Chinese Hill Babbler

The Chinese Hill Babbler (Rhopophilus pekinensis), also known as the Chinese Hill Warbler or White-browed Chinese Warbler, is usually on the list of “most wanted” birds for visiting birders.  It has a limited distribution but is quite common in the hills around Beijing.  It’s a bird that has a lovely repertoire of vocalisations and is often heard before it is seen.

On my most recent visit to Wild Duck Lake, I came across 4 of these delightful birds, possibly a family party.  Although usually a bird of elevation, they descend in winter and are regularly seen at Wild Duck Lake from October to March (an altitude of around 500 metres above sea level).  They are occasionally seen at this site in summer, too, and I suspect they bred there this year.

Most field guides call this bird “Chinese Hill Warbler” but it is clearly not a warbler and much more like a babbler, hence the name most local birders prefer to use – Chinese Hill Babbler.  They are inquisitive birds and, with a bit of ‘pishing’, they often come quite close to investigate…

Chinese Hill Babbler (Rhopophilus pekinensis), Yeyahu NR, Beijing, 29 October 2012
Chinese Hill Babbler, Yeyahu NR, 29 October 2012. Absolutely NOT a warbler!

And here is a recording of one of the birds from Yeyahu NR…  a great sound!

Chinese Hill Babbler

Summer lovin’

With summer upon us, Beijing is now hot and humid.  As well as the heat, July and August are also the months that see the highest rainfall in the capital, mostly from the frequent spectacular thunderstorms.  Air conditioning units are humming all over the city and one can sense the pace of life slowing, just a little, as its people cope with the energy-sapping heat.   It is uncomfortable to be in the field for any length of time now and this, coupled with the relative quiet birding around the capital at this time of year, has meant that I have not been out as much as normal.

On Sunday, I decided to change that by checking out Yeyahu to see how the breeding birds were doing and to look for butterflies and dragonflies.  It was a murky day but as the bus from Beijing made its way over the mountains near Badaling Great Wall, it began to clear a little..  Liyan, my trusty driver, met me at Yanqing and, 15 minutes later, I was at Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  My plan was to spend the afternoon and evening on site and catch the last bus back to Beijing..  but that was immediately scuppered when I discovered that the last bus back was at the very early time of 1830.  Instead I decided to catch the last train at 2130, so I arranged for Liyan to pick me up at 8.30pm, giving me 5 hours on site.

There was a constant threat of thunderstorms – distant rumbles were a feature of the day – but thankfully I managed to avoid the main storms that seemed to keep to the mountains.  And, despite the heat and humidity, I enjoyed the walk around the reserve.  As usual, there were a lot of Beijing’s city-dwellers enjoying the boardwalk on the lake but, true to form, none of them took the trails around the wider reserve, leaving me to enjoy the greater part of the reserve on my own.  Activity was generally slow, as expected, but it was very cool to see evidence of breeding Amur Falcons and Eastern Marsh Harriers.  I saw two adult male Amurs taking food to a small copse to the north of the reserve and there were two recently-fledged juvenile Eastern Marsh Harriers wheeling around waiting for the parents to bring food.  I watched two food passes by the adult male harrier; both juveniles became very excited, calling constantly as the male approached, before the male rose, waited for the juveniles to take up position below and then dropped the catch.  The first, possibly a small rodent, was expertly caught in mid-air by one of the young birds but the second, what looked like a young Moorhen, was missed and fell into the reedbed, whereby both juveniles swooped in, squabbling over their evening meal.  Fun to watch.  Chinese Penduline Tits were feeding young in their spectacular nest and young Great Crested and Little Grebes were begging from their parents on the lake.  A pair of Common Terns (of the subspecies longipennis) patrolled the ponds and they were joined briefly by a Whiskered Tern and then a White-winged Tern, before the latter disappeared off to the west towards the reservoir.

The reedbeds were noticeably quieter than in June with just a handful of Oriental Reed Warblers making half-hearted efforts at singing; the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the adults carrying food was clearly the priority now.  At least 4 pairs of Purple Herons appeared to be feeding young in the large reedbed to the west and I encountered a family party of Chinese Hill Warblers to the north.  Several pairs of Richard’s Pipits were feeding young in the grassland to the north of the lake and a few Zitting Cisticolas called frequently.  A pair of Black Drongos chirped and made forays to catch flying insects from their base in a willow hedgerow and both Night and Chinese Pond Herons busied themselves carrying food back and forth.

There were good numbers of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on the wing.  I had deliberately taken my macro lens to try to photograph some of them but, being a complete novice with these insects, I cannot identify any of them!  There isn’t a field guide for this part of the world, so putting a name to these beasts isn’t easy.  There is a good website – Asia Dragonfly – with a comprehensive library of photographs.  But it’s still very difficult!

Here are a few photos of the local specialties…  any help with identification much appreciated…

Photo 1: possibly Orthetrum albistylum specisum
Photo 2: same as above
Photo 3: a beautiful dragonfly... Possibly Crocothemis servilia?
Photo 4: probably a Sympetrum sp?
Photo 5: Cercion plagiosum
Photo 6: probably a female Cercion plagiosum?
Photo 7: some sort of chaser.. maybe Deilia phaon?
Photo 8: Antlion sp
Photo 9: beetle sp. I couldn't resist taking a photo of this impressive little bug. You can even see my reflection is his shiny body armour!

