BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was once abundant in east Asia.. now it is listed as “Critically Endangered” due to an, as yet unexplained, calamitous population decline. The only known breeding site is not in the far northeast of China or in Russia (previously understood to be the species stronghold) but instead in Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.
Yesterday I visited the site and found at least 24 of these beautiful ducks on site, most of which seem paired up and ready to breed. Worryingly, at least two birds appeared to be hybrids with the closely-related Ferruginous Duck, a common breeder at the same site.
I recorded this video compilation of a male displaying to a (seemingly uninterested) female… It was almost comical seeing him try in vain to attract her attention. Let’s hope she is more interested soon – we need them to make babies!
I am in discussions with the Beijing Birdwatching Society about submitting a grant application to the Oriental Bird Club conservation fund to set up a project to monitor Baer’s Pochard at this site… We know almost nothing about this bird and its habitat requirements.. so fingers crossed we secure some resources.
Video recorded using an iPhone 5 with the Swarovski ATS95 telescope and iPhone adaptor.
On Saturday 12 October I visited Wild Duck Lake (both Ma Chang and Yeyahu NR) with Jesper Hornskov and Ben Wielstra. As usual with this site in October, expectations were high as I set off at 0445 to pick up Ben, then Jesper, before heading over the mountains past Badaling Great Wall and on to Ma Chang.
On arrival, the water level at Guanting Reservoir was the highest I have ever seen. Consequently most of the viewing points that I have used in the past to observe the reservoir are no longer accessible, meaning that we had no opportunity to view the duck on the open water. A couple of CHINESE GREY SHRIKES, a MERLIN, a few lingering juvenile AMUR FALCONS, some early BEAN GEESE and a flock of 23 MONGOLIAN LARKS kept us entertained at Ma Chang before we decided to hot-foot it over to Yeyahu Nature Reserve to spend some time at the new viewing tower.
As we made our way out of Ma Chang along the unpaved access track I caught sight of a raptor to the north of us, gliding west. I slammed on the brakes (not as dramatic as it sounds when you are only moving at about 5mph) and glanced through my binoculars. It was big. An eagle. I should say at this point that, only a few minutes before, I was chatting to Jesper and Ben about the potential for a STEPPE EAGLE. I had seen GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE and IMPERIAL EAGLE at Wild Duck Lake before but never STEPPE. As I looked through my binoculars, I could see a pale bar on the underwing and my heart raced – it looked like a first calendar year STEPPE EAGLE! We all jumped out of the car and it began to circle, offering us superb views with the sun behind us. I grabbed my camera and reeled off a few shots before just enjoying the bird as it gained height and eventually drifted off west. Wow! A new bird for me in Beijing.
Elated, and buoyed by our seemingly potent ability to talk up species at will, we began to chat about all sorts of obviously impossible targets for the day such as SWINHOE’S RAIL, STREAKED REED WARBLER, CRESTED SHELDUCK and, of course, BAER’S POCHARD.
A few minutes later we arrived at Yeyahu NR and, after a celebratory cup of coffee, made our way into the reserve and headed for the new watchtower. On the way we experienced a modest passage of raptors with NORTHERN GOSHAWK, EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARD and, again after talking about a likely species, SHORT-TOED EAGLE. It was turning into a very good day.
We reached the tower after about 20 minutes and set up stall, hoping that the early promise might continue. A few more NORTHERN GOSHAWKS, COMMON (EASTERN) BUZZARDS, a HEN HARRIER and an additional SHORT-TOED EAGLE kept us interested and then another large eagle came into view from the east… As it drifted closer, we could see it wasn’t the expected GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE (regular at this time of year) but a STEPPE EAGLE! Given the direction and timing, almost certainly a second individual.
As the day wore on, cloud cover increased and the raptor passage seemed to stop, so we decided to head for the newly flooded area in the hope of sighting some duck, including a target for Ben – BAIKAL TEAL.
We didn’t see any BAIKAL TEAL but we did see good numbers of MALLARD, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, GADWALL, FALCATED DUCK, RED-CRESTED POCHARD and a handful of FERRUGINOUS DUCK. As we made our way along a track through the flooded area, we encountered some COMMON REED BUNTINGS. I don’t see many COMMON REED BUNTINGS in Beijing (it’s a case of picking out a COMMON among all the PALLAS’S REED and LITTLE BUNTINGS – I can feel your sympathy) so I decided to hang back to take some photographs as Jesper and Ben headed to a small viewing area overlooking one of the ponds.
I had a frustrating time with the buntings but did manage some record photos.
