When Jesper Hornskov (a China-based Danish birder and guide) called to ask whether I wanted to accompany him and a group of Swiss and UK birders to Happy Island in late September, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind. I had read many mouth-watering trip reports about the birding on Happy Island and spoken to many friends who had been. The vast majority went in Spring, with many of the birds in resplendent breeding plumage. Happy Island seemed to be much less frequently visited in the autumn, despite being slap bang in the middle of the East Asian flyway.
And so it was with a sense of excitement and expectation that I journeyed to the airport to meet with Jesper and the crew (David Marques, Christian Beerli and Pirmin Nietlisbach from Switzerland and Jon Mercer from England) for the 2-3 hour drive to Beidaihe, our first stop. The weather was appalling with strong winds, heavy rain and cool temperatures (around 12 degrees C). We arrived in Beidaihe around 45 minutes before dusk so we dumped our bags at the Frienship Hotel and crossed the road to view the mudflats, hoping for a few shorebirds before the 5am start and trip south to Happy Island the following day.
There is now no access onto the flats themselves following the building of a wooden walkway and perimeter fence. This is clearly good for the birds – less disturbance – but not so good for birders in terms of getting good views of the birds! With the tide a fair way out and in fading light, we didn’t get great views of anything, with the exception of some very close feeding Red-necked Stints. Nevertheless, in addition to the stints, we managed to pick up Eurasian Curlew, Red-breasted Merganser, Kentish Plover, Black-tailed Gull, Saunders’ Gull, Black-headed Gull, Mongolian Gull and Greenshank.
We awoke the next morning to driving rain, strong winds and even colder temperatures, making me wish I had brought my gloves – a stark contrast to the weather in Beijing just a day earlier – 28 degrees C and sunny! Our first stop on the way to Happy Island was at a small tidal river called Dapu. The foul weather meant that, for the first few hours, we scanned from the car. Here we soon picked up Baikal Teal, Pied Harrier, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank, Chinese Pond Heron and Common Snipe. As the rain began to wane (it’s all relative – it was still raining persistently!) we made a quick dash for an old brick structure that was to be our base for the next 2-3 hours, providing welcome shelter from the elements as well as being a good vantage point to look out over the estuary. From here we added Falcated Duck, Moorhen, Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits, Far Eastern Curlew, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Wagtail, Purple Heron, Little Grebe, Garganey, Whiskered Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Marsh Sandpiper, Yellow Bittern, Oriental Pratincole, Osprey, Hobby, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harrier, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Oriental Great Reed Warbler, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Black Drongo, Eastern Black-tailed Godwit and, best of all, at least 4 Long-billed Plovers!
At about 1230, and with the rain easing, we began the drive south to Happy Island, stopping at a local restaurant for lunch where we added a flyover Black-naped Oriole. From the car we saw more Pied and Eastern Marsh Harriers as well as several Amur Falcons resting on overhead wires. On arrival at the quay, the rain started again as we boarded our boat for the short (5-10 minutes) journey across the water.
Little and Gull-billed Terns were just about identified through the rainy windows. We were met at the quay on Happy Island by a sort of giant electronic golf buggy that took us south towards our accommodation. A Chinese Grey Shrike on wires was a good welcome to the island and we soon realised that there had been a fall of Siberian Stonechats – they were everywhere – and the calls of Yellow-browed Warblers kept us company from the trackside trees.
The accommodation was basic but comfortable with hot water, including a shower and air conditioning.
We dumped our bags and headed out for the last few hours of daylight. The golf buggy took us further south towards the island’s temple and, just before we reached the end of the track where the buggy would drop us, we stumbled across a large group of egrets which, on scrutiny, revealed two superb Oriental White Storks – a great start! These birds are endangered and are not usually seen on Happy Island in September (they breed in north-east Russia and usually migrate later in the autumn). We enjoyed these birds on the deck and in flight, seeing the large, dark bills and the white markings on the secondaries. Nice.
Meanwhile, a Black-capped Kingfisher called from the edge of the wood and revealed itself only briefly before flying deeper into cover.
By now the rain had stopped and the cloud was clearly lifting but there was still a cold fresh wind as we walked through the ‘west wood’ and out to the mud flats. The walk produced several Japanese Quail, a Lanceolated Warbler, several Dusky Warblers and 3 Ashy Minivets.
At dusk we headed back and enjoyed a typically good Chinese meal in the island restaurant before crashing early ahead of the 0530 start the next day.
The next day dawned bright, sunny and with a much reduced wind. Jesper had told us that he expected it to be a good day. After a couple of days of bad weather, there was likely to be a ‘backlog’ of birds ready to migrate and the cold night over the mainland was likely to stimulate more birds to move south. We headed out at 0530 and took up position just south of Temple Wood. Here we watched the visible migration for a few hours. And what a few hours it was – there were birds everywhere. Just lifting your bins and looking at a random patch of sky produced birds.. lots of birds. Olive-backed Pipits buzzed overhead, Oriental Turtle Doves whizzed through and buntings (Black-faced, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed, Little, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared and Yellow-throated) were dropping out of the sky all over the area..
Common Rosefinches called and a Wryneck sat up on a nearby shrub. Brown Shrikes called from the bushes and Dusky Warblers gave themselves away by with their sharp ‘tack’ calls. Orioles fluttered past and the occasional Hobby dashed through, pausing only to take the odd dragonfly. Sparrowhawks (both Japanese and Eurasian) bombed through and the bushes were full of phylloscs, mostly Yellow-browed but with the odd Pallas’s and a Two-barred Greenish that remained faithful to a single shrub. A couple of Siberian Rubythroats popped out onto the track nearby before just as quickly diving back into cover. It was a Siberian paradise!
