Yeyahu with Per Alström and Zhao Min

Birding in Beijing is brilliant at any time of year but, during spring migration, it’s hard to beat and there are so many highlights from Sunday’s trip to Yeyahu Nature Reserve with Per Alström and Zhao Min that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Birding with Per has many advantages, one of which is his encyclopaedic knowledge of China’s birds, especially pipits and wagtails.  So perhaps it should not be a surprise that an encounter with a mixed flock of more than 70 pipits and wagtails at Ma Chang produced Beijing’s second ever MEADOW PIPIT (草地鹨).  Initially found by Min and identified by Per, this bird was the undoubted rarity highlight but there were so many other great moments – the 21 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴), displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), GREATER SPOTTED (乌雕) and SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), SAKER (猎隼), a flock of 90+ BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭), displaying ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK ((亚洲) 短趾百灵), a flock of 52 WHITE WAGTAILS (白鹡鸰) that included 3 subspecies – leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis – and a flock of ‘eastern’ ROOKS (秃鼻乌鸦) – a possible future new species?

WHITE WAGTAIL ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
WHITE WAGTAIL (白鹡鸰) ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

We started at Ma Chang, a reliable spot for ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) in early April.  It’s important to arrive here early as this site is extremely popular with horse-riders, motorised buggies and even people driving imitation tanks, so it’s hopeless as a birding destination at the weekend after around 0800.  We were fortunate to find a single ORIENTAL PLOVER (东方鴴) with a flock of 30+ KENTISH PLOVERS (环颈鴴) and, later, we found a flock of 21 OPs in agricultural fields just east of the main site.  These birds – that winter in Australia – are special and one of the signs that Spring has arrived in Beijing.

ORIENTAL PLOVERS at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014
ORIENTAL PLOVERS (东方鴴) at Ma Chang, 6 April 2014

After enjoying the pipits, wagtails and plovers, as well as a beautiful male MERLIN (灰背隼) that buzzed us before sitting up on a stand of maize, we headed off to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.

This adult male MERLIN was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.
This adult male Merlin (灰背隼) was a nice sighting at Ma Chang.

At Yeyahu we enjoyed the spectacular sight of displaying EASTERN MARSH HARRIERS (白腹鹞), newly arrived and preparing to breed.  These are stunning raptors, the males in particular, and this adult male made a close pass when were in one of the tower hides..  awesome!

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER, Yeyahu, 6 April 2014.  Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞), Yeyahu, 6 April 2014. Is there a more spectacular raptor anywhere?
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER 'buzzing' us at Yeyahu.
EASTERN MARSH HARRIER (白腹鹞) ‘buzzing’ us at Yeyahu.

Two GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES (乌雕) added to our raptor list which, by the end of the day, had reached 10 species and bizarrely missing COMMON KESTREL (红隼)!

 

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE, Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014
GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (乌雕), Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014

In stunning spring weather (and clean air!) we enjoyed so many other highlights on a day that produced a total of 81 species.  Just before dusk we were treated to a magnificent flight of ducks that included MALLARD (綠頭鴨), SPOT-BILLED DUCK (斑嘴鴨), PINTAIL (针尾鸭), COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭), FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭), SHOVELER (琵嘴鸭), GARGANEY (白眉鸭), COMMON TEAL (绿翅鸭) and, just as we had hoped, BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭).  A flock of at least 90 of the latter wheeled around in the fading light – a magnificent sight and a fitting end to a wonderful day at this world-class birding site.

BAIKAL TEAL. Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.
BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭). Part of a 90+ strong flock that wheeled around just before dusk.

Big thanks to Per and Min for their company on a day that will live long in the memory…!

Per and Zhao Min at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.
Per and Min (being careful not to ‘stride’) at one of the hides at Yeyahu NR, 6 April 2014.

