April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east. See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava). Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies. Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:
1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.
2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)
The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct). With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.
3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)
A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies. With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails. The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.
4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)
The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April). A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.
5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)
The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba. The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!
Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.
M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital. Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.
It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.
The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.
Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.
To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails. Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015. And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!
Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).
This post was originally published in April 2015. It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.
As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives. More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.
However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places. Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day. And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.
The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists. The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.
For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power. I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between. For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:
“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”
Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China. The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing. Watch this space!
And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask. And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings. On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā). The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).
A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.
After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor. I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment. The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.
On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā). Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.
Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy. The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.
The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets. They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season. A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!
The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health. I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants. Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.
Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)
2019 was another excellent year of birding in China’s capital city. As of the end of the year, although there is uncertainty about some historical records, it is now likely that more than 500 species have been recorded in the Municipality, cementing Beijing as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds. With a growing number of active birders, most of whom are young Chinese, the number of sightings of all birds – common, scarce and rare – is increasing year on year. Given the greater coverage, it is not surprising that more unusual birds have been found. In 2019, three new species were added to the Beijing list and a further three were documented for the first time. In addition, at least three species were recorded for only the second time and another five for the third time.
New records included PLAIN PRINIA, NORTHERN GREAT TIT and ASHY-THROATED WARBLER, with records of BIANCHI’S WARBLER, NORTHERN WHEATEAR and BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER the first documented records. Second records included POMARINE JAEGER, BLYTH’S REED WARBLER,WHITE-THROATED REDSTART and GREY BUSHCHAT (the latter the 2nd record since 1987). Third records included a popular EUROPEAN ROBIN, dubbed a “Brexit refugee” that caused possibly the biggest ‘twitch’ ever seen in China and attracting media coverage both in China and overseas, as well as SANDERLING, PECTORAL SANDPIPER, COMMON RINGED PLOVER and SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER.
A summary of the birding highlights from Beijing is below, in chronological order. Although I have included all information to which I have access, it is certainly not comprehensive. If you know of any errors or additions, please comment at the end of this post or contact me via email/WeChat.
I’d like to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU to everyone who has shared news of sightings throughout the year, whether via WeChat, email, eBird or any other means. There is no doubt that sharing bird news has helped many people to see new and unusual species for the first time, helping to build the knowledge base among birders in Beijing and, importantly, enthusing more people about the natural world.
To keep up to date with the latest bird and wildlife news in Beijing, check the Latest Sightings page on Birding Beijing.
Here’s wishing everyone a bird-filled 2020!
The year began with a few lingering rarities from 2018. Beijing’s ninth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù), first discovered on 30 December 2018, remained at Shidu, Fangshan District and was seen on 5 January (Niao Pan), 21st (Terry Townshend and John MacKinnon), 27th (Steve Bale and David Mansfield), 3rd February (Qian Cheng) and on 15th February (Zang Shaoping), along with the regular WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀, Hóng chì xuán bì què) that was seen throughout the winter at the same site. On 6th a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula parva, 红胸姬鹟, Hóng xiōng jī wēng) was seen in Chaoyang Park (Zhen Niu), probably the bird originally seen in the Temple of Heaven Park earlier in the winter (Beijing’s sixth record); it remained until at least 7 February. Similarly, Beijing’s second REDWING (Turdus iliacus, 白眉歌鸫, Báiméi gē dōng), first found on 5 December 2018 by Steve Bale, was seen on 6th January at Tsinghua University (Vincent Wang).
Also on 6th there was a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of uncertain origin and an unseasonal ‘SWINTAIL’ SNIPE (Gallingago stenura/Gallinago megala) at DaShiHe (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Lou Fangzhou) with a JAPANESE GROSBEAK (Eophona personata, 黑头蜡嘴雀, Hēitóu là zuǐ què) at Tsinghua University (Zhen Niu) the same day.
On 8th, Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) was reported from the Beijing Zoo (via XiaoPT), causing one of the biggest ‘twitches’ seen in the capital and attracting significant media coverage. It remained until at least 1 February.
On 9th, birders visiting to see the Robin found a BLACK-THROATED TIT (Aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀, Hóngtóu cháng wěishān què), subsequently seen by many over the following days.
Two female CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Xiaqingshuicun on 12th (Jan-Erik Nilsen) and a single NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was along the G234 between Yunfengshan and Miyun Reservoir on 22nd. On 24th a wintering GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng), first discovered in December 2018, was seen in the grounds of Tsinghua University and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (Anas formosa, 花脸鸭, Huāliǎn yā), an unusual urban mid-winter record, was photographed in the southern section of Olympic Forest Park (remaining until 10 February at least).
On 28th an impressive count of 510 COMMON MERGANSERS (Mergus merganser, 普通秋沙鸭, Pǔtōng qiū shā yā) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).
On 1st a NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor sibiricus, 灰伯劳, Huī bóláo) was seen at Lingshan (Vincent Wang). On 4th a Beijing record count of 210 RUSTIC BUNTINGS (Emberiza rustica, 田鹀, Tián wú) was recorded in Tongzhou by Paul Holt. On 6th, Beijing’s thirteenth YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella, 黄鹀, Huáng wú) was found in a flock of 150+ PINE BUNTINGS at Yanqing (Terry Townshend, Marie Louise Ng).
On 8th a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲, Bái hóu hóng wěi qú) was found and photographed at Lingshan. Remarkably, with no pre-2018 records, this was the third sighting of this species in the mountains around Beijing during the 2018/2019 winter. The first was of a male on 14 November 2018 at Lingshan, just over the border in Hebei Province (Terry Townshend and Steve Bale), and the second (the first record for Beijing), also a male, was on 5 December 2018 at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore), so the sighting on 8th February 2019 was the third overall and the second sighting within the boundary of Beijing Municipality (Terry Townshend, XiaoPT, DaHao). Just two days later, on 10th, DaHao counted two males and a female at the same site and a pair was also seen on 25th (Steve Bale, Terry Townshend and Ben Wielstra).
