‘Brexit refugee’ European Robin given warm reception in Beijing

Context is everything. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula, 欧亚鸲, Ōu yà qú) is a bird many people take for granted in Europe but when one turns up outside its normal range, it can cause much excitement. A few days ago, news broke of a European Robin in the grounds of Beijing Zoo. The response has been incredible.

The crowd on site early morning of Friday 11 January 2019.

Not surprisingly, the news spread fast among the many social media (WeChat) groups and hundreds of (mostly) photographers and birders have descended on a small corner of the grounds of the zoo to catch a glimpse of this rare visitor. After seeing a few photos of the masses from local birders, I was fascinated to see the scene for myself.

So, on Friday morning, I spent a couple of hours on site. For the first hour, with the photographers camped around the spot where the Robin comes to feed on the provided meal worms, there was no sign of the bird. The gathering very much had the feel of a social occasion with people chatting, drinking tea and catching up with friends. If the Robin had been singing or calling, it would have been hard to hear it amongst the din of 200+ people.

One photographer thought it was hilarious that an English person had come to see what he described as a British bird. In fact, many of the photographers I spoke with associated the Robin with Britain and it had even been light-heartedly called a “Brexit Refugee” on social media, escaping the political chaos in the country of its perceived origin. Why the association with Britain? Of course, the Robin was voted as the UK’s national bird in 2015 in an informal vote organised by David Lindo (The Urban Birder). And many locals knew the Robin was associated with Christmas. However, with a range across Europe and into Central Asia, the Beijing Robin is more likely to have originated from the eastern part of its range. Sadly, it is not ringed with a metal ring from one of the UK’s observatories (now THAT would have been something).

It wasn’t long before the Robin appeared close by and it was a bit of a scrum as the chatter stopped and the photographers jostled for a prime spot from where to capture their hoped-for frame filling images. Running off the path and dragging themselves through some dense branches to reach a small clearing in the habitat was no barrier.

The scene when the Robin appeared in an area of scrub.

I am happy to say I took this video from a public path!

It was all a little bizarre to see so many people so excited about a European Robin but it also helped me to see the UK’s national bird in a new light and with a new sense of awe. After all, it is one of the most charismatic and loved birds of my home nation. And despite the slightly unruly behaviour of some of the photographers, it must be an encouraging sign that so many people are taking an interest in birds and the natural world in the world’s most populous country.

It has already attracted the attention of the media – see this article by China State Television’s international website, CGTN.

The Robin at the Beijing Zoo is Beijing’s third, after previous records in the winters of 2007 and 2014.


Title image: The European Robin at Beijing Zoo, Friday 11 January 2019.

Rare and scarce birds in Beijing 2018

2018 was another brilliant year for birding in Beijing.  At least 379 species were reliably recorded in the capital.  The growing number of observers and improved observer awareness are almost certainly responsible for the increasing number of unusual records.  This is a summary of the records of rare and scarce birds of which I am aware.  It is unlikely to be comprehensive.  If you know of any records of rare or scarce species in 2018 that are not included, please contact me.  My gratitude goes to everyone who has reported sightings over the last 12 months and especially to Paul Holt and XiaoPT for their contributions to this summary.


2018 started strongly with the JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) remaining in the Agricultural Exhibition Center Gardens until 3 March at least, and unseasonal records of COLLARED CROW (Corvus torquatus, 白颈鸦) and CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) at Dashihe all on 1st (the former seen on and off until 20th at least and the latter the first winter record for the capital).  PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (Carpodacus roseus, 北朱雀) and GULDENSTADT’S (WHITE-WINGED) REDSTARTS (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus, 红腹红尾鸲) were on site in relatively low numbers at Lingshan (Oscar Campbell).

A BLACK-THROATED TIT (Aegithalos concinnus, 红头长尾山雀) of uncertain origin was in the grounds of Tsinghua University on 3rd and six or seven YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS (Emberiza chrysophrys, 黄眉鹀), scarce in the capital, were at the Summer Palace on 6th (The City Green Island Birdwatching Group of the China Birdwatching Society via XiaoPT).

A male CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀), a scarce species in Beijing, was at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre gardens on 7th (Stefan Andrew) and a lingering BROWN-EARED BULBUL (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was at Beihai Park on 7th (Niao Pan) with four there on 10th (Beijing Feiyu) and 25th (Beijing Feiyu).

13th produced a surprise in the form of a BROWN ACCENTOR (Prunella fulvescens, 褐岩鹨) at Yanhecheng, Mentougou District (Li Zhaonan et al, Friends of Nature Birdwatching Group).

2018-01-13 Brown Accentor, Yanhecheng, Mentougou (Li Zhaonan)
Brown Accentor, Yanhecheng (Li Zhaonan)

On 21st, Colm Moore found Beijing’s 4th ARCTIC REDPOLL (Carduelis hornemanni, 极北朱顶雀) in a flock of Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea, 白腰朱顶雀) at Miaofengshan and, on 23rd, another CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was reported from the Botanical Gardens along with a single YELLOW-BROWED BUNTING (Emberiza chrysophrys, 黄眉鹀), (Beijing Feiyu).

2018-01-21 Arctic Redpoll, Miaofengshan (Colm)
The Arctic Redpoll at Miaofengshan on 21 January 2018 (Colm Moore)

The good run of CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) continued when Colm Moore discovered another at Shisanling on 27th and on the same day another unseasonal CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) was seen in the Botanical Gardens (Tang Bohui), the second winter record for Beijing.


At least three (two males and a female) SCALY-SIDED MERGANSERS (Mergus squamatus, 中华秋沙鸭) were reported as having been photographed at the Wenyu River no later than the 3rd February 2018 (Zhang Xiaoling 张小玲 in litt. to XiaoPT) and a female was recorded at the same site on 5th by Li Xiaomai (via XiaoPT).  This represents just the sixth Beijing record of this endangered species.

