Asian House Martin (Delichon dasypus) must be a candidate for vagrancy to Western Europe. At least one of the three subspecies is a strong and long distance migrant. However, looking very similar to Northern House Martin, its common European sister-species, how many people would be able to identify one?
The nominate subspecies of Asian House Martin is perhaps the most likely to wander. It breeds in southeast Russia, the Kuril Islands, Japan and Korea and migrates through eastern China to winter in the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, Java and Sumatra.
Ssp cashmeriensis breeds in the Himalayas from Afghanistan east to Sikkim and northwards into Tibet and western and central China. It is a short-range migrant, mainly wintering at lower altitudes in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The third race, ssp nigrimentalis, breeds in southeastern China and southern Siberia. Its wintering grounds are unknown, but birds in Taiwan apparently just move to lower altitudes in winter.
In eastern China any sighting of a House Martin is notable. I have seen a handful of both Asian (presumably the nominate subspecies) and Northern House Martins at Laotieshan in Liaoning Province but, in a sign of just how scarce they are in this region, I have still not seen one of either species in Beijing (they are passage migrants and seen in small numbers each spring and autumn – clearly I just haven’t been trying hard enough!).
My recent visit to Chang Bai Shan in Jilin Province provided an opportunity to get to grips with Asian House Martin as several pairs were nest-building on our hotel, allowing some fantastic views. Capturing any hirundine in flight with a camera is never easy, and the images below won’t win any prizes, but they do show some of the features to look out for in separating Asian House Martin from Northern House Martin. To the European readers of this blog, it’ll be worth making a mental note of these features when checking out those late autumn migrants….!
There are several differences between Asian and Northern House Martin that should make identification relatively straightforward if seen well.
Structurally, Asian House Martin is smaller, more compact and squarer-tailed than Northern but these features aren’t necessarily easy to ascertain on a single bird.
Perhaps the best feature, and one that I have found very helpful in the field, is the colour of the underwing coverts. In the images above, taken in sunny and dull conditions respectively, one can see the relatively dark underwing coverts, a consistent feature of Asian House Martin. Compare with this image of a Northern House Martin. The paler underwing coverts of Northern are not usually as prominent as shown in this linked image (taken in strong light) and can often appear concolourous with the rest of the underwing but a House Martin with obviously dark underwing coverts should be Asian.
Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, 3 June 2012
Another subtle feature to distinguish these two species is the amount of black on the face. Compare the image above of Asian with this image of Northern. The black on the face generally extends a little lower on Asian.
Another feature is the rump. On Asian House Martin the white rump is usually relatively small and can appear ‘flecked’ with dark streaks, as in the above image. On Northern the white rump is larger (due to more of the uppertail coverts being white) and is usually clean white.
Finally, check out these images from John Holmes in Hong Kong. Asian House Martin often shows ‘dusky’ flanks and belly, whereas Northern usually shows bright white underparts.
In summary, the combination of a smallish white rump (sometimes flecked), dark underwing coverts, ‘dirty’ flanks, a squarer tail and a darker ‘face’ are all characteristics associated with Asian House Martin. Maybe one will turn up at your migration watchpoint this autumn…?
EDIT: I have added this image of an Asian House Martin taken at Chang Bai Shan that shows the dark feathering on the upper chin (ie just below the lower mandible). In Northern House Martin, the chin is white.
To celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee (God bless her), Libby and I visited Chang Bai Shan in Jilin Province with friends John and Sarah Gallagher. Birders might know that Chang Bai Shan is one of the very few remaining breeding sites for the Scaly-sided Merganser. This bird is classified as “Endangered” by Birdlife International with the justification given as:
“This species has a very small population which is suspected to be undergoing a continuing and rapid decline as a result of habitat loss, illegal hunting and disturbance.”
It’s hard to believe that habitat loss is the main cause of decline in Chang Bai Shan as the area is vast and the habitat looks very good. But the latter two – illegal hunting and disturbance – are clearly local threats (more about that later).
Although the trip was not dedicated to birding (my companions, although they humour me, prefer good walking over trying to spot little brown jobs in the thick forest), the thrill of trying to see a Scaly-sided Merganser was a fun adventure for all of us, especially given that we were able to find almost no information about where to see these special birds in advance of our visit.
On arrival at the new and well-appointed spa hotel just a few minutes drive from the equally new Chang Bai Shan airport, we checked in and made arrangements to visit the national park the next day. From our room we could see Asian House Martins, Red-rumped Swallows and Barn Swallows all gathering mud and building nests on the hotel itself.. a good start.
