Harlequin Duck in Beijing

 

Urban birding often springs surprises.   Given Beijing’s geographic position, the spectacle of migration is particularly impressive and many unusual species can turn up in the city’s parks and gardens.  The Swinhoe’s Rail in the Temple of Heaven Park and Beijing’s first Tree Pipit in the UK Ambassador’s garden are examples of rare and scarce species appearing at unexpected locations.

On Friday evening, news broke of another urban surprise in the shape of a female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭, Chǒu yā) that had been photographed near Anzhenmen, close to the north 3rd ring road in central Beijing.  The photo, by local bird photographer 侯金生 (Hou Jinsheng), circulated fast on Chinese social media and very soon my Saturday plans, to accompany Paul Holt to a forested area in northern Beijing, changed to take in an early stop to look for the Harlequin.

We arrived around 30 minutes before dawn and quickly found the site, a tiny weir along a concrete-sided canal just a stone’s throw from the busy 3rd ring road at Anzhenmen.  It seemed an odd place for a largely coastal (at least in winter) duck but there was running water which, together with the weir, provided an artificial micro-habitat not completely unlike the Harlequin’s preferred breeding habitat of fast-flowing streams.

2017-02-11-harlequin-site-at-beitucheng
The site of Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN, a first-winter female, near Anzhenmen.

In the darkness, a few Mallards took to the air as local early risers began their morning walks along the canal and a few White-cheeked Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies announced their departure from roosts with raucous calls.  Even though the sun was not yet up it was possible to see that the Harlequin was not at the weir.  We waited close by, using the time to speculate whether the bird had just arrived and had used this site as a temporary stopover before moving on, or had it been here all winter undetected?  Given the location, and lack of observer coverage, the latter was certainly a possibility.  We agreed to give it until around 0730 before heading north to the Labagou Forest Park, as we had originally planned.

Within a few minutes we were joined by some local birders, including Huang Hanchen, Zhao Min, Shen Yan, Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao.  Their arrival delayed our departure as we caught up to chat about birds and all manner of issues, including the significance of the day – Lantern Festival, officially the last day of Chinese New Year.  The Lantern Festival is a family celebration, so most of the Chinese birders had limited time as they needed to visit relatives later in the day, some travelling to other Provinces.  Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao were on their way to the train station to visit relatives at Hengshui, and reluctantly had to leave with the bird not having shown itself..

Just a few minutes later, at around 0730, Paul and I were renewing our discussion about when to leave the site. Hanchen and Paul suddenly spotted something floating on the water, emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the weir.  They initially thought it was a piece of litter but very quickly realised it was the Harlequin!  It had seemingly roosted deep inside the dark tunnel and had emerged to feed around 20 minutes after sunrise.  We watched in awe as it swam and fed amongst the weed for several minutes, often at extremely close quarters and seemingly oblivious to its growing fan base.  Amused locals stopped to see what the fuss was about and, on seeing the Harlequin, one commented “Oh, that small brown duck has been there for at least 20 days”!

Several times the Harlequin stopped to preen on the edge of the weir and, as the sun rose, it looked splendid in the early morning light.

2017-02-11-harlequin-beitucheng-bill-open
Beijing’s first HARLEQUIN showed extremely well in its surprisingly urban setting.

2017-02-11-harlequin-beitucheng5

2017-02-11-harlequin-beitucheng-wing-flap

If it’s true, and we have no reason to suspect it isn’t, the Harlequin’s lengthy stay of “at least 20 days” means that the unfortunate Guan Xiangyu and Zhang Xiao, who had to leave just minutes before the Harlequin’s emergence, will hopefully connect when they return to Beijing next week.

2017-02-10-harlequin-birders
The first birders on the scene. In the foreground, He Wenbo (left) and Zhao Min with the Harlequin on the water.

