Seeing Double

On Friday I visited Ma Chang with Global Times journalist Jiang Yuxia (writing an article about birding in Beijing) and Jennifer Leung.  After a few days of cold and windy weather, the forecast was for a change in the wind from a cold northerly to a light southerly and for temperatures to soar from the recent chilly highs of 10-12 degrees Celsius to over 20 degrees C.

After a 0500 start we reached Ma Chang at around 0630.  It was a stunning morning with good visibility, clear skies and almost no wind, disguising the -2 early morning temperature.  Along the entrance track we encountered Jesper Hornskov with a couple of clients.  They were watching a party of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the buds of some large trees – a nice start to the day.  At Ma Chang, as expected at this time of year, we soon spotted a group of ORIENTAL PLOVERS and a count revealed over 60 birds present – a fantastic total.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.  The flock now exceeds 60 birds.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang. Getting bored of these yet??  The flock now exceeds 60 birds.

We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.

Yuxia speaks to the local fishermen about life at Ma Chang...
Yuxia speaks to the local fishermen about life at Ma Chang…

A few Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, with the odd White Wagtail, flew overhead and a couple of tightly packed flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks wheeled around the remnants of last year’s maize stubble.  A Black (eared) Kite lumbered past and two female Eastern Marsh Harriers caused havoc among the flocks of Eurasian Teal.

With not much happening we decided to move on and, after a short stop at a flooded field to admire two stunning BAIKAL TEAL, we headed to the ‘island’ to the north of the desert area to look for duck…  Jesper and his clients were already in situ and, although quite distant, it was clear that there were lots of duck present.  Two relatively close (but distant to photograph!) Red-breasted Mergansers represented bird species number 299 for me in Beijing… result!

Red-breasted Mergansers, Ma Chang.  A scarce bird in the capital.
Red-breasted Mergansers, Ma Chang. A scarce bird in the capital.  Looks as if this pair has had a quarrel…

With the duck distant, I knew that moving to the location from where I had seen the Baer’s Pochard last Sunday would again be a good vantage point.  We headed to the spot and, sure enough, we were treated to stunning views of a large mixed raft of duck with the sun behind us and no wind…  perfect, and very unusual, conditions at Wild Duck Lake.

We quickly found a drake BAER’S and, almost immediately, spotted another drake.  There were two!

The two BAER'S POCHARDS at Ma Chang on Friday
The two BAER’S POCHARDS at Ma Chang on Friday.  With Ferruginous Duck, Gadwall and Common Pochard.

As on Sunday with the single drake, the two Baer’s were consorting with Ferruginous Duck and both were seen displaying…  fabulous!  It was from here that we also enjoyed some stunning views of Falcated Duck (including one very unusually marked male which sported a yellow mark on its lower cheek), Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Smew, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Coot and Little and Great Crested Grebes.  It was a great morning’s birding!

The gang at Ma Chang after seeing the two Baer's Pochards...
The gang at Ma Chang after seeing the two Baer’s Pochards…

A short time later, a couple of Black Kites appeared and, as our eyes began to be distracted from the duck to the skies, it wasn’t long before I spotted an aquila eagle some distance away…  My instinct was that it was probably a Greater Spotted Eagle, the most common aquila eagle at this site at this time of year.  However, as it soared, Jesper immediately suspected it was an IMPERIAL EAGLE… and he was right!

It circled distantly and was soon joined by a second, but smaller, eagle..  This second bird had a notably square tail, pale markings on the upperwing coverts and mantle and, as it turned, it was even possible to glimpse the ‘landing lights’…  wow.. A BOOTED EAGLE!  Two very good eagle records for Beijing in the same scope view!

Both appeared to drift away and were lost from view without allowing me to capture any photographic record.  However, fortunately, the Imperial soon re-appeared, this time closer, and I grabbed the camera to capture a few record images before it drifted into the mountains to the north.  The bulging secondaries, typical of immature Imperial Eagle, can be seen very well, as well as the pale markings on the under- and upperwing.  The ‘jizz’ was slightly different to Greater Spotted, too.  A useful lesson for me (I have only ever seen one Eastern Imperial Eagle before).

Immature Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ma Chang.
Immature Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ma Chang.
Imperial Eagle (upperparts).
Eastern Imperial Eagle (upperparts).

Unfortunately the BOOTED EAGLE didn’t return but maybe it will linger in the area.. it’s a fabulous Beijing record with only a handful of previous sightings in eastern China.  It also represented my 300th species in Beijing [NB Stop Press: Booted Eagle seen at Miyun Reservoir on Saturday by Jan-Erik Nilsen – the same bird?]  It’s hard for me to see new birds in the capital now, so to see two new species in one day was pretty special..

The infamous NW Wild Duck Lake wind suddenly got up at around 1130 and Jesper and his clients decided to head off to check Yeyahu NR.  We decided to stay and enjoy the Baer’s Pochards a little longer.  We gave it another hour or so before calling it a day and heading back to Beijing..  another cracking day at this world class site.

