Shanghai birders should consider buying Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas. I served as proofreader of both books, published by Helm Field Guides. Keep Japan on your bookshelf or in your car as you bird the coast of China, and use Bhutan as your first reference in western Yunnan.
Authored by Mark Brazil, Birds of Japan follows Brazil’s 2009 opus, Birds of East Asia, the best field guide for the coastal provinces of China. Birds of Japan sees Brazil returning to his first love, Japan, where Brazil has been active since the 1980s.
Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, and Sherub, covers not just Bhutan but also the neighboring Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. All border Tibet, and Arunachal Pradesh extends east to a point only 80 km (50 mi.) from the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan.
Japan and Bhutan each come with introductions to their regions, richly illustrated with maps and photographs. With its detailed “Where to Bird” section, Grimmett et al.’s 38-page opener is as thorough an introduction as a birder is likely to find to the eastern Himalayas. Brazil’s is less extensive but still does justice to a biogeographically complex archipelago that stretches 3000 km (1,900 mi.) from subarctic Hokkaido to the subtropical Ryukyus.
Japan and Bhutan repurpose much artwork from earlier Helm works, Japan drawing from Birds of East Asia and Bhutan from Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. There is, however, much that is new. In Japan no less than 18 new illustrations of White Wagtail are offered, 12 covering the three ssp. (leucopsis, ocularis, lugens) most common on the Chinese coast. Illustrations better than those in Birds of East Asia are provided for Chinese Egret and several species of duck.
Published nearly a decade after East Asia, Japan incorporates many of the ornithological advances made since 2009. For example, in East Asia Brazil incorrectly writes that the calls of Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and the illustrations suggest that the morphological differences between the two species are appreciable. In Japan, Brazil describes the higher-pitched call of Pale-legged, and the new paintings convey more accurately the near indistinguishability of the species on plumage and bare parts.
To a China-based birder, Birds of Japan offers regional interest and usefulness in the coastal provinces, where it can serve as a backup and partial update to Birds of East Asia. Japan also provides a foretaste of a second edition of East Asia. “The publisher has expressed strong interest in a new edition,” Brazil wrote, “and I have the artist already lined up. I am just awaiting a contract” (in litt., 2019).
Bloomsbury touts Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas as “the one guide you’ll need on a visit to this incredible corner of Asia.” Including the neighboring Indian states along with Bhutan was an inspired decision, broadening the scope of the book without diminishing its coherence and increasing its usefulness in the Himalayan regions of China. For birders in the Dulong Gorge and at Baihualing, Ruili, and other hotspots in western Yunnan’s Gaoligong Mountains, Bhutan can replace Craig Robson’s Birds of Southeast Asia. Bhutan has better species descriptions than Robson’s sometimes cryptically concise work, and its illustrations excel those in Robson.
Birders in other parts of China will find Bhutan useful. In Himalayan south Tibet, in particular Yadong, wedged between Sikkim and Bhutan, birders will do just fine with Bhutan and only Bhutan in their backpack. Bhutan will prove useful in regions east of Himalayan China, notably Sichuan, as well as on the Tibetan Plateau. In southern Yunnan (Xishuangbanna), whose avifauna is more Southeast Asian than Himalayan, Bhutan can back up Robson.
Like Birds of Japan, Bhutan includes recent ornithological breakthroughs, among them Himalayan Thrush, a species described in 2016 by Alström et al., and Bugun Liocichla, discovered in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh. Other Himalayan specialties sought after by China-based birders, such as Sclater’s Monal, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and Beautiful Nuthatch, receive ample coverage in the species accounts and introduction of Bhutan.
China sorely lacks good bird books. On the Helm Field Guides bookshelf, there are gaps where works such as Birds of Sichuan and Yunnan and Birds of the Tibetan Plateau should be. Birders in China have long had to cobble together field-guide strategies, using as a major component field guides covering regions of Asia bordering China. One welcome development has been the increasing quality of those guides. Nowhere are the improvements more evident than in Birds of Japan and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas.
Do you own either of the books discussed in this article? Add your review in the comments below.
Brazil, Mark. (2019). Email to author, 9 August.
Featured image: Covers of Birds of Japan (2018) and Birds of Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas (2019), published by Helm Field Guides/Bloomsbury. (Craig Brelsford)
Editor’s note: For “Dulong Gorge, Yunnan: The First Week,” the first in this two-part series on birding Dulong Gorge, please click here.
