Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Brelsford’s partner Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), in the Dulong Gorge in northwestern Yunnan. The insets show Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii, which Alström was there studying, and photos of which Brelsford later acquired. Alström’s research led to the recognition of Himalayan Thrush as a species, and Brelsford’s photos were used in Alström’s paper and published in news outlets worldwide. (Huáng Xiǎo Ān [黄小安])
The illustration above shows Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers: Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1), Arctic Warbler (2), Eastern Crowned Warbler (3), Pallas’s Leaf Warbler (4), and Yellow-browed Warbler (5). In this post, I tell you how to separate Pale-legged and its lookalike Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from the others.
Recently at Cape Nanhui, the birding hotspot in Pudong, my object of observation was Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, one of the Big 5 Leaf Warblers in Shanghai. In both spring and autumn, Phylloscopus tenellipes passes through Earth’s greatest city in considerable numbers. A lookalike species, Sakhalin Leaf WarblerP. borealoides, also has been noted in Shanghai.
In this post, I shall outline the difficulty of distinguishing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on anything but call and song, and I will show you some of the traits of “Pale-Sak” that set this species pair apart from other leaf warblers.
SONG CAN SAFELY SEPARATE PALE-LEGGED FROM SAKHALIN
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler is safely separable from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler only by song and call. Every other trait of each can occur in the other. Numerous authorities confirm this. Swedish ornithologist Per Alström calls the two species “almost identical” and “virtually indistinguishable except by song” (Alström 2012). Mark Brazil says field separation of Pale-Sak is “uncertain,” and he warns readers to “beware light conditions” (2009). Clement writes that Pale-legged and Sakhalin are “very similar” and claims, dubiously, that the latter is distinguishable from the former “mainly by greener upperparts and lack of wingbars” (2006). Clements goes on to describe juvenile Pale-legged as being “more greenish on upperparts,” which begs the question of whether the greenish Pale-Sak one is observing is an adult Sakhalin or a juvenile Pale-legged. Moreover, a quick look at Oriental Bird Images shows many Sakhalin Leaf Warbler with wing bars.
Thankfully for us birders, the songs of the two species are distinctive and provide the basis for a safe ID. The song of Pale-legged, occasionally heard in Shanghai in May, is a cricket-like trill, that of Sakhalin a high-pitched, three-note whistle.
One day in May, I heard Pale-legged and Sakhalin singing together in Zhongshan Park—proof that Sakhalin passes through Shanghai. Usually, however, birders here are forced to perform the less than satisfying task of assigning the individuals they see to the category “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.”
Bottom line: In Shanghai, any Pale-Sak one sees is probably Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, the continental breeder, and not Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, the breeder from the eponymous Russian island plus Hokkaido and Honshu; but to claim certainty about any non-singing individual is the taxonomical version of Russian roulette.
DISTINGUISHING PALE-SAK FROM OTHER LEAF WARBLERS
The Pale-Sak species pair is readily distinguishable from other leaf warblers, in particular the other four members of Shanghai’s Big 5: Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus, Yellow-browed WarblerP. inornatus, Arctic WarblerP. borealis, and Eastern Crowned WarblerP. coronatus.
Here are a few principles:
— Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are plain, mid-sized to large leaf warblers without even the hint of a coronal stripe.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler has distinctive pink legs and a short bill with a black smudge on the lower mandible, which is pink at the base and tip.
Even on a fast-moving Pale-Sak in poor light, the pink of the bill and especially of the legs is readily seen. The distinctive pale color of these bare parts is a handy tool for distinguishing Pale-Sak from birds in the Arctic Warbler Complex, which like Pale-Sak lack a crown stripe and usually show one or two wing bars. (The Arctic Warbler Complex consists of Arctic WarblerPhylloscopus borealis, Kamchatka Leaf WarblerP. examinandus, and Japanese Leaf WarblerP. xanthodryas. In Shanghai, Arctic Warbler is the most common of the three, migrating through Shanghai every spring and autumn.) The pink coloration also distinguishes Pale-Sak from Dusky WarblerP. fuscatus, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in Shanghai, and the scarce passage migrant Two-barred WarblerP. plumbeitarsus.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler constantly pumps its tail.
The tail-pumping of Pale-legged/Sakhalin is one of the most distinctive behavioral traits of the species pair. The steady movement usually occurs independently of other muscular actions and is slow enough for the eye to see. The tail-flicking of Arctic Warbler, by contrast, is more spasmodic and is often accompanied by wing-flicking.
— Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is often found on the lower, thicker branches of trees.
With its ability to forage along thick branches and not just glean from the underside of leaves, Pale-legged/Sakhalin can remind one of a nuthatch. Other species such as Arctic Warbler use the lower branches, but sustained observation shows Pale-Sak more often in those areas. Note: In May and June 2016, I studied Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on its breeding grounds in Heilongjiang. There, amid trees older and taller than one usually sees in Shanghai, I most often noted the species far above my head, in the mid-canopy.
A NOTE ON CALLS
Except for the mainly silent migrant Eastern Crowned Warbler, Shanghai’s Big 5 Leaf Warblers all call in both spring and autumn. The calls are distinctive. The metallic “tink” of Pale-Sak contrasts markedly with the “tzit” of Arctic Warbler, the “dweet” of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, and the “sweet” of Yellow-browed Warbler.
