Beijing: could it be the capital of biodiversity?

When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head?  The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution?  For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..?  Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.

That could be about to change.

In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved.  However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different.  It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.

The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet.  That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.

As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.

But what about the host city?  Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?

Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded.  And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:

Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others?  Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir.  It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter.   However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures.  This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds.  Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife.  Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife.  One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir.  In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation.  If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy.  Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.

Potential benefits:

– High standard of water quality

– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards

– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature

– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county

 

Idea 2: 10% Wild

The Summer Palace, Beijing..

Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces.  Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.  Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds.  These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be.  One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”.  This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves.  Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park.  Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife.  After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management

 

Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases

An urban oasis in Shunyi District

Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south.  To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.

“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat.  Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.

To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District.  Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly.  Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.

The Shunyi patch is a small area (1km x 1km) of undisturbed land close to Beijing Capital International Airport. The 156 bird species recorded (of which at least 140 are migrants) in just over 2 years shows how important such areas are for migratory birds.

Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.

Potential benefits:

– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species

– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists

– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population

 

Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift

A typical track of a Beijing Swift.

In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds.  The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing.  One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing).  The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”.  This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes.  Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital?  There can be no more appropriate candidate.

Potential benefits:

– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach

– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing

– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings

 

Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports

When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind.  China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets.  This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft.  Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons.  In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes.  Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks.  Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods.  China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets.  It’s lazy and ineffective.  Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?

Potential benefits:

– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year

– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes

– a better international image for China and Beijing

 

===

With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities.  Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation?  These are just five ideas.  If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.

 

For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.

 

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A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing

As part of the ongoing effort to provide English-language resources about wildlife in China’s capital city, Birding Beijing is pleased to be able to offer a downloadable PDF about the amphibians that can be found in the city.  This guide has been compiled by R. Nicolas LOU, ZHANG Junduo and Ben WIELSTRA, to whom Birding Beijing owes great thanks.

As with the other guides in the series, we acknowledge that this document is not perfect and the authors welcome any information and photographs that will improve the guide.   Please send via email to the address provided in the guide.  Thank you!

A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing

 

Header photo: Dark-spotted Frog by Zhang Junduo

Thank You, Wildsounds!

When I was back in Norfolk, UK, for Christmas and New Year I was delighted to meet Duncan Macdonald of Wildsounds, an independent Norfolk-based supplier of wildlife books, audio, multimedia guides and audio equipment.  As well as being great company, Duncan was extremely generous in offering some Asia-focused field guides for me to take back to Beijing to give to Chinese birders.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and, after a competition via the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I spent a day whizzing around Beijing to deliver the books to the lucky winners.   Here are a few of the winners receiving their books:

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There is no doubt that these books will further enthuse the lucky recipients about birds and that can only be good for the future of birding and conservation in China.  A big thank you to Duncan!

The next time you are thinking about buying wildlife books, please do consider independent outlets like Wildsounds who, unlike some of the major retailers, pay their taxes and contribute to many conservation projects around the world!

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.

Winter is coming…

It’s that time of year again.  As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea.  However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.

Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:

  • First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
  • Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
  • Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
  • Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
  • Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional.  Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan?  Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
2016-03-07 Jankowski's Bunting, Miyun5
One of the wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir in winter 2015/2016.

The best winter sites?

Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round.  And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’.  The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern.  It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff.  For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.

Donglingshan (东灵山)

2015-11-01 Red-throated Thrush male in flight, Lingshan2
Red-throated Thrush usually winters in good numbers at Lingshan.

The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site.  It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch.  In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch.  Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch.  Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.

At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing.  However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.

A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.

 

Shidu (十渡)

A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital.  A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area.  Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river.  However, many more interesting species are possible.  For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6.  And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter.  Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible.  And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.

2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu
Shidu is the best place in Beijing to see Wallcreeper.

 

Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter

Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.

1.     Merlin This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks.  Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.

 

2.     Cinereous Vulture  With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March.  Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.

 

3.     Goldcrest This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter.  The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look.  Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4.     Siberian Accentor This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth.  They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful.  The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.

 

5.     Naumann’s Thrush  Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated).  With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6.     Japanese Waxwing The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers.  Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes.  Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings.  Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7.     Winter Wren The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures.  In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water.  The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
8.     Brambling The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing.  A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees.  Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9.     Pallas’s Rosefinch A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital.  A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter.  The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species.  A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10.  Pallas’s Bunting  A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds.  Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.

Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it.  Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.

 

Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.

This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.

Nocturnal Flight Calls in Beijing

Have you ever wondered what birds are flying over your home?  During the migration season it is possible that many hundreds, even thousands, of birds fly over one’s home in a single night and recording sound during the dark hours can help to shed light on the number of birds and the diversity of species that are flying overhead as we sleep.

The practice of recording nocturnal flight calls (NFC) is gaining in popularity in Europe and the US (and elsewhere?) but is still in its relative infancy.  Thus, identification of the calls recorded is a major challenge.  Not only does successful ID require a strong knowledge of the vocalisations of many of the resident and migratory species in the area but it appears that some birds use different calls at night to those with which we are familiar, thus adding to the difficulty.