For anyone who has visited a mountain in China, the following tale of our visit to the national park will be all too familiar. We were bussed to the entrance of the park where we were obliged to buy an entrance ticket for 100 Yuan (about GBP 10) and a bus ticket for 85 Yuan (GBP c8.50). After boarding allotted bus number 2, we set off for the 45 minute direct (ie no stopping) journey to the peak. The habitat looked great – broad-leaved forest, followed by birch, larch and, as the trees thinned, more open areas with stunted birch still leafless as if it was mid-winter. Part of the way up, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a Hazel Grouse as it whirred its way across the road in front of the bus. At the top we disembarked and set off on the wooden steps to the peak (2,470 metres) for a view of the lake. There were marshals and signs telling us not to wander from the well-trodden path (possibly due to the proximity of North Korea which lies on the far shore of the lake). At the top one enjoyed a spectacular view of the “Heavenly Lake” which sits inside the crater of an extinct volcano (well, at least we *think* it’s extinct – it last erupted in 1903). In a sign of how late Spring springs in Jilin at this altitude, the lake was still completely frozen. With quite a bit of low cloud around, responsible for the occasional showers, I suspect we didn’t see the lake at its best. But it was still impressive.
It was here that we enjoyed stunning views of displaying and singing Alpine Accentors.. there were at least 4 pairs around the summit.
And here is a short video..
After the summit, our bus took us to the next stop on the rigid Chang Bai Shan mountain tour. The circular boardwalk (at an altitude of 1464 metres) cuts through some fantastic forest and we saw singing Mugimaki Flycatchers, Black Woodpecker, Pallas’s Warbler, Goldcrest, Hobby and Siberian Chipmunk here. Unfortunately the trail down to the waterfall was closed (for reasons unknown) so at the end of the boardwalk circular tour we were bussed back to base, missing out on some fantastic looking habitat that looked perfect for Three-toed Woodpecker and Nutcracker.
We decided to walk back from the park entrance to the hotel, a journey that I estimated would take around 30 minutes but which actually took an hour and a half. (oops, sorry guys!). But it was a good walk and we saw Grey Wagtails, White Wagtail (ssp leucopsis), Jay, Siberian Blue Robin, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Dollarbird, Eurasian, Oriental and Indian Cuckoos, singing Yellow-throated Bunting and heard a few unidentified thrushes (one of which I subsequently identified as Pale Thrush).
With no access to suitable fast-flowing streams in the park itself, I knew that the next day we’d have to find a few tracks outside the park if we were to stand a chance of seeing Scaly-sided Merganser. We asked the staff if they knew where to see the “Zhong Hua Qiu Sha Ya” (the Chinese name for Scaly-sided Merganser). After a few polite smiles and nods, one of the girls said she would phone a friend. Soon after a young man appeared and confidently told us these birds could be found at two lakes nearby. The best place was Quan Yong Hu, north of the local town of Song Jiang He Zhen. We arranged for a taxi to take us and we were soon on our way… the taxi driver also knew that these birds could be seen at this lake, so we were quietly confident. On arrival, some 60 minutes later, we scanned the lake. There was no sign. A local who lived on the lakeside said that the birds were here (more than 10 of them) but that was in April and that now they had all moved into the mountains to breed… so it appeared that this lake was a staging post, a sort of meeting place before the birds moved up to the mountains to breed on the fast-running streams. We had a short picnic and then began the journey back, looking out for a nice trail on which to walk. We soon found a bridge over a decent stream with a muddy track along one side. We decided to have a walk and, despite the odd rain shower (the climate here was reminiscent of Scotland or the Peak District), we enjoyed a pleasant stroll and saw more Grey Wagtails, Brown Dippers, Mandarin Ducks, Blue and White Flycatchers (common), Common Sandpipers and a pair of Oriental Turtle Doves. After reaching a bit of a building site with some not so friendly dogs, we headed back. As our taxi reached the town of Song Jiang He, we crossed a small bridge over a lake and I caught sight of a distant but interesting looking bird on the water and quickly asked the driver to stop. I jumped out and, with the naked eye, I could see it was a merganser… could it be? With the binoculars, I could see the ‘funky’ hair do and the scaly markings on the flanks… A female Scaly-sided Merganser!! I quickly got the others onto the bird and gave them my binoculars to see it as I went for my camera in my backpack. I reeled off a quick record image and, as I checked it on the screen, to my horror I realised I had not altered the settings from when I had taken a couple of images of an overflying Oriental Honey Buzzard. The result was a horribly over-exposed and blurry image. I began to adjust the camera settings to enable me to get a better image but, just as I was about to move the dials, Sarah and John said “it’s flying”… so I hurriedly fired off a couple of photos with the same settings… The light was awful (it was raining hard) and all I captured was a flying blur.. but I think you can just about make out some of the distinctive features (spiky hair do, dark eye patch reaching to the bill, white panel on wing dividied by a thin black line). They won’t win any prizes but at least I had an image of a Scaly-sided Merganser…
The bird flew around the bend in the lake and we thought we may be able to see it from the other side. We drove around but there was no sign. It could just as easily have flown up into the mountains. The driver seemed to be relieved (I think he felt a bit bad that we hadn’t seen it at the original lake) and we arrived back at the hotel elated.
