nature reserves are plentiful in central Florida, and at one of the best, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Tiny recently added Bald Eagle to his infancy bird list.

Always I am looking for little snatches of time in which to bird. My local patch is Gemini Springs Park, where last month I noted Painted Bunting as well as overwintering skulkers Ovenbird and Hermit Thrush. I recently ticked Wood Duck, American analogue to Mandarin Duck.

I currently am not taking bird photos. With a four-month-old in the house, photography adds to birding a layer of complexity that I must shed. I carry a sound-recorder, and my ears are always open. Recent strolls with Tiny have led to a heard-only tick of Barn Owl and a mysterious night-time flyover of Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

On Monday I start a new career with RedChip, a company owned by my best friend from college and a leader in financial media and investor relations. I’ll be birding less, but getting out as much as I can, as I continue to take on my new role of Birder While Daddy.

Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
Despite my move to America, my expertise on Asian birds remains in demand. Here I am on the back porch proofreading a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and Northeast Asia. (Elaine Du)
My mother (L) is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her newest grandson. I told her, 'This time you got me. I'll never live abroad again.' With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents' house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
My mother, Susan (L), is ecstatic over the return of her son and arrival of her daughter-in-law and grandson. I told her, ‘This time you got me. I’ll never live abroad again.’ With Tiny in tow, we were birding 3 March 2018 near my parents’ house in Debary, Florida. (Elaine Du)
Craig "Tiny" Brelsford (R) birding with his mother Elaine Du at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 11 Feb. 2018. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine Du birding with her son, ‘Tiny’ Craig Brelsford, at Gemini Springs Park, Debary, 11 Feb. 2018. When Elaine left China last month, she was the highest-ranked woman eBirder in the history of that country, with 735 species on her China list. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is known as a breeding site of Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane also breed here, and Bald Eagle are regularly noted. (Craig Brelsford)
Elaine and Tiny in the observation tower (29.113998, -81.377611) at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The top eBird hot spot in Volusia County, Woodruff is a reliable site for Swallow-tailed Kite. Sandhill Crane breed in the refuge, Bald Eagle are regularly noted, and American Alligator bask on the creek banks. (Craig Brelsford)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. A human baby is a natural phenomenon and a thing of beauty--beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)
Our four-month-old baby boy at Woodruff. The young of Homo sapiens is an object of great beauty—beautiful in the way a sunset or waterfall is beautiful, or the bugling of a crane, or the glide of an eagle. I got into birding because my eyes hungered for natural beauty. Now, my son satisfies some of that longing. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Craig Brelsford birding with his son, “Tiny” Craig Brelsford. L: Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, Volusia County, Florida, 25 Feb. 2018. R: Gemini Springs Park, Debary, Florida, 22 Feb. 2018. (Elaine Du)
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Elaine, Tiny, and I Are Returning to America

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Elaine, Tiny, and I are returning to the United States. Our final day in China will be 30 January 2018.

The main reason for moving to America is our infant son, Tiny. Tiny’s birth changed Elaine and me forever. We want the best for Tiny, and we believe that the best for Tiny is to grow up in America.

Why are we leaving so suddenly? Elaine and I would have preferred a long goodbye to China and then departure in the summer or fall of 2018. But last month, with only 33 days before my current visa ran out, I was strongly advised not to apply for another student visa. The Chinese government has made a sudden change in policy. Old Chinese-language students are no longer welcome. (I’m 50 years old.)

I accept the reasoning behind the policy regarding old students. What is questionable is the suddenness of the change. Elaine and I have been considerably inconvenienced.

I have been studying Chinese for two reasons. One was that I sincerely wanted to learn Mandarin, and my Chinese friends can attest to my constant improvement these past few years, all owing to my work at the Chinese-language program at the Shanghai University of Engineering Sciences.

The other reason for studying Chinese was, here in Shanghai Elaine has no hukou or right of abode, and so I am ineligible for a family visa as long as we remain in this great city. By studying Chinese, I have been able to remain in Shanghai.

As Tiny’s birth approached last year, Elaine and I discussed opening a business in Shanghai and securing a business visa for me. In the end, we decided against it. We were afraid–not that I would fail, but that I would succeed, and that our family would live in China for the rest of our lives.

Living the rest of my life in China, and especially in Shanghai, is certainly not a bad thing, but it never was my plan, even before Tiny was born. My plan always has been to return to the land of my birth, and that is what my family and I are doing now.

Elaine, Tiny, and I will return to Florida, where my parents live and where I attended the University of Florida and began my previous career in journalism. In Florida I will manage my translation agency, develop new conservationist projects, bird in America’s premier birding state, and raise Tiny. Never again, I hope, will I spend another Christmas far from my kin.

When that plane takes off later this month, I will be ending a journey abroad that has lasted 17 years–since a few months before 9-11. Seven of those years were spent in Europe. The past 10 years have been in China.

I arrived in China in 2007 fascinated by Light-vented Bulbul and with almost no birding experience. I leave China having noted 932 species in the People’s Republic, making me the highest-ranked eBirder in China. (Elaine, at 735 species, leaves China the highest-ranked woman eBirder in this country.)

I stayed so long in China in part because of a naive but heartfelt wish to write a field guide to the birds of China. That book proved impossible to do. The dream to write a field guide did come true in a way, though, through shanghaibirding.com, a project that has proved to be far more interesting than a field guide.

shanghaibirding.com has allowed me to develop my talents as photographer, writer, editor, and publisher. Through this Web site, I have lived out my birding motto, which is, “No hobby combines science, art, culture, and physical fitness better than the great hobby called Birding.” shanghaibirding.com has been a labor of love, and it now stands tall, a monument representing my accomplishments in China.

Even though I’m going home, shanghaibirding.com will very much continue to exist. I have much unpublished material that I will run in the coming months. I will continue to update the site later this year and beyond, and I will keep the site online for years to come, no matter whether I am updating it or not, and even after I have moved on to other projects.

Featured image: Our baby boy, “TinyCraig Brelsford, with his parents, Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du. Shanghai, China, 25 Jan. 2018. Photo by Mǎruìshā Értóng Shèyǐng (玛瑞莎儿童摄影).
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