Just as I was about to leave the buntings to catch up with Jesper and Ben, a pair of Ferruginous Duck/Baer’s Pochards flew past and, as I had my camera set up, I reeled off a couple of photos as they plunged down onto one of the small pools in the reedbed. I didn’t even look at the camera to check the images as I already felt I had been too long trying to photograph the buntings – and they would almost certainly be Ferruginous. However, as I caught up with Jesper and Ben, I mentioned that I had seen two Ferruginous/Baer’s-type ducks to which Jesper replied that they had seen three definite Ferruginous.. I (erroneously, as it turned out) assumed that I had seen two of the three birds they had seen, so I didn’t think any more of it….. ***LESSON HERE***
From the watchpoint, we viewed a small area of the pool on which ‘my’ birds alighted and it was busy – lots of Gadwall, Falcated Duck and Mallard were moving around and flying in and out. But no sign of the ‘Ferruginous/Baer’s types’. As the light began to fade, we left and headed back to Beijing.
At home, as I uploaded my photos from the day, I had a double-take when I saw the two images of the Ferruginous/Baer’s type duck I had seen. One appeared to have a green tinge to the head and, structurally, they looked wrong for Ferruginous. They were BAER’S POCHARDS!
Having known that Ben was particularly keen to see BAER’S POCHARD, I felt terrible. If only I had looked at the photos at the time, I would have realised that there was a pair of BAER’S POCHARDS on that pool and we could have stayed longer in the hope that they reappeared. But as it was, we left in ignorance and it was only when I got home that I realised. Sorry Ben!
The silver lining is that I will almost certainly take Ben to Wild Duck Lake again while he is in Beijing and I have even offered to take him to the breeding site in Hebei Province to hopefully see them there… It’s a lesson learned.
In any case, it was another superb day at this brilliant site. Is there a capital city in the world with birding as good as this? If so, I want to know about it!
Full species list below. Thanks to Jesper and Ben for their company on the day.
Common PheasantPhasanius colchicus – 6+
Bean GooseAnser fabalis serrirostris – 15
Ruddy ShelduckTadorna ferruginea – one (plus a couple of possibly captive ones…)
Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri – a pair photographed [TT]
Ferruginous DuckAythya nyroca – three
Smew Mergellus albellus – four brownheads
Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis – nine
Great Crested GrebePodiceps cristatus – three
Eurasian BitternBotaurus stellaris – one (in flight, giving ‘pao!’ call)
Chinese Pond HeronArdeola bacchus – one
Grey HeronArdea cinerea – six
Little EgretEgretta garzetta – three
Great CormorantPhalacrocorax carbo – two
Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus – one
Amur FalconFalco amurensis – 12+ (excellent views of several 1st c-y birds)
Merlin Falco columbarius – two (adult male; unaged female)
Eurasian HobbyFalco subbuteo – one
Short-toed EagleCircaetus gallicus – two
Eastern Marsh HarrierCircus spilonotus – one 1st c-y (an unusually dark individual, with hardly any pale on crown, no noticeable pale rump, effectively no pale on forewing & an at most very faint breast band)
Hen HarrierCircus cyaneus – four 1st c-y
Eurasian SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus – eight
Northern GoshawkAccipiter gentilis – two
Common BuzzardButeo buteo japonicus – 7+
Steppe EagleAquila nipalensis – 1-2 (a 1st c-y circling & gliding 10h42 as we were leaving Machang & probably another – in identical plumage, as far as we could tell – over YYH reserve at 12h20…)
Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus – two
Common CootFulica atra – 16
Northern LapwingVanellus vanellus – 70
Pacific Golden PloverPluvialis fulva – eight 1st c-y
Common SnipeGallinago gallinago – one
Common Black-headed GullLarus ridibundus – 15+
Oriental Turtle DoveStreptopelia orientalis – three
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto – four
Great Spotted WoodpeckerDendrocopos major – five
Chinese Grey ShrikeLanius sphenocercus – four (mostly showing very well…)
Azure-winged MagpieCyanopica cyanus – two
Common MagpiePica pica – 60+ (not counting birds en route!)
Daurian JackdawCorvus dauuricus – c390 (main event a flock of c325)
Rook Corvus frugilegus – one (up close, feeding in a field)
Eastern Great TitParus minor – three
Yellow-bellied TitParus venustulus – nine
Marsh TitParus palustris
Chinese Penduline TitRemiz (pendulinus) consobrinus – five (incl a juvenile sitting up nicely)
As the wild population of Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) has declined dramatically in the last few years, a new threat has emerged – that of hybridisation (see my article on Birding Frontiers here). The only confirmed breeding site for Baer’s Pochard also hosts the closely related Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca, 白眼潜鸭) and, this year, I have personally seen drake Baer’s displaying to females of Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard.
This spring and summer I have been making regular visits to the breeding site in Hebei Province, south of Beijing, to monitor the Baer’s Pochards. It’s a large site with many hidden ponds amongst the reeds, meaning that, in a short visit, it is not straightforward to count the birds present or to establish proof of breeding. So far this year I am unaware of any confirmation that Baer’s has bred successfully.
