Tianmushan in Autumn

by Steven Bonta
for shanghaibirding.com

Steven Bonta
Steven Bonta

The most convenient spot near Shanghai to enjoy wild China’s mountains and forests is Tianmushan, a marvelous spot to bird and hike at almost any time of year. I birded Tianmushan last November and December to catch the fall migration and fall colors at their peak. I also wanted to explore the mountain, 270 km (168 mi.) southwest of Shanghai, during an underbirded season of the year.

THE NOVEMBER TRIP

On previous visits, I had stayed in hotels in the Baojiacun area just below the big reservoir and birded at the Longfengjian Scenic Area and along the road running down the valley, the most popular birding route in the area. In November I stayed at a small hotel just outside the west entrance, near the big Chanyuan Temple complex (30.323652, 119.442508). The proprietress recommended that I start at Longfengjian (30.344148, 119.440201) and hike down the trail to the temple and back to the hotel, a hike she assured me would be easy to accomplish in a single day. This route stays in the core area of West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, far from any motorized vehicles.

I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunny weather. A quick check outside the hotel netted a small flock of Grey-chinned Minivet, which are easiest to find in the lower elevations around the Chanyuan Temple and the surrounding area, as well as White-crowned Forktail and Plumbeous Redstart.

Armed with a trail map, I was dropped off at the Longfengjian parking lot at 7 a.m., an hour before the official opening of the park.

In general, the best birding at Longfengjian is to be had before 8 a.m., when the gates open to the general public. Fortunately, many of the local hotel proprietors, as well as the park staff who live at Longfengjian, seem to have realized that serious birdwatchers like to start at the crack of dawn, so it is usually possible to arrive early, as long as you’re willing to pay the rather pricey entrance fee.

The weather was beautiful, although the area had not seen much rain lately, so the water level in the reservoir and streams was very low. But the fall colors—maples in particular—were brilliant, and the birds, as hoped, did not disappoint.

As soon as I entered Longfengjian, I started encountering bird waves. Figuring prominently were Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. Interestingly, these birds are much less conspicuous in the summer months. One early bird wave yielded, in addition to those three species and plenty of Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, a lone Speckled Piculet.

My real target bird for Longfengjian was Koklass Pheasant, a species I have glimpsed there twice before, always in the early morning along the trail. My first galliforms of the day were a group of Chinese Bamboo Partridge that I awoke from their roost right along the trail. Shortly after that, I encountered my first Koklass Pheasant, a regal male posing right beside the trail. I froze and watched him for several minutes as he slowly and (I thought) disdainfully picked his way off through the woods. A few minutes later, I found a second male, who was almost as confiding as the first. Longfengjian appears to be a highly reliable spot to see this beautiful and unusual pheasant, but you need to arrive early—once the noisy day-trippers arrive, the pheasants fade into the deep forest.

In contrast to the abundant fulvettas, leaf warblers, and scimitar babblers, certain species that were very common at Longfengjian in the summer were not around. Grey Treepie and Grey-headed Parrotbill were not in evidence, and the Great Barbet was no longer calling, although I did see one high in a tree near the “King of Trees.” Flocks of noisy Eurasian Jay were common, however, and I did manage to find as well a small flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, although I found the latter in significantly greater numbers in the summer. As for winter arrivals, I found two Goldcrest feeding in a tall cedar.

In the skies above, a Mountain Hawk-Eagle soared briefly into view, followed a few minutes later by a massive Black Eagle flying so low that its wingtips appeared to brush the tops of the giant cedar trees.

After about 2 kilometers, I reached the trail that led from Longfengjian back down the valley to the Chanyuan Temple area. This valley is separated from the valley with the main road and stream by a high forested ridge, and is almost completely unspoiled. There is no road, and a steep, well-maintained trail descends through spectacular forest and streamside scenery, from the cool montane heights down to the subtropical woodlands at the entrance to the reserve. I encountered a few hikers and trail maintenance personnel, but also enjoyed long stretches of solitude and silence, with stunningly abundant birdlife my only company. Just after I started the long descent, a sparrowhawk of indeterminate species exploded from cover and flew off down the steep valley. It had apparently been stalking a noisy mixed flock of Chestnut Bulbul and Mountain Bulbul, the first of many such flocks, drawn to ripe wild cherries, that I encountered on this visit.

