Birding the China-North Korea border

After a couple of visits to Liaoning Province, I have been captivated by the birding promise, including the coastal mudflats between Dalian and Dandong and the migration potential at the southern tip of the peninsula, Laotieshan.  Last weekend I nipped across to Dalian, hired a car and went looking for shorebirds.  I was determined to make it as far as Dandong, on the North Korean border, a place that very few birders visit.  I had heard from Dalian-based Tom Beeke about the huge mudflats at the Donggang, just south of Dandong, so I knew the shorebird watching would be awesome.

The location of Dandong and Donggang on Google Earth
Sites on the coast between Dalian and Dondang.

It was great that Tom could join me for a half day and, after picking him up at Jinshitan (and seeing another old friend – see below), we spent the afternoon at the estuary north of Pikou, an excellent wader site between Dalian and Zhuange, on the way to Dandong.

"Sandy" at Jinshitan... a colourful reminder of the world volleyball championships held in Jinshitan a few years ago..

On the falling tide we set up our scopes and settled in for an excellent couple of hours watching the flocks of waders fly from their roosts to the freshly exposed mud to begin feeding.  It was quality birding with groups of Great Knot (26), Red Knot (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (161), Red-necked Stint (14), Grey (60), Pacific Golden (3) and Kentish Plovers (122), Grey-tailed Tattler (1), Terek Sandpiper (11), Marsh Sandpiper (25), Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Greenshank (3), Far Eastern (14) and Eurasian Curlew (4), Whimbrel (5), Dunlin (63), Lesser Sand Plover (1), Saunders’ Gull (2), Caspian Tern (9) and Chinese Egret (10).

Great Knot, north of Pikou, Liaoning Province

We also checked out a few sites in between Dalian and Pikou and picked up Great and Little Egrets, Mongolian, Vega, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and many Yellow Wagtails.

I then left Tom and made my way up to Zhuanghe.  Here I enjoyed a healthy number (18) of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding on the estuary (a successful breeding season?), as well as good numbers of Far Eastern Curlews (57), Kentish Plover (160), Little Ringed Plover (1), Grey Plover (35), Spotted Redshank (6), Wood Sandpiper (2) and a single Blue Rock Thrush.

From here I drove up to Dandong and spent a whole day at the mudflats at Donggang.  These mudflats are vast….  I estimated 10,000 birds on the mud but, unfortunately, the tides were not great during my visit.. there wasn’t really a high tide, just a low tide and a lower tide (despite trawling the internet before the visit, I couldn’t find any information about tides in this area).  Hence, the waders were widely spread and, despite trudging out onto the mud with my locally bought 12 Yuan (GBP 1.20) pair of plimsoles, I was only able to scan carefully one large group of around 1,500 birds.  I was convinced that there was a juvenile Spooner out there somewhere but, if there was, I didn’t find it.

Local fishing boats near Donggang
Shellfish collectors on the estuary at low tide... tough work.
Birding the mudflats at Dongdang.. Getting muddy is a requirement here....

Despite that, there were some impressive counts…  over 500 Kentish Plover, 200 Great Knot, 100 Far Eastern Curlew, 30 Eurasian Curlew, 300 Grey Plover, 120 Red-necked Stint, 75 Bar-tailed Godwit, 60 Saunders’ Gulls, 250 Black-headed Gulls, 4 Terek Sandpiper, 600 Dunlin, 3 Broad-billed Sandpiper and 23 Greenshank.

Dunlin, near Pikou, Liaoning Province

A couple of local fishermen turned up and set up their rods on the ‘jetty’ which led me to think that the tide might be coming in… I asked them about the tide and they said that at 3pm the water would be in as far as the jetty…  Great, I thought… it was now 1.30pm so I settled in and waited for the birds to come to me, forced closer by the incoming tide… I waited…  and waited…  At 3pm the water was still a long way out (at least 500 metres) and seemed to have stopped edging closer.  Then a couple of other locals arrived and started laughing with (or at?) the fishermen…  they said that the water was not going to come anywhere near the jetty today..   By this time the tide had just about come to a standstill and my heart sank.  It was clear that the second group of locals were right and that the ‘high tide’ simply wasn’t very high that day.  I made a few final scans before leaving to check the pools inside the sea wall a little further north.

Pacific Golden Plovers

The pools were also productive with 5 Long-toed Stints, Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 4 Temminck’s Stint and 6 Red-necked Stints along with more Far Eastern Curlew.  A nice side show included 2 Grey-faced Buzzards and 4 Pied Harriers in off the sea (defecting from North Korea!).

Saunders Gull with North Korea in the background...
Great Egret near Dandong, Liaoning Province

As dusk approached I made my way back south to spend the night in Zhuanghe.  The following morning I birded two areas 10-15kms south of Zhuanghe.  Here the high tide had pushed the birds right up to the road and I was able to sit and enjoy a fabulous few hours of birding as the tide turned and groups of birds flew in to feed on the first exposed mud.

Here I enjoyed more Great Knot, Red Knot (2 juveniles), Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank (over 250), Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover and Oystercatcher.