Beijing’s 7th MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) was found at Dashihe by XiaoPT and Luo Qingqing on 12th.  On 15th the male CHAFFINCH (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was still in the Botanical Gardens (Stefan Andrew) and a SOLITARY SNIPE (Gallinago solitaria, 孤沙锥) was at Dashihe on 22nd. On 23rd a CHESTNUT THRUSH (Turdus rubrocanus, 灰头鸫) was in the Olympic Forest Park (Hu Xuehui 胡雪卉).  This was possibly the same bird that was photographed there on the 19 November 2017 by 夕阳红 (internet name).  An exceptionally early PACIFIC SWIFT (Apus pacificus, 白腰雨燕) was reported on 26th at Shuangjing (Andrew Morrissey).


Two BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were at Dashihe on 4th (Chen Xi’er and Liang Shujie) and, on 25th, a single PALLAS’S GULL (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥) was at Shahe (XiaoPT, Zhang Yongge and Sui Liling).  On 30th a MANCHURIAN BUSH WARBLER (Cettia canturians, 远东树莺) was found at Tsinghua University campus, an unusually early migrant or a previously unseen wintering bird (Zhao Xiangyu).


There was no fooling Colm Moore on 1st as he picked out Beijing’s 6th personata WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰) at Shisanling.  Colm continued his run of rarities when he found Beijing’s 3rd ISABELLINE WHEATEAR (Oenanthe isabellina, 沙鵖) at Shisanling on 7th, alongside 2 male PIED WHEATEARS (Oenanthe pleschanka, 白顶唧) and 3 PALLAS’S GULLS (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus, 渔鸥) at the same site.  On 11th, a Beijing record 223 ORIENTAL PLOVERS (Charadrius veredus, 东方鴴) were at Ma Chang (Paul Holt) together with Beijing’s ninth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨). Probably the same individual was seen on 12th, 16th and 17th at the same site.  On 17th there was a major surprise with Beijing’s second CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺) singing close to Ma Chang, also found by Paul Holt (the first record was on 6 May 2017 at the Temple of Heaven Park).  On 22nd, a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕) was photographed at Shisanling by Colm Moore and a LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬) was at Bulaotun (XiaoPT, Chen Wei et al) and seen again on 24th (XiaoPT, Chen Wei, Huang Yue, Luo Qingqing, Dahao and Chen Dameng), the latter only the sixth record for Beijing.  Beijing’s seventh personata WHITE WAGTAIL (Motacilla alba, 白鹡鸰) was seen at Dashihe by Luo Qingqing on 22nd.  A singing LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) in the grounds of the Agricultural Exhibition Center (Stefan Andrew) was just the eighth record for Beijing.

2018-04-08 Isabelline Wheatear, Shisanling (CM)
Beijing’s third Isabelline Wheater was at Shisanling on 7-8 April 2018 at least (Colm Moore)


The first day of May brought a LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟), Beijing’s 5th, to Yeyahu (Pan Wenxing) and, on 5th, a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER was in the grounds of the Agricultural Exhibition Center Park (Stefan Andrew).  On 13th, a male MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER (Ficedula mugimaki, 鸲姬鹟) at Tsinghua University campus was just the 11th record of this species for the capital.  A RUFOUS-TAILED ROBIN (Luscinia sibilans, 红尾歌鸲) at the same site on 19th was a notable record of this scarce migrant and, just a day later, five SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) were at Gubeikou, just the 5th record of this species in Beijing.  On 22nd, a SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟) at Peking University was possibly the first lowland record of this species in the capital (it has been recorded at Lingshan and Haituoshan in summer in recent years).  A singing PALE-LEGGED LEAF WARBLER (Phylloscopus tenellipes, 淡脚柳莺) was a nice find at Xinglong Park by Jan-Erik Nilsen on 25th and on the same day a CHINESE BUSH WARBLER (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺) was photographed on the campus of Peking University (Xi’er), the 12th record for Beijing.  The month ended with another, singing, CHINESE BUSH WARBLER (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺) on the Shunyi Patch (Terry Townshend), the 13th record for the capital.  In addition, there was a record of a single LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta, 小滨鹬) at Wanping Hu sometime in May 2018 (Zhao Xiangyu pers. comm. to XiaoPT), representing the seventh Beijing record.


The third of the year, and 14th Beijing record of CHINESE BUSH WARBLER (Bradypterus tacsanowskius, 中华短翅莺) was at Lingshan on 3rd (Terry Townshend) and 2 SLATY-BACKED FLYCATCHERS (Ficedula hodgsonii, 锈胸蓝姬鹟) were at Lingshan (XiaoPT et al), possibly only the fourth Beijing record.  On 7th a SLATY-BREASTED RAIL (Lewinia striata, 蓝胸秧鸡) was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park (Lou Fangzhou), possibly only the 3rd Beijing record.  A BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺) was at Baihuashan on 10th (Jan-Erik Nilsen), the third consecutive year this usually more southerly distributed species has been recorded at this site.  On 12th news broke of a CHESTNUT-WINGED CUCKOO (Clamator coromandus, 红翅凤头鹃) seen on 2nd in the Botanical Gardens (Li Tian).  A single BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was seen at Yeyahu, a potential breeding site, on 20th (Beijing Feiyu) and on 24th at least 4 SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟), showing signs of breeding, were at Gubeikou (XiaoPT, Zhao Min and Luo Qingqing).  Several hours earlier, Li Zhaonan et al recorded more than 10 individuals at the same site.  A TIGER SHRIKE (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳), also at Gubeikou, was another surprise (XiaoPT et al).


The second BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Horornis fortipes, 强脚树莺) of the year was recorded at Yudushan on 14th (Luo Qingqing et al).


