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.
When Jesper Hornskov (a China-based Danish birder and guide) called to ask whether I wanted to accompany him and a group of Swiss and UK birders to Happy Island in late September, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind. I had read many mouth-watering trip reports about the birding on Happy Island and spoken to many friends who had been. The vast majority went in Spring, with many of the birds in resplendent breeding plumage. Happy Island seemed to be much less frequently visited in the autumn, despite being slap bang in the middle of the East Asian flyway.
And so it was with a sense of excitement and expectation that I journeyed to the airport to meet with Jesper and the crew (David Marques, Christian Beerli and Pirmin Nietlisbach from Switzerland and Jon Mercer from England) for the 2-3 hour drive to Beidaihe, our first stop. The weather was appalling with strong winds, heavy rain and cool temperatures (around 12 degrees C). We arrived in Beidaihe around 45 minutes before dusk so we dumped our bags at the Frienship Hotel and crossed the road to view the mudflats, hoping for a few shorebirds before the 5am start and trip south to Happy Island the following day.
There is now no access onto the flats themselves following the building of a wooden walkway and perimeter fence. This is clearly good for the birds – less disturbance – but not so good for birders in terms of getting good views of the birds! With the tide a fair way out and in fading light, we didn’t get great views of anything, with the exception of some very close feeding Red-necked Stints. Nevertheless, in addition to the stints, we managed to pick up Eurasian Curlew, Red-breasted Merganser, Kentish Plover, Black-tailed Gull, Saunders’ Gull, Black-headed Gull, Mongolian Gull and Greenshank.
We awoke the next morning to driving rain, strong winds and even colder temperatures, making me wish I had brought my gloves – a stark contrast to the weather in Beijing just a day earlier – 28 degrees C and sunny! Our first stop on the way to Happy Island was at a small tidal river called Dapu. The foul weather meant that, for the first few hours, we scanned from the car. Here we soon picked up Baikal Teal, Pied Harrier, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank, Chinese Pond Heron and Common Snipe. As the rain began to wane (it’s all relative – it was still raining persistently!) we made a quick dash for an old brick structure that was to be our base for the next 2-3 hours, providing welcome shelter from the elements as well as being a good vantage point to look out over the estuary. From here we added Falcated Duck, Moorhen, Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits, Far Eastern Curlew, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Wagtail, Purple Heron, Little Grebe, Garganey, Whiskered Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Marsh Sandpiper, Yellow Bittern, Oriental Pratincole, Osprey, Hobby, Eastern Marsh, Hen and Pied Harrier, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Oriental Great Reed Warbler, Pallas’s Reed Bunting, Black Drongo, Eastern Black-tailed Godwit and, best of all, at least 4 Long-billed Plovers!
At about 1230, and with the rain easing, we began the drive south to Happy Island, stopping at a local restaurant for lunch where we added a flyover Black-naped Oriole. From the car we saw more Pied and Eastern Marsh Harriers as well as several Amur Falcons resting on overhead wires. On arrival at the quay, the rain started again as we boarded our boat for the short (5-10 minutes) journey across the water.
Little and Gull-billed Terns were just about identified through the rainy windows. We were met at the quay on Happy Island by a sort of giant electronic golf buggy that took us south towards our accommodation. A Chinese Grey Shrike on wires was a good welcome to the island and we soon realised that there had been a fall of Siberian Stonechats – they were everywhere – and the calls of Yellow-browed Warblers kept us company from the trackside trees.
The accommodation was basic but comfortable with hot water, including a shower and air conditioning.
We dumped our bags and headed out for the last few hours of daylight. The golf buggy took us further south towards the island’s temple and, just before we reached the end of the track where the buggy would drop us, we stumbled across a large group of egrets which, on scrutiny, revealed two superb Oriental White Storks – a great start! These birds are endangered and are not usually seen on Happy Island in September (they breed in north-east Russia and usually migrate later in the autumn). We enjoyed these birds on the deck and in flight, seeing the large, dark bills and the white markings on the secondaries. Nice.
Meanwhile, a Black-capped Kingfisher called from the edge of the wood and revealed itself only briefly before flying deeper into cover.
By now the rain had stopped and the cloud was clearly lifting but there was still a cold fresh wind as we walked through the ‘west wood’ and out to the mud flats. The walk produced several Japanese Quail, a Lanceolated Warbler, several Dusky Warblers and 3 Ashy Minivets.
