Volunteers Protect Beijing’s Harlequin Duck

Beijing’s first ever HARLEQUIN (丑鸭) was discovered on 9 February 2017, when it was photographed by a local bird photographer at the unexpected location of Anzhenmen in central Beijing.  Not surprisingly, this first for the capital has proved extremely popular with birders and photographers and has attracted the attention of the local media.

The first-winter female HARLEQUIN took up residence in the unlikely location of central Beijing.

The vast majority of people have been very well-behaved and kept their distance, especially since the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC) erected a banner on site with information about the species and asking people not to feed it or get too close.

Wu Qi explaining the significance of the Harlequin to a group of local children.

However, last week the bird suddenly lost the majority of its tail feathers and there was speculation that it had attracted the attention of some people with ill intentions.  Shortly afterwards, someone was spotted on site after dark with a powerful spotlight and a fishing net acting suspiciously.

Local birder, 武其 (Wu Qi), was determined not to let the criminals catch the Harlequin and, with some friends, organised patrols after dark to ensure the bird’s safety and recruited young volunteers to speak to local people and passers by.  As of today, those patrols are ongoing and the bird remains on site.

Some of the young volunteers helping to engage passers by at Anzhenmen.
Journalists from Beijing TV and Beijing Evening News visited the site to interview Wu Qi and some of the young volunteers.

On Monday, with the help of 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), I conducted a short interview with Wu Qi to discuss his actions, including his views on wild bird conservation in China.  Wu Qi’s answers are below:

Q: What are the threats to the Harlequin at Anzhenmen?

A: The threats to the Anzhenmen Harlequin are: illegal catching for food, inappropriate feeding and water quality (pollution).  According to witnesses on-site, some people have tried to catch it for eating.

Q: What motivated you to try to protect this bird?

A: We understand that worldwide, the Harlequin Duck is not rare and is not classified as an endangered species.  However, Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China, and this is the first record of this species in Beijing.  As birders, we want something good for this Harlequin, which is to see it safely survive the winter and migrate back to its breeding grounds in Spring.  At the same time, we want to take this opportunity to raise the awareness and knowledge of the public about how to protect wildlife correctly.  We believe that the energy and efforts of a few of us are limited, so we decided to arrange volunteers to help to protect the Harlequin.

Q: Do you think the bird is safe now?

A: We have been protecting the bird for a week and, so far, there has been no catching behaviour, and inappropriate feeding has also been substantially reduced.  However, we believe the water quality at the weir is not so good and we are concerned that it may contain toxic substances which may accumulate in the Harlequin’s body and affect its health and breading potential.

Q: What do your friends and family think about your actions to protect this bird?

A: My family is supportive about what I have done.  And they felt very proud when they saw me on the Beijing TV news about our Harlequin protection.  My friends are all nature enthusiasts or professionals engaged in nature education and wildlife conservation.  So they understood very well my actions.  Many of my friends have been directly involved in protecting the Harlequin.  They call me “a guy of action”.

Q: Every country has a minority of people who want to harm wild birds. What do you think can be done to help protect wild birds in China?

A: In China, I feel the most critical thing is not to protect a specific bird or a species of birds, but to change the mindset and attitude of the public and government sectors towards wildlife.  For example, we should let people know that wild birds do not a provide higher nutritional value than poultry.  On the contrary, wild birds may have the risk of carrying parasites and contagious disease.  As for the government sectors, we expect them to understand the meaning of biological function and diversity.  Investing a huge amount of money to create an artificial “wetland park” is not as good as providing a lake or natural wetland that is left wild and has reduced human disturbance.  I think public campaigns and communication are very important. It’s also important to promote birding activities, especially involving young kids, to help communicate and spread appreciation, knowledge and awareness about wildlife protection.

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Hear hear!

武其 (Wu Qi), “a guy of action”, works for an environmental NGO called “The Nature Library”, dedicated to promoting nature and environmental education in schools, among communities and in public parks.  He’s a great example of the growing number of people passionate about protecting biodiversity in Beijing.  Thank you Wu Qi and friends!

Big thanks to 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), English name Michelle, for assistance with the translations.

Title image: Wu Qi (right) with Shi Yang of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC).

Baer’s Pochard: Cause For Optimism?

Last week I was invited to Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province by officials from the German government-owned development bank, KfW.  In partnership with the Hengshui Hu nature reserve and Hengshui University, KfW is beginning a project to support the sustainable management of this impressive wetland which, as well as supporting breeding populations of Reed Parrotbill, Blunt-winged Warbler and Schrenck’s Bittern, happens to be the most important known site for the ‘Critically Endangered’ BAER’S POCHARD (BP).

A map of Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province.

I arrived at Hengshui Hu on the afternoon of 7 March and spent the last two hours of daylight checking the southern part of the lake.  I recorded a minimum of 42 BPs as well as 21 Ferruginous Duck, at least 2,300 Coot, a handful of Smew and 2 Common Mergansers.  However, as the light faded, I could see distant rafts of birds on the water in the more northerly part of the lake and I wondered what the morning would bring.  On the short drive back to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised to see a banner with a large photograph of Baer’s Pochard draped over the road on the western side of the lake – public awareness!

