In Memory of Karen Phillipps

By John MacKinnon.

Chinese birdwatchers will be saddened to learn of the death of bird artist Karen Phillipps. As co-author and chief artist of ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of China’ – the most widely used identification guide in China – there can be few Chinese birders who were not drawn to the beauty of birds through her work.

Karen died in London on February 6th after a long battle against cancer. But Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and it is perhaps her books on the birds and mammals of Borneo for which she is most intimately recognised.  The ‘Phillipps Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’, written with her brother Quentin has just moved into its 4th edition and includes some of Karen’s last paintings.

Having worked with Karen on two bird guides, I have many happy memories of her poring through dusty skins in Bogor Museum or sitting beside the mist nets of Hong Kong bird ringers, painting away with a bird in one hand, notebook and watercolour box on knee and brush in the other hand. She could capture a bird’s jizz in a couple of minutes before the anxious ringers needed to release their birds! She was also witness to my wedding to the field guide translator Lu Hefen (see title photo). Karen was so full of life, a kind, generous and cheerful personality.  She will be dearly missed in several countries but the legacy of the illustrations she completed will live on for many years.

John MacKinnon, co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China.

John is in touch with Karen’s family.  If you feel moved to leave a comment about how the book inspired you to be interested in birds, please leave a comment here or send to me on WeChat (“birdingbeijing”) and we will ensure they are passed on.  John feels that Karen’s family is not fully aware of how influential “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” was, and is, to igniting the birding scene in China and it may be comforting to hear just how much her work has been valued.  Thank you.

Title image: Karen Phillipps at the wedding of John MacKinnon and Lu Hefen.

An Extraordinary Lunar New Year

This lunar new year has been like no other I have experienced.  With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and the subsequent lockdown of most of Hubei, including the shutdown of flights and trains to and from the stricken Province, people everywhere – including Beijing – are fearing to venture to public places and, on the rare occasions they do head beyond their own four walls, for example to stock up on groceries, face masks are worn, tasks are completed in a hurry and every sneeze or cough is greeted by fellow shoppers with looks of horror.

As I write this post, there are 7,736 confirmed cases nationwide and a further 12,167 suspected, with 124 recoveries and 170 deaths so far.  In Beijing alone, there are 111 confirmed cases, 4 recoveries and 1 death.  Given the rapid increase in cases and the likelihood that many millions of people will be returning to their workplaces at some point over the next few days and weeks, it seems as if this could be just the beginning.

In this context, birding seems trivial and inconsequential.  However, in some ways, it’s a good distraction to have..

Having fortuitously arranged the rental of a car before the start of the lunar new year, I have been able to get out and about for a few days over the past week or so without relying on public transport, of which most people are, quite sensibly, steering well clear.  It was refreshing to get outside, enjoy some exercise and, of course, see some good birds, with almost nobody else around.

The main destination was a classic winter site in Beijing called Shidu (十渡), literally “ten crossings”, a small village on the Juma River in southwest Beijing’s Fangshan District, just 4km from the border with Hebei Province.  Here, a series of bridges offer great vantage points from which to scan the winding river, which almost never freezes due to its relatively fast flow.

The location of Shidu(十渡) in Beijing Municipality.
The minor road running northwest of Zhangfangzhen follows the Juma River and a series of bridges offer excellent vantage points from which to scan for the area’s special birds.

It is a spectacular place, winding through stunning canyons and gorges, and is well-known for its Black Storks.  But it’s much more than that.. ..species that are local or hard to find in Beijing but that can be found here include Wallcreeper (regular in winter near bridge 6), Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover, Plumbeous Water Redstart and White-capped Water Redstart. And, if you look up, you can often see the impressive Cinereous Vultures soaring overhead, scanning for carrion.  Grey Herons breed on the steep cliffs and, if you are really lucky, you may encounter a Solitary Snipe or even an Ibisbill, although it’s a few years since either have been seen here.

Shidu is a site I once had the pleasure of birding with none other than former UK Chancellor, the Right Hon Kenneth Clarke and his late wife, Gillian, during one of his official visits to Beijing.  It was that special day that we recorded not only Wallcreeper but my first ever Solitary Snipe.

Taking notes at the Wallcreeper site. The Rt Hon gentleman is a true birder…

And on this latest visit to Shidu, the Wallcreeper didn’t disappoint, coming down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms put out by photographers.

We were also fortunate to enjoy the company of a spectacular Crested Kingfisher, a scarce resident in the capital.

Having dropped off the hire car and returned home, it’s been fascinating to see the online conversation about China’s wildlife trade, thought to be responsible for the current outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan.  With the government announcement of a temporary ban, many citizens are calling for it to be made permanent.  For a summary of the situation, there is an excellent article by Natasha Daly from National Geographic.

Seizing the moment, Peking University is running an online questionnaire (Chinese only) to gauge public opinion on the wildlife trade with a view to submitting the results to policymakers.  With China due to host the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in October, what better time to announce a permanent ban!

The next few days – and likely weeks – will involve voluntary ‘self-quarantine’ with trips out only to buy essentials.  It’s going to be a strange start to the year of the rat.

Goodbye 2019 and Hello 2020!

Living and working in China is challenging and rewarding. It is a vast country of rich culture and diverse habitats, from some of Earth’s most populated cities in the east to the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia in the north, from the taiga forests of Helongjiang to the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau supplying hundreds of millions of people with fresh water. It is a privilege to be here and, as a guest, I have been extremely fortunate to work on some incredibly rewarding projects with some brilliant people and organisations. As a new decade begins and we reflect on 2019, here are a few of my personal highlights from the last twelve months and a look ahead to what promises to be a busy and important year for nature, not only in Beijing and China but the world over.

2019 Highlights

I will begin with the “Valley of the Cats“, a ground-breaking community-based wildlife tourism project in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. 2019 was the second full year of operation for the project, which involves 22 families in three villages around Angsai Township in Yushu Prefecture. Under the project, tourists are allowed to visit this sensitive area, lodge in a herder family home and be guided around to look for wildlife. The jewel in the crown is, of course, the Snow Leopard, but it’s clear from the feedback received that experiencing the unique Tibetan hospitality and culture is a major highlight for visitors.

A local herder with a young yak calf in the Valley of the Cats

There were four major milestones for the project this year. First, in March, the project was formally recognised by the Chinese government and awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a (pilot) national park in China. Second, the project was showcased at the first ever National Parks forum in Xining, China as an example of how tourism can work in environmentally sensitive places, benefiting the community and supporting conservation. Third, the Valley was visited by two TV crews from the UK. The BBC’s flagship Natural History Unit spent six weeks filming as part of a major new series, Frozen Planet II, focusing on wildlife at the three poles – the North Pole, South Pole and the third pole – the Tibetan Plateau. And ITV’s Ray Mears visited to film an episode for a forthcoming series about Wild China. It was a dream come true to work with the BBC Natural History Unit and a real treat to meet Ray Mears, a major influence on me. These two productions, both likely to be broadcast around the world, will undoubtedly help to raise awareness about China’s wonderful wildlife and wild places. Finally, in November, the project passed 1 million CNY (GBP 108,000) in revenue, 100% of which has stayed in the community.