All along this downhill trail I found wave after wave of birds. The largest mixed flock I encountered included a group of 15 or 20 Grey-headed Parrotbill, as well as Yellow-bellied Tit, Japanese Tit, and Black-throated Bushtit. A second Speckled Piculet also popped briefly into view, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker landed on a nearby snag.

Because of the dry weather, the stream down the valley was intermittent, and birds were drawn to the few remaining deep pools to drink and bathe. At one pool I noticed that birds were taking turns coming down out of the trees by twos and threes to bathe and drink, a spectacle I watched in rapt fascination for 15 minutes. A trio of Orange-bellied Leafbird, all bathing at the same time, were the stars of this show. Also entertaining were the vigorous ablutions of Mountain Bulbul, Chestnut Bulbul, and Black Bulbul.

A very common migrant along this trail was White’s Thrush, drawn to the deep woods habitat reminiscent of its northern breeding grounds. A single Pale Thrush also turned up, but it appeared to be a bit early for the arrival of large numbers of other Turdus. Red-flanked Bluetail, including at least two males, were also common.

Among other smaller passerines, white-eyes were conspicuous for their absence, and I noted only a single small flock of Indochinese Yuhina passing overhead.

I saw no other raptors on the trail down, but I did catch the piping calls of a much smaller predator, Collared Owlet. As I got lower down, I began hearing the calls of Great Barbet, seldom easy to see even when the leaves are falling off the trees.

Around the big temple complex itself, the best birding is usually around the small lake, and this visit was no exception. The narrow fringe of bushes between the road and lake quivered with Huet’s Fulvetta, Yellow-bellied Tit, and Collared Finchbill, and a single Brown-flanked Bush Warbler popped out in response to sustained phishing. Across the lake, the trees were alive with birds, mostly Yellow-bellied Tit and Black-throated Bushtit, and more Pallas’s Leaf Warbler.

I was hoping to glimpse an Elliot’s Pheasant along the trails in the temple area, since birders have told me about seeing them there in the past, but no such luck. Visitors were many, so birding was difficult. Nevertheless, I managed to find Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and lots of Grey Treepie burbling in the treetops. Outside the entranceway, in the settled habitat around my hotel, I added to the day’s total White Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart, and Spotted Dove. In a scrubby stretch of saplings along a vacant lot, I found my last bird wave of the day, mostly leaf warblers and Huet’s Fulvetta, but also another Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and a couple of Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler.

My total species count for Day 1 (November 4) was 44, a very nice result for montane habitat in November, and an indication of just how great the avian diversity of Tianmushan can be.

On Day 2 (November 5), my first bird of the day was a large flock of Eurasian Siskin wheeling and feeding outside my hotel. I decided to bird a more traditional route along the main road, hoping to find Short-tailed Parrotbill for the third straight visit. This time, I had the hotel proprietor drop me off at the first switchback on the road up to Longfengjian, from where I planned to walk the several miles back down the valley, through the village, and over to my hotel near the west entrance to the park. The area where I was dropped off can be good for forktails and Blue Whistling Thrush, and it was teeming with birds when I arrived. As usual, the main entries in the large and noisy bird wave canvassing the shrubbery on both sides of the stream were Huet’s Fulvetta, along with several more Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, a few leaf warblers, and a compact flock of Collared Finchbill. A Black Eagle soared across the valley high overhead, but never made an encore appearance.

Sure enough, before long, two forktails flew up and began picking their way among the rocks along the stream. Remarkably, they were two species: Little Forktail and White-crowned Forktail. Right after they moved off, a Blue Whistling Thrush came briefly into view. A Plumbeous Redstart completed the streamside gathering.

After that early flush of birdlife, the hike down the valley was relatively uneventful for long stretches, perhaps because of the drought. Most of the usual bubbling springs and pools were dry and silent, and even the reservoir was nearly dry. I did encounter several small flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbill, but the bamboo stands where I had encountered Short-tailed Parrotbill in the past were silent. I also found several confiding Chinese Hwamei.

