Following my most recent blog post on the Swinhoe’s Owlet, I received the images below from Mike Parker from Suffolk, UK and Chong Yih Yeong, based in Beijing. The first was taken in Beidaihe in October 2004 and the second is one of the birds at Wenyu He. Note the feet.. and compare with this image of Little Owl from the UK.
When I visited Wenyu He in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a pair of breeding Little Owls (Athene noctua). On a return visit I captured the image below of a young bird. Shi Jin, a regular on Birdforum, posted an image of one of these birds on his excellent China 2010 thread. Richard Klim, always up to date on the latest taxonomic issues, pointed out that north-east China’s subspecies – Athene [noctua] plumipes – has been suggested as a separate species with Swinhoe’s Owlet being the suggested new name (Wink 2011). König & Weick’s “Owls of the World” (2008) mooted it as a potential split back in 2008, saying “Toes more densely covered with plumes rather than bristles. …Perhaps specifically distinct.”
That’s good enough for me…!
Twice in the last few days, inspired by the reports from this site by Shi Jin on Birdforum, I visited the Wenyu River in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. It is a fantastic area of paddies, weedy fields and even a disused golf course. Brian Jones and Spike Millington, both former Beijing residents, used to visit this site regularly and I can see why.
On my first visit, late one evening, I arrived at the paddies just half an hour before dusk and yet I saw 4 new birds for me in Beijing – Chestnut-eared Bunting, White-breasted Waterhen, Yellow-legged Buttonquail and Little Owl.. Not bad. My second visit, early morning on Thursday, was just as rewarding. A singing David’s Bush Warbler was a nice start, soon followed by the White-breasted Waterhen, singing Lanceolated Warbler, several Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, two Schrenck’s Bitterns, Yellow Bittern, Pechora Pipit on the deck and a Black-naped Oriole calling from the willows. Wow. I walked the narrow pathways between the paddies and enjoyed several encounters, albeit brief, with Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, Black-browed Reed Warblers and the odd Zitting Cisticola. A couple of Oriental Reed Warblers were much more obliging, singing purposefully from prominent perches in the reeds. It was a cacophony of birdsong.
After reaching the western end of the paddies, I decided to head back and return across the maze of paths. It was along one such narrow weedy path between two paddies that I experienced one of those moments in birding that makes it such an exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) hobby. I knew that Shi Jin had seen a large locustella warbler, possibly Middendorff’s, a day or two before and so I was on the lookout for large locustellas. I had also listened to the songs of the three possible large locustellas – Gray’s, Pleske’s and Middendorff’s – on Xeno Canto Asia just in case. Suddenly, I flushed a bird from the path that zipped into the paddy and down into the vegetation before I even had a chance to lift my binoculars. It was clearly interesting – my sense was that it looked larger than the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers I had been seeing, but still looked like a locustella in shape and structure.. ..it was plain looking, greyish, without much, if any, contrast on the upperparts… Hmmm… could it be one of the large locustellas I had been thinking about? I knew that there was a very good chance that I would never see it again… they are notorious skulkers and it was a large paddy. However, I decided to wait to see whether anything emerged from the area in which it had gone down. To my surprise, just a few seconds later, a bird began to sing and the sound appeared to be coming from the same area… I remembered the songs from Xeno Canto and immediately ruled out Gray’s and Middendorff’s. It reminded me of the Pleske’s song… I put two and two together – large locustella, song like a Pleske’s – and in my mind a big neon sign lit up flashing “Pleske’s Warbler!!”. But could it really be a Pleske’s Warbler? In Beijing?? The bird sang for a few minutes and I quickly took out my handheld video camera to record the song, knowing that I would need that to have any chance of identifying this bird for certain in the absence of a good sight view. I recorded a few seconds of the song and then concentrated on trying to see it. Only once in the next 20-30 mins did I see a bird in that area, an incredibly brief view as a largish bird flitted across a small gap in the vegetation. Again, I got nothing on it other than it was largish and plain looking.. Frustrating to say the least.
At this point, I was excited.. I really thought that there was a singing Pleske’s Warbler just a few metres away from me. I sent a SMS to Shi Jin to tell him. A few minutes later, after no sign of the bird, I began to walk back to the metro station as I didn’t want to be too late back in town. And I wanted to download that sound file and check it against Xeno Canto! I then received a reply from Shi Jin to say he was on his way. He only lives 10 minutes away by car, so I headed back to the site to meet him and show him the precise spot. There was no song now and no sign of the bird. We waited a few minutes and after providing sustenance for the local mosquito population and with the day heating up fast, we decided that probably the best chance of seeing/hearing the bird would be to come back in the evening or the next morning. Neither of us could make it that evening but Shi Jin was hoping to try for it the next day. After a brief stop at the Little Owl nest site I discovered a few days before, Shi Jin kindly dropped me at the metro station for the return journey home.
