Streaked Reed Warbler in Beijing!

The STREAKED REED WARBLER is a bird that is almost certainly in serious trouble.  There are very few recent records from anywhere in the world.  Nobody knows where it breeds, nobody has ever recorded its song and its only known wintering grounds in the Philippines have been “developed” ( I do hate that word!) with no recent sightings.

So it was with great excitement that a sighting was reported in Beijing last week.  After some inquiries, it emerged that it had been seen briefly, but well, on 15 June by an experienced and well-respected local birder at a site near Yanqing (a town about 60km northwest of Beijing).  After obtaining precise site details, I was soon winging my way along the G6 expressway in the company of Paul Holt and Zhao Chao.  Hopes were high – there was a good chance that a bird in mid-June would be holding territory and, potentially, singing…

After an hour and a half we were on site and began to search the abandoned fish pond where the bird had been seen just a couple of days before.

An abandoned fish pond near Yanqing, the site of the STREAKED REED WARBLER sighting on Sunday 15 June 2014.
An abandoned fish pond near Yanqing, the site of the STREAKED REED WARBLER sighting on Sunday 15 June 2014.

We arrived a couple of hours before dusk and planned to stay until dark and, if necessary, stay over in a local hotel and try again the following dawn.

It was a beautiful, still evening and there were several ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS chuntering loudly from the reeds.  We slowly made our way around the pond, carefully trying to filter out the racket from these large acros in the hope of picking out what we expected would be the quieter song of their smaller, rarer cousin.   During the next two hours we heard at least 2 RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES, INDIAN and COMMON CUCKOOS, BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE, BLACK DRONGO, MOORHEN and BROWN SHRIKE but sadly there was no sign of any smaller reed warblers.

A beautiful evening in Yanqing...
A beautiful evening in Yanqing…

Well after dark we headed into town, checked into a local hotel and grabbed some dinner, speculating about our chances the following morning.

At 0415 we were checked out and on our way to the fishpond, full of optimism.  If the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still there, surely it would sing or show early morning…?

On arrival, the RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKES were struggling to be heard above the chorus of the ‘churring’ and ‘chacking’ ORIENTAL REED WARBLERS and, again, we slowly walked around the raised bank that surrounded the reed-filled pond, desperately scanning and listening for anything that might be our target bird.  Time and again a warbler appeared on a reed stem and, after raising our binoculars, without fail it proved to be (another!) ORIENTAL REED WARBLER.

After three hours we finally admitted defeat and decided to head back to Beijing…  if the STREAKED REED WARBLER was still on site it was extremely good at hiding!

The most likely explanation was that it had been a late passage bird.

And so this rare species continues to elude me.  But I won’t have long to wait to resume the search… it’s thought to be an early return migrant with peak passage in the Beijing/Hebei coast area said to be from the last week of August to mid-September, according to LaTouche.  So, yet again, I’ll be checking those reedbeds and patches of sedge in the hope that, one day, I’ll connect with this most enigmatic of birds.

Of course, from a conservation perspective, it’s extremely difficult to do anything to help this bird.  It’s a long distance migrant whose current breeding and wintering grounds are unknown.  Recording its song would be a huge first step – at least that would help anyone travelling to northeast China and southeast Russia to locate singing birds and discover breeding sites, potentially enabling some studies to be made of the habitat requirements and hopefully identifying some of the reasons for the staggering decline in its population.  But with so few being seen in the last few years, is it already too late?

Big thanks to Tong Menxiu and Chen Liang for their help in finding out details of this sighting and to Zhao Chao and Paul Holt for their company on a fun search…!  

See here for more detail about the status of STREAKED REED WARBLER.

 

Great Expectations

Spike and I have just paid another visit to Wild Duck Lake. The previous two days had been very warm (top temperatures in Beijing of over 20 degrees Celsius) and with very little wind. Lack of wind is always a good thing at Wild Duck Lake but it pays to visit on the first windless day after a period of windy weather as the pollution can accumulate quickly. Unfortunately, Thursday morning was the third consecutive day of light winds and, as a result, the visibility was poor – we couldn’t even see the mountains to the north (probably only 3-4 kms away).

Nevertheless, we had quite a good day, surprisingly seeing 10 species of bird of prey despite the poor visibility and several new spring migrants (eg Little Ringed Plover, Garganey, Mandarin and Common Buzzard). The full species list is copied below to give you a ‘feel’ for the place. It is a reflection of the richness of this site, and the high expectations that we have developed hoping for that ‘something special’, that we left feeling a little disappointed. No Baer’s Pochard, Oriental Plover or Relict Gull yet! Reading through the species list again as I write this, I realise that I have absolutely no right to be disappointed at all – that is quite a day list!

One of the highlights was definitely the groups of thrushes – mainly Red-throated – that were feeding and flying around Ma Chang. Some of them were in stunning summer plumage – fantastic birds.

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From the notebook:

0600 very little wind, cold at first (around 2 degrees C with a slight ground frost), warming up later to around 18 degrees C. Visibility poor due to pollution (mountains to the north not visible).

As the visibility was very poor, the wildfowl counts will not reflect the actual numbers (Tree Sparrow and Magpie too numerous to count).

Japanese Quail 2
Swan Goose 8
Bean Goose 6
Bewick’s Swan 1
Ruddy Shelduck c50
Mandarin 7
Gadwall c30
Falcated Duck c75
Eurasian Wigeon 2
Mallard c120
Chinese Spot-billed Duck 6
Shoveler 4
Pintail 2
Garganey 3
Common Teal c200
Common Pochard 25 (plus another group of 25, prob the same)
Tufted Duck 45
Goldeneye 22
Smew c150
Goosander c25
Great Crested Grebe c25
Little Grebe 4
Grey Heron 6
Kestrel 1
Merlin 1 – a small male
Osprey 1
Black-eared Kite 2
Eastern Marsh Harrier 1 (adult male)
Hen Harrier 4
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 2
Goshawk 1
Common Buzzard 1
Upland Buzzard 1, possibly the same seen again later
Coot 15
Common Crane 6
Grey-headed Lapwing 2
Northern Lapwing c40
Pacific Golden Plover 1 (still in winter plumage)
Little Ringed Plover 14
Kentish Plover c10
Common Snipe 3
Mongolian Gull 2 (1 ad and 1 3cy)
Black-headed Gull 56
Spotted Dove 1
Eurasian Collared Dove 4
Hoopoe 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Chinese Grey Shrike 2
Carrion Crow 65
Great Tit 2
Marsh Tit 2
Eurasian Skylark c300
Asian Short-toed Lark c10
Chinese Hill Warbler 2
Plain (Pere David’s) Laughingthrush 2 (possibly 3) in the reedbed on the western edge of Yeyahu reserve. Apparent first site record.
Vinous-throated Parrotbill c40
White-cheeked Starling 12
Eurasian Starling 6
Black-throated Thrush 4
Red-throated Thrush 42 – many in stunning summer plumage, feeding on the ground around Ma Chang
Naumann’s Thrush 3
Dusky/Naumann’s intergrade 1 – a real stunner
Red-flanked Bluetail 8 – including one very blue adult male
Daurian Redstart 12
Siberian Accentor 1
White Wagtail c80
Water Pipit 3
Brambling c40
Oriental Greenfinch 3 – flyovers
Meadow Bunting 2
Yellow-throated Bunting 5
Pallas’s Reed Bunting c250

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Another trip to Wild Duck Lake gave rewards but not in the way we had expected!  A big target bird was Baer’s Pochard, a rare duck that breeds in NE China and the S Russian Far East and winters in south-eastern China. They *must* pass through Wild Duck Lake in Spring, we think.. it’s just a case of finding one! With conflicting forecasts, we had gambled on the wind being slack and, on arrival at Yanqing at 0715, it seemed the gamble had paid off. Hardly a breath of wind and a glorious sunny day.  However, when we arrived at Ma Chang 20 minutes later, we could see the wind turbines rattling around at a fair pace and, as soon as we got out of the car, we were stood facing into a moderate to strong north-westerly – exactly the direction in which we needed to look to see the wildfowl.

