Hubei Province, China

Collared Finchbill: (Photo: Alister Benn)

A recent business trip to Wuhan, combined with my wife's parents still living in Hubei Province, provided the opportunity to do some birding and take some photographs in the mountains 2–3 hours southeast of the city.

In December 2001 we had birded the area around Nanchang, visiting Puyang Hu and Guan Shan, and we expected a similar range of woodland and open-country species — we were not disappointed.

This little-visited area of China has seen little attention from foreign birders, and in the end we had four days' birding: three mornings in the mountains around Tongshan, and a day in the rice paddies and surrounding plum orchards of Songjia Chi, producing 76 species, of which 25 were photographed.

Wuhan lies on the Yangtze River and is much like any other large industrial city in central China — pretty grubby. However, flocks of Azure-winged Magpie, male Daurian Redstart, Red Collared Dove and Light-vented Bulbul were all seen from the hotel window overlooking the river. On the 12th March, we hired a driver, and made the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Tongshan (which literally means Surrounded by Mountains), my wife's hometown.

There is a road climbing to c. 800m to the summit of Fongchishan, one of the hills overlooking the town, and it was up this we climbed at dawn on the 13th. Flocks of Yellow-bellied Tits were obvious as soon as we left the hotel, as were the hordes of people sharing the route to the top that morning — you are rarely alone when birding in China. As one of the few foreigners ever to visit this area, news spread on the mountain, and we were soon being pursued by many children and teenagers, all keen to take photos and ask endless questions, and practise their English. Luckily, after a short time, and my wife telling them I was doing research on birds for the government (the big lens on the camera helped there), we were left alone.

Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler: (Photo: Alister Benn)

The habitat was mixed woodland, with Pine, leafless deciduous, patches of bamboo and some flowering Cherry. The road ambles at an easy gradient, with plenty of opportunities to view into the woods, scrub and canopy. In addition to the Yellow-bellied Tits, Black-throated and Cinereous Tits were also much in evidence. Brownish-flanked Bush Warblers called from deep cover, a flock of Brambling and a Wren were followed immediately by Red-billed Lieotherix and Dusky Fulvetta. All good stuff which set the tone for the whole morning, with Collared Finchbills calling noisily from tall fronds of bamboo, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers skulking beneath.

Red-billed Lieothrix: (Photo: Alister Benn)

At the top, there is a kung-fu school, and being Saturday it was pretty crowded. We managed to find a path leading away from the small village, up into the terraced fields above. The early mists were clearing, and it became quite warm, but the birds kept coming: a cracking male Daurian Redstart, flocks of Vinous-throated Parrotbills; a female Red-flanked Bluetail eluded being photographed, flocks of Little Buntings and Olive-backed Pipits and a Rufous-tailed Robin showed briefly before diving back into cover.

Olive-backed Pipit: (Photo: Alister Benn)

Back down in town, family commitments kept us busy for the rest of the day.

The next morning, we explored one of the side tracks, not venturing as high on the mountain. There were many of the same species as the day before, but some additions with Yellow-throated Buntings, White-browed Laughingthrush and Rufous-capped Babblers, and an excellent photo opportunity of Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler.

White-browed Laughingthrush: (Photo: Alister Benn)

In the afternoon, we went to Songjia Chi, 20 minutes by motorcycle rickshaw, and walked through some paddies, producing flocks of Little Buntings, and smaller numbers of Tristram's, Yellow-breasted, Chestnut-eared and Black-faced Buntings. Little Grebe, Green Sandpiper and Common Kingfisher were present on a small lake, then a flock of 5 Grey-headed Lapwings, Red-throated Pipits and Citrine Wagtails fed in the wet fields and a Common Buzzard overhead.

The next day (15th March), we climbed again to the top of Fongchishan, and scored some more great birds; Rufous-faced Warblers flocked with the local Tits, an Asian Barred Owlet obliged by posing for a photo, and on the way back down our only views of the often heard Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler and good views of a Radde's Warbler.

Our final day birding was again out at Shongjia Chi, but with longer walks through the paddies and fields. There were loads of Dusky/Naumann's and Eye-browed Thrushes, Olive-backed and Buff-bellied Pipits, a Grey-headed Woodpecker and finally a much-anticipated Dusky Warbler.

Dusky Thrush: (Photo: Alister Benn)

As we made our way back into Tongshan in the back of a rickshaw, a star-studded sky bright above us, the biting cold abated by copious beers and a Mexican Wave of barking dogs issuing from every house along the dusty road, I held the bag containing my camera and bins on my lap and reflected on the 4 days birding this little corner of China. A country so vast, a list well over 1200 birds, a desperately poor population in the area we were in, but such great birds. Having grown up and cut my teeth birding in the UK, seeing 'sibes' is always a real buzz, but unlike Bedaihe or Poyang Hu, where plenty of people had gone before, Tongshan had delivered to us its unknown treasure.

Plain Prinia: (Photo: Alister Benn)
For more information email Alister on alisterbenn@birdart.net and check out www.birdart.net for more photos from this trip, and others from home in Malaysia.
Written by: Alister Benn