Bull-headed Shrike!

Yesterday I accompanied visiting British birder John Gerson and Dutch birder Ben Wielstra to Wild Duck Lake.  We started at Ma Chang where we were lucky enough to find 2 Oriental Plovers, 5 Greater Sand Plovers and a Mongolian Lark before the Genghis Khan wannabees began to gallop all over the area.  A flyover Merlin was a nice bonus.

Greater Sand Plover, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. This bird showed a hint of a black border to the upper breast band, a feature more associated with Lesser Sand Plover, but structurally (especially the bill shape) it fitted Greater. Also, I believe the rusty markings on the mantle/scapulars are a good feature of Greater.
Oriental Plover (presumed female), Ma Chang, 27 April 2012

After enjoying these birds we moved to the edge of the reservoir and, alongside the track, we enjoyed spectacular views of Citrine and ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wagtails, Buff-belled Pipits and Pallas’s Buntings.  One of the ‘Eastern’ Yellow Wags looked to me like it might have been of the ssp tschutschensis.  What do you think?

Citrine Wagtail, Ma Chang, 27 April 2012. Males of this species are simply stunning.
'Eastern' Yellow Wagtail... is this of the ssp tschutschensis? I really need to invest in that "Pipits and Wagtails" book!

Fly-by Pied Harriers and Oriental Pratincoles were nice additions to our day list before we headed to the ‘island’ to check out the wildfowl that was sheltering from the increasingly strong wind.  Keeping the telescope steady was a challenge but, with perseverance, we made out some Falcated Duck bobbing up and down.

Some passing Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts, a group of 5 Spoonbills (probably Eurasian) and our first Purple Heron added to our tally before we headed off to Yeyahu, as much to find a little shelter from the dust clouds than anything else!

At Yeyahu we were treated to sensational views of Eastern Marsh Harrier and enjoyed prolonged views of a Greater Spotted Eagle as it hung in the air over the southern boundary of the reserve.  A Black-eared Kite flushed the heron-infested reedbed in the south-west corner to reveal at least 17 Purple Herons with a sprinkling of Greys mixed in.  A lunch stop here also produced a Chinese Penduline Tit (heard only), Zitting Cisticola and a few Siberian Stonechats as well as a now almost expected Short-toed Eagle hunting over the scrubby area between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.

Perhaps the star bird of the day revealed itself on the walk down to the observation tower at Yeyahu.  As we walked the sheltered side of the treeline we encountered a large flock of Little Buntings – at least 70 birds – and, as were checking them for any other buntings, we caught sight of a larger bird flit ahead of us and land in a dense thicket.  After a little maneovering, we were able to see it was a shrike and, a very striking one at that.  It sported a beautifully rich orange cap and showed a dark grey tail without any rufous at all.  It also showed some nice scaling on the breast.  It could only be one species – Bull-headed Shrike.  This was a new bird for John and Ben and also my first record of this species in Beijing (I have seen it in Liaoning, at Laotieshan, and also at Rudong, near Shanghai).  We enjoyed prolonged, if partly obscured views, and I was able to capture a couple of record images before we left it to resume its presumed hunting of the Little Buntings..  Very nice!

Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012
Bull-headed Shrike, Yeyahu NR. It's a mean, lean Little Bunting hunting machine...

Ben recorded this cool video of the shrike using a compact camera through my telescope!

After frustratingly tantalising views of a Chinese Hill Warbler (a bird that Ben, in particular, wanted to see), and contrastingly stunning views of an Osprey, we headed to the small reedy pools to try for Baikal Teal.  Unfortunately they seemed to have moved on but we did see nice groups of Garganey and added Red-crested Pochard to our species list for the day.

Osprey, Yeyahu NR.
Garganey and Eurasian Teal, Yeyahu NR, 27 April 2012

Big thanks to John and Ben for their excellent company throughout the day.  It was a lot of fun to be in the field with these guys.

A humourous interlude at the end was provided by one of the reserve staff who was rounding up domesticated ducks using his motorcyle.  He was soon joined by another local on his bicycle and, after a few mishaps that saw a few stragglers make a break for it across the next field, they eventually managed to herd them all onto a freshly dug lake…

Rounding up ducks.. with a motorbike.
It's not often one's progress is held up by crossing ducks!

