Yeyahu with Per Alström and Zhao Min

Birding in Beijing is brilliant at any time of year but, during spring migration, it’s hard to beat and there are so many highlights from Sunday’s trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve with Per Alström and Zhao Min that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Birding with Per has many advantages, one of which is his encyclopaedic knowledge of China’s birds, especially pipits and wagtails.  So perhaps it should not be a surprise that an encounter with a mixed flock of more than 70 pipits and wagtails at Ma Chang produced Beijing’s second ever MEADOW PIPIT (草地鹨).  Initially found by Min and identified by Per, this bird was the undoubted rarity highlight but there were so many other great moments – the 21 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴), displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), GREATER SPOTTED (乌雕) and SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), SAKER (猎隼), a flock of 90+ BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭), displaying ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK ((亚洲) 短趾百灵), a flock of 52 WHITE WAGTAILS (白鹡鸰) that included 3 subspecies – leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis – and a flock of ‘eastern’ ROOKS (秃鼻乌鸦) – a possible future new species?

WHITE WAGTAIL ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
WHITE WAGTAIL (白鹡鸰) ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

We started at Ma Chang, a reliable spot for ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) in early April.  It’s important to arrive here early as this site is extremely popular with horse-riders, motorised buggies and even people driving imitation tanks, so it’s hopeless as a birding destination at the weekend after around 0800.  We were fortunate to find a single ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) with a flock of 30+ KENTISH PLOVERS (环颈鴴) and, later, we found a flock of 21 OPs in agricultural fields just east of the main site.  These birds – that winter in Australia – are special and one of the signs that Spring has arrived in Beijing.

ORIENTAL PLOVERS at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴) at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

After enjoying the pipits, wagtails and plovers, as well as a beautiful male MERLIN (灰背隼) that buzzed us before sitting up on a stand of maize, we headed off to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.

This adult male MERLIN was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.
This adult male Merlin (灰背隼) was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.

At Yeyahu we enjoyed the spectacular sight of displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), newly arrived and preparing to breed.  These are stunning raptors, the males in particular, and this adult male made a close pass when were in one of the tower hides..  awesome!

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER, Yeyahu, 6 April 2014.  Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞), Yeyahu, 6 April 2014. Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER 'buzzing' us at Yeyahu.
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞) ‘buzzing’ us at Yeyahu.

Two GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES (乌雕) added to our raptor list which, by the end of the day, had reached 10 species and bizarrely missing COMMON KESTREL (红隼)!

 

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE, Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014
GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (乌雕), Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014

In stunning spring weather (and clean air!) we enjoyed so many other highlights on a day that produced a total of 81 species.  Just before dusk we were treated to a magnificent flight of ducks that included MALLARD (綠頭鴨), SPOT-BILLED DUCK (斑嘴鴨), PINTAIL (针尾鸭), COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭), FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭), SHOVELER (琵嘴鸭), GARGANEY (白眉鸭), COMMON TEAL (绿翅鸭) and, just as we had hoped, BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭).  A flock of at least 90 of the latter wheeled around in the fading light – a magnificent sight and a fitting end to a wonderful day at this world-class birding site.

BAIKAL TEAL. Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.
BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭). Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.

Big thanks to Per and Min for their company on a day that will live long in the memory…!

Per and Zhao Min at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.
Per and Min (being careful not to ‘stride’) at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.

 

Full species list below:

JAPANESE QUAIL   Coturnix japonica  鵪鶉   1

COMMON PHEASANT   Phasianus colchicus  雉雞  4

SWAN GOOSE   Anser cygnoides   VU  鴻雁  1

GREYLAG GOOSE   Anser anser 3

RUDDY SHELDUCK   Tadorna ferruginea  赤麻鴨  6

MANDARIN DUCK   Aix galericulata  鴛鴦  9

GADWALL   Anas strepera  赤膀鴨  94

FALCATED DUCK   Anas falcata  罗纹鸭  14

MALLARD   Anas platyrhynchos  綠頭鴨  500

CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK   Anas zonorhyncha  斑嘴鴨  38

NORTHERN SHOVELER   Anas clypeata  琵嘴鸭  13

NORTHERN PINTAIL   Anas acuta  针尾鸭  6

GARGANEY   Anas querquedula  白眉鸭  4

BAIKAL TEAL   Anas formosa  花脸鸭  a flock of 90 plus a separate flock of 70, which could have been different birds.

