Birding Beijing with the British Embassy

On Saturday I led a tour of Yeyahu NR with a group from the British Embassy in Beijing.  It was a fun day out that will hopefully inspire a new generation of birders and we also raised GBP 75 to help save the Jankowski’s Bunting!

Given that the embassy bus wasn’t going to leave Beijing city centre until 0900, Libby and I plus good friends, Sarah and John Gallagher, decided to travel up early morning under our own steam and meet the group when they arrived late morning (hopefully having scouted out a few birds!).

The four of us arrived around 0800 and we enjoyed a very ‘birdy’ few hours.  The weather was clear and sunny, allowing stunning views of the mountains to the north and south.. The only downside was a strong north-westerly wind that was blowing straight from the Mongolian steppe, making it feel cold.

Despite the wind, it was clear that migration was happening all around us.  Flocks of Brambling regularly wheeled overhead, interspersed with groups of Skylark, Little Bunting, Daurian Jackdaws and Olive-backed and Buff-bellied Pipits.  A young Hen Harrier gave us exceptional views as it hugged the leeward side of a hedge and then a flock of at least 17 calling Hawfinches flew low over the treetops…  my first sighting of this chunky finch at Wild Duck Lake.  A little further on we stumbled across 2 Siberian Accentors – my first of the autumn and hopefully a sign that numbers will be back to normal this year after being pretty scarce in the capital last winter.

We stuck to the sheltered side of the hedge and had planned to make it as far as the tower hide at the edge of the reservoir before heading back to the car park to meet the embassy bus. However, our progress was slow given the number of birds we were seeing and we ended up circling back long before the tower.  Just as we turned, a large flock of Daurian Jackdaws came low over the fields, almost flying in between us as they headed fast south-west.  Stunning.

Highlights of the return included a young Saker patrolling one of the lakes on which domesticated ducks have been released.. causing a panic.. and a Tolai Hare flushed by Sarah as we walked through a grassy field.

The embassy bus had, not unusually for a Saturday morning, been caught in heavy traffic on the G6, the main highway from Beijing to Badaling (one of the most popular stretched of the Great Wall) and it wasn’t until 1130 that they arrived.

The British Embassy minibus arriving at Yeyahu NR. With Libby and chief spotter, Joe Wild.

First priority was to find a sheltered spot for the picnic lunch..  It was pleasant out of the wind so we chose a spot on the eastern side of a row of poplar trees with a wide vista of the mountains and open fields..

Picnic time at Yeyahu with the British Embassy group

The picnic lunch also provided an opportunity for the youngsters in the group to get to grips with birding optics for the first time… It was clear early on that Joe was going to be chief spotter!  Here he is looking at a group of Common Cranes that flew in from the east during lunch.

Joe using a telescope for the first time..
Sam lamented the weight of my Nikon binoculars…!

After lunch we split into two groups – one staying by the lake to feed the domesticated ducks and one that would follow me on a walk to the reservoir to look for wild birds.

To add a bit of extra fun to the day, we had arranged a competition to guess how many species we would see on the day.  Guesses cost 20 Yuan each (GBP 2) with the winner receiving a copy of “Birds of East Asia” by Mark Brazil (easily the best field guide for birds in the Chinese capital).  The proceeds would go to BirdLife International’s JustGiving page to help save Jankowski’s Bunting.

With only a couple of hours at Yeyahu in the middle of the day, and with a strong wind, I was expecting a relatively low total.  Guesses ranged from 15 to 50.  We saw 22, with the best of the bunch a flock of Common Cranes that arrived from the east and a Short-toed Eagle hunting briefly near the entrance to the reserve.

A fun day out and money raised for a good cause.  Thanks to everyone involved, especially Feian Downing and Jon Baines from the embassy who made the logistical arrangements.

Finally, I should add that the British Embassy in Beijing has an association with birds.  Former Ambassador (1997-2002) Sir Anthony Galsworthy was a keen birder and regularly set up mist nets in the garden of his residence to trap and ring birds..  I am trying to get hold of his records.. would be fascinating to see what he caught in his central Beijing garden!

