Singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing

Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April.  Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration.  Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north.  WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata.  I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.

Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)
White Wagtail ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang (Terry Townshend)
White Wagtail ssp ocularis (Terry Townshend)

Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+.  Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later.  The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.

Citrine Wagtail (Terry Townshend)
Buff-bellied Pipit (Terry Townshend)

Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day.  There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high.  Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.

The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”).  As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL.  It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018.  I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely!  But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again…  and again.  The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.

The SWINHOE’S RAIL was singing from the island with dry vegetation and a handful of trees.

I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently.  There it was again, this time a fraction clearer.  Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.

They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.

I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.

I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there.  At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June.  The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz.  Wow.

A sonogram of Swinhoe’s Rail recorded at very close distance in Inner Mongolia, June 2018.
A sonogram of the Swinhoe’s Rail at Ma Chang, Beijing, on 15 April 2019. Much fainter, due to the distance, but the same 6-7 notes at 2kHz, with similar spacing.

The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds.  Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion.  I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species.  Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!

Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds.  Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.

It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia.  And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.  I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.  

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