BIRDING THE WORLD
THE REDSTARTS OF NORTH CHINA
by Don Roberson
all photos © Don Roberson
A Sunbird tour of north China in June 2004, led by Paul Holt, offered the opportunity to observe ten breeding species of redstarts in north China. Through the magic of digiscoping, and with the help of one photo taken 26 years ago (!), I'm happy to present this gallery showing all ten of them. Redstarts are small to medium-sized thrush-like passerines now classified in the tribe or subfamily Saxicolini within the family Muscicapidae [Old World flycatchers]. Close relatives includes various Old World chats & bushchats, robins, wheatears, forktails, shamas, and rubythroats. The word "redstart" is an archaic word meaning "red in the tail," and nine of the ten species do have red, rusty, or orange in their tails; the lone exception (White-throated Redstart) has a rufous rump and underparts. All are primarily insect eaters; many species cock their tail up in typical behaviors; most are sexually dimorphic; and all (or almost all) are migratory, at least attitudinally. Some make lengthy migrations in winter to India or southeast Asia.
The common and widespread species and the "basic" redstart for learning all others is Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros. It is a colorful species found in open country and light woodlands at all elevations we visited, including rocky outcrops and road cuts up to 12,000' elevation. It is often found perched on ruins of old adobe (far right). I understand this widespread Eurasian species first colonized Britain after WWII, using bombed-out rubble. These shots are of the race rufiventris of the Qinghai Plateau.
Most redstarts are in the genus Phoenicurus but three two of them rushing water specialists are in monotypic genera. These two foraged along the rushing river next to our campsite in Huzu Bei Shan National Park (below, left), a habitat also frequented by two species of dipper, including White-throated Dipper Cinclus cinclus (below, right), and one Phoenicurus redstart.


White-capped Water Redstart Chaimarrornis leucocephalus (left) is the most conspicuous. It is also one of the few redstarts in which the adult male and female are similar in appearance. It is a widespread bird along roaring rivers in the Asian highlands, and I have previously encountered it in north India.
Likewise, Plumbeous Redstart Rhyacornis fuliginosus (right) is widespread. In fact, I took this photo of a female in Kashmir back in Aug 1978. We saw a female from our Chinese campsite but not the quite different male: he is entirely slaty-blue with chestnut tail.
The riverside Phoenicurus was Hodgson's Redstart P. hodgsoni (male & female, left) whose breeding range is limited to west-central China. Both adults frequented riverside rocks from which they made short fly catching sallies, often quivering their tails on alighting.
The thick forests at Wulsinghan (left), a montane resort at 5000' elevation north of Beijing, was the habitat of White-bellied Redstart Hodgsonius phaenicuroides (right). This species is a real skulker and very difficult to see, let alone photograph! We heard it singing commonly but glimpses were very few. It is slim and long-tailed, fans its tail often (the tail was rusty in the base), and is overall a deep slaty-blue with a hard-to-see white belly.
Much more conspicuous in the same habitat but sitting up on treetops with a commanding view was Daurian Redstart P. auroreus (left & right). Its a gorgeous performer in the highlands of east Asia, ranging from s. Siberia to Tibet. It winters in s.e. Asia and Japan.
Aspen glades at the edge of fir forests at 8000' elevation in the mountains north of Xining in Qinghai Province, north-central China, is the idyllic habitat for a drop-dead gorgeous creature: White-throated Redstart P. schisticeps (above & right). The male's white throat can be hard to see except in a frontal view, but it adds little to this little beastie. "Mountain Gem Redstart" would be a much better name. We saw much breeding activity during our June visit; this male was carrying food to a hidden nest.
Its the wildest crags at the highest elevation like the alpine tundra on Rubber Mt. Pass, above, at 12,481' elevation [3718m] that's the place for White-winged Redstart P. erythrogaster (right). Its old name was "Güldenstädt's Redstart," a word that has two double-omlots in it and was a real mouthful if you tried to put your best Germanic accent to it. A stunner our views were a bit brief and distant.
Our final two redstarts live in unexpected patches of scrub in dry, rocky, remote canyons high on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. This canyon (left) is dubbed "Paul's Canyon" for Paul Holt who discovered the site near the south shore of Qinghai Lake.
The common redstart here is Blue-fronted Redstart P. frontalis: male, female, and baby (below). This is a widespread bird of the Himalayan highlands of east Asia, wintering to India and southeast Asia. This family party was very upset each time we passed through their section of canyon. This same habitat has Tibetan Partridge Perdix hodgsoniae and Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria.
The final species is another real stunner and one of the major highlights of the trip. It is Ala Shan Redstart P. alaschanicus (right), a China endemic about which almost nothing is known. Paul Holt had only once before glimpsed it here in "Paul's Canyon," and had never seen it this well before. The species is not often photographed but this time both David Fisher and I were lucky to get some fine digiscoped shots. Birdlife International (2000) considers it "near threatened," noting that it is known as a breeder only from Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia provinces of China. "Its breeding range and habitat requirements remain poorly understood because of the sparse ornithological coverage of much of its range. . .  It appears to be rare, and has presumably been affected by habitat loss in its breeding range." Its movements and wintering grounds are mostly unknown, although there are winter records in lowlands of northeast China.

It was certainly among the "most wanted" birds on the trip and to see it so well and get photos! was a special treat.

PHOTOS: All photos are © 2004 Don Roberson, all rights reserved.

Literature cited:

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.
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