The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.
Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.
Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?
STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River. And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake!
(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.
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.
I recently wrote a short blog post about illegal mist nets in China. In that post I expressed optimism that the practice of trapping and killing birds might be slowly dying out in China.
Shortly after I wrote that post, a Swedish birding colleague based in Tianjin discovered up to 2km (!) of illegal nets in a large reedbed at Beidagang Reservoir, supposedly a nature reserve. This sparked an outcry from local birders and, with the help of Chinese birding friends in Beijing and Tianjin, these nets have now been photographed, the details reported to the local authorities and those nets that were reachable have been destroyed.
Birders with experience of ringing birds in similar habitats in China have provided a rough estimate of the number of birds that might be killed in nets of this scale. One explained that, in a typical 3-hour morning period, you would expect to catch and ring 50 to 60 birds in three lines of mist nets with a total length of 250 meters.
If we use these figures, and simple math, to estimate the impact of the illegal mist nets at Beidagang Reservoir, we reach a total of 400 birds per day. However, this is clearly a minimum as the ringing data is based on only 3 hours of peak activities in the early morning. The real number could easily be 600 or more per day for 2 kms of mist nets that are in place 24 hrs a day. Going further, if we consider a migration period of 3 months, this gives a total of 55,000 birds that could be killed every year in this single line of mist nets. If there are 20 places like this along the chinese coast (which is undoubtedly a conservative estimate), the total quickly multiplies to 1 million birds killed every year during autumn migration. This is simply unacceptable.
Shi Jin, a Beijing-based birder, has had enough and has started a new initiative to publicise this illegal activity. A dedicated web page has been set up, in Chinese and English, with the purpose of highlighting and shaming those involved. Readers are encouraged to send in photographs and short texts about their experiences. Already several contributors have uploaded some shocking images.
At the same time, there has been outcry on Chinese social media networks this week after a video was published by undercover journalist Li Feng from Changsha Evening News showing how hunters in Hunan Province are using lights to lure in migrants at night before blasting them with (illegal) guns. You can view the (disturbing) video here.
It is encouraging that this illegal activity is now receiving public attention and the reaction of ordinary netizens has been overwhelmingly hostile towards the perpetrators. By building public awareness and increasing the pressure on the police and local authorities to put a stop to this practice, there is a chance that this disgusting and illegal activity can be eradicated.
If you have any examples of illegal bird trapping in China, or would simply like to offer your support to this campaign, please visit the site and either upload your experiences or leave a comment. Let’s keep up the pressure to help save these wild birds.
On Wednesday morning I met up with Shi Jin and Per Alström for a spot of birding before work. We decided to visit Wenyu He (Wenyu River) on the north-east boundary of central Beijing (in Chaoyang District for those of you who know China’s capital city). It had rained hard overnight but the morning was fresh and clear with unusually fantastic visibility.
We did rather well with several migrating Oriental Honey Buzzards (never common over the city centre), several Black-naped Orioles and a good count of egrets, including at least 28 Great and 16 Little. But the highlight of the morning was Beijing’s first confirmed record of GREY-TAILED TATTLER. Found by Per feeding on the river edge (that’s the tattler feeding, not Per), it soon flew from the far side of the river (outside central Beijing) to the nearside (definitely central Beijing!). It did not need to do so to be the first documented record from Beijing Municipality but, in so doing, it also became the first for central Beijing city proper! Shi Jin could not hide his excitement at adding this bird to his local patch list and managed some great images viewable on his Chinese Currents website. A couple of my efforts are below.
Grey-tailed Tattler is predominantly a coastal bird in China and any inland record is a good one. To see one in the capital was most unexpected. Well done Per – we look forward to more finds of this quality during your stay in Beijing!
Observing this bird, I wasn’t sure I could separate juvenile Grey-tailed from Wandering Tattler. I asked the experts and this is what they said (with apologies for quoting their off the cuff comments!):
“Separate the two tattlers with great care. Calls are by far the best way with Grey-tailed resembling a Ringed Plover & Wandering sounding reminiscent of a Whimbrel. Juv. Grey-tailed have obvious white fringes on wing coverts – these are much narrower & less contrasting on Wandering. Wandering also has a longer primary projection with often 5, not 4, pps visible beyond the longest tertial.
You need to be really close (or have a big lens) to see whether the scaling on the back of the upper legs is ladder-like as in Grey-tailed or irregularly shaped & scaly as in Wandering. Similarly close to see that Wandering has a long nasal groove (more than half the length of its bill); Grey-tailed’s nasal groove is shorter.”
” juv Wandering has much more extensively dark flanks than juv Grey-tailed, if I remember correctly also darker breast contrasting more with the belly and darker upperside. ”
So, there you go. Always learning! As it happens, we did hear this bird call and it was reminiscent of Common Ringed Plover, so that’s a clincher even without the images showing the nasal groove (sounds a bit like a new trend in Indie music – can you do the nasal groove?)
