When I was growing up in a small village in Norfolk, England, the WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) was one of those species that I used to dream about as I flicked through my beloved Hamlyn Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. The dream remained just that for many years and I was almost 30 years old before I finally saw one, in southern France on a dreary day in mid-winter. It was distant, in bad weather and appalling light, but unmistakably, it was a WALLCREEPER. I was ecstatic.
Since moving to China, I’ve been fortunate to see many more in the spectacular mountains of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan and Qinghai – including the Valley of the Cats – and they always set the pulse racing. Showing off that beautiful red, black and white pattern, wing-flicking as they forage for spiders and other insects in rocky crevices, to me the species recalls sheer cliff faces, penetrating gorges and vast rocky outcrops.
It’s a bird I never expected to find just a few minutes from my apartment in urban Beijing but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Heading out for a morning walk before planning to grab a coffee and make inroads into my burgeoning email inbox, I decided on a route I rarely take, alongside a small river adjacent to the local shopping mall.. The decision was based on the fact there are some areas of thick vegetation in the water and I harboured the thought of a Brown-cheeked Rail or, more likely, a Green Sandpiper or Water Pipit. After the first few hundred metres I was thinking that the single Water Pipit, calling as it flew down river, would likely be my only reward. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small, what appeared to be a grey-white, bird that flicked its wings before immediately disappearing behind a fence post. I thought to myself that it had the ‘jizz’ of a Wallcreeper but immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous. Slowly walking closer, it was just a few seconds later that the bird reappeared as it flew up and sat on a fence post in full view. I was gobsmacked – there was a WALLCREEPER! On a fence post. Alongside a tiny river just 50m from a shopping mall. In Beijing.
Not having any birding optics with me, I took out my iPhone and snapped a few photographs knowing that any kind of record image would be important to document the record. The bird flew past me and I was able to get some pretty terrible, but recognisable, images.
I was relieved to capture something that was recognisable and set off back home to fetch my binoculars and telescope in the hope that it might hang around.
Fortunately, the bird was still there when I returned and I was able to record some video, including some slow motion clips, as it crept its way along the wall, seemingly finding plenty of food.
I am constantly amazed at the birds that turn up in urban locations and that’s what makes birding in Beijing so rewarding. The lesson is: expect the unexpected!
Status of Wallcreeper in Beijing: one or two Wallcreepers regularly spend the winter (migrating from unknown breeding grounds) at Shidu, a mountainous area in Fangshan on the southwest fringes of Beijing Municipality. However, there are no previous lowland Beijing records and this is the first record for Shunyi District.