Aaaarrrggghhhhhh!

Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing.  It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course.  Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.

Habitat along the Wenyu River in Chaoyang District, Beijing. Perfect for Waterhens and locustellas!

 

Frustrating habitat at the Wenyu River paddies. When a locustella goes down in this lot, the chances of seeing it again are slim..!

On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl..  Not bad.   My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding.  A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows.  Wow.  I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola.  A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds.  It was a cacophony of birdsong.

Oriental Reed Warbler singing its heart out early morning in the paddyfields at Wenyu River.
Schrenck’s Bittern (female), Wenyu River, Beijing. One of two seen in the paddies.
Pechora Pipit. Seeing one on the ground in Beijing is not easy!

After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths.  It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby.  I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas.  I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case.  Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars.  It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure..  ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts…  Hmmm…  could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about?  I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy.  However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down.  To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area…  I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s.  It reminded me of the Pleske’s song…  I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”.  But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler?  In Beijing??  The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view.  I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it.  Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation.  Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking..  Frustrating to say the least.

At this point, I was excited..  I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me.  I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him.  A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town.  And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto!  I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way.  He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird.  We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning.  Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day.  After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.

On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto.  There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s.  For comparison, my recording can be heard below:

Locustella Warbler

Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure..  there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences…  Doubt began to creep into my mind.  Was the singing bird a Pleske’s?  And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw?  I began to think that maybe the song was a different species.  I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).

So, the bottom line is I don’t know.  I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…!  Arrggghhhh….

If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know.  I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon.  In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s.  Watch this space!

Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!

Summer lovin’

With summer upon us, Beijing is now hot and humid.  As well as the heat, July and August are also the months that see the highest rainfall in the capital, mostly from the frequent spectacular thunderstorms.  Air conditioning units are humming all over the city and one can sense the pace of life slowing, just a little, as its people cope with the energy-sapping heat.   It is uncomfortable to be in the field for any length of time now and this, coupled with the relative quiet birding around the capital at this time of year, has meant that I have not been out as much as normal.

On Sunday, I decided to change that by checking out Yeyahu to see how the breeding birds were doing and to look for butterflies and dragonflies.  It was a murky day but as the bus from Beijing made its way over the mountains near Badaling Great Wall, it began to clear a little..  Liyan, my trusty driver, met me at Yanqing and, 15 minutes later, I was at Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  My plan was to spend the afternoon and evening on site and catch the last bus back to Beijing..  but that was immediately scuppered when I discovered that the last bus back was at the very early time of 1830.  Instead I decided to catch the last train at 2130, so I arranged for Liyan to pick me up at 8.30pm, giving me 5 hours on site.

There was a constant threat of thunderstorms – distant rumbles were a feature of the day – but thankfully I managed to avoid the main storms that seemed to keep to the mountains.  And, despite the heat and humidity, I enjoyed the walk around the reserve.  As usual, there were a lot of Beijing’s city-dwellers enjoying the boardwalk on the lake but, true to form, none of them took the trails around the wider reserve, leaving me to enjoy the greater part of the reserve on my own.  Activity was generally slow, as expected, but it was very cool to see evidence of breeding Amur Falcons and Eastern Marsh Harriers.  I saw two adult male Amurs taking food to a small copse to the north of the reserve and there were two recently-fledged juvenile Eastern Marsh Harriers wheeling around waiting for the parents to bring food.  I watched two food passes by the adult male harrier; both juveniles became very excited, calling constantly as the male approached, before the male rose, waited for the juveniles to take up position below and then dropped the catch.  The first, possibly a small rodent, was expertly caught in mid-air by one of the young birds but the second, what looked like a young Moorhen, was missed and fell into the reedbed, whereby both juveniles swooped in, squabbling over their evening meal.  Fun to watch.  Chinese Penduline Tits were feeding young in their spectacular nest and young Great Crested and Little Grebes were begging from their parents on the lake.  A pair of Common Terns (of the subspecies longipennis) patrolled the ponds and they were joined briefly by a Whiskered Tern and then a White-winged Tern, before the latter disappeared off to the west towards the reservoir.