Watching a Grey Treepie fly across what was left of the reservoir, I noticed a single Eastern Buzzard sitting on a tree on the far side. By this time, I was resigned to missing Short-tailed Parrotbill on this trip. As I walked past the small parking area that overlooks the reservoir, I heard a familiar twittering from a dense clump of grass. I walked over and phished, and Short-tailed Parrotbill immediately materialized in front of me, about 15 in all. These amiable little birds respond readily to playback and phishing, and are typically not shy. This time, unfortunately, a large carful of noisy tourists roared up within moments of my finding the parrotbills, and off they flew. I found them again, however, a hundred meters or so down the road, just beyond the outskirts of the village.

Beyond the village, in the bamboo-covered hillsides, the birding picked up again. As I watched a Long-tailed Shrike fighting with a Brown Shrike, a Eurasian Kestrel sailed across my field of view in the background. Four noisy Rufous-faced Warbler called from within a bamboo stand. Another large flock of Eurasian Siskin swept past.

As the road reenters the nature reserve, the bamboo and secondary scrub turns into majestic forest. Here birds and bird waves were once more all around me. The tall trees were full of Grey Treepie, and Huet’s Fulvetta trilled in the understory. As the road switchbacked down the thickly forested slope, I heard a bird wave below me, and once again found myself in the midst of a huge mixed flock, of which Chestnut Bulbul and Mountain Bulbul were the most conspicuous members. A beautiful male Grey-chinned Minivet landed on a branch right in front of me, seemingly daring me to admire his brilliant orange plumage. A male Orange-bellied Leafbird foraged in the branches right overhead, and yet another Speckled Piculet⁠—my third of the trip⁠—showed well. A pair of Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker also flew into view. Rounding out the wave were Yellow-bellied Tit and Japanese Tit and a few leaf warblers of indeterminate species.

Birding around the large parking area at the entrance to the temple area, I noted the last Chinese Hwamei of the day hopping about on the grass.

I returned to my hotel in the early afternoon and left for the long trip back to Shanghai, having logged a total of 54 species in two outings. Although I failed to find Elliot’s Pheasant, I achieved my other goals (re-finding Short-tailed Parrotbill and Koklass Pheasant). The walking route from Longfengjian down the trail to the Chanyuan Temple area is the best and most productive route I have yet taken, not only for species diversity but also for sheer numbers of birds. This is undoubtedly owing to the rich and unspoiled character of the forest along this route, from the mountaintop area all the way down to the valley floor.

I RETURN IN MID-DECEMBER

I returned to Tianmushan the following month, in mid-December, to experience this locale at the very end of fall. This time, I started at Longfengjian, climbed to the summit of Xianrending, elev. 1506 m (4,941 ft.), and once again descended the steep trail to the Chanyuan Temple area before hiking along the road back to the village. This time I stayed at a hotel in the village itself, just a few hundred meters below the nearly dry reservoir, at the entrance to the road up to Longfengjian. My first day, Dec. 14, was sunny and comparatively warm, and I logged some familiar friends on the early morning drive up to Longfengjian: a small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpie and a Blue Whistling Thrush at the usual spot about halfway up the road on a wire over the stream. Dawn is a great time to observe forktails along the upper portion of the road; they like to come out and forage on the road surface before the traffic gets started. I spotted five White-crowned Forktail and one Little Forktail on the way up. The landscape had changed since November. Gone were the autumn colors, leaving the deciduous forest in the higher elevations almost bare of leaves. Since this was the first time anyone had attempted hiking and eBirding in Longfengjian in December, I was free to form my own expectations about what might be there. I hoped to find wintering raptors soaring over the heights, and perhaps some interesting, previously unrecorded wintering passerines in the silent forests. I expected the summer birds to have all departed downslope or to warmer climes. However, none of these expectations were borne out.

My first encounters as I entered Longfengjian at about 7 a.m. were typical of the warmer months: Chinese Hwamei, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Huet’s Fulvetta were all in evidence in the early going. Red-billed Leiothrix were very common, in contrast to every other time I have visited Longfengjian. By the time I got to the giant trees area, I was hearing my first Great Barbet call; this species evidently remains in the high elevations at least into December, and I heard at least six during the course of the morning. Eurasian Jay and Japanese Tit were also around. I saw no Koklass Pheasant in the spots where I had encountered them before, although a covey of Chinese Bamboo Partridge⁠ was in nearly the same spot.

