Ibisbills at Bai He

On Sunday we visited the Bai He valley (about 2 hours north of Beijing city).  It’s an attractive drive when the weather is good and the pollution levels low, as was the case for our visit.  The Bai He valley is well known in Beijing birding circles as one of the few remaining sites in Beijing Municipality where one can see the unique Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii).  “Unique” is an overused word but, as a descriptor for the Ibisbill, it is surely appropriate.  The Ibisbill belongs to the order Charadriiformes which also includes sandpipers, plovers, terns, auks, gulls, skuas and others but is sufficiently distinctive to merit its own family, Ibidorhynchidae.  The species is named in honour of Dr. Struthers of Glasgow who collected specimens of the bird from the Himalayas in the 19th century.

Many people see their first Ibisbill on a vast, flowing stony river at high altitude in the Himalayas and it almost seems a little surreal to find them on a narrow river near China’s capital where it competes with sickly-looking domestic ducks and, at this time of year, tourists paddling downriver in inflatable dinghies…

Despite the disturbance, which also includes a steady flow of tourists following the completion of a wooden boardwalk along the area favoured by these special birds, the Ibisbill is hanging on, a good example of the resilience of nature.

We saw three individuals today in exactly the same spot as when I first visited this site shortly after I arrived in China in 2010.

Ibisbill, Bai He valley, Beijing, 15 July 2012. One of three seen today.
One of the signs along the new boardwalk in the Bai He valley.
Good advice….

The Ibisbills at Bai He have proved very popular with birders visiting Beijing over recent years.  Long may that continue!

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Ibisbills

On Saturday I accompanied Jesper Hornskov, visiting Swede Anders Magnusson and American birder, Gina Sheridan, on a trip to see the Ibisbills north of Beijing at Huairou. It was something of a surprise when Canadian birder, Brian Elder, discovered these Ibisbills so close to Beijing in June 2002 and this well-known site has been on many a birder’s hit-list during visits to Beijing ever since. I had visited in September last year, shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and was lucky enough to see 3 birds on that occasion. But, with the heavy development, including a new main road, would they still be there??

As anyone who has been to this site recently will testify, on arrival it really does not look very promising with a relatively narrow river, lots of gravel extraction, areas of rubbish littering the river bank and now a wooden walkway built alongside.

On Saturday we left Beijing at 0600 for the 90-minute journey to arrive on site shortly after dawn. We began, in temperatures of around -10 and with a windchill of well below that, by scanning from the road bridge where we were lucky enough to see some Goosander, Smew, Mallard, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Blue Hill Pigeons and a good selection of buntings in the roadside scrub – Godlewski’s (Eastern Rock), Little, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed. We decided to walk the northern stretch of the river first, as this would be hit by the sun earlier thus helping to minimise the effects of the cold which seemed to be exacerbated by the moisture coming off the river and freezing in the air, making our faces sting. Along the path we encountered first one, then two, Crested Kingfishers and a flock of at least 60 Vinous-throated Parrotbills. A few more Goosander, Smew, Mallard, a pair of Grey-capped Woodpeckers and a young Golden Eagle kept our interest but there was no sign of any Ibisbills. The walk back to the bridge produced an educational second calendar year Black-throated Thrush (with the faintest of streaking on the upper breast), Siberian Accentor and more Godlewski’s, Meadow and Pallas’s Reed Buntings.

After a very welcome break for coffee and chocolate, during which time we picked up Common Buzzard, Naumann’s Thrush, Hawfinch (2), Pere David’s Laughingthrush, Chinese Hill Warbler, Long-tailed Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Azure-winged Magpie and Large-billed Crow, we worked our way south. We reached a usually reliable site for the Ibisbills some way down the road – an area of piled up bricks and stones with good views over the river but there was still no sign. We decided to give it some time here to see if they would fly past or call and it was after only a few minutes that Jesper picked up a brief muffled call that he was convinced was Ibisbill. Of course, Jesper being Jesper, he was right! Soon after we had fantastic views as one, two, then three Ibisbills flew past us, calling as they did so. Stunning views in great light. Wow. Anders and Gina were ecstatic – a new life bird for them and one that has almost mythical status among many birders. After watching them on the ground for several minutes, including studying their feeding technique (the Ibisbills that is, not Anders and Gina), we reluctantly tore ourselves away to explore the area to the south, half-hoping for a Rosefinch or an Alpine Accentor. We didn’t see either of those but we did enjoy 3 more sightings of Golden Eagle (including a pair of adults), Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Bunting, Northern Goshawk, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Marsh Tit and Great Tit. As we took a path over a low pass in the surrounding hills and moved from shadow to sun, the climate changed dramatically and instead of looking like members of Captain Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, we were suddenly transformed into Beach Boys extras in (almost) shorts and t-shirts for the remainder of the walk down to the road to meet our lift home. One could almost believe that Spring was around the corner. The stunning hill scenery was a great backdrop to a top day’s birding and, with views of the Great Wall on the journey home plus a short stop to observe a small flock of Crested Mynas, the interest was carried through until we reached Beijing.

With my camera temporarily out of service, I was worried about just going birding with ‘just my bins and scope’ but, although I undoubtedly missed a fantastic opportunity to capture some great Ibisbill images, the simplicity of ‘just birding’ was a refreshing change…