A possible Steppe Buzzard in Beijing

Anyone who has studied Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in Europe will know they can be hugely variable, with colouration from almost white to uniformly dark and almost everything in between.  In East Asia, the Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) is, in my experience, less variable and perhaps that is why unusual Buteos stand out.

On Saturday 30 January 2021 I began my latest winter survey of my local stretch of the Wenyu River at 0800 and, at around 1100, reached the end of my transect at the so-called “upper weir”. As I scanned the area to count Grey Herons roosting in the trees, I picked up two Buteos in a tree at about 200m distance on the opposite (northern side) of the river. One was a typical japonicus Eastern Buzzard but the other was clearly smaller, more rufous overall and with barring on the underparts.  I had never seen an Eastern that small, sporting those colours or with that underpart pattern, including a dark hood and barring on the breast. It got my attention and I recorded a short video and took a few record photos of the two together. The smaller bird then flew from its perch, with purpose, across the river to the southern side, where I was standing, caught a rat from the river bank and flew back up to the trees on the other side of the river.

Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) and the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

 

Shortly after, an Upland Buzzard (Buteo hemilasius) drifted over, and both of the buzzards I had been watching flew up to intercept it and, over the next five minutes or so, the three Buteos interacted, with the Upland being mobbed until it drifted NE. This gave me an opportunity to capture some images in flight and I did my best to record both the underparts and upperparts. In flight, and in direct comparison with the Eastern Buzzard, the rufous bird was clearly smaller and with a more compact structure.

The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The upperparts of the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 30 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

The images show the underparts, including the underwing, pretty well, and show:

– a lack of the usual strong, dark carpal patch of japonicus, with a more broken, speckled and muted carpal patch
– dark lesser underwing coverts
– striking pale bases to the primaries
– conspicuously pale crescent breast band
– lack of a dark upper belly band
– a prominent dark trailing edge to the underwing
– a pale tail, finely barred and with an obvious (more so on the upperparts) sub-terminal band

I have certainly never seen a japonicus with these features, and I began to think of the possibility of Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the subspecies that was most likely to occur in Beijing – vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard). 

For context, although there have been a couple of candidates, Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) has never been reliably recorded in Beijing, so it was important to document this bird as well as possible.

Back home, having looked at Forsman’s excellent “Flight Identification of Raptors”, the Beijing bird fits well the adult ‘fox-red’ vulpinus, as depicted in plates 605-609 on pages 323 and 324.

One unusual feature highlighted by Paul Holt is the dark area on the face and forehead.  Is this within the range of variability for vulpinus or is it a sign of japonicus?

I had a look online at Eastern Buzzards, including from Beijing, and there is a photo of a very similar-looking bird, almost certainly the same, taken on 2 November at the same site by Yu Kuang-Ping.  So it seems as if this bird has been overwintering.

Having alerted local birders, a few people visited the site and more photos were taken, including these excellent series by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

The Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus), left, with the possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).
The possible Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River, 2 February 2021 (Photo by 没着落, Mei Zhuoluo).

And yesterday I spent the last hour of daylight at the site and captured a little more and better quality video showing the upperparts and underparts.

Given the variability of Buteos, I am not sure whether this bird can be identified with certainty.  With thanks to Colm Moore, the “file” is now with Dick Forsman and we hope to receive an opinion from him in due course.  Any comments, especially from people with experience of vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) very welcome.  I’d like to thank Colm Moore, Paul Holt, Igor Felefov in Russia and Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok in Thailand for their helpful and instructive comments and 没着落 (Mei Zhuoluo) for the wonderful images of the Wenyu bird taken on 2 February.

Whatever this bird’s identity, it’s been a great learning curve and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed spending time watching this beautiful bird so close to my apartment in Beijing.

 

Update 22 February 2021:

I have received a reply from Dick Forsman.  The bottom line is that he does not think it’s a vulpinus Common Buzzard, or at least not a pure one. He cites the dark malar stripe, dark forehead/face, rather uniform breast and flanks and the rather uniform uppertail as features not so consistent with vulpinus. He says despite the plumage differences, he would put more emphasis on structural differences, with japonicus (Eastern) having shorter and broader wings than vulpinus with a broader blunter wingtip. He says the size difference could be explained by the size difference between the sexes, the males being smaller than the females. Interestingly, he goes on to say that genetic studies have shown the genus Buteo to be fairly young and its species are poorly defined. One of the results of this poor differentiation is widespread interbreeding between the taxa. Hybridization is known to take place between Common x Rough-legged, Common x Long-legged and Long-legged x Upland. He says it appears that nobody knows what happens when vulpinus meets japonicus, which is very likely to happen. He recalls a trip to Mongolia where he found a breeding pair of buzzard including a male with mixed japonicus and vulpinus features paired with a female japonicus. He suspects that mixed pairs are likely to be quite common where the two taxa meet and that maybe the Wenyu bird was one of these, a bird with some vulpinus genes combined with a migratory habit inherited from japonicus. He hopes people will pay more attention to buzzards in the future and document them wherever possible, especially during the breeding season as this is the only way to tackle the issue.

A key lesson is that we cannot identify everything we see, no matter how well-documented, and sometimes it’s good to just enjoy watching birds for what they are and not try to label them.. 

Update: 3 March 2021

Two superb new images of the Wenyu buzzard have been submitted by Wang Yibin and reproduced here with permission.

The Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)
Another superb image of the Wenyu buzzard, Wenyu River, 5 February 2021 (Wang Yibin)

Header image: Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus) with the possible (Steppe) Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), Wenyu River.  Photo by 没着落 (Méi zhuóluò).

Scaly-sided Merganser in Beijing

About ten days ago we experienced a cold snap in Beijing with temperatures down to about -20 degs C at night.  This spell meant that most, if not all, fresh water bodies, such as reservoirs and lakes, were locked in ice, forcing waterbirds to move to the rivers which remained relatively ice-free due to the flow.  During such weather, it’s a good time to visit the local river – the Wenyu – on the border of Chaoyang and Shunyi Districts.  Last week I recorded over 300 Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) along a relatively short stretch of the river, as well as Goldeneye (鹊鸭, Què yā), Smew (白秋沙鸭, Báiqiū shā yā) and even a Coot (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), surprisingly scarce on the Wenyu River.  Encouraged by this, I decided to make another visit on Saturday afternoon.

The best part of the river, although only about 1km from my apartment as the Coot flies, is around 4-5km away by road given the layout and position of the bridges, so I had planned to get a taxi and then walk the best section, before walking back.  However, given the semi-lockdown in my district due to a handful of new COVID-19 cases, no taxis or DiDis are allowed to operate in the area, so I decided to walk, taking in a section of the river that I don’t normally focus on.  Having reached the river, I was expecting to walk c3km without seeing much before reaching what’s known as the lower weir.  How wrong I was!

About 1km along, I noticed a small group of Mallard (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā).  I scanned them with my binoculars in case a Gadwall (赤膀鸭, Chì bǎng yā) or Falcated Duck (罗纹鸭, Luówén yā) was lurking.. but instead, to my surprise, I saw a female merganser.  Clearly smaller than Common Merganser (普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) and lacking the sharp contrast between the brown head and neck and the white throat of Common Merganser, the bird that popped into my mind was Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā), an endangered species with fewer than ten records in Beijing and a species that I had never seen in the capital.  Having left my telescope at home, as I would be walking so much, I needed to get closer to rule out the other possibility – Red-breasted Merganser (红胸秋沙鸭, Hóng xiōng qiū shā yā).  The latter is a scarce species in Beijing but much more frequent than its endangered cousin.  Sneaking closer, using the cover of a few trees, I was able to see the bird clearly and, immediately, I could see the diagnostic scaly markings on the flanks and a yellow tip to the bill.  It was a Scaly-sided Merganser!  

Female Scaly-sided Merganser with female Mallard, Wenyu River, 16 January 2021.

Having not expected to see much along the first stretch of river, I had not yet unpacked my camera from my backpack (schoolboy error) and so I slowly removed my backpack and crouched, all the time keeping one eye on the merganser in case my movement caused it to fly.  Fortunately, I was able to extract my camera and take a few images to document the sighting.  As I sat quietly, remarkably, the merganser swam towards me and stood on a barely submerged patch of mud to preen.  I watched it for several minutes, gripped by the presence of this globally rare bird, before a dog walking couple came by and, checking out my presence, their two dogs barked loudly and scared the group of duck, including all the Mallard and, of course, the merganser. 

The Scaly-sided Merganser flying upstream after being flushed by two dogs.

