Winter in the Botanical Gardens

Ornithologically, this winter is proving to be a good one in Beijing.  As well as more sightings of regular, but scarce, winter visitors such as Mongolian and Shore Larks, Great Bustards, Japanese Waxwings and both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, Beijing has also benefited from the well-reported irruptions from the north and east.  The capital’s first records of Varied Tit came hot on the heels of the irruption reported in South Korea and on the east coast of China and, last weekend, the capital’s first record of Bullfinch appeared in the Botanical Gardens.

With these latter birds prominent in my mind, I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens on Saturday.  With its mix of pine and deciduous trees, berry bushes and shrubs, it is one of the best locations for city birding in Beijing at any time of year.  Winter can be particularly rewarding with many thrushes (Dusky, Naumann’s, both Red- and Black-throated and ‘Chinese’ Blackbird are regular) and roving tit flocks – mostly Japanese (Eastern Great), Marsh and Yellow-bellied – can act as host to any unusual visitors.  Amazingly, a few Pallas’s Warblers always seem to eke out a living in the capital and the Botanical Gardens are as good a place as any to see them at this time of year.

Pallas's Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus).  Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.
Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus). Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.

Early winter, with a plentiful supply of berries, is best for the irregular waxwings with both Bohemian and Japanese present in a ‘good waxwing year’.  And the resident Chinese Nuthatches and Red-billed Blue Magpies add a splash of colour.  In the hills beyond the gardens, leafless shrubs mean that winter is a great time to see the skulking Chinese Hill Babbler and Plain Laughingthrush.

One could easily spend all day in the gardens and, even then, it would be impossible to cover it all.  I find the most productive areas are the berry bushes between the south and south-east gates (good for waxwings and thrushes), Cherry Valley with its often unfrozen stream (any insectivorous birds are likely to be found here and other birds often come here to drink), the ‘arboretum’ (Hawfinch and Grosbeaks) and the conifer collection (tits and nuthatches).

On Saturday, after the snow on Friday, the gardens were looking good and, with little wind, it was a good day to familiarise oneself with the calls of the residents.

‘Chinese’ Blackbird (Turdus merula mandarinus) is still officially a subspecies of Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) in most field guides.  However, they are clearly different and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were split into their own species sooner or later.  Larger and with a more strident call, they are distinctive birds and I enjoyed good views of 7 of these thrushes feeding under some juniper trees near the entrance.

There was no sign of any waxwings – most of the berries had already been eaten – so I moved on to the arboretum and conifer collection, encountering a couple of flocks of Yellow-bellied Tits (Periparus venustulus) along the way.  Marsh and Japanese (Eastern Great) Tits were also prominent and a nice flock of 12 Chinese Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria) was a joy.  Chinese Nuthatches (Sitta villosa) called from the treetops and were busy collecting, and hiding, seeds.  A large mixed group of 40+ thrushes (mostly Naumann’s) scattered after being disturbed by some walkers.  And a couple of Red Squirrels chased each other around the base of a conifer.

Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing
Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing

Checking the tit flocks for an eloper is always good practice.  A couple of over-wintering Pallas’s Warblers were tagging along and three Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers tapped away from the upper branches..

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, a resident in Beijing.
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus canicapillus), a resident in Beijing.

It was a good opportunity to study the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and, on returning home, I compared it with the similar (but much rarer in China) Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (which must be a candidate to occur in central Beijing).  Here is an image of a Japanese, taken last winter in Liaoning Province, to compare.

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.

Note the slightly shorter bill on the Japanese and also the different head pattern.  Grey-capped have an unbroken white marking starting above the eye and reaching to the back of the head.  On Japanese, the white marking above the eye is separated from the white on the rear of the head.  Japanese also have paler underparts with streaking concentrated at the top of the breast.  The call is also very different.  Listen here for a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and here for a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

At one point I was certain I heard a Eurasian Treecreeper but it only called once and I never saw it..  They are scarce in Beijing but it would be no surprise that one or two are in the capital with the winter we are having.

Despite searching the area thoroughly I failed to see any Varied Tits and the Bullfinch, if it is still around, proved elusive.  However, it was another enjoyable and productive day of birding in the capital.  With the temperature forecast to plummet this week to around -20 degrees Celsius, I am itching to get out to Wild Duck Lake to see whether the snow and cold has brought in any northern specialities…

All I want for Christmas is a Pallas’s Sandgrouse…. Santa – are you listening?