Winter is coming…

It was noticeably colder this morning on my walk around Central Park in Beijing..  probably down to around 6 degrees C and I could have done with my gloves.  Good numbers of Pallas’s Warblers today (I counted 12 and there could have been more) plus a single Daurian Redstart. The forecast is for a cold front to pass through on Monday, followed by more settled weather for a few days..  the cold snap might prompt some more birds to fly south – I am hoping for Siberian Accentor and some Thrushes in the garden!

Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake)

I made my second visit to Yeyahu (known as Wild Duck Lake) on Wednesday.  Fantastic day – almost no wind early morning and fantastic blue skies.  Highlights were undoubtedly the raptors – 2 Great Spotted Eagles that came from the east, circled a bit and then wet back east, clearly not liking what they saw…    also, 2 Short-toed Eagles, a Peregrine, at least 12 japonicus Common Buzzards, 3 Hen Harriers, 2 Japanese Sparrowhawks, 4 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, 3 Goshawks, 2 Hobby and a Kestrel.  Other sightings included c50 Bean Geese, a cracking adult male Yellow-throated Bunting, 100s of Little Buntings (I lost count when I reached 3 figures but there were clearly several hundred on site), c20 Buff-bellied Pipits, several Greater Short-toed Lark and a possible Asian Short-toed Lark (looked short-tailed and pale but not clinched).

Not too much wildfowl around – a few Spot-billed Duck, a couple of Ruddy Shelduck, some Common Teal, a few Gadwall, Mallard and Wigeon but no sign of any Baikal Teal.

Meanwhile, in the garden, one Red-flanked Bluetail remained with at least 6 Pallas’s Warblers, a single Daurian Redstart and half a dozen Yellow-bellied Tits.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Yeyahu, 13 October 2010
1 cal yr Common Buzzard ssp japonicus
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 13 October 2010
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 13 October 2010 - can you see the Great Wall in the background? Chinese birding at its best...

Red-flanked Bluetails

The garden keeps producing.  Today there were two Red-flanked Bluetails foraging low down in the shade of some small shrubs, right by a major walkway.  Stunning birds, often wagging their tails downwards as they eyed up their next insect meal.  One even began to eat a few of the berries, precariously balancing on the outer branches….  Only other birds of note were 4 Pallas’s Warblers and a single Brambling (new China bird for me) that called, perched briefly on top of one of the trees and then flew off south.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Central Park, 12 October 2010
Red-flanked Bluetail, Central Park, 12 October 2010

Invasion of the Radde’s

After seeing my first Radde’s Warbler in the garden yesterday, today I saw a minimum of 5!  Three were in the same shrub which also included a Dusky Warbler, a male Daurian Redstart and a Two-barred Greenish Warbler!  One of the Radde’s performed well, breaking the dense cover and showing quite well in the upper branches of a young tree for a few minutes.


Radde's Warbler, Central Park, Beijing, 9 October 2010. Note the shortish, stubby bill, compared with Dusky (below)



Radde's Warbler, Central Park, Beijing, 9 October 2010. This photo shows the characteristic 'peachy' undertail coverts.



This Dusky Warbler popped out briefly, called and then dived back into cover. Note the thinner, more pointed bill, the more concolourous body and the darker legs.



Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Central Park, Beijing, 9 October 2010


A Two-barred Greenish Warbler came to see what all the fuss was about and posed nicely, albeit briefly, before moving on with a small party of Pallas’s Warblers.

Finally, the male Daurian Redstart that was bombing around doing what Redstarts do…

I checked the patch where the Stubtail was yesterday.  No sign.  But there was another Radde’s in the same spot, skulking around in the grass..


As I started my morning walk around the garden this morning, I didn’t expect much.  It was pretty smoggy and fairly still and, after several days of settled weather, I didn’t expect there to be any new grounded migrants.

In some longish grass I caught a glimpse of a warbler probing around at the bases of the stems..  and it didn’t take long to realise it was a Radde’s Warbler – my first in the garden.  It hopped around, rarely fully in view – typical of a Radde’s  – before flying a short way into dense cover.  A nice start.

