Amur Falcons are back!

The journey of the AMUR FALCON is one of the most remarkable in the avian world, migrating from the Amur region in NE China and SE Russia across China, India and, eventually, to East Africa.  An incredible journey fuelled by an even more amazing migration – of dragonflies – across the Indian Ocean.

Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital.  Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!

On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields…  simply stunning.

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014.  Beautiful.
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014. Beautiful.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL.  Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL. Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.

 

For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun.  Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..!  As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….

This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year.  Always a delight to see.

We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove.  In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!

A day that will live long in the memory!

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!

Eagles and more..

In the sweltering heat (it’s hit 39 degrees C this week), I visited Wild Duck Lake on Saturday.  I was hoping for some bitterns (There has been a Cinnamon Bittern in the Olympic Forest Park for the last week or so and Schrenck’s Bitterns have been seen along the Wenyu River in Beijing) and maybe some locustella warblers.  I saw very few of the former and none of the latter!  But I did see an unexpected variety of raptors with Short-toed and Great Spotted Eagles, Saker, Amur Falcons and spectacular views of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A probable Blunt-winged Warbler was another highlight, singing frustratingly distantly from the boardwalk (dodgy photo below).

Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This species has traditionally been considered a vagrant in north-eastern China but I have seen more than 10 individuals at Yeyahu and Miyun, almost all in April/May and September/October suggesting it is a regular passage migrant (and possibly a breeder nearby?)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. A regular passage migrant in Beijing.
Amur Falcon (1st summer male), Yeyahu NR. This beautiful falcon migrates through Beijing in large numbers in Spring and Autumn (part of an incredible journey from Manchuria to Africa and back each year) and a few breed in the Beijing area.
Amur Falcon (female), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.
Eastern Marsh Harrier (adult male), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This guy is breeding in the extensive reedbeds inside the reserve.

As I was watching the spectacular Eastern Marsh Harriers, this Indian Cuckoo flew over my head calling incessantly…

Indian Cuckoo, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.  Looks strikingly long-billed and long-tailed in this image.

And this is the ‘acro’ that was singing in the shrubby part of the reedbed..  Blunt-winged?  The supercilium ends very soon behind the eye…  but can I be sure from this image?  Unfortunately it was always distant.

Probable Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.

Finally, just for fun, here is a phylloscopus warbler in an unusual pose..  anyone want to have a go at identifying it?

A ‘pylloscopus’ warbler at Yeyahu NR. This image shows enough features for identification.. or does it? Any ideas? Answer later this week.

I also recorded a calling crake/rail that I think could be my first Ruddy-breasted Crake..  a little research needed on Xeno-Canto Asia!

Full species list to follow.

Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

I visited Wild Duck Lake on Sunday with Peter Cawley.  The weather was far from ideal and we endured thick fog, with visibility down to around 20-25 metres, for the first few hours.  The fog gradually dispersed from around 1000am and, by 3pm, it was a glorious day..  nevertheless, we definitely missed out at what felt like a very ‘birdy’ Ma Chang and, rather unnervingly, almost got lost in the ‘desert’ area… (thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the right path).

Temp around 15 degrees C at 0600 with thick fog and no wind.  From 1000am a very light NE breeze.  Temp around 22 degrees C mid-afternoon.

Highlights: a single Short-toed Eagle, Pied, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, 30 Common Buzzards, Goshawk, 2 Mongolian Larks and a Wren (only my second at Wild Duck Lake).

Long Eared Owl, Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

Full species list:

Japanese Quail – 1

Common Pheasant – 6

Bean Goose – 3

Mandarin – 1

Gadwall – 1

Mallard – 26

Spot-billed Duck – 5

Eurasian Teal – 4

Little Grebe – 15

Great Crested Grebe – 7

Black-crowned Night Heron – 45

Grey Heron – 2

Purple Heron – 1

Short-toed Eagle – 1

Eastern Marsh Harrier – 1

Hen Harrier – 2

Pied Harrier – 1 adult male

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1

Northern Goshawk – 1

Common Buzzard – 30 (including 28 migrating in one 10-minute spell late morning)

Common Moorhen – 1

Common Coot – 5

Northern Lapwing – 1

Common Snipe – 3

Green Sandpiper – 1

Oriental Turtle Dove – 2

Collared Dove – 8

Long-eared Owl – 1

Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1

Chinese Grey Shrike – 3 (2 heard only in the fog)

Azure-winged Magpie – 1

Common Magpie – 24

Daurian Jackdaw – 1 adult flew east

Carrion Crow – 8

Great Tit – 3

Marsh Tit – 1

Mongolian Lark – 2.  An early date and hopefully the precursor to a good winter for this species.

