Hog Badger

This weekend I visited Ma Chang and did the usual walk from there to Yeyahu.  I hadn’t walked this route for a while – Ma Chang is very disturbed by recreational activities in summer and the humidity makes a long walk very uncomfortable – so I was very interested to see what birds were around and whether any migration was taking place.  On arrival at 5.30am, the weather was perfect – a lovely fresh 16-17 degrees C with no wind and a little mist.  Already, by 7.30am, the sun was strengthening and gradually burned off the mist to reveal a sunny, clear day.

Migration was in evidence early on with a reasonable passage of Yellow Wagtails plus a couple of Grey Wagtails mixed in.  A few juvenile Yellow Bitterns commuted between the reedbeds and a good number of Little Grebes (the race here in China has pale eyes – a potential split?) were loitering along the edge of the reeds.

An adult female Pied Harrier was a nice sight – these birds pass through in spring and autumn – and it was nice to see it, momentarily, alongside a juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier, showing the obvious size difference.

The walk to Yeyahu was hot and sticky and, in places, was quite hard work due to the massive growth in vegetation that has occurred over the last few weeks.  Along one trail I noticed some mammal tracks (see photo below).  I suspected these were some sort of badger and, after making some enquiries, it seems that they belong to the Hog Badger, a creature that looks superficially like our European Badger but with a pig’s snout, hence the name.

Hog Badger track, Yeyahu

 

A few months ago, Spike Millington and I discovered a set of burrows not far from where I saw these tracks.  I suspect that they may belong to the Hog Badger, too.  I will try to stakeout this site on a moonlit night sometime soon to see if I can catch a glimpse of these nocturnal mammals.  I might have to take along some irresistable treats to tempt them…

At the Yeyahu reserve, there had clearly been an explosion of butterflies, mostly these small blue butterflies.. they were everywhere and many were congregating in large groups around small puddles.  A real spectacle.

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu
Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. There were hundreds, if not thousands, along the tracks at Yeyahu on Sunday.

 

Blue Butterflies, Yeyahu. Watching these insects drinking at close range was fascinating - the proboscis reminded me of an elephant's trunk!

This grasshopper made a brief appearance when it landed near the butterflies..  amazing camouflage.

Grasshopper sp, Yeyahu

Other migrant birds on show here included 5 Black-naped Orioles, 39 Black Drongos (a record count for me), a single Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift and a couple of snipe sp.  I have seen a few snipe recently that are not Common Snipe and I suspected Pin-tailed. However, after a discussion with Paul Holt, it seems that Pin-tailed and the very similar Swinhoe’s are extremely difficult to tell apart and it is not safe to identify them in the field without seeing the individual tail feathers… There is an article in British Birds from a few years ago which I will have to dig out.   Sunday’s birds will have to go down in my book as “Swintail Snipe”..!

 

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Tree Sparrow and Common Magpie – lots
Great Bittern (1)
Common Snipe (1)
Whiskered Tern (18)
Chinese Pond Heron (12)
Bunting sp (one of the ‘tick’ buntings but not identified) (1)
Little Egret (9)
Amur Falcon (1)
Little Grebe (20)
Night Heron (12)
Common Kingfisher (2)
Asian Short-toed Lark (2)
Zitting Cisticola (34)
White-cheeked Starling (6)
Yellow Bittern (6), all juveniles.
Grey Heron (2)
Northern Lapwing (1)
Coot (8)
Moorhen (16)
Common Sandpiper (3)
‘Swin-tailed’ Snipe (2) – both flushed from dry-ish habitat, ‘dumpy birds’, if anything slightly smaller than Common Snipe, no obvious white trailing edge to secondaries, feet projected beyond tail and wingbeats slightly slower than Common Snipe.  Call was similar but slightly less ‘squelchy’ if that makes sense!
Grey Wagtail (2)
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (24), all migrating south-west
Purple Heron (5)
Wood Sandpiper (3)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (4), 1 adult male, 1 adult female and 2 juveniles
Black-winged Stilt (10)
Great Egret (2)
Brown Shrike (2)
Richard’s Pipit (12)
Hoopoe (1)
Black Drongo (39), my highest count of this species so far
Chinese Grey Shrike (1)
Wryneck (1)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40+)
Arctic Warbler (2)
Hobby (2)
Pied Harrier (1)
Barn Swallow (18)
Red-rumped Swallow (12)
Black-headed Gull (3)
Common Pheasant (6)
Sand Martin (1)
Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – at least 2, possibly 3 active nests this year at Yeyahu but, if still around, difficult to see.
Oriental Reed Warbler (3)
Black-naped Oriole (5)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2)
Mandarin (4)
Spot-billed Duck (4)
Great Crested Grebe (8)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (1)
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (1 probable): a juvenile seen in flight only, much darker ground colour than the juvenile yellow bitterns with heavy dark streaking on the breast.
Kestrel (1)
Azure-winged Magpie (1)
Great Tit (3)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)

A Tale of Two Eagles

In June many birders think the marvels of spring migration are over and thoughts turn to butterflies, dragonflies, family holidays or even moths (I kid you not!).  But, here in the Beijing area, early June can be a very good time for the late migrating locustella and acrocephalus warblers, as well as other reedbed-dwelling birds such as crakes and rails.