The second half of our Dulong trip lasted 13 days, from 23 Feb. to 6 March 2016. Brian Ivon Jones, my wife Elaine Du, and I saw drier weather and a rich procession of birds, taking our species count to 170. We found Golden-naped Finch at bird-rich Sibia Lane, we noted Fire-tailed Myzornis at various locations, we marveled at Ibisbill on the Dulong River, and we witnessed a spectacular flock of 300 Grandala. With the clearing of mudslides that had blocked access to the southern end of the gorge, we spent five days around Qinlangdang. There, Brian noted Beautiful Nuthatch, and we found Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar Babbler, Himalayan Cutia, and Scaly-breasted Cupwing. Driving and walking along the twisting roads, we noted Black-headed Shrike-babbler, Gould’s Shortwing, Long-billed Wren-Babbler, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, and the newly described Himalayan Thrush and Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush. Rufous-breasted Bush Robin made several appearances at various elevations, Himalayan Bluetail was noted in smaller numbers, and White-naped Yuhina and Yellow-throated Fulvetta often were in large flocks. Heading back to Kunming, we found Banded Bay Cuckoo near Wayaozhen.
RAIN, RAIN, RAIN … AND A REPRIEVE
The rain from the first week of the trip was still with us on Tues. 23 Feb. and Wed. 24 Feb., causing a mudslide near Bapo that blocked access to Qinlangdang. Even on Thurs. 25 Feb., skies were still grey, and despite the excellent weather on Fri. 26 Feb., the road to Qinlangdang was still blocked. We grit our teeth and birded on.
23 Feb. saw us note just 28 species, but among them were choice birds such as Black-headed Shrike-babbler, Golden-naped Finch, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, and Dark-rumped Rosefinch. We found Golden-naped Finch, the rosefinches, a few of our Fire-tailed Myzornis, and White-browed Fulvetta around Sibia Lane. This bird-rich spot on the Gongshan-Dulong Road has tall trees, rich undergrowth, and many birds, among them the Beautiful Sibia which are a constant presence there and for which the place is named. (For more information on Sibia Lane and other birding spots in Dulong Gorge, see List of Place Names near the bottom of this report.)
On 24 Feb. we noted 51 species despite the rain and despite doing all our birding within 12.5 km of Kongdang, our home base. One reason for our success was my re-discovery of Dulong Beach, a place I remembered from my 2014 visit and one of the few broad areas in that part of the Dulong Gorge. At Dulong Beach, one can park in a spacious parking area well off the narrow road, and it is possible to walk around. Great Cormorant roost on boulders studding the Dulong River, and occasionally a Mallard flies by; Himalayan Swiftlet can be seen in the corridor of sky framed by the gorge; Ashy Drongo and Striated Bulbul hawk insects high in the trees; White-naped Yuhina and Grey-cheeked Warbler browse in the trees; Golden Babbler join bird waves with Yellow-browed Tit, Rufous-capped Babbler, and Yellow-throated Fulvetta; and Chestnut-headed Tesia, Slaty-bellied Tesia, and Pygmy Cupwing call from the undergrowth.
We also birded an even broader area, Pukawang, the resort 8 km north of Dulong Beach and 4.5 km south of Kongdang. There we found Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Large Niltava, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and Little Bunting using the now-barren gardens and fields. Little Forktail was in the Dandangwang River. We found Elliot’s Laughingthrush.
25 Feb. saw us stymied in our quest for Qinlangdang by a mudslide at Bapo. We retraced our steps to Dulong Beach, where in a bird wave we found Black-throated Parrotbill. We had our first record of Grey-chinned Minivet, and at Pukawang we had our only record of Pied Bush Chat and only Dulong record of Eurasian Hoopoe. The next day saw splendid blue skies, but the still-blocked road meant we had to work the Gongshan-Dulong Road once again. There, we achieved stunning photos of the moon setting over the mountains, fresh with new snow. In the afternoon, we returned to Dulong Beach, where Brian spotted Black-crested Bulbul high on the ridge on the opposite side of the river.
RETURN TO QINLANGDANG
Once the weather improved and the road crews cleared the road, we headed straight for Qinlangdang and the southern end of the gorge. We spent five of the next six days here: Sat. 27 Feb. through Mon. 29 Feb. and Wed. and Thurs. 2-3 March.
