Blyth’s Pipits and more…

On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan).  We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.

Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits.  It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead.  No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s!  They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck.  Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground.  The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight.  Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times.  We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!

I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight…  I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs!  Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.

Blyth’s (upper) and Richard’s (lower) Pipits in flight. In this direct comparison, one can see the slightly shorter tail and shorter bill of Blyth’s. The much-superior Richard’s Pipit image is by Graham Catley.

Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia.  The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus in breeding plumage, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Red-throated Pipit, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012

In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata.  Possibly an intergrade?  A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.

As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south..  with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow!  This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second!  It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years…  It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx.  It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.

Collared Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Collared Crow with Carrion Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012.

When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March.  After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun.  As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight.  Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks.  A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion.  We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.

A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:

Little Buntings

Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+  Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.

A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012. Note lack of a white trailing edge to the wing (the best feature with which to distinguish Oriental from Collared Pratincole).

It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!

Collared Crow

After a tip-off from Colm Moore (via Jesper) about a Collared Crow and a Pied Wheatear, Libby and I went for a ‘picnic’ at the Shisanling Reservoir near the Ming Tombs on Sunday.. The dried up river bed to the north-west of the reservoir is a large area and looks just perfect for wheatears..  However, after searching the area for an hour and a half, I had to concede defeat with the wheatear but consoled myself with over 20 Richard’s Pipits, 30 Little Buntings, a few ‘ocularis‘ White Wagtails, 2 Amur Falcons (my first of the year) and a single Wryneck.   After our lunch we walked up to the edge of the reservoir and enjoyed stunning views of a couple of Great Egrets, including one with scarlet legs, turquoise lores and a dark bill… of the East Asian subspecies modesta.  I didn’t have my camera with me but a similar individual can be seen here.

Then, just as we were about to head back, a corvid took off from the edge of the reedbed and headed to the southern edge of the reservoir – COLLARED CROW!  This species is now rare in Beijing and is considered “Near Threatened” by Birdlife International due to the declining population in its core range in southern China, thought to be caused by the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of pesticides.  An unexpected addition to the list of species I have seen in Beijing.

By the way, I recently added up my Beijing list and Collared Crow is species number 253 for me in Beijing Municipality.