New photos of the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan

The PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) is still at Lingshan and has been successfully ‘twitched’ by a few Chinese birders this week.  I have just received the photos below from ZHANG Yong, reproduced here with his kind permission.  Wow!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014.  What a stunner!

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014. What a stunner!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014.  Must be a candidate for the most beautiful Phoenicurus species?

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan, 19 February 2014. Must be a candidate for the most beautiful Phoenicurus species?

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PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART, Lingshan. The sea buckthorn berries are a big attraction for this bird.

ZHANG Yong also saw more than 300 ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) at close quarters…

Some of the 300+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES currently at Lingshan.

Some of the 300+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES currently at Lingshan.

UPDATE: here is a short video of the redstart taken on Sunday 23 February.

And a couple more pictures taken at the weekend.  On several occasions it sang!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

Early on Sunday Lingshan was enveloped in freezing fog, resulting in some beautifully frosted backdrops to this special bird.

Early on Sunday Lingshan was enveloped in freezing fog, resulting in some beautifully frosted backdrops to this special bird.

 

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PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART in Beijing!

Saturday started out badly.  I had arranged to take visiting British birder, Alastair Henderson, and Li Xiaomai to Lingshan to look for GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) and ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀).  As I left my apartment at 0550, the smog was awful (registering over 400 on the Air Quality Index; to put this into perspective, a reading below 25 is considered healthy by the World Health Organisation – see footnote below for a rough guide).  I knew that the air would be better in the mountains but, nevertheless, I wondered whether it would be a good day to be outside at all….

I shouldn’t have worried.  As we reached the base of Lingshan, the air was certainly clearer than in the city and, as we ascended the access road, it cleared further until we could see blue sky, the sun (hallelujah!) and the peak of Lingshan to the west.  It was a glorious day and, even in -9 temperatures, with very little wind it didn’t feel too cold.

As usual on trips to Lingshan, my first stop was a small gully a few hundred metres from the plateau of the road.  This small ‘valley’ holds a few sea buckthorn bushes and was the place I first found GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter.  It usually also plays host to many other species including thrushes, tits, accentors, buntings and rosefinches.

Almost immediately a bird flashed across the road and into a sea buckthorn bush in the gully.  I called out “redstart” and, with my binoculars trained on it as it began to devour some of the yellowy-orange berries, I could see it was not the expected GULDENSTADT’S  (红腹红尾鸲) but instead it was a stonking male PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲, also known as “Alashan Redstart)!!  I quickly extended the legs on my tripod and trained my telescope onto the bird, and it showed magnificently, allowing us to see its beautiful mix of orange, grey, black and white plumage.  Wow!

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, Beijing, 15 February 2014.  Likely to be a first-winter male due to browner and more worn remiges when compared with the tertials.

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.  As one Twitter follower described its plumage as a "like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch"..  I can see what he means...

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014. As one Twitter follower described its plumage is “like a redstart pretending to be a Chaffinch”.. I can see what he means…

PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski's Redstart at Lingshan.

Alastair and Li Xiaomai just after watching the Przevalski’s Redstart at Lingshan.

After grabbing a few record photos with my camera, I sent a message via the Birding Beijing WeChat group to put out the news.  Within 10 minutes, a minibus full of Beijing Birdwatching Society members arrived…!  I knew the WeChat group was an efficient way of spreading news but that was ridiculous…. Beijing city is over 2 hours away!

The BBWS gang had, of course, coincidentally pre-arranged a trip there.  On the way up they saw us at the gully and stopped to say “hi”.  When I told them what we were watching, their jaws dropped!

Unfortunately, the redstart had disappeared as we chatted and, after explaining where the bird had been, Alastair, Xiaomai and I decided to go further up the mountain to look for the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) while the group waited for the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) to reappear.

We drove up the few hundred metres to the top and scanned the slopes where the finches had been last week.  But to no avail.  Not even an ALPINE ACCENTOR (领岩鹨).   

We decided to spend some more quality time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) and, as we descended, we passed the BBWS gang coming up..  they had connected splendidly with the redstart and several of the group delighted in showing me their fantastic photos which eclipsed mine by some margin!  They carried on to look for the rosy finches as we descended.

