Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2017

2017 was another year of exciting avian discoveries in Beijing.

There was a little snow at the turn of the year and it didn’t take long for the first new Beijing record to be found; on 7 January local photographer Qu Lijun snapped some photos of Beijing’s first SNOW BUNTINGS (Calcarius nivalis, 雪鹀) – a flock of at least ten – at Bulaotun, near Miyun Reservoir.

Three of the flock of at least 10 SNOW BUNTINGS at Bulaotun, Miyun in January 2017.

February began with a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) photographed by Jiang Xiaobo (per Yang Yuejiang) on 6 February in the Olympic Forest Park.  This bird was reported on and off for around two months and was last seen on 3 April by Yang Yuejiang. On 10th February, news broke of a HARLEQUIN (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭) at the most unlikely urban setting of Anzhenmen, close to Beijing’s 2nd ring road.  According to locals it had been present for “at least 20 days” and remained on site well into March, delighting a string of visiting birders from all over the country.

This first-winter female HARLEQUIN was the first record of this species in Beijing.
The HARLEQUIN’s favoured spot – a small city-centre weir in central Beijing.

There were two notable records in March.  First, on 10th, Li Boyang and Liu Ziang photographed a CRESTED GOSHAWK (Accipiter trivirgatus, 凤头鹰) close to Wangjinglou.  With a distribution in China limited to the south, this species is a rare, but possibly overlooked, vagrant to Beijing.  Second, for the second consecutive winter, the presence of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) was confirmed with a count of at least eight birds on 25th at Miyun Reservoir, the same site as the discovery of a small flock by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in winter 2015/2016.  Note Miyun Reservoir remains out of bounds to the public; this record was possible due to special permission given to a group from China Birdwatching Society to undertake their annual waterbird survey.

April began with a first-winter BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) at Ma Chang (Terry Townshend and Richard Fuller).  Then, on 5th, came the biggest surprise of the month with a SULPHUR-BREASTED WARBLER (Phylloscopus ricketti, 黑眉柳莺) photographed at the Deer Park, Nanhaizi (南海子麋鹿苑), by Mr Guo Geng, the Vice Director of the Park.  Although there are two previous reports of this species from the Temple of Heaven Park (per Li Zhaonan), Mr. Guo’s is the first documented record in Beijing.

Further good finds in the month saw an ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) at Yeyahu on 8th during a bird-race and a remarkable occurrence of 14 GREAT BUSTARDS (Otis tarda, 大鸨) migrating over Shisanling on 15th, needless to say found by committed patchworker, Colm Moore.

Four of the GREAT BUSTARDS at Shisanling on 15 April.

A EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀) was reported from the Olympic Forest Park on 19th by visiting birder, Andrew Thornton (there are only two documented records of this species in Beijing – in December 2012  in the Botanical Gardens and November 2013 in the Temple of Heaven Park).  A GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), very scarce in Beijing, was in the grounds of Peking University on 27th and a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕), a scarce migrant in Beijing, was found by Colm Moore at Shisanling on 28th.  On the same day, Beijing’s 4th LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟) was photographed by Mr Nan Hai (南海) at Shahe Reservoir.  Unfortunately, this rarity was flushed by local Grey Herons just five minutes after its arrival and it wasn’t seen again.

As expected, May hosted some interesting records including Beijing’s first CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺), photographed at the Temple of Heaven Park on 6th by Youjiduiyuan (online nick name).  See photo here.  A COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) was at the Summer Palace on 16th (Zhang Yu), a singing SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫) on Terry’s local patch in Shunyi District on 18th and at least 3 singing male GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫) were back at Lingshan on 27th (this likely breeding population was first discovered in 2016), with a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺) at Shisanling on the same date (Colm Moore).  A single DOLLARBIRD (Eurystomus orientalis, 三宝鸟) at Yeyahu on 30th was a nice end to the month.

June saw a handful of reports of ASIAN KOEL (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃), a bird that, until very recently, was rare in Beijing.  Now it’s annual in small numbers and there was a singing bird at Yeyahu on 3rd.  Also on 3rd, two LESSER COUCALs (Centropus bengalensis, 小鸦鹃) were found by Beijing-based Jan-Erik Nilsen at Lingshan.  On 11th June a BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor, 黑脸琵鹭) was photographed by Zhang Weimin at Miyun Reservoir, apparently present since 7 May.  This represents the first documented record of this endangered species in Beijing.

The immature BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (left) with EURASIAN SPOONBILL, Miyun Reservoir, 11 June 2017. Photo by Zhang Weimin.

On 27th a pair of breeding SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) was found at Huairou Reservoir by Paul Holt, only the fourth record for the capital and the first breeding record.

Although not in Beijing, July is worthy of mention for the presence of Hebei Province’s second and China’s fourth LESSER CRESTED TERN (Thalasseus bengalis, 小凤头燕鸥) found by Que Pinjia and Wang Yuqi on 26th at Jingtanggang, close to Happy Island.  Fortunately for the few hardcore China listers, it lingered until 5 August at least, occasionally coming to bathe in what can best be described as a fresh water puddle!

