Long-tailed Rosefinches in Beijing

As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery.  The last few weeks have proved this again.

Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies).  We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.

2014-10-31 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 31 October 2014.  Note the heavy and contrasting streaking and relatively thin wingbars.
2014-11-25 Long-tailed Rosefinch male, Lingshan
Male Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, 25 November 2014.  Note the contrasting head pattern, including the prominent dark stripe running behind the eye, and the brownish wings contrasting with the pink underparts.
2015-11-09 Long-tailed Rosefinch fem, Lingshan
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch, Lingshan, Beijing, 9 November 2015. Again, note the relatively thick and contrasting streaking on the underparts.

To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.

Long-tailed Rosefinch 35vfvhj3
(young?) Male Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis.  Note the lack of an obvious dark stripe behind the eye, less contrasting head pattern and less contrast on the wings.
Long-tailed Rosefinch 333242
Female Long-tailed Rosefinch ssp ussuriensis. Note the relative lack of contrasting streaking on the underparts, the overall ‘warmer’ look and the thicker, more prominent, wingbars.

And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.

2014-12-22 Long-tailed Rosefinch male2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia
Note the thick wingbar, lack of a dark stripe behind the eye and overall ‘frosty’ appearance.

Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :

Lingshan bird (lepidus): 

Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):

After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis.  Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).

Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males.  This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.

This was quite a shock.

We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present.  So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.

We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.

It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan!  What next?

Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.

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

Beijing Birders Meet-up

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.

Thanks to Jennifer Leung for the photos below.

From left to right: Paul Holt, Colm Moore (front), Terry Townhsend and Tom Beeke.
From left to right: Paul Holt (UK), Colm Moore (front, representing Ireland), Terry Townshend (UK) and Tom Beeke (Canada, making a special guest appearance from Dalian).
From left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alstrom (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen.
Clockwise from left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Paul Holt (UK), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alström (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen (Sweden) and (the right side of) Craig Brelsford (US).

A Right Old Bird…

Mongolian Gull "AC82", Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013.  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.
Mongolian Gull (Larus mongolicus) with wing-tag “AC82” (top), Jinzhou Bay, Dalian, March 2013. A “right old bird” at almost 24 years old…  Photograph by Bai Qingquan.

Not long after I arrived in China, I visited Liaoning Province to see my good friend, Dalian-based Tom Beeke.  He very kindly showed me some of his local birding sites, including what must be the best gull-watching site in north-eastern China, Jinzhou Bay.  Attracted by the nearby landfill site, thousands of gulls congregate in the area to spend the winter.  Most are Mongolian Gulls but there is always a good selection with Vega Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Common Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Black-headed Gull and occasionally something rarer like a Glaucous Gull, Slaty-backed Gull or, as I was lucky enough to see on my first visit, a Pallas’s Gull.

Before I visited, friend and co-author of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, Andreas Buchheim, asked me to look out for wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls and, sure enough, among the large flocks of Mongolian Gull loafing on the ice in the bay, I was able to pick out several wing-tagged birds.  These birds had been tagged by Andreas at various sites in Mongolia and Russia and showed that these birds, as expected, moved to the east coast of Asia in winter.

This site was so good that I went back in winter 2011/12 with Beijing-based Paul Holt, during which time we found several more wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls.

I haven’t been able to visit Jinzhou Bay this winter but another good friend, and fellow birder, Bai Qingquan from Dandong, visited there on 23 and 24 March.  Qingquan estimated that there were around 6,000 gulls of 7 different species on site.  Excitingly, he found two wing-tagged gulls that I had seen, together with Paul Holt, in winter 2011/12.

Even more excitingly he saw “AC82”.  This bird was originally ringed as a “pullus” (nestling) on 25 June 1989 at Lake Baikal in Russia.  It was subsequently caught again as an adult bird on 20 May 2005 at Airchan Nuur, Mongolia, when the metal leg ring was replaced and a wing tag (“AC82”) attached.  Qingquan’s sighting is the first since the tag was fixed in 2005 and, with the original ringing data from Russia, proves that this bird is almost 24 years old!  (almost as old as me.. cough).  Wow.. what a record!  If anyone has any information about the longevity of large gulls, I would love to know…

Another of Qingquan’s sightings was of “AF63”.  I saw this bird at the same site in February 2011 and Paul Holt and I saw it again in January 2012, showing that at least some of these gulls are site-faithful in winter..  again, another valuable piece of data.

I simply love the information that can be gained through tagging programmes like this.  Looking for marked birds adds another dimension to birding and it’s so rewarding to hear back from the project leaders about the history of individual birds.  I urge every birder to look out for, and report, any wing-tagged, colour-ringed or any other birds marked in any way.

For more information about Andreas Buccheim’s Mongolian Gull wing-tagging programme, see here.

For information about how to report a wing-tagged or colour-ringed bird, see here for Europe and here for Asia.