All of the birds flew upstream, the direction I was heading, and it was perhaps only five minutes later that I reconnected with the group, including the merganser.  Again I watched the Scaly-sided Merganser at reasonably close quarters before a fisherman, walking along the edge of the river bank looking for the best spot from which to fish, came a little too close and the merganser was again flushed and flew upstream.

Although I didn’t have my telescope with me, I was elated with the views and had secured some record images that at least documented the record.  

Scaly-sided Merganser is a species that I have had on my radar for some time when walking the Wenyu River in winter.  Although there are only around ten records from the capital in total, the Wenyu bird is perhaps surprisingly the third record this winter, all of which have been females.  A female was photographed in Tongzhou (part of the same river) on 31 December 2020 and it, or another, was at the Summer Palace on 10 January and has been seen on and off since that date.  Whether all of the sightings relate to the same individual, or whether two or even three birds are involved, is an open question.  Interestingly, the Scaly-sided Merganser did not seem to associate with Common Merganser, several groups of which were on the river, instead preferring to be on its own or loosely associating with Mallard.  

The sighting takes on greater significance given the plans to ‘develop’ the Wenyu River, including raising the water level by several metres and running a tourist ‘cruiser’ along part of the river in summer.  Academics are working with the local government to try to ensure the plans take into account the needs of biodiversity, especially waterbirds, particularly in winter.  This will include ‘zoning’ to set aside some undisturbed areas for waterbirds and to protect the breeding habitat of egrets and herons in summer.  Having records of an endangered species along the river will strengthen the case of the academics.

Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā) is a rare East Asian endemic, breeding along montane rivers in mixed forest in the Russian Far East, NE China and probably DPRK, and wintering in the Republic of Korea and central and E China.  It is probably more frequent in Beijing than we realise and the fact that all of the capital’s confirmed records bar one have come in the last five years suggests greater observer coverage is a factor.  We can expect more records as birding continues to grow in popularity.  Scaly-sided Merganser is classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List.

Title image: Scaly-sided Merganser along the Wenyu River, 16 January 2021 (Terry Townshend)

The 14th Annual Beijing Citizen Awards

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Wu Linshu, a journalist from 新京报 (Beijing News), asking if I was free on Friday 8th January.  With a few new cases of COVID-19 in my district and restrictions tightening again, there was more than a fair chance I’d be in Beijing on that day.  Linshu went on to say that I had been nominated for an award in recognition of “services to the environment” as part of the annual “citizen awards” and that the ceremony would take place on 8th.

Fast forward to 8th January and I made my way to the venue, the Beijing News Broadcasting House close to Yonganli in the city centre.  It was a glitzy affair, attended by senior government officials, media and, of course, the nominees, and was live-streamed to millions.  I had been asked to prepare a five-minute presentation about “my story” or anything I wanted to say.  I decided to use my time to speak about the biodiversity crisis, how cities have a big role to play and what we can all do to help, giving the example of Beijing student “Swift Ambassadors” making and erecting nest boxes and writing to the head of the most famous building company in China to encourage them to make new buildings more friendly for swifts.  

I was allocated the fourth slot out of ten and on hearing the others, I was humbled to be in their presence.  There was a lady from Yanqing who has been collecting plastic waste for 20 years, and putting together local teams to do likewise, a lady with breast cancer who had set up a dance team for fellow sufferers to raise awareness, a man who worked with young people in prison to help prepare them for life on release, another man who had put his life in danger to pull people from a burning vehicle and a young guy who set up a baseball team for disadvantaged children, including minority groups in Sichuan  ..  I felt a little out of place!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After the presentations and introductions of the other nominees, a few of us were called up to receive awards.  I was honoured to be presented a ‘gold award’, one of only 15 each year.  This was the 14th annual “Beijing Citizen” awards ceremony and I understand I am the first foreigner to be recognised.  A great honour and truly humbling.  I know that only a fraction of people who are doing amazing things ever receive recognition, but the most important thing for me is that it was a wonderful platform to reach more people about biodiversity, to celebrate the capital’s wildlife and, hopefully, inspire a few more people to make a difference. 

Huge thanks to Wu Linshu for inviting me and for her help in preparing for the event, and to my good friend, Luo Peng, for helping with my Chinese on the day.  

Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2020

In many ways, for many people, 2020 will be a year to forget.  The pandemic has caused immense physical, psychological and economic harm across the world.  During this difficult time, for many the outdoors and the surrounding wildlife has been a much-needed refuge and comfort, with some connecting with nature for the first time.   We have been extremely fortunate in Beijing to have relatively few cases of COVID-19 and only a brief lockdown, after which we have been able to get out birding, provided enjoyed responsibly, wearing masks when with others and not forming large groups.  With a growing number of active birders in Beijing, the number of reported sightings of all birds – common, scarce and rare – is increasing exponentially year on year. Given the greater coverage, it is not surprising that more unusual birds have been found.  2020 continued that trend with well over 400 species being recorded for the first time in a calendar year, of which five were recorded for the first time.  In addition, at least four species were recorded for only the second time.

New records included:

  • 5 March: a drake American Wigeon (绿眉鸭 Lǜ méi yā), for one day only at Ming Tombs Reservoir, a brilliant find by Wang Xue
  • 25 March: an adult Saunders’s Gull ((黑嘴鸥, Hēi zuǐ ōu), picked out amongst a large flock of Black-headed Gulls at Miyun Reservoir and also seen the following day, was a great find by Guan Xiangyu, Jian Song, Su Liang et al.
  • 13 April: a single Eurasian Jackdaw (寒鸦 Hán-yā) amongst a flock of Daurian Jackdaw at Ming Tombs Reservoir was an exceptional find by Colm Moore
  • 3 May: a single male House Sparrow (家麻雀 Jiā máquè) at Chaoyang Park was found and well-described by Zhong Jia
  • 11 July: A Grey-backed Shrike (灰背伯劳 Huī-bèi bóláo) at Lingshan was a superb find by Ren Lipeng, amal amer and dahe.

Second records included Western Water Rail (西方秧鸡 Xīfāng yāng jī), Desert Wheatear (漠䳭 Mò jí), Northern Wheatear (穗䳭 Suì jí), Ashy Drongo (灰卷尾 Huī juàn wěi) and Chestnut Thrush (灰头鸫 Huī tóu dōng).

Other significant records included Beijing’s third Redwing (白眉歌鸫, Báiméi gē dōng) at Huairou on 7 and 14 January, a long-staying Red-necked Grebe (赤颈䴙䴘, Chì jǐng pì tī) at the Summer Palace, apparently present from 13th March until at least 17 April, Beijing’s 3rd and 4th reports of Crested Goshawk on 2 October at Baiwangshan 17 October also at Baiwangshan, and a 2cy Himalayan Griffon Vulture (高山兀鹫 Gāoshān wùjiù) at Baihuashan on 21 June.

It was an incredible year for records of Black-winged Kite (黑翅鸢 Hēi chì yuān), a species first recorded in the capital as recently as 2007.  Over the last decade, and especially since 2014, records have increased and, in 2020, there were at least 20 records from a wide range of sites across the capital, and even a report of possible breeding from Fangshan District.  The increase in records may indicate an expansion of its range in East Asia, potentially mirroring a similar range expansion in Europe and the Middle East.

It was also an exceptional year for Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu) with more than ten records, including the first in winter.  This increase in records could be at least partly due to greater observer awareness of non-adult plumages in addition to greater coverage.

A pair of Pied Wheatear (白顶䳭 Bái dǐng jí) reared young in Fangshan District, a rare breeding record for the capital and, at the end of the year, a small group of Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀 Lì bān fù wú) was discovered at Ming Tombs Reservoir, only the fifth record of this endangered, and possibly overlooked, species in the capital.

Although the number of species recorded was high, this is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the environment, given most species are migrants that spend only a fraction of their time in Beijing.  The increase can most likely be attributed to a greater number of observers and, as a result, greater coverage.  A better indicator of the state of the environment is the abundance of resident species.  It is here that there remains some concern, particularly with species associated with grassland and scrub – for example Daurian Partridge (斑翅山鹑 Bān chì shān chún), Asian Short-toed Lark (亚洲短趾百灵 (Yàzhōu) duǎn zhǐ bǎilíng) and Crested Lark (凤头百灵 Fèng tóu bǎilíng), all of which are experiencing serious declines.  There is an urgent need to protect and restore grassland and shrub habitat to prevent the loss of these species as breeding birds in the capital and to provide suitable wintering habitat for threatened migrant species such as Great Bustard.

A month by month summary of the birding highlights from Beijing in 2020 is below, in chronological order. Although I have included all information to which I have access, it is certainly not comprehensive. If you know of any errors or additions, please comment at the end of this post or contact me directly via email/WeChat.  It is worth noting that Beijing does not yet have a committee to assess records, and some of the reports outlined in this summary without photos, audio or descriptions, are taken at face value. It’s possible that some may be reviewed if and when a committee is created.

