Winter in the Botanical Gardens

Ornithologically, this winter is proving to be a good one in Beijing.  As well as more sightings of regular, but scarce, winter visitors such as Mongolian and Shore Larks, Great Bustards, Japanese Waxwings and both Pallas’s and Long-tailed Rosefinches, Beijing has also benefited from the well-reported irruptions from the north and east.  The capital’s first records of Varied Tit came hot on the heels of the irruption reported in South Korea and on the east coast of China and, last weekend, the capital’s first record of Bullfinch appeared in the Botanical Gardens.

With these latter birds prominent in my mind, I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens on Saturday.  With its mix of pine and deciduous trees, berry bushes and shrubs, it is one of the best locations for city birding in Beijing at any time of year.  Winter can be particularly rewarding with many thrushes (Dusky, Naumann’s, both Red- and Black-throated and ‘Chinese’ Blackbird are regular) and roving tit flocks – mostly Japanese (Eastern Great), Marsh and Yellow-bellied – can act as host to any unusual visitors.  Amazingly, a few Pallas’s Warblers always seem to eke out a living in the capital and the Botanical Gardens are as good a place as any to see them at this time of year.

Pallas's Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus).  Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.
Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus). Amazingly, a few of these hardy little birds survive the Beijing winter.

Early winter, with a plentiful supply of berries, is best for the irregular waxwings with both Bohemian and Japanese present in a ‘good waxwing year’.  And the resident Chinese Nuthatches and Red-billed Blue Magpies add a splash of colour.  In the hills beyond the gardens, leafless shrubs mean that winter is a great time to see the skulking Chinese Hill Babbler and Plain Laughingthrush.

One could easily spend all day in the gardens and, even then, it would be impossible to cover it all.  I find the most productive areas are the berry bushes between the south and south-east gates (good for waxwings and thrushes), Cherry Valley with its often unfrozen stream (any insectivorous birds are likely to be found here and other birds often come here to drink), the ‘arboretum’ (Hawfinch and Grosbeaks) and the conifer collection (tits and nuthatches).

On Saturday, after the snow on Friday, the gardens were looking good and, with little wind, it was a good day to familiarise oneself with the calls of the residents.

‘Chinese’ Blackbird (Turdus merula mandarinus) is still officially a subspecies of Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) in most field guides.  However, they are clearly different and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were split into their own species sooner or later.  Larger and with a more strident call, they are distinctive birds and I enjoyed good views of 7 of these thrushes feeding under some juniper trees near the entrance.

There was no sign of any waxwings – most of the berries had already been eaten – so I moved on to the arboretum and conifer collection, encountering a couple of flocks of Yellow-bellied Tits (Periparus venustulus) along the way.  Marsh and Japanese (Eastern Great) Tits were also prominent and a nice flock of 12 Chinese Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria) was a joy.  Chinese Nuthatches (Sitta villosa) called from the treetops and were busy collecting, and hiding, seeds.  A large mixed group of 40+ thrushes (mostly Naumann’s) scattered after being disturbed by some walkers.  And a couple of Red Squirrels chased each other around the base of a conifer.

Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing
Chinese Nuthatch (Sitta villosa), one of the residents of the Botanical Gardens in Beijing

Checking the tit flocks for an eloper is always good practice.  A couple of over-wintering Pallas’s Warblers were tagging along and three Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers tapped away from the upper branches..

Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, a resident in Beijing.
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus canicapillus), a resident in Beijing.

It was a good opportunity to study the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and, on returning home, I compared it with the similar (but much rarer in China) Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (which must be a candidate to occur in central Beijing).  Here is an image of a Japanese, taken last winter in Liaoning Province, to compare.

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki), Liaoning Province.

Note the slightly shorter bill on the Japanese and also the different head pattern.  Grey-capped have an unbroken white marking starting above the eye and reaching to the back of the head.  On Japanese, the white marking above the eye is separated from the white on the rear of the head.  Japanese also have paler underparts with streaking concentrated at the top of the breast.  The call is also very different.  Listen here for a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and here for a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

At one point I was certain I heard a Eurasian Treecreeper but it only called once and I never saw it..  They are scarce in Beijing but it would be no surprise that one or two are in the capital with the winter we are having.

