Urban birding often springs surprises. Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens. The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.
On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing. The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.
We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen. It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.
In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls. Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir. We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected? Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility. We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.
Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao. Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year. The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces. Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..
Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir. They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin! It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise. We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base. Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!
Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.
If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.
Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China. There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing. However, the urban location was a complete surprise. As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital. In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago. Congratulations to Paul!
In Chinese, Harlequin is 丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”). The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck. The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings.. one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”! Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.
What will be next?
Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news. Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.
Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.” The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.