Great Grey Owl

To me, seeing a GREAT GREY OWL (Strix nebulosa) ranks as one of the most magical sights of the bird world. With its human-like face and haunting stare, any encounter with the “Phantom of the North” in a snow-blanketed spruce forest makes for an eerie experience. In China, this magnificent owl can be found in the forests of the northern Provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia and it was a much-wanted bird during our recent visit to Wuerqihan and XiQi. Fortunately, after a long search, we finally caught up with this silent assassin. We enjoyed a spectacular encounter with this bird, watching as it surveyed the immediate area with slow, deliberate turns of its head. Typically it was not unduly bothered by our presence and, with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX I was able to take this video which captures the spirit of this most majestic of owls.

Christmas With Snowy Owls

I have just returned from a few days in northern Inner Mongolia, near the Russian border, where I spent Christmas with Marie and SoSo from Hong Kong looking for owls.  Highlights were many, including 6 species of owl – Eagle, Great Grey, Hawk, Little, Ural and Snowy.  Spending Christmas morning watching 6 of the latter on the sparkling snow-covered grassland, was an experience that will stay with me for a very long time….

Wishing everyone a belated Merry Christmas, here is a glimpse of one of the magnificent Snowy Owls that we were fortunate enough to encounter on our trip.  More details on this adventure very soon!

Birding Beijing: The Next Generation

I love this quote from one of the most progressive Senators in the US Congress, Ed Markey – “Although children are only 24% of the population, they’re 100% of our future”.  In China, a country that is growing fast in terms of economic power and global influence, the children here will perhaps have a disproportionate influence on the world this century.  And with the environment relatively absent in the Chinese curriculum, it’s of utmost importance to engage with young people if China’s wildlife is to prosper in this rapidly urbanising and developing country.

Luo Peng, a young Chinese environmentalist and entrepreneur, has set up a company called Eco Action Now to promote environmental education and sustainable tourism, focusing on benefiting local communities and working with scientists, nature reserves and ordinary people.

One aspect of their work is to develop educational programmes for schoolchildren in Beijing.  It’s a great initiative that aims to connect urban children to their environment.  I was honoured to be invited to help lead a birding trip for Beijing’s 13th Middle School to the Botanical Gardens this weekend and what fun we had!

On a beautiful, crisp and pollution-free Saturday morning we arrived at the entrance gate at 0730 and, after a short briefing to hand out the binoculars, the tailor-made birdwatching guide and the election of ‘scribes’, we split into four groups and began to explore…   The first birds we saw were Magpies (Common and Azure-winged) and they were soon followed by Tree Sparrow, Naumann’s Thrush, Japanese and Marsh Tits, Spotted Dove (“they look fat!“) and Chinese Nuthatch….  and later we were to enjoy stunning views of Plain Laughingthrushes (“they really do laugh!“) and Siberian Accentors, the headmistress’s favourite bird!  It was great to see these young people so enthused during their first ever birdwatching trip and enjoying the sight and sound of their local birds.   Inevitably, as the groups met up periodically to compare notes, a little competitiveness crept in and we even had a mini ‘twitch’ at the end to ensure all of the groups saw the Little Grebes on the main lake..

It was fantastic to meet the students of Beijing’s 13th Middle School and I can’t wait to do more…  Even if none of them become birders, their appreciation and understanding of wild birds has been increased and, in a country home to around 1/6th of the world’s bird species, that’s a wonderful reward in itself.  Big thanks to Luo Peng for making the arrangements and for inviting me along…

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The class, and the group leaders, from Beijing’s 13th Middle School outside the gate to the Botanical Gardens.
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Me with one of the groups and the headmistress (far right).
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The Botanical Gardens were looking good in the early winter sunshine.
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Showing the headmistress the plate of Siberian Accentor in Mark Brazil’s “Birds of East Asia” just after enjoying 4 of these beautiful birds in the scrub…
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Taking notes about a sighting of Great Spotted Woodpecker, one of the birds we enjoyed during our Saturday at the Botanical Gardens
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One of the groups focusing on a Dusky Thrush.
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For some reason, I was asked to sign some bird postcards at the end.. Here is me feeling uncomfortable…

All photos by Luo Peng.

It’s back!

When the male PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART turned up at Lingshan last winter, it was only the third occurrence in Beijing and the first for 20 years… Given the lack of observer coverage in winter, we speculated whether it might be a more regular visitor than the records suggested… and this speculation gained credibility when a female was found nearby soon after.  The only way we would know the true status of this star bird was to monitor the site over the following winters to see whether they returned…

So far this November I have already made three visits to the site and, despite seeing plenty of the other high-altitude loving redstart – Guldenstadt’s – I have not seen any Przewalski’s.  Was it a late migrant?  Or was the occurrence of the pair last winter really a one-off?  I was beginning to wonder….

