This weekend has been something of a bonanza for me in Beijing. The weather had been very windy on Friday which cleared away all the smog and set up the weekend to be sunny, clear and (on Sunday at least) warm. I had planned to visit Wild Duck Lake for the first time in a while and was looking forward to seeing the cranes and anything else that might be about. In the back of my mind I knew that it was the beginning of the Oriental Plover season in Beijing and so I hoped, with a bit of luck, I might see one. I did, which was special in itself, but the day, and the weekend, just got better and better. I will limit this post to Saturday’s events and then follow up with another one about today (Sunday).
I hired a car for the weekend with Avis and set off early saturday morning to be at Wild Duck Lake around dawn. I went to Ma Chang first as, later in the day, this area is disturbed by horse-riders and motorised buggies, so if an Oriental Plover does happen to drop in, it probably won’t stay there for long. Along the entrance track I could see a huge flock of cranes, so I stopped to scan them with the telescope. Soon I picked up a single Hooded Crane in the group but despite searching through over a thousand Common Cranes, there were no other species there.. I had expected a few White-naped, having seen over 250 at Miyun last week, but I didn’t see a single one all day. This was all the more surprising when I received a SMS from Jan-erik Nilsen (who was at Miyun) to say that he had counted over 900 White-naped Cranes! Incredible.. That count easily smashes the highest known count in Beijing of 500 and eclipses the count of 256 by Paul Holt and me last week. There must be something about Miyun that attracts White-napes…
I moved on from the cranes and scanned the ‘desert’ area, the usual favoured place for Oriental Plover, but turned up a blank. I then walked to the lake edge and scanned the wildfowl. There were lots of duck, geese and swans but, frustratingly, they were very distant. Most of the ice had melted but there remained a few patches on the reservoir. Of course, of all the large areas of open water, the birds had chosen the one most difficult to view! Nevertheless, I counted 217 Swan Geese (a very good count), 224 Whooper Swans, 128 Ruddy Shelduck and good numbers of diving duck, including 83 Common Pochard.
The only real visible migration consisted of some corvids, including only my second record of Rook at Wild Duck Lake, and larks (mostly Skylarks).
I walked back to the car across the desert area just as the budding horsemen and women were starting to gallop around.. suddenly, I spotted what looked like a largish plover.. it had to be! And yes, it was one – an Oriental Plover! With patience and care, and despite being disturbed by curious horseriders a couple of times, I was able to get reasonably close to take a few photographs of this special bird.
I spent around an hour with the bird, watching it feed and, occasionally, interact with some nearby Lapwings. The wind was still gusty and, at times, it crouched down to shelter from the dust blowing across Ma Chang. Some of the horseriders felt the full force!
It was late morning when I decided to head off to Yeyahu and, instead of walking as I usually do, I took the hire car and drove to the reserve. Here I walked around the southern perimeter for the first time and, when I reached the far end of the lake, I scanned the group of large gulls that was assembled in the middle of the water. Large gulls are scarce at Wild Duck Lake for most of the year, so I was interested to see which species were involved. Mongolian Gull is by far the most common large gull on passage as they migrate from their coastal wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in Mongolia and Russia. Sure enough, the vast majority were Mongolian Gulls and I counted 85 adults and 2 immatures. The scan through the flock also revealed two interlopers – stunning breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls! Wow.. Pallas’s Gull was a bird I was hoping to see when I moved to China and I saw my first at Jinzhou Bay in Dalian last winter.. but that bird was in winter plumage. These two beauties were something else.. Most of the time they sat on the water about as far away from any viewing point as was possible. But occasionally they would take off, do a circuit of the lake, and then land again.. it was during these flights that it was possible to gain some pretty special views..
It was cool to watch one of the birds as it circled with the Great Wall in the background!
The walk down to the reservoir viewing tower was uneventful and did not produce any unusual raptors.. however, Merlin, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and (Eastern) Buzzard were all appreciated. I returned to the lake to see the gulls again and I enjoyed these birds for my last half an hour on site before I began the drive back home, elated.
What a day! Little did I know what I was to find the following day….