Harlequin is a difficult bird to see in China.  There are a few records from well-watched Beidaihe in neighbouring Hebei Province, and several in the northeast Provinces of Jilin, Inner Mongolia and Liaoning, so it was on the radar as a potential visitor to Beijing.  However, the urban location was a complete surprise.  As well as being the first record for Beijing, the Anzhenmen Harlequin is the 482nd species to be reliably recorded in the capital.  In a personal milestone for Paul Holt, the Harlequin was his 400th species in the Chinese capital since he first birded there around 28 years ago.  Congratulations to Paul!

In Chinese, Harlequin is  丑鸭 (pronounced “chǒu yā”).  The second character “鸭” is pronounced “yā”, meaning duck.  The first character “丑”, pronounced “chǒu” has several meanings..  one is “clown”, the intended meaning in the case of the Harlequin, but another is “ugly”, hence Harlequin is known as “the ugly duck”!  Despite its ugliness, it’s proving to be probably the most-photographed Harlequin in China.

What will be next?

Big thanks to Hou Jinsheng for circulating his original photo of the Harlequin and to Huang Hanchen for passing on the news.  Thanks also to Paul Holt for driving on Saturday morning.

Note on diet: according to HBW, the Harlequin’s diet consists of “molluscs (e.g. gastropods such as Littorina sitkana), crustaceans and, in spring and summer, insects and their larvae/pupae (e.g. blackflies Simulium); also other invertebrates (worms) and small fish; very little plant material recorded.”  The Beijing bird appeared to be feeding on weed but it’s possible it was sifting this material for tiny molluscs or invertebrates.

Snow Bunting – new for Beijing

After ten new species were added to Beijing’s avifauna in 2016, it’s getting harder and harder to find new records for China’s capital city.  However, it took only a week of 2017 before the latest addition was discovered.  On 7 January, photographer 曲利军 (Qu Lijun) snapped a group of birds at Bulaotun that he hadn’t seen before and posted the photographs to the China Birdwatching Society’s WeChat group.  The photos caused much excitement, showing the first documented record for Beijing of SNOW BUNTING.  And it wasn’t, as is so often in the case of new birds, a single vagrant but instead a flock of at least 10 birds!

2017-01-07-snow-buntings-bulaotun-qu-lijun2

Unfortunately, the birds were not seen by visiting birders the following weekend, so they have most likely moved on.  But have they gone far?  Bulaotun is on the northern edge of Miyun Reservoir, much of which is now inaccessible.. so they could easily still be in the vicinity.  Fingers crossed they are seen by more birders before the winter is out.  In the meantime, congratulations to Lijun!

Thanks to Huang Hanchen for the tip-off and to Qu Lijun for permission to post the photos on Birding Beijing.

Rare And Scarce Birds In Beijing 2016

2016 has been another year of surprise and discovery in Beijing.  With eight new species recorded, and two further new records coming to light from previous years, the number of species reliably recorded in the capital now stands at 480, cementing Beijing’s position as one of the best major capital cities in the world for birding.

The year started with the brilliant discovery, by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of wintering JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii) at Miyun Reservoir.  After the initial sighting and photograph of a single bird, subsequent visits revealed that up to 13 were present.  This group of buntings was enjoyed by many birders, both Beijing-based and visiting, until mid-March when access to the reservoir was forbidden following a major fire in the area.  It is not known for how long they stayed but, on later visits (the last was apparently on the 19 March) at least one of the males was heard in sub-song.  Although not a first record of this species in Beijing, given the “Endangered” status of Jankowksi’s Bunting, it was certainly a most unexpected find.  It was the third record of this species in the capital, following the collection of two individuals in February and March 1941 (now in the NHM Tring).  An article about these birds was published in Birding Asia, the magazine of the Oriental Bird Club.

The next major find was a REDWING (Turdus iliacus), found by a local photographer (一路摄, Yīlù shè) in the Botanical Gardens on 6 April.  Often frustratingly elusive, it was last seen on 14 April.  The first record of this species in Beijing & indeed anywhere in eastern China.

Photo by Yan
Beijing’s first REDWING (Turdus iliacus), Botanical Gardens.  Photo by Yan Shen.

