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.

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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!

 

Schools For Swifts: Harrow Beijing to Make and Erect Swift Boxes

Two years ago, after an agonising 12 months wait, the Beijing Swift Project proved, for the first time, that the capital’s Swifts migrate to southern Africa for the northern winter.  The astonishing journey, which sees them fly more than 26,000km per year (and, by the way, many of them probably don’t land at all!), has inspired not only scientists but also everyday Beijingers.  As well as the national mainstream media coverage reaching millions of Chinese, the story of the Beijing Swift has been the subject of science lessons by forward-thinking teachers and features in magazines.  One of the most important aspects of the coverage has been to shine a spotlight on the population decline of the Beijing Swift.  Although hard data is sketchy, it is clear from speaking with local ornithologists that the number of Swifts circling in the skies over Beijing has fallen dramatically.  The main culprit is the loss of nest sites caused by the destruction of traditional buildings, complete with lots of nooks and crannies, which have been replaced by modern, high-rise developments with their straight lines and smooth surfaces – not so good for the Beijing Swift.

I’ve lost count of the number of schools I’ve visited to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, almost without exception, the schoolchildren are very concerned when they hear about the decline and want to do something about it.  One group is planning to write to the CEO of China Soho, the largest real estate developer in Beijing, to ask that they will consider designing in Swift boxes to their new buildings to provide replacement nest sites.  And now, one school is going a step further!

A few weeks ago I met with Paul Shelley, Head of Design and Technology at Harrow Beijing, one of the capital’s international schools.  Paul is keen for students to link their woodwork classes to conservation and, after sharing designs of Swift boxes, the woodwork students at Harrow will, this autumn, build and then erect swift boxes to the campus in Beijing with the hope of attracting Swifts to begin a new colony on site.

The campus of Harrow Beijing. Thanks to the teachers and students, there could soon be the sound of screaming Swifts on summer evenings!

Of course, there is no guarantee that they can attract Swifts and it will take some time, and some encouragement by way of playing Swift calls at the right time of year, to maximise the chances of success…  but what a brilliant initiative!

It’s something I think could catch on…  school campuses offer perfect sites for Swift colonies – often they are large buildings with eaves and with large open spaces to the front, providing Swifts with plenty of access.  It’s certainly something that I’ll include in my briefings on the project in the hope that other schools follow suit.  Who knows – this could be the start of a new initiative – “Schools For Swifts”..!?

Kudos to Harrow, and Paul in particular, for making this happen and I wish Paul and his students the best of luck when the autumn term begins in September.  Watch this space for updates!

 

Title image: Swifts at the Summer Palace

Volunteers Protect Beijing’s Harlequin Duck

Beijing’s first ever HARLEQUIN (丑鸭) was discovered on 9 February 2017, when it was photographed by a local bird photographer at the unexpected location of Anzhenmen in central Beijing.  Not surprisingly, this first for the capital has proved extremely popular with birders and photographers and has attracted the attention of the local media.

The first-winter female HARLEQUIN took up residence in the unlikely location of central Beijing.

The vast majority of people have been very well-behaved and kept their distance, especially since the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC) erected a banner on site with information about the species and asking people not to feed it or get too close.

Wu Qi explaining the significance of the Harlequin to a group of local children.

However, last week the bird suddenly lost the majority of its tail feathers and there was speculation that it had attracted the attention of some people with ill intentions.  Shortly afterwards, someone was spotted on site after dark with a powerful spotlight and a fishing net acting suspiciously.

Local birder, 武其 (Wu Qi), was determined not to let the criminals catch the Harlequin and, with some friends, organised patrols after dark to ensure the bird’s safety and recruited young volunteers to speak to local people and passers by.  As of today, those patrols are ongoing and the bird remains on site.

Some of the young volunteers helping to engage passers by at Anzhenmen.
Journalists from Beijing TV and Beijing Evening News visited the site to interview Wu Qi and some of the young volunteers.

