SURVEYS FOR A RARE PHEASANT ON CHINAíS SOUTHWESTERN FRONTIER
Off-limits for decades, American scientists help determine the status of one of the regionís rarest pheasants
James D. Bland, Santa Monica College
David S. Rimlinger, Curator of Birds, Zoological Society of San Diego
We huddled around our campfire, growing increasingly restless as fog, rain, and gusting winds continued to plague our expedition. Two days earlier our guides had led us through dense rhododendron and bamboo forest to this 12,000 foot ridge, a fairytale landscape made more alluring by a persistent fog that kept the surrounding terrain a mystery. Our desolate campsite, perched on a ridge separating the great Salween and Mekong rivers was a prime spot, our guides assured us, to encounter Sclaterís Monal, a resplendent and little-known pheasant of the far eastern Himalaya.
The winds that had buffeted our tents suddenly settled, and the diffuse light around our makeshift camp brightened as though someone had raised a dimmer switch. A portal opened in the wall of clouds before us, and a vignette of startlingly beautiful landscape was slowly revealed. Through the portal we saw vast fields of wildflowers, dark and glistening from the recent rains. A steep canyon came into view directly below us, and on the opposite bank we could see a magnificent alpine lake nestled among craggy peaks. Far beyond we could see the sun-drenched croplands of the Mekong Valley.
Our window through the clouds then closed as abruptly as it had opened. Dulcet light returned to our camp, and we retreated to our tents. The brief respite from bad weather had raised our spirits nonetheless. We might awaken to clear skies in the morning and begin our long-awaited investigation of the area. As we settled in for the night we remained ambivalent over whether we were in the company of monal. If they were here, wouldnít they have greeted todayís spectacular break in weather with a bout of song?
This camp was the last of three where we surveyed Sclaterís Monal. All three were near the eastern limit of the speciesí range, which extends from western Yunnan to northeastern India, including northern Myanmar (Burma) and southeastern Tibet. Taken together, our three sites represented an unprecedented sample of monal habitats across the speciesí range in Yunnan. We two foreigners were very aware of the unique opportunity this expedition represented. The areas we visited had only been open to foreign travelers for a few years, and monal habitats beyond this area remained exceedingly difficult if not impossible to visit. We were at the very heart of Yunnanís Great Rivers area, known as "the hump" in wartime lore, one of the most distinctive surface features of any raised-relief world map. Here, the deep canyons of the Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yellow Rivers closely parallel one another, separated by narrow but lofty mountain ranges. The few Western scientists who preceded us here were a stalwart lot indeed; the likes of plant-hunter Joseph Rock whose authorization to travel in the 1920s and 30s came in the form of an armed, mounted, retinue.
The objectives of our expedition were three-fold: to assess the range of habitats Sclaterís Monal occupy across Yunnan, to compare densities of monal under different habitat conditions, and to identify a good location for future long-term ecological studies of the species. We were joined by staff of the Ornithological and Mammalogy Sections of the Kunming Institute of Zoology, our host institution in China.
We began our fieldwork in early May, 1999, on a network of alpine meadows known as Da Yang Tian, near the southern limit of the monalís know distribution in Yunnan. David had not joined us yet, so Yang Xiaojun and I were co-leaders of the first survey. Da Yang Tian had gained recent recognition among globe-trotting bird watchers as a relatively easy place to see Sclaterís Monal in the wild, something few Westerners have achieved. It was raining lightly when we arrived at Da Tang Field Station, at the base of the Gaoligong Mountains. Our local hosts and the local men who gathered to assist us were doubtful that we really intended to camp in the rain for ten days. Their prior experience with Western visitors suggested we would head back down the mountain soon after we observed our first monal.
The meadows of Da Yang Tian were a full dayís walk uphill from Da Tang Station. Negotiations that lasted late into the evening produced a full crew of horsemen at our doorstep the following morning, ready to haul our supplies and assist us in the field. At the lower boundary of Gaoligong Nature Reserve we entered lush rhododendron forest with a bamboo understorey. The forest floor was strewn with fallen rhododendron flowers.