I’d like to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU to the hundreds of birders who have shared news of sightings throughout the year, whether via WeChat, email, eBird, Birdreport.cn or any other means. There is no doubt that sharing bird news has helped many people to see new and unusual species for the first time, building the knowledge base among birders in Beijing and, importantly, enthusing more people about the natural world.  A special thanks to Paul Holt who commented on a draft of this post and provided additional information.

Here’s wishing everyone a cheerier, healthier and happier, bird-filled 2021!

Birding Highlights of 2020 Month by Month

January

This Eurasian Treecreeper, first reported in late 2019, remained in Chaoyang Park into January 2020 (Terry Townshend).

The year began with a few rare and scarce visitors remaining from 2019, including four Brown-eared Bulbul (栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) at Nanhaizi (Chen Wenjia and Zong Zhuang), at least one of which remained into February, and an unseasonal Barn Swallow (家燕, Jiāyàn) along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale). On 3rd, seven+ Chaffinch (苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore) was the highest ever count in Beijing of this scarce winter visitor.  On 4th, four Pallas’s Sandgrouse (毛腿沙鸡, Máo tuǐ shā jī) were a great find along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).  On 7th, Beijing’s third Redwing (白眉歌鸫, Báiméi gē dōng) was found at Huairou along with three Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) on the reservoir (Terry Townshend and Steve Bale).  A Solitary Snipe (孤沙锥 Gū shā zhuī) was photographed on 13th along the Qingshui River near Taishitun, Miyun District (Su Liang, “te te” et al), and on 18th there was a rare winter record of Bull-headed Shrike (牛头伯劳 Niútóu bóláo) from Xibangezhuang (XiaoPT) and the first ever winter record of Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu), when two were found at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore).  Also on 18th, the Eurasian Treecreeper (旋木雀 Xuán mù què), first reported in late 2019, was still in Chaoyang Park (Paul Holt), with news of a second individual photographed in the Temple of Heaven Park, present from 15 January 2020 at least (WeChat name: Vianvivian).  On 24th, a Common Chiffchaff (叽喳柳莺, Jī chā liǔ yīng), only the 4th or 5th record for the capital, was discovered at Shahe Reservoir (DaHe).  A pair of Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭 Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā) was photographed on 25 January along the Wenyu River by 航空母舰舰载机 (Birdnet.cn username) and the next day a Western Water Rail (西方秧鸡 Xīfāng yāng jī), possibly only Beijing’s second, was discovered at Shahe Reservoir on 26th (张旻昊), both of which remained into February.

February

The adult Pallas’s Gull at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 23 February 2020 (Terry Townshend).

A Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭, Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā), presumably one of the pair seen on 25th January, was photographed along the Wenyu River on 9th (Zhen Niu).  Also on 9th, a male Yellowhammer (黄鹀 Huáng wú) – possibly only Beijing’s 14th – was seen with the Pine Bunting (白头鹀 Báitóu wú) flock at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Zhen Niu and DaHao), originally found by an unknown photographer on 8th.  On 10th an immature Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu) and an unseasonal Common Sandpiper (矶鹬, Jī yù) were at Shahe Reservoir (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). On 23rd an adult Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu) and three Siberian Gull (乌灰银鸥, Wū huī yín ōu) were at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). On 26th at Shahe Reservoir there were 13 Mute Swan (疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é), eight adults and five immatures (Wang Xue et al.) and five Greylag Geese (灰雁 Huī yàn), a rare winter record (Chen Yanxin).  Also at the same site on the same day there was a Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu) (amal amer) and a Siberian Gull (乌灰银鸥, Wū huī yín ōu) (Steve Bale).  The earliest ever Beijing record of Grey-headed Lapwing (灰头麦鸡 Huī tóu mài jī) was one at Shahe Reservoir on 28th (DaHe).

March

The drake American Wigeon at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 5 April, the first record for Beijing. An excellent find by Wang Xue. Photo by Wang Xue.

The month began with the remaining, or a new, adult Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥 Yú ōu) at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 1st.  On 5th a drake AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭 Lǜ méi yā) was discovered at Ming Tombs Reservoir by Wang Xue.  Arguably the bird of the year, this was the first record of this species in Beijing and is a very rare bird in all of China.  Two Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were at DaShiHe on 6th (Liu Aitao et al.), increasing to three on 11th (amal amer).  An adult Siberian Gull (乌灰银鸥, Wū huī yín ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 9th (Liu Aitao).  Three Mute Swan (疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é), two adults and a 2cy, were at Yeyahu on the same day (DaHe) and five, two adults and three 2cy, were at Ma Chang on 12th (Steve Bale et al.).  Another Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥, Yú ōu), this time an immature, was at Shahe Reservoir on 14th (Zhen Niu) and, on 15th, news broke about one of the the most popular birds of the year – a Red-necked Grebe (赤颈䴙䴘, Chì jǐng pì tī) at the Summer Palace, apparently present since 13th and staying until at least 17 April (first found by “冬天里的童话”).  There are fewer than ten records of this species in Beijing.  A single Lesser White-fronted Goose (小白额雁, Xiǎo bái é yàn) was at Shahe Reservoir on 16th (Colm Moore) with another single on 20th at Taishitun (DaHao).  On 23rd a Jack Snipe (姬鹬, Jī yù) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore) with two Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥, Yú ōu).  A Dalmatian Pelican (卷羽鹈鹕, Juǎn yǔ tí hú卷羽鹈鹕 Juǎn yǔ tí hú), the first of only two recorded in 2020, was at the unusual location of Yuanmingyuan on 24th (Xiaomin).  The month’s second new Beijing bird was an adult SAUNDERS’S GULL (黑嘴鸥, Hēi zuǐ ōu) in breeding plumage on 25-26 March 2020 at least at Miyun Reservoir (Guan Xiangyu, Jian Song, Su Liang et al.).  Also on 26th at the same site, Beijing’s 7th record of the personata subspecies of White Wagtail (白鹡鸰 Bái jí líng) was photographed (Terry Townshend).  On 27th a 2cy Black-legged Kittiwake (三趾鸥, Sān zhǐ ōu) was at the Guishui River, Yanqing (Wang Xue, Lou Fangzhou et al.), possibly only the 14th record for Beijing and only the third in Spring.  On 28th a Lesser Sand Plover (蒙古沙鸻, Ménggǔ shā héng) was reported from Yeyahu (niaotu).  The month ended with two (Greater) Canada Goose (加拿大黑雁, jiānádà hēi-yàn) of suspect origin, along the Wenyu River (Richard Liu).

April

Beijing’s first Western Jackdaw was an excellent find at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 13 April (Colm Moore).

On 10th, possibly only Beijing’s 12th Meadow Pipit (草地鹨 Cǎodì liù) was found on the small marsh opposite Luoma Hu, Shunyi District (Terry Townshend).  On 12th, Beijing’s eighth, and the year’s second, personata White Wagtail (白鹡鸰 Bái jí líng) was found at Niantan Park (Zhong Zhenyu).  On 13th, a Beijing first in the form of a WESTERN JACKDAW (寒鸦 Hán-yā) was photographed at Ming Tombs Reservoir, a superb find by Colm Moore.  On 15th a Ruff (流苏鹬 Liúsū yù)  was a nice find at Shahe Reservoir (Chen Jingyun).  On 16th Colm Moore struck again with a cracking male Desert Wheatear (漠䳭 Mò jí) at Ming Tombs Reservoir, only the second record of this species in Beijing and almost exactly ten years after the first, when one was at Ma Chang on 15 April 2010 (Brian Jones et al.). 