I’d arranged to meet Guido and Matthias from KfW and Dr Wu Dayong of Hengshui University the following morning at 0630 for a survey.  As we began our walk along the causeway, we were treated to a wonderful morning with little wind, a temperature hovering around freezing and beautiful clear blue skies.  Perfect conditions.  It wasn’t long before we were encountering small groups of BP and, in the ideal conditions, we enjoyed some superb views of males and females.

As we walked further we began to see some larger groups and, before we had even walked half of the causeway, our count was well over 200.  Soon after a stunning encounter with some of the local Reed Parrotbills, Guido and Matthias reluctantly had to leave to attend a meeting as I continued my walk.

The charismatic, and curious, REED PARROTBILL is one of Hengshui Hu’s star birds that should benefit from an effective management plan.

About an hour and a half later I met Dr Wu at the southern end of the causeway having counted 308 BPs, a new record for the site, eclipsing the 290 recorded by Paul Holt and Li Qingxin on 8 December 2016.  An additional 5 birds were presumed BP x Ferruginous Duck hybrids (some video of females and presumed hybrids can be seen here).

After lunch with KfW and the nature reserve staff I held a short identification workshop with the nature reserve staff focusing on how to distinguish BP from the superficially similar, at least in female, immature and eclipse plumages, Ferruginous Duck.  I hope to be able to provide some more support over the next few weeks to help the staff begin regular monitoring of the birds at this important site.

On the 4-hour journey home I began to think about the future of BP.  With two groups of Beijing-based scientists and conservationists, led by Dr Wu Lan and Li Qingxin, already researching BP’s ecology and population dynamics, the creation of an international Baer’s Pochard Task Force, a new project at Hengshui Hu involving both local and international experts that will help take into account biodiversity in the management of the reserve, a clear understanding by the nature reserve staff and local academics of the importance of Hengshui Hu to BP, their willingness to begin regular bird monitoring, signs of public engagement and a record site count of BPs, I began to smile.  Of course there is a long way to go to slow, halt and reverse the decline in the population of Baer’s Pochard but it appears some of the key building blocks are beginning to be put in place.

 

 

 

Swarovski Ushers In New Era Of Birding

Whether it’s scanning through flocks of shorebirds along the Yellow Sea looking for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper or searching the barren rocky slopes of the Tibetan Plateau in the hope of glimpsing the elusive Snow Leopard, anyone who has used a telescope for hours on end will testify to the fact that squinting with one eye for any length of time can cause considerable discomfort.  Regular breaks to ‘recalibrate’ the eyes and relax the muscles are required, interrupting the concentration and potentially causing the observer to miss what he/she is looking for.

This longstanding problem for regular telescope users now has a solution – the Swarovski BTX.  The BTX is a new module for the ATX/STX modular set-up and essentially offers a binocular eyepiece whilst maintaining the single objective lens.  Not only do the two (adjustable) eyepieces make for much more comfortable, and balanced, scanning, the addition of the adjustable forehead rest means that the biggest risk of use is falling asleep!

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Alongside many prominent birders from around the world, I was privileged to be invited to Swarovski Optik’s headquarters in Tyrol, Austria, in February to be introduced to, and to road-test, the BTX.  As Swarovski Optik CEO, Carina Schiestl-Swarovski, and Dale Forbes, Head of Strategic Business Development, unveiled the BTX there were audible gasps around the room, then a spontaneous round of applause.  And that was before any of us had even looked through one.  It simply looked the business.  Minutes later, several BTXs were set up outside and we were soon trying out this masterpiece of engineering in the stunning mountains of Austria.

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Biotope’s Tormod Amundsen – what a guy! – testing the new BTX.

So, how was it?

My first reaction was that the BTX will revolutionise scanning.  Anyone who uses a telescope for prolonged periods, whether its a waterbird surveyor, a tour guide in Ladakh or a sea-watcher at the coast, the BTX will be a God-send.  The comfort is striking when compared with a traditional telescope and, additionally, seeing with two eyes certainly adds a good deal to the quality of the viewing.  It seemed to me that I was seeing more, and more quickly, when using the BTX compared with the traditional ATX.  It’s simply a more pleasurable, and more natural, viewing experience.

Over the following two days we took the new kit to Lake Constance where we scanned the flocks of waterfowl.  After only a couple of minutes, adjusting the (removable) forehead rest and getting used to using two eyes, I found the BTX a delight.  We enjoyed superb views of a range of waterfowl including Whooper Swan, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Common Pochard, Goldeneye, Common Merganser and even a few Red-throated and Black-throated Divers before there were whoops of joy from the Americans when a much-coveted ‘redhead’ Smew flew in and landed in front of us.

Visiting more locations around Lake Constance, we put the BTX through its paces in varying light conditions, paired with different objective lenses and using the new ME 1.7x extender (compatible with the ATX/STX and BTX), all of which displayed the optical quality one would expect from Swarovski.  With two representatives from Cornell Lab, Jessie Barry and Chris Wood, we were of course religiously recording our sightings using the eBird APP and were racking up an impressive list including White Stork, Short-toed Treecreeper and Red Kite.

As with many brilliant innovations, it begs the question – why hasn’t the BTX been developed before?  Well, the answer is, of course, that similar designs that incorporate a binocular eyepiece with a telescope (usually involving two objective lenses) have been produced before but most are bulky and impractical for use in the field.  As the engineers explained to us during our ‘behind the scenes’ tour, technically it’s been a challenging project and this is the first time such a design, with the optical quality and practicality we have come to expect from Swarovski, has been produced for birders.

