Güldenstädt’s Redstart

Guldenstadt's Redstart (male), Lingshan.
Guldenstadt’s Redstart (male), Lingshan.

Güldenstädt’s Redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogastrus), also sometimes known as White-winged Redstart, is the world’s largest redstart.  It breeds at high altitudes from 3,600–5,200 m in alpine meadows and rock-fields, moving to slightly lower altitudes in winter.  Apparently, the northernmost population, in the mountains around Lake Baikal, migrate furthest and sometimes reach northeastern China.

I had heard that this bird occasionally showed up in Beijing in winter.  However, I wasn’t aware of any regular sites and so it wasn’t really on my radar.

However, during the visit to the Mentougou District to see the BROWN ACCENTOR last week, I realised that we were relatively close to Lingshan, a mountain (Beijing’s highest peak) near the border with Hebei Province.  I had heard about this site but never visited.  We decided to take the opportunity to have a quick look and, although we didn’t have much time – only an hour at the top – I was very pleased we did.  The road to the peak was a little treacherous, but passable, and as the landscape opened up as we neared the top it was obvious that the area had potential.  This potential was realised almost immediately when we spotted some redstarts atop some berry bushes by the side of the road.  Although superficially looking similar to the common Daurian Redstart, it would be highly unlikely to find Daurian Redstarts at the top of a mountain in winter…and these birds looked BIG!  We got out of the car to investigate and, as soon as one of the males flew, showing a huge white wing patch, it was clear that this was a different redstart sp – Güldenstädt’s Redstart – a high altitude specialist.  Wow.  There were many birds present and we counted at least 17, a mixture of males and females.  We think this is a record Beijing count.  We enjoyed these birds for a good 30 minutes, and also saw several Black- and Red-throated Thrushes sharing the same shrubs, before reluctantly leaving for the journey back to Beijing.

The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name "White-winged Redstart").
The males are spectacular in flight, displaying an eye-catching white panel in the wings (hence the alternative name “White-winged Redstart”).

My report of these birds to Beijing birders caused something of a stir and, on Saturday, I returned to the spot with Per Alström and Jennifer Leung and we were joined by Swedish birder, Anders Magnussen, who had driven from Tainjin (!) and three cars full of Beijing birders led by Zhu Lei.

A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt's Redstarts.
A sociable visit to a cold Lingshan on Saturday to see the Guldenstadt’s Redstarts.

This second visit, with more time to explore the area and more pairs of eyes, proved even more productive with an astonishing 28+ redstarts counted (Anders, who arrived before us, estimated at least 40) plus at least 60 PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES, a single BOHEMIAN WAXWING and at least 50 dark-throated thrushes (mostly Red-throated).

Three of the 60+ Pallas's Rosefinches at Lingshan.  These are females or immature males.
Three of the 60+ Pallas’s Rosefinches at Lingshan. These are females or immature males.

We also enjoyed good views of Songar Tit, 3 Cinereous Vultures and an Upland Buzzard.  We dipped on the hoped for ASIAN ROSY FINCH, 200 of which were seen at this location a few winters ago.. but that didn’t detract from a very productive day.  My thanks to Per, Jennifer, Anders, Zhu Lei and friends for their good company!

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Pallas’s Rosefinch

Pallas's Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013.  A stunning bird.
Pallas’s Rosefinch (adult male), Beijing, 17 February 2013. A stunning bird.

The Pallas’s Rosefinch (Carpodacus roseus) is a difficult bird to see anywhere.  Although it has quite a large range, its breeding grounds – the mountains of eastern Russia and northern Mongolia – are relatively inaccessible and remote.  And the wintering sites (northern China, Japan, Korea) are not necessarily reliable on a year by year basis.

Beijing in winter has traditionally been one of the best places to see this species but, in recent years, the numbers wintering around the Chinese capital appear to have declined for unknown reasons (possibly due to milder winters).

This winter, the coldest in China for over 20 years and with above average snowfall in northern China, has bucked the trend and there are good numbers of Pallas’s Rosefinch wintering in the hills around the capital, providing a good opportunity to get to grips with this species.  Singles and small groups have been reported from a number of locations around Beijing, including the Olympic Forest Park, Badaling Great Wall and Shisanling.  However, it is the ridge above the Botanical Gardens in the northwest of the city that has proved to be a real hotspot this winter.  Jesper Hornskov walks this area frequently and he first reported sightings of this bird from October with numbers gradually building to a high count of over 70 in January.

