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!
I was delighted to see that, following the coverage by Sam Vadas of Reuters, the story of Gu Xuan (Beijing’s “anti-poacher”) has been covered by The Guardian with an excellent, and moving, 10-minute film by Sean Gallagher. Some revealing footage showing the birds, the poachers, the illegal markets and the police. It’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about wild birds.
As Xuan says, education is critical, and I am convinced that, thanks to his tireless efforts and the actions and influence of the growing birding community in China, the tide will change.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Beijing Swifts being filmed by the BBC Natural History Unit for a new series about urban wildlife. “Cities: Nature’s New Wild”, a three-part series, was shown on BBC2 in late December and early January. Unfortunately, at the last minute, the UK version was stripped of the Beijing Swift clip, which was replaced with a piece on Indonesian Swiftlets. The Beijing Swifts will be part of the international version of the series that will be shown overseas.
I am pleased to say the full three-minute clip, including subtitles in Mandarin, can be seen here:
It’s great to see so many familiar local faces, many of whom were involved in the Beijing Swift Project to track these iconic birds from the Summer Palace to their wintering grounds in southern Africa and back, an astonishing 26,000km round-trip!