We were preparing our lunch (of pot noodles!) at the PRZEVALSKI’S site when my phone rang.  It was Zhang Shen, one of the BBWS guys.  I could hear camera shutters in the background as he told me that they had found a flock of “several hundred” ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)…  wow!!  Balancing our pot noodles – now full of boiling hot water – we drove the few hundred metres to the top of the mountain to join the others.  And sure enough, there was a huge flock of ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀) wheeling around the peaks.  Unfortunately they were mobile and hardly settled for more than a few seconds at a time.  But they were definitely ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)!  Thanks guys!!

After seeing the flock several times in flight but without seeing these special mountain finches on the ground, we reluctantly left to spend a little more time with the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲) before heading back to Beijing.  As we watched the redstart at close quarters, it even began to sing – a sort of quiet subsong that reminded me a little of a EURASIAN SKYLARK (云雀)…  what an awesome bird.  And occasionally it interacted with one or two of the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲), with the GULDENSTADT’s clearly dominant and chasing the PRZEVALSKI’S off the berries a few times while we were there.

A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART chasing away the PRZEVALSKI'S REDSTART, Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (红腹红尾鸲) chasing away the PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), Lingshan, 15 February 2014.

I knew the PRZEVALSKI’S (贺兰山红尾鸲) was an excellent record.  It’s a China endemic that breeds in Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia Provinces and is very rare in the east.  I had a vague feeling that there had been just one previous record from the capital – a specimen collected more than 80 years ago.  Some initial research has revealed the following:

One was recorded at nearby Xiaolongmen in a winter survey 1992-1994, date unspecified (per Li Ming – reference: Sun X, Wang l, “Ecological analysis and classification of forest bird communities at XiaoLongMen, Beijing”, Chinese journal of ecology, 2001, 20(5):25-31 ).  However, the specimen from 20 December 1919, referred to in “The Birds of Hopei” (Shaw, 1936) was taken by Rev Wilder from the border between neighbouring Hebei Province and Shanxi Province, meaning that it is not a Beijing record. Shaw also states that Rev.Wilder observed one “in the mission of his compound of Tsung-hsien”.  “A Synopsis of the Avifauna of China” (Cheng Tso-hsin, 1987) describes Przevalski’s Redstart as “Accidentally in Tongxian of Beijing Municipality”.  Tongxian (which may be an alternative spelling of “Tsung-hsien”) is an area in the south-east part of Beijing Municipality.  It is not mountainous and seems a strange place for one to turn up!  More research needed..!  The Lingshan bird is therefore possibly the third record for Beijing and the first for at least 20 years.

Many thanks to Alastair, Xiaomai and to the BBWS gang for their company on the day – and in particular, to Zhang Shen for alerting us to the ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀)… It was great to see so many birders out and about in Beijing!

Footonote: The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Beijing and what the AQI “score” means.  Yesterday the AQI was over 400…! It should be noted, though, that the AQI will vary greatly according to location and, in the mountains to the west of Beijing, the AQI will very likely be significantly better than the city.

AQI Air Pollution
Level
Health Implications
0–50 Excellent No health implications.
51–100 Good Few hypersensitive individuals should reduce outdoor exercise.
101–150 Lightly Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
151–200 Moderately Polluted Slight irritations may occur, individuals with breathing or heart problems should reduce outdoor exercise.
201–300 Heavily Polluted Healthy people will be noticeably affected. People with breathing or heart problems will experience reduced endurance in activities. These individuals and elders should remain indoors and restrict activities.
300+ Severely Polluted Healthy people will experience reduced endurance in activities. There may be strong irritations and symptoms and may trigger other illnesses. Elders and the sick should remain indoors and avoid exercise. Healthy individuals should avoid out door activities.
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Asian Rosy Finches

After the snow in Beijing on Friday, my mind had been speculating as to whether new birds might turn up or, at the very least, whether the snow cover and cold snap might drive down some of the special mountain birds from the inaccessible peaks to more reachable terrain.  Lingshan was the place that I was itching to try, and so off I went…

Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain with its peak at 2,303 metres and, unlike many of Beijing’s mountains, it is accessible in winter by car (note: many mountain roads are closed in winter, nominally due to “fire risk”, at least so say the chain-smoking guards that throw their cigarette butts onto the grass and stop any cars driving up).   Getting to Lingshan is fairly straightforward by car – simply take the G109 west of Beijing and, after around the km105 post, take the right hand minor road signposted, not surprisingly, “Lingshan”.  It usually takes between 2 and 3 hours from central Beijing if leaving early morning before the traffic becomes too burdensome.