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, Cape Nanhui, Shanghai, May (00:15; 1.4 MB)
Arctic Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:09; 1.9 MB)
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Jiangsu, May (00:05; 1.6 MB)
Editor’s note: This post caught the attention of Philip D. Round, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok and an expert on leaf warblers. In an e-mail to me, Round writes that as discoveries are made and papers published, separating Pale-legged Leaf Warbler from Sakhalin Leaf Warbler on call may become more widespread. Separation on morphology, by contrast, will be much more difficult, though it may eventually turn out to be possible in the hand.
The following paragraphs are from Round’s e-mail to me:
“I enclose a paper that details the first records of both Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler from Thailand. [Editor’s note: the paper, “Addition of Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides to Thailand’s Avifauna,” is available for download through shanghaibirding.com (708 KB).] This has been rather overtaken by events, as we have now caught into the hundreds of Sakhalin LW, mostly on spring passage, and quite a few more Kamchatka. I have an undergraduate student who has carried out DNA assay on about ten percent of all the Pale-legged and Sakhalin LW caught. For many of these we have also recorded call notes on release. When she comes back from overseas study in January 2017 I hope we’ll get a paper out which publishes details of call-note frequency and DNA results for this large sample, which should show the correlation between species and call-note frequency clearly. (Actually this is moderately and anecdotally well-known already. I think either Frank Lambert or Jonathan Martinez was the first to draw my attention to the difference, and it is mentioned by Yap et al. in BirdingASIA with reference to an overwintering Singapore bird.) [Note: Round is referring to Yap, Francis et al., “First wintering record of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus borealoides in South-East Asia, with notes on vocalisations,” BirdingASIA 21 (2014): 76–81.]
“I am a bit less sanguine on finding means (other than by call frequency or song) to separate all birds. Even in the hand, it is by no means clear. We can pick out long-winged male Sakhalin, and short-winged female Pale-legged. But there is more overlap than previously realized, and most are in between. There don’t appear to be any 100% consistent wing-formula differences, and plumage and bare-part features, while somewhat indicative, are again less than 100% reliable—especially under field conditions. But probably we are missing something. The next thing to do is to apply PCA or some other multivariate analysis to figure out reliable means of separation of birds in the hand from our large sample, and also to use the information we have to figure out differences in the timing of passage of the two spp.”
Alström, P. (2012). Identification of Phylloscopus & Seicercus Warblers in China. Notes from presentation given to Beijing Birdwatching Society in November 2012. PDF downloadable here (13 MB). Click here for a 5 MB zip archive containing all 40 pages of the report in JPEG form. Those pages can be synced to your smartphone like photographs and consulted in the field. (Accessed: 22 Jan 2020)
Brazil, M. (2009). Birds of East Asia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Clement, P. (2006). Family Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Pp. 663-4 (Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Sakhalin Leaf 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.
Featured image: Shanghai’s Big 5 leaf warblers. (Craig Brelsford)
On the spectacular morning of 17 May at Cape Nanhui, the birding hotspot in Pudong, Kai Pflug and I achieved Shanghai’s first record of Grey-crowned WarblerSeicercus tephrocephalus.
The bird was singing, an amazing incongruity, the bright, sharp south-Chinese Seicercus sound in a tiny wood on the muddy Chinese coast. The golden warbler alighted on a branch for several seconds.
Grey-crowned Warbler is rarely seen this far east and is not covered in Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia. However the very good Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol. 11, which I can’t recommend enough to lovers of leaf warblers and golden spectacled warblers, has the info we need.
A monotypic species, S. tephrocephalus is said by HBW 11 to breed as close to Shanghai as Hubei. It is very similar in plumage and song to Martens’s Warbler S. omeiensis but unlike Martens’s has the eye-ring broken at rear. S. tephrocephalus is common to abundant in its normal range of south China and Southeast Asia, but it had never been recorded in Shanghai. The lack of records is probably owing not only to its scarcity but also to its difficulty in identification, particularly for birders unfamiliar with HBW 11.
Much of the wealth of info on Seicercus warblers in HBW 11 is the fruit of the research of Swedish ornithologist Per Alström, who wrote nearly all the Seicercus entries. Guangdong-based French birder Jonathan Martinez has also researched S. tephrocephalus and helped me with the ID of the Grey-crowned Warbler.
Here are the sound-recordings I made of Grey-crowned Warbler. The recordings and photos are of the same individual.
After viewing the photos and listening to the recordings, Per wrote the following to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group:
“I agree with your id of Grey-crowned Warbler, mainly based on the song recording (songs and calls are by far the best ways to id Seicercus warblers). The photos look a bit off (e.g., eye-ring broken in front, which isn’t normally the case in any Seicercus, seemingly poorly marked lateral crown-stripes, no clear grey on crown [though that could be a photo effect], and dark-tipped lower mandible [only in Grey-cheeked W]).”
To sum up:
My research indicates, and Per Alström concurs: Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus
Grey-crowned has eye-ring broken at rear; my photos show eye-ring broken at rear. The songs I recorded most closely match the song of S. tephrocephalus.
Next-closest possibility: Martens’s Warbler (S. omeiensis)
Very similar to Grey-crowned Warbler but doesn’t have eye-ring broken at rear.
