Chinese Grey Shrike

Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanus sphenocercus) is an occasional breeder but predominantly a passage migrant and winter visitor to Beijing.  It’s a beast of a shrike and always a joy to see.  Unlike the shrikes I used to see in the UK, Chinese Grey is vocal and its call is often the first giveaway to its presence.  In early September the first few of these birds are arriving in the capital at suitable sites such as Miyun Reservoir and Yeyahu.

This one was recorded at Miyun last weekend.  Unfortunately for Western Palearctic birders, it’s not a long-distance migrant and therefore an unlikely vagrant to Europe.

Bustards at dawn

The highlight of a few hours at Wild Duck Lake this morning was a sighting of four Great Bustards, the world’s heaviest flying bird.  I captured this image of two of the group flying into the rising sun at about 0745.

Great Bustards, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012. If you squint, you can see one of the towers of the Great Wall on the far ridge...!

It was a bitter -12 at dawn with a light to moderate westerly wind making it feel even colder.  I counted over 350 Common Cranes roosting on the ice and, when they flew, most had retracted legs, making their appearance not unlike a large goose or a bustard.  The big surprise was that I didn’t see a single goose of any description all day.  Where have the Bean Geese gone?

The freezing temperatures and wind had created some unusual ice sculptures on the reservoir…

Ice sculpted by the wind at Wild Duck Lake
Another ice sculpture.. crazy shapes!

A few Whooper Swans were roaming around in between periods lazing on the ice.   This group looks like a family flock – 2 adults and 2 young birds.

Whooper Swans at dawn, Wild Duck Lake, 21 January 2012

A Chinese Grey Shrike sat on a post overlooking a large reedbed and called constantly for about 2-3 minutes.  You can hear it here:

Chinese Grey Shrike, WDL, 21 Jan 2012

Full species list:


Common Pheasant – 6
Whooper Swan – 18
Ruddy Shelduck – 4
Mallard – 35
Kestrel – 1
Hen Harrier – 3 (1 imm male and 2 ‘ringtails’)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 (adult male)
Goshawk – 1
Upland Buzzard – 1
Great Bustard – 4
Common Crane – 355
Collared Dove – 4
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 3
Common Magpie – 34
Great Tit – 4
Marsh Tit – 1
Eurasian Skylark – 4
Tree Sparrow – lots
Siberian Accentor – 1
Pine Bunting – 2
Pallas’s Bunting – 40+


Wild Duck Lake, 17 December 2011

After a few busy work weeks, it was cool (in -11 temperatures, coolness is assured) to get out to Wild Duck Lake on Saturday to see what the cold weather had brought in since my previous visit in late November.  And it was even cooler to be in the company of Paul Holt, one of the world’s finest birders.. (I am constantly astounded by Paul’s super-human hearing – there are calls that he hears, geolocates and identifies before I have even registered a sound…  and I would have certainly missed several species had he not been there).

On this occasion I hired a car for the weekend and so, early Saturday morning,  I picked up Paul from near his home in south-east Beijing and we headed north-west to Wild Duck Lake.  The traffic was unusually light so we arrived on site around 0715, just as the sun rose.  Paul’s trusty thermometer told us that it was -11 degrees C but with a biting westerly wind, it felt colder.  I was relieved that Paul had brought along his super-sized thermos for coffee and noodles..

We checked thoroughly the area at Ma Chang, including the ‘island’ to the north, where we enjoyed a close encounter with a very confiding Chinese Grey Shrike.  As we were in the car the shrike seemed oblivious to our presence, and it posed beautifully for Paul to grab the images below with my camera out of the passenger window…  Superb shots, Paul!

Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 December 2011 (image by Paul Holt)
Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 December 2011 (Paul Holt)

At the island, the angle made viewing difficult so we decided to venture onto the ice to gain a better position from which to check the swans and duck.  I am always nervous about walking on ice and, with various creaks and groans coming from underneath our feet, my experience on Saturday did nothing to improve my confidence..!  We could see the ice was at least a foot thick but, even so, I didn’t feel comfortable..  that was until we later saw a fisherman WITH HIS CAR on the ice…  It was then that I had to admit that I was a wimp… 🙂

After checking the wildfowl and finding a single White-fronted in the Bean Goose flock, we enjoyed a very welcome pot noodle.  To me, this was one of the most delicious meals imaginable after a few hours out in freezing temperatures..  I temporarily took off my gloves to eat and, despite holding a lovely warm tub of noodles, my hands were hurting with the cold..  and I knew it was still well below freezing when the condensation from the steam on the lid of my pot noodle froze solid..!  Wild Duck Lake is quite a bit higher than Beijing – at about 580 metres (Beijing is only around 80 metres above sea-level) – so it was noticeably colder than in the city centre.

We drove to Yeyahu, entering via the ‘secret passageway’, and covered the area down to ‘eagle field’.  No sign of any Black Bitterns this time or anything else outrageous..  but we did see a few wintering Chinese Penduline Tits, more Pallas’s Reed Buntings (common in winter), a Common Reed Bunting (anything but common at Wild Duck Lake), a couple of Hen Harriers, an Upland Buzzard and a very large and active flock of Vinous-throated Parrotbills..  these birds have bags of character and roam the reedbeds in tight flocks, chattering away as they go.

After marvelling at the constitution of the local ice fishermen on the reservoir, we headed back to the car for the journey back to Beijing, enjoying a pre-roost movement of well over 100 Common Magpies..

Thanks to Paul for his company on a ‘bracing’ day out…

Ice Fishing at Wild Duck Lake: digging the hole
Ice Fishing at Wild Duck Lake.. a popular activity! Note the car....
No gloves! These guys are hardy souls...

Full species list:

Common Pheasant – 20
Bean Goose – 610 roosting and preening on the ice
Greater White-fronted Goose – at least one (adult) with the Bean Geese flock
Whooper Swan – 27
Ruddy Shelduck – 2 in flight
Mallard – 150
Baikal Teal – 6 in flight with Mallard flock
Eurasian Kestrel – 2
Hen Harrier – 4 (3 ringtails and one sub-adult male)
Goshawk – 1 smart adult male hunting at Ma Chang
Common (Eastern) Buzzard – 1
Upland Buzzard – 2 (1 juvenile and one older bird)
Common Crane – 120
Oriental Turtle Dove – 4
Collared Dove – 13
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1 heard
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike – 4 (including one very confiding individual at Ma Chang)
Common Magpie – 200+.  Not many seen during the day but an impressive late afternoon pre-roost movement of at least 100 birds
Great Tit – 9
Chinese Penduline Tit – 4 (3 at Yeyahu and one heard at Ma Chang)
Asian Short-toed Lark – 40 in one flock
Eurasian Skylark – 35 (incl a flock of 25 at Yeyahu)
Chinese Hill Babbler – 3
Chinese/Light-vented Bulbul – 8
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 130 at Yeyahu
White-cheeked Starling – 12
Dusky/Naumann’s Thrush – 4
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – lots
Water Pipit – 1 heard at Ma Chang
Pine Bunting – 8, all flyovers
Pallas’s Reed Bunting – at least 95.  Common.
Common Reed Bunting – 1 in the reedbed at Yeyahu with Great Tits.

First for Beijing!

On Saturday I made my first visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu for a few weeks and boy, was it worth it?!  The autumn migration is now in full swing.  The highlight was undoubtedly the juvenile/first winter Little Gull that I found feeding on the reservoir before it gained height and flew strongly east.  Despite being almost annual on the Bohai coast, I believe this is the first record for the Beijing municipality.   Coming a close second was a stunning Short-toed Eagle that drifted right overhead near Yeyahu lake.  Wow.

