The last week of May and first week of June is THE best time for seeing acrocephalus warblers in Beijing. These birds arrive relatively late in the spring migration to allow the reedbeds and vegetation, on which they depend, to grow sufficiently. This Spring I have been hoping to see two specific acrocephalus warblers that I have never seen before – the Streaked Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus sorghophilus) and the Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum). The chances of seeing the former are slim – there have been no records anywhere since 2011, when one was well-described from the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, by a visiting birder and before that one must look back to 2009 when one was trapped in winter at Candaba Marshes, Philippines (unsure of date) and another was found by Paul Holt at the Summer Palace, Beijing, on 6 June. As far as I am aware, there have been no sightings at the well-covered migration hotspot of Beidaihe since 1999 and the breeding grounds, although thought to be in northeast China and southwest Russia, have never been discovered. This is a bird I am seriously worried about and its decline since the days of La Touche (who described it as “swarming” at Beidaihe in late August and early September in the early 20th century) has been catastrophic. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have not yet found a Streaked Reed Warbler. However, yesterday (1 June) I saw my first Manchurian Reed Warbler at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing.
It is always rewarding to go birding with someone who knows a lot more than yourself – it’s one of the best ways to learn. And to go birding with a real China expert – is a treat. So when Paul Holt asked me if I wanted to accompany him for a day’s birding around the northeastern reservoirs of Huairou and Miyun, I jumped at the opportunity. Paul had spent the previous day in the area and had found two special birds – Manchurian Reed Warbler and Chinese Bush Warbler – both, especially the latter, very difficult to see in the capital.
Our first stop was an area of superb habitat on the eastern fringe of Huairou Reservoir. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we were listening to, and watching, a splendid Manchurian Reed Warbler…. I had wondered how straightforward separation from the similar Black-browed and Blunt-winged Warblers would be. I was a little surprised at how different they are. With a prominent, but not as broad as Black-browed, white supercilium with a limited black upper border, long bill, prominent white throat bordering buffy underparts and an almost speckled crown, this warbler, given reasonable views, is distinctive. And the song, although resembling other ‘acros‘ lacks the fast pace or repetition of Black-browed.
Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013. A typical view of this reed-dwelling species!
Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013. Note the dark flecking in the crown – a good feature of Manchurian Reed.
We enjoyed this bird for as long as 15 minutes as it made its way along a patch of reeds before moving back into a larger reedbed. Although reed warblers definitely fit into the “little brown job” of birds, the subtle differences in appearance and vocalisations make them a rewarding challenge for birders. And Manchurian Reed Warbler is a difficult bird to see anywhere. With a very restricted breeding range in northeast China (and southwest Russia), as its name suggests, the breeding grounds are relatively inaccessible and I imagine non-vocalising winter birds to be hard to find in large areas of wetland habitat.
Big thanks to Paul for finding, and taking me to see, one of my most-wanted Beijing birds. Now, where’s that Streaked Reed…..?
In mid-May, after I returned from Sichuan, the British Ambassador in Beijing – Sebastian Wood – invited me to ‘survey’ the Embassy garden each morning for a week to establish how important the garden is to migrant birds. Having visited the garden a couple of times previously for official functions, I knew it offered some good habitat with a mixture of mature trees, a lawn and some areas of bamboo with thick undergrowth – a perfect place for a variety of birds to rest on their northward migration. What I didn’t know was that, on my very first visit, I would find a first for Beijing!
After making arrangements with the local security, I visited each week day from 13-17 May from 0600-0700. Almost the first bird I saw on the very first day was a superb White’s Thrush, skulking in the undergrowth… From that moment, I knew I was in for a treat. A singing Yellow-bellied Tit and a typically skittish Siberian Rubythroat were a joy to see as I made my first circuit. A pair of White-cheeked Starlings were busy nest-building in the trunk of a mature willow and good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers flitted around in the canopy. However, it was on my second circuit that I caught sight of a small pipit walking around on the concrete outside the back door. I looked at it through my binoculars and immediately ruled out Buff-bellied, Pechora, Red-throated and Water Pipit. That left Olive-backed, a common migrant through the capital, as the most likely identification. However, something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t have the bold facial pattern typical of Olive-backed and the streaking on the mantle was more pronounced than is usual on OBP. Also, the streaking on the underparts was bold on the chest with finer, less pronounced streaking on the flanks… all of these features suggested a much more unlikely identification – Tree Pipit.
I quickly took some photos and I was glad I did as, no sooner as I had reeled off half a dozen images, the local cat disturbed it and this interesting pipit flew up and away, never to be seen again. It called once – a buzzy “tseee” – a call which fits both Olive-backed and Tree Pipit (I have real trouble separating them unless I hear both regularly).
