Beijing’s first Blue-fronted Redstart: A finder’s account by 13-year old student, Huò Shèngzhé

Finding a first record is a highlight for any birder.  Finding a first for your capital city when you are aged 13 and 15 is the stuff dreams are made of.  That’s what happened on 27 November 2021 to 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, 13 yrs old, known by his social media moniker of “Oriental Stork”) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyán, 15 yrs old) when these two enthusiastic young birders found a female Blue-fronted Redstart (蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú) at Shahe Reservoir, the first record of this species in Beijing.

Below is 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé’s account of that special day.   Excitement and enthusiasm shine through, as does a maturity beyond his years.  I hope you enjoy reading his account as much as I did.


Finding a Blue-fronted Redstart in Beijing, by 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé.

Our trip to Shahe Reservoir was made simple because Xiaogao and I needed to lead a small birding trip for the school nature club.  We were completely tired out after shouting at everybody to stop talking and get going for more than half a day, but we still made it to 35 species by the time the club activity ended, including quite a large flock of Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus 文须雀 Wén xū què), a few Chinese Penduline Tits (Remiz consobrinus 中华攀雀 Zhōnghuá pān què) uttering their usual “peeeeeel” call, and a Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 Dà má jiān) hiding in reeds, only to take off as the seventh graders came chatting along.

We both wanted to see more species to make up for the day, so we decided to check the east bank of the reservoir. The sun, high up in the sky, had no effect on the chilly weather.  The waterfall thundered in the background, and an egret flashed pure white as it went gliding softly over the water’s surface. Daurian Jackdaws (Coloeus dauuricus  达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) soared across the clear blue sky in loose flocks. Silvery bells chimed as a few Silver-throated Bushtits (Aegithalos glaucogularis 银喉长尾山雀 Yín hóu cháng wěi shān què) jumped around in the branches, and a couple of Japanese Tits (Parus minor 大山雀 Dà shānquè) tagged along, glancing curiously down at us.  Just before we climbed into the car, Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo 普通鸬鹚 Pǔtōng lú cí) flew in tens, maybe hundreds, over our heads, creating an endless river of feathers and wings. We were delighted as our checklist finally reached 40 species.

Our plan was to follow the Wenyu river and have a little explore.  As the car went speeding down the road, I suddenly remembered a place off the road I found last autumn. There were quite a lot of birds, I recalled. So for no particular reason, I suggested we have a peek.

We followed a trail down from the road. The call of Little (Emberiza pusilla 小鹀 Xiǎo wú), Black-faced (Emberiza spodocephala灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings (Emberiza spodocephala 灰头鹀 Huī tóu wú) flickered through the air. Between the trees stood a few patches of shrubs, closely huddling against each other helplessly. It was getting late, the sky cast a beautiful shade of red over the scene. A flock of bushtits leapt noisily in the trees.  As we got closer, suddenly I picked out a different sound from the endless chime of bushtits. ”twirrrl”. I tensed instantly. The call reminded me of a wind up sound, similar to the call of a Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla 红喉姬鹟 Hóng hóu jī wēng), but a little different. Maybe it was my ears playing tricks on me, I thought. But then, after a few steps, ”twirrrl” – there it was again! Xiaogao heard it too. It was coming from the bushes!

Something wasn’t right. I thought I had heard the sound before, somewhere, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. We slowed, shared eye contact, then slowly with eyes narrowed and ears peeled, we advanced toward where the sound was coming from. At that moment, time slowed all around us. The noisy hymn of the bushtits seemed to have stopped abruptly. Everything was so quiet. I was getting excited, I could feel my heart racing, thumping against my chest. What could that be?

Another couple of “twirrls”. They echoed through the air. Just then, as we got in front of the patch of thick shrubbery, a flash of red and brown came shooting out from the branches, made a sudden turn in mid-air, as if startled to see us, then dived down into a different bush like a rocket.