 

Full species list below:

JAPANESE QUAIL   Coturnix japonica  鵪鶉   1

COMMON PHEASANT   Phasianus colchicus  雉雞  4

SWAN GOOSE   Anser cygnoides   VU  鴻雁  1

GREYLAG GOOSE   Anser anser 3

RUDDY SHELDUCK   Tadorna ferruginea  赤麻鴨  6

MANDARIN DUCK   Aix galericulata  鴛鴦  9

GADWALL   Anas strepera  赤膀鴨  94

FALCATED DUCK   Anas falcata  罗纹鸭  14

MALLARD   Anas platyrhynchos  綠頭鴨  500

CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK   Anas zonorhyncha  斑嘴鴨  38

NORTHERN SHOVELER   Anas clypeata  琵嘴鸭  13

NORTHERN PINTAIL   Anas acuta  针尾鸭  6

GARGANEY   Anas querquedula  白眉鸭  4

BAIKAL TEAL   Anas formosa  花脸鸭  a flock of 90 plus a separate flock of 70, which could have been different birds.

EURASIAN TEAL   Anas crecca  绿翅鸭  350

RED-CRESTED POCHARD   Netta rufina  赤嘴潜鸭  1

COMMON POCHARD   Aythya ferina  红头潜鸭  3

FERRUGINOUS POCHARD   Aythya nyroca   NT  白眼潜鸭  8

TUFTED DUCK   Aythya fuligula  凤头潜鸭  4

COMMON GOLDENEYE   Bucephala clangula  鹊鸭  6

SMEW   Mergellus albellus  白秋沙鸭  24

LITTLE GREBE   Tachybaptus ruficollis  小鸊鷉  4

GREAT CRESTED GREBE   Podiceps cristatus  凤头鸊鷉  8

GREAT BITTERN   Botaurus stellaris  大麻鳽  1

GREY HERON   Ardea cinerea  苍鹭  16

PURPLE HERON   Ardea purpurea  草鹭  2

EASTERN GREAT EGRET   Ardea modesta  大白鹭  1

GREAT CORMORANT   Phalacrocorax carbo  普通鸬鹚  12

SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE   Circaetus gallicus  短趾雕  1

EASTERN MARSH HARRIER   Circus spilonotus  白腹鹞  7

HEN HARRIER   Circus cyaneus  白尾鹞  1 adult female

EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK   Accipiter nisus  雀鹰  2

NORTHERN GOSHAWK   Accipiter gentilis  苍鹰  2

EASTERN BUZZARD   Buteo japonicus  普通鵟  19

GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE   Aquila clanga   VU  乌雕  2

MERLIN   Falco columbarius  灰背隼  1

SAKER FALCON   Falco cherrug   EN  猎隼  1

PEREGRINE FALCON   Falco peregrinus  游隼  1

COMMON COOT   Fulica atra  骨顶鸡(白骨顶)  44

BLACK-WINGED STILT   Himantopus himantopus  黑翅长脚鹬  4

NORTHERN LAPWING   Vanellus vanellus  凤头麦鸡  33

GREY-HEADED LAPWING   Vanellus cinereus  灰头麦鸡  1

LITTLE RINGED PLOVER   Charadrius dubius   金眶鴴  2

KENTISH PLOVER   Charadrius alexandrinus  环颈鴴  48

ORIENTAL PLOVER   Charadrius veredus  东方鴴  21

COMMON SNIPE   Gallinago gallinago  扇尾沙锥  9

BLACK-HEADED GULL   Chroicocephalus ridibundus  红嘴鸥  39

ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE   Streptopelia orientalis  山斑鸠  4

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE   Streptopelia decaocto  灰斑鸠  6

COMMON KINGFISHER   Alcedo atthis  普通翠鸟  2

EURASIAN HOOPOE   Upupa epops  戴胜  2

GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER   Dendrocopos major  大斑啄木鸟  1

GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER   Picus canus  灰头绿啄木鸟  1

AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE   Cyanopica cyanus  灰喜鹊  1

COMMON MAGPIE   Pica pica  喜鹊  30

DAURIAN JACKDAW   Coloeus dauuricus  达乌里寒鸦  400+

ROOK   Corvus frugilegus  秃鼻乌鸦  33

CARRION CROW   Corvus corone  小嘴乌鸦  2

MARSH TIT   Poecile palustris  沼泽山雀  1

JAPANESE TIT   Parus minor  大山雀  2

CHINESE PENDULINE TIT   Remiz consobrinus  中华攀雀  15

GREATER SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella brachydactyla  (大) 短趾百灵  8

