Birding the China-North Korea border

After a couple of visits to Liaoning Province, I have been captivated by the birding promise, including the coastal mudflats between Dalian and Dandong and the migration potential at the southern tip of the peninsula, Laotieshan.  Last weekend I nipped across to Dalian, hired a car and went looking for shorebirds.  I was determined to make it as far as Dandong, on the North Korean border, a place that very few birders visit.  I had heard from Dalian-based Tom Beeke about the huge mudflats at the Donggang, just south of Dandong, so I knew the shorebird watching would be awesome.

The location of Dandong and Donggang on Google Earth
Sites on the coast between Dalian and Dondang.

It was great that Tom could join me for a half day and, after picking him up at Jinshitan (and seeing another old friend – see below), we spent the afternoon at the estuary north of Pikou, an excellent wader site between Dalian and Zhuange, on the way to Dandong.

"Sandy" at Jinshitan... a colourful reminder of the world volleyball championships held in Jinshitan a few years ago..

On the falling tide we set up our scopes and settled in for an excellent couple of hours watching the flocks of waders fly from their roosts to the freshly exposed mud to begin feeding.  It was quality birding with groups of Great Knot (26), Red Knot (3), Bar-tailed Godwit (161), Red-necked Stint (14), Grey (60), Pacific Golden (3) and Kentish Plovers (122), Grey-tailed Tattler (1), Terek Sandpiper (11), Marsh Sandpiper (25), Broad-billed Sandpiper (6), Greenshank (3), Far Eastern (14) and Eurasian Curlew (4), Whimbrel (5), Dunlin (63), Lesser Sand Plover (1), Saunders’ Gull (2), Caspian Tern (9) and Chinese Egret (10).

Great Knot, north of Pikou, Liaoning Province

We also checked out a few sites in between Dalian and Pikou and picked up Great and Little Egrets, Mongolian, Vega, Black-tailed and Black-headed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and many Yellow Wagtails.

I then left Tom and made my way up to Zhuanghe.  Here I enjoyed a healthy number (18) of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding on the estuary (a successful breeding season?), as well as good numbers of Far Eastern Curlews (57), Kentish Plover (160), Little Ringed Plover (1), Grey Plover (35), Spotted Redshank (6), Wood Sandpiper (2) and a single Blue Rock Thrush.

From here I drove up to Dandong and spent a whole day at the mudflats at Donggang.  These mudflats are vast….  I estimated 10,000 birds on the mud but, unfortunately, the tides were not great during my visit.. there wasn’t really a high tide, just a low tide and a lower tide (despite trawling the internet before the visit, I couldn’t find any information about tides in this area).  Hence, the waders were widely spread and, despite trudging out onto the mud with my locally bought 12 Yuan (GBP 1.20) pair of plimsoles, I was only able to scan carefully one large group of around 1,500 birds.  I was convinced that there was a juvenile Spooner out there somewhere but, if there was, I didn’t find it.

Local fishing boats near Donggang
Shellfish collectors on the estuary at low tide... tough work.
Birding the mudflats at Dongdang.. Getting muddy is a requirement here....

Despite that, there were some impressive counts…  over 500 Kentish Plover, 200 Great Knot, 100 Far Eastern Curlew, 30 Eurasian Curlew, 300 Grey Plover, 120 Red-necked Stint, 75 Bar-tailed Godwit, 60 Saunders’ Gulls, 250 Black-headed Gulls, 4 Terek Sandpiper, 600 Dunlin, 3 Broad-billed Sandpiper and 23 Greenshank.

Dunlin, near Pikou, Liaoning Province

A couple of local fishermen turned up and set up their rods on the ‘jetty’ which led me to think that the tide might be coming in… I asked them about the tide and they said that at 3pm the water would be in as far as the jetty…  Great, I thought… it was now 1.30pm so I settled in and waited for the birds to come to me, forced closer by the incoming tide… I waited…  and waited…  At 3pm the water was still a long way out (at least 500 metres) and seemed to have stopped edging closer.  Then a couple of other locals arrived and started laughing with (or at?) the fishermen…  they said that the water was not going to come anywhere near the jetty today..   By this time the tide had just about come to a standstill and my heart sank.  It was clear that the second group of locals were right and that the ‘high tide’ simply wasn’t very high that day.  I made a few final scans before leaving to check the pools inside the sea wall a little further north.

Pacific Golden Plovers

The pools were also productive with 5 Long-toed Stints, Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 4 Temminck’s Stint and 6 Red-necked Stints along with more Far Eastern Curlew.  A nice side show included 2 Grey-faced Buzzards and 4 Pied Harriers in off the sea (defecting from North Korea!).

Saunders Gull with North Korea in the background...
Great Egret near Dandong, Liaoning Province

As dusk approached I made my way back south to spend the night in Zhuanghe.  The following morning I birded two areas 10-15kms south of Zhuanghe.  Here the high tide had pushed the birds right up to the road and I was able to sit and enjoy a fabulous few hours of birding as the tide turned and groups of birds flew in to feed on the first exposed mud.

Here I enjoyed more Great Knot, Red Knot (2 juveniles), Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank (over 250), Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Far Eastern and Eurasian Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover and Oystercatcher.

