An Extraordinary Lunar New Year

This lunar new year has been like no other I have experienced.  With the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and the subsequent lockdown of most of Hubei, including the shutdown of flights and trains to and from the stricken Province, people everywhere – including Beijing – are fearing to venture to public places and, on the rare occasions they do head beyond their own four walls, for example to stock up on groceries, face masks are worn, tasks are completed in a hurry and every sneeze or cough is greeted by fellow shoppers with looks of horror.

As I write this post, there are 7,736 confirmed cases nationwide and a further 12,167 suspected, with 124 recoveries and 170 deaths so far.  In Beijing alone, there are 111 confirmed cases, 4 recoveries and 1 death.  Given the rapid increase in cases and the likelihood that many millions of people will be returning to their workplaces at some point over the next few days and weeks, it seems as if this could be just the beginning.

In this context, birding seems trivial and inconsequential.  However, in some ways, it’s a good distraction to have..

Having fortuitously arranged the rental of a car before the start of the lunar new year, I have been able to get out and about for a few days over the past week or so without relying on public transport, of which most people are, quite sensibly, steering well clear.  It was refreshing to get outside, enjoy some exercise and, of course, see some good birds, with almost nobody else around.

The main destination was a classic winter site in Beijing called Shidu (十渡), literally “ten crossings”, a small village on the Juma River in southwest Beijing’s Fangshan District, just 4km from the border with Hebei Province.  Here, a series of bridges offer great vantage points from which to scan the winding river, which almost never freezes due to its relatively fast flow.

The location of Shidu(十渡) in Beijing Municipality.
The minor road running northwest of Zhangfangzhen follows the Juma River and a series of bridges offer excellent vantage points from which to scan for the area’s special birds.

It is a spectacular place, winding through stunning canyons and gorges, and is well-known for its Black Storks.  But it’s much more than that.. ..species that are local or hard to find in Beijing but that can be found here include Wallcreeper (regular in winter near bridge 6), Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover, Plumbeous Water Redstart and White-capped Water Redstart. And, if you look up, you can often see the impressive Cinereous Vultures soaring overhead, scanning for carrion.  Grey Herons breed on the steep cliffs and, if you are really lucky, you may encounter a Solitary Snipe or even an Ibisbill, although it’s a few years since either have been seen here.

Shidu is a site I once had the pleasure of birding with none other than former UK Chancellor, the Right Hon Kenneth Clarke and his late wife, Gillian, during one of his official visits to Beijing.  It was that special day that we recorded not only Wallcreeper but my first ever Solitary Snipe.

Taking notes at the Wallcreeper site. The Rt Hon gentleman is a true birder…

And on this latest visit to Shidu, the Wallcreeper didn’t disappoint, coming down to head height to take advantage of the meal worms put out by photographers.

We were also fortunate to enjoy the company of a spectacular Crested Kingfisher, a scarce resident in the capital.

Having dropped off the hire car and returned home, it’s been fascinating to see the online conversation about China’s wildlife trade, thought to be responsible for the current outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan.  With the government announcement of a temporary ban, many citizens are calling for it to be made permanent.  For a summary of the situation, there is an excellent article by Natasha Daly from National Geographic.

Seizing the moment, Peking University is running an online questionnaire (Chinese only) to gauge public opinion on the wildlife trade with a view to submitting the results to policymakers.  With China due to host the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in October, what better time to announce a permanent ban!

The next few days – and likely weeks – will involve voluntary ‘self-quarantine’ with trips out only to buy essentials.  It’s going to be a strange start to the year of the rat.

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Shidu

With the Chinese New Year celebrations still ringing in our ears (the year of the Dragon was greeted with deafening fireworks!), we set off to explore an area known as Shidu in Fangshan County, south-west of Beijing.  This area of karst limestone hills is sometimes known as the “Guilin of the north” and we could see why..  spectacular rocky outcrops rise up from the valley through which the Juma river runs..  It’s an area well-known to Beijing birders as a regular wintering ground for Black Stork, Wallcreeper and Black Vulture, with supporting cast including Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover and Red-billed Chough.