The Desert Wheatear at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 16 April, only the second record for Beijing (Photo by Colm Moore)

On the same day, a Rufous-faced Warbler (棕脸鹟莺 Zōng-liǎn wēng-yīng) was at the Temple of Heaven Park (via Wang Xue), staying until 17th at least.  This bird followed a report of one from Dinghui Bridge, Haidian in “the first week of April”. An adult Brown-headed Gull (棕头鸥 Zōng tóu ōu) was photographed at Shahe Reservoir on 17th (Li Bo via Jun Yang).  On 21st an Asian House Martin (烟腹毛脚燕 Yān fù máo jiǎo yàn) was at the Wenyu River (Steve Bale) and, on 23rd, a Northern Wheatear (穗䳭 Suì jí), possibly only the second documented record for the capital, was at Kangxi Grasslands (Vincent Wang). Also on 23rd, Northern House Martins (白腹毛脚燕 Bái fù máo jiǎo yàn) were seen at the Wenyu River (Steve Bale) and Shahe Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo), the latter with an Asian House Martin.  On the same day a Black-winged Cuckooshrike (暗灰鹃鵙 Àn huī juān jú) the first of a remarkable six records this spring, was at Liangshui He (DaHao). On 26th a Slavonian Grebe (角䴙䴘 Jiǎo pì tī) was at the Summer Palace (Ge Sun et al.) and a possible Beijing record 59 Ferruginous Duck (白眼潜鸭 Báiyǎn qián yā) were at Ma Chang (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend) with Beijing’s third personata White Wagtail (白鹡鸰 Bái jí líng) of the year at the same site (DaHao).  The latter was still present the next day.  The month ended with a fantastic shorebird day at Ma Chang for Vincent Wang, spotting a Ruddy Turnstone (翻石鹬 Fān shí yù), Beijing’s first spring record of Broad-billed Sandpiper (阔嘴鹬 Kuò zuǐ yù) and a Red Knot (红腹滨鹬 Hóng fù bīn yù).

May

The Ashy Drongo in Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) on 18 May 2020. Photo by amal amer.

May’s highlights began with possibly only Beijing’s sixth Isabelline Wheatear (沙䳭 Shā jí) at Lingshan (YiLiang – WeChat name) and the year’s second Dalmatian Pelican (卷羽鹈鹕 Juǎn yǔ tí hú) at Shahe Reservoir (Zhen Niu et al.) on 1st.    A Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler (强脚树莺 Qiáng-jiǎo shù-yīng) was reported from Lingshan on 2nd, where a late White-winged Redstart (红腹红尾鸲 Hóng fù hóng wěi qú) was also reported (Zhen Niu).  A Greater Painted Snipe (彩鹬 Cǎi yù) was at the ChaoBaiHe on 3rd (via Steve Bale).  On 4th there was a convincing report of a male HOUSE SPARROW (家麻雀 Jiā máquè) near the north gate of Chaoyang Park (Zhong Jia via Lei Jinyu), perhaps surprisingly the first record of this species in Beijing.  Also on 4th a Little Curlew (小杓鹬 Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Kangxi Grassland (Liu Aitao et al.) and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (尖尾滨鹬 Jiān wěi bīn yù) was at Shahe Reservoir (Stefan Andrew et al.).  On 6th another Little Curlew (小杓鹬 Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore) with two at Kangxi Grassland on 7th (大牙齿 458).  Also on 7th a Grey-sided Thrush (褐头鸫 Hè tóu dōng) at the Temple of Heaven Park (Wang Xue) was a notable central Beijing record, and an early Common Cuckoo (大杜鹃 Dà dùjuān) was at Ma Chang (Vincent Wang).  A pair of Pied Wheatear (白顶䳭 Bái dǐng jí) was discovered at Houshimen in Fangshan District on 8th (via Wang Xiaobo) and stayed to breed.  On 10th May there were three Northern Boobook (鹰鸮 Yīng xiāo) in Temple of Heaven Park (张 佳依).  Five Rosy Pipit (粉红胸鹨 Fěnhóng xiōng liù) and a lugens White Wagtail (白鹡鸰 Bái jí líng) were at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 11th (Colm Moore and Zhao Qi).  A singing Asian Koel (噪鹃 Zào juān) was recorded at the British Embassy on 12th (Chris Boobier), a nice central Beijing record in what was an exceptional year for this increasing species.  A Ruddy Turnstone (翻石鹬 Fān shí yù) was at Ma Chang on the same day (大牙齿 458 and Wang Xiaobo).  On 13th May a singing Oriental Cuckoo (北方中杜鹃 Zhōng dùjuān) was near ID City in Shunyi (Terry Townshend), one of at least four recorded this spring.  Although likely a common migrant in Beijing, few are positively identified due to the difficulty in separating Oriental from Common Cuckoo on sight alone.  On the same day the third Rufous-faced Warbler (棕脸鹟莺 Zōng-liǎn wēng-yīng) of the year was at Xiaolongmen (Su Liang and te te).  On 14th, the second Oriental Cuckoo (北方中杜鹃 Zhōng dùjuān) of the year was recorded singing in Yuanmingyuan (Zhang Dongyan) and a Blunt-winged Warbler (钝翅苇莺 Dùn chì wěi yīng) was in Yuanmingyuan (Lou Fangzhou).  On 15th in the Temple of Heaven Park there were two Rufous-tailed Robin (红尾歌鸲 Hóng wěi gē qú) (Lou Fangzhou) and a Siberian Thrush (白眉地鸫 Báiméi de dōng) (via Wang Xue), the latter remaining until 19th at least. On 16th there was another Lesser Sand Plover (蒙古沙鸻 Ménggǔ shā héng) at Miyun Reservoir (Lou Fangzhou).  From 16th-18th an Ashy Drongo (灰卷尾 Huī juàn wěi), very rare in Beijing and possibly only the second record, was in Yuanmingyuan (alice168149) and photographed on the latter date by amal amer.  On 19th another Rufous-tailed Robin (红尾歌鸲 Hóng wěi gē qú) was found along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).  On 20th a Yellow-legged Buttonquail (黄脚三趾鹑 Huáng jiǎo sān zhǐ chún) and a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (淡脚柳莺 Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) were in Temple of Heaven Park (Yu Junfeng and Wang Xiaobo respectively).  A second Yellow-legged Buttonquail (黄脚三趾鹑 Huáng jiǎo sān zhǐ chún) was at the Wenyu River on 21st (Terry Townshend).  On 22nd a Narcissus Flycatcher (黄眉姬鹟 Huángméijī wēng), possibly only Beijing’s third record, was at Temple of Heaven Park (健 宋, amal amer et al.). On 23rd the third Oriental Cuckoo (北方中杜鹃 Zhōng dùjuān) of the spring was recorded singing in Temple of Heaven Park (Wang Xiaobo).  At the same site on the same day, Stefan Andrew reported a Lesser Whitethroat (白喉林莺 Báihóu lín yīng), a Rufous-tailed Robin (红尾歌鸲 Hóng wěi gē qú), a Grey-sided Thrush (褐头鸫 Hè tóu dōng) and a Northern Boobook (鹰鸮 Yīng xiāo). Also on 23rd a singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (淡脚柳莺 Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) was along the Wenyu River (Terry Townshend).  On 26th Colm Moore recorded a remarkable trio – a singing Oriental Cuckoo (北方中杜鹃 Zhōng dùjuān), a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (淡脚柳莺 Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) and a Manchurian Reed Warbler (远东苇莺 Yuǎndōng wěi yīng), all at Ming Tombs Reservoir.  On 28th there were two separate records of Black-winged Cuckooshrike (暗灰鹃鵙 Àn huī juān jú), at Temple of Heaven Park (Chenhong via BirdingBeijing WeChat group) and at Yuanmingyuan (Wang Xiaobo, Zhen Niu, amal amer et al.), the latter staying until at least 1 June.  On 29th there was a report of a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (红翅凤头鹃 Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) from Nanhaizi, apparently present “for the last few days” (Zhong Zhenyu).  On 31st a singing Chinese Bush Warbler (中华短翅莺 Zhōnghuá duǎn chì yīng), one of only three records this year, was at the Wenyu River (Terry Townshend).  

June

The 2cy Himalayan Griffon Vulture at Baihuashan on 21st June (Li Siqi “Crazy Birdy”)

A singing Black-winged Cuckooshrike (暗灰鹃鵙 Àn huī juān jú) was at the Wenyu River on 1st (Terry Townshend), seen again on 2nd, and also on 1st a Chinese Bush Warbler (中华短翅莺 Zhōnghuá duǎn chì yīng) was near Lishutai (Zhang Shen and XiaoPT).  On 6th a Marsh Grassbird (斑背大尾莺 Bān bèi dà wěi yīng) was at Shahe Reservoir, remaining until 8th at least (Wang Xiaobo) and on 7th another Black-winged Cuckooshrike (暗灰鹃鵙 Àn huī juān jú) was at Pinggu (Shen Jing).  A Steppe Eagle (草原雕 Cǎoyuán diāo) at Baihuashan on 16th was the first summer record for Beijing (Xiao Hong).  On 18th a singing Blunt-winged Warbler (钝翅苇莺 Dùn chì wěi yīng) was found holding territory in the Olympic Forest Park, remaining until 26th at least.  On 21st a remarkable record of a 2cy Himalayan Griffon Vulture (高山兀鹫 Gāoshān wùjiù), possibly only the third Beijing record, was photographed at Baihuashan by Li Siqi (“CrazyBirdy”) and on 22nd a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (红翅凤头鹃 Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was in Temple of Heaven Park, remaining until 23rd at least (Li Zhaonan, Wang Xiaobo, amal amer et al.).  Two Greater Painted Snipe (彩鹬 Cǎi yù) were at the ChaoBai River on 28th (amal amer, Zhen Niu et al.).

