Bramblings

On Wednesday, around the time of finding the RED-THROATED LOON, a huge flock of BRAMBLINGS dropped in to some trees and shrubs close to our watchpoint before proceeding to the edge of the reservoir to drink….  We estimated over 500 in this single flock – an awesome sight.  As in the UK, Bramblings are winter visitors to Beijing and right now they are streaming through..  beautiful birds.

Red-throated Loon in Beijing – first record since 1933!

This autumn is set to go down in Beijing birding history as the best ever (so far!).  As well as the Holy Trinity of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Rail and Streaked Reed Warbler, there has been a stunning supporting cast.

Yesterday at Miyun Reservoir, there were two more additions to the seemingly never ending list of rarities to be found in Beijing this autumn.

First, regular Beijing visitor, Dutch birder Ben Wielstra, picked up a BLACK-WINGED KITE loitering over the Chao He valley to the north and then, around lunchtime, whilst scanning through a group of distant GREAT CRESTED GREBES in the hope of finding a RED-NECKED GREBE, I spotted a loon.  As soon as I had described to the others where it was, it was flushed by a fishing boat and took flight..  We all managed to get onto it and, as it flew, we were hastily discussing whether it was the more likely PACIFIC or BLACK-THROATED or the much rarer RED-THROATED.  Despite the distance, Paul Holt was already suspecting it was a RED-THROATED and, fortunately, it flew towards us and landed in a bay much closer, but still some distance away.  As soon as it landed it was immediately clear it was a RED-THROATED LOON, a species that with which I am very familiar as a winter visitor offshore from my home village of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk.  Wow!  Once again, the Swarovski kit of the ATX95 plus iPhone and adaptor proved its worth in being able to document a distant record that, without doubt, would have been impossible with my traditional set up of a Canon 400mm lens.

There are two previous records of RED-THROATED LOON from Beijing.  The first was a dead female picked up “north of the river” in Tongzhou, remarkably on the same date of 22 October, in 1932.  The second was a sight record at the same site from 10-12 April 1933.  So this is the first record of RED-THROATED LOON in the capital for more than 80 years!

Big thanks to Paul for the intelligence on the records from the 1930s.

SWINHOE’S RAIL at the Temple of Heaven!

The Temple of Heaven is on the itinerary for most first-time visitors to Beijing.  It’s an impressive tourist site, attracting thousands of visitors daily.  In spring and autumn it is also something of a migrant trap and in one small fenced off area, local bird photographers set out their stalls and wait to snap photos of the latest crop of migrants that have dropped in for a rest.

Usually, they find relatively common migrants such as Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Taiga Flycatcher or Dusky Thrush.  However, on 12 October, whilst photographing a Chinese Thrush, a small rail ran across in front of the startled photographers.  One of them was quick to point their lens and shoot some photos.  I am not sure the photographer knew the significance of the sighting immediately..  but one of the photos was circulated and one of the recipients, Wei Min, forwarded it on to the Birding Beijing WeChat group where, as you can imagine, it caused quite a stir!

I don’t have permission to publish the photo on this blog but you can see the photos by clicking here.  They are probably the best ever photos of SWINHOE’S RAIL in the wild.  It’s a tough bird to see anywhere in the world – extremely skulking and rare, possibly very rare.

Not surprisingly, this bird represents the first record of SWINHOE’S RAIL for Beijing.  However, it was only seen by a handful of photographers.  Unfortunately, it appears that one of the photographers on site ‘caught’ it and, once released, it flew off into deep cover, never to be seen again.  Hopeful birders tried again the next day but, despite a thorough search, it was never re-found.

This sighting continues a remarkable autumn in Beijing that has seen some incredible records, not just in terms of rare species (juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER and STREAKED REED WARBLER take some beating !) but also some astonishing high counts of some more regular birds, for example 50,000 LITTLE BUNTINGS in one day on 26 September and over 8,000 HORNED LARKS on 15 October.  A browse of the Latest Sightings page will give you some idea of the amazing birding in Beijing this autumn.  Long may it continue!

STOP PRESS: Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Beijing!

Some stunning news has just reached me of a juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER that was photographed at Yeyahu, Beijing, on 31 August by Zhang Minhao, a junior high school student.  Big thanks to Huang Hanchen and Guan Xiangyu for the heads-up.  Here is the photo:

Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014.  Photo by Zhang Minhao.
Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014. Photo by Zhang Minhao.