The access road at Lingshan, after the snow, was a little treacherous in places but passable with care.  The temperature was a nippy -6 when I left central Beijing, falling to -12 at the 6th ring road/G109 junction and falling further to -18 at Lingshan on arrival. However, with almost no wind, and stunning blue skies, it did not feel too cold.

Lingshan, on a beautiful crisp winter's morning.

Lingshan, on a beautiful crisp winter’s morning.

Another view from Lingshan.  With a dusting of snow the mountains in Beijing are stunning

Another view from Lingshan. With a dusting of snow the mountains in Beijing are stunning

On the way up the access road, I stopped several times to watch small flocks of birds, including many SIBERIAN ACCENTORS (棕眉山岩鹨), GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS (戈氏岩鹀) and, as I neared the top, PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀). A large flock of REDPOLLS (白腰朱顶雀) was flying around but frustratingly only the odd one or two settled in view.  There must be an ARCTIC REDPOLL (极北朱顶雀) or two among them!  A handful (I counted 7) of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) were on their usual sea buckthorn bushes.

The first thing I wanted to do was to check the slopes just beyond the derelict buildings for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀).  I stopped the car and scanned the slopes. Immediately I saw birds. My heart raced but relaxed again when I realised they were ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨). Nevertheless, a good start.

ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) are in good supply on Lingshan this winter.

ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) are in good supply on Lingshan this winter.

As I looked, I could see more and more and suddenly I saw a bird with a pale head. Unfortunately I was looking directly towards the sun, so I slowly got out of the car and walked around to the side of the slope to give me a better angle. And there it was – an ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀) ! feeding with the accentors. As I scanned, I found another, then another.. I counted 6. I watched, captivated, as they fed on the slope, gradually making their way up until they were feeding around my car! At this point I wistfully thought about my camera sitting on the passenger seat…  Suddenly, something spooked the whole flock and they rose up, wheeled around and settled a long way down the slope… I counted almost 100 birds in flight, at least 30 of which were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (粉红腹岭雀). I took the opportunity to quickly make my way back to the car and settled inside with camera in hand as the flock gradually made its way up the slope again and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before several were around the car and I was able to capture some photos… All too quickly they moved across the road and to the upper slope before, again, wheeling down to the lower slopes….

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male).

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male).  What a bird!

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed female)

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed female)

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male and female)

ASIAN ROSY FINCH (presumed male and female)

ASIAN ROSY FINCHES, Lingshan.

ASIAN ROSY FINCHES, Lingshan.

"Just landed"...

“Just landed”…

Having only seen ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀) in flight once before (last winter at Lingshan), it was brilliant to see these stunning birds so well. Their plumage is beautiful with an array of purples, browns, blacks and greys.. I hope they hang around for anyone else who might be tempted to look for them. Even without the birds, Lingshan is a beautiful place, especially in winter. Definitely one of my favourite Beijing birding sites!

One of the male PALLAS'S ROSEFINCHES at Lingshan.  At least 30 are scattered around the higher slopes, preferring the birch scrub.

One of the male PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES at Lingshan. At least 30 are scattered around the higher slopes, preferring the birch scrub.

A female or young male PALLAS'S ROSEFINCH, Lingshan.  I am not sure how to age/sex PALLAS'S ROSEFINCHES - any advice appreciated!

A female or young male PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH, Lingshan. I am not sure how to age/sex PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES – any advice appreciated!

 

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CHIFFCHAFF – new for Beijing (or not)

Beijing doesn’t have a rarities committee and the most recent municipality bird list was published in 2011.  So keeping a handle on the birds recorded in the capital requires a combination of finding birds oneself, building as many links as possible with local birders and monitoring the websites that showcase the work of the burgeoning local community of bird photographers.