On Monday, with the help of 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), I conducted a short interview with Wu Qi to discuss his actions, including his views on wild bird conservation in China.  Wu Qi’s answers are below:

Q: What are the threats to the Harlequin at Anzhenmen?

A: The threats to the Anzhenmen Harlequin are: illegal catching for food, inappropriate feeding and water quality (pollution).  According to witnesses on-site, some people have tried to catch it for eating.

Q: What motivated you to try to protect this bird?

A: We understand that worldwide, the Harlequin Duck is not rare and is not classified as an endangered species.  However, Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China, and this is the first record of this species in Beijing.  As birders, we want something good for this Harlequin, which is to see it safely survive the winter and migrate back to its breeding grounds in Spring.  At the same time, we want to take this opportunity to raise the awareness and knowledge of the public about how to protect wildlife correctly.  We believe that the energy and efforts of a few of us are limited, so we decided to arrange volunteers to help to protect the Harlequin.

Q: Do you think the bird is safe now?

A: We have been protecting the bird for a week and, so far, there has been no catching behaviour, and inappropriate feeding has also been substantially reduced.  However, we believe the water quality at the weir is not so good and we are concerned that it may contain toxic substances which may accumulate in the Harlequin’s body and affect its health and breading potential.

Q: What do your friends and family think about your actions to protect this bird?

A: My family is supportive about what I have done.  And they felt very proud when they saw me on the Beijing TV news about our Harlequin protection.  My friends are all nature enthusiasts or professionals engaged in nature education and wildlife conservation.  So they understood very well my actions.  Many of my friends have been directly involved in protecting the Harlequin.  They call me “a guy of action”.

Q: Every country has a minority of people who want to harm wild birds. What do you think can be done to help protect wild birds in China?

A: In China, I feel the most critical thing is not to protect a specific bird or a species of birds, but to change the mindset and attitude of the public and government sectors towards wildlife.  For example, we should let people know that wild birds do not a provide higher nutritional value than poultry.  On the contrary, wild birds may have the risk of carrying parasites and contagious disease.  As for the government sectors, we expect them to understand the meaning of biological function and diversity.  Investing a huge amount of money to create an artificial “wetland park” is not as good as providing a lake or natural wetland that is left wild and has reduced human disturbance.  I think public campaigns and communication are very important. It’s also important to promote birding activities, especially involving young kids, to help communicate and spread appreciation, knowledge and awareness about wildlife protection.

======

Hear hear!

武其 (Wu Qi), “a guy of action”, works for an environmental NGO called “The Nature Library”, dedicated to promoting nature and environmental education in schools, among communities and in public parks.  He’s a great example of the growing number of people passionate about protecting biodiversity in Beijing.  Thank you Wu Qi and friends!

Big thanks to 钟婕 (Zhong Jie), English name Michelle, for assistance with the translations.

Title image: Wu Qi (right) with Shi Yang of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC).

The Beijing Cuckoo Project

Birding Beijing is excited to announce the launch of The Beijing Cuckoo Project, a new initiative that has the potential to make a huge difference to conservation in China whilst, at the same time, making ground breaking scientific discoveries.

Following the hugely successful, and ongoing, citizen science project to track the Beijing Swift, over the last few months we have been working with partners in the UK and China to replicate the BTO’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China’s capital.

The Cuckoo – famous for laying its eggs in the nests of other, often smaller, birds – is a popular and well-known bird in Beijing.  The life of the Cuckoo, including a wonderful account of the ongoing evolutionary battle between the Cuckoo and its hosts, was covered eloquently by Nick Davies in his award-winning book – Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature.

Cuckoo and Reed Parrotbill
In China, one of the host species of Common Cuckoo is Reed Parrotbill!