That evening, after a well-earned dip in the outdoor hot spring, we decided to try a local restaurant in the village near to the hotel. We enjoyed some delicious food, including a local trout, and toasted our good fortune with the merganser with some local “Dong Bei” beer.. The owner had a couple of stuffed birds in the restaurant and we thought it would be worth a try asking him whether he knew where to see Scaly-sided Mergansers.. he proudly said that they bred locally and then proceeded to his fridge whereupon he took out a dish full of eggs… “Zhong Hua Qiu Sha Ya” (Scaly-sided Merganser) he said with a big smile on his face….. I think my jaw dropped to the floor at this point and I didn’t know what to say. Did he really have a clutch of Scaly-sided Merganser eggs in his fridge? Oh. My. God.
John asked to take a photo of them and he duly obliged.
I tried to explain to him that this was a very special bird and that there weren’t many left.. but the look on his face suggested my Chinese wasn’t understood…
The owner also showed us a photo on his digital camera taken last July from outside his restaurant (which looks across a small manmade lake). On the lake there was a very smart breeding-plumaged Black-throated Diver. He said it was there at 0500 and then flew away later that morning.
We left the restaurant a little disturbed that the local restaurateurs may be collecting the eggs of an endangered species for food. A local education scheme is much-needed, I think (WWF/RSPB – any plans?).
The next day we decided to explore the area north of our hotel and, using the same taxi driver (Mr Wang), we soon found an excellent fast-flowing river with a track running alongside. We walked upstream and, after only a few hundred metres, we encountered Brown Dippers and Grey Wagtails.. and, best of all, the river looked perfect for mergansers. A little further along, a Brown Dipper perched on an exposed rock allowing us all excellent views. Just as we were about to move on, Sarah spotted another bird on the water and asked me “what’s that?”. I looked and could immediately see it was a merganser and a quick check in the binoculars revealed it to be a Scaly-sided…!! Wow! It swam towards us with its head in the water and then dived. We all waited quietly for it to emerge but it must have surfaced some way from where we were looking as the next thing we knew it was flying upstream and was gone.. a brief but ‘better than yesterday’ view.. After ‘high-fiving’ Sarah we walked further along the track and saw a few Blue and White Flycatchers and some more Brown Dippers. After a further couple of kilometres we found an open area on the bend of the river and sat down for our lunch. It was here that we saw another female Scaly-sided, again briefly, as it flew right over us and upstream. Bird number three. A pair of White-throated Needletails kept us company as they hawked for insects overhead.
The walk back was uneventful but we did hear Oriental Cuckoo, Siberian Robin, more Blue and White Flycatchers and a thrush sp.
The next day we explored more tracks around the hotel and close to the border of the national park, seeing new birds for the trip such as White-backed Woodpecker (found by Libby!), Long-tailed Rosefinch, White-throated Rock Thrush and Pale Thrush. Just as we got back to the hotel to shower and check out, the heavens opened and we thanked our lucky stars that we had enjoyed the best part of the day. We’d enjoyed a thoroughly refreshing break in this special part of China – a real tonic after the smog and oppressive heat of Beijing – and, best of all, we’d seen the near-mythical Scaly-sided Merganser!