Full species list (not including domestic duck):
Common Pheasant – 7

Bean Goose – 6
Common Shelduck – 6
Ruddy Shelduck – 23
Mandarin – 3
Gadwall – 18
Falcated Duck – 4
Eurasian Wigeon – 4
Mallard – 14
Chinese Spot-billed Duck – 16
Shoveler – 2
Pintail – 4
Garganey – 11
Eurasian Teal – 16
Red-crested Pochard – 2
Common Pochard – 8
Ferruginous Duck – 2
Tufted Duck – 9
Smew – 16
Goosander – 4
Little Grebe – 18
Great Crested Grebe – 16
Spoonbill sp – 6
Eurasian Bittern – 1 seen plus 2-3 heard
Grey Heron – 12
Purple Heron – 19
Great Egret – 2
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Merlin – 1
Hobby – 2 (plus one on the drive home)
Osprey – 2
Black-eared Kite – 4 to 6
Short-toed Eagle – 1
Eastern Marsh Harrier – 5
Pied Harrier – 3
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 3
Greater Spotted Eagle – 1 (poss 2)
Common Moorhen – 1 (heard)
Common Coot – 12
Black-winged Stilt – 47
Lapwing – 14
Little Ringed Plover – 9
Kentish Plover – 6
Greater Sand Plover – 5
Oriental Plover – 2
Common Greenshank – 2
Common Sandpiper – 3
Oriental Pratincole – 19
Black-headed Gull – 69
Common Tern – 12
Little Tern – 2
Oriental Turtle Dove – 2
Eurasian Collared Dove – 4 (from car)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift – 10
Common Swift – 1
Common Kingfisher – 8
Hoopoe – 2
Bull-headed Shrike – 1
Azure-winged Magpie – 8
Common Magpie – too many
Rook – 1 (from car)
Large-billed Crow – 1 (from car)
Great Tit – 2
Marsh Tit – 2
Chinese Penduline Tit – 1 (heard)
Sand Martin – 3
Barn Swallow – 22
Red-rumped Swallow – 5
Mongolian Lark – 1
Greater Short-toed Lark – 63
Asian Short-toed Lark – 10
Eurasian Skylark – 1
Zitting Cisticola – 3
Chinese Hill Warbler – 1
Vinous-thraoted Parrotbill – c50
White-cheeked Starling – 6
Daurian Redstart – 1
Siberian Stonechat – 7
Tree Sparrow – lots
Eastern Yellow Wagtail – 12 (including ssp taivana and tschutschensis)
Citrine Wagtail – 14
White Wagtail – 1
Red-throated Pipit – 1
Buff-bellied Pipit – 28
Water Pipit – 2
Oriental Greenfinch – 1 heard
Little Bunting – c75
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – 16

Laotieshan update – Saturday

10 degrees Celsius at dawn, with some cloud cover and light westerly winds.  After a slow start, the passerine migration really got going around 0600 and at times there were huge numbers of birds in the sky.  The dominant species was the Chestnut-flanked White-eye and their siskin-like calls were a constant background accompaniment to the morning.  Other prominent species, typical of recent days, were Ashy Minivet and Olive-backed Pipit but there were also signs of new movements with reasonable numbers of Oriental Turtle Doves and White-cheeked Starling.  A Siberian Rubythroat showed briefly in the nearby bushes, which it shared with good numbers of Radde’s and Dusky Warblers plus the occasional Lanceolated Warbler, and a cracking Bull-headed Shrike perched prominently as it scanned for prey in a crop field.  At around 0715 we were joined by Tom Beeke and friends who had driven down from Dalian to join us for the day.  (It was great to see you Tom!  And thanks again for ‘discovering’ Laotieshan as a visible migration hotspot last autumn..  the inspiration for our visit this year).

As the sun began to burn off the cloud and heat up the air, raptors began to move and we enjoyed groups of Black-eared Kites, Amur Falcons, Oriental Honey and Common Buzzards.  Singles of Grey-headed Lapwing and Grey-backed Thrush were nice additions to our species list before we made our way up to the ridge.  On the way we flushed a Woodcock and two White’s Thrushes from the same gully!  When we reached the top, raptors were moving – Eurasian and Japanese Sparrowhawks, Common Buzzards, Black-eared Kites, Kestrel, Hobby, Amur Falcon and Goshawk were all seen in the first couple of hours.  A total of 4 Greater Spotted Eagles was a good tally but the real spectacle was over 180 Grey-faced Buzzards, many of which passed in large groups of 10 or more…  Magnificent.  Grey-faced Buzzards are strange birds.  Sometimes they remind me of a harrier or an accipiter and, when they are flapping hard, to me they are reminiscent of Short-eared Owls..!  Bizarre, I know.. but if you have seen one, hopefully you know what I mean..