Terry with Ray Mears in the Valley of the Cats, October 2019.

The Valley of the Cats has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have ever been involved. I feel privileged to have been part of it, working with the local community, ShanShui Conservation Center and the Qinghai Provincial and Angsai local governments. And I am immensely grateful to all who have visited to support the project. Two memories from this year that will stay with me forever are the sheer joy and emotion on the faces of Graeme and Moira Wallace, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Valley and seeing two Snow Leopards, and the two young local men who told me that the tourism project had given them a reason to resist the bright lights of the city and stay in their community to continue their traditional way of life.

Graeme and Moira Wallace with Abao, their local guide, in the Valley of the Cats. The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Valley and seeing two Snow Leopards. In 2019 more than 75% of visitors were successful in seeing Snow Leopard.

In May I was honoured to be invited by the Beijing Municipal government to be an advisor for a major new programme to make the capital better for wildlife. This programme, to be conducted in collaboration with Peking University, includes pilot habitat restoration projects around the capital – including grassland, mountains and wetlands – and major public awareness campaigns. Ideas on the table include a “wild ring road”, “urban oases” for migratory birds, altering the management of parks to leave “10% wild” and many more.. As part of this programme, Tim Appleton visited Beijing in September to share the UK’s experience of managing a major reservoir for water quality, wildlife and leisure. As the recently-retired manager of Rutland Water Nature Reserve and, of course, the founder of the UK’s BirdFair, Tim’s experience was well-received and will, I hope, influence how Beijing manages its reservoirs, including Miyun Reservoir, potentially a world-class nature reserve that could bring in revenue to one of the poorest counties of the capital.

Tim Appleton being interviewed by local TV about how reservoirs can be managed for wildlife and water.

We are now planning for a major new bird-related public engagement initiative that I hope will be announced early in 2020. Watch this space! With more than 500 species of bird recorded in the capital and mammals such as wild cats (Leopard Cats) and the potential return of Common Leopard, Beijing is well-placed to become a ‘capital of biodiversity’.

June saw me travel to Ulan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia, with colleagues from the British Trust for Ornithology to join forces with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin the Mongolia Cuckoo Project. Together, we travelled to Khurkh in the northeast, close to the border with Russia. Five cuckoos (four Common Cuckoos and an Oriental Cuckoo) were fitted with transmitters, named by local schoolchildren and followed via a special webpage. The aims of the project are twofold – first, scientific discovery, to find out the winter destination and migration route of cuckoos from Mongolia and, second, to enthuse and inspire the public about the wonders of bird migration and the habitats they need. So far, three of the cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of ONON and BAYAN, also the Rub’ al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia, before heading south to East Africa. As of the end of 2019, NAMJAA is in Kenya, ONON is in Tanzania and BAYAN is in Malawi. To follow the progress of these intrepid travellers, see this dedicated page.

Tuvshi of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center releasing a hepatic Common Cuckoo at Khurkh ringing station in Mongolia.

June also saw the launch of a major new project to support one of Beijing’s most iconic birds, the so-called “Beijing Swift” (Apus apus pekinensis). Four student “Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools wrote a letter to China’s leading property developer, SOHO China, led by celebrity couple PAN Shiyi and ZHANG Xin. The students requested a meeting with Mr Pan and Ms Zhang to ask China SOHO to make their buildings more friendly for the Beijing Swift. On receipt of the letter, Mr Pan, the Chairman of the company, invited the students to meet with him and, at a special meeting, each student Ambassador explained something about the Beijing Swift – its aerial lifestyle, the incredible migration to southern Africa, the fact the population has declined due to the loss of nest sites on old buildings and what the students were doing to help by making and putting up homemade boxes for the Swifts.

The four student swift ambassadors addressing Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, about the Beijing Swift.
Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, responding to the student swift ambassadors.

Mr Pan responded by making three commitments: first, to retrofit 200 special nest boxes onto two of SOHO’s existing buildings in Beijing, second to commit to making new buildings “Swift-friendly” by including in the design appropriate spaces for Swifts, and third to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China. The project demonstrated that, with a little thought and almost no extra cost, business can make a big difference to support biodiversity. I hope that, as the focus on biodiversity increases in 2020, the leadership by China SOHO will inspire other companies to explore similar initiatives to support biodiversity.

The beginning of July saw a major milestone in the protection of the remaining intertidal mudflats of China’s Yellow Sea coast when two of the most important sites were formally inscribed as World Heritage Sites. The journey to Baku, the location of the World Heritage Committee meeting in July, was dramatic, with many twists and turns, and the conservation community almost scored a spectacular own-goal… but the end result means that, just four years from a seemingly desperate situation, the future of millions of migratory shorebirds that depend on the Yellow Sea, including the iconic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, is a little brighter. The inscription was the result of a monumental effort by a cross-national multidisciplinary team of scientists, NGOs, advocacy groups, think-tanks, politicians and members of the public and, although not a silver bullet, it is a giant leap forward and the effort now switches to Phase II, under which additional sites are due to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites.

In September, as if to remind conservationists that there is a long way to go, it was sickening to hear of industrial-scale trapping of buntings, including the critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, in coastal Hebei Province. Organised criminal gangs catch thousands of buntings and finches using kilometres of mist nets, keep the birds in ‘fattening centres’ before transporting them live to south China, where the demand for ‘exotic’ food remains strong.

Industrial-scale trapping of wild birds, especially buntings and finches, is a continuing problem on China’s east coast, particularly in autumn. Video via Gu Xuan.

Although law enforcement authorities are becoming more proactive and incidents are now routinely reported by the media, it is a sobering reminder of the threats faced by migratory song birds.

Looking ahead

As we look forward, 2020 promises to be a busy and important year. In October, China will host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In simple terms, it is the point at which governments are due to agree new targets to 2030 and beyond to reduce the loss of biodiversity.

The meeting, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, will see delegates from more than 180 countries coming together to thrash out a new deal. With China due to name its first tranche of national parks this year, progress on the protection of the Yellow Sea, strengthening of the Environment Protection Law and greater public awareness, the host country has the foundations of a positive story to tell. However, to bend the curve on global biodiversity loss is going to take a monumental effort not only from governments but by parliaments, business, NGOs, cities and, indeed, every one of us.

