The Appetiser

A walk around the Olympic Forest Park on Tuesday evening revealed that autumn passerine migration is beginning to get going…  First, I flushed a Richard’s Pipit from a path near the ‘underwater corridor’, then a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler flew across the path and dived into deep cover, showing the white tips to the outer tail feathers.  Just before dusk a snipe circled a couple of times before dropping like a stone into the edge of a reedbed.  I grabbed a few very poor images and I suspect it was a Pin-tailed Snipe or Swinhoe’s.  Its flight was subtly slower than Common Snipe, it lacked an obvious white trailing edge to the secondaries and the legs appeared to protrude relatively far beyond the tail.  Images below and opinions welcome.  Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed Snipe are notoriously difficult to separate so best to go down in the book as a “Swintail”…!

"Swintail" Snipe, Olympic Forest Park
"Swintail" Snipe, Olympic Forest Park

There were also some dragonflies on the wing.  In addition to the usual Sympetrum kunckeli, these presumed Deielia phaon were patrolling the edge of the reedbed.

Deielia phaon (I think), Olympic Forest Park
Deielia phaon (I think), Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

The trickle of passerine migration certainly whets the appetite for what will be, I am sure, another brilliant autumn of migration here in north-eastern China.  I have just booked my flight to Dalian for late September, where we will have a group of birders covering the Laotieshan area for at least a couple of weeks this autumn.  After the fantastic Spring experience, I can’t wait to return to see if the autumn migration matches my expectations.

On the way back from the Olympic Park to the metro station, I enjoyed watching the local Beijingers using the public spaces built for the Olympics.  Great stuff!

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Wet Wet Wet

Apologies to those of you expecting a post about the 80s pop sensation led by Marti Pello (whatever happened to him?).

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, in the midst of some of the worst smog, I mean mist (you don’t get smog in Beijing, cough) since I have been in Beijing, I decided to spend a couple of hours at the Olympic Forest Park…  it was a decision I regretted almost as soon as I arrived on site..  Within about 15 minutes, and just as I had reached the more open area of the park, the skies darkened and the rumble of thunder began to reverberate all around.. The brief highlight, as I rounded the first lake, was this Kingfisher atop a pink lotus flower as it scanned for vulnerable fish below…

Common Kingfisher, Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

I rattled off a few images before the heavens opened..  and boy did they open.  Two hours later I was still sheltering under the overhang of a roof of a refreshments kiosk watching the floodwater rush by and Wishing I was Lucky.  As dusk approached there was no sign of any respite, so I made a run for the metro..  Needless to say, by the time I got to the station, I was soaked to the skin…!  At least the rain has cleared away much of the smog.. today is classified as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” rather than yesterday’s “Hazardous” by the US Embassy’s air quality Twitter feed (@BeijingAir)….

Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

First thing this morning I made my first visit to the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing.  This relatively new park, as its name suggests, was created for the 2008 Olympic Games and has won awards for its design.  I was pleasantly surprised by how ‘bird-friendly’ it is.  There is some great habitat, including some large reedbeds, lakes, mature (ish) woodland and open areas, all of which are attracting birds.

Today, I explored the southern section prompted by a visiting birder, Claus Holzapfel, who had seen a Streaked Reed Warbler a few days ago.  I didn’t see any of these rare ‘acro‘ warblers but I chalked up an impressive list of species for a central Beijing location (see below).

The highlight for me was an enjoyable encounter with a confiding Yellow Bittern as it hunted in one of the lily-filled lakes.  It’s ungainly stance belied the effectiveness with which it stalked small fish and frogs.

Oriental Reed Warblers filled the air with their chattering and there were also a few Black-browed Reed Warblers competing to be heard and a few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers skulking at the base of the reeds.  Indian and Eurasian Cuckoos were calling frequently and the song of the Black-naped Oriole was an occasional accompaniement.

In the more mature trees on the eastern side, a singing male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was a nice sight but I failed to find the Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher that Paul Holt had seen the previous day.

The Olympic Park is situated just north of the 4th ring road, north of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium and is served by metro stops as well as several bus routes, so it is easy to get to.  It opens at 6am and, this morning, there were relatively few people around and it was very easy to find quiet spots – not to be taken for granted in Beijing where most city parks are full of early morning exercisers for the first few hours of daylight.  For me, it’s the best birding site I’ve seen so far in Beijing city.  I’ll definitely be back!

