Birding with Chevening Alumni in Beijing

To encourage and strengthen connections between some of the world’s brightest young people and the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs something called the Chevening Programme.  Chevening offers scholarships for young people, selected by British Embassies around the world, to study in the UK and, when they return, as well as hopefully going on to occupy positions of leadership and influence whilst being sympathetic to the UK, they become part of a growing community of Chevening alumni.  It must be a sound investment.

On Saturday I was honoured to be invited to accompany a group of Chevening alumni from Beijing on an introductory birding trip.  Being mid-summer, the city is hot and sticky with temperatures into the high 30s degrees Celsius, so it was a wonderful opportunity to head to the mountains where it’s a little cooler.

With the lush vegetation and spectacular contours, it was hard to believe we were still in the capital city of the most populous country in the world.

Our destination was the Youzhou Valley in Mentougou District in west Beijing.  It’s a spectacular gorge with towering cliffs through which a beautifully clear river meanders its way southeast.  As well as offering stunning scenery, the Youzhou Valley hosts some birds that are hard to see anywhere else in the capital such as Chukar, Golden Eagle and Blue Rock Thrush.

Eyes up! A stunning male Daurian Redstart captures the attention of the group.

For most of the group it was their first birding trip and it was a joy to see the pleasure they gained from seeing two soaring Golden Eagles at our first stop.  Not a bad start!

Smiles all round after seeing two Golden Eagles at the first stop.

We enjoyed spectacular views of singing Meadow Bunting, Daurian Redstart, Red-billed Chough, Hill Pigeon and Eurasian Crag Martin before heading to the most expansive cliff-face to look for Pacific Swift.  A few pairs of Pacific Swifts breed here and the group found it hard to believe this small bird could fly all the way to Australia for the northern winter… which prompted a discussion about the Beijing Swift making an even longer journey to South Africa from the Summer Palace.  The miracle of bird migration never fails to inspire.

 The youngest member of the group loved the singing Meadow Bunting.

After a short walk to find a picnic spot, we were fortunate to gain good views of several Blue Rock Thrushes and a nest-building Russet Sparrow, however a much-wanted Common Kingfisher put in an all too brief appearance.  Two Mandarin and a family of Mallard provided a fitting end before we set off for the journey back to the sweltering city.

A nest-building male Russet Sparrow.
One of the male Blue Rock Thrushes serenaded us during lunch.
The obligatory group photo taken just before we left the valley.

We recorded 24 species in total, uploaded to eBird.

Big thanks to everyone who came along and a special thanks to the Chevening Team at the British Embassy for making the arrangements.  I very much hope this was the first of many birding trips for this awesome, and influential, bunch of people!

As Kenn Kaufman says, “everyone is a birder, it’s just that some people don’t know it yet”


First for Beijing – Tree Pipit!

In mid-May, after I returned from Sichuan, the British Ambassador in Beijing – Sebastian Wood – invited me to ‘survey’ the Embassy garden each morning for a week to establish how important the garden is to migrant birds.  Having visited the garden a couple of times previously for official functions, I knew it offered some good habitat with a mixture of mature trees, a lawn and some areas of bamboo with thick undergrowth – a perfect place for a variety of birds to rest on their northward migration.  What I didn’t know was that, on my very first visit, I would find a first for Beijing!

After making arrangements with the local security, I visited each week day from 13-17 May from 0600-0700.  Almost the first bird I saw on the very first day was a superb White’s Thrush, skulking in the undergrowth…  From that moment, I knew I was in for a treat.  A singing Yellow-bellied Tit and a typically skittish Siberian Rubythroat were a joy to see as I made my first circuit.  A pair of White-cheeked Starlings were busy nest-building in the trunk of a mature willow and good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers flitted around in the canopy.  However, it was on my second circuit that I caught sight of a small pipit walking around on the concrete outside the back door.  I looked at it through my binoculars and immediately ruled out Buff-bellied, Pechora, Red-throated and Water Pipit.  That left Olive-backed, a common migrant through the capital, as the most likely identification.  However, something wasn’t quite right.  It didn’t have the bold facial pattern typical of Olive-backed and the streaking on the mantle was more pronounced than is usual on OBP.  Also, the streaking on the underparts was bold on the chest with finer, less pronounced streaking on the flanks…  all of these features suggested a much more unlikely identification – Tree Pipit.

I quickly took some photos and I was glad I did as, no sooner as I had reeled off half a dozen images, the local cat disturbed it and this interesting pipit flew up and away, never to be seen again.  It called once – a buzzy “tseee” – a call which fits both Olive-backed and Tree Pipit (I have real trouble separating them unless I hear both regularly).

Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), UK Ambassador's garden, Beijing, 13 May 2013
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), UK Ambassador’s garden, Beijing, 13 May 2013

I told myself it must have been an unusually-marked Olive-backed Pipit as I was fairly sure that Tree Pipit must be a real rarity in east China.  However, I made a note to check Per Alstrom’s “Pipits and Wagtails” book and circulate the images to a few experts for an opinion.  After looking at the guidebook, I became more and more convinced that I had seen a Tree Pipit.

Needless to say, the responses I received from respected birders have, so far, been consistent – the bird is indeed thought to be a Tree Pipit!  A first for Beijing, quite literally in the Ambassador’s back yard!