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Jonathan Meyrav, of Champions Of The Flyway fame, testing the BTX at Lake Constance.

Are there any downsides?  Well, the fixed magnification of 30x (or 35x on the ATX/STX 95) is a limiting factor.  Producing a zoom would have, according to the engineers, made the BTX bulkier, heavier and a lot more expensive.  And there is a little extra weight.  For me, the lack of zoom is a minor limitation – when I use my telescope for scanning I generally prefer a relatively low magnification to maximise field of view and the brightness of the image.  And, of course, the modular system means that it’s straightforward to swap the BTX for an ATX zoom eyepiece once the target has been found or, if you prefer to stay with the BTX eyepiece, add the ME 1.7x magnification extender, small enough to easily fit into a pocket.  In the context of the whole set-up (telescope and tripod), the extra weight is marginal. In summary, the benefits of the binocular view far outweigh the downsides.

The price tag of Euro 2,490 including 20% VAT is not cheap, reflecting the expertise that has gone into the design and the quality of the manufacturing.  For existing ATX/STX users, the BTX will be an attractive addition to expand the performance of, and comfort of using, the modular set-up.  I expect it to be popular..

Personally, I know the BTX will make a big difference when I go to Qinghai looking for Snow Leopards or scanning the local reservoir counting the ducks and geese whilst looking for Baer’s Pochards and I can’t wait to get my hands on one!

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Terry testing the new BTX at Swarovski HQ in Tyrol, Austria.

Swarovski is to be congratulated on an innovative and stylish product that cements their place as the pioneer at the forefront of the optics manufacturing.  The BTX will be available from May and interested potential customers should know that, from 30 April until 12 May, this revolutionary scope can be tried out in some of Europe’s best birding areas in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.  See here for more details.

Huge thanks to the Swarovski ‘family’ for providing us with wonderful hospitality in Tyrol and for allowing a rare insight ‘behind the scenes’.  As well as being at the forefront of their industry, it was heartening to see how much Swarovski Optik invests in corporate and social responsibility, in particular sustainability.  Their energy and waste management programmes are hugely impressive meaning that their environmental ‘footprint’ is minimal.  Combined with the facilities made available to staff, including a kindergarten for employees’ children, a superb cafeteria and impressive working conditions, it’s clearly a great company that is a model for how a company can not only be at the forefront of their industry but also make a positive contribution to the community.  Another reason to choose Swarovski!

China To Participate In The Champions Of The Flyway 2017

If you’re a birder, you almost certainly won’t need an introduction to the Champions Of The Flyway.  For those of you who don’t know COTF, as it is known, it’s an annual birding festival in Eilat, Israel, to raise money for conservation, the centrepiece of which is a 24-hr bird race involving teams from all over the world.

This year I am delighted to announce that a team from China will participate for the first time.  I am honoured to be one of the “The Golden Pheasants” alongside my teammates, one of China’s top birders, Tong Menxiu, and travel writer and birder, Chen Ting.

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Shanghai-based Tong Menxiu has worked on Spoon-billed Sandpiper surveys and runs China Wild Tour, leading birding trips across China and beyond.
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Beijing-based Chen Ting (“Cecilia”) is one of China’s most popular travel writers and an excellent wildlife photographer.

The event, in which teams from all over the world are trying to see the largest possible number of birds in one day – 28 March – will support efforts to combat illegal hunting in Turkey.  

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The ‘playing field’ within which teams will try to see as many species of bird as possible in 24 hrs on 28 March.

Conservation is the driving force for COTF and each team will be raising funds for BirdLife International’s partner in Turkey, Doğa Derneği (DD).  DD works to ensure safe passage of migrants through the country, especially the Anatolia region, an important bottleneck for migrating birds. The projects that COTF will support include youth activities to train the younger generation to become birdwatchers instead of hunters, and education of newly arrived Syrian refugees on Anatolia’s nature and conservation.   I am sure everyone will agree these are worthy causes.

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Illegal hunting is a big threat to wild birds in many countries, from raptor persecution in the UK that still persists today to the cagebird trade in East Asia, and everywhere in between.  As well as celebrating the miracle of migration, COTF is designed to raise awareness of the illegal hunting threat, to put pressure on the criminals and to raise much-needed funds to support local groups on the ground trying to combat this illegal activity.

As readers of Birding Beijing will know, illegal hunting is a big problem in China, in particular along the east coast during spring and autumn migration, driven by the demand for exotic food and, to a lesser extent, the cagebird trade.  By engaging China in the COTF, we hope to help raise awareness about illegal hunting and the international conservation efforts to try to tackle it.  And, by linking COTF to China, maybe we can persuade the organisers to support conservation efforts in China in the future!

Each team has a dedicated page on the COTF website.  The Golden Pheasants’ is here.  It includes a link to the JustGiving site which is accepting donations.

It’s important that I make something very clear, to avoid any suspicion or misunderstanding.  The participants themselves, and/or corporate and government sponsors, are paying the costs of travelling to Israel and hotel accommodation.  So absolutely ALL the money collected will be donated to BirdLife, and will make a big difference to the preservation of many individual birds and species.  Every donation, whether it’s GBP 1, CNY 100 or USD 10,000, is hugely appreciated.  