A bit further along I flushed a Taiga Flycatcher – the first I have seen for a while (they were pretty common in early September but most seem to have gone through by now) and a female Daurian Redstart (possibly the same bird that has been present since Tuesday) darted out and then back into cover.  Several Pallas’s Warblers foraged in the tallest shrubs but, with lots of dog walkers around and Chinese people doing their morning shouty shouty stuff, I decided to call it a morning and go back to the flat for breakfast.

A nagging feeling that there might be more birds around caused me to take another stroll around after lunch.  Almost immediately, in the same spot as the Radde’s earlier that day, I caught sight of some movement on the ground.  Probably the Radde’s, I thought…  This time I had my camera with me so I thought I would try to get an image or too..  I crept up the steps so that I was at eye-level with the bird.. suddenly it called a very sharp ‘tick’ and sat up on a stem.  The bird had plain brownish upperparts and a very marked supercilium that grew stronger behind the eye.  It turned and I could see it had a very short tail – it was clearly an Asian Stubtail!  Wow!  I grabbed my camera and it flew up onto a branch momentarily before flying off round the corner and out of sight.  I managed a few dark record images…


Asian Stubtail, Central Park, Beijing, 8 October 2010


Almost immediately, two Pallas’s Warblers came down to some low branches nearby and performed very well…  I do love these bright little gems!


Pallas's Warbler, Central Park, 8 October 2010



Pallas's Warbler, Central Park, 8 October 2010

I enjoyed watching one of the Pallas’s as it repeatedly picked off insects from an infested stem and, in so doing, I realised that I may have achieved a photographic first – a Pallas’s Warbler pooing.  He must have felt embarrassed as, no sooner had he relieved himself, he flew off in a hurry…




Pallas's Warbler pooing, Central Park, 8 October 2010


Garden Migrants

A walk around the garden today produced probably the best crop of migrants yet.  It started with two Daurian Redstarts (a pair) and several Pallas’s Warblers.  Further round I flushed a Red-flanked Bluetail and then a Dusky Warbler showed briefly from a shrub before typically diving deep into cover.  A ‘tick’ call alerted me to a flying Bunting which settled on the top of a nearby tree, revealing itself to be a first winter Yellow-browed Bunting and then a small flock of Yellow-bellied Tits came through a group of young poplars..  Not bad for a 20-minute walk around the garden!

Pallas's Warbler, Central Park, Beijing, 5 October 2010
A record image of the male Daurian Redstart, Central Park, 5 October 2010
One of the Yellow-bellied Tits foraging in the garden this morning

Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake)

On Sunday I joined forced with Beijing-based English birders, Brian Jones and ‘Spike’ Millington (brother to Richard of Birding World fame) for a trip to Wild Duck Lake, Chinese name “Yeyahu”.  This site is about 90-120 minutes north-west of Beijing and lies just beyond the popular section of the Great Wall at Badaling and close to the town of Yanqing.

The environment around Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake)

The site is a flat steppe-like area of mostly grassland with a reservoir, a small reedbed, an area of shrubs and a few trees, nestled between two sets of mountains to the north and south.   It is often windy here – the mountains act as a sort of wind tunnel – and the wind is often from the north-west, originating from Siberia and across Inner Mongolia, apparently making the wind chill in winter a teeth-chattering -20 degrees Celsius or below.. yikes.

This site can easily be day-tripped from Beijing but Brian wanted to ensure we were on site for dawn (there can be disturbance from horse-riders from around 0730), so we decided to travel the evening before, stay overnight in a local hotel and begin birding at dawn.  We met at the bus station and caught a bus from Beijing to Yanqing.

A meal in the local restaurant around the corner from our hotel (cost – GBP 8.50 for three, including beer) set us up nicely for the following day.

Brian, a regular at this site – in fact he is writing a book about its birds – had arranged for a local driver to pick us up at 0530 the following morning for the 20 minute drive to the park.  At 0530 in the dot our car arrived and off we went..

It was pretty windy and decidedly chilly at 0600 so I was soon glad I had packed my gloves as the Siberian wind howled relentlessly from the north-west.  Viewing birds on the ground wasn’t easy in the wind but we picked off Hen Harrier, Eurasian Skylark, a single Greater Short-toed Lark, Black-eared Kite, Lapwing, Spotted Redshank, Eurasian Starling (a rare bird in China) and a possible first for Yeyahu – a Grey Plover!  Brian couldn’t hide his excitement about this find…  and soon had the camera out snapping a few record shots.