A crucial piece of work to support COP15 will be a major new report outlining recommendations for how to finance biodiversity protection. Estimates suggest that governments are able to provide only around 10% of the funding needed to effectively protect key global biodiversity. Hank Paulson, Chairman of the Paulson Institute, former US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, has been asked by the Chinese government to convene a high level group to develop recommendations for how to bridge the gap by leveraging funding from the private sector. With Hank’s unrivalled experience in finance and his commitment to conservation, he is well-placed to deliver what could be a game-changing contribution to the future of global biodiversity. I am honoured to be part of the team working on this important initiative.

Other plans include a cuckoo tagging project on the Tibetan Plateau, to celebrate the launch of China’s national parks, potentially twinning Sanjiangyuan, one of China’s first national parks, with national parks in Africa via migratory birds, and more biodiversity projects with businesses in China, building on the SOHO China project. I will also continue to work with universities, schools and youth groups to connect as many people as possible to nature.

I am extremely fortunate, and immensely grateful, to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting and important projects and with such wonderful colleagues and organisations, both inside China and overseas. I’d like to recognise Hank and Wendy Paulson, who are both a major influence and source of support, and colleagues at the Paulson Institute in Beijing and Chicago, especially Rose Niu, Tina Ren and Wang Jing, ShanShui Conservation Center, in particular Professor Lu Zhi, Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Xinnong, Yiliao, Peiyun, Xuesong and the Yushu team, the Beijing Municipal government, especially Wang Xiaoping and his team at the Department for Forest and Parks, Nyambayar Batbayar and the crew at the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, to Chris Hewson at the British Trust for Ornithology and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their hard work and companionship in making the Mongolia Cuckoo Project possible. And a huge thank you to everyone who works hard to protect biodiversity and/or supports those so doing.

2020 is going to be a big year. BRING IT ON!

Title image: introducing children to nature in Gaoligong Mountains in Yunnan Province (Photo by Koko Tang)

Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2019

2019 was another excellent year of birding in China’s capital city. As of the end of the year, although there is uncertainty about some historical records, it is now likely that more than 500 species have been recorded in the Municipality, cementing Beijing as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds. With a growing number of active birders, most of whom are young Chinese, the number of sightings of all birds – common, scarce and rare – is increasing year on year. Given the greater coverage, it is not surprising that more unusual birds have been found. In 2019, three new species were added to the Beijing list and a further three were documented for the first time. In addition, at least three species were recorded for only the second time and another five for the third time.

New records included PLAIN PRINIA, NORTHERN GREAT TIT and ASHY-THROATED WARBLER, with records of BIANCHI’S WARBLER, NORTHERN WHEATEAR and BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER the first documented records. Second records included POMARINE JAEGER, BLYTH’S REED WARBLER, WHITE-THROATED REDSTART and GREY BUSHCHAT (the latter the 2nd record since 1987). Third records included a popular EUROPEAN ROBIN, dubbed a “Brexit refugee” that caused possibly the biggest ‘twitch’ ever seen in China and attracting media coverage both in China and overseas, as well as SANDERLING, PECTORAL SANDPIPER, COMMON RINGED PLOVER and SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER.

A summary of the birding highlights from Beijing 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 via email/WeChat.

I’d like to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU to everyone who has shared news of sightings throughout the year, whether via WeChat, email, eBird 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, helping to build the knowledge base among birders in Beijing and, importantly, enthusing more people about the natural world.

To keep up to date with the latest bird and wildlife news in Beijing, check the Latest Sightings page on Birding Beijing.

Here’s wishing everyone a bird-filled 2020!

2019 highlights

January

The year began with a few lingering rarities from 2018. Beijing’s ninth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù), first discovered on 30 December 2018, remained at Shidu, Fangshan District and was seen on 5 January (Niao Pan), 21st (Terry Townshend and John MacKinnon), 27th (Steve Bale and David Mansfield), 3rd February (Qian Cheng) and on 15th February (Zang Shaoping), along with the regular WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀, Hóng chì xuán bì què) that was seen throughout the winter at the same site. On 6th a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula parva, 红胸姬鹟, Hóng xiōng jī wēng) was seen in Chaoyang Park (Zhen Niu), probably the bird originally seen in the Temple of Heaven Park earlier in the winter (Beijing’s sixth record); it remained until at least 7 February. Similarly, Beijing’s second REDWING (Turdus iliacus, 白眉歌鸫, Báiméi gē dōng), first found on 5 December 2018 by Steve Bale, was seen on 6th January at Tsinghua University (Vincent Wang).

This Red-breasted Flycatcher was first seen in Temple of Heaven Park in late 2018 and later in Chaoyang Park in January 2019.

Also on 6th there was a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of uncertain origin and an unseasonal ‘SWINTAIL’ SNIPE (Gallingago stenura/Gallinago megala) at DaShiHe (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Lou Fangzhou) with a JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata, 黑头蜡嘴雀, Hēitóu là zuǐ què) at Tsinghua University (Zhen Niu) the same day.

On 8th, Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) was reported from the Beijing Zoo (via XiaoPT), causing one of the biggest ‘twitches’ seen in the capital and attracting significant media coverage. It remained until at least 1 February.

Beijing’s 3rd EUROPEAN ROBIN was present in the grounds of the Beijing Zoo from 8th January until 1 February at least.
The “Brexit Refugee” attracted quite a following in the grounds of the Beijing Zoo

On 9th, birders visiting to see the Robin found a BLACK-THROATED TIT (Aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀, Hóngtóu cháng wěishān què), subsequently seen by many over the following days.

Two female CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Xiaqingshuicun on 12th (Jan-Erik Nilsen) and a single NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was along the G234 between Yunfengshan and Miyun Reservoir on 22nd. On 24th a wintering GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng), first discovered in December 2018, was seen in the grounds of Tsinghua University and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (Anas formosa, 花脸鸭, Huāliǎn yā), an unusual urban mid-winter record, was photographed in the southern section of Olympic Forest Park (remaining until 10 February at least).

This drake BAIKAL TEAL was in a small area of open water at the Olympic Forest Park from 24 January to 10 February at least.

On 28th an impressive count of 510 COMMON MERGANSERS (Mergus merganser, 普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

February

On 1st a NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was seen at Lingshan (Vincent Wang). On 4th a Beijing record count of 210 RUSTIC BUNTINGS (Emberiza rustica, 田鹀, Tián wú) was recorded in Tongzhou by Paul Holt. On 6th, Beijing’s thirteenth YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella, 黄鹀, Huáng wú) was found in a flock of 150+ PINE BUNTINGS at Yanqing (Terry Townshend, Marie Louise Ng).

Beijing’s 13th YELLOWHAMMER was found in a flock of 150+ PINE BUNTINGS at Yanqing on 6 February 2019.

