Winter is coming…

It’s that time of year again.  As temperatures plummet and the days shorten, many people might think it’s time to stay indoors with a real fire, put on that favourite woolly jumper and sip a warm cup of (green) tea.  However, for birders, it’s worth putting on the thermal underwear and braving those icy temperatures – winter can be a brilliant time.

Here are five reasons why winter is a good time for birding in Beijing:

  • First, with the leaves down, birds are easier to observe
  • Second, winter is the only time we can see certain species (for example, those that breed to the north of Beijing, including as far north as Mongolia and Russian Siberia, and spend the winter here). These species include: Ruddy Shelduck, Common Crane, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, Mongolian Lark, the winter thrushes (Naumann’s. Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated), Goldcrest, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Siberian Accentor, Brambling, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese Reed Bunting, Lapland Bunting and Pine Bunting.
  • Third, many mountain dwelling species will move lower into the valleys and even into cities in the winter, making them easier to see. For example: Winter Wren, Beijing Babbler, Plain Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Bunting.
  • Fourth, depending on the seed crops and weather, especially the extent of snowfall, some species ‘irrupt’ in large numbers to areas where they would normally not occur in significant numbers. Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and Redpolls are examples of species that sometimes ‘irrupt’ into Beijing.
  • Finally, there is always a chance of finding something special. The discovery of wintering Jankowski’s Buntings in winter 2015/2016 by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao was exceptional.  Who knows what else might occur – maybe a Snowy Owl at Lingshan?  Or a Gyrfalcon at Ma Chang?
2016-03-07 Jankowski's Bunting, Miyun5
One of the wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir in winter 2015/2016.

The best winter sites?

Most good birding sites in the capital (e.g. Yeyahu, Lingshan, Huairou, Miyun and Shahe Reservoirs (if accessible)) are worth visiting all year round.  And, within the city itself, the Botanical Gardens, with its berry-laden shrubs, is often one of the first sites to host groups of Japanese or Bohemian Waxwings during a ‘waxwing year’.  The Olympic Forest Park can host Beijing Babbler in winter and is often a good place to see Brown-cheeked Rails and Great Bittern.  It has also played host to some very scarce winter visitors such as ‘caudatus’ Northern Long-tailed Tit and Chiffchaff.  For me, personally, two of the best winter birding sites are Donglingshan and Shidu.

Donglingshan (东灵山)

2015-11-01 Red-throated Thrush male in flight, Lingshan2
Red-throated Thrush usually winters in good numbers at Lingshan.

The site of Beijing’s highest peak (2,303m), around 110km west of the city along the G109, Donglingshan is a superb winter birding site.  It is the only reliable site in Beijing to see the high-altitude specialist, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, and the scarce Pallas’s Rosefinch.  In most winters, tens of the former spend the winter feeding on the sea buckthorn berries in the many gullies and valleys below the peak and small flocks of the latter can be found foraging under stands of silver birch.  Other reliable species here include Chinese Beautiful and Long-tailed Rosefinches (interestingly, the latter are of the subspecies lepidus from central China and not the more northerly ussuriensis that has occurred in other parts of Beijing), not to mention Siberian and Alpine Accentors, good numbers of thrushes, Cinereous Vulture, Golden Eagle and, in some years, Asian Rosy Finch.  Rarities at this time of year have included Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Black and Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstarts.

At around 2,000m, a visit to Donglingshan in winter can be bitterly cold, especially if the wind is blowing.  However, if you time your visit on a day with light winds and sunshine, it can be surprisingly pleasant and hugely rewarding.

A downloadable PDF guide for Donglingshan (Lingshan) can be found here.


Shidu (十渡)

A spectacular gorge worthy of a visit in its own right, even without any birds, Shidu is an excellent winter birding destination, offering species that can be hard to see in other parts of the capital.  A road runs through the gorge, crossing several bridges and it’s a good tactic to stop close to the bridges to scan the area.  Shidu is perhaps most famous in birding circles for its Black Storks, a handful of which can be seen feeding alongside the river.  However, many more interesting species are possible.  For the last few years, at least one, sometimes two, Wallcreepers have been reliable near bridge 6.  And Long-billed Plover, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart and Cinereous Vulture are all regular in winter.  Even the spectacular Ibisbill, a species that is increasingly difficult to see in the capital, is possible.  And Solitary Snipe, another difficult-to-see species has also been recorded.