On arriving home, the first thing I did was download the sound file from the video camera and check out Xeno Canto. There is one recording on Xeno Canto of Pleske’s. For comparison, my recording can be heard below:
Hmm… on listening to them both, now I wasn’t so sure.. there were elements of the song that were similar but there were also differences… Doubt began to creep into my mind. Was the singing bird a Pleske’s? And, in any case, could I say that the singing bird was definitely the large locustella I saw? I began to think that maybe the song was a different species. I listened to Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the other locustella species seen that morning in the same area) on Xeno Canto but the few recordings of this species on the site sounded different).
So, the bottom line is I don’t know. I have a recording that I can’t identify and a brief sighting of a largish locustella that isn’t necessarily the same bird that I recorded singing anyway…! Arrggghhhh….
If anyone can help with the recording, please let me know. I have sent it to Paul Holt (who is currently away) and to Peter Kennerley, so hopefully the mystery will be resolved soon. In my head, I am expecting my song to be identified as a variation of Pallas’s Grashopper Warbler but my heart is hoping that it’s a Pleske’s. Watch this space!
Whatever the outcome of this experience, one of the highlights of the day was meeting Shi Jin, a top birder with a lot of China experience!
Visiting birders generally don’t pay much attention to the humble Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis). But the observant birder will notice that the subspecies found here – poggei – has a pale eye and has been mooted as a potential future ‘split’. Whatever its taxonomic status, the Little Grebe is a charismatic bird and, in the parks of Beijing, can be relatively confiding. Visiting birders who care about their lists will be wise to take note for ‘insurance’….!
On Sunday I visited Miyun Reservoir with a few friends from the embassy, a language student and a Dutch birder visiting Beijing. We enjoyed a good day and recorded 71 species. The most significant record was the immature SIBERIAN CRANE that is still on site in company with a dwindling group of White-naped and Common Cranes. It is now over a month since Paul Holt and I first discovered this bird, originally in the company of 2 adults.
A single Short-toed Eagle, a stunning male Pied Harrier, a fishing Osprey and excellent views of Japanese Quail were other highlights of another good day at this site. With sunny weather and very light winds, it was a lovely day to be out and about… and great fun to be in the company of such a wonderful group of people!!
They will all become birders – it’s inevitable. Resistance is futile.
The Spring keeps getting better. A few days ago I got wind of a pair of Two-barred Crossbills in Jingshan Park (immediately north of the Forbidden City). After a bit of investigating I was able to get directions and, on Monday, Libby and I popped up there to see whether we could see it.. [Jingshan Park is a great place to visit for non-birders – it’s often full of Beijingers exercising, singing, dancing, and doing all manner of other social activities – some of the best people watching to be had in the capital]. On arrival it was not difficult to find the right spot as there were about 40 photographers lined up and surrounding a hosepipe stand. It was to here that the Two-barred Crossbills were coming down to drink. They had not been seen all morning and, after an hour or so, I wasn’t hopeful. I went for a walk around the park to see if I could find them feeding, to no avail. But just as I returned to the original site, the female flew in and gradually made her way down to the water.. showing exceptionally well to the delight of the paparazzi.
Some of the photographers had been there several days and said that the male had not been seen since Saturday.
I believe that this is the first record of this species in Beijing for at least 25 years and comes hot on the heels of a record in Jinshitan, Dalian, Liaoning Province, found by Tom Beeke. Two-barred Crossbill is an irruptive species but irruptions (movements outside of the normal range) usually happen in early autumn.. Maybe these are birds moving back north after irrupting south last autumn? Who knows..?!
Other birds coming down to drink included two magnificent Red-billed Blue Magpies. These birds, common in the Beijing area, are rarely this bold. Often they remain hidden in the trees and shrubs with only tantalising glimpses or distant views being gained, so this was a real treat.
Finally, a pair of Red-billed Starlings, fairly recent colonists of Beijing, were prospecting a hole in one of the trees. Not bad for a city centre park!
This Spring I have been fortunate enough to enjoy two encounters with Oriental Plovers, surely one of the best looking birds in China..! These charismatic waders breed in north eastern China and south eastern Russia with the majority of the population wintering in north-west Australia. The population is estimated to be around 160,000 individuals.