The Beijing Cuckoo Project, led by China Birdwatching Society, will deliver two incredibly exciting outcomes. The first is to engage the public in China, on an unprecedented scale, about the wonders of bird migration. The second is to discover the currently unknown wintering grounds, and migration routes, of Common Cuckoos breeding in East Asia – vital if conservationists are to understand how best to protect the Cuckoo and similar migratory species.

As in the UK, we plan to deploy ultra-lightweight satellite tags onto as many as 10 cuckoos in the Beijing area. Drawing on the BTO’s expertise and experience, Chris Hewson, a leading scientist from the UK, will travel to Beijing to train local volunteers and lead the catching and fitting of the tags.

Local schoolchildren will name the cuckoos and follow their progress as part of EcoAction’s specially designed “environmental curriculum”.

13th middle school
Students from Beijing’s 13th Middle School recently received their certificates as the first graduates of the “Environmental Curriculum” and will follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos as part of their ongoing studies.

National and local media will cover the project via their print and online publications. A special APP will allow members of the public to follow their progress, too, providing information about cuckoos, maps showing their latest positions and the routes taken, as well as background about the project.

We are delighted that around 75% of the funding has been raised through generous donations from the Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, the British Birds Charitable Trust and Beijing Forestry University. We are also fortunate to enjoy in kind support from the British Trust for Ornithology, the China Birdwatching Society and the many volunteers who will be involved.

However, given the costs of “satellite services”, the costs associated with accessing the data transmitted by the tags, and the costs of maintaining the dedicated APP, we still need to raise another GBP 10,000 over the next 12 months.

That is why we have set up a new, dedicated JustGiving page to allow anyone wishing to be part of this project to contribute. The page can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/BeijingCuckooProject

Everyone involved with the Beijing Cuckoo project is excited about the potential and all donors, with their permission, will be recognised on the interpretation material that will be erected at the catching sites in Beijing.

Please join us in being part of an incredible and worthwhile project!

JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing

On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers).  The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.

IMG_0347
Xing Chao’s original photo of the find at Miyun Reservoir

My heart raced.  Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing?  The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium….  But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?

For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed.  After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s.  Little is known about its winter range.  Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food.  Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia.  There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring).   Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.

As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing.  I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos.  Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing..  With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday.  Would it still be there?

Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.

IMG_0345
JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, Miyun Reservoir, 9 January 2016. Photo by Xing Chao.
IMG_0344
JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, Miyun Reservoir, 9 January 2016. Photo by Xing Chao.

These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING.  Gulp.  Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit.  Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!

And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.

After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800.  It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind.  The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.

We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically.  He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S!  Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared.  After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search.  Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings.  As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males.  Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars.  It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!

We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible.  Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting female

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 14-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 12-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 3-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Buntings-2-2

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 8-1

2016-01-13 Jankowski's Bunting 6-1

We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated.  What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages.  As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing.  What a day!

Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David.  They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!

It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing.  Is it here every winter and been overlooked?  Or is this winter exceptional?  I suspect the latter.  Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply).  The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter).  However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!

Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find.  Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.

Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI'S BUNTING
Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING

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JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a species in serious trouble.  Martin Hale in Hong Kong and Jesper Hornskov in Beijing first rang the alarm bell and, in 2012, Birding Beijing became a Species Champion under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.  In partnership with BirdLife, Beijing (China) Birdwatching Society, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, Oriental Bird Club and others, Birding Beijing has been involved with shaping, and participating in, an action plan to try to save the species from disappearing.  This has included surveys on the breeding grounds, workshops with the local government and public outreach.  BirdLife’s Simba Chan, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Wu Lan and many others have been tireless in their efforts.  The campaign received a boost in January 2013 when Sir David Attenborough lent his support and, later that year, the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National Peoples Congress committed to include JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING on the list of species with special protection.  There is a dedicated page on this website providing the latest information and a JustGiving page to receive contributions towards the conservation effort.

2013-01-15 DA with JB

Sir David joining the campaign to save JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING, January 2013.