Miyun Reservoir, 1 September 2013

September and October are probably my favourite months in Beijing.  The excessive heat of the summer diminishes and, given the autumnal breeze, combined with regular rain, the air quality is good, resulting in some fantastic clear days with superb visibility.  It’s a reminder that Beijing is a beautiful city and if ever an extra incentive was needed to clean up the capital’s air, being outside on autumnal days and seeing the mountains, with the ever-impressive Great Wall running along the spine of the northern ranges, must be it.

Of course September and October are also superb months for birding with migration in full swing.  Taking advantage of Dalian-based Tom Beeke’s presence in the capital for an ice-hockey tournament, Paul Holt and I took Tom for a day’s birding at Miyun Reservoir on Sunday.  And what a beautiful day it was.  With the temperature a fresh 14 degrees C early on (rising to 32 degrees C later), a stunning clear blue sky and visibility of at least 30-40km, it was a great day to be in the field.

We visited three sites around the reservoir and recorded an impressive 91 species, including two new birds for me in Beijing – LITTLE CURLEW (小杓鹬) and RUSSET SPARROW (山麻雀) – plus 2 SHORT-TOED EAGLES (短趾雕), several PIED HARRIERS (鹊鹞) and, best of all, a PEREGRINE (游隼) of the subspecies peregrinator – a resident of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and southern China.  We believe this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and the most northerly record in China – unless you know better?

Some images from the day and a full species list (courtesy of Paul Holt) below.

Paul Holt and Tom Beeke scanning Miyun Reservoir, 1 September 2013
Paul Holt (left) and Tom Beeke scanning Miyun Reservoir, 1 September 2013
One of two Short-toed Eagles seen at Miyun on 1 September.  This species is a regular passage migrant in Spring and Autumn in Beijing.
One of two Short-toed Eagles seen at Miyun on 1 September. This species is a regular passage migrant in Spring and Autumn in Beijing.
Little Curlew, Miyun Reservoir, 1 September 2013.  This bird made two great fly-bys, calling frequently.
Little Curlew, Miyun Reservoir, 1 September 2013. This bird made two great fly-bys, calling frequently.
Peregrine of the subspecies peregrinator.  Note the rufous underprts contrasting with the pale throat and upper breast.  In the field this bird was small and sported a very dark cap, all features consistent with this southern subspecies.  The first record for Beijing and, possibly, for northeast China.
Peregrine of the subspecies peregrinator. Note the rufous underparts contrasting with the pale throat and upper breast. In the field this bird was small and sported a very dark cap, all features consistent with this southern subspecies. The first record for Beijing and, probably, the most northerly record in China.
Another image of the "peregrinator" Peregrine.  Photo by Tom Beeke.
Another image of the “peregrinator” Peregrine. Photo by Tom Beeke.

Full Species List

Japanese Quail – 6 around Miyun reservoir

Common Pheasant- 5

Mandarin Duck – 3 around Miyun reservoir

Falcated Duck – 4, including an eclipse adult male, at Miyun reservoir.  Apparently the earliest autumn records from Beijing. The previous earliest were 25 and 36 birds at Miyun reservoir on the 11 and 12 September 2004 respectively (PH pers. obs.). These dates seem unusually late however and it’s likely that limited observer coverage of Miyun reservoir & WDL in late August is responsible as birds are regularly encountered on the Hebei and Tianjin coasts at that time.

Mallard – 8

Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 10

Garganey – 5

Eurasian Teal – 3

Little Grebe – 16

Great Crested Grebe – 54

Black Stork – 3 flew north over the Jingcheng expressway near Miyun town (kilometre post 62) at about 05h45.

Black-crowned Night Heron – 3

Little Heron – 2

Chinese Pond Heron – 11

Eastern Cattle Egret – 4

Grey Heron – 10

Purple Heron – 2 juveniles

Great Egret – 3

Little Egret – 17

Osprey – 1.  Probably the earliest autumn date for Beijing.

Crested (Oriental) Honey-buzzard – 1 flew south high over in the Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir.

Black Kite –  2 juveniles

Short-toed Snake Eagle – 2.  Both were photographed.

