A Right Old Bird…

Mongolian Gull "AC82", Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013.  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.
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.

For information about how to report a wing-tagged or colour-ringed bird, see here for Europe and here for Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

Liaoning Trip Report from May 2012

Paul Holt has just finished his detailed trip report from his visit to Liaoning in May.  Bai Qingquan, Tom Beeke and I were lucky enough to accompany him for parts of his trip that included two firsts for the Province – Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Black-winged Cuckooshrike – plus some impressive counts of waders, including a high count of up to 19 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Bar-tailed Godwits (10,000), Eastern Curlew (4000), Great Knot (4600), Dunlin (10,400) and Broad-billed Sandpiper (1117).  You can download the full report here:

Liaoning – 2-13 May 2012

Nordmann’s Greenshank

Another highlight from the trip to Dandong was the remarkable total of Nordmann’s Greenshanks (Tringa guttifer) that we observed at a high-tide roost.  Totals of 17, 17 and 16 were recorded on my three visits and, on one of the days, local birder Bai Qingquan recorded at least a further 7 from a different location at the same time, making a minimum count of 24 at this important stopover site.  Nordmann’s Greenshank is officially “endangered” with a population estimate of around 500-1,000 individuals.  It breeds in eastern Siberia along the western and northern coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and also on Sakhalin Island, wintering in south-east Asia (Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia etc) and is encountered on migration along coastal China from Hong Kong north to Liaoning Province.  It’s population is declining, almost certainly related to habitat destruction primarily on its wintering grounds and stopover sites.

We did not try to get close to these birds for fear of flushing them from their roost but the occasional pass by the local Peregrine and even the odd Black-tailed Gull kept them on their toes and, on several occasions, the flocks took to the air, allowing us to hear the air through their wings as they wheeled around in front of us.. a spectacular sight and sound.  It was interesting that the Nordmann’s seemed to associate with the Grey Plover.

Grey Plovers, Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province. The wheeling flocks were a lovely sight.
Nordmann’s Greenshank in flight (with Grey Plover), Donggang, Dandong, Laioning Province. Nordmann’s seem to like Grey Plovers!
Nordmann’s Greenshanks with Grey Plovers.

Having North Korea as a backdrop added human interest to the birding here.

A shellfish picker works the low tide with North Korea just the other side of the Yalu river.
A list of what not to do on the North Korean border. Needless to say, we did as we were told..

And other waders, most in splendid breeding plumage, were a sight to behold.

Two Asian Dowitchers (the small orangey blobs in this awful photo) were a welcome addition to the high tide roost.
“Eastern” Black-tailed Godwits. Beautiful birds.
Our search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper proved fruitless (a little early) but breeding plumaged Red-necked Stints were a joy to watch.

Now, you’ve all heard of the “Magic Woods” at Beidaihe….  well, not to be outdone, Donggang has its own ‘not of this Earth’ site.  Here’s introducing the “Harry Potter Hedge”!

The “Harry Potter Hedge”… every day it would wow us with magical appearances.

Out of thin air it produced a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Rufous-tailed Robin, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Thrush, Eyebrowed Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Pechora Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Oriental Scops Owl and much much more..

Finally, just for fun, here are a couple of photos of wader flocks…  Photo 1 is beginner level.  It has four wader species.. can you identify them?  Photo 2 is a little tougher… it contains 6 species.  A *glittering prize* awaits the first person to list them all correctly.

Photo 1 (Beginners Level). There are 4 wader species in this image. Can you name them?
Photo 2 (Advanced Level). There are 6 species in this photo. Can you name them?

Black-winged Cuckooshrike

I am still wading (no pun intended) through my sightings and images from a shorebirding trip to Donggang, Dandong, last weekend with Paul Holt and local birder, Bai Qingquan.  The highlights were many.  One of the surprises was the amount of passerine migrants that we saw along the newly planted trees that lined the sea wall.. every day we saw buntings, pipits, flycatchers, thrushes and robins which made the walk to the wader high tide roost a real treat.  And it was here that we found the bird of the trip – a Kamchatka Warbler (see previous post).  Another, more mature, hedgerow to the north of the wader high tide roost produced another very special bird and the second highlight of the trip – a Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike.  This is the first record of this species in Liaoning Province and possibly the most northerly record in mainland China.

We had just seen a Brown-eared Bulbul making its way south, noisily, along the sea wall and just a few minutes later a similar-sized bird flew north along the landward side of the hedge.  Bai Qingquan picked it up and both he and I saw it briefly as it flashed by.. what was it?  Paul was on the other side of the hedge and missed it.  Both Bai and I had never seen this bird before..  sort of cuckoo-shaped but we had seen some white on the wing.  Luckily it perched up in a tree a 100 metres or so to the north.  Although it was mostly obscured, we could just see its tail which looked cuckoo-like and we speculated that it could be some sort of cuckoo or hawk cuckoo..  but the white in the wing didn’t tally..  We crept forward and then it flew, luckily just a few metres, and this time sat up in full view.  Paul very quickly identified it as a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  We were able to secure some pretty good views for about 30 minutes as it fed along the hedgerow.  Bai “high-fived” us..  a new Liaoning bird!

Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The first record in Liaoning Province and, possibly, the most northerly record of this species in China.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The white panels in the wings were not always as obvious as shown here.

The cuckooshrike clearly liked the area as we saw it again the following day and again on our last morning..  Isn’t migration brilliant!

My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  :)

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?