I hung around until dusk, hoping for a calling crake or watercock but no luck…  probably a bit late in the season for them to be calling frequently.  My last birds of the day were a calling Eurasian Cuckoo and a Grey-headed Woodpecker that I flushed from the path.  As the mosquitos began to bite, I made my way to the entrance of the reserve to rendez-vous with Liyan.  The last train was delayed so I did not get back to Beijing until after midnight but for only 7 Yuan (70 pence), I couldn’t really complain too much about the journey!

Dalian

A short trip to Dalian over the Spring Festival holiday was simply brilliant. I nipped over with Spike Millington and met up with Dalian-based Canadian, Tom Beeke. Tom is a top man – he met us at the airport, arranged our hotel and took us to all the best spots in the area. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the local birds made for a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Highlights included finding a Pallas’s Gull (Great Black-headed Gull) in exactly the same spot where one was found last winter, 3 wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls, good numbers of both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, 9 Oriental White Storks, 4 Varied Tits (stunners) and an unusual winter record of Yellow-browed Bunting.

The trip started at Jinzhou dump for gulls. There is a small landfill site here and, although on arrival the gull numbers were quite low, they steadily built throughout the day. The vast majority were Mongolian Gulls (Larus mongolicus) with c230 individuals. Also present were Vega Gulls, Heuglin’s Gull (tamyrensis?), a few Common and Black-headed Gulls plus at least one Slaty-backed (a first winter) and a probable first winter Glaucous-winged Gull. Other species on the estuary included Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, White-tailed Eagle (at least 5 individuals) and 9 Oriental White Storks. However, the highlight was finding an adult Pallas’s (Great Black-headed Gull) that flew into the estuary in the mid-afternoon. A brilliant and unmistakable bird.

Andreas Buchheim had asked me to look out for wing-tagged mongolicus and it wasn’t long before I found three – “AB56″, “AF50″ and “AF63″. The ringing data shows that two were ringed at a colony in Lake Baikal (almost 2,000km away) and the third was ringed at Khokh Nuur in Mongolia (almost 1,300km from Dalian). It’s always great to see ringed or tagged birds and find out a bit about their history. Tom will now look out for more this winter.

On the second day we decided to visit the southernmost point of the peninsula at Laotieshan (about an hour and a half from Dalian). Tom had never visited in winter, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. We might see lots of birds or nothing at all. On the way we jammed in on a flock of Bohemian Waxwings at Lushun – Tom’s first record in the Dalian area. On arrival at Laotieshan, the habitat around the point looked brilliant for migration and Tom recalled his ‘big day’ here in October last year – thousands of raptors and huge numbers of passerines passing through with Tom the only birder! In mid-winter, as expected, it was a bit quieter but, nevertheless, we did see some good birds. A nice male Long-tailed Rosefinch was a good start and a Chinese Hill Warbler checked us out while Tom lured it in with a remarkable imitation of its call. A roving tit flock in a small wood produced Tom’s second record of Yellow-bellied Tit among the Coal and Great Tits and Siberian Accentors and Yellow-throated Buntings appeared at regular intervals. A few Naumann’s Thrushes added a splash of colour and a single Hawfinch was the first of 27 we were to see that day (including a single flock of 26). After a lunch of delicious dumplings, the afternoon started brilliantly when a trail we took just north of the peninsula produced 4 Pallas’s Rosefinches – a key target bird – and a few metres further along we enjoyed a nice male Yellow-browed Bunting – an unusual winter record. A Peregrine and a Kestrel provided the raptor interest and we encountered more Long-tailed Rosefinches, Siberian Accentors, Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings.

Our final day was spent on Tom’s local patch at Jinshitan and we visited several sites including a reservoir, the country park, the small fishing harbour and, best of all, the golf club. The first site of the day – the reservoir – produced both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, a brief Goshawk, Yellow-throated, Pallas’s Reed, Meadow and Rustic Buntings plus Coal Tit, Siberian Accentor, Japanese Quail and a beautiful male Hen Harrier. The country park and the fishing harbour were both quiet but on the way to lunch we enjoyed a very cooperative Rough-legged Buzzard that we originally thought might be an Upland due to the large whitish patch on the upperwing. Post-lunch we visited the golf course and it was here, in a lovely little wooded valley, that we encountered another target bird – Varied Tit. These birds are stunners and we enjoyed very good and prolonged views of 2 of these little gems in a mixed tit flock. Wow! A Treecreeper struggled to gain our attention, even though it’s a difficult bird to see in the Beijing area, and the supporting cast here included Chinese Hill Warblers, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches and more Siberian Accentors. Two more Varied Tits were seen briefly alongside the road (definitely different birds due to their blotchy plumage) and a walk around the more open parts of the course produced more Long-tailed Rosefinches, several of which posed nicely for photographs before we reluctantly headed off to the airport for the flight home.

Big thanks to Tom for making all the arrangements and accompanying us on a brilliant trip.

Already making plans to revisit in migration season – the peninsula at Laotieshan looks simply awesome for migrants.

Long-tailed Rosefinch (male), Jinshitan, Dalian
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Jinshitan, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Jinshitan, Dalian - one of 4 seen at this site.
Oriental White Stork with prey, being pursued by gulls, Jinzhou dump, Dalian
Chinese Hill Warbler, Laotieshan
Siberian Accentor, Jinshitan, Dalian
Rubbish record shot of the Pallas's Gull
Birding at Jinzhou dump (oh, the glamour...)
Hmmm.....

Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!

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