Irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse in Beijing

Saturday 12 November 2022 will go down as one of my best ever birding experiences..  and all the better because it was completely unexpected. 
 
With a backlog of work to do, I had planned to work all day, despite the fantastic weather, with crystal clear blue skies and a fresh northwest wind, following the passage of a cold front the day before. 
 
However, during the morning I had heard that a few Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus 毛腿沙鸡 Máo tuǐ shā jī – literal translation “hairy-legged sand chicken”) had been seen at DaShiHe, in Fangshan District, southwest Beijing… 
 
Mid-November is the prime time for arrivals of this enigmatic species, which irrupts into Beijing every few years, and I thought I would take a quick look in the afternoon at a small patch of rough ground near my apartment just to check (thinking the chance of success was about 1%).  In any case, it would be a nice break from work and wouldn’t take very long to cover.  Little did I know that I would stay until dusk having enjoyed the incredible spectacle of seeing thousands of sandgrouse!
 
Within ten minutes of arriving at the patch of rough ground, as expected, I realised there were no sandgrouse on site and, after enjoying good views of a flock of Lapland Buntings and a small party of Rustic Buntings, I was about to head back home…  Just as I turned to begin the walk back, I heard a whirring of wings and, looking up, a flock of about 15 Pallas’s Sandgrouse flew right over me, followed a few seconds later by another flock of eight.  Wow – what luck!
 
I wondered to myself whether this was just a fluke or, perhaps, a sign that there was a large movement.  I headed up to a small hill nearby to see if I could observe any more and I was astonished at what unfolded.  The hill was a fantastic vantage point as, in the crystal clear air, I enjoyed a wide field of view, stretching to at least the CBD area of central Beijing to the south and to the mountains of Changping in the north. I estimated I could see about 20km north and a similar distance to the south.
 
Flock after flock came from the east, all heading between W and SW… some to the north of me, some to the south and some immediately overhead.  It was incredible. 
 
Fortunately I had my camera with me and I snapped some photos of the flocks as they passed, including some passing Beijing’s tallest building, the CITIC tower (known as China Zun, a 109-storey tower standing 528m tall).  
 
Flocks of Pallas’s Sandgrouse passing the CITIC tower, Beijing’s tallest building in the Central Business District.
 
Flock after flock flew past, all heading W-SW.
 
Some of the flocks passed overhead, providing superb views
 
This flock banked and, shortly after, landed just a few metres away from me as the light faded.
 
I began logging each flock, counting individuals if possible or, in the case of the larger flocks or those seen only briefly, estimating the numbers using ‘blocks’ of 10 or 20 birds.  For the next three hours there were flocks passing almost every minute… and in some cases several flocks simultaneously.  It was an exhilarating experience…
 
Via WeChat, the most popular social media, other birders reported flocks from the DaShi River, Shahe Reservoir and other sites across the city, with some even seeing flocks from their office or residential blocks in the city centre.  
 
Over the next three hours or so, I counted 7,363 in total (all between 1400-1722), surely a fraction of the total number of birds involved but smashing the previous day-record of 1,050 birds on 14 November 2019 (Wang Xiaobo). 
 
My hand-written count sheet, showing time and flock size (all heading W-SW unless otherwise stated).
 
Although my field of view was extensive, I am sure I missed many flocks, particularly those flying low, and of course I would miss all the birds in Yanqing area (the other side of the Badaling mountains) and those in the south of the city, not to mention those that had passed earlier in the day before I began to watch and count.
 
Around dusk, several flocks flew very low, calling, and appearing to look for somewhere to land.  One flock did land right in front of me for about a minute and fed actively on seed heads before heading off again..  and as the wind dropped at dusk, most of the flocks were then heading north and not W-SW. 
 
The flock that landed just a few metres away from my position at dusk.
 
These birds waddled and fed actively on seed heads for a few minutes before lifting and heading north.
 
After sunset, the flocks seemed to change direction, with all flocks from 1655-1722) heading north or northwest.
 
These irruptions are not well understood but are likely driven by conditions in their usual range (e.g. snow cover or extreme cold).  Given that there are so few records further south, I speculate that these birds may come south/southeast from their usual range, explore the North China plain and then most head back north when they realise there isn’t much suitable grassland habitat…  but that’s just a hunch.  It will be fascinating to see whether many hang around or whether they disappear as fast as they arrived.
 
The Pallas’s Sandgrouse has been a dream bird for me ever since reading Arthur Patterson’s accounts of flocks during the invasions of the UK, particularly along the east coast, in the late 1800s. 
 
Arthur Patterson (1900) in The Zoologist, 4th series, Vol. IV. p. 534, under ‘The Birds of Great Yarmouth’ says: ‘During the invasion of this species in 1863 (when sixty were killed in Norfolk), several were obtained here. The North Denes and sand-hills were most frequented. The first Norfolk bird was found dead in the surf on May 23rd. A gunner named Nudd, on June 6th, shot a male out of a flock of nine. He mistook them for Plover, but described them to me as “running about like Rats.” On May 27th, 1876, a flock was observed on the Winterton sand-hills; and in May, 1888, a second invasion occurred, when over eleven hundred were seen in Norfolk, and one hundred and eighty-six were killed. A male and female were seen on the Denes as late as Dec. 2nd (vide Stevenson’s Birds of Norfolk, vol. i. pp. 376-404 ; also vol. iii. pp. 392-396).
As a boy growing up in Winterton-on-Sea, the thought that the local sand dunes had once hosted flocks of these enigmatic birds was etched in my mind and during my regular birding walks over the dunes, I often quietly said to myself “one day…”
 
To see thousands in just a few hours in Beijing, albeit not in those beloved dunes at Winterton, was a dream come true.
 
It is said that, in China during the Tang Dynasty, the appearance of these birds in Beijing was a sign of impending war because it meant the conditions in their usual range were unusually harsh, prompting the nomads to invade southwards. 
 
Thankfully, today, Pallas’s Sandgrouse receive a much warmer welcome in the capital.
 

30 thoughts on “Irruption of Pallas’s Sandgrouse in Beijing”

    1. I’d like to see some on Winterton dunes this winter, doubt if I’ll ever get out to the breeding grounds or, Beijing in the winter – I’ll let you know if I do!

  1. Oh Terry, what a wonderful experience for you to have had. And you narrate it so clearly that I almost feels as if I was there. Thank you.

  2. Thank you very much for this report. It’s also a dream for me. I hope for next year in Mongolia. Daniel Nussbaumer from Switzerland

  3. Hello Terry,
    thanks a lot for the great description of Sandgrouse, appearing in Your town. I am thankful for being allowed to share in Your experience. Thanks also for the informations about Sandgrouse-on-migration – really interesting work.
    Here, in October, we had ten thousands of Wood Pigeon on migration over Karlsruhe, WestGermany – which is common each year but nevertheless impressive – and some harriers, swifts, finches, bussards… “among”.
    Many greetings – and good time for You and Your Beijing-Birding-Friends.
    Daniel

    1. Thank you, Daniel. Bird migration is magical.. whether it involves a common species or an unexpected visitor.. All deserve our utmost respect and I hope that, as more people experience the magic, there will be more support for policies to protect them and the places they need. Terry

  4. Fantastic experience what a joy to watch flock after flock fly over and even have some land. The sheer numbers are mind blowing one of lives great experiences and some great photos to remember it by

  5. Hi Terry,
    Though it is tempting to connect this exodus with recent weather in the species‘ standard wintering range (southern half of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia), we haven’t seen severe frost or extreme sow heights so far here in Mongolia. So food would still be easily available.
    But: on top of the overgrazing, which is a threat to the vegetation since 15 years or so, the south of the country has seen severe (!) draught conditions this summer. Plants, if there were any left, failed to produce seeds.
    Not saying that this is the main trigger, but it surely could be it (or part of it at least).
    Cheers
    Abu

    1. Thanks Abu! I think these irruptions are poorly understood and maybe there are several factors at play. Your point about drought and lack of seeds certainly sounds like a plausible reason.. What do you think about why these irruptions seem to happen during a very short, concentrated, period (often they are all but gone from Beijing after 24-48 hours)? So much to learn!

      1. Hi Terry,
        To be honest: I have not the slightest clue.
        I agree that much has to be clarified.
        Maybe the greater Beijing area does not have the „right“ habitat, whatever that might by for the birds.
        Abu

  6. Sensational sighting and count Terry!
    Your dream came true. How fulfilling !
    The Sandgrouse is beautiful. Jane

  7. They can get as far as Sichuan – recorded here in Chengdu during winter of 91/92 when unknown number of birds were “collected” at a single riverside location on two dates – will put the word out we should be watching for them

  8. Hi, I’m the redactor of the website http://www.ornithomedia.com and we’d like to write an article about this irruption of Pallas’ sandgrouses in Beijing: would it be possible to present some of your photos? I tried to contact you a few days earlier, but with no success so far 🙂 Regards David

  9. Fabulous article Terry and I knew after the first few lines where you would be heading with it. Sadly, for myself and the other resident Winterton birdwatchers, the dream hasn’t come true yet. One day though…

  10. Please say that you have an account on trektellen.com so these countings can be used for science!? Fantastic numbers!

    1. Thank you, Joost! I submit all my sightings to eBird, so the data are publicly available. When I spent more time vis-migging (when I lived in Denmark), I uploaded that data to trektellen but I haven’t done that at all in China. I’ll take a new look at the site – especially now that I am involved in a nocmig project – but of course it’s time-consuming to enter data, especially into multiple portals, so I can’t promise anything! Thanks again, Terry

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