Hunting mega birds in Southern China

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT

Participants: Mike Kilburn (author) and Clide Carter


Cabot's Tragopan

Jiangxi, Fujian, and northern Guangdong 17 - 30 April, 2004

By Mike Kilburn

Clide Carter and I spent a very enjoyable two weeks chasing some of South China's most elusive and exciting birds. The trip was planned with the intention of visiting as few places as possible to see as many of the endemics and near-endemics of the region. We also made a clear decision to be realistic about the really tough birds and not to linger if they chose not to co-operate (Rickett's Hill Partridge, in particular, didn't call once!

Mai Po, Hong Kong (17 April)

We started with a morning at Hong Kong's famous the Mai Po Marshes, looking for Nordmanns' Greenshank on the rising tide. The tide was a low 2.0 metres and we spent time combing a good spread of waders, picking out Eastern Curlew, Great Knot and a handful of Asiatic Dowitchers amongst the teeming hordes. My best bird was a Swinhoe's Egret, which hunted along a creek right in front of the hide giving terrific views.

Swinhoe's Egret

Mid-April is something of a quiet spell for Nordmann's passage, the adults have already moved on while many of last year's juveniles are yet to arrive. So it was with some relief that we finally nailed a distant bird hunkered down on the mud a couple of hundred metres away (thank you, Richard Lewthwaite - first for scaring me with the gen. about the lull in passage - and then for finding us one!)

Nordmann's Greenshank

In the afternoon the discovery of breeding White-shouldered Starlings in Kowloon Park for the first time provided some compensation for the lack of flycatchers, many of which had passed in splendid profusion a couple of weeks earlier.

Guan Shan, West Jiangxi (18-21 April)

Next day we flew from Shenzhen to Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, about 500 miles north of Hong Kong, where we met our driver and old friend Mr Lin and headed off west to Guan Shan. Guan Shan is a lowland forest site that is part National Nature Reserve, part forest farm, and a tried and tested site for Elliot's and Silver Pheasants, and much more elusive - Cabot's Tragopan.

On our first morning we found a group of five male Silver Pheasants and a few Chinese Bamboo Partridges, but the recent damming of the river (seven or eight dams in a 10km stretch!) had frightened the tragopans away to the upper reaches of the reserve and I was surprised and disappointed that we didn't have a single sniff of Elliot's, which has always performed well on previous trips.

Next day Mr Wu, local forest guard and über pheasant finder, arrived and explained that from the time it starts nesting until the young are fledged Elliot's Pheasant becomes extremely elusive. The female sits tight on her eggs and chicks all day except for an hour's feed and a drink at dusk and dawn. Meanwhile the male stays in close attendance, unobtrusively keeping watch from a few metres away. During this period the female remains on the ground overnight, and only the male roosts as usual in the trees.

In the meantime, the males of both Silver Pheasant and Chinese Bamboo Partridge abandon all family duties to their females, and wander about the forest in thoroughly un politically-correct bachelor groups. There is little doubt that the brilliant white finery of a male Silver Pheasant would only serve to attract the attention of sharp-eyed predators. As a result it probably serves its family best by staying a long way away!

However, the only dead birds we found were two females that Mr Wu thought had been killed by a bird of prey; Crested Serpent Eagle - we saw a couple - seems the most likely culprit. This excuse does not, however, hold good for male Chinese Bamboo Partridges, who are as drab and cryptic as the females.

Other good birds noted here during our three day stay included a surprise pair of Moustached Laughingthrushes, a flyover Pied Harrier, a calling Koklass Pheasant, the Chinese endemic Yellow-bellied Tit, White-crowned Forktail and, hunting from riverside bushes, two migrant Blue-and-white Flycatchers. None were as good as the mating Green Tree Frogs locked passionately together in a puddle or the stunning white iris growing on the path to the newly-built accomodation.