The first though that came to me was that this was a Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus 北红尾鸲 Běi hóng wěi qú), but that was almost impossible given to the way it called. We crouched in front of the bush into which our target had dived. ”twirrrl”. Under the thick branches, a Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus 红胁蓝尾鸲 Hóng xié lán wěi qú) was cocking its head up at us. We stared in disblief. A bluetail?How come?But when the sound came again, the bluetail didn’t move its bill…so it wasn’t the bluetail that we heard. Then, a shadow appeared in the shrubs, a few meters away from the bluetail. It flapped its wings, made a dive toward the ground, then hopped up to another branch. So, there it was! That’s when I realised that I had left my camera back in the car, and I would definitely need the camera to get a photo, so I told Xiaogao, who had taken his camera with him, to stay put, try to get a photo, while I teared up the track back to our car where I had left my camera.

I was panting heavily when I got back to the bush, camera at the ready. I was relieved to see Xiaogao crouching on the ground, shutter clicking away. I silently praised that he had gotten an identifiable picture. Xiaogao crept out from the bush, dried leaves in his hair, his poor white pants – our school uniform – were covered with mud. He showed me a blurred picture of a very strange looking redstart. Unlike the common Daurian Redstart, this one had practically no large white patches on its wings, and the body plumage was slightly darker. Xiaogao had no idea about which species. I scowled. Its odd features…I was almost sure that this wasn’t the first time I had seen this species, but I simply couldn’t point my finger on exactly what it was. Whatever the species, we realised this was probably something that was pretty rare. And our task now was to get as much evidence as we could about this bird to help with later identification.

I made a few recordings of its mysterious call and then, for the rest of the day, we crept around the bushes, straining to get some better photos. Believe me, we had a pretty hard time. The bird was really alert, so every time we tried to get close, it fluttered away and disappeared into another set of bushes. Plus, it hid itself really deep in the branches, constantly changing its position, so it was nearly impossible to focus the camera, much less taking a clear photo. Finally, we managed to secure a couple of clear pictures of the bird.

By now, the sun was sinking and the clouds above us reflecting a fiery red glow. We straightened our arms and legs, sore from crouching on the ground, our trousers mud-soaked with grass hanging down. Sweat dripped from our cheeks, despite the cold weather. “twirrrl” – our redstart made another jeer at us from somewhere deep in the branches. We stole another glance at the bushes, then left with half a dozen barely identifiable photographs, and a thousand questions.

On the way back, I kept wondering about this bird. Can it actually be something really rare? Images of people finding rare species kept popping into my head, the eBird rare bird alert, followed by birders from all over the city rushing toward a single spot to catch a glimpse of the bird, a tiny patch of shrubbery surrounded by layers of people.  Thousands of possibilities soared around in my mind.

Maybe it’s a Daurian Redstart after all, I thought, after flipping through articles about redstart identification, and listening to lots of recordings on Xeno-canto with no result. After dinner, I had no choice but to put my pictures and the recording, along with Xiaogao’s, on We-chat, asking for help from other birders.

The first image of the mystery redstart by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán, circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (Photo by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán).
One of the first images of the mystery redstart circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (Photo by 霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé)

The original sound recording circulated to birders on 27 November 2021 (霍圣哲 Huò Shèngzhé).


Anything but Daurian, I prayed!

People started giving their opinions, with some saying Daurian, some suggesting Alashan Redstart (Phoenicurus alaschanicus 贺兰山红尾鸲 Hèlánshān hóng wěi qú), a major rarity in Beijing.  Some mentioned that the call was similar to Blue-fronted (Phoenicurus frontalis 蓝额红尾鸲 Lán é hóng wěi qú), which had never before appeared in Beijing. Hope planted itself in my mind. I started to get restless, flicking up the screen of my phone every few minutes, checking for the latest news. Meanwhile, more and more people, including Terry Townshend, suggested Blue-fronted Redstart. My heart pounded furiously, excitement twirling in my brain. I have seen the Blue-fronted Redstart fewer than half a dozen times in Yunnan. It’s really hard to imagine it turning up in Beijing. Then, the remark came from Mr.Holt: “perfect Blue-Fronted.” At the same time, Terry returned from Xeno-canto, the sound recording website, and told me the call matched Blue–fronted Redstart!

At first, there was only numbness. I could feel my heart pounding, my eyes glued to the screen. After God knows how long, my heart erupted with joy, and I nearly fainted with excitement. My gosh, a Blue-fronted Redstart, the first sighting of this bird in the whole damn capital. Now, I and Xiaogao are finders of a new record for Beijing!