July

This Grey-backed Shrike was found and photographed at Lingshan on 11th July (Ren Lipeng, amal amer and dahe). This photo by Ren Lipeng.

On 5th a singing Japanese Quail (鹌鹑 Ānchún) was near ID City in Shunyi (Terry Townshend), was a rare July record in Beijing.  On 7th there was a Yellow-legged Buttonquail (黄脚三趾鹑 Huáng jiǎo sān zhǐ chún) south of Lishutai in Mentougou District (XiaoPT and Zhang Shen).  On 11th July a GREY-BACKED SHRIKE (灰背伯劳 Huī-bèi bóláo) was found and photographed at Lingshan (Ren Lipeng, amal amer and dahe), the first record of this species in Beijing.  On 13th another Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (红翅凤头鹃 Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) in the Botanical Gardens (Wang Xiaobo) continued the good run for this species in 2020.  On 21st a Pheasant-tailed Jacana (水雉 Shuǐ zhì) was at Beixiaohe Park, Wangjing (Wang Hongjie et al.).

August

The moulting adult Sanderling at Ma Chang, first found on 3rd August by Wang Xiaobo. This photo on 5th by Terry Townshend.

Three Broad-billed Sandpiper (阔嘴鹬 Kuò zuǐ yù) were a nice find at Ma Chang on 1st (amal amer) with three Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (尖尾滨鹬 Jiān wěi bīn yù) at Shahe on the same day (anonymous). A Cinnamon Bittern (栗苇鳽 Lì wěi jiān) was at Liangshui River on 2nd (Wang Xiaobo).  Possibly only Beijing’s 4th Sanderling (三趾滨鹬 Sān zhǐ bīn yù), a moulting adult, was at Ma Chang on 3rd (Wang Xiaobo) and was joined on 5th by a Terek Sandpiper (翘嘴鹬 Qiào zuǐ yù) (Terry Townshend) and stayed until at least 2nd September.  A Lesser Coucal (小鸦鹃 Xiǎo yā juān), possibly only the fifth Beijing record, was at Shahe Reservoir on 9th (Wang Xiaobo).  A juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper (阔嘴鹬 Kuò zuǐ yù) was at Ma Chang on 14th. A Terek Sandpiper (翘嘴鹬 Qiào zuǐ yù) was along the ChaoBai River (amal amer et al.) on 14th and 15th.  On 20th an Asian Dowitcher (半蹼鹬 Bàn pǔ yù) was found along the ChaoBai River (finder unknown).  The next day a Red Collared Dove (火斑鸠 Huǒ bānjiū) was also at ChaiBai River (Zhen Niu) and a juvenile Peregrine (游隼 Yóu sǔn) of the more southerly distributed ssp peregrinator and a Terek Sandpiper (翘嘴鹬 Qiào zuǐ yù) were at Ma Chang (Colm Moore). A Far Eastern Curlew (大杓鹬 Dà biāo yù大杓鹬 Dà biāo yù) was at Ma Chang on 24th (Wang Xiaobo).  A Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) was at the ChaoBai River on 29th (大牙齿 458).  On 30th there was a male Siberian Thrush (白眉地鸫 Báiméi de dōng) in the Temple of Heaven Park (Wang Yirong), an Amur Paradise Flycatcher (寿带 Shòu dài) at the same site (Zhou Minzheng) and a Broad-billed Sandpiper (阔嘴鹬 Kuò zuǐ yù) at Ma Chang (amal amer et. al.).  The month ended with a Little Curlew (小杓鹬 Xiǎo biāo yù) at Ma Chang on 31st.  

September

The Intermediate Egret at the Wenyu River on 17 September (Terry Townshend).

A remarkable six Sanderling (三趾滨鹬 Sān zhǐ bīn yù), all juveniles, were at Shahe Reservoir on 11th (苏蓬 and David Mou via amal amer), staying until 15th at least.  Five Northern House Martin (白腹毛脚燕 Bái fù máo jiǎo yàn) were reported from Baiwangshan on 13th (鹪鹩 via birdreport.cn) and a Little Gull (小鸥 Xiǎo ōu) was reported from Shahe Reservoir on the same day (Stefan Andrew).  An Intermediate Egret (中白鹭 Zhōng báilù) was along the Wenyu River on 17th (Terry Townshend).  An Ashy Minivet (灰山椒鸟 Huī shānjiāo niǎo灰山椒鸟 Huī shānjiāo niǎo) was at the Olympic Forest Park on 19th (XiaoPT) and the autumn’s first Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥, Yú ōu), a 1cy, was at Ma Chang on 19th (Terry Townshend).  An exceptional count of 70+ Eurasian Jay (松鸦 Sōng yā) was observed flying west at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 22nd with a Pechora Pipit (北鹨 Běi liù) at the same site (Com Moore).  

October

The 1cy Northern Hawk Cuckoo in the Olympic Forest Park (苏蓬)

A Rufous-tailed Robin (红尾歌鸲 Hóng wěi gē qú) was at the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park on 1st (David Consineo).  The 3rd and 4th records of Crested Goshawk were reported on 2 October 2020 at Baiwangshan (Kevin 盛) and on 17 October 2020 also at Baiwangshan (Ashy-Mimivet).  A 1cy Northern Hawk Cuckoo (北鹰鹃 Běi yīng juān) was in the Olympic Forest Park on 5th (apparently for its 4th day), originally found by Gao Yuan. A rare bird in Beijing, with fewer than ten records, it stayed until at least 11th October.  A 1cy Pallas’s Gull (渔鸥, Yú ōu) was at Ming Tombs Reservoir on the same day (Colm Moore) and a Little Stint (小滨鹬 Xiǎo bīn yù) was reported from Yeyahu (瑞Redstart).  On 7th another Sanderling (三趾滨鹬 Sān zhǐ bīn yù) was at Ma Chang (候鸟spring).  On 15th a possible Beijing record count of 2,000 Gadwall (赤膀鸭 Chì bǎng yā) at Yeyahu, along with another possible Beijing record count of 100 Silver-throated Tit (银喉长尾山雀 Yín hóu cháng wěi shān què银喉长尾山雀 Yín hóu cháng wěi shān què) (Hu Ruocheng).  On 16th there was a Lesser Whitethroat (白喉林莺 Báihóu lín yīng) in the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park (via Zhang Xiaoling).  On 17th a Wallcreeper (红翅旋壁雀 Hóng chì xuán bì què) was at Yanhecheng, a rare sighting away from the usual wintering site at Shidu.  On 18th there was a Rufous-tailed Robin (红尾歌鸲 Hóng wěi gē qú) at the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park (amal amer et al.). On 28th a Northern Grey Shrike ssp sibiricus (灰伯劳 Huī bóláo) was at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore and Zhao Qi), increasing to two on 15th November (Zhen Niu).

November

The Demoiselle Crane on 20 November over the Agricultural Exhibition Center (苏蓬).

