Shidu

With the Chinese New Year celebrations still ringing in our ears (the year of the Dragon was greeted with deafening fireworks!), we set off to explore an area known as Shidu in Fangshan County, south-west of Beijing.  This area of karst limestone hills is sometimes known as the “Guilin of the north” and we could see why..  spectacular rocky outcrops rise up from the valley through which the Juma river runs..  It’s an area well-known to Beijing birders as a regular wintering ground for Black Stork, Wallcreeper and Black Vulture, with supporting cast including Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover and Red-billed Chough.

Today Libby and I drove there in our rented car in convoy with friends John and Sarah Gallagher and Sarah’s visiting friend, Vic.  The air was refreshingly clear – a combination of polluting industry closing down for Chinese New Year, fewer cars due to large parts of the Beijing population visiting relatives in other parts of China and a fresh northerly wind – and we enjoyed a stunning blue sky with excellent visibility all day.   We took a slightly ’round the houses’ route to get there (taking over 3 hours) but it was worth it.  A decent road winds its way through the gorge with a number of bridges crossing the river, many of which are excellent places to stop and view the stony riverbed.  Highlights included at least 4 Black Vultures soaring over the peaks, 4-5 Black Storks including 3 young birds, 2 Crested Kingfishers, a single White-tailed Eagle and 2 Upland Buzzards.  We didn’t have time to search out a Wallcreeper but the habitat looks ideal and I am sure, with a bit of time and patience, effort would be rewarded here.  Definitely worth a return visit sometime soon!

White-tailed Eagle, Shidu, Beijing
White-tailed Eagle, Shidu. A menacing shadow for any waterbird!
Steady...
One of today's Black Vultures at Shidu.

Wild Duck Lake, 6 November 2011

Apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks – work has been rather all-consuming!  To be honest, it’s not been so bad to be indoors  –  a persistent high pressure system, combined with very slack winds, have seen a blanket of smog covering Beijing with poor visibility and, at times, appalling air quality.  The US Embassy ‘twitter feed’ is updated hourly and rates the pollution levels of PM2.5 (a particulate pollutant) and ozone.
This is the US Environment Protection Agency’s definition of PM2.5:
“Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke. Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.
Many manmade and natural sources emit PM directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form PM. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes.
Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as “fine” particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.”
Sounds nice, eh?
There is a scale of descriptors ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous”.  Last week saw several days with the pollution at “hazardous” levels.  I am not exactly sure what “hazardous” means but at these levels, you can taste and smell the pollution when you step outside.  Not pleasant.
Of course, the Chinese media describes the smog as “fog” and on one dark day last week, it was laughable that the media was saying that there were “boundless blue skies over Beijing”…  Of course….
Fortunately, this smoggy period seems to be breaking now and on Sunday I visited Ma Chang/Wild Duck Lake with Libby and a couple of UK friends John and Sarah Gallagher.  They have been keen to accompany me on one of my birding trips for some time and so, with a window of decent weather and visibility, we grabbed the chance before the winter sets in.  We enjoyed a very good day.
The visibility was above average and, when the cloud broke in the afternoon, it turned into a gorgeous late autumn day….
0645-1530, 6 November 2011.
Cloud 8/8 and 5 degrees C at 0640 with very light north-easterly wind.  13 degrees C, cloud 3/8 and light north-easterly at 1500.  Visibility above average all day.
The highlight was my first Great Bustard in China (a flyover), 2 Black Storks, 6 White-naped Cranes, 58 Common CranesUpland Buzzard, 2 Short-eared Owls, 2Common Starlings.
Full species list (52 in total):
Common Pheasant 12
Bean Goose 115
Whooper Swan 1
Gadwall 5
Falcated Duck 4
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Mallard 48
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 10
Northern Pintail 42
Eurasian Teal 25
Tufted Duck 8
Common Goldeneye 2
Smew 10
Goosander 12
Little Grebe 23
Great Crested Grebe 8
Black-necked Grebe 2
Black Stork 2 (high west @ 1455)
Eurasian Bittern 1
Grey Heron 3
Eurasian Kestrel 2
Peregrine 2
Hen Harrier 4 (1 adult male, 1 immature male, and 2 females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1
Great Bustard 1 in flight (flew west over Ma Chang @ 0910)
Common Coot 4
White-naped Crane 6
Common Crane 58, including 2 groups arriving from the mountains to the north (9 @1445 and 35 @1440)
Mongolian Gull 2
Black-headed Gull 68
Eurasian Collared Dove 14
Short-eared Owl 2
Common Kingfisher 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 5
Azure-winged Magpie 1
Common Magpie lots
Carrion Crow 11
Great Tit 2
Asian Short-toed Lark 12
Eurasian Skylark 7
Chinese Bulbul 2
Vinous-throated Parrotbill 100+ in a single flock
Common Starling 2
Eurasian Tree Sparrow lots
Buff-bellied Pipit 3
Pine Bunting 2
Little Bunting 2
Pallas’s Reed Bunting 23