Despite searching the area thoroughly I failed to see any Varied Tits and the Bullfinch, if it is still around, proved elusive.  However, it was another enjoyable and productive day of birding in the capital.  With the temperature forecast to plummet this week to around -20 degrees Celsius, I am itching to get out to Wild Duck Lake to see whether the snow and cold has brought in any northern specialities…

All I want for Christmas is a Pallas’s Sandgrouse…. Santa – are you listening?

My North Korean Bird List

Many birders, being obsessive types, like to keep lists of the birds they have seen.  This could be a “life list” (a list of the total number of species seen in one’s life), a “year list”, the total seen in a given year etc.  Many people keep national lists, for example a UK or China list.  I have to confess that I don’t know how many species I have seen in the UK (I know it’s roughly 400) and I have been lax recently at keeping my China list up to date (somewhere between 500 and 520).  However, I can proudly say that I know exactly the number of bird species I have seen in North Korea – 7!

Under the listing ‘rules’ it matters not that I haven’t actually been to North Korea as all have been seen over N Korean airspace from the China side of the border…

I have just returned from a few days in Liaoning Province with Paul Holt, Tom Beeke and Dandong-based birder Bai Qingquan – the perfect opportunity to boost my North Korea list!  We visited some sites in Dalian, southern Liaoning, before driving north to visit the area in and around Dandong, including the Yalu River, the waterway marking the border between China and North Korea.  In stunning weather, and temperatures approaching -20 at times, we saw some pretty special birds with the constant backdrop of North Korea providing a fascinating distraction.

Birding highlights from the trip north included Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Varied Tit, Hazel Grouse, Cinereous (Black) Vulture, Alpine Accentor, Relict Gull (at Zhuanghe) and Slaty-backed Gull.  Another spectacle was the sight of 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay, near Dalian, in the company of over 4,000 gulls, attracted by a landfill tip.  Birding takes us to some glamourous places.

Brown-eared Bulbul, Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, Liaoning Province
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Feng Huang Shan, north-west of Dandong, Liaoning Province
Varied Tit. A common resident at Feng Huang Shan.
Eurasian Nuthatch ssp amurensis, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

I began my visit by meeting up with Paul Holt at Dalian airport and heading to Dalian and Jinzhou Bays.  Dalian Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, was largely ice-free and produced an adult Glaucous Gull, Vega, Mongolian and Black-tailed Gulls, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Mallard, Falcated and Chinese Spot-billed Duck.  After an hour or so we crossed to the west coast to visit Jinzhou Bay.  Here the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see and an impressive group of around 4,000 gulls was loafing on the ice.  They were attracted by the large landfill site bordering the bay and this food source is clearly the reason why Jinzhou Bay must be one of the best gull-watching sites in northern China.

The vast majority of the gulls were Mongolian, with a sprinkling of Vega (a few hundred), Heuglin’s (up to 100), Common (20-30), Slaty-backed (3-5), Glaucous (2-3), Black-headed (2) and Black-tailed (2).  Paul Holt also saw a first winter Pallas’s Gull at this site before I arrived.  Searching through the Mongolian Gulls, recalling my sighting of 3 wing-tagged birds in February 2011 at this site, we were able to find a total of 5 wing-tagged birds during our visit (2 of which Paul and I both saw, 3 of which Paul found before I arrived and one after I left).  These birds were ringed by Andreas Buchheim and colleagues under a ringing scheme operated in Mongolia and Russia’s Lake Baikal.

The gulls were not the only scavengers attracted to the tip.  Each day we were there, a group of locals sifted through the rubbish and collected anything recyclable – bottles, cardboard, paper, metal etc..  It has to be one of the dirtiest jobs – they were black with grime – but despite the working conditions, they were a jolly bunch, laughing and joking with each other and they seemed thoroughly bemused that a couple of foreigners were joining them on the tip looking at gulls….  We showed them eagles through our telescopes and they showed us sacks of scrap paper..  🙂

One of the locals collecting recyclable waste
It's a dirty job...
The constant flow of trucks provided a high turnover of rubbish through which to look for recyclables..
Despite their working conditions, these people were very jolly, friendly and more than a little bemused that two foreigners were looking at gulls!

