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.
September and October are probably my favourite months in Beijing. The excessive heat of the summer diminishes and, given the autumnal breeze, combined with regular rain, the air quality is good, resulting in some fantastic clear days with superb visibility. It’s a reminder that Beijing is a beautiful city and if ever an extra incentive was needed to clean up the capital’s air, being outside on autumnal days and seeing the mountains, with the ever-impressive Great Wall running along the spine of the northern ranges, must be it.
Of course September and October are also superb months for birding with migration in full swing. Taking advantage of Dalian-based Tom Beeke’s presence in the capital for an ice-hockey tournament, Paul Holt and I took Tom for a day’s birding at Miyun Reservoir on Sunday. And what a beautiful day it was. With the temperature a fresh 14 degrees C early on (rising to 32 degrees C later), a stunning clear blue sky and visibility of at least 30-40km, it was a great day to be in the field.
We visited three sites around the reservoir and recorded an impressive 91 species, including two new birds for me in Beijing – LITTLE CURLEW (小杓鹬) and RUSSET SPARROW (山麻雀) – plus 2 SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), several PIED HARRIERS (鹊鹞) and, best of all, a PEREGRINE (游隼) of the subspecies peregrinator – a resident of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and southern China. We believe this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and the most northerly record in China – unless you know better?
Some images from the day and a full species list (courtesy of Paul Holt) below.
Full Species List
Japanese Quail – 6 around Miyun reservoir
Common Pheasant- 5
Mandarin Duck – 3 around Miyun reservoir
Falcated Duck – 4, including an eclipse adult male, at Miyun reservoir. Apparently the earliest autumn records from Beijing. The previous earliest were 25 and 36 birds at Miyun reservoir on the 11 and 12 September 2004 respectively (PH pers. obs.). These dates seem unusually late however and it’s likely that limited observer coverage of Miyun reservoir & WDL in late August is responsible as birds are regularly encountered on the Hebei and Tianjin coasts at that time.
Mallard – 8
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 10
Garganey – 5
Eurasian Teal – 3
Little Grebe – 16
Great Crested Grebe – 54
Black Stork – 3 flew north over the Jingcheng expressway near Miyun town (kilometre post 62) at about 05h45.
Black-crowned Night Heron – 3
Little Heron – 2
Chinese Pond Heron – 11
Eastern Cattle Egret – 4
Grey Heron – 10
Purple Heron – 2 juveniles
Great Egret – 3
Little Egret – 17
Osprey – 1. Probably the earliest autumn date for Beijing.
Crested (Oriental) Honey-buzzard – 1 flew south high over in the Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir.
Black Kite – 2 juveniles
Short-toed Snake Eagle – 2. Both were photographed.
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 4
Pied Harrier – 6, including two adult males, an adult female and three juveniles
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 10
Common Kestrel – 1
Amur Falcon – 81. 66 of these were seen from the Jingcheng expressway between Miyun town & Taishitun. Surprisingly today’s total was one of the highest autumn bird-days totals for the whole of Beijing. The majority of Amur Falcons apparently move through Beijing during a short and intense autumn passage. Most years it’s the second week of September before there’s any significant movement and birds are widely encountered just one week later (by the middle of September) with peak migration apparently occurring in the third week. Note that this is significantly earlier than the peak occurs in coastal Tianjin and at Laotie Shan, southernmost Liaoning where the, significantly larger passage, doesn’t peak until mid-October. Note that significantly larger numbers have been seen in neighbouring Tianjin municipality during autumn passage (with 1350 counted at Beidagang, Dagang on 10 October 2007)
Peregrine Falcon – 2 juveniles near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. The first bird that we saw was a ‘Shaheen’ Falcon Falco peregrinus peregrinator as it was slightly small and compact, even for a male, had a strong rufous suffusion to its lower underparts and underwing coverts that contrasted well with its whiter breast and cheeks. It was quite dark above with rather little contrast with the paler rump and had an extensive dark hood. In China peregrinator is a bird of the south and can be found, albeit locally, in Sichuan. The most northerly record in China until today had been an adult at Yangxian, Shaanxi on the 1 July 2013 (PH pers. obs.).