We’ll be using social media in China and overseas to promote the event, provide real-time updates of our progress and to generate support.  Follow @BirdingBeijing on Twitter for team updates, @FlywayChampions for official event tweets and use the hashtag #COTF17 to see all relevant updates and discussions. If you’re on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform, add “birdingbeijing” to keep up to date.

 

 

Harlequin Duck in Beijing

 

Urban birding often springs surprises.   Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens.  The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.

On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing.  The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.

We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen.  It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.

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The site of Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN, a first-winter female, near Anzhenmen.

In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls.  Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir.  We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected?  Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility.  We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.

Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao.  Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year.  The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces.  Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..

Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir.  They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin!  It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise.  We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base.  Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!

Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.

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Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN showed extremely well in its surprisingly urban setting.

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If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.

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The first birders on the scene. In the foreground, He Wenbo (left) and Zhao Min with the Harlequin on the water.

Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China.  There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing.  However, the urban location was a complete surprise.  As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital.  In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago.  Congratulations to Paul!

In Chinese, Harlequin is  丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”).  The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck.  The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings..  one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”!  Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.

What will be next?

Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news.  Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.

Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.”  The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.

A Birder’s Guide To The Great Wall

Birders are well known the world over for shunning even the most impressive tourist attractions in favour of a few hours birding, especially if there are a few local specialities to be seen. However, unlike in many capital cities, Beijing offers the chance to record some special birds whilst simultaneously experiencing one of the most awe-inspiring tourist attractions in the world – The Great Wall (Chinese: 長城, pinyin: chángchéng).

One of the most frequent queries I receive here at Birding Beijing is whether it’s possible to combine a day’s birding with a visit to the Wall.  So I thought it high time I produced this “Birder’s Guide To The Great Wall.”

The first thing to say is that, whichever section you visit, the Great Wall is majestic and it’s entirely possible to forget about birding when walking along the ramparts enjoying the stunning views and trying to imagine the incredible effort that went in to building this monumental construction that stretches from China’s east coast in Liaoning, Hebei and Tianjin through Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shaanxi to Ningxia and Gansu Provinces in the west. The first sections were completed around 200BC; if you are interested in the history of the Great Wall, there is a good piece here.

Overview

There are several sections of the Great Wall within easy reach of Beijing city.  The advantages of these sites are that the travel time is relatively short and getting there is relatively easy. The disadvantages are that they are mostly restored sections, meaning they are not the most authentic, and they are busy. And busy in China means BUSY (87,500 visitors were recorded at Badaling on one day during “Golden Week” in October 2014 – see here for some astonishing photos of what the crowds can be like at peak times). For those of you who simply want to say you’ve seen or visited the Great Wall and want to prioritise birding elsewhere, these are the sites for you.

For those of you who prefer a more authentic experience and like to have space to turn around without the risk of knocking out multiple tourists with your binoculars, one of the more remote sections might be a better choice. The advantages of these sites are that they are usually, at least partially, in original condition (i.e. unrestored) and attract fewer visitors. The disadvantages are that they are harder to get to, usually requiring multiple public buses or hiring a private car and driver (remember it’s not possible to rent a self-drive car in China without a Chinese Driving License), have fewer, if any, facilities and the travel time will likely be much longer.

Another option, especially for those who like to walk and hike, is to take a tour with Beijing Hikers – a wonderful, and cost-effective, way to see some of the wilder sections of the Great Wall.  A little more on this option is at the end.

Whichever option you choose, I can (almost) guarantee that you will not be disappointed with The Great Wall. It’s spectacular.

Now I can hear you saying “ok, ok… that’s enough about the Wall, but what about the birds?!” Well, as you might expect, the diversity of birds at the Great Wall is relatively low. However, it is possible to see some of Beijing’s specialities such as Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush, Chinese Nuthatch, Willow Tit, Silver-throated Tit and Meadow Bunting.  And, in winter, there is a chance of something special such as Siberian Accentor or Pallas’s Rosefinch. The species possible at each site are essentially the same, so there is no major benefit in visiting one site over another in terms of the species you are likely to see. However, that said, the busier sections with greater human disturbance are likely to produce fewer species.

Of course, the potential species will also depend on season and weather, and numbers of the migrant birds will vary from year to year.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher is a relatively common breeder in the mountains around Beijing.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher is a relatively common breeder in the mountains around Beijing.

Below is my number one recommendation for those birders with only one free day and who want to combine birding with a visit to the Great Wall. After that is a guide to each individual section of the Great Wall that details accessibility via public transport and by private car, travel time, entrance fees, comments on authenticity and the number of visitors and, finally, a list of potential birds.

