Ten birds to look out for in Beijing this Spring

Inspired by Twitter users who were asking about the identity of birds seen locally this spring, and a forthcoming article in the South China Morning Post, I’ve put together a list of ten birds to look out for in the capital this Spring.  It’s by no means an exhaustive list – in fact, I could have picked a different ten for every day of the week!  However, it is illustrative of the variety and diversity of the birds that are, right now, either passing through the capital on their way from wintering grounds as far away as southern Africa and Australia, to more northerly breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia and Russia, or raising a family right here in Beijing.

The scale of the migration happening around us right now is hard to comprehend.  Millions of birds of hundreds of different species will be flying over Beijing in the next few weeks, most of which will pass undetected at night as we sleep.  A few will stop over in one of the many parks, wetlands, rivers, forests or even small green spaces in residential areas to rest and refuel, offering us a privileged opportunity to observe them.  Knowing a little about these birds, and the journeys they are making will, I hope, help us to better appreciate these birds and the places they need to survive on these marathon journeys.

You can download the “Ten Birds to look out for this Spring” as a PDF.

Feel free to add a comment about your favourite birds seen this spring!

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Singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing

Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April.  Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration.  Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north.  WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata.  I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.

Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)
White Wagtail ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang (Terry Townshend)
White Wagtail ssp ocularis (Terry Townshend)

Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+.  Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later.  The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.

Citrine Wagtail (Terry Townshend)
Buff-bellied Pipit (Terry Townshend)

Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day.  There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high.  Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.

The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”).  As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL.  It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018.  I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely!  But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again…  and again.  The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.

The SWINHOE’S RAIL was singing from the island with dry vegetation and a handful of trees.

I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently.  There it was again, this time a fraction clearer.  Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.

They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.

I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.

I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there.  At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June.  The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz.  Wow.

A sonogram of Swinhoe’s Rail recorded at very close distance in Inner Mongolia, June 2018.
A sonogram of the Swinhoe’s Rail at Ma Chang, Beijing, on 15 April 2019. Much fainter, due to the distance, but the same 6-7 notes at 2kHz, with similar spacing.

The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds.  Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion.  I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species.  Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!

Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds.  Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.

It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia.  And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia.  I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.  

Beijing Swifts are back!

In the last few days, birders from across the capital have been reporting the return of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  The first record seems to have been one at the TongHuiHe  by 岳小鸮 (Yuè xiǎo xiāo) on 1st April.  This was followed by another single at Peking University on 9th April (Yang Hua) and then nine at Baiwangshan, a traditional migration watchpoint in the northwest of the city (小隼仙人) on 10th.  Yesterday, 11th April, the staff at ZhengYangMen (正阳门), a traditional breeding site at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, reported sightings, too.

It is only a few weeks ago that these birds could have been circling over Table Mountain in Cape Town in South Africa having almost certainly spent the entire northern winter on the wing – an incredible feat of endurance and stamina that is hard to comprehend.

With several Beijing schools having built and erected nest boxes for the Beijing Swift over the last few months, we are keeping everything crossed that some of the birds arriving in the capital will find and choose to breed in these newly-built homes.  We’re hopeful, too, that students from these schools will be able to meet with the CEOs of some of China’s largest building companies to tell the story of the Beijing Swift, outline what their schools are doing to help and to ask the CEOs to trial ‘swift-friendly’ buildings in Beijing.  Watch this space!

 

Title image showing the autumn migration route of the Beijing Swift to southern Africa courtesy of Lyndon Kearsley.

Beijing Cuckoos inspire new educational book for schools

When we conceived the concept of the Beijing Cuckoo Project back in 2015, we had two aims.  First, to discover the wintering grounds, and migration route, of Common Cuckoos from East Asia.  And second, to inspire the public, especially people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about migratory birds.

When a project like this begins, it’s impossible to know what sort if impact it may have, and whilst the results – discovering that Beijing’s Cuckoos spend the winter in Mozambique and cross the Arabian Sea from India to East Africa and back again – and the associated media coverage were way beyond our expectations, there are sometimes additional benefits that cannot be foreseen.

A few months ago I was contacted by an environmental education organisation who asked if I’d mind if they developed a pop-out educational book for students about the Beijing Cuckoos.  Of course, I was delighted!

Over the weekend, I received some photos showing the prototype book being tested with a class of students.

I understand the book will soon be available as a PDF and will be circulated to a network of schools across Beijing and, we hope, across the country.  A wonderful legacy for the Beijing Cuckoo Project!

Amur Leopard Cat in Beijing

When birding at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain in far western Mentougou District, it’s not uncommon to see mammal scat.  Tolai Hare is common and I’ve also seen Siberian Rose Deer, Hog Badger and evidence of Wild Boar.  A few weeks ago I spotted some scat that looked suspiciously like cat scat.  Amur Leopard Cats (Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura) are seen occasionally in Beijing (I’ve enjoyed three sightings myself, including one in broad daylight).  However, although probably not uncommon in the mountains around Beijing, Amur Leopard Cats are difficult to see due to their primarily nocturnal habits.  And, in the context of Lingshan, there are a couple of small villages close by, so there is always the chance of a domestic cat roaming around.

