First for Beijing: White Wagtail ssp personata

On Saturday I visited Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang and Yeyahu) with Jesper Hornskov, Hui Ying (James) and his friend ‘Leila’.  We enjoyed another fantastic spring day and recorded some excellent species including 31 Oriental Plovers, single Short-toed and Greater Spotted Eagles and some spectacular views of Baikal Teal.  But the star of the show for me was a White Wagtail of the subspecies ‘personata‘ which spent some time around the yurts to the west of Ma Chang.  As far as I am aware, this is the first record of this subspecies in Beijing and, indeed, anywhere in north-east China.  According to Alstrom and Mild (authors of “Pipits and Wagtails”) the ‘personata’ subspecies breeds in Central Asia from the Russian Altay, Kuznetsk Ala Tau and Western Sayan Mountains, southwest through east &  south Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan Mountains, west Mongolia, northwest and western Xinjiang, parts of northwest Kashmir, north Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is a rare vagrant to Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Bahrain, N Burma & Hong Kong.

White Wagtail ssp personata. The first record of this subspecies in Beijing.

The subspecies of White Wagtail we usually see in Beijing are ‘leucopsis‘ and ‘ocularis‘.  Some recent images of males of these subspecies are below for comparison.

White Wagtail ssp leucopsis (adult male), Beijing, 15 April 2012. Note black back and nape and 'clean' white face.
White Wagtail ssp ocularis (adult male), Beijing, 15 April 2012. Note grey back, black nape and black eyestripe on white face.

As well as the wagtail there were plenty of other birds to enjoy all day: the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks, the small party of Relict Gulls, the Oriental Plovers (which unfortunately flew off strongly north before we saw them on the ground), the fantastic late afternoon display of Baikal Teal (easily my best ever views), the first Oriental Pratincoles of the year,  displaying Eastern Marsh Harriers, the newly arrived Chinese Penduline Tits, the list goes on.  Fantastic birding….

Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Eastern Marsh Harrier (male), Yeyahu, 14 April 2012
Oriental Pratincole, Ma Chang, 14 April 2012
Baikal Teal, Yeyahu. We enjoyed spectacular views of this special duck in the later afternoon sun as they were repeatedly spooked by the patrolling Eastern Marsh Harriers.
Eurasian Spoonbills, Ma Chang, 14 April 2012

A big thanks to Hui Ying, Leila and Jesper for their company – a thoroughly enjoyable day!

Hui Ying (James) and Leila at the viewing tower, Yeyahu.
Leila checking out an Eastern Marsh Harrier, Yeyahu, 14 April 2012

Full species list (courtesy of Jesper):

Common Pheasant  Phasanius colchicus  – nine

Swan Goose  Anser cygnoides  – two

Bewick’s Swan  Cygnus columbianus  – nine

Ruddy Shelduck  Tadorna ferruginea  – 63

Gadwall  Anas strepera  – 200

Falcated Duck  Anas falcate  – 70

Eurasian Wigeon  Anas Penelope  – three

Mallard  Anas platyrhynchos  – 100+

Chinese Spotbill  Anas zonorhyncha  – 13+ 

Northern Shoveler  Anas clypeata  – six

Garganey  Anas querquedula  – one male

Baikal Teal  Anas Formosa  – 85+ (at most 100)

Common Teal  Anas crecca  – 20

Red-crested Pochard  Netta rufina  – one pair

Common Pochard  Aythya ferina  – five

Ferruginous Duck  Aythya nyroca  – two in flight over River at YYH

Tufted Duck  Aythya fuligula  – four

Common Goldeneye  Bucephala clangula  – three

Smew  Mergellus albellus  – 11+

Goosander  Mergus merganser  – six

Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis  – 20+

Great Crested Grebe  Podiceps cristatus  – 38+

Eurasian Spoonbill  Platalea leucorodia  – seven (one strictly speaking a Spoonbill sp, heading off W     determinedly over the the main body of water, and six migr right by us)

Eurasian Bittern  Botaurus stellaris  – 4+

Grey Heron  Ardea cinerea  – one

Purple Heron  Ardea purpurea  – three

Great Egret   Ardea alba  – two

Great Cormorant  Phalacrocorax carbo  – three

Common Kestrel  Falco tinnunculus  – three (incl two on ground in newly ploughed ‘field’)