Wind can be a real downer at this very open site – apart from the fact that it can be uncomfortable (and very cold) with icy winds from Siberia and Mongolia whipping into your face, it makes viewing the birds that much more difficult, especially using a lightweight tripod and telescope.  To add to this, the wildfowl were all keeping their heads low at the relatively sheltered far side of the lake, and amongst the reeds, making viewing very difficult indeed on the choppy water.

Still, we persevered, and reached some reasonable counts of Common Crane (c200), Swan Goose (c100), Bean Goose (c250), c450 Ruddy Shelduck, c150 each of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, c350 Smew and a nice flock of 8 White-naped Cranes feeding nearby in a field.  But there was no sign of the first Garganey of spring or the rare Baer’s Pochard.  Never mind.  Not this time.

We began the walk to Yeyahu, with the wind on our backs, and enjoyed sightings of 3 Hen Harriers (two ringtails and a beautiful adult male), 2 Kentish Plovers, a single Eurasian Curlew (first of the year), a Grey-headed Lapwing, 100s of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and 100s of Eurasian Skylarks with a few Asian Short-toed Larks mixed in (no Mongolian this time).  As we reached Yeyahu, the wind suddenly seemed to drop and, almost immediately, we began to see a few raptors – first another Hen Harrier, then an Upland Buzzard, then a second Upland.  At this point we had reached the long line of trees that runs south to north from Yeyahu lake to the reservoir.  Here, we usually split up with one of us doing the east side, the other the west.  I took the east side and, by the time I had reached almost half way down, I had seen only single Meadow and Little Buntings plus a few Tree Sparrows.  Then I heard some corvids calling overhead and I looked up to see a flock of around 20 Carrion Crows very high up in the sky flying south..  they deviated slightly to intercept a much larger bird gliding east… it had to be an eagle!  I could immediately see it was large and, after quickly narrowing down the possibilities in my head to Great Spotted/Imperial or Steppe, I called Spike to get him onto the bird.  As I was speaking to him, it began to head north towards the mountains and I quickly gave Spike directions before focusing the telescope on it as it drifted away.  In the strong light, the only colouration I could make out was that it looked mostly dark with paler undertail coverts.  I counted 7 ‘fingers’ on its broad and long wings before it became just a ‘dark bird of prey’ at distance.  Frustratingly, I didn’t get enough detail to confirm the identification. I made my way north towards the viewing tower that is well-situated on the south-eastern end of the reservoir in the hope that it might reappear.

Spike joined me there, unfortunately having not seen the bird.  We took the opportunity to take lunch and waited, scanning the skies.  It’s quite usual for large birds of prey to turn up in this area and often, with a little patience, they return.  So we were hopeful.  Then, about half an hour later, I got on to a large bird of prey heading our way.  Large eagle.  This time Spike saw it and we both enjoyed views through the telescope.  We began to note the features.  Great Spotted Eagle was probably the most likely species but it didn’t ‘feel’ like one.  This bird had long, broad wings, black primary tips and a dark trailing edge to the wings, but with a paler panel on the inner primaries that reached the tip.  The underwing coverts looked paler and the body was mottled.  The head appeared dark from underneath but looked slightly paler from above.  The tail was relatively long and almost two-toned.  It glided on slightly bowed wings.  It was clearly not an adult of any of the candidate species and immatures can be very variable. Neither of us had much experience with large eagles, so we decided to take as many notes as possible and also try to grab a few photographs.  The bird stayed quite distant, so photographing it was not easy but I was able to capture a few images which, after being heavily cropped, show some of the distinctive features.

On arriving home and looking at the literature, we both independently suspected it was an immature Eastern Imperial Eagle and this was also the view of Jesper Hornskov, to whom I had sent the photographs and description.  I have never seen Eastern Imperial Eagle before and it’s quite a scarce bird in the Beijing area, so we were pretty pleased with the record.  The images are below.

 

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China