Swinhoe’s Rail in Beijing

Whilst I was in Dalian participating in the 2nd China International Birding Festival (more on that to come), I received an excited WeChat message from Zhao Qi informing me that Colm Moore had, just a few minutes earlier, seen a SWINHOE’S RAIL at Shahe Reservoir, Beijing.  Due to its secretive habits, this poorly-known species is very rarely seen anywhere and a decline in the number of records in recent years suggests that it is becoming one of China’s rarest birds.  From a personal perspective, it is my most sought-after species and I have lost count of the number of times I have endured squelchy feet as I meandered through soggy meadows around Beijing in the vain hope of encountering one of these enigmatic birds.

Anyone who knows Colm will tell you he is a brilliant birder.  In Beijing he is a relentless patch worker, visiting Shahe whenever he has spare time, which usually equates to a visit each weekend.  If ever a sighting of this magnitude was deserved, this is it.

In a subsequent email, Colm described his encounter in typically thorough and evocative language:

“The bird took off without being put up by me, flew very low continuously and fast just skimming the knee-high vegetation, darkish legs hanging. The landing was exactly like a crane, legs forward, disc-like wings down and a rather prolonged landing, showing the incredible white secondaries.
It got up from soggy knee-length vegetation and flew maybe 120m unlike Baillon’s Crake. It really was tiny, the size of a Tree Sparrow, but clearly Rail…..for all purposes very very dark, “Baillons- in-flight-dark”, ridiculous rounded disc-like wings beating fast and in a default slightly bowed position with no gliding, darkish legs dangling but neatly so, say 30 degrees to body line. Short bill and maybe slightly paler belly but whole impression was very dark. No deviation from line of flight and landing with legs forward, wings angled down and slightly back, revealing shocking white inner wing trailing edge, equivalent to secondaries.
No time in the shock of the moment to do anything but use binoculars. This was at about 11.15am and good half-cloud/sunlight behind me. I know the species from Happy Island 15 yrs ago, where Per Schiermacher Hansen and Jesper Hornskov showed me one and left to my own devices I found another. While in Minnesota in 2006 I was shown American Yellow Rail novaboracensis at a special site and it resembles Swinhoe’s but was bigger. Agony not to get even a record shot I know but the views were great, short I acknowledge but the white amazing. It looked identical, even down to the very dark wings and body impression noticeable on the birds on Happy Island.”

Colm’s description is delightful and if there was a Rarities Committee in China, I am sure this would sail through despite the understandable lack of photographic evidence.  A wonderful record by one of the best birders I have ever met.  It is the 4th record of Swinhoe’s Rail for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

Thanks to Colm and Zhao Qi for allowing me to share the story of this enviable encounter here.

Featured Image: Swinhoe’s Rail at the Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, October 2014 by 仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).

GREAT WHITE PELICAN at Miyun – the 3rd record for the capital

On 5 October, during the National Holiday, I visited Miyun Reservoir with Marie.  It was a beautiful day but with a rather chilly northerly breeze that meant the jackets didn’t come off until late morning….  On arrival, almost the first thing we saw was a distant, but still very obvious, large white bird sitting on the water.  I set up the telescope and could immediately see it was a pelican… fantastic!  The obvious question was which species?  In Beijing there are records of two pelican species – the DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕, Pelecanus crispus), a barely annual migrant, most likely to be encountered in spring,  and the much rarer GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus), the latter with just two Beijing records.  I have very limited experience of both, with just one sighting of Great White and two of Dalmatians, all in spring.

Separating the two is relatively straightforward given good views and, even at great distance, the species can be separated if seen in flight (Great White shows an obvious sharp contrast between the black primaries and secondaries and the white wing coverts).

Frustratingly, given the distance, I decided that it was prudent to leave the Miyun pelican unidentified unless I saw it in flight… so I decided to keep an eye on it as I scanned the other birds on the reservoir.  I put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and Paul Holt, who was birding at nearby Huairou Reservoir and was already planning to come to Miyun, replied to say he’d join us in a couple of hours.

At that time, there were lots of birds moving and it soon became apparent that there was an impressive raptor passage beginning with ‘Eastern’ Buzzards, Amur Falcons, Hobbies and Kestrels all moving…

Juvenile COMMON KESTREL.  One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.
Juvenile COMMON KESTREL. One of the many raptors to pass through Miyun on 5th October.

It was this distraction that allowed the pelican to slip away unnoticed… one minute it was there, the next it was gone and we had not seen it fly…!  We desperately scanned the skies thinking that, even if it had left a few minutes before, we must be able to pick up a bird of its size in the sky.. but no, it had gone!

All I had were my grainy photos taken with my iPhone through my telescope at 70x magnification.