On Sunday I visited the Botanical Gardens with Beijing-based Per Alström, Jennifer Leung and visiting Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.  After birding through the gardens, and completing the steep ascent to the ridge, we rested for a short coffee break during which we were fortunate to encounter two stunning male Pallas’s Rosefinches – the target bird of our walk.  After enjoying spectacular views we walked a 2-3km stretch of the ridge before returning via the same route.  Although it’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of the number of birds present, we left with the view that we had seen over 40 birds along that particular 2-3 km stretch, including at least 3 adult males.

Adult males are difficult to beat..  they are resplendent in their raspberry-coloured plumage, silvery-white bills and steely-black legs.  Females and immatures are much drabber, often displaying streaky brownish plumage with a hint of orange or pink and a pinkish rump.

If you are in Beijing over the next few weeks I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Botanical Gardens to see these birds.  But be quick – they are likely to head back north sometime in mid- to late-March and who knows when they will next be so accessible in the Chinese capital?

Full species list from the walk below.  My thanks go to Per, Jennifer and Ben for their excellent company.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk – 2
Northern Goshawk – 1
Eastern Buzzard – 1 seen twice over the ridge
Oriental Turtle Dove – 3
Spotted Dove – 1
Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker – 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker – 1
Grey-headed Woodpecker – 2
Azure-winged Magpie – 35+
Red-billed Blue Magpie – 5
Common Magpie – 13
Carrion Crow – 2
Large-billed Crow – 12
Great (Japanese) Tit – 6
Yellow-bellied Tit – 28
Marsh Tit – 4
Silver-throated Tit – 2 in the gardens late afternoon
Chinese Hill Babbler – 4 on the way down (after going most of the day without seeing any)
Chinese Bulbul – 1 heard
Pere David’s Laughingthrush – 12
Vinous-throated Parrotbill – 2 groups of 15+ each
Goldcrest – 6
Chinese Nuthatch – 1
Crested Myna – 1
White-cheeked Starling – 1
Red-throated Thrush – 1
Naumann’s Thrush – 11
Tree Sparrow – many in the gardens
Siberian Accentor – 6, including 2 seen exceptionally well around the noodle place
Brambling – over 1,000, often wheeling around in large flocks
Oriental Greenfinch – 7
Siskin – 5 (PA only)
Pallas’s Rosefinch – at least 40 (3 adult males and the remainder females or immature males).  The first two (both adult males) showed exceptionally well.
Hawfinch – 2
Godlewski’s Bunting – 5
Tristram’s Bunting – 3
Yellow-throated Bunting – 4
Mammals
Red Squirrel – 5
Pere David’s Rock Squirrel – 1

Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre

A few weeks ago, after delivering a lecture at Beijing Birdwatching Society, I met one of the volunteers “Zhang Crane” from the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre.  She invited me to visit and, a few days later, I made the short journey across town with Jennifer Leung to take a look.

We were immediately impressed.  The facilities were very modern, the staff clearly committed and passionate about birds and the ‘patients’ in their care were looking well.

A selection of leather hoods used by the centre
A selection of leather hoods and gloves used by the centre

The Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre was set up in 2001 and, since then, it has treated 3,500 birds of 33 species.  Of those, 52% have been released back into the wild (this figure is increasing over time as treatment becomes more advanced).  Most have been picked up in the suburbs of Beijing; young birds, recently fledged, victims of illegal nets and birds found for sale in the bird markets of Beijing form the bulk of the patients.

We were shown around by Tong Guo Liang (English name Gavin Tang), one of the 4 full-time staff who, together with a host of volunteers, run the centre 365/24/7.  He told us about the case of a Eurasian Kestrel, currently in care, that was brought in with a broken wing.  After an operation to implant a pin, painstaking care and strength-building activities in an outside aviary, the staff were confident this bird would be released back into the wild..  a heartwarming case.

We were given a tour of the facilities and shown some of the other patients.  A female Amur Falcon and a Eurasian Hobby looked a bit out of place on a chilly winter day but were clearly doing well.  Others included a Long-eared Owl, Peregrine, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Japanese and Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a magnificent Golden Eagle.  Each cage had a board on the door indicating the species and the amount of food it required each day…

This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.
This sign reveals the occupant is an Amur Falcon taken into care in November 2012 and requiring 2 chicks a day.

