Coronavirus Has Paralyzed Chengdu (and the Birds Feel Fine)

by Steven Bonta
for shanghaibirding.com

Steven Bonta
Steven Bonta

In late January I set off with my wife to Yunnan, intending to spend a couple of weeks in sunny, subtropical Xishuangbanna, birding and touring. No sooner had we arrived in Kunming, than the vague unease over the coronavirus afflicting Wuhan crystalized into full-fledged panic. Overnight, stores, parks, and public places shut down, airports, streets, and train stations emptied, and breath masks came out. Not just Wuhan and neighboring cities, but virtually all of China went into lockdown, with more than a billion people hiding indoors.

At the first opportunity, we returned to Chengdu and the relative security of my wife’s apartment. On my first day in Chengdu, I resolved to go forth and visit some familiar local parks and bird habitat, curious about the effects of the lockdown on China’s birdlife. Following is my account of that day, and the birds.

Chengdu, like Kunming (and, I imagine, the rest of China), is a virtual ghost town, with the hysteria over the coronavirus keeping nearly everyone indoors, hoarding food and only venturing forth furtively to buy food at the one or two stores still open, faces covered with masks. The fear is palpable, and the only thing missing are cinematic zombies. The avenues and streets of this enormous metropolis, usually choked with noisy, chaotic traffic, are nearly empty, and most of the jetliners are gone from the sky. Nothing like this has ever happened in world history—a vast country, holding roughly one fifth of the world’s population, paralyzed with fear.

So I did the only rational thing: I strapped on my backpack and binoculars, and headed out with my wife to see how the birds were faring during the apocalypse. After all, birds across China have become accustomed to the obnoxious behavior of the Chinese, many of whom regard them as fit only to be chased, harassed, trapped, eaten, and otherwise stressed; this is why birds here are, for the most part, remarkably wary. I have assumed that this state of affairs has been the norm in China for at least a thousand years; now it was time to see if, in the sudden absence of people, bird behavior would change accordingly (a few years ago, the History Channel produced a fascinating miniseries called Life After People in which it was speculated how the world would change if people suddenly disappeared; never did I imagine I would get to witness something akin, even if temporary).

With the weather overcast and intermittently drizzly, we decided to limit our walk to the park and riverfront near my wife’s apartment building, where on a typical walk, I can find 18-20 species. I noticed that the big heron rookery on the river island nearby was not as clogged with birds as it usually was. Roughly 50 Grey Heron and one or two Little Egret were hanging out there—far less than the usual number. The reason soon became apparent as we walked along the river—the birds were feeding all up and down the river in much larger numbers than usual. With none of the usual noisy pedestrians and throngs of fishermen to harass them, they were enjoying unfettered access to all the fish, in some cases squabbling like seagulls over their catches.

In the park itself—almost devoid of people except for a few elderly, some of whom weren’t wearing masks and didn’t seem to care about all the craziness (after all, they’ve seen much worse)—the birds were everywhere. White-browed Laughingthrush, usually shy habitués of dense thickets and foliage, were foraging openly on the deserted lawns in large flocks. Chinese Grosbeak, normally perched high in trees away from stone-throwing children, unleashed dogs, and other harassers, were mixing with flocks of Eurasian tree sparrows on the ground. And birds that I seldom or never find in this urban setting were also about: Rosy Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, and Plumbeous Redstart. On this part of the river, Mallard flocked, along with a small group of Chinese Pond Heron, another bird relatively scarce in this area. Further downstream, I saw Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover. After a walk of only a little over an hour, covering a mile at most, I had 29 species and had noted a lot of new behavior patterns.

On the other hand, some birds did not appear to notice that anything was amiss. One of my favorite Chinese birds, the endearing and intricately-patterned Black-throated Bushtit, is friendly and curious in normal times, and today they were no different. These diminutive, energetic birds came flocking to my phishing wherever I walked, perching close by in sizable flocks, curious and unafraid.

Unfortunately, on the way back, I noted some activity that served to remind why the birds of China are so remarkably skittish: a middle-aged man with a slingshot stood shooting at sparrows and bulbuls, shouting angrily at them all the while, doubtless under the illusion that the birds are somehow responsible for this disaster. After all, China has embarked on bird pogroms before, scapegoating them for disease outbreaks and other calamities.

Anyway, I plan to make further forays, to Bailuwan Wetland, a major eBird hotspot only a few miles from my wife’s apartment, and other less urban areas, in the coming days, to see how the wildlife in such places is faring. During my last visit to Bailuwan little more than a week ago, I was watching the large flock of Ferruginous Duck that winters there, along with several other species of waterfowl, when along came a Chinese family. The father immediately began urging his children to scare up all the ducks so they could watch them fly, completely indifferent to the foreigner who was trying to observe them. They proceeded to shout and scream and thoroughly scare up hundreds of waterfowl. I expect that the coronavirus has purchased those birds a temporary reprieve from that kind of harassment.

Postscript: My wife and I did indeed visit Bailuwan Wetland Park the following day, and found it empty. As anticipated, the Ferruginous Duck, along with Eurasian Coot and Common Moorhen, were enjoying the unwonted tranquility. The surrounding woods were also birdier than usual, with even a shy Chinese Hwamei making an appearance alongside a flock of laughingthrushes.

At the time of this writing, the initial hysteria seems to be subsiding, with more and more people coming out of hiding, but the parks are still empty and the birds are still enjoying this interlude of relative freedom from harassment. This morning’s walk along the river yielded a very robust 34 species.