Pelican, Miyun Reservoir,  5 October 2014.  Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope
Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 5 October 2014. Taken on 70x magnification with an iPhone and the Swarovski ATX 95 telescope

As scheduled, Paul arrived a little later and although disappointed at not seeing the pelican himself, he suspected from the original photo that it was probably a Great White.

Even so, it was more in hope than anticipation that I circulated the image to a few respected birders and their responses delighted me – all thought there was enough to identify it as a Great White!

Axel Bräunlich, of the excellent Birding Mongolia blog, wrote:

“I don’t see a problem in ID-ing your Miyun birds as Great White:

– general very white colouration, colour of breast
– “dent” in upper head, smooth outline of head (no shaggy crest) –> characteristic head profile
– colour of pouch
– rosy area around eye (poorly visible on photo, but apparently there)”

Axel summed up the ID criteria very well and, when combined with positive responses from Paul Holt and Colm Moore, I am very happy to call this Beijing’s 3rd record of GREAT WHITE PELICAN.

Even without the pelican, it was a brilliant day’s birding in stunning surroundings.. Miyun is spectacular when the air and weather behave themselves…  Here is a photo of Paul and me enjoying the birding that day..

The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir.  Photo by Marie.
The author (left) and Paul Holt enjoying a brilliant day at Miyun Reservoir. Photo by Marie.

Big thanks to Marie for her great company throughout the day and to Axel, Paul and Colm for taking the time to provide me with their much-valued opinions on the identification of this pelican.

I must also thank Swarovski.  The ATX95 with iPhone adaptor makes it possible to capture images at such an incredible distance… and this bird would have been in the records as “pelican sp” had it not been for the photo I was able to capture using this impressive kit.

First for China: STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW in Beijing!

Last summer, when I first met Colm Moore and his partner Zhao Qi at the first informal Beijing birders’ meet-up, I was struck by their warm, polite and above all modest manner.  A truly lovely couple.  Of course I already knew Colm through reputation.  Here was a guy who had already found some astonishing birds at his local patch at Shahe – a small urban reservoir in Beijing – including Beijing’s first skua (a stunning Long-tailed) and Black-headed Wagtail (ssp feldeggi) supported by a host of other excellent records such as White-winged Scoter.

Most birders dream of finding a national first.  It’s something I have never come close to… but Colm has form, having found Portugal’s first records of Pallas’s Reed Bunting and, I believe, American Herring Gull.  And so it should have come as no surprise that it was he who was behind an astonishing find, again at Shahe, on 4 May…  Here is Colm’s tale of that red-letter day…

“Streak-throated Swallow: a taxon apparently new to the Chinese avifauna; Colm Moore and Zhao Qi.

Dawn on 4th May 2014 broke clear and anticyclonic at Shahe, allowing a substantial northwards movement of hirundines to occur. Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica were in the majority but with up to forty Sand Martins Riparia riparia present as well. By mid-morning this passage had been almost entirely inhibited by a strengthening northerly gale and hundreds of Barn Swallows were sheltering in the lee of the Poplar grove at the western end of the reservoir. A smaller hirundine that had puzzled us earlier in the morning now reappeared in flight and finally, after some hours, allowed closer examination. Over 100 photographs were taken of the bird in bright sunlight, both in flight and while perched on the sandy waste ground, facing into the wind. At about 1300hrs the storm abated temporarily and the Barn Swallows drifted away northwards, along with their erstwhile companion. Puzzled by this diminutive hirundine and unable to identify the species, we decided to draw on Paul Holt’s encyclopaedic knowledge and sent him some images.  However, with Paul in the field, it was almost a month before he opened them.  He instantly recognised it as a STREAK-THROATED SWALLOW, a south Asian species, and called for more images.

Paul eventually saw the entire series of photographs and verified his initial identification of the Shahe hirundine.

The species is a monotypic taxon. It occurs from Oman in the west, through Pakistan and India to Nepal and Bangladesh in the east, occurring as a vagrant in Sri Lanka, the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. Just a month before the Shahe record, one was seen in Kuwait. Though burdened with a plethora of English names, its taxonomic position is fairly stable. The taxon is placed in the Petrochelidon clade rather than in Hirundo. Its scientific name, as of 2013 (Ibis, 155:898-907, October 2013), is Petrochelidon fluvicola, retaining the specific name fluvicola ever since Blyth first named it in 1855. Though subject to vagrancy, the species has apparently never been recorded in China, even in Yunnan where south and east Asian species might be expected to overlap in range. It is the first record for Beijing. Though vagrants may travel alone, often their proximate cause of arrival is the presence of sister species on passage; in the Shahe case this would be Barn Swallow or Sand Martin.  According to the literature, the species may be increasing in population in south Asia and is listed as “of least concern” in the IUCN Redlist.”

Here are some of Colm’s photos….

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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore)
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore). Note size difference in comparison with Barn Swallow.
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014 (Colm Moore).
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Streak-throated Swallow, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 4 May 2014. A first for Beijing and a first for China!