At dusk we headed back and enjoyed a typically good Chinese meal in the island restaurant before crashing early ahead of the 0530 start the next day.
The next day dawned bright, sunny and with a much reduced wind. Jesper had told us that he expected it to be a good day. After a couple of days of bad weather, there was likely to be a ‘backlog’ of birds ready to migrate and the cold night over the mainland was likely to stimulate more birds to move south. We headed out at 0530 and took up position just south of Temple Wood. Here we watched the visible migration for a few hours. And what a few hours it was – there were birds everywhere. Just lifting your bins and looking at a random patch of sky produced birds.. lots of birds. Olive-backed Pipits buzzed overhead, Oriental Turtle Doves whizzed through and buntings (Black-faced, Yellow-breasted, Yellow-browed, Little, Chestnut, Chestnut-eared and Yellow-throated) were dropping out of the sky all over the area..
Common Rosefinches called and a Wryneck sat up on a nearby shrub. Brown Shrikes called from the bushes and Dusky Warblers gave themselves away by with their sharp ‘tack’ calls. Orioles fluttered past and the occasional Hobby dashed through, pausing only to take the odd dragonfly. Sparrowhawks (both Japanese and Eurasian) bombed through and the bushes were full of phylloscs, mostly Yellow-browed but with the odd Pallas’s and a Two-barred Greenish that remained faithful to a single shrub. A couple of Siberian Rubythroats popped out onto the track nearby before just as quickly diving back into cover. It was a Siberian paradise!
Jesper picked up a couple of Pechora Pipits overhead and then excelled himself by picking out a Hair-crested Drongo that came low past the West Wood. A Rufous-bellied Woodpecker dropped into the wood and a Bluethroat sat up on the reeds next to a Zitting Cisticola. The migration was a real spectacle. After several hours of enjoying the visible migration, we tore ourselves away to search the woods. Jesper picked up a Lancy straight away and soon we were watching this incredible little warbler sneaking away, mouse-like, by crawling through the grass.. We then enjoyed views of Red-flanked Bluetail, Taiga Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Northern Goshawk.
Jesper showed us a few ditches that had, in the past, been good for watching the shy thrushes – White’s and Siberian – and with the heavy rain of the previous two days, these ditches sported a healthy water level. Definitely a good place to sit quietly and watch out for thrushes coming down to drink….
The walk to the restaurant for lunch revealed that there was a raptor passage beginning with Sparrowhawk, Hobby and Eastern Marsh Harrier circling overhead. After a short lunch we headed out to the open ground to take in the raptors.. The first of many Oriental Honey Buzzards drifted over and soon there were tens of these birds flying right overhead, some very low, allowing us to see the variability of this smart bird of prey.
Amur Falcons joined the throng and more Eastern Marsh and Pied Harriers came through, joined by a single Eastern Common Buzzard. By mid-afternoon the passage slowed and several Oriental Honey Buzzards were roaming the island looking for suitable roost sites.
We headed back to the woods to stake out the ditches and, no sooner had we arrived, a White’s Thrush crept slowly to the water’s edge and began to drink.. fantastic! We were all in awe of the birding day we had just witnessed. What a place!
Day two on the island was always going to struggle to compete with day one and visible migration was much reduced in the calm, bright weather. However, we still picked up new birds. A Blyth’s Pipit revealed itself by calling as it flew overhead and we were able to compare the structure of this bird with the regular Richard’s Pipits. The Blyth’s looked much more compact and short-tailed, almost recalling a small pipit.
A Thick-billed Reed Warbler was picked up by the Swiss guys and, as they searched the nearby bushes, a male Black-throated Thrush flew from the closest shrub and out towards the West Wood. An Oriental Cuckoo whizzed through, identified by its relatively dark appearance and very contrasting underwing pattern.
A check of the woods produced more Radde’s Warblers, more Red-flanked Bluetails and a good sprinkling of Pallas’s Warblers.
A check of the ditches produced one, then two Eye-browed Thrushes and almost certainly the same White’s Thrush from the previous day.
Another look at the sand flats produced a couple of Tristram’s Buntings on the walk out and, at the flats themselves, some very distant and (at least to me, unidentifiable!) Relict Gulls amongst the Saunders, Black-headed and Mongolian Gulls, with good numbers of Pacific Golden Plover, Eurasian and Far Eastern Curlew, Kentish Plover, a few Terek Sandpipers, Greenshanks and a small flock of Great Knots.
