You know your birding area is rich when Nordmann’s Greenshank fails to capture the headline. On Sat. 29 Oct., the day Swinhoe’s Rail electrified Shanghai birders, my partners Michael Grunwell, Elaine Du, and I spotted the endangered Nordmann’s in the defunct nature reserve (30.920500, 121.973167) at Cape Nanhui. We speculate that Saturday’s adult-winter Nordmann’s is the same individual we saw in the area on 15 Oct. and 20 Oct. and possibly as far back as 17 Sept. and 3 Sept.
Other highlights Saturday were 54 endangered Black-faced Spoonbill found exclusively in the defunct nature reserve, further underscoring the critical importance of that highly threatened parcel of land. Joining Nordmann’s in the high-tide roost were 2 Ruff, a near-threatened Red Knot, and 2 of our day’s 4 Saunders’s Gull, a vulnerable species uncommon in Shanghai.
We had Japanese Grosbeak in Microforest 8 and Long-eared Owl at the Magic GPS Point (30.880563, 121.964551). Among our season’s firsts were 2 Tundra Bean Goose, Black-necked Grebe, 5 Goldcrest, Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, 3 Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and 2 Dusky Thrush. Buntings finally are arriving in numbers, with Yellow-throated Bunting (16) and Chestnut Bunting (3) debuting on our Autumn 2016 list. We had a lucky 88 species in all.
Throughout the day, the effectiveness of the Nanhui microforests was on display at Microforest 1 (30.923889, 121.971635). The tiny wood, which we visited off and on, was hopping with hungry migrants, grounded on a breezy day. Brambling, Daurian Redstart, and Yellow-bellied Tit were the tamest, but as the day wore on even shy species such as Japanese Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Black-winged Cuckooshrike were coming into the open. Photographers were present, but no one was using mealworms; the forest birds were attracted solely to the habitat offered by a stand of trees no bigger than a tennis court.
We netted season’s first Buff-bellied Pipit during a 35-minute stop at the sod farm near Pudong Airport (31.112586, 121.824742). Red-throated Pipit were present in smaller numbers (3) than six days earlier.
Alström, Per, Krister Mild & Bill Zetterström. Pipits and Wagtails. Princeton University Press, 2003. This landmark book, co-authored by Shanghai Birding member Per Alström, is my first reference on all things Motacillidae. Of particular use was p. 56, “Water Pipit and Allies (in fresh winter plumage).”
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press, 2009. Thrushes and pipits.
Svensson, Lars & Killian Mullarney & Dan Zetterström. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1999-2009. Outstanding illustrations of pipits by Mullarney.
In this report, you will get an introduction to Boli County and eastern Heilongjiang, you will discover the birds we met up there at the height of the breeding season, you will learn about the birds we missed, and you will find out how Elaine Du and I combine birding with family. There are as well my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.
WHY SHOULD BIRDERS CARE ABOUT BOLI?
Boli County is a good place to study the woodland birds of the eastern Palearctic. Its forests, remnants of the ancient northern temperate forest that once stretched unbroken across the region, hold northern species absent further south in China. In springtime, Boli County is the breeding home of birds that in the more densely populated southern regions of China appear only as passage migrants or winter visitors.
From 26 May to 12 June 2016, Elaine Du and I visited her home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Heilongjiang, China. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We noted 84 species. Our bird of the trip was Band-bellied Crake, and we found breeding Eurasian Eagle-Owl. We noted in full breeding mode many birds that we had previously known only as passage migrants in Shanghai; we heard for the first time the songs of Siberian Blue Robin, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, White-throated Rock Thrush, Siberian Thrush, and many other species.
In January 2015 Elaine and I were married in Dawucun, where Elaine was born. During breaks in the festivities, I explored the frozen country. Expecting to find only magpies and sparrows, I was pleasantly surprised to find forested hills near the village and good birds such as Rough-legged Buzzard. I vowed to return and bird the area thoroughly.