For some time, I’ve been thinking that I really should try to record nocturnal flight calls in Beijing.  After all, although I live close to one of the world’s busiest airports (a source of ‘noise’ for around 20 hours per day), my apartment is on the 13th (top) floor and, from sightings in the capital, we know that Beijing is on a major flyway.  There simply *must* be lots of migrants flying over my apartment as I sleep…

And so, after some helpful advice from David Darrell-Lambert in London, who has been recording night flight calls for some time in an urban environment, I took the plunge and ordered a digital sound recorder and set to work!  I made my first recording on the night of 29/30 August and have been recording every night that I have been at home ever since.

So what have I discovered?  A resident LITTLE OWL that I never knew I had, some BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS, MOORHEN, GREY NIGHTJAR, brown flycatcher sp, a probable EYEBROWED THRUSH, YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER, OLIVE-BACKED and RICHARD’S PIPITS, LITTLE BUNTINGS and many many many calls that remain unidentified!

Here are the spectograms and recordings of MOORHEN and the presumed EYEBROWED THRUSH.  Note the “noise” of the local crickets, particularly in the first recording.

 

That’s not a bad list of species for a major capital city and I am confident I will record many more species as the autumn wears on.  What price a first record for Beijing?

So how does it work?

The digital recorder records to a HCSD memory card.  Depending on the quality, a 16GB memory card can record around 20 hours of sound.  I simply place the recorder on my window ledge (or on the roof), pointing roughly in a northerly direction, and leave it there until early morning.  When I wake I have around 8-10 hours of recording.

Fortunately, one doesn’t need to listen to all 8-10 hours to find the birds.  There is some great free software out there to help.  Audacity and Cornell Lab’s RavenLite are both superb pieces of software that help to “visualise” the sounds using a spectogram.  I upload the sound file from the memory card to RavenLite and set the programme to display 10 seconds at a time…  then I scroll through the file, spending a fraction of a second on each page, until I see an obvious bird call.  For my urban environment, I very quickly became accustomed to identifying barking dogs, car horns and people shouting, enabling me to scan the files with ever greater efficiency.  I perhaps spend around an hour going through each night’s recording and saving all the relevant snippets.  So far, on average, I have recorded around 30 calls per night, around two thirds of which remain unidentified.

To help with identification, the great resources at Xeno-canto Asia are a big help.  However, even this resource is generally limited to diurnal calls and may not include calls given exclusively at night.

It is clear there is a huge amount to learn, and discover, by recording nocturnal flight calls and I am sure that I am going to find out an immense amount over the autumn migration period.

A dedicated page has been set up here where all the latest news about this exciting new project will be posted.  Please check regularly and help if you can!

Title image: a spectogram of EYEBROWED THRUSH recorded from my apartment.

The Birds of the Wenyu, Beijing’s Mother River

Beijing is one of the few major inland capital cities not built on a major river.  In fact, the choice of site for China’s capital was taken partly because it wasn’t coastal or on a major river, thus reducing the risk of invasion via water.

However, to think that Beijing doesn’t have ANY rivers would be a mistake.  The Yongding, Chaobai and Juma originate in the highlands of neighbouring provinces, Hebei and Shanxi, and meander through the mountains west and north of the city.  And there is a fourth river – the Wenyu – that runs from Shahe Reservoir, between the 5th and 6th ring roads in the north of the city, to Tongzhou in the southeast.  All four rivers are tributaries of the Hai river that eventually empties into the Bohai on China’s east coast.

Running along the border of Chaoyang (urban Beijing) and Shunyi (Suburban) Districts, the Wenyu River is a flyway for migratory birds that has attracted Beijing ‘firsts’ such as Greater Flamingo, Grey-tailed Tattler and Buff-throated Warbler.  The Wenyu has also been the local patch for one of the most active of Beijing’s patch watchers – Steve Bale (Shi Jin).

There is something magical about birding a local patch.  Over time, the patch-birder develops an intimate knowledge of the resident species and the migratory birds likely to turn up, including when they are likely to appear.  The joy of finding a “patch first”, even if it’s a relatively common species in the region, is hard to beat… and the more effort invested, the more rewarding the results.

Of course, some locations are better than others and Steve’s choice of a relatively unknown river in the most populated capital city in the world perhaps doesn’t sound the most promising of local patches.  However, the reality is very different.  As you will see from the free-to-enjoy PDF of Steve’s book, The Birds of the Wenyu ..Beijing’s Mother River, this is a place that all birders living in or passing through China’s capital should be visiting time and time again.  As I am sure your will agree, this is a mightily impressive and wonderfully written work, which documents the 280 species recorded by (on, and over) the Wenyu River.

We perhaps should not be surprised that the Wenyu River is so productive.  After all, it’s part of Beijing, an under-birded city located on one of the world’s most impressive flyways.  And, as Steve says in his introduction, the potential for discovery is huge and it must only be a matter of time before the 300th species is recorded there.

Steve should be congratulated on a brilliant and comprehensive piece of work.  Not only is his the first book of its kind for China’s capital city, adding significantly to our understanding of the avifauna of Beijing, but with plans to translate and distribute it free of charge to schools and community groups, it will certainly inspire a whole new generation of birders in the capital.

Thank you, Steve!