One of the advantages of living in Beijing is that many prominent figures visit. Occasionally the visitors are birders and, as part of their visit, they are keen to see some of the special birds that can be found around the Chinese capital. A few weeks ago the British Ambassador informed me about the latest prominent visitor, Rt. Hon. Ken Clarke MP (Senior Cabinet Minister and former Chancellor of the Exchequer), who would be visiting on a trade mission and, on the Sunday before his official engagements began, he was keen to see some birds. Of course, I was only too delighted to accompany Ken and his wife Gillian on a birding trip and, after an exchange with the Minister’s office about possible destinations, we settled on Shidu, a spectacular gorge in the southwest of Beijing. This is one of Beijing’s prime birding sites in winter, hosting a number of special, and relatively easy to see, species including, among others, BLACK STORK (黑鹳), CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) , BROWN DIPPER (褐河乌), LONG-BILLED PLOVER (长嘴剑鴴) and WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀).
I arranged for Paul Holt, who had coincidentally birded with the Rt Honourable gentleman in India several years ago, to join us and so the four of us set off from the Ambassador’s Residence at 0730 for the 2-hour drive to Shidu.
It was a gorgeous winter’s day in Beijing with clear blue skies, no wind and a relatively mild temperature of -2 degrees Celsius that soon dipped to -5 degrees Celsius as we hit the mountains.
Our first stop was the famous “bridge 6” where, for at least 3 years, a lone WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) has been in residence. This bird has learned to take advantage of the meal worms put out by the local photographers and often shows incredibly well. Before we made the short walk to the Wallcreeper site we stood on the bridge to scan the river. Immediately we saw two BLACK STORKS (黑鹳) at the top of a cliff, basking in the early morning sunlight. Not a bad start! Then I caught sight of two BROWN DIPPERS (褐河乌) which zipped through and were gone before our esteemed guest could see them. And it was then, whilst scanning for the dippers, that I saw a lone snipe bobbing amongst the rocks of the river.. Training the telescope onto it Paul immediately identified it as a SOLITARY SNIPE (孤沙锥).. wow.. a new bird for me and a new Beijing bird for Paul.. as well as being a completely new bird for Ken and Gillian. An unexpected bonus!
The reappearance of the BROWN DIPPERS (褐河乌), along with the almost incidental sightings of two LONG-BILLED PLOVERS (长嘴剑鴴) and several blakistoni WATER PIPITS (水鹨), completed a spectacular start to the day…
After a short walk to the WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) site we stood, in the company of around 10 bird photographers, and waited for the star attraction to arrive. Almost immediately we were treated to several fly-bys from the local HILL PIGEONS (岩鸽) and a pair of PLUMBEOUS WATER REDSTARTS (红尾水鸲) performed well along a small stream.
Then, out of nowhere, the WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) arrived… flying in to a ledge just a few metres above the awaiting photographers and proceeding to edge its way down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms laid out in strategic positions that enabled the paparazzi to snap the most aesthetically pleasing photos. It was pretty special to see a WALLCREEPER (红翅旋壁雀) so close and we all enjoyed stunning views.
Immediately afterwards I was impressed to see Mr Clarke delve into his pocket, pull out his notebook and begin scribbling notes about his sightings.. a true birder!
We moved on further up the valley and found a group of beautiful MANDARIN DUCKS (鴛鴦), including 4 splendid males, before heading up to the north of the gorge to look for one of Shidu’s other specialities – the CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫). We parked up at a pull-in that offered expansive views across the nearby mountains and took the opportunity to tuck in to our packed lunches as we waited. A group of SILVER-THROATED TITS (北长尾山雀银喉长尾山雀) and a couple of GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS (戈氏岩鹀) kept us company until we spotted the first large raptor. It was distant but, through the telescope there was no mistaking our first CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) of the day, soon followed by two more, this time much closer. Awesome birds. Two more, or the same, BLACK STORKS (黑鹳) patrolled the valley before turning around and heading south again, a SAKER (猎隼) showed itself briefly above a distant ridge and an immature GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) drifted overhead. A set of sightings that would grace any birding location, let alone a site in one of the busiest capital cities in the world.
We reluctantly had to head back to ensure our Rt Honourable guest was back at the embassy in time for his pre-briefing. A quick stop at bridge 7 on the journey home produced a stunning WHITE-CAPPED WATER REDSTART (白顶溪鸲) and another, unscheduled, stop delivered single UPLAND (大鵟) and EASTERN BUZZARDS (普通鵟) soaring together and being mobbed by two PEREGRINES (游隼) – a pretty good end to another great day’s birding in Beijing.
A big thank you to Ken, Gillian and Paul for being brilliant company throughout the day. It was a real pleasure to spend time ‘in the field’ with you all…