Eastern Marsh Harrier – 4

Pied Harrier – 6, including two adult males, an adult female and three juveniles

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 10

Common Kestrel – 1

Amur Falcon – 81. 66 of these were seen from the Jingcheng expressway between Miyun town & Taishitun.  Surprisingly today’s total was one of the highest autumn bird-days totals for the whole of Beijing. The majority of Amur Falcons apparently move through Beijing during a short and intense autumn passage. Most years it’s the second week of September before there’s any significant movement and birds are widely encountered just one week later (by the middle of September) with peak migration apparently occurring in the third week. Note that this is significantly earlier than the peak occurs in coastal Tianjin and at Laotie Shan, southernmost Liaoning where the, significantly larger passage, doesn’t peak until mid-October. Note that significantly larger numbers have been seen in neighbouring Tianjin municipality during autumn passage (with 1350 counted at Beidagang, Dagang on 10 October 2007)

Peregrine Falcon – 2 juveniles near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. The first bird that we saw was a ‘Shaheen’ Falcon Falco peregrinus peregrinator as it was slightly small and compact, even for a male, had a strong rufous suffusion to its lower underparts and underwing coverts that contrasted well with its whiter breast and cheeks. It was quite dark above with rather little contrast with the paler rump and had an extensive dark hood. In China peregrinator is a bird of the south and can be found, albeit locally, in Sichuan. The most northerly record in China until today had been an adult at Yangxian, Shaanxi on the 1 July 2013 (PH pers. obs.).

Common Moorhen – 5

Eurasian Coot – 8

Black-winged Stilt – 2

Snipe sp. –  3

Little Curlew – 1 was seen several times in flight, and photographed, near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir. Little Curlew is rare in Beijing with perhaps just four or five previous reports – ‘present’ at Wild Duck Lake on the 22/3/2003 (赵欣如老师 黄伟 竹 cyan 以及另外三人 via BirdTalker). This report was accompanied by the statement that ‘needs to be affirmed since the time is too early’. Subsequently one was seen at Huairou Reservoir on 11/5/2004 [JHa in the 2004 CBR] and this sighting was noted as being the first record for the Capital by the bird report editors who apparently discounted  the 2003 report above; one at Miyun reservoir on the 18/10/2007 – it flew purposefully south, out and over the reservoir south of the Bulaotun Satellite Tracking Station at 15:25hrs (PH pers. obs.); three at Bulaotun, Miyun reservoir on the 4/5/2008 (PH pers. obs.) & one in Yuanmingyuan during the 14-17/8/2012 (see http:/www.birdnet.cn/showtopic-381567.aspx )

Green Sandpiper – 1

Wood Sandpiper – 2

Temminck’s Stint – 1

Black-headed Gull – 160

Mongolian Gull – 3, two adults and a second-calendar year, flew north at Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir.  Apparently the earliest ever autumn record from Beijing

Gull-billed Tern – 4,  two adults and two first-winters.  One of only five autumn records from Beijing!

Common Tern – 3 adults. Two were minusensis & the other longipennis.

White-winged Black Tern – 1 juvenile

Oriental Turtle Dove – 11

Eurasian Collared Dove – 50

Spotted Dove – 2

Asian Koel – 1 singing bird was heard near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir on the 1/9/2013. 2013 has been a record year for this species in Beijing – and today’s was the first ever September encounter.

Common Cuckoo – 3 around Miyun reservoir

Common Kingfisher – 3

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 1 flew over the Jingcheng expressway near kilometre 62

Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1

Brown Shrike – 6

Chinese Grey Shrike – 3

Black-naped Oriole – 3

Black Drongo – 218.  Apparently a record day-count from the Capital. The only previous three-figure counts that I’m aware of from Beijing have been 200 at Wild Duck Lake on 21/8/2005 (LHT in the 2005 CBR) & 150 at Wild Duck Lake during 26-27/8/2010 (Brian Ivon Jones via BirdTalker)

Azure-winged Magpie – 1

Red-billed Blue Magpie – 1 was heard

Marsh Tit – 2 calling birds were heard near Yongle cun

Japanese Tit – 1 was heard

Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 heard near Yongle cun

Light-vented Bulbul – 22

Sand Martin – 28 flew south

Barn Swallow – 35 around Miyun reservoir.  Five of these, including one tytleri, were near Yongle cun with the other 30 in & around Hou Ba Jia Zhuang village.

