Desert Wheatear

This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear.  It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls and a Mongolian Lark.

Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place.  Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing.  An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight.  The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..

Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds…  Wow!  The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire.  Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see.   I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012. A wonderful bird.

I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west.  It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone.  Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear.  Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record.  I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer.  It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear.  I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record).  But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities)..  and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive.  Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view.   On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert.  Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.

Desert Wheatear (female), Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. Thought to be only the 2nd record of this species in Beijing.
Desert Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. The only other Beijing record I am aware of is of a male at the same site in April 2010.

I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds..  it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!

Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.

Mongolian Lark, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again..  another first for me in Beijing.

It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be…  These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.

Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.

Grey-headed Lapwings at Yeyahu NR, 5 April 2012.

Full Species List:

Common Pheasant – 3
Swan Goose – 67
Bean Goose – 13
Whooper Swan – 30
Bewick’s Swan – 27
Common Shelduck – 5
Ruddy Shelduck – 38
Gadwall – 10
Falcated Duck – 146
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 290
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Northern Pintail – 21
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 16
Eurasian Teal – 12
Red-crested Pochard – 7
Common Pochard – 1
Ferruginous Duck – 4
Common Goldeneye – 67
Goosander – 44
Little Grebe – 5
Great Crested Grebe – 71
Black Stork – 2
Bittern – 2 (heard booming at 2 different sites)
Grey Heron – 13
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant – 75
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1
Black-eared Kite – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3
Hen Harrier – 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Goshawk – 1
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 4
Common Coot – 38
Common Crane – 6
Black-winged Stilt – 15
Pied Avocet – 2 at Ma Chang; my first record of this species at Wild Duck Lake
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Northern Lapwing – 18
Little Ringed Plover – 21
Kentish Plover – 8
Oriental Plover – at least 19 (another flock of 10+ plovers in flight could have been this species)
Mongolian Gull – 31 at Yeyahu, including 3 immatures
Relict Gull - 12
Black-headed Gull – 88
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Eurasian Collared Dove – 3
Common Swift – 1
Fork-tailed Swift – 32
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Daurian Jackdaw – 26
Rook – 2
Carrion Crow – 4
Great Tit – 4
Barn Swallow – 11
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Mongolian Lark - 1; within a few metres of the Desert Wheatear
Asian Short-toed Lark – 28
Eurasian Skylark – 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 8
Red-billed Starling – 1; my first record at Wild Duck Lake; flew in from the east, rested briefly on the island to the north of Ma Chang and then continued West.
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 2
Daurian Redstart – 2
Desert Wheatear – 1 (fem); very confiding until spooked by a Merlin and then flew high west and lost to view.  Had not returned an hour later when I re-scanned.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 22
Buff-bellied Pipit – 12
Oriental Greenfinch – 4
Godlewski’s Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 2
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18 (some males now coming into breeding plumage)

Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

I visited Wild Duck Lake on Sunday with Peter Cawley.  The weather was far from ideal and we endured thick fog, with visibility down to around 20-25 metres, for the first few hours.  The fog gradually dispersed from around 1000am and, by 3pm, it was a glorious day..  nevertheless, we definitely missed out at what felt like a very ‘birdy’ Ma Chang and, rather unnervingly, almost got lost in the ‘desert’ area… (thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the right path).

Temp around 15 degrees C at 0600 with thick fog and no wind.  From 1000am a very light NE breeze.  Temp around 22 degrees C mid-afternoon.

Highlights: a single Short-toed Eagle, Pied, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, 30 Common Buzzards, Goshawk, 2 Mongolian Larks and a Wren (only my second at Wild Duck Lake).

