Not long after I arrived in China, I visited Liaoning Province to see my good friend, Dalian-based Tom Beeke. He very kindly showed me some of his local birding sites, including what must be the best gull-watching site in north-eastern China, Jinzhou Bay. Attracted by the nearby landfill site, thousands of gulls congregate in the area to spend the winter. Most are Mongolian Gulls but there is always a good selection with Vega Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Common Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Black-headed Gull and occasionally something rarer like a Glaucous Gull, Slaty-backed Gull or, as I was lucky enough to see on my first visit, a Pallas’s Gull.
Before I visited, friend and co-author of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, Andreas Buchheim, asked me to look out for wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls and, sure enough, among the large flocks of Mongolian Gull loafing on the ice in the bay, I was able to pick out several wing-tagged birds. These birds had been tagged by Andreas at various sites in Mongolia and Russia and showed that these birds, as expected, moved to the east coast of Asia in winter.
This site was so good that I went back in winter 2011/12 with Beijing-based Paul Holt, during which time we found several more wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls.
I haven’t been able to visit Jinzhou Bay this winter but another good friend, and fellow birder, Bai Qingquan from Dandong, visited there on 23 and 24 March. Qingquan estimated that there were around 6,000 gulls of 7 different species on site. Excitingly, he found two wing-tagged gulls that I had seen, together with Paul Holt, in winter 2011/12.
Even more excitingly he saw “AC82”. This bird was originally ringed as a “pullus” (nestling) on 25 June 1989 at Lake Baikal in Russia. It was subsequently caught again as an adult bird on 20 May 2005 at Airchan Nuur, Mongolia, when the metal leg ring was replaced and a wing tag (“AC82”) attached. Qingquan’s sighting is the first since the tag was fixed in 2005 and, with the original ringing data from Russia, proves that this bird is almost 24 years old! (almost as old as me.. cough). Wow.. what a record! If anyone has any information about the longevity of large gulls, I would love to know…
Another of Qingquan’s sightings was of “AF63”. I saw this bird at the same site in February 2011 and Paul Holt and I saw it again in January 2012, showing that at least some of these gulls are site-faithful in winter.. again, another valuable piece of data.
I simply love the information that can be gained through tagging programmes like this. Looking for marked birds adds another dimension to birding and it’s so rewarding to hear back from the project leaders about the history of individual birds. I urge every birder to look out for, and report, any wing-tagged, colour-ringed or any other birds marked in any way.
For more information about Andreas Buccheim’s Mongolian Gull wing-tagging programme, see here.
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’..!
I have been meaning to post these images for a while. In late January, when I was in Dalian, I made two visits to Jinzhou Bay, a fantastic winter gull site (and also a great site for White-tailed Eagles). By far the most common gull was Mongolian (3-4,000) with Vega Gull also well represented alongside a sprinkling of Common, Black-tailed, Black-headed and Glaucous. Among them were a few dark-mantled and yellow-legged large gulls. These are presumed to be the ‘taimyrensis‘ subspecies of Heuglin’s Gull, considered by some to be a hybrid between Vega Gull and nominate Heuglin’s Gull.
Whatever they are, they are smart gulls. In late January most were sporting significant head streaking, including the typical East Asian ‘shawl’ of patterning on the lower nape. They were relatively large, on a par with Vega in terms of size with mantle shade in between nominate Heuglin’s and Vega Gull. I estimated that there were around 30-40 of these gulls on site. All images taken in late January. Comments very welcome!
One of the highlights of my recent trip to Liaoning Province was the opportunity to see so many gulls at Jinzhou Bay (we estimated over 4,000). This number must make Jinzhou Bay one of the premier gull-watching sites in northern China (if you know of a comparable site, please let me know!). The channel of running water alongside the landfill tip was a favoured haunt of Common Gulls (Larus canus) and, over the two days I spent at this site, I saw several young birds, presumably of both the subspecies found in this area – kamtschatschensis and heinei. Here are a few images and personal comments. Please let me know if you disagree with my identification or if you have more to add.
The kamtschatschensis bird, in particular, would certainly stand out if it turned up in the Western Europe!
It’s difficult to tell from these images but, in the field, the kamtschatschensis bird appeared to be stockier with a slightly longer bill.
Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen. This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc. Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list. I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520). However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!
Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…
I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list! We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea. In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.
Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull. Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip. Birding takes us to some glamourous places.
I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays. Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck. After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay. Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice. They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.
The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2). Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived. Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left). These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.
The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip. Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc.. It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls…. We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper.. :)
Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck. In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China. The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here. I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.
And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..
From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border. Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.
We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river. Dandong is an interesting city. It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War. The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”… We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!
We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser. This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China. This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck. Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank. Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.
The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong. It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular. Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car… Superb! We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside.. fantastic.
On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before. We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck. As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea. It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.
After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian. A thoroughly enjoyable trip…
So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list? They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard. Anyone beat that?
On Saturday I met up with Peter Cawley – from my original local patch at Winterton in the UK – and flew across to Dalian for the onward journey to Laotieshan, the southern tip of the Dalian peninsula. It is here that we will be basing ourselves for at least a week to experience the autumn migration.
We arrived in the late afternoon and met up with Paul Holt who had arrived at lunchtime that day and had managed a few hours birding in the afternoon. Given the recent settled weather, our expectations were not so high but his report certainly whetted the appetite – in just four hours he had seen over 1,000 Oriental Honey Buzzards, over 1,200 Red-rumped Swallows and a good sprinkling of other birds – Amur Falcon, Goshawk, Osprey and White-throated Needletail. Not bad. Sunday was our first full day and it was simply stunning. Over 600 Ashy Minivets, at least 300 Oriental Honey Buzzards, over 100 Black-eared Kites, 3 Black Storks and between 30 and 40 Japanese Sparrowhawks with good numbers of Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Hobbies, Amur Falcons, Kestrel, Osprey and Peregrine as the supporting cast. This site is awesome!
After a couple of visits to Liaoning Province, I have been captivated by the birding promise, including the coastal mudflats between Dalian and Dandong and the migration potential at the southern tip of the peninsula, Laotieshan. Last weekend I nipped across to Dalian, hired a car and went looking for shorebirds. I was determined to make it as far as Dandong, on the North Korean border, a place that very few birders visit. I had heard from Dalian-based Tom Beeke about the huge mudflats at the Donggang, just south of Dandong, so I knew the shorebird watching would be awesome.
Sites on the coast between Dalian and Dondang.
It was great that Tom could join me for a half day and, after picking him up at Jinshitan (and seeing another old friend – see below), we spent the afternoon at the estuary north of Pikou, an excellent wader site between Dalian and Zhuange, on the way to Dandong.
"Sandy" at Jinshitan... a colourful reminder of the world volleyball championships held in Jinshitan a few years ago..
On the falling tide we set up our scopes and settled in for an excellent couple of hours watching the flocks of waders fly from their roosts to the freshly exposed mud to begin feeding. It was quality birding with groups of Great Knot (26), Red Knot (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (161), Red-necked Stint (14), Grey (60), Pacific Golden (3) and Kentish Plovers (122), Grey-tailed Tattler (1), Terek Sandpiper (11), Marsh Sandpiper (25), Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Greenshank (3), Far Eastern (14) and Eurasian Curlew (4), Whimbrel (5), Dunlin (63), Lesser Sand Plover (1), Saunders’ Gull (2), Caspian Tern (9) and Chinese Egret (10).
We also checked out a few sites in between Dalian and Pikou and picked up Great and Little Egrets, Mongolian, Vega, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and many Yellow Wagtails.
I then left Tom and made my way up to Zhuanghe. Here I enjoyed a healthy number (18) of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding on the estuary (a successful breeding season?), as well as good numbers of Far Eastern Curlews (57), Kentish Plover (160), Little Ringed Plover (1), Grey Plover (35), Spotted Redshank (6), Wood Sandpiper (2) and a single Blue Rock Thrush.
From here I drove up to Dandong and spent a whole day at the mudflats at Donggang. These mudflats are vast…. I estimated 10,000 birds on the mud but, unfortunately, the tides were not great during my visit.. there wasn’t really a high tide, just a low tide and a lower tide (despite trawling the internet before the visit, I couldn’t find any information about tides in this area). Hence, the waders were widely spread and, despite trudging out onto the mud with my locally bought 12 Yuan (GBP 1.20) pair of plimsoles, I was only able to scan carefully one large group of around 1,500 birds. I was convinced that there was a juvenile Spooner out there somewhere but, if there was, I didn’t find it.
Despite that, there were some impressive counts… over 500 Kentish Plover, 200 Great Knot, 100 Far Eastern Curlew, 30 Eurasian Curlew, 300 Grey Plover, 120 Red-necked Stint, 75 Bar-tailed Godwit, 60 Saunders’ Gulls, 250 Black-headed Gulls, 4 Terek Sandpiper, 600 Dunlin, 3 Broad-billed Sandpiper and 23 Greenshank.
A couple of local fishermen turned up and set up their rods on the ‘jetty’ which led me to think that the tide might be coming in… I asked them about the tide and they said that at 3pm the water would be in as far as the jetty… Great, I thought… it was now 1.30pm so I settled in and waited for the birds to come to me, forced closer by the incoming tide… I waited… and waited… At 3pm the water was still a long way out (at least 500 metres) and seemed to have stopped edging closer. Then a couple of other locals arrived and started laughing with (or at?) the fishermen… they said that the water was not going to come anywhere near the jetty today.. By this time the tide had just about come to a standstill and my heart sank. It was clear that the second group of locals were right and that the ‘high tide’ simply wasn’t very high that day. I made a few final scans before leaving to check the pools inside the sea wall a little further north.
The pools were also productive with 5 Long-toed Stints, Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 4 Temminck’s Stint and 6 Red-necked Stints along with more Far Eastern Curlew. A nice side show included 2 Grey-faced Buzzards and 4 Pied Harriers in off the sea (defecting from North Korea!).
As dusk approached I made my way back south to spend the night in Zhuanghe. The following morning I birded two areas 10-15kms south of Zhuanghe. Here the high tide had pushed the birds right up to the road and I was able to sit and enjoy a fabulous few hours of birding as the tide turned and groups of birds flew in to feed on the first exposed mud.
Here I enjoyed more Great Knot, Red Knot (2 juveniles), Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank (over 250), Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover and Oystercatcher.
I drove on to the river estuary north of Pikou and settled in for what turned out to be another fantastic spell. On the falling tide, shellfish collectors were digging on the furthest stretch of mud forcing the birds close to me. I enjoyed spectacular views of many of the waders and counted 18 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 53 Red-necked Stints, 38 Oystercatchers, 31 Bar-tailed Godwits, 350+ Dunlin, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 4 Terek Sandpipers, Eurasian, Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Great Knot, Sanderling (my only one of the trip) and a good count of 24 Caspian Terns roosting on the spit.
My final stop was at some salt pans just north of Pikou. Here I encountered 12 Temminck’s Stints, 14 Spotted Redshank, 4 Little Ringed Plovers and 2 Long-toed Stints.
So, no Spooner, Nordmann’s Greenshank or Asian Dowitcher but a thoroughly enjoyable trip, nonetheless.. all the more interesting given the location and the fact that hardly any birders ever visit. I am sure if the area was covered regularly, all sorts would be found – it clearly has bags of potential and would make a fantastic local patch!