Full Species List:
Japanese Quail – 1 flushed by Per and Steve in the scrubby area to the east of the riding stables.
Mallard – 120+
Spot-billed Duck – 4
Garganey – 1
Eurasian Teal – 2
Little Grebe – 9
Night Heron – 4
Chinese Pond Heron – 12 (7 adults and 5 juveniles)
Grey Heron – 5
Great Egret – 28
Little Egret – 16
Great Cormorant – 16
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Oriental Honey Buzzard – 17 drifted south-east (9 @ 0904, 2 @ 0917 and 6 @ 1030)
Japanese Sparrowhawk – 1 probably this species SE
Grey-headed Lapwing – 3
Common Snipe – 11
Spotted Redshank – 4
Marsh Sandpiper – 1
Common Greenshank – 8
Green Sandpiper – 12
Wood Sandpiper – 6
GREY-TAILED TATTLER – 1 juvenile (a rare inland record and possibly the first confirmed record for Beijing)
Common Sandpiper – 3
Black-headed Gull – 1 juvenile/first-winter
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Spotted Dove – 2
Cuckoo sp – 1
Hoopoe – 3
Wryneck – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1
Brown Shrike – 3
Black-naped Oriole – 5
Black Drongo – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 15+
Common Magpie – 15+ feeding along the river
Barn Swallow – 30+
Red-rumped Swallow – 4+
Lanceolated Warbler – 1
Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler – 1 probable
Oriental Reed Warbler – 1
Dusky Warbler – 1 probable
Yellow-browed Warbler – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Siberian Stonechat – 9
Taiga Flycatcher – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 2
White Wagtail – 4
Richard’s Pipit – 2
Olive-backed Pipit – 2
The latest in the ad-hoc series of Guest Posts is authored by Beijing-based Shi Jin. The article is about the latest developments on “Happy Island” in Hebei Province and was originally published on Shi Jin’s excellent Chinese Currents website this Spring. It makes very interesting, if a little sombre, reading, in particular for anyone who has visited this birding hotspot. It should be added that, despite the development ongoing at this site, it is still attracting an amazing number and variety of migratory birds…!
So, over to Shi Jin..
For some, Happy Island is now a happier place. The small island in the Bo sea has been promoted from 5th to 3rd tier. The shedding of two tiers is no small matter, particularly if you happen to be one of the Tangshan [3rd tier] government officials who can now make the most of the island’s sumptuously appointed sea-view villas. If you are an official of Laoting County [5th tier], however, the situation is not nearly as happy as it used to be.
That’s because the Tangshan city government has promoted Happy Island (Kuaile Dao) to an area that falls under its (not Laoting County’s) direct jurisdiction. And to make sure that everyone knows who’s the lord of this particular manor, Tangshan officials have re-named the place Puti Island (“Happy Island” was a Laoting County invention apparently). The locals, however, continue to refer to it by its ancient name of Shijiu Tuo. And, with a nod in Laoting County’s direction, I’ll continue to use “Happy Island” (because it’s a name that has been doing what it says on the can during the many visits I have made here over the past 18 years).
Laoting County, even though it “reports” directly to Tangshan, is actually two levels beneath it as far as the complicated matter of Chinese population and land administration is concerned. That’s because Laoting is a xian (county), not a shi (county-level city). Tangshan, a diji shi (regional city, or prefecture), controls 5 xian and two shi. China, in case you are wondering, is divided into 283 prefectures, 370 county-level cities, and 1,461 counties.
Tangshan “reports” to the provincial government of Hebei (seated in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang), which in turn is administered by the central government in Beijing. By virtue of its provincial capital status, Shijiazhuang qualifies, in political terms at least, as a 2nd tier city (one of 27 provincial and autonomous region capitals to do so). The number of 2nd tier cities increases to 32 if you include Dalian, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shenzhen, and Xiamen – which are categorised as sub-provincial cities (fushengji chengshi) by virtue of their direct reporting line to Beijing in respect of all economic and legal matters (the only non provincial-capitals to do so). Then there are of course four 1st tier “super-cities” – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing – that have the distinction of being municipalities (zhixiashi).
Why is this important? Well, as a rule of thumb, the higher the tier, the more funding is available for development generally and infrastructure development in particular. In the context of Happy Island, the difference between “5th” and “3rd” tier funding is as jaw-dropping as it is eye-watering:
I first visited the island 18 years ago, when it was under the administration of Laoting County. It was low tide as the small, woodworm-riddled boat approached the landing point along a narrow channel that only a seasoned crew could navigate with any confidence. It’s impossible to say whether the crew that day were not as seasoned as they should have been, or whether it was a particularly low tide that scuppered things. One thing is for sure, we couldn’t get within 20 yards of the quay. Keen to get ashore, I decided to jump into the waist-high water to rescue the situation by dragging the boat close enough to the shore to allow a plank to be laid for my fellow passengers to make it to the island. But it wasn’t luxury that awaited us. In those days, the tin-shack accommodation didn’t even have running water, except when it leaked through the roof during heavy downpours. So much for being under the administrative umbrella of Laoting County.
