From 26 May 2016 to last Sunday (12 June), Elaine Du and I were in her home village of Dawucun in Boli County, Heilongjiang. We birded 15 of those days, mainly around Xidaquan National Forest, and 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 enjoyed 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 this post, you will get an introduction to Boli 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 and I combine birding with family. There are as well 31 of my sound-recordings of Boli birds and plenty of photos.
For the full report on our spring 2016 trip, including daily lists and a master list detailing where and when we encountered each species, click here. For the report on Elaine’s and my first two trips together to her hometown, click here.
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.
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 9,400-hectare reserve in the Laoye Mountains. 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.
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 species mentioned above as well as more habitat-sensitive species 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 Crake Porzana 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.
Band-bellied Crake, Hongwei Linchang, Boli, 9 June 2016 (00:26; 2.6 MB)
Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo
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 Duck Aix 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 Woodpecker Dryocopus 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.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos
The most commonly noted Dendrocopos woodpecker, noted on 10 days in summer 2015 and six days in spring 2016.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates 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-Cuckoo Hierococcyx 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Cuckoo Cuculus 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 Nightjar Caprimulgus 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 Jay Garrulus 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 Tit Periparus 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 Tit Poecile 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 Tit Aegithalos 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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)
Eastern Crowned Warbler 2/2, Xidaquan, 29 May 2016 (00:40, 2.4 MB)
Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi
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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Phylloscopus 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 Warbler Acrocephalus 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.
Oriental Reed Warbler, Jiulong Reservoir, 10 June 2016 (00:06; 1.8 MB)
Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps
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 Warbler Iduna 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 Warbler Locustella lanceolata
Noted on six days in spring 2016, singing from thick cover in heavily wooded habitat along creeks at Xidaquan.
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Helopsaltes fasciolata
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 Thrush Geokichla 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 Thrush Zoothera 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 Thrush Turdus 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 Flycatcher Cyanoptila 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 Robin Larvivora 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 Robin Larvivora 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 Rubythroat Calliope 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 Flycatcher Ficedula 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 Thrush Monticola 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)
Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis
Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and four days each in winter and summer 2015.
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides weigoldi
Resident, recorded by us in winter, summer, and spring (five days in spring 2016). Seen at edges of farmland and in open areas near forests. Never in deep forests.
Meadow Bunting, forest edge at Dawucun, 31 May 2016 (00:58; 3.1 MB)
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Forest bunting, with some association with conifers, commonly seen along the forest roads. Noted on eight days in spring 2016 and six days in summer 2015.
Tristram’s Bunting, Xidaquan, 3 June 2016 (00:11; 1.2 MB)
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Forest bunting with a preference for deciduous habitats. Sings loudly and aggressively defends territory. Noted on nine days in spring 2016 and on 16 days in summer 2015.
Yellow-throated Bunting 1/2, song, hills S of Boli Town, 5 June 2016 (00:12; 1.3 MB)
Yellow-throated Bunting 2/2, alarm call, hills S of Dawucun, 7 June 2016 (00:50; 3.6 MB)
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala spodocephala
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)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck
Great Crested Grebe
Crested Honey Buzzard
Little Ringed Plover
Oriental Turtle Dove
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Chinese Grey Shrike
Asian House Martin
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Oriental Reed Warbler
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Siberian Blue Robin
White-throated Rock Thrush
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
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.
List of Place Names
Boli: name that may refer to either Boli County or Boli Town.
Boli County (Bólì Xiàn [勃利县]): jurisdiction in Qitaihe Prefecture, SE Heilongjiang. Area: 3,962 sq. km. Pop.: 370,000.
Boli Town (Bólì Zhèn [勃利镇]): urbanized area in & administrative center of Boli County. 45.752960, 130.579479.
Changbai Mountains (Chángbái Shān [长白山]): range running from SE Heilongjiang S to North Korea. Laoye Mountains near Boli are part of Changbai Mountains.
Dawucun (Dàwǔcūn [大五村]): village in Boli County, Qitaihe Prefecture, Heilongjiang, 3 km from Boli Town. Birthplace of Elaine Du. 45.732679, 130.589612.
Heilongjiang (Hēilóngjiāng [黑龙江]): province NE China. Area: 454,800 sq. km. Area (comparative): slightly larger than Sweden & California. Pop.: 38.3 million.
Hongwei Linchang (Hóngwěi Línchǎng [宏伟林场]): area in Boli County S of Boli Town. Important birding spot at 45.638703, 130.547478.
Jiamusi (Jiāmùsī Shì [佳木斯市]): prefecture-level city E Heilongjiang.
Jiulong Reservoir (Jiǔlóng Shuǐkù [九龙水库]): reservoir in Boli County S of Boli Town. 45.706874, 130.517068.
Laoye Mountains (Lǎoye Lǐng [老爷岭]): offshoot of Changbai Mountains. Xidaquan National Forest is in the Laoye Mountains.
Qitaihe (Qītáihé Shì [七台河市]): prefecture E Heilongjiang of which Boli County is a part. Area: 6,221 sq. km. Pop.: 920,000.
Xidaquan National Forest (Xīdàquān Guójiā Sēnlín Gōngyuán [西大圈国家森林公园]): forest reserve in Boli County, Heilongjiang. 45.727751, 130.317316.
Brazil, Mark. Birds of East Asia. Princeton University Press. Co-first reference (along with Collins Bird Guide) in Northeast China.
Brelsford, Craig. A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China. (Work in progress; notes and drafts in Craig’s laptop. Please help us create this field guide by making a donation.)
del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions.
Kennerley, Peter & David Pearson. Reed and Bush Warblers. Christopher Helm.
Oriental Bird Club. Oriental Bird Images. orientalbirdimages.org.
Smith, Andrew T. & Yan Xie, eds. Mammals of China. Princeton University Press.
Mullarney, Killian, Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterström, Peter Grant. Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins. Co-first reference (along with Birds of East Asia) in Northeast China.
Xeno-Canto Foundation. Xeno-Canto: Bird Sounds from Around the World. xeno-canto.org. Craig has downloaded hundreds of calls from this Web site.
Cameras: Nikon D3S; for landscapes, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone 4S, and Apple iPhone 6
Lens: Nikon VR 600mm F/4G
Sound recorder: Olympus DM-650
Binoculars: Swarovski EL 8 x 32 (Craig), Zeiss Conquest HD 8 x 42 (Elaine)
Spotting scope: Swarovski ATX-95
Featured image: Drake Mandarin Duck, found in a small pool deep in the forest at Xidaquan National Forest on 1 June 2016. (Craig Brelsford)