Nordmann’s Greenshank

Another highlight from the trip to Dandong was the remarkable total of Nordmann’s Greenshanks (Tringa guttifer) that we observed at a high-tide roost.  Totals of 17, 17 and 16 were recorded on my three visits and, on one of the days, local birder Bai Qingquan recorded at least a further 7 from a different location at the same time, making a minimum count of 24 at this important stopover site.  Nordmann’s Greenshank is officially “endangered” with a population estimate of around 500-1,000 individuals.  It breeds in eastern Siberia along the western and northern coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and also on Sakhalin Island, wintering in south-east Asia (Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia etc) and is encountered on migration along coastal China from Hong Kong north to Liaoning Province.  It’s population is declining, almost certainly related to habitat destruction primarily on its wintering grounds and stopover sites.

We did not try to get close to these birds for fear of flushing them from their roost but the occasional pass by the local Peregrine and even the odd Black-tailed Gull kept them on their toes and, on several occasions, the flocks took to the air, allowing us to hear the air through their wings as they wheeled around in front of us.. a spectacular sight and sound.  It was interesting that the Nordmann’s seemed to associate with the Grey Plover.

Grey Plovers, Donggang, Dandong, Liaoning Province. The wheeling flocks were a lovely sight.
Nordmann’s Greenshank in flight (with Grey Plover), Donggang, Dandong, Laioning Province. Nordmann’s seem to like Grey Plovers!
Nordmann’s Greenshanks with Grey Plovers.

Having North Korea as a backdrop added human interest to the birding here.

A shellfish picker works the low tide with North Korea just the other side of the Yalu river.
A list of what not to do on the North Korean border. Needless to say, we did as we were told..

And other waders, most in splendid breeding plumage, were a sight to behold.

Two Asian Dowitchers (the small orangey blobs in this awful photo) were a welcome addition to the high tide roost.
“Eastern” Black-tailed Godwits. Beautiful birds.
Our search for Spoon-billed Sandpiper proved fruitless (a little early) but breeding plumaged Red-necked Stints were a joy to watch.

Now, you’ve all heard of the “Magic Woods” at Beidaihe….  well, not to be outdone, Donggang has its own ‘not of this Earth’ site.  Here’s introducing the “Harry Potter Hedge”!

The “Harry Potter Hedge”… every day it would wow us with magical appearances.

Out of thin air it produced a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Rufous-tailed Robin, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Thrush, Eyebrowed Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Pechora Pipit, Siberian Rubythroat, Oriental Scops Owl and much much more..

Finally, just for fun, here are a couple of photos of wader flocks…  Photo 1 is beginner level.  It has four wader species.. can you identify them?  Photo 2 is a little tougher… it contains 6 species.  A *glittering prize* awaits the first person to list them all correctly.

Photo 1 (Beginners Level). There are 4 wader species in this image. Can you name them?
Photo 2 (Advanced Level). There are 6 species in this photo. Can you name them?

A Surfeit of Sibes

Dandong wasn’t just a wader bonanza (17 Nordmann’s Greenshanks roosting with 2 Asian Dowitchers was really something!) but also a celebration of Siberian migrants.  We encountered Siberian Rubythroats and both Siberian Blue and Rufous-tailed Robins bobbing along the sea wall, Mugimaki, Red-throated, Blue and White and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers feeding on the leeward side of the hedges and Siberian, Grey-backed and Eyebrowed Thrushes skulking in thickets.  Not to mention Eastern Crowned, Arctic (Kamchatka!), Pale-legged, Yellow-browed, Dusky and Radde’s Warblers entertaining us from the boughs and Brown Shrikes seemingly on every perch.  Fantastic stuff.  So, in a tribute to ‘Sibes’, here are a few images.

Siberian Blue Robin (first summer male), Donggang, 12 May 2012
Siberian Blue Robin, Donggang, 12 May 2012. This individual belied the species’ reputation as a skulker and posed beautifully for the camera.
Siberian Rubythroat (male), Donggang, 12 May 2012. Imagine this turning up on your local headland in the UK…
Siberian Rubythroat (female), Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Mugimaki Flycatcher, Donggang, 12 May 2012.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Donggang, 13 May 2012
Siberian Thrush (female), Donggang, 13 May 2012. This supreme skulker flew right by me after being flushed by a lorry along a main road. I rattled off 6 images and only this one was in focus.
Rufous-tailed Robin, Donggang, 11 May 2012. An understated bird but with bags of character.
Brown Shrike, Donggang, 12 May 2012

And turning around 180 degrees revealed an interesting backdrop – the border with North Korea.  This boat flew the flag of the DPRK.

A North Korean (fishing?) boat heading out to sea on the falling tide. Birding along the North Korean border added extra spice to an already spicy birding trip.

 

Black-winged Cuckooshrike

I am still wading (no pun intended) through my sightings and images from a shorebirding trip to Donggang, Dandong, last weekend with Paul Holt and local birder, Bai Qingquan.  The highlights were many.  One of the surprises was the amount of passerine migrants that we saw along the newly planted trees that lined the sea wall.. every day we saw buntings, pipits, flycatchers, thrushes and robins which made the walk to the wader high tide roost a real treat.  And it was here that we found the bird of the trip – a Kamchatka Warbler (see previous post).  Another, more mature, hedgerow to the north of the wader high tide roost produced another very special bird and the second highlight of the trip – a Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike.  This is the first record of this species in Liaoning Province and possibly the most northerly record in mainland China.

We had just seen a Brown-eared Bulbul making its way south, noisily, along the sea wall and just a few minutes later a similar-sized bird flew north along the landward side of the hedge.  Bai Qingquan picked it up and both he and I saw it briefly as it flashed by.. what was it?  Paul was on the other side of the hedge and missed it.  Both Bai and I had never seen this bird before..  sort of cuckoo-shaped but we had seen some white on the wing.  Luckily it perched up in a tree a 100 metres or so to the north.  Although it was mostly obscured, we could just see its tail which looked cuckoo-like and we speculated that it could be some sort of cuckoo or hawk cuckoo..  but the white in the wing didn’t tally..  We crept forward and then it flew, luckily just a few metres, and this time sat up in full view.  Paul very quickly identified it as a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  We were able to secure some pretty good views for about 30 minutes as it fed along the hedgerow.  Bai “high-fived” us..  a new Liaoning bird!

Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The first record in Liaoning Province and, possibly, the most northerly record of this species in China.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Donggang, Dandong, 11 May 2012. The white panels in the wings were not always as obvious as shown here.

The cuckooshrike clearly liked the area as we saw it again the following day and again on our last morning..  Isn’t migration brilliant!

My North Korean Bird List

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.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

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..  :)

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

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.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

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.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

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.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

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.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

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.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

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?

Birding the China-North Korea border

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.

The location of Dandong and Donggang on Google Earth
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).

Great Knot, north of Pikou, Liaoning Province

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.

Local fishing boats near Donggang
Shellfish collectors on the estuary at low tide... tough work.
Birding the mudflats at Dongdang.. Getting muddy is a requirement here....

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.

Dunlin, near Pikou, Liaoning Province

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.

Pacific Golden Plovers

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!).

Saunders Gull with North Korea in the background...
Great Egret near Dandong, Liaoning Province

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.

Far Eastern Curlews

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.

Long-toed Stint

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!