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), UK Ambassador’s garden, Beijing, 13 May 2013
I told myself it must have been an unusually-marked Olive-backed Pipit as I was fairly sure that Tree Pipit must be a real rarity in east China. However, I made a note to check Per Alstrom’s “Pipits and Wagtails” book and circulate the images to a few experts for an opinion. After looking at the guidebook, I became more and more convinced that I had seen a Tree Pipit.
Needless to say, the responses I received from respected birders have, so far, been consistent – the bird is indeed thought to be a Tree Pipit! A first for Beijing, quite literally in the Ambassador’s back yard!
In total I saw 35 species in the garden, with highlights including an impressive 44 Oriental Honey Buzzards migrating overhead in just 10 minutes on 14 May, and species such as Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, Asian Stubtail and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher.
Tree Pipit waiting in line for a visa, UK Ambassador’s garden, 13 May 2013
Tree Pipit is extremely rare in China outside Xinjiang in the far northwest. I have only been able to find three records from outside this Province: one in Jiangsu (southeast China) on 8 November 2005, one from Bohai Bay, Hebei Province in May 2010 (Matt Slaymaker) and apparently there is one old specimen from the far northeast (Paul Holt, personal comment). So the bird in the Ambassador’s garden is, as far as I know, the first for Beijing and only the fourth record in all of China outside Xinjiang. However, with records from South Korea and Japan, a Beijing record is, perhaps, not unexpected.
Please excuse the variation on the old UK advertisement for a famous chocolate product… “Ambassador, you’re spoiling me….!”
Jankowski’s Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii), Inner Mongolia, 19 May 2013
This week I spent five days in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province helping the team led by Beijing Birdwatching Society to survey known, and potential new, sites for Jankowski’s Bunting. The aim was to try to establish a better understanding of the existing population, to identify threats to its habitat and to study its behaviour. The survey is still ongoing as I write – and I will report the full results as soon as they are available – but the good news is that, so far, two new sites – holding at least 12 birds – have been found and, in addition, more than 30 individuals have been found at a single established site. However, to temper this positive news, it is also clear that almost all of the sites are under threat… predominantly from encroaching agriculture and/or over-grazing.
As well as searching for new sites (of which I suspect there are several more, albeit small and fragmented), there is an urgent need to establish protection for the remaining areas of habitat by erecting fencing and engaging with local farmers and landowners.
Here’s the story..
On Saturday morning I met up with Mrs Fu Jianping from the Beijing Birdwatching Society for the short flight from Beijing to Wulanhaote in Inner Mongolia. Here we met up with Zhu Bing Run, a student from Harbin University in Heilongjiang Province, and the three of us proceeded to our first destination – Tumuji National Nature Reserve. Tumuji is a known site for Jankowski’s Bunting and many visiting birders will probably have seen the bunting at this site. We were given a very warm welcome by the Reserve Director, Mr Han and his staff. After a convivial lunch we drove straight to the “core area”, an area of fenced off grassland with scattered Siberian Apricot bushes – just a few hundred metres square – surrounded by well-grazed land (supporting at least 6 pairs of Great Bustards).
The fenced off area at Tumuji NNR.
It was very windy on our first afternoon and, in a survey of the area we found only a Daurian Partridge, three Japanese Quails, a few Stonechats and several Richard’s Pipits. We would try again the next day and, sure enough, despite it still being fairly windy, we discovered two singing males and a female here – my first ever sighting of Jankowski’s Bunting!
The team: Fu Jianping and Zhu Bing Run at a windy Tumuji NNR.
We proceeded to check other areas of the reserve, in particular areas with similar habitat. However, despite searching thoroughly, we failed to see any more Jankowski’s Buntings at Tumuji. We did, however, come across this “chicken snake” which has a talent for doing a remarkable impression of a cobra!
The so-called “Chicken Snake”.. apparently venomous. Eek..
Mrs Fu photograping plants during the Jankowski’s Bunting survey at Tumuji NNR.
After two nights and two days at Tumuji we moved on to an area called Xi Er Gen. Here, the enlightened local landowner, Mr Wang Tie Jun, with the support of the nearby Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve, has fenced off an impressively large area of grassland specifically for the bunting. It’s proving to be a very successful initiative; the first visit by the survey team, just a few weeks ago, found more than 30 birds at this site. We didn’t survey the whole area during this visit but, just by walking the road through the area, we counted at least 5 males. It was interesting that, at this site, Jankowski’s Bunting was seen alongside Meadow Bunting – the only site where we saw both species together.
The fenced off area at Xi Er Gen. A great example of local landowners and nature reserve staff working together to protect an endangered species.
