Pallas’s Sandgrouse

Many of my friends will know that one of my most-wanted birds in Beijing has been the Pallas’s Sandgrouse.  This is a species that breeds as close as Inner Mongolia and, just occasionally, irrupts in large numbers beyond its normal range.

It’s a bird that has been on my mind since my childhood when I first heard about major irruptions in the late 19th century that resulted in them being “everywhere” in winter 1889 at my original local patch of Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk, England.   Sadly, irruptions on that scale appear to be a thing of the past and it is now a very rare species in the UK and Europe.  However, in Beijing, its appearance is a little more regular and in 2009-2010, the winter before I moved to China, there was a decent irruption in the capital with flocks of 100+ reported from Wild Duck Lake and even good numbers at sites inside the 6th ring road. Unfortunately, since then, they have been very few and far between – I am aware of just one record of a small flock at Miyun last winter (Jan-Erik Nilsen) that was never seen again.

I have been secretly (and openly!) hoping that this winter might prove to be THE winter and yesterday, Sunday 3 November, that hope turned to reality.

Having returned from Inner Mongolia on Saturday, where I had been attending a workshop with local government officials, nature reserve managers and local groups about JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (a post about that will come soon!), I had arranged to go birding on Sunday with Ben Wielstra, visiting Catalan, Eugeni Capella Roca, and 吴岚 from the Beijing Birdwatching Society.  I left central Beijing at 0445, collecting the team on the way, and we arrived at a chilly Ma Chang at around 0645.

Two first year RELICT GULLS represented a superb beginning to the day.  These two young gulls were almost certainly the same two individuals that had been seen the weekend before and they were remarkably tame.

One of the two first calendar year RELICT GULLS at Ma Chang at dawn.
One of the two first calendar year RELICT GULLS at Ma Chang at dawn.

Unfortunately the water levels at Ma Chang are now so high that the best vantage points from which to view the wildfowl are now inaccessible, so after checking the ‘desert area’ for anything interesting, we were soon on our way to Yeyahu Nature Reserve to focus most of our day at this superb Beijing site.

On arrival there was a nice mixed flock of GADWALL and FALCATED DUCK on the lake with a lone BEWICK’S SWAN and we secured our first sightings of PALLAS’S REED BUNTING, CHINESE GREY SHRIKE and CHINESE PENDULINE TIT.

A scan of the grassland produced a ringtail HEN HARRIER and one of the tractors cutting the grass flushed a SHORT-EARED OWL.  Then a distant SAKER and an adult PEREGRINE passed by.  Pretty good!  We made our way to the new tower hide and spent some time there scanning for raptors and checking the flocks of duck that were occasionally flushed by the HEN HARRIER.  A single COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARD and a flock of BEAN GEESE kept the interest going and soon we began to hear the sound of CRANES…  a sound that was almost omnipresent all day as more and more groups seemed to arrive high from the west… a wonderful sight and sound.

From the hide we caught sight of several very distant flocks of birds, the identification of which we couldn’t quite put our finger on..  they looked to have pointed wings, almost wader-like, and yet their size meant that the only species that came to mind was PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER..  but that identification didn’t fit – these birds didn’t fly like plovers – they were in an irregular, and reasonably tight, formation flying strongly north..  what were they??

They went down in the notebook as “possible plover sp” but we weren’t happy.  Several minutes later, Eugeni suddenly shouted out “SANDGROUSE!” and we all quickly got onto two birds streaming very fast past our vantage point, heading north.  Plump birds with a dark belly patch and a pointed tail…  Wow!  PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE – my most wanted Beijing bird!!!  They disappeared out of sight almost as soon as they had arrived and we looked at each other with broad smiles..  we might even have done a couple of “high-fives”!