On 1st there were 4 Mute Swan (疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é), two adults and two 1cy) at Yeyahu, with a single Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) at Huairou Reservoir (天书).  On 4th there was an unseasonal Manchurian Bush Warbler (远东树莺 Yuǎndōng shù yīng) in the Olympic Forest Park (“david” via WeChat) and two Red-breasted Flycatcher (红胸姬鹟 Hóng xiōng jī wēng) reported from the same site (果茶2020), with one of the latter remaining until 6th (Liu Zongzhuang).  On 5th a late Chinese Pond Heron (池鹭 Chí lù) was at HuoYing (Wang Xiaobo), a Rough-legged Buzzard (毛脚鵟 Máo jiǎo kuáng) was in Tongzhou (D逍遥法外) and a Slavonian (Horned) Grebe (角䴙䴘 Jiǎo pì tī) was a Shahe Reservoir (Fqr123456), the latter reported on and off until 15th at least.  Also on On 6th two Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were at Huairou Reservoir (anonymous), remaining until 8th at least.  On 12th there was a 1cy Black-legged Kittiwake (三趾鸥, Sān zhǐ ōu) at Shahe Reservoir,  remaining until 15th at least.  A late Eurasian Wryneck (蚁鴷 Yǐ liè), the first to be recorded in November, was at Shahe Reservoir on 13th (anonymous).  On 14th a Long-tailed Duck (长尾鸭 Cháng wěi yā) was found at Shahe Reservoir (Oriental Stork et al.) and a Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu (麦克曹). On 16th there were four Greater Scaup (斑背潜鸭 Bān bèi qián yā) at Qinglong Lake (amal amer et al.) and on 19th there were six Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) at Huairou Reservoir (Jun Shuai).  On 20th a remarkable record of a Demoiselle Crane (蓑羽鹤 Suō yǔ hè), possibly only Beijing’s sixth record, photographed as it flew over the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park (amal amer and Su Peng).  Also on 20th, a Long-tailed Duck (长尾鸭 Cháng wěi yā) was at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore), increasing to two birds on 26th, with one remaining until 5 December at least.  On 22nd a Black-throated Diver (黑喉潜鸟 Hēi hóu qián niǎo) was seen at Shahe Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo et al.), apparently present for at least its third day.  On 26th the Long-tailed Duck (长尾鸭 Cháng wěi yā) at Ming Tombs Reservoir were joined by a single Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) and two Greater Scaup (斑背潜鸭 Bān bèi qián yā) (Colm Moore).  On 27th a Verditer Flycatcher (铜蓝鹟 Tóng lán wēng), of unknown origin, was close to Huairou Reservoir (Song Xu via Zhang Xiaoling).  There are at least two previous records (one in spring and one in late autumn – 29 October 2014 in the Botanical Gardens).  Also on 27th a caudatus Long-tailed Tit (北长尾山雀 Běi cháng wěi shān què) was in Yuanmingyuan (孟帅 葛 et al.), staying into December.  The month ended with a very late Intermediate Egret (中白鹭 Zhōng báilù) reported from Shahe Reservoir (麦克曹) and the discovery of Beijing’s 4th European Robin (欧亚鸲 Ōu yà qú) in the Temple of Heaven Park on 30th (via Wang Xue), the latter staying until 16th December at least.  

December

The Chestnut Thrush in the Olympic Forest Park on 25 December (Ren Tianyi and Liu Garbo)

A Lesser White-fronted Goose (小白额雁, Xiǎo bái é yàn) was at Ming Tombs Reservoir on 1st (Colm Moore).  Five Baer’s Pochard (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were at Huairou Reservoir on 5th (麦克曹). On 6th a female Chaffinch (苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) was at Lingshan (Mint Ren, 大牙齿 458 and Zhang Shen).  On 7th there was a very late Chinese Pond Heron (池鹭 Chí lù) in the Olympic Forest Park (Wang Xiaobo) and two Bluethroat (蓝喉歌鸲 Lán hóu gē qú) were reported from Liuyin Park (小小小小鱼), with one remaining until 12th at least.  On 9th at least one Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀 Lì bān fù wú) was found amongst Meadow Buntings (三道眉草鹀 Sān dào méi cǎo wú) at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore), with up to five seen in the following days, just the fifth record of this declining species in the capital.  On 10th four Daurian Partridge (斑翅山鹑 Bān chì shān chún) were photographed at Lingshan (Wang Xiaobo), the first record in Beijing of this declining species since December 2014.  Remarkably, 11 were seen on 14th at the same site (大牙齿 458).  On 12th three Chaffinch (苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo) and on 15th, Beijing’s 13th Meadow Pipit (草地鹨 Cǎodì liù) was found at the same site (amal amer, Su Peng and Dahe). On 21st a Plumbeous Redstart (红尾水鸲 Hóng wěi shuǐ qú) in the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park (Xu Liang) was a rare inner city record.  On 22nd two Brown-eared Bulbul (栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were in Yuyuantan Park (Wang Xiaobo, 世界公民 et al.).  There was a wonderful Christmas present for Ren Tianyi and Liu Garbo when they found Beijing’s 2nd Chestnut Thrush (灰头鸫 Huī tóu dōng) in the Olympic Forest Park on 25th.  Colm Moore capped an outstanding year by finding possibly only Beijing’s 15th Yellowhammer (黄鹀 Huáng wú) at Miaofengshan on 27th.  And finally, Wang Xiaobo capped his excellent year by finding a female Scaly-sided Merganser (中华秋沙鸭 Zhōnghuá qiū shā yā) at the Tongzhou-Dayunhe Forest Park.

=====

For summaries of rare and scarce birds in Beijing in previous years, click on the links below:

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2019

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2018

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2017

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2016

To keep up to date with the latest bird and wildlife news in Beijing, check the Latest Sightings page and to find out the status of every species recorded in the capital, click here for the Status of the Birds of Beijing.

Title photo: American Wigeon by Wang Xue

Birding with the British Ambassador

In my view, the issue of biodiversity loss should be right at the top of the political agenda.  As well as nature being invaluable in its own right, its rapid loss poses enormous risks to human wellbeing and prosperity and requires an urgent, concerted global effort to remedy. 

It’s unlikely to be coincidence that we have seen multiple outbreaks of zoonotic diseases – including SARS, MERS, Ebola and now SARS-COV2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 – during the last few decades of accelerating biodiversity loss.  And, as well as the public health risks, the economic risks of biodiversity loss are staggering.  Earlier this year the World Economic Forum estimated that around half of the global economy – worth USD 44 trillion – is highly or moderately dependent on the services provided by nature.  Just one small example is the potential cost of losing the services of pollinators – well underway due to our excessive use of pesticides – estimated to be USD 250 billion per year.  And for every service provided by nature that can be measured, there are many more that cannot.  

So why is it that biodiversity loss is not a major election issue or the focus of high-level diplomacy?  As is often the case with governments, urgent issues take precedence at the expense of the important, especially when remaining in power depends solely on the next election.  

Until recently, in my contacts with the British Embassy, although climate change has been a priority for several years reflecting the fact that what happens in China matters to the world’s climate, the same has not been the case for biodiversity.  That is why I was excited to be contacted by the British Embassy and asked if I would accompany the new Ambassador, Caroline Wilson, on a birding trip to discuss biodiversity.  

Caroline arrived in China just a few weeks ago and clearly sees an opportunity in the fact that China and the UK will be hosting the UN biodiversity and UN climate change negotiations respectively in 2021.  With so many interlinkages between the two agendas, what happens in Kunming at the biodiversity negotiations has a significant influence on the success of the climate change negotiations in Glasgow and vice versa.  And saving nature is not a controversial issue, thus providing a safe area of cooperation to buffer other issues on which China and the UK may not agree.  A sophisticated relationship is one where both sides can agree to disagree on certain issues without impacting cooperation in areas of shared interest. 

And so, last Sunday, we set off from the embassy at 0730 for the 90-minute drive to the reserve.  In order to provide a more comprehensive discussion, we invited Professor Lu Zhi and Shi Xiangying of Peking University and ShanShui Conservation Center respectively, both good friends and authorities on biodiversity in China.

The British Embassy team including HMA Caroline Wilson (middle in purple) with Professor Lu (second from left) and Shi Xiangying (fourth from right).

On a bitterly cold day with a strong NW wind racing uninterrupted from Siberia, many birds were understandably sheltering in the reeds but we did encounter some family parties of Common Crane, flocks of Bean Geese, some typically dense flocks of Baikal Teal and a few Smew. 

HMA Caroline Wilson checking out a Smew on one of the pools

In between, we enjoyed some great discussions about how China and the UK can work together more closely on biodiversity, including on biodiversity finance, economics, wetland restoration, flyways and exchanges on science and cultural aspects.  Importantly, we agreed that biodiversity should be an issue for cooperation not just for the next 12 months but over the long-term.  

HMA Caroline Wilson giving her first impressions of Yeyahu Wetland Reserve to the embassy communications team.

It was brilliant to see Caroline so engaged on biodiversity and I am hopeful that this may represent a turning point in the emphasis given to biodiversity in diplomatic relations between China and the UK.  In terms of next steps, we expect the embassy to convene a meeting to brainstorm ideas in more detail to help develop a plan for how to structure engagement on these issues. Looking forward to continuing these discussions!

Big thanks to Professor Lu Zhi and Shi Xiangying for giving up their Sunday to meet with Caroline and to Ella, Danae, Sam, Helen, Xiaoyang, Ruby and the embassy team for making the arrangements.

 

Title image: (from left to right) Terry, Shi Xiangying and HMA Caroline Wilson discussing biodiversity in Beijing at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.

Biodiversity rising up the agenda..

With biodiversity rising up the agenda due to the forthcoming UN negotiations due to take place in Kunming, China, in 2021, there is a lot happening here in Beijing and China.. on many fronts.  Here’s a quick summary of an eventful last few weeks.