I drove on to the river estuary north of Pikou and settled in for what turned out to be another fantastic spell.  On the falling tide, shellfish collectors were digging on the furthest stretch of mud forcing the birds close to me.  I enjoyed spectacular views of many of the waders and counted 18 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 53 Red-necked Stints, 38 Oystercatchers, 31 Bar-tailed Godwits, 350+ Dunlin, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 4 Terek Sandpipers, Eurasian, Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Great Knot, Sanderling (my only one of the trip) and a good count of 24 Caspian Terns roosting on the spit.

Far Eastern Curlews

My final stop was at some salt pans just north of Pikou.  Here I encountered 12 Temminck’s Stints, 14 Spotted Redshank, 4 Little Ringed Plovers and 2 Long-toed Stints.

Long-toed Stint

So, no Spooner, Nordmann’s Greenshank or Asian Dowitcher but a thoroughly enjoyable trip, nonetheless..  all the more interesting given the location and the fact that hardly any birders ever visit.  I am sure if the area was covered regularly, all sorts would be found – it clearly has bags of potential and would make a fantastic local patch!

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Dalian – the final day

Well, it didn’t rain but the wind did turn to the north and, with low cloud for the first few hours of Thursday morning, there were plenty of migrants about and we enjoyed an excellent day.  We had planned our return flight deliberately to allow a full final day in the field and we were glad we did with two new birds in the last couple of hours of birding – White’s Thrush and Yellow-legged Buttonquail.

The day started promisingly with lots of visible migration from the lighthouse.  A few Yellow Wagtails, Chinese Grosbeaks, Black-naped Orioles and Fork-tailed Swifts were moving and the whole are seemed ‘birdy’ with singing Lanceolated Warbler in a bush next to the watchpoint and Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers seemingly on every available perch.  Dusky and Radde’s Warblers called regularly from the scrub.

It wasn’t long before Jesper picked up a calling Pechora Pipit as it flew overhead  – the first of two – and a small flock of sparrows that landed in a tree next to the lighthouse turned out to be Russet Sparrows (after we scored the first record for this species in Liaoning Province earlier in our trip, it’s status has seemingly changed from rare to common in the space of a few days!).  Or maybe it’s an unprecedented influx.  Who knows?

3 Black Drongos dropped in to a treetop already holding 6 Chinese Grosbeaks and a Dark-sided Flycatcher and two of a flock of 6 Chestnut Buntings landed in a nearby tree, allowing excellent views of this very smart bird.

After an hour or so, Spike and I decided to leave Jesper and his group and walk up the ridge to gain a broader vantage point.  From here we enjoyed more Black-naped Orioles, a group of 6 Asian House Martins that came in off the sea (the first of 9 in total for the day) and 3 more White-throated Needletails among over 100 Fork-tailed Swifts.  A pair of Hawfinches toured the area around the lighthouse before heading inland and a Peregrine hung in the wind to the displeasure of the local magpies.  A cuckoo (not identified to species) came in off the sea and a Chinese Sparrowhawk came in low and hugged the ridge as it made its way inland.  This was quality vis-migging!

A record image of one of 9 Asian House Martins seen on 19th.
A record image of the Chinese Sparrowhawk at Laotieshan, 19 May 2011

The skies were very busy until about 0900 when the sun began to burn off the cloud and the flow of birds gradually slowed to a trickle.  At this point we began to search the surrounding hillside, shrubs and lighthouse garden.  Many new birds had arrived with good numbers of flycatchers, lots of Thick-billed Warblers, a sprinkling of phylloscs (including our first (singing) Arctic Warblers of the trip), Common Rosefinch, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Forest Wagtail, etc..  Everywhere we walked there were birds.  Not a huge ‘fall’ but certainly a decent new arrival, clearly prompted by the change in wind direction (it was in northerlies that we enjoyed so many birds at the beginning of our trip).

After a spot of lunch at the lighthouse car park, where the locals told us that “in September the sky is full of birds”, we began to explore a track that, at first we thought would just take us onto a piece of waste ground but instead looped round underneath the lighthouse through an area of sloped open woodland, some great gullies and coastal scrub.  It was here that we flushed the Yellow-legged Buttonquail from a grassy verge on the entrance track to a seemingly abandoned hotel complex and, from a shaded gully, the White’s Thrush flew up and perched briefly before disappearing into the thicket above us.  We wish we had discovered this area earlier as it obviously had great potential!

After a final visit to the lighthouse garden we reluctantly walked the track to the main road to catch the bus to Lushun for a bite to eat before picking up our bags from the hotel and making our way to the airport.  We had enjoyed a fantastic trip and were probably the first western birders to cover this area in spring – a real feeling of pioneering.  I can only imagine what would be discovered at Laotieshan if the area was systematically covered over the peak weeks on a regular basis.  I am sure that a few surprises would be uncovered.  As a southerly jutting peninsula, Laotieshan is almost certainly even better in Autumn so we plan to return in late September (the locals say that, on average, the 20th is the peak date for birds of prey) to see..  having been there and scouted the area, we now have a pretty good idea of the best areas.  There is plenty of good habitat for migrants, the majority of which is very undisturbed, so it is not only great for birds but also a real pleasure to walk around and enjoy…

I’ll post a full trip report in a few days, together with a full species list for the trip (over 150).  In the meantime, here are a few more images of the habitat and the species list for yesterday.