PALLAS'S SANDGROUSE at Yeyahu NR, Sunday 3 November 2013.  A much-wanted bird....
PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE at Yeyahu NR, Sunday 3 November 2013. A much-wanted bird….
Another photo of two of the PALLAS'S SANDGROUSE that flew past the tower hide at Yeyahu NR.
Another photo of two of the PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE that flew past the tower hide at Yeyahu NR.

Little did we know that we would soon see some more… and as we made our way around the flooded fields towards the smaller observation tower, we saw another…  then another..  and from the tower itself we saw another 3.  The same or different? Not sure but they were definitely PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE.  Suddenly the penny dropped on the flocks we had seen earlier – surely they must have been PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE too…!  And we had even more reason to believe they were sandgrouse when we heard from a Chinese friend that over 200 had been seen around the same time over central Beijing..!  At the rate they flew, it would only have taken them a few minutes to reach the mountains at Badaling from central Beijing and the birds we saw could easily have been the same flocks.  Something is clearly going on with PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE this winter!

The team at Yeyahu NR, shortly after seeing our first PALLAS'S SANDGROUSE.  From left to right: Terry, Eugeni, Ben and Wu Lan.
The team at Yeyahu NR, shortly after seeing our first PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE. From left to right: Terry, Eugeni, Ben and Wu Lan.

Another nice encounter involved this SIBERIAN WEASEL, a reasonably common mammal in Beijing but rarely seen well in daylight.  This individual ran towards us, stopping occasionally to check us out, before disappearing into the reedbed..  a very cool animal…

Peekaboo...!  SIBERIAN WEASEL on the track at Yeyahu NR
Peekaboo…! SIBERIAN WEASEL on the track at Yeyahu NR
This SIBERIAN WEASEL was curious and seemed to be watching us as much as we were watching him..!
This SIBERIAN WEASEL was curious and seemed to be watching us as much as we were watching him..!

We decided to make a return visit to Ma Chang before heading home.  That was the place that held large flocks of sandgrouse during the 2009-2010 winter and we thought that maybe, just maybe, some had dropped in during the day.  We didn’t see any on our afternoon visit but we did stumble across a nice flock of HORNED LARKS, another scarce and irruptive visitor to Beijing.  A group of 3 was soon followed by a much larger group consisting of at least 53 birds..  wow.

HORNED LARKS, Ma Chang, 3 November 2013.  Always a beautiful sight, especially in the late afternoon sun.
HORNED LARKS, Ma Chang, 3 November 2013. Always a beautiful sight, especially in the late afternoon sun.
One of the HORNED LARKS at Ma Chang.  These birds looked very pale...  currently investigating likely subspecies.  The two on the Beijing list are 'flava' and 'brandti'.
One of the HORNED LARKS at Ma Chang. These birds looked very pale… currently investigating likely subspecies. The two on the Beijing list are ‘flava’ and ‘brandti’.

 

These beautiful larks wheeled around uttering their ‘tinkly’ call in the late afternoon sun…  a magnificent sight to end the day.  After a quick cup of coffee we headed back to Beijing, tired but elated…  what a day!

Big thanks to Ben, Eugeni and Wu Lan for their excellent company on this special day…

 

Full species list:

TUNDRA BEAN GOOSE Anser serrirostris 74 (Apparently 300 in the area, according to Yeyahu NR staff).

TUNDRA SWAN Cygnus columbianus 小天鹅  1 at Yeyahu NR

RUDDY SHELDUCK Tadorna ferruginea 赤麻鴨  8

GADWALL Anas strepera 赤膀鴨  108

FALCATED DUCK Anas falcata 罗纹鸭  14

MALLARD Anas platyrhynchos 綠頭鴨  122

CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK Anas zonorhyncha 斑嘴鴨  29

NORTHERN SHOVELER Anas clypeata 琵嘴鸭  1

NORTHERN PINTAIL Anas acuta 针尾鸭  5

EURASIAN TEAL Anas crecca 绿翅鸭  14

COMMON GOLDENEYE Bucephala clangula 鹊鸭  1

SMEW Mergellus albellus 白秋沙鸭  83

LITTLE GREBE Tachybaptus ruficollis 小鸊鷉  4

GREAT CRESTED GREBE Podiceps cristatus 凤头鸊鷉  5

GREAT BITTERN Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽  2

HEN HARRIER Circus cyaneus 白尾鹞  4 (3 ‘ringtails’ and one adult male)

EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK Accipiter nisus 雀鹰 1

NORTHERN GOSHAWK Accipiter gentilis 苍鹰  2

EASTERN BUZZARD Buteo japonicus 普通鵟  1

MERLIN Falco columbarius 灰背隼  1 adult male

SAKER FALCON Falco cherrug EN 猎隼  1 one distant bird, probably this species

PEREGRINE FALCON Falco peregrinus 游隼  1

COMMON COOT Fulica atra 骨顶鸡(白骨顶)  17

COMMON CRANE Grus grus 灰鹤  109  We could hear cranes almost all day. Many seemed to be arriving. Very difficult to count but the biggest count at any one time consisted of a single group of 109 birds

BLACK-HEADED GULL Chroicocephalus ridibundus 红嘴鸥  1

RELICT GULL Ichthyaetus relictus VU 遗鸥  2 First calendar-year birds. Almost certainly the same as seen the previous weekend by multiple observers.

PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE Syrrhaptes paradoxus 毛腿沙鸡  5  The first picked up in flight by Eugeni at Yeyahu NR @c1130. Followed by 3 @c1315 and 2 singles later in the afternoon. Four distant large flocks totalling over 150 birds seen c1100 and c1230 were probably this species.

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE Streptopelia decaocto 灰斑鸠  18

SHORT-EARED OWL Asio flammeus 短耳鸮  1 Flushed by one of the bailers on the Kangxi Grassland

GREY-CAPPED PYGMY WOODPECKER Dendrocopos canicapillus 星头啄木鸟  1

CHINESE GREY SHRIKE Lanius s. sphenocercus 楔尾伯劳  4

AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE Cyanopica cyanus 灰喜鹊  6

COMMON MAGPIE Pica pica 喜鹊  35

RED-BILLED CHOUGH Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 红嘴山鸦  2 seen well flying north low over the reserve. My first at Yeyahu.

DAURIAN JACKDAW Coloeus dauuricus 达乌里寒鸦  55

JAPANESE TIT Parus minor 大山雀  2

CHINESE PENDULINE TIT Remiz consobrinus 中华攀雀  3

MONGOLIAN LARK Melanocorypha mongolica (蒙古) 百灵  One seen in flight and appeared to land in a reedbed at Yeyahu NR

EURASIAN SKYLARK Alauda arvensis 云雀 8

HORNED LARK Eremophila alpestris 角百灵  56.  A group of 3 with a hint of yellow in the face. Followed by a flock of 53, all at Ma Chang.

SILVER-THROATED TIT Aegithalos glaucogularis 北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀 8

VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL Sinosuthora webbianus 棕头鸦雀  34

CHINESE HILL BABBLER Rhopophilus pekinensis 山鹛  2

COMMON STARLING Sturnus vulgaris 紫翅椋鸟  2 seen well in flight at Ma Chang

EURASIAN TREE SPARROW Passer montanus (树) 麻雀  100

SIBERIAN ACCENTOR Prunella montanella 棕眉山岩鹨 6

BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT Anthus rubescens japonicus 黄腹鹨  2

COMMON REDPOLL Carduelis flammea 白腰朱顶雀  2; one in flight calling over Yeyahu NR looked pale. Another seen by Eugeni flushed from scrub at Yeyahu NR. My first in Beijing!

LITTLE BUNTING Emberiza pusilla 小鹀  8

YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING Emberiza elegans 黄喉鹀  2

PALLAS’S BUNTING Emberiza pallasi 苇鹀  24

Total Number of Species – 51

 

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!.