Scaly-sided Merganser

To celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee (God bless her), Libby and I visited Chang Bai Shan in Jilin Province with friends John and Sarah Gallagher.  Birders might know that Chang Bai Shan is one of the very few remaining breeding sites for the Scaly-sided Merganser.  This bird is classified as “Endangered” by Birdlife International with the justification given as:

“This species has a very small population which is suspected to be undergoing a continuing and rapid decline as a result of habitat loss, illegal hunting and disturbance.”

It’s hard to believe that habitat loss is the main cause of decline in Chang Bai Shan as the area is vast and the habitat looks very good.  But the latter two – illegal hunting and disturbance – are clearly local threats (more about that later).

Although the trip was not dedicated to birding (my companions, although they humour me, prefer good walking over trying to spot little brown jobs in the thick forest), the thrill of trying to see a Scaly-sided Merganser was a fun adventure for all of us, especially given that we were able to find almost no information about where to see these special birds in advance of our visit.

On arrival at the new and well-appointed spa hotel just a few minutes drive from the equally new Chang Bai Shan airport, we checked in and made arrangements to visit the national park the next day.  From our room we could see Asian House Martins, Red-rumped Swallows and Barn Swallows all gathering mud and building nests on the hotel itself..  a good start.

Asian House Martin, Chang Bai Shan

For anyone who has visited a mountain in China, the following tale of our visit to the national park will be all too familiar.  We were bussed to the entrance of the park where we were obliged to buy an entrance ticket for 100 Yuan (about GBP 10) and a bus ticket for 85 Yuan (GBP c8.50).  After boarding allotted bus number 2, we set off for the 45 minute direct (ie no stopping) journey to the peak.  The habitat looked great – broad-leaved forest, followed by birch, larch and, as the trees thinned, more open areas with stunted birch still leafless as if it was mid-winter.  Part of the way up, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a Hazel Grouse as it whirred its way across the road in front of the bus.  At the top we disembarked and set off on the wooden steps to the peak (2,470 metres) for a view of the lake.  There were marshals and signs telling us not to wander from the well-trodden path (possibly due to the proximity of North Korea which lies on the far shore of the lake).  At the top one enjoyed a spectacular view of the “Heavenly Lake” which sits inside the crater of an extinct volcano (well, at least we *think* it’s extinct – it last erupted in 1903).  In a sign of how late Spring springs in Jilin at this altitude, the lake was still completely frozen.  With quite a bit of low cloud around, responsible for the occasional showers, I suspect we didn’t see the lake at its best.  But it was still impressive.

The visitor centre at the West Gate of Chang Bai Shan.
Map of the West Gate area of Chang Bai Shan
The walk up to the “Heavenly Lake” at Chang Bai Shan.  Alpine Accentors were displaying alongside the boardwalk!
Sarah, John and Libby before the rather wet ‘stairway to heaven’…
The view of the lake.. with North Korea on the far shore.

It was here that we enjoyed stunning views of displaying and singing Alpine Accentors.. there were at least 4 pairs around the summit.

Alpine Accentor, Chang Bai Shan, 2 June 2012

And here is a short video..

After the summit, our bus took us to the next stop on the rigid Chang Bai Shan mountain tour.  The circular boardwalk (at an altitude of 1464 metres) cuts through some fantastic forest and we saw singing Mugimaki Flycatchers, Black Woodpecker, Pallas’s Warbler, Goldcrest, Hobby and Siberian Chipmunk here.  Unfortunately the trail down to the waterfall was closed (for reasons unknown) so at the end of the boardwalk circular tour we were bussed back to base, missing out on some fantastic looking habitat that looked perfect for Three-toed Woodpecker and Nutcracker.

We decided to walk back from the park entrance to the hotel, a journey that I estimated would take around 30 minutes but which actually took an hour and a half.  (oops, sorry guys!).  But it was a good walk and we saw Grey Wagtails, White Wagtail (ssp leucopsis), Jay, Siberian Blue Robin, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Dollarbird, Eurasian, Oriental and Indian Cuckoos, singing Yellow-throated Bunting and heard a few unidentified thrushes (one of which I subsequently identified as Pale Thrush).