Common Moorhen – 5
Eurasian Coot – 8
Black-winged Stilt – 2
Snipe sp. – 3
Little Curlew – 1 was seen several times in flight, and photographed, near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir. Little Curlew is rare in Beijing with perhaps just four or five previous reports – ‘present’ at Wild Duck Lake on the 22/3/2003 (赵欣如老师 黄伟 竹 cyan 以及另外三人 via BirdTalker). This report was accompanied by the statement that ‘needs to be affirmed since the time is too early’. Subsequently one was seen at Huairou Reservoir on 11/5/2004 [JHa in the 2004 CBR] and this sighting was noted as being the first record for the Capital by the bird report editors who apparently discounted the 2003 report above; one at Miyun reservoir on the 18/10/2007 – it flew purposefully south, out and over the reservoir south of the Bulaotun Satellite Tracking Station at 15:25hrs (PH pers. obs.); three at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 4/5/2008 (PH pers. obs.) & one in Yuanmingyuan during the 14-17/8/2012 (see http:/www.birdnet.cn/showtopic-381567.aspx )
Green Sandpiper – 1
Wood Sandpiper – 2
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Black-headed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 3, two adults and a second-calendar year, flew north at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir. Apparently the earliest ever autumn record from Beijing
Gull-billed Tern – 4, two adults and two first-winters. One of only five autumn records from Beijing!
Common Tern – 3 adults. Two were minusensis & the other longipennis.
White-winged Black Tern – 1 juvenile
Oriental Turtle Dove – 11
Eurasian Collared Dove – 50
Spotted Dove – 2
Asian Koel – 1 singing bird was heard near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. 2013 has been a record year for this species in Beijing – and today’s was the first ever September encounter.
Common Cuckoo – 3 around Miyun reservoir
Common Kingfisher – 3
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1 flew over the Jingcheng expressway near kilometre 62
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Brown Shrike – 6
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Black-naped Oriole – 3
Black Drongo – 218. Apparently a record day-count from the Capital. The only previous three-figure counts that I’m aware of from Beijing have been 200 at Wild Duck Lake on 21/8/2005 (LHT in the 2005 CBR) & 150 at Wild Duck Lake during 26-27/8/2010 (Brian Ivon Jones via BirdTalker)
Azure-winged Magpie – 1
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 1 was heard
Marsh Tit – 2 calling birds were heard near Yongle cun
Japanese Tit – 1 was heard
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 heard near Yongle cun
Light-vented Bulbul – 22
Sand Martin – 28 flew south
Barn Swallow – 35 around Miyun reservoir. Five of these, including one tytleri, were near Yongle cun with the other 30 in & around Hou Ba Jia Zhuang village.
Red-rumped Swallow – 150
Dusky Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 7
Oriental Reed Warbler – 2
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 2
Thick-billed Warbler – 5
Lanceolated Warbler – 3 separate birds were heard near Yongle cun
Zitting Cisticola – 21
Plain Laughingthrush – 2, a presumed pair, near Yongle cun
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 52
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4, presumably a family party
Common Stonechat – 14
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 2
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Russet Sparrow – 17 in a mixed flock with Eurasian Tree Sparrows near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir. One of very few double-figure day counts from Beijing and perhaps the first record for Miyun county? The number of Russet Sparrows being reported in Beijing appears to have declined in recent years (from high counts that included 50 at the Jumahe, Fangshan on the 4/12/2004 [QYX in 2004 CBR], 30 at Shidu, Fangshan on 30/12/2007 (蛐蛐儿黑鹳辛夷拙石 via BirdTalker) and 20 at Juili cun, Jiuduhe zhen, Huairou on the 11/9/2010 [dianchi via BirdTalker]). Note that Beijing has been the northern limit of this species’ Chinese breeding range for over a decade – this is despite recent records at Laotie Shan, Liaoning in May 2011 (Townshend and Millington 2011) & May 2013 (Terry Townshend pers. comm to PH) and on the Hebei coast suggest that the species is continuing to slowly expand its range.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – 100
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 50
Grey Wagtail – 2 singles flew south
White Wagtail – 9, including four leucopsis
Richard’s Pipit – 18
Olive-backed Pipit – 1
Red-throated Pipit – 1. Apparently the joint earliest autumn record from Beijing – equalling the sighting of five at Shahe Reservoir, Changping on 1/9/2008 (红嘴蓝鹊, 鹰之舞 via BirdTalker).
Grey-capped Greenfinch – 30
Common Rosefinch – 112. 17 of these were near Yongle cun with the other 95, including a single flock of about 80 birds, were near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang. Apparently a record autumn count for Beijing.
Chinese Grosbeak – 3
Meadow Bunting – 1 was heard near Yongle cun
Yellow-breasted Bunting – 2 near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang
In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders. There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more… plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.
Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza. Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.
It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.
RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species. Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….
It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China. It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds. Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing. However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year… Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain. There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).
Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers.. They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply! Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.
And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.