Swinhoe’s Rail in Beijing

Whilst I was in Dalian participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival (more on that to come), I received an excited WeChat message from Zhao Qi informing me that Colm Moore had, just a few minutes earlier, seen a SWINHOE’S RAIL at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing.  Due to its secretive habits, this poorly-known species is very rarely seen anywhere and a decline in the number of records in recent years suggests that it is becoming one of China’s rarest birds.  From a personal perspective, it is my most sought-after species and I have lost count of the number of times I have endured squelchy feet as I meandered through soggy meadows around Beijing in the vain hope of encountering one of these enigmatic birds.

Anyone who knows Colm will tell you he is a brilliant birder.  In Beijing he is a relentless patch worker, visiting Shahe whenever he has spare time, which usually equates to a visit each weekend.  If ever a sighting of this magnitude was deserved, this is it.

In a subsequent email, Colm described his encounter in typically thorough and evocative language:

“The bird took off without being put up by me, flew very low continuously and fast just skimming the knee-high vegetation, darkish legs hanging. The landing was exactly like a crane, legs forward, disc-like wings down and a rather prolonged landing, showing the incredible white secondaries.
It got up from soggy knee-length vegetation and flew maybe 120m unlike Baillon’s Crake. It really was tiny, the size of a Tree Sparrow, but clearly Rail…..for all purposes very very dark, “Baillons- in-flight-dark”, ridiculous rounded disc-like wings beating fast and in a default slightly bowed position with no gliding, darkish legs dangling but neatly so, say 30 degrees to body line. Short bill and maybe slightly paler belly but whole impression was very dark. No deviation from line of flight and landing with legs forward, wings angled down and slightly back, revealing shocking white inner wing trailing edge, equivalent to secondaries.
No time in the shock of the moment to do anything but use binoculars. This was at about 11.15am and good half-cloud/sunlight behind me. I know the species from Happy Island 15 yrs ago, where Per Schiermacher Hansen and Jesper Hornskov showed me one and left to my own devices I found another. While in Minnesota in 2006 I was shown American Yellow Rail novaboracensis at a special site and it resembles Swinhoe’s but was bigger. Agony not to get even a record shot I know but the views were great, short I acknowledge but the white amazing. It looked identical, even down to the very dark wings and body impression noticeable on the birds on Happy Island.”

Colm’s description is delightful and if there was a Rarities Committee in China, I am sure this would sail through despite the understandable lack of photographic evidence.  A wonderful record by one of the best birders I have ever met.  It is the 4th record of Swinhoe’s Rail for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

Thanks to Colm and Zhao Qi for allowing me to share the story of this enviable encounter here.

Featured Image: Swinhoe’s Rail at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, October 2014 by 仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).

The 2nd China International Birding Festival

From 20-22 October I will be participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival in Lushun, near Dalian.  As with the 1st Festival last year, the centrepiece is a ‘bird race’, a 24-hour period during which teams will compete to see or hear as many species of bird as possible within the recording area.  The event, organised by the China Birdwatching Society and sponsored by the local government, has been designed to promote birding and bird conservation in China.  At least 20 teams from across the country, with one or two from overseas, will be competing for the “Steller’s Sea Eagle” trophy…

I’m delighted that two friends, Brian Egan and Rob Holmes, are flying over and will join Marie and I to make up the “Foreign Flappers”.  To many British birders, Brian’s name will be familiar – he manages the Rare Bird Alert (RBA) operation from its headquarters in Norwich – and RBA, along with BirdLife International, will be international partner organisations for the event.

Lushun, near Dalian, is famous for its impressive raptor migration but it’s also an excellent site for passerine migration and we can expect a variety of sought after species, including good numbers of SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, a species that just a few days ago appeared on UK soil for the first time.  Look out for updates via Twitter from @BirdingBeijing and @RareBirdAlertUK …!

