Birding Beijing: The Next Generation

I love this quote from one of the most progressive Senators in the US Congress, Ed Markey – “Although children are only 24% of the population, they’re 100% of our future”.  In China, a country that is growing fast in terms of economic power and global influence, the children here will perhaps have a disproportionate influence on the world this century.  And with the environment relatively absent in the Chinese curriculum, it’s of utmost importance to engage with young people if China’s wildlife is to prosper in this rapidly urbanising and developing country.

Luo Peng, a young Chinese environmentalist and entrepreneur, has set up a company called Eco Action Now to promote environmental education and sustainable tourism, focusing on benefiting local communities and working with scientists, nature reserves and ordinary people.

One aspect of their work is to develop educational programmes for schoolchildren in Beijing.  It’s a great initiative that aims to connect urban children to their environment.  I was honoured to be invited to help lead a birding trip for Beijing’s 13th Middle School to the Botanical Gardens this weekend and what fun we had!

On a beautiful, crisp and pollution-free Saturday morning we arrived at the entrance gate at 0730 and, after a short briefing to hand out the binoculars, the tailor-made birdwatching guide and the election of ‘scribes’, we split into four groups and began to explore…   The first birds we saw were Magpies (Common and Azure-winged) and they were soon followed by Tree Sparrow, Naumann’s Thrush, Japanese and Marsh Tits, Spotted Dove (“they look fat!“) and Chinese Nuthatch….  and later we were to enjoy stunning views of Plain Laughingthrushes (“they really do laugh!“) and Siberian Accentors, the headmistress’s favourite bird!  It was great to see these young people so enthused during their first ever birdwatching trip and enjoying the sight and sound of their local birds.   Inevitably, as the groups met up periodically to compare notes, a little competitiveness crept in and we even had a mini ‘twitch’ at the end to ensure all of the groups saw the Little Grebes on the main lake..

It was fantastic to meet the students of Beijing’s 13th Middle School and I can’t wait to do more…  Even if none of them become birders, their appreciation and understanding of wild birds has been increased and, in a country home to around 1/6th of the world’s bird species, that’s a wonderful reward in itself.  Big thanks to Luo Peng for making the arrangements and for inviting me along…

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The class, and the group leaders, from Beijing’s 13th Middle School outside the gate to the Botanical Gardens.
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Me with one of the groups and the headmistress (far right).
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The Botanical Gardens were looking good in the early winter sunshine.
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Showing the headmistress the plate of Siberian Accentor in Mark Brazil’s “Birds of East Asia” just after enjoying 4 of these beautiful birds in the scrub…
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Taking notes about a sighting of Great Spotted Woodpecker, one of the birds we enjoyed during our Saturday at the Botanical Gardens
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One of the groups focusing on a Dusky Thrush.
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For some reason, I was asked to sign some bird postcards at the end.. Here is me feeling uncomfortable…

All photos by Luo Peng.

Pallas’s Rosefinch

Pallas's Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013.  A stunning bird.
Pallas’s Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013. A stunning bird.

The Pallas’s Rosefinch (Carpodacus roseus) is a difficult bird to see anywhere.  Although it has quite a large range, its breeding grounds – the mountains of eastern Russia and northern Mongolia – are relatively inaccessible and remote.  And the wintering sites (northern China, Japan, Korea) are not necessarily reliable on a year by year basis.

Beijing in winter has traditionally been one of the best places to see this species but, in recent years, the numbers wintering around the Chinese capital appear to have declined for unknown reasons (possibly due to milder winters).

This winter, the coldest in China for over 20 years and with above average snowfall in northern China, has bucked the trend and there are good numbers of Pallas’s Rosefinch wintering in the hills around the capital, providing a good opportunity to get to grips with this species.  Singles and small groups have been reported from a number of locations around Beijing, including the Olympic Forest Park, Badaling Great Wall and Shisanling.  However, it is the ridge above the Botanical Gardens in the northwest of the city that has proved to be a real hotspot this winter.  Jesper Hornskov walks this area frequently and he first reported sightings of this bird from October with numbers gradually building to a high count of over 70 in January.

