Pallas’s Sandgrouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Full species list:

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

TUNDRA SWAN Cygnus columbianus 小天鹅  1 at Yeyahu NR

RUDDY SHELDUCK Tadorna ferruginea 赤麻鴨  8

GADWALL Anas strepera 赤膀鴨  108

FALCATED DUCK Anas falcata 罗纹鸭  14

MALLARD Anas platyrhynchos 綠頭鴨  122

CHINESE SPOT-BILLED DUCK Anas zonorhyncha 斑嘴鴨  29

NORTHERN SHOVELER Anas clypeata 琵嘴鸭  1

NORTHERN PINTAIL Anas acuta 针尾鸭  5

EURASIAN TEAL Anas crecca 绿翅鸭  14

COMMON GOLDENEYE Bucephala clangula 鹊鸭  1

SMEW Mergellus albellus 白秋沙鸭  83

LITTLE GREBE Tachybaptus ruficollis 小鸊鷉  4

GREAT CRESTED GREBE Podiceps cristatus 凤头鸊鷉  5

GREAT BITTERN Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽  2

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

EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK Accipiter nisus 雀鹰 1

NORTHERN GOSHAWK Accipiter gentilis 苍鹰  2

EASTERN BUZZARD Buteo japonicus 普通鵟  1

MERLIN Falco columbarius 灰背隼  1 adult male

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

PEREGRINE FALCON Falco peregrinus 游隼  1

COMMON COOT Fulica atra 骨顶鸡(白骨顶)  17

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

BLACK-HEADED GULL Chroicocephalus ridibundus 红嘴鸥  1

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

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

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE Streptopelia decaocto 灰斑鸠  18

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

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

CHINESE GREY SHRIKE Lanius s. sphenocercus 楔尾伯劳  4

AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE Cyanopica cyanus 灰喜鹊  6

COMMON MAGPIE Pica pica 喜鹊  35

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

DAURIAN JACKDAW Coloeus dauuricus 达乌里寒鸦  55

JAPANESE TIT Parus minor 大山雀  2

CHINESE PENDULINE TIT Remiz consobrinus 中华攀雀  3

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

EURASIAN SKYLARK Alauda arvensis 云雀 8

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

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

VINOUS-THROATED PARROTBILL Sinosuthora webbianus 棕头鸦雀  34

CHINESE HILL BABBLER Rhopophilus pekinensis 山鹛  2

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

EURASIAN TREE SPARROW Passer montanus (树) 麻雀  100

SIBERIAN ACCENTOR Prunella montanella 棕眉山岩鹨 6

BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT Anthus rubescens japonicus 黄腹鹨  2

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

LITTLE BUNTING Emberiza pusilla 小鹀  8

YELLOW-THROATED BUNTING Emberiza elegans 黄喉鹀  2

PALLAS’S BUNTING Emberiza pallasi 苇鹀  24

Total Number of Species – 51

 

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.

 

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Late August at Yeyahu

On Saturday 24 August I visited Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh.  I collected Steve from his hotel at 0530 on a beautiful clear, sunny morning and, after a pretty clear run over the mountains past Badaling, we were at the entrance to the reserve by 0645.  A juvenile TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳) was a nice surprise along the entrance track, the first time I have seen this species in the capital.  Other highlights included a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺), 2 SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽), an adult RELICT GULL (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥) and a juvenile PIED HARRIER (Circus melanoleucos, 鹊鹞).  Unfortunately there was no sign of any STREAKED REED WARBLERS (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺), the autumn passage of which peaked between 22 August and 7 September in the 1920s, according to La Touche.  I shall keep looking!

Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013
Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 24 August 2013

 

Full species list below.