After breakfast with the Xi Er Gen Nature Reserve staff we moved on again to explore potential new sites around Wulanhaote. We stopped whenever we saw suitable habitat. Most of these interludes produced a blank but, during one fruitless stop, through my telescope I could see an area on the horizon that looked as if it had potential… and there appeared to be a track winding its way towards the area.. We made our way there and, sure enough, almost as soon as we stopped the car, we heard and saw a male Jankowski’s Bunting. Result! This sighting buoyed us considerably and we prepared to survey the area. Almost immediately we saw another male… then another.. wow, this was clearly a very good area.. And as we moved over the brow of the hill, it was clear that there were more areas of similar habitat. In the stunning late afternoon light we surveyed three of these ‘patches’ of habitat and found at least 6 singing males. There were several more ‘patches’ of habitat close by that could easily hold more birds and the whole area warrants a more thorough survey. The still conditions enabled me to make a recording of the Jankowski’s Bunting song using my Canon EOS 7D..
There were two obvious threats to the habitat at this new site. The first was encroaching agriculture. The grassland was not fenced off or protected in any way and it was clear that local farmers were gradually ploughing up more and more of this grassland to provide a greater area for their crops.
The second was the presence of Eurasian Cuckoos. We saw several cuckoos in this area perched on Siberian Apricot bushes and clearly watching the Jankowski’s Buntings. One was even seen to drop to the base of a Siberian Apricot bush for a few minutes before reappearing looking distinctly guilty.. Apparently cuckoos like Jankowski’s Buntings as hosts and our guide – Mr Zhao Zhun – told us a story about finding a Jankowski’s Bunting nest with two birds inside – a young cuckoo and a young Jankowski’s Bunting – face to face. He returned a day later with his camera but there was just a young cuckoo with the remains of a young Jankowski’s Bunting. Clearly, this is a natural occurrence and, of course, ordinarily with a strong population the losses would not be significant, but with such a small and declining population, predation by cuckoos is a worrying threat.
One of the new sites discovered near Wulanhaote with encroaching agriculture in the background.
Surveying the new site near Wulanhaote.
Singing male Jankowski’s Bunting at the newly discovered site. We counted at least 6 males here.
We left the site at sunset for the drive back to Wulanhaote. We were elated at finding a new breeding site and celebrated with a few bottles of the local beer over dinner. Unfortunately I had to return to Beijing the following morning and, after saying my goodbyes at the airport and wishing the team well for the remainder of the survey, I caught my return flight back to Beijing. During the journey, I reflected on my trip. What an experience. And a real privilege to be part of the team to discover a new site for this bird on the brink. However, the elation was tempered by the knowledge that almost all of the sites we visited were under threat in some way from the expansion of intensive agriculture. Fencing appears to be a very effective way to protect the remaining habitat. A priority – in addition to further survey work to identify new sites – must be to engage with local landowners and farmers to try to build support for more fenced off areas. Without this, I fear that almost all of the sites will disappear within a few years and the result will be the loss of this beautiful and unique bird.
I wanted to put on record my thanks to Mrs Fu from Beijing Birdwatching Society and Zhu Bing Run from Harbin University for their company and expertise during the survey and to Mr Zhao Zhun for his local knowledge about existing and potential new sites for Jankowski’s Bunting. I would like to thank all the reserve staff at Tumuji and Xi Er Gen for their generous hospitality and assistance during our visits to their reserves.
I would also like to thank the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, in particular Vivian Fu, BirdLife International, the Oriental Bird Club and everyone else who has been working to conserve this species.
Finally, I wanted to thank everyone who has donated to the Jankowski’s Bunting JustGiving appeal. Although I – quite rightly – paid my own costs to participate in the survey, some of the money raised during the appeal went towards supporting the participation of the Chinese team in this survey. Without that support, this survey would not have been possible.
There is clearly a long way to go to secure the future survival of this species, and I await the full survey report and the resulting discussion about how to proceed, but I am optimistic that, with greater awareness and further financial support (please donate more if you can!), much can be done to slow and halt the decline in this species to ensure that future generations can enjoy this bird in its natural habitat in a special part of China. If we can achieve that, what a legacy it will be for everyone involved.
Przewalski’s (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill, Tangjiahe, Sichuan Province, 5 May 2013. Taken with a drenched Canon EOS7D and no functioning autofocus!
The Przewalski’s (Rusty-throated) Parrotbill (Paradoxornis przewalskii) is another special bird seen on our Sichuan/Shaanxi trip. Remarkably, this bird was not seen at all, anywhere on the planet, between 1988 and 2007, when it was rediscovered at Tangjiahe in northern Sichuan by Bjorn Anderson. And today, Tangjiahe remains the only known site for this species.
Perhaps fittingly, seeing this bird requires some effort. Not only must birders navigate the sometimes complex access arrangements for foreigners to Chinese nature reserves but there is also the small matter of a tough and treacherous 3-4 hour (each way) hike up a steep and muddy path to the birds’ habitat – stands of bamboo in mixed forest. Allowing time to search for and see the bird and the return hike means that one must leave very early in the morning and, if you want to minimise the risk of not seeing the bird, stay overnight in what can best be described as a wooden hut up the mountain.
