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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Valley of the Cats 2018

As the sun will soon set on 2018, it’s a good time to review the results of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project in the Valley of the Cats.

I am delighted to announce that, in 2018, 61 groups of visitors stayed in the Valley of the Cats as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project (with the last visitors of 2018 arriving today!).  These trips have generated revenue of CNY 432,400 (almost GBP 50,000) for the community.  That’s just under CNY 20,000 (GBP 2,200) of benefit for each of the 22 families involved in the project.  At the same time, many visitors have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime, including special encounters with some of the resident wildlife such as Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Wolf, Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Tibetan and Red Fox and much more.

One of the year’s more high-profile visitors was Professor Per Alström. His 30+ year quest to record Snow Leopard on camera was finally rewarded in the Valley of the Cats with the video below.

 

We’ve received some excellent – and importantly, honest – feedback from visitors to the Valley this year and from the host families. This feedback will be instrumental in guiding a meeting with the local community in January to review progress and discuss plans for 2019.

We can expect a few minor changes to the way the project operates, based on the experience of 2018, but we will ensure the project retains its strong sense of authenticity.

On behalf of the local community, I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported the project in 2018 either by visiting or helping to promote the Valley of the Cats and, if you haven’t yet visited, please take a look at the website and consider a trip in 2019!

Schools for Snow Leopards

This week will see the start of an exciting new initiative involving schools and scientists from the ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University with the aim of supporting Snow Leopard conservation.

In recent years, ShanShui Conservation Center has been running a community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats, whereby local yak herder families are involved in collecting data for the scientists based at Peking University in Beijing.  The local people set up, and monitor, a series of camera traps, the data from which is contributing a huge amount of knowledge about the distribution, population and ecology of apex predators including Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Wolf and Lynx.

Here is a short video showing some of the local people setting up a camera trap.

Earlier this year, two teachers from the International School of Beijing (ISB) – Wayne and Jenny Winkelman – visited the Valley of the Cats, experiencing the local culture, hearing about the conservation project and even enjoying their very own Snow Leopard sighting.  We discussed how schools might be able to contribute and quickly came up with the idea of schools ‘sponsoring’ camera traps.  The idea was that schools would raise money for ShanShui Conservation Center to pay for camera traps.  The schools would then receive the photos from ‘their’ cameras and learn about the wildlife and people of the Tibetan Plateau.

Fast forward a few months and the students at ISB, inspired by Wayne and Jenny, have been raising money by selling cuddly Snow Leopards and thanks to their efforts they now have enough to purchase their first camera trap!

On Friday this week, a scientist from ShanShui Conservation Center will visit ISB to explain about the project, show some pictures and videos, answer questions from the students and take receipt of the donation from ISB.  A camera, allocated to ISB, will then be placed on the Tibetan Plateau as part of the ongoing conservation programme.  A local family will be responsible for deciding the location and for monitoring the camera.  Every two to three months the school will receive the photos from ‘their’ camera, which will form the basis for learning about the Tibetan Plateau ecosystem.

Schools will thus be contributing to community-based scientific and conservation projects whilst gaining great material to support learning about the Tibetan Plateau and the animals and people that live there.

If successful, we hope this programme can be expanded with other schools sponsoring their own cameras.

Huge thanks to Wayne and Jenny Winkelman for their initiative in starting this exciting new programme, to ShanShui Conservation Center for engaging schools and especially to the students at ISB for so enthusiastically raising money to support Snow Leopard conservation.  I can’t wait to see the first photos from their camera and to see how this initiative develops.

If you are a teacher at a school in Beijing interested in sponsoring a camera trap or two, please get in touch!

The Chinese Mountain Cats are Growing Up!

I couldn’t resist posting this short video of a family of Chinese Mountain Cats.  Taken from the same camera trap as the original footage, this clip shows a now well-grown kitten beginning to take an interest in its surroundings, including the camera trap!  It’s adorable.  Chinese Mountain Cat is one of the world’s most poorly-known felids with a small range centred on the eastern Tibetan Plateau.  It’s the only cat endemic to China.

