LESSER FRIGATEBIRD in Beijing

After participating in Sunbird’s tour of Qinghai and Tibet, led by Paul Holt, German birder Henning Lege decided to stay on for a spot of birding in Beijing.  On 20 August he visited Miyun Reservoir, one of Beijing’s premier birding sites, where he found a juvenile LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (白斑军舰鸟, Fregata ariel) – the third record of this species in Beijing.  Fortunately there were some Chinese birders from the Beijing Birdwatching Society, including its President, Ms Fu Jianping, on site with whom Henning could share his excitement.  And, on his return to Beijing, he was quick to alert Paul who immediately circulated a message via the rapidly growing Birding Beijing WeChat group, meaning that local birders were alerted and had an opportunity to see it.  Since its discovery on 20 August several groups of birders and photographers (possibly more than 20 in total) have visited and enjoyed this spectacular, almost prehistoric-looking bird, meaning it must be one of Beijing’s most “twitched” rarities ever.

With the nearest coast around 150km away, seabirds are, not surprisingly, hard to see in Beijing.  There is only one record of a skua (a Long-tailed) and even species such as Saunders’s Gull and Great Knot (not uncommon on the coast), have never reliably been recorded in the capital.  So it is perhaps surprising that three LESSER FRIGATEBIRDS – truly pelagic birds – have made it to Beijing.  

The previous two Beijing sightings were both in April – in 2007 and 2011. The first was photographed by Hong Wanping at Shahe Reservoir, Changping 14 April 2007 (see China J. of Zoology (2011.4) Lesser Frigatebird, Shahe reservoir, April 2007 for a brief account). The second was seen, and photographed, at the Ming Tombs Reservoir (Shisanling Reservoir) on 7 April 2011.

LESSER FRIGATEBIRD is rare anywhere in China, though it may be just about annual in Hong Kong where regular pelagic trips are now taking place.  There are reports from most coastal provinces from Guangxi to Guangdong, and Fujian north to Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Tianjin & Liaoning. Although we are not aware of any records from coastal Hebei, there are two reports of GREATER FRIGATEBIRD from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao, Hebei with an immature on 6 June 1996 (Thalund et al. 1994) being the second of these.

One can only assume that this most recent bird was displaced by one of the recent tropical storms, possibly Typhoon Halong that hit east Asia in early August.  

Thankfully, documentation of this record has not been difficult.  In addition to Henning’s notes, China is blessed with some superb bird photographers.  The brilliant set of photos below is by Zhang Weimin with an additional stunning photo by Huang Hanchen, to both of whom big thanks are in order for allowing me to reproduce their wonderful photos for this post.

 

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13ppp 10ppp 15ppp 03pp 12pp 16ppp 20pp 14p 11pp 02ppp 18ppp

photo (38)

This photo of the Lesser Frigatebird by Huang Hanchen

According to The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World (HBW), the LESSER FRIGATEBIRD breeds on small, remote tropical and sub-tropical islands, in mangroves or bushes, and even on bare ground on islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It feeds mainly on fish (especially flying-fish) and squid, but also on seabird eggs and chicks, carrion and fish scraps (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It is “kleptoparasitic” – a great word that means it habitually steals food from other species.

Unfortunately for Paul and me, this bird was found whilst we were overseas, Paul in Canada and me in the UK.  After arriving back in Beijing on Saturday morning I visited the site with Paul and local birders Wu Lan and Zhao Min on Sunday and despite staying all day, we failed to see it.  The last documented sighting was on Friday 29 August.  Unless it has been hiding effectively for the last couple of days, it has almost certainly moved on, hopefully on its way back to the Pacific Ocean where it belongs. 

Big thanks again to Zhang Weimin and Huang Hanchen for the use of their photographs, to Paul Holt for the information about the status of Lesser Frigatebird in Beijing (and China) and to everyone on the WeChat group who provided updates about the bird’s whereabouts during its stay at Miyun Reservoir.

