Beijing: The Capital Of White Wagtails?

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.

Breeding ranges of Motacilla alba races (1)
Breeding ranges of Motacilla alba races (1).  Note that this map illustrates dukhunensis and persica, now considered to be part of M.a.alba.

Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).

On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.

2014-04-15 White Wagtail ssp leucopsis male, Miyun
Amur Wagtail (Motacilla alba leucopsis), the most common race of White Wagtail in Beijing, and the only breeder.
2014-02-15 White Wagtail ssp ocularis, Miyun
Motacilla alba ocularis, a common migrant in Spring and Autumn. Breeds in northern and eastern Siberia.
2014-04-06 White Wagtail ssp baicalensis2
Motacilla alba baicalensis. A scarce migrant in Beijing. Breeds in central Siberia.  Note pale throat, compared with ‘eastern’ alba.

In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.

2012-04-14 White Wagtain ssp personata, Ma Chang, Beijing
M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital.
2011-01-25 White Wagtail ssp lugens male2, Choshi, Japan
M.a.lugens (Black-backed Wagtail). A scarce winter visitor to Beijing. This one from Japan.
Male 'lugens' White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.
Male ‘lugens’ White Wagtail, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015.

Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.

The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Shi Jin on the Wenyu River.
IMG_4401 (1)
The first record of M.a.alba in Beijing and, we think, eastern China. Photo by Luo Qingqing.

‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003).  This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.

‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai.  It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm).  Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.

Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?

STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River.  And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake! 

White Wagtail ssp alba, Ma Chang 6 April 2015.  The second record of this subspecies in Beijing just 8 days after the first!  Photo by Cheng Dong.
White Wagtail ssp alba, Ma Chang 6 April 2015. The second record of this subspecies in Beijing just 8 days after the first! Photo by Cheng Dong.

(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.

The Birds of Beijing And The Air They Fly In

That’s the title of the most recent podcast from Sinica, in which I had the pleasure of participating alongside Jon Kaiman, writer for The Guardian, and host Jeremy Goldkorn.  You can listen to the podcast – an enjoyable conversation about birds in Beijing and air pollution – by clicking here.

As is traditional, the participants make a recommendation at the end of the show and mine is “Birds and People“, a landmark book about the relationship between birds and people, including stories of cultural and from around the world.  My apologies to author, Mark Cocker, for referring to him as Mark Golley at the end (revealing my Norfolk roots!).

A big thank you to Jeremy and Sinica for inviting me to help spread the word about Beijing’s birdlife and the importance of protecting it.

LEOPARD CAT in Beijing

On Friday 22 November, I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with visiting Marie Louise Ng from Hong Kong.  It was a stunningly beautiful day – cold early on but spectacularly clear and with almost no wind.  It was one of those days that, as a resident of Beijing where the air can often be toxic, I absolutely adore.

Miyun Reservoir on a clear autumn day.  It's hard to believe one is in Beijing!
Miyun Reservoir on a clear autumn day. It’s hard to believe this is Beijing!

We visited two sites on the northern shore of the reservoir and, at the first, we were treated to spectacular flyovers of several hundred COMMON CRANES, with a handful of HOODED CRANES amongst them..  and skeins of BEAN GEESE flying from their roosting sites to the feeding grounds in the maize fields.  At least 4 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS kept us company at our observation point.

After a couple of hours we decided to take a walk to some weedy fields in which I had peviously seen PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE.

As we headed over the brow of a small hill, there was movement in the grass and, quickly training my binoculars, I could see a cat walking slowly from right to left, less than 100 metres away.  My heart leapt.  It looked big and, immediately, with that thick bushy tail and spotted markings on its fur, I thought it must be a LEOPARD CAT.  Gripped by the presence of a very special mammal, we watched it as it made its way onto a dirt track.  With the sun behind us, it was now in full view and we were enjoying spectacular views (I am sure the low sun also played a role in delaying this beautiful animal’s detection of us).  We reached for our cameras and reeled off some photos as it suddenly broke into a trot and then melted into the vegetation to the north of the track.  We watched, captivated, as it made its way towards a small lake, eventually vanishing into the long grass with the local magpies agitated and noisy.

