Wednesday 15 January 2014

On collecting the full set

When I was a boy, like most boys I used to collect. I collected stickers, I collected those coins you used to get from petrol stations with FA Cup winning teams, I even collected stamps for a while. Obviously the point was to collect a full set, but the last one was always the hardest to get. It's the same with birds. I stopped keeping any kind of bird list (other than my garden list) a long time ago but there are still a few groups where I sometimes think I've almost got the set - one more try and I'll fill in that last blank and tick that last box. Some sets are obviously easier than others, the Brixham White-billed Diver earlier in the month was my only remaining Gavia species unless they decide to split viridigularis Black-throated Diver, which is a possibility, I hear. The Recreation Ground Black Redstart got me thinking along similar lines and reminded me of some good times in China a few years ago.

Black Redstart - Topsham 14/1/2014

Many years ago I made a few visits to China and Tibet. The purpose was a projected field guide; the project folded I'm sorry to say, but I did see some fantastic places and some wonderful birds. In September and October 1998 Paul Leader, Geoff Carey and myself spent a month travelling around Xinjiang in the company of Ma Ming, a biologist from Urumqi. One night we pitched tents in a river bed in the southern foothills of the Tien Shan. It looked promising for birds so in the morning Paul set his nets and we caught a few.

nr Baicheng, Xinjiang 30/9/1998

Paul Leader and Ma Ming - nr Baicheng, Xinjiang 30/9/1998

As well as Black-throated Accentor, Azure Tit and Black-throated Thrush we had close up in-hand views of a couple of redstarts.

Black Redstart - Xinjiang 30/9/1998

I admit this one caused some confusion for a while but I'm pretty sure it's a female Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides. It was not a large bird and the dark central tail feathers and greyish - not warm brown - underparts would appear to rule out a female Güldenstadt's Redstart Phoenicurus erythrogastrus. Speaking of which, we caught one of those as well, though there's no doubt about this male.

Güldenstadt's Redstart - Xinjiang 30/9/1998

Güldenstadt's Redstart - Xinjiang 30/9/1998

A couple of weeks later we were on the northern side of the mountains. On the way we'd seen Blue-capped Redstart Phoenicurus caeruleocephalus but sadly no photos; we did, however, get this, an Eversmann's Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus female.

Eversmann's Redstart - Xinjiang 8/10/1998

Eversmann's Redstart - Xinjiang 8/10/1998

All very nice but where am I going with this, apart from showing some old 'holiday snaps'? Well, by this point I was thinking that I'd now seen all but one of the World's Phoenicurus Redstarts - I'd picked up the others in Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan - the remaining species being Moussier's Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri. Easy to get, I thought, just needs a trip to Morocco or Tunisia. It's 15 years later and I still haven't made it to North Africa. However, things have got complicated, it turns out that Redstart taxonomy is is need of revision. Recent genetic studies have shown that two other genera, Chaimarrornis and Rhyacornis are mixed up in there and for Phoenicurus to remain monophyletic they must be all lumped in the one genus. Now as it happens I've seen plenty of White-capped Redstarts Chaimarrornis leucocephalus, also a good many Plumbeous Water Redstarts Rhyacornis fuliginosa - they're both familiar birds over much of the far east. But there is another Rhyacornis - the Luzon Water Redstart Rhyacornis bicolor which I certainly haven't seen and I'm unlikely to in the near future. Since most authorities have yet to accept these changes, maybe I should make the effort to see Moussier's soon, at least I'll have the full set for a while at least.

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