 

 

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Shorebirding at Nanpu, 13-15 August 2014

This week I visited Nanpu with Jennifer Leung and Ben Wielstra.  This site, on the Hebei coast just 2.5 hours from Beijing, offers world class shorebirding.  With tens of thousands of waders, thousands of marsh terns and some rare East Asian specialities such as RELICT and SAUNDERS’S GULLS and ASIAN DOWITCHER, this site is hard to beat.  Throw in some visible migration and the passerine migrant magnet of the tiny “Magic Wood” and it’s a wonderful place to spend a few days birding.

Here is a sample of just how many birds are on show here at this time of the year…

One of the most abundant shorebirds is the SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER which can be found on the settling pools, the banks of tidal creeks and on the mudflats themselves.  Of the 1000s seen over the visit, we saw only two juveniles.  This one is an adult.

Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014

Adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, Nanpu, 14 August 2014

The spectacle of 1000s of waders arriving at the mudflats, as the mud becomes exposed on the falling tide, is superb…  I counted 834 GREAT KNOT on the 14th and, at a different site, over 700 on 15th.. including a couple of colour-flagged birds with individual engravings.

Here is a short video of some of the GREAT KNOT shortly after they arrived at the first exposed mud.  The sharp-eyed will notice one of the birds is colour-flagged with a combination of black over white on the upper right leg.

One of the GREAT KNOT sported a yellow flag with the letters “UWE”.  On return to Beijing I reported it to the Aussie shorebirders and, within minutes, I had received a reply with the individual history of this bird.  Our sighting was the first of this individual outside Australia…

Banding of “UWE”

06/03/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (-18.00, 122.37)  Australia  06313620  (UWE) Aged 2+ 

Resighting UWE

03/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

12/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

13/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

01/11/2011 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell  & Clare Morton

16/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

18/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

19/02/2013 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome  (17.00, 122.00)  Australia  Chris Hassell

20/12/2013 Minton’s Straight  (-17.98, 122.35)  Australia  Chris Hassell

14/08/2014 Nan Pu, Bohai Bay  (39.04, 118.36)  China (mainland)  Terry Townshend, Jennifer Leung & Ben Wielstra

Among the large numbers of GREAT KNOT were some RED KNOT and this photo shows the two species together, allowing a direct comparison.  Note the size difference plus the difference in underpart markings, bill length and shape.

Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014

Great Knot with Red Knot, Nanpu, 15 August 2014

One of Nanpu’s specialities is the RELICT GULL.  Although it’s primarily a wintering location, a few non-breeders remain all year round and it’s possible to see this species at any time of the year.  Right now, the breeding birds are returning to the coast, along with a few first year juveniles.  We saw at least three of this year’s young amongst more than 100 of these beautiful gulls.  Here is an adult just beginning to moult out of breeding plumage:

Although Nanpu is primarily a shorebird site, its location on the east China coast means it is also an excellent place to witness visible migration.  Even though our visit was in mid-August, we witnessed a nice passage of RICHARD’S PIPITS and YELLOW WAGTAILS and the “Magic Wood” – a tiny patch of trees and shrubs in the middle of the vast open area of ponds – hosted at least 8 EASTERN CROWNED and 6 ARCTIC WARBLERS as well as YELLOW-RUMPED, ASIAN BROWN, GREY-STREAKED and DARK-SIDED FLYCATCHERS.  I can only imagine what this newly discovered ‘oasis’ will be like in September and October.

A nice surprise was this adult male DAURIAN STARLING, a scarce passage migrant in the Beijing/Hebei area.

And an even bigger surprise was an unseasonal PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE that flew backwards and forwards just inland from the sea wall and settled on some rough ground between some ‘nodding donkeys’.  Bizarre.

All in all it was a brilliant few days.  The full species list is below.  Big thanks to Jennifer and Ben for their great company…  itching to get back already!

