GREY PHALAROPE in Beijing!

Phalaropes are rare in Beijing.  So when one flew in from the north and landed on the water just a few hundred metres from our watchpoint at Miyun Reservoir on Friday, Paul and I were pretty excited.  Our first instinct was that it would probably be the more regular (but still rare) Red-necked Phalarope.  However, as soon as we trained our telescopes onto the newly-arrived, and clearly tired, bird we suspected it was the much rarer GREY PHALAROPE (or RED PHALAROPE, Phalaropus fulicarius, 灰瓣蹼鷸).   A closer view was required.  So we slowly made our way towards the west from where we would have a closer view.

The best way to distinguish these two similar species in non-breeding plumage is the structure of the bill.  On Red-necked it is long, fine and pointed, on Grey more robust and relatively blunt.  For juveniles, there is also an important additional difference in moult timings.  Juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes tends to retain their darker juvenile plumage into late autumn (well into October). Juvenile Grey Phalaropes moults earlier, often showing the typically grey mantle feathers by late August/September.

As can be seen in the photos and video below, the Miyun bird has quite an advanced moult with few retained juvenile scapulars and mantle feathers.  It also showed a beautiful peachy wash to the neck, another good feature of juvenile Grey Phalarope.

Record images taken with iPhone and Swarovski ATX95.

2014-09-19 Grey Phalarope, Miyun3 2014-09-19 Grey Phalarope, Miyun2 2014-09-19 Grey Phalarope, Miyun1 2014-09-19 Grey Phalarope, Miyun

Unfortunately, as we moved towards what would have been an even better viewing position, the bird vanished and despite extensive searching, it wasn’t seen again for the rest of the day.  It was present for just one hour (from 1035-1140).  After putting out the news, three birders from the city (Jennifer Leung, “Yu Yan” and Zhuang Weimin) came to Miyun to try to see it but unfortunately left without seeing this rare visitor.  Despite missing the phalarope, there was plenty on offer to keep them entertained.

The phalarope – representing the second record for Beijing of this species (with fewer than 10 records in all of China!) – was the icing on the cake of a fantastic day at Miyun.  The habitat there right now is the best I have ever seen – a relatively low water level offering superb habitat for shorebirds and – due to the very high water levels in the spring – very little maize cultivation near to the shore, meaning that most of the fields around the reservoir are full of wild vegetation – perfect for migrating buntings, pipits, rubythroats and who knows what else!?

Full list of species below.  Big thanks to Paul Holt for taking extensive notes.

Weather

A reasonable day – until the early evening when there was a heavy thunderstorm. Cool in the early morning – 15˚C when we left Sanlitun in urban Beijing at 05h05 but just 9˚C when we reached Hou Ba Jia Zhuang at 06h20. The day’s peak was probably about 26˚C there. Reasonable long-range visibility – perhaps about 10 kilometres in the very early morning though this gradually reduced during the morning. There was a light northerly breeze in the early morning this switching around to a south-south-west by about 09h30. This wind gradually stiffened during the day. The skies darkened quite suddenly around 16h15 & it wasn’t long before we became aware of an approaching thunderstorm. It started to rain just as we were leaving at 17h00 & continued to do so, on & off & sometimes quite heavily, until we arrived back at about 19h00.

We recorded 91 species.

Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun Reservoir (40°30.3’N., 117°01.1’E.). 75 metres (06h20-17h00)

Taiga Bean Goose                                         8, a family party of tree (two adults & a juvenile) & another family party of five (two adults & three juveniles).  An early date for so many.

Tundra Bean Goose                                      1.  It was presumably the bird that’s now been present at this site for three weeks or so.

Greater White-fronted Goose                      1 adult.  An early date. Previous autumn reports of 1-6 (& once 31) birds span the period 1 October – 8 November while single reports in mid-June, August & September are thought to possibly relate to escapes.

Ruddy Shelduck                                             2

Gadwall                                                             19

Falcated Duck                                               51

Eurasian Wigeon                                           1

Mallard                                                          320

Eastern Spot-billed Duck                              20

Northern Shoveler                                         2

Garganey                                                       1

Baikal Teal                                                    8

Eurasian Teal                                                135

Common Pheasant                                         17

Little Grebe                                                   65

Great Crested Grebe                                     82

Black-necked Grebe                                     1 adult-winter (with bleached & extremely worn upperparts)

Black Stork                                                    3 juveniles flew high to the west

Grey Heron                                                   11

Great Egret                                                    6

Little Egret                                                     49

Osprey                                            1 adult

Short-toed Snake Eagle                                 3.  At one stage all three were visible in the air together.