Eurasian Skylark – 8

Lark sp (possibly Greater Short-toed) – 4

Zitting Cisticola – 2

Chinese Hill Warbler – 3

Chinese Bulbul – 13

Black-browed Reed Warbler – 9

Oriental Reed Warbler – 1 probable chattering at Ma Chang in thick fog.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 1

Dusky Warbler – 1

Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 60

White-eye sp – 1

Wren – 1.  A very dark individual.

Thrush sp – 1

Bluethroat – 1

Red-flanked Bluetail – 1

Daurian Redstart – 5

Siberian Stonechat – 1

Tree Sparrow – 80+

White Wagtail – 17 (ssps ocularis, leucopsis and baicalensis)

Buff-bellied Pipit – 5

Water Pipit – 1 probable

Chestnut-eared Bunting – 1

Little Bunting – 77

Yellow-throated Bunting – 5

Black-faced Bunting – 14

Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 7

Meanwhile, at Laotieshan, Paul Holt continues to see huge numbers of Amur Falcons (over 1,800 yesterday evening in a pre-roost gathering – the highest autumn count anywhere in China), good numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles (at least 7 and up to 17 yesterday) and Goshawk (64), over 250 Common (Eastern) Buzzards and has also added Japanese Reed Bunting to the species list.

Summer lovin’

With summer upon us, Beijing is now hot and humid.  As well as the heat, July and August are also the months that see the highest rainfall in the capital, mostly from the frequent spectacular thunderstorms.  Air conditioning units are humming all over the city and one can sense the pace of life slowing, just a little, as its people cope with the energy-sapping heat.   It is uncomfortable to be in the field for any length of time now and this, coupled with the relative quiet birding around the capital at this time of year, has meant that I have not been out as much as normal.

On Sunday, I decided to change that by checking out Yeyahu to see how the breeding birds were doing and to look for butterflies and dragonflies.  It was a murky day but as the bus from Beijing made its way over the mountains near Badaling Great Wall, it began to clear a little..  Liyan, my trusty driver, met me at Yanqing and, 15 minutes later, I was at Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  My plan was to spend the afternoon and evening on site and catch the last bus back to Beijing..  but that was immediately scuppered when I discovered that the last bus back was at the very early time of 1830.  Instead I decided to catch the last train at 2130, so I arranged for Liyan to pick me up at 8.30pm, giving me 5 hours on site.

There was a constant threat of thunderstorms – distant rumbles were a feature of the day – but thankfully I managed to avoid the main storms that seemed to keep to the mountains.  And, despite the heat and humidity, I enjoyed the walk around the reserve.  As usual, there were a lot of Beijing’s city-dwellers enjoying the boardwalk on the lake but, true to form, none of them took the trails around the wider reserve, leaving me to enjoy the greater part of the reserve on my own.  Activity was generally slow, as expected, but it was very cool to see evidence of breeding Amur Falcons and Eastern Marsh Harriers.  I saw two adult male Amurs taking food to a small copse to the north of the reserve and there were two recently-fledged juvenile Eastern Marsh Harriers wheeling around waiting for the parents to bring food.  I watched two food passes by the adult male harrier; both juveniles became very excited, calling constantly as the male approached, before the male rose, waited for the juveniles to take up position below and then dropped the catch.  The first, possibly a small rodent, was expertly caught in mid-air by one of the young birds but the second, what looked like a young Moorhen, was missed and fell into the reedbed, whereby both juveniles swooped in, squabbling over their evening meal.  Fun to watch.  Chinese Penduline Tits were feeding young in their spectacular nest and young Great Crested and Little Grebes were begging from their parents on the lake.  A pair of Common Terns (of the subspecies longipennis) patrolled the ponds and they were joined briefly by a Whiskered Tern and then a White-winged Tern, before the latter disappeared off to the west towards the reservoir.