Jennifer scanning waders at Nanpu.

Jennifer scanning waders on one of the pools at Nanpu.

Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu

Ben watching GREAT KNOT from the bridge at Nanpu

Species List

 
Common Pheasant – 1 juvenile near the seawall on 15th
Common Shelduck – 1 juvenile on 14th
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Little Grebe – 3 on the pond at the sea wall by the police building
Black-crowned Night Heron – 4 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Chinese Pond Heron – 1 in flight on 13th and 1 on 15th
Grey Heron – 6
Little Egret – 14
Chinese Egret – 2 on 14th near the bridge where the tidal channel runs into the sea and one on 15th
Great Cormorant – 287 flew in to roost on the ponds at 1745 on 14th
Common Kestrel – 2 (both females)
Amur Falcon – 2 (both adult females)
Black-winged Stilt – not counted but 1000s
Pied Avocet – not counted but 1000s
Grey Plover – 27 on 15th
Little Ringed Plover – c75
Kentish Plover – c500
Lesser Sand Plover – 1 in summer plumage from the bridge at the seawall
Greater Sand Plover – 2 adults in winter plumage on the ponds
Asian Dowitcher – at least 15, including 5 feeding on the falling tide on 15th
Black-tailed Godwit – c700 on 14th
Bar-tailed Godwit – c80
Whimbrel – 23
Eurasian Curlew – 14
Far Eastern Curlew – 29
Spotted Redshank – not counted but estimate of several hundred
Common Redshank – much less common than Spotted bt still 50+
Marsh Sandpiper – 1000s
Common Greenshank – 18
Green Sandpiper – 2
Wood Sandpiper -
Grey-tailed Tattler – 3
Terek Sandpiper – 8
Common Sandpiper – 16
Ruddy Turnstone – 14
Great Knot – 832 counted on 14th from the bridge.  700+ counted on morning of 15th from east of the oil terminal causeway…
Red Knot – at least 30 in total
Red-necked Stint – c40 (never found a substantial concentration of stints)
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Long-toed Stint – 5
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – 1000s
Curlew Sandpiper – 20
Dunlin – 8
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 3
Ruff – 1 ad male
Red-necked Phalarope – 1 adult (male?)
Black-tailed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults
Relict Gull – 105 counted on 14th
Black-headed Gull – c300-400
Saunders’s Gull – 6
Common Tern -
Little Tern – 38
Gull-billed Tern – 18
White-winged Tern – 1000s
Pallas’s Sandgrouse – 1 flew back and forth over the marshy area adjacent to the sea wall (viewed from the dirt track).  Landed on the rough ground amongst the ‘nodding donkeys’ but not seen on the deck.
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3 around Nanpu
Spotted Dove – 1 in Nanpu
Pacific Swift – 11 flew west along the sea wall on 15th
Common Kingfisher – 1 heard at “Magic Wood”
Brown Shrike – 17 along the roadside
Black Drongo – 1 at the “ice cream” village
Azure-winged Magpie – 4 around Nanpu
Common Magpie – 12 along the roadside
Sand Martin – 12 along the seawall on 15th
Barn Swallow – 1000s
Red-rumped Swallow – 46 counted but many more present
Zitting Cisticola – 6 along the sea wall on 15th
Chinese Bulbul – 3
Thick-billed Warbler – 2 (one in “Magic Wood” on 14th and one along the seawall on 15th)
Arctic Warbler –  at least 6 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Eastern Crowned Warbler – at least 8 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Reed Parrotbill – 6
White-eye sp – one migrated along the sea wall, seen from the bridge, on 14th
Daurian Starling – one adult male along the roadside with White-cheeked Starlings on 14th
White-cheeked Starling – 8
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1 adult and 1 juvenile probably this species at “Magic Wood”
Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – an adult male and an adult female at “Magic Wood” on 15th
Tree Sparrow – not counted but numerous
Yellow Wagtail – 12 on 14th and 15 on 15th
Grey Wagtail – 2 by the sea wall seen from the bridge on 14th
White Wagtail – 2
Richard’s Pipit – 28 on 14th from the bridge and 41 on 15th from the dirt track – all migrating
Blyth’s Pipit – 2 possibly this species migrating (a call similar to Richard’s plus an extra “chip”)
Yellow-breasted Bunting – two possibly this species (yellowish buntings) migrating on 14th
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An Educational Sandplover

