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)

Wild Goose Chase

This week, Birding Beijing is brought to you by the letter “M” and the number “2”.

“M” because there was a distinctly Mongolian feel to Saturday’s birding, and “2” because I saw two new birds!

Spike and I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang to Yeyahu) again on Saturday. We were buoyed by last week’s hints of Spring and, on the bus to Yanqing, our conversation revolved around the possibility of seeing early migrants – would there be a first Little Ringed Plover, or even an Oriental Plover? A Mongolian Lark or Great Bustard? Or something rarer like a Pallas’s Sandgrouse? As usual, speculation about just what might be was pretty outrageous..!

In the end, the reality was much better than I could have reasonably expected with two new birds for me – a single Mongolian Lark (yess!) and 2 White-naped Cranes that were seen cohorting with the local Common Crane flock – whilst the rarest bird must be the all-too-brief probable Lesser White-fronted Goose that was associating with around 3,000 Bean Geese (mostly of the subspecies serrirostris but with a few middendorffii mixed in).

The supporting cast included c400 Swan Geese, 2 Hooded Cranes, the first Shoveler and Wigeon of the year, a stunning drake Baikal Teal, 9 Kentish Plovers, a single Grey-headed Lapwing, my first 3 White Wagtails (ssp leucopsis) of the year, 20 Mongolian Gulls (18 of which were migrating west), 10 Black-headed Gulls, c300 Smew, 2 Upland Buzzards, 2 ‘ringtail’ Hen Harriers, 2 Siberian Accentors, 4 Chinese Grey Shrikes and 3 White-cheeked Starlings.

The day started at Ma Chang at around 0645 and we were greeted by a big flock of Common Cranes by the side of the track. Amongst them were 2 Hooded Cranes, spotted as they took flight. A good start! Then, just as I had set up my telescope to go through the flocks of wildfowl on the far side of the reservoir, everything took flight. This had to mean one thing – a major raptor. Sure enough, a White-tailed Eagle lumbered low over the reeds and settled on the ice. Looking at the sky revealed the sheer scale of the wildfowl present – the sky was full of birds. Bean Geese were everywhere… The sight and sound of the geese in flight shortly after dawn was something to behold. I tried to capture some of the atmosphere on video and you can view a short clip of the Bean Geese here. We just stood and marvelled at the sight for a couple of minutes and then I thought it would probably be a good idea to go through the flocks to see if there were any other geese mixed in.

I began to check the flying flocks with my telescope and, in the third flock I checked, I saw a significantly smaller ‘white-fronted’ goose in a flock of serrirostris Bean Geese. I watched it for about 10 seconds in flight before the flock landed on the ice. I could see the relatively small size (at the time, I estimated it was 20 per cent smaller than the serrirostris Bean Geese), dark belly markings, the white base to the bill and I could just make out an eye-ring. I called out “I think I have a Lesser White-front!”. After a scan of the flock on the ground I picked it up at about 200-300m distance, and was again struck by the noticeably smaller size, relatively small head and very peaked forehead. Unfortunately many other serrirostris Bean Geese landed in the same area and several birds walked in front of the LWFG and it was lost to view. I couldn’t get Spike onto the bird… very frustrating! After several minutes of waiting to see if it would reveal itself, we decided to walk to another vantage point to try to view the flock from a different angle. This proved fruitless when the flock flew up to join another flock of Bean Geese heading west and was lost to view.

I have seen LWFG in Copenhagen in Spring 2010 (a flock of 50+) and I am confident that the bird was that species, although I would have liked to have studied it for longer to rule out hybrids, taken more notes and, ideally, photographed it.. a little frustrating but hopefully it will hang around and be seen by others.

It was shortly after this sighting that we began the walk towards Yeyahu and it was on the shore of the reservoir that we encountered a large flock of larks feeding out in the open. A Kentish Plover called and we soon picked up two, three, then four of these dainty plovers. I set up the telescope to go through the flock with the main aim of counting the KPs (9 in total) when I suddenly got onto a very striking lark mixed in with the Eurasian Skylarks. Slightly larger than the Skylarks and with a black mark at the top of the breast bordered with a rusty wash on the sides of the upper breast, rusty colouration to the median and lesser coverts and a rusty stripe on the head, this could only be one thing – a Mongolian Lark! This is a bird I had hoped to see around Beijing in winter and I was beginning to think my luck was out. To see one in mid- to late March was a nice surprise! After only about a minute it took flight on its own and, with its very distinctive ‘floppy’ flight, it looped over to a more shrubby area and dropped to the ground. Despite a brief search of the area, it never showed again.

We walked round to the east side of the reservoir to try to view the flocks of wildfowl that were congregating on the northern shore. Lots of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Swan Geese and masses of duck. Most surprising of all was the sight of 4 cormorant fishermen who paddled out into the middle of the reservoir and released their cormorants to begin fishing. I thought this practice had all but died out so was surprised to see it being used less than 90 minutes from the capital… (and there wasn’t a tourist in sight!).

The onward walk was relatively quiet with just a couple of Upland Buzzards, a few Japanese Quail, 3 Meadow Buntings, 2 Siberian Accentors and lots more Pallas’s Reed Buntings. We were met by our driver at Yeyahu and began the journey home, tired but exhilarated. That first 3 to 4 hours at the reservoir on Saturday morning will stay with me for a long time – fantastic birding.

This site has bags of potential in Spring and I can’t wait to return.

Mixed flock of Bean Geese and Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011
Cormorant fisherman with wildfowl flock in background, Ma Chang, 19 March 2011