In August and September 2015, Elaine and I fulfilled that goal. During a 32-day visit to her hometown, Elaine and I discovered Xidaquan National Forest, a reserve in the Laoye Mountains covering 9,400 hectares (36 sq. mi.). Xidaquan preserves a remnant of the northern temperate forest that once covered the region. We were thoroughly impressed and made plans to bird the area yet again, this time during breeding season. The trip described here is the realization of that plan.
For Elaine and me, birding trips to Boli are special because they combine Northeast China birding with family. Elaine is never happier than when she is with her parents and two elder sisters, and I not only like her family but also appreciate the opportunity they give me to learn about Chinese culture.
Like many residents of the Northeast, Elaine is descended from migrants who chuǎng Guāndōng (闯关东)—“leapt” north, mainly from Hebei and Shandong, to farm areas of Guandong (Manchuria) formerly closed to Han Chinese settlement. In Elaine’s case, the settlers were her parents, who left Shandong in the 1970s.
The settlement of the Northeast by Han farmers is a major event in Chinese history, like the settling of the West is to Americans. The transformation the migration has wrought on the land has been profound. In eastern Heilongjiang, the toil of thousands of farmers has converted the land from an endless forest into a vast maize field. Where tigers once roared, magpies now caw.
Amid the sea of grain fields are islands of the old Manchurian forest. One of the best is Xidaquan National Forest, just 25 km from Boli Town. After our discovery of Xidaquan in the summer of 2015, we turned it into our laboratory in which to study the birds of the eastern Palearctic woodlands. We have now spent 20 days birding in the reserve—12 days in summer 2015 and eight days in spring 2016.
For more information on places mentioned in the text, see “List of Place Names” in Part 3.
A birder led blindfolded through southwestern Boli County in spring would be able to tell the quality of the forest by the birds he heard. The pine plantations are nearly silent. In recently cut areas where the forest has just begun to regenerate, one may hear a few Eastern Crowned Warbler, Radde’s Warbler, and Black-faced Bunting. If a layer of undergrowth has formed, then one may hear in addition to those species Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat. In places where most of the trees are hardwoods and have reached about 10 m in height, the sound of birdsong is constant throughout the day. Pale Thrush sing powerfully from perches hidden in the canopy, Yellow-throated Bunting sing from treetops and defend territory, Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and Japanese Tit sing their lively Parid songs, and White-throated Rock Thrush whistle in a minor key. The best places at Xidaquan are yet another cut above, being able to support the aforementioned species as well as more habitat-sensitive birds such as Mandarin Duck, Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and White’s Thrush.
The following is a list of the key birds noted by Craig Brelsford and Elaine Du in spring 2016 in Boli County.
Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii
Our bird of the trip, found 8-9 June 2016 in a creek bottom in the Hongwei Linchang area 12 km south of Boli Town. A rare and little-known species, Band-bellied Crake is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. Band-bellied Crake breeds in Northeast China and the Russian Far East. It is threatened by habitat loss in its Southeast Asia wintering grounds as well as in Northeast China.
We found a breeding pair with two owlets nesting at the high, inaccessible reaches of the big quarry at Jiulong Reservoir, where we also spotted the species in summer 2015. The giant owls are tolerant of the traffic from the road, and at a second, smaller quarry nearby, they tolerate noise from a busy poultry farm below. The owls perch conspicuously by day and are active in the villages at night. In summer 2015, eagle-owls would perch at night on the buildings of Elaine’s parents’ farm.
Mandarin DuckAix galericulata
Deep in the forests of Xidaquan, we found Mandarin Duck in ponds no larger than a kiddie pool. This shy species was also found on the large pond near the entrance to Xidaquan, in rice paddies in the villages, and in flocks in Jiulong Reservoir. In spring 2016 we recorded this species on eight of our 15 birding days and in summer 2015 on seven of our 27 birding days. Boli County is the heart of the Northeast China breeding range of this most beautiful of ducks.