On 8th a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲, Bái hóu hóng wěi qú) was found and photographed at Lingshan. Remarkably, with no pre-2018 records, this was the third sighting of this species in the mountains around Beijing during the 2018/2019 winter. The first was of a male on 14 November 2018 at Lingshan, just over the border in Hebei Province (Terry Townshend and Steve Bale), and the second (the first record for Beijing), also a male, was on 5 December 2018 at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore), so the sighting on 8th February 2019 was the third overall and the second sighting within the boundary of Beijing Municipality (Terry Townshend, XiaoPT, DaHao). Just two days later, on 10th, DaHao counted two males and a female at the same site and a pair was also seen on 25th (Steve Bale, Terry Townshend and Ben Wielstra).

Incredibly, in between these records, presumably a different male was photographed in the Botanical Gardens on 24th (Jiang Wenyue).

The male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART in the Botanical Gardens, 24 February 2019 (Jiang Wenyue)

Back at Lingshan, a healthy flock of 150+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) was seen by DaHao on 11th, with 100+ there on 12th (Li Peimeng).

An unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was along the Wenyu River on 20th (Steve Bale) and, on 23rd, a PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus, 白腹鸫, Bái fù dōng) was seen the Olympic Forest Park. On the same day, an immature MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Taishitun (XiaoPT). An adult SIBERIAN GULL (Larus fuscus heuglini, 西伯利亚银鸥, Xībólìyǎ yín ōu) was a nice winter find on 24th at Shahe Reservoir, remaining into March (Colm Moore).

March

March began with a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of unknown origin at Chongqing Reservoir on 1st (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). Singles were later seen on 7th at Nanhaizi (Zhong Zhenyu) and 8th at Shahe (Bill Bu). On 2nd a potential Beijing record count of 19 MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Nanhaizi (DaHe). An early EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia, 白琵鹭, Bái pí lù) was at Yizhuang Wetland on 3rd (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). On 7th an excellent count of 310 MONGOLIAN GULLS (Larus mongolicus, 黄脚(银)鸥, Huáng jiǎo (yín) ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT). The same site hosted a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) on 9th (Zhu Haoqiang) and 10th (Steve Bale), joined by a second bird on 16th (Catherine Dong), with both remaining on and off until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).

A single 2cy PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) was at Shisanling on 11th (Colm Moore), followed by three at Shahe Reservoir on 13th (Lou Fangzhou et al). Two remained on 14th when a remarkable 745+ MONGOLIAN GULLS were logged passing through (XiaoPT, Song Jian and Niu Zhen). Presumably the same PALLAS’S GULLS were seen on 18th by Colm Moore, with one remaining until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).

On 21st two SHORT-TOED EAGLES (Circaetus gallicus, 短趾雕, Duǎn zhǐ diāo) were at Miyun Reservoir (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). On 23rd single males of BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) and GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila, 斑背潜鸭, Bān bèi qián yā) were at Huairou Reservoir (Terry Townshend) and on 24th a colour-ringed WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Grus vipio, 白枕鹤, Bái zhěn hè), originally ringed near Khurkh, Mongolia, was at Yeyahu (Terry Townshend), joined by another two birds on 31st.

On 25th two male BAER’S POCHARDS were at the same site (Lou Fangzhou) and the same observer photographed a pale morph BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus, 靴隼雕, Xuē sǔn diāo) at the traditional raptor watchpoint of Baiwangshan on 28th.

The pale morph BOOTED EAGLE at Baiwangshan on 28th March 2019 (Lou Fangzhou)

The month ended with a bang in the form of a NORTHERN GREAT TIT (Parus major, 北大山雀, Bei Dà shānquè) along the Wenyu River on 31st (Steve Bale), the first record of this species in the capital. On the same day a WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) of the alba subspecies was at Shahe Reserbvoir (Lou Fangzhou), two ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) were at Ma Chang (Xing Chao, James Phillips and Terry Townshend) and a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and two PALLAS’S GULLS (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu), presumably new birds, were at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

April

Lou Fangzou was no fool on 1 April when he found Beijing’s fourth ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at Ma Chang. On the same day, the first 2019 record of BEIJING SWIFT (Apus apus pekinensis, 北京雨燕, Běijing yǔyàn) was at Tongzhou (Yue XiaoXiao).

There were further records of ‘alba’ WHITE WAGTAILS on 2nd (three at Shahe Reservoir – Niu Zhen and DaHao), 3rd (three at Shisanling – XiaoPT),, 6th (four at Ma Chang – XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Zhang Shen – and two at Shahe Reservoir – Colm Moore) and three on 15th at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). Note: since the first record of this subspecies was found in Beijing on 29 March 2015 (Luo Qingqing), this race appears to be annual in small numbers in spring.

The 6th produced Beijing’s tenth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) at Ma Chang (Nick Green, David Mansfield and Terry Townshend) with eight ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at nearby Kangxi Grassland (Lou Fangzhou, Niu Zhen et al).

7th April produced a GREY BUSHCHAT (Saxicola ferreus, 灰林唧, Huī lín jī) near Yeyahu, only the second record of this species since 1987 (Tian Shu) and a PIED WHEATEAR (Oenanthe pleschanka, 白顶唧, Bái dǐng jī) (DaHao) and three ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Zhang Weimin, Zhang Xiaoling) were at Ma Chang.

The GREY BUSHCHAT near Yeyahu on 7 April 2019 (Tian Shu)
Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)

On 8th a DALMATIAN PELICAN (Pelecanus crispus, 卷羽鹈鹕, Juǎn yǔ tí hú) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT), remaining the next day, with a single PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site (ChaCha Wan).

The 14th produced 15 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang. On the same day, an active nest of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos leucotos, 白背啄木鸟, Bái bèi zhuómùniǎo) , a species rarely recorded in Beijing, was discovered at Lingshan (Terry Townshend).

A female WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER drumming at Lingshan, 14 April 2019.

A singing SWINHOE’S RAIL (Coturnicops exquisitus, 花田鸡, Huā tián jī) at Ma Chang on 15th (Terry Townshend) was just the capital’s sixth record, and a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Shahe Reservoir on the same day (Colm Moore). An ASHY MINIVET (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) was at Tsinghua University on 25th (Richard Davis et al). The 26th was something of a red-letter day with a female NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗唧, Suì jī) at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).

The NORTHERN WHEATEAR at Shahe Reservoir on 26 April 2019 (Colm Moore)

It was certainly the first record of this species in Beijing since 1987 and possibly the first ever documented record for the capital. On the same day, Beijing’s seventh LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) was found at the same site by Li Mengxuan, remaining until 28th at least, and Beijing’s eleventh MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) was at Ma Chang (Paul Holt).