The lighthouse at Laotieshan seen from the 'vis-mig' watchpoint, early morning
The lighthouse garden.. flycatchers, buntings and warblers were all seen along this stretch during the trip
The view from the lighthouse across the garden to the entrance gate. Pale Thrush and Rufous-tailed Robin were seen here.
The steps down to the sea-watching point
The seawatching point at Laotieshan lighthouse. We saw good movements of Streaked Shearwaters during our visit, mostly in the evenings.
Typical habitat on the ridge... a series of trails make covering this area easy.
Me introducing the locals to shorebirding at Pikou... Photo: Tom Beeke
Scanning shorebirds on the incoming tide... at this spot, between Pikou and Zhuange, we saw around 1,000 Dunlin, hundreds of Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit and many other species including Red-necked Stint, Terek and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Red Knot and Greenshank. Photo: Tom Beeke

Species List (in chronological order of first sighting):

Fork-tailed Swift (106)

Chinese Bulbul (18) – including a flock of 16 migrating out to sea

Common Pheasant (1)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (7)

Lanceolated Warbler (7) – including one singing from our watchpoint

Grey Wagtail (1)

Radde’s Warbler (4)

White-cheeked Starling (3)

Chinese Grosbeak (25)

Dusky Warbler (5)

Hawfinch (2)

Barn Swallow (40)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (5)

Black-naped Oriole (17)

Olive-backed Pipit (12)

Black Drongo (6)

Spotted Dove (1)

Eurasian Siskin (1)

Common Rosefinch (3)

Red-rumped Swallow (24)

Russet Sparrow (9) – including one flock of 8 briefly at the lighthouse

Chestnut Bunting (6)

Yellow Wagtail (61)

Pechora Pipit (2)

Stonechat (1)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (9)

Oriental Greenfinch (4)

Common Pheasant (4)

Great Tit (6)

Brown Shrike (9)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (11)

Siberian Rubythroat (1)

Taiga Flycatcher (3)

Thick-billed Warbler (9)

Siberian Blue Robin (7)

Brambling (1)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (7)

Forest Wagtail (2)

White-throated Needletail (6)

Sand Martin (9)

Hobby (2)

Asian House Martin (9)

Black-tailed Gull (80+)

Richard’s Pipit (2)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (4)

Blue Rock Thrush (1)

Trsitram’s Bunting (4)

Mallard (1)

Eurasian Cuckoo (1)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Chinese Sparrowhawk (1)

Yellow-browed Warbler (1)

Peregrine (1)

Oriental Reed Warbler (2)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (2)

Meadow Bunting (1)

Arctic Warbler (5)

Yellow-legged Buttonquail (1) – seen well in flight and scurrying along the ground

White’s Thrush (1)

Cattle Egret (1)

Dalian – Day Eight

Another quiet day.  The showers didn’t materialise and the wind persisted in being a moderate to strong South-South-Easterly.  After taxi driver number 3 dropped us at the point, we enjoyed a trickle of early migration involving at least 9 Black-naped Orioles, 7 White-throated Needletails and 9 Forest Wagtails (our first of this trip).  But after that, it quietened down considerably and, by 9.30am, the skies were quiet.  We tried the woods and trails but these were equally dead with even fewer birds than yesterday – there really has been a major clearout in the last few days.

The highlight has to be the White-throated Needletails (again!).  After two hanging around high over the lighthouse at 5am, a group of 5 bombed past at head height at 0905am allowing excellent views of the rarely seen upperside of these beasts.  I rattled off a few images in the few seconds they were on view before they powered past the lighthouse and out to sea.  Whoosh!

Tomorrow is our final day at Laotieshan and we have high hopes.  The forecast is for the wind to switch to northerly overnight with light rain and drizzle from 3am through to 10am.  That might not sound like the recipe for a pleasant morning on a clifftop but, for a birder on the Chinese coast in May, that forecast could mean a stack of migrants on the peninsula.  The forecasters, so far, have not covered themselves in glory so we are not holding our collective breath but, if they are right, we could be in for a treat.  It would certainly be a nice way to end what has been a very memorable and fun trip.

Edit: a quick count up of the species seen so far shows that the total is on 149 species with a day to go! 

This immature male Amur Falcon was one of the highlights of an otherwise disappointing day.
Immature male Amur Falcon. Note the reddish 'trousers' and the grey feathers beginning to emerge on the breast.
One of 7 White-throated Needletails today. This image shows the less often seen upperparts, including the distinctive pale oval on the back and the greenish sheen to the inner wing.

Species List (in chronological order, not including Tree Sparrow or Common Magpie):

Ashy Minivet (3)

White-throated Needletail (7) – 2 at 0500 and 5 at 0905.

Chinese Grosbeak (16)

Spotted Dove (1)

Forest Wagtail (9)

Oriental Greenfinch (9)

White-cheeked Starling (5)

Barn Swallow (70)

Red-rumped Swallow (25)

Olive-backed Pipit (7)

Crested Myna (5)

Great Tit (6)

Black-naped Oriole (9)

Tristram’s Bunting (1)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (4)

Common Pheasant (5)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Amur Falcon (4)

Daurian Starling (6)

Peregrine (1)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Fork-tailed Swift (9)

Black-tailed Gull (heavy passage east with 236 counted between 1345-1355 and 393 between 1505-1515)

Chinese Bulbul (2)

Egret sp (2) – too distant to be sure of identification but probably Chinese

Blue Rock Thrush (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (2)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (2) – one in off the sea at 0805 and one soaring at 1100

Large pipit sp (2) – possibly Blyth’s

Radde’s Warbler (1)

Hobby (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (1)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (1)

Eastern Crowned Warbler (1)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (6)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (1)

Yellow-browed Warbler (2)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1)

White Wagtail (1) – ssp leucopsis

Common Rosefinch (1) – immature male singing

Dusky Warbler (1)

Streaked Shearwater (10) – all between 1345-1400.  In the evening, Jesper reported a passage rate of 900 per hour (!)