Also: Alström’s Warbler (S. soror); my recording has trills; distinctive song of Alström’s lacks trills. Bianchi’s Warbler (S. valentini) does not trill. White-spectacled Warbler (S. affinis intermedius) has eye-ring broken above eye, not behind.
— Being among the first birders to visit Dulong Gorge, “The Last Green Valley in China,” in the far northwestern corner of Yunnan
— In collaboration with Per Alström, finding, photographing, and sound-recording Himalayan Thrush at the dramatic Salween-Irrawaddy Divide in the Gāolígòng Mountains
— On the Old Erlang Road in Sichuan, spotting, waiting out, and finally photographing a rare female Firethroat, as well as photographing and sound-recording a male
— Finding and photographing a pair of Fire-tailed Myzornis at the Salween-Irrawaddy Divide
— In Dulong Gorge, finding several species of bird with limited ranges in China, among them Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, Scaly Laughingthrush, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Streak-throated Barwing, Beautiful Sibia, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Fire-tailed Sunbird, and Scarlet Finch
My flight from Shanghai arrived at 20:00 at Chéngdū. My partner Huáng Xiǎo Ān (黄小安) picked me up at the airport. Xiǎo Ān lives in Beijing. Later that night, Jon Gallagher arrived. Jon was born in England and is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Maryland. This trip would be our second together; in 2013, the three of us birded in Qinghai.
Sun. 1 June 2014
Today I drove our rented Chevrolet Captiva to the Lǎo Chuān Zàng Lù (老川藏路), known in English as the Old Erlang Road. The road, no longer in regular use because of the new Èrláng Shān tunnels, lies between Yǎ’ān (雅安) and Kāngdìng (康定). The Old Erlang Road dips off the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau; the eastern side of the road is soggy and foggy; the western side, higher and drier. The contrast in vegetation and climate is stark and immediately noticeable. I’ve yet to see a place that more dramatically shows the contrast between wet eastern China and arid western China. Our top bird, found on the eastern side, was Chestnut-headed Tesia. Phylloscopus and Seicercus warblers were singing everywhere, giving me the easier IDs that I have been dreaming about. The most conspicuous leaf warbler was Claudia’s Leaf Warbler. Also common: Sichuan Leaf Warbler. I sound-recorded and photographed a Seicercus warbler; the recording of the voice was crucial in my ID’ing the bird as a Martens’s Warbler. Here are three recordings I made today:
Chestnut-headed Tesia (00:19; 1.1 MB)
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (00:56; 1.7 MB)
Black-faced Laughingthrush (00:38; 1.4 MB)
We drove to Lúdìng (泸定), the nearest city, 30 km from the western end of the Old Erlang Road.
Mon. 2 June 2014
Walking alone up the Old Erlang Road, at an elevation of about 2730 m, I heard robins singing. Within minutes, I had found a male Firethroat. Two males apparently have territories on either side of the Old Erlang Road. Firethroat is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. Near the highest point on the Old Erlang Road, we ran into Frank Lambert, who was leading a tour. We led Frank’s group back to our Firethroat spot. A few members of Frank’s tour were so happy to see the Firethroat, they had tears in their eyes. I recorded the beautiful song of Firethroat (01:18; 2 MB):
Tues. 3 June 2014
Raining this morning. At the “tree-lined avenue” on the west side of the Old Erlang Road (elev.: 2450 m), I saw Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. Cuckoos were singing from every tall tree. Large Hawk-Cuckoo were most commonly heard, followed by Lesser Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Himalayan Cuckoo.
Large Hawk-Cuckoo (00:34; 1.3 MB)
Lesser Cuckoo (00:16; 1 MB)
Jon and I took a long walk along the road. We found another pair of Firethroat at about 2450 m above sea level. In the afternoon, we drove to Kāngdìng.
Wed. 4 June 2014
We spent the morning at a site 5 km from Kāngdìng dedicated to photographing wild pheasants. The site is owned by Liào Kāng Lín (廖康林; +86 135-4147-1963, +86 836-2823096). Mr. Liào charges 80 yuan per photographer per day. A stay at his house costs 40 yuan per night. Cooked meals are available. Our time at Mr. Liào’s place was not very successful. We viewed only one gamebird, a Lady Amherst’s Pheasant (male), and it left after only a few seconds. Mr. Liào said the best time to come is March. While there, I recorded the local Alpine Leaf Warbler (00:41; 1.4 MB):
After finishing at Mr. Liào’s place, we drove back to the Old Erlang Road, where we caught a tantalizing glimpse of the female Firethroat. We drove back to Lúdìng, where we spent the night.
Thurs. 5 June 2014
It took some work, but today on the Old Erlang Road I managed to capture clear shots of a female Firethroat. Photographing the female is a much greater challenge than photographing the male. The female is silent, much unlike the songster the male, and very shy. Special thanks to Jon and Xiǎo Ān for agreeing to give another morning to the female Firethroat (I’m happy to report that they too saw and photographed the female). As I continue to capture images for my photo field guide, I am striving to get shots of the most elusive species. The female Firethroat is a big step forward. Also attracted to our setup was a female Slaty-blue Flycatcher. In the afternoon, we drove to Lóngcānggōu (龙苍沟). We stayed at Hǔlín Shānzhuāng (虎林山庄; +86 189-8162-4444). There, a power surge occurred, destroying the battery charger for my camera, the power adapter of my Apple MacBook Pro, and other items.
