Owl eats Owl

On Saturday I accompanied visiting Swedish birder, Anders Magnusson, to Wild Duck Lake (Ma Chang/Yeyahu Nature Reserve) for a day’s birding. Thankfully the forecast strong winds were absent as we were dropped off at Ma Chang at 0730 in -12 degrees C. My ‘michelin man’ outfit including ‘man tights’ (and they are very manly, honest), thermal underwear, 4 layers of t-shirts and fleece plus a long, down-filled coat, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and thermal snow boots meant I was snug as a bug with only my nose really feeling the cold.

A few Common Cranes were a good start, including one that seemed to completely retract its legs when flying (either that or it had no legs at all – unlikely given that it had obviously been able to take off). Soon we were enjoying a ringtail Hen Harrier and over 200 Bean Geese. A scan of the reservoir revealed a small patch of open water near the far bank, on which swam 20-30 more Bean Geese and around 10 Goosander. Asian Short-toed Larks and Lapland Buntings occasionally flew overhead and, as we began the walk towards Yeyahu a Peregrine engaged in a (unsuccessful) hunt for a feral pigeon. Shortly afterwards, an immature White-tailed Eagle appeared from the west and spooked a flock of around 250 Ruddy Shelducks that were standing on the far side of the ice. Nice.

We worked our way across the open area, enjoying 2 Upland Buzzards (one of which flew alongside a Hen Harrier and looked absolutely huge in comparison) and Pallas’s Reed Buntings seemed to be in every shrub. We flushed a few Common Skylarks as they fed on the ground and, as we approached Yeyahu, 2 male Hen Harriers (one adult and one sub-adult) quartered the reeds. Here we also heard and saw briefly the first of two Chinese Hill Warblers. After a welcome coffee stop (which tasted soooo good) we pushed on towards the lake and, in an area of only a few square metres, we flushed 16 Japanese Quail which scattered in different directions (clearly a deliberate strategy to confuse predators). The reedbed held good numbers of Pallas’s Reed Buntings and, after a bit of work, we managed to identify a single ‘tik’-ing Rustic Bunting in amongst them and then, after a bit of persistence, were treated to good but brief views of the second Chinese Hill Warbler after we heard it calling several times. A fly-by Saker was a bonus.

By now it was 11am and, as is usual at this site, suddenly the wind got up, making the temperature feel another 5-10 degrees colder (wind chill was probably around -20 to -25). At the lake, the brief search for Chinese Penduline Tit proved fruitless, probably due to the fresh wind, but we did see one of the eastern races of Common Reed Bunting (with distinctly pale mantle stripes compared with the nominate race).  After scrutinising it for a while (ruling out Japanese Reed Bunting) we headed north to the lookout tower, choosing the more sheltered side of the trees. Here we discovered a fresh eagle owl kill – of another owl (probably a Short-eared Owl but comments welcome on the feathers below). There were owl feathers covering an area of a couple of square metres with a huge pellet alongside. The site was within 100 metres of where we saw an Eagle Owl in December, so this is probably evidence of the same bird wintering here.

A bit further along Anders spotted a Siberian Accentor (a new bird for him) and, on close examination, there proved to be 2 birds foraging in the lee of the bank. Nice. Before we entered the open area towards the tower we flushed a Grey-headed Woodpecker which flew a long way and out of sight and stumbled across a small flock of Meadow Buntings which showed very well for a few minutes before disappearing over the bank. The walk to the tower produced another 4 Japanese Quails. A scan of the open area from the tower did not produce the hoped for Great Bustard (one was reported two weeks ago) and, given the cold wind, we did not stay up there very long – just long enough to take a couple of images of the ice fishermen. Clearly they are now more confident about the ice thickness given they are driving their vehicles onto the lake…

The walk back to the entrance to the reserve was uneventful and we were met by our driver who took us to the bus station for the journey back to Beijing. A thoroughly enjoyable day out!

Hen Harrier at Yeyahu, 22 January 2011
The scene of the Eagle Owl kill
Eagle Owl pellet
One of the victim's (primary?) feathers - Short-eared Owl?
Ice fishing at Yeyahu
Ice fishing - a cold and lonely pursuit!
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Ice fishing

A few images from my most recent visit to Ma Chang/Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake) just before Christmas.  The reservoir is well and truly frozen over now and the locals are taking advantage to engage in a spot of ice-fishing.

Ice fishing at Ma Chang/Yayahu with the spectacular mountain backdrop
Ice fishing

Brian Jones recalled an incident last year when he saw a White-tailed Eagle catch a Ruddy Shelduck on the same reservoir, only to see one of the locals race onto the ice and steal the prey before the eagle could take off with its quarry. Not sure what Ruddy Shelducks taste like but that eagle must have been seriously peeved!

Here are a couple more images of the juvenile Upland Buzzard that proved so confiding. I am hoping to get out there again in the next couple of weeks – will be interesting to see if it is still around.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Juvenile Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
Upland Buzzard, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010. Note the white flashes on the upperwing.

and one of the Japanese Quails.. trying to capture on film one of these birds as it darts away low and fast is a skill I have yet to master..!

Typical view of a Japanese Quail...

Yeyahu again

On Saturday I teamed up with Brian Jones and Spike Millington for a day at Yeyahu (Wild Duck Lake).

It was a stunning day – sunny, relatively mild (only about -3 degrees C) and with very little wind. We started at Ma Chang, a flat, almost desert-like area adjacent to the reservoir and walked around 7-8 km across the grassland, the edge of the lake and along the small stands of trees on the eastern side. It was a good raptor day with an immature White-tailed Eagle, 3-4 Upland Buzzards (including one stunningly confiding juvenile), a single adult Rough-legged Buzzard, a japonicus Common Buzzard, 2 Hen Harriers, a single Saker, a Kestrel and monstrous Eagle Owl. The supporting cast included an impressive group of Common Cranes (I counted 360, which was probably conservative, but Brian and Spike estimated over 400), including one Hooded Crane in their midst. Also seen were 12 Japanese Quails, 300-350 Pallas’s Reed Buntings, Yellow-throated Bunting, 15-20 Chinese Penduline Tits, up to 3 Chinese Grey Shrikes, at least 150 Lapland Buntings, many Asian Short-toed Larks, Skylarks and the odd Little Bunting.

Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Juvenile Upland Buzzard. Note the prominent white patches on the upperwing, diagnostic of Upland Buzzard.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard - this bird showed stunningly well for several minutes on the ground and overhead. An awesome experience.
Juvenile Upland Buzzard
Immature White-tailed Eagle, Yeyahu, 18 December 2010
We flushed this Eagle Owl from a grassy dyke at Yeyahu
Brian picked out this Hooded Crane among the 350-400 Common Cranes