Most of our team camped at the upper limit of closed-canopy forest, where they would study small mammals. Xiaojun and I continued on to monal habitats with a small tent, spotting scopes, and a bare minimum of supplies. At 10,800 feet elevation we emerged from closed-canopy forest onto an extensive network of meadows surrounded by dense bamboo thicket. From our elevated vantage point we could see that tall mixed broadleaved forest extended up to about 9,000 feet elevation, and above that bamboo thickets dominated. Below about 11,500 feet elevation the bamboo thickets included a minor broadleaf shrub component. Above 11,500 feet , where most alpine meadows occurred, the broadleaf component was essentially absent from the bamboo thickets. We could also see that Da Yang Tian comprised one of the most extensive alpine habitats in the entire southern Gaoligong Range.
We spent the next nine days surveying the meadows of Da Yang Tian, working from a series of bivouacs along the crest of the main ridge. In essence we conducted a line survey in slow motion. Every second day or so we relocated our camp several hundred yards further along the ridge. Before first light we would enter a makeshift blind positioned where it provided a wide view of the surrounding terrain and begin watching and listening for monal. Weather permitting, we would spent four hours observing from blinds in the morning and in the afternoon. When monal appeared we would document every move and vocalization and try to piece together an understanding of their life ways from such fleeting glimpses. When monal were not present, other natural dramas usually unfolded before us; lesser pandas sauntering across meadows or mixed-species flocks of songbirds passing through the bamboo within armís reach.
The behavior of the first male we observed was typical of the other males we observed in late spring. Xiaojun first spotted the hen-sized bird perched motionless on a stone near the edge of a meadow. It remained absolutely still for several minutes, looking directly toward us, head in an erect alert position. His jet black breast and belly made him stand out against the lush green meadow. With spotting scopes we could see a cobalt blue "saddle" of skin covering much of his face, and an iridescent gold patch of feathers on the back of his neck. He then walked briskly and purposefully down slope, nipping at a grass shoot with every few strides. After descending a few meters he resumed a stoic pose, his gaze fixed somewhere across the sprawling canyon that lay before him. With no apparent provocation he took flight, flapping his wings stiffly initially and calling a staccato "toop-totoop-toop-toop." He landed a few hundred yards away on a prominent outcrop and uttered a rapid series of up-slurred whistles, "toop-toop-toop-toop." We watched his oversized beak spring up comically with each note. Eventually he disappeared into the bamboo, occasionally giving the speciesí characteristic "gu-li" call.
We surmised from our observations that male monals at Da Yang Tian were not very territorial at this season. Their courtship season was over, and their mates were probably all setting on nests. We noted that males often flew cross-slope several hundred yards and landed where we had seen or heard other males, but the vocalizations of recently arrived individuals did not elicit a vocal response from the males already present.
When we werenít in blinds or relocating camp we turned our attention to the local vegetation. We found that elevation differences of a few hundred yards influenced plant growth dramatically. At the tops of sloping meadows herbaceous plants were just emerging from winter dormancy, while 200 yards below they had formed a flowering carpet a foot deep or more. The earliest species to emerge included sedges, grasses, and bulb-forming monocots, followed a few weeks later by a wide variety of flowing herbs.
The monsoon rains returned on May 13th, after only 4 days of unimpeded fieldwork. The attending wind and fog made monal observation virtually impossible. When we were hampered only by fog we busied ourselves collecting plants, with condensation dripping from the brims of our hats in a steady stream. On one occasion, frustrated by our inability to look for monal in additional locations, we spent a full 2 hours sitting in drizzling rain, listening for monal. We didnít hear anything, and we got thoroughly soaked. We tried to dry out next to a smoky bamboo fire, but with humidity above 95% we found that it was more effective to just wear our clothes until they dried from body heat.
After 5 days of rain and fog with little productive work accomplished, our planned departure day had arrived. Three porters emerged from the fog and drizzle to help us carry our supplies off the mountain. It was clear that a springtime study of Sclaterís Monal would require special monsoon-worthy equipment and a unique approach to data collection.
Back at the forest camp our colleagues informed us that American aircraft had bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing 3 Chinese citizens. Their opinion appeared to be unanimous, another case of the United States government bullying the Chinese.