Before that disaster occurred, we took a walk in the forest, where I recorded the haunting, hoopoe-like call of Himalayan Cuckoo (01:31; 2.2 MB):
Fri. 6 June 2014
Early this morning, a rock ripped apart the oil pan (U.K.: sump) of our rented Chevy Captiva. We were driving into the wilderness area at Lóngcānggōu. We hit a bump, but the bump didn’t seem especially serious. I was shocked to see oil running over the ground. A tow truck from Yǎ’ān came to rescue us. We were taken to a Chevrolet dealership outside Yǎ’ān. We rented a Volkswagen Passat from an agency in Yǎ’ān and drove to Chéngdū.
Sat. 7 June 2014
We visited the camera center in Chéngdū, where I bought a new battery charger. Our next stop was the Apple store, where Xiǎo Ān and I replaced our power adapters. We then drove to Éméishān (峨眉山).
Sun. 8 June 2014
Drizzled all day. In the early morning, we walked uphill from our hotel below the lower terminus of the cable car. Already there were many tourists, disturbing the few birds that we could see. We walked down the road from the cable car. On this road, there were fewer people. We found Bianchi’s Warbler. After lunch, we drove downhill to get below the fog. There are few safe places to stop along the busy road. The best place is at 1540 m, where a dirt road meets the main, paved road. If you’re driving uphill on the paved road, look for a road turning off to your right. The road is a few hundred meters uphill from the “32” sign. We spent an hour walking along the dirt road before rain forced us back to the Passat. Driving back up, we discovered another good spot within walking distance of the complex of hotels where we’re staying. This place is a ski area. Local workers live in some of the buildings. A walkway leads from a parking lot uphill past the slope and through a small forested area to a second parking lot above. Because few tourists go there, the ski area is quiet, and with its clearings and trails is highly birdable. In the forested part of the walkway near the upper parking lot, we saw Golden Parrotbill. We named the forested part the Magic Walkway.
Mon. 9 June 2014
Rain and fog all day. The team stayed in. No birding. In spite of our recent run of bad luck, we are still laughing, still having fun.
Tues. 10 June 2014
This morning, the sky was clearer and it was no longer raining. Jon and Xiǎo Ān took the cable car to the Golden Summit. They saw little, as the upper reaches of the mountain were foggy. Feeling weak, I slept in. Later, I felt better and walked alone to the Magic Walkway. I found at least 2 Chestnut-headed Tesia, Grey-hooded Fulvetta, Golden Parrotbill, and a first for me, White-bellied Redstart. Large-billed Leaf Warbler were singing everywhere. Here are two recordings made today.
Large-billed Leaf Warbler (01:27; 2.2 MB)
White-bellied Redstart (00:27; 1.2 MB)
The temperature was around 10, very chilly. At the restaurant at our hotel, we ran into German birder Kai Pflug. Kai lives in Shanghai. I’d been communicating with Kai by e-mail for months but hadn’t met him until this chance encounter.
Wed. 11 June 2014
Along the S217 in Yunnan
We awoke at Éméishān to fog and drizzle. We went to the Magic Walkway. We found the White-bellied Redstart again and heard others singing. I recorded Martens’s Warbler. We received word from the Chevy dealership that the Captiva had been repaired. We drove down to the side road at 1540 m (the road we’d discovered on 8 June). There, visibility was excellent; there was no rain and no fog. We walked in and took the fork right. We found Rufous-capped Babbler. I made a good recording of the well-known call from close range (00:59; 1.7 MB):
Heading back toward the fork, we found a flock of Golden Parrotbill. Also in the area were Green-backed Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, and 3 Grey Treepie. A White-throated Needletail zipped by. We drove on the newly opened G93 to Yǎ’ān. Along the nearly empty freeway, I heard Indian Cuckoo. At the Chevy dealership, we finished up the paperwork on the Captiva, transferred our stuff from the Passat to the Captiva, and, after dinner in a restaurant down the road from the dealership, headed south. Our destination: Yunnan and Dulong Gorge. I drove for hours, mostly on the G5, the major freeway. A steady stream of Red Bull kept me awake. In Yunnan, we left the G5 and took the S217 to the G56. Somewhere along the S217, I became sleepy and pulled over. I slept for 90 minutes then continued driving.
Thurs. 12 June 2014
Gòngshān (贡山), Yunnan
Stopped at Gòngshān (贡山)! Dúlóng will have to wait till tomorrow. Despite not reaching Dulong Gorge, and despite 36 hours of nearly non-stop driving from Éméishān to Gòngshān, our mood is upbeat. One reason: the amazing 300 km odyssey through the Salween Gorge. In Chinese, the Salween is called the Angry (怒 [nù]) River because of its churning rapids, so readily seen in the gorge. But to the thousands of people living along its banks, the Salween is like a member of the family, a constant, nurturing presence. The S228 is the other lifeline of the communities here, the only route in and out and in many places the only flat surface. Sunning dogs, running children, toothless old men bearing loads, wrinkled old women chatting—all on the road. Our progress was often slowed to a snail’s pace. And the scenery! The higher one drives up the gorge, the greener the mountainsides.