2013-11-23 Wallcreeper, Shidu
Shidu is the best place in Beijing to see Wallcreeper.


Ten Species To Look Out For This Winter

Beijing has many special birds in the colder months and here are a few to look out for.

1.     Merlin This small, compact, falcon can often be seen hunting flocks of small passerines, including buntings and larks.  Open spaces such as Ma Chang (Yanqing) and the edges of reservoirs are good places to look.


2.     Cinereous Vulture  With a wingspan of c3m, this huge bird of prey can be seen in the mountains around Beijing from November to March.  Feeding on carrion, they can often be seen patrolling the ridges of mountainous areas on sunny days, especially when there is a breeze, providing them with lift.


3.     Goldcrest This tiny bird is insectivorous and, somehow, it can find enough food in Beijing in winter.  The larger parks, such as the Botanical Gardens and the Olympic Forest Park, are good places to look.  Focus your search on areas with conifers and listen for their high-pitched calls.
4.     Siberian Accentor This beautiful sparrow-sized bird likes scrubby areas with lots of good undergrowth.  They can be shy but with patience and knowledge of their high-pitched call, searching in the right areas should be successful.  The Botanical Gardens and Donglingshan are two good places to look.


5.     Naumann’s Thrush  Naumann’s is the most common of the four classic ‘winter thrushes’ in Beijing (the others are Dusky, Red-throated and Black-throated).  With its orange-coloured tones, Naumann’s Thrush is a very pretty bird and can often be seen feeding on berries or on the ground in Beijing’s parks.
6.     Japanese Waxwing The beautiful Japanese Waxwing is an annual winter visitor to Beijing in varying numbers.  Sometimes in large flocks, they can strip berries from a bush in minutes.  Listen for their ‘ringing’ calls and look for flocks of birds that have similar silhouettes to starlings.  Can most easily be told from the very similar Bohemian Waxwing by the pinkish, not yellow, tip to the tail.
7.     Winter Wren The charismatic Winter Wren breeds in the mountains around Beijing and, in winter, it moves to lower elevations to escape the harshest winter temperatures.  In winter it can be found in the Botanical Gardens and other large parks, often near water.  The distinctive cocked tail means that it’s unmistakeable.
8.     Brambling The Brambling is a common winter visitor to Beijing.  A sociable bird, it can often be found in flocks feeding on seeds (often beech mast) at the base of trees.  Listen for its upslurred call as flocks wheel around over wooded areas.
9.     Pallas’s Rosefinch A real gem of the Beijing winter, the Pallas’s Rosefinch is one of the most sought after species by foreign birders visiting the capital.  A winter visitor in varying numbers, usually to relatively high elevations, it is most reliably found at Donglingshan in winter.  The ridge above the Botanical Gardens and sites around the Great Wall can also produce this species.  A favourite food is birch mast, so look for stands of silver birch and check the ground around the bases of the trees.
10.  Pallas’s Bunting  A winter visitor in good numbers, the Pallas’s Bunting is one of Beijing’s signature winter birds.  Found in reedbeds and any areas of rank grass and/or scrub, it can be skittish but will sometimes sit on the top of vegetation and utter its sparrow-like call, quite different to that of the similar, but scarcer, Common Reed Bunting and Japanese Reed Bunting.

Of course, the most important thing about going birding is not where you go or what you see but that you enjoy it.  Wishing everyone a wonderful winter’s birding.


Title image: Przewalski’s (Alashan) Redstart, Lingshan, February 2014.

This article has been translated into Chinese and appeared in the Winter edition of the China Birdwatching Society magazine.

An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui
A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.
The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.
A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches
PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..
Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.
The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.
The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan
吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.
Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The wound was bad.
The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray
The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.


