The last week of May and first week of June is THE best time for seeing acrocephalus warblers in Beijing. These birds arrive relatively late in the spring migration to allow the reedbeds and vegetation, on which they depend, to grow sufficiently. This Spring I have been hoping to see two specific acrocephalus warblers that I have never seen before – the Streaked Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus sorghophilus) and the Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum). The chances of seeing the former are slim – there have been no records anywhere since 2011, when one was well-described from the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, by a visiting birder and before that one must look back to 2009 when one was trapped in winter at Candaba Marshes, Philippines (unsure of date) and another was found by Paul Holt at the Summer Palace, Beijing, on 6 June. As far as I am aware, there have been no sightings at the well-covered migration hotspot of Beidaihe since 1999 and the breeding grounds, although thought to be in northeast China and southwest Russia, have never been discovered. This is a bird I am seriously worried about and its decline since the days of La Touche (who described it as “swarming” at Beidaihe in late August and early September in the early 20th century) has been catastrophic. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have not yet found a Streaked Reed Warbler. However, yesterday (1 June) I saw my first Manchurian Reed Warbler at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing.
It is always rewarding to go birding with someone who knows a lot more than yourself – it’s one of the best ways to learn. And to go birding with a real China expert – is a treat. So when Paul Holt asked me if I wanted to accompany him for a day’s birding around the northeastern reservoirs of Huairou and Miyun, I jumped at the opportunity. Paul had spent the previous day in the area and had found two special birds – Manchurian Reed Warbler and Chinese Bush Warbler – both, especially the latter, very difficult to see in the capital.
Our first stop was an area of superb habitat on the eastern fringe of Huairou Reservoir. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we were listening to, and watching, a splendid Manchurian Reed Warbler…. I had wondered how straightforward separation from the similar Black-browed and Blunt-winged Warblers would be. I was a little surprised at how different they are. With a prominent, but not as broad as Black-browed, white supercilium with a limited black upper border, long bill, prominent white throat bordering buffy underparts and an almost speckled crown, this warbler, given reasonable views, is distinctive. And the song, although resembling other ‘acros‘ lacks the fast pace or repetition of Black-browed.
We enjoyed this bird for as long as 15 minutes as it made its way along a patch of reeds before moving back into a larger reedbed. Although reed warblers definitely fit into the “little brown job” of birds, the subtle differences in appearance and vocalisations make them a rewarding challenge for birders. And Manchurian Reed Warbler is a difficult bird to see anywhere. With a very restricted breeding range in northeast China (and southwest Russia), as its name suggests, the breeding grounds are relatively inaccessible and I imagine non-vocalising winter birds to be hard to find in large areas of wetland habitat.
Big thanks to Paul for finding, and taking me to see, one of my most-wanted Beijing birds. Now, where’s that Streaked Reed…..?