The reedbeds were noticeably quieter than in June with just a handful of Oriental Reed Warblers making half-hearted efforts at singing; the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the adults carrying food was clearly the priority now.  At least 4 pairs of Purple Herons appeared to be feeding young in the large reedbed to the west and I encountered a family party of Chinese Hill Warblers to the north.  Several pairs of Richard’s Pipits were feeding young in the grassland to the north of the lake and a few Zitting Cisticolas called frequently.  A pair of Black Drongos chirped and made forays to catch flying insects from their base in a willow hedgerow and both Night and Chinese Pond Herons busied themselves carrying food back and forth.

There were good numbers of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on the wing.  I had deliberately taken my macro lens to try to photograph some of them but, being a complete novice with these insects, I cannot identify any of them!  There isn’t a field guide for this part of the world, so putting a name to these beasts isn’t easy.  There is a good website – Asia Dragonfly – with a comprehensive library of photographs.  But it’s still very difficult!

Here are a few photos of the local specialties…  any help with identification much appreciated…

Photo 1: possibly Orthetrum albistylum specisum
Photo 2: same as above
Photo 3: a beautiful dragonfly... Possibly Crocothemis servilia?
Photo 4: probably a Sympetrum sp?
Photo 5: Cercion plagiosum
Photo 6: probably a female Cercion plagiosum?
Photo 7: some sort of chaser.. maybe Deilia phaon?
Photo 8: Antlion sp
Photo 9: beetle sp. I couldn't resist taking a photo of this impressive little bug. You can even see my reflection is his shiny body armour!

I hung around until dusk, hoping for a calling crake or watercock but no luck…  probably a bit late in the season for them to be calling frequently.  My last birds of the day were a calling Eurasian Cuckoo and a Grey-headed Woodpecker that I flushed from the path.  As the mosquitos began to bite, I made my way to the entrance of the reserve to rendez-vous with Liyan.  The last train was delayed so I did not get back to Beijing until after midnight but for only 7 Yuan (70 pence), I couldn’t really complain too much about the journey!

Dalian – Day Eight

Another quiet day.  The showers didn’t materialise and the wind persisted in being a moderate to strong South-South-Easterly.  After taxi driver number 3 dropped us at the point, we enjoyed a trickle of early migration involving at least 9 Black-naped Orioles, 7 White-throated Needletails and 9 Forest Wagtails (our first of this trip).  But after that, it quietened down considerably and, by 9.30am, the skies were quiet.  We tried the woods and trails but these were equally dead with even fewer birds than yesterday – there really has been a major clearout in the last few days.

The highlight has to be the White-throated Needletails (again!).  After two hanging around high over the lighthouse at 5am, a group of 5 bombed past at head height at 0905am allowing excellent views of the rarely seen upperside of these beasts.  I rattled off a few images in the few seconds they were on view before they powered past the lighthouse and out to sea.  Whoosh!

Tomorrow is our final day at Laotieshan and we have high hopes.  The forecast is for the wind to switch to northerly overnight with light rain and drizzle from 3am through to 10am.  That might not sound like the recipe for a pleasant morning on a clifftop but, for a birder on the Chinese coast in May, that forecast could mean a stack of migrants on the peninsula.  The forecasters, so far, have not covered themselves in glory so we are not holding our collective breath but, if they are right, we could be in for a treat.  It would certainly be a nice way to end what has been a very memorable and fun trip.

Edit: a quick count up of the species seen so far shows that the total is on 149 species with a day to go! 

This immature male Amur Falcon was one of the highlights of an otherwise disappointing day.
Immature male Amur Falcon. Note the reddish 'trousers' and the grey feathers beginning to emerge on the breast.
One of 7 White-throated Needletails today. This image shows the less often seen upperparts, including the distinctive pale oval on the back and the greenish sheen to the inner wing.

Species List (in chronological order, not including Tree Sparrow or Common Magpie):

Ashy Minivet (3)

White-throated Needletail (7) – 2 at 0500 and 5 at 0905.