One of the birds that I wanted to catch up with when I moved to Beijing was the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a bird on many a ‘most-wanted’ list back in the UK and, unless you go to Fair Isle in mid-September, your chances of seeing one in the UK are pretty slim.  I have been lucky enough to see over 20 of these birds here in Beijing, nearly all of which I have seen in the last 7-10 days!  On Saturday, during a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve, we counted 10 of these super-skulkers, at least 3 of which provided us with more than a just a fleeting glimpse of a shape disappearing into a dense reedbed after being flushed from the path!

Yayahu Nature Reserve officially opens at 0830 in the morning and is very popular for Beijingers at the weekend to get away from the stress and heat of the city.  So if you want to see birds, it’s important to arrive early, before the masses.  Ideally you want to be first onto the boardwalk to see any lurking crakes, rails or bitterns before they are flushed deep into the reeds by the noisy hordes.

On Saturday, despite arriving at 0520 and finding the gates open (sometimes we have to use the ‘alternative entrance’), we were a little disappointed to see 3 people already on the boardwalk..  nevertheless, we had the place to ourselves for the next 2 hours with some success whilst enjoying the cacophony of reed warblers – mostly Oriental Reed but with the odd Black-browed Reed mixed in.

We took our time doing a circular walk around the lake, trying to distinguish any other birds’ songs from the rasping Oriental Reeds, and were rewarded with a single Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler that was singing intermittently from a patch of young willows, a Baillon’s Crake that we disturbed from the boardwalk and gave us fleeting flight views before it dived into deep cover, a handful of Zitting Cisticolas as well as a good number of the enigmatic Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers.

A pair of Caspian Terns represented a good June record.  They came in high from the north and began to hunt over the lake but, by the time we left the site, they had already moved on..  early return migrants?  failed breeders?  who knows?

On the second circuit we found a relatively small plain reed warbler (smaller than the resident Oriental Reeds).  Our thoughts turned to Manchurian Reed and, fortunately, I had just uploaded the song of Manchurian Reed Warbler onto my smartphone!  So I gave it a blast and it reacted strongly, flying closer and proceeding to sing.  Nice!  I took a few notes and photos before we moved on to eagle field.

The walk down to eagle field was hot – the sun had burned off the clouds and there was only a light breeze just about taking the edge off the heat.  A circling flock of 17 falcons turned out to be a mixed flock of Amur Falcon and Hobby, giving us hope that a larger raptor would likely get up if there was one around…   We reached the tower and, after a brief scan, began to have our packed lunches.  It was quiet on the reservoir with just a few Night Herons, a couple of Purple Herons, some Mallard and a pair of Spot-billed Ducks.  I said to Spike that I would do a thorough scan for any eagles before heading back and, almost immediately, I picked up a large bird of prey heading straight for us from the north-east.  It was large, dark and displayed several ‘fingers’ on each hand – it had to be an eagle.  I was pretty confident it was a Greater Spotted Eagle but with just head-on views, I wasn’t certain.  We watched it as it came closer and, just as it reached the northern edge of the reservoir, it dropped, stone-like, with legs akimbo into the edge of the reedbed…  …wow – that was some dive!  We couldn’t see it on the ground but, after only a couple of minutes, it took off and headed low over the reservoir towards us, providing excellent views, at head height, as it attempted to avoid the attentions of one of the local magpies.

It was now pretty obvious that it was a Greater Spotted Eagle and, when it reached ‘eagle field’, it began to circle, gained height quickly and headed off south-west.  Certainly my best ever views of Greater Spotted Eagle.

Any day you see an eagle is a good day.  We began the walk back having already had a good day.  Then, half way back, we got onto a large bird of prey heading north and away from us..  a quick view through the binoculars revealed it to be a Short-toed Eagle. Almost certainly the same bird that Paul Holt, Chris Gooddie and I saw last week.  A good day just got better.

A calling Two-barred Greenish Warbler on the entrance track on the way out was our last species of the day and we reflected on another excellent day at this productive site as we met our driver for the short journey back to Yanqing bus station.

Edit: on looking at the photographs of the presumed Manchurian Reed Warbler, I am now thinking it may be the very similar Blunt-winged Warbler.  The supercilium does not reach far behind the eye and lacks the dark upper border that is a characteristic of Manchurian Reed.  Even though the bird reacted to the song of Manchurian, I am not sure how reliably this behaviour indicates the species.  The two very similar species may well react to each others’ songs – I don’t know!  I don’t have any experience of either bird, so comments very welcome..

Manchurian Reed Warbler or Blunt-winged Warbler? Answers on a postcard...
The tail on Blunt-winged is supposed to be 'blackish with brown edges"... this image does not show that feature. On the other hand, Manchurian should show a strong white supercilium that extends behind the eye and that has a blackish upper border. Hmm...
Greater Spotted Eagle (prob 2 cal yr)
Greater Spotted Eagle attracting the attention of a local magpie, Yeyahu, 4 June 2011
Close-up.. that Magpie had a tug at the eagle's tail before it left it alone

Full species list (in chronological order of first sighting):

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Collared Dove (2)

Common Pheasant (4)

Indian Cuckoo (2)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Eurasian Cuckoo (8)

Great Bittern (2-3 heard)

Oriental Reed Warbler (30+)

Red-crested Pochard (3) – a little unsure of the provenance of these regularly seen birds (sometimes seen near the feral ducks and geese but certainly a lot more rangey than the remainder of the feral birds).

Great Crested Grebe (6) – one of the pairs had young

Little Grebe (4) – one pair had young

Chinese Pond Heron (6)

Mandarin (2)

Common Coot (6) – some with young

Zitting Cisticola (9)

Black-crowned Night Heron (18)

Black-winged Stilt (6)

Hobby (9)

Yellow Bittern (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (18)

Grey Heron (2)

Common Tern (4)

Black-faced Bunting (3)

Black Drongo (4)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (3)

Amur Falcon (10) – at least 3 adult males and 4 adult females plus some immature birds.

Baillon’s Crake (1) – one flushed from the boardwalk and seen briefly in flight only

Black-browed Reed Warbler (6)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (10) – good number seen from the boardwalk and the north side of the lake

Grey-headed Lapwing (4)

Purple Heron (10) – at least this number.  Several pairs breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake

Little Egret (1)

Little Tern (1)

David’s (Spotted) Bush Warbler (2-3) – one heard only and one seen only (in different locations).  One other possible heard briefly.

Garganey (1) – a flyover drake

Marsh Sandpiper (1) – flyover

Northern Lapwing (2)

Richard’s Pipit (4) – displaying

Chinese Penduline Tit (4) – at least two active nests

Common Kingfisher (2)

Caspian Tern (2) – flew in high from the north and began feeding.  Not seen later on return.

Blunt-winged Reed Warbler (1) – one probably this species.  Seen well and heard singing in the reed-fringed dyke to the west of the main lake (just south of the point where the boardwalk ends).  Responded well to playback of Manchurian Reed Warbler (Blunt-winged not played) and we initially identified it as this species.  However, photos suggest to me that it is a Blunt-winged Warbler (supercilium very weak behind eye, lacking the black upper edge).  I suspect that both species would react to each others’ songs? Comments welcome.

Chinese Blackbird (1) – my first at this site

White-cheeked Starling (3)

Barn Swallow (6)

Ferruginous Duck (1)

Greater Spotted Eagle (1) – came in from the north-east at around 1315.  Subsequently dropped like a stone, legs akimbo, into the edge of the reedbed on the north side of the reservoir (opposite the viewing tower).  About 2-3 minutes later, took off again and flew low, in the company of one of the local magpies, across the reservoir and past the tower to the grassy field where it circled, gained height and headed south-west.  A probable 2cy bird.  See photos.

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)

Mallard (15)

Short-toed Eagle (1) – seen on the walk back to the car park.  Flew from area east of eagle field and then seen soaring north-east of eagle field close to mountain ridge.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1) – one heard on entrance track to reserve

Siberian Bush Warbler

On Saturday I joined leading China expert, Paul Holt, and visiting Chris Gooddie (of “The Jewel Hunter” fame) for a visit to Yeyahu Nature Reserve.  We were hoping to see some late migrants – birds such as Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler – and of course had in the back of our minds the chance of seeing the rare Streaked Reed Warbler, a possible of which I saw on Thursday at the same site.

After a 4am start and a predictably tortuous journey over the mountains past Badaling Great Wall (this route is notorious for breaking down lorries!), we arrived at the site by around 0615.  After seeing Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting and Chinese Pond Heron along the entrance track, we took the boardwalk through the reedbed.  The first stretch produced a high density of singing Oriental (Great) Reed Warblers along with a few Black-browed Reed Warblers, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers (most of which were picked up by Paul on call or a brief burst of song), a calling Yellow Bittern, a few Zitting Cisticolas and several Purple Herons (breeding in the reedbed in the south-west corner of the lake).  But the highlight was undoubtedly the Siberian Bush Warbler Bradypterus davidi (a split from Spotted Bush Warbler Bradypterus thoracicus) that was expertly identified by Paul after a very brief burst of song…  I have to say I would have almost certainly walked straight past it and, if I had heard it, I would probably have passed it off as an insect!  After a bit of patience and ‘pishing’, this bird showed well at very close range, albeit briefly… A very difficult bird to see and a scarce, albeit regular, migrant in the Beijing area (almost certainly overlooked due to its extreme skulky nature).  This experience reinforced to me the need to get learning all of the calls and songs of some of the more irregular and difficult to see birds in the Beijing area.  Unless one is familiar with the calls, identifying and seeing many of these “difficult enough at the best of times” birds becomes almost impossible.