Back at Da Tang, soaking in a local hot spring, we were able to review the merits of Da Yang Tian as a potential long-term study site. On the plus side, there was relatively easy access and an abundance of other interesting wildlife, including lesser pandas, takins, tufted deer, black bears and blood pheasants. Local authorities had been very hospitable, and our local field help had been reasonably good under the circumstances. On the down side, the extent of monal habitat and numbers of monal appeared to be quite limited.
In route to our next destination, Gongshan, we stopped at Tengchong, which we learned was the northernmost advance of the Japanese Army into Yunnan during the Second World War. The city was occupied for more than 2 years, beginning in 1942. In 1944 Chinese forces and local militia turned back the Japanese in a decisive battle on the slopes of the Gaoligong , not far from Da Yang Tian. The American military had assisted by air-dropping war supplies, a campaign that took the lives of fourteen American soldiers.
We experienced a different sort of air-drop as we traveled to Gongshan. As we drove along a tributary of the Salween River, a 150 pound boulder slid off a sheer canyon wall and pierced through the roof of our Landcruiser with a bang and shudder that had us believing a tire had exploded. Amazingly, no one was injured. The rock had penetrated near the rear of the vehicle, crushing only some luggage. Back home the mangled Landcruiser would have been considered a total loss, but local mechanics straightened and calked the roof and had us back on the road within a few days.
We reached Ci Kai, the county seat of Gongshan County, on May 23rd. Ci Kai was the nearest market town to our northernmost survey site, Dong Shao Fang. Monal had been collected at Dong Shao Fang in years past, and a well-established trail would provide easy access to alpine elevations.
We visited a public horse stall on the outskirts of town with the intention of hiring a horse team. Not a single horse was present. The stall keepers explained that recent rains had raised the level of the Pula River over some key trails, and all the horse teams were held up in the mountains. We would have to wait until the rains subsided.
Our first full day in Ci Kai was, by good fortune, market day, so we set out to buy food supplies, sheet plastic, rope, and rubber boots. Later in the day we met a ragtag party of horsemen perusing the market. The Pula had receded and they had just arrived in town. The demand for horse teams was high, they said, and their rates would be correspondingly high. As was the practice, negations over prices proceeded late into the evening, and the following morning six ponies arrived at our hotel. The trail we departed town on was, if fact, the main trail to Dulong. Dulong, we were told, was the last county seat in all of China without a road. Although cobblestone had been laid along much of the trail, recent rains and heavy horse traffic had made it a filthy, mucky, mess, which we had no choice but to wade through. Twenty minutesí walk from Ci Kai the trail ended abruptly at the base of a sheer cliff, inundated by the raging Pula River. Even if we dared wade the 30 foot stretch of flooded trail, our ponies could not. An alternate trail was not passable by horses at all, so we had no choice but to return to our hotel and wait for the Pula to recede. As locals had suggested, the river receded after a few hours and we were able to proceed.
On the trail to Dong Shao Fang we camped at two government rest houses, the second a positively filthy, dilapidated, hovel with all the charm of a Siberian prison camp. We arrived at our proposed campsite at 11,500 feet in a frigid, wind-blown, downpour. Most of our horsemen had dumped their loads several hundred yards short of camp and departed without a word. Those that remained nearly abandoned us amid the chaos of establishing camp in a storm.
Rain and fog persisted for the next 5 days, largely restricting us to our tents or the kitchen lean-to. The steep slopes encircling our camp were transformed into cascades of streamlets and waterfalls. The saturated canyon floor took on the distinct character of an arctic muskeg. In one 24-hour period we recorded 3.2 inches of rainfall.
On May 30th the rain and fog subsided enough for us to check the nearby 12,000 foot pass for signs of monal. We sat in a drizzling mist at the edge of a flower-studded meadow, hoping to hear the call of a monal. Our vision was limited to less than 200 feet by fog. After about 20 minutes Xiaojun and our guide motioned that they had heard a monal. We all waited patiently to hear it a second time, but the storm intensified and we were forced to return to camp.