PHOTOS

Chengdu park
Deserted park, Chengdu. The coronavirus scare has turned Chengdu and other cities into ghost towns, opening up an unusual opportunity for urban birders. (Steven Bonta)
Chengdu apartments
Normally busy, this park in Chengdu is devoid of people as a result of the coronavirus scare. Amid the quiet, normally shy urban birds have become more conspicuous and act more naturally. (Steven Bonta)
Chengdu Boulevard
Deserted boulevard in Chengdu. (Steven Bonta)

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Jon Hornbuckle, Tough As Nails

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Jon Hornbuckle saw 9,600 species of bird, more than anyone, ever. He was tough as nails. We were at Tangjiahe, Sichuan in May 2013. Our original five-man group was one short, but the park still wanted 10,000 yuan. Jon insisted on a prorated price of 8,000. The rep said no, and Jon said, “Tell her we’re leaving.” The rep gave in. Later, at the parking lot at the base of the mountain, the rep cheerfully announced that her boss had prepared a luncheon for us in a banquet hall nearby. “We’re not tourists,” Jon said.

We marched up the mountain, topping out at 2640 m (8,660 ft.). Jon matched us step for step. That night in the cabin, we were awakened by the hooting of Himalayan Owl Strix nivicolum. We searched with a flashlight but never saw the owl. Jon wouldn’t tick it; he had to see his birds. The next day, as I drove the team to Wolong, Jon said I was accelerating unnecessarily, and would I please stop wasting petrol?

At first, Jon’s intensity was intimidating; I had never met anyone so relentless in his pursuit of birds. As I got to know Jon, I discovered a softer side to the great lister. The world was his patch, and he explored it with the enthusiasm of a boy exploring the woods. To Jon, finding a new bird was like making a new friend.

In Xi’an I picked up Jon and his partners Dave Woodford and Phil Heath, the latter two world-class birders like Jon. We zoomed through Shaanxi and Sichuan on an itinerary that would have exhausted a much younger man. In the Qinling we ticked Blackthroat Calliope obscura, in Shaanxi we scored Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon, at Tangjiahe we found Przevalski’s Parrotbill Sinosuthora przewalskii, at Wolong we saw Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola, at Longcanggou we thrilled to Golden-fronted Fulvetta Alcippe variegaticeps, and at Xiningzhen we eked out Silver Oriole Oriolus mellianus.

After the trip, Jon and I maintained a friendly correspondence. He was among the first subscribers to shanghaibirding.com. On 6 July 2017, vacationing in the south of France, Jon was badly injured in a car accident. The accident damaged his memory, and he never recovered. Jon passed away on 19 Feb. 2018, age 74. He was a great birder, and he deserves to be remembered.

Did you know Jon? Tell your story by commenting below.

PHOTOS

Hornbuckle
Jon Hornbuckle photographing Grandala Grandala coelicolor, Balangshan, Sichuan, 22 May 2013. This photo shows Jon’s characteristic intensity. Even though we had just arrived at an elevation of 4480 m (14,690 ft.) and had not yet grown accustomed to the altitude, Jon saw the Grandala and bore down. (Craig Brelsford)
Hornbuckle with group
Jon (C) stands with members of the team at Foping, Shaanxi after ticking Blackthroat. I’m the man with the black cap. I could hardly believe my good luck to be serving as interpreter and driver for the world’s champion lister. Blackthroat was our first of many triumphs on a whirlwind 14-day expedition that saw us range from Xi’an to Yibin in southern Sichuan. Throughout the trip, I observed Jon closely, discovering a man whose toughness was matched only by his tender love for birds. The men to Jon’s right are (L-R) Dave Woodford and Phil Heath. Our guide at Foping, Mr. Gong, stands at Jon’s left. (Craig Brelsford)
Hornbuckle
Clockwise from top L: Jon (L) and Dave Woodford at Balangshan, Jon searching for Przevalski’s Parrotbill, and our team with the park staff at Tangjiahe. (Craig Brelsford)
Hornbuckle's birds
A master trip planner, Jon along with his partners devised an itinerary that netted us some of China’s most coveted birds. Top row: Golden-fronted Fulvetta Alcippe variegaticeps. Row 2, L-R: Blackthroat Calliope obscura, Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon. Row 3: Grey-hooded Parrotbill Sinosuthora zappeyi, Przevalski’s Parrotbill S. przewalskii. Row 4: Silver Oriole Oriolus mellianus, Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola. (Craig Brelsford)

Featured image: No human being has seen more species of bird than Jon Hornbuckle, shown here at Balangshan, Sichuan in May 2013. (Craig Brelsford)
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Rare Photos of Female Firethroat

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

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

Range of Firethroat
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)
Firethroat habitat
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)
Firethroat setup
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)
Firethroat
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)
Firethroat
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
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)
Firethroat
Here’s another profile shot, this time of the left side. Note the slaty-blue hues on the breast-sides and abdomen. (Craig Brelsford)
Firethroat
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)
Firethroat
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)
Firethroat
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)
Firethroat
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 chats
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)
Birds of Old Erlang Road
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.

China Dreams Tour

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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: 8 Aug 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2014). Sichuan & Yunnan, June 2014 (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sichuan-yunnan/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 26 Jan. 2016 (accessed: 8 Aug 2020).

Brelsford, C. (2017). Wuyipeng and My Progress As a Birder (https://www.shanghaibirding.com/wuyipeng/). Post to shanghaibirding.com, published 17 July 2017 (accessed: 8 Aug 2020).

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: 8 Aug 2020).

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: 8 Aug 2020).

REVISIONS

1. On 16 May 2019, observation by Per Alström added to caption to photo of male Firethroat.

Featured photo: 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 © 2014-2019 by Craig Brelsford. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of the photos in this post is strictly prohibited. Send requests to info@shanghaibirding.com. (Craig Brelsford)
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