Black WoodpeckerDryocopus martius
A graceful woodpecker and one of the stars of the Northeast Chinese forest, noted by us on three days in spring 2016 and on 11 days in summer 2015.
The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.
Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor
Trans-Eurasian species, in China present only in Xinjiang and the Northeast. Noted by us just once in spring 2016. More conspicuous in summer 2015 (seen on six days) and winter 2015 (three days).
Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus
Noted on nine of our birding days, exclusively in the better forests around Xidaquan. Has softer version of the “Brain fever!” call of Large Hawk-Cuckoo.
Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:06; 3.4 MB)
Indian CuckooCuculus micropterus
Noted on eight days in Boli County in spring 2016. None of our records came from the higher-quality, higher-elevation forest deep in Xidaquan park but from the lower-quality, newer forests closer to the villages.
Oriental CuckooCuculus optatus
In contrast to Indian Cuckoo, in spring 2016 most of our records of Oriental Cuckoo, spanning 13 days, came from the deep forests of Xidaquan.
Common CuckooCuculus canorus
We heard the famous call of Common Cuckoo on 13 days. Most records came from open areas or from forested places near open areas.
Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jotaka
We enjoyed pre-dawn views of this species roosting on County Road Z002 and heard its clattering call both at dawn and dusk.
Grey Nightjar calling at dawn, Blue-and-white Flycatcher in background, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (00:31; 2 MB)
Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius brandtii
Cinnamon-headed ssp. brandtii is a treat for birders in Northeast China (also occurs in Xinjiang). Resident and conspicuous in all seasons.
Coal TitPeriparus ater ater
The trans-Eurasian, small-crested, nominate race (ater) is the representative of Coal Tit in Northeast China. Resident, regularly noted in small numbers, often in conifers.
Coal Tit 1/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:15; 2.2 MB)
Coal Tit 2/2, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:05; 1.7 MB)
Willow TitPoecile montanus baicalensis
Versatile Willow Tit, resident in Boli County, flourishes in habitats ranging from scrubby new forest growth to primary forest. Noted on three days in winter 2015, 21 in summer 2015, and 11 in spring 2016.
Willow Tit, territorial call, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (00:14; 2.1 MB)
Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus caudatus
The snowball-headed nominate ssp. ranges from Scandinavia east through Heilongjiang to Jilin. It lives year-round in Boli County. We noted it on seven days in spring 2016, on two days in winter 2015, and on 14 days in summer 2015. In late summer and winter it is often the main component of bird waves.
Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus
The most conspicuous leaf warbler in Boli. Noted by us on 10 days in summer 2015 and on 14 of our 15 birding days in spring 2016. Sings a diverse array of songs from dawn to dusk. In 2015 was singing and defending territory into mid-August, and non-singing individuals were noted as late as 3 Sept. Found in habitats mediocre as well as pristine.
Eastern Crowned Warbler 1/2, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:04; 1.7 MB)
Second only to Eastern Crowned Warbler as the most conspicuous leaf warbler, with a powerful song that belies its small size. Noted regularly in summer 2015 (10 days) and spring 2016 (12 days), mostly in the better forest and forest-edge habitat at Xidaquan.
Radde’s Warbler, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (02:51; 7.6 MB)
Dusky WarblerPhylloscopus fuscatus
Noted on 10 days in spring 2016 and nine in summer 2015. Has less powerful song than Radde’s, lacking trills, and unlike Radde’s avoids deep forest. Often sings from conspicuous perch in high tree.
Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes
Recorded on nine days in spring 2016. Heard singing and seen defending territory. Usually found in the high canopy or middle canopy in the better sections of forest at Xidaquan. Elaine and I did not note this species in Boli in summer 2015.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Xidaquan, 10 June 2016 (02:00, 6.4 MB)
Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus
Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 12 days in summer 2015. In both seasons was usually noted singing loudly from the top of the tallest tree in the vicinity.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, hills S of Dawucun, 4 June 2016 (01:47; 5.1 MB)
Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis
Oriental Reed Warbler is known to be able to use marshy habitat with woody plants rather than reeds. As reeds are rare in the areas we bird in Boli County, our Oriental Reed Warbler were found among woody plants. Found on four days in spring 2016, mainly on the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Noted on three days in spring 2016, with a high of 28 singing individuals being found 11 June along County Road Z002. Noted once in summer 2015.