On Sunday I visited the Botanical Gardens with Beijing-based Per Alström, Jennifer Leung and visiting Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.  After birding through the gardens, and completing the steep ascent to the ridge, we rested for a short coffee break during which we were fortunate to encounter two stunning male Pallas’s Rosefinches – the target bird of our walk.  After enjoying spectacular views we walked a 2-3km stretch of the ridge before returning via the same route.  Although it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of the number of birds present, we left with the view that we had seen over 40 birds along that particular 2-3 km stretch, including at least 3 adult males.

Adult males are difficult to beat..  they are resplendent in their raspberry-coloured plumage, silvery-white bills and steely-black legs.  Females and immatures are much drabber, often displaying streaky brownish plumage with a hint of orange or pink and a pinkish rump.

If you are in Beijing over the next few weeks I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Botanical Gardens to see these birds.  But be quick – they are likely to head back north sometime in mid- to late-March and who knows when they will next be so accessible in the Chinese capital?

Full species list from the walk below.  My thanks go to Per, Jennifer and Ben for their excellent company.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 1
Eastern Buzzard – 1 seen twice over the ridge
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Spotted Dove – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 35+
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 5
Common Magpie – 13
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 12
Great (Japanese) Tit – 6
Yellow-bellied Tit – 28
Marsh Tit – 4
Silver-throated Tit – 2 in the gardens late afternoon
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4 on the way down (after going most of the day without seeing any)
Chinese Bulbul – 1 heard
Pere David’s Laughingthrush – 12
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 2 groups of 15+ each
Goldcrest – 6
Chinese Nuthatch – 1
Crested Myna – 1
White-cheeked Starling – 1
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Naumann’s Thrush – 11
Tree Sparrow – many in the gardens
Siberian Accentor – 6, including 2 seen exceptionally well around the noodle place
Brambling – over 1,000, often wheeling around in large flocks
Oriental Greenfinch – 7
Siskin – 5 (PA only)
Pallas’s Rosefinch – at least 40 (3 adult males and the remainder females or immature males).  The first two (both adult males) showed exceptionally well.
Hawfinch – 2
Godlewski’s Bunting – 5
Tristram’s Bunting – 3
Yellow-throated Bunting – 4
Mammals
Red Squirrel – 5
Pere David’s Rock Squirrel – 1

Winter in the Botanical Gardens

Ornithologically, this winter is proving to be a good one in Beijing.  As well as more sightings of regular, but scarce, winter visitors such as Mongolian and Shore Larks, Great Bustards, Japanese Waxwings and both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, Beijing has also benefited from the well-reported irruptions from the north and east.  The capital’s first records of Varied Tit came hot on the heels of the irruption reported in South Korea and on the east coast of China and, last weekend, the capital’s first record of Bullfinch appeared in the Botanical Gardens.

With these latter birds prominent in my mind, I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens on Saturday.  With its mix of pine and deciduous trees, berry bushes and shrubs, it is one of the best locations for city birding in Beijing at any time of year.  Winter can be particularly rewarding with many thrushes (Dusky, Naumann’s, both Red- and Black-throated and ‘Chinese’ Blackbird are regular) and roving tit flocks – mostly Japanese (Eastern Great), Marsh and Yellow-bellied – can act as host to any unusual visitors.  Amazingly, a few Pallas’s Warblers always seem to eke out a living in the capital and the Botanical Gardens are as good a place as any to see them at this time of year.

Pallas's Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus).  Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.
Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus). Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.

Early winter, with a plentiful supply of berries, is best for the irregular waxwings with both Bohemian and Japanese present in a ‘good waxwing year’.  And the resident Chinese Nuthatches and Red-billed Blue Magpies add a splash of colour.  In the hills beyond the gardens, leafless shrubs mean that winter is a great time to see the skulking Chinese Hill Babbler and Plain Laughingthrush.

One could easily spend all day in the gardens and, even then, it would be impossible to cover it all.  I find the most productive areas are the berry bushes between the south and south-east gates (good for waxwings and thrushes), Cherry Valley with its often unfrozen stream (any insectivorous birds are likely to be found here and other birds often come here to drink), the ‘arboretum’ (Hawfinch and Grosbeaks) and the conifer collection (tits and nuthatches).

On Saturday, after the snow on Friday, the gardens were looking good and, with little wind, it was a good day to familiarise oneself with the calls of the residents.

‘Chinese’ Blackbird (Turdus merula mandarinus) is still officially a subspecies of Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) in most field guides.  However, they are clearly different and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were split into their own species sooner or later.  Larger and with a more strident call, they are distinctive birds and I enjoyed good views of 7 of these thrushes feeding under some juniper trees near the entrance.

