Guest Post 3: Brian Jones – The Magic of Yeyahu NR and Ma Chang (Wild Duck Lake)

The third in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is from Brian Jones. Brian was kind enough to take me on my first visit to Wild Duck Lake (covering the areas of Ma Chang and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) soon after I arrived in Beijing and his enthusiasm for the place, as well as the great birds, made it a fantastic introduction to birding in China. That enthusiasm was infectious and I have since made regular visits to what is surely the premier birding site in the Beijing area. Brian visited WDL almost every week over a period of three years and thus has an unrivalled understanding of the birding in all seasons at this site and he has racked up an impressive list of records, including an amazing sighting of a Leopard Cat (with photo!). And so, with that short introduction, it’s over to Brian to tell you more about this wonderful place….

The Magic of Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Its Environs of Ma Chang

The viewing tower at "Eagle Field", Yeyahu Nature Reserve

This is my spiritual birdwatching home and somewhere I would recommend to any birder visiting Beijing.  It is good at all times of the year but perhaps marginally less so during June and July.

Yeyahu NR and neighbouring Ma Chang are, to my mind, the premier birdwatching sites in the Beijing area. Surprisingly the area is grossly under-birded and in the three years that I lived in Beijing having visited the site more than 160 times, apart from regulars like Jesper Hornskov, the highly respected China guide and his parties, I have probably seen no more than 30-40 birders.

The reserve lies approximately 80kms to the NW of Beijing and is reached by the Badaling expressway. The trip, depending on delays caused by trucks breaking down, normally takes about one and a half hours. But this can become over two and a half hours with delays so I got into the habit of busing out on Friday evening and staying overnight in Yanqing. My ever-reliable taxi driver Li Yan would look after me like a surrogate mother and pick me up at all hours.

My regular birdwatching companion Spike Millington and I would normally start at Ma Chang which is an open sandy desert-like area surrounded by crop fields mostly Maize and Peanuts.This is a haven for Cranes (Common, White-naped, Hooded, occasionally Demoiselle and Siberian) as well as the elusive Oriental Plover in the Spring (end of March-beginning of May and very occasionally in the Autumn), Great Bustard and raptors.

Demoiselle Crane, Wild Duck Lake

This is a wonderful location for raptors and it is not unusual to reach double figures of species during a day’s birdwatching. Larks are also plentiful including the much sought-after Mongolian Lark which, in the very cold winter of 2009/10, could be found in flocks of 200 birds. That particular winter also produced an irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse – one day I counted over 300 birds – and the extraordinary record of a dark variant Gyr Falcon. It is worthwhile exploring the area surrounding the wind turbines to the west of Ma Chang for Great Bustard, which are normally seen during the Autumn and late winter.

Mongolian Lark, Wild Duck Lake
Great Spotted Eagle ssp fulvescens, Wild Duck Lake
Pallass Sandgrouse, Wild Duck Lake, winter 2009/10

You can walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu NR either through or round the fence that divides the two areas and it is certainly more worthwhile to do so as you will see far more birds than taxi cabbing from one to the other. Daurian Partridge are present in small numbers as well as Japanese Quail. During Winter and Spring time, the walk produces many Buntings, including the occasional irruption of Pine Buntings (one flock of 300 seen in 2010). I have also recorded the rare Streaked Reed Warbler along the edge of the reservoir.

Yeyahu NR produces a remarkable number of species considering the lack of any forested areas. If you want to find large raptors then head for the area we call Eagle field which lies between the lake and the reservoir to the north. Late morning in the Spring and Autumn will normally produce something special. Short-toed Eagle, which is a scarce bird in north China, is easily found here as well as Greater Spotted Eagles. During the winter White-tailed Eagles are commonly seen but, surprisingly, Golden Eagles are rare at Yeyahu. We have also found Booted and Terry Townshend this year saw an Imperial Eagle. I recorded Himalayan Griffon (2010) at this location. I believe it is the only Beijing record and I am quite sure a Steppe Eagle and Lammergeier will one day put in an appearance. Accipiters and Falcons are plentiful depending on the time of year with Saker Falcons being more common than Peregrines and an occasional Siberian Goshawk amongst the Northern Goshawks, being found. During migration it is not unusual to see migrating flocks of 50+ Amur falcons sometimes with small parties of Lesser Kestrel (best location at the bottom of Ma Chang). I found a flock of over 30 Lesser Kestrels one morning.

