Winter in the Botanical Gardens

Ornithologically, this winter is proving to be a good one in Beijing.  As well as more sightings of regular, but scarce, winter visitors such as Mongolian and Shore Larks, Great Bustards, Japanese Waxwings and both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, Beijing has also benefited from the well-reported irruptions from the north and east.  The capital’s first records of Varied Tit came hot on the heels of the irruption reported in South Korea and on the east coast of China and, last weekend, the capital’s first record of Bullfinch appeared in the Botanical Gardens.

With these latter birds prominent in my mind, I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens on Saturday.  With its mix of pine and deciduous trees, berry bushes and shrubs, it is one of the best locations for city birding in Beijing at any time of year.  Winter can be particularly rewarding with many thrushes (Dusky, Naumann’s, both Red- and Black-throated and ‘Chinese’ Blackbird are regular) and roving tit flocks – mostly Japanese (Eastern Great), Marsh and Yellow-bellied – can act as host to any unusual visitors.  Amazingly, a few Pallas’s Warblers always seem to eke out a living in the capital and the Botanical Gardens are as good a place as any to see them at this time of year.

Pallas's Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus).  Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.
Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus). Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.

Early winter, with a plentiful supply of berries, is best for the irregular waxwings with both Bohemian and Japanese present in a ‘good waxwing year’.  And the resident Chinese Nuthatches and Red-billed Blue Magpies add a splash of colour.  In the hills beyond the gardens, leafless shrubs mean that winter is a great time to see the skulking Chinese Hill Babbler and Plain Laughingthrush.

One could easily spend all day in the gardens and, even then, it would be impossible to cover it all.  I find the most productive areas are the berry bushes between the south and south-east gates (good for waxwings and thrushes), Cherry Valley with its often unfrozen stream (any insectivorous birds are likely to be found here and other birds often come here to drink), the ‘arboretum’ (Hawfinch and Grosbeaks) and the conifer collection (tits and nuthatches).

On Saturday, after the snow on Friday, the gardens were looking good and, with little wind, it was a good day to familiarise oneself with the calls of the residents.

‘Chinese’ Blackbird (Turdus merula mandarinus) is still officially a subspecies of Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) in most field guides.  However, they are clearly different and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were split into their own species sooner or later.  Larger and with a more strident call, they are distinctive birds and I enjoyed good views of 7 of these thrushes feeding under some juniper trees near the entrance.

There was no sign of any waxwings – most of the berries had already been eaten – so I moved on to the arboretum and conifer collection, encountering a couple of flocks of Yellow-bellied Tits (Periparus venustulus) along the way.  Marsh and Japanese (Eastern Great) Tits were also prominent and a nice flock of 12 Chinese Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria) was a joy.  Chinese Nuthatches (Sitta villosa) called from the treetops and were busy collecting, and hiding, seeds.  A large mixed group of 40+ thrushes (mostly Naumann’s) scattered after being disturbed by some walkers.  And a couple of Red Squirrels chased each other around the base of a conifer.

Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing
Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing

Checking the tit flocks for an eloper is always good practice.  A couple of over-wintering Pallas’s Warblers were tagging along and three Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers tapped away from the upper branches..

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, a resident in Beijing.
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus canicapillus), a resident in Beijing.

It was a good opportunity to study the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and, on returning home, I compared it with the similar (but much rarer in China) Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (which must be a candidate to occur in central Beijing).  Here is an image of a Japanese, taken last winter in Liaoning Province, to compare.

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.

Note the slightly shorter bill on the Japanese and also the different head pattern.  Grey-capped have an unbroken white marking starting above the eye and reaching to the back of the head.  On Japanese, the white marking above the eye is separated from the white on the rear of the head.  Japanese also have paler underparts with streaking concentrated at the top of the breast.  The call is also very different.  Listen here for a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and here for a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

At one point I was certain I heard a Eurasian Treecreeper but it only called once and I never saw it..  They are scarce in Beijing but it would be no surprise that one or two are in the capital with the winter we are having.

Despite searching the area thoroughly I failed to see any Varied Tits and the Bullfinch, if it is still around, proved elusive.  However, it was another enjoyable and productive day of birding in the capital.  With the temperature forecast to plummet this week to around -20 degrees Celsius, I am itching to get out to Wild Duck Lake to see whether the snow and cold has brought in any northern specialities…

All I want for Christmas is a Pallas’s Sandgrouse…. Santa – are you listening?

Botanical Gardens

This morning, despite the freezing temperatures, I donned my thermal underwear, thick socks, snow boots and parka for a foray into the Botanical Gardens and the ridge beyond. It was a gorgeous day, despite the -8 (ish) temperature, and I had a wonderful few hours. The journey there is best forgotten – taxi drivers in Beijing are variable at best and let’s just say that today, I had the misfortune to encounter a particularly clueless individual who not only took me the wrong way (twice) but also, at one point, stopped to have a cigarette – in the car – while I helplessly waited. One of the joys of Beijing.

Nevertheless, I arrived on site around 0730, not long after dawn, and I was soon enjoying very good views of thrushes – namely Dusky, Naumann’s, Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades, Red-throated, Black-throated and a wonderful presumed Red/Black-throated hybrid which exhibited a mixed red and black throat patch (mostly red upper-throat and black lower-throat). The birds were congregating at a small break in the ice to drink. The break had clearly been man-made, presumably by a bird-friendly soul, as the ice on the lakes was at least 3 inches thick.

After enjoying some close encounters, I decided to press on and up to the ridge in the hope of some buntings, laughingthrushes and accentors. On the way up I was a little surprised to see 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, somehow managing to eke out a living on the frozen banks of a stream and a group of 9 Chinese Grosbeaks was a delight to see. A party of 34 Chinese Bulbuls and a Chinese Nuthatch was the supporting cast as I followed the stream up to the hills. During a short refreshment break, a squirrel gave me a close encounter as it tried to find water, eventually managing to find a trickle under a boulder.

The last time I had walked up the ridge was in October, when the trees and shrubs were still largely in leaf, so today, with the trees almost bare, I enjoyed some very good views of normally tricky species to see – namely Chinese Hill Warbler and Pere David’s Laughingthrush. I saw at least 18 of the latter, many of which first attracted my attention by the sound of turning over dried leaves.. After the experience of Yunnan, where it was almost impossible to see any laughingthrushes despite hearing them all the time, this was a very welcome sight!

On the ridge itself, I stumbled across several groups of Siberian Accentor feeding on the edge of the track and a few posses of Yellow-bellied Tits rampaged through the evergreen shrubs. A single japonicus Common Buzzard proved to be 50 per cent of my raptor total for the day (the only other sighting being a male Sparrowhawk that caused havoc among the thrushes on the way down). Bramblings were constant companions and the odd Oriental Greenfinch called overhead.

On the journey down, I bumped into Jesper and his wife, Aiquin, enjoying a walk half-way up the ridge. After a short natter, I was back at the entrance gate and flagged down a taxi (luckily a competent driver) for the uneventful journey home. A thoroughly enjoyable morning..

A squirrel looking for water, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
The same squirrel doing its morning leg exercises
Laughingthrushes are much more cooperative when there are no leaves on the trees!
Red-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Black-throated Thrush, Botanical Gardens, Beijing, 16 December 2010
Siberian Accentor, one of many on the ridge above the Botanical Gardens