Brown Eared Pheasant at Xuanzhong Temple, Shanxi

Xuanzhong Temple in Shanxi is the best-known place in the world to view Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum. A recent visit by British birder Mark Havenhand (see comment below) stimulated me to update my report about my trip to Xuanzhong. Have you been to Xuanzhong? Help birders by leaving a comment below. — Craig Brelsford

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

I went to Xuanzhong Temple in December and January to photograph Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum.

The temple in central Shanxi, China sits in a gorge at an elevation of 1000 m (3,280 ft.). The hills are covered with trees that the locals call baishu (cypress). The setting is picturesque.

The air was bitterly cold; as low as -20°C (-4°F). Bright sunshine made the days cheerful. The temple flock of Brown Eared Pheasant appeared every day.

Elaine Du and I caught an 8 a.m. flight from Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi. From Taiyuan Airport, we drove our rental car west about an hour through Jiaocheng to Xuanzhong Temple (37.563877, 112.078460).

We found the Brown Eared Pheasant immediately. They were on a little bridge spanning a frozen stream at the bottom of the gorge. Also around the bridge were north China species Plain Laughingthrush Pterorhinus davidi, Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis, and Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha brevivexilla.

In the following days I noted other taxa representative of north-central China: Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa villosa, Eurasian Nuthatch S. europaea sinensis, Songar Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri, Coal Tit Periparus ater pekinensis, and Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis.

Many birders balk at ticking semi-wild birds, but if you want an easy tick of Brown Eared Pheasant, then Xuanzhong Temple is the place to go. Note that both Mark Havenhand and I had wild Brown Eared Pheasant far from the temple on the road between Xuanzhong and Jiaocheng.

MAP AND PHOTOS

Shanxi
Xuanzhong Temple (37.563877, 112.078460) is in central Shanxi province (red) in north-central China. The site is 1120 km (690 mi.) northwest of Shanghai. I visited the site in December and January 2012-13. (Wikipedia/Craig Brelsford)
xuanzhong
Xuanzhong Temple dates from the 400s. Like many Buddhist temples in China, Xuanzhong serves as a sanctuary for wild birds. Xuanzhong is the best-known place in the world for viewing Brown Eared Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Xuanzhong Temple
Main viewing area for Brown Eared Pheasant. Xuanzhong Temple lies in a gorge in the foothills of the Lüliang Mountains. The elevation is 1000 m (3,280 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)
Road to Xuanzhong
Road leading from Jiaocheng to Xuanzhong Temple. For views of Brown Eared Pheasant in a more wild setting, drive or walk this road. Here both Mark Havenhand (comment below) and I noted wild Brown Eared Pheasant, along with numerous other species. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Birders visit Xuanzhong Temple to view semi-wild flocks of Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum. The species is endemic to north China. Xuanzhong Temple is at the center of its range, which covers the Lüliang Mountains of Shanxi plus adjacent Hebei and Shaanxi. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant is listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable. ‘Its range,’ the IUCN writes, ‘has been fragmented by habitat loss, and isolated populations are at risk from further forest loss and other pressures. Outside nature reserves, the threats include deforestation for agriculture and urban development, and habitat degradation due to logging and livestock-grazing.’ About 17,000 Brown Eared Pheasant are thought to exist (BirdLife International 2016). (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
The pheasants show little fear of man. I was able to achieve intimate closeups such as this …
Brown Eared Pheasant
… and this. (Craig Brelsford)
Man feeding pheasant
A man feeds Brown Eared Pheasant. We daily saw local people hand-feeding the pheasants and setting out maize for them. Some birders balk at viewing semi-wild birds, but Xuanzhong offers guaranteed views of a species hard to find elsewhere. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant perches on a cypress branch. The pheasants are semi-wild. They range freely, retiring at night to the hills and each morning gliding dramatically down to the floor of the gorge. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant
Brown Eared Pheasant likely has been present at Xuanzhong for hundreds of years. (Craig Brelsford)
Pheasant and sparrows
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus fly in front of Brown Eared Pheasant. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
Brown Eared Pheasant exercising its wings. (Craig Brelsford)
Brown Eared Pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum
Brown Eared Pheasant dancing. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-tailed Rosefinch
If not for the pheasants, few birders would visit Xuanzhong Temple. The temple does however offer a sampling of the birds of north central China. Here is wintering Long-tailed Rosefinch Carpodacus sibiricus ussuriensis, male. (Craig Brelsford)
Long-tailed Rosefinch
Long-tailed Rosefinch, female. (Craig Brelsford)
Coal Tit
Coal Tit Periparus ater pekinensis. This race shows a short crest. P. a. pekinensis ranges from southern Liaoning to Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong. (Craig Brelsford)
Willow Tit or Songar Tit
Songar Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri, currently classified as a race of Willow Tit. (Craig Brelsford)
Chinese Nuthatch
Chinese Nuthatch Sitta villosa is a small nuthatch with a prominent white supercilium and patchy black eye-stripe. The nominate race is found in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. (Craig Brelsford)
Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea sinensis. This subspecies is characterized by its reddish-brown underparts. In the bitter cold, the nuthatch was inspecting the smallest cracks in the bark for its food. (Craig Brelsford)
Beijing Babbler
Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis foraging in the snow. (Craig Brelsford)
Plain Laughingthrush
The aptly named Plain Laughingthrush Pterorhinus davidi. (Craig Brelsford)
Red-billed Blue Magpie
Red-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythroryncha brevivexilla. (Craig Brelsford)
Common Pheasant
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus on the road to the temple. (Craig Brelsford)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BirdLife International 2016. Crossoptilon mantchuricum. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22679299A92809690. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22679299A92809690.en. (Accessed: 30 Aug 2020)

