Shorebirding at Nanpu and more illegal trapping

At the Beijing birders meet-up we arranged for a group trip to Nanpu, near Tangshan in Hebei Province.  In total, 15 of us – both ex-pats and locals – spent the weekend at this world-class site and it was a superb trip – great fun with lots of birds!

2013-08-21 Birds
The backdrop may not be pretty but the birding is spectacular at Nanpu.

Perhaps the best single bird in terms of rarity was an ORIENTAL STORK that came in off the sea.  And amongst the other highlights were impressive numbers of shorebirds with 4,700 SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS and 2,325 DUNLIN, a single RUFF (rare here), five juvenile RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, at least six first-year SAUNDERS’S and up to 80 RELICT GULLS and decent numbers of passerines moving down the coast.  High counts included 54 BLACK-NAPED ORIOLES (including a single flock of 23 birds!), 100 DUSKY WARBLERS, 300 SIBERIAN STONECHATS, up to 150 RICHARD’S PIPITS, two BLYTH’S PIPITS, two PECHORA PIPITS and six YELLOW-BROWED BUNTINGS.

A typically thorough full report by Paul Holt can be downloaded here: Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 7 & 8 September 2013

Per shorebirding at Nanpu.
Per checking out the waders on a roadside pond at Nanpu.
This is "EVA" the Bar-tailed Godwit.  Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures.  You can read about EVA's history in the trip report.
This is “EVA” the Bar-tailed Godwit. Colour-flagging of migratory shorebirds helps researchers to better understand the routes these birds take and the stopover sites they use which, in turn informs conservation measures. You can read about EVA’s history in the trip report.
Juvenile Red-necked Stint.  Beautiful birds!
Juvenile Red-necked Stint. Beautiful birds!
Gull-billed Tern.
Gull-billed Tern.

It was hot at Nanpu and, fortunately, there is a small village where one can purchase ice creams!  I can thoroughly recommend the ‘traditional flavour’ ice lollies..  delicious (even though I am not sure of what exactly they taste!).  The locals here make their living from the mudflats, where they harvest the shellfish and shrimps.  Here are a few maintaining their nets.

Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets
Local ladies maintaining the shrimp nets

And in the early mornings, our 0500 starts were made (slightly) easier by the delicious bao zi (steamed dumplings) that were on sale for the equivalent of 5p each…

Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.
Jan-Erik and Andrew browsing the local bao zi stall.

At the coast, where passerine migration was most impressive, we unfortunately encountered more illegal bird trapping activity.  From the car, Paul heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting singing and we stopped to investigate.  We very quickly saw a line of mist nets in the grass close by.  The poacher had set up an elaborate line of nets accompanied by caged songbirds, clearly designed to lure in wild birds.  The caged birds included Common Rosefinch, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-browed Buntings – three species that were clearly moving at this time of year.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A male Common Rosefinch strategically placed to lure in wild birds.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

In the nets we found alive 2 Common Rosefinches plus Yellow-browed, Arctic and Dusky Warblers, which we promptly released. But it was too late for 4 Brown Shrikes which had fallen victim to this cruel practice.

The poacher soon arrived (claiming that the nets were his friend’s and not his – yeah right).  We told him firmly that this was illegal and that we would be taking photos and reporting him to the Hebei Forestry Administration.  He did not protest and actually helped us to dismantle and destroy the nets, snap the poles, release the caged birds and destroy the cages.  On return to Beijing I posted the photos on Sina Weibo (Chinese “Twitter”) asking for help in reporting this illegal activity.  Within 10 minutes, users on the microblogging service had translated my report into mandarin and submitted it to the Hebei Forestry Administration…  wow!  The power of social media.  Thanks guys!

Ironically, the next day we were ejected from this area by local security guards from the nearby oil terminal and police who claimed that it was a “nature reserve”.  So it’s ok to drill for oil and trap wild birds in a nature reserve but birding is a step too far…!  A big thank you to Lei Ming and friends for following up on my behalf with the Hebei Forestry Administration.

The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.
The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.  Here he frees a first year/ female Common Rosefinch

Relict Gull

RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) is a relatively poorly known species.  Until the early 1970s it was thought to be a race of Mediterranean Gull and some even thought it a hybrid between Mediterranean Gull x Common Gull….

