In Beijing we are blessed with a small, but excellent, group of active birders. There is a growing band of locals, including friends Zhu Lei, Lei Ming, Zhang Shen, Chen Liang, Fu Jianping and more… plus some ex-pat birders from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong (should we count Jennifer as an ex-pat?!), South Africa, Sweden and the US.
Although we have been sharing sightings and corresponding on email for some time, many of us had never met, so on Saturday we arranged a meet-up in central Beijing over the traditional birders’ diet of beer and pizza. Guest appearances by Dalian-based Tom Beeke (complete with ice-hockey kit) and Shanghai-based Craig Brelsford added a bit of “Greater China” spice.
It was very cool to put faces to names, catch up with friends old and new, and speculate over the next addition to the Beijing list.
After Jan-Erik’s report of a flock of 40+ ASIAN ROSY FINCHES at Lingshan on Sunday 10 March, I returned to this fantastic winter site to try my luck. After the 2.5 hr drive from Beijing, we arrived at the peak at around 0800. It was a fantastic morning with -7 temperatures and light low cloud causing a beautiful frost.
The cloud burned off quickly to leave a stunning vista that was reminiscent of a Christmas card. With almost no wind, it was a super day to be on the mountain.
First stop was the slope where Jan-Erik had seen the finches on Sunday. We scanned this and each nearby slope carefully but to no avail. The lack of wind meant that bird calls could be heard at large distances and I was confident that given we couldn’t hear them, the Asian Rosy Finches were not around, at least not in the immediate vicinity. After trying a few other nearby slopes we decided to have a change of scene and to move on to the site where the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS had been to see if they were still there. They were. We counted at least 17 (including 9 females sitting together at one point) and we enjoyed these birds for half an hour or more as they regularly dropped down to the berries. There were two more further up the road, making at least 19 in total. A very healthy count. A stunning male Black-throated Thrush, along with a few Red-throated, were enjoying the same bounty.
We returned to the top to the area around the derelict buildings and were gob-smacked to see a CINEREOUS VULTURE perched on a boulder close by the track, much to the annoyance of the resident Large-billed Crows, which it positively dwarfed! Wow… What a beast!
Again we scanned the slopes with no luck and decided to stop by one of the ridges to have some noodles for lunch… I was beginning to feel that it just wouldn’t be our day and that maybe the Asian Rosy Finches had moved on. However, just as we finished the most delicious pot noodles (they taste so good when you’ve been outside all morning!), I could hear a bird heading our way uttering a finch-like call that I did not recognise.. I got on to it and saw it was accompanied by a second, and watched both through my binoculars, unfortunately in bad light, as they passed us. From the silhouette I could see they were largish finches with an almost lark-like flight. Sturdy birds relative to Pallas’s Rosefinch. I suspected they were ASIAN ROSY FINCHES but wasn’t 100% sure. Fortunately, I kept my binoculars on them and they turned and headed back towards us, this time heading right overhead. I grabbed the camera and took a couple of record flight images as they passed. They headed east and then banked north, eventually being lost to view behind a rocky outcrop. I looked at the images on the camera and, although they won’t win any prizes, I thought that there was probably enough detail to identify them as Asian Rosy Finches. This was confirmed when I looked at them on my computer screen… Result!
An adult Golden Eagle passed at head height shortly afterwards and, a few minutes later, a party of 6 Red-billed Chough. It was still a stunning day and a real wrench to eventually tear ourselves away from the mountain top. A couple of Racoon Dogs (apparently recently released) were also hanging around the derelict buildings but there was no sign of any Pallas’s Rosefinches.
