China 18: Sichuan phylloscopus warblers & their songs

Phylloscopus warblers, either one of the joys of Sichuan or a constant pain in the neck! These species are not adequately dealt with in any existing field guide, though there are some online resources that cover the warblers of south-west China, for example, Per Alström‘s overview is essential reading. So out of the chaos of wingbars, supercilia and a multitude of shades of olive, I have tried to create order in the species that we recorded.

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There are over 25 species of phylloscopus warbler frequently recorded in Sichuan and they are all very similar: the size and colour of a leaf, but so much more mobile. They advertise and recognise each other through vocalisations, so it makes sense that we should do the same. The good news: in order to simplify the field identification of so many very similar species I have grouped the species of phylloscopus warbler that we saw into 5 basic types. Being a UK based birder I have used the following warbler species as headline species, the species within each type share some plumage characteristics:

Pallas’s Warbler types

Hume’s Warbler types

Greenish Warbler types

Eastern Crowned Warbler types

Dusky Warbler types

This model is not perfect, but it gave me a handle on getting to grips with this difficult group and may be useful for those planning to visit Sichuan. I have also embedded recordings of the song of each species from the fabulous Xeno Canto website. The bad news: I have illustrated this blog post with my own pictures. Don’t want to make it too easy for you….

1. Pallas’s Warbler types:   Bright supercilium+ bright medial crown stripe, double wing bars, dark tertials and a pale rump. The whole shebang.

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Sichuan Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus forresti

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Sichuan Leaf Warbler: a muted Pallas’s Warbler. It has the rump and the seven stripes, but none of the vivid greens or yellows of Pallas’s Warbler. The song is a series of rapid high pitched trills, each ending with a Eurasian Wren-like rattle:

[Frank Lambert, XC111060. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/111060.]

 

Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis

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Even duller than Sichuan Leaf Warbler! A Pallas’s Warbler type, but with a completely different song to Sichuan Leaf or Pallas’s. One of my favourite sounds from Jiuzhaigou National Park, Chinese Leaf Warbler sounds like a tiny sewing machine rattling away, quite Locustella-like.

[Oscar Campbell, XC285252. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/285252]

 

Buff-barred Warbler Phylloscopus pulcher

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Not really so Pallas’s Warbler-like in real life, though it shares many features.  However, the crown is grey, contrasting with the green mantle; the bright buff greater covert bar stands out and the pale rump is present. The white outer tail feathers are distinctive.

[Frank Lambert, XC161371. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/161371]

 

2. Hume’s Warbler types: Bright supercilium, faint (at best) medial crown stripe; double wingbars, dark tertials and no rump patch.

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Hume’s Warbler Phylloscopus humei mandellii

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The Hume’s Warblers in south west China are mandellii rather than humei. We heard calling rather than singing birds.

[Frank Lambert, XC113239. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/113239]

 

3. Greenish Warbler types:  Bright supercilium, but no real medial crown stripe; double wingbars, greenish tertials and no rump patch.

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Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides

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One of commoner leaf warblers, we found them at a number of different sites.

[Mike Nelson, XC266546. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/266546]

 

Large-billed Warbler Phylloscopus magnirostris

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The long bill can be distinctive in the field. Thanks to James Eaton on Birdforum for noting the weak wing bars and mottled ear coverts of this species. A common, easily recognisable song: a single, followed by two double, melancholy descending notes:

[Guy Kirwan, XC324805. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/324805]

 

4. Eastern Crowned Warbler types: Larger warblers with a bright supercilium + medial crown stripe, double wings bars, greenish tertials, no pale rump.

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Emei Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus emeiensis

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We only saw this species in Longcanggou. Can flick both wings simultaneously (see Kloss’s and Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, below). The song is a distinctive shimmering trill:

[Oscar Campbell, XC282711. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/282711]

 

Kloss’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus ogilviegranti disturbans

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Very similar to both Emei Leaf and Claudia’s Leaf. Flicks both wings simultaneously (see Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, below). The song is a pleasant burst of notes, delivered with even spacing:

[Mike Nelson, XC267134. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/267134]

 

Claudia’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus claudiae

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One of the commoner leaf warblers. Has the habit of flicking a single wing (see picture) or alternates flicking one wing and then the other. The song is a rapid burst of high pitched notes, longer and faster than Kloss’s Warbler:

[Frank Lambert, XC183391. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/183391]

 

Sulphur-breasted Leaf Warbler

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A lower altitude species, only seen in Tangjihae National Park. A feast of  strong head stripes, recalling Worm-eating Warbler, but much more yellow! Song consists of a few well spaced bursts of liquid notes, sung at a moderate pace:

[Nick Athanas, XC23034. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/23034]

 

5. Dusky Warbler types: Buff warblers, with an obvious supercilium, plain wings and plain rump.

Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus fuscatus

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[Frank Lambert, XC113518. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/113518]

 

Yellow-streaked Warbler Phylloscopus armandii

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The Radde’s Warbler sister species that we await to discover one autumn in the UK! Seen in scrub in lower level river valleys.