These birds pass through the Beijing area on passage at the end of March and early April and Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang in particular) is a regular site. They can be very confiding and, this year, I have been able to capture some pleasing images and a short video. On 5 April I counted 19 of these stunning birds at Ma Chang in a variety of plumages.
I took this video handholding my Canon EOS7D with 400mm f5.6 lens. Image has been ‘stabilised’ using iMovie.
This morning I found what I believe is the 2nd Beijing record of Desert Wheatear. It was the highlight on a special day that included 19 stunning Oriental Plovers, 12 Relict Gulls and a Mongolian Lark.
Early April is a great time in Beijing with migration stepping up a gear as the winter visitors (e.g. cranes, geese etc) begin to move on and birds from further south take their place. Swan Geese are now moving through in good numbers and I counted 67 first thing. An over-eager bird photographer in his 4×4 saw I was looking at this group, drove directly to the water’s edge at pace and, not surprisingly, the birds took flight. The silver lining was that I was able to capture this image of the flock rising against the mountains in the early morning sun..
A check of the ‘desert’ area for Oriental Plover initially drew a blank but, as I was watching a group of Little Ringed Plovers, 9 Oriental Plovers dropped in, closely followed by 2 more, then another 4 and then, amazingly, another 4, totalling 19 birds… Wow! The birds were in a variety of plumages with most in full breeding attire. Oriental Plover is a jewel among waders and its inaccessible breeding and wintering sites make it a difficult bird to see. I will post some more images and video of the Oriental Plovers separately but here is a portrait of one of the smarter birds in the group.
I watched these birds for about 20 minutes before heading towards the yurts on the edge of the reservoir to the west. It was on the way that I caught sight of a small bird perching on a stone. Through the binoculars I could see it was a Wheatear. Any wheatear is scarce in eastern China, so I knew it was a good record. I walked around so that I had the sun behind me and slowly edged closer. It was very confiding and, after grabbing a few images, I was pretty happy that it must be a Desert Wheatear. I knew one had been seen at the same site in 2010 (the first Beijing record). But then I began to have doubts.. I had never seen Pied or Isabelline (the other two possibilities).. and unfortunately I didn’t see the tail pattern well at all.. which I knew would be very instructive. Shortly after I took the images below, the wheatear was flushed by a Merlin and flew high west until out of view. On returning home, I checked images on Oriental Bird Club image database and worked out that it could only be a Desert. Jesper Hornskov kindly confirmed the id.
I had only been on site a couple of hours and already I had seen some special birds.. it was one of those mornings that makes you so happy to be alive!
Just a few metres from the Desert Wheatear I stumbled across a Mongolian Lark, a regular but scarce passage migrant.
After enjoying 2 Avocets (my first in Beijing) on the edge of the reservoir, I headed to the ‘island’ to scan the duck.. Here there was a good selection of wildfowl but the highlights were a flock of 10 Relict Gulls in stunning breeding plumage, soon joined by a further 2 birds, and a single Red-billed Starling that flew in from the east, settled briefly on a nearby tree and then headed off west again.. another first for me in Beijing.
It was about this time that the wind began to increase and, within a few minutes, there were some large dust clouds being whipped up, making Ma Chang an uncomfortable place to be… These winds are quite common at this time of year and, after the very dry winter, the ground is very dusty, making dust storms fairly frequent occurrences in Spring.
Yeyahu didn’t produce any major surprises and it wasn’t long before I headed home having had another great day at Wild Duck Lake.
Full Species List:
Yesterday morning I spent a couple of hours at Shahe Reservoir. No sign of the Baer’s Pochard from 25 March but there was a nice cross-section of wildfowl on site and some light raptor passage. Buff-bellied Pipits are beginning to come through now and, here in Beijing, we see the subspecies japonicus. One smart individual – albeit not so buff-bellied – dropped in as I was scanning the duck on the reservoir and proceeded to jerk its way along the edge of the reservoir, providing a good opportunity to study it closely.
The call of this bird reminded me of Meadow Pipits from back home in the UK.
As I was watching this pipit, a small flock of White Wagtails dropped in, mostly of the ssp leucopsis but including this smart male of the ocularis subspecies.
Along the reedy edges of the reservoir there were a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings. This individual caused me some confusion at first, being much brighter and more rufous than the very pale and frosty Pallas’s I have been used to seeing all winter. I suspected Japanese Reed Bunting. But after looking at images on the Oriental Bird Club image database and consulting with my bunting guru, Tom Beeke, I realised that this is indeed a Pallas’s. Japanese should show a much darker cap and darker ear coverts. Always learning!
Full species list: