Gansu Bluetail, Wulingshan, Hebei

Our featured image above shows the bluetails of the world: Himalayan (left panels), Red-flanked (right panels), and in the middle the inscrutable “Gansu” Bluetail. In this post, I report a new eastern record of “Gansu” and discuss the current taxonomic limbo of the form. — Craig Brelsford

Found at Wulingshan, Hebei, 11 June 2017: “GansuBluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus.” Our record is the first for the mountain northeast of Beijing, the first for Chengde Prefecture in Hebei, and the easternmost in history for the form. Until recently, “Gansu” Bluetail was thought to breed only in Qinghai and Gansu, 1200 km (745 miles) to the southwest.

In Beijing, Hebei, and Shanxi, “albocoeruleus” has now been found on at least six mountains. Before our discovery, the easternmost of those mountains was Haituoshan, 140 air-km (87 air-miles) west of Wulingshan. Our record pushes the eastern edge of the range of “albocoeruleus” from the western side of Beijing to the mountains northeast of the metropolis.

The taxonomy of “Gansu” Bluetail is uncertain. It is currently recognized neither as a species in its own right nor as a subspecies of Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus or Himalayan Bluetail T. rufilatus. Adult-male “albocoeruleus” have a white supercilium as in cyanurus, and “albocoeruleus” are said to be closer genetically to cyanurus, but the legs of “albocoeruleus” are long, as in rufilatus.

Gansu Bluetail
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Wulingshan. Though it had not acquired adult plumage, this second-calendar-year male was singing powerfully and defending territory. We found the bluetail near the road to Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰) at 40.598801, 117.476280, elev. 2020 m (6,630 ft.). (Craig Brelsford)

The song of “Gansu” Bluetail is distinct from the songs of Red-flanked and Himalayan. Listen to “Gansu”:

“Gansu” Bluetail Tarsiger (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, 11 June 2017 (00:06; 1.3 MB)

Compare my very different song of Red-flanked Bluetail:

Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Cow’s Ear River (51.548528, 121.880737), Hulunbeier, Inner Mongolia, 14 July 2015 (00:03; 913 KB)

Now compare the song of Himalayan Bluetail, by Mike Nelson via xeno-canto.org:

Listen to this other recording by Mike Nelson, also labeled “Himalayan Bluetail”:

The second recording by Nelson is of “albocoeruleus.” It was made in Haidong Prefecture in eastern Qinghai, a place known as a breeding site for “albocoeruleus.” Note the similarity between Nelson’s recording from Haidong and mine from Wulingshan.

Usually, a bird with a song as distinctive as that of “albocoeruleus” would rise to at least the subspecies level. Why, then, is “albocoeruleus” languishing in taxonomic limbo?

Narcissus, Green-backed Flycatcher
Although adult-male Narcissus Flycatcher (L) and Green-backed Flycatcher (R) bear little resemblance to one another, the two species were long classified as one. The situation was owing not to difficulties in ID but to a lack of research. L: Yangkou-Rudong, Jiangsu, 29 April 2012. R: Wulingshan, 10 June 2017. (Craig Brelsford)

The reason may be a simple lack of research. Many species endemic or nearly endemic to China have only recently begun to be fine-tuned taxonomically. Green-backed Flycatcher Ficedula elisae, another bird we noted at Wulingshan, was long considered conspecific with Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, despite the two species having widely separated breeding areas, highly distinctive plumage (especially males), and songs so different that playback of one species elicits no interest from individuals of the other (Clement 2006).

Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis is another species that was long overlooked. It differs subtly but consistently from Blue-and-white Flycatcher C. cyanomelana but was not recognized as a new species until 2012 (Leader & Carey 2012). Zappey’s also breeds on Wulingshan.

Will “Gansu” Bluetail get the same love and attention as Green-backed and Zappey’s Flycatcher? Researchers surely must be aware of the taxonomic uncertainty surrounding “Gansu.” Its distinctive song is a cry in the wilderness, a plea for a more accurate assessment of its place in the animal kingdom.