Recommendation:

My recommendation for the birder with only one free day who wants to combine birding with visiting the Great Wall (provided the visit is between late March and late November) – is to visit Yeyahu Wetland Reserve combined with the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

Yeyahu is a an impressive wetland site and a national nature reserve with breeding species including Eastern Marsh Harrier, Amur Falcon, Chinese Penduline Tit, Yellow Bittern, Oriental Reed Warbler and, sometimes, Schrenck’s Bittern among others. A downloadable PDF guide, detailing the possible bird species and logistics of getting there and back, is available on this site. The drive to Yeyahu takes the visitor along the G6 Badaling Expressway, passing the most popular section of the Great Wall – Badaling. A day-trip to Yeyahu can be easily combined with a stop at Badaling, usually on the return journey, if using a private car. A longer stop can also add a visit to the nearby, less disturbed, Badaling Forest Park where more mountain species should be possible (e.g. Yellow-rumped and Green-backed Flycatchers, Asian Stubtail, Yellow-throated Bunting and, possibly, Chinese Tawny Owl). This day out combines great birding, particularly in spring and autumn, with a walk along the most famous Wall in the world. And although Badaling is perhaps not the most spectacular option for experiencing the Great Wall, one could argue that experiencing the crowds at Badaling, especially at a weekend, adds to the “China experience”.  Note that both the Yeyahu Nature Reserve and Badaling Forest Park are closed from late November to late March so, if visiting outside this window, one of the options below will be more appropriate.  The Great Wall sites are open all year round.

The impressive tower hide at Yeyahu National Wetland Park, one of Beijing’s best birding sites.
The impressive tower hide at Yeyahu National Wetland Park, one of Beijing’s best birding sites.

Detailed Options

For those visiting birders looking for options to visit the Great Wall and do some birding at the same time, the options below are the most convenient.  However, please note this list is not exhaustive and there are many additional places to access the Great Wall, some of which are completely wild with no infrastructure and no facilities. Unless one is fully prepared and an experienced hiker, ideally with some Chinese, I would caution against attempting to visit these sites and instead stick to one of the options below. Whichever option you decide, you’re sure to have an unforgettable day.

  1. Badaling (Chinese:八达岭; pinyin: Bādálǐng)

Accessibility

Badaling is the section of the Great Wall most easily accessible from central Beijing. It’s around 70km from the city but almost entirely along the G6 Badaling Expressway, making the journey straightforward and fast, traffic permitting.

By Public Bus:

Take public bus number 877 from Deshengmen (north 2nd ring road), about 10 minutes’ walking from Jishuitan subway station (Exit B2) on subway line 2. It is a non-stop bus taking about an hour, traffic permitting, and costing CNY 12 per person. The drop-off site is close to the cable car station and about 10 minutes walk to the entrance.  Please note that the last departure from Deshengmen is at 12:30.

Bus Operating Time:

From Deshemngmen: Apr. 1 to Nov. 15: 06:00-12:30; Nov. 16 – Mar. 31: 06:30-12:30
From Badaling: Apr. 1 to Nov. 15: 10:30-17:00; Nov. 16 – Mar. 31: 11:00-16:30

By Train:

Trains (number S2) depart from Huangtudian Railway Station, which is near the Huoying Station along subway line 8 and subway line 13. A single journey takes about 1.5 hours and the fare is CNY 6. Not surprisingly, one should alight at Badaling Railway Station; the entrance to the scenic area is a 15 to 20 minutes’ walk. Just follow the passenger flow or direction boards and one will get there easily.  There are free shuttle buses between S2 train station and cable car station.

By private car:

Take the G6 Badaling Expressway from Beijing city and follow signs. Journey time: around 1 hour without heavy traffic. Parking is available for a small fee.

Admission Fee: CNY 45 (Apr. 1 to Oct.31); CNY 40 (Nov.1 to Mar.31)
Cable Car: CNY 40 (single way); CNY 60 (round trip)
Opening Hours: 06:40 to 18:30

Authenticity

Badaling is a relatively complete section of the Wall but recently renovated, so not completely authentic. Nevertheless, it’s impressive and there are lots of facilities (restaurants, souvenir sellers etc).

Crowds

Due to its accessibility, Badaling is probably the busiest section of the Great Wall and numbers of visitors, especially at weekends and during holidays, can be astonishing.

Birds

A number of resident and breeding birds should be possible simply by walking along the Wall, listening and scanning the vegetation either side. In addition, at the foot of the Wall, where the buses drop and pick up passengers, it’s possible to walk uphill to a vegetated gully that can sometimes produce more species. A visit to the nearby Badaling Forest Park, with a series of quiet forested trails, will likely add more species to your total (see below for instructions on how to get there).

Resident: Common Pheasant, Koklass Pheasant (scarce), Golden Eagle (scarce), Common Kestrel, Chinese Tawny Owl (scarce), Plain Laughingthrush, Beijing Babbler, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Hill Pigeon, Eurasian Jay, Large-billed Crow, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Common Magpie, Japanese Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Silver-throated Tit, Oriental Greenfinch, Meadow Bunting, Godlewski’s Bunting

Summer: Chinese Sparrowhawk (scarce), Grey-faced Buzzard (scarce), Daurian Redstart, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher (small chance at the Wall), Eastern Crowned Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Chinese Thrush, Grey-sided Thrush (scarce), Yellow-bellied Tit, Russet Sparrow

Winter: Eastern Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Naumann’s Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Brambling, Alpine Accentor, Pallas’s Rosefinch (small chance)

NB: During migration season, many more species will be possible, including flyover migrants.