Incredibly, in between these records, presumably a different male was photographed in the Botanical Gardens on 24th (Jiang Wenyue).
Back at Lingshan, a healthy flock of 150+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) was seen by DaHao on 11th, with 100+ there on 12th (Li Peimeng).
An unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was along the Wenyu River on 20th (Steve Bale) and, on 23rd, a PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus, 白腹鸫, Bái fù dōng) was seen the Olympic Forest Park. On the same day, an immature MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Taishitun (XiaoPT). An adult SIBERIAN GULL (Larus fuscus heuglini, 西伯利亚银鸥, Xībólìyǎ yín ōu) was a nice winter find on 24th at Shahe Reservoir, remaining into March (Colm Moore).
March began with a BAR-HEADED GOOSE (Anser indicus, 斑头雁, Bān tóuyàn) of unknown origin at Chongqing Reservoir on 1st (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). Singles were later seen on 7th at Nanhaizi (Zhong Zhenyu) and 8th at Shahe (Bill Bu). On 2nd a potential Beijing record count of 19 MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Nanhaizi (DaHe). An early EURASIAN SPOONBILL (Platalea leucorodia, 白琵鹭, Bái pí lù) was at Yizhuang Wetland on 3rd (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat). On 7th an excellent count of 310 MONGOLIAN GULLS (Larus mongolicus, 黄脚(银)鸥, Huáng jiǎo (yín) ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT). The same site hosted a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) on 9th (Zhu Haoqiang) and 10th (Steve Bale), joined by a second bird on 16th (Catherine Dong), with both remaining on and off until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).
A single 2cy PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) was at Shisanling on 11th (Colm Moore), followed by three at Shahe Reservoir on 13th (Lou Fangzhou et al). Two remained on 14th when a remarkable 745+ MONGOLIAN GULLS were logged passing through (XiaoPT, Song Jian and Niu Zhen). Presumably the same PALLAS’S GULLS were seen on 18th by Colm Moore, with one remaining until 23rd (Zhu Haoqiang).
On 21st two SHORT-TOED EAGLES (Circaetus gallicus, 短趾雕, Duǎn zhǐ diāo) were at Miyun Reservoir (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend). On 23rd single males of BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) and GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila, 斑背潜鸭, Bān bèi qián yā) were at Huairou Reservoir (Terry Townshend) and on 24th a colour-ringed WHITE-NAPED CRANE (Grus vipio, 白枕鹤, Bái zhěn hè), originally ringed near Khurkh, Mongolia, was at Yeyahu (Terry Townshend), joined by another two birds on 31st.
On 25th two male BAER’S POCHARDS were at the same site (Lou Fangzhou) and the same observer photographed a pale morph BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus, 靴隼雕, Xuē sǔn diāo) at the traditional raptor watchpoint of Baiwangshan on 28th.
The month ended with a bang in the form of a NORTHERN GREAT TIT (Parus major, 北大山雀, Bei Dà shānquè) along the Wenyu River on 31st (Steve Bale), the first record of this species in the capital. On the same day a WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) of the alba subspecies was at Shahe Reserbvoir (Lou Fangzhou), two ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) were at Ma Chang (Xing Chao, James Phillips and Terry Townshend) and a single ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and two PALLAS’S GULLS (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu), presumably new birds, were at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).
Lou Fangzou was no fool on 1 April when he found Beijing’s fourth ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at Ma Chang. On the same day, the first 2019 record of BEIJING SWIFT (Apus apus pekinensis, 北京雨燕, Běijing yǔyàn) was at Tongzhou (Yue XiaoXiao).
There were further records of ‘alba’ WHITE WAGTAILS on 2nd (three at Shahe Reservoir – Niu Zhen and DaHao), 3rd (three at Shisanling – XiaoPT),, 6th (four at Ma Chang – XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Zhang Shen – and two at Shahe Reservoir – Colm Moore) and three on 15th at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). Note: since the first record of this subspecies was found in Beijing on 29 March 2015 (Luo Qingqing), this race appears to be annual in small numbers in spring.
The 6th produced Beijing’s tenth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) at Ma Chang (Nick Green, David Mansfield and Terry Townshend) with eight ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at nearby Kangxi Grassland (Lou Fangzhou, Niu Zhen et al).
7th April produced a GREY BUSHCHAT (Saxicola ferreus, 灰林唧, Huī lín jī) near Yeyahu, only the second record of this species since 1987 (Tian Shu) and a PIED WHEATEAR (Oenanthe pleschanka, 白顶唧, Bái dǐng jī) (DaHao) and three ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Zhang Weimin, Zhang Xiaoling) were at Ma Chang.
On 8th a DALMATIAN PELICAN (Pelecanus crispus, 卷羽鹈鹕, Juǎn yǔ tí hú) was at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT), remaining the next day, with a single PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site (ChaCha Wan).
The 14th produced 15 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang. On the same day, an active nest of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER (Dendrocopos leucotos, 白背啄木鸟, Bái bèi zhuómùniǎo) , a species rarely recorded in Beijing, was discovered at Lingshan (Terry Townshend).
A singing SWINHOE’S RAIL (Coturnicops exquisitus, 花田鸡, Huā tián jī) at Ma Chang on 15th (Terry Townshend) was just the capital’s sixth record, and a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Shahe Reservoir on the same day (Colm Moore). An ASHY MINIVET (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) was at Tsinghua University on 25th (Richard Davis et al). The 26th was something of a red-letter day with a female NORTHERN WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe, 穗唧, Suì jī) at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore).
It was certainly the first record of this species in Beijing since 1987 and possibly the first ever documented record for the capital. On the same day, Beijing’s seventh LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) was found at the same site by Li Mengxuan, remaining until 28th at least, and Beijing’s eleventh MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨, Cǎodì liù) was at Ma Chang (Paul Holt).
The following day there was no sign of the NORTHERN WHEATEAR but Qin Xiaowei and Wei Chunzhi found Beijing’s fifth, and the second of 2019, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙䳭, Shā jī) at the same site! A male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Ma Chang on the same day (Paul Holt).