For half an hour, I was overwhelmed with disbelief and pride. The good thing was, I cooled down shortly after that. After a short discussion with Xiaogao, we reached an agreement that the location of this bird should be kept secret. I don’t know what others would think about our decision, but I do remember what happened to the Robin in Beijing Zoo, and the poor Great Bustards in Tongzhou. I, surely, wouldn’t want anything like that to happen again, especially not to this new record for Beijing.

The assembled crowd waiting for the European Robin at the Beijing Zoo in January 2019, referred to by Huò Shèngzhé above (Photo by Terry Townshend).

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts raced around my mind, thoughts about our decision, and about how I could possibly find a bird which is a new record for Beijing. It’s pretty accidental but, at the same time, not exactly random. Unlike some other birdwatchers in Beijing, I and Xiaogao have our own style. I seldom go “twitching”, which means to go and see a rare bird the second after the location is released. Throughout this whole year, I hadn’t visited many hotspots, hadn’t put most of my attention simply on boosting my own life list. Instead, I  focused all my might on my own birding patch, trying my best to find birds on my own, first–hand. Sometimes, seeing birds you have seen a million times can seem boring, but if you keep up long enough, there are always surprises. If I hadn’t thought of the place I found last autumn, if I simply had taken a hike through the well-known birding areas, then leave like so many other birders do, this bird would have never been found.

Maybe that’s what the birding community in Beijing needs: fewer trips to hotspots for target species or good photos, fewer people birding simply for their life lists, just a little more attention to the common-looking overgrown fields which aren’t so far away from your house, and maybe new sightings for Beijing will be popping out from everywhere!

霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé, known by the moniker “Oriental Stork” on social media).


The co-finders:

霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé), also known as “Oriental Stork”, birding at his local patch in west Beijing.
高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyán), the co-finder of Beijing’s first Blue-fronted Redstart, at Ma Chang in Beijing.

Title image: the female Blue-fronted Redstart at Shahe Reservoir found by 霍圣哲 (Huò Shèngzhé) and 高孝延 (Gāo Xiàoyánon) 27 November 2021.  The first record of this species for Beijing.  (Photo by 高孝延 Gāo Xiàoyán).

Leopard Cat Research Field Trip with Peking University

Earlier this week I was invited to join Peking University’s Leopard Cat research team on a field trip to their study site.  Led by Professor Luo Shu-Jin, the team has been studying the capital’s wild cats for three years, and has recently stepped up its research by fitting tracking collars.  The collars, so far fitted to three females, are showing for the first time the movements of these secretive felines.  Early results have revealed that the three females are primarily nocturnal, have rather distinct territories and swim often.  The closest relative to the Leopard Cat is the Fishing Cat of South Asia, so perhaps we should not be surprised they are not averse to taking a dip.

This week’s trip to the field site was to check and maintain infrared cameras and to set up a trap with the hope of catching and collaring a male.  In large cats such as the Snow Leopard, it is the male that has a relatively large territory within which several females may hold smaller territories.  It will be fascinating to see whether this is the case for Beijing’s Leopard Cats.

Checking the trap before installation at the study site.

The trap includes a trigger that, via the phone network, will inform the team as soon as the trap is sprung.  The team is on call 24 hours per day so that they can react quickly and minimise the time that any captured animal is in captivity.  

Professor Luo and her team setting up the trap at the study site. The aim is to catch and collar a male, following the fitting of collars to three females, in order to compare movements and territories.
The trap after it has been ‘camouflaged’.

It was an honour for me to join the team for the day and to learn so much about their work.  Beijing is one of the few major capital cities that supports a population of wild cats, so understanding better their ecology, including their habitat requirements, will help to inform land management policies in Beijing with a view to securing the future of this special animal in the Chinese capital.  

To keep up to date with the research team’s progress, please check this dedicated page.

Title image: the Peking University Leopard Cat Research Team.

Discovering nocturnal bird migration in Beijing

Have you ever wondered what birds are flying over your home at night?  If you are on any sort of flyway, during the migration season it is possible that many hundreds, even thousands, of birds fly over your home in a single night. Recording sound during the dark hours can help to shed light on the number of birds and the diversity of species that are flying overhead as we sleep.