Liaoning Trip Report from May 2012

Paul Holt has just finished his detailed trip report from his visit to Liaoning in May.  Bai Qingquan, Tom Beeke and I were lucky enough to accompany him for parts of his trip that included two firsts for the Province – Kamchatka Leaf Warbler and Black-winged Cuckooshrike – plus some impressive counts of waders, including a high count of up to 19 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Bar-tailed Godwits (10,000), Eastern Curlew (4000), Great Knot (4600), Dunlin (10,400) and Broad-billed Sandpiper (1117).  You can download the full report here:

Liaoning – 2-13 May 2012

International Siberian Crane Festival, Faku County, Liaoning Province

Last week, together with Tom Beeke in Dalian and Tian Yang (Leyton), a Dalian-based birding friend, I received an invitation to participate in the International Siberian Crane Festival in Faku County, near Shenyang in Liaoning Province.  The invitation came from Professor Zhou from Shenyang University who we had both met last autumn whilst watching waders along the Liaoning coast.  Apparently my sighting of 3 Siberian Cranes in Beijing in March (the second record for the capital) qualified me as a Siberian Crane expert….

By juggling work commitments we were both able to participate and we enjoyed one of those special Chinese experiences…

Faku County hosts a network of 16 freshwater lakes which, together, form a very important stopover site for a host of wildfowl and, in particular, the ‘critically endangered’ Siberian Crane.   The world population of this species is thought to be around 3,000 individuals and declining.  About ten days ago, 2,000 were counted at this important site.  The day before our visit on Tuesday, 821 were seen.  Clearly, this is a hugely important site for the Siberian Crane but it is not currently included in the list of priority sites for this species in China (so far, five wetland sites have been identified as critical, including the Poyang Lake Basin, where up to 98% of the world’s population of Siberian Cranes over-winter; the other four sites are national level nature reserves – Zhalong, Xianghai, Keerqin, and Momoge Nature Reserves – that protect important migratory habitat used by the Siberian Crane in northeastern China).

As is often the case in rapidly developing China, the site is under threat.  To help raise awareness, Professor Zhou set up an International Siberian Crane Festival and invited the most important local politicians, decision-makers and local people to attend.  The deputy Mayor of Shenyang, the Party Secretary of Faku County and his deputy all participated.  Professor Zhou also invited a panel of experts from Beijing including the China head of Wetlands International and a Deputy Director from the Forestry Ministry.  Tom and I were invited to provide an international perspective.

Our day began at 0500 with a visit to the site to do a spot of birdwatching before the official proceedings began.  Unfortunately, due to a delay in leaving the hotel (too much baijio for some?) we missed the main crane post-roost flight but, luckily (for Tom at least as he had never seen Siberian Crane!), a couple of stragglers remained and we were able to watch them feed, albeit at distance.  We also saw good numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese, some Swan Geese, Bean Geese, Baikal Teal and Grey-headed Lapwing.  After a tour of the main reservoir we were driven to a raised viewing area which was being prepared for the festival.

The festival began at 0930 with a formal opening ceremony at the wetland itself which, despite the weather (strong winds and dust storms) saw a hugely impressive local turnout.  It appeared to be the biggest event to happen in this community for a long time with hundreds of local people present.  The police were there in numbers to coordinate the crowds.

Early morning preparations for the opening ceremony of the International Siberian Crane Festival, Faku County, Liaoning Province
A couple of bemused locals look on
Some of the local women enjoying the opening ceremony..
Local girls added some glamour to proceedings but were struggling to keep smiling in the dust storms...
As the time for the opening ceremony approached, the crowd began to build.
The police took time out from their crowd control duties to check out Professor Zhou's photos on the display boards.
This local farmer insisted on having his photo taken and was proud to welcome foreigners to his village for the International Siberian Crane Festival
The stage is set for the grand opening ceremony...

After the formal opening ceremony, during which Tom and I were asked to stand on the stage (!) while 4 dignitaries spoke, we were driven to the local government offices where we participated in a roundtable workshop with the Party chiefs, local residents and media.  The workshop began with presentations by Wetlands International, the Forestry Ministry and Professor Zhou, all aimed at explaining the significance of this site and the potential for the local area to achieve provincial, national and international recognition (via Ramsar status) and to secure associated financing.  Tom and I were then invited to provide international perspectives and we both spoke about the potential economic value of eco-tourism, the importance of valuing natural capital in economic decision-making, including the ecosystem services provided by wetlands, and the experience of our respective countries in terms of wildlife tourism.  It was heartening to hear the Party Secretary (the top official in Faku County) promise, at the end of the event, to review the County’s development strategy on the basis of what he had heard and he even invited us to be formal advisers to his County (one for the CV!).  After some interviews with the media (including Liaoning TV and Radio, CCTV, Tianjin News and others), we were provided with an official lunch with the obligatory toasts of the local baijio before heading back home.    Tom and I were both very grateful for the warmth of the welcome we received and the memory of this event, and our visit to Faku, will stay with us for a very long time.  A big thank you to Leyton for his interpretation service.

Professor Zhou is to be congratulated: he is clearly working extremely hard to try to protect this area and is making every effort to persuade the local Party chiefs that it is in their long term interest to secure the future of these wetlands and the birds that depend on them.  I would like to wish him every success and, in my new capacity as environmental advisor to Faku County, I stand ready to assist in any way I can!

By the way, did you know that the oldest documented crane that ever lived was a Siberian Crane named “Wolf”, who died at the age of 83?  Amazing!

My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  :)

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?