Amur Falcons are back!

The journey of the AMUR FALCON is one of the most remarkable in the avian world, migrating from the Amur region in NE China and SE Russia across China, India and, eventually, to East Africa.  An incredible journey fuelled by an even more amazing migration – of dragonflies – across the Indian Ocean.

Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital.  Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!

On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields…  simply stunning.

AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
AMUR FALCON (female), Miyun Reservoir, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
One of the adult male LESSER KESTRELS at Miyun, 3 May 2014
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014.  Beautiful.
LESSER KESTREL, adult male, Miyun 3 May 2014. Beautiful.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL.  Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.
Adult male LESSER KESTREL. Note the pale, almost unmarked underwing.

Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.

 

For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun.  Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..!  As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….

This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year.  Always a delight to see.

We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove.  In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!

A day that will live long in the memory!

Pelicans in Beijing!

As I was having a short Easter break in Singapore, it was predictably a superb weekend of birding in Beijing..!  The main highlight was the appearance of at least 6 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir.

Shahe is a regular spot for Irish birding legend, Colm Moore, and he has found some excellent birds at this city reservoir over the last few years, including Black-headed Wagtail, Bar-tailed Godwit, Long-tailed Skua, a recent Black-tailed Gull and many more.

The site is also visited by some Chinese birders including Chen Yanxin and it was both of these guys who found 3 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) on the reservoir early Saturday morning.  Colm also saw an additional 3 flyover DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕), bringing the total seen to at least 6.

Shahe suffers from regular disturbance by fishermen and a whole range of other leisure activities, especially at weekends, so it’s certainly a site that should be visited early morning if at all possible.  And this was evidenced by the fact that the pelicans flew off north west around 1000am before many local birders could reach the site.

Here are some photos by Chen Yanxin.

DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe.  Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe. Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICAN, Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕), Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014.  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
Shahe in the early morning mist..  hard to believe this is Beijing!  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Shahe in the early morning mist.. hard to believe this is Beijing! Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe...
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe…

Although increasing in parts of Europe, DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕) is classified as “Vulnerable” by Birdlife International due to the sharp decline in the Asian population.  In the region, these birds breed in western Mongolia and some winter on the southeast coast of China.  It is a rare migrant in Beijing, usually in Spring, as it makes its way from the wintering grounds to the breeding areas.

Congratulations to Colm and Chen Yanxin for seeing, and photographing so well, these special birds..!

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake.  Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN.  A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).

I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening.  The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force.  This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.

On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required).  However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks.  The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts.  And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits.  I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south.   Sorry!

On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’.  A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).

Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south.  Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!

I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl.  A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post.  Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west.  A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming.  I counted over 85 altogether.

I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here.  First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal.  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds).  And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.  It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle.  Fantastic.  I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu.  It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area.  With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration.  Very nice!  They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come.  As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again.  On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill.  Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood.  Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower.  At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned.  One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view.  The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood.  At this point I got a drenching.  As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow.  Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir.  There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey.  About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope.  To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican!  Unbelievable…   I immediately began to take notes on the plumage.  It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black.  The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries.  It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican!  I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir.  It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang.  Wow.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field.  What will this site turn up next??