 

Common Pheasant – 1
Mandarin – 3
Mallard – 1
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 3
Little Grebe – 7
Great Crested Grebe – 8
Yellow Bittern – 3 (2 adults and one juvenile)
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN – 2 (a pair) – seen in the same place as the male seen in early June – possibly a breeding pair?
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12
Grey Heron – 2
Purple Heron – 6
Little Egret – 2
Great Cormorant – 1
Amur Falcon – 5
Hobby – 2
Peregrine – 1 juvenile
Black-eared Kite – 1 juvenile
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male, two juveniles)
Pied Harrier – 1 juvenile
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Moorhen – 5
Coot – 9
Swinhoe’s/Pin-tailed Snipe – 2
RELICT GULL – 1 moulting adult. My first autumn sighting in Beijing.
Gull sp – 1 juvenile/first winter not seen well enough to id
White-winged Tern – 4 juveniles
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Spotted Dove – 5
Common Cuckoo – 1 juvenile
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 3
TIGER SHRIKE – 1 juvenile. My first in Beijing.
Brown Shrike – 12
Black Drongo – 62
Azure-winged Magpie – one seen from car on return journey
Common Magpie – 12
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 7
Marsh Tit – 4
Chinese Penduline Tit – 9, including at least 3 juveniles
Barn Swallow – c80
Red-rumped Swallow – c20
Zitting Cisticola – 11
Chinese Bulbul – 9
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – 1
Thick-billed Warbler – 3
Black-browed Reed Warbler – 15
BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER – 1, possibly 2.
Yellow-browed Warbler – 2
Arctic Warbler – 4
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – c35
Siberian Stonechat – 4
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Yellow Wagtail – 4
White Wagtail – 2

 

Desert Wheatear

This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear.  It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls and a Mongolian Lark.

Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place.  Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing.  An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight.  The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..

Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds…  Wow!  The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire.  Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see.   I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012. A wonderful bird.

I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west.  It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone.  Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear.  Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record.  I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer.  It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear.  I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record).  But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities)..  and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive.  Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view.   On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert.  Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.

Desert Wheatear (female), Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. Thought to be only the 2nd record of this species in Beijing.
Desert Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. The only other Beijing record I am aware of is of a male at the same site in April 2010.

I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds..  it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!

Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.

Mongolian Lark, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again..  another first for me in Beijing.

It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be…  These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.

Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.

Grey-headed Lapwings at Yeyahu NR, 5 April 2012.

Full Species List:

Common Pheasant – 3
Swan Goose – 67
Bean Goose – 13
Whooper Swan – 30
Bewick’s Swan – 27
Common Shelduck – 5
Ruddy Shelduck – 38
Gadwall – 10
Falcated Duck – 146
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 290
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Northern Pintail – 21
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 16
Eurasian Teal – 12
Red-crested Pochard – 7
Common Pochard – 1
Ferruginous Duck – 4
Common Goldeneye – 67
Goosander – 44
Little Grebe – 5
Great Crested Grebe – 71
Black Stork – 2
Bittern – 2 (heard booming at 2 different sites)
Grey Heron – 13
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant – 75
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1
Black-eared Kite – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3
Hen Harrier – 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Goshawk – 1
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 4
Common Coot – 38
Common Crane – 6
Black-winged Stilt – 15
Pied Avocet – 2 at Ma Chang; my first record of this species at Wild Duck Lake
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Northern Lapwing – 18
Little Ringed Plover – 21
Kentish Plover – 8
Oriental Plover – at least 19 (another flock of 10+ plovers in flight could have been this species)
Mongolian Gull – 31 at Yeyahu, including 3 immatures
Relict Gull - 12
Black-headed Gull – 88
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Eurasian Collared Dove – 3
Common Swift – 1
Fork-tailed Swift – 32
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Daurian Jackdaw – 26
Rook – 2
Carrion Crow – 4
Great Tit – 4
Barn Swallow – 11
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Mongolian Lark - 1; within a few metres of the Desert Wheatear
Asian Short-toed Lark – 28
Eurasian Skylark – 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 8
Red-billed Starling – 1; my first record at Wild Duck Lake; flew in from the east, rested briefly on the island to the north of Ma Chang and then continued West.
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 2
Daurian Redstart – 2
Desert Wheatear – 1 (fem); very confiding until spooked by a Merlin and then flew high west and lost to view.  Had not returned an hour later when I re-scanned.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 22
Buff-bellied Pipit – 12
Oriental Greenfinch – 4
Godlewski’s Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 2
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18 (some males now coming into breeding plumage)

Waders at Nanpu, Tangshan

Last weekend I hired a car and drove to the Bohai coast south of Tangshan (唐山) – specifically to the Nanpu Development Zone – to look for waders.

It took me a little over two and a half hours to drive the 200km from Beijing to the coast, mostly along the excellent G1 highway, and it didn’t take me long to find a suitable hotel relatively close to the coast at which to base myself for 2 days.