Osprey  Pandion haliaetus  – one at Machang (& possibly the same again at YYH, carrying a freshly     caught fish & mobbed by two 2nd c-y mongolicus)

Black Kite  Milvus migrans lineatus  – two

Short-toed Eagle  Circaetus gallicus  – one ‘soared up, turned to hover a couple of times, then ->N 15h01

Eastern Marsh Harrier  Circus spilonotus  – 11+

Eurasian Sparrowhawk  Accipiter nisus  – three

Common Buzzard  Buteo buteo japonicus  – 7+ (incl at least one not migr)

Greater Spotted Eagle  Aquila clanga  – one 3rd+ c-y migr at 11h30

***Eagle sp   – one ‘coming down’ 17h15 at YYH (probably Greater Spotted, but Eastern Imp ‘not eliminated’)

Common Coot  Fulica atra  – 90

Black-winged Stilt  Himantopus himantopus  – 40+

Northern Lapwing  Vanellus vanellus – 35+

Little Ringed Plover  Charadrius dubius  – c10

Kentish Plover  Charadrius alexandrinus  – 35+

Oriental Plover  Charadrius veredus  – 31 flew off (of their own volition!) before we found them on the     ground but decent views in flight as they passed @ overhead after a few turns orientating.

Temminck’s Stint  Calidris temminckii  – three

Oriental Pratincole  Glareola maldivarum  – four

‘Yellow-legged’ Gull  Larus (cachinnans) mongolicus – eight (single adult & 3rd c-y, and six 2nd c-y)

Common Black-headed Gull  Larus ridibundus  – 170+

Relict Gull  Larus relictus  – c5 on main body of water ‘disappeared’

Oriental Turtle Dove  Streptopelia orientalis  – one

Eurasian Collared Dove  Streptopelia decaocto  – 6+

Common Kingfisher  Alcedo atthis  – six

Hoopoe  Upupa epops  – one

Great Spotted Woodpecker  Dendrocopos major  – two

Grey-headed Woodpecker  Picus canus  – one

Azure-winged Magpie  Cyanopica cyanus  – ten

Common Magpie  Pica pica  – too many

Carrion Crow  Corvus corone  – one

Large-billed Crow  Corvus macrorhynchos  – one

Eastern Great Tit  Parus minor  – one

Marsh Tit  Parus palustris  – one w/ nest material at YYH

Chinese Penduline Tit  Remiz (pendulinus) consobrinus  – ten

Sand Martin  Riparia riparia  – one at YYH

Barn Swallow  Hirundo rustica  – 20

Greater Short-toed Lark  Calandrella brachydactyla  – 230+

Asian Short-toed Lark  Calandrella cheleensis  – eight

Eurasian Skylark  Alauda arvensis  – ten

Fan-tailed Warbler  Cisticola juncidis  – one heard

Chinese Hill Warbler  Rhopophilus pekinensis  – three at YYH

Vinous-throated Parrotbill  Paradoxornis webbianus  – 30+

White-cheeked Starling  Sturnus cineraceus  – 15

Black-throated Thrush  Turdus atrogularis  – one female-type ‘scoped

Red-throated Thrush  Turdus ruficollis  – 2+ (‘scope views of a yawning, confiding bird)

Naumann’s Thrush  Turdus naumanni   – 4+ en route S of Badaling

Daurian Redstart  Phoenicurus auroreus  – four

Eurasian Tree Sparrow  Passer montanus  – lots

Citrine Wagtail  Motacilla citreola  – one male

White Wagtail  Motacilla alba  – 10+ (incl 2+ ocularis, three baicalensis & one personata – last of     particular interest*: seen repeatedly on ground at Yurts & photographed)

Buff-bellied Pipit  Anthus rubescens japonicus  – 22+

Water Pipit  Anthus spinoletta blakistoni  – 8+

Oriental Greenfinch  Carduelis sinica  – one (+ one en route N of Badaling)

Little Bunting  Emberiza pusilla  – three

Yellow-throated Bunting  Emberiza elegans  – one male

Pallas’s Reed Bunting  Emberiza pallasi  – 55+ (many superb looks…)  

Mammals

Hare sp  – one ‘scoped (should be Tolai Hare but ears looked short, @ length of head only)  


Desert Wheatear

This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear.  It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls and a Mongolian Lark.

Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place.  Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing.  An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight.  The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..

Swan Geese, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds…  Wow!  The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire.  Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see.   I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012. A wonderful bird.