During my aborted trip to the Hebei coast last week, one of the birds with which I enjoyed a close encounter was this juvenile sandplover.  The recovery from my appendectomy gave me some time to examine the photos and video to try to work out the identification.  I found this bird tricky.  It wasn’t particularly long-legged, the ‘bulge’ on the culmen wasn’t very pronounced (suggesting Lesser) but the overall gait – including the horizontal stance – suggested Greater.  I was confused.  So I sent this image to Dave Bakewell who has lots of experience with sandplovers and has written extensively about them on his excellent Dig Deep blog.

A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014.  But which species?

A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014. But which species?

His view is that this bird is a juvenile Greater.  Why?  This is what he said:

“Not surprised you are struggling with this one! I do find that leg colour is more reliable as a feature for juvs than adults. And, although the bill may not be fully grown (affecting the proportion of the swollen culmen), I do find the tip shape very helpful – slender and more pointed on GSP and blunter on LSP. By now you will know what I think it is! Despite the apparent dumpy, short-legged, round-headed shape, I think this is a very young juv GSP.”

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with sandplovers, I encounter a bird that makes me think again…  and that’s what makes birding such a brilliant hobby – always so much to learn!

Here is some video of the same bird, just edited from footage I took last week.

Please let me know what YOU think!

EDIT: Dave Bakewell kindly sent me a link to a similar-aged juvenile Lesser Sandplover (of the atrifons group).  You can see it here.  It’s a darker plumaged bird overall with noticeably darker legs, darker centres to the coverts and showing a subtly different bill shape.

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Asian Dowitchers

Early August is a great time to see a range of east Asian shorebirds on the coast of China.  So last Saturday I planned to make a 2-day trip to check out Nanpu, a vast and featureless area of salt works and ponds to the south of Tangshan in Hebei Province that hosts hundreds of thousands of waders in spring and autumn.

I woke a little earlier than usual with mild abdominal pain.  I put it down to the particularly spicy curry I had consumed on the Friday evening, popped a couple of paracetamol and set off.  There was no way a little stomach pain was going to stop me driving the 2.5 hours to see 100,000+ waders on the coast…

As my journey progressed I was excited to see the air and cloud clearing – having started as a smoggy and cloudy day, Saturday turned into a beautifully clear, blue sky day.

On arrival I slowly drove the long road towards the coast, checking the roadside ponds.  I was buoyed by a beautiful BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER in amongst the many SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, KENTISH PLOVERS and BLACK-WINGED STILTS.

I then found a superb pond filled with mostly BLACK-TAILED GODWITS, MARSH SANDPIPERS and SPOTTED REDSHANKS.  As I carefully scanned, I found a group of ASIAN DOWITCHERS, a regular but fairly scarce migrant.  I counted 22, 21 adults and one juvenile, in a small area.  By now my abdominal pain was worsening and I was considering whether to go to a local hotel to rest or to drive back to Beijing.  Whilst I was deciding what to do, I took the opportunity to record some video of the ASIAN DOWITCHERS.

After making this recording I decided to head back to Beijing; if I was going to be ill, I would much rather be in my apartment in Beijing than in a low-grade hotel in a small Chinese town.  I was glad I did.  When I reached my apartment late on Saturday evening, I could hardly stand up due to the pain.  I called a friend and he took me to the Emergency Room of my local hospital where, after a series of tests and a CT scan, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis.  Just a few hours later I was in the recovery room after my appendectomy, feeling glad that my appendix didn’t decide to misbehave in some remote part of the developing world!