Fast forward to late on Thursday evening when I received a message from Breght Vandenberghe, a Belgian birder, to say that he had just visited Lingshan and seen a male PRZEWALSKI’S!  My heart leapt.. and a voice inside my head whispered:

“It’s Back!!!”

Here is a photo from last year as a reminder of just how stunning is this spectacular species.  Big congratulations to Breght for finding the Przewalski’s and huge thanks for passing on the news.

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

 

 

Late Autumn Highlights from Beijing

This autumn has been exceptional.  As well as some outstanding rarities in the traditional autumn period of September and October such as Streaked Reed Warbler, Swinhoe’s Rail, Great White Pelican etc etc, November has continued in the same vein with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black Redstart at Lingshan (both very rare), European Robin and Eurasian Bullfinch (both 2nd records for Beijing and still present, as I write, in the Temple of Heaven Park) – Brown-cheeked Bulbul in Yuanmingyuan Park and now a pair of Long-tailed Duck at Shahe Reservoir, an excellent find by Chen Yanxin.

Here are a few pictures and video of the star attractions of November (so far!).  Long may this incredible run continue…

EUROPEAN ROBIN, Temple of Heaven, 11 November 2014
EUROPEAN ROBIN, Temple of Heaven, 11 November 2014
Eurasian Bullfinch (but which ssp?), Temple of Heaven Park
Eurasian Bullfinch (but which ssp?), Temple of Heaven Park
Brown-eared Bulbul, Yuanmingyuan Park, 2 November 2014
Brown-eared Bulbul, Yuanmingyuan Park, 2 November 2014
Black Redstart, Lingshan, 9 November 2014.
Black Redstart, Lingshan, 9 November 2014.

Return to Lingshan

Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain and lies on the border of the Municipality of Beijing and neighbouring Hebei Province.  At a little over 2,300 metres, it is high enough to attract a noticeably different avifauna to that of most sites in the capital and is a great place to connect with some difficult to see species including GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus erythrogaster, 红腹红尾鸲) and PALLAS’S (北朱雀), LONG-TAILED (长尾雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES.  ALPINE ACCENTORS (Prunella collaris, 领岩鹨) are regular and, of course, last winter, Lingshan also hosted a pair of the stunningly pretty PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTARTS (Phoenicurus alaschanicus, 贺兰山红尾鸲). So it is with great anticipation that I make my first visits of the winter, never knowing what might be present.  On Thursday I visited with Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra, and his wife Sisi.  Thanks to the anti-pollution measures taken by the Chinese government in advance of hosting the APEC leaders’ summit (essentially shutting down polluting industry, severely restricting private cars and providing cash incentives for residents to take holidays), the weather and air quality were both stunning.  And with hardly a breath of wind, conditions were perfect. Our first stop was at “Przewalski’s Gully”, the buckthorn-filled valley 100m or so below the road’s plateau.  There was no sign of last winter’s star bird but GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) were present in good numbers with at least 8 males at this site plus a similar number of females.  We also connected with LONG-TAILED (长尾雀), PALLAS’S (北朱雀) and CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) ROSEFINCHES, a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫), some mobile flocks of COMMON REDPOLL (白腰朱顶雀), SIBERIAN ACCENTOR (棕眉山岩鹨) and a supporting cast including WILLOW (ssp songarus, 褐头山雀and SILVER-THROATED (北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀) TITS, CHINESE HILL BABBLER (山鹛) and PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSH (山噪鹛).

Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Lingshan
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Lingshan

