Oriental Plover and Pallas’s Gulls

This weekend has been something of a bonanza for me in Beijing.  The weather had been very windy on Friday which cleared away all the smog and set up the weekend to be sunny, clear and (on Sunday at least) warm.  I had planned to visit Wild Duck Lake for the first time in a while and was looking forward to seeing the cranes and anything else that might be about.  In the back of my mind I knew that it was the beginning of the Oriental Plover season in Beijing and so I hoped, with a bit of luck, I might see one.  I did, which was special in itself, but the day, and the weekend, just got better and better.  I will limit this post to Saturday’s events and then follow up with another one about today (Sunday).

I hired a car for the weekend with Avis and set off early saturday morning to be at Wild Duck Lake around dawn.  I went to Ma Chang first as, later in the day, this area is disturbed by horse-riders and motorised buggies, so if an Oriental Plover does happen to drop in, it probably won’t stay there for long.  Along the entrance track I could see a huge flock of cranes, so I stopped to scan them with the telescope.  Soon I picked up a single Hooded Crane in the group but despite searching through over a thousand Common Cranes, there were no other species there..  I had expected a few White-naped, having seen over 250 at Miyun last week, but I didn’t see a single one all day.  This was all the more surprising when I received a SMS from Jan-erik Nilsen (who was at Miyun) to say that he had counted over 900 White-naped Cranes!  Incredible.. That count easily smashes the highest known count in Beijing of 500 and eclipses the count of 256 by Paul Holt and me last week.  There must be something about Miyun that attracts White-napes…

Common Cranes at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 24 March 2012

 

Common Cranes against the mountains north of Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

I moved on from the cranes and scanned the ‘desert’ area, the usual favoured place for Oriental Plover, but turned up a blank.  I then walked to the lake edge and scanned the wildfowl.  There were lots of duck, geese and swans but, frustratingly, they were very distant.  Most of the ice had melted but there remained a few patches on the reservoir. Of course, of all the large areas of open water, the birds had chosen the one most difficult to view!  Nevertheless, I counted 217 Swan Geese (a very good count), 224 Whooper Swans, 128 Ruddy Shelduck and good numbers of diving duck, including 83 Common Pochard.

The only real visible migration consisted of some corvids, including only my second record of Rook at Wild Duck Lake, and larks (mostly Skylarks).

I walked back to the car across the desert area just as the budding horsemen and women were starting to gallop around..  suddenly, I spotted what looked like a largish plover..  it had to be!  And yes, it was one – an Oriental Plover!  With patience and care, and despite being disturbed by curious horseriders a couple of times, I was able to get reasonably close to take a few photographs of this special bird.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

Oriental Plover.. a stunner.
Oriental Plover after being disturbed by a horserider.. It was not seen in the afternoon by some Beijing birders who looked for it.. the disturbance at this site after early morning is too much for most birds to take.

I spent around an hour with the bird, watching it feed and, occasionally, interact with some nearby Lapwings.  The wind was still gusty and, at times, it crouched down to shelter from the dust blowing across Ma Chang.  Some of the horseriders felt the full force!

A dust storm at Ma Chang..

 

It was late morning when I decided to head off to Yeyahu and, instead of walking as I usually do, I took the hire car and drove to the reserve.  Here I walked around the southern perimeter for the first time and, when I reached the far end of the lake, I scanned the group of large gulls that was assembled in the middle of the water.  Large gulls are scarce at Wild Duck Lake for most of the year, so I was interested to see which species were involved.  Mongolian Gull is by far the most common large gull on passage as they migrate from their coastal wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in Mongolia and Russia.  Sure enough, the vast majority were Mongolian Gulls and I counted 85 adults and 2 immatures.  The scan through the flock also revealed two interlopers – stunning breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls!  Wow..  Pallas’s Gull was a bird I was hoping to see when I moved to China and I saw my first at Jinzhou Bay in Dalian last winter..  but that bird was in winter plumage.   These two beauties were something else.. Most of the time they sat on the water about as far away from any viewing point as was possible. But occasionally they would take off, do a circuit of the lake, and then land again..  it was during these flights that it was possible to gain some pretty special views..

Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012
Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012.. surely the King of Gulls...!

 

It was cool to watch one of the birds as it circled with the Great Wall in the background!

Pallas's Gull with the Great Wall in the background, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

The walk down to the reservoir viewing tower was uneventful and did not produce any unusual raptors..  however, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and (Eastern) Buzzard were all appreciated.  I returned to the lake to see the gulls again and I enjoyed these birds for my last half an hour on site before I began the drive back home, elated.

What a day!  Little did I know what I was to find the following day….

 

Siberian Crane

Today was one of those amazing days that makes birding such an enthralling hobby.  I accompanied Paul Holt on a visit to Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs, sites that I had not – for some unknown reason – visited before.  The highlights were undoubtedly the cranes.  Top of the list comes the 3 Siberian Cranes (2 adults and an immature) that we believe constitute only the second record for Beijing.  But perhaps more significant was the count of 256 White-naped Cranes, around 10 per cent of the known wintering population in China at one location on Spring passage.  Add in 620 Common Cranes and it was a real crane bonanza.  The other unexpected bird of the day was a single Oriental Stork, a real rarity in Beijing.

