In mid-May, after I returned from Sichuan, the British Ambassador in Beijing – Sebastian Wood – invited me to ‘survey’ the Embassy garden each morning for a week to establish how important the garden is to migrant birds. Having visited the garden a couple of times previously for official functions, I knew it offered some good habitat with a mixture of mature trees, a lawn and some areas of bamboo with thick undergrowth – a perfect place for a variety of birds to rest on their northward migration. What I didn’t know was that, on my very first visit, I would find a first for Beijing!
After making arrangements with the local security, I visited each week day from 13-17 May from 0600-0700. Almost the first bird I saw on the very first day was a superb White’s Thrush, skulking in the undergrowth… From that moment, I knew I was in for a treat. A singing Yellow-bellied Tit and a typically skittish Siberian Rubythroat were a joy to see as I made my first circuit. A pair of White-cheeked Starlings were busy nest-building in the trunk of a mature willow and good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers flitted around in the canopy. However, it was on my second circuit that I caught sight of a small pipit walking around on the concrete outside the back door. I looked at it through my binoculars and immediately ruled out Buff-bellied, Pechora, Red-throated and Water Pipit. That left Olive-backed, a common migrant through the capital, as the most likely identification. However, something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t have the bold facial pattern typical of Olive-backed and the streaking on the mantle was more pronounced than is usual on OBP. Also, the streaking on the underparts was bold on the chest with finer, less pronounced streaking on the flanks… all of these features suggested a much more unlikely identification – Tree Pipit.
I quickly took some photos and I was glad I did as, no sooner as I had reeled off half a dozen images, the local cat disturbed it and this interesting pipit flew up and away, never to be seen again. It called once – a buzzy “tseee” – a call which fits both Olive-backed and Tree Pipit (I have real trouble separating them unless I hear both regularly).
I told myself it must have been an unusually-marked Olive-backed Pipit as I was fairly sure that Tree Pipit must be a real rarity in east China. However, I made a note to check Per Alstrom’s “Pipits and Wagtails” book and circulate the images to a few experts for an opinion. After looking at the guidebook, I became more and more convinced that I had seen a Tree Pipit.
Needless to say, the responses I received from respected birders have, so far, been consistent – the bird is indeed thought to be a Tree Pipit! A first for Beijing, quite literally in the Ambassador’s back yard!
In total I saw 35 species in the garden, with highlights including an impressive 44 Oriental Honey Buzzards migrating overhead in just 10 minutes on 14 May, and species such as Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, Asian Stubtail and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher.
Tree Pipit is extremely rare in China outside Xinjiang in the far northwest. I have only been able to find three records from outside this Province: one in Jiangsu (southeast China) on 8 November 2005, one from Bohai Bay, Hebei Province in May 2010 (Matt Slaymaker) and apparently there is one old specimen from the far northeast (Paul Holt, personal comment). So the bird in the Ambassador’s garden is, as far as I know, the first for Beijing and only the fourth record in all of China outside Xinjiang. However, with records from South Korea and Japan, a Beijing record is, perhaps, not unexpected.
Please excuse the variation on the old UK advertisement for a famous chocolate product… “Ambassador, you’re spoiling me….!”