I decided to set up a camera trap on the trail where I had found the scat and leave it there for a month.  Yesterday I retrieved it and was delighted, first to find the camera trap was still there, and second to find a total of 11 images of Amur Leopard Cat, the best four of which are below.  The lightly spotted coat, thick tail and pale vertical stripes on the face are all good features of this wild cat, currently treated as a subspecies of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).

It just goes to show that one doesn’t need to travel to the Tibetan Plateau to see wild cats..  they’re thriving in the capital city of the world’s most populous country!

 

 

 

Valley of the Cats profiled in Beijing

It’s been a busy week in Beijing for the Valley of the Cats.  First, last Wednesday evening, I was invited by the Royal Asiatic Society to speak about the community-based wildlife watching tourism project during a special event held at The Bookworm.  I shared the platform with John MacKinnon, who has just returned from two weeks in the Valley having recorded a fantastic 20-minute film about this special place, its people and the wildlife, all taken against the stunning backdrop of some of the heaviest snow in living memory.  Once edited, we plan to to publish the film shortly.

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We were honoured to be joined by 12-year old Joyce Li whose dream of seeing a Snow Leopard came true during her visit to the Valley of the Cats last year.  Joyce’s enthusiastic account of her experience encapsulated the magic of the Valley and I know from speaking with her that she is now a committed wildlife champion!  This is her written account:

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The First Encounter

“In October 2018, I went to the Valley of the Cats along with my parents, to look for the elusive snow leopard. This is a simple recount of my first encounter with this mysterious big cat.

On the second day of our trip, we woke up at 6:00 am, washed, downed some porridge, and we were off. It was snowing outside, with hares popping up in front of our car lights. They froze whenever we passed, too terrified to move.

About an hour had passed, and the sky had lightened up, and rays of sunlight peeked through the mountains. The snow blanketed the slopes and we searched them for any sign of a big cat. We even asked a local if he’d spotted one. He said that he had seen a carcass of a dead sheep around here, killed by a predator, and we continued searching. We came across quite a few herds of blue sheep and white-lipped deer, but no snow leopard. We decided to move to a new location. Suddenly, Yixi, our guide, started running up the slopes, and we followed him, scrambling up the mountainside. When he stopped, we caught up to him, Yixi said that he thought he had spotted a large animal feeding off a dead sheep. We were buzzing with excitement. But it was only a large dog, picking off the scrap bits of meat.

With no more signs of anything interesting, we decided to stop by Yixi’s cousin’s and have a nice cup of tea. After resting up, we went looking for the snow leopard again, and asked Yixi’s cousin for some help on the walkie talkie. Yixi drove us along the dirt road again, and I fell asleep.

I was already awake when mom called, and still deciding whether to snooze for a few minutes more, but when I heard the words “snow leopard”, all thought of another nap disappeared. Yixi came rushing back to us (he was out searching for snow leopards while we rested in the car) and told us that his cousin had spotted one across the valley. We sped along the small dirt road to the spot where the snow leopard was last found. We raced up the mountain, panting and out of breath, and threw our equipment down. It took a LOT of searching for us to spot the snow leopard, it was so well camouflaged on the rocks, with its grey and white pelt.

The snow leopard seemed quite lazy and full, because when a herd of blue sheep came by, it made no move to hunt, instead lounging on a rock. A few minutes later of cameras clicking and admiring the big cat, the King of the Snow Mountains decided to take a little nap, and disappeared behind the rocks. We waited for another hour, and the sky had turned dark. It didn’t reappear, so we went home too, to a warm dinner.”

The Second Encounter

“It was our third day, and we were up in the mountains, searching again for the mysterious snow leopard. We parked outside Yixi’s cousin’s house, watching them milk their yak and collecting their dung for fueling fires. Someone had spotted a red fox up the mountain, and we rushed to see. We were snapping away at the little creature, until Yixi yelled “Sa!” which means snow leopard in Tibetan. The poor fox was suddenly not the center of attention anymore. We scrambled to follow Yixi, and set up our equipment. There were two of them! They were a little far away, but we could see their big furry heads poking up. Sometimes a fluffy tail would appear and wave around. An hour later, they went down the mountain to somewhere we couldn’t see. We tried searching for them again, but with no success.

We moved to a new part of the valley, and waited an entire four hours for a snow leopard to appear. No luck. Not even when we spotted three herds of blue sheep, the snow leopard’s favorite snack. So after a while, we just started to eat snacks and not really bother looking. About twenty minutes later of infinite boredom and listening to dad’s observations of blue sheep and their horns and markings, Mr. Puma, a local guide for another group (we call him because he was wearing a puma jacket), drove up the little dirt road (you could hardly call it a road, path more like it), and shouted that the two snow leopard siblings we saw in the morning were spotted again, on the same mountain, but this time closer.