Japanese Sparrowhawk                                2 separate juveniles flew south

Eurasian Sparrowhawk                                 11, all juveniles, flew south

Eastern Marsh Harrier                                  3

Hen Harrier                                                   1 juvenile. Interestingly another ringtail was seen over the Wangjinglou raptor watch point today (per Jennifer Leung – though at least one other Hen Harrier had been seen there a few days previously this autumn). Although there are four reports, all from Wild Duck Lake, involving five birds in August – ‘present’ on 4/8/2009 (韩冬, 天天, 东方云雀, Mogan(音)(美)和他的妈妈 via BirdTalker); one on 14/8/2010 (Brian Ivon Jones via BirdTalker); one on 27/8/2005 [ZLi in 2006 CBR] and two on 27/8/2006 (天台, lidove, Tim via BirdTalker) and 28 reports totalling 55 bird-days in September most of these reports are believed, by the author, to be erroneous. Genuine autumn passage probably doesn’t commence until the end of September and peaks in the second half of October and first week of November. The two highest autumn counts were both in late October 2007 and involved 17 (13 ringtails and four adult males) at a pre-roost gathering at Miyun reservoir in the early evening of the 19/10/2007 (PH pers. obs.) and, just over one week later, 19 that were counted at Wild Duck Lake during 27-28/10/2007 (高校观鸟赛总记录 via BirdTalker).

Pied Harrier                                                   4, three juveniles & an adult male

Black Kite                                                      3, two juveniles & an adult

Eastern Buzzard                                            1.  Totally absent in summer, autumn migration starts in early September. The average first date between 2003-2012 is the 13 September and there are reports of single birds in three of the last ten years during the first week of that month with the earliest being the 3rd September 2005 when one was ‘present’ at Wild Duck Lake [科目, 田竹, 舒晓楠, bmlee, cccp, midway, 王沁一家及福建鸟友青竹瘦. via BirdTalker). There’s typically a marked influx during the second half of that month with a pronounced peak between the 29th September and 14 October (a 16 day period that accounts for 70% of the total autumn bird-days) before declining to the end of October.

Brown-cheeked Rail                                     1 was heard.  Previous early autumn Beijing records include- one at Shahe Reservoir, Changping on 19/9/2004 [LHY in 2004 CBR], four at Zhongguocanaoguanliz, Shunyi on 28/9/2008 (birdslover via BirdTalker) & one at Shahe reservoir on 19/8/2010 (Jan-Erik Nilsén)

Eurasian Coot                                                190

Pied Avocet                                                     1

Grey-headed Lapwing                              1

Pacific Golden Plover                               23

Grey Plover                                                   2

Common Snipe                                            15

Black-tailed Godwit                                   20 juveniles

Spotted Redshank                                          50.  All of those seen well (30+ birds) were juveniles.

Common Greenshank                                    4 juveniles

Wood Sandpiper                                            4

Red-necked Stint                                           1

Temminck’s Stint                                            5

Curlew Sandpiper                                          5 juveniles

Ruff                                                                1 juvenile male

GREY PHALAROPE                                               1 juvenile moulting to first-winter. Video recorded. The previous Beijing record was one that was photographed at Shahe reservoir, Changping on the 12 November 2010 (Guan Xiangyu et al.).

Black-headed Gull                                        140

Mongolian Gull                                              4, an adult & three juveniles

Common Tern                                                1 juvenile

Oriental Turtle Dove                                     1

Eurasian Collared Dove                              2 together

Spotted Dove                                                    2 together

Pacific Swift                                                  1 flew south

Common Kingfisher                                      1

Great Spotted Woodpecker                          2

Common Kestrel                                            5

Amur Falcon                                                  6

Eurasian Hobby                                             2

Saker Falcon                                                  2 separate juveniles flew purposefully south. The first at 07h40, the second at 12h47.

Peregrine Falcon                                           2, including a juvenile peregrinator or ‘Shaheen’

Brown Shrike                                                 1

Chinese Grey Shrike                                     2

Red-billed Blue Magpie                                4

Eurasian Magpie                                           25

Yellow-bellied Tit                                         2

Japanese Tit                                                   6

Chinese Penduline Tit                                    1 was heard

Eurasian Skylark                                           8.  A fairly typical first autumn date.

