Buff-bellied Pipits

“It’s a pity that the pipits have

No diagnostic features,

Specifically they are the least

Distinctive of God’s creatures.”

So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.

Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-belliedMeadow, Olive-backedPechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water.   Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.

In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir.  With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.

Here are some photos that show typical japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.

2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun8
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. Note the buffy colour of the underparts, lacking a contrasting white belly, wing bars, complete eye-ring and relatively pale legs (compared with Water Pipit).
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun6
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus. Note the dark spotting, not streaking, on the mantle.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun4
Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 19 April 2015. On this bird the streaking on the underparts extends onto the flanks. Also note the fine bill.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun3
Fine crown streaking is also a feature of Buff-bellied.
2015-04-19 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Miyun
The eye-ring is at least as prominent as the supercilium, a good feature of Buff-bellied vs Water Pipit.
2014-11-30 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus2, Shidu
Buff-bellied is scarce in winter in Beijing. This one was at Shidu in late November. At this season, more heavily streaked and lacking the buff underparts but eye-ring still prominent.
2012-10-17 Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus, Ma Chang
This is a bird from October. Note, in particular, the prominence of the eye-ring compared with the supercilium.

And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.

2012-02-11 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni
Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Shidu, February 2012. Note the relative prominence of the supercilium vs the eye-ring. Also much less streaked underparts and dark legs.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang7
This bird from 21 April 2012. Relatively unstreaked underparts, greyish head, relatively prominent supercilium and dark legs all point to Water Pipit.
2012-04-21 Water Pipit ssp blakistoni, Ma Chang
A very clean breeding plumage Water Pipit from April 2012. Even without taking into account the very clean underparts (almost never shown on japonicus Buff-bellied), it shows a greyish-tinged head, prominent supercilium and dark legs.

Of course, another good indicator of ID is call.  The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated.  To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note.  You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here.  What do YOU think?

More from Miyun…

Yesterday morning, as the weekend smog had been cleared by a moderate (but cold!) northerly wind, I made a last-minute decision to visit Miyun.  On arrival at 0630 on a Monday morning I expected to have the place to myself but around 10 minutes later Swedish birder Jan-Erik Nilsen arrived and, a couple of hours later, a minibus of Beijing birders joined us, the latter including two exotic visitors, Rui and Yaya from Xinjiang! (lovely to see you guys!).

It was great to see so many birders and, although the Beijing group missed the GREAT WHITE PELICAN, which flew strongly north at 0905 (maybe gone for good after over 3 weeks on site?), there were plenty of birds to see.  A flock of over 800 BEAN GEESE, including at least 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE and a single SWAN GOOSE, made for a spectacular sight when they were occasionally flushed by a light aircraft…  I just love the noise of a flock of geese in flight, one of nature’s most magical sounds.

Up to 3 PEREGRINES and 2 SAKERS roamed the area and we watched one juvenile PEREGRINE harassing an AVOCET, even hovering over the water as the latter made a desperate dive to escape its attention.  Soon after we saw the same PEREGRINE carrying prey and, fortunately for us, it settled on the mud in front of us to devour it.  A gory scene, fit for forthcoming Halloween!

As the day wore on, a handful of cranes dropped in, including 25 of the beautiful WHITE-NAPED (encouragingly, several parties containing juveniles) and a few COMMON.  A ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD passed to the east providing excellent views and a handful of distant MONGOLIAN LARKS flew north…

With the water level so low at Miyun (apparently in preparation for receiving trillions of gallons from the great south-north water diversion project), the birding is currently spectacular with the traditional viewpoint at Houbajiazhuang offering superb views of usually difficult to see birds.  With so many great birds being found at this site, it’s extremely hard to tear oneself away to visit other sites…  so who knows what we are missing at Wild Duck Lake?  After the recent emergence of the 31 August Spoon-billed Sandpiper record at that site, I don’t want to think about it…

Lesser White-fronted Geese

The LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE is classified as VULNERABLE by BirdLife International because “it has suffered a rapid population reduction in its key breeding population in Russia, and equivalent declines are predicted to continue. The Fennoscandian population has undergone a severe historical decline, and has not yet recovered.”

Thousands of the eastern population breed in northeast Russia and winter in central China.  It is perhaps surprisingly rare in Beijing with fewer than 10? records.  It is undoubtedly overlooked amongst large flocks of BEAN GEESE.

This autumn, the very low water level at Miyun Reservoir has uncovered a large flat area of grass and mud that is proving attractive to many species, including geese, cranes and bustards. And, with the close by hillocks at Houbajiazhuang offering a superb vantage point, it is an exceptional year to observe them.

Amongst the early arrivals of Bean Geese, a flock of 40+ LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE have dropped in.  They have been present for around a week and, on Wednesday, I was able to secure this video.  Superb birds and, side by side with a few GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, it’s a brilliant opportunity to compare these two similar species.

GREAT WHITE PELICAN video

This GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus) was first seen on 5 October and, after going missing for a few days, presumably the same was seen again on 18 October and it now looks settled close to Houbajiazhuang at Miyun Reservoir.  It spends most of its time asleep on the mud but, occasionally, makes short flights to the water where it feeds in its distinctive pelican fashion.

The flights provide an opportunity to photograph it and, luckily for us, the pelican spent a few minutes preening before it’s first flight of the day at around 1630 on Wednesday, allowing me to capture this short video.

Great White Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 22 October 2014.
Great White Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 22 October 2014.

It’s the 3rd record of this species for Beijing.