Jesper picked up a couple of Pechora Pipits overhead and then excelled himself by picking out a Hair-crested Drongo that came low past the West Wood. A Rufous-bellied Woodpecker dropped into the wood and a Bluethroat sat up on the reeds next to a Zitting Cisticola. The migration was a real spectacle. After several hours of enjoying the visible migration, we tore ourselves away to search the woods. Jesper picked up a Lancy straight away and soon we were watching this incredible little warbler sneaking away, mouse-like, by crawling through the grass.. We then enjoyed views of Red-flanked Bluetail, Taiga Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Northern Goshawk.
Jesper showed us a few ditches that had, in the past, been good for watching the shy thrushes – White’s and Siberian – and with the heavy rain of the previous two days, these ditches sported a healthy water level. Definitely a good place to sit quietly and watch out for thrushes coming down to drink….
The walk to the restaurant for lunch revealed that there was a raptor passage beginning with Sparrowhawk, Hobby and Eastern Marsh Harrier circling overhead. After a short lunch we headed out to the open ground to take in the raptors.. The first of many Oriental Honey Buzzards drifted over and soon there were tens of these birds flying right overhead, some very low, allowing us to see the variability of this smart bird of prey.
Amur Falcons joined the throng and more Eastern Marsh and Pied Harriers came through, joined by a single Eastern Common Buzzard. By mid-afternoon the passage slowed and several Oriental Honey Buzzards were roaming the island looking for suitable roost sites.
We headed back to the woods to stake out the ditches and, no sooner had we arrived, a White’s Thrush crept slowly to the water’s edge and began to drink.. fantastic! We were all in awe of the birding day we had just witnessed. What a place!
Day two on the island was always going to struggle to compete with day one and visible migration was much reduced in the calm, bright weather. However, we still picked up new birds. A Blyth’s Pipit revealed itself by calling as it flew overhead and we were able to compare the structure of this bird with the regular Richard’s Pipits. The Blyth’s looked much more compact and short-tailed, almost recalling a small pipit.
A Thick-billed Reed Warbler was picked up by the Swiss guys and, as they searched the nearby bushes, a male Black-throated Thrush flew from the closest shrub and out towards the West Wood. An Oriental Cuckoo whizzed through, identified by its relatively dark appearance and very contrasting underwing pattern.
A check of the woods produced more Radde’s Warblers, more Red-flanked Bluetails and a good sprinkling of Pallas’s Warblers.
A check of the ditches produced one, then two Eye-browed Thrushes and almost certainly the same White’s Thrush from the previous day.
Another look at the sand flats produced a couple of Tristram’s Buntings on the walk out and, at the flats themselves, some very distant and (at least to me, unidentifiable!) Relict Gulls amongst the Saunders, Black-headed and Mongolian Gulls, with good numbers of Pacific Golden Plover, Eurasian and Far Eastern Curlew, Kentish Plover, a few Terek Sandpipers, Greenshanks and a small flock of Great Knots.
At dusk we headed for the highest point on the island, the site of a sort of large Chinese gate, to watch the roosting Night Herons. A Chinese Pond Heron was picked up by Jon and three thrushes (probably Eye-browed) were seen flying into Temple Wood. The walk back to the restaurant after sunset produced a hawking Grey Nightjar – a real bonus! Dinner was enjoyed with a nice (but very weak!) Chinese beer.
Unfortunately, the next morning was to be my last on the island. We headed for the visible migration watchpoint and again enjoyed more Olive-backed, Red-throated and Richard’s Pipits, a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings, White-cheeked Starlings, Chestnut-flanked White-eyes, some early Bean Geese, more Amur Falcons and, again, lots of buntings with Black-faced and Little the most common. Two Hoopoes added a splash of colour. As the sun began to warm up the air, at least 4 Thick-billed Reed Warblers climbed onto exposed perches to sun themselves and three thrushes flew in from the west, one of which perched briefly on a far shrub. A short scope view revealed a smart Naumann’s Thrush.
By now I only had an hour left before I had to make my way to the quay and begin the journey back to Beijing. We made for the woods and the ditch again produced three Eye-browed Thrushes and another ditch nearby revealed a White’s Thrush. Reluctantly I tore myself away and, after saying my goodbyes to the Swiss team, Jon and Jesper, I headed back to the hut to collect my things and head home. Jesper’s faultless logistical arrangements meant that, through a combination of boat, taxi to Tangshan, bus from Tangshan to Beijing, I was back home in Beijing within 4 hours.
The Swiss guys – David, Piermin and Christian, were planning to stay for another week and I know that they will have an amazing time, especially with the thrushes beginning to arrive. Fingers crossed they connect with a nice male Siberian Thrush! I am looking forward to hearing about their adventure…
Happy Island is still an amazing place, despite the obvious development that has taken place over the last few years. However, it is unclear for how much longer this will remain the case. Apparently there are plans for a 4-star hotel on the island which, once built, will be the only place at which one can stay – the old huts will be torn down. Building work is scheduled to start this year. There are also tentative plans for a golf course, so the current habitat faces great pressure. It was reassuring, however, from a conversation with the manager of the island that the Temple Wood and the West Wood are likely to be retained. Perhaps if more birdwatchers visited, they would be encouraged to protect more of the habitat to retain their custom… In the meantime, I can say with absolute conviction that my first day on Happy Island was the best birding I have ever experienced and I am simply astonished that more birders don’t visit in autumn. If you are interested, in either spring or autumn, I can wholeheartedly recommend Jesper Hornskov as a guide and as a ground agent who can arrange the logistics. As a Chinese speaker and with around 20 years experience of birding on the island, he knows it better than anyone and, importantly, is a thoroughly nice guy!