On 27 Feb., during the 43 km drive from Kongdang to Qinlangdang, we stopped at Dulong Beach. There we met Ān Kǎi Xiáng (安凯祥, “Steven An”), a tour guide whom I have met on several occasions, and Hóu Tǐ Guó (侯体国), the man famous for running the photo blinds at Baihualing. They were guiding Erik and Henning, two Danes and friends of Jesper Hornskov. Erik and Henning paid this writer a nice compliment: They had read my post on Week 1 of the Dulong trip! We chatted awhile and admired a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. Also at Dulong Beach, we saw Crested Kingfisher flying rapidly up the river and found Scaly Laughingthrush.
Further down, we yet again heard Long-billed Wren-Babbler calling from thick undergrowth on the side of the road; try as I might, I could not coax the bird out, but I recorded its call (00:03; 922 KB):
Driving back, nearing dark we got a lifer for Brian and Elaine: Rufous-backed Sibia. I captured sound and an image of this impressive bird (00:35; 2.2 MB):
On the morning of 28 Feb., again near Qinlangdang, and after hours spent searching for Beautiful Nuthatch with no success, I heard dueling Spotted Elachura singing from either side of the Dulong River. Dilemma: (1) Study elachura, a sure thing, or (2) invest still more time in searching for Beaut Nut? Brian opted for Choice 2 and walked ahead. Elaine and I chose Option 1 and achieved an excellent recording of the strange song of Spotted Elachura plus my closest views ever of the species. Here is what I captured (01:17; 3.9 MB):
Brian, meanwhile, found Beaut Nut! He radioed us, but we arrived too late. Congrats, Brian! We also got Himalayan Cutia, a lifer for Brian.
Other great birds from 28 Feb.: Black-headed Shrike-babbler and Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, another encounter with that Long-billed Wren-Babbler on the side of the road, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, good views of Striated Laughingthrush, and new looks at Blue-winged Laughingthrush and Scaly Laughingthrush. We found 4 Zoothera birds, most likely Alpine/“Yunnan”/Himalayan Thrush, feeding along the pre-dawn road and looking like nightjars (Brian’s apt description) as they fled our car.
29 Feb. saw us once again working the area around Qinlangdang. The terraced fields at the north entrance to the village are a good place for birds, yielding our only Dulong records of Hill Prinia, Slaty-backed Forktail, and Black Redstart as well as Blue-fronted Redstart and Olive-backed Pipit. At Brian’s nuthatch spot just north of town, relaxing in our parked car I got our only owl record of the trip: Asian Barred Owlet, calling unseen from the ravine on the opposite side of the river. In the morning, as we were driving to Qinlangdang we heard Brown-flanked Bush Warbler singing at Maku and at another place farther south.
On 1 March we changed direction, heading north 31 km on the paved road to Dizhengdang. There, we revisited the extensive farmland north of town. Within a large flock of Little Bunting, Elaine and I picked out 3 Godlewski’s Bunting. Blue-winged Laughingthrush were using trees between two abandoned farmhouses, and we found Snow Pigeon and a smart male Hodgson’s Redstart. Brian went off on his own, finding White-throated Dipper. We drove through Xiongdang to the road being constructed north of that village. We took it to a point 9 km north of town, where a rockslide stopped us. We noted Mountain Hawk-Eagle here.
Heading back, just north of Xiongdang, Brian, once again walking ahead, radioed us: “Ibisbill, flying downstream!” Brian deserves credit for insisting that this most unusual of waders would be on the Dulong. “The habitat is right; they must be here,” he said repeatedly. Now Brian had his reward, but what about Elaine and me? Would it be possible for us to get a view? It was up to me to guess where the Ibisbill had flown to. Zipping past Brian’s position, Elaine and I sped south in the Mitsubishi Pajero, splashing over a creek along the way. We approached the church in Xiongdang, and I said, “Let’s try here.” Elaine and I got out and, lo and behold, there were 4 Ibisbill along the rumbling stream below. Whew! Got ’em! Brian arrived, and we savored the view together.
On our two final full days in the gorge, 2-3 March, we dove back into the Qinlangdang area. We met Himalayan Thrush and Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush on the road, we had a strange encounter with an apparently lost Northern Lapwing, and we added Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar Babbler, and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike to our trip list. I achieved an excellent recording of the powerful song of tiny Scaly-breasted Cupwing (00:24; 1.7 MB):
We found several common birds that we had not noted before, among them Japanese Tit, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, White-bellied Erpornis, and Chestnut Thrush. These late additions are an indication of the vastness of the forests and the long time it takes to get an accurate impression of the avifauna of this rich gorge.
BACK TO KUNMING
We took two full days to cover the 900 km between Kongdang and Kunming. On Fri. 4 March we spent the daylight hours driving the 90 km to Gongshan. We saw a massive flock of 300 Grandala, added Great Barbet to the trip list, heard Hill Partridge calling unseen, and noted Fire-tailed Myzornis and Golden-naped Finch. After refueling, we departed Gongshan at 17:15 and drove south on the S228. Along this amazing, narrow road, the lifeline for the dozens of communities along the Salween River, we saw folks taking sponge baths under the spigots along the road, saw people getting haircuts at open-air barber shops just inches from passing cars, and watched a drunken man nearly walk into the path of our car. Few roads are more interesting, or more dangerous, than the S228. Long after dark, we made it to Nujiang and pressed on, arriving exhausted at 01:15 in Wayaozhen, a town just a few kilometers north of the G56 freeway. Once again, we had made it through the Salween Gorge in good time, as before by driving mainly at night when traffic is less.
New birds came to us immediately the next morning: Red-vented Bulbul and Grey-breasted Prinia in the farm-garden area just across from Bababa Hotel, Grey Wagtail in a stream running between rows of houses, and White-browed Laughingthrush and Yellow-browed Warbler on the scrubby, partly forested hillside behind the hotel.
The grand finale, the fitting end to our profitable expedition, came later in the morning, less than a kilometer north of the G56. Driving on the G320 toward the freeway, I was scanning the hillside to our right and admiring the Mekong River to our left. I noticed a forested ravine that looked promising. Brian was game for a final hunt, and we set off into the unknown. Elaine stayed at the car, scanning the treetops with the spotting scope. Brian and I walked up the ravine until we could walk no more, then doubled back. Along the way we heard Slaty-bellied Tesia and saw Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike. Brian picked up Grey-throated Babbler, a species we had noted in Dulong Gorge but that Brian had not seen well.
Brian went on ahead, and I stayed behind in the forest. Suddenly a Banded Bay Cuckoo appeared on a branch just 3 m from me, calling. This species is hard to find in China, has long been among my most desired of cuckoos, and was a lifer for me. I was without my camera, but I had my recorder and used it. In the recording, one notes the similarities and differences between the four-note call of Banded Bay and the well-known four-note call of Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus. The call of Banded Bay is a high-pitched whistle, whereas the call of Indian is fuller and throatier. Examine these recordings:
Banded Bay Cuckoo 1 (four-note whistle; 00:07, 1.1 MB)
Banded Bay Cuckoo 2 (rising call plus four-note whistle; 01:18, 3.9 MB)
I hustled down the hill to the car, roused Elaine and Brian, and took them up the hill. They both heard the call of Banded Bay Cuckoo. What a great addition to our list!
We took the G56 to Kunming Changshui International Airport, driving the last of the 2856 km that we logged on this trip. We spent the night in the strangely named but very clean Rainbow Interstellar Hotel (+86 871-65301666). On Sun. 6 March we flew home, Brian to Shenzhen, Elaine and I to Shanghai.
In Kongdang we checked into Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn (独龙江大酒店; +86 886-3066888, +86 139-8868-5660, 168 yuan/night). The hotel is new and clean. Electric power is intermittent throughout the village, and because of the uncertain electricity it is prohibited to run the air-conditioning unit; our room was usually chilly as a result. Hot water is not guaranteed. In 2014 I stayed in Dàpíng Bīnguǎn (大平宾馆; +86 139-8869-6984; 100 yuan); it’s still there, but we decided to stay at Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn because it is newer.
We flew into and out of Kunming rather than Baoshan or Dali because of the wider selection of rental cars. We worked with the rental-car company Héxié Zūchē (和谐租车; +86 871-67085834, www.zuche01.com). Héxié rented us a brand-new, four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero, the perfect car for our trip.
Simple List of Species of Bird Noted in Yunnan, China, 16 Feb. to 5 March 2016 (170 species)
Pukawang (Pǔkǎwàng [普卡旺]; 27.839581, 98.327779), resort in Dulong Gorge 4.5 km S of Kongdang. Site of confluence of Dandangwang River & Dulong River. Elev. 1480 m.
Qinlangdang (Qīnlángdāng [钦郎当]; 27.686833, 98.283097): village Dulong Gorge 43 km S of Kongdang. Elev. 1220 m.
Salween-Irrawaddy Drainage Divide: the ridgeline of the Gaoligong Mountains separates the Salween & Irrawaddy basins.
Salween River (Nùjiāng [怒江]): river rising on Tibetan Plateau, flowing through W Yunnan & into Burma, & emptying into Andaman Sea.
Sibia Lane (27.909517, 98.410674): birding area on Gongshan-Dulong Road with many tall trees. So named because Beautiful Sibia are abundant there. Area extends ca. 1.5 km from bridge crossing large stream E toward Dulongjiang Tunnel.
Robson, C. 2005. Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA. Our first reference in Dulong Gorge and western Yunnan.
Smith, Andrew T. and Yan Xie, eds. Mammals of China. Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA. Our first reference for mammals in 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.
Featured image: The sublime spectacle of the moon setting over the Gaoligong Mountains at dawn was our reward for enduring days and days of rain. Photo taken on Gongshan-Dulong Road near Kongdang on 26 Feb. 2016. Nikon D3S, 600 mm, F/9, 1/320, ISO 640. (Craig Brelsford)
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Editor’s note: For “Dulong Gorge, Yunnan: Part 2,” the second in this two-part series on birding Dulong Gorge, please click here.
A week in Yunnan is under our belt, and Dulong Gorge is yielding amazing Himalayan specialties. Among the species noted by us so far are Fire-tailed Myzornis, Grandala, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Striated Laughingthrush, and Assam Laughingthrush as well as Gongshan Muntjac. We have noted western Yunnan favorites Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, Beautiful Sibia, Rusty-fronted Barwing, and Streak-throated Barwing. We have heard the mournful whistle of Hill Partridge, found a flock of 140 Tibetan Serin, noted Goldcrest in a mixed flock at 2960 m, and discovered 4 Eurasian Teal looking out of place on the Dulong River. Also using the river are Common Merganser, Great Cormorant, Crested Kingfisher, and Brown Dipper. Crimson-breasted Woodpecker was a lifer for us, and Wallcreeper delighted us all. We noted a troop of Stump-tailed Macaque.
HOW WE GOT TO DULONG GORGE
To reach this remote valley, on Tues. 16 Feb. Elaine, our partner Brian Ivon Jones, and I drove non-stop from Kunming Changshui International Airport to Gongshan, a grueling twelve-and-a-half hour, 814-km ride. Brian, an Englishman living in Shenzhen, is the person who first gave me the idea of visiting the Dulong Gorge; this is my fourth birding trip with him. From Kunming we took the G56 to the G320 and S228 north of Baoshan. We drove the narrow S228 at night because we guessed that traffic in the dozens of towns along the Salween River would be less. We were right. At 03:15 Wednesday we arrived exhausted but in good spirits at Gongshan.
On Wednesday morning 17 Feb., we stocked up on food and fuel at Gongshan. We filled the tank of our rented Mitsubishi Pajero and, after applying for a permit with the local government, filled a 30-liter tank with gasoline. The 30-liter tank would be our extra source of fuel, for there are no gas stations in the Dulong Gorge.
We birded the Gongshan-Dulong Road 87 km to Kongdang. On the Gongshan side, still in the Salween basin, we noted our first of many Ashy-throated Warbler, Yellow-browed Tit, Whiskered Yuhina, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, and Green-tailed Sunbird. A bird wave at elev. 1980 m gave us views of less-common birds such as Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Grey Crested Tit, and Blyth’s Leaf Warbler. At a scenic overlook at 2450 m, we found a stunning male Blue-fronted Redstart. At about 2600 m, we began to notice snow on the ground. At 2960 m, near the eastern terminus of the Dulongjiang Tunnel, with snow lying deep all around us, a bird wave passed. It contained Coal Tit as well as our first Rusty-flanked Treecreeper and Goldcrest.
On the other side of the tunnel, at elev. 2260 m, we noted Darjeeling Woodpecker and Beautiful Sibia at a stretch of road I call “Sibia Lane.” I never fail to find Beautiful Sibia there. At the bridge below we found Yellow-browed Tit and a flock of Black-faced Warbler.
In Kongdang, the administrative center of the Dulong Gorge, I found a town much different from the one I met during my first trip here in June 2014. Bridges are being built, a row of new hotels and restaurants has arisen, and a gas station is under construction. Despite the progress, this valley still feels like a land that time forgot. Some Dulong people keep the tradition of animal sacrifice, and we have seen two old women with tattooed faces.