At dusk we headed for the highest point on the island, the site of a sort of large Chinese gate, to watch the roosting Night Herons. A Chinese Pond Heron was picked up by Jon and three thrushes (probably Eye-browed) were seen flying into Temple Wood. The walk back to the restaurant after sunset produced a hawking Grey Nightjar – a real bonus! Dinner was enjoyed with a nice (but very weak!) Chinese beer.
Unfortunately, the next morning was to be my last on the island. We headed for the visible migration watchpoint and again enjoyed more Olive-backed, Red-throated and Richard’s Pipits, a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings, White-cheeked Starlings, Chestnut-flanked White-eyes, some early Bean Geese, more Amur Falcons and, again, lots of buntings with Black-faced and Little the most common. Two Hoopoes added a splash of colour. As the sun began to warm up the air, at least 4 Thick-billed Reed Warblers climbed onto exposed perches to sun themselves and three thrushes flew in from the west, one of which perched briefly on a far shrub. A short scope view revealed a smart Naumann’s Thrush.
By now I only had an hour left before I had to make my way to the quay and begin the journey back to Beijing. We made for the woods and the ditch again produced three Eye-browed Thrushes and another ditch nearby revealed a White’s Thrush. Reluctantly I tore myself away and, after saying my goodbyes to the Swiss team, Jon and Jesper, I headed back to the hut to collect my things and head home. Jesper’s faultless logistical arrangements meant that, through a combination of boat, taxi to Tangshan, bus from Tangshan to Beijing, I was back home in Beijing within 4 hours.
The Swiss guys – David, Piermin and Christian, were planning to stay for another week and I know that they will have an amazing time, especially with the thrushes beginning to arrive. Fingers crossed they connect with a nice male Siberian Thrush! I am looking forward to hearing about their adventure…
Happy Island is still an amazing place, despite the obvious development that has taken place over the last few years. However, it is unclear for how much longer this will remain the case. Apparently there are plans for a 4-star hotel on the island which, once built, will be the only place at which one can stay – the old huts will be torn down. Building work is scheduled to start this year. There are also tentative plans for a golf course, so the current habitat faces great pressure. It was reassuring, however, from a conversation with the manager of the island that the Temple Wood and the West Wood are likely to be retained. Perhaps if more birdwatchers visited, they would be encouraged to protect more of the habitat to retain their custom… In the meantime, I can say with absolute conviction that my first day on Happy Island was the best birding I have ever experienced and I am simply astonished that more birders don’t visit in autumn. If you are interested, in either spring or autumn, I can wholeheartedly recommend Jesper Hornskov as a guide and as a ground agent who can arrange the logistics. As a Chinese speaker and with around 20 years experience of birding on the island, he knows it better than anyone and, importantly, is a thoroughly nice guy!
Just back from a couple of days on Happy Island (south of Beidaihe). Autumn migration was mega – Oriental Honey Buzzard, Oriental White Stork, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Lanceolated Warbler, Pechora, Blyth’s, Richards’, Olive-backed and Red-throated Pipits, Saunders’ Gull, White’s Thrush, Eye-browed Thrush, Naumann’s Thrush, Thick-billed Reed Warbler, Japanese Sparrowhawk, the list goes on and on. Full report to follow but, in the meantime, I leave you with a few of the best images…
Not the best photos but here is an Eastern Crowned Warbler, one of the several phylloscopus warblers that can be seen in China. The first thing that struck me about this bird from underneath, before I saw the crown stripe, was the size and colour of the bill – very large and orangey compared with the superficially similar Arctic Warbler. The lower mandible is completely pale without any dark tip. The bird also showed a subtle pale yellow vent that wasn’t obvious, especially in the dappled light as it foraged among the leaves.
After making contact with local birder Zhang Lin, I arranged for him to guide me for two days with the primary objective to see the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This charismatic wader has declined dramatically in the last few years and the total population is now probably in the 100s. It breeds in Siberia, around the Chukotka peninsula and winters in SE Asia (especially Thailand, Bangladesh and Burma), although the wintering area of much of the population remains unknown. China is on the migration path and ‘Spooners’, as they are often called, can be seen during the spring and autumn with Rudong (only discovered in 2008 as a site for this species) one of the most reliable and accessible sites.