Black-browed Reed Warbler, creek along County Road Z002, 11 June 2016 (01:40; 4.8 MB)
Thick-billed WarblerArundinax aedon
Noted on six days in spring 2016, in very good habitat at Xidaquan as well as more disturbed areas along the shore of Jiulong Reservoir.
Thick-billed Warbler, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:32; 2.1 MB)
Lanceolated WarblerLocustella lanceolata
Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes fasciolatus
In spring 2016 we heard the bulbul-like call of this undergrowth skulker on seven days, exclusively in the high-quality habitat at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:05; 3.4 MB)
Siberian ThrushGeokichla sibirica
Noted by us on five days in spring 2016, each time in high-quality forest at Xidaquan. Noted twice in summer 2015. Sings from conspicuous perch at top of tall tree.
Below is a recording of Siberian Thrush on a typical morning at Xidaquan. In the background you can hear Oriental Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, Radde’s Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.
Siberian Thrush, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:51; 2.8 MB)
White’s ThrushZoothera aurea
One of the rewards for waking early was hearing the monotonous, ventriloquial song of White’s Thrush. It normally calls unseen from deep within the forest and goes silent about an hour after sunrise. One morning Elaine and I saw this most secretive bird climb a tall tree and utter its mysterious call. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. At a location nearby I witnessed the ventriloquy. The low note seemed to be coming from a place to my right, while the high note seemed to be coming from a place in front of me. Only after a few minutes did I realize that a single unseen White’s Thrush was uttering both notes.
White’s Thrush, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (01:43; 4.9 MB)
Grey-backed ThrushTurdus hortulorum
This East Asian endemic was noted on nine days in spring 2016, singing and defending territory. Also noted on two days in summer 2015.
Grey-backed Thrush, hills S of Boli Town, 7 June 2016 (08:17; 21.4 MB)
Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus
Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and five days in summer 2015. Shy. Sings powerfully from unseen perches deep in the forest. At dawn and dusk sometimes seen foraging on the roadside.
Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana
We found Mark Brazil’s description of the breeding habitat to be apt: “ … in forested mountains, generally in mature mixed broadleaf forest with dense undergrowth, often near streams … ” (Birds of East Asia). Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and on two days in summer 2015.
Blue-and-white Flycatcher, broadleaf forest near Xidaquan, 27 May 2016 (01:30; 4.4 MB)
Siberian Blue RobinLarvivora cyane
Noted on 12 days in spring 2016, with a high of 21 individuals on 2 June. Its song, delivered from deep cover, consists of a burst of sound followed by a pause and buildup then another burst, each burst distinct from the other.
Siberian Blue Robin, Xidaquan, 2 June 2016 (02:42; 7.2 MB)
Rufous-tailed RobinLarvivora sibilans
Noted on seven days in spring 2016, all records except one coming from deep cover along thickly vegetated creeks at Xidaquan. Song a descending trill.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (01:01; 3.2 MB)
Siberian RubythroatCalliope calliope
Noted on four days in spring 2016 and on one day in summer 2015. Usually hides in undergrowth, but at dawn and for a few hours thereafter may be seen singing from an exposed perch.
Siberian Rubythroat, Xidaquan, 28 May 2016 (02:20; 6.4 MB)
Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia
Sings a long, slow, deliberate, and loud song somewhat like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher. Noted on 12 days in spring 2016.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, hills S of Dawucun, 5 June 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)
White-throated Rock ThrushMonticola gularis
I learned the call of this East Asian specialty by doggedly following a bird that was singing and moving unseen in the canopy above me. Finally the secretive singer allowed me to glimpse him, and only then could I confirm that he was White-throated Rock Thrush. Noted on three days in spring 2016 and once in summer 2015.