In the area around the mountain temple, the trees rang with woodpecker drumming, and, after a lot of frustrating rubbernecking, I not only logged Great Spotted Woodpecker, but also a Bay Woodpecker.

Once I began the ascent of Xianrending, things got even more interesting. This path climbs out of the awe-inspiring stands of giant cypress and into a pine-oak forest reminiscent of Appalachia in the United States. And it was here that the pheasants had gathered, presumably to feast on the fallen cones and masts. All along the trail, I heard scratching and foraging in the brush, although actually sighting the birds proved more challenging. My first sighting was a nice family of Elliot’s Pheasant foraging underneath a large fallen tree. They trotted off into the brush very quickly, but the male made sure to be the rearguard, allowing me a decent if brief look at this most resplendent of eastern China’s pheasants.

As the trail climbed higher and higher up the ridge, I heard more and more pheasants foraging all around me, and eventually laid eyes on two separate, beautiful male Koklass Pheasant, both of whom were quite tame and allowed me long looks as they cautiously picked their way among the leaves.

As the views opened up, I scanned the surrounding mountains for wintering raptors, but saw absolutely nothing. The black eagles, serpent-eagles, hawk-eagles, and accipiters of the warmer months were all gone. As for wintering birds, I encountered several groups of Yellow-throated Bunting among the scrub oaks near the summit, but the most interesting bird on Xianrending was a Moustached Laughingthrush, a species that had eluded me on previous visits.

The summit of Xianrending has a couple of permanent human residents who tend a weather station. I could also see that the trail did not end at the summit, but instead continued off along the ridge, deeper into the mountains. That will have to be an outing for another time!

On the way back down Xianrending, I heard more pheasants, and, right where the taller forest began, I encountered a splendid bird wave, full of species I did not expect to find this late, this high up. A sizable number of Grey-headed Parrotbill mingled with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-capped Babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, and a single Speckled Piculet as they foraged among the evergreen rhododendron foliage. That, as it turned out, was the best bird wave of the entire day.

The long, steep trail down the mountain to Chanyuan Temple was totally different from the previous month. Gone were the flocks of leaf warblers, bulbuls, leafbirds, and treepies. While I did turn up a single flock of Grey Treepie at the bottom of the trail, and a few flocks of Chestnut Bulbul chattered in the trees, much of the walk was silent. I logged only a single White’s Thrush this time, and saw no leafbirds or minivets at all. At one point, I discovered the mournful remains of a Silver Pheasant, fallen victim to some forest predator.

Once I reached the bottom, however, my fortunes improved. The area around the lake still had a considerable number of birds, including a Common Kingfisher, and along the road itself, wintering Eurasian Siskin and Brambling adding to my tally, along with a second Speckled Piculet. By the time I returned to the hotel, after many miles of walking, I had tallied a respectable 43 species, to which I added a late-day surprise at the hotel itself: a Collared Owlet, harried by little birds as he perched conspicuously on a wire right outside my room!

The following day, Sunday, I would have to return to Shanghai in the afternoon, so I resolved to spend the morning birding along the road and in the village. After getting up, I decided to bird the brushy backyard area of the hotel itself, and found not only a nice White-crowned Forktail along a drainage ditch, but a Blue Whistling Thrush as well⁠—both species a bit surprising to find in the middle of town, and nowhere near any stream. A walk up along the road past the reservoir yielded my third Speckled Piculet of the trip, as well as small numbers of other local stalwarts like Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and Rufous-faced Warbler. A short afternoon hike in the other direction, along the winding road over to the main entrance and the Chanyuan Temple area, yielded my first Meadow Bunting for this location.

In all, over the course of a day and a half of December birding, I found well over fifty species. I saw no raptors, wintering or otherwise, and the only wintering species were also findable in Shanghai (Daurian Redstart, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brambling, Eurasian Siskin, and Yellow-throated Bunting). Notable was the absence of white-eyes and yuhinas, so abundant in the spring. On the other hand, many of the typical summer species were still around, and pheasant species, in particular, were conspicuous in the late autumn woodlands with the diminished foliage.

