Bustards at dawn

The highlight of a few hours at Wild Duck Lake this morning was a sighting of four Great Bustards, the world’s heaviest flying bird.  I captured this image of two of the group flying into the rising sun at about 0745.

Great Bustards, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012. If you squint, you can see one of the towers of the Great Wall on the far ridge...!

It was a bitter -12 at dawn with a light to moderate westerly wind making it feel even colder.  I counted over 350 Common Cranes roosting on the ice and, when they flew, most had retracted legs, making their appearance not unlike a large goose or a bustard.  The big surprise was that I didn’t see a single goose of any description all day.  Where have the Bean Geese gone?

The freezing temperatures and wind had created some unusual ice sculptures on the reservoir…

Ice sculpted by the wind at Wild Duck Lake
Another ice sculpture.. crazy shapes!

A few Whooper Swans were roaming around in between periods lazing on the ice.   This group looks like a family flock – 2 adults and 2 young birds.

Whooper Swans at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012

A Chinese Grey Shrike sat on a post overlooking a large reedbed and called constantly for about 2-3 minutes.  You can hear it here:

Chinese Grey Shrike, WDL, 21 Jan 2012

Full species list:

 

Common Pheasant – 6
Whooper Swan – 18
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Mallard – 35
Kestrel – 1
Hen Harrier – 3 (1 imm male and 2 ‘ringtails’)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 (adult male)
Goshawk – 1
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 4
Common Crane – 355
Collared Dove – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Common Magpie – 34
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 1
Eurasian Skylark – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Siberian Accentor – 1
Pine Bunting – 2
Pallas’s Bunting – 40+

 

Wild Duck Lake with Phil and Jesper, 25 November 2011

In between leading tours to see Giant Panda in the wild in China (successful) and Tiger in India (fingers crossed), Sweden-based Phil Benstead dropped in on Beijing.  Phil is a good friend from my time in Copenhagen: we hooked up for a few birding trips in 2009 and 2010, including around Phil’s local patch in Båstad Kommune, Falsterbo in Skåne and the island of Oland.

Phil arrived on Thursday with the Townshend household in something of a crisis.  We were supposed to be cooking a turkey for 9, including two American friends, for Thanksgiving and Libby, who had planned to take the afternoon off work to prepare, was stuck at work…  I was frantically looking on the internet, in between work conference calls to London – to discover precisely how long a 9kg turkey – at that time defrosting in the laundry room – would take to cook….  Phil stepped in magnificently and, after peeling and chopping I don’t know how many potatoes, carrots and green beans, he had certainly earned his supper by the time guests arrived for the 7pm start…  And boy was that turkey good…  (after months of Chinese food, you can’t imagine how good a roast turkey with all the trimmings tasted…!).

After following this blog since I moved to China, Phil wanted to visit my regular patch at Wild Duck Lake and so I had hired a car and we had arranged to leave at 0530 the following morning (tough after a post-midnight dinner party).  We picked up Jesper Hornskov at 0600 and, after some all-too-common traffic issues on the G6 Badaling Expressway (broken down lorries), we arrived at Ma Chang around 0745, around 30 minutes after first light.

The first thing that struck me was that the reservoir was almost completely frozen over.  The weather had turned cold mid-week and it had taken just a couple of cold nights for the water to freeze.  After giving it some time at the spit by the yurts, we checked the island to the north of the ‘desert’ area, lucking in on 2 Daurian Partridges (my first of the winter) on the way, and enjoyed a flock of several hundred Ruddy Shelduck and a rather late Ferruginous Duck.  A couple of inquisitive Chinese Hill Warblers was a bonus.  A very showy Baikal Teal looked a bit lost walking on the ice in a frozen dyke and we enjoyed a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes hunting over the grassland.  After combing the area for larks – we counted a few Eurasian Skylark and up to 12 Asian Short-toed Larks  plus a bonus Japanese Reed Bunting – we made our way to Yeyahu.  Officially, Yeyahu closed last week but we were able to use the ‘secret entrance’ to gain entry and it was here that we heard (but sadly for Phil didn’t see) a Chinese Penduline Tit,  a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Great Egret.  However, the most exciting sighting of the day was a very uniformly dark medium-sized bittern that flew from the west to east end of the lake.  It was clearly smaller than Eurasian Bittern but larger than Yellow Bittern.  Initially against the light it looked uniformly very dark with longish legs and big feet.  As it flew into better light, it still looked uniformly very dark..  Phil managed to view it through his telescope and saw a pale line below and behind the eye, beginning at the base of the bill…  There were some pale fringes to the wing coverts, indicating a first winter bird.  It dropped in to a reedbed on the far side of the lake and we hurried over to see if we could see it again..  what could it be?  Little Green Heron (Striated) and Black Bittern (a bird that I have never seen) entered our minds..  Jesper didn’t think it looked right for Little Green Heron – the jizz and colour were wrong and the leg length – with clearly protruding legs – wasn’t right for Little Green.  Could it really be a Black Bittern in Beijing in late November??  That would be a very strange record.  Unfortunately, despite spending some time near to where it went down, we did not see it again.