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Juvenile BAER’S POCHARD?

On 26-27 July I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site in Hebei Province with visiting British birders, Mike Hoit and Andrew Whitehouse, plus Beijing-based Paul Holt and Jennifer Leung.  Mike and Andrew had just arrived in China ahead of a trip to Qinghai and, with a couple of days spare, were keen to see BAER’S POCHARD.  I had warned them in advance that they are difficult to see in July – the birds are much more secretive once they begin breeding and, in summer, the vegetation is higher.  Nevertheless, I was also keen to visit the site to see whether we could find proof of breeding.  In addition to the BAER’s, the lake offers superb general birding and is probably the best place in the world to see SCHRENCK’S BITTERN, another difficult world bird.  Late July is actually a good time to see the latter, usually secretive, species as the parents make constant flights to collect food for their young.

After the long drive in 35 degrees Celsius heat, we headed straight for the most reliable spot – a series of lotus ponds with areas of open water that, from my previous visits, appear to be a favourite ‘loafing’ location for both BAER’S POCHARD and FERRUGINOUS DUCK.

We were in luck.  Almost immediately a stunning male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN made a fly-by at eye level in the lovely late afternoon light and, on one of the lotus pools, was a female BAER’S POCHARD.  Result!

Male SCHRENCK'S BITTERN.  The Baer's Pochard breeding site in Hebei must be the most reliable place to see this difficult-to-see world bird. This photo from July 2012.

Male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN. The Baer’s Pochard breeding site in Hebei must be the most reliable place to see this difficult-to-see world bird. This photo from July 2012.

Female BAER'S POCHARD, Hebei Province, 27 July 2014

Female BAER’S POCHARD, Hebei Province, 27 July 2014

Female BAER'S POCHARD stretching her wings.

Female BAER’S POCHARD stretching her wings.

After checking out different sites around the lake and enjoying good views of 2 male BAER’S on the open water, we returned to the original spot and, this time, a different BAER’S POCHARD was present.  With pale tips to the scapulars and spiky tail feathers, we believed it was a juvenile.  I took some video – see below.  Clearly, as a ‘Critically Endangered’ species, proof of breeding is significant.  And although breeding is likely to have occurred, this would be the first confirmed breeding at this site since 2012.  I therefore welcome comments from any ‘aythya‘ experts who might be able to confirm that this is indeed a juvenile BAER’S.

A few volunteers from the Beijing Birdwatching Society have been making occasional visits to this site this spring and summer to survey the BAER’S POCHARDS and so, together, we are slowly building up a picture of the status of this very rare duck.  We still lack some basic information such as when they arrive in spring and when they leave in autumn.  Given the site freezes over in winter, it’s very likely they move on but there is at least one photo of a BAER’S POCHARD from this site in January, so it’s possible that some remain if there are open patches of water.

The site is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.  With vast lotus pools and shallow water at the northern end, it’s attracting swimmers, fishermen and general tourists who like to pick and take home a lotus flower or two.  And, although it has status as a Provincial Level Nature Reserve, there are apparently plans for ‘development’.  Several sets of plans have been drawn up, including proposals for a “water sports” centre, hovercrafts and an artificial ‘beach’.  Thankfully, for the time being, none of these proposals have been given the go-ahead.  However, the fact that the management is apparently resisting a proposal for the site to be added to the list of important wetlands (which would mean tighter restrictions on development) is a sign that commercial development of this site is clearly a possibility.   Gathering data on the importance of this site for BAER’S POCHARD and other birds and wildlife will be critical in order to make the best case possible against commercial development, or at least to persuade the authorities to retain the most important part of the site as a properly-managed nature reserve.  Watch this space.

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PACIFIC SWIFTS breeding in Beijing!