My most recent visit, in early August with visiting British birder Richard Bonser, produced no definite sightings. However, we did see the bird below, which we think *could be* a female Baer’s. One of the problems with identification of ducks at this time of year is that adults are in ‘eclipse’ plumage, meaning that they look very different than when sporting their spring finery. An additional complication is the spectre of hybrids. I do not have knowledge of what Baer’s Pochard should look like in eclipse and I have been unable to find any images or literature to guide me. Baer’s *ought* to be identifiable on structure but, with hybrids a very real possibility, this becomes less straightforward – we should expect at least some hybrids to exhibit Baer’s-like structure.
Clearly, given the “Critically Endangered” status of this bird, a priority must be to assemble images of known pure Baer’s in all plumages from private collections. That will help birders seeing these birds in the wild to establish whether they are true Baer’s or hybrids which, in turn, will help conservationists to better establish the likely true population and the extent of the threat of hybridisation.
In the meantime, I would very much welcome views from anyone with experience of these birds as to whether the bird below is a pure Baer’s or a likely hybrid (in my view it is clearly not a pure Ferruginous on structure and plumage tones alone).
On Friday I visited Ma Chang with Global Times journalist Jiang Yuxia (writing an article about birding in Beijing) and Jennifer Leung. After a few days of cold and windy weather, the forecast was for a change in the wind from a cold northerly to a light southerly and for temperatures to soar from the recent chilly highs of 10-12 degrees Celsius to over 20 degrees C.
After a 0500 start we reached Ma Chang at around 0630. It was a stunning morning with good visibility, clear skies and almost no wind, disguising the -2 early morning temperature. Along the entrance track we encountered Jesper Hornskov with a couple of clients. They were watching a party of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the buds of some large trees – a nice start to the day. At Ma Chang, as expected at this time of year, we soon spotted a group of ORIENTAL PLOVERS and a count revealed over 60 birds present – a fantastic total.
We moved on to the spit and settled in alongside the local fishing folk for a little visible migration.
A few Buff-bellied and Water Pipits, with the odd White Wagtail, flew overhead and a couple of tightly packed flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks wheeled around the remnants of last year’s maize stubble. A Black (eared) Kite lumbered past and two female Eastern Marsh Harriers caused havoc among the flocks of Eurasian Teal.
With not much happening we decided to move on and, after a short stop at a flooded field to admire two stunning BAIKAL TEAL, we headed to the ‘island’ to the north of the desert area to look for duck… Jesper and his clients were already in situ and, although quite distant, it was clear that there were lots of duck present. Two relatively close (but distant to photograph!) Red-breasted Mergansers represented bird species number 299 for me in Beijing… result!
With the duck distant, I knew that moving to the location from where I had seen the Baer’s Pochard last Sunday would again be a good vantage point. We headed to the spot and, sure enough, we were treated to stunning views of a large mixed raft of duck with the sun behind us and no wind… perfect, and very unusual, conditions at Wild Duck Lake.
We quickly found a drake BAER’S and, almost immediately, spotted another drake. There were two!
As on Sunday with the single drake, the two Baer’s were consorting with Ferruginous Duck and both were seen displaying… fabulous! It was from here that we also enjoyed some stunning views of Falcated Duck (including one very unusually marked male which sported a yellow mark on its lower cheek), Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Smew, Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Teal, Spot-billed Duck, Coot and Little and Great Crested Grebes. It was a great morning’s birding!
A short time later, a couple of Black Kites appeared and, as our eyes began to be distracted from the duck to the skies, it wasn’t long before I spotted an aquila eagle some distance away… My instinct was that it was probably a Greater Spotted Eagle, the most common aquila eagle at this site at this time of year. However, as it soared, Jesper immediately suspected it was an IMPERIAL EAGLE… and he was right!
It circled distantly and was soon joined by a second, but smaller, eagle.. This second bird had a notably square tail, pale markings on the upperwing coverts and mantle and, as it turned, it was even possible to glimpse the ‘landing lights’… wow.. A BOOTED EAGLE! Two very good eagle records for Beijing in the same scope view!
Both appeared to drift away and were lost from view without allowing me to capture any photographic record. However, fortunately, the Imperial soon re-appeared, this time closer, and I grabbed the camera to capture a few record images before it drifted into the mountains to the north. The bulging secondaries, typical of immature Imperial Eagle, can be seen very well, as well as the pale markings on the under- and upperwing. The ‘jizz’ was slightly different to Greater Spotted, too. A useful lesson for me (I have only ever seen one Eastern Imperial Eagle before).
Unfortunately the BOOTED EAGLE didn’t return but maybe it will linger in the area.. it’s a fabulous Beijing record with only a handful of previous sightings in eastern China. It also represented my 300th species in Beijing [NB Stop Press: Booted Eagle seen at Miyun Reservoir on Saturday by Jan-Erik Nilsen – the same bird?] It’s hard for me to see new birds in the capital now, so to see two new species in one day was pretty special..
The infamous NW Wild Duck Lake wind suddenly got up at around 1130 and Jesper and his clients decided to head off to check Yeyahu NR. We decided to stay and enjoy the Baer’s Pochards a little longer. We gave it another hour or so before calling it a day and heading back to Beijing.. another cracking day at this world class site.
