An Educational Sandplover

During my aborted trip to the Hebei coast last week, one of the birds with which I enjoyed a close encounter was this juvenile sandplover.  The recovery from my appendectomy gave me some time to examine the photos and video to try to work out the identification.  I found this bird tricky.  It wasn’t particularly long-legged, the ‘bulge’ on the culmen wasn’t very pronounced (suggesting Lesser) but the overall gait – including the horizontal stance – suggested Greater.  I was confused.  So I sent this image to Dave Bakewell who has lots of experience with sandplovers and has written extensively about them on his excellent Dig Deep blog.

A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014.  But which species?
A juvenile Sandplover at Nanpu, Hebei Province, 2 August 2014. But which species?

His view is that this bird is a juvenile Greater.  Why?  This is what he said:

“Not surprised you are struggling with this one! I do find that leg colour is more reliable as a feature for juvs than adults. And, although the bill may not be fully grown (affecting the proportion of the swollen culmen), I do find the tip shape very helpful – slender and more pointed on GSP and blunter on LSP. By now you will know what I think it is! Despite the apparent dumpy, short-legged, round-headed shape, I think this is a very young juv GSP.”

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with sandplovers, I encounter a bird that makes me think again…  and that’s what makes birding such a brilliant hobby – always so much to learn!

Here is some video of the same bird, just edited from footage I took last week.

Please let me know what YOU think!

EDIT: Dave Bakewell kindly sent me a link to a similar-aged juvenile Lesser Sandplover (of the atrifons group).  You can see it here.  It’s a darker plumaged bird overall with noticeably darker legs, darker centres to the coverts and showing a subtly different bill shape.

Bull-headed Shrike!

Yesterday I accompanied visiting British birder John Gerson and Dutch birder Ben Wielstra to Wild Duck Lake.  We started at Ma Chang where we were lucky enough to find 2 Oriental Plovers, 5 Greater Sand Plovers and a Mongolian Lark before the Genghis Khan wannabees began to gallop all over the area.  A flyover Merlin was a nice bonus.

Greater Sand Plover, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. This bird showed a hint of a black border to the upper breast band, a feature more associated with Lesser Sand Plover, but structurally (especially the bill shape) it fitted Greater. Also, I believe the rusty markings on the mantle/scapulars are a good feature of Greater.
Oriental Plover (presumed female), Ma Chang, 27 April 2012

After enjoying these birds we moved to the edge of the reservoir and, alongside the track, we enjoyed spectacular views of Citrine and ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Buff-belled Pipits and Pallas’s Buntings.  One of the ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wags looked to me like it might have been of the ssp tschutschensis.  What do you think?

Citrine Wagtail, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. Males of this species are simply stunning.
'Eastern' Yellow Wagtail... is this of the ssp tschutschensis? I really need to invest in that "Pipits and Wagtails" book!

Fly-by Pied Harriers and Oriental Pratincoles were nice additions to our day list before we headed to the ‘island’ to check out the wildfowl that was sheltering from the increasingly strong wind.  Keeping the telescope steady was a challenge but, with perseverance, we made out some Falcated Duck bobbing up and down.

Some passing Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts, a group of 5 Spoonbills (probably Eurasian) and our first Purple Heron added to our tally before we headed off to Yeyahu, as much to find a little shelter from the dust clouds than anything else!

At Yeyahu we were treated to sensational views of Eastern Marsh Harrier and enjoyed prolonged views of a Greater Spotted Eagle as it hung in the air over the southern boundary of the reserve.  A Black-eared Kite flushed the heron-infested reedbed in the south-west corner to reveal at least 17 Purple Herons with a sprinkling of Greys mixed in.  A lunch stop here also produced a Chinese Penduline Tit (heard only), Zitting Cisticola and a few Siberian Stonechats as well as a now almost expected Short-toed Eagle hunting over the scrubby area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.

Perhaps the star bird of the day revealed itself on the walk down to the observation tower at Yeyahu.  As we walked the sheltered side of the treeline we encountered a large flock of Little Buntings – at least 70 birds – and, as were checking them for any other buntings, we caught sight of a larger bird flit ahead of us and land in a dense thicket.  After a little maneovering, we were able to see it was a shrike and, a very striking one at that.  It sported a beautifully rich orange cap and showed a dark grey tail without any rufous at all.  It also showed some nice scaling on the breast.  It could only be one species – Bull-headed Shrike.  This was a new bird for John and Ben and also my first record of this species in Beijing (I have seen it in Liaoning, at Laotieshan, and also at Rudong, near Shanghai).  We enjoyed prolonged, if partly obscured views, and I was able to capture a couple of record images before we left it to resume its presumed hunting of the Little Buntings..  Very nice!

Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012
Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR. It's a mean, lean Little Bunting hunting machine...

Ben recorded this cool video of the shrike using a compact camera through my telescope!

After frustratingly tantalising views of a Chinese Hill Warbler (a bird that Ben, in particular, wanted to see), and contrastingly stunning views of an Osprey, we headed to the small reedy pools to try for Baikal Teal.  Unfortunately they seemed to have moved on but we did see nice groups of Garganey and added Red-crested Pochard to our species list for the day.

Osprey, Yeyahu NR.
Garganey and Eurasian Teal, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012

Big thanks to John and Ben for their excellent company throughout the day.  It was a lot of fun to be in the field with these guys.

A humourous interlude at the end was provided by one of the reserve staff who was rounding up domesticated ducks using his motorcyle.  He was soon joined by another local on his bicycle and, after a few mishaps that saw a few stragglers make a break for it across the next field, they eventually managed to herd them all onto a freshly dug lake…

Rounding up ducks.. with a motorbike.
It's not often one's progress is held up by crossing ducks!

Full species list (not including domestic duck):
Common Pheasant – 7

Bean Goose – 6
Common Shelduck – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 23
Mandarin – 3
Gadwall – 18
Falcated Duck – 4
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 14
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 16
Shoveler – 2
Pintail – 4
Garganey – 11
Eurasian Teal – 16
Red-crested Pochard – 2
Common Pochard – 8
Ferruginous Duck – 2
Tufted Duck – 9
Smew – 16
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 16
Spoonbill sp – 6
Eurasian Bittern – 1 seen plus 2-3 heard
Grey Heron – 12
Purple Heron – 19
Great Egret – 2
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Merlin – 1
Hobby – 2 (plus one on the drive home)
Osprey – 2
Black-eared Kite – 4 to 6
Short-toed Eagle – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Pied Harrier – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Greater Spotted Eagle – 1 (poss 2)
Common Moorhen – 1 (heard)
Common Coot – 12
Black-winged Stilt – 47
Lapwing – 14
Little Ringed Plover – 9
Kentish Plover – 6
Greater Sand Plover – 5
Oriental Plover – 2
Common Greenshank – 2
Common Sandpiper – 3
Oriental Pratincole – 19
Black-headed Gull – 69
Common Tern – 12
Little Tern – 2
Oriental Turtle Dove – 2
Eurasian Collared Dove – 4 (from car)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift – 10
Common Swift – 1
Common Kingfisher – 8
Hoopoe – 2
Bull-headed Shrike – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 8
Common Magpie – too many
Rook – 1 (from car)
Large-billed Crow – 1 (from car)
Great Tit – 2
Marsh Tit – 2
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 (heard)
Sand Martin – 3
Barn Swallow – 22
Red-rumped Swallow – 5
Mongolian Lark – 1
Greater Short-toed Lark – 63
Asian Short-toed Lark – 10
Eurasian Skylark – 1
Zitting Cisticola – 3
Chinese Hill Warbler – 1
Vinous-thraoted Parrotbill – c50
White-cheeked Starling – 6
Daurian Redstart – 1
Siberian Stonechat – 7
Tree Sparrow – lots
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 12 (including ssp taivana and tschutschensis)
Citrine Wagtail – 14
White Wagtail – 1
Red-throated Pipit – 1
Buff-bellied Pipit – 28
Water Pipit – 2
Oriental Greenfinch – 1 heard
Little Bunting – c75
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 16


May in Beijing has been gorgeous so far..  cool, fresh mornings which warm up fast as the sun burns off any lingering mist and with a cool breeze to keep the heat bearable in the hottest part of the day.  And, as the trees and shrubs burst into leaf, the birds that feed on the insect life they harbour are arriving in numbers.  Even in the ‘garden’ in Central Park I have seen singing Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and a couple of migrating Common Buzzards.

A visit by the in-laws has meant that I have not been able to visit Wild Duck Lake as much as I would have liked but, in a way, the absence in between makes each visit that much more special and one really notices the difference in terms of the birds present – there is a high turnover with each visit producing several new species for the year.

My most recent visit this week followed a day of heavy rain and wind which, I was hoping, might have downed a few migrants.  With a clear day forecast, I hoped that it might also produce a few migrating raptors.  The day started at Ma Chang at 0530 in heavy mist and with visibility reduced to just a few hundred metres.  The first surprise of the day was finding 10 Greater Sand Plovers on the ‘desert’, by no means common at this inland site.  A party of 8 Eurasian Spoonbills was relaxing and preening on the edge of the reservoir as I carefully checked for a rare Black-faced Spoonbill.  There was no Black-faced this time and, at around 0620, all 8 suddenly alighted and flew west into the mist, not to be seen again.

Greater Sand Plover (male)
Greater Sand Plover (female)

The walk out to the island produced good numbers of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, probably of the subspecies macronyx, together with several stunning adult male Citrine Wagtails and a few Buff-bellied Pipits.  A Purple Heron lazily made its way east and Night Herons were mooching around in good numbers.

Wildfowl was thin on the ground with just a few Mallard, Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall and a single Goldeneye on view from the island’s north shore.  It was at this point that the wind began to increase and, slowly, the mist began to clear.  By 0830 the sun was out, the visibility had increased to at least a kilometre and was improving fast.

Amur Falcons began to appear and there was a thin but steady passage throughout the day..  I do love Amurs – masters of flight – and the adult males, in particular, are just gorgeous.

Adult male Amur Falcon in flight... beautiful
Amur Falcon (female). These stunning falcons breed in Manchuria and eastern Russia and winter in southern and eastern Africa. An epic journey.

After checking the area around the yurts which produced some Whiskered and Little Terns, I began to walk to Yeyahu.  By this time the wind was fierce and my expectations for raptors began to wane..  surely it was too windy for much to be on the wing.  Thankfully, as I reached Yeyahu Reserve, the wind suddenly dropped by half and was reduced to a stiff breeze.  As I walked the perimeter of the lake, I flushed a large bird of prey from a poplar which immediately attracted the attention of the local pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  Greater Spotted Eagle!  I enjoyed great views of this bird as it began to circle and gain height, in the company of the male Eastern Marsh (the female kept her distance but gave encouraging cries as the male saw off this intruder).  Another male Amur then screamed in from the east, briefly tussling with both the Eastern Marsh Harrier and the eagle before disappearing as fast as it had appeared.  Wow…

Greater Spotted Eagle (2 cal yr), Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle being mobbed by male Eastern Marsh Harrier

As the eagle drifted west, struggling in the wind, I continued my walk east and, almost immediately picked up another 2 large birds of prey, this time quite high.  Two more Greater Spotted Eagles!  At this point I knew I should head for ‘eagle field’, the open area bordering the western part of the reservoir.  As I walked I kept watch on the skies and picked up 2 (possibly the same) Greater Spotted Eagles hanging in the wind..

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR (same bird as above)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR

When I reached the viewing tower, I laid down and watched the skies..  2 Greater Spotted Eagles, then a third all in view at the same time..   They drifted west into the wind before swinging back east and going down somewhere on the far side of the wood.  As I lay there snacking at my lunch while watching Greater Spotted Eagles, Amur Falcons and Black-eared Kites pass overhead, I was overcome with a real sense of privilege to be watching these magnificent birds on their incredible migrations..  Perhaps the greatest journey  is that of the Amur Falcons which winter in southern and eastern Africa and return to north-eastern China and eastern Russia each Spring.  It’s an arduous journey and yet here they were, full of energy, wheeling in the sky, catching insects on the wing and seemingly enjoying the onset of Spring.

I enjoyed 2 hours of observation at this spot as the eagles made several passes.  At one point there were 6 Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together…  a stunning sight.

As I reluctantly made my way back, I was left bemoaning the fact that this would probably be my last visit to Wild Duck Lake for at least 2 weeks as I am travelling to Dalian (Tom Beeke-land!) to bird the point at Laotieshan from 11-19 May – I believe the first time this peninsula will have been systematically covered for any length of time in Spring.   I can only imagine what I will be missing at Wild Duck Lake during this time!  Best not think about it…..