Chinese Grosbeak (16)

Spotted Dove (1)

Forest Wagtail (9)

Oriental Greenfinch (9)

White-cheeked Starling (5)

Barn Swallow (70)

Red-rumped Swallow (25)

Olive-backed Pipit (7)

Crested Myna (5)

Great Tit (6)

Black-naped Oriole (9)

Tristram’s Bunting (1)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (4)

Common Pheasant (5)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Amur Falcon (4)

Daurian Starling (6)

Peregrine (1)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Fork-tailed Swift (9)

Black-tailed Gull (heavy passage east with 236 counted between 1345-1355 and 393 between 1505-1515)

Chinese Bulbul (2)

Egret sp (2) – too distant to be sure of identification but probably Chinese

Blue Rock Thrush (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (2)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (2) – one in off the sea at 0805 and one soaring at 1100

Large pipit sp (2) – possibly Blyth’s

Radde’s Warbler (1)

Hobby (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (1)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (6)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1)

Yellow-browed Warbler (2)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1)

White Wagtail (1) – ssp leucopsis

Common Rosefinch (1) – immature male singing

Dusky Warbler (1)

Streaked Shearwater (10) – all between 1345-1400.  In the evening, Jesper reported a passage rate of 900 per hour (!)

Eagles

May in Beijing has been gorgeous so far..  cool, fresh mornings which warm up fast as the sun burns off any lingering mist and with a cool breeze to keep the heat bearable in the hottest part of the day.  And, as the trees and shrubs burst into leaf, the birds that feed on the insect life they harbour are arriving in numbers.  Even in the ‘garden’ in Central Park I have seen singing Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and a couple of migrating Common Buzzards.

A visit by the in-laws has meant that I have not been able to visit Wild Duck Lake as much as I would have liked but, in a way, the absence in between makes each visit that much more special and one really notices the difference in terms of the birds present – there is a high turnover with each visit producing several new species for the year.

My most recent visit this week followed a day of heavy rain and wind which, I was hoping, might have downed a few migrants.  With a clear day forecast, I hoped that it might also produce a few migrating raptors.  The day started at Ma Chang at 0530 in heavy mist and with visibility reduced to just a few hundred metres.  The first surprise of the day was finding 10 Greater Sand Plovers on the ‘desert’, by no means common at this inland site.  A party of 8 Eurasian Spoonbills was relaxing and preening on the edge of the reservoir as I carefully checked for a rare Black-faced Spoonbill.  There was no Black-faced this time and, at around 0620, all 8 suddenly alighted and flew west into the mist, not to be seen again.

Greater Sand Plover (male)
Greater Sand Plover (female)

The walk out to the island produced good numbers of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, probably of the subspecies macronyx, together with several stunning adult male Citrine Wagtails and a few Buff-bellied Pipits.  A Purple Heron lazily made its way east and Night Herons were mooching around in good numbers.

Wildfowl was thin on the ground with just a few Mallard, Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall and a single Goldeneye on view from the island’s north shore.  It was at this point that the wind began to increase and, slowly, the mist began to clear.  By 0830 the sun was out, the visibility had increased to at least a kilometre and was improving fast.

Amur Falcons began to appear and there was a thin but steady passage throughout the day..  I do love Amurs – masters of flight – and the adult males, in particular, are just gorgeous.

Adult male Amur Falcon in flight... beautiful
Amur Falcon (female). These stunning falcons breed in Manchuria and eastern Russia and winter in southern and eastern Africa. An epic journey.

After checking the area around the yurts which produced some Whiskered and Little Terns, I began to walk to Yeyahu.  By this time the wind was fierce and my expectations for raptors began to wane..  surely it was too windy for much to be on the wing.  Thankfully, as I reached Yeyahu Reserve, the wind suddenly dropped by half and was reduced to a stiff breeze.  As I walked the perimeter of the lake, I flushed a large bird of prey from a poplar which immediately attracted the attention of the local pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  Greater Spotted Eagle!  I enjoyed great views of this bird as it began to circle and gain height, in the company of the male Eastern Marsh (the female kept her distance but gave encouraging cries as the male saw off this intruder).  Another male Amur then screamed in from the east, briefly tussling with both the Eastern Marsh Harrier and the eagle before disappearing as fast as it had appeared.  Wow…

Greater Spotted Eagle (2 cal yr), Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle being mobbed by male Eastern Marsh Harrier

As the eagle drifted west, struggling in the wind, I continued my walk east and, almost immediately picked up another 2 large birds of prey, this time quite high.  Two more Greater Spotted Eagles!  At this point I knew I should head for ‘eagle field’, the open area bordering the western part of the reservoir.  As I walked I kept watch on the skies and picked up 2 (possibly the same) Greater Spotted Eagles hanging in the wind..