During a 2-day visit to Lingshan in late June, we decided to explore a nearby valley along the Yongding River (Yongdinghe).  It’s a spectacularly pretty gorge with quality birds such as Chukar, Red-billed Chough, Koklass Pheasant and Golden Eagle, and was also the site of the BROWN ACCENTOR a couple of winters ago.

The Yongding Valley. One of Beijing's hidden treasures.

The Yongding Valley. One of Beijing’s hidden treasures.

BLUE ROCK THRUSHES (of the orange/chestnut-bellied philippensis race) were a nice surprise along with super views of Red-billed Chough, Crag Martins and a pair of Golden Eagles.  But the biggest surprise was catching sight of what I instinctively thought was a swift…  Unfortunately, as soon as I trained my binoculars on it, it disappeared behind a ridge and was gone.  For several minutes, I scanned in vain and I began to doubt myself…  had I really seen a swift?  Was it just a Crag Martin seen very poorly at a strange angle?  Then, as suddenly as it disappeared, it reappeared, this time in good light and, even better, in the company of 5 other swifts…  And, with gleaming white rumps, they were clearly all PACIFIC SWIFTS.

A record photo of one of the PACIFIC SWIFTS breeding in the mountains to the west of Beijing.

A record photo of one of the PACIFIC SWIFTS breeding in the mountains to the west of Beijing.

I hadn’t heard of PACIFIC SWIFTS breeding in Beijing.  I have seen them on passage in spring and autumn but never in mid-summer.  I watched them for several minutes and they occasionally engaged in ‘screaming’ and, several times, flew up to some ledges on a sheer cliff face…  it appeared as though they were breeding…

On return, I discussed the swifts with Paul Holt who told me that breeding has never been proved in Beijing before, although there have been several mid-summer reports from the mountains.  The big question is whether the Yongdinghe birds are of the usually more southerly distributed subspecies kanoi or the usually more northerly distributed pacificus.

It will take much better photos than the one above to determine that!

 

 

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Grey-sided Thrushes at Wulingshan

One of the best places on the planet to see GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) is Wulingshan, a stunning mountain park just across the border from Beijing Municipality in Hebei Province.  For birders, it’s a brilliant location in late spring and summer.  As well as breeding Grey-sided Thrushes this site also hosts Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher, White-bellied Redstart, Siberian Blue Robin, Koklass Pheasant, Grey Nightjar, White-backed and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers and a plethora of leaf warblers including Claudia’s, Hume’s, Yellow-streaked, Chinese Leaf and Large-billed Leaf.  Perhaps even more exciting is that it is said to still be home to Leopard.

The location of Wulingshan (red marker) in relation to Beijing.

The location of Wulingshan (red marker) in relation to Beijing.  Using the Jingcheng Expressway (G45) the drive to the north gate takes about 2.5 hours, traffic permitting, with a further 30 minutes to reach the peak.

At the weekend, I visited the mountain with Marie and, despite many birds having stopped singing by mid-July, we had a great time and were very fortunate to see one of our target birds – the GREY-SIDED THRUSH – so well.   This thrush, classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife due to its restricted range, breeds here in reasonable numbers.  We saw at least 8, including 3 juveniles – the first time I had seen this plumage – and early on Sunday morning we enjoyed prolonged views, allowing me to capture some video of an adult and a juvenile.

The views are incredible and the sunsets are also spectacular if lucky enough to coincide a visit with a smog-free day.

It's possible to drive to the top and walk a few hundred metres to the 2,118m peak.

It’s possible to drive to the top and walk a few hundred metres to the 2,118m peak.

The view to the northeast from the peak at Wulingshan.

The view to the northeast from the peak at Wulingshan.

Miyun Reservoir can be seen to the southwest on a clear day.

Miyun Reservoir can be seen to the southwest on a clear day.

Sunset at Wulingshan, Saturday 12 July 2014.

Sunset at Wulingshan, Saturday 12 July 2014.

Another photo of the sky just after sunset, Wulingshan, Saturday 12 July 2014.