BIRDING REPORT: WULINGSHAN

Nilsén, Grunwell, Brelsford
Birding partners Jan-Erik Nilsén (L), Michael Grunwell (C), and Craig Brelsford on Wāitáo Fēng (歪桃峰), elev. 2118 m (6,949 ft.), the highest peak at Wulingshan. 11 June 2017. Our trio really clicks, but alas, it is breaking up. Michael is moving 30 June from Shanghai to Penang, Malaysia and was on his final birding trip in China. Beijing-based Jan-Erik has noted ‘Gansu’ Bluetail on six mountains and was instrumental in our discovery of the form at Wulingshan. No two birders have taught me more than Michael and Jan-Erik. (Craig Brelsford)

Who: Shanghai birders Michael Grunwell and Craig Brelsford guided by Beijing-based ace birder Jan-Erik Nilsén. Our driver was Mr. Wang (+86 189-1129-3689).

Where: Wulingshan (雾灵山, 40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei, near Beijing-Hebei border northeast of Beijing. Highest elevation: 2118 m (6,949 ft.). Birding from elev. 950 m (3,120 ft.) to summit.

When: Sat.-Sun. 10-11 June 2017

How: Eschewing undependable air travel, Michael and I took the bullet train from Shanghai. What a ride! 305 kph (190 mph) and arrival in Beijing within a minute of the time scheduled. Then a driver hired by Jan-Erik picked us up for the three-hour drive to Wulingshan. The driver accompanied us there and drove us back to Beijing.

Highlights

GansuBluetail 1 2cy male singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: James Eaton from Birdtour Asia very kindly shared with me a photo of an adult-male “Gansu” Bluetail taken June 2011 at Huzhu Beishan, Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai.

'Gansu' Bluetail
‘Gansu’ Bluetail, Huzhu Beishan, Qinghai, June 2011. (James Eaton/Birdtour Asia)

Zappey’s Flycatcher 1 singing

UPDATE, 24 JUNE 2017: After an e-mail exchange with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed my record of Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. The bird we found at Wulingshan is a male in its second calendar year that has not attained full adult plumage.

Of this flycatcher, photos and sound-recordings of which Leader examined, Leader writes, “[T]he darkness of the throat on your bird is not correct for first-year Zappey’s. … Morphology fits intermedia. It certainly doesn’t fit cumatilis, and I don’t see any plumage features that indicate it’s a hybrid. I think it’s just a first-year intermedia, which accounts for plumage and perhaps the variation in song” (Leader et al., in litt., 2017).

For the song as well as for more photos of this individual, please see our eBird list for 11 June 2017.

Flycatcher
Blue-and-white Flycatcher found 11 June 2017 at 40.565367, 117.472742, elev. 1330 m (4,360 ft.). Enjoy sound-recordings of this individual on our eBird checklist for 11 June. After corresponding by e-mail with Paul Leader and Geoff Carey, I have changed this record from Zappey’s Flycatcher to Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana intermedia. (Craig Brelsford)

Green-backed Flycatcher 3 singing

Grey-sided Thrush 12 singing

Grey-sided Thrush
Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Wulingshan, 10 June. Found at elev. 1610 m (5,280 ft.) on road above ‘Koklass Pheasant Parking Lot’ (40.569817, 117.474469). Grey-sided Thrush breeds at a few scattered sites in Hebei, Beijing, and Shanxi. The IUCN classifies it as Vulnerable. To hear my recordings of its song, see our eBird checklist for 10 June. (Craig Brelsford)

Also

Koklass Pheasant 2
Himalayan Cuckoo 3
Large Hawk-Cuckoo 1
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker 1
White-backed Woodpecker 3
White-throated Rock Thrush 1
Asian Stubtail 1
Thick-billed Warbler 1

Others

Grey Nightjar, White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, and Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, and Yellow-streaked Warbler.

Notes

— We got impressive results in only a day and a half birding—albeit with perfect weather. Wulingshan can be done from Shanghai in a weekend!

— Special thanks to my partner ​Jan-Erik Nilsén. Jan-Erik heard the song of the bluetail, recognized it, and called me over. Jan-Erik is highly experienced with “Gansu” Bluetail, having seen and sound-recorded the form on Haituoshan as well as at Lingshan and Baicaopan (Beijing-Hebei), Xiaowutaishan (Hebei), and Wutaishan (Shanxi).