Edit: After looking at many images on the internet, including Oriental Bird Images, Jesper’s view is that it could only have been a Black Bittern.

After seeing a Common Kingfisher literally die in front of our eyes on the ice at the edge of the lake (it was heartbreaking), we walked down to ‘eagle field’ and, on the way, enjoyed my best ever views of Pine Bunting (two birds) and watched a young Upland Buzzard soaring.  Most pleasing were two Great Bustards flying west along the reservoir.

Several decapitated Common Pheasants were a clear sign of a large predator.. possibly Goshawk but more likely an Eagle Owl…  it’s the same area where I saw an Eagle Owl last winter.

We made our way back to the car and, with Naumann’s Thrush the last bird of the day, we headed back to Beijing for dinner with Jesper and his wife, Aiqin.

Saturday morning I visited the Botanical Gardens with Phil and Nick (a friend and non-birder), where Phil scored a few new birds – Chinese Grosbeak, Pere David’s Laughingthrush and Chinese Nuthatch – before he had to make his way to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi.

It was a great couple of days and we saw some good birds.  Phil was a big hit with our friends – as illustrated by the number of offers he had for accommodation in Beijing when he returns next year to lead a similar panda trip in October – and we wish him all the best for the forthcoming trip to India for tigers..  we can’t wait to hear how he gets on.
Full species list for Wild Duck Lake below:

 

Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR 0745-1600.

 

Temp -5 at 0745 increasing to +2 or +3 by early afternoon; very light N wind increasing to force 2-3 by midday; visibility 2-3km.
Reservoir almost completely frozen with just a few small patches of open water.  Yeyahu completely frozen.

 

Highlights: 1 juv/first winter BLACK BITTERN; 2 Great Bustards, Upland Buzzard, 2 Daurian Partridges, 550+ Bean Geese, 200+ Common Cranes, Japanese Reed Bunting

 

Full species list:

 

Daurian Partridge – 2 at Ma Chang
Common Pheasant – 25
Bean Goose – at least 870, probably more.  Most in flight along the north edge of the reservoir with some on the ice itself
Whooper Swan – 42 on the ice, swimming on the open patches of water and in flight
Ruddy Shelduck – 550 at least, mostly on the ice and on the northern side of the reservoir
Eurasian Wigeon – 3
Mallard – 850
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 12
Baikal Teal – 4-5 seen, including one drake incredibly well in a frozen dyke; probably many more in the distant tight flocks of duck on the patches of open water
Ferruginous Duck – 1 seen from the island north of Ma Chang, possibly with injured wing
Common Goldeneye – 3 seen from Ma Chang but probably many more
Smew – 5-6 seen but probably many more
Goosander – 40 seen
Great Bittern – 3 seen well, including one walking on the open ice
BLACK BITTERN – one juvenile/first winter seen in flight through binoculars for around 30 seconds over the lake at Yeyahu at around 150-200m range.  Initially seen against the light but gradually into better light, this bird was clearly larger than Yellow Bittern but smaller than Great Bittern and uniformly very dark.  Phil managed to see it through the telescope and saw a pale line starting at the base of the bill running back below and behind the eye; streaking below not seen.  Legs were relatively long with large feet.  Slight pale margins seen on the wing coverts, indicating a first winter.  Little Green Heron ruled out on size, colour and leg length; Cinnamon Bittern ruled out on colour and size.
Grey Heron – 1
Great Egret – 1
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1 at Ma Chang
Hen Harrier – 3 (two ‘ringtails’ and one imm male)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 1 (Phil only)
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 2 in flight from ‘eagle field’ heading west
Common Crane – 200+
Large White-headed Gull sp – 1 seen by Phil at Ma Chang
Black-headed Gull – 3 at Yeyahu
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Eurasian Collared Dove – 31
Common Kingfisher – 1.  Seen sitting forlornly on the edge of the ice at the base of some reeds.  After a few minutes, its head dropped onto the ice and, after a brief flapping of its wings, it sat motionless and appeared to die – an early victim of the winter.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Rook – 8
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 1
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 3
Chinese Penduline Tit  – 1 (heard only)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 13 at Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark – 6
Chinese Hill Warbler – 4, including 2 on the island north of Ma Chang
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
Naumann’s Thrush – 1 ssp naumanni at Yeyahu
Tree Sparrow – many
Pine Bunting – 4, including 2 showing exceptionally well at Yeyahu
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 30+
Japanese Reed Bunting – 1 at Ma Chang.  Flushed from short grass 2-3 times and seen only in flight.  (Very bad) photo attached.
Japanese Reed Bunting, Ma Chang, 25 November 2011: wildlife photograph of the year?
Chinese Grey Shrike hunting at Ma Chang, 25 November 2011