Comment: Lingshan may well be a regular winter site for Asian Rosy Finch. A flock of 200+ was reported from there two winters ago (6 March 2010, the report from which also lists 8 GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS) and there have now been 3 sightings this winter – a single on 2 February (per Birdtalker), Jan-Erik’s flock of 40+ on Sunday and our 2 birds this week. Of course this winter has been an excellent one for northern species, so Asian Rosy Finch may be part of an unusual irruption but they could also be annual given not many birders visit there. We just don’t know! That’s one of the beauties of birding in Beijing…
Full Species List:
Whooper Swan – 8 flying west over Zhaitang reservoir
Mandarin – 6 (5 males and a female) along the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Goosander – 1 female on Zhaitang reservoir
Little Grebe – 1 on the Yong Ting River (seen from car)
Grey Heron – 2 standing on the frozen Zhaitang reservoir
Cinereous Vulture – 1 perched on a boulder by the road near the derelict buildings at the top of Lingshan
Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 1 at the top of Lingshan
Golden Eagle – 1 adult flew past the top of Lingshan
Hill Pigeon – 9
Spotted Dove – 2
Chinese Grey Shrike – 2 seen from the car along G109 (both checked for Great Grey)
Jay – 2
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 4
Common Magpie – lots
Nutcracker – 1 heard
Red-billed Chough – 7
Daurian Jackdaw – 1 along G109
Large-billed Crow – at least 30 at the top of Lingshan
Waxwing sp – a flock of 30 seen near the 6th West Ring Road
Eastern Great (Japanese) Tit – 2
Songar (Willow) Tit – 2
Silver-throated Tit – 3 at the top of Lingshan
Chinese Hill Babbler – one crossed the G109 in front of the car
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – a flock crossed the G109 in front of the car
Nuthatch sp – 1 calling incessantly at the top of Lingshan
Black-throated Thrush – 2 at least (including a stunning adult male with the GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS)
Red-throated Thrush – 14 at least on berries at the top of Lingshan
Naumann’s Thrush – 2 seen from the car along the G109
GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART – at least 19 (at least 17 on berry bushes at the bend just below the summit and 2 on berry bushes opposite the radio mast)
Tree Sparrow – 1 at the top of Lingshan; many seen from the car along the G109
Brambling – 3 at the top of Lingshan with the redstarts
Oriental Greenfinch – 4 at the top of Lingshan
ASIAN ROSY FINCH – 2 flew over the road about 300m beyond the derelict buildings
Godlewski’s Bunting – 20+ along the road near the summit
Meadow Bunting – 6 including at least 3 singing males
I am delighted to publish another guest post from Jan-Erik Nilsen who has been systematically exploring the mountains around Beijing this summer…. Here is a report of his visit to Lingshan, west of Beijing City.
Trip report from Lingshan mountain, Saturday, July 14th.
Lingshan is located west of the capital and, reaching a height of 2303 m, it is the highest peak in the larger Beijing area.
Driver Mr Lu picked me up at 6.30 and, via Starbucks at Guo Mao for coffee, we went towards the west, first along the 3rd ring road, then along the G109 road. The road follows a river through a valley and gives some nice mountain views, especially the last part before reaching Lingshan. The villages along the road looked comparatively prosperous, every fence and house was recently painted, the bricks in the walls in perfect order. Quite different from along a similar river valley road to Baihua Shan, just some 20 km to the south where I went the weekend before, where the villages looked rather poor. At 10.30 we reached the parking at the end of the road, at an altitude of 1500 m, on the eastern side of Lingshan.
A Claudia’s Leaf Warbler sang in a strange way at the parking, kept me busy until it uttered more familiar calls. A Yellow-streaked Warbler sang, a male Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch, and a male Russet Sparrow jumped among the cars and contributed to a good birding start.
There are two options to get to the top. A 3-hour hike, or a 20-minute ride by cable car to 1900m followed by only a 1-hour hike. Loudspeakers on the cable car were screaming Chinese heavy metal music – this Chinese band could rather have left this particular music genre to the British and American bands who know how it should be done. The hiking track ran just beside the cable car, so the choice actually became 20 minutes of Chinese heavy metal or 2 hours. A simple choice – cable car of course. The slope is covered by birch trees, except a wide alpine meadow with flowers and butterflies under the cable cars and on both sides of the hiking track. From 1900m to the peak, it is mostly rocky alpine meadows, and a few patches of birch trees. Cattle, horses and yaks keep the grass short and other vegetation low.