A couple of Eastern Marsh Harriers quartered the fields and a group of Chinese Spot-billed Duck circled before settling on the reservoir.  A Eurasian Sparrowhawk raided some nearby bushes, flushing a few Buntings (mostly Little) and a superb Chinese Grey Shrike sat, sentinel-like, on a low bush sheltered by the reedbed.

As we walked to a small spit protruding out into the reservoir, we flushed a group of pipits and wagtails.  Most were juvenile White Wagtails but the pipits proved to be mostly Buff-bellied, with a single Richard’s Pipit that flew over our heads uttering its distinctive call.

The walk from the reservoir to the lake produced Zitting Cisticola, Hobby, Little Bunting, Yellow Wagtail and Grey Heron and the lake itself held Wigeon, Common Teal, Gadwall, Coot, Mallard, Great-crested and Little Grebe.  More Little Buntings were in the reeds and along the path and we flushed a Japanese Quail from a patch of longer grass.

As the day began to warm up and the wind eased, we began to see more raptors.  A few Common Buzzards (a passage migrant here) began to rise on the thermals and a couple more Hen Harriers took to the wing.

After viewing the lake, Brian decided to take the boardwalk across the middle of the lake while Spike and I preferred the wooded perimeter track, in the hope that there may be some warblers or flycatchers.  It wasn’t long before we picked up an unfamiliar call (a sort of upward-slurring “choo-wit” and soon discovered a small phyllosc.  It looked superficially like a drab Yellow-browed Warbler but we could soon see that it had a very pronounced median crown-stripe that began just behind the forehead.  I immediately thought it must be a washed-out Pallas’s Warbler but there were no yellowish tones to the plumage at all and it did not have a yellow rump.  Our thoughts turned to the other leaf warblers and, after watching the bird for the next 10 minutes or so, Spike was reasonably confident it must be a Chinese Leaf Warbler.  Our bird was soon joined by three other phylloscs, this time Pallas’s Leaf Warblers.


Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Yeyahu Lake, 3 October 2010



Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Yeyahu Lake, 3 October 2010



This photo shows one of the Pallas’s Warblers also present.

Moving on from the phylloscs to meet with Brian, our progress was soon halted again when we caught sight of 4 raptors circling some distance away.  Three were clearly Common Buzzards but the fourth was larger with a very different jizz.  It had a squarish tail, almost horizontal wings and the underparts were very pale..  As it banked, I could see the upperwing pattern – mostly dark with lighter patches on the coverts.  The underparts looked uniformly pale with a darkish head/throat.  Short-toed Eagle immediately entered our minds and, although the bird was still very distant, we were soon convinced this is what we were watching – a rare bird for northern China.  As it drifted even further away, we set off to meet Brian, knowing that he had already been at the northern observation point for a while.

We headed north along the path with more raptors circling overhead.. more Common Buzzards..  Then, almost overhead we suddenly noticed a larger bird..  Again, pale underneath, square tail and larger than Common Buzzard.  Short-toed Eagle!  Now it was almost directly above us and, as we watched it circling and occasionally hovering, suddenly a second bird swooped and both engaged in a short talon-tussle while calling to each other.  The original bird then began an undulating flight with deep wingbeats, reminiscent of the butterfly-like display flight of Honey Buzzard.  A fantastic sight!


Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu Lake, 3 October 2010



Short-toed Eagle ‘displaying’



Two Short-toed Eagles. Note the pale plumage of the left-hand bird, indicating an immature.


The second bird (see last photo) was much paler, lacking the barring on the underparts and the dark head pattern.  On checking the trusty Forsman guide, I believe this indicates an immature (possibly a 3cy) bird.