EURASIAN TEAL   Anas crecca  绿翅鸭  350

RED-CRESTED POCHARD   Netta rufina  赤嘴潜鸭  1

COMMON POCHARD   Aythya ferina  红头潜鸭  3

FERRUGINOUS POCHARD   Aythya nyroca   NT  白眼潜鸭  8

TUFTED DUCK   Aythya fuligula  凤头潜鸭  4

COMMON GOLDENEYE   Bucephala clangula  鹊鸭  6

SMEW   Mergellus albellus  白秋沙鸭  24

LITTLE GREBE   Tachybaptus ruficollis  小鸊鷉  4

GREAT CRESTED GREBE   Podiceps cristatus  凤头鸊鷉  8

GREAT BITTERN   Botaurus stellaris  大麻鳽  1

GREY HERON   Ardea cinerea  苍鹭  16

PURPLE HERON   Ardea purpurea  草鹭  2

EASTERN GREAT EGRET   Ardea modesta  大白鹭  1

GREAT CORMORANT   Phalacrocorax carbo  普通鸬鹚  12

SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE   Circaetus gallicus  短趾雕  1

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER   Circus spilonotus  白腹鹞  7

HEN HARRIER   Circus cyaneus  白尾鹞  1 adult female

EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK   Accipiter nisus  雀鹰  2

NORTHERN GOSHAWK   Accipiter gentilis  苍鹰  2

EASTERN BUZZARD   Buteo japonicus  普通鵟  19

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE   Aquila clanga   VU  乌雕  2

MERLIN   Falco columbarius  灰背隼  1

SAKER FALCON   Falco cherrug   EN  猎隼  1

PEREGRINE FALCON   Falco peregrinus  游隼  1

COMMON COOT   Fulica atra  骨顶鸡(白骨顶)  44

BLACK-WINGED STILT   Himantopus himantopus  黑翅长脚鹬  4

NORTHERN LAPWING   Vanellus vanellus  凤头麦鸡  33

GREY-HEADED LAPWING   Vanellus cinereus  灰头麦鸡  1

LITTLE RINGED PLOVER   Charadrius dubius   金眶鴴  2

KENTISH PLOVER   Charadrius alexandrinus  环颈鴴  48

ORIENTAL PLOVER   Charadrius veredus  东方鴴  21

COMMON SNIPE   Gallinago gallinago  扇尾沙锥  9

BLACK-HEADED GULL   Chroicocephalus ridibundus  红嘴鸥  39

ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE   Streptopelia orientalis  山斑鸠  4

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE   Streptopelia decaocto  灰斑鸠  6

COMMON KINGFISHER   Alcedo atthis  普通翠鸟  2

EURASIAN HOOPOE   Upupa epops  戴胜  2

GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER   Dendrocopos major  大斑啄木鸟  1

GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER   Picus canus  灰头绿啄木鸟  1

AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE   Cyanopica cyanus  灰喜鹊  1

COMMON MAGPIE   Pica pica  喜鹊  30

DAURIAN JACKDAW   Coloeus dauuricus  达乌里寒鸦  400+

ROOK   Corvus frugilegus  秃鼻乌鸦  33

CARRION CROW   Corvus corone  小嘴乌鸦  2

MARSH TIT   Poecile palustris  沼泽山雀  1

JAPANESE TIT   Parus minor  大山雀  2

CHINESE PENDULINE TIT   Remiz consobrinus  中华攀雀  15

GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella brachydactyla  (大) 短趾百灵  8

ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella cheleensis  (亚洲) 短趾百灵  1

EURASIAN SKYLARK   Alauda arvensis  云雀  14

BARN SWALLOW   Hirundo rustica  家燕  8

VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL   Sinosuthora webbianus  棕头鸦雀  40

WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING   Spodiopsar cineraceus  灰椋鸟  26

COMMON STARLING   Sturnus vulgaris  紫翅椋鸟  1

RED-THROATED THRUSH   Turdus ruficollis  赤颈鸫  1

DAURIAN REDSTART   Phoenicurus auroreus  北红尾鸲  1

EURASIAN TREE SPARROW   Passer montanus  (树) 麻雀  150

CITRINE WAGTAIL   Motacilla citreola  黄头鹡鸰  1

WHITE WAGTAIL   Motacilla alba 白鹡鸰  63

RED-THROATED PIPIT   Anthus cervinus  红喉鹨  1

BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT   Anthus rubescens japonicus  黄腹鹨  18

WATER PIPIT   Anthus spinoletta  水鹨  20

MEADOW PIPIT   Anthus pratensis  1   *** the 2nd record for Beijing***

GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH   Carduelis sinica  金翅 (雀)  4

LITTLE BUNTING   Emberiza pusilla  小鹀  1

PALLAS’S BUNTING   Emberiza pallasi  苇鹀  22

REED BUNTING   Emberiza schoeniclus  芦鹀  1

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES 81

 

 

Eagles and more..

In the sweltering heat (it’s hit 39 degrees C this week), I visited Wild Duck Lake on Saturday.  I was hoping for some bitterns (There has been a Cinnamon Bittern in the Olympic Forest Park for the last week or so and Schrenck’s Bitterns have been seen along the Wenyu River in Beijing) and maybe some locustella warblers.  I saw very few of the former and none of the latter!  But I did see an unexpected variety of raptors with Short-toed and Great Spotted Eagles, Saker, Amur Falcons and spectacular views of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A probable Blunt-winged Warbler was another highlight, singing frustratingly distantly from the boardwalk (dodgy photo below).

Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This species has traditionally been considered a vagrant in north-eastern China but I have seen more than 10 individuals at Yeyahu and Miyun, almost all in April/May and September/October suggesting it is a regular passage migrant (and possibly a breeder nearby?)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. A regular passage migrant in Beijing.
Amur Falcon (1st summer male), Yeyahu NR. This beautiful falcon migrates through Beijing in large numbers in Spring and Autumn (part of an incredible journey from Manchuria to Africa and back each year) and a few breed in the Beijing area.
Amur Falcon (female), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.
Eastern Marsh Harrier (adult male), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This guy is breeding in the extensive reedbeds inside the reserve.

As I was watching the spectacular Eastern Marsh Harriers, this Indian Cuckoo flew over my head calling incessantly…

Indian Cuckoo, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.  Looks strikingly long-billed and long-tailed in this image.

And this is the ‘acro’ that was singing in the shrubby part of the reedbed..  Blunt-winged?  The supercilium ends very soon behind the eye…  but can I be sure from this image?  Unfortunately it was always distant.

Probable Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.

Finally, just for fun, here is a phylloscopus warbler in an unusual pose..  anyone want to have a go at identifying it?

A ‘pylloscopus’ warbler at Yeyahu NR. This image shows enough features for identification.. or does it? Any ideas? Answer later this week.

I also recorded a calling crake/rail that I think could be my first Ruddy-breasted Crake..  a little research needed on Xeno-Canto Asia!

Full species list to follow.

Greater Spotted Eagles and more..

On Saturday I made my usual visit to Wild Duck Lake.  Starting at Ma Chang, it was soon obvious that there were no Oriental Plovers on site..  It’s been an incredible spring for this bird and a joy to see so many pass through Ma Chang but I guess the run of seeing these birds had to end sometime.  After daydreaming a bit about where they are now and wishing them well for a successful breeding season, I focused on the birds that were here – a few Richard’s Pipits, singing Asian Short-toed Larks, Little Ringed Plovers and flock after flock of Little Buntings…  many of which were singing.  A great sight and sound.

Little Bunting singing. Flocks of these gorgeous birds were a feature of Saturday at Ma Chang.

The excursion out to the yurts, as on Tuesday, produced lots of pipits and wagtails, with Eastern Yellow Wagtail the most numerous.  I saw both macronyx and tschutschensis subspecies.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail ssp tschutschensis, Ma Chang, 5 May 2012

There were a few Citrine Wagtails around, including this stunning male which posed on a fence post..