It was the latter that revealed the presence of what we initially thought was Beijing’s first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Early in the new year, friend Li Xiaomai spotted some images of a CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺), taken in the Olympic Forest Park, on the www.birdnet.cn website and alerted local birders.  The photographer was apparently waiting for the appearance of a WINTER WREN (鹪鹩) when a “warbler” popped into view and he, opportunistically, reeled off some photos and posted them on the Beijing section of the website.  Little did he know that he had snapped a major rarity!

With a new smartphone “chat group” recently set up in Beijing to share bird sightings, news of the presence of this CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) spread fast and, the next morning, there was a massive (by Beijing standards) “twitch” for the bird involving 8 birders, both ex-pat and Chinese.

After hearing the bird call once early morning from a dense reedbed, there was no sign for the next few hours in an extensive search of the ‘wetland’ area, in which it was reported to be feeding the previous day.  Reluctantly, I decided to leave as I had lots to do, and I began to make my way out of the park to the metro station with friend, Jennifer Leung.  On the way out, almost at the end of the reedbed area, I spotted a small bird feeding low down on the edge of the reeds.  It looked promising and, quickly lifting my binoculars, I could see that it was the CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Jennifer watched it as I called and messaged the other birders on site, who had by now dispersed over a wide area.  I then settled down to observe and photograph the bird as it fed, very obligingly, along the base of a small reedbed just a couple of metres away.

2014-01-07 tristis Chiffchaff

CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 7 January 2014.

COMMON CHIFFCHAFF ssp tristis, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 6 January 2014.  At the time, thought to be the first record for the capital.

CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park. The first documented record for Beijing.

Although slightly blurred, this photo shows the greenish/yellow tinge under the shoulder.

Fortunately, two local birders Zhu Lei and Que Pinjia were on the scene quickly and secured excellent views but, disappointingly, the bird soon disappeared into a dense reedbed before the others arrived.  It was seen briefly later in the afternoon and has been seen on several days since.

As expected for a vagrant CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in eastern China, the bird was of the ‘tristis‘ subspecies.  The greyish brown plumage, jet-black legs and bill and the high-pitched and slightly down-slurred call were all typical of this race, considered by some to be a full species.

At the time we all thought that this bird was the first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) to be recorded in Beijing.  It does not appear on the municipality list by Liu Yang from 2011 and there are no reports on the Birdtalker database.  However, it has since come to light that one was seen in February 2008 at Baiwangshan (in the northwest of the city) by respected local birder, Wen Chen.  So the Olympic Forest Park bird is the second record for the capital.

With thanks to Paul Holt, here is a short summary of the status of CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in China:

“Chiffchaff wasn’t an unexpected addition to the Beijing list as there are at least three reports from coastal Hebei (one on Happy Island on 14 May 2002; one at Lighthouse Point, Beidaihe during 16-19 May 2006 & one in the Lotus Hills, Beidaihe on 10 May 2007).  Despite the timing of the Hebei records (May – when there are lots of birders in the Happy Island-Beidaihe area), winter has always been thought to be the most likely time this species would turn up in Beijing.  

There’s at least one winter record from Yancheng NNR in coastal Jiangsu Province and seven (?) records from Hong Kong (including one recently in “Long Valley”). This form of Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita tristis, winters in India & it’s sometimes split as Siberian Chiffchaff P. tristis.  In China it’s restricted to breeding in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang Province (north-west China) but is a locally common passage migrant through much of at least the western part of that province. Elsewhere it occurs as a fairly common migrant in western Qinghai where Jesper Hornskov (in an unpublished report on the Birds recorded at Golmud, Qinghai Province, China, 1980-1994) recorded 256 bird-days – just one spring record (23 March 1994) but fairly common between 25 September and 21 November, plus a late straggler on the 18 December 1990. Numbers varied year on year with 132 bird-days & a high count of 10 on the 3 November in 1991 compared to just 68 bird-days and a high count of eight on the 3 October in 1993.