— Thanks also to Paul Holt for informing me about records of “Gansu” Bluetail in the Beijing area.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brelsford, C. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37503446. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 16 September 2019). Note: This is the Wulingshan list for 10 June 2017.

———. 2017. eBird Checklist: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519385. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York, USA. Available: https://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 16 September 2019). Note: Wulingshan list for 11 June 2017.

Clement, P. (2006). Family Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). Pp. 131-2 (Narcissus Flycatcher) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Leader, Paul J. & Carey, Geoff J. Zappey’s Flycatcher Cyanoptila cumatilis, a forgotten Chinese breeding endemic. Forktail 28 (2012): 121-128.

Leader, Paul J., Carey, Geoff J., Brelsford, Craig, Grunwell, Michael, and Nilsén, Jan-Erik. Series of e-mail messages, 18-20 June 2017.

Featured image: Left-hand panels: Himalayan Bluetail Tarsiger rufilatus. C: “GansuBluetail T. (cyanurus? rufilatus?) “albocoeruleus,” Wulingshan (40.598801, 117.476280), Hebei. Right-hand panels: Red-flanked Bluetail T. cyanurus. (Craig Brelsford)
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Chinese Egret & Singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on Yangshan

From Thurs. 14 April to Tues. 19 April 2016, Elaine and I combined inner-city birding (Century Park, Shanghai Botanical Garden) with suburban-coastal birding (Nanhui, Lesser Yangshan). We noted 102 species. Sun. 17 April was the big day, with 95 species noted. Among them were 2 Chinese Egret and 3 singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler on Lesser Yangshan and Rufous-faced Warbler, Swinhoe’s Minivet, and near-threatened Curlew Sandpiper at Nanhui. Among our many firsts-of-season were 10 Narcissus Flycatcher, 4 Eastern Crowned Warbler, 2 members of the Arctic Warbler Complex, and Yellow-browed Bunting. With the spring migration rolling on strong, even the city parks gave us seasonal firsts, with Eurasian Woodcock and Blue-and-white Flycatcher at Century on Thursday and Eyebrowed Thrush Tuesday at the Botanical Garden. During the 6-day period, we noted 0 raptors, whether Accipitriform, Strigiform, or Falconiform.

When silent, as is most often the case in Shanghai even in spring, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler are indistinguishable, and a typical bird list this time of year includes the entry “Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides.” The songs of these lookalikes are, however, distinct, and on Sunday in the wooded areas of Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan we heard the cricket-like song of P. tenellipes. I made a recording (00:22; 1.7 MB):

On Tuesday, Elaine and I found a silent pair; they were moving along thick branches in the manner of a nuthatch and pumping their tail, but because they were not singing we could not ID them beyond Pale-legged/Sakhalin.

Garbage Dump Valley also yielded Meadow Bunting, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, and Manchurian/Japanese Bush Warbler, and Temple Mount gave us a single Goldcrest as well as Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe.

On Sunday, Blue-and-white Flycatcher were noted in Garbage Dump Valley, on Temple Mount, and at Nanhui and on Thursday at Century. Each male was studied carefully so as not to miss Zappey’s Flycatcher, a recently recognized species that has been recorded in Shanghai (by Swedish birder Jocko Hammar in 2014). This spring, we Shanghai birders will do well to study each Blue-and-white Flycatcher carefully, in particular adult males, lest we miss Zappey’s. In Forktail No. 28, August 2012, Paul Leader and Geoff Carey write: “Males from populations that breed in central China [i.e., Zappey’s] are distinct from other populations in being blue or blue-green across the breast, throat and ear-coverts, and in having black or blackish restricted to the lores. … The upperparts are typically blue-green.” There are various other distinctions, not noted here.

For the first time we noted Marsh Grassbird north of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn at Nanhui. This new location is on the road leading into the reed bed and lined with street lamps. Another, larger location is 30.866006, 121.939614, a point 2.8 km S of the lock at Nanhui and 4.1 km S of the Magic Parking Lot/Holiday Inn. We discovered Helopsaltes pryeri at the southern location on 10 April and found them there again Sunday. 3 Reed Parrotbill were in the area, and Pallas’s Reed Bunting, so numerous just a few weeks ago, were nearly absent, most of them having departed for breeding areas north.

