Oriental Pratincole

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 June 2013
Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 June 2013

The arrival of Oriental Pratincoles in Beijing in mid-April is one of spring’s reaffirming moments.  The pratincoles’ harsh tern-like calls are often heard before the birds are seen.  Most of the birds I see in Beijing are simply stopping off for a break on their migration and most move on to sites further north.  However, this year a small colony has taken up residence at Miyun Reservoir and, during my visit on 1st June in perfect conditions, this group provided some superb opportunities to study, photograph and record their behaviour.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 June 2013
Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 June 2013

This video from my Canon EOS 7D captures some of their characteristic head-bobbing behaviour and calls.

Interestingly, among the group, there was one apparent first summer bird lacking the beautiful underparts of the adults, sporting an all black bill and with white-edged juvenile wing coverts.  My understanding is that most first summer birds remain on the wintering grounds, so this may be an unusual sighting.  Unfortunately it was always too distant for photographs.

We enjoyed this encounter for some time in the mid- to late-afternoon light before reluctantly tearing ourselves away.

Blyth’s Pipits and more…

On Tuesday I spent the day at Miyun Reservoir with Paul Holt (fresh back from leading tours to Bhutan and Taiwan).  We started at Houbajia Zhuangcun on the eastern side (the best place to view any cranes lingering in the area) and then visited the north-west side near Bulaotun where the water levels are providing some good habitat for waders.

Our first surprise was on the walk down to the reservoir from the village at Houbajia Zhuangcun as every field seemed to be full of pipits.  It was immediately obvious that there were many Richard’s Pipits around along with good numbers of Buff-bellied and Red-throated with the occasional Olive-backed flying overhead.  No sooner as Paul said he thought there must be a Blyth’s on site, we turned a corner and flushed four largish pipits that called as they took to the air revealing themselves to be Blyth’s!  They circled and landed again, allowing us to secure some wonderful views of these scarce pipits on the deck.  Seeing them alongside Richard’s Pipits was very instructive and, although I would hesitate to identify a silent Blyth’s unless I had extremely good views, Paul was able to give me some very good insights into how to separate Blyth’s from Richard’s on the ground.  The shorter bill, more heavily streaked mantle, shorter tail and, of course, the shape of the dark centres to the tertials if seen well enough, are all features to look for but, for me, the most obvious difference is structural, particularly noticeable in flight.  Blyth’s look noticeably shorter-tailed in flight and can even recall a smaller pipit at times.  We spent a long time watching these pipits and it probably took us an hour and a half to get to the reservoir, a walk that usually takes about 10 minutes!

I only managed a couple of images of Blyth’s in flight…  I won’t apologise for spending most of my time studying them through my telescope rather than stalking them for photographs!  Below is a comparison of Blyth’s and Richard’s.

Blyth’s (upper) and Richard’s (lower) Pipits in flight. In this direct comparison, one can see the slightly shorter tail and shorter bill of Blyth’s. The much-superior Richard’s Pipit image is by Graham Catley.

Of course, call is one of the ways to separate these two; you can hear the calls of Blyth’s and Richard’s Pipits on Xeno Canto Asia.  The Pipit frenzy also included good numbers of Red-throated and Buff-bellied and I was able to capture these images of these good-looking species.

Buff-bellied Pipit ssp japonicus in breeding plumage, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Red-throated Pipit, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012

In the damper fields near to the reservoir we encountered several Eastern Yellow Wagtails, mostly of the subspecies macronyx, and a few stunning Citrine Wagtails, including one with a very dark back (on close inspection it was a very dark grey back with some black speckling), recalling the subspecies calcarata.  Possibly an intergrade?  A male Bluethroat then appeared and began to sing from an exposed perch in a small reedbed.

As we were enjoying the pipits and wagtails, a corvid flew by us and headed south..  with the naked eye it looked as if it had a pale neck and a quick lift of the binoculars confirmed it was a Collared Crow!  This species is now rare in Beijing and yet, after seeing my first only two days before, here I was watching a second!  It was Paul’s first sighting in the capital for around 10 years…  It is almost certainly a different individual to that seen by Colm Moore and me at the Ming Tombs, so maybe there has been a mini-influx.  It reappeared a few minutes later in the company of a pair of Carrion Crows.

Collared Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012
Collared Crow with Carrion Crow, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012.

When we eventually reached the reservoir, we checked the stubbly area frequented by cranes this winter and counted 5 White-naped Cranes and 4 Common Cranes but there was no sign of the single immature Siberian Crane that had been present from mid-March.  After an hour or so watching from here we moved on to the north-western side to check out the wader site near Bulaotun.  As we arrived, we were greeted with huge numbers of Little Buntings… they were everywhere: in the fields, in the bushes, on the tracks and, occasionally, if spooked by a raptor or a local farmer, the air would be filled with clouds of Little Buntings.. an awesome sight.  Many were singing, providing a wonderful soundtrack as we scanned through the flocks.  A single male Yellow-breasted Bunting was with the group and it, too, sang on occasion.  We estimated around 700 Little Buntings along one hedgerow but the real number on site was certainly much higher – many were hidden feeding in the crops.