Citrine Wagtail (male), Ma Chang, 5 May 2012

The pipits were mostly Red-throated and one, in particular, was very red – almost a Red-breasted Pipit!

Red-throated Pipit (presumed male), Ma Chang, 5 May 2012

A few Little Terns were patrolling the reservoir with many Common Terns (of the ssp longipennis) and a pair of Whiskered Terns but wildfowl was very thin on the ground (no Ruddy Shelduck for the first time this year).  The walk back produced a ‘Swintailed” Snipe which I flushed from a dry-ish verge.  The call was very distinctive – dryer and less ‘squelchy’ than Common Snipe – and the bird lacked the warm tones of Common Snipe in flight.  Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed Snipe are currently unidentifiable in the field unless one can see well and count the tail feathers..  hence the term “Swin-tailed” Snipe.

A check of the reservoir proper produced single pairs of Ferruginous Duck and Garganey and a group of Oriental Pratincoles arrived noisily from the east.  A male Eastern Marsh Harrier spooked both the few remaining Pallas’s Reed Buntings and the newly arrived Siberian Stonechats.  The walk back produced a splendid singing male Black-faced Bunting, Chinese Blackbird (my first at this site), several Pallas’s Warblers and a handful of Red-throated Flycatchers.

As the day warmed up, I sensed it was going to be a good raptor day and, as I arrived at Yeyahu, it was with anticipation that I headed out to ‘eagle field’.  Sure enough, after only a few minutes, I caught sight of an eagle and, setting up the telescope, I was able to confirm its identity as a Greater Spotted.  Nice.  Then a second bird appeared and the two interacted for a while before heading east.  As I watched them fly purposefully towards the mountains, I saw a group of white, long-necked birds soaring high…  spoonbills!  There was no chance of identifying them to species but they were probably Eurasian (Black-faced is extremely rare in Beijing).

As I continued to walk towards the reservoir, I was constantly flushing groups of Little Buntings.. they were everywhere.  I was frequently scanning the skies for more raptors and very soon I was watching another Greater Spotted Eagle.. this time quite a ragged older bird.  Setting up the telescope, I soon found a large bird through the eyepiece but, as it banked, I realised it was rather white and was clearly a different bird – Oriental Stork!!  That’s a rare bird in Beijing, especially in May.  As I was watching it, the Greater Spotted Eagle came into the same ‘scope view and, although distant, I watched these two birds soaring on the same thermal for a couple of minutes before the stork headed east.

Oriental Stork with Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 5 May 2012
One of the three Greater Spotted Eagles, Yeyahu NR, 5 May 2012
Greater Spotted Eagle with apparent pale leading edge to the underwing. I haven’t seen this plumage characteristic on Gtr Spotted Eagles before. Yeyahu NR, 5 May 2012

Not long after these sightings, I looked up again (my neck was beginning to ache at this point!) and saw another bird soaring high.. this time a Black Stork..!  It followed the same line as the Oriental White Stork from before and soon disappeared to the east…  next stop Beidaihe!

A couple of Japanese Quails were singing as I approached the tower at the reservoir edge and it was here that I was surprised to find a group of 10 Ferruginous Ducks…  this duck used to be rare in Beijing but in recent years numbers have increased..  this flock could represent the highest Beijing count.

On the walk back I took a water break (it was hot) and sat overlooking the fields.  After a couple of minutes, three Tolai Hares appeared and started to chase each other around.. sometimes leaping into the air.. it was a spectacular show.  Then an Eastern Marsh Harrier appeared and the hares went crazy.. they kept leaping vertically into the air!  I though that they may have young in the fields and wanted to distract the harrier but I’m not sure..  Just as the harrier drifted away, the hares resumed their chasing and it was then that I noticed a Greater Spotted Eagle hanging in the air high above them.  Suddenly it dropped like a stone….  For a second I thought I would witness the eagle taking a hare right in front of me but, around 10-15 metres from the ground, the eagle pulled out of the dive and banked away..  maybe it saw me?  Even so, it was a spectacular dive and the hares didn’t suspect a thing!  I think the hares’ eyesight must be quite poor.. they frequently ran close to me and, only when I moved or made a noise did they notice me..

