Brown Accentor

Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013
Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013

BROWN ACCENTOR (Prunella fulvescens) is a bird that I have been optimistically looking out for all winter… checking all those Siberian Accentors is a tough job but someone has to do it, right? By rights, Brown Accentors shouldn’t be in Beijing.  They breed to the north-west and only the occasional straggler makes it to the capital and is seen.  I am aware of only one record, at Shidu, a few winters ago and I don’t know any details such as date or precise location.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw a report from Beijing-based birder Zhang Shen about a BROWN ACCENTOR at Mentougou, the mountainous district to the west of Beijing.  After contacting him, Shen kindly provided some detailed directions and the next day I was on my way…

The mountains to the west of Beijing, on a clear day, are simply stunning.  And there are some good roads that help to get you into the heart of this territory where some of the special mountain birds can be seen.  We arrived on site at around 0900 after a 2.5 hr drive from central Beijing and it was immediately obvious that we would have a good day.  A Cinereous Vulture soaring overhead and landing on a rocky outcrop was a great start.  And soon after we were enjoying views of 4 Golden Eagles soaring together, with one even displaying as Red-billed Choughs called and wheeled around the peaks.  We reached the Beijing/Hebei border and parked up.  A narrow paved road winds to the north, following the Yong Ting River and it was along here that we were told the Brown Accentor had been seen.

The habitat in Mentougou District.  Stunning scenery.
The habitat in Mentougou District. Stunning scenery.

A couple of false alarms with Siberian Accentors sharpened us up and, before long, we came across a small flock of Godlewski’s Buntings feeding alongside the track.  Checking them carefully, we spotted a couple of Meadow Buntings amongst them and then, suddenly, Jennifer said “ACCENTOR”… No sooner as she had said that, the bird in question dropped behind a boulder and it was an agonising few seconds before it revealed itself again and showed that it was indeed the BROWN ACCENTOR we had hoped for.  We watched it for a good 20-30 minutes as it fed around a group of rocks at the base of a cliff-face, in typical accentor style, creeping along the ground with short hops.

Unfortunately for Beijing ‘listers’ this bird seems to prefer an area of rocks just 500 metres over the border into Hebei Province..  maybe some Beijing birders will put down a trail of birdseed luring it over the border….!

Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre

A few weeks ago, after delivering a lecture at Beijing Birdwatching Society, I met one of the volunteers “Zhang Crane” from the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre.  She invited me to visit and, a few days later, I made the short journey across town with Jennifer Leung to take a look.

We were immediately impressed.  The facilities were very modern, the staff clearly committed and passionate about birds and the ‘patients’ in their care were looking well.

A selection of leather hoods used by the centre
A selection of leather hoods and gloves used by the centre

The Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre was set up in 2001 and, since then, it has treated 3,500 birds of 33 species.  Of those, 52% have been released back into the wild (this figure is increasing over time as treatment becomes more advanced).  Most have been picked up in the suburbs of Beijing; young birds, recently fledged, victims of illegal nets and birds found for sale in the bird markets of Beijing form the bulk of the patients.

We were shown around by Tong Guo Liang (English name Gavin Tang), one of the 4 full-time staff who, together with a host of volunteers, run the centre 365/24/7.  He told us about the case of a Eurasian Kestrel, currently in care, that was brought in with a broken wing.  After an operation to implant a pin, painstaking care and strength-building activities in an outside aviary, the staff were confident this bird would be released back into the wild..  a heartwarming case.

We were given a tour of the facilities and shown some of the other patients.  A female Amur Falcon and a Eurasian Hobby looked a bit out of place on a chilly winter day but were clearly doing well.  Others included a Long-eared Owl, Peregrine, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Japanese and Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a magnificent Golden Eagle.  Each cage had a board on the door indicating the species and the amount of food it required each day…

This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.
This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.