Light-vented Bulbul                                       1

Sand Martin                                                   3

Barn Swallow                                                350, including perhaps as many as 10 saturata

Red-rumped Swallow                                    400

Dusky Warbler                                              5

Radde’s Warbler                                            5

Yellow-browed Warbler                              5

Oriental Reed Warbler                                 1

Black-browed Reed Warbler                     10

Baikal (David’s) Bush Warbler                 1

Lanceolated Warbler                                    3, one seen & the other two only heard

Zitting Cisticola                                              4

Plain Laughingthrush                                   1 heard

Chinese Hill Babbler                                    2

white-eye sp.                                                 1 was heard

White-cheeked Starling                                1

Common Starling                                           1.  Perhaps the second earliest autumn Beijing record? Jan-Erik Nilsen, saw one at Miyun on the 17 Sept. 2012 and this is the earliest ever autumn record from the Capital just pre-dating one at Wild Duck Lake (WDL) on either 23rd or 24th 2010 (report is unclear on exactly which date) by Brian Jones. These are the only two September reports that I know of for Beijing and they’re not followed until four at WDL on either 3rd or 4 October (2010) but it’s the middle of that month before Common Starling becomes anything like regular. Autumn passage peaks in the second half of October. Two at WDL on the 6 Nov (2011) is the latest autumn report from Beijing (& the only record from that month).

Bluethroat                                                      5

Siberian Rubythroat                                  7

Taiga Flycatcher                                           1

Daurian Redstart                                           1

Stejneger’s Stonechat                                     20

Eurasian Tree Sparrow                                 50

Eastern Yellow Wagtail                                50, including 15 macronyx & one taivana

Grey Wagtail                                                 3

White Wagtail                                               30, including 13 leucopsis & 15 ocularis

Richard’s Pipit                                                23

Blyth’s Pipit                                                     3

Olive-backed Pipit                                         60

Red-throated Pipit                                          8

Brambling                                                      1 was heard. Possibly the earliest ever autumn record from Beijing.. On the Hebei coast the first birds of the autumn are typically encountered in the last week of September but there appears to be just one previous Beijing record from that month, a single bird in Chaoyang Park on 23/9/2010 (Jan-Erik Nilsén). Autumn migration probably peaks in late October/early November.

Common Rosefinch                                       26

Meadow Bunting                                           2

Chestnut-eared Bunting                             1

Little Bunting                                                   75

Pallas’s Reed Bunting                                     15

Mammals

Tolai Hare                                                     1

Chinese Grey Shrike

Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanus sphenocercus) is an occasional breeder but predominantly a passage migrant and winter visitor to Beijing.  It’s a beast of a shrike and always a joy to see.  Unlike the shrikes I used to see in the UK, Chinese Grey is vocal and its call is often the first giveaway to its presence.  In early September the first few of these birds are arriving in the capital at suitable sites such as Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu.

This one was recorded at Miyun last weekend.  Unfortunately for Western Palearctic birders, it’s not a long-distance migrant and therefore an unlikely vagrant to Europe.

Siberian Rubythroat

SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (Luscinia calliope) is a migrant through Beijing and mid- to late-September is the peak time.  This morning there were three – two adult males and a female – in just one small patch of scrub at Miyun Reservoir.  One of the males was uncharacteristically showy and I took the opportunity to film him.  Towards the end of the video he is even singing (although the microphone facility on my iPhone isn’t quite up to the standard of the video).

Definitely a species I dreamt of finding on my original home patch of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk…

Finless Porpoises

Ok, they aren’t birds, but FINLESS PORPOISES are one of the features of Laotieshan.  On calm days it is not unusual to see more than 10 of these cetaceans loafing around.  Here’s a short video of these mammals hanging around a local fishing boat…

Stejneger’s Stonechats

I have just returned from a few days with Paul Holt and Marie Louise at the brilliant visible migration watchpoint that is Laotieshan in Liaoning Province.  Learned lots, as we always do when we visit this superb place.  Paul is staying on for a few days and a full report will be available soon but I’ll blog about a few of my highlights over the next few days.  First up is a video compilation of a few of the 15+ STEJNEGER’S STONECHATS that frequented the point on 9 September.  Remarkably different from the stonechats with which I recently re-acquainted myself at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk….!

First for Beijing: SLENDER-BILLED GULL

Monday and Tuesday were awful in Beijing with rain, wind and relatively chilly temperatures for the time of year.  So it was with relief and a sense of expectation that Wednesday dawned clear, sunny and with expansive blue skies….  Any bad weather during the migration season can cause birds to make unscheduled stops and often the first good day after rainy weather can be very productive for birders.

And so, on Wednesday morning, after a ‘birdy’ few minutes on his local patch that included finding an Eye-browed Thrush, Paul Holt knew there had been a ‘fall’ of migrants and immediately abandoned his tiny area of urban scrub for potentially more productive sites..  He was rewarded with an exceptional find – a first for Beijing no less – in the shape of an adult SLENDER-BILLED GULL (细嘴鸥, Chroicocephalus genei) at Miyun Reservoir.  

The nearest known breeding grounds of this gull are in Kazakhstan, 3-4,000 kilometres to the west.  And so, as one might expect, it’s a rare bird in China, with the possible exception of Xinjiang Province in the far north-west where it appears to be fairly regular since the first record there in 2008.  There are a handful of records from Hong Kong and also from well-watched Hebei coast around Beidaihe/Happy Island but elsewhere in China it’s very rare.  