As we were pushed for time, we opted for a one-day visit and so arranged for the obligatory guide to meet us at 0600 for the hike up. Unfortunately, as is often the case in Sichuan in Spring, it was raining… and it didn’t stop all day. This made the climb slippery and treacherous, especially on the steep, muddy parts of the trail and on the log bridges, several of which must be traversed en route.
Given the weather, there wasn’t a lot of bird activity during the upward hike, which enabled us to make steady progress. We reached the first wooden hut after about 2 hours, where we took a short break. The push to the second hut would take a further hour and it is this section that is steepest.
Personally, I find it best to get into a rhythm when climbing and, often, that means progressing at a different pace to one’s companions. Being a little younger than Sid (sorry, Sid!) I started to put a little daylight between us as I focused on the climb (Sid has suggested replacing this sentence with “Sid cut a debonair figure as he gallivanted in circus trapeze artist style over the primitive path that led to the giddy heights of Parrotbill country”. Clearly an accurate description – Ed).
I lucked in on a smart male Temminck’s Tragopan that stood on the path in front of me for a few seconds before slowly melting into the forest… and it wasn’t long before I reached the second hut. I was drenched and immediately stripped off my wet clothes and put on a dry t-shirt that I had, unusually, had the foresight to take along. As I stood in the ‘porch’ of the hut to shelter from the rain and wait for the others, I took a sip of water and ate a few peanuts whilst basking in the satisfaction of making it to the top in good time.
After a few minutes, the guide came running up the path towards me gesturing wildly… At first I thought something must have happened to Sid.. but using my (bad) Chinese, I realised that what he was saying was that Sid had seen the parrotbill…! Clearly, in my focused push to the top, I had walked right past the birds!
I walked down the path for around 100 metres or so to where an elated Sid was punching the air and sporting a huge grin. He had just seen, at close range and with the naked eye, two Przewalski’s Parrotbills! I looked around but they were nowhere to be seen… they had momentarily passed Sid at head height and then proceeded down the slope into an inaccessible valley….
I congratulated Sid and, after a fruitless few minutes hoping that they might return, we eventually decided to continue up, rest for a while at the hut, and then begin to search for the birds in the bamboo around the hut. It was here that Paul Holt had seen the birds last year and there was a lot of good habitat.
Our guide made a very welcome fire and, after a few minutes warming ourselves on the flickering and popping flames, we began to dry out a little and decided to begin our search.
Almost immediately, right outside the hut, we caught a brief glimpse of two parrotbills but before we could train our binoculars on them they were gone. Frustrating! After a thorough search of the area, there was no further sign, so we decided to walk down to the area of Sid’s earlier sighting… Here, we could hear and see bird activity and, with a bit of ‘pishing’ we began to attract a few tits… then two different birds flew in and sat up on the bamboo… Przewalski’s Parrotbills!!! They showed incredibly well, just a few metres away, climbing stems to get a better view of us and calling frequently. I grabbed my camera but, by this time, it was so wet that the autofocus had stopped functioning and I could barely see through the misted up viewfinder. A quick wipe with some damp tissue enabled me to at least see shapes through the viewfinder and I began to take a few images, adjusting the focus a little each time in the hope that at least one or two of the images might be in focus.
We enjoyed the company of these birds for probably 2-3 minutes but that time went by in a flash. And just as quickly as the parrotbills arrived, they disappeared back into the thick bamboo.
Wow. The hike had been worth it. We had just seen Przewalski’s Parrotbill, a bird that had “gone missing” for almost 20 years.
We walked back up to the hut to make the most of the remaining fire and, after drying out a little and reflecting on the magic moments we shared with this bird, we began our descent.
If climbing had been tricky, descending was even trickier… the persistent rain had made the path treacherous and we both slowly edged our way down, gripping onto the bamboo to avoid slipping into the steep ravines. Our progress down the first part of the descent was slow and required concentration..
Habitat at Tangjiahe
On the way up our guide had warned us about wild Takin, in particular in the areas of dense bamboo. Surprising one was not recommended… they had been known to attack humans and, in cases where that had happened, their tactic was generally to ‘knock you off the mountain’. This warning had faded into the back of my mind by this time but was soon front and centre when I heard a loud grunt, just a couple of metres away, followed by a crashing sound through the bamboo just above me. I froze. The guide, sensing danger, immediately ran over and started to shout very loudly. He grabbed a stick and started to bash the bamboo… trying to create as much noise as possible. Fortunately the animal, whatever it was, ran uphill and into the dense bamboo rather than down and towards me. Phew.
The rest of the descent was relatively uneventful, apart from the odd slip and slide on what had become extremely treacherous logs and mud.
One of the log bridges at Tangjiahe.
The return took us just under 3 hours and we were back at the beginning of the walk by 4pm. We were relieved but also elated.
“I’m never doing that again!” said Sid.
Relief. Sid sports a big smile after completing the descent.
The author, having safely completed the hike at Tangjiahe.
