When I first arrived in Beijing it took me almost two years to find my first Japanese Reed Bunting (Emberiza yessoensis, 红颈苇鹀). It is a scarce, probably overlooked, winter visitor to the capital and it can be tricky to find in its favoured habitat of weedy scrub, usually close to water. This habitat is also used in winter by the much more common, almost abundant, Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi, 苇鹀) and it’s this species that one must be careful to eliminate when looking for Japanese. As is the case with separating many similar species, call is a good indicator. Japanese Reed Bunting utters a thin “tseep”, contrasting with the Pallas’s Reed Bunting’s chirpy sparrow-like call. Japanese Reed Buntings tend to feed on the ground in long grass and are usually skittish. Often the first sight or sound is when one is accidentally disturbed. When flushed, they tend to fly quite a long way before diving into long grass. However, just occasionally, they sit up in the open, which is exactly what these two posers did last week during a walk with Steve Bale along the Wenyu He. Japanese Reed Buntings usually look ‘warmer’ in overall colouration than Pallas’s Reed Bunting. The yellowy look, combined with the black ear coverts, are good indicators of Japanese Reed. With orangey tones on the wing feathers, I think Japanese Reed Bunting is one of the most beautiful, if subtle, of the East Asian buntings and it’s always a delight to see.
On Saturday I went for a walk. A long walk. Actually a little longer than I had anticipated. I estimate that I walked around 13km along the Wenyu River, situated between the 5th and 6th ring roads on the northeast side of Beijing. It’s a favourite haunt of local birder, Shi Jin, and I have visited several times, particularly in late Spring, as the area of rice paddies can be superb for locustella and acrocephalus warblers, as well as small bitterns.
In winter the birdlife is different. Huge flocks of tree sparrows, numbering almost 1,000 in total, and good numbers of buntings, including Yellow-throated, Pallas’s Reed and Pine inhabit the banks of the river at this season. And on the slow-moving water and the muddy fringes, wintering Long-billed Plover, Green Sandpiper and a few winter duck can be found.
This river was also the site where Shi Jin found a putative Whistling Swan in November, discussion about which can be found on Birding Frontiers. My walk on Saturday revealed that this aberrant swan is still there, and still in the company of a ‘normal’ Bewick’s. But it also revealed much more – a real sense of the wealth of species that can be seen on a winter’s day in Beijing.
Here’s what I saw…
In between leading tours to see Giant Panda in the wild in China (successful) and Tiger in India (fingers crossed), Sweden-based Phil Benstead dropped in on Beijing. Phil is a good friend from my time in Copenhagen: we hooked up for a few birding trips in 2009 and 2010, including around Phil’s local patch in Båstad Kommune, Falsterbo in Skåne and the island of Oland.
Phil arrived on Thursday with the Townshend household in something of a crisis. We were supposed to be cooking a turkey for 9, including two American friends, for Thanksgiving and Libby, who had planned to take the afternoon off work to prepare, was stuck at work… I was frantically looking on the internet, in between work conference calls to London – to discover precisely how long a 9kg turkey – at that time defrosting in the laundry room – would take to cook…. Phil stepped in magnificently and, after peeling and chopping I don’t know how many potatoes, carrots and green beans, he had certainly earned his supper by the time guests arrived for the 7pm start… And boy was that turkey good… (after months of Chinese food, you can’t imagine how good a roast turkey with all the trimmings tasted…!).
After following this blog since I moved to China, Phil wanted to visit my regular patch at Wild Duck Lake and so I had hired a car and we had arranged to leave at 0530 the following morning (tough after a post-midnight dinner party). We picked up Jesper Hornskov at 0600 and, after some all-too-common traffic issues on the G6 Badaling Expressway (broken down lorries), we arrived at Ma Chang around 0745, around 30 minutes after first light.
The first thing that struck me was that the reservoir was almost completely frozen over. The weather had turned cold mid-week and it had taken just a couple of cold nights for the water to freeze. After giving it some time at the spit by the yurts, we checked the island to the north of the ‘desert’ area, lucking in on 2 Daurian Partridges (my first of the winter) on the way, and enjoyed a flock of several hundred Ruddy Shelduck and a rather late Ferruginous Duck. A couple of inquisitive Chinese Hill Warblers was a bonus. A very showy Baikal Teal looked a bit lost walking on the ice in a frozen dyke and we enjoyed a couple of Chinese Grey Shrikes hunting over the grassland. After combing the area for larks – we counted a few Eurasian Skylark and up to 12 Asian Short-toed Larks plus a bonus Japanese Reed Bunting – we made our way to Yeyahu. Officially, Yeyahu closed last week but we were able to use the ‘secret entrance’ to gain entry and it was here that we heard (but sadly for Phil didn’t see) a Chinese Penduline Tit, a few Pallas’s Reed Buntings and a Great Egret. However, the most exciting sighting of the day was a very uniformly dark medium-sized bittern that flew from the west to east end of the lake. It was clearly smaller than Eurasian Bittern but larger than Yellow Bittern. Initially against the light it looked uniformly very dark with longish legs and big feet. As it flew into better light, it still looked uniformly very dark.. Phil managed to view it through his telescope and saw a pale line below and behind the eye, beginning at the base of the bill… There were some pale fringes to the wing coverts, indicating a first winter bird. It dropped in to a reedbed on the far side of the lake and we hurried over to see if we could see it again.. what could it be? Little Green Heron (Striated) and Black Bittern (a bird that I have never seen) entered our minds.. Jesper didn’t think it looked right for Little Green Heron – the jizz and colour were wrong and the leg length – with clearly protruding legs – wasn’t right for Little Green. Could it really be a Black Bittern in Beijing in late November?? That would be a very strange record. Unfortunately, despite spending some time near to where it went down, we did not see it again.
Edit: After looking at many images on the internet, including Oriental Bird Images, Jesper’s view is that it could only have been a Black Bittern.
After seeing a Common Kingfisher literally die in front of our eyes on the ice at the edge of the lake (it was heartbreaking), we walked down to ‘eagle field’ and, on the way, enjoyed my best ever views of Pine Bunting (two birds) and watched a young Upland Buzzard soaring. Most pleasing were two Great Bustards flying west along the reservoir.
Several decapitated Common Pheasants were a clear sign of a large predator.. possibly Goshawk but more likely an Eagle Owl… it’s the same area where I saw an Eagle Owl last winter.
We made our way back to the car and, with Naumann’s Thrush the last bird of the day, we headed back to Beijing for dinner with Jesper and his wife, Aiqin.
Saturday morning I visited the Botanical Gardens with Phil and Nick (a friend and non-birder), where Phil scored a few new birds – Chinese Grosbeak, Pere David’s Laughingthrush and Chinese Nuthatch – before he had to make his way to the airport to catch his flight to Delhi.
It was a great couple of days and we saw some good birds. Phil was a big hit with our friends – as illustrated by the number of offers he had for accommodation in Beijing when he returns next year to lead a similar panda trip in October – and we wish him all the best for the forthcoming trip to India for tigers.. we can’t wait to hear how he gets on.
Full species list for Wild Duck Lake below: