Monday and Tuesday were awful in Beijing with rain, wind and relatively chilly temperatures for the time of year. So it was with relief and a sense of expectation that Wednesday dawned clear, sunny and with expansive blue skies…. Any bad weather during the migration season can cause birds to make unscheduled stops and often the first good day after rainy weather can be very productive for birders.
And so, on Wednesday morning, after a ‘birdy’ few minutes on his local patch that included finding an Eye-browed Thrush, Paul Holt knew there had been a ‘fall’ of migrants and immediately abandoned his tiny area of urban scrub for potentially more productive sites.. He was rewarded with an exceptional find – a first for Beijing no less – in the shape of an adult SLENDER-BILLED GULL (细嘴鸥, Chroicocephalus genei) at Miyun Reservoir.
The nearest known breeding grounds of this gull are in Kazakhstan, 3-4,000 kilometres to the west. And so, as one might expect, it’s a rare bird in China, with the possible exception of Xinjiang Province in the far north-west where it appears to be fairly regular since the first record there in 2008. There are a handful of records from Hong Kong and also from well-watched Hebei coast around Beidaihe/Happy Island but elsewhere in China it’s very rare.
After Paul put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I decided to make the trip and, along with Jennifer Leung, I was on site by 1600. Fortunately, we saw it immediately. Later in the afternoon it came close enough for me to take some record photos and a short video using my iPhone and Swarovski ATX95 set-up.
This gull turned up at exactly the same spot as the recent LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (see previous post).
Given there are so few birders in Beijing and no site is well-watched, who knows what would be seen if this site was covered on a regular basis?! There is so much opportunity for discovery, and some of the sites are stunningly beautiful, which is what makes birding in Beijing so brilliant…!
After participating in Sunbird’s tour of Qinghai and Tibet, led by Paul Holt, German birder Henning Lege decided to stay on for a spot of birding in Beijing. On 20 August he visited Miyun Reservoir, one of Beijing’s premier birding sites, where he found a juvenile LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (白斑军舰鸟, Fregata ariel) – the third record of this species in Beijing. Fortunately there were some Chinese birders from the Beijing Birdwatching Society, including its President, Ms Fu Jianping, on site with whom Henning could share his excitement. And, on his return to Beijing, he was quick to alert Paul who immediately circulated a message via the rapidly growing Birding Beijing WeChat group, meaning that local birders were alerted and had an opportunity to see it. Since its discovery on 20 August several groups of birders and photographers (possibly more than 20 in total) have visited and enjoyed this spectacular, almost prehistoric-looking bird, meaning it must be one of Beijing’s most “twitched” rarities ever.
With the nearest coast around 150km away, seabirds are, not surprisingly, hard to see in Beijing. There is only one record of a skua (a Long-tailed) and even species such as Saunders’s Gull and Great Knot (not uncommon on the coast), have never reliably been recorded in the capital. So it is perhaps surprising that three LESSER FRIGATEBIRDS – truly pelagic birds – have made it to Beijing.
The previous two Beijing sightings were both in April – in 2007 and 2011. The first was photographed by Hong Wanping at Shahe Reservoir, Changping 14 April 2007 (see China J. of Zoology (2011.4) Lesser Frigatebird, Shahe reservoir, April 2007 for a brief account). The second was seen, and photographed, at the Ming Tombs Reservoir (Shisanling Reservoir) on 7 April 2011.
LESSER FRIGATEBIRD is rare anywhere in China, though it may be just about annual in Hong Kong where regular pelagic trips are now taking place. There are reports from most coastal provinces from Guangxi to Guangdong, and Fujian north to Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Tianjin & Liaoning. Although we are not aware of any records from coastal Hebei, there are two reports of GREATER FRIGATEBIRD from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao, Hebei with an immature on 6 June 1996 (Thalund et al. 1994) being the second of these.
One can only assume that this most recent bird was displaced by one of the recent tropical storms, possibly Typhoon Halong that hit east Asia in early August.
