Stejneger’s Stonechats

I have just returned from a few days with Paul Holt and Marie Louise at the brilliant visible migration watchpoint that is Laotieshan in Liaoning Province.  Learned lots, as we always do when we visit this superb place.  Paul is staying on for a few days and a full report will be available soon but I’ll blog about a few of my highlights over the next few days.  First up is a video compilation of a few of the 15+ STEJNEGER’S STONECHATS that frequented the point on 9 September.  Remarkably different from the stonechats with which I recently re-acquainted myself at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk….!

Laotieshan Autumn 2012 report

Paul Holt has just finished his report from Laotieshan this autumn, covering the period 5-26 September.  For a few of those days, towards the end, he was joined by Per Alström and me, but he generously credited us a joint authors.  The full report can be downloaded here: Birding in Liaoning 5-26 Sept. 2012 (Holt, Townshend & Alstrom) but, for the busy reader, highlights included:

Five new species for Liaoning:

• 14 bird-days with up to 11 Short-tailed Shearwaters being noted on four dates between 12-19 September;

• seven bird-days for skuas/jaegers between 12-18 September – most were unidentified but a Long-tailed Jaeger was identified on the 12th as was a single Pomarine on the 18th;

• a Swinhoe’s Minivet on the 14 September;

• a Chestnut-cheeked Starling on 6 September.


High counts included:

• 3,274 bird-days for Streaked Shearwater with a count of 1,605 during the 4.5 hour sea watch off the point at Laotie Shan, Lushun on the 13 September possibly being a Chinese record;

• 4,313 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1,181 south on the 23 September;

• 938 bird-days of Japanese Sparrowhawk with 446 (possibly a Chinese record) south on the 6 September;

• 16,000 Black-tailed Gulls and 5,000 Mongolian Gulls west off the point on the 18 September (possibly both Chinese records);

• 20,959 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with 10,380 on the 21 September (a Chinese record);

• 270 bird-days for Black-naped Oriole with 72 on the 6th & 62 on the 9 September;

• 20,600 bird-days for Barn Swallow with 7,500 south on 14 September;

• 56 bird-days for Asian House Martin with 37 south on 6 September;

• 90 Forest Wagtails south on 11 September;

• 3,160 bird-days for White Wagtail with 1,134 on the 11 September;

• 196 bird-days for Pechora Pipit with exactly half this number, 98 birds, on the 12 September possibly being a Chinese record

Local rarities included:

• single adult Black-legged Kittiwakes on the 12th & 18 September

• one juvenile Pallas’s Gull during a seawatch on the 18 September – perhaps only the sixth record for Liaoning;

• 1 Spotted Nutcracker on the 24 September;


I suspect that, with irruption species such as Varied Tit, ‘Northern’ Great Tit, Rosefinches etc on the move this autumn, October might have been exciting, too…   but there have been no birders there to find out!

Salim Ali’s Swift?

I saw my first Pacific Swift in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2010 just a few weeks before moving to China.  Since then I have seen many more in north-east China – it is a common migrant through Beijing in spring and autumn.  Last year,  a thorough assessment of four Pacific Swift subspecies by Paul Leader (Leader, P J. 2011. Taxonomy of the Pacific Swift Apus pacificus Latham, 1802, complex. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 131: 81-93) found that they may deserve species status.  This is an extract from an article in Birdwatch magazine by David Callahan in June 2011:

“Four subspecies of Pacific Swift are generally recognised, and the species as it is known traditionally has a wide breeding distribution throughout the eastern Palearctic. It is a long distance migrant, wintering south to Indonesia and Australasia.

Leader (2011) measured and assessed the plumage of 146 specimens of Pacific Swift from four different museums across Eurasia, as befits a species with pan-Palearctic records. The four forms were found to differ in wing and tail measurements, as well as the size and shape of their distinctive white rump patch, white throat patch, pale underpart fringes and the colour of the underwing coverts.