Fri. 13 June 2014
We’re in Kǒngdāng, the major town here along the Dúlóng River (Dúlóng Jiāng [独龙江]). Kǒngdāng has no gas station—in fact, there isn’t one in this entire valley, a remote place bordering Burma and Tibet. Gòngshān, 300 km from the G56, is one step removed from normal China; this valley is yet another step beyond. The natives of this valley, the Dúlóng people, number about 7,000 and until recently were totally cut off from the outside world. There are still a few old women with tattooed faces, a tradition that arose from the fear that the neighboring Tibetans would invade and steal the women. I’ve been to 31 of China’s provincial-level entities and seen few places as strange and breathtaking as Dúlóng. We are staying at Dàpíng Bīnguǎn (大平宾馆; reach Mr. Huáng at +86 139-8869-6984; reach his wife at +86 157-0885-2602). Today, on the ridge dividing the Irrawaddy and Salween basins, at an elevation of 3270 m, our team found a pair of Fire-tailed Myzornis. A Golden Bush Robin caught our attention. We also found perhaps two species of what is still officially known as Plain-backed Thrush (Zoothera mollissima). The man who is studying the Plain-backed Thrush complex, none other than Per Alström, met us just below the Salween-Irrawaddy Divide. Per was with his partners, Zhào Chāo (赵超) and Zhào Jiàn (赵健). We talked for about an hour. Using the hood of Per’s jeep as a desk, Per and I opened our MacBooks, and Per copied over to me a recording he’d made of a bird in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. Per’s generosity inspired me. Per said, “I only have photos of thrushes I’ve captured. It would be good to have photos of the thrushes in their natural environment.” “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos,” I said.
Sat. 14 June 2014
Rain and fog this morning grounded us until 09:00. The three of us worked our way from Kǒngdāng (elev.: 1500 m) to a bridge on the Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road (2200 m). Here, the skies brightened, and old-growth, moss-covered trees on either side of the road seemed promising habitat for our target bird, Beautiful Nuthatch. We found none today, but those old trees proved productive, yielding Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker eating mistletoe berries, two pairs of Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Streak-throated Barwing, a male Scarlet Finch, and dazzling Yellow-cheeked Tit. Outside Qinghai and Xinjiang, I have not seen such vast expanses of unspoiled nature in China as I’ve seen in Dulong Gorge.
Sun. 15 June 2014
With good photography out of the question because of the rain, I turned Dulong Gorge into my classroom, with Jon Gallagher and Huáng Xiǎo Ān as my classmates. We spent the day building up our Dúlóng list and gaining familiarity with the more common birds we were finding. Through the fog we found several Yunnan specialties, among them Rusty-fronted Barwing. We also continued our search for Beautiful Nuthatch and Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler.
On Friday, during our Meeting in the Wilderness, Per Alström told me to be on the lookout for Davison’s Leaf Warbler. In this far-flung part of Yunnan, Davison’s is the leaf warbler with the “double wing flick”; in other parts of China, the closely related Kloss’s Leaf Warbler is the double wing flicker. Today, during a break in the rain, we found Davison’s Leaf Warbler.
Mon. 16 June 2014
Day 4 of our Dúlóng Expedition found my team in the high country again, up to the Dúlóng end of the new tunnel on the Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road (2850 m). Amid the constant drizzle, we persevered. Among our hard-won gems were Rusty-flanked Treecreeper and Manipur Fulvetta. When the rain let up briefly at 18:00, the birds came out in great numbers, as if it were dawn. The star of that bird wave was a male Scarlet Finch sitting proudly atop the highest tree.
Tues. 17 June 2014
Jon, Xiǎo Ān, and I continued our search for birds expected in this region but not confirmed. Glorious, rain-free weather did not make birding any easier, but it did allow us to enjoy expansive views across the valley.
Wed. 18 June 2014
We set our sights on finding Yellow-throated Fulvetta. It is a noisy, active bird, usually in small parties. Its limited range in China includes southeast Tibet and northwest Yunnan. At first glance, one may mistake it for a leaf warbler or bush warbler, but this species and its congeners in Alcippe belong firmly to the ground babblers (Pellorneidae). We quickly found one at the bridge near Pǔ Wàng Kǎ (普旺卡), south of Kǒngdāng. The rain came once again. Amid the steady shower, we got close to a Slaty-bellied Tesia (00:04; 852 KB).
Thurs. 19 June 2014
Our final full day in Dulong Gorge saw less rain. We found another Slaty-bellied Tesia, and near Kǒngdāng we found a scraggly Brown Shrike. We parked near the river and studied the stream closely. Few birds rely on the turbulent, nutrient-poor water of the Dúlóng River. We saw a single Common Kingfisher.