A short recording of the cacophony can be heard here:

Little Buntings

Waders on site included over 150 Black-winged Stilts, 80+  Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Common Snipe, a few Marsh Sandpipers, a couple of Spotted Redshank, a single Common Redshank, 10 Common Sandpipers, 6 Black-tailed Godwits and 30 Little Ringed Plovers. 2 Eurasian Spoonbills, 6 Great Egrets and 2 Little Egrets added a splash of white and an Osprey, several Eastern Marsh Harriers, a couple of Common Kestrels and a handful of Amur Falcons provided the raptor interest.

A quick look at another site at Bulaotun rewarded us with a stunning male Pied Harrier, a single Hobby (chasing Little Buntings), 5 Greater Short-toed Larks, 14 Siberian Stonechats and 20 Oriental Pratincoles.

Oriental Pratincole, Miyun Reservoir, 1 May 2012. Note lack of a white trailing edge to the wing (the best feature with which to distinguish Oriental from Collared Pratincole).

It was another fantastic day’s birding in the Chinese capital and I am indebted to Paul for his pipit masterclass…!

First for Beijing: White Wagtail ssp personata

On Saturday I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang and Yeyahu) with Jesper Hornskov, Hui Ying (James) and his friend ‘Leila’.  We enjoyed another fantastic spring day and recorded some excellent species including 31 Oriental Plovers, single Short-toed and Greater Spotted Eagles and some spectacular views of Baikal Teal.  But the star of the show for me was a White Wagtail of the subspecies ‘personata‘ which spent some time around the yurts to the west of Ma Chang.  As far as I am aware, this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and, indeed, anywhere in north-east China.  According to Alstrom and Mild (authors of “Pipits and Wagtails”) the ‘personata’ subspecies breeds in Central Asia from the Russian Altay, Kuznetsk Ala Tau and Western Sayan Mountains, southwest through east &  south Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan Mountains, west Mongolia, northwest and western Xinjiang, parts of northwest Kashmir, north Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is a rare vagrant to Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Bahrain, N Burma & Hong Kong.

White Wagtail ssp personata. The first record of this subspecies in Beijing.

The subspecies of White Wagtail we usually see in Beijing are ‘leucopsis‘ and ‘ocularis‘.  Some recent images of males of these subspecies are below for comparison.

White Wagtail ssp leucopsis (adult male), Beijing, 15 April 2012. Note black back and nape and 'clean' white face.
White Wagtail ssp ocularis (adult male), Beijing, 15 April 2012. Note grey back, black nape and black eyestripe on white face.

As well as the wagtail there were plenty of other birds to enjoy all day: the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks, the small party of Relict Gulls, the Oriental Plovers (which unfortunately flew off strongly north before we saw them on the ground), the fantastic late afternoon display of Baikal Teal (easily my best ever views), the first Oriental Pratincoles of the year,  displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers, the newly arrived Chinese Penduline Tits, the list goes on.  Fantastic birding….

Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Oriental Pratincole, Ma Chang, 14 April 2012
Baikal Teal, Yeyahu. We enjoyed spectacular views of this special duck in the later afternoon sun as they were repeatedly spooked by the patrolling Eastern Marsh Harriers.
Eurasian Spoonbills, Ma Chang, 14 April 2012

A big thanks to Hui Ying, Leila and Jesper for their company – a thoroughly enjoyable day!

Hui Ying (James) and Leila at the viewing tower, Yeyahu.
Leila checking out an Eastern Marsh Harrier, Yeyahu, 14 April 2012

Full species list (courtesy of Jesper):

Common Pheasant  Phasanius colchicus  – nine

Swan Goose  Anser cygnoides  – two

Bewick’s Swan  Cygnus columbianus  – nine

Ruddy Shelduck  Tadorna ferruginea  – 63

Gadwall  Anas strepera  – 200

Falcated Duck  Anas falcate  – 70

Eurasian Wigeon  Anas Penelope  – three

Mallard  Anas platyrhynchos  – 100+

Chinese Spotbill  Anas zonorhyncha  – 13+ 

Northern Shoveler  Anas clypeata  – six

Garganey  Anas querquedula  – one male

Baikal Teal  Anas Formosa  – 85+ (at most 100)

Common Teal  Anas crecca  – 20

Red-crested Pochard  Netta rufina  – one pair

Common Pochard  Aythya ferina  – five

Ferruginous Duck  Aythya nyroca  – two in flight over River at YYH

Tufted Duck  Aythya fuligula  – four

Common Goldeneye  Bucephala clangula  – three

Smew  Mergellus albellus  – 11+

Goosander  Mergus merganser  – six

Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis  – 20+

Great Crested Grebe  Podiceps cristatus  – 38+

Eurasian Spoonbill  Platalea leucorodia  – seven (one strictly speaking a Spoonbill sp, heading off W     determinedly over the the main body of water, and six migr right by us)