The adventure began on Sunday evening when I caught an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai. The trains are very modern, fast, reliable and clean, with very comfortable bunks (4 to a cabin). And the current journey time of 9 hours will soon be cut to around 5 hours when the new high-speed rail link comes online in 2011. The demand for tickets is high, though, so advance purchase is recommended. Frustatingly, tickets cannot be bought more than a week or so ahead of travel due to “the rules” and this year, due to the Expo being held in Shanghai, demand is higher than usual. All this combined to mean that there were no bunks left for my outward journey, so I had to make do with a ‘soft seat’ instead. These were airline style with partially reclining chairs in rows of 3. I had a window seat which at least meant I had the window to lean on and, incredibly with the help of an eye-mask and ear plugs, I managed about 4 hours sleep.
On arrival at the spanking new and impressive Shanghai railway station, I was met by Zhang Lin and we began the 2-3 hour drive north to Rudong. Driving on rural Chinese roads is not for the faint-hearted with a combination of trucks, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, suicidal pedestrians and all sorts of weird motor vehicles providing constant entertainment. Fortunately our driver was very skilled in navigating these obstacles and it wasn’t long before we were doing our first birding, at a wetland site just before the estuary. Here we were greeted by Long-tailed Shrike, lots of ‘eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Hobby, Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Oriental Reed Warbler, Richard’s Pipit, Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret, Yellow Bittern, Little Grebe, Arctic Warbler, Oriental Pratincole, Black Drongo and White-winged Black Tern. Soon, Lin picked up the distinctive calls of the Reed Parrotbill, a very charismatic endemic. Small flocks of these weird-looking birds were calling from the reeds and, with a bit of patience, we were able to secure excellent views as a pair came to investigate our presence.
Soon after this encounter, we added Plain Prinia, Common Kingfisher, Cattle Egret and Chinese Bulbul to the list. Our return walk back to the car unexpectedly produced 3 Pechora Pipits that perched on wires for a few minutes before heading off south-west. Nice!
We then drove on to the estuary but, with high-tide several hours away, Lin took me to the woods, a relatively young stand of trees planted along part of the seawall (the land here was reclaimed to build wind turbines and several massive Vestas turbines towered over us as we birded the track (a reminder of Denmark!)). Here was full of migrants with Eastern Crowned Warbler, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Dark-sided Flycatcher, White’s Thrush, a cracking male Siberian Thrush, Black-naped Oriole, Striated Heron, Blue Rock Thrush, Forest Wagtail, Dollarbird, Grey-headed Lapwing, Red Collared Dove and Oriental Turtle Dove. After a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours we headed for lunch at a local seafood restaurant (lots of squid, shellfish, fish and lovely Chinese dumplings). Yum.
We were then well-fuelled for the Spooner hunt. Slightly disconcertingly, Lin told me that they had bought some special cheap ‘shoes’ for me as we would be walking out on the mud flats and would need to cross several creeks, potentially waist-deep in water and mud. My walking boots were not appropriate and I would need shorts and tight-fitting plimsoles to avoid getting stuck in the mud. Thankfully, they didn’t tell me that two people had died recently after getting stuck in the mud until I was already about 1km out onto the mud! Gulp…
Anyway, we met up with Tong Menxiu (who is temporarily based in Rudong to make daily counts of Spooners until the end of October), and set off for the mud flats. The plan was to walk a short distance (around 200-300 metres) onto the flats to await the small high tide roost at this site. Often Spooners come into this roost site and, with patience, they will gradually come close, sometimes as little as 10 metres away. Today, we were not so lucky – no Spooners in this roost – but there were 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Common Greenshank, Redshank, a Long-toed Stint, Greater and Lesser Sandplover, a Great Knot, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlews, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Suddenly the whole group took to the wing and it meant only one thing – a raptor. A quick scan produced a male Pied Harrier quartering the area.. simply stunning.
