Baer’s Pochards back in Beijing!

On Saturday 12 October I visited Wild Duck Lake (both Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR) with Jesper Hornskov and Ben Wielstra.  As usual with this site in October, expectations were high as I set off at 0445 to pick up Ben, then Jesper, before heading over the mountains past Badaling Great Wall and on to Ma Chang.  

On arrival, the water level at Guanting Reservoir was the highest I have ever seen.  Consequently most of the viewing points that I have used in the past to observe the reservoir are no longer accessible, meaning that we had no opportunity to view the duck on the open water.  A couple of CHINESE GREY SHRIKES, a MERLIN, a few lingering juvenile AMUR FALCONS, some early BEAN GEESE and a flock of 23 MONGOLIAN LARKS kept us entertained at Ma Chang before we decided to hot-foot it over to Yeyahu Nature Reserve to spend some time at the new viewing tower.

2013-08-30 new tower hide at Yeyahu NR
The new viewing tower at Yeyahu NR. It offers an impressive vista over the entire reserve, and beyond, as well as providing a superb place from where to watch raptors.

As we made our way out of Ma Chang along the unpaved access track I caught sight of a raptor to the north of us, gliding west.  I slammed on the brakes (not as dramatic as it sounds when you are only moving at about 5mph) and glanced through my binoculars.  It was big.  An eagle.  I should say at this point that, only a few minutes before, I was chatting to Jesper and Ben about the potential for a STEPPE EAGLE.  I had seen GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE and IMPERIAL EAGLE at Wild Duck Lake before but never STEPPE.  As I looked through my binoculars, I could see a pale bar on the underwing and my heart raced – it looked like a first calendar year STEPPE EAGLE!  We all jumped out of the car and it began to circle, offering us superb views with the sun behind us.  I grabbed my camera and reeled off a few shots before just enjoying the bird as it gained height and eventually drifted off west.  Wow!  A new bird for me in Beijing.

2013-10-12 Steppe Eagle juv
First calendar year STEPPE EAGLE, Ma Chang, 12 October 2013.

Elated, and buoyed by our seemingly potent ability to talk up species at will, we began to chat about all sorts of obviously impossible targets for the day such as SWINHOE’S RAIL, STREAKED REED WARBLER, CRESTED SHELDUCK and, of course, BAER’S POCHARD.  

A few minutes later we arrived at Yeyahu NR and, after a celebratory cup of coffee, made our way into the reserve and headed for the new watchtower.  On the way we experienced a modest passage of raptors with NORTHERN GOSHAWK, EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARD and, again after talking about a likely species, SHORT-TOED EAGLE.  It was turning into a very good day.

We reached the tower after about 20 minutes and set up stall, hoping that the early promise might continue.  A few more NORTHERN GOSHAWKS, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARDS, a HEN HARRIER and an additional SHORT-TOED EAGLE kept us interested and then another large eagle came into view from the east…  As it drifted closer, we could see it wasn’t the expected GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (regular at this time of year) but a STEPPE EAGLE!  Given the direction and timing, almost certainly a second individual.

As the day wore on, cloud cover increased and the raptor passage seemed to stop, so we decided to head for the newly flooded area in the hope of sighting some duck, including a target for Ben – BAIKAL TEAL.

We didn’t see any BAIKAL TEAL but we did see good numbers of MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, GADWALL, FALCATED DUCK, RED-CRESTED POCHARD and a handful of FERRUGINOUS DUCK.  As we made our way along a track through the flooded area, we encountered some COMMON REED BUNTINGS.  I don’t see many COMMON REED BUNTINGS in Beijing (it’s a case of picking out a COMMON among all the PALLAS’S REED and LITTLE BUNTINGS – I can feel your sympathy) so I decided to hang back to take some photographs as Jesper and Ben headed to a small viewing area overlooking one of the ponds.

I had a frustrating time with the buntings but did manage some record photos.

COMMON REED BUNTING
COMMON REED BUNTING, Yeyahu NR, 12 October 2013.  It’s a bind to pick these out amongst all the PALLAS’S REED and LITTLE BUNTINGS..  sigh…

Just as I was about to leave the buntings to catch up with Jesper and Ben, a pair of Ferruginous Duck/Baer’s Pochards flew past and, as I had my camera set up, I reeled off a couple of photos as they plunged down onto one of the small pools in the reedbed.  I didn’t even look at the camera to check the images as I already felt I had been too long trying to photograph the buntings – and they would almost certainly be Ferruginous. However, as I caught up with Jesper and Ben, I mentioned that I had seen two Ferruginous/Baer’s-type ducks to which Jesper replied that they had seen three definite Ferruginous..  I (erroneously, as it turned out) assumed that I had seen two of the three birds they had seen, so I didn’t think any more of it…..  ***LESSON HERE***

From the watchpoint, we viewed a small area of the pool on which ‘my’ birds alighted and it was busy – lots of Gadwall, Falcated Duck and Mallard were moving around and flying in and out.  But no sign of the ‘Ferruginous/Baer’s types’.  As the light began to fade, we left and headed back to Beijing. 