On 17 April, a COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula) at Ma Chang (Guan Xueyan and Wen Hui) was possibly only the 4th record from the capital.

img_5276

On 23 April a BESRA (Accipiter virgatus) was photographed at Baiwangshan (Du Songhan et al). Possibly only the second record of this difficult to identify species. Photo below by Sun Zhiguang.

2016-04-23 Besra, Baiwangshan
The status of BESRA in Beijing is unclear, given the difficulty of separating it from the much more common JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK. This appears to be the second documented record.

May, usually one of the best months for finding rarities, saw just one new record – a female SLATY BUNTING (Emberiza siemsseni) at the Summer Palace found by Jesper Hornskov – and two second records.  First, a GREY-HEADED CANARY-FLYCATCHER (Culicicapa ceylonensis) at Lingshan found by Professor Susanne Åkesson and the international team visiting to assist with the Beijing Swift and Cuckoo Projects.  And second, a male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER (Ficedula narcissina) on the Wenyu River (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

2016-05-10 Narcissus Flycatcher 1s male, Wenyu He Jian Guohao
This first summer male NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER was the second documented record for Beijing (郝建国, Hǎo jiànguó)

June produced three new records and a second record.  First, a PALLAS’S FISH EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) spent several days at Yeyahu NR, where it was photographed by Fang Chun, one of the nature reserve staff on 7th June.  Although there is a historical & unconfirmed report of this species in the capital, this was the first to be documented.

Second, on 10 June, a singing BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH WARBLER (Cettia fortipes) at Baihuashan, sound-recorded by Jan-Erik Nilsen.  The first documented record.

Finally, on 17th June at Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, Terry Townshend stumbled across a singing GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Turdus boulboul).  A few days later, at least three were heard in the same area, suggesting that there is probably a small breeding population.  This species was previously thought to be a largely Himalayan bird, with the nearest breeding grounds in southwest China, and was certainly not on the radar as a potential vagrant in Beijing, let alone a probable breeding bird.  Details here.

A few days later, on 23 June, Paul Holt found a singing male SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER (Ficedula tricolor) at Lingshan, the second record of this species following one found by Ben Wielstra in the grounds of Tsinghua University in September 2015.

July and August were unremarkable and it was 29 September when Paul Holt  and Wang Qingyu found the next significant bird – a SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF (Phylloscopus collybita tristis) at Yeyahu (PH), the second documented record for the capital.

Colm Moore was rewarded for his loyalty to Shahe Reservoir when, on 22 October, he found a SWINHOE’S RAIL.  Seen briefly, but well, this was the fourth record for Beijing, with all records coming since 2014, a statistic that must be due to an increase in the number of birders and greater observer awareness rather than a change of its status in the wild (it is officially classified as “Vulnerable” with the population thought to be in decline).

A week later, on 29 October, Jesper Hornskov reported a HOODED CROW (Corvus cornix) close to Beijing Capital International Airport.  This is the first record of this species in Beijing and, we think, all of eastern China.

The next day, Beijing’s first POMARINE SKUA (Stercorarius pomarinus), a juvenile, was photographed at the ‘Rubber dam’ near Yanqing and stayed until at least 2 November (Zhang Weimin & Yang Yuhe).

November was another productive month with the discovery, by photographers, of a small flock of REED PARROTBILLS (Paradoxornis heudei) at Wanping Hu in western Beijing (per Mr. Xu).  With breeding populations to the south in Hebei Province and to the east in coastal Hebei/Tianjin, this species was high up on the list of potential discoveries in Beijing but, despite its predictability, the group of at least seven birds proved extremely popular. They came hot on the heels of a widely seen bird in the Olympic Forest Park on the 8 June 2016. That city centre bird was believed, at the time, to have been an escape or deliberate release. But in the advent of the November sightings perhaps not…

On 12th December Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER (Gypaetus barbatus), a juvenile, was watched by Paul Holt and Terry Townshend at head height as it drifted by the communications tower at Lingshan before slowly heading northwest and into Hebei.  It follows the first record from sometime in February 2008 at Shidu.