The Nanpu Development Area is vast and the changes taking place, including land reclamation, are on a mesmerising scale.  There were heavy lorries and large machinery almost everywhere and, apart from the birds, it would be a very depressing place to spend a few days.  From the small town of Nanpu, south of Tangshan, it is still a 30km journey along relatively narrow roads, through a prison, to reach the mudflats.  The city of Tangshan, a little to the north, is famous for a huge earthquake that killed over 250,000 people in 1976 and there were signs for memorials and museums as I skirted the city on my way to the coast.

A Beijing-based PhD student, Yang Hong-yan, has been studying the waders in the Nanpu area – specifically the spring migration of the Red Knot – and has extensively covered the area from March to May in the last few Springs.  I am very grateful to her for sharing her knowledge (including maps and directions), without which I would have almost certainly got completely lost in the labyrinth of dirt tracks and roads that criss-cross the fish farms and salt works in this area.

Nanpu map

Typical pools at Nanpu

Once I had checked into the hotel, I began the journey to the coast to check out the area in preparation for a full day’s birding the following day.  I followed Hong-yan’s directions with a little trepidation as she advised me that the best route was to take a road that ran “directly through a huge prison” and that I “shouldn’t get out of the car or have any of my optics on view” when I was on this section of the road, no matter how tempting the flocks of waders looked!  Hmm, I thought..  this could be interesting – a foreigner on his own in a Beijing-plate car driving through a Chinese prison.

Still, she assured me that I would “probably be ok” and, with that encouragement I reached the entrance to the prison where I was met by a delegation of what looked like Chinese army officers.  They seemed to be operating a policy of stopping a random selection of vehicles, controlled by one officer standing on a box and waving either a red or a green flag, depending on whether that vehicle would be stopped.  Surprisingly, I was given a green flag and waved through.   There was a large and forbidding-looking fence on either side of the road, beyond which prisoners were working in the salt works.  It looked like extremely hard manual work and I began to wonder what crimes these people had committed and in what conditions they lived.  They looked desperate.

My mind was soon back on birds when I began to see flocks of Black-winged Stilts on some of the ponds..  hundreds turning into thousands.. they were everywhere (I estimated 3,000 along this stretch alone).  And amongst them I could see there were other waders – I could make out Godwits but many of the others were too distant to identify with the naked eye and, following Hong-yan’s advice, I had no intention of stopping the car along this road.

After several kilometers, I reached the other side of the prison and, again, was greeted by a group of soldiers.  They were stopping all vehicles leaving the prison, apparently checking for stowaway prisoners..  With a combination of my broken Chinese and innovative sign language (they were pointing at the boot!), I could sense that they wanted to look into the boot of the car.  Using mirrors on long poles, one guard checked the underside of the car while another looked with some concern at my tripod and telescope in the boot..  I explained that I was birdwatching and, with a warm smile, he indicated to the flag man that all was ok and I was given the green flag to continue.  Phew.

The drive from here to the coast was very ‘birdy’… there were pools on my right-hand side, many holding good numbers of waders and, on my left, there was a tidal creek hosting good numbers of Sharp-tailed, Marsh, Common and Wood Sandpipers.  Given the width of the road and my uneasiness at the proximity of the prison, I did not stop and drove on.  The next few kilometers were the same – lots of birds – and I soon found a couple of tracks off to the side that allowed me to pull off the road and scan..  I saw Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, hundreds of White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Gull-billed Terns, more Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, a few Black-tailed Gulls and a single Grey-tailed Tattler.  Wow..  Knowing that the high tide was due, I pressed on to the coast and, as I reached the mudflats, the road ended and a dirt track branched off to the right along the sea wall.  I parked up about 2 km along the track in an area that allowed me to scan the mudflats and also watch the waders fly over the seawall to an area of flooded pools that provided a good roost site for the birds until the mud was uncovered again on the falling tide.

Local accommodation along the tidal creek
Black-winged Stilt, Nanpu. Easily the most common bird at this site.