The Chinese Egret were our reward for never failing to scrutinize groups of Little Egret. Sure enough, our Egretta eulophotes were associating with 3 E. garzetta on a taut anchor line tethering a boat to the bottom of a little bay along Gangchi Road (30.612507, 122.105993). We are not sure whether our view is a one-off or whether something about that bay is attractive to that species.

Little Curlew
Little Curlew, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

At the Accidental (and probably Temporary) Wetland on Lesser Yangshan, we found the 2 Little Curlew, 1 of our 2 Garganey, Purple Heron, Black-tailed Godwit, 1 of our 6 Pacific Swift, 18 of our 80 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 2 Red-rumped Swallow, and Oriental Reed Warbler. Accidental Marsh sits on land reclaimed when a causeway was built linking Lesser Yangshan and Dazhitou Island. The coordinates of this spot are 30.611902, 122.114873. Bird this spot while the birding is good!

On Thurs. 14 April, Elaine and I birded Century Park, noting 31 species. 2 Eurasian Woodcock were seen in the forested area near Gate 7 known as “Woodcock Forest” (31.215413, 121.547678). There were impressive flocks of Brambling, 72 in all. Other highlights: Eurasian Hoopoe 1, Pale Thrush 23, White’s Thrush 2, and Chinese Blackbird 40, among them 2 fledglings.

The encounter with the woodcocks occurred just a few meters from the point where Elaine and I found this species last 30 Oct. Woodcock Forest is usually devoid of humans, and forest species tend to pool there. For best results, tiptoe in and scan silently. Do not forget to look into the canopy; I have seen sparrowhawks there.

We found no Yellow-bellied Tit, the only leaf warbler we found was a single Yellow-browed Warbler, and we thought low our count of just 1 Grey-backed Thrush. There were no other flycatchers besides the Blue-and-white.

As I have noted many times before, thieves are active at Century. On Thursday I had the unusual experience of thief-watching. Two folks were sitting on a park bench looking out over the lake. Elaine and I were standing far behind and noticed an ugly man in ratty clothing approach the couple from the forest behind them. He was moving in a catlike manner and was either casing the couple or was about to snatch something. I moved in noisily, and he slunk off.

This thief and others in his gang must be skillful, otherwise they wouldn’t have operated in the park so long. Their booty is phones, wallets, and purses, their victims distracted persons relaxing in the park. To avoid falling prey, keep your phone zipped in your pocket, leave nothing lying around, and use your powers of observation honed through birding to assess the people around you.

On Tues. 19 April, a walk through the Shanghai Botanical Garden netted Elaine and me 28 species. 2 Japanese Tit fledglings were following their parents and making begging calls, 4 Common Sandpiper were in Zhāngjiātáng Hé (张家塘河), and White’s Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Pale Thrush, and Eyebrowed Thrush were found in a quiet wooded area (31.147780, 121.438917) along the stream.

Sunday marked the reunion of the five-member Dream Team after a winter hiatus. Husband-wife members Stephan and Xueping Popp took many fine shots, and Stephan once again performed skillfully behind the wheel. Senior Birder Michael Grunwell combined sober experience with boyish enthusiasm, the latter particularly in evidence when he beheld Narcissus Flycatcher, a lifer for him. Elaine Du did her usual fine job keeping the list. Though I’m making a quick recovery from my intercostal muscle strain suffered 10 April, still I traveled light, eschewing photography and using only binoculars.

PHOTOS

Purple Heron
Purple Heron, Lesser Yangshan Island, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.
Rufous-faced Warbler
Rufous-faced Warbler, Nanhui, Shanghai, China, 17 April 2016. © 2016 by Stephan Popp & Xueping Popp.

Featured image: Elaine Du (L) and Xueping Popp scan for leaf warblers in Garbage Dump Valley on Lesser Yangshan Island, Zhejiang, China, Sun. 17 April 2016. (Craig Brelsford)
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