Asian Rosy Finch at Lingshan

After Jan-Erik’s report of a flock of 40+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES at Lingshan on Sunday 10 March, I returned to this fantastic winter site to try my luck.  After the 2.5 hr drive from Beijing, we arrived at the peak at around 0800.  It was a fantastic morning with -7 temperatures and light low cloud causing a beautiful frost.

Lingshan in the early morning frost.
Lingshan in the early morning frost.

The cloud burned off quickly to leave a stunning vista that was reminiscent of a Christmas card.  With almost no wind, it was a super day to be on the mountain.

First stop was the slope where Jan-Erik had seen the finches on Sunday.  We scanned this and each nearby slope carefully but to no avail.  The lack of wind meant that bird calls could be heard at large distances and I was confident that given we couldn’t hear them, the Asian Rosy Finches were not around, at least not in the immediate vicinity.  After trying a few other nearby slopes we decided to have a change of scene and to move on to the site where the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS had been to see if they were still there.  They were.  We counted at least 17 (including 9 females sitting together at one point) and we enjoyed these birds for half an hour or more as they regularly dropped down to the berries.  There were two more further up the road, making at least 19 in total.  A very healthy count.  A stunning male Black-throated Thrush, along with a few Red-throated, were enjoying the same bounty.

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.  This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan. This bird is a first winter male (brownish tips to the primaries).
Guldenstadt's Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (female), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt's Redstart (male).  Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of "White-winged Redstart").
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male). Take-off shows the extensive white wing patches (hence the alternative name of “White-winged Redstart”).

We returned to the top to the area around the derelict buildings and were gob-smacked to see a CINEREOUS VULTURE perched on a boulder close by the track, much to the annoyance of the resident Large-billed Crows, which it positively dwarfed!  Wow…  What a beast!

Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan.  This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!
Cinereous Vulture, Lingshan. This bird was constantly harassed by the Large-billed Crows. At one point, one even jumped onto its back!

Again we scanned the slopes with no luck and decided to stop by one of the ridges to have some noodles for lunch…  I was beginning to feel that it just wouldn’t be our day and that maybe the Asian Rosy Finches had moved on.  However, just as we finished the most delicious pot noodles (they taste so good when you’ve been outside all morning!), I could hear a bird heading our way uttering a finch-like call that I did not recognise..  I got on to it and saw it was accompanied by a second, and watched both through my binoculars, unfortunately in bad light, as they passed us.  From the silhouette I could see they were largish finches with an almost lark-like flight.  Sturdy birds relative to Pallas’s Rosefinch.  I suspected they were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES but wasn’t 100% sure.  Fortunately, I kept my binoculars on them and they turned and headed back towards us, this time heading right overhead.  I grabbed the camera and took a couple of record flight images as they passed.  They headed east and then banked north, eventually being lost to view behind a rocky outcrop.  I looked at the images on the camera and, although they won’t win any prizes, I thought that there was probably enough detail to identify them as Asian Rosy Finches.  This was confirmed when I looked at them on my computer screen…  Result!

Asian Rosy Finch in flight.  The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch in flight. The markings on the undertail coverts, forked tail and head colouration all help to confirm the id.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan.  Patience rewarded.
Asian Rosy Finch, Lingshan. Patience rewarded.

An adult Golden Eagle passed at head height shortly afterwards and, a few minutes later, a party of 6 Red-billed Chough.  It was still a stunning day and a real wrench to eventually tear ourselves away from the mountain top.  A couple of Racoon Dogs (apparently recently released) were also hanging around the derelict buildings but there was no sign of any Pallas’s Rosefinches.

This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.
This Racoon Dog, apparently deliberately released last weekend, was holed up in a drainage channel.

