On 5 June 2014 on the Old Erlang Road in Sichuan, I photographed female
Firethroat Calliope pectardens. One of the least-known chats in the world, Firethroat is shy, the female particularly so, and photos of the female are rare.
The photo above shows an adult female and not a first-summer male, as a first-summer male would have white flashes at the base of the tail (Round & Clement 2015, 86). We eliminate Firethroat’s sister species,
Blackthroat Calliope obscura, on the basis of range (Blackthroat breeds farther north) and by the presence at the height of breeding season of male Firethroat in the area where I photographed the female. Note the legs, darker than the pale-legged female Indian Blue Robin Larvivora brunnea (Collar 2005, 747).
To acquire my shots, I spent parts of four days in a tent, my portable photo blind. The female first appeared on Day 2, but the definitive images came only in the final minutes of the final day. My partners, Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) and Jon Gallagher, commiserated with me at first and rejoiced with me at last, and for their cooperation I am grateful.
I embargoed the photos nearly five years before publishing them today. I held back because I was hoping to write a photographic field guide to the birds of China, and I was saving my most valuable photos for the guide.
The Old Erlang Road is an ideal birding location. The road, which used to be part of the Sichuan-Tibet highway but has been superseded by a tunnel, remains in serviceable condition. The lush forests are a stronghold not just for Firethroat but also for many other sought-after birds, among them
Lady Amherst’s Pheasant Chrysolophus amherstiae and Streaked Barwing Actinodura souliei.
MAP & PHOTOS
Firethroat breeds in the mountains of central China, as well as in southeastern Tibet and adjacent Arunachal Pradesh, India. The non-breeding range is poorly understood. There are records of Firethroat from Bangladesh, northeastern India, northern Burma, and northern Thailand (Alström et al. 2013, 96; Bunkhwamdi et al. 2015). Old Erlang Road is in central Sichuan, the heart of Firethroat’s breeding range. (Wikipedia/ Craig Brelsford)
I found the female at the bend in the road center-left. Her mate was engaged in a song-duel with another male on the opposite side of the road. Firethroat were singing at various other places along the Old Erlang Road, suggesting an appreciable presence of the species there. Coordinates of this site: 29.854737, 102.259133. Elevation: 2740 m (8,980 ft.). ( Craig Brelsford)
For four days I sat in my tent with my 600 mm f/4 lens jutting out. I was aware that I was making a major investment in a single species and that as a result I would miss other species on a road rich in birds. I reasoned that any birder could get a good haul there, but that it would be a service to birding to produce the definitive image of a rarely photographed species. ( Craig Brelsford)
This photo, taken 3 June, records the moment when I first beheld female Firethroat. Note the olive-brown upperparts, with an intriguing dash of slate on the back and scapulars; the rusty-buff flanks and undertail coverts; the lack of white in the tail; the white lower abdomen; and the plumbeous legs. This shot represented progress, but I wanted more. ( Craig Brelsford)
By 4 June, I had spent three days in the tent. Despite the enticement of the mealworms, the female could not bring herself to move beyond the periphery of the setup. ( Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, adult female, 5 June 2014. In the final minutes of my fourth and final day, I achieved this perfect profile shot. ( Craig Brelsford)
Here’s another profile shot, this time of the left side. Note the slaty-blue hues on the breast-sides and abdomen. ( Craig Brelsford)
Compared to its sister species Blackthroat Calliope obscura, female Firethroat (above) is presumed to have ‘a paler, more contrasting throat, slightly warmer or more prominently rufous-tinged tail and paler, warmer, more buff (less deeply brown-washed) breast and flanks’ (Round & Clement 2015, 86). ( Craig Brelsford)
This male was almost certainly the mate of our female above. Note the slaty plumage from crown to rump, brownish-black wings, black face and neck-sides, white neck-patch, and white flashes on the base of the tail feathers. ‘This male is a first-summer,’ writes Per Alström. ‘First-summer males actually look like adult males except for browner remiges, primary coverts, alula and sometimes some (outer) greater coverts’ ( in litt., 2019). ( Craig Brelsford)