It breeds inland at colonies in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and winters almost exclusively on the mudflats of the Bohai Bay in eastern China.  It is classified as “Vulnerable” by BirdLife International, partly because of its susceptibility to changes in climate but also because almost the entire population is reliant on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay in winter, a habitat that is rapidly diminishing as land reclamation intensifies – threatening not just Relict Gull but a host of East Asian flyway species, including of course the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Relict Gull is a bird I am always pleased to see and, occasionally, in late March and early April, these birds can be seen in Beijing – for example at Wild Duck Lake or Miyun Reservoir – as they begin their migration to the breeding grounds.  Autumn records in the capital are much scarcer which made Saturday’s sighting of an adult at Yeyahu NR with visiting Professor Steven Marsh all the more pleasing.  However, it is a trip to the Hebei coast, particularly south of Tangshan at Nanpu, that will enable any birder to get to grips with good numbers of Relict Gull at almost any time of the year…  Numbers in winter can be in the 1000s, which makes for quite a spectacle, but even in summer a few immature birds and non-breeders remain.  There is still much to learn about this gull, including its distribution – in 2012 Paul Holt discovered a wintering population of over 1,000 near Zuanghe in Liaoning Province (see image below).

Last week, in the company of Per Alstrom and Lei Ming, I visited the coast at Nanpu and we were treated to more than 100, most probably recent arrivals from the breeding grounds, patrolling the mudflats amongst the local shellfish pickers..  They feed on the local crabs, a delicacy that seems to be in plentiful supply!  Below are some images of moulting adults, second calendar year and first year birds.

Local shellfish collectors
Local shellfish collectors
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Relict Gulls, near Zuanghe, Liaoning Province, January 2012 (image by Paul Holt).
Adult and 2cy RELICT GULLS, Nanpu Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Adult RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
2cy RELICT GULL, Nanpu, Hebei Province, August 2013
Relict Gull (first calendar year).  Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year). Note, in particular, the dark centres to the tertials, darkish legs and bill.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.
Relict Gull (first calendar year) in flight.

 And here is a short video of an adult at Nanpu in August.

 

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Baer’s Pochard or Hybrid?

As the wild population of Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) has declined dramatically in the last few years, a new threat has emerged – that of hybridisation (see my article on Birding Frontiers here).  The only confirmed breeding site for Baer’s Pochard also hosts the closely related Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca, 白眼潜鸭) and, this year, I have personally seen drake Baer’s displaying to females of Ferruginous Duck and Common Pochard.

This spring and summer I have been making regular visits to the breeding site in Hebei Province, south of Beijing, to monitor the Baer’s Pochards.  It’s a large site with many hidden ponds amongst the reeds, meaning that, in a short visit, it is not straightforward to count the birds present or to establish proof of breeding.  So far this year I am unaware of any confirmation that Baer’s has bred successfully.

My most recent visit, in early August with visiting British birder Richard Bonser, produced no definite sightings.  However, we did see the bird below, which we think *could be* a female Baer’s.  One of the problems with identification of ducks at this time of year is that adults are in ‘eclipse’ plumage, meaning that they look very different than when sporting their spring finery.  An additional complication is the spectre of hybrids.  I do not have knowledge of what Baer’s Pochard should look like in eclipse and I have been unable to find any images or literature to guide me.  Baer’s *ought* to be identifiable on structure but, with hybrids a very real possibility, this becomes less straightforward – we should expect at least some hybrids to exhibit Baer’s-like structure.

Clearly, given the “Critically Endangered” status of this bird, a priority must be to assemble images of known pure Baer’s in all plumages from private collections.  That will help birders seeing these birds in the wild to establish whether they are true Baer’s or hybrids which, in turn, will help conservationists to better establish the likely true population and the extent of the threat of hybridisation.

In the meantime, I would very much welcome views from anyone with experience of these birds as to whether the bird below is a pure Baer’s or a likely hybrid (in my view it is clearly not a pure Ferruginous on structure and plumage tones alone).

Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013
Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013.  Note the robust, all dark bill and flattish head (inconsistent with pure Ferruginous but is there enough here to rule out a hybrid?).  The bird is an adult as it is in wing moult – a juvenile would look much ‘cleaner’.
Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013
Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013
Possible Baer's Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013
Possible Baer’s Pochard (or hybrid), Hebei Province, 6 August 2013

 

 

Brown Accentor

Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013
Brown Accentor (Prunella fulvescens), on the Beijing-Hebei border, February 2013

BROWN ACCENTOR (Prunella fulvescens) is a bird that I have been optimistically looking out for all winter… checking all those Siberian Accentors is a tough job but someone has to do it, right? By rights, Brown Accentors shouldn’t be in Beijing.  They breed to the north-west and only the occasional straggler makes it to the capital and is seen.  I am aware of only one record, at Shidu, a few winters ago and I don’t know any details such as date or precise location.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw a report from Beijing-based birder Zhang Shen about a BROWN ACCENTOR at Mentougou, the mountainous district to the west of Beijing.  After contacting him, Shen kindly provided some detailed directions and the next day I was on my way…

The mountains to the west of Beijing, on a clear day, are simply stunning.  And there are some good roads that help to get you into the heart of this territory where some of the special mountain birds can be seen.  We arrived on site at around 0900 after a 2.5 hr drive from central Beijing and it was immediately obvious that we would have a good day.  A Cinereous Vulture soaring overhead and landing on a rocky outcrop was a great start.  And soon after we were enjoying views of 4 Golden Eagles soaring together, with one even displaying as Red-billed Choughs called and wheeled around the peaks.  We reached the Beijing/Hebei border and parked up.  A narrow paved road winds to the north, following the Yong Ting River and it was along here that we were told the Brown Accentor had been seen.