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Marsh Tit, First for Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Happy New Year 2018 to you from shanghaibirding.com!

On this New Year’s Day, I bring you glad tidings: a historic first Shanghai record of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris!

The sighting occurred on Christmas Eve at Century Park in Pudong. A pair was foraging in trees and bushes at the edge of a wooded area. (The exact point is by the boardwalk on the western side of the park at 31.215832, 121.541303.) The tits did not appear sluggish or overly tame, as might have been the case had they escaped from a cage.

I originally misidentified the Century Park tits as Willow Tit Poecile montanus stoetzneri. I was thrown off by the large black patch on the chin and throat of the birds, which I took to be strongly suggestive of Willow. In field guides pre-dating the research of Richard K. Broughton, the bibs of Marsh and Willow Tits, in particular their size and shape, are characterized as being important separators of the two species, which are notoriously hard to tell apart.

After my triumphant announcement to the Shanghai Birding WeChat group, member Paul Holt responded, disagreeing with my diagnosis of Willow Tit and cautioning me on an over-reliance on bib, which, Holt wrote, “[doesn’t] hold much water” as a criterion for Marsh-Willow ID. The Century tit, Holt said, “looks like a classic Marsh Tit” (in litt., 2017). Intrigued, I searched the Web for authorities backing up Holt’s assertions, and I came across the two studies by Broughton.

Broughton’s papers shake the foundations of Marsh-Willow research. Of the several challenges Broughton makes to the received wisdom about Marsh-Willow ID, bib is among the most salient. Books renowned and much relied on, such as the Collins Bird Guide (2009), admit only of “some overlap” in the size and shape of the bibs. Broughton finds “substantial overlap.” Harrap and Quinn state unequivocally that compared to Willow Tit, Marsh has “a smaller and neater black bib” (1995). Broughton says that bib is “variable within both species,” prone to “high subjectivity” on the part of the observer, and greatly dependent on the sex, social rank, and age of the bird. “The bib,” Broughton states flatly, “is not a particularly useful identification feature” (2009).