The walk along the grove of trees alongside the lake produced a good variety of phylloscopus warblers including Arctic, Two-barred Greenish, Pallas’s, Dusky and Radde’s plus a female Siberian Blue Robin, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-faced Bunting, a pair of Chinese Hill Warblers and a pair of nest-building Chinese Penduline Tits.  On our second circuit we paused at a gap in the trees to scan the area of reedbeds and scrub to the north.  After watching a pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers, a handful of Amur Falcons, displaying Richard’s Pipits, Siberian Stonechat, Hobby and Kestrel, the surprise of the day emerged, in the form of a Short-toed Eagle that appeared from nowhere and dropped into a field a few hundred metres away..  Short-toed Eagle is a pretty rare bird in northern China, although records from recent years suggest that it is probably a scarce passage migrant with multiple annual records in Spring and, particularly, Autumn.

With the visibility shockingly poor (due to the air pollution mist), our chances of seeing more large raptors were pretty low, so we decided to make a brief visit to Ma Chang to check the reservoir before heading back to Beijing.  Ma Chang was a bit of a disappointment, largely due to the heavy disturbance involving cars, motorised buggies, horses, even coaches, driving all over the area adjacent to the reservoir… We did see a few Common Terns, Night Herons, Black-headed Gulls, the local Black-winged Stilts and a few Asian Short-toed Larks but there was little else on offer, so we knocked it on the head and headed back.  On the journey back, Chris regaled us with tales of various leech encounters during his Pitta quest..  the one that took the biscuit had to be the case of the leech on the eyeball (thankfully for him, not his!)…  OMG.

A very good day out and it’s always a pleasure to go birding with people as knowledgeable as Paul and Chris – I learned a lot.  Thanks guys!

You can see a short video of Chris tracking the Bush Warbler here…  The Bush Warbler’s call is very difficult to make out on the video (an up-slurred raspy sound), so you can hear a much clearer one on Xeno-Canto.

Eagles

May in Beijing has been gorgeous so far..  cool, fresh mornings which warm up fast as the sun burns off any lingering mist and with a cool breeze to keep the heat bearable in the hottest part of the day.  And, as the trees and shrubs burst into leaf, the birds that feed on the insect life they harbour are arriving in numbers.  Even in the ‘garden’ in Central Park I have seen singing Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and a couple of migrating Common Buzzards.

A visit by the in-laws has meant that I have not been able to visit Wild Duck Lake as much as I would have liked but, in a way, the absence in between makes each visit that much more special and one really notices the difference in terms of the birds present – there is a high turnover with each visit producing several new species for the year.

My most recent visit this week followed a day of heavy rain and wind which, I was hoping, might have downed a few migrants.  With a clear day forecast, I hoped that it might also produce a few migrating raptors.  The day started at Ma Chang at 0530 in heavy mist and with visibility reduced to just a few hundred metres.  The first surprise of the day was finding 10 Greater Sand Plovers on the ‘desert’, by no means common at this inland site.  A party of 8 Eurasian Spoonbills was relaxing and preening on the edge of the reservoir as I carefully checked for a rare Black-faced Spoonbill.  There was no Black-faced this time and, at around 0620, all 8 suddenly alighted and flew west into the mist, not to be seen again.

Greater Sand Plover (male)
Greater Sand Plover (female)

The walk out to the island produced good numbers of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, probably of the subspecies macronyx, together with several stunning adult male Citrine Wagtails and a few Buff-bellied Pipits.  A Purple Heron lazily made its way east and Night Herons were mooching around in good numbers.

Wildfowl was thin on the ground with just a few Mallard, Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall and a single Goldeneye on view from the island’s north shore.  It was at this point that the wind began to increase and, slowly, the mist began to clear.  By 0830 the sun was out, the visibility had increased to at least a kilometre and was improving fast.

Amur Falcons began to appear and there was a thin but steady passage throughout the day..  I do love Amurs – masters of flight – and the adult males, in particular, are just gorgeous.

Adult male Amur Falcon in flight... beautiful
Amur Falcon (female). These stunning falcons breed in Manchuria and eastern Russia and winter in southern and eastern Africa. An epic journey.

After checking the area around the yurts which produced some Whiskered and Little Terns, I began to walk to Yeyahu.  By this time the wind was fierce and my expectations for raptors began to wane..  surely it was too windy for much to be on the wing.  Thankfully, as I reached Yeyahu Reserve, the wind suddenly dropped by half and was reduced to a stiff breeze.  As I walked the perimeter of the lake, I flushed a large bird of prey from a poplar which immediately attracted the attention of the local pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers.  Greater Spotted Eagle!  I enjoyed great views of this bird as it began to circle and gain height, in the company of the male Eastern Marsh (the female kept her distance but gave encouraging cries as the male saw off this intruder).  Another male Amur then screamed in from the east, briefly tussling with both the Eastern Marsh Harrier and the eagle before disappearing as fast as it had appeared.  Wow…

Greater Spotted Eagle (2 cal yr), Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle being mobbed by male Eastern Marsh Harrier

As the eagle drifted west, struggling in the wind, I continued my walk east and, almost immediately picked up another 2 large birds of prey, this time quite high.  Two more Greater Spotted Eagles!  At this point I knew I should head for ‘eagle field’, the open area bordering the western part of the reservoir.  As I walked I kept watch on the skies and picked up 2 (possibly the same) Greater Spotted Eagles hanging in the wind..