In total I saw 35 species in the garden, with highlights including an impressive 44 Oriental Honey Buzzards migrating overhead in just 10 minutes on 14 May, and species such as Thick-billed Warbler, Siberian Blue Robin, Asian Stubtail and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher.

Tree Pipit waiting in line for a visa, UK Ambassador's garden, 13 May 2013
Tree Pipit waiting in line for a visa, UK Ambassador’s garden, 13 May 2013


Tree Pipit is extremely rare in China outside Xinjiang in the far northwest.  I have only been able to find three records from outside this Province: one in Jiangsu (southeast China) on 8 November 2005, one from Bohai Bay, Hebei Province in May 2010 (Matt Slaymaker) and apparently there is one old specimen from the far northeast (Paul Holt, personal comment).  So the bird in the Ambassador’s garden is, as far as I know, the first for Beijing and only the fourth record in all of China outside Xinjiang.  However, with records from South Korea and Japan, a Beijing record is, perhaps, not unexpected.  

Please excuse the variation on the old UK advertisement for a famous chocolate product… “Ambassador, you’re spoiling me….!”


Birding Beijing with the British Embassy

On Saturday I led a tour of Yeyahu NR with a group from the British Embassy in Beijing.  It was a fun day out that will hopefully inspire a new generation of birders and we also raised GBP 75 to help save the Jankowski’s Bunting!

Given that the embassy bus wasn’t going to leave Beijing city centre until 0900, Libby and I plus good friends, Sarah and John Gallagher, decided to travel up early morning under our own steam and meet the group when they arrived late morning (hopefully having scouted out a few birds!).

The four of us arrived around 0800 and we enjoyed a very ‘birdy’ few hours.  The weather was clear and sunny, allowing stunning views of the mountains to the north and south.. The only downside was a strong north-westerly wind that was blowing straight from the Mongolian steppe, making it feel cold.

Despite the wind, it was clear that migration was happening all around us.  Flocks of Brambling regularly wheeled overhead, interspersed with groups of Skylark, Little Bunting, Daurian Jackdaws and Olive-backed and Buff-bellied Pipits.  A young Hen Harrier gave us exceptional views as it hugged the leeward side of a hedge and then a flock of at least 17 calling Hawfinches flew low over the treetops…  my first sighting of this chunky finch at Wild Duck Lake.  A little further on we stumbled across 2 Siberian Accentors – my first of the autumn and hopefully a sign that numbers will be back to normal this year after being pretty scarce in the capital last winter.

We stuck to the sheltered side of the hedge and had planned to make it as far as the tower hide at the edge of the reservoir before heading back to the car park to meet the embassy bus. However, our progress was slow given the number of birds we were seeing and we ended up circling back long before the tower.  Just as we turned, a large flock of Daurian Jackdaws came low over the fields, almost flying in between us as they headed fast south-west.  Stunning.

Highlights of the return included a young Saker patrolling one of the lakes on which domesticated ducks have been released.. causing a panic.. and a Tolai Hare flushed by Sarah as we walked through a grassy field.

The embassy bus had, not unusually for a Saturday morning, been caught in heavy traffic on the G6, the main highway from Beijing to Badaling (one of the most popular stretched of the Great Wall) and it wasn’t until 1130 that they arrived.

The British Embassy minibus arriving at Yeyahu NR. With Libby and chief spotter, Joe Wild.

First priority was to find a sheltered spot for the picnic lunch..  It was pleasant out of the wind so we chose a spot on the eastern side of a row of poplar trees with a wide vista of the mountains and open fields..

Picnic time at Yeyahu with the British Embassy group

The picnic lunch also provided an opportunity for the youngsters in the group to get to grips with birding optics for the first time… It was clear early on that Joe was going to be chief spotter!  Here he is looking at a group of Common Cranes that flew in from the east during lunch.

Joe using a telescope for the first time..
Sam lamented the weight of my Nikon binoculars…!

After lunch we split into two groups – one staying by the lake to feed the domesticated ducks and one that would follow me on a walk to the reservoir to look for wild birds.

To add a bit of extra fun to the day, we had arranged a competition to guess how many species we would see on the day.  Guesses cost 20 Yuan each (GBP 2) with the winner receiving a copy of “Birds of East Asia” by Mark Brazil (easily the best field guide for birds in the Chinese capital).  The proceeds would go to BirdLife International’s JustGiving page to help save Jankowski’s Bunting.

With only a couple of hours at Yeyahu in the middle of the day, and with a strong wind, I was expecting a relatively low total.  Guesses ranged from 15 to 50.  We saw 22, with the best of the bunch a flock of Common Cranes that arrived from the east and a Short-toed Eagle hunting briefly near the entrance to the reserve.

A fun day out and money raised for a good cause.  Thanks to everyone involved, especially Feian Downing and Jon Baines from the embassy who made the logistical arrangements.

Finally, I should add that the British Embassy in Beijing has an association with birds.  Former Ambassador (1997-2002) Sir Anthony Galsworthy was a keen birder and regularly set up mist nets in the garden of his residence to trap and ring birds..  I am trying to get hold of his records.. would be fascinating to see what he caught in his central Beijing garden!