The new prospective species are as follows:

Pacific Swift Apus pacificus: cleaner white throat patch, a slightly longer tail fork and tail length, and the broadest rump patch by a margin; breeds from Siberia through to Japan, winters from Indonesia south and east to Tasmania (incorporating the subspecies A p pacificus and A p kurodae – other subspecies were found to be invalid).

Sàlim Ali’s Swift A salimali: five to 10 mm longer tail but with similar wing length to A pacificus, throat patch forming a thin white strip half the width of the other three forms, thinnest at the bill end, and very little white to the underpart feathers; breeds at high altitude on the east Tibetan Plateau and west Sichuan, China, but its winter range is unknown.

Blyth’s Swift A leuconyx: the smallest of the four forms, with the rump patch consistently narrow, brown-tinged crown and nape contrasting with the glossy black mantle, broad white thoat patch with black shaft streaks extending onto the upper breast, hardly any pale underpart fringing; mid- to high-altitude breeder across the Himalayan part of the Indian subcontinent into Bhutan and Nepal.

Cook’s Swift A cooki: shallowest tail fork, first primary the longest (the other three have P2 as the longest), narrow white rump patch with dark, club-shaped shaft streaking, overall black upper- and underpart-coloration (brownish tinge in the other three), broad well-defined fringes to the underpart feathers, throat patch off-white with broad black shaft streaks, black contrasting underwing coverts, and green iridescence to upperparts with some white fringed scapulars; restricted range in limestone caves in northern south-east Asia, and a short distance migrant to then south.”

During my recent trip to Jiuzhaigou, I enjoyed watching a flock of “Fork-tailed” Swifts wheeling around the mountain tops at around 3,000m altitude.  A (poor quality) image of one of them is below.

Fork-tailed Swift, Jiuzhaigou, 27 June 2012. Is this a Salim Ali’s Swift?

Compare this image with a couple of Pacific Swifts taken at Laotieshan in May 2011:

Pacific Swift, Laotieshan, Liaoning Province, May 2011
Pacific Swift, Laotieshan, Liaoning Province, May 2011.

To my eyes at least the bird from Jiuzhaigou appears longer tailed and with a narrower white patch on the rump.  I don’t have access to the article by Paul Leader so I am not sure on precise range but I think there is a good chance this is a Salim Ali’s Swift.  Comments welcome!


Asian House Martin

Asian House Martin (Delichon dasypus) must be a candidate for vagrancy to Western Europe.  At least one of the three subspecies is a strong and long distance migrant.  However, looking very similar to Northern House Martin, its common European sister-species, how many people would be able to identify one?

The nominate subspecies of Asian House Martin is perhaps the most likely to wander.  It breeds in southeast Russia, the Kuril Islands, Japan and Korea and migrates through eastern China to winter in the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, Java and Sumatra.

Ssp cashmeriensis breeds in the Himalayas from Afghanistan east to Sikkim and northwards into Tibet and western and central China. It is a short-range migrant, mainly wintering at lower altitudes in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The third race, ssp nigrimentalis, breeds in southeastern China and southern Siberia. Its wintering grounds are unknown, but birds in Taiwan apparently just move to lower altitudes in winter.

In eastern China any sighting of a House Martin is notable.  I have seen a handful of both Asian (presumably the nominate subspecies) and Northern House Martins at Laotieshan in Liaoning Province but, in a sign of just how scarce they are in this region, I have still not seen one of either species in Beijing (they are passage migrants and seen in small numbers each spring and autumn – clearly I just haven’t been trying hard enough!).

My recent visit to Chang Bai Shan in Jilin Province provided an opportunity to get to grips with Asian House Martin as several pairs were nest-building on our hotel, allowing some fantastic views.  Capturing any hirundine in flight with a camera is never easy, and the images below won’t win any prizes, but they do show some of the features to look out for in separating Asian House Martin from Northern House Martin.  To the European readers of this blog, it’ll be worth making a mental note of these features when checking out those late autumn migrants….!