Getting from Badaling Great Wall to Badaling Forest Park

To get from Badaling Great Wall to Badaling Forest Park, you’ll need to head west from the Wall towards Badaling town, then turn left under the G6 expressway and head straight on the S216.  After a few hundred metres, you’ll come to a T-junction.  Turn left here and, soon after, you’ll head into a tunnel.  Immediately after exiting the tunnel, you’ll see an area of rough ground immediately on your right.  Park here and walk up the narrow road (almost back the way you came) to find the entrance to the Badaling Forest Park.  After paying the modest entrance fee, walk inside and enjoy one or more of the circular trails.

badaling-wall-and-forest-park

Beijing Babbler
Beijing Babbler is a common resident in the hills around Beijing. Listen for its distinctive calls.

2.  Mutianyu (Chinese: 慕田峪; pinyin: Mùtiányù)

Accessibility

Mutianyu is a similar distance from central Beijing, also restored, significantly less crowded, and has greener and more scenic surroundings. Historically, most tour groups did not go here, so this is generally a better option than Badaling. The journey is not all along the Expressway, so it usually takes a little longer than to Badaling. Mutianyu has a cable car to get onto and off the wall (though walking via stairs is advisable for birders). If you are feeling adventurous, there is a toboggan ride down.

By public bus:

From Dongzhimen Bus Station (northeast 2nd ring road and subway line 2), you should take bus line 916 Express or 916 to Huairou North Avenue (Huairou Beidajie) Station. The 916 Express is recommended, costing just CNY 12 and takes 60-70 minutes. Then, transfer to bus line h23, h24, h35, or h36 to Mutianyu Roundabout.  From here, walk about 450 meters to the ticket office of the scenic area.

By private car:

Take the Jingcheng Expressway (G45) to the northeast of Beijing. Take exit 13 onto Beitai Road towards Kuangou. After 3.6km take the left turn to Miaocheng Road and then right onto Qiaoping Road towards Shengquan Mountain. Follow signs to Mutianyu Great Wall.

Alternative:

The Schoolhouse (a restaurant and accommodation company in Mutianyu) also offers a schoolbus at weekends that goes to and from the Kempinski Hotel in Liangmaqiao area of Beijing (northeast 3rd ring road) to their restaurant that is a 10-minute walk from the Wall.   It departs Beijing at 09:00 and the Schoolhouse at 16:30. The cost is CNY 110 for a one-way trip or CNY 132 for a same day round trip. Reservations must be made online at The Schoolhouse website.

Admission Fee: CNY 45, CNY 25 for students only with ID containing a photo. In addition, the cable car to the wall costs more than the wall entrance: CNY 65 for adults (one way), or CNY 80 for a round trip (CNY 45 for children). The total price is CNY 158 for admission, shuttle bus to the ski lift both ways, ski lift and toboggan ride.

Cable Car: CNY 40 (single trip), CNY 80 (round trip); children between 1.2 and 1.4m height CNY 40; children under 1.2m height FREE

Opening Hours: April to October: 8:00 to 17:00; November to March: 8:30 to 16:30

Authenticity

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is also restored but is in more beautiful surroundings with vast, albeit not original, forests.

Crowds

Although not as busy as Badaling, Mutianyu still attracts large numbers of visitors, especially at weekends and during holidays. However, by walking just a few hundred metres from the main thoroughfares, it’s usually possible to get away from the largest crowds. The walk up and down is far less popular than the cable car, and the birding can be good, so taking this route is advisable for birders.

Birds

As with Badaling, a number of resident and breeding birds should be possible simply by walking along the Wall, listening and scanning the vegetation either side. The walk up and down, instead of the cable car, is recommended and can produce some good birds. For example, during my most recent visit in early June 2016, it was relatively straightforward to see Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Russet Sparrow and Daurian Redstart and we were lucky with a pair of displaying Chinese Sparrowhawks.

Resident: Common Pheasant, Koklass Pheasant (scarce), Golden Eagle (scarce), Common Kestrel, Chinese Tawny Owl (scarce), Plain Laughingthrush, Beijing Babbler, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Hill Pigeon, Eurasian Jay, Large-billed Crow, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Common Magpie, Japanese Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Silver-throated Tit, Oriental Greenfinch, Meadow Bunting, Godlewski’s Bunting

Summer: Chinese Sparrowhawk (scarce), Grey-faced Buzzard (scarce), Daurian Redstart, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher (small chance at the Wall), Eastern Crowned Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Chinese Thrush, Grey-sided Thrush (scarce), Yellow-bellied Tit, Russet Sparrow

Winter: Eastern Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Naumann’s Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Brambling, Alpine Accentor, Pallas’s Rosefinch (small chance)

NB: During migration season, many more species will be possible, including flyover migrants.

Pallas’s Rosefinch is a scarce winter visitor to the hills around Beijing and is a possibility during any winter trip to the Great Wall.
Pallas’s Rosefinch is a scarce winter visitor to the hills around Beijing and is a possibility during any winter trip to the Great Wall.

3. Jinshanling (Chinese: 金山岭; pinyin: Jīnshānlǐng)

Accessibility:

The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall is located in the mountainous area in Luanping County, 125 km northeast of Beijing. This section of the wall is connected with the spectacular Simatai section to the east and some distance to the west is the Mutianyu section. Although it is further out, meaning fewer visitors, the journey is almost entirely along expressway, the G45 Jingcheng Expressway, meaning the journey time is usually 2-2.5 hours each way, depending on traffic.