Wuyuan, Northeast Jiangxi (22-3 April)

Our next destination was Wuyuan county in the northeastern corner of Jiangxi, and home of the recently rediscovered relict population of Yellow-throated Laughingthrush Garrulax galbanus cortoisi. This bird is currently lumped with nominate Yellow-throated Laughingthrush G. galbanus found in NE India and neighbouring Burma, and the race G. g. simaoensis, which was briefly found at Simao in Yunnan but is though to have been extirpated through loss of appropriate habitat.

Yellow-throated Laughing Thrush © Y.T. Yu

We found a breeding flock of about 50 birds (approximately one third of the known population!) at a traditional breeding site on the afternoon we arrived. Cortoisi is morphologically quite distinct from nominate galbanus, showing a much brighter yellow throat and underparts, and a beautiful deep blue forecrown. It is surely only a matter of time before cortoisi is formally split and declared a full, albeit precariously endangered, species. As we watched them flying clumsily around the ancient tall trees in which they nest -and curiously they nest co-operatively -Clide made the first ever good quality sound recordings of this species, which had remained unknown between the collection of the type specimen in 1923 and its rediscovery in 2000. Even now, no one knows where they winter -they are only seen from April to July when they breed! -although it is thought they hide in the shrubland that covers much of the county.

Other good birds here included breeding Swinhoe's Minivet, Silky Starling and real, tickable Mandarin, Black Bitterns displaying at dusk, good numbers of Yellow-billed Grosbeak, and a few each of the enormous Chinese Blackbird (another likely split), Collared Finchbill, Black-naped Oriole, Hwamei and Yellow-browed Bunting.

Despite being eager to move on, we spent the first hours after dawn watching the laughing thrushes again, finding one bird on a nest and another nest under construction, before heading south towards Wuyi Shan. Birds we could also have looked for here include the wonderful Pied Falconet (which we'd both seen before), and in the winter months, Scaly-sided Merganser -up to 30 have been recorded.

Wuyi Shan, Jiangxi/Fujian Border (23-25 April)

Wuyi Shan is a 2000m mountain range that straddles the Jiangxi/Fujian border. The reserve itself is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has doubtless (well, any true birder would surely agree) earned this accolade because it is the best place in the world to see Cabot's Tragopan. It certainly turned out that way for us - we found a minimum of ten of these spectacular pheasants during the three days we spent at the reserve!

That makes it sound so easy. As if! There is no such thing as an "easy" tragopan. Obviously concerned about losing the cachet that surrounds all truly beautiful, rare and elusive birds, these tragopans have resorted to the most fiendish of all tactics to retain that sense of "Holy Grail" challenge -bureaucracy. Our greatest challenge was getting into the reserve at all. Be warned: In China, UNESCO reserves established, as the monument at the gate informed us, "for the benefit of all mankind" open only to foreigners who apply in advance. 5pm on Friday, when the bosses have all gone for the weekend is not a good time to find this out. We felt the tragopans slipping inexorably away into the darkening forest. Thanks to true heroics from Mr Lin, we finally got in, but only after a tense 90-minute wait at the gate under the watchful eye of the Forestry Police and the silent mockery of the UNESCO monument.

After a good night's rest in the reserve's wonderful accommodation we headed up the mountain before dawn, only to find the pass between the Fujian and Jiangxi parts of the reserve blocked by another two barriers and more Forest Police. "Sorry, you're too foreign. You need permission from the provincial capital". We had another twitchy hour-long wait, during which we marked the arrival of dawn in freezing mist at 1000m.

A stunning Moon Moth offered a distraction while Mr Lin cajoled grumpy forestry officials, dragged far too early from their beds, into giving permission for us to go up the mountain. Finally the inner perimeter was breached, the barriers were lifted, and well after dawn we were free to really start birding.

