Blackthroat, an Asian enigma resolved

José Luis Copete

The Blackthroat: Confirmation the species was still alive in 2004. First field photos in May 2011 (see below). Recent expeditions add information on calls, plumages, especially of almost unknown females and habitat preferences. DNA studies illumine taxonomy and assigned to latin genus Calliope not Luscinia. More:

One of the most enigmatic species from Asia is the Blackthroat (Calliope obscura, formerly considered inside the genus Luscinia). During decades it was unknown the breeding and wintering ranges, even to know whether it was a truly valid species and not a plumage variant of the Firethroat (C. pectardens). During many years there were only a couple of records, from the description of the species in the decade of 1890. A couple of birds collected between the end of XIX century and beginnings of XX century in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, in C China. After that, a few records in Sichuan and Yunnan, in south China, and north Thailand. The latter regions, considered birds in the wintering range.

To get an idea how enigmatic is the species because so few records known, a look at the very big Threatened Birds of Asia, a huge work published in two volumes in 2001, present all the published or known records of all species with some category of conservation by the IUCN, reveals only half a page for the Blackthroat, when for the rest of species they invariably show several pages. It’s worth of mention that one of these few records concerns a female observed in Doi Inthanon, a few kms down of the first checkpoint, a place well known for most of birders visiting Thailand.

It was not until 2004 when was published a birdguide showing the bird species recorded in the markets of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan (Wang 2004 A photo guide of cage birds in Sichuan. Chengdu: Sichuan Science and Technology Press). In that book appears an image of a live male, in the hand, photographed before 2004, but surely not many years ago. So, it was a confirmation that the species was still alive.

The BOOM arrived in 2011, when two Chinese birders, Wei Qian and He Yi, obtained the first pictures in the field, a superb male in spring migration, on 2nd May, on the campus of Chengdu University (Qian & Yi 2011 First images in the wild of Blackthroat Luscinia obscura, Asia’s most enigmatic robin. BirdingASIA 15: 17-19). Some of the images presented in that note are available at the images database of Oriental Bird Club.

After that, an specific survey in the Qinling Mountains to try to find the breeding region of the species was developed, was successful. These expeditions, lead by Gang Song, Per Alström (who is working as invited professor in Beijing straight now), Yongwen Zhang and some others, obtained a good amount of information about vocalizations, plumage variations, including excellent descriptions and pictures of the female plumage, almost unknown, the specific habitat it occupies for breeding, as well as diverse data about its breeding biology, distribution and conservation status. All this info is now in press in Journal of Ornithology (Gong et in press Rediscovery of an enigmatic Chinese passerine, the Blackthroat Calliope obscura: plumage, vocalizations, distribution, habitat choice, nesting and conservation. J Ornithol DOI 10.1007/s10336-013-1009-5).

Thus, this species is nowadays ‘twitchable’ on specific trips, in the Changqing and Foping reserves, where several western birders already visited the region to try to tick the species, obtaining at the same time very good photographs, some of them already available at the OBC image database.

It breeds at altitudes betweeb 2100 and 2500 m, in pure bamboo extensions, or mixed with deciduous forest. It seems to be absent of the pure conifer forests. These observations suggest the species is not breeding in Sichuan and Yunnan.

Apart from the previous, the same team also published few weeks ago in the issue of Forktail, a confirmation of the validity of the species. It shows a divergence of 6,4% in mtDNA between obscura and pectardens, a similar distance shown by other Turdini species. The vocalizations are also different, adding arguments to consider obscura a good species on its own (Alström et al 2013 Taxonomic status of Blackthroat Calliope obscura and Firethroat C. pectardens. Forktail 29: 94-99). The change of genus, from Luscinia to Calliope, is a consequence of recent research which shows that the Turdini are not forming a monophyletic group, being obscura and pectardens inside the same branch that Luscinia calliope, now Calliope calliope (Sangster et al 2010 Multi-locus phylogenetic analysis of Old World chats and flycatchers reveals extensive paraphyly at family, subfamily and genus level (Aves: Muscicapidae). Mol Phyl Evol 57: 380-392; Zuccon & Ericson 2010 A multi-gene phylogeny disentangles the chat-flycatcher complex (Aves: Muscicapidae). Zool Scripta 39: 213-224).

The Blackthroat male found in 2011 in the Chengdu campus, Sichuan, China. Image obtained from Oriental Birds Images at  © Wu Jiawei/Oriental Bird Images

The Blackthroat male found in 2011 in the Chengdu campus, Sichuan, China. Image obtained from Oriental Birds Images at
© Wu Jiawei/Oriental Bird Images

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