STOP PRESS: Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Beijing!

Some stunning news has just reached me of a juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER that was photographed at Yeyahu, Beijing, on 31 August by Zhang Minhao, a junior high school student.  Big thanks to Huang Hanchen and Guan Xiangyu for the heads-up.  Here is the photo:

Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014.  Photo by Zhang Minhao.
Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014. Photo by Zhang Minhao.

And here is Zhang Minhao’s personal account:

A Brief Account for the Record of a Juvenile Spoonbill Sandpiper in Beijing
by Zhang Minhao, October 16, 2014.

“The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was photographed at Machang, Yeyahu, Yanqing County, Beijing, on August 31, 2014.

At around 09:45am on 31 August 2014 I was observing Red-necked Stints, Long-toed Stints, and Long-billed Plovers near a large area of water on the edge of Guanting Reservoir.  This area is known as Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake.  In order to avoid missing the distant shorebirds, I checked the areas where the Red-necked Stints were located by looking through my camera, and took pictures of the birds I could see.

When reviewing my photographs I recognised something distinctive, a juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The time of the photograph was 09:49am.

The single Spoon-billed Sandpiper foraged and preened alone, without mixing with other species. And there were no other Spoon-billed Sandpipers around it.  About 3 minutes later 3 Red-necked Stints flew to its vicinity causing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to fly and it alighted further away on the mudflat. But when I got there the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was not to be seen and it was never seen again.”

(Thanks to Guan Xiangyu for contacting Zhang Minhao about this account and to Huang Hanchen for the translation).

There are several brilliant things about this record.  First, it’s a SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, one of the world’s most endangered birds (see here to read about just how few remain and for details of the international effort to try to save this species).  Second, it’s of a juvenile, one of very few sightings of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper of this age in the world, giving hope to the conservation effort.  Third, it was found in Beijing, one of the world’s major capital cities, more than 150km from the coast.  And finally, the finder was a young Chinese birder.

It’s a truly remarkable record. And I hope this sighting by Zhang Minhao inspires other young people in Beijing and beyond to take up birding and to become part of an ever-louder voice to help conserve the amazing biodiversity with which China is blessed.

Well done Zhang Minhao!

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)  


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….

 

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.

First for Beijing!

On Saturday I made my first visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu for a few weeks and boy, was it worth it?!  The autumn migration is now in full swing.  The highlight was undoubtedly the juvenile/first winter Little Gull that I found feeding on the reservoir before it gained height and flew strongly east.  Despite being almost annual on the Bohai coast, I believe this is the first record for the Beijing municipality.   Coming a close second was a stunning Short-toed Eagle that drifted right overhead near Yeyahu lake.  Wow.

Record shot of Beijing's first Little Gull at Yeyahu NR, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011

Other good birds include a very early crane sp that was soaring very distantly over the mountains to the north.  I initially assumed this must have been a Common Crane but I noticed dark secondaries and this is more consistent with Demoiselle Crane.  Common Cranes are very scarce at this time of year, in fact I don’t think any have been recorded in September, whereas Demoiselle should be leaving its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia about now.  It’ll have to go down in the book as a crane sp.  Also seen were 5 Chinese Grey Shrikes, including a very instructive juvenile that superficially looked a little like ssp pallidirostris (Steppe Grey Shrike), a heavily leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff (very scarce in Beijing, possibly the 4th record for the municipality) as well as many passerine migrants – Little Buntings, Eurasian Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and so on…

Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit with Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011

Full species list in systematic order:

Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) – my first two of the autumn, flushed between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasaianus colchicus) – 6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – 24
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) – 3
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca) – 1
Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) – 3 (possibly relating to feral birds from Yeyahu)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) – 10 in one flock flying strongly west
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – at least 75
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – 6
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – 4
Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) – 6
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) – 2
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) – 3
Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) – 3 flying south early morning
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – a flock of 13 feeding together on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – 5
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) – just one, an adult male
Northern Hobby (Falco subbuteo) – at least 6, including 3 juveniles
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) – one at Ma Chang soaring
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – one fishing at Ma Chang early morning then flew west
Black-eared Kite (Milvus lineatus) – 10; one on the ground at Ma Chang followed by a group of 7 kettling mid-morning and two other singles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – one low overhead at Yeyahu mid-afternoon
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus) – 4 (an adult female and 3 juveniles)
Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos) – 2 (both juveniles)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – 6 (light passage throughout the day)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) – c25 including several family parties
Common Coot (Fulica atra) – 6
Common Crane (Grus grus) – 1 scoped circling distantly over the mountains to the north.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) – one juvenile at Ma Chang
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – 8
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) – 12 (all juveniles)
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) – 1
Common Snipe (Gallinago megala) – 3
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa melanuroides) – 2, including one white bird (heavily leucistic or albino)
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) – 6
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) – 8
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) – 3
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – 1, seen well in flight and appeared to go down on the edge of the reservoir between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – 27
Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) – 1, a juvenile/first winter seen well but briefly over the reservoir at the east end of Ma Chang.  After ‘dip-feeding’ a couple of times, gained height and flew strongly east.
Whiskered Tern (Chilidonias hybrida) – at least 12
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) – 4
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – 3
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – 1
Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus) – 5 seen, one of which I originally thought could be a ssp of Great Grey (see photos).
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) – 2
Common Magpie (Pica pica) – many
Crow sp (Corvus sp) – a group of 6 soaring around mid-day were probably Carrion Crows
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) – two heard
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – only 3 seen
Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) – at least 60 ssw early morning and small groups encountered between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) – just 4 seen
Locustella sp – one flushed 3 times appeared quite rusty, probably Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) – encountered in every group of bushes or trees.  At least 40 seen or heard.
Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) – one in a hedge at the east end of Ma Chang
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) – one on the walk to the viewing tower at Yeyahu
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Paradoxornis webbianus) – at least 40 seen and heard
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) – 22
Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) – 1, an adult male, seen in shrubs at the east end of Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) – at least 25 seen
Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla) – 3
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – many
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) – at least 200 ssw early morning, followed by the odd small group thereafter.  c250 in total.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) – 34 (mostly migrating ssw early morning)
Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi) – 26 migrating ssw early morning with an additional 16 encountered during the day
Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) – c25 migrating ssw early morning with several others seen and heard during the day.  c40 in total
Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla) – many buntings, probably this species, migrating ssw early morning and c30 seen during the day.
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) – one seen well
bunting sp – many hundreds of buntings migrating between 0600 and 0730; most probably Little Bunting but some looked slightly larger.

Yeyahu

A few days ago I accompanied visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, and his wife to Yeyahu.  After an early start and navigating the broken down trucks on the hill past Badaling Great Wall, we arrived on site around 0730.  It was a very pleasant temperature early morning and visibility gradually improved throughout the morning.  Passerine migration was in evidence with singles of Two-barred Greenish and Arctic Warbler along the entrance track in the company of Grey-streaked and Asian Brown Flycatchers and local breeding was also in evidence with three young Grey-headed Woodpeckers crossing our path on the way to the lake.  As we made our way along the boardwalk, a Common Kingfisher perched ahead of us and we encountered a family of Yellow Bitterns, including 4 juveniles looking like sulking teenagers as their parents hurried backwards and forwards with food.

Juvenile Yellow Bittern, Yeyahu. "Come on muummm, I'm hungry"

A few Night Herons and Chinese Pond Herons flopped over the lake and several juvenile Purple Herons commuted back and forth to the reservoir.

The first of what turned out to be many Black Drongos appeared from the gloom and headed north and a few Oriental Reed Warblers revealed themselves with their chattering.  It was good to see the nests of Chinese Penduline Tit at the north-west corner of the lake and we heard a couple of these birds calling from the reeds.  Terns were present in the form of at least 4 Common (ssp longipennis) and 4 Whiskered.

We took a short break at a gap in the trees to overlook the grassland and shrubs towards Ma Chang and it was here that we enjoyed a magic couple of minutes.  First, a juvenile Pied Harrier floated in from the west, soon followed by a male Eastern Marsh Harrier (both new birds for Claus).  Then, almost immediately, a Chinese Grey Shrike (another new bird for Claus) alighted on the top of a poplar and a female Pied Harrier flew in from the north.  Brilliant stuff..  and, as happens frequently in birding, two minutes later all of the birds had gone…!