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR (same bird as above)
Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu NR

When I reached the viewing tower, I laid down and watched the skies..  2 Greater Spotted Eagles, then a third all in view at the same time..   They drifted west into the wind before swinging back east and going down somewhere on the far side of the wood.  As I lay there snacking at my lunch while watching Greater Spotted Eagles, Amur Falcons and Black-eared Kites pass overhead, I was overcome with a real sense of privilege to be watching these magnificent birds on their incredible migrations..  Perhaps the greatest journey  is that of the Amur Falcons which winter in southern and eastern Africa and return to north-eastern China and eastern Russia each Spring.  It’s an arduous journey and yet here they were, full of energy, wheeling in the sky, catching insects on the wing and seemingly enjoying the onset of Spring.

I enjoyed 2 hours of observation at this spot as the eagles made several passes.  At one point there were 6 Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together…  a stunning sight.

As I reluctantly made my way back, I was left bemoaning the fact that this would probably be my last visit to Wild Duck Lake for at least 2 weeks as I am travelling to Dalian (Tom Beeke-land!) to bird the point at Laotieshan from 11-19 May – I believe the first time this peninsula will have been systematically covered for any length of time in Spring.   I can only imagine what I will be missing at Wild Duck Lake during this time!  Best not think about it…..

Full species list (Magpie and Tree Sparrow too numerous to count):

Japanese Quail (2 – flushed from the path at Yeyahu)

Common Pheasant (6)

Gadwall (22 – most on the reservoir seen from the viewing tower at Yeyahu)

Falcated Duck (6 – numbers well down from my previous visit and only now present on the eastern part of the reservoir at Yeyahu)

Wigeon (4)

Mallard (8)

Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)

Shoveler (4)

Garganey (6)

Eurasian Teal (68)

Red-crested Pochard (2)

Ferruginous Duck (4)

Goldeneye (1)

Little Grebe (20)

Great Crested Grebe (14)

Eurasian Spoonbill (8) – on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang until 0620 when flew west into the mist.

Bittern (at least 4 heard)

Black-crowned Night Heron (40+)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Cattle Egret (1)

Grey Heron (2)

Purple Heron (4)

Great Cormorant (1)

Kestrel (2)

Amur Falcon (30+ light but steady passage throughout the day)

Black-eared Kite (8)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (at least 6)

Japanese Sparrowhawk (1)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Common Buzzard (2)

Greater Spotted Eagle (over 10 sightings involving at least 6 different birds; 6 in the air together between 1510-1530)

Coot – at least 40

Black-winged Stilt (16)

Northern Lapwing (14)

Little Ringed Plover (16)

Kentish Plover (4)

Greater Sand Plover (10) – all at Ma Chang including two adult summer males.

Common Snipe (6)

Redshank (4)

Greenshank (4)

Green Sandpiper (1)

Common Sandpiper (1)

Temminck’s Stint (2)

Oriental Pratincole (6)

Black-headed Gull (50+)

Common Tern (12 of the dark-billed race longipennis)

Little Tern (4)

Whiskered Tern (4)

Oriental Turtle Dove (2)

Collared Dove (6)

Common Swift (8)

Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (18)

Common Kingfisher (5)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Chinese Penduline Tit (4)

Sand Martin (2)

Barn Swallow (80+)

Red-rumped Swallow (16)

Greater Short-toed Lark (12) – including one with an abnormal upper mandible

Greater Short-toed Lark with abnormally long upper mandible. It's amazing how this bird manages to feed..

Asian Short-toed Lark (2)

Eurasian Skylark (2)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2) – 2 possibly with a nest at Yeyahu

Chinese Bulbul – (2) including one singing at the plantation on the island

Pallas’s Warbler (2) singing in the plantation on the island

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1) singing in the plantation on the island

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)

White-cheeked Starling (10)

Red-throated Thrush (3)

Naumann’s Thrush (1)

Dusky Thrush (1)

Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades (1)

Bluethroat (1) at Yeyahu

Siberian Stonechat (8)

Taiga Flycatcher (12)

Yellow Wagtail (80+ most looked liked Western Yellow Wagtail ssp thunbergi but I am not sure whether that occurs here.  ssp macronyx of Eastern Yellow Wagtail looks a good match, too)

Citrine Wagtail (10)

White Wagtail (2 of the ssp ocularis)

Richard’s Pipit (6)

Olive-backed Pipit (37)

Buff-bellied Pipit (60+)

Little Bunting (400+ everywhere)

Yellow-throated Bunting (1)

Black-faced Bunting (12)

Pallas’s Reed Bunting (30+)

Lightning Strikes Twice at Wild Duck Lake!