By public bus:

Take subway line 13 (Exit D) or subway line 15 (Exit C) to Wangjing West Station. From here it’s possible to take a tourist bus to Jinshanling. The bus departs at 8:00 and returns at 15:00. The bus fare is CNY 32. The trip takes about 2 to 2.5 hours each way.

Please note that the direct tourist bus only operates during peak travel season (April 1 to November 15) and departs when there are at least 20 passengers. Otherwise, you need to take an alternative route (see below).

Take a tourist coach from Wangjing West Subway Station to Luanping, and get off at Jinshanling Service Area. Duration is about 100 minutes and ticket price is CNY 32 per person. Then, take a free shuttle bus to either gate of the scenic area. You can also hike from the Service Area to the scenic area; the distance is about 2 kilometers.

Schedule              Onward Trip                     Return Trip

Coach                  7:00 to 16:30 every 40 mins     6:30 to 16:00 every 40 mins

Free Shuttle Bus  10:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:30       10:30, 11:30, 13:30, 15:00

By private car:

Take Jingcheng Expressway from Beijing (towards Chengde) for around 120km and take the exit signposted Jinshanling Great Wall.

Admission Fee: CNY 65 March 16th to November 15th, CNY 55 November 16th to March 15th.

Cable Car: CNY 40 for single trip

Opening Hours: 0800 to 1700

Authenticity

Jinshanling, although also restored in places, is more authentic and attracts fewer visitors given its distance from Beijing. It connects with the spectacular Simatai section and a hike from one to the other is simply awe-inspiring. At the time of writing, however, the Simatai section is under renovation and it’s forbidden to hike from Jinshanling to Simatai. Even without that option, Jinshanling is still very impressive and my personal favourite of the easily accessible sections.

Crowds

Being further out than Badaling and Mutianyu, Jinshanling attracts fewer visitors and I have been there on a weekday with the Wall almost to myself. That’s unusual but it gives a sense of how much less visited this section is compared with Badaling or Mutianyu.

Birds

As with Badaling and Mutianyu, a number of resident and breeding birds should be possible simply by walking along the Wall, listening and scanning the vegetation either side. The calls of Beijing Babbler and Plain Laughingthrush will almost certainly attract your attention at various points along the Wall and doing some homework to learn the calls of these two talented vocalists will help to distinguish them in the field.

Resident: Common Pheasant, Koklass Pheasant (scarce), Golden Eagle (scarce), Common Kestrel, Chinese Tawny Owl (scarce), Plain Laughingthrush, Beijing Babbler, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Hill Pigeon, Eurasian Jay, Large-billed Crow, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Common Magpie, Japanese Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Silver-throated Tit, Oriental Greenfinch, Meadow Bunting, Godlewski’s Bunting

Summer: Chinese Sparrowhawk (scarce), Grey-faced Buzzard (scarce), Daurian Redstart, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Green-backed Flycatcher (small chance at the Wall), Eastern Crowned Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Chinese Thrush, Grey-sided Thrush (scarce), Yellow-bellied Tit, Russet Sparrow

Winter: Eastern Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Naumann’s Thrush, Red-throated Thrush, Dusky Thrush, Brambling, Alpine Accentor, Pallas’s Rosefinch (small chance)

NB: During migration season, many more species will be possible, including flyover migrants.

The pretty Meadow Bunting is a resident in the hills around Beijing and is commonly encountered during visits to the Great Wall.
The pretty Meadow Bunting is a resident in the hills around Beijing and is commonly encountered during visits to the Great Wall.

4. Other sites

In addition to the three main sites described above, there are many other, wilder, sections that will almost certainly provide the birder with more chance of connecting with the resident birds but will require either a convoluted series of buses or private transport to get there and back. Two of the better options are Gubeikou and Jiankou.

4.1  Gubeikou (Chinese: 古北口 , pinyin: Gǔběikǒu)

The Gubeikou section of the Great Wall has never been reconstructed. Hence, it is somewhat dilapidated but retains its original beauty and offers a more authentic experience. Even though they are crumbling, the wall and watchtowers are wonderful to hike and, with very few people around, the opportunity to see wildlife will be increased.

Accessibility

Gubeikou is located in the northeast of Miyun County, about 120 kilometers northeast of central Beijing.

By public bus:

Take bus 980 Express from Dongzhimen station to Miyun Bus Station; and then bus Mi 25 to Gubeikou. From there, you will need to hike up to the Great Wall.
Bus schedule:

Onward Trip       Return Trip                            Fare

980 Express         6:00- 20:00   4:30- 18:30        CNY 17

Mi 25                     6:10-18:20    6:20- 17:30        CNY 8

By private car:

Take the Jingcheng Expressway. After around 115km take the exit to Gubeikou. Park in the village and hike up to the Wall.

4.2  Jiankou (Chinese: 箭扣, pinyin: Jiànkòu)

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is one of the wildest. It is also the most photographed section due to its precipitous peaks and attractive scenery. “Jiankou” means “arrow nock”, because the shape of the mountain is like an arrow, with the collapsed ridge opening as its arrow nock.

Accessibility

To reach Jiankou Great Wall you must go to Xizhazi Village or Wofo Mountain Villa.