Bramblings

On Wednesday, around the time of finding the RED-THROATED LOON, a huge flock of BRAMBLINGS dropped in to some trees and shrubs close to our watchpoint before proceeding to the edge of the reservoir to drink….  We estimated over 500 in this single flock – an awesome sight.  As in the UK, Bramblings are winter visitors to Beijing and right now they are streaming through..  beautiful birds.

Red-throated Loon in Beijing – first record since 1933!

This autumn is set to go down in Beijing birding history as the best ever (so far!).  As well as the Holy Trinity of Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Swinhoe’s Rail and Streaked Reed Warbler, there has been a stunning supporting cast.

Yesterday at Miyun Reservoir, there were two more additions to the seemingly never ending list of rarities to be found in Beijing this autumn.

First, regular Beijing visitor, Dutch birder Ben Wielstra, picked up a BLACK-WINGED KITE loitering over the Chao He valley to the north and then, around lunchtime, whilst scanning through a group of distant GREAT CRESTED GREBES in the hope of finding a RED-NECKED GREBE, I spotted a loon.  As soon as I had described to the others where it was, it was flushed by a fishing boat and took flight..  We all managed to get onto it and, as it flew, we were hastily discussing whether it was the more likely PACIFIC or BLACK-THROATED or the much rarer RED-THROATED.  Despite the distance, Paul Holt was already suspecting it was a RED-THROATED and, fortunately, it flew towards us and landed in a bay much closer, but still some distance away.  As soon as it landed it was immediately clear it was a RED-THROATED LOON, a species that with which I am very familiar as a winter visitor offshore from my home village of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk.  Wow!  Once again, the Swarovski kit of the ATX95 plus iPhone and adaptor proved its worth in being able to document a distant record that, without doubt, would have been impossible with my traditional set up of a Canon 400mm lens.

There are two previous records of RED-THROATED LOON from Beijing.  The first was a dead female picked up “north of the river” in Tongzhou, remarkably on the same date of 22 October, in 1932.  The second was a sight record at the same site from 10-12 April 1933.  So this is the first record of RED-THROATED LOON in the capital for more than 80 years!

Big thanks to Paul for the intelligence on the records from the 1930s.

GREAT WHITE PELICAN at Miyun – the 3rd record for the capital

On 5 October, during the National Holiday, I visited Miyun Reservoir with Marie.  It was a beautiful day but with a rather chilly northerly breeze that meant the jackets didn’t come off until late morning….  On arrival, almost the first thing we saw was a distant, but still very obvious, large white bird sitting on the water.  I set up the telescope and could immediately see it was a pelican… fantastic!  The obvious question was which species?  In Beijing there are records of two pelican species – the DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕, Pelecanus crispus), a barely annual migrant, most likely to be encountered in spring,  and the much rarer GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus), the latter with just two Beijing records.  I have very limited experience of both, with just one sighting of Great White and two of Dalmatians, all in spring.

Separating the two is relatively straightforward given good views and, even at great distance, the species can be separated if seen in flight (Great White shows an obvious sharp contrast between the black primaries and secondaries and the white wing coverts).

Frustratingly, given the distance, I decided that it was prudent to leave the Miyun pelican unidentified unless I saw it in flight… so I decided to keep an eye on it as I scanned the other birds on the reservoir.  I put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and Paul Holt, who was birding at nearby Huairou Reservoir and was already planning to come to Miyun, replied to say he’d join us in a couple of hours.

At that time, there were lots of birds moving and it soon became apparent that there was an impressive raptor passage beginning with ‘Eastern’ Buzzards, Amur Falcons, Hobbies and Kestrels all moving…

Juvenile COMMON KESTREL.  One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.
Juvenile COMMON KESTREL. One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.

It was this distraction that allowed the pelican to slip away unnoticed… one minute it was there, the next it was gone and we had not seen it fly…!  We desperately scanned the skies thinking that, even if it had left a few minutes before, we must be able to pick up a bird of its size in the sky.. but no, it had gone!

All I had were my grainy photos taken with my iPhone through my telescope at 70x magnification.

Pelican, Miyun Reservoir,  5 October 2014.  Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope
Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 5 October 2014. Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope

As scheduled, Paul arrived a little later and although disappointed at not seeing the pelican himself, he suspected from the original photo that it was probably a Great White.

Even so, it was more in hope than anticipation that I circulated the image to a few respected birders and their responses delighted me – all thought there was enough to identify it as a Great White!

Axel Bräunlich, of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, wrote:

“I don’t see a problem in ID-ing your Miyun birds as Great White:

– general very white colouration, colour of breast
– “dent” in upper head, smooth outline of head (no shaggy crest) –> characteristic head profile
– colour of pouch
– rosy area around eye (poorly visible on photo, but apparently there)”

Axel summed up the ID criteria very well and, when combined with positive responses from Paul Holt and Colm Moore, I am very happy to call this Beijing’s 3rd record of GREAT WHITE PELICAN.

Even without the pelican, it was a brilliant day’s birding in stunning surroundings.. Miyun is spectacular when the air and weather behave themselves…  Here is a photo of Paul and me enjoying the birding that day..

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

Big thanks to Marie for her great company throughout the day and to Axel, Paul and Colm for taking the time to provide me with their much-valued opinions on the identification of this pelican.

I must also thank Swarovski.  The ATX95 with iPhone adaptor makes it possible to capture images at such an incredible distance… and this bird would have been in the records as “pelican sp” had it not been for the photo I was able to capture using this impressive kit.