Ok, I know it sounds as if I am making this up but on Saturday I found another pelican at Wild Duck Lake.  Only this time, it was a DALMATIAN PELICAN.  A stunning end to another fantastic day of birding at this site that included a Short-toed Eagle (rare in northern China), two Greater Spotted Eagles and my largest total of species in one day at this prime location (79).

I had a feeling it might be a good day when I travelled to Yanqing on Friday evening.  The afternoon had been very showery with some thunderstorms, one of which hit Beijing with its full force.  This meant that the pollution mist had been cleared, reminding everyone that Beijing is surrounded on three sides by fantastic mountains, a fact easy to forget given the majority of days are afflicted with at least some level of smog.

On arrival at the site at 0530, it was a chilly 5 degrees C with a moderate NNW wind which felt distinctly wintry again (gloves most definitely required).  However, the visibility was fantastic and I could see, uninterrupted, the mountains stretching into the distance on both the northern and southern sides of the reservoir.

Ma Chang, shortly after dawn
The 'desert' at Ma Chang

I began by checking the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plovers but no sign. Just a few Kentish Plovers and a handful of Greater Short-toed Larks.  The reservoir shore here produced a single female Ruff associating with half a dozen Black-winged Stilts.  And evidence that one Chinese bird photographer had been a little overeager to secure that frame-filling shot…..

This bird photographer, despite having a 4wd, got well and truly stuck!

Barn Swallows were already moving overhead with the odd group of buntings and pipits.  I decided to check the spit for wildfowl (the scene of the Great White Pelican last week) and, on the short walk, I flushed a Short-eared Owl that immediately took offence to the mobbing by the local magpies, climbed quickly and then flew high south.   Sorry!

On arrival at the spit, my scan of the reservoir revealed very few birds, probably due to the presence of 3 fishing boats.

Fishermen at Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

One tightly-packed group of birds on the far side of the reservoir revealed themselves to be breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes and I counted 32 in this ‘flotilla’.  A single Daurian Jackdaw, a few Eastern Marsh Harriers, some Buff-bellied Pipits and the occasional ‘boom’ of a Bittern were my further rewards before I decided to head off to try the island (offering views of another part of the reservoir).

Just as I was leaving the spit I could hear the rasping call of terns and I looked up to see two Common Terns (of the dark-billed ssp longipennis) arriving from the south.  Then, I spotted a group of raptors lazily flapping across Ma Chang… 9 Black-eared Kites!

I reached the island at Ma Chang a few minutes later and I began to check for wildfowl.  A group of over 180 Falcated Duck was the highlight with the supporting role going to an Osprey sitting on a far post.  Then I began to notice swifts moving overhead and, before long I had counted the first of what would prove to be a movement of over 350 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts migrating north-west.  A few Oriental Pratincoles began to drift in and, as with the swifts, they kept coming.  I counted over 85 altogether.

I began the walk to Yeyahu with my heart sinking as I experienced the disturbance that is commonplace here.  First, three local guys were chasing about in a speedboat with shotguns targeting the Common Teal.  Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph but I will report this activity to the police (it is illegal both to own a gun and to shoot wild birds).  And second, the ‘buggies’ were out and about on the ‘desert’.. they often start around 0800 and any plovers or larks are moved off immediately.

The buggies that disturb the 'desert' area from around 0800, especially at weekends, in all seasons with the exception of winter

Almost as soon as I had retraced my steps from the island to Ma Chang, I spotted a raptor hovering over the area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.  It looked long-winged and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Short-toed Eagle.  Fantastic.  I watched as it hunted and was able to capture a few images before it drifted off east to hunt over Yeyahu.  It is at least the fourth STE I have seen at WDL, having seen three in the autumn.

Short-toed Eagle, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

A few minutes later I spotted another two large raptors in the same area.  With the bins I could see they were large eagles and, through the telescope I could see they were Greater Spotted – a regular but uncommon visitor during migration.  Very nice!  They drifted east and seemed to go down in a small wood to the east of Yeyahu.

Greater Spotted Eagles, Ma Chang, 23 April 2011

At this point I was thinking how lucky I was to have experienced an excellent day but, little did I know, the icing on the cake was to come.  As the weather looked increasingly threatening, with showers in the mountains looking as if they were thinking about exploring the valley, I made my way to Yeyahu and, specifically, to ‘eagle field’ where I hoped to see the Greater Spotted and Short-toed Eagles again.  On the way I was entertained by at least 5 Eastern Marsh Harriers displaying over the reedbeds at Yeyahu – a real treat of aerobatic skill.  Then I picked up the Greater Spotted Eagles again – this time closer – and, as with the previous sighting, they gained height and drifted west before gliding back east and settling in the wood.  Just a few minutes later, ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, they were up again and this time they again gained height and worked their way slowly west into the wind and the approaching shower.  At this point they obviously felt the rain and they quickly turned.  One of the eagles drifted high east and I lost it to view.  The second clearly wasn’t allergic to rain and just dropped back into the wood.  At this point I got a drenching.  As I had been concentrating on the eagles, the shower had sneaked up on me and I ran for the cover of a hedgerow.  Thankfully the rain lasted no more than 5-10 minutes and I made my way to the viewing tower at ‘eagle field’ to have my packed lunch.