The Golden Eagle had been brought in by a Beijinger who had been travelling back by car from Inner Mongolia.  He had seen a local guy selling the eagle by the side of the road.  Heartbroken to see this magnificent raptor in such a state, he bought it, thinking that he would simply release it in a suitable area.  After a failed attempt to release it – the bird couldn’t fly – he took it to the raptor rescue centre on his return to Beijing.  Examination revealed that it had a hole in one of its wings and infected feet.   It took three attempts to heal the hole in the wing but now, after 6 months at the centre, it seems to be improving and the chances of it being released back into the wild were given as 50/50.

The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia
The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia

The centre is part-funded by IFAW – the International Fund for Animal Welfare – and is based at Beijing Normal University in the northwest of the city.  They welcome visitors, and of course, donations!

Ibisbills

On Saturday I accompanied Jesper Hornskov, visiting Swede Anders Magnusson and American birder, Gina Sheridan, on a trip to see the Ibisbills north of Beijing at Huairou. It was something of a surprise when Canadian birder, Brian Elder, discovered these Ibisbills so close to Beijing in June 2002 and this well-known site has been on many a birder’s hit-list during visits to Beijing ever since. I had visited in September last year, shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and was lucky enough to see 3 birds on that occasion. But, with the heavy development, including a new main road, would they still be there??

As anyone who has been to this site recently will testify, on arrival it really does not look very promising with a relatively narrow river, lots of gravel extraction, areas of rubbish littering the river bank and now a wooden walkway built alongside.

On Saturday we left Beijing at 0600 for the 90-minute journey to arrive on site shortly after dawn. We began, in temperatures of around -10 and with a windchill of well below that, by scanning from the road bridge where we were lucky enough to see some Goosander, Smew, Mallard, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Blue Hill Pigeons and a good selection of buntings in the roadside scrub – Godlewski’s (Eastern Rock), Little, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed. We decided to walk the northern stretch of the river first, as this would be hit by the sun earlier thus helping to minimise the effects of the cold which seemed to be exacerbated by the moisture coming off the river and freezing in the air, making our faces sting. Along the path we encountered first one, then two, Crested Kingfishers and a flock of at least 60 Vinous-throated Parrotbills. A few more Goosander, Smew, Mallard, a pair of Grey-capped Woodpeckers and a young Golden Eagle kept our interest but there was no sign of any Ibisbills. The walk back to the bridge produced an educational second calendar year Black-throated Thrush (with the faintest of streaking on the upper breast), Siberian Accentor and more Godlewski’s, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed Buntings.

After a very welcome break for coffee and chocolate, during which time we picked up Common Buzzard, Naumann’s Thrush, Hawfinch (2), Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Hill Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie and Large-billed Crow, we worked our way south. We reached a usually reliable site for the Ibisbills some way down the road – an area of piled up bricks and stones with good views over the river but there was still no sign. We decided to give it some time here to see if they would fly past or call and it was after only a few minutes that Jesper picked up a brief muffled call that he was convinced was Ibisbill. Of course, Jesper being Jesper, he was right! Soon after we had fantastic views as one, two, then three Ibisbills flew past us, calling as they did so. Stunning views in great light. Wow. Anders and Gina were ecstatic – a new life bird for them and one that has almost mythical status among many birders. After watching them on the ground for several minutes, including studying their feeding technique (the Ibisbills that is, not Anders and Gina), we reluctantly tore ourselves away to explore the area to the south, half-hoping for a Rosefinch or an Alpine Accentor. We didn’t see either of those but we did enjoy 3 more sightings of Golden Eagle (including a pair of adults), Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Bunting, Northern Goshawk, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Tit and Great Tit. As we took a path over a low pass in the surrounding hills and moved from shadow to sun, the climate changed dramatically and instead of looking like members of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, we were suddenly transformed into Beach Boys extras in (almost) shorts and t-shirts for the remainder of the walk down to the road to meet our lift home. One could almost believe that Spring was around the corner. The stunning hill scenery was a great backdrop to a top day’s birding and, with views of the Great Wall on the journey home plus a short stop to observe a small flock of Crested Mynas, the interest was carried through until we reached Beijing.

With my camera temporarily out of service, I was worried about just going birding with ‘just my bins and scope’ but, although I undoubtedly missed a fantastic opportunity to capture some great Ibisbill images, the simplicity of ‘just birding’ was a refreshing change…