May in Beijing has been gorgeous so far.. cool, fresh mornings which warm up fast as the sun burns off any lingering mist and with a cool breeze to keep the heat bearable in the hottest part of the day. And, as the trees and shrubs burst into leaf, the birds that feed on the insect life they harbour are arriving in numbers. Even in the ‘garden’ in Central Park I have seen singing Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Bunting, Yellow-bellied Tit and a couple of migrating Common Buzzards.
A visit by the in-laws has meant that I have not been able to visit Wild Duck Lake as much as I would have liked but, in a way, the absence in between makes each visit that much more special and one really notices the difference in terms of the birds present – there is a high turnover with each visit producing several new species for the year.
My most recent visit this week followed a day of heavy rain and wind which, I was hoping, might have downed a few migrants. With a clear day forecast, I hoped that it might also produce a few migrating raptors. The day started at Ma Chang at 0530 in heavy mist and with visibility reduced to just a few hundred metres. The first surprise of the day was finding 10 Greater Sand Plovers on the ‘desert’, by no means common at this inland site. A party of 8 Eurasian Spoonbills was relaxing and preening on the edge of the reservoir as I carefully checked for a rare Black-faced Spoonbill. There was no Black-faced this time and, at around 0620, all 8 suddenly alighted and flew west into the mist, not to be seen again.
The walk out to the island produced good numbers of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, probably of the subspecies macronyx, together with several stunning adult male Citrine Wagtails and a few Buff-bellied Pipits. A Purple Heron lazily made its way east and Night Herons were mooching around in good numbers.
Wildfowl was thin on the ground with just a few Mallard, Spot-billed Ducks, Gadwall and a single Goldeneye on view from the island’s north shore. It was at this point that the wind began to increase and, slowly, the mist began to clear. By 0830 the sun was out, the visibility had increased to at least a kilometre and was improving fast.
Amur Falcons began to appear and there was a thin but steady passage throughout the day.. I do love Amurs – masters of flight – and the adult males, in particular, are just gorgeous.
After checking the area around the yurts which produced some Whiskered and Little Terns, I began to walk to Yeyahu. By this time the wind was fierce and my expectations for raptors began to wane.. surely it was too windy for much to be on the wing. Thankfully, as I reached Yeyahu Reserve, the wind suddenly dropped by half and was reduced to a stiff breeze. As I walked the perimeter of the lake, I flushed a large bird of prey from a poplar which immediately attracted the attention of the local pair of Eastern Marsh Harriers. Greater Spotted Eagle! I enjoyed great views of this bird as it began to circle and gain height, in the company of the male Eastern Marsh (the female kept her distance but gave encouraging cries as the male saw off this intruder). Another male Amur then screamed in from the east, briefly tussling with both the Eastern Marsh Harrier and the eagle before disappearing as fast as it had appeared. Wow…
As the eagle drifted west, struggling in the wind, I continued my walk east and, almost immediately picked up another 2 large birds of prey, this time quite high. Two more Greater Spotted Eagles! At this point I knew I should head for ‘eagle field’, the open area bordering the western part of the reservoir. As I walked I kept watch on the skies and picked up 2 (possibly the same) Greater Spotted Eagles hanging in the wind..
When I reached the viewing tower, I laid down and watched the skies.. 2 Greater Spotted Eagles, then a third all in view at the same time.. They drifted west into the wind before swinging back east and going down somewhere on the far side of the wood. As I lay there snacking at my lunch while watching Greater Spotted Eagles, Amur Falcons and Black-eared Kites pass overhead, I was overcome with a real sense of privilege to be watching these magnificent birds on their incredible migrations.. Perhaps the greatest journey is that of the Amur Falcons which winter in southern and eastern Africa and return to north-eastern China and eastern Russia each Spring. It’s an arduous journey and yet here they were, full of energy, wheeling in the sky, catching insects on the wing and seemingly enjoying the onset of Spring.
I enjoyed 2 hours of observation at this spot as the eagles made several passes. At one point there were 6 Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together… a stunning sight.
As I reluctantly made my way back, I was left bemoaning the fact that this would probably be my last visit to Wild Duck Lake for at least 2 weeks as I am travelling to Dalian (Tom Beeke-land!) to bird the point at Laotieshan from 11-19 May – I believe the first time this peninsula will have been systematically covered for any length of time in Spring. I can only imagine what I will be missing at Wild Duck Lake during this time! Best not think about it…..
Full species list (Magpie and Tree Sparrow too numerous to count):
Japanese Quail (2 – flushed from the path at Yeyahu)
Common Pheasant (6)
Gadwall (22 – most on the reservoir seen from the viewing tower at Yeyahu)
Falcated Duck (6 – numbers well down from my previous visit and only now present on the eastern part of the reservoir at Yeyahu)
Eastern Spot-billed Duck (8)
Eurasian Teal (68)
Red-crested Pochard (2)
Ferruginous Duck (4)
Little Grebe (20)
Great Crested Grebe (14)
Eurasian Spoonbill (8) – on the edge of the reservoir at Ma Chang until 0620 when flew west into the mist.
Bittern (at least 4 heard)
Black-crowned Night Heron (40+)
Chinese Pond Heron (1)
Cattle Egret (1)
Grey Heron (2)
Purple Heron (4)
Great Cormorant (1)
Amur Falcon (30+ light but steady passage throughout the day)
Black-eared Kite (8)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (at least 6)
Japanese Sparrowhawk (1)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)
Common Buzzard (2)
Greater Spotted Eagle (over 10 sightings involving at least 6 different birds; 6 in the air together between 1510-1530)
Coot – at least 40
Black-winged Stilt (16)
Northern Lapwing (14)
Little Ringed Plover (16)
Kentish Plover (4)
Greater Sand Plover (10) – all at Ma Chang including two adult summer males.
Common Snipe (6)
Green Sandpiper (1)
Common Sandpiper (1)
Temminck’s Stint (2)
Oriental Pratincole (6)
Black-headed Gull (50+)
Common Tern (12 of the dark-billed race longipennis)
Little Tern (4)
Whiskered Tern (4)
Oriental Turtle Dove (2)
Collared Dove (6)
Common Swift (8)
Fork-tailed (Pacific) Swift (18)
Common Kingfisher (5)
Great Spotted Woodpecker (1)
Chinese Penduline Tit (4)
Sand Martin (2)
Barn Swallow (80+)
Red-rumped Swallow (16)
Greater Short-toed Lark (12) – including one with an abnormal upper mandible
Asian Short-toed Lark (2)
Eurasian Skylark (2)
Chinese Hill Warbler (2) – 2 possibly with a nest at Yeyahu
Chinese Bulbul – (2) including one singing at the plantation on the island
Pallas’s Warbler (2) singing in the plantation on the island
Eastern Crowned Warbler (1) singing in the plantation on the island
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (12)
White-cheeked Starling (10)
Red-throated Thrush (3)
Naumann’s Thrush (1)
Dusky Thrush (1)
Dusky/Naumann’s intergrades (1)
Bluethroat (1) at Yeyahu
Siberian Stonechat (8)
Taiga Flycatcher (12)
Yellow Wagtail (80+ most looked liked Western Yellow Wagtail ssp thunbergi but I am not sure whether that occurs here. ssp macronyx of Eastern Yellow Wagtail looks a good match, too)
Citrine Wagtail (10)
White Wagtail (2 of the ssp ocularis)
Richard’s Pipit (6)
Olive-backed Pipit (37)
Buff-bellied Pipit (60+)
Little Bunting (400+ everywhere)
Yellow-throated Bunting (1)
Black-faced Bunting (12)
Pallas’s Reed Bunting (30+)