Birding with the Right Honourable Mr Kenneth Clarke MP

Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP and Paul Holt birding at Shidu.

Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP and Paul Holt birding at Shidu.

One of the advantages of living in Beijing is that many prominent figures visit.  Occasionally the visitors are birders and, as part of their visit, they are keen to see some of the special birds that can be found around the Chinese capital.  A few weeks ago the British Ambassador informed me about the latest prominent visitor, Rt. Hon. Ken Clarke MP (Senior Cabinet Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer), who would be visiting on a trade mission and, on the Sunday before his official engagements began, he was keen to see some birds.  Of course, I was only too delighted to accompany Ken and his wife Gillian on a birding trip and, after an exchange with the Minister’s office about possible destinations, we settled on Shidu, a spectacular gorge in the southwest of Beijing.  This is one of Beijing’s prime birding sites in winter, hosting a number of special, and relatively easy to see, species including, among others, BLACK STORK (黑鹳), CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) , BROWN DIPPER (褐河乌), LONG-BILLED PLOVER (长嘴剑鴴) and WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀).

I arranged for Paul Holt, who had coincidentally birded with the Rt Honourable gentleman in India several years ago, to join us and so the four of us set off from the Ambassador’s Residence at 0730 for the 2-hour drive to Shidu.

It was a gorgeous winter’s day in Beijing with clear blue skies, no wind and a relatively mild temperature of -2 degrees Celsius that soon dipped to -5 degrees Celsius as we hit the mountains.

Our first stop was the famous “bridge 6″ where, for at least 3 years, a lone WALLCREEPER  (红翅旋壁雀) has been in residence.  This bird has learned to take advantage of the meal worms put out by the local photographers and often shows incredibly well.  Before we made the short walk to the Wallcreeper site we stood on the bridge to scan the river.  Immediately we saw two BLACK STORKS (黑鹳) at the top of a cliff, basking in the early morning sunlight.  Not a bad start!  Then I caught sight of two BROWN DIPPERS (褐河乌) which zipped through and were gone before our esteemed guest could see them.  And it was then, whilst scanning for the dippers, that I saw a lone snipe bobbing amongst the rocks of the river..  Training the telescope onto it Paul immediately identified it as a SOLITARY SNIPE (孤沙锥)..  wow.. a new bird for me and a new Beijing bird for Paul..  as well as being a completely new bird for Ken and Gillian.  An unexpected bonus!

SOLITARY SNIPE, Shidu.  My first ever and Paul's first in Beijing.  With its face pattern and 'bobbing' feeding behaviour, I described it as like a cross between a WOODCOCK and a JACK SNIPE!

SOLITARY SNIPE (孤沙锥), Shidu. My first ever and Paul’s first in Beijing. With its face pattern and ‘bobbing’ feeding behaviour, I described it as like a cross between a WOODCOCK and a JACK SNIPE!

The reappearance of the BROWN DIPPERS (褐河乌), along with the almost incidental sightings of two LONG-BILLED PLOVERS (长嘴剑鴴) and several blakistoni WATER PIPITS (水鹨), completed a spectacular start to the day…

After a short walk to the WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) site we stood, in the company of around 10 bird photographers, and waited for the star attraction to arrive.  Almost immediately we were treated to several fly-bys from the local HILL PIGEONS (岩鸽) and a pair of PLUMBEOUS WATER REDSTARTS (红尾水鸲) performed well along a small stream.

Male PLUMBEOUS REDSTART.  A common and obvious bird at Shidu.

Male PLUMBEOUS REDSTART (红尾水鸲). A common and obvious bird at Shidu.

Female PLUMBEOUS REDSTART, Shidu

Female PLUMBEOUS REDSTART (红尾水鸲), Shidu

Then, out of nowhere, the WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) arrived…  flying in to a ledge just a few metres above the awaiting photographers and proceeding to edge its way down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms laid out in strategic positions that enabled the paparazzi to snap the most aesthetically pleasing photos.  It was pretty special to see a WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) so close and we all enjoyed stunning views.

This WALLCREEPER is one of Shidu's special birds and this individual shows spectacularly well.

This WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) is one of Shidu’s special birds and this individual shows spectacularly well.

Immediately afterwards I was impressed to see Mr Clarke delve into his pocket, pull out his notebook and begin scribbling notes about his sightings..  a true birder!

Taking notes at the Wallcreeper site.  The Rt Hon gentleman is a true birder!

Taking notes at the Wallcreeper site. The Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP is a genuine birder and also suitably attired for a spot of birdwatching…

We moved on further up the valley and found a group of beautiful MANDARIN DUCKS (鴛鴦), including 4 splendid males, before heading up to the north of the gorge to look for one of Shidu’s other specialities – the CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫).  We parked up at a pull-in that offered expansive views across the nearby mountains and took the opportunity to tuck in to our packed lunches as we waited.  A group of SILVER-THROATED TITS (北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀) and a couple of GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS (戈氏岩鹀) kept us company until we spotted the first large raptor.  It was distant but, through the telescope there was no mistaking our first CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) of the day, soon followed by two more, this time much closer.  Awesome birds.  Two more, or the same, BLACK STORKS (黑鹳) patrolled the valley before turning around and heading south again, a SAKER (猎隼)  showed itself briefly above a distant ridge and an immature GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) drifted overhead.  A set of sightings that would grace any birding location, let alone a site in one of the busiest capital cities in the world.

An immature GOLDEN EAGLE, always a joy to see, drifted overhead just before we headed back to the city.

An immature GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕), always a joy to see, drifted overhead just before we headed back to the city.

We reluctantly had to head back to ensure our Rt Honourable guest was back at the embassy in time for his pre-briefing.  A quick stop at bridge 7 on the journey home produced a stunning WHITE-CAPPED WATER REDSTART (白顶溪鸲) and another, unscheduled, stop delivered single UPLAND (大鵟) and EASTERN BUZZARDS (普通鵟) soaring together and being mobbed by two PEREGRINES (游隼) – a pretty good end to another great day’s birding in Beijing.

A big thank you to Ken, Gillian and Paul for being brilliant company throughout the day.  It was a real pleasure to spend time ‘in the field’ with you all…

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About Terry Townshend

I am a British birder living and birding in Beijing from August 2010 until 2015. Through this blog I hope I can convey a sense of what it is like to live in this thriving, confident and contrasting city and the birdlife that can be found in its environs. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! Terry Townshend, Beijing September 2010
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5 Responses to Birding with the Right Honourable Mr Kenneth Clarke MP

  1. Andrew says:

    You did him proud, Terry. He was one of the few politicians I liked because of his complete lack of pomposity and his sense of humour. Plus he is a birder. I suspect he went away a very happy bunny. Who wouldn’t after a Wallcreeper? I saw my first one in Nepal but it was also the star bird on my 40th birthday, many years ago. I’d rather like one to turn up in HK.

  2. Gretchen says:

    What a great day! You must have breathed a sigh of relief when weather and birds all cooperated so spectacularly. Congratulations on the new snipe (who was indeed solitary). I guess there’s getting to be fewer chances for you to get lifers around there. I love the picture of the female plumbeous redstart, as well as the lovely wallcreeper picture. Thanks for sharing the details and pictures!

    • Thanks Gretchen. Yes, it’s getting tougher to see “new birds” in Beijing now. But still lots of potential. Beijing is an amazing place for birds and there are now over 450 species that have been seen in the Municipality… a staggering total! And it’s hard to beat when the sky is blue and the scenery is as spectacular as Shidu.

  3. Looks like a wonderful trip you had. I’d love to see the Solitary Snipe as well. What an intriguing bird.

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