Jingshan Park

Just north of the Forbidden City lies a very popular park with an artificial hill (sometimes known as Coal Hill). The hill was constructed in the Ming Dynasty entirely from soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals. Why was it built? According to the dictates of Feng Shui, it is favourable to site a residence to the south of a nearby hill (and it is also practical, gaining protection from chilly northern winds). The imperial palaces in the other capitals of previous dynasties were situated to the south of a hill. When the capital was moved to Beijing, no such hill existed north of the Forbidden City, so one was constructed. Typical China!

The hill is especially impressive when one considers that all of this material was moved only by manual labour and animal power. Apparently, in 1644, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself here…

Anyway, on that cheery note, about the birds. Earlier this week I received a tip-off that there was a ‘very large’ flock of Waxwings present. So on Friday morning I spent an hour there. As usual in any Chinese public park, there were lots of people – shouting, singing, dancing, exercising, doing Tai Chi, running backwards, playing musical instruments and playing “keepy-uppy” with a sort of large shuttlecock. After wandering around the perimeter I stumbled across the Waxwing flock feeding on junipers and regularly going down to drink from a leaky hosepipe. Given the hosepipes were spraying water everywhere, there was, unusually, a small area without people. I risked a drenching to get a closer look and it soon became apparent that there were at least 50 Waxwings in the group, including some Japanese. Twice a Sparrowhawk wreaked havoc by appearing out of nowhere in its attempts to catch one (unsuccessfully) and each time this happened, the whole flock took to the air, where it became apparent that my estimate was most definitely an underestimate! In the air, I guessed at around 250 birds. Soon they returned and I enjoyed good views as these very vocal birds began to feed again.

The water also attracted other birds in the park including a nice Dusky Thrush, several Naumann’s Thrushes and a Red-throated Thrush as well as Oriental Greenfinches and a couple of Large-billed Crows. A pleasant, if slightly wet, hour…

I quite like this 'arty' image of waxwings in formation...

Two Bohemian Waxwings in 'bomber formation'

Japanese Waxwing, Jingshan Park, 8 April 2011

One of the charismatic and curious Large-billed Crows in Jingshan Park


Gulls… They say that, as a birder, you either love them or hate them. Well, I am definitely in the ‘love’ category, even though I find the large white-headed gull complex an identification challenge.

Living in Beijing, a very dry and land-locked metropolis, sightings of any gulls near to home are few and far between. So the opportunity to visit Choshi, just east of Tokyo, was too good to miss.

This port, situated on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, is home to hundreds of fishing boats and I saw huge catches of yellow-fin tuna, mackerel, sardines and some larger species, including what looked like swordfish. The sheer quantity of fish, and its associated waste and by-catch, means that there is plenty of food for gulls and, during winter, they are attracted here in their thousands. The most common gull by far is the Black-tailed Gull, an east Asian endemic, closely followed by Vega (a Herring Gull lookalike) and Black-headed Gulls (ssp sibiricus). Among these are reasonable numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls with a few Glaucous-winged, Glaucous, Common (ssp kamtschatschensis) and the odd Mongolian Gull (Larus cachinnans mongolicus) mixed in. During my visit I also saw a Ring-billed Gull (the first Japanese record of this American species was as recent as 2002).

Access is easy and free – I had no problem at all walking around with binoculars and a camera and the great thing for photography is that you are generally looking north from the harbour towards the water, meaning that the winter sun is mostly with you.

If you are interested in gulls, this is as close to heaven as it gets. However, Choshi is not just about gulls – many more sought after species can be seen well here. The local Black Kites (ssp lineatus or ‘Black-eared Kite’) also enjoy the bounty provided by the fishing boats and there are good numbers of Temminck’s and Pelagic Cormorants plus Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes just offshore. A single Harlequin Duck near the lighthouse at Cape Inubo was a nice addition to my visit and Dusky Thrushes were common in suitable habitat. Around Cape Inubo there were also Blue Rock Thrushes, Japanese White-eyes, Bull-headed Shrikes and a single Brown Thrush.

