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 周仲平 (Zhou Zhongping).