Cabot's Tragopan - Star bird of Nanling National Forest Park
Having started a forest birds research with Captain and Yuen last few years, we have travelled to many forest parks and reserves in southern Guangdong, mainly south of Luo Fu Shan, and we have had some good records and gotten a much clearer picture of birds dispersal and possibilities of such dispersion to Hong Kong in near future. It is clear that birds can and will disperse from these pockets of forests, fine examples are the increase in Bay Woodpeckers numbers in recent years, also a rapid increase in Chinese Barbet numbers at Luo Fu Shan, where this species was previously unrecorded a decade ago. The present of White-necklaced Partridge at Luo Fu Shan also indicates that given time and the right amount of green corridor, these ground dwelling birds can spread out from larger forest reserves.
Front entrance of Nanling National Forest Park
But many birders had wondered the same question as we have, what did Hong Kong looked like thousands of years ago? Before all the deforestation took place, what birds and animals actually lived in the forests that once covered Hong Kong? The most logical answer is to look at nearby forests reserves in northern Guangdong, where remnants of good forests had remained and escaped deforestation during the cultural revolution in China. So, we planned a short weekend trip to Nanling (南嶺), one of the largest forest park in Guangdong, to take a look at what Hong Kong could have looked like many millennia ago.
Overall look of the forest
Nanling National Forest Park is suppose to be the prime forest site in Guangdong, covering 273 kilometre square, it is around 400km away from Hong Kong. Historically, the fauna list here was very impressive, with birds such as Elliot's Pheasants, Imperial Green Pigeons, Bay Owls and many other birds that are likely to have gone extinct in the region, there used to be South China Tigers and Clouded Leopards here, although officially the park claims they still roams the park today, I doubt it's authenticity.
Brother Kei had agreed to drive us up to the park, so Captain, Yuen and I met him on Thursday late afternoon to start our drive northwards. After dinner at Shenzhen, we drove to Guangzhou where we stayed a night a Brother Kei's relative's house before heading up again in the morning. The weather was hot and humid, the forecast predicted rain in the next couple of days which didn't seem to favour our visit, however everything was planned so we pushed ahead! The drive to Nanling was not particularly eventful, toll roads now covers much of China and make long distance driving much easier then before. We arrived at outside Nanling at around noon, we had lunch by a roadside restaurant, where we met with our local guide Mr. Chen, he had agreed to show us the location of several species within the park, namely the Cabot's Tragopan and Fairy Pitta. He also organised our accommodation for the night.
After lunch we followed Mr. Chen to an area just outskirt of the park area, where he led us up a rocky footpath towards a plantation forest. Within the forest we saw a blind set up in a small clearing within the plantation, and as soon as we arrived at the site we saw a Fairy Pitta perched on a "staged" rock with earthworms in it's beak. The bird stood there for a few minutes before it flew off, only to come back again after five minutes on a tree trunk. It was clear at this time that we were intruding, and Pittas are notoriously careful in concealing their nest's location, so our present probably stopped it from heading back to it's nest, therefore we only stayed a little longer and left the bird in peace. This species is still only considered a passage migrant in Hong Kong, but is a likely candidate as a breeding species if suitable habitats in Hong Kong can be found.
Heading to the Fairy Pitta nest site
Fairy Pitta - Carrying earthworms back to the nest
Mr. Chen left afterwards and we walked around the outskirt of the park in the afternoon on our own. Being early June, most birds had started breeding, therefore bird waves are now hard to come by. We walked a short trail behind the lodge known as the "Orange House", just outside we encountered a small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpie, in the trail we found a few birds including Huet's Fulvettas, one of the most common babbler species in Guangdong's forests, although the population in Hong Kong had long been treated as escapes, they certainly would have been a resident here years ago. We also saw a few Sulpher-breasted Warblers, although they were too high up for any photos. Grey-headed Woodpecker was heard only.
Footpath behind the "Orange House"
Red-billed Blue Magpie
Just outside the "Orange House" we found a pair of Plumbeous Redstart, likely looking for a nest site behind the lodge's logo. A single female Scarlet Minivet provided good views from the tree top nearby, obviously on it's way back to it's nest to feed it's young.
