Beijing Birders Meet-up

In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders.  There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more…  plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.

Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza.  Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.

It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.

Thanks to Jennifer Leung for the photos below.

From left to right: Paul Holt, Colm Moore (front), Terry Townhsend and Tom Beeke.

From left to right: Paul Holt (UK), Colm Moore (front, representing Ireland), Terry Townshend (UK) and Tom Beeke (Canada, making a special guest appearance from Dalian).

From left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alstrom (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen.

Clockwise from left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Paul Holt (UK), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alström (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen (Sweden) and (the right side of) Craig Brelsford (US).

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Amur Falcon migration

The AMUR FALCON (Falco amurensis, 阿穆尔隼) performs one of the most amazing migrations of any bird of prey.  Breeding in the Amur region (southeastern Russia and northeastern China) and wintering in southern Africa, this species is a great traveller.

But how do Amur Falcons survive the long sea crossings from India to southeastern Africa?  The answer is here – a great talk from scientist Charles Anderson about an even more incredible migration – of dragonflies!

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Relict Gull

RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species.  Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….

It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China.  It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds.  Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing.  However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year…  Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain.  There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).

Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers..  They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply!  Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.

Local shellfish collectors

Local shellfish collectors

Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).

Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).

Adult and 2cy RELICT GULLS, Nanpu Hebei Province, August 2013

Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013

Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013

2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013

2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013

Relict Gull (first calendar year).  Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.

Relict Gull (first calendar year). Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.

Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

 

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Late August at Yeyahu

On Saturday 24 August I visited Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh.  I collected Steve from his hotel at 0530 on a beautiful clear, sunny morning and, after a pretty clear run over the mountains past Badaling, we were at the entrance to the reserve by 0645.  A juvenile TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳) was a nice surprise along the entrance track, the first time I have seen this species in the capital.  Other highlights included a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺), 2 SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽), an adult RELICT GULL (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥) and a juvenile PIED HARRIER (Circus melanoleucos, 鹊鹞).  Unfortunately there was no sign of any STREAKED REED WARBLERS (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺), the autumn passage of which peaked between 22 August and 7 September in the 1920s, according to La Touche.  I shall keep looking!

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013

 

Full species list below.

 

Common Pheasant – 1
Mandarin – 3
Mallard – 1
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 3
Little Grebe – 7
Great Crested Grebe – 8
Yellow Bittern – 3 (2 adults and one juvenile)
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN – 2 (a pair) – seen in the same place as the male seen in early June – possibly a breeding pair?
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12
Grey Heron – 2
Purple Heron – 6
Little Egret – 2
Great Cormorant – 1
Amur Falcon – 5
Hobby – 2
Peregrine – 1 juvenile
Black-eared Kite – 1 juvenile
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male, two juveniles)
Pied Harrier – 1 juvenile
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Moorhen – 5
Coot – 9
Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe – 2
RELICT GULL – 1 moulting adult. My first autumn sighting in Beijing.
Gull sp – 1 juvenile/first winter not seen well enough to id
White-winged Tern – 4 juveniles
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 5
Common Cuckoo – 1 juvenile
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 3
TIGER SHRIKE – 1 juvenile. My first in Beijing.
Brown Shrike – 12
Black Drongo – 62
Azure-winged Magpie – one seen from car on return journey
Common Magpie – 12
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 7
Marsh Tit – 4
Chinese Penduline Tit – 9, including at least 3 juveniles
Barn Swallow – c80
Red-rumped Swallow – c20
Zitting Cisticola – 11
Chinese Bulbul – 9
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – 1
Thick-billed Warbler – 3
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 15
BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER – 1, possibly 2.
Yellow-browed Warbler – 2
Arctic Warbler – 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – c35
Siberian Stonechat – 4
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Yellow Wagtail – 4
White Wagtail – 2

 

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Baer’s Pochard or Hybrid?

As the wild population of Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) has declined dramatically in the last few years, a new threat has emerged – that of hybridisation (see my article on Birding Frontiers here).  The only confirmed breeding site for Baer’s Pochard also hosts the closely related Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca, 白眼潜鸭) and, this year, I have personally seen drake Baer’s displaying to females of Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard.

This spring and summer I have been making regular visits to the breeding site in Hebei Province, south of Beijing, to monitor the Baer’s Pochards.  It’s a large site with many hidden ponds amongst the reeds, meaning that, in a short visit, it is not straightforward to count the birds present or to establish proof of breeding.  So far this year I am unaware of any confirmation that Baer’s has bred successfully.

My most recent visit, in early August with visiting British birder Richard Bonser, produced no definite sightings.  However, we did see the bird below, which we think *could be* a female Baer’s.  One of the problems with identification of ducks at this time of year is that adults are in ‘eclipse’ plumage, meaning that they look very different than when sporting their spring finery.  An additional complication is the spectre of hybrids.  I do not have knowledge of what Baer’s Pochard should look like in eclipse and I have been unable to find any images or literature to guide me.  Baer’s *ought* to be identifiable on structure but, with hybrids a very real possibility, this becomes less straightforward – we should expect at least some hybrids to exhibit Baer’s-like structure.