 

 

“A Bridge of Magpies”: Birds in Chinese Folklore

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been introducing the wonderful pupils at the International School of Beijing (ISB) to the birds of China’s capital city, including a field trip to Hanshiqiao (the wetland where Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo, was fitted with his tag).  As part of the classroom based material, Annie He, who is responsible for integrating Chinese culture into the ISB curriculum, created a brilliant document outlining how birds feature in Chinese folklore.  With Annie’s kind permission,  “Beyond The Legend”  is now available to download.  I love the story about the magpie’s role in Chinese Valentine’s Day:

“On the evening of the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese lunar calendar, don’t forget to look carefully at the summer sky.  You’ll find the Cowherd (a bright star in the constellation Aquila, west of the Milky Way) and the Weaving Maid (the star Vega, east of the Milky Way) appear closer together than at any other time of the year. Chinese believe the stars are lovers who are permitted to meet by the queen of Heaven once a year. That day falls on the double seventh (七⼣夕 in Chinese), which is China’s own Valentine’s Day. Most Chinese remember being told a romantic tragedy when they were children on the double seventh. In the legend, the cowherd and the Weaving Maid will meet on a bridge of magpies across the Milky Way once a year. Chinese grannies will remind children that they would not be able to see any magpies on that evening because all the magpies have left to form a bridge in the heavens with their wings.”

 

Snow Leopard video

I have merged all the clips I was able to record of Snow Leopards in Yushu, Qinghai.  The result is just under 5 minutes of footage of these magnificent cats… Click on HD for best quality.

Watch Out For Colour-ringed Buntings!

Watch out for colour-ringed buntings!

I was delighted to receive this email from Wieland Heim, leader of the Amur Birding Project, just up the road..  (it’s a long road).

“Rapidly declining population trends have recently been found for Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola and Rustic Bunting E. rustica, but our knowledge about their migration routes and survival rates is still very limited. To address this, a colour-ring study was started at Muraviovka Park in Far East Russia. Volunteers of the Amur Bird Project equipped the first Yellow-breasted Buntings with individual combinations during breeding season in 2015. Happily, three out of seven males safely returned to their breeding grounds in 2016. To compare survival rates among sympatric breeding species, we decided to include Black-faced Bunting E. spodocephala, Chestnut-eared Bunting E. fucata, Common Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus and Japanese Reed Bunting E. yessoensis in our study. During spring and summer 2016, we managed to equip almost 200 buntings with colourful ring combinations at our study site on the Amur river.

buntings

Now, migration has begun for most of these species, and our colour-ringed buntings might occur anywhere in East Asia. Please scan all bunting flocks carefully! All birds have one colour-ring above the metal ring of the Moscow ringing centre on one leg, and two colour-rings on the second leg. Used colours are black, blue, green, orange, purple, red, white and yellow. If possible, take pictures of buntings which seem to wear a ring. We had to find out that it can be hard to determine the colour in the field, however it is very easy on the computer screen, even if the photo is anything but perfect.

Please let us know if you come across a colour-ringed bird, and help to shed light on the yet unknown migration routes of this beautiful birds! We will send you in return all information about the bird.”

If you see any, please report information, including date, location and, if possible, a photo to Wieland Heim (amurbirding|at|gmx.de) or via the excellent Amur Birding blog: amurbirding.blogspot.com

 

Mr and Mrs Pink

Is it a finch?  Is it a bunting?  The PRZEVALSKI’S ROSEFINCH (Urocynchramus pylzowi) has, at one time or another, been classified as both but now sits in a family of its own.  With a limited range in China (Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) it’s a sought-after species for any visiting birders.

During our recent visit to Qinghai, Marie and I were lucky enough to encounter two pairs in a valley close to Qinghai Lake.  One pair, clearly breeding, brought a selection of insects to feed their young which we were able to capture on video.

The call reminded me very much of the central China race of Long-tailed Rosefinch, lepidus.

This bird was a species we were keen to see during the Qinghai trip and we were very happy to see them so well.

Featured image: Przevalski’s Rosefinch by Marie Louise.

Snow Leopards

What a week.  Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.

Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui).  The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province.  Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching.  Of course, I was delighted.

Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver.  Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika.  As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site.  They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.

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Inside the local family’s house – beautifully decorated in Tibetan style

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With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf.  Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect.  They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!

One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain..  at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.

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Heading up the mountain with our Tibetan companion.

Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes.  We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper.  In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby.  More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop.  I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.

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My first view of a SNOW LEOPARD!

“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt.  Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around…  We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below.  There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards!  Wow!!  It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved.  The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep.  We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other.  In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace.  As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look..  we didn’t want the encounter to end.

I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage.  Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.

On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou.  Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife.  Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking.  The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators.  Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time.  With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.

It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife.  And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province.  I can’t wait to return!

I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold.  I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding!  And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me.  It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people.  Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.