The practice of recording nocturnal flight calls (NFC) is gaining in popularity in Europe and the US (and elsewhere?) but is still in its relative infancy. Even with little knowledge of individual species’ calls, it is possible to gain an insight into the volume of birds that call as they pass overhead.

Of course most birders are also interested in identifying the species, but identification of the calls can be a challenge.  Not only does successful ID require a strong knowledge of the vocalisations of many of the resident and migratory species in the area but it appears that some species use different calls at night to those with which we are familiar, thus adding to the difficulty.  Lots of work is underway, including at Cornell Lab, to use AI to help scan recordings to identify the species but, for now at least, in East Asia that is a long way off.

With Beijing situated on a major flyway for birds commuting between Siberian breeding grounds and non-breeding grounds in China, SE Asia, Australasia and even Africa, there simply *must* be lots of nocturnal migration over the capital so, back in autumn 2017, living on the 13th floor of an apartment building at the time, I made my first attempts at nocturnal recording from my window.  Using a simple digital recorder, I was able to record species such as Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni 树鹨 Shù liù), Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis 云雀 Yúnquè), Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 Dà má jiān) and Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope 红喉歌鸲 Hóng hóu gē qú).  That experiment gave me a tantalising glimpse into the nocturnal migration over my apartment but a subsequent move to an apartment much less suitable for recording meant that the potential remained unfulfilled.  

Fast forward to summer 2021 and, in a conversation with Sir Danny Alexander, Vice President of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), we hatched an idea to begin a recording project on the roof of AIIB’s headquarters.  The building, 15 storeys high, is in a great location for such a project.  It is immediately south of the Olympic Forest Park in the north of the city, not close to any major roads, suffers very little from aircraft noise and with almost no tall buildings close by.  

The headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing.

We purchased a Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter Mini (weatherproof and programmable), and set it up on the roof, programming it to begin recording from 24 August until mid-November.  The recorder is perfect for this project as the only maintenance needed is a change of batteries every two weeks or so.  The recorder automatically adjusts the recording time to allow for the changing sunset and sunset times and a 512GB memory card is capable of storing all the files for the whole period.

The Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter Mini digital recorder.

The primary objective of this project is to gain an insight into the volume of birds flying over central Beijing at night.  With identification of most calls straightforward, we hope to be able to gain an improved understanding of the timings, including peaks, of individual species and potentially also the relationship between weather patterns and the extent of migration.  Given the impressive volume of calls, we are already building up a large file of “unidentified calls” and, with the help of birders in the region and experienced ‘nocmiggers’ elsewhere, we hope to identify as many of the unknowns as possible.

The files from the first few weeks of recording have been downloaded and we are beginning to analyse them.  It’s a time-consuming process to go through them all but using the excellent free sound analysis software, “Audacity“, to produce spectograms in order to ‘visualise’ the files means it’s relatively easy to find the bird calls and skip through periods of silence. 

A typical sonogram, in this case showing a visualisation of the calls of Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis 云雀 Yúnquè).

More than 4,000 calls have been identified so far.  Perhaps not surprisingly, in late August and September, the most dominant species have been Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus 普通朱雀 Pǔtōng zhūquè), Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni 树鹨 Shù liù) and Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis 云雀 Yúnquè) but these have been supported by a good selection of other species including Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax 夜鹭 Yè lù), Striated Heron (Butorides striata 绿鹭 Lǜ lù), Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris 大麻鳽 Dà má jiān), Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus 白腰草鹬 Bái yāo cǎo yù), Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos 矶鹬 Jī yù), Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola 林鹬 Lín yù), Common Redshank (Tringa totanus 红脚鹬 Hóng jiǎo yù), Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata 白腰杓鹬 Bái yāo biāo yù), Forest Wagtail (Dendronanthus indicus 山鹡鸰 Shān jí líng), white-eye sp. (Zosterops sp., 绣眼鸟 xiù yǎn niǎo), Yellow-bellied Tit (Periparus venustulus 黄腹山雀 Huáng fù shānquè), and lots of thrushes and Muscicapa flycatchers (still to be identified to species).

You can follow the progress of the project at this dedicated page, where we will upload good examples of calls, a batch of unidentified calls (on which we welcome suggestions!) and, in due course, some statistics about the volume of birds each night and a full species list.  Analysis of all the files probably won’t be completed until well into 2022 but we are already excited about what this project will reveal about nocturnal bird migration in Beijing.

