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.