I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west.  It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone.  Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear.  Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record.  I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer.  It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear.  I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record).  But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities)..  and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive.  Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view.   On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert.  Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.

Desert Wheatear (female), Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. Thought to be only the 2nd record of this species in Beijing.
Desert Wheatear, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 5 April 2012. The only other Beijing record I am aware of is of a male at the same site in April 2010.

I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds..  it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!

Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.

Mongolian Lark, Ma Chang, 5 April 2012

After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again..  another first for me in Beijing.

It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be…  These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.

Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.

Grey-headed Lapwings at Yeyahu NR, 5 April 2012.

Full Species List:

Common Pheasant – 3
Swan Goose – 67
Bean Goose – 13
Whooper Swan – 30
Bewick’s Swan – 27
Common Shelduck – 5
Ruddy Shelduck – 38
Gadwall – 10
Falcated Duck – 146
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 290
Spot-billed Duck – 8
Northern Pintail – 21
Garganey – 2
Baikal Teal – 16
Eurasian Teal – 12
Red-crested Pochard – 7
Common Pochard – 1
Ferruginous Duck – 4
Common Goldeneye – 67
Goosander – 44
Little Grebe – 5
Great Crested Grebe – 71
Black Stork – 2
Bittern – 2 (heard booming at 2 different sites)
Grey Heron – 13
Little Egret – 1
Great Cormorant – 75
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1
Black-eared Kite – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3
Hen Harrier – 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Goshawk – 1
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 4
Common Coot – 38
Common Crane – 6
Black-winged Stilt – 15
Pied Avocet – 2 at Ma Chang; my first record of this species at Wild Duck Lake
Grey-headed Lapwing – 5
Northern Lapwing – 18
Little Ringed Plover – 21
Kentish Plover – 8
Oriental Plover – at least 19 (another flock of 10+ plovers in flight could have been this species)
Mongolian Gull – 31 at Yeyahu, including 3 immatures
Relict Gull - 12
Black-headed Gull – 88
Oriental Turtle Dove – 1
Eurasian Collared Dove – 3
Common Swift – 1
Fork-tailed Swift – 32
Hoopoe – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 1
Common Magpie – too many
Daurian Jackdaw – 26
Rook – 2
Carrion Crow – 4
Great Tit – 4
Barn Swallow – 11
Red-rumped Swallow – 1
Mongolian Lark - 1; within a few metres of the Desert Wheatear
Asian Short-toed Lark – 28
Eurasian Skylark – 18
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 8
Red-billed Starling – 1; my first record at Wild Duck Lake; flew in from the east, rested briefly on the island to the north of Ma Chang and then continued West.
White-cheeked Starling – 2
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Red-flanked Bluetail – 2
Daurian Redstart – 2
Desert Wheatear – 1 (fem); very confiding until spooked by a Merlin and then flew high west and lost to view.  Had not returned an hour later when I re-scanned.
Tree Sparrow – lots
White Wagtail – 22
Buff-bellied Pipit – 12
Oriental Greenfinch – 4
Godlewski’s Bunting – 1
Little Bunting – 2
Yellow-throated Bunting – 1
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 18 (some males now coming into breeding plumage)

Oriental Plover and Pallas’s Gulls

This weekend has been something of a bonanza for me in Beijing.  The weather had been very windy on Friday which cleared away all the smog and set up the weekend to be sunny, clear and (on Sunday at least) warm.  I had planned to visit Wild Duck Lake for the first time in a while and was looking forward to seeing the cranes and anything else that might be about.  In the back of my mind I knew that it was the beginning of the Oriental Plover season in Beijing and so I hoped, with a bit of luck, I might see one.  I did, which was special in itself, but the day, and the weekend, just got better and better.  I will limit this post to Saturday’s events and then follow up with another one about today (Sunday).