[Mike Nelson, XC191320. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/191320]

 

Alpine Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus occisinensis

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A high altitude species, seen foraging for insects in snow covered bushes at Balangshān at over 3000m.

[Yong Ding Li, XC144887. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/144887]

 

Buff-throated Warbler Phylloscopus subaffinis

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We only encountered this species in Longcanngou. A simple repeating song:

[Frank Lambert, XC187023. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/18702]

 

One of the highlights of birding the forests of Sichuan was the constant presence of Leaf Warblers. To stand on, for example, the hills above Wolong (below) and scan through the trees picking up multiple phylloscopus warblers was a fantastic, if technically challenging, experience:

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My advice would be go to Sichuan in Spring when the phylloscopus warblers are singing. Otherwise you will have to leave even more species unidentified than I had to: good luck!

China 17: Sichuan Rosefinch Gallery

One of the pleasures of birding in Sichuan was the diversity of Rosefinches. If you have seen three species in Western Europe you have done well. Below are some photo highlights of some of the 12 species of Rosefinch that we saw in Sichuan. Also seen, but not photographed well, were Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Common Rosefinch, Long-tailed Rosefinch & Crimson-browed Finch.

tombedford-20160512-9861-1Vinaceous Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160514.0468Streaked Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160514.0400Red-fronted Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160515.0882Pink-rumped Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160515.0886White-browed Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160513.0191-1Blandford’s Rosefinch

 

TomBedford.20160517.1848-1Pink-tailed Rosefinch/Przevalski’s Finch

 

TomBedford.20160518.2421-1Three-banded Rosefinch

China 16: Longcanggou – the final frontier

“Longcanggou – don’t mention that place, the roads were terrible, it rained the whole time, we saw none of the target species“. So said a member of a Dutch tour party that we met in Tangjiahe as we were about to depart for Longcanngou.  Not necessarily what you want to hear about your next destination. And more rain was forecast.lc-text

Longcanggou is a large forest covered hill that rises east of the Jingkun Expressway, a few hours south of Chengdu. The far eastern side apparently has, in fair weather, good views and thus a hotel development is being constructed on top.  There is only one access road, for construction traffic or for birders and in wet weather it becomes liquid.  Our accommodation was at Ganziping at the base of the hill proper. We spent three nights in Longcanggou, the first after driving through the paddyfields and tea plantations of southern Sichuan. The days fell into a routine of awaking in the dark and rain; driving east and up the hairpins of the single liquid mud road in the rain; then working pretty hard to pull a few species of bird out of the mist, fog and rain; before finally descending back to our accommodation, in the rain. People come here for, amongst others, Grey-headed and Brown Parrotbills, Emei Leaf Warbler, Sichuan Treecreeper and Red Panda. These species, plus more beside, are found at altitude in the forests on top of Longcanggou. Our visit, only this late in the trip as we swapped it for the Wolong Blackthroats on the first day, was dominated by rain, fog and poor visibility (picture by Ian):TomBedford.20160526.4773-1

Our first day here was spent at lower levels, whilst we waiting in vain to see if the weather would improve. Two hours after leaving our accommodation we got lucky with a drive-by Pheasant. Ian, in the front passenger seat, suddenly calls “Lady Amherst’s Pheasant!“. Roland, driving, pulls the car over and there in front of us at the forest edge is a vision of white, green and blue, a stunning male Lady A:TomBedford.20160525.4660-1

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As soon as we stop the bird runs across the road, uses the forest as cover and comes back out behind us. The low light levels mean getting pictures is beyond us, most show a blurred white streak crossing the road, a sort of smeared Roadrunner. Still, in life, this was a fantastic bird to see and raises our spirits. As the morning progresses we pick up some other local goodies: Emei Leaf Warbler, Red-winged Laughingthrush, Kloss’s Leaf Warbler and Mountain Bulbul:tombedford-20160525-4723-1-2

Having few other options we decided to try to get up to the top on our second day. If we thought  the lower approach road was bad, the road nearer the construction site on top was appalling. We park and pick our way up the mountain, trying to avoid the very deep areas of mud. It does feel as though we are walking though a human-inflicted scar on the landscape. There are birds, but visibility is poor. Scanning the trees for Red Panda is productive in good weather. We could barely see each other at times:IMG_5828-1

But with a bit of effort, we take what rewards there are to be had:Red-billed Liethorix, Chestnut-headed Tesias, Aberrant and Brown Bush Warblers are picked up on call and eventually seen. Dead trees reveal Darjeeling  Woodpeckers, a perched Large Cuckoo Hawk and our first Sichuan Treecreeper (picture by Ian):294A0179-1