Three YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS (Emberiza aureola, 黄胸鹀, Huáng xiōng wú) at Shahe Reservoir on 3rd (Colm Moore) was a nice start to the month. The next day, Ben Wielstra and Richard Davis found Beijing’s third PECTORAL SANDPIPER (Calidris melanotos, 斑胸滨鹬, Bān xiōng bīn yù) at Ma Chang, along with Beijing’s eighth LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù) and a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù).
7th produced a Beijing first in the form of a singing PLAIN PRINIA (Prinia inornata, 纯色山鹪莺, Huáng fù shān jiāo yīng) along the Wenyu River, a superb find by Steve Bale. The following day, whilst twitching the PLAIN PRINIA, Paul Holt found a singing BIANCHI’S WARBLER (Seicercus valentini, 比氏鹟莺, Bǐ shì wēng yīng), remarkably the first documented record for the capital! Two ASHY MINIVETS (Pericrocotus divaricatus, 灰山椒鸟, Huī shānjiāo niǎo) and a PECHORA PIPIT (Anthus gustavi, 北鹨, Běi liù) represented a strong supporting cast.
On 10th May, another first for the capital was found at Baihuashan – an ASHY-THROATED WARBLER (Phylloscopus maculipennis, 灰喉柳莺, Huī hóu liǔ yīng) (He Wenbo). A most unexpected record. Photos here. On the same day, Colm Moore found a TEREK SANDPIPER (Xenus cinereus, 翘嘴鹬, Qiào zuǐ yù) at Shahe.
13th May produced Beijing’s third SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor, 灰蓝姬鹟, Huī lán jī wēng), a female, at Tsinghua University campus (Ben Wielstra), astonishingly just 50m from the location of Beijing’s first record of this species found by the same observer in 2015. On the same day, a HILL BLUE FLYCATCHER (Cyornis banyumas, 山蓝仙鹟, Shān lán xiān wēng) was found in the grounds of Beijing Normal University, remaining for a week, but unusual feather wear meant most observers believed it to originate from captivity.
A male MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), Beijing’s thirteenth, was a nice find in urban Shuangjing (Andrew Morrissey) on 14th and Peking University was an unusual location for a SCHRENCK’S BITTERN (Ixobrychus eurhythmus, 紫背苇鳽, Zǐ bèi wěi jiān) on the same day.
On 16th a PALE-LEGGED LEAF WARBLER (Phylloscopus tenellipes, 淡脚柳莺, Dàn jiǎo liǔ yīng) was at Xiaolongmen (XiaoPT) with a singing bird at Shahe Reservoir on 19th (Colm Moore). On 17th a NORTHERN HAWK CUCKOO (Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 北鹰鹃, Běi yīng juān) was heard at Badaling Forest Park, possibly only Beijing’s seventh record (Paul Holt). On 19th, two PIN-TAILED SNIPE (Gallinago stenura, 针尾沙锥, Zhēn wěi shā zhuī) were displaying at Ma Chang pre-dawn (Paul Holt). Comment: although many “Swintail” (Swinhoe’s or Pin-tailed) Snipe pass through Beijing on migration, very few are identified to species, given the difficulty identifying them in the field.
23rd produced a singing MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) at Shahe Reservoir (XiaoPT and Fishing Cat)
On 26th Beijing’s second HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET (Aerodramus brevirostris, 短嘴金丝燕, Duǎn-zuǐ jīn-sī-yàn) was seen over the Shunyi Patch in the late afternoon after heavy rain (Terry Townshend). On the same day, a PHEASANT-TAILED JACANA (Hydrophasianus chirurgus, 水雉, Shuǐ zhì), very rare in Beijing in recent years, was at Nanhaizi (Wang Libin).
27th produced a BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) at Shahe Reservoir and, as is becoming usual in late spring, three ASIAN KOELS (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃, Zào juān) were at the same site.
On 29th a BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cyanomelana, 白腹姬鹟, Bái fù jī wēng) was at Xiaolongmen (Xue Boning). Note: in Beijing most BLUE AND WHITE-type flycatchers, including those that breed, are the recently split ZAPPEY’S FLYCATCHER (Cyanoptila cumatilis). BLUE AND WHITE FLYCATCHERS (Cyanoptila cyanomelana) are rare.
Also on 29th, a BAILLON’S CRAKE (Porzana pusilla, 小田鸡, Xiǎo tiánjī) was at Shahe Reservoir (Zhen Niu) and two CHINESE BUSH WARBLERS (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺, Zhōnghuá duǎn chì yīng), the fifteenth record for Beijing, were at DaShiHe (XiaoPT et al) with one at Yuanmingyuan on 30th (Ben Wielstra) and another at Binhe Forest Park on 1st June (sixteenth and seventeenth records respectively). A BROWN-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus, 棕头鸥, Zōng tóu ōu) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) were at Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang) on 30th. The month ended with a BLACK-TAILED GULL (Larus crassirostris, 黑尾鸥, Hēi wěi ōu) reported from Shahe Reservoir on 31st (Wang Xiaobo). Note: The status of Black-tailed Gull in Beijing is unclear. There have been reports of free-flying birds in the grounds of the zoo, which may account for at least some of the records in the capital.
On 1st, a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Baiwangshan (Lu Wei). On 3rd, a BLUNT-WINGED WARBLER (Acrocephalus concinens, 钝翅 (稻田) 苇莺, Dùn chì (dàotián) wěi yīng) was at Shahe Reservoir (Colm Moore). On 6th, a BROWN-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Muscicapa muttui, 褐胸鹟, hè-xiōng wēng) was photographed at Xiaolongmen by Liang Zhijian, a member of the young birders’ group, “Beijing Feiyu”. This was the first documented record of this species for Beijing.