Full species list (Magpie and Tree Sparrow too numerous to count):

Japanese Quail (2 – flushed from the path at Yeyahu)

Common Pheasant (6)

Gadwall (22 – most on the reservoir seen from the viewing tower at Yeyahu)

Falcated Duck (6 – numbers well down from my previous visit and only now present on the eastern part of the reservoir at Yeyahu)

Wigeon (4)

Mallard (8)

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)

Shoveler (4)

Garganey (6)

Eurasian Teal (68)

Red-crested Pochard (2)

Ferruginous Duck (4)

Goldeneye (1)

Little Grebe (20)

Great Crested Grebe (14)

Eurasian Spoonbill (8) – on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang until 0620 when flew west into the mist.

Bittern (at least 4 heard)

Black-crowned Night Heron (40+)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Cattle Egret (1)

Grey Heron (2)

Purple Heron (4)

Great Cormorant (1)

Kestrel (2)

Amur Falcon (30+ light but steady passage throughout the day)

Black-eared Kite (8)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (at least 6)

Japanese Sparrowhawk (1)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Common Buzzard (2)

Greater Spotted Eagle (over 10 sightings involving at least 6 different birds; 6 in the air together between 1510-1530)

Coot – at least 40

Black-winged Stilt (16)

Northern Lapwing (14)

Little Ringed Plover (16)

Kentish Plover (4)

Greater Sand Plover (10) – all at Ma Chang including two adult summer males.

Common Snipe (6)

Redshank (4)

Greenshank (4)

Green Sandpiper (1)

Common Sandpiper (1)

Temminck’s Stint (2)

Oriental Pratincole (6)

Black-headed Gull (50+)

Common Tern (12 of the dark-billed race longipennis)

Little Tern (4)

Whiskered Tern (4)

Oriental Turtle Dove (2)

Collared Dove (6)

Common Swift (8)

Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (18)

Common Kingfisher (5)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Chinese Penduline Tit (4)

Sand Martin (2)

Barn Swallow (80+)

Red-rumped Swallow (16)

Greater Short-toed Lark (12) – including one with an abnormal upper mandible

Greater Short-toed Lark with abnormally long upper mandible. It's amazing how this bird manages to feed..

Asian Short-toed Lark (2)

Eurasian Skylark (2)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2) – 2 possibly with a nest at Yeyahu

Chinese Bulbul – (2) including one singing at the plantation on the island

Pallas’s Warbler (2) singing in the plantation on the island

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1) singing in the plantation on the island

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)

White-cheeked Starling (10)

Red-throated Thrush (3)

Naumann’s Thrush (1)

Dusky Thrush (1)

Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades (1)

Bluethroat (1) at Yeyahu

Siberian Stonechat (8)

Taiga Flycatcher (12)

Yellow Wagtail (80+ most looked liked Western Yellow Wagtail ssp thunbergi but I am not sure whether that occurs here.  ssp macronyx of Eastern Yellow Wagtail looks a good match, too)

Citrine Wagtail (10)

White Wagtail (2 of the ssp ocularis)

Richard’s Pipit (6)

Olive-backed Pipit (37)

Buff-bellied Pipit (60+)

Little Bunting (400+ everywhere)

Yellow-throated Bunting (1)

Black-faced Bunting (12)

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (30+)


A brief update on my trip to Rudong with Shanghai birders Zhang Lin and Tong Mienxu.  Fuller account to follow.  First, I have to blurt it out – I saw SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER!!!  In fact, I had four sightings (2 on each day, involving at least 3 different individuals).  One was even self-found (a moulting adult still with some rufous on the throat).

Supporting cast of waders (there were probably around 7,000 waders on site) included 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, Long-toed Stint, Far Eastern Curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Red-necked Stint, Black- and Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher (quite scarce), Kentish Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Turnstone.  Other highlights were many and included an adult male Pied Harrier (a stonking bird!), Northern Hawk Cuckoo, Reed Parrotbill, Pechora Pipit, etc etc.

No photos of Spooners (they were all seen at middle distance and, to be honest, I just enjoyed the sighting without trying to juggle camera and scope), but I have a few photos of some of the other birds (Asian Brown Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Reed Parrotbill etc) which I will post shortly.

More soon….