Red-rumped Swallow – 150

Dusky Warbler – 7

Yellow-browed Warbler – 7

Oriental Reed Warbler – 2

Black-browed Reed Warbler – 2

Thick-billed Warbler – 5

Lanceolated Warbler – 3 separate birds were heard near Yongle cun

Zitting Cisticola – 21

Plain Laughingthrush – 2, a presumed pair, near Yongle cun

Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 52

Chinese Hill Babbler – 4, presumably a family party

Common Stonechat – 14

Asian Brown Flycatcher – 2

Taiga Flycatcher – 2

Russet Sparrow – 17 in a mixed flock with Eurasian Tree Sparrows near Yongle cun, Miyun reservoir.  One of very few double-figure day counts from Beijing and perhaps the first record for Miyun county? The number of Russet Sparrows being reported in Beijing appears to have declined in recent years (from high counts that included 50 at the Jumahe, Fangshan on the 4/12/2004 [QYX in 2004 CBR], 30 at Shidu, Fangshan on 30/12/2007 (蛐蛐儿黑鹳辛夷拙石 via BirdTalker) and 20 at Juili cun, Jiuduhe zhen, Huairou on the 11/9/2010 [dianchi via BirdTalker]). Note that Beijing has been the northern limit of this species’ Chinese breeding range for over a decade – this is despite recent records at Laotie Shan, Liaoning in May 2011 (Townshend and Millington 2011) & May 2013 (Terry Townshend pers. comm to PH) and on the Hebei coast suggest that the species is continuing to slowly expand its range.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow –  100

Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 50

Grey Wagtail – 2 singles flew south

White Wagtail – 9, including four leucopsis

Richard’s Pipit – 18

Olive-backed Pipit – 1

Red-throated Pipit – 1.  Apparently the joint earliest autumn record from Beijing – equalling the sighting of  five at Shahe Reservoir, Changping on 1/9/2008 (红嘴蓝鹊, 鹰之舞 via BirdTalker).

Grey-capped Greenfinch – 30

Common Rosefinch – 112.  17 of these were near Yongle cun with the other 95, including a single flock of about 80 birds, were near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang.  Apparently a record autumn count for Beijing.

Chinese Grosbeak – 3

Meadow Bunting – 1 was heard near Yongle cun

Yellow-breasted Bunting – 2 near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang

Black-faced Bunting – 4 at various sites

Pallas’s Bunting – 3

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!

Eagles and more..

In the sweltering heat (it’s hit 39 degrees C this week), I visited Wild Duck Lake on Saturday.  I was hoping for some bitterns (There has been a Cinnamon Bittern in the Olympic Forest Park for the last week or so and Schrenck’s Bitterns have been seen along the Wenyu River in Beijing) and maybe some locustella warblers.  I saw very few of the former and none of the latter!  But I did see an unexpected variety of raptors with Short-toed and Great Spotted Eagles, Saker, Amur Falcons and spectacular views of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  A probable Blunt-winged Warbler was another highlight, singing frustratingly distantly from the boardwalk (dodgy photo below).

Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This species has traditionally been considered a vagrant in north-eastern China but I have seen more than 10 individuals at Yeyahu and Miyun, almost all in April/May and September/October suggesting it is a regular passage migrant (and possibly a breeder nearby?)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. A regular passage migrant in Beijing.
Amur Falcon (1st summer male), Yeyahu NR. This beautiful falcon migrates through Beijing in large numbers in Spring and Autumn (part of an incredible journey from Manchuria to Africa and back each year) and a few breed in the Beijing area.
Amur Falcon (female), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.
Eastern Marsh Harrier (adult male), Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012. This guy is breeding in the extensive reedbeds inside the reserve.

As I was watching the spectacular Eastern Marsh Harriers, this Indian Cuckoo flew over my head calling incessantly…

Indian Cuckoo, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.  Looks strikingly long-billed and long-tailed in this image.