Bus routes to the two destinations are initially the same; go to Dongzhimen Station (subway lines 2 or line 13), and then take bus 936 at Dongzhimen Wai Station. Get off at Yujiayuan Station, and then take one of the following:

To Xizhazi Village: transfer to bus H25 at Yujiayuan to Xizhazi Station.

To Wofo Mountain Villa: transfer to bus H36 at Yujiayuan to Xinying Station. Walk north to the mountain villa.

Bus schedule and prices:

Bus                      Price                    Operating Time

No.936                CNY 6                 From Dongzhimen Wai: 6:40 – 17:10

From Yujiayuan: 4:35 – 17:00

No. H25              CNY 4                 From Yujiayuan: 11:30, 16:30

From Xizhazi: 6:00, 13:15

No. H36              CNY 3                 From Yujiayuan: 6:20, 11:30, 17:40

From Xinying: 7:05, 12:15, 18:30

An alternative for birder/hiker hybrids

Another option, especially for those who like to hike, is to take a trip with Beijing Hikers.  Although this means you will be with a group (usually 5-20 people), the hikes take place at some spectacular and rarely visited sections of the Wall.  The pace is relaxed, meaning you have ample opportunity to stop and scan for birds, and the price is very reasonable when one considers the transport and provision of refreshments (much cheaper than hiring your own car and driver).  Beijing Hikers usually offer several alternative hikes on any given day and pick-ups are from the Liangmaqiao area (northeast 3rd ring road, easily accessed by metro line 10).  Beijing Hikers is run by lovely people and they have great guides.   As well as being superb hikes, they’re a lot of fun, too.  You can check out their website here.

Please note that this information is correct to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing. However, things change, so if you are aware of any errors or omissions, please contact Birding Beijing on birdingbeijing@gmail.com so that they can be corrected for the benefit of others.

This guide is also available as a PDF download from the “Site Guide” section of the Birding Beijing website.

Experience World Class Yellow Sea Migration And Support The Local Conservation Effort

Are you free in mid-April, want to experience the world-class migration along the Yellow Sea coast AND support the local conservation effort?  If so, keep reading…

A local NGO called Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC) is organising a special eleven-day tour for birders to showcase the spectacular migration of the Yellow Sea, connecting with some very special birds, including Spooner, whilst contributing to the effort to preserve this globally important habitat.

For background, the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the greatest flyway on the planet, stretching from the Taimyr Peninsula and Alaska in the north through China, Japan and the Koreas to Australia and New Zealand in the south.  In total, the flyway passes through 22 countries and is used by more than 50 migratory species.  The Yellow Sea is of vital importance to these birds, comprising a series of stopover sites where they can refuel, rest and moult their flight feathers during these mind-boggling journeys.

shorebird-flock

As most readers will know, much of the important intertidal mudflats along this stretch of coast have been reclaimed, causing the populations of many shorebirds to decline, most prominently the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  Thankfully, there is a large conservation effort dedicated to saving what remains of the intertidal mudflats and, importantly, there are an increasing number of local organisations and NGOs leading this effort.  One such organisation is “Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC)”, a Jiangsu-based NGO led by the impressive Li Jing.  Established in 2008, SBSC focus on conserving the biodiversity along the Jiangsu coast. The team conducts regular waterbird surveys, promotes birding and nature observation activities, introduces people to the unique marine culture and improves conservation awareness among local communities, including schools, fishermen unions and business.

SBSC is a key partner of the China Coastal Waterbird Census Group (CCWCG).  The Census Group was established in 2005, training birdwatchers in bird identification and counting methods.  Surveys have been conducted by volunteers every month since September 2005, and it is widely recognised as the most successful example of citizen science in China.

To help promote the area to international birders and raise money to support the conservation effort, Li Jing and her colleagues have arranged a special tour for birders this April.  Running from 11-21 April, the tour will start and finish in Shanghai and will take in Rudong, the most important site in the world for Spooner, as well as a day’s pelagic trip and visits to nearby sites in Wuyuan, Nanjing hills and Huangshan.  The mouthwatering list of species likely to be encountered includes Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Little Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Saunders’s Gull, Black-faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill, Blue-crowned Laughingthrush, Masked Laughingthrush, Hwamei, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge and many others including Pied Falconet.

magic-wood-rudong
The “Magic Wood” at Rudong can be buzzing with migrants in spring and autumn.

Participants will have the added bonus of being guided by the best – Li Jing, Chen Tengyi, Han Yongxiang and Shanghai’s finest, Zhang Lin.  These birders have been surveying this part of the coast for more than 10 years and discovered the importance of Rudong for Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  Birders could not be in better hands!

li-jing
Li Jing, leader of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China NGO
zhang-lin
Zhang Lin, Shanghai’s leading birder and discoverer of Rudong as the most important stopover site for Spoon-billed Sandpiper
chen-tengyi
Chen Tengyi, from Chongming Island and an accomplished bird-whistler, skills learned from former hunters.
han-yongxiang
Han Yongxiang, a wildlife illustrator from Lianyungang

At the time of writing there are 6 places available on the trip and interested birders are invited to contact Li Jing via email at info@sbsinchina.com for more information.

It promises to be a wonderful experience and, as well as seeing some special birds, participants will be helping the local effort to save these globally important sites.

Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi.