CHIFFCHAFF – new for Beijing (or not)

Beijing doesn’t have a rarities committee and the most recent municipality bird list was published in 2011.  So keeping a handle on the birds recorded in the capital requires a combination of finding birds oneself, building as many links as possible with local birders and monitoring the websites that showcase the work of the burgeoning local community of bird photographers.

It was the latter that revealed the presence of what we initially thought was Beijing’s first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Early in the new year, friend Li Xiaomai spotted some images of a CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺), taken in the Olympic Forest Park, on the www.birdnet.cn website and alerted local birders.  The photographer was apparently waiting for the appearance of a WINTER WREN (鹪鹩) when a “warbler” popped into view and he, opportunistically, reeled off some photos and posted them on the Beijing section of the website.  Little did he know that he had snapped a major rarity!

With a new smartphone “chat group” recently set up in Beijing to share bird sightings, news of the presence of this CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) spread fast and, the next morning, there was a massive (by Beijing standards) “twitch” for the bird involving 8 birders, both ex-pat and Chinese.

After hearing the bird call once early morning from a dense reedbed, there was no sign for the next few hours in an extensive search of the ‘wetland’ area, in which it was reported to be feeding the previous day.  Reluctantly, I decided to leave as I had lots to do, and I began to make my way out of the park to the metro station with friend, Jennifer Leung.  On the way out, almost at the end of the reedbed area, I spotted a small bird feeding low down on the edge of the reeds.  It looked promising and, quickly lifting my binoculars, I could see that it was the CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺).  Jennifer watched it as I called and messaged the other birders on site, who had by now dispersed over a wide area.  I then settled down to observe and photograph the bird as it fed, very obligingly, along the base of a small reedbed just a couple of metres away.

2014-01-07 tristis Chiffchaff
CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 7 January 2014.
COMMON CHIFFCHAFF ssp tristis, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, 6 January 2014.  At the time, thought to be the first record for the capital.
CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺, Phylloscopus collybita tristis), Olympic Forest Park. The first documented record for Beijing.
Although slightly blurred, this photo shows the greenish/yellow tinge under the shoulder.

Fortunately, two local birders Zhu Lei and Que Pinjia were on the scene quickly and secured excellent views but, disappointingly, the bird soon disappeared into a dense reedbed before the others arrived.  It was seen briefly later in the afternoon and has been seen on several days since.

As expected for a vagrant CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in eastern China, the bird was of the ‘tristis‘ subspecies.  The greyish brown plumage, jet-black legs and bill and the high-pitched and slightly down-slurred call were all typical of this race, considered by some to be a full species.

At the time we all thought that this bird was the first CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) to be recorded in Beijing.  It does not appear on the municipality list by Liu Yang from 2011 and there are no reports on the Birdtalker database.  However, it has since come to light that one was seen in February 2008 at Baiwangshan (in the northwest of the city) by respected local birder, Wen Chen.  So the Olympic Forest Park bird is the second record for the capital.

With thanks to Paul Holt, here is a short summary of the status of CHIFFCHAFF (叽喳柳莺) in China:

“Chiffchaff wasn’t an unexpected addition to the Beijing list as there are at least three reports from coastal Hebei (one on Happy Island on 14 May 2002; one at Lighthouse Point, Beidaihe during 16-19 May 2006 & one in the Lotus Hills, Beidaihe on 10 May 2007).  Despite the timing of the Hebei records (May – when there are lots of birders in the Happy Island-Beidaihe area), winter has always been thought to be the most likely time this species would turn up in Beijing.  

There’s at least one winter record from Yancheng NNR in coastal Jiangsu Province and seven (?) records from Hong Kong (including one recently in “Long Valley”). This form of Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita tristis, winters in India & it’s sometimes split as Siberian Chiffchaff P. tristis.  In China it’s restricted to breeding in the Altai Mountains of northern Xinjiang Province (north-west China) but is a locally common passage migrant through much of at least the western part of that province. Elsewhere it occurs as a fairly common migrant in western Qinghai where Jesper Hornskov (in an unpublished report on the Birds recorded at Golmud, Qinghai Province, China, 1980-1994) recorded 256 bird-days – just one spring record (23 March 1994) but fairly common between 25 September and 21 November, plus a late straggler on the 18 December 1990. Numbers varied year on year with 132 bird-days & a high count of 10 on the 3 November in 1991 compared to just 68 bird-days and a high count of eight on the 3 October in 1993.