Long Eared Owl, Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

Full species list:

Japanese Quail – 1

Common Pheasant – 6

Bean Goose – 3

Mandarin – 1

Gadwall – 1

Mallard – 26

Spot-billed Duck – 5

Eurasian Teal – 4

Little Grebe – 15

Great Crested Grebe – 7

Black-crowned Night Heron – 45

Grey Heron – 2

Purple Heron – 1

Short-toed Eagle – 1

Eastern Marsh Harrier – 1

Hen Harrier – 2

Pied Harrier – 1 adult male

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1

Northern Goshawk – 1

Common Buzzard – 30 (including 28 migrating in one 10-minute spell late morning)

Common Moorhen – 1

Common Coot – 5

Northern Lapwing – 1

Common Snipe – 3

Green Sandpiper – 1

Oriental Turtle Dove – 2

Collared Dove – 8

Long-eared Owl – 1

Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1

Chinese Grey Shrike – 3 (2 heard only in the fog)

Azure-winged Magpie – 1

Common Magpie – 24

Daurian Jackdaw – 1 adult flew east

Carrion Crow – 8

Great Tit – 3

Marsh Tit – 1

Mongolian Lark – 2.  An early date and hopefully the precursor to a good winter for this species.

Eurasian Skylark – 8

Lark sp (possibly Greater Short-toed) – 4

Zitting Cisticola – 2

Chinese Hill Warbler – 3

Chinese Bulbul – 13

Black-browed Reed Warbler – 9

Oriental Reed Warbler – 1 probable chattering at Ma Chang in thick fog.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 1

Dusky Warbler – 1

Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 60

White-eye sp – 1

Wren – 1.  A very dark individual.

Thrush sp – 1

Bluethroat – 1

Red-flanked Bluetail – 1

Daurian Redstart – 5

Siberian Stonechat – 1

Tree Sparrow – 80+

White Wagtail – 17 (ssps ocularis, leucopsis and baicalensis)

Buff-bellied Pipit – 5

Water Pipit – 1 probable

Chestnut-eared Bunting – 1

Little Bunting – 77

Yellow-throated Bunting – 5

Black-faced Bunting – 14

Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 7

Meanwhile, at Laotieshan, Paul Holt continues to see huge numbers of Amur Falcons (over 1,800 yesterday evening in a pre-roost gathering – the highest autumn count anywhere in China), good numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles (at least 7 and up to 17 yesterday) and Goshawk (64), over 250 Common (Eastern) Buzzards and has also added Japanese Reed Bunting to the species list.

Guest Post 3: Brian Jones – The Magic of Yeyahu NR and Ma Chang (Wild Duck Lake)

The third in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is from Brian Jones. Brian was kind enough to take me on my first visit to Wild Duck Lake (covering the areas of Ma Chang and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) soon after I arrived in Beijing and his enthusiasm for the place, as well as the great birds, made it a fantastic introduction to birding in China. That enthusiasm was infectious and I have since made regular visits to what is surely the premier birding site in the Beijing area. Brian visited WDL almost every week over a period of three years and thus has an unrivalled understanding of the birding in all seasons at this site and he has racked up an impressive list of records, including an amazing sighting of a Leopard Cat (with photo!). And so, with that short introduction, it’s over to Brian to tell you more about this wonderful place….

The Magic of Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Its Environs of Ma Chang

The viewing tower at "Eagle Field", Yeyahu Nature Reserve

This is my spiritual birdwatching home and somewhere I would recommend to any birder visiting Beijing.  It is good at all times of the year but perhaps marginally less so during June and July.

Yeyahu NR and neighbouring Ma Chang are, to my mind, the premier birdwatching sites in the Beijing area. Surprisingly the area is grossly under-birded and in the three years that I lived in Beijing having visited the site more than 160 times, apart from regulars like Jesper Hornskov, the highly respected China guide and his parties, I have probably seen no more than 30-40 birders.

The reserve lies approximately 80kms to the NW of Beijing and is reached by the Badaling expressway. The trip, depending on delays caused by trucks breaking down, normally takes about one and a half hours. But this can become over two and a half hours with delays so I got into the habit of busing out on Friday evening and staying overnight in Yanqing. My ever-reliable taxi driver Li Yan would look after me like a surrogate mother and pick me up at all hours.