The main highlights from an otherwise typically quiet month (at least partly due to lack of observations due to the uncomfortable heat) were a BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER (Calidris falcinellus, 阔嘴鹬) at Ma Chang on 25th (Han Jing & Yang Jie), just the fifth Beijing record, and a PIED KINGFISHER (Ceryle rudis, 斑鱼狗) at Bulaotun, Miyun Reservoir, on 25th (Chen Wei, Huang Yue, XiaoPT, Luo Qingqing and Chen Dameng), just the seventh record for Beijing.  It or another was at Yeyahu on 28th August (Guan Xueyan et al).  A NORTHERN HAWK-CUCKOO (Hierococcyx hyperythrus, 北鹰鹃) at the Wenyu River on 29th was possibly only the sixth Beijing record (Steve Bale).


A busy month began with 3 BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) at Yeyahu on 3rd (Jenny Fang and Zhen Niu), followed by a BAND-BELLIED CRAKE (Porzana paykullii, 斑肋田鸡) on the Shunyi Patch on 5th (Terry Townshend).  On 11th there was a rare chance to positively identify to species level one of the many ‘SWINTAILED SNIPE’ seen in the capital. A single juvenile showed tremendously well at Tsinghua University campus, allowing close observation and photographs of the spread tail, showing that it was a PIN-TAILED SNIPE (Gallinago stenura, 针尾沙锥).  Something of a red-letter day for Paul Holt on 14th at Yeyahu produced two Beijing ‘firsts’ in the form of a WOOD WARBLER (Phylloscopus sibilatrix, 林柳莺) and a HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET (Aerodramus brevirostris, 短嘴金丝燕) and, as if that wasn’t enough, Paul also heard a SWINHOE’S RAIL (Coturnicops exquisitus, 花田鸡), the fifth record for Beijing.  All three records were within a single, remarkable, hour.  An adult LITTLE GULL (Hydrocoloeus minutus, 小鸥) was at Ma Chang on 22nd (Paul Holt and XiaoPT) and, on 24th, a dark morph BOOTED EAGLE (Hieraaetus pennatus, 靴隼雕) was at Shahe (Colm Moore).  On 26th, a MARSH GRASSBIRD (Locustella pryeri, 斑背大尾莺) at Shahe (XiaoPT et al) was a nice record, and just the tenth record for Beijing (it or another was at the same site on 8th October).


A female MUGIMAKI FLYCATCHER was in Ritan Park on 1st (Andrew Morrissey), just the 12th Beijing record.  Three BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were still at Yeyahu on 3rd (Paul Holt, Ben Wielstra and Terry Townshend) and, on the same day, belated news broke of a BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE (Coracina melaschistos, 暗灰鹃鵙) in the Olympic Forest Park ‘in early September’ (via XiaoPT).  A WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri, 斑脸海番鸭) was at Ma Chang on 6th (Zhen Niu) and a MARSH GRASSBIRD (Locustella pryeri, 斑背大尾莺), was at Shahe on 8th (Zhao Xiangyu), possibly the lingering September bird. An outstanding 15 LONG-TAILED TITS (caudatus) were besides the Wenyu River on 11th (Steve Bale), just the eight record of this white-headed stunner.  A BULL-HEADED SHRIKE (Lanius bucephalus, 牛头伯劳) was at Yeyahu on 14th (Beijing Feiyu) and a BLACK-THROATED DIVER (Gavia arctica, 黑喉潜鸟) was found at the Summer Palace on 19th (Denis Corbeil), remaining until 3rd November at least (the 5th Beijing record).  On 23rd a single GULDENSTADT’S (WHITE-WINGED) REDSTART (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus, 红腹红尾鸲) was photographed at Shahe, a rare lowland Beijing record.


A first calendar-year BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at the Summer Palace on 3rd (Zhang Jingkang), the tenth record for Beijing.  On 5th, a BLACK-WINGED KITE (Elanus caeruleus, 黑翅鸢) was at Yeyahu (Terry Townshend) and, on 10th, the same site hosted Beijing’s fourth CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita, 叽喳柳莺) (Lou Fangzhou).  An unseasonal CHINESE THRUSH (Turdus mupinensis, 宝兴歌鸫) was in the Temple of Heaven Park on 8th (Chris Bowden). A WALLCREEPER (Tichodroma muraria, 红翅旋壁雀) in Shunyi on 11-12 November was possibly the first lowland Beijing record (Terry Townshend).  On 14th, what we think is the first modern day record of HAZEL GROUSE (Tetrastes bonasia, 花尾榛鸡) was at Lingshan (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend) and, on the same day, a WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲) was discovered just 250m on the ‘wrong side’ of the border with Hebei Province, apparently just the second record for eastern China (Steve Bale and Terry Townshend).  A second BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at Shahe on 19th (Colm Moore), Beijing’s 11th record, the same day a RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER (Ficedula parva, 红胸姬鹟) was photographed in the Temple of Heaven Park (Zhang Xiaoling).  The latter bird, certainly present on 18th and possibly before, was just the 6th Beijing record of this species.  Three BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) were at Huairou Reservoir on 20th (Steve Bale) and, on 21st, a ‘sibiricus‘ NORTHERN GREY SHRIKE (Lanius excubitor, 灰伯劳) was at Lingshan (Steve Bale, XiaoPT and Terry Townshend).  A first calendar year LONG-TAILED DUCK (Clangula hyemalis, 长尾鸭) was at Peking University on 24th (Wang Yishan) but unfortunately found dead on 27th (per XiaoPT).  Another first calendar-year BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) was at Huairou Reservoir on 27th (Steve Bale) and, on 30th a male WHITE-THROATED REDSTART (Phoenicurus schisticeps, 白喉红尾鸲) was found at Miaofengshan by Colm Moore.  Given the Lingshan bird on 14th was just over the border in Hebei Province, Colm’s bird represents the first Beijing record and only the third record for eastern China.