On Sunday I visited Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake. April and May are superb months to visit this special Beijing site. With migration in full swing, it’s fascinating to see the departure of the winter visitors, the arrival of summer visitors and the passage of migrants on their way to breeding grounds further north… Already many of the winter birds have departed – I didn’t see a single crane of any species on Sunday – but many others are just beginning to arrive. Oriental Plovers – a Ma Chang speciality – are coming through in good numbers now and it’s a great time, too, for wildfowl and some of the early raptors.
The excitement of my visit on Sunday was heightened by the news that a BAER’S POCHARD was found on Friday by local birders Zhu Lei and Zhang Shen (thanks guys!). This bird is classified as “Critically Endangered” and, I understand, a survey of its traditional wintering grounds in China produced fewer than 50 birds this winter. Look out for a forthcoming article in Birding Asia about the dramatic decline of this species.
On arrival I was delighted to see some ORIENTAL PLOVERS on site. I counted 14 and, after watching them briefly, I made my way to the first site for checking duck. Viewing wildfowl is not straightforward at Ma Chang; there are many areas that are not viewable and the precise location of the birds depends on many factors, such as the wind direction and speed and the activity on the lake of the local fishermen. I have two favourite locations – one at the spit by some yurts (also a good place for visible migration) and one on the ‘island’ to the north. On Sunday, both sites were notably empty of duck. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be my day and that the duck must be hiding somewhere out of sight. Then I saw a small flock of Tufted Duck (not a common bird in Beijing) fly in and go down behind some reeds. I could see that there was a track that ran close by, so I made my way to the general area and found a good place to view the duck.
Unusually, there was no northwesterly wind blowing into my face, so the conditions were good. I soon realised that it wasn’t just the Tufted Duck present. There were some Ferruginous Duck (a species with which BAER’S POCHARD often associates), Shoveler, Common Pochard, Smew, Falcated Duck, Gadwall, Wigeon and Mallard all present. A careful scan revealed no sign of the Baer’s but I knew there were some duck asleep in the reeds, including some Ferruginous Duck and some others that were obscured.. I settled in, hoping that one of the sleeping duck out of sight might be the Baer’s.
After 45 minutes of enjoyable birding, including a nice flock of passing Swan Geese, a small passage of Buff-bellied Pipits and an early male Citrine Wagtail, I began another scan and, sure enough, in amongst the Ferruginous Duck was a stunning drake BAER’S POCHARD.
I watched the BAER’S for the next hour as it proceeded to display. Unfortunately there were no female BAER’S but that didn’t seem to matter.. this lonely male threw its head back, stretched its neck high and bowed to several female Ferruginous Ducks and a slightly startled-looking female Common Pochard… I guess when your situation is as desperate as the Baer’s Pochard, you can’t afford to be fussy!
It was heartening to see this bird but, at the same time, sobering to think that it is likely to make its way north alone and, when it arrives at its favoured lake, there may be no females with which to breed. The situation for this bird is precarious. Encouragingly I have heard of two separate sightings from Liaoning Province in the last few days – one male and one female. Let’s hope it’s a good breeding season for this species.
After an hour or so, I reluctantly pulled myself away to explore the rest of Ma Chang. The Oriental Plover flock had increased to an astonishing 55 birds, with 4-5 adult males sporting gleaming white heads.
Flocks of Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers were mixed in, many of which were displaying and calling frequently.
At one point, as I was watching the flock, all of the birds suddenly took flight. I suspected a raptor and, sure enough, a quick scan with the binoculars revealed a superb male LESSER KESTREL.. wow! A nice way to end a brilliant birding session at Ma Chang.
Full Species List (62 species):
Japanese Quail – 2
Common Pheasant – 12
Swan Goose – 28
Bean Goose – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 42
Gadwall – 78
Falcated Duck – 225
Eurasian Wigeon – 19
Mallard – 67
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Northern Shoveler – 4
Eurasian Teal – 18
Common Pochard – 12
BAER’S POCHARD – 1 drake displaying to both female Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard. Employed three ‘displays’ – one involved stretching the neck high, the second throwing the head back and the third leaning the head forward and ‘puffing up’ the back of the neck.
Ferruginous Duck – 17
Tufted Duck – 7
Goldeneye – 5
Smew – 12
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 8
Great Crested Grebe – 14
Great Bittern – 1 booming
Grey Heron – 7
Great Cormorant – 1
LESSER KESTREL – 1 male drifted northwest with occasional hovering spells (flushed the Oriental Plovers at one point)
Eurasian Kestrel – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 3 (one adult male and two adult females)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1
Northern Goshawk – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 2
Common Coot – 32
Black-winged Stilt – 16
Northern Lapwing – 63
Little Ringed Plover – 14
Kentish Plover – 33
Oriental Plover – 55 – the number seemed to increase as the day wore on with just 14 present early morning. Some disturbance from bird photographers and horses but they were not unduly perturbed.