With no access to suitable fast-flowing streams in the park itself, I knew that the next day we’d have to find a few tracks outside the park if we were to stand a chance of seeing Scaly-sided Merganser.  We asked the staff if they knew where to see the “Zhong Hua Qiu Sha Ya” (the Chinese name for Scaly-sided Merganser).  After a few polite smiles and nods, one of the girls said she would phone a friend.  Soon after a young man appeared and confidently told us these birds could be found at two lakes nearby.  The best place was Quan Yong Hu, north of the local town of Song Jiang He Zhen.  We arranged for a taxi to take us and we were soon on our way…  the taxi driver also knew that these birds could be seen at this lake, so we were quietly confident.  On arrival, some 60 minutes later, we scanned the lake.  There was no sign.  A local who lived on the lakeside said that the birds were here (more than 10 of them) but that was in April and that now they had all moved into the mountains to breed…  so it appeared that this lake was a staging post, a sort of meeting place before the birds moved up to the mountains to breed on the fast-running streams.    We had a short picnic and then began the journey back, looking out for a nice trail on which to walk.  We soon found a bridge over a decent stream with a muddy track along one side.  We decided to have a walk and, despite the odd rain shower (the climate here was reminiscent of Scotland or the Peak District), we enjoyed a pleasant stroll and saw more Grey Wagtails, Brown Dippers, Mandarin Ducks, Blue and White Flycatchers (common), Common Sandpipers and a pair of Oriental Turtle Doves.  After reaching a bit of a building site with some not so friendly dogs, we headed back.  As our taxi reached the town of Song Jiang He, we crossed a small bridge over a lake and I caught sight of a distant but interesting looking bird on the water and quickly asked the driver to stop.  I jumped out and, with the naked eye, I could see it was a merganser…  could it be?  With the binoculars, I could see the ‘funky’ hair do and the scaly markings on the flanks…  A female Scaly-sided Merganser!!  I quickly got the others onto the bird and gave them my binoculars to see it as I went for my camera in my backpack.  I reeled off a quick record image and, as I checked it on the screen, to my horror I realised I had not altered the settings from when I had taken a couple of images of an overflying Oriental Honey Buzzard.  The result was a horribly over-exposed and blurry image.  I began to adjust the camera settings to enable me to get a better image but, just as I was about to move the dials, Sarah and John said “it’s flying”… so I hurriedly fired off a couple of photos with the same settings…  The light was awful (it was raining hard) and all I captured was a flying blur.. but I think you can just about make out some of the distinctive features (spiky hair do, dark eye patch reaching to the bill, white panel on wing dividied by a thin black line).  They won’t win any prizes but at least I had an image of a Scaly-sided Merganser…

A female Scaly-sided Merganser, Song Jiang He, Jilin Province. Over-exposed, heavily cropped.. blah blah…
Scaly-sided Merganser, Song Jiang He, Jilin Province. Note the dark line that separates the broad white wing panel which distinguishes this species from Common Merganser (Goosander).

The bird flew around the bend in the lake and we thought we may be able to see it from the other side.  We drove around but there was no sign.  It could just as easily have flown up into the mountains.  The driver seemed to be relieved (I think he felt a bit bad that we hadn’t seen it at the original lake) and we arrived back at the hotel elated.

That evening, after a well-earned dip in the outdoor hot spring, we decided to try a local restaurant in the village near to the hotel.  We enjoyed some delicious food, including a local trout, and toasted our good fortune with the merganser with some local “Dong Bei” beer..  The owner had a couple of stuffed birds in the restaurant and we thought it would be worth a try asking him whether he knew where to see Scaly-sided Mergansers..  he proudly said that they bred locally and then proceeded to his fridge whereupon he took out a dish full of eggs…  “Zhong Hua Qiu Sha Ya” (Scaly-sided Merganser) he said with a big smile on his face…..  I think my jaw dropped to the floor at this point and I didn’t know what to say.  Did he really have a clutch of Scaly-sided Merganser eggs in his fridge?  Oh. My. God.

John asked to take a photo of them and he duly obliged.

These eggs were supposedly taken from Scaly-sided Mergansers… I really hope they weren’t.
I tried to explain to him that this was a very special bird and that there weren’t many left.. but the look on his face suggested my Chinese wasn’t understood…

The owner also showed us a photo on his digital camera taken last July from outside his restaurant (which looks across a small manmade lake).  On the lake there was a very smart breeding-plumaged Black-throated Diver.  He said it was there at 0500 and then flew away later that morning.

We left the restaurant a little disturbed that the local restaurateurs may be collecting the eggs of an endangered species for food.  A local education scheme is much-needed, I think (WWF/RSPB – any plans?).

The next day we decided to explore the area north of our hotel and, using the same taxi driver (Mr Wang), we soon found an excellent fast-flowing river with a track running alongside.  We walked upstream and, after only a few hundred metres, we encountered Brown Dippers and Grey Wagtails.. and, best of all, the river looked perfect for mergansers.  A little further along, a Brown Dipper perched on an exposed rock allowing us all excellent views.  Just as we were about to move on, Sarah spotted another bird on the water and asked me “what’s that?”.  I looked and could immediately see it was a merganser and a quick check in the binoculars revealed it to be a Scaly-sided…!!  Wow!  It swam towards us with its head in the water and then dived.  We all waited quietly for it to emerge but it must have surfaced some way from where we were looking as the next thing we knew it was flying upstream and was gone..  a brief but ‘better than yesterday’ view..  After ‘high-fiving’ Sarah we walked further along the track and saw a few Blue and White Flycatchers and some more Brown Dippers.  After a further couple of kilometres we found an open area on the bend of the river and sat down for our lunch.  It was here that we saw another female Scaly-sided, again briefly, as it flew right over us and upstream.  Bird number three.  A pair of White-throated Needletails kept us company as they hawked for insects overhead.

Scaly-sided Merganser woz ‘ere. The bend in the river where Sarah spotted a female.

A rarity: a photo of me on this blog! With Libby and Sarah looking for Scaly-sided Mergansers… Photo: John Gallagher
The walk back was uneventful but we did hear Oriental Cuckoo, Siberian Robin, more Blue and White Flycatchers and a thrush sp.

The next day we explored more tracks around the hotel and close to the border of the national park, seeing new birds for the trip such as White-backed Woodpecker (found by Libby!), Long-tailed Rosefinch, White-throated Rock Thrush and Pale Thrush.  Just as we got back to the hotel to shower and check out, the heavens opened and we thanked our lucky stars that we had enjoyed the best part of the day.  We’d enjoyed a thoroughly refreshing break in this special part of China – a real tonic after the smog and oppressive heat of Beijing – and, best of all, we’d seen the near-mythical Scaly-sided Merganser!