On 26-27 July I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site in Hebei Province with visiting British birders, Mike Hoit and Andrew Whitehouse, plus Beijing-based Paul Holt and Jennifer Leung. Mike and Andrew had just arrived in China ahead of a trip to Qinghai and, with a couple of days spare, were keen to see BAER’S POCHARD. I had warned them in advance that they are difficult to see in July – the birds are much more secretive once they begin breeding and, in summer, the vegetation is higher. Nevertheless, I was also keen to visit the site to see whether we could find proof of breeding. In addition to the BAER’s, the lake offers superb general birding and is probably the best place in the world to see SCHRENCK’S BITTERN, another difficult world bird. Late July is actually a good time to see the latter, usually secretive, species as the parents make constant flights to collect food for their young.
After the long drive in 35 degrees Celsius heat, we headed straight for the most reliable spot – a series of lotus ponds with areas of open water that, from my previous visits, appear to be a favourite ‘loafing’ location for both BAER’S POCHARD and FERRUGINOUS DUCK.
We were in luck. Almost immediately a stunning male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN made a fly-by at eye level in the lovely late afternoon light and, on one of the lotus pools, was a female BAER’S POCHARD. Result!
After checking out different sites around the lake and enjoying good views of 2 male BAER’S on the open water, we returned to the original spot and, this time, a different BAER’S POCHARD was present. With pale tips to the scapulars and spiky tail feathers, we believed it was a juvenile. I took some video – see below. Clearly, as a ‘Critically Endangered’ species, proof of breeding is significant. And although breeding is likely to have occurred, this would be the first confirmed breeding at this site since 2012. I therefore welcome comments from any ‘aythya‘ experts who might be able to confirm that this is indeed a juvenile BAER’S.
Baer’s Pochard juvenile
A few volunteers from the Beijing Birdwatching Society have been making occasional visits to this site this spring and summer to survey the BAER’S POCHARDS and so, together, we are slowly building up a picture of the status of this very rare duck. We still lack some basic information such as when they arrive in spring and when they leave in autumn. Given the site freezes over in winter, it’s very likely they move on but there is at least one photo of a BAER’S POCHARD from this site in January, so it’s possible that some remain if there are open patches of water.
The site is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. With vast lotus pools and shallow water at the northern end, it’s attracting swimmers, fishermen and general tourists who like to pick and take home a lotus flower or two. And, although it has status as a Provincial Level Nature Reserve, there are apparently plans for ‘development’. Several sets of plans have been drawn up, including proposals for a “water sports” centre, hovercrafts and an artificial ‘beach’. Thankfully, for the time being, none of these proposals have been given the go-ahead. However, the fact that the management is apparently resisting a proposal for the site to be added to the list of important wetlands (which would mean tighter restrictions on development) is a sign that commercial development of this site is clearly a possibility. Gathering data on the importance of this site for BAER’S POCHARD and other birds and wildlife will be critical in order to make the best case possible against commercial development, or at least to persuade the authorities to retain the most important part of the site as a properly-managed nature reserve. Watch this space.
On Thursday I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site with visiting Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley (from the swift project) and good friends Andrew and Rachael Raine. It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in Beijing with the thermometer on my car peaking at 43 degrees Celsius as we drove south. It was still 38 degrees C when we left the site at 8pm.
Despite the heat, it was a superb day. One of the objectives was to see, and count, the BAER’S POCHARDS present. As the spring wears on, these birds get more secretive but we were fortunate to see at least 18 of this “Critically Endangered” duck, 16 of which were males.. The predominance of males suggests to me that perhaps the females are on nests, which must be good news….
We enjoyed some excellent views of a male at close quarters by the side of the road and I was able to take this video using my iPhone 5 and the Swarovski ATX95 telescope. I am continually amazed at the quality of the results using this set-up.
Baer’s Pochard male
As well as the BAER’S POCHARDS, we also enjoyed excellent views of REED PARROTBILL and displaying SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS just before dusk.
One of the threats to the BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭) is hybridisation with the closely related, and range expanding, FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭). At the Baer’s Pochard breeding site in Hebei Province, Ferruginous Duck is a common breeder; I counted more than 60 on site last weekend versus 24 Baer’s.
Another drake, superficially resembling a drake Baer’s, sported a chestnut cap and slightly less white on the flanks than one would expect for a pure Baer’s. It was associating with a group of Ferruginous Ducks and I recorded the video clip below. The chestnut cap is particularly noticeable towards the end of the clip.
Baer’s Pochard hybrid2
I hope to visit the site a few more times over the coming weeks and will look out for more evidence of hybridisation and, hopefully, evidence of breeding Baer’s too.
EDIT: It has been suggested by folks at WWT, who have been catching and taking DNA samples from captive birds, that the drake in the video clip may be a first summer male. Personally, the colour of the cap, resembling the chestnut brown of Ferruginous and not the darker brown typical of Baer’s, makes me think there is some Ferruginous influence but I’ll go back soon and try to get more photos!
BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was once abundant in east Asia.. now it is listed as “Critically Endangered” due to an, as yet unexplained, calamitous population decline. The only known breeding site is not in the far northeast of China or in Russia (previously understood to be the species stronghold) but instead in Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.