Dalian – Day Six

Sunny and warm, light northerly winds, almost no cloud.  Much reduced visible migration and very few hirundines compared with yesterday.  Nevertheless, it was another good day at this special site.  Highlights included another White-throated Needletail that came in at nearly head height (see photo), several Japanese Sparrowhawks, a single Chinese Sparrowhawk, several Lanceolated Warblers and an unexpected new bird in the form of a Japanese Grosbeak that was suspected as it flew overhead and identified from photos!

White-throated Needletail, Laotieshan, 16 May 2011
Japanese Sparrowhawk, Laotieshan, 16 May 2011. One of 9 seen today.
Japanese Grosbeak, Laotieshan, 16 May 2011. Suspected as this species as it flew overhead but only confirmed by this image!
Grey-faced Buzzard (probable first-summer?), Laotieshan, 16 May 2011. This bird circled overhead calling incessantly for a couple of minutes early morning.

Species List (in chronological order):

Fork-tailed Swift (6)

Yellow-browed Warbler (15)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (10)

Rufous-tailed Robin (1)

Ashy Minivet (3)

Chinese Bulbul (5)

Black-naped Oriole (7) – in off the sea

Brown Shrike (6)

Olive-backed Pipit (5)

Oriental Turtle Dove (2)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (3)

Lanceolated Warbler (3)

Oriental Greenfinch (4)

Common Pheasant (4)

Great Tit (6)

Hobby (7)

White-throated Rock Thrush (1)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (2)

Tristram’s Bunting (1)

Dusky Warbler (4)

Eye-browed Thrush (3)

Common Magpie (36 in the air together off the lighthouse at 0630)

Crested Myna (3)

Chinese Grosbeak (3)

Japanese Grosbeak (1)

Stonechat (3)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Common Buzzard (2)

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (2)

Brambling (4)

Vega Gull (15)

Red-rumped Swallow (50)

Grey-faced Buzzard (1) – first summer?

Goshawk (4)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (4)

Grey Wagtail (1)

Barn Swallow (128)

Japanese Sparrowhawk (9)

Japanese White-eye (2)

White-eye sp (11)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (5)

Peregrine (1)

Carrion Crow (1)

Blue Rock Thrush (2)

Sand Martin (15)

Eurasian Cuckoo (1)

Egret sp (Chinese or Little) (1)

Saker (1)

Radde’s Warbler (5)

Chinese Sparrowhawk (1)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (1)

White-throated Needletail (1)

Siberian Rubythroat (1)

Siberian Blue Robin (3)

Chinese Penduline Tit (1)

Amur Falcon (3)

Osprey (1)

Grey-streaked Flycatcher (1)

Wryneck (1)

Thick-billed Warbler (1)

Common Sandpiper (1)

Taiga Flycatcher (3)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (1)

Meadow Bunting (3)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Dark-sided Flycatcher (1)

Black-faced Bunting (2)

Dalian – Day Four

Today was wader day.  And after travelling to Jinshitan (just north of Dalian city) yesterday afternoon, we stayed overnight in a very cheap (but functional) hotel ahead of our 5am pick up.  Our destination was Pikou, a relatively small town (or so it appears on the map, but actually looks larger than many UK cities!) north of Dalian on the east coast of the peninsula.  The journey, which without stops should take less than an hour and a half, is peppered with good birding sites and there are lots of mudflats all the way up, providing good habitat for wading birds.  Tom showed us some fabulous sites and I am indebted to him for his guidance, expertise and company today – thanks Tom!!

The highlight was undoubtedly the 6 Black-faced Spoonbills at Zhuange (north of Pikou) with a supporting cast of over 50 Chinese Egrets, 400 Great Knot, over 1,000 Dunlin of the very smart race sakhalina, 300+ Bar-tailed Godwit, 450+ Red-necked Stint, 150+ Terek Sandpiper, 40 Lesser Sand Plover, 2 Greater Sand Plover, 26 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 7 Grey-tailed Tattler and Saunders’ Gull.

After enjoying the Black-faced Spoonbills (almost all of the total breeding population in China!), we experienced a stunning encounter with a host of waders at a site just south of Zhuange where we sat and watched the waders come towards us as the tide came in, giving us fabulous views of Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover etc all in superb breeding plumage.  A real bonus was finding 15 birds with coloured rings or flags on their legs.  These birds will have been ‘marked’ by ornithologists studying migration routes and I will report these birds (7 Bar-tailed Godwit, 5 Great Knot, 1 Red Knot and 1 Grey Plover) in the hope of discovering something about their history.  Many will almost certainly have been ringed in Australia, illustrating just how far these birds travel every year from their breeding grounds near the Arctic circle to their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere..  truly remarkable.

The drive back ended with a Little Owl just outside Jinshitan – the first time I have seen this species in China – and we arrived back too late to catch the last train back to Dalian and from there to Lushun.  So we will begin tomorrow by travelling to Lushun, checking in to our hotel and probably won’t reach Laotieshan until late morning.  So we will miss the early hours of migration but it was worth it!