Tolai Hare checking me out, Yeyahu NR, 5 May 2012.

At this point, time was getting on, so I reluctantly left the hares to it and made my way back to the car for the drive back to Beijing.  Yet another good day.

 

 

 

 

Total species list (85 in total):

Japanese Quail – 3 (2 heard singing and 1 seen in flight)

Common Pheasant – 8
Mandarin – 1
Gadwall – 4
Falcated Duck – 2 on the reservoir north of Yeyahu NR
Mallard – 4
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Garganey – 2 at Ma Chang
Eurasian Teal – 6
Ferruginous Duck – 12, including one group of 10 on the reservoir north of Yeyahu NR
Little Grebe – 10
Great Crested Grebe – 12
Black Stork – 1 circling and then headed east at 1315
Oriental Stork – 1 circling with Greater Spotted Eagle at 1130 before heading east
Spoonbill sp – 5 circling high over Yeyahu NR at 1115
Great Bittern – 3 heard booming
Night Heron – 8
Chinese Pond Heron – 2
Grey Heron – 1
Purple Heron – 4
Common Kestrel – 2
Amur Falcon – 3
Hobby – 3
Black-eared Kite – 2
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Greater Spotted Eagle – 3 (all photographed)
Moorhen – 3
Coot – 8
Black-winged Stilt – 39
Northern Lapwing – 14
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Little Ringed Plover – 12
‘Swintailed’ Snipe – 2
Common Snipe – 1
Whimbrel – 1
Common Greenshank – 2
Wood Sandpiper – 18
Common Sandpiper – 8
Oriental Pratincole – 6
Black-headed Gull – 78
Common Tern – 44
Little Tern – 8
Whiskered Tern – 2
Collared Dove – 4
Common Kingfisher – 6
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – too many
Corvid sp – 23 (probably Carrion Crow)
Great Tit – 2
Marsh Tit – 2
Chinese Penduline Tit – 6
Barn Swallow – 6
Red-rumped Swallow – 6
Asian Short-toed Lark – 8
Eurasian Skylark – 2
Zitting Cisticola – 14
Chinese Bulbul – 4
Dusky Warbler – 3
Radde’s Warbler – 1
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 4 (singing)
Yellow-browed Warbler – 8 (singing)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 14
White-cheeked Starling – 7
Chinese Blackbird – 1 male singing in the plantation north of Ma Chang.
Bluethroat – 2 (1 at Ma Chang, 1 at Yeyahu NR)
Siberian Rubythroat – 1 in the small bushes at Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat – 20
Taiga Flycatcher – 15
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – lots
Forest Wagtail – 1 singing along the entrance track to Ma Chang
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 242 (mostly tschutschensis and macronyx)
Citrine Wagtail – 5
White Wagtail – 4 (leucopsis)
Richard’s Pipit – 8
Blyth’s Pipit – 1 probably this species
Olive-backed Pipit – 2
Red-throated Pipit – 5 (including one with a red breast!)
Oriental Greenfinch – 2
Little Bunting – 535
Black-faced Bunting – 14
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18

A Tale of Two Eagles

In June many birders think the marvels of spring migration are over and thoughts turn to butterflies, dragonflies, family holidays or even moths (I kid you not!).  But, here in the Beijing area, early June can be a very good time for the late migrating locustella and acrocephalus warblers, as well as other reedbed-dwelling birds such as crakes and rails.

One of the birds that I wanted to catch up with when I moved to Beijing was the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a bird on many a ‘most-wanted’ list back in the UK and, unless you go to Fair Isle in mid-September, your chances of seeing one in the UK are pretty slim.  I have been lucky enough to see over 20 of these birds here in Beijing, nearly all of which I have seen in the last 7-10 days!  On Saturday, during a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve, we counted 10 of these super-skulkers, at least 3 of which provided us with more than a just a fleeting glimpse of a shape disappearing into a dense reedbed after being flushed from the path!