I hired a car for the weekend with Avis and set off early saturday morning to be at Wild Duck Lake around dawn.  I went to Ma Chang first as, later in the day, this area is disturbed by horse-riders and motorised buggies, so if an Oriental Plover does happen to drop in, it probably won’t stay there for long.  Along the entrance track I could see a huge flock of cranes, so I stopped to scan them with the telescope.  Soon I picked up a single Hooded Crane in the group but despite searching through over a thousand Common Cranes, there were no other species there..  I had expected a few White-naped, having seen over 250 at Miyun last week, but I didn’t see a single one all day.  This was all the more surprising when I received a SMS from Jan-erik Nilsen (who was at Miyun) to say that he had counted over 900 White-naped Cranes!  Incredible.. That count easily smashes the highest known count in Beijing of 500 and eclipses the count of 256 by Paul Holt and me last week.  There must be something about Miyun that attracts White-napes…

Common Cranes at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 24 March 2012

 

Common Cranes against the mountains north of Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

I moved on from the cranes and scanned the ‘desert’ area, the usual favoured place for Oriental Plover, but turned up a blank.  I then walked to the lake edge and scanned the wildfowl.  There were lots of duck, geese and swans but, frustratingly, they were very distant.  Most of the ice had melted but there remained a few patches on the reservoir. Of course, of all the large areas of open water, the birds had chosen the one most difficult to view!  Nevertheless, I counted 217 Swan Geese (a very good count), 224 Whooper Swans, 128 Ruddy Shelduck and good numbers of diving duck, including 83 Common Pochard.

The only real visible migration consisted of some corvids, including only my second record of Rook at Wild Duck Lake, and larks (mostly Skylarks).

I walked back to the car across the desert area just as the budding horsemen and women were starting to gallop around..  suddenly, I spotted what looked like a largish plover..  it had to be!  And yes, it was one – an Oriental Plover!  With patience and care, and despite being disturbed by curious horseriders a couple of times, I was able to get reasonably close to take a few photographs of this special bird.

Oriental Plover, Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

Oriental Plover.. a stunner.
Oriental Plover after being disturbed by a horserider.. It was not seen in the afternoon by some Beijing birders who looked for it.. the disturbance at this site after early morning is too much for most birds to take.

I spent around an hour with the bird, watching it feed and, occasionally, interact with some nearby Lapwings.  The wind was still gusty and, at times, it crouched down to shelter from the dust blowing across Ma Chang.  Some of the horseriders felt the full force!

A dust storm at Ma Chang..

 

It was late morning when I decided to head off to Yeyahu and, instead of walking as I usually do, I took the hire car and drove to the reserve.  Here I walked around the southern perimeter for the first time and, when I reached the far end of the lake, I scanned the group of large gulls that was assembled in the middle of the water.  Large gulls are scarce at Wild Duck Lake for most of the year, so I was interested to see which species were involved.  Mongolian Gull is by far the most common large gull on passage as they migrate from their coastal wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in Mongolia and Russia.  Sure enough, the vast majority were Mongolian Gulls and I counted 85 adults and 2 immatures.  The scan through the flock also revealed two interlopers – stunning breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls!  Wow..  Pallas’s Gull was a bird I was hoping to see when I moved to China and I saw my first at Jinzhou Bay in Dalian last winter..  but that bird was in winter plumage.   These two beauties were something else.. Most of the time they sat on the water about as far away from any viewing point as was possible. But occasionally they would take off, do a circuit of the lake, and then land again..  it was during these flights that it was possible to gain some pretty special views..

Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012
Pallas's Gull, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012.. surely the King of Gulls...!

 

It was cool to watch one of the birds as it circled with the Great Wall in the background!

Pallas's Gull with the Great Wall in the background, Yeyahu, Beijing, 24 March 2012

 

The walk down to the reservoir viewing tower was uneventful and did not produce any unusual raptors..  however, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and (Eastern) Buzzard were all appreciated.  I returned to the lake to see the gulls again and I enjoyed these birds for my last half an hour on site before I began the drive back home, elated.

What a day!  Little did I know what I was to find the following day….

 

Bustards at dawn

The highlight of a few hours at Wild Duck Lake this morning was a sighting of four Great Bustards, the world’s heaviest flying bird.  I captured this image of two of the group flying into the rising sun at about 0745.

Great Bustards, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012. If you squint, you can see one of the towers of the Great Wall on the far ridge...!

It was a bitter -12 at dawn with a light to moderate westerly wind making it feel even colder.  I counted over 350 Common Cranes roosting on the ice and, when they flew, most had retracted legs, making their appearance not unlike a large goose or a bustard.  The big surprise was that I didn’t see a single goose of any description all day.  Where have the Bean Geese gone?

The freezing temperatures and wind had created some unusual ice sculptures on the reservoir…

Ice sculpted by the wind at Wild Duck Lake
Another ice sculpture.. crazy shapes!