The 9th produced a SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) at Gubeikou (Fishing Cat), just the sixth Beijing record, and on 11th four LESSER CUCKOOS (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) were at Miaofengshan (Colm Moore) and another was at Laoyugou (XiaoPT). BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLERS (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) were at Xiaolongmen on 15th (Zhen Niu) and at Lingshan on 23rd (Luo Qingqing). A second CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃, Hóng chì fèng tóu juān) was at Lingshan on 25th (Steve Bale and Paul Holt) and a LESSER CUCKOO (Cuculus poliocephalus, 小杜鹃, Xiǎo dùjuān) at the same location continued this declining species’ good run of records in 2019. The month ended with a male SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟, Xiù xiōng lán jī wēng) at Lingshan on 30th (Zhen Niu).
As expected, records of rare and scarce birds were few in July with just three notable records – a BROWN-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺, Qiáng jiǎo shù yīng) at Laoyugou on 1st (XiaoPT) and a single SWINHOE’S MINIVET (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟, Xiǎo huī shānjiāo niǎo) and three AMUR PARADISE FLYCATCHERS (Terpsiphone paradisi, 寿带, Shòu dài) at Gubeikou on 2nd (Fishing Cat).
On 3rd a GREATER PAINTED SNIPE (Rostratula benghalensis, 彩鹬, Cǎi yù) was at Ma Chang (XiaoPT and Liu Zhiheng) and it was still present on 10th (XiaoPT and Luo Qingqing) with an unseasonal group of 116 RELICT GULLS (Ichthyaetus relictus, 遗鸥, Yí ōu). On 8th a CINNAMON BITTERN (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus, 栗苇鳽, Lì wěi jiān) was at Nanhaizi (Wang Yishan). This species is not quite annual in Beijing.
On 18th a LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang (Lou Fangzhou) and two RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (Phalaropus lobatus, 红颈瓣蹼鹬, Hóng jǐng bàn pǔ yù) were at the same site (XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing, Mint Ren and Zhang Shen). A juvenile LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Ma Nan) and scarce shorebirds continued with a BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) on 23rd at Ma Chang (Colm Moore), joined by a second bird on 25th (John MacKinnon, Terry Townshend et al) when Beijing’s third ever SANDERLING (Calidris alba, 三趾滨鹬, Sān zhǐ bīn yù) joined the party (remaining until 30th).
Another LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) was at Ma Chang on 27th (Ma Nan and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù), remaining until 31st, and two juvenile LITTLE STINTS (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬, Xiǎo bīn yù), the ninth record for Beijing.
The 28th produced a rare autumn record of ORIENTAL PLOVER (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴, Dōngfāng héng) at Ma Chang (Zhang Xiaoling and He Fangbei). On 30th there were two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) and Beijing’s tenth LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺, Báihóu lín yīng) at Ma Chang and Beijing’s seventh record of LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟, Báibān jūnjiàn niǎo) was at Yeyahu (Paul Holt, Paul Hyde and Phil Hyde), with the latter being seen the next day at Shahe Reservoir (Lou Fangzhou, Zhang Xiaoling et al). The month ended with a heard-only COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) at Ma Chang on 31st, the third Beijing record. (Paul Holt et al).
On 1st, a juvenile LITTLE CURLEW (Numenius minutus, 小杓鹬, Xiǎo biāo yù) and 2 INTERMEDIATE EGRETS (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) were at Ma Chang (Paul Holt et al) and a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was reported from the same site (Zheng Qiyuan and Yan Shen). On the same day, a single male BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu (Xing Chao). On 2nd a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula, 剑鸻, Jiàn héng) was seen at Ma Chang (Vincent Wang), presumably the same bird from 31 August. On 3rd a SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫, Báiméi de dōng) was at Beijing Normal University campus (Xue Boning) and two BLACK-WINGED KITES (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢, Hēi chì yuān) were at Ma Chang, with one or two birds reported until 14th at least. A single BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) was at Yeyahu on 4th (XiaoPT et al). On 7th a remaining or new BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Limicola falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬, Kuò zuǐ yù) was at Ma Chang (Liu Chunhong et al) and a juvenile RUFF (Philomachus pugnax, 流苏鹬, Liúsū yù) was there on 11th (Tim Appleton, Gao Xiang and Terry Townshend) with a juvenile FAR EASTERN CURLEW (Numenius madagascariensis, 大杓鹬, Dà biāo yù) seen by the same observers at Yeyahu on the same day. Also on 11th, a BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE was at Beijing Normal University.
A MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Tongzhou (Paul Holt), first seen on 4th. The juvenile RUFF was seen again on 14th (Zhang Shen, Luo Qingqing, XiaoPT et al). An INTERMEDIATE EGRET (Mesophoyx intermedia, 中白鹭, Zhōng báilù) was at Shahe Reservoir on 21st (Colm Moore).
Beijing’s second BLYTH’S REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus dumetorum, 布氏苇莺, Bù shì wěi yīng) was found and sound-recorded by Colm Moore at Shahe Reservoir on 5th and on 6th a frustratingly elusive Acrocephalus warbler on the Shunyi Patch was probably a STREAKED REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus sorghophilus, 细纹苇莺, Xì wén wěi yīng) (Terry Townshend). On 10th there were two first-winter MUGUMAKI FLYCATCHERS (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟, Qú jī wēng), the fourteenth record in Beijing, in the Agricultural Exhibition Park (Zhen Niu et al), with one remaining until at least 16th (Ren Lipeng). There were two GREY-BACKED THRUSHES (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫, Huī bèi dōng) in the Temple of Heaven Park on 20th (Jun Yang) and a male LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis, 长尾鸭, Cháng wěi yā) was at the Summer Palace on 26th (Zhu Haoqiang et al). The 27th saw an arrival of MUTE SWANS (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) with one at Ma Chang (Zhu Haoqiang, Tao Liu et al) and four in Chaoyang Park (Stefan Andrew). On 31st, Beijing’s second POMARINE JAEGER (Stercorarius pomarinus, 中贼鸥, Zhōng zéi ōu) was found along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).