Yayahu Nature Reserve officially opens at 0830 in the morning and is very popular for Beijingers at the weekend to get away from the stress and heat of the city.  So if you want to see birds, it’s important to arrive early, before the masses.  Ideally you want to be first onto the boardwalk to see any lurking crakes, rails or bitterns before they are flushed deep into the reeds by the noisy hordes.

On Saturday, despite arriving at 0520 and finding the gates open (sometimes we have to use the ‘alternative entrance’), we were a little disappointed to see 3 people already on the boardwalk..  nevertheless, we had the place to ourselves for the next 2 hours with some success whilst enjoying the cacophony of reed warblers – mostly Oriental Reed but with the odd Black-browed Reed mixed in.

We took our time doing a circular walk around the lake, trying to distinguish any other birds’ songs from the rasping Oriental Reeds, and were rewarded with a single Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler that was singing intermittently from a patch of young willows, a Baillon’s Crake that we disturbed from the boardwalk and gave us fleeting flight views before it dived into deep cover, a handful of Zitting Cisticolas as well as a good number of the enigmatic Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers.

A pair of Caspian Terns represented a good June record.  They came in high from the north and began to hunt over the lake but, by the time we left the site, they had already moved on..  early return migrants?  failed breeders?  who knows?

On the second circuit we found a relatively small plain reed warbler (smaller than the resident Oriental Reeds).  Our thoughts turned to Manchurian Reed and, fortunately, I had just uploaded the song of Manchurian Reed Warbler onto my smartphone!  So I gave it a blast and it reacted strongly, flying closer and proceeding to sing.  Nice!  I took a few notes and photos before we moved on to eagle field.

The walk down to eagle field was hot – the sun had burned off the clouds and there was only a light breeze just about taking the edge off the heat.  A circling flock of 17 falcons turned out to be a mixed flock of Amur Falcon and Hobby, giving us hope that a larger raptor would likely get up if there was one around…   We reached the tower and, after a brief scan, began to have our packed lunches.  It was quiet on the reservoir with just a few Night Herons, a couple of Purple Herons, some Mallard and a pair of Spot-billed Ducks.  I said to Spike that I would do a thorough scan for any eagles before heading back and, almost immediately, I picked up a large bird of prey heading straight for us from the north-east.  It was large, dark and displayed several ‘fingers’ on each hand – it had to be an eagle.  I was pretty confident it was a Greater Spotted Eagle but with just head-on views, I wasn’t certain.  We watched it as it came closer and, just as it reached the northern edge of the reservoir, it dropped, stone-like, with legs akimbo into the edge of the reedbed…  …wow – that was some dive!  We couldn’t see it on the ground but, after only a couple of minutes, it took off and headed low over the reservoir towards us, providing excellent views, at head height, as it attempted to avoid the attentions of one of the local magpies.

It was now pretty obvious that it was a Greater Spotted Eagle and, when it reached ‘eagle field’, it began to circle, gained height quickly and headed off south-west.  Certainly my best ever views of Greater Spotted Eagle.

Any day you see an eagle is a good day.  We began the walk back having already had a good day.  Then, half way back, we got onto a large bird of prey heading north and away from us..  a quick view through the binoculars revealed it to be a Short-toed Eagle. Almost certainly the same bird that Paul Holt, Chris Gooddie and I saw last week.  A good day just got better.

A calling Two-barred Greenish Warbler on the entrance track on the way out was our last species of the day and we reflected on another excellent day at this productive site as we met our driver for the short journey back to Yanqing bus station.

Edit: on looking at the photographs of the presumed Manchurian Reed Warbler, I am now thinking it may be the very similar Blunt-winged Warbler.  The supercilium does not reach far behind the eye and lacks the dark upper border that is a characteristic of Manchurian Reed.  Even though the bird reacted to the song of Manchurian, I am not sure how reliably this behaviour indicates the species.  The two very similar species may well react to each others’ songs – I don’t know!  I don’t have any experience of either bird, so comments very welcome..