We descended the slopes as fast as we could, trying not to let large piles of yak manure get in our way, and scrambled in to our car.

When we arrived, there seemed to be nothing in sight, but two little ears gave the snow leopards’ hiding place away. The two siblings were having a very nice afternoon snooze. We waited, and waited, and waited for them to stir. A while later, a big furry paw raised, and playfully cuffed it’s sibling on the head. A few seconds later, the paw disappeared. When it reappeared again, this time a paw and one of the snow leopard’s heads, it was to very excited rapid clicking from our cameras. Soon after they’d woken up, the snow leopards were play fighting. They also sprayed and rubbed rocks to make what we guessed were border marks. We captured photos and videos of them digging holes, then pooping in them, which was also a form of marking their territory, as we later learned.

It was getting dark, and all too soon, we had to go. Apparently the snow leopards agreed, because they climbed back to their hiding spot. It had been an amazing day, and I was literally dancing on the rocks.

After dinner, we visited the Research Station to meet a volunteer who’s coming here today, who has lived in Qinghai for a year, studying wildlife and their behavior. When we told the researchers we had seen two young snow leopards, they wowed and congratulated us. I asked the volunteer some questions on snow leopard behavior, and she confirmed that the snow leopards were indeed marking their territory by pooping and spraying. We also learned that young snow leopard siblings, no matter what gender they are, can stay together for a few months after becoming independent from their mother. I had once thought that only females will stay together, because males will be aggressive towards each other, as adult males often are.

Another amazing and fruitful day in the Valley of Cats!”

Joyce Li
Beijing
March 10th, 2019

Snow Leopard, Valley of the Cats. Photo by Joyce Li

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It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with some great questions and conversation after the presentations.  I am confident many of the participants will be booking their trips to the Valley very soon!  A big thanks to Alan and Melinda of the Royal Asiatic Society for inviting us and to The Bookworm for hosting us for this special event.

I arrived at The Bookworm directly from the studios of Radio Beijing International who had invited me for an interview about the Valley of the Cats project.  The interview was broadcast in two segments over the weekend and can be heard here.

2019-03-13 Radio Beijing International

Big thanks to Christine from Radio Beijing International for the opportunity!

With several bookings already for 2019, we are hoping that we’ll be able to build on the success of 2018 during which 61 groups of guests visited, raising CNY 460,000 for the local community and snow leopard conservation.

 

Mist Nets at Chinese Airports: Progress?

Readers of Birding Beijing will know about the unfortunate Chinese practice of using mist nets to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes at airports.  Some background is here.  In short, the blanket measure used at the now more than 300 Chinese airports, is to line the runways with kilometres of mist nets.  This lethal method is effective only with small birds, the vast majority of which represent a negligible risk to aircraft.  The nets do nothing to address the risk associated with larger birds such as waterbirds and birds of prey.

The international recommended best practice is for each airport to undertake a risk assessment to identify the specific risks faced by that facility and then to implement measures to manage that risk.  It goes without saying that a coastal airport on a major migratory flyway will face very different risks to an airport in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert.  Currently, the two are treated the same.

A little over two years ago, I co-authored a report with Zhu Lei, commissioned by the Global Environment Facility, about the methods used to address the risk of bird strikes at Chinese airports, setting out international best practice and making recommendations for a review of the policy used in China.  The report, in both Chinese and English, was circulated to Chinese organisations.  Frustratingly, it was hard to find out just who was responsible for the policy, let alone to reach them.  Time and again we were told it was “too difficult” or that we were “wasting our time”.

John MacKinnon, who has helped to champion efforts to change the policy of using mist nets, used every opportunity he had to raise the issue in interactions with Chinese officials and media and we both sent the report to multiple officials and academics in the hope that someone would be able to help.

Persistence is key and sometimes opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways.

Last year, John and I were invited to survey the birds around a luxury ecotourism resort in Gaoligiong, Yunnan Province.  The CEO is well-connected and when she heard about the issue, she offered to help.  She is a family friend of Mu Hong, the Minister at the powerful planning ministry – the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Executive Deputy Director of the Office of Deepening Reform.

Last week, she spent half an hour with the minister discussing the issue and handed him a hard copy of our report on bird strikes and mist nets.  He was apparently engaged on the issue, especially in the context of China hosting the major UN Conference on Biological Diversity in 2020.  It would not look good if the world’s most influential environmental journalists arrive in China to be greeted by dead birds dangling in nets alongside the airport.  The Minister promised to look into the policy.  Although he is not directly responsible for aviation security, his seniority is such that if he suggests a policy review, it is likely to happen.

Whilst we are a long way from a change of policy, this is a major breakthrough after a frustrating couple of years of trying to reach senior policymakers and it gives us hope that the policy responsible for unnecessarily killing millions of small birds each year could yet be changed.