DULONG GORGE FROM END TO END
We spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday exploring the areas south, north, and east of Kongdang. On Thurs. 18 Feb. we drove to Qinlangdang, the village at the southern terminus of the Dulong Gorge road and the last stop before the China-Burma border. We noted 45 species and covered elevations ranging from 1220 m at Qinlangdang to 1570 m along the cliffs north of that village. Great Cormorant and Crested Kingfisher were a surprise. An impressive bird wave just south of town netted us many trip firsts, among them Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Rufous-bellied Niltava, and Silver-eared Mesia. At stops along the road we found Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, a lifer for all of us, as well as Golden-throated Barbet, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Rusty-fronted Barwing, and Alpine Accentor.
On Fri. 19 Feb. we headed north. We easily found Wallcreeper, and in the heavily forested opposite bank of the river we heard the harsh cries of Striated Laughingthrush. As we drove, we scanned the river carefully, particularly the calm spots. At one such spot we found 4 Eurasian Teal. They were not feeding and must have been using the gorge as a conduit to more suitable waters. South of Xiongdang, conifers and other alpine flora begin to predominate, and the landscape looks profoundly different from the lusher, warmer areas around Qinlangdang. We found a scree slope far above us and, using my spotting scope, I pulled in a flock of 8 Grandala.
Dizhengdang occupies one of the broadest areas we have seen in the Dulong Valley and is an excellent place for birding. At the fringes of the farmland are scrubby areas that hold many species and will surely hold more come spring, and there is a collection of abandoned farmhouses and adjacent gardens that will be nicely overgrown a few months from now. We finally were able to leave the car here and walk around. We picked up many trip firsts, among them Himalayan Buzzard, Snow Pigeon, Grey-backed Shrike, Black-browed Bushtit, and White-throated Redstart. We drove north to the village of Xiongdang. We drove past the church in Xiongdang on a dirt road that is soon to be a paved highway to Tibet. We stopped 3 km north of the village. As it was late afternoon and because the road was getting rougher, we decided to turn back. We noted Common Merganser and Brown Dipper, and as we approached Xiongdang again we encountered another Wallcreeper.
Sat. 20 Feb. saw us head back up the Gongshan-Dulong Road. We birded an elevation range of 1350 m, from 1490 m in Kongdang to 2840 m at the snowy western terminus of the Dulongjiang Tunnel. Elaine saw a bird that had to be either Ward’s or Red-headed Trogon, and we heard the cries of Hill Partridge on the ridges above us. At Sibia Lane, elev. 2260 m, Elaine cried out, “Myzornis!” Brian and I came running and found a pair of this quintessential Himalayan bird. A pair gave us clear views before retiring into the undergrowth, and we found another pair nearby. The beautiful, emerald-green cross between parrotbill and babbler was a lifer for Elaine and Brian. I had seen the species in 2014. I said to my fellows, “Before this expedition, it was My-zornis. Now it’s Your-zornis, too!”
Striated Laughingthrush and Assam Laughingthrush were hard-won ticks. A flock of 4 of the former appeared screaming above us on the Gongshan-Dulong Road. The fig tree on which they were feeding was directly above us, 25 m high. I leaned back and took record shots, set down my camera, and recorded the harsh cries before a car came and forced me to pause. Later, examining the photos and listening carefully to my recording, we were able to get the ID. Here is the recording I made of Striated Laughingthrush (00:08; 1.1 MB):
The Assam was almost as tricky. Walking along the road, I scared off a single laughingthrush. As Black-faced Laughingthrush has been the most commonly seen laugher so far, I played back a recording of that species to see whether I would get a response. The Assam called back from cover. It was obviously not a Black-faced, but what was it? The bird alighted very briefly on a backlit branch, a silhouette against the sky; this allowed me to determine its size and nothing more. But I had recorded the call, and comparisons to Assam recordings I have downloaded from xeno-canto.org allowed me to make the ID. Here is my recording of the brief call (00:03; 905 KB):
On Sun. 21 Feb. it rained all day and we did no birding. In Kongdang electricity was out for most of the day, and even the cell-phone signal died. We took advantage of the down time to sleep.