I hiked towards the peak, which had so far been obscured by clouds, but after a while the sun broke through and the peak was revealed. I spent more than an hour up there, and enjoyed spectacular mountain views. New clouds passed all the time, some touched the peak and it became very foggy during shorter intervals, else min. 20 km visibility. It’s cooler in the mountains than in the city, a main reason why this Scandinavian enjoys doing mountain trips during the 35C hot Beijing summer.
On the way down, a group of yaks had approached the track and a group of 20 Chinese tourists took pictures of them. So did I, and in my search for the perfect angle I happened to come close to the leader bull. So far it had been lazy resting on the ground, with all other yaks feeding around it. The bull stood up and began to walk firmly towards me. I ran away and it stopped after a few meters, but it continued to stare at me. The 20 tourists may have been more scared than I was, but I don’t recommend anyone to assume a 1000 kg yak bull will be a particularly friendly animal, however cosy they may look.
I saw some passerines that briefly jumped up to a big rock 200 m up on the mountain, so I went up there to check them. A group of 5 Beautiful Rosefinches. The strange thing was that the group of yaks continued to stare at me when I went up there, and even though there was a group of people much closer to them. It seems I had been labelled of ‘bad standing’ among the yaks on Lingshan.
The mountain tracks were crowded, lots of tourists, some of them bringing their dogs, some people supplying horse rides for the tourists, a few vendors along the track, and at the peak they regularly fired off firecrackers. Despite that, some nice birds were seen. Rosy Pipits on the way, and a pair of Rosys close to the peak carried food in their bills, proving they are breeding here. A Red-billed Chough called. I counted 8 singing Chinese Leaf Warblers along the way and the total count of Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches was 12. How could you not fall in love with a bird with such a beautiful name?
Back at the parking again, I found more Russet Sparrows. The total count became 5, one carrying food in its bill so they must be breeding there, too. It’s too far north, outside their area according to the books, but it’s not the first time Chinese birds have different ideas of their breeding area than what the books teaches. Ref. Spike Millington, he has observations of Russet Sparrow from Baihuashan and Lingshan and Jesper Hornskov in an e-mail says it is fairly common north of Huairou, so it seems it is not very remarkable in the Beijing mountain areas anymore. McKinnon writes it ‘lives in flocks in upland open forest, woodland or scrub near cultivation, and in the absence of House Sparrow it becomes a bird of towns and villages’. For the Beijing area Tree Sparrows could replace House Sparrow in this statement. Tree Sparrows are normally just about everywhere where there is a house or a human, but I saw none of them up here, giving the space to Russet Sparrows.
On the way home, east of Lingshan, we stopped to take pictures on some dramatic slopes, and saw three Red-billed Choughs.
Let me try a not very scientific assessment of the four mountain areas, all in the larger Beijing area, I have visited in June and July this year; from SW to NE Baihuashan, Lingshan, Haitoushan and Wulingshan. Wulingshan and Haitoushan have deeper, more diverse and lush mountain forests and larger areas of coniferous forests, which will likely provide more species. Wulingshan is the best for birding, but based just on what the forests look like, I think Haitoushan is in the competition, and could deserve more attention. Baihuashan and Lingshan have more birch forests, and they have alpine meadows of a kind not found on the other two – especially Lingshan which has vast alpine meadows.
Wulingshan and Haitoushan have forests in a character of their own. They are more virgin and deep enough to bring a certain mysterious feeling. A kind of feeling difficult to describe but I think many who have wandered into a deep forest in Scandinavia is familiar with it. Even if you are alone, deep into the forest, it feels like someone is watching you. Entities from ancient myths will soon not seem so unlikely anymore. You begin to feel uncomfortable. You get lost. You cannot find the way. When you finally come out of the forest you are far from where you thought you would be. Some people, me not included, are scared of walking alone into such forests.
No one should hesitate to go to Lingshan because of the many tourists or the heavy metal loudspeakers. The alpine meadows are vast and very nice, peaceful areas can be found just a hundred metres off the track. The meadows bring more Chinese Beautiful Rosefinches and Rosy Pipits than elsewhere, they can hardly be missed at Lingshan. The road to get there has some spectacularly nice views, and on the way you can have a look at Cuandixia, a village of over 70 Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard houses. I would certainly have stopped there if I hadn’t run out of time.