Clearly, given the “Critically Endangered” status of this bird, a priority must be to assemble images of known pure Baer’s in all plumages from private collections.  That will help birders seeing these birds in the wild to establish whether they are true Baer’s or hybrids which, in turn, will help conservationists to better establish the likely true population and the extent of the threat of hybridisation.

In the meantime, I would very much welcome views from anyone with experience of these birds as to whether the bird below is a pure Baer’s or a likely hybrid (in my view it is clearly not a pure Ferruginous on structure and plumage tones alone).

Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013.  Note the robust, all dark bill and flattish head (inconsistent with pure Ferruginous but is there enough here to rule out a hybrid?).  The bird is an adult as it is in wing moult – a juvenile would look much ‘cleaner’.

Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

 

 

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First for Beijing: LESSER COUCAL

Having not been birding much recently, Paul Holt and I visited Miyun Reservoir on Saturday in the hope of finding some inland shorebirds.  Due to the exceptionally high water levels (we have ‘enjoyed’ a wetter than usual spring and summer this year) we did not find any muddy fringes attractive to waders.  Thus, we hardly saw any (just two Black-winged Stilts, one Wood Sandpiper heard only, and 3 Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe).  However, the day was not without good birds…

Shortly after our arrival, and in fantastically still conditions, we heard this:


A Yellow-legged Buttonquail singing (if you can call it singing!).  This is a very difficult to see species and I have only recorded it once before in Beijing – in late May 2012 when I inadvertently flushed one along the Wenyu River.  After one burst of song, it fell silent and we didn’t try to see it by walking through the long grass…  As it happened we would see another Yellow-legged Buttonquail later that day on the other side of the reservoir,  this time a juvenile…  Fortunately I managed a (poor) record image before it disappeared into the maize crops.

Yellow-legged Buttonquail (Turnix tanki), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013

Yellow-legged Buttonquail (Turnix tanki), Juvenile, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013

However, the undoubted highlight was when Paul heard what he immediately thought was a LESSER COUCAL…  we investigated and, sure enough, sitting atop a shrub about 200 metres away was a singing male…  wow!  The first record for Beijing.   It proceeded to sing almost continuously for the next hour or so, roaming across a fairly wide area around the reservoir.  Although photos were difficult to secure, I was able to obtain this record image.

Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013.  The first record for Beijing!

Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013. The first record for Beijing!

Separating Greater and Lesser Coucal is not necessarily straightforward, especially from photographs, so in order to properly document this record it was important to secure a sound recording (song is a good way to distinguish this pair).  Using the video facility of our Canon EOS7Ds we made this recording which is of surprisingly good quality!


At one point we could hear the Coucal singing with an Asian Koel calling in the background.  Asian Koel, until very recently, was a rare bird in Beijing.  It was first recorded in the capital as recently as 1983 and has been occurring with increasing frequency.  This year there have been at least 17 sightings!

So, not many shorebirds but the experience of Saturday just goes to show that we should expect the unexpected!

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Lesser Coucal status (courtesy of Paul Holt):

This is the first record for Beijing.  There are at least five reports of single Lesser Coucals from coastal Hebei – three from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao (with sightings at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 May 2000, Radar marsh on the 23 May 2003 and again at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 June 2007) and at least two reports from Happy Island, Leting (one on 22/5/2001 & the only autumn record – a single on the 30 September 2007). Interestingly Greater Coucal has also been seen twice at Beidaihe – with one during the 6-8/8/1994 with two from  the 9-11/8/1994 (Dierschke and Heintzenberg 1994 & Williams 2000

 

EDIT: It has been brought to my attention (many thanks to “虚弱人类” on Sina Weibo) that a LESSER COUCAL was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, on 27 June 2012.  Images can be seen here.  Our record at Miyun, therefore, becomes the second record for Beijing.

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National Peoples Congress pledges to protect Jankowski’s Bunting!

Great news!  The Environment Protection and Resources Conservation (EPRC) Committee of the National Peoples Congress (the lawmaking body in China) has pledged to protect Jankowski’s Bunting under a new law it is developing on biodiversity.

Last week I co-organised a conference in Beijing involving 35 countries to share experiences on climate change laws, at which the National Peoples Congress gave an update on the progress with China’s national climate change legislation.  In the margins I met with the key staff of the EPRC and discussed their current work programme which, in addition to the climate law, includes a new law on biodiversity.  The staff had heard about my campaign to help save Jankowski’s Bunting from extinction and wanted to find out more…  Of course, I was only too happy to oblige and after showing them pictures and video, playing sound recordings of the bird and explaining about the perilous status of the population and my recent visit to Inner Mongolia and Jilin to survey the bird, they were enthused about helping… After about an hour of conversation, they pledged to ensure that Jankowski’s Bunting was given special protection under the new law and even went so far as to say that they should set a target to double the population…

Details are still to be worked out, and it’s likely to be some time before the law is complete and approved, but extra legal protection for this bird will certainly help to ensure the local authorities prioritise the conservation of this species and will hopefully help them to secure the necessary resources from central government to implement conservation measures.