Fri. 20 June 2014
Today, a week after meeting Per Alström and his partners, my team was back at the Salween-Irrawaddy Divide. I was mindful of Per’s desire to get “natural” images of a “Plain-backed Thrush.” During a rare break in the rain, I stepped out and played the song Per had transferred to me on 13 June. After a few minutes, a “Plain-backed Thrush” called back. The thrush perched just 15 m from me, singing powerfully. What a rush! I took dozens of photos and made three good recordings. Afterward, I texted Per: “We got your thrush! This morning, my team was on the Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road, on the Dúlóng side of the Hēipǔ (黑普) Tunnel (the high tunnel), just up the road from where our teams ran into each other. Rain was falling steadily, & there was much fog. During a break in the rain, I stepped out of the car and walked downhill, playing the recording that you shared with me. Within seconds, a hearty response. Then the rain started falling very hard, and the fog grew thick, and I had to run back to the Captiva. Half an hour later, there was another break in the weather, & I tried again. After a few minutes, my jaw dropped: a ‘Plain-backed Thrush’! The bird was singing powerfully in response to the recording. For 15 minutes, the thrush did circles around me, circles that as the bird grew used to me were getting tighter and tighter. The thrush perched just 15 m from me. I whipped out my pocket recorder and made 3 good recordings. Finally, a Nissan Paladin arrived, carrying a team of Beijing journalists who’d invited us to dinner last night down at Kǒngdāng! I had no choice but to greet them. By the time the journalists moved on, the thrush had moved off, and the rain had started again. Jon, Xiǎo Ān, and I lingered for an hour on the Dúlóng side of the Divide, but the rain never stopped. We drove through the tunnel to the Salween side and spent another hour there. The rain let up some, and I went out and played your Dúlóng recording. I got no response. When you generously lent me your recording, Per, you said that you’d like to see some photos of ‘Plain-backed Thrushes’ in their natural state, as opposed to captured birds photographed in the hand. Well, here they are. With these photos and the recordings I made, we should have little trouble determining to which of the new ‘Plain-backed Thrush’ taxa the individual I met belongs.” Later, Per wrote back, having seen my photos and listened to my recordings. He said he had little trouble determining to which of the new “Plain-backed Thrush” taxa the individual I met belongs. However, as Per’s work on the complex hasn’t been published yet, Per has asked me to temporarily refer to my bird by the currently recognized binomial, Zoothera mollissima. What a pleasure it was to find that “Plain-backed Thrush,” and at such a remote, thrilling location! What a pleasure it has been working with Per. As we drove through the mountains, we saw local people picking zhúyè cài (竹叶菜). We arrived in Gòngshān just before dark.
UPDATE, 26 JAN 2016: The bird I found on 20 June 2014 is Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii. Earlier this month, Per and his team published an article in which they make known that what was once thought to be one species (Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima) is actually three species, and perhaps four. The three species identified by Per and his team are Himalayan Thrush Z. salimalii, which is completely new to science; Sichuan Thrush Z. griseiceps, formerly Z. m. griseiceps, now given species status; and Alpine Thrush Z. mollissima (in the wake of the new discoveries, “Alpine Thrush” replaces the former name “Plain-backed Thrush”). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study. Here are the three recordings that I achieved of Himalayan Thrush on 20 June 2014:
(00:25; 1.2 MB)
(01:25; 2.2 MB)
(00:45; 1.5 MB)
Sat. 21 June 2014
We drove all day on the S228 through the Salween Gorge. Arrived after nightfall in Dàlǐ (大理).
Sun. 22 June 2014
We drove from Dàlǐ to Chéngdū. Along the S217 in Yunnan, we did some roadside birding in a semi-arid region south of Shuǐrén (水仁). There, I saw my first-ever Crested Bunting. We drove through another big rainstorm and hobbled into Chéngdū well after dark. It was another exhausting drive, but Dulong Gorge was worth our sacrifices. I’d lived nearly seven years in China before seeing such expansive, little-touched forest. I’m calling Dulong Gorge “The Last Green Valley in China”—last in space (the “last” valley in northwestern Yunnan before Burma) and last in time (one by one, the other formerly rich valleys in China have succumbed to the harsh hand of man; Dulong Gorge remains rich, pure, pristine). I know that “The Last Green Valley in China” is an exaggeration; there are other well-preserved valleys in China. The point of my poetic license is to underline the environmental disaster unfolding in China and to highlight the value of Dúlóng.
Mon. 23 June 2014
We split up, Xiǎo Ān returning to Beijing, Jon to Maryland, and I to Shanghai.
BIRDS NOTED IN SICHUAN AND YUNNAN, JUNE 2014
For taxonomy and English names, my first reference is the IOC World Bird List. I noted 193 species, representing 12 orders and 45 families.
