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.
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…
This week I visited Nanpu with Jennifer Leung and Ben Wielstra. This site, on the Hebei coast just 2.5 hours from Beijing, offers world class shorebirding. With tens of thousands of waders, thousands of marsh terns and some rare East Asian specialities such as RELICT and SAUNDERS’S GULLS and ASIAN DOWITCHER, this site is hard to beat. Throw in some visible migration and the passerine migrant magnet of the tiny “Magic Wood” and it’s a wonderful place to spend a few days birding.
Here is a sample of just how many birds are on show here at this time of the year…
One of the most abundant shorebirds is the SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER which can be found on the settling pools, the banks of tidal creeks and on the mudflats themselves. Of the 1000s seen over the visit, we saw only two juveniles. This one is an adult.
The spectacle of 1000s of waders arriving at the mudflats, as the mud becomes exposed on the falling tide, is superb… I counted 834 GREAT KNOT on the 14th and, at a different site, over 700 on 15th.. including a couple of colour-flagged birds with individual engravings.
Here is a short video of some of the GREAT KNOT shortly after they arrived at the first exposed mud. The sharp-eyed will notice one of the birds is colour-flagged with a combination of black over white on the upper right leg.
One of the GREAT KNOT sported a yellow flag with the letters “UWE”. On return to Beijing I reported it to the Aussie shorebirders and, within minutes, I had received a reply with the individual history of this bird. Our sighting was the first of this individual outside Australia…
Banding of “UWE”
06/03/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(-18.00, 122.37)Australia 06313620 (UWE) Aged 2+
03/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(17.00, 122.00)Australia Chris Hassell & Clare Morton
12/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome (17.00, 122.00) Australia Chris Hassell & Clare Morton
13/10/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(17.00, 122.00)Australia Chris Hassell & Clare Morton
01/11/2011 Minton’s Straight(-17.98, 122.35)Australia Chris Hassell & Clare Morton
16/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(17.00, 122.00)Australia Chris Hassell
18/12/2011 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(17.00, 122.00)Australia Chris Hassell
19/02/2013 Boiler Point, Roebuck Bay, Broome(17.00, 122.00)Australia Chris Hassell
20/12/2013 Minton’s Straight(-17.98, 122.35)Australia Chris Hassell
14/08/2014 Nan Pu, Bohai Bay(39.04, 118.36)China (mainland) Terry Townshend, Jennifer Leung & Ben Wielstra
Among the large numbers of GREAT KNOT were some RED KNOT and this photo shows the two species together, allowing a direct comparison. Note the size difference plus the difference in underpart markings, bill length and shape.
One of Nanpu’s specialities is the RELICT GULL. Although it’s primarily a wintering location, a few non-breeders remain all year round and it’s possible to see this species at any time of the year. Right now, the breeding birds are returning to the coast, along with a few first year juveniles. We saw at least three of this year’s young amongst more than 100 of these beautiful gulls. Here is an adult just beginning to moult out of breeding plumage:
Although Nanpu is primarily a shorebird site, its location on the east China coast means it is also an excellent place to witness visible migration. Even though our visit was in mid-August, we witnessed a nice passage of RICHARD’S PIPITS and YELLOW WAGTAILS and the “Magic Wood” – a tiny patch of trees and shrubs in the middle of the vast open area of ponds – hosted at least 8 EASTERN CROWNED and 6 ARCTIC WARBLERS as well as YELLOW-RUMPED, ASIAN BROWN, GREY-STREAKED and DARK-SIDED FLYCATCHERS. I can only imagine what this newly discovered ‘oasis’ will be like in September and October.
A nice surprise was this adult male DAURIAN STARLING, a scarce passage migrant in the Beijing/Hebei area.
And an even bigger surprise was an unseasonal PALLAS’S SANDGROUSE that flew backwards and forwards just inland from the sea wall and settled on some rough ground between some ‘nodding donkeys’. Bizarre.
All in all it was a brilliant few days. The full species list is below. Big thanks to Jennifer and Ben for their great company… itching to get back already!
Common Pheasant – 1 juvenile near the seawall on 15th
Common Shelduck – 1 juvenile on 14th
Spot-billed Duck – 6
Little Grebe – 3 on the pond at the sea wall by the police building
Black-crowned Night Heron – 4 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Chinese Pond Heron – 1 in flight on 13th and 1 on 15th
Grey Heron – 6
Little Egret – 14
Chinese Egret – 2 on 14th near the bridge where the tidal channel runs into the sea and one on 15th
Great Cormorant – 287 flew in to roost on the ponds at 1745 on 14th
Common Kestrel – 2 (both females)
Amur Falcon – 2 (both adult females)
Black-winged Stilt – not counted but 1000s
Pied Avocet – not counted but 1000s
Grey Plover – 27 on 15th
Little Ringed Plover – c75
Kentish Plover – c500
Lesser Sand Plover – 1 in summer plumage from the bridge at the seawall
Greater Sand Plover – 2 adults in winter plumage on the ponds
Asian Dowitcher – at least 15, including 5 feeding on the falling tide on 15th
Black-tailed Godwit – c700 on 14th
Bar-tailed Godwit – c80
Whimbrel – 23
Eurasian Curlew – 14
Far Eastern Curlew – 29
Spotted Redshank – not counted but estimate of several hundred
Common Redshank – much less common than Spotted bt still 50+
Marsh Sandpiper – 1000s
Common Greenshank – 18
Green Sandpiper – 2
Wood Sandpiper –
Grey-tailed Tattler – 3
Terek Sandpiper – 8
Common Sandpiper – 16
Ruddy Turnstone – 14
Great Knot – 832 counted on 14th from the bridge. 700+ counted on morning of 15th from east of the oil terminal causeway…
Red Knot – at least 30 in total
Red-necked Stint – c40 (never found a substantial concentration of stints)
Temminck’s Stint – 1
Long-toed Stint – 5
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – 1000s
Curlew Sandpiper – 20
Dunlin – 8
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 3
Ruff – 1 ad male
Red-necked Phalarope – 1 adult (male?)
Black-tailed Gull – 160
Mongolian Gull – 2 adults
Relict Gull – 105 counted on 14th
Black-headed Gull – c300-400
Saunders’s Gull – 6
Common Tern –
Little Tern – 38
Gull-billed Tern – 18
White-winged Tern – 1000s
Pallas’s Sandgrouse – 1 flew back and forth over the marshy area adjacent to the sea wall (viewed from the dirt track). Landed on the rough ground amongst the ‘nodding donkeys’ but not seen on the deck.
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3 around Nanpu
Spotted Dove – 1 in Nanpu
Pacific Swift – 11 flew west along the sea wall on 15th
Common Kingfisher – 1 heard at “Magic Wood”
Brown Shrike – 17 along the roadside
Black Drongo – 1 at the “ice cream” village
Azure-winged Magpie – 4 around Nanpu
Common Magpie – 12 along the roadside
Sand Martin – 12 along the seawall on 15th
Barn Swallow – 1000s
Red-rumped Swallow – 46 counted but many more present
Zitting Cisticola – 6 along the sea wall on 15th
Chinese Bulbul – 3
Thick-billed Warbler – 2 (one in “Magic Wood” on 14th and one along the seawall on 15th)
Arctic Warbler – at least 6 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Eastern Crowned Warbler – at least 8 in “Magic Wood” on 14th
Reed Parrotbill – 6
White-eye sp – one migrated along the sea wall, seen from the bridge, on 14th
Daurian Starling – one adult male along the roadside with White-cheeked Starlings on 14th
White-cheeked Starling – 8
Dark-sided Flycatcher – 1 adult and 1 juvenile probably this species at “Magic Wood”
Grey-streaked Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Asian Brown Flycatcher – 1 adult at “Magic Wood”
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – an adult male and an adult female at “Magic Wood” on 15th
Tree Sparrow – not counted but numerous
Yellow Wagtail – 12 on 14th and 15 on 15th
Grey Wagtail – 2 by the sea wall seen from the bridge on 14th
White Wagtail – 2
Richard’s Pipit – 28 on 14th from the bridge and 41 on 15th from the dirt track – all migrating
Blyth’s Pipit – 2 possibly this species migrating (a call similar to Richard’s plus an extra “chip”)
Yellow-breasted Bunting – two possibly this species (yellowish buntings) migrating on 14th
During my aborted trip to the Hebei coast last week, one of the birds with which I enjoyed a close encounter was this juvenile sandplover. The recovery from my appendectomy gave me some time to examine the photos and video to try to work out the identification. I found this bird tricky. It wasn’t particularly long-legged, the ‘bulge’ on the culmen wasn’t very pronounced (suggesting Lesser) but the overall gait – including the horizontal stance – suggested Greater. I was confused. So I sent this image to Dave Bakewell who has lots of experience with sandplovers and has written extensively about them on his excellent Dig Deep blog.
His view is that this bird is a juvenile Greater. Why? This is what he said:
“Not surprised you are struggling with this one! I do find that leg colour is more reliable as a feature for juvs than adults. And, although the bill may not be fully grown (affecting the proportion of the swollen culmen), I do find the tip shape very helpful – slender and more pointed on GSP and blunter on LSP. By now you will know what I think it is! Despite the apparent dumpy, short-legged, round-headed shape, I think this is a very young juv GSP.”
Just when I thought I was getting to grips with sandplovers, I encounter a bird that makes me think again… and that’s what makes birding such a brilliant hobby – always so much to learn!
Here is some video of the same bird, just edited from footage I took last week.
Please let me know what YOU think!
EDIT: Dave Bakewell kindly sent me a link to a similar-aged juvenile Lesser Sandplover (of the atrifons group). You can see it here. It’s a darker plumaged bird overall with noticeably darker legs, darker centres to the coverts and showing a subtly different bill shape.
Early August is a great time to see a range of east Asian shorebirds on the coast of China. So last Saturday I planned to make a 2-day trip to check out Nanpu, a vast and featureless area of salt works and ponds to the south of Tangshan in Hebei Province that hosts hundreds of thousands of waders in spring and autumn.
I woke a little earlier than usual with mild abdominal pain. I put it down to the particularly spicy curry I had consumed on the Friday evening, popped a couple of paracetamol and set off. There was no way a little stomach pain was going to stop me driving the 2.5 hours to see 100,000+ waders on the coast…
As my journey progressed I was excited to see the air and cloud clearing – having started as a smoggy and cloudy day, Saturday turned into a beautifully clear, blue sky day.
On arrival I slowly drove the long road towards the coast, checking the roadside ponds. I was buoyed by a beautiful BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER in amongst the many SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, KENTISH PLOVERS and BLACK-WINGED STILTS.
I then found a superb pond filled with mostly BLACK-TAILED GODWITS, MARSH SANDPIPERS and SPOTTED REDSHANKS. As I carefully scanned, I found a group of ASIAN DOWITCHERS, a regular but fairly scarce migrant. I counted 22, 21 adults and one juvenile, in a small area. By now my abdominal pain was worsening and I was considering whether to go to a local hotel to rest or to drive back to Beijing. Whilst I was deciding what to do, I took the opportunity to record some video of the ASIAN DOWITCHERS.
After making this recording I decided to head back to Beijing; if I was going to be ill, I would much rather be in my apartment in Beijing than in a low-grade hotel in a small Chinese town. I was glad I did. When I reached my apartment late on Saturday evening, I could hardly stand up due to the pain. I called a friend and he took me to the Emergency Room of my local hospital where, after a series of tests and a CT scan, I was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Just a few hours later I was in the recovery room after my appendectomy, feeling glad that my appendix didn’t decide to misbehave in some remote part of the developing world!
On 26-27 July I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site in Hebei Province with visiting British birders, Mike Hoit and Andrew Whitehouse, plus Beijing-based Paul Holt and Jennifer Leung. Mike and Andrew had just arrived in China ahead of a trip to Qinghai and, with a couple of days spare, were keen to see BAER’S POCHARD. I had warned them in advance that they are difficult to see in July – the birds are much more secretive once they begin breeding and, in summer, the vegetation is higher. Nevertheless, I was also keen to visit the site to see whether we could find proof of breeding. In addition to the BAER’s, the lake offers superb general birding and is probably the best place in the world to see SCHRENCK’S BITTERN, another difficult world bird. Late July is actually a good time to see the latter, usually secretive, species as the parents make constant flights to collect food for their young.
After the long drive in 35 degrees Celsius heat, we headed straight for the most reliable spot – a series of lotus ponds with areas of open water that, from my previous visits, appear to be a favourite ‘loafing’ location for both BAER’S POCHARD and FERRUGINOUS DUCK.
We were in luck. Almost immediately a stunning male SCHRENCK’S BITTERN made a fly-by at eye level in the lovely late afternoon light and, on one of the lotus pools, was a female BAER’S POCHARD. Result!
After checking out different sites around the lake and enjoying good views of 2 male BAER’S on the open water, we returned to the original spot and, this time, a different BAER’S POCHARD was present. With pale tips to the scapulars and spiky tail feathers, we believed it was a juvenile. I took some video – see below. Clearly, as a ‘Critically Endangered’ species, proof of breeding is significant. And although breeding is likely to have occurred, this would be the first confirmed breeding at this site since 2012. I therefore welcome comments from any ‘aythya‘ experts who might be able to confirm that this is indeed a juvenile BAER’S.
A few volunteers from the Beijing Birdwatching Society have been making occasional visits to this site this spring and summer to survey the BAER’S POCHARDS and so, together, we are slowly building up a picture of the status of this very rare duck. We still lack some basic information such as when they arrive in spring and when they leave in autumn. Given the site freezes over in winter, it’s very likely they move on but there is at least one photo of a BAER’S POCHARD from this site in January, so it’s possible that some remain if there are open patches of water.
The site is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. With vast lotus pools and shallow water at the northern end, it’s attracting swimmers, fishermen and general tourists who like to pick and take home a lotus flower or two. And, although it has status as a Provincial Level Nature Reserve, there are apparently plans for ‘development’. Several sets of plans have been drawn up, including proposals for a “water sports” centre, hovercrafts and an artificial ‘beach’. Thankfully, for the time being, none of these proposals have been given the go-ahead. However, the fact that the management is apparently resisting a proposal for the site to be added to the list of important wetlands (which would mean tighter restrictions on development) is a sign that commercial development of this site is clearly a possibility. Gathering data on the importance of this site for BAER’S POCHARD and other birds and wildlife will be critical in order to make the best case possible against commercial development, or at least to persuade the authorities to retain the most important part of the site as a properly-managed nature reserve. Watch this space.
One of the best places on the planet to see GREY-SIDED THRUSH (Turdus feae) is Wulingshan, a stunning mountain park just across the border from Beijing Municipality in Hebei Province. For birders, it’s a brilliant location in late spring and summer. As well as breeding Grey-sided Thrushes this site also hosts Green-backed (Elisae’s) Flycatcher, White-bellied Redstart, Siberian Blue Robin, Koklass Pheasant, Grey Nightjar, White-backed and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers and a plethora of leaf warblers including Claudia’s, Hume’s, Yellow-streaked, Chinese Leaf and Large-billed Leaf. Perhaps even more exciting is that it is said to still be home to Leopard.
At the weekend, I visited the mountain with Marie and, despite many birds having stopped singing by mid-July, we had a great time and were very fortunate to see one of our target birds – the GREY-SIDED THRUSH – so well. This thrush, classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife due to its restricted range, breeds here in reasonable numbers. We saw at least 8, including 3 juveniles – the first time I had seen this plumage – and early on Sunday morning we enjoyed prolonged views, allowing me to capture some video of an adult and a juvenile.
The views are incredible and the sunsets are also spectacular if lucky enough to coincide a visit with a smog-free day.
On Thursday I visited the BAER’S POCHARD breeding site with visiting Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley (from the swift project) and good friends Andrew and Rachael Raine. It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced in Beijing with the thermometer on my car peaking at 43 degrees Celsius as we drove south. It was still 38 degrees C when we left the site at 8pm.
Despite the heat, it was a superb day. One of the objectives was to see, and count, the BAER’S POCHARDS present. As the spring wears on, these birds get more secretive but we were fortunate to see at least 18 of this “Critically Endangered” duck, 16 of which were males.. The predominance of males suggests to me that perhaps the females are on nests, which must be good news….
We enjoyed some excellent views of a male at close quarters by the side of the road and I was able to take this video using my iPhone 5 and the Swarovski ATX95 telescope. I am continually amazed at the quality of the results using this set-up.
As well as the BAER’S POCHARDS, we also enjoyed excellent views of REED PARROTBILL and displaying SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS just before dusk.