Thankfully, documentation of this record has not been difficult. In addition to Henning’s notes, China is blessed with some superb bird photographers. The brilliant set of photos below is by Zhang Weimin with an additional stunning photo by Huang Hanchen, to both of whom big thanks are in order for allowing me to reproduce their wonderful photos for this post.
According to The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World (HBW), the LESSER FRIGATEBIRD breeds on small, remote tropical and sub-tropical islands, in mangroves or bushes, and even on bare ground on islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It feeds mainly on fish (especially flying-fish) and squid, but also on seabird eggs and chicks, carrion and fish scraps (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It is “kleptoparasitic” – a great word that means it habitually steals food from other species.
Unfortunately for Paul and me, this bird was found whilst we were overseas, Paul in Canada and me in the UK. After arriving back in Beijing on Saturday morning I visited the site with Paul and local birders Wu Lan and Zhao Min on Sunday and despite staying all day, we failed to see it. The last documented sighting was on Friday 29 August. Unless it has been hiding effectively for the last couple of days, it has almost certainly moved on, hopefully on its way back to the Pacific Ocean where it belongs.
Big thanks again to Zhang Weimin and Huang Hanchen for the use of their photographs, to Paul Holt for the information about the status of Lesser Frigatebird in Beijing (and China) and to everyone on the WeChat group who provided updates about the bird’s whereabouts during its stay at Miyun Reservoir.
On 26-27 July I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site in Hebei Province with visiting British birders, Mike Hoit and Andrew Whitehouse, plus Beijing-based Paul Holt and Jennifer Leung. Mike and Andrew had just arrived in China ahead of a trip to Qinghai and, with a couple of days spare, were keen to see BAER’S POCHARD. I had warned them in advance that they are difficult to see in July – the birds are much more secretive once they begin breeding and, in summer, the vegetation is higher. Nevertheless, I was also keen to visit the site to see whether we could find proof of breeding. In addition to the BAER’s, the lake offers superb general birding and is probably the best place in the world to see SCHRENCK’S BITTERN, another difficult world bird. Late July is actually a good time to see the latter, usually secretive, species as the parents make constant flights to collect food for their young.
After the long drive in 35 degrees Celsius heat, we headed straight for the most reliable spot – a series of lotus ponds with areas of open water that, from my previous visits, appear to be a favourite ‘loafing’ location for both BAER’S POCHARD and FERRUGINOUS DUCK.
We were in luck. Almost immediately a stunning male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN made a fly-by at eye level in the lovely late afternoon light and, on one of the lotus pools, was a female BAER’S POCHARD. Result!
After checking out different sites around the lake and enjoying good views of 2 male BAER’S on the open water, we returned to the original spot and, this time, a different BAER’S POCHARD was present. With pale tips to the scapulars and spiky tail feathers, we believed it was a juvenile. I took some video – see below. Clearly, as a ‘Critically Endangered’ species, proof of breeding is significant. And although breeding is likely to have occurred, this would be the first confirmed breeding at this site since 2012. I therefore welcome comments from any ‘aythya‘ experts who might be able to confirm that this is indeed a juvenile BAER’S.
A few volunteers from the Beijing Birdwatching Society have been making occasional visits to this site this spring and summer to survey the BAER’S POCHARDS and so, together, we are slowly building up a picture of the status of this very rare duck. We still lack some basic information such as when they arrive in spring and when they leave in autumn. Given the site freezes over in winter, it’s very likely they move on but there is at least one photo of a BAER’S POCHARD from this site in January, so it’s possible that some remain if there are open patches of water.
The site is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. With vast lotus pools and shallow water at the northern end, it’s attracting swimmers, fishermen and general tourists who like to pick and take home a lotus flower or two. And, although it has status as a Provincial Level Nature Reserve, there are apparently plans for ‘development’. Several sets of plans have been drawn up, including proposals for a “water sports” centre, hovercrafts and an artificial ‘beach’. Thankfully, for the time being, none of these proposals have been given the go-ahead. However, the fact that the management is apparently resisting a proposal for the site to be added to the list of important wetlands (which would mean tighter restrictions on development) is a sign that commercial development of this site is clearly a possibility. Gathering data on the importance of this site for BAER’S POCHARD and other birds and wildlife will be critical in order to make the best case possible against commercial development, or at least to persuade the authorities to retain the most important part of the site as a properly-managed nature reserve. Watch this space.