Huge thanks to the AIIB team, in particular Sir Danny Alexander, Alberto Ninio and Li Zeyu, for their support for this project and for their ongoing help and assistance.  And thank you to David Darrell-Lambert for initial advice about NocMig and to Geoff Carey and Paul Holt for advice and assistance with identifications.  Thanks also to all the birders in the East Asian Bird Vocalisation WeChat group and the NocMig WhatsApp group for help and assistance.

For the latest news about this project, to hear some of the calls we are recording and for a list of unidentified sounds, please see this dedicated page.


Header image: The Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter Mini in place on the roof of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing.

New Zealand Ambassador to China hosts “Friends of the Flyway”

It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that seems to be prevalent right now.  But every now and then, something happens that provides a shot in the arm.. an event or moment that inspires and provides hope.

16 September at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing was one of those moments.  Clare Fearnley, the brilliant New Zealand Ambassador to China, hosted the inaugural ‘Friends of the Flyway’ to celebrate the migratory birds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, bringing together ambassadors and senior diplomats from the 22 countries that make up the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the secretariat of the EAAFP, senior Chinese government officials, including the Deputy Administrator of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Mayor of Dandong (stewards of Yalu Jiang, dubbed a “five-star” service station on the shorebird expressway), academics and ‘friends’.  

Not only did the event provide an opportunity to celebrate and raise awareness of the flyway among ambassadors and senior diplomats, elevating migratory birds as a foreign policy issue, but it also stimulated ideas and discussions, resulting in a few potential new initiatives, such as managing embassy grounds as ‘wildlife areas’ with embassies signing up to commitments to monitor birds and other wildlife, and to make changes to management practices to improve the habitat for resident and migratory birds.  A birding trip to the coast next May, for Ambassadors to experience the spring migration, is on the cards, and ‘bird-friendly’ glass, painted with ultraviolet patterns, was showcased by local artists as part of the solution to bird collisions (thought to cause the deaths of up to a billion birds in North America annually, with a new research project now starting in China to assess the scale of the issue here).

In her opening, Clare told the story of the ‘Kuaka’, the Māori name for the Bar-tailed Godwit, that has such a special place in their culture. The Kuaka is considered to be the link between the northern and southern hemispheres, a carrier of knowledge and the bringer of positive messages.  For Māoris they were birds of mystery, (‘Kua kite te kohanga kuaka?  Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?’).

Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, delivering her welcome remarks to the “Friends of the Flyway” on 16 September.

Nearly all New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits are from the baueri subspecies and breed in western Alaska. Their incredible migration forms a triangle.  Following the breeding season, these birds make an almost incomprehensible non-stop eight or nine day flight of more than 11,000km to New Zealand, only recently discovered through the tracking of “E7” in 2007. After spending the non-breeding season in New Zealand, they begin their northern migration from early March, heading for refuelling sites around the Yellow Sea, many to the Yalu Jiang in Dandong, where they fatten up at this five-star service station for the last leg of the journey to Alaska.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University tells the story of “E7”, the Bar-tailed Godwit that flew non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand revealing the incredible migration of this species for the first time.

Migratory birds do not respect international borders and, over a calendar year, many will visit multiple countries as they move from breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds via stopover sites.  It follows, therefore, that no single country can secure the future of these birds on its own.  With shared natural heritage comes a shared responsibility and, as we are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events on Earth, and the first to be driven by humans, it is vital that the international response must go beyond national actions to protect key habitats and species, important though these actions are, to involve sustained and coordinated international cooperation.

Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, delivering his remarks at the “Friends of the Flyway” event on 16 September.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is a bird ‘superhighway’ for more than 50 million waterbirds, including 35 globally threatened species, many of which commute between breeding grounds in the far north, some inside the Arctic Circle, and non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Many travel as far as Australia and New Zealand.  However, it is not only the ‘ends of the flyway’ – the breeding grounds in Artic Russia and the non-breeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand that are important.  The commute relies on stopover sites, particularly those in the Yellow Sea.