And this is the ‘acro’ that was singing in the shrubby part of the reedbed..  Blunt-winged?  The supercilium ends very soon behind the eye…  but can I be sure from this image?  Unfortunately it was always distant.

Probable Blunt-winged Warbler, Yeyahu NR, 26 May 2012.

Finally, just for fun, here is a phylloscopus warbler in an unusual pose..  anyone want to have a go at identifying it?

A ‘pylloscopus’ warbler at Yeyahu NR. This image shows enough features for identification.. or does it? Any ideas? Answer later this week.

I also recorded a calling crake/rail that I think could be my first Ruddy-breasted Crake..  a little research needed on Xeno-Canto Asia!

Full species list to follow.

Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

I visited Wild Duck Lake on Sunday with Peter Cawley.  The weather was far from ideal and we endured thick fog, with visibility down to around 20-25 metres, for the first few hours.  The fog gradually dispersed from around 1000am and, by 3pm, it was a glorious day..  nevertheless, we definitely missed out at what felt like a very ‘birdy’ Ma Chang and, rather unnervingly, almost got lost in the ‘desert’ area… (thanks to the GPS on my phone, we found the right path).

Temp around 15 degrees C at 0600 with thick fog and no wind.  From 1000am a very light NE breeze.  Temp around 22 degrees C mid-afternoon.

Highlights: a single Short-toed Eagle, Pied, Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, 30 Common Buzzards, Goshawk, 2 Mongolian Larks and a Wren (only my second at Wild Duck Lake).

Long Eared Owl, Wild Duck Lake, 9 October 2011

Full species list:

Japanese Quail – 1

Common Pheasant – 6

Bean Goose – 3

Mandarin – 1

Gadwall – 1

Mallard – 26

Spot-billed Duck – 5

Eurasian Teal – 4

Little Grebe – 15

Great Crested Grebe – 7

Black-crowned Night Heron – 45

Grey Heron – 2

Purple Heron – 1

Short-toed Eagle – 1

Eastern Marsh Harrier – 1

Hen Harrier – 2

Pied Harrier – 1 adult male

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1

Northern Goshawk – 1

Common Buzzard – 30 (including 28 migrating in one 10-minute spell late morning)

Common Moorhen – 1

Common Coot – 5

Northern Lapwing – 1

Common Snipe – 3

Green Sandpiper – 1

Oriental Turtle Dove – 2

Collared Dove – 8

Long-eared Owl – 1

Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1

Chinese Grey Shrike – 3 (2 heard only in the fog)

Azure-winged Magpie – 1

Common Magpie – 24

Daurian Jackdaw – 1 adult flew east

Carrion Crow – 8

Great Tit – 3

Marsh Tit – 1

Mongolian Lark – 2.  An early date and hopefully the precursor to a good winter for this species.

Eurasian Skylark – 8

Lark sp (possibly Greater Short-toed) – 4

Zitting Cisticola – 2

Chinese Hill Warbler – 3

Chinese Bulbul – 13

Black-browed Reed Warbler – 9

Oriental Reed Warbler – 1 probable chattering at Ma Chang in thick fog.

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 1

Dusky Warbler – 1

Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 60

White-eye sp – 1

Wren – 1.  A very dark individual.

Thrush sp – 1

Bluethroat – 1

Red-flanked Bluetail – 1

Daurian Redstart – 5

Siberian Stonechat – 1

Tree Sparrow – 80+

White Wagtail – 17 (ssps ocularis, leucopsis and baicalensis)

Buff-bellied Pipit – 5

Water Pipit – 1 probable

Chestnut-eared Bunting – 1

Little Bunting – 77

Yellow-throated Bunting – 5

Black-faced Bunting – 14

Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 7

Meanwhile, at Laotieshan, Paul Holt continues to see huge numbers of Amur Falcons (over 1,800 yesterday evening in a pre-roost gathering – the highest autumn count anywhere in China), good numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles (at least 7 and up to 17 yesterday) and Goshawk (64), over 250 Common (Eastern) Buzzards and has also added Japanese Reed Bunting to the species list.

First for Beijing!