Yesterday I visited the site and found at least 24 of these beautiful ducks on site, most of which seem paired up and ready to breed. Worryingly, at least two birds appeared to be hybrids with the closely-related Ferruginous Duck, a common breeder at the same site.
I recorded this video compilation of a male displaying to a (seemingly uninterested) female… It was almost comical seeing him try in vain to attract her attention. Let’s hope she is more interested soon – we need them to make babies!
I am in discussions with the Beijing Birdwatching Society about submitting a grant application to the Oriental Bird Club conservation fund to set up a project to monitor Baer’s Pochard at this site… We know almost nothing about this bird and its habitat requirements.. so fingers crossed we secure some resources.
Video recorded using an iPhone 5 with the Swarovski ATS95 telescope and iPhone adaptor.
On Saturday 12 October I visited Wild Duck Lake (both Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR) with Jesper Hornskov and Ben Wielstra. As usual with this site in October, expectations were high as I set off at 0445 to pick up Ben, then Jesper, before heading over the mountains past Badaling Great Wall and on to Ma Chang.
On arrival, the water level at Guanting Reservoir was the highest I have ever seen. Consequently most of the viewing points that I have used in the past to observe the reservoir are no longer accessible, meaning that we had no opportunity to view the duck on the open water. A couple of CHINESE GREY SHRIKES, a MERLIN, a few lingering juvenile AMUR FALCONS, some early BEAN GEESE and a flock of 23 MONGOLIAN LARKS kept us entertained at Ma Chang before we decided to hot-foot it over to Yeyahu Nature Reserve to spend some time at the new viewing tower.
As we made our way out of Ma Chang along the unpaved access track I caught sight of a raptor to the north of us, gliding west. I slammed on the brakes (not as dramatic as it sounds when you are only moving at about 5mph) and glanced through my binoculars. It was big. An eagle. I should say at this point that, only a few minutes before, I was chatting to Jesper and Ben about the potential for a STEPPE EAGLE. I had seen GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE and IMPERIAL EAGLE at Wild Duck Lake before but never STEPPE. As I looked through my binoculars, I could see a pale bar on the underwing and my heart raced – it looked like a first calendar year STEPPE EAGLE! We all jumped out of the car and it began to circle, offering us superb views with the sun behind us. I grabbed my camera and reeled off a few shots before just enjoying the bird as it gained height and eventually drifted off west. Wow! A new bird for me in Beijing.
Elated, and buoyed by our seemingly potent ability to talk up species at will, we began to chat about all sorts of obviously impossible targets for the day such as SWINHOE’S RAIL, STREAKED REED WARBLER, CRESTED SHELDUCK and, of course, BAER’S POCHARD.
A few minutes later we arrived at Yeyahu NR and, after a celebratory cup of coffee, made our way into the reserve and headed for the new watchtower. On the way we experienced a modest passage of raptors with NORTHERN GOSHAWK, EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARD and, again after talking about a likely species, SHORT-TOED EAGLE. It was turning into a very good day.
We reached the tower after about 20 minutes and set up stall, hoping that the early promise might continue. A few more NORTHERN GOSHAWKS, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARDS, a HEN HARRIER and an additional SHORT-TOED EAGLE kept us interested and then another large eagle came into view from the east… As it drifted closer, we could see it wasn’t the expected GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (regular at this time of year) but a STEPPE EAGLE! Given the direction and timing, almost certainly a second individual.
As the day wore on, cloud cover increased and the raptor passage seemed to stop, so we decided to head for the newly flooded area in the hope of sighting some duck, including a target for Ben – BAIKAL TEAL.
We didn’t see any BAIKAL TEAL but we did see good numbers of MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, GADWALL, FALCATED DUCK, RED-CRESTED POCHARD and a handful of FERRUGINOUS DUCK. As we made our way along a track through the flooded area, we encountered some COMMON REED BUNTINGS. I don’t see many COMMON REED BUNTINGS in Beijing (it’s a case of picking out a COMMON among all the PALLAS’S REED and LITTLE BUNTINGS – I can feel your sympathy) so I decided to hang back to take some photographs as Jesper and Ben headed to a small viewing area overlooking one of the ponds.
I had a frustrating time with the buntings but did manage some record photos.
Just as I was about to leave the buntings to catch up with Jesper and Ben, a pair of Ferruginous Duck/Baer’s Pochards flew past and, as I had my camera set up, I reeled off a couple of photos as they plunged down onto one of the small pools in the reedbed. I didn’t even look at the camera to check the images as I already felt I had been too long trying to photograph the buntings – and they would almost certainly be Ferruginous. However, as I caught up with Jesper and Ben, I mentioned that I had seen two Ferruginous/Baer’s-type ducks to which Jesper replied that they had seen three definite Ferruginous.. I (erroneously, as it turned out) assumed that I had seen two of the three birds they had seen, so I didn’t think any more of it….. ***LESSON HERE***
From the watchpoint, we viewed a small area of the pool on which ‘my’ birds alighted and it was busy – lots of Gadwall, Falcated Duck and Mallard were moving around and flying in and out. But no sign of the ‘Ferruginous/Baer’s types’. As the light began to fade, we left and headed back to Beijing.
