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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First for China: STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW in Beijing!

Last summer, when I first met Colm Moore and his partner Zhao Qi at the first informal Beijing birders’ meet-up, I was struck by their warm, polite and above all modest manner.  A truly lovely couple.  Of course I already knew Colm through reputation.  Here was a guy who had already found some astonishing birds at his local patch at Shahe – a small urban reservoir in Beijing – including Beijing’s first skua (a stunning Long-tailed) and Black-headed Wagtail (ssp feldeggi) supported by a host of other excellent records such as White-winged Scoter.

Most birders dream of finding a national first.  It’s something I have never come close to… but Colm has form, having found Portugal’s first records of Pallas’s Reed Bunting and, I believe, American Herring Gull.  And so it should have come as no surprise that it was he who was behind an astonishing find, again at Shahe, on 4 May…  Here is Colm’s tale of that red-letter day…

“Streak-throated Swallow: a taxon apparently new to the Chinese avifauna; Colm Moore and Zhao Qi.

Dawn on 4th May 2014 broke clear and anticyclonic at Shahe, allowing a substantial northwards movement of hirundines to occur. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica were in the majority but with up to forty Sand Martins Riparia riparia present as well. By mid-morning this passage had been almost entirely inhibited by a strengthening northerly gale and hundreds of Barn Swallows were sheltering in the lee of the Poplar grove at the western end of the reservoir. A smaller hirundine that had puzzled us earlier in the morning now reappeared in flight and finally, after some hours, allowed closer examination. Over 100 photographs were taken of the bird in bright sunlight, both in flight and while perched on the sandy waste ground, facing into the wind. At about 1300hrs the storm abated temporarily and the Barn Swallows drifted away northwards, along with their erstwhile companion. Puzzled by this diminutive hirundine and unable to identify the species, we decided to draw on Paul Holt’s encyclopaedic knowledge and sent him some images.  However, with Paul in the field, it was almost a month before he opened them.  He instantly recognised it as a STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, a south Asian species, and called for more images.

Paul eventually saw the entire series of photographs and verified his initial identification of the Shahe hirundine.

The species is a monotypic taxon. It occurs from Oman in the west, through Pakistan and India to Nepal and Bangladesh in the east, occurring as a vagrant in Sri Lanka, the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. Just a month before the Shahe record, one was seen in Kuwait. Though burdened with a plethora of English names, its taxonomic position is fairly stable. The taxon is placed in the Petrochelidon clade rather than in Hirundo. Its scientific name, as of 2013 (Ibis, 155:898-907, October 2013), is Petrochelidon fluvicola, retaining the specific name fluvicola ever since Blyth first named it in 1855. Though subject to vagrancy, the species has apparently never been recorded in China, even in Yunnan where south and east Asian species might be expected to overlap in range. It is the first record for Beijing. Though vagrants may travel alone, often their proximate cause of arrival is the presence of sister species on passage; in the Shahe case this would be Barn Swallow or Sand Martin.  According to the literature, the species may be increasing in population in south Asia and is listed as “of least concern” in the IUCN Redlist.”

Here are some of Colm’s photos….

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore). Note size difference in comparison with Barn Swallow.

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014. A first for Beijing and a first for China!

Big congratulations to Colm and Zhao Qi..  a truly astonishing record.  I definitely owe you a beer at the next Beijing birders meet-up…

 

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Baer’s Pochard update

On Thursday I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site with visiting Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley (from the swift project) and good friends Andrew and Rachael Raine.  It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in Beijing with the thermometer on my car peaking at 43 degrees Celsius as we drove south.  It was still 38 degrees C when we left the site at 8pm.

Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer's Pochard.

From left to right: Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer’s Pochard.

Despite the heat, it was a superb day.  One of the objectives was to see, and count, the BAER’S POCHARDS present.  As the spring wears on, these birds get more secretive but we were fortunate to see at least 18 of this “Critically Endangered” duck, 16 of which were males..  The predominance of males suggests to me that perhaps the females are on nests, which must be good news….

We enjoyed some excellent views of a male at close quarters by the side of the road and I was able to take this video using my iPhone 5 and the Swarovski ATX95 telescope.  I am continually amazed at the quality of the results using this set-up.

As well as the BAER’S POCHARDS, we also enjoyed excellent views of REED PARROTBILL and displaying SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS just before dusk.

 

 

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Tracking The Summer Palace’s Swifts

This weekend I was involved in a very cool project to track the ‘pekinensis‘ Common Swifts at the Summer Palace.  It all began with a conversation with Dick Newell, over a beer, in London in December.  And on Saturday we fitted 31 geolocators to swifts at the Summer Palace in Beijing.  We know almost nothing about the migration route or the wintering grounds of these magical birds that have a special significance to Beijing’s residents. Provided we can re-trap some next year, we’ll find out where they go…  Exciting stuff!  And the great thing is that this is a brilliant collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society, the Summer Palace, the University of Lund in Sweden and many volunteers, young and old.  You can read the full story on Birding Frontiers.

A 'pekinensis' COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014

A ‘pekinensis’ COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014

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‘Eastern’ Nightingales

A recent article on Birding Frontiers about ‘Eastern’ Nightingales by Oscar Campbell prompted me to examine the Nightingales (ssp golzii) I saw in northern Xinjiang Province, China.  In the small town where we stayed, about 250km north of Urumqi – in a former military area, called simply “130” – the Common Nightingale is probably the second most common bird (after Tree Sparrow) and uncharacteristically showy.  There were at least 4 singing males in the hotel garden.  Here is a video compilation, showing some of the tail movement referred to in the Birding Frontiers article.

To my eyes, these birds looked paler than the ones I used to see in the UK and with less rufous tails… but I must admit that I never saw the UK birds as well as these show-offs!

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