Common Snipe – 1
Common Gull – 11
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults flew high west calling
Black-headed Gull – 18
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 3
Common Kingfisher – 2
Hoopoe – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 6
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 10
Corvid sp – 15
Carrion Crow – 3
Bohemian Waxwing – 4 flew south
Asian Short-toed Lark – 5
Eurasian Skylark – 4
White-cheeked Starling – 5
Daurian Redstart – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Citrine Wagtail – one male
White Wagtail – 4
Buff-bellied Pipit – 26
Water Pipit – 9
Pallas’s Bunting – 28
2012 was my second full year living in China’s capital. Thanks to Libby, my understanding wife, I have been fortunate enough to make regular visits to some of the capital’s most productive birding sites and to see some stunning birds. It is a joy to spend time in the outdoors observing familiar, and some not so familiar, species whilst at the same time adding a little to the knowledge, and status, of Beijing’s avifauna. Through the growing network of Beijing-based birders, both Chinese and ex-pats, and my expanding contacts among Chinese birdwatchers, many of whom I now consider good friends, I have learned a great deal over the last 12 months.
The end of the year is traditionally a time to take stock and look forward to the opportunities ahead. As in most parts of the world, it would be easy to feel depressed about the state of wild birds in China. Jankowski’s Bunting is in desperate trouble. The prospects are also grim for Baer’s Pochard. More well-known is the Chinese Crested Tern, which is in a precarious situation but hanging on, and of course Spoon-billed Sandpiper. In total there are 9 species classified as “Critically Endangered” in China. And, although only officially classified as “Vulnerable”, there is another species that I am very concerned about, a species whose song has never been recorded. Hands up if you have seen a Streaked Reed Warbler anywhere in the world in the last few years. The status of these species, almost certainly all moving in the wrong direction primarily due to habitat destruction, together with the ongoing battle against illegal poaching and bird-trapping, make it easy to paint a grim picture.
However, as we welcome 2013 and despite the growing pressures faced by the natural world, I am more optimistic about the future of China’s birds. Why? Who had expected the inspirational efforts by birders, volunteers and local authorities to take down over 2km of illegal mist nets and, later, save the poisoned Oriental Storks at Beidagang? Or the brave journalist, Li Feng, who secretly recorded and exposed the illegal shooting of migratory birds in Hunan Province? These events and many others like them, publicised through social media, sparked a huge response from ordinary Chinese people, demonstrating that there is a deep and widespread concern for the welfare of wild birds in China. This, in turn, has resulted in a new government initiative to strengthen the enforcement of laws relating to illegal poaching. On 29th November, shortly after the crackdown was announced, it was reported that in October and November the local authorities in Guangdong had seized 51,622 wild animals and 9,497 bird nets, following investigations spanning 584 markets and 1,320 restaurants. According to the report, 102 people have been sentenced as a result of the crackdown.
As one Chinese friend told me, the events in Hunan and at Beidagang could mark a turning point in the future of wild birds in China.
So, as we enter a new year with optimism and a renewed belief that, collectively, we can make a difference, it is an appropriate time to say a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment and contribute through this blog, via the associated Birding Beijing Facebook page, the Twitter feed or directly to me via email. Birding Beijing would be a shadow of itself, and less fun to write, without all of you joining in!
And I am sure that I speak for all readers as I pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers across China who have bravely taken a stand to protect their wild birds. I wish them every success in 2013 as they seek to consign to history wild bird persecution.
I wish everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2013.
With apologies to my mum, that’s exactly what went through my head as I scanned a group of diving duck at Wild Duck Lake on Wednesday morning and came across a bird with a green-tinged head and pale flanks… It immediately turned away so that I could only see it’s backside and there were agonising seconds of self-doubt before it turned side-on again to show me that it was, without a doubt, most definitely, a drake BAER’S POCHARD…. Wow.