A late MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺, Yuǎndōng wěi yīng) was at Binhe Park on 2nd (Zhong Zhenyu). On the same day, a first-winter MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was at Ma Chang with a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL ((Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu). The first JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟, Xiǎo tàipíngniǎo) of the winter were found on 4th with a single in Tongzhou (Paul Holt) and five at Nanhaizi (Guo Geng).
A first-winter LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥, Xiǎo ōu) was at Shahe Reservoir on 5th (Colm Moore) and two BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) were at Yeyahu on 7th alongside a first-winter PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥, Yú ōu) (Frank Hawkins). A juvenile STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Lingshan on 8th (Frank Hawkins) and a ‘white-headed’ LONG-TAILED TIT (Aegithalos caudatus, 北长尾山雀, Běi Cháng wěishān què) was at Laoyugou on 9th (XiaoPT). An unseasonal ZITTING CISTICOLA (Cisticola juncidis, 棕扇尾莺, Zōng shàn wěi yīng) was at Lingshan on 10th.
What turned out to be a significant irruption of PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE (Syrrhaptes paradoxus, 毛腿沙鸡, Máo tuǐ shā jī) began on 11 November with more than 280 over Shahe Reservoir (Jun Yang). Over the next two days, there was a trickle with more than 30 seen the next day at Shisanling (Colm Moore), 50+ at Yuanmingyuan on 13th (Wang Xiaobo) and four at Ma Chang the same day (Zhao NanLi). Then, on 14th, there was a big movement with 300+ over Tongzhou Pear Garden (Dahao), 230+ over Shahe Reservoir (Wang Xiaobo), 100+ over HongLingJin Park (Chen Jingyun), 60+ past Peking University (unknown observer via Chen Jingyun), 200 over Shahe Reservoir in the afternoon (Jun Wang) and c400 at Yeyahu (Ren Lipeng). Most impressive of all was an additional count of 1,050 logged by Wang Xiaobo over his house in Changping District that morning. Numbers dropped off rapidly with 7 at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and 26 on 30th at the same site (Richard Fuller and Mint Ren).
Other notable November records included a EURASIAN TREECREEPER (Certhia familiaris, 旋木雀, Xuán mù què) in Chaoyang Park on 12th (Jun Yang), possibly only the seventh Beijing record. This bird remained into December.
On the same day there was a late HAIR-CRESTED DRONGO (Dicrurus hottentottus, 发冠卷尾, Fā guān juàn wěi) at the same site (Jun Yang) and 30+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀, Fěnhóng fù lǐng què) at Lingshan (“大牙齿 458”). On 15th there were two STEPPE EAGLES (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) at Lingshan (Wang Xiaobo, XiaoPT, DaHe et al) and what appeared to be an influx of LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀, Cháng wěi què) with 15 (3 ssp lepidus and 12 ssp ussuriensis) at Lingshan (Paul Holt). The moulting juvenile MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor, 疣鼻天鹅, Yóu bí tiān’é) was still at Ma Chang on 16th (Paul Holt) and two CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) were at Lingshan the next day (Paul Holt). A single STEPPE EAGLE (Aquila nipalensis, 草原雕, Cǎoyuán diāo) was at Nanhaizi on 18th (Zhong Zhenyu). On 19th three BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were at Nanhaizi (ChaCha Wan), increasing to five on 23rd (Jun Yang) and eight on 1 December (XiaoPT et al). Three lugensWHITE WAGTAILS (Motacilla alba lugens, 白鹡鸰, Bái jí líng) were along the Tonghuihe between Baliqiao and Shuangqiao on 20th (Paul Holt). On 21st a late WHISKERED TERN (Chlidonias hybrida, 须浮鸥, Xū fú ōu) was at Yeyahu (Thomas Brooks).
On 24th there were six BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) at Huairou Reservoir (DaHe) and a WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla, 白尾海雕, Báiwěi hǎi diāo) flew over the Summer Palace (Huang Mingpan). A single CRESTED LARK (Galerida cristata, 凤头百灵, Fèng tóu bǎilíng) was a nice find at Shisanling by Colm Moore on 26th. This species has declined markedly and is rare away from the very few remaining breeding sites in the capital.
On 27th two ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳, Dōngfāng bái guàn) were at Shahe Reservoir (信天翁” via WeChat) and an unseasonal LONG-TAILED MINIVET (Pericrocotus ethologus, 长尾山椒鸟, Cháng wěi shānjiāo niǎo) was near Nanhaizi on 30th (Ren Lipeng). The month ended with a COLLARED CROW (Corvus torquatus, 白颈鸦, Bái jǐng yā) in Sunhe (Tao Liu) that remained until 16 December at least.
Four BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭, Qīng tóu qián yā) remained at Huairou Reservoir on 1st (Wang Xiaobo) with at least one showing signs of hybridisation.
On 8th an unseasonal RUSSET SPARROW (Passer rutilans, 山麻雀, Shān máquè) was reported at Baihe Bay with five CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀, Cāng tóu yànquè) at the same site (Karen Wei). Eight BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎, Lì ěr duǎn jiǎo bēi) were still at Nanhaizi on the same day (Tao Liu). On 14th an ASIAN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon dasypus, 烟腹毛脚燕, Yān fù máo jiǎo yàn) was photographed in Jingshan Park by Yue Yisong, an unusual winter record.
And on 27th an unseasonal COMMON SANDPIPER, (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) was on the Wenyu River (Steve Bale).
The year ended with three unseasonal records – a male SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT (Luscinia calliope, 红喉歌鸲, Hóng hóu gē qú) at Nanhaizi, 4 BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica, 家燕, Jiāyàn) along the Wenyu River (Steve Bale) and another COMMON SANDPIPER (Actitis hypoleucos, 矶鹬, Jī yù) at Peking University (Mint Ren, Zhang Shen), all on 31st.
Title photo: Beijing’s third EUROPEAN ROBIN in the grounds of Beijing Zoo, February 2019.
Photos/videos by Terry Townshend unless otherwise stated.
For summaries of rare and scarce birds in Beijing in previous years, click on the links below:
It’s a sound dreaded by conservationists the world over.