Some overall comparisons of fall with spring and summer are in order. Warbler diversity, so characteristic of Tianmushan in the warmer months, is down by early November and all but absent by December—yet Rufous-faced Warbler, retiring and hard to find in June, are abundant fall migrants and probably winter residents. Certain species I found in profusion in June atop Longfengjian had moved down to lower elevations in November, most notably Grey Treepie and all bulbul species. Other summer species, like Orange-bellied Leafbird and Grey-chinned Minivet, were still present in November but not observed in December, and perhaps leave the area altogether during the winter months.

Tianmushan deserves to be better recognized as an outstanding birding locale, and not only for the birds themselves. It preserves a truly noteworthy stretch of primary forest easily accessible to even casual hikers, and a large variety of trees, flowers, and insects besides. A number of difficult-to-find birds can be found there easily, among them Buffy Laughingthrush, Short-tailed Parrotbill, and Koklass Pheasant, and further exploration of this enchanting area is bound to turn up more surprises.

MORE INFORMATION ON TIANMUSHAN

My eBird lists for November and December 2019 (minus sensitive species) can be found at the following links:

November 4
November 5
December 14
December 15

This post is the latest in shanghaibirding.com’s continuing coverage of the Tianmu Mountains. See also

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)
Tianmushan in July
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip
Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019

See also our coverage of other areas in southeast China:

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

Featured image: Birds of the Tianmu Mountains, Zhejiang, China. Clockwise from L: Great Barbet Psilopogon virens, Moustached Laughingthrush Ianthocincla cineracea, Collared Owlet Glaucidium brodiei, Chinese Bamboo Partridge Bambusicola thoracicus, and Blue Whistling Thrush Myophonus caeruleus. (Craig Brelsford)

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Trip Report: Tianmushan, 1-3 April 2019

by Paul Hyde
for shanghaibirding.com

Wanting to swap the concrete jungle of Shanghai for a few days of fresh air and stunning scenery, a friend and I headed to the mountains of Zhejiang for some hiking and birding. We spent two and a half peaceful days at Tianmushan (天目山). As we visited outside of peak times, we barely saw another soul as we wandered around the mountain and inside the picturesque Scenic Area. Using the reports by Craig and Hiko as a guide, we were fortunate to encounter many of the area’s specialty birds. We recorded 61 species in total, with the main highlights being:

3 Koklass Pheasant
Silver Pheasant
Short-tailed Parrotbill

Other birds generally out of range in Shanghai included:

Black Eagle
Black Kite
Collared Owlet
Great Barbet
Crested Kingfisher
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Orange-bellied Leafbird
Chestnut-crowned Warbler
Rufous-faced Warbler
Hartert’s Leaf Warbler
Indochinese Yuhina
Buffy Laughingthrush
Rufous-capped Babbler
Grey-headed Parrotbill
White-crowned Forktail
Little Forktail

Day 1, Mon. 1 April 2019

We hired a rather plush BYD car and drove the 270 km (170 mi.) from Shanghai to our inn, Hǎisēn Nóngzhuāng  (海森农庄; 135-0681-8151), as mentioned in Hiko’s report. We arrived at around 10:30 a.m. and once unpacked, we took the shuttle bus to the top of the mountain, Longfengjian (龙凤尖, 30.344148, 119.440201), and slowly walked the 14 km down the mountain. As was not the case with Hiko, our bus fortunately allowed us to continue past the checkpoint without entrance tickets to the Scenic Area, and so we avoided slogging up the mountain and instead enjoyed a leisurely walk downhill.

Around the top entrance to the Scenic Area, we noted skulking Chinese Hwamei, Yellow-throated Bunting, Brambling, and Eurasian Jay. Great Spotted Woodpecker were drumming noisily. The walk downhill began quietly, and often the mountain would be deathly silent, the silence only being pierced as we hit upon a small wave of birds. The first wave contained Hartert’s Leaf Warbler in full song, as it was throughout our visit. A group of Indochinese Yuhina brought me my second lifer in quick succession, with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker mixed in amongst the group.

The pattern of alternating silence and quick, noisy action continued, with Huet’s Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, and Chestnut-crowned Warbler adding much interest to the walk. As we approached the bottom of the mountain, the day’s highlight arrived. My ears were on high alert following Hiko’s report of regular Short-tailed Parrotbill sightings in this area. Sure enough, I heard a trill and a group of 6 inquisitive individuals appeared in response to playback, hopping remarkably close to see what the fuss was all about. The day was rounded off when just a minute down the road, more activity revealed another highlight, a flock of Grey-headed Parrotbill.