My regular birdwatching companion Spike Millington and I would normally start at Ma Chang which is an open sandy desert-like area surrounded by crop fields mostly Maize and Peanuts.This is a haven for Cranes (Common, White-naped, Hooded, occasionally Demoiselle and Siberian) as well as the elusive Oriental Plover in the Spring (end of March-beginning of May and very occasionally in the Autumn), Great Bustard and raptors.

Demoiselle Crane, Wild Duck Lake

This is a wonderful location for raptors and it is not unusual to reach double figures of species during a day’s birdwatching. Larks are also plentiful including the much sought-after Mongolian Lark which, in the very cold winter of 2009/10, could be found in flocks of 200 birds. That particular winter also produced an irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse – one day I counted over 300 birds – and the extraordinary record of a dark variant Gyr Falcon. It is worthwhile exploring the area surrounding the wind turbines to the west of Ma Chang for Great Bustard, which are normally seen during the Autumn and late winter.

Mongolian Lark, Wild Duck Lake
Great Spotted Eagle ssp fulvescens, Wild Duck Lake
Pallass Sandgrouse, Wild Duck Lake, winter 2009/10

You can walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu NR either through or round the fence that divides the two areas and it is certainly more worthwhile to do so as you will see far more birds than taxi cabbing from one to the other. Daurian Partridge are present in small numbers as well as Japanese Quail. During Winter and Spring time, the walk produces many Buntings, including the occasional irruption of Pine Buntings (one flock of 300 seen in 2010). I have also recorded the rare Streaked Reed Warbler along the edge of the reservoir.

Yeyahu NR produces a remarkable number of species considering the lack of any forested areas. If you want to find large raptors then head for the area we call Eagle field which lies between the lake and the reservoir to the north. Late morning in the Spring and Autumn will normally produce something special. Short-toed Eagle, which is a scarce bird in north China, is easily found here as well as Greater Spotted Eagles. During the winter White-tailed Eagles are commonly seen but, surprisingly, Golden Eagles are rare at Yeyahu. We have also found Booted and Terry Townshend this year saw an Imperial Eagle. I recorded Himalayan Griffon (2010) at this location. I believe it is the only Beijing record and I am quite sure a Steppe Eagle and Lammergeier will one day put in an appearance. Accipiters and Falcons are plentiful depending on the time of year with Saker Falcons being more common than Peregrines and an occasional Siberian Goshawk amongst the Northern Goshawks, being found. During migration it is not unusual to see migrating flocks of 50+ Amur falcons sometimes with small parties of Lesser Kestrel (best location at the bottom of Ma Chang). I found a flock of over 30 Lesser Kestrels one morning.

All the Harriers can be found with good numbers of Eastern Marsh (which breed both at Ma Chang and on the lake), Hen, Pied and on four occasions I have seen Pallid Harriers. Relict Gulls in the Spring and occasionally a Pallas’s Gull will show. Bitterns are common, I estimate there maybe as many as 30 breeding pairs of Great Bitterns in the area as well as good numbers of Von Schrenck’s, a rare bird in most areas of China, and the ubiquitous Yellow Bittern. If you walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu early in the morning in May you will probably find Crakes or Water Rail. The reedbeds also hold breeding Chinese Penduline Tits, one of the very few places where they breed in the Beijing area, perhaps the only location and last year we recorded the first breeding pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes at Yeyahu for the area. Chinese Grey Shrikes, which are uncommon elsewhere, are common at Yeyahu during the winter.

One of my birdwatching friends Richard Carden from Singapore who has visited the site with me on several occasions has a habit of setting me lists of target birds to find. There have only been two glaring misses to the “list”, Great Bustard and Eagle Owl neither of which is normally that hard to locate at the appropriate time of the year. However Yeyahu made up for these deficiencies by producing an extralimital male Desert Wheatear and a Baird’s Sandpiper (yet to be ratified but the id of which we are both quite certain is correct) as well as a female Pallid Harrier. Peter Ericsson, the well-known guide from Bangkok was also present on one of the red-letter days. I would happily take an oath, that there is no such thing as a bad day during a visit to Yeyahu/Ma Chang. You can always count on the “Yeyahu surprise”.