There’s a record from Shandong Province in the new checklist and Common Chiffchaff has apparently also been recorded in Liaoning Province (it was included in Bai Qingquan’s unpublished List of the Birds of Liaoning, Jan. 2012), Henan Province (as it was included in an unpublished List of the Birds of Dongzhai NNR, Luoshan provided by researcher Du Zhiyong on 4 January 2010), Shaanxi Province (one at Yangxian on the 15 Dec 2003 [Phil Heath] was the first, and possibly still the only provincial record), another was photographed at Yandong Lake, Wuhan on 4 December 2009 (Zhang Shuyong in China Bird Watch 71, p32) – the first record for Hubei Province.  There’s a short article on this occurrence in the same issue. The Jiangsu record is of one that was seen at Yancheng NNR by Mark Beaman & a BirdQuest group sometime in the 1990s.”

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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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Birding Beijing on Prime Time TV!

Last September I spent a day filming at Yeyahu Nature Reserve with a TV crew from Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based TV channel with over 300 million viewers in China.  The result of the day was a 5-minute programme about birdwatching in Beijing that was broadcast at 7.55pm on 1 and 2 January.  You can see the programme by clicking this link.

Can you identify the species of raptor towards the end?

It was great fun to do and I want to send a big thank you to Phoenix TV for giving me the opportunity to promote birdwatching in China.  And Swarovski, that free advertising must be worth a new pair of binoculars and a ‘scope…?? ;)

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The Birds of Beijing And The Air They Fly In

That’s the title of the most recent podcast from Sinica, in which I had the pleasure of participating alongside Jon Kaiman, writer for The Guardian, and host Jeremy Goldkorn.  You can listen to the podcast – an enjoyable conversation about birds in Beijing and air pollution – by clicking here.

As is traditional, the participants make a recommendation at the end of the show and mine is “Birds and People“, a landmark book about the relationship between birds and people, including stories of cultural and from around the world.  My apologies to author, Mark Cocker, for referring to him as Mark Golley at the end (revealing my Norfolk roots!).

A big thank you to Jeremy and Sinica for inviting me to help spread the word about Beijing’s birdlife and the importance of protecting it.

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Merry Christmas from Birding Beijing

As a superb year for birding in the Chinese capital draws to a close, I bring exciting news that a group of Beijing birders is working on a “2013 Beijing Bird Report”, to include information about all known significant sightings.

Here are the six new records for Beijing in 2013 that we are aware of:

Black-winged Kite: 1 over the Baiwang Shan watch point on the 16 April (鶽鴞 小关 等等 via BirdTalker)

Sandhill Crane: 1 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 8 Dec. (ZHU Lei, WANG Yu-ting, JIN Yan-fei, MA Zhe, LEI Ming and JU Ming) was still present on the 15 Dec. (Jan-Erik Nilsén)

Bar-tailed Godwit: 1 at Miyun reservoir on the 13 April (Jan-Erik Nilsén) with eight at Shahe on the 22 June (Colm Moore)

Long-tailed Jaeger: 1 near adult photographed at Shahe on the 22 June (Colm Moore)

Western Yellow Wagtail: 1 male melanogisea (now subsumed in feldgegg) photographed at Shahe reservoir on the 12 May (Colm Moore)

Tree Pipit: 1 photographed in the British Ambassador’s Garden, Guanghua Lu, on the 13 May (Terry Townshend).

It’s likely to be a little while before we complete the annual review and, in the mean time, we are interested in any records for inclusion.  Please comment on this post if you have any contributions.

And so, all that remains for me to say in this last post of 2013 is “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” to all the readers of this blog.. and a big thank you to everyone who has contributed, commented and spread the word about birding in Beijing.  Here is a festive cartoon, courtesy of my very talented friend, Li Xiaomai…  enjoy!

cranes2

 

EDIT: It has since come to light that another new bird was seen in Beijing in 2013 – a SANDERLING was photographed at Ma Chang in September (awaiting further details).  So that’s 7 new birds in 2013!  

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An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.

A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.

A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.

I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches

PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.

There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....

There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan

吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.

The wound was bad.

The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray

The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.

RIP.

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LEOPARD CAT in Beijing

On Friday 22 November, I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with visiting Marie Louise Ng from Hong Kong.  It was a stunningly beautiful day – cold early on but spectacularly clear and with almost no wind.  It was one of those days that, as a resident of Beijing where the air can often be toxic, I absolutely adore.

Miyun Reservoir on a clear autumn day.  It's hard to believe one is in Beijing!