And it’s a feature of human nature that when heard on TV in a pristine rainforest thousands of kilometres away, the sound of a chainsaw can seem remote and it’s relatively easy to detach oneself from the destruction.. and yet when it happens in a place far less globally important, yet so familiar, it elicits an altogether different reaction.
That’s what I experienced on Sunday on my local patch.
To most people I am sure, the ‘Shunyi patch’, as it has come to be known, looks like a scruffy piece of waste land. To me, it is a beautiful oasis in a concrete desert.
From my first visit in April 2015, I always knew this 0.5km x 0.5km patch of ‘wilderness’ in Shunyi District was on borrowed time.
Surrounded by new apartment blocks, Beijing metro’s line 15 and the new International Exhibition Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Beijing Capital International airport, the city was closing in and it was surely only a matter of when, not if, this place would be ‘developed’. There have been some false starts in the past with occasional clearances of the undergrowth but, with trees being felled and bulldozers moving in, it seems that moment has finally come…
With chainsaws roaring and bulldozers belching out dark smoke as they demolished trees and shrubs, what I had planned to be a relaxing walk around the local patch on Sunday afternoon instead turned into a time for sober reflection about what this tiny space had given me over the past four years.
In 106 visits, 164 species of bird, five species of mammal and ten species of butterfly have been recorded, remarkable for such a small area of shrubs, trees and scrub. The majority of the birds recorded have been migratory, using the site as a temporary refuge to find food and shelter on their way to and from breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia or as far away as northern Siberia. Highlights have included species rarely recorded in the capital, such as Band-bellied Crake, Himalayan Swiftlet and, just a few weeks ago, a probable sighting of the poorly-known Streaked Reed Warbler. In winter it was not uncommon to see Long-eared Owls hunting over the scrub and roosting in the junipers, the sentinel-like Chinese Grey Shrike perched atop a maize stem or leafless sapling and tens of buntings – Little, Pallas’s Reed and Japanese Reed – as well as stunning Siberian Accentors feeding on the dropped seed heads. In summer, breeding species included Light-vented Bulbul, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Brown Shrike and Spotted Dove. Occasionally, an Amur Hedgehog, Tolai Hare or Siberian Weasel showed themselves and, on warm summer evenings, it was common to see at least two species of bat patrolling the patch to feed on the flying insects.
Just ten minutes away from my apartment, this place was a refuge for me and was like my own secret study site. I spent many hours wandering around, enjoying the relative tranquility, observing how the harsh Beijing seasons quickly changed the character of the site from the desperately dry and seemingly barren place in late winter to a wet and lush landscape teeming with insects in late summer.
Rather than mourn the loss of this special place, it seems fitting to celebrate its life and so, in that spirit, here is a gallery of photos taken over the last four years including some of the species that have been found there.
The list of species recorded shows just how important urban oases can be for wildlife. Sites like the ‘Shunyi patch’ can provide ‘stepping stones’ for migratory birds, helping them to cross ever-expanding urban areas by providing places for food, water and shelter. My hope is that, by demonstrating the value to wildlife of such oases, we may learn to see ‘beauty in scruffy’ and persuade government officials that places like the Shunyi patch are an essential element of enlightened urban planning.
The list of species and the concept of ‘urban oases’ have been shared with the Beijing municipal government as part of a project to ‘rewild’ Beijing and have been met with an enthusiastic initial response. So the likely death of the Shunyi patch may not be in vain. Whatever the future, I am immensely grateful to this small patch of land for providing me with an education about the rich biodiversity of China’s capital city.
This autumn has been so busy that I have hardly had time to visit my local patch, an area of 0.5km square wilderness surrounded by tower blocks, roads and Beijing Metro’s line 15. It’s a shame as the habitat is superb. After the late summer rain, there are several pools of standing water and some areas of wet grass, in addition to the small areas of shrubs and trees. And it’s clear that almost nobody visits as there are no paths and it’s hard work to wrestle one’s way through the tangleweed.
On Sunday I finally had a whole morning free and planned to give the patch a good going over.. After a cold front came through Beijing on Thursday, it was now much cooler and it was clear from visible migration over the city on Saturday that birds were moving.. I was confident it would be good birding and, if I was lucky, I might add to the 162 species I have recorded here in 102 visits.
I arrived on site at 0700 with the temperature around 6 degs C. There was a hint of ground frost and a heavy dew. Light cloud cover and almost no wind made conditions perfect. Immediately I could hear several Black-browed Reed Warblers calling from a small patch of long grass. I stopped to enjoy these charismatic warblers and attempted to count exactly how many there were. Little Buntings called overhead as they circled, before dropping into the weedy field and some harsher bunting calls gave away the presence of Black-faced Buntings in the thicker cover. A Bluethroat scrambled away as I walked through the grass, showing it’s contrasting orange and dark brown tail before it dived into deep cover. It was ‘birdy’..!
Olive-backed Pipits, the occasional Eurasian Skylark and small groups of Little Buntings filled the air as I traced my usual route around the patch. Three Chestnut Buntings were a nice surprise, only the third time I have recorded this species on the patch. Two Tristram’s Buntings in a thicket added to the buntings tally before I reached one of the pools. A Common Snipe lifted as soon as I somewhat heavy-footedly reached the edge, my boots sinking into the soft mud making for slow progress and concentration temporarily having to focus on the feet more than the birds. More Black-faced Buntings, with a few Pallas’s Buntings, were feeding around the edges and a Pallas’s Warbler, the first of many, called from a willow close by. I accidentally interrupted an adult male Red-flanked Bluetail taking a bath and it quickly flew up to an open branch and shook itself, preening in the soft sunlight.
A little further on I disturbed a Woodcock, only my second in Beijing and just 5 days after my first. More Pallas’s Warblers were obvious as I reached a small stand of willows and Little Buntings continued to fly around overhead.
