Northern Inner Mongolia in June

When South African world-lister, Derrick Wilby, invited me to accompany him to Inner Mongolia in search of some skulking grasshopper warblers, I was delighted to accept.

Wuerqihan, in the far north of the province, east of Hailar, is well-known as a special winter birding destination.  With up to 8 species of owl (Eagle, Great Grey, Little, Northern Hawk, Eurasian Pygmy, Tengmalm’s, Ural and Snowy) possible in that season, not to mention special birds such as Siberian Jay, Black-billed Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinch, it’s a must-visit for any China-based birders.

Black-billed Capercaillie is one of the sought-after species at Wuerqihan. Late autumn is the best time. This one from October 2015.

What’s much less well-known is that Wuerqihan is also a brilliant birding destination in summer.  On the edge of the magnificent, and vast, taiga forest, the habitat is a mixture of deciduous forest, wet meadows and damp scrub.  This was only my second visit during this season but already it’s becoming clear that it’s a reliable place to see some of China’s most-wanted species such as GRAY’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, BAND-BELLIED CRAKE and CHINESE BUSH WARBLER as well as providing a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some breeding birds that are much sought-after vagrants back in the UK, such as PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER, LANCEOLATED WARBLER, THICK-BILLED WARBLER, BROWN SHRIKE, SIBERIAN THRUSH, WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL and many more.

Derrick had a list of warblers he wanted to see – Chinese Bush, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Gray’s Grasshopper and Lanceolated – as well as two owls – Great Grey and Ural – plus Japanese Quail and Band-bellied Crake.  I was reasonably confident about all except the crake, which I had heard once last year but not yet seen.

Local guide, Zhang Wu, with his trusty 4wd.

On arrival in Wuerqihan in the afternoon, we met local guide, Zhang Wu, checked into the hotel and immediately headed out east from the town along the old logging road.  We started well with good views of several singing Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers along the first few kms of the road, singing Japanese Quail in the meadows, watchful Brown Shrikes seemingly atop every bush and Common Rosefinches whistling from their songposts before a superb encounter with a stunning GREAT GREY OWL just a few metres from the road.  As we enjoyed more than 30 minutes with this most magnificent owl, a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler sang from deep in the forest.

As we headed back to town for dinner, a spectacular thunderstorm swept past to the west..

The morning of day two added singing Lanceolated Warbler (see header image by Nick Green), a handful of White-throated Needletails, Azure Tit, singing Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Thrush, Chestnut and Black-faced Buntings.

We decided to rest in the afternoon and head back out in the evening for a night drive in the hope of finding Ural Owl and, perhaps, Band-bellied Crake.  The evening shift started well when we heard the latter calling briefly at dusk from the edge of a small pool.  However, despite waiting patiently for more than 30 minutes, frustratingly there was no further sign.  We headed into the forest to look for owls and, after only a few minutes, had a sighting of an owl by the side of the track..  it was large and pale.  We turned around and approached slowly.  We could see large orange eyes staring back at us and it was obvious this was an Eagle Owl, not the hoped-for Ural.

Heading east along the main track, we drove slowly with the windows down, listening.  We stopped at several promising-looking areas, turned off the engine and waited for something to penetrate the silence.  A few Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers and a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler chuntered away in the darkness.. and then a Chinese Bush Warbler sang from some scrub.  Driving further, we picked out a Band-bellied Crake and, once we had stopped, it was clear that several were singing in the wet scrub alongside the road.  One, two, three..  at least four birds competing for attention.  In the darkness, there was no chance of seeing them, so we took a note of the location and would return in the morning.

By now it was after midnight and our hopes for a Ural Owl were fading.  Zhang Wu turned off the main track onto a rutted, obviously rarely travelled track into the forest.   After around 100m, he stopped.  He had heard something.  Cutting the engine, we listened intently.  And there it was – a deep, low ‘hoot’.  Zhang Wu smiled.  It was a Ural Owl.  Our guide played the call of Ural Owl in answer to the bird. Immediately it responded and flew in to a tree right above us to check us out.

Ural Owl is a scarce resident at Wuerqihan.

We returned to the hotel at around 0130, the adrenaline still rushing after a special encounter.

A tougher than usual early start the next morning saw us at the site where we had heard Band-bellied Crake during the previous night.  Even in the early morning, the birds were not singing..  suggesting they might be predominantly nocturnal vocalisers.  We carefully walked into the marsh, trying to avoid the deep pools of water in between the grassy tufts.  We heard a short call and froze.  It was a crake.  As we stood motionless, as if to “warm up”, the short note gradually morphed into a full song..  and before long, we could see the grass ‘twitching’ as the crake made its way through the bog.

Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)
Band-bellied Crake, Wuerqihan (Derrick Wilby)

All that was left was to try to secure a decent view of Chinese Bush Warbler.  Thanks to Zhang Wu’s local knowledge, we were able to find a spot with one singing and, with patience, we were able to secure a “jigsaw” of views..  at first the bill, then the tail, then the legs…  then the supercilium..  and piecing them together we were able to get a good impression of this skulker.

We headed back to the hotel in the late morning, packed our things and set off for the airport all too quickly.  It had been a superb 3 days and, in total, we had recorded 102 species.  I can’t wait to go back…  with a bit more time, I think there could be some more special birds waiting to be discovered.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Swinhoe’s Rail is there and, who knows, maybe the enigmatic Streaked Reed Warbler is lurking in the vicinity.

You can download the full species list here.

One thing to bear in mind if visiting in summer; the insects can be a nuisance, especially the horseflies.  Most active in the heat of the day, the worst can be avoided by being out early and late in the day.  This video gives a sense of their menace!

 

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Groppers Galore!

I have just spent three days in Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, in the company of Shanghai-based British birder, Nick Green.  It was my third visit to this stunning part of northeastern China and, after two previous trips in winter, it was a delight to see it so green and leafy, without needing to wear six layers in -30 degrees Celsius!

2016-07-10 forest and river at wuerqihan
The Dayan River, a constant companion along the track northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 forest at wuerqihan
Typical forest habitat at Wu’erqihan

Whilst in winter the main attractions here are undoubtedly the owls (Snowy, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk, Eagle, Boreal and Little) our main target during this visit was to try to see the three breeding locustella warblers – Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and the sought-after Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler.  I thought we wouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding all three but I hadn’t expected the numbers we encountered.  Pallas’s were seemingly in every inch of suitable habitat and, particularly early morning and evening, were singing constantly, even though it was mid-July.  We recorded 53 (surely a considerable under-count) on our first full day.  Lanceolated were less common, but still frequent, with 22 recorded and, the following morning, we counted 17 singing Gray’s from the moving car during a 45-minute drive.

Renowned for their skulking habits, locustella warblers are usually tough to see.  However, on the breeding grounds, despite most preferring to sing from deep cover, we were fortunate to see several examples of each species singing from exposed perches.

2016-07-09 Lanceolated Warbler, Wuerqihan
Lanceolated Warbler (Locustella lanceolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-09 Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Wuerqihan
Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella certhia), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
2016-07-10 Gray's Grasshopper Warbler Nick, Wuerqihan
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella fasciolata), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 10 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.
Gray's Grasshopper Warbler, Wu'erqihan, 9 July 2016
Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Wu’erqihan, 9 July 2016. Photo by Nick Green.

Wu’erqihan in July isn’t only locustella heaven.  The supporting cast includes White-throated Needletail, Great Grey, Ural and Eagle Owls, Siberian Rubythroat, Mugimaki Flycatcher, David’s and Chinese Bush Warblers, Pale-legged, Two-barred, Pallas’s, Thick-billed, Radde’s and Dusky Warblers and a host of other ‘sibes’.

2016-07-09 David's Bush Warbler, Wuerqihan
David’s Bush Warbler (Bradypterus davidi), Wu’erqihan, Inner Mongolia, 9 July 2016. This species is common in the damp forest.
2016-07-09 Azure Tit, Wuerqihan
Azure Tit, a scarce breeder at Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 houses at wuerqihan
Typical buildings in Wu’erqihan.. the town has a Russian feel about it, not surprising given the proximity of the Russian border.
2016-07-09 sunset at wuerqihan
Sunset in the boggy grassland, northeast of Wu’erqihan.
2016-07-10 Zhang Wu and Nick Green at Wuerqihan
Nick Green (left) with local guide, Zhang Wu, just after seeing a Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler singing from an exposed perch!

A full trip list can be downloaded here: 2016-07 Wu’erqihan with Nick Green, 7-10 July 2016.

 

JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING: Good News From Inner Mongolia!

It’s May and for ornithologists that means only one thing – field season!  This year I was privileged to accompany the JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii) survey team to Inner Mongolia alongside China Birdwatching Society’s Fu Jianping, Hong Kong Birdwatching Society’s Vivian Fu and a team of local researchers from Northeast Normal University in Jilin, led by Dr Wang Haitao.

I’ve just arrived back in Beijing and I’m thrilled to bits…  Here’s why..

Under the guidance of Dr Wang, we visited some “new” sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and, although we were able to cover only a fraction of the total area of suitable habitat, we recorded more than 100 Jankowski’s Buntings.  If the density of the buntings we encountered is typical of the whole area, there should be many hundreds of pairs at the largest of these new sites.  Fantastic news!

