After more than ten years of birding in Beijing, there aren’t many resident species that have eluded me. Japanese Scops Owl Otus semitorques (北领角鸮 Běi lǐng jiǎo xiāo), until very recently, was one. The species is a bit of an enigma in the capital. It apparently formerly bred in the Botanical Gardens but, in recent years, records have been few and far between, mostly from the mountains of Mentougou District. On 30 January 2022 one was photographed at Lingshan and, in summer that year, Lou Fangzhou and friends observed one hunting insects from the road at the same site. A few days later, during a visit to Lingshan, I saw a large scops owl sp. briefly hunting moths on the road before flying into woodland never to be seen again and, although I couldn’t 100% confirm the identity, I was confident that the bird I had seen was this species. I was curious to try to find out more about the status of this species at Lingshan, so I decided to try a bio-acoustic survey.
Given Japanese Scops Owl is likely a resident in Beijing, I suspected that it may sing in early spring, as with other resident owls. In March I set up a recorder in a location close to the summer 2022 sightings to try to record its song and potentially other vocalisations. The recorder was in place for a month but on analysing the files I was a little disappointed not to record any song of the Japanese Scops Owl. I recorded Eagle Owl Bubo bubo 雕鸮 Diāo xiāo and Himalayan (Chinese Tawny) Owl Strix aluco 灰林鸮 Huī lín xiāo but the only possible Japanese Scops Owl vocalisations were a few faint two- to four-note descending calls that resembled a recording of this species from Japan on Xeno-canto. An example is below.
Listen to the similar recording on Xeno-canto from Japan by Miyagi Kunitaro.
Was I recording too early? Was the recorder in the right location? The next opportunity I had to visit Lingshan was in early May, so I tried again with a recorder in a similar location, fitted with fresh batteries that would last around 2-3 weeks. On retrieving the recorder in late May I was delighted to find multiple recordings of Japanese Scops Owl.
There was a recording similar to the four-note call recorded in March, including a reply:
Then there was a recording of the low-pitched, rather repetitive and progressively louder song:
Shortly after, another recording of the song with other call-types:
Finally, just a few minutes later, even better was a recording of the song, followed by some excitement calls – could this have been courtship or even mating?
All of these recordings were on the same night – between 2300 on 9 May and 0100 on 10 May – and there were no recordings of the song on any other night during the recording period, 7 -23 May. Maybe this species sings most frequently in April, the month during which I did no recording? Or maybe they sing only infrequently? With Eagle Owl Bubo bubo 雕鸮 Diāo xiāo and Himalayan (Chinese Tawny) Owl Strix aluco 灰林鸮 Huī lín xiāo in the vicinity, is it possible that the presence of these larger owls, and potential predators, discourage the smaller Japanese Scops Owl from singing?
The 2022 sightings and 2023 recordings of Japanese Scops Owl represent the revelation of another secret held by Beijing’s highest mountain, following the recent discoveries of (likely) breeding Grey-winged Blackbird Turdus boulboul 灰翅鸫 Huī chì dōng, ‘Gansu’ Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus albocoeruleus 红胁蓝尾鸲 Hóng xié lán wěi qú and Greenish-type Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides 暗绿柳莺 Àn lǜ liǔ yīng. And since my recordings, an additional breeding pair was discovered at Xiaolongmen, also in Mentougou District.
I am looking forward to visiting Lingshan this summer to try to catch a glimpse of this secretive owl and the experience has encouraged me to try more nocturnal bio-acoustic surveys around Beijing. What other secrets may be held by China’s capital?
With thanks to Andrew Farnsworth of Cornell Lab of Ornithology for help with processing these recordings.
Featured image: spectogram of the Japanese Scops Owl song and excitement calls at Lingshan on 9 May 2023.