REDWING in Beijing

On 5 December 2018, Beijing-based Steve Bale visited Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus for the first time.  He found Beijing’s second ever Redwing.  Here’s Steve’s account of that unforgettable find…

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By Steve Bale

For me, one of the highlights of Beijing-birding is the arrival of the ‘winter thrushes’.  There are two species-groups that make the long journey from their Siberian breeding grounds to spend the cold winter-months here – Naumann’s/Dusky and Red/Black-throated.

So far this winter, I have seen very few thrushes of any description by the Wenyu River, my local patch.  Concerns that Beijing had somehow been removed from their winter travel itinerary were allayed when I recieved news from Ben Wielstra, via the Qinghua University birders’ WeChat group, that all of the above-mentioned thrushes could be seen on the university’s ‘Patch 6’. What’s more, they were there in good numbers, and in various guises.

Ben had kindly posted a video of a bird at the edge of Patch 6’s pond, whose gene-line seemed to have Black, Red-throated and Naumann’s branches. Not to be outdone, the thrush next to it appeared to be the progeny of a male Naumann’s and a male Dusky.

Clearly, Qinghua University’s ‘Patch 6’ was the place to have a close look at some of the wonders of thrush evolution (which is very much work-in-progress in this part of the world).

I must admit, though, that the factor that tipped the ‘go or don’t go’ decision, was that Ben had also seen a Grey-backed Thrush that morning – a Beijing rarity no less.  It had been found by Bu Xinchen – one of the band of very active Qinghua birders – more than a week earlier, but was proving hard to pin down.

Decision made, I grabbed my bins and camera, and set off for ‘Thrushtopia’.  15 minutes later I was at the Guo Zhan subway station.  50 minutes after that I had reached the station at the end of Line 15, which is 30 minutes’ walk away from Patch 6.  By 1.30pm I was pond-side watching and hearing  ‘winter thrushes’ – lots of them, and much more besides.

The pond at Patch 6 had frozen overnight, but there was still enough water at the edges to attract more than a dozen species of birds. Within an hour of my arrival, as well as seeing Hawfinch (2), Chinese Grosbeak (c15), Oriental Greenfinch (c10), Chinese Bulbul (6), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Brambling (c40), Silky Starling (c10), White-Cheeked Starling (c10) I had enjoyed excellent views of close to 50 thrushes – Chinese Blackbird (c10), Dusky (8), Naumann’s (c10), Red-throated (8), Black-throated (2), Dusky/Naumann’s (6),  Red/Black-throated (2), and a possible Naumann’s/Red-throated.  I had also managed to get a glimpse of the Grey-backed, before it was scared away by someone sweeping up leaves from the water’s edge.

A male GREY-BACKED THRUSH – the reason for Steve’s first birding trip to Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

What an amazing hour’s birding – and certainly well worth the trek across Beijing to get there.

I then realised that my head was painfully cold.  In my haste, I had forgotten to bring a hat.  A bad mistake when it’s minus four, but a potentially life-threatening one when it’s minus four and you are bald.

Before making a hasty exit to find a coffee shop on the way back to the subway station, I decided to have one final look at the bushes by the pool.  There were quite a few thrushes there… a very brick-red Naumann’s, a Dusky, a Redwing, another Naumann’s…

Obviously, my brain had started to freeze.

Redwing?!?!

…It dawned on me that I wasn’t in Norfolk, where flocks of Redwing can be seen on most winter days. I was in Beijing, where there has only been one previous record.

I looked again. It was still there. Instinctively, I put my bins down and picked my camera up. I watched the bird – seemingly an adult – for a few minutes as it dropped down from the bush to the pond-side rocks, and back to the bush. Then it was gone.  Bizarrely, happy memories of the first time I had ever seen a Redwing – when I was 11 – popped in to my head.  I remembered thinking, what a brilliant bird it was, and marvelling at its night-migration across the North Sea on its way to eat apples in my back garden.

The first photo of the REDWING at Tsinghua (Qinghua) University campus, 5 December 2018 (Steve Bale)

Pushing nostalgia aside, I immediately sent a WeChat message to Ben, attaching a record shot (phone-photo of the camera’s review-sceen).  Within a few minutes of finding the bird, I had also sent the photo and directions to the Qinghua WeChat birding group’s 38 other members.

Ben was the first to arrrive; then XiaoPT, who I thanked again for inviting me to join the WeChat group.  Within 30 minutes there were ten people waiting for the Redwing’s return.  Only problem was that there had been no sign of it since my initial sighting. It would be almost an increasingly tense hour before the bird decided to show itself to its waiting admirers. By then, the crowd had swelled to about 15 people (a major twitch by Chinese standards).

It was of course wonderful to find the bird, but the real pleasure came from sharing the joy with so many enthusiastic young birders. The Qinghua birding group is one of the many local groups that have popped up all over China in recent years. Many of the people in these groups are not just active birders, they are passionate conservationists also.  These young people are at the forefront of the drive to make China’s environment a better place for the birds and other animals that depend on it. I take my hat off to them.

Talking of hats, many thanks to Ben – not just for inspiring me to visit Qinghua University for the first time – but also for lending me a life-saving woolly hat.

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Title photo of Tsinghua University campus by Steve Bale.

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