With the days shortening, falling temperatures and the emergence of winter woollies, it’s an exciting time to be a birder in Beijing. As most people wrap up and stay indoors to minimise their exposure to what can be a brutal Beijing winter, with sub-zero temperatures and icy northwesterly winds from Siberia, I am itching to get out as much as possible to my favourite winter birding destination – Lingshan. Situated around 110km west of Tiananmen Square, Lingshan is Beijing’s highest mountain and one of the very few high places that is not closed in winter due to “fire risk” (ironically often policed by chain-smoking guards). Its accessibility, coupled with the habitat of stunted birch, rocky scree slopes and valleys of sea buckthorn, make it possible to see several sought-after species that are difficult to see elsewhere in the capital and, in some cases, anywhere in the world.
It was in February 2013 that I visited this site for the first time. Back then I was delighted to discover a good number of wintering GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲), a high-altitude specialist, in a small gully close to the apex of the road. These have proved to be annual winter visitors and, with a supporting cast of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH (北朱雀), ASIAN ROSY FINCH (粉红腹岭雀), ALPINE ACCENTOR (领岩鹨), REDPOLLS (白腰朱顶雀), including the occasional ARCTIC REDPOLL (极北朱顶雀), GOLDEN EAGLE (金雕) and CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫), Lingshan provides excellent winter birding. The jewel in the crown of Lingshan, so far, was the discovery in February 2014 of a male PRZEWALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), surely the prettiest of all Phoenicurus.
The Lingshan ALASHAN REDSTART(贺兰山红尾鸲) was only the 3rd record for Beijing (the previous two were in the 1930s and during a survey of nearby Xiaolongmen in 1994) and it caused much excitement with more than 30 birders making the journey to see it. Birders in Beijing were hopeful that this stunning high-altitude redstart, whose breeding grounds lie 1000s of kilometres away in Qinghai and Gansu, might also prove to be an annual visitor. And, despite a poor crop of sea buckthorn berries last winter, there were two independent sightings of ALASHAN REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), although it appears that the birds were highly mobile due to the scarcity of berries and many people, including me, missed them.
As well as ALASHAN REDSTART (贺兰山红尾鸲), the previous two winters have also thrown up some other surprises with Beijing’s first record of LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER (小斑啄木鸟) and the 5th record of BLACK REDSTART (赭红尾鸲). Recent summer visits have also revealed the first summer record of GREENISH-type WARBLERS (暗绿柳莺, July 2015), the first Beijing record of JAPANESE PYGMY WOODPECKER (小星头啄木鸟, September 2015) and the second record of SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (锈胸蓝姬鹟, July 2015).
And so, it was with great anticipation last week that I made my first late autumn visit of the year to Lingshan. I had several questions in my head:
First, would the berry crop be better this year?
Second, would the redstarts have arrived (we have no idea yet of typical arrival or departure dates)?
And third, would there be another surprise or two?
Within 10 minutes of my arrival I had the answers to the first two questions. Immediately I could see the valley along the “old road” awash with the yellow-orange berries of sea buckthorn. Hoorah!
And within a few minutes the familiar flash of black and white wings revealed that a male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART (红腹红尾鸲) was already on site. I counted at least 10 (6 males and 4 females) as I walked up the valley.
A handful of PALLAS’S (北朱雀), CHINESE BEAUTIFUL (红眉朱雀) and LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (长尾雀) continued the winter theme.
After walking the ‘old road’ the sun had risen enough to begin warming “Przewalski’s Gully” and so I headed there with fond memories. After accidentally disturbing a feeding a group of RED-THROATED THRUSHES (赤颈鸫) and glimpsing several SIBERIAN ACCENTORS (棕眉山岩鹨), a shrike appeared atop a close buckthorn shrub – a first winter sibiricus GREAT GREY SHRIKE (灰伯劳) – a rarity in Beijing and only my second in the capital. I had the answer to question 3!
And so, although no ALASHAN REDSTART yet, Lingshan is full of promise for the forthcoming winter. Perhaps the only certainty is that there will be more surprises… As with much of Beijing, and China as a whole, there is still so much to discover.. and I can’t wait!