Today Libby and I drove there in our rented car in convoy with friends John and Sarah Gallagher and Sarah’s visiting friend, Vic.  The air was refreshingly clear – a combination of polluting industry closing down for Chinese New Year, fewer cars due to large parts of the Beijing population visiting relatives in other parts of China and a fresh northerly wind – and we enjoyed a stunning blue sky with excellent visibility all day.   We took a slightly ’round the houses’ route to get there (taking over 3 hours) but it was worth it.  A decent road winds its way through the gorge with a number of bridges crossing the river, many of which are excellent places to stop and view the stony riverbed.  Highlights included at least 4 Black Vultures soaring over the peaks, 4-5 Black Storks including 3 young birds, 2 Crested Kingfishers, a single White-tailed Eagle and 2 Upland Buzzards.  We didn’t have time to search out a Wallcreeper but the habitat looks ideal and I am sure, with a bit of time and patience, effort would be rewarded here.  Definitely worth a return visit sometime soon!

White-tailed Eagle, Shidu, Beijing
White-tailed Eagle, Shidu. A menacing shadow for any waterbird!
Steady...
One of today's Black Vultures at Shidu.

Ibisbills

On Saturday I accompanied Jesper Hornskov, visiting Swede Anders Magnusson and American birder, Gina Sheridan, on a trip to see the Ibisbills north of Beijing at Huairou. It was something of a surprise when Canadian birder, Brian Elder, discovered these Ibisbills so close to Beijing in June 2002 and this well-known site has been on many a birder’s hit-list during visits to Beijing ever since. I had visited in September last year, shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and was lucky enough to see 3 birds on that occasion. But, with the heavy development, including a new main road, would they still be there??

As anyone who has been to this site recently will testify, on arrival it really does not look very promising with a relatively narrow river, lots of gravel extraction, areas of rubbish littering the river bank and now a wooden walkway built alongside.

On Saturday we left Beijing at 0600 for the 90-minute journey to arrive on site shortly after dawn. We began, in temperatures of around -10 and with a windchill of well below that, by scanning from the road bridge where we were lucky enough to see some Goosander, Smew, Mallard, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Blue Hill Pigeons and a good selection of buntings in the roadside scrub – Godlewski’s (Eastern Rock), Little, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed. We decided to walk the northern stretch of the river first, as this would be hit by the sun earlier thus helping to minimise the effects of the cold which seemed to be exacerbated by the moisture coming off the river and freezing in the air, making our faces sting. Along the path we encountered first one, then two, Crested Kingfishers and a flock of at least 60 Vinous-throated Parrotbills. A few more Goosander, Smew, Mallard, a pair of Grey-capped Woodpeckers and a young Golden Eagle kept our interest but there was no sign of any Ibisbills. The walk back to the bridge produced an educational second calendar year Black-throated Thrush (with the faintest of streaking on the upper breast), Siberian Accentor and more Godlewski’s, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed Buntings.

After a very welcome break for coffee and chocolate, during which time we picked up Common Buzzard, Naumann’s Thrush, Hawfinch (2), Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Hill Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie and Large-billed Crow, we worked our way south. We reached a usually reliable site for the Ibisbills some way down the road – an area of piled up bricks and stones with good views over the river but there was still no sign. We decided to give it some time here to see if they would fly past or call and it was after only a few minutes that Jesper picked up a brief muffled call that he was convinced was Ibisbill. Of course, Jesper being Jesper, he was right! Soon after we had fantastic views as one, two, then three Ibisbills flew past us, calling as they did so. Stunning views in great light. Wow. Anders and Gina were ecstatic – a new life bird for them and one that has almost mythical status among many birders. After watching them on the ground for several minutes, including studying their feeding technique (the Ibisbills that is, not Anders and Gina), we reluctantly tore ourselves away to explore the area to the south, half-hoping for a Rosefinch or an Alpine Accentor. We didn’t see either of those but we did enjoy 3 more sightings of Golden Eagle (including a pair of adults), Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Bunting, Northern Goshawk, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Tit and Great Tit. As we took a path over a low pass in the surrounding hills and moved from shadow to sun, the climate changed dramatically and instead of looking like members of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, we were suddenly transformed into Beach Boys extras in (almost) shorts and t-shirts for the remainder of the walk down to the road to meet our lift home. One could almost believe that Spring was around the corner. The stunning hill scenery was a great backdrop to a top day’s birding and, with views of the Great Wall on the journey home plus a short stop to observe a small flock of Crested Mynas, the interest was carried through until we reached Beijing.

With my camera temporarily out of service, I was worried about just going birding with ‘just my bins and scope’ but, although I undoubtedly missed a fantastic opportunity to capture some great Ibisbill images, the simplicity of ‘just birding’ was a refreshing change…