2018-11-05 Black-winged Kite, Yeyahu
Black-winged Kite at Yeyahu on 5 November 2018 (Terry Townshend)


On 5th, whilst visiting Tsinghua University for the first time to try to see a long-staying GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), Steve Bale found and photographed Beijing’s 2nd REDWING (Turdus iliacus, 白眉歌鸫), enjoyed by many local birders and still present, along with the GREY-~BACKED THRUSH, at the year’s end.  On 8th a nice flock of 6 CHAFFINCHES (Fringilla coelebs, 苍头燕雀) was at Taishitun (XiaoPT).  Three ASIAN ROSY FINCHES (Leucosticte arctoa, 粉红腹岭雀) at Lingshan on 15th (Jan-Erik Nilsen) was the first record this winter of a species with an unpredictable pattern of occurrence.  Continuing the run of rare and scarce thrushes, a PALE THRUSH (Turdus pallidus, 白腹鸫) was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park on 16th and was still present at the year’s end.  Xing Chao found and photographed a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) at Peking University on 22nd (ninth record) and, on 26th, an unseasonal CHESTNUT-FLANKED WHITE-EYE (Zosterops erythropleurus, 红胁绣眼鸟) was in the Botanical Gardens (XiaoPT).  Finally, the capital’s tenth MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) was photographed at Shidu on 30 December (via XiaoPT).


Thanks again to everyone who has reported sightings in 2018 and wishing everyone a happy, healthy and bird-filled 2019.



Title photo: The highlight of December 2018 was undoubtedly the capital’s 2nd Redwing, found by Steve Bale at Tsinghua University on 5th.

Beijing Swifts on BBC2

About a year ago, the BBC Natural History Unit was in contact about the feasibility of filming the Beijing Swift for a forthcoming series on urban wildlife.  After introducing them to local experts, including Professors Gao and Zhao, the China Birdwatching Society and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, the BBC applied for permission to visit and film the Swifts in the Chinese capital.  One of the locations was the Summer Palace, where the China Birdwatching Society has been studying the colony of 200+ birds for more than 10 years.  It was here that, in 2014, the Society collaborated with experts from Europe on the Beijing Swift Project, tracking the migration of these avian wonders and discovering for the first time their migration route and wintering grounds in southern Africa.

The new series – “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” – is being shown on BBC2 and the Beijing Swifts are due to appear in episode three on Sunday 13 January (2000-2100).  For those who can’t wait that long, a trailer about the Beijing Swift is available on the BBC website.

It’s fantastic exposure for Beijing’s Swifts and the people working to support them.

If you’re in the UK on the evening of Sunday 13th January, put the kettle on, settle into your favourite armchair and enjoy….


UPDATE 9 January: The BBC Natural History Unit has informed me that the Beijing Swifts will now NOT be shown in episode 3 of “Cities: Nature’s New Wild” on BBC2 on 13 January.  Instead, episode 3 of the UK version of the series will include a segment on Indonesian Swiftlets.  The Beijing Swifts will feature in the international version of the series.  I’m awaiting broadcast details.  Updates will appear here as more information is available.




China’s Conservation Heroes: Gu Xuan


Illegal hunting is a major threat to wild birds in most parts of the world.  Even in so-called advanced countries, the problem persists.  My home country – the UK – is certainly not immune with the continued illegal persecution of raptors to protect commercial shooting interests.

In China, trapping birds both for the cage-bird trade and for food is an activity that, despite tougher laws and greater enforcement, remains a problem.  However, increasingly, people – especially young people – are standing up for wildlife.  For example, in Beijing during spring and autumn – peak times for bird migration – groups of volunteers go out every day looking for illegal nets and, through liaison with the local police and direct action, are working hard to accelerate the demise of illegal hunting in China’s capital city.  A few weeks ago I met with Beijing’s most active anti-poacher – Gu Xuan.  Through crowdsourcing he receives a small – and increasingly unsustainable – income that just about allows him to be a full-time bird protector.  Before our meeting, I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of poaching in Beijing but what he told me – both the scale of the illegal activity and the prices of some cage birds – shocked me.  He agreed to answer a few questions and, with his permission, I have reproduced his answers below.

Although the scale of the problem and the way many migratory birds suffer, may be heartbreaking, it is heartening to hear about the dedication of young people such as Xuan and the progress he and his fellow volunteers are making against incredible odds.  They deserve the respect and support of wildlife lovers the world over.

Beijing may be just one battleground in the war against illegal hunting in China but I strongly believe that if attitudes can be changed here, it will have a knock-on effect across the whole country.


Interview with Gu Xuan

1. Please tell me about yourself – how old are you? Where are you from? What is your background?

My name is Gu Xuan.  I also have a Spanish name – Silva. I was born into a normal family in a small village called Bakou in the northwest of Beijing.  I am 29 years old.

Before I began to protect wild birds, I used to teach life skills to orphaned children, for example, showing them how to take care of themselves and teaching blind children how to use a cane to navigate.

2. For how long have you been tackling poaching of wild birds in Beijing?

I began this work in December 2015, so it’s now three years.

3. What motivates you to do this work?

Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a desire to be with mother nature and the animals, to watch them and spend time with them.  One day I took home a stray dog; I could feel the energy, the connection between us and with mother nature, and this experience showed me my future.  When I was offered the chance to work on this bird protection project, I knew 100% for sure this was my duty and my dream to fight for nature.  I don’t think I need any other motivation.  This is the way I see and feel the world.

4. What is the scale of poaching in Beijing? E.g how many birds do you think are caught each year? Is it getting better or worse?

When I began three years ago, it was a very bad situation.  Even though this is the capital of my country, the need to do this work is very pressing.