As with the previous post, this footage is published courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

White-throated Redstart at Lingshan

Wednesday was a shocker of a day in Beijing.  In the last two years, the air quality has improved significantly through a combination of government efforts to shut down coal-fired power stations and old heavy industry, in particular steel production, and favourable winds.  However, after a few days of gentle southerly winds, bringing pollution from industrial Hebei Province, the air quality was the worst for many months.  If there’s one place to be in those circumstances, it’s the mountains; even the relatively modest 2,303m elevation of Beijing’s highest peak at Lingshan is usually above the smog and enjoys blue skies while the majority of the capital suffocates in a blanket of toxic pollution.

It wasn’t the pollution forecast but instead a happy coincidence that I had arranged to visit Lingshan with good friend and fellow Beijinger, Steve Bale.  It would be my first visit to this special site since summer and the first visit of the winter invariably evokes memories of the special birds I’ve been lucky to encounter there, not least the male PRZEVALSKI’S (ALASHAN) REDSTART from February 2014.

PRZEVALSKI’S REDSTART (Phoenicurus alaschanicus) at Lingshan, Sunday 23 February 2014.

The morning started brightly with the expected blue skies and clean air, enabling us to look towards downtown Beijing cloaked in a horrible grey-brown murk.

As usual, our first stop was ‘Przewalski’s Gully”, the site of that memorable 2014 find.  A group of six PLAIN LAUGHINGTHRUSHES, a single RED-THROATED THRUSH and a pair of BEIJING BABBLERS greeted us we made our way up the gully, shortly followed by three male and two female WHITE-WINGED (GULDENSTADT’S) REDSTARTS and a pair of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.

After birding the gully we headed up to the ‘old road’ and, with the sun behind us, started to walk up the valley.  It was fairly quiet with a few RED-THROATED THRUSHES, a handful of GODLEWSKI’S and MEADOW BUNTINGS and a trickle of WHITE-WINGED REDSTARTS.

After reaching the top, I headed back down the valley to collect the car while Steve made his way on foot along the road, passing the formerly derelict, now shiny and renovated, buildings.  Collecting Steve as I drove up, we stopped briefly at the ‘saddle’ to check the rocky slopes for ASIAN ROSY FINCHES or ALPINE ACCENTORS (sadly absent) before continuing along the road as it began to descend.  With windows open and almost no wind we were listening for birds and almost immediately we heard the familiar call of CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH.  Two males were sitting up in some dwarf birches, showing off their stunning pink plumage.  A resident breeder, these birds are always a delight to see.

Male CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES, Lingshan (Steve Bale)

Continuing on we stopped after only a few metres when I thought I heard a PINE BUNTING.  We stopped the car at a shallow gully, dotted with silver birch trees.

The lightly wooded gully (c1550m asl) where we stopped to look for a Pine Bunting.

Steve began to walk up the gully as I checked the top close to the road.  As Steve made his way up we saw a few MEADOW BUNTINGS, a GODLEWSKI’S BUNTING and a couple of SIBERIAN ACCENTORS.  It was at this point that I heard a harsh ‘tick’ call that I thought could be a redstart.  Suddenly, a bird flew past me at head height at such speed that I was unable to lift my binoculars in time..  My first reaction, on seeing the striking orange underparts, was “that was a really bright stonechat”!  However, a split second later as it headed down the gully, I could see the dark wings with a white wing-bar and immediately knew it was a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, a species with which I am familiar from the Valley of the Cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  Wow!

I could see that the bird dropped and appeared to land in bushes at the bottom the gully, from where Steve had walked in.  I shouted to Steve and he quickly joined me at the top of the gully.  Steve agreed to head back down the road to the bottom of the gully while I stayed at the top to ensure I could see it if it relocated.  I spotted it deep in a bush and, as Steve made his way down, it made two brief forays onto the grassy slope to catch insects, before heading back to the bushes.  After a couple of minutes, Steve was at the base of the gully and secured a few record images as it foraged for insects.  Relieved that we had some documentation of the record, I headed down with the car and we both viewed from the road as the redstart caught insects and, occasionally, delivered a relatively quiet subsong.  After enjoying the bird for around half an hour and securing some photos and video from a safe distance, we decided to move on, feeling elated at such an unexpected find.