Here is a great new link about colour-marked shorebirds in East Asia. It’s in English and Chinese and will help to encourage birders all along the East Asian Flyway to look out for, and report, any colour-marked birds. Well done to The Partnership for the East Asian-Australiasian Flyway for putting it together.
It’s a good read with honourable mentions for a few of Beijing’s birders!
This article follows a similar article in The China Daily a few weeks ago and reflects the growing interest in birding among Chinese citizens – a welcome development in a country with serious environmental challenges.
A big thank you to Yuxia for a well-written and positive article about birding!
Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013. Photo by Rob Holmes.
The Black-throated Blue Robin (Blackthroat) was, until very recently, an almost mythical bird. Known only from the odd scattered record in the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, with presumed wintering records in southern China and Thailand, it has been “the Holy Grail” of China birding.
The chances of seeing one were as close to zero as one could get until June 2011 when Per Alström and a team of Chinese scientists discovered a total of 14 males at two sites – Foping and Changqing – in Shaanxi Province.
I had long been planning a trip to neighbouring Sichuan Province in May this year with friends Rob Holmes and Jonathan Price and, after consulting our local guide – Sid Francis – we decided to tag on a couple of extra days to visit Changqing and try to see Blackthroat. It was a gamble. We knew that, in 2012, the first birds were seen in Foping and Changqing on 4 and 18 May respectively. So it was by no means certain that they would have arrived and be on territory on 8 May, the day we had planned to visit. And even if they had arrived, would we be able to find one?
Per had kindly uploaded some sound recordings of the Blackthroat’s song, so we knew what to listen for. And on our arrival at Changqing we met with our guide for the day – Zhang Yongwen – who was part of the team that made the discovery in 2011. We were as prepared as we could be, and in good hands.
Yongwen told us that we had “a chance”. This Spring had been a little warmer than usual. His visit with us would be the first time he had looked for the birds this year. If successful, we would be the first people to see Blackthroat in 2013.
Our day began as a typical Spring day in Shaanxi – overcast with the threat of rain and a little chilly in a brisk breeze. Not ideal conditions to look for a skulking robin but not terrible either – it is not uncommon for rain to last days in this part of the world in Spring.
We drove from our hotel in the “ancient” town of Huayang (which looked about 5 years old!) into the core reserve area. The ‘road’ was an old logging track that took us into the heart of some superb habitat. The forest in the reserve is mostly mature secondary growth with generous areas of bamboo. In addition to Blackthroat, the reserve hosts around 100 Giant Pandas as well as Takin, Goral, Serow, Wild Boar and Tufted Deer. The chances of seeing Giant Panda in the wild at this time of year are slim, with the trees in full leaf, but we did see evidence – panda poo!
Giant Panda poo… our closest encounter with this special mammal.
After an hour’s drive, including seeing a couple of Golden Pheasants by the side of the road, we stopped at the edge of a small valley – “Wo Wo Dian” at an altitude of 2,200-2,400 metres. It was along this valley that Blackthroat was found in 2011 and seen subsequently in 2012. Fortunately the rain was holding off and we began the short walk to the prime area. The sense of excitement among the group was palpable.
The search was focused on areas of dense bamboo alongside a small stream. The constant sound of running water muffled any birdsong, making it difficult to hear and identify any birds along the way… At the first patch of bamboo, just a few hundred metres along the valley, we had a frustrating glimpse of a robin running along the ground.. but it was so deep in the bamboo that it just looked like a black shape and, after waiting patiently for 20 minutes or so, Yongwen said that the best area was further up, so we moved on…
The next stand of bamboo looked good – it was relatively open and, with a low vantage point gained by standing in the rocky stream, it was easier to see any movement. We soon heard a robin singing… and it sounded similar, if not identical, to the sound recordings we had of Blackthroat… our hearts jumped. It wasn’t long before we spotted a robin at the base of the bamboo, deep inside the thicket, and after a frustrating few minutes of half-glimpses and flight views, it finally sat up and sang from a rock – FIRETHROAT! A robin, and a fantastic bird at that, but not the bird we were looking for… Although disappointing that it wasn’t a Blackthroat, we were encouraged that this bird was on territory… would this sighting suggest that the related Blackthroat was also back?
Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province. We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird! We later learned that this could be the most northerly record of Firethroat ever recorded.
Onwards we walked to the next area… constantly alert to listen for any song. After no joy at the next couple of stands of bamboo, I began to feel a little deflated… had we arrived just a day or two too early?