Asian House Martin, Laotieshan, 27 September 2011.  A typical view of a migrant.  Note the dark underwing coverts – a good feature of Asian House Martin – as well as the dusky-looking underparts and dark neck ‘collar’.
Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, 3 June 2012. A closer view. This image was taken in heavily overcast conditions but still shows the contrasting dark underwing coverts and dusky underparts with white throat.

There are several differences between Asian and Northern House Martin that should make identification relatively straightforward if seen well.

Structurally, Asian House Martin is smaller, more compact and squarer-tailed than Northern but these features aren’t necessarily easy to ascertain on a single bird.

Perhaps the best feature, and one that I have found very helpful in the field, is the colour of the underwing coverts.  In the images above, taken in sunny and dull conditions respectively, one can see the relatively dark underwing coverts, a consistent feature of Asian House Martin.  Compare with this image of a Northern House Martin.  The paler underwing coverts of Northern are not usually as prominent as shown in this linked image (taken in strong light) and can often appear concolourous with the rest of the underwing but a House Martin with obviously dark underwing coverts should be Asian.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, 3 June 2012

Another subtle feature to distinguish these two species is the amount of black on the face.  Compare the image above of Asian with this image of Northern.   The black on the face generally extends a little lower on Asian.

Asian House Martin, 3 June 2012

Another feature is the rump.  On Asian House Martin the white rump is usually relatively small and can appear ‘flecked’ with dark streaks, as in the above image.  On Northern the white rump is larger (due to more of the uppertail coverts being white) and is usually clean white.

Finally, check out these images from John Holmes in Hong Kong.   Asian House Martin often shows ‘dusky’ flanks and belly, whereas Northern usually shows bright white underparts.

In summary, the combination of a smallish white rump (sometimes flecked), dark underwing coverts, ‘dirty’ flanks, a squarer tail and a darker ‘face’ are all characteristics associated with Asian House Martin.   Maybe one will turn up at your migration watchpoint this autumn…?

EDIT: I have added this image of an Asian House Martin taken at Chang Bai Shan that shows the dark feathering on the upper chin (ie just below the lower mandible).  In Northern House Martin, the chin is white.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan, 3 June 2012. This image shows the dark feathering immediately below the lower mandible, a good feature of Asian House Martin. Not so easy to see in the field, however!

Laotieshan: The Trip Report

Paul Holt has just completed his detailed trip report for the autumn migration trip to Laotieshan in Liaoning Province, China.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him (and me!) that Paul is responsible for the incredibly detailed daily counts of the species included in the report.

It was an awesome trip with some stunning counts (including some China records).



  • We recorded 202 species in total
  • High counts included 2155 bird-days of Oriental Honey-buzzard with 1035 on our very first day on site, the 24 September;
  • 1150 bird-days of Black Kite with birds being seen almost every day with a peak count of 209 on the 7 October;
  • 1255 Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a peak count of 283 on the 10 October;
  • 248 bird-days of Northern Goshawk with a peak of 64 also on the 10 October;
  • 6944 bird-days of Eastern Buzzard with a peak of 3490 on the 12 October;
  • 7971 bird-days of Amur Falcon with a peak of 1830 on the 10 October;
  • Over 20,000 bird-days of Ashy Minivet with a peak of 7549 on the 28 September;
  • 456 bird-days of Yellow-bellied Tit with birds being noted on 20 of the 23 days we were in Liaoning and a peak of 160 on the 5 October;
  • Nearly 60,000 bird-days of Red-rumped Swallow with 10,000 being estimated on the 27 September;
  • Over 14,000 white-eyes with up to 4500 birds being noted daily while we were in the province;
  • Over 1600 bird-days of Black-faced Bunting with a peak of 700 on the 8 October.