All the Harriers can be found with good numbers of Eastern Marsh (which breed both at Ma Chang and on the lake), Hen, Pied and on four occasions I have seen Pallid Harriers. Relict Gulls in the Spring and occasionally a Pallas’s Gull will show. Bitterns are common, I estimate there maybe as many as 30 breeding pairs of Great Bitterns in the area as well as good numbers of Von Schrenck’s, a rare bird in most areas of China, and the ubiquitous Yellow Bittern. If you walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu early in the morning in May you will probably find Crakes or Water Rail. The reedbeds also hold breeding Chinese Penduline Tits, one of the very few places where they breed in the Beijing area, perhaps the only location and last year we recorded the first breeding pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes at Yeyahu for the area. Chinese Grey Shrikes, which are uncommon elsewhere, are common at Yeyahu during the winter.

One of my birdwatching friends Richard Carden from Singapore who has visited the site with me on several occasions has a habit of setting me lists of target birds to find. There have only been two glaring misses to the “list”, Great Bustard and Eagle Owl neither of which is normally that hard to locate at the appropriate time of the year. However Yeyahu made up for these deficiencies by producing an extralimital male Desert Wheatear and a Baird’s Sandpiper (yet to be ratified but the id of which we are both quite certain is correct) as well as a female Pallid Harrier. Peter Ericsson, the well-known guide from Bangkok was also present on one of the red-letter days. I would happily take an oath, that there is no such thing as a bad day during a visit to Yeyahu/Ma Chang. You can always count on the “Yeyahu surprise”.

Yeyahu also supports a considerable bio-diversity especially for lepidoptera, diurnal moths, amphibians and flora. Unfortunately to study lepidoptera you need to look down while birdwatching you are looking up so a choice must be made. I was also very lucky one morning to find myself walking down a track undetected behind a Leopard Cat which are rare now and usually strictly nocturnal.

Leopard Cat, Wild Duck Lake

There are of course aspects which are less favourable not least the “cavalry and dune buggies” who are out all year except during winter in the Ma Chang area.These are riders who charge hither and thither, yelling like cowboys, but falling off with great regularity. It is quite common to see riderless horses heading back to the corral followed some minutes later by a limping vacquero. Dune buggies have a nice habit of getting bogged down as do the cars full of photgraphers who spend much of their time chasing Lapwings. This is why it is worthwhile arriving at Ma Chang by 0700hrs before the Oriental Plovers etc. have been disturbed by the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. There used to be a problem with boatloads of shooting parties, mist netters, snare trappers and long-doggers, all illegal activities in China. But many of these activities have been curtailed because we took a very pro-active stance and “destroyed” all that crossed our path. You can never entirely limit poaching in China because there is a lack of understanding and caring amongst the local population but you can keep it under control by making a big fuss whenever you catch somebody setting up nets etc.
Finally I would recommend to any birder that they walk and not drive round the area. It will prove to be so much more rewarding. If you consider that the area has practically no trees and is mostly flat grassland, the 260 odd species that we have recorded in the reserve is, by China’s birdwatching standards, quite remarkable. I have rarely exceeded 60 species in a day at Yeyahu, but the list will always be full of unusual and exciting birds.

Brian Jones is a 66 years-old Art & Financial consultant who worked at Sothebys for ten years. He has spent three years in China, mostly in Beijing but now based in Shenzhen, working as an independent consultant with a Chinese metals information board and industrial re-cycling group as well as a Chinese investment company.  Brian has a great interest in all aspects of the environment, is a keen ornithologist and entomologist and an avid Scuba diver. He is also an ex-falconer, hence his excitement anytime something with a hooked beak flies past!.