2016-12-12-lammergeier-juv-lingshan5
Beijing’s second LAMMERGEIER drifted over Lingshan on 12 December 2016.

The following day, Paul Holt found a male SCALY-SIDED MERGANSER (Mergus squamatus) among a group of Common Mergansers at Huairou Reservoir.  With only four previous records, this was a stunning find.  One could even call it a “Christmas Quacker” (groan).

In addition to the new species found in 2016, two further records of new species came to light.  First, a LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus scolopaceus), photographed at Yeyahu on 19 October 2009 (Yan Xiaoqin), was reported by Li Xiaomai on the 6 May 2016 and an ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina) that was photographed in Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) on the 22 May 2011 by 青花收藏. See here.  Thanks to Huang Hanchen for uncovering this superb record.

All in all, a brilliant year for birding in Beijing, illustrating just how much we are still learning about the birds of China’s capital city.  My personal favourite?  Given their precarious status, the appearance of the flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS at Miyun Reservoir ranks, for me, as the best and most unexpected record of the year.  Big congratulations to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for their brilliant find.

Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI'S BUNTING
Xing Chao (left) and Huang Mujiao at Miyun Reservoir after finding JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING

Big thanks to Paul Holt & Huang Hanchen for contributing significantly to this summary and to all Beijing-based birders who have reported sightings throughout the year, whatever the status of the species involved.  Together, we are slowly but surely gaining a better understanding of the birds of China’s capital city.

Finally, although not in Beijing, it’s worth mentioning the record count of the “Critically Endangered” BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) from Hengshui Hu, in neighbouring Hebei Province. An astonishing 293 were counted on 9 December by Paul Holt and Li Qingxin.  That’s a positive note on which to end a remarkable year.

STOP PRESS: Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Beijing!

Some stunning news has just reached me of a juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER that was photographed at Yeyahu, Beijing, on 31 August by Zhang Minhao, a junior high school student.  Big thanks to Huang Hanchen and Guan Xiangyu for the heads-up.  Here is the photo:

Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014.  Photo by Zhang Minhao.
Juvenile SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, Ma Chang, Yeyahu, Beijing, 31 August 2014. Photo by Zhang Minhao.

And here is Zhang Minhao’s personal account:

A Brief Account for the Record of a Juvenile Spoonbill Sandpiper in Beijing
by Zhang Minhao, October 16, 2014.

“The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was photographed at Machang, Yeyahu, Yanqing County, Beijing, on August 31, 2014.

At around 09:45am on 31 August 2014 I was observing Red-necked Stints, Long-toed Stints, and Long-billed Plovers near a large area of water on the edge of Guanting Reservoir.  This area is known as Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake.  In order to avoid missing the distant shorebirds, I checked the areas where the Red-necked Stints were located by looking through my camera, and took pictures of the birds I could see.

When reviewing my photographs I recognised something distinctive, a juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The time of the photograph was 09:49am.

The single Spoon-billed Sandpiper foraged and preened alone, without mixing with other species. And there were no other Spoon-billed Sandpipers around it.  About 3 minutes later 3 Red-necked Stints flew to its vicinity causing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to fly and it alighted further away on the mudflat. But when I got there the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was not to be seen and it was never seen again.”

(Thanks to Guan Xiangyu for contacting Zhang Minhao about this account and to Huang Hanchen for the translation).

There are several brilliant things about this record.  First, it’s a SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER, one of the world’s most endangered birds (see here to read about just how few remain and for details of the international effort to try to save this species).  Second, it’s of a juvenile, one of very few sightings of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper of this age in the world, giving hope to the conservation effort.  Third, it was found in Beijing, one of the world’s major capital cities, more than 150km from the coast.  And finally, the finder was a young Chinese birder.

It’s a truly remarkable record. And I hope this sighting by Zhang Minhao inspires other young people in Beijing and beyond to take up birding and to become part of an ever-louder voice to help conserve the amazing biodiversity with which China is blessed.