Overhead Himalayan Swiftlets and small groups of White-throated Needletails appear as silhouettes against the low cloud base. Then the road levels out and we have reached the construction site on top. To say it was wet underfoot would be an understatement. Here Roland and I are trying to turn the wet dark shapes in the trees into Parrotbills (picture by Ian):IMG_5827-1

We, like everyone else we met in those few days in Longcanggou, had no success with Grey-headed Parrotbill, but conditions were hardly favourable and there was little inclination to spend hours waiting in the rain and increasingly cold wind. The plateau/building site area did provide views of both Great and Brown Parrotbill, plus our 16th species of phylloscopus warbler, Buff-throated Warbler (picture by Ian):294A0208-1

Which was rapidly followed by a soaking Brown Shrike:TomBedford.20160526.4850-1

Conditions being what they were, we did not stay on top too long and we begin our descent. Ian took this great portrait of his boots, which just about summed up conditions during the morning:tombedford-160526-5829-1

However, the afternoon was to prove much more productive. We dropped a few hundred metres in altitude before Roland led us down a track to the west of the main road, along a ridge through mature forest. We quickly called in a large mixed flock of birds; Rufous-gorgetted Flycatchers, Red-billed Liethorix…TomBedford.20160527.5246-1

…many leaf warblers and two species of Fulvetta: our first Golden-breasted Fulvetta, plus this showy Grey-hooded Fulvetta:TomBedford.20160526.4991

There were also Red-tailed Minla…TomBedford.20160526.4924

… but best of all, a fabulous Streaked Barwing. This thrush-sized bird ran along horizontal branches tossing off moss and searching for insects. It blazed along branches above our heads and was a real show-stopper:TomBedford.20160526.4926

We return to the main road and whilst approaching the Golden Parrotbill site hear, and eventually get glimpses, of a cracking Emei Shan Liocichla. The Golden Parrotbills, although tiny, are much easier to see and full of character:TomBedford.20160526.5022-1

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This is not to say that the rain has stopped, just that the birds are wisely keeping to lower and more sheltered areas of the forest. A couple of damp pictures:TomBedford.20160526.5005-1

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The fabulously named Mrs Gould’s Sunbird. Note the absence of sun and presence of rain:TomBedford.20160526.5067

By late afternoon we have descended right down to the river. From the path I pick out a distant Spotted Forktail bobbing about on a small island…tombedford-20160526-5144-1

…by the waterfalls are a nice Blue Whistling Thrush… TomBedford.20160526.5214-1

.. and our fourth species of Forktail! Two Little Forktails put on a great display as they sparred over territory with each other on the rocks right in front of us. I can’t think of many birds that have such pale legs and toes:TomBedford.20160526.5152-1

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The day ends with us listening to Himalayan Owl and Oriental Scops Owls with hints that the weather may by improving, just as we have to leave. Our final morning finds us listening to Oriental Cuckoo, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Eurasian Cuckoo and Chinese Bamboo Partridge at dawn. We spend the morning trying, but failing, to see Golden-fronted Fulvetta, David’s Fulvetta being the nearest we got:TomBedford.20160527.5239-1

We heard White-tailed Robin calling, as we had on our first day. And like that early experience, the bird is incredibly elusive. I confess, after 17 consecutive days of birding, to feeling somewhat birded out, so leave Ian and Roland to stalk their target whilst I check out the more open areas of the path. A flycatcher flies in to perch above me, a nice Brown-breasted Flycatcher. I enjoy it and the singing Kloss’s Leaf Warblers nearby, before we load up the car and drive back to Chengdu:TomBedford.20160527.5232-1

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We saw some 297 species in 17 days, a frustrating total for those of us that like round numbers, but a more than satisfactory total. We were unlucky with the weather in the second half of the trip, Tangjihae and Longcanggou were seriously washed out, costing us a dozen or more species. However, on average it rains every other day in Sichuan in May, all you can do is allow back -up days to account for this. Our schedule could not quite stretch to that. Our adventure took us from the steamy plains of the Chengdu basin to snowfall and altitude sickness at 4500m at Balangshan. Onto the open plains of the Tibetan Plateau and into the stunning mountain and lake filled scenery of northern Sichaun. We saw 12 species of Rosefinch, 7 species of Parrotbill, 16 species of phylloscopus warbler, 14 species of Tit, 5 species of Swift and 14 species of Pheasant & Partridge. It was an incredible trip and is very highly recommended, especially for those that like their birds with some added adventure and spicy food. Big thanks go out to Ian for suggesting Sichuan as a destination, for being the calm pro-birder that he is and for putting up with me for nearly three weeks! We would both recommend Roland as a guide for Sichuan, his knowledge of the language and insight into the country added to our enjoyment of the trip. The knowledge that Sid and Roland have accumulated over the years makes seeing the birds of this very special region much more achievable and I for one will never forget some of the fabulous birds, sights and scenery that we experienced in the mountains of south-west China.