At home, as I uploaded my photos from the day, I had a double-take when I saw the two images of the Ferruginous/Baer’s type duck I had seen.  One appeared to have a green tinge to the head and, structurally, they looked wrong for Ferruginous.  They were BAER’S POCHARDS!  

BAER'S POCHARDS, Yeyahu NR, Beijing, 12 October 2013
BAER’S POCHARDS, Yeyahu NR, Beijing, 12 October 2013
2013-10-12 Baer's Pochards2
Another image of the BAER’S POCHARDS from Yeyahu NR yesterday. Poor photos but the structure, colouration and underpart markings all fit with Baer’s.

Having known that Ben was particularly keen to see BAER’S POCHARD, I felt terrible.  If only I had looked at the photos at the time, I would have realised that there was a pair of BAER’S POCHARDS on that pool and we could have stayed longer in the hope that they reappeared.  But as it was, we left in ignorance and it was only when I got home that I realised.  Sorry Ben!  

The silver lining is that I will almost certainly take Ben to Wild Duck Lake again while he is in Beijing and I have even offered to take him to the breeding site in Hebei Province to hopefully see them there…   It’s a lesson learned.

In any case, it was another superb day at this brilliant site.  Is there a capital city in the world with birding as good as this?  If so, I want to know about it!

Full species list below.  Thanks to Jesper and Ben for their company on the day.

 

Common Pheasant  Phasanius colchicus  – 6+

Bean Goose  Anser fabalis serrirostris  – 15

Ruddy Shelduck  Tadorna ferruginea  – one (plus a couple of possibly captive ones…)

Gadwall  Anas strepera  – 60+

Falcated Duck  Anas falcata – 17+

Mallard  Anas platyrhynchos  – 400+

Chinese Spotbill  Anas zonorhyncha  – 75+ 

Northern Pintail  Anas acuta  – two

Common Teal  Anas crecca  – two

Red-crested Pochard  Netta rufina  – 14 (both males & females ‘scoped)

Common Pochard  Aythya ferina  – eight

Baer’s Pochard  Aythya baeri  – a pair photographed [TT]

Ferruginous Duck  Aythya nyroca  – three

Smew  Mergellus albellus  – four brownheads

Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis  – nine

Great Crested Grebe  Podiceps cristatus  – three

Eurasian Bittern  Botaurus stellaris  – one (in flight, giving ‘pao!’ call)

Chinese Pond Heron  Ardeola bacchus  – one

Grey Heron  Ardea cinerea  – six

Little Egret  Egretta garzetta  – three

Great Cormorant  Phalacrocorax carbo  – two

Common Kestrel  Falco tinnunculus  – one

Amur Falcon  Falco amurensis  – 12+ (excellent views of several 1st c-y birds)

Merlin  Falco columbarius  – two (adult male; unaged female)

Eurasian Hobby  Falco subbuteo  – one

Short-toed Eagle  Circaetus gallicus  – two

Eastern Marsh Harrier  Circus spilonotus  – one 1st c-y (an unusually dark individual, with hardly any pale on crown, no noticeable pale rump, effectively no pale on forewing & an at most very faint breast band)

Hen Harrier  Circus cyaneus  – four 1st c-y

Eurasian Sparrowhawk  Accipiter nisus  – eight

Northern Goshawk  Accipiter gentilis – two

Common Buzzard  Buteo buteo japonicus  – 7+

Steppe Eagle  Aquila nipalensis  – 1-2 (a 1st c-y circling & gliding 10h42 as we were leaving Machang & probably another – in identical plumage, as far as we could tell – over YYH reserve at 12h20…)

Common Moorhen  Gallinula chloropus  – two

Common Coot  Fulica atra  – 16

Northern Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus  – 70

Pacific Golden Plover  Pluvialis fulva  – eight 1st c-y

Common Snipe  Gallinago gallinago  – one

Common Black-headed Gull  Larus ridibundus  – 15+

Oriental Turtle Dove  Streptopelia orientalis  – three

Eurasian Collared Dove  Streptopelia decaocto  – four

Great Spotted Woodpecker  Dendrocopos major  – five

Chinese Grey Shrike  Lanius sphenocercus  – four (mostly showing very well…)

Azure-winged Magpie  Cyanopica cyanus  – two

Common Magpie  Pica pica  – 60+ (not counting birds en route!)