There was no sign of any waxwings – most of the berries had already been eaten – so I moved on to the arboretum and conifer collection, encountering a couple of flocks of Yellow-bellied Tits (Periparus venustulus) along the way.  Marsh and Japanese (Eastern Great) Tits were also prominent and a nice flock of 12 Chinese Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria) was a joy.  Chinese Nuthatches (Sitta villosa) called from the treetops and were busy collecting, and hiding, seeds.  A large mixed group of 40+ thrushes (mostly Naumann’s) scattered after being disturbed by some walkers.  And a couple of Red Squirrels chased each other around the base of a conifer.

Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing
Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing

Checking the tit flocks for an eloper is always good practice.  A couple of over-wintering Pallas’s Warblers were tagging along and three Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers tapped away from the upper branches..

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, a resident in Beijing.
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus canicapillus), a resident in Beijing.

It was a good opportunity to study the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and, on returning home, I compared it with the similar (but much rarer in China) Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (which must be a candidate to occur in central Beijing).  Here is an image of a Japanese, taken last winter in Liaoning Province, to compare.

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.

Note the slightly shorter bill on the Japanese and also the different head pattern.  Grey-capped have an unbroken white marking starting above the eye and reaching to the back of the head.  On Japanese, the white marking above the eye is separated from the white on the rear of the head.  Japanese also have paler underparts with streaking concentrated at the top of the breast.  The call is also very different.  Listen here for a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and here for a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

At one point I was certain I heard a Eurasian Treecreeper but it only called once and I never saw it..  They are scarce in Beijing but it would be no surprise that one or two are in the capital with the winter we are having.

Despite searching the area thoroughly I failed to see any Varied Tits and the Bullfinch, if it is still around, proved elusive.  However, it was another enjoyable and productive day of birding in the capital.  With the temperature forecast to plummet this week to around -20 degrees Celsius, I am itching to get out to Wild Duck Lake to see whether the snow and cold has brought in any northern specialities…

All I want for Christmas is a Pallas’s Sandgrouse…. Santa – are you listening?

Winter Bluetail

With clear skies and little wind it was a good day to be outside, so we packed a picnic and visited the Botanical Gardens in north-west Beijing.  There was a surprising lack of thrushes around (normally this is a good site for wintering Naumann’s, Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated Thrushes) but the usual residents – Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul, Chinese Grosbeak etc were around in small numbers.  Despite a short search of their favoured habitat, I failed to see any Chinese Nuthatches.

On the boardwalk that runs along the stream to the west of the gardens, I heard a Red-flanked Bluetail and, as we rounded a corner, there were 4 or 5 bird photographers staked out by the frozen stream.  I joined them for 5 minutes and in that time the Bluetail and a Winter Wren came down to drink from a small puddle and took advantage of the worms that the photographers had strategically placed on a prominent branch.  The Bluetail and the Wren showed extremely well, clearly used to the attention.  The Wren even indulged in a few bouts of song, no doubt encouraged by the relatively warm, almost Spring-like conditions.

A Red-flanked Bluetail braving the Beijing winter. A handful of these birds winter around the capital in most years.

 

Red-flanked Bluetail, Beijing Botanical Gardens

 

This Red-flanked Bluetail was very confiding, clearly used to the attention of Beijing's growing band of bird photographers.

 

Winter Wren. According to Brazil's "The Birds of East Asia" there are 40 subspecies of Wren. I believe this one is Troglodytes troglodytes idius.

 

Winter Wren, Beijing Botanical Gardens

 

Nice undertail coverts!

Botanical Gardens

This morning, despite the freezing temperatures, I donned my thermal underwear, thick socks, snow boots and parka for a foray into the Botanical Gardens and the ridge beyond. It was a gorgeous day, despite the -8 (ish) temperature, and I had a wonderful few hours. The journey there is best forgotten – taxi drivers in Beijing are variable at best and let’s just say that today, I had the misfortune to encounter a particularly clueless individual who not only took me the wrong way (twice) but also, at one point, stopped to have a cigarette – in the car – while I helplessly waited. One of the joys of Beijing.