Map of Beijing Olympic Forest Park
Yellow Bittern, Beijing Olympic Forest Park, 2 June 2011
Comical as it made its way across the lillies... would definitely qualify as a Monty Python 'silly walk'
Watching you watching me..
I enjoyed half an hour with this confiding bird today in the Olympic Forest Park, Beijing

Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Collared Dove (1)

Common Magpie (many)

Tree Sparrow (many)

Grey-capped Woodpecker (3)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (2)

Indian Cuckoo (4)

Chinese (Light-vented) Bulbul (7)

Oriental Reed Warbler (at least 30)

Eurasian Cuckoo (5)

Oriental Greenfinch (3)

Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (3)

Night Heron (7)

Red-rumped Swallow (4)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (4)

Black Drongo (1)

Common Moorhen (6)

Common Swift (12)

Yellow Bittern (7)

Goldeneye (1) – a drake on the lake near the ‘underwater corridor’

Barn Swallow (3)

Little Egret (1) – flyover

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (1) – singing just north-east of Wali Lake

Marsh Tit (2)

Black-naped Oriole (3)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1) – northeast of Wali Lake

Arctic Warbler (4)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)

Grey Heron (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Radde’s Warbler (2)

Azure-winged Magpie (6)

Spotted Dove (2)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)

Jingshan Park

Just north of the Forbidden City lies a very popular park with an artificial hill (sometimes known as Coal Hill). The hill was constructed in the Ming Dynasty entirely from soil excavated in forming the moats of the Imperial Palace and nearby canals. Why was it built? According to the dictates of Feng Shui, it is favourable to site a residence to the south of a nearby hill (and it is also practical, gaining protection from chilly northern winds). The imperial palaces in the other capitals of previous dynasties were situated to the south of a hill. When the capital was moved to Beijing, no such hill existed north of the Forbidden City, so one was constructed. Typical China!

The hill is especially impressive when one considers that all of this material was moved only by manual labour and animal power. Apparently, in 1644, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself here…

Anyway, on that cheery note, about the birds. Earlier this week I received a tip-off that there was a ‘very large’ flock of Waxwings present. So on Friday morning I spent an hour there. As usual in any Chinese public park, there were lots of people – shouting, singing, dancing, exercising, doing Tai Chi, running backwards, playing musical instruments and playing “keepy-uppy” with a sort of large shuttlecock. After wandering around the perimeter I stumbled across the Waxwing flock feeding on junipers and regularly going down to drink from a leaky hosepipe. Given the hosepipes were spraying water everywhere, there was, unusually, a small area without people. I risked a drenching to get a closer look and it soon became apparent that there were at least 50 Waxwings in the group, including some Japanese. Twice a Sparrowhawk wreaked havoc by appearing out of nowhere in its attempts to catch one (unsuccessfully) and each time this happened, the whole flock took to the air, where it became apparent that my estimate was most definitely an underestimate! In the air, I guessed at around 250 birds. Soon they returned and I enjoyed good views as these very vocal birds began to feed again.

The water also attracted other birds in the park including a nice Dusky Thrush, several Naumann’s Thrushes and a Red-throated Thrush as well as Oriental Greenfinches and a couple of Large-billed Crows. A pleasant, if slightly wet, hour…

I quite like this 'arty' image of waxwings in formation...

Two Bohemian Waxwings in 'bomber formation'

Japanese Waxwing, Jingshan Park, 8 April 2011

One of the charismatic and curious Large-billed Crows in Jingshan Park

Another looker..

Now I know many people in the UK have had their fill of Red-flanked Bluetails in the last few months, with the unprecedented influx last autumn. But I bet none of them looked like this…!

Red-flanked Bluetail - smart, eh?

RFBs are beginning to arrive in the Beijing area now and the adult males are absolute stunners. Forgive me for posting a few more images….

STOP PRESS: Jesper Hornskov just sent me a SMS to say he has just seen a GREAT BUSTARD flying over the Summer Palace.. A great record. Spring is here.. let the big migration commence…

A newly arrived RFB
Note the white brow (which the Himalayan form lacks)

Going Japanese

After a tip-off from Jesper about some Japanese Waxwings in the Summer Palace, I spent a couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon.  Eventually, after dodging the crowds to get to the north-west corner of the park, I discovered a mixed flock of Waxwings in a quiet corner.  Unusually, Japanese outnumbered Bohemian by about 4 to 1.  They were very loyal to a couple of ‘leylandii’-type trees, to which they frequently flew down to feed before flying up to some tall poplars to preen, rest and eat a little of the snow that had fallen overnight.