A few Whooper Swans were roaming around in between periods lazing on the ice.   This group looks like a family flock – 2 adults and 2 young birds.

Whooper Swans at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012

A Chinese Grey Shrike sat on a post overlooking a large reedbed and called constantly for about 2-3 minutes.  You can hear it here:

Chinese Grey Shrike, WDL, 21 Jan 2012

Full species list:

 

Common Pheasant – 6
Whooper Swan – 18
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Mallard – 35
Kestrel – 1
Hen Harrier – 3 (1 imm male and 2 ‘ringtails’)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 (adult male)
Goshawk – 1
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 4
Common Crane – 355
Collared Dove – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Common Magpie – 34
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 1
Eurasian Skylark – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Siberian Accentor – 1
Pine Bunting – 2
Pallas’s Bunting – 40+

 

Wild Duck Lake, 17 December 2011

After a few busy work weeks, it was cool (in -11 temperatures, coolness is assured) to get out to Wild Duck Lake on Saturday to see what the cold weather had brought in since my previous visit in late November.  And it was even cooler to be in the company of Paul Holt, one of the world’s finest birders.. (I am constantly astounded by Paul’s super-human hearing – there are calls that he hears, geolocates and identifies before I have even registered a sound…  and I would have certainly missed several species had he not been there).

On this occasion I hired a car for the weekend and so, early Saturday morning,  I picked up Paul from near his home in south-east Beijing and we headed north-west to Wild Duck Lake.  The traffic was unusually light so we arrived on site around 0715, just as the sun rose.  Paul’s trusty thermometer told us that it was -11 degrees C but with a biting westerly wind, it felt colder.  I was relieved that Paul had brought along his super-sized thermos for coffee and noodles..

We checked thoroughly the area at Ma Chang, including the ‘island’ to the north, where we enjoyed a close encounter with a very confiding Chinese Grey Shrike.  As we were in the car the shrike seemed oblivious to our presence, and it posed beautifully for Paul to grab the images below with my camera out of the passenger window…  Superb shots, Paul!

Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 December 2011 (image by Paul Holt)
Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 December 2011 (Paul Holt)

At the island, the angle made viewing difficult so we decided to venture onto the ice to gain a better position from which to check the swans and duck.  I am always nervous about walking on ice and, with various creaks and groans coming from underneath our feet, my experience on Saturday did nothing to improve my confidence..!  We could see the ice was at least a foot thick but, even so, I didn’t feel comfortable..  that was until we later saw a fisherman WITH HIS CAR on the ice…  It was then that I had to admit that I was a wimp… :)

After checking the wildfowl and finding a single White-fronted in the Bean Goose flock, we enjoyed a very welcome pot noodle.  To me, this was one of the most delicious meals imaginable after a few hours out in freezing temperatures..  I temporarily took off my gloves to eat and, despite holding a lovely warm tub of noodles, my hands were hurting with the cold..  and I knew it was still well below freezing when the condensation from the steam on the lid of my pot noodle froze solid..!  Wild Duck Lake is quite a bit higher than Beijing – at about 580 metres (Beijing is only around 80 metres above sea-level) – so it was noticeably colder than in the city centre.

We drove to Yeyahu, entering via the ‘secret passageway’, and covered the area down to ‘eagle field’.  No sign of any Black Bitterns this time or anything else outrageous..  but we did see a few wintering Chinese Penduline Tits, more Pallas’s Reed Buntings (common in winter), a Common Reed Bunting (anything but common at Wild Duck Lake), a couple of Hen Harriers, an Upland Buzzard and a very large and active flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills..  these birds have bags of character and roam the reedbeds in tight flocks, chattering away as they go.

After marvelling at the constitution of the local ice fishermen on the reservoir, we headed back to the car for the journey back to Beijing, enjoying a pre-roost movement of well over 100 Common Magpies..

Thanks to Paul for his company on a ‘bracing’ day out…

Ice Fishing at Wild Duck Lake: digging the hole
Ice Fishing at Wild Duck Lake.. a popular activity! Note the car....
No gloves! These guys are hardy souls...