I was a bit lax on the species list today, simply because we stopped at so many sites and saw so many birds!  So the following species list is not comprehensive but hopefully gives a flavour of the day…

Chinese Egret (one of more than 50 seen today)
Black-faced Spoonbills, Zhuange
Black-tailed Godwits
Bar-tailed Godwits

Whimbrel (300+)

Kentish Plover (12)

Chinese Egret (56)

Chinese Pond Heron (1)

Oystercatcher (6)

Black-tailed Gull (150+)

Peregrine (1)

Grey-tailed Tattler (7)

Black-headed Gull (400+)

Little Egret (6)

Common Sandpiper (4)

Intermediate Egret (1)

Wood Sandpiper (16)

Black-crowned Night Heron (8)

Grey Heron (5)

Common Pheasant (8)

Barn Swallow (300+)

Red-rumped Swallow (25+)

Fork-tailed Swift (60+)

Kestrel (3)

Little Tern (8)

Pacific Golden Plover (57)

Richard’s Pipit (4)

Turnstone (43)

Red-necked Stint (428 including 385 just south of Zuanghe)

Bar-tailed Godwit (300+)

Eurasian Curlew (35+)

Far Eastern Curlew (40+)

Meadow Bunting (3)

Grey Plover (85+)

Terek Sandpiper (c160)

Lesser Sand Plover (34)

Black-tailed Godwit (43)

Saunders’ Gull (5)

Black-faced Bunting (4)

Red Knot (15)

Dunlin (1,000+)

House Martin sp (6)

Yellow Wagtail (14)

Sand Martin (14)

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (38)

Great Knot (c400)

Black-faced Spoonbill (6)

Caspian Tern (1)

Common Shelduck (240)

Chinese Penduline Tit (1)

Blue Rock Thrush (2)

Moorhen (1)

Coot (1)

Little Grebe (2)

Little Owl (1)

Dalian – Day Three

Day Three at Dalian was the day that Laotieshan began to deliver in style.  In one 5-minute period between 0810 and 0815 we saw a White-throated Needletail, a Japanese Waxwing and a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker all fly in off the sea and head inland… followed very closely by a Merlin!  Wow..

The day began at 0530 at the lighthouse and, as on the first full day, we began by birding the track that runs north-east below the lighthouse.  On the entrance track we found a Rufous-tailed Robin and, almost immediately afterwards, flushed a Grey Nightjar.  Then, just before we began to walk north-east we disturbed a thrush from the verge and, after it flew a short distance, we could see it was a superb Grey-backed Thrush.  Not a bad start!

The track below the lighthouse was in shade and it was relatively quiet with just a Siberian Blue Robin, a couple of Asian Brown Flycatchers, an Ashy Minivet and a few Meadow and Tristram’s Buntings.  The sun hits this area between 0730 and 0800 so we discussed whether, on balance, it was probably better to cover another area first thing and then return here later in the morning.  After our experience in the hours that followed, we will almost certainly heed this thought when we return to Laotieshan from our northern wader sojourn on Saturday.

The reason is that we discovered a fantastic clearing on the ridge from where to watch visible migration and, between 0830 and 1030, we saw an additional 2 White-throated Needletails (off the sea and past me at head height!) and 3 House Martins (scarce in northern China), one of which was definitely a Northern House Martin and the other two not identified as either Northern or Asian.  The supporting cast included 47 Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swifts, 18 Amur Falcons, 700+ Barn Swallows, 70+ Red-rumped Swallows, 15 Sand Martins, a single Merlin, 8 Hobbies, 3 Eurasian Sparrowhawks, a single Chestnut Bunting, 6 White-eyes (not identified to species) and 3 Chinese Pond Herons.  On the slope we found two more White-throated Rock Thrushes (in a different location to yesterday) and on the way down I flushed an Oriental Scops Owl which perched briefly before flying off into dense cover.

It was with a heavy heart that we left Laotieshan at 1100 to travel to Dalian to meet up with Tom Beeke to cover the Jinshitan Fish Ponds in the afternoon ahead of our big wader day on Saturday (at Pikou).  After meeting up with Tom, the Fish Ponds produced a stunning Sharp-tailed Sandpiper which Tom had found previously as well as 2 distant Chinese Egrets, 28 Pacific Golden Plover in stunning summer plumage, a large and close-knit flock of 65 large white-headed gulls seemingly migrating west (probably Vega but I need to check the images) as well as 3 Oriental Honey Buzzards, Chinese Penduline Tits, Oriental Reed Warbler, Zitting Cisticola etc etc..

After fantastic home-made pizza with Tom and his family, we arrived at our Jinshitan hotel at about 8.30pm and I’m writing this before I hit my bed and try to get as much sleep as possible before our 0430 start tomorrow, so apologies if this reads a little awkwardly!