Manchurian Reed Warbler or Blunt-winged Warbler? Answers on a postcard...
The tail on Blunt-winged is supposed to be 'blackish with brown edges"... this image does not show that feature. On the other hand, Manchurian should show a strong white supercilium that extends behind the eye and that has a blackish upper border. Hmm...
Greater Spotted Eagle (prob 2 cal yr)
Greater Spotted Eagle attracting the attention of a local magpie, Yeyahu, 4 June 2011
Close-up.. that Magpie had a tug at the eagle's tail before it left it alone

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Collared Dove (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Indian Cuckoo (2)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Eurasian Cuckoo (8)

Great Bittern (2-3 heard)

Oriental Reed Warbler (30+)

Red-crested Pochard (3) – a little unsure of the provenance of these regularly seen birds (sometimes seen near the feral ducks and geese but certainly a lot more rangey than the remainder of the feral birds).

Great Crested Grebe (6) – one of the pairs had young

Little Grebe (4) – one pair had young

Chinese Pond Heron (6)

Mandarin (2)

Common Coot (6) – some with young

Zitting Cisticola (9)

Black-crowned Night Heron (18)

Black-winged Stilt (6)

Hobby (9)

Yellow Bittern (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (18)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Tern (4)

Black-faced Bunting (3)

Black Drongo (4)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (3)

Amur Falcon (10) – at least 3 adult males and 4 adult females plus some immature birds.

Baillon’s Crake (1) – one flushed from the boardwalk and seen briefly in flight only

Black-browed Reed Warbler (6)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (10) – good number seen from the boardwalk and the north side of the lake

Grey-headed Lapwing (4)

Purple Heron (10) – at least this number.  Several pairs breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake

Little Egret (1)

Little Tern (1)

David’s (Spotted) Bush Warbler (2-3) – one heard only and one seen only (in different locations).  One other possible heard briefly.

Garganey (1) – a flyover drake

Marsh Sandpiper (1) – flyover

Northern Lapwing (2)

Richard’s Pipit (4) – displaying

Chinese Penduline Tit (4) – at least two active nests

Common Kingfisher (2)

Caspian Tern (2) – flew in high from the north and began feeding.  Not seen later on return.

Blunt-winged Reed Warbler (1) – one probably this species.  Seen well and heard singing in the reed-fringed dyke to the west of the main lake (just south of the point where the boardwalk ends).  Responded well to playback of Manchurian Reed Warbler (Blunt-winged not played) and we initially identified it as this species.  However, photos suggest to me that it is a Blunt-winged Warbler (supercilium very weak behind eye, lacking the black upper edge).  I suspect that both species would react to each others’ songs? Comments welcome.

Chinese Blackbird (1) – my first at this site

White-cheeked Starling (3)

Barn Swallow (6)

Ferruginous Duck (1)

Greater Spotted Eagle (1) – came in from the north-east at around 1315.  Subsequently dropped like a stone, legs akimbo, into the edge of the reedbed on the north side of the reservoir (opposite the viewing tower).  About 2-3 minutes later, took off again and flew low, in the company of one of the local magpies, across the reservoir and past the tower to the grassy field where it circled, gained height and headed south-west.  A probable 2cy bird.  See photos.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)

Mallard (15)

Short-toed Eagle (1) – seen on the walk back to the car park.  Flew from area east of eagle field and then seen soaring north-east of eagle field close to mountain ridge.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1) – one heard on entrance track to reserve

Eagles

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+)

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake.  Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN.  A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).

I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening.  The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force.  This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.

On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required).  However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks.  The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts.  And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits.  I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south.   Sorry!

On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’.  A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).

Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south.  Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!

I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl.  A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post.  Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west.  A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming.  I counted over 85 altogether.

I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here.  First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal.  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds).  And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.  It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle.  Fantastic.  I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu.  It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area.  With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration.  Very nice!  They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come.  As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again.  On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill.  Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood.  Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower.  At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned.  One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view.  The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood.  At this point I got a drenching.  As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow.  Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir.  There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey.  About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope.  To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican!  Unbelievable…   I immediately began to take notes on the plumage.  It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black.  The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries.  It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican!  I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir.  It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang.  Wow.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field.  What will this site turn up next??