Streaked Reed Warbler on the local patch?

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.

Streaked Reed Warbler is now an almost mythical species not seen anywhere for several years, whose breeding grounds have yet to be discovered and whose song has never been recorded. This photo by Martin Williams taken at Beidaihe in the 1980s.

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.

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Ten birds to look out for in Beijing this Spring

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.

You can download the “Ten Birds to look out for this Spring” as a PDF.

Feel free to add a comment about your favourite birds seen this spring!

Singing SWINHOE’S RAIL in Beijing

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.

Oriental Plover at Ma Chang, 7 April 2019 (Zhang Weimin)

White Wagtail ssp baicalensis, Ma Chang (Terry Townshend)

White Wagtail ssp ocularis (Terry Townshend)

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.

Citrine Wagtail (Terry Townshend)

Buff-bellied Pipit (Terry Townshend)

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.

The SWINHOE’S RAIL was singing from the island with dry vegetation and a handful of trees.

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.

A sonogram of Swinhoe’s Rail recorded at very close distance in Inner Mongolia, June 2018.

A sonogram of the Swinhoe’s Rail at Ma Chang, Beijing, on 15 April 2019. Much fainter, due to the distance, but the same 6-7 notes at 2kHz, with similar spacing.

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.  

Beijing Swifts are back!

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.

Beijing Cuckoos inspire new educational book for schools

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!

Amur Leopard Cat in Beijing

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!

 

 

 

The Guardian covers the story of Gu Xuan “The Anti-poacher” in Beijing

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.