3 (1 seen, 2 heard) on Old Erlang Road (1750 m) on 2014-06-02
Lady Amherst’s Pheasant
白腹锦鸡 (báifù jǐnjī) Chrysolophus amherstiae
3-4 each day on Old Erlang Road (2300-2500 m) on 2014-06-02 & 2014-06-03
1 male at Liào Kāng Lín’s place (2590 m) on 2014-06-04
1 heard at Lóngcānggōu (1200 m) on 2014-06-06
1 heard at Éméishān (1830 m) on 2014-06-08
1 in Dulong Gorge (2390 m) on 2014-06-15
1 in Dulong Gorge (2400 m) on 2014-06-16
2 in Dulong Gorge (2270 m) on 2014-06-17
1 in Dulong Gorge (2310 m) on 2014-06-17
2 in Dulong Gorge (2410 m) on 2014-06-17
Brown-flanked Bush Warbler
强脚树莺 (qiángjiǎo shùyīng) Horornis fortipes
1 on Old Erlang Road on 2014-06-01
1 at Éméishān (2750 m) on 2014-06-10
1 in Dulong Gorge (1740 m) on 2014-06-17
1 in Dulong Gorge (1620 m) on 2014-06-19
Aberrant Bush Warbler
异色树莺 (yìsè shùyīng) Horornis flavolivaceus
Noted Old Erlang Road (2500 m) on 2014-06-03
1 at Éméishān (2450 m) on 2014-06-08
1 at Éméishān (1330 m) on 2014-06-08
1 at Éméishān (2850 m) on 2014-06-10
3 at Éméishān (2450 m) on 2014-06-08
1 on Salween side of Salween-Irrawaddy Divide (3270 m) on 2014-06-13
1 on Dúlóng side of Salween-Irrawaddy Divide (3260 m) on 2014-06-13
1 on Salween side of Salween-Irrawaddy Divide (3260 m) on 2014-06-20
1 in Dulong Gorge (2280 m) on 2014-06-14
1 in Dulong Gorge (2260 m) on 2014-06-15
1 in Dulong Gorge (1820 m) on 2014-06-16
3 in Dulong Gorge (2700 m) on 2014-06-17
1 on Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road (2190 m) on 2014-06-20
2 (pair) each day on Old Erlang Road (2750 m) on 2014-06-02 & 2014-06-05
2 (pair) at Éméishān (2450 m) on 2014-06-08
2 (pair) at Éméishān (2850 m) on 2014-06-10
血雀 (xuě què) Carpodacus sipahi
1 male in Dulong Gorge (2180 m) on 2014-06-14
1 male in Dulong Gorge (2390 m) on 2014-06-15
2 (pair) in Dulong Gorge (2390 m) on 2014-06-16
2 (pair) in Dulong Gorge (2430 m) on 2014-06-17
1 female in Dulong Gorge (2410 m) on 2014-06-17
Northern Tree Shrew
北树鼩 (běi shùqú) Tupaia belangeri
One seen foraging near a garbage bin at a gas station on G5 S of Yǎ’ān (雅安), Sichuan on 2014-06-22
Dúlóng River, Dulong Gorge (Dúlóng Jiāng [独龙江]): valley and eponymous river in NW Yunnan; the valley borders Tibet and Burma; the Dúlóng River is part of the Irrawaddy Basin
Éméishān (峨眉山): nature reserve and holy Buddhist mountain in C Sichuan
Gāolígòng Mountains (Gāolígòngshān [高黎贡山]): mountain range in W Yunnan running N-S ca. 500 km and dividing the Salween and Irrawaddy River basins
Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road: road connecting Gòngshān (贡山) and Dulong Gorge
Irrawaddy River: major river of Burma; a small part of Irrawaddy Basin lies in China (Dúlóng River)
Liào Kāng Lín’s place: site dedicated to setup photography, specializing in gamebirds; 5 km from Kāngdìng (康定), Sichuan. Elev.: 2590 m
Lóngcānggōu (龙苍沟): nature reserve in C Sichuan
Old Erlang Road: former route of S318 on E edge of Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan between Yǎ’ān (雅安) and Kāngdìng (康定). The W end of the old road is about 30 km E of Lúdìng (泸定). The Old Erlang Road has been superseded by new tunnels but not completely abandoned. Known in Chinese as Lǎo Chuān Zàng Lù (老川藏路)
Salween-Irrawaddy Divide: in NW Yunnan, the ridgeline of the Gāolígòng Mountains separates the Salween and Irrawaddy basins; on the Gòngshān-Dúlóng Road, the Hēipǔ (黑普) Tunnel lies below the divide and joins the two basins
Salween River (Nùjiāng [怒江]): river rising on Tibetan Plateau, flowing through W Yunnan and into Burma, and emptying into Andaman Sea
Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C. & Inskipp, T. 2011. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Christopher Helm, London. Consulted at home in Shanghai.
Harrap, S. & Quinn, D. 1995. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches, & Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, USA. This excellent book, though old, remains Craig’s first reference for all questions related to the families Certhiidae, Paridae, and Sittidae.
Lynx Edicions. The Internet Bird Collection. ibc.lynxeds.com
MacKinnon, John & Karen Phillipps. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press. Flawed but indispensable.
Robson, C. 2005. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA. Craig’s first reference in Dulong Gorge.
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Huáng Xiǎo Ān and Jonathan Gallagher are great teammates—unselfish, friendly, tough, and knowledgeable. Brian Ivon Jones first suggested Dulong Gorge to me. Per Alström gave us much good information about Dúlóng.
Featured image: Yellow-cheeked TitMachlolophus spilonotus spilonotus, Dulong Valley, Yunnan, China. Elev. 2320 m. 14 June 2014. (Craig Brelsford)
Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:
In June 2014, my partners and I drove 36 hours, including one stretch of 24 straight hours, covering 1500 km (930 mi.) to get from Emeishan in Sichuan to the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan. The reason? Per Alström was in the Dulong Gorge and was working on an exciting project, a project to which he said I might be able to make a small contribution.
We finally met up with Per and his team on the road into the Dulong Gorge. There, Per transferred to me a recording of a species new to science, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.