I turned to Marie with what must have been the biggest grin I have ever sported and said immediately “that’s my best wildlife experience of the year!”

LEOPARD CAT (Prionailurus bengalensis) of the ssp euptilurus/euptilura (aka AMUR LEOPARD CAT).  Note the dark stripes on the back of the head and the pale patches on the back of the ears, as well as the thick tail.
LEOPARD CAT (Prionailurus bengalensis) of the ssp euptilurus/euptilura (aka AMUR LEOPARD CAT). Note the dark stripes on the back of the head and the pale patches on the back of the ears, as well as the thick, striped, tail.
LEOPARD CAT, Miyun Reservoir, 22 November 2013.  Sightings, especially during the daytime, are very rare in the capital.
LEOPARD CAT, Miyun Reservoir, 22 November 2013. Sightings, especially during the daytime, are very rare in the capital.
At less than 100m range, and with the morning sun behind us, views were spectacular!
At less than 100m range, and with the morning sun behind us, views were spectacular!

Although Leopard Cat is probably not rare in the mountains around Beijing, sightings certainly are.  I am aware of just one other recent Beijing sighting – one seen at Yeyahu by Brian Jones on 11 October 2010.  The information below about the status of LEOPARD CAT in China is from Zhu Lei, for which many thanks.


Gao (1987, in ‘Fauna Sinica. Mammalia. Vol. 8. Carnivora’) reports that there are 4 subspecies of Leopard Cat in China, euptilura (NE China, north of Yellow River), bengalensis (SW China), chinensis (N and S China) and hainana (endemic to Hainan Island). The ssp. euptilura has the largest body and lightest coat, also the very faint spot marking. The ssp. chinensis is darker, more distinctively spotted, and has 2 black dorsal stripes.

Chen et al. (2002, in ‘Mammals of Beijing’) points out that the ssp. of Leopard Cat in Beijing is euptilura, according to measurements and colour markings of specimens from Yanqing and Mentougou.

Xie and Smith (2008) recognise 5 ssp. in China, alleni (includes hainana, endemic to Hainan), bengalensis (SW Guangxi, SW Guizhou, Sichuan, S Xizang, Yunnan), chinensis (S Anhui, SW and E China, Taiwan), euptilura (north of Huaihe River, Beijing, NE China), scripta (N Yunnan, W Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi and SE Xizang, Chinese endemic ssp.).

Based on above reference and the pics you’ve sent, I think your cat definitely is ssp. euptilurus (light coat and very faint spotted).


The ssp euptilurus or “Amur Leopard Cat” looks very different to the southern China and SE Asian subspecies (see images here for comparison) and, I understand, it’s a potential split into a separate species in its own right.  The taxonomy of Leopard Cat in China is poorly understood, so classification may be subject to change.

However man decides to classify this cat, it is a beautiful animal and we were privileged to spend a special minute or two in its company.. proving once again that Beijing is a superb place for birds and wildlife.

Beijing’s Wild Bird Markets

The market at Fuchengmen is just one of Beijing's wild bird markets.  Apparently there are more than 6 in total.
This guy was ‘training’ Japanese Grosbeaks to chase seeds, blown into the air through a thin tube, and then return to their perch.  The market at Fuchengmen is just one of Beijing’s wild bird markets. Apparently there are more than 10 in total across the city.

How would you like 2 COMMON REDPOLLS for a pound?  Or maybe you’d prefer a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR for 3 pounds?  They are pretty, after all…  Actually, you look quite rich… maybe you fancy a MONGOLIAN LARK for 15 pounds? I know it’s expensive but boy, can they sing!

This is what the traders were offering on Sunday afternoon during a visit to the wild bird market at Fuchengmen, west Beijing.

Two friends – Yueheng and Xiaomai – very kindly offered to accompany freelance journalist, Debbie Bruno, and me to one of at least 10 wild bird markets in Beijing.  For me, the market was both shocking and revealing.  Shocking because it was operating openly inside the 2nd ring road of one of the world’s major capital cities.  And revealing because it taught me a lot about the culture and demographics of the traders, the trappers and the buyers.

In a 2-hour visit, I logged 28 species on sale in the bird market, including familiar species such as Bohemian Waxwing, Bluethroat, Marsh, Japanese, Yellow-bellied and Long-tailed Tits, Common Redpoll, Siberian Accentor, Siberian Rubythroat and Pallas’s Warbler.  I was wide-eyed.