White-throated Rock Thrush, Hongwei Linchang, 7 June 2016 (01:04; 4.1 MB)
One of the most commonly noted birds in Boli, found on 14 days in spring 2016 and 12 days in summer 2015. Versatile, often at forest edge but also in areas with fewer trees.
Black-faced Bunting, Xidaquan, 30 May 2016 (00:44; 2.5 MB)
SPECIES OF BIRD NOTED IN BOLI COUNTY, HEILONGJIANG, MAY-JUNE 2016 (84 SPECIES)
Mandarin DuckAix galericulata MallardAnas platyrhynchos Eastern Spot-billed DuckAnas zonorhyncha Common PheasantPhasianus colchicus Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus Oriental Honey BuzzardPernis ptilorhynchus orientalis Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis Eastern BuzzardButeo japonicus Band-bellied CrakePorzana paykullii Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos Hill PigeonColumba rupestris Oriental Turtle DoveStreptopelia orientalis Rufous Hawk-CuckooHierococcyx hyperythrus Indian CuckooCuculus micropterus Oriental CuckooCuculus optatus Common CuckooCuculus canorus Eurasian Eagle-OwlBubo bubo Grey NightjarCaprimulgus jotaka White-throated NeedletailHirundapus caudacutus Oriental DollarbirdEurystomus orientalis Common KingfisherAlcedo atthis Eurasian WryneckJynx torquilla Lesser Spotted WoodpeckerDryobates minor White-backed WoodpeckerDendrocopos leucotos Black WoodpeckerDryocopus martius Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus Eurasian HobbyFalco subbuteo Ashy MinivetPericrocotus divaricatus Brown ShrikeLanius cristatus Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius brandtii Azure-winged MagpieCyanopica cyanus Oriental MagpiePica serica Spotted NutcrackerNucifraga caryocatactes Carrion CrowCorvus corone orientalis Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchos Coal TitPeriparus ater ater Willow TitPoecile montanus baicalensis Japanese TitParus minor Barn SwallowHirundo rustica Asian House MartinDelichon dasypus Red-rumped SwallowCecropis daurica Long-tailed TitAegithalos caudatus caudatus Pallas’s Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus proregulus Radde’s WarblerPhylloscopus schwarzi Dusky WarblerPhylloscopus fuscatus Arctic WarblerPhylloscopus borealis Pale-legged Leaf WarblerPhylloscopus tenellipes Eastern Crowned WarblerPhylloscopus coronatus Oriental Reed WarblerAcrocephalus orientalis Black-browed Reed WarblerAcrocephalus bistrigiceps Thick-billed WarblerArundinax aedon Lanceolated WarblerLocustella lanceolata Gray’s Grasshopper WarblerHelopsaltes fasciolatus Chestnut-flanked White-eyeZosterops erythropleurus Eurasian NuthatchSitta europaea baicalensis Siberian ThrushGeokichla sibirica White’s ThrushZoothera aurea Grey-backed ThrushTurdus hortulorum Pale ThrushTurdus pallidus Asian Brown FlycatcherMuscicapa dauurica Blue-and-white FlycatcherCyanoptila cyanomelana Siberian Blue RobinLarvivora cyane Rufous-tailed RobinLarvivora sibilans Siberian RubythroatCalliope calliope Yellow-rumped FlycatcherFicedula zanthopygia Daurian RedstartPhoenicurus auroreus White-throated Rock ThrushMonticola gularis Stejneger’s StonechatSaxicola stejnegeri Eurasian Tree SparrowPasser montanus Siberian AccentorPrunella montanella Grey WagtailMotacilla cinerea White WagtailMotacilla alba leucopsis Olive-backed PipitAnthus hodgsoni HawfinchCoccothraustes coccothraustes Long-tailed RosefinchCarpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis Grey-capped GreenfinchChloris sinica Meadow BuntingEmberiza cioides weigoldi Tristram’s BuntingEmberiza tristrami Chestnut-eared BuntingEmberiza fucata Yellow-throated BuntingEmberiza elegans Black-faced BuntingEmberiza spodocephala spodocephala
BIRDS WE MISSED
The forests of Boli County change markedly from season to season. On our brief initial trip in January 2015, winter visitors such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Bullfinch, and Pallas’s Rosefinch were scraping out a living in the snowy, barren forests. In late summer bird waves are common, in springtime virtually non-existent. Late summer shows few birds in breeding mode but offers passage migrants. In springtime the songs of breeding birds resound.