The habitat in Mentougou District.  Stunning scenery.
The habitat in Mentougou District. Stunning scenery.

A couple of false alarms with Siberian Accentors sharpened us up and, before long, we came across a small flock of Godlewski’s Buntings feeding alongside the track.  Checking them carefully, we spotted a couple of Meadow Buntings amongst them and then, suddenly, Jennifer said “ACCENTOR”… No sooner as she had said that, the bird in question dropped behind a boulder and it was an agonising few seconds before it revealed itself again and showed that it was indeed the BROWN ACCENTOR we had hoped for.  We watched it for a good 20-30 minutes as it fed around a group of rocks at the base of a cliff-face, in typical accentor style, creeping along the ground with short hops.

Unfortunately for Beijing ‘listers’ this bird seems to prefer an area of rocks just 500 metres over the border into Hebei Province..  maybe some Beijing birders will put down a trail of birdseed luring it over the border….!

Guest Post: Happy Island ?

The latest in the ad-hoc series of Guest Posts is authored by Beijing-based Shi Jin.  The article is about the latest developments on “Happy Island” in Hebei Province and was originally published on Shi Jin’s excellent Chinese Currents website this Spring.  It makes very interesting, if a little sombre, reading, in particular for anyone who has visited this birding hotspot.  It should be added that, despite the development ongoing at this site, it is still attracting an amazing number and variety of migratory birds…!  

So, over to Shi Jin..

Shedding Tiers

For some, Happy Island is now a happier place. The small island in the Bo sea has been promoted from 5th to 3rd tier. The shedding of two tiers is no small matter, particularly if you happen to be one of the Tangshan [3rd tier] government officials who can now make the most of the island’s sumptuously appointed sea-view villas. If you are an official of Laoting County [5th tier], however, the situation is not nearly as happy as it used to be.

That’s because the Tangshan city government has promoted Happy Island (Kuaile Dao) to an area that falls under its (not Laoting County’s) direct jurisdiction. And to make sure that everyone knows who’s the lord of this particular manor, Tangshan officials have re-named the place Puti Island (“Happy Island” was a Laoting County invention apparently). The locals, however, continue to refer to it by its ancient name of Shijiu Tuo. And, with a nod in Laoting County’s direction, I’ll continue to use “Happy Island” (because it’s a name that has been doing what it says on the can during the many visits I have made here over the past 18 years).

Laoting County, even though it “reports” directly to Tangshan, is actually two levels beneath it as far as the complicated matter of Chinese population and land administration is concerned. That’s because Laoting is a xian (county), not a shi (county-level city). Tangshan, a diji shi (regional city, or prefecture), controls 5 xian and two shi. China, in case you are wondering, is divided into 283 prefectures, 370 county-level cities, and 1,461 counties.

Tangshan “reports” to the provincial government of Hebei (seated in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang), which in turn is administered by the central government in Beijing. By virtue of its provincial capital status, Shijiazhuang qualifies, in political terms at least, as a 2nd tier city (one of 27 provincial and autonomous region capitals to do so). The number of 2nd tier cities increases to 32 if you include Dalian, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shenzhen, and Xiamen – which are categorised as sub-provincial cities (fushengji chengshi) by virtue of their direct reporting line to Beijing in respect of all economic and legal matters (the only non provincial-capitals to do so). Then there are of course four 1st tier “super-cities” – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing – that have the distinction of being municipalities (zhixiashi).

Why is this important? Well, as a rule of thumb, the higher the tier, the more funding is available for development generally and infrastructure development in particular. In the context of Happy Island, the difference between “5th” and “3rd” tier funding is as jaw-dropping as it is eye-watering:

I first visited the island 18 years ago, when it was under the administration of Laoting County. It was low tide as the small, woodworm-riddled boat approached the landing point along a narrow channel that only a seasoned crew could navigate with any confidence. It’s impossible to say whether the crew that day were not as seasoned as they should have been, or whether it was a particularly low tide that scuppered things. One thing is for sure, we couldn’t get within 20 yards of the quay. Keen to get ashore, I decided to jump into the waist-high water to rescue the situation by dragging the boat close enough to the shore to allow a plank to be laid for my fellow passengers to make it to the island. But it wasn’t luxury that awaited us. In those days, the tin-shack accommodation didn’t even have running water, except when it leaked through the roof during heavy downpours. So much for being under the administrative umbrella of Laoting County.