Despite the very overcast conditions, I was able to capture a few pleasing images.

Japanese Waxwings, Summer Palace, Beijing, 26 February 2011. Note the pale belly, bright pink tip to the tail and fiery-orange undertail coverts.
The black on the back of the crest can be seen well on the bottom left bird.

Japanese Waxwing take-off


Japanese Waxwing: close up of the wing and tail patterns

Ibisbills

On Saturday I accompanied Jesper Hornskov, visiting Swede Anders Magnusson and American birder, Gina Sheridan, on a trip to see the Ibisbills north of Beijing at Huairou. It was something of a surprise when Canadian birder, Brian Elder, discovered these Ibisbills so close to Beijing in June 2002 and this well-known site has been on many a birder’s hit-list during visits to Beijing ever since. I had visited in September last year, shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and was lucky enough to see 3 birds on that occasion. But, with the heavy development, including a new main road, would they still be there??

As anyone who has been to this site recently will testify, on arrival it really does not look very promising with a relatively narrow river, lots of gravel extraction, areas of rubbish littering the river bank and now a wooden walkway built alongside.

On Saturday we left Beijing at 0600 for the 90-minute journey to arrive on site shortly after dawn. We began, in temperatures of around -10 and with a windchill of well below that, by scanning from the road bridge where we were lucky enough to see some Goosander, Smew, Mallard, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Blue Hill Pigeons and a good selection of buntings in the roadside scrub – Godlewski’s (Eastern Rock), Little, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed. We decided to walk the northern stretch of the river first, as this would be hit by the sun earlier thus helping to minimise the effects of the cold which seemed to be exacerbated by the moisture coming off the river and freezing in the air, making our faces sting. Along the path we encountered first one, then two, Crested Kingfishers and a flock of at least 60 Vinous-throated Parrotbills. A few more Goosander, Smew, Mallard, a pair of Grey-capped Woodpeckers and a young Golden Eagle kept our interest but there was no sign of any Ibisbills. The walk back to the bridge produced an educational second calendar year Black-throated Thrush (with the faintest of streaking on the upper breast), Siberian Accentor and more Godlewski’s, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed Buntings.

After a very welcome break for coffee and chocolate, during which time we picked up Common Buzzard, Naumann’s Thrush, Hawfinch (2), Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Hill Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie and Large-billed Crow, we worked our way south. We reached a usually reliable site for the Ibisbills some way down the road – an area of piled up bricks and stones with good views over the river but there was still no sign. We decided to give it some time here to see if they would fly past or call and it was after only a few minutes that Jesper picked up a brief muffled call that he was convinced was Ibisbill. Of course, Jesper being Jesper, he was right! Soon after we had fantastic views as one, two, then three Ibisbills flew past us, calling as they did so. Stunning views in great light. Wow. Anders and Gina were ecstatic – a new life bird for them and one that has almost mythical status among many birders. After watching them on the ground for several minutes, including studying their feeding technique (the Ibisbills that is, not Anders and Gina), we reluctantly tore ourselves away to explore the area to the south, half-hoping for a Rosefinch or an Alpine Accentor. We didn’t see either of those but we did enjoy 3 more sightings of Golden Eagle (including a pair of adults), Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Bunting, Northern Goshawk, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Tit and Great Tit. As we took a path over a low pass in the surrounding hills and moved from shadow to sun, the climate changed dramatically and instead of looking like members of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, we were suddenly transformed into Beach Boys extras in (almost) shorts and t-shirts for the remainder of the walk down to the road to meet our lift home. One could almost believe that Spring was around the corner. The stunning hill scenery was a great backdrop to a top day’s birding and, with views of the Great Wall on the journey home plus a short stop to observe a small flock of Crested Mynas, the interest was carried through until we reached Beijing.

With my camera temporarily out of service, I was worried about just going birding with ‘just my bins and scope’ but, although I undoubtedly missed a fantastic opportunity to capture some great Ibisbill images, the simplicity of ‘just birding’ was a refreshing change…