I will follow this general post with some detailed posts about specific species but, in the meantime, I am posting a selection of images to give you a feel for the place.

Getting there: Choshi is within easy reach from Tokyo and Narita airport and a day-trip from either is very doable. Catch any train from Narita Airport to Narita and change for the hourly local service to Choshi, which takes around 90 minutes (cost cGBP10). The staff at the airport are incredibly helpful and will point you in the right direction and give you advice on purchasing a ticket. Once at Choshi, it is a 5-10 mins walk to the north to reach the river Tome, from where you can walk east along the whole length of the harbour for 3-4 km (the whole stretch is good for gulls). Further along the coast to the south-east lies a famous lighthouse at Cap Inubo. It would probably take 2-3 hours to walk to this point from the station, so a taxi is a good option if you want to explore this area (but beware, taxis in Japan are expensive – it cost me almost GBP 20 pounds for the 10-minute journey from Choshi town centre to the lighthouse). I found only one hotel in Choshi where the staff spoke any english – the Choshi Plaza (half way from the station to the river on the right hand side) – which, at GBP50 per night, is reasonable value in Japan.

Best areas: there are boats all along the harbour wall running from just east of the Tome bridge to the sea, with three fish markets interspersed. The best area for viewing gulls depends on the activity in the harbour and which boats are offloading their catch but, about half-way along, there are a couple of good areas of sea wall parallel to the road which are good places to scan – hundreds of gulls rest here and there are good numbers all day.

A sardine boat returning to Choshi port after a night on the seas

Fishermen warming themselves around a fire at Choshi port

Yellow-fin Tuna on sale, most of which will be destined for Tokyo sushi

A fresh catch of sardines, Choshi

Adult Black-tailed Gull, Choshi, Japan

Adult Vega Gull, Choshi, Japan

Slaty-backed Gull, Choshi, Japan.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

First winter Glaucous Gull, Choshi, Japan. Note the dark-tipped pale bill

Black-headed Gull ssp sibiricus

Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis

Black-eared Kites are common scavengers around the port

Dusky Thrushes are common at Choshi in suitable habitat

Pelagic Cormorants are fairly common at Choshi

Hundreds of Temminck's and Great Cormorants can be seen along the sea wall at Choshi. This one is a Great.

Black-necked Grebes are common winter visitors to Choshi

Botanical Gardens

This morning, despite the freezing temperatures, I donned my thermal underwear, thick socks, snow boots and parka for a foray into the Botanical Gardens and the ridge beyond. It was a gorgeous day, despite the -8 (ish) temperature, and I had a wonderful few hours. The journey there is best forgotten – taxi drivers in Beijing are variable at best and let’s just say that today, I had the misfortune to encounter a particularly clueless individual who not only took me the wrong way (twice) but also, at one point, stopped to have a cigarette – in the car – while I helplessly waited. One of the joys of Beijing.

Nevertheless, I arrived on site around 0730, not long after dawn, and I was soon enjoying very good views of thrushes – namely Dusky, Naumann’s, Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades, Red-throated, Black-throated and a wonderful presumed Red/Black-throated hybrid which exhibited a mixed red and black throat patch (mostly red upper-throat and black lower-throat). The birds were congregating at a small break in the ice to drink. The break had clearly been man-made, presumably by a bird-friendly soul, as the ice on the lakes was at least 3 inches thick.

After enjoying some close encounters, I decided to press on and up to the ridge in the hope of some buntings, laughingthrushes and accentors. On the way up I was a little surprised to see 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, somehow managing to eke out a living on the frozen banks of a stream and a group of 9 Chinese Grosbeaks was a delight to see. A party of 34 Chinese Bulbuls and a Chinese Nuthatch was the supporting cast as I followed the stream up to the hills. During a short refreshment break, a squirrel gave me a close encounter as it tried to find water, eventually managing to find a trickle under a boulder.

The last time I had walked up the ridge was in October, when the trees and shrubs were still largely in leaf, so today, with the trees almost bare, I enjoyed some very good views of normally tricky species to see – namely Chinese Hill Warbler and Pere David’s Laughingthrush. I saw at least 18 of the latter, many of which first attracted my attention by the sound of turning over dried leaves.. After the experience of Yunnan, where it was almost impossible to see any laughingthrushes despite hearing them all the time, this was a very welcome sight!