Yeyahu also supports a considerable bio-diversity especially for lepidoptera, diurnal moths, amphibians and flora. Unfortunately to study lepidoptera you need to look down while birdwatching you are looking up so a choice must be made. I was also very lucky one morning to find myself walking down a track undetected behind a Leopard Cat which are rare now and usually strictly nocturnal.

Leopard Cat, Wild Duck Lake

There are of course aspects which are less favourable not least the “cavalry and dune buggies” who are out all year except during winter in the Ma Chang area.These are riders who charge hither and thither, yelling like cowboys, but falling off with great regularity. It is quite common to see riderless horses heading back to the corral followed some minutes later by a limping vacquero. Dune buggies have a nice habit of getting bogged down as do the cars full of photgraphers who spend much of their time chasing Lapwings. This is why it is worthwhile arriving at Ma Chang by 0700hrs before the Oriental Plovers etc. have been disturbed by the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. There used to be a problem with boatloads of shooting parties, mist netters, snare trappers and long-doggers, all illegal activities in China. But many of these activities have been curtailed because we took a very pro-active stance and “destroyed” all that crossed our path. You can never entirely limit poaching in China because there is a lack of understanding and caring amongst the local population but you can keep it under control by making a big fuss whenever you catch somebody setting up nets etc.
Finally I would recommend to any birder that they walk and not drive round the area. It will prove to be so much more rewarding. If you consider that the area has practically no trees and is mostly flat grassland, the 260 odd species that we have recorded in the reserve is, by China’s birdwatching standards, quite remarkable. I have rarely exceeded 60 species in a day at Yeyahu, but the list will always be full of unusual and exciting birds.

Brian Jones is a 66 years-old Art & Financial consultant who worked at Sothebys for ten years. He has spent three years in China, mostly in Beijing but now based in Shenzhen, working as an independent consultant with a Chinese metals information board and industrial re-cycling group as well as a Chinese investment company.  Brian has a great interest in all aspects of the environment, is a keen ornithologist and entomologist and an avid Scuba diver. He is also an ex-falconer, hence his excitement anytime something with a hooked beak flies past!.

Wild Goose Chase

This week, Birding Beijing is brought to you by the letter “M” and the number “2”.

“M” because there was a distinctly Mongolian feel to Saturday’s birding, and “2” because I saw two new birds!

Spike and I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang to Yeyahu) again on Saturday. We were buoyed by last week’s hints of Spring and, on the bus to Yanqing, our conversation revolved around the possibility of seeing early migrants – would there be a first Little Ringed Plover, or even an Oriental Plover? A Mongolian Lark or Great Bustard? Or something rarer like a Pallas’s Sandgrouse? As usual, speculation about just what might be was pretty outrageous..!

In the end, the reality was much better than I could have reasonably expected with two new birds for me – a single Mongolian Lark (yess!) and 2 White-naped Cranes that were seen cohorting with the local Common Crane flock – whilst the rarest bird must be the all-too-brief probable Lesser White-fronted Goose that was associating with around 3,000 Bean Geese (mostly of the subspecies serrirostris but with a few middendorffii mixed in).

The supporting cast included c400 Swan Geese, 2 Hooded Cranes, the first Shoveler and Wigeon of the year, a stunning drake Baikal Teal, 9 Kentish Plovers, a single Grey-headed Lapwing, my first 3 White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) of the year, 20 Mongolian Gulls (18 of which were migrating west), 10 Black-headed Gulls, c300 Smew, 2 Upland Buzzards, 2 ‘ringtail’ Hen Harriers, 2 Siberian Accentors, 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes and 3 White-cheeked Starlings.