As I left the stand of trees, I entered an area of long grass. There was no path here, so I was creating one as I went, each step forcing down a narrow line of grass to make my passage easier. After a few steps, I disturbed a small bird and it flew fast and low for about ten metres before dropping into deep cover. I could almost feel the cogs going round in my brain trying to process what my eyes had seen. With the naked eye – there was no time to raise my binoculars, let alone get them onto the bird – I could see it was a small warbler, similar in size to the Black-browed Reed Warblers I had just seen. But this bird was significantly paler in colour and with obvious streaking on the upperparts. The colouration was a good match for the colour of the seed heads on the grass. The rump looked slightly darker than the mantle. And that was all I saw. It called as it flew.. a soft note similar in pitch to the Black-broweds but more a singular note without sounding as if ‘two stones banged together’.
I started to go through the list of possibilities. It was too pale for a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated or a Black-browed and the obvious streaking also ruled out the latter. It was certainly not a Zitting Cisticola. My mind kept returning to one outrageous possibility – could it have been a Streaked Reed Warbler? But on my local patch in Beijing? Don’t be ridiculous. I kept dismissing that suggestion over and over again as if to say to my brain – “wrong answer” and asking it to re-process the information.
With my brain refusing to comply, I waited patiently to see whether I could relocate the bird. There was no movement where it went down and no more vocalisations. A Black-browed called from the opposite direction and brief views revealed it to be nothing like the bird I saw. After around 45-50 minutes, as the sun came out, I moved a few steps to my right, towards the east, so that the sun was directly behind me, giving me the best lighting should the bird show again. As I moved, the same bird flew again, from slightly behind me, over my shoulder and, again, dropped into deep cover about 10 metres in front of me, to the north. This view was slightly longer, and even closer than the first. Again, I saw a small, pale warbler with obvious streaking on the upperparts and a slightly darker rump.
This time, I could see movement where it dived into cover. The grass was twitching as it moved along the base of the stems. The cover was so thick that I couldn’t see anything of the bird, just the quiver of a stem as it hopped from one to another. It was heading towards a small gap in the grass and I grabbed my camera so that I was ready to press the shutter as soon as it showed. To my disappointment, it never reached the gap… stopping just short before heading back from where it came. However, it was now calling.. possibly prompted by a Black-browed Reed Warbler that had also started to vocalise. The two calls were quite different with Black-browed sounding like two stones striking together and this bird quieter and more monotone. I did not have my recording equipment with me so I grabbed my iPhone and started recording, knowing that it would be almost impossible to pick up the sound. After a few seconds, I saw movement again and try as I might, I just could not see the bird. A couple of minutes later, the movement and the vocalisations stopped. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing.
After another hour or so had passed, I knew I had to leave soon as I had a lunch appointment. I edged towards the area where I had last seen movement, camera at the ready just in case it showed. There was nothing. I crept slowly around the whole area but only the Black-browed Reed showed disapproval at my presence.
It was frustrating but I had to leave. The only consolation was that I felt as if I could have stayed there all day and not seen it. It was THAT elusive.
So, what was it? Given the rarity and magnitude of a record of Streaked Reed Warbler, without seeing the whole bird through binoculars I am reluctant to claim it as a certain record. However, I have trouble believing that it could have been anything else.
One positive thing to take from this experience is that, if this bird is so elusive, there must be hope that there are many more out there!
Header photo: the habitat where the probable Streaked Reed Warbler was seen and heard.
Inspired by Twitter users who were asking about the identity of birds seen locally this spring, and a forthcoming article in the South China Morning Post, I’ve put together a list of ten birds to look out for in the capital this Spring. It’s by no means an exhaustive list – in fact, I could have picked a different ten for every day of the week! However, it is illustrative of the variety and diversity of the birds that are, right now, either passing through the capital on their way from wintering grounds as far away as southern Africa and Australia, to more northerly breeding grounds in north China, Mongolia and Russia, or raising a family right here in Beijing.
The scale of the migration happening around us right now is hard to comprehend. Millions of birds of hundreds of different species will be flying over Beijing in the next few weeks, most of which will pass undetected at night as we sleep. A few will stop over in one of the many parks, wetlands, rivers, forests or even small green spaces in residential areas to rest and refuel, offering us a privileged opportunity to observe them. Knowing a little about these birds, and the journeys they are making will, I hope, help us to better appreciate these birds and the places they need to survive on these marathon journeys.
Ma Chang, in Yanqing County, northwest Beijing, is my absolute favourite birding site in April. Although not particularly glamourous with a series of wind turbines, small-scale agriculture and lots of litter left by the tourists who visit to ride horses or drive beach buggies, its geography – on the southeastern shore of Guanting Reservoir – makes it a wonderful place for migration. Early in the month there is a good chance of spotting the spectacular ORIENTAL PLOVER on its way from wintering grounds in Australia to breeding grounds in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and it’s a brilliant place to experience good numbers of pipits and wagtails as they make their way north. WHITE WAGTAILS lead the charge and five of the six subspecies recorded in Beijing have been seen here – leucopsis, ocularis, baicalensis, ‘eastern alba‘ and personata. I am sure it is only a matter of time before the sixth subspecies – lugens – is recorded at this site.
Groups of Citrine Wagtails pass through and it’s not uncommon to see flocks of 20+. Water Pipits are gradually eclipsed by Buff-bellied Pipits as the month progresses and several hundred of the latter can be seen in the middle of the month, with Red-throated, Richard’s and Blyth’s joining the fray a little later. The vagrant Meadow Pipit has also been recorded here several times in early April.
Last Monday I spent a few hours at Ma Chang at the end of the day. There were some tourists riding horses, a few buggies being driven around, it was windy and my expectations were not high. Nevertheless, I found a lovely mixed group of White and Citrine Wagtails on the foreshore and was enjoying watching them feed on the flying insects close to the water.