Another photo of the sky just after sunset, Wulingshan, Saturday 12 July 2014.

 

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Manchurian Bush Warbler at Lingshan

Lingshan is a spectacular place.  I first visited Beijing’s highest mountain in March 2013 and since then, over multiple visits, I have enjoyed some brilliant birding at this bitterly cold, barren and inhospitable site.  It seems to be a reliable winter location for difficult-to-see birds such as PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH, GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART and of course, most recently, it hosted both male and females of the stunning PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART.

Last weekend, I made only my second summer visit.  And how different it looks.  Since my most recent visit in March, the mountain has been transformed with birdsong seemingly bursting from every tree and shrub on the now vivid green slopes and hillsides.

 

Lingshan in summer is lush, green and full of birds.

Lingshan in summer is lush, green and full of birds.

A view to the north-east from Lingshan.  Hard to believe it's Beijing.

A view to the north-east from Lingshan. Hard to believe it’s Beijing.

The woods are alive with CLAUDIA’S LEAF, CHINESE LEAF, EASTERN CROWNED and YELLOW-STREAKED WARBLERS.  And the more open areas are frequented by CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES and DAURIAN REDSTARTS with RED-BILLED CHOUGHS wheeling overhead.

A walk along the buckthorn-filled valley that, in winter, hosts GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS and good numbers of dark-throated thrushes, revealed that these bushes are now the home of singing YELLOW-STREAKED and CHINESE LEAF WARBLERS.  A short way down, we suddenly heard a different song – short, powerful and rich – that reminded me  a little of the COMMON NIGHTINGALES we had recently seen in Xinjiang.  Of course it wasn’t a nightingale… it was a MANCHURIAN BUSH WARBLER (Cettia canturians) – a scarce bird in Beijing and the first I had seen in the capital.  It sang constantly, often from an exposed perch, allowing me to record some video…

After finding some basic, but very cheap (GBP 8 per room), accommodation, we walked along the access road after dark to listen for owls.  We heard only a possible distant ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL but, at two different sites, also heard GREY NIGHTJARS pounding out their mechanical ‘knocking’ sound.  A highlight was also a rare (for Beijing) view of the spectacular night sky and, by checking out the planets with a birding telescope, we were able to identify Saturn, complete with rings.  Wow!

In the morning we awoke early to experience the dawn chorus and, again, walking along the main access road, we encountered CHINESE THRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED FLYCATCHER, SONGAR (WILLOW) and YELLOW-BELLIED TITS, EURASIAN NUTHATCH, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH, RUSSET SPARROW and both MEADOW and GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS, in addition to the usual chorus of phylloscopus warblers.

I am sure that, with a little more time and by covering more of the area, some more surprises would be found…  after all, this is the site where Jan-Erik Nilsen recorded (two years running!) an initially unfamiliar song that, after investigation, turned out to be a PLAIN-TAILED (ALSTROM’S) WARBLER, a bird that, on current knowledge of it’s range, should not be in Beijing.  And with so few birders visiting, the opportunity for discovery is vast.  I’ll be back!

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The status of Manchurian Bush Warbler in Beijing (with hat-tip to Paul Holt):

This species is scarce, with just 16 records in total, averaging just 1-2 records annually in recent years.  Six of these are from May, including one from Lingshan in May 2004.  It has also been recorded in summer (July 2005 and June 2008) at nearby Baicaopan, possibly suggesting that it is a scarce breeder in the mountains around Beijing.  There is an autumn record from Kangxi Grassland (near Yanqing) on 16 October 2010 and one was photographed in the campus of Peking University in late October 2012.

 

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Streaked Reed Warbler in Beijing!

The STREAKED REED WARBLER is a bird that is almost certainly in serious trouble.  There are very few recent records from anywhere in the world.  Nobody knows where it breeds, nobody has ever recorded its song and its only known wintering grounds in the Philippines have been “developed” ( I do hate that word!) with no recent sightings.