Back around the hotel, Russet Sparrow were the common sparrow.

Day 2,  Tues. 2 April 2019

This morning we asked our hotel owner to drive us up to Longfengjian at 6 a.m., as the public shuttle bus doesn’t start operating until later on. Drawing on his guanxi, he got us into the park earlier than the advertised 8 a.m. opening time. This allowed us to explore the park, where we heard the familiar call of Collared Owlet. Actually seeing the birds is usually a struggle, but we were lucky enough to stumble across a pair duetting in the open. Our main hope first thing in the morning, however, was finding pheasants, as a group of friends had found Elliot’s Pheasant on the mountain a few weeks earlier. With this information in mind, we were listening out for any noise in the dense undergrowth. A little rustling noise caught our attention, and we glimpsed a Silver Pheasant scuttling away. Further on, the highlight of the trip occurred as we spotted a pheasant scurrying in the long grass. It kindly crossed the path ahead of us and paused for a few short seconds, allowing us to enjoy a resplendent male Koklass Pheasant! To our surprise, we encountered two further male Koklass Pheasants in similar situations. Other highlights inside the Scenic Area included Great Barbet, two Black Eagle soaring overhead, a large flock of Buffy Laughingthrush, and a Blue Whistling Thrush. An Orange-bellied Leafbird sang loudly near the entrance and posed obligingly.

We left the Scenic Area and walked down the mountain, enjoying many similar birds as yesterday and making for a total of 23 km of walking for the day.

Day 3, Wed. 3 April 2019

We again asked the hotel owner to drive us to the top of the mountain and again strolled down. One bird that we hoped to find but that had eluded us on days 1 and 2 was Little Forktail. We had seen several White-crowned Forktail near the many streams, but had no luck with Little Forktail.

The day started with some nice additions to the trip list: A pair of Grey-headed Woodpecker, several Red-billed Blue Magpie, good views of Brown Dipper and Mountain Bulbul, as well as the welcome sight of more Short-Tailed Parrotbills. Ready to admit defeat after checking every stream three times over, we finally found a pair of Little Forktails on the stream right next to the lower ticket entrance to the park. Contented, we headed back to the car and began the journey home.

About a kilometer into our journey, a Crested Kingfisher perched on a wire over a stream, a great ending to the trip.

PHOTOS

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha (Paul Hyde)
Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha in bamboo undergrowth at Tianmu. The species is commonly recorded on the mountain, and it is likely that a well-established population exists there. Other gamebirds present in the nature reserve are Silver Pheasant Lophura nycthemera and Elliot’s Pheasant Syrmaticus ellioti. (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill (Paul Hyde)
Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana. (Paul Hyde)

FURTHER READING

For more on Tianmushan and other birding hotspots in the mountains of southeast China, please see the following posts on shanghaibirding.com:

Tianmushan

Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 1)
Tianmushan: A Must See Site for Shanghai Birders (Part 2)
Tianmushan in July
Tianmushan in Autumn
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip

See also our coverage of other areas in southeast China:

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

Featured image: Short-tailed Parrotbill Neosuthora davidiana, West Tianmu Mountain Nature Reserve, Zhejiang, April 2019. (Paul Hyde)
Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

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

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

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

WHAT IS TIANMUSHAN?

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

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

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

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

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

At West Tianmu you can bird the following areas:

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

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

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

— Area around entrance to West Tianmu.

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

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

KEY BIRDS OF TIANMUSHAN

Koklass Pheasant Pucrasia macrolopha

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

Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela

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

Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis

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

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus

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

Swinhoe’s Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis

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

Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus

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

Mountain Bulbul Ixos mcclellandii

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

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes

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

Hartert’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni fokiensis

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

Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus

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

Buffy Laughingthrush Garrulax berthemyi

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

Little Forktail Enicurus scouleri

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

White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti

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

Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans

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

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami

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

MY FIRST TRIP TO TIANMUSHAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FURTHER READING

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

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

More posts on Tianmushan:

Tianmushan in July
Tianmushan in Autumn
Koklass Pheasant Highlight Tianmu Trip

See also our coverage of other areas in southeast China:

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

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