Finally, we enjoyed excellent views of this yellow butterfly, the only butterfly we saw. It was a little sluggish, allowing close photography, in contrast to the many times when I have tried to photograph this species in the spring/summer..  I am not sure what the specific species is but it’s pretty common in the area. EDIT: Thanks to John Furse for identifying the butterfly as a Clouded Yellow.

Yellow butterfly sp, Yeyahu, 6 November 2011
Close up... I love those eyes!

Owl eats Owl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice fishing

A few images from my most recent visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake) just before Christmas.  The reservoir is well and truly frozen over now and the locals are taking advantage to engage in a spot of ice-fishing.

Ice fishing at Ma Chang/Yayahu with the spectacular mountain backdrop
Ice fishing

Brian Jones recalled an incident last year when he saw a White-tailed Eagle catch a Ruddy Shelduck on the same reservoir, only to see one of the locals race onto the ice and steal the prey before the eagle could take off with its quarry. Not sure what Ruddy Shelducks taste like but that eagle must have been seriously peeved!

Here are a couple more images of the juvenile Upland Buzzard that proved so confiding. I am hoping to get out there again in the next couple of weeks – will be interesting to see if it is still around.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010. Note the white flashes on the upperwing.

and one of the Japanese Quails.. trying to capture on film one of these birds as it darts away low and fast is a skill I have yet to master..!

Typical view of a Japanese Quail...

Yeyahu again

On Saturday I teamed up with Brian Jones and Spike Millington for a day at Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake).

It was a stunning day – sunny, relatively mild (only about -3 degrees C) and with very little wind. We started at Ma Chang, a flat, almost desert-like area adjacent to the reservoir and walked around 7-8 km across the grassland, the edge of the lake and along the small stands of trees on the eastern side. It was a good raptor day with an immature White-tailed Eagle, 3-4 Upland Buzzards (including one stunningly confiding juvenile), a single adult Rough-legged Buzzard, a japonicus Common Buzzard, 2 Hen Harriers, a single Saker, a Kestrel and monstrous Eagle Owl. The supporting cast included an impressive group of Common Cranes (I counted 360, which was probably conservative, but Brian and Spike estimated over 400), including one Hooded Crane in their midst. Also seen were 12 Japanese Quails, 300-350 Pallas’s Reed Buntings, Yellow-throated Bunting, 15-20 Chinese Penduline Tits, up to 3 Chinese Grey Shrikes, at least 150 Lapland Buntings, many Asian Short-toed Larks, Skylarks and the odd Little Bunting.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Juvenile Upland Buzzard. Note the prominent white patches on the upperwing, diagnostic of Upland Buzzard.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard - this bird showed stunningly well for several minutes on the ground and overhead. An awesome experience.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Immature White-tailed Eagle, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
We flushed this Eagle Owl from a grassy dyke at Yeyahu
Brian picked out this Hooded Crane among the 350-400 Common Cranes