The reedbeds were noticeably quieter than in June with just a handful of Oriental Reed Warblers making half-hearted efforts at singing; the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the adults carrying food was clearly the priority now.  At least 4 pairs of Purple Herons appeared to be feeding young in the large reedbed to the west and I encountered a family party of Chinese Hill Warblers to the north.  Several pairs of Richard’s Pipits were feeding young in the grassland to the north of the lake and a few Zitting Cisticolas called frequently.  A pair of Black Drongos chirped and made forays to catch flying insects from their base in a willow hedgerow and both Night and Chinese Pond Herons busied themselves carrying food back and forth.

There were good numbers of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies on the wing.  I had deliberately taken my macro lens to try to photograph some of them but, being a complete novice with these insects, I cannot identify any of them!  There isn’t a field guide for this part of the world, so putting a name to these beasts isn’t easy.  There is a good website – Asia Dragonfly – with a comprehensive library of photographs.  But it’s still very difficult!

Here are a few photos of the local specialties…  any help with identification much appreciated…

Photo 1: possibly Orthetrum albistylum specisum
Photo 2: same as above
Photo 3: a beautiful dragonfly... Possibly Crocothemis servilia?
Photo 4: probably a Sympetrum sp?
Photo 5: Cercion plagiosum
Photo 6: probably a female Cercion plagiosum?
Photo 7: some sort of chaser.. maybe Deilia phaon?
Photo 8: Antlion sp
Photo 9: beetle sp. I couldn't resist taking a photo of this impressive little bug. You can even see my reflection is his shiny body armour!

I hung around until dusk, hoping for a calling crake or watercock but no luck…  probably a bit late in the season for them to be calling frequently.  My last birds of the day were a calling Eurasian Cuckoo and a Grey-headed Woodpecker that I flushed from the path.  As the mosquitos began to bite, I made my way to the entrance of the reserve to rendez-vous with Liyan.  The last train was delayed so I did not get back to Beijing until after midnight but for only 7 Yuan (70 pence), I couldn’t really complain too much about the journey!

Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

First thing this morning I made my first visit to the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing.  This relatively new park, as its name suggests, was created for the 2008 Olympic Games and has won awards for its design.  I was pleasantly surprised by how ‘bird-friendly’ it is.  There is some great habitat, including some large reedbeds, lakes, mature (ish) woodland and open areas, all of which are attracting birds.

Today, I explored the southern section prompted by a visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, who had seen a Streaked Reed Warbler a few days ago.  I didn’t see any of these rare ‘acro‘ warblers but I chalked up an impressive list of species for a central Beijing location (see below).

The highlight for me was an enjoyable encounter with a confiding Yellow Bittern as it hunted in one of the lily-filled lakes.  It’s ungainly stance belied the effectiveness with which it stalked small fish and frogs.

Oriental Reed Warblers filled the air with their chattering and there were also a few Black-browed Reed Warblers competing to be heard and a few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers skulking at the base of the reeds.  Indian and Eurasian Cuckoos were calling frequently and the song of the Black-naped Oriole was an occasional accompaniement.

In the more mature trees on the eastern side, a singing male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a nice sight but I failed to find the Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher that Paul Holt had seen the previous day.

The Olympic Park is situated just north of the 4th ring road, north of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium and is served by metro stops as well as several bus routes, so it is easy to get to.  It opens at 6am and, this morning, there were relatively few people around and it was very easy to find quiet spots – not to be taken for granted in Beijing where most city parks are full of early morning exercisers for the first few hours of daylight.  For me, it’s the best birding site I’ve seen so far in Beijing city.  I’ll definitely be back!

Map of Beijing Olympic Forest Park
Yellow Bittern, Beijing Olympic Forest Park, 2 June 2011
Comical as it made its way across the lillies... would definitely qualify as a Monty Python 'silly walk'
Watching you watching me..
I enjoyed half an hour with this confiding bird today in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Collared Dove (1)

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Grey-capped Woodpecker (3)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (2)

Indian Cuckoo (4)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (7)

Oriental Reed Warbler (at least 30)

Eurasian Cuckoo (5)

Oriental Greenfinch (3)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (3)

Night Heron (7)

Red-rumped Swallow (4)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (4)

Black Drongo (1)

Common Moorhen (6)

Common Swift (12)

Yellow Bittern (7)

Goldeneye (1) – a drake on the lake near the ‘underwater corridor’

Barn Swallow (3)

Little Egret (1) – flyover

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (1) – singing just north-east of Wali Lake

Marsh Tit (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1) – northeast of Wali Lake

Arctic Warbler (4)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Grey Heron (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Radde’s Warbler (2)

Azure-winged Magpie (6)

Spotted Dove (2)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)