The deflated feeling didn’t last long… as we turned a corner, Sid heard what he thought was a short burst of Blackthroat song and, standing absolutely still and turning our heads to one side, we all heard what sounded like the beginning of Blackthroat song… but it was distant and barely audible above the sound of the running water… could it be one? Or was it another mimicking Firethroat? We daren’t presume anything but one could sense the excitement among the group. We edged down a bank towards the location of the sound and, sure enough, we began to hear more of the song above the sound of the stream… it matched very closely the recording we had. The song was clearly coming from the opposite side of the stream, so we edged to the bank and sat quietly, hoping that the bird would reveal itself… First, there was a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in the bamboo… it was a robin. Then a second glimpse.. but both times it was gone before we could get onto it with binoculars.. A few seconds later it flew to a moss-covered rock and sang, just for a second, before diving into cover again.. There was stunned silence.. we looked at each other and smiled… we had all seen a male BLACKTHROAT! Wow…(or maybe I should say “BOOM!”). For the next couple of minutes, we sat in awe as the Blackthroat moved to several different song posts, delivered a short burst of song and then dived back into cover…
The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.
Whilst my attempts at photographing Blackthroat resulted in blurred twigs and images of the space where the bird had been just a split-second before, Rob managed to secure the image at the beginning of this post. It’s an image that captures the essence of our experience – fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic and elusive bird in thick bamboo in poor light… Sharp, in-focus, full-frame photographs are over-rated!
I also made a short recording of the song using my Canon 7D’s video facility:
After enjoying this bird for some time, we continued up the valley and encountered several more birds.. all were elusive and, although we heard at least 5 individuals, we only saw one more definite Blackthroat. Mr Zhang also pointed out an old nest from 2012 – possibly the only nest ever discovered.
A Blackthroat nest from 2012. Situated on a steep bank.
The elusiveness of this bird surprised me a little. I had expected newly arrived Blackthroat males to be more obvious… maybe it was the weather conditions (overcast and a little breezy) that suppressed their activity or maybe they are louder and more obvious when the females arrive.. I don’t know..
In any case, I am very grateful to Sid for picking up the faint song of the first Blackthroat we saw and to Mr Zhang for his expert company throughout the day. I am also grateful to Per Alström and Paul Holt who provided information about Blackthroat ahead of our visit. Finally, a big thank you to Jonathan and Rob for their company on what was an outstanding trip to Sichuan and Shaanxi that ended on this magnificent high.
If anyone is heading this way and wants to explore the option of visiting Changqing National Nature Reserve to see this bird, please feel free to contact me or Sid Francis for advice.
On Friday I visited Ma Chang with Global Times journalist Jiang Yuxia (writing an article about birding in Beijing) and Jennifer Leung. After a few days of cold and windy weather, the forecast was for a change in the wind from a cold northerly to a light southerly and for temperatures to soar from the recent chilly highs of 10-12 degrees Celsius to over 20 degrees C.
After a 0500 start we reached Ma Chang at around 0630. It was a stunning morning with good visibility, clear skies and almost no wind, disguising the -2 early morning temperature. Along the entrance track we encountered Jesper Hornskov with a couple of clients. They were watching a party of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the buds of some large trees – a nice start to the day. At Ma Chang, as expected at this time of year, we soon spotted a group of ORIENTAL PLOVERS and a count revealed over 60 birds present – a fantastic total.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang. Getting bored of these yet?? The flock now exceeds 60 birds.
We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.
Yuxia speaks to the local fishermen about life at Ma Chang…
A few Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, with the odd White Wagtail, flew overhead and a couple of tightly packed flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks wheeled around the remnants of last year’s maize stubble. A Black (eared) Kite lumbered past and two female Eastern Marsh Harriers caused havoc among the flocks of Eurasian Teal.
With not much happening we decided to move on and, after a short stop at a flooded field to admire two stunning BAIKAL TEAL, we headed to the ‘island’ to the north of the desert area to look for duck… Jesper and his clients were already in situ and, although quite distant, it was clear that there were lots of duck present. Two relatively close (but distant to photograph!) Red-breasted Mergansers represented bird species number 299 for me in Beijing… result!
Red-breasted Mergansers, Ma Chang. A scarce bird in the capital. Looks as if this pair has had a quarrel…
With the duck distant, I knew that moving to the location from where I had seen the Baer’s Pochard last Sunday would again be a good vantage point. We headed to the spot and, sure enough, we were treated to stunning views of a large mixed raft of duck with the sun behind us and no wind… perfect, and very unusual, conditions at Wild Duck Lake.
We quickly found a drake BAER’S and, almost immediately, spotted another drake. There were two!
The two BAER’S POCHARDS at Ma Chang on Friday. With Ferruginous Duck, Gadwall and Common Pochard.
As on Sunday with the single drake, the two Baer’s were consorting with Ferruginous Duck and both were seen displaying… fabulous! It was from here that we also enjoyed some stunning views of Falcated Duck (including one very unusually marked male which sported a yellow mark on its lower cheek), Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Smew, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Coot and Little and Great Crested Grebes. It was a great morning’s birding!
The gang at Ma Chang after seeing the two Baer’s Pochards…
A short time later, a couple of Black Kites appeared and, as our eyes began to be distracted from the duck to the skies, it wasn’t long before I spotted an aquila eagle some distance away… My instinct was that it was probably a Greater Spotted Eagle, the most common aquila eagle at this site at this time of year. However, as it soared, Jesper immediately suspected it was an IMPERIAL EAGLE… and he was right!
