GREAT WHITE PELICAN video

This GREAT WHITE PELICAN (白鹈鹕, Pelecanus onocrotalus) was first seen on 5 October and, after going missing for a few days, presumably the same was seen again on 18 October and it now looks settled close to Houbajiazhuang at Miyun Reservoir.  It spends most of its time asleep on the mud but, occasionally, makes short flights to the water where it feeds in its distinctive pelican fashion.

The flights provide an opportunity to photograph it and, luckily for us, the pelican spent a few minutes preening before it’s first flight of the day at around 1630 on Wednesday, allowing me to capture this short video.

Great White Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 22 October 2014.
Great White Pelican, Miyun Reservoir, 22 October 2014.

It’s the 3rd record of this species for Beijing.

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.

Great White Pelican!

Well, we talked that up!

After Brian Jones’s post about Wild Duck Lake and his comment that there was always a “Yeyahu surprise” I guess I should not have been shocked that my next visit in prime migration season should produce a Chinese mega in the form of a Great White Pelican!  Even so this record, the significance of which I only realised after returning home, was way beyond my wildest expectations.

Great White Pelican (GWP) is a very rare bird in China.  In fact any Pelican sp (Dalmatian is more frequent) is a rare bird in this part of the world.  Jesper Hornskov, of 20 years experience in China, has only seen one other GWP in Xinjiang over 15 years ago.  And Paul Holt has just informed me that my sighting is the second record for the Beijing area, the first being at Miyun Reservoir in October-November 2009.  Fortunately, given I was not able to secure any images of the Wild Duck Lake bird and the fact it was only present for around 90 minutes, Jesper was also coincidentally in the vicinity and saw it in flight.

This is the story…

With Libby in Shanghai with her visiting sister, I decided to take the opportunity to travel up to Yanqing on Friday evening and stay over to allow a dawn start at WDL.  After enjoying a Friday night in the happening town of Yanqing (or rather being in bed by 9pm), I arrived at Ma Chang at first light (about 0545) and, after checking the ‘desert area’ for Oriental Plovers (no sign) and enjoying the flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks that were wheeling around, I made for the narrow spit to the west (complete with yurts) to check the reservoir.  On arrival here, at about 0705, I immediately saw a large white bird with the naked eye at the far side of the reservoir and thought it must be a late swan.  But it looked big.  I set up the telescope and was shocked to see a pelican sp swimming on the water!  It was resting on the far side of the reservoir among a large flock of some 250+ Black-headed Gulls.  I immediately sent SMSs to Jesper and Brian Jones and Jesper responded to say he was also at WDL but in a different part (!) and asked for directions.  I explained where it was but wasn’t sure whether or not Jesper could see it from his vantage point.  I then watched the bird for about an hour during which time it preened and swam along the far side of the reservoir, looking settled.  At one point a small group of 8 Relict Gulls flew right over it!  On any other day, the Relict Gulls would have been the star of the show…  I knew there had been the odd record of Dalmatian Pelican in the Beijing area, so assumed it must be this species (having seen neither I was not sure of the identification criteria).  But nevertheless, I took some notes on the features I could see.  Although distant, I could see that it was large, bulkier than a swan, and the plumage was a brilliant white with a yellowish bill.  At about 0830 I left the reservoir to do my normal walk to Yeyahu.  Jesper was further north and east of me and I assumed, as I had not seen or heard from him, that he had been able to pick it up.  Then, at 0845, as I was walking east, Jesper sent me a text to say the pelican was in flight over the reservoir.  I picked it up easily in my bins and then watched it through my telescope as it circled, gained height and, after a few minutes, was lost to view in the murk.  I took some notes about the features I could see.  In flight, it looked a brilliant white against the mountains as it soared, with intermittent wingbeats.  On the upperside, there was a clear and sharp contrast between the black wing tips and black secondaries and the brilliant white plumage.  I did not clearly see the underside.  Jesper then sent me a SMS to say the wing pattern fitted Great White.  It was only when I returned home and looked at the literature that I realised, from my notes, that it was definitely a Great White and just how rare it is in northern China.  Unfortunately, at no time did it come close enough for me to obtain a photo.  I am just very pleased that Jesper saw it too!

I am assuming that it was a wild bird but, of course, there is the possibility of it being a free-flying escape from some park.  I’ll try to do some digging about this possibility.

Wild Duck Lake just keeps on producing….