Birds seen in one season may not be seen in another. In some cases, as with Hazel Grouse, it is easy to understand why. In other cases, the reason is less clear. Other birds, such as Red-flanked Bluetail, that one would expect in the region have yet to appear on any of our lists. Here are some of the birds we missed on our spring 2016 trip.
Hazel Grouse: On our summer 2015 expedition, Elaine and I noted this species on 10 days, both in the excellent habitat of Xidaquan and in the lower-quality forest in the hills south of Dawucun. We noted no Hazel Grouse in spring 2016. The grouse were breeding and had retired to the quiet recesses of the forest with their young.
Great Spotted Woodpecker: Common in much of China, noted just once by Elaine and me in summer 2015 and not at all in spring 2016. Its congener White-backed Woodpecker is common in the area.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker: Scarce species noted by us once at Xidaquan in summer 2015. Missed in spring 2016.
Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker ssp. subrufinus is reported in eastern Heilongjiang, as is Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. Neither has been found by us around Boli.
Black-naped Oriole: A species yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Azure Tit: This unmistakable tit has been reported around Lake Khanka, on the Sino-Russian border east of Boli County. We have yet to see the species in Boli.
Marsh Tit: Race brevirostris noted by us on 13 days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Bush Warbler, Baikal Bush Warbler, Chinese Bush Warbler: Yet to be noted by us in Boli.
Asian Stubtail: Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Manchurian Reed Warbler: We made a point to look for this bird, paying careful attention to the Black-browed Reed Warbler we were finding. No luck.
Yellow-browed Warbler: In spring 2016 we were expecting big counts of this species, having noted it on nine days in summer 2015. We noted it not once in spring 2016. It most likely does not breed in the area and was passing through the region in August and September 2015.
Arctic Warbler: Also apparently a passage migrant at Xidaquan. In spring 2016 we had but one record of a singing individual at Xidaquan. In summer 2015 we had two records.
Two-barred Warbler: Yet another apparent passage migrant. Noted on four days in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
Red-flanked Bluetail: Surprise! We have yet to record this species in Boli County.
Eurasian Treecreeper: Noted by us four times in summer 2015, zero times in spring 2016.
“Boli, Heilongjiang, May-June 2016” is a three-part report. This is Part 1.
My wife and partner Elaine Du and I flew from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Jiamusi, Heilongjiang. We drove to Elaine’s home village of Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村], 45.732679, 130.589612) in Boli County, Qitaihe. Elaine’s parents’ home became our base of operations for the next 17 days.
Elaine and I birded the northern temperate forest preserved in Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园], 45.727751, 130.317316). We saw in a completely new way birds we know from Shanghai. For the first time I heard singing Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Pale Thrush, and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo. The latter is rarely seen on migration in Shanghai. The former two are well-known to Shanghai birders.
The basic facts about Boli County are two. First, the area is rich in birds. Second, no one birds here.
We are in the heart of the breeding range of Eastern Crowned Warbler (20 today). Most birders “down south” know Eastern Crowned Warbler well but have never heard it sing; today, its song resounded through the forest. Radde’s Warbler (24 today) is another species common here. Mandarin Duck (20) breed in the forest-ringed lakes and ponds around Boli. We also had singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler.
We spotted a family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl at a quarry near Jiulong Reservoir just outside Boli. A parent was standing guard with two owlets. Elaine scoped them herself with our Swarovski ATX-95.