China’s 4th LESSER CRESTED TERN at Jingtanggang, Hebei Province. Photo by Shen Yan

August was relatively quiet with no unusual records.  However, it didn’t take long for September to score when, on 2nd, a MARSH HARRIER sp was photographed by Jing Xin at Bulaotun.  With the lack of pale on the leading edge of the wing, dark rump, lack of significant pale bases to the underside of the primaries and the absence of a pale breastband, the photographs look very good for WESTERN MARSH HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus, 白头鹞), a rare bird in east Asia.  The question is – can Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus, 白腹鹞) ever look like this?   Answers on a postcard, please…

Probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER, Bulaotun, 2 September 2017. Photograph by Jing Xin.
Another photo of the probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER at Bulaotun on 3 September 2017 showing the underside. Photograph by Jing Xin.

On 20th, the second COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) of the year, and Beijing’s first autumn record, was found at Yuanmingyuan and remained until 24th at least.


October saw Beijing’s first autumn record of MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) amongst a large flock of BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS (Anthus rubescens japonicus, 黄腹鹨) at Ma Chang on 7th and a MONGOLIAN FINCH (Eremopsaltria mongolica, 蒙古沙雀), the first modern day record, was photographed at Baiwangshan by Ding Deyong.  A male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina, 橙头地鸫), of unknown origin, was photographed in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park on 13th and, if a genuine vagrant, will be the second record for the capital of this very attractive species, following one in the Temple of Heaven Park on 27 May 2012 (Qinghua Shoucang).

The male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park, 13 October 2017. Photo by Yuhuashi.

November saw an unusually urban EURASIAN EAGLE OWL (Bubo bubo, 雕鸮), photographed in the grounds of Peking University on 10th, with another on 21st near the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution (Tom Stidham).  On 19th there was a new species for Beijing in the form of a CHESTNUT THRUSH (Turdus rubrocanus, 灰头鸫), photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong.

This CHESTNUT THRUSH, the first record for Beijing, was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong on 19 November and was not seen again.

A small influx of BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was recorded from 22nd with birds in Beihai Park and the Olympic Forest Park.  The photo below by Zhang Xiaoling.

BROWN-EARED BULBUL, Beihai Park, 26 November 2017. Photo by Zhang Xiaoling.

And modest numbers of JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟) arrived in the month with small flocks at the Botanical Gardens, Tsinghua University and the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park with the birds at the latter two sites remaining into 2018.

December is not a month that usually produces first records but Guan Xiangyu and friends found Beijing’s first FIELDFARE (Turdus pilaris, 田鸫) at Lingshan on 10 December, a superb find.

Beijing’s first FIELDFARE was photographed at Lingshan by Zhang Bing on 10 December 2017.

A male JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) first seen on 24 December and remaining into 2018 at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park is likely of suspect origin and the year ended with an unseasonal WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN (Amaurornis phoenicurus, 白胸苦恶鸟) in the grounds of Peking University on 28th.

And that was 2017… !  Another brilliant year of birding in Beijing.

A big thank you to all the birders, resident and visitors, who have contributed bird sightings throughout 2017 and a special thanks to XiaoPT for assisting with this summary.

*The 2017 summary has been collated with the best available information at the time.  If you spot any errors or omissions, please post a comment below or contact Birding Beijing via the Latest Sightings page. Thank you.

2017: A Turning Point For China’s Biodiversity?

2017 has been quite a year.  Politically, one can feel the tectonic plates shifting with the turmoil in the West contrasting with the increasing power, and confidence, of a resurgent China.  It’s a fascinating time to live in the capital city of the world’s largest economy in waiting.

But hang on, why do I begin the Birding Beijing review of 2017 by writing about politics?  The reason is that, if you care about birds or conservation, politics matters.  And, with Xi Jinping beginning his second five-year term as President, the direction in which he is taking China is becoming clearer and that has implications for birds and wildlife.  In October 2017, at the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi delivered the ‘manifesto’ for his second term, a three-and-a-half-hour speech, catchily entitled “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The speech touched on everything from reform of State-owned Enterprises to the Digital Economy.  And at every meeting I have attended with government since, officials have quoted from the speech.  Given the top-down nature of China’s government, what Xi says is that important.

From my conversations with Chinese friends in government and outside, I am convinced that President Xi is personally committed to protecting China’s environment and there are sections of his speech from which conservationists should take heart.  For example:

“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased
production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue
the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for
our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”

“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public participate.”

“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”

Xi has also committed to create a system of National Parks and launched the overarching policy in September 2017.  According to the associated press release, China “has set up ten pilot programs for the national park system, covering areas including Sanjiangyuan (the source of China’s three major rivers), Giant Panda habitats and the Great Wall” and “ordered all its provinces and regions to establish an ecological “red line” that will declare designated regions under mandatory and rigorous protection.”