So it was with great excitement that a sighting was reported in Beijing last week.  After some inquiries, it emerged that it had been seen briefly, but well, on 15 June by an experienced and well-respected local birder at a site near Yanqing (a town about 60km northwest of Beijing).  After obtaining precise site details, I was soon winging my way along the G6 expressway in the company of Paul Holt and Zhao Chao.  Hopes were high – there was a good chance that a bird in mid-June would be holding territory and, potentially, singing…

After an hour and a half we were on site and began to search the abandoned fish pond where the bird had been seen just a couple of days before.

An abandoned fish pond near Yanqing, the site of the STREAKED REED WARBLER sighting on Sunday 15 June 2014.

An abandoned fish pond near Yanqing, the site of the STREAKED REED WARBLER sighting on Sunday 15 June 2014.

We arrived a couple of hours before dusk and planned to stay until dark and, if necessary, stay over in a local hotel and try again the following dawn.

It was a beautiful, still evening and there were several ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS chuntering loudly from the reeds.  We slowly made our way around the pond, carefully trying to filter out the racket from these large acros in the hope of picking out what we expected would be the quieter song of their smaller, rarer cousin.   During the next two hours we heard at least 2 RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES, INDIAN and COMMON CUCKOOS, BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE, BLACK DRONGO, MOORHEN and BROWN SHRIKE but sadly there was no sign of any smaller reed warblers.

A beautiful evening in Yanqing...

A beautiful evening in Yanqing…

Well after dark we headed into town, checked into a local hotel and grabbed some dinner, speculating about our chances the following morning.

At 0415 we were checked out and on our way to the fishpond, full of optimism.  If the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still there, surely it would sing or show early morning…?

On arrival, the RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES were struggling to be heard above the chorus of the ‘churring’ and ‘chacking’ ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS and, again, we slowly walked around the raised bank that surrounded the reed-filled pond, desperately scanning and listening for anything that might be our target bird.  Time and again a warbler appeared on a reed stem and, after raising our binoculars, without fail it proved to be (another!) ORIENTAL REED WARBLER.

After three hours we finally admitted defeat and decided to head back to Beijing…  if the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still on site it was extremely good at hiding!

The most likely explanation was that it had been a late passage bird.

And so this rare species continues to elude me.  But I won’t have long to wait to resume the search… it’s thought to be an early return migrant with peak passage in the Beijing/Hebei coast area said to be from the last week of August to mid-September, according to LaTouche.  So, yet again, I’ll be checking those reedbeds and patches of sedge in the hope that, one day, I’ll connect with this most enigmatic of birds.

Of course, from a conservation perspective, it’s extremely difficult to do anything to help this bird.  It’s a long distance migrant whose current breeding and wintering grounds are unknown.  Recording its song would be a huge first step – at least that would help anyone travelling to northeast China and southeast Russia to locate singing birds and discover breeding sites, potentially enabling some studies to be made of the habitat requirements and hopefully identifying some of the reasons for the staggering decline in its population.  But with so few being seen in the last few years, is it already too late?

Big thanks to Tong Menxiu and Chen Liang for their help in finding out details of this sighting and to Zhao Chao and Paul Holt for their company on a fun search…!  

See here for more detail about the status of STREAKED REED WARBLER.

 

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Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher

Here is a short video of a male GREEN-BACKED (Elisae’s) FLYCATCHER that appears to be breeding at Badaling, within sight of the Great Wall.

The Badaling Forest Park is a good place to see some of Beijing’s breeding birds including YELLOW-RUMPED FLYCATCHER, CLAUDIA’S and EASTERN CROWNED WARBLERS, ASIAN STUBTAIL, WILLOW (SONGAR) and YELLOW-BELLIED TITS and many more.  We were even lucky enough to stumble across a juvenile CHINESE TAWNY OWL, a scarce breeder in Beijing.

 

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