There’s a record from Shandong Province in the new checklist and Common Chiffchaff has apparently also been recorded in Liaoning Province (it was included in Bai Qingquan’s unpublished List of the Birds of Liaoning, Jan. 2012), Henan Province (as it was included in an unpublished List of the Birds of Dongzhai NNR, Luoshan provided by researcher Du Zhiyong on 4 January 2010), Shaanxi Province (one at Yangxian on the 15 Dec 2003 [Phil Heath] was the first, and possibly still the only provincial record), another was photographed at Yandong Lake, Wuhan on 4 December 2009 (Zhang Shuyong in China Bird Watch 71, p32) – the first record for Hubei Province.  There’s a short article on this occurrence in the same issue. The Jiangsu record is of one that was seen at Yancheng NNR by Mark Beaman & a BirdQuest group sometime in the 1990s.”

Beijing Birders Meet-up

In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders.  There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more…  plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.

Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza.  Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.

It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.

Thanks to Jennifer Leung for the photos below.

From left to right: Paul Holt, Colm Moore (front), Terry Townhsend and Tom Beeke.
From left to right: Paul Holt (UK), Colm Moore (front, representing Ireland), Terry Townshend (UK) and Tom Beeke (Canada, making a special guest appearance from Dalian).
From left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alstrom (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen.
Clockwise from left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Paul Holt (UK), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alström (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen (Sweden) and (the right side of) Craig Brelsford (US).

Japanese Robin

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012

Today I did something unusual.  I ‘twitched’ a bird in Beijing.  But it wasn’t just any bird; it was a JAPANESE ROBIN (Larvivora akahige).

A friend sent me a message yesterday afternoon to say that one had been discovered in a small park close to Beijing West Railway Station and near the 3rd Ring Road.  It seemed an unlikely spot for what, I believe, is only the second record of this species from Beijing Municipality.  That’s the beauty of birding – just about anything can turn up anytime and anywhere.

I arranged to meet new Beijing resident birder and friend, Jennifer Leung, at 0645 for the short journey to the site, where we met with Zhu Lei and a few of his birding companions.  I knew that this bird would be popular with bird photographers, a growing band of which is active in Beijing.  I didn’t quite expect the crowd that greeted us on arrival.  There were at least 30 photographers already lined up in a semi-circle around the robin’s favoured stand of bamboo.  It was very sociable and people were chatting and drinking tea while waiting for the bird to appear.

Bird Photographers at the Japanese Robin site in Beijing, 24 November 2012. How many pairs of binoculars do you see?? :)

They didn’t have to wait very long.  Someone spotted the Japanese Robin as it headed towards the open ground.  Silence suddenly descended on the crowd as everyone focused their lenses on a small stone, around which some meal worms had been placed.  Out popped the Japanese Robin and there was a brief volley of camera shutters, as if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had just arrived at the Oscars, before the bird darted back into cover.

I concentrated on watching the bird during this first brief appearance.  In size and behaviour it reminded me very much of the European Robin I am so used to from home.  But somehow it was more exotic, with wonderful contrast between the bright orange throat and black-speckled grey breast.  A really beautiful bird.

The robin continued to make regular forays from its favoured patch of bamboo, much to the delight of the photographers and, as the sun moved higher in the sky, the light improved, enabling some good images to be captured, even with my relatively small 400m lens!

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012. A stunning, and most unexpected, bird.

A little later I was fortunate when I found the robin foraging along a different part of the bamboo and, as I sat motionless, it hopped to within a metre of me.  I just watched in awe as the robin held its head to one side, as if to weigh up what I was, before carrying on along the edge of the bamboo…  wow.. what an encounter.  It appeared to have a bad eye – on occasions it would close its left eye for several seconds at a time before slowly reopening it.  In all other respects it looked healthy and seemed to be moving and feeding ok..  Hopefully it’s not a serious problem.

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012. Although generally preferring the shade of the bamboo, occasionally it emerged into the open and posed for the cameras.

As far as I know there is only one previous record of Japanese Robin in Beijing.  That bird, like this one, appeared in the second half of November.  It was photographed in the Botanical Gardens.  Many people thought it was probably an escape.  However, with this year’s bird appearing around the same time of year, together with another bird in Shanghai in recent days, it seems likely that this bird is wild.  I spoke today with a local birder who told me he had, over a ten year period, seen over 300 species of bird in Beijing’s Bird Market (astonishing in itself) but that he had never seen this species there.

Whatever its origins, it is a stunning bird and one well worth spending a few hours observing today.  Thanks to Jennifer Leung, Zhu Lei and his friends for their fun company today.