First for China: STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW in Beijing!

Last summer, when I first met Colm Moore and his partner Zhao Qi at the first informal Beijing birders’ meet-up, I was struck by their warm, polite and above all modest manner.  A truly lovely couple.  Of course I already knew Colm through reputation.  Here was a guy who had already found some astonishing birds at his local patch at Shahe – a small urban reservoir in Beijing – including Beijing’s first skua (a stunning Long-tailed) and Black-headed Wagtail (ssp feldeggi) supported by a host of other excellent records such as White-winged Scoter.

Most birders dream of finding a national first.  It’s something I have never come close to… but Colm has form, having found Portugal’s first records of Pallas’s Reed Bunting and, I believe, American Herring Gull.  And so it should have come as no surprise that it was he who was behind an astonishing find, again at Shahe, on 4 May…  Here is Colm’s tale of that red-letter day…

“Streak-throated Swallow: a taxon apparently new to the Chinese avifauna; Colm Moore and Zhao Qi.

Dawn on 4th May 2014 broke clear and anticyclonic at Shahe, allowing a substantial northwards movement of hirundines to occur. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica were in the majority but with up to forty Sand Martins Riparia riparia present as well. By mid-morning this passage had been almost entirely inhibited by a strengthening northerly gale and hundreds of Barn Swallows were sheltering in the lee of the Poplar grove at the western end of the reservoir. A smaller hirundine that had puzzled us earlier in the morning now reappeared in flight and finally, after some hours, allowed closer examination. Over 100 photographs were taken of the bird in bright sunlight, both in flight and while perched on the sandy waste ground, facing into the wind. At about 1300hrs the storm abated temporarily and the Barn Swallows drifted away northwards, along with their erstwhile companion. Puzzled by this diminutive hirundine and unable to identify the species, we decided to draw on Paul Holt’s encyclopaedic knowledge and sent him some images.  However, with Paul in the field, it was almost a month before he opened them.  He instantly recognised it as a STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, a south Asian species, and called for more images.

Paul eventually saw the entire series of photographs and verified his initial identification of the Shahe hirundine.

The species is a monotypic taxon. It occurs from Oman in the west, through Pakistan and India to Nepal and Bangladesh in the east, occurring as a vagrant in Sri Lanka, the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. Just a month before the Shahe record, one was seen in Kuwait. Though burdened with a plethora of English names, its taxonomic position is fairly stable. The taxon is placed in the Petrochelidon clade rather than in Hirundo. Its scientific name, as of 2013 (Ibis, 155:898-907, October 2013), is Petrochelidon fluvicola, retaining the specific name fluvicola ever since Blyth first named it in 1855. Though subject to vagrancy, the species has apparently never been recorded in China, even in Yunnan where south and east Asian species might be expected to overlap in range. It is the first record for Beijing. Though vagrants may travel alone, often their proximate cause of arrival is the presence of sister species on passage; in the Shahe case this would be Barn Swallow or Sand Martin.  According to the literature, the species may be increasing in population in south Asia and is listed as “of least concern” in the IUCN Redlist.”

Here are some of Colm’s photos….

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore). Note size difference in comparison with Barn Swallow.

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014. A first for Beijing and a first for China!

Big congratulations to Colm and Zhao Qi..  a truly astonishing record.  I definitely owe you a beer at the next Beijing birders meet-up…

 

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Baer’s Pochard update

On Thursday I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site with visiting Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley (from the swift project) and good friends Andrew and Rachael Raine.  It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in Beijing with the thermometer on my car peaking at 43 degrees Celsius as we drove south.  It was still 38 degrees C when we left the site at 8pm.

Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer's Pochard.

From left to right: Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer’s Pochard.

Despite the heat, it was a superb day.  One of the objectives was to see, and count, the BAER’S POCHARDS present.  As the spring wears on, these birds get more secretive but we were fortunate to see at least 18 of this “Critically Endangered” duck, 16 of which were males..  The predominance of males suggests to me that perhaps the females are on nests, which must be good news….

We enjoyed some excellent views of a male at close quarters by the side of the road and I was able to take this video using my iPhone 5 and the Swarovski ATX95 telescope.  I am continually amazed at the quality of the results using this set-up.

As well as the BAER’S POCHARDS, we also enjoyed excellent views of REED PARROTBILL and displaying SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS just before dusk.

 

 

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Tracking The Summer Palace’s Swifts

This weekend I was involved in a very cool project to track the ‘pekinensis‘ Common Swifts at the Summer Palace.  It all began with a conversation with Dick Newell, over a beer, in London in December.  And on Saturday we fitted 31 geolocators to swifts at the Summer Palace in Beijing.  We know almost nothing about the migration route or the wintering grounds of these magical birds that have a special significance to Beijing’s residents. Provided we can re-trap some next year, we’ll find out where they go…  Exciting stuff!  And the great thing is that this is a brilliant collaboration between Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, the Beijing Birdwatching Society, the Summer Palace, the University of Lund in Sweden and many volunteers, young and old.  You can read the full story on Birding Frontiers.