After that it was easy. The tragopans are obviously so confident behind their bureaucratic defences that they no longer flee into the forest from those whose heart in the quest is pure. We drove slowly along the misty road for a kilometre or two until our local guide told us we were in the best area. 200m later a large dark shape shot across the road, showing little more than the squared head of a male tragopan in front of a bulbous chickeny body.

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush

We agreed on the identification, but it was hardly the most satisfactory tick of all time! It didn't matter - a couple of minutes later another male strutted regally across the road just twenty yards ahead of us! Although it was misty we enjoyed good views as it surveyed us from atop a pile of grit, showing us his plain yellow underparts, the big white ocelli on the tawny upperparts (tragopans are far too superior for mere spots) and, when it turned away, it flashed the imperial crown shared by all tragopans - its black-bordered, golden-orange supercilium, which extends to a broad V over the nape of the neck. This was our third-best view.The trick is obviously to stay out of sight inside the vehicle. We had better views of another male another 500metres further on.

On the way down after a spectacular morning amongst the cloud-wreathed pines we also enjoyed terrific views of a female eating the flowers and leaves of a creeper in a roadside tree just a few yards away. However nothing could have prepared us for the next day, when we found another pair proceeding gravely along the road. After about 15 minutes the male jumped into a roadside tree and called twice. Clide managed to catch the second call on tape. The male responded superbly to the playback -rushing up onto the road and running towards our van! He ran all the way around the van, and then climbed the bank to look down on us from above, determined to find the imposter who was trying to steal his mate!

We saw many other good birds including Rosy Pipit and Naga Nuthatch, both of which are a good 1000km east of the nearest known populations, and a supporting cast of Barred Cuckoo Dove, cliff-breeding Asian House Martins, ground-breeding Blyth's Leaf Warbler, Chestnut-crowned, Bianchi's and White Spectacled Warblers, a dazzling male Small Niltava, White-browed Shrike-babbler and Streak-throated Fulvetta. The beautiful Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush stood sentinel on numerous roadside trees, while lower down we had brief views of Little Forktail and, one memorable evening, a very close encounter with a pair of Chinese Bamboo Partridges. Also of interest was a pair of Crested Buntings seen on our drive from Wuyuan to the reserve.

Chebaling, North Guangdong (27-8 April)

The move from Jiangxi to more familiar territory in northern Guangdong was seamless. We said our farewells to Mr Lin at Yingtan, where we boarded the sleeper train to Shaoguan, there to be met by Mr Zhang of Chebaling National Nature Reserve. The drive to this lowland forest reserve was a sad reminder of all that's worst about China's rampant economic development. The once beautiful river that flows out of the reserve has been dammed 6 or 8 times to provide hydro-electric power. Adding insult to injury the road is being widened to allow an astonishing million visitors per year to visit the reserve! Anything in the way, from the once beautiful limestone cliffs to trees of more than 100 years was simply being pushed into the river, greatly compromising its value as a viable habitat. Inside the reserve there is a maximum 5 kilomtres of suitable habitat for the near-threatened Blyth's Kingfisher, although about 1 km has been lost, as the nearest dam has backed up the river, creating a still lake, where the fast-flowing water once ran.

Despite the damage, some good secondary forest habitat and river remains. We saw at least two Blyth's Kingfishers, one in a tree above the river in full view for several minutes. They are distinctly darker than Common Kingfisher - and massive -heavy-billed and heavy bodied, fully deserving their scientific name- Alcedo hercules. We also saw several each of Brown Dipper, Slaty-backed Forktail, Dollarbird, Black Baza, and Crested Kingfisher, and singles of Silver Pheasant (a superb male), a Red-headed Trogon and a Striated Heron in the same patch. As dusk fell we walked three kilometres down from the main gate of the reserve to see two White-eared Night Herons fly out to feed on the trashed river as a Eurasian Eagle Owl began is low mournful call. We saw all these birds in just 4 hours!

Babao Shan, North Guangdong (28-30 April)

Babao Shan, or Nanling National Nature Reserve is much higher than Chebaling, rising to a summit of 2000m, which marks one of the highest points of the Nanling mountains. Our top target birds here were the globally threatened Silver Oriole, which breeds in just a handful of reserves in Guangdong, Guangxi and Sichuan, and the much more widespread Golden Parrotbill.

One of the real pleasures of Babao Shan is staying at the research station at 1000m. While the accommodation is ageing, the cooler temperatures of high altitude and the setting - beside a beautiful clean-running river in a steep-sided valley make this a very restful spot. Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher breeds nearby, although we didn't look for it on this trip. The profusion of moths should be seen to be believed!

Making best use of the unseasonably good weather we headed straight for the summit, where we quickly heard and saw Brown Bush Warbler, before birding along the access road, where we enjoyed good views of Mountain Tailorbird, Golden-breasted Fulvetta and at about 1750m a pair of wonderfully confiding Golden Parrotbills, which responded extremely well to my pishing; peering through the undergrowth and grizzling away to one another in typical parrotbill fashion. The day's surprise was a female Red-headed Trogon, which whipped through the mist at head height at a surprising 1800m.

Next morning we visited one of my favourite pieces of forest in Southern China, an area of beautiful mixed (almost) primary forest. As with many reserves in China, access along a well-maintained dirt road was created by the Forestry Bureau to facilitate timber extraction. Unusually, the timber extraction did not happen. Thankfully its ecological and tourism value has been recognized and it appears to be secure.

Here we had our best views of Chinese Barbet, currently, but erroneously, lumped with Black-browed Barbet of Malaysia, but a distinctly different bird, showing a black crown with a red central crown spot. We had superb views from above of one in a fruiting tree, and of another from below. We heard the distinctive call throughout the day. For me the essence of this valley is typified by the Dollarbirds, perching prominently on dead stumps, and sweeping, rolling and turning through the mist, spectacular and long-winged in their aerobatic courtship displays.

As we descended I was becoming slightly nervous that we had not yet had a sniff of our final big target -Silver Oriole. We did find some compensation in the form of a female Cabot's Tragopan, just a few yards into the forest. Instead of the rather undignified flight we expected, she moved steadily, and best of all visibly, away, giving very good views. We decided it must have had either a nest or chicks in the area to be so confiding.

Silver Oriole

Just as we were on the point of searching for a good spot for breakfast we eventually struck gold, actually Silver, as three Silver Orioles flew over our heads and landed in a nearby tree! As the views were brief and Clide had no chance to make a recording we recharged our batteries with some excellent instant noodles before going back uphill to try to get a recording. Once again, our top target birds performed to perfection. Two males were establishing territories, perching on a prominent branch to give a typically fluting oriole song, before flying slowly to and fro showing off their bold piebald plumage and maroon tails. After watching, recording and photographing them for an hour we left them to it, stopping only for views across the valley, a calling Drongo Cuckoo and a group of five Black Bazas on the way back to lunch.

We spent the final afternoon back up the mountain in a last, vain search for Rickett's Hill Partridge, but received wonderful compensation from a White-browed Shortwing that astonished me by actually letting itself be seen, and a spectacular group of four Red-tailed Laughingthrushes, which gave terrific close views. As a reminder that there will always be more birds to see, our final hour of birding was spent in trying to see a Russet Bush Warbler, which we heard singing, but steadfastly refused to show itself.

In closing I would like to thank the many people who contributed to making this a hugely successful trip. Foremost among these are the redoubtable Mr Lin, who was a wonderful companion and did everything possible to smooth the way in Jiangxi, and Mr Jiang, who arranged our visits both to his home reserve, Chebaling and to Babao Shan. My thanks also to various members of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society for providing updated information on various sites and birds, in particular Geoff Carey and Richard Lewthwaite. An especial thank you to Clide, for his good humour, patience and expertise with the tape recorder. For further information on this report, or birding elsewhere in China, please contact Mike Kilburn at