Fast-forward to 2012: A fleet of shiny new tourist boats await to whisk a steady flow of day-trippers from a multi-million RMB quay development to the island’s plush new landing area. These days, there’s a deep channel that’s regularly dredged, ensuring that boats can land whatever the vagaries of the tide.

The island’s development budget has also paid for a plush restaurant with dozens of staff; a grand temple complex (that continues to get ever-grander); miles of roads serviced by chauffeur-driven electric buggies; and even something resembling a golf course. And things are just getting started. There are plans for a 300 million RMB golf and spa centre and, horror of horrors, a ghastly land-reclamation project (to enlarge Happy Island and Moon Island) that will cost a reported 1.368 billion RMB, according to the Tangshan government’s website. The impetus for development is so strong, in fact, that a link to the mainland has been built that looks like a giant’s causeway, facilitating even faster development and higher-spending on infrastructure and reclamation.

Building an island paradise fit for a prefecture-level city.

Puzzled by the number of large trucks and the size of the earth-moving vehicles, my 8 year-old daughter wanted to know how they managed to get onto the island. I too was puzzled, until I spotted the causeway. After I’d broken the news that the “monsters” had arrived here by road, her puzzlement turned to disappointment: “Dad, does that mean Happy Island isn’t an island?”

My 8 year-old makes an important observation. But please promise not to tell anyone because, from a tourist perspective, Happy Point doesn’t have anywhere the same drawing power of Happy Island. Not to mention that, without an island, there wouldn’t be the need for a car park the size of a football pitch. No need for a fleet of expensive tourist boats. And, of genuine concern, a small-army of people would be looking elsewhere for a job.

From a punter’s perspective, neither would there be the feeling that they’ve journeyed to somewhere exotic. A 30 minute boat trip tends to do more for the soul than a ten-minute bus ride. As heart-warming as the journey undoubtedly is (and there’s also the visit to the “Buddhist culture communication centre” to look forward to), it’s hard to imagine that the overall proposition would appeal to vast numbers of people.

Regardless, the visitors-per-year target for the Tangshan Bay International Travel Islands project [the other two islands are Moon Island and Lucky Cloud Island] has been set at an astonishing 2 million people [The overall investment is budgeted at 22.2 billion RMB]. But this is China, so history would suggest that you shouldn’t bet against it meeting the target. That said, it’s hard for this veteran China-watcher to arrive at any conclusion other than the “Build it and they’ll come” ethos, that has driven economic development during my time here, is being replaced by “Build it whether they come or not” desperation. This is in no small measure due to the increasing dependency on high-spending infrastructure projects to shore up the nation’s key economic indicators. In short, these projects have become the drug that enables GDP to get out of bed in the morning.

As well as testing the laws of economics, the intensity of Happy Island’s development is putting an immense strain on the area’s ecology. The island and its shoreline is an internationally-important staging post for countless numbers of migratory birds on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds (a precious few of that number are Siberian-breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a species on the brink of extinction). Their twice-yearly journeys are about to get even more precarious from next year when construction of more than 100 offshore wind-turbines begins in earnest. This wind farm will be (for a while at least) China’s biggest and most costly (US$910m).

Clearly, the true cost of Happy Island’s infrastructure development, land reclamation, and so-called “green energy” project far exceeds the amount that appears in Tangshan city’s accounts.

The true cost is incalculable.

Shedding tiers indeed.

Birding Coastal Hebei Province: Trip Report

The trip report from our visit to Nanpu, Tangshan, Hebei Province, is now available for download here:  Birding coastal Tangshan, Hebei 24-27 Aug 2012

Big hat tip to Paul Holt, not only for finding the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover – but also for somehow recording every single bird we saw or heard.  Phenomenal.

 

Common Ringed Plover

Paul Holt and I have just returned from a weekend at Nanpu, near Tangshan, in Hebei Province.  Nanpu is a vast area of fish ponds, salt works, reclaimed mudflats and even a prison.  During migration season the area hosts tens of thousands of shorebirds.  Being on the Hebei coastline, not so far from the migration hot-spot of Beidaihe, it is also on the flyway for birds hugging the coast on their journey south.  So, in addition to the waders, visible migration can be superb.

I’ll post fuller details of the trip in due course, including about the resident Reed Parrotbills, the visible migration and the astonishing numbers of Brown Shrikes but this post is about the star bird of the trip – a Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula).