A 'pekinensis' COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014

A ‘pekinensis’ COMMON SWIFT with a backpack, Summer Palace, Beijing, 24 May 2014

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‘Eastern’ Nightingales

A recent article on Birding Frontiers about ‘Eastern’ Nightingales by Oscar Campbell prompted me to examine the Nightingales (ssp golzii) I saw in northern Xinjiang Province, China.  In the small town where we stayed, about 250km north of Urumqi – in a former military area, called simply “130” – the Common Nightingale is probably the second most common bird (after Tree Sparrow) and uncharacteristically showy.  There were at least 4 singing males in the hotel garden.  Here is a video compilation, showing some of the tail movement referred to in the Birding Frontiers article.

To my eyes, these birds looked paler than the ones I used to see in the UK and with less rufous tails… but I must admit that I never saw the UK birds as well as these show-offs!

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Black Woodpecker

I have just returned from a week with Marie Louise Ng in China’s largest province – Xinjiang – in the far north west.  Xinjiang is vast, covering an area greater than France, Spain and Portugal combined.  And with just a handful of birders.  It’s almost certainly THE place to visit to add new species to the China list and with an avifauna list resembling that of Europe, it’s a superb place to see some species that can be found nowhere else in China.  For a European like me, a visit to this stunningly beautiful province offers an opportunity to re-acquaint oneself with some familiar birds, such as Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Nightingale, House Sparrow and a whole lot more.  We recorded over 160 species.

A full report will appear here soon.

With very little hunting, many of the birds in Xinjiang are much more approachable than I have become accustomed to in eastern China.  As a taster, here is a video of BLACK WOODPECKER….  this male devoured ants just a few metres away, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

 

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Possible hybrid Baer’s Pochard x Ferruginous Duck

One of the threats to the BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭) is hybridisation with the closely related, and range expanding, FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭).  At the Baer’s Pochard breeding site in Hebei Province, Ferruginous Duck is a common breeder; I counted more than 60 on site last weekend versus 24 Baer’s.

Another drake, superficially resembling a drake Baer’s, sported a chestnut cap and slightly less white on the flanks than one would expect for a pure Baer’s.  It was associating with a group of Ferruginous Ducks and I recorded the video clip below.  The chestnut cap is particularly noticeable towards the end of the clip.

I hope to visit the site a few more times over the coming weeks and will look out for more evidence of hybridisation and, hopefully, evidence of breeding Baer’s too.

EDIT: It has been suggested by folks at WWT, who have been catching and taking DNA samples from captive birds, that the drake in the video clip may be a first summer male.  Personally, the colour of the cap, resembling the chestnut brown of Ferruginous and not the darker brown typical of Baer’s, makes me think there is some Ferruginous influence but I’ll go back soon and try to get more photos!

 

 

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Baer’s Pochards

BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was once abundant in east Asia..  now it is listed as “Critically Endangered” due to an, as yet unexplained, calamitous population decline.  The only known breeding site is not in the far northeast of China or in Russia (previously understood to be the species stronghold) but instead in Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.

Yesterday I visited the site and found at least 24 of these beautiful ducks on site, most of which seem paired up and ready to breed.  Worryingly, at least two birds appeared to be hybrids with the closely-related Ferruginous Duck, a common breeder at the same site.

I recorded this video compilation of a male displaying to a (seemingly uninterested) female…  It was almost comical seeing him try in vain to attract her attention.  Let’s hope she is more interested soon – we need them to make babies!

I am in discussions with the Beijing Birdwatching Society about submitting a grant application to the Oriental Bird Club conservation fund to set up a project to monitor Baer’s Pochard at this site…  We know almost nothing about this bird and its habitat requirements.. so fingers crossed we secure some resources.

Video recorded using an iPhone 5 with the Swarovski ATS95 telescope and iPhone adaptor.

 

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Amur Falcons are back!

The journey of the AMUR FALCON is one of the most remarkable in the avian world, migrating from the Amur region in NE China and SE Russia across China, India and, eventually, to East Africa.  An incredible journey fuelled by an even more amazing migration – of dragonflies – across the Indian Ocean.

Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital.  Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!

On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields…  simply stunning.

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014

One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014

One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014

LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014.  Beautiful.

LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014. Beautiful.

Adult male LESSER KESTREL.  Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Adult male LESSER KESTREL. Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.

 

For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun.  Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..!  As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….

This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year.  Always a delight to see.

We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove.  In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!

A day that will live long in the memory!

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Black Brant (黑雁) – first for Beijing

BRENT GOOSE (Branta bernicla, 黑雁) is a rare bird in China.  So when one was found at Huairou Reservoir (about 60km from the centre of the capital) by Beijing birder Ms Hou Xiaoru on Thursday 24 April, it caused something of a ‘twitch’ with several groups of birders paying it a visit over the following few days.  And, as I write this, the bird is still present!

The form of Brent Goose found in east Asia is the subspecies nigricans or “Black Brant”.  An initial trawl for China records shows it to be very rare with just four previous records in the China Bird Report database, Birdtalker:

29 December 2001: Rongcheng, Shandong Province

8 June 2007: Pikou, Liaoning Province

18-19 April 2008: Zhuanghe, Liaoning Province

29-30 January 2010: Danjiangkou, Hubei Province

Thanks to Zhu Lei for information about an additional record of 203 birds in Shandong Province in November 1998.

