Friday, May 15, 2009

China - tits, nuthatches, creepers and a wren

I don’t often blog about the familiar birds although these can be just as fascinating as the rare and elusive species. I thought it worthwhile to show some photos of a few families that will be very familiar to many readers, but with some Chinese colour and characteristics” of course (if you don’t get the reference it’s a play on the oft-touted ol’ propaganda slogans such as “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” (the word they often used for “characteristics” 特色 literally means “special colour” so it seems appropriate to apply this to birds). This post is about a somewhat miscellaneous accumulation of families Paridae (tits or titmice and chickadees), Aegithalidae (long-tailed tits or bushtits), Sittidae (nuthatches), Certhidae (treecreepers) and with a member of the Troglodytidae (wrens) thrown in for good measure. These families don’t have a lot in common except that they are mostly small passerines and in China it is not uncommon to see several species from these families together in mixed flocks.

Starting with the family Paridae the beautiful Rusty-breasted Tit (also called Père David’s Tit) exhibits a very familiar pattern – a colourful version of a Marsh Tit or A Black-capped Chickadee. Indeed the genus Poecile all have this basic pattern or variation upon it, although not everybody agrees as to what constitutes a genus within the Paridae, e.g. some place the Poecile species under Parus.

The handsome Grey-crested Tit with its very noticable crest is China’s equivalent of Europe’s Crested Tit. Together these two species are sometimes place in their own genus Lophophanes. Although superficially similar they are not directly grouped with the Baeolophus titmice of North America such as Tufted Titmouse (these have smaller crests).

The colourful Yellow-bellied Tit is pretty much endemic to China and may belong to a subgroup of tits that includes Coal Tit (sometimes placed in the genus Periparus).

The Yellow-browed Tit is a peculiar tit and rather unlike most other members of the family with it unmarked green plumage overall, very subtle crest and hint of yellow behind the eye that gives the common name (if you look hard you can see it in this photo). So unlike other member of the Paridae is this species that they are placed in a monotypic genus Sylviparus.

And if you think Yellow-browed Tit is unusual, get a load of this next tit – Hume’s Groundpecker looks so unlike other tits that for the longest time no-one realised their true affinity (although there are some similarities with other tits for example in social behaviour). IT was a real treat to see these birds hopping around on the high Tibetan grasslands, or interacting and flicking their wings on the walls of a Tibetan monastery as seen here. Their decurved bill serves them well when probing in the ground for food.

Next we have two similar species from the Aegithaidae - the Black-browed Tit and the Black-throated Tit, both illustrated here by juveniles (if you're wondering why their plumage doesn't match their names).

Moving to the nuthatches, here is a close-up of the endemic Yunnan Nuthatch

and here is one in their habitat feeding on cones in the high elevation conifer forests of Yunnan

The White-cheecked Nuthatch also likes the high elevation conifer forests but has a different distribution (this one photographed in western Sichuan).

The treecreepers are a small family of small birds that occur across the Northern Hemisphere but reach their peak diversity in Asia. On the left is the newly discovered endemic Sichuan Treecreeper in the fog and mist of Wawushan (note the short bill) and on the right the Brown-throated Treecreeper at Gaoligongshan in Yunnan.

I thought I should end with a bird that is familiar to so many in a less familiar context. This is of course the Winter Wren, also present in the mountains of China. The first photo shows the dark plumage of this wren in the moist forests of Sichuan. The second photo is for comparative purposes and is of a North American bird (Manitoba, Canada) from a drier climate with paler plumage.

More photos from China at

Sunday, May 10, 2009

China – la vie en rose

I had the bright idea to try a photo essay about rosefinches in China although it turns out I don’t have so many great shots, so I cheated by adding other splashes or pink and red. Nearly all of the world’s 27 or so rosefinches fall in the genus Carpodacus, but there are two monotypic genera: Uragus and Kozlowia. If the number 27 sounds high to you that’s because there has been a lot of splitting among the rosefinches recently. About 85% of the rosefinches occur in Asia and the distribution centers are the high altitudes of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. From their lofty birth place the rosefinches have spread across the temperate Palearctic Realm, even conquering other high mountains like the Caucasus, and even reaching North America, presumably via Berringia, where there are now three extant species: House Finch, Purple Finch and Cassin’s Finch. Though these three Nearctic species have many congenitors in Eurasia, they never got the common name “rosefinch” and so North American are not always aware of their affinities. As the name implies, the majority of rosefinches are clad in beautiful pink hues (well, at least the males are, the females being cryptically patterned in browns) but some, especially in more moist areas have donned darker hues closer to burgundy and red.

We start with the Chinese White-browed Rosefinch, first a male then a female. This species was split off from the Tibetan White-browed Rosefinch recently. This species is fairly typically patterned among Carpodacus rosefinches with bright pink on the face, underparts and rump and the female with brown and white streaking and subtle pink hues.

The similar Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch. This species was split off from the Tibetan Beautiful Rosefinch recently (can you see a pattern?). Though I saw this stunning bird often I never managed to get a photo that would come close to doing them justice.

The Vinaceous Rosefinch is also in the genus Carpodacus but their stunningly deep colour makes them quite unique and hence easier to identify than many of the other rosefinches in their area.

The Red-fronted Rosefinch is somewhat different in colour than other Carpodacus species and lives high on the rocky slopes – this photo taken above 4500m. In the second shot you can see the bright red rump that shows in flight.

I’m afraid my other rosefinch shots don’t really make the cut but we’ll stick with the rosy theme with this beautiful Rosy Pipit in breeding plumage high up in the Sichuan mountains.

The White-browed Tit-warbler is one of two members of the peculiar Leptopoecile genus of the Aegithalidae family (Long-tailed Tits). These beautiful little birds are denizens of the scrubby high elevations of the Tibetan and Chinese mountains.

Ok, so the next species is much more red than pink but I couldn’t resist showing off the magnificent Mrs Gould’s Sunbird. The only unfortunate thing is this bird’s name — betrays one of those nasty old ornithological traditions of supposedly naming a beautiful bird in honour of a lady, except by using her married name the honour really falls on the man himself (very convenient). There are quite a few “Mrs so-&-so’s such-&-such” in Asia. As for the bird themselves, wow, what a magnificent creature!

Asia is blessed with some truly woodpeckers too. These Darjeeling Woodpeckers show of their red highlights...
and the Rufous-bellied Woodpecker is not to be outdone for colour.

Transition to orange, a Grey-headed Bullfinch hops around on the ground near my feet as I stood very still outside the Wuyipeng Research Centre. I snapped this image as he looked up at me.

Last but not least, a beautiful Rufous-breasted Accentor — one of several stunning accentors in the high elevations in the Chinese mountains.

More photos from China at:

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:
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