Manchurian Reed Warbler

Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum), Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013
Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum), Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013

The last week of May and first week of June is THE best time for seeing acrocephalus warblers in Beijing.  These birds arrive relatively late in the spring migration to allow the reedbeds and vegetation, on which they depend, to grow sufficiently.  This Spring I have been hoping to see two specific acrocephalus warblers that I have never seen before – the Streaked Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus sorghophilus) and the Manchurian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus tangorum).  The chances of seeing the former are slim – there have been no records anywhere since 2011, when one was well-described from the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, by a visiting birder and before that one must look back to 2009 when one was trapped in winter at Candaba Marshes, Philippines (unsure of date) and another was found by Paul Holt at the Summer Palace, Beijing, on 6 June.  As far as I am aware, there have been no sightings at the well-covered migration hotspot of Beidaihe since 1999 and the breeding grounds, although thought to be in northeast China and southwest Russia, have never been discovered.  This is a bird I am seriously worried about and its decline since the days of La Touche (who described it as “swarming” at Beidaihe in late August and early September in the early 20th century) has been catastrophic.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I have not yet found a Streaked Reed Warbler.  However, yesterday (1 June) I saw my first Manchurian Reed Warbler at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing.

It is always rewarding to go birding with someone who knows a lot more than yourself – it’s one of the best ways to learn.  And to go birding with a real China expert – is a treat.  So when Paul Holt asked me if I wanted to accompany him for a day’s birding around the northeastern reservoirs of Huairou and Miyun, I jumped at the opportunity.  Paul had spent the previous day in the area and had found two special birds – Manchurian Reed Warbler and Chinese Bush Warbler – both, especially the latter, very difficult to see in the capital.

Our first stop was an area of superb habitat on the eastern fringe of Huairou Reservoir.  Sure enough, after a few minutes, we were listening to, and watching, a splendid Manchurian Reed Warbler….  I had wondered how straightforward separation from the similar Black-browed and Blunt-winged Warblers would be.  I was a little surprised at how different they are.  With a prominent, but not as broad as Black-browed, white supercilium with a limited black upper border, long bill, prominent white throat bordering buffy underparts and an almost speckled crown, this warbler, given reasonable views, is distinctive.  And the song, although resembling other ‘acros‘ lacks the fast pace or repetition of Black-browed.

Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013.  A typical view of this reed-dwelling species!
Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013. A typical view of this reed-dwelling species!
Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013.  Note the dark flecking in the crown - a good feature of Manchurian Reed.
Manchurian Reed Warbler, Huairou Reservoir, Beijing, 1 June 2013. Note the dark flecking in the crown – a good feature of Manchurian Reed.

We enjoyed this bird for as long as 15 minutes as it made its way along a patch of reeds before moving back into a larger reedbed.  Although reed warblers definitely fit into the “little brown job” of birds, the subtle differences in appearance and vocalisations make them a rewarding challenge for birders.  And Manchurian Reed Warbler is a difficult bird to see anywhere.  With a very restricted breeding range in northeast China (and southwest Russia), as its name suggests, the breeding grounds are relatively inaccessible and I imagine non-vocalising winter birds to be hard to find in large areas of wetland habitat.

Big thanks to Paul for finding, and taking me to see, one of my most-wanted Beijing birds.  Now, where’s that Streaked Reed…..?

Blunt-winged Warbler

This autumn I have a bird on my target list.  It’s a bird that, in reality, I probably have almost no chance of finding because, as far as I am aware, there have been only a handful of records from anywhere in the last few years – Streaked Reed Warbler.  The paucity of records may be at least partly due to the lack of observers in its breeding areas (thought to be north-east China and south-east Russia) but, from recent reports from its known wintering grounds in the Philippines, this bird is declining very rapidly.

I was inspired by reading some notes from La Touche at the turn of the century who described Streaked Reed Warbler as “swarming” in late August and early September at Beidaihe.  But it was more with hope than expectation that I visited Yeyahu Nature Reserve this weekend with the intention of scrutinising the reed-beds for Acro warblers.

After hearing several “tack”-ing Acro warblers that revealed themselves to be the relatively common Black-browed Reed Warbler, I discovered a singing Acrocephalus warbler..  not what I expected in September!  It was difficult to pick up given the noise from the earth-movers and heavy vehicles associated with the major works ongoing at Yeyahu to make it more “tourist friendly” (more on that in a later post!).  Frustratingly I couldn’t see it, despite waiting in the area for around 45 minutes.  Then a Chinese Grey Shrike appeared, clearly spooked the singing bird and it fell silent.  After waiting around for a while just in case it started to sing again, and with no sign, I left to cover more of the reserve but with a yellow sticky note in my mind to return later.

After covering the remaining reed-beds and finding more Black-browed Reed Warblers and several Oriental Reed Warblers, I returned to the same spot in the late afternoon.  Incredibly, it (or a different bird) was singing again just a few metres from the original spot.  This time, without the din of the earth-movers (they had packed up for the day), I was able to record it using my video camera.  It didn’t sound like a Black-browed Reed Warbler but these Acro species can sound very similar, so I wasn’t sure.

I tried ‘pishing‘ and immediately it popped up for the briefest of moments before dropping out of sight.  My impression was of a very warmly coloured bird with a strikingly white throat and lacking the well-marked face and blackish ‘brow’ of Black-browed.  I pished again.  Again it clambered up a reed stem and looked at me curiously..  This time I was able to rattle off a few images with the camera before it dropped again.  It continued to sing from its perch out of sight.  I looked at the images on the camera and immediately knew it was not a Black-browed Reed Warbler.  Any other small Acrocephalus warbler would be very interesting.   The likelihood was that it was either a Manchurian Reed Warbler or a Blunt-winged Warbler, both rare in Beijing.  Given the bird’s warm colouration, my instinct suggested Manchurian Reed Warbler as I had found a Blunt-winged Warbler in spring at Yeyahu which was much paler than this bird.  However, the face pattern – with a supercilium in front of the eye but not behind and the lack of a black upper border – fitted better Blunt-winged.  The wings also looked incredibly short, also good for Blunt-winged.  An email exchange with Paul Holt confirmed it as a Blunt-winged.  Apparently both Manchurian Reed and Blunt-winged look much ‘warmer’ in autumn after their moult.  Result!

Blunt-winged Warbler used to breed at the Summer Palace in Beijing but in recent years it has become a real rarity in Beijing.  With a disjunct population, Blunt-winged Warbler is also present in parts of Central Asia and north-east India.  The small population in northeast China has been the subject of speculation that it could be a different species, especially given the habitat preference seems to be different.  However, my understanding is that DNA analysis has shown that they are identical.

It is certainly unusual, but not unprecedented, for Acrocephalus warblers to sing in autumn.  Several of the Oriental Reed Warblers on site were still chuntering away, albeit half-heartedly.

So, no Streaked Reed Warbler (yet) but the Blunt-winged Warbler was a nice consolation!  Here are a couple of images.

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 8 September 2012. Note how the supercilium is strong in front of the eye but absent behind it. In Manchurian, the supercilium should also be present behind the eye with a narrow black upper border.
Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 8 September 2012.

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