Record shot of Beijing's first Little Gull at Yeyahu NR, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011
Short-toed Eagle, Yeyahu, 17 September 2011

Other good birds include a very early crane sp that was soaring very distantly over the mountains to the north.  I initially assumed this must have been a Common Crane but I noticed dark secondaries and this is more consistent with Demoiselle Crane.  Common Cranes are very scarce at this time of year, in fact I don’t think any have been recorded in September, whereas Demoiselle should be leaving its breeding grounds in Inner Mongolia about now.  It’ll have to go down in the book as a crane sp.  Also seen were 5 Chinese Grey Shrikes, including a very instructive juvenile that superficially looked a little like ssp pallidirostris (Steppe Grey Shrike), a heavily leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff (very scarce in Beijing, possibly the 4th record for the municipality) as well as many passerine migrants – Little Buntings, Eurasian Skylarks, Yellow Wagtails, Richard’s Pipits and so on…

Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit with Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Leucistic Black-tailed Godwit, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011
Juvenile Chinese Grey Shrike, Ma Chang, 17 September 2011

Full species list in systematic order:

Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica) – my first two of the autumn, flushed between Ma Chang and Yeyahu.
Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasaianus colchicus) – 6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – 24
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha) – 3
Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca) – 1
Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) – 3 (possibly relating to feral birds from Yeyahu)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina) – 10 in one flock flying strongly west
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – at least 75
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – 6
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) – 4
Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) – 6
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) – 2
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) – 3
Great Egret (Casmerodius albus) – 3 flying south early morning
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – a flock of 13 feeding together on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang
Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) – 5
Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) – just one, an adult male
Northern Hobby (Falco subbuteo) – at least 6, including 3 juveniles
Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) – one at Ma Chang soaring
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – one fishing at Ma Chang early morning then flew west
Black-eared Kite (Milvus lineatus) – 10; one on the ground at Ma Chang followed by a group of 7 kettling mid-morning and two other singles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – one low overhead at Yeyahu mid-afternoon
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus) – 4 (an adult female and 3 juveniles)
Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos) – 2 (both juveniles)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – 6 (light passage throughout the day)
Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) – c25 including several family parties
Common Coot (Fulica atra) – 6
Common Crane (Grus grus) – 1 scoped circling distantly over the mountains to the north.
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) – one juvenile at Ma Chang
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – 8
Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) – 12 (all juveniles)
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) – 1
Common Snipe (Gallinago megala) – 3
Eastern Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa melanuroides) – 2, including one white bird (heavily leucistic or albino)
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus) – 6
Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) – 8
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) – 3
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – 1, seen well in flight and appeared to go down on the edge of the reservoir between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) – 27
Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) – 1, a juvenile/first winter seen well but briefly over the reservoir at the east end of Ma Chang.  After ‘dip-feeding’ a couple of times, gained height and flew strongly east.
Whiskered Tern (Chilidonias hybrida) – at least 12
Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis) – 4
Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – 3
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – 1
Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) – 1
Chinese Grey Shrike (Lanius sphenocercus) – 5 seen, one of which I originally thought could be a ssp of Great Grey (see photos).
Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) – 2
Common Magpie (Pica pica) – many
Crow sp (Corvus sp) – a group of 6 soaring around mid-day were probably Carrion Crows
Chinese Penduline Tit (Remiz consobrinus) – two heard
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – only 3 seen
Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) – at least 60 ssw early morning and small groups encountered between Ma Chang and Yeyahu
Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) – just 4 seen
Locustella sp – one flushed 3 times appeared quite rusty, probably Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) – encountered in every group of bushes or trees.  At least 40 seen or heard.
Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) – one in a hedge at the east end of Ma Chang
Two-barred Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) – one on the walk to the viewing tower at Yeyahu
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (Paradoxornis webbianus) – at least 40 seen and heard
White-cheeked Starling (Sturnus cineraceus) – 22
Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) – 1, an adult male, seen in shrubs at the east end of Ma Chang
Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maurus) – at least 25 seen
Taiga Flycatcher (Ficedula albicilla) – 3
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – many
Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) – at least 200 ssw early morning, followed by the odd small group thereafter.  c250 in total.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) – 34 (mostly migrating ssw early morning)
Richard’s Pipit (Anthus richardi) – 26 migrating ssw early morning with an additional 16 encountered during the day
Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) – c25 migrating ssw early morning with several others seen and heard during the day.  c40 in total
Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla) – many buntings, probably this species, migrating ssw early morning and c30 seen during the day.
Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala) – one seen well
bunting sp – many hundreds of buntings migrating between 0600 and 0730; most probably Little Bunting but some looked slightly larger.