Bull-headed Shrike, Laotieshan, 1 October. A stunner.
Grey-faced Buzzards, Laotieshan, 1 October. Part of a flock of over 20.
Grey-faced Buzzard, Laotieshan, 1 October
Common (Eastern) Buzzard ssp japonicus, Laotieshan, 1 October

Tomorrow is forecast to be cool with northerly winds but clear and sunny.  We suspect, having been here for a week, that the best wind for migrant raptors is south-west, so we don’t expect too much for Sunday but you never know…

Thanks very much to Ken and Spike for the comments on the bush warbler in the last post.  We also think it’s most likely a first winter Spotted (David’s) Bush Warbler but we need to check literature on our return to Beijing.

Phylloscopus frenzy

At the weekend, Libby and I hired a car and drove the 3 hours to Wu Ling Shan in Hebei Province.  It’s the highest peak (2,116 metres) easily accessible from the Beijing area and is a great site for birding.  The mountain, with its steep-sloped birch and spruce forests, is home to some special species including the very local Grey-sided Thrush, Koklass Pheasant, White-bellied Redstart and, one of the prime reasons for my visit, breeding phylloscopus warblers (Hume’s Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Yellow-streaked and Chinese Leaf Warblers).

The view from near the peak at Wu Ling Shan. It felt a million miles away from sultry Beijing....
Lots of ideal phylloscopus breeding habitat

Wu Ling Shan national park charges a relatively pricey entry fee of 90 Yuan per person (GBP 9) plus 60 Yuan for a vehicle which, from a birder’s perspective, is probably a good thing as it keeps the visitor numbers down.  Although in the long-term, I can’t help thinking that fewer Chinese visitors will mean fewer local people understand and appreciate the natural beauty and biodiversity of this special area and so affording it the necessary protection may prove more difficult.

Fortunately there is a hotel inside the park, very close to the peak.  Although fairly basic, it offers comfortable and clean rooms with hot water, ‘western’ loos and decent food.  It acts as a good base – within a few metres of the hotel, one can see and hear many of the target birds.  There are few trails, so the entrance road, the road from the hotel to the waterfall car park (6kms further along) and the road from the hotel to the peak (also about 6kms) are good routes to walk.  As with most forest birding, it is advisable to have learned some of the calls and songs in advance (Xeno-Canto Asia is a vital resource) as birds can be difficult to see.  A map of the key birding areas around the hotel can be downloaded here.

The road from the hotel to the waterfall car park is very productive, especially in the early morning
Typical habitat on the slopes of Wu Ling Shan. Birch and spruce predominate.

This was my first visit to the breeding area of the local phylloscopus warblers, and I was really looking forward to getting to know them better.  Hume’s Leaf Warblers were abundant in the area around the hotel.  Their very distinctive song and calls were almost constant companions.  Chinese Leaf Warblers were common, too, often preferring to sing from the very tops of spruces.  Claudia’s Leaf Warblers were regular, displaying their distinctive alternate wing flapping, and Yellow-streaked Warblers (not very yellow and not very streaked!) were around in reasonable numbers, too.  All of these birds appeared to have distinctive behavioural traits, as well as unique vocalisations.

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. I found two nests with birds feeding young.
Chinese Leaf Warbler. A typical song post for this species which is similar to Pallas’s but with a paler rump and lacking the ‘shadows’ on the tertials. It’s song is also very different.
Claudia's Leaf Warbler. The bright orange bill stands out and, on this photo, you can just make out the 'flared' supercilium. Flicks its wings alternately - another good characteristic of this species.
Yellow-streaked Warbler singing in the rain. The only phylloscopus without wing bars breeding in the area. Recalls Radde's but structure, leg colour and lack of peachy undertail coverts (not to mention song) clinch the id.
Yellow-streaked Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. Not very yellow and not very streaky...!

The phylloscopus warblers were pretty active throughout the day but some of the other birds required an early start.  Koklass Pheasant is a species that is very difficult to see but, thankfully, they do have a distinctive call.  The only problem is that they only seem to call around dawn.  June at Wulingshan meant dawn was at 0400.  I heard at least 3 birds between 0415 and 0445 with another (or one of the same) briefly at 0515.  Grey-sided Thrush is another dawn (and dusk) bird.  They were singing for around an hour from dawn (0400-0500) but soon quietened down once the sun began to warm the mountain sides.