I took the opportunity to brief the Committee staff on two other birds in desperate trouble – Baer’s Pochard and Streaked Reed Warbler – and I will follow up with another meeting soon to explain more about the plight of these birds.

Watch this space!

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Birding Beijing in the Chinese media

This week Birding Beijing has been published in two major Chinese media outlets – The China Daily and The Global Times.

In the second of an excellent new 8-part video series about Wild Beijing, Terry gives an interview on the importance of, and threats to, Beijing’s wetlands.

And an article in The Global Times describes how the fate of Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Provinces will be a good test of China’s attitude towards the extinction challenge.

Look out for more soon!

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Long-tailed Skua

LT SKUA1

Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photo by Zhao Qi). The first documented record of a skua – of any species – in the capital.

When Beijing-based Colm Moore sent me an email saying that he had seen a Long-tailed Skua at the capital’s Shahe reservoir on 22 June, I was impressed. Skuas of any species are very scarce in China, especially inland. What I didn’t know at the time was that Colm’s sighting was the first ever documented record of a skua – any skua – in the capital. Wow!

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the last 18 months or so, Colm has consistently been finding interesting birds at this reservoir, situated between the 5th and 6th ring roads in northern Beijing, demonstrating the benefits of patch birding.  This year alone he has found a feldeggi Black-headed Wagtail (the first record in China away from the far western Province of Xinjiang), Dalmatian Pelican, Beijing’s second record of Bar-tailed Godwit (a group of 7 on the same day as the skua!), Oriental White Stork, Watercock, Manchurian Reed Warbler and many more… It just goes to show what can be found by combining skill and effort, even in a relatively uninspiring urban location.

Here are a couple more images of the skua taken by Zhao Qi.

LT SKUA2

Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013. Another brilliant find by Colm Moore. Photograph by Zhao Qi.

LT SKUA3

Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photograph by Zhao Qi)

On the status of Long-tailed Skua in China,  Paul Holt offered this response:

“..there are very few reports of any species of skua/jaeger from anywhere in China. …….. I saw one Long-tailed at Laotieshan, Lushun, Liaoning last September (the first record for Liaoning) – plus several unidentifed distant jaegers, another Long-tailed in Shandong on 13 Oct. 2010 (the first for Shandong) & ………… Jesper [Hornskov]‘s also seen a Long-tailed in Qinghai. Long-tailed’s reasonably common/regular off Taiwan in April & is the commonest of the skuas/jaegers there.”

Paul’s comments help to put into perspective just how good is Colm’s record… and, on a lighter note, as Colm commented, it’s also the first skua seen by an Irishman anywhere in China…!

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Blunt-winged Warbler

2013-05-16 BWW with insects

Blunt-winged Warbler (Acrocephalus concinens) surrounded by food, Hebei Province, May 2013

Blunt-winged Warbler (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅苇莺) is a strange bird.  There are two populations, one breeding in eastern China and the other breeding west of the Himalayas in northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  In some places it appears to prefer reedbeds and in other places it prefers dry, scrubby hillsides.  For a time some people suspected that the two populations may be two different species, however research has shown that they are, in fact, one.

In Beijing, Blunt-winged Warbler is a scarce breeder and passage migrant.  It used to breed at the Summer Palace until the late 1980s/early 1990s when the reedbed was “sanitised”.  I have found migrants at Yeyahu NR twice in spring and once in autumn.  In mid-May I found another singing bird in Hebei Province at the Baer’s Pochard breeding site and Paul Holt found at least 11 singing males at the same site a few weeks later… (clearly, they hadn’t yet arrived when I was there…. cough).

Blunt-winged Warbler, Hebei Province, May 2013

Blunt-winged Warbler, Hebei Province, May 2013

Before I saw this species and Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum,  远东苇莺) I wondered how easy they would be to tell apart.  Having now seen both, they are relatively straightforward to separate.  Here is a comparative image of the head pattern and underparts of both species (both images taken this Spring).

A comparison of Blunt-winged and Manchurian Reed Warblers.

A comparison of Manchuria Reed (left) and Blunt-winged (right) Warblers. Easy, eh?

Note the supercilium, which reaches well behind the eye on Manchurian and is barely visible behind the eye on Blunt-winged.  Also, note the dark upper border to the supercilium on Manchurian, lacking in Blunt-winged.  Other features to note are the obvious pale throat bordered by the buffy upper breast on Manchurian.  On Blunt-winged, the pale throat is not as obvious, merging in with the pale upper breast.  The darker cap with perhaps darker overall upperparts may be a useful feature, too.  The bill is slightly sturdier in Manchurian with an all-pale lower mandible.

The songs are typical of Acrocephalus warblers and, with practice, they can be told apart.  Listen to Blunt-winged here and Manchurian Reed here.

I’d like to write a similar post about Black-browed and Streaked Reed Warblers… but first I need to find one of the latter! Wish me luck……

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