And here is Zhang Minhao’s personal account:

A Brief Account for the Record of a Juvenile Spoonbill Sandpiper in Beijing
by Zhang Minhao, October 16, 2014.

“The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was photographed at Machang, Yeyahu, Yanqing County, Beijing, on August 31, 2014.

At around 09:45am on 31 August 2014 I was observing Red-necked Stints, Long-toed Stints, and Long-billed Plovers near a large area of water on the edge of Guanting Reservoir.  This area is known as Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake.  In order to avoid missing the distant shorebirds, I checked the areas where the Red-necked Stints were located by looking through my camera, and took pictures of the birds I could see.

When reviewing my photographs I recognised something distinctive, a juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The time of the photograph was 09:49am.

The single Spoon-billed Sandpiper foraged and preened alone, without mixing with other species. And there were no other Spoon-billed Sandpipers around it.  About 3 minutes later 3 Red-necked Stints flew to its vicinity causing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to fly and it alighted further away on the mudflat. But when I got there the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was not to be seen and it was never seen again.”

(Thanks to Guan Xiangyu for contacting Zhang Minhao about this account and to Huang Hanchen for the translation).

There are several brilliant things about this record.  First, it’s a SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, one of the world’s most endangered birds (see here to read about just how few remain and for details of the international effort to try to save this species).  Second, it’s of a juvenile, one of very few sightings of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper of this age in the world, giving hope to the conservation effort.  Third, it was found in Beijing, one of the world’s major capital cities, more than 150km from the coast.  And finally, the finder was a young Chinese birder.

It’s a truly remarkable record. And I hope this sighting by Zhang Minhao inspires other young people in Beijing and beyond to take up birding and to become part of an ever-louder voice to help conserve the amazing biodiversity with which China is blessed.

Well done Zhang Minhao!

GREAT WHITE PELICAN at Miyun – the 3rd record for the capital

On 5 October, during the National Holiday, I visited Miyun Reservoir with Marie.  It was a beautiful day but with a rather chilly northerly breeze that meant the jackets didn’t come off until late morning….  On arrival, almost the first thing we saw was a distant, but still very obvious, large white bird sitting on the water.  I set up the telescope and could immediately see it was a pelican… fantastic!  The obvious question was which species?  In Beijing there are records of two pelican species – the DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕, Pelecanus crispus), a barely annual migrant, most likely to be encountered in spring,  and the much rarer GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus), the latter with just two Beijing records.  I have very limited experience of both, with just one sighting of Great White and two of Dalmatians, all in spring.

Separating the two is relatively straightforward given good views and, even at great distance, the species can be separated if seen in flight (Great White shows an obvious sharp contrast between the black primaries and secondaries and the white wing coverts).

Frustratingly, given the distance, I decided that it was prudent to leave the Miyun pelican unidentified unless I saw it in flight… so I decided to keep an eye on it as I scanned the other birds on the reservoir.  I put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and Paul Holt, who was birding at nearby Huairou Reservoir and was already planning to come to Miyun, replied to say he’d join us in a couple of hours.

At that time, there were lots of birds moving and it soon became apparent that there was an impressive raptor passage beginning with ‘Eastern’ Buzzards, Amur Falcons, Hobbies and Kestrels all moving…

Juvenile COMMON KESTREL.  One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.
Juvenile COMMON KESTREL. One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.

It was this distraction that allowed the pelican to slip away unnoticed… one minute it was there, the next it was gone and we had not seen it fly…!  We desperately scanned the skies thinking that, even if it had left a few minutes before, we must be able to pick up a bird of its size in the sky.. but no, it had gone!

All I had were my grainy photos taken with my iPhone through my telescope at 70x magnification.

Pelican, Miyun Reservoir,  5 October 2014.  Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope
Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 5 October 2014. Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope

As scheduled, Paul arrived a little later and although disappointed at not seeing the pelican himself, he suspected from the original photo that it was probably a Great White.

Even so, it was more in hope than anticipation that I circulated the image to a few respected birders and their responses delighted me – all thought there was enough to identify it as a Great White!

Axel Bräunlich, of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, wrote:

“I don’t see a problem in ID-ing your Miyun birds as Great White:

- general very white colouration, colour of breast
- “dent” in upper head, smooth outline of head (no shaggy crest) –> characteristic head profile
- colour of pouch
- rosy area around eye (poorly visible on photo, but apparently there)”

Axel summed up the ID criteria very well and, when combined with positive responses from Paul Holt and Colm Moore, I am very happy to call this Beijing’s 3rd record of GREAT WHITE PELICAN.