After maybe half an hour we made our way up to the scree slopes to check for ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀).  This species is almost certainly annual here but they are nomadic and very unpredictable, probably rotating their time among the several high peaks in the area.  This time we were lucky.  First, we encountered two HORNED LARKS (角百灵) by the side of the road.  Then, a little further along, a small flock of ALPINE ACCENTORS (领岩鹨) flew in close to us.  As we were enjoying these birds I caught sight of a small woodpecker below us in some stunted birches.  Small woodpeckers are not common on Lingshan, especially up high, so my immediate thought was to check that it was indeed the default GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKER (星头啄木鸟) and not the very rare JAPANESE PYGMY WOODPECKER (小星头啄木鸟).  I trained my telescope on this bird and immediately noticed a bright red cap – it was a male LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (小斑啄木鸟), a very rare bird in the capital with just a handful of records (some of which are by visiting birders in the capital’s parks and almost certainly relate to mis-identified GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKERS).  Just as I called out the bird to Ben and Sisi, a flock of finches flew in to join the accentors – ASIAN ROSY FINCHES!  At least 4 were present at first and we were immediately distracted from the woodpecker, allowing it to slip away undetected into the birch forest. I could hardly complain – with birding this good, it would be churlish to be disappointed that I did not capture any image at all of the Lesser Spot. We continued to watch the ROSY FINCHES and, soon after, some CHINESE BEAUTIFUL and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES joined the group and 3 more ‘brandti‘ HORNED LARKS appeared by the roadside.  Then, some chattering overhead signalled the arrival of a large flock of more ASIAN ROSY FINCHES… we estimated at least 100 birds.  Wow! This flock was extremely mobile and no sooner had they settled they would lift up again and wheel around before alighting a few hundred metres away for a few seconds and then up again they went.. it was as if the ground was too cold for their feet!  They finally settled on a scree slope close by and we enjoyed prolonged views of these beautiful birds… After some time with these special birds we parked up by the derelict buildings and began to check the area along the old road.  This is an area with many buckthorn bushes and, in the previous two winters, has been a good place to see GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS, RED-THROATED THRUSHES and PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES.  It didn’t disappoint.  Here there were at least 10 more male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS with at least 4 females.  A mobile flock of REDPOLLS wheeled around noisily overhead and, about half way along the old road, regularly stopped to drink from a small pool.  As they sat in the birch trees awaiting their turn to drink, we were able to ‘scope some of the birds and, in a sample of around 15 birds, we were able to identify 2 definite ARCTIC REDPOLLS (极北朱顶雀) sporting clean undertail coverts and beautifully unmarked white rumps.  Wow – another Beijing mega-rarity. Again, these birds were highly mobile, and despite spending some time close to the drinking pool, I was not able to capture any images of the ARCTIC REDPOLLS.

Common Redpoll, Lingshan, 6 November 2014
Common Redpoll, Lingshan, 6 November 2014

Further down the old road we encountered more PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a calling LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCH and a juvenile GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) soared overhead.  This was Lingshan at its best.

Pallas's Rosefinch (ad male), Lingshan, 6 November 2014
Pallas’s Rosefinch (ad male), Lingshan, 6 November 2014

After enjoying a cockle-warming coffee we made another circuit of the same sites, checking thoroughly for the only bird missing – PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART.  Alas, despite our search, we drew a blank.  Maybe we were too early?  Or maybe it’s not an annual visitor here and last winter was exceptional?  Only time will tell…  One thing is for sure – I can’t wait for my next visit to this special site. Big thanks to Ben and Sisi for their company on what turned out to be a memorable day.

More from Miyun…

Yesterday morning, as the weekend smog had been cleared by a moderate (but cold!) northerly wind, I made a last-minute decision to visit Miyun.  On arrival at 0630 on a Monday morning I expected to have the place to myself but around 10 minutes later Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsen arrived and, a couple of hours later, a minibus of Beijing birders joined us, the latter including two exotic visitors, Rui and Yaya from Xinjiang! (lovely to see you guys!).

It was great to see so many birders and, although the Beijing group missed the GREAT WHITE PELICAN, which flew strongly north at 0905 (maybe gone for good after over 3 weeks on site?), there were plenty of birds to see.  A flock of over 800 BEAN GEESE, including at least 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE and a single SWAN GOOSE, made for a spectacular sight when they were occasionally flushed by a light aircraft…  I just love the noise of a flock of geese in flight, one of nature’s most magical sounds.

Up to 3 PEREGRINES and 2 SAKERS roamed the area and we watched one juvenile PEREGRINE harassing an AVOCET, even hovering over the water as the latter made a desperate dive to escape its attention.  Soon after we saw the same PEREGRINE carrying prey and, fortunately for us, it settled on the mud in front of us to devour it.  A gory scene, fit for forthcoming Halloween!

As the day wore on, a handful of cranes dropped in, including 25 of the beautiful WHITE-NAPED (encouragingly, several parties containing juveniles) and a few COMMON.  A ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD passed to the east providing excellent views and a handful of distant MONGOLIAN LARKS flew north…

With the water level so low at Miyun (apparently in preparation for receiving trillions of gallons from the great south-north water diversion project), the birding is currently spectacular with the traditional viewpoint at Houbajiazhuang offering superb views of usually difficult to see birds.  With so many great birds being found at this site, it’s extremely hard to tear oneself away to visit other sites…  so who knows what we are missing at Wild Duck Lake?  After the recent emergence of the 31 August Spoon-billed Sandpiper record at that site, I don’t want to think about it…