At home, as I uploaded my photos from the day, I had a double-take when I saw the two images of the Ferruginous/Baer’s type duck I had seen. One appeared to have a green tinge to the head and, structurally, they looked wrong for Ferruginous. They were BAER’S POCHARDS!
Having known that Ben was particularly keen to see BAER’S POCHARD, I felt terrible. If only I had looked at the photos at the time, I would have realised that there was a pair of BAER’S POCHARDS on that pool and we could have stayed longer in the hope that they reappeared. But as it was, we left in ignorance and it was only when I got home that I realised. Sorry Ben!
The silver lining is that I will almost certainly take Ben to Wild Duck Lake again while he is in Beijing and I have even offered to take him to the breeding site in Hebei Province to hopefully see them there… It’s a lesson learned.
In any case, it was another superb day at this brilliant site. Is there a capital city in the world with birding as good as this? If so, I want to know about it!
Full species list below. Thanks to Jesper and Ben for their company on the day.
Common PheasantPhasanius colchicus – 6+
Bean GooseAnser fabalis serrirostris – 15
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea – one (plus a couple of possibly captive ones…)
Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri – a pair photographed [TT]
Ferruginous DuckAythya nyroca – three
Smew Mergellus albellus – four brownheads
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis – nine
Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus – three
Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris – one (in flight, giving ‘pao!’ call)
Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus – one
Grey HeronArdea cinerea – six
Little EgretEgretta garzetta – three
Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo – two
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus – one
Amur FalconFalco amurensis – 12+ (excellent views of several 1st c-y birds)
Merlin Falco columbarius – two (adult male; unaged female)
Eurasian HobbyFalco subbuteo – one
Short-toed EagleCircaetus gallicus – two
Eastern Marsh HarrierCircus spilonotus – one 1st c-y (an unusually dark individual, with hardly any pale on crown, no noticeable pale rump, effectively no pale on forewing & an at most very faint breast band)
Hen HarrierCircus cyaneus – four 1st c-y
Eurasian SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus – eight
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis – two
Common BuzzardButeo buteo japonicus – 7+
Steppe EagleAquila nipalensis – 1-2 (a 1st c-y circling & gliding 10h42 as we were leaving Machang & probably another – in identical plumage, as far as we could tell – over YYH reserve at 12h20…)
Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus – two
Common CootFulica atra – 16
Northern LapwingVanellus vanellus – 70
Pacific Golden PloverPluvialis fulva – eight 1st c-y
Common SnipeGallinago gallinago – one
Common Black-headed GullLarus ridibundus – 15+
Oriental Turtle DoveStreptopelia orientalis – three
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto – four
Great Spotted WoodpeckerDendrocopos major – five
Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus – four (mostly showing very well…)
Azure-winged MagpieCyanopica cyanus – two
Common MagpiePica pica – 60+ (not counting birds en route!)
Daurian JackdawCorvus dauuricus – c390 (main event a flock of c325)
Rook Corvus frugilegus – one (up close, feeding in a field)
Eastern Great TitParus minor – three
Yellow-bellied TitParus venustulus – nine
Marsh TitParus palustris
Chinese Penduline TitRemiz (pendulinus) consobrinus – five (incl a juvenile sitting up nicely)
As the wild population of Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) has declined dramatically in the last few years, a new threat has emerged – that of hybridisation (see my article on Birding Frontiers here). The only confirmed breeding site for Baer’s Pochard also hosts the closely related Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca, 白眼潜鸭) and, this year, I have personally seen drake Baer’s displaying to females of Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard.
This spring and summer I have been making regular visits to the breeding site in Hebei Province, south of Beijing, to monitor the Baer’s Pochards. It’s a large site with many hidden ponds amongst the reeds, meaning that, in a short visit, it is not straightforward to count the birds present or to establish proof of breeding. So far this year I am unaware of any confirmation that Baer’s has bred successfully.
My most recent visit, in early August with visiting British birder Richard Bonser, produced no definite sightings. However, we did see the bird below, which we think *could be* a female Baer’s. One of the problems with identification of ducks at this time of year is that adults are in ‘eclipse’ plumage, meaning that they look very different than when sporting their spring finery. An additional complication is the spectre of hybrids. I do not have knowledge of what Baer’s Pochard should look like in eclipse and I have been unable to find any images or literature to guide me. Baer’s *ought* to be identifiable on structure but, with hybrids a very real possibility, this becomes less straightforward – we should expect at least some hybrids to exhibit Baer’s-like structure.
Clearly, given the “Critically Endangered” status of this bird, a priority must be to assemble images of known pure Baer’s in all plumages from private collections. That will help birders seeing these birds in the wild to establish whether they are true Baer’s or hybrids which, in turn, will help conservationists to better establish the likely true population and the extent of the threat of hybridisation.
In the meantime, I would very much welcome views from anyone with experience of these birds as to whether the bird below is a pure Baer’s or a likely hybrid (in my view it is clearly not a pure Ferruginous on structure and plumage tones alone).
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.
We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.
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!
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!
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!
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).
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.