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR (same bird as above)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR

When I reached the viewing tower, I laid down and watched the skies..  2 Greater Spotted Eagles, then a third all in view at the same time..   They drifted west into the wind before swinging back east and going down somewhere on the far side of the wood.  As I lay there snacking at my lunch while watching Greater Spotted Eagles, Amur Falcons and Black-eared Kites pass overhead, I was overcome with a real sense of privilege to be watching these magnificent birds on their incredible migrations..  Perhaps the greatest journey  is that of the Amur Falcons which winter in southern and eastern Africa and return to north-eastern China and eastern Russia each Spring.  It’s an arduous journey and yet here they were, full of energy, wheeling in the sky, catching insects on the wing and seemingly enjoying the onset of Spring.

I enjoyed 2 hours of observation at this spot as the eagles made several passes.  At one point there were 6 Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together…  a stunning sight.

As I reluctantly made my way back, I was left bemoaning the fact that this would probably be my last visit to Wild Duck Lake for at least 2 weeks as I am travelling to Dalian (Tom Beeke-land!) to bird the point at Laotieshan from 11-19 May – I believe the first time this peninsula will have been systematically covered for any length of time in Spring.   I can only imagine what I will be missing at Wild Duck Lake during this time!  Best not think about it…..

Full species list (Magpie and Tree Sparrow too numerous to count):

Japanese Quail (2 – flushed from the path at Yeyahu)

Common Pheasant (6)

Gadwall (22 – most on the reservoir seen from the viewing tower at Yeyahu)

Falcated Duck (6 – numbers well down from my previous visit and only now present on the eastern part of the reservoir at Yeyahu)

Wigeon (4)

Mallard (8)

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)

Shoveler (4)

Garganey (6)

Eurasian Teal (68)

Red-crested Pochard (2)

Ferruginous Duck (4)

Goldeneye (1)

Little Grebe (20)

Great Crested Grebe (14)

Eurasian Spoonbill (8) – on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang until 0620 when flew west into the mist.

Bittern (at least 4 heard)

Black-crowned Night Heron (40+)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Cattle Egret (1)

Grey Heron (2)

Purple Heron (4)

Great Cormorant (1)

Kestrel (2)

Amur Falcon (30+ light but steady passage throughout the day)

Black-eared Kite (8)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (at least 6)

Japanese Sparrowhawk (1)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Common Buzzard (2)

Greater Spotted Eagle (over 10 sightings involving at least 6 different birds; 6 in the air together between 1510-1530)

Coot – at least 40

Black-winged Stilt (16)

Northern Lapwing (14)

Little Ringed Plover (16)

Kentish Plover (4)

Greater Sand Plover (10) – all at Ma Chang including two adult summer males.

Common Snipe (6)

Redshank (4)

Greenshank (4)

Green Sandpiper (1)

Common Sandpiper (1)

Temminck’s Stint (2)

Oriental Pratincole (6)

Black-headed Gull (50+)

Common Tern (12 of the dark-billed race longipennis)

Little Tern (4)

Whiskered Tern (4)

Oriental Turtle Dove (2)

Collared Dove (6)

Common Swift (8)

Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (18)

Common Kingfisher (5)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Chinese Penduline Tit (4)

Sand Martin (2)

Barn Swallow (80+)

Red-rumped Swallow (16)

Greater Short-toed Lark (12) – including one with an abnormal upper mandible

Greater Short-toed Lark with abnormally long upper mandible. It's amazing how this bird manages to feed..

Asian Short-toed Lark (2)

Eurasian Skylark (2)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2) – 2 possibly with a nest at Yeyahu

Chinese Bulbul – (2) including one singing at the plantation on the island

Pallas’s Warbler (2) singing in the plantation on the island

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1) singing in the plantation on the island

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)

White-cheeked Starling (10)

Red-throated Thrush (3)

Naumann’s Thrush (1)

Dusky Thrush (1)

Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades (1)

Bluethroat (1) at Yeyahu

Siberian Stonechat (8)

Taiga Flycatcher (12)

Yellow Wagtail (80+ most looked liked Western Yellow Wagtail ssp thunbergi but I am not sure whether that occurs here.  ssp macronyx of Eastern Yellow Wagtail looks a good match, too)

Citrine Wagtail (10)

White Wagtail (2 of the ssp ocularis)

Richard’s Pipit (6)

Olive-backed Pipit (37)

Buff-bellied Pipit (60+)

Little Bunting (400+ everywhere)

Yellow-throated Bunting (1)

Black-faced Bunting (12)

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (30+)