ASIAN SHORT-TOED LARK   Calandrella cheleensis  (亚洲) 短趾百灵  1

EURASIAN SKYLARK   Alauda arvensis  云雀  14

BARN SWALLOW   Hirundo rustica  家燕  8

VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL   Sinosuthora webbianus  棕头鸦雀  40

WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING   Spodiopsar cineraceus  灰椋鸟  26

COMMON STARLING   Sturnus vulgaris  紫翅椋鸟  1

RED-THROATED THRUSH   Turdus ruficollis  赤颈鸫  1

DAURIAN REDSTART   Phoenicurus auroreus  北红尾鸲  1

EURASIAN TREE SPARROW   Passer montanus  (树) 麻雀  150

CITRINE WAGTAIL   Motacilla citreola  黄头鹡鸰  1

WHITE WAGTAIL   Motacilla alba 白鹡鸰  63

RED-THROATED PIPIT   Anthus cervinus  红喉鹨  1

BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT   Anthus rubescens japonicus  黄腹鹨  18

WATER PIPIT   Anthus spinoletta  水鹨  20

MEADOW PIPIT   Anthus pratensis  1   *** the 2nd record for Beijing***

GREY-CAPPED GREENFINCH   Carduelis sinica  金翅 (雀)  4

LITTLE BUNTING   Emberiza pusilla  小鹀  1

PALLAS’S BUNTING   Emberiza pallasi  苇鹀  22

REED BUNTING   Emberiza schoeniclus  芦鹀  1

TOTAL NUMBER OF SPECIES 81

 

 

Shorebirding at Nanpu and more illegal trapping

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!

2013-08-21 Birds
The backdrop may not be pretty but the birding is spectacular at Nanpu.

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.

A typically thorough full report by Paul Holt can be downloaded here: Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 7 & 8 September 2013

Per shorebirding at Nanpu.
Per checking out the waders on a roadside pond at Nanpu.
This is "EVA" the Bar-tailed Godwit.  Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures.  You can read about EVA's history in the trip report.
This is “EVA” the Bar-tailed Godwit. Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures. You can read about EVA’s history in the trip report.
Juvenile Red-necked Stint.  Beautiful birds!
Juvenile Red-necked Stint. Beautiful birds!
Gull-billed Tern.
Gull-billed Tern.

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.

Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets
Local ladies maintaining the shrimp 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…

Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.
Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.

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.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

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.

The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.
The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.  Here he frees a first year/ female Common Rosefinch

Beijing Birders Meet-up

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.

Thanks to Jennifer Leung for the photos below.

From left to right: Paul Holt, Colm Moore (front), Terry Townhsend and Tom Beeke.
From left to right: Paul Holt (UK), Colm Moore (front, representing Ireland), Terry Townshend (UK) and Tom Beeke (Canada, making a special guest appearance from Dalian).
From left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alstrom (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen.
Clockwise from left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Paul Holt (UK), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alström (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen (Sweden) and (the right side of) Craig Brelsford (US).

Relict Gull

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.

Local shellfish collectors
Local shellfish collectors
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Adult and 2cy RELICT GULLS, Nanpu Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Relict Gull (first calendar year).  Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year). Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

 And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.

 

_

Blackthroat

Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013.  Photo by Rob Holmes.
Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013. Photo by Rob Holmes.

The Black-throated Blue Robin (Blackthroat) was, until very recently, an almost mythical bird.  Known only from the odd scattered record in the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, with presumed wintering records in southern China and Thailand, it has been “the Holy Grail” of China birding.

The chances of seeing one were as close to zero as one could get until June 2011 when Per Alström and a team of Chinese scientists discovered a total of 14 males at two sites – Foping and Changqing – in Shaanxi Province.

I had long been planning a trip to neighbouring Sichuan Province in May this year with friends Rob Holmes and Jonathan Price and, after consulting our local guide – Sid Francis – we decided to tag on a couple of extra days to visit Changqing and try to see Blackthroat.  It was a gamble.  We knew that, in 2012, the first birds were seen in Foping and Changqing on 4 and 18 May respectively.  So it was by no means certain that they would have arrived and be on territory on 8 May, the day we had planned to visit.  And even if they had arrived, would we be able to find one?