On Saturday I made my first visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu for a few weeks and boy, was it worth it?!  The autumn migration is now in full swing.  The highlight was undoubtedly the juvenile/first winter Little Gull that I found feeding on the reservoir before it gained height and flew strongly east.  Despite being almost annual on the Bohai coast, I believe this is the first record for the Beijing municipality.   Coming a close second was a stunning Short-toed Eagle that drifted right overhead near Yeyahu lake.  Wow.

Record shot of Beijing's first Little Gull at Yeyahu NR, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011

Other good birds include a very early crane sp that was soaring very distantly over the mountains to the north.  I initially assumed this must have been a Common Crane but I noticed dark secondaries and this is more consistent with Demoiselle Crane.  Common Cranes are very scarce at this time of year, in fact I don’t think any have been recorded in September, whereas Demoiselle should be leaving its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia about now.  It’ll have to go down in the book as a crane sp.  Also seen were 5 Chinese Grey Shrikes, including a very instructive juvenile that superficially looked a little like ssp pallidirostris (Steppe Grey Shrike), a heavily leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff (very scarce in Beijing, possibly the 4th record for the municipality) as well as many passerine migrants – Little Buntings, Eurasian Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and so on…

Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit with Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011

Full species list in systematic order:

Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) – my first two of the autumn, flushed between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasaianus colchicus) – 6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – 24
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) – 3
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca) – 1
Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) – 3 (possibly relating to feral birds from Yeyahu)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) – 10 in one flock flying strongly west
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – at least 75
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – 6
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – 4
Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) – 6
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) – 2
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) – 3
Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) – 3 flying south early morning
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – a flock of 13 feeding together on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – 5
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) – just one, an adult male
Northern Hobby (Falco subbuteo) – at least 6, including 3 juveniles
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) – one at Ma Chang soaring
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – one fishing at Ma Chang early morning then flew west
Black-eared Kite (Milvus lineatus) – 10; one on the ground at Ma Chang followed by a group of 7 kettling mid-morning and two other singles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – one low overhead at Yeyahu mid-afternoon
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus) – 4 (an adult female and 3 juveniles)
Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos) – 2 (both juveniles)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – 6 (light passage throughout the day)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) – c25 including several family parties
Common Coot (Fulica atra) – 6
Common Crane (Grus grus) – 1 scoped circling distantly over the mountains to the north.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) – one juvenile at Ma Chang
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – 8
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) – 12 (all juveniles)
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) – 1
Common Snipe (Gallinago megala) – 3
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa melanuroides) – 2, including one white bird (heavily leucistic or albino)
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) – 6
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) – 8
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) – 3
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – 1, seen well in flight and appeared to go down on the edge of the reservoir between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – 27
Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) – 1, a juvenile/first winter seen well but briefly over the reservoir at the east end of Ma Chang.  After ‘dip-feeding’ a couple of times, gained height and flew strongly east.
Whiskered Tern (Chilidonias hybrida) – at least 12
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) – 4
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – 3
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – 1
Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus) – 5 seen, one of which I originally thought could be a ssp of Great Grey (see photos).
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) – 2
Common Magpie (Pica pica) – many
Crow sp (Corvus sp) – a group of 6 soaring around mid-day were probably Carrion Crows
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) – two heard
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – only 3 seen
Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) – at least 60 ssw early morning and small groups encountered between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) – just 4 seen
Locustella sp – one flushed 3 times appeared quite rusty, probably Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) – encountered in every group of bushes or trees.  At least 40 seen or heard.
Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) – one in a hedge at the east end of Ma Chang
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) – one on the walk to the viewing tower at Yeyahu
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Paradoxornis webbianus) – at least 40 seen and heard
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) – 22
Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) – 1, an adult male, seen in shrubs at the east end of Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) – at least 25 seen
Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla) – 3
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – many
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) – at least 200 ssw early morning, followed by the odd small group thereafter.  c250 in total.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) – 34 (mostly migrating ssw early morning)
Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi) – 26 migrating ssw early morning with an additional 16 encountered during the day
Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) – c25 migrating ssw early morning with several others seen and heard during the day.  c40 in total
Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla) – many buntings, probably this species, migrating ssw early morning and c30 seen during the day.
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) – one seen well
bunting sp – many hundreds of buntings migrating between 0600 and 0730; most probably Little Bunting but some looked slightly larger.

