On Sunday I joined forced with Beijing-based English birders, Brian Jones and ‘Spike’ Millington (brother to Richard of Birding World fame) for a trip to Wild Duck Lake, Chinese name “Yeyahu”. This site is about 90-120 minutes north-west of Beijing and lies just beyond the popular section of the Great Wall at Badaling and close to the town of Yanqing.
The site is a flat steppe-like area of mostly grassland with a reservoir, a small reedbed, an area of shrubs and a few trees, nestled between two sets of mountains to the north and south. It is often windy here – the mountains act as a sort of wind tunnel – and the wind is often from the north-west, originating from Siberia and across Inner Mongolia, apparently making the wind chill in winter a teeth-chattering -20 degrees Celsius or below.. yikes.
This site can easily be day-tripped from Beijing but Brian wanted to ensure we were on site for dawn (there can be disturbance from horse-riders from around 0730), so we decided to travel the evening before, stay overnight in a local hotel and begin birding at dawn. We met at the bus station and caught a bus from Beijing to Yanqing.
A meal in the local restaurant around the corner from our hotel (cost – GBP 8.50 for three, including beer) set us up nicely for the following day.
Brian, a regular at this site – in fact he is writing a book about its birds – had arranged for a local driver to pick us up at 0530 the following morning for the 20 minute drive to the park. At 0530 in the dot our car arrived and off we went..
It was pretty windy and decidedly chilly at 0600 so I was soon glad I had packed my gloves as the Siberian wind howled relentlessly from the north-west. Viewing birds on the ground wasn’t easy in the wind but we picked off Hen Harrier, Eurasian Skylark, a single Greater Short-toed Lark, Black-eared Kite, Lapwing, Spotted Redshank, Eurasian Starling (a rare bird in China) and a possible first for Yeyahu – a Grey Plover! Brian couldn’t hide his excitement about this find… and soon had the camera out snapping a few record shots.
A couple of Eastern Marsh Harriers quartered the fields and a group of Chinese Spot-billed Duck circled before settling on the reservoir. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk raided some nearby bushes, flushing a few Buntings (mostly Little) and a superb Chinese Grey Shrike sat, sentinel-like, on a low bush sheltered by the reedbed.
As we walked to a small spit protruding out into the reservoir, we flushed a group of pipits and wagtails. Most were juvenile White Wagtails but the pipits proved to be mostly Buff-bellied, with a single Richard’s Pipit that flew over our heads uttering its distinctive call.
The walk from the reservoir to the lake produced Zitting Cisticola, Hobby, Little Bunting, Yellow Wagtail and Grey Heron and the lake itself held Wigeon, Common Teal, Gadwall, Coot, Mallard, Great-crested and Little Grebe. More Little Buntings were in the reeds and along the path and we flushed a Japanese Quail from a patch of longer grass.
As the day began to warm up and the wind eased, we began to see more raptors. A few Common Buzzards (a passage migrant here) began to rise on the thermals and a couple more Hen Harriers took to the wing.
After viewing the lake, Brian decided to take the boardwalk across the middle of the lake while Spike and I preferred the wooded perimeter track, in the hope that there may be some warblers or flycatchers. It wasn’t long before we picked up an unfamiliar call (a sort of upward-slurring “choo-wit” and soon discovered a small phyllosc. It looked superficially like a drab Yellow-browed Warbler but we could soon see that it had a very pronounced median crown-stripe that began just behind the forehead. I immediately thought it must be a washed-out Pallas’s Warbler but there were no yellowish tones to the plumage at all and it did not have a yellow rump. Our thoughts turned to the other leaf warblers and, after watching the bird for the next 10 minutes or so, Spike was reasonably confident it must be a Chinese Leaf Warbler. Our bird was soon joined by three other phylloscs, this time Pallas’s Leaf Warblers.
This photo shows one of the Pallas’s Warblers also present.
Moving on from the phylloscs to meet with Brian, our progress was soon halted again when we caught sight of 4 raptors circling some distance away. Three were clearly Common Buzzards but the fourth was larger with a very different jizz. It had a squarish tail, almost horizontal wings and the underparts were very pale.. As it banked, I could see the upperwing pattern – mostly dark with lighter patches on the coverts. The underparts looked uniformly pale with a darkish head/throat. Short-toed Eagle immediately entered our minds and, although the bird was still very distant, we were soon convinced this is what we were watching – a rare bird for northern China. As it drifted even further away, we set off to meet Brian, knowing that he had already been at the northern observation point for a while.
We headed north along the path with more raptors circling overhead.. more Common Buzzards.. Then, almost overhead we suddenly noticed a larger bird.. Again, pale underneath, square tail and larger than Common Buzzard. Short-toed Eagle! Now it was almost directly above us and, as we watched it circling and occasionally hovering, suddenly a second bird swooped and both engaged in a short talon-tussle while calling to each other. The original bird then began an undulating flight with deep wingbeats, reminiscent of the butterfly-like display flight of Honey Buzzard. A fantastic sight!
The second bird (see last photo) was much paler, lacking the barring on the underparts and the dark head pattern. On checking the trusty Forsman guide, I believe this indicates an immature (possibly a 3cy) bird.
We reached the northern watchpoint and hooked up with Brian, who had been enjoying these birds from the watchtower. After a spot of lunch we walked back on the leeward side of the trees, heading to the entrance of the park. Lots more Little Buntings, a juvenile Goshawk, a couple of Olive-backed Pipits, a few more Common Buzzards and another Hobby kept us company as we reached the entrance to the park, from where our driver collected us for the short drive back to the bus station. After a bit of a wait here (the queues were long due to the public holiday), I arrived back in Beijing at dusk, pretty tired but exhilarated by my day out of quality birding in the company of two of Beijing’s finest.. A good site and one that I would like to visit again pretty often if I can. Apparently during the 2009/10 harsh winter, the site held several hundred Pallas’s Sandgrouse (not annual there) plus a flock of 200+ Pine Buntings and several Mongolian Larks… now that would be worth braving the -20 degrees cold for!