The following day there was no sign of the NORTHERN WHEATEAR but Qin Xiaowei and Wei Chunzhi found Beijing’s fifth, and the second of 2019, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at the same site! A male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Ma Chang on the same day (Paul Holt).

May

Three YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS (Emberiza aureola, 黄胸鹀, Huáng xiōng wú) at Shahe Reservoir on 3rd (Colm Moore) was a nice start to the month. The next day, Ben Wielstra and Richard Davis found Beijing’s third PECTORAL SANDPIPER (Calidris melanotos, 斑胸滨鹬, Bān xiōng bīn yù) at Ma Chang, along with Beijing’s eighth LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) and a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù).

7th produced a Beijing first in the form of a singing PLAIN PRINIA (Prinia inornata, 纯色山鹪莺, Huáng fù shān jiāo yīng) along the Wenyu River, a superb find by Steve Bale. The following day, whilst twitching the PLAIN PRINIA, Paul Holt found a singing BIANCHI’S WARBLER (Seicercus valentini, 比氏鹟莺, Bǐ shì wēng yīng), remarkably the first documented record for the capital! Two ASHY MINIVETS (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) and a PECHORA PIPIT (Anthus gustavi, 北鹨, Běi liù) represented a strong supporting cast.

On 10th May, another first for the capital was found at Baihuashan – an ASHY-THROATED WARBLER (Phylloscopus maculipennis, 灰喉柳莺, Huī hóu liǔ yīng) (He Wenbo). A most unexpected record. Photos here. On the same day, Colm Moore found a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù) at Shahe.

13th May produced Beijing’s third SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor, 灰蓝姬鹟, Huī lán jī wēng), a female, at Tsinghua University campus (Ben Wielstra), astonishingly just 50m from the location of Beijing’s first record of this species found by the same observer in 2015. On the same day, a HILL BLUE FLYCATCHER (Cyornis banyumas, 山蓝仙鹟, Shān lán xiān wēng) was found in the grounds of Beijing Normal University, remaining for a week, but unusual feather wear meant most observers believed it to originate from captivity.

A male MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), Beijing’s thirteenth, was a nice find in urban Shuangjing (Andrew Morrissey) on 14th and Peking University was an unusual location for a SCHRENCK’S BITTERN (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽, Zǐ bèi wěi jiān) on the same day.

On 16th a PALE-LEGGED LEAF WARBLER (Phylloscopus tenellipes, 淡脚柳莺, Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) was at Xiaolongmen (XiaoPT) with a singing bird at Shahe Reservoir on 19th (Colm Moore). On 17th a NORTHERN HAWK CUCKOO (Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 北鹰鹃, Běi yīng juān) was heard at Badaling Forest Park, possibly only Beijing’s seventh record (Paul Holt). On 19th, two PIN-TAILED SNIPE (Gallinago stenura, 针尾沙锥, Zhēn wěi shā zhuī) were displaying at Ma Chang pre-dawn (Paul Holt). Comment: although many “Swintail” (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) Snipe pass through Beijing on migration, very few are identified to species, given the difficulty identifying them in the field.

23rd produced a singing MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat)

On 26th Beijing’s second HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET (Aerodramus brevirostris, 短嘴金丝燕, Duǎn-zuǐ jīn-sī-yàn) was seen over the Shunyi Patch in the late afternoon after heavy rain (Terry Townshend). On the same day, a PHEASANT-TAILED JACANA (Hydrophasianus chirurgus, 水雉, Shuǐ zhì), very rare in Beijing in recent years, was at Nanhaizi (Wang Libin).

27th produced a BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) at Shahe Reservoir and, as is becoming usual in late spring, three ASIAN KOELS (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃, Zào juān) were at the same site.

On 29th a BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cyanomelana, 白腹姬鹟, Bái fù jī wēng) was at Xiaolongmen (Xue Boning). Note: in Beijing most BLUE AND WHITE-type flycatchers, including those that breed, are the recently split ZAPPEY’S FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cumatilis). BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHERS (Cyanoptila cyanomelana) are rare.

Also on 29th, a BAILLON’S CRAKE (Porzana pusilla, 小田鸡, Xiǎo tiánjī) was at Shahe Reservoir (Zhen Niu) and two CHINESE BUSH WARBLERS (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺, Zhōnghuá duǎn chì yīng), the fifteenth record for Beijing, were at DaShiHe (XiaoPT et al) with one at Yuanmingyuan on 30th (Ben Wielstra) and another at Binhe Forest Park on 1st June (sixteenth and seventeenth records respectively). A BROWN-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus, 棕头鸥, Zōng tóu ōu) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) were at Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang) on 30th. The month ended with a BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris, 黑尾鸥, Hēi wěi ōu) reported from Shahe Reservoir on 31st (Wang Xiaobo). Note: The status of Black-tailed Gull in Beijing is unclear. There have been reports of free-flying birds in the grounds of the zoo, which may account for at least some of the records in the capital.

June

On 1st, a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Baiwangshan (Lu Wei). On 3rd, a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺, Dùn chì (dàotián) wěi yīng) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). On 6th, a BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa muttui, 褐胸鹟, hè-xiōng wēng) was photographed at Xiaolongmen by Liang Zhijian, a member of the young birders’ group, “Beijing Feiyu”. This was the first documented record of this species for Beijing.

The Brown-breasted Flycatcher at Xiaolongmen on 6 June (Liang Zhijian)

The 9th produced a SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) at Gubeikou (Fishing Cat), just the sixth Beijing record, and on 11th four LESSER CUCKOOS (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) were at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore) and another was at Laoyugou (XiaoPT). BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLERS (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) were at Xiaolongmen on 15th (Zhen Niu) and at Lingshan on 23rd (Luo Qingqing). A second CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Lingshan on 25th (Steve Bale and Paul Holt) and a LESSER CUCKOO (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) at the same location continued this declining species’ good run of records in 2019. The month ended with a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟, Xiù xiōng lán jī wēng) at Lingshan on 30th (Zhen Niu).

July

As expected, records of rare and scarce birds were few in July with just three notable records – a BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) at Laoyugou on 1st (XiaoPT) and a single SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) and three AMUR PARADISE FLYCATCHERS (Terpsiphone paradisi, 寿带, Shòu dài) at Gubeikou on 2nd (Fishing Cat).

August

On 3rd a GREATER PAINTED SNIPE (Rostratula benghalensis, 彩鹬, Cǎi yù) was at Ma Chang (XiaoPT and Liu Zhiheng) and it was still present on 10th (XiaoPT and Luo Qingqing) with an unseasonal group of 116 RELICT GULLS (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥, Yí ōu). On 8th a CINNAMON BITTERN (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus, 栗苇鳽, Lì wěi jiān) was at Nanhaizi (Wang Yishan). This species is not quite annual in Beijing.