Just north of the landfill, a still unfrozen stream flowed into the bay, attracting some duck – mostly Mallard but also some Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Ruddy and Common Shelduck.  In turn, these attracted the attention of birds of prey and we counted 25 White-tailed Eagles in the bay on Sunday morning – an impressive count for anywhere in China.  The stream also proved popular with the Common Gulls and we saw both henei and kamtschatschensis subspecies here.  I’ll follow up this post with a dedicated gull post soon.

One of the 25 White-tailed Eagles at Jinzhou Bay. The vast majority were immature birds and they caused havoc during their occasional forays over the bay.
When one eagle found something to eat, it would soon be harrassed by the others trying to steal its find.

And this Merlin flashed through, surprisingly putting up most of the gulls as it did so..

Merlin, Jinzhou Bay, Dalian.

From the landfill at Dalian, we drove north to meet with Tom Beeke at Jinshitan and set off to Dandong, a city of 2.5 million people on the North Korean border.  Here we met up with local birder (possibly the only birder in northern Liaoning!), Bai Qingquan, a great guy who was not only a talented birder but also excellent company and extremely knowledgeable about the sites in this special province.

The gang in Dandong. From left to right: Mr Zhang (our driver), Tom Beeke, Paul Holt and Bai Qingquan

We started birding along the promenade in Dandong, just a few hundred metres from North Korea which we could see clearly just across the Yalu river.  Dandong is an interesting city.  It is home to the “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge”, one of the few crossings between the two countries and, immediately next to this is another bridge – the “Short Bridge” – that was partially destroyed by a US bombing raid during the Korean War.  The town also hosts a museum dedicated to the “War to Resist US Aggression”…  We didn’t have time to visit but next time I am in town, I fancy a look in there!

We tried several sites along the river from Dandong and to the north looking for Scaly-sided Merganser.  This rare bird is regular along this stretch of river in spring and autumn, breeding a little further north and wintering in central and southern China.  This winter had been unusually mild with no snow and Bai had seen the Mergansers in December, so we thought we’d try our luck.  Unfortunately, despite 4 pairs of eyes scanning the river, we drew a blank.  Next we visited the Hushan (Tiger Mountain) Great Wall, catching up with Brown-eared Bulbul, Alpine Accentor and enjoying panoramic views of North Korea.

North Korea, as viewed from the Great Wall, north of Dandong.

The next day was spent at Feng Huang Shan, a mountain roughly an hour north-west of Dandong.  It was a bitter -18 here but, after driving up almost to the summit, the birding was spectacular.  Almost immediately we encountered a Varied Tit, followed by a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers and then at least 3 Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, all within a few minutes of getting out of the car…  Superb!  We wandered up and down the track and, after hearing at least two Hazel Grouse calling, a careful 30-minute stalk was  eventually rewarded with views of a male perched on a rock on a hillside..  fantastic.

Hazel Grouse, Feng Huang Shan, Liaoning Province

On the way back south, we stopped at Zhuanghe, a port town between Dandong and Dalian, to look for Relict Gulls, a large flock of which Paul found a few days before.  We saw only a handful, probably due to the high tide, but with a little time on our hands we decided to look at the deep-water harbour for sea duck.  As we arrived, a ferry was about to leave to some of the outlying islands and, with a bit of negotiation from Qingquan, we were soon on board and sailing through an almost Antarctic-esque ice-filled sea.  It was bone-chillingly cold on deck but we were rewarded with over 60 Long-tailed Duck as well as good China species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Slaty-backed Gull and Red-breasted Merganser.

From left to right: Tom Beeke, Bai Qingquan and Paul Holt. On the ferry from Zhuanghe to outlying islands.
Our first stop.
The sea was almost Antarctica-esque..!

After returning to Zhuanghe around dusk, we headed into town to find Qingquan a taxi back to Dandong and to warm up with some hot food before heading south to Dalian.  A thoroughly enjoyable trip…

So, after all that, what are the seven species on my North Korea list?  They are, in chronological order, Saunders’ Gull (from Sep 2011), White-tailed Eagle, Mongolian Gull, Kestrel, Goldeneye, Goosander and Mallard.  Anyone beat that?