The day started at Ma Chang at around 0645 and we were greeted by a big flock of Common Cranes by the side of the track. Amongst them were 2 Hooded Cranes, spotted as they took flight. A good start! Then, just as I had set up my telescope to go through the flocks of wildfowl on the far side of the reservoir, everything took flight. This had to mean one thing – a major raptor. Sure enough, a White-tailed Eagle lumbered low over the reeds and settled on the ice. Looking at the sky revealed the sheer scale of the wildfowl present – the sky was full of birds. Bean Geese were everywhere… The sight and sound of the geese in flight shortly after dawn was something to behold. I tried to capture some of the atmosphere on video and you can view a short clip of the Bean Geese here. We just stood and marvelled at the sight for a couple of minutes and then I thought it would probably be a good idea to go through the flocks to see if there were any other geese mixed in.

I began to check the flying flocks with my telescope and, in the third flock I checked, I saw a significantly smaller ‘white-fronted’ goose in a flock of serrirostris Bean Geese. I watched it for about 10 seconds in flight before the flock landed on the ice. I could see the relatively small size (at the time, I estimated it was 20 per cent smaller than the serrirostris Bean Geese), dark belly markings, the white base to the bill and I could just make out an eye-ring. I called out “I think I have a Lesser White-front!”. After a scan of the flock on the ground I picked it up at about 200-300m distance, and was again struck by the noticeably smaller size, relatively small head and very peaked forehead. Unfortunately many other serrirostris Bean Geese landed in the same area and several birds walked in front of the LWFG and it was lost to view. I couldn’t get Spike onto the bird… very frustrating! After several minutes of waiting to see if it would reveal itself, we decided to walk to another vantage point to try to view the flock from a different angle. This proved fruitless when the flock flew up to join another flock of Bean Geese heading west and was lost to view.

I have seen LWFG in Copenhagen in Spring 2010 (a flock of 50+) and I am confident that the bird was that species, although I would have liked to have studied it for longer to rule out hybrids, taken more notes and, ideally, photographed it.. a little frustrating but hopefully it will hang around and be seen by others.

It was shortly after this sighting that we began the walk towards Yeyahu and it was on the shore of the reservoir that we encountered a large flock of larks feeding out in the open. A Kentish Plover called and we soon picked up two, three, then four of these dainty plovers. I set up the telescope to go through the flock with the main aim of counting the KPs (9 in total) when I suddenly got onto a very striking lark mixed in with the Eurasian Skylarks. Slightly larger than the Skylarks and with a black mark at the top of the breast bordered with a rusty wash on the sides of the upper breast, rusty colouration to the median and lesser coverts and a rusty stripe on the head, this could only be one thing – a Mongolian Lark! This is a bird I had hoped to see around Beijing in winter and I was beginning to think my luck was out. To see one in mid- to late March was a nice surprise! After only about a minute it took flight on its own and, with its very distinctive ‘floppy’ flight, it looped over to a more shrubby area and dropped to the ground. Despite a brief search of the area, it never showed again.

We walked round to the east side of the reservoir to try to view the flocks of wildfowl that were congregating on the northern shore. Lots of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Swan Geese and masses of duck. Most surprising of all was the sight of 4 cormorant fishermen who paddled out into the middle of the reservoir and released their cormorants to begin fishing. I thought this practice had all but died out so was surprised to see it being used less than 90 minutes from the capital… (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight!).

The onward walk was relatively quiet with just a couple of Upland Buzzards, a few Japanese Quail, 3 Meadow Buntings, 2 Siberian Accentors and lots more Pallas’s Reed Buntings. We were met by our driver at Yeyahu and began the journey home, tired but exhilarated. That first 3 to 4 hours at the reservoir on Saturday morning will stay with me for a long time – fantastic birding.

This site has bags of potential in Spring and I can’t wait to return.

Mixed flock of Bean Geese and Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011
Cormorant fisherman with wildfowl flock in background, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011