Daurian Jackdaw  Corvus dauuricus  – c390 (main event a flock of c325)

Rook  Corvus frugilegus  – one (up close, feeding in a field)

Eastern Great Tit  Parus minor  – three

Yellow-bellied Tit  Parus venustulus  – nine

Marsh Tit  Parus palustris

Chinese Penduline Tit  Remiz (pendulinus) consobrinus  – five (incl a juvenile sitting up nicely)

Long-tailed Tit  Aegithalos caudatus  – 5+ heard (presumably ssp vinaceus)

Mongolian Lark  Melanocorypha mongolica  – 23 (one flock taking off from harvested maize field,then flying around allowing nice views before dropping back down distantly)

Asian Short-toed Lark  Calandrella cheleensis  – two

Eurasian Skylark  Alauda arvensis  – 155+

Chinese Hill Warbler  Rhopophilus pekinensis  – three

Chinese Bulbul  Pycnonotus sinensis  – 13

Black-browed Reed Warbler  Acrocephalus bistrigiceps  – 17

Pallas’s Leaf Warbler  Phylloscopus proregulus  – five

Yellow-browed Warbler  Phylloscopus inornatus  – two

Vinous-throated Parrotbill  Paradoxornis webbianus  – 50+

Northern Wren  Troglodytes troglodytes  – one seen, didn’t call [BW]

White-cheeked Starling  Sturnus cineraceus  – c50

Eurasian Starling  Sturnus vulgaris  – four

Naumann’s Thrush  Turdus naumanni  – two

Northern Red-flanked Bluetail  Tarsiger cyanurus  – two

Daurian Redstart  Phoenicurus auroreus  – six

Eurasian Tree Sparrow  Passer montanus  – v

Siberian Accentor  Prunella montanella  – seven

White Wagtail  Motacilla alba  – five (two ocularis; three ‘?’)

Olive-backed Pipit  Anthus hodgsoni  – five

Buff-bellied Pipit  Anthus rubescens japonicus  – 70

Water Pipit  Anthus spinoletta blakistoni  – one

Brambling  Fringilla montifringilla  – 20

Oriental Greenfinch  Carduelis sinica  – 12

Eurasian Siskin  Carduelis spinus  – heard

Pine Bunting  Emberiza leucocephalos  – nine migr

Little Bunting  Emberiza pusilla  – 115+

Yellow-throated Bunting  Emberiza elegans  – five

Black-faced Bunting  Emberiza spodocephala  – eight

Pallas’s Reed Bunting  Emberiza pallasi  – 40+

Common Reed Bunting  Emberiza schoeniclus  – 11 (several seen well & heard calling)

 

Mammals:

Siberian Weasel Mustela sibirica  – one [JH]

 

Seeing Double

On Friday I visited Ma Chang with Global Times journalist Jiang Yuxia (writing an article about birding in Beijing) and Jennifer Leung.  After a few days of cold and windy weather, the forecast was for a change in the wind from a cold northerly to a light southerly and for temperatures to soar from the recent chilly highs of 10-12 degrees Celsius to over 20 degrees C.

After a 0500 start we reached Ma Chang at around 0630.  It was a stunning morning with good visibility, clear skies and almost no wind, disguising the -2 early morning temperature.  Along the entrance track we encountered Jesper Hornskov with a couple of clients.  They were watching a party of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the buds of some large trees – a nice start to the day.  At Ma Chang, as expected at this time of year, we soon spotted a group of ORIENTAL PLOVERS and a count revealed over 60 birds present – a fantastic total.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.  The flock now exceeds 60 birds.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang. Getting bored of these yet??  The flock now exceeds 60 birds.

We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.

Yuxia speaks to the local fishermen about life at Ma Chang...
Yuxia speaks to the local fishermen about life at Ma Chang…

A few Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, with the odd White Wagtail, flew overhead and a couple of tightly packed flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks wheeled around the remnants of last year’s maize stubble.  A Black (eared) Kite lumbered past and two female Eastern Marsh Harriers caused havoc among the flocks of Eurasian Teal.

With not much happening we decided to move on and, after a short stop at a flooded field to admire two stunning BAIKAL TEAL, we headed to the ‘island’ to the north of the desert area to look for duck…  Jesper and his clients were already in situ and, although quite distant, it was clear that there were lots of duck present.  Two relatively close (but distant to photograph!) Red-breasted Mergansers represented bird species number 299 for me in Beijing… result!

Red-breasted Mergansers, Ma Chang.  A scarce bird in the capital.
Red-breasted Mergansers, Ma Chang. A scarce bird in the capital.  Looks as if this pair has had a quarrel…

With the duck distant, I knew that moving to the location from where I had seen the Baer’s Pochard last Sunday would again be a good vantage point.  We headed to the spot and, sure enough, we were treated to stunning views of a large mixed raft of duck with the sun behind us and no wind…  perfect, and very unusual, conditions at Wild Duck Lake.

We quickly found a drake BAER’S and, almost immediately, spotted another drake.  There were two!

The two BAER'S POCHARDS at Ma Chang on Friday
The two BAER’S POCHARDS at Ma Chang on Friday.  With Ferruginous Duck, Gadwall and Common Pochard.

As on Sunday with the single drake, the two Baer’s were consorting with Ferruginous Duck and both were seen displaying…  fabulous!  It was from here that we also enjoyed some stunning views of Falcated Duck (including one very unusually marked male which sported a yellow mark on its lower cheek), Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Smew, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Coot and Little and Great Crested Grebes.  It was a great morning’s birding!

The gang at Ma Chang after seeing the two Baer's Pochards...
The gang at Ma Chang after seeing the two Baer’s Pochards…

A short time later, a couple of Black Kites appeared and, as our eyes began to be distracted from the duck to the skies, it wasn’t long before I spotted an aquila eagle some distance away…  My instinct was that it was probably a Greater Spotted Eagle, the most common aquila eagle at this site at this time of year.  However, as it soared, Jesper immediately suspected it was an IMPERIAL EAGLE… and he was right!

It circled distantly and was soon joined by a second, but smaller, eagle..  This second bird had a notably square tail, pale markings on the upperwing coverts and mantle and, as it turned, it was even possible to glimpse the ‘landing lights’…  wow.. A BOOTED EAGLE!  Two very good eagle records for Beijing in the same scope view!

Both appeared to drift away and were lost from view without allowing me to capture any photographic record.  However, fortunately, the Imperial soon re-appeared, this time closer, and I grabbed the camera to capture a few record images before it drifted into the mountains to the north.  The bulging secondaries, typical of immature Imperial Eagle, can be seen very well, as well as the pale markings on the under- and upperwing.  The ‘jizz’ was slightly different to Greater Spotted, too.  A useful lesson for me (I have only ever seen one Eastern Imperial Eagle before).

Immature Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ma Chang.
Immature Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ma Chang.
Imperial Eagle (upperparts).
Eastern Imperial Eagle (upperparts).

Unfortunately the BOOTED EAGLE didn’t return but maybe it will linger in the area.. it’s a fabulous Beijing record with only a handful of previous sightings in eastern China.  It also represented my 300th species in Beijing [NB Stop Press: Booted Eagle seen at Miyun Reservoir on Saturday by Jan-Erik Nilsen – the same bird?]  It’s hard for me to see new birds in the capital now, so to see two new species in one day was pretty special..

The infamous NW Wild Duck Lake wind suddenly got up at around 1130 and Jesper and his clients decided to head off to check Yeyahu NR.  We decided to stay and enjoy the Baer’s Pochards a little longer.  We gave it another hour or so before calling it a day and heading back to Beijing..  another cracking day at this world class site.

Full Species List (71 species):

Common Pheasant – 2
Swan Goose – 14
Bean Goose – 12
Ruddy Shelduck – 36
Gadwall – 30
Falcated Duck – 100+
Eurasian Wigeon – 10
Mallard – 32
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Shoveler – 12
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 2
Eurasian Teal – 87
Common Pochard – 78
Baer’s Pochard – 2 drakes
Ferruginous Duck – 18
Tufted Duck – 15
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 20
Goosander – 2
Red-breasted Merganser – 2
Little Grebe – 13
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 2
Grey Heron – 8
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant -
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Osprey – 3
Black-eared Kite – 3
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
(Common) Eastern Buzzard – 2
Eastern Imperial Eagle – 1 immature
Booted Eagle – 1
Coot – 39
Common Crane – 70+
Black-winged Stilt – 14
Grey-headed Lapwing – 3
Northern Lapwing – 48
Little Ringed Plover – 18
Kentish Plover – 35
Oriental Plover – 62
Common Gull – 4
Mongolian Gull – 7
Black-headed Gull – 27
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Collared Dove – 2
Fork-tailed Swift – 3
Common Kingfisher – 1
Hoopoe – 10
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 2
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – c85
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 2
Bohemian Waxwing – 11
Barn Swallow – 3
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Greater Short-toed Lark – 110
Asian Short-toed Lark – 2
Eurasian Skylark – 2
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 12 (11 leucopsis, 2 ocularis)
Buff-bellied Pipit – 18
Water Pipit – 6
Pallas’s Bunting – 12

Baer’s Pochard at Ma Chang

An adult drake BAER'S POCHARD at Ma Chang.  A welcome sighting of this now Critically Endangered species.
An adult drake BAER’S POCHARD at Ma Chang. A welcome sighting of this now Critically Endangered species.

On Sunday I visited Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake.  April and May are superb months to visit this special Beijing site.  With migration in full swing, it’s fascinating to see the departure of the winter visitors, the arrival of summer visitors and the passage of migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north…  Already many of the winter birds have departed – I didn’t see a single crane of any species on Sunday – but many others are just beginning to arrive. Oriental Plovers – a Ma Chang speciality – are coming through in good numbers now and it’s a great time, too, for wildfowl and some of the early raptors.

The excitement of my visit on Sunday was heightened by the news that a BAER’S POCHARD was found on Friday by local birders Zhu Lei and Zhang Shen (thanks guys!).  This bird is classified as “Critically Endangered” and, I understand, a survey of its traditional wintering grounds in China produced fewer than 50 birds this winter.  Look out for a forthcoming article in Birding Asia about the dramatic decline of this species.

On arrival I was delighted to see some ORIENTAL PLOVERS on site.  I counted 14 and, after watching them briefly, I made my way to the first site for checking duck.  Viewing wildfowl is not straightforward at Ma Chang; there are many areas that are not viewable and the precise location of the birds depends on many factors, such as the wind direction and speed and the activity on the lake of the local fishermen.  I have two favourite locations – one at the spit by some yurts (also a good place for visible migration) and one on the ‘island’ to the north.  On Sunday, both sites were notably empty of duck.  I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be my day and that the duck must be hiding somewhere out of sight.  Then I saw a small flock of Tufted Duck (not a common bird in Beijing) fly in and go down behind some reeds.  I could see that there was a track that ran close by, so I made my way to the general area and found a good place to view the duck.