The Golden Eagle had been brought in by a Beijinger who had been travelling back by car from Inner Mongolia.  He had seen a local guy selling the eagle by the side of the road.  Heartbroken to see this magnificent raptor in such a state, he bought it, thinking that he would simply release it in a suitable area.  After a failed attempt to release it – the bird couldn’t fly – he took it to the raptor rescue centre on his return to Beijing.  Examination revealed that it had a hole in one of its wings and infected feet.   It took three attempts to heal the hole in the wing but now, after 6 months at the centre, it seems to be improving and the chances of it being released back into the wild were given as 50/50.

The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia
The Golden Eagle rescued from a roadside seller in Inner Mongolia

The centre is part-funded by IFAW – the International Fund for Animal Welfare – and is based at Beijing Normal University in the northwest of the city.  They welcome visitors, and of course, donations!

Japanese Robin

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012

Today I did something unusual.  I ‘twitched’ a bird in Beijing.  But it wasn’t just any bird; it was a JAPANESE ROBIN (Larvivora akahige).

A friend sent me a message yesterday afternoon to say that one had been discovered in a small park close to Beijing West Railway Station and near the 3rd Ring Road.  It seemed an unlikely spot for what, I believe, is only the second record of this species from Beijing Municipality.  That’s the beauty of birding – just about anything can turn up anytime and anywhere.

I arranged to meet new Beijing resident birder and friend, Jennifer Leung, at 0645 for the short journey to the site, where we met with Zhu Lei and a few of his birding companions.  I knew that this bird would be popular with bird photographers, a growing band of which is active in Beijing.  I didn’t quite expect the crowd that greeted us on arrival.  There were at least 30 photographers already lined up in a semi-circle around the robin’s favoured stand of bamboo.  It was very sociable and people were chatting and drinking tea while waiting for the bird to appear.

Bird Photographers at the Japanese Robin site in Beijing, 24 November 2012. How many pairs of binoculars do you see?? 🙂

They didn’t have to wait very long.  Someone spotted the Japanese Robin as it headed towards the open ground.  Silence suddenly descended on the crowd as everyone focused their lenses on a small stone, around which some meal worms had been placed.  Out popped the Japanese Robin and there was a brief volley of camera shutters, as if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had just arrived at the Oscars, before the bird darted back into cover.

I concentrated on watching the bird during this first brief appearance.  In size and behaviour it reminded me very much of the European Robin I am so used to from home.  But somehow it was more exotic, with wonderful contrast between the bright orange throat and black-speckled grey breast.  A really beautiful bird.

The robin continued to make regular forays from its favoured patch of bamboo, much to the delight of the photographers and, as the sun moved higher in the sky, the light improved, enabling some good images to be captured, even with my relatively small 400m lens!

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012. A stunning, and most unexpected, bird.

A little later I was fortunate when I found the robin foraging along a different part of the bamboo and, as I sat motionless, it hopped to within a metre of me.  I just watched in awe as the robin held its head to one side, as if to weigh up what I was, before carrying on along the edge of the bamboo…  wow.. what an encounter.  It appeared to have a bad eye – on occasions it would close its left eye for several seconds at a time before slowly reopening it.  In all other respects it looked healthy and seemed to be moving and feeding ok..  Hopefully it’s not a serious problem.

Japanese Robin, Beijing, 24 November 2012. Although generally preferring the shade of the bamboo, occasionally it emerged into the open and posed for the cameras.

As far as I know there is only one previous record of Japanese Robin in Beijing.  That bird, like this one, appeared in the second half of November.  It was photographed in the Botanical Gardens.  Many people thought it was probably an escape.  However, with this year’s bird appearing around the same time of year, together with another bird in Shanghai in recent days, it seems likely that this bird is wild.  I spoke today with a local birder who told me he had, over a ten year period, seen over 300 species of bird in Beijing’s Bird Market (astonishing in itself) but that he had never seen this species there.

Whatever its origins, it is a stunning bird and one well worth spending a few hours observing today.  Thanks to Jennifer Leung, Zhu Lei and his friends for their fun company today.