It circled distantly and was soon joined by a second, but smaller, eagle.. This second bird had a notably square tail, pale markings on the upperwing coverts and mantle and, as it turned, it was even possible to glimpse the ‘landing lights’… wow.. A BOOTED EAGLE! Two very good eagle records for Beijing in the same scope view!
Both appeared to drift away and were lost from view without allowing me to capture any photographic record. However, fortunately, the Imperial soon re-appeared, this time closer, and I grabbed the camera to capture a few record images before it drifted into the mountains to the north. The bulging secondaries, typical of immature Imperial Eagle, can be seen very well, as well as the pale markings on the under- and upperwing. The ‘jizz’ was slightly different to Greater Spotted, too. A useful lesson for me (I have only ever seen one Eastern Imperial Eagle before).
Immature Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ma Chang.
Eastern Imperial Eagle (upperparts).
Unfortunately the BOOTED EAGLE didn’t return but maybe it will linger in the area.. it’s a fabulous Beijing record with only a handful of previous sightings in eastern China. It also represented my 300th species in Beijing [NB Stop Press: Booted Eagle seen at Miyun Reservoir on Saturday by Jan-Erik Nilsen - the same bird?] It’s hard for me to see new birds in the capital now, so to see two new species in one day was pretty special..
The infamous NW Wild Duck Lake wind suddenly got up at around 1130 and Jesper and his clients decided to head off to check Yeyahu NR. We decided to stay and enjoy the Baer’s Pochards a little longer. We gave it another hour or so before calling it a day and heading back to Beijing.. another cracking day at this world class site.
An adult drake BAER’S POCHARD at Ma Chang. A welcome sighting of this now Critically Endangered species.
On Sunday I visited Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake. April and May are superb months to visit this special Beijing site. With migration in full swing, it’s fascinating to see the departure of the winter visitors, the arrival of summer visitors and the passage of migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north… Already many of the winter birds have departed – I didn’t see a single crane of any species on Sunday – but many others are just beginning to arrive. Oriental Plovers – a Ma Chang speciality – are coming through in good numbers now and it’s a great time, too, for wildfowl and some of the early raptors.
The excitement of my visit on Sunday was heightened by the news that a BAER’S POCHARD was found on Friday by local birders Zhu Lei and Zhang Shen (thanks guys!). This bird is classified as “Critically Endangered” and, I understand, a survey of its traditional wintering grounds in China produced fewer than 50 birds this winter. Look out for a forthcoming article in Birding Asia about the dramatic decline of this species.
On arrival I was delighted to see some ORIENTAL PLOVERS on site. I counted 14 and, after watching them briefly, I made my way to the first site for checking duck. Viewing wildfowl is not straightforward at Ma Chang; there are many areas that are not viewable and the precise location of the birds depends on many factors, such as the wind direction and speed and the activity on the lake of the local fishermen. I have two favourite locations – one at the spit by some yurts (also a good place for visible migration) and one on the ‘island’ to the north. On Sunday, both sites were notably empty of duck. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be my day and that the duck must be hiding somewhere out of sight. Then I saw a small flock of Tufted Duck (not a common bird in Beijing) fly in and go down behind some reeds. I could see that there was a track that ran close by, so I made my way to the general area and found a good place to view the duck.
Unusually, there was no northwesterly wind blowing into my face, so the conditions were good. I soon realised that it wasn’t just the Tufted Duck present. There were some Ferruginous Duck (a species with which BAER’S POCHARD often associates), Shoveler, Common Pochard, Smew, Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Wigeon and Mallard all present. A careful scan revealed no sign of the Baer’s but I knew there were some duck asleep in the reeds, including some Ferruginous Duck and some others that were obscured.. I settled in, hoping that one of the sleeping duck out of sight might be the Baer’s.
After 45 minutes of enjoyable birding, including a nice flock of passing Swan Geese, a small passage of Buff-bellied Pipits and an early male Citrine Wagtail, I began another scan and, sure enough, in amongst the Ferruginous Duck was a stunning drake BAER’S POCHARD.
I watched the BAER’S for the next hour as it proceeded to display. Unfortunately there were no female BAER’S but that didn’t seem to matter.. this lonely male threw its head back, stretched its neck high and bowed to several female Ferruginous Ducks and a slightly startled-looking female Common Pochard… I guess when your situation is as desperate as the Baer’s Pochard, you can’t afford to be fussy!
The drake BAER’S POCHARD (left) with Falcated Duck, Coot, Gadwall and Tufted Duck
It was heartening to see this bird but, at the same time, sobering to think that it is likely to make its way north alone and, when it arrives at its favoured lake, there may be no females with which to breed. The situation for this bird is precarious. Encouragingly I have heard of two separate sightings from Liaoning Province in the last few days – one male and one female. Let’s hope it’s a good breeding season for this species.