White-throated Needletail, Laotieshan, 13 May 2011. Needletails are powerful flyers with a very different flying action to that of Fork-tailed Swifts
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Jinshitan, 13 May 2011. A very smart wader.
Oriental Scops Owl, Laotieshan, 13 May 2011

Full species list (in chronological order):

Laotieshan (0530-1100)

Amur Falcon (18)

Brown Shrike (14)

Great Tit (4)

Rufous-tailed Robin (1)

Grey Nightjar (1)

Grey Wagtail (3)

Grey-backed Thrush (1)

Chinese Bulbul (5)

Pallas’s Warbler (5)

Taiga Flycatcher (2)

Yellow-browed Warbler (12)

Oriental Greenfinch (6)

Richard’s Pipit (5)

Olive-backed Pipit (18) – most very early morning

Dusky Warbler (4)

Fork-tailed Swift (55)

Ashy Minivet (3)

Siberian Stonechat (2)

Tristram’s Bunting (2)

Barn Swallow (coming in off the sea at the rate of 350+ per hour)

Red-rumped Swallow (in off the sea at a rate of c35 per hour)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (2)

Radde’s Warbler (9)

Siberian Blue Robin (3)

Black-tailed Gull (150+ offshore)

Heuglin’s Gull ssp taimyrensis (1)

Yellow Wagtail (1)

Chinese Pond Heron (3)

Meadow Bunting (5)

Siberian Rubythroat (1)

Hobby (8)

White-throated Rock Thrush (2)

Common Pheasant (1)

White-throated Needletail (3) – in off sea (1 at 0810 and 2 at 1030)

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker (1) – in off sea and continued north

Japanese Waxwing (1) – in off sea and continued north

Merlin (1)

Chestnut Bunting (1)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (3)

Chinese Hill Warbler (2)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (1)

Sand Martin (15)

Northern House Martin (1)

House Martin sp (either Asian or Northern)  (2)

White-eye sp (6)

Oriental Scops Owl (1)

Black Drongo (2) – at the point, feeding actively and almost certainly fresh in.

Jinshitan Fish Ponds (1530-1900)

Chinese Spot-billed Duck (4)

Chinese Egret (2)

Hobby (2)

White Wagtail (2)

Whimbrel (2)

Siberian Stonechat (3)

Yellow Wagtail (3) including one of the subspecies taivana)

Sand Martin (5)

Zitting Cisticola (1)

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (1)

Common Sandpiper (1)

Greenshank (12)

Black-winged Stilt (2)

Pacific Golden Plover (28)

Marsh Sandpiper (1)

Peregrine (1)

Eastern Marsh Harrier (2)

Chinese Penduline Tit (3)

Large white-headed gull sp (65) – all in one flock at 1635 moving west

Gadwall (2)

Black-browed Reed Warbler (1)

Amur Falcon (2)

Oriental Reed Warbler (1)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (3)

Magpie (5)

Fork-tailed Swift (8)

Grey Heron (2)

Barn Swallow (34)

Little Ringed Plover (2)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)

Grey Wagtail (1)

Kestrel (1)

Dalian – Day Two

Today was our first full day at Laotieshan and we saw some high quality species.  Probably top of the list has to be the White-throated Rock Thrush, a new bird for both of us.  The supporting cast included such goodies as Eye-browed Thrush, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Siberian Blue Robin, Rufous-tailed Robin, Blue Rock Thrush, Ashy Minivet, Russet Sparrow, Black-naped Oriole, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Chinese Leaf Warbler, Chestnut Bunting and Japanese White-eye.

We did quite a bit of walking today.   As well as the immediate surroundings of the lighthouse garden, we also walked part of the ridge above the lighthouse and a few of the agricultural fields below.  Stunning scenery, great birding and not another birder in sight.

One of our first birds was a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler that not only called frequently but also showed well, immediately telling us that the birds we had seen yesterday were Eastern Crowned (we obviously heard Pale-legged while watching Eastern Crowned yesterday).  These birds, despite the field guides (which, incidentally, are very poor on Chinese leaf warblers), looked nothing like each other.  The Pale-legged is a much browner bird than Eastern Crowned.  It is also smaller and lacks any sort of crown stripe.  Once seen, it will never be confused again!

In the afternoon we conducted a short count of the Streaked Shearwaters that were, again, streaming past the point (none were seen in the morning).  In just 10 minutes we counted 61 passing south – a rate of over 350 per hour.

Tomorrow we plan to cover the point again until lunchtime, after which we are going to join up with Tom in Jinshitan to visit the local fish ponds (Chinese Egret there today) and then drive up the coast on Saturday to some of the prime wader spots.  Sunday should see us back at Laotieshan, ready to join up with Jesper Hornskov and his Manchuria team.

A few images from today and full species list below…

The lighthouse at Laotieshan from the ridge
Looking north along the ridge
The trail below the lighthouse (we saw Siberian Blue Robin, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and Russet Sparrow along here)
The same trail looking south (this was a favourite area for Brown Shrike and Tristram's Bunting)
Rufous-tailed Robin in the lighthouse garden
This Radde's Warbler defied its reputation as a skulker..
Record image of one of the White-throated Rock Thrushes we found today
The stunning Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was present in good numbers today at Laotieshan

Species list (in chronological order):

Eye-browed Thrush (11) – including one group of 8 in off sea

Yellow-browed Warbler (18) –

Chinese Grosbeak (2) – singing

Olive-backed Pipit (80 counted but likely many more passing overhead)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)

Siberian Stonechat (12)

Barn Swallow (47)

Yellow Wagtail (6) – early morning over the point

Dusky Warbler (7)

Radde’s Warbler (12) – including one very confiding individual

Grey Wagtail (3)

Brown Shrike (13)

Oriental Turtle Dove (2)

Oriental Greenfinch (8)

Richard’s Pipit (5)

Trsitram’s Bunting (8)

Little Bunting (47) – likely many of the hundreds of the ‘tick-buntings’ overhead early morning were also this species

Black-faced Bunting (10)

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (16) – mostly males

Siberian Rubythroat (2)

Great Tit (6)