Per had kindly uploaded some sound recordings of the Blackthroat’s song, so we knew what to listen for.  And on our arrival at Changqing we met with our guide for the day – Zhang Yongwen – who was part of the team that made the discovery in 2011.  We were as prepared as we could be, and in good hands.

Yongwen told us that we had “a chance”.  This Spring had been a little warmer than usual.  His visit with us would be the first time he had looked for the birds this year.  If successful, we would be the first people to see Blackthroat in 2013.

Our day began as a typical Spring day in Shaanxi – overcast with the threat of rain and a little chilly in a brisk breeze.  Not ideal conditions to look for a skulking robin but not terrible either – it is not uncommon for rain to last days in this part of the world in Spring.

We drove from our hotel in the “ancient” town of Huayang (which looked about 5 years old!) into the core reserve area.  The ‘road’ was an old logging track that took us into the heart of some superb habitat.  The forest in the reserve is mostly mature secondary growth with generous areas of bamboo.  In addition to Blackthroat, the reserve hosts around 100 Giant Pandas as well as Takin, Goral, Serow, Wild Boar and Tufted Deer.  The chances of seeing Giant Panda in the wild at this time of year are slim, with the trees in full leaf, but we did see evidence – panda poo!

Giant Panda poo... our closest encounter with this special mammal.
Giant Panda poo… our closest encounter with this special mammal.

After an hour’s drive, including seeing a couple of Golden Pheasants by the side of the road, we stopped at the edge of a small valley – “Wo Wo Dian” at an altitude of 2,200-2,400 metres.  It was along this valley that Blackthroat was found in 2011 and seen subsequently in 2012.  Fortunately the rain was holding off and we began the short walk to the prime area.  The sense of excitement among the group was palpable.

Blackthroat habitat
Blackthroat habitat

The search was focused on areas of dense bamboo alongside a small stream. The constant sound of running water muffled any birdsong, making it difficult to hear and identify any birds along the way…  At the first patch of bamboo, just a few hundred metres along the valley, we had a frustrating glimpse of a robin running along the ground.. but it was so deep in the bamboo that it just looked like a black shape and, after waiting patiently for 20 minutes or so, Yongwen said that the best area was further up, so we moved on…

The next stand of bamboo looked good – it was relatively open and, with a low vantage point gained by standing in the rocky stream, it was easier to see any movement.  We soon heard a robin singing…  and it sounded similar, if not identical, to the sound recordings we had of Blackthroat…  our hearts jumped.  It wasn’t long before we spotted a robin at the base of the bamboo, deep inside the thicket, and after a frustrating few minutes of half-glimpses and flight views, it finally sat up and sang from a rock – FIRETHROAT!  A robin, and a fantastic bird at that, but not the bird we were looking for…  Although disappointing that it wasn’t a Blackthroat, we were encouraged that this bird was on territory…  would this sighting suggest that the related Blackthroat was also back?

Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province.  We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird!
Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province. We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird! We later learned that this could be the most northerly record of Firethroat ever recorded.

Onwards we walked to the next area… constantly alert to listen for any song.  After no joy at the next couple of stands of bamboo, I began to feel a little deflated…  had we arrived just a day or two too early?

The deflated feeling didn’t last long…  as we turned a corner, Sid heard what he thought was a short burst of Blackthroat song and, standing absolutely still and turning our heads to one side, we all heard what sounded like the beginning of Blackthroat song…  but it was distant and barely audible above the sound of the running water…  could it be one?  Or was it another mimicking Firethroat?  We daren’t presume anything but one could sense the excitement among the group.  We edged down a bank towards the location of the sound and, sure enough, we began to hear more of the song above the sound of the stream…  it matched very closely the recording we had.  The song was clearly coming from the opposite side of the stream, so we edged to the bank and sat quietly, hoping that the bird would reveal itself…  First, there was a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in the bamboo… it was a robin.  Then a second glimpse.. but both times it was gone before we could get onto it with binoculars..  A few seconds later it flew to a moss-covered rock and sang, just for a second, before diving into cover again..  There was stunned silence.. we looked at each other and smiled… we had all seen a male BLACKTHROAT!  Wow…(or maybe I should say “BOOM!”).  For the next couple of minutes, we sat in awe as the Blackthroat moved to several different song posts, delivered a short burst of song and then dived back into cover…

The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.
The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.