After an hour or so, I reluctantly pulled myself away to explore the rest of Ma Chang. The Oriental Plover flock had increased to an astonishing 55 birds, with 4-5 adult males sporting gleaming white heads.
Oriental Plover (male), Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.
Flocks of Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers were mixed in, many of which were displaying and calling frequently.
Little Ringed Plover, Ma Chang
Kentish Plover, Ma Chang
At one point, as I was watching the flock, all of the birds suddenly took flight. I suspected a raptor and, sure enough, a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a superb male LESSER KESTREL.. wow! A nice way to end a brilliant birding session at Ma Chang.
Lesser Kestrel (male), Ma Chang.
Full Species List (62 species):
Japanese Quail – 2
Common Pheasant – 12
Swan Goose – 28
Bean Goose – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 42
Gadwall – 78
Falcated Duck – 225
Eurasian Wigeon – 19
Mallard – 67
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Northern Shoveler – 4
Eurasian Teal – 18
Common Pochard – 12
BAER’S POCHARD – 1 drake displaying to both female Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard. Employed three ‘displays’ – one involved stretching the neck high, the second throwing the head back and the third leaning the head forward and ‘puffing up’ the back of the neck.
Ferruginous Duck – 17
Tufted Duck – 7
Goldeneye – 5
Smew – 12
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 1 booming
Grey Heron – 7
Great Cormorant – 1
LESSER KESTREL – 1 male drifted northwest with occasional hovering spells (flushed the Oriental Plovers at one point)
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male and two adult females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Common Coot – 32
Black-winged Stilt – 16
Northern Lapwing – 63
Little Ringed Plover – 14
Kentish Plover – 33
Oriental Plover – 55 – the number seemed to increase as the day wore on with just 14 present early morning. Some disturbance from bird photographers and horses but they were not unduly perturbed.
Common Snipe – 1
Common Gull – 11
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults flew high west calling
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 3
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 10
Corvid sp – 15
Carrion Crow – 3
Bohemian Waxwing – 4 flew south
Asian Short-toed Lark – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 5
Daurian Redstart – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Citrine Wagtail – one male
White Wagtail – 4
Buff-bellied Pipit – 26
Water Pipit – 9
Pallas’s Bunting – 28
Mongolian Gull (Larus mongolicus) with wing-tag “AC82″ (top), Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013. A “right old bird” at almost 24 years old… Photograph by Bai Qingquan.
Not long after I arrived in China, I visited Liaoning Province to see my good friend, Dalian-based Tom Beeke. He very kindly showed me some of his local birding sites, including what must be the best gull-watching site in north-eastern China, Jinzhou Bay. Attracted by the nearby landfill site, thousands of gulls congregate in the area to spend the winter. Most are Mongolian Gulls but there is always a good selection with Vega Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Common Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Black-headed Gull and occasionally something rarer like a Glaucous Gull, Slaty-backed Gull or, as I was lucky enough to see on my first visit, a Pallas’s Gull.
Before I visited, friend and co-author of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, Andreas Buchheim, asked me to look out for wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls and, sure enough, among the large flocks of Mongolian Gull loafing on the ice in the bay, I was able to pick out several wing-tagged birds. These birds had been tagged by Andreas at various sites in Mongolia and Russia and showed that these birds, as expected, moved to the east coast of Asia in winter.
This site was so good that I went back in winter 2011/12 with Beijing-based Paul Holt, during which time we found several more wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls.
I haven’t been able to visit Jinzhou Bay this winter but another good friend, and fellow birder, Bai Qingquan from Dandong, visited there on 23 and 24 March. Qingquan estimated that there were around 6,000 gulls of 7 different species on site. Excitingly, he found two wing-tagged gulls that I had seen, together with Paul Holt, in winter 2011/12.
Even more excitingly he saw “AC82″. This bird was originally ringed as a “pullus” (nestling) on 25 June 1989 at Lake Baikal in Russia. It was subsequently caught again as an adult bird on 20 May 2005 at Airchan Nuur, Mongolia, when the metal leg ring was replaced and a wing tag (“AC82″) attached. Qingquan’s sighting is the first since the tag was fixed in 2005 and, with the original ringing data from Russia, proves that this bird is almost 24 years old! (almost as old as me.. cough). Wow.. what a record! If anyone has any information about the longevity of large gulls, I would love to know…
Another of Qingquan’s sightings was of “AF63″. I saw this bird at the same site in February 2011 and Paul Holt and I saw it again in January 2012, showing that at least some of these gulls are site-faithful in winter.. again, another valuable piece of data.
I simply love the information that can be gained through tagging programmes like this. Looking for marked birds adds another dimension to birding and it’s so rewarding to hear back from the project leaders about the history of individual birds. I urge every birder to look out for, and report, any wing-tagged, colour-ringed or any other birds marked in any way.
For more information about Andreas Buccheim’s Mongolian Gull wing-tagging programme, see here.