Well done Zhang Minhao!

LESSER FRIGATEBIRD in Beijing

After participating in Sunbird’s tour of Qinghai and Tibet, led by Paul Holt, German birder Henning Lege decided to stay on for a spot of birding in Beijing.  On 20 August he visited Miyun Reservoir, one of Beijing’s premier birding sites, where he found a juvenile LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (白斑军舰鸟, Fregata ariel) – the third record of this species in Beijing.  Fortunately there were some Chinese birders from the Beijing Birdwatching Society, including its President, Ms Fu Jianping, on site with whom Henning could share his excitement.  And, on his return to Beijing, he was quick to alert Paul who immediately circulated a message via the rapidly growing Birding Beijing WeChat group, meaning that local birders were alerted and had an opportunity to see it.  Since its discovery on 20 August several groups of birders and photographers (possibly more than 20 in total) have visited and enjoyed this spectacular, almost prehistoric-looking bird, meaning it must be one of Beijing’s most “twitched” rarities ever.

With the nearest coast around 150km away, seabirds are, not surprisingly, hard to see in Beijing.  There is only one record of a skua (a Long-tailed) and even species such as Saunders’s Gull and Great Knot (not uncommon on the coast), have never reliably been recorded in the capital.  So it is perhaps surprising that three LESSER FRIGATEBIRDS – truly pelagic birds – have made it to Beijing.  

The previous two Beijing sightings were both in April – in 2007 and 2011. The first was photographed by Hong Wanping at Shahe Reservoir, Changping 14 April 2007 (see China J. of Zoology (2011.4) Lesser Frigatebird, Shahe reservoir, April 2007 for a brief account). The second was seen, and photographed, at the Ming Tombs Reservoir (Shisanling Reservoir) on 7 April 2011.

LESSER FRIGATEBIRD is rare anywhere in China, though it may be just about annual in Hong Kong where regular pelagic trips are now taking place.  There are reports from most coastal provinces from Guangxi to Guangdong, and Fujian north to Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Tianjin & Liaoning. Although we are not aware of any records from coastal Hebei, there are two reports of GREATER FRIGATEBIRD from Beidaihe, Qinhuangdao, Hebei with an immature on 6 June 1996 (Thalund et al. 1994) being the second of these.

One can only assume that this most recent bird was displaced by one of the recent tropical storms, possibly Typhoon Halong that hit east Asia in early August.  

Thankfully, documentation of this record has not been difficult.  In addition to Henning’s notes, China is blessed with some superb bird photographers.  The brilliant set of photos below is by Zhang Weimin with an additional stunning photo by Huang Hanchen, to both of whom big thanks are in order for allowing me to reproduce their wonderful photos for this post.

 

04pppp

13ppp 10ppp 15ppp 03pp 12pp 16ppp 20pp 14p 11pp 02ppp 18ppp

photo (38)
This photo of the Lesser Frigatebird by Huang Hanchen

According to The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World (HBW), the LESSER FRIGATEBIRD breeds on small, remote tropical and sub-tropical islands, in mangroves or bushes, and even on bare ground on islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It feeds mainly on fish (especially flying-fish) and squid, but also on seabird eggs and chicks, carrion and fish scraps (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It is “kleptoparasitic” – a great word that means it habitually steals food from other species.

Unfortunately for Paul and me, this bird was found whilst we were overseas, Paul in Canada and me in the UK.  After arriving back in Beijing on Saturday morning I visited the site with Paul and local birders Wu Lan and Zhao Min on Sunday and despite staying all day, we failed to see it.  The last documented sighting was on Friday 29 August.  Unless it has been hiding effectively for the last couple of days, it has almost certainly moved on, hopefully on its way back to the Pacific Ocean where it belongs. 

Big thanks again to Zhang Weimin and Huang Hanchen for the use of their photographs, to Paul Holt for the information about the status of Lesser Frigatebird in Beijing (and China) and to everyone on the WeChat group who provided updates about the bird’s whereabouts during its stay at Miyun Reservoir.