Autumn Migration Begins in Beijing

After a superb juvenile Little Curlew was seen and photographed at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing last week, and a report of a male Narcissus Flycatcher in the grounds of the Xiyuan Hotel, I was motivated to get out this weekend to check a local park for early migrants.  And so on Sunday, in the excellent company of Paul Holt and Wang Qingyu, I headed for the Olympic Forest Park, one of the best parks in Beijing for birds.  After cycling up to the park, I met Paul and Qingyu at the southern gate at around 0645 and spent the next 7-8 hours birding both the southern and northern sections on a gorgeous sunny (but hot and humid) day.

In total we logged 35 species, not a bad haul in August in central Beijing.

Full species list (courtesy of Paul):

Mallard 22 in Olympic FP on 19/8/2012. 19 of these (86%) were adult males with just one definite female

Yellow Bittern 7, including two juveniles being fed by a parent

Black-crowned Night Heron 6, including at least three juveniles & one adult

Chinese Pond Heron 5, including at least two juveniles and one second calendar year

Grey Heron 1 juvenile

Great Egret 4, at least one of which was an adult.

Little Egret 5

Amur Falcon 1 adult female flew south.  Apparently a record early date for a bird in the process of migrating. Migrants are often difficult to distinguish from breeding birds but the location, well away from known breeding sites, and the bird’s behaviour are both strongly indicative of this bird being a migrant. Note that another bird, suspected at the time to have been an early autumn migrant was seen at Wild Duck Lake on this same date in 2003 (an unattributed record in the 2003 CBR). Note however that WDL is now known to hold breeding birds – and possibly did so back in 2003.

Common Moorhen 3 adults

Green Sandpiper 1 adult.

Common Sandpiper 1 was heard

Spotted Dove 4 singles

Large Hawk-cuckoo 1.  Known predominantly as an uncommon, rather local breeding summer visitor in Beijing it’s always scarce away from breeding sites. What’s more this often unobtrusive species apparently stops singing before the middle of July and there are remarkably few encounters in Beijing after then. Note however that specimens were procured at Liangxiang on 5 September 1961 & Baihua Shan on 23 September 1976 (both Cai 1987) and an exceptionally late bird was reported at Baiwang Shan on 17/10/2009. (aiyuanyang wanggangge via BirdTalker)

cuckoo sp. 1 bird, probably either a Common or Indian Cuckoo, was seen briefly & in flight.

Common Kingfisher 1

[Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker 1 bird, possibly this species, was seen poorly]

Great Spotted Woodpecker 3, including an adult female

Grey-headed Woodpecker 1

Brown Shrike 8, including one presumed family group of five birds

Black-naped Oriole 1.

Black Drongo 5

Azure-winged Magpie 20, including several locally fledged juveniles

Common Magpie 25, including several locally fledged juveniles

Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbul 32, including several locally fledged juveniles

Barn Swallow 40, including several presumably locally fledged juveniles

Red-rumped Swallow 5

Yellow-browed Warbler 2 singles (one seen & the other only heard).  These are apparently the earliest of the very few August reports from Beijing.

Oriental Reed Warbler 11, including several locally fledged juveniles

Vinous-throated Parrotbill 12 together

Crested Myna 3, two adults and a juvenile together

Eurasian Tree Sparrow 50

Yellow Wagtail 2 separate juveniles, one apparently macronyx & the other apparently simillima.

Grey Wagtail 1

[White Wagtail 1 bird, possibly this species, was glimpsed in flight]

Richard’s Pipit 1 was heard flying high to the south.  Richard’s Pipit is one of the first passerine migrants of the autumn in Beijing with birds that are definite migrants i.e. birds away from breeding sites starting to be seen towards the end of the the first week of August (the earliest autumn records involve one near Hou Ba Jia Zhuang, Miyun reservoir on the 6/8/2009 & two singles that flew south there on the 7/8/2010 [both PIH]). However it’s at least towards the end of the third week of August before sightings become anything close to being regular.

Olive-backed Pipit 1 was heard over. There is perhaps only one other August record of this species from Beijing – an exceptionally early bird near the Xin Zhuang bridge over the Chaohe, Miyun on the 7/8/2010 (PIH).

Grey-capped Greenfinch 5, including at least one presumably locally fledged juvenile

Bunting sp. 1 was heard.

[Escape: Scaly-breasted Munia 2 in the reed bed just to the north of the ‘Underground Corridor’.]