Due to old traditions, there are a lot of local people who like to cage birds to watch them and listen to their sound.  So, in order to satisfy this demand, many people set nets during the migration season to catch wild birds.  We find very large numbers of illegal nets in the Beijing area.  And it is not only for the cage-bird trade.  We have often found people catching birds for food.

Nowadays, three years on, the areas where I patrol are a little better but we can always find new places with illegal nets.  The overall situation is out of my control and I cant tell the full scale, but i think it’s bad.

Trapped migrant birds dangle helplessly in an illegal mist net in Beijing. Photo by Gu Xuan.

5. Who are the poachers? What’s their profile? Are they old or young, men or women?

The majority of poachers are unemployed men between 40-60 years old.  However, we do find a few young people and women.

6. Why are they catching wild birds? For the cagebird trade or for food or both? These aren’t hungry people, right? Not for survival?

Some are rich and some poor but they all have a good life and do not need to eat wildlife to live.

7. Who are the buyers of the birds for the cagebird trade?

At the market, many local people from many different backgrounds buy the wild birds.

8. Which species are the poachers particularly targeting and why?

The most popular cage birds are the Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin, Yellow-bellied, Marsh and Coal Tits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, white-eyes and larks.  A pristine male Siberian Rubythroat can sell for as much as 200,000 CNY (GBP 22,000) but most will change hands for a few hundred or few thousand CNY, depending on species and condition.

Siberian Rubythroat and Bluethroat are two of the species sought after by poachers. A pristine male of the former can fetch up to 200,000 CNY on the black market. Photo by Gu Xuan.

9. What if they catch other species such as buntings, shrikes, pipits?

If they catch birds not on their target list, for example a Brown Shrike, an Olive-backed Pipit or a warbler, some poachers will release them but others will take them for food.

10. Which areas are the worst in Beijing? 

Some places are particularly bad, such as Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Mentougou, Haidian and Fengtai.

A map of Beijing showing the locations of illegal nets discovered by Gu Xuan and other volunteers.

11. What is the attitude of the police?

At the very beginning, the police did not care too much.  They would not allow us to see their work and they were afraid that someone will blame them.  However, in the last three years, I can see a real change in their attitude and action.  Now they respond quickly and efficiently when we report illegal nets and will do their best to catch the poachers.

12. What are the penalties if the police catch poachers?

We have the Wildlife Protection Law, and poachers will be punished according to the law.  Usually a fine or, if the offence is serious involving a large number of birds, they may receive a custodial sentence.

13. What do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the poaching?

I think if we want to end poaching, there are a number of things that must happen:

  • Police must strictly implement the law
  • We, as volunteers, must patrol frequently
  • We must raise awareness among the local population about the amazing birds we have in Beijing, the effect of poaching on these wild birds and how people can help through discouraging the keeping of cage birds and discouraging eating wild birds

We need to work together and we need more volunteers!

14. What can people do to help?

Obviously, we need money to carry on our frontline action.  We need to be able to support full-time volunteers.  I have many ideas to protect the birds but I can’t end poaching by myself.  I hope people will join us if they have time and chance.  Anyone who comes out with us will feel the energy on the front line.  Then, spread this energy to your family, your friends and your social media (Wechat) groups.  We need your help!

15. Anything else you want to say?

The persecution of wild birds is like other wild animals.  In order to satisfy their own needs, in order to satisfy a moment of happiness, in order to make more money, some people harm animals and destroy them. The habitat that protects this magical life also protects ourselves because we live together on this beautiful planet. Everyone has a responsibility!


I was struck by Xuan’s passion and dedication for saving wild birds.  He told me that, in peak migration season, he rises around 3 or 4am every day in order to be on site at dawn when the poachers are most active.  He invited me to join him for a day next spring, an invitation I was only too pleased to accept.  I very much hope others will join him to accelerate the demise of illegal poaching in Beijing.


EDIT: Gu Xuan’s story has since been covered by Reuters and The Guardian, helping to spread the word about his heroic efforts in Beijing.


The Guardian:




Beijing: could it be the capital of biodiversity?

When you think of Beijing, what image comes into your head?  The Great Wall? Maybe Tiananmen Square? Or maybe air pollution?  For those of a more mature generation, maybe even the picture of a city full of bicycles..?  Whatever the image, I suspect that for most people, birds or wildlife might not be front and centre.

That could be about to change.

In 2020, Beijing will host the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  This clumsily-named UN convention meets every two years and I suspect most people not directly involved with the process would be hard pressed to say much about any of the previous meetings or what has been achieved.  However, the 2020 meeting promises to be different.  It is the time when governments are due to conclude an agreement on targets and measures to slow, stop and eventually reverse the loss of wildlife on Earth.

The meeting will take place in the context of the most recent Living Planet index showing that, since 1970, we have lost more than 60% of the animals on our planet.  That is a shocking statistic and should be a wake-up call for governments and the public everywhere.

As host of the CBD, the Chinese government will want a successful outcome and, with recent progress towards President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘ecological civilisation’ including a ban on further reclamation of intertidal mudflats and nomination of key coastal wetland sites for World Heritage status, the creation of a national park system, species-specific conservation work, e.g. on Baer’s Pochard and Scaly-sided Merganser, the country is creating the foundation for a positive story to tell.

But what about the host city?  Could hosting the CBD be an opportunity to change the global image of Beijing from one of a crowded, polluted, grid-locked city to one of the world’s best capital cities for wildlife?