A Pallas's Warbler in a cage.  Desperately sad, especially as this species is insectivorous and unlikely to survive long being fed seeds.
A Pallas’s Warbler.  In a cage. Desperately sad, especially as this species is insectivorous and unlikely to survive for long on a diet of seeds.

However, from speaking with Yueheng, this was a quiet day.  Yueheng and Xiaomai have been studying the birds in this market for more than 10 years and have logged more than 300 species (!), including Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Derbyan Parakeet, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Fairy Pitta.  Astonishing.

I wanted to find out how much these birds were selling for.  After speaking with a few of the sellers, this was the going rate on Sunday:

COMMON REDPOLL (one of the most common birds on offer in the market) – 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1)

PALLAS’S WARBLER – 40 Yuan each (GBP 4)

MONGOLIAN LARK – 150 Yuan (GBP 15) – they can sing (!), although there was almost certainly an element of “foreigner inflation” going on here…

CHINESE HILL BABBLER – 150 Yuan (GBP 15) – they can sing, too.

Common Redpolls were available - 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1) at Fuchengmen.
Common Redpolls were available – 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1) at Fuchengmen.

Given the costs of transporting live birds, the likelihood that many birds almost certainly die in transit, and the fact that business looked slow (I didn’t see a single transaction), this clearly wasn’t a lucrative business.   So I wanted to know whether selling wild birds was the main source of income for the traders.

Most traders had a small stock and were 'getting on'...
Most traders had a small stock and were ‘getting on’…

After discussing with Yueheng and Xiaomai, apparently, for most of the traders, it’s a supplementary income or even just a hobby – the majority had full-time jobs or were retired.  To me, this is encouraging as it means that, unlike the shorebird trapping in Guangdong, southern China, where many local villagers make their living from trapping birds for the restaurant trade, better enforcement of the law by the authorities in Beijing will likely face less resistance.

As we wandered around, it was interesting to see that the vast majority of the traders, and the interested buyers, were old men.  This gave me more encouragement as it suggested that the custom of owning caged birds is primarily an old man’s pursuit and, not being cruel, most old men will not be around much longer….

The scene at Fuchengmen.  Mostly smelly old men.
The scene at Fuchengmen. Mostly smelly old men.

It was heartbreaking to see so many wild birds being kept in tiny cages.  And those not in cages were tied to a perch using a chain around their neck.  The vast majority were clearly distressed, with many showing abnormal feather loss and/or repetitive behaviour as they bounced around their prison cells looking for a way out.

A Red Crossbill tied with a chain around its neck.  Can you think of anything more cruel?
A Red Crossbill tied with a chain around its neck. Can you think of anything more cruel?
A sad-looking BOHEMIAN WAXWING.  Must be wondering what it did to deserve this....
A sad-looking BOHEMIAN WAXWING. Must be wondering what it did to deserve this….

I asked some of the traders where the birds had been caught.  Most said “Beijing”, although some were from “Dong Bei” (north-east China) with a much smaller portion from southern China (Yellow-cheeked Tit and Red-faced Liocichla were some of the non-Beijing birds on sale).

As we walked around the market, Yueheng and Xiaomai told us some fascinating anecdotes.  Here are a few:

– apparently Marsh Tits from Henan and Shandong are worth much more than those from Beijing as they are thought to sing better!

– small birds, particularly those not known to sing or with beautiful plumage, can sell for as little as 3 Yuan for 2 (GBP 0.15 each)

– the authorities have been cracking down on raptor sales…  an old lady from Tai’an in Shandong Province had been busted selling JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK, SHORT-EARED OWL, PIED HARRIER and WHITE’S THRUSH.  The police confiscated the raptors but gave her back the WHITE’S THRUSH so she could sell it in the local market (!)

– many of the ‘consumers’ are Buddhists who want to buy and release birds for their own “gong de”, believing that these good deeds help to “cleanse” their soul.

The cagebird trade, although a cruel and outdated tradition, pales into insignificance when compared with habitat loss and the trapping for food that is so widespread in south China in terms of being major threats to wild bird populations.  Even so, I will do everything I can to support Yueheng and Xiaomai to raise awareness and encourage greater law enforcement in Beijing and beyond.  Trapping wild birds for the cage bird trade is simply unacceptable in a modern society.

Ambassador, you’re spoiling us!

Continuing the theme of birds in city centre locations (see the previous post on my ‘garden’), this blog post is about a recent survey of the UK Ambassador’s garden.

In May this year the UK Ambassador invited me to survey his garden for birds.  Although not a birder, he is interested in the birds in his garden and has been known to interrupt internal meetings with the occasional – “Oh look, there’s a Woodpecker outside the window”.

After making arrangements with security, I planned to visit the garden each day for an hour to log the birds present during the height of Spring migration.  The May survey produced a few highlights and one major surprise – Beijing’s first TREE PIPIT (see “First for Beijing: Tree Pipit”).  It was always going to be fascinating to repeat the exercise in Autumn and so, in mid-September, I arranged to visit the garden each day for a week.

In total, 30 species were seen and the highlights included:

  • At least 4 RUFOUS-BELLIED WOODPECKERS (棕腹啄木鸟) on 10th (a record number seen together in Beijing)
  • 3 SIBERIAN THRUSHES (白眉地鸫) on 16th
  • Single WHITE’S THRUSHES (虎斑地鸫) on 11th, 12th and 16th
  • A single DAURIAN STARLING (北椋鸟) on 10th
  • ASHY MINIVET (灰山椒鸟) heard on 16th
  • BLACK DRONGO (黑卷尾) on 11th
  • Single SIBERIAN RUBYTHROATS (红喉歌鸲 [红点颏]) on 12th, 13th and 16th
WHITE'S THRUSHES were seen on three dates during the mid-September survey.
WHITE’S THRUSHES were seen on three dates during the mid-September survey.

A total of 47 species have now been recorded in the Ambassador’s garden in Spring and Autumn, including some difficult-to-see species.  You can download the full report (including a systematic list of the species seen).  It just goes to show that Beijing is a great location during migration season.

My Garden

I call it my garden but, as you can see from the photo below taken from our apartment on the 17th floor, it’s more of a communal green space.  Nevertheless, until the relatively recent arrival of Jennifer Leung, I am pretty sure I was the only birder covering it on a regular basis and, by regular, I mean maybe once a week during migration season.

My 'garden' as viewed from the apartment window.  A magnet for migrants.
My ‘garden’ as viewed from the apartment window. A magnet for migrants.

Anyway, the reason for posting a photo of my ‘garden’ is that yesterday, Wednesday 25th September 2013, I awoke early – too early – and thought I’d have a walk around before breakfast.  Late September in Beijing is a pretty special time for bird migration and, after a cold front passed a few days before the temperature had dropped significantly, particularly noticeable at night.  Of course this had prompted many birds to move and I was pretty confident of seeing some good birds on my early morning walk.  A few YELLOW-BELLIED TITS (黄腹山雀) were a nice start, soon followed by my first PALLAS’S WARBLER (黄腰柳莺) of the autumn (these little gems usually pass through around a month later than the similar YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER (黄眉柳莺) which has been a regular sight and sound in the garden since late August).  An ARCTIC WARBLER (极北柳莺), an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT (树鹨) and the seemingly omnipresent TAIGA FLYCATCHERS (红喉姬鹟) kept the interest going.  I sat quietly on my favourite slope from where I can see the base of a small area of bamboo and, almost immediately, a bird flew in and landed less than 5 metres away in the canopy above my head..  Unfortunately it was mostly obscured but I could see a white flash on the closed wing.  I immediately thought it could be a DAURIAN REDSTART (北红尾鸲) , a relatively common migrant in central Beijing in late autumn, but something didn’t seem right.  I slowly moved to one side in an effort to view more of the bird and suddenly I could see this beautiful bird in full view..

White-throated Rock Thrush, Central Park, Beijing, 25 September 2013.  A fitting 50th species for this small green space.
White-throated Rock Thrush, Central Park, Beijing, 25 September 2013. A fitting 50th species for this small green space.

