Baer’s Pochard update

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.

Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer's Pochard.
From left to right: Lyndon, Andrew, Rachael and Dick enjoying views of Baer’s Pochard.

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.

 

 

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Possible hybrid Baer’s Pochard x Ferruginous Duck

One of the threats to the BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭) is hybridisation with the closely related, and range expanding, FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭).  At the Baer’s Pochard breeding site in Hebei Province, Ferruginous Duck is a common breeder; I counted more than 60 on site last weekend versus 24 Baer’s.

Another drake, superficially resembling a drake Baer’s, sported a chestnut cap and slightly less white on the flanks than one would expect for a pure Baer’s.  It was associating with a group of Ferruginous Ducks and I recorded the video clip below.  The chestnut cap is particularly noticeable towards the end of the clip.

I hope to visit the site a few more times over the coming weeks and will look out for more evidence of hybridisation and, hopefully, evidence of breeding Baer’s too.

EDIT: It has been suggested by folks at WWT, who have been catching and taking DNA samples from captive birds, that the drake in the video clip may be a first summer male.  Personally, the colour of the cap, resembling the chestnut brown of Ferruginous and not the darker brown typical of Baer’s, makes me think there is some Ferruginous influence but I’ll go back soon and try to get more photos!

 

 

Baer’s Pochards

BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri, 青头潜鸭) was once abundant in east Asia..  now it is listed as “Critically Endangered” due to an, as yet unexplained, calamitous population decline.  The only known breeding site is not in the far northeast of China or in Russia (previously understood to be the species stronghold) but instead in Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.

Yesterday I visited the site and found at least 24 of these beautiful ducks on site, most of which seem paired up and ready to breed.  Worryingly, at least two birds appeared to be hybrids with the closely-related Ferruginous Duck, a common breeder at the same site.

I recorded this video compilation of a male displaying to a (seemingly uninterested) female…  It was almost comical seeing him try in vain to attract her attention.  Let’s hope she is more interested soon – we need them to make babies!

I am in discussions with the Beijing Birdwatching Society about submitting a grant application to the Oriental Bird Club conservation fund to set up a project to monitor Baer’s Pochard at this site…  We know almost nothing about this bird and its habitat requirements.. so fingers crossed we secure some resources.

Video recorded using an iPhone 5 with the Swarovski ATS95 telescope and iPhone adaptor.

 

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….!