A heavy rain shower at Yeyahu (a rare occurence in itself!)
The view north from Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

From here I enjoyed another sighting of the Greater Spotted Eagle as well as counting the wildfowl on the eastern part of the reservoir.  There were good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall and Common Teal as well as a few Great Crested Grebes, Falcated Duck and 4 Smew.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

At about 1345 I began the walk back to the reserve entrance, where I had arranged to meet my taxi driver, looking over my shoulder every now and then to check for birds of prey.  About half-way to the entrance, during one of my glances, I spotted a large bird circling.. I thought it must be the eagle and set up the telescope.  To my surprise, it was not an eagle but a Pelican!  Unbelievable…   I immediately began to take notes on the plumage.  It was a much duskier bird than the brilliant white plumage of last week’s Great White Pelican and the secondaries were brown, not black.  The underwing was rather dusky without noticeable contrast between the primaries and secondaries.  It had to be a Dalmatian Pelican!  I grabbed the camera and fired off a few record images as it made its way west along the reservoir.  It looked majestic against the mountain backdrop as it slowly flapped its way across to Ma Chang.  Wow.

Dalmatian Pelican arriving at Wild Duck Lake from the east, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican showing underwing pattern, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011
Dalmatian Pelican, Yeyahu, 23 April 2011

I met my driver and caught the bus back to Beijing feeling very elated after an excellent day in the field.  What will this site turn up next??

Guest Post 3: Brian Jones – The Magic of Yeyahu NR and Ma Chang (Wild Duck Lake)

The third in the series of guest posts on Birding Beijing is from Brian Jones. Brian was kind enough to take me on my first visit to Wild Duck Lake (covering the areas of Ma Chang and Yeyahu Nature Reserve) soon after I arrived in Beijing and his enthusiasm for the place, as well as the great birds, made it a fantastic introduction to birding in China. That enthusiasm was infectious and I have since made regular visits to what is surely the premier birding site in the Beijing area. Brian visited WDL almost every week over a period of three years and thus has an unrivalled understanding of the birding in all seasons at this site and he has racked up an impressive list of records, including an amazing sighting of a Leopard Cat (with photo!). And so, with that short introduction, it’s over to Brian to tell you more about this wonderful place….

The Magic of Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Its Environs of Ma Chang

The viewing tower at "Eagle Field", Yeyahu Nature Reserve

This is my spiritual birdwatching home and somewhere I would recommend to any birder visiting Beijing.  It is good at all times of the year but perhaps marginally less so during June and July.

Yeyahu NR and neighbouring Ma Chang are, to my mind, the premier birdwatching sites in the Beijing area. Surprisingly the area is grossly under-birded and in the three years that I lived in Beijing having visited the site more than 160 times, apart from regulars like Jesper Hornskov, the highly respected China guide and his parties, I have probably seen no more than 30-40 birders.

The reserve lies approximately 80kms to the NW of Beijing and is reached by the Badaling expressway. The trip, depending on delays caused by trucks breaking down, normally takes about one and a half hours. But this can become over two and a half hours with delays so I got into the habit of busing out on Friday evening and staying overnight in Yanqing. My ever-reliable taxi driver Li Yan would look after me like a surrogate mother and pick me up at all hours.

My regular birdwatching companion Spike Millington and I would normally start at Ma Chang which is an open sandy desert-like area surrounded by crop fields mostly Maize and Peanuts.This is a haven for Cranes (Common, White-naped, Hooded, occasionally Demoiselle and Siberian) as well as the elusive Oriental Plover in the Spring (end of March-beginning of May and very occasionally in the Autumn), Great Bustard and raptors.

Demoiselle Crane, Wild Duck Lake

This is a wonderful location for raptors and it is not unusual to reach double figures of species during a day’s birdwatching. Larks are also plentiful including the much sought-after Mongolian Lark which, in the very cold winter of 2009/10, could be found in flocks of 200 birds. That particular winter also produced an irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse – one day I counted over 300 birds – and the extraordinary record of a dark variant Gyr Falcon. It is worthwhile exploring the area surrounding the wind turbines to the west of Ma Chang for Great Bustard, which are normally seen during the Autumn and late winter.

Mongolian Lark, Wild Duck Lake
Great Spotted Eagle ssp fulvescens, Wild Duck Lake
Pallass Sandgrouse, Wild Duck Lake, winter 2009/10

You can walk from Ma Chang to Yeyahu NR either through or round the fence that divides the two areas and it is certainly more worthwhile to do so as you will see far more birds than taxi cabbing from one to the other. Daurian Partridge are present in small numbers as well as Japanese Quail. During Winter and Spring time, the walk produces many Buntings, including the occasional irruption of Pine Buntings (one flock of 300 seen in 2010). I have also recorded the rare Streaked Reed Warbler along the edge of the reservoir.