Birdtalker is not comprehensive, so there are almost certainly additional records in China but the scarcity of recent sightings in this database demonstrates that this is an astonishing record for Beijing and big congratulations must go to Hou Xiaoru for finding it and spreading the news!  I believe it is species number 457 for the capital.

Here is a photo and a short video of the bird taken yesterday, 30 April 2014 using an i-Phone 5 and the Swarovski ATS95 at 70x magnification (simply awesome kit!).

Beijing's first BRENT GOOSE, of the ssp nigricans or "Black Brant", Huairou Reservoir, 30 April 2014.

Beijing’s first BRENT GOOSE (黑雁), of the ssp nigricans or “Black Brant”, Huairou Reservoir, 30 April 2014.

 

 

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The Birding Baroness

After accompanying the Conservative Minister, Rt Hon Ken Clarke MP, on a birding trip during his visit to Beijing last winter, it seemed only right to balance Birding Beijing’s political affiliation!  And so, on Sunday, I took visiting (Labour) Baroness Bryony Worthington on a trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve as part of her visit to China.

Bryony is Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change and, if the elections go Labour’s way in May 2015, she could be part of the ministerial team in charge of the UK’s energy and climate change policies.

Among her many talents, Bryony is an expert in emissions trading and the main purpose of her visit was to engage with officials from the seven pilot emissions trading schemes in China to help develop advice to the Chinese government about the design of their national emissions trading scheme, due to be implemented sometime before 2020 and a key pillar of China’s climate change policy.

Her busy programme involved meetings in Beijing and Shanghai and, with just one ‘free’ day on Sunday and knowing I was a keen birder, she asked if I would take her birding… Of course, I was only too happy to say yes!  The obvious choice of location was Yeyahu Nature Reserve – one of my favourite Beijing birding sites and, in Spring, host to a diverse range of China’s birds.  In the company of friend and colleague Wu Qian and her husband, Calvin, we set off at 0600 from central Beijing and arrived at a sunny, warm and clear Yeyahu just before 0800.

Baroness Worthington 'scoping a pair of Chinese Spot-billed Duck

Baroness Worthington ‘scoping a pair of Chinese Spot-billed Duck

To add a bit of extra fun to the day we had a sweepstake on the number of species we would see..  Guesses ranged from a conservative 40 (Wu Qian) to an over-optimistic 65 (Terry) with Bryony guessing 49 and Calvin 60.

On a beautiful spring morning we started off well with several Chinese Penduline Tits, Pallas’s Reed Buntings and displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A booming Bittern and a flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills provided more entertainment as we made our way around the reserve….  After the 3,000 (!) visitors present the last time I was there (during Qing Ming Festival), the reserve seemed strangely quiet for a sunday but that was no bad thing!

We made our way to the new watchtower and, as the day warmed up, we enjoyed more raptors including 2 Greater Spotted Eagles, a single Short-toed Eagle, Eastern Buzzard, Goshawk and several Black Kites before we tucked into our picnic..

Enjoying a picnic in the watchtower at Yeyahu NR.

Enjoying a picnic in the watchtower at Yeyahu NR. From left to right: Wu Qian, Calvin and the Baroness.

Bryony was impressed with the reserve and the number of birds it was possible to see in the capital.

By the time we made it back to the car, it was time to count up the species seen.  The final total was 54 so, rather embarrassingly for me, the Baroness as a first-time China birder, won the sweepstake..!

On Tuesday morning I accompanied the Baroness to a meeting with Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee in the National Peoples Congress..  This is the committee responsible for drafting and passing China’s environmental legislation. It’s a busy time for the committee, with much environmental legislation under development.  See here for analysis of the strengthening of China’s Environment Protection Law just last week.  Included in their legislative programme for this year is a review of the protected species list.. The current list is more than 20 years old and woefully out of date.  For example, it doesn’t include Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Jankowski’s Bunting or Baer’s Pochard, species that are in desperate trouble and at risk of extinction.

I took the opportunity to brief Lu Hao on the work being carried out by BirdLife, the Beijing Birdwatching Society and local groups to try to save Jankowski’s Bunting and presented him with the BirdLife special edition newsletter.  He confirmed that Jankowski’s Bunting would be added to the revised list and invited me to submit views on which other species should be on the list.

Baroness Worthington presents Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee with a copy of the BirdLife International special edition newsletter about Jankowski's Bunting.

Baroness Worthington presents Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee with a copy of the BirdLife International special edition newsletter about Jankowski’s Bunting.

Extra legal protection by itself will not save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction.  However, it’s an important step and, as China works to strengthen enforcement of its environmental legislation (the amendments last week to China’s environmental law made huge progress in that regard), ensuring that the legal protection of China’s birds is as strong and unambiguous as possible will help to create the foundation for a stronger conservation movement in China.

Many thanks to Baroness Worthington for her support for the Jankowski’s Bunting campaign and also to Chairman Lu Hao for his work to strengthen China’s environmental laws and their enforcement.  He is a very important man!

 

 

 

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