Miyun Reservoir, Sunday 15 April 2012

On Sunday, I visited Miyun Reservoir, north-east of Beijing city.  After a murky start, the weather just got better and better and the views of the mountains by mid-morning were spectacular.  The birding was pretty good, too.
Highlights:
- a single immature SIBERIAN CRANE (with 17 White-naped and 9 Common Cranes)
- Short-toed Eagle
- Osprey
- Saker
- A late afternoon movement of at least 13 Eastern Marsh Harriers all heading northwest.
- 19 Spoonbills (17 were definite Eurasian)
- 21 Oriental Pratincoles
- Black Stork
Some images from the day:
Miyun Reservoir viewed from the north-west.
Eastern Marsh Harrier (adult male), Miyun Reservoir, 15 April 2012
Eastern Marsh Harrier (immature female?), Miyun Reservoir, 15 April 2012
Grey-headed Lapwing, Miyun, 15 April 2012
Saker (adult), Miyun, 15 April 2012
Full Species List:
Japanese Quail – 1
Common Pheasant – 9
Bean Goose – 8
Whooper Swan – 2
Ruddy Shelduck – 101
Gadwall – 12
Falcated Duck – 2
Mallard – 8
Spot-billed Duck – 10
Shoveler – 4
Garganey – 28
Eurasian Teal – 162
Common Pochard – 6
Ferruginous Duck – 10 (in a single flock)
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 18
Black Stork – 1
Eurasian Spoonbill/Spoonbill sp – 19 (17 confirmed as Eurasian, 2 sleeping)
Night Heron – 1
Grey Heron – 11
Great Egret – 3
Little Egret – 18
Kestrel – 1
Saker – a pale individual (see photo).  The head pattern, lack of barring underneath and wing shape are all typical Saker.  Made one pass before heading west.
Osprey – 1
Short-toed Eagle - 1 (over the reservoir, flushing everything – even the cranes – and then continued north)
Eastern Marsh Harrier – at least 13 passed through mid- to late afternoon, all on a north-westerly heading.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 1
Upland Buzzard – 1
Coot – 35
Siberian Crane – 1 immature remaining, loosely associating with the White-naped and Common Cranes
White-naped Crane – 17
Common Crane – 9
Black-winged Stilt – 10
Grey-headed Lapwing – 1
Northern Lapwing – 51
Plover sp (Pacific Golden or Oriental) – one high north
Little Ringed Plover – 4
Eurasian Curlew – 1
Green Sandpiper – 2
Temminck’s Stint – 2
Oriental Pratincole – 21 flew through west in one noisy flock
Mongolian Gull – 6 (2 adults and 4 2cy)
Black-headed Gull – 58
Oriental Turtle Dove – 6
Collared Dove – 4
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 31
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Corvid sp – 2 circled very high (probably Carrion Crow)
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 heard
Barn Swallow – 38
Red-rumped Swallow – 2
Skylark – 2
Zitting Cisticola – 1
Chinese Bulbul – 2
White-cheeked Starling – 12
Red-throated Thrush – 12
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 6 (4 ocularis and 2 leucopsis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 14
Little Bunting – 18
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 2

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake.  Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN.  A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).

I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening.  The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force.  This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.

On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required).  However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks.  The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts.  And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits.  I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south.   Sorry!

On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’.  A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).

Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south.  Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!

I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl.  A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post.  Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west.  A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming.  I counted over 85 altogether.

I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here.  First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal.  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds).  And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.  It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle.  Fantastic.  I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu.  It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area.  With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration.  Very nice!  They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come.  As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again.  On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill.  Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood.  Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower.  At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned.  One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view.  The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood.  At this point I got a drenching.  As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow.  Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir.  There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey.  About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope.  To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican!  Unbelievable…   I immediately began to take notes on the plumage.  It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black.  The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries.  It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican!  I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir.  It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang.  Wow.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field.  What will this site turn up next??

Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!