Full species list:

Common Pheasant – 20
Bean Goose – 610 roosting and preening on the ice
Greater White-fronted Goose – at least one (adult) with the Bean Geese flock
Whooper Swan – 27
Ruddy Shelduck – 2 in flight
Mallard – 150
Baikal Teal – 6 in flight with Mallard flock
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Hen Harrier – 4 (3 ringtails and one sub-adult male)
Goshawk – 1 smart adult male hunting at Ma Chang
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 1
Upland Buzzard – 2 (1 juvenile and one older bird)
Common Crane – 120
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 13
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1 heard
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 4 (including one very confiding individual at Ma Chang)
Common Magpie – 200+.  Not many seen during the day but an impressive late afternoon pre-roost movement of at least 100 birds
Great Tit – 9
Chinese Penduline Tit – 4 (3 at Yeyahu and one heard at Ma Chang)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 40 in one flock
Eurasian Skylark – 35 (incl a flock of 25 at Yeyahu)
Chinese Hill Babbler – 3
Chinese/Light-vented Bulbul – 8
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 130 at Yeyahu
White-cheeked Starling – 12
Dusky/Naumann’s Thrush – 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – lots
Water Pipit – 1 heard at Ma Chang
Pine Bunting – 8, all flyovers
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – at least 95.  Common.
Common Reed Bunting – 1 in the reedbed at Yeyahu with Great Tits.

Wild Duck Lake with Phil and Jesper, 25 November 2011

In between leading tours to see Giant Panda in the wild in China (successful) and Tiger in India (fingers crossed), Sweden-based Phil Benstead dropped in on Beijing.  Phil is a good friend from my time in Copenhagen: we hooked up for a few birding trips in 2009 and 2010, including around Phil’s local patch in Båstad Kommune, Falsterbo in Skåne and the island of Oland.

Phil arrived on Thursday with the Townshend household in something of a crisis.  We were supposed to be cooking a turkey for 9, including two American friends, for Thanksgiving and Libby, who had planned to take the afternoon off work to prepare, was stuck at work…  I was frantically looking on the internet, in between work conference calls to London – to discover precisely how long a 9kg turkey – at that time defrosting in the laundry room – would take to cook….  Phil stepped in magnificently and, after peeling and chopping I don’t know how many potatoes, carrots and green beans, he had certainly earned his supper by the time guests arrived for the 7pm start…  And boy was that turkey good…  (after months of Chinese food, you can’t imagine how good a roast turkey with all the trimmings tasted…!).

After following this blog since I moved to China, Phil wanted to visit my regular patch at Wild Duck Lake and so I had hired a car and we had arranged to leave at 0530 the following morning (tough after a post-midnight dinner party).  We picked up Jesper Hornskov at 0600 and, after some all-too-common traffic issues on the G6 Badaling Expressway (broken down lorries), we arrived at Ma Chang around 0745, around 30 minutes after first light.

The first thing that struck me was that the reservoir was almost completely frozen over.  The weather had turned cold mid-week and it had taken just a couple of cold nights for the water to freeze.  After giving it some time at the spit by the yurts, we checked the island to the north of the ‘desert’ area, lucking in on 2 Daurian Partridges (my first of the winter) on the way, and enjoyed a flock of several hundred Ruddy Shelduck and a rather late Ferruginous Duck.  A couple of inquisitive Chinese Hill Warblers was a bonus.  A very showy Baikal Teal looked a bit lost walking on the ice in a frozen dyke and we enjoyed a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes hunting over the grassland.  After combing the area for larks – we counted a few Eurasian Skylark and up to 12 Asian Short-toed Larks  plus a bonus Japanese Reed Bunting – we made our way to Yeyahu.  Officially, Yeyahu closed last week but we were able to use the ‘secret entrance’ to gain entry and it was here that we heard (but sadly for Phil didn’t see) a Chinese Penduline Tit,  a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Great Egret.  However, the most exciting sighting of the day was a very uniformly dark medium-sized bittern that flew from the west to east end of the lake.  It was clearly smaller than Eurasian Bittern but larger than Yellow Bittern.  Initially against the light it looked uniformly very dark with longish legs and big feet.  As it flew into better light, it still looked uniformly very dark..  Phil managed to view it through his telescope and saw a pale line below and behind the eye, beginning at the base of the bill…  There were some pale fringes to the wing coverts, indicating a first winter bird.  It dropped in to a reedbed on the far side of the lake and we hurried over to see if we could see it again..  what could it be?  Little Green Heron (Striated) and Black Bittern (a bird that I have never seen) entered our minds..  Jesper didn’t think it looked right for Little Green Heron – the jizz and colour were wrong and the leg length – with clearly protruding legs – wasn’t right for Little Green.  Could it really be a Black Bittern in Beijing in late November??  That would be a very strange record.  Unfortunately, despite spending some time near to where it went down, we did not see it again.