Little did I know that I was on the cusp of something big.
At the time, I did not know that the species was Himalayan Thrush; like any normal birder, I took the species to be Plain-backed Thrush. Per could only divulge that he was working on possible splits to Plain-backed Thrush, and could I please try to get a shot of a free “Plain-backed”? All his images, he said, were of captured birds, and he wanted shots of birds living their natural life. “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos!” I said. Per then left the Dulong Gorge, and my team entered the valley.
Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3380 m (11,090 ft.). I play Per’s recording. Attracted by the recording, a Himalayan Thrush appears within minutes, and I get photos as well as recordings of the thrush’s song. What a payoff!
Now my photos figure in the article Per and his co-authors have written on Himalayan Thrush, Sichuan ThrushZoothera griseiceps, and Alpine ThrushZ. mollissima (Z. mollissima was formerly called “Plain-backed Thrush” in English but in the wake of the new discoveries takes the name Alpine Thrush). Himalayan Thrush is completely new to science, and Sichuan Thrush has been elevated to species status (having been considered a ssp. of Z. mollissima). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study.
I’m proud to have played a minor role in Per and co.’s major discovery!
WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?
In the case of Zoothera salimalii, when we say the species is “new to science,” we are not saying that no human being had ever seen the bird before. Himalayan Thrush is locally common in its range, which extends from Sikkim in India to northwest Yunnan; thousands of birders and non-birders have seen it. “New to science” means that those observers did not understand its true nature. We did not understand that it is a species; if we thought about it at all, we assumed that any Z. salimalii we were seeing was just another Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima.
Per and his team discovered that, hidden within what was considered to be a population of Z. mollissima was an entirely different bird, separated from Z. mollissima by time (3-5 million years of evolution), habitat (Z. mollissimaAlpine Thrush breeds higher than Z. salimalii Himalayan Thrush), song, and morphology.
The latter two characteristics are particularly surprising and point to the difficulties of birding in the Himalayan region. Per and his team did not need a microscope to begin to see that Himalayan Thrush is different from the other species in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. All they needed to do was look and listen closely. Yet for generation after generation, this straightforward analysis was not performed. This is not surprising, considering the ruggedness of the area in which these thrushes live and its sparse population.
Once Per had examined Plain-backed complex birds in the hand and through photos, he found a whole series of visible differences. Per et al. write:
Compared to Z. mollissima, Z. salimalii has a noticeably longer and deeper bill, with more arched culmen and longer hook, and the lower edge of the lower mandible is more arched (vs. straight); bill usually completely or almost completely dark including base of lower mandible, whereas the base of the lower mandible is usually pale pinkish or yellowish in Z. mollissima (though may appear mainly dark also in Z. mollissima). …
Most individuals of Z. salimalii have a thin whitish supraloral stripe over thick blackish lores, and a very dark subocular/moustachial area, more or less connected to the dark lores, compared to more diffuse pale supraloral and weak “salt-and-pepper” lores and subocular/moustachial area of Z. mollissima. Also, Z. salimalii usually shows less extensively pale-mottled ear-coverts than in Z. mollissima, especially on the upper part, and lacks or has only a very ill-defined dark spot on the rear ear-coverts, while Z. mollissima usually shows a distinct dark rear ear-covert patch. Z. salimalii is usually ruddier in color above than Z. mollissima. … Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar, while in Z. mollissima the throat is usually whiter and generally more heavily marked (often much more so) and less strongly bordered by more diffuse malar stripes. Z. salimalii has the claws paler than the toes, lacking dusky areas, while in Z. mollissima the claws are at least partly darker than or similar in color to the toes. The legs of Z. salimalii are pinkish, while those of Z. mollissima are usually brighter and more yellow- or orange-tinged.
So adept became Per at discerning the morphological differences of the various Plain-backed species, he was able to determine, by photos alone, that a “Plain-backed” I had found in Yunnan in February 2014 was also Himalayan Thrush. Per used my February 2014 photos along with my June 2014 photos in his article.
The song of Z. salimalii also contrasts markedly with that of Z. mollissima, Per et al. write. They note the “mainly rasping, grating, scratchy, cracked voice” of Alpine Thrush and the “more musical … ‘thrush-like'” song of Himalayan Thrush. Indeed, according to the article, the germ of the process that led to the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was Per standing in India and simply listening to Himalayan Thrush, remembering the similar song he’d earlier heard in Sichuan of what is now called Sichuan Thrush, and contrasting those sweeter songs with the scratchier song of Alpine Thrush. Here we see Per, the scientist famous for discovering new species according to complicated DNA research, relying not on microscopes but on good old-fashioned birding skills!
Below, some of my recordings and videos of Himalayan Thrush.
Sound Recordings, by Craig Brelsford
Video (all taken by Craig Brelsford at Baihualing, Gaoligong Mountains, western Yunnan, 4-5 Feb. 2014)
Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Brelsford’s partner Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), in the Dulong Gorge, Yunnan. The insets show Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii, which Alström was there studying, and photos of which Brelsford later acquired. Alström’s research led to the recognition of Himalayan Thrush as a species, and Brelsford’s photos were used in Alström’s paper and published in news outlets worldwide. (Huáng Xiǎo Ān [黄小安])