Unusually, there was no northwesterly wind blowing into my face, so the conditions were good.  I soon realised that it wasn’t just the Tufted Duck present.  There were some Ferruginous Duck (a species with which BAER’S POCHARD often associates), Shoveler, Common Pochard, Smew, Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Wigeon and Mallard all present.  A careful scan revealed no sign of the Baer’s but I knew there were some duck asleep in the reeds, including some Ferruginous Duck and some others that were obscured..  I settled in, hoping that one of the sleeping duck out of sight might be the Baer’s.

After 45 minutes of enjoyable birding, including a nice flock of passing Swan Geese, a small passage of Buff-bellied Pipits and an early male Citrine Wagtail, I began another scan and, sure enough, in amongst the Ferruginous Duck was a stunning drake BAER’S POCHARD.

I watched the BAER’S for the next hour as it proceeded to display. Unfortunately there were no female BAER’S but that didn’t seem to matter..  this lonely male threw its head back, stretched its neck high and bowed to several female Ferruginous Ducks and a slightly startled-looking female Common Pochard… I guess when your situation is as desperate as the Baer’s Pochard, you can’t afford to be fussy!

The drake BAER'S POCHARD (left) with Falcated Duck, Coot, Gadwall and Tufted Duck
The drake BAER’S POCHARD (left) with Falcated Duck, Coot, Gadwall and Tufted Duck

It was heartening to see this bird but, at the same time, sobering to think that it is likely to make its way north alone and, when it arrives at its favoured lake, there may be no females with which to breed.  The situation for this bird is precarious.  Encouragingly I have heard of two separate sightings from Liaoning Province in the last few days – one male and one female.  Let’s hope it’s a good breeding season for this species.

After an hour or so, I reluctantly pulled myself away to explore the rest of Ma Chang.  The Oriental Plover flock had increased to an astonishing 55 birds, with 4-5 adult males sporting gleaming white heads.

Oriental Plover (male), Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover (male), Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.
Oriental Plover, Ma Chang.

Flocks of Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers were mixed in, many of which were displaying and calling frequently.

Little Ringed Plover, Ma Chang
Little Ringed Plover, Ma Chang
Kentish Plover, Ma Chang
Kentish Plover, Ma Chang

At one point, as I was watching the flock, all of the birds suddenly took flight.  I suspected a raptor and, sure enough, a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a superb male LESSER KESTREL..  wow!  A nice way to end a brilliant birding session at Ma Chang.

Lesser Kestrel (male), Ma Chang.
Lesser Kestrel (male), Ma Chang.

Full Species List (62 species):

Japanese Quail – 2
Common Pheasant – 12
Swan Goose – 28
Bean Goose – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 42
Gadwall – 78
Falcated Duck – 225
Eurasian Wigeon – 19
Mallard – 67
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Northern Shoveler – 4
Eurasian Teal – 18
Common Pochard – 12
BAER’S POCHARD – 1 drake displaying to both female Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard. Employed three ‘displays’ – one involved stretching the neck high, the second throwing the head back and the third leaning the head forward and ‘puffing up’ the back of the neck.
Ferruginous Duck – 17
Tufted Duck – 7
Goldeneye – 5
Smew – 12
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 1 booming
Grey Heron – 7
Great Cormorant – 1
LESSER KESTREL – 1 male drifted northwest with occasional hovering spells (flushed the Oriental Plovers at one point)
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male and two adult females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Common Coot – 32
Black-winged Stilt – 16
Northern Lapwing – 63
Little Ringed Plover – 14
Kentish Plover – 33
Oriental Plover – 55 – the number seemed to increase as the day wore on with just 14 present early morning. Some disturbance from bird photographers and horses but they were not unduly perturbed.
Common Snipe – 1
Common Gull – 11
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults flew high west calling
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 3
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 10
Corvid sp – 15
Carrion Crow – 3
Bohemian Waxwing – 4 flew south
Asian Short-toed Lark – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 5
Daurian Redstart – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Citrine Wagtail – one male
White Wagtail – 4
Buff-bellied Pipit – 26
Water Pipit – 9
Pallas’s Bunting – 28
Mammals:

Tolai Hare – 1

Siberian Cranes at Yeyahu!

This morning I received an email from An Yi, a Denmark-based birder who has been in Beijing visiting family.  Yi visited Yeyahu NR on Wednesday 27 March and was lucky enough to see some cranes…  but not just any cranes..  she saw 2 SIBERIAN CRANES together with some WHITE-NAPED CRANES.  On top of that, she secured some fantastic images….  With her kind permission, I am reproducing them below.  As far as I know, this is only the 2nd record of SIBERIAN CRANE at Yeyahu NR and the 4th in Beijing (following one at Yeyahu NR in March 2008,  between 1 and 8 at Miyun in March/April 2012 and one at Miyun in March 2013).  Congratulations to Yi and many thanks for allowing me to reproduce the images here.  A fantastic record.

Siberian Cranes (Grus leucogenarus), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
Siberian Cranes (Leucogenarus leucogenarus), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013.  The bird on the right is an immature.
Siberian Crane with White-naped Crane, Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
Siberian Crane (Leucogenarus leucogenarus), right, with White-naped Crane (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013
White-naped Cranes (Grus vipio), Yeyahu NR, 27 March 2013

Horned Larks

The cold winter (it’s forecast to get down to -26 degrees C in Beijing on Christmas Eve), combined with the above average snowfall, has meant that many birds that are usually scarce winter visitors to the capital, are here in greater numbers.  The Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is a good example.  These pretty birds are one of the most widespread of larks, breeding across much of North America, northernmost Europe and Asia and in the mountains of southeast Europe.  There is even an isolated population on a plateau in Colombia.  In summer the breeding males have tufts of feathers on each side of the head that resemble small ‘horns’ which gives rise to the English name.

There are two subspecies of Horned Lark on the Beijing list.  The most common is the ssp brandti.  According to Birds of the Western Palearctic (Vol 5) the distribution of brandti is ‘steppes of lower Volga river and northern Transcaspia, E through plains of Kazakhstan to N Mongolia and W Manchuria; Altai, Tarbagatay, and E Tian Shan’; it is a ‘partial migrant. Flocks regularly occur S of breeding range in winter (e.g.  in Turkmeniya, Mongolia, N China)’.

The ssp brandti is striking due to its white face and complete lack of yellow markings.

Horned Lark (ssp brandti), Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012
Horned Lark (ssp brandti), Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012.  Note the lack of yellow on the face and the warm flanks.
Horned Lark ssp brandti.  Note the lack of yellow on the face.
Horned Lark ssp brandti (with Asian Short-toed Lark in the background). Sporting whitish ‘horns’.
Horned Lark ssp brandti.
Horned Lark ssp brandti.

Prior to Tuesday, all of the HORNED LARKS reported in Beijing this winter were of the ssp brandti.  However, on Tuesday morning, Jesper Hornskov and I made a visit to Wild Duck Lake and, to our delight, we not only encountered several brandti HORNED LARKS but also four stunning yellow-faced birds.  These are the less common ssp flava which breed much further north (across northern Europe, northern Asia, east to Chukotka).  They showed spectacularly well, allowing us to capture some good images.  Compare the brandti birds above with the flava below.

Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012
Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012
Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012.
Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012.
Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012.
Horned Lark ssp flava, Wild Duck Lake, 18 December 2012.

With a supporting cast of 10 Mongolian Larks, a handful of Eurasian Skylarks, 30+ Asian Short-toed Larks, over 900 Lapland Buntings, a single White-tailed Eagle, Upland and Rough-legged Buzzards and 2 Hen Harriers, it was a good day to be out, despite the -13 temperatures!  Thanks to Jesper for the information from BWP included in this post.

“****! That looked like a BAER’S POCHARD!!!”

With apologies to my mum, that’s exactly what went through my head as I scanned a group of diving duck at Wild Duck Lake on Wednesday morning and came across a bird with a green-tinged head and pale flanks…  It immediately turned away so that I could only see it’s backside and there were agonising seconds of self-doubt before it turned side-on again to show me that it was, without a doubt, most definitely, a drake BAER’S POCHARD….  Wow.

Wednesday morning started off badly.  For more than half an hour I was stuck in traffic on the G6 caused by broken down lorries that failed to make the steep ascent over the Badaling Great Wall pass, meaning that I arrived at Ma Chang around 0645, about half an hour after dawn.  Already, many bird photographers were driving around in 4x4s searching for something to photograph..  and there were no birds on the ‘desert area’.  As usual, I went to the more isolated western end of the track, near a ‘spit’ of land on which several fishermen’s ‘tents’ or yurts are situated in the summer months.  I set up my telescope here and began to watch.  Visible migration was relatively slow with just Buff-bellied and a few Water Pipits accompanied by some Little Buntings and a few Skylarks.  An immature male Hen Harrier and a Saker both came through in the first half an hour (the latter with prey).  Initially, there were no duck to be seen but, later on, a large mixed flock flew in, presumably flushed by fishermen.  They settled some distance away but were viewable with a telescope from my position.  I began to scan through them and there were almost 300 Mallard, 82 Gadwall and 79 Spot-billed Duck dabbling against the far reedbed.  A little closer, in a line, was a large group of diving duck.  In this flock was a good number of Ferruginous Duck and, as I began to count them, I stumbled across a diving duck with pale flanks and a greenish tinge to the head.. However, just as I got onto it, it turned away.  I immediately thought ” ****!  That looked like a Baer’s Pochard”…  At this point I lost count of the Ferruginous Duck..  I watched the BAER’S POCHARD for a couple of minutes as it fed – with short dives – amongst the Ferruginous Ducks.  I then remembered that I was counting Ferruginous Ducks and, being someone who likes to finish what they have started, I began to count them again..  I got to about 12 before I saw the BAER’S POCHARD again..  and after lingering a few seconds, continued with the count.. I was working from left to right and, as I approached the far right of the flock, I saw a drake BAER’S POCHARD.  Thinking that it must have been the same one that had simply moved across unseen, I scanned back to the original position and, to my amazement, the original bird was still there!  So there were two drake BAER’S..!!  Gulp..