The terrain at Dong Shao Fang had much in common with what we had seen at Da Yang Tian, but there was a more significant shrub component, bamboo thickets were less extensive, and rock outcrops more widespread. The dominant herbaceous plants were similar, but there appeared to be a greater diversity here. The most striking difference was in the level of human disturbance. The meadows of Dong Shao Fang were within easy reach of a heavily traveled trail, so large animals in the area would fall easy prey to anyone passing by with a gun. It was no wonder we had not see a single large or medium-sized mammal at Dong Shao Fang.
The following day we departed Dong Shao Fang. After descending a thousand feet or so we looked back to find a gray wall of fog descend rapidly toward us, as if to usher us out of the canyon. We took it as a final, poignant, reminder that this irascible landscape will not give up its secrets without difficulty.
Back in the relative comfort of our hotel room we discussed the merits of Dong Shao Fang as a potential long-term study site. Dong Shao Fang itself was out of the question. Convenient yes, maybe even good habitat, but too highly disturbed. And the amazing amount of rainfall was a serious obstacle. Local authorities had been very helpful, but local laborers had been less than sterling. It would have been worthwhile to investigate a less disturbed site in the general area, but the time we had allotted to Gongshan County had run out. We needed to proceed to Fugong County.
David Rimlinger joined us in early June at a dilapidated lumber town called Zhiziluo, central Fugong County. Many Sclaterís Monal had been collected by Chinese scientists from this general area. This would be our central survey site, approximately midway between Da Tang and Dong Shao Fang.
The village leader of Zhiziluo called upon two former monal hunters to be our guides. Both had worked on previous monal studies. We discussed our plans over dinner, the first meal they had ever shared with Westerners. Our guides, Mr. HŽ and Mr. ShŽ, were humble gentlemen, both lean and bronze-skinned farmers. They said they had not hunted monal for 4 or 5 years. Rather, they had been employed by a private lumber company to help harvest the areaís pristine forests.
The location above Zhiziluo where we had experienced the "parting of the clouds" was a site Xiaojun had visited on a 1997 reconnaissance trip. Back again, the five of us, three researchers and two guides, endured foul weather on the summit for 3 full days. On the fourth day we moved camp down to the upper limit of trees, where we had observed what we believed were monal fecal droppings. On our way to the new campsite we practically stumbled over a female monal with three two-week-old chicks. The hen disappeared into nearby rhododendron thickets, but the chicks climbed the base of a dead shrub to get a better view of us.
The following morning we searched the area and found fresh monal fecal droppings and partially eaten herbs. Monal feed primarily on the young shoots and underground parts of herbaceous plants, so they usually churn up the soil where they dine. They also leave distinctive impressions of their spade-shaped beaks where they have dug for food.
We continued north along a contour until we reached the crest of a prominent spur where there was a sharp transition from shrub to meadow vegetation. We hiked upslope along this edge to 12,500 feet elevation, where we noticed what looked like an unusual kind of soil erosion or patterned ground. On closer inspection we saw that the mossy crust of the soil had been turned over in 1 to 2 inch squares. When we found fresh monal droppings and deeply-excavated pits we realized we had stumbled upon a site where a considerable number of monal had been feeding as recently as the previous day. The diggings extended for several hundred yards up the crest of the spur.
Monal are "sloppy eaters," so it was easy to determine what they had eaten from the "table scraps" they had left behind. In addition to eating herbaceous plants, there was strong evidence that the monal had splintered apart decaying woody stems in pursuit of wood-boring insect larvae. David was delighted to find examples of a fungus-infected caterpillar in pits dug by monal. The "dong chong xia cao" is a popular and expensive traditional Chinese medication that David had previously determined to be a possible food item of the rare Chinese Monal in Sichuan (Zoonooz, April 1995).
From our treasure-trove of monal table scraps we could hear raised voices and the clang of pots and pans emanating from our camp below. Our porters had arrived on schedule, and it was time to depart. As we made our way down slope our porters collected medicinal herbs around camp. This was a well-known site for collecting herbs, and the opportunity to collect herbs contributed to the portersí interest in working for us. They displayed their harvest to us happily. Included were "ta huang" (wild rhubarb), and "bei mu" (fritillary).
