Out of Africa! The Beijing Swift’s Incredible Journey Charted At Last

“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.

After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter.  In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa.  It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!

The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today.  A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.

A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.

These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape.  They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders.  Wow!

Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers.  Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds.  Impressive stuff.  And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.

This was the scene at around 0600 on the day of the catch.  A wonderful sight and sound.

I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo.  A special moment for me.  I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..

Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
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Swift expert, Lyndon Kearsley, releasing a Swift this morning at The Summer Palace.

You can read the full story in the press release.

Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible.  And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise.  I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and Rob Jolliffe (“JJ”) for their help and good company during these past few days..

Chinese/中文

走出非洲!北京雨燕那难以置信的迁徙路线图终于被绘制出来啦

 “哇哦!!!” 今天早晨,当第一只佩戴了定位器的雨燕在颐和园被捉住时,人群中爆发出一阵欢呼。 经历了整整一年的漫长等待,我们终于第一次将要知道,夏季盘旋在北京的雨燕会去那里度过冬天了。去年我们在这里给31只雨燕佩戴了定位器,而截止到上午工作结束,我们一共回收了其中的十三只。在对定位数据进行下载和处理(都进展得十分顺利,感谢英国Migrate Technology公司)后我们发现,这些小鸟每年要进行2万6千公里的难以置信的长途旅行,并在非洲南部越冬。这一切想想都让人吃惊,按北京雨燕的平均寿命来算,在它们的一生中,每年迁徙的距离至少相当于从地球到月球的一半那么远! 下图所示的是针对我们今天重捕的13只北京雨燕迁徙数据进行初步分析后得到的典型的迁徙路线。更为详细的分析数据将在今年晚些时候发表在学术期刊上。

A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.

基于今天初步数据分析的北京雨燕迁徙路线图

这些象征着北京形象的鸟——因为它们从1471年开始就在这座城市的旧城门上筑巢了——每年四月来到北京,在这里生儿育女之后,七月底又开始了飞向非洲的漫长旅程。它们先是朝西北方向飞到蒙古,又从北部飞跃天山山脉,然后向南穿过伊朗和阿拉伯半岛中部直到非洲热带地区,最后到达它们将要度过3个月冬天的纳米比亚和西开普省。次年2月,它们又沿着近乎一致的路线开始了回程,最终在4月中旬到达北京。哇!这一路可是穿越了20个左右的国家呢!  我再一次为中国观鸟会志愿者们的专业而深感钦佩。不仅仅是他们令人难以置信地在凌晨两点半就赶来布网,而且和远道而来的雨燕环志专家Lyndon Kearsley、Dick Newell一起,在短短两个小时内就捕获、处理、放飞了超过80只雨燕,这其中还包括从13只已戴定位器的雨燕身上下载数据、给25只“新鸟”带上定位器。他们真是令人佩服。

同时,很高兴在这里遇到了中国顶尖的鸟类学教授刘阳,他特意从广州赶来参加。

Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.
Terry releasing a Swift fitted with a geolocator at The Summer Palace this morning.

Terry在颐和园放飞一只带有跟踪器的雨燕

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雨燕专家Lyndon Kearsley今天早上在颐和园放飞雨燕

我被允许放飞了一只佩戴了定位器的雨燕,并从拍摄雨燕放飞照片的张为民先生那里得到了授权。照片定格了我那特别的瞬间。希望它飞向非洲西南部的旅途一切都好。  你可以点击这里看到关于这个故事的完整报道。

深深的感谢来自中国观鸟会的赵欣如教授、付建平老师和吴岚的辛勤付出,让这个项目变成可能。同样深深感谢 Dick Newell 和Lyndon Kearsley专长和视野。同样,我还想感谢Lyndon的妻子Hilde和他们的好朋友“JJ”这些天来的美好陪伴。

The Secret Is Out!

It’s time to reveal a secret.

There is a world-class birding site, visited by very few birders, just an hour from downtown Beijing.

Its name is Miyun Reservoir.

Historically, most birders visiting Beijing have headed to the coast to visit the well-known birding spots of Beidaihe and Kuaile Dao (Happy Island).  This is understandable when one considers the observations made there between 1910-1917 by British Consul John D D La Touche, by Dane Axel Hemmingsen in the 1940s and by Dr Martin Williams, among others, in the mid-1980s.  These pioneers put northern China, and in particular the coastal town of Beidaihe, on the birding map.

And these locations have dominated the northern China birding scene ever since, with international tour companies visiting annually in May to offer their clients “up close and personal” experience of some of East Asia’s specialities, including the sought after ‘Sibes’ that cause so much excitement when they turn up as vagrants in western Europe or North America.