Despite it being late afternoon, it was hot and humid.  Around 35 degrees C without a breath of wind and, even with a hat and lots of water, it was not the most pleasant of conditions and I was constantly wiping my brow to stem the flow of sweat into my eyes..  Nevertheless, it was very good to be birding on the coast and seeing waders.  This area produced good numbers of Curlew – both Far Eastern (34) and Eurasian (29) – on the mudflats that gradually made their way closer to me as the tide pushed in.   Some Saunders’ Gulls (12) occasionally passed along the sea wall and a few Pacific Golden (4) and Grey Plovers (14) fed on the mud alongside many Kentish Plovers (c80) and a single Lesser Sand Plover.  On the inland side of the seawall, a party of 56 Great Knot, 2 Red-necked Stints, 23 Spotted Redshank, 48 Marsh Sandpiper, 7 Common Sandpiper, 29 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 4 Common Redshank, 3 Wood Sandpiper, 34 Avocet, 2 Terek Sandpiper and a single Grey-tailed Tattler all loafed on the edges of the lagoons.  A Long-tailed Shrike hunted from the wires along the sea wall and 2 Dark-sided Flycatchers fed on insects in the nearby shrubs.

Kentish Plover, Nanpu.

The visibility was poor on my first evening on site, so I wasn’t able to see the full extent of the mudflats or the birds that were using them but I left that evening having a good feel for the site and the areas that offered most promise.

The mudflats at Nanpu from the seawall. Visibility was poor on day one.

After a delicious meal in a small local restaurant, where I was treated as if I was the first foreigner many of the locals had ever seen, I retired early and made an early start the next day.  The day started out very foggy but, thankfully, by the time I had made my prison break, it had cleared a lot and on arrival at the mudflats I could see for around two miles.  It was at this point that I could appreciate the full scale of the area..  everywhere I looked out to sea, I could see local people digging for shellfish or checking nets on the mud.  Heavy machinery – cranes and earth-movers – punctured the skyline.  Despite this unnatural setting, there were birds.. not huge numbers but a good variety.  After a few minutes of scanning I looked up to see a gull fly overhead and land on the mud a few hundred metres away.  It had a black hood and, from the underwing pattern in flight and its structure I thought it could be a Relict Gull.  I trained my telescope onto it and, sure enough, there was a stunning Relict Gull, just beginning to moult from its breeding plumage.  I made some field notes and enjoyed watching this rare gull preen and feed.  Relict Gulls have a very distinctive front-heavy look and they patrol the mud looking for crabs in a manner reminiscent of plovers.  On another stretch of mudflats, in amongst some local crabbers, there were at least 50 of these gulls feeding at low tide..  a really great sight and, trumping my spring sighting of a few flyovers at Yeyahu in Spring, these were my best ever views of Relict Gull.

The mudflats on day two - much clearer
Juvenile Black-winged Stilts, Nanpu

Other birds on view included Bar-tailed Godwit, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, a few Black-headed Gulls, small numbers of Red-necked Stint and both Gull-billed and Little Terns.  On the roost were loafing Black-tailed Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common, Gull-billed, Little, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and Wood and Common Sandpipers.

Marsh Sandpiper, Nanpu.
Crabs on the mud.

After waiting until the tide pushed off all of the birds from the flats I began to make my way back towards town, stopping to check the roadside pools.  More Black-winged Stilts, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers…  Then I saw a much smaller pool with lots more birds and there was a track that went alongside, enabling me to view with the sun behind me.  There were lots of Bar-tailed and a few Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers, two Red Knot, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Avocet and the omnipresent Black-winged Stilt.  Amongst the Bar-tailed Godwit I spotted a slightly smaller godwit-like bird with a straight all-dark bill and dark legs.  An Asian Dowitcher!  A new bird for me.  Soon I got onto a second bird – this time a juvenile (quite early?) – and I watched these two birds for some time as they fed with the godwits.  The ‘tramlines’ along the back, together with the straight bills,  helped me to pick out these birds quite easily in the group.

A local fisherman walked past and flushed all the waders and, after waiting a few minutes to see if they would return, I carried on when it was clear that the birds had dispersed.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Nanpu. A common bird during my visit, preferring the muddy edges of tidal creeks.

A single Kestrel was the only raptor I saw and the rest of the supporting cast included Black Drongo, Tree Sparrow, Grey and White Wagtails, Common Magpie, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Cormorant, Yellow and Great Bitterns, Grey Heron, Little and Great Egrets.