Back in the comforts of "civilization" we were able to consider all we had learned about Sclaterís Monal. The early onset of the monsoon robbed us of many productive days in the field, and our Chinese hosts had struggled with the difficult survey protocol we had tried, but we learned a considerable amount about this hitherto poorly known species nonetheless.
So far as we could determine, Sclaterís Monal persist throughout their historic range in Yunnan. We even received unconfirmed reports that the species occurs even further south than currently recognized. The speciesí occurrence on discontinuous mountain summits, however, could imply it is vulnerable to local extinction. This is especially true in the south, where alpine habitats occur as isolated islands and local populations may consist of as few as a dozen individuals. According to metapopulation theory, the extirpation of local populations through overhunting or other disturbance could threaten the viability of neighboring subpopulations as well.
As for our own surveys, we encountered between three and five adult males at Da Yang Tian, one vocalizing individual at Dong Shao Fang, and one female with three chicks at Zhiziluo. Unfortunately, bad weather and our failure to fully implement the intended study design leave us with no means to quantitatively compare the abundance of monal at the three sites we visited. We canít be certain of the number of males at Da Yang Tian because there is a chance we observed some of the same individuals more than once. The most likely reason we didnít see any females at Da Yang Tian is that we were there during the nesting season. There were many more individuals at Zhiziluo than we actually saw, but we have no idea how many. We suspect the season that these birds frequently vocalize may have passed by the time we arrived there in June.
We documented several environmental features that were typical of the breeding season habitats we visited. The monal we encountered were found on large meadows or meadow complexes that extended several hundred yards down steep slopes. The meadows were surrounded by bamboo or rhododendron thickets, and there were at least a few rock outcrops present. The lowest elevation we observed such meadows, as well as monal, was about 10,000 feet. By summer, meadows below 12,000 feet supported a lush and colorful carpet of flowering plants, grasses, and sedges. Some of the flowering plants we observed consistently included cinquefoil (Rosaceae), buttercup (Ranunculaceae), fritillary (Liliaceae), jack-in-the-pulpit (Araceae), and peony (Rosaceae). A surprising abundance of bulb-forming monocots also occurred within the thickets of bamboo and rhododendron.
We noted several habitat features that varied along the north-south axis of the monalís Yunnan distribution. The mountain ranges of the region achieve greater elevations further north, so at more northerly locations alpine habitats tend to be more contiguous and more rocky. Rainfall is higher further north, so the vegetation tends to be more muskeg-like further north. Finally, at more northerly locations there was a greater broadleaf component to the alpine thickets.
The "table scraps" that monal left behind indicated they eat the stems and roots of cinquefoil, buttercup, jack-in-the-pulpit, and fritillary. Circumstantial evidence suggests they also eat grass shoots, a small bulb-forming member of the carrot family, beetle larvae, and the larvae of wood-boring insects. The birds we observed seldom foraged more than a few yards from the edge of bamboo or broadleaf thickets.
Another important objective we achieved was to choose a future long-term study site. We chose Zhizilou for its diverse mosaic of habitat types, a branching ridge system that would facilitate radio-telemetry, the availability of expert and congenial guides, and an apparent abundance of monal. The research we propose to begin next would include an in-depth ecological study of Sclaterís Monal as well as an assessment of the impact of market hunting on all pheasant species of northwest Yunnan. Illegal market hunting may pose a significant threat to Sclaterís Monal. In our travels we encountered two dead monal for sale in outdoor markets. Even though the species receives the same protected status as giant pandas, monal were being openly sold for about $12.00
If Sclaterís Monal are known to feed on plants used in traditional Chinese medicine, one might infer that excessive herb collection could be detrimental to monal. We now believe herb collectors can be a detriment to monal, but not because they compete with them for herbs. Herb collectors are often the only humans that visit the heights occupied by monal. They camp for several days while they collect herbs, and many set trap lines or hunt with guns to add meat to their cooking pots. As Chinaís burgeoning rural economies entice increasing numbers of entrepreneurs into the mountains to harvest "alternative forest products," the connections between such industries and the illegal harvest of spectacular animals like Sclaterís Monal must be given more serious consideration.
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