And if you go – don’t forget the sun-block!
Full species list:
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus 1 heard along the road, E of Lingshan
Rock Pigeon Columba livia ca 10
Black-billed Magpie Pica pica ca 10
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 1 heard + 3 in a group seen along the road, E of Lingshan
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos ca 15
Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus 5
Yellow-bellied Tit Parus venustulus 2
Yellow-streaked Warbler Phylloscopus armandii 3 singing
Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis (sichuanensis) 8 singing
Hume’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei 1 calling
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler (Blyth’s Leaf Warbler) Phylloscopus claudiae (reguloides) 1 singing
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 1 singing
Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans 5 (2 m 1 f 2 looked juv)
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea 1
Rosy Pipit Anthus roseatus 4 (1+1+1 pair)
Chinese Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus davidianus (pulcherrimus) 12
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides 4
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.
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.
When Jan-Erik Nilsen contacted me to say he had seen a first winter Glaucous Gull at Yeyahu last Saturday, I knew it was an excellent inland record. What I didn’t know – before consulting Paul Holt – was that it was a first for Beijing. Congratulations Jan-Erik! This record represents the second new gull for Beijing this year, following my first winter Little Gull at the same site in September.
I did not expect the GG to still be there on Friday – the first day I could make it to Wild Duck Lake – but fortunately, after scanning the gulls and duck and just before I decided to walk away, the Gluacous Gull flew in and settled in the middle of the lake. Fantastic. A real brute of a gull sporting classic uniformly pale ground colour plumage and the typical pinkish bill with an obvious black tip. Nice. There can’t be many images of Glaucous Gulls with poplar trees and a smoking chimney stack in the background! Yeyahu is never a great site for gulls but it does occasionally pull in the odd unlikely individual. The most common gull by far is Black-headed but Common Gull, Mongolian Gull, Relict Gull, Brown-headed Gull, Heuglin’s Gull, Little Gull and now Glaucous Gull have all been recorded.
Another highlight was my first Crested Lark in China. I found this bird along a track that I don’t usually inspect. It’s a little further west than I usually walk and, subsequently, the site could possibly be in Hebei Province rather than Beijing Municipality. A close look at Google Earth required..! In any case, it’s now a quality bird in the Beijing area.. formerly quite common, its numbers have crashed in the last 20 years and it’s now a difficult bird to find.
Coming third in my list of highlights (usually these would be much higher but there was stiff competition this week!) included two flocks of Baikal Teal totalling 73 birds, including some stunning drakes, and a roost of 3 Long-eared Owls.
Full species list:
Common Pheasant (18)
Bean Goose (246)
Whooper Swan (12)
Falcated Duck (2)
Chinese Spot-billed Duck (6)
Baikal Teal (67)
Little Grebe (8)
Grey Heron (8)
Hen Harrier (2)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (2)
Common (Eastern) Buzzard (1)
Upland Buzzard (2)
Common Crane (267)
Common Greenshank (1)
Common Gull (3) – two first winters and one second winter
Glaucous Gull (1) – a first winter, probably for its 7th day (first reported by Jan-Erik Nilson on Saturday 12 November
Mongolian Gull (2) – both first winters
Black-headed Gull (75)
Collared Dove (6)
Long-eared Owl (3) – roosting together at Yeyahu
Great Spotted Woodpecker (2)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (1)
Chinese Grey Shrike (2)
Azure-winged Magpie – 12
Common Magpie – lots
Carrion Crow (5)
Great Tit (3)
Chinese Penduline Tit (2) – both presumed first winters (very pale and washed out)
Asian Short-toed Lark (4)
Crested Lark (1) – along the track west of Ma Chang
Eurasian Skylark (8)
Vinous-throated Parrotbill (40)
Tree Sparrow – lots
Siberian Accentor (1)
Pine Bunting (4)
Pallas’s Bunting (46)
Japanese Reed Bunting (1 possible) – not seen well enough to be sure.