Male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART, Lingshan, 14 November 2018. Photo by Terry Townshend.

Lingshan lies on the boundary of Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province and, whilst the peak is in Beijing, the border snakes erratically and some of the areas to the north and west are in Hebei.  On checking the specific location on Google Maps, we found that the White-winged Redstart was in Hebei Province, around 250m outside Beijing, so technically it can’t be counted as a Beijing record, although I suspect it would be possible to view from inside the capital!

White-throated Redstart is, I believe, the 5th species of Phoenicurus redstart to be encountered at Lingshan after Black, Daurian, Przevalski’s and White-winged, and adds to the growing number of Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau species found in the mountains around Beijing.  With the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau linked, albeit loosely, to the capital via the severely under-birded Qinling, Luliang and Taihang ranges, it’s entirely possible that more Plateau species occasionally make their way to the mountains around Beijing.  What price a Blue-fronted or Hodgson’s Redstart?

Big thanks to Steve Bale for his great company and use of his photos from the trip.

According to HBW, White-throated Redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps) is a high-altitude breeder (2400-4500m) in Central and Eastern Himalayas East from West Central Nepal, and Central China (East and Southeast Qinghai, South Gansu and Southwest Shaanxi, South to South and Southeast Tibet and North Yunnan).  It is mostly sedentary with some elevational movements in winter, down to 1,400m.  The Lingshan bird is >1,000km to the east of its normal range and, with only one historical record from a park in coastal Hebei (PH via WeChat), this is possibly only the second record for Eastern China.  We’d both be very interested to hear about other extralimital records of this species in eastern China.

 

Title photo: White-throated Redstart, Lingshan by Steve Bale.

Wallcreeper in urban Beijing

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.

My first photo of the WALLCREEPER. Can you spot it?
In flight along the river.
A second in-flight photo captured on iPhone.

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.

China vows to rehabilitate Yangtze River ecosystems

After the recent announcement banning commercial land reclamation along China’s coast, spelling good news for the country’s beleaguered coastal wetlands and the millions of shorebirds that depend on them, it is heartening to report some good news for China’s freshwater ecosystems.

Yesterday, Caixin reported that government ministers and city leaders from 15 Provinces have signed the “Wuhan Declaration on the Protection of Life of the Yangtze River”, a commitment to coordinate efforts to rehabilitate the Yangtze River’s ecosystem, a welcome boost to the ailing river.

Sourced on the Tibetan Plateau and snaking 6,300 kilometres to China’s east coast, the Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world and Asia’s largest river system.  It spans 19 provinces/municipalities and hosts over 400 species of fish, 183 of which are endemic. The river is also home to the endangered Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis) and, in winter, its floodplain is globally important for more than half a million migratory birds, many of which are endangered, including the Siberian Crane and Oriental Stork.

The ecological condition of this mighty river has declined dramatically over the last few decades through a combination of dredging, damming, pollution and other harmful human-related activities.  Around 40% of China’s population live along the river and this population pressure has caused disruption to the flood plains and polluted the river with pesticides and agricultural waste.  According to Caixin’s article, more than 50,000 dams and hydropower stations have been built along the river, including the enormous Three Gorges Dam.

The “Wuhan Declaration on the Protection of Life of the Yangtze River” pledges to coordinate efforts to promote the protection of the ecology and environment of China’s “mother river” and quotes President Xi Jinping’s comments during a visit in April that development along the river should be based on the premise of maintaining ecological protection.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a major new commitment to properly value, protect, and restore, China’s vital freshwater ecosystems.

 

Header photo: releasing fish into the Yangtze River by VCG via Caixin