On 18th a LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang (Lou Fangzhou) and two RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (Phalaropus lobatus, 红颈瓣蹼鹬, Hóng jǐng bàn pǔ yù) were at the same site (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing, Mint Ren and Zhang Shen). A juvenile LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Ma Nan) and scarce shorebirds continued with a BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) on 23rd at Ma Chang (Colm Moore), joined by a second bird on 25th (John MacKinnon, Terry Townshend et al) when Beijing’s third ever SANDERLING (Calidris alba, 三趾滨鹬, Sān zhǐ bīn yù) joined the party (remaining until 30th).

BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, 25 August 2019 (John MacKinnon)

Another LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang on 27th (Ma Nan and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù), remaining until 31st, and two juvenile LITTLE STINTS (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù), the ninth record for Beijing.

One of the juvenile LITTLE STINTS at Ma Chang, 27 August 2019.
Juvenile Little and Red-necked Stints, Ma Chang, 27 August 2019

The 28th produced a rare autumn record of ORIENTAL PLOVER (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang (Zhang Xiaoling and He Fangbei). On 30th there were two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and Beijing’s tenth LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺, Báihóu lín yīng) at Ma Chang and Beijing’s seventh record of LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟, Báibān jūnjiàn niǎo) was at Yeyahu (Paul Holt, Paul Hyde and Phil Hyde), with the latter being seen the next day at Shahe Reservoir (Lou Fangzhou, Zhang Xiaoling et al). The month ended with a heard-only COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) at Ma Chang on 31st, the third Beijing record. (Paul Holt et al).

September

On 1st, a juvenile LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) and 2 INTERMEDIATE EGRETS (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) were at Ma Chang (Paul Holt et al) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was reported from the same site (Zheng Qiyuan and Yan Shen). On the same day, a single male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu (Xing Chao). On 2nd a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) was seen at Ma Chang (Vincent Wang), presumably the same bird from 31 August. On 3rd a SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫, Báiméi de dōng) was at Beijing Normal University campus (Xue Boning) and two BLACK-WINGED KITES (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) were at Ma Chang, with one or two birds reported until 14th at least. A single BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu on 4th (XiaoPT et al). On 7th a remaining or new BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) was at Ma Chang (Liu Chunhong et al) and a juvenile RUFF (Philomachus pugnax, 流苏鹬, Liúsū yù) was there on 11th (Tim Appleton, Gao Xiang and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù) seen by the same observers at Yeyahu on the same day. Also on 11th, a BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE was at Beijing Normal University.

The juvenile RUFF at Ma Chang on 7 September 2019
Juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW, Ma Chang

A MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Tongzhou (Paul Holt), first seen on 4th. The juvenile RUFF was seen again on 14th (Zhang Shen, Luo Qingqing, XiaoPT et al). An INTERMEDIATE EGRET (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Colm Moore).

October

Beijing’s second BLYTH’S REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus dumetorum, 布氏苇莺, Bù shì wěi yīng) was found and sound-recorded by Colm Moore at Shahe Reservoir on 5th and on 6th a frustratingly elusive Acrocephalus warbler on the Shunyi Patch was probably a STREAKED REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺, Xì wén wěi yīng) (Terry Townshend). On 10th there were two first-winter MUGUMAKI FLYCATCHERS (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), the fourteenth record in Beijing, in the Agricultural Exhibition Park (Zhen Niu et al), with one remaining until at least 16th (Ren Lipeng). There were two GREY-BACKED THRUSHES (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng) in the Temple of Heaven Park on 20th (Jun Yang) and a male LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis, 长尾鸭, Cháng wěi yā) was at the Summer Palace on 26th (Zhu Haoqiang et al). The 27th saw an arrival of MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) with one at Ma Chang (Zhu Haoqiang, Tao Liu et al) and four in Chaoyang Park (Stefan Andrew). On 31st, Beijing’s second POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus, 中贼鸥, Zhōng zéi ōu) was found along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).

November

A late MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Binhe Park on 2nd (Zhong Zhenyu). On the same day, a first-winter MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Ma Chang with a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL ((Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu). The first JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟, Xiǎo tàipíngniǎo) of the winter were found on 4th with a single in Tongzhou (Paul Holt) and five at Nanhaizi (Guo Geng).

After the first JAPANESE WAXWINGS of the winter were discovered on 4 November, they’ve been seen in reasonable numbers at several sites in the capital. These from Lingshan.

A first-winter LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 5th (Colm Moore) and two BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) were at Yeyahu on 7th alongside a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) (Frank Hawkins). A juvenile STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Lingshan on 8th (Frank Hawkins) and a ‘white-headed’ LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus, 北长尾山雀, Běi Cháng wěishān què) was at Laoyugou on 9th (XiaoPT). An unseasonal ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis, 棕扇尾莺, Zōng shàn wěi yīng) was at Lingshan on 10th.

A late ZITTING CISTICOLA was at Lingshan on 10th November.

What turned out to be a significant irruption of PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE (Syrrhaptes paradoxus, 毛腿沙鸡, Máo tuǐ shā jī) began on 11 November with more than 280 over Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang). Over the next two days, there was a trickle with more than 30 seen the next day at Shisanling (Colm Moore), 50+ at Yuanmingyuan on 13th (Wang Xiaobo) and four at Ma Chang the same day (Zhao NanLi). Then, on 14th, there was a big movement with 300+ over Tongzhou Pear Garden (Dahao), 230+ over Shahe Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo), 100+ over HongLingJin Park (Chen Jingyun), 60+ past Peking University (unknown observer via Chen Jingyun), 200 over Shahe Reservoir in the afternoon (Jun Wang) and c400 at Yeyahu (Ren Lipeng). Most impressive of all was an additional count of 1,050 logged by Wang Xiaobo over his house in Changping District that morning. Numbers dropped off rapidly with 7 at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and 26 on 30th at the same site (Richard Fuller and Mint Ren).

The area around Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing County, including Ma Chang, is a traditional site for PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE during irruption years. This one was recorded on 27 November 2019

Other notable November records included a EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris, 旋木雀, Xuán mù què) in Chaoyang Park on 12th (Jun Yang), possibly only the seventh Beijing record. This bird remained into December.

This EURASIAN TREECREEPER in Chaoyang Park was only Beijing’s 7th record.