Marsh Tit
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris showing classic whitish bill mark. In good light, as here, the bill mark is noticeable even at mid-range. Heilongjiang, August. (Craig Brelsford)

What, then, is a useful identification feature? In the British and European birds Broughton and his co-authors studied, the most reliable criterion separating non-singing and non-calling Marsh and Willow was a special mark on the bill. The authors found that 98.7% of Marsh Tit and 94.2% of Willow Tit could be identified to species according to the presence (Marsh) or absence (Willow) of a whitish spot on the proximal area of the upper mandible (Broughton et al. 2008).

Here in China, how applicable are Broughton’s findings on the whitish mark? To the best of my knowledge, the applicability of the bill criterion on the East Asian subspecies of Marsh and Willow has not been formally tested. It presumably is highly applicable, and the photos here of Marsh and Willow from the Eastern Palearctic comport with Broughton’s findings from the Western Palearctic.

Marsh and Willow Tit
Comparison of whitish marks on proximal area of upper mandible of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris (top) and Willow Tit Poecile montanus (bottom).  (Craig Brelsford/Steven Lin)

Examine the four-panel photo above. At top left is Marsh Tit Poecile palustris brevirostris, photographed in Heilongjiang in August. The whitish bill mark is clearly visible, as it is in Steven Lin’s photo top right of the Century Park Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom left of Willow Tit Poecile montanus baicalensis, taken in Heilongjiang  in January, abrasions and reflected light create asymmetrical whitish marks that only an inexperienced observer would take to be the bill mark of a Marsh Tit. In the photo bottom right of “Songar” Tit Poecile montanus affinis, taken in Qinghai in August, the bill is unmarked; it is a classic Willow Tit bill.

Broughton’s papers explore other criteria for Marsh-Willow ID, among them the song, “chick-a-dee” call, and juvenile begging call, which have long been known to be distinctive and which Broughton rates as even better indicators of species than bill mark. Broughton also discusses the contrast between the cheek and neck sides in the two species, which like bill mark Broughton calls a highly reliable feature. Both papers are required reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on Marsh-Willow ID, even those of us here on the eastern end of the Palearctic. Indeed, a study using the methods of Broughton on the East Asian forms of Marsh Tit and Willow Tit would be a welcome complement to Broughton’s work and could yield exciting results.

ADDENDUM

On 22 Jan. 2018 at Century Park, local birder Komatsu Yasuhiko found Marsh Tit. Hiko got these photos.

Marsh Tit
On 22 Jan. 2018 at Shanghai’s Century Park, local birder Hiko found Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)
Marsh Tit
Conspicuous in Hiko’s photo is the whitish mark on the proximal area of the upper mandible, an indicator of Marsh Tit. (Komatsu Yasuhiko)

REFERENCES

Bengtsson, Daniel, Brelsford, Craig, and Du, Elaine (2020). Birds Recorded at Century Park (a page on shanghaibirding.com). Available at https://www.shanghaibirding.com/sites/urban-shanghai/century-bird-records/ (accessed: 26 Sep 2020).

Broughton, Richard K. 2008. Separation of Willow Tit and Marsh Tit in Britain: a review. British Birds 102 (November 2009), pp. 604–616. Available at https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Willow-Marsh-Tits.pdf (accessed: 24 Jan 2020).

Broughton, Richard K., Hinsley, Shelley A., & Bellamy, Paul E. (2008) Separation of Marsh Tit Poecile palustris from Willow Tit Poecile montana using a bill criterion. Ringing & Migration, 24:2, pp. 101-103. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674382 (accessed: 24 Jan 2020).

Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, 1995. Willow Tit, p. 238.

Holt, Paul. Message to Craig Brelsford through Shanghai Birding, a WeChat chat group, 24 Dec 2017.

Svensson, Lars, Mullarney, Killian, & Zetterström, Dan. Collins Bird Guide, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 2009.

Featured image: Marsh Tit Poecile palustris, historic first record in Shanghai. Century Park, Shanghai, 24 Dec. 2017. (Steven Lin)
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