2013: Let’s Make It A Good One!

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.

Me with the Tianjin crew.  From left to right:
Me with the Tianjin heroes. From left to right: Mo Xunqiang (Nemo), Wang Weihao, Wu Jianyu (Emily), me, Meng Xiangxi, Zhang Yue, Ma Yufang.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2013.

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“****! That looked like a BAER’S POCHARD!!!”

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.

On 17 October 2012, there were at least 4 Baer’s Pochards here (beyond the 3rd set of nets)!

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

Baer’s Pochard

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!

The Baer's Pochard on the Shahe river, Beijing, 25 March 2012
Baer's Pochard, showing its aversion to fraternising too closely with the commoners...

 

Baer's Pochard giving the locals a wide berth. With Common Pochard and Little Grebes.

 

The location. Baer's Pochards aren't fussy.

 

Eastern Imperial Eagle

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.

 

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China

Eastern Imperial Eagle, Yeyahu, nr Yanqing, China