Grey-sided Thrush, Wu Ling Shan

The supporting cast included several Rosy Pipits near the peak, Chinese Song Thrush, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo, White-bellied Redstart (common but very skulky), Songar, Yellow-bellied and Great Tits, Bull-headed Shrike, Wren, Kestrel, Eurasian NuthatchGrey Nightjar, Godlewski’s and Yellow-throated Buntings.

The stunning Yellow-bellied Tit breeds on Wu Ling Shan


Gulls… They say that, as a birder, you either love them or hate them. Well, I am definitely in the ‘love’ category, even though I find the large white-headed gull complex an identification challenge.

Living in Beijing, a very dry and land-locked metropolis, sightings of any gulls near to home are few and far between. So the opportunity to visit Choshi, just east of Tokyo, was too good to miss.

This port, situated on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, is home to hundreds of fishing boats and I saw huge catches of yellow-fin tuna, mackerel, sardines and some larger species, including what looked like swordfish. The sheer quantity of fish, and its associated waste and by-catch, means that there is plenty of food for gulls and, during winter, they are attracted here in their thousands. The most common gull by far is the Black-tailed Gull, an east Asian endemic, closely followed by Vega (a Herring Gull lookalike) and Black-headed Gulls (ssp sibiricus). Among these are reasonable numbers of Slaty-backed Gulls with a few Glaucous-winged, Glaucous, Common (ssp kamtschatschensis) and the odd Mongolian Gull (Larus cachinnans mongolicus) mixed in. During my visit I also saw a Ring-billed Gull (the first Japanese record of this American species was as recent as 2002).

Access is easy and free – I had no problem at all walking around with binoculars and a camera and the great thing for photography is that you are generally looking north from the harbour towards the water, meaning that the winter sun is mostly with you.

If you are interested in gulls, this is as close to heaven as it gets. However, Choshi is not just about gulls – many more sought after species can be seen well here. The local Black Kites (ssp lineatus or ‘Black-eared Kite’) also enjoy the bounty provided by the fishing boats and there are good numbers of Temminck’s and Pelagic Cormorants plus Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes just offshore. A single Harlequin Duck near the lighthouse at Cape Inubo was a nice addition to my visit and Dusky Thrushes were common in suitable habitat. Around Cape Inubo there were also Blue Rock Thrushes, Japanese White-eyes, Bull-headed Shrikes and a single Brown Thrush.

I will follow this general post with some detailed posts about specific species but, in the meantime, I am posting a selection of images to give you a feel for the place.

Getting there: Choshi is within easy reach from Tokyo and Narita airport and a day-trip from either is very doable. Catch any train from Narita Airport to Narita and change for the hourly local service to Choshi, which takes around 90 minutes (cost cGBP10). The staff at the airport are incredibly helpful and will point you in the right direction and give you advice on purchasing a ticket. Once at Choshi, it is a 5-10 mins walk to the north to reach the river Tome, from where you can walk east along the whole length of the harbour for 3-4 km (the whole stretch is good for gulls). Further along the coast to the south-east lies a famous lighthouse at Cap Inubo. It would probably take 2-3 hours to walk to this point from the station, so a taxi is a good option if you want to explore this area (but beware, taxis in Japan are expensive – it cost me almost GBP 20 pounds for the 10-minute journey from Choshi town centre to the lighthouse). I found only one hotel in Choshi where the staff spoke any english – the Choshi Plaza (half way from the station to the river on the right hand side) – which, at GBP50 per night, is reasonable value in Japan.

Best areas: there are boats all along the harbour wall running from just east of the Tome bridge to the sea, with three fish markets interspersed. The best area for viewing gulls depends on the activity in the harbour and which boats are offloading their catch but, about half-way along, there are a couple of good areas of sea wall parallel to the road which are good places to scan – hundreds of gulls rest here and there are good numbers all day.

A sardine boat returning to Choshi port after a night on the seas

Fishermen warming themselves around a fire at Choshi port

Yellow-fin Tuna on sale, most of which will be destined for Tokyo sushi

A fresh catch of sardines, Choshi

Adult Black-tailed Gull, Choshi, Japan

Adult Vega Gull, Choshi, Japan

Slaty-backed Gull, Choshi, Japan.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

First winter Glaucous Gull, Choshi, Japan. Note the dark-tipped pale bill

Black-headed Gull ssp sibiricus

Common Gull ssp kamtschatschensis

Black-eared Kites are common scavengers around the port

Dusky Thrushes are common at Choshi in suitable habitat

Pelagic Cormorants are fairly common at Choshi

Hundreds of Temminck's and Great Cormorants can be seen along the sea wall at Choshi. This one is a Great.

Black-necked Grebes are common winter visitors to Choshi