A Tale of Two Eagles

In June many birders think the marvels of spring migration are over and thoughts turn to butterflies, dragonflies, family holidays or even moths (I kid you not!).  But, here in the Beijing area, early June can be a very good time for the late migrating locustella and acrocephalus warblers, as well as other reedbed-dwelling birds such as crakes and rails.

One of the birds that I wanted to catch up with when I moved to Beijing was the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a bird on many a ‘most-wanted’ list back in the UK and, unless you go to Fair Isle in mid-September, your chances of seeing one in the UK are pretty slim.  I have been lucky enough to see over 20 of these birds here in Beijing, nearly all of which I have seen in the last 7-10 days!  On Saturday, during a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve, we counted 10 of these super-skulkers, at least 3 of which provided us with more than a just a fleeting glimpse of a shape disappearing into a dense reedbed after being flushed from the path!

Yayahu Nature Reserve officially opens at 0830 in the morning and is very popular for Beijingers at the weekend to get away from the stress and heat of the city.  So if you want to see birds, it’s important to arrive early, before the masses.  Ideally you want to be first onto the boardwalk to see any lurking crakes, rails or bitterns before they are flushed deep into the reeds by the noisy hordes.

On Saturday, despite arriving at 0520 and finding the gates open (sometimes we have to use the ‘alternative entrance’), we were a little disappointed to see 3 people already on the boardwalk..  nevertheless, we had the place to ourselves for the next 2 hours with some success whilst enjoying the cacophony of reed warblers – mostly Oriental Reed but with the odd Black-browed Reed mixed in.

We took our time doing a circular walk around the lake, trying to distinguish any other birds’ songs from the rasping Oriental Reeds, and were rewarded with a single Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler that was singing intermittently from a patch of young willows, a Baillon’s Crake that we disturbed from the boardwalk and gave us fleeting flight views before it dived into deep cover, a handful of Zitting Cisticolas as well as a good number of the enigmatic Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers.

A pair of Caspian Terns represented a good June record.  They came in high from the north and began to hunt over the lake but, by the time we left the site, they had already moved on..  early return migrants?  failed breeders?  who knows?

On the second circuit we found a relatively small plain reed warbler (smaller than the resident Oriental Reeds).  Our thoughts turned to Manchurian Reed and, fortunately, I had just uploaded the song of Manchurian Reed Warbler onto my smartphone!  So I gave it a blast and it reacted strongly, flying closer and proceeding to sing.  Nice!  I took a few notes and photos before we moved on to eagle field.

The walk down to eagle field was hot – the sun had burned off the clouds and there was only a light breeze just about taking the edge off the heat.  A circling flock of 17 falcons turned out to be a mixed flock of Amur Falcon and Hobby, giving us hope that a larger raptor would likely get up if there was one around…   We reached the tower and, after a brief scan, began to have our packed lunches.  It was quiet on the reservoir with just a few Night Herons, a couple of Purple Herons, some Mallard and a pair of Spot-billed Ducks.  I said to Spike that I would do a thorough scan for any eagles before heading back and, almost immediately, I picked up a large bird of prey heading straight for us from the north-east.  It was large, dark and displayed several ‘fingers’ on each hand – it had to be an eagle.  I was pretty confident it was a Greater Spotted Eagle but with just head-on views, I wasn’t certain.  We watched it as it came closer and, just as it reached the northern edge of the reservoir, it dropped, stone-like, with legs akimbo into the edge of the reedbed…  …wow – that was some dive!  We couldn’t see it on the ground but, after only a couple of minutes, it took off and headed low over the reservoir towards us, providing excellent views, at head height, as it attempted to avoid the attentions of one of the local magpies.

It was now pretty obvious that it was a Greater Spotted Eagle and, when it reached ‘eagle field’, it began to circle, gained height quickly and headed off south-west.  Certainly my best ever views of Greater Spotted Eagle.

Any day you see an eagle is a good day.  We began the walk back having already had a good day.  Then, half way back, we got onto a large bird of prey heading north and away from us..  a quick view through the binoculars revealed it to be a Short-toed Eagle. Almost certainly the same bird that Paul Holt, Chris Gooddie and I saw last week.  A good day just got better.