That is why this initiative – bringing together ambassadors from flyway countries with senior Chinese government officials – was so important.  It is now hoped (expected?) that ambassadors from other Flyway countries will host similar events, celebrating particular aspects of the Flyway or specific species and sites, whilst helping to nurture and strengthen international cooperation along this important route for migratory birds.   

Huge kudos to Clare and her team, especially Svar Barrington and Hayley Anderson, for initiating this event and for the New Zealand embassy’s ongoing leadership in putting biodiversity high up on the agenda for foreign policy and diplomacy.



Header photo: Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, welcoming Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

Finding Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus) in Beijing in June 2021

On 1 June 2021, Beijing resident, Colm Moore, found Beijing’s first Kamchatka Warbler (Phylloscopus examinandus, 堪察加柳莺 Kān chá jiā liǔ yīng) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir in Beijing.  It is the latest in a series of excellent records from Colm, crowned by the astonishing record of a Streak-throated Swallow (Petrochelidon fluvicola 彩石燕 Cǎi shíyàn) at Shahe Reservoir in May 2014 which was not only a first record for Beijing but also for the whole of China!

Colm is one of the best birders I know and also one of the most genuine guys around.  This is his account of the incredible find on 1 June.


By Colm Moore.

More than half a decade ago, on Professor Per Alström’s advice, I began the slow, laborious process of recording Beijing warbler songs in some systematic manner. This was solely to further my own meagre knowledge and in order to make sense of the plethora of spring song from that myriad of phylloscopid taxa we hear and see each year. Per’s breakthrough work (Alstrom, P, et al., Ibis (2011), 153, 395–410) on the three “borealis” sibling species, Arctic Warbler P. borealis, Kamchatka Leaf Warbler P. examinandus and Japanese Leaf Warbler P. xanthodryas was on my desktop but surely an academic exercise, and not for the field….. surely.

Six years later, almost to the day, I crept into the woodland of pollarded Salix at Ming Tombs Reservoir’s Flower Garden to record Arctic Warbler P. borealis and compare it with some earlier recordings. I carried a lightweight Sony PCM D100 digital recorder and enough water to last an eight hour vigil. Six years has taught me infinite patience.

Four days of light easterly breezes, a drier than usual Meiyu Low Pressure System and a waning gibbous moon meant that on 1st June, there were very few nocturnal migrant warblers present, but a mellifluous fall of Black-naped Orioles Oriolus chinensis also guaranteed that the trees were alive with an orchestra of sound.  Against this background I could hear the ‘dzrt’ calls of a few Arctic Warblers and an occasional burst of song from the same species, transcribed here as ‘zezezezezezezezezezezezezeze’, increasing in strength mid-way and fading somewhat at the end. All other warblers had indeed vacated the area, apparently. Every phylloscopid sound was borealis-like in nature, all my photographs showed borealis-type birds apparently and so I settled down to listen and perhaps make a few decent recordings.

About two hours into the vigil, listening with too little deep attention to the ‘dzrt‘ and the high mechanical ‘zezezeze‘, like a dreamer awakening from a drowsy woodland sleep, I began to hear a distant stuttering call, ‘drt‘..’drrt‘, audibly underneath and beyond the rest.  It had probably been present for hours. Still stupefied, I slowly rummaged for my recorder, with all the time in the world, apparently.  Meanwhile the bird or the sound had moved to my right and a short strophe of pumping action phylloscopid song leaked out from behind an Oriole’s chortle. Galvanized, I swung around wildly to catch some precious phrase, stumbled upon the correction direction and there, 10s into the recording, was that unique harsh pumping action of an examinandus song, electronically captured, and transcribed in the field as: ‘zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh zeze-zeh’.  It was a rather rough, rapid, short series of notes with a regular pumping, pulsing rhythm.  The pumping rhythm seemed to be caused by two different syllables ‘zeze’ and ‘zeh’ being repeated.

Minutes passed in exquisite breathless panic as I waited for the bird to sing again. But the shadow of a Black Stork Cigonia nigra, flying low over the wood now threw the place into silence and though the Orioles were undisturbed, the bird with that unique examinandus sound had departed or rendered silent. Hours and hours later I stumbled into the light, exhausted from combing the wood, leaf by warbler-shaped leaf, frequency by dizzy frequency.  I had dozens of photographs of borealis-types, but I could not definitively match call with image. I even noted wing-flick behaviour in some, but again was unable to match behaviour with call.