Wild Duck Lake, 6 November 2011

Apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks – work has been rather all-consuming!  To be honest, it’s not been so bad to be indoors  –  a persistent high pressure system, combined with very slack winds, have seen a blanket of smog covering Beijing with poor visibility and, at times, appalling air quality.  The US Embassy ‘twitter feed’ is updated hourly and rates the pollution levels of PM2.5 (a particulate pollutant) and ozone.
This is the US Environment Protection Agency’s definition of PM2.5:
“Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.
Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.
Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.”
Sounds nice, eh?
There is a scale of descriptors ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous”.  Last week saw several days with the pollution at “hazardous” levels.  I am not exactly sure what “hazardous” means but at these levels, you can taste and smell the pollution when you step outside.  Not pleasant.
Of course, the Chinese media describes the smog as “fog” and on one dark day last week, it was laughable that the media was saying that there were “boundless blue skies over Beijing”…  Of course….
Fortunately, this smoggy period seems to be breaking now and on Sunday I visited Ma Chang/Wild Duck Lake with Libby and a couple of UK friends John and Sarah Gallagher.  They have been keen to accompany me on one of my birding trips for some time and so, with a window of decent weather and visibility, we grabbed the chance before the winter sets in.  We enjoyed a very good day.
The visibility was above average and, when the cloud broke in the afternoon, it turned into a gorgeous late autumn day….
0645-1530, 6 November 2011.
Cloud 8/8 and 5 degrees C at 0640 with very light north-easterly wind.  13 degrees C, cloud 3/8 and light north-easterly at 1500.  Visibility above average all day.
The highlight was my first Great Bustard in China (a flyover), 2 Black Storks, 6 White-naped Cranes, 58 Common CranesUpland Buzzard, 2 Short-eared Owls, 2Common Starlings.
Full species list (52 in total):
Common Pheasant 12
Bean Goose 115
Whooper Swan 1
Gadwall 5
Falcated Duck 4
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Mallard 48
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 10
Northern Pintail 42
Eurasian Teal 25
Tufted Duck 8
Common Goldeneye 2
Smew 10
Goosander 12
Little Grebe 23
Great Crested Grebe 8
Black-necked Grebe 2
Black Stork 2 (high west @ 1455)
Eurasian Bittern 1
Grey Heron 3
Eurasian Kestrel 2
Peregrine 2
Hen Harrier 4 (1 adult male, 1 immature male, and 2 females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1
Great Bustard 1 in flight (flew west over Ma Chang @ 0910)
Common Coot 4
White-naped Crane 6
Common Crane 58, including 2 groups arriving from the mountains to the north (9 @1445 and 35 @1440)
Mongolian Gull 2
Black-headed Gull 68
Eurasian Collared Dove 14
Short-eared Owl 2
Common Kingfisher 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 5
Azure-winged Magpie 1
Common Magpie lots
Carrion Crow 11
Great Tit 2
Asian Short-toed Lark 12
Eurasian Skylark 7
Chinese Bulbul 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill 100+ in a single flock
Common Starling 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow lots
Buff-bellied Pipit 3
Pine Bunting 2
Little Bunting 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting 23

Finally, we enjoyed excellent views of this yellow butterfly, the only butterfly we saw. It was a little sluggish, allowing close photography, in contrast to the many times when I have tried to photograph this species in the spring/summer..  I am not sure what the specific species is but it’s pretty common in the area. EDIT: Thanks to John Furse for identifying the butterfly as a Clouded Yellow.

Yellow butterfly sp, Yeyahu, 6 November 2011
Close up... I love those eyes!

Another looker..

Now I know many people in the UK have had their fill of Red-flanked Bluetails in the last few months, with the unprecedented influx last autumn. But I bet none of them looked like this…!

Red-flanked Bluetail - smart, eh?

RFBs are beginning to arrive in the Beijing area now and the adult males are absolute stunners. Forgive me for posting a few more images….

STOP PRESS: Jesper Hornskov just sent me a SMS to say he has just seen a GREAT BUSTARD flying over the Summer Palace.. A great record. Spring is here.. let the big migration commence…

A newly arrived RFB
Note the white brow (which the Himalayan form lacks)