Wednesday morning started off badly. For more than half an hour I was stuck in traffic on the G6 caused by broken down lorries that failed to make the steep ascent over the Badaling Great Wall pass, meaning that I arrived at Ma Chang around 0645, about half an hour after dawn. Already, many bird photographers were driving around in 4x4s searching for something to photograph.. and there were no birds on the ‘desert area’. As usual, I went to the more isolated western end of the track, near a ‘spit’ of land on which several fishermen’s ‘tents’ or yurts are situated in the summer months. I set up my telescope here and began to watch. Visible migration was relatively slow with just Buff-bellied and a few Water Pipits accompanied by some Little Buntings and a few Skylarks. An immature male Hen Harrier and a Saker both came through in the first half an hour (the latter with prey). Initially, there were no duck to be seen but, later on, a large mixed flock flew in, presumably flushed by fishermen. They settled some distance away but were viewable with a telescope from my position. I began to scan through them and there were almost 300 Mallard, 82 Gadwall and 79 Spot-billed Duck dabbling against the far reedbed. A little closer, in a line, was a large group of diving duck. In this flock was a good number of Ferruginous Duck and, as I began to count them, I stumbled across a diving duck with pale flanks and a greenish tinge to the head.. However, just as I got onto it, it turned away. I immediately thought ” ****! That looked like a Baer’s Pochard”… At this point I lost count of the Ferruginous Duck.. I watched the BAER’S POCHARD for a couple of minutes as it fed – with short dives – amongst the Ferruginous Ducks. I then remembered that I was counting Ferruginous Ducks and, being someone who likes to finish what they have started, I began to count them again.. I got to about 12 before I saw the BAER’S POCHARD again.. and after lingering a few seconds, continued with the count.. I was working from left to right and, as I approached the far right of the flock, I saw a drake BAER’S POCHARD. Thinking that it must have been the same one that had simply moved across unseen, I scanned back to the original position and, to my amazement, the original bird was still there! So there were two drake BAER’S..!! Gulp..
The second BAER’S was the last viewable bird in the flock – the rest were behind the reeds. I realised that the angle from which I was observing the birds wasn’t great and that if I moved a little further west along the spit, I would be able to see more of the flock. I moved the car and, sitting on the back seat with the back door open, I was able to use it as a wind break to help minimise wind shake. Again, I went through the flock, this time a little closer and with much less wind shake. I counted 38 Ferruginous Ducks, 18 Common Pochard, 3 Smew and an incredible 4 BAER’S POCHARD (the same two males, the latter of which enjoyed the company of two females). This total is a minimum as there were still more birds in the flock that were not viewable.. I sent SMSs to a few people before settling down and just enjoying observing these birds.. Unfortunately they were too distant to photograph with my 400mm lens. The picture below was taken with my 400mm lens to illustrate just how distant they were.
My telescope was on 40-50x during the observation but the light was excellent, with the sun directly behind me.
The BAER’S POCHARD is in a perilous state. It’s status was recently amended to “Critically Endangered” reflecting the dramatic decline of this species. In a worrying sign, the surveys by Chinese ornithologists on some of its traditional wintering grounds yielded no birds in winter 2011/12. This is an extract from an internet posting by Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu and Tony Fox:
“a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before.”
I also understand that a (partial) summer survey of its traditional breeding ground this year resulted in no confirmed sightings at all. Amongst all this gloom, one positive development has been the discovery of two breeding sites, both holding very few pairs, a long way south of the known traditional breeding range. Whether these birds represent a previously undiscovered population or whether breeding at these sites reflects an adaptation strategy to the deterioration of their preferred habitat further north is a question to which I don’t know the answer… Whatever, it is clear that this bird is in serious trouble. I hope to write something more in-depth on the plight of the Baer’s Pochard very soon. Watch this space.
PS. The four-letter word I used was “Gosh”.. 🙂
Full species list below.
Common Pheasant – 8
Bean Goose – 7
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Gadwall – 82 @ Ma Chang plus 16 @ Yeyahu
Mallard – 280
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 88
Eurasian Teal – 12
Common Pochard – 18 BAER’S POCHARD – 4 (two males, two females)
Ferruginous Duck – 39 (38 @ Ma Chang plus 1 @ Yeyahu) – possibly a record Beijing count.
Common Goldeneye – 6
Smew – 5 (2 @ Ma Chang, 3 @ Yeyahu)
Goosander – 3
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 6
Black Stork – 2 over Yeyahu
Grey Heron – 1
Great Cormorant – 1
Common Kestrel – 1
Saker – 2
Hen Harrier – 2 (one imm male and one first winter)
Northern Goshawk – 2
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Coot – 76
Common Crane – 15
Northern Lapwing – 1
Snipe sp (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) – 1
Spotted Redshank – 2
Black-headed Gull – 93
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 7
Common Magpie – lots
Daurian Jackdaw – 431
Carrion Crow – 1
Corvid sp (Rook/Carrion/Long-billed Crow) – 28
Great Tit – 1
Marsh Tit – 2
Skylark – 8
Chinese Hill Babbler – 2
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler – 7
Yellow-browed Warbler – 1
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 6
White-cheeked Starling – 4
Red-flanked Bluetail – 1
Daurian Redstart – 1
Tree Sparrow – lots
Buff-bellied Pipit – 44
Water Pipit – 4
Brambling – 14
Oriental Greenfinch – 1
Pine Bunting – 3
Little Bunting – 21
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 8