Common Ringed Plover, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012

Picked out by Paul, this wader is rarer than Spoon-billed Sandpiper in eastern China.  With fewer than 30 records away from Xinjiang in the far west, it was a great find.  Of course, when finding a ‘Common Ringed Plover’-type, it’s important to rule out the very similar North American species, Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus).  Call is a great way to separate the two (Semipalmated Plover has a more Spotted Redshank-like call) but, in the absence of a calling bird, there are some subtle plumage differences that allow identification if views are sufficient.

First, one of the most reliable features on Semipalmated Plover (SPP) is that the lower dark mask in the loral area meets the bill above the gape line, whereas in Common Ringed Plover (CRP) it meets at the gapeline, or slightly below.  This seems to be a trustworthy feature, provided that the birds are not in active moult.

Second, the eye-ring.  SPP usually shows a clearly visible pale-yellow eye-ring.

Third, the breast-band.  SPP usually shows a relatively narrow breast band compared with CRP.

Additionally, SPP usually shows a slightly shorter bill and a very small (sometimes absent) white patch to the rear of the eye.

As its name suggests, SPP has some webbing between the toes but this is extremely difficult to see in the field, especially when clinging mud or wet sand can create a similar appearance.

We were fortunate with this bird in that it called several times before we were able to sneak close enough to confirm the plumage features.  Incredibly, the next day, we saw and heard a flying Common Ringed Plover some 7km from the site of the original sighting.   It was probably the same bird but who knows whether this species is under-recorded in this under-watched part of the world…?

Common Ringed Plover, Nanpu, near Tangshan, Hebei Province, 26 August 2012.

Common Ringed Plover breeds on the beach close to my parents’ home in Norfolk, England, and it is a bird with which I am very familiar.  Seeing one as a “rarity” was a little weird…  but that’s birding!

 

Bitterns

China is a good place to see bitterns.  In addition to the Great Bittern (the one familiar to European readers), it is also possible to see Black Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Von Schrenck’s Bittern and Yellow Bittern.  Of the smaller bitterns, the Yellow Bittern is most numerous in Beijing with Von Schrenck’s also breeding in small numbers.  Cinnamon is an occasional (and increasing?) late Spring visitor (and possible breeder?) and there is just one record of Black Bittern.

Below are some images of Cinnamon, Von Schrenck’s and Yellow Bitterns, all taken in Beijing or neighbouring Hebei Province.

First, the beautiful richly coloured Cinnamon Bittern.

Cinnamon Bittern (male). No mistaking this species!
Cinnamon Bittern (presumed female with streaking below and pale spotting on the upperparts).

Next up, Von Schrenck’s Bittern.  The males and females look quite different.

Von Schrenck’s Bittern (male). Note the dark back, dark face and wing pattern (compared with Yellow Bittern below).
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (male).
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (female). Note the heavy and dark streaking.
Von Schrenck’s Bittern (female). Note the white-spotted upperparts combined with the dark back and face.

Finally, the Yellow Bittern.  A common breeder, including in the Olympic Forest Park and Yeyahu NR.

Yellow Bittern (male). The contrasting underwing is a good feature of Yellow Bittern).
Yellow Bittern showing uppewing pattern.  This individual has a particularly dark back.
Yellow Bittern.
Yellow Bittern from below.

Guest Post 6: Jan-Erik Nilsen

This is the latest in a series of guest posts from China-based birders.  Written by Jan-Erik Nilsen, a Swedish birder who has lived in China for 3 years, it’s an account of a recent trip into the mountains around Beijing.

Haitou Shan Mountain, Hebei Province, Saturday, 23rd June 2012.

Beijing is from SW clockwise to NE surrounded by mountain ranges and several peaks reach above 2000 m. From about 1500 m to the tree line at about 1900-2000 m, a more Northern vegetation of coniferous forest and birch trees can be found. The changing vegetation zones on the mountainsides bring an interesting diversity of bird species.

With a peak reaching to 2200 m, Haitou Shan should be the second highest in the greater Beijing area and it’s located N of the Guanting Reserve (where Ma Chang is located) in Hebei province. I have climbed this mountain two times before, then with a hiking group and no time for birding. I noticed abundant numbers of Hume’s Warblers and other interesting birds and that’s why I have nursed a plan to return by myself for proper birding, a plan to be executed this day.