Miyun Reservoir on a clear autumn day. It’s hard to believe this is Beijing!

We visited two sites on the northern shore of the reservoir and, at the first, we were treated to spectacular flyovers of several hundred COMMON CRANES, with a handful of HOODED CRANES amongst them..  and skeins of BEAN GEESE flying from their roosting sites to the feeding grounds in the maize fields.  At least 4 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS kept us company at our observation point.

After a couple of hours we decided to take a walk to some weedy fields in which I had peviously seen PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE.

As we headed over the brow of a small hill, there was movement in the grass and, quickly training my binoculars, I could see a cat walking slowly from right to left, less than 100 metres away.  My heart leapt.  It looked big and, immediately, with that thick bushy tail and spotted markings on its fur, I thought it must be a LEOPARD CAT.  Gripped by the presence of a very special mammal, we watched it as it made its way onto a dirt track.  With the sun behind us, it was now in full view and we were enjoying spectacular views (I am sure the low sun also played a role in delaying this beautiful animal’s detection of us).  We reached for our cameras and reeled off some photos as it suddenly broke into a trot and then melted into the vegetation to the north of the track.  We watched, captivated, as it made its way towards a small lake, eventually vanishing into the long grass with the local magpies agitated and noisy.

I turned to Marie with what must have been the biggest grin I have ever sported and said immediately “that’s my best wildlife experience of the year!”

LEOPARD CAT (Prionailurus bengalensis) of the ssp euptilurus/euptilura (aka AMUR LEOPARD CAT).  Note the dark stripes on the back of the head and the pale patches on the back of the ears, as well as the thick tail.

LEOPARD CAT (Prionailurus bengalensis) of the ssp euptilurus/euptilura (aka AMUR LEOPARD CAT). Note the dark stripes on the back of the head and the pale patches on the back of the ears, as well as the thick, striped, tail.

LEOPARD CAT, Miyun Reservoir, 22 November 2013.  Sightings, especially during the daytime, are very rare in the capital.

LEOPARD CAT, Miyun Reservoir, 22 November 2013. Sightings, especially during the daytime, are very rare in the capital.

At less than 100m range, and with the morning sun behind us, views were spectacular!

At less than 100m range, and with the morning sun behind us, views were spectacular!

Although Leopard Cat is probably not rare in the mountains around Beijing, sightings certainly are.  I am aware of just one other recent Beijing sighting – one seen at Yeyahu by Brian Jones on 11 October 2010.  The information below about the status of LEOPARD CAT in China is from Zhu Lei, for which many thanks.

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Gao (1987, in ‘Fauna Sinica. Mammalia. Vol. 8. Carnivora’) reports that there are 4 subspecies of Leopard Cat in China, euptilura (NE China, north of Yellow River), bengalensis (SW China), chinensis (N and S China) and hainana (endemic to Hainan Island). The ssp. euptilura has the largest body and lightest coat, also the very faint spot marking. The ssp. chinensis is darker, more distinctively spotted, and has 2 black dorsal stripes.

Chen et al. (2002, in ‘Mammals of Beijing’) points out that the ssp. of Leopard Cat in Beijing is euptilura, according to measurements and colour markings of specimens from Yanqing and Mentougou.

Xie and Smith (2008) recognise 5 ssp. in China, alleni (includes hainana, endemic to Hainan), bengalensis (SW Guangxi, SW Guizhou, Sichuan, S Xizang, Yunnan), chinensis (S Anhui, SW and E China, Taiwan), euptilura (north of Huaihe River, Beijing, NE China), scripta (N Yunnan, W Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi and SE Xizang, Chinese endemic ssp.).

Based on above reference and the pics you’ve sent, I think your cat definitely is ssp. euptilurus (light coat and very faint spotted).

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The ssp euptilurus or “Amur Leopard Cat” looks very different to the southern China and SE Asian subspecies (see images here for comparison) and, I understand, it’s a potential split into a separate species in its own right.  The taxonomy of Leopard Cat in China is poorly understood, so classification may be subject to change.

However man decides to classify this cat, it is a beautiful animal and we were privileged to spend a special minute or two in its company.. proving once again that Beijing is a superb place for birds and wildlife.

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