We reached the northern watchpoint and hooked up with Brian, who had been enjoying these birds from the watchtower.  After a spot of lunch we walked back on the leeward side of the trees, heading to the entrance of the park.  Lots more Little Buntings, a juvenile Goshawk, a couple of Olive-backed Pipits, a few more Common Buzzards and another Hobby kept us company as we reached the entrance to the park, from where our driver collected us for the short drive back to the bus station.  After a bit of a wait here (the queues were long due to the public holiday), I arrived back in Beijing at dusk, pretty tired but exhilarated by my day out of quality birding in the company of two of Beijing’s finest..  A good site and one that I would like to visit again pretty often if I can.  Apparently during the 2009/10 harsh winter, the site held several hundred Pallas’s Sandgrouse (not annual there) plus a flock of 200+ Pine Buntings and several Mongolian Larks…  now that would be worth braving the -20 degrees cold for!


Brian Jones (right) and Spike Millington waiting for our driver at the entrance to Yeyahu Lake



Not strictly a birding post but I thought readers might be interested in seeing some images from our visit to one of the remaining areas of traditional Hutongs in Beijing.

The word hutong came from the Mongolian language about 700 years ago.  The original Mongolian word was “hottog”, meaning “water well”.  This was always a place where people lived, because people always gathered where there was water.  Today in Beijing, the word hutong means a small alleyway or lane. They are typical of the old part of Beijing and are formed by lines of siheyuan (a compound made up of rooms around a courtyard ) in which most Beijing residents used to live.

Most of the original hutongs have been cleared away to make way for new, high-rise building but there are still several areas where this traditional way of life can be seen.  On national day (1 Oct) we visited one of the more upmarket Hutong districts at Luanghou Lane that has been preserved and, to some extent, commercialised.  It was originally built in 1267 and was part of the Zhaohui Community under the Yuan District.  There were lots of nice snug-looking cafes, restaurants and independent shops selling all sorts of merchandise from clothes to pottery to paintings to food.  The area was bustling with tourists – mostly Chinese but with the odd western face mixed in.

A street view of one of the more popular Hutongs in Beijing

Even here, birds were in evidence with Azure-winged Magpies squawking overhead and a few Yellow-browed Warblers calling from the trees…

The entrance from the Hutong to the residences inside
A traditional Chinese bicycle, many of which are still in use, particularly by the communities living in the Hutongs
A Terracotta warrior dressed up for National Day


As well as being good for Sparrowhawks, Happy Island was also good for Harriers.  We saw good numbers of Pied (probably the most common Harrier), Eastern Marsh and Hen (the least common – they tend to migrate a little later).  When seen together, Pied looked smaller, slimmer and more agile in flight..  A few of my best images below.

Hen Harrier, Happy Island, 22 September 2010
Pied Harrier (juvenile), Happy Island, 22 September 2010
Pied Harrier (juvenile), Happy Island, 22 September 2010
Pied Harrier (male) at dawn, Happy Island, 21 September 2010
Eastern Marsh Harrier (juvenile), Happy Island, 22 September 2010. Note the breast band (a reliable feature on dark juvenile/female Eastern Marsh Harriers)
Hen Harrier hunting Siberian Stonechat


At Happy Island we saw many Sparrowhawks – both Eurasian and Japanese – allowing a good comparison of these similar species.  The best indicator was structure with Japanese being smaller-headed, shorter-tailed and generally more compact.  If seen well, plumage details, including the more strongly barred breast and underwing, with the streaking often reaching the vent, helped to distinguish Japanese from the more familiar Eurasian.

On our first day, I felt sorry for the migrant passerines.  Not only were they dropping into the woods, exhausted, but the woods were full of Sparrowhawks.  Every call or squeak from a passerine resulted in at least one but often two or three Sparrowhawks homing in on the noise like guided missiles.  Surprisingly, we found one Japanese Sparrowhawk suspended high in a tree, obviously the victim of a collision with a branch, something one doesn’t expect from these highly maneuverable raptors.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk plunging towards a Black-faced Bunting
Eurasian Sparrowhawk with its target in sight (it failed with this attempt)
A Japanese Sparrowhawk (the victim of a collision with a branch)
Japanese Sparrowhawk in flight, Happy Island, Hebei Province
Japanese Sparrowhawk, Happy Island, Hebei Province, Sep 2010. In this photo, the 'stockier' structure of Japanese Sparrowhawk is obvious.