Driver Mr Chen picked me up in Beijing at 01.00, in the tropical hot and very early morning. We drove the 4th ring road towards the NW, not much traffic so far, but on the Badaling Expressway trucks suddenly crowded, and we hit a traffic jam even before we had entered the mountain area NW of Beijing. We found ourselves caught among big trucks, most of them for coal transport, now emptied and on the way back to the coal fields in Inner Mongolia or Shanxi.  Soon the traffic slowly began to move again, the police had narrowed the road at a certain point to reduce the traffic further on. In mornings, evenings and nights, the number of trucks on the Badaling Expressway and all the way to Inner Mongolia can be enormous in both directions. Once, on a trip by car along the 500 km way to Hohhot, capitol of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, I hit several traffic jams and the normal 5 h ride became 10 h.

We lost some 30 minutes here before we were up to full speed again, continuing the expressway until we had crossed the bridge over the Guanting Reservoir. On the other side of the reservoir we turned north and found our way to the Dahaitou village at the western foot of the mountain.  I noticed the first shade of the morning light at 03.45 but, due to the overcast skies, birding was hardly possible until 04.45, and we arrived at Dahaitou at 5.00. Last time at the same mountain, the hiking guide told me Dahaitou was the name of the village where we started the climb. It was not, and I realised it could take hours to find the right village, so I just started to hike on a track up the mountain that looked good.

The peak of the mountain and some of its many subordinated peaks where disguised in mists and clouds, bringing a mysterious feeling to the peaceful morning. Later the mist gradually decreased, lower hanging clouds disappeared, and little by little revealed spectacular views of the hills and mountains.

After one hour the track still existed but looked as if it had hardly been used for a hundred years or so. I continued anyway, and soon found myself in a several hundreds meter radius bowl, three quarters surrounded by 50 or 100 m high steeps. As giving up has never been my favourite option, I found a less steep part and climbed up there, through jungle-like dense vegetation, without any sign of a decent track. I targeted a coniferous forest some 300 m higher up, I knew it would be easier to hike there. But long before, the slope became steeper, the vegetation more dense and even more difficult. I had to grab branches of trees for each step to keep my balance.

I looked at the mountain, still disguising its highest peak in clouds and mist. A Songar Tit perched in a dead tree a few meters in front of me and looked curiously at me – a behaviour I recall from their cousin Siberian Tit in Northern Scandinavia – and soon another one joined. I bet they wondered why this strange beast could be so stupid to try to climb such difficult terrain. A glimpse on the watch convinced me it would take too long to make it to the coniferous forest.  I went down again, becoming very mindful of how steep and difficult the climb up had actually been, and it was even more difficult to climb down.  It took a lot more than a little effort to find the right way down and avoid the steep sides bordering the ‘bowl’, but I did find a way down, and all in all I had some good birding too, during this 4,5 h hike.

A Large Hawk Cuckoo called, Yellow-bellied Tits were around, interesting Phylloscopus warblers such as Eastern Crowned, Claudia’s, Chinese Leaf and Yellow-streaked Warblers were singing. The highlight was a Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, at only 1300-1400 m altitude. I encountered this species above the tree limit, where they normally reside, last time I climbed the mountain.  That was actually only a km or so away, so it’s not a long distance flight for them.

Back at the village, a village elder approach me and pointed out a track in a more southern direction.  We could drive the car up there for 15 min, from where I began a new hike.  The vegetation here was a little different from the last place, higher trees and less jungle-like.  After half an hour I saw something looking like a red carpet.  When I came closer I found the red carpet was spread over the stairs leading to a temple. Smoke came out from the doorway, so dense I could hardly see through it. I stepped into the temple and faced three gods staring at me from an altar. Their eyes arranged so they all three stared on you just when entering the temple, and it made the three of them look very alive.

The smoke came from incense burning in a pot in front of them, and fresh fruit had been put on the altar. Someone had obviously served the altar earlier today. I nodded to the three gods to show them respect and then left. I continued the track up the mountain, the track became very bad after a while and time was running out.  The climb to the top would total 3-4 hours on a good track; there was no way I could make it that quick on this way up. So I returned, was back at the car at 13.15, after a 3,25 h second hike. Two tries in a day, but never reaching higher than about 1600 m.

The birding was quite alright also at this second hike. An Oriental Cuckoo calling, a singing White-bellied Redstart, and a Yellow-throated Bunting. The same Phylloscopus species again, except the Yellow-streaked was replaced by a Hume’s Warbler. I believe there will be a lot more Hume’s Warblers higher up the mountain, as they were very abundant the two times I went up there before. An Asian Stubtail was singing, or what we shall call the insect-like noise this 9-10 cm very small bird produces. Ref. Paul Holt, Beijing is the southern limit of the species.

I recorded calling and singing birds on my iPhone and confirmed them on Xeno-Canto at home, which worked very well, except for a few calls still to be identified.