Magpie (23)

Red-rumped Swallow (34)

Goshawk (2)

Taiga Flycatcher (11)

Japanese Quail (1) – flushed from path below lighthouse

Common Sandpiper (1) – on rocks offshore

Blue Rock Thrush (4) – including 2 singing males

Little Grebe (1) – on the sea just offshore

Black-tailed Gull (200+) – good numbers around the point

Eastern Crowned Warbler (3)

Siberian Blue Robin (9) – 7 males and 2 females

Brambling (1)

Ashy Minivet (3) – including a pair feeding along the path below the lighthouse

Asian Brown Flycatcher (4)

Red-flanked Bluetail (1)

Coal Tit (1)

Russet Sparrow (2) – in off sea and showed well for around 10 minutes before continuing north

Black-naped Oriole (1)

Amur Falcon (2)

Chinese Bulbul (4)

White Wagtail (ssp leucopsis) (1)

Hoopoe (1)

Oriental Honey Buzzard (6) – in off sea at c1200

Hume’s Warbler (1) – seen and heard

White-throated Rock Thrush (3) – all males

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (3) – 1 seen very well, the others heard

Yellow-throated Bunting (2)

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (10)

Meadow Bunting (2)

Common Pheasant (2)

Chestnut Bunting (1)

Japanese White-eye (1)

Chinese Leaf Warbler (1) – along the ridge

Chinese Hill Warbler (1) – heard only

Hobby (1)

Streaked Shearwater (61 in 10 minutes) – clearly present in some numbers but so far only seen late afternoon/evening.

Dalian – Day One

Spike and I arrived in Dalian at around 1400 and, following a short taxi ride, checked in to our hotel at Lushun by 1500.  After a brief negotiation with a local taxi driver, Spike and I were at the lighthouse at Laotieshan by 1615, giving us about 2 and a half hours before dusk.  Weather was warm and sunny, probably around 20 degrees C.  Our first surprise was the fact that spring seemed to be a little later here than Beijing.  Many of the trees were just beginning to come into leaf, with many still bare – probably a good 10 days/2 weeks behind Beijing.

Our taxi driver dropped us at the small car park at the lighthouse and we paid the 20 Yuan fee to enter (much of the area around the point is accessible free of charge but we wanted to check the point itself around the lighthouse).  Within 20-30 metres of the entrance we could hear a thrush turning over leaves and, after a short scan, we got onto a superp Pale Thrush – a new bird for both Spike and me.  Brilliant!  As we watched the thrush poke around in the leaf litter we were then treated to excellent views of a Rufous-tailed Robin as it constantly wagged its tail a few metres ahead.  Not a bad start!

Further along we encountered two superb Brown Shrikes, two Wrynecks, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a stunning spring Pallas’s Warbler.  From the lighthouse we could see a good passage of Black-tailed Gulls whilst a mixed flock of Barn and Red-rumped Swallows fed overhead.

We re-traced our steps and then took a path along the cliff to the north on the eastern side.  Here we enjoyed two Siberian Blue Robins, a pair of Tristram’s Buntings, another Brown Shrike, two Ashy Minivets and at least 4 Asian Brown Flycatchers.

We then heard what we thought was a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – a very distinctive high pitched metallic ‘tee tee tee’.  After a brief search, we enjoyed good views of at least 3 of these birds but were left slightly confused as they seemed to be very Eastern-crowned-like in appearance – relatively large, a largish bill and sporting at least a partial central crown stripe.  My experience of Pale-legged is limited to a couple of autumn passage birds on Happy Island last autumn but these birds looked different.  Thoughts turned to Sakhalin Leaf Warbler but on the evidence we saw, we are really not sure.  The call was very akin to Pale-legged Leaf, so this must be the likely identification.

At this point the path opened up with a good view of the ocean below.  There was a continued good movement of Black-tailed Gulls just offshore and then, just a bit further out, I got onto a shearwater and, soon, we realised that there were several..  in fact lots..!  We counted over 100 in about 15-20 minutes.. all moving south.  They were relatively large with pale underparts and a pale-ish face..  they had to be Streaked Shearwaters..

By now the light was fading and we turned and made our way back to the car park to rendez-vous with our taxi..  A nice introduction to this peninsula and plenty to keep us interested (and to fuel speculation about what might turn up tomorrow!).  We plan to cover the point tomorrow and Friday and then meet up with local birder, Tom Beeke, for a day up the coast to look for shorebirds on Saturday.  Tom enjoyed a good day today at the Country Park in Jinshitan and we are planning to keep in close contact over the next few days to compare notes and hopefully tip each other off to any passing megas!

Species list from today (in chronological order):

Tree Sparrow (many)

Common Magpie (9)

Red-rumped Swallow (17)

Barn Swallow (38)

Hoopoe (2)

Chinese Bulbul (4)

Rufous-tailed Robin (2)

Pale Thrush (1)

Common Pheasant (3)

Black-tailed Gull (300+)

Crested Myna (4) – feral

Chinese Grosbeak (8) – a single flock seemingly attempting to migrate south

Vinous-throated Parrotbill (2)

Yellow-browed Warbler (4)

Dusky Warbler (1)

Pallas’s Warbler (1)

Brown Shrike (3)

Wryneck (2)

Tristram’s Bunting (2)

Siberian Blue Robin (2)

Asian Brown Flycatcher (3)

Ashy Minivet (2)

Oriental Greenfinch (2)

