Wednesday, May 6, 2009

China - thrushes, robins, redstarts

Two closely related families that are well represented in China are the Turdidae (thrushes and allies) and Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers and allies). Sibley and Monroe placed them all in the same family whereas others separate out the Saxicolidae as a family of their own containing groups such as “robins”, “redstarts”, and some species called “chats” (although not all birds called chats). North Americans may find that commentary surprising or confusing since the same names are used for very different families, e.g. American Robin is a thrush not a robin, American Redstart is a wood-warbler not a redstart, and Yellow-breasted Chat is also a wood-warbler and not a chat. Some recognition of this in nomenclature has been the recent changing of the common name of other New World thrushes, e.g. Clay-colored Robin to Clay-colored Thrush.

Some of my personal highlights from this group included killer looks at the beautiful Kessler’s Thrush (a.k.a White-backed Thrush)… first female then male. A truly magnificent high elevation thrush – these photos were taken up on the Tibetan plateau above 4000m asl.

Among the “robin” group there were many highlights of my trip to Yunnan and Sichuan including this White-tailed Rubythroat. This shot shows a male in flight. Similar to the Siberian Rubythroat both rubythroats are true gems – secretive, elusive and stunning! Unfortunately his ruby throat doesn’t show so well in this photo.

More common and widespread but equally beautiful is the Orange-flanked Bush Robin. This species goes by many names including Red-flanked Bluetail.

Next the Golden Bush Robin, again first female then male. A true gem I was delighted to get great looks at this species at several sites in Yunnan. These shots show the characteristic long-legged structure of the robins and their typical posture as they hop around on the ground or in shrubs. The photo of the male shows the tail half cocked. Most robins frequently cock their tails (again remember American Robin is not a “robin”).

Next we move to the group called redstarts, so named because many flash red or orange in the tail. Most hop around in fairly open habitats such as high elevation or high latitude rocks and grassy areas or by waterways. Rather than cock their tail like robins, most tend to flash the colour in their tail by flicking them open and then closed. Redstarts comprise several genera. The White-throated Redstart is in the largest genus Phoenicurus (no relation the flamingoes — probably the connection has more to do with pink or reddish colour). This is a truly magnificent redstart and I was delighted to see them so well. The second photo shows the scaled pattern of an immature bird.

High up in the rocky Tibetan plateau shrub community a male Blue-fronted Redstart feeds his young one.

Whilst nearby along a rocky stream hops the beautiful White-capped Water Redstart.

When a female White-bellied Redstart give a little tail flick you can see the she too has some reddish colour at the base of her tail.

You might not know about the male’s colourful tail at first

Until you see the feathers fan out as in this flight shot. In this shot you can also see the berries he was feeding on.

The Grandala is an aberrant thrush or robin (some disagreement as to which) of high altitudes. The stunningly deep blue of the male will take your breath away as they fly across the slopes. The female and juvenile on the other hand are superbly camouflaged with the rocks of their high elevation home.

The forktails are one of those uniquely Asian groups of robin-like birds. Patterned mostly in black, grey and white with long, usually forked tails, they are characteristic streamside birds throughout much of southern Asia. The Little Forktail doesn’t have the deeply forked tail of other forktails but their pattern and behaviour easily reveal their identity.

More photos from China at:


  1. Wow! Outstanding Christian. What a beautiful photo essay about a beautiful group of birds.

  2. Hi Christian - how's it going? Great shots. I'll be back regularly now I've found your blog. All the best, Charlie

  3. Thanx Charlie! Quite a honour to have such a distinguished blogger visit my little site! Doing well, itching to travel!


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