…wow, a WHITE-THROATED ROCK THRUSH (白喉矶鸫)!  No sooner had I registered that I was looking at my 50th species in this small green oasis in the middle of this city of 20 million-plus people, it began to sing!  Over the next half an hour or so, in between being flushed by, in chronological order, a litter picker, a dog-walker and a man ‘exercising’ by shouting at the top of his voice, I was able to take a series of photos, including one with a GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER (大斑啄木鸟) with which it seemed to be loosely associating.

2013-09-25 White-throated Rock Thrush3
White-throated Rock Thrush (male). A good looking bird….
White-throated Rock Thrush.  A beautiful bird and a real treat to see it so well in the 'garden'.
White-throated Rock Thrush. Beautiful plumage and a real treat to see this species so well in the ‘garden’.
White-throated Rock Thrush with Great Spotted Woodpecker.  An unlikely couple!
White-throated Rock Thrush with Great Spotted Woodpecker. An unlikely couple!

The parks in Beijing, in fact not just the parks but any green space, can turn up some real surprises in spring and autumn.  It’s not that these places are particularly maintained in any way to attract birds – in fact one could argue that with all the ‘grooming’, it’s the opposite – but a reflection of the fact that there are so many birds migrating through Beijing that even if a teeny weeny percentage of them choose to stop in the city, species that are ordinarily quite difficult to see appear in unexpected places.

The WHITE-THROATED ROCK THRUSH (白喉矶鸫) joins a stellar cast for this tiny green space including JAPANESE QUAIL (鵪鶉), BLYTH’S PIPIT (布莱氏鹨), EYEBROWED THRUSH (白眉鸫), SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (红喉歌鸲), SIBERIAN BLUE ROBIN (蓝歌鸲), ASIAN STUBTAIL (鳞头树莺), BROWN SHRIKE (红尾伯劳), THICK-BILLED WARBLER (厚嘴苇莺) and YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING (黄喉鹀) to name a few.

Not for the first time, I thanked my lucky stars that I live in such a great place for birds!

Late August at Yeyahu

On Saturday 24 August I visited Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh.  I collected Steve from his hotel at 0530 on a beautiful clear, sunny morning and, after a pretty clear run over the mountains past Badaling, we were at the entrance to the reserve by 0645.  A juvenile TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳) was a nice surprise along the entrance track, the first time I have seen this species in the capital.  Other highlights included a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺), 2 SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽), an adult RELICT GULL (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥) and a juvenile PIED HARRIER (Circus melanoleucos, 鹊鹞).  Unfortunately there was no sign of any STREAKED REED WARBLERS (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺), the autumn passage of which peaked between 22 August and 7 September in the 1920s, according to La Touche.  I shall keep looking!

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013
Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013


Full species list below.


Common Pheasant – 1
Mandarin – 3
Mallard – 1
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 3
Little Grebe – 7
Great Crested Grebe – 8
Yellow Bittern – 3 (2 adults and one juvenile)
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN – 2 (a pair) – seen in the same place as the male seen in early June – possibly a breeding pair?
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12
Grey Heron – 2
Purple Heron – 6
Little Egret – 2
Great Cormorant – 1
Amur Falcon – 5
Hobby – 2
Peregrine – 1 juvenile
Black-eared Kite – 1 juvenile
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male, two juveniles)
Pied Harrier – 1 juvenile
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Moorhen – 5
Coot – 9
Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe – 2
RELICT GULL – 1 moulting adult. My first autumn sighting in Beijing.
Gull sp – 1 juvenile/first winter not seen well enough to id
White-winged Tern – 4 juveniles
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 5
Common Cuckoo – 1 juvenile
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 3
TIGER SHRIKE – 1 juvenile. My first in Beijing.
Brown Shrike – 12
Black Drongo – 62
Azure-winged Magpie – one seen from car on return journey
Common Magpie – 12
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 7
Marsh Tit – 4
Chinese Penduline Tit – 9, including at least 3 juveniles
Barn Swallow – c80
Red-rumped Swallow – c20
Zitting Cisticola – 11
Chinese Bulbul – 9
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – 1
Thick-billed Warbler – 3
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 15
BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER – 1, possibly 2.
Yellow-browed Warbler – 2
Arctic Warbler – 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – c35
Siberian Stonechat – 4
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Yellow Wagtail – 4
White Wagtail – 2