Mon. 22 Feb. saw us redo our route to the Dulongjiang Tunnel and back. The big find of the day was not a bird at all but the mysterious Gongshan Muntjac. We were at the large clearing at 2300 m on the Gongshan-Dulong Road. I had just recorded a lively pair of Bay Woodpecker and was walking back toward the car and Brian. My partner was looking at a dark spot below us on the road. Brian and I aimed to shoot, and I found to my horror that the ultra-high humidity of the gorge had compromised the focusing mechanism on my lens. I had to focus manually, and by that time the muntjac had turned its back to us. Brian captured the earlier moment when the deer was still facing us; I could only get photos of it looking away. The diminutive, rare deer scurried under the guardrail to cover. We walked downhill to the point where it had stood. Above us, we heard a sound like a man imitating a dog barking. Muntjacs are also known as “barking deer”; now we knew why. We believe we photographed a doe and that the buck was barking from cover. So little is known about Muntiacus gongshanensis that IUCN lists it not as endangered or near threatened but as “data deficient.” Almost all photos taken of the species have been done by camera traps. We have photos of an animal that we saw. I also recorded the barking (00:19; 1.6 MB):
The other mammalian highlight was Stump-tailed Macaque. Walking along the road, I noticed rustling in the bamboo far down slope. At first I thought I had startled a herd of small deer. I got this impression because the animals were on the ground and were on all fours. I was able to determine that the animals were macaques. I noted a bare face and nub of a tail. We estimate the troop contained about 10 individuals.
Amid these glories, the birding was not bad at all! We added these species to the trip list: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Bar-throated Minla, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, White-browed Fulvetta, Himalayan Bluetail, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and the recently re-described Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush. Elaine, who is familiar with the Zoothera thrushes because of my keen interest in this genus, radioed me: “Himalayan Thrush!” I ran back and just managed to capture record shots. The bird I photographed has the dark ear coverts, yellow base of lower mandible, and yellow legs that distinguish Alpine/“Yunnan” Thrush from Himalayan Thrush. Thank you for alerting me, Elaine!
Other big news: 290 Grandala in two flocks, an impressive 168 Tibetan Serin, a Fire-tailed Myzornis whose loud calls caused us to stop the car to look, and yet more welcome encounters with Rusty-flanked Treecreeper and Rufous-breasted Bush Robin.
In Kongdang we checked into Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn (独龙江大酒店; +86 886-3066888, +86 139-8868-5660, 168 yuan/night). The hotel is new and clean. Electric power is intermittent throughout the village, and because of the uncertain electricity it is prohibited to run the air-conditioning unit; our room was usually chilly as a result. Hot water is not guaranteed. In 2014 I stayed in Dàpíng Bīnguǎn (大平宾馆; +86 139-8869-6984 100 yuan); it’s still there, but we decided to stay at Dúlóng Jiāng Dàjiǔdiàn because it is newer.
We flew into Kunming rather than Baoshan or Dali because of the wider selection of rental cars. We worked with the rental-car company Héxié Zūchē (和谐租车; +86 871-67085834, www.zuche01.com). Héxié rented us a brand-new, four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero, the perfect car for our trip.
Featured image: Grandala roosting in tree along Gongshan-Dulong Road, Dulong Gorge, Yunnan, 22 Feb. 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
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Now my involvement in the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was on this wise:
In June 2014, my partners and I drove 36 hours, including one stretch of 24 straight hours, covering 1500 km (930 mi.) to get from Emeishan in Sichuan to the Dulong Gorge in Yunnan. The reason? Per Alström was in the Dulong Gorge and was working on an exciting project, a project to which he said I might be able to make a small contribution.
We finally met up with Per and his team on the road into the Dulong Gorge. There, Per transferred to me a recording of a species new to science, Himalayan Thrush Zoothera salimalii.
Little did I know that I was on the cusp of something big.
At the time, I did not know that the species was Himalayan Thrush; like any normal birder, I took the species to be Plain-backed Thrush. Per could only divulge that he was working on possible splits to Plain-backed Thrush, and could I please try to get a shot of a free “Plain-backed”? All his images, he said, were of captured birds, and he wanted shots of birds living their natural life. “I’ll do everything I can to get those photos!” I said. Per then left the Dulong Gorge, and my team entered the valley.
Rain rain rain for days. Finally, a 45-minute window of dry weather. I’m at the spot Per indicated, elev. 3380 m (11,090 ft.). I play Per’s recording. Attracted by the recording, a Himalayan Thrush appears within minutes, and I get photos as well as recordings of the thrush’s song. What a payoff!
Now my photos figure in the article Per and his co-authors have written on Himalayan Thrush, Sichuan ThrushZoothera griseiceps, and Alpine ThrushZ. mollissima (Z. mollissima was formerly called “Plain-backed Thrush” in English but in the wake of the new discoveries takes the name Alpine Thrush). Himalayan Thrush is completely new to science, and Sichuan Thrush has been elevated to species status (having been considered a ssp. of Z. mollissima). A fourth putative taxon, “Yunnan Thrush,” requires further study.