A calling Two-barred Greenish Warbler on the entrance track on the way out was our last species of the day and we reflected on another excellent day at this productive site as we met our driver for the short journey back to Yanqing bus station.

Edit: on looking at the photographs of the presumed Manchurian Reed Warbler, I am now thinking it may be the very similar Blunt-winged Warbler.  The supercilium does not reach far behind the eye and lacks the dark upper border that is a characteristic of Manchurian Reed.  Even though the bird reacted to the song of Manchurian, I am not sure how reliably this behaviour indicates the species.  The two very similar species may well react to each others’ songs – I don’t know!  I don’t have any experience of either bird, so comments very welcome..

Manchurian Reed Warbler or Blunt-winged Warbler? Answers on a postcard...
The tail on Blunt-winged is supposed to be 'blackish with brown edges"... this image does not show that feature. On the other hand, Manchurian should show a strong white supercilium that extends behind the eye and that has a blackish upper border. Hmm...
Greater Spotted Eagle (prob 2 cal yr)
Greater Spotted Eagle attracting the attention of a local magpie, Yeyahu, 4 June 2011
Close-up.. that Magpie had a tug at the eagle's tail before it left it alone

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Collared Dove (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Indian Cuckoo (2)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Eurasian Cuckoo (8)

Great Bittern (2-3 heard)

Oriental Reed Warbler (30+)

Red-crested Pochard (3) – a little unsure of the provenance of these regularly seen birds (sometimes seen near the feral ducks and geese but certainly a lot more rangey than the remainder of the feral birds).

Great Crested Grebe (6) – one of the pairs had young

Little Grebe (4) – one pair had young

Chinese Pond Heron (6)

Mandarin (2)

Common Coot (6) – some with young

Zitting Cisticola (9)

Black-crowned Night Heron (18)

Black-winged Stilt (6)

Hobby (9)

Yellow Bittern (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (18)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Tern (4)

Black-faced Bunting (3)

Black Drongo (4)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (3)

Amur Falcon (10) – at least 3 adult males and 4 adult females plus some immature birds.

Baillon’s Crake (1) – one flushed from the boardwalk and seen briefly in flight only

Black-browed Reed Warbler (6)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (10) – good number seen from the boardwalk and the north side of the lake

Grey-headed Lapwing (4)

Purple Heron (10) – at least this number.  Several pairs breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake

Little Egret (1)

Little Tern (1)

David’s (Spotted) Bush Warbler (2-3) – one heard only and one seen only (in different locations).  One other possible heard briefly.

Garganey (1) – a flyover drake

Marsh Sandpiper (1) – flyover

Northern Lapwing (2)

Richard’s Pipit (4) – displaying

Chinese Penduline Tit (4) – at least two active nests

Common Kingfisher (2)

Caspian Tern (2) – flew in high from the north and began feeding.  Not seen later on return.

Blunt-winged Reed Warbler (1) – one probably this species.  Seen well and heard singing in the reed-fringed dyke to the west of the main lake (just south of the point where the boardwalk ends).  Responded well to playback of Manchurian Reed Warbler (Blunt-winged not played) and we initially identified it as this species.  However, photos suggest to me that it is a Blunt-winged Warbler (supercilium very weak behind eye, lacking the black upper edge).  I suspect that both species would react to each others’ songs? Comments welcome.

Chinese Blackbird (1) – my first at this site

White-cheeked Starling (3)

Barn Swallow (6)

Ferruginous Duck (1)

Greater Spotted Eagle (1) – came in from the north-east at around 1315.  Subsequently dropped like a stone, legs akimbo, into the edge of the reedbed on the north side of the reservoir (opposite the viewing tower).  About 2-3 minutes later, took off again and flew low, in the company of one of the local magpies, across the reservoir and past the tower to the grassy field where it circled, gained height and headed south-west.  A probable 2cy bird.  See photos.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)

Mallard (15)

Short-toed Eagle (1) – seen on the walk back to the car park.  Flew from area east of eagle field and then seen soaring north-east of eagle field close to mountain ridge.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1) – one heard on entrance track to reserve

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??