However, it is increasingly clear that the phenomenal migration along the East Asian flyway is not only concentrated on the coast.  It is happening on a broad front and Beijing, China’s bustling capital, is slap bang in the middle of this birding superhighway.

Until recently, coverage of Beijing’s birds can most generously be described as ‘sparse’.  Even now, with a growing young Chinese birding community, it is no more than partial.  And yet, when one considers the diversity of species (more than 460 species have been recorded in the capital), together with the numbers, it is clear that Beijing is up there with the best birding sites in China.  And, within Beijing, there is one location that stands out right now – Miyun Reservoir.  The evidence?  How about this:

– More than 50,000 Little Buntings in one morning on 26 September 2014

– More than 8,000 Horned Larks on 15 October 2014

7 species of goose: Bar-headed, (Taiga and Tundra) Bean, Greater and Lesser White-fronted, Greylag and Swan

7 species of crane recorded in the last two years: Common, Demoiselle, Hooded, Red-crowned, Sandhill, Siberian and White-naped.

– A raptor list that includes Amur Falcon, Lesser and Common Kestrels, Hobby, Saker, Peregrine, Chinese, Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawk, Booted, Golden, Greater Spotted, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Grey-faced, ‘Eastern’, Oriental Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Cinereous Vulture, Black and Black-winged Kites, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harriers.

– Red-throated and Black-throated Loon, Baikal and Eurasian Teal, Baer’s and Common Pochards, Falcated, Ferruginous, Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, Pintail and Wigeon, Greater Scaup and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoter.

For an inland location, the shorebird list is impressive, too. Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Jack, Common and “Swintail” Snipe, Asian Dowitcher, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian, Far Eastern and Little Curlews, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common, Curlew, Green, Marsh, Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Wood Sandpipers, Long-toed, Red-necked and Temminck’s Stints, Ruff, Dunlin, Grey, Kentish, Little Ringed, Oriental and Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sandplover, Turnstone, Red Knot, Grey and Red-necked Phalarope and Oriental Pratincole have all been recorded.

And how about this for a bunting list:  Black-faced, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared, Common Reed, Godlewski’s, Japanese Reed, Lapland, Little, Meadow, Pallas’s Reed, Pine, Rustic, Tristram’s, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed and Yellow-throated.

Not to mention the cuckoos, shrikes, gulls, terns, pipits, wagtails etc

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

 

It is not unusual in spring, especially in May, to record more than 100 species in a day.  This year Paul Holt achieved that in March!  And Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Beijing-based Swedish birder, recorded 123 species last week.

As a general birding location, it is probably THE best in the capital.

It’s so good, we can’t keep it a secret any longer.  There is now a downloadable PDF guide to Miyun Reservoir, including travel directions and a species list.

OK, that’s enough..  It’s mid-May and I have to be somewhere..  no prizes for guessing where!

 

 

 

Buff-bellied Pipits

“It’s a pity that the pipits have

No diagnostic features,

Specifically they are the least

Distinctive of God’s creatures.”

So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.

Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-belliedMeadow, Olive-backedPechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water.   Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.

In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir.  With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.

Here are some photos that show typical japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.

2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun8
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. Note the buffy colour of the underparts, lacking a contrasting white belly, wing bars, complete eye-ring and relatively pale legs (compared with Water Pipit).
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun6
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus. Note the dark spotting, not streaking, on the mantle.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun4
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. On this bird the streaking on the underparts extends onto the flanks. Also note the fine bill.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun3
Fine crown streaking is also a feature of Buff-bellied.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun
The eye-ring is at least as prominent as the supercilium, a good feature of Buff-bellied vs Water Pipit.
2014-11-30 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus2, Shidu
Buff-bellied is scarce in winter in Beijing. This one was at Shidu in late November. At this season, more heavily streaked and lacking the buff underparts but eye-ring still prominent.
2012-10-17 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Ma Chang
This is a bird from October. Note, in particular, the prominence of the eye-ring compared with the supercilium.

And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.

2012-02-11 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Shidu, February 2012. Note the relative prominence of the supercilium vs the eye-ring. Also much less streaked underparts and dark legs.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang7
This bird from 21 April 2012. Relatively unstreaked underparts, greyish head, relatively prominent supercilium and dark legs all point to Water Pipit.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang
A very clean breeding plumage Water Pipit from April 2012. Even without taking into account the very clean underparts (almost never shown on japonicus Buff-bellied), it shows a greyish-tinged head, prominent supercilium and dark legs.

Of course, another good indicator of ID is call.  The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated.  To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note.  You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here.  What do YOU think?

Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.

