Monday, 6 January 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Blackthroat

China is well known for its confidentiality. Whilst not quite the muffled and censored question mark that is North Korea, the ‘People’s Republic’ still has its secrecy, with popular internet sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all banned, as well as any information on a range of topics from the Tiananmen Square Protest to gossip on food issues within the country. Sudden and unexplained “cyber-disappearance” of content on news sites or blogs is not unusual. 

Subsequently, their internet censorship is ranked as "pervasive" under the global filtering monitors. However, the issue surrounding China’s online privacy pales into comparison with the secrecy kept by one of its unassuming residents: a small, bouncing grey bird.

My last obscure bird, the Bald Ibis, is rare but at least well documented. This time though my focus is the elusive Blackthroat (Luscinia obscura), which in comparison is like the birding Bigfoot! If it were given a ranking, it would be "imponderable"

Finding information on this incredibly obscure and poorly recorded bird has proven almost as tricky as an internet search for Maosim with a Chinese firewall, but here goes...

Blackthroat, or Black-Throated Robin (or Black-throated Blue Robin if you prefer), belongs to the Muscicapidae family of birds, also known as Old World Flycatchers. This large group consists of many subfamilies containing bird species that are well know to British birders, such as the European Stonechat(Saxicola rubicola), Common Nightingale(Luscinia megarhynchos) and Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).
The Blackthroat, however, belongs to the Luscinia subfamily, 1 of just 11 species within it. Whilst not a large number, they’re pretty well known, as they include many a pin-up bird for the British Sibe-lover; the Firethroat (Lusciniapectardens), Siberian Blue Robin(Luscinia cyane) and Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope). All handsome Beasts from the East.

Trouble in the Luscinia household...

So that’s the family covered, what about the Blackthroat itself? Well it is quite possibly China’s greatest secret. The Blackthroat breeds in the Northern Central province of Shaanxi, however its wintering areas are unknown, with Thailand and Southern China presumed. With a natural habitat of thick bamboo thickets deep within coniferous forest 3000 metres above sea level, the Blackthroat is a very difficult bird to come across.
This may be why the Blackthroat, despite being discovered in 1891, was only seen a handful of times over the next 120 years; even to this day there has never been a female of the species identified.

The breakthrough came in June 2001 when Per Alstrom and a team of Chinese scientists discovered an incredible 14 males at two different sites within Shaanxi province. This number was almost equal to the number seen in total since the bird’s discovery.
A nest was discovered in the same area in 2012, the only one ever found, and a subsequent trip in 2013 allowed birders the chance to see this bird in the flesh, Rob Holmes, Terry Townsend and Jonathan Price were the lucky three.

So that’s it...that is quite literally all the information we have on one of the worlds least recorded species. No doubt in years to come others will get the chance to view this magnificent and elusive species. Until then let me leave you with one of the few photos that exist of this species, taken by Rob Holmes in May 2013. 

©Rob Holmes
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 24 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, wheatears, reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

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