Even without the pelican, it was a brilliant day’s birding in stunning surroundings.. Miyun is spectacular when the air and weather behave themselves…  Here is a photo of Paul and me enjoying the birding that day..

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

Big thanks to Marie for her great company throughout the day and to Axel, Paul and Colm for taking the time to provide me with their much-valued opinions on the identification of this pelican.

I must also thank Swarovski.  The ATX95 with iPhone adaptor makes it possible to capture images at such an incredible distance… and this bird would have been in the records as “pelican sp” had it not been for the photo I was able to capture using this impressive kit.

Eastern and Western Water Rails

Back in February 2012 I saw my first Water Rail in China… Remarkably it was a Western Water Rail and not the expected Eastern Water Rail (now a separate species – “Brown-cheeked Rail”).

In a sign of just how difficult it is to see Brown-cheeked Rail in Beijing, it was only this Spring that I saw my first, more than 2 years since that Western in the Olympic Forest Park.

So it was a big surprise to see a minimum of 4 Brown-cheeked Rails at Miyun last week.  It was reassuring that the first one I saw was noticeably different to Western.  It was darker overall, caused by the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts, the face was darker, almost with a mask, the undertail coverts were heavily marked and there was a brownish wash on the breast, all combining to give Brown-cheeked Rail a distinctive appearance.

Here is some video of one of the four present.

And here are some stills of both Brown-cheeked and Western Water Rail for comparison:

Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun, September 2014.  Note the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts and the more marked face.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun, September 2014. Note the larger dark centres to the feathers on the upperparts and the more marked face.
Water Rail sp, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing.  Note the relatively plain face pattern, restricted barring on the flanks and grey (not grey-brown) underparts.
‘Western’ Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing. Note the relatively plain face pattern and grey (not grey-brown) underparts.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun.  Note the heavily marked undertail coverts.
Brown-cheeked Rail, Miyun. Note the heavily marked undertail coverts.
Western Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, February 2012.  Note the unmarked undertail coverts.
‘Western’ Water Rail, Olympic Forest Park, February 2012. The undertail coverts are unmarked.

Finally, this is a recording of the call of one the Miyun birds…  quite different to the usual ‘squeal’ from Western Water Rail that I am used to from home.

Easy, eh?  Although Western is a (probably regular) vagrant to eastern China, it’s unlikely that Brown-cheeked will ever make it to the Western Palearctic as its breeding range is restricted to eastern China, far southeast Russia, Japan and the Koreas.  The range of the subspecies of Western and Eastern (part of the 2010 paper by Tavares, de Kroon and Baker indicating that they are separate species) can be seen here.

“Shaheen” Peregrine in Beijing?

PEREGRINE (Falco peregrinus, 游隼) is not a common bird in Beijing.  I have sometimes seen one or two on passage in autumn and spring and occasionally it’s seen in winter.  I suspect it breeds in the mountains in small numbers (I have seen juveniles at Wulingshan, just over the border in Hebei, in July).

Most of the birds we see in Beijing look like pretty standard Peregrines, most likely of the subspecies peregrinus or japonensis.  However, occasionally, we see one that looks small with rufous underparts, reminiscent of Shaheen Falcon (ssp peregrinator).  One such bird was seen on 1 September 2013 at Miyun (photos below).

Peregrine of the subspecies peregrinator.  Note the rufous underprts contrasting with the pale throat and upper breast.  In the field this bird was small and sported a very dark cap, all features consistent with this southern subspecies.  The first record for Beijing and, possibly, for northeast China.
Peregrine of the subspecies peregrinator. Note the rufous underprts contrasting with the pale throat and upper breast. In the field this bird was small and sported a very dark cap, all features consistent with this southern subspecies. The first record for Beijing and, possibly, for northeast China.

And on Friday this week, Paul Holt and I saw another that we suspected could be a Shaheen.  Although it was very distant, I was able to record some video of this bird.

According to literature, ssp peregrinator breeds in India and across to Vietnam and southern China and is non-migratory.  It shouldn’t be anywhere near Beijing.  A range map of the various subspecies of Peregrine can be seen here.   I’d love to hear views from those familiar with ssp peregrinator as to whether they think this bird is of this subspecies.