Breeding ranges of Motacilla alba races (1)
Breeding ranges of Motacilla alba races (1).  Note that this map illustrates dukhunensis and persica, now considered to be part of M.a.alba.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.
2014-02-15 White Wagtail ssp ocularis, Miyun
Motacilla alba ocularis, a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia.
2014-04-06 White Wagtail ssp baicalensis2
Motacilla alba baicalensis. A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia.  Note pale throat, compared with ‘eastern’ alba.

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing
M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.
2011-01-25 White Wagtail ssp lugens male2, Choshi, Japan
M.a.lugens (Black-backed Wagtail). A scarce winter visitor to Beijing. This one from Japan.
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.

Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.

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The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Shi Jin on the Wenyu River.
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The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China. Photo by Luo Qingqing.

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.

Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?

STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River.  And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake! 

White Wagtail ssp alba, Ma Chang 6 April 2015.  The second record of this subspecies in Beijing just 8 days after the first!  Photo by Cheng Dong.
White Wagtail ssp alba, Ma Chang 6 April 2015. The second record of this subspecies in Beijing just 8 days after the first! Photo by Cheng Dong.

(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.

10,000 Relict Gulls

It was as recently as 1970 that RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) was confirmed as a valid species.  Before that it was thought to be either an eastern race of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)!  Since its rather late acceptance into the global ornithological fold much has been discovered about this beautiful gull.  Breeding sites have been found in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and it appears that, although a few spend the winter in Korea, almost the entire world population winters on the northeast China coast, around the Bohai Bay.

And just before their spring migration, gatherings on the coast of birds in stunning breeding plumage, are simply spectacular.

Last week, local Tianjin birder Mo Xunqian (“Nemo”) and friend Zhu Bingrun (“Drew”) counted 10,652 Relict Gulls from 3 sites around Hangu, Tianjin.  This is a world record count and was simply too much to resist.  So, together with Paul Holt and members of Beijing Birdwatching Society, including President Fu Jianping, I headed to the coast to try to catch a glimpse of these awesome birds before they left for the breeding grounds.

With the help of Nemo and local bird photographer and conservationist Mr Wang Jianmin, we arrived on site at the perfect time – just as the tide was beginning to fall.  And we were greeted with a sea of Relict Gulls, the adults resplendent in their hooded breeding plumage and with hormones raging.  Many were engaging in courtship display, throwing back their heads and holding open their wings as they called loudly.  Superb!

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Relict Gulls pairing up ahead of the breeding season, Hangu, Tianjin. Photo by Wang Jianmin.

After a few minutes of simply admiring this breathtaking spectacle, Paul was quick to get to work counting the flock.  His tally was an outstanding 10,405, a record for a single site.  I focused on capturing some video footage and, as the wind began to increase, making the conditions difficult for video, I began to scan the flock, observing their behaviour and enjoying the birds.

It wasn’t long before I found a leg-flagged adult sporting an orange flag on its right tibia and then, incredibly, another with an orange flag engraved with the number “1”.

Relict Gull with orange flag.  Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving "1".
Relict Gull with orange flag. Another bird sported a similar flag with the engraving “1”.

We enjoyed several hours with these birds until, as the tide receded, the birds began to move out onto the mud to feed.  Every few minutes, as more mud became exposed, the whole flock would rise into the air, wheeling around before settling a few metres closer to the retreating sea. It was an awesome sight.  All against the unlikely backdrop of an aircraft carrier, moored to the north…

10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
10,000 RELICT GULLS and an aircraft carrier, Hangu, Tianjin.
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock in flight, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015
2015-03-25 Relict Gull flock, Tianjin
Relict Gulls, Hangu, Tianjin, 26 March 2015. Occasionally the flock would take to the air, following the retreating sea.
2015-03-26 Relict Gull flock4, Tianjin
At 10,405 birds, this flock was the largest ever seen at a single site.

As the birds moved away we made our way back to the car, still buzzing from witnessing one of the most impressive birding sights during my time in China.

Mr Wang took us to a local restaurant for lunch where we reflected on the status of Relict Gull.  It was then that a hint of sadness hit us.  As impressive as this spectacle was, the fact that so many are concentrated in one spot is not a good sign.  It’s a symptom of shrinking habitat.  And the concentration into such a small area makes the population extremely vulnerable to shocks.. A serious oil spill, for example, could devastate these birds.

Anyone familiar with east Asia won’t be surprised that the cause of the shrinking habitat is land reclamation.  Mr Wang told us that, so far, around 80% of Tianjin’s tidal mudflats have been reclaimed, with just over 30km of coastal mudflat remaining of an original 140+km.  And then the news got worse; the site where we had just recorded a world record count of this special gull was due to be reclaimed and turned into housing.  My heart sank.

Much has been made of the breathtaking pace of ‘development’ along China’s east coast, in particular in the context of Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  And whilst the disappearance of tidal mudflats will undoubtedly affect many shorebird species, the Relict Gull is perhaps the most vulnerable species of all.  With almost the entire global population dependent on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay, this bird is being squeezed into ever-decreasing pockets of viable habitat.  At the present rate of land reclamation it is questionable for how long the remaining areas of tidal mudflats will be able to sustain the wintering population.  And with human disturbance, unsustainable water use and climate change, there are significant threats to the breeding grounds, too.  The Relict Gull fully deserves its “Vulnerable” status.

Development is clearly necessary for the government to continue to bring millions of Chinese out of poverty.  That includes expanding ports, improving infrastructure and building homes and businesses.  The key question is whether or not this development can be more sensitive to the natural world.  Unfortunately, it is still the case that ecosystems and biodiversity have zero value in our economic model.  That’s not unique to China, it’s a global phenomenon.  To protect sites and species often requires monumental efforts from passionate individuals and groups.  It should be the default.

Mr Wang has been championing the need to protect the remaining tidal mudflats around Tianjin.  He has exhibited his excellent photographs to raise awareness among the local community and, importantly, he has met with local government officials to highlight the global importance of this habitat.  He is committed to doing everything he can to help Relict Gull, a species that is clearly very close to his heart.  With the vast majority of the population breeding in China and wintering along the Bohai Bay, Relict Gull is a Chinese treasure, just like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven or the Terracotta Warriors.   I hope that, one day, it will be given the same protection.

Big thanks to Nemo, Zhu Bingrun, Wang Jianmin, Paul Holt, Wang Qingyu, Fu Jianping and the Beijing Birdwatching Society for ensuring our trip to see Relict Gulls was successful, for the use of photographs and for their fun company in Tianjin.

Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!
Birders at Hangu, Tianjin, on a high from seeing 10,000 Relict Gulls!  Mr Wang is fourth from the right.

Japanese Reed Bunting

When I first arrived in Beijing it took me almost two years to find my first Japanese Reed Bunting (Emberiza yessoensis, 红颈苇鹀).  It is a scarce, probably overlooked, winter visitor to the capital and it can be tricky to find in its favoured habitat of weedy scrub, usually close to water.  This habitat is also used in winter by the much more common, almost abundant, Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi, 苇鹀) and it’s this species that one must be careful to eliminate when looking for Japanese. As is the case with separating many similar species, call is a good indicator.  Japanese Reed Bunting utters a thin “tseep”, contrasting with the Pallas’s Reed Bunting’s chirpy sparrow-like call. Japanese Reed Buntings tend to feed on the ground in long grass and are usually skittish.  Often the first sight or sound is when one is accidentally disturbed.  When flushed, they tend to fly quite a long way before diving into long grass.  However, just occasionally, they sit up in the open, which is exactly what these two posers did last week during a walk with Steve Bale along the Wenyu He.

Japanese Reed Buntings usually look ‘warmer’ in overall colouration than Pallas’s Reed Bunting.  The yellowy look, combined with the black ear coverts, are good indicators of Japanese Reed.  With orangey tones on the wing feathers, I think Japanese Reed Bunting is one of the most beautiful, if subtle, of the East Asian buntings and it’s always a delight to see.

IMG_4165
Japanese Reed Bunting (Emberiza yessoensis), Wenyu River, Beijing, March 2015.
IMG_4172
Japanese Reed Buntings, Wenyu River, Beijing, March 2015
Pallas's Reed Bunting, Ma Chang, April 2012
For comparison, here is a Pallas’s Reed Bunting at Ma Chang in April 2012.  Pallas’s is a variable species but always looks ‘colder’ overall, lacking any orange tones.

Red-throated x Black-throated Thrush

In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes…  In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce.  It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post).  It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated.  However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.

An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015
An apparent adult RED-THROATED x BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, Lingshan, 1 March 2015.  Note the presence of both black and reddish feathers on the throat/upper breast.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast.  A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black.  And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones.  This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds.  I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED.  Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.

Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland).  This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed.  If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.

That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade.  And what a cracker it was!

Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.

2013-12-11 Dusky x Naumann's Thrush intergrade, Peking University
Superficially this bird resembles DUSKY THRUSH but look at those red markings on the breast and flanks… a good indicator of NAUMANN’S influence. Peking University, December 2013

 

2010-11-30 Dusky-Naumann's intergrade
Another bird showing characters of both DUSKY and NAUMANN’S with many reddish marks on the breast and flanks. Botanical Gardens, November 2011.