Comment: Lingshan may well be a regular winter site for Asian Rosy Finch.  A flock of 200+ was reported from there two winters ago (6 March 2010, the report from which also lists 8 GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS) and there have now been 3 sightings this winter – a single on 2 February (per Birdtalker), Jan-Erik’s flock of 40+ on Sunday and our 2 birds this week.  Of course this winter has been an excellent one for northern species, so Asian Rosy Finch may be part of an unusual irruption but they could also be annual given not many birders visit there.  We just don’t know!  That’s one of the beauties of birding in Beijing…

Full Species List:
Whooper Swan – 8 flying west over Zhaitang reservoir
Mandarin – 6 (5 males and a female) along the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Goosander – 1 female on Zhaitang reservoir
Little Grebe – 1 on the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Grey Heron – 2 standing on the frozen Zhaitang reservoir
Cinereous Vulture – 1 perched on a boulder by the road near the derelict buildings at the top of Lingshan
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 at the top of Lingshan
Golden Eagle – 1 adult flew past the top of Lingshan
Hill Pigeon – 9
Spotted Dove – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2 seen from the car along G109 (both checked for Great Grey)
Jay – 2
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 4
Common Magpie – lots
Nutcracker – 1 heard
Red-billed Chough – 7
Daurian Jackdaw – 1 along G109
Large-billed Crow – at least 30 at the top of Lingshan
Waxwing sp – a flock of 30 seen near the 6th West Ring Road
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 2
Songar (Willow) Tit – 2
Silver-throated Tit – 3 at the top of Lingshan
Chinese Hill Babbler – one crossed the G109 in front of the car
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – a flock crossed the G109 in front of the car
Nuthatch sp – 1 calling incessantly at the top of Lingshan
Black-throated Thrush – 2 at least (including a stunning adult male with the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS)
Red-throated Thrush – 14 at least on berries at the top of Lingshan
Naumann’s Thrush – 2 seen from the car along the G109
GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART – at least 19 (at least 17 on berry bushes at the bend just below the summit and 2 on berry bushes opposite the radio mast)
Tree Sparrow – 1 at the top of Lingshan; many seen from the car along the G109
Brambling – 3 at the top of Lingshan with the redstarts
Oriental Greenfinch – 4 at the top of Lingshan
ASIAN ROSY FINCH – 2 flew over the road about 300m beyond the derelict buildings
Godlewski’s Bunting – 20+ along the road near the summit
Meadow Bunting – 6 including at least 3 singing males

Brown Accentor

Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013
Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013

BROWN ACCENTOR (Prunella fulvescens) is a bird that I have been optimistically looking out for all winter… checking all those Siberian Accentors is a tough job but someone has to do it, right? By rights, Brown Accentors shouldn’t be in Beijing.  They breed to the north-west and only the occasional straggler makes it to the capital and is seen.  I am aware of only one record, at Shidu, a few winters ago and I don’t know any details such as date or precise location.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw a report from Beijing-based birder Zhang Shen about a BROWN ACCENTOR at Mentougou, the mountainous district to the west of Beijing.  After contacting him, Shen kindly provided some detailed directions and the next day I was on my way…

The mountains to the west of Beijing, on a clear day, are simply stunning.  And there are some good roads that help to get you into the heart of this territory where some of the special mountain birds can be seen.  We arrived on site at around 0900 after a 2.5 hr drive from central Beijing and it was immediately obvious that we would have a good day.  A Cinereous Vulture soaring overhead and landing on a rocky outcrop was a great start.  And soon after we were enjoying views of 4 Golden Eagles soaring together, with one even displaying as Red-billed Choughs called and wheeled around the peaks.  We reached the Beijing/Hebei border and parked up.  A narrow paved road winds to the north, following the Yong Ting River and it was along here that we were told the Brown Accentor had been seen.

The habitat in Mentougou District.  Stunning scenery.
The habitat in Mentougou District. Stunning scenery.

A couple of false alarms with Siberian Accentors sharpened us up and, before long, we came across a small flock of Godlewski’s Buntings feeding alongside the track.  Checking them carefully, we spotted a couple of Meadow Buntings amongst them and then, suddenly, Jennifer said “ACCENTOR”… No sooner as she had said that, the bird in question dropped behind a boulder and it was an agonising few seconds before it revealed itself again and showed that it was indeed the BROWN ACCENTOR we had hoped for.  We watched it for a good 20-30 minutes as it fed around a group of rocks at the base of a cliff-face, in typical accentor style, creeping along the ground with short hops.

Unfortunately for Beijing ‘listers’ this bird seems to prefer an area of rocks just 500 metres over the border into Hebei Province..  maybe some Beijing birders will put down a trail of birdseed luring it over the border….!