Elaine and I started birding at 03:40, 9 minutes after sunrise. Singing Daurian Redstart was Bird 1 of our list, which grew to 53 species.
By 09:30, we had already spent several hours at Xidaquan National Forest and were at the end of our tether. We parked on the forest road and napped. While sleeping I heard a sound I vaguely remembered—or was I dreaming? No, I was hearing Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. I first heard this extreme skulker last July with Elaine and Jan-Erik Nilsén in Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia.
Also on that road we had male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found Mandarin Duck in a pond deep in the forest.
We had a Siberian trifecta today with Siberian Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, and Siberian Rubythroat, all singing. We once again found Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo as well as Indian Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo, and Oriental Cuckoo. We found Black-browed Reed Warbler in a brushy area far from reeds; the bushes also contained Thick-billed Warbler. Above the scene soared Crested Honey Buzzard.
We are deep in the heart of the Chinese Palearctic. In places, the lush greenery in the northern temperate forest here is as thick and impenetrable as that found in Yunnan’s near-tropical Dulong Gorge, which Elaine and I visited earlier this year. I almost expect to make out a wren-babbler in the gloomy undergrowth, but there are no wren-babblers, no laughingthrushes, and no fulvettas in the Palearctic heartland. Here, the robins and bush warblers are the undergrowth specialists.
We once again found the family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl. Owlets were feeding. A parent was looking on. All seemed well. We scoped them from the other side of the valley; the owls are at the rim of a cliff made by a massive quarry.
Today around Xidaquan National Forest Elaine and I found yet more Shanghai passage migrants on their breeding grounds. The most I had ever heard from White-throated Rock Thrush and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a click or tseep; today, I recorded them in full-throated song. And what songs! White-throated’s was especially moving, melodic and slow. Recording conditions were perfect—a still, quiet morning before the rain.
We found 6 Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler and got best-ever views of this shyest of species. We recorded yet more songs and calls of Eastern Crowned Warbler, a species with a surprisingly rich musical repertoire.
Peering through the undergrowth, Elaine found a Siberian Blue Robin singing, its tiny perch a small stage for a one-bird play. Siberian’s song is a soliloquy, a series of statements punctuated by long pauses.
We explored Xidaquan proper then drove down County Road Z004. (The junction of County Road Z003 and Z004 is at 45.713830, 130.359459.) In an area of hardwoods I recorded dueling songs of Blue-and-white Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and found a pair of White-backed Woodpecker.
Elaine and I rested at home on a rainy day. In the afternoon the rain let up and we walked into the fields, still barren. We were with Elaine’s niece Lisa Li. We showed Lisa 4 Little Ringed Plover, and I sound-recorded 2 Meadow Bunting.
If you want to hearWhite’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, and Pale Thrush, then come to places such as Boli County, Elaine’s hometown in eastern Heilongjiang. If you want to see these species, then you will have a better chance in Shanghai, where all three spend the winter, and where they are commonly seen in inner-city parks. Today’s dawn chorus (at the wee hour of 03:00) featured spirited performances by all three of these species, plus Siberian Thrush. Their performances however were given mostly offstage. White’s never appeared at all, but its mournful one-note whistle was heard everywhere until about an hour after sunrise. Pale and Grey-backed sing powerfully but well back from the road, deep in the thickly vegetated and currently tick-infested forest. Siberian was atop his accustomed high tree near the entrance to Xidaquan National Forest.
Migrants keep arriving, with Asian Brown Flycatcher appearing for the first time on this trip. Its song, a subdued twitter which I enjoyed for the first time today, is unexciting, like its drab plumage. The more colorfully plumaged Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, by contrast, has a much more colorful song, long, slow, deliberate, and loud, like that of Blue-and-white Flycatcher.