Whilst my attempts at photographing Blackthroat resulted in blurred twigs and images of the space where the bird had been just a split-second before, Rob managed to secure the image at the beginning of this post.  It’s an image that captures the essence of our experience – fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic and elusive bird in thick bamboo in poor light…  Sharp, in-focus, full-frame photographs are over-rated!

I also made a short recording of the song using my Canon 7D’s video facility:

After enjoying this bird for some time, we continued up the valley and encountered several more birds..  all were elusive and, although we heard at least 5 individuals, we only saw one more definite Blackthroat.  Mr Zhang also pointed out an old nest from 2012 – possibly the only nest ever discovered.

A Blackthroat nest from 2012.  Situated on a steep bank.
A Blackthroat nest from 2012. Situated on a steep bank.

The elusiveness of this bird surprised me a little.  I had expected newly arrived Blackthroat males to be more obvious…  maybe it was the weather conditions (overcast and a little breezy) that suppressed their activity or maybe they are louder and more obvious when the females arrive..  I don’t know..

In any case, I am very grateful to Sid for picking up the faint song of the first Blackthroat we saw and to Mr Zhang for his expert company throughout the day.  I am also grateful to Per Alström and Paul Holt who provided information about Blackthroat ahead of our visit.  Finally, a big thank you to Jonathan and Rob for their company on what was an outstanding trip to Sichuan and Shaanxi that ended on this magnificent high.

If anyone is heading this way and wants to explore the option of visiting Changqing National Nature Reserve to see this bird, please feel free to contact me or Sid Francis for advice.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus), also sometimes known as White-winged Redstart, is the world’s largest redstart.  It breeds at high altitudes from 3,600–5,200 m in alpine meadows and rock-fields, moving to slightly lower altitudes in winter.  Apparently, the northernmost population, in the mountains around Lake Baikal, migrate furthest and sometimes reach northeastern China.

I had heard that this bird occasionally showed up in Beijing in winter.  However, I wasn’t aware of any regular sites and so it wasn’t really on my radar.

However, during the visit to the Mentougou District to see the BROWN ACCENTOR last week, I realised that we were relatively close to Lingshan, a mountain (Beijing’s highest peak) near the border with Hebei Province.  I had heard about this site but never visited.  We decided to take the opportunity to have a quick look and, although we didn’t have much time – only an hour at the top – I was very pleased we did.  The road to the peak was a little treacherous, but passable, and as the landscape opened up as we neared the top it was obvious that the area had potential.  This potential was realised almost immediately when we spotted some redstarts atop some berry bushes by the side of the road.  Although superficially looking similar to the common Daurian Redstart, it would be highly unlikely to find Daurian Redstarts at the top of a mountain in winter…and these birds looked BIG!  We got out of the car to investigate and, as soon as one of the males flew, showing a huge white wing patch, it was clear that this was a different redstart sp – Güldenstädt’s Redstart – a high altitude specialist.  Wow.  There were many birds present and we counted at least 17, a mixture of males and females.  We think this is a record Beijing count.  We enjoyed these birds for a good 30 minutes, and also saw several Black- and Red-throated Thrushes sharing the same shrubs, before reluctantly leaving for the journey back to Beijing.

The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name "White-winged Redstart").
The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name “White-winged Redstart”).

My report of these birds to Beijing birders caused something of a stir and, on Saturday, I returned to the spot with Per Alström and Jennifer Leung and we were joined by Swedish birder, Anders Magnussen, who had driven from Tainjin (!) and three cars full of Beijing birders led by Zhu Lei.

A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt's Redstarts.
A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.

This second visit, with more time to explore the area and more pairs of eyes, proved even more productive with an astonishing 28+ redstarts counted (Anders, who arrived before us, estimated at least 40) plus at least 60 PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING and at least 50 dark-throated thrushes (mostly Red-throated).