As the days wore on, the male grew more and more at ease around my setup, often lingering for a minute or two before darting back into the undergrowth. ( Craig Brelsford)
On Sichuan’s Old Erlang Road in the first week of June 2014, at the height of breeding season, this male Firethroat was in the company of a female and singing powerfully. (Listen here to my sound-recording [2 MB; 01:18].) The elevation was 2740 m (8,980 ft.). I heard other Firethroat singing at altitudes as low as 2450 m (8,040 ft.). Most published descriptions of Firethroat have the altitudinal limit of the breeding range no lower than 2700 m (8,860 ft.). ( Craig Brelsford)
Calliope is a genus of East Asian chats known for the powerful songs of the males and cryptic coloring of the females and for their fondness for dense, damp undergrowth. The genus comprises Firethroat and four other species, three of which are pictured here. The type species and the one most familiar to birders is Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope, male top L, female top R. Blackthroat C. obscura (bottom L) is the species most closely related to Firethroat and one about which even less is known than Firethroat. It breeds in central China mostly north of Firethroat’s range. Chinese Rubythroat C. tschebaiewi (bottom R) breeds on the Tibetan Plateau in high-altitude thickets and scrub. Chinese Rubythroat was formerly considered conspecific with Himalayan Rubythroat C. pectoralis, not pictured. ( Craig Brelsford)
A ribbon connecting the Sichuan Basin and the Tibetan Plateau, Old Erlang Road is an outstanding birding location. The lush montane habitat supports an astonishing variety of birds, among them Claudia’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus claudiae (top) and Sichuan Leaf Warbler P. forresti (center L), two of the 10 species of Phylloscopus recorded along the road. Large Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides (bottom R) and Ashy-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora alphonsiana (bottom L) are two of the many species on Old Erlang Road rare or absent on the adjacent Tibetan Plateau. ( Craig Brelsford)
WANT TO GO?
China Dreams Tour (www.chinadreamstour.com) runs trips to Old Erlang Road and other hotspots in Sichuan. Book your trip by clicking on the image below.
Alström, Per. (2019). Email to author, 16 May.
Alström, Per; Song, Gang; Zhang, Ruiying; Gao, Xuebin; Holt, Paul I.; Olsson, Urban; Lei, Fumin (2013). Taxonomic status of Blackthroat
Calliope obscura and Firethroat C. pectardens. Forktail 29, pp. 94–99. Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Alstrom-et-al.-2013-Blackthroat-and-Firethroat-taxonomy-FORKTAIL.pdf (accessed: 4 Jun 2023).
Brelsford, C. (2014). Sichuan & Yunnan, June 2014 (
https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sichuan-yunnan/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 26 Jan. 2016 (accessed: 4 Jun 2023).
Brelsford, C. (2017). Wuyipeng and My Progress As a Birder (
https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wuyipeng/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 July 2017 (accessed: 4 Jun 2023).
Bunkhwamdi, W.; Manawattana, S.; Kanjanavanit, R.; Round, P. D. (2015). A photographic record of Firethroat
Calliope pectardens wintering in northern Thailand with a reassessment of a specimen record of Blackthroat C. obscura. BirdingASIA 24, pp. 37-42. Available at
https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Firethroat-BA24.pdf (accessed: 4 Jun 2023).
Collar, N.J. (2005). Family Turdidae (Thrushes). Pp. 747-9 (Firethroat, Indian Blue Robin, Black-throated Blue Robin) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2005).
Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 10. Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Round, P. & Clement, P. (2015). Firethroat
Calliope pectardens and Blackthroat C. obscura: notes on winter plumages and habitats. BirdingASIA 23, pp. 84-87. Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Firethroat-Blackthroat.pdf (accessed: 4 Jun 2023).
1. On 16 May 2019, observation by Per Alström added to caption to photo of male Firethroat.
Firethroat Calliope pectardens, rare photo of adult female, Old Erlang Road, Sichuan, China, 5 June 2014. Nikon D3S and Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens, 1/200, f6.3, ISO 4000. This photo and all the photos in this post copyright © 2014–2023 by Craig Brelsford. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of the photos in this post is strictly prohibited. Send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. ( Craig Brelsford)
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