This morning a 01:45 wakeup call got us calling Grey Nightjar, yet another Shanghai-area passage migrant we have rediscovered here. Standing at the glorious Silver Birch Grove (白桦林) at Xidaquan National Forest, Elaine and I spotted movement in the crown. It was White’s Thrush, hopping to the top to sing. In amazement we watched this normally secretive, nay invisible, species sing a two-note song. The first, lower note was apparently hummed through its closed or barely open mouth, while for the high note the thrush gaped wide. In Shanghai, I have seen White’s countless times and heard it sing exactly once, in Century Park this past April. Here in eastern Heilongjiang, the situation is reversed, with the early-morning song being heard throughout the forest, and views very difficult to get.
Another big highlight today occurred when I was alone in the vast forest. By sheer luck I happened to stop just below the well-concealed nest of Northern Goshawk. I had heard the bird calling distantly and hit “record,” just in case. The forest Accipitriform swooped in, crying as it arrived. Elaine, meanwhile, 3 km (2 mi.) away with the car, witnessed Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo being chased away by Large-billed Crow.
Other highlights were a high count of 21 singing Siberian Blue Robin, a forlorn-looking tytleriBarn Swallow resting all alone in the dusty parking lot of the visitors’ area, and the rediscovery at another quarry of the local family of Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
Today Elaine and I added Eurasian Wryneck, Chinese Grey Shrike, and Hawfinch to our trip list. We went exploring for new habitats and found two good new areas.
Driving south rather than southwest (toward Xidaquan), Elaine and I entered hills reaching elevations of 450 m (1,480 ft.). We made an eight-minute sound-recording of Grey-backed Thrush and did photo and voice studies of Willow Tit (local ssp. baicalensis) and Coal Tit (ater). The latter is the same small-crested nominate ssp. known to birders in Continental Europe. Another taxon here in Heilongjiang and known to European birders is the snowball-headed Long-tailed Tit (caudatus), also noted today.
We continued driving south, leaving Boli County and Qitaihe Prefecture and briefly entering Linkou County, Mudanjiang Prefecture. Here we were dismayed, despite the beautiful agricultural scenery. Nearly every square inch of the land is taken up either by farming or forestry (conifer plantations). We turned back and found more good habitat on a forest road in the Hongwei Linchang area (45.638703, 130.547478). There, we found singing White-throated Rock Thrush.
Found today near Boli: incredible Band-bellied Crake. A near-threatened species, Porzana paykullii breeds in the Russian Far East, where it apparently is still locally common, and in Northeast China, where it is almost surely declining. It winters south to Indonesia.
This graceful and little-known rail is far and away Elaine’s and my Bird of the Heilongjiang Trip and a life bird for both of us.
Elaine and I scouted out new birding sites yesterday, and Band-bellied Crake was the payoff today. The crake called spontaneously at 06:00 as Elaine and I were breakfasting near the stream at 45.638703, 130.547478. Elaine and I searched upstream and downstream for hours, finding no other crakes. We returned to the breakfast spot at 10:10 and found our crake again. Was he really the only one?
Elaine filmed me photographing the crake. The crake is highly sensitive to playback and mistook my speaker for a rival.
Almost totally given over to agriculture, eastern Heilongjiang offers less and less habitat suitable for crakes and dozens of other environmentally sensitive birds. A trip through farming areas such as those we passed through yesterday shows dramatically what has been lost. Miles and miles of the formerly endless northern temperate forest here have been torn down and plowed under, in places down to the very last square inch.
Fortunately for us, Elaine happens to be from one of the best areas left for forest birding in this part of Heilongjiang. The place where we found the crake is an area of poor to good habitat 15 km (9 mi.) south of Elaine’s home village. Xidaquan, the large forest reserve with much good to excellent habitat, is 21 km (13 mi.) away.
Today Elaine and I checked on our Band-bellied Crake and obtained even better sound-recordings of the rare rail. Another careful search of the creek bottom failed to turn up any more crakes. We continued exploring the area around Hongwei Linchang. We found some areas that if left untouched in a generation or two may be healthy forests again, but we have yet to find a single place on par with Xidaquan National Forest, our core research area. Today we added Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Olive-backed Pipit to our trip list.