It is clear that autumn migration is underway.  And whilst passerines are only just beginning to move, shorebird migration is now in full swing.  Next weekend, Paul and I will be heading for the coast to check out a site in the north of the Bohai Bay.  Watch this space!


Phylloscopus frenzy

At the weekend, Libby and I hired a car and drove the 3 hours to Wu Ling Shan in Hebei Province.  It’s the highest peak (2,116 metres) easily accessible from the Beijing area and is a great site for birding.  The mountain, with its steep-sloped birch and spruce forests, is home to some special species including the very local Grey-sided Thrush, Koklass Pheasant, White-bellied Redstart and, one of the prime reasons for my visit, breeding phylloscopus warblers (Hume’s Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Yellow-streaked and Chinese Leaf Warblers).

The view from near the peak at Wu Ling Shan. It felt a million miles away from sultry Beijing....
Lots of ideal phylloscopus breeding habitat

Wu Ling Shan national park charges a relatively pricey entry fee of 90 Yuan per person (GBP 9) plus 60 Yuan for a vehicle which, from a birder’s perspective, is probably a good thing as it keeps the visitor numbers down.  Although in the long-term, I can’t help thinking that fewer Chinese visitors will mean fewer local people understand and appreciate the natural beauty and biodiversity of this special area and so affording it the necessary protection may prove more difficult.

Fortunately there is a hotel inside the park, very close to the peak.  Although fairly basic, it offers comfortable and clean rooms with hot water, ‘western’ loos and decent food.  It acts as a good base – within a few metres of the hotel, one can see and hear many of the target birds.  There are few trails, so the entrance road, the road from the hotel to the waterfall car park (6kms further along) and the road from the hotel to the peak (also about 6kms) are good routes to walk.  As with most forest birding, it is advisable to have learned some of the calls and songs in advance (Xeno-Canto Asia is a vital resource) as birds can be difficult to see.  A map of the key birding areas around the hotel can be downloaded here.

The road from the hotel to the waterfall car park is very productive, especially in the early morning
Typical habitat on the slopes of Wu Ling Shan. Birch and spruce predominate.

This was my first visit to the breeding area of the local phylloscopus warblers, and I was really looking forward to getting to know them better.  Hume’s Leaf Warblers were abundant in the area around the hotel.  Their very distinctive song and calls were almost constant companions.  Chinese Leaf Warblers were common, too, often preferring to sing from the very tops of spruces.  Claudia’s Leaf Warblers were regular, displaying their distinctive alternate wing flapping, and Yellow-streaked Warblers (not very yellow and not very streaked!) were around in reasonable numbers, too.  All of these birds appeared to have distinctive behavioural traits, as well as unique vocalisations.

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. I found two nests with birds feeding young.
Chinese Leaf Warbler. A typical song post for this species which is similar to Pallas’s but with a paler rump and lacking the ‘shadows’ on the tertials. It’s song is also very different.
Claudia's Leaf Warbler. The bright orange bill stands out and, on this photo, you can just make out the 'flared' supercilium. Flicks its wings alternately - another good characteristic of this species.
Yellow-streaked Warbler singing in the rain. The only phylloscopus without wing bars breeding in the area. Recalls Radde's but structure, leg colour and lack of peachy undertail coverts (not to mention song) clinch the id.
Yellow-streaked Warbler, Wu Ling Shan. Not very yellow and not very streaky...!

The phylloscopus warblers were pretty active throughout the day but some of the other birds required an early start.  Koklass Pheasant is a species that is very difficult to see but, thankfully, they do have a distinctive call.  The only problem is that they only seem to call around dawn.  June at Wulingshan meant dawn was at 0400.  I heard at least 3 birds between 0415 and 0445 with another (or one of the same) briefly at 0515.  Grey-sided Thrush is another dawn (and dusk) bird.  They were singing for around an hour from dawn (0400-0500) but soon quietened down once the sun began to warm the mountain sides.

Grey-sided Thrush, Wu Ling Shan

The supporting cast included several Rosy Pipits near the peak, Chinese Song Thrush, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo, White-bellied Redstart (common but very skulky), Songar, Yellow-bellied and Great Tits, Bull-headed Shrike, Wren, Kestrel, Eurasian NuthatchGrey Nightjar, Godlewski’s and Yellow-throated Buntings.

The stunning Yellow-bellied Tit breeds on Wu Ling Shan