Highlights:

- second record of Siberian Crane in Beijing (2 adults and an immature)

- second highest (possibly highest) count of White-naped Cranes in Beijing

- seventh record of Oriental Stork in Beijing

- earliest Garganey and Common Shelduck in Beijing

- second earliest Fork-tailed Swift in Beijing

Siberian Cranes, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012
White-naped Crane, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012. We saw around 10 per cent of the Chinese wintering population today at this important staging post.
Common Cranes, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012
Oriental Stork, Miyun Reservoir, 19 March 2012

 

Detailed species list from Miyun Reservoir (courtesy of Paul Holt):

Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun Reservoir. (40°30.3’N., 117°01.1’E.). Alt. 75 metres. (07h15-11h00).

 

Xin Zhuang Qiao (bridge over the Chao He), Miyun. (40°35.11’N., 117°07.95’E.). Alt. 115 metres. (11h30-12h50)

 

Miyun Reservoir – south of Bulaotun satellite tracking station, Miyun. (40°31.75’N., 116°57.77’E.). Alt. 75 metres. (13h20-17h05)

 

Japanese Quail                  2 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Pheasant                  7 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Swan Goose                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tundra Bean Goose                  10 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Taiga or Tundra Bean Goose                  ca.400 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tundra Swan                  4 adults at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Whooper Swan 168 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 146 birds were also counted at Bulaotun in the late afternoon – but some or possibly even all of these could have been among those seen at HBJZ earlier in the day.

Ruddy Shelduck 796 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Most of these (780 birds) were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang with just one being seen on the Chaohe near Taishitun & 15 at Bulaotun.

Gadwall                  5 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Falcated Duck                  12 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Mallard                  ca.600 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Almost all of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck                  14 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Almost all of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Northern Pintail                  5 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Baikal Teal                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Teal                  150 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Pochard                  20 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Ferruginous Pochard                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Tufted Duck                  2 males at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Goldeneye                  13 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Smew                  51 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Merganser 80 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. These involved 65 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, three in the Chaohe near the Xin Zhuang bridge, Taishitun & 12 at Bulaotun.

Little Grebe 7 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Two of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang & the other five in the Chaohe near Taishitun.

Great Crested Grebe                  18 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black Stork                  1 flew high near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Stork                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Stork is rare in Beijing – the other records that I’m aware of are –

1875

A small flock was seen near the city in summer 1875 (Wilder and Hubbard 1924, Wilder 1940b)

1924

1 collected in April 1924, probably south of the city in Nanhaizi (Nan Hai Tzu) hunting park (Wilder and Hubbard 1924, Wilder 1940b).

1955

1 specimen from Tongxian county on 8 June 1955 (Cai 1987). Mid-summer records must be exceptional!

1964

1 specimen from  Niulanshan, Shunyi on 22 January 1964 (Cai 1987). Mid-winter records are probably also exceptional.

1999

14 on a flooded area in Shunyi, January 1999 (Qian Fawen in litt. 1999 to BirdLife International [2001]

2004

1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang Miyun reservoir on the 1/10/2004. It was circling high up with a party of 5 Black Storks and would have been an early date even on the Hebei coast.

2009

3 at WDL on 21/3/2009 (Brian Ivon Jones, Spike Millington & Richard Carden – BIJ in litt. to PH on 20 March 2012)

Grey Heron 12 at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Seven of these were at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, one besides the Chaohe near Taishitun & the other four near Bulaotun.

Great Egret                  2 besides the Chaohe when viewed from the Xin Zhuang bridge near Taishitun, Miyun on the 19/3/2012.

Great Cormorant                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White-tailed Eagle                  1 juvenile at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk                  2 singles near Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Kestrel 3 near Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. Two were seen just south of Miyun reservoir dam while the third was at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.

Great Bustard                  3 distant birds at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Coot                  108 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Siberian Crane 3, a family party with two adults and a first year, at Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. First seen at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang in the late morning what were undoubtedly these same three birds were later seen at Bulaotun. Rare in Beijing – the only previous sighting from Beijing was of a bird at Wild Duck Lake in March 2008. Terry suggested that the easterly winds of the previous weekend might have drifted this bird, and the White-naped Cranes, inland from the Hebei coast.

White-naped Crane 256 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 240 had been counted at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang earlier in the day but these were probably part of the group later seen at Bulaotun. Possibly only the second three figure count for Beijing  – but not the largest as 500 birds were reported at Miyun reservoir  one day later that our sighting in 2011 (fide “Xiaoming” in a BirdForum posting of 20 March 2011)

Common Crane 620 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. 100 had been estimated at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang earlier in the day but these were probably part of the group later seen at Bulaotun.

Northern Lapwing                  6 around Miyun reservoir (four at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang & two at Bulaotun) on the 19/3/2012.

Long-billed Plover                  1 besides the Chao river when viewed from the Xin Zhuang bridge near Taishitun, Miyun on the 19/3/2012.

Kentish Plover                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black-headed Gull                  61 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Mongolian Gull                  2 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Oriental Turtle Dove                  2 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Collared Dove                  1 near Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Chinese Grey Shrike                  1 at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Black-billed Magpie                  80 around Miyun reservoir & Miyun town on the 19/3/2012.

Carrion Crow                  4 flew north high over Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir at 16h45 on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Skylark                  2 singles at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White-cheeked Starling                  2 in Hou Ba Jia Zhuang village, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Common Starling                  1 at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow                  Present but not counted around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

White Wagtail 14 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012. These included 12 besides the Chaohe when viewed from the Xin Zhuang Bridge. Seven birds were seen well enough to racially assign & they were all leucopsis.

Meadow Bunting                  3 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

Pallas’s Bunting                  8 around Miyun reservoir on the 19/3/2012.

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!