At the end of October, I was honoured to be invited by my good friend, Shen Chu (Becky), of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to Kunming in Yunnan to deliver a public lecture at an event to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day.  With the exception of a couple of day trips into Hebei Province, this was my first trip out of Beijing this year.  The event was hosted by the Elephant Bookstore in Kunming and, as well as a live public audience, the event was streamed online to more than a hundred thousand people.  The organisers did a fantastic job, bringing together local artists, schools and musicians, and there was even a special Snow Leopard IPA produced by the local craft brewery which included a QR code with lots of facts about the Snow Leopard. 

Speaking about the Valley of the Cats community-based conservation and wildlife-watching project in Kunming.

Snow Leopard IPA. At 8% it’s a fitting strength for a beer celebrating the “King of the Mountains”!

With the city scheduled to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity next year, it was wonderful to see such energy – and innovative ideas – among local people to engage the public about nature and wildlife.

Just a few days later, I set off to the Valley of the Cats with a subset of these brilliant young people from Kunming.  Having promised Becky several years ago to help her to see a Snow Leopard in the wild, there was an air of expectation as we landed in Yushu and made our way to the Valley.  It was my first visit of the year to this magical place and, as always, it did not disappoint.  We enjoyed a spectacular few days and treasured encounters with four Asian Brown Bears (an adult male and a separate mother with two cubs), a single Snow Leopard on a fresh kill of yak and a wonderful hike through some of the most stunning scenery I have seen. 

On our last morning we stopped by Yunta’s house for a cup of tea. Yunta is one of the village leaders and has been a strong supporter of the Valley of the Cats project since its inception.  It was early morning, around -10 degs C and I was shivering in four layers, yet Yunta was in a vest!

It was particularly encouraging to meet with a group of young local people who are keen to take on some of the running of the tourism project and to contribute to wildlife monitoring.  Seeing their enthusiasm and pride in their local environment was heartwarming.

Just a few days after returning from Qinghai, I was delighted to hear that the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project had been named as a runner-up and received a “recognition of excellence” under the Nature Stewardship category of the Paulson Prize for Sustainability.  Competing with more than a hundred projects across China, this was fantastic recognition for the local community.  You can read about the winning projects – on battery recycling in Wuhan and wetland restoration in Haikou – here.

Having been part of the team to produce the report entitled “Financing Nature: Closing The Global Biodiversity Financing Gap”, the authors have been busy reaching out to as many influential governments, ministers, organisations and individuals as possible to try to influence the debate on how countries finance the USD 700 billion per year needed to protect our most important biodiversity and ecosystem services.  That figure may sound like a lot of money – and it is – but to put it in context, it is less than the world spends each year on soft drinks.  Governments have a fundamental role to create the right regulation that generates funding for nature.  That means no longer allowing those that do harm to the environment to do so for free and rewarding those who protect and preserve.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure of USD 700 billion could be reduced by around half by reforming harmful subsidies (specifically on agriculture, fisheries and forestry).  It does seem out of step that, in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, governments around the world are still paying people billions of dollars to employ practices that cause harm to our environment.  This week I was invited to brief senior staff at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing.  As an organisation that funds many large infrastructure projects in developing countries, it was encouraging to hear about their enthusiasm for ensuring biodiversity and climate change criteria feature prominently in their lending criteria. 

Handing over a copy of the “Financing Nature” report to Sir Danny Alexander, Vice President of AIIB.

A second meeting has now been planned to examine how AIIB can become a leader amongst multilateral development banks on this issue.  There is a very long way to go to ensure that infrastructure projects are mandated to minimise harm to the environment and offset any unavoidable damage by investing in habitat protection and restoration elsewhere.. but that change is coming.. the only question is how fast?

Continuing the theme, last Saturday I participated in a discussion panel on biodiversity and climate change at the Caixin Global Summit in Beijing, an annual event that brings together an impressive line-up of people – from China and overseas – to discuss major global issues.  

And the following day I participated in the launch of the Beijing government’s “Urban Forestry Network”, a group of c30 people who will develop proposals for improving the quality of the capital’s tree planting and biodiversity-related projects in Beijing.  This network has the potential to make a big difference to how land is managed in Beijing, improving and restoring habitat for wildlife, and I look forward to playing an active role as the group develops its workplan.

Launch of the Beijing Urban Forestry Network on Sunday 15 November 2020.

You may be wondering if I have been able to do any birding recently and, sadly, the answer is no!  However, I am looking forward to this Sunday when I will be accompanying the new UK Ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, on a birding trip to Yeyahu, during which we will be discussing biodiversity, China and the importance of the UK and China working closely together, as hosts of the UN climate change and biodiversity negotiations respectively, to ensure these processes are reinforcing and lead to a successful outcome.  It’s hugely encouraging to see the UK Ambassador taking a strong and early interest in these issues and I look forward to doing my bit to work for the strongest outcomes possible at both Kunming and Glasgow in 2021.

With Christmas in the UK out of the question this year due to the pandemic, I’m hoping for a few days of relaxation and birding around the capital.  With waxwings arriving and the first snow today, the excitement of what might turn up is palpable.  Will it be a Pallas’s Sandgrouse winter or could there be an influx of Asian Rosy Finches, or maybe even another of the special redstarts from the Tibetan Plateau.  Can’t wait to get out there and explore!

 

Beijing and Biodiversity: China Dialogue article

A few weeks ago I was invited to contribute an article to China Dialogue, one of the most respected platforms on China issues relating to the environment.  In the build up to what will be arguably the most important meeting ever on nature, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2021, biodiversity is climbing the political agenda.  However, it would be a mistake to think that national governments alone can solve the nature crisis.  Home to the majority of the world’s population, cities have a vital role to play.  My article focuses on how Beijing could help to show the way in designing and managing a city that is good for people and for nature.  You can read it here (available in English and Chinese).

 

Featured image: an artist’s impression of the “wild ring road” that could help link habitats around Beijing, whilst at the same time providing a place for leisure and environmental education for Beijingers. By Madeleine Donahue.

Global Birding Weekend in Beijing

Earlier this month, on 17 & 18 October 2020, I was delighted to participate in the Global Birding Weekend, an initiative by Tim Appleton MBE in collaboration with eBird and Swarovski Optik.  The aim was a worldwide celebration of birds by encouraging people everywhere to go out locally and record the birds they see, with the hope that the combined total might constitute a world record for the highest number of species recorded in a single weekend.  It was the perfect excuse to set up a birding trip with the Chevening Scholars – young Chinese who have been sponsored to study in the UK by the British Embassy, many of whom now hold influential positions in the Chinese government.  

In conjunction with the British Embassy, we arranged an itinerary that took us to the mountains of Mentougou District in the west of the municipality, spending Saturday afternoon at the Youzhou Valley, followed by the Sunday morning at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  I had also been invited to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event, organised by Swarovski Optik, on the Sunday afternoon. To add to the excitement, Swarovski had kindly sent me the new 115mm telescope objective lens for us to try out for the weekend!  What a treat…

The new 115mm objective lens for the modular ATX/STX set-up was a revelation.  With its impressive light-gathering capability, it was a big hit with the Chevening Scholars both for observing birds and for planet-watching, including looking at Saturn’s rings.   

With the oppressive heat of the summer a distant memory, a nip in the air early mornings and in the evenings, combined with the tress displaying a kaleidoscope of colour, October is a wonderful time to be outside in Beijing.  And we were blessed with beautiful weather as we made our way to the first site, the Youzhou Valley.

Almost the first bird we saw was Wallcreeper – a rare bird to see away from the regular winter haunt of Shidu in Fangshan District.  This was soon followed by a Golden Eagle and a Siberian Accentor before we added Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hill Pigeon, Larg-billed Crow and Grey-headed Woodpecker.  

Record image of the Wallcreeper at the Youzhou Valley.

“Wow.. They seem so close!” One of our younger participants watching more than 30 Eurasian Crag Martins congregating on a sunny cliffside – one of the highlights of our Saturday afternoon..

Beibei checking out the Swarovski ATX 115mm

After a long walk through the gorge, taking in the magnificent views and adding a few more species such as Japanese Tit, Little Bunting, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Mandarin, we headed back to the minibus for the drive to Lingshan, our overnight accommodation and focus for the following morning.

The drive up to Lingshan was stunning, with the autumn colours in their full glory.

The wooded hillsides on the drive up to Lingshan were spectacular in their autumn dress.

We arrived at our accommodation just as it was getting dark and, after a wholesome home-cooked meal from our hosts, including locally-harvested herbs, we took advantage of the clear skies and tested the 115mm telescope to look for the planets on show – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  With the extra light gathering capability of the 115mm versus the 95mm, Saturn’s rings were obvious and clear, even at 30x (using the 30-70x zoom eyepiece) to the astonishment and joy of the group!

