Happy Island In Early September?

It’s a big wrench for me to leave Beijing in migration season!  However, last week I was fortunate enough to spend 4 days on Happy Island (菩提岛 in Chinese) in the company of British birder, Nicholas Green.  Most birders – and tour companies – visit this legendary island off the coast of Hebei Province in May when birds are singing and in breeding plumage.  It is much less visited in the autumn, particularly in early autumn.

I made my first visit to Happy Island in late September 2010, shortly after arriving in Beijing, and boy has it changed.  The first thing I noticed on this visit was that it is no longer an island; a new causeway now links this birding mecca to the mainland.  Second, the “island”, has grown in size due to land reclamation.  Third, the accommodation is excellent – comfortable modern chalets with air conditioning, WiFi and hot water 24 hours per day.  Finally, there are some huge new buildings being erected with a new, much larger, temple and a massive building (for what purpose I am unsure) in the shape of a lotus leaf.

These changes might sound like a disaster but, actually, most of the good habitat remains, including the wood around the temple, now complete with wooden boardwalks.

A big target of mine was the now ultra-rare STREAKED REED WARBLER (细纹苇莺), which historically “swarmed” in the millet fields in late August and early September.  Sadly, despite scrutinising every ‘acro‘ I came across, I drew a blank.  However, it was a ‘birdy’ few days and we racked up a total of 125 species.  The full list can be downloaded here but highlights included:

– a flock of more than 50 DAURIAN STARLINGS (北椋鸟)
– three SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽)
– a single drake STEJNEGER’S SCOTER (斑脸海番鸭)
– a single PECHORA PIPIT (北鹨)
– both LANCEOLATED (矛斑蝗莺) and PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLERS (小蝗莺) posing for photographs
– 5 DOLLARBIRDS (三宝鸟) on the last full day; and
– a single LONG-TAILED SHRIKE (棕背伯劳), continuing the consolidation of this species’ northerly march
It was astonishing to think that we were the only birders on the island and there must be a possibility that there will be no more visiting until May next year!  I shudder to think what birds pass through unseen…
Here are a few photos from the visit.  Certainly whets the appetite for this autumn’s migration.
2015-09-05 Lanceolated Warbler, Happy Island
LANCEOLATED WARBLER, Happy Island
2015-09-03 Brown Shrike juvenile, Happy Island
BROWN SHRIKE
2015-09-04 Grey Nightjar, Happy Island
GREY NIGHTJAR
2015-09-04 Cuckoo juvenile, Happy Island
COMMON CUCKOO juvenile
2015-09-04 Schrenck's Bittern, Happy Island
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN in the ditch in Temple Wood.
2015-09-04 Stejneger's Scoter, Happy Island
STEJNEGER’S SCOTER
And here are two videos – of one of the SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽) and a GREY NIGHTJAR (普通夜鹰).  I love the SCHRENCK’S appearing to test the temperature of the water with his toes before taking a drink…

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Manchurian Bush Warbler at Lingshan

Lingshan is a spectacular place.  I first visited Beijing’s highest mountain in March 2013 and since then, over multiple visits, I have enjoyed some brilliant birding at this bitterly cold, barren and inhospitable site.  It seems to be a reliable winter location for difficult-to-see birds such as PALLAS’S ROSEFINCH, GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART and of course, most recently, it hosted both male and females of the stunning PRZEWALSKI’S REDSTART.

Last weekend, I made only my second summer visit.  And how different it looks.  Since my most recent visit in March, the mountain has been transformed with birdsong seemingly bursting from every tree and shrub on the now vivid green slopes and hillsides.

 

Lingshan in summer is lush, green and full of birds.
Lingshan in summer is lush, green and full of birds.
A view to the north-east from Lingshan.  Hard to believe it's Beijing.
A view to the north-east from Lingshan. Hard to believe it’s Beijing.

The woods are alive with CLAUDIA’S LEAF, CHINESE LEAF, EASTERN CROWNED and YELLOW-STREAKED WARBLERS.  And the more open areas are frequented by CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCHES and DAURIAN REDSTARTS with RED-BILLED CHOUGHS wheeling overhead.

A walk along the buckthorn-filled valley that, in winter, hosts GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS and good numbers of dark-throated thrushes, revealed that these bushes are now the home of singing YELLOW-STREAKED and CHINESE LEAF WARBLERS.  A short way down, we suddenly heard a different song – short, powerful and rich – that reminded me  a little of the COMMON NIGHTINGALES we had recently seen in Xinjiang.  Of course it wasn’t a nightingale… it was a MANCHURIAN BUSH WARBLER (Cettia canturians) – a scarce bird in Beijing and the first I had seen in the capital.  It sang constantly, often from an exposed perch, allowing me to record some video…

After finding some basic, but very cheap (GBP 8 per room), accommodation, we walked along the access road after dark to listen for owls.  We heard only a possible distant ORIENTAL SCOPS OWL but, at two different sites, also heard GREY NIGHTJARS pounding out their mechanical ‘knocking’ sound.  A highlight was also a rare (for Beijing) view of the spectacular night sky and, by checking out the planets with a birding telescope, we were able to identify Saturn, complete with rings.  Wow!

In the morning we awoke early to experience the dawn chorus and, again, walking along the main access road, we encountered CHINESE THRUSH, YELLOW-RUMPED FLYCATCHER, SONGAR (WILLOW) and YELLOW-BELLIED TITS, EURASIAN NUTHATCH, CHINESE BEAUTIFUL ROSEFINCH, RUSSET SPARROW and both MEADOW and GODLEWSKI’S BUNTINGS, in addition to the usual chorus of phylloscopus warblers.

I am sure that, with a little more time and by covering more of the area, some more surprises would be found…  after all, this is the site where Jan-Erik Nilsen recorded (two years running!) an initially unfamiliar song that, after investigation, turned out to be a PLAIN-TAILED (ALSTROM’S) WARBLER, a bird that, on current knowledge of it’s range, should not be in Beijing.  And with so few birders visiting, the opportunity for discovery is vast.  I’ll be back!

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The status of Manchurian Bush Warbler in Beijing (with hat-tip to Paul Holt):

This species is scarce, with just 16 records in total, averaging just 1-2 records annually in recent years.  Six of these are from May, including one from Lingshan in May 2004.  It has also been recorded in summer (July 2005 and June 2008) at nearby Baicaopan, possibly suggesting that it is a scarce breeder in the mountains around Beijing.  There is an autumn record from Kangxi Grassland (near Yanqing) on 16 October 2010 and one was photographed in the campus of Peking University in late October 2012.