On the same day there was a late HAIR-CRESTED DRONGO (Dicrurus hottentottus, 发冠卷尾, Fā guān juàn wěi) at the same site (Jun Yang) and 30+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) at Lingshan (“大牙齿 458”). On 15th there were two STEPPE EAGLES (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) at Lingshan (Wang Xiaobo, XiaoPT, DaHe et al) and what appeared to be an influx of LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀, Cháng wěi què) with 15 (3 ssp lepidus and 12 ssp ussuriensis) at Lingshan (Paul Holt). The moulting juvenile MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was still at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and two CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Lingshan the next day (Paul Holt). A single STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Nanhaizi on 18th (Zhong Zhenyu). On 19th three BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were at Nanhaizi (ChaCha Wan), increasing to five on 23rd (Jun Yang) and eight on 1 December (XiaoPT et al). Three lugens WHITE WAGTAILS (Motacilla alba lugens, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) were along the Tonghuihe between Baliqiao and Shuangqiao on 20th (Paul Holt). On 21st a late WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida, 须浮鸥, Xū fú ōu) was at Yeyahu (Thomas Brooks).

On 24th there were six BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) at Huairou Reservoir (DaHe) and a WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla, 白尾海雕, Báiwěi hǎi diāo) flew over the Summer Palace (Huang Mingpan). A single CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata, 凤头百灵, Fèng tóu bǎilíng) was a nice find at Shisanling by Colm Moore on 26th. This species has declined markedly and is rare away from the very few remaining breeding sites in the capital.

On 27th two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) were at Shahe Reservoir (信天翁” via WeChat) and an unseasonal LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus, 长尾山椒鸟, Cháng wěi shānjiāo niǎo) was near Nanhaizi on 30th (Ren Lipeng). The month ended with a COLLARED CROW (Corvus torquatus, 白颈鸦, Bái jǐng yā) in Sunhe (Tao Liu) that remained until 16 December at least.

December

Four BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) remained at Huairou Reservoir on 1st (Wang Xiaobo) with at least one showing signs of hybridisation.

On 8th an unseasonal RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans, 山麻雀, Shān máquè) was reported at Baihe Bay with five CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) at the same site (Karen Wei). Eight BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were still at Nanhaizi on the same day (Tao Liu). On 14th an ASIAN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon dasypus, 烟腹毛脚燕, Yān fù máo jiǎo yàn) was photographed in Jingshan Park by Yue Yisong, an unusual winter record.

A rare winter record of Asian House Martin, photographed in Jingshan Park on 14th December by Yue Yisong.

And on 27th an unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER, (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was on the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).

The year ended with three unseasonal records – a male SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (Luscinia calliope, 红喉歌鸲, Hóng hóu gē qú) at Nanhaizi, 4 BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica, 家燕, Jiāyàn) along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale) and another COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) at Peking University (Mint Ren, Zhang Shen), all on 31st.

Title photo: Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN in the grounds of Beijing Zoo, February 2019.

Photos/videos by Terry Townshend unless otherwise stated.

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

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2018

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2017

Rare and Scarce Birds in 2016

Ray Mears visits the Valley of the Cats

In late October, it was an honour to welcome Ray Mears to the Valley of the Cats. Ray is a world-renowned expert on “bushcraft” and a prominent TV personality in the UK. I grew up watching him in series such as “Tracks“, “Ray Mears’ World of Survival” and others, where he showed viewers how to discover and follow the tracks of wild animals and to survive in the wild, working with nature to make shelters from branches and leaves and finding all manner of edible plants and insects.

Ray visited the Valley of the Cats as part of a forthcoming ITV Series. It was a pleasure and an education to spend time with him – his knowledge is incredible – and there are so many stories to tell.. I won’t give anything anyway but suffice to say it’s a must-watch for anyone interested in China’s incredible wildlife. As always, a huge thanks to the local community and to ShanShui Conservation Center for their wonderful hospitality and to the Qinghai government and the Sanjiangyuan National Parks Office for allowing the crew to film. I am confident Ray’s visit will make a big difference to public awareness in the UK, and more widely, about China’s magnificent wild places.

Title image: Terry with Ray Mears in the Valley of the Cats.

Sichuan Schools for Biodiversity

Last week I was honoured to be invited to deliver a series of lectures about biodiversity to more than 3,500 students at schools in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. Inspired by China hosting the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity in October 2020, the local government commissioned these lectures to raise awareness of biodiversity among its students and to advance the students’ English language skills.

It was a wonderful opportunity to explain how we have lost more than 60% of the mammals and birds on our planet since 1970 and to use the example of the Soho China Beijing Swift project, where students wrote to the CEO of a major buildings company and secured commitments to make new buildings better for biodiversity, to show how young people can make a difference.

Of course, these students are lucky to live in Sichuan Province, an area with some of the most biodiverse temperate forests in the world (thanks to being shielded by the mountains during the last ice age). There are many mammals, birds and plants that are found nowhere else on Earth.

As is often the case when speaking to students in China, I was immensely impressed with their work ethic (they get up at 0630 and study until 2130 every day), their enthusiasm for nature and their creative ideas about how to make a difference.

After each lecture, the students were given an assignment to find out about a species of mammal, bird or plant found only in Sichuan, to write about why it is special and to set out their ideas for how to ensure it is protected. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing the submissions and selecting the best to be recognised by the government.

Huge thanks to 新东方 (New Oriental) for making the arrangements.

The lectures were delivered to the following schools (in a mixture of Chinese and English):

成都外国语学校初中部 – Chengdu Foreign Language School (Junior Middle School)

成都外国语学校高中部 – Chengdu Foreign Language School (High School)

实验外国语学校初中部 – Experimental Foreign Language School (Junior High)

实验外国语学校高中部 – Experimental Foreign Language School (High School)

棠湖外国语学校高中部 – Tanghu Foreign Language School (High School)

成都七中 – Chengdu Seventh Middle School

棕北中学 – ZongBei Middle School

实验外国语学校西区 – Experimental Foreign Language School (West District)

Books for Birders

With huge thanks to the generosity of WildSounds and Books, another crop of young Chinese birders now have copies of some great titles, including “A Field Guide to the Birds of China”, “Oceanic Birds of the World” and the “Collins Bird Guide”. One of these birders happens to work for the Qinghai government in the department responsible for protecting biodiversity, so he is sure to put his new book to good use!

Thanks again to WildSounds for supporting young birders in China.. a wonderful gesture that is surely helping to grow an interest in nature and inspire young people about the natural world.

In Celebration of an Urban Oasis

It’s a sound dreaded by conservationists the world over.

And it’s a feature of human nature that when heard on TV in a pristine rainforest thousands of kilometres away, the sound of a chainsaw can seem remote and it’s relatively easy to detach oneself from the destruction.. and yet when it happens in a place far less globally important, yet so familiar, it elicits an altogether different reaction.

That’s what I experienced on Sunday on my local patch.

To most people I am sure, the ‘Shunyi patch’, as it has come to be known, looks like a scruffy piece of waste land. To me, it is a beautiful oasis in a concrete desert.