After Paul put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I decided to make the trip and, along with Jennifer Leung, I was on site by 1600. Fortunately, we saw it immediately.  Later in the afternoon it came close enough for me to take some record photos and a short video using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 set-up.

Adult SLENDER-BILLED GULL, Miyun Reservoir, 3 September 2014.  The first record for Beijing.
Adult SLENDER-BILLED GULL with Black-headed Gull, Miyun Reservoir, 3 September 2014. The first record for Beijing.

This gull turned up at exactly the same spot as the recent LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (see previous post).  

Miyun Reservoir is simply stunning on a clear, blue-sky day...
Miyun Reservoir is simply stunning on a clear, blue-sky day…

Given there are so few birders in Beijing and no site is well-watched, who knows what would be seen if this site was covered on a regular basis?! There is so much opportunity for discovery, and some of the sites are stunningly beautiful, which is what makes birding in Beijing so brilliant…! 

 

 

LESSER FRIGATEBIRD in Beijing

After participating in Sunbird’s tour of Qinghai and Tibet, led by Paul Holt, German birder Henning Lege decided to stay on for a spot of birding in Beijing.  On 20 August he visited Miyun Reservoir, one of Beijing’s premier birding sites, where he found a juvenile LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (白斑军舰鸟, Fregata ariel) – the third record of this species in Beijing.  Fortunately there were some Chinese birders from the Beijing Birdwatching Society, including its President, Ms Fu Jianping, on site with whom Henning could share his excitement.  And, on his return to Beijing, he was quick to alert Paul who immediately circulated a message via the rapidly growing Birding Beijing WeChat group, meaning that local birders were alerted and had an opportunity to see it.  Since its discovery on 20 August several groups of birders and photographers (possibly more than 20 in total) have visited and enjoyed this spectacular, almost prehistoric-looking bird, meaning it must be one of Beijing’s most “twitched” rarities ever.

With the nearest coast around 150km away, seabirds are, not surprisingly, hard to see in Beijing.  There is only one record of a skua (a Long-tailed) and even species such as Saunders’s Gull and Great Knot (not uncommon on the coast), have never reliably been recorded in the capital.  So it is perhaps surprising that three LESSER FRIGATEBIRDS – truly pelagic birds – have made it to Beijing.  

The previous two Beijing sightings were both in April – in 2007 and 2011. The first was photographed by Hong Wanping at Shahe Reservoir, Changping 14 April 2007 (see China J. of Zoology (2011.4) Lesser Frigatebird, Shahe reservoir, April 2007 for a brief account). The second was seen, and photographed, at the Ming Tombs Reservoir (Shisanling Reservoir) on 7 April 2011.

LESSER FRIGATEBIRD is rare anywhere in China, though it may be just about annual in Hong Kong where regular pelagic trips are now taking place.  There are reports from most coastal provinces from Guangxi to Guangdong, and Fujian north to Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Tianjin & Liaoning. Although we are not aware of any records from coastal Hebei, there are two reports of GREATER FRIGATEBIRD from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao, Hebei with an immature on 6 June 1996 (Thalund et al. 1994) being the second of these.

One can only assume that this most recent bird was displaced by one of the recent tropical storms, possibly Typhoon Halong that hit east Asia in early August.  

Thankfully, documentation of this record has not been difficult.  In addition to Henning’s notes, China is blessed with some superb bird photographers.  The brilliant set of photos below is by Zhang Weimin with an additional stunning photo by Huang Hanchen, to both of whom big thanks are in order for allowing me to reproduce their wonderful photos for this post.

 

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This photo of the Lesser Frigatebird by Huang Hanchen

According to The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World (HBW), the LESSER FRIGATEBIRD breeds on small, remote tropical and sub-tropical islands, in mangroves or bushes, and even on bare ground on islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It feeds mainly on fish (especially flying-fish) and squid, but also on seabird eggs and chicks, carrion and fish scraps (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It is “kleptoparasitic” – a great word that means it habitually steals food from other species.

Unfortunately for Paul and me, this bird was found whilst we were overseas, Paul in Canada and me in the UK.  After arriving back in Beijing on Saturday morning I visited the site with Paul and local birders Wu Lan and Zhao Min on Sunday and despite staying all day, we failed to see it.  The last documented sighting was on Friday 29 August.  Unless it has been hiding effectively for the last couple of days, it has almost certainly moved on, hopefully on its way back to the Pacific Ocean where it belongs. 

Big thanks again to Zhang Weimin and Huang Hanchen for the use of their photographs, to Paul Holt for the information about the status of Lesser Frigatebird in Beijing (and China) and to everyone on the WeChat group who provided updates about the bird’s whereabouts during its stay at Miyun Reservoir.