Saturday was an awesome day at Wild Duck Lake but little did I know that I would discover possibly my best ever find on Sunday. Given that I had the hire car until 4pm on Sunday, I decided to try a site in northern Beijing, between the 5th and 6th ring roads – the Shahe river. It was Jan-erik Nilsen who first told me about, and showed me, this place last autumn (thanks Jan-erik – I owe you one!). There is some open water – Shahe Reservoir – some reedbeds and some nice reedy fringes to the river banks.. It looks like a great site for crakes and rails, as well as duck. On arrival this morning, I immediately found a flock of around 60 diving ducks but unfortunately I was on the north side of the river looking south on a very sunny day, so it was not easy to make out anything other than silhouettes… I hadn’t visited the southern side but with a bit of trial and error, I found a bridge and a track that followed the southern bank. I drove to the spot where I had seen the diving duck and parked up.. I crept slowly over the earth bank to see whether the duck were still there.. They were, so I had a quick scan with the bins and immediately spotted a darker duck in the group. It appeared to have lightish flanks and a greenish head and my heart started to race – could it be? As the birds were fairly distant, I nipped back to the car, grabbed my ‘scope and started to scan the flock. They were feeding very actively and my instinct suggested they had recently arrived. The first few birds were all Common Pochards but I soon got onto the much darker bird and, immediately, I could see that it was a drake BAER’S POCHARD!! After swearing in my mind several times and pinching myself, I uttered a sort of “whoop” and did a victory dance – a la Jack Black in “The Big Year”… Fortunately, as is not often the case in China, there was nobody around, so I avoided any strange stares and comments under the breath about a strange foreigner etc.. I zoomed in to 60x on the ‘scope and enjoyed fantastic views, albeit quite distant, for the next 30 minutes as I took some notes on its plumage. Although it was in the middle of a flock Common Pochard when I first saw it, the Baer’s only loosely associated with them.. at times it was several metres away from the flock and seemed to do its own thing, only occasionally joining the Common Pochard flock, usually when there was some disturbance on the far bank (fisherman, walkers etc). I grabbed a few record images with the camera and then sent a few SMSs to Beijing-based birders.. Although I received a few ‘thank you’ messages, as far as I know, nobody went to see it! Welcome to birding in China!
Baer’s Pochard is now, sadly, a very rare bird and declining fast. This text was recently posted on Birdforum by Alan Lewis (who famously ‘twitched’ a Baer’s Pochard in Japan this winter):
“Wang Xin, Cao Lei, Lei Jinyu, Tony Fox says: February 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm Based on recent compilation and collation of counts and observations from a wide array of available information, we are deeply concerned to find a drastic decline in wintering numbers and range contraction of Baer’s Pochard. The results of the exercise have been gathered in a database and analyses have been prepared for formal reporting, but given the urgency of the situation, we feel the very pressing need to report preliminary findings here. Because of lack of consistent and regular counts from many wintering sites, it is difficult to present count data in any logical way that provides a clear indication of true population trajectory.
However, it is our impression from counts and speaking directly to national experts that the species has now functionally ceased to winter in regular numbers at any site outside of mainland China as of winter 2010/11. Within China, the sum of maximum annual winter counts (November to March) from each province fell from 16,792 during 1987-1993 to 2,131 in 2002-2011. There was a marked contraction of range within China over this period, with no records from many provinces in recent years, despite increases in birdwatching activity. Clearly using maximum counts over a series of years likely over-estimates the true numbers actually present in any one year, but the relative values indicate the magnitude of the decline and the geographical contraction in range which is very evident throughout the winter quarters.
The Chinese State Forest Agency and WWF-China recently coordinated coverage of winter resorts in the middle and lower Yangtze River Floodplain (now considered the core wintering area for the species) but found less than 200 Baer’s Pochard in January 2011. Perhaps far worse, a special survey by Wuhan Birdwatching Society this winter (2011/12) did not find any Baer’s Pochard at all, even at Liangzi Lake (where the survey had found c. 130 individuals last year). Birdwatchers have also been to the upper part of Wuchang Lake in Anhui this winter where Cao Lei’s group have been finding more than 200 in recent years and found none there as well. In the Baiquan wetlands, in Wuhan, where the species was often found in the past, there are only reports of poisoned swans and geese because the water levels in winter 2011/12 are so low and people can get near to the waterbirds as never before.
Based on improved counts from very recent years, we fear that the global population of the species is now less than 1000 individuals and are deeply concerned that the true world total could be very much lower than this. Since we find very little information about current breeding and staging areas, there is an immediate need to better understand the breeding distribution and biology of Baer’s Pochard. Given the widespread and rapid decline, it seems unlikely that factors on all the non-breeding areas have simultaneously contributed to its demise alone, although we cannot rule out the effects very heavy mortality at a key staging site (such as hunting) where a large proportion of the population passes each year. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to determine the food supply and conditions for the species on the last few remaining lakes used on the winter quarters to secure their sympathetic management in winter, if it is not already too late. There is no denying the very urgent need for rapid and coordinated actions to protect the Baer’s Pochard throughout its remaining range and recommend suitable re-grading of its current status as soon as possible.”
It is tragic to think that this bird could disappear within the next few years. With so little known about it and so few recent sightings, the future is not bright for this attractive duck. Fortunately there are several in captivity. It is a bird I have wanted to see since I moved to China in 2010 and I was beginning to think I had left it too late… so I was overjoyed to find this male today.