I’m proud to have played a minor role in Per and co.’s major discovery!
WHAT IS ‘NEW TO SCIENCE’?
In the case of Zoothera salimalii, when we say the species is “new to science,” we are not saying that no human being had ever seen the bird before. Himalayan Thrush is locally common in its range, which extends from Sikkim in India to northwest Yunnan; thousands of birders and non-birders have seen it. “New to science” means that those observers did not understand its true nature. We did not understand that it is a species; if we thought about it at all, we assumed that any Z. salimalii we were seeing was just another Plain-backed Thrush Z. mollissima.
Per and his team discovered that, hidden within what was considered to be a population of Z. mollissima was an entirely different bird, separated from Z. mollissima by time (3-5 million years of evolution), habitat (Z. mollissimaAlpine Thrush breeds higher than Z. salimalii Himalayan Thrush), song, and morphology.
The latter two characteristics are particularly surprising and point to the difficulties of birding in the Himalayan region. Per and his team did not need a microscope to begin to see that Himalayan Thrush is different from the other species in the Plain-backed Thrush complex. All they needed to do was look and listen closely. Yet for generation after generation, this straightforward analysis was not performed. This is not surprising, considering the ruggedness of the area in which these thrushes live and its sparse population.
Once Per had examined Plain-backed complex birds in the hand and through photos, he found a whole series of visible differences. Per et al. write:
Compared to Z. mollissima, Z. salimalii has a noticeably longer and deeper bill, with more arched culmen and longer hook, and the lower edge of the lower mandible is more arched (vs. straight); bill usually completely or almost completely dark including base of lower mandible, whereas the base of the lower mandible is usually pale pinkish or yellowish in Z. mollissima (though may appear mainly dark also in Z. mollissima). …
Most individuals of Z. salimalii have a thin whitish supraloral stripe over thick blackish lores, and a very dark subocular/moustachial area, more or less connected to the dark lores, compared to more diffuse pale supraloral and weak “salt-and-pepper” lores and subocular/moustachial area of Z. mollissima. Also, Z. salimalii usually shows less extensively pale-mottled ear-coverts than in Z. mollissima, especially on the upper part, and lacks or has only a very ill-defined dark spot on the rear ear-coverts, while Z. mollissima usually shows a distinct dark rear ear-covert patch. Z. salimalii is usually ruddier in color above than Z. mollissima. … Z. salimalii has a narrow, almost unmarked golden-buff throat (whiter when worn) bordered by strong black malar, while in Z. mollissima the throat is usually whiter and generally more heavily marked (often much more so) and less strongly bordered by more diffuse malar stripes. Z. salimalii has the claws paler than the toes, lacking dusky areas, while in Z. mollissima the claws are at least partly darker than or similar in color to the toes. The legs of Z. salimalii are pinkish, while those of Z. mollissima are usually brighter and more yellow- or orange-tinged.
So adept became Per at discerning the morphological differences of the various Plain-backed species, he was able to determine, by photos alone, that a “Plain-backed” I had found in Yunnan in February 2014 was also Himalayan Thrush. Per used my February 2014 photos along with my June 2014 photos in his article.
The song of Z. salimalii also contrasts markedly with that of Z. mollissima, Per et al. write. They note the “mainly rasping, grating, scratchy, cracked voice” of Alpine Thrush and the “more musical … ‘thrush-like'” song of Himalayan Thrush. Indeed, according to the article, the germ of the process that led to the discovery of Himalayan Thrush was Per standing in India and simply listening to Himalayan Thrush, remembering the similar song he’d earlier heard in Sichuan of what is now called Sichuan Thrush, and contrasting those sweeter songs with the scratchier song of Alpine Thrush. Here we see Per, the scientist famous for discovering new species according to complicated DNA research, relying not on microscopes but on good old-fashioned birding skills!
Below, some of my recordings and videos of Himalayan Thrush.
Sound Recordings, by Craig Brelsford
Video (all taken by Craig Brelsford at Baihualing, Gaoligong Mountains, western Yunnan, 4-5 Feb. 2014)
Featured image: Craig Brelsford (L), Craig’s partner Jon Gallagher, and Per Alström (R), above the Dulong Gorge in remote northwestern Yunnan, 13 June 2014. The insets show Himalayan ThrushZoothera salimalii, which Per was there studying, and photos of which I later acquired. (Huáng Xiǎo Ān [黄小安])