Beijing is already one of the best major capital cities in the world for birds, with around 500 species recorded.  And in case the Mayor of Beijing is reading, here are some ideas that would require very limited resources but which could have a major impact on Beijing’s image:

Idea 1: A world-class wetland reserve in Beijing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Beijing had a large waterbody that could be an important stopover site for migratory birds, including cranes, geese, ducks, shorebirds and others?  Well, just 75km from Tiananmen Square lies Miyun Reservoir.  It is Beijing’s largest drinking water reservoir and, until public access was prohibited in April 2016, it was the best birding site in the capital attracting flocks of cranes, bustards and large numbers of waterfowl, not to mention huge numbers of buntings in winter.   However, after a large fire in the area and concerns about water quality, much of the land around the reservoir – ideal habitat for shorebirds, cranes, bustards, birds of prey, buntings and pipits – has been cleared and planted with mostly non-native trees in monocultures.  This policy has undoubtedly had a negative impact on birds.  Whilst it is understandable to prioritise water quality, this need not be at the expense of wildlife.  Internationally, there are examples of reservoirs being managed for both water quality and wildlife.  One example is Rutland Water, England’s largest drinking water reservoir.  In fact, Rutland Water is managed for three objectives – water quality, birds and recreation.  If we can share this experience and demonstrate that a large water body can be managed as a place for wildlife as well as water quality, there would be an opportunity to develop a management plan for Miyun Reservoir that maintained a high standard of water quality whilst attracting world-class numbers of cranes and other waterbirds and providing limited public access, attracting millions of visitors each year and an associated boost to the local economy.  Given the CBD conference will likely be in the last quarter of the year, the Beijing government could even invite international media to see the large flocks of cranes that would almost certainly be present if the area was managed sympathetically.

Potential benefits:

– High standard of water quality

– Providing a refuge for thousands of waterbirds, including threatened and endangered species such as cranes and bustards

– Providing opportunities for the urban population to connect with nature

– Through the visiting public staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants, bringing income to the local people in relatively poor Miyun county


Idea 2: 10% Wild

The Summer Palace, Beijing..

Beijing enjoys some large and expansive green spaces.  Parks such as the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Olympic Forest Park are all hugely popular places providing urban Beijingers with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.  Anyone who has visited these parks will know that they are heavily manicured with an army of staff ready to collect any leaf that falls or any blade of grass that grows in one of the cultivated flower beds.  These parks are over-managed to the extent that they are not as friendly for wildlife as they could be.  One idea is for the management of these spaces to leave “10% wild”.  This would mean no significant active management of an allocated part of the park – no use of insecticides, no removal of native plants and no cutting of grass or removal of fallen leaves.  Each park could partner with a local school, the students of which would be invited to undertake surveys of biodiversity – insects, birds and plants – and compare the “10% wild” with other managed parts of the park.  Interpretation signs around the allocated area could promote this experiment to visitors, publishing the results of the student surveys and helping to engage the public about wildlife.  After two years there could be a review to assess the results and to explore whether the experiment should be expanded.

Potential benefits:

– More and better habitat for wildlife in urban Beijing

– Students at local schools become citizen scientists

– Public engagement on the role of parks in providing homes for wildlife in cities

– Fewer resources needed for park management


Idea 3: Urban wildlife oases

An urban oasis in Shunyi District

Beijing lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and, every spring and autumn, millions of birds pass the Chinese capital on their way to and from breeding grounds to the north and wintering grounds to the south.  To make these remarkable journeys, birds require places to rest and refuel along the way. The trans-continental journeys, such as those of the Beijing Swift and Beijing Cuckoo, are challenging for the hardiest of birds, and the challenges are only increased as vast areas of natural habitat along migration pathways are altered or eliminated, making it difficult for exhausted birds to find suitable places to rest and refuel.

“Urban wildlife oases” could provide ‘stepping stones’ for migrating birds to cross urban areas where there is limited quality habitat.  Each community has the potential to provide important habitat for native birds – and a richer, more beautiful place to live for people.

To illustrate the potential, I’d like to convey my experience with a patch of land close to my apartment in Shunyi District.  Surrounded by new developments, including apartments and shopping malls, this 1km x 1km patch of land, very close to the airport, has yet to be developed and, in the two years since I moved to the area and in almost 100 visits, I have recorded 156 species of bird, five species of mammal and nine species of butterfly.  Highlights have included Band-bellied Crake, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Siberian Thrush and Rough-legged Buzzard, demonstrating the importance of the site to migratory birds.

The Shunyi patch is a small area (1km x 1km) of undisturbed land close to Beijing Capital International Airport. The 156 bird species recorded (of which at least 140 are migrants) in just over 2 years shows how important such areas are for migratory birds.

Maintaining a patchwork of urban oases across the city, potentially with some limited public access, would cost little – beyond the opportunity cost of the land – and provide significant benefits to both wildlife and people.

Potential benefits:

– providing shelter and food for some of the millions of migratory birds that pass through the capital each spring and autumn; plus important areas for breeding and wintering species

– with limited public access, these sites could provide the public with access to wild spaces and places for students from local schools to become citizen scientists

– interpretation would mean that these urban oases could act as outdoor classrooms for Beijing’s urban population


Idea 4: Adopting the Beijing Swift

A typical track of a Beijing Swift.

In 2015, a project involving Beijing Birdwatching Society and international experts discovered, for the first time, the migration route and wintering grounds of the Beijing Swift (Apus apus pekinensis).  It was a hugely popular story, covered by mainstream media – both print and broadcast – and engaged millions of people, most of whom would never ordinarily take an interest in birds.  The Beijing Swift is the perfect symbol for modern Beijing.  One of the old names for Beijing is Yanjing, which, in Chinese, breaks down to “燕” (Yan) and “京” (Jing).  The first character, “燕” means “swift” or “swallow”, so the name Yanjing could be interpreted as “Swift capital”.  This bird also links China with Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa, aligned with the much-touted “One Belt, One Road” initiative to revive old trade routes.  Why not formally adopt the Beijing Swift as the official bird of the Chinese capital?  There can be no more appropriate candidate.