On the ridge itself, I stumbled across several groups of Siberian Accentor feeding on the edge of the track and a few posses of Yellow-bellied Tits rampaged through the evergreen shrubs. A single japonicus Common Buzzard proved to be 50 per cent of my raptor total for the day (the only other sighting being a male Sparrowhawk that caused havoc among the thrushes on the way down). Bramblings were constant companions and the odd Oriental Greenfinch called overhead.

On the journey down, I bumped into Jesper and his wife, Aiquin, enjoying a walk half-way up the ridge. After a short natter, I was back at the entrance gate and flagged down a taxi (luckily a competent driver) for the uneventful journey home. A thoroughly enjoyable morning..

A squirrel looking for water, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
The same squirrel doing its morning leg exercises
Laughingthrushes are much more cooperative when there are no leaves on the trees!
Red-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Black-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Siberian Accentor, one of many on the ridge above the Botanical Gardens

Yuanmingyuan Park

A brisk 2 hours at Yuanmingyuan Park (the Old Summer Palace) this morning in beautiful but cold weather produced a single Dusky Thrush, 5 Naumann’s Thrushes, 1 intergrade Dusky/Naumann’s, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk, a single Common Kingfisher, one Grey-headed Woodpecker, 8 White-cheeked Starlings, 14 Willow Tits, 2 Great Tits, 18 Bramblings, 12 Goldcrests and, best of all, 4 late Pallas’s Warblers.

Edit: thanks to Spike Millington and Jesper Hornskov, it seems that my ‘Williow Tits’ were more likely Marsh Tits! Even in the UK, I have never been confident about separating these two in the field, given the variability and capacity to mimic each other. Forever learning!

One of the late Pallas's Warblers at Yuanmingyuan Park

Japanese Waxwings

After a tip-off from Brian Jones and Jesper Hornskov, I spent two hours at the Botanical Gardens early this morning. My target was Japanese Waxwing, a small flock of which had been seen cohorting with a similar number of Bohemian Waxwings. On arrival at 0730 I could see and hear a flock of Waxwings just a few metres from the entrance gate. As I approached I could see at least 10 Chinese photographers lined up waiting for the birds to fly down from their lofty perch to feed on the ornamental berry bushes. There is a fast-growing middle class in China and they have money, lots of it. A few of them have taken up bird photography (it is more common to see a photographer than a birder) and, consequently, there are some serious lenses around. However, as with the cars (20,000 new ones on the streets of Beijing every week), most of the ‘drivers’ are new and have yet to do their apprenticeship…

So, as soon as a Waxwing dropped into one of the berry bushes, they all strode forward competing with each other to get the best shot and, without exception, flushed the birds back up to their treetop perch…! After a few attempts at feeding, the Waxwings clearly got the message and flew off to another part of the gardens. I decided to have a walk around and look for thrushes and it wasn’t long before I came across a hosepipe that had been set down to water some newly planted trees. Given the freezing overnight temperatures, this was the only running water around, and there were good numbers of birds coming down to drink.. Bramblings, Chinese Bulbuls, White-cheeked Starlings, Dusky and Naumann’s Thrushes, the odd Red- and Black-throated Thrush plus, to my delight, the Waxwings. I sat quietly for about half an hour and enjoyed excellent views before the troupe of Chinese photographers discovered the spot and, with the subtlety of a Sumo wrestler doing a pirouette, scared everything in sight! With the light deteriorating, I called it a day and was back in the flat and working by 1030.

Several of the thrushes looked like intergrades between Dusky and Naumann’s – see the last photo below for a good example.

The biggest Chinese twitch I have seen
Japanese Waxwing, one of at least 8 seen this morning
Japanese Waxwing (with Bramblings) - a very striking bird
White-cheeked Starlings
Naumann's Thrush
Naumann's Thrush
Dusky Thrush
Dusky/Naumann's intergrade - note the mixture of red and black markings on the underside