Local rarities included:

  • 14-bird-days of Black Stork with between 1 and 4 birds on five dates;
  • A juvenile Steppe Eagle on the 2 October;
  • 2 juvenile Golden Eagles on the 11 October;
  • An adult male Lesser Kestrel on the 6 October;
  • 70 osculans Eurasian Oystercatchers, a moulting juvenile Pallas’s Gull (only the third for Liaoning) and a first year Glaucous Gull at the Biliu river, Pulandian and a single Little Curlew near Pikou, Pulandian all on the 3 October;
  • Surprising numbers of both Northern and Asian House Martins;
  • Two and one Red-billed Starlings on the 7th & 14 October respectively
  • Several early Alpine Accentors with sightings on three dates after the 11 October.
The full report can be downloaded by clicking on this link:  Birding in Liaoning 24 Sept. – 16 Oct. 2011 

Variation in Oriental Honey Buzzard

My visit to Laotieshan in Liaoning Province provided an excellent opportunity to get to grips with one of China’s most numerous raptors – the Oriental (Crested) Honey Buzzard.  We saw well over 1,500 of these birds during the first few days of our visit from 24 September, but clearly the bulk of these relatively early migrants had already passed through… Numbers tailed off pretty quickly at the end of Sep/early Oct, just as the number of Common Buzzards (a later migrant) began to increase.  The 4th October was the first day that Common Buzzards outnumbered Oriental Honeys.   I suspect that a survey from late August at Laotieshan would reveal several thousand Oriental Honey Buzzards (OHB) passing through (one local birdwatcher told us that the first OHBs of the autumn passed through on 2 September at Laotieshan).

The OHBs we saw were mostly juveniles but there were a few late adults mixed in (adults tend to migrate earlier).  The variation, as with European Honey Buzzard (EHB), is astonishing.

The main differences between OHB and EHB are as follows:

Size: OHB is larger with broader wings and 6 ‘fingers’ (vs 5 in EHB), sometimes recalling an Aquila eagle in silhouette.

Plumage: OHBs, as with EHBs, are highly variable, especially in juvenile plumages.  One of the main plumage differences between the two are that OHBs do not usually have a contrasting carpal patch and have a relatively shorter and fuller tail than EHBs.

In this post I am including some images of the birds we saw, with some comments about age and sex.  Please feel free to contact me if you think I have any wrongly labelled!

Oriental Honey Buzzard, Laotieshan. This is a juvenile, probably a male. Note the yellow base to the bill, the dark eye and the relatively neat and fresh plumage. A hint of grey on the head indicates this is probably a male.
Another juvenile. This one is very dark. Again, note the yellow base to the bill, the dark eye and the fresh plumage. This bird is also probably a male given the hint of grey on the head and the relatively well-marked bands on the underwing and tail.
Juvenile male. Juvenile due to the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage. A male due to the grey wash to the head and the thick dark tail bands.
Juvenile male. 'Rufous' juveniles like this seemed to be the dominant form. Again, note the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage indicating a juvenile. Also note the 2 strong tailbands, indicating a probably male (females generally have multiple narrower bands on the tail).
Juvenile, probable female. Aged as a juvenile given the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage. Probably a female given multiple relatively thin tailbands.
Juvenile female. Note the multiple, relatively thin, tailbands.
Juvenile female. Note pale-ish iris (males retain a dark iris) and multiple tail bands.
Same bird as above.
Juvenile female. Again, note the hint of a pale iris and multiple tail bands.
Juvenile (pale form). Superficially recalls Booted Eagle or Osprey. Not sure about sexing this bird.
Another pale juvenile.
Adult male. Note the all dark bill (indicating adult), grey head, prominent dark trailing edge to the wing, thick tail bands and relatively thick barring on the underwing (all characteristics of a male).
Adult male. Dark bill and prominent trailing edge to the wing indicates adult. Grey on head and two thick bands on the tail indicate male.
Adult male. Thick dark tail-bands, prominent dark trailing edge to wing.
Adult female? Pale iris and three tail-bands suggest female.
Adult female. Pale iris and lack of grey on head suggest female.