Back in April 2012 I found a wheatear at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, on the shore of Guanting Reservoir. It showed exceptionally well for about 2-3 minutes before being flushed by a Merlin and flying high to the northwest, never to be seen again. Fortunately I was able to capture a few photos before it vanished.
For context, any wheatear is notable in Beijing. Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka, 斑鵖) is the most frequent – it probably breeds occasionally in the capital in small numbers. There is only one previous record of Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti, 漠鵖), at the same site in 2010. Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗鵖) has not been recorded for at least 30 years. And there were no previous records of Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖).
After some consideration of the identification, it went down in my notes as Beijing’s second Desert Wheatear, a female.
Fast forward to three days ago when I received an email from Killian Mullarney, who had been searching the internet for images of female Desert Wheatear. One of the first photos he found was mine from April 2012. Killian, one of the authors of the Collins Bird Guide, immediately spotted that it was not a Desert Wheatear but an ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖). Very kindly he attached a series of annotated photos that explained why. The result is that my 2012 wheatear has now been upgraded from a ‘second for Beijing’ to a first. Not a bad trade.
I am immensely grateful to Killian for taking the time to correct my identification. Not only did he do so with much grace but also explained in great detail why it was an Isabelline. Through his knowledge I have learned a lot about this difficult pair and now have no excuse to mis-identify another, if I am fortunate enough to see one..
As he says in his email, “I picked up a copy of the Collins Bird Guide just to remind myself of how well (or otherwise) we covered the Isabelline/Desert pitfall…. Not very well, it seems! The first sentence of the Desert Wheatear IDENTIFICATION text states ‘Rather compact with comparatively big head, short neck and tail.’ Oh dear….I guess judging relative head size is a subjective thing, but it just goes to show how circumspect we all need to be with our field guides!”
The Rosefinches were one of the highlights of our recent trip to northern Inner Mongolia. Long-tailed Rosefinch (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀) is a scarce but regular visitor to Beijing in winter. I have seen it three times in the capital – once at Yeyahu and twice at Lingshan. Usually we only see the brown, streaky immatures or females, so it was very cool to see some stunning adult males in Wuerqihan. On the journey from Hailar airport to Wuerqihan we counted more than 25 of these stunning finches.
And it wasn’t only Long-tailed that we saw in Wuerqihan. There were also some of the sought after Pallas’s Rosefinches (Carpodacus roseus, 北朱雀). Pallas’s Rosefinch is a difficult bird to see anywhere and we were fortunate to see several small flocks of these beautiful birds around Wuerqihan.
Our guide, Mr Zhang, regularly puts out seed to attract birds and, as well as these stunning rosefinches, the food attracted Northern Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀), including some of the grey-bellied race, cineracea, Common and Arctic Redpolls (Carduelis flammea, 白腰朱顶雀, and Carduelis hornemanni, 极北朱顶雀), Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius, 松鸦) and even a Siberian Weasel. That’s a quality line up for any bird table!
I have finally completed my report of our Christmas trip to northern Inner Mongolia, close to the Russian border. It covers our time in two locations – Wuerqihan and XiQi. There is a focus on owls but we were rewarded with a host of good birds including, among others, Arctic Redpoll, Siberian Jay, Pere David’s Snowfinch and Asian Rosy Finch. You can download the full report here.
Introducing the last of the “most-wanted 3″ owls we saw in Inner Mongolia this Christmas. This is the unmistakeable HAWK OWL, a bird that blew me away when I first saw it in Sweden in the 1990s. It often sits, sentinel-like, on the top of a tree from where it monitors the surrounding activity with razor-sharp vision and incredibly sensitive hearing. Such a different character to the more deliberate and almost “royal” Great Grey Owl….
Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy and bird-filled 2015!
For interest, here are some pictures of the superb habitat in which we found two of these special owls.
To me, seeing a GREAT GREY OWL (Strix nebulosa) ranks as one of the most magical sights of the bird world. With its human-like face and haunting stare, any encounter with the “Phantom of the North” in a snow-blanketed spruce forest makes for an eerie experience. In China, this magnificent owl can be found in the forests of the northern Provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia and it was a much-wanted bird during our recent visit to Wuerqihan and XiQi. Fortunately, after a long search, we finally caught up with this silent assassin. We enjoyed a spectacular encounter with this bird, watching as it surveyed the immediate area with slow, deliberate turns of its head. Typically it was not unduly bothered by our presence and, with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX I was able to take this video which captures the spirit of this most majestic of owls.
I have just returned from a few days in northern Inner Mongolia, near the Russian border, where I spent Christmas with Marie and SoSo from Hong Kong looking for owls. Highlights were many, including 6 species of owl – Eagle, Great Grey, Hawk, Little, Ural and Snowy. Spending Christmas morning watching 6 of the latter on the sparkling snow-covered grassland, was an experience that will stay with me for a very long time….
Wishing everyone a belated Merry Christmas, here is a glimpse of one of the magnificent Snowy Owls that we were fortunate enough to encounter on our trip. More details on this adventure very soon!
I love this quote from one of the most progressive Senators in the US Congress, Ed Markey – “Although children are only 24% of the population, they’re 100% of our future”. In China, a country that is growing fast in terms of economic power and global influence, the children here will perhaps have a disproportionate influence on the world this century. And with the environment relatively absent in the Chinese curriculum, it’s of utmost importance to engage with young people if China’s wildlife is to prosper in this rapidly urbanising and developing country.
Luo Peng, a young Chinese environmentalist and entrepreneur, has set up a company called Eco Action Now to promote environmental education and sustainable tourism, focusing on benefiting local communities and working with scientists, nature reserves and ordinary people.
One aspect of their work is to develop educational programmes for schoolchildren in Beijing. It’s a great initiative that aims to connect urban children to their environment. I was honoured to be invited to help lead a birding trip for Beijing’s 13th Middle School to the Botanical Gardens this weekend and what fun we had!
On a beautiful, crisp and pollution-free Saturday morning we arrived at the entrance gate at 0730 and, after a short briefing to hand out the binoculars, the tailor-made birdwatching guide and the election of ‘scribes’, we split into four groups and began to explore… The first birds we saw were Magpies (Common and Azure-winged) and they were soon followed by Tree Sparrow, Naumann’s Thrush, Japanese and Marsh Tits, Spotted Dove (“they look fat!“) and Chinese Nuthatch…. and later we were to enjoy stunning views of Plain Laughingthrushes (“they really do laugh!“) and Siberian Accentors, the headmistress’s favourite bird! It was great to see these young people so enthused during their first ever birdwatching trip and enjoying the sight and sound of their local birds. Inevitably, as the groups met up periodically to compare notes, a little competitiveness crept in and we even had a mini ‘twitch’ at the end to ensure all of the groups saw the Little Grebes on the main lake..
It was fantastic to meet the students of Beijing’s 13th Middle School and I can’t wait to do more… Even if none of them become birders, their appreciation and understanding of wild birds has been increased and, in a country home to around 1/6th of the world’s bird species, that’s a wonderful reward in itself. Big thanks to Luo Peng for making the arrangements and for inviting me along…