(526) Phoenicurus frontalis Vigors.
THE BLUE-FRONTED REDSTART.
Phoenicurus frontalis, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 69.
The Blue-fronted Redstart breeds from Afghanistan and Gilgit throughout the whole of the Himalayas to the hills of Assam, North of the Brahmapootra, Tibet, Chin, Kachin Hills and the Northern Shan States to Western China.
This is a Redstart of very high elevations. The lowest height at which I have any record of its breeding is that of a nest taken by Ward near Apharwat, in Kashmir, at about 9,000 to 10,000 feet. Osmaston took the nests in Tehri Garhwal, at 11,000 to 12,000 feet, whilst Whymper, in epistola, writes :—“I don’t think this Redstart breeds in these Hills under 11,000 feet, whilst, on the other hand, it must breed up to some 15,000 feet. I have actually taken nests with eggs at 13,500 and 14,500 feet and have seen the birds still higher.”
As usual, no one has ever recorded the kind of country in which one must hunt for this bird during the breeding season but Whymper informs me that they generally breed on more or less open hill-sides, the one essential being lots of boulders, rocks or stones in holes of, or under which, they can place their nests. Sometimes these hills are covered with stubbly grass and a few scattered bushes ; sometimes there may be a large number of these latter and, occasionally, the hills may be more or less covered with Juniper, whilst the lower parts have the pockets and hollows filled with Rhododendrons.
Osmaston gives a general idea of the country of the Tons Valley, in which he took his nests, as follows :—
“The locality visited by me is a rather isolated group of hills in the upper Valley of the Tons River, and is situated about 40 miles North of Chakrata.
“The altitude of the main ridge (called Changsil) varies from 8,000 to 13,000 feet above the sea and the vegetation of this zone consists of silver and spruce firs at the lower elevations mentioned, passing, as we go up into Karshu, Oak, Birch, Rhododendron and lastly, about 12,000 feet, grass only.”
Judging from this description and from the fact that Osmaston took all his nests at about 11,000 feet (the eggs are now all in my collection), the hills must have been mainly grass-covered, with a certain amount of Juniper and other bushes and a few scattered Karshu Oaks.
Osmaston was the first collector to obtain nests and eggs of this bird, concerning which he writes :—“I found two nests of this pretty Redstart on the 25th and 29th May (1894) respectively, at about 11,000 feet. The former contained three hard-set eggs, the latter four half-fledged young. The nests were very similar in construction and position, being placed in holes in rocks, about three feet from the ground, and composed of moss interwoven with a woody composite plant and some grass and lined with moss, a few feathers and musk-deer hair. The eggs were rather long ovals, coloured pinkish cafe-au-lait, with a zone of confluent pinkish brown markings and a few grey specks near the larger end.
“The bird I shot off the nest.”
In 1897 Osmaston found another series of nests, of which some were in holes in rocks near the ground, while others were built in hollows in the ground under stones and boulders, sometimes concealed by tufts of grass.
Later Whymper found them breeding in the Garhwal Hills in several of the higher valleys, obtaining nests with eggs up to nearly 15,000 feet. Most of his nests were taken from holes under rocks and boulders, sometimes fairly well hidden but, at other times, quite exposed. He also tells me of two very unusual sites from which he took nests:—“This nest was in low juniper growth at about 12,000 feet, but another nest was built about 30 feet up a tree. I saw the birds building and could not believe it was frontalis until eventually I shot the bird off the eggs. I saw a great many of their nests, chiefly with young and practically always in banks. The nest in the tree was made of moss with a lining of hair and feathers, as usual. On another occasion I took one from a hollow in a birch-tree fully 20 feet from the ground. All the nests we found were made chiefly of moss, usually with a foundation of coarse grass, whilst the lining was always of hair, more or less mixed with feathers. As a rule the nest was fairly neat and compact, but twice I found nests built in holes from which other nests had been ejected by the Redstarts, and in these two instances they were rather untidy.”
A nest taken by Whitehead in the Kurram Valley at 2,300 feet was built outwardly of grass, then moss and lined with hair. This was placed in a hollow under a stone.
All the eggs referred to above were taken between the first and last day of June but, as both Osmaston and Whymper found well fledged young birds in the first week of that month, it is obvious that many birds must lay in May.
The number of eggs in a full clutch is generally three, sometimes four, the latter about one in every four nests.
The ground-colour of the eggs varies from a very pale pinky grey or pinkish-stone colour to a light buffy stone but they are so densely covered all over with minute specks of pale reddish that most eggs look almost unicoloured. A few in which the specks are so fine as to hardly show appear to be a uniform pale lavender-grey ; from this they range to a pinkish cafe-au-lait. In some eggs the freckles are heavier and coalesce to form cloudy rings of darker colour round the larger end ; in others, though this is quite exceptional, the markings are larger, giving rather a mottled appearance to the egg, whilst in two eggs only, one each in clutches of three, the markings form definite small blotches of reddish.
In shape the eggs are long ovals, of very fine, smooth but glossless texture, and are rather fragile.
Fifty eggs average 19.4 x 14.75 mm. : maxima 21.4 x 14.6 and 20.3 x 15.3 mm. ; minima 18.1 x 14.2 and 20.0 x 14.0 mm.
526. Phoenicurus frontalis
(526) Phoenicurus frontalis Vigors.