Global Birding Weekend in Beijing

Earlier this month, on 17 & 18 October 2020, I was delighted to participate in the Global Birding Weekend, an initiative by Tim Appleton MBE in collaboration with eBird and Swarovski Optik.  The aim was a worldwide celebration of birds by encouraging people everywhere to go out locally and record the birds they see, with the hope that the combined total might constitute a world record for the highest number of species recorded in a single weekend.  It was the perfect excuse to set up a birding trip with the Chevening Scholars – young Chinese who have been sponsored to study in the UK by the British Embassy, many of whom now hold influential positions in the Chinese government.  

In conjunction with the British Embassy, we arranged an itinerary that took us to the mountains of Mentougou District in the west of the municipality, spending Saturday afternoon at the Youzhou Valley, followed by the Sunday morning at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain.  I had also been invited to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event, organised by Swarovski Optik, on the Sunday afternoon. To add to the excitement, Swarovski had kindly sent me the new 115mm telescope objective lens for us to try out for the weekend!  What a treat…

The new 115mm objective lens for the modular ATX/STX set-up was a revelation.  With its impressive light-gathering capability, it was a big hit with the Chevening Scholars both for observing birds and for planet-watching, including looking at Saturn’s rings.   

With the oppressive heat of the summer a distant memory, a nip in the air early mornings and in the evenings, combined with the tress displaying a kaleidoscope of colour, October is a wonderful time to be outside in Beijing.  And we were blessed with beautiful weather as we made our way to the first site, the Youzhou Valley.

Almost the first bird we saw was Wallcreeper – a rare bird to see away from the regular winter haunt of Shidu in Fangshan District.  This was soon followed by a Golden Eagle and a Siberian Accentor before we added Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Crag Martin, Hill Pigeon, Larg-billed Crow and Grey-headed Woodpecker.  

Record image of the Wallcreeper at the Youzhou Valley.
“Wow.. They seem so close!” One of our younger participants watching more than 30 Eurasian Crag Martins congregating on a sunny cliffside – one of the highlights of our Saturday afternoon..
Beibei checking out the Swarovski ATX 115mm

After a long walk through the gorge, taking in the magnificent views and adding a few more species such as Japanese Tit, Little Bunting, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Mandarin, we headed back to the minibus for the drive to Lingshan, our overnight accommodation and focus for the following morning.

The drive up to Lingshan was stunning, with the autumn colours in their full glory.

The wooded hillsides on the drive up to Lingshan were spectacular in their autumn dress.

We arrived at our accommodation just as it was getting dark and, after a wholesome home-cooked meal from our hosts, including locally-harvested herbs, we took advantage of the clear skies and tested the 115mm telescope to look for the planets on show – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  With the extra light gathering capability of the 115mm versus the 95mm, Saturn’s rings were obvious and clear, even at 30x (using the 30-70x zoom eyepiece) to the astonishment and joy of the group!

The following day we were up for sunrise and were rewarded with a spectacular early morning, including brief sightings of three Siberian Roe Deer and a hunting Short-eared Owl, as well as a few migrating passerines – Buff-bellied Pipits, Pine Buntings, and a handful of Eurasian Skylarks.

Watching the sunrise at Lingshan..

After a quick breakfast back at the guesthouse, we walked a few of the valleys looking for birds and quickly encountered Beijing Babbler, Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Red-throated Thrush, White-winged Redstarts, Silver-throated and Willow Tits, a single Pallas’s Rosefinch, a superb Eastern Buzzard and a Northern Goshawk.  

A pair of Hill Pigeons posed nicely for the group.

At around 1030am the group split into two, with one following Chris and Rhys from the embassy hiking up to the peak (2,303m asl) and the other joining me to set up an infrared camera in the woods targeting mammals. 

After exploring for a while, we found a good narrow animal trail with fresh deer tracks so we set up the camera with the help of the younger members of the group pretending to be deer to make sure we had placed the camera at the right angle…

Setting up the infrared camera at Lingshan with the children.

We’ll leave the camera there for a couple of months and, on collection, will send any images to the group.  After setting up the camera, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch, meeting up with the others who had big appetites after their exertion!

Looking very proud of themselves…. !

After lunch the Chevening team left for the three-hour journey back to the city whilst I stayed on to participate in the “Birding Live on Location” event..  You can watch a recording of that event here.

The relative quiet of the afternoon also allowed me to put the 115mm through its paces..  As one would expect of Swarovski the image quality was outstanding but I wanted to see how it performed in low light conditions..  I stayed on site until dusk and, although it’s hard to believe, I recorded this video of a Red-throated Thrush after the sun had disappeared behind the mountain.  The video has not been altered in any way, except for a little cropping, and I was shocked at the brightness of the image.  

Red-throated Thrush recorded with Swarovski ATX 115 plus iPhone 6S and adaptor.

 

Although I was able to test the 115mm objective lens for only a limited time, I can say with confidence that it sets the standard for birding telescopes.  The brightness of the image, especially in low light conditions, is simply incredible and I hope I am allowed a longer experience with it very soon to experiment with some more digiscoping..! 

In the days following the trip, we were delighted to see the number of species recorded over the weekend creep up as lists were submitted from around the world.  At the time of writing, the total number of species recorded over the weekend was an astonishing 7,243 with 7,098 recorded on the Saturday alone, a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single day.  You can see the latest news from the Global Birding Weekend here.

Big congratulations to Tim Appleton on the huge success of the event which, as well as beating world records, also raised tens of thousands of pounds for BirdLife International’s appeal to tackle the illegal bird trade.  And big thanks to Swarovski Optik for allowing us the use of the brilliant new 115mm objective lens…  the only problem now is going back to the 95mm!  

For us in Beijing, inspired by the weekend, we now have a group of new birders, enchanted by the birds and other wildlife that can be found in the capital.  Some of the participants have already bought their first binoculars (Swarovski of course!) and field guides, and we are now working on plans for the next trip…

Huge thanks to Chris, Rhys and Beibei from the British Embassy for the flawless arrangements and for their great company.  Can’t wait until the next one!

 

 

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”