Full Species List (71 species):

Common Pheasant – 2
Swan Goose – 14
Bean Goose – 12
Ruddy Shelduck – 36
Gadwall – 30
Falcated Duck – 100+
Eurasian Wigeon – 10
Mallard – 32
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Shoveler – 12
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 2
Eurasian Teal – 87
Common Pochard – 78
Baer’s Pochard – 2 drakes
Ferruginous Duck – 18
Tufted Duck – 15
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 20
Goosander – 2
Red-breasted Merganser – 2
Little Grebe – 13
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 2
Grey Heron – 8
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant -
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Osprey – 3
Black-eared Kite – 3
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
(Common) Eastern Buzzard – 2
Eastern Imperial Eagle – 1 immature
Booted Eagle – 1
Coot – 39
Common Crane – 70+
Black-winged Stilt – 14
Grey-headed Lapwing – 3
Northern Lapwing – 48
Little Ringed Plover – 18
Kentish Plover – 35
Oriental Plover – 62
Common Gull – 4
Mongolian Gull – 7
Black-headed Gull – 27
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Collared Dove – 2
Fork-tailed Swift – 3
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 10
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 2
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – c85
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 2
Bohemian Waxwing – 11
Barn Swallow – 3
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Greater Short-toed Lark – 110
Asian Short-toed Lark – 2
Eurasian Skylark – 2
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 12 (11 leucopsis, 2 ocularis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 18
Water Pipit – 6
Pallas’s Bunting – 12

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Another trip to Wild Duck Lake gave rewards but not in the way we had expected!  A big target bird was Baer’s Pochard, a rare duck that breeds in NE China and the S Russian Far East and winters in south-eastern China. They *must* pass through Wild Duck Lake in Spring, we think.. it’s just a case of finding one! With conflicting forecasts, we had gambled on the wind being slack and, on arrival at Yanqing at 0715, it seemed the gamble had paid off. Hardly a breath of wind and a glorious sunny day.  However, when we arrived at Ma Chang 20 minutes later, we could see the wind turbines rattling around at a fair pace and, as soon as we got out of the car, we were stood facing into a moderate to strong north-westerly – exactly the direction in which we needed to look to see the wildfowl.

Wind can be a real downer at this very open site – apart from the fact that it can be uncomfortable (and very cold) with icy winds from Siberia and Mongolia whipping into your face, it makes viewing the birds that much more difficult, especially using a lightweight tripod and telescope.  To add to this, the wildfowl were all keeping their heads low at the relatively sheltered far side of the lake, and amongst the reeds, making viewing very difficult indeed on the choppy water.

Still, we persevered, and reached some reasonable counts of Common Crane (c200), Swan Goose (c100), Bean Goose (c250), c450 Ruddy Shelduck, c150 each of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, c350 Smew and a nice flock of 8 White-naped Cranes feeding nearby in a field.  But there was no sign of the first Garganey of spring or the rare Baer’s Pochard.  Never mind.  Not this time.

We began the walk to Yeyahu, with the wind on our backs, and enjoyed sightings of 3 Hen Harriers (two ringtails and a beautiful adult male), 2 Kentish Plovers, a single Eurasian Curlew (first of the year), a Grey-headed Lapwing, 100s of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and 100s of Eurasian Skylarks with a few Asian Short-toed Larks mixed in (no Mongolian this time).  As we reached Yeyahu, the wind suddenly seemed to drop and, almost immediately, we began to see a few raptors – first another Hen Harrier, then an Upland Buzzard, then a second Upland.  At this point we had reached the long line of trees that runs south to north from Yeyahu lake to the reservoir.  Here, we usually split up with one of us doing the east side, the other the west.  I took the east side and, by the time I had reached almost half way down, I had seen only single Meadow and Little Buntings plus a few Tree Sparrows.  Then I heard some corvids calling overhead and I looked up to see a flock of around 20 Carrion Crows very high up in the sky flying south..  they deviated slightly to intercept a much larger bird gliding east… it had to be an eagle!  I could immediately see it was large and, after quickly narrowing down the possibilities in my head to Great Spotted/Imperial or Steppe, I called Spike to get him onto the bird.  As I was speaking to him, it began to head north towards the mountains and I quickly gave Spike directions before focusing the telescope on it as it drifted away.  In the strong light, the only colouration I could make out was that it looked mostly dark with paler undertail coverts.  I counted 7 ‘fingers’ on its broad and long wings before it became just a ‘dark bird of prey’ at distance.  Frustratingly, I didn’t get enough detail to confirm the identification. I made my way north towards the viewing tower that is well-situated on the south-eastern end of the reservoir in the hope that it might reappear.

Spike joined me there, unfortunately having not seen the bird.  We took the opportunity to take lunch and waited, scanning the skies.  It’s quite usual for large birds of prey to turn up in this area and often, with a little patience, they return.  So we were hopeful.  Then, about half an hour later, I got on to a large bird of prey heading our way.  Large eagle.  This time Spike saw it and we both enjoyed views through the telescope.  We began to note the features.  Great Spotted Eagle was probably the most likely species but it didn’t ‘feel’ like one.  This bird had long, broad wings, black primary tips and a dark trailing edge to the wings, but with a paler panel on the inner primaries that reached the tip.  The underwing coverts looked paler and the body was mottled.  The head appeared dark from underneath but looked slightly paler from above.  The tail was relatively long and almost two-toned.  It glided on slightly bowed wings.  It was clearly not an adult of any of the candidate species and immatures can be very variable. Neither of us had much experience with large eagles, so we decided to take as many notes as possible and also try to grab a few photographs.  The bird stayed quite distant, so photographing it was not easy but I was able to capture a few images which, after being heavily cropped, show some of the distinctive features.

On arriving home and looking at the literature, we both independently suspected it was an immature Eastern Imperial Eagle and this was also the view of Jesper Hornskov, to whom I had sent the photographs and description.  I have never seen Eastern Imperial Eagle before and it’s quite a scarce bird in the Beijing area, so we were pretty pleased with the record.  The images are below.

 

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China