Well, we talked that up!
After Brian Jones’s post about Wild Duck Lake and his comment that there was always a “Yeyahu surprise” I guess I should not have been shocked that my next visit in prime migration season should produce a Chinese mega in the form of a Great White Pelican! Even so this record, the significance of which I only realised after returning home, was way beyond my wildest expectations.
Great White Pelican (GWP) is a very rare bird in China. In fact any Pelican sp (Dalmatian is more frequent) is a rare bird in this part of the world. Jesper Hornskov, of 20 years experience in China, has only seen one other GWP in Xinjiang over 15 years ago. And Paul Holt has just informed me that my sighting is the second record for the Beijing area, the first being at Miyun Reservoir in October-November 2009. Fortunately, given I was not able to secure any images of the Wild Duck Lake bird and the fact it was only present for around 90 minutes, Jesper was also coincidentally in the vicinity and saw it in flight.
This is the story…
With Libby in Shanghai with her visiting sister, I decided to take the opportunity to travel up to Yanqing on Friday evening and stay over to allow a dawn start at WDL. After enjoying a Friday night in the happening town of Yanqing (or rather being in bed by 9pm), I arrived at Ma Chang at first light (about 0545) and, after checking the ‘desert area’ for Oriental Plovers (no sign) and enjoying the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks that were wheeling around, I made for the narrow spit to the west (complete with yurts) to check the reservoir. On arrival here, at about 0705, I immediately saw a large white bird with the naked eye at the far side of the reservoir and thought it must be a late swan. But it looked big. I set up the telescope and was shocked to see a pelican sp swimming on the water! It was resting on the far side of the reservoir among a large flock of some 250+ Black-headed Gulls. I immediately sent SMSs to Jesper and Brian Jones and Jesper responded to say he was also at WDL but in a different part (!) and asked for directions. I explained where it was but wasn’t sure whether or not Jesper could see it from his vantage point. I then watched the bird for about an hour during which time it preened and swam along the far side of the reservoir, looking settled. At one point a small group of 8 Relict Gulls flew right over it! On any other day, the Relict Gulls would have been the star of the show… I knew there had been the odd record of Dalmatian Pelican in the Beijing area, so assumed it must be this species (having seen neither I was not sure of the identification criteria). But nevertheless, I took some notes on the features I could see. Although distant, I could see that it was large, bulkier than a swan, and the plumage was a brilliant white with a yellowish bill. At about 0830 I left the reservoir to do my normal walk to Yeyahu. Jesper was further north and east of me and I assumed, as I had not seen or heard from him, that he had been able to pick it up. Then, at 0845, as I was walking east, Jesper sent me a text to say the pelican was in flight over the reservoir. I picked it up easily in my bins and then watched it through my telescope as it circled, gained height and, after a few minutes, was lost to view in the murk. I took some notes about the features I could see. In flight, it looked a brilliant white against the mountains as it soared, with intermittent wingbeats. On the upperside, there was a clear and sharp contrast between the black wing tips and black secondaries and the brilliant white plumage. I did not clearly see the underside. Jesper then sent me a SMS to say the wing pattern fitted Great White. It was only when I returned home and looked at the literature that I realised, from my notes, that it was definitely a Great White and just how rare it is in northern China. Unfortunately, at no time did it come close enough for me to obtain a photo. I am just very pleased that Jesper saw it too!
I am assuming that it was a wild bird but, of course, there is the possibility of it being a free-flying escape from some park. I’ll try to do some digging about this possibility.
Wild Duck Lake just keeps on producing….