Three of the 60+ Pallas's Rosefinches at Lingshan.  These are females or immature males.
Three of the 60+ Pallas’s Rosefinches at Lingshan. These are females or immature males.

We also enjoyed good views of Songar Tit, 3 Cinereous Vultures and an Upland Buzzard.  We dipped on the hoped for ASIAN ROSY FINCH, 200 of which were seen at this location a few winters ago.. but that didn’t detract from a very productive day.  My thanks to Per, Jennifer, Anders, Zhu Lei and friends for their good company!

Pallas’s Rosefinch

Pallas's Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013.  A stunning bird.
Pallas’s Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013. A stunning bird.

The Pallas’s Rosefinch (Carpodacus roseus) is a difficult bird to see anywhere.  Although it has quite a large range, its breeding grounds – the mountains of eastern Russia and northern Mongolia – are relatively inaccessible and remote.  And the wintering sites (northern China, Japan, Korea) are not necessarily reliable on a year by year basis.

Beijing in winter has traditionally been one of the best places to see this species but, in recent years, the numbers wintering around the Chinese capital appear to have declined for unknown reasons (possibly due to milder winters).

This winter, the coldest in China for over 20 years and with above average snowfall in northern China, has bucked the trend and there are good numbers of Pallas’s Rosefinch wintering in the hills around the capital, providing a good opportunity to get to grips with this species.  Singles and small groups have been reported from a number of locations around Beijing, including the Olympic Forest Park, Badaling Great Wall and Shisanling.  However, it is the ridge above the Botanical Gardens in the northwest of the city that has proved to be a real hotspot this winter.  Jesper Hornskov walks this area frequently and he first reported sightings of this bird from October with numbers gradually building to a high count of over 70 in January.

On Sunday I visited the Botanical Gardens with Beijing-based Per Alström, Jennifer Leung and visiting Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.  After birding through the gardens, and completing the steep ascent to the ridge, we rested for a short coffee break during which we were fortunate to encounter two stunning male Pallas’s Rosefinches – the target bird of our walk.  After enjoying spectacular views we walked a 2-3km stretch of the ridge before returning via the same route.  Although it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of the number of birds present, we left with the view that we had seen over 40 birds along that particular 2-3 km stretch, including at least 3 adult males.

Adult males are difficult to beat..  they are resplendent in their raspberry-coloured plumage, silvery-white bills and steely-black legs.  Females and immatures are much drabber, often displaying streaky brownish plumage with a hint of orange or pink and a pinkish rump.

If you are in Beijing over the next few weeks I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Botanical Gardens to see these birds.  But be quick – they are likely to head back north sometime in mid- to late-March and who knows when they will next be so accessible in the Chinese capital?

Full species list from the walk below.  My thanks go to Per, Jennifer and Ben for their excellent company.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 1
Eastern Buzzard – 1 seen twice over the ridge
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Spotted Dove – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 35+
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 5
Common Magpie – 13
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 12
Great (Japanese) Tit – 6
Yellow-bellied Tit – 28
Marsh Tit – 4
Silver-throated Tit – 2 in the gardens late afternoon
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4 on the way down (after going most of the day without seeing any)
Chinese Bulbul – 1 heard
Pere David’s Laughingthrush – 12
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 2 groups of 15+ each
Goldcrest – 6
Chinese Nuthatch – 1
Crested Myna – 1
White-cheeked Starling – 1
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Naumann’s Thrush – 11
Tree Sparrow – many in the gardens
Siberian Accentor – 6, including 2 seen exceptionally well around the noodle place
Brambling – over 1,000, often wheeling around in large flocks
Oriental Greenfinch – 7
Siskin – 5 (PA only)
Pallas’s Rosefinch – at least 40 (3 adult males and the remainder females or immature males).  The first two (both adult males) showed exceptionally well.
Hawfinch – 2
Godlewski’s Bunting – 5
Tristram’s Bunting – 3
Yellow-throated Bunting – 4
Mammals
Red Squirrel – 5
Pere David’s Rock Squirrel – 1