These are positive steps and the relevant government departments and local officials will be using these statements and policies as their guiding light for the next five years.

And in case you might think that words are hollow, there has been some tangible progress this year that will give conservationists cause for optimism.

For example, in April the Chinese government announced that 14 sites along the Yellow Sea coast and Bohai Bay – critical to millions of migratory shorebirds, including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper – had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the government.  And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government.

At a more micro level, under the terms of the revised Environment Protection Law, ‘public interest’ lawsuits have been pursued against local governments that violate environmental regulations.  For example, the government in Henan Province was fined around USD 555,000 for destroying Jujube trees, some of which were up to 500 years old, as part of a land reclamation project.  At the end of its verdict announcement, the court said it would continue to improve its handling of environmental cases, in accordance with the “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” policy laid out by President Xi Jinping during the Party’s 19th National Congress in October, illustrating the power of President Xi’s speech.

And, of course, to improve its domestic environment, the battle against air pollution is well underway and, with an uncertain impact globally, China has banned the import of plastic waste.

At the same time, 2017 has seen significant growth in philanthropy from China’s wealthy elite and public charitable giving.  And, as Chinese companies seek lucrative public listings on stock exchanges and a greater role overseas, there is a growing emphasis on their image and, with that, comes greater investment in Corporate and Social Responsibility through the creation of charitable foundations or individual projects.  A reasonable chunk of that spending is going into, primarily domestic-focused, conservation.

All of this should improve the prospects for China’s biodiversity.

So what of the birds in 2017?  Well, it’s heartening to be able to report some good news here too.

First, after great work by Han Zheng and his team from Northeast Normal University in Changchun in discovering some previously unknown breeding sites, the estimated population of the “Endangered” JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskicould be as high as 9,800-12,500, a massive increase on the previous estimate of fewer than 1,000 individuals.  The new sites enjoy no official protection so work is already underway to engage the local government to see what can be done to ensure as many of these important news sites as possible are protected.

Sir David Attenborough will be pleased to hear the good news about Jankowski’s Bunting.

Second, in March 2017, a site record 308 BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri) were counted at Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province, illustrating just how important the site is for this now “Critically Endangered” Aythya.  The good news was tempered by a very poor breeding season at Hengshui Hu, caused by a combination of rising water levels and illegal egg collection, with no confirmed successful fledging of young in 2017.

Mixed news for BAER’S POCHARD in 2017.  Photo: drake BAER’S POCHARD at Yeyahu, 21 April 2017 by Tormod Amundsen.

Third, after the success of the Beijing Swift Project, which resulted in the discovery of the wintering grounds and migration route of the pekinensis Common Swift, several schools in the capital are developing projects to manufacture and erect artificial nest boxes with a view to attracting birds to their schools campuses.  With a falling Swift population in Beijing due to the demolition of traditional old buildings with nooks and crannies for nest sites, this is a welcome initiative that will hopefully begin to slow and, ultimately reverse, the decline.

The Beijing Swift Project has inspired schools to help try to slow the population decline.

Fourth, the explosion of birding festivals across China, run by local birding and conservation organisations, is an excellent sign that birding, and conservation, are attracting a growing band of young people all over the country.  From Liaoning in the northeast to Guangxi and Yunnan in the south-west and from Qinghai to Qingdao, local groups – powered by enthusiastic young people – are organising events to celebrate China’s birds and biodiversity.  That is a fantastic sign for the future.

Groups of dedicated young people passionate about biodiversity are springing up all across the country.

And fifth, there has been some progress with tackling the trade in illegally caught wild birds online.  Taobao, often described as the equivalent of the West’s eBay or Amazon, is a platform on which one can buy almost anything from military tanks to Boeing 747s and even mini nuclear fusion reactors.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that wild birds are often offered for sale.  After the outrage expressed when “Critically Endangered” Yellow-breasted Buntings were found for sale, Alibaba (Taobao’s parent company) has reacted by taking down the offending posts and made a commitment to review their practices with a view to stopping the sale of wild birds.  We’re now in a dialogue with Alibaba and hope to be able to report more good news soon.

The discovery of Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale was a lowlight of 2017, however Alibaba is now engaged on how to stop the trade in wild birds on their online platform, Taobao.

Of course it’s not all a bed of roses and, on the negative side, the news about the perilous state of Rufous-headed Robin and no reports at all of Streaked Reed Warbler are sobering reminders that around 10% of bird species are threatened with extinction.  And there remain huge challenges with poaching and illegal trapping.

However, with Xi’s speech, strengthened environment protection laws and a growing awareness among the general public, especially young people, about the environment, it appears that things are moving in the right direction.  And with the emergence and growth of local environmental organisations, there is now an army of young people across the country working hard to raise awareness of China’s unique biodiversity, connect people to nature and protect important species and habitats.  That is a big change from when I arrived in this vast country seven years ago and it gives me great optimism for the future.  I hope that, in 2018, Birding Beijing can play a small role in encouraging, supporting and promoting the work of those who are championing China’s biodiversity.