The following day we were up for sunrise and were rewarded with a spectacular early morning, including brief sightings of three Siberian Roe Deer and a hunting Short-eared Owl, as well as a few migrating passerines – Buff-bellied Pipits, Pine Buntings, and a handful of Eurasian Skylarks.

Watching the sunrise at Lingshan..

After a quick breakfast back at the guesthouse, we walked a few of the valleys looking for birds and quickly encountered Beijing Babbler, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Red-throated Thrush, White-winged Redstarts, Silver-throated and Willow Tits, a single Pallas’s Rosefinch, a superb Eastern Buzzard and a Northern Goshawk.  

A pair of Hill Pigeons posed nicely for the group.

At around 1030am the group split into two, with one following Chris and Rhys from the embassy hiking up to the peak (2,303m asl) and the other joining me to set up an infrared camera in the woods targeting mammals. 

After exploring for a while, we found a good narrow animal trail with fresh deer tracks so we set up the camera with the help of the younger members of the group pretending to be deer to make sure we had placed the camera at the right angle…

Setting up the infrared camera at Lingshan with the children.

We’ll leave the camera there for a couple of months and, on collection, will send any images to the group.  After setting up the camera, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch, meeting up with the others who had big appetites after their exertion!

Looking very proud of themselves…. !

After lunch the Chevening team left for the three-hour journey back to the city whilst I stayed on to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event..  You can watch a recording of that event here.

The relative quiet of the afternoon also allowed me to put the 115mm through its paces..  As one would expect of Swarovski the image quality was outstanding but I wanted to see how it performed in low light conditions..  I stayed on site until dusk and, although it’s hard to believe, I recorded this video of a Red-throated Thrush after the sun had disappeared behind the mountain.  The video has not been altered in any way, except for a little cropping, and I was shocked at the brightness of the image.  

Red-throated Thrush recorded with Swarovski ATX 115 plus iPhone 6S and adaptor.

 

Although I was able to test the 115mm objective lens for only a limited time, I can say with confidence that it sets the standard for birding telescopes.  The brightness of the image, especially in low light conditions, is simply incredible and I hope I am allowed a longer experience with it very soon to experiment with some more digiscoping..! 

In the days following the trip, we were delighted to see the number of species recorded over the weekend creep up as lists were submitted from around the world.  At the time of writing, the total number of species recorded over the weekend was an astonishing 7,243 with 7,098 recorded on the Saturday alone, a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single day.  You can see the latest news from the Global Birding Weekend here.

Big congratulations to Tim Appleton on the huge success of the event which, as well as beating world records, also raised tens of thousands of pounds for BirdLife International’s appeal to tackle the illegal bird trade.  And big thanks to Swarovski Optik for allowing us the use of the brilliant new 115mm objective lens…  the only problem now is going back to the 95mm!  

For us in Beijing, inspired by the weekend, we now have a group of new birders, enchanted by the birds and other wildlife that can be found in the capital.  Some of the participants have already bought their first binoculars (Swarovski of course!) and field guides, and we are now working on plans for the next trip…

Huge thanks to Chris, Rhys and Beibei from the British Embassy for the flawless arrangements and for their great company.  Can’t wait until the next one!

 

 

In celebration of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo

On 8 June 2019 “Team Cuckoo” caught and fitted a tag to the fifth and final cuckoo during an expedition to Khurkh in northeast Mongolia as part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project

On 1 October 2020 we received what were most likely the last transmissions from his tag, from southern Yemen. 

Tuvshi, from the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, releasing the fifth cuckoo, soon to be named “Онон” (Onon), on 8 June 2019 at Khurkh.

This cuckoo, named “Онон” (Onon) by local schoolchildren after the local river, had just crossed the Arabian Sea from India.  To refuel after his marathon, almost certainly non-stop, flight of more than 3,500km in 64 hours, he had chosen an area that had recently experienced rain, good conditions for the emergence of caterpillars, seemingly ideal for a migrating cuckoo.  Yet just a few days after having arrived, the transmissions from his tag reduced in frequency and both the battery charge and temperature of the tag dropped rapidly, sounding alarm bells.  We waited for several days, desperately hoping for more signals, but sadly, as of today – 15th October 2020 – no further signals have been forthcoming and we must assume that Onon died in southern Yemen sometime between 27 September and 1 October.

Onon’s final resting place appears to be c100km WNW of Aden in southern Yemen.

Onon was a remarkable cuckoo.  After being fitted with his tag, he travelled almost 40,000km in 16 months, making 33 border crossings involving 17 countries, including three crossings of the Arabian Sea.  

Onon’s migration from June 2019 to October 2020 (outward tracks from Mongolia to Africa in darker green and the return from Africa to Mongolia in light green).

More than that, he touched millions of people in countries along his route and beyond, many of whom learned about these birds’ inter-continental migrations for the first time.  After his record-breaking journey in spring 2020 of >7,200km in seven days from Somalia to India, he attracted considerable mainstream media attention, with articles in The Guardian and The Times of India, as well as being featured on BBC Breakfast TV and on BBC Radio 4.

The Times of India  

The Guardian

BBC Breakfast TV

Onon achieved something of a cult status in India after social media influencer Parveen Kaswan (@ParveenKaswan), with almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, celebrated Onon’s crossing of the Arabian Sea.  For several days, we held an online “Q&A session” with new followers asking great questions about how these birds make these crossings, what they eat, how they sleep and what people can do to help them.  One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, even visited Onon’s position to report on the condition of the habitat near Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh.

Rajesh Ghotikar checking out ONON’s location near Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.

Reaching more people, especially outside conservation and birding circles, was one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project and, thanks to Onon, I think we can say this aim has been achieved.  If just one person who was touched by Onon’s incredible migration goes on to a position of influence and supports the conservation of migratory birds and the habitats they need, Onon’s life will have been incredibly meaningful.

Of course, Onon is just one of many thousands of Common Cuckoos making similar journeys at the same time every year and, although we now mourn the loss of a special bird we had the privilege of following for 16 months, his legacy is that we now know more about the incredible journeys made by these birds and the places they need along the way.  With this knowledge, all of us who have been enthralled and inspired by Onon should use every opportunity to champion the protection of migratory birds and the habitats they need.  

Next year in spring, on hearing their first cuckoo of the year, I am sure there will be many many thousands of people who will recall the life of Onon, a remarkable cuckoo indeed.

Birding Beijing, October 2020

Onon’s journey at a glance (33 border crossings involving 17 countries)

Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bhutan –  Nepal – India – Pakistan – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Kenya – Tanzania – Malawi – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China – Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Pakistan – India – Yemen.

=====

Birding Beijing would like to thank the partners of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project – the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Batmunkh Davaasuren and Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg) and the British Trust for Ornithology (especially Chris Hewson) –  the supporters who made it possible (especially the Oriental Bird Club, Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley – who, as well as helping with the tagging, also heroically updated the Google Map with all the latest movements), the local schools at Khurkh and Binder, to Richard Porter for facilitating the contact with schools on Socotra, and to everyone who has followed and/or supported the project in any way.   Thank you.

Update: reactions in the media:

ONON was featured on BBC Radio 4’s 6 o’clock news on 15 October 2020.

Social media:

 

The Status of the Birds of Beijing

The most recent published information about the status of the birds of Beijing was the 1987 book “Birds of Beijing” written by Cai Qikan and published by the Beijing Natural History Museum.  Written in Chinese, it’s an important reference, providing information about the status of species found in the capital, including specific details about the occurrence of rarities and specimens collected for the museum.

       

A lot has happened since 1987, not least a significant increase in the number of birders and thus the number of birds recorded, all of which means that this book, although a hugely important historical record, is now out of date.  

The lockdown of early 2020 and subsequent reduction in travel, has meant much more time spent at home, providing an opportunity to research the current status of the birds of Beijing.  The result is a new page on this website providing a basic status of those species reliably recorded in the capital, including maximum counts where available.  The intention is to maintain this page as “live” and it will be updated as and when new species or notable records are discovered, or when there is a greater understanding of a species’ status. 

As of October 2020, the official list of species recorded in Beijing, last published in 2014, is under review by a team led by Professor Zhao Xinru of Beijing Normal University.  We expect the revised list to be published later this year and the new page will be updated to reflect the latest list as soon as it is available.

Birding Beijing welcomes corrections, additions and updates in order to ensure the new page is, and remains, as accurate as possible.  A big shout out to all the birders who have submitted records to the publicly available sources from which this new page was produced.

I hope this new resource will assist both visiting and resident birders alike.

The Status of the Birds of Beijing.

 

Title image: Birding in Beijing by Madeleine Donahue.