Scarlet Minivet - female with grasshopper
We headed up towards the park's entrance, but seeing that you need to pay a fee of 80RMB, we thought it was too much for just a few hours of birding. So, we headed up a road towards an abandoned hotel to look for birds there. Soon, Captain spotted a Black Baza perched on a dead tree in the distance, it flew away pretty quickly before we got a chance to get any closer. A few Eurasian Jays were also present, but only gave tree top views. Both of these species used to be uncommon in Hong Kong, but had became very rare in recent years with only a handful of records, the reason for their decline is not clear, but we certainly hope that they can become more of a stable species in Hong Kong once again.
Black-throated Tits were added to our list, while Black Bulbuls were very common in the park, but most of them kept a distance and never allowed good views. A bit of drizzle had us back into the car, where we soon headed towards the lodge we were supposed to stay in.
Mr. Chen had helped us booked a lodge call "He Tang Yue Se Lodge" (荷塘月色客棧), it is quite small but overall clean and tidy. We rested there shortly before heading back out to bird around the paddies along the village. There were a few Russet Sparrows around, a species we only get occasionally in Hong Kong. Scaly-breasted Munias were in good numbers. While a few Chinese Bulbuls fluttered around the overhead wire.
Russet Sparrow - female
We were surprise to find a pair of Blue-throated Bee-eaters by the roadside, a species rare in Hong Kong, they seems to be a breeding species here at Nanling. Red-rumped Swallows were also in very good numbers, far outnumbering Barn Swallows! Collared Finchbills were conspicuous and hard to miss.
White Wagtails were common here as in Hong Kong, Cinerous Tits were very common as well. Grey-capped Greenfinch was far more common here then in Hong Kong, we regularly encountered them along fields and open areas. We also spotted a few Vinous-throated Parrotbills, a species confined to the short bamboos on Tai Mo Shan in Hong Kong seems to do just fine in some road side bushes. We decided to call it a day and had dinner at a nearby restaurant, everyone slept quite well that night after long hours of travelling.
White Wagtail - leucopus
I woke up to the loud songs of Oriental Magpie Robins at 5am...nearly an hour earlier then what I set my alarm clock to be. I got dressed and went outside for a short walk on my own, not that many birds around but I found a couple of Collared Finchbills. A male Plumbeous Redstart kept coming back to the wall next to our lodge provided good views.
Plumbeous Redstart - male
Mr. Chen agreed to pick us up at 7am, and he came on time, although we were all up by then. The weather was overcast with a bit of mist, but the rain seems to be holding up for us. We followed Mr. Chen's scooter up to the park entrance, where we bought our own park tickets (80RMB) and continued up the road towards Jiuchongshan. The tarmac road leading up was winding but fairly well paved. We had an exciting moment when a male Silver Pheasant suddenly came out of nowhere from the right hand side! Right in front of our car! The pheasant was obviously alarmed by our car and ran back up hill and disappeared. A couple of Chinese Bamboo Partridges were seen. We soon arrived at the parking lot at the top of the waterfall trail, Mr. Chen then led us to a small path located next to the main road that went up the steep hill, the short walk up was quite difficult (As we were all carrying camera gears), the damp rocks and mud did not make things easier. We soon arrived at a small clearing with a rocky platform, clearly the "stage" for the Tragopans.
On our way up to the Tragopan site
Tragopan feeding station blind
As soon as we got into position, Mr. Chen went and placed some poultry feed on the rocks, and even before we got our cameras ready a male Cabot's Tragopan was already coming towards the feeding station! These are fairly large birds and my 400mm lens was having a hard time fitting it in my frame. I have previously seen them in Jiangxi, but obviously views were nowhere as close as this, but back then there were no feeding stations as such. Soon, another immature male joined in to feed. We waited for the White-necklaced Partridge which Mr. Chen stated had been visiting the station as well, but they never came, although we saw very obscured movements up the slope which Mr. Chen stated was two partridges. In the next two hours or so the Tragopans came on and off, giving exceptionally good views. We soon felt like we have seen enough and headed back down the slope at 10am.
Cabot's Tragopan - male
Cabot's Tragopan - immature
Cabot's Tragopan -female
Asian Red-cheeked Squirrel - kept us entertained when the Tragopans were not there
These kind of birding stations had became a common practice in many parts of China, where birders and photographers alike will come and visit these stations set up by local guides. I have found this an interesting way of "conservation", as these birds used to be hunted with guns, the guns had now been replaced by cameras. It is still a long way from proper conservation, and the best way to achieve better conservation and habitat protection is still education, but this is a step forward nonetheless from hunting.
Cabot's Tragopan at the feeding station
As Mr. Chen stated he had other things to attend to, we departed with him and headed up a road towards Mangshan. We stopped along the way to look for birds, but things were pretty quiet in general, not surprising considering this is June. We came across a juvenile Forktail near a pumping station, although without it's diagnostic features we didn't really know whether it was a White-crowned Forktail or Spotted Forktail. The mystery lifted when an adult joined in, revealing it's true identity as a Spotted Forktail. Nanling is one of the very few places where Spotted Forktails can be found in Guangdong.
Spotted Forktail - juvenile
Spotted Forktail - adult
We encountered more Spotted Forktails further along the road, we also saw a few Huet's Fulvettas, Dollarbirds and Mountain Bulbuls. I heard a familiar high pitched metallic song, and soon realised that it was a Small Niltava, the beautiful male showed well. Birds heard were Bay Woodpecker, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and Rufous-capped Babblers.
Small Niltava - male
Our car soon reached the end of the paved tarmac and onto a rocky road, the road indicated the end of Nanling National Forest park as well as the border of Guangdong province, and the start of Mangshan National Forest Park and the Hunan province, the two parks are linked together with their forests, only separated by the border between Guangdong and Hunan. Here we heard Orange-headed Thrush singing, but also plenty of White-tailed Robins in song. It took us a long while before we finally saw a single male within the bamboos, but it stayed well hidden. White-spectacled Warblers were singing but never showed. We also encountered a few Chestnut-crowned Warbler.
White-tailed Robin - male
It started to rain, so the logical option was to head for lunch. While Brother Kei took a nap in his car after lunch, we looked for birds in the area. We spotted a single Little Forktail at the base of a waterfall, a species that is not common in Guangdong, Nanling is probably the best place for this species. Plumbeous Redstarts were again a present. We walked further down hill but saw very little, only a flock of Grey Treepies showed. I managed to call in a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo but it never stopped for a good look.
Waterfall where we found a Little Forktail
Plumbeous Redstart - female
We drove again back to Jiuchongshan and walked a little, but again things were pretty quiet, a few Indochinese Yuhinas were our only notable addition. By then we decided that it was time to depart Nanling and towards Liuxihe further south. I spotted a large bird perched on a distant tree as we drove along, quick stop revealed it to be a Crested Goshawk.
Liuxihe National Forest Park (流溪河) is another prime site just over 200km from Hong Kong, it is nowhere as big as Nanling, but had proved to be worthy of a weekend visit with regular records of Red-headed Trogons and Grey-capped Woodpeckers, with longer visits I believe Silver Pheasants are also a possibility at this site. The drive towards Liuxihe was smooth, we arrived at the lodge that Yuen had stayed in several years ago at Xitou Village, although he stated that it was quite nice, we found the place to be very badly managed. We received two rooms that were not cleaned, with old bed sheets still on the bed. Luckily the staff agreed to change our rooms. There were in fact many accommodation near Xitou Village, therefore my suggestion will be to find one in better shape to save the hassle.
It was very cloudy early morning, we headed out by 6:30am and soon after it started to rain, we pushed on none the less so not to waste our effort in coming here. Birding was made difficult by the weather, but we added Hair-crested Drongo, heard a Red-headed Trogon in the distant, saw a few White-crowned Forktails as well as a Slaty-backed Forktail, and finally saw a pair of Chinese Bamboo Partridges along the footpath.
Surrounding area of Xitou Village
Footpath we birded along the river valley
Chinese Bamboo Partridge
We finally turned back as rain intensified, but was grateful that the weather had been kind to us until the very last hour of our weekend trip. We dried ourselves at the lodge before leaving back to Shenzhen, crossing the border by 1pm. Better transportation had opened up a lot of possibilities for birders in Hong Kong to explore Guangdong with relative ease, and there are a lot of potential and much good birds to be found. It also keeps our imagination going in hope that one day our forest in Hong Kong will once again be home to some of those amazing southern China species.
Full Bird List:
1 White-necklaced Partridge - Arborophila gingica
2 Chinese Francolin - Francolinus pintadeanus
3 Chinese Bamboo-Partridge - Bambusicola thoracicus
4 Cabot's Tragopan - Tragopan caboti
5 Silver Pheasant - Lophura nycthemera
6 Chinese Pond Heron - Ardeola bacchus
7 Striated Heron - Butorides striata
8 Black-crowned Night-Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax
9 Black Baza - Aviceda leuphotes
10 Black Kite - Milvus migrans lineatus
11 Crested Serpent-Eagle - Spilornis cheela
12 Crested Goshawk - Accipiter trivirgatus
13 Besra - Accipiter virgatus
14 Spotted Dove - Streptopelia chinensis
15 Greater Coucal - Centropus sinensis
16 Lesser Coucal - Centropus bengalensis
17 Chestnut-winged Cuckoo - Clamator coromandus
18 Asian Koel - Eudynamys scolopaceus
19 Large Hawk-Cuckoo - Hierococcyx sparverioides
20 Lesser Cuckoo - Cuculus poliocephalus
21 Indian Cuckoo - Cuculus micropterus
22 Asian Barred Owlet - Glaucidium cuculoides
23 House Swift - Apus nipalensis
24 Red-headed Trogon - Harpactes erythrocephalus
25 Common Kingfisher - Alcedo atthis
26 Blue-throated Bee-eater - Merops viridis
27 Dollarbird - Eurystomus orientalis
28 Great Barbet - Psilopogon virens
29 Chinese Barbet - Psilopogon faber
30 Grey-headed Woodpecker - Picus canus
31 Bay Woodpecker - Blythipicus pyrrhotis
32 Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus
33 Fairy Pitta - Pitta nympha
34 Grey-chinned Minivet - Pericrocotus solaris
35 Scarlet Minivet - Pericrocotus speciosus
36 Long-tailed Shrike - Lanius schach
37 Hair-crested Drongo - Dicrurus hottentottus
38 Eurasian Jay - Garrulus glandarius
39 Red-billed Blue-Magpie - Urocissa erythroryncha
40 Grey Treepie - Dendrocitta formosae
41 Large-billed Crow - Corvus macrorhynchos
42 Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica
43 Red-rumped Swallow - Cecropis daurica
44 Cinerous Tit - Parus cinerous
45 Yellow-cheeked Tit - Machlolophus spilonotus
46 Black-throated Tit - Aegithalos concinnus
47 Collared Finchbill - Spizixos semitorques
48 Red-whiskered Bulbul - Pycnonotus jocosus
49 Light-vented Bulbul - Pycnonotus sinensis
50 Sooty-headed Bulbul - Pycnonotus aurigaster
51 Black Bulbul - Hypsipetes leucocephalus
52 Chestnut Bulbul - Hemixos castanonotus
53 Mountain Bulbul - Ixos mcclellandii
54 Mountain Tailorbird - Phyllergates cucullatus
55 Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler - Horornis fortipes
56 Sulphur-breasted Warbler - Phylloscopus ricketti
57 White-spectacled Warbler - Seicercus affinis
58 Chestnut-crowned Warbler - Seicercus castaniceps
59 Common Tailorbird - Orthotomus sutorius
60 Yellow-bellied Prinia - Prinia flaviventris
61 Plain Prinia - Prinia inornata
62 Vinous-throated Parrotbill - Sinosuthora webbiana
63 Indochinese Yuhina - Yuhina torqueola
64 Japanese White-eye - Zosterops japonicus
65 Rufous-capped Babbler - Cyanoderma ruficeps
66 Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler - Pomatorhinus ruficollis
67 Huet's Fulvetta - Alcippe hueti
68 Chinese Hwamei - Garrulax canorus
69 Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush - Ianthocincla pectoralis
70 White-browed Laughingthrush - Ianthocincla sannio
71 Red-tailed Laughingthrush - Trochalopteron milnei
72 Oriental Magpie-Robin - Copsychus saularis
73 Small Niltava - Niltava macgrigoriae
74 Blue Whistling-Thrush - Myophonus caeruleus
75 Little Forktail - Enicurus scouleri
76 White-crowned Forktail - Enicurus leschenaulti
77 Spotted Forktail - Enicurus maculatus
78 Slaty-backed Forktail - Enicurus schistaceus
79 White-tailed Robin - Cinclidium leucurum
80 Plumbeous Redstart - Phoenicurus fuliginosus
81 Orange-headed Thrush - Geokichla citrina
82 Black-collared Starling - Gracupica nigricollis
83 Crested Myna - Acridotheres cristatellus
84 Pied Wagtail/White Wagtail - Motacilla alba
85 Oriental Greenfinch - Chloris sinica
86 Russet Sparrow - Passer rutilans
87 Eurasian Tree Sparrow - Passer montanus
88 Scaly-breasted Munia - Lonchura punctulata