Potential benefits:

– Associating Beijing with a bird of endurance, elegance and global reach

– Greater public awareness about the wildlife of Beijing

– Encouragement to businesses and communities to help stem the decline of the Beijing Swift – caused by the demolition of traditional buildings – by erecting artificial nest boxes at suitable sites and encouraging the inclusion of Swift-friendly designs in new buildings


Idea 5: Removing the invisible killer: mist nets at China’s airports

When thousands of environmentally-minded people arrive in Beijing for the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, the first thing they will see is lines and lines of mist nets alongside the runway at Beijing Capital International Airport, many of which will hold bird corpses dangling in the wind.  China’s policy to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes is to line each runway with several kilometres of mist nets.  This method is only effective against small birds which, unless in large flocks, represent almost no risk to aircraft.  Nets at ground level are ineffective against the more significant risks associated with flocks of large birds such as geese, swans or herons.  In fact, guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) makes no mention of mist nets as a way to mitigate the risk of bird strikes.  Recommended good practice is to undertake a risk assessment at each airport to identify the unique risks from wildlife and take appropriate measures to address these specific risks.  Non-lethal methods such as managing habitat, playing distress calls, using birds of prey etc are the most effective methods.  China, with more than 300 airports, takes a general approach of simply erecting lines of mist nets.  It’s lazy and ineffective.  Could CBD be the catalyst for a review of this policy?

Potential benefits:

– stopping the unnecessary killing of millions of birds each year

– more effective management of the risk of bird strikes

– a better international image for China and Beijing



With two years to go until Beijing hosts what will probably be the world’s largest governmental conference on biodiversity, there is ample time to develop a strategic plan that would make Beijing one of the world’s most wildlife-friendly cities.  Instead of “smoggy Beijing”, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to label Beijing as the capital of ecological civilisation?  These are just five ideas.  If you have more, please comment and let us know.. you never know who might be reading.


For a helpful general overview of the CBD process and the current status, read this article by Jonathan Watts.


A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing

As part of the ongoing effort to provide English-language resources about wildlife in China’s capital city, Birding Beijing is pleased to be able to offer a downloadable PDF about the amphibians that can be found in the city.  This guide has been compiled by R. Nicolas LOU, ZHANG Junduo and Ben WIELSTRA, to whom Birding Beijing owes great thanks.

As with the other guides in the series, we acknowledge that this document is not perfect and the authors welcome any information and photographs that will improve the guide.   Please send via email to the address provided in the guide.  Thank you!

A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing


Header photo: Dark-spotted Frog by Zhang Junduo

Thank You, Wildsounds!

When I was back in Norfolk, UK, for Christmas and New Year I was delighted to meet Duncan Macdonald of Wildsounds, an independent Norfolk-based supplier of wildlife books, audio, multimedia guides and audio equipment.  As well as being great company, Duncan was extremely generous in offering some Asia-focused field guides for me to take back to Beijing to give to Chinese birders.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and, after a competition via the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I spent a day whizzing around Beijing to deliver the books to the lucky winners.   Here are a few of the winners receiving their books:

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There is no doubt that these books will further enthuse the lucky recipients about birds and that can only be good for the future of birding and conservation in China.  A big thank you to Duncan!

The next time you are thinking about buying wildlife books, please do consider independent outlets like Wildsounds who, unlike some of the major retailers, pay their taxes and contribute to many conservation projects around the world!

Rare and Scarce Birds in Beijing 2017

2017 was another year of exciting avian discoveries in Beijing.

There was a little snow at the turn of the year and it didn’t take long for the first new Beijing record to be found; on 7 January local photographer Qu Lijun snapped some photos of Beijing’s first SNOW BUNTINGS (Calcarius nivalis, 雪鹀) – a flock of at least ten – at Bulaotun, near Miyun Reservoir.

Three of the flock of at least 10 SNOW BUNTINGS at Bulaotun, Miyun in January 2017.

February began with a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) photographed by Jiang Xiaobo (per Yang Yuejiang) on 6 February in the Olympic Forest Park.  This bird was reported on and off for around two months and was last seen on 3 April by Yang Yuejiang. On 10th February, news broke of a HARLEQUIN (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭) at the most unlikely urban setting of Anzhenmen, close to Beijing’s 2nd ring road.  According to locals it had been present for “at least 20 days” and remained on site well into March, delighting a string of visiting birders from all over the country.

This first-winter female HARLEQUIN was the first record of this species in Beijing.

The HARLEQUIN’s favoured spot – a small city-centre weir in central Beijing.

There were two notable records in March.  First, on 10th, Li Boyang and Liu Ziang photographed a CRESTED GOSHAWK (Accipiter trivirgatus, 凤头鹰) close to Wangjinglou.  With a distribution in China limited to the south, this species is a rare, but possibly overlooked, vagrant to Beijing.  Second, for the second consecutive winter, the presence of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) was confirmed with a count of at least eight birds on 25th at Miyun Reservoir, the same site as the discovery of a small flock by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in winter 2015/2016.  Note Miyun Reservoir remains out of bounds to the public; this record was possible due to special permission given to a group from China Birdwatching Society to undertake their annual waterbird survey.

April began with a first-winter BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) at Ma Chang (Terry Townshend and Richard Fuller).  Then, on 5th, came the biggest surprise of the month with a SULPHUR-BREASTED WARBLER (Phylloscopus ricketti, 黑眉柳莺) photographed at the Deer Park, Nanhaizi (南海子麋鹿苑), by Mr Guo Geng, the Vice Director of the Park.  Although there are two previous reports of this species from the Temple of Heaven Park (per Li Zhaonan), Mr. Guo’s is the first documented record in Beijing.

Further good finds in the month saw an ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) at Yeyahu on 8th during a bird-race and a remarkable occurrence of 14 GREAT BUSTARDS (Otis tarda, 大鸨) migrating over Shisanling on 15th, needless to say found by committed patchworker, Colm Moore.

Four of the GREAT BUSTARDS at Shisanling on 15 April.

A EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀) was reported from the Olympic Forest Park on 19th by visiting birder, Andrew Thornton (there are only two documented records of this species in Beijing – in December 2012  in the Botanical Gardens and November 2013 in the Temple of Heaven Park).  A GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), very scarce in Beijing, was in the grounds of Peking University on 27th and a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕), a scarce migrant in Beijing, was found by Colm Moore at Shisanling on 28th.  On the same day, Beijing’s 4th LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟) was photographed by Mr Nan Hai (南海) at Shahe Reservoir.  Unfortunately, this rarity was flushed by local Grey Herons just five minutes after its arrival and it wasn’t seen again.

As expected, May hosted some interesting records including Beijing’s first CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺), photographed at the Temple of Heaven Park on 6th by Youjiduiyuan (online nick name).  See photo here.  A COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) was at the Summer Palace on 16th (Zhang Yu), a singing SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫) on Terry’s local patch in Shunyi District on 18th and at least 3 singing male GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫) were back at Lingshan on 27th (this likely breeding population was first discovered in 2016), with a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺) at Shisanling on the same date (Colm Moore).  A single DOLLARBIRD (Eurystomus orientalis, 三宝鸟) at Yeyahu on 30th was a nice end to the month.

June saw a handful of reports of ASIAN KOEL (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃), a bird that, until very recently, was rare in Beijing.  Now it’s annual in small numbers and there was a singing bird at Yeyahu on 3rd.  Also on 3rd, two LESSER COUCALs (Centropus bengalensis, 小鸦鹃) were found by Beijing-based Jan-Erik Nilsen at Lingshan.  On 11th June a BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor, 黑脸琵鹭) was photographed by Zhang Weimin at Miyun Reservoir, apparently present since 7 May.  This represents the first documented record of this endangered species in Beijing.

The immature BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (left) with EURASIAN SPOONBILL, Miyun Reservoir, 11 June 2017. Photo by Zhang Weimin.

On 27th a pair of breeding SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) was found at Huairou Reservoir by Paul Holt, only the fourth record for the capital and the first breeding record.

Although not in Beijing, July is worthy of mention for the presence of Hebei Province’s second and China’s fourth LESSER CRESTED TERN (Thalasseus bengalis, 小凤头燕鸥) found by Que Pinjia and Wang Yuqi on 26th at Jingtanggang, close to Happy Island.  Fortunately for the few hardcore China listers, it lingered until 5 August at least, occasionally coming to bathe in what can best be described as a fresh water puddle!

China’s 4th LESSER CRESTED TERN at Jingtanggang, Hebei Province. Photo by Shen Yan

August was relatively quiet with no unusual records.  However, it didn’t take long for September to score when, on 2nd, a MARSH HARRIER sp was photographed by Jing Xin at Bulaotun.  With the lack of pale on the leading edge of the wing, dark rump, lack of significant pale bases to the underside of the primaries and the absence of a pale breastband, the photographs look very good for WESTERN MARSH HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus, 白头鹞), a rare bird in east Asia.  The question is – can Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus, 白腹鹞) ever look like this?   Answers on a postcard, please…

Probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER, Bulaotun, 2 September 2017. Photograph by Jing Xin.

Another photo of the probable WESTERN MARSH HARRIER at Bulaotun on 3 September 2017 showing the underside. Photograph by Jing Xin.

On 20th, the second COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) of the year, and Beijing’s first autumn record, was found at Yuanmingyuan and remained until 24th at least.


October saw Beijing’s first autumn record of MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) amongst a large flock of BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS (Anthus rubescens japonicus, 黄腹鹨) at Ma Chang on 7th and a MONGOLIAN FINCH (Eremopsaltria mongolica, 蒙古沙雀), the first modern day record, was photographed at Baiwangshan by Ding Deyong.  A male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina, 橙头地鸫), of unknown origin, was photographed in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park on 13th and, if a genuine vagrant, will be the second record for the capital of this very attractive species, following one in the Temple of Heaven Park on 27 May 2012 (Qinghua Shoucang).

The male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park, 13 October 2017. Photo by Yuhuashi.

November saw an unusually urban EURASIAN EAGLE OWL (Bubo bubo, 雕鸮), photographed in the grounds of Peking University on 10th, with another on 21st near the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution (Tom Stidham).  On 19th there was a new species for Beijing in the form of a CHESTNUT THRUSH (Turdus rubrocanus, 灰头鸫), photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong.

This CHESTNUT THRUSH, the first record for Beijing, was photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong on 19 November and was not seen again.

A small influx of BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was recorded from 22nd with birds in Beihai Park and the Olympic Forest Park.  The photo below by Zhang Xiaoling.

BROWN-EARED BULBUL, Beihai Park, 26 November 2017. Photo by Zhang Xiaoling.

And modest numbers of JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟) arrived in the month with small flocks at the Botanical Gardens, Tsinghua University and the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park with the birds at the latter two sites remaining into 2018.

December is not a month that usually produces first records but Guan Xiangyu and friends found Beijing’s first FIELDFARE (Turdus pilaris, 田鸫) at Lingshan on 10 December, a superb find.

Beijing’s first FIELDFARE was photographed at Lingshan by Zhang Bing on 10 December 2017.

A male JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) first seen on 24 December and remaining into 2018 at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park is likely of suspect origin and the year ended with an unseasonal WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN (Amaurornis phoenicurus, 白胸苦恶鸟) in the grounds of Peking University on 28th.

And that was 2017… !  Another brilliant year of birding in Beijing.

A big thank you to all the birders, resident and visitors, who have contributed bird sightings throughout 2017 and a special thanks to XiaoPT for assisting with this summary.

*The 2017 summary has been collated with the best available information at the time.  If you spot any errors or omissions, please post a comment below or contact Birding Beijing via the Latest Sightings page. Thank you.

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.

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.