Laotieshan is continuing to exceed expectations. Highlight today was probably the 10,000+ Red-rumped Swallows that moved through the point. Simply staggering. Supporting cast included a Hair-crested Drongo, a total of 19 House Martins (13 Northern, 3 Asian and 3 unidentified to species level), a single Black Stork and 8 White-throated Needletails. Also very good numbers of Richard’s Pipits, Black-faced Buntings, Olive-backed Pipits and Chestnut-flanked White-eyes. Raptors continue to impress with Oriental Honey Buzzards, Japanese Sparrowhawks, Goshawks, Black-eared Kites and Pied Harriers the highlights. All of this is happening during benign weather. We are expecting a cold front to pass on Thursday with the temperature due to drop by around 10 degrees. If that happens, Friday could be a big day. It’s been so good that I haven’t had time to put together detailed notes – that will probably have to wait until I get home.. In the meantime, here are a few more images of the day…
Well, it didn’t rain but the wind did turn to the north and, with low cloud for the first few hours of Thursday morning, there were plenty of migrants about and we enjoyed an excellent day. We had planned our return flight deliberately to allow a full final day in the field and we were glad we did with two new birds in the last couple of hours of birding – White’s Thrush and Yellow-legged Buttonquail.
The day started promisingly with lots of visible migration from the lighthouse. A few Yellow Wagtails, Chinese Grosbeaks, Black-naped Orioles and Fork-tailed Swifts were moving and the whole are seemed ‘birdy’ with singing Lanceolated Warbler in a bush next to the watchpoint and Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers seemingly on every available perch. Dusky and Radde’s Warblers called regularly from the scrub.
It wasn’t long before Jesper picked up a calling Pechora Pipit as it flew overhead – the first of two – and a small flock of sparrows that landed in a tree next to the lighthouse turned out to be Russet Sparrows (after we scored the first record for this species in Liaoning Province earlier in our trip, it’s status has seemingly changed from rare to common in the space of a few days!). Or maybe it’s an unprecedented influx. Who knows?
3 Black Drongos dropped in to a treetop already holding 6 Chinese Grosbeaks and a Dark-sided Flycatcher and two of a flock of 6 Chestnut Buntings landed in a nearby tree, allowing excellent views of this very smart bird.
After an hour or so, Spike and I decided to leave Jesper and his group and walk up the ridge to gain a broader vantage point. From here we enjoyed more Black-naped Orioles, a group of 6 Asian House Martins that came in off the sea (the first of 9 in total for the day) and 3 more White-throated Needletails among over 100 Fork-tailed Swifts. A pair of Hawfinches toured the area around the lighthouse before heading inland and a Peregrine hung in the wind to the displeasure of the local magpies. A cuckoo (not identified to species) came in off the sea and a Chinese Sparrowhawk came in low and hugged the ridge as it made its way inland. This was quality vis-migging!
The skies were very busy until about 0900 when the sun began to burn off the cloud and the flow of birds gradually slowed to a trickle. At this point we began to search the surrounding hillside, shrubs and lighthouse garden. Many new birds had arrived with good numbers of flycatchers, lots of Thick-billed Warblers, a sprinkling of phylloscs (including our first (singing) Arctic Warblers of the trip), Common Rosefinch, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Forest Wagtail, etc.. Everywhere we walked there were birds. Not a huge ‘fall’ but certainly a decent new arrival, clearly prompted by the change in wind direction (it was in northerlies that we enjoyed so many birds at the beginning of our trip).
After a spot of lunch at the lighthouse car park, where the locals told us that “in September the sky is full of birds”, we began to explore a track that, at first we thought would just take us onto a piece of waste ground but instead looped round underneath the lighthouse through an area of sloped open woodland, some great gullies and coastal scrub. It was here that we flushed the Yellow-legged Buttonquail from a grassy verge on the entrance track to a seemingly abandoned hotel complex and, from a shaded gully, the White’s Thrush flew up and perched briefly before disappearing into the thicket above us. We wish we had discovered this area earlier as it obviously had great potential!
After a final visit to the lighthouse garden we reluctantly walked the track to the main road to catch the bus to Lushun for a bite to eat before picking up our bags from the hotel and making our way to the airport. We had enjoyed a fantastic trip and were probably the first western birders to cover this area in spring – a real feeling of pioneering. I can only imagine what would be discovered at Laotieshan if the area was systematically covered over the peak weeks on a regular basis. I am sure that a few surprises would be uncovered. As a southerly jutting peninsula, Laotieshan is almost certainly even better in Autumn so we plan to return in late September (the locals say that, on average, the 20th is the peak date for birds of prey) to see.. having been there and scouted the area, we now have a pretty good idea of the best areas. There is plenty of good habitat for migrants, the majority of which is very undisturbed, so it is not only great for birds but also a real pleasure to walk around and enjoy…
I’ll post a full trip report in a few days, together with a full species list for the trip (over 150). In the meantime, here are a few more images of the habitat and the species list for yesterday.
Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):
Fork-tailed Swift (106)
Chinese Bulbul (18) – including a flock of 16 migrating out to sea
Common Pheasant (1)
Dark-sided Flycatcher (7)
Lanceolated Warbler (7) – including one singing from our watchpoint
Grey Wagtail (1)
Radde’s Warbler (4)
White-cheeked Starling (3)
Chinese Grosbeak (25)
Dusky Warbler (5)
Barn Swallow (40)
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (5)
Black-naped Oriole (17)
Olive-backed Pipit (12)
Black Drongo (6)
Spotted Dove (1)
Eurasian Siskin (1)
Common Rosefinch (3)
Red-rumped Swallow (24)
Russet Sparrow (9) – including one flock of 8 briefly at the lighthouse
Chestnut Bunting (6)
Yellow Wagtail (61)
Pechora Pipit (2)
Black-browed Reed Warbler (9)
Oriental Greenfinch (4)
Common Pheasant (4)
Great Tit (6)
Brown Shrike (9)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)
Asian Brown Flycatcher (11)
Siberian Rubythroat (1)
Taiga Flycatcher (3)
Thick-billed Warbler (9)
Siberian Blue Robin (7)
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (7)
Forest Wagtail (2)
White-throated Needletail (6)
Sand Martin (9)
Asian House Martin (9)
Black-tailed Gull (80+)
Richard’s Pipit (2)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (1)
Chinese Pond Heron (4)
Blue Rock Thrush (1)
Trsitram’s Bunting (4)
Eurasian Cuckoo (1)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2)
Chinese Sparrowhawk (1)
Yellow-browed Warbler (1)
Oriental Reed Warbler (2)
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (2)
Meadow Bunting (1)
Arctic Warbler (5)
Yellow-legged Buttonquail (1) – seen well in flight and scurrying along the ground
After staying in Jinshitan following the wader bonanza, we enjoyed a relative lie-in until 0530 and were up and ready at the station to catch the first train to Dalian at 0630. From there we took a bus (8 Yuan – about 80 pence) from Dalian to Lushun where we dumped our bags and set out straight for Laotieshan. We obviously missed the early morning visible migration but we were on site by 10am. It was a gorgeous day with very good visibility and temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius. Highlights include Asian House Martin, Red Collared Dove, 2 Mugimaki Flycatchers, a single Grey-streaked Flycatcher and, for the sheer spectacle, the hundreds and hundreds of hirundines – Swallows, Red-rumped Swallows, Sand Martins and Fork-tailed Swifts – that were feeding over the point all afternoon – simply awesome to watch these expert aviators hang, glide and swoop in the stiff north-easterly breeze..
I am posting a few images from today and also a couple of the ‘crabbers’ that were very active on the mudflats yesterday… maybe that’s why we didn’t see a Spoon-billed Sandpiper!
These early mornings and full days in the field are starting to get to me.. I feel very tired this evening.. but hopefully I’ll be in bed by 9pm tonight and some good birds at first light tomorrow will no doubt wipe the sleep from my eyes! Have just set the alarm for 4am.. gulp.
Full species list (in chronological order):
Asian Brown Flycatcher (11)
Red-rumped Swallow (200+)
Spotted Dove (1)
Yellow-browed Warbler (25)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (9)
Siberian Stonechat (1)
Tristram’s Bunting (5)
Radde’s Warbler (6)
Taiga Flycatcher (6)
Chestnut Bunting (3)
Amur Falcon (12)
Chinese Bulbul (2)
Dusky Warbler (12)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (1 plus 1 brief harrier sp, probably also this species)
Yellow-browed Bunting (3)
Fork-tailed Swift (250+)
Pallas’s Warbler (2)
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (4)
Chestnut-eared Bunting (1)
Chinese Hill Warbler (1)
Rufous-tailed Robin (1)
Black-naped Oriole (1) in off sea at 1105
Purple Heron (1) in off sea at 1120
Black-faced Bunting (3)
White-throated Rock Thrush (2) including one in the lighthouse garden
Black Drongo (1)
Brown Shrike (7)
Japanese White-eye (1)
White-eye sp (20+)
Oriental Greenfinch (4)
Common Pheasant (4)
Ashy Minivet (5)
Common Kestrel (1)
Great Tit (4)
Olive-backed Pipit (3)
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (4)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (6)
Sand Martin (7)
Mugimaki Flycatcher (2) – a male and a female
Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1) – associating with the Mugimakis
Common Swift (1)
House Martin sp (1)
Yellow Wagtail (1)
prob Oriental Cuckoo (1) in off sea at 1530. Heavily streaked underparts including streaked underwing coverts.