Nevertheless, I arrived on site around 0730, not long after dawn, and I was soon enjoying very good views of thrushes – namely Dusky, Naumann’s, Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades, Red-throated, Black-throated and a wonderful presumed Red/Black-throated hybrid which exhibited a mixed red and black throat patch (mostly red upper-throat and black lower-throat). The birds were congregating at a small break in the ice to drink. The break had clearly been man-made, presumably by a bird-friendly soul, as the ice on the lakes was at least 3 inches thick.

After enjoying some close encounters, I decided to press on and up to the ridge in the hope of some buntings, laughingthrushes and accentors. On the way up I was a little surprised to see 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, somehow managing to eke out a living on the frozen banks of a stream and a group of 9 Chinese Grosbeaks was a delight to see. A party of 34 Chinese Bulbuls and a Chinese Nuthatch was the supporting cast as I followed the stream up to the hills. During a short refreshment break, a squirrel gave me a close encounter as it tried to find water, eventually managing to find a trickle under a boulder.

The last time I had walked up the ridge was in October, when the trees and shrubs were still largely in leaf, so today, with the trees almost bare, I enjoyed some very good views of normally tricky species to see – namely Chinese Hill Warbler and Pere David’s Laughingthrush. I saw at least 18 of the latter, many of which first attracted my attention by the sound of turning over dried leaves.. After the experience of Yunnan, where it was almost impossible to see any laughingthrushes despite hearing them all the time, this was a very welcome sight!

On the ridge itself, I stumbled across several groups of Siberian Accentor feeding on the edge of the track and a few posses of Yellow-bellied Tits rampaged through the evergreen shrubs. A single japonicus Common Buzzard proved to be 50 per cent of my raptor total for the day (the only other sighting being a male Sparrowhawk that caused havoc among the thrushes on the way down). Bramblings were constant companions and the odd Oriental Greenfinch called overhead.

On the journey down, I bumped into Jesper and his wife, Aiquin, enjoying a walk half-way up the ridge. After a short natter, I was back at the entrance gate and flagged down a taxi (luckily a competent driver) for the uneventful journey home. A thoroughly enjoyable morning..

A squirrel looking for water, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
The same squirrel doing its morning leg exercises
Laughingthrushes are much more cooperative when there are no leaves on the trees!
Red-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Black-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Siberian Accentor, one of many on the ridge above the Botanical Gardens

Japanese Waxwings

After a tip-off from Brian Jones and Jesper Hornskov, I spent two hours at the Botanical Gardens early this morning. My target was Japanese Waxwing, a small flock of which had been seen cohorting with a similar number of Bohemian Waxwings. On arrival at 0730 I could see and hear a flock of Waxwings just a few metres from the entrance gate. As I approached I could see at least 10 Chinese photographers lined up waiting for the birds to fly down from their lofty perch to feed on the ornamental berry bushes. There is a fast-growing middle class in China and they have money, lots of it. A few of them have taken up bird photography (it is more common to see a photographer than a birder) and, consequently, there are some serious lenses around. However, as with the cars (20,000 new ones on the streets of Beijing every week), most of the ‘drivers’ are new and have yet to do their apprenticeship…

So, as soon as a Waxwing dropped into one of the berry bushes, they all strode forward competing with each other to get the best shot and, without exception, flushed the birds back up to their treetop perch…! After a few attempts at feeding, the Waxwings clearly got the message and flew off to another part of the gardens. I decided to have a walk around and look for thrushes and it wasn’t long before I came across a hosepipe that had been set down to water some newly planted trees. Given the freezing overnight temperatures, this was the only running water around, and there were good numbers of birds coming down to drink.. Bramblings, Chinese Bulbuls, White-cheeked Starlings, Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes, the odd Red- and Black-throated Thrush plus, to my delight, the Waxwings. I sat quietly for about half an hour and enjoyed excellent views before the troupe of Chinese photographers discovered the spot and, with the subtlety of a Sumo wrestler doing a pirouette, scared everything in sight! With the light deteriorating, I called it a day and was back in the flat and working by 1030.

Several of the thrushes looked like intergrades between Dusky and Naumann’s – see the last photo below for a good example.

The biggest Chinese twitch I have seen
Japanese Waxwing, one of at least 8 seen this morning
Japanese Waxwing (with Bramblings) - a very striking bird
White-cheeked Starlings
Naumann's Thrush
Naumann's Thrush
Dusky Thrush
Dusky/Naumann's intergrade - note the mixture of red and black markings on the underside