If anyone is interested in directions to look for this bird, please send me a message. I suspect it won’t stay for long but there must be a reasonable chance it will stay a few days.
Whilst on site I also counted two Hoopoes and a very high migrating Black-eared Kite (my first of the year). But it is due to the Baer’s that I will forever remember today!
Another trip to Wild Duck Lake gave rewards but not in the way we had expected! A big target bird was Baer’s Pochard, a rare duck that breeds in NE China and the S Russian Far East and winters in south-eastern China. They *must* pass through Wild Duck Lake in Spring, we think.. it’s just a case of finding one! With conflicting forecasts, we had gambled on the wind being slack and, on arrival at Yanqing at 0715, it seemed the gamble had paid off. Hardly a breath of wind and a glorious sunny day. However, when we arrived at Ma Chang 20 minutes later, we could see the wind turbines rattling around at a fair pace and, as soon as we got out of the car, we were stood facing into a moderate to strong north-westerly – exactly the direction in which we needed to look to see the wildfowl.
Wind can be a real downer at this very open site – apart from the fact that it can be uncomfortable (and very cold) with icy winds from Siberia and Mongolia whipping into your face, it makes viewing the birds that much more difficult, especially using a lightweight tripod and telescope. To add to this, the wildfowl were all keeping their heads low at the relatively sheltered far side of the lake, and amongst the reeds, making viewing very difficult indeed on the choppy water.
Still, we persevered, and reached some reasonable counts of Common Crane (c200), Swan Goose (c100), Bean Goose (c250), c450 Ruddy Shelduck, c150 each of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans, Falcated Duck, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, c350 Smew and a nice flock of 8 White-naped Cranes feeding nearby in a field. But there was no sign of the first Garganey of spring or the rare Baer’s Pochard. Never mind. Not this time.
We began the walk to Yeyahu, with the wind on our backs, and enjoyed sightings of 3 Hen Harriers (two ringtails and a beautiful adult male), 2 Kentish Plovers, a single Eurasian Curlew (first of the year), a Grey-headed Lapwing, 100s of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and 100s of Eurasian Skylarks with a few Asian Short-toed Larks mixed in (no Mongolian this time). As we reached Yeyahu, the wind suddenly seemed to drop and, almost immediately, we began to see a few raptors – first another Hen Harrier, then an Upland Buzzard, then a second Upland. At this point we had reached the long line of trees that runs south to north from Yeyahu lake to the reservoir. Here, we usually split up with one of us doing the east side, the other the west. I took the east side and, by the time I had reached almost half way down, I had seen only single Meadow and Little Buntings plus a few Tree Sparrows. Then I heard some corvids calling overhead and I looked up to see a flock of around 20 Carrion Crows very high up in the sky flying south.. they deviated slightly to intercept a much larger bird gliding east… it had to be an eagle! I could immediately see it was large and, after quickly narrowing down the possibilities in my head to Great Spotted/Imperial or Steppe, I called Spike to get him onto the bird. As I was speaking to him, it began to head north towards the mountains and I quickly gave Spike directions before focusing the telescope on it as it drifted away. In the strong light, the only colouration I could make out was that it looked mostly dark with paler undertail coverts. I counted 7 ‘fingers’ on its broad and long wings before it became just a ‘dark bird of prey’ at distance. Frustratingly, I didn’t get enough detail to confirm the identification. I made my way north towards the viewing tower that is well-situated on the south-eastern end of the reservoir in the hope that it might reappear.
Spike joined me there, unfortunately having not seen the bird. We took the opportunity to take lunch and waited, scanning the skies. It’s quite usual for large birds of prey to turn up in this area and often, with a little patience, they return. So we were hopeful. Then, about half an hour later, I got on to a large bird of prey heading our way. Large eagle. This time Spike saw it and we both enjoyed views through the telescope. We began to note the features. Great Spotted Eagle was probably the most likely species but it didn’t ‘feel’ like one. This bird had long, broad wings, black primary tips and a dark trailing edge to the wings, but with a paler panel on the inner primaries that reached the tip. The underwing coverts looked paler and the body was mottled. The head appeared dark from underneath but looked slightly paler from above. The tail was relatively long and almost two-toned. It glided on slightly bowed wings. It was clearly not an adult of any of the candidate species and immatures can be very variable. Neither of us had much experience with large eagles, so we decided to take as many notes as possible and also try to grab a few photographs. The bird stayed quite distant, so photographing it was not easy but I was able to capture a few images which, after being heavily cropped, show some of the distinctive features.
On arriving home and looking at the literature, we both independently suspected it was an immature Eastern Imperial Eagle and this was also the view of Jesper Hornskov, to whom I had sent the photographs and description. I have never seen Eastern Imperial Eagle before and it’s quite a scarce bird in the Beijing area, so we were pretty pleased with the record. The images are below.