Downloadable PDF guides to Beijing’s Birds Now Available!

One of Birding Beijing’s priorities is to provide helpful information about the birds of China’s capital for beginners and experienced birders alike.  It’s a delight, therefore, to announce that there are two new downloadable PDF guides available on this website.

The first – A Guide To Beijing’s Common Birds – is designed to help the beginner to identify some of the most frequently seen birds.  With photos and brief explanatory text – including English, scientific and Chinese names – it’s a handy guide to download onto a smartphone or to have printed on your desk!

The second – A Guide To Beijing’s Most Sought-after Birds – is designed to help visiting birders to connect with the “Top 10″ special birds that can be found in China’s capital.  From range-restricted species such as the Grey-sided Thrush to the spectacular Przewalski’s Redstart, this guide should help to increase the chances of encountering these birds during a visit to Beijing.

Of course, bird distributions are not static and so these guides are works in progress, based on best-available information at this time.  If you spot any errors or omissions or have any information that will improve these guides, please contact me using the Contact form or through the Comments facility.

Exterminating Sparrows: A Lesson From History

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”– Aldous Huxley

So-called “propaganda posters” have been an important part of Chinese culture since the Mao Zedong era.  These often colourful and striking artworks were designed to sway public opinion in favour of its policies (a bit like News International does for right wing governments in the West today.. cough).  The posters have become collectible and several of my China-based friends spend large amounts of their spare time visiting flea markets to add to their collection.  It was one of these friends who introduced me to these posters and I soon became interested in how the environment was depicted.  Perhaps surprisingly to some, as far back as the 1950s posters promoted messages about the benefits of planting trees and “greening” the countryside.   The header image is from the early 1970s with the message “Start a new upsurge of the people’s duty of tree planting movement”.

However, there is one poster that jumped out at me.

Eliminating the last sparrow.  This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a 1959 series to support the  “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.  The destruction of sparrows caused an ecological imbalance, resulting in heavy crop losses to insects due to the absence of one of their most effective natural predators.  Soon after, sparrows were protected and even imported from Russia to replenish the domestic population.
Eliminating the last sparrow. This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a series to support the “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.

This poster is from 1959 and was part of a series to support Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.  How this policy played out is an important lesson about the unintended consequences of altering the natural balance of ecosystems.  It won’t surprise many to hear that the campaign backfired spectacularly and it’s a lesson that ALL governments would do well to heed.

Mao Zedong initiated the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 after concluding that several blights should be exterminated – namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. According to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”

Mao was particularly annoyed by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 树麻雀) part of the diet of which was grain. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.  Armed with these statistics, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem.  Millions of people were mobilised and the excitement was captured in this report from a Shanghai newspaper:

“On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labour force was mobilised into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

And there is a fascinating personal account by Han Yumin printed in The New Yorker in October 1959.

The effectiveness of the campaign was such that the Tree Sparrow population was decimated. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, crops were being devastated in a way far worse than if birds had been spared.  At least partly as a result, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low.

The campaign against the sparrows was finally terminated in late 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders highlighted the findings of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin. Zhu and Zheng had autopsied the digestive systems of sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food. This showed that sparrows were beneficial for humans.

On this advice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared a complete halt to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing sparrows with “bed bugs” in the “Four Pests” campaign.  Suddenly sparrows were not just protected but the domestic population was supplemented by imports of sparrows from Russia! Eventually, after several years of poor crop yields, the situation began to improve.  The number of people who starved in the 1958-1961 famine is disputed – and it’s impossible to say how much of the disaster was caused by the extermination of sparrows – but there can be no doubt that this episode is a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of human interference into natural ecosystems.  I hope it’s one lesson in history that is not forgotten by the current generation of leaders, not just in China but around the world.