Terry Townshend, to whom I sent the recording, was able to support my tentative identification as examinandus, and with his encouragement I sent the recording and all my photographs to Per Alström, who confirmed the song, saying:

…. I note that there’s a Kamchatka Leaf Warbler on your recording. First there’s a call which sounds like borealis, shortly afterwards is a call that sounds like examinandus (though I’ve heard birds which I thought were borealis on migration in SE China calling pretty examinandus-like, though I couldn’t be absolutely sure they were indeed borealis). However, at c. 10 s, behind an oriole is a very faint song strophe of a definite examinandus….. I see the odd wing flicking behaviour in one or two of your photos. I haven’t noted this in any ”Arctic Warbler”….. Something to check.

Colm’s original recording, with the call of Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), followed by a two-note call that could be Kamchatka Warbler (P. examinandus), then the diagnostic strophe of song from Kamchatka Warbler (P. examinandus), with background Black-naped Orioles (Oriolus chinensis).


The taxon examinandus was first described by Professor E. Stresemann in 1913 but the morphological similarity to xanthodryas and borealis meant that it took a century to fully untangle the phylogenetic complexity of what are now considered three unambiguous clades, based on mitochondrial DNA, an analysis of songs and detailed morphometrics.  But it became clear that for field workers, calls and songs were essentially the field evidence and recordings the tools by which to map the distribution of these sibling species.  It has been established that examinandus breeds in south Kamchatka, Sakhalin and north-east Hokkaido. Likewise, among two-hundred sound-recordings in Xeno-canto (Xeno-canto Foundation and Naturalis Biodiversity Center 2005-2021: accessed September 13, 2021), winter-time records concentrate in S.S.E. Asia, specifically Indonesia. Passage migrants have been recorded in Japan, Nansei-Shoto, S.Korea and China. Remarkably, it has been recorded in Australia and in Finland (

Some records of the species on presumed passage, have come from as near to Beijing as Dandong, in Liaoning (Birding Beijing: accessed September 13, 2021), Tianjin (eBird Explore: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: accessed September 13, 2021) and coastal Hebei, with one recorded by Matt Slaymaker on 26 May 2013 and 1 June 2013 at the ‘prison trees’ at Nanpu, Tangshan (see Thus the Beijing record is probably not wholly unexpected, given the geographical location of the capital, just west of the mapped migratory trajectory.


Big thanks to Colm for writing up his extraordinary find and for helping to raise awareness about this poorly-known species and its occurrence in Beijing.  With greater awareness among birders, we can expect more records from the capital in future.


Title image: a ‘wing-flicking’ Phylloscopus, possibly the P. examinandus, from 1 June 2021 at Ming Tombs Reservoir (Colm Moore) 

Leopard Cat in Beijing 北京豹猫

Not many capital cities can boast populations of wild cats and some may be surprised to learn that Beijing is one.  I am delighted to publish a new page dedicated to Leopard Cats in Beijing.  This page provides information and updates from an exciting new project about this poorly known species, led by Peking University’s Professor Luo Shu-Jin in collaboration with the China Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA).  The project has already made some exciting discoveries, revealing just how little we know about biodiversity, even in one of the world’s major capital cities.  The page can be found here and includes some fantastic images of Leopard Cat from Beijing.  Check back regularly for updates!

Huge credit to Luo Shu-Jin and her team for her work on what must be one of the jewels in the crown of Beijing’s biodiversity.  

Valuing Nature

This podcast is a must-listen interview for anyone with an interest in the natural world.  It brings together one of the world’s leading economists – Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, author of the recent groundbreaking study – “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review” with the real-world financial expertise and political nous of Secretary Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary.   



Their conversation focuses on the global biodiversity crisis – the risks to human prosperity, the strong links with climate change, and how, in order to manage these risks, the world must do better at valuing nature and broaden its economic goals beyond GDP growth.   

Back in the early 1990s when I was studying economics at university, I was taken aback when I learned that economic models took nature’s services for granted; in essence nature’s benefits were considered free and inexhaustible.  As Professor Dasgupta says, going back just a few decades, “this was not a travesty, as we were small beer at the time. But now we are not”.  Today, demand for the Earth’s resources and services severely outstrips the ability of the Earth to renew itself, bringing with it tremendous risks.  This is cause for a fundamental realignment to bring the global economy within the boundaries of the biosphere and to no longer consider it independent.  