We slowly made our way along the wooded edge of the lake picking up at least 4 Wood Sandpipers, both Barn and Red-rumped Swallow and a stunning male Black-naped Oriole.  But the highlight along here was a lovely encounter with a mammal, which we first suspected was a Yellow-throated Marten.  However, I have been reliably informed that it is not this species (EDIT: after a bit of detective work – Claus visited the Zoological Museum of Beijing – we believe it is a Siberian Weasel.  These are the elusive creatures that inhabit the hutongs of Beijing and are believed by locals to hold the power to capture and return human souls…!  We gave it a wide berth just in case…)

Siberian Weasel, Yeyahu. Photo by Claus Holzapfel

After enjoying this lovely animal as it made its way along the path towards us before scurrying into the vegetation, we made our way down to the viewing tower overlooking the reservoir.  Again, as on my most recent visit, hundreds of blue butterflies were congregating on the path and I couldn’t resist taking a few more photos of this spectacle.

Rhapsody in Blue
Close-up

Claus captured me getting up close and personal with these butterflies.. not the most flattering photo!

Me getting down and dirty... Photo: Claus Holzapfel

At the reservoir we added more species to our day list including Mandarin Duck, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Caspian Tern, Little Egret, White-winged Tern, Great Spotted Woodpecker and, best of all, a Eurasian Crag Martin that passed south in the company of some Barn Swallows.  Picked up by its size, lack of breast band and white spots on the tail, this was my first record of this species at Yeyahu.

After enjoying our packed lunches we slowly made our way back, where we flushed a Snipe sp for the second time (it was in exactly the same place on the way out to the tower).  It was clearly not a Common Snipe, lacking an obvious white trailing edge to the secondaries and with a call that was harsher than Common Snipe (almost Corncrake-like in quality).  Photos below.  Comments welcome!

Snipe sp, Yeyahu. Note lack of white trailing edge to secondaries.
Snipe sp. This image shows the rather 'pot-bellied' appearance of this bird.
Snipe sp. Note feet projection beyond tail. Suggests Pin-tailed?

Claus and his wife are both interested in botany and I thoroughly enjoyed them pointing out interesting plants, including various grasses, flowers and shrubs.  Perhaps the most surprising was the discovery of the plant below growing ‘wild’ on the edge of the marsh…  there must have been at least 20-30 of these plants, of various ages, growing among the other vegetation and it certainly didn’t look like manmade cultivation.

Cannabis plant, Yeyahu

A thoroughly enjoyable day and many thanks to Claus and his wife for their company and for adding a new dimension to my knowledge of the natural environment at Yeyahu.

It’s not very often I have pictures of myself to post on this blog, so here is one more from Claus, taken on the boardwalk at Yeyahu.  You can see more of Claus’s photos here.

"Up on the boardwalk". I am sure there is a song about that...

Full Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Tree Sparrow (many)

Common Magpie (many)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (4)

Arctic Warbler (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (2)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Yellow Bittern (9)

Night Heron (18)

Great Crested Grebe (6)

Marsh Tit (2)

Oriental Turtle Dove (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (4)

Common Kingfisher (3)

Grey Wagtail (2)

Hobby (5)

Oriental Reed Warbler (5)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (50+)

Moorhen (5)

Snipe sp (2)

Common Tern (4)

Chinese Penduline Tit (3)

Black Drongo (c45)

Whiskered Tern (18)

Purple Heron (3)

Chinese Grey Shrike (1)

Pied Harrier (2)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (2)

Coot (8)

Wood Sandpiper (4)

Kestrel (2)

Barn Swallow (26)

Red-rumped Swallow (6)

Mallard (2)

Zitting Cisticola (12)

Black-naped Oriole (1)

Richard’s Pipit (3)

Mandarin (4)

Eurasian Crag Martin (1)

Gull-billed Tern (2)

Little Egret (1)

Spot-billed Duck (5)

Caspian Tern (2) – one ad and one juv

White-winged Tern (2) – adults

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)