Yeyahu NR produces a remarkable number of species considering the lack of any forested areas. If you want to find large raptors then head for the area we call Eagle field which lies between the lake and the reservoir to the north. Late morning in the Spring and Autumn will normally produce something special. Short-toed Eagle, which is a scarce bird in north China, is easily found here as well as Greater Spotted Eagles. During the winter White-tailed Eagles are commonly seen but, surprisingly, Golden Eagles are rare at Yeyahu. We have also found Booted and Terry Townshend this year saw an Imperial Eagle. I recorded Himalayan Griffon (2010) at this location. I believe it is the only Beijing record and I am quite sure a Steppe Eagle and Lammergeier will one day put in an appearance. Accipiters and Falcons are plentiful depending on the time of year with Saker Falcons being more common than Peregrines and an occasional Siberian Goshawk amongst the Northern Goshawks, being found. During migration it is not unusual to see migrating flocks of 50+ Amur falcons sometimes with small parties of Lesser Kestrel (best location at the bottom of Ma Chang). I found a flock of over 30 Lesser Kestrels one morning.

All the Harriers can be found with good numbers of Eastern Marsh (which breed both at Ma Chang and on the lake), Hen, Pied and on four occasions I have seen Pallid Harriers. Relict Gulls in the Spring and occasionally a Pallas’s Gull will show. Bitterns are common, I estimate there maybe as many as 30 breeding pairs of Great Bitterns in the area as well as good numbers of Von Schrenck’s, a rare bird in most areas of China, and the ubiquitous Yellow Bittern. If you walk along the boardwalk at Yeyahu early in the morning in May you will probably find Crakes or Water Rail. The reedbeds also hold breeding Chinese Penduline Tits, one of the very few places where they breed in the Beijing area, perhaps the only location and last year we recorded the first breeding pair of Chinese Grey Shrikes at Yeyahu for the area. Chinese Grey Shrikes, which are uncommon elsewhere, are common at Yeyahu during the winter.

One of my birdwatching friends Richard Carden from Singapore who has visited the site with me on several occasions has a habit of setting me lists of target birds to find. There have only been two glaring misses to the “list”, Great Bustard and Eagle Owl neither of which is normally that hard to locate at the appropriate time of the year. However Yeyahu made up for these deficiencies by producing an extralimital male Desert Wheatear and a Baird’s Sandpiper (yet to be ratified but the id of which we are both quite certain is correct) as well as a female Pallid Harrier. Peter Ericsson, the well-known guide from Bangkok was also present on one of the red-letter days. I would happily take an oath, that there is no such thing as a bad day during a visit to Yeyahu/Ma Chang. You can always count on the “Yeyahu surprise”.

Yeyahu also supports a considerable bio-diversity especially for lepidoptera, diurnal moths, amphibians and flora. Unfortunately to study lepidoptera you need to look down while birdwatching you are looking up so a choice must be made. I was also very lucky one morning to find myself walking down a track undetected behind a Leopard Cat which are rare now and usually strictly nocturnal.

Leopard Cat, Wild Duck Lake

There are of course aspects which are less favourable not least the “cavalry and dune buggies” who are out all year except during winter in the Ma Chang area.These are riders who charge hither and thither, yelling like cowboys, but falling off with great regularity. It is quite common to see riderless horses heading back to the corral followed some minutes later by a limping vacquero. Dune buggies have a nice habit of getting bogged down as do the cars full of photgraphers who spend much of their time chasing Lapwings. This is why it is worthwhile arriving at Ma Chang by 0700hrs before the Oriental Plovers etc. have been disturbed by the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. There used to be a problem with boatloads of shooting parties, mist netters, snare trappers and long-doggers, all illegal activities in China. But many of these activities have been curtailed because we took a very pro-active stance and “destroyed” all that crossed our path. You can never entirely limit poaching in China because there is a lack of understanding and caring amongst the local population but you can keep it under control by making a big fuss whenever you catch somebody setting up nets etc.
Finally I would recommend to any birder that they walk and not drive round the area. It will prove to be so much more rewarding. If you consider that the area has practically no trees and is mostly flat grassland, the 260 odd species that we have recorded in the reserve is, by China’s birdwatching standards, quite remarkable. I have rarely exceeded 60 species in a day at Yeyahu, but the list will always be full of unusual and exciting birds.

Brian Jones is a 66 years-old Art & Financial consultant who worked at Sothebys for ten years. He has spent three years in China, mostly in Beijing but now based in Shenzhen, working as an independent consultant with a Chinese metals information board and industrial re-cycling group as well as a Chinese investment company.  Brian has a great interest in all aspects of the environment, is a keen ornithologist and entomologist and an avid Scuba diver. He is also an ex-falconer, hence his excitement anytime something with a hooked beak flies past!.

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