Happy Island In Early September?

It’s a big wrench for me to leave Beijing in migration season!  However, last week I was fortunate enough to spend 4 days on Happy Island (菩提岛 in Chinese) in the company of British birder, Nicholas Green.  Most birders – and tour companies – visit this legendary island off the coast of Hebei Province in May when birds are singing and in breeding plumage.  It is much less visited in the autumn, particularly in early autumn.

I made my first visit to Happy Island in late September 2010, shortly after arriving in Beijing, and boy has it changed.  The first thing I noticed on this visit was that it is no longer an island; a new causeway now links this birding mecca to the mainland.  Second, the “island”, has grown in size due to land reclamation.  Third, the accommodation is excellent – comfortable modern chalets with air conditioning, WiFi and hot water 24 hours per day.  Finally, there are some huge new buildings being erected with a new, much larger, temple and a massive building (for what purpose I am unsure) in the shape of a lotus leaf.

These changes might sound like a disaster but, actually, most of the good habitat remains, including the wood around the temple, now complete with wooden boardwalks.

A big target of mine was the now ultra-rare STREAKED REED WARBLER (细纹苇莺), which historically “swarmed” in the millet fields in late August and early September.  Sadly, despite scrutinising every ‘acro‘ I came across, I drew a blank.  However, it was a ‘birdy’ few days and we racked up a total of 125 species.  The full list can be downloaded here but highlights included:

– a flock of more than 50 DAURIAN STARLINGS (北椋鸟)
– three SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽)
– a single drake STEJNEGER’S SCOTER (斑脸海番鸭)
– a single PECHORA PIPIT (北鹨)
– both LANCEOLATED (矛斑蝗莺) and PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLERS (小蝗莺) posing for photographs
– 5 DOLLARBIRDS (三宝鸟) on the last full day; and
– a single LONG-TAILED SHRIKE (棕背伯劳), continuing the consolidation of this species’ northerly march
It was astonishing to think that we were the only birders on the island and there must be a possibility that there will be no more visiting until May next year!  I shudder to think what birds pass through unseen…
Here are a few photos from the visit.  Certainly whets the appetite for this autumn’s migration.
2015-09-05 Lanceolated Warbler, Happy Island
2015-09-03 Brown Shrike juvenile, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Grey Nightjar, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Cuckoo juvenile, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Schrenck's Bittern, Happy Island
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN in the ditch in Temple Wood.
2015-09-04 Stejneger's Scoter, Happy Island
And here are two videos – of one of the SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽) and a GREY NIGHTJAR (普通夜鹰).  I love the SCHRENCK’S appearing to test the temperature of the water with his toes before taking a drink…

Illegal Mist Nets in China

Sadly, it is still relatively common to find illegal mist nets in China.  Most appear to be erected by poor people who will likely either eat the birds caught or sell them as cagebirds, if they are popular species.  For me, it is always with a heavy heart that I try to render the nets unusable, knowing on the one hand that they are illegal under Chinese law but, at the same time, that for some people, bird trapping may form an important part of their income.

Encouragingly, the practice of trapping birds seems to be declining, with the market for cagebirds predominantly being driven by a slowly shrinking older generation, so hopefully in the not too distant future illegal mist nets will be a thing of the past in China.

Whilst at Laotieshan for several days last week we bumped into a few members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society (from northern Liaoning).  The group, led by the famous Mr Zhang Ming (a very talented photographer) was predominantly interested in bird photography and were visiting to take advantage of the raptor migration at Laotieshan.  Mr Zhang told us about the sighting of a Band-bellied Crake on a very small pool near to Dalian city..  Having never seen this species, Mr Zhang and his friends offered to take us there..  so off we went in a small convoy of 4x4s for the short journey to the site.  After stopping for a delicious lunch, during which Mr Zhang showed us some stunning images of rare and difficult to see Chinese birds, including Jankowski’s Bunting, we arrived at the site and began to look for the specific pond.  It wasn’t long before we found it but, despite observing the weedy fringes for close on 2 hours, there were no signs of any crakes and we were forced to assume that the bird had moved on.  Whilst exploring the site we came across several illegal mist nets, some of which held live birds.  It was pleasing to see the Panjin Birdwatching Society members rescue the birds, take down the nets and destroy them.  And much better that they were taken down by Chinese birders and not ‘interfering foreigners’..!

Members of the Panjin Birdwatching Society proudly displaying their society’s flag, alongside Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, Dalian, Liaoning Province.
Mr Zhang, who must be one of China’s most talented bird photographers (and a very nice guy).
Mr Zhang junior saved this Common Kingfisher from one of the illegal mist nets
This Brown Shrike was also released from the illegal mist nets.
This Yellow-browed Warbler, although released, was very poorly and, sadly, probably didn’t make it.

A Surfeit of Sibes

Dandong wasn’t just a wader bonanza (17 Nordmann’s Greenshanks roosting with 2 Asian Dowitchers was really something!) but also a celebration of Siberian migrants.  We encountered Siberian Rubythroats and both Siberian Blue and Rufous-tailed Robins bobbing along the sea wall, Mugimaki, Red-throated, Blue and White and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers feeding on the leeward side of the hedges and Siberian, Grey-backed and Eyebrowed Thrushes skulking in thickets.  Not to mention Eastern Crowned, Arctic (Kamchatka!), Pale-legged, Yellow-browed, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers entertaining us from the boughs and Brown Shrikes seemingly on every perch.  Fantastic stuff.  So, in a tribute to ‘Sibes’, here are a few images.

Siberian Blue Robin (first summer male), Donggang, 12 May 2012
Siberian Blue Robin, Donggang, 12 May 2012. This individual belied the species’ reputation as a skulker and posed beautifully for the camera.
Siberian Rubythroat (male), Donggang, 12 May 2012. Imagine this turning up on your local headland in the UK…
Siberian Rubythroat (female), Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Mugimaki Flycatcher, Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Donggang, 13 May 2012
Siberian Thrush (female), Donggang, 13 May 2012. This supreme skulker flew right by me after being flushed by a lorry along a main road. I rattled off 6 images and only this one was in focus.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Donggang, 11 May 2012. An understated bird but with bags of character.
Brown Shrike, Donggang, 12 May 2012

And turning around 180 degrees revealed an interesting backdrop – the border with North Korea.  This boat flew the flag of the DPRK.

A North Korean (fishing?) boat heading out to sea on the falling tide. Birding along the North Korean border added extra spice to an already spicy birding trip.