Scruffy or beautiful?

From my first visit in April 2015, I always knew this 0.5km x 0.5km patch of ‘wilderness’ in Shunyi District was on borrowed time.

Surrounded by new apartment blocks, Beijing metro’s line 15 and the new International Exhibition Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Beijing Capital International airport, the city was closing in and it was surely only a matter of when, not if, this place would be ‘developed’. There have been some false starts in the past with occasional clearances of the undergrowth but, with trees being felled and bulldozers moving in, it seems that moment has finally come…

The ‘Shunyi patch’ inset onto map of Beijing, showing the location adjacent to Beijing Capital International Airport

With chainsaws roaring and bulldozers belching out dark smoke as they demolished trees and shrubs, what I had planned to be a relaxing walk around the local patch on Sunday afternoon instead turned into a time for sober reflection about what this tiny space had given me over the past four years.

In 106 visits, 164 species of bird, five species of mammal and ten species of butterfly have been recorded, remarkable for such a small area of shrubs, trees and scrub. The majority of the birds recorded have been migratory, using the site as a temporary refuge to find food and shelter on their way to and from breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia or as far away as northern Siberia. Highlights have included species rarely recorded in the capital, such as Band-bellied Crake, Himalayan Swiftlet and, just a few weeks ago, a probable sighting of the poorly-known Streaked Reed Warbler. In winter it was not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls hunting over the scrub and roosting in the junipers, the sentinel-like Chinese Grey Shrike perched atop a maize stem or leafless sapling and tens of buntings – Little, Pallas’s Reed and Japanese Reed – as well as stunning Siberian Accentors feeding on the dropped seed heads. In summer, breeding species included Light-vented Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Brown Shrike and Spotted Dove. Occasionally, an Amur Hedgehog, Tolai Hare or Siberian Weasel showed themselves and, on warm summer evenings, it was common to see at least two species of bat patrolling the patch to feed on the flying insects.

Just ten minutes away from my apartment, this place was a refuge for me and was like my own secret study site. I spent many hours wandering around, enjoying the relative tranquility, observing how the harsh Beijing seasons quickly changed the character of the site from the desperately dry and seemingly barren place in late winter to a wet and lush landscape teeming with insects in late summer.

Rather than mourn the loss of this special place, it seems fitting to celebrate its life and so, in that spirit, here is a gallery of photos taken over the last four years including some of the species that have been found there.

The list of species recorded shows just how important urban oases can be for wildlife. Sites like the ‘Shunyi patch’ can provide ‘stepping stones’ for migratory birds, helping them to cross ever-expanding urban areas by providing places for food, water and shelter. My hope is that, by demonstrating the value to wildlife of such oases, we may learn to see ‘beauty in scruffy’ and persuade government officials that places like the Shunyi patch are an essential element of enlightened urban planning.

The list of species and the concept of ‘urban oases’ have been shared with the Beijing municipal government as part of a project to ‘rewild’ Beijing and have been met with an enthusiastic initial response. So the likely death of the Shunyi patch may not be in vain. Whatever the future, I am immensely grateful to this small patch of land for providing me with an education about the rich biodiversity of China’s capital city.

Identification of Eastern Vagrants to Britain

Professor Per Alström is a renowned authority on birds, particularly the birds of East Asia. Earlier this year, he delivered the RSPB Birders’ Lecture at the BirdFair with the title “Identification of Eastern Vagrants to Britain“. It’s a masterclass for anyone hoping to find a rarity in the UK, whether on Shetland, Scilly, the east coast or, more optimistically, at an inland local patch.

A PDF of his slides and a recording of the lecture can be downloaded from the British Birds website or directly here:

PDF

Audio file of Professor Per Alström’s RSPB Birders’ lecture

Title image: A youthful Per attracting the attention of bewildered locals

UK experience on managing reservoirs for water quality and nature shared with Beijing government

It’s been a hectic autumn and I’m a little behind in writing up developments but I wanted to highlight a recent visit to Beijing by Tim Appleton of Rutland Water and, of course, founder of the UK’s BirdFair.

Tim was invited by the Beijing government to share the experience of managing England’s largest reservoir for drinking water, as a nature reserve and for leisure.

The reason for inviting Tim was to begin a conversation about the potential for reviewing the management of Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s major source of drinking water. Situated in the northeast of Beijing Municipality against a stunning backdrop of mountains, Miyun Reservoir used to be the prime birding location in the capital, providing superb habitat for water birds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey and passerines. The site even hosted a small flock of the endangered Jankowski’s Bunting for two consecutive winters.

However, recent years has seen a tightening of security with a large fence erected around the perimeter and guarded entrances to stop members of the public from entering. That may seem reasonable for the most important water source of a major capital city. Perhaps less forgivable is the removal of the scrub, prime habitat for migrating and wintering passerines and associated birds of prey, to be replaced with trees, all the same age, planted in straight lines, creating a monoculture that not only takes away the habitat for passerines but also making the area unsuitable for cranes and many other water birds.

The site is managed by Beijing’s water bureau which has only one aim – protecting water quality. Hence the lack of consideration for any other interests.

Considering that Miyun Reservoir is located in Miyun County, a relatively poor part of Beijing, there is huge potential to manage the reservoir in a more enlightened way that would maintain water quality whilst at the same time attracting visitors to enjoy the wide open spaces and the wildlife, providing a boost to the local economy. Such a policy could include managing part of the reservoir as a wetland nature reserve with access for the public via a series of hides and boardwalks and, potentially, opening other areas for sailing or limited angling. This ‘zoning’ policy has been used successfully at Rutland Water, providing value for many stakeholders and, at the same time, bringing in millions annually to the local economy.

Tim delivered a lecture to Beijing government officials and academics about how Rutland Water has been managed to deliver multiple benefits, followed by a lively discussion. The government also arrnged for him to visit several sites, including Yeyahu Wetland Reserve and the Wenyu River pilot wetland park. There was clear enthusiasm for Tim’s experience and our interlocutors shared hope that, one day, Rutland Water’s experience could be replicated in Beijing.

Tim Appleton giving an interview during a site visit to the Wenyu River pilot wetland park

Changing the management of Miyun Reservoir will not happen overnight. It will take many discussions, internal studies and engagement with a broad range of government officials in different ministries to build the support for change. However, every great journey starts with a single step and I am grateful to Tim for taking the time to visit and share his experience. In a few years time, we may look back on that visit as a decisive moment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a world-class wetland reserve, providing habitat for water birds and passerines along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, boosting the local economy and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience. Simultaneously, it would significantly help to improve the international image of Beijing and what better time to do that than in 2020 when China hosts the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

If I was the Mayor of Beijing, I would say “make it so!”

Cover photo: Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s largest reservoir and potentially a world-class nature reserve.