Eurasian Bittern  Botaurus stellaris  – 4+

Grey Heron  Ardea cinerea  – one

Purple Heron  Ardea purpurea  – three

Great Egret   Ardea alba  – two

Great Cormorant  Phalacrocorax carbo  – three

Common Kestrel  Falco tinnunculus  – three (incl two on ground in newly ploughed ‘field’)

Osprey  Pandion haliaetus  – one at Machang (& possibly the same again at YYH, carrying a freshly     caught fish & mobbed by two 2nd c-y mongolicus)

Black Kite  Milvus migrans lineatus  – two

Short-toed Eagle  Circaetus gallicus  – one ‘soared up, turned to hover a couple of times, then ->N 15h01

Eastern Marsh Harrier  Circus spilonotus  – 11+

Eurasian Sparrowhawk  Accipiter nisus  – three

Common Buzzard  Buteo buteo japonicus  – 7+ (incl at least one not migr)

Greater Spotted Eagle  Aquila clanga  – one 3rd+ c-y migr at 11h30

***Eagle sp   – one ‘coming down’ 17h15 at YYH (probably Greater Spotted, but Eastern Imp ‘not eliminated’)

Common Coot  Fulica atra  – 90

Black-winged Stilt  Himantopus himantopus  – 40+

Northern Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus – 35+

Little Ringed Plover  Charadrius dubius  – c10

Kentish Plover  Charadrius alexandrinus  – 35+

Oriental Plover  Charadrius veredus  – 31 flew off (of their own volition!) before we found them on the     ground but decent views in flight as they passed @ overhead after a few turns orientating.

Temminck’s Stint  Calidris temminckii  – three

Oriental Pratincole  Glareola maldivarum  – four

‘Yellow-legged’ Gull  Larus (cachinnans) mongolicus – eight (single adult & 3rd c-y, and six 2nd c-y)

Common Black-headed Gull  Larus ridibundus  – 170+

Relict Gull  Larus relictus  – c5 on main body of water ‘disappeared’

Oriental Turtle Dove  Streptopelia orientalis  – one

Eurasian Collared Dove  Streptopelia decaocto  – 6+

Common Kingfisher  Alcedo atthis  – six

Hoopoe  Upupa epops  – one

Great Spotted Woodpecker  Dendrocopos major  – two

Grey-headed Woodpecker  Picus canus  – one

Azure-winged Magpie  Cyanopica cyanus  – ten

Common Magpie  Pica pica  – too many

Carrion Crow  Corvus corone  – one

Large-billed Crow  Corvus macrorhynchos  – one

Eastern Great Tit  Parus minor  – one

Marsh Tit  Parus palustris  – one w/ nest material at YYH

Chinese Penduline Tit  Remiz (pendulinus) consobrinus  – ten

Sand Martin  Riparia riparia  – one at YYH

Barn Swallow  Hirundo rustica  – 20

Greater Short-toed Lark  Calandrella brachydactyla  – 230+

Asian Short-toed Lark  Calandrella cheleensis  – eight

Eurasian Skylark  Alauda arvensis  – ten

Fan-tailed Warbler  Cisticola juncidis  – one heard

Chinese Hill Warbler  Rhopophilus pekinensis  – three at YYH

Vinous-throated Parrotbill  Paradoxornis webbianus  – 30+

White-cheeked Starling  Sturnus cineraceus  – 15

Black-throated Thrush  Turdus atrogularis  – one female-type ‘scoped

Red-throated Thrush  Turdus ruficollis  – 2+ (‘scope views of a yawning, confiding bird)

Naumann’s Thrush  Turdus naumanni   – 4+ en route S of Badaling

Daurian Redstart  Phoenicurus auroreus  – four

Eurasian Tree Sparrow  Passer montanus  – lots

Citrine Wagtail  Motacilla citreola  – one male

White Wagtail  Motacilla alba  – 10+ (incl 2+ ocularis, three baicalensis & one personata – last of     particular interest*: seen repeatedly on ground at Yurts & photographed)

Buff-bellied Pipit  Anthus rubescens japonicus  – 22+

Water Pipit  Anthus spinoletta blakistoni  – 8+

Oriental Greenfinch  Carduelis sinica  – one (+ one en route N of Badaling)

Little Bunting  Emberiza pusilla  – three

Yellow-throated Bunting  Emberiza elegans  – one male

Pallas’s Reed Bunting  Emberiza pallasi  – 55+ (many superb looks…)  

Mammals

Hare sp  – one ‘scoped (should be Tolai Hare but ears looked short, @ length of head only)