Fast-forward to 2012: A fleet of shiny new tourist boats await to whisk a steady flow of day-trippers from a multi-million RMB quay development to the island’s plush new landing area. These days, there’s a deep channel that’s regularly dredged, ensuring that boats can land whatever the vagaries of the tide.
The island’s development budget has also paid for a plush restaurant with dozens of staff; a grand temple complex (that continues to get ever-grander); miles of roads serviced by chauffeur-driven electric buggies; and even something resembling a golf course. And things are just getting started. There are plans for a 300 million RMB golf and spa centre and, horror of horrors, a ghastly land-reclamation project (to enlarge Happy Island and Moon Island) that will cost a reported 1.368 billion RMB, according to the Tangshan government’s website. The impetus for development is so strong, in fact, that a link to the mainland has been built that looks like a giant’s causeway, facilitating even faster development and higher-spending on infrastructure and reclamation.
Puzzled by the number of large trucks and the size of the earth-moving vehicles, my 8 year-old daughter wanted to know how they managed to get onto the island. I too was puzzled, until I spotted the causeway. After I’d broken the news that the “monsters” had arrived here by road, her puzzlement turned to disappointment: “Dad, does that mean Happy Island isn’t an island?”
My 8 year-old makes an important observation. But please promise not to tell anyone because, from a tourist perspective, Happy Point doesn’t have anywhere the same drawing power of Happy Island. Not to mention that, without an island, there wouldn’t be the need for a car park the size of a football pitch. No need for a fleet of expensive tourist boats. And, of genuine concern, a small-army of people would be looking elsewhere for a job.
From a punter’s perspective, neither would there be the feeling that they’ve journeyed to somewhere exotic. A 30 minute boat trip tends to do more for the soul than a ten-minute bus ride. As heart-warming as the journey undoubtedly is (and there’s also the visit to the “Buddhist culture communication centre” to look forward to), it’s hard to imagine that the overall proposition would appeal to vast numbers of people.
Regardless, the visitors-per-year target for the Tangshan Bay International Travel Islands project [the other two islands are Moon Island and Lucky Cloud Island] has been set at an astonishing 2 million people [The overall investment is budgeted at 22.2 billion RMB]. But this is China, so history would suggest that you shouldn’t bet against it meeting the target. That said, it’s hard for this veteran China-watcher to arrive at any conclusion other than the “Build it and they’ll come” ethos, that has driven economic development during my time here, is being replaced by “Build it whether they come or not” desperation. This is in no small measure due to the increasing dependency on high-spending infrastructure projects to shore up the nation’s key economic indicators. In short, these projects have become the drug that enables GDP to get out of bed in the morning.
As well as testing the laws of economics, the intensity of Happy Island’s development is putting an immense strain on the area’s ecology. The island and its shoreline is an internationally-important staging post for countless numbers of migratory birds on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds (a precious few of that number are Siberian-breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a species on the brink of extinction). Their twice-yearly journeys are about to get even more precarious from next year when construction of more than 100 offshore wind-turbines begins in earnest. This wind farm will be (for a while at least) China’s biggest and most costly (US$910m).
Clearly, the true cost of Happy Island’s infrastructure development, land reclamation, and so-called “green energy” project far exceeds the amount that appears in Tangshan city’s accounts.
When I visited Wenyu He in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a pair of breeding Little Owls (Athene noctua). On a return visit I captured the image below of a young bird. Shi Jin, a regular on Birdforum, posted an image of one of these birds on his excellent China 2010 thread. Richard Klim, always up to date on the latest taxonomic issues, pointed out that north-east China’s subspecies – Athene [noctua] plumipes – has been suggested as a separate species with Swinhoe’s Owlet being the suggested new name (Wink 2011). König & Weick’s “Owls of the World” (2008) mooted it as a potential split back in 2008, saying “Toes more densely covered with plumes rather than bristles. …Perhaps specifically distinct.”
Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course. Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.
On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl.. Not bad. My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding. A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows. Wow. I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola. A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds. It was a cacophony of birdsong.
After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths. It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby. I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas. I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case. Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars. It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure.. ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts… Hmmm… could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about? I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy. However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down. To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area… I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s. It reminded me of the Pleske’s song… I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”. But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler? In Beijing?? The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view. I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it. Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation. Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking.. Frustrating to say the least.
At this point, I was excited.. I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me. I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him. A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town. And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto! I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way. He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird. We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning. Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day. After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.
On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto. There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s. For comparison, my recording can be heard below:
Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure.. there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences… Doubt began to creep into my mind. Was the singing bird a Pleske’s? And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw? I began to think that maybe the song was a different species. I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).
So, the bottom line is I don’t know. I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…! Arrggghhhh….
If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know. I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon. In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s. Watch this space!
Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!