References:

Chinese Posters: See www.chineseposters.net 

i09: See URL: http://io9.com/5927112/chinas-worst-self-inflicted-disaster-the-campaign-to-wipe-out-the-common-sparrow 

Zona Europa: See URL: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20061130_1.htm

Jankowski’s Bunting Survey In Mongolia Draws A Blank

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  After the incredibly successful project to track the migration route of Beijing’s Swifts, and the unprecedented media coverage including articles in the UK’s Guardian and Xinhua (one of China’s largest media agencies), there was barely time to catch up on sleep before I boarded a plane to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a survey of remote southeastern Mongolia to look for Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀, Emberiza jankowskii).

2015-05-30 Mongolia survey team
The survey team (from left to right): Baatargal Otgonbayar “Oggy” (driver, spotter, photographer and all round good guy), Yann Muzika (The Wilderness Alternative), Yu Yat-tung (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Huiga (driver and excellent chef!), Vivian Fu (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Wu Lan (China Birdwatching Society), Terry and Dr Tseveenmydag Natsagdorj from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

The status of Jankowski’s Bunting is precarious.  It is clinging on at just a handful of sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province.  However, the sighting of a single bird in southeastern Mongolia in September 2013 raised hopes that there could be a previously undiscovered population in this remote and under-birded part of the country and a plan was devised to put together a team to survey this area in early June.  Hopes were high.  The area was close to the known sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and would likely contain areas of similar habitat – grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot bushes –  preferred by Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.

The team, consisting of representatives of the China Birdwatching Society, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences plus Yann Muzika (of Sillem’s Mountain Finch rediscovery fame) and myself arrived in Ulaanbaatar full of optimism.

With the invaluable help of Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science And Conservation Center of Mongolia, we had planned a circular route first taking us southeast from Ulaanbaatar to some remote protected areas in the south close to the Chinese border, from where we would head east and then north to another section of the Chinese border, rarely visited by anyone let alone birders.  We were to camp wild and drive more than 2,500 kilometres in search of our target bird.

The journey was an adventure that took us through some stunning Mongolian landscapes with the grassland varying in character every day and the spectacular light at sunset and sunrise creating dynamic landscapes that changed in form every few seconds.

Mongolian Grasslands at sunset2
Sunset at our camp… image taken with an iPhone and unaltered.
tents at sunset on Mongolian grassland
Here we woke to singing Siberian Rubythroats, Asian Short-toed Larks and Pallas’s Buntings.
Happy Vivian
Vivian wanted to live in this place forever…

And the birds were brilliant…  We recorded 180 species including some spectacular encounters with breeding Oriental Plovers and Saker Falcons, displaying Great Bustards and Pied Harriers, singing Yellow-breasted Buntings and Chinese Bush Warblers and a gezillion larks – Mongolian Larks were omnipresent with Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks also in plentiful supply.

2015-06-04 Oriental Plover with chick, Mongolia
Oriental Plover with chick by the roadside.

At one of our camping sites, given the recent publicity surrounding the calamitous decline of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, it was poignant to wake up to the song of this beautiful but now endangered bird.

The Moon
Views of the moon, planets and stars were superb in the crystal clear air. We enjoyed ‘scoping the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus.  This photo taken with iPhone through the Swarovski ATX95 telescope (with adaptor).

Sadly, despite our best efforts, we drew a blank with Jankowski’s Bunting and, even taking into account the impact of a destructive fire that ripped through the area in April, we found very few suitable sites, all of which were small and fragmented.  Due to a current fire in the far southeast, we were unable to reach potentially the best habitat and it is just possible that some Jankowski’s Buntings may exist here.

Despite our disappointment at not finding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia, negative results are just as important and positive results and the existing known sites in Inner Mongolia now take on even greater importance. If Jankowski’s Bunting is to survive we must re-double our efforts to protect these birds by continuing our engagement with the local government, farmers and communities.  That work begins now.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Yu Yat-tung, Yann Muzika and Wu Lan for their great company on the adventure and a special thanks to our Mongolian hosts, Nyambayar, Dr Tseveen, Oggy and Huiga, all of whom put in an enormous amount of work to make our survey possible.

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.
image1
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

image1

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.