The White Wagtails were dominated by ocularis (“Siberian Wagtail”) with a few leucopsis (“Chinese Wagtail”) and a couple of baicalensis (“Baikal Wagtail”). As I was observing these birds, I heard a faint sound that reminded me of SWINHOE’S RAIL. It was a vocalisation I had first heard at Wuerqihan in Inner Mongolia in June 2018. I immediately dismissed the thought – a singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing would be ridiculous, surely! But as soon as I had re-trained my concentration on the wagtails, I heard it again… and again. The sound was faint, coming towards me from a small inaccessible island of grass and a few small trees, against the wind, and was competing to be heard amongst the din of revolving wind turbines, the wind itself and calling Black-headed Gulls and Black-winged Stilts.
I moved as close to the sound as I could and listened, intently. There it was again, this time a fraction clearer. Fortunately I had my sound recording kit with me and I scrambled to retrieve it from my backpack whilst hoping that the vocalisations would continue.
They did, and I managed to record a few snippets before the source fell silent, coinciding with a low pass by a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk.
A few minutes later I heard the sound again, three maybe four times before again it fell silent.
I was fairly sure the sound was of a SWINHOE’S RAIL but given the magnitude of the record, I had to consider the possibility of it being a frog or a cricket.
I was planning to stay overnight close by and hoped that, in the early morning with less wind and much reduced background noise, I may be able to hear the vocalisation more clearly if the bird was still there. At the guest house, I looked at the sonogram of the sound I had recorded and compared it with that from my recordings of Swinhoe’s Rail from Inner Mongolia last June. The sonogram of the sound from Ma Chang looked good on the screen – 6 or 7 notes in each vocalisation at a frequency of 2kHz. Wow.
The following morning I was on site before dawn and it was wonderfully still – perfect conditions to listen and record sounds. Sadly, I never heard it again. Despite the sonogram looking very good for SWINHOE’S RAIL, I was keen on a second opinion. I sent the recording to a few local birders and most thought it sounded good but cautioned about their lack of experience with the species. Then Paul Holt replied, agreeing that it was indeed a SWINHOE’S RAIL. That gave me the confidence to put out the news – thanks Paul!
Swinhoe’s Rail (Coturnicops exquisitus) is one of east Asia’s least known birds. Traditionally, the most reliable place to encounter it was in the wet grass around Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in winter but sightings from there have become increasingly scarce.. and due to its secretive behaviour, it is encountered only infrequently on migration, even in relatively well-watched areas such as Happy Island and Beidaihe in coastal China.
It was only three years ago that Wieland Heim, Tom Wulf and Alex Thomas (of the Amur Birding Project) first recorded the ‘song’ of this secretive bird at Muraviovka Park in southeastern Russia. And in July 2017, armed with this new knowledge, Paul Holt was the first to discover singing birds in China at Wuerqihan in northern Inner Mongolia. I was fortunate to visit Wuerqihan in June 2018 and recorded its song and trill.
In the last few days, birders from across the capital have been reporting the return of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis). The first record seems to have been one at the TongHuiHe by 岳小鸮 (Yuè xiǎo xiāo) on 1st April. This was followed by another single at Peking University on 9th April (Yang Hua) and then nine at Baiwangshan, a traditional migration watchpoint in the northwest of the city (小隼仙人) on 10th. Yesterday, 11th April, the staff at ZhengYangMen (正阳门), a traditional breeding site at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, reported sightings, too.
It is only a few weeks ago that these birds could have been circling over Table Mountain in Cape Town in South Africa having almost certainly spent the entire northern winter on the wing – an incredible feat of endurance and stamina that is hard to comprehend.
With several Beijing schools having built and erected nest boxes for the Beijing Swift over the last few months, we are keeping everything crossed that some of the birds arriving in the capital will find and choose to breed in these newly-built homes. We’re hopeful, too, that students from these schools will be able to meet with the CEOs of some of China’s largest building companies to tell the story of the Beijing Swift, outline what their schools are doing to help and to ask the CEOs to trial ‘swift-friendly’ buildings in Beijing. Watch this space!
Title image showing the autumn migration route of the Beijing Swift to southern Africa courtesy of Lyndon Kearsley.
When we conceived the concept of the Beijing Cuckoo Project back in 2015, we had two aims. First, to discover the wintering grounds, and migration route, of Common Cuckoos from East Asia. And second, to inspire the public, especially people who wouldn’t ordinarily care about migratory birds.
When a project like this begins, it’s impossible to know what sort if impact it may have, and whilst the results – discovering that Beijing’s Cuckoos spend the winter in Mozambique and cross the Arabian Sea from India to East Africa and back again – and the associated media coverage were way beyond our expectations, there are sometimes additional benefits that cannot be foreseen.
A few months ago I was contacted by an environmental education organisation who asked if I’d mind if they developed a pop-out educational book for students about the Beijing Cuckoos. Of course, I was delighted!
Over the weekend, I received some photos showing the prototype book being tested with a class of students.
I understand the book will soon be available as a PDF and will be circulated to a network of schools across Beijing and, we hope, across the country. A wonderful legacy for the Beijing Cuckoo Project!
When birding at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain in far western Mentougou District, it’s not uncommon to see mammal scat. Tolai Hare is common and I’ve also seen Siberian Rose Deer, Hog Badger and evidence of Wild Boar. A few weeks ago I spotted some scat that looked suspiciously like cat scat. Amur Leopard Cats (Prionailurus bengalensis euptilura) are seen occasionally in Beijing (I’ve enjoyed three sightings myself, including one in broad daylight). However, although probably not uncommon in the mountains around Beijing, Amur Leopard Cats are difficult to see due to their primarily nocturnal habits. And, in the context of Lingshan, there are a couple of small villages close by, so there is always the chance of a domestic cat roaming around.
I decided to set up a camera trap on the trail where I had found the scat and leave it there for a month. Yesterday I retrieved it and was delighted, first to find the camera trap was still there, and second to find a total of 11 images of Amur Leopard Cat, the best four of which are below. The lightly spotted coat, thick tail and pale vertical stripes on the face are all good features of this wild cat, currently treated as a subspecies of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).
It just goes to show that one doesn’t need to travel to the Tibetan Plateau to see wild cats.. they’re thriving in the capital city of the world’s most populous country!