Edit: After looking at many images on the internet, including Oriental Bird Images, Jesper’s view is that it could only have been a Black Bittern.

After seeing a Common Kingfisher literally die in front of our eyes on the ice at the edge of the lake (it was heartbreaking), we walked down to ‘eagle field’ and, on the way, enjoyed my best ever views of Pine Bunting (two birds) and watched a young Upland Buzzard soaring.  Most pleasing were two Great Bustards flying west along the reservoir.

Several decapitated Common Pheasants were a clear sign of a large predator.. possibly Goshawk but more likely an Eagle Owl…  it’s the same area where I saw an Eagle Owl last winter.

We made our way back to the car and, with Naumann’s Thrush the last bird of the day, we headed back to Beijing for dinner with Jesper and his wife, Aiqin.

Saturday morning I visited the Botanical Gardens with Phil and Nick (a friend and non-birder), where Phil scored a few new birds – Chinese Grosbeak, Pere David’s Laughingthrush and Chinese Nuthatch – before he had to make his way to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi.

It was a great couple of days and we saw some good birds.  Phil was a big hit with our friends – as illustrated by the number of offers he had for accommodation in Beijing when he returns next year to lead a similar panda trip in October – and we wish him all the best for the forthcoming trip to India for tigers..  we can’t wait to hear how he gets on.
Full species list for Wild Duck Lake below:

 

Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR 0745-1600.

 

Temp -5 at 0745 increasing to +2 or +3 by early afternoon; very light N wind increasing to force 2-3 by midday; visibility 2-3km.
Reservoir almost completely frozen with just a few small patches of open water.  Yeyahu completely frozen.

 

Highlights: 1 juv/first winter BLACK BITTERN; 2 Great Bustards, Upland Buzzard, 2 Daurian Partridges, 550+ Bean Geese, 200+ Common Cranes, Japanese Reed Bunting

 

Full species list:

 

Daurian Partridge – 2 at Ma Chang
Common Pheasant – 25
Bean Goose – at least 870, probably more.  Most in flight along the north edge of the reservoir with some on the ice itself
Whooper Swan – 42 on the ice, swimming on the open patches of water and in flight
Ruddy Shelduck – 550 at least, mostly on the ice and on the northern side of the reservoir
Eurasian Wigeon – 3
Mallard – 850
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 12
Baikal Teal – 4-5 seen, including one drake incredibly well in a frozen dyke; probably many more in the distant tight flocks of duck on the patches of open water
Ferruginous Duck – 1 seen from the island north of Ma Chang, possibly with injured wing
Common Goldeneye – 3 seen from Ma Chang but probably many more
Smew – 5-6 seen but probably many more
Goosander – 40 seen
Great Bittern – 3 seen well, including one walking on the open ice
BLACK BITTERN – one juvenile/first winter seen in flight through binoculars for around 30 seconds over the lake at Yeyahu at around 150-200m range.  Initially seen against the light but gradually into better light, this bird was clearly larger than Yellow Bittern but smaller than Great Bittern and uniformly very dark.  Phil managed to see it through the telescope and saw a pale line starting at the base of the bill running back below and behind the eye; streaking below not seen.  Legs were relatively long with large feet.  Slight pale margins seen on the wing coverts, indicating a first winter.  Little Green Heron ruled out on size, colour and leg length; Cinnamon Bittern ruled out on colour and size.
Grey Heron – 1
Great Egret – 1
Kestrel – 1
Merlin – 1 at Ma Chang
Hen Harrier – 3 (two ‘ringtails’ and one imm male)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 1 (Phil only)
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 2 in flight from ‘eagle field’ heading west
Common Crane – 200+
Large White-headed Gull sp – 1 seen by Phil at Ma Chang
Black-headed Gull – 3 at Yeyahu
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Eurasian Collared Dove – 31
Common Kingfisher – 1.  Seen sitting forlornly on the edge of the ice at the base of some reeds.  After a few minutes, its head dropped onto the ice and, after a brief flapping of its wings, it sat motionless and appeared to die – an early victim of the winter.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 2
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Rook – 8
Carrion Crow – 6
Large-billed Crow – 1
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 3
Chinese Penduline Tit  – 1 (heard only)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 13 at Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark – 6
Chinese Hill Warbler – 4, including 2 on the island north of Ma Chang
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 40+
Naumann’s Thrush – 1 ssp naumanni at Yeyahu
Tree Sparrow – many
Pine Bunting – 4, including 2 showing exceptionally well at Yeyahu
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 30+
Japanese Reed Bunting – 1 at Ma Chang.  Flushed from short grass 2-3 times and seen only in flight.  (Very bad) photo attached.
Japanese Reed Bunting, Ma Chang, 25 November 2011: wildlife photograph of the year?
Chinese Grey Shrike hunting at Ma Chang, 25 November 2011