The second BAER’S was the last viewable bird in the flock – the rest were behind the reeds.  I realised that the angle from which I was observing the birds wasn’t great and that if I moved a little further west along the spit, I would be able to see more of the flock.  I moved the car and, sitting on the back seat with the back door open, I was able to use it as a wind break to help minimise wind shake.  Again, I went through the flock, this time a little closer and with much less wind shake.  I counted 38 Ferruginous Ducks, 18 Common Pochard, 3 Smew and an incredible 4 BAER’S POCHARD (the same two males, the latter of which enjoyed the company of two females).  This total is a minimum as there were still more birds in the flock that were not viewable..   I sent SMSs to a few people before settling down and just enjoying observing these birds..  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph with my 400mm lens.  The picture below was taken with my 400mm lens to illustrate just how distant they were.

On 17 October 2012, there were at least 4 Baer’s Pochards here (beyond the 3rd set of nets)!

My telescope was on 40-50x during the observation but the light was excellent, with the sun directly behind me.

The BAER’S POCHARD is in a perilous state.  It’s status was recently amended to “Critically Endangered” reflecting the dramatic decline of this species.  In a worrying sign, the surveys by Chinese ornithologists on some of its traditional wintering grounds yielded no birds in winter 2011/12.  This is an extract from an internet posting by Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu and Tony Fox:

“a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before.”

I also understand that a (partial) summer survey of its traditional breeding ground this year resulted in no confirmed sightings at all.  Amongst all this gloom, one positive development has been the discovery of two breeding sites, both holding very few pairs, a long way south of the known traditional breeding range.  Whether these birds represent a previously undiscovered population or whether breeding at these sites reflects an adaptation strategy to the deterioration of their preferred habitat further north is a question to which I don’t know the answer…  Whatever, it is clear that this bird is in serious trouble.  I hope to write something more in-depth on the plight of the Baer’s Pochard very soon.  Watch this space.

PS.  The four-letter word I used was “Gosh”.. :)
Full species list below.

Common Pheasant – 8
Bean Goose – 7
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 82 @ Ma Chang plus 16 @ Yeyahu
Mallard – 280
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 88
Eurasian Teal – 12
Common Pochard – 18
BAER’S POCHARD – 4 (two males, two females)
Ferruginous Duck – 39 (38 @ Ma Chang plus 1 @ Yeyahu) – possibly a record Beijing count.
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 5 (2 @ Ma Chang, 3 @ Yeyahu)
Goosander – 3
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 6
Black Stork – 2 over Yeyahu
Grey Heron – 1
Great Cormorant – 1
Common Kestrel – 1
Saker – 2
Hen Harrier – 2 (one imm male and one first winter)
Northern Goshawk – 2
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Coot – 76
Common Crane – 15
Northern Lapwing – 1
Snipe sp (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) – 1
Spotted Redshank – 2
Black-headed Gull – 93
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 7
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 431
Carrion Crow – 1
Corvid sp (Rook/Carrion/Long-billed Crow) – 28
Great Tit – 1
Marsh Tit – 2
Skylark – 8
Chinese Hill Babbler – 2
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 6
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1
Daurian Redstart – 1
Tree Sparrow – lots
Buff-bellied Pipit – 44
Water Pipit – 4
Brambling – 14
Oriental Greenfinch – 1
Pine Bunting – 3
Little Bunting – 21
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 8

Bull-headed Shrike!

Yesterday I accompanied visiting British birder John Gerson and Dutch birder Ben Wielstra to Wild Duck Lake.  We started at Ma Chang where we were lucky enough to find 2 Oriental Plovers, 5 Greater Sand Plovers and a Mongolian Lark before the Genghis Khan wannabees began to gallop all over the area.  A flyover Merlin was a nice bonus.

Greater Sand Plover, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. This bird showed a hint of a black border to the upper breast band, a feature more associated with Lesser Sand Plover, but structurally (especially the bill shape) it fitted Greater. Also, I believe the rusty markings on the mantle/scapulars are a good feature of Greater.
Oriental Plover (presumed female), Ma Chang, 27 April 2012

After enjoying these birds we moved to the edge of the reservoir and, alongside the track, we enjoyed spectacular views of Citrine and ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Buff-belled Pipits and Pallas’s Buntings.  One of the ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wags looked to me like it might have been of the ssp tschutschensis.  What do you think?

Citrine Wagtail, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. Males of this species are simply stunning.
'Eastern' Yellow Wagtail... is this of the ssp tschutschensis? I really need to invest in that "Pipits and Wagtails" book!

Fly-by Pied Harriers and Oriental Pratincoles were nice additions to our day list before we headed to the ‘island’ to check out the wildfowl that was sheltering from the increasingly strong wind.  Keeping the telescope steady was a challenge but, with perseverance, we made out some Falcated Duck bobbing up and down.

Some passing Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts, a group of 5 Spoonbills (probably Eurasian) and our first Purple Heron added to our tally before we headed off to Yeyahu, as much to find a little shelter from the dust clouds than anything else!

At Yeyahu we were treated to sensational views of Eastern Marsh Harrier and enjoyed prolonged views of a Greater Spotted Eagle as it hung in the air over the southern boundary of the reserve.  A Black-eared Kite flushed the heron-infested reedbed in the south-west corner to reveal at least 17 Purple Herons with a sprinkling of Greys mixed in.  A lunch stop here also produced a Chinese Penduline Tit (heard only), Zitting Cisticola and a few Siberian Stonechats as well as a now almost expected Short-toed Eagle hunting over the scrubby area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.

Perhaps the star bird of the day revealed itself on the walk down to the observation tower at Yeyahu.  As we walked the sheltered side of the treeline we encountered a large flock of Little Buntings – at least 70 birds – and, as were checking them for any other buntings, we caught sight of a larger bird flit ahead of us and land in a dense thicket.  After a little maneovering, we were able to see it was a shrike and, a very striking one at that.  It sported a beautifully rich orange cap and showed a dark grey tail without any rufous at all.  It also showed some nice scaling on the breast.  It could only be one species – Bull-headed Shrike.  This was a new bird for John and Ben and also my first record of this species in Beijing (I have seen it in Liaoning, at Laotieshan, and also at Rudong, near Shanghai).  We enjoyed prolonged, if partly obscured views, and I was able to capture a couple of record images before we left it to resume its presumed hunting of the Little Buntings..  Very nice!

Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012
Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR. It's a mean, lean Little Bunting hunting machine...

Ben recorded this cool video of the shrike using a compact camera through my telescope!

After frustratingly tantalising views of a Chinese Hill Warbler (a bird that Ben, in particular, wanted to see), and contrastingly stunning views of an Osprey, we headed to the small reedy pools to try for Baikal Teal.  Unfortunately they seemed to have moved on but we did see nice groups of Garganey and added Red-crested Pochard to our species list for the day.

Osprey, Yeyahu NR.
Garganey and Eurasian Teal, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012

Big thanks to John and Ben for their excellent company throughout the day.  It was a lot of fun to be in the field with these guys.

A humourous interlude at the end was provided by one of the reserve staff who was rounding up domesticated ducks using his motorcyle.  He was soon joined by another local on his bicycle and, after a few mishaps that saw a few stragglers make a break for it across the next field, they eventually managed to herd them all onto a freshly dug lake…

Rounding up ducks.. with a motorbike.
It's not often one's progress is held up by crossing ducks!

Full species list (not including domestic duck):
Common Pheasant – 7

Bean Goose – 6
Common Shelduck – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 23
Mandarin – 3
Gadwall – 18
Falcated Duck – 4
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 14
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 16
Shoveler – 2
Pintail – 4
Garganey – 11
Eurasian Teal – 16
Red-crested Pochard – 2
Common Pochard – 8
Ferruginous Duck – 2
Tufted Duck – 9
Smew – 16
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 16
Spoonbill sp – 6
Eurasian Bittern – 1 seen plus 2-3 heard
Grey Heron – 12
Purple Heron – 19
Great Egret – 2
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Merlin – 1
Hobby – 2 (plus one on the drive home)
Osprey – 2
Black-eared Kite – 4 to 6
Short-toed Eagle – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Pied Harrier – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Greater Spotted Eagle – 1 (poss 2)
Common Moorhen – 1 (heard)
Common Coot – 12
Black-winged Stilt – 47
Lapwing – 14
Little Ringed Plover – 9
Kentish Plover – 6
Greater Sand Plover – 5
Oriental Plover – 2
Common Greenshank – 2
Common Sandpiper – 3
Oriental Pratincole – 19
Black-headed Gull – 69
Common Tern – 12
Little Tern – 2
Oriental Turtle Dove – 2
Eurasian Collared Dove – 4 (from car)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift – 10
Common Swift – 1
Common Kingfisher – 8
Hoopoe – 2
Bull-headed Shrike – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 8
Common Magpie – too many
Rook – 1 (from car)
Large-billed Crow – 1 (from car)
Great Tit – 2
Marsh Tit – 2
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 (heard)
Sand Martin – 3
Barn Swallow – 22
Red-rumped Swallow – 5
Mongolian Lark – 1
Greater Short-toed Lark – 63
Asian Short-toed Lark – 10
Eurasian Skylark – 1
Zitting Cisticola – 3
Chinese Hill Warbler – 1
Vinous-thraoted Parrotbill – c50
White-cheeked Starling – 6
Daurian Redstart – 1
Siberian Stonechat – 7
Tree Sparrow – lots
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 12 (including ssp taivana and tschutschensis)
Citrine Wagtail – 14
White Wagtail – 1
Red-throated Pipit – 1
Buff-bellied Pipit – 28
Water Pipit – 2
Oriental Greenfinch – 1 heard
Little Bunting – c75
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 16