First for Beijing: LESSER COUCAL

Having not been birding much recently, Paul Holt and I visited Miyun Reservoir on Saturday in the hope of finding some inland shorebirds.  Due to the exceptionally high water levels (we have ‘enjoyed’ a wetter than usual spring and summer this year) we did not find any muddy fringes attractive to waders.  Thus, we hardly saw any (just two Black-winged Stilts, one Wood Sandpiper heard only, and 3 Pintail or Swinhoe’s Snipe).  However, the day was not without good birds…

Shortly after our arrival, and in fantastically still conditions, we heard this:

A Yellow-legged Buttonquail singing (if you can call it singing!).  This is a very difficult to see species and I have only recorded it once before in Beijing – in late May 2012 when I inadvertently flushed one along the Wenyu River.  After one burst of song, it fell silent and we didn’t try to see it by walking through the long grass…  As it happened we would see another Yellow-legged Buttonquail later that day on the other side of the reservoir,  this time a juvenile…  Fortunately I managed a (poor) record image before it disappeared into the maize crops.

Yellow-legged Buttonquail (Turnix tanki), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013
Yellow-legged Buttonquail (Turnix tanki), Juvenile, Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013

However, the undoubted highlight was when Paul heard what he immediately thought was a LESSER COUCAL…  we investigated and, sure enough, sitting atop a shrub about 200 metres away was a singing male…  wow!  The first record for Beijing.   It proceeded to sing almost continuously for the next hour or so, roaming across a fairly wide area around the reservoir.  Although photos were difficult to secure, I was able to obtain this record image.

Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013.  The first record for Beijing!
Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 27 July 2013. The first record for Beijing!

Separating Greater and Lesser Coucal is not necessarily straightforward, especially from photographs, so in order to properly document this record it was important to secure a sound recording (song is a good way to distinguish this pair).  Using the video facility of our Canon EOS7Ds we made this recording which is of surprisingly good quality!

At one point we could hear the Coucal singing with an Asian Koel calling in the background.  Asian Koel, until very recently, was a rare bird in Beijing.  It was first recorded in the capital as recently as 1983 and has been occurring with increasing frequency.  This year there have been at least 17 sightings!

So, not many shorebirds but the experience of Saturday just goes to show that we should expect the unexpected!


Lesser Coucal status (courtesy of Paul Holt):

This is the first record for Beijing.  There are at least five reports of single Lesser Coucals from coastal Hebei – three from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao (with sightings at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 May 2000, Radar marsh on the 23 May 2003 and again at the Heng He Reservoir on the 23 June 2007) and at least two reports from Happy Island, Leting (one on 22/5/2001 & the only autumn record – a single on the 30 September 2007). Interestingly Greater Coucal has also been seen twice at Beidaihe – with one during the 6-8/8/1994 with two from  the 9-11/8/1994 (Dierschke and Heintzenberg 1994 & Williams 2000


EDIT: It has been brought to my attention (many thanks to “虚弱人类” on Sina Weibo) that a LESSER COUCAL was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, on 27 June 2012.  Images can be seen here.  Our record at Miyun, therefore, becomes the second record for Beijing.

3 thoughts on “First for Beijing: LESSER COUCAL”

  1. Wow – lesser coucal – I never would have thought! I hadn’t noticed that there were sightings of it in Hebei – just think those are so unlikely that I don’t think about it. Coucals are a handsome bird and really fun to see so far north. I hadn’t realized that Koels were now being seen in Beijing, more than just the odd one out. What will be next?

    1. Hi Gretchen… yes, who knows what will be next?! I think some species are moving north (e.g. Chinese Bulbul, Russet Sparrow, Ferruginous Duck) and the reasons are unclear. It’s likely that climate change is playing a role but there are also, I am sure, other factors such as degradation of habitat on the traditional breeding grounds. Of course, those species doing well and expanding their range are outnumbered by those whose populations are moving in the opposite direction. We shouldn’t lose sight of that but, at the same time, it’s nice to celebrate some positive news from time to time!

      1. I think in China there’s no doubt that inadequacies in observation and communication are two reasons that there’s so much still to discover (as you’ve said yourself). First there are not so many people watching birds and taking careful note of what they see, and secondly due to the many nationalities of observers (and particularly lack of communication between Chinese and non-Chinese), observations don’t get too well broadcast. That is a bit simplified – I admit there are other complexities as well. Nevertheless, I keep hoping that these two issues will be overcome. Thanks for all that you do keeping your eyes open and keeping communication open.

        And, as you said, we could be terribly discouraged by the situation for birds in a crowded and rapidly developing country, but we have to keep looking at the exciting parts too because celebrating the good will attract attention locally, giving people something to enjoy and want to put more effort into.

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