Another First for Beijing!

When Jan-Erik Nilsen contacted me to say he had seen a first winter Glaucous Gull at Yeyahu last Saturday, I knew it was an excellent inland record.  What I didn’t know – before consulting Paul Holt – was that it was a first for Beijing.  Congratulations Jan-Erik!  This record represents the second new gull for Beijing this year, following my first winter Little Gull at the same site in September.

I did not expect the GG to still be there on Friday – the first day I could make it to Wild Duck Lake – but fortunately, after scanning the gulls and duck and just before I decided to walk away, the Gluacous Gull flew in and settled in the middle of the lake.  Fantastic.  A real brute of a gull sporting classic uniformly pale ground colour plumage and the typical pinkish bill with an obvious black tip.  Nice.  There can’t be many images of Glaucous Gulls with poplar trees and a smoking chimney stack in the background!  Yeyahu is never a great site for gulls but it does occasionally pull in the odd unlikely individual.  The most common gull by far is Black-headed but Common Gull, Mongolian Gull, Relict Gull, Brown-headed Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Little Gull and now Glaucous Gull have all been recorded.

First winter Glaucous Gull, Yeyahu Lake, Beijing, 18 November 2011
First winter Glaucous Gull, Yeyahu Lake, Beijing, 18 November 2011

Another highlight was my first Crested Lark in China.  I found this bird along a track that I don’t usually inspect.  It’s a little further west than I usually walk and, subsequently, the site could possibly be in Hebei Province rather than Beijing Municipality.  A close look at Google Earth required..!  In any case, it’s now a quality bird in the Beijing area..  formerly quite common, its numbers have crashed in the last 20 years and it’s now a difficult bird to find.

Crested Lark, Wild Duck Lake, 18 November 2011

Coming third in my list of highlights (usually these would be much higher but there was stiff competition this week!) included two flocks of Baikal Teal totalling 73 birds, including some stunning drakes, and a roost of 3 Long-eared Owls.

Baikal Teal, Yeyahu, Beijing, 18 November 2011
Long-eared Owl, Yeyahu, 18 November 2011
Long-eared Owl, Yeyahu, 18 November 2011. LEOs' camouflage is very effective. If it wasn't for the orange eyes, they would be very difficult to pick up against the branches....

Full species list:

Common Pheasant (18)

Bean Goose (246)

Whooper Swan (12)

Mandarin (1)

Gadwall (72)

Falcated Duck (2)

Wigeon (4)

Mallard (18)

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)

Baikal Teal (67)

Goldeneye (3)

Smew (12)

Goosander (57)

Little Grebe (8)

Grey Heron (8)

Kestrel (2)

Peregrine (1)

Hen Harrier (2)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Common (Eastern) Buzzard (1)

Upland Buzzard (2)

Coot (2)

Common Crane (267)

Common Greenshank (1)

Common Gull (3) – two first winters and one second winter

Glaucous Gull (1) – a first winter, probably for its 7th day (first reported by Jan-Erik Nilson on Saturday 12 November

Mongolian Gull (2) – both first winters

Black-headed Gull (75)

Collared Dove (6)

Long-eared Owl (3) – roosting together at Yeyahu

Great Spotted Woodpecker (2)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)

Chinese Grey Shrike (2)

Azure-winged Magpie – 12

Common Magpie – lots

Carrion Crow (5)

Great Tit (3)

Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – both presumed first winters (very pale and washed out)

Asian Short-toed Lark (4)

Crested Lark (1) – along the track west of Ma Chang

Eurasian Skylark (8)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40)

Tree Sparrow – lots

Siberian Accentor (1)

Pine Bunting (4)

Pallas’s Bunting (46)

Japanese Reed Bunting (1 possible) – not seen well enough to be sure.