The STREAKED REED WARBLER is a bird that is almost certainly in serious trouble. There are very few recent records from anywhere in the world. Nobody knows where it breeds, nobody has ever recorded its song and its only known wintering grounds in the Philippines have been “developed” ( I do hate that word!) with no recent sightings.
So it was with great excitement that a sighting was reported in Beijing last week. After some inquiries, it emerged that it had been seen briefly, but well, on 15 June by an experienced and well-respected local birder at a site near Yanqing (a town about 60km northwest of Beijing). After obtaining precise site details, I was soon winging my way along the G6 expressway in the company of Paul Holt and Zhao Chao. Hopes were high – there was a good chance that a bird in mid-June would be holding territory and, potentially, singing…
After an hour and a half we were on site and began to search the abandoned fish pond where the bird had been seen just a couple of days before.
We arrived a couple of hours before dusk and planned to stay until dark and, if necessary, stay over in a local hotel and try again the following dawn.
It was a beautiful, still evening and there were several ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS chuntering loudly from the reeds. We slowly made our way around the pond, carefully trying to filter out the racket from these large acros in the hope of picking out what we expected would be the quieter song of their smaller, rarer cousin. During the next two hours we heard at least 2 RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES, INDIAN and COMMON CUCKOOS, BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE, BLACK DRONGO, MOORHEN and BROWN SHRIKE but sadly there was no sign of any smaller reed warblers.
Well after dark we headed into town, checked into a local hotel and grabbed some dinner, speculating about our chances the following morning.
At 0415 we were checked out and on our way to the fishpond, full of optimism. If the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still there, surely it would sing or show early morning…?
On arrival, the RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES were struggling to be heard above the chorus of the ‘churring’ and ‘chacking’ ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS and, again, we slowly walked around the raised bank that surrounded the reed-filled pond, desperately scanning and listening for anything that might be our target bird. Time and again a warbler appeared on a reed stem and, after raising our binoculars, without fail it proved to be (another!) ORIENTAL REED WARBLER.
After three hours we finally admitted defeat and decided to head back to Beijing… if the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still on site it was extremely good at hiding!
The most likely explanation was that it had been a late passage bird.
And so this rare species continues to elude me. But I won’t have long to wait to resume the search… it’s thought to be an early return migrant with peak passage in the Beijing/Hebei coast area said to be from the last week of August to mid-September, according to LaTouche. So, yet again, I’ll be checking those reedbeds and patches of sedge in the hope that, one day, I’ll connect with this most enigmatic of birds.
Of course, from a conservation perspective, it’s extremely difficult to do anything to help this bird. It’s a long distance migrant whose current breeding and wintering grounds are unknown. Recording its song would be a huge first step – at least that would help anyone travelling to northeast China and southeast Russia to locate singing birds and discover breeding sites, potentially enabling some studies to be made of the habitat requirements and hopefully identifying some of the reasons for the staggering decline in its population. But with so few being seen in the last few years, is it already too late?
Big thanks to Tong Menxiu and Chen Liang for their help in finding out details of this sighting and to Zhao Chao and Paul Holt for their company on a fun search…!
See here for more detail about the status of STREAKED REED WARBLER.
Many of these beautiful falcons pass through Beijing each spring and autumn and a few even breed in the capital. Whenever I encounter them for the first time each spring, I feel in awe of the almost unbelievable journeys these birds take and I feel reassured that, despite all the pressures on our wildlife, the Amur Falcons are back!
On Saturday, in the company of Paul Holt and David Mansfield, I visited Huairou and Miyun Reservoirs and, at the latter site, we enjoyed a mixed flock of AMUR FALCONS and LESSER KESTRELS giving a magnificent display as they hunted over some freshly ploughed fields… simply stunning.
Here is a short video compilation of a few of the Amur Falcons.
For a time, in the afternoon, it was very windy… and dark clouds gathered over Miyun. Just as the weather was its most threatening, in dropped a DALMATIAN PELICAN..! As it battled against the wind, I was able to capture it on video….
This is the 7th DALMATIAN PELICAN in Beijing this spring and my personal first this year. Always a delight to see.
We ended the day on 104 species – a pretty good total but missing some usually easy to see birds such as Spotted Dove. In Beijing in May, it should be possible to see 120-130 species in a day with a bit of effort and luck!
Beijing doesn’t have a rarities committee and the most recent municipality bird list was published in 2011. So keeping a handle on the birds recorded in the capital requires a combination of finding birds oneself, building as many links as possible with local birders and monitoring the websites that showcase the work of the burgeoning local community of bird photographers.
It was the latter that revealed the presence of what we initially thought was Beijing’s first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺). Early in the new year, friend Li Xiaomai spotted some images of a CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺), taken in the Olympic Forest Park, on the www.birdnet.cn website and alerted local birders. The photographer was apparently waiting for the appearance of a WINTER WREN (鹪鹩) when a “warbler” popped into view and he, opportunistically, reeled off some photos and posted them on the Beijing section of the website. Little did he know that he had snapped a major rarity!
With a new smartphone “chat group” recently set up in Beijing to share bird sightings, news of the presence of this CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) spread fast and, the next morning, there was a massive (by Beijing standards) “twitch” for the bird involving 8 birders, both ex-pat and Chinese.
After hearing the bird call once early morning from a dense reedbed, there was no sign for the next few hours in an extensive search of the ‘wetland’ area, in which it was reported to be feeding the previous day. Reluctantly, I decided to leave as I had lots to do, and I began to make my way out of the park to the metro station with friend, Jennifer Leung. On the way out, almost at the end of the reedbed area, I spotted a small bird feeding low down on the edge of the reeds. It looked promising and, quickly lifting my binoculars, I could see that it was the CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺). Jennifer watched it as I called and messaged the other birders on site, who had by now dispersed over a wide area. I then settled down to observe and photograph the bird as it fed, very obligingly, along the base of a small reedbed just a couple of metres away.
Fortunately, two local birders Zhu Lei and Que Pinjia were on the scene quickly and secured excellent views but, disappointingly, the bird soon disappeared into a dense reedbed before the others arrived. It was seen briefly later in the afternoon and has been seen on several days since.
As expected for a vagrant CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in eastern China, the bird was of the ‘tristis‘ subspecies. The greyish brown plumage, jet-black legs and bill and the high-pitched and slightly down-slurred call were all typical of this race, considered by some to be a full species.
At the time we all thought that this bird was the first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) to be recorded in Beijing. It does not appear on the municipality list by Liu Yang from 2011 and there are no reports on the Birdtalker database. However, it has since come to light that one was seen in February 2008 at Baiwangshan (in the northwest of the city) by respected local birder, Wen Chen. So the Olympic Forest Park bird is the second record for the capital.
With thanks to Paul Holt, here is a short summary of the status of CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in China:
“Chiffchaff wasn’t an unexpected addition to the Beijing list as there are at least three reports from coastal Hebei (one on Happy Island on 14 May 2002; one at Lighthouse Point, Beidaihe during 16-19 May 2006 & one in the Lotus Hills, Beidaihe on 10 May 2007). Despite the timing of the Hebei records (May – when there are lots of birders in the Happy Island-Beidaihe area), winter has always been thought to be the most likely time this species would turn up in Beijing.
There’s at least one winter record from Yancheng NNR in coastal Jiangsu Province and seven (?) records from Hong Kong (including one recently in “Long Valley”). This form of Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita tristis, winters in India & it’s sometimes split as Siberian Chiffchaff P. tristis. In China it’s restricted to breeding in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang Province (north-west China) but is a locally common passage migrant through much of at least the western part of that province. Elsewhere it occurs as a fairly common migrant in western Qinghai where Jesper Hornskov (in an unpublished report on the Birds recorded at Golmud, Qinghai Province, China, 1980-1994) recorded 256 bird-days – just one spring record (23 March 1994) but fairly common between 25 September and 21 November, plus a late straggler on the 18 December 1990. Numbers varied year on year with 132 bird-days & a high count of 10 on the 3 November in 1991 compared to just 68 bird-days and a high count of eight on the 3 October in 1993.
There’s a record from Shandong Province in the new checklist and Common Chiffchaff has apparently also been recorded in Liaoning Province (it was included in Bai Qingquan’s unpublished List of the Birds of Liaoning, Jan. 2012), Henan Province (as it was included in an unpublished List of the Birds of Dongzhai NNR, Luoshan provided by researcher Du Zhiyong on 4 January 2010), Shaanxi Province (one at Yangxian on the 15 Dec 2003 [Phil Heath] was the first, and possibly still the only provincial record), another was photographed at Yandong Lake, Wuhan on 4 December 2009 (Zhang Shuyong in China Bird Watch 71, p32) – the first record for Hubei Province. There’s a short article on this occurrence in the same issue. The Jiangsu record is of one that was seen at Yancheng NNR by Mark Beaman & a BirdQuest group sometime in the 1990s.”
At the Beijing birders meet-up we arranged for a group trip to Nanpu, near Tangshan in Hebei Province. In total, 15 of us – both ex-pats and locals – spent the weekend at this world-class site and it was a superb trip – great fun with lots of birds!
Perhaps the best single bird in terms of rarity was an ORIENTAL STORK that came in off the sea. And amongst the other highlights were impressive numbers of shorebirds with 4,700 SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS and 2,325 DUNLIN, a single RUFF (rare here), five juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, at least six first-year SAUNDERS’S and up to 80 RELICT GULLS and decent numbers of passerines moving down the coast. High counts included 54 BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES (including a single flock of 23 birds!), 100 DUSKY WARBLERS, 300 SIBERIAN STONECHATS, up to 150 RICHARD’S PIPITS, two BLYTH’S PIPITS, two PECHORA PIPITS and six YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS.
It was hot at Nanpu and, fortunately, there is a small village where one can purchase ice creams! I can thoroughly recommend the ‘traditional flavour’ ice lollies.. delicious (even though I am not sure of what exactly they taste!). The locals here make their living from the mudflats, where they harvest the shellfish and shrimps. Here are a few maintaining their nets.
And in the early mornings, our 0500 starts were made (slightly) easier by the delicious bao zi (steamed dumplings) that were on sale for the equivalent of 5p each…
At the coast, where passerine migration was most impressive, we unfortunately encountered more illegal bird trapping activity. From the car, Paul heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting singing and we stopped to investigate. We very quickly saw a line of mist nets in the grass close by. The poacher had set up an elaborate line of nets accompanied by caged songbirds, clearly designed to lure in wild birds. The caged birds included Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-browed Buntings – three species that were clearly moving at this time of year.
In the nets we found alive 2 Common Rosefinches plus Yellow-browed, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, which we promptly released. But it was too late for 4 Brown Shrikes which had fallen victim to this cruel practice.
The poacher soon arrived (claiming that the nets were his friend’s and not his – yeah right). We told him firmly that this was illegal and that we would be taking photos and reporting him to the Hebei Forestry Administration. He did not protest and actually helped us to dismantle and destroy the nets, snap the poles, release the caged birds and destroy the cages. On return to Beijing I posted the photos on Sina Weibo (Chinese “Twitter”) asking for help in reporting this illegal activity. Within 10 minutes, users on the microblogging service had translated my report into mandarin and submitted it to the Hebei Forestry Administration… wow! The power of social media. Thanks guys!
Ironically, the next day we were ejected from this area by local security guards from the nearby oil terminal and police who claimed that it was a “nature reserve”. So it’s ok to drill for oil and trap wild birds in a nature reserve but birding is a step too far…! A big thank you to Lei Ming and friends for following up on my behalf with the Hebei Forestry Administration.