Big congratulations to Colm and Zhao Qi..  a truly astonishing record.  I definitely owe you a beer at the next Beijing birders meet-up…

 

Pelicans in Beijing!

As I was having a short Easter break in Singapore, it was predictably a superb weekend of birding in Beijing..!  The main highlight was the appearance of at least 6 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir.

Shahe is a regular spot for Irish birding legend, Colm Moore, and he has found some excellent birds at this city reservoir over the last few years, including Black-headed Wagtail, Bar-tailed Godwit, Long-tailed Skua, a recent Black-tailed Gull and many more.

The site is also visited by some Chinese birders including Chen Yanxin and it was both of these guys who found 3 DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) on the reservoir early Saturday morning.  Colm also saw an additional 3 flyover DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕), bringing the total seen to at least 6.

Shahe suffers from regular disturbance by fishermen and a whole range of other leisure activities, especially at weekends, so it’s certainly a site that should be visited early morning if at all possible.  And this was evidenced by the fact that the pelicans flew off north west around 1000am before many local birders could reach the site.

Here are some photos by Chen Yanxin.

DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe.  Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe. Two adults (with bright bills) and one subadult. Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICAN, Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕), Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014.  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
DALMATIAN PELICANS at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
DALMATIAN PELICANS (卷羽鹈鹕) at Shahe Reservoir, 19 April 2014
Shahe in the early morning mist..  hard to believe this is Beijing!  Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Shahe in the early morning mist.. hard to believe this is Beijing! Photo by Chen Yanxin.
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe...
Colm Moore (left) chats to a fellow birder at Shahe…

Although increasing in parts of Europe, DALMATIAN PELICAN (卷羽鹈鹕) is classified as “Vulnerable” by Birdlife International due to the sharp decline in the Asian population.  In the region, these birds breed in western Mongolia and some winter on the southeast coast of China.  It is a rare migrant in Beijing, usually in Spring, as it makes its way from the wintering grounds to the breeding areas.

Congratulations to Colm and Chen Yanxin for seeing, and photographing so well, these special birds..!

Beijing Birders Meet-up

In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders.  There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more…  plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.

Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza.  Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.

It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.

Thanks to Jennifer Leung for the photos below.

From left to right: Paul Holt, Colm Moore (front), Terry Townhsend and Tom Beeke.
From left to right: Paul Holt (UK), Colm Moore (front, representing Ireland), Terry Townshend (UK) and Tom Beeke (Canada, making a special guest appearance from Dalian).
From left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alstrom (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen.
Clockwise from left to right: Andrew Morrissey (South Africa), Zhu Lei (China), Paul Holt (UK), Chen Liang (China), Steve Bale (UK), Per Alström (Sweden), Jan-Erik Nilsen (Sweden) and (the right side of) Craig Brelsford (US).

Long-tailed Skua

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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photo by Zhao Qi). The first documented record of a skua – of any species – in the capital.

When Beijing-based Colm Moore sent me an email saying that he had seen a Long-tailed Skua at the capital’s Shahe reservoir on 22 June, I was impressed. Skuas of any species are very scarce in China, especially inland. What I didn’t know at the time was that Colm’s sighting was the first ever documented record of a skua – any skua – in the capital. Wow!

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the last 18 months or so, Colm has consistently been finding interesting birds at this reservoir, situated between the 5th and 6th ring roads in northern Beijing, demonstrating the benefits of patch birding.  This year alone he has found a feldeggi Black-headed Wagtail (the first record in China away from the far western Province of Xinjiang), Dalmatian Pelican, Beijing’s second record of Bar-tailed Godwit (a group of 7 on the same day as the skua!), Oriental White Stork, Watercock, Manchurian Reed Warbler and many more… It just goes to show what can be found by combining skill and effort, even in a relatively uninspiring urban location.

Here are a couple more images of the skua taken by Zhao Qi.

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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013. Another brilliant find by Colm Moore. Photograph by Zhao Qi.
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Long-tailed Skua, Shahe Reservoir, Beijing, 22 June 2013 (Photograph by Zhao Qi)

On the status of Long-tailed Skua in China,  Paul Holt offered this response:

“..there are very few reports of any species of skua/jaeger from anywhere in China. …….. I saw one Long-tailed at Laotieshan, Lushun, Liaoning last September (the first record for Liaoning) – plus several unidentifed distant jaegers, another Long-tailed in Shandong on 13 Oct. 2010 (the first for Shandong) & ………… Jesper [Hornskov]’s also seen a Long-tailed in Qinghai. Long-tailed’s reasonably common/regular off Taiwan in April & is the commonest of the skuas/jaegers there.”

Paul’s comments help to put into perspective just how good is Colm’s record… and, on a lighter note, as Colm commented, it’s also the first skua seen by an Irishman anywhere in China…!