I drove on to the river estuary north of Pikou and settled in for what turned out to be another fantastic spell.  On the falling tide, shellfish collectors were digging on the furthest stretch of mud forcing the birds close to me.  I enjoyed spectacular views of many of the waders and counted 18 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 53 Red-necked Stints, 38 Oystercatchers, 31 Bar-tailed Godwits, 350+ Dunlin, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 4 Terek Sandpipers, Eurasian, Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Great Knot, Sanderling (my only one of the trip) and a good count of 24 Caspian Terns roosting on the spit.

Far Eastern Curlews

My final stop was at some salt pans just north of Pikou.  Here I encountered 12 Temminck’s Stints, 14 Spotted Redshank, 4 Little Ringed Plovers and 2 Long-toed Stints.

Long-toed Stint

So, no Spooner, Nordmann’s Greenshank or Asian Dowitcher but a thoroughly enjoyable trip, nonetheless..  all the more interesting given the location and the fact that hardly any birders ever visit.  I am sure if the area was covered regularly, all sorts would be found – it clearly has bags of potential and would make a fantastic local patch!

Dalian – Day Four

Today was wader day.  And after travelling to Jinshitan (just north of Dalian city) yesterday afternoon, we stayed overnight in a very cheap (but functional) hotel ahead of our 5am pick up.  Our destination was Pikou, a relatively small town (or so it appears on the map, but actually looks larger than many UK cities!) north of Dalian on the east coast of the peninsula.  The journey, which without stops should take less than an hour and a half, is peppered with good birding sites and there are lots of mudflats all the way up, providing good habitat for wading birds.  Tom showed us some fabulous sites and I am indebted to him for his guidance, expertise and company today – thanks Tom!!

The highlight was undoubtedly the 6 Black-faced Spoonbills at Zhuange (north of Pikou) with a supporting cast of over 50 Chinese Egrets, 400 Great Knot, over 1,000 Dunlin of the very smart race sakhalina, 300+ Bar-tailed Godwit, 450+ Red-necked Stint, 150+ Terek Sandpiper, 40 Lesser Sand Plover, 2 Greater Sand Plover, 26 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 7 Grey-tailed Tattler and Saunders’ Gull.

After enjoying the Black-faced Spoonbills (almost all of the total breeding population in China!), we experienced a stunning encounter with a host of waders at a site just south of Zhuange where we sat and watched the waders come towards us as the tide came in, giving us fabulous views of Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover etc all in superb breeding plumage.  A real bonus was finding 15 birds with coloured rings or flags on their legs.  These birds will have been ‘marked’ by ornithologists studying migration routes and I will report these birds (7 Bar-tailed Godwit, 5 Great Knot, 1 Red Knot and 1 Grey Plover) in the hope of discovering something about their history.  Many will almost certainly have been ringed in Australia, illustrating just how far these birds travel every year from their breeding grounds near the Arctic circle to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere..  truly remarkable.

The drive back ended with a Little Owl just outside Jinshitan – the first time I have seen this species in China – and we arrived back too late to catch the last train back to Dalian and from there to Lushun.  So we will begin tomorrow by travelling to Lushun, checking in to our hotel and probably won’t reach Laotieshan until late morning.  So we will miss the early hours of migration but it was worth it!

I was a bit lax on the species list today, simply because we stopped at so many sites and saw so many birds!  So the following species list is not comprehensive but hopefully gives a flavour of the day…

Chinese Egret (one of more than 50 seen today)
Black-faced Spoonbills, Zhuange
Black-tailed Godwits
Bar-tailed Godwits

Whimbrel (300+)

Kentish Plover (12)

Chinese Egret (56)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Oystercatcher (6)

Black-tailed Gull (150+)

Peregrine (1)

Grey-tailed Tattler (7)

Black-headed Gull (400+)

Little Egret (6)

Common Sandpiper (4)

Intermediate Egret (1)

Wood Sandpiper (16)

Black-crowned Night Heron (8)

Grey Heron (5)

Common Pheasant (8)

Barn Swallow (300+)

Red-rumped Swallow (25+)

Fork-tailed Swift (60+)

Kestrel (3)

Little Tern (8)

Pacific Golden Plover (57)

Richard’s Pipit (4)

Turnstone (43)

Red-necked Stint (428 including 385 just south of Zuanghe)

Bar-tailed Godwit (300+)

Eurasian Curlew (35+)

Far Eastern Curlew (40+)

Meadow Bunting (3)

Grey Plover (85+)

Terek Sandpiper (c160)

Lesser Sand Plover (34)

Black-tailed Godwit (43)

Saunders’ Gull (5)

Black-faced Bunting (4)

Red Knot (15)

Dunlin (1,000+)

House Martin sp (6)

Yellow Wagtail (14)

Sand Martin (14)

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (38)

Great Knot (c400)

Black-faced Spoonbill (6)

Caspian Tern (1)

Common Shelduck (240)

Chinese Penduline Tit (1)

Blue Rock Thrush (2)

Moorhen (1)

Coot (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Little Owl (1)