Rare And Scarce Birds In Beijing 2016

2016 has been another year of surprise and discovery in Beijing.  With eight new species recorded, and two further new records coming to light from previous years, the number of species reliably recorded in the capital now stands at 480, cementing Beijing’s position as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birding.

The year started with the brilliant discovery, by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii) at Miyun Reservoir.  After the initial sighting and photograph of a single bird, subsequent visits revealed that up to 13 were present.  This group of buntings was enjoyed by many birders, both Beijing-based and visiting, until mid-March when access to the reservoir was forbidden following a major fire in the area.  It is not known for how long they stayed but, on later visits (the last was apparently on the 19 March) at least one of the males was heard in sub-song.  Although not a first record of this species in Beijing, given the “Endangered” status of Jankowksi’s Bunting, it was certainly a most unexpected find.  It was the third record of this species in the capital, following the collection of two individuals in February and March 1941 (now in the NHM Tring).  An article about these birds was published in Birding Asia, the magazine of the Oriental Bird Club.

The next major find was a REDWING (Turdus iliacus), found by a local photographer (一路摄, Yīlù shè) in the Botanical Gardens on 6 April.  Often frustratingly elusive, it was last seen on 14 April.  The first record of this species in Beijing & indeed anywhere in eastern China.

Photo by Yan
Beijing’s first REDWING (Turdus iliacus), Botanical Gardens.  Photo by Yan Shen.

On 17 April, a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula) at Ma Chang (Guan Xueyan and Wen Hui) was possibly only the 4th record from the capital.

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On 23 April a BESRA (Accipiter virgatus) was photographed at Baiwangshan (Du Songhan et al). Possibly only the second record of this difficult to identify species. Photo below by Sun Zhiguang.

2016-04-23 Besra, Baiwangshan
The status of BESRA in Beijing is unclear, given the difficulty of separating it from the much more common JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK. This appears to be the second documented record.

May, usually one of the best months for finding rarities, saw just one new record – a female SLATY BUNTING (Emberiza siemsseni) at the Summer Palace found by Jesper Hornskov – and two second records.  First, a GREY-HEADED CANARY-FLYCATCHER (Culicicapa ceylonensis) at Lingshan found by Professor Susanne Åkesson and the international team visiting to assist with the Beijing Swift and Cuckoo Projects.  And second, a male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER (Ficedula narcissina) on the Wenyu River (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

2016-05-10 Narcissus Flycatcher 1s male, Wenyu He Jian Guohao
This first summer male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER was the second documented record for Beijing (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

June produced three new records and a second record.  First, a PALLAS’S FISH EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) spent several days at Yeyahu NR, where it was photographed by Fang Chun, one of the nature reserve staff on 7th June.  Although there is a historical & unconfirmed report of this species in the capital, this was the first to be documented.

Second, on 10 June, a singing BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Cettia fortipes) at Baihuashan, sound-recorded by Jan-Erik Nilsen.  The first documented record.

Finally, on 17th June at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Terry Townshend stumbled across a singing GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Turdus boulboul).  A few days later, at least three were heard in the same area, suggesting that there is probably a small breeding population.  This species was previously thought to be a largely Himalayan bird, with the nearest breeding grounds in southwest China, and was certainly not on the radar as a potential vagrant in Beijing, let alone a probable breeding bird.  Details here.

A few days later, on 23 June, Paul Holt found a singing male SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor) at Lingshan, the second record of this species following one found by Ben Wielstra in the grounds of Tsinghua University in September 2015.

July and August were unremarkable and it was 29 September when Paul Holt  and Wang Qingyu found the next significant bird – a SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) at Yeyahu (PH), the second documented record for the capital.

Colm Moore was rewarded for his loyalty to Shahe Reservoir when, on 22 October, he found a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  Seen briefly, but well, this was the fourth record for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

A week later, on 29 October, Jesper Hornskov reported a HOODED CROW (Corvus cornix) close to Beijing Capital International Airport.  This is the first record of this species in Beijing and, we think, all of eastern China.

The next day, Beijing’s first POMARINE SKUA (Stercorarius pomarinus), a juvenile, was photographed at the ‘Rubber dam’ near Yanqing and stayed until at least 2 November (Zhang Weimin & Yang Yuhe).

November was another productive month with the discovery, by photographers, of a small flock of REED PARROTBILLS (Paradoxornis heudei) at Wanping Hu in western Beijing (per Mr. Xu).  With breeding populations to the south in Hebei Province and to the east in coastal Hebei/Tianjin, this species was high up on the list of potential discoveries in Beijing but, despite its predictability, the group of at least seven birds proved extremely popular. They came hot on the heels of a widely seen bird in the Olympic Forest Park on the 8 June 2016. That city centre bird was believed, at the time, to have been an escape or deliberate release. But in the advent of the November sightings perhaps not…

On 12th December Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER (Gypaetus barbatus), a juvenile, was watched by Paul Holt and Terry Townshend at head height as it drifted by the communications tower at Lingshan before slowly heading northwest and into Hebei.  It follows the first record from sometime in February 2008 at Shidu.

2016-12-12-lammergeier-juv-lingshan5
Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER drifted over Lingshan on 12 December 2016.

The following day, Paul Holt found a male SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER (Mergus squamatus) among a group of Common Mergansers at Huairou Reservoir.  With only four previous records, this was a stunning find.  One could even call it a “Christmas Quacker” (groan).

In addition to the new species found in 2016, two further records of new species came to light.  First, a LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus), photographed at Yeyahu on 19 October 2009 (Yan Xiaoqin), was reported by Li Xiaomai on the 6 May 2016 and an ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina) that was photographed in Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) on the 22 May 2011 by 青花收藏. See here.  Thanks to Huang Hanchen for uncovering this superb record.

All in all, a brilliant year for birding in Beijing, illustrating just how much we are still learning about the birds of China’s capital city.  My personal favourite?  Given their precarious status, the appearance of the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir ranks, for me, as the best and most unexpected record of the year.  Big congratulations to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for their brilliant find.

Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI'S BUNTING
Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING

Big thanks to Paul Holt & Huang Hanchen for contributing significantly to this summary and to all Beijing-based birders who have reported sightings throughout the year, whatever the status of the species involved.  Together, we are slowly but surely gaining a better understanding of the birds of China’s capital city.

Finally, although not in Beijing, it’s worth mentioning the record count of the “Critically Endangered” BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) from Hengshui Hu, in neighbouring Hebei Province. An astonishing 293 were counted on 9 December by Paul Holt and Li Qingxin.  That’s a positive note on which to end a remarkable year.

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