Greater Flamingo In China: What’s Going On?

During the evening of 6 December I received a message from a friend to say that a GREATER FLAMINGO (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) had been photographed on the Wenyu River in Beijing.  The message was accompanied by a photo clearly showing a young (first-winter) bird.  Wow!  Although directions were vague and the Wenyu River long, I was out early the next morning with Wu Lan to check some likely sites.  Despite the smog, within 30 minutes we had located it amongst a congregation of more than 300 Mallard.  During our time with this extraordinary bird, it fed and rested in equal measure and appeared healthy.  It was un-ringed, fully-winged and wary, showing no obvious signs of captivity.

The bird stayed in the area until at least 15 December during which time it was enjoyed by many Beijing-based birders and photographers.

First winter GREATER FLAMINGO, Wenyu River, Beijing, 7 December 2015
First winter GREATER FLAMINGO (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus), Wenyu River, Beijing, 7 December 2015

Although this flamingo was the first record of GREATER FLAMINGO for Beijing, the Wenyu bird fitted neatly with a remarkable pattern of recent occurrences of flamingos in China.

Greater Flamingo doesn’t breed in the wild in China.  The nearest known breeding grounds are in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  The first record of Greater Flamingo in China was in the southern municipality of Macao as recently as 1994.  Next came one in the northwest province of Xinjiang in 1997.  Records were sporadic between 1997 and 2014, since when there has been a remarkable run of records.  Tianjin-based Mo Xunqiang (莫训强, English name “Nemo”), one of China’s brightest young ornithologists, has brilliantly collated all of the records of flamingo in China.  His excellent summary (PDF in English and Chinese), up to and including the Beijing record, can be downloaded here.

Below I list, by Province, the records of Greater Flamingo in China since 1 January 2014 (a remarkable 23 occurrences):

Guizhou 

19 Nov 2015: 1 juvenile was seen by villager by a river about 30km from Shiqian, Guizhou (via Zhu Lei)

Hebei 

23 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in Yu County, Hebei Province, seen by villager Mr. Wei

4 Dec 2014: 1 juvenile in Yishui River, Baoding, seen by Miss Li.

Inner Mongolia

26 Oct 2015: 3 juveniles at East Juyan Lake (note that a later report said there were 10 present!)

28 Oct 2015: 2 juveniles seen by a photographer named Yang Huiyuan, at Shajin Taohai Sumu, Dengkou county, Bayinnuoer.

10 Dec 2015: 3 juveniles seen by Mr. Mu Jinsheng, at Hekou reservoir, Shengli village, Wulantaogai town, Wushen County.

Jiangsu 

22 Apr 2014: 2 at Ganyuqingkou River Mouth, Lianyungang (Chen Ying &
David Melville via China Birdwatch 96: April 2014).

11 Nov 2014: 2 adults or near adults at Jianggang, Dongtai District (Mr.
Huang & Mr. Yu et al.).

25 Jul 2015: 2 adults were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang (Shanque), staying until at least 29 Nov.

26 Dec 2015: 7 individuals were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang of Jiangsu by a birder named Shanque. Among them are two smaller and shorter individuals, resembling Lesser Flamingos. More details needed to confirm.

Jiangxi 

8 Dec 2014: 2 at Nanjishan, Poyang Hu, Jiangxi around the 8 December 2014 (Hannu Jannes pers. comm.)

16 May 2015: 2 adults at Poyang Lake Reserve, Jiangxi on May 16. Reported by workers from Team No. 4 of the reserve.

Shaanxi 

12 Feb 2015: 4 juveniles was seen at Caotan Balu, Xi’an, Shaanxi.

27 Oct 2015: 3 adults were photographed at a wetland in Yulin, Shaanxi.

Shandong 

22 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in the Yellow River Delta Nature Reserve, Dongyingon, Shandong, seen by workers at the site.

29 Apr 2015: 3 adults at the Haibin National Park, Rizhao, Shandong

29 Nov 2015: 2 adults at Rizhao of Shandong (per Shan Que).

19 Dec 2015: 7 seen at Taibai Lake, Jining, Shandong.

Taiwan

5 Jan 2014: 2 immatures at the Linbian River mouth, Pingtung (num. obs). The first record for Taiwan.

Tianjin 

1 Dec 2014: 6 juveniles at Beidagang, Tianjin on the 1 December with five still there the following day (Wang Jianming et al).

Tibet

30 Oct 2014: 3 were seen At Lake Manasarovar, Pulan, Ngari, Tibet

Xinjiang 

mid-Nov 2014: 3 at Heishantou Reservoir, Mori Kazakh Autonomous County, Xinjiang, seen by Wen Shichun, a worker at that site.

Zhejiang 

19 Nov 2014: 1 in a coastal wetland near Shangyu and Yuyao, Zhejiang Prov (Mr. Xu)

==========

The Beijing bird was the 34th record of a Phoenicopterus sp in China and, given the recent run of records, it was perhaps not too much of a surprise that one should turn up in the capital.  Of course it’s impossible to say for sure that the Beijing bird was wild and, in fact, at least one of the Chinese records definitely refers to an escapee – the record of an American (Caribbean) Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Shaanxi in January 2011 (see the PDF).  Although comprehensive information is hard to find, investigations so far suggest there are few captive flamingos in China and those collections of which we are aware (e.g. in Hong Kong) have clipped wings and are ringed.

Remarkably, on 30 December 2015, Colm Moore found a first winter Greater Flamingo at Shahe Reservoir.  Given Shahe’s proximity to the Wenyu River (the Wenyu flows out from Shahe Reservoir), it is almost certainly the Wenyu bird relocating but, nevertheless, it’s a fantastic find and the latest in a remarkable run of flamingo records in China.

We can only speculate as to the reasons behind the recent surge in records of flamingo in China.  Is there a captive collection somewhere in China that is allowing its young birds to fly freely?  Or are there issues with traditional breeding sites in Kazakhstan or further afield that are causing these birds to wander widely?  We’d welcome insights from anyone who can shed light on the causes of this phenomenon.

Whatever the provenance of these birds, the flamingos in China have not only provided the growing birding community with an opportunity to experience this charismatic species but many of the birds have also attracted the attention of the local media and raised awareness among the general public of migrant birds.  That can only be a good thing!

Huge thanks to Mo Xunqiang (“Nemo”) for his great work in collating the China records of flamingo and for allowing me to draw on that information for this post.  Thank you also to Colm Moore and Zhao Qi for allowing me to use the photo of the Shahe bird and to Zhu Lei, Lu Jianshu, Paul Holt, Richard Lewthwaite and everyone else who has provided information about flamingo records in China.

Title photo of the Greater Flamingo (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) at Shahe Reservoir on 30 December 2015 by Zhao Qi.

9 thoughts on “Greater Flamingo In China: What’s Going On?”

  1. In Germany the situation is similar. The next (wild) breeding grounds are in France and in Italy, so there is definitely a vagrancy potential. Nevertheless in the 1980s a Flamingo-colony has established at the border to the Netherlands. This colony consists mainly of escapes and so there is always the question, whether a Flamingo is a real vagrant or not. Perhaps this has also happened in China without anyone having noticed so far?

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s a murky world! We’ll probably never know the origin of most of the flamingos in China but hopefully by asking questions we can find out more about the various possibilities and their probabilities. Thanks again!

  2. Lovely documentation, Terry. I always thought they are quite rare in China, seeing the records, especially from last year, they have all over been the North China. Wish you more “Good Stuff” in 2016.

  3. Hey Terry – I just read your email about Flamingos in China. I recall a similar story about Flamingo sightings in Russia. http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/03/07/134229725/flamingos-drop-from-siberian-sky-locals-mystified

    Anyway, what I recall is that researchers believe that occasionally, the flamingo’s inner compass is disrupted. Instead of heading south, they mistakenly head north, in the exact opposite direction. It’s like their interpretation of the magnetic field gets turned in the wrong direction.

    Gracen Duffield 田恩慈

    MBA 2014, Peking University Guanghua School of Management

    LinkedIn http://cn.linkedin.com/in/gduffield

    Skype gracen.duffield

    China Cell +86 188 2372 3908

    Voice US +1 512 782 9318 (rings in China)

    WeChat GracenD_

    1. Thank you Gracen – what a great story! As you say, reverse migration is a well-known theory in bird migration and could well be applicable here. In this case, it is significant that the village in Siberia referred to in the article is pretty much exactly the same distance – but in the wrong direction – from their usual winter quarters. Thanks again! Terry

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