It’s a fascinating and hugely important subject.  Education, the need for government regulation and generational equity feature strongly.  If you have a spare 45 minutes, please listen and, if you are motivated to do something, think about what you can do to make a difference – whether it’s writing to your elected representative, asking questions about how your company or organisation is incorporating biodiversity into its strategy and operations, or by making personal choices as consumers.   


For more on the “Dasgupta Review”, see here.

For more on the Paulson Institute’s “Financing Nature: Closing the Biodiversity Financing Gap”, see here.


Title image: a longhorn bee sp., Shunyi District, Beijing, July 2021.

“Wild China with Ray Mears” to be broadcast on ITV this summer

Back in 2019, which almost seems a lifetime ago, I had the honour of working with a hero of mine – Ray Mears – and his team as part of a new series on China’s wild places.  Entitled “Wild China with Ray Mears”, the seven-episode ITV series chronicles his journey across this vast and diverse country, exploring some of its special wildernesses. 

The previous year, two of his researchers contacted me when they were scouting for locations.  They were keen to visit the Valley of the Cats, the location of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project.  I arranged for them to stay with a local family in one of the most spectacular locations and met them there on arrival.  The idea was that we would have two days to explore potential filming opportunities and locations.  The following morning, the local ShanShui staff and I drove to meet them at their homestay and there was quite a commotion.  Several members of the family were chatting loudly and gesturing towards one of the rooms of their house which looked as if a bomb had hit it.  The two researchers had been woken with a bang at 1am when the family started banging pots and pans, and were startled to learn that a brown bear had broken into the room adjacent to their sleeping quarters! Huge paw prints around the house and some muddy prints on the walls betrayed the bear’s shenanigans.

Inspecting the evidence of the bear’s visit in the Valley of the Cats.

Unfazed by their experience, the first thing the researchers said to me when I arrived was “ok, we know already this is a good place for Ray!”

I won’t reveal how Ray fared in the Valley, except to say that this episode is not to be missed.

The series will be broadcast on ITV in the UK this summer,  beginning with episode 1 from a very cold Beijing on Tuesday 13 July from 1930-2000.  With visits to the country’s tropical rainforest, the bamboo forest home of giant pandas, bat caves in karst landscapes as well as the Tibetan Plateau, this series is a must-watch for anyone with an interest in China and its wild places.  

The Butterflies of Beijing

Of the 2,153 species of butterfly recorded throughout China (壽 等, 2006), more than 170 have been recorded in Beijing.  That is a large number by any standards, and indeed many more than the whole of the UK (59)*. 

In keeping with the aim of producing English language resources for Beijing’s wildlife, a dedicated page for the butterflies of Beijing has now been added to this site.  

It includes the official list of species recorded in Beijing, including scientific names, Chinese names (with pinyin) and English names where given.  Species are illustrated with images where available and contributions are welcome, especially for species not yet illustrated.  Over time, it is hoped that this page can become a helpful resource for any visitor to Beijing interested in these beautiful insects.

*See URL:

Header image: Melitaea didymoides, 斑网蛱蝶,  Bān wǎng jiá dié, Shunyi District, 28 July 2020 (Terry Townshend)

Far Eastern Curlew in Inner Mongolia

I’m just back from a few days break in northern Inner Mongolia.  Mid-June is a wonderful time to visit with all of the breeding birds, most of which are migratory, back on territory and singing vigorously.  One of the species I was keen to see and hear was the Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis 大杓鹬 Dà biāo yù), a species now classified as “Endangered” due to its rapidly declining population (it is thought to have declined by up to 80% in Australia, one of its main non-breeding grounds). Incidentally, despite its scientific name, it has never been recorded in Madagascar.

After several failed attempts, I was finally in the right place at the right time when a presumed male engaged in a wonderful, undulating, display flight over a wet meadow.  As the sun set on a perfectly still evening, the sound sent shivers down my spine as it pierced the backing vocals from, among others, Common Cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.  Simply magical.

Wouldn’t the world be a poorer place if we lost this awe-inspiring bird?


Source: Van Gils, J., P. Wiersma, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.