High tide came and went without me getting my feet wet but, given that there were no Spooners in the roost, Lin suggested we walk further out towards the slowly expanding feeding grounds to try to see them there… this involved wading through several muddy creeks, some of which were waist deep and with patches of very sticky mud, whilst trying to keep my rucksack and optics free of water and mud – not easy! My tripod came in very handy as a third leg… The walk was around 1.5-2km through this terrain before we eventually reached the open flats with literally thousands of feeding birds. The timing of the tides meant that we probably only had about an hour left of daylight, so we began to scan in earnest, Lin from the left and me from the right. After only a couple of minutes, Lin said he could see a Spooner. My heart raced – would I really connect with this sought-after wader? He offered me his scope and seconds later I was watching my first ever Spoon-billed Sandpiper! Wow.. I soon found it in my own scope and I watched it avidly for several minutes – a non-breeding plumaged adult – as Lin scanned for others. The Spooner seemed to have three feeding actions, two of which were very different to the confusion species – Red-necked Stint. The first was a sort of Snipe-like digging, with three to four vertical ‘drills’, all of the bill going deep into the mud. The second was a sort of a Spoonbill-like ‘sweep’ from side to side or a ‘shovel’ straight ahead. And the third was a more Red-necked Stint-like poking at the surface. After a few minutes the bird flew and I lost it, so I began to scan and, amazingly, I found my own Spooner! This one was an adult moulting out of summer plumage with some rufous colour still on the throat – a stunner. I watched this bird for about ten minutes as Lin scanned the rest of the flock, picking up one more adult in non-breeding plumage. The feeding technique of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a very good initial identification feature, especially at distance. They tend to run around with their head down and the distinctive ‘shovelling’ or ‘drilling’ means that you can often tell them apart from Red-necked Stints at quite a distance.
With the light fading, we had to head back.. I knew the walk out had taken us about an hour and I knew it would be dark well before that so I was relieved when Lin said we would be taking a short cut back across a relatively deep creek (waist high again) that is not passable at anything other than low tide. Thirty minutes later we were on a track and were met by our driver, who took us to a local restaurant for a celebratory seafood meal, accompanied by the local beer.. I was very happy!
We then retired to the small local hotel where the rooms were comfortable, if a little basic, with a shower and air conditioning. For about GBP 12 per night, it was pretty good.
Day two began wet and windy (the remnants of a typhoon) so we visited the wood again, as it would provide at least a little shelter. We got a drenching but with the temperature around 30 degrees C, it was not unpleasant and we soon dried out when the rain stopped. The morning produced Red-billed Starling, Chinese Grosbeak, Siberian Blue Robin, Northern Hawk Cuckoo (easily mistaken for a hawk!), Japanese Sparrowhawk, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Dark-streaked Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole and another two Siberian Thrushes. An adult male Blue and White Flycatcher added a splash of colour and a juvenile Tiger Shrike was a nice addition to the list.
And so, after another seafood based lunch, we set out to look for more Spooners. This time we sat on the sea wall a few kilometres away from yesterday’s site and watched the birds as they gradually moved closer with the incoming tide. Again, lots of waders were present of many different species. New additions here included a Grey-tailed Tattler and several Marsh Sandpipers. But no Spooners. So with the tide reaching its peak we headed to the area behind the sea wall, the favoured high tide roost here. We walked out towards the largest of three flocks of roosting birds. A painstaking scan failed to show any Spooners but there was a nice roosting flock of Saunders’ Gulls with a few Black-tailed Gulls mixed in.
With the tide now receding, we went back to the sea wall to watch the waders as they began to leave the roost to feed.. Here, the birds were pretty close, feeding avidly and, again, Lin soon found an adult in non-breeding plumage, closely followed by a second. I watched one of the birds for about 10 minutes, knowing that it would be my last sighting before the journey back to Beijing. I felt very privileged to be watching this small wader, especially in the knowledge that the species may already be beyond the point of no return. With threats on its wintering ground from hunters and coastal development, many of its migration stopover sites already lost, and almost all of the remaining sites under threat from development, the future is not bright. But where there is life there is hope and I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the international effort to save the species from the brink of extinction is successful. The world will be a poorer place without this charismatic bird.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away to begin the drive back to Shanghai. I was tired but elated. Thankfully, I had a sleeper berth on the journey back to Beijing and I managed to sleep for around 6 hours before arriving back at Beijing South Station at 0730.
To see a stunning displaying adult male Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds, click here. And for David Sibley’s Spoon-billed Sandpiper resource, including investigation of why the species is disappearing so fast, click here.
I also recommend the series of 6 posts about the SBS on the top birding blog, “10,000 Birds“. The interview with SBS expert, Christoph Zöckler, is particularly revealing.
To contact Zhang Lin about tours in the Shanghai area or to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers at Rudong, click here…