2016-05-08 Jankowski's Bunting site, Inner Mongolia
The habitat at this major new site in Inner Mongolia is typical grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot shrubs. Here, the density of Jankowski’s Buntings was reassuringly high.

Encouragingly, we also found some Jankowski’s Buntings in an area of regenerated grassland, replanted only 3 years ago, suggesting that these birds can, and will, colonise areas where the grassland is allowed to recover.

However, amongst this heady cocktail of good news, there is a sobering thought – none of these sites has any form of official protection, meaning they are potentially vulnerable to the main threats to the species and its grassland habitat – overgrazing and the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, it is uplifting to find out that there are, in the unique Inner Mongolian grassland, more of these beautiful “little brown jobs” than we had dared imagine.

The full results of the survey and the fascinating latest research from Dr Wang and his team will be published this summer.  A link will be publicised on Birding Beijing when it is available.  With the latest information, we are slowly developing a greater understanding of the range, and population, of this special bird, found nowhere else on the planet.  This information will form the basis of the next engagement with the local government in Inner Mongolia, during which we will be pushing for official protection for as many of these sites as possible.  And, in the meantime, Dr Wang and his team will be exploring new areas to further understand the boundaries of Jankowski’s Bunting’s range and considering the use of colour-ringing to better understand breeding ecology and seasonal movements.  Could Jankowski’s be extant in northern Hebei?  Or far southeastern Mongolia?   Time will tell…

I was impressed with Dr Wang Haitao and his researchers.  Dr Wang has been studying Jankowski’s Bunting since 1999 and has a wealth of knowledge about the species, built up by years of field observations.  I learned so much from our conversations over the duration of the survey..

2016-05-07 Dr Wang and team with Vivian, Inner Mongolia
Dr Wang Haitao (centre) organising the survey team, including Vivian Fu from Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (left).

Despite the almost omnipresent gales that sweep across this vast landscape in spring, I was able to record some video of the buntings, a compilation of which is below.  Such beautiful birds in their full breeding finery and they looked a real picture amongst the Siberian Apricot blossom.

We left Inner Mongolia  encouraged and, at the same time, determined not to let this special bird slip away.

Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Fu Jianping and Dr Wang and his team for the faultless logistics, thorough field work and great company during the trip.

Northern Inner Mongolia In Winter – Trip Report

I have finally completed my report of our Christmas trip to northern Inner Mongolia, close to the Russian border. It covers our time in two locations – Wuerqihan and XiQi. There is a focus on owls but we were rewarded with a host of good birds including, among others, Arctic Redpoll, Siberian Jay, Pere David’s Snowfinch and Asian Rosy Finch. You can download the full report here.

Hawk Owl

Introducing the last of the “most-wanted 3” owls we saw in Inner Mongolia this Christmas. This is the unmistakeable HAWK OWL, a bird that blew me away when I first saw it in Sweden in the 1990s. It often sits, sentinel-like, on the top of a tree from where it monitors the surrounding activity with razor-sharp vision and incredibly sensitive hearing. Such a different character to the more deliberate and almost “royal” Great Grey Owl….

Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy and bird-filled 2015!

For interest, here are some pictures of the superb habitat in which we found two of these special owls.

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat2, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

2014-12-22 Hawk Owl habitat3, Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia

Great Grey Owl

To me, seeing a GREAT GREY OWL (Strix nebulosa) ranks as one of the most magical sights of the bird world. With its human-like face and haunting stare, any encounter with the “Phantom of the North” in a snow-blanketed spruce forest makes for an eerie experience. In China, this magnificent owl can be found in the forests of the northern Provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia and it was a much-wanted bird during our recent visit to Wuerqihan and XiQi. Fortunately, after a long search, we finally caught up with this silent assassin. We enjoyed a spectacular encounter with this bird, watching as it surveyed the immediate area with slow, deliberate turns of its head. Typically it was not unduly bothered by our presence and, with my iPhone and Swarovski ATX I was able to take this video which captures the spirit of this most majestic of owls.

Christmas With Snowy Owls

I have just returned from a few days in northern Inner Mongolia, near the Russian border, where I spent Christmas with Marie and SoSo from Hong Kong looking for owls.  Highlights were many, including 6 species of owl – Eagle, Great Grey, Hawk, Little, Ural and Snowy.  Spending Christmas morning watching 6 of the latter on the sparkling snow-covered grassland, was an experience that will stay with me for a very long time….

Wishing everyone a belated Merry Christmas, here is a glimpse of one of the magnificent Snowy Owls that we were fortunate enough to encounter on our trip.  More details on this adventure very soon!