Streaked Shearwater (100+ south in 15-20 minutes)

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (3)

Heuglin’s Gull (4) – ssp taimyrensis

Oriental Turtle Dove (1)

Sand Martin (1)

Olive-backed Pipit (1)

Siberian Stonechat (2)

Grey Wagtail (1)

Dalian

A short trip to Dalian over the Spring Festival holiday was simply brilliant. I nipped over with Spike Millington and met up with Dalian-based Canadian, Tom Beeke. Tom is a top man – he met us at the airport, arranged our hotel and took us to all the best spots in the area. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the local birds made for a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Highlights included finding a Pallas’s Gull (Great Black-headed Gull) in exactly the same spot where one was found last winter, 3 wing-tagged Mongolian Gulls, good numbers of both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, 9 Oriental White Storks, 4 Varied Tits (stunners) and an unusual winter record of Yellow-browed Bunting.

The trip started at Jinzhou dump for gulls. There is a small landfill site here and, although on arrival the gull numbers were quite low, they steadily built throughout the day. The vast majority were Mongolian Gulls (Larus mongolicus) with c230 individuals. Also present were Vega Gulls, Heuglin’s Gull (tamyrensis?), a few Common and Black-headed Gulls plus at least one Slaty-backed (a first winter) and a probable first winter Glaucous-winged Gull. Other species on the estuary included Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, White-tailed Eagle (at least 5 individuals) and 9 Oriental White Storks. However, the highlight was finding an adult Pallas’s (Great Black-headed Gull) that flew into the estuary in the mid-afternoon. A brilliant and unmistakable bird.

Andreas Buchheim had asked me to look out for wing-tagged mongolicus and it wasn’t long before I found three – “AB56”, “AF50” and “AF63”. The ringing data shows that two were ringed at a colony in Lake Baikal (almost 2,000km away) and the third was ringed at Khokh Nuur in Mongolia (almost 1,300km from Dalian). It’s always great to see ringed or tagged birds and find out a bit about their history. Tom will now look out for more this winter.

On the second day we decided to visit the southernmost point of the peninsula at Laotieshan (about an hour and a half from Dalian). Tom had never visited in winter, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. We might see lots of birds or nothing at all. On the way we jammed in on a flock of Bohemian Waxwings at Lushun – Tom’s first record in the Dalian area. On arrival at Laotieshan, the habitat around the point looked brilliant for migration and Tom recalled his ‘big day’ here in October last year – thousands of raptors and huge numbers of passerines passing through with Tom the only birder! In mid-winter, as expected, it was a bit quieter but, nevertheless, we did see some good birds. A nice male Long-tailed Rosefinch was a good start and a Chinese Hill Warbler checked us out while Tom lured it in with a remarkable imitation of its call. A roving tit flock in a small wood produced Tom’s second record of Yellow-bellied Tit among the Coal and Great Tits and Siberian Accentors and Yellow-throated Buntings appeared at regular intervals. A few Naumann’s Thrushes added a splash of colour and a single Hawfinch was the first of 27 we were to see that day (including a single flock of 26). After a lunch of delicious dumplings, the afternoon started brilliantly when a trail we took just north of the peninsula produced 4 Pallas’s Rosefinches – a key target bird – and a few metres further along we enjoyed a nice male Yellow-browed Bunting – an unusual winter record. A Peregrine and a Kestrel provided the raptor interest and we encountered more Long-tailed Rosefinches, Siberian Accentors, Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings.

Our final day was spent on Tom’s local patch at Jinshitan and we visited several sites including a reservoir, the country park, the small fishing harbour and, best of all, the golf club. The first site of the day – the reservoir – produced both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, a brief Goshawk, Yellow-throated, Pallas’s Reed, Meadow and Rustic Buntings plus Coal Tit, Siberian Accentor, Japanese Quail and a beautiful male Hen Harrier. The country park and the fishing harbour were both quiet but on the way to lunch we enjoyed a very cooperative Rough-legged Buzzard that we originally thought might be an Upland due to the large whitish patch on the upperwing. Post-lunch we visited the golf course and it was here, in a lovely little wooded valley, that we encountered another target bird – Varied Tit. These birds are stunners and we enjoyed very good and prolonged views of 2 of these little gems in a mixed tit flock. Wow! A Treecreeper struggled to gain our attention, even though it’s a difficult bird to see in the Beijing area, and the supporting cast here included Chinese Hill Warblers, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches and more Siberian Accentors. Two more Varied Tits were seen briefly alongside the road (definitely different birds due to their blotchy plumage) and a walk around the more open parts of the course produced more Long-tailed Rosefinches, several of which posed nicely for photographs before we reluctantly headed off to the airport for the flight home.

Big thanks to Tom for making all the arrangements and accompanying us on a brilliant trip.

Already making plans to revisit in migration season – the peninsula at Laotieshan looks simply awesome for migrants.

Long-tailed Rosefinch (male), Jinshitan, Dalian
Long-tailed Rosefinch (female), Jinshitan, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Dalian
Varied Tit, Jinshitan Golf Course, Jinshitan, Dalian - one of 4 seen at this site.
Oriental White Stork with prey, being pursued by gulls, Jinzhou dump, Dalian
Chinese Hill Warbler, Laotieshan
Siberian Accentor, Jinshitan, Dalian
Rubbish record shot of the Pallas's Gull
Birding at Jinzhou dump (oh, the glamour...)
Hmmm.....