It’s difficult to compare the birding of Haitoushan with the more frequently birded Wulingshan, NE of Beijing, as I didn’t reached that high altitude here, but I guess this place can provide similar species. An advantage of Wulingshan is of course the simple access to high altitude by car.

The temple was named Long Wang Miao, Dragon King Temple, and my Chinese teacher later explained the main god here was the Dragon King, a mid-level Dao god mainly in charge of making rain.

Early morning view over Dahaitou village.
Misty morning, somewhere up there is the 2200 m peak of Haitou Shan.
Long Wang Miao, The Dragon King Temple.

Full species list:

Common Pheasant 4 calling
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Large Hawk Cuckoo 1 calling
Oriental Cuckoo 1 calling
Rock Pigeon 2
Amur Falcon 3 Dahaitou + 8 on telephone lines N of Dahaitou
Red-billed Blue Magpie 1
Black-billed Magpie 2
Spotted Nutcracker 1
Large-billed Crow 4
Euarasian Blackbird 1
Siberian Blue Robin 1 singing
Daurian Redstart 4
White-bellied Redstart 1 singing
Eurasian Nuthatch 1 calling
Winter Wren 2 singing
Marsh Tit 1
Songar Tit 5
Coal Tit 1
Yellow-bellied Tit min. 15
Eastern Great Tit 2
Long-tailed Tit ca 25
White-browed Chinese Warbler 2 calling
Asian Stubtail 1 singing
Yellow-streaked Warbler 1 singing
Chinese Leaf Warbler 2 (1 singning+1 calling)
Hume’s Leaf Warbler 1 calling
Eastern Crown Warbler 7 singing
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler 7 ca, singing and calling
Vinous-throated Parrotbill ca 5
Eurasian Tree Sparrow ca 5
Grey-capped Greenfinch 2
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch 1 seen and calling
Godlewski’s Bunting 2
Meadow Bunting 3
Yellow-throated (Elegant) Bunting 1m

Butterflies of 3 types ca 50

Jan-Erik Nilsén is a Swedish birder who has worked in Beijing for 3 years for a Scandinavian food company. Before that he lived in Denmark for 5 years.  During his spare time he very much enjoys the many interesting birding sites in the Beijing area and has found Beijing/China rarities such as Common Ringed Plover and Pallid Harrier.

Wu Ling Shan: The Return

When US birder, Gina Sheridan, asked if I wanted to visit Wu Ling Shan again, I jumped at the chance.  On my previous flying visit, although I had seen most of the special birds at this site, I had missed one that I was very keen to see – Elisa’s Flycatcher.  So accompanying Gina on a 2-day visit was a great opportunity to try again.

We arrived late afternoon and, with the windows down on the way up the road to the hotel, we could hear lots of birds..  Yellow-bellied Tits, Hume’s and Claudia’s Warblers, Siberian Blue Robin, Songar Tit etc..  At the first parking spot, we stopped and listened.  Immediately I could hear a flycatcher singing and, with a little patience, we managed to see it was a stunning Elisa’s Flycatcher – result!  We had been in the reserve just a few minutes and already had seen my target bird…  We watched this endemic breeder for 10-15 minutes as it sang and fed in an area of open mature trees before continuing up the road.  A little further along we encountered a nice flock of Yellow-bellied Tits feeding next to the road and a couple of squirrels (Pere David’s?) foraged along the forest edge.  Suddenly a cracking male Siberian Blue Robin appeared and gradually came closer and closer as it made its way along the edge of the road before being flushed by one of the squirrels.  This was a good start.

Elisa's Flycatcher, Wu Ling Shan
Elisa's Flycatcher (first summer male?), Wu Ling Shan

When we reached the hotel, we dumped our bags and went out straight away to look for one of Gina’s target birds – Grey-sided Thrush.  We took the circular path up to the viewpoint near the hotel where we enjoyed good views of Hume’s Leaf Warbler and heard both Lesser and Large Hawk Cuckoos.  Then, as the light was beginning to fade, I caught sight of a thrush as it sat on a low branch.  In the gloom, we could just make out the pale eye-stripe and the dark flanks – a Grey-sided Thrush!  We had brief views of another Grey-sided Thrush on the way down but we both agreed that better views were still desired!

And so, at dawn the next day, we began to walk down the road to the waterfall car park, a 6km downhill walk that runs through some fantastic habitat.  We were soon hearing lots of birdsong – White-bellied Redstart, Chinese Song Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Chinese Leaf Warbler, Claudia’s Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Warbler, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Winter Wren and Daurian Redstart.  It was a pretty good show but noticeably quieter than my first visit just a couple of weeks before.  We only heard one Grey-sided Thrush singing – a real difference from mid-June when I heard probably 20+.

After enjoying good views of most of the phylloscopus warblers – including watching the very distinctive Claudia’s Leaf Warbler’s alternate wing-flapping – and brief views of the ultra-skulky White-bellied Redstart, we continued down.  Suddenly I heard a high-pitched song that I recognised from Xeno-Canto Asia.  My suspicions were confirmed when I listened to a recording I had downloaded onto my phone.  It was a Large-billed Leaf Warbler…  Brilliant!  I had not heard this bird on my previous visit and it is a scarce and very local breeder, only discovered in Wu Ling Shan a few years ago.  We listened to this bird for several minutes and enjoyed brief views as it made its way along the edge of the road.  A real bonus.

Large-billed Leaf Warbler

We didn’t hear any Koklass Pheasants – maybe they, like the Grey-sided Thrush – stop singing at this time of year.

A little further down we heard the very cool call of the Blue Whistling Thrush, a precursor to spectacular views of one of these stunning birds on the way out of the reserve.

As we were close to the waterfall car park, I decided to walk back up to pick up the car, leaving Gina to bird the area.  At this point, hordes of schoolchildren were (very loudly!) walking down from the hotel to the waterfall, meaning that hearing birds was much more difficult.  I didn’t stop too much on the walk back up.  After picking up the car, I drove down to the car park where I met a smiling Gina – she had just seen a stunning male Long-tailed Minivet and another Elisa’s Flycatcher.  Nice!  Luckily for me, the minivet returned and I enjoyed excellent views.  A male Godlewski’s Bunting sang from a nearby tree and a couple of Large-billed Crows flopped over the valley.

We had already seen most of the birds Gina wanted to see but there were still a few to go. Namely Rosy Pipit, Bull-headed Shrike and we had yet to secure views of Yellow-streaked Warbler.  The road up from the hotel to the peak was where I had seen Rosy Pipit previously, so we drove up to try for this species.  As we made our way up, the cloud began to descend, covering the top of the mountain and reducing visibility considerably.  Luckily it didn’t last too long and we were able to work the area around the peak.  Unfortunately there were no pipits singing and, after about 20 minutes, I was beginning to think we might dip.  We took the decision to drive slowly down, checking any good-looking areas…  almost immediately we picked up a pipit displaying above a stand of trees.  We stopped the car and enjoyed this bird displaying and sitting on wires for several minutes.  Phew!

After collecting our bags and checking out of the hotel (which had told us that they were fully booked that night), we had an hour and a half before our pre-arranged lunch.  So we decided to try for the Bull-headed Shrike (seen during my first visit) and also Yellow-streaked Warbler, both of which were seen within a few hundred metres of the hotel on my first visit.  We began the walk to the entrance track and, after only a few metres, we saw a thrush feeding on an area of newly-disturbed earth right out in the open.  It was a Grey-sided Thrush!  Wow…  excellent views as it collected food, clearly feeding young.  After a couple of minuted it flew into the forest.   Very nice indeed.  We then continued the walk down the entrance track to check the wires for the shrike.  No sign.  So we walked a little further and almost immediately heard a Yellow-streaked Warbler singing alongside the road.  We enjoyed very good views of a pair of these birds carrying nest material – the nest site appeared to be on the ground in a tangle of grass.  Nice.  We still had about half an hour before lunch, so we slowly ambled back to the shrike site and, sure enough, there it sat on the very same wire where I saw it two weeks previously…   We had pretty much cleaned up before lunch!

Yellow-streaked Warbler, Wu Ling Shan

We decided to head back to Beijing that afternoon but would take our time birding the road on the way down to see if we could catch up on a few more birds.  A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker was a nice addition to the trip list and we encountered more of the phylloscopus warblers all the way down.

Gina wanted to see Plumbeous Redstart – not a bird I had seen on any trip lists for this place, so I wasn’t confident.  But we stopped to check every stretch of water on the way down.  A stream ran alongside the road and there were several spots where views could be had both up- and down-stream.  It didn’t ‘feel’ great for Plumbeous Redstart but we persevered and, after leaving the reserve and finding ourselves almost back into the outskirts of Xinglong, we saw an open-ish area of water where the stream widened and was littered with large rocks.  Potential.  Then we spotted some fresh-looking droppings on some of the rocks and, sure enough, we could hear a loud penetrating call that revealed itself to be a male Plumbeous Redstart singing from a very prominent rock.  Cool!

Plumbeous Redstart (male), Wu Ling Shan
Plumbeous Redstart (female), Wu Ling Shan

The female was close by and we watched these birds as they fed, catching flies with intermittent forays into the air.  It’s always great to be rewarded after working hard to find a specific species.. and just as we thought we had missed our chance, there they were…  a very good note on which to end the visit before the 3-hour journey back to Beijing.