I spent the following morning at the same spots, enjoying a lovely encounter with a feeding flock of marsh terns, before heading back to Beijing around lunchtime in time to return the hire car for 5pm.

Moulting adult White-winged Tern, Nanpu. I enjoyed a flock of over 200 of these birds, together with Whiskered Terns, feeding low over the water on a roadside pool.

A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days in a challenging setting.  The development is relentless but, despite this, the birds are there and seemingly adapting to the ever-changing shape of the environment.  One can only hope that at least part of the mudflats of the Bohai Gulf are protected from land reclamation to ensure that this important stopover is not completely lost.

Great White Pelican!

Well, we talked that up!

After Brian Jones’s post about Wild Duck Lake and his comment that there was always a “Yeyahu surprise” I guess I should not have been shocked that my next visit in prime migration season should produce a Chinese mega in the form of a Great White Pelican!  Even so this record, the significance of which I only realised after returning home, was way beyond my wildest expectations.

Great White Pelican (GWP) is a very rare bird in China.  In fact any Pelican sp (Dalmatian is more frequent) is a rare bird in this part of the world.  Jesper Hornskov, of 20 years experience in China, has only seen one other GWP in Xinjiang over 15 years ago.  And Paul Holt has just informed me that my sighting is the second record for the Beijing area, the first being at Miyun Reservoir in October-November 2009.  Fortunately, given I was not able to secure any images of the Wild Duck Lake bird and the fact it was only present for around 90 minutes, Jesper was also coincidentally in the vicinity and saw it in flight.

This is the story…

With Libby in Shanghai with her visiting sister, I decided to take the opportunity to travel up to Yanqing on Friday evening and stay over to allow a dawn start at WDL.  After enjoying a Friday night in the happening town of Yanqing (or rather being in bed by 9pm), I arrived at Ma Chang at first light (about 0545) and, after checking the ‘desert area’ for Oriental Plovers (no sign) and enjoying the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks that were wheeling around, I made for the narrow spit to the west (complete with yurts) to check the reservoir.  On arrival here, at about 0705, I immediately saw a large white bird with the naked eye at the far side of the reservoir and thought it must be a late swan.  But it looked big.  I set up the telescope and was shocked to see a pelican sp swimming on the water!  It was resting on the far side of the reservoir among a large flock of some 250+ Black-headed Gulls.  I immediately sent SMSs to Jesper and Brian Jones and Jesper responded to say he was also at WDL but in a different part (!) and asked for directions.  I explained where it was but wasn’t sure whether or not Jesper could see it from his vantage point.  I then watched the bird for about an hour during which time it preened and swam along the far side of the reservoir, looking settled.  At one point a small group of 8 Relict Gulls flew right over it!  On any other day, the Relict Gulls would have been the star of the show…  I knew there had been the odd record of Dalmatian Pelican in the Beijing area, so assumed it must be this species (having seen neither I was not sure of the identification criteria).  But nevertheless, I took some notes on the features I could see.  Although distant, I could see that it was large, bulkier than a swan, and the plumage was a brilliant white with a yellowish bill.  At about 0830 I left the reservoir to do my normal walk to Yeyahu.  Jesper was further north and east of me and I assumed, as I had not seen or heard from him, that he had been able to pick it up.  Then, at 0845, as I was walking east, Jesper sent me a text to say the pelican was in flight over the reservoir.  I picked it up easily in my bins and then watched it through my telescope as it circled, gained height and, after a few minutes, was lost to view in the murk.  I took some notes about the features I could see.  In flight, it looked a brilliant white against the mountains as it soared, with intermittent wingbeats.  On the upperside, there was a clear and sharp contrast between the black wing tips and black secondaries and the brilliant white plumage.  I did not clearly see the underside.  Jesper then sent me a SMS to say the wing pattern fitted Great White.  It was only when I returned home and looked at the literature that I realised, from my notes, that it was definitely a Great White and just how rare it is in northern China.  Unfortunately, at no time did it come close enough for me to obtain a photo.  I am just very pleased that Jesper saw it too!

I am assuming that it was a wild bird but, of course, there is the possibility of it being a free-flying escape from some park.  I’ll try to do some digging about this possibility.

Wild Duck Lake just keeps on producing….